Archive for the ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’ Category

1982 Janine

September 16, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Alasdair Gray

1982 Janine is not the most obviously experimental of Alasdair Gray’s novels: Lanark, with its disordered books, author appearance and Index of Plagiarisms (complete with imaginary chapters), and Poor Things, with its various narratives and scholarly notes, are more formally adventurous. However, having read both a number of times, I decided to return to Gray’s second novel for the first time in over twenty-five years. It still displays one or two of Gray’s tricks, from the unflattering blurb:

“Every stylistic excess and moral defect which critics conspired to ignore in the author’s first books…is to be found here in concentrated form.”

to the typographical mayhem of ‘The Ministry of Voices’. For the most part, however, the novel is an interior monologue addressed to God, taking place over the course of one long, dark night.

As with Lanark, Gray is concerned with both the personal and the political: for Gray the two are indivisible. Though the novel opens with the sexual fantasies of its narrator (and you can’t get much more personal than that), Jock McLeish, it is not long before he is also discussing his political views with us:

“…in Britain almost everyone of my income group is Conservative, especially if their fathers were trade unionists. Not that I have totally rejected the old man’s Marxist ideas. The notion that all politics is class warfare is clearly correct. Every intelligent Tory knows that politics is a matter of people with a lot of money combining to manage people with very little.”

This is typical Gray – not only the view expressed, but the succinct and certain tone with which complex truths are revealed in all their simplicity. Whereas love united the personal and political journeys of Lanark, here we are more concerned with repression. Published in 1984 (the title is an echo of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, deliberately backward looking, with its everyman protagonist tortured by memory rather than forgetting in a Room 101 of his own choosing – the novel’s first line is “This is a good room”), Scotland was trapped in an unending nightmare of Tory rule. Gray links personal, particularly emotional, repression to that of national oppression. It is no surprise that McLeish works as a security consultant – at one point he describes himself as a “locked box”.

Throughout the novel, McLeish attempts to repress his memories, particularly of those he has loved, with pornographic fantasies. When memories surface, they are clearly painful:

“When forget her and I were not lovemaking or asleep we lay merely holding each other, amazed and grateful to be holding each other.”

McLeish concocts sadistic storylines in which women are restrained and abused by men and other women. In a world of instant internet pornography they possibly seem quite tame, but in a literary novel they still have some shock value, particularly as the text form requires the complicity of the reader to bring them to life. McLeish’s constant descriptions of clothes make clear that the women themselves are little more than objects:

“Do I like women’s clothes more than their bodies? Oh no, but I prefer their clothes to their minds. Their minds keep telling me, no thank you, don’t touch, go away. Their clothes say, look at me, want me, I am exciting.”

As the novel progresses the pornography fades away and we learn more about McLeish’s life: his childhood, his time at college, and the crucial turning point in his life when he assists a theatre group at the Edinburgh Fringe. There, his lack of belief in himself prevents him recognising his own potential, and he ends up trapped in a loveless marriage. His best friend at college, Alan, whom he regards as a man that might do anything, dies in a fall, an event Gray uses to show the demise of McLeish’s optimism. He later fantasises about Alan creating a utopia on earth had he lived:

“While working hard in every field of energy and communications I was helping my friend Alan establish the proper place and destination of man in the universe.”

McLeish’s journey is not unlike Lanark’s: he must go down to Hell and then return to the daylight. Page 56 of the novel is, in fact, made up entirely of the word ‘hell’. Here the transformation also takes place through a mouth, but it is McLeish’s’ own mouth, first when he attempts suicide by taking an overdose and then when he chooses to live and vomits the pills up again. It is this that makes 1982 Janine a resoundingly optimistic novel despite the bleak picture of the world, and the people in it, which it frequently paints.

Danger rating: either that the pornography will put you off, or you’ll be disappointed when it disappears.


September 11, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Tom McCarthy

Just over one year ago I was sitting in one of the smaller tents at the Edinburgh International Book Festival listening to Tom McCarthy discuss his new novel, C, with Stuart Kelly. Unusually, I hadn’t read the novel, or either of McCarthy’s previous two novels, but had bought a ticket purely on the strength of what I had read about him, despite the fact that this had not yet driven me to read a single word he had written. As a discussion of literature, it ranks among the best that I have ever witnessed at the festival, and it was one of the reasons that I decided to spend a year reading more experimental fiction, having still not opened C or the copy of Remainder I had also acquired by the end of the year. Ironically, that very decision delayed my reading further (I almost considered leaving it until the end of this year), but eventually I decided that enough was enough and, having by now largely forgotten the overwhelming and rather intimidating nature of the philosophising last August, dusted off my copy and began.

