Paperback review: ‘that strange echoing fear’ How to be a Good Wife – Emma Chapman

The distant mountains rise higher and darker, surrounding us: shadowed blue-green masses capped with white snow.

On the surface Emma Chapman’s debut novel is a cool, controlled, and compact account of the apparent psychosis of Marta Bjornstad in a nameless Scandinavian town as her husband and son look on in increasing despair. Yet beneath this is a deeply intelligent consideration of the destabilising effects on identity and the experience of time caused by the absence of a framework of memory.  Marta’s narration relates a scraped out experience related by Chapman’s chillingly direct and economical language which always points beyond itself and the starved atmosphere of her character’s mind. An unstocked mind in which things reverberate: sounds, images, memories, desires. These oscillations colour everything. Shapes rise and fall in the wan twilight of a Scandinavian Autumn, the rays of the Sun playing on the surface and, although attenuated, penetrating the depths. From those depths rise visions or memories of a blonde girl in dirty pyjamas, a forgotten grace of movement, a prison. Each one confuses or casts doubt on the life Marta has led, cleaning, cooking, and caring for her husband Hector and son Kylan. The accepted narrative of their meeting and marriage is that Hector saved Marta from drowning and nursed her back to health after her parents died. And yet, as she once again stops taking her medication, the sunlit uplands of an apparently blissful marriage begin to fracture.

 Now it’s as if I can see shadows for the first time.

Marta’s experience of time is episodic because she lacks the kind of structure required to secure its continuity. Hence, her narration and experience is insistently present tense, which is why knowing the time is so important to her: it’s the only structure she has. The only structure, that is, apart from the book given to her on her wedding day by Hector’s overbearing mother – How to be a Good Wife – which contains such commands as ‘Never hurry or nag him along. His time is precious, and must be treated as such’; ‘Always wait for him before you begin eating: he should always come first’; and ‘Never question his authority, for he always does what is best for the family, and has your interests at heart.’ This guide and framework simultaneously secures Marta in a stale home and erodes any sense of agency and selfhood she might have possessed or developed. The question the reader must ask is whether it is in reaction to this diminished selfhood that Marta’s developing assertiveness arises.

The passivity of Marta’s narration is broken by insistent voices which, whether excerpts from a domestic guidebook, fragments of memory, unattributed threats and entreaties, or external attempts to constrain through dismissal and psychiatric diagnosis, serve to reinforce and then undermine her fragile structure as the of tone each develops throughout the novel. ‘If you do what I say, there’s no reason for anyone to get hurt.

And there it is again, that strange echoing fear, slipping through the cracks that have formed in the memory. It’s easy to look at a photograph, and to tell yourself things happened in a certain way, that you were happy. Easy to talk about until it seems that it really happened that way. But as I looked out through that gauzy veil, the petals of my bouquet quivering in my hands, as  I made those steps towards Hector standing at the altar without my father’s arm to support me, I remember being frightened, not excited.

This passage might stand for the whole novel in apparent simplicity and uneasy allusion: that gauzy veil a symbol of Marta’s desaturated experience, a filter on her perception, her understanding and memory. Her marriage has framed and constrained her entire being, completely externalising her identity such that it is dangerously dependent on feminine roles: wife, mother, housekeeper, cook. Are her insidious doubts a reaction to this constrained and hollow existence?  Marta tries to lift her veil, which immediately speaks to Shelley’s sonnet and to the collapsing marriage of Maugham’s novel.

Lift not the painted veil which those who live

Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,

And it but mimic all we would believe

With colours idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear

And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave

Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.

What lurks behind the veil, the story of her marriage, and that phantom girl, whose image seems to efface Marta’s each time she washes or gazes into the mirror? Reflecting surfaces herald the loss of one self and the glimpsing of another. Mirrors lack depth and yet mimic it. Waters can be deep and yet hide their extent. Marta’s certainties drain away with the bath water. Where is her father? Why was she so afraid on her wedding day? Perhaps most compelling: Is this veil her medication, forced upon her by Hector? Or is she actually ill? Or both? Of course, that very suspicion of Hector’s story should alert the reader to doubt Marta’s voice as keenly as she does her husband’s. Fear and hope begin to bleed into one another as her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

What if I wasn’t myself before?

Chapman probes how we treat individuals diagnosed with mental illness. There is an implicit challenge here to the view that a mental disorder should entail a corrosive departure from oneself; a challenge to the narrative of unreliability and the distrust of memories of potentially significant trauma. In many ways I prefer this book to Sebastian Faulk’s Engleby which shifts the ground very sharply beneath the reader’s feet toward the end. In its apparent simplicity How to be a Good Wife contains multitudes. It is not devastating and its development was far from a surprise, but I don’t think that is the point of this book at all. Chapman has done something far more interesting than just write a competent thriller: the landscape of the novel and Marta’s mind is submerged, but an emergence from those depths, an ascent to the mountain peaks that shelter the fjord, is not straightforwardly liberating, as the ambiguous relationship with water throughout attests. Her compact and allusive resistance to reduction and the complex archaeology of memory and despair make Emma Chapman’s debut novel very impressive indeed.

For some time, I have watched a magpie, working at the frozen earth.

 

How to be a Good Wife is published in paperback on 24th April by Picador.

My thanks to Picador for this review copy.

Folio Prize Repost: Tenth of December by George Saunders

tenth-of-december-jacket-LS

On Monday 10th March George Saunders won the inaugural Folio Prize for Tenth of December. Announcing the winner, Chair of the Judges Lavinia Greenlaw, said: 

“George Saunders’s stories are both artful and profound. Darkly playful, they  take us to the edge of some of the most difficult questions of our time and force us to consider what lies behind and beyond them. His subject is the human self under ordinary and extraordinary pressure. His worlds are heightened versions of our own, full of inexorable confrontations from which we are not easily released. Unflinching, delightful, adventurous, compassionate, he is a true original whose work is absolutely of the moment. We have no doubt that these stories will prove only more essential in years to come.”

