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.



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.


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.


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.

Territorial Rights

December 28, 2018

The uncovering of secrets is a common feature of Muriel Spark’s novels. In her first novel, The Comforters, for example, Laurence discovers his grandmother is involved in a diamond smuggling ring. And where there are secrets, blackmail inevitably follows – as we see in her second novel, Robinson, when Tom insinuates Robinson “isn’t a man for the ladies.” The threat of blackmail continues to feature in many of the novels that follow, and is particularly prevalent in her 1979 novel Territorial Rights, where almost every character seems to have something to hide.

The novel takes place among the canals of Venice, where the coincidental arrival of a series of inter-connected foreigners leads to a complex ravelling and unravelling of their lives. First to arrive is art student Robert Leaver who has left his older lover Mark Curran (“He preferred to be called ‘Curran’ rather than by his Christian name, for reasons which, when he gave them, were difficult to puzzle out…”) in pursuit of Lina Pancev, a Bulgarian artist who is searching for the grave of her murdered father. He is soon followed by Curran, and, more unexpectedly, by his father, Arnold, who is holidaying with his “former colleague” (and lover), Mary Tiller. Into this already volatile mix will later appear the former matron of the school where Arnold was Headmaster, Grace Gregory, with her former pupil (and lover), Leo, ostensibly keeping an eye on Arnold on behalf of his wife, Anthea.

The secret at the heart of the novel is the death of Lina’s father, Victor, whom Curran knew:

“He was suspected of being part of a plot to poison King Boris, who in fact died of poisoning. Pancev got away but the Bulgarian royalists caught up with him and killed him in 1945.”

In fact, Curran knows more about his death than he tells Robert, including his final resting place – or places, as the corpse was cut in two – which just happens to be the garden of the Pensione Sofia where Robert is staying. The two elderly owners of the Pensione, Eufemia and Katerina, are also implicated, as is Violet de Winter, an old friend of Curran’s and the “chief agent for Global-Equip Security Services Ltd for northern Italy and adjacent territories”, the detective agency hired by Anthea to track down her husband (and amusingly reduced to the acronym GESS). Curran, who was a German agent at the time, is keen that the story of Victor’s death – and his graves – is left alone, but, when Robert disappears, he is threatened with exposure by his ‘kidnappers’. (Ironically the other secrets in the novel – Arnold’s affair, Robert’s homosexuality – are known by all).

Anyone who has been watching the recent BBC series Trust, about the kidnap of John Paul Getty III in Italy – the kidnap was originally his idea – will recognise something of this in Robert’s disappearance. Here it is played more lightly, to the point of farce when Lina returns to Curran a briefcase full of money which he has left for the kidnappers, thinking he has forgotten it. The kidnap is only one example of the novel’s topicality: Middle Eastern terrorism makes an appearance in its denouement, and Lina’s defection from the Soviet Bloc also seems symptomatic of the decade, although in Spark’s version of this story she frequently askes herself, “What have we defected for?” and is threatened with expulsion by Bulgarian expatriate group who support her financially. When her cousin, Serge, appears to take her home, his main criticism is of her art, a picture of men fishing:

“They look too prosperous and contented… In the west, the proletariat are not like that. You are painting propaganda.”

In fact, her painting seems simply banal, and not the only example of would-be art and artists in the novel. Curran, too, claims to be an artist, and Spark intersperses Anthea’s appearances with excerpts from the kitchen sink fiction she reads before bed.

This emphasis on modernity seems appropriate in a novel which depicts the passing of the baton from one generation to the next. Curran is a man of wealth and influence; Robert says of him:

“Curran would believe he was God if he believed in God. All his life Curran has commanded the morning and caused the dayspring to know its place.”

Curran himself claims, “I never feel guilty. Even when I know I should.” It is protégé, Robert, however, who gets the better of him, representing a new generation which is, if anything, even less moral. Robert’s ‘kidnap’ is described as “the beginning of Robert’s happy days, the fine fruition of his youth,” and it is him we think of when Grace tells Anthea:

“You’re mistaken if you think wrong-doers are always unhappy… The really professional evil-doers love it.”

