Archive for the ‘Lost Books’ Category

Lost Books – The Miracle-Worker

August 6, 2017

In recent years, Carmen Boullosa has become one of the most regularly translated of women writers, her third novel from Deep Vellum due to be published this month. For her first appearance in English, however, we must go back to 1994 when Amanda Hopkinson translated her novel of the previous year, The Miracle-Worker. The novel tells the story a healer, Milagrosa, who falls in love with the detective sent to discredit her – part of a plot for the presidency which soon endangers both their lives. That this sounds like a thriller is only one of a number of postmodern tricks the novel uses to entertain the reader – its plot unfolds far from conventionally, and reaches no neat conclusions.

The Miracle-Worker is introduced to the reader as a bundle of papers and an audio-tape found clutched in the hands of a dead man. (Though nothing is certain, we assume this is the body of the detective, Aurelio Jimenez). This makes even their order uncertain, as an editor (also unknown) informs the reader:

“I have ordered them into what appears, to the best of my judgement, to be the most easily comprehensible sequence.”

The novel begins in the words of the miracle-worker, Milagrosa. Her gift, she feels, depends on her isolation:

“The terror of losing the gift I have repels me from even the notion of physical closeness.”

She discusses some of the difficulties of meeting her supplicants’ wishes. When a woman asks her to heal her brain-damaged son, to whom she has dedicated her life, Milgrosa can “foresee her loneliness and abandonment as soon as the boy acquired a normal intelligence.” There is also an amusing story of a man who wants his much younger lover to see him as a younger man (fifty instead of seventy); then his lover comes to beg that he see her as older to bridge the remaining gap (fifty instead of thirty). Of course, he leaves her. Most of the requests, however (a number of which are reproduced in the novel’s next section) only serve to remind us how difficult life is.

From there we move on to a transcript of the tape-recording of the detective, Aurelio Jimenez. He explains that he’s been hired by the Industrial Textile Workers’ Union: “the Union ordered me to pursue the Milagrosa, with a specific mission to destroy her.” The reason is only vaguely suggested later:

“They’re very nervous over the issue of Northern Textiles. You know there are ten factories involved and for some reason the Union isn’t getting its way and the workers are in control. They say it’s down to the Milagrosa.”

Of course, this may mean much more to a Mexican reader, but I suspect Boullosa has no intention of writing a political thriller. The lack of exposition lends terror to the rising death count as Aurelio and Milagrosa go on the run. Aurelio’s endangerment is established early on when he is recognised as “the shit of a strike-breaker” (again never fully explained) and beaten. At this point he has already fallen for Milagrosa, and when she rescues and heals him their relationship blossoms. Soon she rejects her role as healer, reverting to her own name, E, and planning to escape the country with Aurelio.

Things are further confused when we discover the elderly man who dumped his young lover, Felipe Morales, is now running for President. Aurelio witnessed him returning to Milagrosa to ask that his wife respect and admire him again: “That fool Morales…He took advantage of me.” This, somehow, has given him the confidence needed to win the election. Aurelio begs Milagrosa to use her power to stop him:

“Please destroy Morales… I’m pleading with you. For the sake of our love, for dignity and justice.”

It is perhaps possible to read The Miracle-Worker as a political satire, but Boullosa’s primary intention seems to be to impress a sense of Mexico, in flashes, on our flinching retinas, a madcap mixture of religion, passion, corruption and violence with no obvious resolution. The novel can sometimes feel like a chase scene, with unexpected corners and no clear end point, but there’s a breathlessness to it that’s worth pursuing.

Lost Books – Farewells & A Grave with No Name

July 21, 2017

As the titles suggest – Farewells (1954) and A Grave with No Name (1959) – death is ever-present in this volume of two long stories by Juan Carlos Onetti translated by Peter Bush in 1992. In the first a young basketball player retreats to a remote village to die of tuberculosis; in the second a woman is buried as her goat looks on. But mortality is not Onetti’s main concern – above all, these tales are about the impenetrable darkness of other lives, with narrators who strain their eyes to understand the movements in the shadows but see only so much.

The narrator of Farewells is the local shopkeeper who looks at the hands of new arrivals and decides whether they will live or die. In the case of the basketball player, death is not inevitable, but he believes he won’t be cured:

“…he wasn’t going to be cured because he wasn’t bothered about being cured; the nurse and I had known a lot of people like that.”

