Tagfiction

Tip of the iceberg: The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz

WeightofThingsThe Weight of Things is a little book (140 pages including afterword; small, square format), but it’s the tip of what sounds an extraordinary iceberg of writing. Translator Adrian Nathan West provides illuminating background on Marianne Fritz (in his afterword, at The Paris Review, and in conversation with Kate Zambreno at The Believer). During her lifetime (1948-2007), Fritz produced some 10,000 pages of an unfinished project that she called ‘The Fortress’ – in West’s words, “a vast fictional work analyzing what aspects of Austrian society had conduced it to the twin disasters of the First and Second World War.” Over time, Fritz’s work drifted further and further from convention, as though language itself had been complicit in the atrocities of the 20th century, and she needed a different mode of expression. She went from deliberate misspellings and unusual grammar, through to elaborate diagrams and arrangements of text on the page (just take a look).

This first novel of Fritz’s (originally published in German in 1978, now in English from Dorothy, a publishing project) is in fairly straightforward language, though the shadow of that iceberg is never far away. In the first few pages, we have established some basics: in 1945, Berta Faust’s husband Rudolf did not return from the War; his comrade Wilhelm Schrei came back in his stead, and married Berta. By 1960, Wilhelm has married Berta’s friend Wilhemine; and Berta is in an asylum (‘the fortress’). In 1963, Wilhelmine suggests paying Berta a visit for her fortieth birthday (which just happens to coincide with Wilhelmine’s and Wilhelm’s wedding anniversary); but we sense that Wilhelmine isn’t doing this just to be friendly…

The stage is set for a blackly comic farce, and there are indeed moments of wry humour. Here, for example, is Wilhelmine talking to Wilhelm when he first brings the news of Rudolf:

What’s your story, sir? Are you planning on staying in Donaublau, then? Nowadays all the cities look more or less the same. A heap of rubble is a heap of rubble no matter where you go. Nowadays everyone has to start from scratch.

But this lightness of tone is deceptive. Even the title isn’t as innocuous as it first seems in context at first, not when you start thinking through what it means: “In February of 1945, Berta experienced a moment of freedom from the weight of things, in particular from that weighty circumstance historians call the Second World War.” Berta carries an existential burden with which she struggles to cope, just as the four little words of the novel’s title can’t hold all their meaning in. Wilhelm is too equivocal and reticent to be of much help: “He believed all and nothing, doubted all and nothing, was a born dreamer who never dreamed. In a nutshell: he was a worthy representative of his nation.” In that last comment, Fritz seems to suggest that here is a seed of war in microcosm.

The Weight of Things moves restlessly backwards and forwards in time, which enables the narrative feints that I won’t go into here… More fundamentally, though, it disrupts the reader’s feeling of progression: a period of history flattens out into timelessness, a sense that these circumstances cannot be escaped. When I’d finished The Weight of Things, my immediate feeling was one of waking from a beautiful nightmare – but it’s a nightmare that demands to be revisited.

Now read on…

I read The Weight of Things as it’s the first choice for the new Reading the World Book Club organised by the University of Rochester’s Three Percent blog. The Book Club has its own tag onNew for ‘ Three Percent, and Lizzy Siddal from Lizzy’s Literary Life has also been taking part.

Book details (publisher link)

The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz, tr. Adrian Nathan West (2015), Dorothy, a publishing project paperback

Mrs Dalloway: thoughts of a first-time Woolf reader

MrsDalloway2After my rather breathless reaction to the opening of Mrs Dalloway, I’m now in a position to write about the whole thing; and I can start by explaining why I’m reading it now in particular.

I saw last year that the blogger Heavenali was planning a Virginia Woolf readalong for 2016. Woolf is one of those authors who never made it to the top of my reading list without my being able to say why. I’ve had a copy of Orlando on the shelf for a few years, but it was never the right time to pick it up… And, of course, the ‘right time’ never came. So Heavenali’s #Woolfalong was the impetus I needed: read one Virginia Woolf book (more, if I choose) every two months, from a given selection. For Jan/Feb, it’s either Mrs Dalloway (1925) or To the Lighthouse (1927). I just decided to go for the earlier one, and here we are. (This is also why I put Mrs Dalloway on my Classics Club list and made it my first selection.)

