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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Filed under Baillie, Martha, Canadian Literature

nothing makes you jealous like something you didn’t actually want in the first place

The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright

On its face (and by its cover) The Forgotten Waltz really isn’t my sort of novel. It’s a story of an affair and the impact it has on the marriages and families of those affected. Middle class adultery – Hampstead Novel territory, everything I dislike in what too often passes for literary fiction in the UK.

The truth is, if it hadn’t been for my #readwomen2014 project (see my post on it here) I might well never have read this – the subject matter has so little interest that it would likely have deterred me (even despite great reviews from bloggers such as Kevinfromcanada, John Self’s Asylum, Reading Matters and others).

Here’s the cover, with an attractive younger woman looking wistful and sad. The narrator by contrast is in her mid-30s, plump, cheerful and funny.


“Achingly brilliant”, “Tender”, “A love story for our times”. God it sounds awful. All that and Enright won the Booker too, could it be made to seem any more tasteful?

Mercifully, what follows isn’t tasteful at all. Instead it’s a story of a fairly banal affair, but told in a refreshingly spiky and unrepentant way, peppered with sharp observations and asides. It opens disquietingly:

IF IT HADN’T been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive.

The narrator is Gina, who anyway isn’t particularly looking to be forgiven. The child belongs to Seán, the man she had an affair with, the man she’s now living with. The story is how that happened, what it did to Gina’s husband, Seán’s wife, to the child too. It’s not really a story though, more just some things that happened, some lives:

I can’t be too bothered here, with chronology. The idea that if you tell it, one thing after another, then everything will make sense. It doesn’t make sense.

You’ll see below what looks like some massive spoilers in terms of what happens. They’re not – as the quote above indicates this isn’t a story where you read to find out what happens. You know what happens from the beginning, just not how it happened. Every chapter somehow seems to contain the whole thing, just from different angles as Gina turns it all around in her mind.

The backdrop is the recent Irish boom and collapse (the events in the book span roughly 2002 to 2009). Gina works for an internet company, her husband Conor works online from home, Seán is a consultant, Ireland’s a Celtic Tiger and everyone’s making money even if nobody’s actually doing anything particularly concrete. It’s a heady time.

Gina first meets Seán at a party hosted by her sister. Nothing comes of that first meeting. Gina moves on, marries Conor whom she loves though not with any deep passion, but she and Seán are part of the same circle and they’ll meet again. Later Gina will invest significance in that first meeting, but there really doesn’t seem to be any. If it hadn’t been Seán it might well have been someone else, and she’s definitely not Seán’s first affair – just the first to be made public.

Gina and Seán are products of their time, a buoyant seemingly consequence-free time where nobody looks too hard at the underlying fundamentals and everything’s fine as long so the markets keep heading up. Gina’s smart, but she’s not reflective, and anyway why should she be when everything’s going so well? She’s a lucky woman at a lucky time. Enright captures brilliantly that sense of finding yourself somehow having become independent, responsible, in your 30s even, when inside you’re the same as you ever were. She captures equally well the artificiality of ordinary life:

Fiona keeps expecting me to help because I am her sister. She passes with an armful of plates and shoots me a dark look. Then she remembers that I am a guest and offers me some Chardonnay. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, I’d love some, thanks,’ and we chat like grown-ups. The glass she fills me is the size of a swimming pool.

Of course they are grown-ups, all of them. The only person who isn’t is Evie, Seán and Aileen’s child, who has ongoing health issues and is about to see her parents break up through all this. That isn’t to say the adults all share the fault here, if there’s fault to be handed out it belongs squarely with Gina and Seán. Conor is the only genuinely sympathetic character in the book (and even he’s a bit of a man-child) and Aileen’s worst feature is perhaps being a bit boring, a bit staid.

[Aileen] wasn’t as old as I remembered, though she sported some very middle-aged lipstick, pinkish and pearlised, on her unprepossessing, useful face. She was wearing a black Issey Miyake pleats dress edged with turquoise, and the collar stood up around her neck in a sharp frill. It made her look like some soft creature, poking out of its beautiful, hard shell.

The pleats dress is typical of Gina’s/Enright’s eye for detail. It’s exactly what a successful middle class woman might wear – it’s professional, conservative yet still innovative (I have to admit here I’m actually rather fond of Miyake’s stuff which I think treads the careful balance between creativity and wearability particularly well). It leads too though into that wonderful image of Aileen as some kind of lovely but fragile animal, perfect but too easily broken.

There isn’t a particularly good reason for the affair. Gina runs into Seán at an overseas conference. They have a one-night stand. Later, back in Ireland, he works for a while as a consultant to her company and they meet again. Their affair is ordinary. It’s not love, it’s sex. The angriest she gets with him is when she sees an internal management report he’s written where he says that she’s “‘most ideally suited to a secondary role'”. We’re not in Romeo and Juliet territory here.

What’s works here is precisely what in a less well written novel might have had me throw the book aside. The utter ordinariness, banality even, of it all. Gina has no real insight into her own motives, she contradicts herself constantly on how she feels, what she desires. She knows she does this and she doesn’t care, her gaze is focused outwards. For me this made her all the more convincing and often rather likeable (I said she wasn’t sympathetic, but then I don’t think she’d want sympathy much). Here she is after the affair has started

At home, I was cross with Conor all the time. How could he be with me all evening, eat Indian takeaway, watch ‘The Sopranos’, and not realise the turmoil I was in? If love was a kind of knowledge then he could not love me, because he hadn’t the faintest clue. It was a strange feeling. Some fundamental force had been removed from our love; like telling the world there was no such thing as gravity, after all. He did not know me. He did not know his own bed.

Seán isn’t particularly attractive, imaginative or funny. His best feature is his confidence, often manifested rather unpleasantly in his controlling behaviour, but Gina’s hardly a passive and easily-swayed victim. He’s actually not much of a catch – successful but a married man with a child and a history of infidelity. If he cheated on Aileen there’s no reason to believe he won’t do the same to Gina. Again, he’s ordinary. If you’ve worked in an office you’ve worked with men like him.

