Archive for December, 2021

Books of the Year 2021 Part 3

December 30, 2021

Finally, here are some newer books in translation which impressed me this year.

Dog Island by Philippe Claudel

Philippe Claudel is no stranger to either the crime genre (see Broderick’s Report) or the issue of immigration (Monsieur Linh and his Child), and in Dog Island (translated by Euan Cameron) he combines genre and theme in a tale which also has the same fable-like qualities of his work in general. The novel begins when three bodies are washed up onto Dog Island. The Mayor’s immediate instinct is to cover up the discovery, particularly as the publicity will not aid his attempts to increase tourism on the island, and the bodies are placed in cold storage. When a stranger arrives on the island, however, it is immediately assumed he is a policeman sent to investigate the deaths.  In this way, the novel cleverly explores Europe’s attitudes to immigration: at best, an inconvenience, at worst, a threat.

The Employees by Olga Ravn

Olga Ravn’s The Employees (translated by Martin Aitken) was a surprise (and surprisingly popular) inclusion on the International Booker long list. Set on a spaceship which has left Earth in search of new planets to colonise, it takes the form of a series of witness statements. The investigation is the result of a crisis on board precipitated by the arrival of alien objects which are never fully described. This has somehow unsettled the crew, some of whom are human while others are ‘humanoid’ – and so we very quickly find ourselves questioning what it is to be human. Ravn joins the ranks of those writers who have used the science fiction genre to its fullest extent, both in form and content.

Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro

As usual, Charco Press delivered many fine books in 2021, but my favourite (at least, at this particular moment) was Claudia Pineiro’s Elena Knows (translated by Frances Riddle). It provides another example of a writer using genre fiction to do something remarkable. In it, the elderly – and rather bad-tempered – narrator, Elena, investigates the death of her daughter, Rita, which she refuses to believe was suicide. In order to do so she must overcome the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, timing her intake of medicine to allow her to function sufficiently to make the visit she believes will help her. As the novel progresses, we begin to suspect a crime of a different sort has taken place.

Winter Flowers by Angelique Villeneuve

Peirene Press is another publisher with an excellent track record, and in 2021 they published the moving Winter Flowers by Angelique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter). Unexpectedly, it adds something new to the genre of First World War fiction by focusing on both the fate of those soldiers who were badly disfigured and on those women on the home front in France. At its heart, however, it is a love story, as Jeanne and Toussaint attempt to find each other again after years apart. That Toussaint has been changed by the war is obvious from his badly damaged face, but Jeanne, too, has been altered by the struggle to survive alone with her young daughter. As we wonder whether they can love again, we confront society’s reaction to those it sent to war.

Winter Stories by Ingvild Rishoi

Ingvild Rishoi’s only book to have been translated into English (by Diane Oatley), Winter Stories is a collection of three breath-taking stories. Each one features a character at breaking point. In the first, a mother’s poverty causes her shame in the face of the innocence and goodness of her five-year-old daughter. In the second a man, newly released from prison, hopes he can develop a relationship with his son. And, in the third, a sister, threatened with the loss of her siblings, goes on the run. Each story captures perfectly the experience of those who don’t feel they are good enough, but each one also offers up an act of kindness, a glimmer of hope in a cold season.

Books of the Year 2021 Part 2

December 28, 2021

For the second part of my ‘Books of the Year’, here are some older books I discovered for the first time:

The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe

I have always had a soft spot for novels which take the crime genre as a starting point but soon divert to somewhere similar but different – an uncanny valley, if you like, of genre expectations. No surprise, then, that Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map (translated by E Dale Saunders) was one of my favourite novels of the year. It begins like a traditional noir with our narrator hired to find a missing husband; however even his client is an unreliable informant in a novel where every character is difficult to pin down and so-called ‘clues’ only introduce further ambiguity. That our detective is undergoing his own existential crisis adds to the uncertainty, and the unreliability of the maps suggests a more profound difficulty in fixing reality. Highly recommended.

