Reflections: fiction and manipulation

MountainsEchoedI recently read Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed for my book group. It’s the kind of realism that is not generally to my taste, but I found it okay for the most part. That was until the point where two characters were about to be reunited, when I had a distinct sense of being made to care about these characters – and I did not like that sense at all. “Unpleasantly manipulative book,” I thought.

But this reaction raises some questions for me. Couldn’t it be argued that all fiction is ‘manipulative’, in that fiction manipulates language, and language affects the reader? Well, maybe, but that makes it sound as though fiction is just a trick, and I don’t believe that – I have been affected deeply, viscerally by some fiction; it would be denying the reality of those experiences to treat them as products of trickery. If I’m going to conclude that, however, perhaps I need a more nuanced picture of what was happening when I read Hosseini.


It might be useful to compare my experience of reading And the Mountains Echoed with that of reading The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz. Now, there was a book I found harrowing, an effect created at least in part by the way the novel withheld information and rearranged its chronology. Is Fritz’s approach really so different from Hosseini’s? If not, why did one book induce the feeling of being manipulated when the other did not?

The answer, I think, lies in the language and style that the authors use. In The Weight of Things, the style, structure and shape become part of what the book is about – they mean something in their own right. So, for example, the deceptive lightness of tone can be seen to reflect the way that the characters do not or cannot acknowledge the existential weight bearing down from the events of their history. As a result, Fritz’s novel could not be written another way, because then it would mean something different.

To my mind, Hosseini’s book isn’t like this. It’s written what feels like a default literary style: effective and efficient in its way, but familiar from so many other books – and, crucially, not implicated in the novel’s project. It would be possible to change the words and style of And the Mountains Echoed without really changing its meaning. For me, this makes the language a kind of veneer over the novel, and that’s where the sense of being manipulated arises.

In contrast, The Weight of Things acknowledges that its language is the novel, so it brings me as reader closer to the text – and my response to it seems to emerge spontaneously from the reading. This is one reason why fiction that doesn’t take its language and shape for granted is the fiction that makes me feel most alive.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

Book details (Foyles affiliate/publisher links)

And the Mountains Echoed (2013) by Khaled Hosseini, Bloomsbury paperback

The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz, tr. Adrian Nathan West (2015), Dorothy, a publishing project paperback

Tip of the iceberg: The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz

WeightofThingsThe Weight of Things is a little book (140 pages including afterword; small, square format), but it’s the tip of what sounds an extraordinary iceberg of writing. Translator Adrian Nathan West provides illuminating background on Marianne Fritz (in his afterword, at The Paris Review, and in conversation with Kate Zambreno at The Believer). During her lifetime (1948-2007), Fritz produced some 10,000 pages of an unfinished project that she called ‘The Fortress’ – in West’s words, “a vast fictional work analyzing what aspects of Austrian society had conduced it to the twin disasters of the First and Second World War.” Over time, Fritz’s work drifted further and further from convention, as though language itself had been complicit in the atrocities of the 20th century, and she needed a different mode of expression. She went from deliberate misspellings and unusual grammar, through to elaborate diagrams and arrangements of text on the page (just take a look).

This first novel of Fritz’s (originally published in German in 1978, now in English from Dorothy, a publishing project) is in fairly straightforward language, though the shadow of that iceberg is never far away. In the first few pages, we have established some basics: in 1945, Berta Faust’s husband Rudolf did not return from the War; his comrade Wilhelm Schrei came back in his stead, and married Berta. By 1960, Wilhelm has married Berta’s friend Wilhemine; and Berta is in an asylum (‘the fortress’). In 1963, Wilhelmine suggests paying Berta a visit for her fortieth birthday (which just happens to coincide with Wilhelmine’s and Wilhelm’s wedding anniversary); but we sense that Wilhelmine isn’t doing this just to be friendly…

The stage is set for a blackly comic farce, and there are indeed moments of wry humour. Here, for example, is Wilhelmine talking to Wilhelm when he first brings the news of Rudolf:

What’s your story, sir? Are you planning on staying in Donaublau, then? Nowadays all the cities look more or less the same. A heap of rubble is a heap of rubble no matter where you go. Nowadays everyone has to start from scratch.

But this lightness of tone is deceptive. Even the title isn’t as innocuous as it first seems in context at first, not when you start thinking through what it means: “In February of 1945, Berta experienced a moment of freedom from the weight of things, in particular from that weighty circumstance historians call the Second World War.” Berta carries an existential burden with which she struggles to cope, just as the four little words of the novel’s title can’t hold all their meaning in. Wilhelm is too equivocal and reticent to be of much help: “He believed all and nothing, doubted all and nothing, was a born dreamer who never dreamed. In a nutshell: he was a worthy representative of his nation.” In that last comment, Fritz seems to suggest that here is a seed of war in microcosm.

