Whatever got lost out at sea would eventually be washed up there.

Vulgar Things, by Lee Rourke

When I was in my mid-20s I found myself for a while living in a rented room after a serious breakup. I lost my job about the same time, and then one night the flat was burgled and pretty much everything I had was stolen. I was left with little more than the clothes I was wearing while out that evening. At the time it was a bit crap, but I was young and I was lucky, and so my life fitted into a neat narrative where I took everything falling apart as a chance to take a different direction and build something better second time around.

Jon Michaels is a recently divorced editor in a small publishing house who’s laid off in the opening chapter of Lee Rourke’s Vulgar Things. As he drinks to celebrate and forget, he gets a call from his brother telling him that their odd and reclusive Uncle Rey has killed himself and as the brother is too busy Jon needs to go down to Canvey Island in Essex and clear out Uncle Rey’s caravan.

Jon’s situation and my own have some broad parallels, though no more so than many other people’s stories. The opening here is a device – Rourke needs Jon in a state of breakdown where he’s looking desperately for something real to hold on to (and which he disastrously tries to find in the detritus of his uncle’s life). Still, whatever meaning books carry is as much a product of what we bring to them as what’s between their covers, so I thought the anecdote relevant. Besides, I was struggling to open this piece.


Jon makes his way to Canvey Island, an isolated spot off the Thames Estuary built from reclaimed land. It’s about 30 miles from London and apparently used to be something of a seaside resort, but those years are decades past and now it’s largely industrialised and might as well be 300 miles away. What’s extraordinary here, and what’s undoubtedly the best aspect of this novel, is quite how good Rourke is at evoking this landscape.

I’ve forgotten just how flat and eerie the island is: the idea that the land beneath my feet actually lies below sea level – the estuary looming high up behind the sea walls – becomes more worrying with every step. The sky above me, massive and grey, stretched to its limits, bears down on the island. I look over to the large oil refinery that dominates the immediate horizon to my right. There are people in hard hats over there, bobbing about, doing stuff with popes and machinery. Maybe that’s where everybody is? Working hard at the refinery.

I can hear something, off in the distance. It comes to me suddenly. There it is, the rumble of an oil tanker’s engines ahead of me out on the Thames, a constant baritone, its vibrations felt from the tip of my toes to the hair on my head, all around me, quivering on my tongue and through the fine hairs in my nostrils. There it is again, a slow, aching, constant rumbling, from somewhere within the water above, making slow progress towards Tilbury. I stop dead and listen to it pass, until it fades from my range and the tingling subsides within me.

Uncle Rey’s caravan is by the Lobster Smack, a real Canvey Island pub which is something of a local landmark. The caravan is a rundown affair piled high with pages from a manuscript Uncle Rey seems to have been working on as well as videos and DVDs forming a decades-long video diary of sorts (strongly reminiscent in form and content of Staniland’s diary in Derek Raymond’s He Died with his Eyes Open). In an adjacent shed there’s a high-end telescope. Rey seems to have spent his time gazing at the stars, struggling to write some book that never came near to being published and recording hour after hour of, well, of what exactly?

Jon meanwhile is in a near-permanent alcohol-induced fug and has become fixated on a woman he sees on Southend Pier whom he thinks needs rescuing from some uncertain “they”. What follows is a sort of confused detective story, as Jon tries both to understand the traces his uncle left behind and to track down this woman so that he can save her, whether she needs saving or not.

Rey’s manuscript, itself titled Vulgar Things, is a confused stream of consciousness attempt to somehow rewrite Petrarch’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (Book of Common Things, or if you prefer, Book of Vulgar Things), which I’ve not read and hadn’t heard of before reading this book. It includes allusions to some sin or crime involving Jon’s own mother who Rey apparently idealised and called his Laura (a Petrarchian reference I utterly missed). Jon takes Laura as the name for his own mystery woman, and so his life and Rey’s become muddled, both of them lonely men pouring all their frustration and desire on a woman who’s as much a creation of their need as she is a person.

What Rey was grappling with, and what of course Rourke himself is grappling with, is how to say something true on a piece of paper. Rey tried to take Petrarch’s words which spoke to him and to somehow make them current so that they were fresh again, but he failed. He wanted to say something real, and spent hour upon hour on tape and DVD-R looking for the words, but he failed in that too. Meaning and redemption both escaped him, and he wasted his years in a lonely caravan engaged on a mad project nobody would ever care about.

I wanted it to reveal everything, in a clear and beautiful language … But I failed to do that, and I’ve spent my entire life talking into this thing, because of it, trying to come to terms with it, trying to work things out, talking, talking, talking, in the hope that one day something real would appear, you know, that crystallised moment when I speak reality … I’ve waited a long time, a whole lifetime, but nothing, reality has eluded me … it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t fucking exist …

Nobody save Jon that is, who comes to realise that he was Rey’s imagined audience. Jon himself however is in little better shape than his dead uncle. He wanders the streets looking for his own Laura and becomes enmeshed with East European organised criminals who he thinks are forcing her into prostitution, though it’s quite clear to the reader that the woman he saw on the pier and the prostitute he tries to rescue are completely different women with only a passing resemblance to each other.

Jon’s mother has no voice here. All we know of her is what Jon and others remember and Uncle Rey’s rantings and digressions. The actual woman is lost from view, hidden somewhere behind Uncle Rey’s idealisation of her. Jon is similarly now denying his Laura’s reality, so blinded by his own need that he conflates different women together into one imagined whole. Early on in the book he goes to a pub where strippers perform for a few quid put in an empty beer glass. He doesn’t see it, but his unasked-for rescue is the same as watching those strippers. Either way it’s men preferring a fiction of a woman to a real one.

If that gives the impression that this is something of a novel of ideas then that’s fair. Rourke is looking here at issues of authenticity, and male gaze is one of several examples. Uncle Rey wanted to say something true, but couldn’t. He wanted to find something transcendent in his Laura, just as Jon does in his, but each instead turned a real person into an imagined one. Perhaps the irony though is that while all of that is interesting, it’s in the description and dialogue where Vulgar Things most sings to me.

There’s a rather wonderful self-undermining Wicker Man-esque quality at times to Vulgar Things. Mr Buchanan, landlord both of the Lobster Smack and of Uncle Rey’s caravan, is friendly and helpful but does he have ulterior motives? Everyone seems to know Jon’s business and Canvey Island seems a repository of nightmares and secrets, but is that just Jon’s drink-fuelled paranoia? Jon stumbles across the landscape, drunk and carrying a very solid walking stick which he’s not afraid to lash out with, and it’s hard to avoid the sense that if there’s anyone in the book you’d cross the road to avoid it’s Jon himself.

Vulgar Things isn’t always an easy book to read. Rourke’s style is intentionally flat; Jon isn’t the most sympathetic of protagonists; Uncle Rey’s sections never go on too long but even so are by their nature confused and rambling; and there’s a certain artificiality to the whole which is there to underline the issues of authenticity but can’t help distancing the reader. For all that, it’s a resonant book which brings a rather strange corner of England persuasively life and by its end I felt like I’d personally walked the streets of Canvey Island and nearby Southend, drank in their pubs and been shouted at by their needlessly aggressive locals.

The fact that the novel is an artificial construct isn’t actually as interesting as some current theorists (“cough”TomMcCarthy”cough”) seem to think. It’s always been true, and yet the novel continues. For me, Rourke’s best talents as an author are place and mood – he’s tremendous at both. Uncle Rey would argue that it’s impossible to capture reality on the page, and I suspect so would Rourke, but I’m not sure that matters when what we can capture is impressions as real as any we have in memory.