The economic backdrop of course adds interest to all this. These characters are headed for a reckoning, but it’s not really a reckoning of their own doing and it comes for Gina’s sister or for Aileen as much as it does for anyone else. Later in the book Gina and Seán are struggling for money, the economy’s collapsed and they’re trying to sell Gina’s mother’s house but nobody’s buying anymore no matter how much they drop the price. Everyone’s hurting though, not just them.

It would be easy to see all that as a consequence of what’s gone before, and of course at the macroeconomic level it sort of is – a national hangover after a too-long party where nobody asked the right questions.At the level of individual lives though that’s reading too much in. Rather it’s just stuff that happens – Gina has a great job and a successful marriage; Gina has an affair; the Irish economy collapses; Gina and Seán leave their respective partners for each other; Gina ends up looking part-time after Seán’s kid that she never had any great interest in or rapport with. You can connect it all if you wish, draw some moral implication, but Enright isn’t that facile. It’s just life.

It’s also thoroughly, delightfully, unromantic. Each chapter is titled with a love song, but the sentiment that suggests is utterly undermined by the practicality of hotel room hookups and arrangements over childcare. Love songs anyway don’t fit with Gina’s gleeful sense of the absurd, of the ludicrousness of it all:

“I just can’t believe it. That all you have to do is sleep with somebody and get caught and you never have to see your in-laws again. Ever. Pfffft! Gone. It’s the nearest thing to magic I have yet found.”

Except, of course, that it’s not ludicrous. It’s not ultimately all that funny. A child was involved after all, a fact which underlines that actually all this does matter, that there are consequences after all, that there is fallout for Evie and for Aileen and Conor and many others. In the end, the fact that a child was involved makes everything that much harder to forgive.


Filed under Enright, Anne, Irish Literature

It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?, by Mark Fisher

I was at Morgan Stanley back in 2007 when the markets crashed. The first warning for me was when an email came round warning of problems in the money markets. The email didn’t make much sense to me, it wasn’t an area I worked in, but something about the tone made it clear whatever was going on wasn’t good. Of course I had no idea quite how bad it was going to get, few people did.

That wasn’t the first recession I’ve seen, and I doubt it’ll be the last. It was though the first I’ve personally seen where it looked like systemic contagion could bring down the entire global finance industry, with catastrophic effects (and not just for people like me, who work in it). Legislators took action with an urgency they’ve never shown in the face of humanitarian crises, banks were bailed out and capitalism was saved to profit another day. I kept my job, plenty didn’t.

Afterwards there was a sense in the media that things had to change. Global capitalism had come very close to coming right off the rails, to a major disaster that would have had devastating consequences. As it was we suffered a major depression, jobs were lost, wages stagnated, even now recovery is patchy and the benefits of it unevenly distributed. Politicians made speeches about needing to make sure it didn’t happen again, then implemented policies designed to get the housing markets buoyant again and to encourage consumer spending (which in the absence of wage growth means encouraging consumer debt). It turns out nobody with any kind of major public platform had any alternative to offer.

Capitalist Realism

Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is an examination of the prevailing ideology of our times, the neoliberal consensus that is so frequently taken as simple common-sense, even at times in the face of considerable evidence against its core tenets. In the UK all three main parties are essentially neo-liberal in outlook, differing on points of detail but sharing a broad and fundamental consensus that there is no alternative to our current system. Politics in this sense becomes a choice not of how we wish to organise ourselves as a society, but of different management teams. At the same time, public protest is increasingly criminalised – either directly or by how protestors are treated by police while exercising their nominal rights. The result is an ever-increasing disengagement of the public from politics.

Fisher opens by considering Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film, Children of Men. In the movie humanity has become sterile and is drifting slowly to extinction. In the UK, where the film is set, the country’s art treasures are being gathered and preserved, pointlessly given there will be no future generations to enjoy them. Humanity here is facing an existential crisis, but everyone is carrying on as best they can as if it weren’t happening.

Watching Children of Men, we are inevitably reminded of the phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. That slogan captures precisely what I mean by ‘capitalist realism’: the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.

For Fisher, this capitalist realist apocalypse is in a sense already upon us. In Anglo-American public discourse art is widely described as content, artists as content producers. Art is justified not by aesthetics, but by its contribution to tourism and the creative industries. Capitalist realism is in part therefore a sort of crude postmodernism, where everything is commoditised, all viewpoints are potentially equal and enjoyment is frequently detached and ironic. The past, stripped of context, remains always with us in the form of heritage and disposable nostalgia. As Fisher says, “Tradition counts for nothing when it is no longer contested and modified. A culture that is merely preserved is no culture at all.”

Fisher argues that capitalist realism is in fact a better term for this phenomenon than postmodernism. Capitalist realism’s fundamental tenet that there is no alternative means, if you accept it, that content, lifestyle and product consumption is the only cultural and political game in town, postmodernism accepted almost by definition that other approaches might also be valid. Postmodernism also of course existed in contrast to and in interrogation of modernism, but capitalist realism is self-contained and modernism now a “frozen aesthetic style, never … an ideal for living”. He also notes that we have had a demographic shift, someone born in 1989 at the fall of communism would now be 25 years old – an entire generation has grown up under an essentially unchallenged political ideology.

In this context even protest becomes subsumed into a wider capitalist realist narrative. I read years before this blog a book titled Bobos in Paradise (see wikipedia, here), about how many of the counter-cultural generation of the 1960s had maintained the trappings of alternative lifestyles while adopting a free market capitalist ideology. The book was published back in 2000, and examined how the result was a class of corporate elite many of whom thought of themselves as outsiders, as still somehow counter-cultural, but whose actual behaviour was essentially self-interested. On this view anti-capitalist protestors are similar to the new corporate elite, outwardly in opposition but internally accepting the dominant narrative:

Corporate anti-capitalism wouldn’t matter if it could be differentiated from an authentic anti-capitalist movement. Yet, even before its momentum was stalled by the September 11 th attacks on the World Trade Center, the so called anti-capitalist movement seemed also to have conceded too much to capitalist realism. Since it was unable to posit a coherent alternative political-economic model to capitalism, the suspicion was that the actual aim was not to replace capitalism but to mitigate its worst excesses; and, since the form of its activities tended to be the staging of protests rather than political organization, there was a sense that the anti-capitalism movement consisted of making a series of hysterical demands which it didn’t expect to be met. Protests have formed a kind of carnivalesque background noise to capitalist realism, and the anti-capitalist protests share rather too much with hyper-corporate events like 2005’s Live 8, with their exorbitant demands that politicians legislate away poverty.

