International Booker Prize 2020 Predictions

February 21, 2020

This year’s International Booker Prize, the long list of which is announced on the 27th of February, is unusual in recent years as having no obvious favourite. In 2016, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) had been seen as a potential winner before the long list was announced; in 2017 Mathias Enard (for Compass translated by Charlotte Mandell) and Samanta Schweblin (for Fever Dream, translated by Megan McDowell) were both strongly fancied, though the prize eventually went to David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar (translated by; in 2018 Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) was also installed as ‘most likely to…’ prior to the judging; and in 2019 Tokarczuk again and Annie Ernaux (for The Years, translated by Alison Strayer) both seemed strong possibilities, though the surprise winner was Jokha Alhathi’s Celestial Bodies (translated by Marlyn Booth).

One reason for this is a lack of previous winners (and in this I include winners of the award’s predecessor, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize). Only Jose Eduardo Agualusa is eligible, I think, with The Society of Reluctant Dreamers (translated by Daniel Hahn). Samanta Schweblin’s new novel, Little Eyes (again translated by Megan McDowell), which could see her make three long lists in a row, will also not be available to mere mortals until the end of April. Other previously short-listed writers are thin on the ground, though two I expect to be there are Yoko Ogawa for The Memory Police (translated by Stephen Snyder) and Daniel Kehlmann for Tyll (translated by Ross Benjamin). Ismail Kadare and Lars Saabye Christensen are two other possibilities. With a new novel translated almost every year, however, Kadare seems more suited to the award he received in 2005 for his body of work before the nature of the prize changed. Christensen, on the other hand, last featured in 2008 with The Model, the last of his novels to be translated into English. I would love The Echoes of the City (translated by Don Bartlett) to be long-listed, though its traditional nature, and the fact it’s the first in a trilogy, may make this less likely. László Krasznahorkai, who is both a winner of the original Man Booker International Prize, and was short-listed as recently as 2018 for The World Goes On, may well make another appearance with Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (translated by Ottilie Mulzet).

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South American writers are often strong contenders, though 2011 was the last time a writer from that continent won. Hopefully Charco Press will feature again after missing out last year as their eligible novels are very strong. It’s no secret that Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews) was my personal favourite, but Ariana Harwicz’s Feebleminded (translated by Carolina Orloff and Annie McDermott) and Guiseppe Caputo’s An Orphan World (translated by Sophie Hughes and Juana Adcock) deserve notice. And Other Stories, who last year featured with The Remainder, also have a number of titles from that part of the world in contention. Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana) is perhaps too oblique, but Juan Pablo Villalobos’ I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me (translated by Daniel Hahn) looks like it will be published in time. Another Mexican writer who has a good chance of appearing is Fernando Melchor with Hurricane Season (translated by Sophie Hughes), with the Cuban novelist Carlos Manuel Alvarez (also published by Fitzcarraldo editions) a possibility with The Fallen (translated by Frank Wynne). Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh (translated by Sarah Moses) has also been picking up some strong recommendations since its publication this month.

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Of course European titles are still likely to make up much of the long list. There are a number of Spanish possibilities but I think I would discount the two longest, Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School (translated by Anthony Shugaar) and Fernando Aramburo’s Homeland (translated by Alfred McAdam). I would much rather see the country represented by Enrique Vila-Matas’ Mac and his Problem (translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes). Other personal preferences would be Hanne Orstavik’s Love (translated by Martin Aitken), Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament (translated by Charlotte Barslund) and A Girl Returned by Donatella di Pietrantonio (translated by Ann Goldstein). Based entirely in previous work, I’d be happy to see Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by Michael Hofmann) and Tommy Wieringa’s The Blessed Rita (translated by Sam Garrett) included. Perhaps Peirene Press, regulars on the IFFP long list, might return for the first time since 2016 with Birgit Vanderbeke’s You Would Have Missed Me (translated by Jamie Bulloch). Another German novel, Nino Haratischwili’s epic The Eighth Life (translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin), has been suggested as a strong contender by many who have read it, but its length instils such fear in me I unable to judge it objectively.


What I most hope from this year’s prize is a wider representation of Asian writing (there are generally only one or two books from that part of the world), particularly as there seems to be much more getting published in the UK. Bae Suah’s recent Untold Night and Day (translated by Deborah Smith) is only one example; other possibilities include Diary of a Murderer by Kim Young-Ha (translated by Krys Lee), Hiromi Kawakami’s The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino (translated by Allison Markin Powell), Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong (translated by Natascha Bruce) and Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joon (translated by jamie Chang).

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From elsewhere on the globe, Alain Mabanckou’s The Death of Comrade President (translated by Helen Stevenson, not yet released) must be a strong possibility as he has previously been long listed a number of times, most recently in 2017 with Black Moses. Hamid Ismailov’s Of Strangers and Bees (translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega) probably has the best chance of Tilted Axis’ titles but I would love to see The Yogini by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (translated by Arunava Sinha) selected. My woeful knowledge of Arabic literature prevents me suggesting anything from that part of the world, though the available titles do not seem extensive. Ultimately, the point of reading any prize list is to discover new writers, so my main hope is that I haven’t got too much right.

