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.

7 Comments

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.

15 Comments

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.

17 Comments

Filed under Argentinian Literature, Casares, Adolfo Bioy, 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.

8 Comments

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.

15 Comments

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.

31 Comments

Filed under Essays, Grant, Linda

The Bourgeois Gentilhomme was one of many enterprises in Chelsea which survived entirely by selling antiques to each other

Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald

I’ve long had a vague desire to live on a boat. As a child I went on canal boat holidays with my father’s side of the family. I remember chugging gently down English waterways, visiting tiny villages, sunshine and calm water. I don’t know if that’s what it was actually like of course. Memories of childhood holidays aren’t particularly reliable, mine are hazy snapshots at best. That’s what it was like now though, whether it’s what it was like that then or not.

There’s something profoundly romantic about the idea of living on a boat, either that or something desperate. It’s a choice of those two because you either want to do it because despite the inconvenience and impracticality the idea just plain appeals, or you have to do it because you can’t afford an alternative.

Fitzgerald did live on a boat for a while. She writes from knowledge, and it shows. This is a short novel, around 180 pages, and not a lot happens. It’s a portrait in miniature of people living not quite ashore, people who’ve drifted out of the mainstream, fragile people.

Offshore

The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.

It’s 1961, the sixties before they became the sixties. Nenna lives on a houseboat off Chelsea with her two young children, barely getting by. Her marriage has broken down, though perhaps not irretrievably, but for now at least she’s isolated and vulnerable, torn with self-recriminations and an internal narrative that mercilessly interrogates her own failings.

That sounds bleak, but it isn’t because for all she’s on the margins she’s not alone. Her neighbours on the river include Richard, retired ex-Navy and leader of their little community who lives with his exasperated traditionally middle class wife who just wants a nice house in the country; Maurice, a rent boy who’s also Nenna’s closest friend; Willis, an artist in his 60s specialising in maritime portraits that have gone distinctly out of fashion; there are others. The exact members of the community ebb and flow, but what they have in common is that none of them quite fit the larger and brasher world onshore. As Maurice says to Nenna:

You know very well that we’re two of the same kind, Nenna. It’s right for us to live where we do, between land and water. You, my dear, you’re half in love with your husband, then there’s Martha who’s half a child and half a girl, Richard who can’t give up being half in the Navy, Willis who’s half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who’s half alive and half dead …’ He stopped before describing himself, if, indeed, he had been going to do so.

There’s barely a plot. Willis wants to sell his boat, but it’s in terrible condition and if he’s to succeed he’ll need some help from the others covering up how bad it is, which is a fairly big ask. Nenna wants to get her husband back, to bring him to live on the boat with her, but he’s a deeply conventional man who blames her for the failure of their marriage (as does she in her low moments). Maurice is being forced by a local gangster to store stolen goods on his boat, putting him at risk of arrest if he complies and violence if he doesn’t. Any of those situations could be spun out into a rich and rewarding story if an author wanted to, but that’s not what Fitzgerald’s about here. Instead her interest is in the people themselves, their situations are products of their characters.

In his brilliant foreword Alan Hollinghurst describes Offshore as “tragi-farce”, and I can’t better that. It’s a sad novel in many ways, with gentle people being bruised by a world that isn’t really made with them in mind, but it’s written with a warmth and humour that makes it often very funny.  It opens with a meeting of the various boatowners, each addressed by the name of their boat (Richard, or Lord Jim I should say since that’s his boat, is a stickler for doing things the right way). There’s the Dreadnought, the Rochester, the Grace, and there’s the Maurice which used to be called the Dondeschipolschuygen IV until Maurice, realising that’s what everyone would have to call him, promptly changed its name.

