She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation.

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is one of the finest books I’ve read this year. I fully expect it to be on my end of year list.

It’s a (possibly semi-autobiographical) novel in which the respectably middle-aged Florence Green uses her small funds to open a bookshop in the small seaside town of Hardborough in Suffolk.  It proves a more challenging task than she anticipates.

In 1959, when there was no fish and chips in Hardborough, no launderette, no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights, the need of all these things was felt, but no one had considered, certainly had not thought of Mrs Green as considering, the opening of a bookshop.

Bookshop Fitzgerald

Florence’s first difficulty comes in her choice of location: the long empty Old House. It’s damp, run down and possessed by a poltergeist (more on that later) but worst of all it’s been unofficially earmarked for use as a future arts centre by the implacable and resourceful Mrs Gamart who considers herself the queen of what passes for Hardborough society.

The house agent was in no way legally bound to mention the poltergeist, though he perhaps alluded to it in the phrase unusual period atmosphere.

The town’s reaction is not an encouraging one, ranging from resistance on the part of Mrs Gamart and the failing fishmonger who had hoped Florence would buy his shop instead of the Old House, to at best indifference. Even so, Florence is determined to make things work and slowly she starts to do just that. Sales gradually pick up; a lending service is launched and eventually proves a success; Florence starts to get a feel for what’s in local demand.

It all probably sounds rather dull, but actually it’s quite wonderful. Florence to start with is pleasant to spend time with. She’s aware of her own lack of experience but she’s not an idiot. She’s kind and thoughtful and takes an interest in the life of her young ten year old assistant Christine Gipping.

Hardborough itself is skilfully evoked, both in terms of its weather and geography but more importantly in the sense of a small community where everyone is both conscious and jealous of their position and where absolutely everyone knows absolutely everyone else’s business. Well, everyone but Florence that is because she’s not really one of them.

I won’t say too much about what happens, but the catalyst comes at the midpoint of the novel when Florence bravely decides to stock Nabokov’s Lolita on the basis that while it might not be what the locals typically read it is by all accounts a good book and therefore one that a small bookshop should be promoting. She’s right that if she stocks it people will want to read it. In fact people travel to the shop just to buy it. What she doesn’t foresee is the extent to which it will galvanise the residual resentment of Mrs Gamart and some of the other local tradespeople against her.

The Bookshop is a somewhat wistful novel, perhaps fittingly so given Hardborough’s uncertain landscape of mists and marshes. More than that though it’s also often extremely funny. Fitzgerald has a keen eye for an appealing phrase and a sympathetic one for human frailty. I had a good half dozen or more quotes picked out for use at this point in my review. I’ve reluctantly cut it back to these two examples:

She drank some of the champagne, and the smaller worries of the day seemed to stream upwards as tiny pinpricks through the golden mouthfuls and to break harmlessly and vanish.

And:

Later middle age, for the upper middle-class in East Suffolk, marked a crisis, after which the majority became water-colourists, and painted landscapes. It would not have mattered so much if they had painted badly, but they all did it quite well. All their pictures looked much the same. Framed, they hung in sitting-rooms, while outside the windows the empty, washed-out, unarranged landscape stretched away to the transparent sky.

I did particularly love Fitzgerald’s depiction of lacklustre local artists and of the retired authors who’re all peddling books about wandering the marshes since there’s nothing much else to write about.

Comic novels are often the saddest and this isn’t an exception. There’s an element of small tragedy to a tale about someone trying to make a living and introduce a little art to their community and being fought bitterly by people with more resources and less compassion. Fitzgerald’s is a world where kindness is often confused with weakness and rarely rewarded, but while the meek may not inherit the Earth it’s clear Fitzgerald prefers their company to those who shall.

One last note on that poltergeist. Today the line between the natural and the supernatural in fiction is pretty rigid and it’s very unusual to have a novel that in every other way is utterly naturalistic include without comment an explicit paranormal element. Why then does Fitzgerald include one here? It’s not a metaphorical poltergeist; it’s as much part of the reality of the book as Mrs Gamart or Christine Gipping or anyone else.

My suspicion, quite unprovable, is that it’s one of the semi-autobiographical elements. There’s actually nothing it does which hasn’t been observed (and explained) in the real world. People do still and definitely did then believe in poltergeists and behaviours we might now attribute to faulty pipes or settling buildings or just plain old secret adolescent mischief were attributed to spirits. More importantly though, it does allow this wonderful line from a local health and safety inspector:

I am advised that under the provisions of the Act the supernatural would be classed with bacon-slicers and other machinery through which young persons must not be exposed to the risk of injury.

As so often I feel I’ve written lots and yet the book’s slipped through my fingers. The place, the situation, the characters, the prose, it all came together for me here. This is a quiet and unassuming book. It’s modest. It makes no claims to speak to the human condition or the state of the nation. It’s just very, very good.

Other reviews

Quite a few, which I thought I’d made note of but seem to have lost. Some I am still aware of are by Jacqui of Jacqui’s Wine Journal here; by Emma of Bookaroundthecorner here and a somewhat less impressed one by John Self of The Asylum here. If there are others I’ve missed as ever please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Fitzgerald, Penelope

A recent reading miscellany (mostly SF)

A recent reading miscellany      

I’ve read several books recently during a period where I was busy at work, then ill, and then on holiday. For a mix of reasons I don’t plan to fully review them. Some were very good, some not so much. I thought I’d write a brief paragraph or two on each.

Most of these are SF. I’ve omitted Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd as I hope to do full reviews of each of those.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

This is a slight cheat as I read it back in June and didn’t review it then, but it’s better than most of the books that follow so it seemed a bit unfair not to mention it when I’m making time to talk about books I thought less of.

Ancillary is a classic space opera set in a distant future among a vast interstellar empire. The empire is controlled through use of artificially intelligent spaceships crewed in part by ancillaries – prisoners of war who’ve had their minds wiped and replaced by a small element of the ship’s AI. The ancillaries aren’t meant to operate independently but an act of treachery leaves one isolated after the troop carrier it formed part of is destroyed.

Ancillary is best known for its treatment of gender. The protagonist being a fragment of an AI personality is weak on gender recognition to begin with and the language of the empire’s rulers doesn’t include gender pronouns. The result is a book in which unless the protagonist has specific knowledge that a character is male literally every character is referred to as she or her.

Use of male pronouns as a default is commonplace. Use of female isn’t and many SF fans balked at reading a book where they couldn’t be sure which gender most of the characters were. I found it worked very well and the slight loss in terms of physical description was more than made up for in the increased focus it required in terms of actual personality rather than gender assumptions.

All that and a cracking plot across multiple planets with wars, conspiracies and strange technologies and overall I absolutely loved this. It’s solid SF and fairly long too (with two sequels, neither apparently quite as good as the first) and the only reason I didn’t give it a proper review was limited time. It’s still a candidate for my end of year list.

Nick’s Trip, by George Pelecanos

I started this back in June, having enjoyed the previous book in the series A Firing Offense. I abandoned this part-way through, finding it a bit dated and to be honest a bit sexist. It’s not stuck in memory so there’s not much more to say than that. Pelecanos has legions of fans and can definitely write so it may be that this just wasn’t one of his best or possibly he’s just not my writer.

Mystery of the Three Orchids, by Augusto de Angelis and translated by Jill Foulston

I’ve read two previous de Angelis and sort of enjoyed them. This time I found the tales of his Inspector de Vincenzo to provide diminishing returns. Guy liked this best of the three de Angelis published by Pushkin Press so far but I just found that I no longer cared whodunit. Being honest, cosy crime has never been my genre and I only read these from interest at the unusual early 20th Century Milan setting. Solid books, but not for me.

Books two ((The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself) and three (Then will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above) of Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet.

Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet is a series of four thematically linked novellas each exploring an alternate history of the Apollo space programme. I enjoyed the first a while back so tried a couple more.

AQ2 is the more out-there piece and posits the discovery of alien ruins on Mars which has led to the discovery of faster-than light travel. Now Earth’s first extra-solar colony has vanished and so the first man on Mars is brought out from retirement to investigate. It’s an audacious story split between that first Mars mission and the journey to the missing colony, and daringly the answer to what happened is only really made clear(ish) through technical appendices. For all that I found it a little dry and it’s probably my least favourite Sales’ so far.

AQ3 is much more interesting (to me anyway). It posits an extended Korean war tying up US pilots much longer than was true in our own history. When the space race starts up the US therefore has no choice but to make use of female pilots. The story then is about the first women in space and, once the war ends, their inevitable sidelining to make room for the returning men.

Sales includes a chapter outlining the real female pilots whom he based his story on – women who really did train to go into space but who were blocked by NASA and an unsympathetic political establishment in a truly shocking fashion. Sales uses his alternate history to bring an ignored and shameful passage of real history to light and the result is one of those rare piece of SF I’d potentially recommend to the non-SF fan.

Light and Shadow, by Linda Nagata

This is a short story collection. Linda Nagata mostly writes near-future military SF these days and this collection contains a fair bit of that, plus some more speculative and fantasy material. It’s a solid collection that worked well when I was ill and to Nagata’s credit I read the whole lot quickly and without getting bored along the way.

Nagata clearly has talent, but military fiction rarely speaks to me and military SF less so which means that while I wouldn’t rule it out I’m unlikely to read a lot more by her.

Something Coming Through, by Paul McAuley

More SF. McAuley wrote a novella a while back about a future where a battered near-future Earth is contacted by enigmatic aliens and given access to fifteen worlds free to colonise. The trouble is, the aliens have been doing this for various species for millions of years and the colonies are dotted with the ancient technologies of the races who were given tenancy before us.

In Something Coming Through McAuley returns to the setting and tells a novel length story, though for me with slightly diminishing returns. I actually like McAuley’s setting, but to turn it into a novel he has to include conspiracy and thriller elements which I cared about less. Another example of a talented author working in an area which isn’t of much personal appeal.

Bethany, by Adam Roberts

This is much stranger. A sociopath inspired by Michael Moorcock’s famous novel Behold the Man travels back in time with the goal of killing Christ during the three days after his resurrection but before his bodily ascension into heaven. This is well written, well researched and laudably short (90 pages). Roberts is a very highly regarded writer and from this it’s easy to see why. I’ve read one of his short stories before but after this I’ll definitely be moving on to his full-length fiction.

A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by  Becky Chambers

This was rapturously received by oceans of critics and fans. It’s a novel about a small spaceship that makes its living by punching wormholes through space to create travel links across the galaxy (basically interstellar roadbuilders). It’s widely (and to be fair rightly) seen as a light and upbeat read and was particularly praised for its treatment of diversity with a crew formed of different species and genders all working together in a cramped ship.

Unfortunately, the diversity is literally skin deep. Every character, even the aliens, felt to me like a middle-class 20-something American. One felt like she’d been borrowed wholesale from the Jewel Staite character in the TV show Firefly but made wackier. I got to page 50 and couldn’t take any more. That means I read less than a tenth of this (and there’s two sequels!) but I’m fine with that.

So, that’s my quick(ish) roundup. If any stand out to you please let me know in the comments and I can say a bit more about them.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, De Angelis, Augusto, Novellas, Pelecanos, George, Science Fiction

Quick update

Hello all,

Just a quick post by way of update: I had a nasty bout of food poisoning recently which laid me low for a bit, and then I had a much needed holiday. I’m now back but a bit buried at work.

Normal service should resume before too long with my much overdue review of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop. If you can’t wait and don’t already know it the precis version is simple: it’s brilliant; read it. It’ll be on my end of year list.

Otherwise, I’ll probably skip properly reviewing several of my recent reads either because they were full-on SF (always a standby when I’m under the weather) which doesn’t interest most of my readers here or they were a bit disappointing. I’ll do a round-up post though just to say what they were with a paragraph or two on each.

That’s pretty much it for now. Apologies for all the great posts by others that I’ve seen and read but not commented on – after three weeks or so though there’s so many that I’m only going to respond on the backlog where I have a specific query or thought to raise.

See you all soon.

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Filed under Personal posts

It has been, again, as if she did not see me.

The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares and translated by Ruth Simms

The Invention of Morel comes with an endorsement by Borges stating simply that “To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” I disagree.

An unnamed fugitive makes his home on an uninhabited pacific island. He plans to live out his remaining years there safe from discovery and the imprisonment that would inevitably follow. We do not know of what crime he is accused but we know it must be serious.

The island has a handful of empty buildings but its inaccessibility makes it a safe refuge. Or so it seemed until without warning a group of apparent holidaymakers appear among the buildings. They seem utterly ignorant of the fugitive’s presence. Are they ghosts? Is he? Is this some malevolent prank on their part aimed at his capture? Or is the truth much stranger?

The book comes with some rather charming illustrations. Here’s a map of the island showing the various structures on it:

And here is a mysterious sunbathing woman named Faustine with whom the fugitive falls furtively in love:

At first he daren’t approach her, uncertain both as to the group’s intent and her likely reaction. When he does he finds to his dismay that she doesn’t acknowledge him. It’s as if he were invisible, inaudible. He tries to make tribute to her by planting a floral garden where she sunbathes each day:

When I made this garden, I felt like a magician because the finished work had no connection with the precise movements that produced it. My magic depended on this: I had to concentrate on each part, on the difficult task of planting each flower and aligning it with the preceding one. As I worked, the garden appeared to be either a disorderly agglomeration of flowers or a woman.

That quote seems as obvious a metaphor for the process of writing a novel as one could hope for. Casares’ book was well received; the garden isn’t even glanced at. A male companion, Morel, visits the woman and walks over the flowers as if they weren’t there.

The problem is that it’s evident very early on that the holidaymakers are genuinely oblivious to the narrator. Unfortunately, the plot requires that he doesn’t realise this which means that he wanders about coming up with bizarre hypotheses for why everyone pretends not to see him despite it being perfectly apparent that they can’t (and despite other plainly outré events such as seeing two suns in the sky). I worked out what was going on pretty quickly (it’s not hard if you’ve read any pulp SF) but the narrator struggles even after Morel spends four pages (four!) in outright exposition setting out precisely what’s happening.

This next quote comes after the narrator has spent those four pages listening to Morel explain in detail the nature of his invention, after which everyone seems to vanish without trace:

There was no noise, there was almost no light. Had they all gone to bed? Or were they lying in wait to capture me?

Really? Four pages of exposition and he still doesn’t get it? The narrator doesn’t understand because the plot requires him not to. It’s clumsy, to be kind.

Invention is not generally seen as a genre novel. I’m not quite sure why that is since it’s actually a pretty straightforward SF tale. It deals in issues of mortality, love and how we ascribe meaning to our lives but there’s no rule that genre can’t address big issues.

It is well written and perhaps that’s why it’s won so many fans. I loved for example this quote which comes when the narrator is considering just declaring his passion to Faustine without further attempt to win her by garden gift or subtle wooing:

We are suspicious of a stranger who tells us his life story, who tells us spontaneously that he has been captured, sentenced to life imprisonment, and that we are his reason for living. We are afraid that he is merely tricking us into buying a fountain pen or a bottle with a miniature sailing vessel inside.

Casares is of course quite right. I think most of us have had the experience of some seemingly friendly stranger on a holiday turning out to have a timeshare to sell or a hard-luck story tucked away ready to bring out once trust is won. On the other hand the quote’s charm was lessened for me by the fact that there seemed no reason that the narrator shouldn’t already have realised that Faustine simply wouldn’t hear him if he poured his heart out.

By the close the narrator comes to understand what’s going on and the implications for his love. For me, the final few pages are the best in the book as the narrator responds to his situation and creates meaning from it. His response has a certain questionable beauty which I can’t explain or discuss without spoiling this utterly for future readers. It’s just a shame that he has to understand so little along the way and ignore so many evident incongruities in order to make it all work.

It’s rare I write a review this negative and all the more so when as here the book is well written. I may well read more Casares just because he plainly can write. For me though Invention was contrived with character and behaviour painfully twisted to serve the demands of unrelenting plot and situation. I didn’t think the payoff worth the journey.

Other reviews (and a note on the translation)

Several, and mostly glowing. Kaggsy describes this as “perfect” and a “five-star read” here; Gautambhatia pays considerable tribute to the book here in a review I’d describe as itself being perfect and a five-star read, not least for his clearly marked spoiler section; other reviews of interest (though more ambivalent ones to my eye) are from Grant of 1st Reading’s blog here and from Jacqui of Jacqui Wine’s journal here.

Finally, there’s a good piece here on the problems of the translation. Unfortunately it appears it’s pretty poor with plenty of changes, needless tidying and outright omissions. It looks like Casares meant it to be even more obvious to the reader what’s going on than it already was to me. I think that might have helped, because it would have brought out the intentional artificiality of the narrator’s obtuseness by making everything all the more apparent. It’s a shame. I may not have liked the book but Casares deserved better.

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Filed under Casares, Adolfo Bioy, Spanish Literature

How can we fail to see that this change from the combover to the shorn head is a sign of our declining society?

The Combover, by Adrian N. Bravi and translated by Richard Dixon

The Combover is one of the funniest, strangest, most uncategorisable novels I’ve read in quite a while. No small thing in a year where I’m reading DeWitt, Aira and Casares. I noted enough quotes that I could write a two-page review using nothing else (don’t worry, I won’t). I had to stop myself from noting more.

Arduino Gherarducci is a middle-aged professor specialising in bibliographic data exchange formats. Baldness runs in his family and Arduino maintains a proud family tradition of sporting a combover – in his case he grows his hair long in back and combs it forward over his bald patch.

He is well aware that times have changed and that the combover has become a thing of ridicule. He is urged by friends, strangers, barbers, his wife, just to shave his head and wear his baldness openly and without shame. What they don’t understand is that he feels no shame in being bald. He is proud of his combover. As he reflects:

No one gets upset if they see a woman with fake blond hair and black reappearing at the roots, or with silicon lips, but they get upset about a combover . . .

Arduino’s wife doesn’t understand the importance to him of his absurd hairstyle. She doesn’t get why he goes to such lengths to maintain it and to protect it against random gusts of wind or sudden rain. She thinks he would look rather handsome without it.

They have no children. Their cat, Cosino, is more his than hers. Arduino is the narrator so we don’t see much of his wife’s life but it doesn’t seem much fun. He’s a fussy man obsessed with matters which are hard for others to relate to and he seems to be engaged in a petty cold-war with his wife’s mother. Still, he’s comfortable enough in his slightly arid world until, one day, something extraordinary happens:

As I was describing a mark used by Valerio Dorico—a Pegasus striking a rock with its hoof making a spring gush forth—I remember noticing the Argentinian student, whose thesis I was supervising and who came to all my lectures, getting up without saying a word and coming toward my desk. I followed him with my eyes, to understand what he was doing there at the front. I thought he wanted to ask me a question or to help me turn a page of the great catalogue of printers’ marks I was leafing through in front of the class. But no. While I was holding this great book, he pushed back my combover with a gesture that was deliberate but not aggressive—indeed it was almost elegant—exposing my baldness to the whole class. For a few seconds the students sat there looking at me, astonished, without understanding the insult. Then, predictably, they all began to laugh.

Arduino makes it through the rest of the lecture, but he doesn’t know how to process this. He doesn’t know what comes next. So he runs away. Armed only with a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics to read on his journey and a backpack-full of essentials he decides to make a new life in Lapland.

He doesn’t get very far. Instead he ends up in a nearby village that he used to visit with his father as a child and where he hopes to find an old well that was said to be magical. He was told about the well by a priest who was a friend of Arduino’s father and he remembers the two men leaning towards each other so deep in conversation that their combovers almost touched and became one.

What Arduino is really looking for is a safe haven: a place where a man can live in peace and where his hair will be left unruffled. Lapland might serve, but how much more secure is the refuge of childhood memory?

The priest of course is long dead and the well forgotten. You can’t reach the past by bus. So with a logic that seems somehow inevitable Arduino takes refuge in a cave on the hill where he becomes a hermit. He hopes to live off the land, avoid people and to get to grips with Spinoza:

I pulled out the Ethics and read proposition thirty-six of the second part (which talks about confused ideas that are nevertheless necessary) and then the demonstration that refers to proposition fifteen of the first part, with its demonstration which, in turn, refers to proposition fourteen, once again in the first part, and to definition three and so forth. In short, I began to think, like Spinoza, that all things are necessary, like the Argentinian’s hair-ruffle: “Was even this necessary, damn it?” I asked myself. “Did he really have to get up from his seat and ruffle my hair in front of everyone?” In the Ethics, definition seven says:

That thing is called free, which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature, and of which the action is determined by itself alone. On the other hand, that thing is necessary, or rather constrained, which is determined by something external to itself to a fixed and definite method of existence or action.

Which means? That that blockhead couldn’t do anything other than ruffle my hair because he was already a hair-ruffler by nature, or does it mean that he did it because he had been driven by an external cause and he, poor sod, couldn’t prevent himself because he was constrained to do it?

I’ve read absolutely no Spinoza myself and I don’t particularly intend to start now. It doesn’t matter. You don’t need a degree in philosophy to see that we’ve got issues here of exercising free will in a contingent world. Arduino just wants to explore bibliographic data exchange formats and to have his chosen hairstyle be respected. But how can you live freely in a world populaced by wives and mothers-in-law and rogue Argentinian students? Only his cat makes no real demands on him.

If there is an answer it’s not to move to a cave on a mountain in central Italy. I won’t say what happens, but before too long the hermit in the hills is getting a steady stream of visitors. People aren’t that easily put off. Not only that, but where once his hair was at the mercy of distracted barbers and barbarous Argentinians now it’s at risk from the elements. True freedom is impossible. Personally I don’t even think it’s desirable.

All of this makes The Combover sound rather dense, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a rather wonderful nonsense which follows an utterly farcical chain of events all tipped into motion by the Argentinian tipping Arduino’s hair. All that and an exploration of free will versus necessity as reflected through a man’s dedication to protecting his combover.

By this point in this review I’ve described well under half the book and I’ve intentionally avoided most of the plot. Beyond the set-up – Arduino has his hair mussed and becomes a hermit – I had no idea where this was going and it’s a lot of fun that way. It would easily bear rereading, but on a first read I think it’s good to set off like Arduino without any real understanding of your destination.

The Combover comes it at just over a 100 pages and, like Family Heirlooms which I also read relatively recently, was published by Frisch & Co. as part of their series of contemporary literature in translation. It’s available in ebook form only, which as with Family Heirlooms is a shame as it’s an absolute gem.

Other reviews

Two I would link to, both of which reveal more of the plot than I have so to be honest I’d suggest not reading them yet if you’re tempted to read this (which you should be). The first is from Vulpes Libris, here, and the second (which contains extensive potential spoilers) is from Numero Cinq magazine, here. The Numero Cing review goes to a level of analysis far beyond that which I’ve attempted here and is actually very good but is definitely better read after you’ve first read the book itself.

One final word. I know several readers of this blog share with me a difficulty in reading passages involving cruelty to animals. That’s not an issue here. Cosino is probably the only balanced individual in the book and frankly if I had to be anyone within this text I’d be the cat.

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Filed under Bravi, Adrian N., Italian Literature, Novellas

Am I going to go on dreaming about bread for ever?

For Bread Alone, by Mohamed Choukri and translated by Paul Bowles

Mohamed Choukri is an interesting figure. He came from a desperately poor background and didn’t learn to read until his early 20s. He wrote a famous autobiographical trilogy of which For Bread Alone is the first. It covers those early years up until he decided to become literate and is utterly unflinching in its depiction of the experience of abject poverty.

Normally that’s not the sort of thing I’d read. I detest misery memoirs and bildungsroman is one of my least favourite genres.  I made an exception here partly as I’ve heard this is an influence on Mathias Enard’s Street of Thieves, partly as Stu gave it a good review on his Winston’s Dad blog and partly as I was intrigued to see what had caught Paul Bowles’ attention so strongly that he chose to translate it.

In this piece I’m going to refer to Mohamed when I’m referring to Choukri as character within the book and to Choukri when I’m referring to him as author.

