Author: John Self

Catching Up

I’ve been remiss this year in posting links to my reviews published elsewhere, so here’s a recap of the year to date.


Anakana Schofield: Martin John
Click here for my Guardian review of this funny, stark, circular novel which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in Canada and the Goldsmiths Prize in the UK.

Carlo Gébler: The Projectionist
Click here for my Times Literary Supplement review of a memoir, by his son, of a writer who once sold millions of novels but is now remembered, if at all, only as Edna O’Brien’s former husband.

Toby Vieira: Marlow’s Landing
Click here for my Guardian review of a debut novel that comes with a seductive voice fully formed, and a clutch of pink diamonds.

Stanley van der Ziel: John McGahern and the Imagination of Tradition
Click here for my Times Literary Supplement review of a very thorough study of the works of John McGahern.

The Happy Reader
I’ve written a piece for the latest issue (no. 8) of The Happy Reader, Penguin’s bookish quarterly. Each issue features a long interview with a reader (this time Kristin Scott Thomas) and a series of pieces inspired by that issue’s book, which this time is Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!. I’ve written a piece about exclamation marks in book titles… You can’t read it online, but the magazine is a lovely thing and very cheap to subscribe to.


Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands: City of Lions

The very existence of this book is a stout marker of the robust good health of the publishing industry, and even, in its own way, small evidence that 2016 hasn’t been all bad. It also shows that, four years after its takeover and relaunch, Pushkin Press has retained an essential part of its character even while expanding into crime, children’s books and contemporary English language titles. In other words, where else might we see a beautifully-produced, mass-distributed book containing two essays written 70 years apart about a city I’d never heard of before now?


City of Lions is about Lviv, now in Western Ukraine but formerly part of Poland, when it was known as Lwów. Which explains why the first essay, written by Pole Józef Wittlin in 1946, is titled ‘My Lwów’, whereas Philippe Sands’ 2016 essay is ‘My Lviv’.

Wittlin’s ‘My Lwów’ (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, 2016) is particularly curious as it is an historical piece which itself looks back: writing in his adopted home of New York in 1946, Wittlin reflects that he left Lwów in 1922 – when he arrived there initially in 1906, it had yet another name: Lemberg. He brings together both the city’s complex political history and its then-contemporary relevance when he reflects that

“my Lwów” was mainly the Lwów of the Austrian partition era, the capital of the “Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria and the Grand Duchy of Kraków with the Duchies of Auschwitz and Zator”. What? That’s right—Auschwitz. (Nowadays, everything goes black before my eyes at the mention of that name.)

As a personal memory, Wittlin’s account is necessarily partial and idiosyncratic. (“Get in line, you wayward memories!”) He writes of the people (“an extraordinary mixture of nobility and roguery, wisdom and imbecility, poetry and vulgarity”), the topography (“Alright, so Lwów hasn’t got a decent river, or a legend. What would it need a river for?”) and the smells (“Every time I returned to Lwów from ‘the world outside’, I always found its aromas in just the same places as before. So they’re probably still there today too…”). Amid numerous translator’s endnotes to give context to the names and places from another life, we learn about the likes of the quasi-aristocrat Ostap Ortwin, a lordly, voluble character who had a doppelgänger otherwise quite unlike him.

Whenever the two lookalikes passed each other in the street, they doffed their ridiculous black hats with wide brims. Thus for many years they bowed to each other, although they were not acquainted at all. They were merely acknowledging their similarity and their awareness of being twins.

Then, a hairpin turn as Wittlin tells us that “in 1942 it turned out that Ortwin was not inviolable. The Germans drove the great, recalcitrant soul out of that ‘lordly’ figure.”

But the antic spirit succeeds, and one of Wittlin’s early points is the “abhorrence of solemnity” and “dislike of all manner of pomp” which he attributes to his Lwów. In the interesting introduction to City of Lions, Eva Hoffman quotes Milan Kundera who considers this quality to apply more widely. Central Europe, he wrote, “has its own vision of the world, a vision based on a deep distrust of history. History, that goddess of Hegel and Marx, that incarnation of reason … that is the history of conquerors. The people of Central Europe … represent the wrong side of this history. They are its victims and outsiders. It is this disabused view of history that is the source of their culture, of their wisdom, of the ‘nonserious spirit’ that mocks grandeur and glory.” This angle can be seen in many of the Central European fiction I’ve written about here: Karel Capek’s War with the Newts; Jiří Weil’s Life with a Star; Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles; Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude and Closely Observed Trains. The antic approach is not what you might expect of a part of the world that had a grim 20th century, but it fits too with what Philip Roth found when he visited Central Europe in the 70s and reintroduced the above authors and more to English-language readers. He spoke too of how the “screwball strain” in their writing enabled him to move away from “American realism” – and gave us some of his best books, in the Zuckerman trilogy and The Counterlife.

