Month: January 2009

Franz Kafka: Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor

Kafka is perhaps the tallest of the monoliths casting my literary knowledge into deep shadow. I have made numerous references to his work here without really knowing what I’m talking about: I have the public understanding of Kafkaesque to go on and little else. I shudder now to think of my response to The Trial a few years ago, as glib and ignorant as Martin Amis’s (“I could never finish a novel by Kafka. But then, neither could Kafka”). So I seized on the opportunity provided by this new edition of his story ‘Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor’ which has been issued by Four Corners Books, and was brought to my attention by Caustic Cover Critic. You can see why the cover attracted him.

‘Blumfeld’, written around 1915, is unfinished and in most editions of Kafka’s stories, it takes up just over 20 pages. Here, the wide margins and beautifully large text (set in “Walbaum, Kafka’s preferred typeface”) spread it to 86 pages. This gives the story space to breathe, emphasises it as work of art in its own right, and makes for a thoroughly satisfying experience (even if the illustrations by David Musgrave added little to the book for me). All short stories should be published like this.

Where ‘Metamorphosis’ in its high concept form is ‘man turns into insect’, ‘Blumfeld’ is ‘man hounded by bouncing balls’. He comes home to his sixth-floor apartment, musing (and amusing) on the pros and cons of having a dog to keep him company, when he hears a rattling sound from within.

He quickly unlocks the door and switches on the light. He is not prepared for what he sees. For this is magic – two small white celluloid balls with blue stripes jumping up and down side by side on the parquet; when one of them touches the floor the other is in the air, a game they continue ceaselessly to play.

(The appearance of the balls is represented in the headache-inducing endpapers of this edition.) Blumfeld is initially exasperated by the balls, which follow him around, even to bed, but soon learns that there are ways of first becoming accustomed to, and then managing, their presence. “The fact that they cannot make themselves audible on the rug strikes Blumfeld as a great weakness on the part of the balls. What one has to do is lay one or even better two rugs under them and they are all but powerless. Admittedly only for a limited time, and besides, their very existence wields a certain power.”

What is most striking, for those expecting from Kafka a sense of isolation and confusion, is that ‘Blumfeld’ is not only lucid but very funny. Blumfeld’s recurring thoughts on getting a dog are funnier each time the subject comes up, and there is a delicious understated wit in lines like, “If one looks at the whole thing with an unprejudiced eye, the balls behave modestly enough.”

However there is isolation here too, and the balls reflect Blumfeld’s fractured relations with others, as is made clearer in the second section of the story. Here, having apparently solved the problem of the balls, he goes to his place of work, where he is saddled with a couple of assistants, who hound and trouble him, but are deemed necessary to him, and from whom he cannot escape.

So long as they were following him they could have been considered as something belonging to him, something which, in passing judgement on his person, had somehow to be taken into consideration.

“Even the unusual must have its limits,” observes Blumfeld in his struggle with the balls – and with people, and with life. The story remains unfinished, which is appropriate in its way. ‘Blumfeld’ is a work of pure imagination, grounded but absurd, chilling and entertaining, formally perfect and one great big loose end. It is a tiny but tantalising glimpse into the world and works of Kafka, into which I must now delve with still great trepidation but with much greater excitement.

Richard Price Q & A

Richard Price is one of those writers people had been recommending to me for years, but I never got around to taking a chance on him until last year when he published a new novel, Lush Life – which quickly ended up in my Best of Year list. He now occupies that rare pedestal, a new favourite writer with a rich back catalogue all waiting for me to get my hands on it.

I was delighted when my low begging to get an interview with him paid off. Sadly, owing to my technological incompetence, I was unable to do it by telephone as planned, and the “shitload of overdue work” Price had on meant a detailed email interview was out. So what follows is a quick Q&A which I hope will nonetheless give answers to some frequently asked – at least by me – questions. I’ve also looked up some older interviews and spliced in some quotes from those where I think they can provide illumination.

And note well the answer to the second question. If more of you bought his books, he could write more of them. It’s a win-win situation.

Richard Price photographed by Ralph Gibson

Richard Price photographed by Ralph Gibson

How did you choose the title of Lush Life? Is it from the song? Are you a jazz lover?
It’s from the song. I liked the suggestion of abundance. The book is peopled with a crazy quilt of nations.

