Books of the Year 2017

The Back of Beyond by Peter Stamm (Granta)

This is my third (or fourth?) Stamm novel, and before I picked it up I was worried I was beginning to settle into something of a pattern with his books. While I’m reading them, I’m transported; the prose – as before, in Michael Hofman’s translation – is impeccable; the situation presented is both eminently plausible and horrifying suggestive. This is realist fiction with the skin peeled off, showing modern human beings (genus: white, usually middle-class Europeans) at their most ordinary, but vertiginous. There, you think, there but for the grace of God – or possibly the grace of Peter Stamm. But, when I think back to some of the previous Stamms I’ve read, I find they have evaporated in my memory, or else reduced themselves to vivid, isolated moments. This one, I can guarantee, will not do that.

The ordinary couple at the heart of the story are a middle-class heterosexual couple, the parents of two young children, just returned from a holiday and preparing for the return to school and work. Only, while Astrid is upstairs, settling their son, her husband Thomas just… walks out. He puts down his wine glass and leaves through the garden gate. Brilliantly, Stamm treats the reader to both sides of this drama, giving us the disappearance and its aftermath in alternating sections told from Thomas and Astrid’s perspective. Novel of the year?

Being Here is Everything: The Life of Paula M Becker, by Marie Darrieussecq, translated by Penny Hueston (semiotext(e)/Text Publishing)

I reviewed this for minorlits, and stand by my assessment, that it is as good as 2015’s Suite for Barbara Loden. They’re similar books in that they’re biographical essays that take a fresh approach to the now familiar job of bringing into the light the lives and work of unjustly forgotten female artists. For both books, that approach involves a personal and fragmentary style that seems to avoid the usual biographical narrative, as if there is something inherently monolithic and stultifying to it, as if it is secretly in service to the patriarchy.

Whereas Natalie Léger’s portrayal of Loden’s treatment by her husband and director Elia Kazan is unambiguously critical, Darrieussecq is more uncertain about the role of the poet Rilke in Becker’s life. They had a close connection. He wrote a long commemorative poem about her on the anniversary of her death, but did not name her in it. He could have done so much more, she deserved so much more. Non-fiction book of the year.

An Overcoat by Jack Robinson (CB Editions)

Charles Boyle’s CB Editions is one of my favourite indie presses. It’s a true one-man operation, based on Boyle’s excellent taste, no-bullshit attitude and willingness to stand in line at the Post Office with an armful of Jiffy bags on a regular basis. So I was sad at this year’s news that the press is going into semi-retirement – but I was cheered by the arrival, this year, of not one but two small books by Boyle himself, writing under his pen name Jack Robinson. Robinson is a righteously angry book about Britain, Brexit, boys’ schools and the legacy of colonialism, but it’s An Overcoat that has stuck with me, for its delightful hop, skip and a jump along that unstable line that separates fact from fiction.

In it, Henri Beyle (known to most of us as Stendhal, author of The Red and The Black) finds himself in an afterlife in small-town England. He hangs out in cafes, tries to date a woman called M, treats the life of contemporary Britain to the dispassionate observation we wish we had time and the eyes for. Unbeknownst to him, however, the book’s author is annotating the narrative with reference to Beyle’s life and work. It is about as far removed from an academic book on Stendhal as you could imagine, but it is very true to his spirit – true to Boyle’s lifelong love of his writing – as well as being true to the spirits of, for example, WG Sebald, Rachel Cusk, Patrick Keiller. Boyle is one of Britain’s best publishers. He is also one of its most intriguing experimental novelists. If he sold as many books as he deserves to, he’d be a National Treasure, and we cannot allow that to happen. Neither-one-thing-nor-the-other of the year.

Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre (Les Fugitives)

In my review of Blue Self-Portrait for the TLS I described it as Bridget Jones as told by Thomas Bernhard, which was glib. But what Lefebvre does, that is at least partly Bernhardian, is treat the neuroses of her female narrator as worthy of close attention. The book is a plotless wonder, a short ride in the fast machine of a narrator’s overheating, near-to-stalling consciousness – in this instance, a woman flying back from a city break in Berlin to her home town of Paris, accompanied by her sister. Mostly what she’s thinking about is the German male composer she met there and had drinks with, but didn’t accompany back to his apartment – though the romantic aspect of their not-quite-relationship is the least of it. This is neither a love story, nor its opposite. It is about personhood, about how we dare to try to be someone different from other people, and the risks that this entails.