It’s funny too because it’s so well observed, and because by and large people are funny, life is funny, despite (perhaps because) it’s often so terribly serious. Here Willis, the artist, takes Nenna’s children on a trip to the Tate:

Once at the Tate, they usually had time only to look at the sea and river pieces, the Turners and the Whistlers. Willis praised these with the mingled pride and humility of an inheritor, however distant. To Tilda, however, the fine pictures were only extensions of her life on board. It struck her as odd, for example, that Turner, if he spent so much time on Chelsea Reach, shouldn’t have known that a seagull always alights on the highest point. Well aware that she was in a public place, she tried to modify her voice; only then Willis didn’t always hear, and she had to try again a good deal louder. ‘Did Whistler do that one?’ The attendant watched her, hoping that she would get a little closer to the picture, so that he could relieve the boredom of his long day by telling her to stand back.

The children are perhaps the least realistic part of the novel (though in fairness I don’t think the novel is aiming for strict realism, it knows it’s fiction). Martha is eleven, “small and thin, with dark eyes which already showed an acceptance of the world’s shortcomings”. She’s all too aware that her own maturity has already eclipsed her parents, and unlike her mother she sees “no need for fictions”. Tilda is six, a child of the river who sits far up on her mother’s boat’s mast daydreaming. “Tilda cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness.”

Neither Martha nor Tilda attend school. It doesn’t seem to matter, both are spectacularly precocious, the only real adults in the book. In Martha’s case you could make a fair argument that children of parents who’re struggling to cope often are forced to mature ahead of time, but that’s I think missing the point. The children are a contrast to the adults, Martha engaging with the world and Tilda creating her own. They’re coping, succeeding even, which is more than anyone else is managing to do. It’s when they grow up that all that might change.

What shone for me here is Fitzgerald’s empathy and quiet precision. She can capture a character in a sentence, like when Nenna’s husband accuses her of having lost his squash rackets:

 ‘You mislaid them deliberately?’

‘I don’t do anything deliberately.’

Or when Richard is described as “the kind of man who has two clean handkerchiefs on him at half past three in the morning.” She doesn’t judge her characters, doesn’t turn them into playthings for our amusement as say Nabokov does. This is a book filled with compassion, with characters who care for each other where almost nobody else cares for them, and written by an author who at times seems almost as if she’d like to reach into her own book to help them. Take this example, where Nenna finally meets up with her husband but they fall back into a terrible row:

And now the quarrel was under its own impetus, and once again a trial seemed to be in progress, with both of them as accusers, but both figuring also as investigators of the lowest description, wretched hirelings, turning over the stones to find where the filth lay buried. The squash racquets, the Pope’s pronouncements, whose fault it had been their first night together, an afternoon really, but not much good in either case, the squash racquets again, the money spent on Grace. And the marriage that was being described was different from the one they had known, indeed bore almost no resemblance to it, and there was no-one to tell them this.

Offshore is a quiet book, unshowy. Its charms are small ones, delicate moments of observation or humour. It was published in 1979, long after the period it describes, so the characters live not just in a physical hinterland but a temporal one too, offshore in time as well as space. It’s a time when Britain is starting to change, when austerity is making way for a new prosperity. The certainties that men like Richard lived by are on their way out, but by 1979 it must have been plain that the world that came next was no kinder to those who didn’t quite fit.

I’ve already bought another Fitzgerald, her The Bookshop. I’m looking forward to it. Offshore isn’t the kind of novel I typically like, it’s a bit polite, arguably a bit Hampstead, but it’s well written and as ever in the end that’s what counts. It reminds me a bit of Anita Brookner, another novelist who could be described as perhaps too polite, too Hampstead, but again an author who could definitely write.

Given it won the Booker it’s not surprising that Offshore has been fairly widely reviewed. Here‘s themookseandthegripes on it, with a good discussion in the comments (I note Guy Savage didn’t take to it so much); here‘s Kimbofo on it, good as ever; and here‘s a typically good piece by Sam Jordison of the Guardian on his Booker blog which I highly recommend reading for some background on the novel’s apparently rather conroversial Booker win. Finally, here‘s an excerpt of Alan Hollinghurst’s blisteringly good foreword as published in The Telegraph.

22 Comments

Filed under Booker, Fitzgerald, Penelope

Backlogs, review copies and catching up

I’ve just got back from a very welcome, and very overdue, two week holiday. I’ve not been doing any blogging while away (or much in the weeks prior due to pressure of work), but it gave me the chance to think about my review backlog.

Alphaville_Japan_MPOTW

My review policy, as per my About page, is generally not to accept books for review. Mostly I stick to that, but not always. Sometimes I get offered something that tempts, sometimes I just get sent something without asking. The result is that over the years I’ve built up a fairly sizable number of books which I do feel obliged to review (and which in pretty much every case I do actually want to read), but which don’t necessarily fit my current mood or reading plan.

At a rough and probably incomplete estimate, I have the following review copies waiting to be read (in no particular order, but the most recent arrived sometime in 2013, most are quite a bit older):

Spurious, Lars Iyer;
Exodus, Lars Iyer;
Tan Twan Eng, Garden of Evening Mists;
Antal Szerb, Love in a Bottle and Other Stories;
Ellen Ullmann, By Blood;
Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone, Home;
Jim Murdoch, Milligan and Murphy;
Lorinda J Taylor, Monster is in the Eye of the Beholder;
Lochlan Bloom, Trade;
Andrew Lovett, Everlasting Lane;
Jonathan Gibbs, Randall (though I paid for a copy too so not sure this still counts, still want to read it though either way);
Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (but again I’ve bought my own copy since, phew!)
Wu Ming, Manituana (I suspect I’ve had this several years now, and it’s by my favourite Italian Communist writing collective…);
Alvaro Bisima, Dead Stars;
Elisa Ruotolo, I Stole the Rain;
Adrian N. Bravi, The Combover;
and finally, every one of the Richard Stark Parker novels.

If you’ve sent me a book and it’s not on the list, please feel free to remind me in the comments.

At the same time I’ve been sufficiently busy at work of late that I’ve built up a review backlog of books that I actually have been reading. Currently it stands as follows:

Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Pineiro;
Play it Where it Lays, by Joan Didion;
Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald;
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton;
Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author, by Paul Ewen;
Europeana, by Patrik Ouředník; and
The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes.

That doesn’t include several kindle singles and Galley Beggar shorts I’ve read and intend to review, nor some comics I’d hoped to cover.

The thing is, after a while a backlog becomes a burden. It’s something that looks awfully close to work, unpaid work. It’s not fun, and what’s the point of blogging if it isn’t fun?

So, I do still intend to review everything in my current backlog, not least because several of them are very good and even the ones I didn’t take to are still interesting and would work well for other readers. I still intend to read every book that’s been sent to me for review, though I make no promises at all as to when. What I also intend though is to be even more careful what I take on going forward. If I accept a book for review it means adding it to a pile that’s already years old and yards long, which is silly and only worth doing if I’ll be prioritising it ahead of all the existing books in the review pipeline.

Otherwise, going forward I’m going to go back to reviewing the last book I read, and the books on the review backlog will get fitted in when I get a spare moment to do so and in whatever order I happen to feel like. That’s not ideal as it means some of them may end up unreviewed for quite a while, but I don’t want to go on being permanently months in arrears – I don’t enjoy it as much as I do blogging as I go along.

Anyway, that’s it by way of update. Any thoughts you might have on how you deal with reading or reviewing backlogs (including the dread TBR pile which every reader has whether they blog or not) will of course be very welcome in the comments, as they always are.

On a final note, some of you may wonder why I have the Japanese poster for Alphaville, a film I haven’t even watched yet, as the image for this post. Actually, there is no good reason. I just like the poster.

22 Comments

Filed under Administrative posts, Personal posts

Connant nodded bitterly. “I’m human. Hurry that test. Your eyes—Lord, I wish you could see your eyes staring—”

Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell Jr.

Who Goes There? is one of those books now famous(ish) because of the film that was made from it, or films I should say – in this case the 1951 science fiction horror classic The Thing from Another World!, and John Carpenter’s equally strong 1981 remake The Thing.