For Bread Alone opens with Mohamed and his family moving from their native Rif region of Morocco to Tangier. Rif has its own language and ethnic identity and Mohamed’s accent will immediately mark him out in Tangier as an outsider. They’re making the journey from desperation – the Rif has had no rain and that means no food:

We were making our way towards Tangier on foot. All along the road there were dead donkeys and cows and horses. The dogs and crows were pulling them apart. The entrails were soaked in blood and pus, and worms crawled out of them. At night when we were tired we set up our tent. Then we listened to the jackals baying.

When someone died along the road, his family buried the body there in the place where he had died.

Mohamed’s uncle has just died so the family is reduced to him, his younger brother Abdelqader who is too sick during the journey even to cry, his mother and his violent father. When they reach Tangier it’s no promised land: food remains so scarce that Mohamed even tries to scavenge a dead chicken from the street despite its being evidently carrion.

Mohamed’s father struggles to find work. Each day he comes home disappointed and savagely beats anyone within reach in revenge for his frustrations. Within the first few pages of the book he grows angry at Abdelqader’s constant crying from illness and hunger and in a fit of rage kills him. It’s a crime for which he will never be punished. It’s little surprise that Mohamed grows up wild.

For Bread Alone is utterly unsparing not just of those around Mohamed but of his failings also. For a while he’s sent to stay with relatives in the country and things seem to be looking up for him, until he sexually assaults a younger boy (he’s not gay in any contemporary sense of that word, there just aren’t any women to hand). The pointless ugliness of this next incident for me shows his father’s influence:

One day I tried in vain to climb a high tree. That leg was tall and smooth. I grew very angry at being repulsed, and so I went to the shed and filled a can with gasoline. I doused the tree trunk and lit a match. The flames were beautiful. I said to the charred tree: Now you’re not so smooth. I can climb you, as high as I want.

As he grows older his acts of pointless aggression tail off somewhat, but he remains a hustler. He sells himself, steals, becomes a vicious brawler and spends the little money he gets on drugs and prostitutes. He’s obsessed with sex, in one dry period carving a tree to look vaguely like a woman and then having sex with that. (He uses lubricant you’ll, perhaps, be glad to know).

So why read this? With this much ugliness, violence and squalor why read any of it? Well, for the absolute honesty but also for the empathy. Choukri doesn’t pretend he had some special claim on suffering or that others weren’t doing equally badly. He doesn’t pretend to have been a victim. He takes the reader into the lives of people lost in drugs, hustling and violence as did say Burroughs and Bukowski but where they just show what is Choukri also explores the why. He shows the lack of better opportunities and why living as these people do may very well be a rational decision given their circumstances.

At times this is reminiscent of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, particularly earlier on in the book before Mohamed becomes an established hustler.

Now I chew on the emptiness in my mouth. I chew and chew. My insides are growling and bubbling. Growling and bubbling. I feel dizzy. Yellow water came up and filled my mouth and nostrils. I breathed deeply, deeply, and my head felt a little clearer. Sweat ran down my face.

At other times it becomes existential. What sets Mohamed apart from those around him is his intelligence and the potential it brings, but for most of this book he’s yet to realise either. Even so, as he reaches his twenties he becomes more than merely reactive and starts to think about who he is and how he fits into the world.

I thought the meaning of life was in living it. I know the flavour of this cigarette because I’m smoking it, and it is the same with everything.

The test for any book which is part of a trilogy is whether or not you’d read the others. On balance, I would read more by Choukri. It’s admittedly a fairly fine balance as while this is well written I’m not generally interested in memoirs nor in exploring others’ poverty, but Choukri’s empathy and intelligence make this worthwhile. Unfortunately, while a Bowles translation is available for this volume there don’t seem to be equivalent translations for the others and I’ve seen what is available criticised for omissions and unnecessary changes. That means that sadly this is probably where my exploration of Choukri stops.

One last word: For Bread Alone comes at the beginning with a handy glossary of words that Bowles chose not to translate, presumably either for lack of a direct equivalent or for the colour they gave the text. One of these read as follows:

zigdoun: a woman’s garment, akin to a Mother Hubbard

Thanks Paul. Unfortunately I then had to google a Mother Hubbard. Funny how references can age.

Other reviews

The only one I know of among the usual suspects is the one that helped spark my interest in this, which is Stu’s here from his Winston’s Dad’s blog.

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Filed under Arabic Literature, Choukri, Mohamed, Memoirs

The thing came to me as a stark inhumanity.

The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells

I last read The Island of Doctor Moreau as a teenager. It didn’t do much for me then, dwarfed by the more obvious charms of The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds. The only reason I returned to it all these years later was because I was planning to read Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel and had heard that Moreau partly inspired Morel.

Reading Moreau as preparation for Morel wasn’t particularly necessary as I’ve now read Morel and other than the title and island setting there’s not much commonality. Fortunately, it turns out that adult me likes The Island of Doctor Moreau a lot more than teenage me did.

Island opens with a framing device. The manuscript the reader is about to encounter was left behind by an Edward Prendick, now deceased. Prendick was lost at sea and on recovery a year or so later initially told a fantastical tale before claiming he had lost all memory of what had happened during his absence. His health never truly recovered.

From there we’re into the book proper – Prendick’s posthumous account of what really happened to him which can be published now he’s safe from being locked up as a lunatic. It’s an ugly tale of science without morality (a common Wellsian theme) and of how little separates the human from the animal.

After an offscreen shipwreck Prendick is left adrift at sea. He’s finally picked up by a strange ramshackle trading ship with a drunken captain and a cargo of exotic animals. He’s not the only passenger – there’s a dissolute and rather weak young Englishman named Montgomery and Montgomery’s half-witted servant M’ling who both the crew and animals fear and loathe.

The black face thus flashed upon me startled me profoundly. The facial part projected, forming something dimly suggestive of a muzzle, and the huge half-open mouth showed as big white teeth as I had ever seen in a human mouth. His eyes were bloodshot at the edges, with scarcely a rim of white round the hazel pupils. There was a curious glow of excitement in his face.

