Tagbook review

An avant-garde seaside farce: Berg by Ann Quin

The first sentence sits there on its own page, drawing you in, enticing you to read on:

A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…

I first read this sentence at the top of Max Cairnduff’s review in 2010, and the book caught my imagination. But I didn’t read it: I guess I wasn’t in the right place as a reader back then to appreciate it. Still, I never forgot Max’s enthusiasm for Berg, and when And Other Stories published a new edition in March, that was my cue to give it a try.

Berg (1964) was the first of Ann Quin’s four novels. It is the tale of one Alistair Berg, a hair-tonic salesman who lives with his mother Edith (her imagined voice is a constant presence in his mind). His father Nathaniel left them some years ago; this seems to Berg’s principal reason for wanting to do away with the man, though he’s constantly trying to justify it to himself:

Of course it’s ridiculous to think the whole thing is simply a vehicle for revenge, or even resentment – hardly can it be called personal, not now, indeed I have never felt so objective. If inherent in the age, well and good, though historically speaking the idea perhaps is a little decadent.

Berg is even hesitant to actually do the deed, often passing up the chance when it arises. He seems at least as interested in getting together with Judith, the woman his father now loves. Berg takes an adjacent room in their lodgings; he can often hear them through the thin partition. Intense feelings abound in such circumstances, and Quin’s prose is an apposite medley of description, internal monologue, authorial commentary, and Berg’s own imaginings. Here, for example, is Berg remembering Sunday school and childhood summers:

Only perhaps now recalling the shaft of light, the summer’s half-hearted breezes through the swinging chapel door; the mumbled hymn-singing no one ever really knew; peering through a crack in a grave, in awe at the stick-like bones, or staring at unpronounceable names inscribed on marble, counteracted by own writing on pavements and garden walls: Josie loves Aly; Barney Broadbent stinks. The tree with the swing, the hollyhock bowers; untouchable ladybirds, catching a Manx by its stubby tail; trespassers be warned. But you king of the jungle, a warrior supreme. I see an eye through a slit in the wall, my own unique eye, insouciant at everything, beyond what it can now see.

As Max says, Quin’s writing requires concentration; but, with passages like this, I think there’s ample reward. I also agree with Max that Berg is very funny, surprisingly so: I wasn’t expecting it to turn into an outright farce, but it does. Berg gets into scrapes with a pet budgie, a ventriloquist’s dummy… I won’t say more, as I think these are best discovered for yourself.

Berg is also enriched by its sense of place. The unnamed seaside town is recognisably Quin’s hometown of Brighton, and it’s depicted in a way that reflects the rawness of Alistair Berg’s situation. For example, the boarding house is memorably seedy: “Door upon door, separated merely by strips of plaster and pink wallpaper damp-stained: the carpet as though just unrolled leading perhaps to a saw-dust ring. Everywhere the smell of disinfectant.”

If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate in ten years of book blogging, it’s that so-called ‘experimental’, ‘challenging’ fiction is not sealed off in some rarefied bubble, but belongs equally to an ordinary reader like me. Berg is a prime example: for a novel with this kind of humour and setting to be written in this kind of language still feels unexpected to me, although it shouldn’t (any other suggestions will be gratefully received!). I’ll be reading Quin again, probably The Unmapped Country, the short fiction collection published by And Other Stories in 2018.

Elsewhere

Lee Rourke has written several interesting articles on Quin’s work. Max links to two, from 2007 and 2010; and there’s this one from 2018.

Book details

Berg (1964) by Ann Quin, And Other Stories, 160 pages, paperback.

Tempest: an Anthology

Tempest (ed. Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson) is a new anthology from Patrician Press themed around the current ‘tempestuous’ political climate. It brings together fiction, non-fiction and poetry; as I’m more of a fiction reader, I’m going to highlight a few of my favourite stories.

‘The wall’ by Emma Bamford is a good example of how voice can shape a story. It’s narrated by a builder talking to his mates down the pub (“Lord, can’t a man get a bit of peace with his pint of an evening after a hard day’s labour? If I tell you, will you leave me be?”). The story his friends are so keen to hear concerns the time he was invited to America to work on a new border wall, and it didn’t work out quite as anticipated. The homely narrative voice does just enough to push the tale to one side of reality (it’s a voice that doesn’t belong in the situation it’s describing), without losing sight of the seriousness beneath.