The basketball player refuses to stay in the sanatorium, living in a hotel instead, sitting in the lobby two or three hours a day, “pretending he believed he had turned incredulousness into an habitual and unambiguous ally, that a studied drama of withdrawal was enough to keep him attached to all that existed before the date of a diagnosis.” The narrator notices that in the letters he receives there are two particular types of envelope which matter to him, and assumes these are from women. One day one of the women appears and moves into the hotel with him. According to the nurse:

“The fellow needed that woman. You can see he can’t stand living apart from her. He’s another man now…”

However, a few weeks later, after she has left, another, younger, woman arrives, and this time he moves with her into a house he has rented nearby, the Portuguese sisters’ chalet. It is immediately assumed the new woman is his mistress:

“And frankly he’s not doing right by her; he’s not very gentlemanly, he shouldn’t have taken her to the hotel where everybody saw him living with the other woman.”

Of course, the story’s conclusion reveals that their suppositions have not been entirely accurate, but this twist is almost incidental. Onetti’s primary concern is the basketball player as observed from outside, not only by the narrator but by the nurse, the maid at the hotel, and the two women. Much of the story is told as the narrator sees it, but he also imagines a number of scenes, interpreting events as a writer would. Onetti gives the impression he distrusts his own craft, placing distance between himself and his characters to suggest we can only know so much for certain.

The same process occurs in A Grave with No Name, the narrator being only tangentially attached to the story, though pursuing the ‘truth’ with greater intent. The story opens with Jorge Malabia, the son of a rich family, organising the burial of a poor woman. Even more bizarrely he follows the funeral carriage with a goat:

“Lame, slavering down its beard, one leg in a splint, the goat had reached the cemetery gate; it was rubbing its nose against the short grass in the ditch but not managing to eat. The Malabias’ lad kept his arms crossed, didn’t let go of the rope, put up with the pulling…”

The narrator determines to discover who the woman is and why Malabia is burying her. The story is told in conversations with Malabia and other characters, but also in chapters composed by the narrator – as he says ate one point, “I started guessing things and wrote them down.” The woman, Rita, is a family servant whom Malabia comes across in more difficult times. But Onetti makes us question whether the woman he buried was Rita or not. Malabia tells him:

“It wasn’t Rita… She was a relative, a cousin… Another woman and practically another story.”

Onetti seems to be teasing us with the unattainable nature of truth, placing even this fact just beyond our reach. The narrator’s final comments sum up Onetti’s approach:

“And this is more or less all I had left after the holidays. Nothing really; hopeless confusion, a narrative without a possible conclusion, full of doubtful meanings, belied by the very elements that I had to give it shape. I had personal knowledge only of the last chapter, the hot afternoon in the cemetery. I didn’t know the significance of what I’d seen, I was repelled by finding out and being sure.”

Having read No Man’s Land last year, it is clear Onetti is a difficult but rewarding writer; it is such a pity he is now entirely out of print.

Lost Books – The Little Angel

May 28, 2017

Seven Hanged by Leonid Andreyev was one of the stand-out stories I read last December (when I was reading a story a day) and I had hoped that its appearance in a new translation by Anthony Briggs as a Penguin Little Black Classic might herald a longer volume of his work. Sadly, there is no sign of that happening yet, so instead I turned to a collection published by Dedalus in 1989 of a 1915 translation, The Little Angel. (The translator is unnamed, though may be Herman Bernstein who translated a number of Andreyev’s stories).

The Little Angel finds Andreyev once again in the company of the down-trodden and down-at-heel. What particularly struck me was the causation in many of the stories between the circumstances in which the characters are forced to live and the way in which they act. The title story begins:

“At times Sashka wished to give up what is called living: to cease to wash every morning in cold water, on which thin sheets of ice floated about; to go no more to the grammar school and listen to everyone scolding him; no more to experience the pain in the small of his back and indeed over his whole body when his mother made him kneel in the corner all evening… since Sashka possessed an indomitable and bold spirit, he could not supinely tolerate evil, and so found means to avenge himself on life. With this object in view he would thrash his companions, be rude to the Head, impertinent to the masters, and tell lies all day long to his teachers and his mother…”

Sashka’s life makes him the unpleasant young man he is, and that life is not of his choosing, as we discover when he is invited to the wealthy Svetchnokovs one Christmas, a family his father once tutored for before ‘having’ to marry his landlady’s daughter and taking to drink. Sashka attends, resentful and angry, until he sees a decorative angel on the tree:

“…something such as had never come within the circle of his existence, and without which all his surroundings appeared as empty as though peopled by persons without life.”

