AuthorDavid Hebblethwaite

Goldsmiths Prize 2019, part 1: Haddon, Levy, Main

Here are my thoughts on half of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon (Chatto & Windus)

Newborn Angelica is the only survivor of a plane crash. She is raised by her wealthy father Philippe, who over the years grows protective and possessive of her – dangerously so. When Darius, a friend’s son, gets too close to the truth, Philippe tries to kill him. Darius escapes on The Porpoise, a schooner that a friend is looking after – and a couple of days later, he wakes as Pericles in ancient Greece.

Angelica tells herself the story of Pericles as a form of protection – and reshapes reality in doing so. Characters’ identities shift and the novel’s focus changes as Angelica reaches for the story she needs to help her get through what’s happening. Haddon’s writing is propulsive and engaging… a fine start to the shortlist.

[Link to publisher]

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)

In 1988, historian Saul Adler is knocked down by a car while his girlfriend Jennifer is photographing him on the Abbey Road crossing. Jennifer ends the relationship when Saul asks her to marry him, and he seeks solace in a research trip to East Germany. While there, Saul finds himself falling for his translator, Walter, but it’s a relationship that will remain beyond reach.

There are certain details in this scenario that don’t sit right, not least that Saul appears to have advance knowledge of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Any doubts about what Saul has been telling us will only increase in the novel’s second half. It’s 2016, and Saul has apparently been knocked down on Abbey Road again, but this time it has put him in hospital. His mind keeps drifting back to 1988, blurring past and present…

The Man Who Saw Everything becomes a hall of mirrors, as it won’t quite resolve into a single interpretation of ‘what actually happened’. There’s also an interesting sense that Levy is looking back from a precarious present to a time when great change was on the way. The feeling of uncertainty extends from Saul’s individual life to the broader sweep of history within the novel. It’s quite electrifying to read.

[Link to publisher]

Good Day? by Vesna Main (Salt Publishing)

Well, this is a lot of fun. It consists mostly of dialogue between a husband and wife, Reader and Writer. She’s writing a novel about Anna and Richard, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is under strain from Richard’s infidelity. Each day, the ‘real’ couple discuss the Writer’s novel and her characters, often with differing views: for example, the Reader is more sympathetic to Richard, the Writer more defensive of Anna.

The Reader is concerned that people will think that the Writer’s novel is based on their own lives. The Writer insists it’s not, though that doesn’t stop her incorporating the odd detail. The sense grows that a conversation about the Writer’s and Reader’s relationship is going on by proxy (and sometimes more directly than that) as they talk about her novel.

Good Day? turns the structure of a typical novel inside out, and the experience of reading it is also transformed. The tale of Anna and Richard is disconcertingly fluid, because it hasn’t yet been settled – and the tale of the Writer and Reader is just out of our reach. There are also some nice touches that made me smile: it’s common enough for an author to incorporate one of their previously published short stories into a novel, but I’ve never seen it done quite like this… and I shall say no more about that!

[Link to publisher]

The Measure of a Man – Marco Malvaldi: a European Literature Network review

On the table today, an Italian novel: The Measure of a Man by Marco Malvaldi (translated by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor). If you like the idea of a Renaissance murder mystery featuring Leonardo da Vinci, with added political intrigue and a few sly nods at the present day… you’ll want this book in your life.

Click here to read my review of The Measure of a Man for European Literature Network.

Book details

The Measure of a Man (2018) by Marco Malvaldi, tr. Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor (2019), Europa Editions, 272 pages, paperback.

Now on Instagram

I’ve joined Instagram, where you can find me as @davidsworldofbooks.

I’d never really considered it before, because I’m not much of a photographer. But then I started to think about it as a way of structuring a blog, and then it seemed worth a try.

At the moment, I’m experimenting with using Instagram for shorter posts, and reserving this blog for longer ones. I’ll try that for a while, and see how it works out. I may end up cross-posting back here, but for now I’m linking to Instagram from my reading log.

