‘suspended dust’ Plainsong – Kent Haruf

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Plainsong—the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian Church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air

Kent Haruf’s simple and unadorned epigraph announces the kind of book that one is about to read. Plainsong – vocal music that expresses and explores desolation, joy, creation, and death as a form of celebration, memorial, and call to prayer and contemplation. It is no accident this novel is a song that points to both the internal and the external, to the immediate and the transcendent, in the manner of the Colorado plains stretching into the distance.

Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was coming up.

Haruf’s apparently simple set of interlocking stories of the residents of Holt, Colorado set up resonances and symmetries that manage to comprehend the whole of life. Harmonies creep in whilst Haruf maintains the same prose voice. Two young brothers, Ike and Bobby Guthrie, lose a mother to depression and marital breakdown; two old farmers Harold and Raymond McPheron gain a daughter of sorts; young and pregnant, Victoria Roubideaux loses a mother but gains something else. Birth and death – human and animal – echo another across the pages. Life continues. There are few fireworks. Haruf’s writing is so restrained and so precise in its characterisation of the town and the plains that they become luminous.

Outside the house the wind came up suddenly out of  the west and the tail vane turned with it and the blades of the windmill whir, then the wind died down and the blades slowed and stopped.

Haruf’s transparent prose manages to remain completely immediate. It approaches a kind of inverted sublime in the sense of space he achieves in so domestic a story. Haruf eschews commas and the decorative wherever possible. Nor are there any speech marks. The effect is to remove a filter of subjectivity, to reduce the mind-dependence of his narration to a minimum such that the characters, their thoughts, and environment provide the framework and substance of the novel. When the prose does become more exuberant that tone is an implicit or explicit aspect of the character’s experience rather than the narrator’s.

 They stood in the corral and looked past the cattle and examined the sky.

I reckon it’s decided to hold off, Raymond said. It don’t appear like it wants to snow anymore.

It’s too cold to snow, Harold said. To dry, too.

It might snow tonight, Raymond said. I’ve seen it happen.

It’s not going to snow, Harold said. Look at the sky over there.

That’s what I’m looking at, Raymond said.

The McPherons are a heart-warming creation: irascible, inseparable, isolated, and farm-hardened; yet honest, kind, and unsophisticated in their good intentions. Harold and Raymond are both roughly experienced and yet innocent. They require initiation into certain mysteries and ways of being even as old men. Likewise, Ike and Bobby Guthrie are thrown into the harshness and injustice of life as they encounter sex, death, and persecution between paper-rounds.

                 I guess he’s going to die, Bobby said.

Who is?

Your horse. I guess he’s going to die today.

No he isn’t. Eat your breakfast.

I already ate my breakfast.

Well eat some more.

As I read Plainsong I was occasionally reminded of the unflinching realism of Evan Connell’s Mrs Bridge which is in many ways a very different novel. However, whilst Connell’s writing is intentionally claustrophobic and anguished, Haruf’s realism is capacious, generous, and tender. It is hard not to be reminded of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and, more recently, Kitamura. However, like Connell, their compression is shot through with unease and sweat whereas Haruf’s speaks more to the sentiment expressed in Robert Walser’s A Little Ramble: ‘We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.’

Whilst never romantic, there are nonetheless times when the subject matter of Plainsong avoids the sentimental by a mere whisker, but it is the tone of the writing which consistently resists a lapse into the saccharine, and thus becomes all the more true for its simple and honest depiction. The effect is hypnotic and beautiful and deceptively simple: this is a carefully balanced and crystalline novel, its symmetries and spaces apparently effortless. Plainsong was followed by Eventide which follows the same characters. I will read that this week. Haruf’s latest novel Benediction returns to Holt and will be published in the UK by Picador on 11th April.

This ain’t going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic.

No, it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.

My thanks to Picador for this review copy.

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Waterstones Book Club

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The next batch of Waterstones Book Club titles will be launched on 28th March. Each book is highlighted for a week in Waterstones stores. It’s a pretty diverse collection, although I have already heard some justifiable murmurings about the lack of a short story collection on the list. I can’t help but feel that this reflects the current state of public interest in short fiction rather more than it does any lack of high quality writing in the area. I’m very pleased to see the fractured and utterly compelling Hawthorn and Child on the list. Hopefully it’s week on the feature table will make up for its poor publicity (and stocking) last Summer. I enjoyed Michael Frayn’s farce Skios when I read it as part of my ill-fated attempt to read the Booker Long/Shortlist last year. Ancient Light has some wonderful passages of writing, although ultimately  I found it disappointing. I received The President’s Hat in the post this morning, which I’m keen to read after it was Skios_381highlighted by Nick Lezard on Tuesday. As for the rest, I’ve had Simon Armitage’s Walking Home and the Mortimer’s Dear Lupin on my list as interesting looking nonfiction reads for a while. I’ve heard the full gamut of responses to A.M. Home’s May We Be Forgiven, so I’m in two minds about whether I want to read that. The swirling epic House of Rumour appeals to me, but goodness knows if I’ll ever get around to it. I haven’t read any Jake Arnott, but I know a few people who think a lot of him. 

