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.

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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.

Amphibian

January 16, 2019

Christina Neuwirth’s Amphibian is a first novel from a new press, Speculative Books, which mainly specialises in poetry. It’s a small book – at 124 pages it could be classed as a novella, and in physical form it loses an inch at each edge to the average paperback – but it overflows with imagination. The premise is a simple one revealed in the staff email with which it opens:

“I am writing to inform you that, after the latest Sales Review, the revenues from the fourth floor have been deemed less than satisfactory. It has therefore been decided that the fourth floor will be gradually put under water, effective tomorrow morning, 26th June.”

When Rose arrives at work, having neglected to read the email, she is shocked to discover her feet sinking into the carpet, endangering her new brogues. Her fellow office worker, Siobhan, is better prepared, with waterproof footwear and an assurance not to “worry about the plugs. They had the cablers in this morning. We’re fine.” Initially them staff make the most of the situation, sending paper boat memos racing along with the office fans, but, as office manager, Lynn points out in the first of many water based jokes:

“…this is exactly why we’re going under.”

Though the water level does not rise every day, within a week it is up to Rose’s knees. As with any novel which introduces a surreal, if not entirely implausible, element the reader’s interest is largely in the reaction of the characters. In various ways, their instinct is to manage the change rather than rebel, complaining only in unanswered emails. Lynn, as a representative of management, makes only minor concessions, refusing to abandon shoes as many of the others have done:

“Obviously, Lynn still wore heels. She now had a preference towards those with little straps at the top because she kept losing the others.”

When things begin to float away the staff weigh them down with anything they can find, including stones they bring in from outside, until eventually the desks are bolted to the floor. Office politics consists of a ban on swimming and confronting Jim as to whether he is peeing in the water, a rumour which spreads after he spends an unusually long time without leaving his desk. Conversations about the weather are replaced by discussion of the temperature of the water. Finally it seems one of the staff has been sacked:

“’…she hasn’t been pulling her weight. That’s what the shark said.’
‘The what?’
‘There was a shark in here?’…
‘Yeah, I mean, he was only in for a second, so I couldn’t really see, but I definitely think it was a shark. He was wearing a suit.”

Rose becomes convinced that the shark’s message was actually meant for her.

The situation in the office spills over (I know) into Rose’s outside life in unexpected ways. Not only does it instil a new camaraderie among the members of the fourth floor (Rose only really notices her wet clothes as she heads home), but she becomes reluctant to tell any of her friends about what is happening:

“She felt like she was leading a very boring double life: one where she worked in an office, and another where she worked in a very similar, slightly flooded office, which was otherwise exactly the same.”

This is partly because she predicts her friends will simply tell her to leave, and from the start we are aware she has a dream to (ironically) work on a boat (and a love of surfing). The novel is not only about how workers are treated, but also about how much they will put up with, and while the scenario may seem ridiculous, the tolerance is spot on. All leads to a conclusion which focuses on whether Rose will choose compromise or freedom.

Amphibian is a light-hearted satire but one that should not be mistaken for faint-hearted. Its amusing tone, with moments of laugh out loud wit, do not detract from the seriousness of its depths.

Three

January 12, 2019

Last January I read Ann Quin’s first novel, Berg, soon to appear in a new edition from And Other Stories whose Quin revival began the collection The Unmapped Country. It may have taken twelve months, but I began this year with her second novel, Three, from 1966 (as she only wrote four novels before committing suicide in 1973 there is no rush). Three, unsurprisingly, is the story of three characters, middle-aged couple Leon and Ruth, and their lodger, a young woman known only as S. As the novel begins, S is already dead, having set out to sea in a small boat alone and never returned, the suggestion being that she has killed herself:

“I mean we can’t really be sure could so easily have been an accident the note just a melodramatic touch.”

The scenes between Leon and Ruth, which make up much of the narrative, are presented mainly in dialogue in which each speaker’s contribution is largely unpunctuated and, though paragraphed, is not regularly paragraphed between speakers. This choice suggest the suffocating proximity of their relationship where each must devise their own escapes, conversation that is close-packed and claustrophobic, though superficially civil.

Quin captures the domestic tensions of the couple without any need for melodrama. Much of it is played out through the cat, Bobo, “the cat R adores, L ignores” according to S, whose journals and recordings also feature in the novel as Leon and Ruth experience them. This is evident from the beginning when Leon insists the cat is smelling and Ruth retorts it is probably his shoes. While Ruth constantly pets the cat, Leon does not hide his dislike:

“The cat brushed against his legs, he pushed him away, picked the hairs off his trousers… Fucking stinking animal she never liked you really either.”

