Tagshort fiction

Record of a Night Too Brief – Hiromi Kawakami: a snapshot review

This is a collection of three stories by the author of Strange Weather in Tokyo (aka The Briefcase); The Nakano Thrift Shop; and Manazuru. The protagonists of all three stories are disconnected from life in some way; Kawakami explores this through various fantastical encounters.

The title story takes its narrator through a series of strange vignettes (dreams?): transformed into a horse; guest at a bizarre banquet. Alternating chapters chronicle her relationship with a girl, who shrinks, disappears and reappears as circumstances change.

In ‘Missing’, the protagonist’s brother has disappeared – though occasionally he returns, and only she can see him. Now the family is trying to find room for the brother’s wife-to-be (who, unbeknownst to her, is now marrying the narrator’s other brother). There’s a deadpan quality to this story which offsets the strangeness, and which I really like.

The final story is called ‘A Snake Stepped On’. Its protagonist does indeed step on a snake — which then turns into a woman, takes up residence in the narrator’s home, and claims to be her mother. As the story progresses, snakes appear all over, perhaps representing …the tensions squirming beneath the surface of everyday life. With some arresting imagery, this story is a fitting end to an intriguing collection.

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

Elsewhere 

  • An extract from the story ‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ at Words Without Borders.
  • Reviews of the book by my fellow MBIP-shadowers Tony’s Reading List and 1streading.
  • An interesting interview with translator Lucy North at Bookwitty. 

Book details 

Record of a Night Too Brief (1996) by Hiromi Kawakami, tr. Lucy North (2017), Pushkin Press, 160 pages, paperback (personal copy).

You Will Grow into Them – Malcolm Devlin: a Minor Literature[s] review

Today I’m delighted to make my debut at Minor Literature[s], a site that I’ve long admired. If you’ve never come across Minor Lit[s] before, it publishes fiction, poetry, essays, reviews and more. The ‘minor’ in the site’s name originally referred to writing in a second language, after Kafka; but it has broadened out to encompass different ways in which literature can be considered ‘minor’ (though not lesser!) in the context of contemporary publishing – all while maintaining its own distinctive aesthetic. 

The book that I’m reviewing is You Will Grow into Them, the debut story collection by Malcolm Devlin, published by Unsung Stories. Devlin’s name was new to me when I accepted the review copy; but I saw that he’d had stories published in Interzone and Black Static, and the book came with plaudits from trusted names like Nina Allan, so that was enough for me.

I found in Devlin a writer whose work demands my attention. The stories in this collection are centred on change in its various forms, and carry a real sense of how destabilising it can be. But I don’t want to say too much on this blog when there’s a review for you to read right here

Book details 

You Will Grow into Them (2017) by Malcolm Devlin, Unsung Stories, 344 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Our Dead World – Liliana Colanzi

​It’s time for my first Latin American choice of this Spanish Lit Month: a collection of short stories by the young Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi, published by Dalkey Archive in a smart translation by Jessica Sequeira. These stories inhabit a place where the line between the real and the supernatural stretches thin; they’re animated by the existential tension that this implies. 

In ‘Meterorite’, ranch owner Ruddy has trouble sleeping, a side-effect of his weight loss pills. He has plenty to occupy his mind, too – not least paying off the mother of the peasant boy he took on, who was then kicked in the head by a cow that Ruddy had shot. The boy’s mother said he could “speak with higher beings”; in the days before his injury, the boy had declared that “a fire would appear in the sky to take him away”. Superstitious nonsense, thinks Ruddy – yet, on the night of this story, he believes that he sees the kitchen door move by itself; and there is the meteoroid, burning up in the sky after travelling here for thousands of years. Ruddy is so worked up that it hardly matters to him whether there’s some supernatural agency at work – nor does it matter to the story, which builds up like a storm, then breaks with dread and fury. 

Colanzi’s stories tiptoe back and forth across the line between real and supernatural, merrily smudging it at times. ‘Alfredito’ revolves around the death of the narrator’s schoolfriend. The whole concept of Alfredito being dead feels profoundly wrong to her:

And now I had to get used to the monstrous idea of Alfredito’s dead body, prepared to occupy its place in the cemetery, where it would begin its slow journey to putrefaction. Alfredito, I realized, was no longer the boy running in the countryside with arms outstretched, but was now something else. Would his parents be afraid of his body? Would they be able to touch it, to kiss it? 

