Voices in the Evening

February 27, 2019

Natalia Ginzburg, whose first novel was published in 1942, and her last over forty years later in 1983, was widely translated into English at the time but, until recently, had largely fallen out of print. Voices in the Evening is the third of her books to be reissued by Daunt Books, following on from The Little Virtues and Family Lexicon last year, though it predates them in its original date of publication, 1961. The translation, by D. M. Low, is from 1963, and Ginzburg’s reappearance in English seems to be a mixture of old and new translations (Family Lexicon, for example, is a new translation by Jenny McPhee; The Dry Heart, which New Directions will publish in June, is the original 1949 translation by Frances Frenaye).

Voices in the Evening is a novel which can reasonably be divide into two parts. In the first part Elsa, the narrator, is largely an observer, presenting us with a picture of the small town where she lives, a town where the past is often as alive as the present. Her role as recorder is amusingly demonstrated in the opening pages as her mother talks on paragraph after paragraph without so much as an interjection or response form Elsa:

“Couldn’t we sometimes have the miracle of a word from you?”

Her reliability is reinforced when she responds to her mother’s comments, for example in relation to the new doctor’s marital status, with more accurate information than her mother possesses. The new doctor is discussed as Elsa’s mother is concerned that Elsa remains unmarried at twenty-seven:

“…my mother’s most persistent worry is that I do not get married. This is an annoyance which depresses her, and the only consolation she gets lies in the fact that the little Bottiglia girls at the age of thirty have not got married either.”

In the chapters which follow, Elsa describes the inhabitants of the town, which itself centres on the factory where her father is the accountant: “The whole neighbourhood lives by the factory.”

Ginzburg’s work was greatly influenced by her experience of the war and the stories of the inhabitants of the town remain overshadowed by the war years. Balotto, the owner of the factory, we are told, was a Socialist:

“He always remained one, although after the coming of Fascism he dropped his habit of uttering his thoughts aloud.”

Purillo, a distant relative brought up by Balotto, on the other hand, displays “a large photograph of himself in the dining room wearing a black shirt and raising his arm to the salute among some Party officers who had come to visit the works.” It is Purillo, however, who drives Balotto and his wife to safety when he fears the Fascists are coming for them. Nebbia, the unrequited love of Balotto’s daughter, Gemmina, is killed by the Germans. Balotto’s other daughter, Rafaella, returns at the end of the war a Partisan, “wearing trousers, a red handkerchief round her neck, and a pistol in a holster.”

The novel’s second half focuses on the relationship between Elsa and Balotto’s son, Tommasino. It is hinted at earlier in the novel when her friend, Giuliana tells her, “They saw you, with Tommasino,” but Elsa merely replies, “And then?” before changing the subject. The chapter ‘Elsa and Tommasino’ cleverly begins, like the others, with a dispassionate description of Tommasino’s daily life, before Elsa reveals:

“Tommasino and I met every Wednesday in the town.”

They have been meeting every week (sometimes twice a week) for months, going to the library, buying any messages Elsa must return home with, and then retiring to a room Tommasino has rented for them. Within a page of our discovery of their relationship Tommasino is telling her:

“I am not marrying you… I don’t want to marry; if I did, I should probably marry you.”

Not only does this arrangement seem to suit Elsa as well as Tommasino, she is the most disparaging of convention. When Tommasino worries about them being seen together she tells him:

“My reputation! I don’t care a rap for that, not I.”

It is Tommasino rather than Elsa who changes things when he brings the brewers’ yeast which Elsa bought for her mother but left behind to her house, thus entangling their relationship with their other lives, and making Elsa question whether they can continue as before.

The novel’s second half deepens into an examination of the expectations placed on love by men, women and society, but Voices in the Evening does not feel at all disjointed, the same themes having been touched on in the first half, though more briefly and with more variety. Together they emphasise the complexity of relationships and the interconnected nature of our lives in an enjoyable and accomplished narrative. It is easy to see why Ginzburg is being read again.

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Happening

February 24, 2019

“I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled,” Annie Ernaux insists at one point in Happening, one of the many thin books through which she has delivered her life in slices over the years, continuing:

“There is no such thing as a lesser truth. Moreover, if I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.”

This has long been the raison d’etre for her work, now finally beginning to reach a wider audience since the appearance of her life-long chronicle of France, The Years. Happening, translated by Tanya Leslie, and originally published by Seven Stories Press in 2001, tells the story of an abortion Ernaux underwent as a student, which also formed the basis of her first novel Cleaned Out in 1974. It begins with Ernaux waiting for the results of an AIDS test, and the difficulty she still feels in connecting the potential consequences to the act:

“I couldn’t associate the two: love-making, warm skin and sperm, and my presence in the waiting room. I couldn’t imagine sex being related to anything else.”

In a book which is about memory, it is at this moment she is reminded of the abortion:

“I realised that I had lived through these events at Lariboisiere Hospital the same way I had awaited Dr N’s verdict in 1963, swept by the same feelings of horror and disbelief.”