We can only assume the ‘she’ is S, and it is frequently hinted that Leon and S were much closer than S and Ruth:

“How I hated it when you both went off on those so-called long tramps nearly driven crazy here all alone…”

This influences Leon and Ruth’s differing views of S: whereas Leon sees her as “less inhibited” for swimming naked in the sea, Ruth comments, “she was a bit of an exhibitionist,” and says of her dancing:

“I thought she looked obscene really the way her legs spread out.”

We also know from S’s observations that Ruth is prone to jealousy:

“If L should stray in any one direction for too long she asks for a cigarette, refuses all offers except his.”

And Ruth admits, “Didn’t I then immediately feel a kind of relief when she was dead.” It is perhaps this that makes her ask Leon, “Do you think she was in love with you?” Meanwhile she finds Leon’s sexual approaches irritating, complaining that, “You always have to get sexy in the bath,” and later:

“Ah don’t darling you’re hurting you’re bruising me you know how tender I am. She pulled back.”

These constant rejections might make one feel sympathy for Leon were it not that Ruth sees his advances as entirely selfish:

“He is concerned only with achieving his own orgasm and I refuse absolutely to be exploited in that way.”

This is demonstrated later when he rapes her, also raising further questions about how he may have treated S. In her journal S describes nights spent at a hotel with a man, “nights spent in shared fantasies”, who could, of course, be Leon, who we learn knew S before she came to live with them. Could he even be the father of the child she had to have aborted? This would certainly go some way to answering Ruth’s question, “What did she want of us?” and explaining S’s comment:

“Three months now of living with two people and not any nearer – nearer. Tactics flounder before even begun. There seems no answer.”

Reading Three, however, is not about solving this mystery. It provides a forensic examination of Leon and Ruth’s marriage which, though far from extraordinary, instils the reader with horror by the end of the novel. Some of the most acute observations of their relationship come from S, who describes it as “Existence bound by habit” and outlines their sparring with this wonderful image:

“Emotions handled, shifted about, dropped, picked up, but always attached as a child’s pair of gloves.”

Three is a disturbing, uncomfortable novel, not only in Ruth and Leon’s present, but in the broken prose and fractured memories of S’s journals. Sex is a powerful force, both enticing and dangerous; families hide their true faces just as the three characters do behind masks in the empty swimming pool they use as a theatre; distrust is everywhere in the air. It is another reminder of what an important writer we lost, one that is long due recognition in her own country.

The Blizzard

January 8, 2019

Though a famous, prize-winning novelist by Russian standards, Vladimir Sorokin has, up to now, failed to make it as far as UK publication, with English translations of his work appearing only under US imprints. Penguin Modern Classics have changed all this by releasing two of these US translations in their livery (with, it has to be said, excellent covers): The Day of the Oprichnik (from 2006) and the more recent The Blizzard (2015), both translated by Jamey Gambrell.

The Blizzard tells the story of a doctor, Platon Ilich, who must get to the village of Dolgoye to deliver a vaccine through a snow storm:

“’You have to understand, I simply must keep going!’ Platon Ilich exclaimed angrily. ‘There are people waiting for me! They are sick. There’s an epidemic! Don’t you understand?!’”

The problem he faces (apart from the weather) is the lack of horses, until it is suggested he enlist the help of the ‘bread man’ Kozmo, or Crouper as he known (a nickname resulting from a bout of croup which kept everyone awake), who has his own ‘sledmobile’. Crouper’s slow, measured approach to life forms a perfect foil to Platon’s hysterical urgency and soon the two of them set off across the snow.

If the reader is expecting a traditional historical novel, however, they are soon surprised to discover that the fifty ‘horsepower’ of Crouper’s sledmobile is literally fifty tiny horses: “Each horse was no bigger than a partridge.” The probability of the horses may be in doubt, but Crouper’s love for them is not:

“He knew every single one of them and could tell you what its story was, where it was from and how he got it, how it worked, who its parents were, and describe its like and dislikes – its personality.”

Platon meanwhile, in typical Russian fashion (the novel seems to play on our expectations of Russian literature), takes then opportunity to philosophise:

“The larger the animal the more vulnerable it is to our vast expanses. And humans are the most vulnerable of all…”

Their journey is, of course, not as straightforward as they expect it to be (the doctor having suggested, “We’ll be in Dolgoye in about an hour and a half.”) First they split one of the sleds hitting a mysterious transparent pyramid buried in the snow. What follows will be the first of many battles between Crouper and Platon as the former suggests “we turn back ‘round the way we come,” while the latter is determined, “We can’t go back!” Eventually, using the doctor’s equipment, they glue the sled together with ointment and wrap it in bandages so they can continue. This is only the first of many setbacks and stopovers, which include an overnight stay at the miller’s and a further interlude with a band of Vitaminders. The miller, like the horse, is tiny – “He wasn’t any bigger than the shiny new samovar” – which doesn’t stop him abusing all and sundry:

“Crouper! Just a bum, that scum.”

