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What I’ve been reading lately: 12 June 2019

My book group chose Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (Canongate) to read for May. It’s an account of the author’s return from London to her native Orkney after ten years of struggling with alcoholism. I’ve heard of praise for The Outrun in the years since it was published, and was glad to have an excuse to read it. Overall, I enjoyed it: in particular, I felt that Liptrot struck a fine balance between life before and after the return to Orkney (her recovery is ongoing throughout the book). It combines aspects of nature writing and memoir of illness into a work very much its own.

At this time, I was in the middle of three books for review elsewhere; I felt the need for something else, to decompress. I’d been interested in Ash Before Oak (Fitzcarraldo Editions) by Jeremy Cooper since I first heard about it. It takes the form of a nature diary written by a man who has moved to Somerset, to start a new life in the country. But he also has mental health problems, something that emerges gradually within the text. We gain glimpses of his breakdown and recovery as the novel goes on. The structure of Ash Before Oak – very short chapters that progress serenely rather than choppily – provided the ideal contrast to my more concentrated review reading. I could just let Cooper’s novel open up in my mind as it would – it’s affecting stuff.

Termin by Henrik Nor-Hansen (tr. Matt Bagguley) is a particularly short, particularly sharp Norwegian novel from Nordisk Books. It tells the story of Kjetil Tuestad, who is severely assaulted in 1998. Over the following years, Kjetil struggles to deal with the psychological repercussions of this; his relationship falls apart, and there’s economic hardship in the background. What makes Termin especially powerful is that it’s written in the detached tone of a police report, and even the most innocuous or intimate event is treated with cold scepticism (“They supposedly gave each other a hug”). This technique drains all the warmth out of what happens, suggesting a loss of empathy in Kjetil’s life and more broadly across society.

The theme for this year’s Peirene Press titles is “There Be Monsters”. The first one comes from Finland: Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (tr. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah). It’s written as a recovered expedition diary from the 1820s; Iax Agolasky is research assistant on an expedition to north-west Russia. The party comes across a group of creatures that resemble human children with certain animal features. Differences of opinion arise over what this discovery might mean and what should be done. Children of the Cave explores what it means to be human, as both Agolasky (whose instinct is to protect the children) and those with other ideas start to seem more animalistic. I found this a thought-provoking piece of work.

My favourite books read in 2016

This time last year, I wrote that I wanted to understand more deeply why I respond to some books as I do. I think I’m on the way there, and certainly when I look at the books that have stood out most to me in the reading year, I can see a continuity. They belong together in ways that reflect what, how and why I read.

So, here’s the selection: these are the books that I count as my strongest reading experiences of 2016, roughly in ascending order. The links will take you to my reviews.

12. Nocilla Dream (2006) by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, 2015

A novel that feels like a statement of how fiction should relate to the wider world in the 21st century. Nocilla Dream is an assemblage of adapted quotations and character vignettes, with recurring images and locations… but it won’t fit together into a stable whole, however much you try. Like the globalised world it depicts, Fernández Mallo’s novel has no centre; reading it was an experience  of glimpsing a deeper meaning through the haze, only for that to recede shortly after.

11. The Queue (2013) by Basma Abdel Aziz
Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. 2016

In a Middle Eastern city, the flow of life has been disrupted by a bureaucracy that forces people to queue for days on end in order to obtain authorisation for the smallest things. This is a novel that works through quietness and precision: its measured tone persuades one to accept the reality of this situation; then, the chilling implications unfold. A similar process occurs with the city’s inhabitants, as all the queueing changes the way they think and behave, until there’s no easy way for them to imagine something else.

10. Never Any End to Paris (2003) by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, 2011

This was a book that seemed superficially light: a fictionalised account of the author’s time in Paris in the 1970s, where he sought to live like Hemingway. But as I carried on reading, the novel circled around issues of reality and imagination – how the place in the mind can endure longer and loom larger than the real one. That led me to confront the basic questions of what it is to read fiction: ultimately, nothing in Vila-Matas’ book is solid, but the reading of it persists regardless.

