Tagautobiography

Reading round-up: late October

A few notes on some of the books I’ve read recently:

Janice Galloway, The Trick Is To keep Breathing (1989)

I enjoyed reading a collection of Janice Galloway’s short stories a few years back, and so was pleased when my book group selected her first novel for this month (as luck would have it, I couldn’t then make the meeting – bah!). It’s the story of Joy Stone, who is sent into a spiral of depression by events that we only gradually piece together as we follow her through daily life and a stint in hospital. Galloway’s novel is written as a collage of documents, from diary entries to magazine snippets to marginal notes – a technique that mirrors the fragmentation of its protagonist. I think it’s a shame that this book seems not to have made as many waves in its day as (say) The Wasp Factory did, because Galloway deserves to read much more widely than she is.

Paul Ewen, Francis Plug: How To Be a Public Author (2014)

The latest book from Galley Beggar Press is ‘written’ by the aspiring author Francis Plug, who documents his meetings with winners of the Booker Prize. Paul Ewen gets the voice of his narrator just right: earnest, and trying just that little bit too hard; whether or not that becomes annoying is probably down to the individual reader. Although Francis Plug starts off as simply amusing, as the novel progresses we start to see the desperation that lies underneath the character’s facade. There’s something of Graham Underhill about Plug; and, like Nat Segnit’s book, there’s an underlying weight and melancholy that leads to a tragicomic ending.

SchumacherJulie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members (2014)

And here’s another novel about someone in the literary world which has a bitter twist beneath its comic surface. It’s the collected correspondence of Jason Filger, a professor of creative writing and literature, who writes copious letters of recommendation for his students (on paper, through the mail) and finds himself feeling increasingly out of step with the world around him. Filger’s letters reveal the absurdities of his world: students having to apply for ever more menial jobs; his department being squeezed out by those of more lucrative subjects; his own obsession with championing  work of one particular student while others find that elusive success. Dear Committee Members takes a particularly sharp and bracing turn towards the end, which makes you see the book in a new light. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of Julie Schumacher’s work in the future.

Anneliese Mackintosh, Any Other Mouth (2014)

A collection of short stories (published by Freight Books) which, the author says, are 68% true and 32% fictional – though only she knows which is which. Anneliese Mackintosh takes us through various events in her alter ego Gretchen’s life – a precarious family life in childhood; discovery and calamity at university; grief, happiness and more in adulthood. There’s a wonderful range of style and tone in Mackintosh’s stories; it seems beside the point to single out particular pieces, when it’s the totality of Any Other Mouth which really impresses. The intensity that Mackintosh achieves across the whole collection is really quite something.

Slavoj Žižek and Srećko Horvat, What Does Europe Want? (2013)

I read this book (published by Istros Books, who specialise in works from South East Europe) following my call on Twitter for recommended essay collections. It’s one of those occasions where the subject is not a natural fit for me – I’ll be upfront in saying that I’m not into politics and don’t know that much about it – but I read What Does Europe Want? out of curiosity and will find some way to respond to it.  Žižek and Horvat are philosophers from Slovenia and Croatia respectively; in these essays, they explore the present and possible future of Europe and the EU. All I can really say is that I appreciated the authors’ style, and found plenty to think about.

Critchley

Simon Critchley, Memory Theatre (2014)

This is the second title from Fitzcarraldo Editions (following Zone), a short piece that blurs the line between autobiographical essay and fiction. Philosopher Simon Critchley describes how he was sent boxes of unpublished papers belonging to his old friend and teacher, the French philosopher Michel Haar, who had recently died. Amongst the various documents, Critchley found writings on the Renaissance memory theatre: a created space containing images meant to represent all knowledge. He also found an astrological chart which appeared to foretell his own death – which led him to an inevitable conclusion. Critchley’s book reflects on memory, permanence and obsession; and becomes ever more intriguing as the relative security of the essay form gives way to the uncertainty of fiction.

