CategorySmith Zadie

A weekend of novellas

Recently, Scott Pack spent a couple of weekends reading novellas. IT sounded an interesting idea, and I had some time this weekend, so I thought I’d do the same. It did cross my mind that, having recently resolved to slow down and savour the books I read, I might be contradicting myself by now reading a small pile of books in a relatively short space of time – but actually I don’t think I was. If (as I’ve said elsewhere) a novel is like a journey and a short story is more like an intense moment of experience, then a novella is perhaps somewhere between – a sustained period of heightened experience. If I made sure that this wasn’t about reading as many books as I could, but about selecting a few and taking the time and space to appreciate them properly, there was no reason it couldn’t work.

I looked on my shelves for novellas, but also borrowed a few from the library, as I wanted there to be an element of uncertainty to the selection. The one change from my plan was that I read only six novellas, rather than the seven I had lined up – in the event, seven felt like overdoing it; six was a nice round number, manageable in the time, and still a pretty substantial amount to get through.

So, here’s what I read at the weekend (some of these may be too long or too short to count as true novellas, but hey-ho):

ProulxAnnie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain (1997)

Originally published in the New Yorker, then later released as a separate book (interestingly, several years before the film – which I haven’t seen, by the way). Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist meet as young ranch hands in 1963; while working and camping together on Brokeback Mountain, they become intimate; and their feelings for each other will haunt the rest of their lives. Brokeback Mountain is a fine example of short fiction’s ability to distil entire lives into a few pages; indeed, part of the point is that Ennis’ and Jack’s lives have been defined by a few incidents. The problem is, I never really believed in their attraction: it comes on abruptly and, for me at least, never gains the emotional weight that it needs. Now, I recognise that this could be Proulx’s point: that the two men don’t examine their desire for each other, but just accept that it’s there; and at least one of them wants to keep it at a distance, so that’s reflected in the tone of the writing. But even with that thought in mind, Brokeback Mountain doesn’t quite work for me.

garnier

Pascal Garnier, The Islanders (2010)
Translated from the French by Emily Boyce (2014)

This is the sixth of the late Pascal Garnier’s noirs to appear in English from Gallic Books, and the third I’ve read; it’s typically tense, wry, and strange. Olivier returns to Versailles to bury his mother; he discovers that his childhood Jeanne is living opposite with her blind brother Rodolphe. Jeanne and Olivier have a dark secret in their past, which threatens to come out into the open. And they’re about to gain another secret, when Olivier wakes up after a dinner party with the siblings to find the fourth guest – a stranger who had been helping Rodolphe around town – dead in the bathroom. You can guess this isn’t going to end well, but what really keeps the pages turning in The Islanders is the uncertainty over just how far these characters are prepared to go – and maybe even they don’t know until the time comes to find out.

SmithZadie Smith, The Embassy of Cambodia (2013)

My reactions to Zadie Smith’s work range from lukewarm to positive; happily, this one was positive. Its starting point is the fact that the Cambodian Embassy in London, unlike most embassies, is not in the city centre, but is instead a house on a suburban street. About the only thing anyone can see over the wall is a flying shuttlecock; what’s going on behind those walls – apart from a game of badminton – is anyone’s guess. So the Embassy becomes a metaphor for the hidden worlds and lives that lie in our midst. Smith’s protagonist is Fatou, who walks past the Embassy of Cambodia on her way to the swimming pool (where she secretly takes advantage of her employers’ membership) and wonders about her place in the world. This is a satisfying story that swoops in and out, from one person’s life to the wider world, and hinting at the untold stories that become lost in the throng of a busy street.

Garcia Marquez

Gabriel García Márquez, No One Writes to the Colonel (1961)
Translated from the Spanish by J.S. Bernstein (1968)

One thing that a project like this novella-reading is useful for is ticking off a few names on the old “authors I’ve been meaning to read” list. So here’s my introduction to Gabriel García Márquez. Every Friday – as he has for the last fifteen years – the colonel eagerly awaits the mail, hoping that this will be the week his army pension arrives. In the meantime, the colonel and his wife subsist as best they can, their only real hope being the prize rooster that might win a few cockfights – if the colonel can resist the temptation to sell it. There’s a sense of absurdity running through this story, but it’s a rueful absurdity, born of being caught in an impossible situation – the absurd (but all too real) bureaucracy that withholds the colonel’s pension, and the absurd (but again all too real) lengths he has to go to in order to survive and keep face. I liked No One Writes to the Colonel, but feel I don’t quite have the measure of García Márquez’s work yet; I’ll have to read something else by him for that.