9. Tainaron: Mail from Another City (1985) by Leena Krohn
Translated from the Finnish by Hildi Hawkins, 2004

I didn’t get around to reviewing this one, and I really must. Like The Queue, Tainaron is precisely balanced on a knife-edge between reality and unreality. It’s told a series of letters sent home from someone living in a city of giant insects – a city that might be more a state of mind than an actual place. For me, this is on a par with Viriconium in terms of dismantling the certainties of story, and the disorientation that follows in the reading.

8. The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz
Translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West, 2015

The Weight of Things is the short opening slice of a much larger, untranslated (and possibly untranslatable) fictional project – and the shadow of two world wars looms over its apparently small tale of a couple visiting the husband’s ex-wife in her asylum. Broken chronology destroys the sense that there can be progression beyond the fictional present; and there’s one moment cuts though the reading as much as in any book I’ve experienced. At the time, I described reading Fritz’s book as like waking from a beautiful nightmare, and I still feel the same.

7. Tram 83 (2014) by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated from the French by Roland Glasser, 2015

Here’s a book where it really is all about the language: the rhythm, the pulse, the interplay of voices. Lucien travels to the newly seceded ‘City-State’, intending to concentrate on his writing – but he gets caught up in other matters. The city has its own soundtrack of voices, bewildering and exhilarating to Lucien and the reader alike. The protagonist tries to bring his own language to the city, but all he can do is merge into its web; likewise, the best way I found to read Tram 83 was to lose myself in its words.

6. Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys

This is the second novel on my list set amid the streets of Paris, but shows writing transformed by place in a different way. The Paris of Rhys’s protagonist is so quietly anonymous that the present day fades in comparison to the memories that continue to haunt her. This was my first time reading Rhys; I found her novel so piercing that I must read more.

5. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

I love this book for the way that Manyika slides between viewpoints to explore the gap between an individual’s self-perception and the person by others. Retired literature professor Morayo breaks her hip and has to move temporarily into a nursing home – and suddenly she is a vulnerable old woman to people who don’t know her. Reading the novel, and being able to see all sides, allows the gap to be bridged. That Morayo is one of the most delightful protagonists I’ve encountered all year is a welcome bonus.

4. Martin John (2015) by Anakana Schofield

Schofield’s novel takes readers inside the mind of a flasher – not so much in a way that tries to explain him as one that challenges the reader to engage with his character. While most novels are organised to create meaning for the reader, Martin John is arranged to create meaning for its protagonist, constructed around his loops and preoccupations. This is what makes it such a strong, disorienting experience: there is no map of this novel’s singular landscape.

3. Mend the Living (2014) by Maylis de Kerangal
Translated from the French by Jessica Moore, 2016

At one level, Mend the Living is a novel about a heart transplant. At another level, it’s an all-pervading cloud of language which explores the different meanings of this event, and the human body itself, as life effectively passes from one individual to another. At times, reading de Kernagal’s book was like having several extra senses with which to perceive what was being narrated.

2. Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf

2016 was when I finally introduced myself to Woolf’s work, and not before time. I read five of her books, and liked some more than others; but the first one I read is still the most vivid. Mrs Dalloway showed me a different way to read, as I found a novel in which events take place at the level of thought and consciousness, as much as in geographical space. There’s such power in being brought so close to the characters’ viewpoints and flowing between them. And the ending, which brings the horror of war crashing directly into Clarissa Dalloway’s polite society, is one of my year’s finest reading moments.

1. Human Acts (2014) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, 2016

I thought about it for a long time, but there was no escaping the conclusion that a Han Kang book would top my list for the second year in a row. Like The Vegetarian, Human Acts is a novel of the body, but this time as the level at which to process conflict (or try to do so). Though there’s violence and bloodshed on a large scale in Han’s depiction of the Gwagju Uprising, it is the small human movements that I found most vivid. That contrast helped to create the strongest experience ofall the books I read this year.

