Archive for January, 2022

Martha Quest

January 30, 2022

Doris Lessing’s second novel, Martha Quest, appeared in 1952, two years after her debut The Grass is Singing, and was the first in the five novel Children of Violence series. (It is worth noting, however, that although the second volume followed in 1954, her lost novel, Retreat to Innocence, appeared before the third, and the final volume came after The Golden Notebook in 1969). The early volumes are clearly autobiographical, but as Lessing has noted “It’s impossible to write autobiographically”:

“The point is that at the very moment you start writing about something that has happened, it’s no longer yours – all other things come in and change it; you remember something like it, or somebody who looked like that.”

We are first introduced to Martha as an adolescent, living on a farm in the fictional African country of Zambesia and in permanent opposition to her mother. She feels confined by her parents’ generation – “She was merely expected to play the part ‘young girl’ against their own familiar roles” – and attempts to rebel, a rebellion that is both furious

“For she was suffering that misery peculiar to the young, that they are going to be cheated by circumstances out of the full life every nerve and instinct is clamouring for.”

He rebellion will be a constant theme throughout the novel as she attempts to find her place in the world, and the people among whom she feels she belongs. At this point only the Cohen brothers, who lend her books, offer the type of companionship she is looking for – “those occasions when she could visit them at the store were the happiest of her life” – yet what she reads only makes her even more frustrated as she cannot see any way to combine her intellectual life with her day-to-day existence:

“…she knew quite well that if she read them she would only be in possession of yet more information about herself, and with even less idea of how to use it.”

Yet, there is a passivity to Martha, almost an acceptance of being a ‘victim of circumstances,’ which is at odds with her desire to forge her own identity.  At sixteen, for example, when she is due to sit her matric exam, which she is expected to easily pass, she comes down with ‘pink eye’ (conjunctivitis) and the exam is avoided. (We can perhaps see something of her father’s insistence that he is ‘ill’ with an as-yet-undiagnosed condition in this). In fact, it is only when Joss Cohen (who ironically calls her “the rebel who never leaves home”) finds her a job with his Uncle Jasper that she leaves the farm for the town.

Even in town, she cannot escape her mother, who visits the boarding house where she is staying not long after Martha has arrived, going as far as to unpack for her – Martha reacts by flinging all her clothes onto the floor and then rearranging them in much the same way as her mother. Martha also finds herself visited  by a young man, Donovan, because “My mother had a letter from your mother…” Donovan introduces her to the Sports Club and she becomes ‘Donovan’s girl’ – though Donovan’s homosexuality is suggested by his frequent fashion advice and Martha’s later reaction  to the idea they might have slept together: amusement. Lessing dissects the mores of the Sports Club with the sociological eye she often brings to her fiction:

“…it was all so public, anything was permissible, the romances, the flirtations, the quarrels, provided they were shared. These terms, however, were never used, for words are dangerous, and there was a kind of instinctive shrinking, and embarrassment, against words of emotion…”

Serious relationships are discouraged, and there is an institutional immaturity, with the epithet ‘kid’ being the most commonly used. This does not sit well with Martha’s radical ideas, and a visit from Joss makes her repudiate Donovan and his friends, but her “revulsion” doesn’t last. Joss gives her a list of people to ‘look up’ but here, too, she finds herself out of place, her subscription to the Observer being met with ironic glances. In her personal life, however, she continues to be drawn along with the tide, even as she feels she is rebelling. She loses her virginity to a self-pitying Jew, Adoloph King (“You wouldn’t be seen dead with me in there, would you?”), despite disliking him:

“She hoped nervously that he had found her dull, and would not attempt to get in touch with her again.”

Most disastrously, by the novel’s end she is married to a man she has only known for weeks, Douglas. They bond over The New Statesman, and in their relationship she finds an “easy warm friendliness” but their first sexual encounter is ruined by his inability to express or accept desire – she afterwards discovers that she is the first girl he has made love to, at the age of thirty. An incident where they encounter a protest where she sees the Cohens makes her doubt whether their views are quite so similar:

“…she knew quite well she would marry him; she could not help it; she was being dragged towards it whether she liked it or not. She also heard a voice remarking quietly within her that she would not stay married to him…”

And so the novel ends ironically with a marriage which we suspect will not be happy one, an irony that continues in the title of volume two, A Proper Marriage.