Lush Life came out 5 years after Samaritan. Do you give your books precedence over screenwriting, or alternate between them?
Alternate. I can’t afford to write two novels in a row. Movie writing pays the bills.

The most important thing you can buy if you’re a writer is time. I need to do screenplays to tide me over so that I can take a year or two to write my next novel. … Writing novels is my freedom from screenplays. This is where I get to throw in everything. It’s where I get to not think in marketing terms. (Interview, 2003)

What made you come back to New York in this book? [Price’s three previous novels were set in the fictional New Jersey suburb of Dempsy]
I wanted to write about a specific and real neighborhood, not a generic anonymous city.

It’s the most written about place in the world. The first job anyone ever had getting off a boat was as a trouser cutter in a Lower East Side sweatshop. The second job was writing a novel about being a trouser cutter in a Lower East Side sweatshop. The literature could fill a library, but while it was my story, it also wasn’t my story, so I sort of left it alone and it has taken me a long time to come back to it. (Interview, 2008 )

How important is the plot in your books? Do you know where it’s going when you set out?
Plot comes last, character first.

Tom Wolfe sees you as a hero of socially realistic fiction. Is that what you’re trying to do?
Yes and no. I try to write with more style and bebop in my sentences than the average social realist.

Are you happy for your novels to be filed under the Crime genre?
I hate it. Is Cormac McCarthy a “Western” writer?

In my last three books I found that a police procedural, the investigation into a crime from the moment it occurs through all of the interviews and legwork to whatever conclusion is arrived upon, is a great spine to investigate anything you want to about human nature. … I’m not a mystery writer and I certainly don’t see myself in any genre, but I do feel that crime and punishment and crime and investigation provide a great skeleton. (Interview, 2003)

Do you write with the reader, or the market, in mind? Or do you agree with David Simon who likes to throw the reader/viewer in at the deep end? (Simon: “Fuck the average reader”)
I write with no one in mind but the characters.

You stalled after your first four novels, and turned to screenplays. You’ve now written four more novels – do you think of yourself as mainly a novelist again?
I have always thought of myself as a novelist first and last.

I don’t enjoy [screenwriting] my own books-I’ve just finished the book and presented my take on it, and now I have to take a 400-600 page book and turn it into a 115-page singing telegram. That’s not a lot of fun if you feel like you own every word of the book. Not only that, but once you’re the screenwriter you go from being the biological parent to the babysitter, and you’re being paid by the hour. It started out as your child but now you’re just an employee on it. (Interview, 2003)

You said once that Hubert Selby Jr was an early influence – what other writers do you look up to?
In the early days, James Baldwin, John Rechy, John Steinbeck, and the Beats.

Can you recommend an underrated book or author to readers of this blog?
Julia Leigh’s The Hunter.

When I’m writing a book all I read is genre stuff; I’m very careful not to read anything too good, that’s going to make me anxious. I once made the mistake of reading Sophie’s Choice while I was trying to write The Breaks. It was like trying to sing while someone else is singing another song in the background. (Interview, 1996)

Ross Raisin: God’s Own Country

I didn’t pay much attention to Ross Raisin’s debut novel God’s Own Country when it was published last year, or rather I did pay just enough attention – to his odd name (he sounds more character than author) and the terrible Niall Griffiths-like cover his publishers gave him – to decide I didn’t want to read it. But it kept creeping into my consciousness, and it attracted so much critical praise that I couldn’t ignore it much longer. Fortunately the paperback cover is better, or at least different, and comes complete with ‘belly band’ listing the six awards the novel won or was shortlisted for. Nothing like raising expectations even further, is there?

The cover blurb and first few pages of God’s Own Country made me think of Iain Banks’ debut The Wasp Factory: a narrative by an isolated, damaged and possibly dangerous teenager. However Sam Marsdyke’s voice is more distinctive than Frank Cauldhame’s, mainly because of the lightly cracked syntax and use of Yorkshire dialect. We learn much from the opening pages – that Sam lives on a farm, hates urban visitors (or “towns”) and is apparently has a past.

He looked at me. Them who’ve bought Turnbull’s farm move in day after tomorrow, d’you know that, lad?

