Five years of And Other Stories – and your chance to win a subscription!

If you’ve read this blog for a while, or you follow me on social media, you will probably know that I’m a big fan of the publisher And Other Stories. I love that they champion adventurous writing; and I always know that I’m going to be engaged when I read one of their books. More than that: I’m now a reader who gravitates habitually towards works in translation, and AOS titles have played a key part in that evolution.

I received a letter from And Other Stories the other day, telling me that it was five years since they published their first title, Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (tr. Rosalind Harvey). Five years! In some ways, it seems that hardly any time at all has passed. Then again, AOS are so much a part of the landscape that it feels as though they’ve always been there.

Anyway, included with this letter were two gifts for long-time AOS subscribers like me. One was a limited-edition Down the Rabbit Hole mug (these are also available to buy here). The other was the chance to nominate someone to receive an And Other Stories gift subscription. I want to give that subscription to one of my blog readers.

The prize is a four-book subscription if you are based in the UK, or a two-book subscription if you’re outside the UK. If you’d like to enter, just leave a comment on this post. I will accept entries up to 23.59 UK time on Friday 9 December. I will then choose a winner at random; if you win, I will contact you by email and ask for your postal address, which I’ll give to And Other Stories. Your details will not be used for any other purpose.

Good luck!

Peirene’s Fairy Tales: The Man I Became

verhelstI got a bit behind with this year’s Peirene Press books, so I thought I’d blog them all in a row. A Belgian novel begins the 2016 series, which has the overall title of 2016 ‘Fairy Tale: End of Innocence’. Whatever you might  anticipate for the start of that series, chances are you’re not expecting the tale of a talking gorilla…

The narrator of Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became used to live in the trees, until he and other members of his family were captured and taken to the ‘New World’. There, they were taught to speak, made to dress like humans, and set to work in a theme park named Dreamland. There’s no proper rationale for all this, nor does there need to be: we’re dealing with a timeless space in which this can happen, and the matter-of-fact tone in David Colmer’s translation sells it completely.

It’s tempting to try to read Verhelst’s novel as an allegory, and there are certainly some scenes that lend themselves to a real-world interpretation, such as the image of gorillas roped together in a forced march across the desert. Ultimately, though, I think The Man I Became has to be taken on its own terms, because it creates its own reality so fully. For me, the key question raised by the book is: what does it mean to be human, exactly? The animals taken to Dreamland are given different D-shaped pins to wear depending on their rank, and “people with two gold Ds pinned to their chests were fully fledged humans.” So, if humanity can be granted with the gift of a badge, what does it really mean?

This is where the ‘end of innocence’ comes in, as Verhelst’s narrator realises the truth about Dreamland, and has to decide what kind of person he wants to be. The Man I Became is an intriguing start to Peirene’s Fairy Tale series, one that left me wondering what would come next. We’ll find out in a few days’ time.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Man I Became (2013) by Peter Verhelst, tr. David Colmer (2016), Peirene Press paperback.

‘A Game of Chess’ by Stefan Zweig

zweigchessNovember is German Literature Month and, though I haven’t had time to participate fully this year, I have been able to introduce myself to another classic author. I’ve been reading a new collection of four of Stefan Zweig’s stories and novellas, freshly translated by Peter James Bowman and published by Alma Classics.

The title novella, 1941’s ‘A Game of Chess’ (aka ‘The Royal Game’ or ‘Chess Story’) was, I understand, Zweig’s last fiction published in his lifetime. Its narrator is about to leave New York on a steamship when he learns that one of his fellow passengers is the world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic. Fascinated by theCzentovic’s monomaniacal pursuit of chess, the narrator gathers together a small group of passengers to challenge him to a game – which, unsurprisingly, they lose. But, in a second game, the advice of one Dr B., an Austrian, guides the group to a draw. Next day, Dr B. tells his story and reveals the source of his extraordinary insight into chess.

