May 28, 2009

Hugo Wilcken: Colony

Posted in Wilcken Hugo at 8:00 am by John Self

Hugo Wilcken’s second novel Colony was published in the UK straight into paperback in 2007. Saddled by a hopeless cover, lost in the sea of novels published each year, it sank, so far as I can tell, without trace. Or almost without trace. I caught mention of it on Steve Mitchelmore’s blog (“a compelling flight into the unknown … a terrific read”); if one – impossible – way of differentiating the novels in that sea is to read them all, another is to rely on trusted sources. So I picked up a copy about 18 months ago, and left it to languish (that hopeless cover!). It took a couple of days of planes and hotels, without the distractions of other books, to make me read it at last. I was amazed.

Hugo Wilcken: Colony 

Colony was described by Wilcken before publication as “sort of Papillon meets Heart of Darkness.” Steve Mitchelmore saw Cormac McCarthy and Beckett. To those, let me add Damon Galgut, whose seductive combination of dry plotting and unreality are everywhere here. The book’s sometimes elusive nature seems to be reflected in the references to Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. But what impresses most is Wilcken’s unwillingness to try to impress the reader: the prose is unfussy, the scenes uncluttered. There is no ‘fine writing’. Instead, there is very fine writing indeed.

The theme of Colony is escape: from captivity to freedom, and vice versa; from reality into dreams and memories; from one identity to another; from life to elsewhere. It is apt that this is explored in a book which on the face of it has the escapist qualities of a thriller. Wilcken takes us to a penal colony in French Guiana in 1928, where “everyone’s got a scam.” Sabir is a new arrival, just off the boat where, after days of seasick rocking, the “absolute stillness feels as though something that had once been faintly alive has finally died.” The story follows Sabir’s progress in the colony, where the challenges are not just heat, exhaustion and violence, but relentless existence: “the past is dead, the future stolen away, the present an endless desert.” There is the struggle too with “imagination and memory. Which are always wrong. Always telling you what you want to hear.”

All this suggests a book which plays with the reality of its world, as in Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation. But to limit Colony to a genre or type would do it a disservice, as this is a book – as evidenced by the references it suggested to different people above – which unpacks in several different ways. It would also do a disservice to the book and its future readers – I hope there will be many – to outline the plot in any great detail, though I can say that there is a fundamental shift halfway through, and that we are helpfully told that one character “found he could consider two opposing notions and then accept both, without fundamentally believing in either”.

In some ways the characters seem stock types: the hardened criminal; the camp’s fixer; the idealistic commandant and his bored wife. Yet Wilcken’s no-nonsense style enables him to create scenes of great wonder and emotional heft, from death scenes to the tiniest – and therefore most potent – hints of a character’s previously unrevealed childhood. Past, present and future, and how they interconnect, are central to the book.

In any case, the various futures have already been lived out, played out, and all one can do is wearily continue along these set paths. Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.

Colony is an exceptional achievement whose overlooked status is little short of scandalous. If blogs can do one thing, it is to give deserving books like this life beyond their few weeks on the 3-for-2 tables. Having taken up Steve Mitchelmore’s endorsement of it, I can only urge others to do the same, and accept my inchoate view as a recommendation as strong as any I’ve given this year. If you read it and like it, spread the word yourself, by blog or word of mouth. This is a book I was sorry to leave, but simultaneously read through impatiently, keen to see where it would go. Where I will go next is to Wilcken’s first novel, The Execution. “Always a sense of anguish with every departure, however desired.”


Buy Colony from the Book Depository, Amazon (UK or US) or Waterstone’s

May 25, 2009

James Lasdun: It’s Beginning to Hurt

Posted in Lasdun James at 8:00 am by John Self

James Lasdun is one of those gifted writers who seems to have avoided the attention he deserves as a result of scattering his talents so far and wide. Novelist; short story writer (with a story adapted for film by Bertolucci); poet; award-winning screenwriter. And he’s friends with Michael Hofmann, mascot of this blog. Damn his eyes. But he’s good: his two novels The Horned Man and Seven Lies have been highlights for me of their respective years. Now, with one of those titles which seduces straight from the shelf, he returns to the short form.

James Lasdun: It's Beginning to Hurt

It’s Beginning to Hurt is, in places, the best story collection I have read since Tobias Wolff’s Our Story Begins. Those places are where Lasdun plays to what is evidently his strength: creating a wry but rounded examination of muddled modern men, usually on the slip road (arriving or leaving) of middle age. The first of these, and a fine example of this mini-genre, is ‘An Anxious Man’, which won Lasdun the first National Short Story Award in 2006. (Didn’t I mention that above? Well: I didn’t want to embarrass him.) Happily, you can read this story in its entirety here.