Although M’ling does nothing wrong, Prendick can’t help but feel a shock of revulsion at him. The abhorrence is somehow intrinsic; a sense of wrongness. Soon Prendick realises that M’ling is even stranger than he at first imagined:

It may seem a little thing to you, perhaps, but it came like a sudden blow to me. The only light near us was a lantern at the wheel. The creature’s face was turned for one brief instant out of the dimness of the stern towards this illumination, and I saw that the eyes that glanced at me shone with a pale-green light.

These early parts of the book (in fact the whole first half really) are wonderfully creepy. Wells is very, very good on the unnaturalness of all this and on the horror that comes not from something terrible happening or being threatened but just by virtue of things not being as they should be.

Montgomery and M’ling are taking the animal cargo to a supposedly uninhabited island and against Prendick’s protests the ship’s captain and crew take the opportunity to dump him there too. It’s there he meets Doctor Moreau, a vivisectionist exiled years past from London society for his unusual cruelty and arrogance. Nobody knew what had happened to him, but here he is surrounded by servants of peculiar appearance and strangely garbled speech.

The island is a miserable place: the climate too hot; the food poor; Montgomery often drunk; the servants oddly repellent; but worst of all is Moreau who Prendick soon realises never ceased his experiments in vivisection but instead has taken them to new and undreamed of extremes. Moreau is swift to take his knife to the new animal captives:

Suddenly the puma howled again, this time more painfully. Montgomery swore under his breath. Then the poor brute within gave vent to a series of short, sharp screams.

As Moreau chillingly reminds Prendick, “‘You forget all that a skilled vivisector can do with living things’”.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that Moreau has been using his extraordinary skills and lack of conscience as a vivisector to transform animals into men. Scientifically of course it’s nonsense but that doesn’t matter because it allows Wells to explore some very fruitful themes.

What is it that makes a person human? Moreau takes his poor beasts and tortures them into upright forms that look mostly like us. Their hands are often misshapen and their speech can be difficult to follow but for all that they do have hands and speech. Moreau gives them law and a form of religion which leads to a fantastic scene where Prendick finds himself in the home of the beast-men as they recite the litany given them by Moreau.

To a late 19th Century reader some scenes here must have been fairly shocking. The beast-men see Moreau as their creator; they recite a creed to honour him and see him as an Englishman would see his Christian God. They believe that even when absent Moreau knows if they break his laws – run on all fours, hunt game, drink water by lapping it direct from pool or stream.

Nature, however, will out. The beast-men no longer have the innocence of animals but nor have their instincts entirely abandoned them. Without the repetition of the law they quickly fall back into savagery. But then, the ship’s captain and crew at the beginning abandoned Prendick to Moreau’s island out of caprice and cruelty. Are the beast-men so different? Are the humans here better? Nobody comes out of this well.

We know from the start that it won’t last. The opening chapter mentions that the only island that fits Prendick’s description is uninhabited without sign of Moreau or Montgomery or beast-men or any of them. We know Prendick leaves and is eventually found and brought home.

Once back he finds that Moreau’s island changed him just as it changed the unfortunate animals Moreau took under his knife. Prendick reflects:

I am told that even now my eyes have a strange brightness, a swift alertness of movement.

Much worse is his internal change. He has seen the thin line separating animals from men and now returned he can see it still:

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. … prowling women would mew after me, furtive craving men glance jealously at me, weary pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces like wounded deer dripping blood, old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves and all unheeding a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel, and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered Big Thinks even as the Ape Man had done;

This was a deeply topical book. The morality of vivisection was hotly debated in Wells’ time and the implications of evolution and the idea that humanity was not some form of separate creation to animals remained controversial to many. Now those are both largely (though not entirely) settled topics and yet the book retains its power.

As I write this my mind keeps turning to the various forms of savages Prendick encounters: the ship’s captain and crew; Moreau and Montgomery; the beast-men. The beast-men elicit instinctive disgust and pity but for all their barely repressed savagery it’s no accident on Wells’ part that the true cruelties of this book are performed by people.

Wells’ science fiction is the science fiction of big ideas. For some reason his stories seem often to be taken very literally. People seem to miss that The War of the Worlds is about the experience of colonialism for those colonised; or that The First Men in the Moon addresses the need for morality in business and science. It seems more common to pick up that The Time Machine is in large part about class inequality but even that is often taken at a purely surface level. Perhaps it’s because he writes such good adventure stories that people often miss his underlying sharp criticisms most of which sadly remain all too relevant.

On a last note, I read the rather good Pocket Penguin edition of this which comes with sparse but well-judged notes. At one point for example Prendick refers to a “comus rout” among the beast-men which meant nothing to me but which a footnote then helpfully explains both in terms of the direct reference and in terms of a potential source of inspiration for Wells. It’s a really good edition and if you decide to give this a go I entirely recommend it.

Other reviews

Tons I’m sure, but none I know of on any of the blogs I typically follow. If I’m wrong on that I’d be delighted to be corrected in the comments.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Science Fiction, Wells, H.G.

This was the magic spell the punks had cast on her: they made her believe the world could be renewed.

The Proof, by Cesar Aira and translated by Nick Caistor

‘Wannafuck?’

When I read The Proof I enjoyed it but initially found it a little slight. I admired its energy and clarity even if I couldn’t quite see what the point of it was.

I’m now a month or two on and the surprise has been how sharp and bright The Proof has remained in memory. I find myself wanting to read more like it, even though I’m not quite sure what “like it” would look like.

Love that cover.

The book opens with the single compound word I opened this review with – ‘wannafuck?’ It’s an instant shock to the reader. It stops you in your tracks.

It doesn’t quite stop Marcia, the teenage girl it’s directed to, because it takes her a moment to realise she’s its target. She’s an ordinary girl, conventional even, and that kind of greeting is entirely beyond her experience.

Marcia was blonde, small, chubby, somewhere between child and adult. She was wearing a woollen skirt and a thick blue pullover, with lace-up shoes. Her face was flushed from her walk, but it was always ruddy anyway.

She looks around and sees who called out to her:

They were two punks, dressed in black. Very young, although maybe slightly older than she was, with pale, childish features.

