Archive for May, 2022


May 27, 2022

When Charco press launched in 2017 one of its first books was Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, the opening volume of what the author has termed an ‘involuntary trilogy’. Its focus was the narrator’s often unhappy relationship with her baby. Her husband was a distant figure as she came to terms (or didn’t) with being a mother, her anger alternating with waves of desire directed at a neighbour. In the second book, Feebleminded, that desire takes centre stage – “Degenerate desire. Damaging desire. Demented desire.” It is similarly focused on a man she cannot possess, a married man who will not leave his wife. Now, in the final volume, Tender (again translated by Annie McDermott and Caroline Orloff), we return to the mother / child relationship as the narrator is torn once again between love and desire.

Her son is older, perhaps bordering on adolescence:

“But he’s grown too big, too long, he’s outstripping me.”

“The weight of his head,” she tells us, is “my first indication he’s become a man.” Despite this physical closeness, we quickly realise the narrator struggles to embrace the role of mother: in an early episode she is caught shoplifting with her son; they wake up and there’s no food in the house; a social worker has to be told he is ill to explain why he isn’t at school. He is her “little ray of sunshine” but at the same time:

“The son doesn’t make me happy, the son doesn’t fill me. I feel like a hair in a bottle of alcohol, adrift alive and dead.”

Her love for him must compete with her sexual desire, “an erection to get me through, through the Sunday, through the chores, through the chit-chat…” In one scene she follows a man in her car with her son in the back. When he stops she gets into his car:

“At no point did I remember him asleep in the back with the handbrake off.”

Only the man’s quick action saves her son’s life. Her behaviour might be described as that of an addict (at one point she says she would make a good junkie), but in her own mind she is simply too young to be ‘only’ a mother:

“…not old enough yet to crash and burn, too young to be a mole living under the pipes or spend my days picking parasites off leaves.”

The narrator lives in the countryside and animals feature throughout the novel, almost interchangeable with the characters suggesting there is something feral about the lives of the mother and child. They see a rabbit “bounding, flying, soaring before us” – it refuses the safety of the woods:

“We watched her take on the cars and escape unscathed, defying the law of the jungle.”

If we sense this is how the narrator sees herself, we can also infer the criticism implied when she talks of “cats abandoned by holidaying families.” These precarious roadside animals emphasise the narrator’s rootless existence, just as the numerous car journeys highlight her restless nature. Increasingly isolated, mother and child inhabit a nightmare landscape, “pastures of pesticides and hormones”, a landscape of deliberate harm and abandonment:

“On either side we see grimy waterlogged handbags, tin cans, dresses and summer hats floating down the stream. Sacrifices, discarded lives.”

They are furthermore trapped within their bodies. The narrator talks of her “swollen brain”, her son’s “mammal mouth”. This is perhaps best emphasised in a physical collapse caused by, in the words of the doctors, “damage from various incidents”:

“At the mercy of an artery, a spasm, a bone.”

More and more withdrawn from society, they are like criminals on the run – but what they are running from is never clear. The narrator worries for her son without her and with her; she tries to leave him behind yet is lost without him.

This is not simply a ‘bad mother’ novel however – for a start, the viewpoint is always the mother’s, never the child’s, and the mother is entirely aware of her flaws. It is driven by Harwicz’s fierce prose which punches from the page taking no prisoners. It confronts the reader with uncomfortable questions as we are brought face to face with a life lived with the chaotic power of unfiltered emotions, an animal freedom which is frightening in its intensity. Just like the narrator herself, it does not ask for our approval or condemnation.

The Anomaly

May 22, 2022

Herve Le Tellier’s The Anomaly, winner of the 2020 Prix Goncort and recently translated into English by Adriana Hunter, is a ‘concept’ novel in more ways than one. It is, first of all, based around one central, movie-pitch idea – a ‘what if’ which Le Tellier both begins and ends with. In addition, however, its form, too, is ‘conceptual’ – more conceptual than the average novel that is – as befits Le Tellier’s role as the current president of the Oulipo. The novel is divided into three parts: the first and last of 13 chapters, the second of 9 chapters. Each part takes its title from a line in in a Raymond Queneau poem. Its epigraphs come for a book written by one of its characters, Victor Miesel, called The anomaly – and they are exactly what we might expect from the pensées of a French intellectual:

“A true pessimist knows that is already too late to be one.”

There are references to Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and (for reasons which will becomes obvious) Romain Gary, the only writer to have won the Prix Goncort twice (by publishing under another name as the prize only allows one win).