I reviewed Tenth of December on release in early 2013. I liked it:

A fundamentally optimistic satirist is hard to find. A satirist who is fundamentally optimistic and actually funny is even more elusive. Yet in Tenth of December George Saunders presents a plural and intensely humane collection of stories which probe the dynamics of motivation, self-consciousness, violence, and the abuse of language in supple prose which unfailingly captures the diverse voices of characters in sore need of an entirely feasible redemption. And it’s funny.

The opening and closing stories explore the different ways that language aids us in gaining traction on the world. In ‘Victory Lap’ a young girl’s emotional and linguistic naivety is shattered by a foiled assault, her rescuer repressed by the internalised edicts of his parents, his only release the strings of swear-words he composes. Here is the first hint of Saunders’ concern with the structures of thought which constrain action. That theme continues in the title story, where a boy for whom the world overflows with voices and a dying man for whom that world has narrowed to a cancerous point cross paths in the snow. In the process, how each meets the world changes, as the voices and concerns of one recede, and those of the other, in a manner quite distinct, begin to reassert themselves.

‘His aplomb threw them loops.’ I really like this sentence. It bubbles and flows and is simply happy. Anyway.

‘Escape from Spiderhead’ is in many ways the heart of the collection. It considers the commercial manipulation of thought and feeling in a grim caricature set in a penal laboratory where powerful drugs with eerily familiar names like ‘VerbaLuce’, ‘Vivistif’, and ‘Darkenfloxx’ are mainlined by human guinea pigs for whom the sheen of agency resides in their apparent freedom to ‘acknowledge’. The endurance of conscience throughout this harsh story of chemical manipulation is testament to Saunders’ belief that goodness is our natural state.  False reductions of crime or of love are damaging, for what you can reduce a thing to is far from being that which you destroyed in the analysis.

In ‘Sticks’ Saunders encompasses an entire life and the contingency of its expression in two pages ostensibly about a metal pole and its various accessories.  The different brands of irresponsibility and their problematic reduction to a deficit of love or kindness are addressed in ‘Puppy’, which opens with one of my favourite paragraphs from the collection: at once rhythmic, amusing, and insightful.

Twice already Marie had pointed out the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn, because the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn put her in mind of a haunted house—not a haunted house she had ever actually seen but the mythical one that sometimes appeared in her mind (with adjacent graveyard and a cat on a fence) whenever she saw the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect etc., etc.—and she wanted to make sure that, if the kids had a corresponding mythical haunted house that appeared in their minds whenever they saw the brilliance of the etc., etc., it would come up now, so that they could all experience it together, like friends, like college friends on a road trip, sans pot, ha ha ha!

That insecurity inflected need for shared experience in the face of well-intentioned failure develops in ‘Al Roosten’ wherein the eponymous sufferer of an inferiority complex shifts and twists under the world’s gaze and finds himself exhausted by reflection. ‘My Chivalric Fiasco’ echoes ‘Spiderhead’ and contains moments of pure brilliance as a medieval theme park employee’s day goes completely wrong under the influence of ‘KnightLyfe®’: an aid to improvisation which moulds not just its consumer’s vocabulary but their moral compass as well.

Did I want all home? I did. I wanted all, even the babies, to see and participate and be sorry for what had happened to me.

The most haunting and topical story is ‘Home’ in which ‘the power of recent dark experience’ emerges in the slowly discomfiting revelation of an Iraq veteran’s loss of self and the struggle to reintegrate on his post-court-martial return.  His filter between thought and action has dissolved and brings him closer to the baby he isn’t allowed to hold than to those around him, each of whom thanks him for his service in such a way that it becomes a meaningless beat in an awkward conversation for a man who has lost almost all sense of home. The kernel which yearns to return is what makes this story heartbreaking.

Throughout Tenth of December Saunders resists the reduction of human behaviour to the things which condition our lives: drugs, military service, background, and language. Each constrains, but not irredeemably; and that possibility of redemption underpins a belief in a kind of prelapsarian goodness. Yet Saunders’ optimism isn’t metaphysical. It is here and now that we can do that tiny bit better. A plea for a common but plural humanity in the face of a thousand natural shocks, Tenth of December is a consummate collection which I thoroughly recommend.

Tenth of December is published by Bloomsbury.

My thanks to Bloomsbury for this review copy.

City Boy

A couple of years ago I had nothing better to do than write some poems. (Apart from job hunting, that is.) Anyway, I started my PhD and lapsed somewhat. Before that, I wrote this, which I offer here because my thesis writing brain is currently incapable of reviewing. Do not take it too seriously.

City Boy

I wanted to be a nature poet,

But I don’t know enough about trees;

Nor flowers, nor meadows, or whose are those leaves

Lying there ready for a bonfire, no

Proper memorial.

John Clare I am not.

But does this blossom need a name, a lease

Of life from me? It seems quite happy

In obscurity, no label asked – quite free.

‘Pock, smash’ The Embassy of Cambodia – Zadie Smith

 Embassy

Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!

Zadie Smith returns to North West London – Willesden, to be precise – in her new story (first published in The New Yorker). As ever, Smith’s London is buzzing, bullying, vibrant, opinionated, and true. Exploitation, privilege, resentment, compromise, and impenetrability are all crammed into a mere 69 pages with Smith’s characteristic guile; and in that respect Embassy shares much with last year’s excellent NW.

They are playing badminton in the Embassy of Cambodia. Pock, smash. Pock, smash. 

