Page 2 of 151

Peirene Press: The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer (tr. James Young)

Reading this novel is an experience tinged with sadness from the start, knowing that its author died in 2018, shortly before his thirtieth birthday. One can’t help wondering what else Victor Heringer might have written, but it’s great that we have such a striking book as The Love of Singular Men from him, in a wonderfully fluid translation by James Young. 

Our narrator is Camilo, who grows up in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s. Though he has a condition affecting his mobility, his middle-class upbringing means Camilo’s life is largely untroubled by the wider world. One day, Camilo’s father brings a young boy named Cosme to the house and announces that he is to join the family. Camilo hates Cosme at first, but in time that emotion will blossom into love. 

Camilo narrates his story as a middle-aged man looking back. We learn there has been tragedy, and that Camilo struggles to hold on to his memories:

My Cosme has been losing his features over time. I no longer remember clearly what his face was like, just a few broad lines, a few pieces reheated a million times in the imagination: his face when he tasted unsweetened lemonade, the grimace of the first time. A tired smile at the end of a kickabout. […] I’ve recalled these memories so many times that now what I see is no longer my friend’s face of flesh and cartilage, but a worn-out image, buried under fourteen thousand re-rememberings. 

Translation from Portuguese by James Young

The past very much lives on in the present for Camilo, and he may be ready to take action now in order to resolve what happened then. Heringer’s novel takes in themes of violence, poverty and marginalisation. You never know quite where this book will turn next, but it’s always fascinating to see. 

Published by Peirene 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.

Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis

Earlier this year, I read Appius and Virginia by Gertrude Trevelyan, which had found its way back into print thanks to Brad Bigelow from the Neglected Books Page. Brad also has an ongoing series with Boiler House Press, Recovered Books, which aims to bring back more ‘forgotten’ titles. 

The first entry in the Recovered Books series was Gentleman Overboard, a short novel originally published in 1937 and written by an American journalist, Herbert Clyde Lewis (1909-50). Lewis introduces us to Henry Preston Standish: a 35-year-old New York businessman, materially comfortable but with a nagging feeling that something is missing in his life. 

Standish leaves behind his wife and young daughter to take a trip on a steamship. He’s on deck early one morning when, unseen, he slips on a spot of grease and falls into the Pacific. In this situation, Lewis puts Standish and his sense of self under the microscope. Standish’s immediate emotion on falling overboard is shame, because this is not the sort of thing that should happen to someone like him:

Men of Henry Preston Standish’s class did not go around falling off ships in the middle of the ocean; it just was not done, that was all. it was a stupid, childish, unmannerly thing to do, and if there had been anybody’s pardon to beg, Standish would have begged it.

At first, Standish’s sense of decorum remains, but the reality of his predicament eventually hits home. He starts removing his outer clothes to stay afloat, and abandoning the contents of his wallet. The layers of his genteel life are literally stripped away. 

Lewis combines contradictory tones in a way I found quite powerful: Gentleman Overboard is both comic and tragic, banal and affecting. For example here’s a passage where Standish reflects on what might be lost if he were to drown:

There would be voids everywhere through no fault of his. A void in the elevator boy’s pocket next Christmas, a void in the telephone book, a void on the office stationery…New York City would be dotted with spaces that could never be filled by anyone but the real Henry Preston Standish; his locker at the Athletic Club, the hollow in his bed, the interior of his dinner jacket, to mention just a few.

There is something absurd in the small scope of what Standish describes here. But when I think about it, it seems to me that this captures something of what life is like. Yes, in the broader picture, one human life may be insignificant; but on an individual scale, even the smallest things can carry meaning. Lewis holds these contradictions in a finely balanced tension. 

Six Degrees of Separation: Time Shelter

Well, I haven’t done this for a while… nine years, in fact!

Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Kate of Books Are My Favourite and Best, and takes place on the first Saturday of every month. Everyone starts with the same book, and puts together their own chain of six more.

The starting book for July is the winner of this year’s International Booker Prize, and one of my favourites that I’ve read so far in 2023:

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov (tr. Angela Rodel). The time shelter is a clinic that re-creates different periods of the 20th century, an immersive environment intended to jog its patients’ memories. Which reminds me of another novel involving elaborate re-creations of the past…

Remainder by Tom McCarthy. The protagonist of Remainder has had an accident that leaves him conscious of every little difficult movement. He spends his settlement money paying people to re-create his past environments, in the hope that he might capture the experience of living as he did then. There are also characters searching for authentic experience in…

Plume by Will Wiles. This novel concerns a lifestyle journalist who gets an interview with a reclusive cult writer, one who appears to have extraordinary insight into the social forces that underpin life in the city – into what makes it real. One of the recurring images is a cockatoo, and another novel in which birds feature prominently is…

Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer (tr. Antoinette Fawcett). This novel is based on the life of Gwendolen (Len) Howard, who conducts in-depth study of the birds near her Sussex home, though her work is rejected by the scientific establishment of the time. Len’s passion for studying birds is all-consuming, which brings me to another book about a deep interest…