No. Who are they?

Towns. And you’ll let them alone, an’ all. He took himself a biscuit from the tin. They’ve a daughter.

This is Sam’s father speaking, or ‘Father’, to indicate the formal relationship they have. (By way of balance, Father calls Sam ‘Nimrod’ and hits him.) It is little precisely placed clues like this which on the one hand satisfy a certain puzzle-solving impulse in the reader, but also seem to mark it with the stamp of creative writing course. (Raisin did an MA at Goldsmiths.) This, in other words, seems like the essence of an unreliable narrator – the clues, the unrevealed references, the piecing together of the story. However, in the end Sam is quite reliable. This is essential for the reader to have the sympathy with him which is clearly intended: if we don’t believe him about bullying at school, wrong accusations of rape, Father’s violence, then there is no level ground to take our bearings from.

It isn’t just ‘towns’ that Sam resents. When others in his region are protesting about the loss of an old pub to the community, he has no more affection for that than he does for the new development (“twenty or thirty red houses, all bright and glishy like a piece of flesh with the skin torn off”). He has no real connection with people at all, and (like a sinister Johnny Morris) prefers to imagine the thoughts of the animals he sees and knows – the whelps of the farm dogs, the birds – or even inanimate objects such as a toy Dracula figure (Sam prowls around Whitby in the later parts of the book). There’s a lovely moment when the new girl in the area (“they’ve a daughter”) is with Sam in the fields watching a ram and ewe rutting, and Raisin has Sam’s perceptions slip beautifully between the ewe and the girl without the reader noticing.

Raisin also has a fine line in descriptive touches where Sam’s limited language mixes with his dialect to become vigorous and evocative.

I crouched behind the hedge, spying through the mesh of thorns at the hubbleshoo of small boys spewing out the bus. They were all over the road in an instant, squawking zigzags through the mass to clobber each other round the head with their bags. Next were the little girls, slower, mingled in with the big-belly boys who weren’t so partial on chasing about. And then the older ones. The girls kept separate from the lads, paired up tantling down the road with a snitter of talk kept close between the two as if all they had to say was secrets, meant for the hearing of nobbut themselves.

The story progresses in a not entirely surprising way, though the pleasure of the book is not in what we are told but in how Sam tells it. At the same time God’s Own Country seems to offer promise as much as achievement, like a meal which despite being delicious, doesn’t entirely fill you. This might be down to the very qualities – polish, neatness – which I found to praise in it. Raisin is, to adopt reviewerly cliché (it’s a cliché here because it’s true), a writer to watch.

Incidentally, readers in North America will find the book under the title Out Backward, which I prefer, as it comes from Sam’s mother (“Janet says I’m not to blame meself. I couldn’t have done different. You must’ve came out backward”) and so is in Sam’s own dialect, rather than from the words of ramblers and ‘blow-ins’ (“oh we must move there, the North York moors is God’s own country”).

Planned Engineering Works

We interrupt this blog to bring you a personal announcement

Due to circumstances not entirely beyond my control, Asylum will be operating a reduced service for the foreseeable future.  This is because I expect to become a father in the next couple of weeks.  While some bloggers have been able to maintain a healthy posting schedule with a new baby on hand, I am not so confident, and tend to heed those who greet the news of impending fatherhood with phrases such as “no more reading for you, then,” “say goodbye to your old life,” and “ha ha ha ha”.

books do furnish a room

Presently I don’t know how adjustment to my new life will affect this blog.  It may continue as normal, with less frequent posts, or shorter posts (if I have time to make them shorter).  It may stop altogether.  In the meantime, I am planning ahead and have scheduled some content for the coming months, including early (or at least punctual) reviews of new novels from Geoff Dyer and Colm Tóibín, reissues from Penguin Modern Classics of books by John Christopher and Eric Ambler, and one or two interviews with authors I’ve praised here recently.

Thank you for listening.  I now have to go and laminate my paperbacks.

