Archive for January, 2020

Snow, Dog, Foot

January 27, 2020

Claudio Morandini’s Snow, Dog, Foot (translated by J Ockenden) reminded me initially of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life as in its opening pages we meet the elderly Adelmo Farandola living alone in the mountains. He only rarely ventures down to the nearest village, despite enjoying listening to the band play on special occasions:

“But he soon stopped that because someone had come up to him, hand outstretched, and tried to engage him in conversation.”

He now only visits to stock up supplies for the winter; the description of one such trip demonstrating his deteriorating memory. “Forgotten something?” the lady behind the counter asks him, revealing that he had made the same trip only a few days before:

“A memory, albeit a rather vague one, begins to coalesce in his mind.”

The novel takes a more interesting turn on page 24, however, as Adelmo eats some wine-soaked bread:

“The dog’s tongue drips like a leaky tap… ‘Can I try a bit?’ he asks the man at last.”

The dog will be Adelmo’s companion throughout most of the novel, often more talkative than the man. Of course, the dog can be subsumed into a realist reading of the novel as an aspect of Adlemo’s imagination. Morandini even explains:

“In the war years Adelmo Farandola learned to find comfort in talking to himself and in imagining the voices of animals and objects ready and willing to reply.”

In the novel, however, the reader also hears the dog’s voice – the dog is a ‘character’ – and Morandini makes the reader further complicit in providing the dog with a back story:

“Ah, my shepherding years… I look back on them fondly.”

This makes the novel seem largely comic, which would fairly characterise the first half, even Adelmo’s determination to avoid contact with any other person. He is particularly suspicious of a ranger who speaks to him on a number of occasions, whom he sees as unnecessarily interfering – suggesting his dog should be muzzled, asking if he owns a gun, and wondering if he shouldn’t spend the winter in the village:

“He could throw stones at him from up here. He could cause a landslide and bury him beneath several tons of rubble.”

The novel takes a darker turn, however, when, having survived the winter, Adelmo and his dog discover a foot protruding from the snow and ice:

“It’s human foot, not a hoof, that the man and the dog can see sticking out from the debris of the avalanche.”

What has seemed like a rather gentle comic novel up to this point (well, as comic as a novel about a chronically lonely old man with dementia can be) becomes tense with the question of who lies dead under the snow:

“The more I look at this guy, the more he reminds me of that nice ranger who came to see us in the autumn.”

Adelmo’s failing memory means that he cannot be certain that he is not somehow responsible for the corpse, especially when he sees punctures on the man’s head that are “not the sort of wounds you get from an avalanche.” As the novel moves towards it violent and macabre conclusion Adelmo’s eccentricity becomes both more sympathetic and more desperate.

A Whole Life, admittedly much loved by many, left me puzzled by many readers’ reaction to the central character (and whether this was the author’s intention) – that is, they took the title as an affirmation rather than an ironic dismissal. My fear was that Snow, Dog, Foot would lead us down a similar road – one where an isolated and mentally infirm character is portrayed as somehow living a better life. In fact, this seems to have been exactly the trap Moradini sets for the reader, presenting us with a lovable eccentric only to slowly reveal the horror within.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams

January 21, 2020

The Pushkin Press reissue of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was fortuitously timed to coincide with his Nobel Prize win (a win that seemed to have left UK publishers largely uninterested, until Penguin Modern Classics announced they will publish three of his novels under their imprint in August). Like The Left-Handed Woman, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was originally written in the seventies, and quickly translated by Ralph Manheim. It is not, however, a novel, being instead the story of Handke’s mother’s life written in response to her suicide in 1971:

“My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks; I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.”

Although the novel is about his mother’s life, it is also, more generally, about the lives of women of her generation. (At one point Handke admits, “what is written here about a particular person is rather general”). As Handke makes clear, choices for women at that time were all but non-existent:

“No possibilities, it was all settled in advance…”

He later states that “any suggestion that a woman might have a life of her own was an impertinence.” It is for this reason, having become pregnant to the one man she would ever love (unfortunately already married), she marries a man she positively dislikes:

“She found him repulsive, but everyone harped on her duty (to give the child a father).”

This life that she didn’t choose has a bruising effect on her character:

“Because she was helpless, she disciplined herself, which went against her grain and made her touchy.”

She shuts down the conversation of others with her laugh, feels only contempt for her husband, and, at one point, packs a suitcase for one of her sons and leaves it outside the door. Handke excels in identifying the chasm between the inner life and the outward appearance, and his mother invests herself in keeping up that outward show (something that continues to the very end in her preparations for suicide):

“She comforted herself with the thought that she was at least imitating the pattern of middle class life.”

Handke presents a scathing picture of society as a whole: claustrophobic, emotionally stifling, quick to judgement:

“In talking about himself, if anyone went beyond relating some droll incident, he was said to be ‘peculiar’.”