I’d like to write another post that explores what this list could tell me about how and why I read. For now, though, I’ll leave you with my previous lists of favourites: 201520142013; 201220112010; and 2009.

 

White Hunger and Dorthe Nors

Aki Ollikainen, White Hunger (2012)
Transalted from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (2015)

White Hunger

The theme for Peirene Press’s 2015 books is ‘Chance Encounters’, and chance is particularly brutal their first selection of the year. Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger is set in 1867, when Finland was beset by famine, the last naturally caused famine in Europe. In the prologue, we glimpse farming couple Marja and Juhani gathering what meagre food they can, and engaging in mutual masturbation rather than risk bringing another child into these dire circumstances. The next time we meet them, Juhani is starving to death, and Marja and her two children leave their home behind in search of… well, whatever they can find. Their survival is dependent on the goodwill of strangers who are themselves in hardship – and goodwill can only go so far.

Alongside Marja’s family, we meet other characters, this time based in the town – an unnamed senator with plans for a railway; and the doctor Teo, who discusses solutions to the famine with his brother over a game of chess, and exchanges his medical expertise for favours from prostitutes. In many ways, these characters are the inverse of Marja: they are largely shielded from the famine while she is caught up in it; their lives may be geographically contained, but they can see a larger picture; Marja and children move through an expansive landscape, but don’t really know where they are.

I was really struck by how much White Hunger encompasses in such a small space; it feels like the story of a nation in microcosm. The journey of Marja’s family could be the story of many other families across Finland at that time; the Senator and his plans may be seen as representing the inevitable march of the future. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah’s translation underlines the starkness of what is a strong start to Peirene’s year. With Ollikainen’s second novel shortly to be published in Finnish, I hope we see an English translation before too long.

Elsewhere:

***

Dorthe Nors, Karate Chop (2008)
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken (2014)

Dorthe Nors, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (2013)
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2015)

Nors

Pushkin Press are introducing the Danish writer Dorthe Nors to UK audiences with two books bound head-to-tail in a single volume. It’s a nice idea: not only is it an attractive format, it also shows us more than one side to Nors’s work. The first side is the short story collection Karate Chop; and these are very short, sharp stories indeed – fifteen over the course of eighty pages. Each is a miniature character study, often (perhaps paradoxically) oblique and precise at the same time – oblique in that Nors’s characters tend to be hiding something from themselves or the outside world; precise in the details that nonetheless come to light.

So, for example, in ‘The Buddhist’, we meet a government official who becomes a Buddhist because everyone knows Buddhists are good people; stretches the truth to become president of an aid charity (all in the name of goodness, you understand); and generally twists his own rhetoric in the manner of Joe from Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. In ‘Do You Know Jussi?’, a girl waiting for a text from her boyfriend while watching a TV show about families being reunited, anything to avoid admitting that she knows the text isn’t coming. The collection’s harrowing title story depicts a woman who refuses to acknowledge where the blame in her abusive relationship lies (“It was quite unacceptable of him, yet at the same time her not listening to what he told her was suspicious”). Martin Aitken captures in his translation a similar sense of the unspoken as he did with Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland, to similar unsettling effect.

Sharing the bill with Karate Chop is a novella, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. Minna is a composer whose partner, Lars, has broken up with her – and, yes, she’s also lost her rehearsal space. Her search for a replacement is not just about finding a physical space for practising music, but also a mental space for sorting through her life.

The form of this novella is very striking: a list of fairly straightforward declarative sentences, such as:

Minna calls Lars.

Minna calls Lars until he picks up the phone.

Minna and Lars have discussed this before.

Lars has a cousin.

The cousin’s name is Tim.

Tim knows of a rehearsal space in Kastrup.

Quoting like this can give you a sense of the repetition and rhythm, but not the cumulative effect: the unstoppable flow of incantatory sentences that drives Minna forward on her personal journey – whilst also suggesting that a quiet space is going to prove elusive. It’s a superb piece of translation by Misha Hoekstra, the sort that makes me wish I could read Danish, just to experience the music that the original must surely possess. Still, I have the music of the English version to enjoy.

