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:

“Stop.”

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.

June 30, 2014

Elizabeth McCracken: Thunderstruck and other stories

Posted in McCracken Elizabeth at 8:00 am by John Self

Here is my review for the Independent on Sunday of Elizabeth McCracken’s excellent new collection of stories, Thunderstruck. If you’re sampling it, or have a copy and are wondering where to start, my favourite stories were ‘Juliet’, ‘Some Terpsichore’ and ‘Property’.

Elizabeth McCracken: Thunderstruck

May 20, 2014

Ben Marcus: Leaving the Sea

Posted in Marcus Ben at 8:00 am by John Self

Ben Marcus first came to my (largely baffled) attention with his debut book, The Age of Wire and String. I was going to call it ‘a collection of stories’, but that doesn’t really sum up short pieces of prose like this, titled ‘Intercourse with Resuscitated Wife':

Intercourse with resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery. Electricity mourns the absence of the energy form (wife) within the household’s walls by stalling its flow to the outlets. As such, an improvised friction needs to take the place of electricity, to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels. This is achieved with the dead wife. She must be found, revived, and then penetrated until heat fills the room, until the toaster is shooting bread onto the floor, until she is smiling beneath you with black teeth and grabbing your bottom. Then the vacuum rides by and no one is pushing it, it is on full steam. Days flip past in chunks of fake light, and the intercourse is placed in the back of the mind. But it is always there, that moving into a static-ridden corpse that once spoke familiar messages in the morning when the sun was new.

What to make of this? It’s funny. It’s compact – compressed, even. It makes you think. It’s even slightly moving at the end. Not bad in 160 words. But it’s difficult to say what it really means, if anything – not that that should be a bar to its success on its own terms. And the reason I chose this one as an example is because it’s the first in the book, one of the more straightforward pieces, and I never got very far with The Age of Wire and String. Even though I more or less liked the ones I did read. Jonathan Gibbs, an astute critic, describes it as “nonsense, but highly-charged, persuasive nonsense,” while one reviewer on Amazon, a better reader than I, made enough sense of it to say that the pieces “seem to denote some horrible family tragedy, possibly revolving around the narrator’s brother, Jason Marcus.”

I mention all this not just by way of background but because it’s interesting to see where Marcus has gone from there. His next book published in the UK was the novel The Flame Alphabet, and now we have another collection of … I think we can definitely call them stories this time.

Ben Marcus: Leaving the Sea (cover design by Peter Mendelsund)

Leaving the Sea is one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year, not just for its content but also for what it tells us about the author’s body of work and his progress as a writer. The stories are grouped, and the first four are traditional narratives – well, fairly. They have a New Yorker-ish air to them – three were published there – and to me recalled the likes of Lorrie Moore and George Saunders. They have Moore’s self-analytical protagonists, and Saunders’s passive-aggressive dialogue and men unhappy in their own skin. Paul in ‘What Have You Done?’ has “a belly that spilled around to his lower back. A second belly in the rear, which might be why he ate so much. Two mouths to feed.” Fleming in ‘I Can Say Many Nice Things’ has a similar problem. “Even in private, he had cut down on the nudity. These days the shame had followed him indoors.” In ‘The Dark Arts’, Julian, wasted with terminal illness, has the opposite problem. “You’d need more than clothing to hide a body like his. You’d need a shovel, a tarp.” Their physical failings reflect, or represent, something deeper. This is a past guilt, something sexual and unsavoury, for Paul in ‘What Have You Done?’ (the title resounds in our head as we look at Paul). He measures all women, even his mother, by their appearance. The story is set at a family reunion where Paul is trying to rehabilitate himself, but finds himself unable to talk to his family about his new life, about his wife and child. (“These people would have to die for Paul to be free. Which was bullshit, he knew. It was Paul who would have to die.”) This rings true: as children we develop and nurture the parts of our lives that cannot be seen by our families, the people who until then have known us best. (From the other side, parents first experience this when their child comes home from school and swears they can’t remember anything about their day.) Paul’s family knows him best and worst, and the story is not disrupted or spoiled by never finding out what it is that he did, just as in ‘The Dark Arts’ we don’t need to know precisely what is wrong with Julian. This coyness is a deliberate policy on Marcus’s part. In a recent interview, he spoke of how he had

