Archive for February, 2021

The Fall of Kelvin Walker

February 25, 2021

The Fall of Kelvin Walker was the novel (novella really) which followed Alasdair Gray’s two great novels of the eighties, Lanark and 1982, Janine, and his first collection of stories, Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Gray, however, did not see himself primarily as a writer of fiction, and, though he published regularly, was never prolific and would have periods where he would be uncertain if he would write another novel. Short of inspiration, he turned to his earlier dramatic work, plays which were broadcast on the radio in the 1960s and, in the case of The Fall of Kelvin Walker, the television. (He would later also turn McGrotty and Ludmilla into a short novel, and cannibalise his dramatic work to create his final novel Old Men in Love). In a sense then, The Fall of Kelvin Walker, republished this month by Canongate, was already out of date on publication in 1985, set as it was in the sixties (it is subtitled ‘a fable of the sixties’) and based on Gray’s own experience of travelling to London to make a documentary in 1964. Reading it now, almost fifty years on, it remains an entertaining curio, but retains some of its bite in its portrayal of its central character’s rise and fall as a media star.

Kelvin Walker is a young man who has left his home town of Glaik (from the Scots for stupid, glaikit) in Scotland for success in London. To this end the chapters are titled as if from the account of a colonial explorer (The Discovery of London, A Meal with a Native…). Despite having little in the way of qualifications, having left school at fifteen and only ever worked in his father’s grocery shop, Kelvin is determined to start at the top – or, at least, as near as he can get to it. As he explains, when it is suggested that he needs to start at the bottom:

“That’s not true!… Nowadays the ladders are so long that the folk who start at the bottom have to retire before reaching the middle. Nearly all the people at the top started climbing a few rungs under it.”

Kelvin is both unshakeably confident and irredeemably innocent. He befriends a young woman, Jill, in a café by asking her, “Do you mind if I engage you in conversation?” Soon he offers to take her to the “most expensive eating place in London” only to discover (too late) that the meal costs more than he has (around £450 in today’s money). And so he ends up staying with Jill and her artist boyfriend, Jake, while he commences on his plan to gain interviews for prestigious positions by pretending to be Hector McKellar, a fellow Glaiker (?) who is now an important man at the BBC. Of course, as soon as his dishonesty is discovered, most companies will simply ask him to leave, but, as Kelvin explains:

“I’ll be glad to leave, for a small-minded and unimaginative employer will be no use to me at all.”

It is, in fact, MacKellar himself, who hears of the deception, who eventually offers Kelvin a job as an interviewer as:

“…the BBC is suffering just now from a dangerous personality deficiency, particularly in the field of regional dialect.”

Having those in power “savagely grilled by interviewers with firm regional dialects” is what McKellar calls “the British alternative to revolution” and it is in its dissection of the BBC that novel remains its most relevant. Kelvin begins work on Power Point (Gray predating Microsoft by two years), a programme created by a BBC governor who was known as The Prevailing Consensus, the sustaining of which Kelvin discovers is the Corporation’s main mission, as he discovers, like those before him, that politicians:

“…don’t really disagree about these things – they just pretend to.”

Kelvin is an excellent interviewer and the novel follows his rising fame and the attention he then garners from powerful men. His desire for success, an endearing quality when he was naïve and powerless, becomes an end in itself, and much less endearing. Power, the novel demonstrates, does indeed corrupt.

Where the novel is less successful is in its other two strands of religion and love. Kelvin’s strict and repressive religious upbringing, from which he is liberated by reading Nietzsche, appears unusual today, in a way which makes even the novel’s wonderful final sentence appear dated. That Kelvin is unable to escape his relationship with God feels much less likely. In love, Kelvin is much like other Gray characters, a weak man infatuated with a woman who does not love him back. In this case the woman is Jill and, as she says herself, this is largely because she is the first woman he meets. The fact that Jake hits Jill makes us sympathetic to Kelvin who always treats her kindly, but Gray does not allow Jill to develop much of a character for herself – Kelvin will similarly restrict her when he is famous.

