March 30, 2009

Geoff Dyer: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Posted in Dyer Geoff at 8:00 am by John Self

Geoff Dyer’s non-fiction has always been more consistent – or anyway easier to get a grip on – than his fiction. With punning titles to his novels like Paris Trance and now Jeff in Venice…, just how seriously are we supposed to take them? It’s a query that doesn’t dissolve even after reading his new book. One reviewer says that reading Dyer is like making a new friend, one as silly as you but more intelligent; precisely so. I’d call him a national treasure if that didn’t imply a cosiness which doesn’t fit Dyer’s rigorous intellectual anarchy. Let’s begin from the understanding that anything Dyer writes is worth reading, and proceed from there. And as far as the difference between fiction and non-fiction goes, Dyer says “the distinction means absolutely nothing to me. I like to write something that’s only an inch from life … but all the art of course is in that inch.”

When the protagonist’s name – Jeffrey Atman – was disclosed in the opening sentence of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a little something in me died. I recalled from Siddhartha that Atman was a Hindu spiritualist term for the eternal soul, and I dreaded the onset of a new age tale of ‘finding oneself’. But I needn’t have worried: at least, not yet. And just in case Dyer’s reputation as a restless intellectual burrower didn’t precede him, the book has no fewer than seven epigraphs, from sources as diverse as Borges and Ginsberg.

In part one, ‘Jeff in Venice’, our louche Dyeresque hero is a freelance journalist (“if it was a proper job, I’d pack it in and do something else, but freelancing is the something else that you do after you’ve packed in your job so my options are limited”), given to wearing skateboard T-shirts, raving about Burning Man, and other activities recognisable to Dyer watchers. Jeff is sent to the Venice Biennale to interview a fading celebrity. This is a great opportunity for Dyer to exhibit his facility for slick wit. On the budget airline:

The cost-cutting was amazing, extravagant, even. No expense had not been spared. … Then he had to struggle through the coach-crowded bus terminal, with his bags, in the baking heat. It was like being in an Italian version of an oily, hugely demoralizing art installation called This Vehicle is Reversing.

This includes accurate observations – perhaps derived from Dyer’s own journalistic experiences – about contemporary art (“The work may have been puerile, but the hunger to succeed of which it was the product and symbol was ravenous. In different historical circumstances any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness”) and the business of celebrity (“part of the etiquette of being an interviewer [was] that you had to let the interviewee call the shots. It made them feel important and being important hopefully made them more amenable – though, in practice, as often as not, it just made them feel even more important, which manifested itself in their being extremely difficult”).

The plot of this first part, such as it is, comprises Jeff’s interview with the celebrity and his sexual encounters with a woman named Laura. At one point Atman observes that “everything began as a joke – or some things did anyway – but not everything ended as one”. The tone of ‘Jeff in Venice’ is of a joke, where the witty exchanges tread a fine line between maddeningly brilliant and brilliantly maddening, so it’s a relief, or at least a change, when part two, ‘Death in Varanasi’ is generally more sombre.

Here, the narrative is in the first person, with nothing but a passing reference to Venice to suggest that this may be the Jeff of part one, rather than, say, Geoff instead, or another incarnation entirely. In a recent interview, Dyer said that the book was originally intended as two discrete stories: “With my usual unerring eye for commercial suicide, I originally wanted to subtitle the book ‘A Diptych’ to make clear the two stories were separate. But I was urged not to, and when I saw a mock-up of the front cover with the word ‘diptych’ on it, I thought, ‘Oh God, that’s too pretentious even for me’.” Much of ‘Death in Varanasi’ reads like a reportage piece about travels to the Indian holy city (“the place of many names”) with “uncomprehended meaning everywhere.” Here, comic set pieces about locals who don’t respect the British addiction to queuing tend to give way to sincere observations:

What I didn’t see was any affinity between us. He was in his world and I was in mine. My world-view would never be his and vice versa. That was what we had in common. What distinguished us from each other was that he had no interest in mine – it meant nothing to him – whereas I was intensely curious about his.

As Dyer – or the fictional narrator (“the distinction means absolutely nothing to me”) – points out, “it’s possible to be a hundred percent sincere and a hundred percent ironic at the same time.” The lazy perception of a barrier between ‘a funny book’ and ‘a serious book’ is broken down. Like so many great writers, Dyer is both deeply funny and absolutely serious.

Midway through the book, Jeff recalls reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and how he had been “much impressed by John Fowles’s distinction between the Victorian point of view – I can’t have this forever, therefore I’m miserable – and the modern, existential outlook: I have this for the moment, therefore I’m happy.” In the first part of the book, Jeff seeks completeness through attachment to the passing moment; in part two, the narrator achieves completeness through detachment from the present.

I really don’t want to come on like someone who has gone through rehab or undergone a conversion or awakening. All I’m saying is that in Varanasi I no longer felt like I was waiting. The waiting was over. I had taken myself out of the equation.

Being a Dyer fan is a stressful experience, always expecting great things, always fearing he’ll drop the ball. He portrays himself in other books – and Jeff the journalist here – as a lazy writer, coasting by on considerable talent but without the application to transmute the work into gold. But this cannot entirely be true, when the results are so satisfying and stimulating. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is only an inch from brilliance, but all the Dyer is in that inch.