My disappointment, therefore, will come as no surprise. The first disappointment is that C reads, superficially, very much like a traditional novel. It has a central character, Serge Carrefax, whom we first meet at his birth, follow through childhood and adolescence into adulthood, and leave fatally ill at the novel’s end. He even has a rather picaresque life: an eccentric father and mother; a strange sister who kills herself; participation in World War One; drug addiction; and a secret mission which takes him to the ancient tombs of Egypt. Of all the ‘c’s that McCarthy is interested in, however, character isn’t one of them: Serge remains flat and unconvincing throughout, eliciting no empathy from the reader. Of course, this is deliberate – McCarthy signals his intentions when he describes Serge’s inability to develop perspective in his drawing:

“Serge just can’t do it: his perceptual apparatuses refuse point blank to be twisted into the requisite configuration. He sees things flat; he paints things flat. Objects, figures, landscapes: flat.”

As an aerial observer during the First World War he relishes his viewpoint of the world, a map laid flat below him. (I am reminded of Alasdair Gray’s description of Duncan Thaw’s aim in his painting to describe his own ambition in Lanark. It’s interesting in itself that Thaw is a painter and Serge an engineer; McCarthy even includes a painter in this section who bemoans he simply can’t paint what he sees from a plane.)

Serge, therefore, is not a character in the traditional sense; according to Jenny Turner in the London Review of Books:

“…he’s a convergence, or rather an area of concentration where ideas, images, words, preoccupations gather and regroup.”

McCarthy telegraphs his interests from the novel’s opening pages where Serge’s father is more concerned about the arrival of the equipment he needs for his wireless experiments than the birth of his son – perhaps making equally clear the writer’s priorities. Communication is the ‘c’ that we return to again and again. Not only the wireless which punctuates the entire novel, but the school for deaf children his father runs, the séances, the inscriptions on the Egyptian tombs – for this is communication across both time and space. It’s no surprise that the final scene in the novel is not Serge dying in his cabin as he sails for Egypt back to England, but the ship’s wireless room, followed by a final paragraph describing the ship’s wake “etched out across the water’s surface” seeming as much a metaphor for radio signals as Serge’s life.

The other ‘c’ which McCarthy is clearly interested in is cleverness, which I do not mean uncharitably. Cleverness, in this anti-intellectual age, is to be cherished, but my second disappointment was in just how much C needs the reader to be clever for it to be worthwhile. Of course, this is partly a disappointment in myself, and all good novels reward a second reading. But great novels, even difficult ones like Ulysses (and much has been made of C finishing in 1922 when Ulysses was published) demand a second reading through engagement as well as puzzlement.

Danger rating: reading C can feel a little like watching one of annual enactments of Greek myths performed by the children at Serge’s father’s school: worthy and clever but to be admired rather than loved.

Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife

September 2, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – William H. Gass

You only need to flick through the pages of William H. Gass’ Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife to become aware that this is something a little different. Whether it is the sheer variety of fonts, often apparently fighting for space on the same page, the ever-multiplying asterisks lining up like orderly ants, the stains left behind by a careless coffee cup, or the behinds and breasts that embellish the text from cover to cover – something will catch your eye.

Most of the narratives focus on Willie Masters’ wife, Babs, who is, indeed, lonely and looking for company. Having found the novel’s title emblazoned across her naked torso on the cover and frontispiece, she bends to take its first letter into her mouth, he breasts swinging towards the text like unwieldy punctuation. First and third person narration intermingle as she contemplates the names men give their penises, her “breasts as big as your butt”, and whether saliva is “the sweet wine of love” (though this latter line of thought is in a different font, perhaps not her voice at all…). Some suggestion that all is not simply smut is to be found in a consideration of imagination:

“I feel sometimes as if I were imagination – imagination imagining itself imagine.”

Men, she suggests, do not want to use their imagination and therefore need to be seduced into using it by her form, just as it says later:

“No-one can imagine – simply – merely; one must imagine within words or paint or metal…Imagination is its medium realised. You are your body…and the poet is his language.”