The punks call themselves Mao and Lenin, and it was Mao who called out to Marcia. Mao insists the offer is quite serious and that she’s in love with Marcia on first sight. Marcia isn’t interested but the conversation continues and the three girls head off down the street together.

They go to a café where Marcia tries to understand what it’s like to be a punk. The question doesn’t interest the punks themselves who nihilistically proclaim that nothing matters, or at least nothing Marcia is talking about matters.

There’s a sense of clashing philosophies. Marcia sympathises with a waitress in the café who has to ask them to leave since they won’t order. The punks are contemptuous and take the view that if they cause the waitress to lose her job that’s no great loss for anyone concerned.

Put like that it sounds like an ordinary argument. Idealism versus cynicism. But it’s not that simple because Mao and Lenin are arguing for the purity of love and what could be more idealistic than that? The punks are transcendent: black and white and pure of purpose. Marcia is ruddy, earthy, everyday. Marcia fears that once the punks see how ordinary she actually is they may prefer the waitress to her. She doesn’t see what they do: that love itself makes her extraordinary.

Or perhaps it doesn’t. I’m not absolutely sure. I talked of a sense of clashing philosophies and part of why this stays so sharp in hindsight is that it is just a sense – Aira doesn’t spell anything out and the uncertainty of what’s at stake somehow makes the impact all the more powerful.

While in the café the punks tell Marcia a story of an acquaintance and a lost necklace. It’s a reflection of the wider novel – not in terms of content or structure but in terms of how the two cannot be separated:

Marcia couldn’t believe it. This was the first time in her life that she had heard a well-told story, and it had seemed to her sublime, an experience that made up for all the fears this meeting had caused.

To start with, she grasped that it was not done to go on praising the form; such praise had to be transmitted implicitly in her comments on the content. But she was so dazzled that content and form became intertwined; whatever she might say about the former would inevitably be transferred to the latter.

The conversation ends; the punks declare that love requires proof and from there the novel goes at unstoppable pace to an extraordinary and bloody conclusion. To the extent it was ever realistic it leaves that realism gasping in its wake (yet without any element of the fantastical).

At the end I can’t actually say what The Proof is about, or indeed if it’s even about anything much at all. I don’t understand it. I think that’s part of what I like about it. It’s audacious. It’s tremendous fun. I love it as Mao loves Marcia – for itself but without reason. I’ve already bought more Aira.

Other reviews

Only one I have a note of which is by Grant of 1st Reading here. Grant’s review persuaded me to give this a go and I’m very glad I did.

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Filed under Aira, Cesar, Argentinian Literature, Spanish Literature

… you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.

Martin John, by Anakana Schofield

Martin John is one of the best reviewed novels of the past couple of years, both in number and quality of reviews. Not bad for a book which I suspect hasn’t actually sold that well. It epitomises the willingness of small press publishers to take risks on unconventional stories and styles.

At its simplest level Martin John is a novel about a sex offender. Mostly he’s a flasher, but given the opportunity he’s a groper and if left unchecked he is quite capable of escalating to full on assault. He is profoundly damaged and damaging. He lacks remorse or even the most basic willingness to acknowledge the consequences of his actions. One of his refrains is “Harm was done.” He prefers not to consider by or to whom.

What’s truly interesting here is not so much the portrait of Martin John himself, excellent as that is, but the manner in which that portrait is painted. The book opens with an index, as follows:

Index
1. Martin John has made mistakes.
2. Check my card.
3. Rain will fall.
4. Harm was done.
5. It put me in the chair.

These are phrases (“refrains”) that Martin John lives by and which help him give meaning to his world. His mam has sent him to London from Ireland to get him away from the trouble he caused back home and he believes that if he follows certain systems that trouble won’t find him again. His world is carefully built up from patterns, mantras, his mam’s warnings and his own denials.

Much of the book is told from Martin John’s perspective. The style is staccato. A single page might include only four or five lines of text. Each on a single line. We’re locked in Martin John’s head. His experience.

Other perspectives intrude. Mam’s. The narrator’s.

In most novels the narrator is either abstract and omniscient or a character within the fiction. Here the narrator seems to be the author – commenting from within the text on what she’s written and making asides to the reader. At one point Schofield reflects:

Rules have already been broken in this book. The index told us about refrains, not rules. There was no mention of rules early on. Martin John will not like this.

This is a book whose structure is inseparable from its subject. The text is fractured, sly, often opaque. Martin John the book is Martin John the man.

At times this is extremely funny. As Martin John’s mental state unravels he becomes obsessed with his upstairs lodger who he believes to be the vanguard of some inchoate but implacable enemy and Martin John’s reactions to the most ordinary of events become increasingly extreme. He’s losing control. His refrains aren’t working any more. They were never that reliable anyway.

When interviewed, Mr Patel – the most gentle of souls, arthritis in his left knee – could not credit the fight that took place and the bags of sugar that flew, and the tinned steak and kidney pies that were toppled in that brief five-minute bare-knuckle dust-up over the last copy of the Daily Express.

As the book continues both it and Martin John himself find it harder to avoid the reality of what he is and what he does. Slowly the nature of his behaviour emerges. His crimes; his excuses.

Coats can drift. Open. That’s what coats are like. That’s what women like, open coats and a quick face full of him.

He likes it too. He likes what they like.

Martin John  is a petty predator. When he goes too far he risks getting in the trouble his mam sent him away to avoid. However, what becomes apparent is quite how much he can get away with before that point. Sitting next to women on the tube and rubbing against them. A little casual exposure here and there. Mostly people just move away or try to ignore him. That silence allows normalisation. Escalation. We’re at page 176 before Schofield comments:

See how still no one mentions the girl?

Before the book closes we’ll find out quite what it was he did that led to his mam sending him away from Ireland. Making a life for yourself in London isn’t much of a punishment. It isn’t really a punishment at all. The girl, now a woman, she still lives with what Martin John did.

Until Schofield asked the question I was paying more attention to Martin John and his life than I was to his victims. They weren’t named. They are faceless women chosen by him for proximity or ease of access. Schofield directs our gaze as society directs its – towards the man. When she turns back to the woman he assaulted it’s devastating.