When Ernaux falls pregnant (the father is a fellow student with whom the occasional sexual encounter has not been representative of any deeper relationship) she immediately decides she cannot have the baby, which she describes as “a shapeless entity growing inside me which had to be destroyed at all costs.” Abortion is, of course, illegal at this point, but she says she had little fear of it:

“I wasn’t the least bit apprehensive about getting an abortion. It seemed a highly feasible undertaking, admittedly not an easy one, but one that did not require undue courage.”

Her problem is the legality as she does not know who to turn to:

“Girls like me were a waste of time for doctors. With no money and no connections – otherwise we wouldn’t accidentally end up on their doorstep – we were a constant reminder of the law that could send them to prison and close down their practice for good.”

The book is as much the story of the time attempting to find someone that will help her as it is of the abortion itself. At one point she reminds herself:

“I must resist the urge to rush through those days and weeks, and attempt to convey the unbearable sluggishness of that period as well as the period of numbness that characterizes dreams, resorting to all the means at my disposal – attention to detail, use of descriptive past tense, analysis of events.”

The first person she confides in, a married student, attempts to seduce her. Typically, Ernaux conveys her attitude at the time rather than applying further outrage in hindsight: “It was an unpleasant episode but of very little consequence compared to my condition.” When she is eventually directed to a woman who will perform the abortion for her (in return for payment) it is described in excruciating detail, both the process itself and the aftermath, which will eventually see her taken to hospital. Ernaux is always a very physical writer and does not shy away from the torments of the body as well as the mind, though she is equally brutal with the psychological truth, describing the abortion as “giving birth to me” –

“At that point I killed my own mother inside me.”

Ernaux creates the truth of the book in layers: her recreation of the events, quotations for her journal of the time, and discussion of the process of writing, often delivered in parentheses. She does not proselytise, presenting the abortion neither as a courageous choice or a terrible mistake. Though her books are deeply felt, they are, in a sense, dispassionate, attempting neither to excuse nor justify:

“Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.”

Trout, Belly Up

February 20, 2019

The title story of Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (newly translated by Ellen Jones) ends with the narrator surveying the tanks of trout he has been tasked with looking after:

“The surfaces of the tanks were covered in trout, their fat, silver bellies floating upwards… Not a thing was moving in there, and without thinking about it I stuck my whole arm into the first tank, pushing the dead trout aside.”

Such surreal, even grotesque, images are not unusual in Fuentes’ stories, and though they may initially appear comic – such as the tree decorated with shoes in ‘Dive’ or the cow which walks on two legs in ‘Out of the Blue, Perla’ – death is generally close behind.

In ‘Trout, Belly Up’ the failure of Don Henrik’s project to breed and sell trout in the Guatemalan mountains seems almost inevitable. The narrator is initially reluctant to become involved, not because he regards the scheme as implausible but because he does not want to work:

“Hoping to get rid of him, I yelled that I’d be up in a minute, before settling back into the hammock.”

He demonstrates the same lackadaisical attitude to his wife, Ermina, and his four children when he becomes involved with a younger woman from the village, Anali. This affair is inadvertently responsible for the death of the trout, as first his wife leaves him, and then he lies to his only colleague, Juancho, to get rid of him in anticipation of Anali’s arrival. His lack of care for her is shown when he turns on her after discovering the tanks have failed:

“After a while she lowered her gaze and, turning, headed off in the direction of the path. She was the second woman to walk away from me in two days.”

That he ends the story alone is the logical conclusion to many of the tales, including the final story of the collection, ‘Henrik’ (Henrik is a recurrent name featuring in almost every story, though whether this identifies the same character is less clear). Henrik is challenged over the ownership of the farm he has inherited by criminals:

“Those men, they’re no farmers, all they’ve got is the moustache.”

In the story’s final moments he feels, along with the narrator and his mother, threatened in his home. The narrator watches him head outside with a gun in his hand:

“His white dressing gown glows bright in the darkness. He takes another step. I sit up on the sofa and see the pistol in his hand, grasped firmly against his hip.”

In completely different circumstances, we meet a similar scenario in ‘Whisky’. Here Mata, an alcoholic, is given a “whiny dog” by his sponsor. The dog helps create a bond between him and his daughter:

“He began to look forward to his weekends with Pia and Whisky. Nothing changed about those visits except the size of the dog, who was growing at an alarming rate.”

The dog goes missing and, after searching unsuccessfully for a while, one night they follow its bark to the edge of a ravine. Mata must descend into the ravine, the bottom of which cannot be seen, if he is to rescue his daughter’s dog.

‘Whisky’ is perhaps as close as Fuentes gets to a domestic story; in most of the stories, as with ‘Henrik’, the threat comes from the violence of men. In ‘Trout, Belly Up’ the narrator is able to scare off Juancho as he is working on the mountain to escape his pursuers:

“…to get away from that side of the mountain and be closer to the summit, up here where the only access is along a muddy track.”