Above the high walls of the Embassy flies a shuttlecock, alternately smashed and lobbed back; an accommodation of aggression and compliance; a mysterious, opaque transaction in the grounds of a diplomatic building sited well away from the powerful missions of central London. Fatou, the effectively unpaid but defiantly not-slave of an Asian family grown wealthy on mini-market management, walks past and wonders about the regimented racquet play every Monday morning on her surreptitious way to the swimming pool, watched by the begowned occupants of the retirement home across the road.

This central and unexplained routine frames Embassy, which Smith has structured into 21 short chapters, each headed by a badminton score which runs sequentially from 0-0 to 0-21. Each chapter frames a thought, a transaction, or rally between Fatou and her Christian friend Andrew, her ‘employers’, the pool, or the city itself. This aids the concentrated character of Smith’s writing, whose tenor reminds me of the episodic building blocks of the central ‘Host’ section of NW. The strength of ‘Host’ was in the way Smith captured a fugitive sadness and developing sense of unease whilst probing the idea of being the author of one’s own being. Here, too, Smith is once again masterful in sketching the barest outlines of a thought or a place only for those lines to expand into a complete picture in the manner of the best short stories.

Fatou herself is at something of a disadvantage compared to the narrator who presumes to speak for Willesden, whilst understanding that Willesden would scorn the very idea. Such is the complexity of the assumption of knowledge and power – and the resistance to the intellectual that the aggressively agrarian Khmer Rouge embodied – that runs through Embassy.

In Willesden, we are almost all New People, though some of us, like Fatou were, until quite recently, Old People, working the land in our various countries of origin. Of the Old and New People of Willesden I speak; I have been chosen to speak for them, though they did not choose me and must wonder what gives me the right. I could say, ‘Because I was born at the crossroads of Willesden, Kilburn, and Queen’s Park!’ But the reply would be swift and damning: ‘Oh, don’t be foolish, many people were born right there; it doesn’t mean anything at all. We are not one people and no one can speak for us. It’s all a lot of nonsense…’ 

At its heart, Smith’s excellent story is perhaps about the need for a rebalancing of power relations, somewhere between the extremes of the Khmer Rouge’s New and Old People, between Fatou and her employers, such that the unavoidable weakness of one party is no cause for unease and exploitation on the part of the other. Yet The Embassy of Cambodia resists such easy reductions by its very resistance to bipolarity; as with all of Smith’s work, this story revels in a diversity of individuals who need to be placed in accommodating relationships even when unavoidable power imbalances are in play. Sometimes those relationships will need to be reset. The story ends with victory 0-21, but for whom? And where do they go from there?

The Embassy of Cambodia is out tomorrow (7th November 2013).

My thanks to Hamish Hamilton for this review copy.

Book Notes: The Europeans – Henry James

There is no croquet in The Europeans.

There is no croquet in The Europeans.

A couple of weeks after finishing Henry James’ early novel The Europeans (1878) my overriding impression is of a deft, lighthearted, ironic, and Austenish work. James had not by this point adopted the alternatively luxurious and syrupy construction that is thought to render his later work so forbidding. Rather, I was reminded a little of the gentle levity of Trollope and, especially, of the less cutting episodes of Austen. The opening lines of The Europeans set the rather tongue-in-cheek tone for the rest of the novel.

 A narrow grave-yard in the heart of a bustling, indifferent city, seen from the windows of a gloomy-looking inn, is at no time an object of enlivening suggestion; and the spectacle is not at its best when the mouldy tombstones and funereal umbrage have received the ineffectual refreshment of a dull, moist snow-fall. If, while the air is thickened by this frosty drizzle, the calendar should happen to indicate that the blessed vernal season is already six weeks old, it will be admitted that no depressing influence is absent from the scene.

Nothing particularly momentous happens in The Europeans. Indeed, the encounter between American born but European bred brother and sister and their uncle and cousins on the outskirts of Boston is all charm and cotton melodrama, seeking to contrast and then intermingle the stiff New England Puritanism of the Wentworths with the heady Old World etiquette of the morganatically married Baroness Münster and her younger, freer brother Felix. (A ‘morganatic’ marriage is that of two persons of unequal social rank which prevents the titles and privileges of the husband passing to his wife or children. It is also known as ‘marriage by the left hand’ owing to the tradition that the groom held the bridge’s right hand with his left rather than his right). Indeed, each name is fairly transparent: ‘Eugenia’ means roughly ‘well-born’ and ‘Felix’ ‘lucky’ or ‘happy.’

The Europeans is essentially a light comedy of manners which exploits the analogous rigidity of the Baroness and her uncle with the exuberant optimism of Felix and his courtship of his increasingly liberated cousin. James undercuts the apparent propriety of the former by so clearly endorsing the joy of the latter. It is this propriety and obvious attachment to her morganatic title that prevent the Baroness from dissolving her marriage and settling in the title-less New World. It is perhaps James’ aim to suggest that brilliance in conversation and appearance is no substitute for expression and a certain vigour in pursuing one’s ends. The languid grace of the Baroness ultimately fails her, whilst Felix’s optimism win’s him a wife: indeed, it seems that the Baroness and her uncle symbolise the decaying, doomed Europe and America which cannot but fall and be replaced by the expressive and liberated transatlantic culture James himself represented. The failure of Eugenia’s near-engagement with Robert Acton presents the impossibility of any productive union between aristocratic Old Europe and a more vigorous America.

HJThe Europeans is the first novel of my new and very long term Henry James project. As you can tell from my having begun with The Europeans, my attachment to chronology is fairly vague and guided only by the intuition that James’ early, middle, and late periods should be read roughly in order so that, as his construction thickens, one has, as it were, kept up with him as much as is possible. I’m probably going to read Daisy Miller next as I have that in a Penguin English Library edition that also includes The Turn of the Screw, which is a bit later. The Europeans was a fairly gentle entry into what will undoubtedly become a rather more heavyweight reading list.