W.F. Hermans: The Darkroom of Damocles

I would like to compile, for my own personal reassurance, a list of moments when admired authors have shown that they too struggle with difficult books. There was Martin Amis’s review of Don Quixote which he said “suffers from one serious flaw – that of outright unreadability.” Or Seamus Deane, Booker-shortlisted novelist and critic, whose introduction to the Penguin Modern Classic edition of Finnegans Wake opens: “The first thing to say about Finnegans Wake is that it is, in an important sense, unreadable.” Now, on the back cover of the Harvill (hardback-only: again) edition of Willem Fredrik Hermans’ The Darkroom of Damocles, we have Milan Kundera, admitting that he was “intimidated” by the novel’s length. Milan: don’t you worry. Just stick with me and everything will be all right.

He was right though. The first thing to say about The Darkroom of Damocles [1958, tr. 2007 by Ina Rilke] is that it is, in an important sense, too bloody long. But it is very readable. I had high hopes for this book as Beyond Sleep, Hermans’ only other novel in English translation, was one of my favourite books of 2008. It has been praised by reliable voices such as Lizzy Siddal and William Rycroft. And Milan Kundera.

It takes us through the life of Henri Ousewoudt, “a diminutive freak, a toad reared upright” who is orphaned when his mentally ill mother kills his father. Henri moves in with his aunt and uncle, and ends up marrying his cousin Ria, who is as physically unappealing as he is (“her teeth did not enhance her mouth, nor did they make it look fierce, they merely clamped it shut, rather like the clasp on a purse … her chortling reminded him of the squeak of chamois leather on a wet windowpane”). All this is brilliantly sketched, with enough omissions to make the reader work a little, and by page twenty we are into the main body of the story, where Henri has taken over his uncle’s tobacconist shop, and has grown into a man who “did nothing, wanted nothing, left everything to chance”.

War is raging, the Nazis have occupied the Netherlands, and Henri finds himself doing patriotic favours for a stranger named Dorbeck, who looks exactly like him, “the way a photo negative looks like the positive” – Dorbeck is dark and hairy, where Henri is babyishly fair and has never needed to shave. Here Hermans settles into a much more detailed telling, which is where he began to lose me. The accounts of Henri’s wartime activities, chance meetings with Dorbeck and captures and escapes, are vital in defining Henri’s relationship with the world (“Things just happen. Nothing I ever do makes a difference”), but they don’t half go on.

Henri has no allegiance to anyone, and it is his lack of agency which will lead to his troubles in the second half of the book, as first Nazis and then Allies consider him a murderer and a traitor. By failing to subscribe to an ideology, he cannot be anyone’s hero (“What is a hero? Someone who is careless and gets away with it”), even when he dyes his hair and looks like Dorbeck. It is Henri’s initial desire to impress Dorbeck which leads both to his discovery of his own strength and stamina, and to his downfall. When he dyes his hair to disguise himself from the Nazis, he recognises that he now resembles Dorbeck entirely, but even though it helps him find love, it doesn’t “make me the man Dorbeck is. We’re alike, but not the same.”

A ghostly vision entered his mind. The war was over, and he and Marianne were strolling hand in hand in some faraway countryside. Then they saw Dorbeck. Without a word, she went off with Dorbeck and left him standing there. No goodbye, no turning round to wave, just one quick look over the shoulder, only to call back to him: I knew what the man I wanted looked like. Forgive me for thinking it was you.

Whether Dorbeck really exists or not is the central question of the second half of the novel. All we know is that he really exists in Henri’s mind, a sort of Tyler Durden figure.

When I first saw him I thought: this is the sort of man I ought to have been. It’s a bit difficult to put into words, but think of the goods being produced in factories: now and then a substandard article gets made, so they make another one and throw away the reject…

Only, they didn’t throw me away. I continued to exist, reject though I was. I didn’t realise I was the reject until I met Dorbeck. Then I knew. That’s when I knew he was the successful specimen, that compared to him I had no reason to exist, and the only way I could accept that was to do exactly as he said. I did everything he told me to, which was quite a lot sometimes … quite a lot …

It is these existential questions and the cloud of unclarity that surrounds them, rather than the hard detail of the thriller elements, which drove me to the end of the book. Though The Darkroom of Damocles is full of action, it was the parts where nothing was happening that I liked best.

