Archive for January, 2019

Amphibian

January 16, 2019

Christina Neuwirth’s Amphibian is a first novel from a new press, Speculative Books, which mainly specialises in poetry. It’s a small book – at 124 pages it could be classed as a novella, and in physical form it loses an inch at each edge to the average paperback – but it overflows with imagination. The premise is a simple one revealed in the staff email with which it opens:

“I am writing to inform you that, after the latest Sales Review, the revenues from the fourth floor have been deemed less than satisfactory. It has therefore been decided that the fourth floor will be gradually put under water, effective tomorrow morning, 26th June.”

When Rose arrives at work, having neglected to read the email, she is shocked to discover her feet sinking into the carpet, endangering her new brogues. Her fellow office worker, Siobhan, is better prepared, with waterproof footwear and an assurance not to “worry about the plugs. They had the cablers in this morning. We’re fine.” Initially them staff make the most of the situation, sending paper boat memos racing along with the office fans, but, as office manager, Lynn points out in the first of many water based jokes:

“…this is exactly why we’re going under.”

Though the water level does not rise every day, within a week it is up to Rose’s knees. As with any novel which introduces a surreal, if not entirely implausible, element the reader’s interest is largely in the reaction of the characters. In various ways, their instinct is to manage the change rather than rebel, complaining only in unanswered emails. Lynn, as a representative of management, makes only minor concessions, refusing to abandon shoes as many of the others have done:

“Obviously, Lynn still wore heels. She now had a preference towards those with little straps at the top because she kept losing the others.”

When things begin to float away the staff weigh them down with anything they can find, including stones they bring in from outside, until eventually the desks are bolted to the floor. Office politics consists of a ban on swimming and confronting Jim as to whether he is peeing in the water, a rumour which spreads after he spends an unusually long time without leaving his desk. Conversations about the weather are replaced by discussion of the temperature of the water. Finally it seems one of the staff has been sacked:

“’…she hasn’t been pulling her weight. That’s what the shark said.’
‘The what?’
‘There was a shark in here?’…
‘Yeah, I mean, he was only in for a second, so I couldn’t really see, but I definitely think it was a shark. He was wearing a suit.”

Rose becomes convinced that the shark’s message was actually meant for her.

The situation in the office spills over (I know) into Rose’s outside life in unexpected ways. Not only does it instil a new camaraderie among the members of the fourth floor (Rose only really notices her wet clothes as she heads home), but she becomes reluctant to tell any of her friends about what is happening:

“She felt like she was leading a very boring double life: one where she worked in an office, and another where she worked in a very similar, slightly flooded office, which was otherwise exactly the same.”

This is partly because she predicts her friends will simply tell her to leave, and from the start we are aware she has a dream to (ironically) work on a boat (and a love of surfing). The novel is not only about how workers are treated, but also about how much they will put up with, and while the scenario may seem ridiculous, the tolerance is spot on. All leads to a conclusion which focuses on whether Rose will choose compromise or freedom.

Amphibian is a light-hearted satire but one that should not be mistaken for faint-hearted. Its amusing tone, with moments of laugh out loud wit, do not detract from the seriousness of its depths.

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Three

January 12, 2019

Last January I read Ann Quin’s first novel, Berg, soon to appear in a new edition from And Other Stories whose Quin revival began the collection The Unmapped Country. It may have taken twelve months, but I began this year with her second novel, Three, from 1966 (as she only wrote four novels before committing suicide in 1973 there is no rush). Three, unsurprisingly, is the story of three characters, middle-aged couple Leon and Ruth, and their lodger, a young woman known only as S. As the novel begins, S is already dead, having set out to sea in a small boat alone and never returned, the suggestion being that she has killed herself:

“I mean we can’t really be sure could so easily have been an accident the note just a melodramatic touch.”

The scenes between Leon and Ruth, which make up much of the narrative, are presented mainly in dialogue in which each speaker’s contribution is largely unpunctuated and, though paragraphed, is not regularly paragraphed between speakers. This choice suggest the suffocating proximity of their relationship where each must devise their own escapes, conversation that is close-packed and claustrophobic, though superficially civil.

Quin captures the domestic tensions of the couple without any need for melodrama. Much of it is played out through the cat, Bobo, “the cat R adores, L ignores” according to S, whose journals and recordings also feature in the novel as Leon and Ruth experience them. This is evident from the beginning when Leon insists the cat is smelling and Ruth retorts it is probably his shoes. While Ruth constantly pets the cat, Leon does not hide his dislike:

“The cat brushed against his legs, he pushed him away, picked the hairs off his trousers… Fucking stinking animal she never liked you really either.”