The author bio tells me that Nors has written four novels in addition to these books. Once again, I can only look forward eagerly to being able to read them in future.

Elsewhere:

  • Read Nors’s story ‘The Heron‘ from Karate Chop
  • …or an extract from Minna Needs Rehearsal Space.
  • Interview with Nors at Bookanista.
  • John Self reviews the book for the Guardian.

Pushkin Press: The Rabbit Back Literature Society

Rabbit Back Lit SocLast week and this, Stu at Winston’s Dad has been celebrating Pushkin Press. Founded in 1997, Pushkin are one of the UK’s leading publishers of translated fiction. I haven’t read many of their books, but, as I’m reading more translations this year, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore further. The Pushkin book I’ve been reading is Pasi Ilmari Jäaskeläinen’s The Rabbit Back Literature Society (2006; translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers, 2013).

In the little town of Rabbit Back, a teacher named Ella Amanda Milana is disconcerted to find her students submitting essays based on copies of classic texts whose plot details have changed Sonya shooting Raskolnikov at the end of Crime and Punishment, for example. At the same time, Ella receives an invitation to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society, an exclusive writers’ club run by the town’s most celebrated author, Laura White. At a party to welcome Ella into the Society, Laura White disappears in an indoor snowstorm – and Ella sets about investigating what happened. She makes use of ‘The Game’, a Society ritual in which members must answer truthfully any question put to them, however painful it is to do so. Ella discovers that a former member of the Society disappeared many years ago – could Ella be next?

There’s a wonderful dissonance to the opening sections of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, as the town and its inhabitants (and Jäaskeläinen’s prose) exhibit a playful theatricality that contrasts with some very real tragedy. On the basis of this, I thought I knew where the book was going to go; I expected a fairly straightforward fantasia, something along the lines of Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Not quite.

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Rabbit Back is a place which has become infested with story; Laura White’s tales of fantastical creatures have shaped the way in which the town is perceived, by outsiders and denizens alike. White also appears to have had some kind of hold over the members of her Society; and one of the key things about them is the extent to which they have used other people as sources of material for their own writing.

This is reflected in The Game: the idea is not to tell a story in response to a question, but to ‘spill’ – to surrender all the raw, unshaped information one has about the subject raised. It’s all, in a way, reflected in how the novel treats Ella: it is not until well into the book that we start to hear her answers to the challenges she receives through The Game; her emotional responses – such a crucial part of the individual she is – are withheld from us. This is what it’s like, Jäaskeläinen seems to say, when you take away part of someone.

The jarring dissonance of the early section doesn’t carry through to the later parts of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and it’s hard not to feel a pang of regret about that. But what we have instead is intriguing an exploration of how stories can define us, and what it means if reality doesn’t measure up.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of The Rabbit Back Literature Society: Beauty in RuinsThe Complete Review; Whimsies & Words.

Reading round-up: early February

Roelof Bakker & Jane Wildgoose, Strong Room (2014)

A new project from Roelof Bakker, the artist-photographer behind the 2012 anthology Still, presented as  a stapled booklet fastened with a crocodile clip. Like the earlier anthology, Strong Room contains a selection of Bakker’s photographs of the vacated Hornsey Town Hall; but, where Still was perhaps more about space, this collection is focused on detail, and how physical objects can be both permanent and transient.

The images in Strong Room are close-ups of objects in the Town Hall: the torn upholstery of chairs in the council chamber; boxes of nuts and bolts in the maintenance room; document files in the strong room. It seems to me that Bakker is highlighting that the context in which these objects mattered has gone, and what’s left is their abstract detail.

Alongside Bakker’s photographs is a short piece in which writer Jane Wildgoose describes an instance of requesting an old document from a medical library. It seems a fairly unremarkable act, but Wildgoose uses it to reflect on themes of past and present, virtual and physical: using the electronic technology of her laptop to call for a hefty leather-bound tome which is handled with great care. Wildgoose’s text approaches the same issues as Bakker’s photographs from a different angle; all adds up to a thought-provoking whole.

