I read some good books in June. I’ve already written at length about Annie Ernaux’s The Years in a separate post, so I’ll leave that be. The funniest book I read last month – the funniest book I’ve read in a long time – was Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. I’m talking about regular chuckling out loud on the train, and in bed, enough to annoy anyone travelling alongside me on either vehicle.
It’s half campus novel, half American abroad in Eastern Europe tale – think The Marriage Plot meets Everything is Illuminated, but is better than either of them. Selin, Batuman’s stand-in, turns up to Harvard to study but finds the whole process overwhelming: classes, teachers, roommates, friends, potential boyfriends. The plot doesn’t progress so much as… well, either drift or plod or both. It ends up reading like a Kafka novel leached of moment, as if Selim doesn’t realise she’s supposed to be in a tragedy. And why should she? Unlike a Kafka hero she doesn’t have a goal that she sees herself failing to move towards. Perhaps that’s part of the point of the undergraduate existence: you bundle all personal goals into the uber-goal of getting your degree. Ambition is deferred, dissipated. That sense of life unfolding without trajectory feels accurate.
There’s a funny running gag about an adult education class Selin volunteers at, trying to help people more hopeless than herself with her lessons. She is supposed to be helping Joaquim, a Dominican plumber, with his spoken American.
“The paper is white,” I said, holding up a paper.
He nodded. “El papel es blanco,” he said.
“Right, so repeat after me. The paper is white.”
“Papel, es, blanco,” he said, with a serious expression like mine.
“No, repeat the words I’m saying,” I said. “The paper is white.”
After twenty minutes he could say, “Papel iss blonk.” He said it with an expression of great patience and kindness. We moved on to “The pen is blue.” We started with “El boligrafo es azul,” and eventually got to “Ball iss zool.” Then our time was up.
This is the stuff that had me chuckling. (There’s a less good running gag about a Russian-language story Selim has to read in her Russian classes, which I started to skip. This is novel-writing 101. You never expect the reader to put up with more than one of these things.)
Then Selim goes to Hungary for her summer break, volunteering again, to help remote villagers with their American. It’s more of the same: comic characters – which means, essentially, stupid characters – idiots – though treated with greater or lesser degrees of compassion. All comedy is based on cruelty. Even puns have as a butt the hypothetical person who doesn’t know a particular word has two meanings. Batuman is not cruel, however – not needlessly so – and she makes Selim almost as dumb as everyone else.
The mayor thanked us for coming to share our culture and language, and hoped that we would take something away in return. Then he asked whether any of us knew HTML, because his village needed a webpage.
There is cruelty here – as in the ‘papel is blonk’ piece above, and it’s these parts that make me think, anxiously, about Safran Foer’s novel – but there is compassion, too, though it is compassion laced with nostalgia. Once upon a time, we were all a village that needed a webpage. Continue reading
I picked up a couple of Annie Ernaux books last time I was in France. I think The Years (Les années) was a recommendation from someone, possibly a bookseller. I remember starting it (“Toutes les images disparaîtront…”/”All the images will disappear…”) but didn’t read the whole thing until I received this translation, from Fitzcarraldo Editions. It is a stunning piece of work, a memoir of life in France since the second world war drained almost entirely of the personal. Ernaux presents her life as a series of disconnected generalisations – sociological, political and cultural: an election might carry as much weight as a film, or an advertising slogan, or the availability of abortion, or the changing tenor of parenthood or coupledom. She describes her goal at one point as presenting “an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation”.
The great stylistic trick of the original, of course, is her use of that characteristically French pronoun on, which carries none of the painful elitism of the English one, and in fact Alison L. Strayer often translates on as we.