We can only assume the ‘she’ is S, and it is frequently hinted that Leon and S were much closer than S and Ruth:

“How I hated it when you both went off on those so-called long tramps nearly driven crazy here all alone…”

This influences Leon and Ruth’s differing views of S: whereas Leon sees her as “less inhibited” for swimming naked in the sea, Ruth comments, “she was a bit of an exhibitionist,” and says of her dancing:

“I thought she looked obscene really the way her legs spread out.”

We also know from S’s observations that Ruth is prone to jealousy:

“If L should stray in any one direction for too long she asks for a cigarette, refuses all offers except his.”

And Ruth admits, “Didn’t I then immediately feel a kind of relief when she was dead.” It is perhaps this that makes her ask Leon, “Do you think she was in love with you?” Meanwhile she finds Leon’s sexual approaches irritating, complaining that, “You always have to get sexy in the bath,” and later:

“Ah don’t darling you’re hurting you’re bruising me you know how tender I am. She pulled back.”

These constant rejections might make one feel sympathy for Leon were it not that Ruth sees his advances as entirely selfish:

“He is concerned only with achieving his own orgasm and I refuse absolutely to be exploited in that way.”

This is demonstrated later when he rapes her, also raising further questions about how he may have treated S. In her journal S describes nights spent at a hotel with a man, “nights spent in shared fantasies”, who could, of course, be Leon, who we learn knew S before she came to live with them. Could he even be the father of the child she had to have aborted? This would certainly go some way to answering Ruth’s question, “What did she want of us?” and explaining S’s comment:

“Three months now of living with two people and not any nearer – nearer. Tactics flounder before even begun. There seems no answer.”

Reading Three, however, is not about solving this mystery. It provides a forensic examination of Leon and Ruth’s marriage which, though far from extraordinary, instils the reader with horror by the end of the novel. Some of the most acute observations of their relationship come from S, who describes it as “Existence bound by habit” and outlines their sparring with this wonderful image:

“Emotions handled, shifted about, dropped, picked up, but always attached as a child’s pair of gloves.”

Three is a disturbing, uncomfortable novel, not only in Ruth and Leon’s present, but in the broken prose and fractured memories of S’s journals. Sex is a powerful force, both enticing and dangerous; families hide their true faces just as the three characters do behind masks in the empty swimming pool they use as a theatre; distrust is everywhere in the air. It is another reminder of what an important writer we lost, one that is long due recognition in her own country.

The Blizzard

January 8, 2019

Though a famous, prize-winning novelist by Russian standards, Vladimir Sorokin has, up to now, failed to make it as far as UK publication, with English translations of his work appearing only under US imprints. Penguin Modern Classics have changed all this by releasing two of these US translations in their livery (with, it has to be said, excellent covers): The Day of the Oprichnik (from 2006) and the more recent The Blizzard (2015), both translated by Jamey Gambrell.

The Blizzard tells the story of a doctor, Platon Ilich, who must get to the village of Dolgoye to deliver a vaccine through a snow storm:

“’You have to understand, I simply must keep going!’ Platon Ilich exclaimed angrily. ‘There are people waiting for me! They are sick. There’s an epidemic! Don’t you understand?!’”

The problem he faces (apart from the weather) is the lack of horses, until it is suggested he enlist the help of the ‘bread man’ Kozmo, or Crouper as he known (a nickname resulting from a bout of croup which kept everyone awake), who has his own ‘sledmobile’. Crouper’s slow, measured approach to life forms a perfect foil to Platon’s hysterical urgency and soon the two of them set off across the snow.

If the reader is expecting a traditional historical novel, however, they are soon surprised to discover that the fifty ‘horsepower’ of Crouper’s sledmobile is literally fifty tiny horses: “Each horse was no bigger than a partridge.” The probability of the horses may be in doubt, but Crouper’s love for them is not:

“He knew every single one of them and could tell you what its story was, where it was from and how he got it, how it worked, who its parents were, and describe its like and dislikes – its personality.”

Platon meanwhile, in typical Russian fashion (the novel seems to play on our expectations of Russian literature), takes then opportunity to philosophise:

“The larger the animal the more vulnerable it is to our vast expanses. And humans are the most vulnerable of all…”

Their journey is, of course, not as straightforward as they expect it to be (the doctor having suggested, “We’ll be in Dolgoye in about an hour and a half.”) First they split one of the sleds hitting a mysterious transparent pyramid buried in the snow. What follows will be the first of many battles between Crouper and Platon as the former suggests “we turn back ‘round the way we come,” while the latter is determined, “We can’t go back!” Eventually, using the doctor’s equipment, they glue the sled together with ointment and wrap it in bandages so they can continue. This is only the first of many setbacks and stopovers, which include an overnight stay at the miller’s and a further interlude with a band of Vitaminders. The miller, like the horse, is tiny – “He wasn’t any bigger than the shiny new samovar” – which doesn’t stop him abusing all and sundry:

“Crouper! Just a bum, that scum.”