Here we have a perfectly judged portrayal of the knots into which anxieties tie us, the restrictions they place on our lives, and the defeats we create for ourselves through them, in the story of Joseph Nagel. He is on holiday but failing to relax because he is too busy worrying about the performance of his wife’s inheritance on the stock market.

You could never get out once you were in anyway; couldn’t sell when you were ahead because you might miss out on getting even further ahead, couldn’t sell when you were down because the market might come surging back the next week leaving you high and dry with your losses, though of course when it merely continued tanking you wanted to tear your hair out for not having had the humility to acknowledge your mistake, and salvage, sadder but wiser, what you could…

“Whatever you did,” Joseph concludes, “it seemed you were bound to regret doing it, or not having done it sooner.” This comedy (well, I think it’s funny) of indecision recurs like a motif – or maybe just because that’s what we’re like.

In ‘The Natural Order’, a man on holiday with a friend is so taken aback by the other’s relentless bedding of every woman he meets, that he begins to doubt his own experiences and intentions. It occurs to him that his friend, on whom he had always looked down, “was in some sense a higher order of being than himself … under the man’s crassness a fine, bright flame seemed to burn in him. One was almost physically aware of it: a steady incandescence of sexual interest in the world, the lively brightness of which was its own irrefutable argument.” As a result:

he wondered for the first time whether his faithfulness as a husband had been a matter of deliberate choice, or passive acquiescence. Had he deliberately suppressed the appetites of a potential philanderer for the sake of a greater happiness, or had his life taken the shape it had because he didn’t have those appetites in the first place?

Elsewhere, men drive themselves to distraction over family tensions or health anxiety, and not always in the obvious ways (“Was it death itself that frightened him? Not exactly. [...] More upsetting was the prospect of being reassigned in the minds of others from the category of the living to that of the dying, which appeared to him a kind of sudden ruin: an abrupt calamitous coming down in the world, with all the disgrace and shame that accompanied such a circumstance”). Often Lasdun seemed to have such an acute insight to my own range of neuroses that I suspected him of some kind of espionage. However, I’m suspicious of liking a book because of identification with the characters, and there’s no doubt that Lasdun has what it takes in pure prose terms too: there is wry spikiness, attitude without swagger, which appeals greatly to me, and best of all he resists the fussy or ponderous language which can mar fiction by poets.

This covers around half the stories. It’s when Lasdun seeks to expand his range – with a hint of the supernatural, or Dahlish revenge fantasies – that the results are less successful. These stories are not weak or bad; the problem is that they lack the force of personality which fills the others and makes them take flight. They could be by any competent writer. It is a perfect example of how a good writer’s limitations are also his greatest strengths. For about half its length then, this is a superb collection, which is more than you can say for most. If you want further persuasion, you can read the title story, a mere two pages, online here. And, to bring this review to a neat end, it’s worth commenting on Lasdun’s neat way with an ending. They’re judged just right, providing enough closure and leaving enough unsaid to leave the reader satisfied. In ‘The Old Man’, Conrad has just “received some momentous intelligence … that he needed to absorb” when about to open a bottle of champagne for a celebratory party.

All three women were looking at him now. They seemed to be waiting for some explanation as to what was all of a sudden filling him with this apparent reluctance to open the bottle. He was aware of something perilous in his own immobilised silence; that the longer it continued, the more he stood to lose. And yet for some time he was unable to move.

May 21, 2009

Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener

Posted in Melville Herman, Melville House at 8:00 am by John Self

What to say, how to begin, on a piece of writing which, says Patrick McGrath in the introduction to the Hesperus Press edition of ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, “one of the great achievements of world literature”? In fact he doesn’t quite say that: he simply says that this high praise is “the judgement of many readers”. Get off the fence, Patrick: it is.

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‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ was published in 1853 but it forges a path ahead, and is such a keystone of modern literature that to admit not having read it before is akin to proclaiming ignorance of ‘Metamorphosis’ or Waiting for Godot. (Rest easy: I have.) But it is one of those works whose reputation precedes it so handily, and which seems summable in such straightforward terms, that it almost feels unnecessary to read it. Do I need to read it? With all the other books pressing on my time, I would prefer not to. So confident was I that I already knew it, that I even read a novel inspired by it – Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co - without having read the source material. In the end, like all classics, ‘Bartleby’ defies expectations, and expands before your eyes.

