December 15, 2014

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2014

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:01 pm by John Self

This year, with fewer (I think) reviews published here than ever before, I’m going to include a couple of books I read but didn’t review, but which have left a good impression at the year end. What better recommendation could there be than that, anyway? Titles are in alphabetical order by author’s name.

(Some of) my favourite books of 2014

Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest
Who’d have thought the old enfant terrible had it in him? The Zone of Interest is, I think, the best novel Amis has written in fifteen years – which may not be saying that much when you consider the other novels he’s written in that period. It is grotesque and horrible, relatively austere in tone (more House of Meetings than Yellow Dog), inventive but faithful, and riddled with bitter wit. It is – I can put it no higher than this – the first Amis novel I’ve looked forward to rereading since Night Train.

Kate Chopin: The Awakening
This novel, first published in 1899, is a widely taught classic in the USA, but seems little read here, despite being readily available. A handsome reissue from Canongate this summer gave it a push, and how grateful I am for that. Chopin’s novel is thoroughly modern and exciting, telling the story of a woman who dares to break society’s taboos with an extra-marital affair. It’s all thrillingly downhill from there.

Mavis Gallant: Across the Bridge
Gallant is one of those names that I had heard of for decades as a virtuoso of the short story, and finally I discovered that they were right. Her work is traditional in form, but so distinctly detailed and beautifully put that her tales of families in Paris, down at heel and on their uppers, are delightful to read. She can challenge, too, with density: the reader daren’t take their mind off the page.

Jonathan Gibbs: Randall
What a surprise and a charm it was to discover that Gibbs, a terrific critic, was just as good a poacher as gamekeeper. Randall (subtitle The Painted Grape: wait! come back!) was full of sentences that pleased me with their combination of elegance and necessity, like Alan Hollinghurst’s before he bloated. The book is also a fascinating analysis of the not-always-bumpy relationship between art and commerce.

Cynan Jones: The Dig
A slight thing from the other end of the year, The Dig has stuck with me throughout. It’s nasty, brutish and short, with an uncanniness which steers it away from the lip of the pit marked Cormac McCarthy that it veers so close to at times. In the end Jones is his own man, making authentically British – Welsh – myths with plenty of horror and muted emotion.

Agota Kristof: The Notebook
When I first read that the trusty CB Editions was reissuing this title, I read about it and immediately knew it was my sort of thing. I practically ran towards it. In the end it was not in my comfort zone at all, and all the better for that. It is very stark and entirely new, and I can finally put it no better than Steve Mitchelmore, who described it as a novel that “runs through the streets screaming.”

Nella Larsen: Quicksand and Passing
Tricky to include a book so recently read, but I think Larsen’s two novellas – pretty much her life’s output of fiction – would have stood up in any event. They are books which tell us about the experiences of mixed-race women in America, but their strength is in the compact telling, which is efficient, affecting and unmistakably blunt.

Elizabeth McCracken: Thunderstruck and other stories
If only more feted short story collections – *cough*LorrieMoore*cough* – were as good as this. Brought together with an undercurrent – an overcurrent – of loss, these stories mccrackle with off-kilter life. They are full of character and charm but never wacky or winsome. Lines and people from them are still bouncing about in my head, months later.

Bernard Malamud: The Fixer
I had high hopes for this, often cited as Malamud’s greatest novel. I was surprised by it: whereas I’ve previously found him a writer who needs to be read slowly to take in his just-so details, I found The Fixer to be a page-turner, practically a thriller. It reports on a man who suffers more than anyone might expect to in antisemitic Tsarist Russia, and it feels like a bomb under your chair.

Ben Marcus: Leaving the Sea
God knows how many times I’ve begun Marcus’s first collection of stories, The Age of Wire and String. I managed to finish this, his second. In part that is because he has undoubtedly moved toward the mainstream with some of his recent fiction, but he retains an edge and a strangeness that sets him apart. The older stories in the collection, closer in spirit to his debut, are frequently baffling but surprisingly moreish.

Jona Oberski: A Childhood
This reissue from Pushkin Press – a little surprise – is simple and beautiful. A very controlled authorial viewpoint drops the reader into the life of a young boy in a certain place at a certain time. That gives it a power and directness that more substantial works on the same subject lack. I tease, and the setting is really no surprise, but this book deserves to be read fresh.

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation
This is probably my favourite new book this year. Aphoristic, dazzling and inventive, Dept. of Speculation has more jokes in it than any other book I read this year, but doesn’t sacrifice resonance. Its approach – discrete paragraphs with no straightforward narrative flow – makes it sound a challenge, but purest pleasure is what I remember about it.

December 8, 2014

Nella Larsen: Quicksand / Passing

Posted in Larsen Nella tagged at 8:00 am by John Self

It’s interesting to see a book reclaimed as a classic when you’ve never heard of the author. ‘Classic’ – here it’s in the Serpent’s Tail Classics range – is as much a marketing term as anything else, but I still have a weakness for such series. Like translated literature, ‘classics’ series indicate that at least two sets of editorial eyes, separated by decades, have thought the book worthwhile, and all in the absence of realistic hope of review coverage or a “highly promotable” young author. (Seeing those words in a press release always makes me think that “promote” must be a very new euphemism for a very old act.) Anyway, here we have two short novels – novellas, really, at 130 and 100 pages respectively – from an author who was entirely new to me. Yet when I mentioned the book on Twitter, there was much praise: I’m behind the curve again, this time by 80 or so years.