March 27, 2009

Adam Foulds: The Broken Word

Posted in Foulds Adam at 8:00 am by John Self

I first heard of Adam Foulds last year when his debut novel, The Truth About These Strange Times, won him the Sunday Times Young Author of the Year award. I second heard of him when his debut book of poetry, The Broken Word, won the Costa Poetry Award and narrowly missed out on the overall Book of the Year gong. And I do mean narrowly: it was a 5-4 vote by the judges (and one of the five wavered), who went for Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture instead. If we take into account that the judges’ praise of The Secret Scripture was highly qualified (“there was a lot wrong with it. It was flawed in many ways – almost nobody liked the ending”), then it will surely be uncontroversial to say: here is the real winner of the Costa award.

Old, or easy, habits die hard. It was difficult for me not to have at least a little eye-rolling response when I heard that this book is a narrative poem addressing the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya in the 1950s. It just sounds so … earnest. That, even if the book was no good, is a shameful response, but I include it in the hope that anyone reading this who shares it, will now read on and be pleasantly surprised – be positively delighted – as I was.

The Broken Word is a tale of when civilization meets savagery – with identification of which is which neatly blurred. The Kenyan rebels butcher those loyal to the British regime:

The patrol pulled into the sergeant’s own village
to see it almost finished. No one screaming.
The men labouring hard, quietly, as in a workshop,
a boat builders’ yard,
limbs and parts scattered around them,
their wet blades in the flamelight
glimmering rose and peach.

and the British respond in kind.

Yes. Chaps got a bit worked up,
actually, sort of let them
have it somewhat.

The writing is elegant and laconic, full of space, which – just about – enables Foulds to cover a meaty issue in 60 pages. The reader must do the work of allowing each chapter break to expand to days or weeks of unseen activity, otherwise time can seem to tumble over itself. Colonial comfort (“Sipping the fragrant blue acid / of a gin and tonic”) rubs shoulders with bloody violence (“he’d have to clean / with bucket and sponge / each wet red gust / from the station wall”). Sometimes both these aspects of British rule are efficiently brought together (“Two shots from the hut. / A smattering of applause / as from a cricket pavilion”).

The beauty of the imperialism/colonialism theme for a writer is that it provides a handy parallel for today – the reader needn’t look far for echoes of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib in Compound Nine, the British ‘interrogation’ unit:

Three weeks later two of the men came back,
wordless and unsteady, heavily edited. Between them:
nine fingers, two ears, three eyes, no testicles.
No good to anyone, they were let out
to wander briefly as mayflies
and die as a warning.

The Broken Word may not present new revelations about its subject (though its subject in itself will be news to many, including me) or themes, but it does present it all seductively. The central character, Tom, provides the main spring of the story as he experiences events which might fairly be called character-building, though his tragedy is the character that this leaves him with. This in turn leads to the drama of the last chapter, which seemed appropriate but too eager to end the book on a neat finish. Nonetheless The Broken Word is a fine achievement, whose greatest strength is also its weakness: the word-by-word perfection, a sort of clean beauty, which dilutes the effect of the horror contained within even as it opens our eyes to it.

March 23, 2009

Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke

Posted in Baker Nicholson at 8:00 am by John Self

Nicholson Baker is a writer attracted to detail. His first book, The Mezzanine (1988) was a novella devoted to the minutiae of a man’s thoughts as he rides the escalator to his office one lunchtime, all tricked out with obsessive-compulsive footnotes, and footnotes to footnotes. A similar idea was used, to diminishing effect, in Room Temperature and A Box of Matches, though they were still pleasant reads. Attention to detail also featured in his memoir and paean to John Updike, U & I. Then there were his books to be filed under ‘controversy’: Vox, the ‘novel of telephone sex’, famous for having a hand – or thereabouts – in the Clinton-Lewinsky tangle; The Fermata, where a man used his ability to pause time mostly for the purpose of undressing women; and most recently Checkpoint, where two friends discuss the possible assassination of George W Bush. I have never really felt that any of his books matched The Mezzanine – until now.

Human Smoke can be filed under both ‘attention to detail’ and ‘controversy’. In it, Baker uses diary entries, newspaper reports, speeches, and official papers to attempt to overturn some preconceptions about the Second World War. The presentation is notable: one or two discrete paragraphs per page, white space around, each block of text containing a coolly related fact.

Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, Franklin D., the assistant secretary of the navy, were invited to a party in honor of Bernard Baruch, the financier. “I’ve got to go to the Harris party which I’d rather be hung than seen at,” Eleanor wrote her mother-in-law. “Mostly Jews.” It was January 14, 1918.

I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s review of Joseph Heller’s Something Happened in 1974: “I imagined a man who was making an enormous statue out of sheet metal. He was shaping it with millions of identical taps from a ball-peen hammer. Each dent was a fact, a depressingly ordinary fact.” Here, the mesmerising quality of Heller’s prose is in some way echoed by the blank style, and the detailing of the date in each paragraph. “It was January 14, 1918.” “It was March 14, 1935.” “It was December 31, 1941.”

