Category: English

Leonard Cohen, a Novel by Jeffrey Lewis: haunted by possibility

No, it’s not that Leonard Cohen. This Leonard Cohen is an aspiring songwriter in the 1960s, or maybe he’s the butt of a joke before he has even drawn breath. His ambition is to write a song as good as one by his namesake – or maybe just to step out of the shadow of the ‘other’ Leonard Cohen.

Leonard’s story unfolds in third-person chapters and first-person letters written directly to the more famous Cohen. In 1968, Leonard travels with a group of friends to an anonymous Greek island, where he falls in love with a local girl named Daphne. This is depicted as sudden, mysterious, and all-consuming:

Then some part of him touched some part of her, his hip or hers, his hand, her shoulder, so that he could feel the restless warmth that in the morning had sweated through her clothes. Neither of them could have said who turned first. They kissed because they were there or for a hundred other reasons. You can always come up with reasons, he thought, or she thought. 

Leonard’s relationship with Daphne comes to define his life, but so does the uncertainty running through that quotation. His friends are keen to leave the island, but Daphne wants him to stay. Leonard leaves for a time, and when he returns, he finds that Daphne has apparently died, with a laurel tree (as in the myth of Apollo and Daphne) now growing on ‘their’ cliff. Leonard imagines that he hears Daphne’s voice coming from the tree, but who is to say that it’s not just the breeze?

Time moves on, with Leonard returning to the US, becoming a lawyer, marrying, bringing up two children, and growing old… He lives an entire life, but still ultimately finds himself drawn back to that island, and the laurel tree.

What really animates Jeffrey Lewis’s novel for me is the constant sense of some other version of life being just over there, beyond reach. There’s the knowledge that the ‘other’ Leonard Cohen is out there living his own life, unaware of ‘our’ Leonard. What might it be like to live without other people having a famous reference point as soon as you give your name? What if Daphne had lived, what if she still lives, what if she became that tree? What if it all happened to her instead of Leonard? 

This novel is not a kaleidoscope of possible worlds. In the end, as in life, there is just the one world, for better or worse. But it is a novel – a life, a reading – haunted by possibility. “After Daphne,” Leonard writes to Cohen, “the only stories I came to believe were the ones that could go one way or the other.”

Leonard Cohen is published by Haus Publishing.

Les Fugitives: After Nora by Penelope Curtis

In her first novel, art historian Penelope Curtis imagines two episodes from her family’s history. The first part concerns Nora (Penelope’s grandmother, whom she never knew), a painter who tries to articulate what her art is ‘about’. Nora comes to feel that landscape is key:

Landscape had, without her quite realizing, become something essential…This had nothing to do with topography, but everything to do with understanding how we manage and what helps. And then she saw that landscape did a good job of disguising itself, wrapping something essential in so many trees. It re-attached litself to us when it was well painted. Then we remembered the painting, more than nature, but we found the painting again once we were back in nature.

In the 1920s, Nora divorces her first husband and marries Lewis, an architect. She is clearly attracted to him, but the exact source of that attraction is mysterious – there’s a certain feeling of distance to Curtis’s writing in this part. It’s not until Nora reads through a packet of Lewis’s letters from the Great War that she has a revelation: the letters’ repetitive nature evokes a way of seeing and feeling landscape that mirrors what Nora saw and felt in her own paintings.

The novel’s second part revolves around the relationship between Nora’s son (Penelope’s father) Adam and Maria de Sousa, both scientists in Glasgow in the 1960s. Scenes alternate between then and the present, after Adam has died, when the author-narrator is in Portugal and tracks down Maria, hoping to gain more understanding of her father’s life at that time.

Both parts then involve a character seeking understanding through art: Nora looking for a deeper understanding of herself through her painting, and the narrator seeking to understand her father better through imaginative writing. But Nora’s story here is itself an act of imagination, which perhaps underlines that there’s a limit to understanding, after all.

Published by Les Fugitives.

Dylan Thomas Prize: Open Up by Thomas Morris

For the last few years, I’ve taken part in a blog tour for the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize (awarded to works in English by writers aged under 40), looking at one of the longlisted titles. This year, my book of choice is the second story collection by Welsh writer Thomas Morris (following on from 2015’s We Don’t Know What We’re Doing). 

The five stories in Open Up each revolve around male protagonists seeking a connection of some sort (seeking for the world to open up, if you will) – but there’s always a twist to how Morris approaches his material. The first story, ‘Wales’, sees a young boy going to a football match with his father (whom he hasn’t seen for three months) and feeling that everything will be fine if only Wales win. A glimpse into the future at story’s end stretches time to show that there can be unexpected turns of fortune (though maybe not perfection) after all. 