It would be a little awkward, after all that, if I were sitting here about to tell you how much I hated the book. Thankfully it’s quite the opposite, and I wish I had read Woolf much sooner. Then again, it’s hard to know whether I would have taken to Mrs Dalloway in the same way, or whether I needed to be the reader I am now. One advantage of reading it now, though, is that I’m free to approach it however I wish; there’s no inner voice telling me (as it once might) that this book is too old, too ‘difficult’, its subject matter of no interest to me.

So: I was plunged headlong into the mind of Clarissa Dalloway, a lady of London society, as she prepares to host a party that evening. I’ve mentioned previously how the rush of Clarissa’s joy at living sidesteps into (brief, but pointed) acknowledgement that life ends, sometimes abruptly. Now I can see that the novel is made of such transitions: Woolf slides from viewpoint to viewpoint, like a tracking shot that follows a succession of people (the cinematic comparison seems a bit anachronistic, but this is what it felt like).

Woolf’s writing turns the city of London into a moving map of consciousness. There’s a scene early on in the novel where a motor car drives through the streets, and people wonder who might be within: the Prime Minister? the Queen? A subconscious ripple spreads out in the car’s wake:

For thirty seconds all heads were inclined the same way – to the window. Choosing a pair of gloves – should they be to the elbow or above it, lemon or pale grey? – ladies stopped; when the sentence was finished something had happened. Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fulness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional; for in all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire.

This is a tremor spreading through a psychic landscape, and a small example of how Woolf blurs the boundary between thought and event: the characters’ interior worlds become three-dimensional spaces which can be travelled through and acted upon. Clarissa Dallloway’s social circle revolves around the interior: reputations, or a well-composed letter to the editor (“one letter to the Times,” says one character, “cost her more than to organise an expedition to South Africa”); Woolf’s approach exposes all this to the open air.

There are several characters who disrupt Clarissa’s orderly world in the course of the novel; perhaps the one who does so most fundamentally is Septimus Warren Smith, a damaged soldier returned from the War. He hallucinates a dead comrade, and numbness has replaced sensation:

He put down his cup on the little marble table. He looked at people outside; happy they seemed, collecting in the middle of the street, shouting, laughing, squabbling over nothing. But he could not taste, he could not feel. In the tea-shop among the tables and the chattering waiters the appalling fear came over him – he could not feel.

Septimus’ hallucinations destabilize the perceptual ‘consensus’ established in the rest of the novel; and, as the quotation above suggests, he can’t delight in the sensations of living as the likes of Clarissa can. His psychological scars lie buried within the clamour of Clarissa’s polite society, and may emerge without warning.

Of course there’s no way I can hope to encompass this novel in one reading, one blog post. I can see myself returning to Mrs Dalloway again and again, finding something new each time. But there’s more Woolf to come before that, and I’m looking forward to it.

[EDIT 23/01/16: It has been suggested in the comments that my cinematic comparison above may not have been so anachronistic after all. On that note, I must also thank Geraldine Harcourt on Twitter for pointing me towards this 1926 essay of Woolf’s on the cinema. It’s fascinating reading, hinting at what it must have been like to experience film as a brand new medium, as Woolf ponders what artistic and expressive possibilities might be open to film-makers. I must make a point of reading more of her essays during my #Woolfalong year.]

Now read on…

There’s so much out there on Mrs Dalloway, where can I start? Perhaps with these three recent blog reviews: Heavenali; Pechorin’s Journal; 1streading.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Penguin Modern Classics paperback

 

Human Acts by Han Kang

Human ActsWhen you shake off the hundred-plus books of a year’s reading and find that the one clings the longest is the one you read first, chances are that it’s a special book. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was exactly that, so you can imagine how much I was looking forward to reading Human Acts, her latest book to appear in English (like its predecessor, translated superbly from the Korean by Deborah Smith). The new novel is just as powerful (If not more) as I could have hoped; but it also makes for an interesting thematic comparison with the earlier one.

The Vegetarian explored themes of personal control, the body, the larger ramifications of individual actions – but within the context of a scenario that was clearly exaggerated and artificial. Human Acts has a similar approach, but it revolves around a real event: the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, in which students and factory workers demonstrated against the ruling dictatorship, and were brutally suppressed. The fact of that reality – how to deal with it, how to write it – is the black hole that sits at the heart of this novel.