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The general impression I get of Zweig;s fiction from the stories I’ve read is that his narrator will typically be an impartial observer, in whom another character will confide, breaking open the façade of normality to uncover darkness beneath.  In ‘A Game of Chess’, Dr B. explains that he was a solicitor who had been arrested by the Nazi regime. He was kept in a hotel room in complete isolation; Zweig evokes Dr B.’s mental state at that time vividly:

After each session with the Gestapo my own mind took over the same merciless torment of questioning, probing and harassment – perhaps even more cruelly, for while in the first case the grilling at least ended after an hour, in the second the malicious torture of solitude perpetuated it indefinitely. And all the while there was nothing around me but the table, the wardrobe, the bed, the wallpaper, the window; no distractions, no book, no newspaper, no new face, no pencil for noting things down, no matchstick to play with, just nothing, nothing, nothing.

Eventually Dr B. found a book, though it turned out to be a chess manual. The only way he found to cope with his situation was intense study, rehearsing the games mentally over and over again. So Dr B. becomes a mirror of Mirko Czentovic: where the chess champion is presented as someone whose single-minded focus had led him to fame and fortune,  Dr B.’s chess knowledge has allowed him simply to be there in the present, and represents the lasting scars of the past. A seemingly ordinary game has opened up the hidden worlds within a life.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

A Game of Chess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig, tr. Peter James Bowman (2016), Alma Classics paperback.

Goldsmiths Prize 2016, part 2: McCormack and Manyika

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize 2016 will be announced this Wednesday, so hera is my second round-up of the shortlist (the first is here). Unfortunately, I ran out of time to review Rachel Cusk’s Transit, which leaves two others: first-time Goldsmiths appearances for small publishers Tramp Press and Cassava Republic.

solarbonesMike McCormack, Solar Bones (2016)

If you look Solar Bones up, be warned that the blurb contains a piece of information which is not stated explicitly within the novel until the end (though it can be deduced). It’s not really set up to be a twist as such, and I think that knowing it would change your experience of reading the book rather than spoil it per se… but I don’t need to reveal it here, so I won’t.

Anyway: we join engineer Marcus Conway as he returns to his County Mayo home, the sound of the Angelus bell from the village church ringing in his ears. Over the course of the novel, Marcus ruminates on his life and the world; as so often on this shortlist, it’s all in the telling:

this may have been my first moment of anxious worry about the world, the first instance of my mind spiraling beyond the immediate environs of

hearth, home and parish, towards

the wider world beyond

way beyond

since looking at those engine parts spread across the floor my imagination took fright and soared to some wider, cataclysmic conclusion about how the universe itself was bolted and screwed together…

This is Marcus Conway’s voice: no capital letters or full stops –therefore no strict separation of ideas – and ‘paragraphs’ linked by those chains of sentence-fragments in an unceasing flow. Whether he’s discussing his memories, the economy, or the bones of reality itself, all is part of the same whole for Marcus. As an engineer, he is able to see the workings and connections – and McCormack brings this to life within the form of his novel.

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Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016)

A few years ago, I read Roelof Bakker’s anthology Still, a book of short stories inspired by his photographs of a vacated building.  It included ‘Morayo’, a story about an old woman going into a nursing home, and what her books meant to her as a person. In a Q&A at the time, Manyika said she was working on a book-length version of the story. I always wondered what that was going to be like; and now here it is, on the Goldmsiths shortlist.

Manyika’s novel is not a direct expansion of the story, but the main character and themes are broadly the same. Morayo Da Silva is a retired literature professor, from Nigeria and now living in San Francisco. She still lives life to the full, enjoys her vintage Porsche, her books, and generally being around the neighbourhood… until she slips one day, and breaks her hip. Then she has to go into a nursing home to recover, and her old life is torn from her.

One of the central themes of Like a Mule for me is the idea that the person someone is on the inside may not necessarily be the person that others see. Morayo is such an exuberant character to us – a joy to spend time with on the page – but, as far as many of the staff in the home are concerned, she’s just another patient. There’s one scene where Morayo daydreams of a glamorous function from her old life married to an ambassador – a dream which is broken when the home staff rush to her aid because she’s left her walker behind.

