Month: July 2011

Jack Robinson: Days and Nights in W12

I’ve praised before on this blog the one-man wonder that is CB Editions, which scoops up the underappreciated and overlooked and gives them handso nic brown jackets and a much needed presence. David Markson, Gabriel Josipovici, Gert Hofmann, and others have benefited from Charles Boyle’s good taste. But as well as having an eye for literature, he can also turn it on: or out. Three of CB’s books are written by Boyle under assumed names: Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3 (which was subsequently reissued by Bloomsbury) and Jack Robinson’s Recessional and Days and Nights in W12. The latter, first published in 2007, has now been reissued in an expanded edition and carries praise from Geoff Dyer and Josipovici (who compares it to Sebald, Benjamin and Bernhard). And it doesn’t have a brown cover.

Days and Nights in W12 is a series of vignettes or meditations – more Dyeresque than Sebaldian – on the said area of London. The structure is simple: one hundred and ten pieces of prose (twice the number in the earlier edition), each less than a page, each topped by a photograph (ah! That explains the Sebald reference…). Each has a heading, arranged alphabetically, but otherwise without order or direction. They consist of memories, imaginings, and observations.

The waiting time in A&E this afternoon is three hours and thirty minutes. And, truly, no one here looks as if they are about to die right now, or even in the next half hour; it feels more as if their flight has been delayed. […] After around an hour you are learning how to wait, and beginning to accept that hurt, pain, error and the need for help are not accidents or emergencies at all.

Sometimes Robinson (let’s stick to that name) creates a whole story around one image glimpsed in passing (“Driver With Police”); elsewhere he begins with the sort of line that Lorrie Moore would kill for (“In the months after Ted’s wife died the various ailments that had kept him virtually housebound began to clear up”). Often the pleasure lies in the difficulty in establishing, without referring to other sources, what is real and what is invention, particularly when Robinson plays with known factoids (such as Walt Disney’s cryogenic afterlife). The King of Redonda is real (sort of), but does Javier Marías really lay claim to the throne, and has he “conferred dukedoms on, among others, Almodóvar, Coetzee and Alice Munro”? Does it matter whether it’s really true that “all public toilets and washbasins in W12 are designed by contemporary artists,” when the resulting fancy is so pleasing? What Robinson does is create a kind of twilight zone of west London, doing for Shepherd’s Bush what J.G. Ballard did for Shepperton.

Sometimes specific places feature, so that these parts of the book could only occur in W12. The Shepherd’s Bush Empire, for example, where we learn that

Ford Madox Ford, whose work at the office of The English Review in Holland Park Avenue was constantly interrupted by visiting authors, used to take the day’s submissions to the second-house performance. ‘During the duller turns, Ford made his decisions and I recorded them,’ recalled his assistant. ‘But when someone really worth listening to – the late Victoria Monks, for example, or Little Tich or Vesta Victoria – appeared on the stage, the cares of editorship were for the moment laid aside.’

Mostly, however, these stories could take place anywhere, and it is Robinson’s eye and personality which corral them into one vision. Depending on one’s constitutional viewpoint, the unifying location could be either a cheering marker of life’s variety, or a depressing reminder of the limitations of most of our lives, ploughing the same furrows day after day. Certainly there is a mortality-teasing sadness running through the book. In the piece headed “Funeral” (the photograph showing a flower-filled hearse), Robinson imagines the old women attending the funeral of a friend. “They turn their heads, sometimes, these old women […] as if looking for something that appears to be missing, which may in fact be the old men, most of whom have long since departed.”

As well as recurring themes, stories and people cross-refer throughout the book, though Robinson’s voice is what really gives the book unity. His sense of absurdity mixed with social awareness is habit-forming. What better epigraph for a book with the potential for immense popularity, but destined to be overlooked and under-read, than the conclusion of his piece on the BBC Building at White City (“Office Building”), site of the stadium for the 1908 Olympics? “Even those contemptuous of competition and celebrity must be drawn in by the mixed emotions of those who come second, who so very nearly get (but don’t) what they desire and feel they deserve.”

