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

A short screed: Anita Brookner and the writing ‘House Rules’

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Something I often say in Creative Writing classes is this: a story (or poem, or novel, or essay) should contain the rules for its own reading. If you have intentions for a piece of writing, then those intentions should be embedded, or encoded in the piece. You should establish your own house rules, give clues as to what you’re trying to do. A dead body and a detective will tend to suggest the likelihood of a crime novel. But it goes beyond this. Take irony. You can’t be ironical without establishing that you’re being ironical. The regular use of the comma splice could be a stylistic choice, or it could be editorial sloppiness or grammatical ineptitude. If it is a choice, I want some implicit indication of this, perhaps in the relationship between content and form, or between narrative voice and character. I want to know you know what you’re doing.

This works well enough inside the Creative Writing course, where the idea of authorial intention is not only viable, but necessary. You can’t mark anything without objective criteria. In Creative Writing courses the universities set out the (quite broad) definitions of what ‘good writing’ is, and students are encouraged to present work that makes sense within that rubric. Make sure I know what it is you’re trying to do, and I’ll mark you accordingly. Embed your own house rules in your writing. Goethe’s three questions of constructive criticism very much apply:

What was the author trying to do?

Did they succeed?

Was it worth doing?

(There is a further complication produced by the current system of teaching, which is that often you already have an idea of what a particular student is trying to do, from discussions in the seminar, and so the encoded intentions, the house rules, go by the bye. This can cloud the marking – and shows the need for second marking, and moderation. Rewarding a piece of work primarily for its intention is clearly academically unsound, no matter that it is, critically speaking, unsounder still.)

Things get more tricky outside of academia, where the critical paradigms are more varied and confused. Two months ago I read my first novel by Anita Brookner, and yesterday I finished my second. The first was her debut, A Start in Life (1981), the second her eleventh, A Closed Eye (1991). I was struck by both books having the same narrative construction, one that I found frustrating, and I found myself asking myself: is this what she intended? It must be, if she did it twice. (I’ll explain what it is in a moment.) But why?

I’m afraid that, if I’d been ‘marking’ it, I’d have marked her down.

*** Continue reading

In praise of spoilable books: the books that one must not speak of

Among other things, I am a book reviewer. In other words, I spoil books for a living. I’ve been thinking about this aspect of writing – or otherwise communicating – about books recently, prompted by my reading of a novel, Sergio Y., by Alexandre Vidal Porto. I had been  been sent it by the publisher, and for a few weeks it had sat on the shelf in my study where these free books sit. I file the press releases in a separate folder, without looking at them; usually I give at least a glance at the front and back covers, and at the first page. Opening the post often happens when I’m in the middle of writing something quite different, and I don’t want to be distracted. That particular to-be-read shelf functions in a specialised version of the usual to-be-read shelves: the books sit there, patiently, quietly advertising themselves by their spines, and I glance at them as I pass, occasionally pull one out, glance at it or flick through it, put it back. Who knows what combination of memory, intuition and hope makes one reach for a particular book at a particular time. It would be lovely it there was something magical about it.

Two days ago, I reached for Sergio Y. Continue reading

For charity’s sake: high street serendipity and Eveline Mahyère’s I Will Not Serve

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Much as I love the question, Where do you get your ideas? I much prefer the more specific, Where do you get your books?

The ecology of bookbuying is of course a hotly contested one, and while I will fight with my wallet for the survival of bricks-and-mortar, ideally independent bookstores in the face of Amazon’s behemoth, I have been less actively staunch in my defence of secondhand bookshops, and more guilty, if guilt applies, of supporting their particular nemeses: charity shops.

I buy a lot of books from charity shops.

They’re cheap, they’re local (wherever you live, they’re local: there must be statistics on their relentless influx into high streets everywhere), they serve a – generally – good cause, and above all they are hazed about with an almost magical charm of serendipity. You never know what you’re going to find among the Fifty Shades and Karl Pilkingtons. What’s not to like? Unless you’re a secondhand bookseller. And I do feel bad about that. If I see a secondhand bookshop, I always go in, and I always buy something, but I don’t go out of my way to support them, the way I do mainstream/retail bookshops in their own particular battle.