If you’re on Instagram, please stop by!

Goldsmiths Prize shortlist 2019

The shortlist for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize was announced on Wednesday:

  • Amy Arnold, Slip of a Fish (And Other Stories)
  • Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Mark Haddon, The Porpoise (Chatto & Windus)
  • Deborah Levy, The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Vesna Main, Good Day? (Salt Publishing)
  • Isabel Waidner, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (Dostoyevsky Wannabe)

It’s been a good few years since I did a proper shortlist readalong (apart from the Man Booker International Prize, of course), and I already have half of these, so I’m going to read the list and report back. The Goldsmiths usually comes up with some gems, so I’m looking forward to it already.

Blog tour: The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis

Today’s post is part of a blog tour for a new Welsh novel: The Jeweller (Y Gemydd) by Caryl Lewis (translated by Gwen Davies, published last week by Honno Press). Lewis is a prolific writer for adults and children in the Welsh language, and has also worked on the TV drama series Y Gwll/Hinterland and Craith/Hidden. She won the Wales Book of the Year Award for her novel Martha, Jac a Sianco, which was translated into English (by Davies) as Martha, Jack & Shanco. I reviewed that book for Fiction Uncovered a few years ago, and I’ve looked forward to reading Lewis again ever since.

The Jeweller is the story of Mari, who lives alone in a cottage by the sea with her cat and her monkey, Nanw. Mari runs a market stall selling jewellery and vintage clothing; she also helps her fellow trader Mo with clearing out dead people’s homes, in return for for first refusal of anything she might like to sell.

So, Mari spends her time surrounded by the bits and pieces of other lives. But her most prized possession is a piece of raw emerald that first caught her eye as a child. She would love to cut it just a little, to see the shine within. However, Mari knows enough to be wary:

But yes, of course such gorgeous uncut gems can trick you. She’d heard of jewellers sent insane by years of knowing a stone’s face as incisively as they did their own. They’d put all their faith in it. Been led to believe they had the key to every cell. That it was rock solid. But they’d take up their tools and it would flake to powder just the same. Leaving the memory of that germ of beauty.

This illustrates one of The Jeweller‘s main themes, which is about what lies beneath the surface of life, and how fragile it may all be. For a start, Mari’s market is under threat of closure. There are also hints of secrets in Mari’s past. They don’t come into full focus until the novel approaches its end, so there’s a sense of tension throughout as you never know which way things will turn. The Jeweller adds up to a portrait of a character at a crossroads in her life, uncertain of her options but in need of a direction.

Book details

The Jeweller (2007) by Caryl Lewis, tr. Gwen Davies (2019), Honno Press, 208 pages, paperback.

Tamarisk Row: a world in glass

There are a number of writers I’ve been intrigued to read, whom I’ve heard about through blogging. Ann Quin was one; another name that has kept cropping up is the Australian writer Gerald Murnane. Murnane’s work has not been that widely available in the UK, but And Other Stories are in the process of publishing several of his books. I’ve been reading his 1974 debut, Tamarisk Row, which is previously unpublished in this country.

Tamarisk Row chronicles the childhood of Clement Killeaton in 1940s Victoria. Each section is a single paragraph, sometimes pages long. This is a novel that asks you to slow down and focus on the writing. When you do, what opens up is quite something. Murnane will insert Clement’s daydreams and imaginative games seamlessly into the middle of his long paragraphs. This creates vertiginous spaces where the everyday reality of the book seems about to twist into something transcendent. A particularly striking example comes when Clement imagines a world within the shifting light of his front door’s coloured glass:

Creatures neither green nor gold but more richly coloured than any grass or sun try to find their way home through a land where cities of unpredictable shapes and colours rise up on plains of fiery haze, then vanish just as quickly while some of their inhabitants flee towards promises of other plains where cities may appear whose glancing colours will sometimes recall for those few who reach them certain glimpses of the places that have gone…

Long, winding sentences like this draw the reader in; then there are these flashes of a world beyond.

