Tagnon-fiction

Reading round-up: late January

Susan Orlean, The Library Book (2018)

In 1986, someone set fire to Los Angeles Central Library, which ultimately led to the destruction of 400,000 volumes. Susan Orlean’s latest book takes this event as its starting point, exploring the past and present of LA’s main library, the investigation into the fire, a more general history of libraries, and the place of libraries in Orlean’s own life. It’s an interesting and varied journey, which introduces us to some colourful characters.

Nihad Sirees, States of Passion (1998)
Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss (2018)

The second novel by Syrian writer Nihad Sirees to appear in English begins with an unnamed bureaucrat seeking shelter from a storm in a country mansion. The old man living there tells the narrator the story of a young peasant woman sent to Aleppo in the 1930s, and the glamorous wedding singer who was once her mother’s lover. States of Passion becomes a nest of stories as the narrator interjects, curious to know how the old man fits into all this. Sirees’ novel examines love, memory, and what it means to live in a story.

Magda Szabó, Katalin Street (1969)
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix (2019)

This is my first time reading Magda Szabó (1917-2007), in a translation newly published by MacLehose Press. Katalin Street focuses on three families in adjacent houses in Budapest, returning to them at intervals between 1934 and 1968. This encompasses both the German invasion of Hungary in 1944, and the subsequent period of Soviet rule. Szabó’s focus is very much on her characters, showing how their lives and relationships are shaped by the events around them. It’s a subtle, reflective work.

Catherine Chidgey, The Beat of the Pendulum (2017)

Subtitled “a found novel”, The Beat of the Pendulum is built from real-life conversations, emails, radio ads.. . all things that Catherine Chidgey heard and read around her over the course of a year. Being plunged into this cacophony of voices is disorienting yet intriguing, and brings home just how many odd edges a typical novel shaves off reality – odd edges which are still there in Chidgey’s novel. One of the key themes is communication: Chidgey’s relationships with her baby daughter (born through surrogacy) and mother (who has dementia) show communication becoming closer and more distant at different times.

Ricky Monahan Brown, Stroke (2019)

Ricky Monahan Brown is a Scot who was living in New York in 2012, when he had a stroke at the age of 38. As his memoir’s subtitle says, he had “a 5% chance of survival” – but survive he did. Brown’s account is fascinating for the detail of his painstaking recovery, but what also comes across is the strength and importance of his relationships, especially that with his girlfriend Beth. There’s also a thread of dry humour, which rounds out the book nicely.

Reading round-up: early January

Happy New Year! For my first post of 2019, here are some of the books I read towards the end of last year, including a few new titles:

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer (2018)

This is the short, sharp debut novel by Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite. Our narrator, Korede, is a nurse; her sister Ayoola’s boyfriends have a tendency to end up dead, and Korede helps her clean up afterwards. But, when Ayoola starts going out with a doctor whom her sister secretly loves, Korede has to make a choice… Both writing and viewpoint in Braithwaite’s novel are intensely focused, which throws the reader head-first into its situation. To my mind, My Sister, the Serial Killer is at heart a novel of character, and a compelling one at that.

Evald Flisar, A Swarm of Dust (2017)
Translated from the Slovene by David Limon (2018)

Janek Hudorovec grows up in a Roma family in 1960s Yugoslavia. In the first scene of Evald Flisar’s novel, we discover the dark secret that Janek will carry with him through life. Janek finds social conventions and niceties stifling; though he may think he’s escaping the strictures of village life when he gets the chance to go to university, he realises that he needs the freedom of nature, even though returning to the village means confronting his past. Flisar evokes Janek’s inner life so fully that A Swarm of Dust can be deeply harrowing to be read – but it’s powerful stuff.

Charlotte Runcie, Salt on Your Tongue (2019)

Charlotte Runcie is an arts journalist for the Telegraph; Salt on Your Tongue is her first book. It’s a memoir of pregnancy and motherhood, combined with an exploration of what the sea has meant to women through history. Runcie draws on art, music and mythology, relating these to her own experience and love of the sea, and vice versa. The resulting book is absorbing and intensely personal.