Sashka begs for the angel, eventually on his knees, and brings it home where his father who is equally taken by it. As he sleeps, however, the angel (made of wax) melts. The little angel is, of course, the counterpoint to Sashka’s little devil, and cannot exist in the life he must live.

Such pessimism persists throughout Andreyev’s work. Petka, in ‘Petka at the Bungalow’, is another poor boy, working at a barber’s shop:

“Round his eyes and under his nose faint lines were forming as though traced by a sharp needle, and they made him look like an aged dwarf.”

Petka gets the opportunity to go to the country, to the bungalow where his mother’s master and mistress and living. Initially uncertain, he befriends a local boy and takes up fishing. His health noticeably improves:

“Just look how he is putting on flesh! He’s a regular merchant!”

Eventually, of course, he must return to the city, leaving his fishing tackle behind. As with Sashka, he has glimpsed a better life, only to be placed back where he ‘belongs’. The story ends with what must be one of the saddest final lines, as he lies awake in bed:

“…that distant cry of complaint was heard, which had for long been borne in from the boulevard, where a drunken man was beating an equally drunken woman.”

As if to show that people are being treated no better than animals, Andreyev includes two stories about dogs. In ‘Snapper’ it is a dog which, initially neglected, is shown affection when adopted by a family, only to be abandoned again when they leave their summer home. In ‘The Friend’ the narrator realises too late that it is his dog who is his true friend.

My favourite story, however, was the more satirical ‘An Original’ in which Anton Ivanovich’s declaration that he “loves negresses” gains him both attention and identity. Though his predilection is not shared by all, “all were pleased that among them in the person of one of their own comrades was to be found such an original person.”

“At the end of the week the whole Department knew that the civil servant, Kotel’nikov, was very fond of negresses. By the end of a month, the porters, the petitioners, and the policemen on duty at the corner knew it too.”

Ivanovich becomes an “interesting guest” though this does him little good, as when he finds a woman to whom he is attracted, “since he loved only negresses, he determined not to show his liking.” Though the story has already made its point, Andreyev follows it to the bitter end, the constant repetition of his love for negresses (and his repeated reasoning that they are “exotic”) becoming increasingly hysterical, in both senses of the word. The language of the story may have dated, but its satirical target has not.

Reading The Little Angel makes it all the more surprising that Andreyev has been so long neglected. Surely he is a writer whose time will come again.

Lost Books – Second Harvest

January 23, 2017

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One of the most impressive novels I read last year was originally written in 1929. Hill (which I read in a new translation by Paul Eprile) was Jean Giono’s first novel and it left me eager for more, though up against Giono’s rather sporadic and disorganised appearance in English. Hill is the first of three novels said to comprise Giono’s ‘Pan trilogy’, the second being Un de Baumugnes (Lovers are Never Losers) and the third Regain (Second Harvest). Both were translated into English in the 1930s, but Lovers are Never Losers seems not to have been reprinted (and is therefore not the easiest book to get hold of) whereas Second Harvest (translated by Henri Fluchere and Geoffrey Myers) was (in 1999 by Harvill).

Second Harvest, like Hill, is set in a sparsely populated village in the Provence area of France. In fact the village of Aubignane is so sparsely populated that when the novel opens it has only three inhabitants left: Gaubert and Mameche, both elderly, and Panturle, the only one with much life left ahead of him:

“Panturle was a huge man. He looked like a piece of wood walking along. During the heat of the summer, when he had made himself a sort of sun-curtain out of fig leaves and held himself erect with his hands full of grass, he was just like a tree.”

That Panturle appears to be part of nature is not unexpected as Giono uses language in these novels to suggest that the landscape and the creatures (including people) which live there are inextricably linked. The wind, we are told, “waved about a little and beat its tail gently against the hard sky”; flames are “just like colts, prancing around elegantly without thinking of work”; in winter:

“The countryside shivered in silence…Every morning a russet sun rose in silence. With a few indifferent paces it strode across the whole breadth of the sky and day was over. Night heaped up the stars like grain.”

Gaubert has been convinced by his son to leave as winter approaches – “He says he’s anxious about leaving me alone this winter” – and it looks as if the village will soon be empty until Mamech asks Panturle, “If I brought you one, would you take the woman?” She does not ask this question because she has someone in mind but simply out of determination. The promise seems in vain, however, when Mamech herself disappears.