The Doll’s Alphabet

February 17, 2020

Canadian writer Camilla Grudova’s short story collection, The Doll’s Alphabet, relishes its own strangeness from the very first sentence:

“One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself.”

The nod to Kafka is obvious – especially as she finds afterwards “the closest thing she resembled in nature was an ant” – but here the transformation is voluntary, and quickly copied by others as women discover their “unstitching consciousness.” ‘Unstitching’ is one of the shorter stories in the collection at just over two pages but it provides a warning of what is to come.

Other, even shorter, stories (‘The Gothic Society’, ‘The Doll’s Alphabet’) suffer from being little more than the sketch of an idea; even ‘Hungarian Sprats’, at six pages, reads like a extended squib (although all illustrate that Grudova, like Angela Carter, sees the humour in her gothic intensity). However, when Grudova develops her vision, in particular in what might be termed world-building stories, the results can be astonishing. The best example of this is ‘Waxy’, its scenery borrowed from post-war Europe, but its gender roles even more restrictively defined: Men succeed by passing Exams, while women, in every way subservient, work in factories. It is women, however, who must bear the blame for everything:

“If one’s Man did not do well in Exams, it was considered the woman’s fault for not providing a nurturing enough environment in which they could excel.”

(Similarly, if you are taken advantage of by someone else’s Man, “It’s always considered the woman’s fault.”) The narrator finds herself without a Man (“I felt good, but it was frowned upon to be Manless”) and eventually picks one up in a café. Paul is not what you would call a catch – he has never sat an Exam and, in fact, has no papers:

“He was missing many teeth and sometimes couldn’t control his bladder. I didn’t mind because one of the first things a girl learns in school is that every man has his own special problems, and it’s one’s duty to take care of them.”

Avoiding pregnancy is also a preoccupation of the narrator but contraception is unaffordable without Exam money; when the baby which eventually results from her relationship with Paul is born it is called Waxy as “we were too scared to name it properly”. Unfortunately, Paul’s unofficial status allows their cohabitees, Stuart and Pauline (space, we understand, is at a premium), to make demands of them: first their tobacco and tinned meat, later that Paul look after Stuart when he falls ill, and, in the end, that Paul sleep with Pauline. This story has all the tension you might expect from such claustrophobic blackmail, but it’s the accrual of detail which astounds both in the fecundity of Grudova’s imagination and the skill with which it is exercised.

‘Agata’s Machine’ is another such story, although one which takes place in a more recognisable world. Here the narrator befriends Agata, the class protégé, when they are eleven. Invited to her house, she is introduced to Agata’s invention, made out of her mother’s old sewing machine, a mason jar, a light bulb and a cigar box. Using this machine they summon tiny figures – a Pierrot in Agata’s case; and, in the narrator’s:

“…a man with white wings, wearing a striped sailor’s shirt, and wide sailor’s trousers.”

Using the machine becomes a nightly obsession, and a third figure appears whom they christen Mr Magnolia, “bald, except for a thin rim of hair like scum on a dirty bowl, and a plain, unfanciful moustache like the little plastic combs used for lice searches at school.” The narrator is eventually forbidden from visiting Agata, and the story concludes when she returns to the house many years later.

The sewing machine is the most obvious of a number of recurring images in Grudova’s work. The narrator in ‘Waxy’ works in a sewing machine factory; Greta, in ‘Unstitching’, is “the ideal form on which a sewing machine was based.” In interview, Grudova has explained:

“I love inventories and indexes; initially I wanted to include an index of mentioned objects, to give a sense of all the stories as part of one piece. And I’ve used a sewing machine since a young age. My grandmother worked as a seamstress. I find a lot of parallels between sewing and writing. It’s a process of creation, something from the imagination, and looks very much like writing to me.”

The stories in general are filled with old-fashioned objects as if the reader were browsing a downmarket antique shop – and many of them are set in shops. They also frequently reference fairy-tales, from a mermaid in which “the fish and human are blended together like tea with milk” to a male character named Wolf. For this reason some space between stories may be advisable.

Like most short story collections, there is an unevenness to The Doll’s Alphabet, though not one of tone or craft. The shorter stories, however, often amuse largely for their cleverness, but where she is at her best she delves into the heart of something dark and dangerous with an unflinching imagination.

The Snares of Memory

February 10, 2020

Juan Marse’s The Snares of Memory (translated by Nick Caistor) tells a story about telling a story. In the novel the narrator – Marse himself we are led to assume – is employed to write a film treatment based on a true story which took place in 1949 when a prostitute was murdered in the projection booth of a cinema – strangled by the rolls of film around her neck. The killer is her occasional lover, and the projectionist, Fermin Sicart, but, even years later, his motives remain unclear:

“He can remember that he killed a prostitute but has absolutely no memory of why.”

Marse at first finds this difficult to accept:

“How could someone remember the details of something so terrible – a murder by strangling no less – and not remember why they had done it?”

