It was how the place made you feel, like it was alive and biding its time before it crushed you.

Death is a Welcome Guest, by Louise Welsh

Death is a Welcome Guest is the second in Louise Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy. It’s not so much a sequel to her first in the sequence, A Lovely Way to Burn, as a companion piece. The apocalypse unfolding from another perspective.

Death_is_a_Welcome_Guest

That perspective belongs to Magnus McFall, a stand-up comedian who as the novel opens is on the way to the gig of his life. He’s the warm-up for a popular tv comedian playing the O2 Arena in South London. Warm-up might not sound like much, but the O2 is a huge venue and any comedian who finds themselves performing there in any capacity is doing ok for themselves.

The problem is that as the first novel established the UK and much of the world is coming down with the Sweats, an influenza-like illness which is spreading rapidly and causing huge disruption. Magnus isn’t feeling too well himself as he heads to the O2, a sensation made worse when he sees someone evidently suffering from the Sweats pass out and fall under a train. Things are coming apart, he just doesn’t know yet quite how bad they’ll get.

On his way home Magnus sees a woman being attacked in an alley and goes to help. He drives off her assailant, but when more help comes they think he’s the attacker and he finds himself arrested for attempted rape. Magnus is in serious trouble. He was drunk, there’s no witnesses as to exactly what happened and the woman he saved was too drunk or sick to know what happened. He’s given a uniform marking him out as a vulnerable prisoner so the guards know not to mix him with the general population and then put in a cell to await trial. You’d think it couldn’t get much worse, but his cellmate falls seriously ill and the guards don’t seem to care. They only move Magnus when his cell mate, who’s received no medical attention, dies. Magnus gets moved, the body doesn’t. Something is very much up.

Magnus’ new cell mate, Jeb, is a quiet but violent looking man who apparently doesn’t normally share his cell with anyone. Jeb’s another vulnerable prisoner, generally a sign of a serious sex offender who other inmates might attack on the (usually correct) assumption that they’re a rapist or child molester. As the guards stop coming round Magnus and Jeb start getting hungry and realise that their cell could soon be their tomb.

The first third or so of Guest takes place in the prison and is incredibly tense (once the stage mechanics necessary to get Magnus in there while being innocent are done). It’s a bit of coincidence that Magnus ends up with another Sweats’ survivor, but not hugely so since presumably they were put together since neither was sick. Once they get out of their cell Magnus has to rely on Jeb’s prison-savvy to get out of a building expressly designed to stop people leaving and now overrun with other escaped prisoners all desperate and many dying. All this while wearing a uniform that marks Magnus out for attack by any prisoner who sees him and accompanied by a man who might well be a killer or worse.

Once they finally emerge the apocalypse is in full swing, indeed it’s mostly over. There are still soldiers trying to keep the peace and prevent looting, but not many and they’re clearly losing interest. Welsh easily evokes a devastated and empty England:

Almost all the shop windows that lined the road had been smashed. New clothes, some still on their hangers, lay scattered in heaps at the edge of the road, piled like storm-blasted seaweed at low tide. Trainers spilled from cardboard boxes inside a ransacked branch of Foot Locker and mobile phones were scattered like hand grenades outside EE Mobile. The bank sandwiched between the two plundered shops stood strangely intact, as if looters had decided they preferred solid merchandise to cash.

A nice touch here is Magnus’s own overheated imagination. He’s seen too many zombie movies and with corpses lying everywhere keeps imagining them getting up and coming after him, as if the reality weren’t bad enough. I found that stupid enough to be credible and it added a nice touch of absurdity which I thought very human.

Magnus is originally from the Orkneys and hopes that somehow his family might still be alive there (a pretty forlorn looking hope as several characters point out). He and Jeb head north, travelling together and slowly learning if not to trust each other at least to co-exist. Jeb’s close-mouthed about his past and doesn’t particularly believe in Magnus’s innocence (every prisoner claims they’re wrongly imprisoned). They’re together by necessity, not choice.

Welsh’s debt to the 1970s tv show Survivors is even more evident in this book than the last. Magnus and Jeb come to a country house where a small group are trying to re-establish a community. Among them is ex-army chaplain Jacob who rescues Magnus and Jacob from an attacker but seems perhaps a bit too ready to shoot to kill when facing challenge. Magnus and Jeb need to rest up so they temporarily join the community. Jacob hopes to persuade them to make their stay permanent.

As anyone familiar with the genre knows, the true threat after the apocalypse is other people. Two of the community have recently died, apparently through suicide. Jacob has his doubts. The first death he found credible, a distressed young woman who hanged herself, though the chair was a long way from the body. The second died from cut wrists but with no signs of hesitation marks and no prior indications suicide was likely. Anyone might do anything with the world ending, but if suicide is possible so too is murder.

Murder in a country house is as traditional as it gets, but when the murderer is one of a handful of survivors of a global apocalypse there’s nowhere to look for help. There’s no police and no backup. Just a random group of strangers every one of whom is going through enough trauma to turn anyone insane.

I did work out who the killer was, but that wasn’t remotely fatal as Welsh has plenty more story yet including rival groups of survivors and deeper questions of trust, morality and justice. What do you do with dangerous people when there are no police or prisons left? What prices are worth paying to reestablish community? Crime fiction is moral fiction, and by putting crime in a post-apocalypse context Welsh is able to strip these questions back and to force her characters to come up with their own answers.

Other reviews

My review of the first in this series, A Lovely Way to Burn, here. Credit for pointing me to this series at all belongs to Grant of 1st reading, and his review of this one is here.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Science Fiction, Welsh, Louise

“Somehow, the idea of the devil in a motor boat sounds too utterly fantastic,” remarked the Inspector.

The Secret of High Eldersham, by Miles Burton

After finishing my #TBR10 (which I’ll post separately about) I found myself intensely busy at work and in need of lighter reading. Guy Savage had recently reviewed Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham which sounded a fun change from the sort of book I’d normally read. Besides, just look at that cover:

Eldersham

I adore the British Library Crime Classics covers. It’s a shame I don’t generally enjoy vintage cosy crime, because they all look quite wonderful.

This one’s a bit of an oddity. Miles Burton was a hugely successful writer in his day and his series character Desmond Merrion was a popular hero. Merrion takes a while to arrive though, with the book opening with the retirement of a village pub landlord due to failing trade and his replacement by a retired police officer who takes on the lease. A short few years later and the new landlord is found dead in his own pub, stabbed to death.

The local police aren’t used to investigating murders and Scotland Yard is called in, in the form of Detective Inspector Young. After making some initial headway he finds his investigation stalled. Young was warned by the local bobby that “strangers don’t never prosper in High Eldersham” and that odd things happen to outsiders. Increasingly he feels “himself surrounded by impalpable forces beyond his power to combat.” Spooky stuff, but perhaps it’s just isolation and imagination getting to him.

Detective Inspector Young does what any sensible professional police officer would surely do in such a situation. He calls on an amateur to help him out.

Desmond Merrion is an independently wealthy war veteran with a sharp mind and a sizable independent income. Young captures his attention with the mysterious claim that “High Eldersham holds one of the most remarkable secrets of recent years.” Intrigued, Merrion makes his way to High Eldersham incognito so that he can make unofficial inquiries alongside Young’s official ones.

It’s no great spoiler to say there’s a folk horror element to the Secret of High Eldersham. Young quite quickly becomes convinced that witchcraft is being practised in the town. He finds a makeshift wax doll with a needle stuck into it in a suspect’s home, and on a return visit Merrion gets a closer look and discovers that the doll was marked with the dead man’s name. Neither Young nor Merrion believe in magic, but the villagers might and someone could be using that local superstition as a cover for wider crimes.

Merrion, aided by his indefatigable batman Newport, poses as a holidaying amateur sailor and by that means gets closer to some of the local gentry. Among them is an odd sort named Laurence Hollesley that Merrion knew from the war. Hollesley’s in love with the local magistrate’s beautiful daughter Mavis and soon Merrion is too, but evidence points to her father as being involved in the various nefarious goings-on. Can Merrion find out what’s really going on? And if Mavis’s father is involved, can Merrion protect her from that terrible truth?

High Eldersham is something of a blend between detective story, thriller and folk horror tale. There are multiple story strands, all of which of course tie up together in the end (somewhat coincidentally so to my mind given at one point Young goes off to investigate a totally separate case in London which then turns out to be connected to the events in High Eldersham). There’s murder, London drug dealers, Hollesely and his sinister butler getting up to curious deeds off the coast, a romance sub-plot, a mysterious coven practicing dark rituals. It all gets a bit much to keep track of and while I never got confused I did find myself thinking there was perhaps a little too much packed in here.

