February Reading 2021: Bennett, Rainsford, Galloway, Clark, Bonnet, Didion, de Kerangal, Levi

This post is built out of my year-long reading thread on Twitter, but expanded. You can read January’s reading round-up here.

I followed Claire Fuller’s Uncommon Ground with The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Two books about twins, which I read – in part – for a thing about twins in literature that I hope to be able to share soon. I was impressed by Bennett’s book without particularly being captivated by it. The characters were strong, and the through-line from generation to generation allowed her to cover a lot of ground. (The plot: twin light-skinned African-American girls in the Deep South of the 1960s go their separate ways, one passing as white, one staying black, their stories reconverging when their daughters meet, these two cousins having been entirely unaware of each other’s existence until they met.) 

The narrative is shared out, and I liked seeing the daughters’ lives given as much space as their mothers’, but somehow I felt the novel didn’t have a true centre of gravity, a moral place from which it was being told. Which means the novel’s climactic moment (no spoilers) didn’t really have the emotional punch I was expecting, and wanted This is one of those books that feels rather as if it’s a treatment for a television series. The characters are there, but the work needed to make them really count is not; it’s as if it’s been delegated to a hypothetical director and cast. (Book not pictured as it was a loan, now returned.)

Another twins book was Redder Days by Sue Rainsford, like Bennett an author I hadn’t read before. This was a weird, slippery novel that comes on like an eco-dystopian fiction (shades of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood), dropping us into an ailing world that’s reeling from the impact of some kind of viral cataclysm, and is now waiting feverishly for the oncoming end, a true apocalypse the characters call ‘The Storm’. 

But with its isolated setting and tight character list – centred around a pair of adult twins, their mother, and a guru who has drawn them out to a remote commune to await total destruction – it’s more local in its emotional dynamics than global.

This has a stronger narrative drive, with scenes following the twins Adam and Anna scraping by in their gradually unravelling survivalist commune interspersed with journal entries written by their guru, Koan, about the onset of the virus, of which he alone saw the danger from the first moment. 

The exact nature of the virus is left unclear, both in its origin and its effects. It seems to turn people into violent zombie-like automatons, but also to turn on themselves, licking at their skin where the red shows through like a cat, until they lick the skin right off. This is all described in a way I’d call poetically evasive, and often compellingly so, but at times I did wish for a bit more clarity. More to the point, why do the characters always have to talk like this too? Living the life they do, I’d have thought Anna and Adam might have been a bit less gnomic in their conversation. At times the writing reminded me of Don DeLillo, king of gnomic evocativeness, but I did want a bit more groundedness.

I read The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway too quickly, so as to be able to discuss it with a PhD student: looking for the angles, the quick and easy lessons. It’s not a novel that reads smoothly. Why should it be? It’s a novel about what was probably at the time called a nervous breakdown, as Joy, a single woman only barely getting by as a drama teacher and working weekends in a bookies battles anorexia and alcoholism on a remote Scottish council estate. The book is as fragmentary as her mind, with some really effective typographical play, including some of the most imaginative use of margins (and restrained at that: it wouldn’t work if there was more of it) I can remember seeing.

There is no narrative current to move you easily along. I started to get the secondary characters muddled. At certain points I felt I could have put it down and not picked it up again. It’s a novel that expects to be read on its own terms, I suppose, that is not overly interested in providing the simple pleasures of reading, among which I count intrinsic narrative propulsion, the flow of scenes that is always half pointing the way to what happens next. (The flashback to the drowning of Joy’s partner on holiday, for instance, can’t fully work as an emotional engine for the book; it burns itself out too soon for that.) The scenes in the hospital are great in themselves, but there seems to be nothing dragging the reader through the novel. 

I read Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore) for review, so I’ll keep my powder dry, except to say a novel about a French woman training to be decorative painter, i.e. of trompe l’oeil surfaces (marble, wood etc) and where this takes her.

Then I read Boy Parts by Eliza Clark, and wow, what a treat! I read it in two long gulps, over one evening and a morning, lying in bed, with weekend coffee and spring sun coming through the window. It’s an absolute belter of a debut novel, funny and sharp and dark, but knowing what it wants to do with the darkness. The provocative and shocking material it contains – Irina’s erotic and fetishistic photography of men and boys – is there for a reason. It is easy to see the vicious treatment Irina doles out to them as matched by detailed descriptions of her own endless feminine self-care and make-up routines. 

Contentious issues like privilege and consent are addressed, and interrogated, and in the end what’s so impressive is that all this stuff is held in balance. It’s a novel of ideas, with debates that you can extract and engage with, but that you can also read the whole thing as a novel. It gives that pleasure.