In the course of the novel, however, he will have the chance to interview Sicart, who is adamant that “all of a sudden I found myself somewhere else, sitting in the back row of the stalls with no idea of how I got there or how it happened.” In this sense the novel act as an investigation, with the tensions of a crime novel. Marse teases us with various theories for example “that the whole case looked like a cover up.” In speaking to Sicart, he discovers that, after the murder, he suffered a mental breakdown:

“…the doctors put me through such an aggressive therapy that for quite a while I even forgot my own name.”

This, of course, suggests that Sicart’s recollections are unreliable. When Marse asks him, “Is what you’re going to tell me what you actually remember you did, or what the doctors said you had done?” he answers:

“It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

Later he talks about “inventing monstrous stories” in order to get better treatment.

Sicart’s experience mirrors that of many anti-Franco political prisoners of the time, and the novel is also a commentary on Spain’s collective memory of that time. Set in 1982, the country is only beginning to leave behind years of dictatorship and is “torn between memory and forgetting.” At one point Marse comments to Sicart, “Nowadays a lot of people say the past should be left untouched,” and his difficulties in recreating the events of 1949 suggest the more general complexities of writing about the past. 1982, he says, was:

“…precisely the moment when the whole of Spain…seemed determined to convert the bruised collective memory into a dangerous minefield.”

Yet Marse remains clear that, however difficult it is to see clearly, the past continues to haunt the present:

“A distant, phantom, wintry but indestructible city that was as obsolete but as persistent in his mind as it was in mine.”

Alongside this more serious rumination on memory, the novel is also an amusing insight into the film industry. Initially Marse is told repeatedly to “stick to the facts” in his treatment but as financial backing is sought, and even the director changes, so does the emphasis. In particular, another prostitute whom Sicart mentions attracts the producer’s attention as she is losing her sight:

“You’ve struck gold there! A sightless sex worker!”

“The most important thing,” Marse is told, “is not the killer’s inability to remember, but the loveable little whore’s blindness.” Soon a young actress who is ‘perfect for the part’ is sent to meet Marse, and inevitably the final film bears little resemblance to the scripted scenes which Marse includes in the novel.

In the film’s failure, one suspects, lies the novel’s origin (though it is recent, originally published in 2016). This delay has perhaps been caused by Marse’s refusal to opt for easy fictional solutions. At one point it seems that we are being offered a psychological explanation for the murder based on Sicart’s insistence that his mother was a seamstress rather than a prostitute, but these ideas too are dismissed as “mere conjecture” and “too much psychodrama.” In the end Marse, and the reader, must accept that he is unable to solve the mystery:

“I wouldn’t be able to say what the limits of fiction are when it comes to recreating a historical truth; possibly the task is not to throw more light on the real event, but to emphasise the play of light and shade, the ambiguities and doubts…”

The Snares of Memory is certainly a play of light and shade, from its moments of light satire to the darker corners of Spain’s’ history. Spain, Marse concludes, like Sicart, perhaps like all of us, remains attached to a past it can never fully understand.

A Far Cry from Kensington

February 3, 2020

Muriel Spark’s eighteenth novel, A Far Cry from Kensington (originally published in 1988) returns us to the world of publishing in post-war Britain which we saw as recently as 1981’s Loitering with Intent. Since Spark’s debut, The Comforters, writers of various kinds have featured in her work, though the artistic process is rarely fore-grounded; here the novel is narrated, not by the successful but flawed novelist Emma Loy, but by Mrs Hawkins, an editor at a failing publishers (Spark, of course, was editor of Poetry Review between 1947 and 1949). When Mrs Hawkins offers literary advice it is of a practical nature – the suggestion, for example, of acquiring a cat to aid concentration. Advice is something that she is regularly required to dispense as:

“There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidence.”

The appellation ‘Mrs Hawkins’ itself is an indication that others treat her as a motherly figure despite the fact she is not yet thirty, but it is her plumpness that particularly invites those who know her, however briefly, to share their problems.

In this sense, Mrs Hawkins herself is a forgery in a novel of fakes. We quickly learn that Martin York, of the publishing firm Ullswater and York, where Mrs Hawkins initially works, “was to go to prison for multiple forgeries.” Like all forgers, he places the greatest importance on appearance:

“If it’s widely enough believed that you have money and wealth, Mrs Hawkins, it is the same as having it.”

But the greatest fake in the novel is Mrs Hawkins’ nemesis, Hector Bartlett. Bartlett is a would-be writer who has attached himself to the novelist Emma Loy. Mrs Hawkins regards even his professed origins as inauthentic:

“Hector Barlett claimed at every opportunity… to be upper class, to the effect that I presumed him to be rather low-born.”

It is aspirations as a writer, however, which most offend her. When he approaches her in Green Park one day, she cannot help but voice her true opinion:

“I don’t know what got into me, for I said, not to myself as usual, but out loud, ‘Pisseur de copie!’”