A mere 40 pages in the above edition (or 80 in the handsome Melville House one below, for those who like good value: though the Hesperus edition also includes the story ‘Benito Cereno’), this is a story which unpacks several times its bodyweight. The essence is simple to summarise. A lawyer on Wall Street, “filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best,” employs a new copyist, Bartleby: “pallidly neat, pitiable respectable, incurably forlorn!” All goes well until one day, when asked to read over a document, Bartleby responds: “I would prefer not to.” Soon it becomes his answer to everything. You can see where this is heading.

This mild statement, through repetition, becomes sinister and frightening. “I would prefer not to.” Why not? Bartleby never explains. His story is twofold: of Bartleby himself, and of his effect on others. It unnerves his employer, forcing him to move offices (“I would prefer not to quit you,” is his reply when the lawyer asks him to go). His response is inhuman – uncooperative, alien – but normal in its civility and its intention: all humans must struggle against the desire to stop, to step off the treadmill. Bartleby is frightening because he dares to.

Bartleby the Scrivener (Melville House)

He clashes with his employer also because he – like all lawyers – likes the definite and concrete, where Bartleby is “more a man of preferences than assumptions.” But his preference is not a statement in favour, but a statement against, a denial: not what we think of as a ‘preference’ at all. His choice is to decide not to choose; to take his fate out of his own hands by stoutly insisting on his desire “not to”. “I like to be stationary,” says Bartleby late in the story. “But I am not particular.” Meanwhile his employer decides that Bartleby is his fate.

‘Bartleby’ – like Bartleby – is endlessly open to interpretation. Patrick McGrath outlines them in his introduction to the Hesperus edition. Bartleby is a Christ figure. He is the narrator’s alter ego; he is Melville’s alter ego (trying to recover from the commercial failure of Moby-Dick and Pierre). Or, more satisfyingly, it is about power and submission, where here the potent employer becomes entirely submissive to the decisions Bartleby makes – or refuses to make. It is the endless unfoldings offered by a book which is so short, on the surface so simple, which is one of the marks of its greatness. That it laid the foundation, and led the way, for much essential 20th century literature, is another.

May 18, 2009

Don DeLillo: White Noise

Posted in DeLillo Don at 8:00 am by John Self

When, and why, do we part company with authors? I have always defended Don DeLillo from detractors, from accusations of style over substance, and in the early days of this blog I reported high praise for Falling Man. I had also enjoyed Libra and Americana, and – in common with all those interested in modern literature – I gave up on Underworld somewhere in the middle of the baseball scene. I thought it was time to try what the back cover blurb calls “one of DeLillo’s most highly acclaimed novels” (though the same cover quotes only two positive reviews).

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White Noise (1984) is about two people, Jack Gladney and his wife Babette, who are too worried about dying to live well. But living well is not an option in DeLillo’s late 20th century: existence is mediated through cultural ephemera: pharmaceuticals, corporations, the media. (“I want to welcome you all on behalf of Advanced Disaster Management, a private consulting firm that conceives and operates simulated evacuations.”) Gladney is a professor in Hitler studies at college; Babette is addicted to a mysterious prescription drug named Dylar. Between them they have children from previous marriages called things like Heinrich and Wilder. They are satirically modern.

I can tell that when I was younger, I would have lapped up White Noise: its suggestiveness, its modishness, its lists and its non-sequiturs and its media mash, but right now it just feels like a Bret Easton Ellis novel without the jokes. Except it’s pretty clear that DeLillo thinks it’s full of jokes. They are easy enough to spot, but they are the sort of jokes which seek not to make you laugh or smile but to nod and go, Yeah, I’m in on this!

The smoke alarm went off in the hallway upstairs, either to let us know the battery had just died or because the house was on fire. We finished our lunch in silence.

“This is the new austerity. Flavorless packaging. It appeals to me. I feel I’m not only saving money but contributing to some kind of spiritual consensus. It’s like World War III. Everything is white. They’ll take our bright colours away and use them in the war effort.”

The other jokes are clever circular dialogues, which sometimes work but elsewhere are the sort of thing that Geoff Dyer just about gets away with and DeLillo doesn’t. In fact Dyer is a good comparison, because some of DeLillo’s interests in the book – perception and experience, say – are the sort of thing that Dyer writes about much better, by taking them face-on instead of subjecting them to a sort of literary digitisation (“No one sees the barn.  Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn”). And other subjects – media, celebrity – are the kind of thing Gordon Burn writes about better.