Dalia Grinkevičiutė, Shadows on the Tundra (1997)
Translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas (2018)

Dalia Grinkevičiutė was a teenager in 1941 when she and her family were deported to a Siberian Gulag. Seven years later, she escaped and returned to Lithuania, where she wrote down the memories that would become Shadows on the Tundra. She buried the papers in a jar in her garden; they were not found until 1991, after her death. Shadows on the Tundra now appears in English as part of Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series. It’s a harrowing account of life in the prison camp, with Delija Valiukenas’ translation really capturing a rawness to Grinkevičiutė’s writing.

Dov Alfon, A Long Night in Paris (2016)
Translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir (2019)

A marketing manager from Israel disembarks at Charles de Gaulle Airport with five colleagues. He approaches a pretty blonde hotel greeter outside, ready for a spot of flirting… only to be abducted instead. This sparks an investigation that will involve Israeli intelligence officers at home and in Paris, as well as the local French police. The first novel by journalist Dov Alfon is a sprawling thriller that keeps up a frenetic pace, with plenty of swerves in the plot.

A Long Night in Paris will be published on 10 January; the other books are available now.

Reading The Rings of Saturn: week 3

It’s time for the third and final round-up of my contributions to the Twitter discussion of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, organised by Robert Macfarlane. As before, I’ve included some of Macfarlane’s question prompts for context. The first two instalments of this blog series are here and here.

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Chapter VIII ends on Orford Ness, a shingle spit formerly used for military testing. How do you (close-) read what happens in these extraordinary pages?

It reads to me like an inversion of the typical passage in The Rings of Saturn where Sebald will go somewhere and recount a memory. Here we have a photo of the bridge to the site, framed as though a parody of a country house;but instead of recounting a story, Sebald is confronted by the limits of what he can understand about this place. It becomes another example of the recurring theme of humans not being able to comprehend the broader picture of destruction.

The farmer building a model of the Temple of Jerusalem at the start of chapter XI of The Rings of Saturn reminded me (not necessarily appropriately!) of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, when he talked about needing to build in ever greater detail to be accurate.

What are the implications of the closing pages (and sentences) of The Rings of Saturn? What aftermaths will this book leave for you?

The ending caps off some of the book’s main themes – for example, drawing the darkness out of something as seemingly ordinary as silk.

The final image haunts me: Sebald has repeatedly suggested that flying above/gaining an overview of something does not provide understanding. Now a soul departs its body and sees nothing of the world as it rises, because all is draped in black.

One thing that has struck me reading The Rings of Saturn is that I never once thought of it as fiction. I’m used to novels that blur the line (such as Knausgaard, or Cercas’ The Impostor), but for some reason The Rings of Saturn always read to me as non-fiction. I’m still not sure why.

In response to this last tweet, Tom of Wuthering Expectations pointed out to me that parts of Sebald’s book (such as the Chinese Emperor’s train running on a line in Suffolk) are actually made up. I had no notion of this, and of course it settles the “fiction or non-fiction” question. Yet it’s so hard to shake off my abiding impression of the book; I that’s down to the power of Sebald’s style.

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I have to say, I found this Twitter discussion an enjoyable and valuable way of engaging with the book. I don’t know what I would have made of The Rings of Saturn had I been reading it ‘solo’, but I do know that I wouldn’t have got as much out of it as I did.

(‘Blogging as I go’ has also been interesting to do, even just as a series of weekly round-ups. I might experiment with the format a bit more in future.)

Book details

The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W.G. Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse (1998), Vintage Classics, 296 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Reading The Rings of Saturn: week 2

Here is the second weekly round-up of my contributions to Robert Macfarlane’s Twitter reading group on The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald (my first round-up is here). As before, I have made only minor edits to my tweets, and have included some of Macfarlane’s daily questions for context. By the end of this week, I had read the first seven chapters of the book in total.