Baker presents the facts blankly, but he has chosen which ones to include, and he has a message to convey: that England and America were not dragged unwillingly into war. The suggestions which Baker’s facts communicate, hypnotically, like an incantation, are that in the 1930s and 40s America was intent on flexing its muscles against Japan, with ostentatious displays of military might in China and the Pacific; and that Winston Churchill was itching for another battle with Germany and, like Bush in Iraq, had already determined that it would happen long before the ostensible casus belli arose. Both governments sold arms to Germany and, even while regarding Hitler as “insane” (like Hitler’s own generals), they disdained Bolshevism more than Fascism: Churchill wrote admiringly of Mussolini (“amazing qualities of courage, comprehension, self-control and perseverance”) as late as 1937. Once England declared war on Germany, Hitler repeatedly made offers of peace towards England, though speculation on his motives – through sincere intent, or as a trick and a tactic, or because he feared losing the war – is something Baker declines to address.

However, when challenging our preconceptions, Baker does not seek to overturn basic truths such as the barbarism of Nazi Germany, and its express ambition to “destroy and exterminate the Polish people” – though there is doubt raised as to whether Hitler at this stage wanted to kill all European Jews or, instead, transport them to Madagascar (advanced plans apparently were made). But Baker does draw attention to the blight of anti-Semitism around the world: in Romania, one commentator reported on the “brutality” and “venomousness” of anti-Semitism “which makes effective comparison with Nazi Germany.” In Poland, the government sought to relieve itself of its three million Jews, investigating mass shipment to Trujillo’s Dominican Republic. Churchill himself, like Eleanor Roosevelt, expressed the casual anti-Semitism of the times, and it seems that the only people who gave a damn about Jewish refugees (‘refugees’, one commentator notes, was not the right word, as they had no refuge to go to) were the pacifists.

By making the peace campaigners the heroes of his story (the last words of the book, when Baker speaks directly to the reader about the pacifists, is “they failed, but they were right”), Baker is able to emphasise the mass hysteria of Nazi Germany where pacifism was regarded as a disgusting weakness (which seemed also to be Churchill’s view). In 1930, Joseph Goebbels led brownshirts in violent campaigns against the showing of the film All Quiet on the Western Front. Erich Maria Remarque later wrote:

Nobody was older than twenty. None of them could have been in the [first world] war – and none of them knew that ten years later they would be in another war and that most of them would be dead before they reached thirty.

The question must be, whether all Baker’s meticulously researched text (there are around 1,500 references) amounts to propaganda in itself. Would pacifism, if practised by the allied governments, have had the effect which Aldous Huxley anticipated in 1937?

We have all seen how anger feeds upon answering anger, but is disarmed by gentleness and patience. We have all known what it is to have our meannesses shamed by someone else’s magnanimity into an equal magnanimity.

Is this ridiculously naive, given Hitler’s stated policy in 1933 that “our enemies will be ruthlessly and brutally exterminated”? Or would Hitler have had no enemies if only Britain and America had agreed to his proposal to divide the world into three empires? Christopher Isherwood, who allied himself with the pacifists, reflected on the central question that it was easier to determine what pacifists should not do than what they should. “Does one open all doors to the aggressor and let him take what he wants?” This seemed to be the view of Gandhi, a recurring source in Human Smoke: his view of the ultimate expression of non-violent resistance was to “allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered.” When apparently supporting this view, Isherwood was challenged by Klaus Mann: “If you let the Nazis kill everyone, you [allow] civilization to be destroyed.”

The case which Baker makes most successfully is against Churchill, as a military leader unconcerned with the niceties of the Hague Convention, keen to develop chemical weapons and to bomb indiscriminately. (The Prime Minister of Australia observed that Churchill “positively enjoys the war”.) Under his leadership, his Generals took the view that

[t]he 99 per cent [of bombs] which miss the military target all help to kill, damage, frighten or interfere with Germans in Germany and the whole 100 per cent of the bomber organisation is doing useful work, not merely 1 per cent of it

and that the ineffectiveness of bombing on German morale was not the point: “the morale of the British people requires that the Germans be attacked in some way.”

It is when Human Smoke discusses the fate of the Jews in Europe that its tone varies from the dispassionate. Amid the powerful, gripping narrative Baker has created in the strangest of ways, there is, occasionally, black humour:

A Jew is riding a streetcar, reading the Völkischer Beobachter, the main Nazi paper. A non-Jew sits down next to him, and says, “Why are you reading the Beobachter?” The Jew says, “Look, I work in a factory all day, my wife nags me, my kids are sick, and there’s no money for food. What should I do on the way home, read the Jewish newspaper? ‘Pogrom in Romania.’ ‘Jews murdered in Poland.’ ‘New laws against Jews.’ No, sir, a half hour a day, on the streetcar, I read the Beobachter. ‘Jews the World Capitalists.’ ‘Jews Control Russia.’ ‘Jews Rule in England.’ That’s me they’re talking about. A half hour a day I’m somebody. Leave me alone, my friend.”