Each chapter is written from the viewpoint of a different character, but the main link between them is the subject of the first: Dong-ho, a boy who goes to the gymnasium being used as a makeshift morgue in order to find the body of his friend, and ends up becoming one of the volunteers handling all the corpses. One thing that particularly struck me on reading Human Acts was that the smallest things were often the most powerful – such as this from the opening chapter:

 

A thin scream rang out several times from the top of the road, and three soldiers carrying guns and clubs raced down over the hilltop, surrounding the young couple. They looked to have been pursuing someone, and to have turned down this alley by mistake.

‘What’s the matter? We’re just on our way to church . . .’

Before the man in the suit had finished speaking, you saw a person’s arm – what? Something you wouldn’t have thought it capable of. Too much to process – what you saw happen to that hand, that back, that leg. A human being. (p. 26)

That first chapter has no shortage of specific detail of violence and the gruesome drudgery of dealing with so many bodies and coffins; but what most hit home was this moment of incomprehension, in which people can only be seen as abstract body parts. I’m grateful to Melissa Harrison for helping me clarify my thoughts on this, when she suggested on Twitter that Human Acts embodies the way one’s brain tries and fails to grasp what is happening. I think she’s right: the horror is right there in front of us, but so vast that it almost becomes background noise – and so it is the smaller moments that leap out, such as an involuntary somersault, or the seven slaps to the face which one character spends her chapter trying to forget.

So much in Human Acts comes back to bodies, not just as repositories of sensation, but also as markers of identity. In one chapter, the spirit of Dong-ho’s friend hovers around his old body as it festers among others in a pile. “Without bodies, how would we know each other?” he asks. “Would I still recognise my sister as a shadow?” (p. 55). Elsewhere, the body becomes a battleground: one chapter describes the torture of a prisoner, who realises that the brutal treatment being meted out to him and his fellow captives is meant to make them believe they are “nothing but filthy stinking bodies” (p. 126). A few pages earlier, however, he describes what it was like to be in the uprising, among the crowd facing the soldiers:

I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean . . . the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it. (p. 121)

A body could be lowest thing of all, but also something greater; it all depends on perception. The struggle for that perception – that meaning – is, it seems to be, underneath all that happens in the novel.

At the end of the book, Han tells of how she came to write Human Acts; by framing this as an epilogue, she brings the problem of writing about the Gwangju Uprising into the fiction itself. We can see echoes in the novel of Han’s experiences as narrated in the epilogue: for example, she was a young child in Gwangju at the time of the uprising, and her first encounters with the event are overheard snippets of adult conversation; likewise, the reader’s view is largely ground-level and piecemeal. But the question remains for Han: how can this event be treated most appropriately in fiction? Rather than zooming out and trying to encompass the uprising in a novel, she focuses in on its component parts – the individual human acts that make up even the largest swathes of history.

Now read on…

Naomi from The Writes of Woman, and Eric from Lonesome Reader, both have fine reviews of Human Acts on their blogs. You can also read an extract from the novel over at Bookanista.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Human Acts (2014) by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (2016), Portobello Books paperback

Three journeys through Patrick Modiano’s Paris

I don’t come from a place you would normally expect to see featuring in fiction. A few years ago I read a novel that appeared to begin in Anytown, England; within a page or two, it became clear that this was not just my home town, but specifically my home village. I can still remember the mental adjustment this caused: going from an abstract idea of a place, I was now trying to position this story within streets I knew.

Of course, I couldn’t truly do this, because even the most familiar place in fiction – just like anything else in fiction – is ultimately a product of the words on the page. These thoughts came to mind when I was sampling Patrick Modiano’s work recently for the first time (in the form of three new translations published by MacLehose Press). All of these short novels are set in Paris – a city I’ve never visited – and often very specific in terms of their geography; but I was constantly reminded of how precarious even this can be when seen through the filter of fiction.

***

BlackNotebookThe first Modiano I read, The Black Notebook (2012; translated by Mark Polizzotti), is the account of a writer named Jean (it’s over a third of the way in before we learn his name; his identity is simply not important in comparison to his testimony and memories). He has a notebook filled with names and other random detail which bring to mind the places and people of his life forty years previously: the Unic Hôtel; an all-night café known as ‘the 66’; various members of a gang; and especially Dannie, the young woman who lived in the American Pavilion of a university even though she was neither American nor a student, and who would take Jean to stay in places where, strictly, they shouldn’t have been.