Reading round-up: early March

Rebecca Hunt, Everland (2014)

EverlandThe author of 2010’s Mr Chartwell returns with a tale of polar exploration. In March 1913, three men embark on an expedition to an uncharted Antarctic island which is being dubbed ‘Everland’ – a journey that we know won’t end well, as we’ve already seen others of their ship’s crew go after the men a month later, and find only one alive. In 2012, the men’s expedition has become famous, and three researchers set out from their base on their own trek to Everland. Over time, the two expeditions start to parallel each other – subtly at first, then more overtly, in terms of both events and the frictions that develop within each group. Hunt places her characters in a situation where they’re trapped by their environment, then uses the parallels between the two groups to underline just how much they are trapped.

Tamara Astafieva, Born in Siberia (2014)
Translated from the Russian by Luba Ioffe

Born in 1937, Tamara Astafieva became a television editor for the Soviet press agency, Novosti. This book is a collection of autobiographical essays (and the occasional poem) sent by Astafieva a few years ago to an old acquaintance, British TV director Michael Darlow (who also provides linking commentary throughout). Born in Siberia illuminates a time and place in history that I personally didn’t know about; and Astafieva comes across as a bright, charismatic personality who is a pleasure to meet through the pages of her book.

Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955)

This was my book group’s latest choice: the tale of Thomas Fowler, a British journalist working in Indochina, and the idealistic American Alden Pyle, who believes that the  war can be ended with a ‘third force’. Reading The Quiet American was an unusual experience for me, as I saw the film back in 2002, but don’t remember much about it; so the book kept snagging on shadowy memories. I often find it difficult to get into books written in the 1950s and earlier (I don’t know why; a cultural distance that’s hard for me to cross, perhaps); and this was true for Greene’s novel to an extent – though I appreciated its nuanced exploration of morality; and the ending could still shock me, even though I knew what was coming.

Carlos Busqued, Under This Terrible Sun (2009)
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, 2013

I said to myself that I would only buy an e-reader if I felt that I were truly missing out on ebooks that I wanted to read. I finally reached that point when I started hearing about publishers like Frisch & Co., a Berlin-based who specialise in digital works in translations; and my first electronic title is one of theirs.

Under This Terrible Sun (the first novel by Argentinian writer Busqued) begins as Javier Cetarti – who does little more than lounge around his apartment watching documentaries – learns that his mother’s lover has killed her, and Cetarti’s brother. The bearer of this news, Duarte, has an idea to cash in on a life insurance policy, and Cetarti is happy to play along. But Duarte has darker motivations than Cerarti realises. Busqued’s novel works almost by stealth: the characters will drift along for a while; then something sinister or violent will intrude – unbidden at first, then with growing tension, until… ah, but that would be telling.

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (2013)

Flamethrowers

In 1977, Reno (not her real name, but it’s as much as we’ll get) heads east on her motorcycle to New York, where she becomes involved in the art scene. A relationship with an Italian artist leads her to Milan, where a more political revolution is taking shape. The Flamethrowers is a long novel, dense with incident; yet in some ways Reno’s narrative voice remains detached from it all. Kushner‘s novel reflects on performance, and finds it in all the worlds through which Reno moves – and not always to the good. The ending manages to be poignant, chilling and optimistic all at once.

Emma J. Lannie, Behind a Wardrobe in Atlantis (2014)

Mantle Lane Press is a new small publisher focusing on short volumes by writers with an East Midlands connection. This, Mantle Lane’s second book, is a set of eight short stories by Derby-resident Emma J. Lannie. Lannie’s stories are snapshots of characters at key emotional moments, and are shot through with flashes of myth or fairytale. So, for example, ‘Rapunzelled’ sees a girl caught in the shadow of her photographer sister as they go on a shoot in an abandoned tower; while the narrator of ‘Not Gretel’ wanders through the forest, leaving her old life behind, in search of… something. This book is an intriguing start to Lannie’s career, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