Most of the people who read my blog don’t care much about either science fiction or horror, which is fair enough. If you ever make exceptions though, this might be one to make, because this is something of a small masterpiece.

who goes there

Love those old pulp covers.

An Antarctic research station find a crashed alien spaceship, ancient and entombed in ice. They accidentally destroy the ship, but they do at least recover a corpse from the ice nearby.

What follows is actually rather refreshing. The scientists at the base have an intelligent debate about whether it’s safe to thaw it out, some worried that even after 20 million years it may still harbour dangerous bacteria or viruses, the biologist Blair pointing out in return that since humans can’t catch diseases from snakes they’re hardly likely to do so from something that didn’t even evolve on our planet. Some are concerned by less tangible fears, the thing’s expression seems insane, hate-filled, and the mere sight of it causes men to recoil in revulsion. That and those who brought it back had disturbing dreams, but then who wouldn’t seeing such a thing?

Of course they decide to thaw it out, they haven’t really a choice as they know they can’t safely ship it back without it thawing mid-transit, destroying any samples they might later wish to take. They take sensible precautions though. Connant, a cosmic rays specialist, stays up with it overnight since he’ll be up monitoring equipment anyway. It’s not that anything’s expected to happen, they just want to make sure nothing goes wrong. It’s fair to say, things go wrong.

Campbell has a lovely sense of place. Here’s the opening paragraph:

THE PLACE STANK. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burned cooking-fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.

There’s plenty of examples as good. You can feel the cold here, smell the stale sweat. Campbell establishes swiftly quite how hostile the environment is, how easy it is to get lost in a whiteout, how quickly you can freeze to death. There’s only one place here life can cling on, inside the base itself. There’s only men, dogs, and the thing which even after twenty million years is very far from dead.

The 1951 movie makes the thing a humanoid plant that feeds on blood. Hokey, but it works in the film. In the book though it’s quite different, much worse. The thing adapts, and how it adapts is by imitation. It can absorb creatures, replicate them at the cellular level, effectively become them. It doesn’t just absorb their bodies either, it takes their thoughts, their instincts –  it’s telepathic, making it the perfect mimic.

What that means is that anything it can reach it can infect, take over. Dog, gull, seal, whale, it doesn’t matter. Anything it can reach it can become. Anything it becomes ceases to be what it was, is now a vessel for the thing, and it remembers every form it’s ever taken. If it gets out it’s literally the end of the world. It gets to the dogs, it starts to become a dog, but the barking of the rest of the pack alerts the men of the base and they find it mid-transformation, kill it with electrical cables. They consider what they’ve seen:

“… It can imitate anything – that is, become anything. If it had reached the Antarctic sea, it would have become a seal, maybe two seals. They might have attacked a killer whale, and become either killers, or a herd of seals. Or maybe it would have caught an albatross, or a skua gull, and flown to South America.”

It’s dead though, they think. Dr. Copper starts to reflect how lucky they were, though Blair quickly corrects him:

“Then we can only give thanks that this is Antarctica, where there is not one, single, solitary, living thing for it to imitate, except these animals in camp.” “Us,” Blair giggled. “It can imitate us. Dogs can’t make four hundred miles to the sea; there’s no food. There aren’t any skua gulls to imitate at this season. There aren’t any penguins this far inland. There’s nothing that can reach the sea from this point—except us. We’ve got brains. We can do it. Don’t you see—it’s got to imitate us—it’s got to be one of us—that’s the only way it can fly an airplane——fly a plane for two hours, and rule—be—all Earth’s inhabitants. A world for the taking—if it imitates us!

That’s where the real horror starts. They killed it, yes, but what if they killed it too late? What if it’s already infected one of them? Assumed a man’s form, copied his mind, is waiting among them for the snows to lift and for them all to be taken home, where it can spread and colonise?  Connant spent the whole night with the thing, is he still Connant? Who else might it have got to? It could be anyone, it could be several of them, all they know is that it can’t be most of them since if it were it wouldn’t bother hiding any more.

