Archive for June, 2022

A Ripple from the Storm

June 28, 2022

Four years passed between the publication of A Proper Marriage and A Ripple from the Storm, the third volume in Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, during which Lessing wrote Retreat to Innocence, the novel she later disowned, a collection of short stories, The Habit of Loving, and a memoir, Going Home. By the end of the ironically titled A Proper Marriage, the world was at war, and Martha’s marriage to Douglas Knowell existed only in name as she had left both him and her young child. To others it might appear her husband had been supplanted by one of the many RAF officers now stationed in the colony – and, indeed, Martha is having an affair with one of them – but he has been more firmly ousted by her increasingly radical political beliefs and her desire to forge her own identity.

Lessing makes this political focus clear from the novel’s opening scene – a meeting of ‘Aid for Our Allies’, which raises money for the Russian war effort, and is one of the organisations which Martha and her fellow Communists participate in and hope to influence. This Communist group, which has only recently declared itself a ‘party’, is few in number: here we meet her lover, William, Jackie (another RAF officer), Marjorie, Jasmine and Anton Hesse, a German exile. Jackie is the most charismatic, but he is also the most chaotic, as we see when he tells the committee of ‘Aid for Our Allies’ they are “cowardly, lily-livered social democrats” and they promptly resign.

As the Communist group expands, tensions occur between the RAF members, who come and go as they are posted, and the ‘colonials’. These are, in part, class tensions as some of the airmen are working class whereas none of the settlers are, the working class of the colony being black. We see this in Martha’s experience with Bill, who speaks to her as if “patiently explaining to an imbecile” with:

“…a soft jeer. Bill Bruett had cast Martha in the role of ‘middle class comrade’ and never let her forget it.”

(Martha being assign identities by men is a constant theme of the novel). The RAF members also tend more towards action and this often clashes with party discipline, infuriating Anton.  When Bill explains why they spend more time than the allocated one afternoon a week in the coloured quarter (“There are so many things to do: people in trouble, and the women want advice about their children”) Anton replies:

“How many Coloured people are there in this colony? A few thousand. They are unimportant, economically and politically.”

Anton’s analytical approach makes him appear cold and unfeeling, and also at times ridiculous, for example when he insists that because the group voted to keep the party secret it should be kept secret even when everyone knows about it. During ‘criticism’ he is described as “an arrogant, stiff-necked, domineering bastard,” albeit with an element of humour. All the more surprising, then, that Martha ends up marrying him – though ideas of marriage are clearly in the air as at one point she comments:

“That means that all the RAF members have proposed to us all in the last month.”

It follows Anton looking after her when she falls ill:

“Suddenly he’s human. She was also thinking: Suppose he is in love with me? The thought was half exciting, half pure panic.”

As with her previous marriage, the agency seems to be entirely with the man, though she is also influenced by her duty to the party. Already one of the RAF members, Andrew, has married an unmarried pregnant woman, Maisie, because she does not want to have an abortion. Typically, on the day of her wedding, Martha goes to an important meeting immediately after the ceremony. Once they are married, she talks about how “outwardly she was affectionate and compliant with her husband” suggesting the continued disparity between how she lives her life and the life she longs to live, which she still cannot articulate. In this sense she is torn in two:

“Martha watched in herself the growth of an extraordinarily unpleasant and upsetting emotion, a self-mockery, a self-parody, as if she both allowed herself an emotion she did not approve of, allowed it and enjoyed it, but at the same time cancelled it out by the mockery.”

This uncertainty, Martha’s constant questing for something better, is the series’ greatest strength. We see it both in her personal life, and in her political journey. Lessing does not pretend there are easy answers. In particular, there are disagreements about how the Communists can help the black population – some want direct action, but the others argue that this will simply lead to the RAF members being posted, and Anton being interned. Instead, they work with the Labour party to allow black membership – in a segregated group. (Lessing also personalises this problem by having one of the RAF men visit the black community one night in the name of ‘friendship’). Of course, for many readers the politics will be out-dated, but Lessing is very good on the dynamics of political groups, and how the political mixes with the personal. By the novel’s end Martha is “overwhelmed with futility,” her innocence further eroded, and no clearer to understanding who she is.