Some of the stories in Tempest work as evocative snapshots of a strange new world, and allow the reader’s imagination to fill in the details. ‘The carp whisperer’ by Petra McQueen and Katy Wimhurst takes us to a highly stratified world of water shortages. The protagonist is mistaken for someone who can talk to – and maybe even shapeshift into – carp. All this comes together into a striking final image of rebellion.

Justine Sless’ ‘Tempest on Tyneside’ is another of these strange snapshots. In a country beset by storms and prone to flooding, everyone is still heading to the North East for the football. But first a visitor, Miranda, has to work out the underlying geology and make sure its safe. I think that’s what she is doing, anyway; I must admit, I didn’t grasp everything that’s going on in this story. Still, it doesn’t matter to me, not when there’s such spectacle to fill the mind as the image of hundreds of football supporters on bikes descending on a brightly lit stadium while a storm rages at sea.

‘Fenner’ by Suzy Norman is a poignant tale of trying to move on after loss. It is ten years since the narrator’s musician husband, Ray, died, and now Dewi, a film-maker, wants to make a tribute to him. The narrator accepts Dewi’s request for an interview, but this stirs up old memories and brings change to the old house she shared with Ray. Norman’s writing carefully illuminates the very beginning of a new future for the protagonist.

Book details

Tempest: an Anthology (2019), ed. Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson, Patrician Press, 178 pages, paperback.

The Storyteller – Pierre Jarawan

My post today is the last stop on a blog tour for The Storyteller, the debut novel by Lebanese-German author Pierre Jarawan (translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl, published earlier this month by World Editions). This is a big yarn of a novel, exploring family secrets.

In 1992, young Samir lives with his family in Germany. He’s never been to Lebanon, but is fascinated by his father’s accounts of the place:

As a boy, I felt an insatiable longing to see Lebanon. It was like the enormous curiosity inspired by a legendary beauty no one has ever seen. The passion and fervour in the way Father spoke about his native land spread to me like a fever. The Lebanon I grew up with was an idea. The idea of the most beautiful country in the world, its rocky coastline dotted with ancient and mysterious cities whose colourful harbours opened out to the sea.

One day, Samir’s father disappears, and family life falls apart. Years later, Samir decides that the time is right to travel to Lebanon and try to find out what happened to his father. He discovers a life and history that were unknown to him – and that the fantastical tales his father would tell him as a child had an unexpected basis in reality.

The Storyteller examines Lebanese history on the smaller canvas of a family’s story, and considers how stories themselves may distort reality. It’s expansive and engaging stuff.

Book details

The Storyteller (2016) by Pierre Jarawan, tr. Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl (2019), World Editions, 468 pages, paperback.

The Faculty of Dreams – Sara Stridsberg: #MBI2019

Sara Stridsberg, The Faculty of Dreams (2006)
Translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner (2019)

Well, this turned out to be my favourite book from the Man Booker International Prize longlist. It’s inspired by the life of Valerie Solanas (1936-88), who wrote the SCUM Manifesto and, in 1968, shot Andy Warhol. This is not, however, a fictionalised biography: Stridsberg describes it as a “literary fantasy”, playing fast and loose with even the known facts of Solanas’ life. For example, in real life, Solanas was born in the New Jersey city of Ventnor; in The Faculty of Dreams, she’s born in the desert town of ‘Ventor’ in Georgia – even the desert is fictional.

The narrative focus switches back and forth between different periods of Solanas’ life, up to the point where she lies dying in a San Francisco hotel room; here, the narrator will often speak directly with Valerie, in the form of a transcript. Stridsberg’s writing, in Bragan-Turner’s translation, is often invigorating to read. Here, for example, is a passage from near the beginning, looking back on Solanas’ life from her death bed:

And if you did not have to die, you would be Valerie again in your silver coat and Valerie again with your handbag full of manuscripts and your building blocks of theory. And if you did not have to die now, your doctorate would shimmer on the horizon. And it would be that time again, the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, Ventor, Maryland, New York and that belief in yourself: the writer, the scientist, me. The great hunger and swirling vortex in your heart, the conviction.

