I cannot surrender my soul to any nation state, or to any set of beliefs.

It’s been a little while since my last update. I’ve had holiday (Bologna, always lovely) and started a new job (Cabinet Office, fascinating). Between all that I’ve not really had a lot of spare time.

Even so, with the time off between jobs and my holiday July ended up being a fairly reading-heavy month. Ten books! Some short I admit, some very short in fact, but still, ten!

Here they are.

The Gigolo, by Francoise Sagan and translated by Joanna Kilmartin

This is one of those little Penguin pocket editions – a handful of Sagan shorts. Sagan is always enjoyable and this was no exception.

The title story is about an aging woman’s relationship with her younger lover. He loves her, she pays his rent. It’s a nicely observed little tale about the clash between society’s expectations and private emotions.

The second tale is about a wife who returns home early from a trip to find signs that her seemingly trustworthy husband may be having an affair. There’s a sting in the tale, which I guessed early, but it’s still well written and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

For the past ten years, she had talked about pot plants, gardenias, verandahs and lawns, and for the past ten years David had said nothing in reply.

Lastly there’s a tale about a dying man being comforted by his wife as he thinks about past affairs. I had actually completely forgotten that one and the description comes from Amazon, so probably not the strongest of the three…

Anyway, it’s a fun little collection and perfect for popping into a pocket on a summer’s day.

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

This is the last of Leckie’s space operatic trilogy. I talked about the first two here and here. If you’ve read number two and liked it, you’ll like this. If you haven’t, you probably won’t. I thought it brought it all together pretty well and left the right amount unresolved (I hate overly neat endings).

I don’t know if the trilogy is a future classic – space opera can age badly quite quickly – but I think it at least has potential to be. This is proper old-fashioned widescreen SF, but with a modern feel to it and good characters, setting and story.

The Beautiful Summer, by Cesare Pavese, unknown translator

Penguin doesn’t identify the translator for this as best I can tell, which I think is pretty shabby.

Ginia is a sixteen year-old in Fascist Italy, caught between the fading ties of childhood and the daunting allure of the adult world – or at least what adolescents think is the adult world (more sex, bars and late night conversations; less early alarms, work deadlines and crying children).

She becomes involved through a friend with an artist who the reader can plainly tell just isn’t as in to her as she is to him. Pavese captures brilliantly and with sympathy her conflicting emotions – on one side her desire to do what pleases the artist and to become part of his world; on the other her fear of the consequences and her growing sense of self and of her own life.

I read this while out in Italy and it is pretty much a perfect summer read. Cleanly written and plotted. Nothing happens here that will surprise you but as with Sagan it’s very much about the emotions of the journey rather than the destination.

My only criticism is that I do wonder how much it will stay in memory. Sagan still feels sharp to me, but I don’t have a sense yet whether this will in say a month’s time.

Finally, I’d be very interested to hear the thoughts of any female readers who’ve tried this. It’s written by a man and I think the reviews I’ve read are also by men, but it’s about female experience and I did wonder if it was a slightly anodyne, idealised, version of that experience. There’s none of the intensity or desire one finds in say Duras. Does it get it right?

Grant also wrote about this here, and I think others have too so views and links welcome in the comments.

The Red Tenda of Bologna, by John Berger

This is another pocket Penguin. Here it’s a typically well written sort-of-memoir by John Berger. A short meditation on memory triggered by familiar locations. It’s slight, and honestly I’ve already largely forgotten it, but I do remember enjoying it while reading it. An ice cream of a book – it may not last but it’s enjoyable at the time in the heat.

The Third Tower: Journeys in Italy, by Antal Szerb and translated by Len Rix

This is a sort of non-fiction precursor to Szerb’s marvellous Journey by Moonlight. A tired and troubled Szerb holidays in Fascist Italy for what he’s very aware is likely the last time (and I think it really was his last time).

He experiences crowded sites, bad rooms, stultifying heat and the rising tide of fascism about him. It’s slight but the sense that Szerb’s world, the civilised world, is being overrun gives it a certain power and makes it regrettably timely.

I arrived at a bad moment. It was Ferragosto, the 15th of August, and to cap it all there were outdoor games in the Arena for which the whole of Italy had turned up, travelling on spectacularly discounted tickets. In the city you no sooner worked your way past one Italian tourist than you bumped into another. It was like being in Salzburg – a cut-price, petty-bourgeois, Fascist Salzburg.

There’s a lovely coda to it all about the importance of carving out a place for yourself in an increasingly maddened and hostile world. Szerb, a bookish intellectual, saw no place for himself in a Europe dominated by extremists, ultra-nationalists and a rising tide of unreason. So he had to make a place, however fleeting, however fragile.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution, by Peter Watts

Next up was some distinctly gloomy hard-SF. In this novel a spaceship spirals through the galaxy creating wormholes for a humanity that may long since have gone extinct. Members of the crew are only woken for the more difficult jobs, a handful only each time, and because their ship must travel slower than light that means tens of thousands of years pass between each job.

The ship travels on, now tens of millions of years from its original launch. In all that time nobody’s got in touch, nobody’s said thanks or come home. If humanity still exists it must surely be nothing like the people who launched the mission all those years ago. Utterly transformed; alien.

Some of the crew now want to bring the mission to an end, find some new purpose, but how do you mount a revolt against a permanently awake shipboard AI when the conspirators are separated by millennia of frozen sleep?

I liked this, but it eventually becomes apparent it’s intended to be part of a series, which I hadn’t realised. The result is that it doesn’t really have that satisfying an ending, leaving lots open for the next book. Still, I’ll read that next book and the ideas are interesting.

There are Little Kingdoms, by Kevin Barry

This was, I believe, Barry’s first published short story collection. I’ve previously written about his marvellous City of Bohane here and a bit about his equally marvellous short story collection Dark Lies the Island here.

For me, Kingdoms wasn’t as strong as Island, but then nor should it be – it came earlier and he’s developed as a writer since. Island has a powerful sense of place as you’d expect from Barry, and he persuasively captures the lives of Ireland’s lost and lonely.

Barry’s taste for the occasional grotesquerie shows more here than in Island, where that element is present but used more sparingly and to better effect. The dark humour I’ve grown to expect from Barry shows here and is as enjoyable as ever.

Ultimately though, when I came to write this I realised that every story I remembered clearly came from Island, not Kingdoms. If I hadn’t read Island I suspect this would have blown me away. As it is, it’s clear that I read Barry in the wrong order and for me Island is simply the better collection.

The Weird and the Eerie, by Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher was a cultural commentator who wrote a number of highly regarded essays including his excellent Capitalist Realism. Here he examines what he argues are two different horror traditions, I’ll let you guess what he calls them…

The weird here is horror that comes from the intrusion of the other into the ordinary (I’m simplifying heavily here). It is something present that should be absent, perhaps which shouldn’t be at all.

The eerie by contrast is the absence of that which ought to be there. For example, the sound of a woman crying but heard from an empty room. However, Fisher also cites “failure of absence” as a manifestation of the eerie – something present where nothing should be present, which seems awfully close to the weird on this taxonomy.

The difficulty is that I wasn’t remotely persuaded that these genuinely are two different traditions in horror fiction and film. Rather, this seemed to me a canter through a bunch of books, TV shows and films that Fisher grew up with and loved (and fair enough, I grew up with them and loved them too), and which he then hung a post-hoc critical framework on. I thought many of his examples of one form could easily have been used for the other and the entire distinction felt artificial, and worse, not useful.

Driven, by James Sallis

This is the wholly unnecessary sequel to Drive, in which Driver turns out to be as good at unarmed combat as he is at driving. Years after the first book he finds himself being hunted by professional thugs and hit-men. He effortlessly kills them all with his bare hands and turns the tables to hunt down the hunters. I found it unconvincing and a bit silly.

Childless, by Ignát Hermann and translated by Marie Busch and Otto Pick

This novella is part of a series of short classics being published on Kindle. One of the better things about that platform is the ease with which it allows publishers to release books that might not be profitable enough to merit a full hardcopy release.

Here it’s the tale of a successful and happily married banker whose life lacks lacks the one thing he feels would give it meaning – a child. Then he reads a personal letter of his wife’s and everything changes…

That makes it sound potentially rather dark and usually these sorts of stories are, but what’s unusual here is that it’s a story of basically good people who’ve caused pain more through failure to trust than through desire.

Unfortunately, the kindle copy did have a fair few typographical errors, but even so it’s definitely worth a read. David Hebblethwaite wrote about it a bit more here.

The Four Devils, by Herman Bang and translated by Marie Ottillie Heyl

This was my last book of the month and is another of those short classics on Kindle. Here it’s the story of four trapeze artists whose tight-knit world is thrown into a tangle of resentment and desire when one of them begins an affair with a local noblewoman.