Under My Thumb, edited by Rhian E Jones and Eli Davies (Repeater Books)

I picked this up on spec in Waterstones at Waterloo (good that they’re giving table space to indies like Repeater, which is run by the former staff of Zero Books) in part because I’m writing a novel at the moment set in the music industry – that treats, in part, the issue of sex, as in the issue of groupies, as in the issues of misogyny and sexual predation. I’m trying to address the difficult question of whether it is possible to even imagine rock and pop music without sexual oppression, and the slightly more straightforward question of what we should do about rock and pop stars who abused their power to sexually manipulate women, and girls, in the past.

What’s useful, for me, about this collection of essays is how the authors put their own love of music (rock, pop, hip-hop, soul) on trial. How can you deal with the fact that you love the Stones, Spector, Tupac? How and when is it possible to separate the art from its creator. Standout articles include Fiona Sturges on her love for AC/DC, which she was able to pass on to her daughter until it came to the idea of seeing them live, and Frances Morgan on Michael Gira from US alternative band Swans, who has been accused of abusive behaviour by an ex. Morgan is a fan, and has interviewed the musician in the past. Her essay is a thoughtful exploration of her feelings around the situation and the ethical implications. There have many similar pieces since the Weinstein vocalisation, but this was written before then. The book is full of women thinking carefully about their responses to the actions of culturally significant men. As such, you might call it a mirror for magistrates.

My House of Sky: The Life and Work of JA Baker, by Hetty Saunders (LIttle Toller)

I was looking forward to this book ever since the estimable Little Toller books launched their crowdfunder for it. JA Baker was the author of The Peregrine, one of the seminal works of contemporary nature writing, published in 1962. It’s a strange book that is short on what you’d call proper ornithology, and very much faces in the opposite direction to the whole ‘nature as therapy’ subgenre that has led to books like H is for Hawk. It follows Baker’s obsessive hunt for the falcon across the reclaimed coastal landscape of the Essex coast over a series of winters. (It’s a landscape I know well from my childhood, as the son of an Essex birdwatcher; I found it dull then, but – no surprise – am haunted by it now.) Baker made a point of identifying himself with the peregrine in his book, but it’s the land, not the bird, that he seems to disappear into.

The Peregrine was a big success, but Baker wrote one only other book, which flopped. Other than that, he stuck to his marriage, his Chelmsford council house and his birdwatching, but suffered from encroaching ill health until his death in 1987, at the age of 61. Saunders has done a good job in fleshing out the mystery as best she can, and the book is beautifully produced, with reproductions of Baker’s maps and notebooks that recall Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair’s book about David Rodinksy. But in truth Baker was no Rodinsky, and what there was in him that was interesting, you’d have to think, he successfully poured into his one great book. So, while this is a book that was called for, and one to cherish, it is perhaps a slight disappointment for those of us who had invested so much in the areas of Baker’s map that had previously been so tantalisingly blank. Some blank areas on the map, I suppose, are blank because there’s simply nothing there.

Essayism, by Brian Dillon (Fitzcarraldo)

A brilliant disquisition on the essay form, that successfully sidesteps the pitfalls of that particular meta-form, which include banging on about Barthes, Montaigne and Sontag all the time, and coming across as immensely pleased with yourself. Thankfully, Dillon is as self-lacerating as he is intelligent, and this book (like The Dark Room, which I reviewed back in the day, and which Fitzcarraldo are bringing out in a new edition next year) is an acute piece of self-criticism, repeatedly backing into short, unexpected jolts of memoir. It also quotes one of my very favourite passages, from one of my very favourite books, something that made me shout with joy when I saw it.