The effect of building a bespoke version of Solanas’ life in the novel is to keep the central questions of that life unresolved. It helps maintain a heightened sense of reality that runs throughout The Faculty of Dreams and makes the book all the more compelling.

Book details

The Faculty of Dreams (2006) by Sara Stridsberg, tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner (2019), MacLehose Press, 340 pages, paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

The Pine Islands – Marion Poschmann: #MBI2019

Marion Poschmann, The Pine Islands (2017)
Translated from the German by Jen Calleja (2019)

After dreaming that his wife has cheated on him, Gilbert Silvester leaves Germany for Japan, for no reason he can articulate. Inspired by the travelogues of Bashō, Gilbert decides to go to the pine-covered islands of Matsushima in the north. He takes under his wing a young man named Yosa Tamagotchi, whom he stops from throwing himself under a train. We’ll find you a better spot, Gilbert tells him.

At first – with Gilbert’s tenuous pretext for fleeing home, the hipsterish nature of his job (a lecturer on beards in film), and his unshakeable confidence in his own rightness – it seemed clear to me that The Pine Islands would be spoofing the stereotypical, self-absorbed white Western male who goes off to distant lands in order to ‘find himself’. There are some nicely amusing moments, such as when Gilbert tries composing a haiku:

Hi from Tokyo –
Cherry trees no longer bloom,
only bare concrete.

Gilbert read his poem through a few times and concluded that he had reached the heart of the matter. The rules of the haiku, which he had learnt from the appendix of the Bashō book, had been perfectly realised within these lines: five, then seven, then once more five syllables, an allusion to the season, a sensuous impression, universal and seemingly impersonal, in which a sensitive reader would have nevertheless been able to decipher profound emotion.

Well, if you say so, Gilbert.

As Poschmann’s novel progresses, Gilbert’s journey of self-discovery gains more weight. There are lovely passages of nature writing in the latter stages (it’s a carefully controlled translation by Jen Calleja). The thing is that, when the book takes Gilbert more seriously, it ends up undermining the tone of critique that came before, and Japan itself feels more like a backdrop than a place. The result is a frustratingly uneven novel.

Book details

The Pine Islands (2017) by Marion Poschmann, tr. Jen Calleja (2019), Serpent’s Tail, 184 pages, hardback.

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

International Dylan Thomas Prize blog tour: House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

My post today is part of a blog tour for the Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize, which is awarded to a novel written in English by a writer aged 39 or under (39 being the age at which Dylan Thomas died). The a blog tour is looking at the books on the longlist. The book I’ve chosen is House of Stone, the debut novel by Zimbabwean writer Novuyo Rosa Tshuma.

House of Stone is narrated by the orphaned 24-year-old Zamani, who lives with Abednego and Agnes Mlambo. He would like to be more than a lodger in this family and sees his chance when the Mlambos’ son Bukhosi goes missing. In an effort to ingratiate himself with the couple he refers to his “surrogate” father and mother, Zamani asks Abednego and Mama Agnes about their lives. He tries his best to oil the wheels:

We spent the whole of yesterday seated in the sitting room, in a battle of wills, me trying to get [Abednego] to take just one sip of the whisky, he pursing his lips, glaring at the wall, willing Bukhosi to reappear, declaring himself to be mute unless the boy popped up abracadabra before his eyes, and snapping at me to shurrup when he I pleaded with him to continue with his story.

Despite initial reluctance, Abednego does continue with his story, as does Agnes. Through their accounts, Tshuma explores the history of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, while telling an intriguing family story. Zamani also has secrets of his own, adding up to a multi-layered and engaging book.

Book details

House of Stone (2018) by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, Atlantic Books, 374 pages, hardback. [Paperback published on Thursday 4 April.]

Take a look at the other stops on the blog tour in the graphic above. The shortlist of the Dylan Thomas Prize will be announced on Tuesday 2 April.