Darkness at NoonArthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940)
Translated from the Hungarian by Daphne Hardy

This was my book group’s most recent selection, and it generally went down well. I was undecided after reading Darkness at Noon as to whether it was a book for me, and I’m still not sure after our discussion. This book is the tale of Rubashov, once a high-ranking official in his country’s governing Party, now imprisoned and interrogated as a traitor to the regime. Koestler’s depiction of a show trial is grimly effective, with reference to people being executed for holding the ‘wrong’ opinions on seemingly trivial subjects, and Rubashov being inexorably worn down. I still suspect that Koestler’s prose is a bit too clinical for me to experience its full force; but, then again, that detachment is part of the point. I’m glad I read Darkness at Noon, though; and I wouldn’t have read it if not for the book group.

Eliza Granville, Gretel and the Dark (2014)

In Vienna of 1899, eminent psychoanalyst Josef Breuer is intrigued by his latest case, a girl he calls Lilie, who claims to be a machine. Some years later, young Krysta is living in a strange new place, where she befriends a boy named Daniel, whom her uncle insists is not a real child. Gradually, the two stories intertwine, as Josef tries to find out more about Lilie, and Krysta’s world grows darker. Along the way, Granville reflects on different ways in which people may put stories to use: to justify terrible prejudices, but also as a source of hope and (literal) escape. And the closing revelation is of the sort that makes me feel like reading the novel again, to see what else there is to find.

Antti Tuomainen, The Healer (2010)
Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers (2013)

In a Helsinki beset by the effects of climate change, poet Tapani Lehtinen searches for his missing wife, Johanna. He learns that Johanna, a journalist, was researching ‘The Healer’,  a serial killer targeting those he deems responsible for climate change, with the aim of ‘cleaning up’ society’s ills. Tapani starts to wonder whether Johanna’s work took her too close to The Healer. There’s an interesting sparseness to the atmosphere of Tuomainen’s novel, but overall The Healer doesn’t quite work for me. The near-future setting doesn’t seem to add much (there is a subtext comparing the encroachment of climate change to Tapani’s personal situation, but I don’t find it to be carried through), and the resolution of the mystery plot is corny.

Mother Mother

Koren Zalickas, Mother, Mother (2013)

Things are not going well for the Hurst siblings. The eldest, Rose, disappeared in her last year of school. Violet attacked her brother, Will, and has been sent to a psychiatric institution. Will, who has autism and epilepsy, is looked after and home-schooled by his mother, Josephine, who obviously knows best for him – doesn’t she? But now Violet is receiving letters from Rose, who appears to be happily settled in a new life; and child protection officers are calling on Josephine… The ghastly truth of what’s really happening in the Hurst household is only gradually – and effectively – revealed in an interesting debut novel from Koren Zalickas.

Reading round-up: early June

More snapshots of some of the books I’ve read lately:

Patrick Ness, The Crane Wife (2013). Fortysomething George Duncan removes an arrow from the wing of a crane which has mysteriously appeared in his garden… then falls in love with a woman named Kumiko who visits his print shop the next day. But what follows is not so simple as “Kumiko is the crane” – she becomes the missing piece in more than one character’s life, and highlights how others do the same. The Crane Wife is a neat exploration of love and communication; I especially like the subtle ways that Ness alters the style and tone of his dialogue, depending on which characters are in conversation.

Kristina Carlson, Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009; translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, 2013). The latest Peirene Press title centres on Thomas Davies, non-religious gardener to Charles Darwin, who wonders what is left to live for after his wife has died. Carlson’s prose swoops in and out of the minds of various inhabitants of Downe village, examining their faith and slowly revealing their own personal doubts. The lines between faith as a belief and a way of life blur, as do notions of living for this world or the next, in a complex portrait.