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, by Maggie Nelson (Vintage)

I was blown away by The Argonauts when I read it last year, and so I leapt at the chance to read Bluets (2009) and The Red Parts (2007) when Vintage reissued them this year. Bluets I found a little dull (I wrote about it, sort of, here), but The Red Parts gripped me completely. It is Nelson’s account of the trial of Gary Earl Leiterman for the murder of Jane Mixer, Nelson’s mother’s sister, 36 years earlier. It is not a piece of true crime. It is an investigation of various emotional states, and of the ability of writing to capture these, and the risks involved in this. It had me thinking about James Ellroy (whom I used to read a lot) long before Nelson lays into him, decisively. This isn’t quite as mind-shifting as The Argonauts, and it does make me wonder what Nelson will write next. She has a lot to live up to.

After Kathy Acker, by Chris Kraus (Allen Lane)

A third biography in my selection: I seem to be conforming to the stereotype of the reader who drifts from novel-reading to biographies as they age. Why? Well, because, knowing more of the world, you are more able to measure non-fiction against it; and because what comes naturally as a teenager and young adult – imagining yourself into the character of any protagonist – becomes harder as you see how options fall away from around you the further through life you go. I am not particularly interested in Acker as a writer – I tried reading Blood and Guts in High School, sent to me alongside a proof of this biography, and found it pretty repulsive, to be honest. But clearly she was an interesting person, and sometimes the price of learning about and understanding interesting people, and their place in the culture, is reading their books. After all, at the time when Acker was doing the interesting things she did (which included writing books whose interest lay elsewhere than in what they were actually saying), there was no Krauss to write about her. Now there is, and Kraus proves herself an admirable biographer. Parts of I Love Dick were rather heavy on the critical theory, but she is clear about Acker’s dalliance with theory what she brings to bear on Acker, in London, LA and New York, is always clear, always credible. She is also generous with her attention, looking, as does Darrieussecq in her book about Modersohn-Becker, to the partners of important artists, when their work has sometimes been unjustly overshadowed.

The Proof, by César Aira, translated by Nick Caistor (And Other Stories)

This is the third Aira that I’ve tried, and the first one that really clicked. I’m beginning to appreciate his modus operandi – partly thanks to a great interview in The White Review (No. 18). But still it’s hard to align his immense prolificness and imagination to the paradigm of modern publishing. Yes, Simenon wrote a hell of a lot, but with Simenon you knew what you were getting. The hit rate here seems less sure. But there is something so blissfully uninhibited about this short narrative, with its sexy, punky intro and its ascent into glorious, excessive violence, that makes perfect sense.

small white monkeys, by Sophie Collins (Book Works)

I’ve amended this post to make this an actual eleventh book of the year, rather than an addendum. It’s a brilliant, forthright essay about shame written by Collins (primarily a poet; she was in the first of the Penguin New Poets series earlier this year alongside Emily Berry and Anne Carson) as part of a project undertaken at the Glasgow Women’s Library. I bought it online directly after reading an extract published on the White Review website. Read that, and you might do the same.

(The pamphlet visible to the right is ‘Spring Sleepers’ by Kyoto Yoshida, one of a series of new stories from Stranger’s Press, a new publishing project from UEA. Beautifully produced, and some really intriguing stories.)

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Darrieussecq and Becker at Minor Lits

I was offered a copy of Marie Darrieussecq’s book about the German modernist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker by the kind people at semiotext(e), after they had read something of mine on the Les Fugitives translation of Natalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden. It was an excellent suggestion. The two books share a real affinity, a desire to do the now familiar job of recuperating the life and work of unjustly neglected female artists, but to do something more than this: to honour the artists in question by approaching them as equals, as one artist writing about another. I eventually wrote a piece about the book for minor lits, which you can read here. It’s stuck with me thus far, enough to make it one of my books of the year. It sent me back to try Darrieussecq’s fiction again, but I stumbled ten or so pages into Breathing Underwater and haven’t picked it up again. And it’s made me think more and more about Rilke, who is as central to Darrieussecq’s book, as he was to Becker’s creative life. What is it about men like him, that they can be so flaky and end up so lauded, while the women who are his equals (this is a broad statement, rather than an expert judgement) get left on the wayside?