The Weight of Things moves restlessly backwards and forwards in time, which enables the narrative feints that I won’t go into here… More fundamentally, though, it disrupts the reader’s feeling of progression: a period of history flattens out into timelessness, a sense that these circumstances cannot be escaped. When I’d finished The Weight of Things, my immediate feeling was one of waking from a beautiful nightmare – but it’s a nightmare that demands to be revisited.

Now read on…

I read The Weight of Things as it’s the first choice for the new Reading the World Book Club organised by the University of Rochester’s Three Percent blog. The Book Club has its own tag onNew for ‘ Three Percent, and Lizzy Siddal from Lizzy’s Literary Life has also been taking part.

Book details (publisher link)

The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz, tr. Adrian Nathan West (2015), Dorothy, a publishing project paperback

Reflections: reading for the experience

I saw this Guardian blog by Alison Flood doing the rounds on Twitter the other day: “Don’t read classic books because you think you should: do it for fun!” The particular context was reporting on a YouGov poll to find the 19th century classics that British people would like to read “if they had the time and patience”; writers including James Smythe and Sarah Perry had reacted to the poll on Twitter, pointing out – quite rightly – that they’re all just books in the end, and you can just… read them.

Polls like this, and articles like the Guardian’s, are not uncommon; but these in particular touched a nerve, because of the ways I have been trying to think more about how and why I read. It struck me that one of the things I’ve tended to do as part of that process is to step away from ideas like “reading for pleasure” or “reading to be challenged, and focus instead on what it’s like to read an individual work.

When I think back to the experiences of reading (to choose two powerful recent examples) Mrs Dalloway or Human Acts, a concept like “pleasure”, wide-ranging and malleable though it may be, doesn’t seem enough. These experiences were complex, visceral, and unique to themselves; what they did, ultimately, was to intensify the experience of being alive. Scott Esposito put it well in an essay from last year – talking, coincidentally, about Mrs Dalloway:

I spent so much time just trying to get Mrs. Dalloway to talk back to me. In my previous 22 years of life I had never read sentences of the sort Virginia Woolf writes in that book. They came on like the onslaught of some undiscovered microbe, the intense fever they promulgated within me inducing blurred eyes and a dazed head that could just not think of the usual things. I spent a week with this illness, and when I eventually recovered I understood that for all the times I was destined to fall so ill again, the infection would never be quite so revitalizing. Nearly 15 years later this is still why I seek this search for the silence that brings that revitalizing fever.

Esposito’s essay is calling for ways to talk about novelty in literature without resorting to the language of “difficulty”. I think that’s analogous to what I’m trying to do on here: find a better, more precise way to describe what it’s like when I read. “Read Human Acts for the experience of reading Human Acts” may not be the most informative recommendation, though it may at root be what I need to say. This blog is here to help me unpack that experience and others like (or unlike) it.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

Mrs Dalloway: thoughts of a first-time Woolf reader

MrsDalloway2After my rather breathless reaction to the opening of Mrs Dalloway, I’m now in a position to write about the whole thing; and I can start by explaining why I’m reading it now in particular.

I saw last year that the blogger Heavenali was planning a Virginia Woolf readalong for 2016. Woolf is one of those authors who never made it to the top of my reading list without my being able to say why. I’ve had a copy of Orlando on the shelf for a few years, but it was never the right time to pick it up… And, of course, the ‘right time’ never came. So Heavenali’s #Woolfalong was the impetus I needed: read one Virginia Woolf book (more, if I choose) every two months, from a given selection. For Jan/Feb, it’s either Mrs Dalloway (1925) or To the Lighthouse (1927). I just decided to go for the earlier one, and here we are. (This is also why I put Mrs Dalloway on my Classics Club list and made it my first selection.)

It would be a little awkward, after all that, if I were sitting here about to tell you how much I hated the book. Thankfully it’s quite the opposite, and I wish I had read Woolf much sooner. Then again, it’s hard to know whether I would have taken to Mrs Dalloway in the same way, or whether I needed to be the reader I am now. One advantage of reading it now, though, is that I’m free to approach it however I wish; there’s no inner voice telling me (as it once might) that this book is too old, too ‘difficult’, its subject matter of no interest to me.