The Vitaminders make a living selling out of body experiences – the pyramid which damaged the sled turns out to be their latest product, which Platon is invited to try. On both occasions it is Platon who holds up their journey, sleeping in after sleeping with the miller’s wife and experiencing a vivid dream after inhaling the vaporized pyramid, which, despite seeming rather gloomy, leaves him filled with a zest for life:

“’What a miracle is life!’ he thought, peering into the blizzard as though seeing it for the first time… ‘We can live here, in this world, just live, we enter it like a new home, specially built for us… This is truly a miracle! Indeed, this is the proof of God’s existence!’”

The Blizzard, as you may have guessed, is more about the journey than the destination. A riff on Russian literature, it would be unfair to call it a pastiche as it has an emotional heart beneath its frantic and often humorous exterior, and real pathos in its conclusion. Its Swiftian touches, which, far from shrinking everything, also include a drunken giant who has died from exposure, keep the reader on their toes, and the unlikely pairing of Platon and Crouper are as entertaining as any buddy movie. It’s a wild and desperate ride, but one I was sorry to see end.

Child of Fortune

January 4, 2019

One of my favourite reads of last year was Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, newly translated by Geraldine Harcourt. Luckily Penguin Classics have also released Harcourt’s 1986 translation of Child of Fortune. It, too, tells the story of a divorced mother, Koko, and her daughter, Kayako, though in this case mother and daughter live most if the time separately: Koko in her own apartment, Kayako with her mother’s sister:

“At New Year she had simply moved in – alone – with Koko’s sister and begun going to school from there… – At Auntie’s they don’t make all the children do the stuff you make me do, Mom. When I told them that I clear up after dinner, and wash and iron my own things, and even sew on buttons, they were sorry for me. I was so embarrassed.-“

As with the narrator of Territory of Light, Koko can appear a feckless mother – and this is certainly how her family sees her. Kayako tells her that she visits her once a week because, according to her Aunt, “we can’t let your mother out of our sight or there’s no telling what she’ll get up to next.-“ Kayako has ambitions to go to a private Catholic school rather than a municipal junior high and is studying for the entrance exams. Koko, meanwhile, makes a living teaching piano but has little interest in her work – “though there was a piano in her apartment it was a while since she had even lifted the lid.” Their characters contrast in almost every way: Koko drifts through life whereas Kayako plans for her future; Kayako often appears more mature than Koko who can be annoyingly childish, for example when her daughter comes to visits:

“Close on seven o’clock the doorbell rang. Koko deliberately did not go to the door. The chimes sounded again. Then there was the click of a key in the lock.”

Roles are reversed to the point that Kayako has to tell her mother to have a bath, and then clean the bath tub for her.

Koko’s relationship with her daughter is in danger of further complication when she suspects she has fallen pregnant. The father is an old friend and irregular lover, Osada, who has acted as a go-between between her and her ex-husband in the past. The pregnancy makes her think with regret of a previous lover, Doi, who was very good to Kayako when she was younger, but who returned to his wife when she fell pregnant after Koko has resisted the idea:

“When Doi’s second child was born, Koko had actually welcomed the change at first, turning it into the opportunity she needed to leave him, but before very long she was stricken with a hopeless frustration, until she twisted and moaned in bed; frustration at herself, at having let Doi go, at having failed to take action.”

Now pregnant, she is surprised at her own lack of concern:

“Now, with her belly actually swelling, Koko was so unworried that it was even a letdown.”

Initially she has not intention of telling Osada: “the baby’s paternity was too insignificant to worry about; she was imply going to be producing another child and that was all there was to it.” Though her relationship with Kayako suggests this attitude may be rather cavalier, Koko’s refusal to turn to others is understandable given both their frequent disapproval and concurrent attempts to run her life for her. Her sister consistently undermines any efforts Koko makes to look after Kayako, even offering to adopt her, and when she discovers Koko’s pregnancy, complains it is too late for an abortion. Osada, too, develops his own plans when he finds out without thinking to consult Koko. Koko meanwhile attempts to be true to herself, and in particular the childlike spirit she learned from her disabled brother who died when he was Kayako’s age:

“One thing, though, was certain: she had never betrayed the small child she had been: the child who had pined for her brother in the institution; the child who had watched her mother and sitter resentfully, unable to understand what made them find fault with her grades, her manners, her language… in the long run her choices had always remained true to her childhood self.”

