I read three great books in December: The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch, Bad Blood by Lorna Sage and Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness by Simon Kinch. All three were picked up in charity shops, and although the Lorna Sage had probably been sitting on my shelves for a year or so, I’ve just spotted that I had another copy that had been there for far longer, equally unread. The other two sped quickly shop-to-read. This question of what gets read when, and why, is one that continues to preoccupy me.
I have little to say about the Sage. It is a great memoir, a great piece of writing that takes the form of a memoir. It is lucid in its evocation of an upbringing that seems to have been usefully awful, and surprisingly placid in its telling, all things considered. The monster at the centre is Sage’s grandfather, a philandering vicar, who, nevertheless, had a deep connection with his granddaughter. Perhaps it’s that recognition that leads to the placidity.
Nevertheless, like all memoirs this is at base an act of revenge, but like all great memoirs the past (and the narrator’s own person) is held at enough of a distance that we can read ourselves into it. And certainly the description of Sage’s teenage pregnancy made me think of someone I knew in our street who went through the same thing, and was ostracised in a similar fashion.
Sage fashions a moving end to the story, though (memoirs, unlike novels and, obviously, biographies, can’t risk unhappy endings) in which she her young shotgun husband both make it to university with their daughter. On the way, the unmarried female teachers at Sage’s school (the Misses Macdonald, Heslop and Roberts) support her through her A Levels and university applications in the face of official disapproval, and her fellow pupils, who never much liked her when she was there, give her a huge round of applause as she goes up on stage to collect her leaver’s book token.
It does make me think, as a critic and teacher, about the tricksiness of memoir. It is the only literary form that comes with any kind of barrier to entry. Anyone can write a novel, a sonnet sequence, an essay… even a biography, if they do their homework. In order to write a memoir, on the other hand, you are generally expected to have experienced something extraordinary in your life. But how extraordinary? How much is enough? Equally clearly, the presence of extraordinary events alone is not sufficient. You also need to be able to write.
The greater the writer, you might think, the slimmer and sparser the incidents treated might be, but that still does leave us, as with Sage, trying and failing to unpick the two aspects (bluntly: form and content). It is harder to tell, when reading a good memoir, if it is the events that are affecting you, or the treatment of them, or both. When something doesn’t work, it’s usually easier to make the call. I was astonished how uncompelling I found Adam Mars-Jones’s memoir of his father, Kid Gloves. The prose was as good as ever (I’m a big fan of his slow-flowing, practically viscous roman fleuve), but I found the story he was telling entirely uninteresting.
Also: is Sage’s book better as a memoir than it would have been as a novel, with all the variance that may imply? If so, why? Because we ascribe more affect to it because it is ‘true’? (And, after all, we don’t know how much variance there is in the memoir itself; we take it on trust.) None of this is new. But certainly I enjoyed Bad Bloodvery much.
(Interestingly, Marina Warner’s introduction to Sage’s posthumous essay collection, Moments of Truth, mentions that she intended to write a book about the friction between life and art, based on the idea that “you can’t have the work without the life or, more pointedly, the life without the work, nor the work or the life without the art”, and to show that “the ‘heroism’ and representativeness of writers’ life-stories [are] aspects of the decay of classic literary realism”. Which, when you think about it, is precisely the work we need to read today, that would throw into relief the whole question of autofiction, not along moral lines, but practical, aesthetic ones. Sage died in 2001.)
The Sandcastle is the second thoroughly enjoyable Iris Murdoch I’ve read on the trot, following the superb and wonderful The Black Prince, discussed here. This was a relief, for in fact I have had problems with some of her novels: A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Flight From the Enchanter and The Philosopher’s Pupil are all ones I’ve started and not finished at various times over the past few years. An Unofficial Rose I finished, but grudgingly, with dwindling pleasure; ditto Under the Net. (On the other hand, The Sea, The Sea, The Italian Girl, A Severed Head and Nuns and Soldiers were all read and enjoyed.) Continue reading
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.)
The walk to the station, the sunlight aslant on the pavement, the thought slides back to the book in the bedroom, pen stuck between the pages as a fat marker. The morning, spent reading in bed. The new book reached for on the bedside cabinet, I’d read maybe half of the first paragraph of the first page, the day before. Now, after working a night shift last night: half an hour reading a new book, alone, in bed. What could be sweeter?
Then, two hours later, on the walk to the station, comes the thought. The book in my hand, and the book in my head. The pleasure of the text…
The pleasure of the text, as opposed to what? The after-effects of reading, its manifold, multi-faceted, confused and conflated gifts-that-keep-giving, to sink into cliche.
More and more I feel like I’m less concerned with whether a particular book is ‘good’, as with the question of what is reading? What is it for? What do we get out of it?
The book in question is All Days Are Night, by Peter Stamm, a new novel I had requested from the publisher (Granta, thank you) in the hope of reviewing it. I have another book by the author on my shelves, bought with my own money, unread. He is someone I’ve been wanting to read for a while (I remember a recommendation from a bookseller at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, his favourite author); the covers themselves recommend the contents, delicate and forceful, oblique, like that sunlight, mildly erotic, like the sunlight; I’m in the mood for some of that clarity I suppose I think I can best get from contemporary European translated fiction – something about being close to, but at a remove, filtered but not diluted.
I’m in bed, I pick up the book, and after two stabs, two starts at the opening paragraph, I am in – like in water. The book starts in water:
Half wake up then drift away, alternately surfacing and lapsing back into weightlessness. Gillian is lying in water with a blue luminescence. Within it her body looks yellowish, but wherever it breaks the surface, it disappears into darkness. The only light comes from the warm water lapping her belly and breasts. It feels oily, beading on her skin.