Reading Martha Quest seventy years after it was written, and forty after I first read it, what strikes me most is Lessing’s portrayal of Martha’s search of her own identity which is demonstrated as much by her conformity as her rebellion. At times she angrily rejects what society offers and at other moments is swept along with what is expected of her, two forces which seem as evident in adolescence today as ever.

Second-Class Citizen

January 24, 2022

Second-Class Citizen, Buchi Emecheta’s second novel originally published in 1974, tells, in large part, her own story. Born in Nigeria in 1944, she married in 1960 after the death of both her parents (her father when she was only nine). Within two years she had two children, and, when her husband left for England, she soon followed him, arriving in 1962. The marriage was not a happy one and, despite her role as the family’s main financial support, and further children, she began to write. Ten years later her first novel, In the Ditch, was published.

“I always believe that given the big E – education – the position of women can be very positive,” Emecheta has said, and the fate of women in her novels often depends on how educated they are. In Second-Class Citizen, Adana has to fight to be educated. Significantly, the novel opens with the story of her simply turning up at the nearest school:

“I came to school – my parents would not send me!”

When her father dies, she is only allowed to continue her education as “somebody pointed out that the longer she stayed at school, the bigger the dowry her future husband would pay for her.” She pays to sit the common entrance exam to progress to high school by stealing two shillings she is given to buy meat, and will not confess even when she is beaten; as she wins a scholarship she is allowed to go. Even her marriage is motivated by her love of education as:

“To read for a degree, to read for the entrance examination, or even for more ‘A’ levels, one needed a home. Not just any home where there would be trouble today and fights tomorrow, but a good quiet atmosphere where she could study in peace.”

As she cannot live alone, marriage is the only option. He education allows her to get a good job as a librarian in the American Consulate, but this also proves a burden, the first of many years where she will be the main wage-earner, supporting and resented by her husband, Francis. The marriage, too, does not give her the freedom she hoped:

“So she was to stay in Nigeria, finance her husband, give his parents expensive gifts occasionally, help in paying the school fees for some of the girls, look after her young children and what then, rot?”

Again, she fights to follow her husband to England, a dream she has had since she was a child.

London, however, is far from a dream, and Emecheta portrays the life of an immigrant in the 1960s in depressing detail. Compared to Nigeria, their accommodation is small, a single room with the toilet “outside, four flights of stairs down, in the yard” and no bathroom or kitchen. She finds Francis changed – freed from his mother and father he is now prepared to hit her, and seems to have accepted that they are worth less because of their skin colour:

“What worried her most was the description ‘second-class’. Francis had become so conditioned by the phrase that he was not only living up to it but enjoying it, too. He kept pressing Adah to get a job in a short factory.”

Perhaps because Adah has already spent her life fighting against being deemed ‘second-class’ as a woman, she refuses to accept being similarly classified because she is black. In any case, her trials remain largely rooted in her gender, even when, again, she finds a good job in a library: finding adequate childcare, accessing birth control without her husband’s permission. Race, however, is a factor when they need to look for new accommodation:

“Every door seemed barred against them; nobody would consider accommodating them, even when they were willing to pay double the normal rate.”

Adah begins to disguise her voice when phoning to enquire about rooms to rent. However, the landlady changes her mind as soon as she sees them:

“At first Adah thought the woman was about to have an epileptic seizure. As she opened the door, the woman clutched at her throat with one hand, her little mouth opening and closing as if gasping for air, and her bright kitten-like eyes dilated to their full extent.”

It’s the smaller details which demonstrate Adah’s difficulties, however, as when she is in hospital having yet another child and she cannot ask Francis to buy her a nightdress with the money she has earned. Yet ultimately this is a novel of hope: Adah never stops fighting, no matter how difficult her life becomes, for her future and her children’s future:

“She was different. Her children were going to be different. They were all going to be black, they were going to enjoy being black, be proud of being black, a black of a different breed.”