(This is also an example of how funny Handke can be). It is only in her later years that Handke is able to say, “she was gradually becoming an individual.” Now, however, she begins to suffer from paralysing headaches, a further symptom of the stress of limiting herself for all these years.

His mother’s life, of course, covers the period when the Nazis came to power in Austria, and here we discover some insight into the attractions of fascism. His mother has no interest in politics, but she does notice a change in that “even the daily grind took on a festive mood.”

“What was happening before her eyes was something entirely different from politics – a masquerade, a newsreel festival, a secular church fair.”

It is during this period she falls in love, and, as the normal social rules are disrupted, briefly sees different possibilities – “it was contact with a fabulous world, hitherto known to her only from travel folders.”

The constricted life she faces once married, Handke suggests, is what eventually drives her to kill herself. In fact, going further back, when Handke says, “It all began with my mother suddenly wanting something” (she wants to continue with her education), the ‘it’ can be read as her suicide. Denied the opportunity to continue learning (Handke cleverly links the emphasis on neat writing for girls at school to the later need to present a superficially perfect household, calling their education a “mere child’s game”) her frustration only grows. By the age of thirty she has resigned herself to the fact that “she was nothing and never would be anything.”

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is a powerful and moving story, an evocative recreation of Handke’s mother’s life, and the lives of women in general in the twentieth century. Despite Handke’s analytical style, and his statement that “I try with unbending earnestness to penetrate my character”, there is still a sense that his mother is only partly known, and that too is part of her tragedy.


January 15, 2020

At one point in the English language debut of Mexican novelist Brenda Lozano, Loop, (translated by Annie McDermott), she speculates:

“I wonder if stories can be classified like rivers, from biggest to smallest. I also wonder if, in that case, stories could be part of the same book. Passages placed impossibly side by side. So they make another story.”

It’s a paragraph which gives the reader some sense of Lozano’s novel. Superficially it tells only one story, that of a woman whose boyfriend, Jonas, goes with his family to Spain after the death of his mother, yet the narrator’s state of waiting opens her life to many new stories, each tangential to the ‘plot’ but central to a novel which rejects the straight line. Reflecting on advice that you can escape drowning by swimming diagonally, she wonders:

“How do you swim diagonally in life?”

She applies this to her own life, suggesting, “I thought I was swimming forwards but I’m getting further away,” asking, of Jonas:

“Is this glass of water the dwarf-scale sea between us?”

A preoccupation with scale is evident throughout the novel. The opening line immediately introduces the idea: “Today a dwarf smiled at me,” and the dwarf, a neighbour, continues to feature, “so elegant, and the bigger stories badly dressed.” She identifies with living a life that does not easily fit into the ‘norm’ (“Why the fervent desire to be part of the norm?”):

“I felt a lot like the dwarf, on another scale of life and needing to lean on a tiny cane.”

Later, she expands on this idea, describing “People who don’t fit. People who live on another scale.”

Yes, things happen. A writer, like Lozano, the narrator flies to the Oaxaca Book Fair, which allows for a wonderful description of a bad poet: “His words were like a long trail of slime.” She meets with friends, and worries about her relationship – “Why is your mother’s death pushing us apart, Jonas?” Yet, so much of the narrative is internalised that her abstract thoughts sit alongside concrete events with equal weight – on the same scale, as Lozano might say. These include a number of riffs, not only on the aforementioned dwarf, but also on the song, ‘Wild is the Wind,’ which, in turn, feeds into the idea of transformation into a bird:

“If Jonas turned into a bird I could ask him to let me fly by his side, like in ‘Wild is the Wind’.”

This transformation is then linked to the act of writing:

“One way of turning into a swallow is by writing.”

Writing, unsurprisingly, is another topic to which Lozano comes back to again and again. “I think telling stories,” she tells us, “is a way of putting a scar into words.” And, returning to the idea of scale:

“All stories are a deep ocean and a puddle at the same time.”

This may make Loop seem like a rather abstruse literary game, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it is fragmented, but it is a friendly fragmentation, echoing the way we think rather than some abstract plan. It is also endlessly questioning, perhaps its most likeable characteristic, and, again, a very human one. Lozano, however, is taking us somewhere; as she says of her own experience, “His journey to Spain has taken me on another journey.” That journey takes place in the text. Midway, considering Ovid’s Metamorphosis, she wonders, “If writing and reading transform us into something we have yet to discover.” By the end, she has concluded:

“…however profound or superficial the journey may be, what’s transformed is the way we recount it. If that’s transformed, then everything is transformed.”

In the end, Loop is a glorious reaffirmation of the power of words and the stories they create.