If this makes the novel sound solipsistic then nothing could be further from the truth. Its literary references are either tongue-in-cheek or all but invisible, and certainly not necessary to enjoy a novel as gripping as any thriller. Of course, this is in part because Le Tellier is also writing across a series of genres – including thriller and satire – in short chapters which focus on one of his many characters. The novel opens with the hired killer, Blake. We learn about his first and latest kills and, incidentally, about a recent flight from Paris to New York which was “so terrifying he thought his time was up.” He is reading a book by an author he spotted on the flight – Victor Miesel who takes centre-stage in the next chapter. Here we learn about the flight in more detail:

“…the plane plummets in yet another air pocket, and something in Victor suddenly snaps, he closes his eyes and lets himself be sloshed every which way, no longer trying to anchor himself. He’s turned into one of those lab mice that’s subjected to violent stresses and eventually stops fighting, resigned to dying.”

We soon realise that the event which links all the characters is the turbulent air flight as Le Tellier introduces us to them one by one: Lucie, a French filmmaker whose relationship with Andre, thirty years older, is coming to an end; Sophia, a seven-year-old girl who is terrified of her father; Joanna, a black lawyer defending a dubious pharmaceutical company; Slimboy, a gay Nigerian singer; and David Markle, the pilot, who has terminal cancer. That there is more to it than a shared near-death experience, however, is clear from many of the chapter endings when police or FBI arrive three months later (everything is meticulously dated) looking for the passengers. One exception is Miesel: since returning to Paris he has been writing:

“Over just a few weeks, a gramophonic Victor Miesel fills hundreds of pages…”

When he finishes his new book he sends it to his publisher and, “overcome by a piercing anxiety that he cannot identify” he falls / jumps (it is left deliberately ambiguous) from his balcony to his death. The book is The anomaly which goes on to become a best-seller.

In the first part we also meet Adrian Miller, a mathematician at Princeton, who, after 9/11, had been part of a group tasked with detailing responses to possible air incidents. When their report is submitted, they are asked: “What if we’re confronted with a case that fits none of the situations covered?” As a fan of Douglas Adams, he names this scenario ‘42’ (parts of the protocol are also borrowed from Close Encounters of the Third Kind) in the firm belief it will never be needed. Not so: he has just received a message on his bullet-proof phone to tell him a car is waiting outside.

Only at the end of the first part does Le Tellier reveal what has happened to provoke such a response (look way now if you don’t want to know – though the book’s blurb reveals this in its first sentence) – Flight 006 lands safely on the 10th March, and then again on the 24th June. Not simply the same flight number or the same plane but the same pilot, passengers and crew: a duplicate of the original, or perhaps the original which has been duplicated. Whichever way round, the fact is there are now doubles of everyone on board.

The novel’s second section details the experience of the June passengers, taken to a military base and held there while a team of scientists and philosophers attempt to work out what has happened. They are not immediately told that three months has passed since take-off, nor that they already exist elsewhere in the world. Both scientific and philosophical explanations are kept light, but it would be naïve to think that they were not also serious. In the final section the March and the June passengers are brought together with varying consequences, and the novel’s conclusion is retrospectively obvious, though still one I didn’t see coming.

The Anomaly is Oulipo at its most entertaining – a compelling read which is impressive both as a literary feat and as an example of speculative fiction. Hopefully its accessibility will not detract from Le Tellier’s achievement.


May 16, 2022

Spanish writer Elisa Victoria’s debut novel, Oldladyvoice, originally published in 2019 and translated into English by Charlotte Whittle last year, is very much a novel of the nineties. This can be seen in the culture absorbed by its nine-year-old narrator, Marina, such as Sailor Moon and Saved by the Bell, and in historical details which filter through into her world like her family’s support of socialist Felipe Gonzalez, who won his third and fourth elections in 1989 and 1993, and perhaps even in her Minnie Mouse pinafore (my knowledge of fashion is not extensive enough to be sure). Marina is, therefore, one of the last generations to live through their childhood without the interference of the internet – though this certainly does not mean she is innocent.

Marina lives with her mother (also Marina) and her mother’s boyfriend, Domingo. Her mother is ill with an unspecified disease and is admitted to hospital more than once in the course of the novel:

“I’ve got more problems than a Maths textbook as usual. But listen, as long as I last, we’ll try and live a normal life alright?”