It’s well written, deeply physical (as you’d expect given their profession) and has a sense of inevitability as compelling as a trapeze artist’s leap across the void. It costs literally less than a cup of coffee and if the Kindle form factor isn’t a problem for you I strongly recommend it. It also doesn’t have the typographical issues that Childless did. David Hebblethwaite wrote about this too, here.

And that’s it! A packed month in terms of reading and in terms of life too. Hopefully soon I can catch up on what others have been reading and some of the posts I’ve missed over the past few weeks.

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Filed under Barry, Kevin, Berger, John, Czech fiction, Danish fiction, Fisher, Mark, French, Irish fiction, Leckie, Ann, Pavese, Cesare, Sagan, Françoise, Sallis, James, SF, Short stories, Szerb, Antal, Travel writing

We were slim and pleasing, like people in a picture.

A Certain Smile, by Françoise Sagan and translated by Irene Ash

A while back now I read and loved Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. Come the searing summer heat of 2018 and it seemed a good time to return to Sagan.

A Certain Smile is the story of Dominique, an attractive young law student, and her affair with an older man Luc. Dominique already has a boyfriend, the perfectly likeable Bertrand. Luc is married to a kind and generous woman, Françoise. The story is entirely, and intentionally, unoriginal. Here’s the opening paragraph:

We had spent the afternoon in a café in the Rue Saint-Jacques, a spring afternoon like any other. I was slightly bored, and walked up and down between the juke-box and the window, while Bertrand talked about Spire’s lecture. I was leaning on the machine, watching the record rising slowly, almost gently, like a proffered cheek, to its slanting position against the sapphire, when, for no apparent reason, I was overcome by a feeling of intense happiness, a sudden realization that some day I would die, that my hand would no longer touch that chromium rim, nor would the sun shine in my eyes.

There’s a lot packed in there. The narrator, who we’re yet to learn is named Dominique, is “slightly bored”. That will matter, because the story is in part driven by her desire to alleviate that casual boredom.

The language is deeply sensual. The record rises “like a proffered cheek”, already introducing a hint of sex, but it’s not just that. The whole description of something as mundane as playing a record on a jukebox is suffused with languorous desire.

Suddenly the narrator is overcome by “intense happiness”, but it’s irrevocably linked to mortality and to her realisation that one day she won’t be there to experience moments like this. She isn’t happy despite the prospect of death. The happiness is born of the joy of the moment and her awareness of its transience.

In a sense the whole book is there, and for that I think it’s a pretty much perfect opening paragraph. Soon we learn that the narrator is Dominique and that she’s a law student and that it’s summer, but from these opening words we already know much more profound things about her than those quotidian facts.

Dominique and Bertrand make a good couple. They laugh together, make love, care about each other. Still, he’s her first serious boyfriend and for most people those first relationships tend not to last. Even had Bertrand not introduced Dominique to his uncle, Luc, there would always eventually have been a Luc of one sort or another.

Luc and Françoise are older, already settled in life and with each other. They have no children and Françoise becomes almost a proxy-mother to Dominique, buying her clothes and feeding her dinners. Luc takes a different sort of interest.

Dominique is flattered by his attention and more by the frank way in which he tells her he wants to sleep with her but that he will never love her and this will be just a pleasant interlude in their lives. He makes her feel grown up, adult, knowing. She believes she can be like him, dispassionately passionate. She ignores the signs that she’s wrong:

Already there was something that seemed to race like a hurricane when Luc was there. Afterwards time suddenly dropped back to normal, and once more there were minutes, hours, and cigarettes.

Plotwise I don’t have much more to say. Luc takes Dominique to the French Riviera for a  few days in a nice hotel with a sea view. It’s almost like he’s done this before…

Of course, things aren’t quite as simple as Dominique expects. People get hurt, including her. As I said at the outset, in terms of story this is intentionally unoriginal.

So why read it? Partly because Sagan is so good on the experience of being Dominique: on her evolving and conflicting feelings; her discovery of love and her worse discovery of unreciprocated love; the sheer pleasure of being young and alive. Nothing Dominique experiences is new, except to her which is all that truly matters.

Sagan writes with extraordinary clarity. Just look at that first paragraph again: it’s luminous. The whole book is like that, but at the same time it’s succinct with no wasted or unnecessary detail. Reading it I could picture every scene, but when I looked back on it prior to writing this I realised that Sagan achieves that impact often with only the barest of descriptions.

Sagan can also be very funny when she feels like it and seemingly effortlessly cool. The book is full of small sly asides (the cigarettes line above is a great example). Here’s one final quote that I just couldn’t resist including:

I was back in the Champs-Élysées with the taste of a strange mouth on my lips, and I decided to go home and read a new novel.

It seems a sensible response.

Other reviews

I wrote a little about this in my June roundup here. Otherwise, two reviews that I particularly want to note. The first is this great review by Jacqui at Jacqui Wine’s Journal. Rereading it I see that Jacqui used exactly the same phrase as I did to describe Françoise – “kind and generous”. Clearly Sagan painted the character clearly.

The second, here, is a contemporaneous review by The Spectator. I don’t usually include non-blog reviews, but I think it’s pretty much spot on and it’s interesting to see one which treats this as a new novel by a young writer rather than an old novel by a famous name.

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Time played its usual trick in the presence of Holt House.

June roundup

June was a pretty solid reading month, despite a bit of a weak start. Here’s my now regular round-up (and a lovely illustration to kick things off with).

A Different Sea, by Claudio Magris and translated by MS Spurr

I’ve already done a pretty thorough write-up of this one, here, and it’s fair to say I respected it more than I enjoyed it. It’s an extremely well written examination of a life lived according to philosophical ideals and without attachment, and how in fact that life becomes an exercise in selfishness and futility.

Magris is most famous for his non-fiction, and he has a lovely prose style so I don’t rule out returning to him. Probably not for a little while though.

He names his boat Maia, a small ten-footer, just big enough to venture out to sea with its white sail – the veil of Maia. The haze shimmering in air and on water on certain afternoons is either the final veil drawn over the pure present of things, or is already perhaps in itself, pure present. The sail glides over the sea, slips through a cleft in the horizon, and falls into a milky blue bound by no shore. Summers open out and solidify. Time rounds out like blown glass in water.

Super Extra Grande, by Yoss and translated by David Frye

I was so looking forward to this. It’s a Cuban science-fiction novel about a vet specialising in enormous alien animals. As the book opens he’s literally waist deep inside the intestines of some vast sea-creature that has unknowingly swallowed a valuable bracelet. He lives in a sprawling galaxy where humanity is just one of  several intelligent races and there’s a sense of exuberant fun to the whole thing.

Stylistically it’s interesting as the humans of the future speak Spanglish, leading to sentences like:

“Boss Sangan, please mira, check. Ves now. Si the damn bracelet of the gobernador’s spoiled wife be there, us probablemente leave.”

And then:

“Agua here smell muy strange después del morpheorol y el laxative. Hoy not be buen dia for el tsunami bowel cleanse.”

All of which I loved for its sheer inventiveness (though it helps I have some Spanish).

The trouble is the style also consists of lots of short sentences.
Punchy phrases.
Frequent comic asides.

Which I find wearying as it gets repetitive fairly quickly. There also seems to be a strong strand of adolescent wish fulfilment here. The protagonist has to work with two former assistants, both extraordinarily beautiful women who are still in love with him. One is an alien with “six splendid breasts”. The other is a Maasai with filed teeth, his “black panther”. They’re more pin-ups than people.

Shortly after they’re introduced we get asides from the first person narrator opining on women. Women, apparently, “are like cats … When you call them they don’t come, and when you don’t call them, there’s no way to get rid of them.” “I guess there’s some strange part of the female psychology that simply can’t stand being ignored by a male…” and predictably “the two … females were starting to act jealous of each other”.

As the saying goes, I can’t even. I bailed at about fifty pages in. I loved the Spanglish, but I just don’t have the lifespan to sit while someone (real or fictional) lectures me on what women are like. Particularly in staccato phrasing.

The Great Fortune, by Olivia Manning

So far it hadn’t been a great June. This was the turning point. I wrote a full piece about it here but in short this is a marvellously evocative account of a new marriage against the backdrop of a city, country and continent on the eve of war.

It’s well written and has some distinctly memorable characters (well balanced against a larger number of less interesting ones). It also has that rather wonderful gossipy quality of much mid-twentieth Century English fiction where it feels like you’ve become part of a social set with everyone’s dramas being acted out in front of you (see also, Anthony Powell).

It’s the first of a multi volume sequence (see also, again, Anthony Powell…) and should keep me fairly busy for much of the rest of the year.