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Though she may have been able to deny a single such outburst, which Bartlett is happy not to hear, she repeats the epithet at the end of their unwelcome conversation, and admits it once again when Emma Loy phones, “very worried about Hector” to ask her, “What exactly did you do to him this morning?” Offending Emma Loy ensures Mrs Hawkins loses her job, albeit from a publishing house which is soon declared bankrupt, but Bartlett continues to haunt her, both professionally and, more secretly, at the boarding house where she is staying. Mrs Hawkins never changes her opinion, her remark becoming one of the most striking repetitions of the novel, a refusal to shy from the truth (at one point she says, “It feels like preaching the gospel”) regardless of the consequences. This example of honesty stands in marked contrast to the various dishonest plots and schemes which are unearthed around it.

The first of these begins with an anonymous letter threatening Wanda, a Polish seamstress who lives in the same building as Mrs Hawkins. The letter is followed by a phone call, and the effect on Wanda is visible:

“Wanda was still haunted; all her old confidence and tranquillity had left her.”

Spark has always been interested in blackmail, and here, particularly, it is used to contrast the way people treat each other, blackmail being an extreme form of using others to our own end. This is in marked contrast to Mrs Hawkins who finds jobs for her now unemployed colleagues from Ullswater and York. Another dishonest scheme is the Box, or radionics, in which samples of a person hair and blood are supposedly used to cure them:

“So far as I could see it was as devoid of any functional possibility as one of those children’s toy telephones with which they go through the motions of dialling a number and talking, but never get anywhere.”

In comedic fashion, Mrs Hawkins gets her reward, transforming into a woman half her size by eating only half portions, no longer Mrs Hawkins but Nancy, and once again a romantic lead rather than a sympathetic aunt, a change that is not to everyone’s taste:

“You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious.”

A Far Cry from Kensington is a gentler Spark novel, lacking the violence of her continental novels, and with a central character who is entirely sympathetic. It still contains the strangeness that feels true precisely because it is unlikely that is so typical of her work, for example the man paid to stare up at the offices of Ullswater and York to make them feel shame for their debts, or the firm of Mackintosh and Toolley where all the staff are hired on the basis of possessing some kind of disability. Evil remains, however, in the irrepressible egocentricity of Hector Barlett who, of course, is not as harmless as he might first appear. Spark may have mellowed, but she has not gone soft.

Snow, Dog, Foot

January 27, 2020

Claudio Morandini’s Snow, Dog, Foot (translated by J Ockenden) reminded me initially of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life as in its opening pages we meet the elderly Adelmo Farandola living alone in the mountains. He only rarely ventures down to the nearest village, despite enjoying listening to the band play on special occasions:

“But he soon stopped that because someone had come up to him, hand outstretched, and tried to engage him in conversation.”

He now only visits to stock up supplies for the winter; the description of one such trip demonstrating his deteriorating memory. “Forgotten something?” the lady behind the counter asks him, revealing that he had made the same trip only a few days before:

“A memory, albeit a rather vague one, begins to coalesce in his mind.”

The novel takes a more interesting turn on page 24, however, as Adelmo eats some wine-soaked bread:

“The dog’s tongue drips like a leaky tap… ‘Can I try a bit?’ he asks the man at last.”

The dog will be Adelmo’s companion throughout most of the novel, often more talkative than the man. Of course, the dog can be subsumed into a realist reading of the novel as an aspect of Adlemo’s imagination. Morandini even explains:

“In the war years Adelmo Farandola learned to find comfort in talking to himself and in imagining the voices of animals and objects ready and willing to reply.”

In the novel, however, the reader also hears the dog’s voice – the dog is a ‘character’ – and Morandini makes the reader further complicit in providing the dog with a back story:

“Ah, my shepherding years… I look back on them fondly.”

This makes the novel seem largely comic, which would fairly characterise the first half, even Adelmo’s determination to avoid contact with any other person. He is particularly suspicious of a ranger who speaks to him on a number of occasions, whom he sees as unnecessarily interfering – suggesting his dog should be muzzled, asking if he owns a gun, and wondering if he shouldn’t spend the winter in the village:

“He could throw stones at him from up here. He could cause a landslide and bury him beneath several tons of rubble.”

The novel takes a darker turn, however, when, having survived the winter, Adelmo and his dog discover a foot protruding from the snow and ice:

“It’s human foot, not a hoof, that the man and the dog can see sticking out from the debris of the avalanche.”

What has seemed like a rather gentle comic novel up to this point (well, as comic as a novel about a chronically lonely old man with dementia can be) becomes tense with the question of who lies dead under the snow:

“The more I look at this guy, the more he reminds me of that nice ranger who came to see us in the autumn.”

Adelmo’s failing memory means that he cannot be certain that he is not somehow responsible for the corpse, especially when he sees punctures on the man’s head that are “not the sort of wounds you get from an avalanche.” As the novel moves towards it violent and macabre conclusion Adelmo’s eccentricity becomes both more sympathetic and more desperate.