Yan GeYan Ge, White Horse (2008)
Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman (2014)

Published by HopeRoad Publishing (who have a particular focus on African, Asian, and Caribbean writers), White Horse is the story of Yun Yun, who watches her cousin Zhang Qing grow up and drift away to test the waters of adulthood, though her parents may not approve. Meanwhile, Yun Yun’s widowed father is seeing one of the local teachers, which will reveal further cracks in the family’s relationships. There’s a clarity to Nicky Harman’s translation which makes this novella engaging to read, but it’s the deceptive clarity of a child’s voice – one that doesn’t know or perceive everything. This is what leads into the deeper heart of Yan Ge’s tale; that and the mysterious visions of white horses that Yun Yun keeps seeing, which may represent her own growing awareness. Good stuff.

Suceava

Bogdan Suceavă, Miruna, a Tale (2007)
Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (2014)

When I saw this book in the shop it was shrinkwrapped, with no blurb on the back cover; so I had nothing to judge it by but the gorgeous design (hats off to Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press; it really is a beautiful object). Happily, the contents are just as good. The narrator, Trajan, recalls childhood visits to his grandfather in Evil Vale, where the old man would tell stories of family history which blurred the line with myth. Alistair Ian Blyth’s translation captures that elusive magical quality that makes Grandfather’s tales of fays and curses persuasive. But what I like most about Bogdan Suceavă’s book is how fully it dissolves the line between truth and fantasy: Trajan’s sister Miruna shares her grandfather’s affinity for the magical; so something is carried between them with the telling of the tales that Trajan can only guess at. And, as we only ever hear Trajan’s voice, how are we to know what’s real and what isn’t? Ultimately, it seems that what matters most is simply that the stories are told.

My final thoughts? I enjoyed doing this – it brought me into contact with books I might not have read otherwise, and led me to take from my shelves books I hadn’t got around to. I quite like the idea of having an occasion like this to read novellas, and I think I’ll be trying it again before long.

My favourite reads of 2012

It’s that time of year again, for looking back over what I’ve read and picking out the highlights. In previous years, I’ve limited my list to books published in the year in question, or split it equally between old and new titles. For 2012, I’m just doing a straightforward list of my favourite twelve reads of the year, regardless of when they were first published.

So, in alphabetical order of author surname, here they are:

Adrian Barnes, Nod

Telling of a battle of words and perceptions in contemporary Vancouver, this is a dystopian novel with the nervous energy of a new world still being negotiated, and a keen sense of its own precariousness. It never feels as though it’s about to settle.

M. John Harrison, Viriconium

Possibly the ultimate anti-escapist fantasy (and almost certainly the only major work of fantastic literature to be set partly in my home town of Huddersfield). In this collection of novels and stories, it’s fantasy that does the escaping, leaving readers and characters alike scrabbling at mirrors.

Katie Kitamura, The Longshot

The tale of a mixed martial artist heading for one last shot at glory. This short novel is as taut and focused as a winning fighter; it’s a brilliant unity of form and subject.

Jonathan Lee, Joy

A fine character study of a successful young lawyer who attempts to take her own life in front of her work colleagues, and of other key figures in her life. Lee has superb control of voice and tone, and the whole novel is a great pleasure to read.

Simon Lelic, The Child Who

Here, by coincidence, is another incisive  character study focusing on a lawyer – this time the solicitor defending a twelve-year-old accused of murder  whom he (and everyone else) knows is guilty. This unusual angle enables Lelic to give certain key scenes an unexpected texture, and to give a complex picture of the issues he raises.

Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo

A Senegalese folktale spliced with quantum physics. A morality tale whose only moral is that the reader should decide on one for herself. An examination of choice wrapped up in a glorious piece of storytelling that knows just when to turn on itself.

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic

A chorus of narrators tells the story (and stories) of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’ who go to the US at the start of the last century, and their descendants. Otsuka’s short novel is a beautiful composition whose focus shifts elegantly back and forth between a wider and more individual view.

Keith Ridgway, Hawthorn & Child

An anti-detective novel in which any semblance of narrative or coherence dissipates as soon as you look. Its pieces are brought together into a whole by superb writing and Ridgway’s distinctive aesthetic.

Adam Roberts, Jack Glass

Read during my ongoing semi-hiatus, this novel brings together Golden Age detective fiction and science fiction, and interrogates them. It is very much alive to the limitations and shortcomings of those types of fiction, but still plays fair with the reader. (See Jonathan McCalmont’s masterful review for more on the book.)

Zadie Smith, NW

A collage of a novel that examines the connections between several characters’ lives in north-west London. Smith goes through several different styles and approaches in NW, but all combine successfully in this insightful read.

Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat

A deeply unsettling piece of work that turns the concept of the murder mystery on its head and – perhaps even more effectively – puts a dark twist on the notion of a character study. This is the sort of novel that makes me want to explore the rest of its author’s œuvre.

Lucy Wood, Diving Belles

My favourite debut of the year, this collection brings Cornish folklore into the present day. These stories are  by turns amusing, mysterious and evocative; I can’t wait to see what Wood writes next.

