It was as if the ancient patterns had no meaning here

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

When I first started skiing it was in a resort called Livigno. I did ski school there each year, and to assess your level they had everyone participating in ski school walk half way up a hill lugging their kit, then ski down so they could watch and assess our descents.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is divided into 12 parts, one for each sign of the zodiac, and each part is roughly half the length of the previous making the whole book a kind of prose-spiral. What this means is that the first part of the novel is nearly 400 pages long and by the time you’ve finished it you’ve trudged right the way up that hill and are probably hoping that what follows will be worth the effort. Here’s how it opens:

MERCURY IN SAGITTARIUS

In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed; Walter Moody conceals his most recent memory; and Thomas Balfour begins to tell a story.

The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportment and dress – frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill – they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of the city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway – deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the flat clatter of the rain.

In a rather good review in The Guardian novelist Kirsty Gunn compared that opening to a play, and she’s right because it’s very easy to imagine the curtain coming up on that scene. Of course the reader has read the italicised introduction to the chapter, which tells us not only that a stranger arrives but that a secret council is disturbed. It’s giving away nothing then to reveal that the room looks so staged because that’s exactly what it is, the twelve men were’t expecting company and were gathered there because nobody ever goes to the smoking room of the Crown Hotel and they have important business to discuss.

Catton is operating at two levels here. Within the fiction the stranger is Walter Moody, a young lawyer come to Hokitika New Zealand in 1866 to make his fortune in the local gold fields. As the weather was filthy he decided he wanted a drink, and as he’s new to the area he didn’t know that nobody goes to The Crown. It’s a coincidence that sets the whole story in motion, and settle in because it won’t be the last coincidence. Soon the twelve men are telling Moody what brought them there that night, each adding his own account of a series of strange events which together they hope to form into some kind of coherent whole.

Above the fiction there’s another level at which Catton is effectively saying to the reader that they’re about to hear a story. That theatrical opening underlines the artificiality of the whole exercise, this isn’t real, it’s entertainment. The italicised chapter intro, the description-rich opening paragraph, the immediate use of coincidence all signals that we’re in the territory of the Victorian novel. Moody is us, arrived part way through and hoping to make sense of the narrative. As with Catton’s marvellous The Rehearsal, this is a book whose subject can’t be separated from its structure and style.

As with any great Victorian novel by the way, Catton is marvellous at description. Here’s a little more on The Crown hotel:

The Crown was an establishment of the serviceable, unadorned sort, recommended only by its proximity to the quay. If this feature was an expedience, however, it could hardly be called a virtue: here, so close to the stockyards, the bloody smell of slaughter intermingled with the sour, briny smell of the sea, putting one in mind, perpetually, of an untended icebox in which an uncured joint has spoiled.

Luminaries

What follows over the next 400 pages (which remember is just the first part) is a dense and frequently confusing tale of a possibly-murdered recluse, a rich young prospector named Emery Staines recently gone missing, an opium-addicted prostitute named Anna Wetherell found dying in the street from what appears to be a suicide attempt, a new parliamentary candidate subject to potentially ruinous blackmail and a shipowner suspected of fraud and crimes of appalling violence. The twelve men trying to make sense of it all range from a banker to a goldfields magnate to a chemist to a shipping agent to a hatter to a chaplain and more. It’s a dizzyingly rich and diverse cast.

Well, I say diverse, but they’re almost all men. Hokitika is a goldrush town and while it has men of European, Chinese and Maori descent it has almost no women, and those it does have are mostly prostitutes. Hokitika then is a nexus of desire, greed for gold and lust (and love) for Anna Wetherell.

Within each of the twelve parts of the novel is a number of smaller chapters, each headed by reference to the movement of the planets and stars in astrology. Here’s how the second chapter opens:

JUPITER IN SAGITTARIUS

In which the merits of asylum are discussed; a family name comes into question; Alistair Lauderback is discomfited; and the shipping agent tells a lie.

Balfour’s narrative, made somewhat circuitous by interruption, and generally encumbered by the lyrical style of that man’s speech, became severely muddled in the telling, and several hours passed before Moody finally understood with clarity the order of events that had precipitated the secret council in the hotel smoking room. The interruptions were too tiresome, and Balfour’s approach too digressive, to deserve a full and faithful record in the men’s own words. We shall here excise their imperfections, and impose a regimental order upon the impatient chronicle of the shipping agent’s roving mind; we shall apply our own mortar to the cracks and chinks of earthly recollection, and resurrect as new the edifice that, in solitary memory, exists only as a ruin.

Again I’m back to Catton’s mixing of story and structure. By this point in the book just 5o pages in I was already trying to keep track of a fair number of characters, though I was definitely intrigued as to where it was all going. Catton now addresses the reader directly, saying that Balfour (a shipping agent) may be muddled in his account but that she as author (or rather the author within the text, since the author’s style of address is contemporary to the characters) has imposed an order on what’s to follow. That’s reassuring when you’ve still got nearly 800 pages left, but it’s an utter lie. Before too long I was distinctly lost.

There’s a character chart at the start of the book saying who everyone is and I soon had it bookmarked on my kindle, regularly going back to it to remind myself who say Joseph Pritchard or Charlie Frost were. I’d find myself virtually leafing back through the book trying to recall how two characters first met or how one account connected to another. By the time I reached the second part of the novel, almost half way through, I was starting to get distinctly frustrated and my grasp of what was going on was limited to say the least.

That’s the climb up the hill. Once you get up there it becomes absolutely apparent that Catton knows exactly what she’s doing. I’d got as far as I had partly through the quality of the writing and partly through faith in some of the bloggers who’d said this was worth the effort, and then suddenly Catton revealed through Moody that she knew perfectly well that the plot so far was (needlessly) convoluted. To use an utter blogger cliche I actually laughed out loud when Moody complained about how difficult it all was to follow, and then promptly summarised in a handful of pages everything that had happened over the preceding 400.

A few years before I started this blog I read Nabokov’s novel Pnin, which started to frustrate me when I detected an increasing disconnect between the authorial voice and what was happening within the fiction. Just as I was getting close to abandoning it I realised (I think when Nabokov meant me to realise) that it was intentional, and that Nabokov had been playing with me, risking alienating me as a reader in return for a greater payoff later. In the end I loved Pnin.

Pnin however is 176 pages long. It takes real audacity to spend 400 pages winding your reader up and then to have one of your characters essentially point out what you’re doing. It’s not that the first 400 pages were a chore, I had a ton of passages highlighted to quote as examples of Catton’s prose and talent for description. I’ve cut most of them for reasons of space, but here’s one which I thought particularly nicely done:

Mannering, as has been already observed, was a very fat man. In his twenties he had been stout, and in his thirties, quite pot-bellied; by the time he reached his forties, his torso had acquired an almost spherical proportion, and he was obliged, to his private dismay, to request assistance in both mounting and dismounting his horse. Rather than admit that his girth had become an impediment to daily activity, Mannering blamed gout, a condition with which he had never been afflicted, but one that he felt had a soundly aristocratic ring. He very much liked to be mistaken for an aristocrat, an assumption that happened very often, for he had mutton-chop whiskers and a fair complexion, and he favoured expensive dress. That day his necktie was fastened with a gold stickpin, and his vest (the buttons of which were rather palpably strained) sported notched lapels.

There’s a lot packed in there and the whole first part is filled with great little portraits like that. Still, while I found the setting rich, the characters interesting and the structure intriguing, it was still taking me a fair bit of work to make sense of the twelve men’s different accounts. I was finding it hard therefore not to sympathise with Walter Moody when he says to them “‘your perspectives are very many, and you will forgive me if I do not take your tale for something whole.’”

After the half way point my experience of the novel changed dramatically. The device of having each part half the length of the other means that the whole novel starts to accelerate. Suddenly you know broadly what’s going on, and the question is what will happen next and what connects it all. The story straps on its skis and heads off down the hill, and without ever becoming any the less literary the book becomes a positive page-turner.

Catton’s playfulness though never goes away. There’s no author within the fiction, and yet even so the author is almost a character too. The quote above is one example, with the author criticising Balfour’s style (which they wrote of course) and promising to make things clearer but then distinctly failing to do so. It’s but one of many asides on the characters or notable incidents. There’s sometimes rather wonderfully elaborate language, such as: “Miss Wetherell lived by the will of the dragon, after all, a drug that played steward to an imbecile king, and she would guard that throne with jealous eyes forever.” At other times the author is positively prim, such as when a character threatens another with a gun ” uttering several profanities too vulgar to set down here.”

The astrological motif adds further depth, with each character representing (or governed by) a particular stellar body and their interactions following the procession of the astrological conjunctions. I know virtually nothing about astrology, but that didn’t matter because I could still see how the apparent coincidences within the narrative were in fact nothing of the kind governed on one view by astrological inevitability and the predestination of the spheres and on another by the fact that the entire novel is of course a completely artificial structure created by Catton to achieve particular effects. In a sense then it’s a clockwork novel, unfolding as the stars or Catton decree, impeccably controlled and with not a single page that doesn’t serve the wider purpose.

As the end of the novel grows closer its parts continue to grow shorter, until soon they can no longer fit in everything that needs to happen. I noticed that the italicised summaries grew longer, and started to contain material that wasn’t in the text that followed; the introductions breathlessly trying to fill in for what the chapters no longer had room for. By the end the novel had come apart like tissue paper in my hands, I was breathlessly at the bottom of the hill having made the last part of the descent so swiftly I was left trying to piece it back together in my mind.

That by the way is where that particular metaphor rather breaks down. In real life as a beginner skier I tended to panic when going too fast, braked and ended up reaching the bottom of the hill moving more slowly than I was at the midpoint of my run. Catton’s a better novelist than I was a skier, which is probably for the best.

So as not to make the whole thing sound too academic, I’m going to end on one final quote even though I haven’t touched on the nature of the luminaries themselves or their significance as the heart of the novel (but then it’s nice to discover some of that for yourself). This excerpt captures some of the wit of this marvellous seemingly-sprawling but in fact utterly controlled novel:

For Quee Long measured all his actions by a private standard of perfection, and laboured in service of this standard: as a consequence he was never really satisfied with any of his efforts, or with their results, and tended, in general, towards defeatism. These nuances of his character were lost upon the subjects of the British Crown, with whom Quee Long shared but eighty or a hundred words, but to his compatriots, he was renowned for his cynical humour, his melancholy spirit, and his dogged perseverance in the service of untouchable ideals.

There’s a school of thought which says reviews shouldn’t be about whether the reviewer liked a book or not, but should rather give enough information to let others make their own minds up. I see that as a false dichotomy, and anyway more appropriate for a newspaper than a blog. I aim to give enough information that anyone reading this can form their own view, but I think it’s relevant to share my personal reaction too. This is an extraordinary book from a major talent. I loved it, and I’ll read her next book even if it’s 1,800 pages long.