So: I was plunged headlong into the mind of Clarissa Dalloway, a lady of London society, as she prepares to host a party that evening. I’ve mentioned previously how the rush of Clarissa’s joy at living sidesteps into (brief, but pointed) acknowledgement that life ends, sometimes abruptly. Now I can see that the novel is made of such transitions: Woolf slides from viewpoint to viewpoint, like a tracking shot that follows a succession of people (the cinematic comparison seems a bit anachronistic, but this is what it felt like).

Woolf’s writing turns the city of London into a moving map of consciousness. There’s a scene early on in the novel where a motor car drives through the streets, and people wonder who might be within: the Prime Minister? the Queen? A subconscious ripple spreads out in the car’s wake:

For thirty seconds all heads were inclined the same way – to the window. Choosing a pair of gloves – should they be to the elbow or above it, lemon or pale grey? – ladies stopped; when the sentence was finished something had happened. Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fulness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional; for in all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire.

This is a tremor spreading through a psychic landscape, and a small example of how Woolf blurs the boundary between thought and event: the characters’ interior worlds become three-dimensional spaces which can be travelled through and acted upon. Clarissa Dallloway’s social circle revolves around the interior: reputations, or a well-composed letter to the editor (“one letter to the Times,” says one character, “cost her more than to organise an expedition to South Africa”); Woolf’s approach exposes all this to the open air.

There are several characters who disrupt Clarissa’s orderly world in the course of the novel; perhaps the one who does so most fundamentally is Septimus Warren Smith, a damaged soldier returned from the War. He hallucinates a dead comrade, and numbness has replaced sensation:

He put down his cup on the little marble table. He looked at people outside; happy they seemed, collecting in the middle of the street, shouting, laughing, squabbling over nothing. But he could not taste, he could not feel. In the tea-shop among the tables and the chattering waiters the appalling fear came over him – he could not feel.

Septimus’ hallucinations destabilize the perceptual ‘consensus’ established in the rest of the novel; and, as the quotation above suggests, he can’t delight in the sensations of living as the likes of Clarissa can. His psychological scars lie buried within the clamour of Clarissa’s polite society, and may emerge without warning.

Of course there’s no way I can hope to encompass this novel in one reading, one blog post. I can see myself returning to Mrs Dalloway again and again, finding something new each time. But there’s more Woolf to come before that, and I’m looking forward to it.

[EDIT 23/01/16: It has been suggested in the comments that my cinematic comparison above may not have been so anachronistic after all. On that note, I must also thank Geraldine Harcourt on Twitter for pointing me towards this 1926 essay of Woolf’s on the cinema. It’s fascinating reading, hinting at what it must have been like to experience film as a brand new medium, as Woolf ponders what artistic and expressive possibilities might be open to film-makers. I must make a point of reading more of her essays during my #Woolfalong year.]

Now read on…

There’s so much out there on Mrs Dalloway, where can I start? Perhaps with these three recent blog reviews: Heavenali; Pechorin’s Journal; 1streading.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Penguin Modern Classics paperback


Human Acts by Han Kang

Human ActsWhen you shake off the hundred-plus books of a year’s reading and find that the one clings the longest is the one you read first, chances are that it’s a special book. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was exactly that, so you can imagine how much I was looking forward to reading Human Acts, her latest book to appear in English (like its predecessor, translated superbly from the Korean by Deborah Smith). The new novel is just as powerful (If not more) as I could have hoped; but it also makes for an interesting thematic comparison with the earlier one.

The Vegetarian explored themes of personal control, the body, the larger ramifications of individual actions – but within the context of a scenario that was clearly exaggerated and artificial. Human Acts has a similar approach, but it revolves around a real event: the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, in which students and factory workers demonstrated against the ruling dictatorship, and were brutally suppressed. The fact of that reality – how to deal with it, how to write it – is the black hole that sits at the heart of this novel.

Each chapter is written from the viewpoint of a different character, but the main link between them is the subject of the first: Dong-ho, a boy who goes to the gymnasium being used as a makeshift morgue in order to find the body of his friend, and ends up becoming one of the volunteers handling all the corpses. One thing that particularly struck me on reading Human Acts was that the smallest things were often the most powerful – such as this from the opening chapter:


A thin scream rang out several times from the top of the road, and three soldiers carrying guns and clubs raced down over the hilltop, surrounding the young couple. They looked to have been pursuing someone, and to have turned down this alley by mistake.

‘What’s the matter? We’re just on our way to church . . .’

