The Fishermen – Chigozie Obioma

the fishermenWe were fishermen:

My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure, a town in the west of Nigeria, where we had lived together all our lives.

A complex interplay of dream, myth, language, and family delivered in a lyrical voice of great assurance, full of significations which sweep back and forth though the novel: this marks Chigozie Obioma’s powerful debut The Fishermen as a tragedy in a classical yet distinctively Nigerian mould. Left with their mother when their father moves across Nigeria for work, four brothers—Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Ben—find something to occupy themselves in the absence of paternal discipline. They discover the forbidden pleasure of fishing in Akure’s polluted and forsaken river: “a source of dark rumours” once revered as a god, but seen after the colonial advent of Christianity as “an evil place. A cradle besmeared.”

After one such trip to the river, the madman Abulu prophesies the death of Ikenna. “He said, Ikenna, you shall die by the hands of a fisherman.” Who are the fishermen but his brothers? “He saw a vision that one of you will kill me,” Ikenna says. Ikenna’s ensuing paranoia and decline signal the breakdown of the fraternal relationship. One aspect of tragedy is the question of whether the protagonist’s attempts to elude their fate ultimately guarantee it. Narrated many years after the events it depicts, Ben’s story of his brothers has about it the inevitability of prophecy fulfilled, the symmetry of a moral tale, and the depth of myth.

“You compare everything to animals, Ben,” Ikenna said, shaking his head as if the comparison had annoyed him. “He is not like anything, you hear? He is just a madman—a madman.”

 

Ikenna was a python:

A wild snake that became a monstrous serpent living on trees, on plains above other snakes.

Obioma’s imagery is rooted in the animism which has been largely—but not entirely—supplanted by Christianity in the south and Islam in the north of Nigeria. Thus “Father was an eagle: The mighty bird that planted his nest high above the rest of his peers, hovering and watching over his young eagles, the way a king guards his throne.” Locusts are forerunners of nourishing yet catastrophic rains. “Spiders were beasts of grief.” And, in a manner which recalls Bede’s bird momentarily safe from winter storms, “Ikenna was a sparrow: A thing with wings, able to fly out of sight in the blink of an eye”. This serves to connect the trajectory of each character to a rich symbolic framework and the metamorphoses of myth. It also connects the world of the 90s—of coups, riots, elections, and the Olympics—with Nigeria’s powerful pre-Christian spiritual residue. In this way Obioma’s writing serves as an intermediary between the two worlds in a way which mirrors Abulu the madman’s visions and songs.

Mother was a falconer:

The one who stood on the hills and watched, trying to stave off whatever ill she perceived was coming to her. She owned copies of our minds in the pockets of her own mind and so could easily sniff troubles early in their forming, the same way sailors discern the forming foetus of a coming storm.

Early allusions to and later appearances of Things Fall Apart should come as no surprise in The Fishermen, a novel the central characters of which are Igbo and who share the “great man” syndrome of Nigeria’s post-colonial history. The story of a family as a microcosm of the nation is nothing new, but Obioma’s study of disunity, paranoia, and violence emerges from and reflects the violence and instability of recent Nigerian history effectively, whilst refusing the fatalism that an otherwise tragic story might inspire. Despite everything, Ben’s tale is elegiac and full of love.

“Yes, Daddy,” I replied, clearing my throat, and began praying in English, the only language in which I knew how to pray.

Language is vital in The Fishermen. Nigeria’s wealth of languages and polyglot population mean that the contours of thought, speech, and society can be mapped by the linguistic choices of each individual. Accordingly, Ben is scrupulous in recording the language in which the central exchanges of the novel are conducted. Parents speak in Igbo—the language of the family’s ethnic group—the children in the local language of Akure, Yoruba. English is reserved for moments of crisis and religion. Thus the different capacities and mental propensities of each language—its rhythms and emphases—change the dynamic of each exchange and signal its nature and emotional tenor, serving to enrich and empower the meaning behind the utterance.

English, although the official language of Nigeria, was a formal language with which strangers and non-relatives addressed you. It had the potency of digging craters between you and your friends or relatives if one of you switched to using it. So, our parents hardly spoke English, except in moments likes this, when the words were intended to pull the ground from beneath our feet.