The green movement does offer a more genuine alternative, but one that few are actually willing to live with. For committed greens capitalism is inherently destructive (“The significance of Green critiques is that they suggest that, far from being the only viable political-economic system, capitalism is in fact primed to destroy the entire human environment. The relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental: capital’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market’, its ‘growth fetish’, mean that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.”) The difficulty is that it’s pretty hard to imagine what a sustainable society would actually look like, and the sacrifices it would require are far more than most people would be willing to make (say goodbye for starters to cheap flights, mass-imported food and consumer gadgets).

Generally I found Fisher’s analysis in this part of the book highly persuasive, and certainly well reasoned. I was however less persuaded when the book proceeded to an analysis of how capitalist realism might be a causative factor in the widespread mental illness found in capitalist societies.

Fisher says that “The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.” This however assumes causation, where there may only be correlation. It also raises questions of how we recognise mental illness, as with crime statistics a growth in reported crime may mean there’s more crime but it could also mean people are more willing to report it. Arguably an explosion in mental illness could be not an increase in those actually ill, but a greater willingness to recognise and help them.

Fisher is on stronger ground I think where he analyses how our culture views health generally, and the limits of what we consider acceptable intervention in other people’s lives. Where our forebears might have seen their own morality as sufficient reason to change how others (with possibly different moralities) lived, our own model is much more utilitarian:

It is not that smoking is ‘wrong’, it is that it will lead to our failing to lead long and enjoyable lives. But there are limits to this emphasis on good health: mental health and intellectual development barely feature at all, for instance. What we see instead is a reductive, hedonic model of health which is all about ‘feeling and looking good’. To tell people how to lose weight, or how to decorate their house, is acceptable; but to call for any kind of cultural improvement is to be oppressive and elitist.

As that quote suggests, Fisher is also very strong on how all this manifests in terms of cultural impact. When he says – “On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate – the extirpation of the long term extends backwards as well as forwards in time (for example, media stories monopolize attention for a week or so then are instantly forgotten); on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection, incapable of generating any authentic novelty.” – I recognise immediately what he means. Similarly he makes a good point when he argues that:

In a seeming irony, the media class’s refusal to be paternalistic has not produced a bottom-up culture of breathtaking diversity, but one that is increasingly infantilized. By contrast, it is paternalistic cultures that treat audiences as adults, assuming that they can cope with cultural products that are complex and intellectually demanding. The reason that focus groups and capitalist feedback systems fail, even when they generate commodities that are immensely popular, is that people do not know what they want. This is not only because people’s desire is already present but concealed from them (although this is often the case). Rather, the most powerful forms of desire are precisely cravings for the strange, the unexpected, the weird. These can only be supplied by artists and media professionals who are prepared to give people something different from that which already satisfies them; by those, that is to say, prepared to take a certain kind of risk.

Of course following that logic too far risks falling into a classic left-wing trap of assuming that a particular elite group knows what the mass of people want better than those people do themselves. The results of that thinking historically haven’t always been all that might be hoped (though I’d argue it’s Apple’s business model). There’s an element of paradox here. Just cater to what people want and all they get is what they already have, leading to cultural sterility. Tell people what they want though and you risk denying them the freedom of their own choices. In a healthy system the forces of paternalism and individualism would hopefully conflict and bring about some form of dynamic synthesis which, while never perfect, nonetheless broadly worked. I’d query if that’s the system we have.

Ultimately the point of a review isn’t whether I agree with Fisher or not (I largely do save possibly on the mental illness arguments), it’s to present what I think is the essence of the book so someone else can take a view on whether or not to read it (I see myself as a reviewer rather than a critic). On that front I’d say that Capitalist Realism is thought provoking, punchy, well argued and short – if the themes appeal it’s pretty much essential reading. That doesn’t however mean it’s always easy reading, you can’t have a book of Marxist analysis and not have the odd sentence like – “Jameson, of course, would argue that the ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ is one expression of the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’, a consequence of the switch into the post-Fordist mode of capital accumulation.” – although to be fair I understand that sentence perfectly well and I don’t have a better way to make the point it’s making.

Fisher doesn’t offer much by way of solutions to all this. but I’d argue that it’s useful and valid to point out that someone’s house is on fire, even if you have no idea at all how to put it out. Fisher is pointing out that our house is on fire. We have a system which is inherently unsustainable, which by its own logic must constantly expand but which exists in the context of finite resources. I don’t know what the answer to that is, or even that there is one, but if there is any kind of solution the first step to it must surely be understanding the nature of the problem. We have met the enemy and he is us.


Filed under Fisher, Mark, Politics, Zero Books

Victoria exits, walking with the pursed self-conscious walk of an actor who has too small a part and so has practised a single move to excess.

The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton

The Rehearsal is a quicksilver novel, dazzling and impossible to grasp. It’s one of the finest debut novels I’ve read, catapulting Catton immediately onto my shortlist of authors whose new releases I’ll be eagerly tracking. As I write this I’m reading her The Luminaries (it’s massive, it’ll take me a while).

The story, such as it is, is pretty simple and follows two narrative strands. In the first, a girl in Abbey Grange High School has had an affair with her music teacher, Mr Saladin. It’s an all-girls’ school and the incident shocks teachers and parents both, leading to anguished conversations at home and communal counselling sessions at school. The second follows a boy’s application and acceptance into a local but nationally prestigious drama school and the students’ end of year project – a play about the affair at Abbey Grange.

The affair itself is never shown, instead the reader sees it only in its effects on the school community and in its interpretation by the drama students. Except it’s not that simple, because almost immediately what’s real and what’s recreation is fatally undermined. The book opens with a private saxophone tutor talking to the mother of a prospective pupil, one she doesn’t wish to accept:

‘The clarinet is tadpole to the sax, can you see that?  The clarinet is a black and silver sperm, and if you love this sperm very much it will one day grow into a saxophone.’ She leans forward across the desk. ‘Mrs Henderson. At present your daughter is simply too young. Let me put it this way: a film of soured breast milk clutches at your daughter like a shroud.’

