Month: September 2011

John Burnside: A Summer of Drowning

Reading two books by one author in the same year is rare for me, but how many authors present so many different forms to us as John Burnside? A poet, novelist and memoirist, his acclaim in all three areas would be sickening if it weren’t so thrilling. As noted previously, I had given up on his fiction after the diminishing returns of his first three novels, but his first memoir A Lie About My Father had me agog a few months ago, and keen to read his recent stuff. The impulse was supported when I read that Burnside himself now regards the second and third novels which lost me as “disastrous”. Time to come right up to date then, with his latest.

A Summer of Drowning suffers, in my view, from a troublesome (hardback) cover. (The printed version is much darker than the image above.) Even as an interested party, I saw it and thought, what were they thinking? As it happens, my scepticism was unjustified: the cover shows the painting Fisherman’s Cottage by Harald Sohlberg, which is significant in the story. Indeed, as I became more and more delighted and disturbed by this exceptional novel, I took to contemplating the cover in wonder in between bursts of reading. But a cover which attracts only after the reader has begun the book could still look like an own goal.

It is narrated by Liv, a twenty-eight year old woman who lives with her mother on Kvaløya, a small island in the Arctic Circle. Liv tells us how ten years ago a local boy, Mats Sigfridsson, drowned off the island: “I like to think that the sea took pity on the puny child it had killed, and was in the process of carrying him home.” Not only that, Mats’ brother Harald died the same way ten days later, and a visitor to the island, Martin Crosbie, went missing shortly afterwards. Normally it would be blogging etiquette to emphasise that this is not a spoiler, and here you may be doubly reassured: not only does Liv tell us all this in the prologue, but the book doesn’t really go into much detail about the events when the narrative does catch up with them. This is one of those tricky volumes where the first task of the reader is to determine exactly what it’s about.

It’s about, at least in part, Liv and her mother, Angelika Rossdal. She is a painter who, having gained fame, appears to reject it by withdrawing to the frozen north. I say appears to because she continues to welcome journalists who want to interview her, and to hold court for a group of men Liv refers to as “the suitors” and whose interest, whatever form it in fact takes, her mother clearly finds satisfying. (Liv never knew her father, though she discovers that he was her mother’s opposite: a campaigner and ideologue who wanted to change the world by engaging people with it.) Liv has been in her mother’s shadow for so long that it is hard to tell who the thoughts belong to when she says something like this, concerning her mother’s withdrawal:

To turn away from the busy world is interesting, up to a point … but to refuse oneself is exemplary. To become nothing, to remove yourself from the frame – that is the highest form of art.

She is not just talking about an artist’s work. Mats and Harald Sigfridsson, in drowning, may have removed themselves from the frame, and become nothing. Liv herself, solitary and unclubbable, has refused herself in relation to many aspects of society in the ten years since the boys died. “I chose to become invisible. … I have remained in these meadows, where I have always been, and I have done nothing at all.” Her only significant human contact is Kyrre Opdahl, a man who has lived in the area for as long as anyone can remember, and who “was my own personal storyteller, someone who charmed and frightened me, in more or less equal measure, all the time I was growing up.” Kyrre rents out a cottage, or hytte, to tourists each summer, and tells Liv about the huldra, a wild spirit who takes the form of a beautiful girl and lures men to their doom. (“First she brought him a little happiness, then she killed him.”)

Liv’s mother has a great gift in her painting, which means that her lack of interest in people is accepted, even viewed as selfless: she had to remove herself from society to fulfil her potential. The reader may not be so convinced. The myth of Narcissus is related in the book, and referred to in an epigraph. It’s typically remembered as a simple warning against self-regard, but Liv is reminded by one of her mother’s suitors, Ryvold, that it goes deeper. Narcissus didn’t know to begin with that it was himself was seeing in the pool.

He had thought he was alone, looking at a world separate from him, a world of other things, and then, all of a sudden, he sees that he is in that world. […] And it’s only when he discovers the truth, and sees that his self is an object in a world, like all the other objects, that he becomes a painter. Because, for the first time, he is part of the world, and art is his way of confirming that. A way of saying that he is in the world, in the world and of it.

Angela Rossdal’s self-denial, her “gift for refusal,” is not so humble as it seems. And she has not prepared her daughter well for living in the world by allowing her to believe herself not to be a part of it. (One might say that this story of erasure is just one psychological drama after another.) Where Angela’s fame and talent get her far, Liv has no such collateral with the islanders to justify her own isolation. What must they think of her? That appears to be something else the book is about, though I wasn’t entirely satisfied by this aspect. From the start we get hints of Liv as being somewhat unusual, unreliable even (“I have very few memories that I would be prepared to call my own”) and as the story proceeds, the clues build up. She spies on Kyrre Opdahl’s guests in the hytte: “It was because I wanted them to be happy”. This may be her best attempt at matching her mother’s careful negotiation of observation and distance. She becomes obsessed with the notion that the demonic huldra is a local girl called Maia (the only other female we meet on Kvaløya: Liv and her mother are surrounded by men). Burnside wants the book to be ambiguous – “The Turn of the Screw, set in the Arctic Circle” – but it already is, and is also rich and sinister, even without making Liv such an obvious object of suspicion for the reader.