There is in fact an element of this in ‘My Lwów’ itself, less in eccentricity than in structural looseness or chaos, which reflects that this is above all a book of memory. Philippe Sands’ ‘My Lviv’ is altogether more orderly. He arrived in Lviv in 2010, when it was established as part of Ukraine, “a country being pulled east by Russia and west by the European Union, at risk of tearing in the middle.” It is, he reminds us, “a city on the edge of many places, a space of constant insecurity.” Sands revisits some of Wittlin’s people, including Ortwin, but introduces us to others such as Hersch Lauterpacht, who devised the concept of “crimes against humanity”, and Rafael Lemkin, who coined the word “genocide”. (“New conceptions require new terms”, Lemkin stated.) Sands argues that, Lviv having produced both men, “the origins of human rights may be traced to this city”. This informs much of what follows, from his choice of illustrative images to his concentration on who to speak to, which is inevitably directed toward the Second World War and the Holocaust. All this makes for a sober and solid balance to Wittlin’s more skittish approach, and completes the book perfectly. One man Sands meets, whose father was a Governor in Nazi-occupied Poland, puts it as starkly as can be. “I am against the death penalty,” he says, “but not in the case of my father.”

Penguin Worlds

Readers of this blog (if there are any left after months of inactivity: sorry, and hello again) will know that I’m a sucker for a series design. If something in me aligns with what Trinny and Susannah would have called matchy-matchy, then I justify it on the basis that it’s less judging a book by its cover than allowing my eyes to be opened to new things. And the Penguin Worlds series is just that: a mixture of science fiction, horror and urban fantasy from across the 20th century, chosen and introduced by Naomi Alderman and Hari Kunzru. And they come in aptly garish stylishly retro covers by La Boca. These are genres I’ve only ever dipped a toenail into, but the curated approach – and the enthusiasm I heard when I tweeted about them – won me over. I’ve read three of them so far, which I’ll whip through below.


Joanna Russ: We Who Are About To… [1976]
I started with the slimmest of the series (old habits), which also turned out to be perhaps the oddest, and certainly the most subtly unsettling, of the three I’ve read. If the title is the first I’ve seen that contains a cliffhanger, then the opening words of the novel contain its own spoiler: “About to die. And so on.” The we who are about to die (“We’re nowhere. We’ll die alone”) are a group of five women and three men, around the year 2040, whose spaceship has failed and stranded them on an Earth-like planet. “Goodbye, everybody,” continues our narrator, who has less faith than the others that the eight of them can survive on and even colonise their new home (“‘O pioneers,’ I added rather sourly”). She is recording her experiences on a vocoder (“This will never be found”), which enables a certain amount of ‘As you know, Bob’ explanatory dialogue. But Russ’s interest is not in detailing the nature of the new world, but exposing the fault lines underlying society that are exposed in extremis.

The unnamed narrator tries to warn her fellow shipwrecked sailors that the planet may not support life just because it looks like Earth (“like the Australian outback, which looks like New Jersey and can kill you in two hours”). “Civilization must be preserved,” says one, to which she replies, “Civilization is doing fine. We just don’t happen to be where it is.” There are hints that Earth has moved beyond a patriarchal society, only to find it returning among the eight travellers. It’s not long before it all gets pretty Shakespearean, and the teaser in the title proves well-founded. But amid the florid violence there are lighter moments, as when Lori, daughter of two of the other travellers, talks about her love of “serial music. You know, the late-twentieth-century stuff where it goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement.”

We Who Are About To... looks inward and outward at the same time: at damage in society, at the troubled self, and the connection between the two. In particular, it looks at the role of women. One of the survivors suggests that our narrator and one of the men should start work on populating the planet. “‘I can’t see why you and Victor can’t start now, if you like.’ Victor said politely that he certainly wouldn’t mind as long as I wouldn’t mind. I said I would mind.” For Russ, politics, and feminism in particular, were not just present in her writing but essential to it. Her most famous novel was The Female Man, a satire of multiple parallel universes, and her story ‘When It Changed’ won a Nebula Award in 1973. This new edition of We Who Are About To…, uniquely in the Penguin Worlds series, contains introductions by both Alderman and Kunzru, which gives some measure of its value to both editors of the series. And it’s hard to argue with Alderman’s analysis of the book as simultaneously “bonkers” and “brilliant”.


