TagFitzcarraldo Editions

What I’ve been reading lately: 12 June 2019

My book group chose Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (Canongate) to read for May. It’s an account of the author’s return from London to her native Orkney after ten years of struggling with alcoholism. I’ve heard of praise for The Outrun in the years since it was published, and was glad to have an excuse to read it. Overall, I enjoyed it: in particular, I felt that Liptrot struck a fine balance between life before and after the return to Orkney (her recovery is ongoing throughout the book). It combines aspects of nature writing and memoir of illness into a work very much its own.

At this time, I was in the middle of three books for review elsewhere; I felt the need for something else, to decompress. I’d been interested in Ash Before Oak (Fitzcarraldo Editions) by Jeremy Cooper since I first heard about it. It takes the form of a nature diary written by a man who has moved to Somerset, to start a new life in the country. But he also has mental health problems, something that emerges gradually within the text. We gain glimpses of his breakdown and recovery as the novel goes on. The structure of Ash Before Oak – very short chapters that progress serenely rather than choppily – provided the ideal contrast to my more concentrated review reading. I could just let Cooper’s novel open up in my mind as it would – it’s affecting stuff.

Termin by Henrik Nor-Hansen (tr. Matt Bagguley) is a particularly short, particularly sharp Norwegian novel from Nordisk Books. It tells the story of Kjetil Tuestad, who is severely assaulted in 1998. Over the following years, Kjetil struggles to deal with the psychological repercussions of this; his relationship falls apart, and there’s economic hardship in the background. What makes Termin especially powerful is that it’s written in the detached tone of a police report, and even the most innocuous or intimate event is treated with cold scepticism (“They supposedly gave each other a hug”). This technique drains all the warmth out of what happens, suggesting a loss of empathy in Kjetil’s life and more broadly across society.

The theme for this year’s Peirene Press titles is “There Be Monsters”. The first one comes from Finland: Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (tr. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah). It’s written as a recovered expedition diary from the 1820s; Iax Agolasky is research assistant on an expedition to north-west Russia. The party comes across a group of creatures that resemble human children with certain animal features. Differences of opinion arise over what this discovery might mean and what should be done. Children of the Cave explores what it means to be human, as both Agolasky (whose instinct is to protect the children) and those with other ideas start to seem more animalistic. I found this a thought-provoking piece of work.

​Nocilla Experience –Agustín Fernández Mallo: a snapshot review

This is the follow-up to Nocilla Dream, which I reviewed on the blog previously. Nocilla Experience is a thematic rather than a direct sequel (would it ever have been direct?). The format is broadly the same: short chapters mixing vignettes of characters (some connected) with apparent non-fiction (that may be adapted or even invented). 

As before, the effect is of a novel — a reality — without an anchor. A set of pieces that float freely, now coming together, now drifting apart. The key difference, to my mind, is that Nocilla Experience is more concerned with ideas and where they come from. So, for example, we’ll meet characters with grand ideas — about art or the nature of the world, say — but the book’s overall structure will suggest that each is one idea among many, of no greater significance than the rest. The overriding image is that of a radio playing to nobody, in an empty palace devoted to a particular board game. Individual ideas, the book seems to suggest, are ultimately no more substantial than that palace.

I won’t sit here and pretend that I grasped everything in Nocilla Experience. But it’s not about grasping everything — it never is. Sometimes I need to read a novel that requires me to reach up. Sometimes I need to see that the form and horizons of fiction are limitless.

A version of this review was originally published as a thread on Twitter. 

Book details 

Nocilla Experience (2008) by Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2016), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 200 pages, paperback. 

A world without centre: Nocilla Dream

Nocilla DreamThe author bio tells me that Agustín Fernández Mallo’s ‘Nocilla Trilogy’ (of which 2006’s Nocilla Drream is the first volume) was instrumental in bringing about an aesthetic shift in contemporary Spanish writing. Now we get to read Nocilla Dream in English, courtesy of translator Thomas Bunstead and Fitzcarraldo Editions; and you can see why this novel must have shaken things up. Nocilla Dream has a teeming cast of characters, with hints at a web of hidden connections – and that’s where the similarity with a conventional plot-driven novel ends.

Each of Nocilla Dream’s 113 chapters consists of a single paragraph, from a few pages down to a few lines. Some are extracts from other books; some come from New York Times articles; others are snapshots from the lives of various characters. Amongst others, we’ll read about Falconetti, an ex-soldier who left San Francisco with the idea of circumnavigating the globe from west to east; Pat Garrett, who wanders around carrying a suitcase of found photographs; and a community of surfers in south-east China, with its roots in a group of North American expatriates. Many of the novel’s events revolve around U.S. Route 50, with one recurring image being a poplar tree from whose branches people have hung shoes. Trees in general are a common metaphor throughout the novel, particularly in terms of the idea that branching networks underpin reality.