Disk, Dyer: Memoir as (cough) quest narrative

I only started reading Jenny Diski after she died. I went out and bought the as-good-as-posthumously published In Gratitude, which brings together material from her LRB diaries about her life with cancer, and about her time living with Doris Lessing, who took her in as a teenager when she went off the rails. When I finished that, I asked for recommendations as to where to go next. Skating to Antarctica, came the response, so I tracked that down and read that.

I have always had an ambivalent attitude towards memoir. I always ask myself: am I reading this book because of the facts of the life it describes, or because of the writing? (Please don’t tell me that it is pointless to try to separate form from content.) (This ambivalence towards memoir is perhaps bound up in the fact that my own life is far too uninteresting to merit memorialisation.) So, Jenny Diski had a chaotic childhood, being fought over by two belligerent, neurotic parents, both of whom attempted suicide at least once, and acted towards her in ways that occasionally bordered on child sex abuse, and she spent time in mental institutions, and she got cancer: lucky her! She has stuff to write about. I’ve lost no one. No one’s mistreated me. My life has been lucky and privileged and healthy. What a bummer.

Of course, what makes Skating to Antarctica such an excellent book, and more than just a high-quality misery memoir, is what she does with these life experiences, with this content. Her formal brilliance works both at sentence level, and in broader, structural terms – in the way, for instance, that she uses a solitary trip to Antarctica to frame the story of her childhood. Sentence by sentence, page by page, the book is powered by an irony that seems at once languid and vigilant. (“Indolence has always been my most essential quality,” I see I have underlined on one page.)

I loved it, and I recognised it as being kin to another writer I love, Geoff Dyer. “Very Dyer” I noted, near-anagrammatically, next to a couple of passages.

Here is an example:

The abandoned whaling station at Grytviken is either lovingly preserved in its natural state or derelict, depending on how you choose to look at it. If derelict landscapes, like the murkier parts of King’s Cross and the old unreconstructed docklands appeal, then Grytviken is a pearl of desolation. A rust-bucket ghost town, left to rot in its own beautiful way.

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In defence of the comma splice: Katie Kitamura’s A Separation


I’d been planning to write about the comma splice for a while. Reading Katie Kitamura’s novel A Separation (Clerkenwell Press), I made a note that it would be a useful book to quote from, as it uses the device a lot. Then I read, yesterday, that Lionel Shriver had picked up on the same thing in her review of the novel in the FT, in order to criticise it. She writes:

Kitamura’s relentless joining of complete sentences with commas is grating, giving the text the look of weak secondary-school essays. One example of hundreds: “This was hardly surprising, the bar did not seem to be set especially high, Stefano, for all his merits, did not seem like an intellectual force.” What do those errant commas achieve? For this reader, irritation, distraction and impatience. Liberal deployment of full stops would have left the prose cleaner, clearer and crisper, while sharpening the voice.

Shriver does acknowledge that this is a genuine stylistic choice on the part of Kitamura, and that the first-person voice she chooses for her (unnamed) narrator is “otherwise strong”.

I think the use of the comma splice is highly effective, and key to the success of the novel. Before I say why, a general remark about writing and grammar.

Insofar as there are grammatical rules, the comma splice is an error, a joining together of syntactic units that would be better served as being treated as full sentences, i.e. separated by full stops. As I tell my students – as teachers everywhere tell their students – rules are there to be broken, but I want to know that you know you’re breaking the rule, and ideally I want to know why. That is, I want to be confident that your comma splices are there for a clear and definite stylistic reason, and not because you think what you’re writing is ‘correct’ English, or never knew that it wasn’t. (All comments about the validity of such a concept as ‘correct English’ should be saved for the end of this post, by which time hopefully they will be forgotten.)

In Kitamura, then, the comma splices are there for a definite reason, which is to do with the presentation of the narrator’s state of mind. A Separation is a first person narrative, that starts in the past tense:

It began with a telephone call from Isabella. She wanted to know where Christopher was, and I was put in the awkward position of having to tell her that I didn’t know.

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Haunting the margins: an essay in Gorse

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I’m very pleased to see a new essay of mine in the latest edition of Gorse journal. For those who don’t know it, this is a new Irish literary journal edited by Susan Tomaselli that comes out three times a year and is now up to issue 7. I had a story in Issue 2 (Festschrift, later anthologised in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2015) and and am made up to be back between their covers – quite exquisitely designed, as ever, by Niall McCormack.