Meike Ziervogel, Magda (2013). And here is the first novel by the founder of Peirene Press. It’s a composite of story-chapters, in various voices and styles, about Magda Goebbels, her mother Auguste, and eldest daughter Helga. Ziervogel ddepicts Magda as a girl given the fear of God at convent school; a woman who sees in Hitler what she had been searching for; and a mother preparing to kill her children. She also traces the psychological changes in her characters over the generations, in an interesting piece of work.

Rupert Christiansen, I Know You’re Going to Be Happy (2013). The son of two journalists, Christiansen is himself a newspaper opera and dance critic. In this memoir, he attempts to unpick the story of his parents’ divorce (his father left when Christiansen was a young child; the last time that the author never saw him was at the age of five). Christiansen is frank that this is an act exploration for him as much as one of recollection; but he creates vivid vignettes, whatever he turns to (I particularly appreciated his depiction of the ambivalence of growing up in suburban London). Christiansen’s story is compelling, and his prose a joy to read.

Book notes: Joyce, Sahlberg, Francis

Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012)

Harold Fry is whiling away his retirement – pottering about in south Devon, the spark long having gone out of his marriage to Maureen – when he receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old work colleague. Queenie has written from a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed to tell Harold that she is dying of cancer; moved that she still remembers him after all this time, Harold writes a letter in reply, and goes out to post it – but that feels inadequate to him, and Harold soon finds himself on a mission to walk all the way to Berwick.

Rachel Joyce’s debut is a delight to read: it reminded me of a (less macabre) Dan Rhodes book in its ability to combine whimsy with a genuine emotional punch; Harold’s journey may be eccentric, but his reasons for making it are not – and the colourful characters he meets along the way may have painful stories of their own that they don’t want to share. I particularly like the way that the changing character of Harold’s pilgrimage reflects and reinforces the waxing and waning of his hopes (at his most optimistic, Harold gains a new lease of life, and people want to travel with him; at his most despondent, he is bedraggled and alone). I’ll be interested to see what Joyce writes next.

Asko Sahlberg, The Brothers (2010/2)

Peirene Press’s theme for 2012 is ‘The Small Epic’ – ‘novella length stories of more than 35 chapters’ according to the publisher’s catalogue; but this book (Sahlberg’s ninth, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah) also fits the bill as a grand-scale story set in a small space. That space is a Finnish farmhouse in 1809, inhabited by brothers Erik and Henrik; their mother; Erik’s wife, Anna; and the brothers’ cousin (who is treated little better than a servant), Mauri. Henrik has been estranged from the rest of his family, and fought on the opposite side to Erik in the recent war between Sweden and Russia. Now, in peacetime, Henrik returns home – and the battle for mastery of the household begins.

There’s a strong sense of character here, especially of Henrik, with his heavy, deliberate steps, and his childhood affinity with a violent horse. The story itself progresses in broad narrative moves, with the small domestic setting only heightening the sense of drama at the plot and character twists. The Brothers feels longer than its 122 pages, in the best possible way.

Paul Michael Francis, The Silver Bridge (2012)

Pavlos is frontman of the band Karma, a rock star with a conscience who is growing disillusioned. He becomes re-energised when he starts to have visions of a beautiful woman, and even more so when he discovers that she is real – the woman is Claire Davis, a Hollywood actress. She has problems of her own, not least her overly controlling mother. Pavlos and Claire might just be the best thing ever to happen to each other – if they could only get it together…

The Silver Bridge is the debut novel by Paul Michael Francis; despite all the differences in setting and subject matter, it shares with The Brothers a larger-than-life quality. I get the sense that Pavlos and Claire might realise how right they are for each other if they’d just stop and think for a bit – but that’s not the kind of story Francis is telling here. It’s outrageous optimism which drives Pavlos to approach Claire in the first place, and the pair fall in and out of love with similar degrees of intensity. Will they get together in the end, or won’t they? It wouldn’t be right for me to say – that’s all part of the novel’s game – but it is rather good fun finding out.

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