I’m going to quote an extended passage which illustrates various aspects of Fernández Mallo’s approach. Here is Chii-Teen, a Chinese character, looking through some old newspaper cuttings:

On the reverse of one of the cuttings, he’s come across a picture of an elderly painter, clearly from the West, distinguished looking, with slicked-back hair and moustache, apparently at work in his studio. What he cannot understand is that the room the painter is standing in is full of paint pots with great daubs of paint on them, that the floor has daubs of paint across it too, that there are lots of different brushes resting in white spirit, that the painter is wearing a paint-spattered smock, but that, without soiling it in any way, he’s working on a blank, spotless canvas, and he’s using a cutter to make vertical slashes, nothing more, vertical slashes. Chii-Teen suddenly becomes very excited, considering the possibility of a body without a mind, the possibility that the studio, the smock, and all the dense mass of painting materials could be a body that has been separated from the pure mind, Cartesian, fleshless, I,e. the blank canvas to which the painter is applying the cutter to.

This passage establishes a hierarchy of realities: the character in the fictional present looking at a two-dimensional image of the past (and, in turn, the reader apprehending fictional reality on the page). It illustrates a shift in context, as the slashes in the canvas, which clearly would have been meaningful to the artist making them, become unknowable to Chii-Teen. And there’s a fleeting sense of hidden order.

The thing is that, for every glimpse of a deeper meaning to reality in Nocilla Dream, there’s a suggestion that what we sense is illusion. The connections in the novel are those of globalisation: not necessarily visible from the ground, but neither indicative of a meaningful structure. Reading Nocilla Dream is the experience of a novel – like the world it depicts – without a centre: slot the pieces together as you will, but what you end up with is no more stable than one of those fragments.

Elsewhere

Read more views of Nocilla Dream at 1streading’s Blog, Workshy Fop, and minor literaure[s].

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Nocilla Dream (2006) by Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2015), Fitzcarraldo Editions paperback

This moment

When life stands still here and we face the endless, shifting, indifferent grey-brown sea, when we hold ourselves open and out into that indifference tenderly, without pining, self-pitying, complaining or expecting some reward or glittering prize, then we might have become, just for that moment, something that has endured and will endure, someone who can find some sort of sufficiency: right here, right now.

This moment, one out of a million, out of a million millions, towards 4.30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in late November, on this East Anglian beach, grey cloud, gulls, gusts of wind, vast darkness descending. Here is delight. Here one can help oneself out of one’s solitude, shift that wedge-shaped core of darkness that is the self, and reach out and up towards another… in love.

Ecstasy bursts into our eyes. It is enough.

— Simon Critchley, Notes on Suicide, p. 76

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Notes on Suicide (2015) by Simon Critchley, Fitzcarraldo Editions paperback

Reflections: On Immunity and reading non-fiction

ImmunityI’m a reader of fiction by instinct; I read for experience more than information. This sometimes leaves me with a question when it comes to non-fiction, as happened when my book club chose E.O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life. The question is: if I can’t assess this book as a work of science (or whatever the book happens to be), what can I fall back on? ‘The quality of the writing’ seems an inadequate answer, not least because it effectively brushes aside the specific nature of a given book.

Eighteen months on, I might now have found an answer, after reading my first non-fiction book of the year: On Immunity: an Inoculation by Eula Biss, the latest essay from Fitzcarraldo Editions. The book starts from Biss hearing about the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, shortly after the birth of her son. The mothers in her social circle discuss whether to vaccinate their children against H1N1, before a vaccine is even available. Biss uses this as a foundation for reflecting on topics such as the different metaphors we use to describe disease and medicine; the perception and reality of risk; and the relationship between immunity and attitudes to the body.

It struck me when reading Biss’ book that here was a kind of writing I hadn’t really come across before. On Immunity is not strictly a scientific text, or a historical account, or a social commentary, memoir, or polemic (though it does have elements of all these things). It feels to me more like a writer responding to an event by thinking her way around a subject; the medium is non-fiction, but it seems to come from a similar impulse as fiction. This (non-fiction that… behaves like fiction? explores like fiction?) is clearly something which has been missing from my reading life, and I want to read more of it. And it also suggests to me that I can still think and write about the experience of reading non-fiction, just as I do with fiction, even if I don’t know about the subject. On Immunity opens up that possibility because the book is effectively discovering its subject as it goes.

So what was my experience of reading On Immunity like? Strangely, perhaps, I found myself less conscious than usual of the effect of language. When I read (for example) Weathering or The Wandering Pine, I was very much aware of the distinct ‘worlds’ being created by the words. It wasn’t like that with Biss’ volume; maybe that’s in the nature of the essay, or at least in the nature of this particular essay. But I did (as I often do with fiction) find myself appreciating how the form of the book contributed to its theme: constantly moving from topic to topic, searching for different angles on the central subject.

These ‘reflections’ posts are meant to be about thinking out loud, and I do feel that I understand my approach to reading non-fiction better. But it’s also clear to me that it will take more reading to bring these thoughts properly into focus; so I expect I’ll be returning to this topic at some point.

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.