The tutor’s monologue continues, becoming if anything even stranger, more insulting. It can’t be real dialogue. Catton can’t expect the reader to take this as a scene that’s actually happening as written. If not though, what is happening? Is this the tutor’s fantasy of what she’d like to say? No clue is given, not yet anyway.


Adolescence of course is a time of struggling to get some kind of clue, to how the adult world works, how to behave. The Rehearsal is painfully good on the challenge of those years, the desire to be yourself and to fit in at the same time. There are razor sharp portraits of three very different girls, each affected by the affair (none of them though the one who actually had it), and of the boy at the drama school struggling with the same challenges in a different way.

Catton captures the fever-intensity of adolescence well then, but much more interestingly she captures the sense of trying out roles, possible selves. As the saxophone teacher says to another mother, “‘remember that these years of your daughter’s life are only the rehearsal for everything that comes after.” Life for most of us is performative. We assume roles, at home, with friends, at work; masks we put on and take off as required. In a sense who we are varies by who we’re with.

That’s fine for most adults, because you know what your roles are. Adolescence though is a period when the roles you’ll play are up for grabs. Everything is uncertain, most fundamentally who you are. Are you one of the popular kids? If so, is that all you are, and how secure is that position? Are you one of the arty kids? The science geeks? Good at sport? Or are you one of the kids who’re none of those things, without some clear distinguishing characteristic? And would you want anyway your personality to be capable of being summarised in some one-line cliché? Actually, you probably would, at least you’d know where you stood.

Stanley wasn’t sure what marked him out as a person. He hung back at the beginning of the year and let the other boys claim the roles of the leader and the player and the clown, watching with a kind of uncertain awe as they worked to recruit admirers and an audience. He guessed he wanted to be thought of as sensitive and thoughtful, but he didn’t pursue the branding actively enough and soon those positions were taken. He found himself thoroughly eclipsed by several of the more ambitiously moody boys, boys who were studied in the way they tossed their hair off their forehead, thin boys with paperback copies of Nietzsche nosing out of their satchels, boys wearing self-conscious forlorn looks, permanently anxious and always slightly underfed. Whenever these boys began to speak, the class would peel back respectfully to listen.

As the two narrative strands continue so does the question of what’s real and what isn’t. The chapters set in the school are possibly scenes in a play still being written, rehearsals, the references to parts played may be literal because actors will later (are now) playing them. The chapters in the drama school are more traditionally straightforward but then everyone in the school, and the entire syllabus, is focused on creating roles and giving them life. The drama school creates layers of truth and artificiality, with the students learning how to be other people at precisely the time they’re learning to be themselves.

Everything here is refracted, key scenes are recounted and sometimes remembered quite differently from character to character, nothing can be counted on. That of course is part of adolescence too, that sense that the world is phony and the exaggerated sense of drama one carries through those years. It’s true though far beyond that.

It’s common for perfectly competent people with responsible jobs to feel like they’re faking it, as if one day someone will notice they’re making it up as they go along and that really they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s a common feeling because most of us are making it up as we go along, we rarely know so much that what we do requires no thought, and if we do we get bored so that’s no solution anyway. We play the part of the adults we know we are. A key difference here between the teenagers and the adults who teach them is that the adults already have their roles assigned, they don’t have the same freedom to pick any more.

All this cleverness could easily come badly unstuck, become irritating even. That it doesn’t is simply because Catton is a very good writer.The book fizzes with astute little observations and comic asides. It’s often very funny (I loved a description of a key scene from the play’s opening night – “The group stand stationary for a moment, Stanley and Isolde looking at each other with an intense smouldering glare that is lost to everyone in the upper circle and in the restricted-viewing sections of the stalls.”). It’s also often painfully accurate, acutely well observed.

She watches as the other girls trip in from the cold, linking arms with their favourite friends so they advance across the room in a rectangular squadron of favourites. They negotiate seating with whispers and nudges and a desperate narrow-eyed panic, always fearful of one day occupying the terrible seats on the periphery which force you to lean across and be forever asking ‘What? What’s so funny? What did she say?’

The book is full of small insights like that one, another I could just as easily have picked comes when Stanley is auditioning for his place in the drama school and suddenly realises that all the girls auditioning are beautiful, while the boys look ordinary “as if the boys were here to audition for ten different character parts in a play, and the girls were all auditioning for a single role.”

I’m going to end on one final quote, chosen because it seemed to me to capture the book’s marvellous intersection of the awkwardly intense self-awareness of adolescence and the underlying artificiality of everyday life. Julia, one of the schoolgirls, is here talking to the saxophone instructor (though of course nobody would ever speak to their tutor, or to anyone really, in quite this way):

‘I’ve been looking at all the ordinary staples of flirting,’ Julia says, ‘like biting your lip and looking away just a second too late, and laughing a lot and finding every excuse to touch, light fingertips on a forearm or a thigh that emphasise and punctuate the laughter. I’ve been thinking about what a comfort these things are, these textbook methods, precisely because they need no decoding, no translation. Once, a long time ago, you could probably bite your lip and it would mean, I am almost overcome with desiring you. Now you bite your lip and it means, I want you to see that I am almost overcome with desiring you, so I am using the plainest and most universally accepted signal I can think of to make you see. Now it means, Both of us know the implications of my biting my lip and what I am trying to say. We are speaking a language, you and I together, a language that we did not invent, a language that is not unique to our uttering. We are speaking someone else’s lines. It’s a comfort.’

I’ve not read a lot so far in 2014, but much of what I have read has been extraordinary (Cervantes, Proust). It’s a testament then to Catton’s skill that this still stands out for me as one of my highlight reads of the year. The Rehearsal is a novel aware of its own artifice and unafraid of it, in fact it revels in it. It discards a lot of basic narrative assumptions, but not as an empty exercise in form, the style and structure are integral to reflecting the themes. Besides, it’s never frustrating because it’s such an enjoyable read.

The cover makes The Rehearsal look like a story driven novel, and the story is one that’s all too familiar and none too interesting. What’s behind it is stranger and better than that, and if it’s not on my end of year list a few months from now I’ll be doing very well indeed for my reading for the rest of the year.

The Rehearsal first caught my attention with  Kevinfromcanada’s review here, and again with David Hebblethwaite’s review here. Both those are very much worth reading (I think it’s one of David’s best reviews actually, which is high praise given the quality of his general output). I don’t normally link to newspaper reviews, but there’s also a very good one at the Guardian, here.