Book Notes: Dracula – Bram Stoker

Dracula

Classics are a bugger to write about. One can either be refractorily contrarian or fawn and fall in line with the rest of the admiring hordes. That Dracula is accorded ‘classic’ status in the/a ‘canon’ is attested by its inclusion in Penguin’s project of 2012, the issuing of a hundred ‘of the best novels in the English language’. Late last year they were kind enough to send me a few of the Penguin English Library which I comprehensively failed to read. At all. (Actually, I did write about the PEL edition of Dubliners, but that wasn’t part of this batch, so I’m not letting myself off that easily). I’m now aiming to remedy that failure, beginning with Dracula. Now, there is a third way of approaching a classic, of course, which is to use one’s canonical text as the jumping off point for some ill-assorted and likely irrelevant reflections. You might wish I’d left it on the shelf.

Although by no means the first vampire novel, Dracula is the oft ill-attributed locus classicus of all that followed in 20th Century film and literature. The short essay that follows the main text (which is a nice feature of PEL editions) by John Sutherland does a good job of sorting the vampires of Stoker from later accretions. It was only with nosferatu, for example, that the sunlight-solubility of vampires was introduced. It might also come as a surprise to any unfortunate who has seen Van Helsing to learn that the eponymous professor is, in Stoker, a slightly-older-than-middle-aged Dutch professor of curious speech patterns. I’m not really going to talk about the plot, I’m afraid. If you want a summary, click here with all possible dispatch and enjoy Wikipedia.

Two elements struck me most about Dracula: its intense modernity and the possibility of writing an epistolary novel with some claim to realism in methodology if not in subject matter. These two go hand-in-hand to some extent. The propagation of information by the central characters is done not only by the time-honoured journal, diary, and letter, but by telegram, phonograph, type-writer, and camera. Novels which are necessarily written in recollection can suffer from an odd pacing, but Dracula, for all that it is often dense to modern eyes, does not suffer from this because it makes use of what were, in 1897, cutting edge developments. The arrival of a telegram bearing some key piece of information has something of the email or text about it, for all that they differ in so many other ways. What is so interesting about Stoker’s style is that he mixes the 18th and 19th Century staple of the epistolary novel with the turn of the century developments in communication as well as introducing modern weaponry (Winchester rifles), transport, and science which forms a marked contrast with the old world preferences of the Count. It’s a more refreshing mix than any found in Blade.

So what of the epistolary novel in the early 21st Century? It’s fair to say that few people write letters with any regularity. Yet it isn’t simply the medium of expression that has altered, we also write with greater brevity in most exchanges, be they by email, Facebook, instant messenger, Twitter, text message, or anything else. Technology has undoubtedly altered our language and the writer who wishes to write in this mode has to be aware of that. I know that there are books around which do make use of emails, tweets, messages, and so on; but I haven’t really read any, and I wonder if the necessary fragmentation which I feel would result from such approach would be the kind we occasionally laud for being so refreshing in the face of conservative narrative.

So, somewhat ironically, I asked Twitter. Suggestions included: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, several by Tao Lin, Eleven by David Llewellyn, The Antagonist by Lynn Coady, and Daniel Glattauer’s Love Virtually and Every Seventh Wave. I’ve read none of these, but several have made it on to my wish list. (Thanks to everyone who replied). There are, of course, several stories written either in a single tweet or composed of tweets strung together, but these are not, for the most part, messages as messages, but as shorter forms of composition. That is, people are writing stories with tweets, rather than stories of tweets. (See, for example, Jennifer Egan’s Black Box).

What is interesting is whether we adopt different voices for different platforms. Do I write differently on Twitter than I do on Facebook? I think I post pictures of cats equally. I certainly write differently when blogging about art or books than when I write philosophy, but it seems a different kind of difference from that which different platforms might engender: in one my subject matter drives my style, but in the other the constraint is of the nature of the platform and social convention surrounding its use. At the very least, I tend not to think in hashtags most of the time.

I think it could be interesting to try and write a novel that moves amongst all of these different media. That’s what Stoker did and he’s stood the test of time. One worry might be the transience of social media and the various forms of communication we use at the moment. I’m unlikely to try and write anything involving Myspace, for example; but should I involve Reddit? Does the furniture I post for sale on Gumtree drive my narrative forward? And so on. Of course, we don’t use telegrams and more and that hasn’t harmed Dracula at all. Which means, I suppose, that whatever style one adopts, one has to write a good novel at the same time. Which, by the way, Stoker seems to have done.

 

Recent Reading: Bakker, Souza Leão, Salter, Byers, Roth, Bennett, Antrim, Crace, Suddain, Ziervogel

What with one thing and another I haven’t been able to write about as many of the books I’ve been reading as I would have liked: so, by way of a corrective, I thought I’d talk about a few of the books I’ve enjoyed and, occasionally, been slightly baffled by over the last few months – with no pretence of adherence to chronological order, I should add. The full list of this year’s reading is to be found by clicking on ‘Books Read 2013’ somewhere above here.

detour-ukOne of my resolutions for this year was to read more American and translated fiction. Much to my surprise this actually seems to have gone fairly well. Indeed, one of my favourite novels this year is Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize a few months ago and makes more references to Escape to the Country than one might have expected. So quiet and full of life, my overriding impression of The Detour was of a vibrating air surrounding the Dutch woman mysteriously arrived in Wales, of a thickness to the medium which was not cloying, for the language is transparency itself, but somehow, like water, able to propagate feeling and mystery all the more effectively for its density.