In ‘Out of the Blue, Perla’ the walking cow incenses the gunmen who are travelling from farm to farm so much that they return to assault her:

“Don’t worry about your mount… she’ll be exactly the same, she just won’t be such a tease from now on.”

In ‘Ubaldo’s Island’ violent criminals, with a lawyer in tow, attempt to intimidate Ubaldo into signing over the land. Here the story takes a direction which is perhaps more optimistic, though just as violent, as the local population unite to frighten them off.

In Trout, Belly Up Fuentes gives us a glimpse into a world where violence is frequently only a few feet away, and fear is so commonplace it invites recklessness. When, in ‘Dive’ a character comments that, “he realised something fucked up was about to happen,” he expresses a feeling which follows the reader throughout the book. Once again, Charco Press opens the door and ventures out into the darkness where most fiction fears to tread.

Lost Books – The Accompanist

February 15, 2019

I first discovered Nina Berberova’s work a year ago when I read The Book of Happiness which told the story of a young woman, Vera, who lived through the Russian Revolution before eventually leaving Russia for France – a story not unlike Berberova’s own (though hers eventually ended in the USA where she arrived in 1950 with very little money and, within ten years, was professor of Russian Literature at Yale). While New Directions have been her main publisher in English, I recently came across a UK paperback (the now extinct Flamingo imprint) of her short novel, The Accompanist, translated by Marian Schwartz in 1987, though originally written in 1936.

The Accompanist is an intense novel, not simply by nature of its brevity, but as a result of the relationship it describes between the singer, Maria Travina, and the young accompanist of the title, Sonechka. Taking the form of Sonechka’s diary, it is presented as having been sold to a friend of the author by a junk dealer, an early comment on Sonechka’s sense that she has been side-lined by life. The difficulties of Sonechka’s life begin even before she is born as her mother, a music teacher, falls pregnant to one of her students and must leave in order to have the child:

“I realised that my mama was my disgrace, just as I was hers. And our whole life was one irreparable shame.”

Despite their difficulties (her mother loses most of her students when it is discovered she has an illegitimate child), Sonechka is able to train as a pianist at the Conservatory and is offered the position of accompanist to Maria Travina, a famous singer, at eighteen years old. The year is 1919 and work is scarce; Sunechka and her mother are living in poverty:

“My boots were made from a rug, my dress from a tablecloth, my winter cloak from mama’s cloak, my hat from some gold-embroidered sofa cushions.”

Sonechka can now define her feelings of inferiority with reference to Maria and her “wild, inaccessible perfection”:

“She is ten years older than I and of course does not hide the fact, because she is beautiful and I am not. She is tall and has a relaxed, strong, healthy body. I’m small, tense, sickly looking… She has smooth black hair, tied in a knot at her nape; my hair is fair and lifeless…”

This infatuation develops in her a need to balance their relationship by requiring Maria to be indebted to her, for example for keeping a secret. When a man calls on Maria she feels she has a chance to demonstrate her loyalty and is disappointed when Mara tells her husband.

“I have to earn her trust… I have to earn it, so that later, when the time comes, out of the blue, I can shield her from some misfortune, rescue her suddenly, serve her so slavishly that she doesn’t even know it’s me.”

Sonechka is hampered by her sense inferiority, unable, for example, to make anything of the more sophisticated company she now keeps:

“The majority of them I knew, but it seemed impolite of me to talk with them, and anyway I had nothing to say.”

Over time her admiration of Maria becomes a determination to discover an imperfection:

“But right now I dreamed of only one thing – finding that strong woman’s weak spot, finding a chink for when remaining her shadow became unbearable – and then dealing with her life.”

When Maria tells her to give up her boyfriend as “he’s very silly”, we sense the bitterness in her thought that “compared to her, all people were pitiful and silly.” Still, she does not see him again, even though they had plans for marriage, placing Maria’s life before her own once more as they go abroad:

“Suddenly I realised that my romance with him was a digression from the main plot line I had picked up back in Petersburg.”

She does, of course, eventually discover Maria’s weakness, which is, just as expectedly, a man she is seeing in Paris behind her husband’s back, a long term love affair which dates back to a letter Maria asked Sonechka to post shortly after they met. Sonechka comes to resent Maria’s ability to hide her emotional turmoil:

“Perhaps if during those weeks Maria Nikolaevna had changed, body and soul, had suffered – so that everybody could tell, including me – if she had fallen ill or lost her voice – I don’t know, maybe then I would have been satisfied.”

The only question which remains is whether Sonechka will step out from the wings to direct the novel’s tragic conclusion, or stay in the shadows, the replaceable accompanist, forever.