Celestial Bodies – Jokha Alharthi: #MBI2019

Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies (2010)
Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth (2018)

Today’s book from the Man Booker International Prize longlist is the first I’ve read from Oman. It’s the second novel by Jokha Alharthi, a tale of two families and social change across several generations. At its centre are three sisters, each of whom takes a different approach to love and marriage. Mayya marries a merchant’s son at her parents’ instruction, though she has an unrequited love for another man (she names her first daughter London, after the city where the man of her dreams studied). Asma loves literature and feels sure that marriage and motherhood will be wonderful, though this is not necessarily reflected in what she reads:

Why wasn’t there even one book, among all of the volumes on her shelves, which singled out motherhood as the radiant experience it must be? Had her grandfather, Shaykh Masoud, whose library her mother had inherited, not been interested in motherhood? Or were books in general reticent on this subject? She didn’t know the answer to that one, since she had never seen another library in her life.

The third sister, Khawla, has waited since childhood to marry her cousin, and still waits for him, though he has now emigrated to Canada, and she waits for him to return. All three women have their individual ideals when it comes to love; Celestial Bodies explores the different ways in which reality measures up (or fails to measure up) to those ideals.

Alongside the three sisters’ tales are episodes from the lives of other characters, which reflect different experiences and common themes across the generations. Mostly the chapters are presented out of chronological order, which turns Alharthi’s novel into a forest of stories.

Book details

Celestial Bodies (2010) by Jokha Alharthi, tr. Marilyn Booth (2018), Sandstone Press, 244 pages, paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

The Years – Annie Ernaux: #MBI2019

Annie Ernaux, The Years (2008)
Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (2017)

Annie Ernaux’s The Years begins with a series of scattered memories, and reflections on the ephemeral nature of existence:

Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated. All there will be is silence and no words to say it. Nothing will come out of the open mouth, neither I nor me. Language will continue to put the world into words. In conversation around a holiday table, we will be nothing but a first name, increasingly faceless, until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.

This paragraph stopped me in my tracks; it wouldn’t be the last time that happened during the book.

I can understand now I’ve read it why The Years has been accepted as a novel for the purposes of the Man Booker International Prize: it’s not so much the detail of history that lingers as the shape of the text. I’d describe The Years as an individual (auto)biography suspended in a broader account of history. It follows the life and times of a character (presumably a version of Ernaux herself) from 1941 to 2006. The wider historical canvas is mostly kept at ‘eye level’, stitched together from details that emphasise the experience of living through a particular moment in time. For example, the 1950s:

Beneath the surface of the things that never changed, last year’s circus posters with the photo of Roger Lanzac, First Communion photos handed out to schoolfriends, the Club des chansonniers on Radio Luxembourg, our days swelled with new desires. On Sunday afternoons, we crowded around the windows of the general electrics shop to watch television. Cafés invested in TV sets to lure clientele.

Ernaux also evokes the ways in which her protagonist’s mental landscapes change. The world of childhood, immediately after the Second World War, is a world of family voices telling stories, and traditions handed down:

Memory was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects. It passed body to body, over the years, from the remotest countrysides of France and other parts of Europe: a heritage unseen in the photos, lying beyond individual difference and the gaps between the goodness of some and the wickedness of others.

Over the period narrated in The Years, the old voices fade and machines become the main repository of knowledge (“Only facts presented on TV achieved the status of reality”). The old stories are ultimately replaced by the internet’s grab-bag of information. Memory itself fragments. This is what I like most about The Years: the way it evokes the changing texture of living and remembering through time.

Book details

The Years (2008) by Annie Ernaux, tr. Alison L. Strayer (2017), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 232 pages, paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

The Death of Murat Idrissi: #MBI2019

Tommy Wieringa, The Death of Murat Idrissi (2017)
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (2019)

My reading for this year’s Man Booker International Prize begins with this novella by Dutch writer Tommy Wieringa, which draws its inspiration from a court case that the author attended in 2004.

We are introduced to Ilhan and her friend Thouraya, daughters of Moroccan immigrants to the Netherlands. During a visit of their own to Morocco, the young women are persuaded by their old acquaintance Saleh to conceal nineteen-year-old Murat Idrissi in the boot of their car for the journey back. When they return to Europe, they discover that Murat has died in transit; Saleh promptly disappears, leaving the women to work out for themselves what to do.