The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen

Another Penguin Modern Classic reissue, Tove Ditlevsen’s The Faces (translated by Tiina Nunnally) was originally published in 1968 (only a year after The Ruined Map). Presumably at least partly autobiographical, it tells the story of a writer, Lise, whose success leads to a breakdown where she comes to distrust all those around her. Ditlevsen’s skill lies in the initial plausibility of Lise’s fears, and the convincing perspective she presents throughout, particularly when she is eventually hospitalised. Rather than the fragmentation or incoherence sometimes adopted by writers to show madness, Ditlevsen presents a frighteningly rational irrationality.

Garden by The Sea by Merces Rodereda

Like Ditlevesen, Merce Rodoreda is a writer who really should have had more recognition in English. Garden by the Sea (originally published in 1967) is gentler than some of her other novels thanks, in part, to the character of its narrator, a gardener at a summer villa belonging to a wealthy couple. Rather than search for a story to tell he allows the story to come to him, and in this way Rodoreda explores the lives of the rich. From this distance we see that the ways in which they indulge themselves – including the drunken parties which damage the garden – are often a distraction from unhappiness and compare poorly to the joy the narrator finds in his garden.

Forty Lost Years by Rosa Maria Aquimbau

A second Catalan novel which impressed me this year was Rosa Maria Aquimbau’s Forty Lost Years (translated by Peter Bush), originally published in 1971 but beginning with the declaration of the Catalan Republic in 1931. The central character is Laura Vidal, a seamstress from a poor family, who is fourteen years old at this point. In the course of the novel, she becomes a successful businesswoman, the novel’s title suggesting (or at least asking the question) whether she has lost out on love in order to achieve this. The skill with which Aquimbau covers forty years of history as well as Laura’s own personal journey, in only 140 pages is remarkable.

Pigeons on the Grass by Wolfgang Koeppen

Although I had already read Wolfgang Koeppen’s first novel, A Sad Affair, I wasn’t prepared for the brilliance of his third (the second has never been translated into English) published 17 years later, Pigeons on the Grass (which benefitted from a new translation from Michael Hofmann in 2020). In the tradition of Ulysses or Berlin Alexanderplatz (but shorter) it provides us with a portrait of Munich shortly after the end of the Second World War. What makes it particularly daring is the lack of any central character for the reader to identify with, but the complexities of its structure are over-ridden by the vibrancy of its prose.

Books of the Year 2021 Part 1

December 26, 2021

Although I mainly read translated fiction, this doesn’t mean I entirely avoid contemporary novels in English (though it would be fair to say I haven’t read a wide selection). Here are five of the best I read this year:

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

The third volume in Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy is not only another valuable meditation on what it means to be a (female) writer, but also a though-provoking examination of growing older, a moment of reassessment. Levy uses her biographical ‘character’ as a metaphor for her own ‘character’ development: in writing herself she considers the self she wants to write. Similarly, she uses the practicalities of life – here focusing on the simple question, where is home? – to look more deeply into the choices we have and the decisions we make. Her rebirth as a writer since Swimming Home has been a pleasure to see.

Panenka by Ronan Hession

Leonard and Hungry Paul was such a runaway word-of-mouth success that I greeted Panenka with a little trepidation. Yet, few writers can write about ordinary life as well as Ronan Hession. Here, retired footballer Joseph is at something of a crossroads in his life, but does he have the courage to both face up to his mortality and to love again? Hession’s novels are filled with sly humour, yet the laughter is never directed downwards at his characters. Not only do we find ourselves on Joseph’s side, but on that of his daughter, and even of the regulars at Vincent’s pub. Every adjective we apply to Hession’s fiction – likeable, heart-felt, hopeful – may seem like faint praise but the sincerity of his work makes the reader equally sincere.

Tokyo Redux by David Peace

The much delayed third (and best) volume in David Peace’s Tokyo trilogy confirms that he is one of England’s most important writers. In a novel which ranges over fifty years, Peace weaves together numerous strands of (possibly) the one story beginning with the death of Shimoyama Sadanori, the head of Japan’s national railway, in 1949 during the American occupation. The other two years which feature are 1964, when the Olympics were held in Tokyo, and 1989, when Emperor Showa, perhaps the last remnant of Japan’s World War Two past, died. Each section has its own voice, with Peace perhaps in less danger of verging into parody than he has been in some previous novels. Neglected as usual by all prize juries, it will be exciting to see what Peace does next.