John Christopher, The World in Winter [1962]
I’ve previously written about John Christopher’s novel The Death of Grass, which was conceptually interesting and a bit slapdash in the writing (it took him “a matter of weeks”, and it showed). The World in Winter is, broadly, more of the same. Christopher’s output, under different names, of about 50 books in 25 years tells us that agonising over le mot juste wasn’t his way.

The World in Winter‘s high concept is in its title: a scientist named Fratellini has observed a decline in solar radiation, and the temperature of the Earth is falling. Fanciful as this seems now, when the book was published global cooling had been a fear for some years, and as late as 1970 the Washington Post was reporting “Colder Winters Herald Dawn of New Ice Age.” So, as with The Death of Grass, Christopher shrewdly used real concerns as a springboard for his fantasy. When Britain begins to freeze and fails to thaw, there isn’t much terror: more a very English tutting and eye-rolling. “Once over the initial shocks and discomforts, people got used to the new conditions.”

The narrative focuses on a handful of people framed by a love triangle. Being among society’s fortunate, they manage to leave England and fly to Nigeria, where the climate is still hospitable. This sets up the central thread of the book, where Africans hold the economic and social advantage, and white Europeans are beholden to them. As one local says: “Nigerians have nothing against whites, as long as there are not too many of them, and as long as they keep to their place. You have perhaps heard something like that before?” This seems a relatively progressive satire, though as Hari Kunzru says in his introduction, the book is nonetheless “animated by a sense that racial difference is a kind of abyss, and between black and white there can be no complete understanding or identification.” The plot itself is admirably bleak and uncompromising to the end, which is consolation of a sort.


E. Nesbit, Horror Stories
The most attention-grabbing element of the Penguin Worlds series is the discovery that children’s writer E. Nesbit – The Railway Children, Five Children and It – also published, between 1893 and 1910, four collections of horror stories for adults. This volume collects fifteen from throughout her career.

These are traditional spooky fireside tales, and in every single one, I think (they do tend to blend into one another when read sequentially), someone dies. Sometimes, however, the twist is that they have been dead all along. There are strange drugs, mysterious models and plenty of sinister buildings. Love, thwarted and determined, is a regular visitor.

Similarly frequent is the sort of framing introduction that we might expect from stories like these. In ‘The Violet Car’ our narrator begins by admitting that “I do not know how to weave a plot, nor how to embroider it.” In ‘The Shadow’, we are warned that “This is not an artistically rounded off ghost story, and nothing is explained in it…” This ‘who, me?’ approach both adds verisimilitude and takes it away, because it’s such a common feature. But if all stories require a level of submission, of submergence, by the reader, perhaps none depend on this more than traditional horror stories like these. The reader must approach them willing to be spooked, and is unmovable if they are not willing to meet the author halfway. Come to think of it, that’s a good lesson in how to read generally.

Also in the Penguin Worlds series are Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks [1987], which Naomi Alderman’s introduction describes as a pioneering work of urban fantasy which is also “really good fun”, and Vernor Vinge’s True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier. This is the most structurally unusual of the five books, comprising a 320-page book of which Vernor Vinge’s True Names [1981] makes up only 85. The rest is a series of thirteen essays, stories and afterwords emphasising the significance of Vinge’s novella. Rather predictably, the reason I haven’t read these two books yet is that they’re longer than the other three; but if you have, please comment below.

Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years

Mihail Sebastian was a Romanian writer best known for his plays and his journal of 1935-44 (“The Fascist Years”) which recorded Jewish persecution and the antisemitism that even his friends displayed toward him. One handy example arose when he asked his mentor and tutor Nae Ionescu to write a preface to this novel, and Ionescu included antisemitic passages – which Sebastian published anyway. The reception to the book and the preface was such that, when Sebastian later published a collection of essays summarising the experience, he called it How I Became a Hooligan. Having been made homeless by antisemitic laws, he nonetheless survived the Second World War and, the author bio in this first English translation briskly tells us, was hit by a truck and killed in early 1945, at the age of 38, as he was crossing the road to teach his first class. Having read this book, that strikes me as a loss to literature as great as that of Bruno Schulz or Jiří Weil.