I have two bloggers to particularly thank at the end here. Kevin of kevinfromcanada whose review of The Luminaries is here and who first introduced me to Catton, and David Hebblethwaite whose excellent review convinced me not to be put off by book’s historical setting or sheer bulk.

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Filed under Booker, Catton, Eleanor, New Zealand Literature

She drove to the beach, but there was oil scum on the sand and a red tide in the flaccid surf and mounds of kelp at the waterline.

Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion

When I was preparing to write this piece, I discovered that Play it as it Lays is in Time Magazine’s list of top 100 English language novels published since 1923 (when Time was founded apparently). It’s sandwiched between A Passage to India and Portnoy’s Complaint, because to Time’s absolute credit they don’t rate the top 100 in any attempted order of excellence, but just alphabetically by title.

My end of year list is a bit humbler than that, but it’ll probably make that too. Here’s how Play opens:

WHAT MAKES IAGO EVIL? some people ask. I never ask.

Another example, one which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes. Why should Shalimar attract kraits. Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask that. I never would, not any more. I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory “answer” to such questions.

The narrator there is Maria, a Hollywood actress whose career is on indefinite hold. Maria doesn’t believe in answers any more, but even so she has to give them. She’s in some kind of psychiatric institution being questioned by people trying to understand, though understand what exactly isn’t made clear yet. In a sense it doesn’t matter, because we already know they can’t understand.

NOTHING APPLIES, I print with the magnetized IBM pencil. What does apply, they ask later, as if the word “nothing” were ambiguous, open to interpretation, a questionable fragment of an Icelandic rune. There are only certain facts, I say, trying again to be an agreeable player of the game. Certain facts, certain things that happened.

PlayItAsItLays

The first section of Play then is Maria, recounting the facts. There’s then a page giving a perspective from one of Maria’s friends (“She was always a very selfish girl, it was first last and always Maria”) and another from her ex-husband (“Maria has difficulty talking to people with whom she is not sleeping”), and then 84 short chapters from a third person perspective. Didion said once that she wanted “to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all”. She succeeded.

Maria’s ex-husband is a film director, a successful one. They had a daughter together, Kate, who is mentally and possibly physically handicapped and in a long-term treatment facility. Maria lives for Kate, but Kate’s doctors and nurses would prefer Maria didn’t visit, they think it only makes Kate worse.

Maria isn’t working currently, so she goes driving on the freeway. It’s the only thing that gives her any purpose, radio on and no destination in mind. She eats boiled eggs, cracked on the steering wheel and eaten while driving, and drinks coke at filling stations. In the mornings she dresses fast to make sure she’s on the freeway by 10am, once driving she’s unafraid, totally absorbed; she’s in motion, going nowhere.

If I have a mental image of this book it’s of a scene that never actually happens in it; of Maria driving fast down a desert road, radio playing, a rattlesnake uncoiling as she hurtles past it heading into light and nothingness.

This then is a study of a hollow life, one in which things happen but where any attempt to impose causation on them is meaningless. Maria drinks, fucks, in one particularly difficult to read section has an (illegal) abortion. She is driven by fear rather than hope. Fear of losing her looks (not that she takes any pride in them, but as a model-turned-actress they’re her business), fear of not being able to keep it together any more, fear of her own irrelevance. She’s started sleeping into the afternoon, and she knows that’s not a good sign.

Maria sometimes meets up with her ex, but when they get together they just have the same stale old arguments (brilliantly captured by Didion – “Whatever he began by saying he would end by saying nothing. He would say something and she would say something and before either of them knew it they would be playing out a dialogue so familiar that it drained the imagination, blocked the will, allowed them to drop words and whole sentences and still arrive at the cold conclusion.”)

If it weren’t reductionist I’d say that this is a brilliant portrait of someone mired in clinical depression. That’s just giving Maria’s situation a name though, making it tidy. Perhaps rather it’s the novel itself that’s depressed, a statement straight out of emptiness. It’s not one to read when you’re feeling fragile.

Images of snakes permeate the book. At one point Maria tells her ex about a man who went into the desert to try to speak to god, but was bitten by a snake and died. Her ex asks what the punch line is, but there isn’t one. It’s easy to draw significance from snakes: biblical; sexual; all that poison and temptation, but Maria expressly denies the very concept of significance. Maria of course is a character, she focuses on snakes because Didion the writer makes her do so. For me as a reader however that creates a tension, because while Didion is obviously quite aware of how the various potentially symbolic elements in the book can be read (snakes, sex and death; eggs, fertility; gambling, randomness; and so on), the narrative directly undercuts the symbolism.

As a reader I can’t help but search for meaning in a text. I note that besides other empty people snakes seem to be the only life in Maria’s utterly artificial world of anonymous air-conditioned motel rooms and Hollywood parties. I can start seeing them as phallic yet impotent motifs of a poisoned life in which the only love is for a handicapped girl who may not even know who Maria is. All of that is of course there, but it’s perhaps again too easy, creating a story where really there’s just some things that happen. I’ve taken a long time to write about this novel because I find it hard to hold onto, the images of it remain vivid and powerful but the sense of it slips between my fingers. I’m left with nothing.

Naturally this being Didion the prose is tight, effective and frequently beautiful. Lines like “my mother’s yearnings suffused our life like nerve gas” or “bodies gleaming, unlined, as if they had an arrangement with mortality” stand out, but every page has something quotable. I came across one blog review here which simply features a sequence of Chandlerian excerpts from the text. You should check it out, because they do more to sing this novel’s praises than I ever could.

This is an alienated book. Maria is hollowed out, empty save in her love for her daughter Kate. The world around her reflects her own disaffection. I’m going to end with one final extended quote, which for me captured something of the awful sterility at the heart of this effortlessly readable yet still difficult to read novel:

“Let’s fuck,” the actor said from the doorway.

“You mean right here.”

“Not here, in the bed.” He seemed annoyed.

She shook her head.

“Then do it here,” he said. “Do it with the Coke bottle.”

When they finally did it they were on the bed and at the moment before he came he reached under the pillow and pulled out an amyl nitrite popper and broke it under his nose, breathed in rapidly, and closed his eyes.

“Don’t move,” he said. “I said don’t move.”

Maria did not move.

“Terrific,” he said then. His eyes were still closed.

Maria said nothing.

“Wake me up in three hours,” he said. “With your tongue.”

After he had gone to sleep she got dressed very quietly and walked out of the house. She was in the driveway before she remembered that she had no car. The keys were in his Ferrari and she took it, hesitating when she came out to the main canyon road, turning then not toward Beverly Hills but toward the Valley, and the freeway. It was dawn before she reached Vegas and, because she stopped in Vegas to buy cigarettes, eight o’clock before she reached Tonopah. She was not sure what she had meant to do in Tonopah. There was something about seeing her mother’s and father’s graves, but her mother and father were not buried in Tonopah. They were buried in Silver Wells, or what had been Silver Wells. In any case she was stopped for speeding outside Tonopah and when the highway patrolman saw the silver dress and the bare feet and the Ferrari registered to someone else, he checked California to see if the car had been reported stolen, and it had.

While preparing to write this up, I discovered a blog devoted to the book here, which features among other things a summary, a guide to the locations, a road map showing the drives Maria takes along the freeways and more. Here‘s a very different take on the book, a highly negative contemporary review from the 8 August 1970 issue of the New Yorker.

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Filed under California, Didion, Joan, US Literature

memory will cut you off at the knees if you let it

Others of my Kind, by James Sallis

I loved Drive. It’s a great book, well written and atmospheric. When recently I felt like taking another swim in Sallis’s coolly written prose, I chose his Others of my Kind which Guy Savage gave a very favourable review to back in 2013.

Unfortunately, I didn’t particularly like Others. I suspect I’m in a minority in that, so I’ll try to explore below what didn’t work for me and touch on how some seem to have found more in it than I did.

OthersofmyKind

Jenny Rowan is a gifted tv news video editor, unusually skilled at putting together two minute packages of visuals and sound that make sense from a mass of chaotic raw footage. She finds patterns, creates order. She’s so good at what she does that she could easily find a better paid job with a more prestigious network, but she likes the people she works with and she’s more interested in the quality of her work than gaining recognition for it.

Reading that paragraph I’m struck by how rounded a character she already seems there. This is a roughly 150 page novel, but the characters in it are sharply drawn and stand out. Sallis is good on character.

Sallis is good on description too. Here’s the first paragraph:

AS I TURNED INTO MY APARTMENT COMPLEX, sack of Chinese takeout from Hong Kong Garden in hand, Szechuan bean curd, Buddhist Delight, a man stood from where he’d been sitting on the low wall by the bank of flowers and ground out his cigarette underfoot. He wore a cheap navy-blue suit that nonetheless fit him perfectly, gray cotton shirt, maroon tie, oxblood loafers. He had the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.

The man, Jack Collins, is a police officer. He’s there because Jenny has an unusual past. As an eight year-old she was kidnapped, then kept for two years by her kidnapper in a box under his bed, pulled out when from time to time he wanted to abuse her. When she finally escaped him she lived wild in a mall for some time, hiding from security and becoming an urban myth, “mall girl”, that most people believed had no foundation in fact. When finally she was caught, she went into care. It’s a horrific background, but despite her disadvantages she’s gone on to build a good life for herself. She’s valued, has friends and a place in the world.

Jenny’s past matters again because the police have found a young woman named Cheryl who, like Jenny, had been imprisoned by a sexual predator. Cheryl appears to be emotionally shut down and uncommunicative. Collins hopes that Jenny can reach her, that the similarity of experience can bridge the walls built up by trauma.

That sets the novel up with one sort of expectation, but Sallis quickly subverts that and the encounters between Jenny and Cheryl are only a small part of the wider narrative. This really is a story of Jenny reconnecting with the world, engaging with it. A friend at one point says to her that she still lives in a box, though now one of her own creation, content with her work and her neatly contained friends and relationships. Now she is reaching out, helping others.

Jenny tries to help Cheryl reconnect with the world, in the process becoming involved with Collins. She helps too some squatters who become neighbours, giving them gifts of food and medicine. She tracks down her parents, and in a slightly bizarre development reaches out to the vice president when the VP’s son goes missing. I’ll come back to that last relationship in a moment, as it’s where the book fell over for me.

Mostly Sallis develops all this with subtlety and skill, occasionally though I felt he was erring on the side of being perhaps a bit obvious, as here:

Lacking any semblance of childhood, having spent my adolescence in the wild as it were, I could fit in only by a kind of adaptation scarcely known outside the insect world. I mimicked those about me, finally with such vigor that few were able to distinguish conjured image from real. Even I sometimes confused the two.