Filed under Catton, Eleanor, New Zealand Literature

If I could capture just one scrap of her song.

Orkney, by Amy Sackville

Years ago I went with a client to the Buddha Bar in Paris. It was filled with overweight ugly men in their forties and older, each paired with one or more beautiful young women none beyond their twenties. I commented how romantic it was that love had somehow managed to bypass such barriers of age and attractiveness, and left quickly.

Cross-generational relationships aren’t always so cynical. It’s easy to see though how even if the couple got together for less mercenary reasons there can be serious imbalances of power and experience.

In Amy Sackville’s Orkney, Richard, a sixty-year old literature professor, is on honeymoon with his twenty-one year old bride, formerly his star student. Richard is the narrator, everything we see therefore we see through his eyes.

Richard is using the honeymoon to work on a book about depictions of magical women in 19th Century literature. His wife has seemingly stepped from his pages, silver-haired with webbing between her fingers, a selkie, mermaid, finwife or other improbable mythic creature. She is enchanting, and he is willingly enchanted. She spends the days on the beach watching the sea, he spends them writing by the window, watching her through its frame. She exists within his gaze.

All those subtle serpents and slippery fishtailed maidens I have been trying to get hold of; for now it seems foolish to labour over fairy-tales when out there on the shore I have one of my own. I sit quietly here, adding to my endless index of her, observing as she becomes a silhouette.


The cover is a fair representation of the book. Amy Sackville isn’t so far as I know a poet, but this is still very much a poet’s novel. The language is beautiful and dense, at its best when describing the constantly shifting Orkney sky and seascape (“the sun was setting, pale yellow like chilled, smooth-churned butter behind new pleats of cloud.”). It’s so beautiful it’s almost claustrophobic. The style lends a dreamlike quality, making it oddly enough a very good book to read when very tired.

Initially I took the narration at face value, and as a result found it slightly irritating. Richard’s new wife was a bit too perfect, beautiful, free-spirited, a creature of the sea unburdened by a past, passionate in bed at night and demanding little during the day.

She is Protean, a Thetis, a daughter of the sea, a shape-shifting goddess who must be subdued; I hold her fast and she changes, changes in my grasp … But I am no prince and cannot overwhelm her; she will consent to marry but goes on shifting no matter how tight I grip. Her hair falling like a torrent of water in which her fingers flick and twist. I dabble in her shallows and long to dive the depth of her. She is a tiny, perfect, whittled trinket found bedded in the sand, carved patiently, for comfort; she is a spined and spiky urchin with an inside smooth as polished stone, as marble; she is a frond of pallid wrack, a coral swaying in the current, anchored to the sea-bed; she is an oyster, choking on grit, clutching her pearl to her. She was my most gifted student, and now she is my wife.

Slowly however I started to realise that I was taking Richard’s descriptions a little too much on faith. She has no past, or at least Richard doesn’t know her past, but how much has he asked? Does he actually want to know what led a 21 year old to marry someone who could conceivably be her grandfather, or would he rather not look too closely at this dream made flesh? In a way it’s very convenient for him that she’s some faery-creature, because the alternative is that she’s a human being with her own thoughts, desires, goals. If she’s not part of his narrative, she can exist without him.

As the novel progresses, Richard’s habit of watching her through the window as he writes becomes less romantic and perhaps more controlling. When one day he can’t see her he becomes distraught, hunts for her. When he finds her she says “I’m sorry I moved beyond your frame, Richard,” underlining (perhaps a little too obviously) how keen he is to deny her independent existence.

Later in the novel he reminisces with her about their first meeting, but they disagree about what she wore. It irritates him, he prefers his stories unchallenged – “it is such a pleasure to dwell on the tale alone, while she is in her bath, and not here to interject with her nonsense about not wearing purple.”

If Richard’s wife seems at times unreal it’s because she is, she’s blocked from view by Richard’s fantasy of her. He’s mythologised her, defined her by reference to his own comfort zone of belles dames sans merci and in doing so has denied her her own reality, an act of control even if it is born of adoration.

Richard wants to possess her, not merely physically but completely. He can’t help being aware though that, with forty years between them, when he’s dead she’ll still be in her prime. He can’t bear the thought – “Oh, it is unfair, it is unjust – that there she will stand, by the graveside, grieving, still existing when I am gone and cannot watch her, and some boy on the edge of the graveyard can.” He becomes increasingly jealous, the more she spends time beyond his frame the more unbearable he finds it:

Now that I am alone, I can only think of [various men on the island, none of them challengers] and of all the other men who have known her or met her or even seen her once and of those who will have her when I’m gone. Of her father and all the secrets she hasn’t told me; I haven’t her future or her past either.

Orkney then becomes a narrative of control. Richard’s descriptions of his wife contain nothing of her inner life, and when that shows through it discomfits him. The novel isn’t unsympathetic to him, he’s not a monster, but at the same time there is something ultimately slightly claustrophobic about his need “to own just some small part of her, for a moment, entirely.” He’s made of her a sea-foam woman, but the problem with that is the more tightly he clutches at her the more she starts to slip from his grasp.

William Skidelsky, in an excellent review in The Telegraph, here, criticised the ending as perhaps a bit predictable and I think that’s fair. As the book reached its final quarter I started to have a pretty good sense of where it was heading. That’s a small (and perhaps unavoidable) flaw though in an otherwise excellent novel.

Starting out, I hadn’t expected to like Orkney as much as I did, I only really read it because I’ve long wanted to visit the Orkney islands and the idea of a well written novel describing the territory was appealing. What I got though, a description of a relationship seen entirely through an idolising male gaze, was much more interesting than I’d expected and the language written in prose “sometimes luminous, sometimes obscure” is a delight.

I’ll end with one final quote, just to give one final sense of Sackville’s use of language and in particular here her use of the rather wonderful word “mizzling” (plus it has a rather well chosen Eliot reference, slightly foreboding to those familiar with The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock).

The seals are out today, looking unhappy in the mizzling rain. Sad sacks of taut skin, occasionally craning their heads and flopping back down again, disconsolate. Although they seem to look unhappy in any weather; tearful, fearful creatures. We have often seen them out, barking, each to each;

Orkney has been very widely reviewed. Two I’d particularly pick out are by the rather wonderful Bookslut, here, and by the no less wonderful Words of Mercury, here. That second review is the one that pushed me over the edge to trying the book, so thanks Alan. On a separate note, there’s a wonderful website on the fascinating folklore of the Orkney islands here which definitely merits a visit.


Filed under Booker, Sackville, Amy

They had not conquered any stars. A star had conquered them.

The Big Jump, by Leigh Brackett

I suspect most readers of this blog won’t know Leigh Brackett’s name. You’ll know her work though, because she was a scriptwriter on The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Empire Strikes Back. Quite a CV.

Until recently I knew her as a writer of mid-20th Century sword and planet/planetary romance novels, a genre that doesn’t exist any more. She wrote stories of a Mars that never was, full of princesses, ancient ruins, swords, spaceships and of course mighty heroes. Edgar Rice Burroughs is the only person still remembered for those kind of books, but for a while they were pretty popular and he was never the only one writing them.

What changed for me was a review by Trevor of Themookseandthegripes. He read her rather sombre sounding post-apocalypse novel The Long Tomorrow, and really liked it. Given Trevor isn’t an SF reader as a rule, that caught my attention (besides, it’s always worth paying attention to Trevor’s recommendations). I wasn’t in the mood for sombre though, so when I saw she’d written a novel that was a mix of hardboiled detective fiction and pulpy space opera I knew that was the one for me.


Arch Comyn is a construction boss. The solar system’s been settled, but nobody yet has managed to make the big jump beyond it, nobody has reached the stars. Humanity may have settled Mars, the Moon, as far out as Pluto’s orbit, but no further and in this future world there’s still buildings that need to be built and hard men needed to build them.

Comyn’s a tough guy, handy with his fists. He’s a character you’ll recognise from a hundred hardboiled novels. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, but he has a code and part of that code is he won’t forget a favour or a friend.

Now one of those friends needs him, because the word is that somebody’s finally made the big jump. Somebody’s punched through space to another solar system, and returned, alive. Ballantyne’s his name, the sole person to come back from this first successful interstellar voyage. The reason that matters to Comyn is that one of his friends, Paul Rogers, was also on that crew and Paul didn’t make it back. He’s out there somewhere, maybe dead, maybe not, somewhere further out than any human has gone before.

The expedition was funded by the fabulously wealthy Cochrane family, and whatever happened they’re keeping tight lipped about it. Ballantyne is locked away on a private clinic on Mars, nobody has access and nobody’s talking. Comyn though, he wants to know what happened to Paul Rogers, so he goes to Mars, breaks into that hospital, gets past the Cochrane guards and sees Ballantyne. We’re on page 10. These old pulp writers really knew how to push a story along.

Ballantyne isn’t as Comyn remembers him:

It was a face that was only a ghostly echo, pitiful, terrible, marked by something frightening, worse than death or the fear of dying. It was something, Comyn thought, that had never before oppressed the children of Sol. A queer terror came over him as he looked at it. Suddenly he wanted to run, to get away out of the room, far away from whatever evil shadow it was that this man had brought back with him from another star.

Comyn knows he doesn’t have long. He’s barred the door but the Cochrane people are drilling through it. He has only moments to find out what happened to Paul Rogers:

Comyn bent over, so that his ear was almost touching the blue transparent lips. A voice came out of them, no louder than the beating of a moth’s wing…

“…listened too long. Too long, too far…”

“Where is Paul?”

“…too far, too lonely. We weren’t meant for this. Desolation…darkness…stars…”

Again, almost fiercely, “Where is Paul?”


The drill hit metal. The whining changed to a thin-edged screech.

The breathing skeleton that was Ballantyne went rigid. Its lips moved under Comyn’s ear, laboring with a dreadful urgency.

“Don’t listen, Paul! I can’t go back alone, I can’t! Don’t listen to them calling…Oh, God, why did it have to be transuranic, why did it?”

The drill screeched thinner, higher. And the painful whisper rose.

“The Transuranae! Paul, no! Paul, Paul, Paul…”

Suddenly Ballantyne screamed.

That’s all Ballantyne says. Moments later he’s dead. The Cochranes of course burst in, but here’s the thing – Ballantyne never spoke to them, only to Comyn. He didn’t say much of use, but the Cochranes don’t know that and that gives Comyn leverage. It’s page 12, I said those pulp writers knew how to move a story along.

… here he was in the middle of something so big he couldn’t even guess the end of it. It was a game for stars, and he, Arch Comyn, held just one little hole card… But, whatever the Cochranes did to him, he was going to find out about Paul Rogers.

I’m not going to say too much more plotwise. Obviously there’s a second expedition out to the stars, and of course Comyn bluffs his way onto it by playing his one card – that nobody knows what Ballantyne said to him – for all its worth. The Cochranes are right out of the Big Sleep, with an aging patriarch and murder at the heart of the family (and soon on the ship with Comyn). There’s a romantic interest too, naturally, in the form of the untameable Sydna Cochrane. Sydna’s rich and beautiful and she knows it, but she’s surrounded by socialites and dilettantes, she’s never met a man like Comyn before…

I’ll be honest with you, I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff and I gulped The Big Jump down. Of course it doesn’t really make sense. We’re in space, but everything is pretty much like 1955, which oddly enough is when it was written. Take out the spaceships, electric pistols and moon habitats and it’s 1950s technology, 1950s social attitudes. The Cochranes have the most important man in the solar system locked up in a desert hospital where nobody can get to him (it doesn’t really change anything that the desert’s on Mars rather than say Nevada), but of course they don’t have a simple thing like a microphone or camera in his hospital room.

This is not a serious read. It’s certainly not a recognised classic in the way The Long Tomorrow is. The plot is straightforward and the characters are from central casting, but nobody reads a book like this looking for subtlety or psychological insight.

The characters are who they need to be to serve the story – a rough but honourable hero, a princess (sorry, heiress, not the same thing at all), a milquetoast hanger-on/courtier who resents how easily Comyn has found himself at the heart of things, there’s others but they’re equally archetypal. Even so Brackett’s skill as a writer does show. Hokey as the novel is it’s at times strangely powerful. The sense that the first expedition encountered something beyond human understanding, something other, is well captured and Brackett is as good as building atmosphere as she is at keeping things moving.

