For various reasons, I’m not currently in a position to write at length on the blog. So instead, I’ve been setting out thoughts on the books I’m reading at Facebook and Twitter. Join me there for now, and hopefully I’ll be back to blogging in a few weeks.
That’s the end of another year, then. I don’t have any elaborate plans for reading in 2017; I’m just going to read by instinct more. I’ve decided to drop a couple of ongoing blog projects, in particular my Classics Club attempt . I will keep the list for reference, because I’m still interested in reading the books; but it was not working for me as something to keep up regularly over five years.
2016 has shown that going with the flow suits me more as a reader and blogger, so that’s what I’ll continue to do. This year, I tidied up my main reading interests into four areas: world literature and work in translation; fiction that ‘breaks the mould’ of the novel; classics; and books from small publishers. That’s plenty to be going on with.
Finally, I’d like to thank you for reading, and wish you all the best for 2017.
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: 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011; 2010; and 2009.
I got a bit behind with this year’s Peirene Press books, so I thought I’d blog them all in a row. A Belgian novel begins the 2016 series, which has the overall title of 2016 ‘Fairy Tale: End of Innocence’. Whatever you might anticipate for the start of that series, chances are you’re not expecting the tale of a talking gorilla…
The narrator of Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became used to live in the trees, until he and other members of his family were captured and taken to the ‘New World’. There, they were taught to speak, made to dress like humans, and set to work in a theme park named Dreamland. There’s no proper rationale for all this, nor does there need to be: we’re dealing with a timeless space in which this can happen, and the matter-of-fact tone in David Colmer’s translation sells it completely.
It’s tempting to try to read Verhelst’s novel as an allegory, and there are certainly some scenes that lend themselves to a real-world interpretation, such as the image of gorillas roped together in a forced march across the desert. Ultimately, though, I think The Man I Became has to be taken on its own terms, because it creates its own reality so fully. For me, the key question raised by the book is: what does it mean to be human, exactly? The animals taken to Dreamland are given different D-shaped pins to wear depending on their rank, and “people with two gold Ds pinned to their chests were fully fledged humans.” So, if humanity can be granted with the gift of a badge, what does it really mean?
This is where the ‘end of innocence’ comes in, as Verhelst’s narrator realises the truth about Dreamland, and has to decide what kind of person he wants to be. The Man I Became is an intriguing start to Peirene’s Fairy Tale series, one that left me wondering what would come next. We’ll find out in a few days’ time.
Book details (Foyles affiliate link)
The Man I Became (2013) by Peter Verhelst, tr. David Colmer (2016), Peirene Press paperback.
November is German Literature Month and, though I haven’t had time to participate fully this year, I have been able to introduce myself to another classic author. I’ve been reading a new collection of four of Stefan Zweig’s stories and novellas, freshly translated by Peter James Bowman and published by Alma Classics.
The title novella, 1941’s ‘A Game of Chess’ (aka ‘The Royal Game’ or ‘Chess Story’) was, I understand, Zweig’s last fiction published in his lifetime. Its narrator is about to leave New York on a steamship when he learns that one of his fellow passengers is the world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic. Fascinated by theCzentovic’s monomaniacal pursuit of chess, the narrator gathers together a small group of passengers to challenge him to a game – which, unsurprisingly, they lose. But, in a second game, the advice of one Dr B., an Austrian, guides the group to a draw. Next day, Dr B. tells his story and reveals the source of his extraordinary insight into chess.
The general impression I get of Zweig;s fiction from the stories I’ve read is that his narrator will typically be an impartial observer, in whom another character will confide, breaking open the façade of normality to uncover darkness beneath. In ‘A Game of Chess’, Dr B. explains that he was a solicitor who had been arrested by the Nazi regime. He was kept in a hotel room in complete isolation; Zweig evokes Dr B.’s mental state at that time vividly:
After each session with the Gestapo my own mind took over the same merciless torment of questioning, probing and harassment – perhaps even more cruelly, for while in the first case the grilling at least ended after an hour, in the second the malicious torture of solitude perpetuated it indefinitely. And all the while there was nothing around me but the table, the wardrobe, the bed, the wallpaper, the window; no distractions, no book, no newspaper, no new face, no pencil for noting things down, no matchstick to play with, just nothing, nothing, nothing.
Eventually Dr B. found a book, though it turned out to be a chess manual. The only way he found to cope with his situation was intense study, rehearsing the games mentally over and over again. So Dr B. becomes a mirror of Mirko Czentovic: where the chess champion is presented as someone whose single-minded focus had led him to fame and fortune, Dr B.’s chess knowledge has allowed him simply to be there in the present, and represents the lasting scars of the past. A seemingly ordinary game has opened up the hidden worlds within a life.