You can find the discussion on Twitter under the hashtags #TheReadingsofSaturn and #TRoS.

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The German subtitle of The Rings of Saturn, left out of the English translation, is ‘Ein Englische Wallfahrt’; ‘An English Pilgrimage’. What does walking lead to here? What is its ‘work’, what are its natures? What kind of pilgrimage is this?

Walking seems to be a means of moving into and through a place/situation, in order to gradually uncover it (if not necessarily to understand it – see Sebald’s walk into Lowestoft, for example). I think he places walking in opposition to having an overview (flying over something).

Having said that, the book lives in my mind most vividly as a mental journey, rather than as an account of a walk.

Silk & sericulture thread through The Rings of Saturn; text & textile interweave. “That…silk…what does it mean?”

I think most of the references to silk are yet to come in my reading, but so far I associate strongly with images of death – for example, the Celestial King’s body held together only by his silken robes, or the silk fishing nets full of dead herring.

The Rings of Saturn is an overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, male book in terms of narrator, characters & cross-references…What, for you, are the consequences of this skew?

Normally I would say it makes for too partial a view. But I can’t help thinking that, because The Rings of Saturn is such a personal, idiosyncratic account (i.e. not purporting to be a survey of anything in particular) that any range of references would have come across as just as partial.

Still, this is an issue I want to bear in mind for the rest of the book – I might change my mind once I’ve seen the shape of the whole.

Roger Casement & Joseph Conrad: to what ends the long excursus into their lives in Chapter V of The Rings of Saturn? Why the many mediations (we enter their stories through a ‘BBC documentary’)? And why close the chapter with Casement’s signature?

Casement/Conrad feels to me like an interlude in the journey (it’s inspired by a period of rest, not walking) and an underlining of key themes (mortality and atrocity).

Perhaps ends with Casement’s signature to signify a reconstruction of his life, or agreement with him.

What are the functions of listening and hearing in The Rings of Saturn, which is in many ways such a heavily visual book?

(My answer here was in response to a tweet from @__synaesthesia, who commented on how often sounds in Sebald’s book were silenced.)

I have also been struck by the silences in The Rings of Saturn – Sebald and Michael Hamburger talking about the “soundless month of August”, Le Strange’s housekeeper having to eat with him in silence, and so on. Silence in the book often seems tense rather than peaceful.

James Wood, in this essay, argues for Sebald as a surprisingly funny writer, with “an eccentric sense of playfulness”. Do you agree? How far & where do “gravity” & “levity” coexist in The Rings of Saturn?

I think there’s a sense of playfulness in Sebald’s whole structure, building up these idiosyncratic digressions into something that’s ultimately serious. Chapter by chapter, there’s also playfulness in the juxtaposition of different subjects within a passage.

Book details

The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W.G. Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse (1998), Vintage Classics, 296 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Reading The Rings of Saturn: week 1

Robert Macfarlane is currently hosting a Twitter reading group on W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. I bought a copy last year and hadn’t yet read it, so this seemed an excellent opportunity. I thought I would collect my thoughts together on the blog as I go, to form a kind of reading diary.
For those unfamiliar with the book, it begins as an account of a walk from Lowestoft to Bungay, undertaken by Sebald in August 1992 – but it also includes digressions into memoir, history and science. I’ve added a little to my tweets here for clarification, but have not expanded on them. I have included some of Macfarlane’s daily questions in italics. Finally, if you’re interested in following (or participating in) the Twitter discussion, search for hashtags #TheReadingsofSaturn or #TRoS.

(Apologies for any strange formatting – I can’t seem to save the paragraphs correctly.)

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This is my first time reading The Rings of Saturn (and Sebald in general). Opening impressions are how fluidly it moves from outdoors to claustrophobic interior, through literature, art and biology, all hanging together with the underlying theme of mortality.
And extraordinary images, such as the academic Janine Dakyns’ office full of paper:

The carpet, too, had long since vanished beneath several inches of paper; indeed, the paper had begun climbing from the floor, on which, year after year, it had settled, and was now up the walls as high as the top of the door frame, page upon page of memoranda and notes pinned up in multiple layers, all of them by just one corner. Whenever it was possible there were piles of papers on the books on her shelves as well.