Burton (a pen name) has a lovely eye for description. Much of the action takes place off the coast, between a battered old boat Merrion hires, Mavis’s prized speedboat and Hollesley’s yacht and Burton clearly relishes descriptions of the sea and sky.

Saturday turned out to be a bright, cold day, with a fresh breeze from the north-westward. Towards the evening, however, the wind backed to the south-west and the weather grew considerably milder. At the same time, fleecy masses of cloud began to float slowly across the hitherto clear sky.

Burton’s persuasive familiarity with the sea works well in a particularly notable scene where Merrion finds himself stranded on a fog-shrouded sandbank with water rising up on all sides and no idea which way to swim to find the shore. The witchy scenes are also suitably creepy:

… he came to a stretch of smooth and level turf, set in the centre of the coppice. He explored this with considerable care. It seemed to be roughly circular, with a diameter of rather more than a hundred feet. In the centre was a burnt patch, upon which lay a few ashes and charred pieces of wood. Having looked very carefully at this, Merrion crossed the open space to its boundary, which was formed by the trees and a mass of rough brushwood growing among them. Making his way slowly round he came upon two tall trees growing some five yards apart, their interlaced branches forming a canopy above his head. And half-way between the two trunks stood a huge stone, which had at one time been roughly hewn. The top of the stone was hollowed like a saucer, and into this depression Merrion cast the rays of his torch. Beneath a layer of fallen leaves and pieces of bark the surface of the stone showed smooth and worn. But upon it were spots of candle grease, and between them dark stains as of dried blood.

In the end though while I enjoyed High Eldersham it is fair to say that it would be a better novel with a little less going on. It all gets a bit unlikely. Young and Merrion quickly work out that someone has resurrected a centuries old declining witch cult and then pretended to have magical powers so as to control the locals, but I couldn’t help thinking that there might have been simpler ways for the villains to carry out their nefarious plots that might have involved less effort. The characterisation is pretty straightforward which meant that I worked out who was responsible pretty quickly, and while the why was more elusive it wasn’t really quite interesting enough to justify the extraordinary means employed.

If you’re a fan of folk horror this is worth reading. If, however, you’re more a fan of vintage crime I suspect you can give it a miss.

Other reviews

Guy brought this to my attention which his review here. Other reviews worth noting are at the Past Offences blog here and the Cross Examining Crime blog here. Both Past and Cross picks up on the potential stylistic connection to The Riddle of the Sands, another yacht-based thriller which I think benefits from a considerably tighter focus than High Eldersham.

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Filed under Burton, Miles, Crime Fiction

She left her hesitations behind with her home-made woolens.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Back in 1938 when Winifred Watson first submitted Miss Pettigrew to her publisher they didn’t want to accept it. Watson replied “You are wrong, Miss Pettigrew is a winner.” She was quite right, because Miss Pettigrew is most definitely a winner.

Pettigrewcover

Written in 1938 Miss Pettigrew is an utterly delightful and absurdly affectionate fairy-tale. It tells of how the mousey and over-looked Miss Pettigrew through a clerical mishap at her employment agency meets nightclub entertainer Delysia LaFosse and over the course of a single day has her life utterly transformed.

Miss Pettigrew is:

a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look.

That “if any one cared to look” there is devastating. Miss Pettigrew is a desperate woman. Her money’s run out, her string of governess jobs have been a sequence of disasters and if she can’t find a new position within the day she’ll be homeless. Her clothes are threadbare and she expects nothing but rejection when she goes for one last job interview.

When she knocks on Delysia LaFosse’s door what she finds isn’t what she expects at all. Delysia is beautiful, glamorous, rather fast. There’s no evidence of a child (because Miss Pettigrew has been sent to the wrong job) and Delysia has no idea why she’s there but Delysia’s life is full of random happenstance so the appearance of a dowdy middle-aged woman isn’t particularly surprising to her.

Pettigrew3

Before Miss Pettigrew can explain her presence the dashing young Phil emerges from the bedroom. Miss Pettigrew is shocked, but when Delysia asks for help to get Phil out without hurting his feelings she somehow manages the task and from there the day is set. Shortly after the doorbell rings again and in walks Nick, nightclub manager and by appearance matinée idol. He’s fantastically jealous and if he learns Phil’s been there it’s all up for Delysia. Suddenly Miss Pettigrew is needed. She’s never been that before.

What follows is a dizzying array of callers and escapades. Phil and Nick aren’t the only men in Delysia’s life and while Delysia is charming an ability to cover her tracks isn’t among her talents. Soon Delysia has adopted Miss Pettigrew, Guinevere, as a dependable friend in her hour of need. Miss Pettigrew tries to muster up the courage to say she’s there for a job but instead finds herself sucked into a world of glamour and just plain fun that her parents long warned her against and yet which doesn’t seem so bad when she finally sees it in the flesh.

Miss Pettigrew sat savouring to the full a blissful sense of adventure, of wrongdoing: a dashing feeling of being a little fast: a worldly sense of being in the fashion: a wicked feeling of guilty ecstasy. She enjoyed it. She enjoyed it very much.

There are cigars left behind by Phil to explain to the magnetically caddish Nick, the smoothing of Delysia’s friend Miss Dubarry’s boyfriend troubles to attend to, a cocktail party to attend, a first visit to a nightclub… As the day goes on Miss Pettigrew finds herself something else she’s never been before: accepted.

Pettigrew1

Until this day Miss Pettigrew had always prized being a lady above all else. It hasn’t got her much, only “polite, excluding courtesies” from gentlemen and her current poverty. Still, it’s how she was raised:

Powder, thundered her father, the curate, the road to damnation. Lipstick, whispered her mother, the first step on the downward path. Rouge, fulminated her father, the harlot’s enticement. Eyebrow pencil, breathed her mother, no lady … !

It explain a lot that her father thundered and fulminated while her mother whispered and breathed. What hope poor Miss Pettigrew? No wonder she made her forties without ever having been kissed.

Delysia though gives her confidence, asking for help and advice and sharing without second thought her clothes and life. Miss Dubarry owns a leading beauty salon and gives Miss Pettigrew a transformative makeover (something often promised in real life, but which more usually seems to result only in the purchase of another moisturiser and a remarkably expensive eyeshadow).

It’s nonsense, of course, but it’s beautiful nonsense. I was reminded slightly of The Grossmiths’ The Diary of a Nobody which like Miss Pettigrew is a supremely compassionate novel. Nobody here is truly wicked, even Nick who’s the closest to a villain the book has is just vain and self-centred rather than actually being bad.

The book does contain a few of the less pleasant attitudes of its time. Miss Pettigrew at one point criticises Phil as having “a little Jew in him” and suggests “when it comes to marriage it’s safer to stick to your own nationality”. Happily, these elements come up on only one or two pages out of the entire 234-page novel and I think one can make some allowances for when it was written.

Miss Pettigrew is an old-fashioned champagne glass of a novel. It’s deceptively light, effervescent and packs a surprising punch. It’s always pretty obvious what’s going to happen, and yet I wanted to see it happen all the same because Watson had me caring about all of them. Will Delysia find the right man? Will Miss Dubarry be reconciled with her Tony? Will Miss Pettigrew’s new friends stick by her when they learn why she really turned up? You don’t need to read the book to know how those questions will be answered, but as with any good romantic comedy the trick is in how they’re answered. It’s a book for when you’re feeling a bit down and need a lift, or if you’re emerging from something terribly dark or serious and need a breath of heady air. It’s lovely, and that’s not a word I get to use of many of the books I tend to read.

I’ll end by noting that this was my first Persephone Books title and I was hugely impressed by the sheer quality of the book. It’s nicely bound, sits well in the hand, the paper’s high quality and the spine doesn’t crack when you hold the book open. It’s peppered with period illustrations from the original text which are quite adorable and it even comes with its own bookmark. Extraordinary.

Other reviews

Lots, most of which I’ve lost the links to. Here however is Jacqui’s of JacquiWine’sJournal, here‘s Ali’s of Heavenali and here‘s Simon Savidge’s of SavidgeReading. As ever please feel free to link to others in the comments.

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Filed under Comic Fiction, Watson, Winifred

The big thing in Europe these days was countries, and there were more and more of them every year.

Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson

A while back I read a short story by Dave Hutchinson featuring a knight who falls lasciviously in love with his own castle. It was funny and strange and really rather good.

I read the short story as a taster to Hutchinson’s work, because I’d heard great things of his 2015 novel Europe in Autumn. Great and accurate things.