Book details (Foyles affiliate link)
A Game of Chess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig, tr. Peter James Bowman (2016), Alma Classics paperback.
The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize 2016 will be announced this Wednesday, so hera is my second round-up of the shortlist (the first is here). Unfortunately, I ran out of time to review Rachel Cusk’s Transit, which leaves two others: first-time Goldsmiths appearances for small publishers Tramp Press and Cassava Republic.
If you look Solar Bones up, be warned that the blurb contains a piece of information which is not stated explicitly within the novel until the end (though it can be deduced). It’s not really set up to be a twist as such, and I think that knowing it would change your experience of reading the book rather than spoil it per se… but I don’t need to reveal it here, so I won’t.
Anyway: we join engineer Marcus Conway as he returns to his County Mayo home, the sound of the Angelus bell from the village church ringing in his ears. Over the course of the novel, Marcus ruminates on his life and the world; as so often on this shortlist, it’s all in the telling:
this may have been my first moment of anxious worry about the world, the first instance of my mind spiraling beyond the immediate environs of
hearth, home and parish, towards
the wider world beyond
since looking at those engine parts spread across the floor my imagination took fright and soared to some wider, cataclysmic conclusion about how the universe itself was bolted and screwed together…
This is Marcus Conway’s voice: no capital letters or full stops –therefore no strict separation of ideas – and ‘paragraphs’ linked by those chains of sentence-fragments in an unceasing flow. Whether he’s discussing his memories, the economy, or the bones of reality itself, all is part of the same whole for Marcus. As an engineer, he is able to see the workings and connections – and McCormack brings this to life within the form of his novel.
Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016)
A few years ago, I read Roelof Bakker’s anthology Still, a book of short stories inspired by his photographs of a vacated building. It included ‘Morayo’, a story about an old woman going into a nursing home, and what her books meant to her as a person. In a Q&A at the time, Manyika said she was working on a book-length version of the story. I always wondered what that was going to be like; and now here it is, on the Goldmsiths shortlist.
Manyika’s novel is not a direct expansion of the story, but the main character and themes are broadly the same. Morayo Da Silva is a retired literature professor, from Nigeria and now living in San Francisco. She still lives life to the full, enjoys her vintage Porsche, her books, and generally being around the neighbourhood… until she slips one day, and breaks her hip. Then she has to go into a nursing home to recover, and her old life is torn from her.
One of the central themes of Like a Mule for me is the idea that the person someone is on the inside may not necessarily be the person that others see. Morayo is such an exuberant character to us – a joy to spend time with on the page – but, as far as many of the staff in the home are concerned, she’s just another patient. There’s one scene where Morayo daydreams of a glamorous function from her old life married to an ambassador – a dream which is broken when the home staff rush to her aid because she’s left her walker behind.
In Goldsmiths Prize terms, I’d say that Like a Mule distorts the novel form primarily with its use of voice. Besides Morayo, there are chapters written from the viewpoint of several of the other characters she meets: a homeless woman, a shopkeeper, a cook in the nursing home. True, there’s nothing intrinsically unusual about that; but it’s done here in a way that feels disjointed, underlining the distance between individuals. Reading the novel allows us to bridge that distance to an extent, as we can fit the pieces together; and maybe that helps bring a sense of hope, too.
Today’s post is part of a blog tour for Himself, the debut novel by Jess Kidd. As well as writing a review, I’ve asked Jess a few questions, and I thought I would try to interleave the two…
In 1976, Mahony arrives in Mulderrig, a village on the west coast of Ireland – and his childhood home. He can’t remember the place – but then, Mulderrig is a place apart at the best of times, and he broke the mould simply by leaving, even if he was a baby at the time:
Here the colours are a little bit brighter and the sky is a little bit wider. Here the trees are as old as the mountains and a clear river runs into the sea. People are born to live and stay and die here. They don’t want to go. Why would they when all the roads that lead to Mulderrig are downhill so that leaving is uphill all the way?
There is a vivid sense of place in Himself, and it came as no surprise to me to learn that this was the seed of the novel:
Mulderrig has always felt like a character in its own right, says Kidd, because it’s so strong in my mind. From the beginning I was able to wander around it in my imagination. It first emerged in a short story and I found myself totally intrigued by the town. Writing a novel offered me the scope to explore the setting further…Mulderrig and Mahony emerged, as did their intertwined histories.