Nella Larsen: Quicksand and Passing (Serpent's Tail Classics)

Quicksand (1928) tells of some years in the life of Helga Crane, an American woman of mixed race (“mulatto”, as the book casually has it), who at the beginning has just jacked in her job at Naxos, a school in the South, and ended her engagement to a colleague there. “She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity.” Immediately we get the sharpness of a character who is not presented as entirely selfless or humble: she had become engaged to this man partly because his family were “people of consequence”, and breaking it off will be “social suicide”. She despises Naxos and its setting, and sure enough  (“trains leave here for civilisation every day”) soon sets off for Chicago. There she looks for work but struggles, finding herself overqualified for what’s on offer to ‘people like her’ (“Domestic, mostly”): for the first time she feels “the smallness of her commercial value.” But then – sudden changes become habitual in this novel – she is offered some temporary work with a travelling lecturer: “someone who can get her speeches in order on the train.” This involves travel to New York, and Helga immediately determines to stay there. She feels lit up by the prospect – “The world had changed to silver, and life had ceased to be a struggle and become a gay adventure” – but when all these downs and ups have taken place by page 35, we can be sure that fate is not finished with her yet.

What’s impressive about Quicksand is the way it packs so much into its short extent. It does this by careful elision: at the end of one chapter, for example, the employment agency is about to give Helga some background about the lecturer, Mrs Hayes-Rore, but as we turn to the next page, all that has passed by. A few pages later, the story jumps on by a year – a year “thick with various adventures”, it teasingly tells, without sharing details. But this is enough, because it is Helga’s interior world that the book wants to illuminate. She snobbishly loves New York, both for the people – “their sophisticated cynical talk, their elaborate parties, the unobtrusive correctness of their clothes and homes, all appealed to her craving for smartness, for enjoyment” – and for the things in their homes (“brass-bound Chinese tea-chests, luxurious deep chairs and davenports, tiny tables of gay colour”), indicators to her of history, but a quality of history that distances it from Naxos and her past. Then, again, the author twitches the strings, time skips, and the next chapter opens with “But it didn’t last, this happiness of Helga Crane’s.”

These rolls continue – a delving into Helga’s fear “of herself”, a sudden financial windfall – and soon we see that her misfortune is that she feels herself to be neither one thing nor the other, not black and not white, distant from one race and looking down on the other. When, still less than halfway through her story, we read that she “let herself drop into the blissful sensation of visualising herself in different, strange places, among approving and admiring people, where she would be appreciated, and understood,” we sense that it is a promise not to be kept. Indeed, her most successful time, in some sense, comes when she travels to Denmark and lives there: far from being understood, she is “a decoration. A curio. A peacock”, but it  is happiness of a sort. Even then the story doesn’t rest, and when she reflects toward the end of the book on the names of the people who have passed through her life, I was surprised at how vividly I remembered each of them: so many characters delivered so efficiently! Helga’s final fate is apt and sobering, when she seizes “a chance at stability, at permanent happiness,” and gets exactly what she wished for – and we all know the trouble with that. It’s then that I thought back to the title of the book, and how telling it was all the way through: right from the start, really.

Passing (1929) is, if anything, even better than Quicksand. It is one of those rare books which gives a new – to me – meaning to an everyday word. Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry are sometime friends who are both light-skinned black women, capable of “passing” as white in wider society. The book is full of piercing, brutal dialogue between them and their friends which doesn’t so much as address the issue and punch a hole through it. One, Gertrude, holds forth when Irene visits Clare’s home:

“It’s awful the way it skips generations and then pops out. Why, he actually said he didn’t care what colour it turned out, if I would only stop worrying about it. But, of course, nobody wants a dark child.”

More surprisingly still – and it’s unclear to me if this was novelist’s attention-grabbing, or if it reflected Larsen’s experiences, as apparently Quicksand did – we discover that Clare has married an out-and-out racist, who believes her to be white, but because of her colouring refers to her affectionately as “Nig”. This development gradually meets with the other main plot strand – of Irene’s disdain for Clare as they grow together and apart over the years – to a fairly melodramatic but indelible conclusion. (An aside: is such an ending inevitable for stories of attempted emancipation, whether by race or sex – or, here, both? Other classics I read this year, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Gilles, seem to agree.)

Quicksand was Larsen’s debut, and Passing was published a year later. She lived for another 35 years, but published only a few stories and no further novels, reportedly because of a false accusation of plagiarism in one of the stories. She was the first black woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing, but for the last 20 years of her life she worked as a nurse. This was, to put it gently, a loss to literature; it’s small comfort to have this short book – substantially her life’s work – available again.

December 4, 2014

Simon Crump: Neverland (introduction)

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:20 pm by John Self

Below is an introduction I’ve written for a new e-book edition of Simon Crump’s Neverland, a novel I found bewildering when I first read it, but quickly came to love. The new edition has been issued by Galley Beggar – of Eimear McBride and Jonathan Gibbs fame – and also contains a new afterword by the author. You can buy it here.