There is also an elegiac tone. This arises when a commentator reminds us that the horror and tragedy of the pogroms and the Holocaust and the war was not just what the Jews lost, and what Europe lost – a past and a future – but something else besides.

Never before in history has a country lost practically all of its poets, novelists and essayists at the same time. Within one year Germany lost the overwhelming spiritual influence its famous thinkers and writers had exerted over the whole world. It was a kind of death – the body stayed where it was, the soul was spread over the world.

I could go on about the book and its subjects and texts for another thousand words, but limitation of space requires me to end it here, without formal conclusion – following Baker, who stops on the semi-arbitrary date of December 31, 1941 (semi because it clearly follows the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the official US entry into the war). But please read Richard Crary’s valuable post on the book, which discusses the critical – in both senses – response to Human Smoke, and sums up the book much better than I could.

March 19, 2009

Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18

Posted in Solstad Dag at 8:00 am by John Self

The second book in my short (as in, this could be it) trot through some of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist titles, is Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18. I knew I wanted to read it as soon as I saw the title and cover on publication last year: I presume the name laconically places the book in Solstad’s oeuvre. Anticipation over the book was only enhanced by Steve Mitchelmore’s praise. Solstad is not what you’d call a big name in the UK, a fact that was verified when I searched for him on Amazon (just for more information on it: I try not to shop at Amazon for reasons which are too self-righteous to go into) and was greeted with the prompt Did you mean: dvd solstad? That was a few months ago. When I tried the same search just now, the response was Did you mean: dog solstad? Which, I suppose, is progress of a sort.

A good deal has been written recently – not least by me – about Richard Yates, his uncompromising bleakness and brave refusal to pander to the reader. In fact Yates, fond as I am of his books, makes all sorts of concessions to readability in terms of his deft character portraits, swift storytelling, meaty dialogue and so on. It’s a bleakness which is cushioned by literary niceties: and very nice they are too. Similarly, Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, a black hole of despair of a book, is made palatable by being very (blackly) funny. What makes Novel 11, Book 18 so interesting is that Solstad dispenses with many of the traditional novelistic ‘draws’ and lets the bleak speak for itself. Perversely, it is this very quality which I found seductive.

Novel 11, Book 18 is the story of a man who finds that experience of life does not match up to his expectations, and so he acts dramatically to bring his expectations into line, to reduce them ruthlessly. Bjørn Hansen is “a slow, introvert and not very spontaneous person,” who “knew that the most desirable happiness on earth was a brief happiness.” Such a happiness he has experienced with his ex-lover, the anagrammatic-sounding Turid Lammers, with whom he lived for fourteen years; with whom he originally moved in “because he feared he would otherwise regret everything.” With Turid, Bjørn Hansen (he is almost always referred to by his full name, the narrative cool and detached) takes up amateur dramatics, becomes a player, homo ludens, an ironic epithet for one so unplayful. He has the double tragedy of ambition without ability: he urges the theatrical company to try something more than their usual light operas (“What if they rose to the level where one could feel the blast of real life?”), and they put on a production of Ibsen. Bjørn Hansen, whose performance is the low point of a “total flop”, learns that “it is not enough to feel, inwardly.” (It was the am dram that made me think of comparison with Yates: his most famous novel Revolutionary Road opens with a symbolic production of The Petrified Forest, where April Wheeler is no better than Bjørn Hansen.)

I said above that Solstad’s writing is devoid of traditional novelist’s effects, but this is not quite true. As I became accustomed to his style, I began to find more and more sly humour in the prose, so that the occasional playful authorial intervention elicited a practical belly laugh.

The two years that went by before he managed to tear himself away from [his wife] were a total nightmare, which here will be passed over in silence.

Bjørn has one friend, Herman Busk (“the singing dentist”), with whom he feels little affinity. He likes books “that showed life to be impossible and contained a bitter black humour” (Bjørn, I have just the thing) – but now is bored with those, and wants “a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.” About halfway through the book, Bjørn starts to find it impossible to reconcile himself to the fact that “this is it”, that “time is passing, boredom is everlasting.” He conceives a plan – “his No, his great Negation” – which is put on hold when his son Peter comes to stay, bringing with him youth and its “intoxicating nonchalance, self-indulgence and idleness.”

That is about as much of the story as I can reveal, though in a way, I could detail everything that happens without reducing the book’s effect at all. Just as the prose is plain, the content of the book speaks for itself, bold and unmistakable. The denouement is an outlandish, almost freakish challenge to the reader, but arising so naturally from what has come before that it is impossible not to accept. The reader feels sympathy with Bjørn who, when conceiving his plan, “could not tell whether it was a game or real.” The reader shares this wonderment. The book could be handily reduced to this ‘twist’, making it a mere high-concept trick, and ignoring the importance of what leads up to this decision, both on the book’s terms and on Bjørn’s. In this (and in this only), I was reminded of Magnus Mills’ very different but equally bouleversé-ing Explorers of the New Century.