For Two Thousand Years (1934, tr. 2016 by Phillip Ó Ceallaigh) is one of the most unusual, seductive and beautiful books I’ve read in years. It has lightness of touch coupled with astonishing range. The epigraph, from Montaigne’s ‘On the Art of Conversation’ (“I not only dare to talk about myself but to talk of nothing but myself…”), tells us what we are in for: a discursive, digressive, circular account of a time in a man’s life. And I admit I was taken by the opening paragraph, which exemplifies Sebastian’s style:

I believe I’ve only ever been afraid of signs and symbols, never of people or things. My childhood was poisoned by the third poplar in the yard of the Church of St Peter, a tall, mysterious tree, its shadow on summer nights falling through the window, over my bed – that black band slashing across my bedcovers – a terrifying presence I could not understand and did not try to.

Here it all is: the transport from higher thought to direct experience; the attention to detail which sounds like life (“the third poplar”); the heights of emotion (“poisoned … terrifying”); the sense overall of a real literary intelligence. The passage also, to me, has a classical feel to it: the opening sentence in particular sounds like something you’ve heard before, like a thought that has been circling for a long time before Sebastian plucked and pinned it for us.

There are many paragraphs like this in For Two Thousand Years, though it’s worth adding that they don’t always give themselves up so easily. This is a scattered, loose book, a novel in the form of a fictional diary, and it flips and leaps to and fro. The unnamed narrator (he’s not unlike Sebastian) doesn’t always explain who people are when he first mentions them, which is truthful – a real diary wouldn’t explain – if challenging. “I’d like a big, clear, severe book with ideas that challenge all I believe in,” he says early on. The plot, such as it is, describes the drift toward social unrest in Romania, beginning in 1923 when laws granting citizenship to minorities led to nationalist protests and ultimately the rise of the fascist Iron Guard. At this point our man is a student, and we get plenty of evidence of the crawling antisemitism among his contemporaries. “I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.” Back at home, one Jewish businessman offers assurance: “It’s nothing, lads, keep your chins up, God is good, it’ll pass,” but another, with a longer memory, murmurs, “For two thousand years…” Sebastian’s narrator is not without conflicts himself.

I have an immense longing for simplicity and unawareness. If I could rediscover some strong, simple feelings from somewhere centuries back – hunger, thirst, cold – if I could overcome two thousand years of Talmudism and melancholy, and recover – supposing my race has ever had it – the clear joy of life…

The status, identity and role of the Jew in his society is the central thread of the book. Most of the episodic chapters are taken up with our man encountering new and old people in his life. There’s Ghiță Blidaru, the professor who persuades him to change his studies from law to architecture. “He is the only man to whom I have ever felt it necessary to submit myself, but I do it with a sense of fulfilment and reintegration rather than of surrender.” There’s his sometime girlfriend Marga Stern. “I re-read what I wrote above and laugh. Dear girl! What is left of you in this writing that complicates you, comments on you, changes you?” There’s the “dissident Zionist” Jabotinski and the narrator’s friend S.T. Haim, whose opposing views give us thrilling oratory on Zionism. “Great Britain needs a right-hand man to guard the Suez Canal, so it’s invented this myth of a ‘Jewish homeland’. ‘Homeland’ is too nice a word. No doubt some Quaker or Puritan came up with it. But millions of sentimental Jews have taken it at face value.” There’s Marjorie Dunton, whose status with the narrator (“yes? no? yes? no?”) keeps us guessing. Sebastian even manages to give a satisfying and insightful angle on sleeping next to a stranger (“He’s the first person ever to enter my life without knocking”).

This is what I meant by ‘wide-ranging’. There are passages on town planning, Yiddish v Hebrew, poetry (the poet Arnold Max, whose “passion for poetry [is] half-simulated in order to give some sense to the terrible void in which he lives and from which he flees”), and of course icy, furious antisemitism, even by those friends and acquaintances, such as Maurice Buret. “I detest the agitated, convulsive, fevered aspect of the Jewish spirit. […] A clearheaded Jew is a phenomenon. The majority are sleepwalkers.” This cornucopia aspect doesn’t make For Two Thousand Years easy to follow, though it’s not a strongly plot-driven book anyway, other than a general progression toward social and political anarchy and dissolution. But its subject matter doesn’t stop it from being bright-eyed, relentlessly vivid and often funny.

The abundance of beards in period of social unrest, times of revolt or upheaval, should be noted. It’s the handiest way people have of making themselves mysterious.

There is a conflict sometimes between the beauty of the individual passages and the failure – or refusal – of these to flow more easily into one another. But finally my sense on For Two Thousand Years is that, like any classic of a type we’ve not seen before, it is a book which needs to be read and re-read and which, over years, will become a reliable friend for life.