Reading round-up: late July

Catching up on some of the books I’ve read recently…

Rachel Joyce, Perfect (2013)

In 1972, two leap seconds are added to time, and Byron Hemmings wonders if this is what led his mother to cause a road accident that she didn’t even notice; Byron sets up ‘Operation Perfect’ with his school-friend James Long to find out. Meanwhile, in the present day, middle-aged Jim is trying to rebuild his life after years in a psychiatric hospital; we may guess that these two narrative strands are connected, so the question becomes: how? Perfect is quite different in subject and tone from Joyce’s Booker-longlisted debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry; but it shares the earlier novel’s underlying seriousness, which gives Perfect a firm emotional grounding.

Monique Roffey, Archipelago (2012)

A year after their home flooded, Gavin Weald and his daughter Océan still cannot settle back into life. So, along with their dog Suzy, they head out from Trinidad across the ocean on a voyage which is at least as much emotional as it is physical. With that in mind, the archipelago of the title could be all the many pieces of life that the Wealds encounter on the journey, as well as the islands they travel through. By novel’s end, there is a sort of peace, but it is not easily won.

Antoine Laurain, The President’s Hat (2012)
Translated from the French by Louise Rogers Laulaurie, Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken, 2013

Daniel Mercier is eating out when none other than François Mitterand sits at the next table; when the President leaves, Daniel sees that he has left his hat behind. Deciding to keep the hat for himself, Daniel finds his life start to change – until he leaves the hat behind somewhere. We then follow a succession of characters who gain possession of Mitterand’s hat, each gaining that extra confidence to do something different. I found this book simply great fun to read; as a nice added touch, there are different translators for each viewpoint character.

Marlen Haushofer, The Wall (1968)
Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside, 1991

On a visit to her cousin, a woman wakes one day to find no other people in sight, and an invisible wall cutting her off from much of the outside world. Some years later, still (for all intents and purposes) the only human about, she writes her report of what happened, which is the book we now hold. Told precisely and coolly, The Wall is a tale of survival not so much as heroic endurance but as keeping going because that’s all there is left.

Carmen Bugan, Burying the Typewriter (2012)

A memoir of the author’s childhood in Ceaucescu’s Romania, where her father was a dissident and her family surveilled by the secret police. There are some good scenes in this book – a sequence where the young Carmen tries to visit the American embassy is as tense as any fictional thriller; and there’s a real sense towards the end of how out-of-place the secret police are in Carmen’s village – but, as a whole, it didn’t quite engage me.

Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders (2001)

A novel set in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, which voluntarily cut itself off from the surrounding country when the plague struck in 1665, seen through the eyes of Anna Frith, a young housemaid who remains immune. There’s lots of interesting historical detail in here, but sometimes to the detriment of the book as a novel – and the ending especially feels rather too abrupt.

Book notes: a debut novel and an artist’s memoirs

Wayne Macauley, The Cook (2011)

Zac is a young offender whose rehabilitation is to be sent to a rural cookery school run by a famous chef.

Here Zac finds his calling when he discovers the world of fine food. While others on the scheme fall by the wayside, Zac diligently pursues his craft, studying classical French cookery books; breeding his own lambs for his dishes. After leaving the school he is given a job as the private chef to a wealthy Melbourne family. Zac sees this as good practice for his dream of opening a high-end restaurant – but not everyone in the household is happy with the ethics of employing him.

The Cook is an interesting examination of class issues – Zac’s job might be seen as archaic servitude (he has to call his employers ‘Mistress’ and ‘Master’) but he thinks he can better himself with it. Wayne Macauley doesn’t give simple answers, but his debut novel is also a brilliant example of voice and viewpoint. You hear Zac’s comma-free gabble in your head and become so absorbed in his perspective that you start to lose sight of what’s happening around him. That is, until the ending, when the full implications of this partial viewpoint are revealed. The Cook has one of the most shocking and surprising endings I have read in quite some time. It puts the cap on a fine novel, and helps mark out Macauley as a writer worth following.