Book details

Tamarisk Row (1974) by Gerald Murnane, And Other Stories, 288 pages, paperback.

The Drover’s Wives – Ryan O’Neill

Ryan O’Neill is a Scottish writer now resident in Australia. His previous book, Their Brilliant Careers (which I haven’t got around to yet), was a set of ‘biographies’ of fictitious Australian writers. The Drover’s Wives also plays around with Australian literary history: inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, O’Neill has reinterpreted a classic Australian short story – ‘The Drover’s Wife’ by Henry Lawson – in 101 different ways (two more in the UK edition than the Australian original).

First of all, if you don’t know the source story (as I didn’t previously), it doesn’t matter. Lawson’s 1892 original is reprinted at the front of O’Neill’s book (you can also read it here). It’s the story of an (unnamed) woman living with her children in a remote house in the Bush. Her husband has been away with his sheep for six months. On the day of the story, a snake has hidden under the house. The woman stays up all night, thinking back over her married life and more recent times, waiting for the snake to re-emerge.

The entries in The Drover’s Wives cover a bewildering range of styles and forms. Part of the fun (and this book is a lot of fun to read) lies in not knowing what’s coming up next, but just to give a few chapter titles: ‘Hemingwayesque’, ‘A Real Estate Advertisement’, ‘A 1980s Computer Game’, ‘Wordsearch’ – even a chart of paint swatches on the back cover.

Perhaps it doesn’t do to get too analytical here. The Drover’s Wives effectively lampoons its own criticism, with spoof reviews and essays, and a meandering ‘Question Asked by an Audience Member at a Writers’ Festival’ (“I suppose this is more of a comment than a question”). But I do appreciate how O’Neill brings out different themes in Lawson’s story, and looks at it from different viewpoints – one entry, ‘Biographical’, serves to remind that the story is actually covering quite a short, not necessarily significant, part of its protagonist’s life.

The mood also changes. I was particularly touched by the ‘Backwards’ chapter, which not only retells the story in reverse, but also flips around cause and effect, so that good impossibly comes from bad (“Fond memories she had of the floods receding and repairing the house and dam, and the bushfire that had come and turned all the charred grass green again”). For all the variety of styles, O’Neill often keeps Lawson’s closing image of “sickly daylight” breaking over the bush; after a while, this has an almost incantatory feel when it comes around again.

In short, The Drover’s Wives is highly enjoyable, constantly surprising, and well worth your time.

Special offer

Lightning Books, the publisher, are currently offering a free copy of Their Brilliant Careers if you order The Drover’s Wives from their website. See Scott Pack’s comment on this post for details.

Book details

The Drover’s Wives (2019) by Ryan O’Neill, Lightning Books, 264 pages, paperback.

Poetry for #WITMonth: Night by Sulochana Manandhar

Today I’m trying something different on the blog, writing about a poetry collection. I’ve never quite felt at home with poetry in the way I do with prose, so I don’t know exactly how this is going to go, but let’s see…

Sulochana Manandhar’s Night (translated from the Nepali by Muna Gurung) is one of a series of poetry chapbooks published by Tilted Axis Press under the title ‘Translating Feminisms‘. It’s a set of 25 short poems (taken from an original set of 60) themed around the night, and were mostly written at night.

Each poem tends to revolve around a central image, from night as fertile ground for dreaming…

Night – rich soil of silence
where I sow exquisite dreams,
harvest pleasure,
filling the granary
(‘Rich Soil’)

…to the night as a space of liberation.

My night is no one’s property
is the land in which I feel free
where I no longer fear subjugation
(‘Property’)

It’s striking to me how quiet these poems are: this is not a book about a busy, active night – the night as a backdrop for things to happen against. Manandhar is very much concerned with the individual’s relationship with the night, especially the night spent in solitude. Night is not only something to fear, either: in these poems, the night can also be a source of mystery, wonder, even comfort.