Thank goodness, then, it’s all an extended metaphor for writing – the blurb confirms this (“Disappointed by her inattentive husband / reader…”) – though this may not be entirely obvious when we are quickly engulfed in a script about a man who finds a penis in his bun. This already extended hotdog joke is lengthened further (I can feel the innuendo taking over) by copious footnotes, not always on the same page as the text from which they originate, and eventually requiring a record-breaking* twenty-five asterisks. As the play progresses the footnotes (generally discussing how the play should be performed) become more and more prominent –the text enlarges until finally it seem to be pushing the few lines of dialogue left off the page.

Is it funny? Well, it’s about funny, often making suggestions as to how to play a scene for humour: at various times we’re informed timing, contrast and repetition are the essence of the comic; puns also feature. Ultimately we are told:

“Actually it doesn’t matter how this scene is played for this is what they call a naturally humorous situation.”

However, we are told this in the shape of a tree, which I find makes any truth more palatable. Rather than humour (though there are some who find him funny), Gass seems more interested in making sure we don’t forget we are reading. Just as Babs draws attention to her body, so Gass draws attention to his text. The script format itself, lacking performance, is a reminder, but the footnotes, like being constantly tapped on the shoulder while watching a play, are even more attention-seeking. Throw in frequently changing fonts, Alice in wonderland letters, casually shrinking and growing, and sentences which writhe the page around like a bucketful of snakes, and you are unlikely to lose yourself in the story. When a coffee cup ring appears Gass cannot resist pointing out that it is not a real coffee stain:

“The muddy circle that you see just before you and below you represents the ring left on a leaf of the manuscript by my coffee cup. Represents, I say, because, as you must surely realise, this book is many removes form anything I ‘ve set pen, hand, or cup to.”

In other words, the sign which reminds us that what we have in our hands is an artefact is itself artificial.

Gass’ chaotic and kinetic creation has its admirable qualities, but my general feeling was that the joke went on too long and wasn’t all that funny anyway. It is probably not entirely a good sign that I only laughed when I came to the page that said:

“You’ve been had, haven’t you, jocko? you sad sour stew faced sunofabitch. Really, did you read this far?”

Danger rating: see above. Also, perhaps best not read on a train.

*I made this up.

this is not a novel

August 28, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – David Markson

This year seemed the perfect opportunity to become acquainted with the experimental American writer, David Markson – or at least with his writing, Markson having died in 2010 (something not entirely irrelevant to this book, deeply concerned as it is with mortality). Everything I had read about him made him sound worth tracking down, from his early parodies of pulp fiction to his later move towards experimentation (in his fifties), as well as the admiration that other American writers such as David Foster Wallace clearly had for him. It was particularly difficult to resist such a provocative title as this is not a novel, originally published in 2001 and reissued last year by CB Editions.

this is not a novel is certainly not a conventional novel. As the Writer (it’s only character) tells us almost immediately:

“Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.”

He goes on to reveal his ambition to write something that is plotless, characterless and actionless. These aims are scattered among other statements (the Writer’s thoughts?), many of which report the ways in which various writers, artists and composers have died. For example:

“Henry Miller died of cardiovascular failure.

B. Traven died of prostate cancer and sclerosis of the kidneys.”

While these make up the majority of the novel’s pensees, we are also offered non-fatal anecdotes (“Salvador Dali once gave a lecture on London while wearing a diving helmet. And nearly suffocated.”), unattributed quotations (“I gotta use words when I talk to you.”) and comments that one artist has made about another (“Plato talked too much, Diogenes said.”). While the information provided cannot be said to be random – it all connects to the creative life – neither could it be said to present a coherent view of that life, apart from, of course, making the point rather emphatically that all artists must die.

How does this work? Well, there is no doubt it works thematically, directing the reader towards the creative process (the Writer’s musings on what kind of work he is producing) and the creative life, particularly the relationships between artists. The apparently more than five hundred deaths mentioned cannot help but have an emotional resonance, referencing, as they do, both mortality and immortality (the way in which artists live on after death).

The text can also be read, however, as a conventional novel, with the Writer as the character, and the rest of the text his thoughts as he ponders on his own life as an artist. Markson seems to hint at this possible reading when he reveals towards the end:

“Or was it nothing more than a fundamentally recognisable genre all the while, no matter what Writer averred.

About an old man’s preoccupations.

Writer’s cancer.”