Her desire for independence is to be admired, and perhaps her attitude towards her daughter is more about discouraging her from relying on others than a lack of care. The novel is given depth by Koko’s memories which show her to be a complex and sometimes contradictory character. As in Territory of Light, dreams are also important. A dream of being on a boat, unsure whether she is alone or not, reflects her uncertainty over relationships, sometimes encouraging others to become close, at others isolating herself. Child of Fortune is another rich novel from Tsushima, rejecting any suggestion that life should only be lived one way, capturing the spirit of those who, although uncertain and confused, aim to carve out their own path.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

January 1, 2019

My New Year’s reading resolution is (as it is every year) to read some of those longer classics which have so far escaped my limited attention. In 2019 I will be aided (or perhaps tormented) in this endeavour by Boyd Tonkin’s The 100 Best Novels in Translation, having established that I have so far read only 38 of his chosen novels, which in fact number more than one hundred as he has sneakily included two trilogies and a quartet. What better place to start than Alfred Doblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, out of print for over ten years, but recently released in a new translation by Michael Hofmann.

Berlin Alexanderplatz tells the story of Franz Biberkopf:

“…a course, rough man of repulsive appearance, back on the streets of Berlin, a man on whose arm a pretty girl from an engineer’s family once hung, whom he turned into a whore and finally beat up so badly that she died. He swore to all the world and to himself he would remain decent. And as long as he had money, he remained decent. But then he ran out of money, which was the moment he had been waiting for, to show them all what he was made of.”

The novel begins with Biberkopf’s release from the Tegel prison, where he has served four years for his fatal attack on his girl, Ida. His initial feelings are of dread – “His real punishment was just beginning” – signalling Doblin’s portrayal of Berlin as a place of struggle and uncertainty. (Franz will, in fact, return to the Tegel’s walls more than once when he is troubled as if they represented something solid in his life). Franz’s mood picks up when he visits a cinema:

“Here were lots of people at liberty and enjoying themselves, no one’s telling them what to do, how lovely, and yours truly in the midst of it!”

Though the novel is much more than the landmarks of Berlin via the tour bus of Franz’s consciousness, we are kept aware of his volatile emotions both directly and indirectly as the narrative flickers between the authorial voice and his. Franz’s efforts to go straight are initially successful: soon he has a new girlfriend, Lina, and a job selling newspapers. When he is cheated he takes to drink but not yet to crime, despite his encroaching poverty:

“Franz, it’s two weeks now you’ve been squatting in your wretched attic. Your landlady is about to evict you. You can’t pay your rent and she’s not a landlady for the fun of it. Unless you get a grip on yourself, you’ll end up in the homeless shelter.”

It is through his friendship with Reinhold that he becomes unwillingly caught up in a robbery, asked to act as lookout. As they are making their escape, Reinhold throws him from the car and he is run over by the pursuing vehicle. He survives but loses an arm and has to begin again in his struggle to survive.

Franz is neither hero nor anti-hero; he lacks the wit and charisma to be a decent villain. There is a sad gap between how he sees himself in his more vainglorious moments and the reality. “You have no idea who I am. Who Franz Biberkopf is,” he says, “He is afraid of nothing. I got fists. See my muscles.” But though he threatens revenge on the man who cheats him and, later, on Reinhold, he does not act. Only women ever feel his fists.

The treatment of women in the novel is relentlessly degrading and brutal. Franz resorts to violence whenever he feels slighted or jealous. Meanwhile he will happily live off his girlfriend’s earnings through prostitution. For a while Reinhold passes his girlfriends onto Franz when he tires of them, though even Franz balks at this having a sentimental attachment to his lovers. What is most shocking, however, is the way the women acquiesce. In the novel’s second half, Mitzi is devoted to Franz, even after he beats her, while Eva, who introduced Mitzi to him, is also infatuated, wanting to have his baby while remaining with her own boyfriend. In the earlier scene where Franz visits Ida’s sister on his release he sleeps with her but, though he uses force at first, the suggestion of rape is ambiguous at best:

“…her arms aren’t able to push him away any more, her mouth is helpless. The man doesn’t say anything, she leaves him him him her mouth, she’s softening as in a warm bath, do with me what you please, she dissolves like water, it’s all right, come to me, I know everything, I want you too.”

This, too, adds to the picture of life on the margins as one of compromise and suffering, part of the wider picture Doblin wishes to present of the city. This includes long sections where the central characters do not appear, weather reports, statistics, and extracts which read as if from a scientific handbook, as, for example, describing Franz’s attack on Ida: “…the movement is in proportion to the force exerted, and will continue in the same direction (the force here being Franz, more specifically his arm and implement bearing fist)…”

Berlin Alexanderplatz is an enormous achievement: an unflinching portrait of a man with few redeeming features which still retains something of the reader’s sympathy; a picture of city in all its chaotic life; and a snapshot of a moment in time so vivid it allows itself to be inhabited. It is surely one of the key texts of the twentieth century.