(translation by Michael Hulse)

I found the opening quite disorienting: the sudden leaps from a coastal walk to immobility in hospital to compiling notes, each leap a year apart. I wasn’t expecting it to start that way.
The images are interesting… ostensibly illustrations, yet not. I mean, the first one in the book is of a blank hospital window! Even when they show, say, a street or coastal landscape mentioned in the text, the images feel somewhat disconnected.
Does “place” survive as stable category or surface here?
In what I’ve read so far, there tends to be a relative glimpse of Suffolk landscape, then Sebald will go into a more detailed scientific or historical anecdote. Makes memory/history seem more stable than landscape.
I love this description of the fishermen (on the beach a few miles south of Lowestoft) in chapter III: “They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.”
What other works does the book evoke for you?
I find myself thinking of Enrique Vila-Matas, and a book like Never Any End to Paris which confronts a real place with its counterpart in the imagination.

How does Sebald’s style cast its strange spell? How does it work (on you)?

A discursive, measured prose style that at times lulls me into assuming it’s documentary… then it will shift into something that goes beyond facts and imprints itself on the mind.

I’ve just read chapter IV, and that whole passage on naval battles and our inability to comprehend the suffering really struck me.

Where, in this book so drawn to human darkness, does guilt seem to reside?

So far as I’ve read, guilt seems to reside at all levels, depending on where Sebald’s focus lies at a given time. When he’s taking an overview, it’s often systems and ideologies who are guilty, but with individuals who knew what was happening.

Places might be guilty by association – the end of chapter IV could even be said to make outer space complicit in a human atrocity.

The “vanishing point” & “the view from above” are the two commonest perspectives in The Rings of Saturn. What are their implications for reader & narrator? How do we “see” in this book?

“If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realise how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end…”

Generally, an ‘overview’ implies knowledge of a situation, but I think for Sebald it’s the opposite.

Book details

The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W.G. Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse (1998), Vintage Classics, 296 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

The Blind Spot – Javier Cercas (#SpanishPortugeseLitMonths)

July is when Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog) and Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) have traditionally hosted Spanish Literature Month. I like to join in, because I’ve always found some excellent books that way. Well, now the event has expanded to cover Portuguese as well as Spanish lit, and it goes into August as well. So, welcome to Spanish and Portuguese Literature Months! I have quite a few books lined up for this season, starting today…

Whenever I find myself in a reading slump, the way out is often to try something that breaks the pattern of what I’d been reading previously. My way out of a recent reading slump was some non-fiction. The Blind Spot is an “essay on the novel” by Spanish writer Javier Cercas (whose The Impostor was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize). Cercas explores his approach to his own work, and identifies a tradition of novels with similar characteristics, before going on to consider issues such as the writer’s role in public life.

The novels that most interest Cercas have what he calls a “blind spot” at their centre: a point of ambiguity or contradiction which animates the whole work:

at the beginning of [novels with such a blind spot], or at their heart, there is a question, and the whole novel consists of the search for an answer to this central question; when the search is finished, however, the answer is that there is no answer, that is, the answer is in the search itself, the question itself, the book itself.

(translation by Anne McLean)

Cercas’ key example of a “blind-spot novel” is Don Quixote which, he says, asks whether Quixote is mad, then demonstrates that he is both mad and sane – and, in Cercas’ view, Don Quixote ultimately shows all truth to be as ambiguous. Another example given by Cercas is Moby-Dick, in which the white whale is (irreconcilably) the embodiment of both good and evil.

I found this a fascinating idea to think about, and felt I could apply it to many of the novels that have stood out to me during the lifetime of this blog. For example, The Rehearsal asks unresolvable questions about what happened in a student-teacher scandal, and more widely about the nature of reality and performance. Human Acts asks whether and how the reality of an event such as the Gwangju Uprising can be processed. Nocilla Dream asks what kind of structure there can be in a de-centred, globalised world. In all three cases, the novel itself embodies an answer in the way that Cercas describes.