June 22, 2022

Jenni Fagan’s Hex is the second in Polygon’s Darkland Tales series in which contemporary Scottish writers recreate a moment in Scottish history. The first was Denise Mina’s Rizzio which focused on the night when Mary, Queen of Scots’, secretary was murdered by Scots nobles. Fagan turns her attention to Geillis Duncan, perhaps hoping to offer a different fictional version to that seen in Outlander, though, like Rizzio, Geillis is an important historical figure. Geillis was only a teenager (she is fifteen in the novella) when she was accused of witchcraft by her master, David Seaton, an accusation at least partly based on her knowledge of healing. She was tortured at length and eventually implicated other women in what became known as the North Berwick Witch Trials, before being finally executed on the 4th of December 1591.

An important part of the writer’s task, as with any historical novelist, is to make the narrative as much about the present as the past. Mina did this largely through the language used to present the characters’ dialogue and thoughts – a casual glance at a random page reveals: “fobbed off”; “fancy that”; “doesn’t feel right”; “snobby, surly little shit”. There are occasional missteps, for example when she makes a point of describing the nobles rather redundantly as “white men,” but the general effect is to make the characters accessible to a modern reader. Fagan has taken a different approach by introducing a contemporary voice into the narrative, that of Iris, who reaches Geillis from 2021 through the ‘Null’ as a spirit:

“Travelled time all my life.

“Have had spirits come to me, go through me, had them drag me out of my body and throw me across rooms or ceilings all night long.”

It’s an interesting choice as the familiarity (and she describes herself as Geillis’ familiar at points) of Irene as a contemporary character contrasts with the disbelief the reader needs to suspend to accept her supernatural presence. It also contradicts the commonly expressed argument that witches are innocent because witchcraft does not exist – this, I think, is deliberate as in Fagan’s eyes the more important point is that Geillis has done no harm. As narrative device, however, it works well, introducing us to Geillis’ existence as a prisoner in Edinburgh:

“Your cell is several floors below the city… It is so far below the seasons they might well not exist. There is only one kind of weather in here: freezing cold and cloaked in darkness.”

Iris allows a dialogue to take place with the isolated Geillis, granting a character who has been historically voiceless a voice (part of Geillis’ story is that she recanted as she was led to the gallows but was ignored). Iris claims they are “related by blood – though it wasn’t by marriage, I know that much” providing her with comradeship and comfort to balance her bleak story; it not only suggests that we, in the present, care, but that Geillis can know this. The excruciating descriptions of her torture become a testament:

“They wrapped a rope around my head, wrapped it tighter and tighter to crush my skull… I felt my own bones crunch. Blood leaked out of my ears. They held my legs open wide. Rammed things inside me.”

The cruelty is extraordinary – at one point there are ten men around her – but no worse than we hear of today. She sees the hatred of men:

“There is no man on this earth who didn’t get here except by a woman parting her thighs! We are portals. Humans emerge from our bodies into a world without explanation. Some men hold a brutal kind of grudge for that.”

She also understands the more calculated hatred of Seaton – “a man made almost entirely of hate” – who uses her to accuse others of a higher station:

“He could not go after her directly, being of nobility as she is a of money… He could not have his motive – to try to get his hands on her inheritance – as something that linked him to her death.”

Fagan’s prose could not be more suited to her subject – at times stripped back, at others almost incantatory. These short books remind me of Canongate’s Myths series in that by giving writers a particular brief it allows them a certain freedom. Hex feels like an offshoot of Luckenbooth, giving Fagan has the opportunity of exploring an even darker side to Edinburgh in this accomplished if harrowing tale.

