TagRepublic of Consciousness Prize

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: Unknown Language by Hildegard of Bingen and Huw Lemmey

One thing I value the Republic of Consciousness Prize for is that it highlights books I would never have come across otherwise. This is such a book, and I’m so glad to have read it.

Unknown Language is a reimagining of the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century German mystic. It’s mostly written by Huw Lemmey, but there’s also an introductory story by Bhanu Kapil and a closing essay by Alice Sprawls, which add their own dimensions to the book. 

Lemmey’s Hildegard lives in a version of reality which has elements of 21st century life, yet which nevertheless seems timeless. It feels like a place where profound transformations could happen at any moment. 

Divine judgement is visited upon Hildegard’s city, which forces her into exile. There’s danger beyond the city walls, but also the chance for Hildegard to begin anew. She’s looking for the unknown language to describe the all-encompassing visions she experiences, and the unknown language to articulate her own personal form of grace. 

Lemmey’s prose is always compelling and vivid, but I find it rises in intensity along with Hildegard’s experiences – such as when she meets and falls in love with a young woman. At those times, you really get a sense of the personal transcendence Hildegard is feeling. Unknown Language is a powerful book to experience. 

Published by Ignota Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

Mathilda – Black, queer, working-class – is someone who knows how it feels to be an outsider. She has a periodic need to Escape her life: to reinvent herself, even taking on a new name. She has Transfixions, historical figures with whom she feels a deep spiritual connection. She’s also particularly interested in the Bright Young Things of 1920s London. 

A chance find in Mathilda’s volunteer role at the National Portrait Gallery leads her to a new Transfixion: Hermia Druitt, a Black modernist poet. Mathilda finds her way on to a residency in the European town of Sun, where Hermia eventually lived. There, Mathilda meets a kindred spirit named Erskine-Lily, and seeks to uncover what happened to Hermia and the cult that she founded. 

LOTE is a fun to read, with its central mystery to be solved, and the way Mathilda shows up the absurdities of the residency. It’s not clear at first whether the foundation behind the residency is for artists or business people. Their outlook is very different from Mathilda’s, but she finds that she can bluff her way through. 

Hermia Druitt is fictitious, but stands in for analogous marginalised or ‘forgotten’ figures from history. Shola von Reinhold expands on Mathilda’s story by including passages from an (also fictitious) academic text called Black Modernisms, and from what seems to be a direct account of the poet’s life. 

By looking into the story of Hermia Druitt, Mathilda is also able to remake herself. LOTE takes apart received views of art and history (and art history) to create its own space for other voices to be heard.

Published by Jacaranda Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevič

Alhierd Bacharevič, Alindarka’s Children (2014)
Translated from the Russian and Belarusian by Jim Dingley and Petra Reid (2020)

This novel by Belarusian author Alhierd Bacharevič is an act of assertion, perhaps even reclamation. It begins with Alicia and Avi, two children interred in a camp whose purpose is to ‘correct’ their language, make them speak Russian rather than Belarusian. The children’s father helps them escape, and they flee into the forest, though the camp leaders won’t let them go that easily…

There’s a fairytale atmosphere to this story, with the mysterious forest seeming almost a character in its own right – the children even come across a gingerbread house of sorts. It’s also a novel about language: we meet the camp’s Doctor who seeks medical ‘cures’ for what he sees as the speech defect of Belarusian. Speaking Belarusian – and writing the novel partly in that language – then becomes an act of resistance. ⁣

This carries over to the translation, which is an act of assertion in its own right. The Russian in the original appears as English in the translation, but the Belarusian has been translated on into Scots. It’s an idea that preserves the power relationship between the two languages of the original – not to mention that it forces readers of the ‘dominant’ language to work harder.⁣

There are also lines of Belarusian poetry scattered throughout the book. Rather than being translated, these have been substituted for Scots poetry. I have to admit the use of Scots sometimes left me seeing the characters as more Scottish than Belarusian – your mileage may vary. Still, I found Alindarka’s Children a thought-provoking piece of work.

Published by Scotland Street Press.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer ⁣

Fitzcarraldo Editions are the only publisher to have won the Republic of Consciousness Prize twice, so it’s no surprise to see them longlisted again this year. (My copy of The Appointment looks different from the usual Fitzcarraldo blue – I won it in a competition, one of five copies with a cover painted by Katharina Volckmer.) ⁣

The narrator of this short volume is a German in London. She has come to the office of one Dr Seligman for an appointment whose nature is at first unspecified. The book we read is her monologue as addressed to him. ⁣

The narrator begins by revealing some of her fantasies (let’s say that they involve Hitler and leave it there), and continues to unburden herself. It becomes clear that she is profoundly uncomfortable in her body and with her nationality (feeling, for example, that Germany has not reckoned with its past as well as it may like to think). The former source of discomfort is what this appointment is meant to address; the latter one is why the narrator has approached a Jewish doctor. ⁣

The Appointment is densely written, often harrowing, and often drily funny – it shifts mood along with its narrator. There’s a sense that all this – the appointment, and the monologue form itself – is the narrator’s way of taking control. The space of the doctor’s office is private, and by being the one to speak, the narrator can shape what she says, what she reveals about herself. She feels that this is her time and space, and hopefully the chance for a new beginning.⁣

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: the longlist

I promised myself that this year I would read the Republic of Consciousness Prize longlist. I’ve always found it an interesting prize to follow, and I’ve enjoyed the last few months as a subscriber to their book of the month – but I’ve never actually read along with it. Time to change that.