A pair of underlined paragraphs – of which there are many in my copy – picked at random:
Meanwhile, we studied for our BAs while listening to the transistor. We went to see Cléo from 5 to 7, Last Year at Marienbad, Bergman, Buñuel and Italian films. We loved Léo Ferré, Barbara, Jean Ferrat, Leny Escudero, and Claude Nougaro. We read Hara-Kiri. We felt nothing in common with the yé-yés, who said Hitler, never heard of him, and their ideols, who were even younger than we: girls with pigtails and songs fo rthe school playground; a boy who bellowed and writhed on the floor of the stage. We had the feeling they’d never catch up with us. Next to them, we were old. Perhaps we too would die under de Gaulle.
But we were not adults. Sexual life remained clandestine and rudimentary, haunted by the spectre of ‘an accident’. No one was supposed to have a sex life before marriage. Boys believed their lewd innuendos displayed advanced erotic science, but all they knew how to do was ejaculate on the area of the girl’s body to which she directed him, for the sake of caution. No one knew for sure whether or not they were still virgins.
(As it happens, the first uses on in the original, and the second uses nous.)
The closest Ernaux comes to her own person is a series of descriptions of family photographs in which she features, from childhood to late middle age, but even here she is always she, never I. Dispassionate is the word.
There is an obvious link here to Barthes’ Camera Lucida, but Ernaux is not conceptually or theoretically interested in the idea of photography. In fact, in Barthes’ terms, the photos she gives us are all stadiumand no punctum. She refuses to pick out the single, novelistic detail that, despite its inconsequence, is able to carry the weight of sentiment. Continue reading
This is not my usual monthly reading post. Instead, I’m using four books I read this month as a springboard into a pair of barely-thought-through meander/rants.
Autofiction vs ‘the novel’, followed by Value for money in bookbuying. If you fancy that, please read on:
Here are two interesting novels that seem, to me, to epitomise the two dominant modes of being for the novel at the moment, rather as Netherlandand Remainder did for Zadie Smith in her much-discussed ‘Two Paths for the Novel’ essay, which you can also read in Changing My Mind. For Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, used by Smith to represent the way things used to be, may I suggest Happiness by Aminatta Forna, a writer I’d never read till now, and maybe never would have if I hadn’t been given the book by my parents as a birthday present. Smith set in opposition to O’Neill’s Franzen-esque ‘well-made novel’ Tom McCarty’s Remainder, a more difficult and dicey proposition that, now, I’d be tempted to call ‘neo-postmodern’. In place of that, how about Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, as good a representative of the ‘autofiction’ genre as you can imagine, outside of Rachel Cusk’s Outline/Transit/Kudos trilogy.
I won’t say too much about the Heti, as I have a review of it forthcoming in the excellent Brixton Review of Books, but I will say that, although I am a big fan of autofiction as a genre, I am becoming annoyed with its willingness to play fast and loose with the title ‘novel’ – even if it’s not the writers themselves who do so, but rather than nebulous publishing-promotional-journalistic apparatus that surrounds them. When I think of the books that have most impressed me so far this year, I think of Esther Kinsky’s River, Jessie Greengrass’s Sight and Heti’s Motherhood – and that’s not counting the latest Cusk, which I haven’t read yet, but which if it is as good as Outline and Transit, will certainly be up there too. All of those are books that seem to come under the autofiction bracket – though Kinsky’s blue Fitzcarraldo livery would seem to mark it as fiction rather than non-, and Sight gets called a novel on the blurb.
Now, what I like about autofiction is that it problematises the very notion of what a ‘novel’ is, but what I don’t like is that in doing so it seems to sideline the very worthy, if unfashionable idea of what a novel used to be. It seems at time to equate the view that the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred, and in fact more of a zone than a linewith a wholesale annexation of the fictional landscape. As if autofiction wants to be what a novel should be. This doubtless reads like some kind of awful exaggeration, but it does seem to suggest to me rather where we headed – which is a place where to write a good old-fashioned novel, with rounded characters, and realist description, and manufactured plots, is, oh dear me yes, something that is beyond the bounds of tastefulness. As if to write a traditional novel is akin to producing ‘likeable’ characters. Continue reading
Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom took me two goes to get into. This a novel of parts: there are five numbered sections, told from the points of view of five different characters, who cross each other at most tangentially. The problem was that I found the first character – a wealthy Indian emigre taking his young, more or less American son on a tour of the Taj Mahal and other attractions – essentially uninteresting… or uncompelling… or that taboo word, unlikeable.