Luckenbooth By Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan’s third novel proves, beyond all doubt, that her emotionally raw debut and her dystopian follow-up only scratched the surface of her talent. Featuring the same marginal characters (including William Burroughs), it presents us with almost one hundred years in the life of a building. The historical recreation is vivid, but also laced with the spirit of fairy tale and myth. Characters are fully formed within pages and the loss the reader feels as we leave one behind is only alleviated by the introduction of another, equally fascinating. Another novel which should have won prizes.

Subdivision by J Robert Lennon

American writer J Robert Lennon’s ninth novel has, sadly, not yet been published in the UK but is still well worth seeking out (it’s published by Graywolf Press in the US). It begins with the narrator checking into a guest house in the Subdivision run by Clara and the Judge – she’s not sure which is which, especially as Clara was a judge and the Judge is called Clara. Such Alice in Wonderland strangeness will only accelerate, from her electronic companion, Cylvia, an Alexa which gives her life advice, to the bakemono, able to appear in different forms but always intensely desirable and equally dangerous. And why does a small boy keep turning up? Behind it all we sense a puzzle to be solved, either by the narrator or the reader – or perhaps both.

Christmas Stories

December 21, 2021

George Mackay Brown, whose centenary it is this year, was a talented poet who wrote six novels, including the James Tait Memorial Prize winning The Golden Bird and the Booker short-listed Beside the Ocean of Time. The majority of his fiction, however, was in the form of the short story, with nine collections published between 1967 and 1998. Now Galileo Publishers have collected all of his Christmas stories in one volume. But how many Christmas stories can one writer produce? Dickens wrote at least five, but Mackay Brown apparently amassed thirty – nine of which go as far as having ‘Christmas’ in the title – many of them originally published in newspapers such as The Scotsman and the Catholic magazine The Tablet.

Mackay Brown’s contributions to The Tablet suggest one reason why he was so prolific: in these stories the presence of Christmas is not mere decoration, and the majority of stories possess a religious, or at least spiritual, core. A number of them are set during the original Christmas. ‘Herman: a Christmas Story’ for example, begins with a young German boy being captured by a Roman Legion. Eventually, a soldier himself, he is sent to Judea during a census, and it is there, left alone on guard duty, that he sees:

“The man and the girl on donkey-back passed through, into the midnight village dappled with candle-flames and lamp-flames and so on along the noisy street towards the inn.”

‘The Lost Traveller’ tells of a man who cannot settle to life as a monk and instead falls in with a group of shepherds. Left to look after the flock at night while the others go to the inn, one of his companions returns talking of meeting “three foreigners” leading “laden camels” and looking for a lamb to take back to the town to exchange for wine. The man joins him:

“So it was that the God-seeker who had lost his way went down at midnight to the inn.”

Other stories, set in Mackay Brown’s native Orkney (where he lived most of his life), echo the Biblical story. In ‘Three Old Men’ a sailor, a shepherd and a miller meet on the road into town, each having set off with no clear purpose. The night is dark and the snow is deep, but, just as it seems they are lost:

“…the snow cloud was riven and in a deep purple chasm of sky a star shown out…”

And so they find their way to the inn.

The influence of A Christmas Carol can also be found, most obviously in the character of Rolf Scroogeson in ‘A Christmas Story’, a rather desultory adaptation that Mackay Brown limits to two pages (“We all know the rest of the story…”). More successfully, Dickens’ influence can be seen in ‘The Children’s Feast’ where, with all the shops closed, the general merchant still seems to be open for business, “the old skinflint.” Mackay Brown soon reveals what is actually happening:

“A boy ran past along the street, and the scoop of his jersey that he held out with both hands was weighted to overflowing with apples, oranges and bananas.”

As a character complains later when he is refused a bottle of whiskey, “only the bairns are getting served today.”