I particularly appreciated Wieringa’s portrait of characters caught between two cultures. When she was younger, Ilhan had a strong sense of herself as Dutch, one that seemed set to be reciprocated by society, but the response to 9/11 changed that:

Either you are with us, said the most powerful man in the world, or you are with the terrorists. The plans, his words – they broke her world, the whole world, in two, into we over here and them over there. And Ilhan became them. And her body became over there. She felt how the enmity nestled in her organs, how she became infected by the fear and the aversion of others. That is how she became what others thought they were seeing, a double transformation.

The women’s relationship with their Moroccan roots is complicated: for example, Thouraya is proud of the hardiness she has inherited from her father, but dismissive of what he endured to get to where he did. When Ilhan and Thouraya view living conditions in Morocco, it is clear they are doing so through Westernised eyes. Murat’s death brings these issues into sharp focus for the women, as they have a tangible reminder in their car boot of the real distance between themselves and where they’ve just been.

Wieringa’s characterisation can be broad-brush, but his writing (in Sam Garrett’s translation) is sharp. The use of a dead Moroccan as a plot device gives me pause, but on balance I think Wieringa honours the gravity of Murat’s situation, rather than just exploiting his death to teach the protagonists a lesson. Ultimately Murat remains the book’s centre, all the more so because he is denied a voice of his own.

I found The Death of Murat Idrissi a welcome addition to the MBIP longlist, and I will certainly be reading Wieringa again in the future.

Book details

The Death of Murat Idrissi (2017) by Tommy Wieringa, tr. Sam Garrett (2019), Scribe Publications, 102 pages, hardback. [UK edition] [Australian edition]

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

Notes to Self – Emilie Pine

Emilie Pine is an academic at University College Dublin. Notes to Self is a collection of personal essays, first published in Ireland by Tramp Press, and now given a UK edition by Penguin. The book begins with Pine and her sister visiting their seriously ill father in a Greek hospital:

By the time we find him, he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours.

This is typically unflinching of Pine as she delves into her life across the six essays. In the first piece, ‘Notes on Intemperance’, she details that immediate situation, where she and her sister have to clean up and look after their father because the hospital is so understaffed, but also her complicated relationship with her father’s illness. He was an alcoholic, which caused liver failure and the haemmorage that has put him in hospital, but also left him cold and antagonistic as a father. For Pine, this made him difficult to love:

I used to push myself to reject him, to walk away, failing each time. I oscillated between caring for the man who was afflicted with this terrible disease, and attempting to protect myself from the emotional fallout of having an alcoholic father. It took years of refusing him empathy before I realised that the only person I was hurting was myself.

Pine captures these ambivalent feelings on the page, but she also confronts what it means for herself and her family to write about life in this way. Yet ultimately there’s a sense that this act of writing is vital: “what my dad really taught me, despite himself perhaps, is that writing is a way of making sense of the world, a way of processing – of possessing – thought and emotion, a way of making something worthwhile out of pain.”

Through writing, Pine then takes possession of deeply personal experiences: infertility, her parents’ separation, sexual violence. Sometimes the subject of an essay is intertwined with writing itself. For example, Pine begins ‘Notes on Bleeding & Other Crimes’ with the metaphor of a writer bleeding on to the page, before going to consider periods and societal taboos around her body. At the end of this essay, she wonders what her body might say if it could tell its story:

I think it would talk about blood. Its mesmerising flow and its ebb. About ending and renewing. I think it would talk about the touch of my fingers and my hands and another’s lips. The feel of skin on skin. Wet and slow. Soft and hard. The shock of cold, the pleasure of warmth…

Notes to Self is a raw and powerful reading experience. It’s often harrowing, but there are also compelling moments of hope and optimism. The passage I’ve just quoted reads like that to me: hope through writing, the stuff of life taken apart and rebuilt to find a way forward.

Book details

Notes to Self (2018) by Emilie Pine, Hamish Hamilton, 206 pages, hardback. Also available in Tramp Press paperback.

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