Unlikeable. I’m in two minds about this term, which has become something of a shibboleth in the contemporary book world. For some it’s a good thing – essential, if you want to take your readers with you. For others it’s anathema. How gauche, that you need to like the characters you read about! The way I’d think about it is that, however unlikeable a character, you’ve got to like reading about them.
I prefer the term ‘compelling’. It’s active; it describes what an interesting character does, whereas likeable or – ugh! – relatable are passive, indicating only the capacity to be seen in a particular way. You can like them, or relate to them, or not. ‘Relatable’ also strikes me as being analogous to that awful word collectable, as in the kinds of collectable figurines or commemorative plates you used to get advertised in the back of the Radio Times. Listen, mate, you can collect anything; designating something as such is worse than meaningless.
So: the rich man failing to connect with his son in the first section of Mukherjee’s novel did nothing for me. It wasn’t until I read on, however, that I came to understand that I wasn’t supposed to like him. The next section’s character – a British-Indian designer visiting his parents in Bombay, and the only first-person narrator of the five – is more sympathetic, a well-meaning man trying to square his western morals with his parents’ culturally-ingrained treatment of their cook and servant girl. With each section, in fact, we are moving down the social scale: to an unemployed villager who sets himself up in business with a bear cub he teaches to dance; to a young girl sent into service (who ends up in the apartment of the couple in part II); to the brother of the bear-man, who is working on big city construction sites and who impinges on the father and son in part I… you get the idea.
There was a similar structure behind Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, although this feels tighter, harder to recast as a set of ‘interlinked stories’. Perhaps not so much tighter as denser, more deeply attached to its theme. Egan’s book had a superficial subject, the music industry, and an interest in connectedness; Mukherjee’s has that same structural interest, but the connectedness is linked to an investigation into the strata of Indian society as they currently stand and, through that, the subject set out in the title: freedom. Mukherjee digs deep into his characters’ situations; their place in the book feels earned (apart, perhaps, for the father and son, which is more important structurally than thematically). Winningly, the sections are variable in length, as if they are as long as they need to be, rather than as long as the author needs them to be for the sake of the novel’s structure.
The novel belongs with those that attempt to adapt the Nineteenth Century realist novel for postmodern times. It sees the hidden, sometimes ephemeral connections that cross class and caste boundaries, and it wants to tell the story of the age through individual narratives that respect and embody vastly different life experiences – but it doesn’t try to offer the whole social-aesthetic architecture that would build these characters and these connections into a closed, coherent superstructure. Each character is given a narrative that, naturally, grows social context around itself – the embarrassment of the Westerner who imposes himself on his family servants’ lives, the Maoist rebels who drift in and out of the forests around the poorest, most remote villages – but the connective tissue that would be needed to show each character present and correct in a fully embodied structure is cut away, until those connections have almost to be inferred. It’s to Zola as Giacometti is to Rodin.
This month was a month of two Sparks: The Ballad of Peckham Rye, which I have read before, and The Mandelbaum Gate, which I have not. I’m not entirely sure how much I got out of The Ballad…this time around. The style, of course, is perfection, a studied nonchalance with regards to character that makes me think of a grandmaster politely playing a game of chess with a house guest while at the same time filling out their tax return. But how much is going on underneath? The lower-class satire of the factory workers and managers thrown into chaos by a Scottish graduate set on bringing the arts to the unlettered feels dated; it takes too much for granted. Dougal Douglas is no Jean Brodie.