What follows is probably the most chillingly paranoiac novel I’ve yet read. There were times I had to close it just because the claustrophobia was too strong, the sense of dread and isolation. The radio’s quickly smashed so as to stop the thing calling for an emergency airlift out, but time’s passing and with it the season. Eventually the relief crews will come, birds will start to pass overhead again, all it has to do is wait, pretending to be one of them, pretending to be just as afraid as everyone else.

I won’t say much more about what happens, I don’t really need to – you can probably imagine. They develop a test to distinguish between someone who’s still human and someone who just seems human, but who do you trust to administer it? If a man refuses to let the person with the test near them does that mean they’re a monster, or that they’re human and don’t know if the person doing the testing is a monster? Every man is trapped in his own solipsistic hell, except of course that’s not true because some of them aren’t men anymore.

There’s not a lot else to say other than that this really is a quite brilliant little novella. Obviously if you’ve no patience for pulp tales of alien horrors from beyond the stars it’s not for you, but if you can swallow that part what follows is intensely evocative, so much so that I was glad it was short and I could come out of it blinking in the summer sunlight, if still feeling slightly cold. I don’t know if it’ll make my end of year list yet, but it’s a definite candidate. A wonderfully chilling little tale, and golden age science fiction at its best.

19 Comments

Filed under Campbell Jr., John W., Horror Fiction, Novellas, Science Fiction

There are moments when time dilates like the pupil of an eye, to let everything in.

The Incident Report, by Martha Baillie

When I was at university, I worked for a while in a department store’s take-away food section. That meant serving the public, and the thing about the public is that while most people are perfectly fine, it’s not most people you remember.

The ones you remember are people like the minor celebrity who came indoors on a cloudy day wearing dark glasses, which made you stare at them until you realised they were a celebrity ostentatiously looking inconspicuous so that people would stare at them; or the guy who held up two bottles of water from the chiller cabinet, one in each hand, and asked me which one was colder; or the countless, countless people who asked me if they could mix the pick’n’mix. Yes, I would say, you may pick it and you may mix it.

I still to this day don’t eat pick’n’mix.

I like people. The public though? Those people are weird.

Martha Baillie’s fine novel The Incident Report  draws on her experience working in the Toronto Public Library. I hope nobody ever held two books up to her asking which one was longer.

Incident Report

The book’s written in the form of library incident reports. These are forms that have to be filled in when an incident occurs in a public library, “including a Suspect Identification Chart.” There’s a template form right at the start of the book. The librarian filling them in is Miriam Gordon, thirty five years old, single, her official job title recently changed from “Clerical” to Public Service Assistant”.

The first few reports seem straightforward enough, descriptions of odd patrons at the library, but the librarian writing them includes details that almost certainly aren’t required. Here’s an early example:

Incident Report 7

At 2:20 this afternoon, the unusually pale female patron who suggested, a few days ago, that I deserved to be placed in a cage, walked briskly into the library. She was clothed in blue jogging shorts and a white tennis skirt, which she wore as if it were a Roman toga, the waistband slung confidently over her right shoulder. The crisp white pleats released themselves in a fan across her chest. We did not speak. She found what she wanted without my assistance. She left. Almost skipping with delight. Sunlight fell through the windows in broad swaths. A man looked up from his book and smiled.

The patron had previously been abusive, so writing up her return seems arguably fair enough (though she doesn’t do anything this time). The details though about sunlight, about a man smiling? There’s no library-approved reason for those.

Soon the reports become stranger yet, filled with personal details, with Miriam’s history, reports going far beyond the intended purpose of the forms. These are the incident reports of her life. Here’s another early example:

Incident Report 10

When I was eighteen, someone broke my heart. Within the period of a week, without warning, the love in my breast became opaque and hardened into a substance resembling glass. A few well-placed blows, and my heart shattered. One of these blows was administered over the telephone. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I slammed down the receiver. I was still living with my parents. I rushed out the front door without stopping to pull on my coat or boots. The freezing air slapped my cheeks; it plunged down my throat into my unsuspecting lungs. My father, who happened to be clearing the front walk, tossed aside his shovel and ran after me across the lawn, his feet breaking the crust, sinking into the deep snow. When he’d caught up, he took me in his arms. I present this memory in my father’s defense whenever I take him to trial, as I often do, laying my fears and shyness, my crippling self-doubt, at his feet.