In Goldsmiths Prize terms, I’d say that Like a Mule distorts the novel form primarily with its use of voice. Besides Morayo, there are chapters written from the viewpoint of several of the other characters she meets: a homeless woman, a shopkeeper, a cook in the nursing home. True, there’s nothing intrinsically unusual about that; but it’s done here in a way that feels disjointed, underlining the distance between individuals. Reading the novel allows us to bridge that distance to an extent, as we can fit the pieces together; and maybe that helps bring a sense of hope, too.

Himself by Jess Kidd: review and Q&A

himselfToday’s post is part of a blog tour for Himself, the debut novel by Jess Kidd. As well as writing a review, I’ve asked Jess a few questions, and I thought I would try to interleave the two…

In 1976, Mahony arrives in Mulderrig, a village on the west coast of Ireland – and his childhood home. He can’t remember the place – but then, Mulderrig is a place apart at the best of times, and he broke the mould simply by leaving, even if he was a baby at the time:

Here the colours are a little bit brighter and the sky is a little bit wider. Here the trees are as old as the mountains and a clear river runs into the sea. People are born to live and stay and die here. They don’t want to go. Why would they when all the roads that lead to Mulderrig are downhill so that leaving is uphill all the way?

There is a vivid sense of place in Himself, and it came as no surprise to me to learn that this was the seed of the novel:

Mulderrig has always felt like a character in its own right, says Kidd, because it’s so strong in my mind. From the beginning I was able to wander around it in my imagination. It first emerged in a short story and I found myself totally intrigued by the town. Writing a novel offered me the scope to explore the setting further…Mulderrig and Mahony emerged, as did their intertwined histories.

Ah yes, intertwined histories. The infant Mahony was taken from his mother (“the curse of the town”) and left on the steps of an orphanage. He has now returned to Mulderrig because he’s been told of that secret past (and his real name), and he wants to uncover what happened. He’ll meet some fascinating characters: one who really stands out for me is Mrs Cauley, a splendidly irascible old actress who becomes Mahony’s partner-in-investigation.

She’s also the person in whom Mahony is able to confide another secret: that he can see the dead. The supernatural in Himself is strikingly low-key, and I asked Kidd to elaborate on that choice:

For me there are two main supernatural elements in the book, the dead and the magic that erupts from the place itself. I wanted the supernatural elements to feel part of the fabric of the text and not just added on for entertainment value, to shock or surprise. I was therefore careful to weave these events into the narrative, always making sure that they had a place in furthering plot or developing character.

The dead have a communicative function in Himself. Whilst there is the suggestion of a chilling Gothic-style haunting (without giving too much away) the dead in general have a very different kind of presence because of the way they interact with the living. This is because I wanted the dead to be fully developed characters in their own right, with their own stories and a sense of lives lived. The other supernatural elements in the novel, such as the biblical storm, swarming creatures and misbehaving wells, are very much linked to folklore and the land. Above all I wanted to create a world that the reader could become completely immersed in, however bizarre it became! To achieve this, the supernatural elements had to feel like a natural part of the fictional setting. I wanted even the most outlandish supernatural events to feel perfectly plausible and right in the context of the town. The otherworldly outbursts also provide an important contrast to the atmosphere of the town, which is very locked-down, silenced and repressed. In a way the supernatural communicates the rising tensions and repressed fear and guilt of the villagers.

That feeling of the supernatural being an everyday part of the world really comes across in the novel. For example, there is the scene where Mrs Cauley makes a whirlwind of her library to find a clue:

Soon light pamphlets of philosophical thought start to join them, skidding across the floor and fluttering up into the whirling cloud of paper. Slim volumes of difficult poems come next, scuttling out from dark corners and flapping headlong into the swirling gyre. Even the most aloof classics join in, shedding their covers and flinging themselves, one after the other, into the vortex.