A certain uneasiness gripped me as I reflected on how much I enjoyed Novel 11, Book 18. (Enjoyed despite – because of – its uncompromising force and Bjørn’s flattened affect; such a work of art can only be invigorating and thrilling.) Would I have liked it as much if it was a new novel by a contemporary British author? Or was my pleasure enhanced by the preconception that foreign fiction must be really worthwhile if someone has thought it worth translating? But preconceptions are all part of the reading experience, and pleasure is pleasure, and we must take it where we find it. Right, Bjørn?


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March 16, 2009

Rana Dasgupta: Solo

Posted in Dasgupta Rana at 8:00 am by John Self

I’ve noticed a trend in recent years for a particular type of British novel; let’s call them widescreens. They are mostly by younger authors, and are ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far-flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction. Perhaps these have always been around and the only trend is that I have begun to notice them. Sometimes the ambition exceeds the achievement, as in James Meek’s We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, but elsewhere there are books which, even when imperfect, are so interesting and contain so many good things that to miss them would be to miss out. I am thinking of very recent titles like Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil, Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, and a novel published a few years ago which didn’t get the attention it deserved, The Weight of Numbers by Simon Ings. To this list we can now add Rana Gasgupta’s fascinating novel Solo.

In Solo, one character reflects that he “could not think of a single fact he knew about Bulgaria. He had a vague sense that it wasn’t much fun to live there.” Dasgupta’s task is to lead the reader who shares this ignorance – and who doesn’t? – into a richly imagined account of Bulgaria’s past and present, a country which as far as I can tell, he has more or less to himself among current novelists in English. His work is done through the mediation of central character Ulrich, a one-hundred-year-old blind man who goes “wading through the principal events of his life in order to discover what relics may be submerged there.” His – or Dasgupta’s – justification is that

Before the man lost his sight, he read this story in a magazine: a group of explorers came upon a community of parrots speaking the language of a society that had been wiped out in a recent catastrophe. Astonished by their discovery, they put the parrots in cages and sent them home so that linguists could record what remained of the lost language. But the parrots, already traumatised by the devastation they had witnessed, died along the way.

It is this sort of throwaway paragraph that emphasises Dasgupta’s great imaginative facility. (I’d love to read a novel, or even a story, based on this summary.) These fable-like vignettes occur throughout the book – the scene of killing a pig which opens the second part of the book is a particular highlight – and I wondered if Dasgupta wasn’t more comfortable in short fiction than long. His debut novel, Tokyo Cancelled, was a ‘story cycle’ of thirteen characters delayed in an airport, telling one another their tales. The obvious benchmark here is David Mitchell, whose Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas had similar many-stories-in-one structures. Solo, however, does bring its elements together into a unified whole, though the book comes in two distinct and contrasting parts (or ‘Movements’, which preciousness is not quite justified by its relevance to the book’s recurring motif of music. I had similar thoughts on the titling of chapters, after chemical elements in the first part, and sea creatures in the second. ‘Narwhal’. ‘Beluga’. ‘Dugong’. ‘Manatee’).

The first half tells the story of Ulrich – and of Bulgaria – in the 20th century, neatly twined so that we get a boy’s development and discovery told through the social and political developments in the world: the scientific advances in Berlin, where Ulrich works for a time, against the sluggishness of Bulgaria; communist bombings in 1925, the fascist coup of 1934, the replacement of one dictatorship with another after the war, followed by corrupt capitalism to cap it all, while throughout, the one constant is that the people suffer. (“Forty or fifty years, [Ulrich] thought, were enough for a modern life, for the human frame could not hold up if the world was destroyed too many times and made again.”) What emerges is a portrait of a country served poorly by its leaders over the decades, and an effective communication of how family, friends and lovers interact under these conditions. This is all the more touching because of its restraint, such as in this short but evocative depiction of Ulrich’s mother and his amputee father:

While [Ulrich's father] was still alive, Elizaveta would say, ‘All he ever does is sit in that chair and look out of the window.’ It infuriated her to see him so inactive. But after he died she never said anything but, ‘That was the chair he loved.’ Or, ‘How he loved sitting in that chair.’ Or, ‘They are spoiling the view that your father loved so much.’

This first half is successful because it combines the density of detail from ‘telling’ with the immersive quality of ‘showing’, so we have a fluent story but with an epic feel. Dasgupta also has command of a superb descriptive skill, which he showboats in passages such as this, emphasising a blind man’s sensitivity to the different sounds which rain produces:

…the silky spray in the trees, the heavy drumming on plastic water tanks, the hard scatter of roads and pavements, the different metallic pitches of car roofs and drain covers, the baritone drilling of tarpaulin, the sticky overflow of mud, the concentrated gushing of drainpipes – and, for a moment, the landscape springs forth, and he is reminded how it is to see.

Then comes the second part, or movement, ‘Daydreams’, which purports to be made up of Ulrich’s, well, daydreams. Character names and motifs recur from the first part, but the whole has a much more modern setting – celebrity, media, gangsterism – and thrillerish pace than the first part. The characters are subservient to the story, unlike the first half of the book, though the themes remain connected (“It’s difficult for us to sustain our passions through life, and we become mournful for what we’ve given up”). I liked it less than the first half, but nonetheless admired the bold and ingenious way in which Dasgupta incorporated Ulrich into the story – just about – and the ending offers a satisfying, almost symphonic close to a brave and memorable work. Dasgupta is a writer to watch for the future; but also one to read now.


