Archive for March, 2021

The International Booker Prize 2021 Long List

March 30, 2021

The long list for the International Booker Prize was announced earlier today with arguably fewer surprises than is often the case. This is not to say my predictions were any more accurate than normal, with only three of the thirteen featuring in final choices (The Pear Field, The Perfect Nine and Minor Detail), though I did mention another three as possibilities (At Night All Blood is Black, An Inventory of Losses and In Memory of Memory). The list is, as usual, dominated by Europe, though it does contain two titles by African writers (Ngugi wa Thiong’o and David Diop, who was born in France but grew up in Senegal), two Latin Americans (Argentinian Mariana Enriquez and Benjamin Labatut – again, born in Europe (Rotterdam) but growing up in Argentina and Peru as well as the Netherlands, and now living in Chile), Can Xue from China, and Adania Shibli from Palestine.

The long list is as follows:

I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping, Yale University Press

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Mocschovakis, Pushkin Press

The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway, Peirene Press

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, Granta Books

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin Press

The Perfect Nine: The Epic Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author, VINTAGE, Harvill Secker

The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, Lolli Editions

Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from Dutch by David Doherty, World Editions

An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith, Quercus, MacLehose Press

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, Fitzcarraldo Editions

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale, Fitzcarraldo Editions

Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley, And Other Stories

The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Pan Macmillan, Picador

This will be the third year in a row that Fitzcarraldo Editions have had two titles in the long list, an incredible achievement for a small press (and one that always reminds me that the shadow jury was so incensed when Mathias Enard’s Zone was not long-listed in 2015 that we included it anyway). Two titles also for Pushkin Press, and plenty of other small press representation, most excitingly the recently established Lolli Editions. Disappointment, though, for Charco Press which misses out for the first time.

Though most of the publishers have an established history in the prize, this is not true of the writers. For six of them this is their first work to be translated into English; for another three is it is their second, and, though Maria Stepanova has been translated before, she is better known as a poet. Judith Schalansky, who was long-listed in 2015, seems like a veteran with her third book. Can Xue was also long-listed that year, and again in 2019; only she and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have been regularly published in English over the last twenty or, in Ngugi’s case, fifty years. Other established writers who have missed out this year include Virginie Despentes, Jon Fosse, Roy Jacobsen, Andres Neumann, Amin Maalouf and, of course, Elena Ferrante. This makes establishing a favourite even more challenging than normal. Ngugi, as we know, just doesn’t win prizes; Can Xue, on previous form, is simply too opaque. An Inventory of Losses may also suffer from its experimentation, and In Memory of Memory, like Annie Ernaux’s The Years before it, from the nagging doubt it doesn’t quite belong among the fiction (see also, in a different sense, The War of the Poor). The short list (22nd April), and the eventual winner (2nd June), feel even more thrillingly unpredictable than ever.

If You Kept a Record of Sins

March 27, 2021

If You Kept a Record of Sins is the second of Andrea Bajani’s novels to be translated into English (on this occasion by Elizabeth Harris) after Every Promise in 2013. Both are stories of troubled relationships, in this case between a son and his mother. The novel opens with the son, Lorenzo, travelling from Italy to Romania to bury his mother. It is his first visit to the country where his mother went to live when he was still a child, leaving him with a man he called Dad but who was not actually his father. The novel is addressed throughout to his mother, perhaps communicating what he was unable to while she lived:

“You started leaving when I was young.”

His mother is an entrepreneur who invents a machine for losing weight and then travels the world with her business partner, Anselmi, in order to sell it. Tracking her journeys, Lorenzo creates what he calls “the world map of absences”. These absences grow longer and longer; on one occasion he mentions the letter he wrote for his mother’s return where he tells her how long the neighbour’s dog has been missing, each day adding one to the total:

“When you truly, finally came back, it was seventy-six days later, and there was a column of scratched-out numbers, the corrected number on top. And the neighbour’s dog had already come home.”

The story is both funny and sad, suggesting that he has come to accept her absence but is still hurt by it. It is clear from early in the novel that his mother loves business, and perhaps her business partner, more than her family. She has already broken with her own family over her first marriage which was “more like a business merger than a wedding.” Now her business merger is more like a wedding:

“You almost always talked together about work; you were full of smiles, your legs crossed, and him pouring wine in your glass.”