I love the rhythm of that passage. I guess it may come across as a bit overegged, what with all the repetitions (more so out of context, I think). But to me, this just heightens the intensity of the moment. That’s one of the ways Himself works: those little flashes of something extraordinary in a seemingly ordinary place.

Then there is the language itself; there’s a real exuberance to it, as I hope the quotations here show. I commented to Kidd that I could imagine being regaled with this story over a few pints in the pub:

The narrative voice was there from the start. Very early on I’d decided to use magic realism in the novel. I’d already experimented with this narrative mode in my short stories but now I wanted to apply it to a full-blown novel. There’s often a storytelling flavour to the magic realist narrator and I thought this would suit both the setting and the way the plot unravels (with stories about Orla [Mahony’s mother] central to the investigation). I’m delighted that you picked up on this quality in the narrative voice as I very much intended the reader to feel that they were being drawn into a tale – led by the hand into a fictional world. Storytelling is a core element of the book, along with the tale-telling narrator many of the characters tell stories – often in the pub!

Although Jess Kidd was brought up in London, her family is from Mayo; I wanted to find out more about what drew her to the particular time and place of the novel:

I think my choice of time and place was very much inspired by my earliest memories of Ireland (in 1976 I would have been three). As a child I was fascinated by the natural world and responded to it by drawing, painting and writing stories. Although the book is very dark, and in places a little twisted, I hope there is also a sense of wonder and even nostalgia there, particularly with regards to the landscape. Mulderrig is a bit of a patchwork of the places I’ve known and visited. Although it’s very definitely Irish I wanted to try and give the setting a universal appeal so that readers from all different backgrounds could relate to the small-town atmosphere of the novel. My choice of setting was also strongly influenced by two play texts. I’ve always loved Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas, for its portrayal of an insular, eccentric, seaside village. The Playboy of the Western World, by J. M. Synge, is set in Mayo and deals with themes of violence and storytelling. As the play unfolds we watch an isolated community create its own realities through the tales it tells itself. Both plays have a strong sense of setting and this was something I really wanted to carry over into my own work.

*** 

Thanks to Jess for answering my questions. If you like the sound of Himself, you can buy a copy from the publisher, Canongate, here; and there’s more to discover at the other stops on the blog tour, which are listed in the graphic below.

himselftour

 

Goldsmiths Prize 2016, part 1: McBride, Schofield, Levy

I’m splitting my review of the Goldsmiths shortlist into two parts. Here’s a look at three of the titles…

lesserbohemiansEimear Bride, The Lesser Bohemians (2016)

We’ll start with Eimear McBride, who of course won the vvery first Goldsmiths Prize in 2013, with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Her second novel is the story of Eilis, a young Irish woman who goes to study drama in London in 1994, and falls for an actor named Stephen, who is more than twice her age. Sounds conventional enough in the synopsis; but, as before with McBride, the novel is transformed by its language:

Goes on time so. Every day. Hours spent opening lanes of ways on which I might set forth. These are your oysters, boys and girls. Here are your worlds of pearls. I remember it as I sit in dust. Put on tights. Stretch on mats. Lean with hot drinks on stone steps where the throng pokes holes through shy.

A Girl is a half-formed Thing was written in a fragmented style which suggested that its narrator’s consciousness was not yet coherent – in the other words, the cohesion of voice (or lack of it) matched the cohesion of the character’s identity. The Lesser Bohemians could be seen as an extension of that technique: Eilis is further on in life than Girl’s protagonist, so her narrative voice is not quite as fragmented, but its rhythms are still noticeably jagged.