We know early on that the police questioned Jean about these people at the time; and that, twenty years later, the investigating officer gave him a copy of the case file. Something was going on beyond Jean’s knowledge, and now he is trying to retrace his steps from all those years ago. Here he is, for example, in search of a country house he visited with Dannie:

I called directory enquiries. I asked for the new number of La Barnerie, in Feuilleuse, Eure-et-Loir. And, as on the day when I spoke with the waiter in the Café Luxembourg, my voice was sepulchral. “Is that ‘Feuilleuse’ with two l’s, sir?” I hung up. What was the use? After all this time, the name Mme Dorme had surely disappeared from the directory. The house must have known a succession of occupants, who would have remodelled it so drastically that I would never have recognised it. I spread the map of the Paris region over the table, sorry to set aside the map of Sologne, which had occupied me for an entire afternoon. And I also remembered the ponds – not very far from the house – that reminded me of the region. But it doesn’t matter what the Michelin map says. For me, that house would always remain located in an imaginary enclave in Sologne. (p. 37)

The initial precision of geography gives way to an uncertainty created by the distance of years, to a recognition that the house in Jean’s mind is more important than any he could visit physically – indeed, the house in his mind is more real, because it persists where the external past does not. Eventually, Jean doesn’t care whether his recollection of the weather or the season in a particular memory is correct; perhaps the memory alone is enough.

It seems clear that Jean is not revisiting old haunts in order to reconstruct ‘what happened’ – after all, he has a file of documents to help him with that. But it also seems to me that he is not trying to bridge the gap between his knowledge and what the file tells him; he’s more or less resigned impossibility of that. Rather, Jean is doing all this – writing all this – in an effort to validate his experiences. He wants to feel that the Dannie he knew, and the times he spent with her, were real. Perhaps writing these memories down is the best chance he has for that to happen. In this way, Dannie exists only in Jean’s words, just like the Paris they shared.

***

LostYouth

2007’s In the Café of Lost Youth (translated by Euan Cameron) is not a single account but a composite, revolving around one individual in particular: Jacqueline Delanque, nicknamed ‘Louki’. We first glimpse her as a regular at the Café Condé: the then-student addressing us can recall that there was something subtly different about Louki in comparison with everyone else, but is unable to offer anything much more concrete – it simply wasn’t the done thing at the Condé to discuss one’s background. There was one regular who kept a notebook listing customers’ names and addresses; but what, the narrator asks, can that tell you about any of them? Besides, he remembers Louki being at the Condé before she is first mentioned in the notebook; his memory, however partial, is worth more than any written list.

Our first narrator can give us only a surface impression of Louki. Our second might ostensibly be able to reach further: he is a private detective who infiltrated the circle at the Condé after being hired by Louki’s husband, Jean-Pierre Choureau, to find her. The detective is able to follow in some of Louki’s footsteps, and sketch in details of her life; but he decides not to disclose his findings to Choureau, because he respects the integrity of the life she chose to hide from her husband. As the detective puts it: “By what right do we break into people’s lives and what an impertinence to probe their hearts and minds – and to ask them for explanations – on what grounds?” (p. 63). He may as well be talking about readers here, questioning whether it’s not a little presumptive for us to expect to understand everything about a fictional character.

After the private detective, we hear from Louki herself. As you might expect, this is where we learn more detail about her background, and the ways in which she very literally tried to escape her old life. And yet:

I have lapses of memory. Or rather certain details come back to me in a jumble. For five years, I didn’t want to think about all that again. And it was enough for the taxi to go along the street for me to recognise the neon signs – Aux Noctambules, Aux Pierrots . . . I no longer remember what the place in rue de La Rochefoucauld was called. Le Rouge Cloître? Chez Dante? Le Canter? Yes, Le Canter. No customer of Le Condé would have spent time in Le Canter. There are impassable frontiers in life. And yet I had been very surprised on my first visits to Le Condé to recognise a customer I had seen at Le Canter […] (p. 84)

Here, as in The Black Notebook, we have precise geography coming up against the fallibility of memory. A simple place name is enough to trigger a recollection in Louki, but the name of the old restaurant escapes her; she thinks of it as the kind of place where no one from the Condé would go, and yet someone did… Ultimately, Louki’s testimony is as precarious as anyone else’s.

The final narrator is one of Louki’s lovers; we learn that he is a would-be writer, which may give us good cause to wonder about the exact nature of thethree preceding accounts. This narrator talks about the ‘neutral zones’ of Paris: “no-man’s-lands, where you were on the fringes of everything, in transit, or even suspended” (p. 112). This could be seen as a metaphor for Louki’s life as we come to understand it; but, really, any idea that anyone (including Louki herself) had of her emerges from such a neutral zone. She exists only in the combined, fallible recollections of the people who encountered her; and those recollections scatter once the final page is turned.