Eventually his mother decides to settle in Romania, for what we assume are capitalist reasons of opportunity and exploitation. Romania is viewed by the Italians there as a backward place. “They’re more than fifty years behind,” his mother tells him, “they’re stuck in the past.”  When Lorenzo arrives, Anselmi comments:

“These people – we yanked them right out of the Middle Ages.”

They see the people as less than human. Of his girlfriend, Monica, he says, “If she had a tail, she’d be wagging it.” Another Italian, Viarengo, who has a business making coffins, tells him that when he arrived the Romanian workers “just stood around, staring like monkeys in a tree.” Romania is compared to the Wild West, and the Italian businessmen see themselves as pioneers. They like Romania because, they say, Romanians will do anything for money. Men who are nothing in Italy are something in Romania. One of the first things Monica says to him is, “You Italians like Romanian pussy.”

“She said this the same way Anselmi would, his same words, his same inflections. His same solemn tone.”

In this way the novel can be read as a condemnation of the rampant capitalism which replaced Soviet communism in the Eastern Bloc. This is made clear in the comparison between Ceausescu’s palace, “immense, as if right here, the world came to a halt,” and Anselmi’s business:

“As if, again, the centre of the world was that warehouse, and not Romania, which only happened to be surrounding it.”

This aspect of the novel dovetails with Lorenzo’s personal story, as he discovers his mother was not happy in Romania. “She wanted to go back to Italy – she felt sick and betrayed,” Anselmi’s driver, Christian, tells him. He doesn’t recognise photos of her (“you were an exploded body”). He discovers that she had taken to drink and wouldn’t wash; “She let herself die,” Anselmi says, or as Viarengo puts it, addressing her photograph, “You let yourself rot.” This makes Lorenzo’s attempts to connect with her now she has agone all the more sad, as when he has a shower in her apartment:

“I washed with your sliver of soap, dried myself with your bathrobe, brushed my teeth with your toothbrush, still on the sink, like an old flag on an abandoned fortress.”

Bajani adeptly combines the personal with the political in a novel which reflects on capitalism and dislocation through the failed relationship of mother and son. Lorenzo’s mother’s pursuit of wealth not only creates a divide between them but eats away at her from the inside, leaving behind only a shell of the woman she once was. Even the ‘gift’ she leaves him, which she describes as an investment, becomes in the closing pages a symbol of separation. The gently elegiac tone of the novel with its regular four-page chapters, disguises a bleaker sadness beneath. It’s a haunting experience but one which is highly recommended.

Higher Ground

March 23, 2021

“Bea is fourteen and needs to be taught the facts of life,” her mother, Resi, decides in the opening pages of Anke Stellig’s Higher Ground, originally published in Germany in 2018 and now translated by Lucy Jones. She does not mean, however, the ins and outs of reproduction, but literally how we live our lives. She begins with a revelation of her own when she is in her twenties:

“Fuck! If my parents had lived somewhere else, we’d have had a different kitchen floor.”

The realisation is not that a different mother in a different place would have chosen a different floor, but that her circumstances were such that her mother did not choose:

“I was now convinced my mother had thought the floor tiles were ugly too, but had accepted them because they were all she could afford, they just happened to be there, and had nothing to do with her. But that’s where she’d made a mistake; now the floor stood for her.”

That flooring should have such symbolic significance seems appropriate in a novel where housing is central. The novel also begins with the news that Resi, her husband Sven, and their four children are going to be evicted from their flat. The eviction is personal: four years ago they took over the lease from Resi’s friends, Frank and Vera, who have now terminated the contract by letter:

“The letter is a comeuppance for what I’ve done, and that’s why it’s not addressed to Sven, or to both of us, but just to me.”

And what has she done to deserve this? Written a novel about her friends, many of whom she has known since school. Written about Frank and Vera, about Friederike and Ingmar, about Ulf and Carolina, about Christian and Ellen. And written about them in such a way that they don’t like what they see, in particular her view of their grand project, K23, a building where they all live together in separate apartments. Resi, too, was invited to be part of the project, but could only have bought into it with borrowed money offered by Ingmar, a ‘kind’ gesture that reveals the imbalance of power which has always existed in her friendships.