The novel is told with such wit and brio, however, that these faults can be overlooked. The Fall of Kelvin Walker may be minor Gray, but Gray is such a clever and honest writer that he is always worth reading and, as a satire of success, and an example of how the media will raise you up and then seek to bring you down again, the novel holds up well.

Strange Beasts of China

February 21, 2021

Each chapter of Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China (translated by Jeremy Tiang) begins with what seems to be an entry from a bestiary. Sorrowful beasts, we are told “are gentle by nature and prefer the cold and the dark”; joyous beasts “only have a single gender”; and thousand league beasts “have been extinct a long time.” They end with further information, often relevant to the events of the story, but whether this is simply the second part of the entry, or what has been learned from the events described is unclear. These entries reflect the dual nature of the narrator: on the one hand she is a writer producing the story under a print deadline; on the other had she is a zoologist, having studied under a nameless professor who still seems to hold a powerful influence over her life.

There is something of the comic book adventure to these stories, which is not to say they are not serious. It’s partly down to their episodic nature, with each story revealing a new beast, and partly down to the recurring characters. The professor may be a useful source of knowledge but he is also “self-important, self-centred, self-serving, and downright selfish,” as well as frequently short-tempered:

“I can’t believe I taught a loser like you. Imagine ending up a novelist!”

At the same time, he clearly has a soft spot for the narrator:

“The prof always says of his students, he’s proudest of you.”

The exact nature of their past relationship is never made entirely clear. A running joke, where the professor arranges to meet her but doesn’t appear, begins in the second story. Instead he sends one of his students (“his latest lapdog”), Zhong Liang, even when he asks her out for a meal. Zhong becomes her ‘sidekick’ for the remaining stories, “a young, handsome man, even his fake smile was dazzling”. Much is made of Zhong’s youth (in his first appearance he spends most of the time blushing) which precludes any romantic involvement with the narrator. When he invites her to a family gathering and she jokes, “Are you asking me to be your girlfriend?” he replies:

“‘I wouldn’t dare’…which meant, You’re too old for me.”

We learn more about the characters as the stories progress, but they do not develop, staying within their role, which further adds to adventure serial format. The narrator may not have a secret headquarters, but she does have the Dolphin bar.

The beasts themselves are the work of a powerful imagination, entirely distinct while at the same time developing the idea of what it means to be a beast. We are told that fifty years ago, “Yong’an had a great many beasts, and human beings were just one breed among them.” Then war broke out between humans and beasts and beasts disappeared, in many cases believed extinct. As the stories show, however, many beasts remain, often hidden among humans. In some cases, this means taking on a human identity, in others, literally becoming a person. The artist Lefty turns out to be sorrowful beast:

“…the government carried out an autopsy on her corpse, and in her faintly green belly they found the teeth that hadn’t yet broken down, and the half-digested remains of the real Lefty’s body.”

The joyous beast, we discover, “spends most of its existence as a parasite in a human host. It loves to feed on children.” It seems that the narrator’s mother is right when she says:

“The beasts all want to eat people, just as people eat them.”

Beasts act according to their nature, but humans have choice. Beast are exploited by humans, as, for example, flourishing beasts who are turned into furniture:

“Those whose limbs had just sprouted were still tough, and could be turned into tables. Those whose faces had started showing were softer and could provide natural cushioning when made into armchairs.”

The artificially produced heartsick beasts are used as little more than pets. Despite this, the stories contain numerous relationships between beasts and humans showing that love is possible.

Strange Beasts of China is powered by imagination, but each story has an emotional core, and humour and sadness frequently play out together. If it feels fresh and unfettered then that is perhaps because, as Yan Ge has said, it was her first book and one where she wrote without rules. Even those who are normally averse to fantasy, should find something to treasure in its curious menagerie.