A Certain Smile, by Françoise Sagan and translated by Irene Ash

Not a million miles away from Bonjour Tristesse in style and substance I admit, but then why should it be? I’ll be doing a full write-up of this one so this will be brief. In the meantime Jacqui Wine’s piece on it is here.

Essentially, a young woman embarks on an affair with an older married man. She hopes to keep things uncomplicated and fun, without unduly hurting her boyfriend or his kind and likable wife. Of course, things won’t be quite so simple.

“… there was something in me that seemed destined to follow the well-shaved neck of a young man …”

It’s sleek and stylish and cynical and if novels smoked it would smoke Gauloises, outdoors while sipping coffee but not eating anything. I loved it.

The Magician, by W. Somerset Maugham

Apparently the rule is that one shouldn’t read any pre-Of Human Bondage Maugham. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but this is the one immediately preceding Bondage and while it’s not bad, it’s not great either.

Maugham met Aleister Crowley briefly in real life and decided to use him as inspiration for a novel, here in the form of the sinister Oliver Haddo. The main characters, all of whose names now escape me, consist of a beautiful young woman, her serious fiancé who is a skilled and increasingly eminent surgeon, the woman’s plainer friend and an older doctor who happens to be knowledgeable for reasons of plot in occult matters.

Anyway, Haddo falls in with them, he offends the young woman by kicking her dog, the doctor beats him up and Haddo exacts a terrible vengeance for the slight. If you picture Charles Gray from The Devil Rides Out as Haddo you wouldn’t be going too far wrong (they don’t look alike but the manner is pretty much spot on).

It’s clearly well researched and it’s reasonably well written with some effective scenes, but ultimately there just doesn’t seem much point to it. Dennis Wheatley wrote the same sort of thing and with a much worse style, but much more fun.

Aleister Crowley later reviewed it and didn’t take to it at all, perhaps unsurprisingly. Maugham went on to write better. One for Maugham completists or for horror fans who may well enjoy its gothic atmosphere (though who may also, like me, spot where it’s going far too early).

Holt House, by L.G. Vey

Continuing with the horror theme this is the first release from the Eden Book Society. Ostensibly a reprint of a lost novel from 1972, it’s actually one of a series from a pool of authors each of whom writes under a pseudonym, but without the reader knowing which author has which pseudonym.

The authors involved are an impressive bunch, including Andrew Hurley and Aliya Whiteley and several others whose names I recognise even though I haven’t read them yet. Naturally I’ve no idea which of them is channelling the spirit of L.G. Vey…

Holt House itself is a chilling novella about a man haunted by something he once saw in a house which doesn’t seem to have changed at all in the intervening decades. What is the horror though? Is it the house? Is it the kindly Mrs Latch who lives there? Is it the man himself? The answers shift and never entirely settle.

Oddly enough, I’ve watched a fair bit of 1970s TV horror over the past couple of years. For some reason there were a lot of TV plays back then many of which were firmly in the horror genre. Two elements stand out to me from those old shows: firstly, they were usually exceptionally bleak by modern standards; and secondly they were much more concerned with social issues than one might expect.

Some addressed ethical treatment of animals. I saw one recently that critiqued the complacency of people living well in rich countries while those in poor ones starved. Feminism and the role of women was often explored. Horror in this period was often used as a vehicle for social criticism.

Holt House continues that, dealing here with male violence among other things and that concern felt to me both current but also of the period. There’s also a lovely little bit of SF that creeps in at one point which feels very 1970s. All that and the whole thing is deliciously creepy and atmospheric. Accomplished stuff.

One final word. Eden do both ebook and physical subscriptions. If you jump on board get the physical (or get both). The book fits nicely in the hand and is a very comfortable read. Oh, and a post-final word, David Hebblethwaite also reviewed this here.

A Field Guide to Reality, by Joanna Kavenna

This is going to be hard to describe. Essentially the narrator, a waitress in Oxford who has just recently lost her father, was friends with an Oxford don who now also dies but who leaves behind a box with her name on it and supposedly inside his master work – his “Field Guide to Reality”. The box is empty.

Urged on by his surviving academics, she goes on a sort of vision quest through a motley array of Oxford eccentrics trying to discover this great lost work, this summation of reality itself. It’s a descent into Oxford as underworld.

The quest is of course impossible. However, along the way Kavenna explores the history of theories of the nature of light, from medieval theoretician Robert Grosseteste through Newton all the way up to modern quantum physics!

It’s heady stuff! Unfortunately, I was already reasonably familiar with the subject matter which meant that when there was a three page digression on fifth Century Greek philosopher and scientist Hypatia I was thoroughly bored as I already had a pretty good idea of who she was and of her life.

Now, it’s fair to say that Kavenna knows more of Hypatia and I suspect of everything else in the book than I ever will! Mercifully, she doesn’t put in all she knows. Less happily that meant that often what she did put in I did know. Kavenna also brilliantly describes Oxford, which I didn’t go to so much of that was a bit lost on me. If you did go to Oxford I suspect you’d love this book.

Imagine for a moment a contemporary Alice in Wonderland, but with Alice a grown woman and the mad inhabitants of the world through the looking glass replaced by Oxford dons and theoreticians. Then you’re starting to get there.

The book comes with absolutely wonderful illustrations. Physically it’s really quite beautiful! It also comes with an unfortunate predilection to overusing exclamation marks. It’s been exceptionally well reviewed so if it sounds at all interesting you might want to at least look at a copy in a shop to see what you think. It’s larger than I have words here to describe. In the meantime, here’s an interesting interview with the author in the Guardian. And here’s another of the illustrations (the first is at the head of this post):

Cove, by Cyan Jones

I finished the month with Cynan Jones’ leanly muscular novel Cove, about a man lost at sea after surviving a lightning strike. Grant reviewed it well at 1streading here and I don’t have much to add to his piece. As with Jones’ The Dig it’s ruthlessly pared back both in terms of prose and story. It’s my second by Jones and I expect to read more by him. In fact, I expect to read everything by him.

So that’s my June. I read eight books, four of which I really liked, one of which I abandoned and three of which weren’t for me but might be for someone else. I’m pretty happy with that. The Kavenna was an unexpected misfire for me, but I don’t regret reading it. It tried something new, and while it didn’t work for me on this occasion I’d far rather that than read the same thing every time.

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Filed under Eden Book Society, Horror, Jones, Cynan, Kavenna, Joanna, Magris, Claudio, Manning, Olivia, Maugham, W Somerset, Sagan, Françoise, SF

Harriet and Clarence drove up to the Chaussée in what seemed the last sunset of the world.

The Great Fortune, by Olivia Manning

I’m a latecomer to Olivia Manning. She’s one of those authors who’ve often been recommended to me but who seemed to blur in with a lot of other solidly talented mid-twentieth Century writers it doesn’t seem essential to return to.

Recently I was reading some spy fiction reviews over at Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau and there was an aside “If you haven’t read The Balkan Trilogy yet, stop reading this post and do so immediately.” I’d just abandoned a book I hadn’t taken to so I thought, why not?

The answer incidentally is that The Great Fortune is the first in a six part novel sequence. I’ve now committed myself to the whole series. That’s the danger of impulses…

The book opens with newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle travelling by train to Bucharest, where Guy is a teacher. It’s 1939, borders are closing and Europe is awash with refugees, spies and chancers.

The first sign of what’s to come arrives in the form of a darkly comic episode where the waiter at dinner insists on payment in full before serving the coffee, then immediately whips away the cups. They’ve arrived at the border and the dining car belongs to the Yugoslav railways. As the waiter explains, at times like these no nation would let its rolling stock cross a frontier.

Meanwhile, Harriet sees a tall, thin man being harried on to the train by officials. She doesn’t quite realise, but it’s evident he’s being expelled from Yugoslavia. He’s Prince Yakimov, a White Russian but British citizen and Harriet will come to know him well.

Harriet is the main narrator here, which for me worked well as like the reader she’s new to Bucharest. Initially at least she speaks no Romanian and knows nothing of the culture or customs. She’s reliant on Guy to show her the ropes.

Prince Yakimov is the other viewpoint character (though he has far fewer chapters than Harriet). He’s an adventurer, down on his luck and not as young as he used to be. He relies on charm and front but it’s hard to be charming when you’re hungry and it’s hard to act rich when your clothes are threadbare.

That’s three characters, but the book has a dizzying number of others. Manning conjures up an entire English expat community and while I could largely keep track of who was who there are a lot of them and some of them naturally stand out more than others. There’s then the international press corps, which Yakimov briefly falls in with, and a host of Central European and Russian émigrés. The whole book comes in at under 300 pages but it’s packed with people.