On the downside, I can’t help being disappointed that all of the novels discussed in The Blind Spot are by male writers, which feels like closing off whole realms of discussion. Still, as a book to think with, Cercas’ essay is nothing short of invigorating. I’ll leave you with a couple of quotations that I (mentally) underlined:

The best literature is not what sounds literary, but what doesn’t sound like literature; that is: what sounds true. All genuine literature is anti-literature.

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The novel needs to be new in order to say new things; it needs to change to change us: to make us what we’ve never been.

You can read further reviews of The Blind Spot by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog, and James Doyle at Bookmunch.

Book details

The Blind Spot (2016) by Javier Cercas, tr. Anne McLean (2018), MacLehose Press, 176 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

Nevada Days – Bernardo Atxaga

Sometimes, choosing to read a book is a matter of trust. Maybe a particular book doesn’t sound as though it would appeal; but if the recommendation comes from a trusted source, or the book is by a favourite author, that might be enough to persuade one to give the book a try. 

In the case of Nevada Days, I was trusting the publisher. Bernardo Atxaga was a new writer to me; this book is a fictionalised memoir covering the nine months he spent as writer-in-residence of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada in Reno. On the face of it, this probably isn’t the kind of book I would choose to introduce myself to a writer’s work – but I trust MacLehose Press to publish interesting books, and it worked before with Per Olov Enquist’s The Wandering Pine, so why not?

Anyway, I took a chance; and I’m glad I did.

Atxaga arrives in Reno on 18 August 2007, with his wife Ángela (who will be conducting research there) and their daughters Sara and Izaskun. They move into a small house used by the university to lodge visiting writers. We are soon introduced to a core cast of vivid secondary characters, including Mary Lore Bidart, director of the Center for Basque Studies; Bob Earle, the exuberant retired academic who becomes the Atxagas’ new neighbour; and Dennis, the university IT officer with a fascination for insects. 

Along with his work at the university, Atxaga makes a number of trips into the desert and further afield. All adds up to make Nevada Days an engrossing travelogue. Here is Atxaga reflecting on the mountains in the Nevada desert, in one of the letters to his friend L. that appear throughout the text:

Looking at those mountains – far, far, far away, so far away that the most distant ones looked like mere maquettes – I was keenly aware of the world’s utter indifference to us. This wasn’t just an idea either, but something more physical, more emotional, which troubled me and made me feel like crying. I understood then that the mountains were in a different place entirely. They weren’t distant from me in the way a bird in Sicily is distant from a tree in Nevada, but, as I said, in a different place entirely.

(translation by Margaret Jull Costa) 

I chose this extract because it highlights something I was constantly reminded of while reading Nevada Days: namely, that Atxaga’s account is a shaped version of reality. In this passage, he’s working through the process of finding the right words to capture his experience. 

But Nevada Days is also organised in a way that lends it certain themes. One that stands out to me is moral ambivalence, introduced when Atxaga’s daughters feel sorry for King Kong when he is shot at the end of the film; and again for a drug trafficker whom they see being arrested:

What connection was there between justice and compassion? How far should society go to protect itself? What should the city do with King Kong? 

Atxaga peppers his account of Nevada with memories and stories of the Basque Country; these tend to illustrate examples of where the line between right and wrong might be blurred. For instance, he tells of the famed Basque boxer Paulino Uzcudun, presenting him as an ambivalent figure, celebrated as a fighter but also later known as a strong supporter of Franco. Atxaga also recounts how he himself was out dancing and meeting girls as a teenager at the same time as his autistic cousin José Francisco was struggling in his residential school, where one day he swallowed some pieces of metal that killed him. The author asks if his younger self should be blamed for being indifferent to his cousin, when he was essentially following urges that young people have. No answer is forthcoming. 