All this to introduce a book that I could only have found in a charity or secondhand shop, because it’s not in print. Not only is it not in print in its English translation, it’s also not in print in its native French. And this a succes de scandale from the 1950s, easily rankable alongside Francoise Sagan, full of heady teenage passion and rebellion, a debut novel from a young translator and writer who killed herself before it was published. If it seems sad that it’s not available in this country other than to the chance encounter of the charity shop, it seems hugely depressing that it’s not being pored over and passed around by French teenagers. It should be their Spring Awakening.

The hero of I Will Not Serve is 17-year-old Sylvie, who at the start of the novel has been kicked out of the convent where she is being schooled, for writing impassioned love letters to one of the nun/teachers, Julienne. I haven’t read any Colette, I’m afraid, so I’m not sure how this sits alongside the Claudine books in terms of lesbian school fantasies (see also Brigid Brophy’s hilarious The Finishing Touch), but really there is very little that is titillating here, and nothing at all that is salacious. Continue reading

A short Ferrante-inspired reading list

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Yesterday I was at the South Bank’s Women of the World festival, deputising as host for a book group that met to discuss Elena Ferrante’s marvellous second novel, The Days of Abandonment. Reading it again ahead of the weekend (the third time of reading), this remains, for me, one of the most visceral and eye-opening pieces of fiction of recent years.

The story, for those that don’t know it, is about a woman, nearing 40 and with two young children, who is walked out on by her husband, and the spiral of mania, hatred and despair this sends her into. The story is full of violence and passion – more is abandoned than just a wife – but it never loses its grip on language or narration. It is as much a philosophical novel, as a psychological one. It’s also got a sex scene in it that has made me look at my partner with new, fearful eyes – it’s entirely naked in the way that Kerouac meant when he titled Williams Burroughs’ novel for him: “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” On the one hand, this is the book that should be given to every new husband, just on the off chance they might, one day, be tempted by a piece of young flesh. It shows what abandonment can mean to the person you not just betray, but drop: what that can do to the sense of self. On the other hand, for reasons I won’t spoil, this would probably be a bad idea.

Obviously one of the topics of discussion during the group was Ferrante’s anonymity, and the fact that it would be hugely surprising if this was allowed to last, and lo and behold when I got home, I found stories on the web informing me that an Italian journalist thinks he has unmasked her. Denials followed, from everyone concerned, but even if this particular journalist was wrong, it’s bound to happen at some point. Fuckers.

Rather than dwelling on that, however, I thought I’d share another topic of discussion in the book group, which was – as with any book group – other writers and other books that this particular writer or book brought to mind. Everyone present scribbled down these recommendations, but here they are for general information:

Another book about betrayal and the end of a marriage: Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds (poetry: not the first time I’ve heard great things about this)

Another book written by an anonymous author: Salt by Nayyirah Waheed, an entirely absent author, though one with an active Twitter feed – a way of reaching readers while bypassing the usual literary rigamarole. Poetry, again.

An even more ambitious form of anonymity: Wu Ming – a group of anonymous Italian novelists who write and publish their works collectively under an assumed name. They previously operated as Luther Blisset, under which name they published the successful novel Q.

Another book about a female friendship: We racked our brains trying to think of other novels that rivalled the Neapolitan Quartet for its portrayal of a life-long female friendship, with all the love, affection, rivalry, tension and comfort that entails. Someone suggested The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing, a novella about two old friends who both fall in love with each other’s teenage sons – a brilliant sounding conceit, and definitely one I will be checking out. (It was filmed as Adore, aka Two Mothers, starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts. In book form it is available as a standalone film tie-in, called Adore, or as the title story in a collection of four novellas, The Grandmothers.)

Another book about female friendship: Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth. I chipped in with Sula by Toni Morrison. Someone also mentioned A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara as a take on male friendships written by a woman – the reactions were the usual mixture when this book comes up.