The Vitaminders make a living selling out of body experiences – the pyramid which damaged the sled turns out to be their latest product, which Platon is invited to try. On both occasions it is Platon who holds up their journey, sleeping in after sleeping with the miller’s wife and experiencing a vivid dream after inhaling the vaporized pyramid, which, despite seeming rather gloomy, leaves him filled with a zest for life:

“’What a miracle is life!’ he thought, peering into the blizzard as though seeing it for the first time… ‘We can live here, in this world, just live, we enter it like a new home, specially built for us… This is truly a miracle! Indeed, this is the proof of God’s existence!’”

The Blizzard, as you may have guessed, is more about the journey than the destination. A riff on Russian literature, it would be unfair to call it a pastiche as it has an emotional heart beneath its frantic and often humorous exterior, and real pathos in its conclusion. Its Swiftian touches, which, far from shrinking everything, also include a drunken giant who has died from exposure, keep the reader on their toes, and the unlikely pairing of Platon and Crouper are as entertaining as any buddy movie. It’s a wild and desperate ride, but one I was sorry to see end.

Child of Fortune

January 4, 2019

One of my favourite reads of last year was Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, newly translated by Geraldine Harcourt. Luckily Penguin Classics have also released Harcourt’s 1986 translation of Child of Fortune. It, too, tells the story of a divorced mother, Koko, and her daughter, Kayako, though in this case mother and daughter live most if the time separately: Koko in her own apartment, Kayako with her mother’s sister:

“At New Year she had simply moved in – alone – with Koko’s sister and begun going to school from there… – At Auntie’s they don’t make all the children do the stuff you make me do, Mom. When I told them that I clear up after dinner, and wash and iron my own things, and even sew on buttons, they were sorry for me. I was so embarrassed.-“

As with the narrator of Territory of Light, Koko can appear a feckless mother – and this is certainly how her family sees her. Kayako tells her that she visits her once a week because, according to her Aunt, “we can’t let your mother out of our sight or there’s no telling what she’ll get up to next.-“ Kayako has ambitions to go to a private Catholic school rather than a municipal junior high and is studying for the entrance exams. Koko, meanwhile, makes a living teaching piano but has little interest in her work – “though there was a piano in her apartment it was a while since she had even lifted the lid.” Their characters contrast in almost every way: Koko drifts through life whereas Kayako plans for her future; Kayako often appears more mature than Koko who can be annoyingly childish, for example when her daughter comes to visits:

“Close on seven o’clock the doorbell rang. Koko deliberately did not go to the door. The chimes sounded again. Then there was the click of a key in the lock.”

Roles are reversed to the point that Kayako has to tell her mother to have a bath, and then clean the bath tub for her.

Koko’s relationship with her daughter is in danger of further complication when she suspects she has fallen pregnant. The father is an old friend and irregular lover, Osada, who has acted as a go-between between her and her ex-husband in the past. The pregnancy makes her think with regret of a previous lover, Doi, who was very good to Kayako when she was younger, but who returned to his wife when she fell pregnant after Koko has resisted the idea:

“When Doi’s second child was born, Koko had actually welcomed the change at first, turning it into the opportunity she needed to leave him, but before very long she was stricken with a hopeless frustration, until she twisted and moaned in bed; frustration at herself, at having let Doi go, at having failed to take action.”

Now pregnant, she is surprised at her own lack of concern:

“Now, with her belly actually swelling, Koko was so unworried that it was even a letdown.”

Initially she has not intention of telling Osada: “the baby’s paternity was too insignificant to worry about; she was imply going to be producing another child and that was all there was to it.” Though her relationship with Kayako suggests this attitude may be rather cavalier, Koko’s refusal to turn to others is understandable given both their frequent disapproval and concurrent attempts to run her life for her. Her sister consistently undermines any efforts Koko makes to look after Kayako, even offering to adopt her, and when she discovers Koko’s pregnancy, complains it is too late for an abortion. Osada, too, develops his own plans when he finds out without thinking to consult Koko. Koko meanwhile attempts to be true to herself, and in particular the childlike spirit she learned from her disabled brother who died when he was Kayako’s age:

“One thing, though, was certain: she had never betrayed the small child she had been: the child who had pined for her brother in the institution; the child who had watched her mother and sitter resentfully, unable to understand what made them find fault with her grades, her manners, her language… in the long run her choices had always remained true to her childhood self.”