This is what lies at the heart of the novel: her wealthy but ‘progressive’ friends are oblivious to their privilege, and only willing to accept her as long as she doesn’t point it out. Looking back at her life, she sees that the disparity in class, which they all conspired to ignore, was in fact profound. When she was in a relationship with Ulf they “really believed there was no difference between us, and that it didn’t matter where we came from.” And yet he happily goes skiing with the others knowing she cannot ski. When she points out that she wouldn’t be able to join in, he replies:

“I realise that, but it’s not my fault, and it’s not the others’ either.”

When visiting Ulf’s family at Christmas she has no answer to the question, “And what do you play?” (“I instinctively knew that my two years of learning the recorder in primary school didn’t count in this context”). Despite this, Resi fools herself: she knows her parents do not have much money but “the poor were people who had never heard of Le Corbusier…” Her parents’ jobs (a bookseller and a draughtsman) allow her to imagine she is higher up the class ladder than their salaries can justify. Even in the present she is caught between her middle-class education and her working-class income:

“I prepare myself a working-class lunch – tinned ravioli – and eat it in posh style, with freshly grated Parmesan on an Iittala plate.”

It takes her years to realise that Ingmar’s offer to lend them money was an attempt to distract from K23 as an enclave for the rich (“Well, we also have low wage earners on board…”). Resi’s message to Bea is the same as her message to Ulf:

“I think we have extremely different starting points in life, which we ignored at all costs, and I think it’s still the case, or even more the case, and it’s being ignored more than ever – or worse, it’s being glossed over with neoliberal rubbish about opportunities of moving up in the world…”

Higher Ground is therefore a political book, though it does not read like one; here the political and the personal are the same. It’s written in a chatty tone as befits a mother addressing her daughter, and runs through a range of emotions, with as much humour as there is anger. It also has a conversational structure, moving backwards and forwards in time (which Resi also blames on having to write in a broom cupboard: “I won’t pretend that I have the same conditions as, say, Martin Amis”). It’s almost always entertaining.

The structure allows Resi, looking back, to see parallels between her own life and that of her mother, despite her intention to live it very differently. (Her mother’s first boyfriend was also from a wealthier family and ended the relationship). Now she asks whether she can free her daughter from repeating her own mistakes by warning her, in a way that will resonate with many parents. The address to Bea is an effective conceit, though Bea herself does not really come to life as a character, perhaps because she is always addressed rather than active. The novel wears its rage lightly, but it is a potent reminder that, although money can’t buy happiness, it can buy what we are expected to accept is happiness, and woe betide anyone who points out otherwise.


March 17, 2021

Lighthouses have always made me uneasy ever since watching Dr Who and the Horror of Fang Rock as a child in 1977 (and this was despite the fact that the alien horror turned out to be a plastic ball covered in seaweed), but never as uneasy as Vincente de Swarte’s Pharricide. De Swarte was a French writer who was only a little older than me when the Dr Who serial premiered but sadly died young in 2006 having already written a number of novels, the second being Pharricide in 1998 (the first, not to discount it, was for children). His work remained untranslated during his lifetime, but in 2019 Nicholas Royale and Confingo brought us this English version of Pharricide which, in a suggestion of the novel’s standing, comes with a forward by Patrick McGrath and an afterword by Alison Moore.

The novel tells a grisly story with an intensity which is irresistible. It is related in the first person by lighthouse keeper Geoffroy Lefayen in a series of diary entries which begin with his posting to the oldest lighthouse in France, Cordouan. A series of misfortunes leads to his placement – the previous lighthouse keeper blinding himself on the lamp; the couple he worked with dying in a car accident; the two trainees sent there temporarily rumoured to be involved in smuggling – a run of bad luck which seems to be off-set with the high regard in which Lefayen is held within the department of Lighthouses and Beacons:

“For my willingness to take risks, my strong constitution and my heroic physique. They say I’ll enter the annals.”

The truth of this will be borne out by what follows, though not in the way we might think.