Ah yes, intertwined histories. The infant Mahony was taken from his mother (“the curse of the town”) and left on the steps of an orphanage. He has now returned to Mulderrig because he’s been told of that secret past (and his real name), and he wants to uncover what happened. He’ll meet some fascinating characters: one who really stands out for me is Mrs Cauley, a splendidly irascible old actress who becomes Mahony’s partner-in-investigation.
She’s also the person in whom Mahony is able to confide another secret: that he can see the dead. The supernatural in Himself is strikingly low-key, and I asked Kidd to elaborate on that choice:
For me there are two main supernatural elements in the book, the dead and the magic that erupts from the place itself. I wanted the supernatural elements to feel part of the fabric of the text and not just added on for entertainment value, to shock or surprise. I was therefore careful to weave these events into the narrative, always making sure that they had a place in furthering plot or developing character.
The dead have a communicative function in Himself. Whilst there is the suggestion of a chilling Gothic-style haunting (without giving too much away) the dead in general have a very different kind of presence because of the way they interact with the living. This is because I wanted the dead to be fully developed characters in their own right, with their own stories and a sense of lives lived. The other supernatural elements in the novel, such as the biblical storm, swarming creatures and misbehaving wells, are very much linked to folklore and the land. Above all I wanted to create a world that the reader could become completely immersed in, however bizarre it became! To achieve this, the supernatural elements had to feel like a natural part of the fictional setting. I wanted even the most outlandish supernatural events to feel perfectly plausible and right in the context of the town. The otherworldly outbursts also provide an important contrast to the atmosphere of the town, which is very locked-down, silenced and repressed. In a way the supernatural communicates the rising tensions and repressed fear and guilt of the villagers.
That feeling of the supernatural being an everyday part of the world really comes across in the novel. For example, there is the scene where Mrs Cauley makes a whirlwind of her library to find a clue:
Soon light pamphlets of philosophical thought start to join them, skidding across the floor and fluttering up into the whirling cloud of paper. Slim volumes of difficult poems come next, scuttling out from dark corners and flapping headlong into the swirling gyre. Even the most aloof classics join in, shedding their covers and flinging themselves, one after the other, into the vortex.
I love the rhythm of that passage. I guess it may come across as a bit overegged, what with all the repetitions (more so out of context, I think). But to me, this just heightens the intensity of the moment. That’s one of the ways Himself works: those little flashes of something extraordinary in a seemingly ordinary place.
Then there is the language itself; there’s a real exuberance to it, as I hope the quotations here show. I commented to Kidd that I could imagine being regaled with this story over a few pints in the pub:
The narrative voice was there from the start. Very early on I’d decided to use magic realism in the novel. I’d already experimented with this narrative mode in my short stories but now I wanted to apply it to a full-blown novel. There’s often a storytelling flavour to the magic realist narrator and I thought this would suit both the setting and the way the plot unravels (with stories about Orla [Mahony’s mother] central to the investigation). I’m delighted that you picked up on this quality in the narrative voice as I very much intended the reader to feel that they were being drawn into a tale – led by the hand into a fictional world. Storytelling is a core element of the book, along with the tale-telling narrator many of the characters tell stories – often in the pub!
Although Jess Kidd was brought up in London, her family is from Mayo; I wanted to find out more about what drew her to the particular time and place of the novel:
I think my choice of time and place was very much inspired by my earliest memories of Ireland (in 1976 I would have been three). As a child I was fascinated by the natural world and responded to it by drawing, painting and writing stories. Although the book is very dark, and in places a little twisted, I hope there is also a sense of wonder and even nostalgia there, particularly with regards to the landscape. Mulderrig is a bit of a patchwork of the places I’ve known and visited. Although it’s very definitely Irish I wanted to try and give the setting a universal appeal so that readers from all different backgrounds could relate to the small-town atmosphere of the novel. My choice of setting was also strongly influenced by two play texts. I’ve always loved Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas, for its portrayal of an insular, eccentric, seaside village. The Playboy of the Western World, by J. M. Synge, is set in Mayo and deals with themes of violence and storytelling. As the play unfolds we watch an isolated community create its own realities through the tales it tells itself. Both plays have a strong sense of setting and this was something I really wanted to carry over into my own work.
Thanks to Jess for answering my questions. If you like the sound of Himself, you can buy a copy from the publisher, Canongate, here; and there’s more to discover at the other stops on the blog tour, which are listed in the graphic below.