Other writers featured in #7 include Scott Esposito, CD Rose and the White Review Short Story prize-winning Owen Booth. Other writers you might have heard of in previous issues include Darren Anderson, Louise Bennett, Kevin Breathnach, Claire-Brian Dillon, Rob Doyle, Lauren Elkin, Andrew Gallix, Niven Govinden, David Hayden, David Rose, Joanna Walsh and David Winters, and there are interviews with Geoff Dyer, Deborah Levy, Alan Moore, Lee Rourke.

My essay, ‘Marginalia’ grew out of a response to Ben Lerner’s essay ‘The Hatred of Poetry’ and explores traditional and contemporary uses of book margins and footers by writers such as Lerner, Maggie Nelson, Alasdair Gray, David Foster Wallace, Rebecca Solnit and Douglas Coupland.

Books of the Year 2016

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Transit, by Rachel Cusk (Jonathan Cape)

I loved Outline, and I love this, its sequel and the second in a projected trilogy. Transit shares with the earlier book its dispassionate writer-narrator, Faye, and a super-cool novelistic intelligence, and the simple but effective premise that Faye narrates her dull, everyday encounters – with her ex, her hairdresser, her Albanian builder and others ­– without explicitly ever giving her side of the conversation.

We get what they say in direct speech, but what she says only in paraphrase. She is utterly reserved, absent in except in her reflections, appraisals, judgements. There is no plot arc, no sense that any of these people suspect that this person is spending the entirety of their time together processing and narrating it, rather than committing to the encounter on equal, human terms.

The risk with these books is that they avoid the tricks writers usually use to make their stories stick in your memory, and this does mean that they start to lose traction the moment the reading ends. Six months on, all I could really remember from Transit was two great set-pieces: a damp literary festival, and the Cotswolds dinner party that ends the book.

This isn’t one of the great dramatic, explosive literary dinner parties (think of James Meek’s We Are Now Beginning Out Descent), but what it is, is true to life, rather than true to books. Doubly so, in fact. It is realistic both in how these kinds of things pan out, and in how we see them as they’re doing their out-panning, from behind a pane of glass called consciousness.

I remembered, too, that the book ended brilliantly, that it makes most novel endings seem bluntly contrived.

This is the Place to Be, by Lara Pawson (CB Editions)

I reviewed this in brief for The Guardian (not available online, alas) and it’s hung around in my head, as I knew it would from the moment I opened it on the tube. Brilliant and uncompromising is what I said in the review, but there is more to it than just the brutally candid reflections of a one-time BBC correspondent on her time reporting in war-torn Angola, and on what awaited her when she tried to re-enter ordinary life.

The book’s brilliance is in its discovery of a form to match the subject matter. This is the Place to Be is written in fragments, in unindented block paragraphs separated by white space. Sometimes the link between paragraphs is obvious, sometimes not, sometimes tangential, sometimes delayed. Writing in fragments is a risky business, but this is textbook stuff. (Literally so, if I ever get around to writing the book I want to.) Continue reading

The sad story of the Dutch Book of Short Stories

 

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I picked up Penguin’s Book of Dutch Short Stories with a keen curiosity – in part to see what I could learn about this country’s literature beyond what I know, which really comes down the books of Cees Nooteboom and Gerbrand Bakker. I love both these writers. (Here is my review of Cees Nooteboom’s The Foxes Come at Night, though for me Rituals is the killer text. And here is my review of Bakker’s June, and here (£) my review of the quite stunning The Detour.)

Well, I learned many things, including the reason why I (we) know so little of Dutch literature abroad, so much less than that of other European countries, and I enjoyed many of the stories in the collection, but what I also learned, that took a little digging, was that the saddest story of the collection was not in it, but of its very creation. I reviewed it for Minor Lits. Read on…

In search of the Good Sex writing

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I wrote this for the TLS blog as a response to the Bad Sex Awards. (Includes a brief definition of Gibbs’s Law of Reversible Similes.)