written versions of all of these stories with a little more information. A little more background. And I often think, ‘OK, this answers a question,’ but in answering that question, some kind of potency is lost. When I give information, I feel like I’m killing a story. I worry about the inertia you can feel if you explain.

Shades here of Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child. “Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided and over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.” Marcus is right – the power of these stories comes from the tension between knowing and not knowing, the things the reader’s mind adds to fill the gaps that Marcus leaves. That’s on top of the more common form of knowing/not knowing in fiction, of wondering what will happen next as the story is carefully unreeled. This is particularly strong in ‘Rollingwood’, the fourth of the ‘traditional’ stories here, though to describe it as such is a stretch. We are in a slightly off-kilter world, where Mather, the divorced father of a sick boy, has to battle his child’s brutal treatment equipment that seems more medieval than medical; his feckless ex, who abandons the boy to Mather’s care for weeks at a time (“fatherhood has somehow become about helping the boy not love his mother too painfully”); and his obstructive colleagues, who conspire to make him feel as though he is fading from reality. Putting a sick child in danger is a pretty handy emotional shortcut for a writer, but it works here because the reader is simultaneously distracted by the strangeness surrounding it. It makes for one of the best pieces in the collection.

But then I liked all these first four stories, which together take up not much less than half the book. Their straightforwardness – in comparison to The Age of Wire and String – means they enter brain directly, all the more potently to worry at the reader once they’re in there. As well as these, there are what I think of as transitional pieces, like ‘Watching Mysteries With My Mother’ and ‘The Loyalty Protocol’, which are still recognisably stories, but branch out into stranger places. The first of these is a twenty-page-long looping thought by a man prone to obsessional worrying, who swoops and circles around the idea of his mother’s imminent death, trying to distract himself from it but unable to look away. He starts by wondering if she can beat the odds of death (“Odds are odds, and they should never be beaten. If they are, then the odds are incorrect and should be changed”), and digresses and diverts into related subjects (“Screaming requires a terrific summoning of muscle. It scares me to think that one day I will be too weak to scream when I most need to scream”) and back again. ‘The Loyalty Protocol’ sets us down in a neighbourhood which is carrying out a drill for an unspecified disaster. A man Edward, who often seems very like Marcus’s earlier male characters (“He thought of himself as deeply empathic – if mainly toward himself”, and is prone to “play[ing] out futures with women he’d never speak to”), is tested by the authorities who instruct him to leave his parents behind at the next drill – which may not be a drill but the real thing, not that Edward knows what that is. Here, like an extrapolation of ‘Rollingwood’, the effect is to make the emotional heart of the story stand out more starkly in an unknowable setting. Similarly, in ‘Watching Mysteries With My Mother’, there is an unexpectedly affecting tug when the narrator imagines how he would respond if someone asked him what he was doing at the time of his mother’s death:

Perhaps this man or woman would be someone with whom I would grow close, even though I would be an older person by then with little to offer in terms of romantic manoeuvres. We’d pose each other questions on couches, chairs, park benches, beds, in cars and on buses and sometimes walking through fields, or so I imagine, seeking to overcome each other’s defences, hoping that personal questions, asked and answered, would come, over time, to pass for intimacy, but wondering, sometimes, if that’s even how it’s done, and if that doesn’t seem too strenuous a method of getting someone to finally love you.