Whereas The Detour vibrated due to some uneasy tension, All Dogs are Blue, theALL-DOGS-ARE-BLUE_FRONT-cmyk-300x456 latest translation from And Other Stories, derives its energy from a riotous and rebellious challenge to narrative and the mental institutions of Brazil. In her introduction, Deborah Levy calls Rodrigo De Souza Leão’s work ‘a comic modernist novel about being messed up – and then being messed up even more by numbing doses of pharmaceuticals.’ The sheer momentum generated by Souza Leão powers one through the book. A first reading just has to take in the manifold ramifying threads of a stream of consciousness the balance of which is as undermined by the society in which it finds itself as much as it is by any illness or ensuing medication to which it is subject. ‘I swallowed a chip yesterday. It forced myself to talk about the system that surrounds me. There was an electrode on my forehead. I don’t know if I swallowed the electrode with the chip. The horses were galloping. Except for the seahorse, who was swimming around in the aquarium.’ Quite an opening paragraph.

salterSpeaking of opening paragraphs, James Salter is known for them, and his most famous is that which begins Light Years.

We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless. The river is brackish, blue with cold. It passes beneath us blurring. The sea birds hang above it, they wheel, disappear. We flash the wide river, a dream of the past. The deeps fall behind, the bottom is paling the surface, we rush by the shallows, boats beached for winter, desolate piers. And on wings like the gulls, soar up, turn, look back.

Which, in its current of refracted nostalgia, fractured distances, and coldly receding life, captures the intuition of the entire novel. A work of dissolution and awing concision of character, not to mention the scattering of stunning paragraphs, Light Years is remarkable. Salter likes water: the opening sentence of his latest novel All That Is runs: All night in darkness the water sped past. Despite this – and some Twitter murmurings about a thirsty horse – I haven’t quite got around to reading All That Is yet. I have a habit of eagerly awaiting novels and then suddenly finding myself unable to pick them up.

Glorying in a different kind of linguistic bravado one finds Sam Byer’s Idiopathy, Idiopathydescribed as ‘A novel of love, narcissism and ailing cattle’. Each of Byers’ three central characters is mired in a different kind of self-involvement and self-pity, symbolised by those ailing cattle standing ‘at the edges of fields staring blank and unblinking into the middle distance, starving and dehydrating to death.’ The prose matches and vindicates the rationale. Byers’ sentences twist and turn, moving back and forth, in and out, becoming increasing self-involved before, rather unlike the thoughts of his subjects, resolving beautifully. Likewise, each sentence forms part of a paragraph whose guiding thought is clear, but whose meandering yet controlled course mirrors both the contours of introspection and the ‘self-caused cause’ that is its impetus. Byers consistently finds the humour that underlies the nonsense we manage to twist our thoughts and lives in to.

Gabriel-Roth-The-Unknowns-186x300Gabriel Roth’s The Unknowns also addresses the challenges of interpersonal communication and love. (No cattle). Through the nice premise of an expert in user interfaces who is nonetheless bad with people until he develops a theoretical framework with which to approach them, Roth questions the relationship between people and the facts about them, between knowing someone and understanding them. The Unknowns reminded me of the debates in the philosophy of mind which ask how it is that we predict or understand the behaviour and thought of others given the inaccessibility of their mental lives. This is often called ‘folk psychology’. One view, ‘Theory-theory’, holds that we understand the behaviour and thoughts of others (‘mindreading’) by accessing a theory of human behaviour we all hold in our minds: we reason somehow about others and come to conclusions about their lives. Roth’s novel is rather snappier and an awful lot funnier than the texts one finds in the philosophy of mind, but it covers the same ground and highlights that same gulf in knowledge and understanding which we have to find some way to bridge if we are ever to relate to anybody.

The development of knowledge and understanding that attends immersion inUncommon-Reader-Alan-Bennett literature is the satirical substance of the most straightforwardly joyous book I’ve read recently: Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. A small book which manages to contain more insight about the value of reading and the fear it engenders in others. One of my favourite passages finds the increasingly literate Queen reciting Larkin’s The Trees during what would otherwise be a rather run-of-the-mill planting. (This is one of my favourite poems, which helps). Everyone should read Bennett’s very short, but lovely book.

‘See a town stucco-pink, fishbelly white…’ To electreturn to the Americas, Donald Antrim’s reissued Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World was one of the more disconcerting novels I’ve read this year, which is probably why I didn’t review it at the time. I was baffled. I had lots of words I could use: surreal, macabre, fantastical, satirical, bloody odd, and so on; but I couldn’t make them cohere into the substance of a review. And perhaps this is the point. Antrim’s novel defies the kind of approach I often take to reviewing. It’s defiantly violent and refuses to allow that violence to signify in the way that literary novels so often do; its language is so at odds with its subject which is magnified and twisted as a result; its amorality challenges the narrative one wants to place on it. It’s not easy.

I might also have been quite tired when I read it.

This might also be true of Jim Crace’s Booker longlisted Harvest, but given my lack of response to his earlier Quarantine, I think I may simply have a Crace blind spot. harvestCrace is one of those whose technical ability, whose sentence-making, I recognise in an abstract way, but whose writing simply fails to move me. ‘This land has always been much older than ourselves’. Its insistently measured pace, its careful probing of a thought, a place, a person, a name, or possibility enlarges the space of Crace’s prose, makes its spaces rich and sacred, but in the same way renders it detached, dreamlike, everywhere and nowhere: so richly detailed, so freely of the earthy and sky, yet none that we may find.