What really gives this novel its shape and contrast for me, however, is the section where Stephen tells Eilis his story – and his voice is rendered in a much more conventional literary style. This gives his life a semblance of order and control; but the events he describes don’t bear that out at all. So, McBride seems to suggest, a life is as coherent as the one living it allows; the tumult of the past will always be there, but – just maybe – it’s possible to bring oneself together eventually.

martinjohn

Anakana Schofield, Martin John (2015)

Conventionally, a novel is organised to create meaning for its reader. Even with a book like The Lesser Bohemians, where you have to work at it a bit, and where part of the meaning is encoded in the style, the general shape is recognisable and you can find your way around soon enough. Martin John is different: this is the form of the novel broken down and rebuilt to generate meaning for its protagonist; readers just have to derive what they can.

Martin John Gaffney lives in South London (his mam sent him away from Ireland). He works as a security guard, visits his Aunty Noanie every week. He loves the Eurovision Song Contest, but hates words that begin with the letter P. He is also a flasher. Martin John the novel is perhaps not so much his story (that would imply a narrative) as an account of his being.

Martin John’s existence is based around rituals and refrains, routines and circuits; these provide the structure that helps keep his life together (or, perhaps, keep his life at bay). The novel is built from looping, elliptical paragraphs:

With no day shift or night shift or circuits, time has become strange, neither protracted nor squat. Just strained. Strange. Estranged. Estuary ranged. There are days, inside the room, that because the windows are blacked out, he can’t tell you if it is day or night. He can’t tell if it’s night or day? He can’t even tell you how he wants to make this statement.

Martin John is a novel that lives with you, demands that you make space for it, uncomfortable as that inevitably will be. It places Anakana Schofield on my list of must-read authors.

hotmilkDeborah Levy, Hot Milk (2016)

As with reading Ishiguro, reading Deborah Levy has for me been a learning process. In both cases, when I read the author for the first time (Nocturnes and Swimming Home respectively), I wasn’t equipped to appreciate texts that had the appearance of stereotypical middle-class literary fiction, but distorted the form subtly, so that interpreting them literally didn’t work. I’m still finding my way.

In Hot Milk, 25-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis has travelled with her mother Rose to Almeria on the Spanish coast. Rose’s legs have been affected by a mysterious illness; it’s hoped that the Gómez Clinic in Almeria will provide a solution, but Sofia has surrendered her own life in order to come here – she’s even begun to copy Rose’s gait. It took me some time to get into the swing of the novel’s patterns of imagery and oblique characterisation. Even then, I can only see my understanding of it as provisional.

I came to the conclusion that Hot Milk was structured around metaphors of personal space: Sofia begins the novel having effectively subordinated her own identity to her mother’s; and the extent to which other characters encroach on her indicates how much Sofia is her own person. The scene that really seemed to unlock this is one where, hands bloodied from gutting a fish, Sofia rushes into the local diving school to free the owner’s dog, and ends up drinking the vermouth on his desk and leaving bloody handprints all over the walls. It seems strange if taken at face value, but made sense to me as a metaphor for Sofia exerting control over her surroundings.

I wouldn’t say that I unlocked Hot Milk entirely – I don’t have a sense of a complete metaphorical underpinning – but I was able to see Levy’s work in a new light. I now want to explore further, and hopefully come back to this book (and Swimming Home) one day, to see what else I can find there.

 

Goldsmiths Prize 2016: the shortlist

One of the literary prizes that I like to pay particular attention to is the Goldsmiths Prize, because its remit chimes a lot with what I like to read: “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form.” I’m planning to read along with the shortlist, which was announced yesterday:

Transit by Rachel Cusk (Jonathan Cape)

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber)

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press)

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (Cassava Republic Press)

Martin John by Anakana Schofield (And Other Stories)

At first sight, that’s an interesting mix of books that I look forward to exploring. I’ll be reading and reviewing as many as I can before the winner is revealed on 9 November.

 

Guest post: Tom Connolly on New York and Men Like Air

tom-connollyToday, I’m pleased to welcome writer Tom Connolly to the blog, on the first day of the blog tour for his new novel, Men Like Air. I enjoyed his debut, The Spider Truces, back in 2010; but Men Like Air is quite the change of scene – from 1980s rural Kent in the last book, Connolly now takes us to present-day New York City.