Imre Kertész: Detective Story

Imre Kertész continues to enjoy the privilege accorded to Nobel laureates, of having his books trickle-translated into English, in the most profitable manner possible to the publishers. That’s a bit unfair – nobody will be retiring on the proceeds of these titles. But it’s worth noting that, while Detective Story was originally published in Hungary in 1977 in the same volume as The Pathseeker, here the two books have been published individually, at full price, despite barely scraping 100 pages and 25,000 words each.

Detective Story – perhaps now we’re getting to it – suffers in comparison to The Pathseeker. After a framing preface, it begins like this:

I wish to tell a story. A simple story. You may ultimately call it a sickening one, but that does not change its simpleness. I wish therefore to tell a simple and sickening story.

An arresting opener, an eye-catching hook. And this is where the problem lies: while The Pathseeker moved by inference and the unspoken, Detective Story is much more straightforward and open, and less interesting as a result.

The subject, as ever with Kertész, is tyrannical regimes and their consequences, though here he has moved the territory to South America. Detective Story is the memoir, or confession, of Antonio Martens, a lieutenant of the secret police in a recently deposed dictatorship, now awaiting trial in prison. The story is introduced by his defence lawyer.

Do not be surprised by his way with words. In Martens’s eyes the world must have seemed like pulp fiction come true, with everything taking place in accordance with the monstrous certainty and dubious regularities of the unvarying dramatic form – or choreography, if you prefer – of a horror story. Let me add, not in his defence but merely for the sake of the truth, that this horror story was written not by Martens alone but by reality, too.

The last sentence indicates Kertész’s wider interest: not that he absolves Martens of his responsibilities, but that he understands his type to be a cog in the machinery of totalitarian power. “Power first, then the law,” one of Martens’s colleagues says, reminding him of the proper ranks in his world, a world where “we take away the offender’s mind, shred his nerves, paralyze his brain.” Martens is accompanied on this task by Rodriguez and Diaz, both of whom frighten him and contribute to his persistent headaches. “A person has to believe in something to be such a nasty piece of work,” says Martens of Diaz, but we discover little of what he himself believes.

Their quarry is Enrique Salinas, the son of well-to-do Federigo Salinas. Once suspicion alights on the boy, all evidence is interpreted to point to his guilt.

Our records had already identified that Enrique was going to perpetrate something sooner or later. As far as we were concerned, his fate was sealed, even if he himself had not yet made up his mind. He was hesitating, playing for time. He roamed the streets or wrote in his diary, raced around in his Alfa Romeo, visited on friends, or popped into bed with some silky-smooth kitten, if he happened to feel so inclined.

This is where one of the problems arises. In order to add complexity, Kertész must allow the reader to have insight into Salinas’s mind, which involves Martens, in his prison cell, being allowed to have Salinas’s diary to hand. “No particular difficulties were raised.” This rank implausibility, which seriously destabilises the reader’s suspension of disbelief, is matched only by the notion that Salinas, putative challenger to the totalitarian regime, should have recorded his activities in diary form. “That was Enrique for you. He loved and hated, he was secretive yet kept exhaustive records of his secrets.” The diaries themselves contain some nicely executed meditations on power and dependence:

This morning the lame woman who sells newspapers … She has a daughter, a delightful child, quite clearly the newspaper woman’s only hope in life. She spends more than she can afford on clothing her, showers her with sweets. This morning the little girl ran away from her and came to a stop farther off in the traffic. The mother called, in vain: the girl teased her from afar, thumbing her nose, pulling faces. The lame newspaper woman kept coaxing her: “Come here, my child, there’s a nice girl. Eat your chocolate!” Finally the child sidled up to her. As soon as she was within reach, the newspaper woman grabbed her and started hitting her – with the tenacity of the wretched and the mercilessness of those who have had their hopes made a mockery of.

Even though Kertész is careful to leave much unsaid, the overall impression of Detective Story is that it is too specific in its particulars.  It is weaker than The Pathseeker, which kept its powder dry, or Fateless, which offered a rare new angle on an old subject.  Like the Salinas family, if it had said less, it might have fared better in the end.