This has a distinct emotional punch, suggesting that Markson hasn’t quite abandoned the relationship between reader and character. Whatever the case, he has certainly succeeded in producing a novel that achieves his stated aim of:

“…seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless.”

Danger rating: certainly not for fans of plot, and unlikely to be adapted into a film, I still found this a book I didn’t want to stop reading.

Never Any End to Paris

August 19, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Enrique Vila-Matas

Enrique Vila-Matas’ two previous novels translated into English – Bartleby & Co and Montano – are very much about not writing. In Bartleby & Co a writer who has been unable to write a second novel researches those who have suffered a similar fate. In Monatano the eponymous scribe is unable to put pen to paper at all. Never Any End to Paris also features its share of not writing, but, as a fictionalised autobiography of Vila-Matas’ time in Paris attempting to write his first novel (although I believe the title he refers to is that of his second) success is foretold in the very volume that we have in our hands. Vila-Matas seems comfortable existing in the spaces between biography, fiction and essay (he portrays the book as a lecture, referring more than once to his audience). In an interview he commented:

“The broad passageway that joins fiction and reality is cool and well-ventilated, and the air within blows about with the same natural ease with which I mix biography and invention.”

Vila-Matas’ default mode for transcribing reality is irony, and he describes the novel as his “ironic revision of the two years of my youth in Paris.” The earnestness of the young writer, therefore, is seen from the distance of established craftsman, and much of this is indicated through the young Vila-Matas’ attempts to follow in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway (the title is a quotation from Hemmingway’s account of his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast). However, this mockery is immediately undermined by Vila-Matas’ apparent belief at the time of writing that he is the spitting image of Hemingway, to the point that he attempts to prove it by entering a look-alike contest, quickly finding himself disqualified:

“…they didn’t throw me out of the competition because they discovered the false beard – which they did not – but because of my ‘absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway’.”

Vila-Matas’ irony is not something he applies only to distant events, but is all-encompassing, including the persona he creates to narrate the novel. Writers, he suggests, are all deluded into thinking they are writers. He, in fact, identifies irony as what is missing from his life as a young man:

“Irony would have helped me but, since I was scarcely acquainted with it, there was nothing it could do for me.”

In Paris he lives in a garret (of course) rented from Marguerite Duras, whose French he rarely understands, and quickly inhabits every writerly cliché he can:

“I identified youth with despair and despair with the colour black. I dressed in black from head to toe. I bought myself two pairs of glasses, two identical pairs, which I didn’t need at all, I bought them to look more intellectual. And I began smoking a pipe…”

Vial-Matas describes his early struggles as a writer with a lightness and gentle mockery that conveys both the hardship and the freedom he experiences. He refers frequently to writers and writing; Hemingway, of course, but also many others, including those, like Georges Perec, he sees in Paris (typically, he simply stares at him). One of the most attractive things about Vila-Matas’ work is the way in which literature is unashamedly foregrounded as the subject.

Never Any End to Paris is a great addition to Vila-Matas’ work in English. Even better, a fourth book, Dublinesca, is due to follow next year.

Danger rating: beware of names dropping, but they fall so lightly they cannot harm you. Vila-Matas wears his erudition on his sleeve, but you might suspect it the costume of a clown.

Pricksongs and Descants

August 12, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Robert Coover

The final story in Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, ‘The Hat Act’, is structured around a magic trick:

“A man enters, dressed as a magician with black cape and black silk hat. Doffs hat in wide sweep to audience, bows elegantly.


As the story progresses, the man proceeds to pull various objects from the hat. He begins, of course, with a rabbit, then a series of hats, then a series of rabbits from the hats. Having exhausted this trick to diminishing returns (“Light applause”), he then transfers himself from one hat to another, his legs disappearing into one hat as his head reappears from another. Now the ordinary paraphernalia of magicians won’t do (rabbits, doves) – he tosses them into the wings and produces instead a glamorous assistant (“tight green halter, little green shorts, black net stockings”). The hat becomes stuck to his head. He requests two volunteers from the audience to remove it: one man grasps the hat, the other the magician’s legs:

“Magician’s neck stretches, snaps in two: POP! Large men tumble apart, rolling to opposite sides of the stage, one with body, other with hat containing magician’s severed head.”