The material is under control right down to the small stuff. I’m thinking about the scenes with the mother, where the mother is so immediately awful, and I’m looking at the dialogue, thinking: How does she *do* that? And the running gag of Irina dishing all to every cab driver.

Incidentally, I knew I was going to love this book from pg2 when Irina sneers at the suits in the bar where she’s working for not knowing that a Cosmopolitan is more or less the same as an Old Fashioned. Now, I don’t know that myself, but it made me feel like I was in safe hands. Which is linked I think to the ‘Write what you know’ dictum for new writers, which doesn’t mean ‘Write (semi-) autobiography’, but write from a place of confidence. You’ve got to convince the reader. We like knowing we’re in safe hands.

After Boy Parts I read Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacquis Bonnet, translated by Siân Reynolds, which is a reasonably brief essay, a personal treatise on owning books, of the Alberto Manguel type. This was a reread, and a sort of palette cleanser, like a sorbet between courses. (I wanted to go on reading, but didn’t want to dilute the fictive aftershocks of Boy Parts.) Phantoms is the kind of delightful book that evaporates as you read it, that you need to re-read, that demands it.

It’s a mix of anecdote and personal reflection. As an example of the first I’ll give you brief accounts of collectors who ended up trying to buy back books at the auction of their personal library. For the latter, the charming: “Reading tires me out as little as it tires fish to swim or birds to fly”, which gives a sense of the style of the book.

I also was pleased to see Bonnet noting something I’ve noticed myself: “I can hold in mind for months the approximate visual image of the place in the book where [a] passage occurred that struck me: top or bottom of the page, left or right hand, beginning or end.”

And this brilliant defence of owning so many books: “Even those books [that haven’t been read] have been ‘read’ in a sense: they are classified somewhere in my mind, as they are in my library.”

I also clearly decided at some point to use the book as a sort of book-related commonplace book. I like the line from Nooteboom: “My apartment is filled with books which tolerate my presence among them.”

Joan Didion is there for various essays I’ve read, partly because I’m teaching them at City, partly because of the excellent essay on her by Nathan Heller, ‘What We Get Wrong About Joan Didion’ (here, for subscribers). 

Then I read If This is a Man, by Primo Levi, and then The Truce, which are published together in my Abacus edition. 

What to say? Perhaps that it’s a book that’s thankfully easy to read, not just because brilliantly written, but because written with a clear goal: to give a personal account of the experience of the Auschwitz concentration camp – which Levi most often calls the Lager. This commitment, to only report what he experienced and what he saw, means that the immense scale of the slaughter is partly occluded. Levi doesn’t witness it – the gas chambers were in Auschwitz II; he was in Auschwitz III, a labour camp – so we don’t see it, we only see the occasional selections, and the steady though relatively small stream of deaths from exhaustion and disease. People just disappear from the narrative, here and there, until the end, when the Nazis flee, and the corpses do start to pile up on the frozen ground. How do you represent the numbers killed in prose? The only example I can think of is the toll of murdered Mexican women and girls in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, where the numbers are smaller, sure, but the repetition is unrelenting. 

Levi describes a single hanging, but says he saw a dozen during his year in the camp. He concentrates on life, on the living death. The final chapter – The Story of Ten Days – which apparently was the first part that Levi wrote, is a brutally powerful piece of reportage.

I had wondered about moving directly from If This is a Man to The Truce, but I’m glad I did. It is a very different book, surprisingly so, not in writing style, which is broadly the same, but because of its subject matter: the eleven months it took Levi to return to Turin following the liberation of the camp. The first book ends suddenly, peremptorily even, with the first arrival of a handful of Russian soldiers into the freezing, snowbound camp, inhabited by 800 pitiful survivors, those too sick to be marched to their death when the Nazis left. The second book picks up from the same point and follows Levi through a series of displaced persons camps and interminable train journeys.

It is as full of characters as If This is a Man, but these are characters in a picaresque, not in an Inferno. It reminded me of Candide, for the sheer craziness of incident, the paradoxical placidity of the narration, and the philosophy that arises, as if by chance, from their collision. It is also full of some of the most amazing scenes and descriptions, as in this view of the Danube.

Image

The power of the writing comes from its restraint. Levi rarely condemns or counsels, so when he does it is doubly effective, e.g. the train’s brief stop in Munich, when Levi wanders the destroyed streets, looking for someone to accost, or accuse, to make them pay what he is owed, or at least apologise. And the ending of both books rises to a pitch that honours and is equal to its subject. In the cover quote Philip Roth calls If This is a Man “truly necessary”, and that remains true.

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