The full list is below. As ever, I have linked to any reviews I’ve written and books on the shelf are in bold. Any thoughts on the list?

  • Skios by Michael Frayn (Faber)
  • The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger (Penguin)
  • Dear Lupin by Roger and Charlie Mortimer (Constable & Robinson)
  • Ancient Light by John Banville (Penguin)
  • The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (Gallic Books)
  • Walking Home by Simon Armitage (Faber)
  • May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes (Granta)
  • The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes (Cornerstone)
  • Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway (Granta)
  • Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike by William Fotheringham (Vintage)
  • Burying the Typewriter by Carmen Bugan (Pan Macmillan)
  • Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham (Orion)
  • Heft by Liz Moore (Cornerstone)

‘There is always a story’ The Book of My Lives­ – Aleksandar Hemon

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The Book of My Lives­ – Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon in conversation with William Fiennes at the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts.

When Aleksandar Hemon took up an offer to spend a few months as a Writer-In-Residence at the United Nations Headquarters in New York it is unlikely that he expected one of his lasting memories would be the smallness of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s feet; and yet it is entirely characteristic of the man that he should take such a detail and spin it out into a reflection on the supremely important but infinitely frustrating search for a common language and framework for thinking about the world that goes on at the United Nations. It is one of those places where no matter how small each country gets its chance to speak about the world, even if some voices echo more than others.

It is fitting that Hemon should find his way to the UN. He grew up in Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia, now Bosnia-Herzegovina, drinking, smoking, writing, broadcasting on student radio, and, on one notable and vilified occasion, attending a Nazi-themed cocktail party. Hemon wrote and read, walking the streets and ‘Fancying myself a street-savvy columnist’. When war broke out in 1992 the 27-year old Hemon was visiting Chicago under the auspices of the American Cultural Institute. He sought asylum in the city and his family and dog escaped to Canada the following year. In the first piece of The Book of My Lives Hemon writes that ‘Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances.’ One of Hemon’s concerns both in print and in person is the essentially relational nature of identity and selfhood. At the heart of the NCLA discussion was Hemon’s developing awareness of the network of lives he had failed to fully appreciate in Sarajevo, but without which he felt completely adrift in Chicago. This is clear in the book: ‘In Sarajevo, you possessed a personal infrastructure: your kafana, your barber, your butcher,; the streets where people recognised you, the space that identified you; the landmarks of your life…’ Stripped of his kafana, one of the vital tasks of building a new life in the city was finding a network of lives and spaces in which to position himself: ‘I wanted from Chicago what I’d got from Sarajevo: a geography of the soul.’ Finding a group with which to play football became a key concern.

Often, when I got too excited and demanded, shall we say, that other players stay in their position and play for the team, someone would tell me, Relax, it’s just exercise…, whereupon I’d suggest that if they couldn’t play the way the game’s supposed to be played, they should fuck themselves and go and run on a fucking treadmill.

One of those Hemon plays with is Lido, a 75-year old Florentine art restorer who still believes himself to be in peak physical condition. ‘Even the slowest ball was capable of outrunning him, so when the teams were picked he was never counted as a player—we just tolerated his being on the pitch, safe in the assumption that he would have little impact.’ Lido tells a furious story of the failed restoration of the Sistine Chapel and the disastrous removal of its patina. ‘What they didn’t understand, Lido said, was that the patina is the essential part of the fresco, that the world the Almighty created on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was incomplete until the mortar fully absorbed the paint, until the inchoate universe turned a little darker. It wasn’t a sunny day when God created the world, Lido thundered; devoid of the patina it was all worth shit.’

Hemon has spoken of his dislike for the ‘memoir-craze’; of confession and atonement in the public gaze. Memoir, he argues, should be a matter of bearing witness to others: the ‘I’ should be a method of moving outward into the world and the lives of others. Writing occupies this strange position of reciprocity between the internal and external: ‘Writing was another way to organize my interiority so that I could retreat into it and populate it with words.’ Telling stories of oneself and of others and refusing to admit of any distinguishing principle beyond the place of one’s birth is one way of resisting the hateful and hate-filled ethnic cleansers of the former Yugoslavia. Hence the importance of the search for a common language at the UN, despite its crushing slowness; and hence the young Hemon’s reaction against the hermetic literature of Serbian nationalism. Hemon is quick to acknowledge that one can’t truly know another – any more, perhaps, than one can know oneself – but one can and should imaginatively occupy other people, because that is how, in fiction or otherwise, a common network is created.

Whoever created Lido ought to be satisfied: Lido was one of those rare humans who achieved completion. The rest of us had no choice but to roll in the dirt, get weather-beaten, and accumulate a patina, hoping to earn our right to simply, unconditionally be. And when I passed the ball to Lido that day—fully aware that it was going to be miskicked and wasted—I had the pleasant, tingling sensation of being connected with something bigger and better than me, a sensation wholly inaccessible to those who think soccer is about exercise and relaxation.