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March 12, 2009

Linn Ullmann: A Blessed Child

Posted in Ullmann Linn at 8:00 am by John Self

Inspired by the increasing amount of literature in translation I seem to be reading of late, as well as a shameful love of lists, I’ve decided to try to read a few of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize titles, which announced its longlist last month. There will only be a few of these (even though the list looks more interesting than the Booker longlist, which I ploughed right through), and constraints of time mean they may be somewhat shorter than usual. First up is Linn Ullmann’s fourth novel, A Blessed Child (2005, tr. 2008 by Sarah Death).


Of the titles on the Independent longlist, A Blessed Child is the one which looks most like traditional literary fiction – good old British literary fiction – an impression mainly based on the tastefully stylish cover and the quote of praise: “clear-sighted, large-hearted fiction.” Yet the good news is that despite surface smoothness in the prose, A Blessed Child is spikier and more surprising than I was expecting.

The story is the old trope of a family reunion which enables the author to explore her characters’ pasts. The USP here is that the three sisters at the centre of the story – Erika, Laura and Molly – have the same father but different mothers. Their father, Isak, was not a one-woman man, as we find out on the third page when his wife Rosa is described as “quite different from his previous wife and mistresses”. At this point the canny reader makes a mental note to wonder whether Isak might be based on the author’s own father: Linn Ullmann is the daughter of Ingmar Bergman, who had nine children to six different women.

Such extracurricular thoughts do not have time to marinade, however, as Ullmann keeps the reader on their toes with a flurry of memories and characters presented through Erika’s thoughts as she heads for her father’s home on the island of Hammarsö. What a relief it is to read fictional characters presented so plausibly – in snatches, back and forth through Erika’s memory – so that their personas build up through a sort of layering. In particular Ullmann is very good on childhood and youth – not only its own qualities, but its interaction with adulthood; its own, and its parents’. She presents Laura now, as a mother of a teenage son, and then, as a teenager herself. The writing is sensuous (“Erika lay in the middle of a flower meadow. The backs of her knees and the insides of her wrists and her neck and scalp were itching: it was the insects climbing over her; it was the ticks latching on to her to suck”) and even sexual:

Erika and Laura wore shorts and washed-out pink T-shirts that strictly speaking they had grown out of. Both had long blond hair, long tanned Barbie-doll legs, and little handfuls of girlish bottom that wiggled from side to side as they trudged all the way from the shop to Isak’s house, each with a dripping ice-cream cone in her hand.

The senses are a recurring theme in the book, particularly in Isak’s profession as a gynaecologist who helped develop ultrasound: “Sounds attracted to or repelled by each other: sounds that create an image.”

Isak could hear sounds that no one else could hear. She had read that in an article about him in Life. That is, it wasn’t that he heard the sounds; he saw them on a screen. A throbbing fetal heart. The outline of a brain, looking like a shriveled date. The shadow of two babies instead of one in the mother’s womb.

This works as a handy metaphor for Ullmann to describe a father and his daughters, their relationship distant but close, estranged but interdependent. “Laura, who knew their father best, used to say Isak could hear everything. He could hear what Laura and Erika were saying to each other, even if they were a long way off. He could even hear what they were thinking. Words and thoughts could be picked up and registered as dots and lines on a screen to make a picture.”

The story moves on to the other sisters, Laura and Molly, and ultimately the reader understands what lies in their joint pasts and what happened to a childhood friend of theirs. This revelation, in fact, is not especially surprising and for me was much weaker than the beautifully told approach to it (and retreat from it). Overall, A Blessed Child is not a groundbreaking read, but it is a satisfying one.

March 9, 2009

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well

Posted in Hofmann Michael, Wander Fred at 8:00 am by John Self

Just the other day I remarked on how unusual it is to read a new book that is both important and exciting. And then two come along at once. Strictly speaking, Fred Wander’s The Seventh Well is only ‘new to us’ – it was published in (East) Germany in 1971, where apparently it sank like a stone. Republished in 2005, a year before Wander’s death, it has found a deserved audience and been translated into English by the redoubtable Michael Hofmann, who once again has provided an essential afterword. It is the best new book I have read so far this year.

The cover image shows clearly enough that this is a new (‘to us’) entry in that vast body of work, Holocaust literature. This in itself presents certain problems of preconception. I want to like the book because it is a book on an important subject by a good man. But also, it deserves a harsher eye because of its important subject, to justify its addition to the literature. Hofmann in his afterword observes that “the welter of extreme and unbearable content demands an exceptional awareness and use of form to master it.”

The form which Wander adopts is, first, fiction so heavily informed by memory that the distinction seems to dissolve. He wrote the book a quarter of a century after his liberation from Auschwitz, following the death of his daughter. Second, it contains individual episodes, linked but distinct, drawing together the lives of Jews before the war and their existence in the concentration camps.