Consequently, Obioma pays a great deal of attention to the way characters speak: to sound as well as meaning. In his anger at their fishing, the boys’ father shouts “Fish-a-men!” Differences and difficulties in pronunciation mark the boundaries between Yoruba and Igbo, serving to highlight the family’s distinctiveness even as their unity dissolves. Having established the significance of language, Obioma is able to use it to demonstrate the power of grief and depression. The significance of silence in so capacious a linguistic community is profound. As is the power of such a rich language to overwhelm.

Mother’s space in the room of existence gradually shrank as days passed. She became encircled by ordinary words, common tropes, familiar songs, all of which transformed into fiends whose sole purpose was the obliteration of her being.

Indeed, it is the power of Abulu’s utterance—something which stands between the family’s Christianity and the native religions of Nigeria—which powers the ramifying imperatives of the central tragedy and its consequences. The tangled lines of the fishermen bind the brothers together as their fate impends. Obioma’s careful voice delivers powerful lyric moments, probing violence and grief and sadness. The Fishermen is an impressive debut novel which balances great immediacy with myth and tragedy. In its assurance and care it delivers a rich and compelling tale.

I used to wish that I was a fish, and that all my brothers were fish too. And that all we did, all day, every day, was swim forever and ever and ever.

The Fishermen is published by the One imprint of Pushkin Press.

The Last Pilot – Benjamin Johncock

Last Pilot

The blanched beans steamed thin trails that coiled up from a pan in the sink. She watched them twist slowly, the desert flat and wild and wide out from the window behind. For a moment, the steam seemed to rise up from the sagebrush itself; a column of smoke. She looked down at the floor, and gripped the edge of the sink.

Shit, she said. Shit shit shit.

The romance of an endeavour tends to belie its bite. The attrition of test flight and the Red sky at night paranoia of the US space programme in the mid-Twentieth Century are often forgotten in the ecstatic vision of the hanging blue marble and Earthrise. More recently, Commander Chris Hadfield’s dispatches from the International Space Station, apps which alert users to upcoming ISS flyovers, comet landings, and the Pluto flyby have all had us looking up and out again.

Yet these forms of engagement are often aesthetic or, perhaps, sublime: beautiful images from impossible distances; shadowed craters and dunes we feel we should never have seen. Blueprints and technical details don’t make headlines, except in a haze of sublime complexity. And we don’t visit the moon any more.

This is not an airplane, Pancho said, least nothing a pudknocker like you’d understand one to be. It’s a goddamn rocket with a tail; an orange bullet with razor wings and a needle-nose. They call it the X-1. And it’s got one purpose: fly faster than sound.

Benjamin Johncock’s debut novel The Last Pilot begins in 1947; a time when we did not regularly break the sound barrier, when we didn’t know what would happen if we did. Would g-forces become infinite? There was only one way to find out. In the Mojave Desert men climbed into experimental machines and tried to find their limits. X-planes killed pilots, week after week. What kept men alive were skill, decisiveness, and locked down emotions. And luck.

There are no mistakes, Harrison said, just bad pilots.

Test pilot Jim Harrison lives in a hard world of small margins on the edge of a desert. Friends and colleagues regularly “auger in”—crash fatally—and his wife, Grace, needs two black dresses because she can’t get one cleaned before the next funeral. None of the wives know if their husband is next. (“Never know how many places to set for supper, she said.”) Life and talk becomes hard, concentrated. A couple of words here, a few there.

Jim always says there’s no point trying to punch out of a rocket plane; it’s like committing suicide to keep yourself from getting killed.

Johncock has the Carveresque ability to pack feeling into and between and beneath a few words of dialogue; and the Salterish knack of constructing the tightest of sentences: “The sun lulled brittlebrush to early flower, full corollas turning the desert floor yellow.” (This despite the fact that Johncock told a recent event I attended that he hasn’t read Carver or Richard Yates.) There are moments of desert heat which recall Cormac McCarthy; dust bowl fences and silence Steinbeck. (Although that might just be the appearance of alfalfa.)

How does one end up writing like Carver, Salter, and Yates without reading them? Johncock’s language reflects the precision, the machined desperation of the X programme and the Space Race. His sentences are taut, quivering units, vibrant under pressure like engine casing or the desert heat shimmer. This serves not only to express the necessarily locked down emotional life of Harrison and the other test pilots, but also the hard, functional delineation of a moment which expands to fill consciousness.

A real astronaut, my goodness!

As the Space Race heats up and the launch of Sputnik inspires American terror, talk turns to capturing “the high ground of space”. Is sitting on top of a rocket a job for pilots? The age of manned orbits dawns and new dangers appear. The Harrisons have the child they thought they couldn’t conceive. Family complicates Jim’s emotional life, his anxieties. Pilots are in control. Parents so often aren’t. Johncock writes family life very well; capturing the bantering exchanges between parent and toddler with painful precision: the repetition, the excitement, the little manipulations and suggestions involved in getting a child to do anything. (Or stop.) He also captures the pain.

She hated the world for what it had done. The earth, the soil under her feet, everything. It could all go to hell. She couldn’t escape it. It was everywhere. She was part of it. It was her.

By the Sixties Harrison is one of the “New Nine”, the second intake of astronauts, and his marriage is suffering. The timetable imposed by Kennedy’s ambition to reach the moon by the end of the decade has Jim and the other astronauts—Armstrong, Lovell, Shepherd—working ever harder, neglecting their wives ever more. Johncock’s seamless insertion of Harrison into this world is a feat in itself: I resisted finding out whether Harrison actually existed until after I had finished. I would have believed it. His membership of that elite group of pilots and astronauts is entirely compelling. So is his anxiety.

Harrison didn’t say anything. He began to feel not good. He’d stopped using stupid techniques a while ago. He’d realized that he was a test pilot and, if he treated every instance as a test pilot in a tight spot, he could easily maneuver out of trouble. He didn’t realize that this was simply another technique.

So locked down a person as Harrison struggles in the face of tragedy and breakdown. Johncock’s understanding of anxiety informs powerful passages of The Last Pilot. All the while his hard, functional writing exhibits the control established earlier: sentences lengthening and shortening as the mental state of the subject fluctuates; as thoughts pile in and deepen panic. “Don’t fuck up.” Pilots should be in control.

Despite this, there is a great sense of optimism, of determination, in The Last Pilot. It is a claustrophobic optimism, despite the space, the sense of expansion that hovers behind the prose. Progress comes at a cost. Pilots and astronauts accept that; their families have to, if they can. The great weight of detail and responsibility forms and invites a certain kind of person, beneath whose shell a well of feeling must reside in order for their work to continue. Johncock’s sentences evoke this feeling whilst containing it. The tumultuous history of the Space Race is quite a thing to marshal. Johncock’s novel of marriage and family and endeavour is a truly impressive achievement. Indeed, The Last Pilot is one of the best debuts I’ve read in a long time. Sentence by sentence, it’s one of my favourite books of the last few years.

The Last Pilot is out now from Myriad Editions.

My thanks to Myriad Editions for this review copy.

The Ecliptic – Benjamin Wood

The Ecliptic

I think a man spends his whole lifetime painting one picture or working on one piece of sculpture. The question of stopping is really a decision of moral considerations. To what extent are you intoxicated by the actual act, so that you are beguiled by it? To what extent are you charmed by its inner life? And to what extend do you then really approach the intention or desire that is really outside it? The decision is always made when the piece has something in it that you wanted.

–Barnett Newman

Benjamin Wood’s second novel The Ecliptic has at its heart three forms of instability: that of creation, that of criticism, and the artist subject to both. There is a fourth instability underlying these three: the novel itself, which creates a space of uncertainty and an analogue of creativity itself. The cipher for this instability is the ecliptic itself.

The ecliptic, put simply, is the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun. But since we all live here on earth, we observe the sun to be moving along this plane instead. Why? Because what would be the point of looking at things from the perspective of the sun? That’s no use to anyone.

This is the explanation given to the painter Elspeth Conroy, a rising star of the male-dominated artworld of 1960s London, who is thrown into creative disarray as she tries to understand how to represent the ecliptic in a mural commissioned for an observatory. “How could I represent things that were themselves just representations of other people’s representations?” The ecliptic does not exist: it is a useful falsehood, a way of seeing. Conroy’s search is for the right medium to represent the collective delusion of the ecliptic.