The reader of course knows what the characters don’t. War is coming. Over the course of the novel Poland falls, the Romanian prime minister is assassinated, the Russians invade Finland, the German blitzkrieg starts and advances and the British are driven out of Europe. All of this is offscreen, most of it announced in the windows of the increasingly ebullient German propaganda bureau (on the opposite side of the street from the British one).

A WEEK AFTER the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, Inchcape displayed in the British Propaganda Bureau window a map of the Scandinavian countries with the loss of the German destroyers at Narvik restrainedly marked in blue. In time came the landings of British troops at Namsos and Andalsnes. In the window opposite, the red arrows of Germany thrust the Norwegians back and back. One day the Allies announced an advance, another the Germans announced an Allied retreat. Merely a strategic retreat, said the British News Service. The Germans, advancing up the Gudbranstal, claimed they had joined up with their Trondheim forces. The British admitted a short withdrawal.

The focus here then isn’t on great events themselves, but on lives caught in their backwash. Harriet, a spikily intelligent young woman, soon finds that married life isn’t all she’d hoped. Guy is a good man, but a bad husband and he spends all his energy befriending strangers, going out to dinners and inviting hard-up acquaintances to stay at their home. Guy is a committed communist, full of love for the poor, the dispossessed and the masses but not quite so good when it comes to making time for his own wife. He even expects her to make friends with his ex, a young Romanian named Sophie, distinctly resentful of being replaced.

Guy, as they walked, had been lecturing her on her unwisdom in not making better use of Sophie, who would, he knew, be only too delighted to help Harriet, if only Harriet would ask for help. Sophie had been very helpful to him when he was alone here. He was sure she was, fundamentally, a good-hearted girl. She had had a difficult life. All she needed was a little flattery, a little management. …

Yakimov (“A problem that need not be faced straight away was no problem to him.”) meanwhile finds the world’s kindness diminishing. Fewer people are willing, fewer able, to lend him a bit of spare cash. His old trick of offering to buy a round then pretending he’s forgotten his wallet doesn’t work anymore. Being amusing doesn’t cut it. These are unsympathetic times. For a while he still manages to get by:

The day before, when he handed his British passport to the clerk, he had been asked if he wished to be awakened in the ‘English manner’ with a cup of tea. He had replied that he did not wish to be awakened at all but would like a half-bottle of Veuve Clicquot placed beside his bed each morning.

But like European civilisation, Yakimov will soon discover that his time is running out.

If you like Harriet, you’ll probably like the book. If not, probably not. The Great Fortune is very good at conjuring up a city on the verge of war. That feeling of small changes signalling something worse coming. That sense of options and time running out.

People went fearful to bed and rose to find everything much as they had left it. The rumours of yesterday were denied, but repeated the day after.

For all that, this is very much the portrait of a marriage. For the bulk of the book Harriet is more concerned with getting a share of Guy’s attention, fending off Sophie, managing the expectations of a male friend who took her tentative friendship as sign of something more, getting an apartment and developing her own circle independent of Guy. The war is offscreen. It impacts Harriet, but as the news impacts most of us.

Personally, I really enjoyed it. I thought the evocation of Romania and Bucharest excellent and atmospheric and I thought it was clever in the subtlety with which events accumulate and the situation slowly worsens. There’s a scene where the Pringles visit a local Jewish banking family, rich and established and solid and certain. It’s no surprise to the reader when the head of the family is arrested and the rest flee. What Manning shows is that however solid someone’s world may seem, at times of war it can all be undone in an instant.

They left the park by a side gate where a statue of a disgraced politician stood with its head hidden in a linen bag.

Most of all, I really liked Harriet as a character. Her intelligence, her scepticism and slightly biting wit, her quick adaptation to realising that the world isn’t as her sheltered upbringing led her to believe and her frequent (perhaps too frequent) realisations that in her arguments with Guy he wasn’t always the one in the wrong. I liked too her relationship with Guy, which felt flawed and messy and irritating but felt real too. I could see why she loved him, even if she might be better off if she didn’t. But then, her life would be much less interesting, so who can say?

All that and there’s a lovely sense of humour running through the book. There’s some marvellous set-pieces, mostly involving Prince Yakimov (“poor Yaki” as he tends to refer to himself) and some very nicely observed absurdities of the times:

The waiter brought tea and toast for Harriet, then, unasked, put on the table a plate of ball-shaped chocolate cakes pimpled over like naval mines. “Siegfrieds,” he announced. “Not our line,” said Dobson, imperturbably, in English. At once the waiter whipped away the plate, retreated a few steps, returned and put it down again. “Maginots,” he said, and went off well satisfied by Dobson’s amusement.

The humour, like the Pringle’s privileged lifestyle, can’t last. The reader knows, as increasingly they do, that the war will catch up with them. To borrow the title of another book, this is the Summer before the dark.

Other reviews

I had a feeling that Kaggsy of kaggsysbookishramblings would have read this, and in fact she’s read the entire first trilogy. Her review is here and interestingly she was much less taken than I was. The key difference seems to be our reactions to Harriet. I thought she was well drawn and interesting, Kaggsy found her to lack depth and found Guy intensely irritating (which is fair but I think intentional). The book sinks or flies according to how you find Harriet and if you don’t take to her then I can see why it might all seem “a triumph of style over substance”.

Anyway, Kaggsy’s review is great (particularly on the significance of the play staged by Guy in the final section of the book) and I can absolutely see where her criticisms come from. Even so, I’m looking forward to the next volume, particularly when having sneakily peeked at Kaggsy’s other reviews it seems she liked that one much more.

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Filed under Manning, Olivia

People who know how to sing while shaving are fortunate.

A Different Sea, by Claudio Magris and translated by MS Spurr

civilization, like gardening, is the art of pruning.

This is an unusual one – a book that utterly subverts itself. By a quarter of the way through I loathed its protagonist. By half-way through I realised that was the point.

Love that cover.

As the book opens Enrico is heading by sea from Trieste to Argentina, where he plans to live a quiet but noble life in the wilds of Patagonia. He is fleeing military service, unhappy with the required haircut and finding the boots uncomfortable.

He looks back on his youth and his childhood friends Carlo and Nino. Carlo is a philosopher and believes that Enrico’s departure represents a truly philosophical act that encapsulates everything Carlo wishes to write – a rejection of the world’s vanities and an embrace of the absolutely pure and simple life.

Carlo had taught him that by virtue of philosophy – the love of seamless wisdom – distant things could be seen close up, and the urge to grasp them could be overcome, since, after all, they exist in the great quietness of being.

Enrico means to write to Carlo of his adventures, but finds he can only jot down a few inanities on postcards. Carlo in turn writes to him proclaiming Enrico a kind of saint, for Enrico is living amid wilderness with barely a handful of possessions and without attachment.

By this point, not that far in, I was already growing weary of Enrico. He struck me as a rich kid on an extended gap-year; his friends back home talking about how meaningful it all was. I thought Magris meant me to take him as he took himself. I was wrong. When Magris comments:

And yet it is true to say Enrico never thinks of his father’s mills in Gorizia, nor knows anything of his share of the inheritance or even how much money his family has.

Magris doesn’t mean that Enrico is beyond such things. He’s making the subtler point that Enrico can afford to be beyond such things.

Time passes and letters from Italy bring news of lives lived and lost. Nino marries, opens a bookshop, has children and dies in a climbing accident. He lives. Enrico meanwhile trades a few horses and develops scurvy for lack of vegetables in his diet.

Eventually Enrico returns to Europe (don’t worry, I’m not going to set out the whole plot here), driven out by his inability to make a living in Argentina. On his return he tells tall tales of his adventures on the Pampas. Yes, people invite such tales from him, but there’s a vanity in obliging them rather than telling the truth.

More time passes, war breaks out, communities are split. Enrico, ever the adolescent philosopher, continues to pursue a life of detachment and contemplation of the same few books he took on his trip to Argentina and that were all he came back with.

Enrico notices another aspect of this tragic war in which his friends were set each against each other, but does not try to understand. He says nothing when they speak of a drink of water given to a wounded man under fire, of a soldier who threatened to shoot his own comrades, brutalized from weeks in the trenches, to prevent them butchering a prisoner.

People fight and die and console and betray and all the things that happen in war, and what does Enrico do? Nothing. He becomes a mediocre teacher because that allows him to maintain his detachment.

This then is not a study of a life lived consciously and with meaning. Instead it’s the story of an utterly pointless life, a wasted one. Enrico lives according to his philosophy and does nothing, helps nobody. His self-realisation is simply entitled selfishness enabled by his family’s money.

Eventually he too marries. He forces his wife to live in the same state of abnegation that he does, despite her being plainly unhappy.

