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.

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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

The Miner: Shiny New Books review

There’s a new issue of Shiny New Books in the world, and I’ve reviewed for it a new translation of a classic Japanese novel: The Miner by Natsume Sōseki, first serialised in 1909, and now published by Aardvark Bureau in a fresh translation from Jay Rubin.

The Miner is narrated by a young man who flees from Tokyo and his broken relationship, and finds work in a copper mine. The focus of the novel is very much on the narrator’s state of mind, the psychological landscape through which he travels:

The more I walk, the deeper I can feel myself tunneling into this out-of-focus world with no escape. Behind me, I can see Tokyo, where the sun shines, but it’s already part of a different life. As long as I’m in this world, I can never reach out and touch it. They’re two separate levels of existence. But Tokyo is still there, warm and bright, I can see it-so clearly that I want to call out to it from the shadows. Meanwhile where my feet are going is a formless, endless blur, and all I can do for the rest of my life is wander into this enormous nothing, lost.

Read the full review here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Miner (1909) by Natsume Sōseki, tr. Jay Rubin (2015), Aardvark Bureau paperback

Spill Simmer Falter Wither: We Love This Book review

I have a review up at We Love This Book of Sara Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither. The book is narrated by a fiftysomething man to his one-eyed dog, but in an oblique and rambling voice that reveals just how much the protagonist has to say (sometimes without realising it) when he finally has someone to talk to:

My father’s name was the same word as for the small insectivorous passerine birds found most commonly photographed on Christmas cards, with orange-red blushed breasts as though they’ve been water-boarded by molten amber and stained for life. But my father’s name is just another strange sound sent from the mouths of men to confuse you, to distract from your vocabulary of commands. It doesn’t mean anything; it doesn’t matter.

Read the full review here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015) by Sara Baume, Windmill Books paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: my pick of the shortlist

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

Okay, I’ve read through the shortlist, so it’s time to choose my personal winner…

If the BBC National Short Story Award were mine to give, I’d hand it to Jeremy Page. ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’ is the story that I enjoyed the most, but I think it’s also the most successful.

My runner-up would either be Hilary Mantel or Frances Leviston. There are aspects of both their stories that work well for me, but I don’t think they quite have the unity of Page’s.

We’ll find out the winning story on Tuesday night.

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

The Black Country: We Love This Book review

We Love This Book have my review of The Black Country, the fascinating debut novel by Kerry Hadley-Pryce (and another of Nicholas Royle’s finds for Salt Publishing, which include Ian Parkinson’s The Beginning of the End and Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse amongst others). It’s about a couple whose lives begin to disintegrate when they’re involved in a road accident one night – but the novel is transformed by its fuzzy prose style:

Harry pads out his memory of this day quite a bit. Maybe what he tells us is important. We’ll decide that. he tells of a time during the service when he reached for Maddie’s hand, prompted by what he calls a ‘prickle of a memory’ — Harry’s the type to say things like that — a prickle of a memory of a time when Gerald suggested the two of them work together, help each other out, pool ideas. So they worked together for the first time, reading some book or other. Harry says he wasn’t sure he got it, but Maddie did. Maddie got it, she understood it. If we let her, she#ll go on about how she found it all so brilliant, and Harry, being Harry, sort of fell for her then. That’s what he says.

Read the full review here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Black Country (2015) by Kerry Hadley-Pryce, Salt paperback

Learning to read Kazuo Ishiguro

Recently I’ve started to read The Buried Giant, another novel that I thought might make the cut for next week’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist. Reading Kazuo Ishiguro has very much been a learning process for me, and one that’s been documented on the blog – so I thought I’d take a look back…

NocturnesThe first Ishiguro book that I read was his novella collection, Nocturnes, shortly after its publication in 2009. Reading my review back now makes me wince – not because I didn’t get along with the book, but because I’m not happy with how the review turned out. For one thing, it’s snarkier than I would generally write – and snark, fun though it may be, is rarely conducive to careful thought. Sure enough, I did something that I now hate to see in discussion of books: I came up against something unexpected, and dismissed it out of hand without really thinking about it. I put my own terms of engagement ahead of the book’s.

I was under the assumption at the time that Ishiguro was a writer of transparent realism, but now I’m not so sure. And that means I’m on shaky ground treating something of his as ‘unrealistic’, especially without stopping to think what that means, and why the fiction might be that way. This is not to say that I would inevitably like Nocturnes more if I read it now; but I do think there was something fundamental that I didn’t (couldn’t?) appreciate about it.


At the time I wasn’t especially keen to read Ishiguro again, and it took a few years before I felt the time was right. I went for The Remains of the Day (1989), and was clearly much more receptive to what Ishiguro was doing. Yet I wonder if I didn’t still miss something. My review of Remains is framed as saying, “I can see the same techniques here as I did in Nocturnes, but in this book they work.” In other words, I was still reading from that assumption of transparent realism. Now, granted, transparent realism is what the novel looks like; and I think it’s fair to say that Ishiguro’s fiction has a ‘default’ voice. But, still…

I gather that The Buried Giant is a little different from Ishiguro’s work, and certainly it has garnered a variety of puzzled reactions, which is partly what leads me to suspect that there may be some thread in his writing that I’ve not yet appreciated. Perhaps what I need to do is step back and consider the individual writer – to see his books as Kazuo Ishiguro books first and foremost.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

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

Nocturnes (2009) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber paperback

The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber paperback

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia

Sometimes only a sharp burst of crime fiction will do. Pushkin Press have just launched a new imprint for 20th-centurycrime in translation, Pushkin Vertigo. I tried one of their first titles, Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signora Giulia.

The respected lawyer Esengrini, confides in Commissario Sciancalepre, that his wife Giulia – 22 years his junior – has vanished. Sciancalepre investigates, following up a lead suggesting that Giulia may have been seeing another man – but it comes to nothing; and several years go by, with progress on the case piecemeal at best.

Despite the lengthy duration of its narrative time, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is only 120 pages long, and so has no room to hang about. Chiara’s novel has the efficiency of a well-run investigation, and there’s also a cool and business-like tone to Jill Foulston’s translation from the Italian. One thing I particularly like about the book is that, for all its twists and revelations, the full truth still feels elusive. Something has happened beyond the confines of the narrative, and we’re left in a similar position to a detective plunged into another person’s life, having to piece together incomplete information. The Disappearance of Signora Giulia turned out to be just the brisk literary walk that I needed, and I’ll be keen to see what else Pushkin Vertigo has to offer in the months ahead.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia (1970) by Piero Chiara, tr. Jill Foulston (2015), Pushkin Vertigo paperback

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