The thrill of A Summer of Drowning comes from being in the presence of a writer on form and attacking his subject from all angles. (The style of the book, like an oral telling, makes the reader’s awareness of the teller – whether Liv or Burnside – central.) A sense of excitement began to stalk me from around the halfway point, a suspicion of horror internalised and unacknowledgeable, perhaps even coming from the reader himself. It was connected to Liv’s inability to be in the world and to accept the others who exist in it: she dreams of “some inconceivable Before,” when people did not yet exist. “I regret that lost state.” To bring about this sort of engagement with a book – hard to put your finger on but impossible to stop thinking about, even when you’re not reading it – is a rare achievement. Liv, in a sense, is the most frightening character I’ve read in a book in years. When she speaks of another character’s “immense, dark calm” and how, after an awful event, “she had started to relax – but she was relaxing into something terrible, and she was going about the world in a state of complete indifference to whatever might come,” it’s ominously clear what she’s really talking about. “Stories are really about time,” Ryvold tells her. “They tell us that once, in a place that existed before we were born, something occurred – and we like to hear about that, because we know already that the story is over.”

Julian Gough: Jude in London

I had praise for Julian Gough’s last novel, Jude: Level 1, a barmy, barnstorming satire on boomtime Ireland in which “realism doesn’t get a look-in but reality is ever-present.” That book has now been retrospectively retitled Jude in Ireland, to match this second volume in a projected trilogy (Jude in America is still to come). But one of my concerns for the first book was how, even at 180 pages, it risked straining the reader’s patience for its antic comic style. How then will we fare with the sequel, fully twice the length?

Jude in London might have better been titled Jude: Level 2, as this is no Patrick Hamilton or Iain Sinclair vision of London (“a city to fill the visible world”) as a central character in the book. Indeed, as a misguided Victoria Wood character once said of Fawlty Towers, “It could have been set anywhere.” Even Jude, our innocent abroad, isn’t quite sure where he is to begin with (or often thereafter). He alights on land after an eventful swim across the Irish Sea. “I looked down at the alien shore with great interest. So this was England! Or perhaps Wales.” Jude has crossed the sea to follow his double quest: to find the secret of his origins hinted to him at the orphanage in volume 1; and to find his true love, Angela. No matter that Angela has not expressed much reciprocal affection. Like most quests, the journey is all-important and the destination incidental, or rather the journey is the destination (the blurb gives away most of the plot on the back cover).

The plot is a structure around which Gough can do what he does best: knock seven bells out of certain aspects of contemporary society in a charming and hyperreal yarn of bonkers comic brilliance. (Even the copyright page is amusing without being annoying.) The storyline is a sequence of set pieces, where the characters are the satire and the satire is the action: the elements are inseparable and indistinguishable, and the scenes are constantly funny and constantly serious. Followers of Gough’s blog will know that he predicted the credit crunch with uncanny accuracy 18 months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and so it’s no surprise that large chunks of Jude in London deal with financial folly. (“The Celtic Tiger died long ago. In agony, after getting its goolies caught in the credit crunch.”) Two superb scenes show Gough at his best on this territory. First, former property speculators down on their luck try to build a wall using one brick and their old principles (“Brendan’s word is his bond. … Sorry, I should have said, as good as money in the bank. …Ah, yes, I meant, safe as Houses”). Second, there is a beautifully absurd analogy for the property crash rewritten as the Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble (first published on its own in 2003, and which you can read here). In these pieces, Gough pursues flights of fancy with ruthless logic. The perfect symbiosis he achieves between language and subject means that the comedy is a vehicle for the ideas at the same time that the ideas are a vehicle for the comedy.

It must be said that some of the targets of Gough’s satire – property developers, bankers, Young British Artists – have been softened up pretty well already. He shows more teeth when he tackles the Irish literary establishment, though curiously, I felt that this was where his satire seemed less well directed. “Ours is the first generation in three hundred years in which the Novel has made no progress,” we are told. Yet the authors he specifies – Johns McGahern and Banville, Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín – seem among the least culpable for what Gough considers an excessive devotion to lyrical realism in the Irish novel. (Didn’t McGahern pretty much invent that form? Haven’t the others been innovators, now developing their style?) At its weakest, this section of the book devolves into a self-referential ding-dong with John Banville over waspish comments he made about Gough last year. But even while I queried its purpose, the scene of Jude recalling endless Irish novels of people attending funerals in the rain was very funny – and the words of one writer he encounters (“You can tell that we are Good Irish Writers, because the English give us prizes”) have a definite sting to them.