The Accompanist is a sharp, sad novel which views fame from the side-lines. Maria is never cruel to Sonechka but does take her inferiority, her unimportance, for granted. Post-revolution Russia is not the dramatic background it was in The Book of Happiness, in keeping with Maria’s position centre stage, but it makes the occasional unheralded appearance with references to her husband’s friends (“some had been executed; others were in prison; most had fled”) and their journey out of Russia (”fated to pick lice of ourselves, to be robbed down to our last kopek”). In both Maria and (perhaps ironically) Sonechka, Berberova creates memorable characters who both win the reader’s’ sympathy. As I said last year, it feels like time for this writer to be rediscovered.

Mouthful of Birds

February 12, 2019

Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel, Fever Dream, burned with nightmarish intensity, and so it’s no surprise to discover that many of the short stories collected in Mouthful of Birds similarly exploit our darkest fears. More than one explores the same parental anxiety, a fear that encapsulates both the terror of a child’s death and the haunting doubt of their otherness. In ‘Butterflies’, one of the shortest stories, a father waiting for his daughter at the end of the school day catches a butterfly:

“A brownish butterfly lands on Calderon’s arm and he quickly traps it. The creature struggles to get away, but he presses its wings together and holds it by the ends.”

When the school doors open, instead of children, “hundreds of butterflies of every colour and size rush out towards the waiting parents.”

“Calderon…stands motionless. He can’t bring himself to life his foot from the one he has killed. He is, perhaps, afraid of recognising his girl’s colours in its dead wings.”

In one surreal moment Schweblin reveals the damage parents fear they might accidentally inflict. In ‘Underground’ Schweblin taps into the fear of disappearance, and in the title story she examines the lengths to which the parent-child bond will stretch. The father who narrates the story is quickly aware something is not right the moment his daughter, Sara, greets him, “Hi, Dad” –

“Although my little girl really was a sweetheart, two word were all it took for me to realise that something was really off about the kid…”

An empty bird cage provides the first clue. His ex-wife, Silvia, can no longer cope, and he is, understandably, appalled:

“She eats birds! Have you taken her to the doctor? What in the hell does she do with the bones?”

He takes Sara to live with him, her mother providing a daily supply of birds – but what will he do when Silvia fails to turn up and cannot be contacted? The story demonstrates the way in which parents adapt to their children (though we may think it’s the other way round), and, in the horror of Sara’s blood-stained mouth, highlights the fear of their children’s loss of innocence.

Though children only appear in a few of the stories, violence and death are common to many of them. In ‘The Test’ the narrator must beat a dog to death in order to prove himself to local criminal gang:

“Beating a dog to death in the Buenos Aires port is the test they use to see if you’re capable of doing something worse.”

Though he successfully carries out this task, he discovers the world is more dog eat dog than he originally suspected. In two of the stories violence is linked to art. ‘Heads Against Concrete’ features a painter who turns an act of childhood violence into an artistic obsession bringing him many commissions:

“They pay me whatever I ask. Later I see the painting hung in their enormous, empty living rooms, and I think that those guys deserve to see themselves good and smashed on the ground by my hand, and they seem very much to agree when they stand in front of the paintings.”

When he is asked by a Korean dentist to decorate his waiting room, the violence suddenly spills from the painting. In ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’ we see the same process in reverse as a murdered body is put on display as if it is a work of art. Schweblin seems to be suggesting care should be taken when we glorify harm as an art form.

Though these themes resurface, the collection as a whole demonstrates Schweblin’s versatility. She can work within the limits of a few pages, as in ‘The Digger’ (with its wonderfully unsettling conclusion, “You can’t dig…the hole is yours”), and she can develop character over the longer form. She is adept at the surreal, as a story like ‘The Merman’ makes clear, where the narrator falls for the titular sea creature:

“I kiss him, and I feel the cold of his mouth awaken every cell in my body, like a cool drink in the middle of summer.”

Despite its mythological premise, the story exemplifies the compulsion of lust. She can also write entirely naturalistically, as in ‘Santa Claus Sleeps at our House’, a story which contains the pathos one might expect from the title, though in an unexpected way. Her particular talent, though, is to transform the ordinary into something menacing, even terrifying, which is both explicable and incomprehensible at the same time. We see this to greatest effect in stories like ‘On the Steppe’ and ‘Toward Happy Civilisation’. The latter begins with a train station which will not sell tickets and where trains will, therefore, never stop, and heads full steam towards a conclusion of which Kafka would be proud, proving, as so many of these stories do, that Fever Dream was only the first sight of an extraordinary writer.

Children of the Cave

February 9, 2019

Last year Peirene Press travelled to colder climates: Latvia, Lithuania, Siberia and Iceland all featuring in what were generally chilly tales of hardship and suffering, despite the cheerier finale of And the Wind Sees All. This year we begin in similar fashion with Finnish writer Virve Sammalkorpi’s Children of the Cave set in the unexplored wilderness of early nineteenth century north-west Russia. There is, however, an important difference: while Soviet Milk and Shadows on the Tundra were almost documentary in recounting the ordeal of Soviet rule, Children of the Cave, despite its outward mimicry of non-fiction forms, was selected as the best Finnish fantasy novel in 2017.