“The dead never leave,” says the narrator’s nana; and, throughout the story, Alfredito’s death is never presented as completely final, because the narrator won’t countenance it. We are introduced to a whole cast of friends and family, enough for a novel, in the space of a few pages. This narrative density gives the tale a heightened energy that carries the reader along, and might even allow an impossible door to open… 

In ‘Cannibal’, a couple arrive in Paris to the news that a notorious cannibal is also present in the city, somewhere. The pair are here for an illicit liaison; but first one of them, Vanessa, has some drugs to take to a party. The entire story is told from the viewpoint of Vanessa’s lover, who stays in the hotel, thoughts churning around in his mind. His fears over what might happen to Vanessa fold back into his anxieties about their relationship, and he becomes effectively a cannibal of his own thoughts. This story won the Aura Estrada Prize in 2015, and it’s not hard to see why. 

The title story of Our Dead World seems to me to tie the collection together. Its protagonist, Mirka, has taken a lifetime contract with the Martian Lottery, working on the colony for the next round of inhabitants. She has left behind her partner Tommy, but their old life won’t let go of her so easily. Neither will Earth itself: she keeps hallucinating the presence of deer and other animals on Mars. In this story, you have the mingling of real and supernatural; prose woven into a dense tapestry (dialogue between Mirka and Tommy is embedded within the Mars-set text); and a concern with human emotions (the title ‘Our Dead World’ could refer as easily to Mirka’s relationship with Tommy as to Earth or Mars).

I’ve enjoyed reading Colanzi’s stories in this collection, and I hope there will be more to come in English translation. 

Elsewhere 

Read further reviews of Our Dead World at Winstonsdad’s BlogSF in Translation; and Bookmunch

Book details 

Our Dead World (2016) by Liliana Colanzi, tr. Jessica Sequeira (2017), Dalkey Archive Press, 114 pages, paperback (review copy).

Nona’s Room – Cristina Fernández Cubas

Once again, July is Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog. A little later than planned, I’m joining in. 

Today I’m looking at another title from the Peter Owen/Istros Spanish Spring trio (the last I reviewed was Inventing Love). The author biography tells me that Cristina Fernández Cubas is one of Spain’s most highly regarded short-story writers — and that Nona’s Room is her first book to be translated into English. After reading these six stories, I can see why Cubas has such a high reputation; and I’m keen to read more of her work. 

The opening title story sets the tone of the collection. When the narrator’s sister Nona was born, her mother told her that Nona was special, and not to forget that “special is a lovely word.” Well, maybe that was how it happened. Whatever, the narrator knows that she has felt sidelined since Nona came along:

Because my life was very different before Nona came into the world. I don’t remember it very well, but I do know it was different. I’ve got loads of reasons to think that it was better, too. Much better. But once Nona was born things changed for ever, and that must be why I got used to thinking that my mother said those words the day she came into the world. That’s the day when I started a new life as well. My life with Nona. 

(translation by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts)

This kind of uncertainty, and a slippery hold on reality, permeates all of Cubas’s stories. In this particular example, the narrator has started to lose her sense of having a life in and for herself when her parents focus all their attention on special Nona at her special school, Nona with her array of imaginary friends. It’s when the narrator sees something inexplicable happen to her sister that she becomes determined to find out the truth, and discover what secrets lie behind the door of Nona’s room… 

Yes, I am tiptoeing around something that I don’t want to reveal. But I don’t want to give the impression that this story is ‘all about the twist’: ‘Nona’s Room’ writhes and shifts all the way through, with a constant sense that something else is set to emerge. 

That same sense comes right to the fore early on in ‘Interior with Figure’, when the narrator describes the Cecioni painting of that name and says that the girl depicted “reminds me of a character in a short story I wrote recently whom I called Nona.”
The narrator of ‘Interior with Figure’ admits to being a writer but stops short of revealing her name. Still, that mention of Nona tempts us to perceive this story as being closer to reality than some of the others. Our narrator goes on to recount seeing a school party at the gallery she is visiting, and hearing one girl who has a particularly dark interpretation of Cecioni’s Interior with Figure. The girl speculates that the figure in the painting is hiding from her parents, because she knows they want to kill her for what she has seen. 