The easiest way to buy Days and Nights in W12 is by going here.

J.M. Ledgard: Giraffe

I remember seeing this book in the shops (remember those?) when it was published in 2006. Its handsome cover drew me, as did the stark title, but a lukewarm review or two dissuaded me. Only when I heard someone tweeting enthusiasm for it ahead of publication of the author’s new novel Submergence, did I get around to trying it.

Giraffe is one of those books which comes along rarely and, although written in English, feels like a novel translated from another language. You may well ask what I mean by such a nonsensical formulation. It is something to do with the other-ness of the subject, structure and setting. It seems to shed the bonds of typical English literary fiction right from the start with an opening chapter narrated by – what else? – a Reticulated giraffe named Sněhurka. If you thought the opening chapter of Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk was pushing the boat out – a birth, described from the precociously articulate viewpoint of the newborn – then here is a further development. “I hang halfway out. I swing. I fall. I am found, I am found at this moment…” For those impatient of such fancies – but what else is literature? – Sněhurka’s narrative lasts only a few pages, long enough for her to see from the African plain “a band of Czechoslovakians resolve out of the thorn trees.” She and her herd are captured. “‘There is socialism in our method,’ I hear them say. ‘Capitalists capture one or two giraffes, while we take an entire herd; because our intention is political, to issue forth a new subspecies.'”

To explore this political intention, the ‘Communist moment’ – we are in 1970s eastern Europe – we turn to human narrators. First is Emil, a haemodynamicist, that is, someone who deals in blood flow. “I am a student of hidden flow,” he says, with allegory aforethought. He tells the shipping director, who is transporting the giraffes to Czechoslovakia, that he wants to study giraffe blood flow as a model for “an anti-gravity space suit, such as we would like to design, which does not allow blood to settle in the lower extremities of the body.” In reality, Emil’s interests are purely investigative, the beauty of knowledge for its own sake, and he has little sympathy with the ruling regime. “Communism is the religion of a flightless bird, a penguin, which has no imagination of flight.” Similarly, the book treats its subject both allegorically and literally. Giraffe is a sort of Moby-Dick of the species camelopardalis. Like that book, it’s fascinating, surprising, and structured more carefully than is immediately apparent.

Also like Moby-Dick, Giraffe is at times dull. Ledgard’s strengths are in dialogue and vivid description. The story moves slowly for much of its length, as Sněhurka and the rest of the herd are transported to Europe. Emil meets characters with fascinating stories, but there are also longueurs, and the characters’ quirks can seem a little too freighted with meaning. “I am drawn to the edge of things, to margins and borders,” Emil himself reminds us (he also has a repeatedly described fascination with heights). Or a ship’s captain: “Since my passage is across the surface, I am not much interested in the interior of things.” Then again, this direct indirectness has a charm of its own; the otherness or foreignness I described above. The middle of the book is weaker than the start and end (though there aren’t many books over 150 pages about which that couldn’t be said). Later, other narrators come, and Ledgard’s storytelling ability kicks in with tremendous force toward the close, where readers who love careful balance between the beginning and the end of a book will be rewarded. The ending is a virtuosic fifty-page scene in multiple voices, which is likely to stay with me for as long as I remember books at all.

This is a book about the idea that human will can be exerted over nature’s rules. “The new giraffes will become used to the [Czechoslovakian] winters. They’ll learn to move on ice,” says the director of the zoo. The vet differs: “They’ll be like girls in high heels coming home from a country dance.” The extreme example Ledgard has chosen gives the idea both sinister and comic elements. The book is also about exerting will over other humans (the giraffes are not just giraffes). Czechoslovakia is “a country where officials say openly they can do whatever they like with it, if they keep the beer flowing.” It explores the relations between humans and animals. A zookeeper tells one of the narrators, “In an anthropocentric world … the point of a giraffe is to tower over us. The giraffe is the tall-man, just as the hippo is the fat-man. If a giraffe appears in a children’s story at all, it is only on account of its height.” It is also, most surprisingly, a true story. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “All this really happened, more or less,” when (back to Emil) “Communists took Czechoslovakia by the neck and wrung it.”