Time with her mother is therefore rare – she probably speaks to Domingo more frequently, and certainly spends more time with her grandmother, where she stays when her mother is unable to look after her. Her relationship with her mother is a close one – she takes time out of every day to massage her – but she still applies the same world-weary view to it that characterises her approach to life:

“It’s like this in every home: parents love their children because we are small copies of them and they find this mysteriously meaningful.”

This amused cynicism comes, in part, from her exposure to Domingo, whom she finds “more like an older brother with a job than a dad.” One early conversation involves a contract in which he promises to support her until she is an adult at which point she must support him:

“He was offering me the loan with the highest interest in history.”

The adult she is closest to is her grandmother – physically close on numerous occasions, talking to her when she is on the toilet and cutting her toenails. She calls Marina “a real smarty-pants” but, while Her granddaughter is clearly intelligent, she is far from being a precociously irritating child narrator. She has the same anxieties as any child, worrying about fitting in and making friends, particularly as she moves both house and school more than once in what feels like a single year:

“Life’s challenges don’t scare me as much as people do.”

There are awkward moments – for example when the post-it she leaves for a neighbour keeps being pulled off the door and discarded on the ground – but Victoria also highlights the pleasures of a new friendship. When she moves into an apartment with a shared pool, she meets a girl a year older:

“…she teaches me to dive down and swim between her legs, something I’d never have dared to do without some cheerful command.”

In fact, one of the pleasures of the novel is the way in which Marina often takes delight at the simplest things. One of these is the exploration of her awakening sexuality, much of it done via comics which Domingo brings into the house and Marina locates. This balance between sexual curiosity and innocence is best illustrated when she takes “a book with tits in it” into school. The ‘tits’ are on pictures of mermaids, but the children are so convinced by the lifelike drawing they end up arguing about whether it is proof mermaids exist. Elsewhere Marina acts out sexual encounters with her dolls, and also examines herself in the mirror:

“I drop my panties, open my legs, part the flaps with both hands and muffle a giggle. Sometimes this simple act gives me a real boost.”

She longs for her first kiss, but, in reality, she is physically shy. Her interest in sex is partly a result of how out of reach it feels, but also just one example of her desire to fit in:

“Is there something wrong with my head? Can it be cured?”

Despite these anxieties, Oldladyvoice is generally a joyful book, where relationships triumph over circumstances, and the foibles of the adults are tolerated by the child. It’s not so much about growing up as it is about simply being.

Lost Books – The Joker

May 7, 2022

Despite a long acquaintance with the work of Lars Saabye Christensen that began when I read The Half Brother in 2003 before hearing the author speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I may never have known about his first appearance in English in 1991, The Joker, translated by Steven Michael Nordby, had I not read about it in M. A. Orthofer’s indispensable The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Literature. From that point on the only difficulty was tracking down a copy of this US only, small press publication! Orthofer had also hinted at the novel’s intriguing premise beginning, as it does, with the narrator, Hans Windelband, finding his own death notice in the paper:

“But I wasn’t dead.

“But that’s what it said in the newspaper.”

He confides in his friend the Butcher (who is, thankfully, a butcher) who tells him to take a vacation – “For the good of us all… I wish you’d stay away for a couple of years” – but he only gets as far as a hotel within walking distance (walking distance with a suitcase) and begins phoning funeral parlours in order to locate his body. When he finally finds it, he discovers that he is no closer to solving the mystery of who was using his name as the individual in question fell four flights out of a window and landed head first on the railings below:

“I looked at it a long time.

“But I couldn’t recognize the face.

“Not even his mother could have recognized that face.”

Hans follows up by attending his own funeral where he meets an old girlfriend, Berit, who is (obviously) surprised to see him, and the dead Hans’ elderly neighbour, Malvin Paulsen, to whom he gives a false name. There is little to learn about his impersonator, however, as Paulsen tells him, “He never went out… He was almost never out of doors. Even his room reveals nothing:

“It occurred to me that everything appeared so impersonal, completely without character.”

Before he can investigate further, he gets into a fight with a couple who are arguing at his hotel, begins to rekindle his relationship with Berit, and is beaten up in a pub with the threat:

“We know who you are… You ought to take it easy, then everything will take care of itself.”

The role of the Butcher also becomes increasingly uncertain as he follows Hans to the funeral and, when Hans returns to his hotel, is waiting for him in his room. Hans, we know, has loaned the Butcher money in the past, and the Butcher has suspicions regarding where this money came from.