It strikes the narrator that the girl’s comments on the painting may actually be a coded cry for help. She wonders what she should do: go to the police? But what would she tell them? ‘Interior with Figure’ is a story about interpretation: a series of subjectivities which crystallise into a whole all unto itself. That’s my interpretation, anyway… 

‘The End of Barbro’ sees a woman drive a wedge between the man she marries and his three daughters. What makes this story particularly striking is that it’s narrated by the three sisters collectively:

We hardly spoke a word and didn’t dare look each other in the eye, but with a few drinks inside us we sorted through our thoughts and memories as if they were scenes from a film fast-forwarding at a frenetic pace and featuring only two protagonists: Barbro and our father. And when we remember her appearing on the doorstep barely a week earlier it seemed as if years and years had gone by. They weren’t the same, and neither were we. 

The effect of this narration is quite eerie, because we lose sight of the sisters’ individual lives and personalities (perhaps reflecting how they feel squeezed out by Barbro), which makes it harder to imagine them as characters. In turn, that makes the story’s sense of reality unstable… and there we’re back to the normal state of affairs in Nona’s Room

Elsewhere
 

Stu has reviewed Nona’s Room here; I like his comparison to Roald Dahl’s stories. You can also read an extract from the title story here at the European Literature Network. 

Book details 

Nona’s Room (2015) by Cristina Fernández Cubas, tr. Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts (2017), Peter Owen Publishers, 160 pages, paperback (review copy). 

A Review of Nightjars, part 3

It’s time for the third part of my review of Nightjar Press chapbooks (the first two parts are here and here). As before, these are reviewed in the more-or-less random order that I read them.

Conrad Williams, ‘The Jungle’ (2013)

Our narrator is an artist who’s working on a jungle scene with no animals; he wants the scene itself to suggest their presence, menace and violence just out of sight. When he’s not painting, he likes to take his two-year-old son Fred to the playground or somewhere; though he’s determined that Fred should not be placed in the way of danger. On this particular outing, the pair pass a man who appears to change into a large animal — and then the jungle continues to encroach. 

Conrad Williams is one of my favourite writers working in dark fiction, horror, whatever you prefer to call it. I always feel that he’s in full command of his material, and that’s the case again here. He ramps up the tension, giving ordinary places a sense of looming danger. He also stops in just the right place to cap it off. 


Alison Moore, ‘The Harvestman’ (2015)
 

Earlier this year, I read Alison Moore‘s third novel, Death and the Seaside. As it happens, this story was the foundation for that novel, though it works perfectly well as a piece of fiction in its own right. 

Eliot is living on the south coast of England. He owes some rent to his landlord, Big Pete; and also has eyes for barmaid Abbey, Big Pete’s girlfriend. One day, Abbey invites Eliot to the flat above the pub, that she shares with Big Pete. This isn’t likely to end well.

Moore’s story evokes the atmosphere of an off-season, slightly dingy seaside town; but there’s a vein of symbolism running through ‘The Harvestman’ that really enriches the piece. Eliot has long spindly legs that remind him of harvestmen, creatures that disgust him, that can just detach a leg if they get trapped. For different reasons, both Eliot’s father and grandfather lost the use of their legs; the question becomes, can Eliot escape his situation with himself intact? Reaching the answer to this is an intriguing journey. 

 

Christopher Burns, ‘The Numbers’ (2016)

One morning, Danny arrives unexpectedly at his family’s farm. He’s not particularly welcome, not after trying it on with his sister-in-law (though as far as he’s concerned, he was picking up on her cues). More generally, Danny is seen as the useless appendage of the family, having sold his share in the farm and being unable to get a job (he was never good with numbers, after all). Still, he is taken in and given breakfast — then it’s down to business. 

This is a story of two halves, beginning in a rather subdued fashion (albeit with a definite undercurrent of tension) before turning deftly into something darker, that casts those earlier comments about Danny in a new light. It’s very well done, with such a strong impact. 

Book details 

‘The Jungle’ (2013) by Conrad Williams, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 
‘The Harvestman’ (2015) by Alison Moore, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

‘The Numbers’ (2016) by Christopher Burns, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

A Review of Nightjars, part 2 

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed a trio of chapbooks from Nightjar Press. Now here’s another set, again reviewed in the order that  I read them.