This reflexive style could pall pretty quickly for many readers, but it provides a bridge to the remaining stories in the book, which are generally shorter and definitely much stranger (strangers; literary aliens). What is most curious is not just their content but the fact that, although they appear later here, they were the earliest stories. The stories I have already discussed – twenty to thirty pages long, narrative in form, recognisable but distinctive – were first published in magazines between 2011 and 2013. The remainder are (mostly) earlier, some dating back as far as 2000, that is, a few years after The Age of Wire and String. And they are tricky, troubling, even obscure. These stories require the reader to think hard while reading them just to understand what each sentence is saying. For that reason, they are shorter: it would be impossible to keep this sort of thing up for two dozen pages: probably for the writer, and certainly for the reader. ‘First Love’ feels long at eight pages; ‘Fear of the Morning’ about right at four. What sort of thing are we talking about? Things that are very similar in tone and feel to The Age of Wire and String, though the most difficult stories in Leaving the Sea are, to me, still Ulysses to Wire and String‘s Finnegans Wake. They can seem like a slightly corny Martian school of poetry, where the narrator describes a world or situation to the reader, but with as much blurring as clarification.

So in ‘First Love’, a “mistake tunnel” is a mouth (ho hum), an orgasm is a “seizure” (well!), and when a seizure happens “the sun was briefly refuted and I achieved a dark area” (better; funny). Also, “having a secret means: I have swallowed part of you and that is why you feel incomplete.” So we are in a world where words hold not so much different meanings as additional meanings, and the struggle to understand human emotions is given freshness by having us struggle to understand the language. Making it strange makes it new. In ‘Fear the Morning’, Marcus treads close to silliness but balances it with a bracing, Bartlebyesque darkness, in a four-page account of the life of a man who spreads lotion on his body through a hole in his coat while he walks, and who aims to “perfect this skill until he had arranged for a situation that would go on for as long as he wanted it to, in which absolutely nothing occurred.” Then he ends a borderline beautiful passage with a line (“The people would be made of bark”) that breaks the spell, conjures whimsy, and left me wondering whether Marcus was deliberately deadening his own effects, as a sort of anti-joke – or whether he was just making it up as he went along. But these stories are not nonsense: they just don’t follow the usual path. There is a sadness running through them that seems pretty well exemplified by the title story, which suggests that human evolution was, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, a bad move which has made a lot of people very angry: the narrator reflects on the possibilities that might have been “if I were something better that had never tried to leave the sea.” Another of the earlier stories, ‘On Not Growing Up’, takes the form of a Q&A (“—How long have you been a child? —Seventy-one years”) that satirises the notion that childhood impulses and qualities are to be prized and preserved (“Is a tantrum disruptive? Or does it point to an emotional tunnel we’re afraid of entering?”), while emphasising once more the merits of not knowing.

These stories reminded me that Ben Marcus, along with his comment above about withholding information from stories, also said this in the same interview:

I spent years being too elliptical. Not on purpose. And I was always shocked when people would say that, and I would think, what are you talking about? It’s the most lucid thing that’s ever been written! No. No one understands you.

This, presumably, refers to The Age of Wire and String, and we might conclude that these stories chart Marcus’s development from there to here. He has become more mainstream, cutting out the cutting out, striking a balance better. But the earlier stories, the short and strange ones, definitely have a force of their own. They recalled a couple of quotes which I will end this piece with – this piece which has gone on far too long to say so little (but how to describe something you struggle to hold in your head?). The first is Flannery O’Connor:

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one.

The other is Beckett on Joyce:

His writing is not about something: it is that something itself.