I’d kind of got all that by the point this quote comes up in the book anyway, and it felt a bit on the nose for Sallis to actually have Jenny explicitly lay it out for me. More problematically though is a distinct lack of subtlety in the book’s politics.

The whole story takes place against a backdrop of news – Jenny works in the news business which conveniently allows Sallis to address contemporary US politics through her interest in it and her editing of it into bite-sized morsels (“I passed my workdays making sense of the world for others, taking up fragments of sensation and information and piecing them together, stitching quilts from leftovers and rag-ends of the world’s fabric.”) The book is set either in a slightly alternate now or in the very near future, the names of the president and vice-president are made up but the world they inhabit is utterly recognisable.

The problem though is that because the world is so recognisable, the political aspects become less a reflection of character or a development of story but rather direct commentary. I felt at times I was being lectured.

Further threats have been made, the White House press secretary states. Our intelligence gives these threats credence. We will keep you informed. Of course they will. Just as they rushed to inform us of actual body counts in Vietnam, U.S.-engineered assassinations in Chile, the systematic closing-down of power plants before the energy crisis of 2002, the cost of the Iraq war, or how deregulation might lead to financial collapse.

I wrote a comment against that paragraph when I read it, which read simply – bit ranty?

Similarly, while I agree with the next quote, I still felt I was being directly addressed rather than experiencing something within the fiction, and because of that it felt like an interruption in the novel (though it isn’t, since it’s in part at least the point of the novel):

Firmly seated at the front of the bus, so utterly accustomed to privilege that its presence has become invisible to them, our horde of senators, congressmen, secretaries-of, advisors, attorneys and lobbyists goes on deciding what is best for us. Little wonder that we feel helpless – ridden. The bureaucracy protects itself; that becomes its purpose. The machine has no off switch. As Bishop used to say: We’re set on SPIN, forever.

I’m not American. Drive is a deeply American novel, tapping into classic US imagery and iconic character types. I loved it. I grew up on Hollywood as much as the next British kid, and that culture while born of America is in part America’s gift to the world (for some a fairly unwelcome gift I admit, like an ill-fitting jumper from a relative you don’t much like, but I’m of the view that any country which gave us jazz, westerns and film noir can’t be all bad).

American myths travel well because they so frequently tap into the universal. Images of the frontier or of the lone figure righting wrongs in an indifferent world are to me deeply American, but they resonate far beyond that country’s shores (even if perhaps with slightly less force than they have locally). American politics though, like politics everywhere, is local politics.

So, if I were American perhaps the political content here would have spoken more to me. As it is though, I frankly don’t feel that strongly about the dysfunction and arrogance of American politics. We have our own dysfunctional and arrogant politics right here in Britain. It’s local not universal.

Even if I did care though, the novel isn’t saying anything interesting about it. Politicians are remote and out of touch. The system rewards itself, not those who vote for it. Is this news? It’s irritating, sure, but it felt at times more like Sallis was letting off steam than saying anything particularly notable.

Where I thought he was on stronger ground was when he drew comparisons between Jenny’s box and the boxes we all inhabit, boxes of our own making. To an extent of course we have to, just to be able to get through the day. We edit the world as Jenny does, making it manageable.

We spooned up dumplings, punctured them with chopsticks and sucked out the broth while all around us there at the mall streamed people whose worlds would never include dinners of insect-riddled, half-rotten rice, helicopters struggling to heave whole families up, up and away out of a ravaged city, or young women living in boxes beneath beds.

Similarly:

So many in the world live this way, of course. They come home to husbands, wives, lovers or family, talk over the day, talk about nothing in particular. Even when everything inside them wants to scream or weep or cry out, they go on talking, voices low, darkness rising like black water at their windows, in their lives.

But then, that first paragraph is true for almost anyone in the developed world; that second for anywhere at all.

The local and the universal continue through the book, until about the 80% mark or so when the narrative takes an odd turn as Jenny reaches out to the VP and the VP responds. What follows was for me just flatly unbelievable. What until then had been a reasonably naturalistic novel became something from an episode of the West Wing, a show that was for me crippled by its unrealistically idealised politicians. Sure, we can dream if we want to of President Bartletts, but they don’t exist any more than dragons or elves do. The West Wing for me was a fantasy show, less realistic in some ways than Game of Thrones, and in its last sections Others of my Kind similarly became for me a fantasy novel, a comforting one in which for once we don’t get the politicians we deserve.

Guy also had some doubts about the final parts of the book, but overall liked it much more than I did. A review in The Independent calls it “exquisitely crafted” and talks of Sallis’s “sublime hands” (which I agree he has actually, but not consistently here in my view). A review on a crime fiction blog here calls it “subtle” and “nuanced” (which it often is, just not always here, I do absolutely though agree with their comment that “the descriptions are tight, yet lucid”).

Sallis is a genuinely good writer, so if the political elements of the book sound to you like they might be interesting the odds are you’ll like this a lot. If however that part sounds less persuasive, this may be one to you’ll want to pass on.

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Filed under Sallis, James, US Literature

the wild heart of life

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

ONCE upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

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Generally I avoid reading forewords before reading the book itself. All too often they contain massive plot spoilers, and even where spoilers aren’t an issue they can give so much direction on a book’s themes and ideas that you’re not left with the freedom to meet it on its own terms, without the weight of someone else’s scholarship. I always read them after the book, but almost never before.

The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Portrait has a great foreword, by Jeri Johnson. She’s a lecturer in English literature at Oxford University, a specialist on British and American Modernist literature. Her expertise shows. If you read Portrait, and it’s worth reading, read the foreword first. Yes, it tells you the ending, but frankly that doesn’t matter and you’ll avoid some of the utterly avoidable frustration I had with the book.

As I write this I’m going to share first my thoughts from my initial cold reading of the book, then I’ll talk a little about what the foreword showed me that I’d missed. Only a little, because I missed so much that the book demands a second reading. Besides, I don’t think it does books like this any favours if we all pretend we understood everything on a first read, it makes them too daunting, too much a challenge rather than a pleasure. As I sometimes say, literature isn’t like Pokemon, you don’t have to catch it all.

The quote above is the opening lines of the book, and they have probably on their own done more to put people off this than any reputation for difficulty. Portrait is divided into five chapters, each a snapshot of a period in the life of Stephen Daedalus, the artist as a young man. The first is him as a small child being sent off to school for the first time, tiny and uncertain. Of course, that’s a story you could tell in a very traditional way with a nice clear omniscient narrator telling us about Stephen’s thoughts and experiences, but Joyce opens with something much more interesting. It’s third person narration, but written with the vocabulary and understanding of Stephen Daedalus as a baby, as a small child.

This is the stream of consciousness often alluded to when people discuss Joyce, but it’s not quite that simple. This isn’t an internal narrative stream, as for example in Arthur Schnitzler’s marvellous Fraülein Else. That book is stream of consciousness, the entire text is the interior monologue of its central character. Here though it’s “His father told him that story” – his and him, but in his own language. It’s as if the tools Joyce has to tell his tale are those Stephen has to voice his own thoughts, and following that the language gets more sophisticated in each chapter so reflecting Stephen’s own development.

If you can get past that first paragraph, the shock of it, what follows is brilliantly written. Stephen’s mind jumps about from topic to topic, questioning a world he barely understands and making connections an adult might well struggle to follow. The language is playful, fun even, and once I’d got a sense for the style it was a pleasure to read (the rhythm of the text works better by the way if you read it with an assumed Irish accent).

The bell rang and then the classes began to file out of the rooms and along the corridors towards the refectory. He sat looking at the two prints of butter on his plate but could not eat the damp bread. The tablecloth was damp and limp. But he drank off the hot weak tea which the clumsy scullion, girt with a white apron, poured into his cup. He wondered whether the scullion’s apron was damp too or whether all white things were cold and damp. Nasty Roche and Saurin drank cocoa that their people sent them in tins. They said they could not drink the tea; that it was hogwash. Their fathers were magistrates, the fellows said.

I was particularly impressed by a bravura scene of a Christmas dinner where the adults fall to arguing about politics, a discussion Stephen doesn’t understand at all but which imprints itself on him in all its fury and increasing bitterness. It’s one of the best depictions of an argument I’ve read in fiction. It ebbs and flows. People try to make peace, then one makes one final remark and sets it off again. It grows out of all proportion and relates to matters that nobody at the table has any influence over at all. Here it’s an argument about Parnell and Kitty O’ Shea, but it could just as well be an argument about the merits of the Iraq war or government austerity measures. The details differ, the emotions don’t.

It was there though that I started to run into problems, in particular the fact that Joyce clearly expects the reader to follow the argument even if Stephen can’t. My knowledge however of early 20th Century Irish history is scant, I’d vaguely heard of Parnell though without context and never of Kitty O’ Shea, and I had to put the book down and check wikipedia to work out what the hell they were all talking about. Naturally, Jeri Johnson explains that context neatly in her foreword, which I hadn’t read.

That summarises what for me was a key difficulty with this book, one that led to me taking to twitter half-way through asking who else had read it and if they’d actually enjoyed it. There’s a lot of assumed contemporary knowledge here. Joyce assumes a broad familiarity with what would have been the Irish current affairs of the day, as well as with the broad principles of the Catholic faith.

Since half my family are Catholic and I have links to Ireland I’m probably a bit more aware of some of those currents than the average contemporary non-Irish reader, but not by much. The simple fact is that without notes there’s an awful lot in this book that’s obscure now not by virtue of the language, which is actually much easier than you’d imagine, or because of the structure or anything else a reader would normally associate with a supposedly difficult book, but simply because the world it’s set in is so very specific and so very long ago. It’s a key reason I think why this is a book more studied than read.

Once I accepted that there was simply going to be a fair bit going on that I wouldn’t understand the significance of my enjoyment of the book picked up again. Are there frequent allusions to Dante’s Inferno? There are? A shame I haven’t read it then. Are there subtleties in terms of the competing philosophies and demands of the Church and Irish nationalism? Well, even I can see that there are, even if the particulars are now as obscure to me as the debate between the big-endians and little-endians of Lilliput and Blefuscu.

The chapters that follow seem almost random in their choice of subjects, but that’s because life isn’t merely a series of this happened then that happened then something else happened. The chapters focus on key moments of Stephen’s youth, eliding over the links and gaps between one episode and the other. Generally you can fill in what’s left out, because generally it’s clear that what’s been left out is fairly ordinary. We don’t see Stephen progressing through his schools – he’s a junior at one school and next chapter a senior at another, his family having moved as their fortunes have declined, but we hardly need Joyce to tell us what it’s like to go through a few years of education particularly since the first chapter established the nature of the priest-run schools Stephen attends; the manner of tuition, the meals, routines, crimes and punishments.