Hilary Scudder, ‘M’ (2013)


Our narrator, Anna, leaves a strongly worded goodbye letter for her husband, then sets out in search of the bar where her lover – referred to only as M – is waiting. She goes into the side entrance of a hotel, and soon finds herself caught up in strange happenings where she clearly doesn’t belong. She is rescued by a young woman named Kristina, who encourages Anna to re-evaluate her life.


I have to be honest that I didn’t grasp this story fully. There are some details suggestive of a particular time and place (perhaps Germany, perhaps the early 20th century) which, if correct, would give me some further context for what happens. But then again, the setting often feels timeless. I am left thinking of the hotel as representing the glamour and danger of a life with M, as opposed to the glum misery of Anna’s current life. Her journey then becomes a kinetic way of resolving the dilemma in front of her.



Tom Fletcher, ‘The Home’ (2015)


I’ve always enjoyed reading Tom Fletcher’s stories; and here is a short, sharp demonstration of why. A man sits in an armchair watching the TV, which shows his wife traversing a blank grey landscape. A caption states that this place is haunted by a predator known as ‘The Home’.

The metaphor of creeping old age is plain to see throughout this story; but the strangeness of the scenario only serves to amplify it. The ending has a double impact, from both what happens literally, and what it represents in real life.



Leone Ross, ‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ (2015)


A woman walks into a local restaurant, sits down at the table, and stays there – for days, weeks, years. She is served meals, and washes in the restroom. Any member of staff who takes against her is promptly sacked. The maître d’ tells the story to one new recruit: the woman had fallen in love with the chef-proprietor; but he was already tied to his restaurant. When the chef and the woman made love, the restaurant caused a small earth tremor in protest. The restaurant would not be left out of its owner’s affections, so the woman stays there to appease it.


All of this is told in the most delightfully measured prose, as carefully placed as the elements of a fine restaurant dish. That prose style creates its own world for the story, so that everything within it seems quite logical and natural. By the end, I was reluctant to leave.


Book details


‘M’ (2013) by Hilary Scudder, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘The Home’ (2015) by Tom Fletcher, Nightjar Press, 8 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant’ (2015) by Leone Ross, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals 

Thought X is the latest anthology in Comma Press’s ‘science-into-fiction’ series, which sees authors paired with scientists to produce a story inspired by a particular idea, with the scientist contributing an afterword that elaborates on the scientific background. (I reviewed a related title, Sara Maitland’s collection Moss Witch, a few years ago.)

The theme for this new anthology is thought experiments. The editors point out in their introduction that there have been contrasting opinions over what exactly constitutes a thought experiment. I am much more of a fiction reader than a scientist (which was certainly brought home to me while reading the book!), so I apologise for any misunderstanding or oversimplification in the review that follows. Essentially, as I understand it, a thought experiment is a scientific ‘what if’ scenario used to highlight a particular question, or a limitation in a theorem. But I can’t resist quoting Terry Pratchett’s definition of a thought experiment, from The Unadulterated Cat: “one which you can’t do, and won’t work”.


I found that, with many of the fourteen stories in Thought X, I hadn’t known about the particular thought experiments beforehand. Now, with the benefit of the afterwords, it’s interesting to see the many different ways in which the writers drew on their thought experiments. In the spirit of placing an artificial structure on something to help describe and explain it, I’m going to organise this review according to how far the different stories refer to their thought experiment directly.


So, first of all, there are stories that don’t mention their thought experiments at all. In ‘The Child in the Lock’ by Robin Ince, Neil has been invited to dinner by his work colleague Tom, and is keen to make the right kind of impression – he’s even bought some new shoes, a pair that Tom. Neil is very early for his train, and goes for a walk to pass the time. He hears some splashing in a nearby lock, and sees the figure of a child. Should he go to the rescue?


The ‘Drowning Child’ scenario (as Prof Glen Newey’s afterword tells me) was put forward by the philosopher Peter Singer as an example of situation where taking the action which most would consider morally right (rescuing the child) would come at a certain cost to the only person nearby (getting wet, and so on). Ince has Neil reluctant to intervene (and ruin his nice new shoes?), then able to rationalise that choice to himself (maybe the kid is diving for coins, or something). The use of short paragraphs in quick succession emphasises the rhetorical dance of Neil’s thought process. The end of the story is suitably chilling.