I’ll end with some pictures of Canvey Island. Here’s the Lobster Smack:


Here’s some Canvey Island caravan homes:

Canvey homes

And here’s the Canvey Island strip (beat this Blackpool):

Canvey Island strip

Other reviews

My review of Lee Rourke’s first novel, The Canal, is here. Vulgar Things doesn’t seem to have been as widely reviewed as I’d expect: there’s a rather good one by Essex native Sara Crowley on her blog here; a very interesting one which talks more of the underlying theory from Bibliokept here; and a rather negative review at the Guardian here, which I link to for a different view (the comments argue the writer missed the book’s point, but I don’t think he did – he just didn’t like it). There’s also an excellent interview with Lee Rourke at The Quietus, here. Finally, there’s a short review but with a very good dialogue quote at 3:AM magazine here.


Filed under Rourke, Lee

I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me.

Open City, by Teju Cole

Identity and memory intermingle, both at the national level and the individual. Who we are is in part a creation of who we were, but our perception of who we were is itself a creation of who we think we are. Slippery stuff.

In the final year of his psychiatry fellowship Julius takes to walking the streets of his adopted home city, New York. His “aimless wandering” allows him to think, to observe. He is a  flâneur of the New World, and for much of its length Open City is an account of his thoughts and encounters during his dérive.

By its end, it’s much harder to say exactly what Open City is. It’s too fluid and too subtle to be so easily pinned down.


I ENTERED THE PARK AT SEVENTY-SECOND STREET, AND BEGAN to walk south, on Sheep Meadow. The wind picked up, and water poured down into the sodden ground in fine, incessant needles, obscuring lindens, elms, and crab apples. The intensity of the rain blurred my sight, a phenomenon I had noticed before only with snowstorms, when a blizzard erased the most obvious signs of the times, leaving one unable to guess which century it was. The torrent had overlaid the park with a primeval feeling, as though a world-ending flood were coming on, and Manhattan looked just then like it must have in the 1920s or even, if one was far enough away from the taller buildings, much further in the past.

The cluster of taxis at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South broke the illusion. After I had walked another quarter hour, by then thoroughly drenched, I stood under the eaves of a building on Fifty-third Street. When I turned around, I saw that I was at the entryway of the American Folk Art Museum. Never having visited before, I went in.

Julius was born and raised in Nigeria to a Nigerian father and a German mother, then college-educated in the US. He is an intellectual, a lover of art and literature and particularly of classical music. If his brow were any higher he wouldn’t be able to walk through doors without crouching.

Over the course of the novel he walks around; looks at some paintings; visits an elderly professor who has become a friend; has an extended holiday in Belgium; gets mugged; meets some old companions from his childhood in Nigeria. On the whole it’s pretty uneventful stuff. The action here is internal.

Themes slowly emerge: recurring imagery of birds; musings on what constitutes freedom; the towering emptiness of the 9/11 Ground Zero site; questions of memory. Julius’ mind turns to art or to the problems facing his patients or the people and places that he sees. Through it all his voice is cool and dispassionate. Although his movement through the city is profoundly physical Julius remains always inside his own head.

The language of the book is, not to put too fine a point on it, beautiful.

The following day, returning to Sheep Meadow, on a circuitous route to a poetry reading at the Ninety-second Street Y, I noticed the masses of leaves dying off in bright colors, and heard the white-throated sparrows within them calling out and listening. It had rained earlier, and the fragmented, light-filled clouds worked off each other; maples and elms stood with their boughs still. Above a boxwood hedge, the swarm of hovering bees reminded me of certain Yoruba epithets for Olodumare, the supreme deity: he who turns blood into children, who sits in the sky like a cloud of bees.

As readers we are privy to Julius’ thoughts, to his interiority. Those around him of course are not, and one recurring element of the book is how other African immigrants repeatedly see him as a “brother”, a fellow African who has some kinship with them by virtue of shared origin and heritage. The connection they see is literally skin deep. In the US Julius is seen as a black man, an African, but he’s half German and in Nigeria was viewed at least by some as a rich white. What the Africans he meets see as a common link is to him mostly just an imposition by strangers of a false commonality. These African New Yorkers aren’t educated sophisticates like Julius – they’re taxi drivers and postal workers. Where they see bonds of race, Julius sees divisions of class.

For most of the book I accepted Julius’ view of himself at pretty much face value, and took the focus of the book to be his observations of the world around him. Perhaps that reflects my own nature as a slightly introspective intellectual type. Then however Julius goes to Brussels, ostensibly to find his maternal grandmother with whom he’s long since lost touch but really as an extended holiday. He takes about a month there, which with all due apologies to any Bruxellois who may read this is a hell of a long time to give a very quiet city.

In Brussels he naturally muses on the doubtful legacy of King Leopold II in the Congo. Belgium still has public statues to Leopold II and at home at least he doesn’t seem to be seen as one of the worst colonial monsters of the 19th Century. History has been kind to Leopold, largely forgetting the monstrous cruelty and slaughter he presided over.

Brussels today is the capital of Europe; Belgium is the European Union in microcosm with different nationalities co-existing under a shared but federalised polity. I’ve been there several times and it’s quite charming if perhaps a little dull for the casual visitor. It’s full of good restaurants and has bars with more choice of beer than I could drink in a lifetime. It’s easy to forget that many of its grand public buildings were financed by horror. History, like memory, is a matter of negotiable perspective.

It was a bronze bust of the poet Paul Claudel, set on a plinth on the side of the road like a shrine to Hermes. Claudel had served as French ambassador to Belgium in the 1930s, and later went on to fame as a writer of Catholic plays, and as a right-winger. His support for the collaborators and Marshal Pétain during the war earned him much scorn, but W. H. Auden, himself a leftist agnostic, spoke kindly of him. Auden had written: “Time will pardon Paul Claudel, pardons him for writing well.” And as I stood there in the whipping wind and rain, I wondered if indeed it was that simple, if time was so free with memory, so generous with pardons, that writing well could come to stand in the place of an ethical life.

While in Brussels Julius becomes briefly friends with a Morrocan immigrant named Farouq; a semi-radicalised intellectual who works in a phone shop and who has become highly politicised in the face of local prejudices. Julius and Farouq are both immigrants concerned with the world of ideas, both have left Africa to make new and better lives, but Julius has fared much better than Farouq and is as naturalised to his new home as Farouq is alienated from his. Farouq, driven to the margins of Belgium, is filled with fire and anger; Julius, who has found status and a comfortable income in the US, is uncommitted and resolutely apolitical.

Julius and Farouq’s conversations got me questioning quite where Julius stood. To be apolitical is a political choice, and Julius’ refusal to take a stance either with Farouq or to clearly break with him started to seem of a kind with his wider approach to life. He dislikes people who are too vocal about climate change, not because he disagrees with the science but from a distaste for “fashionable politics”. There can be such a thing as too much detachment. When he meets a postal worker who is also an amateur poet he agrees to go to a poets’ cafe with the man, but then makes “a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.” Most of us would do the same, but with Julius it starts to look like a pattern.

Julius is a perpetual outsider. In his role as flâneur he sees the city, but from a self-created distance. Where is the life in his life? He has his elderly friend, but where are the friends his own age? His girlfriend broke up with him, but where are the attempts to find someone new? He has his art, his music, but other than the rather sterile world of ideas who does he belong to?

Most of the people around me yesterday were middle-aged or old. I am used to it, but it never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city, and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them. The only thing odd, to some of them, is seeing me, young and black, in my seat or at the concession stand. At times, standing in line for the bathroom during intermission, I get looks that make me feel like Ota Benga, the Mbuti man who was put on display in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. I weary of such thoughts, but I am habituated to them. But Mahler’s music is not white, or black, not old or young, and whether it is even specifically human, rather than in accord with more universal vibrations, is open to question.