Always though Joyce’s observations are acute. I’ve not felt myself inside the head of a small boy so persuasively since I was one, when of course I gave it no thought at all.

Chapter 3 contains perhaps the most obviously impressive example of Joyce’s writing. By this point in the narrative Stephen is a teenager who has taken to sleeping with prostitutes and to focusing more on his appetites than his mind. He is sent with the rest of his class to a Catholic retreat, where he is treated to an extended sermon on the properties of Hell. The speech is intended to terrify the boys, to drive them back into the protective embrace of orthodoxy and the Church. It works, Stephen is terrified, and I wasn’t surprised because it’s so well written I felt chilled myself. Here’s two long, but in the context of the whole sequence very short, excerpts:

Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the nose with noisome odours, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste with foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with redhot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame. And through the several torments of the senses the immortal soul is tortured eternally in its very essence amid the leagues upon leagues of glowing fires kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and ever increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the Godhead.

And

—A holy saint (one of our own fathers I believe it was) was once vouchsafed a vision of hell. It seemed to him that he stood in the midst of a great hall, dark and silent save for the ticking of a great clock. The ticking went on unceasingly; and it seemed to this saint that the sound of the ticking was the ceaseless repetition of the words: ever, never; ever, never. Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God, never to enjoy the beatific vision; ever to be eaten with flames, gnawed by vermin, goaded with burning spikes, never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage, the mind filled with darkness and despair, never to escape; ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of their dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony, never to receive, even for an instant, God’s pardon; ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never. O what a dreadful punishment!

It’s impossible though with a couple of quotes to capture the power of this section. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page, detailed near-forensic description of the sufferings of Hell. It’s claustrophic to read, a mid-book harrowing of Stephen. For a while he even considers entering the Church himself, becoming a priest, but of course as the title of the book itself tells us that isn’t where his true vocation lies.

Language is a recurring theme in the book, even from the first chapter when Stephen is too young to be aware of how he uses it. As the book advances though he becomes more conscious of it, of words themselves and the meanings and associations they carry and of how they may be used.

Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of language many coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?

He falls into debates, with friends, with his dean of studies, as to the nature of art and the role of the artist. They’re often rather pretentious and adolescent conversations (Stephen at one point inwardly considers himself as “a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life”, a wonderful but rather portentous phrase), but then when he was a baby the text reflected that so is it so strange it should reflect also the grand sweeping certainties of adolescence? Whatever its level though the language remains beautiful. Here are some more scattered quotes, lines I thought worth sharing lest anyone reading this thinks the book just a clever puzzle requiring intellectual but not emotional response:

From under the wide falling leaf of a soft hat Cranly’s dark eyes were watching him.

Or

Cranly pushed solemnly through the throng of students, linking Stephen and Temple like a celebrant attended by his ministers on his way to the altar.

Or indeed:

The park trees were heavy with rain and rain fell still and ever in the lake, lying grey like a shield.

You can see the religious imagery that runs through the book very clearly in that second quote there (and the Eucharist metaphor in the quote above about the priest of the eternal imagination). The first and third quote though, those are simply lovely, words made supple and evocative.

Portrait is a novel of an artist emerging. Stephen faces claims of nationalism, religion, bonds of family and friendship and the body’s own insistent demands and through it all devotes himself to his ideal of art. That makes it sound worthy, but it’s not because the physical is always present, because those other claims and demands are so real and vital.  I’ll include one final quote:

It was not thought nor vision though he knew vaguely that her figure was passing homeward through the city. Vaguely first and then more sharply he smelt her body. A conscious unrest seethed in his blood. Yes, it was her body he smelt: a wild and languid smell: the tepid limbs over which his music had flowed desirously and the secret soft linen upon which her flesh distilled odour and a dew. A louse crawled over the nape of his neck and, putting his thumb and forefinger deftly beneath his loose collar, he caught it.

There’s a tremendous sensuality there in those first few lines, as Stephen contemplates the girl’s smell, her “tepid limbs” and “secret soft linen” (and no prizes for guessing where his thoughts are trending when he imagines her distilling “odour and a dew” onto that linen). Suddenly though there’s that louse, a quotidian irritant intruding on his flight of desire. For me that passage contained a heart of the book (not its only heart, but certainly a heart). It’s that clash between the mind and the body, between fantasy and reality, theory and practicality. These are the issues Stephen is grappling with here, and which Joyce is addressing of course through him.

Right, I said I’d say a bit at the end about the foreword. Well, firstly I entirely failed to notice when reading the book that, as Johnson says, “Within each chapter a similar pattern of rising action can be seen: each opens with Stephen in humility and ends with him triumphant.” I’m sure it can be seen, but I didn’t see it. This is an immensely carefully structured book, and I largely didn’t pick up on that structure as I got too bogged down in unfamiliar details of faith or politics.

The foreword brings out too quite how shocking much of the book’s content would have been when first published. Joyce touches at various points on bedwetting, masturbation, family squabbles, sex, the louse of course in that final quote above, an exuberant and vulgar physicality and normality. Of course life is physical, but when this came out none of that was seen as suitable subject matter for fiction. You don’t need to know that to appreciate the book, but it’s interesting and shows one of the ways in which Joyce pushed boundaries.

More than those specific details though, Johnson gives enough background that the context makes sense to the modern reader. As I said above I’d never have run into problems with that family argument if I’d read the foreword first, Johnson gives you what you need to know to make sense of it. She analyses how the chapters fit together, how the themes emerge and develop, but not in a way that suffocates the text but rather to illuminate it. She shows how the chapters relate to phases of Stephen’s life, why those chapters are here and not other chapters that could have been included (were included it seems in an earlier unpublished version of the book). She’s like a guide pointing out the landmarks to you before you set off on a hike, telling you to look out for this river, that unusual rock.

This is a book now somewhat obscured by its own weight and history. Partly that’s because of its reputation as being difficult, as being Joyce, is now a barrier to simply reading it. Partly too though it’s because the world Joyce sets his novel in is so very particular in time and space that it can be hard sometimes simply to understand the significance to the characters within the fiction of what’s being said. The foreword helps you past that, and when I reread this (which I hope to do) it’ll be bearing those insights in mind so that next time I’m not wandering through the territory squinting at a map trying to work out which way up to hold it and wondering if I’m still on the right trail.

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Filed under Irish Literature, Joyce, James, Modernist Fiction

There is such a thing as letting one’s æsthetic sense override one’s moral sense

Improper Stories, by Saki

Saki (real name HH Munro) was an Edwardian writer famed for his short stories – icy little satires that skewered hypocrisy and social convention. He’s an immediate precursor to Wodehouse, drawing on a similar cast of characters from the leisured classes, and I suspect a strong influence on Roald Dahl.

Improper Stories is a 2010 collection featuring 18 of Saki’s stories, taken from (I believe) three different collections published in his lifetime. Saki’s work is out of copyright now, and therefore largely free on kindle, which raises the question why anybody would pay for a new collection. Probably the second best answer to that is that this is a near-perfect introduction to his work and so perfect for readers like me who don’t know where to start. The best answer though is the cover, which is gorgeous:

Saki

Isn’t that just absolutely lovely? It also somehow captures some of the spirit of the book; a sense of decorous misrule.

Saki’s world is the world of Wodehouse, Waugh, more recently Downton Abbey. His protagonists tend to have better manners than morals. They sit at an ironic distance to the world, observing it with coldly comic detachment.

You can read the opening story here, it’s far from the best in the collection but it is a wonderful scene-setter. Characters in Saki meet fates that are fitting, but not ones that are necessarily entirely deserved. In one of my favourite tales a mother and daughter keenly wish to attend a garden party to which they were not invited. Considering it better to sneak in than to later explain their absence and risk it being generally known they were left off the guest list, they attempt to enter via the back garden.

Mrs Stossen and her daughter, suitably arrayed for a county garden party function with an infusion of Almanack de Gotha, sailed through the narrow grass paddock and the ensuing gooseberry garden with the air of state barges making an unofficial progress along a rural trout stream. There was a certain amount of furtive haste mingled with the stateliness of their advance as though hostile searchlights might be turned on them at any moment; and, as a matter of fact, they were not unobserved.

The observer is 13-year-old Matilda, exiled to the garden in punishment for her earlier misdeeds involving an excess of raspberry trifle. Unfortunately for the Stossens the gate between the paddock and the gooseberry garden is firmly locked, utterly foiling their plans. Even more unfortunately, Matilda doesn’t consider it quite right that they should try to sneak in, nor that her family’s great Yorkshire boar-pig is locked up in his sty and so not getting to enjoy any of the fun of the party.  Matilda, being of an economical turn of mind, resolves both problems with a single action: she lets out the pig.

The boar-pig had drawn nearer to the gate for a closer inspection of the human intruders, and stood champing his jaws and blinking his small red eyes in a manner that was doubtless intended to be disconcerting, and, as far as the Stossens were concerned, thoroughly achieved that result.

[Matilda reveals herself to the stranded ladies, whose only exit lies past the irate swine.]

‘Do you think you could go and get someone who would drive the pig away?’ asked Miss Stossen. ‘I promised my aunt I would stay here till five o’clock; it’s not four yet.’ ‘I am sure, under the circumstances, your aunt would permit—’ ‘My conscience would not permit,’ said Matilda with cold dignity.

What follows is a wonderful negotiation between the stranded Stossens and Matilda, who is always polite but rarely helpful. I’m not sure there is a moral, other perhaps than that it’s best not to find oneself in a story by Saki.

Here children wreak revenge on overly punitive aunts and guardians; boring guests are driven off in terror or made victim to elaborate practical jokes; the small-minded are made to pay dearly for their petty sins. In another of my many favourites, The Quest, a recurring character named Clovis is staying at a villa when a young woman realises her child is missing:

‘We’ve lost Baby,’ she screamed.

‘Do you mean that it’s dead, or stampeded, or that you staked it at cards and lost it that way?’ asked Clovis lazily.

‘He was toddling about quite happily on the lawn,’ said Mrs Momeby tearfully, ‘ and Arnold had just come in, and I was asking him what sort of sauce he would like with the asparagus-‘

‘I hope he said hollandaise,’ interrupted Clovis, with a show of quickened interest, ‘because if there’s anything I hate-‘

Soon Clovis, a young man possessed more of wit than moral character, is helpfully speculating that perhaps an eagle or hyena might have escaped from some private zoo and devoured the child. Mrs Momeby fails to take comfort from this, and what’s worse “With the selfish absorption of young motherhood she entirely disregarded Clovis’s obvious anxiety about the asparagus sauce.”