Lefayen craves isolation. He agrees to man the lighthouse on the condition he does so alone:

“I pray to God no one comes to the lighthouse during those six months, no one at all…”

When the supply boat turns up early, he tells them, “I’d rather not see you, you know. It’s easier if I don’t see anyone.” If this doesn’t make the reader uneasy, the perhaps his attitude to the lighthouse will:

“Cordouan has woken me up. Cordouan has stripped my soul naked. It has reminded me of everything that lies within. It has replaced maybe with definitely.”

At times it feels as if the lighthouse is a living being in his mind (for example, he tells us, “The lighthouse pretty much let me sleep until five.”) He later comments that the lighthouse “has saved my knives from retirement”, a remark which is explained, however, by his interest in taxidermy, skills he first displays on a conger eel.

The confessional nature of the narrative gives the illusion that it is open and honest, but, in fact, much remains hidden from the reader. One entry begins, “The English couple arrived this morning” despite the fact that no English couple has been previously mentioned. We later learn that they phoned the week before (and have clearly been invited despite Lefayen’s desire for solitude). That he has planned for their arrival can be seen when he takes them to the shore to drive two stakes into the sand:

“They were so wrapped up in each other they would have believed anything.”

After the English couple, Lefayen decides “I’m no longer setting myself boundaries,” but his decision is complicated by the arrival of a female engineer from Lighthouses and Beacons, Lise, “a beautiful woman of about forty.” Lafayen’s desire for Lise is reciprocated, even as she recognises his madness, and the relationship accelerates Lafayen’s detachment from reality.

The novel explores madness in the same way as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart, by placing the reader within the madness. Lafayen, we discover, has come from madness: he speaks of his mother being certified, and of the twins on whose fishing boat he worked (both called Roger, which suggests their parents’ sanity should also be questioned) where he learned taxidermy, becoming “gripped by murderous insanity.” Sanity largely feels weak and distant – blind Joel, or his son watching the lighthouse through his telescope; the mild-mannered investigations of the police. Madness, on the other hand, blazes fiercely like the lighthouse.

Lafayen’s madness is also an expression of individualism – an attempt to embrace rather than reject life. The passion he and Lise feel for each other is both destructive and life-affirming. He describes himself as a “gourmand” – the pleasure gained is more important than the suffering caused. He is not a ‘victim’, either in his own eyes or the eyes of others and the journey on which he takes us is, in some ways, one of  horrifying liberation. Pharricide is a thrilling read, but the thrill is one of terror.

International Booker Prize Predictions 2021

March 12, 2021

The Booker International long list for 2021 will be announced on the 30th March, a little later than last year as I know only too well having been in the middle of reading the 2020 selection when Lockdown #1 came into force here in the UK. As seasoned Booker International / Independent Foreign Fiction Prize watchers know, guessing the long list is as impossible as it is irresistible, so, with little expectation of accuracy, here are some possibilities.

If I were simply basing my predictions on profile then I would begin with Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults (tr. Ann Goldstein), but Ferrante has only been selected once before in 2016 for The Story of the Lost Child, the previous three volumes having been routinely ignored. This may have a better chance as a stand-alone novel and I think it deserves a place.

Novels which are part of a series always complicate selection – perhaps there should be a separate ‘series of the decade award’ – and a few such are in contention this year. The final volume of Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex trilogy (tr. Frank Wynne) is one – the first volume was long-listed in 2018, the admittedly weaker second volume was not. First and final volumes, one assumes, are more likely to be chosen, which is good news for Despentes, but not for Jon Fosse: the first in his Septology trilogy (tr. Damion Searls) was long listed last year, but this year it’s the middle volume which is eligible. Similarly, (and similarly Norwegian), Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen was short-listed in 2017, the second volume White Shadow, was not. The third in what most people assumed was a trilogy, The Eyes of the Rigel (all three translated by Don Bartlett), is eligible this year, though apparently there is a fourth volume to follow. Perhaps it’s best to assume that one of these might appear.