After Atxaga’s main account of Reno is finished, a couple of further sections serve to tie up the book thematically and cast it in a new light. The author includes phone calls home to his elderly mother in the main text; and, though these are often amusing, it’s still clear enough that something serious is going on. A closing chapter recounts her funeral: it’s structured in the same way as the main text – present-day narration mixed with stories and memories – but intercut much more rapidly. This chapter suggests that an extraordinary event such as a death in the family takes us to its own separate place, and only gradually do we return to our everyday lives. The pace and choppiness of the chapter create that sense of experiencing a heightened reality. But mirroring the structure of the main text suggests that the period represented by the book may have been a “separate place” in reality for Atxaga and his family. 

Closing Nevada Days is a series of document extracts that close off two narrative strands from the main text: a string of sexual assaults and a murder on campus; and the disappearance of the adventurer Steve Fossett. Both of these have previously been left open like plot strands in a novel – and they’ve had the same narrative tension – but their sudden, matter-of-fact closure reinforces that reality doesn’t have the arrangement of fiction after all. In a way, we’re also back to the theme of moral ambivalence, asking whether it’s right to gain narrative pleasure from such real events. But then, that’s what fiction naturally enables, isn’t it? But then again… 

Considering that I was unsure of giving Nevada Days a whirl in the first place, the reading of it (and, indeed, the writing of this review) has given me so much to think about, I feel very happy to have taken the chance. I must also mention the design:this book is published as part of the new ‘MacLehose Press Editions’ series, in a handsome trade paperback (large, but not too large) with flaps. I’m glad to have Nevada Days a worthy addition to my library; and, actually, I think it will be a good starting point for exploring more of Bernardo Atxaga’s work. 
T 

Stu has also reviewed Nevada Days over at Winstonsdad’s Blog

Book details 

Nevada Days (2013) by Bernardo Atxaga, tr. Margaret Jull Costa (2017), MacLehose Press, 342 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Gone: a Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym

Min Kym was a child prodigy on the violin. At the age of 21, she found her perfect instrument, a Stradivarius. Ten years later, the violin was stolen on a train station concourse. Gone is Kym’s memoir of those times. 

I’m not really a classical music person: Gone was one of those books that I was offered unexpectedly by the publisher, and I accepted just because I thought it might be interesting. In the end, I found it absolutely fascinating to read this account of what it’s like to be so gifted at something that it doesn’t feel like a talent, because it just comes so naturally. 

Kym talks about having a nigh-on bodily connection to her instrument, the violin feeling as though it’s part of her. Consequently, when her Stradivarius is stolen, the person she was is also lost. Gone is concerned with some raw, deeply felt emotions; and there’s a powerful sense of that in the reading. 

Book details


Gone (2017) by Min Kym, Viking, 256 pages, hardback (proof copy, provided for review). 

Towards language

I used to approach my reading in terms of content. I’d be looking for particular genres, or at the very least I would choose books based on whether the subject matter appealed to me. But something has changed (or maybe something has been brought out) in the years since I’ve been blogging. I now approach books much more in terms of language.

What do I mean by this? Well, I don’t mean that I’m drawn to ‘fine writing’. Indeed, I think that literary style, in and of itself, is a red herring. What counts for me is not the style of writing per se, but what the writing opens up. In the work I value most, the language embodies what it seeks to portray; the way a piece of fiction is written becomes part of what it means.

WakePB

 

 

A good example is Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which is set in the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest of England and written in a ‘shadow tongue’, a modified version of Old English. The effect of this shadow tongue is to estrange the reader just enough from what might otherwise seem an overly familiar historical period. The crucial thing is that the same story couldn’t be told in a more contemporary style (or even a more conventional ‘historical’ one), because the style of The Wake adds its own layer – a particular relationship between reader, text and world – to the work, one that can’t be replicated otherwise.