April 18, 2014

Amanda Prantera: Mohawk’s Brood

Posted in Prantera Amanda at 8:00 am by John Self

Amanda Prantera and I go back a long way. I’ve had a good deal of pleasure from her novels – she’s written 16, most of which I’ve read – and a certain amount of frustration that she never seems to have had the recognition she deserves. Perhaps this is because her style is often, as The Times put it, “so delicate, so light to the touch that it belies the weight of the substantial talent that produced it.” Perhaps, too, it’s because she – like Brian Moore – is so varied in her subject matter that she hasn’t built up a big readership. When I say varied, among her books are: stories about werewolves and vampires (Strangeloop, 1984; Sabine, 2005; Wolfsong, 2012); historical fiction (The Side of the Moon, 1991) and science fiction (The Kingdom of Fanes, 1995); terrorist thrillers (Letter to Lorenzo, 1999) and conspiracy thrillers (the smartly titled Spoiler (2003), which one reviewer called ‘A Da Vinci Code for grown-ups’); and a barkingly-titled novel about artificial intelligence (Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years After His Lordship’s Death, 1987). If you’re looking for a place to start, I’d suggest Capri File, which in 2001 must have been one of the first novels-in-emails, or Proto Zoë (1992), which comprises perfect little vignettes from a child’s life (and which, if you like it, has a sequel, Zoë Trope, 1996). More recently, Prantera has given us brilliant translations of two books by Marlen Haushofer: The Loft and Nowhere Ending Sky. I was delighted to discover, out of the deep blue air, that she has a new novel just out.

Amanda Prantera: Mohawk's Brood

Mohawk’s Brood shows Prantera stretching her interests into the family saga. Typically, it is done in an unusual way: despite covering over a century and a dozen characters, it is no epic – 250 pages top to tail – and it is written in what the blurb calls ‘flashlight mode’. Fortunately the blurb then goes on to define this neologism: “illuminating different events from different perspectives.” I suspect this has been done before (answers in the comments, please), but Prantera goes a little further by also making most of the action happen off-stage, or off-page. It is a book of recollection and anticipation, starting with the cover image, a real photograph which appears to have inspired the book, and which gets a fictional caption before the action starts, summarising everyone in it.

Characters in the book take turns to speak to the reader, so this is a sort of oral history of the family. We never learn their name but they are led by Mohawk, nicknamed after his childhood horse, and retiring from his career when the book opens in 1906. He has returned to England and passed the family business in Shanghai to his eldest son Harry. Mohawk is acutely aware of the struggle his life has been, and wants his children to float effortlessly at life’s upper stratum: “The summit is not for climbers … this is as far as I can go.” We find what they make of this – of where Mohawk has left them, with his dubious business interests (“a ban on importation of opium from India has, paradoxically, boosted consumption”) – in their own words, mostly. There is Little Ida, who feels frustrated when back in England (she feels as though she has been “pressed like a flower between the pages of a Jane Austen novel”) and wants to find love. “There’s the vet, I suppose, he’s young and very nice looking, but these dogs of ours are so dratted healthy…” There is Edwin, suffering from some kind of mental health problem, and who misses the movies in Shanghai: “it is the only time my head is fully at rest, when the living image on the screen invades it and blots out all the others.” There’s Tom, committed to social change for the benefit of the common man: “I’m awake. And half the world is waking up with me.” There’s Ernest, who fights in the Great War but is captured by the Germans when running an errand to fetch his commanding officer some cigarettes.

Most of the family members have something interesting happen to them during the course of the book, though we rarely hear about it directly. One of the curiosities of the telling is that most of the events are recalled by the characters as they speak to the reader, or even just hinted at: we are almost never in the thick of the action. (“I may count a hussy and a pervert among my progeny,” reflects Mohawk in response to revelations.) There’s a risk to this, and in the combination of satisfaction and frustration that results from the narrative approach. It’s satisfying because we get a dozen novels in one, and although it starts off slowly, by halfway through I was fairly gripped, but it’s frustrating because sometimes we want to hear more from a character but never do. (Donal Ryan’s well-received debut, The Spinning Heart, had twenty-one narrators, each of whom speaks to the reader only once, though that book was an exercise in comic ventriloquism as much as a story or investigation into character.) Interestingly, the character at the heart of the book, Mohawk’s eldest son Harry, never speaks to the reader at all, yet I felt I knew him so well that I had to flick back to check that this was really so. Prantera’s trick is that Harry’s wife Rebecca and son Sasha speak to us instead, and what we get from them is not just a family tale but an economic history of east and west. Harry’s wife Rebecca feels their life in Shanghai to be precarious – “the inhabitants of this city with all their roads and buildings and vehicles are only here on tolerance … at any moment the land could tire of its human clutter and shrug it all off.” But they are privileged, and the story is reflective of modern times as the wealthy float above the economic turmoil – the crashes, the revolutions – that convulse the world. Rebecca reflects, on sending Sasha to “the best” school, that “it is essential that from his earliest years he meet the sort of boys whom he can continue to befriend to his advantage in later life.” On a human level, however, they don’t escape, and Harry and Rebecca’s family happiness is under significant threat from harboured secrets.