Patrick McCabe: The Holy City

Patrick McCabe’s books come in bunches. First, the ones nobody has read, including Music on Clinton Street and Carn. Then a trio of successful novels, shortlisted and garlanded: The Butcher Boy, The Dead School and Breakfast on Pluto. Something went wrong then, with the next three books (Mondo Desperado, Emerald Germs of Ireland and Call Me the Breeze) receiving what are politely termed mixed reviews. Worse still: of the last, McCabe complains: “Nobody bloody read it.” This downturn paid dividends, as he was then fired to write Winterwood (2006), a book matched in brilliance in McCabe’s oeuvre only by The Dead School, and which attained the highest accolade achieved by all the best books these days, of failing to get longlisted for the Booker Prize.

If Winterwood – silent and silvery and coldly threatening – was a departure, then McCabe’s new novel The Holy City must be a reparture. It feels as though he’s going through his hoops with this one, with all the usual elements present from what John Banville called McCabe’s “antic black comedy”, from small-town Ireland to popular culture to an idiosyncratic narrative voice thinly veiling unspeakable horrors. Fortunately, it’s a shtick that I have a high tolerance for; and this time we are in the company of “Chris J. McCool – at your service, just call me Pops … refined boulevardier of some distinction”, in his 67th year, bestriding the town of Cullymore in a cloud of Old Spice and clad in “the smartest of neat blue blazers with brightly polished brass buttons, complete with white loafers and razor-creased grey slacks, a Peter Stuyvesant King Size cigarette (the international passport to smoking pleasure!) louchely dawdling between my lips.”

Like most of McCabe’s narrators, McCool is a witty and charming storyteller, and barking mad. Also as usual, the charm (and the madness) masks past trauma, a recurring theme in McCabe’s fiction. The nature of the trauma of course cannot be disclosed here, for it is the destination to which the book leads. Which is not to say that it is the point of The Holy City; the journey is what matters, McCabe viewing his books as exercises in style. Here the style is a comic, meandering one, with McCool punctuating his reminiscences with disturbing punchlines, more unsettling than funny, and without the self-awareness to hide his worst qualities. These are combined with blunt pointers (“my psychotherapist”) and references to the social mores of Ireland then and now, as when he attempts to “provide some background to the reason I insulted my psychotherapist Meera Pandit and called her unwholesome names.”

Not that Meera was what you’d call proper black – not really. Not ‘full-blown’ black, I mean to say. Not Nigerian, for example – ebony – black and shiny the way that Marcus Otoyo was. Gleaming and polished, in that shiny African way. No, Pandit, you see, was a Hindu, not from anywhere near Nigeria, or anywhere else in Africa for that matter. I think from somewhere out near Bangladesh. As a matter of fact, to be fair to old Meera, now that I think of her, she was like something that might have emerged from the sixties herself, with her scarves and her bangles and her floppy Birkenstock sandals.

– You stupid black fucker! was, in fact, what I had said.

Two central elements in the book are present here: Marcus Otoyo, who is key to McCool’s story (and trauma), and the casual racism of the past. This in itself serves a double purpose. It is indicative of McCool’s wider lack of human empathy – his depersonalisation of others (“The Balloon People have arrived!”) is repeatedly shown in the book, a marker of a psychopathic personality. Similarly, Catholics and Protestants in the book regard one another as a lumpen mass, and this matches the racism as a reflection of the changing social attitudes of Ireland in recent decades, and the less welcome changes brought about in tandem (“What exactly was happening to the town of Cullymore?”).

McCabe shirks the bespoke label for his books of “bog gothic,” preferring “the social fantastic” – “People have often commented that everyone in the books is mad or damaged. But you should view them as prisms through which the feelings of society are reflected. These are not naturalistic fictions.” You can say that again.

McCabe’s facility for this type of writing – as he put it of Breakfast on Pluto, “it’s meant to be a small hand-grenade of a book, but a burlesque as well” – can leave the reader thinking that it’s all too easy for him, and that the book is somehow less valuable as a result. And it is true that there is little here which has not been explored in his earlier fiction. But it all fits together so beautifully, and is so entertaining to read even when you can see the author’s fingers on the buttons, that for me there was nothing to forgive. “If your character is repugnant in all respects,” McCabe explained in an interview, “nobody can read it. Having some narrative tricks in this day and age is essential, at least for the first ten pages.” Or, in this case, the first two hundred and ten.