(This review also appears at We Love This Book.)

Antonia Gialerakis (ed.), An Unquiet Spirit (2012)

An Unquiet Spirit collects together the autobiographical writings of Antonia Gialerakis’s mother Hilary, an artist. I hadn’t heard of Hilary Gialerakis before reading this book, but her story as revealed in these memoirs is a compelling one.

Hilary Carter was born in Dorset in 1924; the first part of her writings, headed ‘Memories’, runs from then through to 1959. Hilary’s telling of her life begins in piecemeal fashion, a new event in almost every paragraph. Though the book soon becomes less episodic, we never lose the sense that these are recollections – there are gaps in Hilary’s memory, and there’s a certain impressionistic quality to the way she depicts the world.

As she tells it, Hilary’s life falls into a number of broad patterns: a peripatetic existence, moving between England and Switzerland (in childhood) or South Africa (in adulthood). A series of turbulent relationships with men who tend to remain on the fringes of Hilary’s life. Bouts of illness, periods spent in mental hospitals, visits to doctors and psychiatrists – but no firm diagnosis. Running throughout is a sense of restlessness (mirrored by the tone of the writing), and of art as Hilary’s anchor and refuge.

In the 1950s, Hilary meets Andre Gialerakis, the man with whom she’ll start a family. By 1974 (the time of the second, much shorter, ‘Diary’ part), she has given birth to Antonia, and the family have settled in Durban. In this section, Hilary expresses more concern over the effect of her behaviour and personality on those closest to her, and seems ever more determined to deal with her problems. By the end of her diary, it feels as though she’s taken firm steps towards doing that. It’s an optimistic end to a powerful life story.

Book notes: William Wharton and P.Y. Betts

William Wharton, Birdy (1978)

Al and Birdy were both scarred by their experiences in the Second World War. For Al, the damage was largely physical – he now has a jaw made of glass – but for, Birdy, it was mental. Now in a psychiatric hospital, Birdy is living up to his name and acting like a bird. Al has been brought in to try to get through to his old friend; he recounts to Birdy stories of their younger years in Philadelphia. Alternating chapters chronicle Birdy’s developing fascination with birds as a child.

Birdy has recently been republished in the UK by The Friday Project (along with Shrapnel, a previously unpublished war memoir of William Wharton’s). As a first-time reader of Wharton, this is a powerful book, because of the way it depicts such a vivid character as Birdy becoming lost in his own mind. Al’s engaging reminiscences show how enterprising and resourceful he and Birdy were; in Birdy’s chapters, these qualities are applied to the keeping of birds. Wharton portrays Birdy’s slide from this to a too-close association with birds convincingly, which gives Al’s later attempts to reach Birdy all the more force.

Some other reviews of Birdy: The Bookbag; Read with Style; an appreciation of Willam Wharton at Eleventh Stack.

P.Y. Betts, People Who Say Goodbye (1989)

In the 1930s, Phyllis Betts wrote several short stories, contributions to Graham Greene’s magazine Night and Day, and one novel (French Polish)… then she wasn’t heard of again for another fifty years, until Christopher Hawtree tracked her down to a Welsh smallholding; she was eventually persuaded to write this memoir, which I’m reading in a lovely hardback edition from Slightly Foxed.

People Who Say Goodbye is a joy to read, principally because Betts is so engaging, both as a writer and character. She has a knack for identifying the telling details that bring the people from her childhood to life; such as Dr Biggs, who pronounced ‘bowels’ as two syllables, and who treated all ills with a swift examination by stethoscope, followed by a prescription of brown cough mixture and red tonic. The young Phyllis and her mother also had a robust, no-nonsense attitude to life (‘What happens to all those dead people who are put into graves?’ asks Phyllis. ‘They rot,’ her mother repies).

But that quotation points also to the undercurrent of darkness in the book. Living through the First World War – and especially with a hospital down the road – the reality of death was never far from Phyllis’s life. As Betts puts it, the people who say goodbye don’t come back. It’s the careful balance of moods that makes this memoir such a rewarding read.