Canzone di Guerra

June 16, 2022

Dasa Drndic, who was first translated into English only ten years ago, is gradually being acknowledge as one of the most important voices of this century, although her focus often lay in the past – in Croatian and Serbian complicity in the Holocaust in the 1940s, and the conflicts which erupted in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, from where she drew lessons still unlearned. Now we finally begin to see some of her earlier work with the translation by Celia Hawkesworth of Canzone di Guerra, originally published in 1998, and centring on the experiences of refugees from the former Yugoslavia in Canada. Drndic’s books are always, in a sense, ‘timely’, tied as they are to uncomfortable truths about humanity, but with war raging in the Ukraine and refugees numbering in millions, Canzone di Guerra (‘war song’, here subtitled New Battle Songs) arrives at a point when understanding what it means to be a refugee is as important as ever.

Canzone di Guerra is narrated by Tea Radan, a writer, partly a surrogate for Drndic in the way Andreas Ban is in Belladonna and E.E.G. But the novel is not a straight-forward first-person narrative; instead, it is a patch work of stories and genres, accompanied by numerous footnotes. Take, for example, an early chapter on pigs designed to lead us, via stories of peasants in newly socialist Yugoslavia taking their pigs with them when they move into towns, towards this conclusion: “confined pigs, forcibly moved away from their familiar surroundings, die abruptly.” Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs are later mentioned in relation to the fad for adopting them as pets in America, and then, when the fashion changes, abandoning them:

“They came into parks, they reached the suburbs, the rubbish tips and – the butchers.”

In both cases, the link to Drndic’s wider theme of refugees is clear.

For Tea, and her daughter Sara, the move to Toronto is not their first migration, having already moved from Belgrade (Serbia) to Rijeka (Croatia). In some ways, Tea says, that move was harder – for Sara learning a completely new language, English, was easier than understanding the differences between Serbian and Croatian which are “essentially the same language”, and, in Canada, Tea’s accent is seen as “charming” rather than a sign she is from what is now a different country. The book’s best description of being a refugee, however, appears in the words of another as ‘Branko’s story’:

“Overnight you become a person without anything. A person without property, without money, without land. You have nothing. First there were some gunshots, then you could hear shelling in the distance. That sounded like fireworks. Exactly like fireworks.”

Tea’s story often involves dealing with bureaucracy – “Canada,” she says, “is a land of papers, that is a land of thick, rich forests, which are cut down in order to turn them into paper.” Registering for social support she is told that Sara’s father’s name cannot be left blank- eventually she suggests ‘Croaticus Magnus’. Later she and Sara attempt to adopt a cat and another lengthy form is required. When asked for reasons for adopting a cat, Tea replies “personal” –

“What were your personal reasons?

“I said: They’re personal.”

She refuses to have the cat neutered, a condition of adoption. Her obstinacy is a minor resistance which highlights both the possibility of independent thought and the difficulty of acting on it. It demonstrates that the rigidity of authority can be found not only in Eastern Europe, but in the West – a point Drndic makes about surveillance as well:

“And Big Brother is till here. He is multiplied in countless Little Brothers who conceal themselves in invisible information bases from where they monitor everything we do… Orwell is naïve material these days.”

Tea’s personal story is interspersed with her historical research – largely, but not exclusively, Croatian. She reveals the faults in her home country originating in the Second World War between those who supported the Nazis and those who resisted. This history is both personal and impersonal – some of it is told through letters her grandparents send to Tito. It contains both horror and farce – such as when Croatian nationalists insist that Grandfather Frost is replaced by Grandfather Christmas: “attitudes to Grandfather Frost had suddenly become a political question.” (See also the so-called ’culture wars’ taking place the UK today).

But no country escapes Drndic’s scrutiny. Canada, too, is not blameless when to comes to the Holocaust, for example allowing around two thousand former Ukrainian soldiers who fought for the Nazis to into the country to work. Typically, Drndic is able to distil this to a single case to make her point: Haralds Puntulis, responsible for thousands of deaths, sentenced to execution in Latvia, but allowed to die naturally in Toronto in 1982. This can make Drndic’s work seem depressing, almost nihilistic, in discovering cruelty and injustice wherever she looks, but the indefatigable resistance, and refusal to be cowed or to look away, of her and her characters allows the reader hope. If you wish to understand the world today, reading her work is a good place to begin.