It is mesmerising enough in places, such as when exploring Gladney and Babette’s death-obsession:

How strange it is.  We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love.  Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink.  We manage to function.  The feelings are deep and real.  Shouldn’t they paralyze us?  How is it we can survive them, at least for a while?  We drive a car, we teach a class.  How is it nobody sees how deeply afraid we were, last night, this morning?  Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent?  Or do we share the same secret without knowing it?

These timeless questions, however, are subsumed into a surface of modern – that is, early 1980s – culture.  And with its interest in natural and unnatural disasters, White Noise – 25 years old – seems curiously more dated than, say, a 50-year-old John Wyndham novel, because of its reliance on the minutiae of brand names, technology and cultural contemporaneity. At its most specific (and comic), it practically imprints the paragraph with the month it was written.

Once I almost asked her to put on legwarmers before we made love.

Some of the time-stamping comes from product placement.  His characters are no less in thrall to brand names (“beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder”) than DeLillo is, ending a chapter with the word “Panasonic” in a paragraph of its own. (The word was DeLillo’s original title for the book.)  He also interrupts paragraphs with unrelated phrases from the TV, though they’re clearly supposed to be related in the sense that they add to the whole, oh you know, zeitgeistiness of the thing.

The TV said: “And other trends that could dramatically impact your portfolio.”

Through all of this, the book tootles along without much narrative urge, though there is a little page-turning impulse in parts – notably the Airborne Toxic Event section, Gladney’s investigation of Dylar and the violent conclusion to the book. But I still think that as a study of modern disaffection, it suffers in comparison to other stories of modern disaffection which are also about something else - and that could include anything from Sinclair Lewis to Richard Yates to James Kelman. White Noise seems just to be about itself.  “I want to immerse myself in American magic and dread,” says one character, and there is a little of that here, some nice stuff on the appeal of catastrophe and the human need for horror as strong as the quest for meaning.   It’s an ‘interesting’ book but often quite a ‘boring’ one too.

May 14, 2009

Penguin Magnum Collection

Posted in Penguin Modern Classics, Tosches Nick at 7:25 am by John Self

Whenever Penguin bring out one of their enticing new series, I feel like Homer Simpson (sans sarcasm).

Marge: We don’t think you’re slow, but on the other hand it’s not like you go to museums or read books or anything.

Homer: You think I don’t want to? It’s those TV networks, Marge: they won’t let me. One quality show after another, each one fresher and more brilliant than the last. If they only stumbled once, just gave us thirty minutes to ourselves, but they won’t! They won’t let me live!

Yes, it’s Penguin’s fault: they won’t let me live. But these series are one of the best ways to give older books new life – particularly to magpies like me – which is in part what this blog is supposed to be about anyway. So now, after Gothic Reds, English Journeys, extravagant Bill Amberg leather-bound classics and more, we have the Penguin Magnum Collection. These are six titles of 20th century reportage by American authors: A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Fight by Norman Mailer, Hiroshima by John Hersey, Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson, and Hellfire by Nick Tosches.

At least three or four of these titles hardly need new promotion, but the USP here is the wraparound covers from the Magnum photo agency. Click for larger versions.

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The title are stickered on, so when removed, the brilliance of the design takes effect. The reader looks on a wordless front cover, with an image which draws the eye around the spine – an apparently bare piano and mike stand on Hellfire, say, or a series of telegraph poles on Hell’s Angels – and suddenly the focus of the image is there – Jerry Lee Lewis talking to the audience, a phalanx of bikers roaring into the distance – on top of which the words appear like an explosion. It’s a narrative cover, like a cinematic trailer for the content of the book, and it’s bold and beautifully executed. There are further Magnum images on the inside covers. You need to see them to appreciate it – though of course then you would have to buy the books so you could peel off the stickers and really experience it. What can you do?

It is not all good. The barcodes on the spines are, for a series where cover design is their raison d’etre, a disaster. They transform the books from the most desirable paperbacks I’ve seen in some time, to ones I would be reluctant to display on my shelves. Why couldn’t the barcode be discreetly printed on the inside cover, or even on a removable sticker (as Penguin have done before on clothbound hardbacks or the Bill Amberg collection)? Also, the type has not been reset, so we are left with whatever font was considered fashionable when the paperback was first published. This detracts from the series as a matching set.