The Mandelbaum Gate is a different matter. Set in Jerusalem in 1961, when the Eichmann trial was in progress, it follows a British half-Jewish Catholic convert (shades of Spark, obviously) who crosses over to the Jordanian-held part of the city as part of a pilgrimage. She falls in with a slightly comical, fusty British diplomat, who persuades her to conduct her pilgrimage in disguise, as her Jewishness could put her in danger, which she does in a full Arabic veil, pretending to be the old maidservant of a young Jordanian woman – who happens to involved in a spy network, and who also happens to fall into a romantic entanglement with Freddy, the diplomat. Although much is made of Spark’s debt to the French nouveau roman, especially in terms of her determinedly ironic attitude to characters, this book is far closer to a Graham Greene entertainment. Characters are given, as the rather archaic saying goes, their head; they are about as credible as Spark characters get. There is tension, and danger, and even the close threat of death – compare to poor Joyce Emily Hammond, from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, whose death in the Spanish Civil War is distant and bathetic rather than tragic. It’s the biggest Spark novel I’ve read, at 300pp, and rather against expectations – I hadn’t expected her to carry it off for so long – one of my favourites. (That said, I’ve got rather a poor track record with rereading Sparks. The Driver’s Seat, Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Public Image: none of these improved particularly on second reading. Only Jean Brodie gets better each time.)
Another writer that I had a hard time with in April was Cees Nooteboom, some of whose books I have loved immensely (The Following Story, Rituals). I took the latter with me on a writing trip to Amsterdam (my next book is set there), together with In The Dutch Mountains, which I’d never read. Dutch Mountains I reallydidn’t like: a strange fable about runaway circus performers with little grip on reality. Worse than this, however, was that I couldn’t get on with Rituals. This is probably the fourth time I’ve read it. Maybe I need to give it a rest.
Also on the Dutch trip I bought a first book, for me, by Tommy Wieringa, A Beautiful Young Wife, a slim novel about a brilliant 40-something biologist (working on cures for bird flu and the like) who has, as the title hints, a wonderful younger wife. The first half of the book, that shows them falling in love, is fine, but then when they have a child, against his wishes, things go off the rails, but in a confusing, unsatisfying way.
A fabular book that I did love was Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, which I read on the recommendation of a student at St Mary’s, Twickenham, where I teach. I wrote about it here.
My best find of the month was Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which I finally got around to buying after reading her piece ‘The Body That Says I’m Here’. I haven’t read all the stories yet (incidentally, see this, from Mavis Gallant), but what I have read, I love. It’s fiercely intelligent in its formal experimentations, but it bends back and back to the communication of real, or credible, experiences.
And then, at the end of month, I received two quite splendid books: Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina, about her experience as part of Pussy Riot, and Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, with a lovely evocative introduction by Olivia Lang. I can’t believe I hadn’t read this book of Jarman’s – I’ve read At Your Own Risk and Chroma, as well as Blue – but it’s an absolute beauty, his diaries of Prospect Cottage at Dungeness and of the aftermath of AIDS. It’s a bath book par excellence. A book to dip into, time and time again, and to luxuriate in.
Thanks to Penguin for the copy of Riot Days and to Vintage for the copy of Modern Nature.
I’ve written before about how the reading that gets done in a month doesn’t easily devolve to a simple list of books started and finished. Reading is partial and distracted; non-linear and parallel; speculative, paranoid and proleptic; nostalgic, forgetful and analeptic. (Either that or I’m just badly organised.) Books get flicked through, toyed with, stacked hopefully, reshelved regretfully. It might take weeks to get through a slim volume, with other, bigger books wolfed down in the meantime. And, the month over, it’s hard to know quite what was read.
All of which is perhaps to justify what feels like not many books in March. The books to the side are symbolic of the scattered short story reading I’ve been doing, in part trying to keep up with the welter of great recommendations produced by my A Personal Anthology project. The book at the bottom of the stack is Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest – bought at his launch in Feb; White is a, shall we say, literary acquaintance. His book, as you may or may not know, is a playful/serious (i.e. postmodern) novel that manages to cross-fertilise the contemporary police procedural with a utopian and winningly romantic coming-of-age narrative, while at the same time giving an insight into various French and English countercultures of the late Twentieth Century and much earlier.
