September 23, 2009

Adam Foulds: The Quickening Maze

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

I wrote about Adam Foulds’ second novel The Quickening Maze a few months ago. But when the book was longlisted for the Booker Prize – which, ahem, I predicted – and I looked back at my post, I saw that I had said very little specific about its qualities. My excuse is that I read it in what might be described as a febrile state of mind, and didn’t write it up until a few weeks later, when all I could remember was that I had liked it a lot. So when the book went one better and hit the shortlist, I decided I had to give it another go, or face an eternal position in the bloggers’ hall of shame.

Adam Foulds: The Quickening Maze

The Quickening Maze describes two years in the lives of those in and around High Beach Private Asylum in Epping Forest, in the late 1830s. The asylum comprises Fairmead House – “full of gentle disorder, idiocy, convalescence” – and Leopard’s Hill Lodge , “full of real madness, of agony, of people lost to themselves.”  For a short book, the cast of active characters is considerable. Central are Dr Matthew Allen, owner of the asylum, “chemical philosopher, phrenologist, pedagogue and mad-doctor”, as one academic described him; Alfred Tennyson, then a budding poet who stays near the asylum (for the “different atmosphere”) while his brother Septimus is admitted there; and inmate John Clare, nature poet, out of favour with London publishers (but “the painful heat of hope” is always there) and increasingly out of his mind.

Allen, a responsible and patrician ruler of his community of lunatics, is no stranger to incarceration himself, and longs to make amends for his days in debtor’s prison by renewing his fortune through technological innovations. “He was tired, very tired of the mad and their squalor, and the stubborn resistance to cure of the majority.  His mind strained for an idea of something else to do, some expansion.”  Tennyson has to contend with the attentions of Allen’s daughter Hannah, on the hunt for a husband: when the Tennyson brothers arrive in their carriage, “through the trees she felt them approaching, an event approaching.” Once she sees them both, “she wanted desperately to know which of these two men her interest should fall upon.” (Sadly for her, Tennyson, like John Coetzee, is “deficient in animal spirits”.)  Clare’s madness renders him both free of responsibility but imprisoned by his fantasies: he seeks Mary, “the sweetest of his two wives,” in reality a childhood sweetheart who died. “Time’s walls were the strangest prison.”

Clare is happy only when he is communing with gypsies outside the asylum walls, away from its structures and society. The nature poet feels at home amidst loving descriptions of the dismemberment of deer (“the men had to kick at the dogs who were crowding round the trench to lap at blood”). He perceives his identity to shift: he is Byron, or Jack Randall, boxer. In a novel featuring two poets, written by a poet, it’s no surprise that the prose is so beautifully punchy, expressive and compact, visual and sensual:

For hours as he walked, he re-enacted the incident with much more satisfying and violent conclusions. He could have unleashed his strength. He could have given Stockdale a lick of boxer John, and that would have shown him. Repeatedly Stockdale staggered away, apologetic and impressed, feeling his face, blinking at the blood on his fingertips. John was magnanimous, feeling that as long as the blackguard had learned his lesson, they would say no more about it. Or he didn’t, and John carried on until the man lay knocked out on the ground, breathing through scarlet bubbles.

The fine prose – really a delight in every paragraph – made The Quickening Maze a pure pleasure to read from start to finish. (Even when a scene begins, “He hasn’t evacuated for three weeks now…” and some eye-watering treatment ensues.) The language is beautiful but unforced – and despite its lavish eye for detail, it’s also spare enough that the reader can never let up attention. It gives the impression that Foulds knows his characters so well that he has stripped their scenes bare of unnecessary explanation, leaving just enough for the reader to recreate his story. A winning scene takes place between Allen and his brother Oswald, “frightened, scared and strict,” a Sandemanian; the short scene fills us with the family past so effectively that it makes a satisfying story in itself (“Typical of him to arrive stealthily like this, unannounced, and full of messages about himself, all his little flags flying”).

But the wide net of characters is also the book’s main weakness. Flitting from person to person, though all are well drawn, gives the book a diffuse and unfocused feel. The individual stories, despite the geographical overlap, do not have much in common other than as portraits of various struggles through “the maze of a life with no way out, paths taken, places been.” When Foulds does attempt to bring together most of the characters in one place – for the wedding of Allen’s daughter Dora – the result is one of the weakest scenes in the book. I began to think that Tennyson, and Hannah’s search for love, could have been omitted altogether, and the meatier stories of Clare and Allen’s respective ups and downs given the prominence they deserve.

Nonetheless The Quickening Maze remains a seductive and devourable read, a pointer to Foulds’ considerable gifts.  His first book won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year prize, his second the Costa Poetry Award, and his third has been Booker shortlisted.  To adopt the author’s practice of providing flashes forward to what the future holds for his characters, let me predict a safe place in Granta’s next Best of Young British Novelists issue.  Meanwhile, clear a space in your reading schedules: Adam Foulds is here to stay.

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.

pleasantlightofday

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.

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.

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