Her desire for independence is to be admired, and perhaps her attitude towards her daughter is more about discouraging her from relying on others than a lack of care. The novel is given depth by Koko’s memories which show her to be a complex and sometimes contradictory character. As in Territory of Light, dreams are also important. A dream of being on a boat, unsure whether she is alone or not, reflects her uncertainty over relationships, sometimes encouraging others to become close, at others isolating herself. Child of Fortune is another rich novel from Tsushima, rejecting any suggestion that life should only be lived one way, capturing the spirit of those who, although uncertain and confused, aim to carve out their own path.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

January 1, 2019

My New Year’s reading resolution is (as it is every year) to read some of those longer classics which have so far escaped my limited attention. In 2019 I will be aided (or perhaps tormented) in this endeavour by Boyd Tonkin’s The 100 Best Novels in Translation, having established that I have so far read only 38 of his chosen novels, which in fact number more than one hundred as he has sneakily included two trilogies and a quartet. What better place to start than Alfred Doblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, out of print for over ten years, but recently released in a new translation by Michael Hofmann.

Berlin Alexanderplatz tells the story of Franz Biberkopf:

“…a course, rough man of repulsive appearance, back on the streets of Berlin, a man on whose arm a pretty girl from an engineer’s family once hung, whom he turned into a whore and finally beat up so badly that she died. He swore to all the world and to himself he would remain decent. And as long as he had money, he remained decent. But then he ran out of money, which was the moment he had been waiting for, to show them all what he was made of.”

The novel begins with Biberkopf’s release from the Tegel prison, where he has served four years for his fatal attack on his girl, Ida. His initial feelings are of dread – “His real punishment was just beginning” – signalling Doblin’s portrayal of Berlin as a place of struggle and uncertainty. (Franz will, in fact, return to the Tegel’s walls more than once when he is troubled as if they represented something solid in his life). Franz’s mood picks up when he visits a cinema:

“Here were lots of people at liberty and enjoying themselves, no one’s telling them what to do, how lovely, and yours truly in the midst of it!”

Though the novel is much more than the landmarks of Berlin via the tour bus of Franz’s consciousness, we are kept aware of his volatile emotions both directly and indirectly as the narrative flickers between the authorial voice and his. Franz’s efforts to go straight are initially successful: soon he has a new girlfriend, Lina, and a job selling newspapers. When he is cheated he takes to drink but not yet to crime, despite his encroaching poverty:

“Franz, it’s two weeks now you’ve been squatting in your wretched attic. Your landlady is about to evict you. You can’t pay your rent and she’s not a landlady for the fun of it. Unless you get a grip on yourself, you’ll end up in the homeless shelter.”

It is through his friendship with Reinhold that he becomes unwillingly caught up in a robbery, asked to act as lookout. As they are making their escape, Reinhold throws him from the car and he is run over by the pursuing vehicle. He survives but loses an arm and has to begin again in his struggle to survive.

Franz is neither hero nor anti-hero; he lacks the wit and charisma to be a decent villain. There is a sad gap between how he sees himself in his more vainglorious moments and the reality. “You have no idea who I am. Who Franz Biberkopf is,” he says, “He is afraid of nothing. I got fists. See my muscles.” But though he threatens revenge on the man who cheats him and, later, on Reinhold, he does not act. Only women ever feel his fists.

The treatment of women in the novel is relentlessly degrading and brutal. Franz resorts to violence whenever he feels slighted or jealous. Meanwhile he will happily live off his girlfriend’s earnings through prostitution. For a while Reinhold passes his girlfriends onto Franz when he tires of them, though even Franz balks at this having a sentimental attachment to his lovers. What is most shocking, however, is the way the women acquiesce. In the novel’s second half, Mitzi is devoted to Franz, even after he beats her, while Eva, who introduced Mitzi to him, is also infatuated, wanting to have his baby while remaining with her own boyfriend. In the earlier scene where Franz visits Ida’s sister on his release he sleeps with her but, though he uses force at first, the suggestion of rape is ambiguous at best:

“…her arms aren’t able to push him away any more, her mouth is helpless. The man doesn’t say anything, she leaves him him him her mouth, she’s softening as in a warm bath, do with me what you please, she dissolves like water, it’s all right, come to me, I know everything, I want you too.”

This, too, adds to the picture of life on the margins as one of compromise and suffering, part of the wider picture Doblin wishes to present of the city. This includes long sections where the central characters do not appear, weather reports, statistics, and extracts which read as if from a scientific handbook, as, for example, describing Franz’s attack on Ida: “…the movement is in proportion to the force exerted, and will continue in the same direction (the force here being Franz, more specifically his arm and implement bearing fist)…”

Berlin Alexanderplatz is an enormous achievement: an unflinching portrait of a man with few redeeming features which still retains something of the reader’s sympathy; a picture of city in all its chaotic life; and a snapshot of a moment in time so vivid it allows itself to be inhabited. It is surely one of the key texts of the twentieth century.