“Did you know my Zikmund?” I heard a Jew ask the man in the next bunk to him. “No, you didn’t know my Zikmund, because he was not himself when he came with me to the camp. Because he lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore…”

Lyricism, savagely inappropriate to the camp setting, risks artificially romanticising the prisoners’ former lives. But Wander knows restraint (as that 25 year period, holding his breath and his thoughts, showed). He only rarely resorts to expressions of high emotion, and even then, there is a certain reserve.

Something in him is driven to yell out: I am human! I have known respect! he wants to cry out. I was loved, I had a home, a wife and children, friends. I have performed kindnesses and not asked for reward. I have seen marvellous things, I know the smell of old cities. I could have done anything, achieved everything, and if I didn’t do or achieve, then it was only because I didn’t know, I couldn’t sense…

Here, as elsewhere, Wander’s task is to tell the stories of his (or his narrator’s) fellow prisoners: the first episode, ‘How to Tell a Story’, uses as inspiration Mendel, an inmate who regarded the camp guards “not with hate or accusation, but with curiosity. What is driving this man, those eyes wanted to know.” His other question is, What keeps a man alive? This, inevitably, is balanced by unavoidable details of how a man can die in the concentration camps. “Now they just pushed the victims over the edge.” Or: “Open wagons stuffed full of men, bent double with cold. Only when they die do they stretch out in something resembling dignity.” Or:

When Yossl keeled over at his work in the lumberyard, and the sentries shovelled snow over him as a joke, and the little heap of snow stirred and a small hand emerged from it, and they went on chucking snow over him and laughing and smoking cigarettes, and when we dragged him back to the camp that evening, then Yossl was still not yet dead. He was frozen stiff and his face was as pale as marble, and they stood around him at night in the barracks … and they talked to him, cajoled him and flattered him and screamed at him: “Yossl, listen, you must live, Yossl, don’t go, your mother is waiting, your father is waiting, Yossl, stay with us, keep us company…” And they stroked him and kissed him and rubbed his body with cloths and with snow, they wrapped him in blankets, and they sat him up on the table like a doll, he didn’t keel over, he was frozen stiff, but he wasn’t yet dead. He was frozen, but deep within him there was still a little ember of life, and they stoked it with their affectionate words, with their prayers and their charms, crying and weeping the while: “Yossl, stay!”

Here, then, we have the sort of book which I just want to retype here more or less in full. It does, effortlessly, do justice to its subject matter, which is not the Holocaust generally or the concentration camps specifically. It is what the Jews in the camps spent their existence exhibiting, and which the Nazis in the camps utterly failed to fulfil: what Wander calls “the expression of the vast effort to be human.”

March 5, 2009

M.R. James: The Haunted Dolls’ House

Posted in James M.R. at 8:00 am by John Self

I’ve never been much interested in bestsellers; the few times I’ve read something out of interest to see what’s agitating the charts (Thomas Harris and Michael Crichton spring to mind), I’ve always been disappointed. (Or perhaps that should be reassured: that I’m not missing anything.) Yet there must be something to be said for popular fiction which has withstood a century or more of fad and fashion, even if that something turns out to be, “Is that it?” It was when Penguin issued a set of Gothic titles in their stylish Red Classics line that I thought of looking further.

I’ve always thought there was something childish about ghost stories. That might, however, be a defence mechanism to cover my innate conservatism, which means I will never set myself up to be voluntarily frightened, whether by horror film or rollercoaster. Isn’t life terrifying enough? But still I know of M.R. James, the grandaddy of English ghost stories; and the imprimatur of Time – that much-vaunted judge – meant I couldn’t finally resist.

Or I thought I knew of M.R. James. As I began reading the stories in this volume – a sort of ‘best of’ – it seemed to me that he was setting the template for what we traditionally think of as ‘ghost stories’ – the rambling house in the English countryside, the mysterious artefact, the character concealing frightening knowledge from the new chap and so on. It’s such a well-known form that it’s been filleted, copied and spoofed endlessly (what I was most reminded of was the Ripping Yarns story, ‘The Curse of the Claw’). Only when I looked at the author details, and saw that James was writing relatively recently – he died in 1936 – did I realise that far from creating these templates, they were well-known and much-used when adopted by him for his stories.

Which is not to say that there is anything formulaic or half-hearted about them. James diverts the reader with playful narrative – pointing out that there’s no need to describe a character in detail because he plays no further part in the story (in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’), or having characters talk around a mysterious object without disclosing what it is (it “will be described when the time comes”), and then, when the time comes, saying “What it was, the title of this story will have told you” (‘The Haunted Dolls’ House’). However, these diversions are not an attempt to make the reader forget he is reading a ghost story, all the better to surprise him later. Rather, the contrary is true: James presents the ghost stories as such and with a full complement of apparently corny details on top of the aforementioned standard structures.