Our focus now moves to the knife-grinder, Gedemus, and the woman he travels with, Arsule. Arsule’s back-story is an indication that Giono is never sentimental about the lives he portrays. A travelling entertainer, she is abandoned by her ‘manager’ and, when found the next day by a group of farm-workers, she is repeatedly raped. Gedemus then takes her in as both servant and mistress. His treatment of her as a useful asset rather than a human being can be seen in the way that, though they set off with him pulling his knife-grinding tools in a cart, she soon takes over.

Through a series of prosaic events which Giono describes in such a way to seem almost mystical, including Gedemus and Arulse pulling Panturle from a river and saving his life, Panturle and Arsule end up living together in Abignane. Panturle’s symbolic rebirth (“He had begun to live again a few moments ago…”) is the beginning of the rebirth of the village, best seen in his decision to plant grain again having lived alone by hunting.

As with Hill, Second Harvest is a simple story told with great subtlety. Giono’s great skill is to display characters and landscape as one and in constant conflict. Even in writing of a way of life which was already dying out, there is an optimism of the will which is difficult to resist.

Lost Books – The Tennis Players

April 29, 2016

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I first became aware of Lar Gustafsson, who died this month, when Harvill Press published a number of his novels in the 1990s, including perhaps his most famous, The Death of a Beekeeper. Since then I’ve tracked down the rest of his fiction (he was also a poet) and only recently acquired the final volume (in English, that is) a short novel from 1977 (translated by Yvonne Sandstroem in 1983) called The Tennis Players.

At fewer than a hundred pages, The Tennis Players is properly a novella, and, as its narrator is a Visiting Professor at Texas University, it falls into the category of campus literature, with autobiographical leanings (Gustafsson spent much of his life teaching in the US, and the cover photograph – on which he features- suggests he can wield a racket). The narrator (called, of course, Lars Gustafsson) is approached by a student on his Swedish literature course with the memoir of a Polish chemist, Zygmunt. In it, Zygmunt describes his attempt in Paris, alongside a group of Polish anarchists, to acquire the secrets of August Strindberg’s alchemy, as described in Strindberg’s autobiographical novel, Inferno. Inferno is usually cited as evidence that Strindberg was suffering from some form of psychological neurosis, but now it seems that his paranoia may have been justified. Zygmunt’s actions include attempting to render Strindberg unconscious by gassing him in order to steal his notes.

“Zygmunt ascribes the fact that they had eluded detection to nothing more than August’s naïve conviction that he was the centre of the universe, and so naturally had to assume the Powers were persecuting him.”

However, as Gustafsson’s girlfriend points out,

“There are just too many people who have built their careers on the Inferno Crisis, who make their living teaching it. You can’t drag in some old Polish alchemist at this point…Believe me, sensible people have seen that memoir long ago and decided to disregard it.”

What’s needed is a careful comparison of the two texts, and what better way to accomplish that than to “feed both books into a computer and program it to check the day-to-day correlation between the two narratives” – or, at least, that’s the novel suggestion put to Lars. This is, of course, a much trickier proposition in 1975, but luckily Gustafsson has recently befriended (on the tennis court) Chris who, despite being blacklisted by the FBI and the CIA, works for Strategic Air Defense. This allows him access to a particularly powerful computer:

“I can transfer a lot of memory capacity so it isn’t easy to discover that the machine is moon-lighting.”

These events play out against the background of an attempt by the Boards of Trustees to remove the University President over a refusal to replace a performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold with Verdi’s Aida, and so all apsects of campus comedy are covered.

For, despite the occasional reminder of death – a student shooting from the university bell tower; the potential for nuclear Armageddon as a result of misuse of the Strategic Air Defense computer – Gustafsson retains a comic tone throughout. He begins and ends with the declaration, “It was a happy time” and a sense of happiness pervades the narrative, quite at odds, one would imagine, with Strindberg’s Inferno. At the novel’s heart lies Abel, a tennis player who can match Jimmy Connors and Rod Laver, but who is contented playing against whoever arrives at the university court:

“He was related to the great teachers, Gunnar Ekelof, the Japanese Zen monks, the ancient archers, and the Australian aborigine medicine men.”

The Tennis Players may not be a great novel, and its more dated elements may mean it is unlikely to be reprinted, but the idea that the narrator can look back on a moment of happiness in his life, without quite being able to explain why he felt that way, still rings true. Amid all the satiric shenanigans, it is that feeling that makes it such a joy to read.