My last thought is on sense of period in the novel. Interestingly many reviewers don’t seem to have picked up that Martin John isn’t a contemporary novel (Grant at 1st Reading is an honourable exception). No date is ever referenced, but there’s plenty of clues. There’s pay phones rather than mobiles; no mention of the internet; a guard station has an old black and white portable television; Pat Kenny is presenting the Eurovision which is hosted by Ireland (which suggests 1988); there are VCRs and teletext. It’s actually a fairly precise and clear depiction of period. If you read carefully it’s evident that Martin John is set in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s.

Why do some miss this? My theory is that it’s because much contemporary literary fiction is terrible at portraying our everyday present. If novels set now feel vaguely historic, which to me they often do, it’s easy to miss the fact that another novel is set in the recent past unless it flat out tells you that it is. So, what time does Martin John take place in:

It was a time when people didn’t see stuff. That was the time it was.

Other reviews

John Self reviewed this at the Guardian here and Grant of 1st Reading reviewed it at his here. I seem to have lost my notes of other reviews so please let me know of them in the comments.

Finally, if you read books both in ebook form and hardcopy this is definitely one to get in hardcopy. The formatting matters here and while it’s preserved in the kindle sample I looked at it’s not nearly as apparent. The pages and structure have an impact which is best seen in the physical version.

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Filed under Schofield, Anakana

“Put it down to the dreams, yours and mine, that they can be far more authentic than life itself.”

Mona Lisa, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia and translated by Ignat Avsey

Charming isn’t a word I get to use often enough on this blog.

I liked but didn’t love Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer and it’s fair to say that I like but don’t love Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. For me the Louvre contains far more interesting treasures. The painting has become a form of celebrity – a canvas Kardashian. Obviously it’s good, but I’ve never thought it merited its peculiar fame.

Put those views together and I’m not a natural reader for Lernet-Holenia’s novella about, in part, the Mona Lisa. That was very nearly my loss as, and here’s that word again, it’s one of the most charming books I’ve read in years.

Pushkin have done themselves particularly proud with this edition. The book itself is up to their usual exceptional standards but as well as the usual good quality paper and attractive cover they’ve also included some rather charming (there’s that word again) line illustrations by artist Neil Gower throughout the text. There’s a picture of one at Jacqui’s Wine Journal’s review (link at the end).

As the book opens King Louis XII is sending one of his marshals, Louis de la Trémoille, to the relief of his French governors in Naples who are being harried by the Spanish. The king’s orders are a small work of comic brilliance:

“And I trust, sir,” the King went on, “you will be able to acquit yourself of this commission with your customary prowess. You shall not be left wanting anything. I send you forth not only with my own blessing, but also hereby give you leave as you make your way through Rome to seek the Holy Father’s blessing. However, in case the Holy Father should refuse to anoint your arms, I give you full permission to urge His Holiness, with the help of those selfsame arms, to vouchsafe them his blessing. Furthermore, select as many of my noblemen as you deem fit to accompany you on your way. The flower of my nobility will be honoured and pleased to serve under you and personally to provide armour and equipment for you and your retainers. Also, you will have at your service a number of clerics whose upkeep and maintenance will devolve upon the Church. I shall take the sin of that upon myself. Additionally, I expect the good people of Amboise in Milan to cast the requisite number of ordnance, furnish the requisite number of ensigns, standards and trumpet banners, and supply a sufficient quantity of drums, kettledrums and trumpets. The cost of the undertaking is to be met from the municipal funds. You will of course have at your disposal as many horse and foot as you shall need, fed and nourished off the land, so help you God.”

With such assistance how could the expedition be other than a glorious success? M. de la Trémoille and such lesser noblemen as he is able to persuade to join him set off across France and into Italy.

The king also gave M. de la Trémoille orders to seize such treasure along the way as he is able. With his small and ill-equipped force M. de la Trémoille hasn’t been able to gain anything of consequence so when he reaches Florence it seems a good opportunity to pick up some local art. He takes a few companions and calls upon the famed Leonardo da Vinci, who sadly seems rather more frivolous than expected:

“My investigations,” Leonardo said, “led me, after my enquiries into the density and flow of water and air, to other things, and for a few days I was preoccupied with the weight of God.”

Leonardo seems as distractible as a child. His study shows no signs of current work and he seems to have musicians and dancers attending on him whenever the French call. However, a chance argument between Leonardo and M. de la Trémoille changes everything when one of M. de la Trémoille officers, the young Monsieur de Bougainville, is instructed to catch a fly to settle an argument between Leonardo and M. de la Trémoille as to how many legs it has.

Monsieur de Bouganville disturbs a curtain at the back of the room and behinds it catches a glimpse of glory. It is the Mona Lisa, unfinished, as yet imperfect, but already beautiful. M. de Bouganville falls instantly in love.

From there the story moves to M. de Bouganville’s attempts to discover the model for the painting. He’s told it might be based on a woman known as La Gioconda, third wife to local nobleman Francesco del Giocondo. She is said to have died some years previously of the plague but:

It struck young Bougainville as totally improbable that Leonardo would have painted a woman who was no longer alive.

M. de Bougainville convinces himself that La Gioconda must be the real model for Mona Lisa and that she remains alive. Before long he’s causing outrage; he exhumes her tomb and raids del Giocondo’s house believing her imprisoned there. He is mad. He is in love.

With another writer or perhaps even with Lernet-Holenia in a different mood this would all make quite a nice little historical thriller. Here it’s obvious that M. de Bouganville’s quest is hopeless. Leonardo insists that the picture is based on a composite of various women and there’s no reason at all not to believe him. No reason except love, which is its own reason.

Mona Lisa (the book) becomes a short comic meditation on love and art and how both can make us lose ourselves in something better than we would otherwise be. It’s a lovely little tale. Funny, fast moving, and to return to where I started this piece, utterly charming.

Other reviews

There are loads and I’m sure I’ve missed a fair few of them. The ones I had noted were from Jacqui’s Wine Journal here, which includes a nice picture of one of the illustrations; from His Futile Preoccupations here; and from 1st Reading’s blog here. Please feel free to let me know of others in the comments.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, German Literature, Lernet-Holenia, Alexander, Novellas, Pushkin Press