There’s a sense when Gough says that he wants “less good taste, more ideas, less melancholy, more va va voom” (and so on) in Irish fiction, that he’s making a virtue out of a necessity, and proclaiming those to be the desired qualities because that’s the way he happens to write. Shouldn’t the work speak for itself? But then, he does have these qualities and an ability to deploy them to good effect. Indeed, a shortage of ammunition is not one of Gough’s weaknesses. The book is both exhausting and invigorating. It has so many cultural references (from song lyrics to literary motifs) that reading it is like keeping track of the film homages in Shrek. It has things to say about economics, quantum mechanics, literature, even skincare (“a biro’s inner, ink-filled plastic tube is your only man for removing a blackhead”). It has an obscene villanelle. It has a surfeit of what J.B. Priestly called Komic Kapitals and too many silly jokes to count, including perhaps the worst forced pun I have ever read. (And I don’t mean the bit where Tracey Emin and Eminem join forces to fight for women’s rights and call their cause feminemineminemism. I am referring to a punchline bringing together Dylan Thomas and a colourblind pornography cameraman.) Sometimes, what seemed like a nice throwaway conceit in the last book (such as Jude having surgery to look like Leonardo DiCaprio) now seems like a millstone that Gough must forever keep his eye on: and then again it can spur him into greater inspirations of creativity. Gough has not so much killed his darlings, as filled the book with them.

His antic style tests the reader: a little silliness goes a long way, but Gough explores what happens if you carry on regardless, and often makes it out the other side. For many – sometimes for me – the book will be read in a condition of perpetual frustration at its seeming aimlessness, its constant threatening to disappear into chaos. But the chaos of real life replicated in the page might after all be a welcome change from the artificial order of so much contemporary literature. And once or twice, Gough shows that his reach extends beyond the comic. One otherwise predictable scene where Jude, at a Turner Prize exhibition, innocently ‘tidies up’ a series of famous artworks (and, more predictably still, earns the approbation of art critics in doing so), ends with a two-page passage where Jude contemplates Damien Hirst’s installation A Thousand Years with a straight face. It’s respectful, affecting and impressive, and one of the only moments where the book becomes serious at the level of character as well as ideas. In a blizzard of serious points made in silly ways, a serious point made in a serious way comes like a punch in the gut to the reader. More peace and pathos like this would have been welcome.

In all, Jude in London must be considered a success on its own terms. It creates a vision – or extends one from its predecessor – and runs with it. In one sense that might be all we can ask from a novel. As Jude himself says: “I brought the living book closer to my eyes so that it replaced the world entirely.”

This review previously appeared in a shorter form in the Irish Times

Italo Calvino: Mr Palomar

Italo Calvino is one of those authors – like Graham Greene – whose works I devoured in my early twenties, and haven’t read much since. Calvino in fact has continued to publish new work regularly since his death in 1985, from the bran tub of unpublished and uncollected writings his relatives keep dipping into. I think it is safe to say that none of these will overturn the major works – If on a winter’s night a traveller, Invisible Cities, Cosmicomics, Marcovaldo, and so on. Then there is this book, which I recently remembered I didn’t finish first time around.

Mr Palomar (1983, tr. William Weaver 1985) was the last book Calvino published in his lifetime. From that you might assume that this innovative author, forever progressing and never writing the same book twice, was at the apogee of his ingenuity. You would be right. It is a series of short pieces – twenty-seven in 111 pages – describing moments in the life of the title character. What to call these pieces: stories? Vignettes? Essays? Meditations, even? They do not really have storylines, but they do move forward, or outward, from the initial moment. The character of Mr Palomar is crucial, yet sometimes seems little more than an observer from to which to hang the observations made in the piece. The best way of defining this book – beautiful, perfect, unique, challenging – for the wary browser would be to categorise it on the back cover as Fiction/Philosophy.

This is a book of attention to everything. (Suddenly Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, published five years later, doesn’t seem so novel.) Calvino’s comic lightness of touch is evident early on, from ‘The naked bosom’, where Mr Palomar is at pains to avoid looking at a young woman’s breasts as he walks along the beach. However, he realises that “my not looking presupposes that I am thinking of the nakedness, worrying about it; and this is basically an indiscreet and reactionary attitude.” He passes her again, worries more and tries in different ways to avoid looking, and to avoid avoiding looking. Eventually Mr Palomar has walked past her so often that the woman covers herself up and makes off, “as if she were avoiding the tiresome insistence of a satyr.” Elsewhere, Mr Palomar observes two tortoises mating, and wonders if their lack of sensory stimuli might “drive them to a concentrated, intense mental life, lead them to a crystalline inner awareness”?