Further complications are created by the borderline between fiction and non-fiction – a situation exacerbated by the inclusion Annie Ernaux’s The Years in 2019, which featured despite the publisher, Fitzcarraldo, going out of their way to brand it non-fiction with their jacketing. Another ‘white’ Fitzcarraldo title has been suggested as a contender this year, Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory (tr. Sasha Dugdale). Other ‘non-fiction’ books which may make it onto the long list are Selva Almada’s Dead Girls (tr. Annie McDermott) and Yan Lianke’s Three Brothers (tr. Carlos Rojas – Lianke is a long-time IFFP/Booker International favourite!). I suspect, though, that Ernaux was the exception, and none of these will appear.

If Fitzcarraldo is to be represented on the long list it’s most likely to be for Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette), two linked stories from Palestine set years apart. Other writers of middle eastern origin who may feature are Hassim Blasim (God 99, tr. Johnathan Wright) who became the first Arabic writer to win the IFFP in 2014, and Amin Maalouf (The Disorientated, tr. Frank Wynne), the Lebanese writer’s first novel in twenty years. If we turn our attention to Africa, traditionally under-represented in what is an international prize (partly because so many African authors write in English), in a year where Alain Mabanckou has not published a new novel, hope could rest with perennial Nobel runner-up, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and The Perfect Nine, translated by the author. However, given Ngugi’s luck with prizes, perhaps Senegalese author David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black (tr. Anna Moschovakis) is a better bet.

Latin America tends to be better represented, though it’s worth pointing out that the last Latin American winner was in 2011. Andres Neuman’s Fracture (tr. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) is perhaps as close to a certainty as we’re going to get, but also expect Charco Press – now the UK’s preeminent publisher of Latin American fiction – to be there. Luis Sagasti’s A Musical Offering (tr. Fionn Petch) seems to be a favourite of many, which would make sense as it’s the only one I haven’t yet read. Claudio Hernandez’s Slash and Burn (tr. Julia Sanches) from And Other Stories may also feature.

Japanese writer Mieko Kawakami’s Breast and Eggs (tr. Sam Bett and David Boyd) seems the most likely candidate from Asia (i.e. it’s had the most publicity) and would be an interesting inclusion both in terms of its subject matter and construction. Personally, I would love to see Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori) included simply on the basis that it would treat any new readers it attracted to something rather unique. I would also enjoy the addition of Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China (tr. Jeremy Tiang) as it would add a little wildness and variety, as, if what I’ve read is true, would Bae Myung-hoon’s Tower (tr. Sung Ryu).

Europe will, unavoidably given its dominance in what is translated, likely continue to make up around 50% of the long list. My tip here would be Vigdis Hjorth’s Long Live the Post Horn! (tr. Charlotte Barslund), one of my favourite books from last year. Andres Barba’s A Luminous Republic (tr. Lisa Dillman) also deserves inclusion, as does, very much under the radar, Philippe Claudel’s Dog Island (tr. Euan Cameron). Claudel won the IFFP back in 2010. Pereine Press, once regulars, could find themselves long listed for the first time since 2014 with three very strong contenders. The difficult to define An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky (tr. Jackie Smith) would also be worthy of a place, though its unusual form (novel? collection of stories? something else entirely?) could both help and hinder it.

And so (to be held accountable) my predictions are:

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

I is Another: Septology III-V by Jon Fosse (translated by Damion Searls) (or Vernon Subutex 3 / The Eyes of the Rigel)

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette)

The Perfect Nine by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, translated by the author

Fracture by Andres Neuman (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia)

A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti (translated by Fionn Petch) (or another Charco Press title)

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge (translated by Jeremy Tiang)

Long Live the Post Horn! by Vigdis Hjorth (translated by Charlotte Barslund)

A Luminous Republic by Andres Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman)

Dog Island by Philippe Claudel (translated by Euan Cameron)

The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili (translated by Elizabeth Heighway)(or another Pereine Press title)

The Faces

March 8, 2021

Tove Ditlevesen’s The Faces, written in 1968, translated by Tiina Nunnally in 1991, and now published in Penguin Modern Classics, is a novel of mental breakdown. Lise, a writer who has recently found success with the publication of her novel, The Deviant, lives with her husband Gert, her three children, Soren, Mogens and Hanne, and Gitte, who we might call her ‘personal assistant’, though Lise now has a troubled relationship with her, suspecting her of working against her (“Gitte required more alertness than the others”), as she increasingly does with everyone in her life. Her husband, she feels, “had taken her fame as a personal affront” and is unfaithful to her. In the novel’s opening pages, he tells her that his mistress has committed suicide by taking an overdose:

“What were you supposed to feel or say when your husband’s lover has taken her own life?”