There are a couple of OuLiPoian features (gimmicks) that, for me, don’t really add much to the reading experience – but then I’ve never really been much of a fan of OuLiPo. Of course the placing of constraints on the writer during the creative process is – not just fun, but a natural and essential part of the deal. It happens with every piece of writing, to a greater or lesser extent, just not usually as randomly or fancifully as with Georges Perec and Co. The problem is that the knowledge of the particular constraint applied often adds little or nothing to the reading experience. Oh, you think: the first word of each paragraph goes to make up the lyrics to ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, and the characters’ names are taken from the European Cup-winning Aston Villa team of 1982. Oh, that’s nice. Well done, you. And you shrug, and move on.
So it’s not those elements that I enjoyed in White’s novel – or, if I did, it was because they were balanced out by the more prosaic joys of well-drawn characters, recognisable milieus (down to some useful recommendations for fry-ups, fish and chips and boozers in central London) and intriguing and credible plot developments. None of which I’ll share with you here. I had purposefully not read up on the book beforehand, and I suggest the same for you: its pleasures and surprises will be all the better for it. Continue reading
I turned to The Counterfeiters this month after rereading and thoroughly enjoying Gide’s Strait is the Gate, which I’d read when a teenager, along with his lyrical and prophetic The Fruits of the Earth. I’d also read his more straightforwardly existentialist The Vatican Cellars, but for some reason had never got around to this, his other longer novel. I preferred Strait is the Gate, I have to say, for its gem-like precision. Nothing is wasted; everything is focused on the tragedy of the novella’s central relationship. The Counterfeiters (translated again by Dorothy Bussy) is one of those novels that must have been terribly shocking when it came out, for its depiction of nihilistic young French men talking about setting up avant garde literary journals, and probably being homosexual. Shocking – or thrilling, if you get a thrill from the idea of other people being shocked by what you read.
None of that really carries over today. It reads like the sort of literary ‘group novel’ that crops up every now and then. I remember one, by an author I know can’t remember, called All the Sad Young Literary Men, which is a great title absolutely not in need of a novel to justify it. Nor, really, is there any shock to the aesthetic frisson of Gide breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the reader about his characters, and his confusion about where the novel is going. Admittedly the frisson is greater than, or different to, that in, for example, Tristram Shandy, because The Counterfeiters is not “Shandy-esque”: it is by and large a realist novel, and not interested in playing postmodern games, so the gentle looks-to-camera do give something of a jolt. It took me a couple of weeks to read the book, largely at bedtime, and I admit that I rather lost track of who all the disaffected young men and their decadent older friends were, and got them all confused with each other, meaning that the moral impact of the narrative was lost on me. But the Wildean dialogue was enough to keep me amused.
The last book I read in the month was Petite Fleur, by Iosi Havilio, translated by Lorna Scott Fox (And Other Stories, proof copy, for which much thanks!). This is a book short enough to read in one day, on the commute to and from work – though admittedly snowy delays did rather help with the logistics of that. This Argentinian novel carries comparisons on its cover to Tolstoy and César Aira, and the second of those is spot-on in terms of its gleeful, light-as-air ludicrousness – that bottoms out into terrible clarity just when you hope it won’t. I shan’t say much about the plot, as its pleasures come through its masterful sequences of bluffs, feints and double-bluffs, and these deserve not to be spoiled. I’ll say, though, that while it took me a fair few attempts to learn how to enjoy Aira’s output (by taking each book as a part of a broad, diffuse project, rather than a fully independent entity) Havilio manages to build that bold sense of randomness into this one book. The Tolstoy comparison is more uncertain. You’ll see why it’s mentioned when you read the book, but really we’re closer to Gogol than Tolstoy, in the book’s full-pelt playfulness with what readers think novels should be. I realised ten pages in that I’d tried to read it once before, and given up on it. I can see now that I must have been distracted. Elements that I had found merely confusing, before, now carried the full charge of the absurd. It’s a shame, too, about the title, which again makes sense when you read the book, but is hardly representative, and is frankly a bit shit. If Fever Dream hadn’t already been taken, you could call it Fever Dream. I preferred this to Schweblin’s book. Continue reading
I doubt I’m alone among British readers in having something of a special relationship with Penguin Books. I doubt I was the only person who felt betrayed by its merger, in 2013, with Random House. Penguin was, I felt, part of my cultural birthright, and it was not in Penguin’s gift to get into bed with another publisher, no matter how powerful or prestigious, no more than it would be for the BBC to merge with Sky.