Men Like Air concerns two brothers: Jack, who left England for New York after their parents died; and his younger brother Finn, who has now travelled over to even things out. During his stay, Finn crosses paths with Leo Emerson, a gallery owner troubled by loneliness, particularly when he sees his brother-in-law William so happily married. The four men’s lives intersect and change as the novel unfolds.

When reading the novel, I was particularly struck by its sense of place; so I asked  Tom to tell me about his inspiration for setting Men Like Air in New York. The piece below is illustrated by some of Tom Connolly’s own photos of the city.

***

I had a strong sense I was going to do something different to my first book, The Spider Truces. Simply put, that book was set in the past, in a rural landscape, and across many years. I had an idea for an ensemble piece set in the modern day, in a city, spanning just a few weeks. And because New York City was the place I know better than anywhere beyond home, and was the city that first made me feel that anything was possible, there was something there for me. I got interested in the idea of a young buck (Finn) from a bruising small town background in England discovering the magic of New York City and being drawn in to the life of an older New Yorker (Leo) for whom the magic has been lost. Leo’s story took shape after I witnessed an extraordinary late snow storm in Manhattan, one April, when snow and cherry blossom flurried together for a few magical minutes. All the characters in the book feed off their surroundings and the wider gifts and challenges that New York City offers to those who live in it, as did I when writing the book. They are drained and replenished by the place, as I have been.

099_riveredge

 

The challenge was writing about a city people either know well or think they know, from TV, the movies, songs and books. A few drafts in I found the solution lay in not writing about New York at all, but in making it incidental and then allowing it to become important and vivid solely in story terms, as the place where this series of interconnected characters live, love, work and play. After a poor first draft (my first drafts are rubbish) in which my writing amounted to nothing better than street directions across the five boroughs, it began to work itself in to the grain of the city as experienced by the characters. The book’s relationship to New York became more about the play of light, the sounds, about a sense of straying beyond the city’s edges where the neon does not reach and where the city that never sleeps does exactly that. William Maxwell wrote that “New York City is a place where one can weep on the sidewalk in perfect privacy.” For my characters, this is both the making of them and their undoing.

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I loved the anonymity on offer in New York City that Maxwell referred to. For a writer, almost as much as for a photographer, to roam freely and observe and not be noticed, is a creative nirvana. There are so many people writing books, shooting films, taking photographs, painting pictures, that no one notices you, no one cares. I found this liberating and funny. And it was like an unspoken challenge – if you are going to write something set in this city, you better find something new to say.

My nineteen-year-old character, Finn, shares with thousands the experience of landing in New York City and feeling that anything is going to be possible in your life. Something about the place plants that idea in your head as a young adult stepping out of the Port Authority, which I did in 1992. This evening, New York City was the lyrics of a song written especially for him. They had deeper meaning for him than for anyone else; he was in communion with them as no other person could be. This is not unique to NYC but a lot of people like me go there as soon as they can get away or afford to. If, subsequently, chance leads you to spend a lot of time there, then your relationship with the place changes, and this is something reflected in the lives of all the characters in Men Like Air; they are all at different stages of a love affair with the place. But what matters to me is that they are all transformed by New York City, for better or worse, in the lifetime of the book.

***

men-like-air-blog-tour-flyerMy thanks to Tom for sharing his inspiration, and to his publisher Myriad Editions for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.  Men Like Air will be published on 22 September; you can read the first chapter and preorder the book from Myriad here,  while the blog tour continues all this week at the following destinations:

Tuesday 20 Sept: The Owl on the Bookshelf

Weds 21 Sept: Food for Bookworms

Thurs 22 Sept: Bookish Ramblings

Fri 23 Sept: TripFiction

 

The writer and her material: Lionel Shriver and Han Kang

You may have heard about the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at Brisbane Writers Festival. The flaws in Shriver’s argument have been outlined elsewhere (here, for example); but I was struck by how clearly some of her underlying assumptions illustrate a particular approach to fiction.

“Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls?” asks Shriver. “The fiction writer, that’s who.” At first glance, this might just seem to be common sense, but it assumes a particular relationship between the writer and her material: not just one of taking, but also one of assuming control over what is taken.

This can lead to situations such as one from Shriver’s latest novel, The Mandibles, which she describes later in the speech:

In The Mandibles, I have one secondary character, Luella, who’s black. She’s married to a more central character, Douglas, the Mandible family’s 97-year-old patriarch. I reasoned that Douglas, a liberal New Yorker, would credibly have left his wife for a beautiful, stately African American because arm candy of color would reflect well on him in his circle, and keep his progressive kids’ objections to a minimum. But in the end the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research. As the novel reaches its climax and the family is reduced to the street, they’re obliged to put the addled, disoriented Luella on a leash, to keep her from wandering off.

From Shriver’s account, Luella exists within the novel solely for the purpose of teaching Douglas a lesson, and being part of a neat little artistic counterpoint; and never mind that she ends up humiliated and presented as bestial. At one point in her speech, Shriver takes issue with the idea that there may be a difference between ‘representing’ and ‘exploiting’ characters. I would suggest that one definition of exploiting a character might be this: manipulating a life purely for fictional ends, with no concern for the implications.

Human Acts

So, what alternatives are there? One good recent example of a different approach, I think,  is Han Kang’s novel Human Acts. This concerns the Gwangju Uprising, which took place in Han’s home town when she was a child; but, even so, the book does not treat the experience of the event as ‘belonging’ to the author. Indeed, the epilogue (written from Han’s viewpoint) brings the question of how to write about the uprising into the work itself. It suggests that Han could only apprehend these events from a distance and in fragments; and this is also how readers experience the novel. Han allows her material to be what guides her way of writing.

Human Acts is stronger as a work of art because it confronts the problems inherent in its own making. It illustrates something that I often feel about fiction: in the best work, there is a sense that the author has spent time considering what it is that she’s doing in writing that work.

#ReadingRhys: Good Morning, Midnight

jeanrhysreadingweek-banner

Discovering a writer like Jean Rhys now brings delight, but also a certain amount of frustration and sadness. I’ve always felt a bit disconnected from literary history, because I didn’t really read classics growing up, and never got the sense that there was fiction in the past ‘for me’. It’s only recently that I have begun to explore, and to discover that there are writers from (say) the early 20th century whose work is for me – Woolf, Kafka, now Rhys. So, on the one hand, whole new horizons of fiction have opened up. On the other, I wish it had happened earlier.

Still: we move forward. I’ve said previously that Rhys was essentially just a name to me; and I simply was not prepared for how direct and brutal Good Morning, Midnight would be. I can only imagine how it was received at the time, because it’s powerful stuff today.

We meet Rhys’s narrator, Sasha, in Paris:

I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.

Sasha’s routine is mundane and her hotel room anonymous; but gradually we see what lies behind this seemingly ordinary visit. Sasha is facing despair (“The passages will never lead anywhere, the doors will always be shut”) and seeking to retreat from life (“A room is a place where you hide from the wolves outside”). Her carefully worked out regimen of cafés and bars is her attempt to lose herself in the city.

Rhys brings us so close to Sasha by turning the standard relationship between past and present inside out. Ordinarily, we might expect a narrator’s memories to be safely embedded within a tale that’s oriented towards the present. In Good Morning, Midnight, the present-day sections are often flimsy connective tissue, which allows Sasha’s memories to break through and loom the largest. Then we see just what she has experienced, and feel some of the horror that she feels – but also, perhaps, we sense some of the hope.

gmmrhys

Elsewhere

Eric at Lonesome Reader has reviewed Good Morning, Midnight, and also has an interesting interview with Jessica Harrison of Penguin Classics on the new Pocket Penguin edition.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys, Pocket Penguin paperback

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