Lost Books – The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka

October 4, 2015

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Josef Skvorecky ranks among the great Czech writers of the twentieth century, of which there are, of course, many – Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, Václav Havel, Ivan Kilma only form the beginnings of a list. When he and his wife fled to Canada in 1968 after the Soviet invasion, one of the first things they did was to set up a Czech publishing house. Ironically, the only one of his novels still in print in the UK seems to be The Cowards, published by Penguin Modern Classics a few years ago; The Engineer of Human Souls, generally regarded as his masterpiece (the title comes from a phrase Stalin used to describe writers) is out of print. Among his many books you will also find a detective series featuring the lugubrious Lieutenant Boruvka, the first of which, The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka, was published in 1966.

The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka contains twelve tales of murder and sleuthing. Despite the death count and Boruvka’s rather humourless approach to police work, the tone is light-hearted. In the first story, ‘The Supernatural Powers of Lieutenant Boruvka’, he arrives at the scene to find his subordinates determined to convince him that an apparent suicide is murder, so determined that they will not let him speak, so that when he finally agrees with them they are unaware that this is what he has been trying to tell them all along – based not on his supernatural powers but on some rather obvious proof. The stories typically involve ‘locked room’ room mysteries (one takes place in the changing rooms of a fashion show, another on a mountain top) or alibis which turn out not to be as rock solid as they first appear. All are satisfying and clever.

As the volume progresses, another dimension is added as Skvorecky begins to develop Boruvka’s character and link the stories together. No sooner is his teenage daughter, Zuzana, introduced than we find him on holiday in Italy with her:

“He had promised that if her school report turned out well, they would spend a holiday in Italy, the home of her mother’s family. He had, however, committed a fateful error: he had neglected to define the term ‘turn out well.’”

Not only does he solve one case there, but two – the second arising when guests of the cousin of the woman whose murder he solved in the previous story. Another recurring character is a young police woman who falls in love with him; in a moment of weakness he arranges to meet her in a bar, but a murder (of course) gets in the way.

The stories were clearly written with a great fondness for the genre, shared by Boruvka who frequently refers to detective fiction (though, at times, dismissively), leading to the wonderful conclusion to ‘Death on Needlepoint’:

“‘The things these scoundrels think up!’
‘Detective story writers you mean?’ asked Lieutenant Boruvka slyly.
‘No, I mean murderers!’ Sergeant Malik retorted with some heat.”

Boruvka’s knowledge of detective fiction aids him in solving two cases, though he’s not beyond having a dig at Karel Capek’s story ‘Hordubal’:

“If I were to write detective stories, he thought to himself, I would never leave the reader at sea.”

Sentiments which Skvorecky clearly shares. Translated detective fiction is now commonplace – something that was not the case twenty-five years ago when Boruvka was published by Faber. It seems reasonable to suggest a reprint is in order. Perhaps Pushkin Press’ new crime imprint Vertigo would be suitable match?

Lost Books – Girl in a Turban

August 11, 2015

girl in a turban

One example of the lack of women writers in translation is the dearth of Independent Foreign Fiction Prize winners of that gender. When Jenny Erpenbeck claimed the award with The End of Days this year, many declared her the first ever female winner. In fact, when the prize returned after a five year absence in 2001, it was won by Marta Morazzoni for The Alphonse Courrier Affair, an award that later went temporarily missing from the prize’s history. (You can read a review of The Alphonse Courrier Affair here). This still represents a depressing 2 out of 21 winners – less than ten percent.

The Alphonse Courrier Affair was not Morazzoni’s first work – or indeed, her first work translated into English. Prior to writing the novel, she had published a collection of short stories – Girl in a Turban – in Italy in 1986, swiftly translated into English by Patrick Creagh in 1988. All five stories are set in the past (the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries), often touching on the lives of famous historical figures, and all, in one way or another, contemplating mortality.

The first story, ‘The White Door’, deals with Mozart’s final days, spent as the guest of a wealthy patron writing his Requiem. When his wife Constanze, visits unexpectedly, she is determined to visit the Villa of his sponsors, but he puts her off:

“ ‘How old you’ve got,’ she said, with all the savagery of a child who does not weigh its words.”

“So his malady was so obvious that it even had a name,” Mozart thinks to himself. That night he dreams of entering the Villa. Once inside he is drawn to a white door – “by instinct he knew that there was the way and that was the ineluctable access.” the door is clearly death but once opened:

“The boyish laugh that rose slowly in his throat spread forth in harmonious sound.”