Simon Crump: Neverland

“If I were born with a name like Simon Crump, I would spend the rest of my life trying to get all that anger and resentment out of me by being very rude about other people.”

- Chris de Burgh


At around 9:00pm on the evening of 25 June 2009, Simon Crump finished writing Neverland, his book – this book – about a fictional Michael Jackson. It had taken him three years. A few hours later, the real Jackson’s death was reported on gossip website The internet went mad. Twitter crashed. CNN struggled. Crump’s publisher brought forward publication of the book.

The real Michael Jackson was – what? Funny. Eccentric. Pitiable. Exploited. So Crump’s Michael is a pixel-perfect replacement. He has “Disney music comin out of the fibreglass rocks in the rose bed.” He has an unpredictable relationship with his wife Lisa. “You’re going to put together a 1/32 scale model of Mac & Mike’s water forts whether you want to or not! Don’t fight me, baby, I’ve got a wicked temper and you are liable to get hurt.” He has long circular conversations with best friend Uri (“His eyes grew a shade darker”), which are funny, then not funny, then funny again. Most of all, he is forever seeking, forever lost, forever trying to fill a hole: right from birth, really.

Michael was born with gold in his mouth.

He left his mom without too much trouble. He shimmied out. The midwife held him in her white-gloved grip. She struck his face and a shining nugget plopped onto the soiled sheets of the birthing table. He sang and he danced. He bit off his cord. He slipped on a white glove of his own and signed a few autographs.

‘We love you Michael,’ they all said.

‘I love you more,’ he said back.

They called a priest. After all, a minute-old baby isn’t supposed to act that way.

‘Where is the gold?’ he cried. ‘Where is the gold??’

For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back.

We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.

That is the entirety of the second story in the book, ‘Gold’. Crump, in editing Neverland, cut out 60% of the material: “get the stuff down on the page and then make it less worse.” This ruthlessness shows. Neverland is a short book but each story, or chapter, unfolds inside the reader’s head like an origami flower. Its lean and hungry look is welcome in a world where novels seem to be growing ever longer. Some stories recur or develop – Michael and Uri, Michael’s quest for gold – while others stand alone, isolated and seemingly unconnected to Michael except by a brotherly strangeness, such as a series of portraits of men which give just enough information to drive the reader into a flurry of imaginative empathy. Here is ‘Andrew’ (again, in its entirety):

I’ve been on six twelve-hour night shifts and sad as this may seem your party has been the end of my tunnel. Not everyone lives his or her life alone and for a little while it seems my whole world is all right.

He’s special and he doesn’t speak. Every day for sixteen years he leaves the flat and he gets a paper. One day he gets a paper and he also points at some mints.

The woman behind the counter finally cracks.

‘If you could talk, Andrew, what would you say?’

Unique, and uniquely odd, as Neverland is, it is not without precedent. Indeed, it is a natural(ish) progression from Crump’s first book, My Elvis Blackout, which drew the responses that top and tail this introduction. They are books of what Gordon Burn called the psychopathology of fame, or as Crump puts it, how “we all love our stars, but we much prefer them broken.” They are the cold shower after Heat-world. The bridge between the two books is Lamar, former Elvis lackey and “still 250lbs of fine-lookin hombre.” He is our guide to Michael’s world, having been “out cold” for sixteen years after Elvis’s death, and now gaining employment in Neverland. When they meet, Michael tells him, “I made love to Lisa in my Mickey Mouse pyjamas. And then I asked her to marry me. One day she’s going to give me a little boy of my own.” This nudge-nudge stuff is as close as Crump gets to mocking Michael: elsewhere, the vision is of sad-eyed sympathy, perhaps with an occasional shake of the head.

Neverland is a book of contrasts. It is both absurdly silly and a work of serious artistry. It is a product of frightening imagination and originality, which turns whole pages over to extracts from Wikipedia. Its subject is all-American but it is full of quintessentially English cultural reference points, from Pulp’s ‘Common People’ to Cannon and Ball. Its author refers to it as a collection of stories, yet it is clearly much more coherent and unified than that. But it is the beautiful clashing sound made by silly jokes overlaid on a sadness that pervades every page that makes the reader marvel at Neverland’s starkest polarity, and ask: was there ever a book simultaneously so dark, and light?


“We do not know who is this Simon Crump but he is not welcome in our town.”

- German Elvis fansite

November 10, 2014

Madeleine Bourdhouxhe: La Femme de Gilles

Posted in Bourdouxhe Madeleine at 8:00 am by John Self

Daunt Books, best known as a bookshop chain in affluent parts of London, is also a publisher. As well as issuing contemporary fiction such as Philip Langeskov’s story Barcelona, Daunt has been quietly – perhaps too quietly – reissuing some very interesting 20th century authors, including Jiří Weil and Sybille Bedford. When I saw praise for this reissue, accompanied by an image of its striking cover (by AKA Alice), I was sold.