EiA

(As an aside, the cover is a bit over-dramatic. Images of trains and maps suggest someone has at least read the book which is often not true of cover art, but that rather portentous line about “No border can hold him” completely misses its mood.)

Europe in the 21st Century is a fractured place, riven by deep nationalist fissures and a sense that its day is past. Clearly we’re in the realm of science fiction…

Rudi is an Estonian chef working in a Krakow restaurant. He’s approached by the local crime syndicate to run an errand to a nearby micro-state. The task goes well and before long he’s recruited into a shadowy organisation of underground couriers – the romantically named Coureurs des Bois.

Rudi’s Europe is a mess of borders and new nations, some of them as small as a handful of buildings. Breakway states find themselves choked by the larger nations they’ve seceded from.

He picked up his glass and took a sip of vodka. “I saw on the news last week that so far this year twelve new nations and sovereign states have come into being in Europe alone.” “And most of them won’t be here this time next year,” said Rudi.

Emails and internet access can be blocked; post intercepted; road and rail traffic stopped at crossing points. A good courier though, armed with fake passports and plenty of native cunning, they can still get through and Rudi’s nondescript appearance and easily transferable day-job are distinct assets. All he needs is training in tradecraft, which he receives from the highly experienced Fabio:

EVERY STUDENT NEEDS a teacher, Dariusz had told him, and Fabio was to be his. He was short and chubby and well-dressed enough to be mugged within minutes of setting foot on any street in Western Europe. His suit was from the cutting edge of the Armani Revival and his shoes had been sewn by wizened artisans in Cordova. His luggage cost more than a flat in central Kraków. He was, Rudi thought, one of the least covert people he had ever seen. He thought it was a miracle the English authorities hadn’t arrested Fabio and then just looked for a crime to charge him with, because he was almost a caricature of a Central European biznisman. Fabio had a dim view of Kraków’s hotels. The Cracovia wasn’t good enough for him. He refused to even cross the threshold of the Europa. He claimed the head chef of the Bristol was a convicted poisoner. He wound up staying at Rudi’s flat.

Fabio’s training reminds Rudi all too strongly of Le Carré and Deighton. There’s a sense of amateurism to it all:

IN RUDI’S OPINION, whoever had set up the Coureurs had overdosed on late twentieth century espionage fiction. Coureur operational jargon, as passed on by Fabio, sounded like something from a John le Carré novel. Legends were fictitious identities. Stringers were non-Coureur personnel, or entry-level Coureurs, who did makework like scoping out locations in the field or maintaining legends. Pianists were hackers, tailors provided technical support, cobblers forged documents – Rudi knew that euphemism had been in use in espionage circles as far back as the 1930s. He thought it was ridiculous.

At first I thought that was Hutchinson passing off his own over-obvious literary inspirations as a device within the fiction. As the novel progresses though it becomes clear it’s not that at all and that what I thought was a flaw was both intentional and subtle. Rudi’s right. The coureurs are sometimes effective, but they’re motivated less by money than by an ideological dislike of borders and bureaucracy coupled with a need to inject a little theatre in their lives. They’re living their own little espionage dream and doing some good in the process, but there are people in their world for whom this isn’t a game. Le Carré could have told them that the romance fades when people start firing real bullets.

Much of the novel is a series of Rudi’s missions, mostly the eventful ones which means mostly the unsuccessful ones. Rudi keeps getting promoted even though his hit rate is middling at best, leading him to wonder if he’s one of the better agents what the rest are like. He learns though and through trial and error becomes fairly effective in his role, while still spending his downtime cooking in his Krakow kitchen.

As you’d expect, eventually Rudi finds himself in over his head and having to go on the run. There’s a lovely sequence where he’s taken prisoner and sort-of-imprisoned in a luxurious London flat watched by polite staff who seem there to serve him but somehow prevent him leaving. Much of the charm of this novel is how well Hutchinson brings Central Europe to life. It’s refreshing to have an Estonian chef as a protagonist and to have the action mostly in Poland and former German states. Hutchinson’s central European sections persuaded me, but even more reassuringly his London section takes place about two minutes from where I work and the descriptions were spot on:

AT WEEKENDS, THE area was deserted. You got some tourists wandering up and down Fleet Street, but it didn’t start to get busy until you were past the High Court and heading towards Trafalgar Square. On a Sunday, you could walk up out of the Mitre Court gateway onto Fleet Street, and for minutes on end you wouldn’t see another living soul.

I’ve spent enough weekends on Fleet Street to know how true that is.

By the two thirds or so mark I had Autumn pegged as an enjoyable near-future hybrid SF spy novel. It was fun, I liked the characters and the writing had a nice lightness of touch and sense of humour which worked well for me. Then, as Rudi starts to work out what’s going on, the novel takes a Borgesian swerve. To say too much would be a massive spoiler, but a McGuffin enters stage left in the form of an alternate ordnance survey map of extraordinary inaccuracy showing in minute detail historic English towns that never existed. In an ordinary SF novel that would be the flag for some alternate-history high jinks. Here it’s something stranger and more interesting.

The novel ends abruptly and with much unresolved. Hutchinson has since himself recognised this as something of a flaw, though I was happy with the ending and while I know it’s now part of a trilogy I’d have been perfectly happy with it had it just been a free-standing novel.

Autumn appeared on a great many SF prize lists back in 2015, and rightly so. This is intelligent and well written SF with good ideas which for once are supported by credible characters. I was reminded of George Alec Effinger’s wonderful Budayeen novels with their own fractured future and memorable cast. It’s good company to be in, and it’s a shame Effinger never got to read Hutchinson because I think he’d have liked him.

Other reviews

A great many, but not on the blogs I typically follow most of which don’t cover much (or any) SF. I liked this review from Yellow and Creased and rather wish I’d written this paragraph myself because it’s spot on:

Hutchinson displays quiet but powerful sensibilities in his work: a deep humaneness, a potent but unobtrusive wit, a remarkable grip on his world-building. And it’s also never overwritten, always perfect: the sly, sardonic wit never felt forced or overused; the near-future tech remained on-hand but comfortably in the background.

I also liked this typically excellent review by Maureen Kincaid at her Paper Knife blog. Here’s a paragraph from her review:

Rudi’s wry commentary on the new milieu in which he finds himself is a delight. (Indeed, there is a sly humour at work throughout the novel, manifest in almost sotto voce asides that leave the reader thinking “did he really just says that?” and such miniature absurdities as the village-state run by fans of Gunther Grass – “Rudi was vaguely sorry that Grassheim had been reabsorbed by the Pomeranian Republic […] He really liked The Tin Drum” (27).) However, Rudi’s observations do raise some interesting points about what a reader might expect of a narrative that dresses itself in the costume of a spy novel, or indeed of an organisation that apparently models itself on a fiction. Should we read this as someone somewhere recognising that Le Carré’s fictional model of the Circus is so damn good they might as well put it to actual use, or is Hutchinson ever so gently pointing out that our perception of how the secret service works is shaped more by the fiction we can access than the reality we can never experience, with the underlying possibility that they might just be the same. Or is all of this a distraction from something else, a “legend” that Hutchinson himself is fabricating, to draw our attention away from something else?

The rest is just as insightful, particularly where she analyses the London episode and how it fits with the novel’s pacing as a form of “hinge” in the narrative between the spy capers and the stranger material to follow.

Edit: David Hebblethwaite reviewed this for Strange Horizons. His review is here.

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Filed under Hutchinson, Dave, Science Fiction

We all go down in battle, but we all come home.’

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood comes praised by many of my own personal literary heroes. TS Eliot was a fan. So too Jeanette Winterson. Even William Burroughs apparently loved it. With all that to recommend it how could I not love it too?

Nightwood

With that opening it’s probably not a surprise to learn that I didn’t love Nightwood. I didn’t even like it very much. I’m not saying it’s a bad book, given its champions I think that would be arrogant. I’m confident though in saying that if it’s a good book I am not a good reader for it.

Nightwood opens strongly:

Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein, a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms – gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.

The child is “Baron” Felix Volkbein. His title is slightly dubious and therefore all the more fiercely clung to. He’s a man with his gaze fixed firmly on the past, intent on preserving traditions his family never had more than questionable claims on.

Note that line about “perpetuating that race”, because Felix’s is part-Jewish and here that’s indicative of character. The first third or so of the novel is filled with characterisation based on racial essentialism, common in the early 20th Century but deeply tedious here in the early 21st.

That essentialism leads to cod-philosophy like this:

It takes a Christian, standing eternally in the Jew’s salvation, to blame himself and to bring up from that depth charming and fantastic superstitions through which the slowly and tirelessly milling Jew once more becomes the ‘collector’ of his own past. His undoing is never profitable until some goy has put it back into such shape that it can again be offered as a ‘sign’. A Jew’s undoing is never his own, it is God’s; his rehabilitation is never his own, it is a Christian’s. The Christian traffic in retribution has made the Jew’s history a commodity; it is the medium through which he receives, at the necessary moment, the serum of his own past that he may offer it again as his blood. In this manner the Jew participates in the two conditions; and in like manner Felix took the breast of this wet nurse whose milk was his being but which could never be his birthright.

Which is frankly bollocks, and not particularly meaningful bollocks at that. Then you get stuff like:

The people of the theatre and the [circus] ring were for him as dramatic and as monstrous as a consignment on which he could never bid. That he haunted them as persistently as he did, was evidence of something in his nature that was turning Christian.

After a long silence in which the doctor had ordered and consumed a Chambéry fraise and the Baron a coffee, the doctor remarked that the Jew and the Irish, the one moving upward and the other down, often meet, spade to spade in the same acre.

I could pick many more examples. To be Jewish or Christian or Irish here is more than an accident of birth and culture (at one point the novel observes that Felix, being Jewish, is ” racially incapable of abandon”). Race here is a fixed part of the self. It’s the breed you belong to, as might a horse or dog.

Mercifully this sort of thing dies back after the first third of the book or so (if it didn’t I sincerely doubt this would be viewed by anyone as a classic). Felix marries Robin Vote and has a frail and sickly child by her. Robin leaves him, and the novel follows her to her relationship with Nora Flood. Felix married Robin because he thought a man of his intended station should marry by a certain age and beget heirs. Nora takes in Robin because she loves her.

Most reviews of Nightwood focus on Robin and Nora and for good reason. Nora’s passion provides everything Felix’s dry and dwindling ambition lacks. Unfortunately, Robin’s is a restless soul. Nora’s love isn’t enough to keep her and Robin starts to stay out late, to pick up other women, to push back against the comfort Nora offers. Nora pursues her but can’t hold her, and soon Robin is poached by “the squatter” in her and Nora’s lives, the aging Jenny Petherbridge.

Felix wanted Robin for reasons that were ultimately sterile, and it’s telling that the child they have is weak and unlikely to live to see adulthood. Nora loves Robin so much that she’ll let her sleep with other women, wait at home and when Robin stops coming home follow her to cheap waterside bars and into the darkness Robin seeks out. Jenny Petherbridge just wants what others have, and takes Robin because Nora has her. As for what Robin wants, who truly knows? She thinks “unpeopled thoughts”. She’s more catalyst than character, aimless and promiscuous though whether from desire or listlessness is hard to say.

Looking up after an interminable flow of fact and fancy, [Felix] saw Robin sitting with her legs thrust out, her head thrown back against the embossed cushion of the chair, sleeping, one arm fallen over the chair’s side, the hand somehow older and wiser than her body; and looking at her he knew that he was not sufficient to make her what he had hoped; it would require more than his own argument. It would require contact with persons exonerated of their earthly condition by some strong spiritual bias, someone of that old régime, some old lady of the past courts, who only remembered others when trying to think of herself.

Observer and chorus to all of this is Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O’ Connor, a kind of holy fool. He’s friend to Felix and counsels and comforts him when Robin leaves. He becomes friend to Nora too and in one long dark night does the same for her. He’s a garrulous Irish cross-dresser and whole pages are given to his flights of rhetoric. As Nora asks on first meeting him as he talks with Felix: ‘Are you both really saying what you mean, or are you just talking?’

He’s doing both of course. O’ Connor speaks for the sake of language itself, but there’s meaning amidst the torrent. When Nora comes to him in despair his ocean of words gives her the space for her own pain. His loquacious nonsense is a kind of mercy.

Nightwood is, above all, a novel of emotion. The characters here are damned souls driven by their own passions, the only one of them to achieve any kind of grace does so by abandoning the follies that drive them. In that they’re human, if perhaps somewhat exaggerated humans.

It’s rare for posts here (or at any blog) to get people commenting below the line in strong disagreement. It happened when I criticised Heart of Darkness (which I rather welcomed) but it happened all the more when I reviewed Wuthering Heights which I took to even less than Nightwood. The thing about Wuthering Heights is it’s a novel of sensibility, not sense. Nightwood is the same. If the passion doesn’t speak to you then you’re left with unlikely characters doing improbable things in overblown language.

One little review isn’t going to dent Nightwood’s status any more than it will Wuthering Heights. There is though a chemistry between book and reader as there is between lovers, and just as it wasn’t there for Felix and Robin it isn’t there for me and Nightwood either.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere I know of, save for Bookslut’s rather positive one here before she abandoned blogging. She makes a comparison to Proust. I wouldn’t. Jeanette Winterson wrote a characteristically lovely foreword which is reprinted in full in the Guardian here and is worth reading. The spoilers are few and Nightwood isn’t the sort of book that would be spoiled by knowing its slender plot in any event. Winterson is insightful on the book in a way I can’t be, because it spoke to her but merely spoke at me.

As a final aside, I do find the habit in early 20th Century English novels of dropping in little bits of dialogue in other European languages immensely irritating. Here it’s occasional phrases in German, but elsewhere I’ve seen both French and Italian. Huxley loved that sort of thing and I imagine it reflects how people of a certain class spoke, but it is wearying.

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Filed under Barnes, Djuna, Modernist Fiction

“There needs to be fucking in African literature too!”

Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and translated by Roland Glasser

There’s a tendency in the UK to expect a certain kind of book from Africa. It’s a serious book, dealing with the pain of a continent and the aftermath of Colonialism. It’s hailed as an important book, but it’s possibly a little dull and hardly anyone reads it. I don’t read it.

At one point in Tram 83 a publisher says to a young author:

We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature. Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music. Doesn’t all that inspire you? I’m concerned for the future of African literature in general. The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy. There needs to be fucking in African literature too!”

Tram 83 puts the fucking back into African literature.

tram-83

Tram 83 is the legendary nightclub at the heart of a breakaway city-state ruled by a dissident general rumoured to be a sorcerer. It’s where everyone goes and everything and anything happens. Well, anything save a quiet conversation.

“Do you have the time?”

Requiem is a local fixer and money-maker. It’s hard to say exactly what he does, but he makes money doing it. His old friend Lucien, a writer, comes to stay with him. Lucien wants to write a doorstep novel featuring twenty famous historical characters from Europe and beyond. It sounds unreadable, but his bigger problem is that he’s finding it unwriteable and Tram 83’s distractions don’t help.

“Call me Astrid. I can’t live without caresses.”

Tram 83 doesn’t have a plot as such. Instead it has sequences of incantatory prose that seems as drunk on Brazza beer and hot jazz as are the regulars at Tram 83. Requiem wants to make money, possibly by robbing a mine (it’s a popular way to make some cash in the mineral-rich city-state, but a dangerous one). Lucien wants to write his book and meets a local publisher who’s interested provided he cuts the number of characters in half, relocates it to South America and perhaps turns it into a play.

“What are you trying to do? Get me horny?”

Requiem and Lucien careen through the city, interrupted constantly by the baby-chicks and single-mamas selling themselves with the constant code-question “do you have the time?” Hardly anybody does. When you’re young you sell yourself, when you’re old you sell whatever you can find. Tram 83 is a merciless place.

“Getting drunk on wine feels like a con. Two little glasses and you lose your head. Beer, now that’s a heavenly way to get wasted.”

Tram 83 is awash with foreign workers and “for-profit tourists”. The Europeans, Americans, Russians, Canadians, now the Chinese all eager to get their own little slice of mineral wealth. Are Requiem and his crew so different? There’s money literally lying in the ground. The foreigners have government contracts while Requiem has to sneak into the mines under cover of night, but the government’s just another set of strongmen, the General a man with more guns on his side than Requiem has. What you get is what you can grasp, and why should Requiem have any less than the next guy?

It was said that in a single day dozens of sacks of heterogenite were carted off from huts and other makeshift camps. With such eroded, tampered foundations, houses threatened to collapse at the slightest rain. Will you consent to starve to death when there’s silver, copper, barium, tin, or coal lying quietly under your feet? From the area around Hope Mine to as far as the east side of Vampiretown, the city took on the appearance of an archaeological site. Even the goats and wheelbarrows smelled of the cobalt quarries.

Meanwhile Lucien tries to make art. He shuns the advances of the baby-chicks, which confuses and offends them. He ignores the pleas from his French publisher for the overdue manuscript he owes, ashamed to admit that he was forced to burn it with a kalashnikov to the back of his neck. He does a reading at Tram 83, the crowd mob him and beat him to a pulp. As the text reflects:

There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around. The City-State, an example among so many others—she pulsated with literature.