And what of the books themselves? I wanted to try them, but In Cold Blood, Hiroshima and The Fight were already familiar to me (and the first two I recommend without reservation, if I need to). I didn’t fancy 600-odd pages of Apollo missions. So I opted for Hell’s Angels and Hellfire. The former I admit I haven’t opened yet, due to a horrible prejudice that Hunter S. Thompson was a self-regarding berk to whom no encouragement (even posthumous) should be offered. So the stylish reissue has not quite worked the magic of winning a new reader in this case. (I would welcome responses on whether I am completely wrong about Thompson; I really hope I am.)

That leaves Nick Tosches’ Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story. I am ashamed to admit that before reading it, I had only a faint idea who Jerry Lee Lewis was. After discounting the possibility that he was the one who chummed about with Dean Martin, I nailed him as the man who gave us ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’. Truth be told, after reading his story, that seems still to be pretty much the summit of his contribution to the world, but what a story, and what a journey he takes to and from that summit. The Killer:

I hated that damn name ever since I was a kid, but I been stuck with it. I don’t think they meant it killer like, like I’d kill people. I think they meant it music’ly speaking. But I am one mean sonofabitch.

We begin long before his birth, with a warning from history. The settlement in Louisiana which would become Lewis’s birthplace was formed by what one of its own pioneers called “the scum of all sorts of nations. They excel in all the vices. The women are as vicious as the men. The savages, though savages, who have occasion to see them, hold them in contempt.” They were prone to inbreeding too, “this whole queer-living, breathing, cotton-farming, marrying, multiplying mess of Chinee arithmetic.” Yet from this would come a strange musical genius who, at the age of ten, sat at the piano and “took a whip” to the tunes of the Depression and “shook them down to boogie-woogie.” By the age of 21, he had had his two biggest hits (“distinctly smart wax” – Billboard) and was on his third marriage and second bigamy: to his thirteen-year-old cousin. That sort of thing ended no better for him than it had for Edgar Allan Poe, with Lewis forced to abandon his UK tour after the story got out. “BABY-SNATCHER QUITS”, cried the Daily Herald (precursor to The Sun) while back home the New York Herald Tribune offered, “The Jerry Lee Lewises are going to have an addition to the family. He bought her a new doll.”

Hellfire is flamboyantly overwritten, consciously biblical and portentous when describing Lewis’s religion-soaked origins, and high-octane and spectacular when reaching the heights of his excesses. (“He was taken away and made to blow into an Intoximeter. He registered .15. The police at the station were impressed, for many of them had never known the device to register beyond .10.”) The model here seems to be Tom Wolfe, whose compelling if not comprehensive The Right Stuff is one of the reasons I’m putting off Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon. Tosches brings Lewis’s bewitching contradictions not only to light but to life. It’s a sizzler, a blast and a breeze. A Magnum of champagne for this reissue.

May 11, 2009

Roundup: Adam Foulds, David Eagleman, Philip Ó Ceallaigh

Posted in Ó Ceallaigh Philip, Eagleman David, Foulds Adam at 8:00 am by John Self

A few months ago I predicted that fatherhood would restrict my reading and blogging frequency. I was right and wrong. I still find it possible – so far – to read as much as ever, but finding time to write full blog reviews of each book I read is becoming increasingly difficult. But some such books still deserve a bit of attention, so welcome to the roundup: a brief look at some recent reads. It may well become a regular feature.

quickeningmaze

Adam Foulds: The Quickening Maze
When I read Adam Foulds’ Costa-winning narrative verse The Broken Word, I felt that he is a writer who is going to be big – or as big as literary writers get to be – and that we will be hearing a lot more from him in the next few years. Reading his second novel, The Quickening Maze, confirms that view. It displays considerable talent in prose and an ability to set a large cast of characters in satisfying motion in a relatively short book.

The story concerns nature poet John Clare’s residence in High Beach asylum in the late 1830s (“a maze of life with no way out, paths taken, places been”). From my limited knowledge of the background, Foulds seems to stick to the basic facts while embroidering characters and dialogue, rather as he did with the Mau Mau uprising in The Broken Word. Clare appears, distracted by madness, as does Alfred Tennyson, who “moved slowly, as though through a viscous medium of thought, of doubt.” Central to the story is Dr Matthew Allen, who runs the asylum and has many extracurricular interests. Foulds follows his people through seven seasons, from winter with its “hard bounce of bright light” and “sparkling, almost painful air” to summer where “the thick leaves purred and bounced under sparkling strings of water”.

None of Foulds’ descriptive gift has deserted him – “the horses bowing their way up the hill”, a mineral sample “a glittering tumble of right angles, little walls and roofs jutting out from each other like a town destroyed by an earthquake” – and he arranges such a cast of characters, and individualises them so efficiently that he should be given some sort of conservation award for keeping the book down to 260 pages. He also manages to restore to literary respectability the words “very” and “really”, which is really no mean feat.