As the story unfolds, everything proves to be connected to everything else. For example, Hans meets Malvin in a pub and, through him, Arne who runs removal company Malvin once worked for; he joins Arne on a job, only to discover he is Berit’s ex-husband. Malvin’s brother, an antiques dealer, is somehow involved with the dead ‘Hans’ whom, it turns out, Hans does know. Christensen is happy to stretch these coincidences as far as he can (before Hans knows of Arne’s marriage to Berit he tells us, “Sometimes he reminds me of Berit”) but their implausibility is made bearable not only by the novel’s charm, but by Hans’ impression that its plot is a plot against him. At the same time, it also becomes clear that our narrator is not entirely forthcoming. Where did he get the money to lend the Butcher? And what exactly was his relationship with the dead ‘Hans’? This makes for a thoroughly entertaining mystery, as does the style in which it is written with standout phrases such as:

“…the snow was hanging in the air at an angle like a dirty bed sheet…”


“The sun was shining like an operating room light. The sky was blue and disinfected.”

Hans is far from perfect but proves to be an endearing narrator: Christensen has a talent for writing about young men that we can see throughout his career from Beatles to, most recently, Echoes of the City. The Joker is an unusual and enjoyable mystery which deserves to be rediscovered.

Jacobe & Fineta

May 2, 2022

Since 2019 Fum d’Estampa have not only brought us some of the best contemporary Catalan writing but also some of the most important Catalan writers of the past. Joaquim Ruyra falls into the latter category, a writer with only one previous appearance in English but famous enough to feature as a tourist attraction in Blanes, the town where he lived for most of his life. Although he wrote in numerous genres, he is particularly renowned for his short story collections such as Seascapes and Woodland Scenes published in 1903 where the two stories included presumably first appeared given that the introduction tells us they were written “around 1900”.

‘Jacobe’ is the longer of the two – three times as long as ‘Fineta’, though not long enough to be regarded as a novella. It is a love story, but a very unhappy one. It begins when Jacobe, still a child herself, is hired to look after the narrator, Minguet:

“She was the one who truly weaned me. She rocked me in the cradle, she washed me, she combed my hair…”

Although she is older, she is still young enough that they can play games together, but this changes when Minguit goes to school and “Jacobe became more tied to her housework.” This also highlights the class difference between them as Jacobe is from a poor family and Minguit is “heir to one of the biggest fortunes in this town: born with a silver spoon in his mouth; a real gentleman in the making who will tread more fine carpets than any marquis.” When Jacobe turns sixteen, Minguit notices how attractive she has become – “like a delicate winter flower” in the imagery that will be used to describe her throughout. Jacobe, however, still treats Minguit like a child:

“Nobody knows how to look after you like your Sissy does: that’s right, isn’t it, lovely one?”

As Minguit spends less time in the town, Jacobe’s behaviour becomes stranger. She falls out with the neighbours as “none of them have any manners or politeness” and shows no interest in getting married. This goes on until there is only “a Jacobe who was now nothing but skin and bones, trembling all the time, with a constantly distracted vacant look in those sunken eyes.” Her illness, which has led to alcohol addiction, is seen as hereditary, but the suggestion is that her love for Minguit, which can never be returned due to their very different social positions, has driven her mad. And so the story builds towards a final meeting on a clifftop path.

‘Fineta’ also uses the drama of nature to enhance the story it tells as the title character watches for her father’s boat from the shore. She is wary of a new arrival of the village, known as the Woodsman, but she cannot resist swimming in the sea – and, indeed, Ruyra makes it sound irresistible:

“The sea seems now to be gleaming with its own scales on its back, like those of some big golden fish.”

The story is one of sexual awakening as the girls sees her reflection “like a grown-up woman”:

“Her large dark pupils do truly radiate brightness beneath the silken canopy which her eyelashes provide. She opens her mouth only very slightly and her dazzling white teeth set of the vivid redness of her lips.”

It is at the very moment she is contemplating her beauty that the Woodsman reappears, and her new-found confidence is replaced by an awareness of powerlessness. As with ‘Jacobe’, Ruyra tackles the often-shocking treatment of women: just as the author can be identified with the kind but ineffectual Minguit, here he is the crew of the returning boat who witness the incident on the shore “dumb with indignation”.

Both stories are beautifully written – for which congratulations to Alan Yates on his excellent translation – and vivid not only in the landscape but in the characters as well. Perhaps the shortness of the volume is intended to leave the reader wanting more; if so, it is a plan that has succeeded as I found myself finishing this volume in exactly that position, hoping that more of Ruyra’s work will be translated in the near future.