‘…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.

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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.

‘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

Rook-paperback-final

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.

‘the thirst for sensation’ The Dinner – Herman Koch

Translated by Sam Garrett

the dinner side banner

In Room 25 of The National Gallery is a painting by Pieter de Hooch, an artist who specialised in scenes of domesticity in the heart of the Dutch Golden Age.  The Courtyard of a House in Delft (1658) presents a solid everyday world of cleanliness, transparency, upright citizenry, and carefully marshalled beatific children; a world of order and harmonyPieter_de_Hooch_004 founded on firm moral ground. This is, as Andrew Graham-Dixon writes, ‘a place where stillness and security are charged with ethical value…De Hooch’s courtyard is the setting for a gentle conflict between the virtues of domesticity and the forces ranged against them.’ This is the prosperous Dutch’s self-conception reflected for their moralising satisfaction and patronage. This is, they think, a form of happiness: clean, Calvinist, and destined for Heaven. Graham-Dixon goes on, ‘The safe enclosure of the home becomes an image of the safe enclosure of the state…To look out is to see, not difference, but sameness;…an entire city of safe havens, an urban organism made up of such healthy, single cells as the one he has happened to paint. Art becomes a form of civic self-assurance.’ It also becomes rather bland.

the little streetJohannes Vermeer’s The Little Street was finished in the same year, in the same historical moment as The Courtyard of a House in Delft and resembles it in subject, but whereas De Hooch’s work encapsulates Holland’s vision of itself in both the 17th and 21st Centuries, Vermeer’s interrogates the façade and allows darkness and indeterminacy to remain in both home and the individual. Now we are on the outside looking in. At a time of unparalleled prosperity, Vermeer just might be wondering what lies beneath the mercantile frontage, beneath the blurred faces of his retiring subjects. Graham-Dixon calls this ‘the way in which the world withholds itself from the artist-as-observer, the way in which it retains its mystery.’ We might also see those sheer frontages as dykes holding back that darkness as the pumps and levees resist the North Sea and ensure Holland’s feet are kept dry.

All I want to talk about here are the things I heard and saw during our little get-together at the restaurant.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner can be understood as a challenge to the de Hoochian picture of Holland, happiness, and human nature; and as an attempt to move past Vermeer’s allusions to darkness into those shadows themselves. It goes without saying that Paul Lohman wants to talk about far more than what he heard and saw on one evening in an expensive Amsterdam restaurant. He is far from being a neutral narrator and he wants us to understand how he, his wife Claire, his sister-in-law Babette, and prominent politician of a brother Serge ended up sitting at this table, talking about the things their children have done and what they are to do about it. Whether Paul is reliable or not is not entirely clear; although I suspect that his honesty is one of the unsettling aspects of the novel. His voice, whilst becoming increasingly violent and disturbing, does satisfy that terrible phrase but laudable characteristic of being compulsively readable. In deceptively simple tones Koch has Paul narrate the evening and its unexpected developments.

‘The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions,’ said the manager: he was at Serge’s plate now, pointing with his pinkie. ‘And these are chanterelles from the Vosges.’ 

The Dinner begins as an apparent consideration of a certain brand of conspicuous consumption and artifice. That the novel is anchored by the framework of the meal’s five courses – Aperitif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, Digestif – seems to support this.Still-Life-by-Willem-Kalf-007 Indeed, Paul rails against the absurd divorce between price and service in top restaurants, against the stage-management, wine-urging manipulation, and his brother’s political smile. We sympathise, even if Paul is more strident than we might be. ‘Serge never reserves a table three months in advance. Serge makes the reservation on the day itself, he says he things of it as a sport.’ This is far from the moralising pictures of Pieter de Hooch. It recalls, rather, the other side of the Golden Age: the conspicuous consumption of Frans Hals’ Banquet of the officers of the St George Militia Company (1616) and Willem Kalf’s Still Life with the drinking horn of the St Sebastian Archers’ Guild, lobster and glasses (c.1653) Serge Lohman wants to show off, to say ‘Look, I can have this whenever I want, because I can play the game’; or so his brother believes. Slowly the meal becomes an exercise in manoeuvring for advantage amongst the diners, from course choice to strategic toilet breaks. It quickly becomes clear that far more is at stake than simple brotherly conflict or cultural bankruptcy as parents jockey for position and each course ramps up the tension in simmering mix of violence, loyalty, moral indignation, and desire for stimulation.

I was remarkably calm. Calm and fatigued. There would be no violence. It was like a storm coming up: the café chairs are carried inside, the awnings are rolled up, but nothing happens. The storm passes over. And, at the same time, that’s too bad. After all, we would all rather see the roofs ripped from the houses, the trees uprooted and tossed through the air; documentaries about tornados, hurricanes and tsunamis have a soothing effect. Of course it’s terrible, we’ve all be taught to say that we think it’s terrible, but a world without disasters and violence—be it the violence of nature or that of muscle and blood—would be the truly unbearable thing.