The Quickening Maze is a book which stimulates and demands a second reading, which is my way of admitting that I would need to revisit it to appreciate it fully. But yes, Foulds is here to stay, so get in on the ground floor and read him now.

sumDavid Eagleman: Sum
Sum: Forty tales from the afterlives is a series of short pieces – two to four pages each – each detailing an imagined existence after death. The clear model here is Calvino’s Invisible Cities, or Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. So we have ‘Circle of Friends’, where in the afterlife you see only people you have known in life:

No strangers grace the empty park benches. No family unknown to you throws bread crumbs for the ducks and makes you smile because of their laughter. … The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathises with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.

or ‘Metamorphosis’, where the dead occupy a purgatory and are only released after the living speak their name for the last time. “Tragically, many people leave just as their loved ones arrive, since the loved ones were the only ones doing the remembering.” Most people are sad to leave, but not those whose names have become detached from their essence, such as “the farmer over there, who drowned in a small river two hundred years ago. Now his farm is the site of a small college, and each week the tour guide tells his story. So he’s stuck and he’s miserable. The more his story is told, the more the details drift. He is utterly alienated from his name; it is no longer identical with him but continues to bind.”

This is a book which dallies with sentimentality, and with forty ideas, not all are of equal brilliance. But it’s an absolute delight to read, a tonic of compact ingenuity and cumulative power.

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Philip Ó Ceallaigh: The Pleasant Light of Day
This is Irishman-in-Romania Ó Ceallaigh’s second collection of stories after the attention-grabbing Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse (2006). Unlike Sum, this is a collection of fully discrete stories, which suffer from being read in quick succession – or at least that’s my excuse for not having completed it yet. For a more comprehensive overview then, why not try some of the unequivocally orgiastic reviews it’s received in the press (“it’s a long time since I read a collection of stories so absolutely pleasing on every level”; “an author who is already touched by greatness”)?

Ó Ceallaigh’s narrators tend to be in a strange country, seeking something, open to anything. There is typically a wit and edge in the narrative voice, which makes the stories moreish despite their sometimes knotty concerns. Uncertainty, and the triumph of experience over hope, rules: “The clouds suggested they were not prepared to procrastinate much longer. But they had been saying that for a very long time.” Later:

There were very hot days, and electrical storms, and such insistent precipitation that rivers burst their banks and you could watch on television the houses of the country people being washed away in the floods. God had promised he would never drown the whole world again, but there were no guarantees that you were not going to get it on an individual or municipal level.

These stories, of sexual jealousy (‘A Very Unsettled Summer’) and political chicanery (‘My Secret War’) are serious and satisfying, but with a twinkle in the eye. The most eye-catching story on offer, however, is a pure wicked piss-take of Paulo Coelho, aptly titled ‘The Alchemist’. It is, if not laugh-out-loud funny, surely laugh-through-your-nose funny. In it, shepherd-seeking-wisdom Pablo goes on desert guided tours (“There was a flurry of dictionary-work among the Japanese”), is required to hold the toe of Napoleon in the “crack of his behind” to receive wisdom (“But isn’t that unhygienic?” “You’re no longer a shepherd, Pablo. Time to start washing more regularly”), and ultimately meets the Alchemist:

As they travelled by night across the desert, beneath the moon, they would converse.

‘Can you really turn lead into gold?’ asked Pablo.

‘That’s why they call me the Alchemist,’ said the Alchemist. ‘Among other reasons.’

‘How do you do it?’

‘The code is written on an emerald tablet. But really, immerse yourself in creation, because all creation is in every grain of sand. Also, listen to your heart.’

‘My heart?’

‘Yes, your heart can teach you the language of the Soul of the World, then you can read the omens and follow your destiny. The real treasure is following your destiny.’

‘Yes, I agree. Still, being able to make gold is very impressive.’

Pablo listened to his heart for a while. It told him all kinds of contradictory things.

‘Alchemist, my heart is telling me to follow my destiny. But also to go back to Fatima, right away, because I miss her terribly. There’s things I’d like to do to her, I don’t even have words.’

‘That’s fine,’ said the Alchemist. ‘Keep listening. When you get to my age you have all the words but the business itself is not nearly so interesting.’

‘Alchemist, I fear suffering, defeat, sadness, age and failure.’

‘That is the dark side of the Force, Pablo. Do not yield to fear. Fear of suffering is worse than suffering itself.’