The performance has only begun, but already we have learned a lot about the ways in which Coover works in this famous volume of short stories. The comparison with a magic trick is telling: the author is a magician anxious to surprise and shock his audience. Audience reaction plays a large part in this story with the narrative written as stage directions and the audience reaction following. Like the magician, Coover often begins with what we recognise, frequently fairy tales in this volume, and then takes us on surprising and unexpected detours. These detours often involve sex (the glamorous assistant) and sudden violence (the severed head).

‘The Gingerbread House’, for example, begins in the traditional manner, but quickly becomes a story of sexual awakening symbolised by a dove, lured by the bread crumbs, which the boy and girl fight over:

“Both children are weeping, the boy of anger and frustration, the girl of pain and pity and a bruised heart.”

She hides the dove beneath her skirt, “nestled in her small round thighs.” Later, the witch seduces the boy with the “burnished cherry-red heart of a dove”; the door to her cottage is also heart shaped, “shining like a ruby, like hard cherry candy, and pulsing softly, radiantly.” This symbolism may seem heavy handed when excised from the story, but, like many of the stories, ‘The Gingerbread House’ is written in short numbered sections, like a story board from a film, flitting from scene to scene without any linking narrative.

This style is used most effectively in ‘The Babysitter’, where sexual desire is also to the forefront. Here, a teenage babysitter is the focus of attention from her boyfriend, Jack, his friend, Mark, the young boy she is babysitting, and the boy’s father, Harry. Beginning with a scenario familiar from pornography (and horror films), Coover creates a maelstrom of lust where short scenes reveal various possibilities. In some she convinces Jack not to come round; in others Jack and Mark rape her. How much of it is male fantasy, how much is actually ‘happening’? The style makes the (male) reader complicit as the sexual elements of the narrative are the more dramatic and therefore the more appealing.

Coover is interested in his (male) characters becoming “drugged by the fantasy of the moment.” While this is largely sexual, we also see it in revenge story ‘The Elevator’. The preponderance of young girls and older men may now seem not so much shocking as dated, but Coover captures the way in which men can be slaves to passion, his sympathies seemingly lying with the difficulty of resisting desire. For example, in his Tempest re-write ‘The Magic Poker’ there is only Caliban:

“It is one thing to discover the shag of hair between my buttocks, quite another to find myself tugging the tight gold pants off Karen’s sister. Or perhaps it is the same thing, yet troubling in either case.”

In ‘Morris in Chains’ our sympathies lie with the captured Pan, Morris. Whatever his subject, however, what is undeniable is that Coover is an original writer who deserves to be read.

Danger rating: quick cutting style and belief that characters are driven by their more basic impulses may not be to everyone’s taste, but the recent re-release of three of his books as Penguin Classics provides a great opportunity to get to know this writer better.

A Life on Paper

July 27, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud

If the name Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud does not trip off the tongue it is not simply because of its interminable length: A Life on Paper, a selection of stories covering over thirty years, is the first time his work has appeared in English. This might explain Chateaureynaud’s rather stern glance on the front cover, looking uncannily like Kurt Vonnegut, a writer with which he shares more than a physical similarity, though from this collection his work appears both more subtle and more varied. As Brian Evenson says in his introduction, “Some stories shade far into the fantastic: others seem realistic except for one brief moment or lingering doubt.” Occasionally a story will begin with the fantasy element in the foreground, such as ‘Icarus Saved from the Skies’, where, if the title were not clue enough, we are told on the first page that the narrator “sprouted wings.” More commonly, however, the fantastic will slowly reveal itself, sometimes only lurking at the corner of a story, glimpsed but never seen in full light.

A good example of the latter is ‘The Peacocks’. It begins in a relatively ordinary fashion:

“We were living in a house in the country, Marie and I and two peacocks.”

As it progresses, however, there are hints that the world they live in is not our world but some apocalyptic vision of the future:

“We’d inherited all humanity had to offer. Books, music, paintings – they were all ours. At first, Marie put on a different dress each time she put another record on the player.”

Notice how quickly Chateaureynaud moves from the general to the particular. (In fact, he uses clothes throughout the story for verisimilitude). At no point does he offer any explanation for the situation the couple find themselves in, which seems to be that they are the last two humans alive, and the story ends as mysteriously as it began with the narrator walking away naked from their burning home:

“Right from my first tottering steps, the gravel on the roadbed and the cracks in the asphalt cut into my bare feet. Then came the rocks, the twigs, the razor grass along the embankment, and, further off, the high and spoiled wheat among the brambles.”