He brings with him from Gorizia some of the roughest and most worm-eaten pieces of furniture that had been stored in the cellar, and a supply of old clothes so that he would never need to buy any more. There are no clocks in the house, only a sundial attached to the grey exterior wall. Two chairs next to the bed are more than enough for laying out one’s clothes before going to sleep; pleasure comes from being independent of whatever is not absolute …

He has land some of which he rents. He breaks his usual reading to study the law on tenancies and scrupulously enforces it against his tenants. Although he doesn’t care for possessions or property he’ll be damned before he’ll let these paupers enjoy anything any more than they’re strictly entitled to. He prohibits them rearing more chickens than are permitted by law. He watches their children to make sure they don’t help themselves to his fruit, even though he doesn’t intend to pick it himself:

he is of one mind with Buddha, with no wish for life and no yearning. Nevertheless, in the meantime, no one is going to eye his figs let alone touch them.

Enrico’s internal monologue is all about truth, enlightenment and freedom. His outer reality is a grasping draft-dodger unwilling to bend even an inch for those closest to him. He gets by mostly on the fact that he’s very good looking and people tend to read his silences for profundity, but the banality of his thinking is underlined by his continual inability to write any of it down.

Most reviews I’ve seen of this take Enrico as he takes himself, as living an authentic life, but I think that’s a misreading. I think Magris intends us to be critical. He gives Enrico every advantage at the outset – youth, loyal friends, money, good looks. Then he shows us Enrico’s failed adventure in Argentina brought down by dietary issues everyone else there seems to find a solution to. He shows us Enrico’s indifference to the struggles of his day and then his miserly treatment of his tenants.

Adolescents often swear that when they get older they won’t compromise as their parents did. Enrico shows what happens when you achieve that.

Two asides. Firstly, the writing is at times remarkably beautiful. Here’s two examples:

He lay face-down. Paula lay on her back, her head thrust backwards, her dark hair, black in the wind, brushed against his face. Behind her black hair the blue sea shimmered, and beyond lay the strip of red earth and the soft, dark green of cypresses and pines. The underside of a seagull shone ivory as it plummeted and skimmed over the water. An olive tree spread its branches with the stark sexuality of nature.

He names his boat Maia, a small ten-footer, just big enough to venture out to sea with its white sail – the veil of Maia. The haze shimmering in air and on water on certain afternoons is either the final veil drawn over the pure present of things, or is already perhaps in itself, pure present. The sail glides over the sea, slips through a cleft in the horizon, and falls into a milky blue bound by no shore. Summers open out and solidify. Time rounds out like blown glass in water.

The second is that unfortunately Enrico is incredibly sexist, arguably misogynistic. His looks make it easy for him to get women, but he has no attachment to any and sees them as essentially interchangeable bodies. For him the inner life is a quality possessed only by men.

There’s nothing wrong with prejudiced protagonists. Enrico has many unlikable traits and his sexism is of a kind with the rest. The trouble is it leads to an awful lot of passages where women are described in an incredibly dismissive way. Mostly it’s the omniscient narrator reflecting Enrico’s own thoughts but it comes up so much I started to wonder if it was just Enrico or if there was a bit of Magris there too.

Women “can’t be trusted, since they can play some pretty nasty tricks.” Enrico reflects that “nature has fitted women for reproduction. They have to deal with all those effluents, bulges, pregnant tums, suckling, pap, dribble, potties, wee-wees, wailing – with no chance to open a book.”

The women he meets in Argentina are “fine mounts with strong flanks that know how to carry a good weight”, but “whenever Enrico thinks about them, he can never conjure up any single one in all her particulars. He never remembers which face goes with which oversized breasts or with which gargantuan rump.” They are “all just a gaggle of silly geese”, and so it goes on. I could have quoted many more examples.

In a way it doesn’t matter whether the sexism is just Enrico’s in-character or is reflective of authorial attitudes (I suspect the former but I’d be interested in comments from those who’ve read other Magris). Either way it just became intensely wearying.

I thought A Different Sea clever, and I thought it daring in taking such an unlikable character and on the surface showing them as heroic while undermining them through constant little asides. I thought the descriptive passages stunning. In character or not though I found the sexism wearying. The point was made long before Magris stopped making it.

Finally, my thanks to Stu of Winston’s Dad’s Blog. His review here put me on to reading this.

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Filed under Italian fiction, Magris, Claudio

You have heard Variations on Tram Timetables?’

Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This is another that I wanted to return to with a longer post after my recent May roundup. Will Wiles is an architecture journalist as well as author and this was his 2012 debut novel.

The unnamed narrator is a would-be author who instead drafts public information pamphlets for local authorities. Like many people he lives with the gulf between his dreams of who he could be and the messy reality of who he is.

At university one of his closest friends was Oskar, an intelligent and acerbic young man who’s gone on to become an internationally renowned modernist composer. Now Oskar is getting a divorce from his Californian wife and while he’s out in the US arranging that he needs someone to flat-sit for him. To the narrator’s surprise he’s the one Oskar reaches out to.

Oskar’s apartment is back in Oskar’s home country  – an unspecified former Soviet nation of no particular tourist interest. The city is drab and post-industrial, but Oskar’s apartment is a thing of beauty:

A wide hallway stretched from Oskar’s front door towards a south-facing living area. The hall was light and airy, with pale wooden floors and icy white walls. Two dark wooden doors were set into the wall to the right, like dominos on a bedspread, one halfway down, and the other near the far end. To the left was evidence of a refurbishment under Oskar’s direction: a long glass partition screening a large kitchen and dining area from the hallway. At its end, the hall opened out into the living area, which was demarcated by a single step down. The pale wooden flooring stretched to every corner of the flat, and the glass partition, which I assumed had replaced a non-supporting wall, evenly rinsed the space with the crystalline light entering through the generous south-facing picture windows that took up the far wall of the living space.
Taste and money had met in the crucible of this space and sublimed. The wood, steel and glass were the alchemical solids formed by the reaction.

You can see the architecture journalism coming through there. It’s easy to imagine a feature article in *Wallpaper or Monocle gushing over the design.

The living room – Area? Space? – centred on a sofa and two armchairs, all boxy black leather and chrome, the design of a dead Swiss architect. The east wall was one large bookcase, mostly filled with books but also seasoned with some objets. The kitchen was all aluminium and steel.

And of course:

Everything, everywhere, was impeccably tidy.

The narrator hopes to use his time in the flat to sort his own life out. He plans to finally get down to proper writing, to something more than yet another booklet on litter collection. First though he discovers that Oskar has left him a note. A four page note.

The section of the book containing that note runs over a page, and that’s with the narrator skimming large sections of it. The note is insanely prescriptive. It opens with thanks for the flat-sitting favour before giving tips on caring for Oskar’s two cats Shossy and Stravvy. There’s about half a page on how to care for them in fact, ending in a full-caps exhortation not to allow them on the sofa.

The narrator looks up, shoos them off the sofa, and continues reading. There are emergency contact details, tourist tips, a recommendation to see the local Philharmonic, and finally of course a section on the floors:

Oh, and finally what is perhaps the most important thing since the cats are able to take care of themselves and will tell you if they are in need of something: PLEASE, YOU MUST TAKE CARE OF THE WOODEN FLOORS. They are French oak and cost me a great deal when I replaced the old floor, and they must be treated like the finest piece of furniture in the flat, apart from the piano of course.
DO NOT put any drinks on them without a coaster.
ALWAYS wipe your feet before entering the flat, and take off your shoes when inside.
If anything should spill, you MUST wipe it up AT ONCE!!! so that it does not stain the wood. Be VERY CAREFUL. But if there is an accident (!), then there is a book on the architecture shelf that might help you. CALL ME if something happens.

The note comes with a bottle of wine which the narrator naturally opens. He can always start writing tomorrow…

Shreds of the previous evening lay by the sofa – the papers, the wine glass. I attended to the cats and then filled and switched on the kettle. As it boiled, I tidied away my mess, the depleted bottle – with its note from Oskar – the newspapers and magazines, the glass—
I stopped. A drop of wine or two must have made their way to the base of the glass on one of my many refills. There was no coaster beneath it. (In my mind’s eye, Oskar winced.) A 45-degree arc of red wine marked his precious floor, a livid surgical scar on pale flesh.

There was a lot I loved here. The descriptions of the apartment are unsurprisingly good. Oskar’s adventures with the cats and with the bafflingly hostile cleaner (they have no shared language) are convincing and the sense of mounting disaster is nicely captured.

The point in part is perfectibility. The narrator dreams of reading good books during his break, of writing poems, but instead ends up taken unwillingly by one of Oskar’s friend to a grim lap-dancing club and spending his evenings in drinking too much and worrying about the stain on the wooden floors. He wants to make his life as Oskar has made his apartment, but is Oskar’s apartment actually habitable?