Brian by Jeremy Cooper. Here, the main character’s interest is cinema, and he becomes a regular at the BFI, where the world of film opens up and enriches him. There are a lot of films mentioned in this book that I haven’t seen, but that didn’t stop me enjoying the book one bit, because it was so deeply felt. I had a similar reaction to…

The Wandering Pine by Per Olov Enquist (tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner). An autobiographical novel by a writer I didn’t know of beforehand. There was no reason for me to have any great expectations, but I just loved it. I would go so far as to say that The Wandering Pine has one of the most vivid depictions of childhood that I’ve read. I’ll finish this chain with another book about a life lived through most of the 20th century…

Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy. An account of the friendship between the author and Henry Wuga, who fled Nazi Germany with his wife Ingrid. As Ramaswamy puts it, she and Henry might seem unlikely friends, “a middle-aged Indian woman [and] a white nonagenarian gentleman”, but there are points of connection between their lives. A good place to finish a post about connections.

The quiet joy of a deep interest: Brian by Jeremy Cooper

In my final year of university, I discovered the local independent cinema, which at the time had its own twice-monthly discussion group with discounted tickets. I jumped in, and had a really enjoyable year exploring films from around the world, whatever sounded interesting. I’ve never lived anywhere since that had a cinema like that nearby, so I couldn’t keep going as I had – ultimately, it was easier to maintain a deep interest in books. But I remember that year of film-going fondly. 

I was taken right back to that time by Jeremy Cooper’s new novel. This is the tale of Brian Saunders, a reclusive council worker in London, who discovers the BFI (British Film Institute) and goes to see a film there each night. The world of cinema opens up to him, and he becomes almost-friends with the BFI’s small group of regulars. 

First and foremost, I think, Cooper’s novel is a love letter to the cinema. Much of its length is given over to Brian’s thoughts on the films he sees. Even though I haven’t seen most of them myself, I felt again the sense of openness and possibility that comes from being able to range far and wide with films. 

Cooper really captures the way that a deep, passionate interest in something can enrich a person’s life. This could be an interest in art, though I don’t think it has to be. It’s the depth of Brian’s engagement which strikes me as most significant. 

There are limitations to Brian’s chosen path, though. His film-going deepens his experience of living, but it doesn’t fundamentally change him – he doesn’t suddenly become an extrovert, for example. This gives the novel a note of melancholy, because even though Brian will talk about films with the other film buffs, there’s still a sense that he is holding his full passion for cinema back, or not even allowing himself to acknowledge its extent.

Reading means a lot to me, and sometimes what I read affects me deeply, but it’s not really something that comes up in general conversation. So it’s good to have an outlet like this one where I can try to process my reaction to books and share that with other people who might be interested. Even then, I sometimes find myself holding back, so Brian-the-novel really struck a chord with me.

Naturally, it has also made me want to watch and appreciate more films.

Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

#InternationalBooker2023: and the winner is…

The shadow panel chose Whale for our shadow winner, but would the official judges of the International Booker follow suit..?

Nope. Instead, they went for:

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, tr. Angela Rodel (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)

Congratulations to all involved! Time Shelter was actually my favourite book from the longlist, so I’m delighted by that result. We picked another of my favourites for the shadow winner, so it’s all good.

My thanks go to all my fellow shadow panellists for making this such an enjoyable experience. See you next year!

Click here to read my other posts on the 2023 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2023: the shadow panel’s winner

Here we go… Before the official winner of the International Booker Prize is revealed later today, it’s time for the shadow panel to announce our winner. We selected our own shadow shortlist, and have individually ranked the titles to award 10, 7, 5, 3, 2 and 1 points.

It was quite an open field this year, but with 47 points, our shadow winner for 2023 is…

Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, tr. Chi-Young Kim (Europa Editions UK)

We’re also giving a special commendation to our runner-up, which, with 44 points, is While We Were Dreaming by Clemens Meyer, tr. Katy Derbyshire (Fitzcarraldo Editions). Both these books are well worth your time. I wonder if Whale will take the official title as well – we’ll find out soon…

Catching up with Peirene: books from Iceland and Thailand

Peirene Press were one of the first small publishers of translated fiction to emerge at the same time as I was beginning to pay attention to the subject, which is one reason I’ve always tried to keep up with their catalogue. Another reason is that they publish some really good books. Today’s post is all about their first two titles of 2023.

History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir
Translated from Icelandic by Lytton Smith

It begins with an innocuous detail that could change everything. A PhD student in Oxford is studying the diary of one S.B., whom her supervisor believes was Britain’s first professional artist. It’s mostly mundane stuff, but then one passage seems to indicate that S.B. was a woman. On the way home, the protagonist is already daydreaming about the thesis she’ll publish about this revelation. 