This useful, truthful falsehood touches on the nature of art itself. To paint the ecliptic is to wrestle with a challenge which drills down to the very core of picture-making: what is it to depict or represent? What is it to represent on the canvas something with so strange a nature as the illusive line of the sun’s orbit around the earth?

In portraiture this problem does not arise, nor in landscape, because there is a presumption of realism in the physicality of their subjects; and even if the subject is fictional, its representation can stand on its own two naturalistic feet. But the ecliptic is something else, apparent but insubstantial, unreal yet functional. How does Conroy place that on the canvas?

In this way Wood sets up a dialogue between realism and abstraction. The apparent duality of the ecliptic pulls Conroy toward both, but there is a suspicion of ‘abstraction for abstraction’s sake’ throughout the novel, representative as it is of a certain mid-twentieth century male machismo. You have to earn abstraction.

This problem and Conroy’s subsequent breakdown lead her to the hidden Turkish island retreat of Portmantle and her experiments with a unique pigment which might solve the challenge of representing the ecliptic.

It was not known how long Portmantle had existed, but we understood that many others had sought refuge there before we ever claimed it: to rescue the depleted minds of artists like us was the reason it was founded. In the seclusion of the grounds artists could work outside the straitjacket of the world and its pressures. We could tune out those voices that nagged and pecked, forget the doubts that stifled us, dispense with all the mundane tasks, distractions, and responsibilities, detach from the infernal noises of industry…

Overseen by the austere presence of the provost Portmantle provides an escape from reputation: everyone receives a new name from the provost, Conroy’s is “Knell”; an escape from clocks, time, and “the straitjacket of the world”. Knell and her friends, a famous novelist, a celebrated playwright, and a frustrated architect are “long-termers” at Portmantle when they are enlisted to aid the troubled teenager “Fullerton” in making the transition to life at the refuge. Fullerton’s origins lie at the heart of The Ecliptic. In many ways the opening section during which he arrives feels like an extended prologue, before the second section takes us back to Conroy’s early life and career and the circumstances in which Portmantle becomes a necessity.

The tension between art and life recurs throughout The Ecliptic. Removed from life whilst attempting question and represent it: That tension in the artist’s life is laid bare at Portmantle where the rules which ensure seclusion are meant to secure creative freedom. Yet, there’s no escaping the world: not in art, not in anything; and yet that is precisely what the space of creativity, what Portmantle seems to do. This tension underpins the novel, but it is a tension which reflects the tightness in the chest of creation. That anxious dialogue between art and life is one of the most successful elements of The Ecliptic.

“Once your best story’s told, it can’t be told again. It makes you, then it ruins you.”

Art and life. The dangers of intentional criticism—that is, looking to the intentions and, more broadly, the life of an artist in order to interpret their work—are well attested but seductive. A second novel which follows a much-lauded debut and which contains plenty of anxiety about the ability to produce new work, to repeat the trick, and how to handle success, rather invites an intentional angle.

I had become accustomed to this sort of discussion—the type in which I sat as an observer, hearing my own work being spoken about without being invited to contribute an opinion. I was passed around between people like the head on a coin, regarded only when questions needed a quick answer or small points required clarification.

The Ecliptic is in some ways inimical to criticism or review by virtue of the ironic slant it forces on the reviewer. As Julian Barnes puts it in Keeping an Eye Open, Georges Braque “thought the ideal state would be reached when we said nothing at all in front of a painting.” It is hard not to read something similar into the chasm between creation and reception in The Ecliptic. Time and again the experience of the artist in creating their work and their judgement of its value by critics, galleries, and buyers creates an instability in the idea of artistic value itself. It is as if the experience and language of the two groups are completely distinct. Only other artists recognise the works Conroy considers her best.

It is not straightforwardly that no standard for artistic judgement exists in the novel, but that the perspectives of the artist and the critic are so divorced as to bewilder Conroy when she hears her reviews.

Clearly, Muirhead had failed to notice the sheer apathy that underpinned the paintings, how poorly I had gone about the task of executing them, how knowingly I had let them be carried from my studio, one after the next, like meat leaving an abattoir.