They quickly locate a crying baby, a seeming miraculous recovery made with the help of a Christian Scientist neighbour armed with great powers of faith if not of perception. Regrettably the child found isn’t the child lost, so that when their own baby reappears they find themselves with an excess infant. Clovis cheerfully notes that they need only keep the bonus baby until it hits the age of 13, at which time they may put it into the navy.

The stories featuring Clovis are a particular delight simply because Clovis himself is so much fun. He is mischief made flesh, then sent to a good school and tailored in Saville Row. In a sense he is an animal in human form, a fox perhaps or a particularly sly cat, with those around him mere dull dogs in comparison or worse yet geese or sheep.

One story which at first seems to stick out in the collection is The Music on the Hill, which unlike the others is much more a horror tale in the vein of Machen or MR James. A young woman marries and moves from town to country, where she finds that worship of the old gods remains very real as may the old gods themselves. I found it an effective little chiller, with the woman isolated on a gloomy farm with a distant husband and unfriendly animals. When she sees “a boy’s face … scowling at her, brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes” after interfering with an offering she finds on a small altar in the woods, you know the tale won’t end happily for her.

On reflection though, the tale did fit, because it explores an encounter between urbane modernity and older, more primeval, forces. Where Pan amused himself in ancient Greece (and perhaps the more remote parts of Edwardian England) by terrifying travelers in his woods, Clovis instead spreads dismay and confusion in drawing rooms and country houses. Clovis is a child of Pan, a manifestation of him and of all the Puckish spirits who have afflicted the overly self-assured through the ages. We need order if we are to flourish, to build lives and homes and carve out a place for ourselves in the world; but we need chaos too or nothing would ever change, and we would drown in our own comfort.

Saki though makes no point so serious as that, or not so obviously anyway. Instead he laughs at the vanities of the world around him, the people in it. The world has changed since Saki’s day, but the people haven’t, and that’s why these tales remain as fresh and funny as when he wrote them.

Here‘s a wonderful piece by Chris Power in the Guardian about Saki, and here‘s a review by Guy Savage of another Saki collection which comes with the added bonus of Edward Gorey artwork.

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Filed under Saki, Short Stories

Girls get murdered all the fucking time.

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

I’m sick of serial killers. Serial killers are what we replaced our monsters with. We don’t believe in ghosts or goblins, so we looked to our real life monsters and gave them mythic qualities.

On TV and film serial killers are often brilliant, geniuses even. Sometimes they’re superhumanly strong, sometimes charming. Their victims are generally attractive young women with good jobs, women the audience can relate to and sympathise with. It’s rare a serial killer in fiction is a social inadequate preying on the marginalised because then the whole thing just becomes too ugly for a Saturday night’s entertainment.

Lauren Beukes is an intelligent writer, one who couldn’t write formula if she tried. When she writes a novel featuring a serial killer then it’s no surprise that the result is interesting and well written. In The Shining Girls she uses the familiar figure of the serial killer to make a wider point about how society crushes women who stand out, the murderer as an extreme manifestation of something that happens every day. It’s a novel with strong characters and an interesting plot and on its own terms there’s no question but that it succeeds.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like it. That’s not the novel’s fault, it does what it sets out to do, but in the end this is still a book in which young women are brutally killed for the entertainment of the reader, and I’m just not the reader for that novel.

ShiningGirls

The Shining Girls is high-concept. Harper Curtis is a drifter in Chicago in 1931, a despicable wretch of a man, weak and full of petty hate. His crimes are about to catch up on him when he discovers a house, the house, and the house exists outside of time.

He goes to the window to pull the curtains shut, but not before he glimpses the tableau outside.

The houses across the way change. The paint strips away, recolors itself, strips away again through snow and sun and trash tangled with leaves blowing down the street. Windows are broken, boarded over, spruced up with a vase of flowers that turn brown and fall away. The empty lot becomes overgrown, fills over with cement, grass grows through the cracks in wild tufts, rubbish congeals, the rubbish is removed, it comes back, along with aggressive snarls of writing on the walls in vicious colors. A hopscotch grid appears, disappears in the sleeting rain, moves elsewhere, snaking across the cement. A couch rots through seasons and then catches fire.

He yanks the curtains closed, and turns and sees it. Finally. His destiny spelled out in this room.

Every surface has been defaced. There are artifacts mounted on the walls, nailed in or strung up with wire. They seem to jitter in a way that he can feel in the back of his teeth. All connected by lines that have been drawn over again and again, with chalk or ink or a knife tip scraped through the wallpaper. Constellations, the voice in his head says.

When Harper finds the house there’s a dead body in the hallway, a recently murdered man. There’s a suitcase full of money, but some of the notes are wrong and the issue dates haven’t happened yet. When he looks out the window he looks out on different Chicagos, and when he opens the front door he can walk out into them. He can walk out into any time between 1929 and 1993. He goes out in 1993 to dump the body far from his own time, and finds a corpse he recognises from his own time already stuck in his chosen hiding place. A cleverer man might wonder how that was possible, but Harper isn’t that man.

In 1992 Kirby Mazrachi is a young woman who some years back survived a terrifying and brutal assault. She was disembowelled and had her throat slashed, but her attacker hadn’t planned on her dog trying to save her and ended up having to flee the scene, leaving her for dead. Now she’s an intern with a burnt-out former crime reporter, Dan Velasquez, who’s now working the sports desk for the Chicago Sun-Times. When Dan meets her for the first time he sees her as:

a girl barely out of kindergarten, surely, with crazy kindergarten hair sticking up all over the place, a multicolored striped scarf looped around her neck with matching fingerless gloves, a black jacket with more zips than is conceivably practical, and worse, an earring in her nose. She irritates him on principle.

He’s even less happy when he works out she’s only doing the intern job so she can get inside dirt on her own story, a story he worked on back on the day.

Ok, maybe Beukes can write a little formula when she tries. Kirby and Dan are pretty familiar sorts of characters. Still, there’s enough originality in the time travel concept that it’s probably for the best if some of the other architecture of the story is a little more standard.

Kirby and Dan soon realise that her attack wasn’t the first. That doesn’t surprise them, but what does is the discovery that similar crimes are spread out over the past six decades. Slowly they come to realise they’re dealing with something much stranger than just another serial killer.

Meanwhile, back in 1931, Harper has found his trophy room in the house; the artifacts in the quote above. Each item is something he took as a souvenir from one of his killings, except that when he first sees them he hasn’t yet committed those crimes. The house though is outside of time, the souvenirs he’ll take are already on the wall before he’s taken them, are always on the wall both as markers of what he did and instructions of what he must do.

He picks up a piece of chalk that is lying on the mantel and writes on the wallpaper beside the window, because there is a space for it and it seems he must. He prints ‘Glowgirl’ in his jagged sloping script, over the ghost of the word that is already there.

Although it sounds it, this isn’t really a science fiction novel. The house is never explained (though it follows an absolutely clear logic in how it works); Harper isn’t bright enough to ask questions and his obsessions are too strong to really let him examine the house’s implications. The house simply is, and it’s never explicitly stated whether it’s directing Harper or, as I interpret it, reflecting back to him his own future decisions. What the house does though is let Harper pick his victims through history, and therefore let Beukes range through history showing different women in different parts of Chicago’s past.

The house is one unusual aspect to this novel. The other is Beukes’ focus on the victims. Her attention here isn’t so much on the beautiful corpse, as on the beautiful life brutally cut short.

Harper picks his victims when they’re young, selecting girls who have a spark in them, who seem special. He calls it a glow. When he’s found a girl who glows for him he comes back when she’s grown up and kills her, snuffs out her light. As Beukes shows each woman’s life though it’s soon apparent that Harper isn’t the only one who sees a shining girl and wants to smother her. Harper is a metaphor for how our society treats women more generally, how women who stand out are cut back, forced to blend in for safety.

Beukes is keen too to show that these women don’t exist in a vacuum. They have families, friends, lovers, children. Their deaths ripple out. Here’s an example:

The dead girl’s name was Julia Madrigal. She was twenty-one. She was studying at Northwestern. Economics. She liked hiking and hockey, because she was originally from Banff, Canada, and hanging out in the bars along Sheridan Road with her friends, because Evanston was dry.

She kept meaning to sign up to volunteer to read textbook passages for the blind students association’s study tapes, but never quite got round to it, the same way she’d bought a guitar but only mastered one chord. She was running for head of her sorority. She always said she was going to be the first woman CEO of Goldman Sachs. She had plans to have three kids and a big house and a husband who did something interesting and complementary – a surgeon or a broker or something. Not like Sebastian, who was a good-time guy, but not exactly marriage material.

She was too loud, like her dad, especially at parties. Her sense of humor tended to be crass. Her laugh was notorious or legendary, depending on who was telling. You could hear it from the other side of Alpha Phi. She could be annoying. She could be narrow-minded in that got-all-the-answers-to-save-the-world way. But she was the kind of girl you couldn’t keep down. Unless you cut her up and caved in her skull.

Her father will never recover. His weight drops away until he becomes a wan parody of the loud and opinionated estate agent who would pick a fight at the barbecue about the game. He loses all interest in selling houses. He tapers off mid-sales pitch, looking at the blank spaces on the wall between the perfect family portraits or worse, at the grouting between the tiles of the en-suite bathroom. He learns to fake it, to clamp the sadness down. At home, he starts cooking. He teaches himself French cuisine. But all food tastes bland to him.

Her mother draws the pain into herself: a monster she keeps caged in her chest that can only be subdued with vodka. She does not eat her husband’s cooking. When they move back to Canada and downsize the house, she relocates into the spare room. Eventually, he stops hiding her bottles. When her liver seizes up twenty years later, he sits next to her in a Winnipeg hospital and strokes her hand and narrates recipes he’s memorized like scientific formula because there is nothing else to say.

Her sister moves as far away as she can, and keeps moving, first across the state, then across the country, then overseas to become an au pair in Portugal. She is not a very good au pair. She doesn’t bond with the children. She is too terrified that something might happen to them.

The passage continues. It explores the impact on Julia’s boyfriend, on her best friend, on a girl across town that Julia never met who only reads about the case. It’s powerful stuff. I went for such a long quote because this is the heart of the book. The time travel stuff is taut, logically worked through and entirely internally consistent, but Julia and the other women like her in the book shine, which of course is the point.

The women though are also why the book in the end doesn’t work for me. How do you read that passage above, and read too the forensically detailed description of how she was killed and how Harper makes his victims suffer and the joy he takes from that, and then enjoy a tale of a determined young woman and her worn-down sidekick bravely tracking down a time-travelling murderer? It’s too much horror for such a story. Beukes wants to show that horror, she wants to show how terrible this is and how much of a loss these women’s lives are. The problem is that she succeeds.