Hannah, protagonist of Annie Clarkson’s ‘The Rooms’, needs a job. Her brother Alex gets her one at his company, training an artificial intelligence to interact in convincingly human ways. Hannah spends her working day in an enclosed room, across a desk from Myla, a robot in the form of a beautiful woman (there are no requests for male bots in this line of work, Alex tells her). She asks Myla questions on a range of prescribed topics, guiding the bot towards sufficiently ‘woman-like’ responses.


The thought experiment in this case is known as the ‘Chinese Room’, and essentially asks whether a computer carrying out various processes could be capable of understanding what exactly it is doing. Clarkson’s piece likewise asks whether a bot like Myla, simulating the appearance of humanity, could be capable of that. ‘The Rooms’ works well enough on this level alone, but here is where Prof Seth Bullock’s afterword really shines, because it explores the many different ways in which the story reflects its thought experiment: Myla may not understand what she is doing during her sessions with Hannah, but neither does Hannah, really – she just talks, with no sense of how it is affecting Myla. Could it be said that work undertaken in the Rooms is ultimately only of meaning to the client? And so on. I left Bullock’s afterword with a deeper appreciation of Clarkson’s story.


Some stories in Thought X have a discussion of their thought experiment woven in. A powerful example is ‘The Tiniest Atom’ by Sarah Schofield, in which Frank goes to visit the family of his fallen comrade Ted. Frank doesn’t give his name to Ted’s widow Nancy, even saying to her mother: “They call me Ted.” He helps around the garden, and generally makes himself part of the household.


In flashbacks to the trenches, Frank tells Ted about Laplace’s demon: a theory suggesting that the movement of everything in the universe, down to the smallest atom, follows a predetermined path; and that an intellect vast enough to process all that information could then predict the future. Frank had been working on a machine to do just this, and Ted has come to continue the task. Schofield uses the idea of the clockwork universe as a metaphor to explore the emotional displacement caused by the First World War: Frank’s death has created a vacuum; Ted, the outsider with the widest view of this particular ‘universe’, is ideally placed to fill it.


In ‘Red’ by Annie Kirby, Alice wakes one morning to find that her world is black and white – she can no longer perceive colours. A doctor compares her situation to the ‘Mary’s Room’ thought experiment devised by Prof Frank Jackson (who also provides the afterword). Mary lives in an entirely black-and-white room, but through excellent educational resources and intelligence, she has learned everything known to physical science about the world (including the human mind). The question posed by this scenario is: if Mary leaves the room and perceives colour for the first time, does she now gain new knowledge (given that she has studied the science of colour perception)?


Alice concludes that she is actually the opposite of Mary – she had colour perception and then lost it, for a start – but the story of Mary haunts her nonetheless. She dreams repeatedly of Mary, and certain features recur – the colour red, or Mary’s opening question: “What did you bring me?”. As Kirby’s tale unfolds, the theme of hidden (or lost) knowledge becomes key. We see Alice’s relationship with her partner Laurel unravel as Alice loses sight of what brought and held them together. We also see, chillingly, what lies buried in the imagery of those dreams.


Finally, there are stories that place the thought experiment itself at their centre. In ‘Keep It Dark’ by Adam Roberts, scientist Kay and blind theologian Broome travel out to a seemingly abandoned radio telescope, to meet their old colleague Lorenzini, who claims to have solved Olbers’ paradox: that is, in an infinite universe with an infinite number of stars, why doesn’t the night sky blaze with light?


The solution, according to Kay (and confirmed by Prof Sarah Bridle in her afterword) is simply that the universe is not infinite; but Lorenzini is convinced of another answer. He believes that all the light has been swallowed by dark matter, and he will not brook any disagreement. As the story progresses, tensions rise; but Roberts narrates this through Broome’s viewpoint, so one doesn’t ‘see’ exactly what is going on. The reader is left to interpret the meaning of what can be sensed in a world composed mainly of darkness.


Ian Watson’s ‘Monkey Business’ is all about the proposal that an infinite number of monkeys bashing away at typewriter keyboards would eventually produce the text of a Shakespeare play. Watson imagines a simulated world where that experiment plays out. 37 robot monkeys type away in the Templum of the city of Scribe. There are people to check their output for signs of Shakespeare; and whole industries to provide paper, ink, and other resources.


The story follows two characters journeying to Scribe, in order to see the monkeys. Along the way, we discover just how many variables there are in this scenario. Can any of Shakespeare’s plays be typed for the experiment to succeed, or does it have to be a particular one? Does it matter whether or not the capitalisation is correct? What if different monkeys typed out fragments that could be assembled into a complete play? And so on. It’s all told in an enjoyably theatrical style, and illustrates what a pleasure it is to think around with these thought experiments.