The family members continue to take turns before our eyes – letters from Neville, surprising appearances from an ageing Mohawk, and a much-sought-after prime number from Edwin*. We also hear from non-family members, and often we don’t understand their connection or significance until the second or third time they’ve spoken to us. We work, though, to join the pieces, and this is one of the greatest delights in this enjoyable novel. Then, when we get to 1939, suddenly we jump to the present day, and there is a 40-page appendix which I wasn’t sure about at all. I’ll say nothing about it except that it simultaneously robs the previous 200+ pages of authenticity, but paradoxically adds plausibility. It seems also to resist the open-endedness, the uncertainty, which was one of the things I enjoyed most about this elusive book. Of course it also more or less requires you to reread it, which is probably a good idea anyway given the slippery telling of the story throughout, and Prantera’s slinky lightness of touch, which makes each character distinctive and memorable. As the final narrator points out, “I am not without my agenda.” What storyteller is?

* 20988936657440586486151264256610222593863921

April 1, 2014

Gerard Woodward: Vanishing

Posted in Woodward Gerard at 8:00 am by John Self

Often, I think, we retain a special affection for the first book we read by an author. Certainly that’s true for me with Gerard Woodward, whose second novel I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, the keystone in his Jones family trilogy, still floats high above his others. Recently I read the third volume, A Curious Earth, which I’d been holding off as I’d been told it was almost unreadably grim and sad – I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to find that it was more funny than sad, though sometimes a bit of both. But it was his gift of humour that I had in mind when I started his new novel, his fifth and, at 500 pages, his longest yet.

Gerard Woodward: Vanishing

 

Vanishing in parts exhibits Woodward’s comic gift at its best. For most of its first half it felt like reading William Boyd’s The New Confessions scripted by David Renwick – and that, I had better explain, is a double compliment. Like Boyd’s book (his best in my opinion), it tells the story, more or less, of a man’s life, within a wartime frame; like David (One Foot in the Grave, Love Soup, etc) Renwick’s best work, it has an absurd eye and a beautiful way of bringing together unlikely details. The man whose life we get is Kenneth Brill, and it comes within the framing device of his arrest and court martial during the second world war on suspicion of aiding the enemy. Brill is a painter – or “failed artist” as he put on his army registration form – and he maintains that he was painting fields near his family home to preserve them before the government paves them over for an airfield. This is around the hamlet where he grew up: Heathrow, in Middlesex. One of the aims of Woodward’s book – and one of its great successes – is to give back Heathrow to a culture where it means nothing more than a hell-on-earth airport. Heathrow’s development as a military airfield was begun in 1944; by the time it was completed, the war had finished. We presume Woodward’s aim was to create a sort of memorial to the place from the final words in the book (in his acknowledgements):

The hamlet of Heathrow was destroyed by a disgraceful misuse of wartime powers by the British government; that it was allowed to happen shames us all.