A reasonable question, but Lise’s reaction is unusually detached, and she soon interprets the suicide as a plot against her, believing that Gert and Gitte plan for her to overdose on the sleeping tablets she takes, a suspicion confirmed when she overhears them talking through the pipes in the bathroom:

“We’ll manage to break her if we’re patient. Leave the pills on your dresser.”

Ditlevsen skilfully involves us in Lise’s perception of the world as a constant threat:

“The danger was approaching from many directions at once.”

Partly this is the reader’s unconscious association with the character’s viewpoint, but also because we see her as the victim of Gert’s infidelity and Gitte’s bossiness. She is particularly afraid of Gitte (“Fear filled the room like a liquid”) and when she does take the overdose that she believes they have planned for her (while also phoning her psychiatrist, Dr Jorgensen) she sees it an escape:

“She longed for peace and tried to imagine what the word meant.”

Most of the novel is thereafter set in the psychiatric institution where Lise is taken (Ditlevsen herself was institutionalised on a number of occasions). There we realise the full extent of her illness, throwing into doubt the dependability of the previous narrative. She believes one of the nurses is Gitte, and she hears voices:

“The voice was coming from her pillow, and she proceeded to examine it and wasn’t surprised when she found a speaker there too, inside the pillowcase.”

She also hears voices coming from the pipes, just as at home, frequently the voices of Gert and Gitte. She even begins to doubt Dr Jorgensen after the voices tell her he is in debt and has been bribed:

“Had he really allied himself with all the others against her?”

If we are to believe the voices, her distress originates in guilt she feels at a lack of political engagement and empathy for wider suffering throughout the world – perhaps more a concern of the sixties than of the present. When she donates money to striking mine workers in Spain the voices tell her, “You didn’t feel anything at all for the people you were helping.” She is accused of quoting Hemingway:

“Let those who want to save the world do so… if only I can be left in peace to comprehend it clearly and directly in its entirety.”

Gitte’s voice threatens to torture Soren, saying “Since you won’t bear your share of the world’s suffering, he’ll have to do it.” Lise’s guilt most likely lies in the choice between her art and the world. At the beginning we are told:

“Only when she wrote did she express her own self and she had ho other talent.”

And Gert’s voice tells her that “everything else takes second place to your perverse obsession.” Ditlevesen demonstrates that accusations she has become detached from those around her are not entirely unfounded. She describes Gitte as “a ventriloquist’s dummy who has taken control from her owner”, and her friend Nadia as being like “the china doll from her childhood.” In the hospital a nurse’s face is like “a childish sketch absent-mindedly scribbled in the margin of a composition book.” People have become inanimate objects to her, hence her obsession with faces which she often describes as if they were masks. In the opening pages she talks about how, when sleeping, faces are “blank and peaceful”:

“Maybe they had even taken off their faces and had placed them prudently on top of their clothes, to give them a rest.”

The Faces may be a book of madness but it does not take the approach of textual incoherence – in fact, from within, Lise’s madness is nothing if not coherent. It is also more about the journey out of madness than the descent into it, a journey characterised by fear rather than hope:

“Lise felt helpless and forsaken and she realised, filled with horror, that the sickness was on its way out of her mind.”

The Faces is a personal story of breakdown and recovery but it also raises wider questions concerning the relationship of art to life, particularly for women; questions which remain to this day. It also demonstrates once again what a wonderful writer Ditlevsen is despite the doubts which plague Lise in this powerful novel.