Before the man in the suit had finished speaking, you saw a person’s arm – what? Something you wouldn’t have thought it capable of. Too much to process – what you saw happen to that hand, that back, that leg. A human being. (p. 26)

That first chapter has no shortage of specific detail of violence and the gruesome drudgery of dealing with so many bodies and coffins; but what most hit home was this moment of incomprehension, in which people can only be seen as abstract body parts. I’m grateful to Melissa Harrison for helping me clarify my thoughts on this, when she suggested on Twitter that Human Acts embodies the way one’s brain tries and fails to grasp what is happening. I think she’s right: the horror is right there in front of us, but so vast that it almost becomes background noise – and so it is the smaller moments that leap out, such as an involuntary somersault, or the seven slaps to the face which one character spends her chapter trying to forget.

So much in Human Acts comes back to bodies, not just as repositories of sensation, but also as markers of identity. In one chapter, the spirit of Dong-ho’s friend hovers around his old body as it festers among others in a pile. “Without bodies, how would we know each other?” he asks. “Would I still recognise my sister as a shadow?” (p. 55). Elsewhere, the body becomes a battleground: one chapter describes the torture of a prisoner, who realises that the brutal treatment being meted out to him and his fellow captives is meant to make them believe they are “nothing but filthy stinking bodies” (p. 126). A few pages earlier, however, he describes what it was like to be in the uprising, among the crowd facing the soldiers:

I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean . . . the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it. (p. 121)

A body could be lowest thing of all, but also something greater; it all depends on perception. The struggle for that perception – that meaning – is, it seems to be, underneath all that happens in the novel.

At the end of the book, Han tells of how she came to write Human Acts; by framing this as an epilogue, she brings the problem of writing about the Gwangju Uprising into the fiction itself. We can see echoes in the novel of Han’s experiences as narrated in the epilogue: for example, she was a young child in Gwangju at the time of the uprising, and her first encounters with the event are overheard snippets of adult conversation; likewise, the reader’s view is largely ground-level and piecemeal. But the question remains for Han: how can this event be treated most appropriately in fiction? Rather than zooming out and trying to encompass the uprising in a novel, she focuses in on its component parts – the individual human acts that make up even the largest swathes of history.

Now read on…

Naomi from The Writes of Woman, and Eric from Lonesome Reader, both have fine reviews of Human Acts on their blogs. You can also read an extract from the novel over at Bookanista.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Human Acts (2014) by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (2016), Portobello Books paperback

Starting Mrs Dalloway

I’ve just started reading Mrs Dalloway, my introduction to Virginia Woolf, and clearly I left it far too long to start reading her. I will have a review on here in due course; but there’s a time for reflecting, and a time for more immediate reactions. I started reading Mrs Dallloway, and was… well, engulfed by it.

I mean, just listen to this, from the second page:

For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment, afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

I found the tumble of words electrifying, intoxicating… and then came this:

For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over, thank Heaven – over.

Clarissa Dalloway’s perception envelops you; you’re carried along by the brio of her viewpoint… then comes the sting of lives cut short by the War, the knowledge that there are stories which (presumably) don’t get to be told. This sort of experience is why I read fiction… and the novel has only just begun.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperback

Three journeys through Patrick Modiano’s Paris

I don’t come from a place you would normally expect to see featuring in fiction. A few years ago I read a novel that appeared to begin in Anytown, England; within a page or two, it became clear that this was not just my home town, but specifically my home village. I can still remember the mental adjustment this caused: going from an abstract idea of a place, I was now trying to position this story within streets I knew.

Of course, I couldn’t truly do this, because even the most familiar place in fiction – just like anything else in fiction – is ultimately a product of the words on the page. These thoughts came to mind when I was sampling Patrick Modiano’s work recently for the first time (in the form of three new translations published by MacLehose Press). All of these short novels are set in Paris – a city I’ve never visited – and often very specific in terms of their geography; but I was constantly reminded of how precarious even this can be when seen through the filter of fiction.


BlackNotebookThe first Modiano I read, The Black Notebook (2012; translated by Mark Polizzotti), is the account of a writer named Jean (it’s over a third of the way in before we learn his name; his identity is simply not important in comparison to his testimony and memories). He has a notebook filled with names and other random detail which bring to mind the places and people of his life forty years previously: the Unic Hôtel; an all-night café known as ‘the 66’; various members of a gang; and especially Dannie, the young woman who lived in the American Pavilion of a university even though she was neither American nor a student, and who would take Jean to stay in places where, strictly, they shouldn’t have been.