So in the end I come full circle, back to where I started this review. The Shining Girls is interesting and well written. It’s a novel with strong characters and an interesting plot and on its own terms there’s no question but that it succeeds.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like it. That’s not the novel’s fault, it does what it sets out to do, but in the end this is still a book in which young women are brutally killed for the entertainment of the reader, and I’m just not the reader for that novel.

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Filed under Beukes, Lauren, Crime Fiction, Science Fiction

May nobody call me an unreliable narrator.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo and translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell

Some books are just delightful. The other day I finished a rereading of The Illiad, an epic poem over 3,000 years old full of tragedy and loss and extraordinary humanity. It’s hard after something like that to know what to read next. Then I happened to read a review at JacquiWine’s Journal, here, and there was the answer. I bought Where There’s Love, There’s Hate immediately on finishing her review; started it that night and drank it down over the next couple of days. It’s a Tom Collins of a novel, refreshing and a perfect palate cleanser.

Here’s how it opens:

The last drops of arsenic (arsenicum album) dissolve in my mouth, insipidly, comfortingly. To my left, on the desk, I have a copy, a beautiful Bodoni, of Gaius Petronius’ Satyricon. To my right, the fragrant tea tray, with its delicate chinaware and its nutritive jars. Suffice to say that the book’s pages are well worn from innumerable readings; the tea is from China; the toast is crisp and delicate; the honey is from bees that have sipped from acacia flowers and lilacs. And so, in this encapsulated paradise, I shall begin to write the story of the murder at Bosque del Mar.

The narrator is Dr Humberto Huberman, and he starts his tale with him en route to a much-needed holiday and writing retreat by the seaside. As he assures the couple he shares a train carriage with, he is not only a respected physician but also a writer of screenplays, currently writing a contemporary film treatment of Petronius’ Satyricon. How could any reader not put their full trust in such a companion?

The arsenic by the way is not Dr Huberman committing suicide, it’s a daily medicinal dosage for Dr Huberman prides himself on having seen past the limitations of mere conventional medicine; Dr Huberman is a homeopath and it’s surely only my own prejudices that had me seeing him within a handful of pages as essentially a self-important quack.

As Huberman is carried through the night, he reflects to himself:

When will we at last renounce the detective novel, the fantasy novel and the entire prolific, varied, and ambitious literary genre that is fed by unreality? When will we return to the path of the salubrious picaresque and pleasant local color?

When indeed?

Where-Theres-Love-Theres-Hate
Huberman has a romantic dream of a seaside idyll and a secluded private resort. It’s certainly isolated: “The building, white and modern, appeared picturesquely set in the sand like a ship on the sea, or an oasis in the desert.” What he finds though is a failing hotel with windows that can’t be opened due to endless sandstorms; where heat and flies make the inside intolerable and treacherous terrain makes the outside positively dangerous.

The other guests include one of his patients, Mary, to whom he had recommended a rest cure at the same resort. With Mary is her sister Emilia and Emilia’s fiancé, Atuel, as well as a Dr Cornejo. The only other guest is an older man named Dr Manning who spends most of his time quietly losing at solitaire.

The hotel’s run by Dr Huberman’s cousin Esteban which soon explains why Dr Huberman’s really staying there – he’s not paying. There’s also Esteban’s resentful wife Andrea and her oddly sinister nephew, Miguel, a boy with a fondness for killing and embalming animals and a marked fixation on Mary. Finally, there’s an elderly and possibly simple typist who wanders about swatting flies and ringing the bell for meals.

Before long it’s apparent that not all is well in this sandy paradise. On his first day Dr Huberman overhears a seemingly needlessly bitter argument involving Mary, Emilia, Atuel and Dr Cornejo. At dinner that night Emilia has evidently been crying, and Mary rather than sympathise bullies her into playing the piano for everyone. Later Dr Huberman sees Mary throwing herself passionately at Atuel. Something is most definitely up.

In the morning Dr Huberman is woken early by Andrea calling through his door, asking for help:

Andrea looked at me with weepy eyes, as if preparing to throw herself into my arms. I kept my hands resolutely in my pockets.

Mary has been found dead, killed by strychnine poisoning. There’s no strychnine bottle in her room, and no apparent shortage of people who might have wished her harm. It’s fortunate for everyone really that Dr Huberman is there to take charge of the investigation until the police come, and to assist them once they do.

In a more ordinary novel Dr Huberman would be a Miss Marple, a Poirot, and in a sense he is. The difference is Miss Marple and Poirot are actually genuinely gifted amateur detectives, keen psychologists ever attentive to the smallest detail. Dr Huberman by contrast is in love with the idea of finding himself the hero in a real-life detective novel, misses virtually every clue and repeatedly shows a near complete indifference to the feelings of others (particularly when they get between him and his meals, which are his real focus of interest):

Andrea was pale and a tremble in her jaw foretold the imminence of a sob. Barely hiding my impatience, I realized that a delay in the arrival of my soup was all but inevitable. I decided it would be prudent not to speak until it had been served.

What follows is hilarious. The police soon arrive and begin their own investigation, and once they’ve cleared Dr Huberman as their initial chief suspect they bring him on board to assist, though whether it’s because his help is wanted or because it keeps him quiet isn’t entirely clear. When the Victor Hugo-quoting chief detective moves to arrest Emilia, Dr Huberman becomes convinced she’s innocent and sets out to identify the real criminal.

Dr Huberman though isn’t the only amateur detective present. The police surgeon, an apparent drunk, shows signs of being a Columbo-esque figure whose insight is masked by a feigned bumbling exterior; Manning, who seemed a harmless old man concerned only with his cards, turns out to have a sharp and perceptive eye for clues; it goes on. Soon it seems there are more detectives than suspects.

What’s wonderful here is Dr Huberman’s utter incompetence, irrelevance even. At one point he deduces where some missing jewels must be based on where they would be were this a novel. He’s wrong, but not even momentarily daunted. He interprets everything according to his own prejudices, for example describing Atuel at various points as behaving slyly, as having unnatural composure, the manner ” of an overly debonair tango crooner”. Dr Huberman though has half-convinced himself he’s in love with Emilia (as the hero of a novel would be of course), and it’s fairly obvious that mostly he’s just jealous of Atuel.

As an aside, sometimes when a mediocre blockbuster movie or romcom comes out I see people argue that you should just turn your brain off as you enter the theatre and have fun. It’s just entertainment they cry, just enjoy it. Why should we have to do that though? Why should we have to turn our brains off to have fun? Why can’t a blockbuster or a romcom be smart? They can be of course. Anyone who’s seen His Girl’s Friday would never dare argue that a romcom for example can’t be both funny and almost cuttingly clever.

I see the same argument made for books every summer in the broadsheets, which should know better. They start recommending “beach reads”; the suggestion again is that you should just switch off your critical faculties and ignore dull prose and clichéd plotting. Why? Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is an utter refutation of that. It’s pure entertainment, but it’s good entertainment, it’s well written entertainment, more to the point it’s intelligent entertainment.

This is a hugely fun book. It’s incredibly silly, knowingly so with Dr Huberman even flat-out stating that he’s not an unreliable narrator. It’s a perfect choice for a beach or flight; it’s not remotely taxing, but nor does it once ask you to turn your brain off. It laughs with you, not for you.

As I said at the opening I discovered this through Jacqui’s review, which in turn was inspired by 1stReading’s Blog’s review here. Another interesting review is at the mookseandthegripes here.

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Filed under Argentinian Literature, Casares, Adolfo Bioy, Comic Fiction, Crime Fiction, Ocampo, Silvina

safe in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen to you

Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Piñeiro and translated by Miranda France

The thing about recessions is that people tend to assume they’re bad for everyone, maybe not equally bad but generally not good. That’s not true though.

You might lose your job, have your wages frozen or slashed, be asked to do more work for the same pay. In any recession a lot of people are hurting, some very badly. Not all the pain’s visible. If someone’s now unemployed their friends and family likely know about it. If someone’s struggling to pay the bills though, having to cut back on luxuries and perhaps reevaluate what counts as a necessity; if holidays are being cancelled and purchases postponed, it’s quite possible that from the outside everything still looks fine.

On the other side of the coin though, some people do very well out of recessions. If you’re still in work and making good money (and generally plenty are even in the worst of times) then prices are likely falling or stagnant, restaurants are easier to get into, there’s good deals to be had and you’re in a position to take advantage of all of it. If you’re an employer you can squeeze wages and conditions and the chances are your employees won’t complain too hard about it.

There’s even an argument that recessions are necessary, part of the engine of capitalism, and that provided they don’t turn into extended slumps they ultimately make the majority of us better off. Poorly run companies go bust (as do some well run ones of course), questionable projects get cancelled, shaky business ideas abandoned. A recession on this view is like a forest fire that burns away dead wood, clearing room for fresh new growth. Of course, how much you agree with that view may well depend on how likely you think you are to find yourself dead wood or new growth.

What’s all this got to do with Claudia Piñeiro’s excellent Thursday Night Widows? Quite a lot as it happens.

thursday-night-widows

Cascade Heights is a gated community outside Buenos Aires. It’s an oasis for the well-off, a place where for the residents everything is exactly as it should be. The outside world might seem dangerous and uncertain, but in Cascade Heights you’re secure and the only time you see poverty it’s wearing a uniform.

As a general rule, if someone is walking and not carrying sports gear it’s a domestic servant or gardener.

Every Thursday a few of the men of Cascade Heights get together for cards and a drink. As the book opens though, in late September 2001, something happens and three of those men are found floating dead in a pool. The only survivor left early, or at least that’s what he says.

That survivor is Ronie, and his wife Virginia Guevara is the book’s chief narrator. Ronie lost his job a few years back, so Virginia had to step-up and became the estate agent for Cascade Heights. She helps the residents sell their homes when time comes to move or money gets tight, and matches new buyers to the right properties inside the fence (or gently discourages them if they’re not what the community would see as the right sort of buyer, this is not an ethnically diverse community and there’s a distinct strain of quietly spoken anti-semitism).

Virginia’s position is unusual in Cascade Heights, unique even. She’s a woman, but she works. Everyone else, their husbands make the money and they spend their days shopping, decorating, organising charity functions and taking classes.

In 2001 of course Argentina is deep in recession. It wasn’t always that way though and after that opening, those deaths, the book quickly backtracks to show Cascade Heights in better times. Most of the ’90s were boom years, a time when everyone seemed to be making money and the whole economy was spiralling dizzyingly upwards. It didn’t last of course. It never does.