February 18, 2021

Nordisk Books are a small press which specialise in Scandinavian literature, publishing only a handful of books a year. If the word ‘Scandinavian’ conjures images of endless gloomy winters rather than cosy Hygge-filled evenings bathed in the glow of the Northern Lights, then this may well be the publisher for you: Gine Cornelia Pedersen’s Zero (translated by Rosie Hedger) is the third Nordisk novel I have read and none of them have been particularly cheery.

Nordisk publications also seem to share a fascination with form and Zero is no exception. Its narrative is a series of short sentences, each standing alone, fired at the reader with alarming speed as a result of the absence of punctuation. This quickly conveys the distress of the narrator, from the first moment we meet her as a ten-year-old child, to her life as a young adult. It is a novel of breakdown, and has the visual appearance of having broken down, the text fragmented into grammatical components that follow each other without always connecting. The brevity and separation of the text fills the pages with white space reflecting the emptiness the narrator often feels. The repeated ‘I’ might also be said to demonstrate a self-obsession which makes it difficult for her to consider the feelings of others.

The narrator’s mental health is fragile from the first moment of the narrative, though the language might make us question whether its urgent present tense reflects a ten-year-old’s voice or if we are reading recollection which feels in the moment. How else to explain, “I do the kind of things to my sister that suggest I’ve got hidden sociopathic traits”? There is also a self-awareness which suggests then narrator looking back:

“I’m influenced by absolutely everything around me”

The transition to adolescence takes place without any need to mention an age. The picture of Leonardo di Caprio is put away and:

“I’ll bury my dreams of our life together

Bury them along worth my dreams of my day in the sun

Bury them way down deep in a bottomless grave

I feel angry

Always, always angry”

The conflicted feelings that will characterise her relationships are already evident with her first boyfriend, Jorge: “Jorge is all I want,” she tells us, but at the same time: “That’s probably why I want him to hate me so much.” Her life progresses in chapters that count up from zero – does this represent some event that changed her? By chapter 2 she is an adult, living in Oslo and working in a nursery. She soon quits the job, her feelings for the children suggesting something missing in her own childhood, or that she wishes to return to it:

“I feel myself getting annoyed at the children, well-fed and comfortable and wrapped up in arm blankets

I want those things for me”

She finds it difficult to keep any job such is her distaste for rules or expectations, she increasingly loses self-control (“I scream at one woman on the tram”), and soon she is hardly leaving the house. She becomes detached from life:

“I don’t cry anymore

Nothing feels sad

Like déjà vu”

It isn’t long before she experiences her first incarceration in a psychiatric ward, where she continues to rebel,  and often uses sex to do so:

“I sunbathe topless later that day trying to turn him on”

There is something attractive about her refusal to be cowed, but the damage she continues to perpetrate on her own life is obvious. When, months later, she is released, she soon stops taking her medication. She applies to drama school and becomes very focused on the audition but afterwards she cannot remember what happened:

“Everything turns black

I don’t remember a single thing that happens before I leave the stage”

Just as the narrator has no escape from her condition so we are unable to escape from the relentless distress of the narrative, as she becomes caught in a cycle of deteriorating relationships and hospital admissions. The narrative voice is completely convincing and carries the action without ever allowing us a glimpse of anything outside her consciousness, as if we, too, were imprisoned. Then, towards the end, it takes an even stranger turn with a trip to Peru which we are likely to assume takes place entirely in her head, ‘trip’ conveying more than one meaning. While there she is subject to even more traumatic experiences – or is she replaying a childhood trauma within this story? The final page may even suggest a form of hope – though it is likely that every reader will have to decide this for themselves.

Zero is a difficult book to live inside – and its narrative all but demands that we inhabit it – but the experience acquaints us with the feeling of mental breakdown in a direct and unmitigated way. Whether its achievement goes beyond that will perhaps depend on what each reader is prepared to take from their time spent with the novel, and how they interpret its ambiguous conclusion.