Kindness stands out in many of the stories, not always entirely intended, as in ‘The Box of Fish’ where a group of fishermen send a young boy, Sam, to swap a box of fish for a half bottle of rum. When he doesn’t return, they inquire at his home only for Sam’s mother to tell them, “You needn’t worry…

“Sam’s done exactly what you told him to do. Old Ezra’s had his fish. And blind Annie, and that cripple boy at the end of the village.”

Young boys are often used to represent goodness. In ‘Anna’s Boy’ the title character is judged too frail to go to school and is seen by no-one but the doctor on the island. Yet when a storm traps the children and their teacher during the Christmas party, it is Anna’s boy they find at the door, “who had carried a lighted candle through the storm.” In ‘Miss Tait and Tommy and The Carol Singers’ Miss Tait is feared as a “very severe old lady” and Tommy excluded as “he had a voice like a crow.” Yet when the singers arrive at Miss Tait’s door, they see Tommy sitting in Miss Tait’s armchair eating an apple. In ‘The Old Man in the Snow’ six-year-old James tells his family that Old Josiah has fallen in the snow, but he doesn’t know where. A search party fails to find him, but we later discover James has saved him after all as he lay in a drift happy to stay there:

“He just looked at me for a while, very serious, and went away.”

The look is enough to set Josiah thinking of the future and struggle up and on his way.

Christmas Stories is (slightly more than) an advent calendar of delights. Written with a poet’s voice, with sly humour but a serious heart, these stories are the perfect antidote to seasonal cynicism and fatigue.

Winter Stories

December 16, 2021

Although Norwegian writer Ingvild Rishoi’s first novel was published this year, she has largely been known as a writer of short stories. Winter Stories was her third collection, originally released in 2014 and translated into English by Diane Oatley in 2019 for Seagull Books. It contains only three stories, each focusing on a character at the end of their tether: the mother who can’t afford the bus fare home; the father recently released from prison; and the sister who fears she will be separated from her siblings.  In each one Rishoi captures the desperation of the characters and their determination to do right by others in difficult circumstances.

The title of the opening story, ‘We Can’t Help Everybody’ feels, in the wider context of the collection, like an accusation. In the story itself, however, it is a concept the narrator finds difficult to explain to her five-year-old daughter, Alexa, when they pass a man begging. In fact, it is their poverty that prevents them from even helping themselves:

“Because there is no such thing as small change.”

The narrator knows her daughter has wet herself and is now walking home uncomfortably in the cold, but she cannot afford the bus fare, nor does she want to dodge the fare with her daughter present. Soon, however, she cannot bear to watch Alexa “walking with her legs spread apart” and it is as they return to the bus stop that they pass the beggar. Again they return, as she does not want to disappoint her daughter with her lack of charity, but she accidentally gives the man 20-kroner coin instead of a ten:

“It’s a 20-kroner coin.

“I was going to give him a tenner,

“But it’s too late now.

“I gave away 20 kroner.”

The short sentence paragraphs convey her desperation, the disbelief as she struggles to comprehend what she has done, and its effect on her ability to help her daughter. Eventually she decides to buy her new underwear, but she has underestimated the cost. The story contrasts the child’s innocence with the mother’s hard-won experience, but that experience only makes her doubt and worry, whereas Alexa’s innocence, at least in her mother’s eyes means that she is always right. When they go into the store Alexa goes over to a Christmas tree:

“And I know this was right in a way that nothing was right before.”

Her mother uses her as guide but in order to do so she has to protect her simpler ideals. On another level, of course, the story simply questions why anyone should not be able to afford bus fare or clean underwear for their child.

In the second story, ‘The Right Thomas’, we find a father wishing to make a good impression on his son who is coming to stay with him. We see him reading a recipe “because at six o’clock the food has to be ready and I’ll open the door and Leon will jump into my arms…” Leon is the result of a one night stand between two people from different very different backgrounds. In the morning Thomas finds himself reading the newspaper and listening to classical music:

“Ladies like that. Radio stations like that. I didn’t even know they existed.”

When the woman, Live, discovers she is pregnant she contacts Thomas – she wants him to be part of her son’s life, but Thomas can’t understand why that doesn’t mean he is part of her life. Now the visit is taking place after he has spent some time in prison. His determination to be a good father conflicts with his lack of belief in his ability to do so – even buying a pillow for his son becomes a task too far. Thomas, in a different way from Alexa, is also innocent. The story balances on a knife edge of whether the visit will take place or whether Thomas will lose faith in himself as a father.