The bulk of the book then isn’t about the dead men in the pool, and it would be a mistake to read this as a whodunnit. This is an examination of the Argentinian boom and bust, seen through the lens of a small group of particularly well off people. Cascade Heights is intended by design to shut out the wider Argentina, but however high you build your fence the world always still creeps in.

Inside the Heights is a tightly knit social world where local status depends in large part on how well you play tennis and where strict rules ensure that everything is just so. There are rules on how long your grass should be, what paint colours are permitted, where fences are allowed. Everything is harmonious, on the surface at any rate. Underneath though, lives can’t be made as neat as lawns and there are failing marriages, rebellious children, affairs, secrets and lies.

In well under 300 pages Piñeiro paints a sharply defined portrait of a range of characters. She dissects what passes for their moral structures, their hypocrisies and their utter near-wilful ignorance of the realities of life for most outside the fence. At the same time it’s not a crude satire, and there’ real sympathy here for some of the characters’ situations even if they’re not necessarily particularly easy people to like.

A wife whose husband leaves her risks losing everything. She has no career, she likely has no independent income or capital to speak of. This is a 19th Century world preserved at the end of the 20th where divorce can quite literally mean ruin, can mean being forced from your home and since that home’s within the fence being forced out of your community. Life here is comfortable, but it’s a comfort that can quickly curdle and the women live in large part at the mercy of the men. Lose your looks, get old, and you could find the world suddenly a much colder place than you were raised to expect. If the husband loses his job, dies, well that’s another home for Virginia to sell because this is a paradise with a definite price tag.

During the boom years though few think about this. Everyone’s making money, so nobody asks questions. These are utterly shallow lives, particularly for the women who have no jobs but still must outsource care of their houses to maids and their children to nannies leaving them with no possible contribution of their own. People take pleasure in sport and parties, and in their own ever-increasing wealth:

When we multiplied the surface area of our homes by the value of a square foot, we experienced a euphoria unequalled by almost any other: the pleasure principle of an algorithm. Because we weren’t planning to sell our houses to anyone. It was the maths alone, that simple multiplication, that caused us joy.

The good times don’t end overnight, and they don’t end for everyone either. As the end of the century approaches though things start to creak, cracks start to appear (“1998 was the year of suspicious suicides”):

The thing is, many of our neighbours made the mistake of thinking that they could keep spending as much as they earned for ever. And what they earned was a lot, and seemed eternal. But there comes a day when the taps are turned off, although nobody expects it until they find themselves in the bath tub, looking up at the shower head, from which not a single drop of water falls any more.

At times the critique here is absolutely biting. There’s a simply brilliant section where the wives (calling themselves the “Ladies of the Heights”) have a jumble sale in which they sell their cast-off clothes to their maids for charity. Normally the maids would just be given the wives’ old clothes, or could retrieve them from the rubbish. Now the maids have to pay from the wages the wives gave them so that the wives can give the money to the poor, ignoring the fact the poor are right in front of them. It’s utterly credible, unfortunately.

For all that the book’s never heavy handed. This is an easy read, cleanly written and full of sharp observation, and while I can’t speak to how accurate the translation is I can say that if I didn’t know it was originally written in Spanish I generally wouldn’t have guessed.

Occasionally of course there’s a social detail which might not make sense to those outside Argentina, and here the translator has taken a slightly unusual approach by including some very sparingly used brief explanatory footnotes. By way of example, the word asado can’t easily be translated, but a footnote flags that it’s an elaborate barbecue. Obviously the translator could just have said that, but it would have disrupted the flow of the sentence in a way the footnote doesn’t. Later on a separate footnote provides more detail, when it becomes important, on what an asado typically involves and the role it plays in Argentinian culture.  The footnoting works extremely well, and I wish more translated novels adopted this approach.

Thursday Night Widows is crime novel as social critique, but done so well the crime is almost forgotten and by the time you realise that’s what’s happening it doesn’t matter because while the deaths are interesting, the lives are fascinating.

As with so many other books, I learned about Thursday Night Widows from Guy Savage’s blog. His review is here. There are also a nice review at a blog I’m less familiar with called A Work in Progress, here.

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Filed under Argentinian Literature, Crime Fiction, Piñeiro, Claudia

At the beginning of the century there was a strong belief in positivism

Europeana, by Patrik Ouředník and translated by Gerald Turner

Some books, often the most interesting, defy easy categorisation. Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana is a history of the 20th Century, except it isn’t, or if it is it’s the most random and partial history I’ve ever read. It’s a novel too, except it isn’t because there’s no plot, no characters, nothing I would normally associate with fiction. Here’s how it opens:

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was nknown as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again.

Ourednik

What follows is a 122 pages of history by association, history without causation. The opening sets the theme, one of war and waste and sheer absurdity. The tone is banal, matter of fact, and what I can’t reproduce here is that on each page a small quote or two is reproduced in tiny font in the margin. For the passage above it’s “the English invented the tank”, but so faint and hard to read I had to photograph it and enlarge it to quote it here. What’s the point? Why does the book pull out that line from all those above? Perhaps because in doing so it undermines the very concept that we can pick out what’s important, the idea that there’s a heirarchy to history.

Here’s a quote from the second and third pages:

Some historians subsequently said that the twentieth century actually started in 1914, when war broke out, because it was the first war in history in which so many countries took part, in which so many people died and in which airships and airplanes flew and bombarded the rear and towns and civilians, and submarines sank ships and artillery could lob shells ten or twelve kilometers. And the Germans invented gas and the English invented tanks and scientists discovered isotopes and the general theory of relativity, according to which nothing was metaphysical, but relative. And when the Senegalese fusiliers first saw an airplane they thought it was a tame bird and one of the Senegalese soldiers cut a lump of flesh from a dead horse and threw it as far as he could in order to lure it away. And the soldiers wore green and camouflage uniforms because they did not want the enemy to see them, which was modern at the time because in previous wars soldiers had worn brightly-colored uniforms in order to be visible from afar. And airships and airplanes flew through the sky and the horses were terribly frightened. And writers and poets endeavored to find ways of expressing it best and in 1916 they invented Dadaism because everything seemed crazy to them.

That paragraph continues for roughly another page, covering as it does so references to the Russian revolution, to nametags to identify dead soldiers, the numbers of dead on each side in World War 1 measured in kilometres, and the Spanish flu. The tiny and faint sidebar quote this time was “germans invented gas”.

So what’s going on here? At first I wasn’t sure, but as you read on themes start to emerge, patterns swirl out of the apparently random and unsupported factoids (and nothing here is referenced, nothing backed up).

The twentieth century to us now seems a century of grand narratives. Communism versus capitalism. The allies versus the axis. Democracy versus fascism. It’s a period in which we reinvent the concept of the self through psychoanalysis (a theory formed without any meaningful evidence that went on to dominate psychology and literature for decades, and that still lingers on despite the near total absence of any hard data supporting its claims).

New utopian philosophies emerge and briefly flourish, artistic movements come one after another in dizzying succession and new scientific developments from the pill to the internet to transgenic cows dazzle us. It would be easy to construct a narrative of progress if we wanted to. A clash of ideologies creating a furnace from which emerged ourselves, modern, scientific, democratic and free.

Of course it’s not that simple. We can only have that narrative if we choose to omit certain facts, if we elect not to dwell on where the desire for progress led us:

In 1910, the Americans devised a Eugenics Board, and in 1922, the Director of the American board sent the U.S. government a list of socially inadaptable citizens who should be sterilized in order to to preserve a healthy and fit society. […] And in Norway after the war they took away from unmarried mothers children whose fathers were German soldiers and sent them to mental hospitals. And lots of biologists and geneticists and psychiatrists and anthropologists believed that, alongside electricity, eugenics was modern science’s greatest contribution to mankind and just as electricity had transformed people’s material conditions and enabled the world to enter a new epoch, eugenics for its part would radically transform society’s biological base and enable the world to enter a new era. But some eugenicists said that sterilization served no purpose and calculated that it would take twenty-two generations to reduce the number of lunatics and psychopaths by 0.9%, and a further ninety generations before the proportion of lunatics and psychopaths in society stabilized at one in a hundred thousand. And they said it was necessary to find a quicker way of making mankind healthier.

Eugenics emerges as a key theme here. Ouředník returns to it over and over, looping back to the topic and as he does so he touches too on the twentieth century’s numerous genocides and the many mass-slaughters which may or may not be genocides depending on who you ask, but which whatever you call them still involved industrialised murder. The Communists, the Nazis, the Americans, they each wanted to create their own vision of the better society, and they each ran into the same problem. What to do with the people who didn’t fit their future? All too often the suggested answers started with preventing them from reproducing, and ended with concluding that a more immediate, a more final, solution was required.

Another key theme here, and a more controversial one, is the exploration of the Holocaust not as a unique event in history but rather as a particular example of what was if anything a marked historical trend. Not only not unique, but not even uncommon. The Jews, the Gypsies, the Armenians, each was singled out for massacre. The Albanians in what used to be Yugoslavia fared better, but not by much since they still had to face ethnic cleansing and deportation (in the 1930s and again of course in the 1990s, it’s not just Ouředník that repeats).

For Ouředník the impression is that eugenics, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and genocide form a spectrum of responses across societies and philosophies. We collectively spent a century purging ourselves of people we decided didn’t fit in, didn’t belong to our future, our end of history. Our narrative may be one of progress, of freedom triumphing over tyranny, but our reality is one of partisan butchery carried out with ever greater efficiency. Narrative is dangerous, it involves editing and when the narrative is about who we are and who we want to be as a society what gets edited is people.

In places Ouředník’s approach becomes problematic. This isn’t history so he cites no sources, but in at least one place I spotted an error, he credits concentration camps to the Communists in 1918 but Britain was deploying them in Africa as far back as the 19th Century (a time and place that saw its own share of genocides).

That in itself didn’t particularly bother me, but then when he claimed that the World Jewish Council in 1985 issued a statement that the Nazi euthanasia of the Gypsies was not a genocide because it based on social rather than ethnic eugenic principles I found myself wondering if that was actually true – and I couldn’t find any trace of it on a web search. I also couldn’t find any reference to a World Jewish Council, it appears to be the World Jewish Congress (possibly a translator’s error though I admit, but generally this is an excellent translation).

I also found myself questioning whether the reference to the 1985 statement was fair. My quick websearch for example easily found a page on a site called the Virtual Jewish Library titled “Roma victims of the Holocaust” which directly compared the treatment of Jews and Gypsies as people selected for slaughter by virtue of their ethnicity. If the 1985 statement was made as described, it’s clearly just one view among several.