Near the end of the book Julius encounters people he knew from his days in Nigeria, one of whom remembers him in a way that is completely at odds with his own ideas of self. It’s a profoundly jarring and uncomfortable moment, one that jolted me as a reader from the comfortable Julius-space I’d come to inhabit, just as Julius is jolted from his easy assumptions of who he is.

Julius quickly reasserts his sense of self and moves on, untroubled, just as Belgium today worries little about Leopold’s Free State and the lasting consequences for the Congo. As a reader however I was left uncertain as to quite what I had read, what the significance of the intentionally anti-climactic ending that followed was, and who the narrator was that I’d spent so long with. In a genuinely excellent interview with 3:AM Magazine, Cole says “there’s no such thing as a right to remain untroubled.” Part of Open City’s strength, quite beyond the sheer beauty of its prose, is how troubling it is.

I’ll end just by noting how much more I could have said but didn’t. I’ve only mentioned in passing the use of birds as a recurrent motif, and will have to leave analysis of that to others. There’s a great deal to be said about how Julius embodies a form of cosmopolitan diversity which is both internalised and very modern, and yet which very clearly belongs to an internationalised class of the highly educated and highly paid. There’s a great deal more to be said about the treatment of memory in the book. There’s a lot here. This is a book that merits close reading, and rereading. In the end I’m not sure there’s any higher compliment one can make to any book than that.

Other reviews

In terms of blogs fewer than I thought, though it may just be that I’m not finding them. Hungry Like the Woolf’s review is here, and is good on the birds and makes some interesting contrasts with Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending. Just William’s Luck’s review is here, and discusses among many other things the meaning of the title which I haven’t even touched upon. There’s a review at a political blog here which for me makes the mistake at one point of conflating Julius’ worldview with Cole’s, but which otherwise is highly perceptive and very strong on the book’s political elements. As ever, please alert me to any I’ve missed in the comments.

Edit: Cathy and Rough Ghosts both flagged their reviews to me in the comments. Cathy’s (which I had commented on but clearly had forgotten) is here and reading it again I’m struck by how thorough and insightful it is – it really is very good. Rough’s is here and makes some nice comparisons with Sebald as well as picking up on the very current nature of the novel.

In addition, while I don’t normally link to newspaper reviews since I figure those are easy enough to find, it’s worth reading the tremendous comment by Bix2bop below the line at the Guardian’s review here. The review itself is fine and has some good points on negative space in the novel, but the comment is genuinely good and well worth reading.

Finally, here’s a quote from Teju Cole taken from the 3:AM interview I refer to above:

In my view, the novel is one of Europe’s greatest gifts to the world. America and Africa collaborated to give the world jazz. We’ll call it even.

That seems fair.


Filed under Cole, Teju, New York

I love the laconic. Clearly, I am not of their number.

Speedboat, by Renata Adler

If I’d known better I would have left more time between reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Both feature fractured out-of-sequence narratives; each centered on a woman adrift in her life who writes for a living and whose sharp observations comprise the book.

Speedboat is probably the better of the two, but for me was lessened by being read after the Offill, with Speedboat seeming to adopt themes and techniques from the much later-published Speculation. That’s unfair, but at the same time given both novels’ approach to chronology it’s also oddly appropriate.


Jen Fain is a thirtysomething New York journalist and academic. The book is snapshots of past incidents and present situations, each interspersed with observations about her friends and colleagues and what she sees around her. As a reader you have to put it all together; you have to work to make sense of her life from the noise and absence of narrative.

Jen has the same problem as the reader. As a journalist it’s her job to create narrative – to carve it from the chaos of fact. Once she covered a story on the Biafran war. She could make no sense of it. She says “The truth, I would like to say here, is as follows. But I can’t.” She could be speaking of her life.

The tone is sharp and witty, yet melancholic. Jen is successful at work but drifts through a series of interchangeable relationships with interchangeable men, all the while coolly observing her own cultural context as if she were an anthropologist on assignment. In this way Speedboat is a particularly modern book, despite having been written nearly 40 years ago.

Weekends, I took trains. You never knew whom you might meet. There was a man who peddled cigars, cigarettes, and what he pronounced “magazynes” outside the Philadelphia station, and a dining-car waiter who offered you among other cheeses, “camemberry.” I never did meet anyone.

The quote above is fairly typical. The book’s littered with little asides, each perceptive and off-kilter, often raising questions but offering few answers. She talks in one section of the town she grew up in. It had suffered devastating industrial fires in the 1930s and Ren recalls hearing of one business owner who had lost everything and who walked on the railroad tracks hoping to be killed. Ren observes: “Railroad service has never been very good up there. No trains came. His children own the town these days, for what it’s worth.”

Years later the town gentrified and ultimately integrated. “The black section was torn up and seeded over in the town’s rezoning project. No one knows where the blacks live now.” That’s neatly written, though on reflection it occurred to me that presumably the blacks themselves know where they live. Ren’s viewpoint is both privileged and partial – ennui has always required an income.

Speedboat is often very funny, and for me never more so than when describing the life of the college where Jen teaches as part of the Drama and Cinema department. In this quote, Art want to do a course on Space on Film, encroaching dangerously on Drama and Cinema’s turf. The Dean of Cultural Affairs calls a meeting of the departments to discuss the issue:

Our branch of the university is accustomed anyway to jurisdictional disputes. Drama and Cinema grew out of a workshop that existed many years ago to remedy the accents of bright city girls, who could not afford college out of town. When such programs became unfashionable, the staff chose to become two faculties: Dramatistics, and Perspectives in Media. Within a year, the Media people chose to join the newer Department of Minority Groups and Social Change—which already offered History of Broadcasting 204, 301, and Seminar and whose course on Prostitution, Causes and Origins, was being televised. The Dramatistics people felt they could not attract students, or budget allocations, on their own. They added Film. Our department changed its name, and became what it now is. Our Drama people are trying to take over the English Department’s course Creative Writing 101; Playwriting A. The English Literature people are beleaguered on another side. For twenty years, they have had The Brothers Karamazov (translated, abridged). The Department of Russian Literature, which teaches all its courses in translation now, wants Dostoevski back.

The Drama people have designs in other fields: Ibsen and Strindberg, in particular—which seems reasonable enough, since all the texts are plays. Ibsen and Strindberg, however, belong, with Swinburne, to the Department of Germanistics and Philology. Between 1938 and 1949, all German courses were unpopular. The German Literature people simply seized Ibsen and Strindberg—and by some misunderstanding, which was noticed too late, got Swinburne as well. There were no Drama people, or any other sort of people, at that time, to compete. Chekhov, meanwhile, for reasons that, I am afraid, are clear, is taught in the Classics Department (Greek 209C). The operative principle appears to be that if any thing or person mentioned in another department could conceivably be mentioned in your own, you have at least an argument to seize the course. One night when the Women’s Studies Division gets under way, we all expect there’s going to be a coup.

Adler knows what she’s doing and so Speedboat does come together, becoming more than just a series of amusing anecdotes, entertaining asides and occasional aphorisms. Instead it becomes a vision of a certain society at a certain place and time – 1970s New York intellectuals. America here seems jaded, unpopular abroad and mired in the Watergate scandal at home.

Intelligent people, caught at anything, denied it. Faced with evidence of having denied it falsely, people said they had not done it and had not lied about it, and didn’t remember it, but if they had done it or lied about it, they would have done it and misspoken themselves about it in an interest so much higher as to alter the nature of doing and lying altogether. It was in the interest of absolutely nobody to get to the bottom of anything whatever.

New York intellectuals are not a group who’ve struggled to get their voices heard over the years, and the Brooklyn novel (which this isn’t, but is perhaps a parent to) has become a genre that many readers now wearily recoil from. Adler can’t however be blamed for others having swam in her wake, and while her strengths are those you’d expect from reading those who followed her (Offill, Lerner) that doesn’t change the fact that this is a very well written book.

Speedboat is intelligent, perceptive and funny. Adler can stop a sentence on a dime, and the result is that the book remains always entertaining even when you’re not quite sure where it’s going. It’s a book that demands a certain trust and commitment from the reader, but for me at least it repaid both.

I’ll end on one  final quote, chosen because it near-perfectly illustrates the unusual combination of wit and insight that’s so typical here:

The judge had quite a number of generous impulses. He gave himself full credit for each of them. He did not carry any of them out. As a result, he was often puzzled and aggrieved by the demands the people closest to him seemed to make upon him. Though he would be the last man in the world to ask for thanks, he could not understand why they were, on the whole, so damned ungrateful.

Other reviews

Jacqui of JacquiWine’sJournal has written a stonkingly good piece here, which inspired me to put this on my #TBR20.  I also discovered online a typically incisive piece by Simon of Tredynas Days, here, which is slightly less positive than Jacqui’s. I’m sure I’ve read others, but couldn’t find them while putting this together so please do remind me in the comments.

On a final aside, I read this a little while after my return from my holiday in Gozo. In the book Jen remembers a holiday she had, also in Gozo. It made me rather wish I’d read it while there, what were the odds that I’d go to so obscure a location then only shortly after read a book with scenes set in the same place?


Filed under Adler, Renata

It was the action of a shit, and Bobby wasn’t that, except that he was and apparently always had been.

9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Bobby Zha is a down-on-his-luck San Francisco cop, unpopular with his colleagues and the top brass but with a knack for the street which makes it just about worth their while keeping him in the job. He’s divorced and his teenage daughter barely talks to him. Doesn’t sound original does it?

Don’t worry though, because within about 30 pages Bobby Zha will be gunned down in a deserted alley with his partner suddenly nowhere to be seen. Bobby’s been set up. As he lies there dying he sees standing over him the Jinwei hu, the celestial fox of Chinese folklore that his grandfather used to tell him about:

The fox was pure white and carried its tale high and curled like flame over its back. Its eyes were red as coals, fierce with anger. White canines showed on either side of its mouth.

Bobby, an atheist who’s long since run out of good reasons for living, finds “the appearance of the celestial fox far more shocking than the thought of his death.” Getting killed in the line of duty is a risk of the job. Seeing a celestial fox though? That’s just plain strange.


Bobby wakes up, which he wasn’t expecting. Even more unexpected is that he doesn’t find himself recovering from being shot or in some undreamt of afterlife. Instead, he finds himself in the body of coma victim Robert Vanberg who’s spent the last twenty years a vegetable in a New York private clinic. Fortunately for Bobby, Vanberg has access to a substantial trust fund and before too long he’s on a plane back to San Francisco to investigate his own murder.

Grimwood sets up expectations of a science-fiction explanation early with an intercalary chapter set in 1942 Stalingrad (inserted between the early chapters where Bobby is Bobby and the later ones where Bobby’s come back as Vanberg). In that a boy assists a Russian scientist experimenting with keeping heads alive separate to their bodies, and before his death Bobby was investigating a shooting at the home of an aged Russian scientist. Could the technology have advanced over the intervening decades? Has someone for some reason has transplanted Bobby’s memories and personality from one body to another?

Perhaps, but none of that explains the fox, nor does any of it explain the faint psychic abilities Bobby seems to have picked up since his death. Now, when he touches someone, he gets a sense of their character and even some of their memories. Perhaps it’s just intuition, perhaps it’s something more.

We’re talking genre mashup, or perhaps it would be better to say genre fusion. 9Tail Fox has elements of police procedural and hardboiled detective story combined with science fiction or supernatural thriller (but the reader can’t be sure which). Cleverly, Bobby’s ignorance of how he ended up in Vanberg’s body is matched by the reader’s uncertainty as to whether the explanation will be technology or magic.

This isn’t my first Grimwood, though it is my first since starting this blog. I’m used to him being strong on description, on a very concrete sense of place (even where the place is one he’s made up), and this is no exception:

The building which gave the quay its name had been elegant and even beautiful, in a strict utilitarian sort of way, with half pillars flanking its doorways and art deco plaster work framing each window. But someone had kicked holds in a wall painted to look like stone, leaving a savage wound now colonised by pigeons, who cocked their heads and stared suspiciously at the three men stood in front of them.

More interesting though is the character study. Bobby starts out something of a cliché, but that’s in part because that’s the role he’s cast himself in. Now he’s been recast. Bobby was overweight, something of a slob, ethnically half-Chinese and not particularly attractive. Vanberg by contrast is younger (he went into the coma aged only eight), good-looking, white, and very rich. Bobby’s moved race, class and income bracket, and people treat him very differently as a result.

Not being dead is only Bobby’s first big surprise. His second is learning what people really thought about him.

Bobby put two fingers of whisky in a glass and splashed with water from a carafe. ‘Here.’
‘Pour one for yourself,’ said Bea. ‘While I deal with the curtains …’
She paused. ‘Did you really know Sergeant Zha?’
‘Yeah,’ said Bobby. ‘Pretty well.’
‘What did you think of him?’ Curtains done, Be a flopped into a chair to take off her shoes, flashing stocking as she did so.
‘He was okay,’ said Bobby finally.
Bea tossed her shoes onto a carved table. ‘No,’ she said, ‘Believe me, he was a shit.’ They sat in silence after that, Beatrice slowly sipped her whisky into ice and emptiness, while Bobby thought about what she’d said and the viciousness with which she said it.
‘What kind of shit?’ he asked eventually.

Bobby thought of himself as a man who bent the rules. He learns that others just thought he was corrupt. He thought he had a special knack for dealing with kids and the homeless. That bit’s true, but he didn’t know he was widely considered incompetent at pretty much everything else. He thought he’d caught some bad breaks over the years. He didn’t realise that for everyone around him he was the bad break. He thought his daughter hated him. It turns out she was about the only person who didn’t.

The investigation itself is classic crime novel stuff. Bobby pokes his nose where it’s not invited, asks unwelcome questions and uses his inside knowledge of his own death to suggest he knows more than he does. He knows for example that his partner was there when he died, but nobody else does as his partner’s report said that Bobby had gone out on his own. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

At the same time, Bobby enjoys his new body and sudden wealth. He sleeps with a variety of women who wouldn’t have looked twice at him before, including a policewoman assigned as his liaison officer who he realises (slightly too late to avoid hurting her) wants something more serious than a one-night-stand. Old Bobby, and for a while new Bobby, would have cared more about what he wanted than the consequences his actions have for others. New Bobby has a chance to be a better man and that may be more important than finding his own killer.

9TailFox raises some interesting questions about outsider status and social hierarchies, with people who should know better deferring to Bobby now he’s rich and white in a way they never would have back when he was just himself. Ultimately though, this is not a philosophical novel. It’s a hardboiled body-swapping murder mystery with enough depth to avoid it being disposable but not so much as to make it indigestible. I should probably read one of the five or so novels he’s written after this one…

Missed references

In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably mention that not having read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margherita (shameful I know) I completely missed the significance of a character being named Persikov and the inclusion of a black cat named Lucifer. There may well have been other references, but if there were and if they had any deeper significance I have no idea. I only picked up on the connection at all because Grimwood mentions it in the afterword, though possibly the book being dedicated to Bulgakov should have been a clue. So it goes.

Other reviews

None in the usual blogs I frequent, but there’s a good review at the Strange Horizons website here and one by Paul Kincaid here.


Filed under Crime Fiction, Grimwood, Jon Courtenay, Hardboiled, Science Fiction

Make no mistake, I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.

The Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector and translated by Ben Moser

On its face (and according to the back cover) The Hour of the Star is the story of an ordinary country girl named Macabéa who’s come to Rio for a better life but who finds herself eking out a living in a tiny corner of the city’s vast indifference. That’s a story told in many countries over many centuries; the places change but the experience remains much the same whether in 1970s Brazil, Medieval York or contemporary Shanghai.

What’s different here is that Macabéa’s story isn’t narrated by her or an omniscient Lispector, but by a struggling writer named Rodrigo S.M. who has created Macabéa based on a stranger seen in a crowd. The book opens not with Macabéa, but with Rodrigo’s author’s foreword:

This story takes place during a state of emergency and a public calamity. It’s an unfinished book because it’s still waiting for an answer. An answer I hope someone in the world can give me. You? It’s a story in Technicolor to add a little luxury which, by God, I need too. Amen for all of us.

Hour of the Star

That picture by the way undersells the cover, which in physical form is almost dayglo. It works surprisingly well, and somehow fits Lispector’s style.

Macabéa is poor, working class and uneducated. She’s a virgin with little experience of the world and what she has seen she doesn’t question.

Like the northeastern girl, there are thousands of girls scattered throughout the tenement slums, vacancies in beds in a room, behind the shop counters working to the point of exhaustion. They don’t even realise how easily substitutable they are and that they could just as soon drop off the face of the earth. Few protest and as far as I know they never complain since they don’t know to whom. Does this whom exist?

Rodrigo by contrast has enough money that he can afford to be a writer. He’s middle class, well-educated, an intellectual. Macabéa is his creation  and he wants to tell her tale without adornment, but his own story keeps breaking into the text as he explains his motivations and frustrations. He’s writing about himself at least as much as he is Macabéa, and he’s finding that even the simplest life is too complex to be easily captured on a page.

Macabéa’s life is a straightforward one. She’s not pretty or smart, and she has no particular talents. She works as a typist, though she’s bad at her job and is kept on from pity. She adores her boyfriend mostly just for him having noticed her, but doesn’t herself notice that he’s a self-obsessed asshole. She loves the movies. She’s so ordinary we’re halfway through the book before Rodrigo stops referring to her only as the northeastern girl and actually starts using her name (he wants to make her archetypal, but falters on her particularity).

Rodrigo meanwhile is struggling to find the words to describe her. His book within the book has thirteen different titles – he can’t settle on a single one. He writes about writing, or more to the point about trying to write, the sheer physicality of it, the exertion it involves, the challenge and difficulty. He compares himself to a manual labourer and proclaims “I am not an intellectual, I write with my body.” Perhaps he protests too much, self-identifying with the poor and the hopeless as if their struggle is his struggle even though their labour involves real sweat and bruises whereas his are only metaphorical.

The irony Rodrigo faces is that Macabéa, a girl he created and who he designed to be without talent or distinction, is still too large and too alive to be neatly pinned down. Somehow she escapes him, so that even as he writes her story he no longer knows entirely what that story is or where it’s going.

Just as well that what I’m about to write is already somehow written within me. What I have to do is copy myself out with the delicacy of a white butterfly. The idea of the white butterfly comes because, if the girl gets married, she’ll marry thin and light, and, as a virgin, in white. Maybe she won’t get married? The fact is I hold a destiny in my hands yet don’t feel powerful enough to invent freely. I follow a hidden, fatal line. I have to seek a truth that is beyond me. Why should I write about a young girl whose poverty isn’t even adorned? Maybe because within her there’s a seclusion and also because in the poverty of the body and spirit I touch holiness. I who want to feel the breath of my beyond. To be more than I am, since I am so little.

To an extent The Hour of the Star is about the struggle between an artist and their art. The art comes from the artist but can only have any lasting value if it takes on a reality of its own and can exist beyond its creator. The art becomes a kind of child, potentially carrying a small part of its creator into a future beyond their own death (mortality is a theme here too with Macabéa living in the moment, too innocent to be unhappy with her situation, while Rodrigo is all too aware of his own brevity).

Here Macabéa slowly asserts her own identity as the novel progresses. She’s becoming independent of Rodrigo, except of course that there is no escape because she is part of him, of his fiction. Macabéa is constrained both by her poverty and her author, with the irony being that Rodrigo is no more free as they are both Lispector’s creations.

It risks sounding tricksy or tediously postmodern, but it’s none of those things. Instead it’s strangely exhilarating. Both stories, Macabéa’s and Rodrigo’s, are worth following and while in a sense nothing much happens I found myself wanting something better for Macabéa than all that was on offer for her, and wondering too whether Rodrigo would manage to contain his own narrative and find some kind of truth that was capable of being expressed yet not trite.

The Hour of the Star comes in at around 80 pages, and in that space it addresses issues of class, poverty, gender, the creative process and more. The prose style is often disconcerting and it’s a novel which absolutely demands concentration and engagement, but it more than pays back what you put into it. This is one of my highlight reads of the year, and I sincerely hope it won’t be my last Lispector (not least because that would imply some form of horrible accident or premature death, both of which I’d prefer to avoid other things being equal).

A note on the translation

In his translator’s afterword, Benjamin Moser talks of how other translators have historically sought to correct or smooth Lispector’s prose. That seeing how it read oddly in English they tried to improve it, clean it up, ignoring the point that it reads oddly in Portuguese too and that this is quite intentional.

I knew Moser’s views before buying this edition and I’m aware that translators seeking to tidy a text is often a real problem, particularly with older translations where that was seen sometimes as something of a goal for translators to achieve. I was curious though how much difference it made and how Moser’s translation read against others. Since several others do remain in print, I therefore spent about an hour in Foyle’s comparing the same passage in different translations.

The advantage I had is that while I don’t speak Portuguese myself, I do read some Italian and a little Spanish and I could therefore look at an excerpt of the original text on my phone while looking at the different translated versions of that same passage in the shop. The result was fairly clear (eventually) – Moser’s text did seem closer to the original and to preserve more of its flavour.

Obviously each reader has to take their own view and different translations have different merits. For me though, going forward with Lispector’s other works, if there’s a Moser translation available that’ll be the one that I’ll read and if you’ve not read Star it’s Moser’s translation that I recommend.

Other reviews

Grant of 1streading wrote an excellent review of this here which focuses on different aspects of the novel and makes an interesting counterpoint to my take. This is a novel with enough going on that any review can only pick out a strand or two to focus on. There’s also a fascinating review at The Millions, here.


Filed under Brazilian Literature, Lispector, Clara

“Everything is so fucking difficult and so fucking beautiful,”

In the Beginning Was the Sea, by Tomás González and translated by Frank Wynne

The dream that somewhere out there is an existence which is somehow more real, more authentic than the one we have has been around as long as there’s been people rich enough to be jaded by having too much. For those of us who don’t need to worry how we’ll put food on the table or meet this month’s rent it can be tempting to think that we’ve somehow become locked off from the “real” world; that if we just cut down, stripped back, we’d somehow have a richer life.

It’s nonsense of course. But it’s seductive nonsense. It only becomes dangerous though if we forget that reality isn’t a stage set designed as backdrop to our narrative. That can lead us to ill-judged interventions or to disastrous decisions.


As a quick aside, Pushkin generally have a knack for covers but here I think they’ve done particularly well. It’s beautiful, yet brooding. It perfectly captures the novel.

Written in 1983, In the Beginning Was the Sea follows J and his partner Elena as they move from urban life in Bogotá to a plantation they’ve bought on an island off the coast. They’re living the Thoreauvian dream, or at least that seems to be what they’ve told themselves.

The following is the opening and brief excerpts from the first few pages, all in the first chapter:

The luggage was transported on the roof of the bus. Two leather suitcases containing their clothes, a trunk containing his books, and her sewing machine. Their belongings were surrounded by bunches of plantains, sacks of rice, blocks of unrefined sugar cane wrapped in dried banana leaves, and other suitcases.
Elena and J. were heading for the sea.

When, finally, the bus arrived at the port, the sea was not magnificent and blue. The harbour was built on a narrow inlet that looked more like a canal – a filthy canal three kilometres long that spilt into the sea. At 4 p.m. the bus pulled in to the main plaza. There was no sign of the sea, though the air smelt of salt and the fetid stench of open drains.

The squat buildings of concrete and brick – mostly grain stores and seedy bars – were roofed with corrugated iron or asbestos tiles. There was no attempt at elegance or style; the walls themselves were grimy. The people teeming on the plaza were ugly: the white men were garrulous, potbellied traders with a yellowish tinge to their skin; the blacks, raised far from the sea and cheap fish, had prematurely rotting teeth.

In a sense that’s the whole book right there. They’re heading for the sea, but it’s not magnificent and blue. Look at the language: “filthy”; “fetid”; “grimy”; “ugly”; “garrulous”; “potbellied”; “yellowish”; “rotting”. It’s a litany of revulsion.

Within those first few pages each of J and Elena reveal their character. J slopes off to have a drink; Elena erupts in fury at indifferent locals when they mishandle her luggage. It’s the pattern for their future with J avoiding facing up to problems and Elena unable to adapt or build bridges with those around her.

On their island the house is decrepit and the cattle that came with it die as quickly as they’re born. The whole enterprise is clearly a disaster, and González drops heavy hints from early on that it’s only going to get worse:

Even later, after they had replaced the water tank and the pipe and there was running water in the bathroom, J. went on bathing in the crystalline stream until the end.

Spoilers aren’t relevant here because González himself isn’t interested in them. This is a book which unfolds like clockwork to an outcome which is flagged from the earliest pages. J finds himself turning from a back-to-the-land intellectual to a petty colonialist as the plantation sinks ever deeper into debt and he struggles to control his workforce. Elena sunbathes on a nearby beach scandalising the conservative locals before escalating matters by having razorwire erected to stop them looking at her, in the process blocking a path they’ve used since long before J and Elena were on the scene.

Hippy ideals collapse in the face of poverty and practicality. J and Elena’s relationship becomes increasingly strained; he retreats into a bottle and she continues her petty wars with the people she’s chosen to come and live among. They become what they would once have despised – J having to consider turning the island’s trees into lumber so that he can pay back over-extended bank loans, in the process destroying the rural idyll that he came for; Elena constantly enraged at what she sees as feckless and unreliable natives.

J is a reasonably well realised character, and his reflections and passing remarks do give a sense of how he might have come to think that buying a remote plantation was a good idea and what (however vaguely) he might have wanted to get out of it. Elena though just seems to be there because he is, yet plainly isn’t the sort of woman who just trails unquestioningly after her man. She’s attractive, determined, full of passion and temper. Did she share J’s ideals? Did he talk her into it? She hates it from the start which raises all the more question as to what she’s doing there.

At the book’s mid-point González includes a fragment of a letter from J’s brother who criticises J’s “highbrow-anarcho-lefty businessman bullshit” and comments how J accused him of “becoming pretentious after I moved to Bogotá” and of “wasting my life in mental masturbation because I was afraid of facing up to real life”.  Again, it sheds light on J, but very little on Elena.

Biography is the dullest form of literary criticism, so I won’t dwell too long on the fact that González’ brother Juan did in fact buy a remote plantation where he died, engaged in exactly the sort of quixotic enterprise which J is attempting here. González has said in interviews that he based In the Beginning on that incident and that while the book is fiction it sticks fairly closely to some of the central facts of his brother’s death. I wonder if perhaps J being based on someone González knew so well is why he’s the more persuasive character.

In the end while I thought there was much to admire in In the Beginning, I didn’t love it. González is strong on the physicality of it all, the smells and textures and the cloying heat, but I wish Elena had received the same attention as the descriptions of the rain. The result was that I found Beginning to be a slightly airless book which could have benefitted from a little more warmth and empathy. González’ is carrying out here a near-forensic examination of the whirlpool of circumstance that engulfed his brother, that engulfs J, but the result is better at depicting the indifference of the world than it is at showing the humanity which makes that indifference matter.

Other reviews

I thought there were loads, but so far have only found two. Guy Savage’s excellent review is here, and David Hebblethwaite’s briefer thoughts are here. There’s also an interesting interview with González here. As ever please do feel free to alert me to more in the comments.


Filed under González, Tomás, Pushkin Press, South-American Literature

Spam poetry

I was emptying my spam folder today, when I saw the text below. I think it’s an executable spam script which my spam folder has shown as a message. The result is oddly poetic. I do wonder how much time it all took to put together, and how often people are fooled by them. Few of us twice I suspect.

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Filed under Uncategorized

Sybil arranged the flowers in a heavy cut glass vase, rather badly.

A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym is one of many mid-Century authors to have gone badly out of fashion. In her case it’s perhaps in part because her world of polite dinner parties, mildly worried vicars and comfortably middle-class anxieties seems now at best quaint and at worst precisely the sort of thing the Angry Young Men of the ’50s and ’60s were rebelling against.

Pym however, like P.G. Wodehouse, is an exquisite artist of the utterly unimportant. A Glass of Blessings is one of the finest novels I’ve read this year, and has every chance of making my end of year list.


The narrator, Wilmet Forsyth, is an attractive and fashionable woman who is peacefully but uneventfully married. Her husband, met during the excitement of wartime, is now a responsible civil servant and the pair live with his mother Sybil, who in a distinct contrast to normal stereotypes largely likes and supports Wilmet and has a rather wicked sense of wit in her own right:

‘Thank you,’ said Rodney seriously. ‘We – my wife and mother, rather – are very fond of gooseberries. We often eat them in one form or another.’
‘Perhaps they are more a woman’s fruit,’ said Sybil, ‘like rhubarb. Women are prepared to take trouble with sour and difficult things, whereas men would hardly think it worth while.’
The men were silent for a moment, as if pondering how they might defend themselves or whether that, too, was hardly worth while.

Wilmet’s chief challenge in life is that it’s socially inappropriate for her to work and financially unnecessary, and besides she doesn’t really want a job with all that entails. As she has no children though she has little to fill her days, and the romance of her early years with her husband has long since been replaced with sober contentment. Their marriage is perhaps best captured by her husband’s annual birthday gift for Wilmet, a sensible transfer of a reasonable amount of money into her bank account. It’s practical, but it’s not exactly thrilling.

As I write this it’s a month or so since I read the novel and I find I barely remember the plot, but in fairness there barely is a plot so perhaps it’s not so surprising that it escapes me. Wilmet is active in her local church, and much concerned with the arrival of a handsome new curate and with the mystery represented by the lifestyle of her best friend’s rather unsuitable brother, Piers.

The lack of much of a plot is of course precisely the main challenge Wilmet faces. If there were a plot, if there were events and characters in motion she’d have something to do. Wilmet’s problem is that she’s in stasis. She is, quite simply, bored. She takes to spending her days with Piers, harbouring a slight crush on him and comically unaware that he’s obviously gay. She takes Portuguese lessons with Sybil, helps organise a blood drive and find a new housekeeper for the vicarage. None of it is quite enough and some of it starts therefore to take more weight than it can easily bear:

I began to be ashamed of my lack of experience – I had not had a lover before I married, I had no children, I wasn’t even asked to clean the brasses or arrange the flowers in church. But I had done something to make Piers happy and that compensated for everything.

Wilmet has many strengths: she’s intelligent, quick-witted, has a good sense for fashion and colour, is pretty, likable and charming. Unfortunately what she is not is particularly observant. Wilmet is somewhat self-centred, not horribly so but enough that she doesn’t notice most of what’s going on with the other characters in the novel. Wilmet isn’t alone here in facing questions of how to live her life, how to be happy, but almost every major character development comes as a complete surprise to her in part because she doesn’t really expect anything around her ever to change.