In the end, The Big Jump clocks in at a punchy 135 pages and it’s as fast a read as any you’ll find. It’s pure entertainment, but well written within the scope of what it’s trying to do. It’s solid, expertly crafted pulp. It’s a great choice as a palate-cleanser, particularly if new worlds and old-fashioned murder are the sorts of things you find refreshing. It turns out SF and crime are like bacon and maple syrup, it doesn’t sound like you should be able to combine them successfully, but actually the result is pretty good.

Joachin Boaz reviewed The Big Jump, here. Trevor’s review of The Long Tomorrow, which I mentioned above, is here. If the idea of SF crime remotely appeals to you by the way and you haven’t already read it you should check out Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel. I can’t promise how it stands up today given I read it as a teenager, but it’s pretty much the recognised classic in the field. There’s also of course Neuromancer, which might as well be The Big Sleep in orbit.


Filed under Brackett, Leigh, Science Fiction

“Oriane is a snob”

The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust and translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enwright

Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics.

This is not the easiest volume of Proust. In fact, if you’ve never read Proust this volume is exactly what you were probably afraid he would be like – 100+ page descriptions of dinner parties in which very little happens, very slowly.

The writing here is rarely less than beautiful, and of course it’s only part of a much larger body of work, but it’s a challenge. Fortunately it redeems itself at the end, sufficiently so that it doubles my list of books I struggled with only to find the last few pages made the effort worthwhile (Antic Hay’s the other one, if you’re wondering).

As I write this my cat is occasionally jumping up and wandering across the keyboard, as cats do. Any insights of note are therefore likely hers.


Images of the covers I have, which are rather nice period sketches in red and grey, sadly appear to be unavailable online. The flower covers aren’t bad at all, but I prefer the sketch-covers.

Perhaps even more than most volumes to date, the Guermantes Way is almost two books in one. In the first the narrator begins to enter Paris society, but he is still in many ways a boy. He forms a massive crush on the noted and beautiful society hostess Madame de Guermantes, to whom he has a rather distant connection, and essentially starts to stalk her. He arranges his walks at times of day when he is sure to run into her, and exploits his friendship with the aristocratic young soldier Saint-Loup to arrange an introduction the woman plainly doesn’t want. Wherever she goes, there he is.

Just as previously the narrator hero-worshipped the painter Elstir then held Albertine up as the essence of his desires made flesh, now he again creates a fantasy in place of a person. The difference here is that he had opportunity to meet Elstir and Albertine, while Madame de Guermantes quite naturally wants nothing to do with this odd youth who seems so peculiarly fixated on her. She combines beauty with immense social cachet, and her wit (the Guermantes’ family are famed for their wit) is legendary. As long as she’s seen from afar she’s the perfect woman.

There’s more of course, vastly more. There are whole sections on the life of the family and servants at their new apartment in Paris. There’s a wonderful and painful moment when Saint-Loup introduces his mistress to the narrator, only for the narrator to recognise her as a prostitute who used to work in a brothel he once frequented. Much more painful however is the decline of the narrator’s grandmother.

That decline leads an extraordinary passage, too long to quote, where Proust meditates on how when we see people we mostly see them as we expect to. It’s only when we see them after a long absence, or in some unexpected circumstance or perspective that we suddenly see them as they are. We see where weight has been put on, where frailty has crept up, we see the signs of age or illness that normally are invisible to us because they manifest so slowly that we miss their onset. The narrator’s grandmother is old, and increasingly unwell, and wrapped in her love for him and his for her he hasn’t noticed, until suddenly he does:

I saw, sitting on the sofa beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, day-dreaming, letting her slightly crazed eyes wander over a book, an overburdened old woman whom I did not know.

The account of the narrator’s grandmother’s decline into illness and death is staggeringly well written, and because of that rather horrible. There’s no dignity in it, just frailty and pointless suffering, the body turned from ally to incomprehensible enemy. The grandmother passes from being a person to an object, but this transfiguration comes long before she actually dies as she becomes the subject of indifferent doctors and the servant Francoise who is so eager to show how much she cares that she completely ignores any evidence of the grandmother’s actual wishes. It’s difficult stuff to read.

That’s the thing with Proust. Few people nowadays have lingering illnesses at home with doctors and family in attendance. We die in anonymous hospitals. Few of us too  discover that our best friend’s girlfriend used to be a prostitute. Those are particulars though. Seeing a loved one fall into illness, losing their dignity along the way, that’s sadly damn near universal. Knowing something about someone a friend loves but not knowing whether to tell that friend or not, lots of us have had that particular experience. Part of the richness of Proust is that he reaches through his particulars to the universal human experience underneath.

Quoting Proust is particularly tricky because of his fondness for slabs of text with sentences running on, comma after comma, filled with diversions and allusions, descriptions and dialogue flowing like rivers down a rocky slope occasionally heading off in an unexpected direction and catching in eddies along the way, not always reaching the destination you expected at the outset. Here’s a lengthy excerpt from a marvellous set-piece at the theatre where the narrator continues to explore his fascination with the great actor Berma, but finds her star beginning to be eclipsed for him by the yet more glittering world of the salons:

Next to me were some vulgar people who, not knowing the regular seat-holders, were anxious to show that they were capable of identifying them and named them aloud. They went on to remark that these “regulars” behaved there as though they were in their own drawing-rooms, meaning that they paid no attention to what was being played. In fact it was the opposite that took place. A budding genius who has taken a stall in order to see Berma thinks only of not soiling his gloves, of not disturbing, of conciliating, the neighbour whom chance has put beside him, of pursuing with an intermittent smile the fleeting glance, and avoiding with apparent want of politeness the intercepted glance, of a person of his acquaintance whom he has discovered in the audience and to whom, after endless indecisions, he makes up his mind to go and talk just as the three knocks from the stage, resounding before he has had time to reach his friend, force him to take flight, like the Hebrews in the Red Sea, through a heaving tide of spectators and spectatresses whom he has forced to rise to their feet and whose dresses he tears and boots he crushes as he passes. On the other hand, it was because the society people sat in their boxes (behind the tiered circle) as in so many little suspended drawing-rooms, the fourth walls of which had been removed, or in so many little cafés to which one might go for refreshment without letting oneself be intimidated by the mirrors in gilt frames or the red plush seats, in the Neapolitan style, of the establishment – it was because they rested an indifferent hand on the gilded shafts of the columns which upheld this temple of the lyric art – it was because they remained unmoved by the extravagant honours which seemed to be being paid them by a pair of carved figures which held out towards the boxes branches of palm and laurel, that they alone would have the equanimity of mind to listen to the play, if only they had minds.