And the portrait of a vanishing place is one of the most satisfying aspects of Vanishing. This is dispensed in Brill’s memories of his childhood in Heathrow, where his father had an array of jobs including stage illusionist and prosthetic limbs supplier, though “in 1936 his business went up in flames. He took all his arms and legs out into the orchard, arranged them in a heap and set fire to them.” Most notably, his father had land which he farmed, in bitter rivalry with his half-brother Tiberius Joy, and the most entertaining parts of the book describe this battle, from a terrible burial suffered by Brill’s mother (pure Renwick, this) to a surprising discovery about sludgecake. Throughout, Woodward’s eye for imagery gives a freshness to scenes such as one where Brill plays doctor with his father’s medical supplies:

Countless times I had put a stethoscope to my sister Pru’s pale chest and listened to the slamming doors of her heart, or the sudden blasts of turbulence, the vortices and hurricanoes of her breath, or the belfry and breaking-glass clatter of her laughter.

There is much more of Woodward’s off-kilter invention and comic (and sometimes tragic) imagination throughout the first half of the book: the fate of Roddy, Tiberius Joy’s son; stripping with on-off best friend Marcus Boone; and all-male ballroom dancing in a Jewish school. Brill keeps moving schools – keeps vanishing – because of absurd developments and misunderstandings. Like his father’s interests – did I mention palmistry? – sometimes these seem random, chosen for their own sake and the delight they give Woodward to explore rather than for any intrinsic necessity to the story. (Woodward has spoken of an earlier draft of the book, where Brill had “a disrobing disorder, which meant he unconsciously lost his clothes at certain key moments.”) But the story is of a life, and you could reasonably say that a life is random and contains no overarching theme. Some of the elements – the aforementioned fate of Roddy Joy, or the excellent scenes involving a Polish art teacher – seem spirited away too suddenly, not fully explored or exploited. (But again, life, etc.)

But although this is the story of a life – a life so far – it is not chronological. As well as the framing device (and Brill’s subsequent court martial for espionage gives us an entirely unexpected but fitting conclusion), the scenes switch between his childhood in Heathrow and at school, and his wartime experiences as a camouflage artist: making things vanish. People arrive, unexplained – why is there tension between Brill and his colleague Somarco? – and allegiances seem to switch as the story jumps from between time and time. There is an uncanny representation of how memory works, with occasional repetitions or echoes of things mentioned before, as though Brill really is telling his story just as he remembers it. Yet as the story moves on, and we get to Brill’s time in art school and subsequently as a teacher, it seemed to lose some life for me, and certainly seemed to lose the comic touch that gave me so much pleasure in the book’s first half. We learn plenty about Brill through his activities and sexual relationships but there is something schematic about the emotional core of the character – though it does occur to me that this might represent a weakness on my part for traditionally explored characterisation. How many of us, after all, analyse our own personalities as cleanly as the novelist typically does for their characters? How realistic is it to do so? The second half the book seemed less vital to me, less surprising – perhaps inevitably as the story must stop opening up and begin to close down – but that I finished it at all, and with a fair amount of satisfaction, speaks of Woodward’s ability to sustain interest. In a way Vanishing, with its rejections of traditional time structure, of representation of character, of clean causation, is more novel than its frequently comforting qualities make it appear. There are strange things hidden in the countryside.

March 24, 2014

Jenny Offill Interview

Posted in Interviews, Offill Jenny at 8:00 am by John Self

Last week I wrote that Jenny Offill’s second novel Dept. of Speculation was probably my favourite new book of the year so far. It doesn’t seem to have attracted the attention of other UK reviewers yet, and amazingly, the Baileys Women’s Prize judging panel hasn’t resigned in embarrassment at leaving it off its recently-announced longlist. Doubtless the Booker and Folio judges will get it right, but in the meantime, I took the opportunity to ask Offill some questions about the book and her work generally.

Jenny Offill by Nicholas Latimer

Dept. of Speculation deals with everyday life but is unusual in its form and content. (“She acts as if writing has no rules.”) Can you tell us something of how the book came about?