Some other reviews of People Who Say Goodbye: Stuck in a Book; 20th Century Vox; I Prefer Reading.

This book fulfils the Biography category of the Mixing It Up Challenge 2012.

Joe Simpson, Touching the Void (1988)

A million books were given away across the UK on World Book Night last week, and I got one of them at my local branch of Waterstones. I tend to think that the ideal book for World Book Night is something that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of reading, but that looks interesting once you start to consider it – a gentle nudge away from your comfort zone, in other words.

That’s just the sort of book I received in Touching the Void, Joe Simpson’s account of his and Simon Yates’s 1985 expedition to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. It’s what happened on the descent which makes the story so famous: Simpson broke his leg, and, whilst being lowered down the mountainside by Yates, got stuck in mid-air. With Simpson unable to move up or down, and Yates losing his grip, Yates decided he had to cut the rope joining the two of them. Simpson fell into a crevasse, but nevertheless beat the odds and made it back to camp, alive.

Touching the Void begins prosaically enough:

I was lying in my sleeping bag, staring at the light filtering through the red and green fabric of the dome tent. Simon was snoring loudly, occasionally twitching in his dream world. We could have been anywhere. There is a peculiar anonymity about being in tents. (p. 15)

That tent will, naturally, assume vital importance later on; in a neat mirroring, the familiar light inside the tent at the beginning becomes an alien sight when Simpson is approaching it from the outside, in desperation, towards the end. This is one of several examples in the book of the same thing taking on different qualities at different times – the mountain scenery is by turns hostile and welcoming, for instance.

The passage I’ve quoted there also contains the first of Simpson’s observations about the peculiarities of climbing. I’ve never been up a mountain myself (though I have done my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and so have some experience of outdoor activity), so perhaps I didn’t connect personally with the descriptions of climbing as I might otherwise have; but this exchange did strike a chord:

‘What shall it be then?’ Simon held up two foil bags. ‘Moussaka or Turkey Supreme?’
‘Who gives a toss! They’re both disgusting!’
‘Good choice. We’ll have the Turkey.’
Two brews of passion fruit and a few prunes later we settled back for sleep. (p. 39)

It’s the odd combination of foods and flavours which brings home the reality of having to eat what you’ve got, and of eating for energy rather than taste – a sense of how one’s priorities change on a mountain. We also see the kind of mentality that may be needed: Simpson tells the story at one point of how, on a previous expedition, Yates saw two unfamiliar climbers fall to their deaths from the same mountain he was climbing; when he returned to camp, says Simpson, Yates ‘had sat numb’, turning the incident over and over in his mind; but, the next day, ‘he was his normal self again: an experience absorbed, shelved in his memory, understood and accepted, and left at that’ (p. 64). The capacity to put even the worst experiences behind you can, this suggests, be useful – even vital – to mountaineers.

Yates’s capacity to do just this is tested to its limit when he’s faced with cutting the rope; as Simpson shows (in passages written from Yates’s viewpoint), this was both an impossible choice and, really, no choice at all. As he’s making his own way down the mountain, assuming (quite reasonably) that Simpson is dead, Yates veers back and forth over the question of how to describe what happened, whether to feel guilt or resignation. Simpson creates a fine portrait of an extreme moral dilemma.

But it’s Simpson’s account of his time alone and injured on the mountain which live most vividly in my memory. The description of his plummeting into the crevasse, then lying there in the dark, is horrifying; and we feel Simpson’s pain and frustration (as far as that’s possible, of course) at every slow step of his journey down. It makes his survival seem all the more remarkable.

This edition of Touching the Void includes a section written in 2003, after the making of the film version. As part of this, Simpson describes how he returned to Siula Grande and played himself in reconstructions of the incident. This seems so strange, I can’t begin to imagine what it might have been like, nor find the words to describe how I responded to reading about it. Simpson himself closes the book reflecting on how his life has changed in such unexpected ways:

Life can deal you an amazing hand. Do you play it steady, bluff like crazy or go all in? I’ll never know (p. 215).