‘Alchemist, I am full of fear, because men are approaching us in large numbers, on horseback!’

‘The Force is strong in you, Pablo. Control your fear!’

‘But Alchemist, they have guns!’

In the press reviews I’ve seen, ‘The Alchemist’ is singled out for criticism, as though its brilliant explosion of sly wit, and double-barrelled attack on an easy target somehow devalues the rest of the stories in the book. Don’t believe it: it’s worth the cost of the book itself, it shows another string to Ó Ceallaigh’s bow, and it’s extremely funny. You can read other stories by Ó Ceallaigh (though not any of the ones in this collection) here.

May 7, 2009

Kazuo Ishiguro: Nocturnes

Posted in Ishiguro Kazuo at 8:00 am by John Self

According to a piece in the Guardian last week, the reason why so many books are published at the beginning of the month is to take advantage of retailers’ book-of-the-month promotions. This week sees the publication, on the same day, of much-vaunted new books by Colm Tóibín, A.S. Byatt, Adam Foulds, Reif Larsen and many others. Taking his place in the crowd is Kazuo Ishiguro with Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. After the slight disappointment of Tóibín’s Brooklyn, I wondered whether Ishiguro – the biggest name for me in this week’s launches – might fare better.

nocturnes

In a sense he was bound to, as my expectations were not high. Ishiguro, to me, achieves his greatest effects cumulatively, at length – at over 500 pages’ length in his most interesting novel The Unconsoled – so I doubted whether a bunch of stories would satisfy. Then I read in an interview that this book was written sequentially, as a collection, rather than just gathering existing stories together. Well, I thought, that changes everything: he might have wasted his own time as well as mine.

Nocturnes retains some aspects of Ishiguro’s world which are familiar to us – the elegant, understated language used by his narrators, the sense of people speaking not just at cross purposes but in active denial of communication, characters paralysed by the past – but others which are new: contemporary settings; stories where the storyteller is not – necessarily – the central character; and even unaccustomed evidence of Ishiguro comedy.

A theme of Nocturnes – as the ‘nightfall’ part of the subtitle suggests – is the regret which comes from failed (and unexplored) potential. In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro contemplated the brevity of human existence, and now he moves this consideration from allegory to reality. In relation to this, the interview linked above is instructive in detailing Ishiguro’s concerns these days (not least the heading: “There comes a point when you can count the number of books you’re going to write before you die. And you think, God, there’s only four left”):

It’s difficult for me – when I meet certain old friends, I try not to make any reference at all to certain things I do in this world. One of my oldest friends comes round to play music and we’re still close. He’s a person I’ve known since I was 12, and we’ve managed to keep that friendship going really by pretending that I’m not a successful writer.

He speaks also of his sympathy for people – friends – who were “convinced that they were geniuses … addicted to the idea that [they] have tremendous potential” but “just don’t have the technique.” This is rendered absurd in one story, ‘Cellists’, where a character decides that her potential is such a fragile flower that to explore it would risk destroying it altogether (the likely outcome for most of us). In another, ‘Crooner’, a jobbing musician in the cafe orchestras of San Marco in Venice finally gets to work with one of the musical greats, but only after the latter’s career has faltered. A character from this story reappears in ‘Nocturne’, the longest story, which is set in a cosmetic surgery unit where another musician has come to revive his career. Here Ishiguro dissects how fame, which plays hideous tricks on the brain, and modern notions of celebrity interact with this sense of overlooked potential.

Earlier I said we were unaccustomed to comedy in Ishiguro. In fact comedy, in the form of baffling farce, has been seen before in The Unconsoled (and the tragic comedy of the human condition might be said to be one of Ishiguro’s recurring themes), and it’s this book which was brought to mind in the best story, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’. I felt it was the best because of its willingness to leave so much unsaid, rippling beneath the surface and hidden from the reader in the years building up to the story. Our narrator is Ray, a musician who finds himself caught between two old friends, Emily and Charlie, as their marriage falls apart. Yet we begin to learn things about Ray despite his attempts to tell his friends’ story, and not his own. Estranged but still living together, they communicate only through criticism of Ray, in hilariously inappropriate terms:

‘He can’t expect many of that tribe to survive!’ Charlie boomed from the hall. I could hear he had his suitcase out there now. ‘It’s all very well behaving like an adolescent ten years after you’ve ceased to be one. But to carry on like this when you’re nearly fifty!’