London Under Snow

February 12, 2021

Jordi Llavina’s London Under Snow (translated by Douglas Suttle) contains six stories infused with loss and regret. Despite this it is far from depressing, perhaps because the narrator (who may or may not be the author) of most of the stories generally looks back with a self-deprecating acceptance. Take, for example, one of the shorter stories, ‘San Diego, For the Record’, which begins with the narrator hanging out clothes on his balcony, commenting that he is neither “prudent nor bothered enough” to put the pegs away when he takes the clothes in. On his terrace he finds a homeless man sleeping; his initial shock and fear soon fade and he invites the man in to have a shower and something to eat. Despite the fact that he is aware that the man’s story is “outrageous”, he accepts his temporary presence though his doubts remain:

“Were he some highly trained thief, now was the time for him to pull out his knife and shove it into my heart or neck before emptying the flat of all my belongings.”

Yet after two hours he trusts his visitor “implicitly” and, when he leaves, declares:

“I decided he was an angel.”

Even when he discovers that the man has stolen his money from his wallet and his grandfather’s watch, he isn’t despondent:

“Perhaps I had only been the guardian of old grandad Andreu’s watch and now it had finally reached its destination.”

This spirit of accepting losses, of not allowing regrets to dominate, makes the sadness which often inhabits the stories bearable.

The longest story, ‘Hand & Racquet’, which is in a sense the title story, being set in London during winter and having once had that title, is also suffused with regret. It is, for example, the narrator’s first visit to London despite previous chances – including one opportunity he gave up for a girl he later married – and then ten months later divorced. It takes place at the insistence of a friend who has asked him to return a (very expensive) hat which has a stain on it. He stays in an amusingly rundown hotel:

“On the wall near the ceiling, the wallpaper had bobbled up from the damp and a little further down there was a new shadow, made thicker by drops of a sooty substance, as if behind the bedroom wall there was a working coal factory furnace.”

In London he thinks of a girl he once knew, his “first love”, Marta, who went there to study. He never takes up her invitation to visit and a few years later she dies. This regret ties her to the Hand & Racquet, a pub the narrator has always wanted to visit in London, as when he finally gets there it has closed:

“By then there wasn’t a single doubt in my mind: the Hand & Racquet had been waiting for me for more than thirty years and, weary of my repeated absences, year after year, had, like so many things in life, decided to let itself die.”

Lost opportunities and relationships haunt most of the stories. ‘My Andalusian Cousin’ begins with the statement, “My Andalusian cousin is dead.” The news leads the narrator to reflect on his cousin, Andre’s, visit as a child. In fact, he only sees him once more and later Andre moves to Mexico:

“Perhaps fifteen years ago he wrote me a letter that I didn’t answer and that, a few months later when he was about to write me another, he decided – as we decide many things in life – not to.”

The phrase “as we decide so many things in life” is key as what interests Llavina are the decisions we make without taking, the paths we drift into, the people we lose touch with. We find another example of the latter in ‘A Man Called Amat’ where the narrator discovers an old teacher is eating at the café where his brother works. Amat’s reappearance leads the narrator to reflect on his importance in his life:

“Memory doesn’t require much: the vestiges of some letters cut into a warm tombstone and gnawed away by erosion; the half-erased name and some illegible, neglected dates.”

Llavina’s interest in memory is also evident in the final story, ‘The Linden Tree’, where he talks about his friendship with his wife’s mother who is now suffering from dementia. The story is heartfelt and the author is perhaps a little too close to the subject. Its ending is ambiguous, as he wonders whether “in her relative unconsciousness… she was entirely happy.” Given the association of memory with regret, this feels like a genuine question coming at the collection’s conclusion.

The one story I haven’t mentioned, ‘We, Too, Are Expecting’, stands out for not being in the first person. It, too, however, is one of loss and regret, and perhaps the saddest in the book, as a woman struggles with the loss of a child.

Overall London Under Snow is perfect winter reading (as we know, ‘a sad tale’s best for winter’), a time of year when we often look back. Its melancholy is never overpowering, and its narrative voice is companionable and often humorous, including comments which draw attention to the fact we are reading a story. That, too, is part of the honesty in what is an open-hearted book.