Nor is this a kind of critical relativism: there is a difference between not knowing the value of a work—perhaps our being in no position to know—and its value being relative. Wood’s version of this recalls and reverses the chasm in perspective between the artist Frenhofer, on the one hand, and Porbus and Poussin, on the other, in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece.

The third instability I mentioned at the beginning of this review was that of the artist. It is not uncommon to pathologise the anxieties of the creative process. Indeed, it is something of a psychological industry, exemplified by the work of Kay Redfield Jamison. To link creativity and mental illness is seductive for some because it is one way of making sense of a mysterious process so often inimical to the mental health of the artist. Obsession can be pathologised, frenzied creation can be pathologised, barren periods become depression. It is, in general, unhelpful. Creativity requires a kind of instability, but it need not be mental. That this kind of instability plays a role in The Ecliptic has left me ambivalent. It will be up to each reader to decide whether it is convincing.

It is a painter’s job to give shape to things unseeable, to convey emotion in the accumulation of gestures, the instinctive, the considered, the unplanned. There is both randomness and predestination to the act of painting, a measurement and a chaos…

In novels about art it is often the art which is missing. That is not the case here. The description of detail and aesthetic effect—the language of gesture, composition, and perception—is a challenge Wood overcomes. Likewise, Wood’s phrasing and, yes, painterly description of Conroy’s environment. The “steel-blue water roiled quietly and a clutch of white sloops lilted on their moorings”; “Dust clotted the daylight. Fingerprints deadened the balustrade”; Handwriting in “an upright style that never broke the borders of the rulings, whose letters crouched like tall birds herded into crates.”

The end of The Ecliptic will undoubtedly bother some. Any given reader will have to decide whether the questions Wood raises about realism and representation are best served by the ending he chooses. I think he strikes an uneasy balance between the novel’s concerns with instability and the mysterious space of creativity; but my concerns about the pathologisation of the artist remain; and, whilst the structure of the novel serves Wood’s aims, it may sag a little in the central sections. There are passages where Wood is perhaps too careful, opting for careful enumeration over the telling detail.

Nonetheless, The Ecliptic is an intricate, ambitious, and compelling novel of creativity, ambiguity, instability, and the nature of representation. The fictional truth of the ecliptic and Wood’s handling of the dialogue between art, life, and the artworld is superbly realised, with resonances building throughout the novel. Moreover, the characterisation of Elspeth Conroy is, for the most part, spot-on: her anxieties, false-starts, resistance to the commercial, her youthfulness, and response to success all ring true and underpin the abstract concerns of the novel. All in all, The Ecliptic is a very good novel and comes highly recommended.

The thrill of painting turns so quickly to bewilderment if you let it, and nobody can help you to regain your bearings afterwards. Talent sinks into the lightless depths like so much rope unless you keep firm hold on it, but squeeze too tight and it will just as surely drag you under.

The Ecliptic is published by Scribner and is out now.

My thanks to Scribner for this review copy.

Fields of Experience: Reading the Thwaites Wainwright Prize

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize

I wrote in my last post about reading the Thwaites Wainwright Shortlist as a way to further my understanding and engagement with landscape and the environment. (Not to mention the opportunity to read some very good writing). It’s going to take me a little while: This is resolutely unrushable writing in both form and content. Except, perhaps, for Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk which is a tumbling, headlong dive into grief, reconciliation, and the nature of wildness and the bond between human and animal. It contains some of the finest writing I’ve come across in quite a while. It’s won everything else, but I wouldn’t bet against it come the ceremony.

I wrote in my last post about naming, acquaintance, and experience: fitting, then, that I should start John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field, a book packed with latin and local names for the grasses, flowers, trees, birds, moles, rodents, bats, beetles, earthworms, and more which populate a Herefordshire field throughout the year. For example, in Lower Meadow one might find “of grasses alone, timothy, meadow fescue, cock’s foot, meadow foxtail, woodrush, sweet vernal, tufted hair-grass, crested dog’s tail and meadow grass.”  This way of looking, to echo John Berger, married as it is with a streak of hard-nosed romanticism, emerges from a farmer’s engagement with the land. As Lewis-Stempel writes, “There is nothing like working the land for growing and reaping lines of prose.”