Territorial Rights is one of Spark’s funniest novels: the satire is less biting and the authorial judgement more benevolent. Spark handles her extensive cast of characters with her usual skill, and even the darkest comedy (as when Robert encourages Lina to dance unwittingly on her father’s grave) has a light touch. If it is not one of Spark’s best novels, it is one of her most enjoyable.


December 23, 2018

Alasdair Gray previously described Dante’s Divine Comedy in his own magnum opus Lanark as the author, Nastler (nasty Alasdair), lists the great works of literature he wishes it to sit alongside while order proving to his character Lanark that “failures are popular.”

“Only the Italian book shows a living man in Heaven. He gets there by following Aeneas and Jesus through Hell, but first loses the woman and the home he loves and sees the ruin of all his political hopes.”

In the same novel, Lanark’s alter ego, artist Duncan Thaw, has the following quotation from Virgil, often seen as appropriate to both Thaw and Lanark’s journeys, written on the ceiling of his studio:

“Going down to hell is easy: the gloomy door is open night and day. Turning around and getting back to the sunlight is the task, the hard thing.”

Now, thirty-seven years later, and following his own version of Faust (Fleck) in 2008, the first part of Gray’s adaptation of Dante’s work is published. As Gray explained in an interview with The Paris Review in 2016, it is not a new translation:

“I cannot call it a translation as I do not know Italian. My version is based upon eight different English translations, none of which satisfied me.”

The only previous version I have read of The Divine Comedy in its entirety is the translation by Dorothy L Sayers (completed by Barbara Reynolds). Sayers, of course, transposed Dante’s terza rima (his rhyme scheme of aba bcb cdc…) into English, (a feat which must stand with Gilbert Adair’s translation of Georges Perec’s La Disparition). Such an intensive rhyme scheme, however, not only has an influence on the translation, but requires an extensive use of English vocabulary, including archaic words, which can detract from the power of Dante’s vision. On the other hand, a literal translation, which pays no attention to rhyme, also weakens the verse. Gray has gone for something in between:

“My version mainly keeps the Dantean form colloquial by using end-rhymes where they came easily, internal rhymes where they did not.”

With the regular rhythm retained, this works well, avoiding the suspicion that the rhymes are forced, perverting or diluting the meaning. To take, for example, the opening:

“In middle age, I wholly lost my way,
finding myself within an evil wood
far from the right straight road we all should tread,

and what a wood! So densely tangled, dark,
jaggily thorned, so hard to press on through,
even the memory renews my dread.

My misery, my almost deadly fear
led onto such discovery of good,
I’ll tell you of it if you care to hear.”

Only the third stanza rhymes in the terza rima format, though even here ‘good’ is paired with ‘wood’ not from the previous stanza but the one before. Similarly, ‘dread’ in the final line of stanza 2 rhymes with ‘tread’ three lines before. The absence of a regular rhyming pattern places emphasis on the power of the language rather than on the writer’s ability to find a matching trio, a language which Gray keeps deliberately prosaic in order to echo Dante’s use of colloquial Italian, going as far as to include a number of Scots words: for example, Dante describes Virgil as his ‘dominie’ (teacher) and in one of his many emotional updates tells us “my pulse and every sense have gone agley.”

The question still remains as to why we continue to read The Divine Comedy. Hell is, not surprisingly, a place of relentless cruelty, and though we can admire Dante’s ability to create appropriate punishments (for example, those who claimed to be able to see the future must walk with their heads on backwards), at times it is difficult not to feel he is taking a disturbing pleasure in the painful punishments on view. He is also, more naturally, obsessed with warring Italian states, and, given the size of Hell even seven hundred years ago, seems to be forever fortuitously running into those he knew on earth. The attraction, among a mainly non-religious readership, is perhaps what we would now call world-building, Dante’s ability to use Christianity to create his own self-contained system, entirely logical within its limits. Also the hierarchy of sins is not entirely out of step with modern sensibilities, beginning with sins of appetite (lust and gluttony) before proceeding through violence into deceit and treachery.