It might seem I’m focusing too much on this relatively narrow point, but earlier in the book Ouředník says “the Turks said that the Armenian genocide was not a real genocide, and most Jews agreed.” Did he survey them? Ouředník’s concern is clearly claims of uniqueness for an event he doesn’t regard as remotely being so, but I get distinctly uncomfortable when blanket comments are effectively ascribed to a race. We’ve seen where that kind of thinking can lead, and given that’s precisely one of the points of the book quite frankly Ouředník should know better.

That rather sour note aside, Europeana is blackly funny in its sheer absurdity, which is our absurdity. It darts about between ideas and incidents, bringing them to light as if they were items briefly picked up by a bored shopper rifling through the bargain bin of history. It was a century of innovation adapted in large part to ever better ways of killing people we labelled as somehow other than ourselves, and so far the 21st century isn’t looking any better. So it goes.

I owe my discovery of Europeana to John Self’s review at The Asylum, here. As ever, his take is well worth reading.

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Filed under History, Novellas, Ouředník, Paul

I would be ashamed of a book whose spine was not broken

I Murdered My Library, by Linda Grant

Books breed. You start with a handful, a few shelves as a kid perhaps, but pretty soon you’re graduating to a bookcase. From there, another bookcase. Then another.

Soon you haven’t space for any more bookcases, so you start looking to see how you can fit in more books with the ones you have. You stack books sideways in front of the already-shelved books or on top of them. Perhaps you double-layer, though then how do you see what’s behind the front row?

Piles of books start to emerge, perhaps a reading pile near the bed, a few dotted around the living room, if you run to having books in the bathroom (I don’t) they start to gather there too. Books accumulate on tables, on chairs, under beds and on slow moving pets.

Eventually it comes time to move, hopefully to a bigger house. You stop flatsharing, move in with someone, maybe have a family. With more space comes more room for more bookshelves. Removal men curse your name and stick pins in voodoo dolls fashioned in your image.

Perhaps you dream of one day having a room solely dedicated to books. Unless you’re very, very rich it’s unlikely you’ll ever afford it though (perhaps in North America, they have more space there), and the genuinely rich tend not to be readers. Anyway, even if you did the books would still keep breeding.

If your partner’s also a reader, the books breed even faster. If they’re not, they’ll occasionally try to set rules about no books in certain rooms, no new books if there’s not space for the old ones, ask whether you really need all these books. Whatever they try it’s a losing effort on their part. Books will be smuggled in, shamefully squirrelled away where they might not be spotted. Contraband.

For some readers every book read bears their mark. Stained covers, scribbled notes in the margins, shattered spines and folded down corners. For others all that is blasphemy, every book treated so gently that visitors can’t tell which have been read and which not (that’s where I sit, Linda Grant as the quote titling this piece suggests, is in the other camp).

What happens though if you finally run out of space? What if you move and instead of going somewhere bigger, you go somewhere smaller? That’s what happened to Linda Grant. After 19 years living in a large flat crammed with books it came time to move, and there just wasn’t space in her new place for all her books, a lifetime’s reading, to go with her.

A book cull. It seems a suitable thing to blog about as we come up to Halloween, the season of horror.

GrantLibrary

Grant opens by describing her old flat, the shelves she had built for it, the nooks and crannies it held where books could be. However many shelves she had built though, there were still never enough:

The books in alphabetical rows were overgrown by piles of new books, doubled in front. Books multiplied, books swarmed, books, I sometimes dreamt, seemed to reproduce themselves – they were a papery population explosion. When they had exhausted the shelves, they started to take over the stairs; I had to vacuum round them. You cannot have a taste for minimalist décor if you seriously read books.

Unfortunately I do have a taste for minimalist décor, but she’s right, I’ve never achieved it because I’ve always had too many books.

So Grant had to do the unthinkable. She had to get rid of most of her books, thousands of them. She had to decide which would go with her, and which would not. In doing so, as any reader knows, she’s doing more than making some choices about mere property, she’s making choices about herself: who she is; how she connects to who she was; who she wants to be.

It is more than 50 years since I began to build my library, from its earliest foundations in the elementary sentence construction of Enid Blyton. Now at least half of the thousands of books I have bought are gone. It is one of the worst things I have ever done. I hate myself. But not as much as I have come to hate the books.

When I last moved I had to do something similar myself. We were paying for removal men, and even though we were moving to a larger place we wanted a chance of having it be a place we could enjoy, relax in, not a library with humans and cats moving carefully between the shelves. I found what Linda Grant found, it’s not actually as easy as you’d think to get rid of books.

Many charity shops don’t take books at all, those that do pulp most of those they take (a dirty secret of the charity industry, but most books have no resale value, particularly the more literary ones). Libraries aren’t as keen to get other people’s castoffs as you might think. If your friends are readers they probably already have too many books themselves, if they’re not they’re unlikely to want to give a home to what to them is a large pile of unsightly clutter.

If you’re getting rid of a few books none of this is insurmountable. Homes can be found, and Linda Grant does get a good few to where they might be read. If you’re getting rid of hundreds though as I was, or thousands as Linda Grant was, well, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself throwing books in the rubbish. Not just a few books either, and not just bad books, you’re going to be throwing good books away by the yard.

The process starts with care, with an assessment of merit and emotional connection. If you’re discarding in bulk though you really can’t keep that up, and besides sentiment leads you to spare too many. As Linda Grant says, “After a couple of hours, the process of deciding literary merit speeds up considerably.” In my own cull’s first hour I got through a handful of books, saving almost all of them. Three hours in and a second’s consideration was more than adequate.

It’s not a light thing to destroy books, particularly if you’re a reader, someone for whom they’ve been essential your entire remembered life (as Grant says, and I could say it myself, “Reading wasn’t my religion – it was my oxygen”). You literally though can’t give most of them away. Your books are priceless, but at the same time quite without value.

Who destroys books? Cities, churches, dictators and fanatics. Their fingers itch to build a pyre and strike the match. On 10 May 1933, students gathered in Berlin to dance around a bonfire of 25,000 volumes of ‘un-German’ books. They burned, amongst many others, Bertolt Brecht, Otto Dix, Heinrich Heine, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and H.G. Wells. They destroyed them because the contents were too dangerous. Now, in an apartment on the Mediterranean, the same authors were being dumped because no-one wanted to read them. They are the detritus not just of the digital revolution but also of disposable living and small houses. And I too have committed murder in my library. I have killed my books.

Grant goes on to discuss wider themes, about how books fit into our lives as readers, and how they don’t for people who aren’t readers. If you’ve ever watched one of those tv shows where smiling experts help people buy or sell homes, it’s noticeable that there’s never any books. When Grant went to look at flats, particularly those being sold by younger people, they too largely seemed to be book-free:

Sometimes the alcoves were lined with shelves but they didn’t hold any books – they were for DVDs. The shelves pronounced taste, as my student bookshelves had pronounced a counter-cultural identity, but taste in interior décor and dinner. And I knew this because when the estate agent came to look at my flat, he winced when he saw all those books. What did he see? Clutter. Estate agents do not think that books furnish a room – books make rooms look messy. Books’ multi-coloured spines muddle and muddy the Farrow & Ball neutral paint colours, the Ammonite and Hardwick White and Savage Ground. They completely destroy the impact of the accent wall.

Estate agents advise her that books put off potential buyers. Grant’s cull begins long before her move as if she hopes to sell she can’t have a home overrun with books.

What then is the value of books? Particularly books we’ve already read? For us as readers (as Grant discusses) they are perhaps reminders of past pleasures, statements (to whom? to ourselves?) of who we are or mementos of who we once were (my own purge included a lot of SF I’d carefully accumulated over years, before my tastes shifted). They hold the promise of the possibility of revisiting an old literary friend or pleasures yet to be had if a book’s still unread.

They can also seem to be legacies, future gifts of knowledge and experience. Grant, like many, thought that perhaps in time she’d pass them on to the next generation, but really why would they want them? You see the same with people with carefully curated record or CD collections, is it really likely their children will want a lifetime’s accumulation of recordings by artists most of whom they’ve probably never even heard of?

My nephew’s wife took a suitcase full of the fashion monographs, but nothing else tempted them. The idea that I was building a library to bequeath to the next generation is one of the greatest fallacies of my life. The next generation don’t want old books – they don’t seem to want books at all. This is very painful to me.

The desire to pass on our library, our albums, our pottery collection or antique furniture or whatever possession we most prize is in part a desire not to die. It’s a bit of us continuing, our tastes, our memory brought to mind each time the imagined grateful recipients pull a book off the shelf or put a CD on (on what? It’s likely they won’t even have the technology to play them).

The reality though is that when we die our treasured possessions will at best be sold for whatever cash value they have, at worst will be a tedious and possibly upsetting chore for whoever has to sort through them all and put them in sacks for disposal. Grant touches on all of this, how in holding on to our books we hold on to our lives, how in getting rid of them we have to recognise our own mortality.

Grant also explores how her relationship with books and the wider world of books has changed. In the UK the loss of the Net Book Agreement led to deep discounting by chains such as Waterstones, who in turn were hit by even deeper discounting by the supermarkets, the charity bookshops and Amazon. Then came ereaders, at first poor substitutes for real books in terms of their reading experience, but increasingly as good if not better than their physical counterparts. A while back I bought Earthly Powers in hardcopy. The font was so small I couldn’t comfortably read it. Now I have it on Kindle, where I can increase the font size as needed. What use a book you can’t read?

Grant’s experience with Kindles is strangely similar to my own (making hers ironically a book “relevant to my personal experience”, a reader metric she rightly hates). Her first purchase is even one of the first I bought (Galgut’s In a Strange Room, though I’ve yet to read my copy). I love books, but wherever I can I get them now on Kindle. It means they’re always with me, and I won’t have to pay anyone to carry them next time I move. Besides, I buy a lot of books, I prefer independent bookshops as much as the next reader but ebooks are cheaper and don’t take up any space, like so many others I want the independent bookshops to survive but I can’t sensibly justify how much more it would cost me to make all my purchases at them or really the extra time it would take to get to one of the surviving stores (none are anywhere near where I live).

I Murdered My Library is, fittingly, available only on Kindle. It is, as you would expect, extremely well written and since anyone reading this is pretty much by definition a reader it’s a book that I think will resonate with you. It’s only around 28 pages, and sells at 0.99p, cheaper than a cup of coffee which as Grant notes is the price-point readers seem to expect of electronic books.

I’ll end with one final quote, one that I liked too much not to include somewhere:

I threw one box in the recycling bin. I’m going to hell, a hell in which eternity is a Kindle with a dead battery.

If you are interested in this, there’s a lengthy extract at the Guardian, here, which gives a good feel for the style.

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Filed under Essays, Grant, Linda