And like that Hemon grasps the fragments of a life, pulls them together, and, with a twist, makes a connection with a broader humanity. That he has done so in a language he didn’t really speak until he was 27 makes the achievement all the more remarkable and frequently elicits comparisons with Nabokov and Conrad. It is this ability to move toward an epiphanic moment, to observe and capture the stories of those he meets, grew up with, brought into the world, that marks Hemon out as truly remarkable. Lido died, Hemon told us at the NCLA, in Mexico in circumstances which have never quite been explained, after having followed his latest youthful bride to her small hometown. Hemon’s piece stands as a memorial to a remarkable man, capturing his essence in a few quick brushstrokes.

The Book of My Lives is a largely a collection of revised pieces published in The New Yorker, Granta, The Guardian, and Playboy amongst others. Its constitution from such pieces is wholly appropriate, for this collection of glimpses of and reflections on the meaning of family, emigration, integration, conflict, and the two cities he has called home, is the production of a man understanding people and places through the composition of each piece, through story. A straightforward narrative memoir would not do justice to the fragmented nest of lives Hemon has lived and been essentially connected to. Indeed, it probably wouldn’t do justice to any of us.

 On July 15, 2010, my wife, Teri, and I took our younger daughter, Isabel, for her regular medical checkup. She was nine months old and appeared to be in perfect health.

As William Fiennes pointed out in his discussion with Hemon, The Book of My Lives begins with the birth of a daughter and sister, and ends with the death of a daughter and sister. Of the devastating  final essay ‘The Aquarium’, first published in The New Yorker in 2011, little can be said but that, having read it before, I was dreading returning to it. The parents I know found it near impossible to read. Hemon’s honesty and power in expressing the worst nightmare of any parent is extraordinary both in itself and in the capacity he finds to transform this piece of writing into a reflection on his elder daughter Ella’s acquisition of language and the concomitant expansion of her narrative horizon. Ella uses language in order to understand, she uses characters to process emotions and ideas that demand expression. Hemon does the same – he’s just been at it longer. In doing so he is as insightful, lyrical, philosophical, funny, and angry as anyone I have read. The Book of My Lives is simply remarkable. You absolutely have to read it. In the meantime, I’ll make start on his fiction.

 …when asked “What are you?” I am often tempted to answer proudly: “I’m a writer.” Yet I seldom do, because it is not only pretentiously silly but also inaccurate—I feel I am a writer only at the time of writing. So I say I am complicated. I’d also like to add that I am nothing if not an entanglement of unanswerable questions, a cluster of others.

I’d like to say it might be too early to tell.

  The Book of My Lives is published by Picador on 14th March.

 My thanks to Picador for this review copy.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013

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And thus was the Women’s Prize for Fiction pleased to announce its 2013 Longlist. The full list of twenty is below and in time-honoured fashion I have added links to the two I have reviewed and emboldened (I know, but wouldn’t it be great?) those I have waiting patiently around the house. Apparently there has been some discussion as to whether or not the Sheila Heti How Should a Person Be? qualifies due to its liberal use of real conversations and events; but I know a few people who loved it, and this wouldn’t be the first time a writer had used such material and called their work a novel. I’m glad that Smith’s NW has made the list even though it is not without its flaws. My wife stole my proof of Lamb and is very pleased that it’s on the Longlist, so I’m pretty sure that I will be giving that a go soon. The only other book that really jumps out at me is The Innocents by Francesca Segal, which I’ve wanted to read since I first heard about it. As for the rest, I haven’t a clue which I might want to read, so I shall have to do some more research.

  • Kitty Aldridge – A Trick I Learned From Dead Men (Jonathan Cape)
  • Kate Atkinson – Life After Life (Doubleday)
  • Ros Barber – The Marlow Papers (Sceptre)
  • Shani Boianjiu – The People of Forever are Not Afraid (Hogarth)
  • Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • Sheila Heti – How Should a Person Be? (Harvill Secker)
  • A M Homes – May We Be Forgiven (Granta)
  • Barbara Kingsolver – Flight Behaviour (Faber & Faber)
  • Deborah Copaken Kogen – The Red Book (Virago)
  • Hilary Mantel – Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)
  • Bonnie Nadzam – Lamb (Hutchinson)
  • Emily Perkins – The Forrests (Bloomsbury Circus)
  • Michèle Roberts – Ignorance (Bloomsbury)
  • Francesca Segal – The Innocents (Chatto & Windus)
  • Maria Semple – Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • Elif Shafak – Honour (Viking)
  • Zadie Smith – NW (Hamish Hamilton)
  • M L Stedman – The Light Between Oceans (Doubleday)
  • Carrie Tiffany – Mateship with Birds (Picador)
  • G Willow Wilson – Alif the Unseen (Corvus Books)

The Shortlist will be announced on 16th April and the winner on 5th June.

The excellent Savidge Reads has also blogged about the longlist.

Something Like Happy – John Burnside

burnsideMy review of John Burnside’s second collection of short stories Something Like Happy
has been posted on Review 31. This was my first Burnside despite having meant to read both his fiction and poetry for ages. After reading this collection I really want to get hold of his novels and collections.