The Pear Field

February 7, 2021

“I’m going to kill Vano, and then they can do what they want with me,” declares eighteen-year-old Lela in the opening pages of Nana Ekvtimishvili’s novel The Pear Field, translated by Elizabeth Heighway. Why she should want to do so, and why she has fallen out with her one-time closest friend, Vaska (even she is unsure and “can’t remember when or why she started to dislike Vaska”) are the two mysteries that drive the novel’s narrative. Yet, despite its relatively short length, it is a novel which does much more. Centred on a Georgian children’s home – the ‘School for Idiots’ as the locals call it – it paints a detailed picture of the lives of the children there, the neglect and abuse, but also the humanity and hope.

At eighteen, Lela is no longer required to stay at the children’s home but “she doesn’t know where else to go.” Instead she looks after some of the younger children, particularly Irakli who is “glued to Lela’s side.” Though many of the children are orphans, Irakli has been left at the home by his mother, whom he regularly phones from the house of a kind neighbour. Each time she promises to return for him soon but never does. Lela is irritated by Irakli’s continuing faith in his mother (by this point she has left the country and is in Greece):

“Why do you keep sticking up for her? You know she’s not coming back.”

Irakli is, of course, only one example of neglect in a novel which is littered with them. The home itself has been left to fall into ruin: one room in particular, where a balcony has collapsed, has an empty doorway leading to a fatal fall (like Chekov’s gun, Ekvtimishvili does not introduce this without later using it); in it the children use old bed springs as trampolines while the rain comes through the roof. Neglect can also be seen in the death of Sergo who runs out the gates of the home only to be killed by a car. As they leave the cemetery, the children are told not to look back:

“…you mustn’t look back. Once you’ve buried them you leave them in peace. No more crying either.”

In many ways, this is how the children live their lives.

Of all the abuse the children suffer, the sexual abuse is the worst, an aspect of their lives which Ekvtimishvili reveals slowly over the course of the novel. Much of this is focused on the character of Lela, but it is also made clear that it is widespread. Sexual abuse may seem tragically ‘typical’ for a novel set in a children’s home, but Ekvtimishvili demonstrates it is present in many forms. Take, for example, Marika, a girl around the same age as Lela but from outside the home. When they are children, Marika and Lela play together:

“There was one game in a particular, where Marika would take Lela’s knickers off followed by her own.”

It is implied that Marika feels comfortable playing this game with Lela because Lela comes from the home. When the game stops, their friendship comes to an end. Is this any different from Koba wanting to take the present day Lela out in his car?

“I’m not asking you to do it for free. I’ll pay.”

In fact, Koba wants to pay her because that is the only transaction that will excuse a relationship with Lela. The children also abuse each other: Lela recollects a ‘game’ where new girls would be taken to the pear tree field and held down by the other children, boys and girls alike, and raped. The staff are dismissive of anyone who raises concerns:

“…it was just in their nature; they wanted it too, especially if there were sweets and presents on offer.”

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Lela has also been abused by Vano, a teacher at the home. While she is still a child, he get her to undress and then masturbates in front of her; the abuse escalates until eventually he rapes her. The fact that he would lead her by the hand to a space where they would be undisturbed, now means she “can’t bear people holding her hand,” something which seems to make a wider point about how the abuse makes it difficult for her to accept any affection, perhaps one reason for her tough exterior which hides her frequently kind actions. (However, it is not Vano’s abuse of her which leads her to want to kill him, perhaps because she doesn’t regard herself as worthy of revenge). The need for toughness extends to her care for Irakli – when she arranges for him to learn English as he is going to be adopted by an American family, she ask for him to be taught “some proper vocab” by which she means swearwords and phrases like ‘Get your hands off me!’