Another book that treats violence against women: The Book of Night Women by Marlon James – the previous book by the author of the Man Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Another (female) Italian author to check out: Margaret Mazzantini. There was one Italian woman in the book group, and she explained how she was rather surprised when she first saw the attention that Ferrante got in the UK. She was well-known in Italy, she said, and well-regarded, but was not necessarily lauded and celebrated quite as she is here. She suggested Mazzantini as the one of the most popular contemporary novelists, whose new book always causes a stir. Currently available in translation: Twice Born and Don’t Move, with another book, The Morning Sea, coming out May 2016.

Javier Marías: Enemy of le mot juste, master of or

There’s a line near the beginning of Javier Marías’s new novel, Thus Bad Begins, that made me smile.

Muriel was very rarely confused, on the contrary, he prided himself on being very precise, although sometimes, in his search for precision, he did have a tendency to ramble.

The narrator, Juan de Veres, is describing his employer, Eduardo Muriel, but he could just as easily be describing Marías’s own writing style, which is dilatory in the extreme: it moves forward incredibly slowly, in long, involved paragraphs, trying out words, phrases and descriptions in order to see which best approaches the behaviour being described. It’s not rambling as such, nothing so random or evasive: the prose seems to move through language in circles, returning and returning to particular key terms (best exemplified by the repeated use of the words in the volume titles of his magnificent trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever, Spear, Dance, Dream, Poison, Shadow, Farewell) ; the only forward motion is, paradoxically, inwards, deeper into the psychology of the characters. The prose has great psychological penetration.

One of the ways that Marías achieves this is through comma splices, as in the sentence quoted above. Another is through the simple word ‘or’. When Marías uses ‘or’, it is not to offer logical alternatives at the level of plot, but at the level of the sentence, even at the level of the word. No word is precise enough for Marías. Or rather, words are precise, in their way, but human behaviour is so complex and ambiguous that it might take a number of alternative words to successfully describe how a person is, or behaves.

Here is a passage a few pages further on in the book:

‘What on earth has he been told about this dubious friend of his – or, rather, this friend who suddenly appears to be dubious – what can he have said or done?’ I wondered, or thought. ‘After half a life of utter clarity.’ Or perhaps that isn’t what I thought, but only how I remember it, now that I’m no longer young and am more or less the same age as Muriel was then or perhaps older.

Six ors in that little passage; two perhapses; one rather. Sometimes the or is doing a simple job, as in the last one, when the protagonist reassesses his age compared to that of his employer at the time he remembers him; sometimes it offers basic alternatives – said or done; sometimes it is an attempt to improve on the clarity of thought or expression, as in the first line.

My favourite, however, and the one I consider most characteristic of this writer I love, is the one that offers a distinction between wondered and thought. Plain synonyms, in most writers’ hands, but not for Marías. He is the master of the fine distinction, that is never fine enough. Rather than describing a character in one way, and basta!, he offers two, three or four alternatives, with the definite implication that none of them are right.

As I writer, sometimes I use a thesaurus. Like many writers I usually end up back with the word I started with. But, probably like most writers, what I’m looking for when I pick the thesaurus up, is the most precise words, le mot juste. Marías, you’d think, uses the thesaurus not to find a better word to replace the one he has, but others to add to it.

I love this style, so much so that I tried to copy it in a story I wrote. Imitation intended, at least, as sincere flattery. The story is The Story I’m Thinking Of, which you can read on the White Review site.

A song lyric: End the Beguine

It’s been a long, hard Winter
And a short, sharp Spring
And you stand at the window (winder)
Like a character out of Pinter
And you don’t say a thing.

Oh, darling…

What’s the point in trying?
And where’s the use in sin?
The way that things are tending
Are we here to begin the ending
Or are we only ending the Beguine?

End the Beguine, end the Beguine
We go out where we came in
We’ve been through thick
And now by god you’re looking thin
You’re looking at the wrong end of the Beguine

Well I’m sick and tired of fighting
And frightened that I always win
The positions you’re defending
And the messages you’ve been sending
Are telling me we’re ending the Beguine

End the Beguine, end the Beguine
We go out where we came in
It’s just a trip upon
A ship that is sinking
And the band plays on till the end of the Beguine…

****

This lyric has been hanging around in my head for years. I could sing it to you, but try as I might, when I sit at the piano, I can’t find notes that fit it. Suffice it to say, it’s in a Noël Coward kind of vein.