The literary interrogation of the dark side of humanity goes at least as far back as Mary Shelley and Robert Louis-Stevenson, whilst its dramatic consideration is thousands of years old. More recently James Smythe’s The Machine, a speculative re-examination of the Frankenstein story – amongst many other things – ask what it is which keeps violence at bay, and what it takes for those barriers to be overtopped: ‘People are capable of anything, he says. It’s inside all of us.’ In many ways The Dinner is akin to Golding’s Lord of the Flies in that Koch uses children as well as adults in order to pose his questions, although it is, in a limited way, more effective because the novel remains rooted in the modern state rather than a desert island. The novel becomes concerned with the nature of moral responsibility and the lengths to which parents should go in order to protect their children from themselves and the codes of the society in which they live.

‘To the outside world they’re suddenly adults, because they did something that we, as adults, consider a crime. But I feel that they’ve responded to it more like children. That’s exactly what I was trying to tell Serge. That we don’t have the right to take away their childhood, simply because, according to our norms, as adults, it’s a crime you should have to pay for for the rest of your life.’

The repressed violence and cold manipulation that infects and bursts out of the characters in The Dinner is chilling. ‘To look out is to see, not difference, but sameness.’ Are the Lohmans an aberration or a microcosm? Is their darkly rationalised happiness won in a way which parallels the self-deception of a nation? De Hooch’s domestic harmony, his network of safe-havens hide something far darker. The Golden Age was built on the proceeds of the slave-trade. It is hard not to see a parallel here with the son Serge and Babette adopted from Burkina Faso. His treatment is troubling and the potentially political or honest intentions of his adoptive parents unresolved. What stands behind Vermeer’s shuttered windows and dark doorways? What is being kept at bay?

Without knowing glances—without winks—there was in fact no secret: that was my reasoning. It might be hard for us to put the events in the cubicle out of our minds, but in the course of time they would start to exist outside us—just they did for other people. But what we did have to forget was the secret. And the best thing was to start forgetting as soon as possible.

Koch shifts the ground beneath the reader as more and more is revealed throughout The Dinner, as the meal runs its course. It is very well done indeed. The sympathies of the reader veer wildly after an initial identification with Paul’s impatience with the paraphernalia of consumption; an identification which becomes increasingly uncomfortable in the face of Koch’s uncompromising writing. The Dinner is nothing if not gripping, even if elements stretch one’s credulity a little. The half-cocked idea that not all victims are innocents and not all criminals are guilty unsettles and shifts throughout as it is put to self-interested use. The tablet suffering a good-natured assault by a questing limb of ivy in de Hooch’s picture runs thus, ‘This is in Saint Jerome’s vale, if you wish to repair to patience and meekness. For we must first descend if we wish to be raised.’ The choices Paul and Claire make in order to protect their family might ultimately twist this moralising saying into a darker reflection of itself. Happiness is, after all, its own sensation.

The Dinner is published in paperback by Atlantic.

Cassandra – Christa Wolf (Translated by Jan Van Heurck)

Cassandra

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

The Illiad I.1 (Trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

‘The last thing in my life will be a picture, not a word. Words die before pictures.’

Allegorical novels can be among the very finest and the very worst. Moralizing is a constant temptation and when twinned with a lack of sympathy for one’s fictionalised opposition this results in a Pretty Bad Book. To this extent poor allegorical fiction resembles both hagiography and humpbacked vilification in its intention to beatify, sanitise, caricature, or damn its subject rather than represent or explore human nature and its manifestations in distinct but related historical, geographical, and political contexts. To that extent, to call a Good Book allegorical is at most to identify one aspect of its author’s intentions, because a common humanity must serve as the grounding of almost any novel worthy of the name. The greatest works resonate beyond their particular moment because they do just this; and likewise the greatest allegorical novels use a particular moment to reflect upon another. Sometimes it is the similarity veiled by an apparent difference which is so striking; sometimes it is that so similar a set of people could be so different. These are obviously versions of the same thing. Thus, the greatest allegorical novels find a way to say something truly interesting about both their apparent subject and their (more or less) hidden subject. One or the other won’t do.

All this, the Troy of my childhood, no longer exists except inside my head. I will rebuild it there while I still have time, I will not forget a single stone, a single incidence of light, a single laugh, a single cry. It shall be kept faithfully inside me, however short the time may be. Now I have learned to see what is not, how hard the lesson was.

Christa Woolf’s Cassandra takes as its apparent subject the recollections of the eponymous prophetess and daughter of the Trojan king Priam as she waits to be executed by Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra ouside the gates of Mycenae. However, Wolf’s story is definitely not a straightforward recapitulation of Homer, Virgil, or the Epic Cycle. This is most clear when Cassandra speaks of ‘Achilles the brute’. No heroes here: just violence and deceit. In Wolf’s war the most beautiful of Priam’s daughters finds herself in the midst of an economic struggle between Troy and the Greek states falsely dressed as a question of honour and idealism. The priestess watches in horror as her father’s court is slowly infiltrated and increasingly controlled by the bland but insidious Eumelos who wishes only to protect the state against those who would betray it. The enemy seems less those beyond the walls and more the new party of Trojans who subvert Troy in the name its perpetuation. Thus power deceives not only its objects but itself and in doing so hastens its own destruction. Propaganda, censorship, and surveillance: So far, so Cold War.