Sometimes Morris’s tales shift towards fantasy. For example, ‘Aberkariad’ is a story about seahorses. It lays human emotions on top of the particular biology of seahorses, bringing an unusual angle to the tale of a boy searching for his absent mother. In ‘Birthday Teeth’, Glyn describes himself as a vampire. Maybe he is, maybe it’s part of the disconnection he feels from his past and the world around him. Either way, he’s going to get himself some fangs on his 21st birthday. The process changes Glyn’s outlook, with the sense that he is able to become more fully himself. 

Even in the stories that seem more ordinary, there are intriguing undercurrents. ‘Little Wizard’ sees Big Mike (all five-foot-three of him) struggling with work and dating. So much of his life seems to be mediated through screens, whether that’s taking to friends on apps or watching football on TV. These represent Mike’s distance from the world but, in a nice touch, that very distance is also what helps him find a way forward. In ‘Passenger’, Geraint is on holiday in Croatia with his partner Niamh. But he’s not really present, as he’s dwelling more on the past. So there are two journeys going on in this story at the same time, and each helps resolve the other. The seems to me typical of the striking patters Morris paints in the stories of Open Up.

Open Up is published by Faber & Faber. The Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist will be revealed on 21 March, with the winner to be announced on 16 May.

Melville House ‘Futures’ blog tour: The Future of Songwriting by Kristin Hersh

Today I’m taking part in a blog tour for the new ‘Futures’ series from Melville House – short books in which authors reflect and speculate on the possible future of their subject. The first four titles were published in the UK yesterday, and include volumes on the future of trust, war crimes justice, and Wales. But I’m looking at The Future of Songwriting, by Throwing Muses co-founder Kristin Hersh. 

Hersh’s book is written as a series of conversations between herself and a comedian friend (standing in for a number of actual conversations she’s had along similar lines), while both are playing a festival over Christmas in Sydney. The two of them are not out for fame, but they do want to work, and to keep working. Hersh is constantly thinking over how to balance art and commerce:

Art plus entertainment, substance plus style, and maybe they could get along, of all things. But don’t goddam sell, you know? No selling, no stars, no status, just pass the hat so you can work again.

Hersh and the comedian talk around this and related issues, with various symbols recurring. They see echoes of themselves in the Jack of Diamonds, the messenger travelling between the material and spiritual worlds. An apple growing on a tree represents music in its primal form, and (Hersh suggests) people’s relationships with both have grown distanced and denatured. 

My overall impression of Hersh’s book is not of an argument that progresses and reaches a firm conclusion, but more of a dance that explores the space opened by the subject. That feels appropriate, when Hersh highlights the importance of reaching back as much as pushing forward. 

A selection of 2023 favourites

I don’t know why it happened, but there were times this year when I just fell out of the habit of reading. This is not what I want, and my aim for 2024 is to find my way back in – with this space to help. For now, though, I’m looking back on 2023. It didn’t feel right to do my usual countdown of twelve books, so instead I’ve picked out six favourites, in no particular order:

Appius and Virginia (1932) by Gertrude Trevelyan 

It sounds as though it will be whimsical: the tale of a woman who buys an orang-utan with the aim of raising it as a human. What it becomes, though, is a chilling exploration of the unbridgeable gap between one mind and another. 

Whale (2004) by Cheon Myeong-kwan
Translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim (2022)

I won’t pretend I always knew what I was reading with this book, but I do know I enjoyed it. Whale is a dance through recent Korean history, with trauma, violence, humour and magic all present in the stories of its larger-than-life characters. 

Is Mother Dead (2020) by Vigdis Hjorth
Translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (2022)

Johanna returns to Oslo after almost thirty years, speculating intensely over what may have happened to her mother. What I found most striking about this novel is how it transforms our perception of Johanna without changing the essential tone of her narration. 

Gentleman Overboard (1937) by Herbert Clyde Lewis

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this portrait of a man whose layers of gentility are literally stripped from him when he falls into the sea. I found it quite powerful, especially in how it highlights that the smallest things can be both significant and insignificant, depending on the viewpoint.

War with the Newts (1936) by Karel Čapek
Translated from Czech by M. and R. Weatherall (1937)

A shape-shifting satire in which intelligent salamanders are first exploited by humans, and then rebel against them. I was pleased to find that the novel still has considerable bite, and appreciated that it couldn’t be reduced easily to a single metaphor or interpretation. 