Children of the Cave presents itself as the diaries of Iax Agolasky, a Russian whose family immigrates to France in the early nineteenth century:

“At the age of twenty-two he was asked to act as an assistant and interpreter to one Professor Moltique on an expedition to north-west Russia.”

After this brief introduction, the story of the expedition is told through the surviving extracts from Agolasky’s diary, with the occasional authorial intrusion to inform us where pages are missing or the date is uncertain. The expedition begins with high hopes, Agolasky declaring he is “grateful to Moltique for selecting me from among the dozens of those who applied, all keen to go on this exciting journey.” It is almost a year later when we first hear about the cave:

“It appears that we have discovered the habitat of a new animal instead of a mysterious forest tribe. There are no signs of human settlement.”

Neither Agolasky nor Moltique can agree on what this ‘new animal’ is however:

“I know Moltique considers the creature we shot to be a monkey bearing unusual mutations. I myself cannot forget thinking I first saw a wild boar, then a human being.”

Moltique comes to believe that the children (as they have begun to call them) “represent an intermediate stage in human evolution,” though Agolasky, while not dismissing this theory, worries that he is too attached to it: “I fear his ambition blinds him.” Algolasky begins to grow close to one of the children, a girl he christens Petite, observing and following her, and eventually dreaming of her:

“The inhabitant of the cave I call Petite has entered my dreams. She looks at me entreatingly, asking for something… I woke up this morning covered in sweat, my heart thumping, for there was something terrifyingly human in the eyes of the creature I saw in my dream.”

As the children appear increasingly human to Algolasky, his fellow explorers become less so. Of those who are there to do the heavy lifting he says:

“It is unfortunate, but the men who have ended up on this journey are better off outside the reach of officialdom.”

Moltique himself is discovered to be less than civilised. Agolasky describes him as a steadfast ally but “as an enemy, frightening, even dangerous,” and goes on to recall:

“I am also trying to forget the beating I got back in winter, though I still cannot face the men Moltique put up to the job. The scars on my back and my legs will remind me for the rest of my life of how an uneducated herd of men can crush a person who thinks too highly of himself.”

As time passes, Moltique becomes increasingly unreliable, unstable even, and the men more fractious and unruly, placing both Agolasky and the children in danger, particularly when a conversation is overheard in which their de facto leader reveals his plans to:

“…slaughter the most human of the children of the cave, capture the rest, and also kill Moltique and myself if we object.”

Agolasky must pick a side.

In Children of the Cave Virve Sammalkorpi brilliantly captures, with the aid of translators Emily and Fleur Jerimiah, the idiom of exploration, from the hopeful optimism of the opening through the simmering tensions and burdensome boredom of daily life in the camp to the violent desperation of the end. Through its premise the novel questions both what it is to be human, and how well humanity can recognise itself. Though the novel is set two hundred years ago, the fear of the other is still very much alive today.

The Houseguest

February 3, 2019

The Mexican writer Amparo Davila first came to my attention when she appeared as a character (or two characters) in Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest. At that time none of her work was easily available in English but, luckily, only a few months later we have a collection of her short stories, The Houseguest, translated by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson.

‘The Houseguest’ is one of twelve stories in the collection, but the title is aptly chosen as so many of them allude to a strange, often threatening, presence in a domestic setting. The title story opens with:

“I’ll never forget the day he came to live with us. My husband brought him home from a trip.”

The ‘he’ of the story remains unexplained and only vaguely defined, but from the first moment the narrator reacts with disgust:

“I couldn’t suppress a cry of horror the first time I saw him. He was grim, sinister, with large yellowish eyes, unblinking and almost circular, that seemed to pierce through things and people.”

The horror continues until one might the narrator wakes up to find him standing next to her bed, “staring at me with his piercing gaze” and decides to take matters into her own hands. The first story, ‘Moses and Gasper’, also focuses on the unwanted guests of the title, who are inherited by the narrator when his brother dies:

“The only things he left me in charge of were his burial and the care of Moses and Gaspar.”

Again, their humanity is left in doubt, though the horror they inspire is not, as we discover when the narrator’s occasional lover arrives at his apartment:

“When Susy entered the bedroom, she saw Moses and Gaspar there, cornered in fright under the sofa. She turned so pale that I thought she was going to faint, then screamed like a lunatic and dashed down the stairs.”

Eventually the pair disrupt the narrator’s life entirely, but even then he is “afraid to plumb the shadowy mystery of their being.” In ‘Oscar’ a young woman, Monica, returns home with a sense of apprehension: “Her fear of facing the rest of the family had made her extremely tense and nervous.” Although pleased to see her parents, sister and brother, there is another presence in the house – Oscar:

“From the cellar, Oscar directed their lives; so it had always been, and so it would continue to be.”