We know early on that the police questioned Jean about these people at the time; and that, twenty years later, the investigating officer gave him a copy of the case file. Something was going on beyond Jean’s knowledge, and now he is trying to retrace his steps from all those years ago. Here he is, for example, in search of a country house he visited with Dannie:

I called directory enquiries. I asked for the new number of La Barnerie, in Feuilleuse, Eure-et-Loir. And, as on the day when I spoke with the waiter in the Café Luxembourg, my voice was sepulchral. “Is that ‘Feuilleuse’ with two l’s, sir?” I hung up. What was the use? After all this time, the name Mme Dorme had surely disappeared from the directory. The house must have known a succession of occupants, who would have remodelled it so drastically that I would never have recognised it. I spread the map of the Paris region over the table, sorry to set aside the map of Sologne, which had occupied me for an entire afternoon. And I also remembered the ponds – not very far from the house – that reminded me of the region. But it doesn’t matter what the Michelin map says. For me, that house would always remain located in an imaginary enclave in Sologne. (p. 37)

The initial precision of geography gives way to an uncertainty created by the distance of years, to a recognition that the house in Jean’s mind is more important than any he could visit physically – indeed, the house in his mind is more real, because it persists where the external past does not. Eventually, Jean doesn’t care whether his recollection of the weather or the season in a particular memory is correct; perhaps the memory alone is enough.

It seems clear that Jean is not revisiting old haunts in order to reconstruct ‘what happened’ – after all, he has a file of documents to help him with that. But it also seems to me that he is not trying to bridge the gap between his knowledge and what the file tells him; he’s more or less resigned impossibility of that. Rather, Jean is doing all this – writing all this – in an effort to validate his experiences. He wants to feel that the Dannie he knew, and the times he spent with her, were real. Perhaps writing these memories down is the best chance he has for that to happen. In this way, Dannie exists only in Jean’s words, just like the Paris they shared.



2007’s In the Café of Lost Youth (translated by Euan Cameron) is not a single account but a composite, revolving around one individual in particular: Jacqueline Delanque, nicknamed ‘Louki’. We first glimpse her as a regular at the Café Condé: the then-student addressing us can recall that there was something subtly different about Louki in comparison with everyone else, but is unable to offer anything much more concrete – it simply wasn’t the done thing at the Condé to discuss one’s background. There was one regular who kept a notebook listing customers’ names and addresses; but what, the narrator asks, can that tell you about any of them? Besides, he remembers Louki being at the Condé before she is first mentioned in the notebook; his memory, however partial, is worth more than any written list.

Our first narrator can give us only a surface impression of Louki. Our second might ostensibly be able to reach further: he is a private detective who infiltrated the circle at the Condé after being hired by Louki’s husband, Jean-Pierre Choureau, to find her. The detective is able to follow in some of Louki’s footsteps, and sketch in details of her life; but he decides not to disclose his findings to Choureau, because he respects the integrity of the life she chose to hide from her husband. As the detective puts it: “By what right do we break into people’s lives and what an impertinence to probe their hearts and minds – and to ask them for explanations – on what grounds?” (p. 63). He may as well be talking about readers here, questioning whether it’s not a little presumptive for us to expect to understand everything about a fictional character.

After the private detective, we hear from Louki herself. As you might expect, this is where we learn more detail about her background, and the ways in which she very literally tried to escape her old life. And yet:

I have lapses of memory. Or rather certain details come back to me in a jumble. For five years, I didn’t want to think about all that again. And it was enough for the taxi to go along the street for me to recognise the neon signs – Aux Noctambules, Aux Pierrots . . . I no longer remember what the place in rue de La Rochefoucauld was called. Le Rouge Cloître? Chez Dante? Le Canter? Yes, Le Canter. No customer of Le Condé would have spent time in Le Canter. There are impassable frontiers in life. And yet I had been very surprised on my first visits to Le Condé to recognise a customer I had seen at Le Canter […] (p. 84)

Here, as in The Black Notebook, we have precise geography coming up against the fallibility of memory. A simple place name is enough to trigger a recollection in Louki, but the name of the old restaurant escapes her; she thinks of it as the kind of place where no one from the Condé would go, and yet someone did… Ultimately, Louki’s testimony is as precarious as anyone else’s.

The final narrator is one of Louki’s lovers; we learn that he is a would-be writer, which may give us good cause to wonder about the exact nature of thethree preceding accounts. This narrator talks about the ‘neutral zones’ of Paris: “no-man’s-lands, where you were on the fringes of everything, in transit, or even suspended” (p. 112). This could be seen as a metaphor for Louki’s life as we come to understand it; but, really, any idea that anyone (including Louki herself) had of her emerges from such a neutral zone. She exists only in the combined, fallible recollections of the people who encountered her; and those recollections scatter once the final page is turned.