Then we move forward in time, and the protagonist has returned to Reykjavík. Her life is far from what she imagined back in Oxford – she hasn’t finished her thesis, and spends most of her time at home. It becomes apparent that, later in her studies, she had found another page in S.B.’s diary that disproved her theory, and that discovery has taken its toll.

The account that follows is not only fragmented and out of chronological order – it also collapses into conjecture. Just as the protagonist couldn’t get to the ultimate truth of S.B.’s identity, so the protagonist is lost to us in a maze of realities. Subjectivity all the way down, that’s what animates this novel. 

[Publisher’s page]

Venom by Saneh Sangsuk
Translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul

This year, as well as their usual three novellas, Peirene are publishing two books by the Thai writer Saneh Sangsuk. In Venom, the village of Praeknamdang is lorded over by Song Waad, who has convinced the villagers he is a medium connected to their Patron Goddess. 

Only one small family regard Song Waad as a fake, which makes him their enemy. The boy of the family lost the use of one arm in an accident: Song Waad took the opportunity to paint this as the Goddess’ displeasure, with some of the villagers accepting his word. 

In the present, the boy finds himself in a life-and-death predicament when he is attacked by a king cobra, which he manages to grab before it can bite him. For most of the rest of this short book, the boy is trying to keep the cobra at bay while making his way back to the village for help. 

The story of the boy’s struggle with the snake is compelling in its own right, but it’s also embedded in the broader struggle against oppressive authority (which Song Waad represents). So Venom paints a large portrait on a relatively small canvas. 

[Publisher’s page]

#InternationalBooker2023: Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov (tr. Angela Rodel)

I don’t know whether I’d have read this Bulgarian novel if not for its International Booker listing. I am so glad that I did. 

Gospodinov’s narrator (a version of the author) meets a mysterious figure named Gaustine, who seems preoccupied with the past. With dementia on the rise, Gaustine’s idea is to set up a clinic whose rooms recreate periods of the 20th century, to help jog his patients’ memories. 

It’s an idea that works well for some people, less well for others (and too well for a few). There are striking sequences, such as those where a secret policeman has become the main source of memory for the man he once pursued, because he remembers more about the man’s life than anyone else. 

It turns out that everyone wants a taste of old times. People without memory loss are admitted to the clinic for a hit of nostalgia. Then, the vogue for the past spreads out across Europe, with countries holding referendums on which time period they should revert to. Gospodinov handles this beautifully, illustrating the dangers of being too fixated on the past. Here, his narrator reflects on how the lived present transforms with hindsight:

I presume that 1968 did not exist in 1968. Nobody back then said, Hey, man, that stuff we’re living through now, it’s the great ’68, which’ll go down in history. Everything happens years after it has happened…You need time and a story for that which has supposedly already taken place to happen…with a delay, just as photos were developed and images appeared slowly in the dark…Most likely 1939 did not exist in 1939, there were just mornings when you woke up with a headache, uncertain and afraid.

Translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

Gospodinov adds another layer to his novel by undermining the narrator, whose own memory starts to fail him. He can’t be sure whether Gaustine was real or his creation (or even whether he, the narrator, was Gaustine’s creation). Nothing is certain within the pages of the book, and there is no real shelter from time, after all. 

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2023 International Booker Prize.

HarperNorth: Fray by Chris Carse Wilson

Above all, the main sense I get from Chris Carse Wilson’s debut novel is that this is a book he needed to write. You can just feel the urgency of it, how much it must have meant to capture the feelings in these pages.

Fray begins with its anonymous narrator arriving at a cottage in the Scottish Highlands. The narrator’s mother died some time ago, and shortly afterwards their father disappeared, apparently unable to accept what had happened. The narrator has now traced their father to this cottage – he’s not there himself, but the place is full of papers and maps written and drawn by his hand. The novel chronicles its narrator’s attempt to piece together these texts and, hopefully, find a clue to their father’s whereabouts.

The papers are haphazard and don’t make a great deal of sense. The narrator’s father talks of searching for his wife, but also mentions the Devil. He records times and weather conditions precisely, then describes experiments whose purpose is unclear.  One of his hand-drawn maps has the word ‘hotel’ marked prominently, but there doesn’t seem to be a hotel nearby. Perhaps the father has made some sort of breakthrough, but if so, its nature is inscrutable.

The narrator is driven to their wit’s end trying to puzzle all this out. Along the way, they talk about the darkness that has clouded their life at times, and the ways they’ve tried to cope. Running is one thing that helped, a way to keep moving, to hang on:

Breathing in enough to be given life, softening the pain a little, finding some colour in all the grinding grey. Remembering that something else was possible, that it could change. That was all I could hold on to, never daring to consider that it actually would change. That I would.

Fray can be seen as an active process of working through its narrator’s deep feelings – and there’s cause to wonder how much of what’s narrated is happening in the external world, and how much in the narrator’s mind. Then again, for this narrator, there may not need be much difference. Whatever your interpretation, the experience of Fray’s narrator is vivid in Carse Wilson’s telling.

Published by HarperNorth.

© 2023 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: