Category Archives: Novellas

… the impotent air-raid siren of 400,000 human voices

The Quickening, by Michael Bishop

I’ve done a guest post for Joachim Boaz, who has a rather marvellous SF blog here.

It’s a review of Michael Bishop’s award winning novelette, The Quickening. Novelette’s a new term for me, it seems to mean a long short story published outside of a short story collection context. I’m not surprised the term didn’t catch on, but the story’s good.

Here’s the cover:

THQCKNNGVW1991

The review is at Joachim’s, as are a great many well-written reviews of classic SF novels and covers. It’s a fun site, and even if you don’t find SF interesting his book-cover discussions may well still grab you.

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Filed under Bishop, Michael, Novellas, Science Fiction, Short Stories

Feminine indulgence in extravagance of attire was the bane of London at that era.

The Doom of the Great City, by William Delisle Hay

I’m a little pounded at work presently, so while I don’t yet have time to properly write up Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing I do have time to write up one of the short novellas I’ve recently read.

This one is an absolute oddity. I’ve mentioned before the fondness the Victorians and Edwardians had for apocalyptic fiction. The Doom of the Great City is a classic example. It’s an account of the destruction of London by that great terror of the Victorian age – really bad smog.

I should mention that this novella was as best I can tell intended as utterly serious. The emphasis there is on the word intended…

DoomGreatCity

So, we open with a framing device – it’s the far future (the 1940s!) long after the fall of London. The narrator is now an old man surrounded by family, and he’s moved to write an account of the traumatic events he personally witnessed that led to the destruction of the world’s greatest metropolis. It’s a very common framing device in fiction of this period, and one that allows Hay to contrast his future idyll with the iniquities of London in 1880.

I am transported back to the land of my birth across the intervening ocean a land of chill and sour skies, where the sun has forgotten how to shine; a laud of frost and rain, of mist and snow. I am young, but I am scarcely hopeful, for I am oppressed with many cares; I live amid noise and bustle, amid a throng of idlers and workers, good men and bad, rich and poor; I work hard at employment that demands my best energies and absorbs my young strength, and that yields me but scant repayment; I dwell shut in by bricks and mortar, and crushed by stony hearts; I am one among many, a single toiler among the millions of London!!

The bulk of the novella spends its time setting the scene. The narrator is (was) a clerk, as they so often are in these books. He lives with his mother and sister and in the usual vein of Victorian fiction there’s a fairly detailed explanation of their salaries and sources of income as compared to their outgoings. They’re barely scraping by on a combined £150 a year, “little more than sufficient to provide us with the bare-necessities of existence, while every day things seemed to be growing dearer.”

I love London. The narrator, well:

It was the opinion I formed at the time, and the opinion I still continue to hold, that London was foul and rotten to the very core, and steeped in sin of every imaginable variety.

He’s not a fan. That’s where the unintentional comedy comes in. This isn’t an apocalyptic novel where disaster strikes an undeserving populace. This is much closer to a judgement of god or nature on a city that richly deserves everything that’s coming to it. Hay spends a great many pages discussing in remarkably enthusiastic detail everything that’s wrong with the city, starting from the narrator’s own line of work:

I was in business, and business I found was an elaborate system of fraud, chicanery, and deceit. He was esteemed an upright man who never broke the letter of the law, no matter how he might tamper with its spirit, while morality and honest principle in commerce were abstractions of which the law took little notice, and business men less. He was called “smart,” and “a sharp, sound, practical’ man,” who knew how to take advantage of others, and who could enrich himself by impoverishing his fellows in “fair business.” In the learned professions — so called — things were much the same.

I’ll add the larger passage that quote comes from at the end of this post for those who’re curious. It starts sanely enough as you can see above, but soon he’s on to lawyers, then the church, then doctors, the entertainment industry, the aristocracy, professors of art, women, it goes on for pages. It’s a breathless outpouring of disdain for pretty much every target in sight.

After a couple of pages or so of this (out of only fifty or so in total) even Hay/the narrator must break for breath:

Enough! Even a great-grandfather’s garrulity must be checked in its reminiscent flow.

Yes please.

Thankfully once the diatribe against the evils of the contemporary age is out of the way the story picks up some. The narrator is out of London visiting, and the next morning tries to head home only to find out there’s no transport back into town:

All traffic into and out of London was indeed suspended, or rather, had never commenced. No trains had come out from the London termini, no response had been received to signals or telegrams; while men who had started to walk into town had either never returned, or else had shortly retraced their footsteps, panting and half-strangled. Telegrams from other suburbs and outskirts of town brought intelligence of a precisely similar state of things existing in those localities. No one had come from London, no one had succeeded in entering it.

Soon it becomes evident that the unthinkable has happened. The London smog has become so bad as to suffocate all within it. The whole metropolis lies wreathed in dark and sooty fog, utterly desolate. Eventually the air starts to clear a little, and so the narrator becomes one of the first to push his way back into the city – fearing for his mother and sister who are still within.

What he finds is why the story is worth reading (to the extent it is). It’s a haunting evocation of an utterly lifeless city, eerily reduced to silence and stillness:

I traversed the foggy street, seeing objects but indistinctly at ten yards distance. I saw no living being, no faces at the shrouded windows, no passers by, no children playing in the gardens or the road; not even a sparrow fluttered past to convey to me the sense of companionship. And then the frightful, muffled stillness that seemed to hold me down in a nightmare trance; not a sound of traffic, no rattle of carriages and carts, no scream and rumble of trains, no clamour of children or costermongers, no distant hum of the midday city, no voice or whisper of a wind; not the rustling of a leaf, not the echo of a foot-fall, nothing to break the deathly stillness but the panting of my laboured chest and the beating of my trembling heart.

There’s nothing that really happens – everyone is dead after all. There is though a tremendous series of descriptions of the desolation, including some very effective set-pieces particularly including a description of a horse-drawn bus stilled with horses still in harness, driver belted in and passengers rich and poor contorted in their seats.

I did struggle a bit with the narrator’s pious cries of horror and sympathy given that most of the book is given over to lengthy descriptions of how awful London and its inhabitants are. It reminded me slightly of The Black Spider – in both texts there’s a sympathy for those who are damned which is distinctly at odds with the glee with which their sufferings are described. It all reminds me a bit of that old Medieval idea that the afterlives of the saved are made more pleasurable by their being able to watch the sufferings of the damned in hell.

Still, it’s short, it’s about 99p from Amazon (and no doubt legitimately free somewhere online without too much trouble), and it’s a lovely example of a now largely extinct genre – the Victorian/Edwardian industrial apocalypse. It’s not really an overlooked classic, but nor does it deserve to be wholly forgotten either.

Here’s the fuller version of that quote. It’s absolutely mad:

I will add of what I saw around me to incline me to the belief in the black enormity of London sin. I was in business, and business I found was an elaborate system of fraud, chicanery, and deceit. He was esteemed an upright man who never broke the letter of the law, no matter how he might tamper with its spirit, while morality and honest principle in commerce were abstractions of which the law took little notice, and business men less. He was called “smart,” and “a sharp, sound, practical’ man,” who knew how to take advantage of others, and who could enrich himself by impoverishing his fellows in “fair business.” In the learned professions — so called — things were much the same. The laws were good, though inordinately cumbrous, and lawyers administered them for their own advantage, and at the expense of their unhappy clients. The law was a terrible engine of justice, but its intricate machinery was clogged with rusty “precedents,” and could not be got to move without a liberal oiling in the shape of fees. Hence arose the saying, that the law had one interpretation for the rich, and another altogether for the poor. The medical profession was conducted upon similar principles; the doctor — if he knew how — would keep his patient ill in order to increase his fees, and making suffering and death his daily sport, traded upon them for his own profit. Clergymen and ministers of religion, whether belonging to the State Church or to independent bodies, made “the cure of souls” a means of livelihood; they quoted the maxim, “the labourer is worthy of his hire,” applying its point to themselves; they kept alive “religious feeling” among the masses by incessant and endless quarrels among themselves on points of dogma and doctrine, extorting money in the cause of “truth” from the public, and either keeping it themselves or squandering it in various foolish and useless ways. And they made one religion for the rich and another for the poor, as anyone might learn by comparing a sermon preached before a fashionable congregation with one delivered to paupers. The merest infraction of moral integrity in one of the humbler classes was visited as intolerable; among the rich and high-born sin flourished under the hallowing sanction of religion, and vice luxuriated in the shadow of the Church. Purity of life was a simple impossibility, and chastity of soul would have been sought for in vain amongst Londoners. Theatres, music-halls, and similar institutions, appealed to the most depraved appetites; people flocked to gaze admiringly at a fashionable courtesan and her attendant harlots, or thronged to listen to obscene and filthy songs, or to witness indecent exhibitions, especially if these involved the risk of life or limb to the performers. Money flowed into the treasuries when such were the inducements, and eager rivalry in their production was the inevitable consequence. Clergymen, aristocrats, and art professors joined in extolling the stage as “the educator of public taste,” while young girls crowded to enter the ballet as the proper road to a life of delightful immorality. The press groaned daily under the weight passing through it of novels which tinctured absolute crimes with poetry and romance, which clothed the worst sensuality in the white robes of innocence, and which taught and argued in favour of every vice. Serial journals adapted to every class, rested their claims to attention on the obscenity, scurrility, or blasphemy of their pages, disguised under a film of moral platitude. Such were some of the causes at work, here were some of their immediate results. Among the higher ranks of society immorality was so common as to excite but small attention; frequent divorce suits proved this; scandalous disclosures of high life were of common occurrence; they gratified the public taste while serving to show the deeper depths below. Pleasure-seeking being the only employment of the wealthy and governing class, they elevated it into a “cult,” and wearied with the tameness of mere harlotry, gluttony, and show, brought “art” to their aid and invented “aestheticism ” as a cloak for higher flights of sin. The men of the “upper ten thousand” were trained from their cradles for a life of sensuous enjoyment. They held themselves aloof from commoner clay as from an inferior race, and they looked upon inordinate luxury as their paramount right. In their code of honour the payment of just debts had no place, unless the debt were contracted by gambling among their fellows. The “golden youth” were banded together into social guilds, bearing imbecile insignia, and using mysterious passwords, whose vicious meaning only the initiate might know. They had peopled a whole suburb with the villas of their concubines, whom the stage and the streets had furnished, while their elders sought amusement from almost infantile charms. Strange and unnatural were the crazes and fashions that pervaded this society: wearied with dissipation carried to excess, they were ever seeking new varieties, new emotions, new vices; they worshipped beauty, but it was not the beauty of created Nature, but that of art — and such art! — that most enchanted them. Ladies were divided into two “mondes,” the proper and the improper, but it was by no means easy to define the exact limits of either grade. The Phrynes of the period held their court and received adoration from the men, though not recognised by their high-born sisters; yet these were eager to copy the manners, dress, and accomplishments of the courtesan, styling themselves “professional beauties,” or veiling their hyper-passionate sensibilities under the pseudonym of “intensity;” while matrimony, even among the most externally decorous, was as much a matter of business as downright mercenary prostitution. The members of this highest rank lived in the very perfection of luxuriousness; their mansions, equipages, and servants, all were on a scale of magnificence as great as could be compassed. Dresses and furniture were splendid and costly. They fared sumptuously every day. Poverty was carefully excluded from their view, and came not within their cognisance, and ultra-extravagance was commended from the pulpit as a means of wisely diffusing wealth, and as an “encouragement to trade.” It was said that the spendthrift vanities and caprices of the wealthy were a source of good, promoting industry, and developing arts and sciences among the workers; “wherefore,” said these reasoners, “lavish arid. profuse prodigality is the commendable duty of the rich, as thereby they foster trade and benefit those who minister to their enjoyment.” When such theories were generally received, it is needless to say that politicians were blind to comparisons drawn from the history of the latter days of Rome, of Venice, or of Bourbon France. And this state of things had, of course, its dire and disastrous effects upon all grades of society below. People of the next rank, whose wealth had been gained from other sources than that of passive hereditary accumulation, busied themselves in the endeavour to gain admission within the pale of “polite society;” they sought to imitate with exactness every eccentricity of the nobles, and courted ruin to effect their purpose. A step lower, and the same procedure was invested with the grotesque addition of “vulgarity.” This abstraction consisted mainly, as I conceived, in a lack of “refinement:” it meant a want of ease and inherent use in forms of speech, manners, and usages; it conveyed the idea of eagerness where cold indifference should have been felt ; or it displayed a sense of actual pleasure, where blasé and captious disdain ought only to have been manifested. Throughout the great masses of the middle class, so styled, there beat the mighty pulse of Loudon life. In this section was contained business and professional men of every degree and kind, from the wealthy banker, the opulent trader or manufacturer, and the sordid promoter of bubble companies, down to the struggling professional man, the actor, and the ignoble clerk. It was divided into a multiplicity of grades or strata, the lowest mingling with the vast democracy of labour below, the highest, by dint of golden passports, passing current among the aristocracy. It was in this division of the social system that the real life of the great city was mainly manifest; here were to be found the chief law-makers and the chief law-breakers; here was every vice most obnoxious to the senses; here, too, was to be found what was left of virtue and goodness. Down through the middle class filtered every evil of aristocratic birth, losing nothing in the process, we may be sure, save the semblance of polish and the grace of courtly elegance; while up from the lowest depths there constantly arose a stream of grosser, fouler moral putrescence, which it would be a libel on the brutes to term merely bestiality. Do not think there was no good In London; there was, much; but it was so encompassed and mixed with evil as to be barely recognisable; while the influences of exuberant vice were such as to warp the integrity of men’s ideas of what was right, to benumb their perceptions of moral turpitude, and to lower the standard of excellence to the very mud. Besides, I only set out to tell you something of the wickedness I saw and knew and felt in London; merely a brief epitome, such as might serve to sustain the view I propounded of the guilt of that city. Have I said enough, my grandchildren? But a few words more, and I pass to the dread narrative itself .

Phew! Just for reference, he’s still not finished, I just ran out of ability to cut and paste on my kindle.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, English Literature, Novellas, Post-Apocalypse Fiction

This is my real life. All the rest is fiction.

The Bathtub Spy, by Tom Rachman

I wanted to like this one. I enjoyed Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (though with some reservations), and as soon as I saw he had a standalone short story out on kindle I snapped it up. Unfortunately, I’m left writing a review of a story that I didn’t hate but didn’t much like either.

Bathtub Spy

The narrator in this short story, Mr Tregwynt, is a reader. That’s true too of course of pretty much everyone who follows my blog. As we all know though, there are different species of readers. Tregwynt’s the sort who reads to escape. His days are frustrating, lonely and dull. In the evening he settles in a tub, opens a book and escapes into a better world:

Already, by the first sentence, I land on the galloping carriage of the story, and the drab locations I inhabit – this ramshackle house with Connie, the subway to the office, my bare cubicle there – dissolve, only black letters cantering across white pages now. This is my real life. All the rest is fiction.

The irony is what Tregwynt does in his office, his bare cubicle. He’s a translator in the intelligence community. He is, in a particularly unsexy way, a spy.

My work is mostly transcription. Wayne provides digital audio files and I render them into English. As such, I am privy to chatter that few others hear. And it is strikingly dull. Terror suspects, on wiretaps around the world, spend much of their time grumbling: their Internet connections are down again, their fellow cell member forgot to buy yogurt. If this is the enemy, he is cheeringly inept. Doubtless, they have their masterminds stuffed in a cave somewhere, just as we have ours in this concrete complex. Still, I’m starting to wonder if this War on Terror is waged partly between nitwits, theirs hostile to every book in the world but one, while ours – I glimpse Wayne typing a search into the classified military Internet for “awesome videos stuff blowing up” – are only slightly more formidable.

Wayne is the narrator’s team leader. Wayne is a petty workplace bully; a player of minor power games who sends the narrator on demeaning errands then keeps him waiting on his return while Wayne taps out an unimportant email or chooses to take a call. I’ve worked with people like that. I suspect most of us have. There is something peculiarly humiliating about hovering not sure whether to stay or go while someone shows their importance by carrying on as if you weren’t present.

Those days are behind me now since I’ve become more senior over time, and anyway I don’t work with people like that any more. Tregwynt’s not so lucky. He’s fifty-three years old, reporting to a man much younger than him and who he doesn’t respect at all. Wayne is vulgar and witless and so clueless he uses the name Iceman when ordering in pizza because he’s more in love with the idea of being a spy than actually doing a decent job as one.

Then, one day, Wayne notices Tregwynt reading a book, worse yet a book in French. Wayne is incredulous, dismissive, then he forces his own book by some Russian named Krapotnik onto Tregwynt and orders him to read it. Tregwynt is too mild-mannered not to comply , but how bad will a book read by Wayne be? He fears the worst, but what happens next is more terrible than anything he’d dreamt. Wayne’s choice of book is brilliant.

How could Wayne have read a book like this? How could someone have appreciated a work this fine, yet remained so foul? I don’t want to share anything with him. Not musical tastes. Not preferences in food. How could he like Krapotnik?

I won’t say more about what happens. The story follows Tregwynt and Wayne’s bizarre one-way book club and how it impacts their relationship. It’s well written, as the quotes above hopefully show, and much of it is funny.

So, why didn’t I like it then? The ingredients are all here. There’s that ironic contrast between the mundanity of Tregwynt’s existence and job and what we popularly imagine spies to be like (actually, this is exactly what I imagine a spy to be like, but that doesn’t diminish the irony any). There’s that question of how we reconcile discovering that people we despise like things we like (every time David Cameron names another band he likes a legion of left-wing music fans cry – how can he like The Smiths, The Jam, the Manics? Hell, how dare he?).

The problem for me was that it never really went anywhere. Rachman’s a natural at the short story form as he showed in The Imperfectionists, but for me this story was all setup and no payoff. I didn’t mind that I didn’t believe in Wayne, he’s meant to be a caricature after all. I did mind that I didn’t care about him or his relationship with Tregwynt. 

The Imperfectionists was funny (mostly), had great and well drawn characters and lovely little story arcs that intertwined with each other. I thought it had flaws, but I liked it and it’s held up well in memory. Here, well, it’s funny early on but the story has no real arc and the characters weren’t particularly interesting, or rather they were potentially interesting but they didn’t really do anything interesting.

Since Rachman is a writer of wit and character rather than of finely wrought artistic prose, not caring about the characters doesn’t leave much else to care about. I don’t necessarily want to put someone off reading this because Rachman has talent and there’s a risk of making it sound terrible when it’s merely not great. Still, if the quotes or the situation grab you then you could certainly do a lot worse, and as it’s a kindle single it’s both short and cheap. I just think he’s written better.

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Filed under Ebooks, Novellas, Rachman, Tom, Short Stories, Spy Fiction

The whole universe was idiotic.

Anticopernicus, by Adam Roberts

Of all the great philosophers and religious figures, it was Copernicus who was the greatest, for he alone had preached the truth to humankind: you are not special.

But what if Copernicus was wrong?

Adam Roberts is one of those writers I’ve long meant to read, but haven’t got round to. Enter Kindle Singles, which are a great way to try out new writers for less than half the price of a cup of coffee (not that cups of coffee are particularly cheap these days, I admit). 

There’s a grand tradition in SF of using short stories as a means to explore ideas which are interesting, but not substantial enough to support an entire book. Anticopernicus fits squarely in that tradition. Centuries ago we used to believe that the universe literally revolved around us. We were special. We were the most important thing in existence.

Over time that idea got discredited, slowly and at great personal cost to many of those who fought against it. Well, I say discredited, but of course while nobody really thinks the universe literally revolves around us anymore billions do still think it was created precisely for our benefit.

Among scientists though, among those who seek a material rather than theological explanation for our existence, everything we’ve learned suggests that we have no privileged position. We are not special. We are not central to the universe. We appear to live on an average planet in an average solar system in an average galaxy.

The only wrinkle in all that is that in one particular respect we seem very far from average, and that’s that we are here at all. Everywhere we look in the universe we see no signs of intelligent life beyond our own. We see no grand galactic building projects, we hear no radio signals, nobody comes to visit us. We listen to the universe and all we hear is a great and empty silence.

The working assumption right now is that there likely is other intelligent life, but that the universe is a bit more hostile to it than we initially thought so it’s rare and spread out. If that’s true then we’re still not special, just not that common, and the silence is just because our neighbours are very far away.

In Anticopernicus the aliens finally do come to visit us, but when they do it doesn’t turn out quite as we expected…

The extrasolar intelligence, or intelligences, or—who knew what they were, or what they wanted—they had approached as close as the Oort cloud, and there they waited, patiently as far as anybody could see, for the Leibniz to trawl slowly, slowly, slowly out to the rendezvous. Communication had been intermittent, although the aliens’ command of English was fluent and idiomatic. But most of the questions beamed out at them had been returned with non sequiturs. What do you look like? Where are you from? By what political system do you organise your society? Are you an ancient race of beings? How do you travel faster than light? Do you come in peace? How did you find out about us? Where are you from? What do you look like? Fingers are a mode of madness—and toes! Toes? Toes! What do you mean? Do you mean you don’t possess fingers and toes? That the sight of them distresses you? Do you have flippers, or tentacles, or do you manipulate your environment with forcefields directly manoeuvred by your minds? We can wear mittens, if you like. If it distresses you. We can wear shoes on our feet and boxing-gloves on our hands! Not that we wish to box with you … we have no belligerent feelings towards you at all! We love your fingers and toes! They are adorable! Adorable! But mad.

Ange is one of the astronauts sent out to the Oort cloud to greet our visitors, and to find out why they’ve come. She’s an introverted sort, someone who prefers her own company to that of others and is more afraid of the idea of an afterlife full of countless dead people chatting away than she is of simply ceasing to exist when she dies.

As Ange and the rest of the small crew of astronauts head out though something strange happens. The alien ship, massive, detectable even from Earth, vanishes. Why? What could bring them all that distance and then just make them leave?

Ange didn’t say anything, but it seemed to her more than likely that the departure was as random and inexplicable thing as the arrival. She believed (and this belief was as close to religion as she came) that the universe was not structured according to the logic of the human mind, despite the fact—ironically enough, perhaps—that the human mind is unavoidably part of the cosmos. The billions of buzzing homo sapiens brains craved pattern, structure and resolution; they saw the beauty of a story arc in every rainbow’s bend. The cosmos liked structure too, of course; but of a much less complicated, or perhaps it would be truer to say a much more monotonously replicated, kind. Hydrogen and helium everywhere in varying alternated clumps; the inverse-square-law everywhere in every direction. Everything existent, nothing mattering. And above all the cosmos had no sense of story whatsoever. If aliens arrive in a human story and set up a meeting, why, then there must be a pay-off of some kind! But neither set-up nor pay-off was not the logic of the cosmos; and most assuredly the latter was never intrinsically folded neatly inside the former, waiting to germinate. If the aliens had randomly vanished, as they seemed to have done, then that was (Ange thought) just one more unharmonious broken-off piece of the infinitely unharmonious piecemeal cosmos.

The answer, and there is one, is that Ange’s belief is utterly, utterly wrong. We do in fact matter to the universe. We matter a great deal.

I won’t say more since it would spoil the story, but I really enjoyed this. It’s not a meaty piece, it’s a fun little SF tale which takes an idea and runs with it. It’s not really credible, but then not all SF has to be. Back in the 1970s SF short story anthologies would routinely have a few tales in them that were just intended to be plain old entertaining, not to be taken too seriously, and this is firmly in that camp. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that some of the scientific elements it (very lightly) references are modern concerns it could easily have been written in the 1970s.

All that said, I wouldn’t remotely recommend this to non-SF fans. If you do already like the genre though it’s definitely worth checking out (and if you don’t like it at least it’s short and cheap).

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Filed under Novellas, Roberts, Adam, Science Fiction, Short Stories

‘Be more careful how you express yourself, my child. Calling people and things by their names has never done anyone any good.’

Gigi and The Cat, by Colette, translated by Roger Senhouse and Antonia White respectively

I grew up with musicals. As a child, staying with my maternal grandmother, I used to love watching them with her. Dazzling choreography, great songs, and all in glorious Technicolor. Singin’ in the Rain remains my favourite film.

I saw Gigi back then, the 1958 musical with Leslie Caron in the lead role, but I don’t think I understood much of what was going on. Quite recently I saw it again, and absolutely loved it. It’s a joy of a film, with some great songs (I Remember It Well being a particular standout) and set pieces. It also has a tremendous cast, including of course Maurice Chevalier (whose Thank Heaven for Little Girls remains the dodgiest song I’ve ever heard in a musical, even as a child it seemed a bit questionable to me, though at least the singer does wait for them to grow up).

GigiCat

Colette’s original novella, here translated by Roger Senhouse, is just as much a joy as the film was. Perhaps more so, because it can afford a cynicism that Hollywood largely had to expunge and because Colette’s observations are so utterly delicious.

Gigi is a pretty young Parisienne, still in essence a child. Her mother is a moderately unsuccessful actress who has passed responsibility for Gigi’s upbringing largely to her own mother, with whom they both live. Gigi’s grandmother has plans for the girl, and to that end is having her trained by her own sister, Aunt Alicia.

What is Gigi being trained in? Well, that’s what I missed as a child watching the film. Gigi’s aunt is a grand courtesan, her grandmother was a courtesan too, though not so grand. Gigi, the illegitimate daughter of an actress, has very few career paths open to her and the one she’s being prepared for whether she knows it or not is the life of a serial mistress.

What follows is a wonderful clash of youth and idealism on the one hand, and age and guile on the other. Gigi’s innocence and sheer spirit has captured the friendship of the most eligible young man in Paris, Gaston Lachaille, but now she’s starting to leave childhood the possibility arises that she could be something more to him than just a friend. Gigi doesn’t understand that yet, but her grandmother and great-aunt most certainly do. If only Gigi showed the slightest aptitude for their training…

Don’t ever wear artistic jewellery; it wrecks a woman’s reputation.” ‘What is an artistic jewel?’ ‘It all depends. A mermaid in gold, with eyes of chrysoprase. An Egyptian scarab. A large engraved amethyst. A not very heavy bracelet said to have been chased by a master-hand. A lyre or star, mounted as a brooch. A studded tortoise. In a word, all of them frightful. Never wear baroque pearls, not even as hat-pins. Beware above all things, of family jewels!’ ‘But Grandmamma has a beautiful cameo, set as a medallion.’ ‘There are no beautiful cameos,’ said Aunt Alicia with a toss of the head.

This is novella as macaroon, a perfectly crafted little delicacy, beautiful to look at and delightful to bite into (why yes, I do love macaroons, why do you ask?). Gigi’s lessons are full of acerbic little asides (“The telephone is of real use only to important businessmen, or to women who have something to hide.”) and pretty much every page had me laughing.

The three great stumbling-blocks in a girl’s education, she says, are homard à l’Américaine, a boiled egg, and asparagus. Shoddy table manners, she says, have broken up many a happy home.

Colette here manages to be both cynical and romantic, to have her gateau and to eat it. I could quote it endlessly, and can easily imagine rereading it. It’s just huge fun.

All of which makes it a bit of a shame that I didn’t like the other novella in the Vintage Classics edition I read at all. The Cat is actually an earlier work by Colette (1933, whereas Gigi is 1945). It’s the story of a young man who has a frankly unhealthy relationship with his pet cat and the rivalry that develops between that cat and his new bride.

I grew up with cats, and have loved them all my life. This should then be the novella for me. Unfortunately though I’ve never met a cat that behaved remotely like the cat Saha does in this story – too human to ever be convincingly cat. Then again, I’ve never met humans who behaved much like the humans do in this story either.

Alain, Saha’s owner, is an unwordly sort who is marrying more from duty than love. Here he coldly considers his new bride:

Alain listened to her, not bored, but not indulgent either. He had known her for several years and classified her as a typical modern girl. He knew the way she drove a car, a little too fast and a little too well; her eye alert and her scarlet mouth always ready to swear violently at a taxi-driver. He knew that she lied unblushingly, as children and adolescents do; that she was capable of deceiving her parents so as to get out after dinner and meet him at a night-club. There they danced together, but they drank only orange-juice because Alain disliked alcohol. Before their official engagement, she had yielded her discreetly-wiped lips to him both by daylight and in the dark. She had also yielded her impersonal breasts, always imprisoned in a lace brassière, and her very lovely legs in the flawless stockings she bought in secret; stockings ‘like Mistinguett’s, you know. Mind my stockings, Alain!’ Her stockings and her legs were the best things about her. ‘She’s pretty,’ Alain thought dispassionately, ‘because not one of her features is ugly, because she’s an out-and-out brunette. Those lustrous eyes perfectly match that sleek, glossy, frequently-washed hair that’s the colour of a new piano.’ He was also perfectly aware that she could be as violent and capricious as a mountain stream.

It’s a long quote, but an interesting one. This is his bride to be, but note the complete lack of passion. Here, by contrast, Alain considers his cat:

As soon as he turned out the light, the cat began to trample delicately on her friend’s chest. Each time she pressed down her feet, one single claw pierced the silk of the pyjamas, catching the skin just enough for Alain to feel an uneasy pleasure. ‘Seven more days, Saha,’ he sighed. In seven days and seven nights he would begin a new life in new surroundings with an amorous and untamed young woman. He stroked the cat’s fur, warm and cool at the same time and smelling of clipped box, thuya and lush grass. She was purring full-throatedly and, in the darkness, she gave him a cat’s kiss, laying her damp nose for a second under Alain’s nose between his nostrils and his lip. A swift, immaterial kiss which she rarely accorded him. ‘Ah! Saha. Our nights . . .’

Leaving aside the anthropomorphising there, we’re in distinctly creepy territory. That’s not a problem per se, though it wasn’t clear to me whether I was supposed to find Alain quite as profoundly distasteful as I did, the issue is that this is a character driven tale without a single character one cares about.

It’s about the lowest form of book criticism to say a book is bad because it has no likeable or sympathetic characters, and that’s close to where I’m getting here so I need to be a little careful. I read noir though, and it never bothers me there that frequently everyone in the story is utterly repellent.

The issue here is that Alain is so fixated on his cat he moves beyond the credible. He becomes almost an image of mental illness, but that’s not what this story is. His bride, efficient, modern, is put in the incredible situation of competing for her husband’s affections with his cat but since I didn’t believe in the husband or the cat the whole setup just became rather artificial.

As I grew distant from the story it jarred more and more. At one point, Saha becomes concerned that she’s upset Alain and so scoops “up a rusk from the table and held it between her paws like a squirrel.” Cats lack both the empathy and the grip to do anything like that. If I’d been enjoying the story I’d have read that passage generously, but I wasn’t and instead it became just another unconvincing detail.

For me then The Cat became a hugely contrived tale featuring a conflict that I didn’t believe in between characters who didn’t persuade me. It’s neat, and I don’t say that remotely as a compliment. Gigi is a vastly more accomplished tale. I’ll return to Gigi, but I doubt very much I’ll ever return to The Cat.

I should add, by way of postscript, that as I write this I’m actually surprisingly tired, my own cat having shown a distinct lack of empathy last night and having woken me repeatedly as she wanted to curl in and was annoyed I wasn’t responding. I love cats, but putting the feelings of others ahead of their own isn’t one of their core strengths as a species.

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Filed under Colette, French Literature, Novellas

“What can I do for you?” said a new character as he executed a bow.

The Attic by Danilo Kiš, and translated by John K. Cox

The Attic by Danilo Kiš, and translated by John K. Cox

The journey of the young writer, from aspiring novelist to published author, is one of the most widely told stories out there. It’s the only story every novelist has in common. The details may vary, as may the difficulty of the path followed, but by definition every one of them has done it.

It’s a story I tend to I find particularly uninteresting, because often it’s literature talking to itself instead of to the world. What could be more insular than novels about writing novels? Steampunk fiction actually, but I risk totally digressing in my second paragraph so let’s pretend I didn’t mention that.

The Attic is a Serbian novella written back in 1962. It’s a first novel about writing a first novel. It’s even called The Attic (the original could just as easily be translated as The Garrett or The Loft), as if to underline the airless subject matter. It has though that one quality which trumps all others, it’s well written.

The Attic

Orpheus, the narrator, is a young writer living in a mould and cockroach infested garret apartment with a friend he calls Billy Wiseass. These aren’t, of course, their real names.

Orpheus falls in love with a girl he names Eurydice, although it’s fairer to say he falls in love with an idea of a Eurydice that he clothes a girl in.

Back at the time I think I first met her, I was feverishly demanding answers from life, and so I was completely caught up in myself – that is, caught up in the vital issues of existence.

Here are some of the questions to which I was seeking answers:

- the immortality of the soul

- the immortality of sex

- immaculate conception

- motherhood

- fatherhood

- the fatherland

- cosmopolitanism

- the issue of the organic exchange of matter and

- the issue of nourishment

- metempsychosis

- life on other planets and

- out in space

- the age of the earth

- the difference between culture and civilization

- the race issue

- apoliticism or engagement

- kindness or heedlessness

- superman or everyman

- idealism or materialism

- Don Quixote or Sancho Panza

- Hamlet or Don Juan

- pessimism or optimism

- death or suicide

and so on and so forth.

These problems and a dozen more like them stood before me like an army of moody and taciturn sphinxes. And so, right when I had reached issue number nine—the issue of nourishment—after having solved the first eight problems in one fashion or another, the last addition to the list turned up: the question of love . . .

Orpheus tells Eurydice of his adventures in the South Seas, though they’re plainly a flight of fancy and it’s doubtful he’s ever left Belgrade. Soon after is an entire chapter which mimics a passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (I only know that because of the incredibly helpful foreword, thanks John K Cox). His friend Billy gets a girl pregnant and needs help with cash for an abortion, and Orpheus is keen to help because as he notes with concern a baby would mean “voilà, a new character!

What’s going on here? It quickly becomes apparent that The Attic isn’t just a novel about writing a first novel – it’s a novel about writing this particular first novel. It’s a literary ourobouros that becomes a kind of metafiction in which the characters are aware that they are characters and the novel is aware of its own artificiality. This isn’t a book which imagines a world, but which then pretends that the created world has some form of objective existence (the standard approach for the vast majority of fiction). Rather this is a book which expressly addresses the act of its own creation (though of course, the novel titled The Attic which is being written inside the novel I read titled The Attic may not be quite the same The Attic, in fact can’t be).

Soon I was giving [English] lessons to the sluts of the port. Never before had I had pupils who were more diligent and compliant. And they paid me regularly. In kind, to be sure. How else? Then I stopped giving lessons to those girls who lived by the Bridge of Sighs, as we referred to them. Every day their madam had brought me coffee with a great deal of sugar and milk, just because once I’d said I liked it.

[They discuss his smoking, which the madam thinks excessive. She refers to "some great disappointment in your past..."]

“No, no” I said. “But I prefer a bitter cigarette to sweet coffee with sugar. It’s simply…”

Then she said suddenly: “Listen, it’s not nice of you to make your café latte sound even sweeter than it is, just so I’ll end up coming across as all the more insipid. You reporters are all the same. It goes without saying that I’m mentioning this in your interest.

If all this sounds arch and pretentious then for a fair part of the book that’s because that’s exactly what it is. The early passages are breathlessly adolescent (check out that list, above). The style is deeply self-indulgent, but then the technique becomes surer, the conceit less overwhelming. What becomes apparent is that The Attic is not merely a novel about writing a novel, but a novel that reflects in its very style and structure the process of becoming a novelist.

It opens up excitable and even amateurish. It veers off into unbounded flights of fantasy. It then faithfully follows the path set down by an earlier great writer. Only after all that does it start to find its own voice, to convince in its own right.

What is all that if not the young author’s path? Learning their craft; learning how to structure so that the text doesn’t just fly off in all directions. In the foreword to Fugue for a Darkening Island, Christopher Priest talked of how he was over-influenced by his then literary heroes, and that’s what’s happening here when the text apes Mann’s text.

At about the half way point I was close to abandoning this book. Actually though, what it’s doing is genuinely clever. You aren’t just told how a novelist learns his trade, you feel it as the novel itself makes mistakes but improves as it progresses. The novel begins to embrace something beyond its own artifice, its own influences, just as within the fiction Orpheus as a writer develops his own craft.

The Attic then isn’t insular at all, even if it often seems so as Kiš plays with words and images like a child let loose in a toy store after closing time. Rather, it is about emerging from that attic of self-referentiality and breaking through to the world beyond the writer, writing about the external and not just the internal.

“So anyway – how are you amusing yourself these days?” asked Osip.

“I am writing The Attic,” I said.

We were walking toward the fortress along the edge of the Danube because Osip had resigned himself to the fact that Marija wasn’t going to show up for their date.

“That’s bound to be some kind of neo-realism,” he said. “Dirty, slobbery children, and laundry strung up in the narrow gaps between the buildings of some suburb, and dockside dives, shit-faced railroad switchmen and, hookers…”

“There’s some of that in it,” I responded. “After all, the title itself suggests as much. But it remains a horribly self-centred book…”

I don’t want to oversell it. It’s clever and it’s fun and most importantly of all it’s well written but it isn’t a weighty tome of sombre European insight. It’s not Thomas Mann (not that he’s particularly sombre now I think about it). Then again, why should it be? It’s a first novel after all.

Some other reviews I found interesting can be found here (and that article includes a useful career overview for Kiš) and here. There are also some more quotes here.

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Filed under Kiš, Danilo, Novellas, Serbian Literature

he was but the ruin of a man

Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

I read Ethan Frome on my kindle, and finished it on a sunny day. Part of it I read while walking down the street. It was dazzlingly bright and warm, hot even. I meant to buy a bottle of water on my way to the station, and suddenly realised I’d walked past the shop. Looking up I was momentarily surprised to find it wasn’t dark, wasn’t cold. That’s a cliché, but it’s still true.

My first Edith Wharton was Age of Innocence, and I absolutely recommend that as a first novel to try by her. It’s an incredible book. It naturally formed my image of her writing, and my impression is that it’s not too false an image – a novelist of blighted and frustrated lives choked by propriety and convention; of the constraints of the upper middle classes of late 19th Century New England and New York.

In a sense all that is true of Ethan Frome, save the class element (the characters here are mostly the rural poor). This though is a more gothic tale, eschewing strict realism for a mood of fear, horror, even loathing. As I read it I found it created a near overwhelming sense of dread, and all without a single supernatural element. The ingredients here are ice, isolation, long-held secrets, disfigurement, ruin and death.

The story comes with a framing device, where an unnamed narrator takes an interest in a poor farmer by name Ethan Frome. Frome is a solitary, lame figure crippled by some terrible accident. He is tacit, private, and people prefer not to speak of his misfortune. The narrator though is invited to Frome’s home to shelter from a storm, and from there is able to piece together Frome’s history.

“That’s my place,” said Frome, with a sideway jerk of his lame elbow; and in the distress and oppression of the scene I did not know what to answer. The snow had ceased, and a flash of watery sunlight exposed the house on the slope above us in all its plaintive ugliness. The black wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped from the porch, and the thin wooden walls, under their worn coat of paint, seemed to shiver in the wind that had risen with the ceasing of the snow.

Years before Ethan Frome was a young man married to an invalid wife, Zenobia. Zenobia had nursed Frome’s mother as that woman lay dying, and upon their marriage had promptly fallen ill herself. Ethan and Zenobia had little money but even so had taken responsibility for a destitute cousin of Zenobia’s, who now helps out around the home. Zenobia, “though doubtful of the girl’s efficiency, was tempted by the freedom to find fault without much risk of losing her”. 

The cousin is Mattie, a pretty girl full of all the life that Zenobia is lacking. Frome’s marriage is a pitiful thing, dogged by poverty and his wife’s constant complaints regarding ailments which appear more psychological than real. Mattie comes into this wasteland like a blaze of colour, red scarfed, red ribboned, and of course red lipped and cheeked.  She laughs, and her laughter is a miracle in Ethan’s life long burdened by illness and care.

Starkfield, Ethan’s home town, spends six months a year surrounded by snow and winter. It is a hard place with a puritan past. Red then is the colour of life, but it’s also in this context the colour of shame, perhaps even of adultery. Mattie’s life stands in vivid contrast to Starkfield itself, where the barren silence of Ethan’s home is echoed in the bleak landscape surrounding him, penetrating him. Ethan is frozen, early ambitions for education and escape long since abandoned. Mattie though gives hope of life.

They walked on in silence through the blackness of the hemlock-shaded lane, where Ethan’s saw-mill gloomed through the night, and out again into the comparative clearness of the fields. On the farther side of the hemlock belt the open country rolled away before them grey and lonely under the stars. Sometimes their way led them under the shade of an overhanging bank or through the thin obscurity of a clump of leafless trees. Here and there a farm-house stood far back among the fields, mute and cold as a grave-stone. The night was so still that they heard the frozen snow crackle under their feet. The crash of a loaded branch falling far off in the woods reverberated like a musket-shot, and once a fox barked, and Mattie shrank closer to Ethan, and quickened her steps.

I won’t reveal what happens, though this isn’t really a novel capable of spoilers (it opens with Ethan long crippled, and it’s swiftly obvious too what kind of accident crippled him). The key here is mood, description, the unfolding of a grim inevitability. The writing is absolutely beautiful. So much so that at times it’s almost a difficult read: wintry and steeped in despair. It’s that writing though which makes this so persuasive a book. The plot is arguably a little too neat, a little too deterministic (though Greek tragedies are deterministic and neat in that sense, which doesn’t diminish them any), but the writing makes it true.

The winter morning was as clear as crystal. The sunrise burned red in a pure sky, the shadows on the rim of the wood-lot were darkly blue, and beyond the white and scintillating fields patches of far-off forest hung like smoke.

Edith Wharton is a beautiful writer. It’s easy here to pull apart the elements, tear open the symbolism (images of death, a watchful cat, a red pickle dish which was given as wedding gift but never used, the book is crammed with symbolic elements), but in doing so you’d kill it in the way academic examinations of books can so easily kill them. This is a classic school text, and I’m glad I didn’t read it in school because sitting in a room with thirty other kids crawling between words and discussing layers of meaning suffocates a book. It’s useful, it’s how I learned myself to analyse literature and that’s a skill I value, but the price one pays for that skill is the ruin of the books one learns it with.

Ethan Frome is a slighter affair than The Age of Innocence, but it’s absolutely still worth reading. There’s an old debate about what makes fiction count as literary fiction, as opposed to some other kind. The answer of course is the prose. Few authors write even nearly as well as Edith Wharton.

“Now!” he cried. The sled started with a bound, and they flew on through the dusk, gathering smoothness and speed as they went, with the hollow night opening out below them and the air singing by like an organ.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, New England, Novellas, Wharton, Edith

I don’t know my husband.

The New Perspective by K Arnold Price

There is a sense in which committing to another human being is among the bravest things any of us do. What if we make a life with someone, spend irrevocable decades with them, and then discover it was a mistake? What if come middle age they suddenly have a change of heart, decide to trade us in for a younger or more successful model, or we discover that for years theyve been having an affair or had hidden some deep part of themselves?

I have a fondness for horror movies, but zombies and predatory aliens aren’t real. The true terrors of our lives are much closer to home.

The New Perspective is an 84 page novella, mostly told in the first person though occasionally in third. That first person is Pattie, married to Cormac and after 26 years together in the same house they’ve finally just seen their second son married. After decades, their home is just theirs again, their children are embarked on their own lives and Pattie and Cormac are free to just enjoy each other’s company.

Their marriage has been a strong one. They have few arguments, they are still physically attracted to each other (though sex is never directly described in the novel Pattie’s sheer desire for Cormac, undimmed over the years and children, is powerfully evoked), they don’t talk much but then they hardly seem to need to because they agree so easily.

Returning home, after the wedding of their son (“a dull boy” who “has married a dull girl” reflects Pattie, somewhat against her will) Pattie is suddenly shocked to see the home they had made for themselves over all those years. How little it now fits her:

What checks and chills me is that I come home unexpectingly, and suddenly it is not home, it is an unlikeable house stamped with mediocrity and choked with trivia.

This isn’t a home fit for their new life. It’s born of a more timid Pattie, furnished when she was young and uncertain. Now she’s a mature woman with years ahead of her. It won’t do.

They move (the novel is structured into three sections, around three homes they live in). They agree to buy their new home without even needing really to discuss it – they visit it and inspect the rooms and consider what they would do to it and without need of direct discussion know that they will buy it. Once there they begin to transform it, and it them.

Internal walls are knocked down, rooms are decorated sparingly yet tastefully, the garden is planned and planted. Pattie comes to it all with colour charts for the rooms and images of heather atop stone garden walls but the reality is frustratingly obdurate – there are too many choices of colour and each changes its appearance as the day progresses, heather won’t grow where she wills it to – but in the end it is done and it is beautiful.

This quote is, I think, quite heartbreaking:

At the beginning of the summer Pattie decided that they would eat Sunday morning breakfast in the courtyard when the weather was suitable. She gloats over her garden furniture. The young trees she has bought are still very young but the tubs they stand in are freshly painted and look very nice. One bright Sunday morning when the sun is dazzling on the white walls and the white table, Pattie puts some of her dark crockery on the table and a bowl of fruit. She brings from the kitchen a tray containing brown bread, butter, honey and tea. Then she stands under the window of the landing and calls to Cormac. After an interval Cormac puts a tousled head out the window, smells the sharp morning air and disappears.

Pattie sits at the table and begins to eat brown bread and honey. After some minutes she hears movements in the kitchen and then domestic noises – a mile clatter of utensils and crockery. She finishes her light breakfast and walks into the kitchen. Cormac is seated at the table in his dressing-gown with a plate of fried eggs and bacon in front of him.

It’s not a flawless piece of prose (the young trees are still very young, not sure the first “young” is needed there) but it’s immensely powerful. The scene is beautifully painted – the light, the freshness, the bread and honey. Then the noise from the kitchen and the keen disappointment. Indifference is much worse than arguments.

Pattie thought she and Cormac didn’t need to speak because they knew what each other were thinking, but what if he simply never cared that much what she was thinking? She thought they reached the same decisions without need of discussion, but what if Cormac just didn’t care about the things she decided on? She thought they were in love because they still regularly have sex, but does that necessarily follow?

Once in the new house, Cormac buys a violin and reveals that he played as a youth but had to give up due to a family crisis. He had never mentioned any of this, in all their long years together. If that, if Cormac plays the violin, what else is there in Cormac’s past that was never shared? Pattie thought their life without children would be about each other, but Cormac wants to rediscover his long-delayed love of music. Where does Pattie fit into that? She talks of wanting to learn Italian to read Dante, but nothing comes of it (really I think it’s there because of the extraordinary appositeness of the opening lines, about being in the middle of life and finding oneself lost in a dark forest with the straight path lost).

That’s a lot for 84 pages, and it’s absolutely to this novella’s credit that it packs so much in. It’s a devastating book in its way. A discovery that the heart of a marriage may be missing, may never have been there. Fiction by female authors on this sort of topic is sometimes categorised as women’s fiction, a category I find actually fairly objectionable because really what about this isn’t universal? It’s fiction which goes to the worst fears we can really face, rather than those fears which comfort us because they will never happen.

The New Perspective isn’t without flaws. Pattie is supposed to be a small town librarian in rural Ireland, and she describes herself and her husband as “ordinary” and “not intellectual”. Despite that she uses words like “parousia” (I don’t know, I’ll google it at some point), references Plato and reads Svevo and Moravia. Those feel to me more the interests of someone who is say a student and occasional scholar of modern literature and a published poet and author, which is what K Arnold Price was.

Worse, Price makes heavy use of italics for emphasis, of exclamation marks and of ellipses and the result of all these is frequently to tell the reader how to read the sentence. I found them intrusive, and given her skill unnecessary. I admit I have a particular dislike of overused exclamation marks, but it did feel like the book wasn’t giving me space to interpret it, but rather insisting on a sole authorial interpretation. A book though which is capable of only one interpretation ultimately struggles to merit rereading.

Despite those criticisms there is still a lot to recommend here and I’m grateful to Will of Just William’s Luck for alerting me to it. His review is here, and it also made his end of year list for that year. Colm Toibin, whom I hold in huge regard, is also a fan and talks about it some way down the page on this Guardian article.

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Filed under Irish Literature, Novellas, Price, K Arnold

some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

I grew up, like many people, believing memory to be a sort of hologram stored in the brain. An accurate image of what was once perceived, once felt. Of course that’s not true. Memory is a reconstruction, and frequently a faulty one. As a factoid I think that’s fairly widely known now, but knowing that and feeling the truth of it are of course two very different things. We may know that our memories are not necessarily reliable, but they often seem so very definite.  Besides, without our memories who exactly are we?

That’s a question beyond the scope of this blog (though if I had to answer I’d say we’re a constellation of cognitive processes with an illusion of continuity, and that the very concept of self is deeply problematic). It’s at the heart though of Julian Barnes’ coolly distant Booker winning novel The Sense of an Ending.

The book opens with a short list of memories. not all of which the as yet unnamed narrator actually saw. Immediately we’re on warning, if one of these memories is imagined rather than real, can any of them be trusted? As the narrator says, “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

From there the novel develops in two reasonably distinct halves. The first is the narrator’s (who we eventually learn is named Tony) memories of his final years at school and his early years at university. The key here is that as a reader we’re not experiencing Tony’s early life directly, we’re experiencing what he remembers it as being like which may not be the same thing at all. This is underlined, time and again, with barely a page passing without Tony/Barnes reminding the reader that none of this can necessarily be trusted (“Later that day – or perhaps another day –”, “Was this their exact exchange? Almost certainly not. Still, it is my best memory of their exchange.”).

A new boy, Adrian, joins the school and becomes a key member of Tony’s small clique of friends. They consider themselves philosophers, intellectual rebels, they look to great art and literature for inspiration and they are convinced as was I and as no doubt were many reading this that they have insights that the old and adult world never knew or has long since forgotten. They look down on those around them with all the haughty certainty of adolescence, and they look forward to lives which whatever they may be will not be like their parents, or so at least they hope.

This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls. Of course, there were other sorts of literature – theoretical, self-referential, lachrymosely autobiographical – but they were just dry wanks. Real literature was about psychological, emotional and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time.

After school they separate, as school friends tend to do, and Tony goes to university where he meets his first girlfriend, Veronica. It’s the 1960s, but one of the charms of the novel is how it brings out that for most people the 1960s is not the 1960s as we now picture it (just as having grown up in the 1980s I can testify it wasn’t for me much like the 1980s I now see on tv). If the sexual revolution is happening, it’s not happening anywhere near Tony. If people are turning on, tuning in and dropping out they’re not inviting him to do it with them. 1960s England for most is not that different to 1950s England. Our collective memories turn out to be not that reliable either.

The second half of the novel is years later, in the present. Tony is in his 60s now. He’s retired, divorced though still on good terms with his ex-wife, he has a daughter and while they’re not as close as he’d like they get along. He has a grandson he dotes on. His life is calm, comfortable, untroubled and deeply ordinary. That’s how he likes it. His teenage yearnings for more were a product of being a teenager, nothing deeper (“I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.”).

Tony’s existence is placid, and then he gets an unexpected bequest from Veronica’s mother who’s recently died and who he’s not heard from since an unsuccessful visit to meet Veronica’s parents decades previously. That leads him to contact Veronica, and to proof that how he remembers those years (and in particular how he remembers what lead up to a particular terrible incident) may not be quite how they actually happened.

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.

I won’t talk more about the plot. What happened is interesting, but it’s not the point. The point is memory, age and the myth of self (Anthony Powell would have liked this book). Back in their schooldays Adrian challenged a history master with the idea that all one can say of history is that “something happened”. Later Adrian quotes what appears to be a French historian named Patrick Lagrange who said that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” (what appears because as best I can tell Patrick Lagrange is himself fictional, whether Adrian made him up or Tony misremembers is unknowable).

As a teenager Tony looked forward to an uncertain future. Now he looks back to an uncertain past. He has his account of what happened, but of what use is that? After all, “historians need to treat a participant’s own explanation of events with a certain scepticism.” Tony sets off on a dogged quest to understand what really happened all those years ago. As a narrator though he’s hopelessly compromised. If he can’t trust his own memories, and so we as readers can’t trust his descriptions of the past, how can we trust his perceptions of events now or the conclusions he draws? The whole book becomes slippery, with all that can be relied upon being Tony’s own emotional response. Everything else is, at best, approximate.

To the extent The Sense of an Ending has a weakness it lies in its tone. At the start I called this a coolly distant novel, and that’s in large part because Tony is a rather detached figure (detached from his own life in fact). As Tony is the narrator the book’s nature must follow his, and the result is a book that can at times be hard to love. When Josipovici criticised Barnes, and other contemporary English writers, it was exactly this sort of bloodless text he was arguing against.