Having witnessed the innocence of childhood and adulthood, in the third story, ‘Siblings’, the innocent narrator is a teenager. The story opens with her taking her younger siblings on a bus, and we soon learn she is running away with them. They are heading to a cabin where she once holidayed with a friend, Cecilie, in summer – though this is a much more dangerous journey in winter. Cecilie had briefly transformed the narrator’s life:

“It was that spring. The pigeons kept flying and I got such good grades suddenly, Bs and As and Bs again, my French quizzes were full of smiley faces…”

On the holiday, however, Cecilie tells her she is leaving for England:

“How could she leave me when I could never leave her.”

Though more subtly, the issue here is also class: for Cecilie the transfer to another country is unremarkable, for the narrator impossible. Her life now heads in the opposite direction, and she fears being separated from her brother and sister despite being the main carer. This back story is juxtaposed by the siblings’ perilous journey through the snow.

Despite the bleakness of the situations the characters find themselves in, however, all three stories also offer kindness. But what makes them so powerful is the way in which Rishoi’s inhabits her characters, her perceptive portrayal of their struggles, and, above all, the way in which they continue to hope against all odds.

The Penguin Modern Classics Book

December 10, 2021

In 2018 Penguin Classics released an illustrated history of the imprint written by Henry Eliot which coincided with the 80th anniversary of its first published classic, though the venture didn’t really take off until E. V. Rieu’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey in 1946. Within ten years there were 62 titles available, the most modern being The Cherry Orchard (1904). And so, in 1961, Penguin Modern Classics began. It’s first five authors were Thornton Wilder, Carson McCullers, Nathaniel West, Ronald Firbank and Cyril Connolly – the inclusion of three Americans suggesting where modernity was seen to be located at that time. Would all five be regarded as classics today? That, in a sense, is what makes ‘modern classics’ more interesting than classics – the definition is more malleable, which, over time, has made it more accommodating to variety, increasingly covering a wider bandwidth of gender, nationality and genre. Would anyone in 1961 have suspected that Len Deighton’s back list would one day appear so labelled? (The answer is no, as his first novel was not published until 1962).

The Penguin Classics Book was structured chronologically as well as geographically – but then it had 4,000 years of literature to contend with as opposed to a single century (though a handy timeline is provided at the end). This means that The Penguin Modern Classics Book has the advantage of focus, and feels much closer to a summary of modern literature, albeit partial and filtered through sixty years of evolving perspective. It includes every Penguin Modern Classic, always using the first cover, which allows the reader to see the changes in priority and perspective over the years, from the original five white, male, Booker Prize eligible entries to the present day. It is, of course, heavily Eurocentric, with over half the book focusing on that one continent, and around a quarter on the British Isles alone. There is still plenty to be discovered in this first section, however, even for the hardened reader: Nigel Dennis’ Cards of Identity caught my eye, and Richard Pennington’s Peterley Harvest, withdrawn days after its publication, is nothing if not intriguing. As a resource for anyone near the beginning of their love affair with literature, however, it is invaluable.

The further we get from, let’s be honest, the European languages traditionally taught in British schools, the less reliable it is as a comprehensive overview – Turkey, for example, is represented by only two authors, both recent additions. But to complain is both churlish (what other imprint has done as much to make the very best of modern literature available cheaply over the last fifty years?) and misses the point: this is a project in progress, not an end point. This can be seen in the countries most recently added to its global reach – countries such as Norway, Syria and Ghana. It’s also worth remembering that Penguin Modern Classics face a barrier that its older sister imprint doesn’t: copyright. To see how it is expanding towards a more representative selection of world literature, however, we need only look at Latin America: once there was little more than Borges, where we now have Mario Benedetti, Raduan Nassar, Eduardo Galeano and Clarice Lispector.