The 2021 longlist was announced yesterday, and here’s what we’ve got:

  • A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti, tr. Fionn Petch (Charco Press)
  • The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Mordew by Alex Pheby (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths (Henningham Family Press)
  • Unknown Language by Huw Lemmey and Hildegard von Blingen (Ignota Books)
  • LOTE by Shola von Reinhold (Jacaranda Books)
  • The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press)
  • Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman (Peninsula Press)
  • Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevic, tr. Jim Dingley & Petra Reid (Scotland Street Press)
  • A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)

To date, I’ve read four of those and reviewed three (links above). Mordew was one of my favourite books from last year. Mr. Beethoven and The Mermaid of Black Conch were not far behind. The other one I’ve read so far is A Musical Offering, which is so far away from what I’d usually read that I didn’t really appreciate it properly – so a re-read is in order.

I love that, even though I’ve become reasonably knowledgeable about small presses over the years, the Republic of Consciousness can still shine a light on books and publishers I’ve never heard of. Well, it’s time to get acquainted.

Fantasy, Galley Beggar style: Mordew by Alex Pheby

It’s a year or so now since I heard that Alex Pheby’s third Galley Beggar Press novel was going to be fantasy. I was intrigued as to what sort of fantasy novel Galley Beggar might publish, but also wanted to have some idea of what Pheby’s other work was like. That’s what led me to read Lucia earlier this year. It was a powerful experience of vivid language… and so was Mordew.

Reading this book took me back to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the sense of a fantasy novel that was vibrant and wide open, that could go anywhere it wanted. Mordew is built on archetypal foundations: Nathan Treeves, a boy from the slums with a mysterious ‘Spark’, is sent on a mission by the powerful Master of the city of Mordew. There are echoes of many a classic fantasy city, but Pheby’s novel is something all of its own.

For a start, there’s the writing. Here, towards the beginning, is Nathan wading through a patch of Living Mud, which can spontaneously generate life-forms:

Deeper and there were things brushing his knees, some the size of a finger, moving through the darkness. Then, occasionally, the touch of something on his thighs, seeking, groping, flinching away by reflex. There was nothing to fear – he told himself – since whatever these things were, they had no will, and would be dead in minutes, dissolving back into the Living Mud. They meant nothing to anyone. They meant nothing. 

It’s easier for Nathan to tell himself these things are nothing than for him to act that way in reality. This passage made my skin crawl when I read it!

Mordew also lingers in my mind because of the extent to which Pheby pushes his novel’s imagination. I could list examples, but I find that I don’t want to, because a large part of this novel’s effect lies in the discovery. Suffice it to say that, if you like the sound of Mordew, I highly recommend it.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths

In 1823, Beethoven was commissioned to compose a biblical oratorio in the United States of America. He didn’t live to take up the commission… but what if he had? That’s the question posed by music critic Paul Griffiths in his latest novel.

I like it when historical fiction acknowledges the constructed nature of history. Mr. Beethoven goes much further than that. We begin with Beethoven on a ship headed for Boston – yet Griffiths emphasises that this is not how things were, but a plausible alternative:

It would be possible to work out which vessel this might have been, in whose dining salon these people were delving into their cabbage soup with greater or lesser pleasure. Suppose the year was 1833, as could well have been the case…

In this way, Griffiths is able to take his novel apart and rebuild it as he goes. The sense that this all provisional, contingent, raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck. There’s a brilliant chapter which rehearses a conversation between Beethoven and his librettist, Reverend Ballou, three times. In the first two versions, the composer says the same things but Ballou’s dialogue changes, giving the scene a completely different tone. In the third version, Beethoven doesn’t understand Ballou at all. Which is the ‘correct’ conversation? Take your pick.

Communication is one of the first problems that Beethoven encounters. Griffiths imagines a girl named Thankful, who uses Martha’s Vineyard sign language to interpret for him. But there’s still inevitably a distance between the composer and the world around him. All of Beethoven’s dialogue in the novel has been taken directly from his letters. Of course, it’s then out of context, which has the effect of making Beethoven seem to be at a slight remove from reality. It’s subtle but unnerving.