Madeleine Bourdouxhe: La Femme de Gilles (Daunt Books)

La Femme de Gilles (1937, tr. 1992 by Faith Evans) was Bourdouxhe’s first novel. It opens in unignorable style, with the title character, Elisa, making soup as she awaits her husband’s arrival home from work. The thought of him arriving “paralyses her completely,” but not because she fears him. She is “giddy with tenderness … stock still, panting for breath.” Indeed, “overcome by the thought of his return … her body loses all its strength.” When he actually arrives, we are lost:

When she speaks his name, it comes out as brief and wet as a whisper: saliva fills her mouth, moistening her curved lips and escaping at the corners in two tiny bubbles.

My response to all this was cooler than Elisa’s, somewhere between wondering whether there’s a female-on-male equivalent for the word uxorious (there is, though it never really caught on), and thinking Get a room! But it turns out that this overblown responsiveness – ultradevoted, hypererotic – is an important foundation for the story to come. After all, if Elisa didn’t adore her husband so much, it wouldn’t matter as much when he starts to have an affair with her younger sister, Victorine. “Desire takes hold suddenly, out of nowhere.” It happens in a short scene, made appropriately turbulent but also somewhat weakened by the flickering shifts from one viewpoint to another – from Gilles to Victorine and back again. The rest of the story is told exclusively through Elisa’s eyes, and it’s easy to see why Bourdouxhe chose to show the birth of Gilles’ and Victorine’s affair this way – efficiency, for one – but it dilutes the unity of the narrative. I also wondered how the book might have worked if we had continued to be limited to Elisa’s viewpoint, and if our discovery of the affair had not taken place until her own, partway through the book.

But it is what it is, and is not less interesting because of it. Indeed, it’s an intense blizzard of a journey through Elisa’s head as she struggles to come to terms not only with the affair, but with her own knowledge of it. Subjugated, housetrained – and still deeply in love – she rationalises it, turns the situation around by thinking of what she still has rather than what she has lost. “At least nothing is irrevocably broken: he is living with her, after all, he is sleeping by her side… As long as he is still there, he’s still hers.” It gets worse, when Elisa does confront her husband, and finds herself taking the role of agony aunt for his relationship issues; no indignity is too low if it means that he still needs her. “She kept saying to herself, ‘It’s like an illness, a terrible illness gnawing away at him…'”

All of this, of course, cannot come to any good (“Elisa is advancing through happiness to annihilation”), though the mechanism of Elisa’s downfall is surprising and satisfying, even if the outcome itself is only one of those. I read this book fairly soon after Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, another reissue of a book little-read in the UK, and the two books have much in common: the modern air, the inevitable ending, the account of a woman hemmed in by expectations: society’s, or her own. This edition of La Femme de Gilles comes with an afterword by its translator, Faith Evans, which provides much context and insight into the book and its author. Take the title, which is untranslated because it is untranslatable without losing its subtlety. Femme means both wife and woman, and the ambiguity is essential to reflect the balance of Elisa’s status. Attention to detail like this help us see why Bourdouxhe late in life said of this, her debut novel, ‘Every now and again I think about it, and I think – “That’s not so bad”.’

November 3, 2014

Helle Helle: This Should Be Written in the Present Tense

Posted in Helle Helle at 2:02 pm by John Self

Click here to read my review for The Guardian of Helle Helle’s strange and seductive novel This Should Be Written in the Present Tense. It’s her first novel to be translated into English, which is surprising given that she is, according to the author blurb, Denmark’s most popular novelist. Or is she? Read the comments below the article…

Helle Helle: This Should Be Written in the Present Tense (Harvill Secker)

September 8, 2014

Jona Oberski: A Childhood

Posted in Pushkin Press at 8:00 am by John Self

Pushkin Press, two years into new ownership and going from strong to stronger, is one of the few publishers I buy books from on reputation alone (see also: NYRB Classics, CB Editions, Penguin Modern Classics). Their untouchably handsome Pushkin Collection titles, designed by Clare Skeats and David Pearson, are usually new translations of overlooked 20th century world fiction. This is a slight variation: a reissue of a book already translated: the first English edition was published thirty years ago. Fortunately, Pushkin’s eye has not dimmed: this tiny novel, which Alan Sillitoe called “the book of this damned century,” was worth reissuing.

Jona Oberski: A Childhood (Pushkin Press)

A Childhood (Kinderjaren, 1978; tr. 1983 by Ralph Manheim) is a short book – on normal sized pages it would be below 100 pages; in the Pushkin Collection it stretches to 127 – and this will be a short review. What to say about it other than to admit that it approaches perfection? So engaged was I while reading it that I didn’t even mark any notable passages as I went, so this review will be light on quotes.

But there might be another reason why I didn’t. The key to the book’s success is its absolute submission to the viewpoint of its narrator, a boy who is seven years old at the book’s end. So the language is plain, unaffected, with not many memorable sentences or shiny turns of phrase. We are completely within the boy’s head, and we take from the events only what he takes. When the book opens with his mother saying, “Don’t be afraid. Everything’s all right. I’m right here,” we might suspect otherwise, but there is no authorial irony overlaid: the narrative is entirely unadulterated (pun intended) by grown-up insights. In the opening scenes, the boy is first in darkness and then has his eyes closed, and the trust he must put in his mother to guide him fairly represents the reader’s dependence his words.