Phew! There are of course pages more. I’m not sure it’s the most illustrative quote I could have chosen, but I did rather like it. It also gives me the excuse to share a painting I love, which is housed at the Courtauld Gallery not far from where I work. It’s Renoir’s La Loggia:


What that quote does illustrate is Proust’s wit. Much of that lengthy passage is a setup for that final line. The whole thing is an exercise in absurdity. You have to go with the flow though. You have to sit down, immerse yourself in it, let it wash over and through you. Anything else and it becomes trench warfare, advancing a paragraph or so a day with an increasing sense that you’re not going to make it out of this one alive.

Speaking of trench warfare, we have the second part of The Guermantes Way. In the first section the narrator makes his first real steps in society, joining the salon of Madame de Villeparisis, which is decidedly unfashionable. In the second he finally finds himself a guest of Madame de Guermantes, Oriane given he’s now on first-name terms.

Oriane’s salon is utterly unlike that of Madame de Villeparisis. Where once the narrator attended dinners in which those present gossiped about those not present, repeated the latest stories from society and showed off their wit, now he attends dinners where those present gossip about those not present, repeat the latest stories from society and show off their wit. It’s a whole new world.

To be fair, the guests at Oriane’s salon are the most sought after in Paris. She plays host to princesses and persons of note. Oriane’s wit is sharper than most, though not perhaps quite as sharp as reputation has it, and there isn’t the nagging sense of the slightly provincial which comes through in the scenes at Madame de Villeparisis’ salon. Still, much of what’s best in this section is the narrator’s wilful refusal to even admit to himself that one salon is much like the other, that the Guermantes’ home is not the Elysium he dreamed it would be. That Oriane may, at the end of the day, be merely human after all.

Proust’s character study of Oriane is a masterpiece, not least in his examination of her comprehensive and unremitting snobbery. Oriane does not consider herself a snob, she is an egalitarian in fact, proudly oblivious to class distinctions. It is mere happenstance that she married a man of her own station, that her guests are the cream of society socially if not always intellectually, and that she treats her servants with what seems to be kindness but is in fact indifference to their actual preferences. Were she alive today she would doubtless have a regular column in the Guardian.

In the second of her four pieces on this book Emma of bookaroundthecorner said “We all know a Mme de Guermantes.” It’s true of course, it’s hard to get through life without meeting those whose values are held loudly but lightly. Oriane values artists, but not art; comment, but not analysis. She is unthinking, unreflective, cruel and petty because she swims only in the shallows. It’s not a kind comment on Paris society of Proust’s age that she represents its pinnacle, nor on the narrator that for all he can see exactly what she is he remains just as attracted by it and by the social success access to her promises.

I talked above about this volume being a challenge, but one that ultimately pays off. I’ve spent longer at the dinner parties of Madames de Villeparisis and de Guermantes than I have some dinner parties in real life. Given that part of what’s being shown is the vacuity of Paris society life, that means hours and pages spent at the table with people who can be amusing but rarely interesting.

Part of what makes all that worthwhile is the way Proust uses it to explore broader currents in then-contemporary society, in particular how the Dreyfus affair is becoming a fault-line in France in the way that say abortion is in the US today, with your position on that one issue being taken as a litmus test for where you stand on a whole range of essentially unrelated issues.

So, you’re pro-Dreyfus? That implies you’re politically liberal, anti-militarist, progressive, none of which may of course be true, you might be highly socially conservative and just think that Dreyfus happens to be innocent (or at least that his guilt isn’t proven). If you are though a pro-establishment Dreyfusard you can expect to be viewed with a certain suspicion by others on your side of the political debate, you’re off-message at minimum.

The Dreyfus case brought into conflict issues of trust in the military, the status of Jews in French society (which was horrifically anti-semitic), whether tradition has inherent value or whether it should be challenged and examined. The details of the Dreyfus case itself are now fairly obscure, particularly if like me you’re not French, but the broader sweep of the debate remains very current. It’s a specific manifestation of that age-old conflict between the forces of progressivism and conservatism. Dreyfus is an Edward Snowden, a human barometer of wider political sentiment.

On the subject incidentally of ongoing political relevance, here’s a quote which seemed to me to be as true today as it was when written:

He was, indeed, in the habit of always comparing what he heard or read with an already familiar canon, and felt his admiration quicken if he could detect no difference. This state of mind is by no means to be ignored, for, applied to political conversations, to the reading of newspapers, it forms public opinion and thereby makes possible the greatest events in history. A large number of German Café owners, simply by being impressed by a customer or a newspaper when they said that France, England and Russia were “provoking” Germany, made war possible at the time of Agadir, even if no war occurred. Historians, if they have not been wrong to abandon the practice of attributing the actions of peoples to the will of kings, out to substitute for the latter the psychology of the individual, the inferior individual at that.

The other element of payoff is watching the narrator’s slowly failing struggle to maintain his own illusions. He wants to believe in Madame de Guermantes, and through her in the world she represents and is the paragon of, but evidence is the enemy of faith. Well, generally it is. My own faith in the brilliance of Proust is being slowly rewarded and proven true, but like all faiths it’s sometimes tested and this volume is easily the most testing to date.

Emma of book aroundthecorner wrote four excellent and highly perceptive posts on this volume, all of which can be found on her Reading Proust page here. Emma also links to two articles written on the Vapour Trails blog, the first of which is here. Séamus Duggan is the blogger there, and in the second of his posts he says “Sometime I may be able to distill and analyze these books but at the moment it feels like trying to describe water in motion. Always the same but forever changing.”  I genuinely couldn’t have put that better myself (so I quoted it, blogs are a conversation after all).  There are worlds in Proust, any blog post (even four like Emma did) can only scratch the surface. You just have to dive in.


Filed under French Literature, Proust, Marcel