I had written a more conventional novel about a student who had an affair with her professor and later married him. The book was from the POV of the second wife and of her stepdaughter. I worked on it for years, but there was always something leaden about it. What I wanted to write was something darker and stranger, something that spoke more directly to the collision of art and life. Eventually, I screwed up my nerve and dismantled that original novel, keeping only a few tiny things.

I read a lot of poetry and non-traditional fiction and for a long time I’d wanted to write in a more experimental vein. Dept. of Speculation was the result of finally writing exactly the way I wanted to without worrying about whether anyone else would like it. (That anyone did was a thrilling surprise.)

The book’s appearance is also unusual: paragraphs appear as separate sections surrounded by white space (you describe it as “maddeningly formatted”). Each paragraph has a stand-alone, aphoristic quality. Was it important to tell the story in this way?

The white spaces in the novel are meant to be resting places for the reader, stop-offs before the wife wheels off in another direction.  I thought it would be overwhelming to be in her head in a linear, uninterrupted way.

The aphoristic quality developed because of that constraint, but I liked it and decided to heighten the effect. One of the things I was interested in was making the seemingly trivial domestic moments have the same weight as the more obviously philosophical ones. The aphoristic style helped me to put the mundane and the sublime fragments on the same plane.

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Your first novel Last Things was busy and bustling. Dept. of Speculation is much more pared down; it reads like the skeleton of a much larger book. Was it whittled away from a greater mass of material?

Once I found the form for Dept. of Speculation I wrote the narrative sections in a very pared down way, just as they are in the finished book. But the form took me a long long time to find. At first, I didn’t understand why I kept moving back and forth between first and third person POVs. But then I realized that the shifts in authorial distance exactly mirror the distance that the narrator feels from her husband at any given point in the story. After that, I understood how it fit together.

What I did whittle down was pages and pages of trivia on artic explorers, cosmonauts, obscure mystics etc. I threw away any that seemed too obviously symbolic and looked for others that felt quieter to me.

The portrayal of the demands of early parenthood in the novel is painfully recognisable. One character says to the narrator, “I think I must have missed your second book,” to which she replies, “No; there isn’t one.” Does this explain the fifteen year gap between your first novel and your second?

Nothing really explains it. All I can say is that I couldn’t write fiction at all in the beginning and then for a while I could, but not very well. The demands of early parenthood have an urgency to them that is hard to ignore. It feels strange to go hole up alone in a room and write even if you could slip away to do so.

Jenny Offill: Last Things (Bloomsbury)

You have cited influences as varied as Jean Rhys, Lydia Davis, Joe Brainard and Robert Walser. Can you say something more about your literary inspirations? 

I discovered Robert Walser’s work nearly twenty years ago and it was hugely influential to me. One of his stories ends with this line “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” That really stayed with me. I guess I took it to mean what if everything is interesting? What if nothing is beneath notice?

Part of my fascination with Buddhist thought is that it teaches that this is indeed the case, that the entire spectrum of human feeling and experience is meant to be delved into. (I do think we miss out on a lot of interesting moments when we hope only for happiness. )

Another big influence for me was the New York School of poetry. I particularly love those Frank O’Hara “I did this. I did that” poems that suddenly swing out into these strange ecstatic reveries. I’m also influenced by comedians. Maria Bamford and her brilliant standup routines about anxiety and depression in particular.

You have written three books for children as well as two adult novels. Is it harder to write for adults or for children? Do you find writing easy or difficult generally?

I find writing fiction for adults ridiculously difficult. My reach always exceeds my grasp. But the kids’ books are different. They are more like writing jokes or little fables. Timing and reversals are the key to them. I tried them as a lark to make money to support the glacial pace of my novel writing and they turned out to be fun and to keep me afloat.

Jenny Offill & Chris Appelhans: Sparky! (Schwartz & Wade)

Can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?

I am reading The Collected Poems of Ron Padgett and it is taking the top of my head off. Two other books I’ve read this year and really liked were Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle and Duplex by Kathryn Davis. All of these are put out by small presses so I’m not sure if they’ve made it over to England yet.

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