Against that is one simple fact. Barnes can write. The book is filled with sentences that are absolute delights, frequently very funny and sometimes cruelly telling. I loved this as a summary of a certain kind of life: “We bought a small house with a large mortgage; I commuted up to London every day.” And similarly this as a description of a certain kind of English town: “one of those suburbs which had stopped concreting over nature at the very last minute, and ever since smugly claimed rural status.” As a final brief example, I thought this line unbearably sad: “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.”

At the end The Sense of an Ending becomes a sort of detective story, but one in which the solution doesn’t really matter and anyway can never be certain. Tony tries to understand what really happened in his past, how his personal account differs from the truth, and the extent to which he was responsible for what happened.  Those are all the wrong questions though. All of them amount to an attempt to fix that which is by its nature fluid, and to ascribe responsibility.

Tony’s investigation therefore becomes a more personal search. His choices are largely behind him. His life is now set in the path it will likely stay in until he dies. He thought he knew what the future held, but it wasn’t as he dreamed. He thought he knew what the past held, but it wasn’t as he remembered. The only certainty left is death, and that before it something happened.

The Sense of an Ending has naturally been the subject of a great many reviews. Some I’d point you to are (in no particular order) by Will of Just William’s Luck, here, Kevin of KevinfromCanada here, John Self of theasylum here, Kerry of Hungry Like the Woolf here, Tom of Tomcat in the Red Room here (and if you don’t know Tom’s blog you should, it’s definitely worth checking out), and just today as I wrote this at whisperinggums here. If I’ve missed your review (and I’m sure I’ve missed some blogs I follow, I’m very late to this book), please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Barnes, Julian, Booker, English Literature, Novellas

a case of chess poisoning

Chess, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Anthea Bell

I loved Stefan Zweig’s novella Burning Secret. It was melodramatic, but successfully so with Zweig painting a subtle but intense psychological portrait of obsession and desire. I agree with Michael Hofmann that Zweig’s no Arthur Schnitzler, but literature isn’t a competition.

Anthea Bell is among my favourite translators. In fact, seeing her name on a book makes me more likely to read it. She is extremely talented and chooses interesting works to translate.

Chess (also known as The Royal Game, and as Chess Story) is probably Zweig’s best known novella. It’s a study of obsession, it’s translated by Anthea Bell. It’s been generally well received in the blogosphere by bloggers whose recommendations I put a lot of weight on. What’s not to look forward to?

Well, for me the answer was the plot, psychology and characterisation none of which worked. On a more positive note the translation is of course excellent and it’s short. Brevity is generally a virtue, but it’s a particular virtue in bad books.

The narrator is a passenger on an ocean liner. He discovers that among his fellow passengers is Chess world champion Mirko Czentovic. Czentovic is a Slavonian peasant by background, utterly lacking in the slightest hint of intelligence or sophistication, but on the chessboard nobody can defeat him. Somehow this oaf has risen from remote obscurity to dominate his social and cultural superiors and to sweep all opponents before him.

For the moment he rose from the chessboard, where he was an incomparable master, Czentovic became a hopelessly grotesque and almost comic figure; despite his formal black suit, his ostentatious tie with its rather flashy tie-pin, and his carefully manicured fingers, in conduct and manner he was still the dull-witted country boy who used to sweep the priest’s living room in the village. To the amusement and annoyance of his chess-playing colleagues, he clumsily and with positively shameless impudence sought to make as much money as he could from his gift and his fame, displaying a petty and often vulgar greed.

… the knowledge that he had defeated all these clever, intellectual men, dazzling speakers and writers in their own field, and above all the tangible knowledge that he earned more than they did, turned his original insecurity into a cold and usually ostentatious pride.

What I find interesting in this passage is the extraordinary depth of snobbery it displays. I’m not immune to snobbery myself of course. My reaction might not be much different to the narrator’s (and obviously the narrator isn’t Zweig, though interestingly the text at times playfully implies it might be). Despite my own failings though the condescension is so dense here it suffocates.

As portrayed Czentovic is a peasant lacking any great abilities in life save one. Is it so blameworthy that he should seek to profit from that sole gift? Is it so praiseworthy that his socially superior opponents are more disdainful of money, a resource which unlike Czentovic they were born with? Czentovic’s real crime here is his “shameful impudence” in defeating men the narrator clearly considers his betters. The problem isn’t chess, it’s class.

The narrator is an amateur chessplayer himself and has an interest in obsessive personality types. He decides he wants to meet Czentovic, better yet play chess with him. Czentovic though only plays for money, his rates are high and he has no interest in small talk.

Luck strikes when the narrator discovers that he’s not the only one keen to see Czentovic play. In particular he meets a self-confident American engineer who wants to test his own ability against a master. A group of passengers forms, with the American paying Czentovic’s price, and a game is arranged.

On the one side then Czentovic, and on the other an alliance of players funded by the American and banded together to defeat this brute from Central Europe who scorns all values save victory. Obviously I’m not drawing any parallels here.

It’s no spoiler to say that Czentovic at first sweeps the board with them. The only obstacle to his relentless rise to domination comes from advice given to the allies by an onlooker who can’t hold himself back from commenting. When the allies follow this stranger’s suggestions they stop Czentovic’s advance and suddenly the allies have a fighting chance of holding him.

The onlooker is described in the text as Dr B, but who is he? How did he become so able at Chess that he can force a grandmaster to a draw, perhaps even defeat him, and yet nobody has heard of him? Can it be true this is the first time he has played in 20 years? These questions are the real book, to which all else so far has been just preparation. The narrator seeks out this anonymous master and discovers the terrible story of how he gained such extraordinary ability.

The line between terrible and silly can be a thin one. Here Dr B’s story involves confinement by Nazis, torture by way of sensory deprivation and chess as a means of intellectual escape. I won’t say more as to explain too much would risk damaging a future reader’s enjoyment of the book. I can say that it allows some nice ironies where chess with its constrained space comprised of set dimensions and permitted moves becomes a limitless domain of pure mind quite separate to the imprisoned self.

Zweig died in 1942. Chess was published posthumously. At the time of writing then he didn’t know that Hitler would be defeated. If one remembers that, this becomes a work of fevered despair. Czentovic is unstoppable, except by a man who is a psychological wreck. Dr B is in a sense the European intellectual (perhaps even more specifically the Jewish intellectual), able to outwit Czentovic but fragile against his stolid cruelty. That’s a lot of weight for a slight story though.

The parable is clever, but it hangs off the story, which rapidly becomes ludicrous. Dr B’s backstory seems initially improbable (were the Gestapo really so prone to subtly undermining their prisoners’ sense of self, rather than simply brutalising them?) and swiftly becomes quite incredible as chess becomes both linchpin and threat to Dr B’s sanity. Zweig’s writing depends heavily on both plot and characterisation, and I didn’t believe in Dr B and I didn’t believe in what happened to him.

That leaves just the writing. Zweig certainly can write, but this feels not quite finished and I wonder if he’d have polished it further had he lived. Certainly it would have helped avoid sentences like this: “And now, for the first time, such a phenomenon, such a strange genius, or such an enigmatic fool, was physically close to me for the first time …”

I’m in a distinct minority on this one. John Self of The Asylum liked it and found the plot ultimately plausible. Trevor of themookseandthegripes was taken by it, and so was Will of Just William’s Luck. Tom of A Common Reader liked it too (both Will and Tom’s reviews are particularly worth reading for their discussion of symbolic elements of the novella). The only blog I’ve found so far (though I’m sure I’ve missed some) that shared my concerns was Sarah’s at A Rat in the Book Pile. Links in this paragraph are to the various reviews mentioned.

So, Chess. It’s very short, most readers love it and you may do so too. For me though it crosses the line from tragedy to comedy, without being funny. If you disagree, and if you’ve read it you probably do from what I’ve seen of other reviews, I’d be delighted to hear why I’m wrong.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, Bell, Anthea (translator), German Literature, Novellas, Zweig, Stefan