This may make The Pear Field sound like a thoroughly bleak read, but this is not the whole truth. Difficult as their lives are, the children still experience joy and kindness, for example when stealing cherries or when a woman lowers a basket of food to them. There is still laughter, sometimes cruel, in their world. Lela herself remains undefeated and determined to act, creating her own destiny.

Theatre of War

February 2, 2021

The title of Andrea Jeftanovic’s newly translated novel (by Frances Riddle), Theatre of War, hints both at the conflict within and the war which lies behind it. It tells the story of a family who flee the Balkans for the relative peace of South America from the point of view of the daughter, Tamara. As the novel opens she is nine years old, the age at which her father experienced war in his homeland and, as a result, an age he finds difficult to move on from:

“He’s stuck at age nine, which is how old he was when the war began… Dad is a six foot tall child, size XL, with wrinkled sleeves.”

Tamara’s childhood is, as a result, unsettled and unstable, “repeatedly changing houses, we are unable to anchor ourselves to any fixed point.” Like her father she clings on to her past, keeping “a glass of dirt from all the yards I’ve played in.” Her father meanwhile continues to live as if in the war zone he grew up in:

“He eats non-stop because war could break out any minute.”

Jeftanovic demonstrates visually how he imprints these memories on his daughter:

“Dad unknowingly writes on my arm the day I turn nine.”

The number he writes is “a painful number, the number of days the war lasted, the tears Dad cried.” Tamara finds her father’s childhood experiences difficult to escape:

“Lost in an era that doesn’t belong to me. I inhabit places I’ve never been.”

Further destabilising her childhood is the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, something she experiences largely from a distance as “races in the dark, slammed doors, drawers opening and closing,” though in one particularly disturbing scene her mother dances with her while telling her that her father sleeps with other women. Jeftanovic is particularly adept at presenting this from a child’s point of view, for example when her mother begins an affair with a workman who is repairing the house, she first notices he no longer says ‘excuse me’ before entering a room, and then:

“Suddenly the paintbrush rests alone for a long time on the edge of the paint can.”

Then she becomes further isolated when her mother loses all memory of her:

“For Mum, I’m nothing more than an empty space.”

Her parents are now split up and, in her mother’s house, she slowly cease to exist, all her belongings disappearing: her pillow, her toothbrush, her jacket. Eventually she is driven to return to her father.

In the novel’s second part, or ‘Act’, Tamara is an adult, now haunted by her own childhood:

“My childhood starts to inhabit me, floods me with absence, leaves me little space to experience the present.”

When she reconnects with her sister she finds that, “we’re so focused on settling our past that I don’t even notice my sister’s present day world.” A relationship with Franz is difficult to characterise as he “sticks around in a hazy sort of way,” Tamara admitting that she is “unable to construct the memory of any man in his entirety.” This fragmentation is echoed in the novel with short chapters, and often highly figurative language which, as striking as it is, has the effect of distancing the reader from the character’s reality as it is filtered through, some of which is jarring (menstrual blood as ‘lava’, segments of the past as ‘boomerangs’). This works well in the first part, but less so when Tamara is an adult, creating an impression of mental instability which doesn’t seem evidenced in her actions.

The presentation of her life as a drama, however, is effective throughout, from the opening line:

“The curtain rises on the shadowy dining room of my first home.”

It manages the transition to adulthood (“I walk onto my own stage”) and her sense of alienation (“I play a different role, behind the scenes”). Picking these phrase out may make them seem intrusive or even gimmicky, but they are used sparingly and always with an emotional power. In particular, this motif provides the novel with a powerful ending, where each of the characters describes themselves, like an actor outlining their part.

I found myself gripped by the novel’s first part but did become a little fatigued by the abstract nature of the narrative (and invisibility of the other characters) in the remainder of the book at times. Having said this, there is no doubt that this is a deeply felt examination of the effects of childhood trauma on two generations, and, more generally, of the way in which the past inhabits the present. I found its final pages particularly affecting, and, while perhaps occasionally overused, the author clearly has a gift for flexing language in new and unusual ways.