To continue in the vein of books about which I am ambivalent, Matt Suddain’s enormous Theatre of the Gods challenges merely by its length. This tale blacklistpublishing_covers_theatre_of_the_godsof transuniversal exploration is as big and brash and ambitious as any science fiction/fantasy one might name. It’s full of wit and intelligence and might be somewhat too aware of the fact. In short, it might be shorter. The sprawling character of the narrative as we follow M. Francisco Fabrigas (explorer, philosopher, heretical physicist) across the universes as he battles, amongst others, the Pope of the universe, myriad assassins, and the flora of one very dangerous moon, is part of the essential character of the work. However, certain passages descend into something of a display, which might, of course, be evidence of the supposed narrator of Fabrigas’ tale. If you feel like taking on a big book with big ideas and definite talent behind it, then Theatre of the Gods is worth considering.

Finally, and in contrast, I read Magda by Meike Ziervogel, which follows Magda Goebbels from her abusive childhood to Hitler’s bunker beneath Berlin.  Ziervogel’s9781907773402frcvr.indd writing is at its most remarkable when probing the spiritual starvation Magda feels and her satiation in the person and project of her Fuhrer: ‘This man believes in meaning, this man delivers meaning, this man is meaning. He is mind without body and Magda is inspired; the spirit has entered her, the Holy Spirit has come to her and taken her, planting a seed in her as he did with the Virgin Mary.’ One of the challenges of writing about historical figures is to resist the inevitability of their fate; it is even more challenging when those figures have such a hand in that determination. Ziervogel’s painful portrayal of Magda and the fear and confusion of her children as the steel doors close on them is chillingly good. The interpenetration of prostration before the cross, before an abuser, before National Socialism; of bodily and national resurrection, of abuse and purity and the manner in which the victim comes to feel unclean and seek forgiveness; of the bitter irony of one people believing itself chosen and thus seeking to exterminate another: all is brought to bear in Magda.

And that’s some of the books I’ve read recently. One book I’ve not written about is Javier Marías’ The Man of Feeling. I’m going to need a while to get my head around that one. It’s brilliant, but I think I need to reread it at least once before I can say much about it. The same goes for Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, which is remarkable and full of wisdom and humanity. My next post should be a few thoughts on Dracula.  

Titles with a star were review copies.

  •  *Harvest (Picador)
  • The Uncommon Reader (Faber/Profile)
  • The Detour (Vintage)
  • Light Years (Harvill Press)
  • *Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World (Granta)
  • *Idiopathy (Fourth Estate)
  • All Dogs are Blue (And Other Stories)
  • *Magda (Salt)
  • *The Unknowns (Picador/Waywiser Press)
  • *Theatre of the Gods (Jonathan Cape)

Paperback review: ROOK by Jane Rusbridge

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Exactly a year after I first reviewed ROOK it has come out in paperback, so I’m reposting my original piece on a book that I really enjoyed.

Jane Rusbridge’s ROOK is a wonderfully written and atmospheric novel rooted in the landscape and history of the village of Bosham and its surroundings on the Sussex coast. The expressive and emotional power of natural, temporal, musical, interpersonal, and mental rhythms and relations permeate Rusbridge’s narrative and prose. Nora is an ex-concert cellist whose return to her family home in Bosham is precipitated by a crisis which haunts the novel. She continues to teach and music rises in her mind in moments of stress in a manner reminiscent of Septimus Harding in The Warden. Nora’s increasingly frail, self-absorbed and time-dazed mother Ada seems to haunt and hate the house, at one point taking a croquet mallet to the French windows. The widow of an archaeologist buried alive whilst excavating, Ada slips in and out of an alternately Arcadian and regretted past, her confusion communicated in the liquid language which pervades ROOK, ‘Ada’s mind swam…creek water silted in the nooks and crannies of her mind and sometimes the sense of what she wanted to say or even think had washed away or sunk.’

The eponymous Rook, his name quite literal, is rescued as a baby by Nora from the attention of callous youths, and she nurtures him into a strapping adult. His presence emphasises the interpenetration of nature and the human sphere, as does the helplessness of the villagers in the face of that most rhythmic of phenomena: the tide. Nora’s maternal attitude to Rook also contrasts with the diminished relationship she has with Ada: ‘Rook’s eyes are closed. ‘Go to sleep, little one.’’ Nora’s delight when he finally caws and then flies is as deep as that one takes in the first words and steps of a child. Nora, of course, is lacking a parent:

Nora would like to ask her father if what drew him to archaeology was his preoccupation with time, and whether it is from him that she inherited her own strong and natural sense of rhythm, her body’s instinctive feel for time. She’d like to talk to him about the way the passing of time changes what we once believed to be truth or fact into something previously unknown.

The excavation of buried secrets, of a multi-layered and shifting past is a major theme of ROOK. Bosham’s church and the occupants of certain graves attract Jonny: a handsome documentary maker who arrives to research a programme about King Cnut and his illegitimate daughter, but who detects the possibility of a greater historical – and romantic – coup. This leads to fierce arguments over Bosham’s history, the villagers’ obligations to the past and present, and, centrally, the substance of history itself. The reaction of the village to Jonny is nicely captured by ROOK’s violent dislike for him. Jonny and Nora’s desire to know, to pin down some historical truth is at odds with the fluidity, literal and metaphorical, of the past and its muddy elements. Rusbridge’s allegiance to the allure of historical indeterminacy comes out strongly. A.L. Rowse’s oft-quoted sentiment seems apt, ‘History is a great deal closer to poetry than is generally realised: in truth, I think, it is in essence the same.’ Harry, a symbol of the land and authenticity throughout, puts it this way, ‘My point –’ Harry looks up at the ceiling, rubs his chin and sighs, ‘is the mystery. Way too big a loss, the mystery.’