***

One advantage of reading several works by the same author in quick succession is that it allows you to spot similarities, connections, themes. One problem is the potential to be distracted by superficial commonalities. I could do that easily enough with Modiano: here’s another writer-character looking back, another mysterious and captivating young woman, more fuzzy memories… well, yes, but so what? All you end up with is a caricature of the author’s work. If the books resound – and Modiano’s did, for me – then it’s worth listening carefully.

NeighbourhoodMy final Modiano novel for now is So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood (2014; translated by Euan Cameron). As the book begins, our protagonist, writer Jean Daragne, is contacted by one Gilles Ottolini, who is keen to meet so he can return an address book that he has found – but also because he wants to talk to Daragne about a particular historical matter of interest. Ottolini is accompanied at the meeting by a woman named Chantal Grippay; both of them will shortly disrupt Daragne’s solitary existence.

This novel is written in the third person, but the voice and concerns are familiar:

[Daragne] wondered whether one of the windows of his father’s office had not overlooked that side of the street. Which floor? But these memories drifted away like bubbles of soap or fragments of a dream that vanished on waking. His memory would have been livelier in the café in rue des Mathurins, opposite the theatre, where he used to wait for his mother, or in the close vicinity of the gare Saint-Lazare, an area he had known well in the past. But no. It would not have been. It was no longer the same city. (pp. 11-2)

(Now, if I were writing about So You Don’t Get Lost on its own here, this quotation would be giving a flavour of the writing, and helping to illustrate what I want to say about the novel. It can still do those things, but quoting it here, after talking about The Black Notebook and In the Café of Lost Youth, also starts to feel a little like labouring a point. It shouldn’t, because the point is so central to Modiano’s work; which is why I want to try to maintain a sense of each individual novel.)

As with Jean in The Black Notebook, Daragne finds old memories being sparked as he reads documents and travels the city. The difference is that, where Jean’s act of remembering is an attempt to affirm his experiences, Daragne’s is more a recovery of experiences. Ottolini and Grippay are gradually displaced in the text as Daragne relives long-buried memories. For better or worse, the Paris he knew looms larger than the one he now lives in.

***

Thinking about these three novels together, I am struck by the subtly different ways in whcih they encroach upon the same imaginative space. In The Black Notebook, Jean seeks to hold on to the past he knew in the face of the police file’s ‘official’ past. In the Café of Lost Youth presents Louki as a person whose totality is beyond the grasp of any single individual, not least herself. In So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, Daragne conjures raw fragments of memory from the prompts of unknowing others. In all three books, the past is a jigsaw to be pieced together, if you can trust the pieces; and the city changes with every new (or old) experience.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

The Black Notebook (2012) by Patrick Modiano, tr. Mark Polizzotti (2016), MacLehose Press hardback

In the Café of Lost Youth (2007) by Patrick Modiano, tr. Euan Cameron (2016), MacLehose Press hardback

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood (2014) by Patrick Modiano, tr. Euan Cameron (2015), MacLehose Press hardback

Dear Infidel by Tamim Sadikali

Tamim Sadikali’s first novel is set around Eid ul-Fitr in 2004, and focuses on five British Muslim protagonists each dealing with their own personal, familial or cultural struggles. Four of them are cousins: City worker Aadam has his doubts about whether Britain is the best place for him to raise a family. His strictly observant brother Salman, however, is quite certain that his children should be protected from non-Islamic influences. Meanwhile, their cousin Pasha has largely turned his back on Islam, though he still doesn’t feel settled, as he leaves his white girlfriend shortly before travelling down to London for the family gathering. And Pasha’s brother Imtiaz is just drifting listlessly through life, with no berth in sight. Alongside these four there is Nazneen, Aadam’s wife, who perhaps feels most keenly being caught between two cultures, as she still looks back on life with her old boyfriend Martin.