So, Touching the Void ends with a question we might all have cause to consider at some point – and it has opened a window on an extraordinary human experience. A fine book for World Book Night.

This book fulfils the Travel category (though ‘travel writing’ seems an inadequate way to describe Touching the Void!) of the Mixing It Up Challenge 2012.

Three Pieces: Granta 117 – Horror

Today, I’m trying out a different approach to blogging about an anthology, by concentrating on three particular pieces from it. The anthology in question is the Autumn 2011 issue of Granta, whose theme is ‘Horror’. It was my first time reading all three of these authors; I’ll go through their work in the order in which it appears in the anthology.

Will Self, ‘False Blood’

This is an account of how Self was diagnosed with and treated for polycythemia vera, a condition which causes the blood to thicken through the overproduction of red blood cells. It’s a very frank piece: Self writes matter-of-factly about his past of drug-use – neither apologising not seeking to justify it, but simply treating it as something that happened – and how it left him afraid of needles, which made his treatment (by having excess blood extracted) all the more difficult.

The horror of ‘False Blood’ seems to me to lie less in the mechanics of Self’s illness and treatment (though there is certainly some of that, and you may well find yourself picturing the blood flowing – or otherwise – through your own veins) than in something more existential. Self reflects on death and disease, and how we dress them up in metaphors in the vain hope of making them more palatable – and comes to the conclusion that it’s better to confront those phenomena without metaphors. But Self acknowledges that disease has been one of the key metaphors he has deployed in his fiction.

So, just as the very blood-flow which sustains Self’s life is now threatening it, so a cornerstone of his life’s work has gained a chillingly personal resonance. Perhaps the true horror of this piece comes from the thought of being betrayed by the most familiar and trusted of things.

Rajesh Parameswaran, ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’

A tiger wakes up one day (“the worst and most amazing day of my life,” p. 167) and realises that he feels love – the love that comes from a deep friendship – for his keeper, Kitch. But where is Kitch today? Ming is getting hungry and wants to see his keeper and friend. When Kitch finally arrives, he’s with another, rather nervous, member of zoo staff; the tiger’s friendly move towards Kitch scares the other man, so Kitch strikes Ming with his stick – and then it all goes wrong.

When I started reading ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’, I thought Parameswaran’s decision to give the tiger such a fluent, human-like narrative voice was amusing but perhaps misjudged – surely that wasn’t how an animal would really think? But now I see that the voice was judged perfectly, because the affect of the story is founded on the tension between the measured, reasonable tone of the narration, and the way Ming’s animal instincts intrude upon it. It’s not just that the tiger tends to misinterpret the human characters’ behaviour; it’s also that the way he reacts and explains himself can be at odds (sometimes chillingly so) with what his voice lulls us into expecting. This story is extracted from Parameswaran’s forthcoming collection, I Am an Executioner, to which I now look forward eagerly.

Julie Otsuka, ‘Diem Perdidi’

Diem perdidi is Latin for “I have lost the day”, which sums up what has happened to the woman with dementia who is at the heart of this story. The text consists mainly of declarative statements about what the woman does and doesn’t remember (sometimes addressed directly to the woman’s daughter – though neither character is ever named). With what might seem to be a rather restricted palette, Otsuka paints vividly what has passed in the lives of the woman and her family; and what is now being lost, the little cruelties of (and those caused by) being able to remember the relatively distant past, and long-held routines, but not what happened a few minutes before. Otsuka’s prose is dotted with poignant turns of phrase, such as: “She remembers that today is Sunday, which six days out of seven is not true” (p. 252). Clearly another writer whom I need to read further.

Elsewhere
Granta magazine
Author websites: Will Self; Julie Otsuka.
Read an abridged version of ‘False Blood’ on the Guardian website.
Additional content on the Granta site.

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