Writing about Emecheta in 2017, her son Sylvester Onwordi lamented:

“My deepest sorrow was that Buchi did not understand how much she was loved by her readership not only in continental Africa, but all over the world.”

Hopefully the well-deserved publication of Second-Class Citizen as a Penguin Modern Classic goes some way to demonstrating this.

The Ark Sakura

January 18, 2022

Kobo Abe’s 1984 novel The Ark Sakura (translated into English in 1988 by Juliet Carpenter) has recently been reissued in the Penguin Classics Science Fiction series, and one can only wonder what readers, expecting anything resembling that particular genre, will make of a story that is both earthbound and (apparently) contemporary while at the same time more disconcertingly strange than any alien planet. The opening seems ordinary enough as the narrator, ‘Mole’, wanders round the stalls at a flea market before deciding to buy an eupcaccia, a rare insect without legs:

“…those appendages having atrophied because the insect has no need to crawl about in search of food. It thrives on a peculiar diet – its own feces.”

Such self-sufficiency may appeal to the narrator as he lives in a vast underground shelter beneath a quarry – his ‘ark’ – where he intends to survive what he sees as the inevitable nuclear war. (In 1984 the Doomsday Clock was set at 3 minutes to midnight, the closest it had been since 1960). He befriends the insect dealer, Komono, and offers him a ticket which will entitle him to place on the ark. This, however, is stolen by two shills, a man and a woman, who were working for Komono as fake customers to encourage real customers to buy his insects. (The Japanese for ‘shill’ is sakura – hence the novel’s title). Mole and Komono rush back to the ark but when they arrive, they find the shills are already inside, and the young woman has hurt her ankle in the dark. The first of many discussions about whether to leave again (in this case for medical treatment) follows, as does the idea of the woman as a focus of desire, particularly for Mole who offers to check her ankle:

“Unbelievably, she had accepted my invitation. I knelt down by her side on the left, scarcely breathing, like someone slipping a windfall in change into his pocket.”

We are also introduced to the toilet which will play an unexpectedly important role in the novel. Not only is it out in the open, but it flushes with enormous force:

“An earth-shaking tremor arose as if a subway were roaring in. The noise was concentrated in the core of the toilet, as if it had been passed through a parabolic lens and magnified. An instant later water came surging in with a cloud of spray, rose up level with the bowl, formed a whirlpool and vanished with anther roar.”

This is typical of the way in which Abe can take quite ordinary objects and invest them with an unexpected strangeness. But the power of the toilet is also a plot device as we discover that Mole has been using his ark to dispose of waste. Later he will get his foot trapped in the toilet, torn between his inability to escape and his reluctance to damage such a vital facility.

As one can probably tell, the plot is only credible within the narrow world of the novel. As Edmund White has said:

“It is a wildly improbable fable when recalled, but it proceeds with fiendishly detailed verisimilitude when experienced from within.”

The characters are unattractive: Mole is a loner, and quickly becomes infatuated with the young woman (at one point she tells him he should hide his feelings better, being “just like a dog looking for a pat on the head”). The ‘Captain’ with which Komono christens him with seems increasingly ironic, particularly as the insect dealer is a much more charismatic character. The male shill is unpredictable, his motives unclear, and though the young woman seems more sympathetic, we can never be sure that she, too, is not playing a role.

In addition, we have a phone call from Mole’s estranged father, a rapist and murderer, who wants to “bury the past” by asking for help in disposing of a body. There is also a rival group, the Broom Brigade, in the ark, an organisation created to encourage retirees to clean the streets, but which has become something more sinister:

“Clad in dark blue uniforms like combat suits, the oldsters parade around in the middle of the night, when ordinary people are in bed… There definitely is something creepy about them.”

The interaction of Mole, Kamono and the two shills, as well as the outside threats, creates an increasingly tense narrative. The paranoia which one would expect after the bomb had dropped already seems to be in evidence.