What is so striking about Meadowland is the concentration of experience and knowledge poured into a single field and recorded over the course of the year. Lewis-Stempel emphasises from the outset that his is a record of a kind of affective experience (“I can only tell you how it felt. How it was to work and watch a field and be connected to everything that was in it, and ever had been”): something which can generate some remarkable moments enmeshed in the life of the meadow as well as the occasional platitude and odd turn of phrase as the writer overreaches in the search for expression.

Yet, if one candidate for beauty is what Monroe Beardsley called “unity in diversity”, then Meadowland succeeds admirably in capturing the variety within the web of the meadow, even as the grasses are strewn with dew-lapped webs of another kind. Lewis-Stempel doesn’t shy away from the death which pervades the landscape: there is a particularly unpleasant squashed baby sugar mouse incident and the writer walks out gun in hand more than once. But from the print of that mouse-breaking cow’s hoof is born a microclimate which supports specialised fauna: as an intimate portrait of a rich and potentially threatened rural space Meadowland succeeds admirably.

The moor ahead of me was a foaming, surging mass, a sponge squeezing itself, a waterlogged lung. I could feel its spume coming down on me, hear its roar.

Next up for me is William Atkins’s The Moor: Lives, Landscape, Literature which tracks the moorland of mainland Britain from the Southwest to the Northeast through history, fiction, and the author’s journey. Thus far, Atkin’s writing is very impressive indeed. At a recent Faber Social Robert Macfarlane discussed the problem of moving from qualia–or the texture of conscious experience–to style, to a form of expression that conveys something of our phenomenology. Atkins succeeds, I think, in evoking not just the sensory experience, but what–if we were that way inclined and aiming for pretension–we might call the “semantic cloud” of experience: the images, allusions, and atmosphere that we supply in our engagement with our surroundings. (There is a Sebaldian influence hovering in the background, emphasised by the occasional telescoping of time.) Atkins populates this cloud with moors murders, hopeless Victorian schemes to tame the landscape, Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, and the “black pits” of R. D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone. It’s working for me so far.

The mist, secretly, had become fog, a deadening vapour that surged with the wind and seemed a presence as constant and primary as the peat underfoot. It was water with a rinsing of soap, an occlusion rather than a blinding. My cough sounded like an animal’s — in these conditions a noise lasts no longer than its cause.

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize Shortlist

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize Shortlist

I’m fortunate to be able to run a competition to win a set of the Thwaites Wainwright Prize shortlist. Why should you read these books? I asked the judges what draws them to the kind of writing the prize seeks to promote, why its valuable, and what they are looking for when judging submissions. More to come in my report on the ceremony, but here are the thoughts of two of the jury.

Chair of judges, Dame Fiona Reynolds

I can never get enough of nature writing. I love the way I am drawn, irresistibly, into the place or the subject of the author’s passion, inspired by the craft of writing and the quality of observation.

Fergus Collins, judge and editor of BBC Countryfile magazine

As a country boy living in London and then Bristol, I found the words of great nature writers such as Richard Jefferies or Ian Niall a wonderful escape from endless tube journeys and concrete skylines. They inspired me to be more observant about my wild neighbours even in the depths of the city. But as well as conjuring atmosphere and magical encounters, such exceptional writing should sometimes be as challenging and discomforting as the natural world so often is – and of which the reader is a part.

To enter the competition just leave a comment below, being sure to include an email address. The winner of the Thwaites Wainwright Prize is announced on the evening of Wednesday 22nd April. I will accept entries for the shortlist competition until midnight on Friday 24th April. I’m afraid that I can only accept UK entries. The winner will be chosen using a random number generator.

The competition is closed and a winner has been selected.

Enchantment and Acquaintance: Nature Writing and Knowledge

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize Shortlist

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize Shortlist

I have an odd relationship with nature and landscape writing. Naming, as any poet will tell you—I remember Carol Ann Duffy saying something to this effect—is a powerful thing. Through their parts or as wholes, names set off small semantic explosions in the mind of the reader as well as serving to anchor poetic abstraction in places, things, and people. Clive James’s Japanese Maple, Alice Oswald’s Severn, Heaney’s Mossbawn, miscellaneous Wordsworth: each by its naming puts out little tendrils which hold the world close. That, I think, is what I find attractive about writing on place, nature, landscape, and wildlife: its naming and exploration of things named.