It’s easy to sneer at the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award – sneering at the sneerers, as it were – but it’s no lie that writing well about sex is difficult, and perhaps more difficult in prose than in poetry. I think there are three main reasons for this. Read on…

Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales – strange loops and the suburban gothic

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There are worse things in the world, but still I do get riled at the rise of trick-or-treating in the UK. It’s partly the arrant commercialism of the event. I hate the fact that supermarkets cashing in twice over, with the rinky-dink witch and zombie costumes shelved right next to the bags of orange and black themed candy. The now-extinguished penny-for-the-guy, by comparison, offered a simpler, less costly and more direct transaction between kids and adults: handfuls of loose change given in tribute, for the stuffing of old clothes and tights with balled up newspaper.

But it’s also the way that trick-or-treating leaches any real sense of fear from the traditions of Halloween – for the kids at least. They aren’t scared; they’re just in it for sweets. If anyone’s spooked by trick-or-treating it’s the parents, so fearful of the idea of their children wandering around at night that they insist on chaperoning them. You have to hope their kids don’t catch sight of mum or dad’s face, a rictus of stranger-danger hypervigilance and forced jollity. That would give them a shock.

I’ve never taken my kids trick or treating, like the dull dad they insist I am. One Halloween, though, I did take them to the local cemetery to hang out. It didn’t work. London suburbs: far too much ambient light. I’d like to think that the country graveyard on the edge of the village where I grew up would have been a different matter, with its wonky headstones and moonlight-blocking yew trees.

When I think of trick-or-tweeting, I think of E.T., with its mass takeover of the streets by children, producing something like the benign anarchism of a May Day carnival or Saturnalia. There is freedom here, it’s true, but no fear of the dark, no sense of the dead hovering just out of sight, needing to be appeased.

Does this antipathy translate into a bias against US horror and gothic writing? Is this why I’ve never really read Shirley Jackson, beyond her classic story ‘The Lottery’, which is apparently the one story all US schoolchildren will have read by the time they reach eighth grade? Well, perhaps – but then I don’t really read gothic and horror as a genre. (The only book I can think of that gave me sleepless nights is Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs.) A reader of literary fiction, i.e. prose tragedy, I suppose I prefer despair to fear. The world is quite bad enough without ghouls and ghosties.

So it is only right and just that I give my full attention to Jackson’s work, in this new selection of short stories – although quite what decisions lie behind the selection is unclear, as two of the three collections they are taken from are already available in Penguin Modern Classics. And, presumably, all of her tales are ‘dark’ – aren’t they? Continue reading

Today’s sermon: On an island

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An island presents an ideal conjunction of the three states of matter: land, sea and sky; solid, liquid, gas. The world rarely displays itself so uncomplicatedly to human understanding. The same tripartite division is available to anyone standing on any coastline: here is the land, there is the sea and there, in the distance, is the sky, but the arrangement of horizontal strata is too basic, too much like a cream slice.

An island offers a more complete and fascinating series of meetings between the three states, a different boundary ever way you look. There is land and sky, there is sky and sea, here sea and land.

Each of the three states makes it available to the inhabitant of the island. Climb the island’s mountain, and you might find yourself enveloped in cloud; comb the beach and discover the daily exchange of a coastal economy.

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On this particular island that border is patrolled by up to 200 grey or Atlantic seals. Bobbing in the water they act as sentinels, curious, and ready to follow a walking human or come in closer to inspect their credentials, lifting themselves on the swell to peer, then dipping back down to show the sleek line of a back. Out on the rocks at low tide, however, the change is huge enough to be laughable. What were doglike in behaviour, roughly human in scale, so far as you could tell – you can see how the myth of the selkie arose; these creatures are seductive in their mastery of their element – are now preposterous in their camp torpor. Lolling on exposed rocks like Roman senators at feast, they pose and groan like Renoir odalisques, brushing a flipper over their whiskered snouts, clapping their tail flippers delicately together – something strangely coquettish about that laying together of the flippers, at once demure, like legs pressed resolutely together, and sexual, as of the female genitalia: hidden and on show at the same time. I have perhaps been on this island too long. Continue reading