Gray’s Hell is a worthy addition to the canon of English Infernos, largely because Gray has resisted the temptation to unnecessarily embellish the language while retaining a strong sense of poetry in his regular rhythm and erratic rhyme. The one disappointment is the lack of illustration. In 2016 Gray, forecasting a Christmas 2017 publication, mentioned the illustrations as the cause of the delay, but only the first three sections are illustrated. Gray’s talent as an illustrator ensure this loss is keenly felt, though his gorgeous wraparound cover goes some way to making up for this. No date has yet been set for Purgatory.


December 18, 2018

Every so often you encounter a novel which is quite unlike anything you have read before. Rita Indiana’s Tentacle is one such text – the final book in And Other Stories year of publishing women – as slippery and other-worldly as its title suggests. It is first of all some kind of science fiction, presenting a near-future as plausible as it is depressing. Mixed in with this we have a strand of supernatural, and a series of lives linked across time which could belong to either genre. It could fairly be described as a ‘mash-up’ if that did not suggest a certain carelessness. Instead what stands out is its surging imaginative energy.

The world Indiana presents to us is one ravaged by environmental disasters and deeply divided into rich and poor. The first of its two central characters, who appear in alternate chapters, Acilde, is a servant in a house which automatically kills anyone who approaches the entrance if they are affected by a virus which has led to half the island being quarantined:

“Recognizing the virus on the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbours, who will now avoid the building’s entrance until the automatic collectors patrolling the streets and avenues pick up the body and disintegrate it.”

Acilde herself only found her present position sucking off men for money, acting as the boy she wants to be: “Her rounds up at El Mirador had barely paid for food and data, without which she couldn’t live.” It was there she met Eric, the “right-hand man” of the owner of the house she now works in, Esther. He not only offered her the job, but the chance to train as a chef, the career she hopes will allow her to save enough to change sex, a transformation which can now occur using “Rainbow Brite, an injection making the rounds in alternative science circles that promised a complete sex change without surgery.” In the meantime, Acilde, and her friend Morla, have already come up with a quicker way of achieving her goal – by stealing a valuable sea anemone which Esther has in her possession (most marine life having been destroyed).

“Their plan was very simple. When the old lady left on a trip, Morla would find a way to get round the building’s security, disconnect the cameras, take the anemone away in a special container, and leave Acilde tied, gagged, and free of any blame.”

Unfortunately Morla gets restless and kills Esther, Acilde proceeding to “break a Lladro dolphin…on his head” before taking the anemone for herself. Eric helps her transition, explain her new identity will fulfil a prophesy – he is the Chosen One:

“We gave you the body you wanted and now you’ve given us the body we needed.”

Meanwhile (in chapter two) washed-up artist Argenis is working in a call centre selling tarot readings when he is given an opportunity to be one of a number of artists working towards a gallery opening in a beachside property owned by Linda Goldman. The main attraction for Argenis is Linda: “the most beautiful thing Argenis had seen in his life.” Argenis is stung by an anemone while snorkelling and afterwards develops a dream life in the island’s past:

“Several bearded white men with stained clothes approach him in a canoe, pulling him out of the water and taking him to shore. They’re carrying knives an antique pistols on their belts and wearing sandals made from braided leather.”

Indiana is clearly not short of plot but, as madcap as it may sound in summary, both stories have a strong internal logic. Acilde, like Argenis, exists in other points in time, but unlike him, he is able to take advantage of it, allowing himself to be imprisoned for Esther’s murder to utilise his other lives, while Argenis is “trying to close the door” on his. These different lives echo the characters attempts to recreate themselves: Acilde as a man; Argenis as an artist.

Tentacle seems very ‘now’ – the epitome of ‘novel’. Its politics are those of gender and environment. It even comments wryly on the need for art to change as Argenis is nicknamed ‘Goya’ by his fellow art students not as a compliment but because he is stuck in the past:

“Look around, damn it, do you think a bunch of little angels is what’s needed here??”

But it would be foolish to think this means it is gimmicky or arch. Tentacle is one of the most exciting novels I’ve read this year, and translator Achy Obejas is to be congratulated for bringing it into English still fresh and pulsing with life.