Dear Infidel follows the characters separately to begin with, before bringing them together for the Eid celebrations, where tensions rise to the surface and lives are changed by their confrontations with each other. Sadikali uses a range of styles and approaches throughout the book, which works well in individual sequences (one of my favourites alternates a feverish Imtiaz’s dream of playing cricket for Pakistan with a radio debate on Islam that’s being broadcast as he sleeps), and across the novel as a whole. Dear Infidel never settles: its characters’ lives are still in motion, and so is the experience of reading, even after the last page is turned.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Dear Infidel (2014) by Tamim Sadikali, Hansib Publications paperback

The hand and the pickaxe

Everything is endless but nothing remains as it is. That’s a lesson your hand has learned, right down to the bones and the nerves; the hand that no longer shakes the air like a fist of bronze, but hovers uncertainly — with bulging veins — over the table, the hand that has to reassess dimensions and sizes, heaviness and lightness. Have you noticed how unsteady it is when you shake hands with people, give directions or touch things? Perhaps not, because against the background noise of flesh and blood, you cannot hear that mysterious and perfidious pickaxe chipping away, as the stones of the fortress start to work loose from the inside. But the rasping noise of that pickaxe comes straight from the lungs. It cannot always be muffled with the palm of a hand or a pocket handkerchief.

— Amjad Nasser, Land of No Rain (translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright)

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Land of No Rain (2011) by Amjad Nasser, tr. Jonathan Wright (2014), Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing paperback

The Emperor’s New House: The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić

FollyThe South African writer Ivan Vladislavić now has the most titles of any author on And Other Stories‘ roster; and when they keep plucking gems like this from his bibliography, it’s not hard to see why. The Folly is Vladislavić’s first novel, originally published in 1993 towards the end of apartheid; it’s as delicious and disturbing a tale of one succumbing to another’s illusions as you might wish.

We are introduced to Mr and Mrs Malgas, who live a mundane suburban existence:

The frog-mug had been bought at a sale of factory rejects, and for that reason it was Mrs Malgas’s favourite, warts and all. Mr Malgas thought it was in bad taste. He stirred the coffee, scraping the frog on the murky bottom maliciously with the spoon. He fished the tea-bag out of his own mug, which was chocolate-brown and had I ♥ DIY printed on it in biscuit. He thought this one was gimmicky too, but it had been a Father’s Day present from his spouse and he used it out of a sense of duty.

The couple watch a shanty burning on the evening news, but the distance of the television (and the cosseting effect of that Vladislavić’s prose) ensures that this doesn’t intrude unduly into their lives. They are known to us only as ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’, which increases the sense of them as cartoonish figures, but also – subtly – denies them the dignity of their own names.

A mysterious figure called Nieuwenhuizen moves on to the plot next to the Malgases’ house and sets up camp, using the rubbish around him for furniture. After a spell of observing him for a distance, Mr Malgas goes up to Nieuwenhuizen to find out what he’s doing. It turns out that the newcomer is building a house, though he hasn’t started yet. The owner of a hardware shop, Mr Malgas is inspired by this, and is soon helping Nieuwenhuizen out: clearing the ground to lay down a grid pattern, hammering in nails for cat’s-cradles of string that somehow correspond to the great plan… Actually, Mr Malgas does rather more than help out, and since Nieuwenhuizen insists on being called ‘Father’ (and Mr is quite happy to oblige), you can imagine what sort of relationship is established between them.

To recall another And Other Stories novel, Nieuwenhuizen is like Joe, the salesman from Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, in his ability to manipulate others through language and rhetoric. Vladislavić’s approach is a little different: where DeWitt immerses her readers in Joe’s business-speak and does not allow them to gain purchase outside it, in The Folly we see Mr Malgas’s willing capitulation; Nieuwenhuizen’s contempt for him; and Mrs Malgas looking on aghast. As a result, we don’t quite get caught up in Mr’s enthusiasm, but we are swept along in the wake of its unstoppable tide, and we fear where it might end up.

As the novel progresses, the idea of Nieuwenhuizen’s house grows stronger – stronger than (or perhaps indistinguishable from) the reality. Here, The Folly put me in mind of The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila, in the blurring of its imaginative and physical space. But the transformative power of The Folly is all its own. Let this novel whisper in your ear, and listen closely.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

The Folly (1993) by Ivan Vladislavić, And Other Stories paperback

Lightning Rods (2011) by Helen DeWitt, And Other Stories paperback

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2013) by Iván Repila, tr. Sophie Hughes (2015), Pushkin Press paperback

A Ghost’s Story: The Bookseller review

The Bookseller website has my review of A Ghost’s Story, the first novel by Lorna Gibb. It’s the tale of the spirit Katie King, her manifestations and observations of the human world – but does she exist beyond the text of her spirit writings?