Time Shelter (2020) by Georgi Gospodinov
Translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (2022)

I love how the canvas of this novel widens, from a clinic that helps dementia patients by recreating the past, to a whole continent retreating into nostalgia. Time Shelter examines the dangers of becoming fixated on the past, and the narrator’s memory fails him, suggesting there is no shelter from time after all. 

***

There are my reading highlights of 2023. You can find my round-ups from previous years here:

2022, 2021202020192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009.

You can also fined me on social media at Instagram, Facebook, Bluesky, and X/Twitter. See you next year!

This Plague of Souls by Mike McCormack

Mike McCormack’s previous novel, Solar Bones, saw one man examine his life and the whole of existence in the same breath. This Plague of Souls also moves from a solitary portrait to the widest canvas without shifting focus. 

We first meet the protagonist, Nealon, as he returns home from prison, having been held on remand (and therefore caught between the worlds of inside and outside). His wife and son are nowhere to be seen: there are just periodic calls from an unknown person who insists he and Nealon should meet. 

Gradually we learn more (though by no means everything) about Nealon, including that he has an uncommon ability to see patterns in the world:

Art and politics, light and dark, past and future, he can see the links between them all. He can dwell on these separate things for hours before finally glimpsing what draws them together into an interlocking whole. Somewhere along the way he has mastered the trick of demarking opposing sets of circumstances while holding them together in his mind’s eyes, separate and apart, their multidimensional weave given free play without interference from himself or anything in him which might give bias or slant to their eventual coherence.

The world of the novel also opens up, from Nealon’s new domestic drudgery at the start, to the realisation that an unspecified disaster is unfolding in Ireland (and possibly beyond). Nealon decides to meet his mystery caller, who believes he’s worked out what crime Nealon has committed – a world-spanning crime that only someone with Nealon’s pattern-spotting skills could devise. 

In the end, This Plague of Souls represents a wager over whether the world can be made into a coherent whole. It’s a journey from the opening of a front door, all the way to a point where reality itself hangs in the balance. 

Published by Canongate in the UK and Tramp Press in Ireland. US publication is forthcoming in January.

Goldsmiths Prize 2023: Man-Eating Typewriter by Richard Milward

Man-Eating Typewriter begins with a foreword by the head of Glass Eye Press, a small Soho publisher. It describes how, in 1969, they were contacted by one Raymond Novak, who claimed that in nine months, he would commit a “fantabulosa crime” that would become the stuff of legend. Novak offered to send Glass Eye the chapters of his memoir, ready to be published as news broke of his crime. The publisher needed money, so here we are. 

Novak’s memoir is written in his version of Polari, a form of slang associated historically with (amongst others) fairground workers, the merchant navy, and gay men in Britain. For example, here is Novak talking about the difficulties of understanding the language when he’s been taken into a hostel as an orphan:

For months the lingo-barrier was like banging my tet against the Rosetta Rock and drawing blood. I savvied clear enough twas a specnalji privilege or punishment being dragged in before the Governor and the suits… 

I won’t say that this becomes easy to follow as such, but like the version of Old English in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, I found a rhythm that kept me reading. Novak’s life, as he narrates it, becomes more and more extreme and outlandish. But the effect of the Polari is to open up a world in which this life can take place – to establish life on Novak’s terms, not anyone else’s. 

The people of Glass Eye Press, though, are starting to feel that Novak’s memoir is a little too close to home. Footnotes chronicle their attempts to find Novak, and we end up with different voices and styles – which is to say, different versions of the world – clashing for space on the page. Milward’s novel is exuberant and well worth diving into. 

Published by White Rabbit Books.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Melville House: My Weil by Lars Iyer

Up to now, I’ve been reluctant to try Lars Iyer’s novels, because I don’t know that much about philosophy. With a new one published, it was time to have a go. I mention this up front o you know where I’m coming from in what follows. This is how I read My Weil

Welcome to Manchester, as created through the thoughts and voices of a group of PhD students at All Saints University’s Centre for Disaster Studies. There is something uniquely authentic about this group, at least as far as they’re concerned. They see the PhD as the highest, purest form of study, “a passion of studious solitude”.