Certainly, Penguin’s continued status as something like the country’s national publisher might well be down to its track record in simply producing excellent books, but it is surely also down to its careful stewardship of its own brand. One way it does this is through the production, every now and then, of an eye-catching series of miniature or pocket-sized books, the latest of which is a series of 50 “small-form paperbacks” published this month as Penguin Moderns, and priced at a modest £1 each.
I say “backlist”, as if the likes of Samuel Beckett, Kathy Acker and Clarice Lispector are “Penguin authors” in the way that, say, Ted Hughes is a “Faber author”. Or, for that matter, F Scott Fitzgerald, Mary Wollstonecraft or Marcus Aurelius. Penguin started out as a reprint publisher, after all, rather than the commissioner of original material, and it is on its classics lists that its reputation primarily rests.
It’s easy to see how, for someone of my generation or older, Penguin felt like a part of my inheritance. When I was a teenager, Young Adult fiction didn’t exist as a category, so when I was finished with children’s books I moved not onto contemporary novels, but onto classics (Dickens, Wilkie Collins) and modern classics (Kerouac and Orwell), all but all of them in either the orange or eau-de-nil spines of Penguin.
Nowadays plenty of publishers have a ‘classics’ imprint – or market books as such, as if that were the same thing. But Penguin is still the classics publisher par excellence, and keeping people buying classics has got to be an interesting challenge for a publisher, particularly those books that aren’t on the school or university syllabuses, and that haven’t dropped onto Andrew Davies’s desk for prestige film or television adaptation. These series of mini-books are part of how Penguin have done this. Continue reading
My month’s reading began with Russell Hoban’s Pilgermann and ended with First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, read in a day, started on the train to work, and finished – nearly – on the train home. I read the last five pages leaning over the kitchen counter, eating hobnobs. If it had been light I would happily have stood out on the street to finish it. How does it end? Unexpectedly, desultorily, off-handedly, as it proceeds. It is, I think, the second Riley I’ve read. It’s excellent: a sketch (not a portrait) of a toxic marriage, with the narrator’s other relationships – ranging from also toxic to just failing to simply meh – doodled in the margins. Looking at it now I feel there’s a real risk that, for all my pleasurable immersion in its slantwise take on life, it will evaporate from my mind, as, indeed has the other Riley I’ve read, Joshua Spassky. (Maybe I’ve also read Opposing Positions. I’ve definitely got it. This isn’t looking good.) So, here’s me telling to re-read First Love in five years’ time. Item: “a small, poxed mirror”. Item: “We walked up to the shops, into the throat of the wind.” Item: “Outside the sunset abetted one last queer revival of light.” Item: the handful of walnuts; those final, vituperative rants. If some novels are the equivalent of a nice cup of tea, this book is a cup of tea, spilled. Deliberately, and pointedly.
Hoban couldn’t have been more different. It’s as much an outlier in the Hoban oeuvre as Riddley Walker, which it follows. A middle-aged reel through the Middle Ages, it follows the man (and owl) Pilgermann through some kind of life, some kind of afterlife. It lifts itself into operatic riffs on various religious preoccupations; it’s got walking corpses and terrible battles and Jewish folklore. It starts better than it finishes, though it starts brilliantly. The idea of picking it up again, now, four weeks on, to work out what was going on in it, seems rather too tiring. I prefer his later, more obviously comic novels, that seem to carry themselves more lightly.