A rhythm will take away, will, like the tide recede as well as return, and loss is a feature of ROOK. Rook has lost something for all that he gains in Nora’s care, Nora and her mother each have their own losses to face or retreat from, and the long-dead Edyth Swan-Neck’s loss is apparent from the opening pages set in the aftermath of a certain well-known battle. Her presence in Bosham is symbolised by the swans which glide through the water and across the borders of the Bayeux tapestry. Writing in the continuous present Rusbridge emphasises both the sheer immediacy of experience and the penetration of memory and the distant past. At times she approaches the visionary as characters slip into the past mid-thought, mid-action, without it being obvious where the divide came. Likewise certain thoughts take the shape of natural and material phenomena and things, as with Ada’s shifting water-way of a mind.

Rusbridge’s poetic phrasing and symbolic complexity renders the writing incantatory and impressionistic. ‘Slivers of sunlight bounce on ripples blown sideways by the breeze.’ Water takes on a significance reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s Water; that de-churched spirituality which bespeaks a connection with land and history is also echoed – perhaps ironically – in Larkin’s Church Going.

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete,

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round.

Language is vitally important in ROOK as an orientating and connecting tool. Certain words connect us to the quality of a historical awareness. Whilst reading one of her husband’s books Ada savours the ‘Anglo-Saxon words for mud: cledgysleechslommocky. She mouths the sl and bl of them, shaping her tongue and lips around their texture. Stabble means to walk thick mud into the house. She likes the squelch and spread of the word, its peaks and smears.’ Such earthy thickening generates a wonderful atmosphere and occupation of landscape and culture, especially notable in the Saxon elements of the novel. ‘The year was dying: wind and wet leaves, a mist rolling in from the swan-rād.’ And yet, as Rusbridge makes clear, the mystery remains. She has Nora tell Jonny, ‘Motive tells us so much more about character than actions.’ But, of course, it is motive that is so often lost to history, thus generating that tension between the desire to know and its frustration by time’s passing. The connection is in the continuity of landscape, sea, birth, maturation, death: all of which underpin the distinctly jumbled affairs of the inhabitants of Bosham.

ROOK’s climax is sharply affecting and reaches deep into the core of the earth and the human life that persists on and then under it. I was very moved by it despite, or perhaps because of, the premonitions and parallels throughout the book. As a thematic and dramatic convergence it is very powerful and well-controlled. I loved the atmosphere and language of ROOK and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Quick review: Hunters in the Snow by Daisy Hildyard

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There is a certain kind of novel which makes one think to oneself ‘Oh, you mentioned that before, but in a different context: how clever.’ And, of course, one’s rather pleased to have noticed it, and words like ‘interwoven’ and ‘controlled’ spring to mind. Whether this says rather more about me than it does about Daisy Hildyard’s debut Hunters in the Snow, I’m not sure. The other thought that tends to run alongside this response is ‘Goodness, haven’t they jotted down a lot of quotations that would look great in a novel.’ Again, this might just be me: I definitely have a tendency to highlight passages that would make great epigraphs. Hildyard addresses this issue rather neatly by prefacing the novel with both an Asterix cartoon and some Laurence Sterne.

My grandfather’s name was Thomas James Thompson, but he was known to everyone as Jimmy, and we still called the room in the porch Jimmy’s study, despite the fact that a year had passed since his death.

The heart of Hunters in the Snow is the nature of recollection and the shaping of a narrative by the choices of inclusion and omission made by any contemporary observer or supposedly abstracted historian. As she clears out his study, Jimmy’s granddaughter looks through the old historian’s notes and drafts assembled for his final histories: Edward IV, Peter the Great, former slave Olaudah Equiano, Herbert Kitchener. These narratives provide the framework for the nameless granddaughter’s reflections and memories of Jimmy and his many lectures on history and historiography. As one might expect in a novel about the nature of narrative, analysis, and the assembly of sources, the writing, which is always measured and precise, twists in and around itself, ending rather fittingly with portraiture, the loss of detachment, and the relationship between foreground and background in Virginia Woolf.

History is not like fiction, in which someone has to hang on every knotted noose.

In one sense, Hildyard makes more manifest the submerged structure of a Sebald piece as microscopy, archaeology, memoir, place, and personal narrative flow into one another across the histories. This might mean that the artifice hanging behind, say, The Rings of Saturn or Austerlitz, is more apparent in Hunters in the Snow than it might be; but I don’t think this becomes a problem, because Hildyard’s aims are different from Sebald’s, despite the martialling of historical moments, of convergence and divergence in time that they share. Sebald’s is an interior journey magnified and structured by historical, literary, and geographical experience, whereas Hildyard’s narrator looks to mirror her grandfather’s advice on sifting the accounts and omissions of sources to find the truth beneath in her bid to understand: she turns the historian’s eye onto the historian, but in doing so reveals much about herself by omitting her name, her childhood in the village beyond Jimmy’s farm, her life.

In the same year the Oxford English Dictionary credits the translation of the term ‘autobiography’, meaning self/life/writing, into English from Greek. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, then, must have been one of the very first of these personal histories. Before that time, writers could only deal in memoirs, which came from the inside of their minds; or accounts, which kept outside of them. They had no particular words for recording themselves, as historians do, over time.

Hildyard’s novel is at its most interesting when reflecting on the way in which we can come to know far more about a period than its inhabitants or their immediate descendants, whether that be by scientific analysis or the dynamics which only emerge when one can view decades at a glance. And yet, the manner in which the observer’s eye is guided by the mind is repeatedly emphasised by both the subjects of Jimmy’s histories and the practice of the historian who chose them. He writes of the pioneering microscopist Leeuwenhoek’ whose otherwise outstanding observations are complicated by his certainty that he can see in a single sperm a tiny human waiting to grow.

Jimmy reiterated, three-quarters of a century later, his historiographical credo: ‘A feeling for and a joy in the particular in and by itself is necessary for the historian, as one takes joy in flowers without thinking to which of Linne’s classes or of Oken’s families they belong.’