It’s a confident and persuasive paragraph, but perhaps illustrates one problem with the book. In the comments under David Hebblethwaite’s review (links at the bottom) Grant of 1st reading referenced that paragraph noting that while it sounds clever it’s not clear what it actually means. I think that’s fair. The best way to read Tram 83 is to let it wash over you, to treat it like the jazz constantly played at Tram 83 itself. It’s impressionistic, but cumulatively so and if you poke at individual elements they might not hold together quite as well as you’d think.

“I don’t like foreplay. It kills the pleasure.”

Tram 83 is ultimately a hymn to language as much as anything else. It’s no surprise to learn that Mujila is also a poet, because the book hums with poetry. I had several possible one-liner titles for this post. I considered calling this post ‘the monologues of a Kalashnikov,’ which I thought an extraordinarily evocative phrase (though I couldn’t say of what exactly). There are moments of syncopated alliteration like ‘He stepped over the sleepers stretched out on the sidewalk’ and lines that could have stepped out of a William Gibson novel like ‘The Tram retained its botched-night splendor.’

“Give me a real cuddle.”

At times it’s very funny. The exchanges between Lucien and his potential publisher are a micro-satire on the self-importance of literature and the constant tension between art and business in publishing. Lucien clearly has talent, but does anybody care? Abroad, back in France, they do but only for so long as expat African fiction remains fashionable. Back at home nobody’s lining up to buy the latest novel (a theme in Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief also).

“Take me to Bratislava and make me your dream queen!”

It would be easy to make all this bleak and angry. Foreign exploitation, political failure, violence and indifference to anything beyond surviving the next day, it’s potentially grim stuff. What makes Tram 83 different is the sense that regardless of all of this people still meet friends, go dancing, have sex, have a laugh, drink some beers, live. It’s the life as well as the language that makes Tram 83 sing.

Tram 83 knows what it’s doing. There’s clever use of repeated imagery, like the central motif of the never quite finished and war scarred rusting train station. It’s constantly referred to, a landmark both the text and the city revolve around (like the club itself), and as it gets mentioned again and again the description shortens until it becomes simply “the station whose metal structure” with no end to the description at all because none is needed – everyone including the reader knows the station by now and it’s enough merely to refer to it for the rest of its damaged history to spill forth. There’s paragraphs like beat poetry, cascading on for a page or more until you near-drown in the words, coming choking up for air on the other side:

Jalopies out of gas, deep-frozen products from the Galapagos Islands, knick-knacks, ceiling fans, oil changes, sheep, sarcastic remarks, hearses on alert, eggs contaminated with melamine, relics, minarets as far as the eye can see, bistros, baker-deli-linen-fish-lumber stores, phone booths, internet cafés, criminal records, pools of stagnant water, garbage bags at the mercy of beggars, stray dogs, no-entry signs, mountains of refuse, black market in the merchandise and its derivatives, discotheques, abandoned locomotives, born-again Christian evangelist churches, cockfights, settlings of scores, boxing galas, mosquitoes resistant to all pesticides, booing, trolleys, wimps bankrolled by mercenaries, Neanderthals, laundries, desires, beverages, arranged widowhoods of wives of soldiers declared missing, ringworms, jeers revised and corrected by the foreign press, daydreams of dissident rebels prepared to open another front because of an oilfield, magic potions to treat unidentified diseases, backwash and backwash, cannibals, bleeders, baby chicks with their “do you have the time?”, idols with feet of clay, smoking rooms, palimpsests, cathedrals, repeat offenders in custody released on bail who return to the scene of the crime with the weapon of the crime, oriental tapestries, suicidals, the comings and goings of naked-men diddlers, assorted gaffes, superfluities, prolegomena, dark looks, erections paraphrased and channeled into paper tissues…The night came on with her swimsuits and undershirts she forgot to wring out.

I’m more sympathetic to poet-novelists than some, and this is definitely a poet-novelist’s work. In that I was reminded slightly of Jean-Euphèle Milcé’s Alphabet of the Night, against which I commented that where there was a choice between sense and imagery that imagery won every time. That’s true here too. Mujila’s angel-headed hipsters aren’t strictly speaking credible characters. They’re convincing though, provided you go with the flow and don’t poke too hard at what any individual paragraph means exactly.

Tram 83 has the exuberance of late-night live jazz, sending you home blinking into daylight exhilarated and exhausted. It doesn’t play to easy narratives of African experience (as if there could be such a thing in such a vast continent). I didn’t take to it quite as much as I did Mabanckou, those prose-avalanches sometimes smother, but I think it definitely merits the attention it’s received and I look forward to Mujila’s next.

Other reviews

Tram 83 has been pretty heavily reviewed on the blogosphere. David’s Book World’s is here, Tony’s Reading List’s is here, Winston’s Dad’s Blog’s is here, 1st Reading’s Blog’s is here, ANZ LitLover’s Blog’s is here, Words without Borders’ is here and Shiny New Books’ review is here. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn I’d missed some too.

Also potentially of interest is my review here of Alain Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine. Mabanckou provides the foreword to Tram 83 and given Mabanckou’s status Mujila can hardly not owe a debt back to him.

The other link with Mabanckou is that I mention above rumours that the dissident general is a sorceror, more specifically the rumour is that he “eats” his enemies in the spirit world just as the porcupine’s master Kibandi does in Memoirs. It’s not a major plot point here (it’s a single throw-away reference), but it’s a nice reward for my having chosen to read several African novels in relatively quick succession so letting me recognise links and common references one to the other.

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Filed under African Literature, Congolese Literature

At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.

Never Mind, by Edward St Aubyn

Never Mind is the first of Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels. It’s superbly well written; I’ll be reading the rest.

Never Mind

Here’s how it opens:

At half-past seven in the morning, carrying the laundry she had ironed the night before, Yvette came down the drive on her way to the house. Her sandal made a faint slapping sound as she clenched her toes to prevent it from falling off, and its broken strap made her walk unsteadily over the stony, rutted ground. Over the wall, below the line of cypresses that ran along the edge of the drive, she saw the doctor standing in the garden.

The doctor is busy tormenting and killing ants, prolonging their small agonies as much as he can.

Yvette had only to pass the fig tree and she could slip into the house without Dr Melrose knowing she had arrived. His habit, though, was to call her without looking up from the ground just when she thought she was screened by the tree. Yesterday he had talked to her for long enough to exhaust her arms, but not for so long that she might drop the linen. He gauged such things very precisely.

We’re still on the first page, and already Doctor David Melrose is established as a petty sadist of the first order. Five year old Patrick is his only son, an unfortunate thing to be.

Completing the family (if that’s the word) is Eleanor, David’s wife and Patrick’s mother. She’s American, rich, married for her money and long since regretting it but too crushed to escape. It’s no surprise she’s an alcoholic.

Never Mind is a slim and exquisitely well written novel. It focuses on one weekend when David and Eleanor have guests over: insecure academic Victor Eisen and his bored wife Anne Moore; David’s old friend Nicholas Pratt and Nicholas’ much younger current lover Bridget. It’s a collision of age, money and class.

Victor is middle class and successful in his career, but can’t resist cosying up to the aristocracy which David and Nicholas firmly belong to (Nicholas is a baronet). Eleanor was a successful reporter before marrying Victor, attracted by his intelligence and with no warning of his dully conservative nature and slightly obsequious social climbing. Bridget has vague dreams of marrying Nicholas for his money, but she’s getting tired of him faster than he is of her and increasingly finds him dull and middle-aged.

St Aubyn is brilliant at capturing character in small asides. Victor wants to be what David and Nicholas already are, but he never can be. You have to be born to that class, you can’t achieve it and while they find him amusing they also slightly despise him for trying. Anne understands what Victor can’t, and by not trying to fit in manages to do so better than he ever will. I loved this description of Victor’s hairbrushes, which whatever he does never quite manage his unruly hair:

His pair of ivory hairbrushes had no handles. They were quite inconvenient, but very traditional, like the wooden bowl of shaving soap, which never thickened as satisfactorily as foam from a can.

There’s something so horribly aspirational in that paragraph (possibly the most British sentence I shall ever write). It quietly damns Victor, though the book isn’t entirely without some sympathy to him.

In another scene David plays a game with Patrick where he pretends to suspend him by his ears but actually supports his weight with his arms. On this occasion, having gained Patrick’s trust, David takes his support away so that Patrick’s entire weight is suspended by his ears. It manages both to hurt Patrick physically and emotionally – a double win for David.

