The Emperor’s New House: The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić

FollyThe South African writer Ivan Vladislavić now has the most titles of any author on And Other Stories‘ roster; and when they keep plucking gems like this from his bibliography, it’s not hard to see why. The Folly is Vladislavić’s first novel, originally published in 1993 towards the end of apartheid; it’s as delicious and disturbing a tale of one succumbing to another’s illusions as you might wish.

We are introduced to Mr and Mrs Malgas, who live a mundane suburban existence:

The frog-mug had been bought at a sale of factory rejects, and for that reason it was Mrs Malgas’s favourite, warts and all. Mr Malgas thought it was in bad taste. He stirred the coffee, scraping the frog on the murky bottom maliciously with the spoon. He fished the tea-bag out of his own mug, which was chocolate-brown and had I ♥ DIY printed on it in biscuit. He thought this one was gimmicky too, but it had been a Father’s Day present from his spouse and he used it out of a sense of duty.

The couple watch a shanty burning on the evening news, but the distance of the television (and the cosseting effect of that Vladislavić’s prose) ensures that this doesn’t intrude unduly into their lives. They are known to us only as ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’, which increases the sense of them as cartoonish figures, but also – subtly – denies them the dignity of their own names.

A mysterious figure called Nieuwenhuizen moves on to the plot next to the Malgases’ house and sets up camp, using the rubbish around him for furniture. After a spell of observing him for a distance, Mr Malgas goes up to Nieuwenhuizen to find out what he’s doing. It turns out that the newcomer is building a house, though he hasn’t started yet. The owner of a hardware shop, Mr Malgas is inspired by this, and is soon helping Nieuwenhuizen out: clearing the ground to lay down a grid pattern, hammering in nails for cat’s-cradles of string that somehow correspond to the great plan… Actually, Mr Malgas does rather more than help out, and since Nieuwenhuizen insists on being called ‘Father’ (and Mr is quite happy to oblige), you can imagine what sort of relationship is established between them.

To recall another And Other Stories novel, Nieuwenhuizen is like Joe, the salesman from Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, in his ability to manipulate others through language and rhetoric. Vladislavić’s approach is a little different: where DeWitt immerses her readers in Joe’s business-speak and does not allow them to gain purchase outside it, in The Folly we see Mr Malgas’s willing capitulation; Nieuwenhuizen’s contempt for him; and Mrs Malgas looking on aghast. As a result, we don’t quite get caught up in Mr’s enthusiasm, but we are swept along in the wake of its unstoppable tide, and we fear where it might end up.

As the novel progresses, the idea of Nieuwenhuizen’s house grows stronger – stronger than (or perhaps indistinguishable from) the reality. Here, The Folly put me in mind of The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila, in the blurring of its imaginative and physical space. But the transformative power of The Folly is all its own. Let this novel whisper in your ear, and listen closely.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

The Folly (1993) by Ivan Vladislavić, And Other Stories paperback

Lightning Rods (2011) by Helen DeWitt, And Other Stories paperback

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2013) by Iván Repila, tr. Sophie Hughes (2015), Pushkin Press paperback

The Reflection: a note on dialogue

ReflectionSometimes the smallest things in a novel can make such a difference.

I’m reading The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken, which is narrated by a psychiatrist who ends up in hospital mistaken for one of his patients, and decides to go along with this new identity. There’s a definite sense that, as in the work of Christopher Priest (whose novel The Glamour is mentioned in the Acknowledgements), we can’t trust the reality of what we’re reading. In this post, I want to mention a technique I’ve noticed in The Reflection which helps create that sense: most of the dialogue is unattributed.

It doesn’t sound a lot, I know; but what it does, just for a moment each time, is place the reader outside of the narration. Without the comforting flow of “I said, she said”, it is as though we’re reading two different texts: one, the narrator’s subjective account; the other, an objective (but is it?) report of dialogue. It remains to be seen what this may lead to; but the most powerful effects of fiction start from such little building-blocks.

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The Reflection (2015) by Hugo Wilcken, Melville House UK hardback.

A Ghost’s Story: The Bookseller review

The Bookseller website has my review of A Ghost’s Story, the first novel by Lorna Gibb. It’s the tale of the spirit Katie King, her manifestations and observations of the human world – but does she exist beyond the text of her spirit writings?