In accepting death Mozart rediscovers his prematurely vanished youth.

The idea of a good death features in a number of the stories, most noticeably in ‘The Last Assignment’ which tells of Charles V’s decision to retreat to a monastery in the final years of his life through the eyes of Don Luis, a noble who is called to follow the King and is placed in charge of providing provisions for the royal party. Don Luis seems a simple man who goes about his task to the best of his ability, but he also strikes up a relationship with a gypsy whom he passes on the road to and from the town. He helps her when he finds her fallen on the ground, and she later returns the favour when he falls ill; and yet, you would not call their relationship even friendship. After his illness, Charles takes him into his confidence and allows him to read his memoirs, which he takes charge off after Charles’ death, deciding not to release them into the world for reasons we never discover, yet somehow seeming entirely in keeping with his character.

The title story refers to a painting more famously known as ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, currently residing in the home of art dealer Van Rijk

“Propped up against the wall opposite the window in the bedroom, the picture by this time had reigned supreme for a month.”

Though reluctant to sell it, he eventually does, taking the trouble to travel to Denmark with it. He is remembered by the buyer’s daughter when her father dies, and the picture is seen to rise above the commercial bargain they made.

Although death does not feature in the two remaining stories, ‘The Dignity of Signor da Ponte’ centres on an act of violence which we might assume the title character fears has ended in death, and ‘Order in the House’ concerns a living death as its protagonist, Karl, finds himself suddenly paralysed.

Morazzoni’s stories do not attempt to be neat or tricky; they moved with a staid pace in suiting to their settings. Each feels particular to its time period yet has a certain mythic quality thanks to her choice of subjects – kings, paintings, composers. None ends with a shock, yet each conclusion, on reflection, seems well-timed. Given that these were Morazzoni’s first published work, she handles the pressures of historical writing, especially with the use of characters who have actually lived, with enormous confidence. A writer who deserves to be rediscovered.

Lost Books – Fragments

May 23, 2015

fragments

Ayi Kwei Armah is a Ghanaian writer whose first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, has become a landmark of African Literature. Published in 1968, it remains in print to this day. Armah’s other fiction, however, largely written during the 1970s, has slowly fallen out of favour. Spurrred on by Joy delire’s month of African Literature, I decided to read his second novel, Fragments, which tells the story of a young man, Baako, returning to Ghana after spending time abroad; above all, it is a tale of frustrated idealism and disillusionment.

The novel opens with Baako’s departure, but even at this point it is clear that his return is what excites his relatives: “there was such hot desire impatient for his return at his departure.” His mother is confident “He will come back a man. A big man.” Only his grandmother worries for him, picturing him abroad as she accompanies him to the airport:

“All the people were white people all knowing only how to speak the white people’s languages…But Baako walked among them neither touched nor seen, like a ghost in an overturned world in which all human flesh was white.”

Her fears are justified: we discover later that during his five years away Baako has been ill with a “sickness of the soul”; where she is wrong is in the assumption that he will no longer feel isolated once back home. In fact, her picture of him applies as much on his return to Ghana as it does in America, his idealism contrasting with the cynical realities of the time and how he is expected to act as a “been-to.” Even before he sets foot on Ghanaian soil again, he is faced with the crass materialism he will experience on his return in the shape of fellow passenger Brempong:

“It’s no use going back with nothing. You may not have the chance to travel again in a long time. It’s a big opportunity and those at home must benefit from it too.”

Brempong regularly ships goods over – a widespread expectation, as Baako will discover when he is asked again and again when his car will be arriving. (Later doubts will be voiced regarding his time abroad on the evidence that he is regularly seen at a bus stop). Brempong is also not impressed with Baako’s attitude to employment – that is, his expectation that his qualifications will gain him a job with state television: “You have to know people.” Which is, of course, what he eventually has to resort to, contacting an old teacher:

“It all keeps coming back to this, in the end,” he said, lifting the receiver, “The organisations might just as well not exist. You keep getting pushed into using personal contacts.”

His idealism is similarly undermined by the job itself. Believing that film is the art of the future – “in many ways, I’ve thought of the chance of doing film scripts for an illiterate audience would be superior to writing, just as an artistic opportunity” – he is disillusioned to discover that the television station sees as its main purpose the coverage of state events:

“We have to follow the Head of State and get pretty pictures of him and those around him…We had a lecture before you came. A nation is built through glorifying its big shots. That’s our job anyway.”