Where the book didn’t quite work for me was that classic first novel fault of too many similes. All too often things aren’t allowed to be themselves, but must instead be like something else. Just two examples of several I could have picked:

Above it all, my angle-poise shone cyclopically like the fire brigade floodlights at a midnight motorway catastrophe.

my thoughts sprang up like a field of starlings startled by a farmer’s gunshot, a thousand separate, autonomous specks that swirled into a single united black shape.

It’s hardly fatal, but I think here it gets in the way a bit. Generally Wiles writes well with prose as clean and elegant as Oskar’s floors, which makes sentences like those above stick out a bit. The craft in them is a little too obvious, a little too attention-grabbing. Nobody other than a contemporary novelist actually thinks like that.

That criticism aside overall I thought this clever and enjoyable. Oskar and the narrator’s friendship is unlikely and seemingly not based on much but chance, and yet somehow is all the more persuasive for that and I believed in it. That issue of perfectibility, of whether it’s achievable and perhaps more whether it’s even desirable resonates. Which of us hasn’t looked at some glossy magazine spread and just for a moment imagined what it might be like to live in it? We should be glad few of us do.

Naturally before we’re done things spiral badly out of control and it all gets pretty dark. It’s not just a downward descent though and it’s central to the book’s themes that Wiles never forgets the importance of common humanity. The flat is unforgiving, but the book isn’t.

Finally, since I know there’s a few animal lovers who follow this blog, I’m afraid there is harm to one of the cats in the novel. It’s not gratuitously depicted and it’s mostly a pleasure to read the sections with the cats since Wiles clearly has such a good feel for their nature and behaviour, but if that’s an issue it’s something to be aware of. It’s no worse though (less if anything) than Bragi Olaffson’s marvellous The Pets which contains a similar setup, albeit there more in the backstory.

That’s a bit of a downbeat point to end on, so instead I’ll add that I also have Wiles’ next novel The Way Inn which also looks very good. He’s a writer engaging with the modern world in a way I find both interesting and refreshing so I have high hopes for it and for whatever he does next.

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Filed under Comic fiction, Wiles, Will

Sometimes my father loves us, and sometimes he doesn’t.

Child of all Nations, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Michael Hofmann

I wrote up Child of All Nations as part of my recent May roundup post, but it was so good I thought it deserved a bit more attention. More accurately, it was so quotable I thought it deserved a few more quotes.

Child is narrated by Kully, an intelligent young girl with a handy gift for languages. Her father is a writer and a well-regarded one. Well-regarded in literary circles anyway, not so much in 1930s Nazi Germany.

He has to flee, which means his wife and their young daughter Kully have to flee too. The problem is, just because Germany doesn’t want them any more doesn’t mean anywhere else does. So they join that vast movement of refugees criss-crossing Europe, doing whatever they can to keep one step ahead of destitution and deportation.

My mother and I spend a lot of time sitting on benches. We open our mouths to let the sun shine into them; then we eat the sunshine, and our bellies feel full of warm happy life. My father didn’t feel like eating sunshine. He wanted to sit in the café Bazaar and drink slivovitz, which he finds more warming than any amount of sunshine.

Kully’s father, clearly modelled closely on Joseph Roth, is keen to maintain a certain lifestyle. He dreams of Hollywood adaptations and international recognition. In the meantime he spends the little money they have on a lifestyle he can’t remotely afford. Drink, women, café culture. His life still holds a certain shabby glamour while Kully’s is lit by her childish imagination. For her mother it’s a bleaker existence.

My mother didn’t want to play anything with me any more. Normally we play all the time. We play: how many beds have you slept in? Or: how many trains have you been on? … Three times my mother forgot a train from Prague to Budapest and a train from Lvov to Warsaw that we took with Manya. Then she forgot the bed in Bruges which was made of iron and had golden knobs, and where we had to lie so close that we didn’t know any more which was me and which was my mother.

The family travel from country to country. When they arrive they check into a hotel and eat in its restaurants. They rely on running up the hotel bill while Kully’s father tries to get money off whatever local contacts he can find. When the local contacts run out he leaves Kully and her mother behind, human collateral, while he ranges further afield in search of money to pay the bill with. To keep getting away with it they have to maintain a certain level of appearances or the hotels won’t let them run up those bills, but there’s a sense that they’re running out of road.

Child narrators are high risk but here it works well. Kully doesn’t judge her parents. For her they are as much a part of the structure of the world as the sun or the sky. At the same time she sees them all too clearly. Her father is charming, but more concerned with his own comforts than his family’s wellbeing. At the same time it’s his mix of charm and self-regard that helps him persuade others to advance another loan or payment on account. What makes him a bad husband and father is what makes him able to provide at all. It’s a compelling portrait.

Kully’s mother has it tougher. While Kully’s father is off enjoying himself with friends and other women she has to stay back at the hotel with Kully. She has to keep Kully safe and entertained, gradually withdrawing from the public life of the hotel as the staff start to wonder if their bill will ever be settled. She’s clearly depressed. She has good reason to be. Kully meanwhile is aware of her mother’s fragility and so just as her mother protects her she tries to protect her mother.

Finally there’s Kully herself. Intelligent and funny enough to be an entertaining narrator, but not too precocious as to be incredible. She’s moved country to country so often she’s barely educated, but speaks several languages. As I read I doubted either of her parents would survive the war, but I thought Kully had a pretty good chance.

The book dips a bit in the final quarter when a trip to the US takes the book briefly beyond the claustrophobia of Europe, but it’s a minor failing in what’s otherwise a strong read. Based on this I think Keun deserves far greater recognition than she’s received so it’s good to see Penguin Modern Classics redressing that a little.

One last quote, simply because I can:

She ordered bouillabaisse, which is a kind of soup that’s made out of the Mediterranean; all the creatures in the Mediterranean float around it in a hard-to-identify way, and some of them of course are poisonous. When people have had enough of life, they can choose to die either by mushrooms or bouillabaisse, but in either case I think they have to order it specially from the hotel kitchen.

We live in another age of refugees and mass movements of people. Decades after the events Keun portrays here one might hope they’d find better welcomes. They don’t. Like much fiction of the 1930s Child remains depressingly relevant.

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Filed under Hofmann, Michael (translator), Keun, Irmgard

My mother’s much prettier than I am, but I don’t cry so much.

May roundup

I’ve quite enjoyed doing the roundup posts so I decided to do another. Several of these books I also hope to give a proper write-up to later this week or early next.

Child of all Nations, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Michael Hofmann

It’s hard to go wrong with a Hofmann translation of a Keun, and I didn’t. It’s the 1930s. Kully and her parents can’t go back to Germany as her father’s books are now banned there, but nowhere else seems to want them much either.

Child narrators are tricky things but Keun pulls it off here. Kully is the right mix of innocence and experience beyond her years. The portrait of her parents, particularly her feckless father, through Kully’s eyes is nicely done. Any resemblance between the father and Joseph Roth is surely coincidental…

I plan to do a proper write-up of this one. I loved its clever evocation of the tightrope faced by these unlikely refugees, always trying to maintain appearances just enough to keep the hotel manager from insisting on the bill being settled before that next hoped-for cheque or loan comes in. Kully’s pragmatism is frequently heartbreaking:

It’s warm and we’re hungry. We can’t leave, because we can’t pay the hotel bill. We can’t enter any other country, but we can’t stay here either. Perhaps we’ll be thrown into prison, and then we’ll be fed.

Keun though measures the bleakness with comedy, one of the advantages of a child narrator. Here’s one example of that:

Often we have no idea how long we’ve spent in a place. There’s only one unpleasant way of finding out, which is via the hotel bill. Then it always turns out we’ve been there much longer than we thought.

Highly recommended.

The City and the City, by China Miéville

I’d meant to read this for ages but was finally prompted to do so by the recent TV adaptation (which I’ve only now started watching). I was careful not to watch the TV version ahead of reading the book, but based on publicity materials alone I still saw David Morrissey’s face when I imagined the lead character.

Besel and Ul Qoma are two cities in an unspecified East-European or Balkan state. The twist however is that the two cities occupy the same geography. Some streets are categorised as being only in Besel, some only in Ul Qoma, some are shared between the two. The inhabitants of each city ignore the other by an act of will, only seeing their own.

It’s a surprisingly powerful metaphor, not just for the lunacy of many ethnic divisions in the world today but also for how often in real life we choose to ignore other cities that cohabit with our own. The homeless and the ultra-rich may occupy the same physical London, but the truth is they are easily as separate as the people of Besel and Ul Qoma. Perhaps more so since they rarely even share the same physical spaces and so don’t have to actively ignore each other.

Miéville explores his setting with what starts out as a deliberately conventional crime story before getting deeper into the strangeness and for me it worked very well. I don’t have a lot of quotes for this one, perhaps as most of them don’t make much sense out of context, but I enjoyed it and I think others might too even if they wouldn’t normally read SF.