After hanging Patrick from his ears and watching him escape from the library, David shrugged, sat down at the piano, and started to improvise a fugue.

That sentence says everything that needs to be said about David really, though by the time it arrives we already know the kind of man he is. At least, we think we do, he gets worse.

The men here are truly awful. At one point Nicholas tells Bridget that Patrick only exists because David violently raped Eleanor one night. For Nicholas the story is an anecdote – a piece of idle gossip. He isn’t particularly concerned by his friend being a rapist, merely dryling noting that marital rape isn’t a concept recognised by law (it wasn’t a crime in the UK until 1991). He explains that David was a brilliant pianist as a boy, briefly joined the army and qualified but never practiced as a doctor. Despite his many talents David has never done anything of note; he has Eleanor’s money so doesn’t have to and prefers not to.

Casual cruelty is endemic here. Eleanor is drunk and cowed. Patrick looks for little from her and doesn’t even get that. At one point during a dreadful dinner party he sits on the stairs, and seeing Anne walking past asks her to send his mother to him. Anne passes on the message, but as soon as David sees Eleanor getting up to go to Patrick he tells her to sit down again. She does. Anne isn’t happy at Patrick being left ignored outside, but she doesn’t say anything. David cows her too. He cows everyone, save possibly Bridget who simply doesn’t care.

By the end of this novel we’ve seen almost every character verbally assassinate every other. These are the kind of people who laugh behind the backs of anyone who leaves the room, and when they reenter laugh behind the backs of whoever else happens not to be present. Patrick’s treatment escalates from cruelty and neglect to outright abuse. If it weren’t for the writing we’d be dangerously close to misery memoir territory. That writing though…

This is a lean novel with not a word wasted. Simon Savidge in his review here calls the writing understated and economical and he’s spot on. It’s darkly funny (often extremely dark), vicious and precise. It is, quite simply, brilliant. I’ll end with one final quote, chosen not because of its relevance to story or character but just because I thought it so good:

A glass of pastis, like a trapped cloud, stood on top of the piano.

A glass of pastis, like a trapped cloud. It’s a pretty much perfect description. It’s an example of why despite its subject matter being so very uncomfortable Never Mind is still so very readable.

Other reviews

On the blogosphere only Simon Savidge’s that I know of and which I linked to above. Please feel free as ever though to let me know of more in the comments.

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Filed under St Aubyn, Edward

yes, I was a happy porcupine back then,

Memoirs of a Porcupine, by Alain Mabanckou and translated by Helen Stevenson

One of the great joys of trying new authors is when you find one that has long been writing for you, if only you’d known it. Mabanckou with his wonderful mix of comedy, social commentary and psychological insight has long been writing for me. I just didn’t know it.

MemoirsofaPorcupine

In Congolese (and some wider African) folklore certain people have spirit doubles – animal familiars which grant them powers and through which they can work magic on the world. Many of these sorcerers use their powers for good, giving healings and blessings and so on. Some however use them for evil, in particular magically murdering their enemies.

If that sounds fantastical, well it is. It’s also however still a fairly widespread idea and even now suspected evil sorcerers are sometimes killed, blamed for deaths people otherwise struggle to explain. It’s not a belief system we have in the West, but we do have fairly widespread beliefs in ghosts and clairvoyants and mediums and faith healers (in which I’d personally include homoeopathists). How superstition manifests varies, but the instinct to it is all too human.

The narrator in Memoirs is the porcupine familiar of a just-recently killed sorcerer named Kibandi. Kibandi’s father, Papa Kibandi, was a sorcerer in turn and when Kibandi turned 11 forced him to drink a secret potion which killed Kibandi’s instincts for empathy and good and granted him an all-too physical porcupine as a spirit familiar.

Doubles don’t normally outlive their humans, so Porcupine (as I’ll call him) is now sitting under a baobab tree with nothing to do other than to reflect on Kibandi’s life and his part in it. At surface level it’s what it says on the tin – memoirs of a porcupine including how the sorcerer Kibandi used magic to kill nearly 100 people before finally being defeated. On another it’s the story of how Kibandi let jealousy and resentment rule his life and ultimately destroy it.

As a young man Kibandi is a skilled roofer. He makes good money and is much in demand. He lives with his mother, his father dead some years before. When Kibandi’s mother dies, on “a grey Monday, a Monday when even the flies couldn’t get off the ground, [in which his home village of] Séképembé seemed empty, the sky so low a human could almost have plucked a cluster of clouds without even raising his arm,” Kibandi’s sole restraint goes with her.

Kibandi had been courting the beautiful daughter of a rich villager, but when the father doesn’t attend Kibandi’s mother’s funeral Kibandi realises that he along with several other suitors are just being strung along so the father can extract gifts from them. Kibandi’s pride is outraged, and he decides to get revenge on the father by sending Porcupine to “eat” the daughter’s spirit so slaying her. Porcupine finds it all a bit unfair, but it’s not his job to second-guess his human.

If you’re the sort of person who sees slights you’ll see them everywhere. Kibandi stops taking care of himself, notices every insult or harsh glance and hits back by using Porcupine. The money stops rolling in as he spends more and more of his time nursing his grievances and taking his sorcerous revenges. A young man, abused, wastes his life spending his energies on imagined feuds and blaming others for his failings. Take away the sorcery and the story remains the same.

If that were all this was that would be interesting enough, but what makes this glorious is Porcupine himself. The tale he has to tell is a simple one, but he struggles to keep to the point. As he says “perhaps I’ve strayed too far from the subject of my confessions […] it must be the human in me speaking, in fact I learned my sense of digression from men, they never go straight to the point, open brackets they forget to close”.

Porcupine reflects on village life, on the attractions of villainy over goodness, on the lessons taught him by the old porcupine who ruled his little porcupine family. Kibandi used his powers to magically learn to read and what he knows Porcupine knows, so Porcupine can read too and indulges in a little literary analysis as he looks back disapprovingly on the books read by the one man he doesn’t regret helping kill, a vain Europeanised intellectual named Amédée:

if there’s one person whose disappearance I really don’t regret it’s that young man, he was such a show-off, a braggart of the first order, he thought he was most intelligent person in the village, in the region, not to say the whole country, he wore Terylene suits, sparkly ties, the kind of shoes you wear if you work in an office, those dens of idleness where men sit down, pretend to read papers and put off till tomorrow what they should be doing today, Amédée walked around with his chest puffed out, just because he’d studied for years, simply because he’d visited countries where it snows, let me tell you this, whenever he came to Séképembé to visit his parents, the young girls on heat went running after him, even married women cheated on their husbands, they’d bring him things to eat on the quiet, round the back of his father’ s hut, they’d wash his dirty linen for him, the guy went round doing things he shouldn’t have all over the place with married women and the young women on heat,

It’s a lovely commentary too of course on the returned expat, now a big man in his home village and a great success though who knows how great a success he actually was abroad. Amédée is a big reader and seduces girls by telling them stories he’s learned from his books. Porcupine is sceptical:

novels are books written by men to recount things which are untrue, they’ll say it all comes from their imagination, there are some novelists who would sell their own mothers or fathers to steal my porcupine destiny, draw inspiration from it, write a story in which I’d have an rather less than glorious role, make me look like low life, let me tell you this, human beings find life so boring, they need novels so they can invent other lives for themselves, by diving into one of these books, dear Baobab, you can take off round the world, leave the bush in the blink of an eye, turn up in a distant country, meet foreign people, strange animals, porcupines with even murkier pasts than mine,

There are indeed some novelists who might take a porcupine’s life and make him look like low life. It’s shocking.

Porcupine also takes the time to directly critique some of Amédée’s reading. For example: “Amédée would tell the young girls all about a wretched old man who went deep sea fishing and had to battle all alone with a huge fish, if you ask me this huge fish was the harmful double of a fisherman who was jealous of the old guy’s experience,”. Most of the descriptions are less obvious than that one, and there’s some fun to be had working out which novels Porcupine is talking about since he tends to be a very literal reader.

Porcupine is a lifelong rogue, but he’s a likable one. He has charm. Whether it’s his occasional attraction to human women (he picked up Kibandi’s tastes there too, porcupine females do nothing for him), his cowardice or his all-too-human ability to rationalise away his own failings he’s one of the more human characters I’ve read recently (though he’d probably find that an insulting observation).

Memoirs is a book full of sly asides. In one scene Porcupine is sent to kill a palm-wine tapster, an old man who Porcupine kills and leaves at the foot of the palm tree he was tapping when Porcupine found him. It couldn’t be a clearer shout out to Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard and it’s a nice touch of homage to Mabanckou’s predecessors.