These – the ghost story clichés such as dark hints of sinister powers held by an object or place – are actually essential to the experience of reading. In much story-driven fiction, the reader should know as little as possible of what’s coming for maximum effect. In contrast, for a ghost story to ‘work’ properly, the reader must know what it is in advance, and be willing to observe the conventions, in particular the build up of sinister atmosphere via – otherwise crashingly obvious – hints. (James’s stories are full of people ‘in the know’ breaking off mid-sentence to avoid telling the protagonist about the dreadful death of his new home’s last inhabitant, and so on.) So the genre sustains its own effects by virtue of the reader’s expectations of predictability. It is comfort reading, comforting the reader with elegantly placed shocks. And James’s shocks are very effective. My favourite I think is in ‘Casting the Runes’, when the character

put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and not, he declares, the mouth of a human being.

This is the only explicit detail in the story, and mighty effective it is too, rather like the “figure in pale, fluttering draperies” in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, probably James’s most famous story. To note another convention which James observes: less is more.

The stories here are also – are primarily – great fun. I must admit I have found the later stories less effective, though that might be from the inevitable fatigue which sets in with any sustained reading of a collection of stories. The reader’s diminishing freshness can be mistaken for the book’s. This Penguin Red Classics edition, containing nine of James’s stories, is designed for style rather than scholarly insight, and so there is no critical apparatus nor, more disappointingly for me, any indication of when each of the stories was first published. But this is the only criticism I can make of a thoroughly entertaining – and effectively chilling – set of tales.  Give it another hundred years and I’ll try Michael Crichton again too.

March 2, 2009

Chloe Hooper: The Tall Man

Posted in Hooper Chloe at 8:00 am by John Self

Chloe Hooper’s debut novel A Child’s Book of True Crime is one of those books I bought enthusiastically years ago (the UK hardback had a nice cover), but never got around to reading. From True Crime she has turned to True Crime, and the garish cover will be fit in nicely among the other titles in that section of the bookstore. Still, not many true crime books earn praise from Philip Roth on the cover (“Chloe Hooper’s masterful book of reportage is a kind of moral thriller about power, wretchedness and violence”). But then, not many true crime authors studied creative writing under Roth at Columbia University.

Clearly, though, the aim here is something closer to Truman Capote or Gordon Burn than to, say, Nigel Cawthorne. In The Tall Man, inspired by an article she wrote for the Observer a few years ago, Hooper takes an account of a death in police custody in Queensland and weaves it into an exploration of white v black Australia.

It happened on Palm Island, an Aboriginal settlement and former segregated community. “Fifteen minutes from the mainland, they all lived in a different country.” It is a world that most southern Australian liberals – like Hooper – never encounter. There is little doubt where her sympathies lie: she embeds herself, after all, within the Aboriginal – or ‘Indigenous Australia’ – community, not with the police. But she does not present Palm Island as a paradise. Here and in other Aboriginal communities, alcoholism, domestic violence and child neglect are endemic (not to mention deafness and diabetes).

In the past six weeks, a man had stabbed and critically wounded his brother over a beer. A woman had bitten off another woman’s lip. A man had poured petrol over his partner and set her alight. The unemployment rate was 92 per cent. Half the men on Palm Island would die before the age of fifty. This place was a black hole into which people had fallen.

So police presence on the island is prominent, and one day in November 2004, local man Cameron Doomadgee fell foul of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, was arrested for apparently shouting abuse at the police in the street, and an hour later was dead on the floor of a cell.

The title refers both to Hurley – six feet seven inches in height (“The tall man get out and arrest him,” says one woman. “I saw the tall man grab him by the arm”) – and the Tall Man, a malevolent spirit feared by the islanders, “the island’s combination of Big Foot and the bogey man.” The book follows the riots and legal procedures that arise from the death of Cameron Doomadgee, and also explores the irreconcilable differences in the white Australian and the Indigenous Australian worldview.

Blackfellas saw themselves as inseparable from the land. … Palm Island was settled with refugees … they lived cut off from the religion and culture of their traditional lands, and the despair that went with their removal was often fatal. Around the turn of the twentieth century, W.E. Roth heard old people on a mission singing a song: “This [country] made him die. The place he did not belong to. It was this [that made him] die.”

But there are elements which connect the communities. Both islanders and police are capable of frightening mob rule: the islanders when they riot following Doomadgee’s death (“Many of the officers believed they were going to die. They passed around a mobile phone and rang their families to say goodbye”); and the police when they have a rally to support Senior Sergeant Hurley, all fist salutes and unsuppressed rage.

The Tall Man effectively becomes a thriller (“I was hooked in and set upon a quest”), chasing the inquest into Doomadgee’s death and the subsequent legal developments (which it would be unfair even to outline, though the chapter headings are a pretty large-print spoiler). As a result, the book is such a page-turning delight that I felt I occasionally was pulled through it too quickly to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. Nonetheless Hooper has her tricks to slow down the reader and distract from the ‘plot’. As a novelist, she is alive to the language of the Palm Islanders, and its curious poetry both in vocabulary (an argument is a “tongue-bang”) and in speech, as when one is describing what he saw in the police cells before Cameron Doomadgee’s death:

Well, he tall, he tall, he tall, you know … just see the elbow going up and him down like that, you know, must have punched him pretty hard, didn’t he? Well, he was a sober man and he was a drunken man.

The Tall Man is a book which is both important and viscerally exciting to read. And how few of those we come across these days.

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