Yet, this interest can feel like bad faith. It is because I am so poor at naming plants, birds, trees, and landscape—chalk hills? Clay? Limestone?—that I find this writing so fascinating, so enchanting. Of course, the history and human relationships bound up in landscape and wildlife are deeply interesting, and I love good writing about them; but, nonetheless, it is the power of naming, built on a way of perceiving I lack that lies at the heart of my worry.

Such writing has for me something of the allure of fantasy or science fiction: the exploration and evocation of another world, where most of the world-building has been taken care of by history and the environment, though interpretation and projection by the writer certainly has its part to play. Writers who can draw on language and knowledge I’ve never known or which seems to vanish as soon as I hear it. (Expressed in a rather flippant poem—but the anxiety is more substantial.) Roger Deakin wanders about discussing blackthorn, coppicing, insects, beetles, and really rather a large variety of birds; Robert Macfarlane springs up and down hills, across moors and tidal pathways, with a dictionary in tow: that’s how it feels anyway. Helen Macdonald and J. A. Baker name the birds and understand the goshawk and peregrine. I struggle to remember the difference between blue tits and great tits, ash and bay, which hills are where and what they are made of. (I’m beginning to grasp the South Downs.)

All of this bothers me because each of these writers hints at a way of perceiving that feels lost. If you can name things you can understand the relations between them—and vice versa—and that understanding can penetrate your perception of the environment and its history. This capacity enchants me as a mystery does: like a magic trick, I can’t see how it’s done, although I can think it impressive or beautiful: the bad faith worry stems from the sense that—as with the magic trick—learning how its done might lead to disenchantment. I don’t think that would happen; in fact, I expect it would be quite the reverse. Acquaintance would enrich rather than diminish, because naming and understanding aren’t sleights.

In order to deepen my acquaintance I’m going to be reading the Thwaites Wainwright Prize shortlist over the next few weeks. I’ve read the wonderful H is for Hawk already—and you really must—and the rest of the shortlist is a cross-section of the kind of writing I’ve been considering: place, people, wildlife, and their histories and crossings. I’m starting with Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel in my attempt to move beyond all that undifferentiated green.

  • Running Free: A Runner’s Journey Back to Nature, Richard Askwith (Vintage/Yellow Jersey).
  • The Moor: Lives Landscape Literature, William Atkins (Faber & Faber).
  • Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet, Mark Cocker (Vintage).
  • Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field, John Lewis-Stempel (Transworld).
  • H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (Vintage).
  • Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place, Philip Marsden (Granta).

‘…part of an ancient procession’ The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro

theburiedgiant

“You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated.”

The first sentence is as good a place to start as any for a reflection on Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in ten years; and this is more of a reflection than a review, for The Buried Giant is a resistant, circular, and potentially frustrating work. The book begins with “You”: we are a part of this from the very beginning and are reminded throughout. We are immediately placed in a conceptual landscape and atmosphere, an idea of England as a patchwork of tranquil meadows valorized the world over: other Eden, demi-paradise.

But it is an idea we should question precisely for its celebrity. The winding path to John of Gaunt’s bitter lamentation for sleeping England is long and part of the story itself. Something else came before and lies beneath the fields. We took a long time to get here, if we ever did. That simultaneously comforting, questioning, and warning opening sentence signals both the continuity of modern Britain with his concerns and creates a space for Ishiguro’s Dark Age novel of myth, legend, love and memory to occupy.

“It’s queer the way the world’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.”

The Romans are gone. Who knows how long, but their ruined villas dot the country. This is a landscape of magic, ogres, demons, and sprites. Britons and Saxons live separately, but mostly in peace, spread across the “desolate uncultivated land: here and there, rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland.” Time is unmarked. Two old married Britons, Axl and Beatrice, live on the margins of a warren of dwellings dug into a hillside. They are increasingly troubled by the way those around them—especially the young—forget people and events. “It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past—even the recent one.” Their candle has been taken from them—too old—yet it is Axl and Beatrice who seem to recall the most, to resist the darkness of “a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes”.