As well as short biographical entries, and brief summaries of texts, we also have entertaining lists scattered throughout the book. While some are a little predictable – More Detectives or More Female Protagonists (though the former is a great list) – others are more esoteric, such a More Chickens, or More Factories, the latter pairing Roald Dahl with Arnold Bennett. There are also brief explanations of literary movements such as Vorticism and New Journalism (I enjoyed the side bar on Cut-Up looking cut up) and a particularly appropriate summary of Italo Calvino’s Why Read the Classics.

The Penguin Modern Classics Book is a fascinating history of an important imprint – something book enthusiasts are generally lacking, as if somehow the books should be enough and we can’t also have books about books. There is (literally) something worth reading on every page.

Scottish Noel

December 4, 2021

Fionn Mac Colla (born Thomas MacDonald – like his friend Hugh McDiarmid he wrote under a different name) was a novelist who wrote intensely but sporadically. His first novel, The Albannach, which Alan Riach has said “bears comparison with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, was published in 1932, but his second, And the Cock Crew, a novel of the Highland Clearances, did not appear until 12 years later. Another 13 years passed before Scottish Noel, which, at 68 pages, was advertised as an extract from a novel – a novel which was eventually published posthumously in 1994 as Move Up, John.

The story’s Christmas setting is established in the opening pages by a priest conducting a Mass and reading (in Scots):

“Joseph gaed up from Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea with Mary his espousit wife, and her days being accomplishit she brocht forth her first-born son and wrappit him in swaddling claiths and layit him in a manger.”

Do not let this gentle beginning fool you, however, as what follows will almost entirely focus on battle, its violence leavened only by the beauty of Mac Colla’s prose:

“From the house roofs and right up and over the near-full moon spread a vast luminous net spangled innumerably with swimming motes.”

As the Mass ends one of the two priests, Ninian Kennedy, hears approaching horses, and shortly after notices the beacon has been lit which warns, “The English are ower the Border!” As the other priest, John Erskine, comments, “I wad better ha’ been a sodjer and never a priest!” but soon the two of them are heading for the battlefield to tend to the dying. (It is probably worth pointing out that only the dialogue, of which there is little – and not all of that – uses a form of Scots). The journey takes them through dark woods in the cold winter night (“the cold touching his eyeballs”) and soon they discover that the beacon which warned them of the English incursion should have been lit much earlier but that the four men sent to light it had been killed by ‘traitors’. This introduces a theme of unity and division which, as Mac Colla was a founding member of the National Party of Scotland, may have a had a contemporary resonance. As Kennedy says when a group of Scots soldiers appear from the direction of the English camp:

“…seldom or never have the Englishmen borne the advantage over us except there was division among ourselves.”

The narrative is entirely on the side of the Scots. When the Scots noble, Menteith, comments that Scottish pride in their martial ability can also be their undoing – “through contempt of enemies they can be worsted at times by those that fight better by the ruse and stratagem” – Kennedy suggests this is because:

“…we Scots have always fought only in a just cause, have never tried to enslave or despoil others, only to defend ourselves. When your cause is just, your eye is single, your heart pure, guile and cunning do not attract you…”

This is not history as propaganda, however. MacColla’s main aim is to recreate, as authentically as he can, the 16th century battlefield. As he says in a brief forward, “What was it like, to live in those days.” He describes the battlefield both from afar:

“At the moment it was like a battle on a tapestry…No sound of conflict came. But ever and again, as though a draft had rippled the stuff faintly, movements here and there could be detected and silver points would sparkle out under the moon.”

And close up:

“As they approached the place the impression of a picture faded. Its smell was crude and real: of blood and entrails of men and horses with which the trampled ground was putrid, torn flesh and sweat and leather.”

The reader soon becomes completely immersed in the world of the story which makes no concession to modernity. It is this intensity which is the focus of the praise from other leading figures in the Scottish Renaissance which accompanies the book: Sydney Goodsir Smith describes the writing as “extremely vivid” and goes on to say:

“All is as if seen under a cruel surgical light by a miniaturist using a dagger for a pen.”

Naomi Mitchison adds, “The visual picture you are left with has a Breughel-like intensity.” Its fidelity and precision render it beyond the topic, just as we may admire a painting when the subject holds no interest for us. As a Christmas tale, however, it is a cruel one.