Tag: books

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.

Goldsmiths Prize shortlist 2023

The Goldsmiths Prize is one of the literary awards I try to read along with. Sometimes I manage the whole list, sometimes I don’t – but it’s always worthwhile. Here is what we have this year:

  • Lori & Joe by Amy Arnold (Prototype)
  • The Long Form by Kate Briggs (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Never Was by H. Gareth Gavin (Cipher Press)
  • Man-Eating Typewriter by Richard Milward (White Rabbit)
  • Cuddy by Benjamin Myers (Bloomsbury)
  • The Future Future by Adam Thirlwell (Jonathan Cape)

To date, I’ve read one of these, Lori & Joe, a quiet novel of looping thoughts that suits the Goldsmiths well. I don’t know much about the rest of them, so I will finish this post here and get reading…

Czech Lit Month: The Cremator by Ladislav Fuks

My second choice for Czech Lit Month is from 1967 (though it wasn’t translated into English until 2016, by Eva M. Kandler). I understand that Ladislav Fuks (1923-94) often wrote about the period of German occupation, but The Cremator stands out in his work because it focuses on a Czech collaborator.

When we first meet Karel Kopfrkingl he comes across as somewhat odd – for example, he likes to give things and people different names (even insisting on being called Karel when his name is actually Roman) – but essentially decent. He loves his family and believes in compassion for others: “How many people,” he wonders, ”would become good, nice, if there were someone to comprehend them, to understand them, to caress their withered souls a little.”

Kopfrkingl views his work at the crematorium as a noble calling, because it facilitates people’s return to the dust from whence they came, as set out in scripture. He is proud of how rigorously the crematorium keeps to its schedule. But this leads Kopfrkingl to have quite a mechanistic approach to life and death. Couple this with his tendency to parrot whatever opinion he’s been told or reads in the paper, and the circumstances are primed for his slide into collaboration. Kopfrkingl has a friend, Willi, who gradually persuades him to see the Nazis’ point of view – which leads to the darkest of consequences.

What makes this process particularly chilling to read about is how passive it feels. Kopfrkingl doesn’t seem to make a conscious choice – he just drifts that way due to his natural tendencies. The Cremator has an air of unreality (or perhaps heightened reality) that circles back to the all-too-real.

Published by Karolinum Press as part of their Modern Czech Classics series.

Charco Press: A Little Luck by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

I thoroughly enjoyed Claudia Piñeiro’s novel Elena Knows a couple of years ago, so I was excited to see that Charco Press and translator Frances Riddle were publishing a new Piñeiro title. A Little Luck is quite different in subject from Elena Knows, but still has the intensity of perspective. 

Our protagonist is Mary Lohan, who has travelled from Boston to Buenos Aires to evaluate a school for accreditation, on behalf of her late husband’s educational institute. However, Mary was born in Buenos Aires as María, and fled years ago. She has changed her appearance enough that she believes she won’t be recognised. But there’s one person in particular she doesn’t want to encounter – and wouldn’t you know it… 

A Little Luck gives up its secrets steadily, some quite early on. I like the way this is done, and I don’t want to spoil the effect for you, so I am going to be cagey about how much I reveal. A scene at a level crossing is repeated throughout the first part of the novel, embellished more and more each time, until we discover the key event in María’s past. Over the rest of the book, the protagonist explains and reflects on her decision to leave Argentina behind. In the end, there were no good choices for María, only the choices she made, Piñeiro’s novel captures the complexity of what flows from that. 

Czech Lit Month: War with the Newts by Karel Čapek

Stu at Winston’s Dad is hosting a Czech Lit Month this September. It’s not an area I know very well, so I have picked out a few books to read this month, using this list from Radio Prague International as inspiration. 

I’ll be working through my choices in chronological order, starting with Karel Čapek’s 1936 novel War with the Newts (I read the 1937 translation by M. and R. Weatherall, published in Penguin Modern Classics). It begins with one Captain van Toch discovering a colony of intelligent salamanders, whom he teaches to use knives to open oysters, before establishing a pearl trade with them. 

This grows into the mass exploitation by humans of the Newts, as the salamanders become known. They are encouraged to spread around the world, they pick up human languages, and are put to the work that humans would prefer not to do themselves. But this situation can’t last, and eventually the Newts turn against the human population… 

War with the Newts is a novel that constantly changes shape. It starts off drily humorous, lampooning groups from journalists to Hollywood stars. Its middle section covers the development of Newt civilisation, incorporating fictitious texts of various styles (such as newspaper articles and scientific accounts). Then a more serious tone comes to the fore as the war of the title begins. 

What I find particularly intriguing about Čapek’s novel is that (in my reading, anyway) the Newts can’t be reduced to a single metaphor or interpretation. There are reflections of slavery, Nazism, mistreatment of animals, capitalism, environmental degradation… Above all, though, there’s a message (still urgent now) about the consequences of our actions. In the final chapter, the author of what we’ve read debates the ending with his inner voice:

“Do you think through my will that human continents are failing to bits, do you think that I wanted this to happen? It is simply the logic of events; as if I could intervene.”

With irony, even the writer can’t face up to his own complicity. There’s power in this book, and I won’t forget it easily.

The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer (tr. Jen Calleja): Strange Horizons review

I’m back at Strange Horizons with a new review. The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer (translated from German by Jen Calleja) concerns a woman who goes in search of her parents’ birthplace and finds a quaint little town in its own bubble of reality – with a giant hole in the middle, where the secrets of the past can be conveniently lost. Eddelbauer’s novel is a striking metaphorical exploration of how people may seek to ignore the past, and how it may catch up with them. Published by Scribe UK.

Click here to read my review in full.

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.

In the Belly of the Queen by Karosh Taha (tr. Grashina Gabelmann): Women in Translation Month

In the Belly of the Queen is published as two novellas back-to-back, each set amongst the same group of characters in a Kurdish community in Germany. In my reading of the book, the two novellas don’t fit into the same chronology – but I have to sound a note of caution here, because I haven’t found another review online that thinks the same. If I’m wrong in what follows, so be it – I can only write about the book that I read. 

In each novella, the narrator is close to the character Younes. Raffiq (whose story I read first) can’t help thinking about Younes’s beautiful mother Shahira, who doesn’t conform to the community’s expectations – for example, she sleeps around and wears revealing clothes. The attention is too much for Younes, who goes to find his father in Frankfurt. Raffiq’s girlfriend Amal plans to go to America, and his father wants the family to leave for Kurdistan, where he’d be qualified to practise as an architect once again. Raffiq wants to stay in Germany, and has to decide where his loyalties lie. 

The other story is Amal’s, but here she is no friend of Raffiq. Like Shahira, this Amal doesn’t abide by societal expectations, albeit in a different way: from an early age, she was nicknamed “Mowgli-girl” for cutting her hair short and beating up Younes (they would become closer later on). In this account, Amal’s father is an architect who went back to Kurdistan; she follows him, but doesn’t find quite what she expected. 

By structuring her novel in this way, Taha effectively puts Raffiq and Amal in the same position in their respective stories, then explores the different ramifications for each. There’s also the character of Shahira, who looms large in both stories but never speaks to us herself (I have to acknowledge that the author’s essay in the book pointed me towards this). In a sense, she exists beyond the narrative in the same way that she exists beyond community norms. The full effect of Taha’s novel lies in the interplay and contrast between its two halves. 

Published by V&Q Books.

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