A Whole Life, admittedly much loved by many, left me puzzled by many readers’ reaction to the central character (and whether this was the author’s intention) – that is, they took the title as an affirmation rather than an ironic dismissal. My fear was that Snow, Dog, Foot would lead us down a similar road – one where an isolated and mentally infirm character is portrayed as somehow living a better life. In fact, this seems to have been exactly the trap Moradini sets for the reader, presenting us with a lovable eccentric only to slowly reveal the horror within.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams

January 21, 2020

The Pushkin Press reissue of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was fortuitously timed to coincide with his Nobel Prize win (a win that seemed to have left UK publishers largely uninterested, until Penguin Modern Classics announced they will publish three of his novels under their imprint in August). Like The Left-Handed Woman, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was originally written in the seventies, and quickly translated by Ralph Manheim. It is not, however, a novel, being instead the story of Handke’s mother’s life written in response to her suicide in 1971:

“My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks; I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.”

Although the novel is about his mother’s life, it is also, more generally, about the lives of women of her generation. (At one point Handke admits, “what is written here about a particular person is rather general”). As Handke makes clear, choices for women at that time were all but non-existent:

“No possibilities, it was all settled in advance…”

He later states that “any suggestion that a woman might have a life of her own was an impertinence.” It is for this reason, having become pregnant to the one man she would ever love (unfortunately already married), she marries a man she positively dislikes:

“She found him repulsive, but everyone harped on her duty (to give the child a father).”

This life that she didn’t choose has a bruising effect on her character:

“Because she was helpless, she disciplined herself, which went against her grain and made her touchy.”

She shuts down the conversation of others with her laugh, feels only contempt for her husband, and, at one point, packs a suitcase for one of her sons and leaves it outside the door. Handke excels in identifying the chasm between the inner life and the outward appearance, and his mother invests herself in keeping up that outward show (something that continues to the very end in her preparations for suicide):

“She comforted herself with the thought that she was at least imitating the pattern of middle class life.”

Handke presents a scathing picture of society as a whole: claustrophobic, emotionally stifling, quick to judgement:

“In talking about himself, if anyone went beyond relating some droll incident, he was said to be ‘peculiar’.”

(This is also an example of how funny Handke can be). It is only in her later years that Handke is able to say, “she was gradually becoming an individual.” Now, however, she begins to suffer from paralysing headaches, a further symptom of the stress of limiting herself for all these years.

His mother’s life, of course, covers the period when the Nazis came to power in Austria, and here we discover some insight into the attractions of fascism. His mother has no interest in politics, but she does notice a change in that “even the daily grind took on a festive mood.”

“What was happening before her eyes was something entirely different from politics – a masquerade, a newsreel festival, a secular church fair.”

It is during this period she falls in love, and, as the normal social rules are disrupted, briefly sees different possibilities – “it was contact with a fabulous world, hitherto known to her only from travel folders.”

The constricted life she faces once married, Handke suggests, is what eventually drives her to kill herself. In fact, going further back, when Handke says, “It all began with my mother suddenly wanting something” (she wants to continue with her education), the ‘it’ can be read as her suicide. Denied the opportunity to continue learning (Handke cleverly links the emphasis on neat writing for girls at school to the later need to present a superficially perfect household, calling their education a “mere child’s game”) her frustration only grows. By the age of thirty she has resigned herself to the fact that “she was nothing and never would be anything.”

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is a powerful and moving story, an evocative recreation of Handke’s mother’s life, and the lives of women in general in the twentieth century. Despite Handke’s analytical style, and his statement that “I try with unbending earnestness to penetrate my character”, there is still a sense that his mother is only partly known, and that too is part of her tragedy.


January 15, 2020

At one point in the English language debut of Mexican novelist Brenda Lozano, Loop, (translated by Annie McDermott), she speculates:

“I wonder if stories can be classified like rivers, from biggest to smallest. I also wonder if, in that case, stories could be part of the same book. Passages placed impossibly side by side. So they make another story.”

It’s a paragraph which gives the reader some sense of Lozano’s novel. Superficially it tells only one story, that of a woman whose boyfriend, Jonas, goes with his family to Spain after the death of his mother, yet the narrator’s state of waiting opens her life to many new stories, each tangential to the ‘plot’ but central to a novel which rejects the straight line. Reflecting on advice that you can escape drowning by swimming diagonally, she wonders:

“How do you swim diagonally in life?”

She applies this to her own life, suggesting, “I thought I was swimming forwards but I’m getting further away,” asking, of Jonas:

“Is this glass of water the dwarf-scale sea between us?”

A preoccupation with scale is evident throughout the novel. The opening line immediately introduces the idea: “Today a dwarf smiled at me,” and the dwarf, a neighbour, continues to feature, “so elegant, and the bigger stories badly dressed.” She identifies with living a life that does not easily fit into the ‘norm’ (“Why the fervent desire to be part of the norm?”):

“I felt a lot like the dwarf, on another scale of life and needing to lean on a tiny cane.”

Later, she expands on this idea, describing “People who don’t fit. People who live on another scale.”