One advantage of reading several works by the same author in quick succession is that it allows you to spot similarities, connections, themes. One problem is the potential to be distracted by superficial commonalities. I could do that easily enough with Modiano: here’s another writer-character looking back, another mysterious and captivating young woman, more fuzzy memories… well, yes, but so what? All you end up with is a caricature of the author’s work. If the books resound – and Modiano’s did, for me – then it’s worth listening carefully.

NeighbourhoodMy final Modiano novel for now is So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood (2014; translated by Euan Cameron). As the book begins, our protagonist, writer Jean Daragne, is contacted by one Gilles Ottolini, who is keen to meet so he can return an address book that he has found – but also because he wants to talk to Daragne about a particular historical matter of interest. Ottolini is accompanied at the meeting by a woman named Chantal Grippay; both of them will shortly disrupt Daragne’s solitary existence.

This novel is written in the third person, but the voice and concerns are familiar:

[Daragne] wondered whether one of the windows of his father’s office had not overlooked that side of the street. Which floor? But these memories drifted away like bubbles of soap or fragments of a dream that vanished on waking. His memory would have been livelier in the café in rue des Mathurins, opposite the theatre, where he used to wait for his mother, or in the close vicinity of the gare Saint-Lazare, an area he had known well in the past. But no. It would not have been. It was no longer the same city. (pp. 11-2)

(Now, if I were writing about So You Don’t Get Lost on its own here, this quotation would be giving a flavour of the writing, and helping to illustrate what I want to say about the novel. It can still do those things, but quoting it here, after talking about The Black Notebook and In the Café of Lost Youth, also starts to feel a little like labouring a point. It shouldn’t, because the point is so central to Modiano’s work; which is why I want to try to maintain a sense of each individual novel.)

As with Jean in The Black Notebook, Daragne finds old memories being sparked as he reads documents and travels the city. The difference is that, where Jean’s act of remembering is an attempt to affirm his experiences, Daragne’s is more a recovery of experiences. Ottolini and Grippay are gradually displaced in the text as Daragne relives long-buried memories. For better or worse, the Paris he knew looms larger than the one he now lives in.


Thinking about these three novels together, I am struck by the subtly different ways in whcih they encroach upon the same imaginative space. In The Black Notebook, Jean seeks to hold on to the past he knew in the face of the police file’s ‘official’ past. In the Café of Lost Youth presents Louki as a person whose totality is beyond the grasp of any single individual, not least herself. In So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, Daragne conjures raw fragments of memory from the prompts of unknowing others. In all three books, the past is a jigsaw to be pieced together, if you can trust the pieces; and the city changes with every new (or old) experience.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

The Black Notebook (2012) by Patrick Modiano, tr. Mark Polizzotti (2016), MacLehose Press hardback

In the Café of Lost Youth (2007) by Patrick Modiano, tr. Euan Cameron (2016), MacLehose Press hardback

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood (2014) by Patrick Modiano, tr. Euan Cameron (2015), MacLehose Press hardback

Joining the Classics Club

Another year, another new reading project; but this one is for the long term. The Classics Club is a blogging initiative that works like this: make a list of at least fifty classic books (in this case, ‘classic’ means at least 25 years old; the rest is up to the selector); set yourself a deadline of up to five years; read and blog about those books in that timeframe. I first caught on to the idea when JacquiWine announced last month that she would be joining in. It sounded fun, but I was a bit reticent about taking the plunge myself: not that I couldn’t make that big a list, or read that many books in five years; it was just the idea of ‘pinning down’ my reading to that extent.

But then I started thinking about all the books I might choose; and I realised that, if I selected books in the right way, I wouldn’t be able to resist. There would be no point in (say) filling a list with all the 19th century novels I didn’t read at school, because that simply isn’t the direction I want to read in. So my list leans more heavily towards the twentieth century.

I set myself three rules: no authors I’d read before; no more than one title per author; and at least half of the books would be by women. I put the list together from books I already had; books in the local library; lists found online and elsewhere; names I’d heard recommended by trusted sources; specific recommendations from Twitter. Thanks to everyone who helped me compile this list, whether they know it or not:

  1. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  2. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
  3. Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard
  4. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
  5. Go When You See the Green Man Walking by Christine Brooke-Rose
  6. The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy
  7. The Old Man and His Sons by Heðin Brú
  8. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  9. The Square by Choi In-hun
  10. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
  11. The Sailor from Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras
  12. The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
  13. Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame
  14. Sphinx by Anne Garretta
  15. Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke
  16. The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower
  17. When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head
  18. Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain
  19. Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls
  20. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  21. Ice by Anna Kavan
  22. Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata
  23. Tainaron by Leena Krohn
  24. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  25. Nada by Carmen Laforet
  26. Passing by Nella Larsen
  27. Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector
  28. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  29. A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
  30. The Shiralee by D’Arcy Niland
  31. The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain
  32. A Void by Georges Perec
  33. Berg by Ann Quin
  34. God Dies by the Nile by Nawal El Saadawi
  35. Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
  36. Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
  37. Transit by Anna Seghers
  38. Moses Ascending by Sam Selvon
  39. Leg Over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq
  40. The Crow Eaters by Bapsi Sidhwa
  41. The Palace by Claude Simon
  42. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
  43. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
  44. The Door by Magda Szabó
  45. A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor
  46. The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas
  47. Kaalam by M.T. Vasudevan Nair
  48. Maiden Voyage by Denton Welch
  49. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
  50. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I’m going to give myself the full five years to work through these (so that’s 31 December 2020); but could still finish sooner. My  plan is to choose one at random to read each month, with the option of reading more if I wish. This month will be an exception, because I already know that I’m going to start with Mrs Dalloway (and that’s because of a different project, which I’ll go into when the time comes).

I’ve created a separate page on the blog here to keep track of my progress. My hope is that this list will become a seed which enables my reading to sprout off in many fruitful directions, and I look forward to sharing the results with you in the months and years ahead.

My favourite books read in 2015

It’s been a year of ups and downs, really: I relaunched the blog with a new focus and name, and later with its own domain; and I feel I’ve got closer to what I wanted to achieve. However, especially in the latter part of this year, I haven’t had as much time as I expected for reading and blogging, so some of my plans are being put back into 2016 instead. I would like to dig more deeply into why I respond to certain books in the way I do (I also have plans for a series of posts going back to books I read in my pre-blogging days, to trace where the reader I am now came from). I’d still like to focus in more on the kinds of books that speak to me most, and explore older works… Well, more on that later.

For now, here are my twelve favourites from all the books I read in 2015. I’m especially struck that I have my most globally diverse list to date: authors from ten different countries; books originally written in six different languages; and, for the first time, translations predominate. More than that, though, I look over this list and think: yes, these books – in all their different ways – are what I like to read. That’s what this is all about.

Enough preamble: on to the books. The countdown is a bit of fun, but the books are all well worth your time.

MJuly12. Miranda July, The First Bad Man (2015)

I started off thinking I knew what sort of novel this was going to be: offbeat tone, middle-aged, middle-class American protagonist… I have the measure of this, I thought. Well, I was wrong. There is a good deal of eccentricity and artifice in July’s tale of a fortysomething woman whose careful household routine is disrupted by the arrival of her employers’ twenty-year-old daughter. But it is shown to be a front and a defence mechanism – and when July breaks through her characters’ façades, her novel cuts sharply.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

11. Ivan Vladislavić, The Folly (1993)

A story of how easy, and dangerous, it can be to fall for someone else’s dream. The husband of a suburban couple is captivated by a stranger who moves on to the neighbouring plot and announces that he’s going to build a new house. Soon the husband is doing all the hard work for the newcomer while the ‘house’ remains little more than an idea – but what a powerful idea. Vladislavić’s first novel is equally delicious and disturbing, reminding one of the darker shadows that lie behind its playful tone.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

10. Sunny Singh, Hotel Arcadia (2015)

A novel about the distance between image and reality, set in the heightened environment of a hotel under attack from terrorists. Singh maintains a tight focus on two characters – a war photographer who roams the corridors, and the hotel employee who uses CCTV to help her evade capture – and never leaves the building, except in flashback. But that very stylised approach helps give Hotel Arcadia its power, as reality becomes concentrated, and a few days can hold a lifetime.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

9. Dan Rhodes, When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow (2014)

Hands down, the funniest book I have read in a very long time. You can sum it up in a single line – Richard Dawkins forced to stay in a village at the vicar’s house – but you can’t capture its essence without reading. The mixture of broad, cartoonish humour and sharp satire (aimed in several directions) lulls you into a false sense of security… Then comes the moment – as in all of Rhodes’ fiction that I’ve read – where you see behind the curtain, and that is really why I love this novel so much.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]


8. Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2013)
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (2015)

A small, hallucinatory jewel of a book in which two boys are trapped at the bottom of a well and trying to get out. This novel plays out in my mind’s eye as a scratchy animated film, each chapter-scene limned in a slightly different colour. Repila constantly changes the imaginative space of the well through his style and imagery; and, as with The Folly above, there’s a grim reality apparent beneath the surface of metaphor.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