What I Do

March 5, 2021

Although James Kelman’s latest collection of essays, What I Do, is subtitled ‘Memoirs’ it is mainly about other people. As Kelman explains, these pieces were generally written as “obituary, memorial or eulogy,” in most cases for individuals which he “considered a friend.” However, they are also people who have had some influence over Kelman’s life – his writing, his politics – and thus the inclusion of African writers such as Amos Tutuola and Alex La Guma whom he has never met. Along the way we learn a little about Kelman’s life – his time as a bus conductor and, later, a bus driver; working on a building site in London; and (new to me) setting himself up as a ‘man with a van’ specialising in transporting artworks (until the van caught fire…). There’s nothing romantic about these jobs, they are an economic necessity, as Kelman often reminds us:

“Soon after this I was married and my wife stopped working; we were expecting a child. On one wage we couldn’t find a place to stay in London…I quit the building trade and we returned to Glasgow. Back on the buses again, this time as driver, there was no other work.”

He makes a similar point when writing about fellow writer Agnes Owens, with whom he and Alasdair Gray published the collection Lean Tales:

“Agnes had no option but to work, and work she did in factories and cleaning the home of wealthy people and she went on doing it even as a published writer.”

Kelman’s work was first published in the US and it’s unsurprising that a number of the writers he mentions here are American, though perhaps less expected that they are all women: Mary Gray Hughes, Tillie Olsen, June Jordan. In writing about Hughes, who was instrumental in An old pub near the Angel, his first collection, appearing, and with whom he regularly corresponded after meeting her in Glasgow in 1972, he says, “A writer was a writer, gender was relevant but only slightly,” though he later acknowledges:

“Necessity is relative and for many writers and would-be writers, especially women, the mixture of necessity and domestic is crippling.”

Not one of these writers published extensively, for various reasons, and in each we see that, for some, the struggle is not entirely artistic, but also against the worlds of publishing, criticism and those the state charges with gate-keeping the arts. When Tillie Olsen is in London to promote Silences she is interviewed by a broadsheet journalist:

“Perhaps it was her unwillingness to enter into a self-deprecating irony that most upset the journalist whose finished feature ridiculed the great American writer in a most extraordinary show of upper middle-class English elitist prejudice.”

Kelman has his own well-documented problems with the publication of How Late It Was, How Late, for example on a reading tour with June Jordan in Oxford:

“Even during my reading, there were heckles.”

In this case, he turns the story against himself when, at an American reading, he is about to treat a question as an “elitist attack” only to be disarmed by hearing June laughing from the audience.

Kelman has no time for the Scottish establishment either, as we see when he discusses the artist Alasdair Taylor in ‘An Artist Lives in Scotland’:

“The way I saw it the situation faced by Alasdair Taylor is the extent to which Scottish society values its own culture. The neglect of an artist such as Alasdair Taylor borders on the wilful.”

Instead, Kelman speaks fondly of artists’ cooperatives such the Print Studio Press which published, as well as Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard and Alan Spence amongst others, though he freely admits, “doing everything ourselves was a pipe dream.” We see something similar in the chapter on John La Rose who was a founder member of the Caribbean Artists Movement. Kelman sees a similarity between his own writing and the writing of some Caribbean and African writers:

“The struggle against the imposition of the Standard English literary form was a class issue but there was another context, a wider context, that of imperialism and the fight for indigenous survival.”

Thus we also have chapters on Amos Tutuola and Alex La Guma: “In common we had language. Not any language but a language thrust upon us; an imperial language that had colonized just about every area of our existence.” For Kelman writing is, first of all, language. And also, as he says in the final chapter, an address he gave at Tom Leonard’s funeral, “The local is primary… the local is the universal.”

The remaining essays in the collection, on left-wing radical figures known to Kelman who in many ways represent a lost past, may be of less interest to those who are primarily interested in his writing. They do, however, provide an interesting context, and share the same values of resistance and an independent mind. Worth pointing out that ‘left-wing’ does not mean the Labour Party (“people here know it is corrupt”), which is often the enemy, attempting to remove Elspeth King as curator of the People’s Palace museum or sell off Glasgow Green. Kelman and other writers were famously involved in protesting Glasgow as ‘city of culture’ in 1990:

“The phrase ‘cultural product’ indicates the value placed by the Labour Council on the city’s cultural heritage and tradition which was no value at all other than as a business commodity; and to what extent its parts might be sold to tourists and visitors.”

These may be, in a sense, historical documents, but they provide an important reminder that politics, as well as art, is local and universal at the same time.