Yes, things happen. A writer, like Lozano, the narrator flies to the Oaxaca Book Fair, which allows for a wonderful description of a bad poet: “His words were like a long trail of slime.” She meets with friends, and worries about her relationship – “Why is your mother’s death pushing us apart, Jonas?” Yet, so much of the narrative is internalised that her abstract thoughts sit alongside concrete events with equal weight – on the same scale, as Lozano might say. These include a number of riffs, not only on the aforementioned dwarf, but also on the song, ‘Wild is the Wind,’ which, in turn, feeds into the idea of transformation into a bird:

“If Jonas turned into a bird I could ask him to let me fly by his side, like in ‘Wild is the Wind’.”

This transformation is then linked to the act of writing:

“One way of turning into a swallow is by writing.”

Writing, unsurprisingly, is another topic to which Lozano comes back to again and again. “I think telling stories,” she tells us, “is a way of putting a scar into words.” And, returning to the idea of scale:

“All stories are a deep ocean and a puddle at the same time.”

This may make Loop seem like a rather abstruse literary game, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it is fragmented, but it is a friendly fragmentation, echoing the way we think rather than some abstract plan. It is also endlessly questioning, perhaps its most likeable characteristic, and, again, a very human one. Lozano, however, is taking us somewhere; as she says of her own experience, “His journey to Spain has taken me on another journey.” That journey takes place in the text. Midway, considering Ovid’s Metamorphosis, she wonders, “If writing and reading transform us into something we have yet to discover.” By the end, she has concluded:

“…however profound or superficial the journey may be, what’s transformed is the way we recount it. If that’s transformed, then everything is transformed.”

In the end, Loop is a glorious reaffirmation of the power of words and the stories they create.

A Moth to Flame

January 9, 2020

Stig Dagerman’s A Moth to a Flame (translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz and previously published as A Burnt Child) is the latest in Penguin’s European Writers series. Despite a recent revival in the US (where this was originally published), it has not been since Quartet Encounters in the eighties that Dagerman has enjoyed regular publication in the UK, making him a perfect fit for the series which focuses on writers highly regarded in Europe but largely neglected here. A Moth to a Flame is the third of Dagerman’s four novels, originally published in 1948 when he was twenty-five. Six years later he would kill himself.

A Moth to a Flame is not an easy novel to like as it sets out to portray all its characters unsympathetically. The central character, Bengt, who narrates parts of the novel in letters he writes to himself (a device that works rather like a soliloquy), is a student approaching the threshold of adulthood but frequently prone to the moods of adolescence. The novel opens at his mother’s funeral and we see he is keen to differentiate his grief from what he sees as his father’s indifference. The son cries and “as he is drying his eyes he can hear through the silence of the room that everyone is listening to him cry.” The father, on the other hand, is described as unfeeling as stone: “a stone arm around his shoulder”; and:

“The father gently presses his cheek against his. It is a cheek of stone.”

When Bengt answers the phone to a woman looking to speak to his father he realises that his mother has been, as he sees it, betrayed – and “he who betrays another kills her slowly.” He regards his father’s grief as false:

“Finally, the mask thuds off, the widower’s dismal mask.”

This would seem to leave the reader’s sympathy with Bengt, but Dagerman demonstrates the cruelty which lies within him in the way he treats his fiancée, Berit. When she begins to cry after they have watched a film together, his immediate reaction is, “So I thought I’d really give her something to cry about.” When she tells him she thinks that spring is the most beautiful season, he instinctively replies that he finds it the ugliest. This cruelty is also in evidence in the way he treats his father. He tells him about his successes at university, knowing that his father will want to reward him financially (“I told him the exam went well, and then he gave me twenty kroner”), while having stopped attending lectures entirely. In Bengt’s view:

“I think a lie should be judged by what a person hopes to gain from it.”

This is suggestive of Bengt’s more general belief that he is superior to both his father and Berit:

“For weaker persons, it might be considered necessary to have an absolutely fixed value for a concept, but for a person who knows where he is going… a fixed definition like that can even seem obstructive at times.”

Dagerman also demonstrates both his father’s affection for his wife and Bengt’s mother’s own flaws. We see the father taking out a pair of the dead wife’s shoes, feeling the “smooth interior” in a scene that will be repeated when Bengt puts his hand into the foot of one of her stockings. Another pair of shoes, unworn, were a gift from the father:

“Alma didn’t like anything that was beautiful.”

Dagerman frequently uses clothing to depict his character’s feelings. A handkerchief which the father gives to Bengt at the funeral is impregnated with the perfume of his father’s lover, Gun. Bengt later wakes from a nightmare with it in his mouth: “It tastes like tears and perfume.” In the dream he wakes from he is wearing a cloak made of blood which he cannot remove. Dagerman also uses a dog which the father brings home in a similar way. The dog is Gun’s and Bengt’s father uses it as excuse to go out walking at night and visit her. Bengt thinks “he’s hunting me with that dog,” and beats it one night when he comes home to find his father with Gun.

As the novel progresses, Bengt’s hatred of Gun becomes an obsession with her and he takes to phoning her where she works as a cinema cashier:

“She is constantly in my thoughts all day and constantly in my dreams all night.”