I’m splitting my review of the Goldsmiths shortlist into two parts. Here’s a look at three of the titles…
We’ll start with Eimear McBride, who of course won the vvery first Goldsmiths Prize in 2013, with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Her second novel is the story of Eilis, a young Irish woman who goes to study drama in London in 1994, and falls for an actor named Stephen, who is more than twice her age. Sounds conventional enough in the synopsis; but, as before with McBride, the novel is transformed by its language:
Goes on time so. Every day. Hours spent opening lanes of ways on which I might set forth. These are your oysters, boys and girls. Here are your worlds of pearls. I remember it as I sit in dust. Put on tights. Stretch on mats. Lean with hot drinks on stone steps where the throng pokes holes through shy.
A Girl is a half-formed Thing was written in a fragmented style which suggested that its narrator’s consciousness was not yet coherent – in the other words, the cohesion of voice (or lack of it) matched the cohesion of the character’s identity. The Lesser Bohemians could be seen as an extension of that technique: Eilis is further on in life than Girl’s protagonist, so her narrative voice is not quite as fragmented, but its rhythms are still noticeably jagged.
What really gives this novel its shape and contrast for me, however, is the section where Stephen tells Eilis his story – and his voice is rendered in a much more conventional literary style. This gives his life a semblance of order and control; but the events he describes don’t bear that out at all. So, McBride seems to suggest, a life is as coherent as the one living it allows; the tumult of the past will always be there, but – just maybe – it’s possible to bring oneself together eventually.
Anakana Schofield, Martin John (2015)
Conventionally, a novel is organised to create meaning for its reader. Even with a book like The Lesser Bohemians, where you have to work at it a bit, and where part of the meaning is encoded in the style, the general shape is recognisable and you can find your way around soon enough. Martin John is different: this is the form of the novel broken down and rebuilt to generate meaning for its protagonist; readers just have to derive what they can.
Martin John Gaffney lives in South London (his mam sent him away from Ireland). He works as a security guard, visits his Aunty Noanie every week. He loves the Eurovision Song Contest, but hates words that begin with the letter P. He is also a flasher. Martin John the novel is perhaps not so much his story (that would imply a narrative) as an account of his being.
Martin John’s existence is based around rituals and refrains, routines and circuits; these provide the structure that helps keep his life together (or, perhaps, keep his life at bay). The novel is built from looping, elliptical paragraphs:
With no day shift or night shift or circuits, time has become strange, neither protracted nor squat. Just strained. Strange. Estranged. Estuary ranged. There are days, inside the room, that because the windows are blacked out, he can’t tell you if it is day or night. He can’t tell if it’s night or day? He can’t even tell you how he wants to make this statement.
Martin John is a novel that lives with you, demands that you make space for it, uncomfortable as that inevitably will be. It places Anakana Schofield on my list of must-read authors.
As with reading Ishiguro, reading Deborah Levy has for me been a learning process. In both cases, when I read the author for the first time (Nocturnes and Swimming Home respectively), I wasn’t equipped to appreciate texts that had the appearance of stereotypical middle-class literary fiction, but distorted the form subtly, so that interpreting them literally didn’t work. I’m still finding my way.
In Hot Milk, 25-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis has travelled with her mother Rose to Almeria on the Spanish coast. Rose’s legs have been affected by a mysterious illness; it’s hoped that the Gómez Clinic in Almeria will provide a solution, but Sofia has surrendered her own life in order to come here – she’s even begun to copy Rose’s gait. It took me some time to get into the swing of the novel’s patterns of imagery and oblique characterisation. Even then, I can only see my understanding of it as provisional.
I came to the conclusion that Hot Milk was structured around metaphors of personal space: Sofia begins the novel having effectively subordinated her own identity to her mother’s; and the extent to which other characters encroach on her indicates how much Sofia is her own person. The scene that really seemed to unlock this is one where, hands bloodied from gutting a fish, Sofia rushes into the local diving school to free the owner’s dog, and ends up drinking the vermouth on his desk and leaving bloody handprints all over the walls. It seems strange if taken at face value, but made sense to me as a metaphor for Sofia exerting control over her surroundings.
I wouldn’t say that I unlocked Hot Milk entirely – I don’t have a sense of a complete metaphorical underpinning – but I was able to see Levy’s work in a new light. I now want to explore further, and hopefully come back to this book (and Swimming Home) one day, to see what else I can find there.
One of the literary prizes that I like to pay particular attention to is the Goldsmiths Prize, because its remit chimes a lot with what I like to read: “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form.” I’m planning to read along with the shortlist, which was announced yesterday:
Transit by Rachel Cusk (Jonathan Cape)
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber)
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press)
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (Cassava Republic Press)
Martin John by Anakana Schofield (And Other Stories)
At first sight, that’s an interesting mix of books that I look forward to exploring. I’ll be reading and reviewing as many as I can before the winner is revealed on 9 November.