Self Portrait in Green

June 12, 2022

Anyone approaching Marie Ndiaye’s Self Portrait in Green (translated by Jordan Stump in 2014 and now released in the UK by Influx Press) expecting straight-forward autobiography will be, at the very least, disconcerted – a not uncommon occurrence when it comes to her writing in general. While the slim volume clearly draws on her own life with references to friends and family, its content is deliberately restricted and, at times, surreal, as if she intends to draw on only one aspect of herself, one self-portrait among the many possible.

The book begins ominously in 2003 as the village where Ndiaye is living in France faces the prospect of the Garonne River bursting its banks:

“It’s the first thing you learn when you make up your mind to settle in this place, eternally under threat from the floodwaters of the Garonne.”

NDiaye insists the river is ‘feminine’ and the same sense of being under threat from the ‘feminine’ follows her throughout the book, even as we go back through time to 2002 and 2001. (The carefully dated narrative feels more like a defiance of chronology than an attempt to establish it as the story, in many ways, refutes the ordering of cause and effect). This ‘feminine’ presence is portrayed throughout as a ‘green woman,’ first seen as she takes her children to and from school:

“…never once did my gaze fail to meet with the still, watchful silhouette of the woman in green standing near the far more imposing banana tree…”

The children, of course, see nothing. The woman reminds her of another “woman in green” from her school days:

“Tall, brutal, and heavyset, she promises us all a trip to prison if we eat too slowly, if we dirty our clothes, if we don’t raise our eyes to meet hers.”

Then there is a conversation with her friend Cristina, also dressed in green, about Cristina’s children – despite the fact Cristina has no children. Cristina tells her about arriving to collect her children from their grandparents only to overhear her father repeating to her mother, “I can’t take them anymore, I can’t take them anymore…” This dreamlike conversation is the first indication that the ‘green woman’ might represent some nightmarish version of Ndiaye herself.

The following sections of the book focus largely on her father and her friend, Jenny. Ndiaye did not meet her father until she was fifteen and he is portrayed in the book as an inconsistent man moving from place to place, job to job and woman to woman. Throughout the book he is married to a woman who was once the narrator’s friend. She is now a ’woman in green’ having altered her brown eyes with green contact lenses:

“I feared that my father and the woman in green might have child of their own, or two, or three, and that would only compound my father’s problems, engulfing all of us, those of his children who feel it in our hearts when some sorrow befalls him.”

Later she visits her father in Burkina Faso “to put my affection for my father to the test.” Part of the distance between them is her father’s disapproval of her vocation:

“He looks on literature with loathing and contempt you understand.”

In establishing herself as a writer she sees herself in opposition to her stepmother, certain that she “abandoned her vocation, her free will, her joyousness, just to become one with this man.” Again, there is a sense that her friend, now her stepmother, represents an alternative route for her – marrying a man like her father – that she fears. Similarly, another friend, Jenny, who, at fifty, finds herself abandoned by her husband and her son, and forced to move back in with her parents:

“She’s a passive and trusting person, and nothing she’d done was really to blame for this ruination.”

She begins an affair with an old boyfriend, Ivan, but it is Ivan’s wife, not Jenny, who is the ‘woman in green’. She befriends Jenny and talks about her life with Ivan, the life Jenny could have had. Jenny finds herself “growing small, transparent and empty.” Eventually Jenny becomes suicidal.

What Ndiaye intends with these insights into the lives of other women is not entirely obvious – our journey through their stories is poetic rather than logical, particularly as they flit in and out of the narrator’s life. Ndiaye’s writing always contains a dreamlike quality and it is as if she takes moments from her daily life and transmutes them into something slightly less real but more intense. Self Portrait in Green does not reveal much of Ndiaye’s biography, but it does tell us what it feels like it be her through these other women who haunt her, displaying the doubts and fears she lives with. Perhaps, like the river, they threaten to overwhelm her – but, just as the Garonne subsides at the end, so she controls her fears: when her children see the black creature she spotted earlier she tells them: “To tell the truth, I didn’t see anything. Nothing at all.”