 

 

So perhaps it’s not surprising that I tend to gravitate towards fiction that departs from stylistic norms (though not fiction that does so just for its own sake – the interplay of style, form and subject is important). But there are less obvious examples, too, such as The First Bad Man by Miranda July. This novel is written a slightly heightened way that often gets labelled ‘quirky’; when I read it, I recognised the general tone from a whole raft of contemporary American fiction. But then it became apparent that all the artifice in July’s book is there to represent a shield between the characters and the harshness of the ‘real world’. Again, the language of the novel adds a further dimension to the whole.

MJuly

 

Recently I came across Gabirel Josipovici’s idea that art can be like a toy (see, for example, his essay ‘I Dream of Toys’, collected in The Singer on the Shore. He describes how children turn the most ordinary objects into toys by applying imagination: a cardboard box becomes a house; a stick becomes a hobby-horse – but, at the same time, they’re still a box and a stick. Josipovici goes on to suggest that some works of art function like this: their component parts are plain to see; we can take them and make our own experience.

This idea really strikes a chord with me, because I can’t help but thing that the kings of books I’ve been talking about here – the kind I most want to read – act in a similar way. To go with the same examples: the distortions of language are clear enough in Kingsnorth’s and July’s novels; when I open my imagination to them, the books gain a deeper richness.

Book details (Foyles affiliate and publisher links)

The Wake (2014) by Paul Kingsnorth, Unbound paperback

The First Bad Man (2015) by Miranda July, Canongate paperback

The Singer on the Shore: Essays 1991-2004 (2006) by Gabriel Josipovici, Carcanet paperback

Brazilian Sketches by Rudyard Kipling

KiplingBrazilThere’s a new publisher in town: Abandoned Bookshop, an imprint founded by Scott Pack (a long-time friend of this blog) and Kat Stephen to republish out-of-print or neglected titles as ebooks. Their first title is Brazilian Sketches, a set of seven articles (each with an accompanying poem) that Rudyard Kipling wrote during a journey to Brazil in March and April of 1927. The articles were printed in newspapers later than year and at the beginning of the next, but did not appear as a collection until 1940, after Kipling’s death. This is the first ebook edition.

Reading Brazilian Sketches now, from this distance, with relatively little by way of context, has been an intriguing experience. It’s like eavesdropping on history. Kipling’s descriptive passages convey ‘being in the moment’ vividly; here, for example, is his arrival in Rio:

In two minutes the shadowy lines of the crowded wharves vanished, and the car was sweeping down a blazing perspective, chequered strongly with double lines of tree-foliage and flanked with lit and packed clubs, shops, and cafes. This world of light gave of a sudden, between the shoulders of gigantic buildings, on to even vaster spaces of single-way avenues, between trees, with the harbour on one side, fringed by electric lights that raced forward, it seemed for ever, and renewed themselves in strings of pearl flung round invisible corners; while, above everything, one saw and felt the outlines of forested mountains.

Even more than a sense of place, however, what really comes across to me is the sense of another’s viewpoint. Perhaps inevitably, there are attitudes and assumptions embedded within Kipling’s sketches that I don’t share; and they are not easily extricated from the things that I like about the book. But it’s fascinating to see a subject like electricity treated in a way that seems so far away from anything I can imagine being written now, as when Kipling personifies the dynamo of a hydroelectric power station: “Out of his enforced agencies is born ‘power’, which every one, of course, can explain, but which no one knows anything about, except that it will bear watching.”

The Brazil depicted by Kipling is in a time of transition, industrialisation in particular. Kipling often characterises this process as one of human progress fighting back against a natural world that keeps on encroaching. A snake farm developing anti-venom: “the only cure for venomous bites is the foot of man making hard paths from hut to hut, field to field, and shrine to shrine”. The railway out of São Paulo: “every yard of those fallacious mountain-sides conspired against man from the almost vertical slopes out of sight above, to the quite vertical ravines below.” To my mind, this viewpoint has some troubling implications; but it is also bound up in the way that Kipling organises the space within his writing, open up each experience moment by moment.

Book details (publisher link)

Brazilian Sketches (1940) by Rudyard Kipling, Abandoned Bookshop ebook.

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