The Ark Sakura lacks the open-ended allegory of The Woman in the Dunes, or the twisted genre tropes found in The Ruined Map (it doesn’t feel as if Abe is drawing on science fiction motifs to create the world of the novel) but it is still a compelling read. Abe lures us into the novel’s world as much as its characters are lured into the ark and, confined in that small space, everything feels true, whatever the novel’s title warns us.


January 13, 2022

Having focused on the violence of men against women in Dead Girls, in Brickmakers (again translated by Annie McDermott) Selva Almada turns her ruthless gaze to the violence of men against men. The novel centres of a feud which runs from father to son. The fathers, Tamai and Miranda, are both brickmakers but their dislike of each other does not begin as a business rivalry; in fact, its origins are unclear, an argument in a bar in which “they faced each other in the stale air, eyes bloodshot and fists ready to land.” Friends pull them apart, but later Tamai takes a puppy from Miranda – a racing dog, a “future champion”:

“Swiping the puppy was Tamai’s way of bringing that old grudge up to date.”

Miranda gives up his claim to the dog asking only that Tamia look after it, but instead he neglects it:

“Skinny, chained to a post in the yard, tongue hanging out on those days when the heat cracks the earth.”

Eventually Estela, Miranda’s wife, kills the dog to end her husband’s torment, but Tamai blames Miranda and they fight. The rage which drives them is not theirs alone, nor is it only occasioned by their hatred of each other. After the fight, when Tamai decides to focus on supporting his family, he replaces one anger with another:

“Remembering his old grudge against his father-in-law dampened his anger at Miranda.”

However, when Miranda is murdered, Tamai is also affected, and not only because he is, for a time, a suspect: “His old quarrel with Miranda was an affirmation of himself.” Soon after this, he leaves his family.

As children, Tamai’s son, Pajaro, and Miranda’s son, Marciano, are friends, though puzzled that they are banned from going to each other’s houses. Later, when they drift apart, they blame each other – “deep down they both bore a grudge” – and by adolescence they are sworn enemies:

“By then he and Marciano hated each other so much that they’d forgotten they were ever friends.”

They, too, are filled with rage. As the novel opens, his younger brother Angel watches Marciano dress:

“He had the urge to spin round and bring the belt in his hand down hard on the boy’s back…”

This rage has existed in him since childhood, for example when his brother is first born:

“But his emotions were all over the place: sometimes he felt an irrepressible love for the newborn, and other times, an equally irrepressible desire to smash him against the floor.”

In Pajaro much of his anger is directed at his father: “One day his body will be big enough for the fury he has lived with all his life.” By the time he is a man, however, his father has gone. Conversely, Marciano feels he must avenge Miranda’s death:

“…he had to avenge his father’s death… he carried it with him every day of his life.”

To some extent, however, they are simply looking for a cause for the rage within them. The climactic confrontation between Pajaro and Marciano occurs ‘off-stage’; both lie dying as the novel begins, and we will return to their last moments throughout. Marciano sees the ghost of his father, and Pajaro also has a dying conversation with Tamai. The source of the confrontation is Pajaro’s relationship with Angel. Angel’s reputation as a ‘fag’ is already a threat to Marciano’s machismo:

“It made Marciano’s blood boil when people came to him with stories about his brother.”

It also threatens Pajaro’s view of himself. After the first time he decides, “he had to go out and right away and pick up a chick,” but the relationship continues. Both homophobia and self-loathing play a part, therefore, in the violence between them, but their rage is a force in itself, reducing the men to little more than animals. Tamai and Miranda are “like two fighting dogs”; when Miranda is murdered, he is “killed like a dog.” In an early scene, Marciano sees his father kill one of his dogs after he is injured – “being crippled was not a fit end for a champion.” In a sense the dog has lost his ‘manhood’, his dignity, just like the dog Estela later kills, and, for these men, death is preferable.