A Moth to Flame

January 9, 2020

Stig Dagerman’s A Moth to a Flame (translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz and previously published as A Burnt Child) is the latest in Penguin’s European Writers series. Despite a recent revival in the US (where this was originally published), it has not been since Quartet Encounters in the eighties that Dagerman has enjoyed regular publication in the UK, making him a perfect fit for the series which focuses on writers highly regarded in Europe but largely neglected here. A Moth to a Flame is the third of Dagerman’s four novels, originally published in 1948 when he was twenty-five. Six years later he would kill himself.

A Moth to a Flame is not an easy novel to like as it sets out to portray all its characters unsympathetically. The central character, Bengt, who narrates parts of the novel in letters he writes to himself (a device that works rather like a soliloquy), is a student approaching the threshold of adulthood but frequently prone to the moods of adolescence. The novel opens at his mother’s funeral and we see he is keen to differentiate his grief from what he sees as his father’s indifference. The son cries and “as he is drying his eyes he can hear through the silence of the room that everyone is listening to him cry.” The father, on the other hand, is described as unfeeling as stone: “a stone arm around his shoulder”; and:

“The father gently presses his cheek against his. It is a cheek of stone.”

When Bengt answers the phone to a woman looking to speak to his father he realises that his mother has been, as he sees it, betrayed – and “he who betrays another kills her slowly.” He regards his father’s grief as false:

“Finally, the mask thuds off, the widower’s dismal mask.”

This would seem to leave the reader’s sympathy with Bengt, but Dagerman demonstrates the cruelty which lies within him in the way he treats his fiancée, Berit. When she begins to cry after they have watched a film together, his immediate reaction is, “So I thought I’d really give her something to cry about.” When she tells him she thinks that spring is the most beautiful season, he instinctively replies that he finds it the ugliest. This cruelty is also in evidence in the way he treats his father. He tells him about his successes at university, knowing that his father will want to reward him financially (“I told him the exam went well, and then he gave me twenty kroner”), while having stopped attending lectures entirely. In Bengt’s view:

“I think a lie should be judged by what a person hopes to gain from it.”

This is suggestive of Bengt’s more general belief that he is superior to both his father and Berit:

“For weaker persons, it might be considered necessary to have an absolutely fixed value for a concept, but for a person who knows where he is going… a fixed definition like that can even seem obstructive at times.”

Dagerman also demonstrates both his father’s affection for his wife and Bengt’s mother’s own flaws. We see the father taking out a pair of the dead wife’s shoes, feeling the “smooth interior” in a scene that will be repeated when Bengt puts his hand into the foot of one of her stockings. Another pair of shoes, unworn, were a gift from the father:

“Alma didn’t like anything that was beautiful.”

Dagerman frequently uses clothing to depict his character’s feelings. A handkerchief which the father gives to Bengt at the funeral is impregnated with the perfume of his father’s lover, Gun. Bengt later wakes from a nightmare with it in his mouth: “It tastes like tears and perfume.” In the dream he wakes from he is wearing a cloak made of blood which he cannot remove. Dagerman also uses a dog which the father brings home in a similar way. The dog is Gun’s and Bengt’s father uses it as excuse to go out walking at night and visit her. Bengt thinks “he’s hunting me with that dog,” and beats it one night when he comes home to find his father with Gun.

As the novel progresses, Bengt’s hatred of Gun becomes an obsession with her and he takes to phoning her where she works as a cinema cashier:

“She is constantly in my thoughts all day and constantly in my dreams all night.”

When his Bengt and Berit holiday with his father and Gun, his obsession burns more fiercely, a rivalry with his father first seen when he asks to row them across to the island. Once there he watches her and follows them when they go off in the boat together (he would go with them until he is reminded that, “You can’t leave Berit.”). When they dance together we see how dangerous his fixation is becoming:

“But the dance seems to last forever. It’s the first time he’s ever touched her for so long and by the end his hands are completely wet. When they finally do stop, he notices he was holding her tight…”

Bengt’s hatred for Gun becomes a different kind of passion entirely.

A Moth to a Flame is a claustrophobic coming of age story in which Bengt moves from puritanical rage to affected cynicism:

“What we are doing is something everyone does but most do it without really knowing it because they cannot face it.”

In the end he can cope with neither. Its intense atmosphere is exacerbated by the confined settings – the house Bengt and his father share, the cinema, the island – and the fact that much of the novel seems to take place in darkness, with, in keeping with the title, numerous candles. It’s another worthy addition to what is a fascinating series.


January 3, 2020

To understand the importance of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark you first need to understand Scottish literature in the 1970s. The revival, known as the Scottish Renaissance, which began in the 1920s, had faded, and its greatest writers had never been given the international, or even UK-wide, recognition they deserved. Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s modernist masterpiece, A Scots Quair, was hindered by his use of Scots, as was Hugh MacDiarmid’s best poetry. Neil Gunn wrote in English but his novels were largely set in the Highlands: his epic novel The Silver Darlings was about herring fishing. (The Renaissance generally was a rural movement and therefore not reflective of most people’s experience in post-war Britain). The impact of these writers was also hampered by the fact that publishing was largely controlled from London. Gray did not write the first Glasgow novel, but previous efforts, for example Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place which won the Guardian First Book Award in 1966, quickly fell out of print. It wasn’t until the establishment of Canongate Classics in the late 80s that the Scottish ‘canon’ became easily available.