When I reached the tar-painted front where Corwi waited with an unhappy-looking man, we stood together in a near-deserted part of Besel city, surrounded by a busy unheard throng.

Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This is another one set in an unspecified fictional East European city oddly enough, though that’s all it has in common with the Miéville. The narrator, a rather ordinary and rather messy man, is asked by his more successful friend Oskar to look after Oskar’s apartment for a few weeks while Oskar is in California settling his divorce.

Oskar is a modernist composer and his apartment is a sleek testimonial to the perfection of his life and his taste, particularly the gleaming wooden floors. To make sure his friend knows how to take care of it he’s left a series of notes with pointers for where to find coasters, how to feed the cats, and of course how to take care of the wooden floor.

Then the narrator spills a glass of wine…

There’s a lot in here. Friendship, architecture, aesthetics and the degree to which humans can lead perfectible lives. It’s a first novel so at times it’s a bit heavy on the similes (authors, let a thing just be a thing!) but that’s a common and forgivable fault in what overall is a clever and fun novel.

Here’s the narrator is looking for some string to use to play with the cats:

Then, I opened one of the kitchen drawers, an out-of-the-way one that looked as if it might contain string. Inside the drawer was a note from Oskar. Corkscrew – in drawer by sink. Torch, batteries – in bottom drawer under sink. 1st aid box, aspirin – in bathroom. Cleaning things, candles – in pantry. This drawer: spices. Indeed, the drawer contained spices, and that distinctive spice-rack melange of smells. And Oskar’s note, another note. Did all the drawers contain notes like this? I had taken cutlery from a drawer, and there had been no note. Curious, I tried the next drawer along, and there was another little note, identical to the first one except for: This drawer: Place mats. Coasters. Two lines under coasters.

But then, what do you expect from a composer whose most famous work is titled Variations on Tram Timetables?

A Quiet Place, by Seichi Matsumoto and translated by Louise Heal Kawai

This is an interesting one. It’s the story of a highly respected and respectable public servant who despite all that may not actually be a very good man.

Tsuneo Asai is a middle-aged career civil servant. He’s not fast-track, he’s not from the right background for that, but through sheer hard work and talent he’s climbed the ranks anyway and has reasonable hopes of becoming a department chief before retirement.

He believed that listening faithfully to one’s manager’s idle chit-chat was a mark of respect.

Then while he’s on a business trip he hears that his young wife has died suddenly of a heart attack. Even though he knew she had a weak heart it’s still a shock, made more puzzling when he discovers that she died in a neighbourhood that she had no obvious business being in. Asai decides to investigate, finally getting to know his wife only now she’s dead.

What follows is a mix of character study and crime novel (as in much good crime fiction of course). The wife’s death is plainly natural causes, but that doesn’t mean nothing odd was going on and Asai soon discovers that what he thought was a quiet housewife with a few polite hobbies may in fact have been a passionate and talented young woman that he barely knew.

A Quiet Place doesn’t start with a crime, just a mystery, but Asai’s curiosity will set in motion consequences he couldn’t have dreamt of. Before the book’s out it will get very dark indeed (though never gratuitous) and becomes a story of complacency, repression and ultimately obsession. Guy wrote a very good review of it here which has a particularly fine insight into the characterisation (or lack thereof) of Asai’s previous wife.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada and translated by Russ and Shika Mackenzie

I finished the month with a bit more Japanese crime, here a very classic locked room mystery. Perhaps too classic since it’s not actually a genre I care much about and this is a very good representation of it which means I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The book opens with an excerpt from the diary of a reclusive artist. In it he reveals an insane plan to murder his daughters and step-daughters to create some kind of composite perfect woman. Those crimes happened, the daughters and step-daughters were murdered just as per his plan. The only wrinkle is that he was murdered first.

Forty years later in the mid-1970s two amateur detectives decide to solve these famous killings which (within the fiction) have now gripped Japan for decades. Matsumoto plays fair by the reader, including detailed floor plans, family trees and every clue needed to let the reader solve the mystery for themselves.

Unfortunately, I worked out the who and the why really quickly, surprisingly so given I wasn’t particularly trying. I didn’t quite get the how but that was a bit unlikely anyway (they always are in these things). Given that, I struggled to buy that police and amateurs alike had struggled for forty years to solve something most of which I got in about half an hour.

Still, I may have been lucky and admittedly I spotted a key bit of early misdirection (authors in this genre have to include all the clues you need, but there’s nothing that says they can’t try and distract you from them).

The two investigators themselves have very little personality, but that’s to be expected because really this is a puzzle-book where the reader is the real investigator. Underling this is the fact that at two points Shimada personally intervenes in the text:

Gentle Reader, Unusual as it may be for the author to intrude into the proceedings like this, there is something I should like to say at this point. All of the information required to solve the mystery is now in your hands, and, in fact, the crucial hint has been provided already. I wonder if you noticed it? My greatest fear is that I might already have told you too much about the case! But I dared to do that both for the sake of fairness of the game, and, of course, to provide you with a little help. Let me throw down the gauntlet: I challenge you to solve the mystery before the final chapters! And I wish you luck.

This wasn’t my book, but that’s mostly I think because it’s just not a genre that interests me. I’m a bit in the position of someone who doesn’t read SF criticising a space opera for having spaceships. In its field I suspect this is actually pretty good. If anyone reading this has read it and has any thoughts I’d be delighted to hear them.

And that’s it for May! It started stronger than it finished for me, but an interesting mix all the same.

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Filed under Architecture, Crime, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Japanese fiction, Keun, Irmgard, Matsumoto, Seichi, Miéville, China, SF, Shimada, Soji, Wiles, Will

Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

I already briefly wrote about The Haunting of Hill House in my recent March roundup, here. I decided to revisit it though because its first paragraph is just such a brilliant piece of work.

Here’s that first paragraph:

NO LIVE organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

For a piece of gothic fiction I think that’s about as good an opener as one could hope for. Hill House, not insane but instead “not sane”, is of course not a living thing at all and yet immediately we have a sense that in some strange fashion perhaps it is a “live organism”. Alive but undreaming, not sane, patient and implacable.

Much of what’s described here if you give it a moment’s thought is actually pretty prosaic. What do we actually know? Hill House is a detached property set in hills, it’s stood for eighty years and is solidly constructed and well maintained. It is quiet, as you’d hope for an unoccupied rural property.

Put like that it sounds quite a tempting purchase. But then we have that comment that it’s “not sane”, and that wonderful final line: “whatever walked there, walked alone”. For that line alone I’m knocking $50k off my offer price.

Later we have this additional bit of description:

It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.

How can a house be kind? And yet, I do know what Jackson means. It is an unforgiving place and while exorcism might work with spirits it can’t fix a house built without regard for comfort or humanity. Is then Hill House actually haunted? Or does it just reflect the cold nature of the man who built it?

It’s into that house that Eleanor Vance comes, one of a group gathered together in an attempt to plumb the house’s secrets. Here’s how Eleanor is introduced:

Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.

Does that sound to you like anyone who should be let anywhere near Hill House? The order of the facts in the paragraph is interesting.  We learn first who Eleanor hates, “now that her mother was dead”, which is a distinctly chilling caveat. Then we learn who she dislikes. Then finally that she has no friends.

There’s nothing healthy here. When we actually get to see more of Eleanor she’s quite likable, and yet that opening paragraph is full of hate and dislike. This is not somebody who should be in a place which isn’t fit “for love or for hope”.

Jackson has a tremendous gift for the foreboding. This is a book in which relatively little actually happens. One room has an inexplicable cold spot, but it’s an old house. Doors shut themselves, but it appears they may be balanced to do so besides which the housekeeper seems prone to shutting them even when they’re left blocked open. There are other incidents, noises and writing on walls, but some could be imagination and others plain old human mischief.

What’s truly chilling about Hill House is the atmosphere, and Jackson creates that not through what happens but simply through her choice of language. Jackson says “silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House”, but of course it would. What else would silence do? Still, the effect works.