When his Bengt and Berit holiday with his father and Gun, his obsession burns more fiercely, a rivalry with his father first seen when he asks to row them across to the island. Once there he watches her and follows them when they go off in the boat together (he would go with them until he is reminded that, “You can’t leave Berit.”). When they dance together we see how dangerous his fixation is becoming:

“But the dance seems to last forever. It’s the first time he’s ever touched her for so long and by the end his hands are completely wet. When they finally do stop, he notices he was holding her tight…”

Bengt’s hatred for Gun becomes a different kind of passion entirely.

A Moth to a Flame is a claustrophobic coming of age story in which Bengt moves from puritanical rage to affected cynicism:

“What we are doing is something everyone does but most do it without really knowing it because they cannot face it.”

In the end he can cope with neither. Its intense atmosphere is exacerbated by the confined settings – the house Bengt and his father share, the cinema, the island – and the fact that much of the novel seems to take place in darkness, with, in keeping with the title, numerous candles. It’s another worthy addition to what is a fascinating series.


January 3, 2020

To understand the importance of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark you first need to understand Scottish literature in the 1970s. The revival, known as the Scottish Renaissance, which began in the 1920s, had faded, and its greatest writers had never been given the international, or even UK-wide, recognition they deserved. Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s modernist masterpiece, A Scots Quair, was hindered by his use of Scots, as was Hugh MacDiarmid’s best poetry. Neil Gunn wrote in English but his novels were largely set in the Highlands: his epic novel The Silver Darlings was about herring fishing. (The Renaissance generally was a rural movement and therefore not reflective of most people’s experience in post-war Britain). The impact of these writers was also hampered by the fact that publishing was largely controlled from London. Gray did not write the first Glasgow novel, but previous efforts, for example Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place which won the Guardian First Book Award in 1966, quickly fell out of print. It wasn’t until the establishment of Canongate Classics in the late 80s that the Scottish ‘canon’ became easily available.

Scotland was also unusual, perhaps unique, in allowing its population to be educated to degree level in literature without ever encountering a writer born in their own country. As Janice Galloway explained in her 2002 introduction to Lanark:

“I had barely encountered any of my country’s writers at all, let alone one this engaged with the present tense, this bravely alive. Scotland, my schooling had at times implied, at times openly professed, was a small, cold, bitter place that had no political clout, no cultural heritage, joyless people and writers who were all male and all dead.”

(It was only in 2013 that Scottish literature became a compulsory element in the new National 5 English exam). This was, in part, connected to the fact that it was a country with its own education and legal systems but with no parliament. A referendum in 1979, while producing a majority for devolution (by a now ironic 51.6%) was hamstrung by the necessity of achieving 40% of the electoral role in favour.

In other words, Scotland felt like a country where very little was possible, and, while Gray’s intentions, both literary and political, were quite deliberately international, they originated in the belief that anything was possible, at least when it came to the novel. In fact, one of the most important things about Lanark is that it was unashamedly ambitious (not easy in Scotland as, certainly when I was growing up, the worst thing you could do was ‘show off’). A prodigious reader, Gray looked for inspiration wherever he could find it, and with no intention of limiting himself to Scotland, or its neighbour England. When asked where Lanark came from in 2001, he answered:

“From Franz Kafka. I had read The Trial and The Castle and Amerika buy then, an introduction by Edwin Muir explaining these books were like a modern Pilgrim’s Progress. The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden sky that often seem dot rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”

Gray also looked west as well as east, modelling Thaw’s story on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, deciding it should end tragically as “young artists couldn’t make livings by painting easel or mural in 1950s Scotland.” In inviting comparisons with two of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, Gray demonstrated a refreshing arrogance, which he went on to poke fun at in Lanark’s Epilogue (which, naturally, does not appear at the end any more than the Prologue can be found at the beginning) with the appearance of the author, Nastler (Nasty Alasdair) who happily discusses his creation with reference to the great works of literature, beginning with The Iliad and ending with War and Peace. (That we should not take Nastler entirely seriously can be seen from the fact he is unaware his own character, Lanark, has a son).

Gray perhaps also took something from Joyce’s Ulysses, not just in the scale of its ambition, but in Joyce’s determination to portray Dublin as vividly as any character, for Lanark was to be a Glasgow novel. Not for him the ‘London’ of Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, nor the international approach of Muriel Spark, inspired by her Scottish upbringing but setting only one of her novels there. Famously, in the novel he explains the importance of his choice:

“No-one imagines living here…If a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live here imaginatively. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

Gray goes further than simply presenting Glasgow in fiction, however, by juxtaposing it with the dystopian Unthank, which both is and isn’t Glasgow in the same way that Lanark is and isn’t Thaw. Beginning the story with Book 3 he mimics the in media res of the epic while indicating the post-modern nature of the novel (Lanark was published only two years after post-modern classic Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller). “I want Lanark to be read in one order but eventually thought of in another,” Gray explained, and further illustrated in the novel in Thaw’s description of his approach to painting:

“A landscape seen simultaneously from above and below and containing north, east and south can hardly be peaceful.”