This is a rare achievement and a delight, because my experience is that very few narratives do restrict themselves completely to their character’s viewpoint, and they lose plausibility and connection as a result. A third person narrative is typically told through one character’s eyes at a time, yet how often I find myself howling in horror when a narrator starts describing or contemplating things that no real person ever would in that situation. Often this is background detail or ‘helpful’ colour: a character reflecting on their job or home life in a way that nobody really would, except that it saves having to convey the information to the reader more subtly. Take this story by thriller writer Matthew Reilly, where a character looks out a tower block window in Manhattan and notes the buildings he can see, and then devolves into guidebook gabble with: “In the concrete jungle in between the river and the Empire State, the keen tourist would find Grand Central Station, fashionable Fifth Avenue, and on the banks of the river itself, the UN building.” That is an extreme example, but it’s remarkable how few writers really do control the viewpoint properly. William Golding is one: in The Inheritors, Pincher Martin and The Spire he gives the reader only what his characters might be thinking. It makes for harder work, but the benefits – involvement, plausibility, intensity and force of narrative – are multiple.

Oberski balances the information carefully. There are a few details which direct the reader on what might be happening: references to a country the family wants to travel to, a decoration the boy’s mother sews on his coat. Only later do we get specifics, as the information might reasonably have seeped into the boy’s consciousness. What we see is clear but concealed. In writing about it this way, I am withholding details artificially, and anyway it is not a surprising or unique setting, but I do think it worth reading cold, without much advance knowledge. Where the technique is most effective is when the boy is viewing adult emotions without experiencing them himself: the reader can feel them strongly, with the boy as a symptomless carrier, but without seeming to be manipulated. (The manipulation is there, but it feels as though the reader is doing some work along with the author, so it slips smoothly by.) And there is a powerful swell of direct emotion as the book ends, and a pleasingly ambiguous future is suggested. We are left only with a beautifully judged epigraph facing the final page, which seems to bolster the idea, never far off, that this was as much memoir as novel.

For my foster parents
who had quite a time
with me.

A word in conclusion about the cover image. The delicate illustration is by Eleanor Crow, and is based on the cover image for the Dutch edition. However it seems very likely that the original drawing was based on this photograph of Franz Kafka at four years old (as pointed out by Steve Mitchelmore, when I tweeted the cover). An odd connection: anyone with any understanding of this should make free in the comments section below.

Oberski and Kafka

August 28, 2014

Monique Roffey: House of Ashes

Posted in Roffey Monique at 8:00 am by John Self

Click here to read my review in The Times of Monique Roffey’s new novel House of Ashes. It’s based on an attempted coup in Trinidad in 1990, and was gripping and enlightening, though not without weaknesses.

Monique Roffey: House of Ashes

August 21, 2014

Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest

Posted in Amis Martin at 12:01 am by John Self

Whenever R.E.M. released any of their last half dozen albums, I used to say that they should call it Return to Form: that, after all, was what everyone was desperately hoping for – though without much hope. In reality there were always critics handy who would call it that anyway. Return to form is such a loaded phrase, ostensibly positive but carrying ahead of it the acknowledgement that the recent work has been sub-par. On the other hand, it does say that there was a form worth returning to.

And as for us – the consumers – because we have human loyalties, we want artists we admire to continue to produce good things, and it is tempting to overstate its quality to make our expectations fit. I consider myself a long-term liker of Martin Amis’s work, growing to love his stuff gradually (The Rachel Papers, Success, Other People) and then suddenly (Money) around twenty years ago. But I haven’t thoroughly loved one of his novels since 1997’s Night Train (the brilliance of which was revealed to me over four readings, with much assistance from Janis Freedman Bellow’s brilliant essay). Yellow Dog (2003) was messy, with great bits (Clint Smoker) and baffling bits (101 Heavy). House of Meetings (2006) I admit I can’t remember much about. The Pregnant Widow (2010) had a cracking prologue – a return to form! – but quickly turned into the only Martin Amis novel I haven’t finished since Dead Babies. Lionel Asbo: State of England was hammered by its title before the start, but it was often funny. And now – spoiler alert – I find myself questioning what I have just written, because I liked The Zone of Interest so much I wonder if I need to reevaluate my view of those recent works. It’s not just me. Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times, a reliable critic, breached the embargo (which ends today) and reached for the superlatives. Mark O’Connell, another astute reader, found himself wondering, “Am I crazy or is this actually very good?”

Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest

The Zone of Interest tells us not much in its blurb, just that this is “a violently dark love story set against a backdrop of unadulterated evil.” But it would be impossible to write about the book without discussing its setting. Few readers will come to it unprimed, but for them Amis teases, pulls back the sheet slowly: we’re in the KL or sometimes K-Z, then the Kat Zet, then – oh no, oh yes – the Konzentrationslager. The term becomes fuller each time, until we cannot ignore it: we are in Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, or more accurately in the ‘zone of interest’ (Interresengebiet), an area 40km² around Auschwitz that was commandeered by the Nazis to shield the camps both from Allied attacks and from the outside world knowing about them. One of the curiosities of books about the Holocaust is that I always feel that no subject could be more written on and over, yet I invariably discover just how little I know. Amis, in his 8-page afterword (how often do new novels come with those? Maybe he knows it’s a return to form too), details dozens and dozens of books that have informed the novel, which I found astonishing. It seemed to me a character-driven story, and only on flicking back can I see how the research has gone in subcutaneously, not visible on the page (there’s no what we might call ‘As you know, Bernhard…’ dialogue) but clearly informing every line.