Brickmakers is another outstanding novel from Almada who seems unafraid to look into the darkest aspects of human nature. It’s a novel in which even its most unpleasant characters are in some way victims, but, like Dead Girls, it identifies the problems without offering much hope of solutions.

In Black and White

January 9, 2022

In Black and White is a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki which, according to translator Phyllis Lyons, has not only been neglected by Western academics but also by those in Japan having never been published independently but only as part of Junichiro’s collected works. Written in 1928, around the same time as Quicksand and Some Prefer Nettles, it was originally published in serial form in a literary magazine, the type of magazine its protagonist, Mizuno, writes for. Junichiro uses his own experience as a writer to create a character who can be read as a representation of the author in a novel where the plot revolves around the dangers of drawing characters from life – and so we have a fictional story tethered to reality by the fact its central character writes a fictional story tethered to reality by his use of an acquaintance as a character.

This is what is worrying Mizuno as the novel opens: has he accidentally used the acquaintance’s real name?

“He’d done this before: once, he’d used his first girlfriend as the model for a character in a story and he’d written her real name by mistake. Luckily that time he’d noticed while it was still in draft and managed to take care of it before it was printed.”

Rather than Codama, had he used his actual name Cojima towards the end of the story? A story in which, to make matters worse, Codama / Cojima is murdered. Mizuno is not so much concerned about hurting Cojima’s feelings, as the possibility that something similar might happen in real life:

“What if – what if – Cojima were to be killed in a fashion identical to the murder of Codama in the story. Wouldn’t he – Mizuno – be suspected?”

He accepts this is unlikely – unless, of course, someone (whom he calls the Shadow Man) has been waiting to kill Cojima and takes this opportunity to do so while casting suspicion on Mizuno.

Mizuno tries in various ways to prevent this – first by (unsuccessfully) attempting to have his error corrected before the story is printed. Then he decides to pre-empt reality with a sequel to the story, making it a story within a story:

“That is, the larger plot should be that on the basis of a story dealing with a murder, an actual murder takes place. Then the author of the story is suspected and executed.”

Of course, this second part cannot be published for some weeks and so Mizuno decides, in the meantime, it is important that he always has an alibi: “he should arrange to avoid being by himself as much as possible for the next ten days.” He decides to pretend he has gonorrhoea so that his numerous trips to the bathroom are noticed in the boarding-house where he stays.

This comedic alibi is typical of Minuza’s slightly ridiculous character. While Junichiro’s plot is clever and skilfully executed, it is Minuza’s weak character which stands out as his greatest creation in the novel. Unlike Junichiro, who was working on three novels during this year, Minuza is a rather lazy writer, always in need of money, and quite prepared to dupe the magazine he writes for to obtain it, telling them he has twenty pages completed when there are only ten. He then immediately goes out to enjoy the money he as ‘earned’:

“…did the money just buy him pleasure? No, it swept away the shadow of the fear that had been menacing him like a bad dream these past several months.”

It is while he is in a bar that he encounters a beautiful woman in western clothes:

“That such a classy woman would indicate an interest in man like me, who would other wise never get a second glance for her – this just has to be fate.”

He pursues her and they arrange to begin a relationship (for a fee), yet he has only a vague idea of where she lives (rather than take a taxi she phones for a car to take them there), does not know her real name, and has no way of contacting her. Infatuated as he is, this does not seem important – until, of course, he needs to use her as an alibi.

In Black and White is an entertaining story which deserves to be better known. The use of meta-fiction is both skilful and subtle and Minuza’s flawed character is amusing if not always sympathetic. The novel also gives us an insight into the working life of a writer in Japan at the time it was written, and, as Lyons points out in an afterward, reflects on a real-life dispute between Junichiro and Ryunosuke Akutagawa over the ‘I-novel’. It may not be Junichiro’s greatest work, but it would also be wrong to dismiss it as ‘minor’, and we should be pleased that it is finally available in English.