The Life Before Us

June 6, 2022

The Life Before Us is, of course, the novel with which Romain Gary won the Prix Goncourt for the second time (strictly against the rules) having published it under another name – Emile Ajar.  He chose to publish under a pseudonym as, by the 1970s, he felt pigeon-holed by critics and readers, but also because, as he stated in The Life and Death of Emile Ajar (published in 1981, a year after his suicide):

“I have always been someone else.”

This feeling of estrangement from his own life no doubt has is roots in his origins, born Roman Kacew in Vilnius, spending parts of his childhood in Moscow and Warsaw, and only arriving in France at the age of fourteen. (A version of his life can be found in his autobiography, Promise at Dawn). It is perhaps only to be expected that the narrator of The Life Before Us, Momo (short for Mohammed), is also confused about his origins, and even his age.

Despite this, Momo is certainly a child as he tells the story of his life so far and it is his character which carries the novel, a combination of curiosity, innocence and resignation which is captured perfectly by Gary and his translator, Ralph Manheim. Gary cleverly has the young Momo looking back on his younger self (“I stopped being ignorant when I was three of four, and sometimes I miss it”) with the hard-earned wisdom of the slightly older child. We meet a boy who has no mother but is instead looked after by Madame Rosa, an ex-prostitute who now cares for the children of prostitutes. Other children come and go, and are granted visits from their mothers, but not Momo. Eventually Madame Rosa tells him:

“You kids are lucky you don’t know your mothers, because children your age still have sensibilities, and it’s hard to believe what dyed-in-the-wool whores they are, sometimes I think I’m dreaming.”

Lacking a mother, Momo steals a dog – a poodle – but later sells it for five hundred francs, and then throws the money away. Looking back, the older Momo thinks he understands this (“There was no security at Madame Rosa’s, we were all hanging by a thread… That was no life for a dog.”) but it is clear to the reader he cannot fully explain his behaviour. In this way the novel is built up in layers – the child Momo, the narrator Momo, the adults around him (who, after this incident, worry he “isn’t normal”), and the reader.

At the novel’s centre is the relationship between Momo and Madame Rosa (the novel was first translated as Momo and filmed in 1977 as Madame Rosa). Momo’s sympathy for Madame Rosa can be seen immediately when he comments on her daily struggle to reach the sixth floor: “if ever a woman deserved an elevator it was Madame Rosa.” He later describes her as “so sad you didn’t even notice she was ugly.” She is a survivor of Auschwitz, and when she feels afraid she retreats to the basement of the building where she sweeps the floor – another example of Momo observing but not understanding. Yet, despite her age, and her often less than tender manner, Momo not only stays with her when she falls ill but protects her, even from the knowledge she is ill. “Her brain isn’t getting the blood and oxygen it needs,” the doctor tells him:

“Pretty soon she won’t be able to think, she’ll be like a vegetable.”

When Madame Rosa, having overheard word ‘vegetable’, questions Momo about this, he tells her: “You’ll have to eat your vegetable for your health.” And so he stays with Madame Rosa as her condition deteriorates, for example finding her dressed one day to go back on the streets:

“Madame Rosa, mother naked in leather boots, with black lace panties around her neck, because she’d gotten her arms and legs mixed up, and tits that defy the imagination lying flat on her belly, is something you won’t see anywhere else even if it exists.”

This also gives a flavour of the novel’s humour, even in the bleakest circumstances. (Lighter moments include Momo turning an umbrella into an imaginary friend but removing its face when he learns that this offends Moslems).

Ultimately, The Life Before Us is a novel about love. “Can somebody live without love?” Momo asks at the beginning. Yes, he is told, but, in a sense, he refuses to accept this, choosing to love Madame Rosa until she dies, and finally solving the mystery of whether she loves him. Winning a prize you can only win once for a second time is not the only paradox Gary has created with this novel about death that is the radiantly life-affirming.