Porcupine then is a very funny novel, but it’s also one with an underlying serious point. Take a young man, expose him to brutal abuse (here a sorcerous potion, but the world is hardly free of more prosaic horrors), and see how his life warps and distorts in consequence. Stu in his review over at his Winston’s Dad’s Blog draws parallels between Kibandi and the fate of child soldiers and I think he has a point.

I’ll end with a short observation on style. Mabanckou writes here in a free-flowing style reflecting the Porcupine’s garrulous speech. Mabanckou partly achieves this through avoiding use of full stops (I don’t think there are any), though just as with Enard’s Zone that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have sentences but simply that they’re structured using commas and natural pauses.

Mabanckou gives Memoirs the feel of a spoken rather than written work. Like Tutuola, like Lord, he draws on the rhythms of oral storytelling to give life to the page. It works well, and allows a final little end-joke on how Porcupine’s tale found itself published in book form. It’s a typically deft touch of levity in a novel that could easily have been rather bleak, but which never is.

Other reviews

The review that put me on to this book specifically and Mabanckou generally was this one from Stu’s Winston’s Dad’s Blog, as mentioned above. Given how much I enjoyed this I owe Stu massive thanks for this one, not for the first time.

As an aside, it occurred to me that Memoirs of a Porcupine might have been an inspiration for Lauren Beukes’ rather good Zoo City given the use of animal familiars in that. I asked Lauren Beukes however on twitter and she’d never heard of it. Different writers drawing on the same mythic references clearly.

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Filed under African Literature, Congolese Literature, French Literature, Mabanckou, Alain

He should have been a great philosopher, said Mrs. Ramsay, as they went down the road to the fishing village, but he had made an unfortunate marriage.

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

My Vintage Classics edition of To the Lighthouse comes in at 224 pages, including the introduction by Helen Dunmore. It would be easy to write a book twice that length about it.

To the Lighthouse

My first completed Woolf was Mrs Dalloway, after two unsuccessful attempts at The Voyage Out neither of which made it past the first couple of pages. I described Dalloway as “an easy and effervescent read that brims with life”, which surprised me because I’d expected something rather difficult and forbidding. Somehow despite that experience I was still daunted approaching To the Lighthouse. It’s curious how much a book’s reputation can be a barrier to it.

Lighthouse opens with the sprawling Ramsay family on holiday in Skye. Mr Ramsay is a philosophy professor, well regarded but perhaps falling slightly from fashion. His wife, Mrs Ramsay, is an extraordinarily beautiful woman largely unaware of her own beauty and who frankly could be Mrs Dalloway after some slightly different life choices.

With them are their many children and guests, most notable in memory their youngest son James who has set his heart on going to the lighthouse the next day and is cruelly disappointed by indifferent adults commenting that the weather will forbid it. Among the guests are Lily Briscoe, a self-doubting amateur painter who may have genuine talent; Charles Tansley, an abrasive young man insecure by reason of his impoverished background; Augustus Carmicheal, a minor poet.

I could pick any of several themes to discuss, but the one that stands out for me as I write this today is the question of what makes a life worthwhile. For James the answer is simple – the much promised trip to the lighthouse. He has the relentless focus of a small child. His whole hopes are invested in that one thing and yet he has no influence at all on whether it happens.

Others’ dreams are more complex, though perhaps no more within their power. Mr Ramsay obsesses on how his work will be remembered by posterity. He’s a vain man, his success and praises to date insufficient bulwark against his ever-encroaching insecurity. He knows his most recent book was not his best.

One in a generation. Is he to be blamed then if he is not that one? provided he has toiled honestly, given to the best of his power, till he has no more left to give? And his fame lasts how long? It is permissible even for a dying hero to think before he dies how men will speak of him hereafter. His fame lasts perhaps two thousand years. And what are two thousand years? (asked Mr. Ramsay ironically, staring at the hedge). What, indeed, if you look from a mountain-top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still. (He looked into the darkness, into the intricacy of the twigs.)

Mrs Ramsay has her own fears and disappointments, but her sphere is firmly domestic. She comforts her husband when he despairs of being remembered and tries to bask in the reflected glory of the intensity of his intellect (yet each time we dip into his thoughts, they are on his legacy, not some great work). She looks to arrange marriages among her guests, seeks to preserve her children’s happiness which she knows cannot last into adulthood. She is the rock the family stands on, a light guiding them through stormy seas (you could write another book no doubt on the symbolism of the lighthouse itself…)

The marriages that happen do so without her help, those she seeks to bring about come to nothing. Her children’s happiness in the case of James can be dashed with a harsh word from the bumptious Tansley, and in the case of the older children is moving beyond her reach. Her husband’s dependence on her reassurance is a sign of a smallness in him, a truth she tries not to recognise.

Universities and people wanting him, lectures and books and their being of the highest importance—all that she did not doubt for a moment; but it was their relation, and his coming to her like that, openly, so that anyone could see, that discomposed her; for then people said he depended on her, when they must know that of the two he was infinitely the more important, and what she gave the world, in comparison with what he gave, negligible. But then again, it was the other thing too—not being able to tell him the truth, being afraid, for instance, about the greenhouse roof and the expense it would be, fifty pounds perhaps, to mend it; and then about his books, to be afraid that he might guess, what she a little suspected, that his last book was not quite his best book (she gathered that from William Bankes); and then to hide small daily things, and the children seeing it, and the burden it laid on them—all this diminished the entire joy, the pure joy, of the two notes sounding together, and let the sound die on her ear now with a dismal flatness.

And yet. What marriage is perfect? We see inside the Ramsay’s thoughts and so we see their failings, but that’s not the whole story. There’s the broader picture too: husband and wife; parents and children; the noise and chaos and love of a large family. The Ramsays are enviable, even if they don’t know it.

From her interior monologues it’s clear that Mrs Ramsay is intelligent, perhaps more so than her husband. She’s alive to beauty and is psychologically astute, but she has no outlet for any of it which is why she spends her days trying to pair up others perhaps so that by replicating her choices they validate them.

BUT WHAT HAVE I done with my life? thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on it.

Lily Briscoe isn’t a beauty, which in Edwardian Britain would generally be a distinct disadvantage save that Lily’s ambitions lie in her art. She wants to capture a relationship between objects, to solve a problem in a painting, yet doubts she has the ability. Tansley crushes her with a cruel remark that women can’t write or paint. Her confidence is so fragile he dents her even though even he doesn’t seem to believe what he says and in any event plainly knows nothing of either. She can’t bear anyone looking at her canvas.

Every sign in the book points to Lily having talent, but nothing supports her in it. She’s a woman; she doesn’t have the luxury Mr Ramsay has of a Mrs Ramsay to calm her fears. Still, she persists. Mr Ramsay wants immortality from his work; for Lily Briscoe the work itself is enough and she just wants to be true to her vision. The aging Mr Carmicheal meanwhile finds himself somewhere between the two, becoming recognised as a famous poet but seemingly just as comfortable as he was when uncelebrated.

Woolf’s prose continues to have moments of breathtaking beauty:

So she looked over her shoulder, at the town. The lights were rippling and running as if they were drops of silver water held firm in a wind. And all the poverty, all the suffering had turned to that, Mrs. Ramsay thought. The lights of the town and of the harbour and of the boats seemed like a phantom net floating there to mark something which had sunk.

All this written, and I’m not even a third of the way into the novel. Death intervenes, and more death with the war. The second section of the book shifts to an omniscient narrator quietly recording the gentle decay of the Ramsay’s neglected holiday home. The tone becomes elegiac, with occasional square-bracketed asides that reminded me of the muttered asides in Eliot’s poetry:

So some random light directing them from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom doors. But here surely, they must cease. Whatever else may perish and disappear what lies here is steadfast. Here one might say to those sliding lights, those fumbling airs, that breathe and bend over the bed itself, here you can neither touch nor destroy. Upon which, wearily, ghostily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers, they would look, once, on the shut eyes and the loosely clasping fingers, and fold their garments wearily and disappear. And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.

[Here Mr. Carmichael, who was reading Virgil, blew out his candle. It was past midnight.]

In the third section the family return, some ten years later. War and illness have reduced their number, and their relationships have shifted accordingly. Mr Ramsay, tyrant of the first section through his own need rather than any cruelty, is both reduced and yet made better too. He takes James to the lighthouse, praises him for how he manages the tiller on their boat. He has learned to make space for others. He is human, as are they all.