Blessings at times has a somewhat wistful feel to it. It’s not that Wilmet wants the world very different than it is, why would she given how well she’s doing from it? It’s just that she wants, well, something else. Something she can’t put her finger on. In a way however it’s very adult. Wilmet may find her husband not quite as exciting as he once was, but that doesn’t mean she wants to trade him in or to discard their marriage and years together. Her problem is the problem faced by many women of her class before it became socially acceptable for them to have jobs – she’s smarter than her allotted role has any need for.

At one point Wilmet’s best friend’s husband makes a pass at her, but while she’s slightly flattered she’s no Madame Bovary and the husband’s certainly no Rodolphe Boulanger. Really they’re all too English to do anything so dramatic as passionate affairs or suicide, it wouldn’t be entirely the done thing. Wilmet tries to spend her time on good works, but others are better at that and she’s clearly just filling time. Her attempts at charity are half-hearted and she’s slightly too cosseted to really understand the needs of the poor:

It made me sad to think of the decay and shabbiness all around, and the streamlined blocks of new flats springing up on the bombed sites, although I supposed it was a good thing that children should now be running about and playing in the square gardens, their shouts and laughter drowned by the noise of the machinery that was building hideous new homes for them.

All of which takes me back to P.G. Wodehouse. If people didn’t already know him the idea of a novelist writing about privileged young men in 1920s London stealing policemen’s helmets for a laugh and mooning over pretty waitresses would I suspect sound fairly unappealing. It would be easy to dismiss as fiction best left to its time, but Wodehouse is a genius and his creations though very much of their moment are also timeless.

Wilmet’s world is in some ways further away than Wodehouse’s. I didn’t particularly understand the clerical politics and the postwar society she portrays is far less popular in modern dramas and fiction than Wodehouse’s post-earlier-war period with its country houses and birth of Modernism. It doesn’t matter though, because the novel itself is just as likable and charming as Wilmet. How can you resist a narrator, an author, who writes like this:

At that moment I heard the bell ring and shortly afterwards Sir Denbigh Grote came into the room, rubbing his hands together as if it were a cold afternoon. He looked so much like a retired diplomat is generally supposed to look, even to his monocle, that I never thought of him as being the sort of person one needed to describe in any detail.

I could easily go on quoting. I have more quotes noted from this novel than most others I’ve read recently put together. I’ll allow myself one more, just to reassure those who might be concerned that the novel is somehow religious and worthy. It’s not – the church here fulfils more of a social than spiritual role and Wilmet is very much a woman of this world rather than the next:

On either side of the central space were two large white marble statues, male and female, perhaps representing knowledge and wisdom, courage and hope, or other suitable concepts. I looked down at the female’s great broad white feet and imagined that were she not barefooted she might have trouble with her shoes. I could almost see the incipient bunion and feel the pain of the fallen arch.

It’s not an easy thing to write a novel in which a basically nice character faces very ordinary and undramatic problems and to make it interesting. Really the only other example I can immediately think of is Colm Toibin with his Brooklyn. To do that though and to make it funny too, that really is very impressive indeed – as one of the priests says “it’s the trivial things that matter” and Pym ably proves his point. This is my first Pym, but I don’t intend it to be my last.

Other reviews

Guy Savage alerted me to Barbara Pym and convinced me to read her. His review of Blessings is here. I also found online this review at Vulpes Libris, where interestingly the reviewer is themselves a member of the Church of England and so able to shed a little light on the accuracy of those aspects of the novel. If you know of others, please let me know in the comments. Edit: As mentioned in the comments Kaggsy also reviewed this, and liked it a bit less than I did. Her review, which I recommend as ever, is here.


Filed under Barbara, Comic Fiction, Pym

“Things that have happened are never over and done with,”

Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz, and translated by Eric Mosbacher

Early 20th Century Vienna has to be one of the most fascinating periods and settings in literature. The end of the Austro-Hungarian empire saw an explosion in talent: Robert MusilJoseph Roth, Arthur Schnitzler, Ernst Weiss; Stefan Zweig (and that’s just the ones I’ve personally read). Vienna in particular was a hotbed of ideas: Marxism and Freudianism offered new models of society and the individual, each of them challenging established traditions and philosophies.

It’s a natural setting for a crime novel, so much so that author Frank Tallis has set a successful series there with a disciple of Freud as his detective. Long before that though there was Master of the Day of Judgment, written in 1921 by a Viennese author steeped in the passions of his time. It is, quite simply, brilliant.


Baron von Yosch is a soldier and aristocrat. He is setting down, for who knows what audience, his recollection of a terrifying series of events that occurred some years previously in 1909. He insists on the accuracy of his memories, down even to remembering minor newspaper stories of the day on which everything started. He insists so strongly in fact that immediately I began to wonder, why is the Baron so keen to persuade me he has forgotten no detail no matter how small?

Among the newspaper stories that day was a bank failure. Baron von Yosch had already moved his funds, but he knew his friend Eugen Bischoff had not. The Baron could have warned Eugen of the impending collapse, but as he reflects:

… would [Bischoff] have believed me? He always regarded me as a retailer of false information. Why meddle in other people’s affairs?

The Baron seems then a somewhat cold individual. A man whose friends don’t trust him, and who cares so little for them in turn that he won’t even try to warn one of possible ruin. This is our narrator; our guide to the events that claimed several lives. The Baron’s foreword gives us a premonition that whatever happened must have been truly terrible, and I found myself briefly reminded of Perutz’ contemporary H.P. Lovecraft:

Thus the whole sinister and tragic business lasted five days only, from 26 to 30 September. The dramatic hunt for the culprit, the pursuit of an invisible enemy who was not of flesh and blood but a fearsome ghost from past centuries lasted for just five days. We found a trail of blood and followed it. A gateway to the past quietly opened. None of us suspected where it led, and it seems to me today that we groped painfully step by step down a long dark passage at the end of which a monster was waiting for us with upraised cudgel. The cudgel came down twice, three times, the last blow was meant for me, and I should have been done for and shared Eugen Bischoff’s and Solgrub’s dreadful fate had I not been snatched back to life in the nick of time.

Sometimes sheer terror seizes me and sends me to the window, feeling that the dreadful waves of that terrible light must be rushing across the sky, and I cannot grasp the fact that overhead there’s the sun, concealed in silvery mist or surrounded by purple clouds or alone in the endless blue and round me wherever I look are the old, familiar colours, those of the terrestrial world. Since that day I have never seen again that fearful trumpet red.

It sounds like a work of gothic or cosmic horror, but it’s soon apparent that it’s not quite that simple. In fact, despite coming in at comfortably under 200 pages, nothing in this novel is simple.

Eugen Bischoff is a famous actor whose best days are past. His career is sharply in decline and now he has lost his life’s savings. The morning’s newspaper has been hidden from him so as to ensure he doesn’t get the news cold, and his friends have gathered round to support him, the Baron among them.

We know of course that Bischoff will die, the Baron’s foreword listed him among the victims. What we learn quickly is that Eugen is married to the Baron’s former lover, a woman the Baron still has feelings for. It’s a source of tension, and matters worsen when the Baron accidentally makes reference to the day’s events in ways which might give the game away. Well, the Baron’s writing the story and he says it’s accidental, but everyone else present seems to think he’s toying with Bischoff and amusing himself by seeing how far he can push the frail actor.

Bischoff leaves the room, and shortly afterwards two shots are heard. The Baron rushes to the scene where he finds Bischoff dying, a mutual doctor friend present but too late to save him. Bischoff casts a final gaze at von Yosch filled with pure hatred and speaks his last words – a reference to the day of judgment.