The story charts the effect of Oscar’s destructive tendencies on the family, the “never-ending nightmare” that Monica has returned to.

It is easy to see why Davila so often choses domestic spaces for these nightmarish creatures who come to inhabit the one place we cannot escape from. For her characters, running away is not an option. Even without unwanted guests, her stories often have a domestic setting. In ‘Fragment of a Diary’ the narrator exposes her suffering to her neighbours on the communal stair:

“I’ve always liked stairways, with their people who go dragging their breath up them and fall dully down them in a shapeless mass. Maybe that’s why I chose the stairs to suffer on.”

Here the unwanted presence is the kindness of a neighbour, unwanted as the narrator has devoted themselves to suffering:

“It happened again. Just as the last rays of the afternoon sun bathed the steps. I still feel her hand in mine, which fled from her touch.”

In ‘Musique Concrete’, a typical love triangle is given a surreal makeover. It begins when Sergio encounters an old friend, Marcela, and is surprised by her “wilted face and obvious self-neglect.” It transpires that she believes that her husband is having an affair, but goes on to claim that the woman enters her house at night as a toad:

“I got up and ran to the door of my room, and there she was in the hall a few steps from my door, just one hop away from entering – staring at me with her huge eyes which seemed to be popping out of their sockets – about to leap on top of me.”

Sergio, of course, dismisses this as “worked-up nerves”, before going to visit the woman in question himself.

The Houseguest is a wonderfully eerie collection of stories. Davila does not shy away from such classic tropes as the double in ‘End of a Struggle’ (’The Funeral’ contains another but to say which would spoil it). She is also not afraid to play on the expectations her work raises, as she does in ‘Tina Reyes’. All of these rightly suggest a writer at the height of their craft, and one, it is to be hoped, we shall hear a lot more of.

The Grass is Singing

January 31, 2019

Last year, for the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, I began reading her novels in chronological order – a project which will continue into this year, with seven still to read. 2019, however, marks the centenary of the birth of another important British writer, Doris Lessing. Though very different in style – Spark, sharp and certain, Lessing discursive and doubtful – their lives were not entirely dissimilar. Both spent time in Southern Rhodesia – Spark after she married in 1937, Lessing when her parents moved there in 1925 – before coming to London in 1944 and 1949 respectively. Both left children behind them.

Lessing is personally important to me as she was one of the first modern writers I read who could be described as ‘literary’. I was introduced to her at school where we studied her first novel, The Grass is Singing. Unusually this didn’t put me off, and I went on to read the copy of Briefing for a Descent into Hell I found in the school library, and then her Canopus in Argos series, which was being published at that time. Later, I was lucky enough to see her a number of times at The Edinburgh International Book Festival where she was a frequent visitor.

The Grass is Singing is Lessing’s response to the racism of the continent, and life, she left behind to bring the novel to England where it was published in 1950, but it also touches on a number of other themes which she would return to over the years. Like Spark, Lessing was not afraid to use genre to her own ends, and the novel begins with the murder of Mary Turner by her black servant, Moses. With both victim and murderer known the interest for the reader is in discovering how we reached this point. As Marston, Dick Turner’s new assistant, tells neighbouring farmer, Charlie Slatter:

“You know as well as I do this case is not something that can be explained straight off like that… It’s not something that can be said in black and white, straight off.”

Marston is new to the country, and quickly convinced that finding the truth of what happened is not in the best interests of the white settlers:

“When old settlers say, ‘One has to understand the country,’ what they mean is, ‘You have to get used to our ideas about the native.’”

Lessing, however, is primarily interested in Mary, asking the same question as Marston: “What sort of woman had Mary Turner been before she came to this farm and had been driven slowly off balance by heat and loneliness and poverty?” Mary’s life begins in relative poverty, we discover, with an alcoholic father and a mother driven desperate by making ends meet. Her happiest times are at boarding school – “so happy that she dreaded going home”. However, she is able to leave this life behind:

“By the time she was twenty she had a good job, her own friends, a niche in the life of the town.”

Ten years later, nothing has changed – “The truth was she had no troubles.” What, then, makes her consider marrying a poor farmer and moving many miles away from the city life she is used to? Simply the social pressure to be married:

“But all women become conscious, sooner or later, of that impalpable, but steel-strong, pressure to get married.”

The marriage is a mistake, but one which cannot be undone. Her husband, Dick, is well-intentioned but feckless. Year after year he scrapes by, always dreaming that the next year will be the one when he strikes it rich. A series of money-making schemes fail one after the other – keeping bees, breeding pigs, opening a store – Mary sees their onset in his “familiar rapt expression.” Mary’s repeated request to have ceilings put in their house is one example of her inability to escape from the poverty of her surroundings, and contributes to her obsession with the heat, which she feels “beating down from the iron over her head.” Worst of all, she feels like she has been returned to the childhood she thought she had escaped from, becoming:

“…possessed with the thought that her father, from his grave, had sent out his will and forced her back into the kind of life he had made her mother lead.”