Perhaps inevitably after reading Manandhar’s collection, I ended up reflecting on my own relationship with the night. Chances are that, among these poems, there will be some way of looking at the night that hadn’t occurred to you. Night is a book to contemplate, one that slowly unfurls itself in the mind.

Book details

Night by Sulochana Manandhar, tr. Muna Gurung (2019), Tilted Axis Press, 40 pages, chapbook.

Voices in the Evening – Natalia Ginzburg (#WITMonth)

After a few contemporary books for Women in Translation Month, today I’m looking at something a little older, from 1961. Voices in the Evening is one of three (so far) works by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg (1916-91) that have been reissued by Daunt Books. It tells of a town’s inhabitants in the years after World War Two, in particular 27-year-old Elsa (whose mother desperately wishes to see her marry) and the De Francisci family, who own the local cloth factory.

What stays in my mind the most about Voices in the Evening is the dialogue. It starts off innocuously enough: Elsa and her mother are returning from the doctor’s, and the conversation is distinctly one-sided:

‘One can see that there is a party somewhere,’ [Elsa’s mother] added, ‘at the Terenzis’ very likely. Everyone who goes has to take something. Nowadays many people do that.’

She said, ‘But they don’t invite you, do they?’

‘They don’t invite you,’ she said, ‘because they think that you give yourself airs.…’

(translation by D.M. Low)

But, as the novel progresses, its conversations become increasingly barbed, until we have characters literally talking themselves out of their relationships:

‘Formerly,’ he said, ‘I told you everything that came into my head. Not any more, now. Now I have lost the wish to tell you things. What I think about now, I tell a little of it to myself, and then I bury it. I send it underground. Then, little by little, I shall not tell things any more even to myself. I shall drive everything underground, every random thought, before it can take shape.’

Overall, it’s as though Ginzburg is exploring the effects of the war on people’s lives at the level of dialogue, more so than the level of event. Reading Voices in the Evening is like eavesdropping on a community that’s been worn down by everything it has been through.

Book details

Voices in the Evening (1961) by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by D.M Low (1963), Daunt Books Publishing, 157 pages, paperback.

Strike Your Heart – Amélie Nothomb (#WITMonth)

It was Dan Rhodes on Twitter who first recommended Amélie Nothomb’s work to me. Several years later, I’ve finally acted on the recommendation, with Nothomb’s most recent novel to appear in English. I wish I’d read her much sooner.

Strike Your Heart begins in 1971 with beautiful nineteen-year-old Marie, who loves to be the centre of attention. She marries a handsome young man, and feels that the future will be one of infinite possibility. That’s until she becomes pregnant, and gives birth to Diane the following year. Only once does Marie show any affection towards her daughter, and by the age of four Diane has some insight into her mother’s thinking:

Even if [Marie] had made progress in life, she was still no more than an accountant at her husband’s pharmacy, not a Queen, and while her husband might be the most attentive, infatuated spouse imaginable, he was still not a King. The little girl’s love for her mother was so great that it could even encompass what her own birth must have meant to Marie: resignation, the end of her faith in some kind of ideal.
(translation from the French by Alison Anderson)

It becomes clear in time just how jealous Marie is of Diane, something that tears their relationship (such as it is) apart. Diane goes on to study cardiology at university, where she strikes up a close friendship with Olivia, an assistant professor. She helps Olivia’s daughter with her homework, devotes two years to working with Olivia on the articles Olivia needs to apply for a full professorship… But it seems that Olivia may not be such a friend to Diane after all.

Strike Your Heart is a sharp 360-degree view of the female relationships in its protagonist’s life. I enjoyed it very much, so I’d better not leave it too long before reading another book by Nothomb.

Book details

Strike Your Heart (2017) by Amélie Nothomb, tr. Alison Anderson (2018), Europa Editions, 135 pages, paperback.

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