The principal characters are three narrators, whose voices alternate. First is Angelus ‘Golo’ Thomsen, nephew of Martin Bormann and employed at the Buna-Werke, the I.G. Farben rubber factory within the Zone of Interest. “Almost hourly, here,” says Thomsen, “you felt you were living in the grounds of a vast yet bursting madhouse.” Orders have just been received to build a third concentration camp – later known as Monowitz – on the site of the Buna-Werke, which causes additional stress for the already highly-strung camp commandant, Paul Doll – our second narrator, and known to his colleagues as “the Old Boozer.” It is not just the pleasures and sorrows of work that unites Thomsen and Doll: Thomsen, a big broad Amisian giant, is a renowned … what’s the German for ‘cocksman’? – and is deeply in lust with Doll’s wife Hannah. Thomsen’s observations on Hannah Doll are in keeping with their setting in a place filled with all the animal urges but not much love. She is “certainly built on a stupendous scale: a vast enterprise of aesthetic coordination,” and, more bluntly, “I said to myself: this would be a big fuck. A big fuck.” Doll has his own erotic interest, though limited: “You’re seldom tempted, because so few of the women menstruate or have any hair.” Golo Thomsen and Paul Doll both open their narratives with promises of variation: Doll reports “acute tension, then extreme relief – then, once again, drastic pressure” as a minor triumph over adversity makes way for the much greater headache of the construction of the third camp. Thomsen begins – starts the book – with Amisian repetition:

I was no stranger to the flash of lightning; I was no stranger to the thunderbolt. Enviably experienced in these matters, I was no stranger to the cloudburst – the cloudburst, and then the sunshine and the rainbow.

But these promises of highs and lows are wildly optimistic: for most of the book the only way is down, and we get there with our third narrator, Szmul. He opens his narrative with no hope at all. “We are the saddest men in the history of the world … we are infinitely disgusting, and infinitely sad.” We are the Sonderkommando, the Jews who work in the gas chambers, who cheated death in order to spend their time scurrying over dead Jews for valuables. “Nearly all our work is done among the dead, with the heavy scissors, the pliers and mallets, the buckets of petrol refuse, the ladles, the grinders.” Szmul’s chapters are short: he is a man who has almost run out of things to say, whom language has begun to fail.

Language is central here. That might seem a needless observation, but one thing few deny of Amis is his ability still to swing a sentence with all his original power. Here, the language fits the subject and story in several ways. There is the blunt physicality of the descriptions: Szmul’s list of tools above, or “smashed-up, forty-kilo corpses,” which says everything in five words. There are the euphemisms: Doll’s role is in “Protective Custody”; the Wannsee conference, which rubber-stamped the Final Solution, was about approving “the proposed evacuations to the liberated territories in the east.” There is the doublethink: Doll reflects that after Szmul has outlived his usefulness, he “would have to be dealt with, by employment of the apt procedure.” At a lower level, too, Doll’s language distorts: his descriptions of body parts are untranslated (Titten, Brustwarten – those places where you might expect a man like him to become tongue-tied). This apt discord extends to modern phrases unexpectedly used: “This was going to be an absolute nightmare!” reflects Doll, on the building of the third camp, and we might detect pretty savage irony there too. Amis adds lightness of a sort with an extravagant range of very long German words (“tinkertoy accumulation” as Tod Friendly in Time’s Arrow put it), a comical excess of language from Kriegsgefanngnisse to Klempnerkommandofuhrer to, beautifully, Militarbereichshauptkommandoquartier.

Comical excess is a trademark of Amis’s, but can you have comedy in Auschwitz? (Can you have a love story set there?) Can it be funny? Can it meet comedy’s requirement of triumph over adversity? (The cloudburst, then the sunshine and the rainbow.) Certainly there is comedy of sorts here: discomfiting, ugly comedy, like the broad irony when Doll, speaking of the Sonderkommando like Szmul, writes, “Ach, I can hardly bring myself to set it down. You know, I never cease to marvel at the abyss of moral destitution to which certain human beings are willing to descend…” The comedy works because it only serves to highlight the horrors. The Germans worry about how they are going to keep order, keep the new arrivals in a state of blissful ignorance about their fate. Once, when struggling to dispose of the bodies of Jews, the German soldiers try blowing them up. Paul Doll, wondering why he can hear “popping, splatting, hissing,” asks and is told:

“It went everywhere. There were bits hanging from the trees.”

“What did you do?”

“We got the bits we could reach. On the lower branches.”

“What about the upper bits?”

“We just left them there.”

Is this real? Did Amis dare to invent it? Anyway the use of “it” to describe the remains of Jews is a euphemism of another sort, a kind of protective custody for the Germans to prevent them from associating their actions with people. Similarly, Doll uses “Stücke” (literally, “pieces”) to describe the Jews when accounting for them and calculating his requirements for the third camp at Auschwitz.

Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest

The Germans worry too about how quickly the Jews who are selected for work in the camp die, not for humanitarian reasons, but because it is inefficient, and there are passionate exchanges between those Germans for and against treating the working Jews better, in order to prolong their productivity. They worry about the smell of the corpses, how far it will travel and signal the truth. There are so many horrible details – the smells, the selections for who will work and who will die, the use of surgeons during interrogation – that it does seem surprising that the characters in The Zone of Interest remain so strongly in the foreground. Thomsen and Doll are on a collision course, Hannah Doll is trapped between them, and Szmul is in hell, disgusted by his sense of self-preservation, and for others a welcome conduit for disgust. “Why don’t you rise up?” Doll asks him. “Where’s your pride?” Then:

Ach, if they were real men – in their place I’d … But wait. You never are in anybody’s place. And it’s true what they say, here in the KL: No one knows themselves. Who are you? You don’t know. Then you come to the Zone of Interest, and it tells you who you are.

“No one knows themselves.” A theme here is the ineffability, the unknowability, of what and how in Auschwitz. (We don’t even ask about the why: “Here there is no why,” Amis reminds us via Primo Levi in his afterword: the phrase also gave the title for a chapter of Time’s Arrow.) We see it as a clash not just of civilisation against barbarism but between worlds: a world which makes sense and a world which does not. Thomsen sees his cat catch a mouse which, while dying in its jaws, “seemed to be smiling an apologetic smile.” What, Thomsen, wonders, was it saying? “It was saying, All I can offer, in mitigation, in appeasement, is the totality, the perfection, of my defencelessness.” What was the cat saying? “It wasn’t saying anything, naturally. Glassy, starry, imperial, of another order, of another world.” It is perhaps the “hidden world” that Thomsen believes in, running alongside our own and existing “in potentia; to gain admission to it, you had to pass through the veil or film of the customary, and act.” (Nicely understated, the “customary”, to describe what the Nazis deviated from with the Final Solution.)

This other world that the Nazis have made for themselves, and for others, is, Thomsen discovers, endless, incapable of being seen beyond, like “the great Eurasian plain, which stretched over twelve time zones and went all the way to the Yellow River and the Yellow Sea.” We get a sense of men involved in a task they cannot escape, that has taken on a life of its own – they are engaged in a Vernichtungskrieg, a war to nothing. The Zone of Interest succeeds because it puts us there and gives us an alarming perspective, of the ordinary human feelings and actions of the people engaged in the worst horror of all. (Szmul observes that “I feel we are dealing with propositions and alternatives that have never been discussed before, have never needed to be discussed before – I feel that if you knew every day, every hour, every minute of human history, you would find no exemplum, no model, no precedent.”) They make occasional protests of detachment from what is happening – “I’ve never seen one good reason for all this fuss about the Jews,” says one of Thomsen’s colleagues, and his friend Boris adds, “Golo, who in Germany didn’t think the Jews needed taking down a peg? But this is fucking ridiculous, this is” – but they have no power to stop it, and no interest in doing so anyway. Doll discusses the “need to do something” about 250,000 Poles with his notoriously violent colleague Mobius, and asks if they know what is in store for them. No, says Mobius, they hope they’ll just get dispersed. “But it’s too late for that.”

Again there is bitter humour as Thomsen and a colleague discuss the rationale for killing not just Jewish men, but women and children. “Those babes in arms will grow up and want revenge on the Nazis in about 1963. I suppose the rationale for women under forty-five is that they might be pregnant. And the rationale for the older women is while we’re at it.” So the jokes come hobbled; but no, we don’t expect comedy in a story about Auschwitz. Tragedy, however, comes pre-installed. The challenge for a novelist, whose job is to make things up, is to engage such responses in a new way, and in book which is all told from the point of view of those responsible for the killing. One of the most affecting scenes in The Zone of Interest comes when Szmul unearths from the ground and reads to his Sonder colleagues a testimony from another Jew (“who is gone now”) and which reports a young child challenging the Sonderkommando: “Why, you are a Jew and you lead such dear children to the gas – only in order to live?” But Szmul’s colleagues respond in protests as he reads, repeating the only word that makes any sense here:


Many of the men had tears in their eyes – but they weren’t tears of grief or guilt.

“Stop. She ‘made a very short but fiery speech.’ Like hell she did. Stop.”

“Stop. He lies.”

“Silence would be better than this. Stop.”

“Stop. And don’t put it back in the earth. Destroy it – unread. Stop.”

August 4, 2014

Paul Kingsnorth: The Wake

Posted in Kingsnorth Paul at 8:00 am by John Self

Click here to read my review in the Sunday Times of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which is the first crowdfunded novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It is, in addition, written in a ‘shadow tongue’ which mixes Old English with variant spellings of modern words, though that might not make it unique in Booker history – David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas had one section (‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’) which had a similar linguistic approach. Have there been any others?