She also finds it difficult to deal with the natives employed both on the farm and in the house. A series of houseboys leave or are dismissed, much to her husband’s frustration:

“If you get yourself into a state over your boys then you are finished.”

When Dick falls ill, Mary takes over, at first reluctantly, the running of the farm, and is as unforgiving with the labourers as she is with her houseboys, going as far as to whip one in the face. It is this ‘native’ who will later come to work in the house, and eventually murder her, but the assumption this is simple revenge is complicated by the relationship they develop, which begins when he catches her watching him wash:

“What had happened was that the formal pattern of black-and-white, mistress-and-servant, had been broken by the personal relationship.”

As well as condemning the endemic racism in Southern Rhodesian society, the novel is also concerned with Mary’s treatment as a woman. At the heart of her deterioration lies her lack of opportunity to use her abilities and intelligence:

“If only she had something to fill her time, that was the trouble.”

When she is running the farm she finds herself “exhilarated by the unfamiliar responsibility.” She also discovers that their poverty “was not a question of bad luck, it was simply incompetence.” When she recommends changes to Dick she is hopeful for a while, but soon he returns to his old ways. The way in which women are both marginalised and consigned to madness is, of course, a theme Lessing will return to again.

The Grass is Singing remains a powerful novel perhaps because, even though the society it describes is no longer with us, the attitudes are. Above all, it is a painful portrait of an unfulfilled life, one where the pressure to conform leads to first isolation, then death.

The Silence of the Girls

January 26, 2019

Pat Barker first turned to the subject of war with her fifth novel, Regeneration, to escape being pigeon-holed as a chronicler of the lives of working class women. Regeneration grew into a commercially and critically successful trilogy of First World War novels, with a second series of linked novels set during the same war following between 2007 and 2015, making her one of England’s most important fictional interpreters of the period. With The Silence of the Girls, Barker turns to a different conflict, the Trojan War, once again proving her deep understanding of the forces which drive conflict, and its effect on individuals. Having turned to the trenches in part to prove she could write men, she ironically provides a new perspective on events outside the walls of Troy by presenting most of the narrative from the point of view of one of the captured Trojan women, Briseis, the disputed ‘prize’ at the centre of the bitter quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon:

“For me it was the silence of the girls, the fact that this girl is being quarrelled over by these two great, distinguished, eloquent men and yet the girl herself says nothing. She has no opinion, she has no power, she has no voice. It was the urge to fill that vacuum that made me go back and start retelling the myth yet again.”

In her opening lines Barker makes clear that she will, once again, have little time for the idea that war is glorious:

“Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles…How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.”

The novel opens with the fall of Lyrnessus, Briseies’ home city, and her subsequent capture by the Greeks. This, of course, provides an instant fore-shadowing of the fate of Troy. Barker is clear on the distinction between the treatment of men and women in the aftermath of the defeat:

“For once, women with sons envied those with daughters, because girls would be allowed to live. Boys, if anywhere near fighting age, were routinely slaughtered. Even pregnant women were sometimes killed, speared through the belly on the off chance their child would be a boy.”

The women are spared as prizes for the victorious army, and Briseis becomes Achilles’ prize:

“I was a cow, tethered and waiting to be sacrificed.”

Briseis frequently compares her new position to that of an animal or an object. Referring to the women weaving, she says, “Only we weren’t the spiders; we were the flies,” and, rather than watching Achilles like a hawk, she similarly reverses their roles, watching him “like a mouse.” One of her more important duties is to serve at his table:

“Nobody wins a trophy and hides it at the back of a cupboard.”

Barker is at pains to capture exactly the reality of Briseis’ role as a slave:

“This is what free people never understand. A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as anybody else’s.”

The story of The Iliad unfolds from Briseis’ point of view; her silence and invisibility allow her to hear and see much of what happens in Achilles’ quarters, and around the camp (ironically she has more freedom to wander there than she did as a wife in Lyrnessus). Her comment that she watches Achilles “like a mouse” becomes prophetic when she recalls that Apollo is the god of mice: when Agamemnon offends Apollo by refusing to return Chryseis to her father, the Greek camp is overrun by plague. When Agamemnon is finally forced to return Chryseis, it is Briseis he takes in her place, leading to Achilles’ refusal to fight:

“I was the girl who’d caused the quarrel. Oh, yes, I’d caused it – in much the same way, I suppose, as a bone is responsible for a dogfight.”

Though Briseis tells the story, Achilles is, in many ways, still at the centre of it. According to Agamemnon he is “the most violent man on earth”, and Barker has commented that “Achilles is furious all the time.” When he and Patroclus decide that Agamemnon must be told to give Chryseis back, he still continues to rage about it:

“Decision taken. With some men that might have been the end of it, but not Achilles. He ranted and raved, fists pumping, spit flying, working himself up into a state of near insanity.”