7. Hiromi Kawakami, Manazuru (2006)
Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich (2010)

If you’d told me last year that I would have a Kawakami novel on my favourites list this year, I may well not have believed you. I had read The Briefcase/Strange Weather in Tokyo twice and scarcely felt close to unlocking it. But Manazuru is a different kind of book, one I took to straight away: a combination of hazily blurred realities and pin-sharp emotional detail, as a woman retreats to a seaside town in search of something – possibly her missing husband, possibly herself. A third read of The Briefcase/Strange Weather is clearly in order…

[My review] – [Publisher link]

6. Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (2012)
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (2014)

A worthy winner of what turned out to be the final Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The first page may be the single most potent scene that I’ve read all year. In each of the five main sections, Erpenbeck’s protagonist dies at a different point in time, which changes the meaning of her life and death, and the way she interacts with history. The End of Days sets an individual life against the sweep of the twentieth century, to quite marvellous effect.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

5, Paulette Jonguitud, Mildew (2010)
Translated from the Spanish by the author (2015)

The protagonist of this short novel finds mildew growing over her body, and Jonguitud’s writing creeps through the reader in the same way. The narrator merges together fallible memory, physical space, and possibly faulty perception, to the point that there’s no meaningful boundary between the real and the imaginary to begin.  We are invited into this seamless imaginative space, and can only hold on as the narrator tries to keep control of her own story.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

Enquist4. Per Olov Enquist, The Wandering Pine (2008)
Translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner (2015)

Of all the books on this list, Enquist’s was the one that caught me most unawares, in that I wasn’t prepared for how deeply it would affect me. The Wandering Pine is based on its author’s life, combining closeness to its subject with a distance and mystery that comes from the oblique fictional framing. It’s a novel that explores what explores what it is to engage with the world through writing, not to mention one of the most powerful depictions of childhood that I have read.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

3. Lucy Wood, Weathering (2015)

Three years after the wonderful Diving Belles, Wood goes from strength to strength. In someone else’s hands, this could have been a run-of-the-mill tale of a woman returning to her rural childhood home. In Wood’s work, all lines between metaphor, place and action are erased; here, she situates her characters in a raw, unknowable landscape that haunts them as they haunt it. This author is carving out a path all her own, and I am excited to see where she will go.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

2. Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World (2009)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2015)

A woman travels from Mexico to the US with a message for her brother, in this tale where borders of all kinds are crossed or dissolved: borders of geography, language, culture. There’s a fuzzy, mutable quality to both the language and the space of this novel, where a journey to another country reads like a metaphorical (or literal!) descent into the underworld. I’m still astonished at how much ground Herrera covers in so small a space.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]



1. Han Kang, The Vegetarian (2007)
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2015)

This was the very first book I read in 2015, and nothing since has ever quite supplanted it. Three novellas, linked by the character of a woman who decides to give up eating meat, eventually refusing all food, for reasons we are never fully allowed to comprehend. We only view the main character through the eyes of those around her, as Han explores the ramifications of someone stepping outside social norms, and asks who really makes the self. The Vegetarian is an extraordinary experience.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

And if you want more favourites, here are my previous lists: 20142013; 201220112010; and 2009.



Dear Infidel by Tamim Sadikali

Tamim Sadikali’s first novel is set around Eid ul-Fitr in 2004, and focuses on five British Muslim protagonists each dealing with their own personal, familial or cultural struggles. Four of them are cousins: City worker Aadam has his doubts about whether Britain is the best place for him to raise a family. His strictly observant brother Salman, however, is quite certain that his children should be protected from non-Islamic influences. Meanwhile, their cousin Pasha has largely turned his back on Islam, though he still doesn’t feel settled, as he leaves his white girlfriend shortly before travelling down to London for the family gathering. And Pasha’s brother Imtiaz is just drifting listlessly through life, with no berth in sight. Alongside these four there is Nazneen, Aadam’s wife, who perhaps feels most keenly being caught between two cultures, as she still looks back on life with her old boyfriend Martin.

Dear Infidel follows the characters separately to begin with, before bringing them together for the Eid celebrations, where tensions rise to the surface and lives are changed by their confrontations with each other. Sadikali uses a range of styles and approaches throughout the book, which works well in individual sequences (one of my favourites alternates a feverish Imtiaz’s dream of playing cricket for Pakistan with a radio debate on Islam that’s being broadcast as he sleeps), and across the novel as a whole. Dear Infidel never settles: its characters’ lives are still in motion, and so is the experience of reading, even after the last page is turned.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Dear Infidel (2014) by Tamim Sadikali, Hansib Publications paperback

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