Paul Kingsnorth: The Wake


July 1, 2014

Jonathan Gibbs: Randall, or The Painted Grape

Posted in Gibbs Jonathan at 8:00 am by John Self

Recently I read Here and Now, the letters of J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster (I don’t recommend it). In it, Auster claims that he never reads his reviews. It’s not an uncommon stance, but I wonder how true it is of writers generally. At a literary event a few years ago, I met two Booker-winning authors. Both, when I was introduced to them, immediately had a strikingly clear recollection of everything I’d written about their books (which, given that it wasn’t all complimentary, was awkward). I raise this because the author of this book, Jonathan Gibbs, is what we might call a friend of this blog. He has commented here, and we follow one another on Twitter, and occasionally exchange tweets. I have never met him or spoken to him, but is that necessary these days to be considered to ‘know’ someone? He is also a critic whose insight I admire and a blogger whose fluency I envy. So, ‘knowing’ Gibbs, should I review his book? Should my review be trusted? Is this a fair review, or does it just look like one?

Jonathan Gibbs: Randall, or The Painted Grape

Randall, or The Painted Grape is published by Galley Beggar, which is in a shortlist of one for Overachieving Small Press of the Year, having published Eimear McBride’s multi-award-winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Comparisons with McBride will not flatter many debut novelists, but Randall stands on its own. When deciding how to judge it, I thought of Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart last year: not perfect, but full of excellent things; a good novel, but a very good first novel.

Randall is about the Young British Artists scene of the 1990s (has anyone written a novel about them before? Like many great ideas, it seems so obvious now). The difference between the real YBA scene and the one in Randall is that here, Damien Hirst died young and before he became famous. That’s helpful because, viewed one way, there are enough similarities between Hirst and the novel’s title character to raise a lawyer’s eyebrows. Ian Randall Timkins, his sitcom-geek surname wisely abandoned to better enter into modern legend, is an artist whose reputation exceeds him, whose work sounds terrible, but who is framed so beautifully by Gibbs that we feel the intoxication of what it must have been like at the time, we believe the excitement and forget that his work “might just be the most pointless, vacuous, unforgivable and irredeemable shite.” Randall is, in short, in the business of bullshit, with the emphasis equally on both words.

That is at the heart of the book: the curious relationship between art and commerce. The book is narrated after Randall’s death by his old friend Vincent, who was a City trader and has now written a book about Randall. He is delivering it to Justine, Randall’s widow and Vincent’s ex, when she discloses to him some extraordinary work that Randall has left behind. Vincent and Justine’s exploration of the work – paintings that appear calculated to be obscene and offensive to everyone whom knew Randall well – and their quandary over what to do with it form the frame of the book, with Vincent’s memoir of Randall spliced through their story.

Both parts have momentum, and like any good first person narrator, Vincent is more important to the story than he might initially appear. He peppers the book with Randallisms, the bons mots of his friend that he wrote down avidly at the time:

“Conceptual art – art you don’t have to see to get.”

“Modern art – art you don’t have to like to buy.”

“Art is the occult practice of omnipresence, of getting in people’s faces when you’re not there to do it.”

This helps Randall with the important business of making a name for himself, which is at least as important as making art. After all – another Randallism – “There’s only two things you can do with art: make it, and buy it. Everything else – talking about it, thinking about it, selling it, looking at it – either comes under one of those two, or doesn’t count.” Naturally, Vincent makes a useful foil to Randall, both as a friend and a fictional character, with his financial background. There is much interesting stuff about how art and money work together and rub off on one another, even how their jargony worlds are closer than the difference in levels of respect they enjoy might suggest. Not for Randall the fate of Mark Rothko who – according to Randall – killed himself because he met the people who bought his paintings. Ownership is another key element of Randall – of art, of ideas, and of other people. It also makes us think about how we respond to art (“the confidence trick of looking at it”, as Vincent has it), the conviction of our opinions and how swayed they are by reputation or personal knowledge (and this applies to books too, which means my rambling introduction above wasn’t entirely meaningless). There are scenes and exchanges on these subjects which had me rereading them in wonder.

So in many ways Randall doesn’t feel like a debut, or rather doesn’t feel like the many debuts which have been written too early, before the author knew what they wanted to say, how to say it and most importantly, how the two meet. It has style and aplomb, and is brimful of brilliance. Gibbs can turn a simile (even if he doesn’t always like them as a reader): “Her smile was short and tight, like the smile of someone struggling with a key in a lock.” He has the mot juste for most occasions, as when one of the subjects of Randall’s posthumous porn paintings is described as wearing an expression of “eager surprise”. He gets how people behave: when Vincent meets Justine, whom he is not really over, for the first time in years, and they embrace, we read about

the way that, after a long moment, that he would have had still longer, she moved her hands to his arms, just above the elbows, and gave him two brief squeezes there, the signal to disengage…

And these are just from the first few pages.

In other ways Randall does feel like a debut. It doesn’t always match its own high standards, particularly the Great Day of Art – the scene that the words, and splashes of Randall Yellow paint, on the cover come from – which is a description of a tiresome event that doesn’t transcend its subject. The closing scenes, too, are disappointing – or frustrating, after the delight of the book generally – where a confrontation between Justine, Vincent and Randall’s son Josh feels forced, and the very last line appears to reveal something which eluded me, or else was a joke about the art world that I didn’t get.

The subtitle of the book comes, we learn, from Abraham Cowley’s poem ‘Ode of Wit’: “Like Zeuxes Birds fly to the painted Grape.” It refers to verisimilitude, and to how we tell the difference – and whether there is one – between art and something that just looks like art. Randall, anyway, looks like a good book – that handsome design, that publisher pedigree – and sure enough, it really is.

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