Where Briseis must contain her anger, Achilles releases his at every opportunity. You might even say he overpowers the narrative at one point as Barker presents the opening of Part Two from his point of view. Barker makes no attempt to contort English into some imaginary semblance of Ancient Greek, her colloquial language instead capturing the essence of the Greek soldiers, for example when Odysseus tries to persuade Achilles to fight. She is particularly good on his relationship with Patroclus, whose kindness to Briseis reflects his very different character:

“Because I know what it is like to lose everything and be handed to Achilles as a toy.”

Barker resists reducing them to a homosexual couple, presenting a relationship which is as complex as it is close. At one point Achilles thinks:

“The truth: Patroclus had taken his mother’s place.”

The Silence of the Girls is an enlightening and engaging novel, one which takes a story we know well and strips it back to its raw heart. Rather than a eulogy for the Greek and Trojan dead, it is a tribute to the survival of the women.

Quotations from Pat Barker from an interview with Martha Greengrass for Waterstones.

Dreamerika

January 20, 2019

Alan Burns, like Ann Quin, was a British experimental novelist of the 1960s and 70s who formed part of an informal group of writers, the most famous (or at least most vocal) of which was B S Johnston. All have been subsequently neglected, including Johnston, though much of his work is now back in print, thanks in part to Jonathan Coe’s wonderful 2004 biography Like a Fiery Elephant. Quin seems to be experiencing her with last year’s And Other Stories collection, The Unmapped Country, being followed by her first novel Berg, this year. Now it seems it is Burns’ turn, with his first five novels all due to be reprinted by John Calder over twelve months, beginning with Dreamerika! (They are not, however appearing in order, with Dreamerika! being the fifth, first published in 1972).

Dreamerika! (subtitled ‘A Surrealist Fantasy’) is about as unofficial a history as you could imagine of the Kennedy family. Though largely constrained by actual events, and expressed in a language which is stripped of emotion, the placid surface of its sentences will suddenly be disturbed by strange images and unsettling fantasies. Take, for example, the opening chapter, ‘More Power than Any King’, which begins by recounting the deaths which occurred before JFK’s assassination. Here is the dispassionate description of Kathleen’s fatal air crash:

“Kathleen’s aircraft smashed into the mountains, she died in the wreckage. Her body was carried away in a cart.”

Burns eschews conjunctions, either using short sentences or an ungrammatical comma, creating the impression that he is simply listing facts. He follows this, however, with:

“Survived by her brothers, there followed the ritual talk between father and mother, foretaste of mortality, horror of growing older, crows crouching in a lead sky.”

Here, the sentence feels as formal but, by the end, is positively gothic. The detached tone is not simply a method of convincing the reader, but also a demonstration of the ruthless ambition of the parents. When, describing Joe’s death, we are told, “he was loaded and flown at a Nazi target” (he was killed while flying bomber during the Second World War), we see how Joseph and Rose saw their children as objects, as political weapons with which to make an assault on the highest office in the land.

Burns’ most disconcerting technique, though, is to scatter the narrative with newspaper clippings. Between the sentences above we find “Private yacht for auction”, and after the second we have in large letters: “Capitalist.” The cut-outs are not part of the narrative so much as a commentary on it, a sideways glance at what’s going on, torn from the heart of the culture which created the Kennedy myth.

The novel is divvied into eight chapters. The second, ‘Hey! You with the Car’, tells Jack’s story:

“Shaking hands across the street, every girl requested the pleasure, fifteen thousand votes in gowns.”

Jack is “colour film” compared to Nixon whose film “took place in a grey telescope.” It describes both his presidential victory and his assassination:

“The town of Dallas is built on guns and stretches in an arc of war.”

The next chapter, too, focuses on his death; on Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, before the novel moves onto Bobby. It would be fair to say that Burns has no interest in safeguarding anyone’s reputation:

“While his public life preserved the fabric of political respectability, his intimate needs were served by boys.”

This applies equally to the story of Teddy as the car accident which the senator escaped leaving a young woman dead (he had driven the car of a bridge and into the water) is recounted in detail. Teddy is said to have commented:

“Mary is dead. Everyone dies. Not my business. She took care of herself.”

Dreamerika! is an angry book, a fierce condemnation of a country in which one family can wield so much power and influence. It presents a picture of a society where money is everything:

“He offered to buy America for seventeen billion dollars and received assurances that the government would move put at their leases expired.”

Finally, the American Dream itself is corrupted, as Burns illustrates by moving beyond the Kennedys to Charles Manson. The novel’s final pages read like science fiction, a report on a dead planet, a lost civilisation:

“When they lost control of their world there was confusion in the area. They began to record the glories of the past. The ancient people once had power.”

However prescient this felt at the end of the sixties, it seems that Alan Burns’ time has come again.