A science fiction premise is also used to great effect in one of my favourite stories, ‘The Gulf of the Years’. Again it begins in ordinary fashion with a man on a train. His knowledge of the future is not entirely clear at first: “The bombing wouldn’t start till later that morning,” may simply imply a regular event; “And yet, in a few hours one of them would kill his mother,” is placed in such a way it may be the authorial voice rather than the character’s. Gradually, however, we come to realise that Manoir is there to visit his younger self:

“You’re Jean-Jacques Manoir, aren’t you? Right? You don’t know me, but I know all about you. You’re eight years old, in third grade, and your teacher’s name is Mr Crepon. He’s got a tiny moustache and is very strict.”

Chateaureynaud’s interest in time travel (never mentioned in the story) is emotional rather than cerebral, with the focus on Manoir’s conversations with his child self and his mother. The story ends without any clear indication of why Manoir has travelled back in time, with an ambiguous final sentence which again is as much about emotional resonance as clarifying whether Manoir intends to save his mother.

Other stories borrow from other genres. Both ‘The Pest’ and ‘La Tete’ have pickpocketed an idea or two from the horror story: ‘The Pest’ is a variation on the double, and ‘La Tete’ features a severed head which refuses to die. ‘The Beautiful Coalwoman’ reads like a fable Calvino might write, with a knight lured onto an island by a beautiful woman said to be over one hundred years old. ‘Ecorcheville’ is a strange clash of genres featuring a man whose death is foretold by a gypsy and an automated suicide machine. A number of the stories simply take an idea and play with it: a house where everything is made of concrete; a street that no-one can find; a city of museums where the homeless hide. In each case Chateaureynaud builds from our everyday experience until he creates something quite different.

Given the quality of these stories, it is a wonder that they have taken so long to reach an English-speaking audience, and then only thanks to their translator Edward Gauvin and Small Beer Press. Hopefully more will follow.

Danger rating: despite the often bewildering originality of the stories, Chateaureynaud’s presentation is gentle, one might even say insidious, as if he were whispering these tales just for you.


July 8, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Quim Monzo

Guadalajara is a selection of short stories by the Catalan writer Quim Monzo, thankfully (despite the retention of the (wonderful sounding) original title) translated into English by Peter Bush, who seems to be on a one man mission to allow those of us more linguistically challenged to be able to appreciate this entertaining and original writer. This was not my first exposure to Monzo’s wit and craft, having read his novel The Enormity of the Tragedy a few years ago, possibly (and rather sadly) intrigued by its premise, that of a man with an unending erection. While the stories in Guadalajara are not quite so age restricted, they are similarly playful, often taking a striking idea and running with it in quite the same way.

The book is divided into five sections, two of which consist of single stories, the first section being one of these. This opening story, ‘Family Life’, is a typical mix of the mundane and the unusual. The first two pages describe an ordinary family gathering; only on the third page is it suggested that anything is untoward when the young boy, Armand, from whose point of view the story is being told sees a sight he “had often seen in these family get-togethers:”

“A boy would appear with a bandaged left hand. The bandage was always wrapped around his ring finger. Armand knew there was no longer a finger under the bandage, and that the bandage would eventually fall away, revealing a tiny, perfectly healed stump.”

Armand rebels against this family tradition with unexpected consequences. The other single story section (‘Centripetal Force’) is much more fantastic, though it too begins in a very ordinary way with a man attempting to leave his apartment. In this case, however, Monzo immediately hits us with the twist:

“The man has unsuccessfully been trying to leave his apartment since daybreak; whenever he opens the door the same thing happens: he can’t see the landing, only the hallway he is trying to leave at that exact moment.”

Monzo then plays with this idea across a number of characters and situations: ironically (and no doubt intentionally) the story that is about inwardness is the most sprawling in structure, moving from the original protagonist to two firemen, to a woman who is burying her husband.

Of the other stories, my favourite group is those which are built on the foundations of other stories. That one (‘Gregor’) is about a beetle who finds himself transformed into a fat boy sold me on the book immediately. The others tell of the Greeks inside the Trojan horse, William Tells’ son attempting to imitate his father, and a new version of the Robin Hood legend. All four are very funny.