I see all things and yet have no eyes, understand thoughts yet have no physical mind with which to process languages, can hear music, the rustle of leaves, the sound of  the Adriatic, yet have no ears. It is as if I am dreaming, have dreamt, the world we live in, as if I interact with imaginings. I see some people and know their past, how they have come to this, can watch their earlier life unfold around me, feel them living, although I do not.

Read the full review here.

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A Ghost’s Story (2015) by Lorna Gibb, Granta hardback

Strange Horizons book club: Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights

Over the last few weeks, I have been moderating a discussion for the Strange Horizons book club  about a classic Japanese SF novel: Ryu Mitsuse’s Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights, sees Jesus of Nazareth, Siddhartha, and the demigod Asura travelling far into the future, to witness the end of all worlds. Taking part in the discussion were regular Strange Horizons reviewers Benjamin Gabriel and K. Kamo; and Kathryn Hemmann, who lectures and blogs on Japanese literature. Interesting book, fascinating discussion; do take a look.

Book details (publisher link)

Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights by (1967) by Ryu Mitsuse, tr. Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander (2011), Haikasoru paperback

When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow

Have I mentioned how much I enjoy reading Dan Rhodes? Of course I have: see previous reviews of Gold, Little Hands Clapping, and Marry Me. But there’s enjoying a book, and then there’s this.

Rhodes’s latest novel (new in paperback from Aardvark Bureau), When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow, sees Richard Dawkins and his put-upon assistant Smee, on the way to the village of Upper Bottom, where the Professor is due to address the All Bottoms Women’s Institute. But bad weather sees the pair stranded in Market Horton, where they end up staying with the local vicar and his wife…

First things first: this book is hilarious, the funniest I’ve read in ages. The Dawkins character is splendidly pompous, and Rhodes takes every opportunity to puncture him. To say much more about how he does so would risk taking away from the fun of reading the novel, which I don’t want to do. So here’s a quotation to give you an idea:

[…]’Do you think I am kind, Smee?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘Well, do you?’

Smee was desperate to make up lost ground. ‘You are very kind, Professor.’

‘You are quite right. I have devoted swathes of my life to kindly telling people how ignorant they are, and correcting them, and giving them the opportunity to think as I do. Look at me now, traipsing through the countryside, taking only modest fees, sometimes no fee at all, as I inform the clueless that there is no God, just as there is no goblin with a purple face, and that  there is no consolation, none whatsoever, to be found in religion. If anybody is kind around here, Smee, it is me – and I am unanimous in that.’

The humour isn’t all targeted in one direction, though: Dawkins has to put up with facile questions from the residents of Market Horton, as well as requests for favours such as delivering kittens (the thinking being, he knows about science, so he must be able to do that sort of stuff). The novel reads like a broad, delightful (and sharp) cartoon.

Ah, but wait. Something else that I like about Dan Rhodes’s work is that he’ll create these cartoonish scenarios, and then suddenly show you something real underneath that transforms what you’ve been reading. He does it here, and I’d better not say any more; but if you read the book (which you should), you’ll see what I mean…

Okay, so this has ended up being one of those blog posts where I basically end up saying, “This book is great; please read it,” without going into an awful lot of detail as to why. Well, so be it. I want you to enjoy this book as much as I did, and I think the fewer specifics you know, the better. Just know that it’s Dan Rhodes on superb form.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow (2014) by Dan Rhodes, Aardvark Bureau paperback

The Buried Giant: the ferryman

This is the second in a series of posts on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant; the first post is here, and there’s a more general post about reading Ishiguro here.

The Buried Giant is the story of Axl and Beatrice, two elderly Britons in a post-Roman land suffused with a ‘mist’ that induces (or perhaps simply is) a kind of amnesia. The couple decide to visit their son’s village – though they have not seen him in so long, they’re sure he waits for them – and their journey forms the basis of Ishiguro’s novel.

The world through which the couple travel is both literal and metaphorical, and these aspects are deeply intertwined. I’ll show you what I mean by talking about the quality (the atmosphere) of one scene in particular. Towards the beginning of the novel, Axl and Beatrice come across a ruined villa where they meet an old woman and a tall man. He is a boatman who ferries people to a special island, one where they must usually go alone and will generally not see another person for as long as they remain. The old woman was planning to go to the island with her husband, but (she says) the ferryman tricked them and she has been alone for forty years. Now, whenever the boatman comes to rest at this villa, the woman appears to taunt him (as he sees it).