The shape of language and the spectre of history: Paul Kingsnorth and Mathias Enard

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (2014)
Mathias Enard, Zone (2008)
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (2010)

It often strikes me that, in England at least, we tend to treat history as safe and unproblematic – a source of colourful stories, perhaps; but not necessarily something that needs to be thought about much in order for us to engage with it. 1066, for example, is probably the most famous date in English history; our perception of it is likely to be dominated by a few names and images that we think we know – William the Conqueror; the Bayeux Tapestry; King Harold with an arrow in his eye. But how many of us really think about this as a lived moment in time?

KingsnorthThat’s a central issue in Paul Kingsnorth’s Booker-longlisted debut novel The Wake, which is narrated by one Buccmaster of Holland, a Lincolnshire freeman who first knows that ‘there is sum thing cuman’ when strange portents are seen in the sky. News of an invasion from France gradually arrives; twice, Buccmaster’s sons go away to fight – and the second time, they do not return. When Buccmaster’s house is later burned down with his wife inside, he forms a small band of fighters dedicated to resisting Norman rule.

As a plot summary, that may not sound particularly remarkable; but The Wake is transfigured through its use of language. Kingsnorth has written his novel in what he calls a ‘shadow tongue’, a version of Old English which has been tweaked to make it comprehensible to modern readers. ‘Comprehensible’ is relative, of course; here, for example, is how the novel begins:

the night was clere though i slept I seen it. though I slept I seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when I gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still

So let’s be clear that, like The Luminaries and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing before it, The Wake is a novel that demands total engagement from the reader, because it is uncompromising in the vision of the world that it presents. But (again, as with those two earlier books) give The Wake space and time and it will reveal its aesthetic logic (there is a partial glossary at the back, but I managed well enough without it). Kingsnorth’s language makes his past England an alien place, brings us a character whose thought processes are likely different from our own, and makes us confront that difference. It’s a fine  example of what I wrote about for Fiction Uncovered the other day, of language shaping the world of the novel.

It is also worth noting that, like The Luminaries, Kingsnorth’s novel has an acute sense of its own artifice. As the author notes in his afterword, his shadow tongue never existed; so, in a fundamental sense, the world it depicts never existed, either. What is the value of using a specifically artificial form of English? I would say that it helps to keep the past an open question: read in Old English or modern English, we might know too easily where we were (be it somewhere familiar or unfamiliar). With the shadow tongue, the door is opened just enough for us to see glimpses of understanding amidst the strangeness; we don’t know where we are, and this keeps the world of The Wake alive.

So too does Kingsnorth’s use of perception. Buccmaster frequently has visions of (and conversations with) Welland the Smith, and it remains ambiguous as to what these actually are. Kingsnorth takes his novel in directions that we may not expect of historical fiction, all the while making clear that there’s no real reason to have those expectations in the first place. Even though we may know how the story of the Norman invasion of England ends, we don’t know how the story of The Wake ends – and that’s because Kingsnorth creates the sense of a historical moment that’s alive on its own terms, where the future can still be contested.

***

Enard

Where we might say that The Wake depicts a past haunted by the spectre of the future, Mathias Enard’s Zone shows a present suffused with the ghosts of history. The novel revolves around Francis Mirković, once a mercenary, now an agent of the French secret service. For fifteen years, he has worked in the lands around the Mediterranean – a region he calls ‘the Zone’ – being involved in violence there as well as gathering information on it. Now, he is bringing that life to an end, as he takes a briefcase filled with intelligence from Milan to Rome, with the intention of selling it to the Vatican. We join him on his train journey, as he reflects on his own past and that of the Zone.

Each chapter of Mirković’s thoughts is presented as a pages-long sentence fragment (a superb feat of translation from Charlotte Mandell). The best way I found to read this was simply to jump in and let it carry me forward; there is a constant, driving momentum and rhythm to the book, like the motion of Mirković’s train. But, though the train may travel inexorably on, the novel’s overall sense is of an unending cycle, as conflicts recur throughout history, and the countries of the Zone remain scarred by the violence they have witnessed.

There’s also a thread running through Zone which concerns how lives may become reduced to memory, a text. Mirković carries the lives of war criminals and others in his briefcase; he himself has lived under several aliases, which he now intends to put away. Then there are the three chapters which are taken from the (fictitious) novel that Mirković occasionally reads while on the train. These tell of a Palestinian resistance fighter named Intissar, and are conventional in form and punctuation. Intissar’s story is serious and powerful; so it’s jarring indeed to return from her chapters to Mirković, and find him enjoying her tale as a thrilling adventure. (Ah, but isn’t that the sort of thing we do all the time as readers?) And, of course, Mirković himself is only a figure in the text of Enard’s novel… If The Wake gives a sense of deep vitality to a moment in history, Zone shows how easily history can be reduced to paper.

***

Finally, a note on the publication of these books. The Wake was crowdfunded through Unbound; having been published in the US by Open Letter Books, Zone is now the launch title of the UK small press Fitzcarraldo Editions – and I can scarcely think of a bolder statement for a new publisher to make. Publishing may be in a precarious position right now, but in many respects this is also a golden age for adventurous readers. And, while interesting books are certainly still being released by the major houses, smaller publishers play a vital role in bringing such books to our attention. I’m glad that there are novels like The Wake and Zone in the world, and that there are people who believe in them so strongly. They are right to do so.

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