I see all things and yet have no eyes, understand thoughts yet have no physical mind with which to process languages, can hear music, the rustle of leaves, the sound of  the Adriatic, yet have no ears. It is as if I am dreaming, have dreamt, the world we live in, as if I interact with imaginings. I see some people and know their past, how they have come to this, can watch their earlier life unfold around me, feel them living, although I do not.

Read the full review here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

A Ghost’s Story (2015) by Lorna Gibb, Granta hardback

When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow

Have I mentioned how much I enjoy reading Dan Rhodes? Of course I have: see previous reviews of Gold, Little Hands Clapping, and Marry Me. But there’s enjoying a book, and then there’s this.

Rhodes’s latest novel (new in paperback from Aardvark Bureau), When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow, sees Richard Dawkins and his put-upon assistant Smee, on the way to the village of Upper Bottom, where the Professor is due to address the All Bottoms Women’s Institute. But bad weather sees the pair stranded in Market Horton, where they end up staying with the local vicar and his wife…

First things first: this book is hilarious, the funniest I’ve read in ages. The Dawkins character is splendidly pompous, and Rhodes takes every opportunity to puncture him. To say much more about how he does so would risk taking away from the fun of reading the novel, which I don’t want to do. So here’s a quotation to give you an idea:

[…]’Do you think I am kind, Smee?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘Well, do you?’

Smee was desperate to make up lost ground. ‘You are very kind, Professor.’

‘You are quite right. I have devoted swathes of my life to kindly telling people how ignorant they are, and correcting them, and giving them the opportunity to think as I do. Look at me now, traipsing through the countryside, taking only modest fees, sometimes no fee at all, as I inform the clueless that there is no God, just as there is no goblin with a purple face, and that  there is no consolation, none whatsoever, to be found in religion. If anybody is kind around here, Smee, it is me – and I am unanimous in that.’

The humour isn’t all targeted in one direction, though: Dawkins has to put up with facile questions from the residents of Market Horton, as well as requests for favours such as delivering kittens (the thinking being, he knows about science, so he must be able to do that sort of stuff). The novel reads like a broad, delightful (and sharp) cartoon.

Ah, but wait. Something else that I like about Dan Rhodes’s work is that he’ll create these cartoonish scenarios, and then suddenly show you something real underneath that transforms what you’ve been reading. He does it here, and I’d better not say any more; but if you read the book (which you should), you’ll see what I mean…

Okay, so this has ended up being one of those blog posts where I basically end up saying, “This book is great; please read it,” without going into an awful lot of detail as to why. Well, so be it. I want you to enjoy this book as much as I did, and I think the fewer specifics you know, the better. Just know that it’s Dan Rhodes on superb form.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow (2014) by Dan Rhodes, Aardvark Bureau paperback

The Buried Giant: the ferryman

This is the second in a series of posts on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant; the first post is here, and there’s a more general post about reading Ishiguro here.

The Buried Giant is the story of Axl and Beatrice, two elderly Britons in a post-Roman land suffused with a ‘mist’ that induces (or perhaps simply is) a kind of amnesia. The couple decide to visit their son’s village – though they have not seen him in so long, they’re sure he waits for them – and their journey forms the basis of Ishiguro’s novel.

The world through which the couple travel is both literal and metaphorical, and these aspects are deeply intertwined. I’ll show you what I mean by talking about the quality (the atmosphere) of one scene in particular. Towards the beginning of the novel, Axl and Beatrice come across a ruined villa where they meet an old woman and a tall man. He is a boatman who ferries people to a special island, one where they must usually go alone and will generally not see another person for as long as they remain. The old woman was planning to go to the island with her husband, but (she says) the ferryman tricked them and she has been alone for forty years. Now, whenever the boatman comes to rest at this villa, the woman appears to taunt him (as he sees it).

There’s a pretty clear reading here of the ferryman being one who takes souls to the land of the dead. Yet it seems to me that this can’t be reduced to a straightforwardly literal or straightforwardly metaphorical reading. The situation has a ritualistic absurdity that makes it seem like something out of a folktale; yet it still feels functional within the world of the book – the boatman takes people to an actual place, but what manner of place? I’m finding it difficult to articulate exactly what I mean, because to do so I have to separate out qualities that are bound together. Perhaps I could say that this villa and its occupants are in a landscape that slides between the geographical and symbolic as you look at it, which means the ferryman and his journey can be real and metaphorical at different times.

This is a treacherous land to navigate!

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Buried Giant (2015) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber hardback

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