‘I’m only forty-seven…’

‘What do you mean, you’re only forty-seven?’ Emily’s voice was unnecessarily loud given I was sitting right next to her. ‘Only forty-seven. This “only”, this is what’s destroying your life, Raymond. Only, only, only. Only doing my best. Only forty-seven. Soon you’ll be only sixty-seven and only going round in bloody circles trying to find a bloody roof to keep over your head!’

‘He needs to get his bloody arse together!’ Charlie yelled down the staircase. ‘Fucking well pull his socks up until they’re touching his fucking balls!’

This story culminates in grotesque physical comedy, with Raymond imitating a dog on all fours in the kitchen as he attempts to conceal an embarrassing incursion into Emily’s privacy (which was in turn an embarrassing incursion into his own privacy). It’s beautifully judged, amusing mainly because it is so blatantly forced, and wildly over-the-top while underpinning a subtle story of dissolution and regret. In that sense, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ ranks along with his best work, because it is quintessential Ishiguro, but also because it takes his work into a new dimension. For that reason, Nocturnes succeeds.

May 3, 2009

Christopher Priest: The Affirmation

Posted in Priest Christopher at 8:00 am by John Self

From time to time (well okay, three times in over two years), authors post comments on this blog. Most memorable was Christopher Priest’s appearance to correct my misattribution of his opinion on John Wyndham. One effect of that was to make me investigate Priest’s work; I’d heard of him, and had a vague idea that he wrote the sort of books that straddled sci-fi and mainstream fiction. But he didn’t seem to be much talked about – or even consistently in print – despite being in the Granta 1983 list, which leads like a roll call of those most prominent in British lit fic since then (Amis, Barnes, Barker, Boyd, Ishiguro, McEwan, Rushdie and others). He has a fondness for definite article titles: The Glamour, The Extremes, The Separation, The Prestige (now a major motion picture). I opted for The Affirmation (1981), at random really, though I’ve since heard that it’s his best novel.

affirmation

The Affirmation is a book about memory: if our essence is in our memories, and memories are malleable, what does that say about our experience of reality? It sounds like a schoolboy syllogism, but Priest makes fascinating play with it, and more importantly, convinces even against the reader’s wishes.

Peter Sinclair is a man recovering from multiple blows: bereavement, break-up, redundancy, homelessness. “I felt like a man who had been knocked down, then trodden on before he could get up.” He retreats to a tumbledown cottage owned by a friend of his father – whom he meets again in unexplained circumstances – and he undertakes to decorate the building and render it habitable. However he becomes more and more obsessed with recording his life, for reasons which (intentionally, I think) strain plausibility:

I perceived my past life as an unordered, uncontrolled bedlam of events. Nothing made sense, nothing was consistent with anything else. It seemed important to me that I should try to impose some kind of order on my memories. It never occurred to me to question why I should do this. It was just extremely important.

As he works on his story, he finds himself deviating from the facts, seeking “a higher, better form of truth”. “If the deeper truth could only be told by falsehood – in other words, through metaphor – then to achieve total truth I must create total falsehood.” He creates “an imaginary place and an imaginary life.”

Chapters then switch between his real life and his imagined life, where his name remains but everything else is changed: London becomes ‘Jethra’, England ‘Faiandland’. At this point my heart sank, as yours may too. However here is where Sinclair’s narrative – previously somewhat charmless – becomes positively disarming, becomes in fact Priest’s narrative. It is a book about its subject where the subject becomes, in part, the book itself.

In Jethra, Sinclair is a winner of the ‘Lotterie’, where the prize is an unusual and dubious form of privilege. This raises certain surface, ethical issues, but more knotty ones too of the nature and purpose of human life. During the course of his alternate existence, for the purposes of fulfilling the Lotterie’s requirements, Sinclair has to write his autobiography, which turns out to be the first chapters of the book – the real world ones – which we have already read. So far so tricksy, but Priest writes so convincingly that the reader becomes acutely aware of the difficulty in choosing between the ‘true stories’ on offer.

There were now two realities, and each explained the other.

What The Affirmation does is to emphasise that there is no reason to believe more in the fictional ‘real world’ of the book than in its fictional invented world. We are in any event, after all, reading a work of fiction, within whose confines by definition, anything is possible.  (I was reminded of the Coen brothers and their bold statement at the beginning of Fargo, that everything that followed was true.) The Affirmation is, to quote Mary McCarthy on Nabokov’s Pale Fire, “a jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem.” But it is so without being sterile or seeming like an act of intellectual masturbation. More impressive yet is Priest’s willingness to have the courage of his convictions, and end the book in the only appropriate way.

And if this seems like a sudden ending, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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