In this, they contrast themselves with the PhD students from the neighbouring red-brick institution, who have never known what it is to struggle to write. They’re far removed from All Saints’ homogenous undergraduate population (“Student-drones, preparing for the world of non-work. Student dullards, being processed for a society of busy nullity.”) And these humanities PhD students are the very antithesis of – shudder –Business Studies PhD students (“Where’s their doom? Where’s their crushedness? Their disease of the soul? There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with them.“)

Throughout My Weil, our group rails against the decline of academia into endless seminars on professional skills. They make a film to highlight the futility of making art in the present day. They induct hapless “Business Studies Guy” into the ways of real study, pursued for its own sake even if it might never reach a conclusion.

The swirl of voices surrounding the reader makes the tone of Iyer’s novel shift from humour to despair to yearning, and back again. Our group of students may think their concerns are more substantial than most, but there’s a level of weight even beyond them. Into their number comes one Simone Weil, who essentially has the same outlook as the philosopher Weil. Her greater engagement with the possibility of God challenges the PhD students’ view of the world. Perhaps the most deeply affected is Johnny, who sees in Simone’s level of conviction something he wants to reach for. Pockets of solemnity burst from the throng of conversation, rising to an end that has a texture all of its own.

Published by Melville House.

Fly on the Wall Press: The State of Us by Charlie Hill

Here’s a very enjoyable story collection by Birmingham author Charlie Hill. There are tales of many shapes and sizes, but what I think of as Hill’s typical approach is abstracting and distilling a situation to a sharp point. 

The opening story, ‘Work’, is a good example of what I mean. In the ruins left behind after unspecified “detonations”, we meet two workers: Burt, who moves things, and Bill, who counts things. Burt would like to count things, as he tells Bill; but Bill questions his thought process. The banter between the two may raise a wry smile, but it’s ultimately chilling to see the whole of work – the whole of life – reduced down in this way. As Burt puts it: “…there is no besides, is there? […] There’s no besides at all. Look around you. Look at it. There’s this. That’s all there is. This.” 

Elsewhere in the book, ‘The Tale of Big Hal and the Bethany Tower’ gives larger-than-life dimensions to a story of competitive suburban parenting. The longest story, ‘On the International Space Station’, sees a lone astronaut giving updates to a mission control that they hope is still on Earth, and reflecting on the nature of ‘progress’. ‘Holidaying in the Maldives’ is a shorter piece whose text is increasingly greyed-out in patches to illustrate the tale being lost amid rising seas. 

This collection mostly takes a dark view of ‘the state of us’, but there is also a certain pragmatic optimism. The title story imagines specks of matter from people around the world carried to Birmingham in the wake of World War Two aircraft, then later generations making their way there: “And they found in Birmingham a city not just of a secure and diverting past but a city of a human and uncertain future, a city that was ugly, glorious, troubled, beautiful, a city that was of this earth and of this world, a city that was home…” 

This, then, may be the state of us: good and bad at the same time, precarious but here

Published by Fly on the Wall Press.

Prototype Publishing: Lori & Joe by Amy Arnold

It’s on a day like any other – or maybe like none at all – that Lori finds her partner Joe dead in their Lake District home. She doesn’t see the point in calling for an ambulance, and goes out for a walk instead. Over the course of that day, Lori thinks back on her life with Joe, and we see how out of place she felt when she moved to the Lake District, and how much she would dwell on their neighbours’ large family. 

Arnold portrays Lori’s thoughts as constantly shifting and looping back on themselves. This creates a restlessness that animates the novel, and also allows Lori to deflect thoughts that she may prefer not to have. It’s striking that, when she registers that Joe is dead, her attention turns swiftly to the coffee she’s carrying and the state of the carpet. 

For a taste of Arnold’s approach in action, here is Lori when emotion catches up with her:

And she thinks, not tears now and she feels them pushing inside her head and she thinks, all day they’ve been threatening, ever since she stopped on the bridleway and looked up at the sky. White from end to end, yes, that’s how it was this morning, Lori thinks, and it’s been nothing but rain all month, one rain after another rain, there’s hardly been time to breathe between them and she looks across the rough ground and she feels the tears pushing inside and she thinks, there can’t be another landscape that takes the rains like this one, that absorbs violence after violence and in summer gives flowers that wear veins in their petals. Bog pimpernel, Lori thinks, skylarks, cottongrass. 

What I like about this is the way Lori tries to push her feelings into the external environment: when tears come, she focuses on rain. In turn, this gives an extra dimension to the comment about landscapes absorbing “violence after violence”, as one starts to wonder what Lori might really mean. There are quiet revelations here, quiet because Lori would rather not voice them out loud. 

Published by Prototype.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize. Click here to read my other reviews of the shortlist.

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