Inner awareness is what Mr Palomar wants, and he hopes to achieve it by increased consciousness of his surroundings. But he looks so hard that sometimes he cannot see what matters. Rather than enjoy it, he feels guilty when he cannot identify the bird a song belongs to. He feels he “must go and look at the stars … because he hates waste and believes it is wrong to waste the great quantity of stars that is put at his disposal.” Looking down as well as up, he contemplates his lawn: “the lawn’s purpose is to represent nature, and this representation occurs as the substitution of the nature proper to the area with a nature in itself natural but artificial for this area.” (Yes, there are many sentences in Mr Palomar that you need to read twice. Really, it is a book that you need to read twice.) He watches the daytime moon, “porous as a sponge”, solidify as night falls into a “lake of shininess … brimming in the darkness with a halo of cold silver.” As he considers the world around him, questioning everything he sees, he reflects that “perhaps it is this same distrust of our senses that prevents us from feeling comfortable in the universe.” He extends his discomfiture to mankind generally: to think as he does is to bring on unsettling uncertainties. Ignorance is bliss, if only he could see it.

This is a book too which challenges understandings of what is important. In ‘From the terrace’, Mr Palomar looks at his city from the viewpoint of the pigeons, who see only elements of the upper layer, a lovingly imagined list of which Calvino provides over almost a full page (Calvino loved lists). “It is only after you have come to know the surface of things,” Mr Palomar concludes, “that you venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface is inexhaustible.” The same might be said for the book itself. The pieces are arranged precisely and Calvino explains their almost geometric structure in an index at the end of the book. I’ll leave it to him:

Viewing the index itself, then, we can see that the pieces in the book move from the purely visual and descriptive of natural forms (“1.1.1. Reading a wave“) to a fully speculative meditation on the relationship between the self and the world (“3.3.3. Learning to be dead“). Each intervening story moves a little closer from the external to the internal.

This is what we get in terms of character development. Mr Palomar may begin the book fully formed, as a man who needs order in a chaotic universe, but his personality, his curiosity and his innate sadness are gradually peeled down as we read more about him. His need for meaning is frustrated when he visits the ruins of Tula in Mexico. He knows that “in Mexican archaeology every statue, every object, every detail of a bas-relief stands for something that stands for something else that stands, in turn, for yet another something.” He knows that “every translation requires another translation and so on … to weave and re-weave a network of analogies.” (My own search for meaning made me wonder if this paragraph was a sly reference to Calvino’s longtime translator, William Weaver, with whom he collaborated on his English language translations. “I had problems with Calvino,” says Weaver, “because he thought he knew English.”) Yet he overhears a school teacher assuring his class, visiting the same ruins, that “we don’t know what they mean.” By this time in Mr Palomar’s story, we feel like smiting the teacher ourselves. Our hero, ever enquiring, never certain, is far slower to state his conclusions.

In a time and in a country where everyone goes out of his way to announce opinions or hand down judgements, Mr Palomar has made a habit of biting his tongue three times before asserting anything. After the bite, if he is still convinced of what he was going to say, he says it. If not, he keeps his mouth shut. In fact, he spends whole weeks, months in silence.

If everyone followed such a principle, the world would be a more peaceful place (and this blog largely empty). It is the reader’s empathy for Mr Palomar as he struggles with the universe – and his place in it – which provides the book’s emotional heart. His persistent desire to “live in harmony with the world” leads him to direct all his efforts “towards achieving harmony both with the human race, his neighbour, and with the most distant spiral of the system of the galaxies. To begin with, since his neighbour has too many problems, Palomar will try to improve his relations with the universe.” This is a lovely joke, but also indicates Mr Palomar’s difficulty with people, and his wish to rely on cold science (while forgetting that science reflects chaotic nature, of which people are a representative part). People and the stars are more alike than he would like to think; the universe is other people:

He opens his eyes. What appears to his gaze is something he seems to have seen already, every day: streets full of people, hurrying, elbowing their way ahead, without looking one another in the face, among high walls, sharp and peeling. In the background, the starry sky scatters intermittent flashes like a stalled mechanism, which jerks and creaks in all its unoiled joints, outposts of an endangered universe, twisted, restless as he is.

Even when he pretends to be dead, in the last piece, his initial relief at no longer having “to give a damn about anything” is short-lived, when he begins to worry about how he will be remembered for posterity, if at all. Even this “is simply a postponement of the problem, from one’s own individual death to the extinction of the human race.” That line, I hope, makes it clear that there is comedy serious as well as light in Mr Palomar – the terrible comedy of the human condition, which leads his creator to open the final section of the book with the words, “After a series of intellectual misadventures not worth recalling…”