How many realities were there in Troy besides mine, which I had thought the only one? Who fixed the boundary between the visible and invisible?

This is a question we might ask of Cassandra itself. Where does allegory begin and end? Where is the apparent story and where the hidden? Where the visible and where the invisible? It’s also a question Wolf is asking of the other Trojan War narratives. Why is that tale of gods and armoured men the story? We can also turn the question back: why is Cassandra’s narrative the one we should trust? After all, she doesn’t seem to trust herself.

   Will I split myself in two until the end before the axe splits me, for the sake of consciousness? In order not to writhe with fear, not to bellow like an animal – and who should know better than I how animals bellow when they are sacrificed! Will I, until the end, until that axe – will I still, when my head, my neck, is already – will I—?

Why do I simply refuse to allow myself this relapse into creatureliness? What is holding me back? Who is there left to see me? Do I, the unbeliever, still see myself as the focus of a god’s gazes, as I did when a child, a girl, a priestess? With that never pass?

Wolf’s writing is searching, clawing at the truth, or some truth. Inseparable from its subject and subject-matter, the tumbling consciousness is feverish in its expression as thought and language move toward and away from resolution until the very end. This is a consciousness divided against itself within a state divided against itself. Indeed, division is everywhere: in the dual nature of Apollo, in the gods’ gaze, the torment and the desolation; and in the prophesying of Germany’s future, the future of many times and places, the fall of the USSR, its wall breached. Yet Cassandra is nothing if not resistant to quite so totalising a summation of its aims. Cassandra sweeps back and forth between love and hatred, male and female, madness and sanity, belief and apostasy, the city and the natural, life and death.

Who lives will see. It occurs to me secretly that I am tracking the story of my fear. Or more precisely, the story of its unbridling: more precisely still, of its setting free.

One of the most powerful and interesting aspects of Cassandra is Wolf’s discussion of a beauty which does not exist and which is yet the pretext for war and repression. Once you go far enough, you have to keep going. Time and again the structures of Terror have become their own end. The end is no longer in sight and may have never been possible. We should be careful when mixing biography and criticism – although Wimsatt and Beardsley’s warning against ‘author psychology’ in their ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ is far too strong a prohibition – but it is interesting that Christa Wolf opposed the reunification of Germany despite her implied criticism of the East’s surveillance culture in Cassandra. (She herself was a Stasi informant at one point long before the novel’s composition). This suggests that it is the idea of utopia – socialist or otherwise – and its attendant terrors which Wolf critiques. Beyond a certain point everyone knows it never existed in the first place; and yet they cannot stop themselves. Honour demands that the image remains. In the paradise

we had invented, we were defending everything that we know longer had. And the more it faded, the more real we had to say it was. Thus out of words, gestures, ceremonies, and silence there arose a second Troy, a ghostly city, were we were supposed to feel at home and live at ease.

This is all only a first-pass reading. Cassandra deserves several readings for the quality of language and thought alone. I think an awful lot passed me by, especially at the beginning as I settled into Cassandra’s habits of speech. Without any dissembling I can say that I have failed to do justice to the aspects of the novel which deal with female experience, with the feminine, the binaries Wolf creates between Greek and Trojan, with Cassandra’s life itself. That’s one set of concerns to pay more attention to when rereading. I’ve been told by several people that Wolf’s later novel Medea is even better than Cassandra, so that’s definitely going on the list. Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is one of my favourite books and, although the two are very different, Cassandra has reminded me how much I want to reread that. I’ve also had Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles on the shelf for a few months after a very generous Christmas present from a sister-in-law of the entire Orange Prize 2012 shortlist. Miller is quoted on the back of my copy of Cassandra and hers is yet another approach to Achilles and the nature of passion and conflict I want to read.

The last thing in my life will be a picture, not a word. Words die before pictures.

I began by making several fairly reductive comments about allegory and the past and present moment. I suggested that Good Books overflow their setting, their moment, and touch on something human. It is very difficult to talk about Cassandra without wanting to go off in several different directions at once. Now that suggests there is something in the novel which we have to grasp after, something which reaches back and forward in time, and which is expressed in language which runs ahead and returns saying something we did not expect. ‘The last thing in my life will be a picture not a word.’ There is something beyond language for Cassandra: a picture, or pure experience, something will momentarily outlast the word she might use to describe it. This is part of what Wolf’s language is grasping at, and part of the reason why she cannot reach it. Perhaps. There is an awful lot I did not understand in Cassandra. I think that’s extremely promising.

Once again limb-loosing love shakes me,

bitter-sweet, untamable, a dusky animal

Sappho

Cassandra is published by Daunt Books

My thanks to Daunt Books for this review copy.