The subject of Beethoven’s oratorio is Job. As Thankful listens to the performance, she reflects on its meaning: “It is about this universe in which God is omnipotent. And it is about a larger universe in which God is powerless, helpless.” I’m struck that Mr. Beethoven puts its author in a similar position: totally in control over what’s between the covers in one sense, but at the mercy of history in another. If the author is like God, then – as Robert says in his review at The Bobsphere – Beethoven in this novel is like Job, undergoing his own trial of faith (in himself as much as anything).

Mr. Beethoven is a novel that twists language and history to explore what might have been, but also to expose the inherent fragility of any fictional account. I must mention as well that this is a beautifully made volume from Henningham Family Press. I’m pleased to see it highlighted by the Goldsmiths Prize.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Three reviews: Modiano, Roffey, Foenkinos

Three more short reviews that were originally published on my Instagram.

Patrick Modiano, Villa Triste (1975)
Translated from the French by John Cullen (2016)

A few years ago, I enjoyed reading three of Patrick Modiano’s novels. When I mentioned one of them in a recommendation series on Instagram, I had a hankering to read him again. So I took Villa Triste down from the shelf, and experienced a welcome return to Modiano’s world.

Modiano’s narrator looks back on his life age 18, at the time of the Algerian War in the early 1960s. Apparently seeking to dodge the draft, he flees to a lakeside town on the Swiss border. Calling himself Count Victor Chmara, he meets the fabulous young actress Yvonne, and her exuberant doctor friend René. Victor joins in with their golden social life, but of course nothing lasts forever. ⁣

There are themes typical of Modiano here: the elusive past, and the fragility of memory. Yvonne and René have their secrets as much as Victor, which means that happy-go-lucky life could dissolve as quickly as it began. ⁣

Published by Daunt Books Publishing.

Monique Roffey, The Mermaid of Black Conch (2020)

In 1976, Aycayia, a mermaid, appears off the shore of St Constance on the Caribbean island of Black Conch. She is captured by a group of visiting American fishermen, and left on the dock. A local man, David Baptiste, rescues Aycayia and hides her at his home. She begins to change back into a woman, and suddenly both she and David find themselves living new lives.

Monique Roffey’s (author of Archipelago) new novel is told in a mixture of voices: standard third-person narration; the dialect of David’s journal, looking back forty years later; the poetry of Aycayia’s own voice. It’s compelling stuff, and there are some really affecting moments, such as Aycayia and a deaf boy finding a connection through sign language. But nothing lasts forever, and a bittersweet ending waits in the wings. ⁣⁣

Published by Peepal Tree Press.

David Foenkinos, The Mystery of Henri Pick (2016)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2020)

Over the last few years, I’ve become a big fan of Walter Presents, Channel 4’s streaming service for world drama. I’ve come across many an enjoyable show on there, and appreciate the fact that it’s curated – like a good bookshop. ⁣

Now, the curator of Walter Presents, Walter Iuzzolino, is branching out into books, selecting a series of titles to be published in translation by Pushkin Press. The first is this charming French literary mystery. ⁣

In the Breton town of Crozon is a library of rejected manuscripts, each left there by its author. A young editor persuades her publishing house to take on a lost book that she finds in the library – and it becomes a bestseller. The author is apparently the late Henri Pick, a pizza chef who, by all accounts, had no literary leanings whatsoever. Did he really write the book, or is there some other explanation? ⁣

Reading The Mystery of Henri Pick is like going on a scenic tour of the countryside, with diversions down interesting byways. It pokes gentle fun at ideas of literary celebrity, but most of all it’s enjoyable to read. ⁣

Republic of Consciousness Prize longlist 2017

One of my favourite literary awards announced its longlist the other day. The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, now in its second year, is open to UK and Irish publishers who have a maximum of five full-time paid people working for them. It sums up its criteria for winning as “hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose”. 

The 13 longlisted titles, in alphabetical order of publisher, are:

  • Playing Possum by Kevin Davey (Aaaargh! Press)
  • Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell (And Other Stories)
  • The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose Books)
  • An Overcoat by Jack Robinson (CB Editions)
  • Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, tr. Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press)
  • Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner (Dostoyevsky Wannabe)
  • Compass by Mathias Énard, tr. Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre, tr. Sophie Lewis (Les Fugitives)
  • We that are young by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams (Influx Press)
  • Darker with the Lights on by David Hayden (Little Island Press)
  • In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie (Salt Publishing)
  • The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo (Tramp Press)

Last year’s longlist had introduced me to some new writers, and even a few new publishers. So I was quite surprised to find that I’d heard of all 13 of this year’s books. I concluded that I must be more immersed in the world of the small press than I’d thought.

Well, I counted up and found that I had copies of nine books on the longlist… but I’d read only one, Compass. So I’ve decided I want to read the longlist. The winner is not announced until March, so there’s plenty of time; and the ethos of the prize is right up my street. This could be just the thing to get me back in the swing of reading (and, hopefully, blogging).

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