The final section, however, probably contains the best stories. ‘Strategies’ collects three separate tales, like variations on a theme, all three presenting similar dilemmas: should the first candidate deliberately fail an exam? Should the second vote for or against himself in an election? Should the actor stop performing in a play he now despises? ‘The Lives of the Prophets’ is about a father and son who can see the future. In the father’s case his problem is that he cannot remember what he sees; in the son’s case he is again faced with a dilemma:

“He feels guilty that he said nothing. He watches them pulling corpses out of the rubble a thousand kilometres away and he thinks he made a big mistake not telling any of the powers that be…He only calms down when he realises that if he had, nobody would have believed him and all those people would have died anyway.”

Later he makes use of powers, but this decision cause problem too, particularly when his powers begin to fade. ‘During the War’ begins with the wonderful sentence:

“War broke out mid-morning.”

It is, however, about a war that doesn’t seem to be taking place: it is a state of mind rather than a series of actions. It is a good example of the way in which Monzo tackles serious themes with a deceptive lightness of touch.

Danger rating: only if you find laughing and thinking at the same time stressful, as these thought-provoking, amusing stories will have you doing both.


July 5, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Jean Echenoz

Lightning is the third in Jean Echenoz’s trilogy of biographical novels examining what might be loosely termed ‘genius’. Having covered art (in Ravel) and sport (in Running), Echenoz now turns his gaze to science with a fictionalised account of the life of Nikola Tesla. Each novel is brief and written in a deceptively casual, inclusive style, as established in the opening sentence:

“We all like to know, if possible, exactly when we were born.”

This tone remains unchanged throughout and, despite its informality (“Let’s try to understand it, this continuous current”), its unwavering neutrality and light irony creates a sense of inevitability, as if the story were being narrated by the friendly face of Fate.

I’m afraid to admit that my general knowledge of Tesla is largely limited to his supporting role in Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, later brought to life by David Bowie (in one of his few convincing roles) in Christopher Nolan’s film adaptation. This makes it difficult to verify the accuracy of Echenoz’s story – it seems, for example, a little too convenient that Tesla’s birth is signalled by a “gigantic lightning bolt” – but some cursory research suggests that it is factually correct. This makes it a little mystifying that Echenoz refers to his protagonist as Gregor throughout, and that the novel is labelled as having been ‘inspired’ by Tesla’s life.

Whatever the reason for this, the path of Gregor’s life follows that of Tesla’s, from his birth in what is now Croatia to his departure for America; his work for Edison and the discovery of alternating current; through his many other inventions and ideas, his increasing dismissal as a mad scientist, and his eventual death, in debt and all but forgotten, in 1943 in New York. The advantage of Echenoz’s brevity is that it allows him to highlight two particular aspects of Gregor’s life: his seemingly unlimited resource of ideas and theories, and his inability to use these to make himself wealthy, partly as a result of the unscrupulousness of others. Edison, for example, offers him $50,000 to improve the output from his generator, but when he does so the money is not forthcoming:

“Young man, snaps Edison, sitting up and taking his feet off the desk, you mean to tell me you don’t know an American joke when you hear one?”

He leaves Edison, invents an arc lamp and finds some investors. However, when the investors see the profits to be made:

“Gregor finds himself promptly fired from his own business, which his associates take over, happy to celebrate their success, leaving him cleaned out.”

As the narrator comments, “that was another dirty trick”, suggesting a pattern that will continue. Gregor takes his idea of alternating current to Western Union. Despite Edison’s propaganda (the electrocution of various animals, including an elephant, and the invention of an electric chair so that the effect can be seen on humans), it is (as we know) a success. Gregor becomes famous and is much in demand, but it has been so successful that to pay him the royalties he is entitled to would cost twelve million dollars. Gregor rips up his contract:

“Proving that in the dirty tricks department, sometimes he plays the on himself.”

Although all three of Echenoz’s geniuses are solitary (for example, from Ravel: “He is alone in his house at Montfort without any illusions. He has always been alone, but held aloft by music.”), Gregor is perhaps the most alone. The only other person he feels anything for, Ethel, is married, and they are both incapable of pursuing intimacy, their closest moment coming when:

“Ethel – perhaps a tad tipsy – knots his new tie round his neck. Despite his aversion, even with her, to physical contact, and despite his sudden irrepressible fear for one second that she will strangle him, he finds to his surprise that he enjoys the moment.”