David Miller: Today

Here was a book I approached with almost sadistic curiosity. Its author, you see, is the literary agent for some of my favourite writers: Keith Ridgway, Magnus Mills, Cynthia Ozick, John Burnside, Tim Parks… To think that one man was responsible, one way or another, for my being able to read Animals, The Puttermesser Papers, All Quiet on the Orient Express, and others, almost made me giddy enough to need a sit down. So, we know he has a good eye, but can the plucky underdog make it on his own?

Today is an epic in miniature, with its 160 pages of breathable prose containing thirty-nine characters. They are detailed in a witty dramatis personae (“Scallywag (‘Scally’), 77 (or perhaps 84), a family pet (canine)”) which also discloses the centre of the book: “JC, 66, a seaman, a writer, a husband and father, a dying man, a corpse.” The story is set on three days (three todays): his last day of life; the day of his death; and the day of his burial.

It would be possible – just – to read the first part of the book without knowing who JC is: clearly he is important, a father figure, the star around which all the characters orbit. These comprise his family, his secretary, household staff, and – among others – the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. Who is this important man? Can any good news come from so many people gathered together as a sick man lies upstairs? One family friend suspects not, when a telegram arrives: “the world – come to pay them a visit.” Only when their ostensible host dies the next morning – “he had fallen from his chair, headfirst” – is he named as Joseph Conrad. In death he becomes fixed, recorded, a reflection of a artist’s permanent legacy (“escaped into legend,” as Salter wrote of Gaudí). “The dead live longer than you think,” his secretary Lily recalls.

By making Conrad the absent centre of the book, Miller can focus on the many surrounding characters. The book is heavily populated, but he knows his characters so well that he can pare them back to a minimum but still keep them distinct in the reader’s mind. Prominent among them are Conrad’s sons, Borys and John, whose sibling friction is one of the highlights of the book. John, the younger of the two brothers, feels his first intimations of mortality: the funeral is “the beginning of some storm that would not end.” At the precocious age of eighteen, he contemplates his own funeral. Other characters are outlined with equal deftness. When we first see Richard Curle, family friend, he is sitting in Conrad’s study while the man lies sick – dying – upstairs. “Forty-eight panes in all; he had counted them: sixteen, sixteen, sixteen, making forty-eight. And then again, one by one, making forty-eight.” I don’t think it is just my recognition of such displacement activity in myself that makes me think this gesture tells us a great deal about Curle before he has even spoken. Miller can also drop the just-so description with apparent effortlessness, as when “puddles seemed to simmer like the surface of a stockpot” (the perfect last word elevating that simile into poetry, as well as efficiently giving us an insight into the character who makes the observation).

Such a subtle and beautiful thing as this novel will not stand my tramping over it with too many plot spoilers, though plot is not the prime mover anyway. As well as being a satisfying story and multiple character study, Today is – as we might expect from an authors’ agent – a very knowing literary work. It is a miniature of the English country house novel, a fitting form for Conrad who “wasn’t an Englishman [but] wanted to be.” Its subject matter and length suggest The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Conrad in the preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ wrote that the writer succeeds when he provides “that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” The phrase is explicitly cited in Today, and aptly so. The book acknowledges too the limitations of fiction and the very language of which it is made, as Conrad’s secretary Lilian recalls his frustrations as a writer: words were “the great enemies of reality”. The good writer, of course, transmutes these frustrations into a seamless experience for the reader, the threatening storms of composition becoming the thrilling swells of literary achievement. While I hope for more riches from Miller the agent for many years to come, I hope that his talented clients ease off the accelerator from time to time, to give him the space to give us more.