There’s a pretty clear reading here of the ferryman being one who takes souls to the land of the dead. Yet it seems to me that this can’t be reduced to a straightforwardly literal or straightforwardly metaphorical reading. The situation has a ritualistic absurdity that makes it seem like something out of a folktale; yet it still feels functional within the world of the book – the boatman takes people to an actual place, but what manner of place? I’m finding it difficult to articulate exactly what I mean, because to do so I have to separate out qualities that are bound together. Perhaps I could say that this villa and its occupants are in a landscape that slides between the geographical and symbolic as you look at it, which means the ferryman and his journey can be real and metaphorical at different times.

This is a treacherous land to navigate!

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Buried Giant (2015) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber hardback

The Buried Giant: a sense of exploration

The other day on Twitter, AggieH was asking (with reference to two writers I haven’t read, and so shan’t name): “How can good writers later write such bad books? Do they become Too Big To Edit?” I wondered out loud if it could be because they lose the fire that drove them to write in the first place – when writing stops being something they have to do, and becomes something they just… do.

I was thinking about this while reading The Buried Giant. I’m sure we’ve all read the latest work by a veteran writer and felt they were treading water, if not going backwards – I know I have. But sometimes you get the sense that a writer is still searching, still questioning. This is what it was like with Ishiguro.

In circumstances like these, the latest book is not necessarily where you want to start – not because it can’t be appreciated, but because you’ll get more from it with a little knowledge. If it’s a writer who doesn’t keep going back to square one, they may now be at square ten or fifteen, and you’ll better understand where they are now if you know something of how they’ve got there.

I didn’t exactly take my own advice with The Buried Giant, because I am by no means a seasoned reader of Ishiguro. But I got the sense that he was taking the latent artifice which I now imagine to be one of his hallmarks, and placing it in a setting and situation that brought it right to the fore. I’ll be thinking about the implications of that in later posts.

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The Buried Giant (2015) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber hardback

The Miner: Shiny New Books review

There’s a new issue of Shiny New Books in the world, and I’ve reviewed for it a new translation of a classic Japanese novel: The Miner by Natsume Sōseki, first serialised in 1909, and now published by Aardvark Bureau in a fresh translation from Jay Rubin.

The Miner is narrated by a young man who flees from Tokyo and his broken relationship, and finds work in a copper mine. The focus of the novel is very much on the narrator’s state of mind, the psychological landscape through which he travels:

The more I walk, the deeper I can feel myself tunneling into this out-of-focus world with no escape. Behind me, I can see Tokyo, where the sun shines, but it’s already part of a different life. As long as I’m in this world, I can never reach out and touch it. They’re two separate levels of existence. But Tokyo is still there, warm and bright, I can see it-so clearly that I want to call out to it from the shadows. Meanwhile where my feet are going is a formless, endless blur, and all I can do for the rest of my life is wander into this enormous nothing, lost.

Read the full review here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Miner (1909) by Natsume Sōseki, tr. Jay Rubin (2015), Aardvark Bureau paperback

Spill Simmer Falter Wither: We Love This Book review

I have a review up at We Love This Book of Sara Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither. The book is narrated by a fiftysomething man to his one-eyed dog, but in an oblique and rambling voice that reveals just how much the protagonist has to say (sometimes without realising it) when he finally has someone to talk to:

My father’s name was the same word as for the small insectivorous passerine birds found most commonly photographed on Christmas cards, with orange-red blushed breasts as though they’ve been water-boarded by molten amber and stained for life. But my father’s name is just another strange sound sent from the mouths of men to confuse you, to distract from your vocabulary of commands. It doesn’t mean anything; it doesn’t matter.

Read the full review here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015) by Sara Baume, Windmill Books paperback

This moment

When life stands still here and we face the endless, shifting, indifferent grey-brown sea, when we hold ourselves open and out into that indifference tenderly, without pining, self-pitying, complaining or expecting some reward or glittering prize, then we might have become, just for that moment, something that has endured and will endure, someone who can find some sort of sufficiency: right here, right now.

This moment, one out of a million, out of a million millions, towards 4.30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in late November, on this East Anglian beach, grey cloud, gulls, gusts of wind, vast darkness descending. Here is delight. Here one can help oneself out of one’s solitude, shift that wedge-shaped core of darkness that is the self, and reach out and up towards another… in love.

Ecstasy bursts into our eyes. It is enough.

— Simon Critchley, Notes on Suicide, p. 76

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Notes on Suicide (2015) by Simon Critchley, Fitzcarraldo Editions paperback

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