By this point Gregor’s only path is downward, his inventions ignored, living in smaller and smaller hotel rooms, with only pigeons for company. In all three of these novels Echenoz not only displays wonder at what these men achieve, but also recounts the aftermath: Ravel’s deteriorating mental abilities; Zatopek’s fading powers as a runner and the political situation that results in him working as a garbage collector. As with any tragedy, the decline somehow makes the man greater in his diminishment.

Danger rating: easily digested, ideal for a sunny afternoon on the garden, there’s more to these short novels than first meets the eye. Disgracefully without a UK publisher (published by New Press in the USA), a single volume would now be ideal.

The Inner Side of the Wind

June 28, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Milorad Pavic

Milorad Pavic is best known for Dictionary of the Khazars, a novel that was sold in both male and female versions with, I believe, one sentence different. It was followed by Landscape Painted with Tea, a novel structured around the crossword. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that The Inner Side of the Wind is a flip book, presenting the reader with an immediate choice – which story do I read first? Or, more accurately, whose story do I read first, as the novel’s alternative title reveals it to be The Novel of Hero and Leander, and its division takes place along these lines, with one section entitled Hero and the other Leander. The two stories meet in the middle just as the mythical lovers met, Leander swimming across the Hellespont guided by Hero’s lamp. However, you must not imagine that this is something as straight-forward as a retelling of the myth from their separate points of view: neither the Hero nor the Leander of this novel are the lovers of Greek legend; and each half tells a different story, one set in the 17th century, the other in the early 20th.

Leander’s tale, the slightly longer of the two is the more straight-forward. He is born into a family of masons but takes the opportunity to tour with a group of musicians and see the world. Echoes of the Hero and Leander myth are found in a relationship with a young girl, Despina: they meet on water in a boat; Despina brings a candle with her. The focus, as with the two narratives, is on not connecting:

“His rhythm was, after all, entirely different form hers, and for the first time he confronted the terrible fate that lay at the bottom of his secret virtue. They were unable to harmonise even later, and Leander, as though he were spawning roe in the lake and through it the river, spent the following nights filling the nets beneath him instead of the woman.”

Both the language and the image suggest the fable-like nature of the story; it is certainly one of the most poetic descriptions of premature ejaculation that I have encountered. ‘Fable’ is not intended to suggest a story removed from reality, however: soon Leander is fleeing from the advancing Turkish army as the Balkans are plunged into war, something that would have contemporary resonance for Pavic at the time the novel was written. It is at this moment that Leander has an epiphany:

“…we shouldn’t burn and destroy. We should build, even now. Indeed, we are all builders…From this day on we shall build. We shall flee, and build fleeing.”

From this point on, Leander builds until, returning home, he builds a tower in competition, of course, with an experienced mason. Only at the very end do the two towers synchronise:

“They say that, a second before the explosion, the cocks atop the towers showed the same wind and the same hour. For the first time and the last, the same wind and the same hour.”

As the towers collapse into each other, so do the stories. Hero’s story is set at the beginning of the 20th century. Despite this, it too begins like a fable:

“Her hair was so long she used it in place of a shoe horn. She lived in the busiest part of Belgrade…and kept her refrigerator full of love stories and cosmetics.”

Hero hires herself out as a French tutor, but discovers that, instead of the two children she is contracted to teach, only one appears. This missing child has never been seen by her brother, and soon begins to have an effect on Hero’s ability to teach, making her forget the present tense in favour of the future. This story works well, but only lasts the first chapter before Hero leaves for her brother in Prague. Hero’s story is much more fragmented than Leander’s, containing a story she has written and interpolated into a translation of another text in chapter 2, and changing to a first person narrator, a friend of her brother’s, for chapter 3. Although each chapter works in its own terms, the cuts from one narrative point of view to another serve little purpose, and mean that we do not get the same access to Hero’s character.

My only other issue with the novel was that I just did not see the connection between the two narratives. It’s true that Leander drops a hint with regard to this when he suggests:

“Perhaps it was the waves of time, not of the sea that separated Hero and Leander. Perhaps Leander swam through time not water.”

Despite this, the novel is always entertaining. Pavic’s love of language (“It was as quiet as a freshly washed soul”) and love of story shine through any textual trickery.

Danger rating: Books with choices about how you read them are always interesting, and in this case you need only flip a coin. As an aside, some of Pavic’s novels now seem to be available in English as download only – perhaps a sign of things to come.