‘Is that you, or is that a quote?’

‘I’m not sure,’ he said uncharacteristically. ‘It might be me, or it might be von Ranke. But the point is this: the particular always stands for the universal.’

Whether that concluding thought is quite true or whether it follows from von Ranke’s joy in the particular is an interesting question; and it is one which Jimmy seems, in his resistance to the validity of personal experience or the particularity of present experience, to hold in tension with his impulse for abstraction. He always removes himself from the present moment into history; he allows his farm to decay, hates conservation, because in that decay will the passage of time, of history, be made manifest.

 History, said Jimmy, is quite different from what happened.

History is an assemblage, a collage of found objects glued together to create something of some meaning and, we hope, something of value. ‘Leeuwenhoek was the first person to see the sperm cell, but he changed it when he looked at it.’ When Picasso produced the first collages proper in 1912 he knew precisely what he was doing in this assembly. He was taking real things and, in a manner, preserving them by creating something neither wholly new nor old. Or so I’ve chosen to write.

Hunters in the Snow is a very assured assemblage held together by the questions of narrative, integration, and preservation which run through it. In language whose precision mirrors the call to the particular whilst holding the universal in mind, Hildyard navigates the twin pitfalls of overgeneralisation and wallowing in the historical very neatly. The external and internal, the observer and the observed, the writer and the written constantly question one another as the snow melts around Jimmy’s frigid study and his granddaughter’s interrogation. In Hildyard’s mingling of the historical and fictional she aptly mirrors the historical method she wants to analyse. The snowy fields of the title through which the hunters move are the pages waiting to be written, hiding life and decay beneath the slush, but from which they were never really separate in the first place.

Hunters in the Snow is out now from Jonathan Cape.

My thanks to Jonathan Cape for this review copy.

Paperback review: JOY by Jonathan Lee

 

 

 

 

Joy was one of the first books I reviewed when I started this blog just over a year ago, and as it’s recently been released in paperback, I thought I would repost my review.

Jonathan Lee’s JOY is a shifty novel. The best novels are. The narrative swirls around the fall of Joy Stephens from a second floor platform to the marble floor of her City law firm. Four people converge on her broken form and, in the relative safety of a counsellor’s borrowed office, begin to converge on Joy in quite a different way, struggling to understand the rationale of apparent self-destruction. Each grasps a small part of her, understanding some aspect of a more complex whole, before being whisked away by contours of thought and preoccupation. Lee occupies each voice near flawlessly: the academic husband, the handsome, obnoxious lawyer, the OCD personal trainer, and the aged and resentful PA. Particularly wonderful are the digressive footnotes of the English lecturer Dennis, forever qualifying statements in a manner I find uncomfortably familiar. The dissembling lawyer’s lewd desperation to impress and seduce recalls the dialogue of Edward St. Aubyn’s fractured individuals; and like St. Aubyn Lee manages to render this desperation amusing and absurd in equal measure. The threat of caricature looms large, but this is slowly stripped away as Lee shifts their speech from public to intimate.

Only Joy is permitted an interior monologue, and it is her embodied experience which allows Lee’s lyricism free rein. Throughout her language of thought is intensely sensual as Lee delves beneath the superficiality of her working and married life, contrasting this with the sexual language of those who move and speak around and of her. Sensual and sexual are not the same thing, of course, and this contrast serves to highlight one of the central themes of the novel: the disconnection between speech and thought; or, better, the apparent gulf between how we feel or intuit ourselves to be and the person others get to see – and judge. In the case of mental distress this is particularly clear: as William Styron writes in his memoir of depression Darkness Visible, ‘Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.’ Lee reclaims such distress for the everyday, situating it in an office whose shallow preoccupations threaten to implode.

Such imaginative sympathy is the prerogative of the novelist, for each character is bounded by their own concerns, each, to steal a phrase from JOY itself, recreating people and events according to their own private ambition.  The contingency of perception on preoccupation and its coupling with the distortions of memory and motive contributes to narratives of persons and events we rarely question except in extremis. That everyday life can deliver such prompting extremity is masterfully argued here. In a forthcoming book which might be marketed as a companion to Joy the late Peter Goldie considers the ways in which people understand their past and the nature of grief and self-forgiveness. At the heart of Goldie’s account is a narrative sense of self whose instability is evidenced by Lee as each character returns to the counsellor’s office and slowly sheds their simplicity.

That grief and its ideal corollary self-forgiveness are the axis around which this novel turns is not immediately obvious, at least not in the way one might expect, but then Lee constantly surprises the reader. With great control he moves us through the day preceding Joy’s fall and through each person’s recollections of it. A vortex forms around her, as each tries to understand their role in her life – and her role in theirs. The final act is affecting and unexpected as self-narratives break down; their acts finally, perhaps, matching their thoughts. In the central passage on Hampstead Heath and throughout in certain elements of the whole book it is hard not to see an echo (or perhaps more) of Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale, ‘the weariness, the fever, and the fret’. Indeed, it is here that Lee’s writing is at its strongest: ‘Something deep and dreamy about this realm of woodland. Trees bunched like troubles. They crowd around unexplained clearings in which only earth seems to grow – within itself, swelling against its own skin.’

There are times when JOY threatens to buckle under the weight of its varied voices and their revelations and misunderstandings. Yet it never does, and that tension serves to underline its emergent humanity. This is a generous and intensely human novel which achieves a great lyrical intensity in its exploration of the depth of our ignorance of ourselves and others, the sheer contingency of life where everything is visible but nothing seen, and where two contradictory statements can be equally true of the same person.  Goldie’s book is titled The Mess Inside. It is hard to think of a better summation of Lee’s project in JOY. In the collapse of his characters’ narratives Lee has constructed a stunning one of his own.