Scotland was also unusual, perhaps unique, in allowing its population to be educated to degree level in literature without ever encountering a writer born in their own country. As Janice Galloway explained in her 2002 introduction to Lanark:

“I had barely encountered any of my country’s writers at all, let alone one this engaged with the present tense, this bravely alive. Scotland, my schooling had at times implied, at times openly professed, was a small, cold, bitter place that had no political clout, no cultural heritage, joyless people and writers who were all male and all dead.”

(It was only in 2013 that Scottish literature became a compulsory element in the new National 5 English exam). This was, in part, connected to the fact that it was a country with its own education and legal systems but with no parliament. A referendum in 1979, while producing a majority for devolution (by a now ironic 51.6%) was hamstrung by the necessity of achieving 40% of the electoral role in favour.

In other words, Scotland felt like a country where very little was possible, and, while Gray’s intentions, both literary and political, were quite deliberately international, they originated in the belief that anything was possible, at least when it came to the novel. In fact, one of the most important things about Lanark is that it was unashamedly ambitious (not easy in Scotland as, certainly when I was growing up, the worst thing you could do was ‘show off’). A prodigious reader, Gray looked for inspiration wherever he could find it, and with no intention of limiting himself to Scotland, or its neighbour England. When asked where Lanark came from in 2001, he answered:

“From Franz Kafka. I had read The Trial and The Castle and Amerika buy then, an introduction by Edwin Muir explaining these books were like a modern Pilgrim’s Progress. The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden sky that often seem dot rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”

Gray also looked west as well as east, modelling Thaw’s story on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, deciding it should end tragically as “young artists couldn’t make livings by painting easel or mural in 1950s Scotland.” In inviting comparisons with two of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, Gray demonstrated a refreshing arrogance, which he went on to poke fun at in Lanark’s Epilogue (which, naturally, does not appear at the end any more than the Prologue can be found at the beginning) with the appearance of the author, Nastler (Nasty Alasdair) who happily discusses his creation with reference to the great works of literature, beginning with The Iliad and ending with War and Peace. (That we should not take Nastler entirely seriously can be seen from the fact he is unaware his own character, Lanark, has a son).

Gray perhaps also took something from Joyce’s Ulysses, not just in the scale of its ambition, but in Joyce’s determination to portray Dublin as vividly as any character, for Lanark was to be a Glasgow novel. Not for him the ‘London’ of Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, nor the international approach of Muriel Spark, inspired by her Scottish upbringing but setting only one of her novels there. Famously, in the novel he explains the importance of his choice:

“No-one imagines living here…If a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live here imaginatively. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

Gray goes further than simply presenting Glasgow in fiction, however, by juxtaposing it with the dystopian Unthank, which both is and isn’t Glasgow in the same way that Lanark is and isn’t Thaw. Beginning the story with Book 3 he mimics the in media res of the epic while indicating the post-modern nature of the novel (Lanark was published only two years after post-modern classic Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller). “I want Lanark to be read in one order but eventually thought of in another,” Gray explained, and further illustrated in the novel in Thaw’s description of his approach to painting:

“A landscape seen simultaneously from above and below and containing north, east and south can hardly be peaceful.”

Gray’s post-modernism manages to be both meaningful and playful; it allows Thaw and Lanark’s stories to be read both sequentially and in parallel. Thaw’s story focuses on art as he increasingly looks inward until objective reality becomes unclear; Lanark’s is political, forcing him to look outward, though not always successfully. Gray’s playfulness is most in evidence in the epilogue, not only because he makes a personal appearance (“His face, framed by wings and horns of uncombed hair, looked statuesque and noble apart from an apprehensive, rather cowardly expression”) but due to the inclusion of an Index of Plagiarisms. Among the many literary debts acknowledged, Gray also includes poems and stories by his fellow Glasgow writers such as James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead, with references to chapters beyond the novel’s conclusion.

It is, of course, arguable (and often argued) that Lanark is not Gray’s best novel, with Poor Things and 1982 Janine vying for that position. But only a novel of the scale and ambition of Lanark could change the literary landscape in the way Lanark did because the scale and ambition was a statement in itself. It both freed and challenged the writers which followed. In the words of Brian McCabe:

Lanark’s importance consists of the fact that it has opened a very large door in the windowless little room of Scottish fiction, a door we did not know to be there, and only now can we begin to realise how much scope there is.”