Other reviews

Grant of 1streading reviews it here. I had the advantage of not knowing a major story development around the half way mark of the novel and my ignorance definitely enhanced its impact. Grant assumes (fairly) that most readers are probably aware of the broad thrust of the story and so discusses that element in his first paragraph. I chose not to since I figured if I didn’t know it others might not, but by taking knowledge of the story as a given Grant does give himself more freedom to discuss some fairly key themes which I wasn’t able to explore here as much as I’d have liked.

Grant’s also spot on in saying that there’s no real sense here of the Isle of Skye as a place, but then place isn’t really Woolf’s focus. With this intensity of character and emotion, a certain shallowness of geography isn’t a serious flaw.

On a wholly unrelated note, until I ran a spellcheck on this post I honestly always thought elegiac was spelled elegaic (which still looks right to me on the page). I also thought it was a hard g (which is still how it sounds inside my head). Such are the perils of being largely self-educated. It rather makes me sympathise a bit more with poor Tansley.

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Filed under Modernist Fiction, Woolf, Virginia

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog,

High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard

 

I grew up in Ballardia, more specifically on the Lancaster West Estate (which looks a hell of a lot nicer now than it did back then). Lancaster West is a large low-rise council estate with a couple of high-rises embedded within it, not far from the Westway which famously inspired Concrete Island. Ballard’s landscape is the landscape of my childhood.

Lancaster West LWE

The odd thing is like many writers whose name became an adjective I’ve actually read far less by Ballard than it feels like I have. His work is familiar to me both from life and from his particular stylistic consistency. Perhaps that’s why it took the release of a movie based on High-Rise by one of my favourite contemporary directors to prompt me to finally actually read it.

High-RiseHigh-Rise original

(That’s the cover I have and the first edition cover.)

High-Rise opens with the wonderfully disquieting words I’ve used as the title for this piece. It moves swiftly into flashback, with the early tenants moving into a new high-rise development. Among them is Laing, a psychiatrist (his name clearly a shout-out to then fashionable psychiatrist R.D. Laing).

The high-rise is the first of five in its development. It’s supremely modern. Its occupants are resolutely middle class or desirably glamorous: doctors; dentists; academics; tv producers; air hostesses; actors. In real life those of us who grew up on the estates were the urban poor, here Ballard inverts that. Here the architect lives in the building he designed.

The first sign that everything is perhaps not as it should be is when a champagne bottle falls from a party on a floor above and shatters on Laing’s balcony while he’s sunbathing. The more disturbing sign is his reaction:

After breakfast, Laing cleared the glass from the balcony. Two of the decorative tiles had been cracked. Mildly irritated, Laing picked up the bottle neck, still with its wired cork and foil in place, and tossed it over the balcony rail. A few seconds later he heard it shatter among the cars parked below.

Laing is annoyed that those above him pay no regard to his safety, but he pays no more regard to those below him. He doesn’t realise the implications yet, but the high-rise has become a microcosm of wider British society. Those on the topmost floors have their own dedicated entrance lobby and high-speed lifts (a common feature today in buildings with shared occupancy between rich and merely affluent). Everyone else rubs along as best they can, eyes rarely meeting.

This central two-thirds of the apartment building formed its middle class, made up of self-centred but basically docile members of the professions – the doctors and lawyers, accountants and tax specialists who worked, not for themselves, but for medical institutes and large corporations. Puritan and self-disciplined, they had all the cohesion of those eager to settle for second best.

The lower floors house the newer professions and occupations. the ones who work on tv behind the camera; the air hostesses. They tend to be younger than those on the upper floors, many have school age children while those higher up being older now have dogs instead.

Names here are meaningful. A key character from the lower floors is tv documentary maker Richard Wilder. He’s a larger than life hard-drinking womaniser seemingly modelled on Oliver Reed (and played brilliantly in the recent film by Luke Evans who seems to be channeling Oliver Reed’s spirit). Right at the very top is architect Anthony Royal (A Royal…). The two men epitomise the class conflict inherent in the building’s structure, with firmly middle class Laing caught squarely between them cosying up to Royal and slightly fearing Wilder.

It’s a mistake with Ballard to look for psychological depth. His characters are pawns of psycho-social forces quite beyond them, and Ballard doesn’t aim for naturalism. He’s exploring here the psychology of the underlying fascism of the everyday, as he does in so many of his books.

The high-rise becomes a pressure cooker bringing out the already implicit violence of the social order. Those on top resent those down below for their noisy lives and numerous children. Those at the bottom resent those at the top for their condescension and air of entitlement. Those between try to maintain strict proprieties while jealously guarding their own possessions and territory.

Before long a famous actress’s dog is drowned in the tenth floor swimming pool during a power cut. The pool has become a flashpoint of tensions between the classes, the upper floors wanting to bar the children from using it so their pool parties aren’t interrupted. Not long after a jeweller falls from the top floor to his death, or perhaps was pushed. Nobody calls the police.

The building’s structures start to break down. Power cuts become commonplace; the bin chutes become clogged and rubbish starts to pile up around them; the area around the high-rise becomes covered in broken glass and refuse thrown from above. All of that is obviously something of a comment on 1970s’ Britain generally, but it’s also all familiar to me from the estate I actually grew up in (though Ballard takes it all to an illustrative extreme far beyond mere reality).

People band together according to their floors and carry out raids on those above and below them for food or retribution. Increasingly nobody goes outside, and most tellingly nobody calls for help (partly because that would destroy the concept of the novel, and partly because while it may seem that the social compact is breaking down in fact they’re hammering out a new compact forged from “spasms of cold and random aggression.”)

At risk of biographical detail, it’s hard to read all this without remembering Ballard’s own childhood experience of social breakdown in occupied wartime Shanghai. In his own words “I don’t think you can go through the experience of war without one’s perceptions of the world being forever changed. The reassuring stage set that everyday reality in the suburban west presents to us is torn down; you see the ragged scaffolding, and then you see the truth beyond that, and it can be a frightening experience.”

High-Rise shows us what sits under the ragged scaffolding. Early on Wilder sees his neighbours emerge from the lifts “aggressively like bad-tempered miners emerging from their pit-cages. They strode past him, briefcases and handbags wielded like the instruments of an over-nervous body armour.” At this point they’ve merely suffered some inconvenience, but the suppressed violence is already starting to show. Later they move “into a realm of no social organization at all”, forming “small groups of killers, solitary hunters who built man-traps in empty apartments or preyed on the unwary in deserted elevator lobbies.”

The inhabitants, free now to enjoy the “perversities created by the limitless possibilities of the high-rise”, are becoming who they always were. Once the new equilibrium forms, with those able to adapt having done so and those not dead, a new civil order begins to emerge. After the initial explosion of violence and monstrosity the new barbarism looks suspiciously like where everybody started, save with tasteful wallpaper replaced with fire pits and spit-roast Alsatians.

In a sense life in the high-rise had begun to resemble the world outside – there were the same ruthlessness and aggression concealed within a set of polite conventions.

There’s a lot more by way of social comment here. Wilder uses the disorder to literally rise in society. His early too rapid ascent is punished by an unequivocal upper-floor beating to show him his place. After that he moves carefully and strategically, a few floors at a time, moving ever upwards and ever closer to Royal who both fears him and is fascinated by him. Tellingly in order to progress Wilder has to leave his family behind; like every aspirational child of working class parents he quickly learns that to get where he’s going he has to lose where he came from.

Laing meanwhile plays squash with Royal so securing himself an occasional place at the top table, but his status is contingent and Royal never truly sees Laing as an equal. Laing’s an intermediary between upper and lower floors, but not accepted by or entirely comfortable with either. As I’m writing this I’m reading the first of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. It’s notable how much the explicit iniquities of High-Rise are implicitly present in the St. Aubyn.

I should caution that High-Rise can be a difficult read. Ballard has a flat affectless style which lends a chilling normality to descriptions of chaos and horror. This book features murder, rape, incest, slaughtered pets (sometimes for food and sometimes for no clear reason at all) and for a slim novel it features an awful lot of all those things. It’s not gratuitous, but particularly if you struggle with scenes of animals being killed this might not be the book for you.

In the end I think this is deservedly a classic. The characters here slip lightly into psychopathy and savagery in a manner which isn’t remotely realistic (and doesn’t aim to be), but it doesn’t matter both because Ballard creates his own reality. While this specific scenario could never happen, Ballard’s point that even choreographers are only a few good meals from barbarism remains true.

Other reviews

The ever-excellent Joachim Boaz reviews this at his blog here. The no-less excellent Sam Jordison actually had a Guardian reading group readalong of this and his final article on it is here. As ever please let me know of other interesting reviews in the comments.

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Filed under Ballard, J.G., Science Fiction