Publisher’s competition


Comma Press are currently holding a competition to give away a full set of their ‘science-into-fiction’ anthologies. The full details are here, but essentially you have to tag Comma on Twitter or Instagram with a photo of your copy of Thought X, along with the hashtag #ShareYourThought. The winner will be announced on 21 May.


Book details


Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals (2017) ed. Rob Appleby and Ra Page, Comma Press, 260 pages, paperback (review copy).

A Review of Nightjars, part 1

Nightjar Press, run by the writer and editor Nicholas Royle, publishes individual short stories as limited-edition chapbooks. It has been some time since I last covered any on the blog, but I’ve always enjoyed the Nightjar stories that I’ve read.


Last year, Nick sent me a batch of Nightjar titles, which I’ll be reviewing here in three batches of three. I regret that it has taken me so long to get around to these; not all of the books reviewed are still in print. (I mention all this in a spirit of openness and completeness.)


I’m reviewing the books in the order I read them, which was more-or-less random. 

Neil Campbell, ‘Jackdaws’ (2016)


This story begins with a wooden cross attached to a rock; stapled to the cross is a sheet of paper “with black type on it and a photograph of the girl.” Most of the rest consists of the narrator walking around the High Peak in all weathers. There are few people; jackdaws are the main constant.


It’s all in the detail. Our narrator’s account is full of specific geographical details, which mean little in practice (especially if you don’t know the area), but gain their own intensity from repetition and the sense that these locations mean a lot to the individual addressing us.


Then comes the ending, where Campbell fills in some context, and suddenly these places that we’ve been encouraged to imagine take on a new cast, as we realise the implications. It’s quite a moment to experience. 



Elizabeth Stott, ‘Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers’ (2013)


From the countryside, we go to the town. Maureen arrives at her boyfriend Tony’s flat for their regular Saturday night together. Though he has been rather a philanderer in the past, Maureen is convinced that she has put an end to that. But tonight she finds Tony in the ‘company’ of a remarkably lifelike female mannequin. He can’t remember where it came from – a souvenir from yesterday’s night out with the lads? – but there’s something uncanny about it.

This story moves deftly through several different moods: from ordinary to odd, to downright creepy as we start to appreciate just what the mannequin might be. Again (though in a rather different way), it’s a case of mundane details at the beginning coming back again towards the end, but seen by the reader in a new light – and the story ends on a perfectly sinister note. 


John D. Rutter, ‘Last Christmas’ (2015)


Four generations of a family gather together for Christmas. But the members of this family shrink in height as they grow older, so that baby Charlotte is ten feet high, while her great-grandparents are merely a few inches. Rutter gets plenty of comic mileage out of this premise, in scenes such as the family’s struggle to get the baby through the door of her grandparents’ house.


But it’s not all about comedy. As with Stott’s story, there’s a metaphor running through ‘Last Christmas’, one that poses urgent questions. This piece is particularly concerned with how we treat older people in society, with the result that its central images are as troubling as they are charming.


Book details


‘Jackdaws’ (2016) by Neil Campbell, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers’ (2013) by Elizabeth Stott, Nightjar Press, 16 pages, chapbook (review copy).


‘Last Christmas’ (2015) by John D. Rutter, Nightjar Press, 12 pages, chapbook (review copy). 

‘A Game of Chess’ by Stefan Zweig

zweigchessNovember is German Literature Month and, though I haven’t had time to participate fully this year, I have been able to introduce myself to another classic author. I’ve been reading a new collection of four of Stefan Zweig’s stories and novellas, freshly translated by Peter James Bowman and published by Alma Classics.