Axl and Beatrice set out on a journey long put off for reasons neither really recalls, to visit a son neither can picture, who lives in a village neither knows how to reach. It seems they forgot their son for a long time, forgot they ever had a child, although they sometimes wondered, sometimes saw images when half asleep of a small hand held or some conflict leading to their son’s departure. Throughout the novel Ishiguro shifts the reasons Axl and Beatrice think they are searching for their son: he anxiously awaits them, they will live with him and be cared for, they are simply visiting and will return to their village. What remains is the belief in the necessity of their journey and their bond: a belief which has more to do with feeling than memory or knowledge. In that sense Ishiguro is dealing in themes of memory and trauma which run back to A Pale View of Hills.

“He’s our son,” Beatrice said. “So I can feel things about him, even if I don’t remember clearly. And I know he longs for us to leave this place and be living with him under his protection.”

This troubling fluidity of desire, intention, mood, will, and memory permeates The Buried Giant. It is reflected in the landscape through which Axl and Beatrice move: a landscape without reference points, where fiends attack from behind, and strange tableaux emerge from the rains and forests. This strange rootlessness of a country which is nonetheless England recalls the floating village of Jim Crace’s Harvest; and the troubling half-recognised narrative space of Quarantine. The Buried Giant is in many ways a fusion of Ishiguro’s literary concerns: the loss of memory and control, and a troubling ethical environment which we cannot entirely reject, because it is grounded in love and care.

“An old burial ground. And so it may be. I dare say, sir, our whole country is this way. A fine green valley. A pleasant copse in the springtime. Dig its soil, and not far beneath the daisies and buttercups come the dead. And I don’t talk, sir, only of those who received Christian burial. Beneath our soil lie the remains of old slaughter.”

At the heart of this novel are the conflicting necessities, the paradoxical duties of remembrance and forgetting; and in that twin necessity is an allegory both of history and of love. Axl and Beatrice’s journey and their simultaneous fear of remembering and forgetting the life they have shared forces us to think about the differences between national memory and the memories of love. Reconciliation requires both acknowledgement of past wrongs and a kind of forgetfulness which can so easily become a belief in the necessity of suppression in the cause of national pride, recovery, and stability. (“Is it shame makes their memories so weak or simply fear?”) These are motives easily recognised in modern Russia and China, but which is equally insidious in the whiggish tendencies of a Britain in the midst of a celebration of Magna Carta.

“…I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”

It is tempting to link Ishiguro’s Beatrice with Dante’s, but Axl is old and his crossroads are unlike those of The Divine Comedy. We remain in the dark wood throughout The Buried Giant. Beatrice is Axl’s constant companion: a picture of love—another winding lane, another concept with darkness lurking beneath it—more honest than Dante’s courtly infatuation.

“Are you still there, Axl?”

Yet, Ishiguro retains something of Dante’s journey—something shared with journeys from The Odyssey to The Pilgrim’s Progress—as Axl and Beatrice meet figures who represent conflicting approaches to memory, duty, shame, peace and revenge. Unlike those legendary journeys, however, there is little moral clarity or satisfaction to be found. The fantastic is deployed, at least in part, to undermine the allegory of the journey and mythic ideas of nationhood. Indeed, it is one of the advantages of fantasy that creatures, landscapes, and characters can become representative of aspects of humanity in a manner realism militates against. The legendary characters or creatures that populate the novel are often weak and tired: implicated in the false logic of genocide and the suppression of memory in the service of peace. In that respect, the influence of Michael Moorcock can be detected in The Buried Giant.

“We must hope God yet finds a way to preserve the bonds between our peoples, yet custom and suspicion have always divided us. Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievance rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”

It may well be that the shifting and veiled narrative of The Buried Giant frustrates many. Yet, rather like Keith Ridgway’s otherwise very different approach in Hawthorn and Child, the resistance to narrative cohesion is part of the point. Memory, shame, duty, and vengeance are part of the story not just of England, but the world: part of us; and the winding path of love runs not to Dante’s paradise and a beatific vision, but to moments of joy, contentment, ease, conflict, resentment, union and separation. It is in that respect—and despite its Dark Age demeanour—a very timely novel. It will take some time to tell, but I think The Buried Giant is a serious achievement: one that will split people. Which seems rather fitting.

“The giant, once well buried, now stirs.”

The Buried Giant is published by Faber on the 3rd of March 2015.

My thanks to Faber for this review copy.

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.