Literature itself doesn’t escape censure: as one writer says at an event Baako attends, “Nobody meets to discuss real writing anymore. This has become a market where we’re all sold.”

The corruption that Baako sees all around him is also evident in his own family, particularly when his sister gives birth. The outdooring ceremony for the child is held early to quickly follow payday and maximise returns. Much is made of the money given by the important guests to encourage others to be generous. The child later dies.

The novel is not entirely gloomy, however – Baako finds love when he meets Juana, a Puerto Rican doctor who also gives the reader an outsider’s view of Ghanaian society: “another defeated and defeating place.” But even love cannot save him form the frustration he feels at the corruption around him and the expectation that he be a part of it:

“I know what I’m expected to be…It’s not what I want to be.”

This sentence demonstrates why the novel has universal appeal. It’s version of Ghana may be dated, but its portrayal of a man struggling against both his family and his society, unable to accept their values, remains as relevant as ever.

Lost Books – Poor Tom

January 21, 2015

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Edwin Muir is best known as a poet and, perhaps, as the translator, along with his wife Willa, of Kafka into English. He also wrote, however, in a number of other genres: an autobiography; a travel book, Scottish Journey, which remains in print to this day; and three novels. The last of these was Poor Tom, published in 1932. It contains a strong autobiographical element, though nothing to compare with what Muir himself suffered when he, like the brothers Tom and Mansie, came to Glasgow when his father lost his farm on Orkney: Muir’s father, two brothers, and mother died within the space of a few years.

Though death is, unsurprisingly, a central theme of Poor Tom, it begins with that other great staple of literature, sex. Rarely, in fact, have I read a novel so concerned with sex (certainly in the first half) that is, at the same time, entirely without the act itself. Both Tom and Mansie retain a rather Puritan attitude towards sex –indeed Scotland is more than once referred to as a Puritan country – and this attitude is at the root of the issue which divides them when the novel opens and Tom spies Mansie with a woman, Helen, he recently courted, only to be rejected for over-stepping the boundaries of propriety:

“…he hadn’t dared to touch her or to kiss her for weeks and weeks…Better if the thing had always stayed at that stage. For her kisses drove a fellow frantic and she didn’t seem to know it…No wonder he had got violent that night that night in Maxwell Park; he was beyond himself, couldn’t help it.”

A foggy vagueness descends whenever any sexual activity beyond kissing is discussed, but it is unlikely that the violence amounted to much more than groping, a clumsiness that perhaps originates in Tom’s inability to understand how to connect his desire with action:

“Tom, in other words, simply could not imagine himself lying in bed with the stylishly dressed girls whom he walked out – at least while he was walking them out; or rather he could not imagine the process which would lead to that consummation.”

It is important to remember that such attitudes towards sex were held sincerely – though television adaptations and contemporary novelists often like to suggest otherwise. Tom’s desire for Helen makes him feel that he has “desecrated their love”. Mansie also uses religious language to describe his experience of sex: unexpectedly finding a girl willing to sleep with him (we assume – the act itself happens within an ellipsis) he observes:

“Yet, sitting now in the lighted tram, she looked so proud and unapproachable that what had happened that evening seemed a blasphemous impossibility.”

This ends the relationship; the next time they meet she looks right through him. This attitude towards sex exacerbates Tom’s anger towards Mansie and Helen: he sees Mansie as having betrayed him, and Helen as having revealed herself not to be the respectable young woman she pretended to.

The themes of sex and death are united by that most Scottish of emotions, guilt. After seeing Mansie and Helen together, Tom falls out not only with his brother, but with life, something which manifests itself in excessive drinking, and a tumble from a tram car. Though he initially seems to recover from the resultant blow to the head, his condition slowly begins to deteriorate. His failing health brings the brothers together again, but Mansie blames himself for Tom’s condition:

“If it hadn’t been for my going with that girl this might never have happened! I wish to God I’d never set eyes on her.”

Poor Tom has moments of wonderful writing, for example the description of Helen’s ineffectual attempts to conceal her desire: “she cannot keep the waves of passion from flowing over [her face], from rippling under that smooth mask like the muscles under the hide of some lovely animal.” Muir’s extended personification of Death towards the end, originating from Christ’s sight of the Roman soldiers approaching Gethsemane, and ending with Death as a nightly companion who “lies down quietly beside him and takes him in his arms” is worth reading on its own.