The title novella, 1941’s ‘A Game of Chess’ (aka ‘The Royal Game’ or ‘Chess Story’) was, I understand, Zweig’s last fiction published in his lifetime. Its narrator is about to leave New York on a steamship when he learns that one of his fellow passengers is the world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic. Fascinated by theCzentovic’s monomaniacal pursuit of chess, the narrator gathers together a small group of passengers to challenge him to a game – which, unsurprisingly, they lose. But, in a second game, the advice of one Dr B., an Austrian, guides the group to a draw. Next day, Dr B. tells his story and reveals the source of his extraordinary insight into chess.

german-lit-month2

The general impression I get of Zweig;s fiction from the stories I’ve read is that his narrator will typically be an impartial observer, in whom another character will confide, breaking open the façade of normality to uncover darkness beneath.  In ‘A Game of Chess’, Dr B. explains that he was a solicitor who had been arrested by the Nazi regime. He was kept in a hotel room in complete isolation; Zweig evokes Dr B.’s mental state at that time vividly:

After each session with the Gestapo my own mind took over the same merciless torment of questioning, probing and harassment – perhaps even more cruelly, for while in the first case the grilling at least ended after an hour, in the second the malicious torture of solitude perpetuated it indefinitely. And all the while there was nothing around me but the table, the wardrobe, the bed, the wallpaper, the window; no distractions, no book, no newspaper, no new face, no pencil for noting things down, no matchstick to play with, just nothing, nothing, nothing.

Eventually Dr B. found a book, though it turned out to be a chess manual. The only way he found to cope with his situation was intense study, rehearsing the games mentally over and over again. So Dr B. becomes a mirror of Mirko Czentovic: where the chess champion is presented as someone whose single-minded focus had led him to fame and fortune,  Dr B.’s chess knowledge has allowed him simply to be there in the present, and represents the lasting scars of the past. A seemingly ordinary game has opened up the hidden worlds within a life.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

A Game of Chess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig, tr. Peter James Bowman (2016), Alma Classics paperback.

breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes

breach blog tour

breach is a new story collection published by Peirene Press on Monday. It’s the first in their Peirene NowI series, original fiction commissions which will engage with current events. For breach, Peirene’s publisher Meike Ziervogel commissioned writers Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to visit the Calais refugee camp known as ‘the Jungle’. There’s been a blog tour all this week, which includes an extract from the book and interviews with the authors; but today there are four reviews across the blogosphere: at Food for Bookworms; The Bookbinder’s Daughter; Bookish Ramblings; and here.

The collection format is a straightforward (though nonetheless effective) way for breach to present the camp as a place of multiple stories running in parallel, of overlapping and intermingling worlds. The stories of individual lives can become derailed: the opening piece, ‘Counting Down’, features a number of refugees on their way to the camp; each adopts their own nickname – who they were no longer matters. One is upset when the others take away the money his brother has sent: “There is a boy like you waiting for me to get him to safety. My son, my real son,” he protests. But only the present matters here; everyone has their own future to aim for, and may not be concerned about someone else’s.

Leaving the camp is also portrayed as a disruption of space and experience. ‘Oranges in the River’ sees a couple of refugees take their chances hiding in refrigerated trucks bound for the UK. As he waits to board a truck, Dlo slips an orange into his pocket, “like a man who isn’t going to climb into a truck full of oranges, like a man who isn’t going to sit surrounded by thousands of oranges for many hours. Like a man who just needs one orange for his thirst.” In other words, there’s no pretending that this is in any way a ‘normal’ experience. When the men are in the truck, there is only the freezer; any imagined destination is no more real than a dream – even if they don’t get caught and have to start again.

We also glimpse outsiders to the camp, though they don’t necessarily understand the world they’re observing. There are volunteers who want to give a hand; but, as the narrator of ‘Extending a Hand’ comments, “you don’t need a hand; you have two of those. What you need is opportunities.” In ‘The Terrier’, Eloise, a French B&B who allows refugees to stay, talks to one of her guests, Omid, about the camp’s nickname:

‘It doesn’t look like a jungle, that camp,’ I said to Omid when he came home, after dark, his coat wet.

‘What does a jungle look like, madame?’

‘Thick with trees and creepers and bushes, with birds and animals.’

‘A jungle,’ he said, ‘is a place for animals only. And that is a jungle, I tell you, madame.’

To Eloise, the Jungle is just a poetic, perhaps even romantic name; to Omid, who knows the lived reality behind the metaphor, it is a different matter. As the story progresses, the gap between Eloise and Omid becomes starker, as she begins to question her latest visitors’ motivations. It’s not until she visits Omid in the camp that she starts to see things differently. But this isn’t a simple story of a Westerner ‘learning better’, more a recognition that all the characters have complex individual lives, whatever their circumstances. This is the kind of perspective that breach is able to open up, and that’s what makes it such a valuable collection.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

breach (2016) by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, Peirene Press paperback

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