Gray’s post-modernism manages to be both meaningful and playful; it allows Thaw and Lanark’s stories to be read both sequentially and in parallel. Thaw’s story focuses on art as he increasingly looks inward until objective reality becomes unclear; Lanark’s is political, forcing him to look outward, though not always successfully. Gray’s playfulness is most in evidence in the epilogue, not only because he makes a personal appearance (“His face, framed by wings and horns of uncombed hair, looked statuesque and noble apart from an apprehensive, rather cowardly expression”) but due to the inclusion of an Index of Plagiarisms. Among the many literary debts acknowledged, Gray also includes poems and stories by his fellow Glasgow writers such as James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead, with references to chapters beyond the novel’s conclusion.

It is, of course, arguable (and often argued) that Lanark is not Gray’s best novel, with Poor Things and 1982 Janine vying for that position. But only a novel of the scale and ambition of Lanark could change the literary landscape in the way Lanark did because the scale and ambition was a statement in itself. It both freed and challenged the writers which followed. In the words of Brian McCabe:

Lanark’s importance consists of the fact that it has opened a very large door in the windowless little room of Scottish fiction, a door we did not know to be there, and only now can we begin to realise how much scope there is.”

Books of the Year 2019

December 20, 2019

After another year of failed projects – re-reading Doris Lessing during her centenary (got as far as three books); continuing re-reading all of Muriel Spark’s novels from her centenary last year (still have four to go) – and one which saw me taking a month off reviewing entirely before more than halving my output, there still remains the annual disappointment that is my Books of the Year. I say ‘disappointment’ as, rather than finding it impossible to choose from the hundred or so contenders, I increasingly find it difficult to select twelve books which have made an indelible, or at least a water-resistant, impression on me – a commentary on my deterioration as a reader rather than on the quality of the literature before me I fear. Anyway, without further delay, in only the particular order in which I read them, my Books of the Year (2019 edition).

Vladimir Sorokin’s The Blizzard (translated by Jamey Gambrell) was an icy breath of fresh air. The Russian Novel on steroids, I loved the way it flitted between realism and surrealism, with a side helping of science fiction. I also read The Day of the Oprichnik this year and will be tackling The Queue early in 2020.

The Accompanist (translated by Marian Schwarz) wasn’t my first experience of Nina Berberova but the novella form suits her ability to distil intense emotion perfectly, as I was to find again in The Revolt.

I’d already read my favourite of the Man Booker International long list (Annie Ernaux’s The Years) last year, but, of those that were new to me, I was most impressed by Sara Stridsberg’s The Faculty of Dreams (translated by Deborah Bragen-Turner). Repetitive and circuitous in the way dreams are, it also felt wild and untamed like its subject, Valerie Solanas. (Both Ernaux and Stridsberg appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, bizarrely at the same time, but as I couldn’t go anyway, that difficult choice was not thrust upon me).

Two well-deserved republications of German writers come next. The Artificial Silk Girl (translated by Kathie von Ankum) marked the passing into my reading past of Irmgard Keun’s four most famous novels. Not only important for its evocation of 1930s Germany, it has a more universal appeal as a young woman’s coming-of-age story.

Set only a few years later, Heinrich Boll’s The Train Was on Time (translated by Leila Vennewitz) is another masterly novella, where the atmosphere of impending fatality becomes almost unbearable at points.

I’ve yet to read even a mediocre novel from Edinburgh’s Charco Press, but the best this year was Selva Almada’s The Wind Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews). Perhaps more of a ‘traditional’ novel than most of Charco’s output, it was a beautifully weighted observation of character and relationship, with a thoughtful, but never intrusive, philosophical background. Luckily more of Almada’s work will be with us next with the publication of Dead Girls in September.

Another new South American voice to me was Mario Levero. Empty Words (translated by Annie McDermott) managed to make normally irritating attributes such as having a writer as the main character, and even including writing exercises as a secondary text spliced into the main narrative, quite charming. I now long for his much lengthier The Luminous Novel to be translated.

Then saddest book I read this year was Emmanuel Bove’s My Friends (translated by Janet Louth). Even sadder, it is often quite funny. A number of Bove’s books have been translated into English but most are out of print and expensive to come by, so please buy this and encourage NYRB to continue the Bove revival! (Coincidentally, this novel is much mentioned in Brenda Lozano’s Loop which I read this month).

Having made that claim for My Friends, I must admit that Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men (translated by Ros Schwarz) is probably bleaker. Set in some future time on an uncertain planet, it’s refusal to answer the questions it asks makes it feel very like reality.

Emiliano Monge’s brutal epic Among the Lost (translated by Frank Wynne) places the reader among Mexico’s people traffickers in a story in which everyone is a victim. Viscerally immersive, this is a powerful, yet at times surprisingly poignant, novel.

Verso’s new translated fiction imprint began promisingly with Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament (translated by Charlotte Barslund). Though you are fairly certain where this novel is heading, that doesn’t stop it being an addictive examination of a family in denial.

Finally, the novel which explained Brexit to me: Heinz Rein’s Berlin Finale (translated by Shaun Whiteside). In the final days of the war, with Berlin in ruins, we still find many who believe Hitler has a plan to ensure Germany’s victory.