Almost everyone concludes that the Baron followed Bischoff, told him of the bank’s failure and gloated over him until Bischoff in panic and despair took his own life. The Baron however swears on his honour that he only entered the room after Bischoff already lay dying. Only the engineer Solgrub believes the Baron, and he sets out to discover what truly led to Bischoff’s death.

There are two mysteries here. One is why Bischoff killed himself. The other is why everyone who knows the Baron is so quick to believe he could be responsible. His former lover clearly blames him for her husband’s death, and her brother Felix demands that the Baron should take his own life as payment for his crime. Whether the Baron forced Bischoff into suicide is up for debate, whether he was capable of such an act however seems to be much more clear-cut. Even he is not entirely certain, at times remembering himself in the room and then dismissing the memory as false and produced by the stress of the situation (but notably not as out of character).

Solgrub’s investigation soon leads him to suspicions of another agent in the drama, a mysterious Dr Mabuse-like figure able to force men to suicide simply by forcing his will upon theirs (interestingly the novel Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler was also published in 1921). Solgrub and Felix agree then that Bischoff’s suicide was prompted by a third party, they just differ on whether that was von Yosch or this mysterious stranger. The Baron meanwhile reckons that he can solve the mystery himself, but soon finds his investigation overlapping with Solgrub’s.

At various points this moves from being a tale of gothic horror to a locked room mystery, to an amateur detective story and back again, but in truth it’s more than all of those. It becomes like so many good Austro-Hungarian novels a tale of psychological suspense. Solgrub is racing against time as the Baron, without even consciously realising what he’s doing, begins to make preparations for his own suicide. Society’s judgment demands that the Baron satisfy the demands of honour, and Solgrub is the only man truly convinced of the Baron’s innocence.

After a young failed artist connected with Bischoff also commits suicide, Solgrub strives to find a connection between the victims and to persuade Felix that there’s a common culprit. A hypothesis emerges that the slain may have willingly risked insanity and death for artistic inspiration; that creativity and terror draw from the same deep interior wells and that their own ambitions were the cause of their destruction. Now Solgrub wants to know what the dead knew, and we know from the foreword that before the story’s out he’ll join them.

That foreword casts a shadow over the whole narrative. We know the Baron lives and Solgrub dies, but not how or why. We don’t know what that “trumpet red” that von Yosch so cryptically referred to could be, or what exactly still terrifies him years later as he writes his account. As I raced towards the end I found myself asking more and more what kind of book I was reading, whether this was supernatural horror or psychological or something else altogether.

I’ll leave that last puzzle for each of you to answer for yourselves. The journey and the destination both are too satisfying to be lightly spoiled.

Other reviews

Only one on the blogosphere that I’ve found, by David Auerbach here. The Auerbach review gives away a bit more than I have, but not remotely fatally. I’ll also caution against the review in The Independent, which while positive I think rather misses the point of the book.


Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, Perutz, Leo, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

Kitty Finch was mental.

Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy

One of the weird things with fiction is how even the most tired of ideas can work in the right hands. In Swimming Home Levy writes about a group of middle class Brits on holiday in the South of France, and how the introduction of an ambiguous newcomer brings out all the tensions that were simmering below their comfortable surface. Put like that, it sounds awful.  As ever though, it’s the writing that matters. Levy had me from the first sentence:

When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.

Swimming Home

Joe Jacobs is a famous poet who draws on his past as a Jewish exile who fled Nazi-occupied Poland as a child. Before he was Joe he was Josef; to his readers he’s JHJ; to family friend Mitchell he’s the “arsehole poet”. His several names reflect his own act of self-creation.

Isabel, Joe’s wife, is perhaps more famous still. She’s a highly regarded war correspondent; cool under pressure. Isabel knows that Joe is repeatedly unfaithful to her; how she feels about that is less clear.

Staying with Joe and Isabel is their 14-year-old daughter, Nina, and friends Mitchell and Laura who own a shop together selling exotic knickknacks. Mitchell is an obsese glutton who has lately taken to hunting with antique guns, some of them clearly Chekhovian. His twin passions are consumption and extinction. Like Isabel, Laura is a loyal wife let down by an errant husband, but Mitchell’s indiscretions are financial rather than sexual and their business is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Into this uneasy mix comes Kitty Finch, human catalyst, found floating face down in the villa’s swimming pool which is “more like a pond than the languid blue pools in holiday brochures.” Her hair splayed out around her, at first they wonder if she might be a bear. It would be better for them if she were.

The setup is pretty conventional. The execution isn’t. Swimming Home is an uncertain text, fluid and Freudian and brimming with sex and death. Kitty claims to be the victim of a mistaken double booking of the villa, but that’s fairly obviously untrue. Even so, Isabel offers her a spare room, a curious act given Joe’s history with available young women. Isabel is seen by others as controlling, by giving space to Kitty is she relinquishing control or is this some form of extension of it?

Kitty is thin and intense. She’s prone to standing around naked at times of stress, a distracting habit but one everyone rather puts up with. She has a history of depression, but then so does Joe – it’s something they have in common. She becomes the whirlpool around which they all spin, even the supporting characters: the villa’s hapless caretaker Jurgen who is besotted with her and the elderly next door neighbour Madeleine who is convinced that Kitty is distinctly dangerous. Kitty is a catalyst. Her nudity and youth suggest sex, but her skeletal frame suggests a different kind of annihilation.

Kitty’s presence isn’t an accident. She’s there for Joe, because she writes her own poems and she tells him that she writes every one of them for him. She’s an obsessed fan, and naturally she’s brought a poem of her own for him to read. This happens to him a lot, but if he wants her body the least he can do is read her poem even if he would much prefer not to. Levy shows a wry sense of humour here, though disquiet is never far away:

‘Why are you shaking?’ He could smell chlorine in her hair. ‘Yeah. I’ve stopped taking my pills so my hands are a bit shaky.’ Kitty moved a little nearer him. He wasn’t too sure what to make of this until he saw she was avoiding a line of red ants crawling under her calves.

The narrative switches perspective between the various characters, not all of whom are equally well developed. Joe and Kitty obviously stand out, as does Isabel caught as she is between the expectations of her role as wife and mother and her exposure to the horrors of the world. Laura, 6’3″, is uncomfortable in her own body but otherwise it’s fair to say she doesn’t get anything like the development Joe, Isabel, Kitty and Nina do (even if Nina’s voice sometimes felt a little young for a 14-year-old to me). Even less so does Mitchell, who comes dangerously close at times to one-dimensionality.

Although Swimming Home is a short book, it’s a dense one and it’s not a particularly quick read. It’s often dreamlike, filled with fragmentary repetitions and foreshadowings. Like Greek drama it unfolds according to its own inexorable logic, not always as we would expect it but with the inevitability of hindsight. It brings in to the mix the burden of history (Joe’s past and Isabel’s reporting), art and literature (Joe), commerce (Laura and Mitchell), marriage, sex, old loves and new ones. It’s a rich brew and while I’ve only read it once I have a suspicion that if anything it would work even better on a reread.

I’ll leave the last words with Kitty, a sentence spoken to Joe in a scene we visit repeatedly in the text, each time revealing a little more detail.

‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.’

Nobody here is getting home safely.

Other reviews
I’d like here to point to John Self’s review for the Guardian, which he links to from his blog here, Trevor’s review at themookseandthegripes here, and savidgereads’ review here. Edit: I also missed a review by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, here.

I mentioned above the neighbour, Madeleine. A thread here is her birthday, which everyone is ignoring. At various points she loses clumps of hair in drinks and food. I wondered if all of this was a Mrs Dalloway reference, but only The Independent seems to have picked that up, here. I’ve not yet read Mrs Dalloway so I’d be grateful for any comments on that front from tose better informed.


Filed under Deborah, Levy