Sjón: From the Mouth of the Whale

Sjón’s last novel translated into English (and indeed his first novel translated into English), The Blue Fox, was Scott Pack’s favourite book of 2009. I read it on his recommendation, and liked it, but somehow it slipped through the review net and I never wrote about it here. I wonder now if that ‘somehow’ might have included a frustration at working out how to represent the strange story. It’s a feeling that recurred when approaching this review.

From the Mouth of the Whale (2008, tr. 2011 by Victoria Cribb) is Sjón’s most recent novel, and the English title varies significantly from the original, Rökkurbýsnir (Marvels of Twilight). It is a delight and a wonder, a barking mad story which detached me from my expectations and entwined me in the narrator’s ridiculous charm.

As the book begins all we know is that we are in Iceland (“this unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”) in the 1630s, listening to the – what? narrative? ramblings? – of Jónas Pálmason, who likens himself to a sandpiper as he lies in exile on an island, slandered and attacked by “villains” and “tyrants”. “Jónas is a rogue, Jónas is a sly, disreputable fellow, Jónas is a braggart, Jónas is a liar, Jónas is a foolish dreamer…” There might be some truth to these charges. As he languishes on “this bird-fouled rock, this dance-floor of seals”, Jónas lets us into his thoughts. Are they eccentric, or just ahead of their time? He collects birds’ skulls, seeking a stone he calls bezoar, “that could heal all human ailments.” He recalls his time as a child healer, laying hands on female private parts to diagnose conditions (“…thus I read together book and woman…”). He steps, sideways and surreptitiously, toward the whole of his story.

Frankly the eccentric and piecemeal way of telling which Sjón – or Jónas – adopts, makes it a challenge both to unravel the truth of his story, and to represent it here. “When a thing is classified correctly,” Jónas says when cataloguing elements of natural history, “it is tamed.” This book is unclassifiable and untamed, wild and joyful in its telling, and in its bonkers cobbling together of myths, cultural history, science and religion to make a dazzling literary patchwork quilt. Meaning seems less important than feeling, and Jónas’s love of knowledge and intellectual investigation drives his story and his way of telling. He is writing before the Enlightenment, and his ideas challenge the status quo and anger the authorities: “sorcery” and “necromancy,” they call it. His style has a joyous physicality, throwing the reader into the vivid life in the pages, such as a description of a ‘walking’ corpse, or the aforementioned ‘reading’ of women’s lower abdomens. Inevitably these do not bear extraction, because the cumulative effect of Jónas’s voice is what makes it so remarkable.

In the middle of the book is a section called ‘Kidney Stone’, which gives us a calmer, third person narrative and offers hope for Jónas, as he travels from his exile to Denmark, and is taken under the wing of a scholar known as Ole Worm. This gives us more evidence of Jónas as the seeker after truth, as he investigates the local trade in unicorn horns, but finds that his enemies have not forgotten him. Later, the narrative returns to his own rolling, tumbling voice, and he tells us more (though not as much as we might expect from the cover blurb) about the deaths of his children (“one never becomes used to it”) and his wife’s love (“the terrible thing is that her loyalty is misplaced. I have done this woman nothing but harm”). The lively nature of Jónas’s narrative sacrifices emotional involvement.

“Every book is imbued with the human spirit,” he tells us, when speaking of how burning a book is as bad as burning a man. There is more spirit than most in From the Mouth of the Whale, and I can only emphasise that you should not be put off by my difficulty in conveying its mad charm. I did wonder at a few of the choices near the end, such as on the last page of his narrative, naming Jónas’s place as somewhere calculated to bring forward connections in the reader’s mind with another famous island exile. And the epilogue, from which the English language edition takes its variant name, seemed to subtract rather than add. Nonetheless, the sheer fizzy delight – a new type of literary pleasure! – in reading this book made me curious to know why none of Sjón’s other five novels has been translated into English. What riches await us?