As the book continues, part-stories emerge. A library patron may be stalking Miriam, leaving excerpts of the score to Rigoletto and notes suggesting the writer sees himself as Miriam’s protector. She begins a romance outside the library, reflects on her past and above all on her relationship with her father. Her life starts to unpack in the form of scattered reports, scattered incidents.

It sounds gimmicky, and I suppose it is, but Baillie pulls it off and the book’s a joy to read so it’s good gimmicky.

As the novel progresses it becomes both a mystery and a love story, or perhaps mysteries because many of the patrons featured in the reports are regulars and come with their own stories, their own pasts. These mysteries aren’t solvable. A librarian may see that a patron carries signs of old traumas, mental scars, but a librarian isn’t a private detective and the mystery walks out the door with the patron and their chosen books.

The greater mystery is Miriam’s relationship with her father, a man she blames for her own timidity and failings, such as they are (and her failings seem small ones). The tragedy of his life emerges from the incident reports too, but as with the library patrons we only have a partial view of him, a child’s view here, and we can never know what he carried with him, what happened when Miriam wasn’t there to see its effects.

Against all this is the love story, with Janko, a Slovenian painter and refugee who now drives a cab. A new love is a new future, a looking outwards instead of in. Miriam then is poised between the trap of her history and the possibility of her life yet unlived, as of course we all are.

The reports themselves are mostly less than a page long, sometimes a single sentence (the quotes above are both entire reports). There’s 144 of them in total and the whole book is only 195 pages long (including the template report). It’s a quick and easy read, in many ways ideal for a commute where you can read a few reports, consider them and return the next day or on the way home. It’s also an unusually gentle read, save one incident of great drama near the end which for me felt slightly at odds with the rest of the book’s tone and that I think could possibly have been avoided (though it’s not for me to tell Baillie how to write her own book).

The Incident Report is also often very funny. Much of the book is melancholic, Miriam’s past isn’t a happy one and it’s soon evident that the library is a sort of refuge for the human flotsam of a society that has no other place for those who aren’t economically contributing, but the sheer oddness of people and the deadpan nature of Baillie’s style makes it hard not to laugh. Here’s one final quote:

We have no reason to believe the patron found these titles [books relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict] particularly arousing. It is true, however, that the books most favoured by determined masturbators are those located at the back of the library. These include Fine Art, Poetry, Plays, Literary Criticism and History.

As has probably come across by now I rather loved this one. Fiction often struggles with normal lives, and in particular with lives that are undramatically damaged, ordinarily flawed. Baillie here isn’t trying to write the Great Canadian Novel, whatever that might be, and her book is all the better for it. I sometimes describe the sorts of books that tend to win Booker prizes as widescreen novels (a term originally coined by John Self I think). Big canvas novels covering countries, generations, making grand statements about human lives and society and the ever-popular but never defined human condition. Narrow focus novels though can be much more interesting, and perhaps more truthful.

As a final word, it’s worth mentioning that physically The Incident Report is a beautiful object, Baillie’s publishers Pedlar Press really did her proud. It’s well bound on excellent quality paper and just a pleasure to hold. If any authors should happen to read this you should get a copy of this and wave it at your own publisher. If all books were printed as well as this kindles wouldn’t be nearly so popular as they are.

For another review of The Incident Report you can’t do better than that by Kevinfromcanada, here, which first brought the book to my attention. Martha Baillie’s own website is here, for those who’ve not heard her name before (I hadn’t before Kevin). Her stuff is hard to get in the UK, this is only available I think because it was listed for the Giller Prize. Next time I’m in Canada therefore I’ll have to see if she’s better stocked there, and hope that she is.

18 Comments

Filed under Baillie, Martha, Canadian Literature