Winter Flowers

January 4, 2022

So many novels have now been written about the First World War, it sometimes it feels that contemporary writers should accept they are unlikely to add anything new. Yet Angélique Villeneuve’s Winter Flowers, originally published in French in 2014 and now translated by Adriana Hunter, focuses on two areas which have received little attention in fiction: the men who returned from the war severely injured and disfigured, and the women who survived these years alone at home. Winter Flowers tells the story of one couple (and their young daughter, Leo): Jeanne, who has survived by making artificial flowers, and her husband Toussaint, who has been badly injured at the front and has spent months recuperating in hospital before eventually returning home shortly before the end of the war.

Toussaint returns with all his limbs, but with his face badly disfigured and covered with a cloth mask, which he refuses it remove even in his wife’s presence. Before we are even aware of this physical damage, Villeneuve emphasises the physicality of the family’s relationships, beginning with the opening scene where Jeanne, despite the ache and exhaustion of work, brushes her face across Leo’s, chest:

“First with the ends of stray hairs that have escaped from her plaited bun and then with her eyelashes, she skims the child’s writhing chest, the area of skin that her knitted top lays bare.”

Such physical closeness between husband and wife, which Jeanne has been deprived of while her husband is fighting, and then even after his return, withdrawn and silent, continues to be subtly hinted at, for example in a description of Leo “her nose pressed up to her rag doll’s face.” When Toussaint lies sleeping next to her, her strongest desire is to touch him:

“She reaches out her hand, skims the hot, rough skin of his chin.”

The distance between them, however, is not only physical. Even before Toussaint reappears in her life, Jeanne has been hurt by the message she receives when he is admitted to hospital: “I want you not to come.” She describes these words as “claws, and she bore the scratch marks on her neck,” an example of how Villenueve will frequently describe emotions as physical sensations. When, after days of silence, he finally speaks his first word is ‘no’:

“A word of lava and flint, an underwater shard that has rubbed up against saliva and blood, splinters and caves.”

But first, the silence, a silence which, in a sense, begins even before his injury and return. Once he is at war, Jeanne says of the letters he sends her, “They surrendered no true facts about life at the front,” and that she asks questions “but he never replied.” Now that silent presence is in their small apartment:

“He’s just there, shut down, shut away.”

Later Jeanne wonders whether “she’d allowed herself to be swept up in the habit of silence,” and Villeneuve includes one chapter where Jeanne breaks her own silence, uncertain whether Toussaint is awake and listening, as paragraph after paragraph begins “She says…” This is her attempt to cross the gap between them, created just as much by their time apart as Toussaint’s injury:

“Toussaint, whether in the trenches or in hospital, knew nothing of the life they led.”

Rather than focus only on the ignorance of civilians regarding conditions at the front, Villeneuve draws attention to the gap in understanding. We see this from both sides: Toussaint, for example, is drawn to those who do understand his experience – when he leaves the apartment one day, Jeanne follows him and finds him meeting with a group of war-wounded soldiers. Villeneuve also demonstrates that this gap does not only exist in Jeanne and Toussaint’s relationship, showing us the uncomfortable ‘patriotism’ of those at home, as when a woman on the Metro begins publicly praising a disfigured soldier, or when she accompanies her friend Sidonie to a ceremony where she will receive a certificate for her dead son. There she describes the mayor’s speech as “riddled with impassioned fragments,” which cannot help but suggest shrapnel, just as she similarly uses language we associate with the violence of war to describe the sympathetic comments received by Toussaint:

“She’d be spattered with it right up to her face and down her neck.”

Sidonie’s experience (having lost sons to tuberculosis, she has now lost her final son to the war) is one way Villeneuve widens the scope of the novel, showing not only the losses suffered by women but the camaraderie. The two neighbours have helped each other throughout the war, even sleeping in the same bed for warmth. 

Winter Flowers is, at heart, a love story – that Jeanne and Toussiant have loved each other is never in doubt – but a love story which asks the question whether that love can be rekindled after the separation and trauma they have experienced. At one point Jeanne asks, “What is war?”

“An enormous grey mass, intangible and impossible.”

 By viewing the effects of the war on one family, Villeneuve allows us to see it more clearly.