James Kelman is arguable the UK’s greatest living writer, if that means anything. It seems both sad and appropriate that these essays are published by a small print in Glasgow, but that doesn’t make them any less vital for anyone, anywhere, who is interested in writing.

Summer Will Show

March 1, 2021

Just as when we first meet Lolly Willowes at the beginning of the novel of the same name – an unmarried woman immersed in a conventional, domestic life – we would be unlikely to imagine where she finds herself by the final pages, so too our initial acquaintance with Sophia Willoughby in Summer Will Show suggests nothing of the novel’s final scene. Domesticity is again key as she is firstly introduced as a mother to Damian and Augusta. Tradition, too, is important as she walks down the drive of Blandamer House, remembering her childhood and “How little the place had changed!” Even her purpose echoes her own upbringing as she is taking her children, both suffering from whooping cough, to inhale the fumes of the lime-kiln as a cure:

“Sophia held by old fashioned manners for children. Crusts, cold water, cold rooms, scanty clothing, rough romping games to harden them, philosophical conversations to enlarge their minds.”

One might regard her attitudes as out-dated, even for the 1840s when the novel is set, were it not that they still somehow persist. No wonder, though, that she regards her children, particularly Damian, as “childish”, and worries about him starting school as a “milksop”. She is convinced, however, that she is happy in her role, comparing herself to the chestnut trees which she prefers without their spring blossom:

“Like me exactly, she thought, I admire them, and I am glad to resemble them. I am done with blossoming, done with ornament and admiration. I live for my children – a good life, the life my heart would have chosen.”

The only blemish on her life is her husband, Fredrick, who has not taken to life in the country, or, indeed, the monogamy of marriage:

“A weaker or idler woman might have been jealous; a woman in love would certainly have been so. Indifference and responsibility preserved her from any sharper pang than annoyance…”

Instead she has written to Fredrick telling him that she no longer wishes to live with him, consoling herself that “I am far safer than if I were a widow…unquestioned as a tree.” However, her peaceful life at Blandamer is ended by events beyond her control, and in the aftermath, she heads to Paris to seek her husband, who is living there with his mistress, Minna. In this, too, the novel follows the pattern of Lolly Willowes, with her initial move being an escape which is calmly undertaken but driven by a deeper need.

In Paris, Sophia meets for the first time her husband’s mistress. Minna is Jewish, and Sophia’s immediate reaction is to indulge in anti- Semitic stereotyping as she listen to her tell a story of her childhood:

“…seeing that mournful, dark glance flicker over the listeners, as though numbering so many well-tied money bags. Our ears are your ducats.”

At the same time, the story Minna tells, which opens the novel’s second book and provides the reader’s introduction to the character, makes clear the discrimination she has faced. Sophia is equally scathing of the social milieu Frederick is now mixing with (“Good God, what a menagerie!”) and immediately regards her visit as a mistake. However, placing Sophia in Paris is not entirely, or even predominantly, about her relationship with Fredrick. The year is 1848 and Paris is once again on the brink of revolution:

“Behind that barricade patriots will defend the cause of liberty, will defy the tyrant, will bleed and conquer.”

Just as Lolly’s conventional life was contrasted with witchcraft, so Sophie’s upper-class upbringing is placed in the context of revolutionary politics. Ideology is of little interest to her, but a relationship with Minna develops and Frederick’s importance diminishes:

“Instantly forgetting his existence, save as a character in her narrative, Sophie went on talking. Minna’s clasp tightened upon her hand.”

Summer Will Show is a much longer novel than Lolly Willowes, betraying the complexity of Sophie’s time in Paris. During that time her life will change completely as she finds herself cut adrift from the comfortable life she lived in England, and cut off from her fortune. As with Lolly Willowes there is much to enjoy in the contrasts Warner creates, and she is certainly successful in conveying a sense of Paris during this period. If the novel feels more ambitious, it is also harder to love. Partly this due to the character of Sophia who remains largely dispassionate and withdrawn, but the novel’s length also reduces its impact. Subplots, such as the black bastard son of an uncle whom she places in a school in England and who later follows her to France, do not quite come off. Having said that, it demonstrates that Warner is a writer who, like her characters, is neither predictable nor easily constrained.