Too much of this would get silly, and Jackson recognises this too and undercuts herself with humour. In an early exchange the housekeeper Mrs Dudley issues Eleanor with a darkly melodramatic warning:

“I don’t stay after I set out dinner,” Mrs. Dudley went on. “Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes.”
“I know,” Eleanor said.
“We live over in the town, six miles away.” “Yes,” Eleanor said, remembering Hillsdale.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help.”
“I understand.”
“We couldn’t even hear you, in the night.”
“I don’t suppose—”
“No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“I know,” Eleanor said tiredly.
“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

Sinister stuff. However, later Eleanor’s fellow guest Theodora arrives and rather bizarrely Mrs. Dudley repeats the entire speech. Although Eleanor has been fairly thoroughly spooked by this point Mrs. Dudley’s warnings do rather lose something with repetition:


“I leave before dark comes,” Mrs. Dudley went on.
“No one can hear you if you scream in the night,” Eleanor told Theodora. She realized that she was clutching at the doorknob and, under Theodora’s quizzical eye, unclenched her fingers and walked steadily across the room. “We’ll have to find some way of opening these windows,” she said.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help,” Mrs. Dudley said. “We couldn’t hear you, even in the night. No one could”
“All right now?” Theodora asked, and Eleanor nodded.
“No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“You’re probably just hungry,” Theodora said. “And I’m starved myself”. She set her suitcase on the bed and slipped off her shoes. “Nothing,” she said, “upsets me more than being hungry, I snarl and snap and burst into tears.” She lifted a pair of softly tailored slacks out of the suitcase.
“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said. She smiled. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

Jackson takes her stock gothic character, the sinister housekeeper, and uses her effectively in the absolutely traditional fashion as an issuer of dire warnings. Then, audaciously, Jackson has her return but now as comic relief.

What Jackson realises is what many of the best horror movie directors realise – you can’t just indefinitely wind up the tension. It gets too much and the reader/viewer can’t take it. Instead they ratchet up the tension slowly, sometimes releasing it back a bit with a humorous interlude or something mundane, before inexorably tightening the screws once more.

In the final quarter of Haunting Jackson introduces two new characters in the form of a self-professed medium and her doughty companion. They’re absolutely convinced they know what’s going on before investigating anything and manage both to miss the actually odd while constructing their own detailed theories from nothing but their own prejudices and assumptions. It’s a move that didn’t quite work for me – a bit too much humour too late in the book, but in some ways it does make the book all the more disturbing.

Hill House contains madness and tragedy: either lying intent but dormant within it waiting to be discovered by the unwary;  or brought to it by people looking for a stage on which to act out their own dramas. The former possibility is horror in the traditional sense. The latter is actually the more horrifying. What walks in Hill House may just be us. Compared to that ghosts are positively comforting.

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Filed under Horror, Jackson, Shirley

Certainty backslides into probability. Information transmission, it emerges, is about doing the best you can.

Transmission, by Hari Kunzru

I wrote a little about Kunzru’s second novel Transmission here as part of my March roundup, but being something of a Kunzru fan I thought I’d return to it with a dedicated post. Here it is.

Arjun Mehta is a shy and socially awkward young man, but clever. He’s a programmer and a good one. When he gets the chance to sign up with international corporation Databodies and get posted to the US it’s a potential dream come true.

His interviewer is calculated to impress: Swiss watch; luxury cotton casual wear; “the polite yet aggressive air of a man who enjoys competitive racket sports.” He radiates success and the promise that you too could be as he is.

Arjun gets the job and he’s too amazed and too naïve to take the promise of a golden American future at anything other than face value. His success completely overshadows his sister’s new job pretending to be Australian at “the most dynamic call centre in the city!”

His mother, naturally, is appalled:

He flung open the door to his mother’s bedroom and gave her the news. ‘Mummy, I’m going to America!’ He might as well have said prison or be trampled by horses. Letting out a groan, she buried her head in her hands and burst into tears. It was to be expected. As an Indian mother, Mrs Mehta’s prime directive was to ensure that her first-born son was never more than ten feet away from a source of clean clothes, second helpings and moral guidance.

Meanwhile, as Arjun takes the local bus a plane passes high overhead. In its first class cabin sits a 33 year-old British paper millionaire:

Guy Swift, charter member of a Soho club, a man genetically gifted with height, regular features, sandy-blond hair which tousled attractively, relatively inactive sweat glands, clear skin and a cast-iron credit rating.

Guy heads up his own agency, Tomorrow*. It has a Shoreditch office, a young staff and venture capital funding. Guy is a very contemporary success:

In a glittering career Guy had raised awareness, communicated vision, evoked tangible product experiences and taken managers on inspirational visual journeys. He had reinforced leading positions and project-managed the generation of innovative retail presences. His repositioning strategies reflected the breadth and prestige of large portfolios. His communication facilitation stood out from the crowd. Engaging and impactful, for some years he had also been consistently cohesive, integrated and effective over a spread spectrum.

As you’ve probably picked up there’s a sly sense of humour running through the novel. I’ve read the entire thing and I’m still not really any clearer as to what Guy’s agency actually does. Perhaps that’s why it’s in trouble. Perhaps that’s why his venture capitalist backers are starting to ask when they’ll see a profit.

Unfortunately for Arjun it’s not just Guy’s agency that’s a bit unclear as to its nature. Databodies is not the passport to riches that Arjun was sold, or at least it’s not a passport to Arjun getting rich. Their business consists of providing temp workers to American companies looking to fill vacancies on the cheap. Between contracts he’s benched, waiting with other men in the same position all hoping for work that rarely comes along.

Arjun learns that he’s on what’s nicknamed a “slave visa”. His right to stay in the US is dependent on his continued employment by Databodies which means they can pretty much do what they like with him.

Databodies charged the companies he worked for twice, even three times what they paid him, and still deducted money from his pay for rent, legal and administrative fees. He had made no money, gained nothing at all since coming to America except a new and harder picture of the world.

Eventually Arjun gets a decent posting – an indefinite secondment to one of the world’s leading anti-virus companies. It’s a chance to show what he can do and to forge a life that consists of more than waiting in some Databodies’ dorm-house for the phone to ring. Perhaps if he can prove himself he can get taken on full-time. Perhaps he can lead the life he’s pretended to his family back home he’s already living.

Arjun moves continent in reliance on a signal that proves to be mostly noise – Databodies’ lies about what he’s signing up for. Guy meanwhile makes his living by selling noise that looks like signal – meaningless soundbites with uncertain and unmeasurable sales outcomes. Their worlds are going to collide.

The novel opens with a prelude describing a new computer virus sweeping the globe. The virus uses an image of Bollywood’s latest heartthrob, Leela Zahir, to lure the unsuspecting into clicking on a link that they really shouldn’t trust. Leela is another connection between Arjun and Guy: Arjun is one of her biggest fans; Guy’s increasingly uninterested girlfriend works with Leela as a publicist.

As a star Leela is both person and construct. On the one hand there’s the Leela Zahir that’s a deeply unhappy young woman pushed into a profession she doesn’t care for by her mother/manager who acquires her own fame and fortune through Leela’s talents. On the other, there’s the Leela Zahir who lights up the screen and fills millions of hearts with joy and adoration. Leela’s signal to the world is the noise blocking her own life.

Kunzru juggles the multiple viewpoints and multiple story-threads with ease. The book clocks in at around 300 pages, and for me they sped past. It’s a very now book, which isn’t bad given it was actually first published back in 2005.

The targets are sometimes a little easy, Guy particularly, but Kunzru is deliberately aiming for a lighter satirical feel here and amid the broader brush material there are some distinctly stinging asides:  “(middle class being, he had discovered, an American word for white)”; or later “At least in India the street people can lie down for a while before being moved on.”

There’s something of a witty William Gibson feel to it, contrasting Indian culture with US rather than Gibson’s much-loved Japan. Gibson’s contemporary-set novel Pattern Recognition, featuring coolhunter Cayce Pollard, was published in 2004 just the year before. Cayce could be Guy Swift’s more successful sister, perhaps there was something in the water back then.

In fact, you could do a fairly interesting reading triptych with this, Pattern Recognition and Tom McCarthy’s 2015 novel Satin Island. Looking back at my review of Satin Island I found this section where I discussed a real world agency’s own corporate mission statement:

To be fair to McCarthy this seems to be a real outfit, and yet their mission statement reads “River dives in to the trends, needs, experiences and expectations of consumers. We use these immersion platforms to create new opportunities for our clients’ products and brands” which I suspect wouldn’t look out of place in U’s Company. Also, in fairness to McCarthy, after poking around their site for a bit I honestly couldn’t tell you what they actually do.

Perhaps it’s not so much that some of Kunzru’s targets are easy, as that they’re simply accurate. That’s the thing with reality, it just doesn’t have the same obligation to make sense that fiction does.

One last word to Guy Swift, here contemplating what cuts he can make to keep Tomorrow* afloat when its funding comes under scrutiny:

The coolhunters could probably go too – they just seemed to spend all their time in Brick Lane photographing people’s haircuts.

It’s lucky for Gibson’s Cayce Pollard that her that her agency is doing better than Guy’s, and perhaps luckier still that she found herself in a Gibson novel rather than a Kunzru. You might get shot in Gibson’s worlds, but you’ll rarely just get laid off…

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Filed under Kunzru, Hari