Black Waltz, by Patrícia Melo, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E Landers, is a re-read. I’d been meaning to try it again. It’s a story of a man – a successful international conductor – unhinged by jealousy. With no apparent reason apart from his own delirium, he he decides that his younger wife, a violinist, is being unfaithful to him. He ends up losing much more than her. It’s smoothly gripping, and effectively guts the reader at crucial moments. It reminded me of the early standalone Elena Ferrante novels, especially Days of Abandonment.
My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. Well: it’s exquisitely written – but I wasn’t fully taken in. Something about the reticence, the distance with which emotions are held, and for what purpose, meant it didn’t work its magic on me as it has on others. I wonder if it’s something to do with American reticence, which has a slightly different tenor to British, or English, reticence. Perhaps Americans see it as less of an inherent national trait, puritanism aside, and so it tastes that bit more delicious to an American palate.
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – a Christmas present from my sister – was a bit of a frustration. I mean, how many times do I have to read accounts of quantum physics, black holes and the rest of them, before I actually understand them? I don’t think it will ever happen. (It happened, once, briefly, watching Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. I got it, I really did – with the way the characters walked across the stage representing the movement of quarks or whatever they are – but I lost it the moment I left the theatre.) It doesn’t help that Carlo Rovelli uses some hokey metaphors to try to explain his science. When he says that the elementary particles “combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies, of the innumerable stars, of sunlight, of mountains…” and so on, I just can’t see how that helps. That’s not how letters work, really, and I can’t imagine that that’s how elementary particles work either: placed in sequence to form clusters as much made up with reference to the letters that aren’t there as to those that are, these clusters then being themselves arranged in particular sequences, so as to suggest meaning. That’s how the universe is made? No, it’s not.
River (by Esther Kinsky, translated by Iain Galbraith) and Sight (by Jessie Greengrass) are there because of reviews, still forthcoming. An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk… was homework for that review. (Review links added, to The Guardian and The White Review)
Flight was (re)read for the MA Creative Writing module I’ll be teaching this semester. It’s a great blokey literary thriller, a little too on-the-nose in the way it looks for flight metaphors, but agreeably credible in its blend of mystery and violence, and its slow unfolding of human relations, and evocative in its description of the remote Scottish coastline.
Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (trans Leila Vennewitz) was read as a palette cleanser, because it was so short. But, for a short book, it’s dicey to read, and not just because this old Penguin paperback is going at the spine. At this distance (it was written in 1974) its twin themes of sensationalist tabloid journalism and the furore around the Red Army Faction terrorist group don’t seem to carry equal weight. The journalism stuff seems heavy-handed, but also naïve by comparison with the way news organisations treat individual privacy today, while the terrorism, so much meatier as a theme, is treated less thoroughly. The documentary style is interesting, certainly, and it’s made me want to keep exploring Böll. His stories, apparently, are superb.
Another short book I (re)read in a day is André Gide’s Strait is the Gate, translated by Dorothy Bussy, who features in Kate Briggs’s fascinating book about translation, This Little Art. Picked up because its title accidentally mirrors the title of my current work in progress, it astonished me again with the pure music of its prose, and the aching passion of its story, melodramatic and melancholy at the same time. It’s the story of a young love destroyed by excess religious sense, that sees heaven only in self-denial. It made we well up, and as good as cry, twice. If you read Gide in French as a schoolchild (probably La Symphonie Pastorale) it might be time to pick him up again. I want to go on straight to another of his books. I’ll see what I have. This, though, is a sublime little book.
The stories (Chris Power, M John Harrison, Bridget Penney, in a lovely old Polygon edition) I’ve been dipping into and enjoying. I may write about them next month.
Also read, but not pictured: The Language of Kindness, the forthcoming nursing memoir written by my colleage at St Marys, Twickenham, Christie Watson. That made me well up more times than I care to remember. A stonkingly human book, brilliantly pitched and controlled.
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 that explosion. 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 Kraus 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.)
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.