However, Muir’s narrative voice overpowers the characters, with his thoughts dominating whether ascribed to Tom or Mansie. Perhaps for this reason, the female characters – the mother, Helen, and a sister, Jean – rarely come to life. It remains interesting as a social document – not only for its examination of sexual attitudes, but also the political scene, with socialism competing with religion for Mansie’s heart – and for anyone interested in Muir’s poetry (there is a powerful scene with a horse, an animal which appears throughout Muir’s poetry). Only those with a very hard heart, though, will not be moved by its conclusion.

Lost Books – Retreat to Innocence

December 12, 2014

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In 1956, in the middle of writing her Children of Violence series, Doris Lessing published her now neglected novel, Retreat to Innocence. Reprinted in 1967, it has never reappeared, largely as result of Lessing’s own dismissal of it as ‘shallow’ and ‘soft-centred and sentimental.’ Perusing the substantial list of Lessing’s works which often preface her books, including poetry, operas and drama, you will find no trace of it. This, of course, raises the general question of whether writers should be able to censor their own canon, and the more particular one of whether Lessing was correct in allowing the novel to vanish like a disgraced comrade from a photograph.

Retreat to Innocence works with a small cast of characters to tell a love story where the political dimension is as important as the emotional. Julia is the innocent, a young woman from a privileged background who is now making her own life London. Quite by chance she meets a middle-aged Czech refugee, Jan in a café; he has experience in excess. She, of course, dismisses any idea of being attracted to him, but later finds she cannot forget him:

“She shut her eyes to feel the happiness; and clear against her lids came the picture of the man in the coffee-house. She saw his mouth, tense and quivering; his eyes, shadowed – tormented. She had not seen them then: now she could see nothing else.”

Soon she finds herself heading back to the café without entirely admitting to herself that is her destination. Their relationship follows the traditional path of initial dislike and distrust to love and passion. Just observe the description of their second conversation: “she frowned”; “she bit her lip and gazed furiously at him”; “she said aggressively.” Lessing, however, is interested in more than a young girl’s infatuation with an older man; Jan is soaked in politics, with a background as an active Communist in his own country. Julia, on the other hand, dismisses politics entirely:

“We don’t plot and dream about the future and carry on an intrigue – …My generation…I tell you, if we’re ever tempted to have anything to do with politics, we’ve only got to look at you and that’s enough.”

Lessing is keen to point out that this is a generational rather than an individual contrast, and characters frequently refer to differences between the generations. Her father, clearly a pillar of the British establishment, also observes a similar difference:

“A more self-centred, selfish, materialistic generation has never been born into this unfortunate old country.”

(Interesting how this has been said by every generation of the next since). Julia’s innocence is, as the title suggests, willed, a refusal to look beyond her own happiness. Her relationship with Jan forces her to leave her comfort zone and engage with a wider world. This does, of course, mean that much of the novel is taken up with Jan talking patiently to Julia, interspersed with her often inane interruptions. When he says, a few moments after they have slept together for the first time, “Now listen, Julia, I shall give you another little lecture,” it’s not a euphemism.

However, the novel does not entirely lack complexity. As usual with Lessing, all the characters are presented with some sympathy, even stiff upper lip types like Julia’s father and her boyfriend, Roger. Lessing is particularly good on the relationship between Julia and her room-mate Betty, one minute best friends, the next resenting some slight or bad habit. This relationship allows us to see Julia as a more rounded character; with Jan she is inevitably diminished, particularly as Lessing at no point describes the physical aspect of their relationship, or presents it from his point of view outside of what he tells her. Jan, too, has depth. His certainty is not all-encompassing: he cannot decide whether to return to Czechoslovakia or not – his brother lives there, but he also has friends who have been imprisoned or executed.

The novel’s main weakness seems to originate in the feeling that the relationship between Jan and Julia has been created only to explore particular themes: the difference between the generation which fought the war and that which came after; between East and West; between youth and experience. Jan is apparently based on a man whom Lessing did have a relationship with, but Julia is not Lessing and her attraction to Jan never entirely convinces. This is not the same, however, as saying that the novel deserves to be consigned to oblivion. When Julia asks:

“Are you quite sure that even in your half of the world people want what you want, and not just comfort and being able to get out the rain?”

she is asking a question as pertinent to politics now as then. Whether it should be reprinted is an economic question (though it will soon have been out of print for fifty years – fairly good publicity, I would have thought). It does seem, though, the kind of novel that should be available electronically, now that we have that option.