***

This will be my last blog post of 2012. Wherever you are, I’d like to thank you for reading and wish you well for the coming year. See you again in 2013.

Zadie Smith, NW (2012)

Zadie Smith’s new novel takes its title from the main postcode area of north-west London, and it’s at least as much about the place as the characters. Smith portrays her setting as a place where past and present, different classes and cultures, coexist in adjoining and overlapping spaces. In a brilliant piece of contrast, a bland list of directions in one chapter is followed by a dense, impressionistic passage covering the actual journey:

Everybody loves sandals. Everybody. Birdsong! Low-down dirty shopping arcade to mansion flats to an Englishman’s home is his castle. Open-top, soft-top, drive-by, hip.hop. Watch the money pile up. Holla! (p. 34)

The characters of NW embody that same complex web of coexistence. The event anchoring the novel is lottery-fund worker Leah Hanwell’s being scammed on her doorstep by Shar, a woman who went to the same school. When first we meet Leah, just before this, she’s clearly feeling somewhat insecure about her life. She is repeating to herself a line she hears on the radio: ‘I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me’ (a line which has no small amount of irony in a novel concerned to show how other people can affect individuals’ lives).

She’s pregnant at thirty-five, having undergone two previous abortions, and still uncomfortable with the idea of motherhood. She’s a white woman of Irish descent married to a French-Algerian, Michel; not everyone she knows is happy about this: ‘no offence’, Leah’s Afro-Caribbean work colleagues say, ‘but when we see one of our lot with someone like you it’s a real issue (p. 29).’ Leah looks at her best friend Natalie – a black girl from Caldwell, the same estate, who became a lawyer, and now seemingly has the perfect middle-class family life, including kids – and now feels left behind: ‘While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became (p. 58). Her search for Shar and the stolen money is therefore driven by the desire for at least one small victory in life.

Towards the end of the opening section, Leah overhears a news report of a local murder. The second partof NW focuses on the victim of that killing: Felix Cooper, a former drug-dealer with no stable family life, who also grew up on the Caldwell estate at the same time as Leah and Natalie. The encounters Felix has during this section illustrate the overlapping spaces I referred to earlier: for example, he buys a car from a posh young man who’s clearly out of his depth talking to Felix; and though Felix’s on-off girlfriend (and ex-customer) Annie comes from a wealthy background, she seems almost relieved to have left behind the world of privilege for her current life. Though Felix is ostensibly rather less well-off than Leah Hanwell, he is actually in his element in the city in a way that Leah, arguably, could never be. As Annie puts it, he ‘finds life easy’ – not that he has everything on a plate, but that he has the right temperament and outlook to deal with what life throws at him. However, even that is no defence against chance, as Felix ultimately discovers.

The novel’s third section focuses on Natalie Blake – or Keisha, as she was known before adopting her new name at university. 185 short chapters chronicle her life from childhood to the present day, in particular her relationships with her family, Leah, and her husband Frank. An interesting effect is created by this section’s starting so early in time. The scenes of Keisha/Natalie’s and Leah’s younger days have an expansive optimism about them, the sense that both girls feel they’re heading for greater things as they leave the estate for university. But there’s a certain dramatic irony here, because we know that the thirtysomething Leah and Natalie won’t find life such plain sailing. It also becomes clear in this part that Frank’s and Natalie’s home life is not as rosy as Leah assumes. The structure of this section – with its short, snappy chapters – gives a driving sense of moving forward through time, which in turn creates a heightened feeling of urgency.

The momentum persists in the next part of NW, though here the sense is of movement through space, as Natalie walks around her local area. She runs into Nathan Bogle, another of her childhood contemporaries; their conversations highlight how far Natalie has moved from her roots, as do some of her other encounters (Smith writes at one point: ‘Natalie Blake had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand’ [p. 243]).

Towards the end of the novel, Leah remarks to Natalie, ‘I just don’t understand why [we] have this life.’ Her friend replies: ‘Because we worked harder…We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on people’s doorsteps. We wanted to get out…This is one of the things you learn in a courtroom: people generally get what they deserve’ (pp. 292-3).

Given the rest of NW, there’s a certain amount of truth to this as applied to Natalie’s and Leah’s lives. But there is also a sense that Natalie is willing it to be so by saying it: after all, the characters’ lives (including Natalie’s own) have been shaped by much more than their own efforts; just look at what happens to Felix. The ending of Smith’s novel could be read as an attempt by Leah and Natalie to exercise control over something that will help them move forward – but what they do will in turn affect someone else.  So the connections continue beyond the final page of an incisive portrait of life’s complexities.

Elsewhere
Read an extract from NW on the Guardian website.
John Self interviews Zadie Smith.
Some other blogs on NW: Words of Mercury; Muse at Highway Speeds; Valerie O’Riordan for Bookmunch; Just William’s Luck.

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