Climbers on a Stair

June 1, 2022

Though the most famous example of a novel centred on characters living in the same block is undoubtedly French (Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual), a tradition of ‘tenement’ novels also exists in Scotland, from Iain Crichton Smith’s The Tenement (1985) to Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth (2021). Another example is Elspeth Davie’s Climbers on a Stair from 1978. Although Davie is best known, if known at all, for her short stories, this was her third novel. As with most tenement novels, it deliberately avoids a central character, and, in fact, goes out of its way to characterise the building itself as the focal point in a Prelude:

“It is a tenement stair with eight houses on it – a building which probably in the 120 years of its life have never been cut off from the outside world for more than an hour or two.”

It is the stair that connects the building’s homes and, potentially, those who live in them. As the opening sentence suggests it is also connected to history, but equally to the contemporary world outside the front door. It has a permanence (“a single, sculptured spiral of solid stone worn into deep, smooth moon-curves at its foot”) but is also mutable (“there is a cycle of change on the stair like the organic cycle in an organism”).

The inhabitants of Davie’s tenement are a similar mixture of characters – those in the process of change and those who fiercely remain the same. Davie cleverly makes one of her characters, Neilson, a town planner, thus introducing the topic of buildings into the narrative. He feels himself blamed for every disliked concrete construction, of which, in the seventies, there were a few, and yet he is also aware that planners like himself have produced imperfect results:

“It was Neilson’s luck to have found a flat which… had a magnificent view of the city for miles around. He had also the ill luck to see for the first time what he and his kind had done to the horizon over the years.”

Other inhabitants of the tenement include Thomas Baird who, since heart problems caused him to give up his job, now spends his time weaving, a passion he discovered by chance when recuperating. Art is also represented by the aptly named Miss Winterfield, a retired music teacher, who can, indeed appear frosty in conversation. Both represent the possibilities of new beginnings: Baird because he has found the craft which he loves late in life; Miss Winterfield because she sees age as no barrier to learning:

“I think I can say that some of my greatest achievements have been with my older pupils.”

Yet they are two characters who have no intention of leaving the tenement. In contrast, Neilson is planning to go down south, and Steven Singer, a student of orthoptics, similarly does not intend to be a permanent resident. Miss Winterfield is perhaps the most developed character, never short of an opinion, and verging on a Muriel Spark creation, as, for example, when we are told that once she would have hidden her bottle of wine from prying eyes but now:

“She took a certain pride in leaving the bottle standing on the hearthrug like an unruly friend who was not to be dismissed simply because other visitors had arrived.”

Singer’s back story is revealed thanks to a remark of Miss Winterfield’s when she comments he is too young to think about death. He makes a point of visiting her later to tell her:

“I knew this boy… He was nineteen. He was killed. Hit by a lorry. Knew him well. We’d done endless walks together. And we had talked. We had talked a great deal.”

These few short sentences suggest the depth of the relationship, perhaps even something more than friendship, and it will be returned to throughout the novel though without adding much in the way of detail. Miss Winterfield is also influential when it comes to Clara Kirk, who is introduced as follows:

“Though Clara Kirk had never crossed a border there was a great deal of luggage in the cupboards and wardrobes of her first floor flat.”

Clara seems to belong to those who are in permanent residence. Though she talks knowledgeably about “a remote mountain village in Bavaria” or St Peter’s gallery in Rome, that knowledge comes for guidebooks and travel brochures. Her desire to travel is one of the small dreams that inhabit the tenement alongside its residents.

Climbers on a Stair is an unassuming novel much like the tenement itself, but Davie not only brings its characters to life, revealing dreams and passions, hopes and regrets, as powerful as any protagonist, but also illuminates their lives with small moments – for example when they observe a man struggling to raise a kite on a windless day. Its stories (and its storeys) are to be cherished.