My #TBR20

Scroll down if you just want to skip straight to the pictures of books…

TBR20 is an idea of Eva Stalker’s, with the aim being to focus on reading more and on buying less.

The concept is very simple, and since I’m very late to it already familiar to a lot of people. Basically, you read 20 books you already own before buying any more.

Most people who’ve taken it up have interpreted that as pick 20 books you already own and read those before buying any more, but strictly speaking that wasn’t the original concept. Originally it was just read any 20, deciding which out of the ones you own as you go along.

I rather like the idea. I’ve posted before about my own concerns with buying replacing enjoying here and by way of follow-up here. I also link in that first post to an article by an old friend of mine about why people buy things they don’t then use, that’s here to save digging around and it’s very much worth reading.

The interesting thing about following the pick 20 approach is it forces you to think about your reading. 20 books is probably two to three months reading, quite possibly more if I get very busy at work. That’s a hell of a commitment.

What do I actually want to read? How much literary fiction? What if I feel like some SF? What about books to unwind to when I’m under pressure elsewhere in life? All Modernism and no crime sounds indigestible.

On the other hand, making lists is sort of fun if you’re the sort of pedantic individual I am, and there are quite a few books I’ve been wanting to read for a while but which keep getting put off for no particularly good reason. A little discipline pushing me to read them would be no bad thing.

So, after much amendment, consideration, reconsideration, re-reconsideration and so on, here’s my #TBR20:

Physical

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Kindle

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The Grimwood is an SF/crime title, because potentially three months without any SF seems excessive. The Killer inside Me is just long overdue, and fills the hard-bitten noir gap. The rest are a mix of books I’ve wanted to read for a long time chosen in part though to give me a little variety.

Diving Belles and Jesus’ Son are both short story collections, but both are better read as single works in one go rather than interspersing them between other reads. As such I’ve effectively treated them as novels. Otherwise, I’ve not included any short stories or poetry and I plan to let myself read as much of those as I want along the way (provided I already own them of course).

I do plan to break the rules in one way, because there’s a good chance this project will overlap with my Summer holiday in the US, and I don’t own some of the books I’d planned to read on that trip. I may therefore allow myself to buy Hari Kunzru’s Gods without Men specifically to read while out there, if I haven’t finished the #TBR20 by then (which I probably won’t have). I considered having an exception for Seth’s Golden Gate on the same basis, but practically I doubt I’ll take a hardcopy book with me on holiday when I have a kindle so unless I’m sure I can read it immediately before I go that would just be a fudge.

Eva’s original post, for the curious, is here and her #tbr20 posts generally can be found here. Her original post in particular really is very good, and very well written, so if you haven’t already I do encourage you to read it.

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Filed under Personal posts

“It is difficult,” the slime mold thought morosely, to no one in particular, “to please Terran girls.”

Clans of the Alphane moon, by Philip K. Dick

Any book that features a telepathic yellow Ganymedean slime mold as a major character can’t be all bad, even if that book does show a frankly creepy interest in its female characters’ breasts.

Clans

Philip K. Dick has won a certain critical acclaim in recent years, with readers who wouldn’t normally look at SF being aware at the very least of his most acclaimed titles. Dick though was prolific. Sure, there was Ubik and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (best title ever?) and the other big hitters, but there was also a ton of pulp SF.

Our Friends from Frolix 8 (another great title). The World Jones Made. A Maze of Death. Clans of the Alphane Moon. None of them first rank Dick, certainly none of them literary Dick, but each of them a solid piece of classic SF.

Chuck Rittersdorf is in the process of being divorced by his wife, Mary, a famed marriage counsellor. Mary’s frustration with his lack of ambition has been building for years, and she’s enacting her revenge by taking so much of his money in the settlement that he’ll be forced to go for a higher paid job just so he can pay her alimony.

Gleefully she placed the last sweater in the suitcase, closed it, and with a rapid turn of her fingers, locked it tight. Poor Chuck, she said to herself, you don’t stand a chance, once I get you into court. You’ll never know what hit you; you’ll be paying out for the rest of your life. As long as you live, darling, you’ll never really be free of me; it’ll always cost you something. She began, with care, to fold her many dresses, packing them into the large trunk with the special hangers. It will cost you, she said to herself, more than you can afford to pay.

Mary is, unfortunately, one of the most sexist depictions of a female character I’ve read in years. There’s a lot to like in this book, some great ideas and a lot of nicely done comedy, but its treatment of women is actively unpleasant. Every female character description includes noting what her breasts look like, it’s dressed up in terms of some future fashion involving nipple dilation but it’s blatantly just something Dick is fixated on. The only woman to have any agency as a character is Mary, and she’s a self-deluding shrew. I don’t defend any of this. If you read this book you read it despite its monumental sexism. I don’t think that means it shouldn’t be read, because there are a lot of great ideas here, you just have to wade through some crap to get to them.

Chuck, the hapless husband, writes dialogue for CIA propaganda robots. He’s good at it, with a keen eye for comedy that gets the targets listening. His wife wants him to work as a scriptwriter for famous comedian Bunny Hentman (real name Lionsblood Regal, he had to tone it down, “who goes into show biz calling himself Lionsblood Regal?”). Bunny would pay a lot more than the CIA, but Chuck enjoys his work and likes being a public servant. If he’s going to meet his alimony though he’ll need more than a government paycheck.

Meanwhile, in the Centauri system, a psychiatric colony abandoned 25 years ago after a disastrous war has evolved its own unique culture. Now Mary has been appointed as one of the crew sent to reestablish contact, to provide aid to the profoundly mentally ill colonists, and of course to take it back under Earth control. They claim it’s a mission of mercy, but it’s colonialism plain and simple.

In the colony meanwhile, they’ve adapted and without anyone there to tell them they’re broken they’ve created a functional society.  They’ve built cities, with the population of each sharing a common mental illness.

The Pares live in Adolfville, where they develop new strategies and technologies to protect themselves against their many presumed enemies. The Manses live in Da Vinci Heights, making new breakthroughs in art and science in a frenzy of enthusiasm, each of which they rapidly bore of. The Skitzes have Joan d’Arc, where they have ecstatic visions of a greater reality and act as poets and priests to the others. The Heebs have Ghanditown, a disorganised hovel where they eschew ambition and materiality and slip slowly into catatonia. There’s the Polys, from Hamlet Hamlet, who remain childlike for life, imaginative dreamers but impractical. The Ob-Coms run the administration, making sure everything works. Finally the Deps dwell in “endless dark gloom” in Cotton Mathers Estates.

The colonists have a council with a representative from each city, and the opening scene of the book where Gabriel Baines, the Pare representative, attends the council meeting is brilliantly funny. Gabriel doesn’t just walk in of course, he first sends in a robot double to check for traps. Once inside he changes seat, argues with the Manse representative, is frustrated by the Heeb who spends much of the time sweeping the floor, and waits impatiently for the Skitz who finally shows up floating in through the window.

They’re meeting because Manse telescopes have picked up the ship from Earth, and they’re wondering how to defend themselves. The Earth ship says it’s come to help them, but as one of its crew notes: “Those people in Adolfville may be legally and clinically insane, but they’re not stupid”.

In large part this is a satire on the artificial boundaries between sanity and insanity. The colonists may not have the greatest society in history, but the one back on Earth doesn’t look so hot either. When someone observes “Frankly, we feel there’s nothing more potentially explosive than a society in which psychotics dominate, define the values, control the means of communication.” they’re talking about the colonists, but as reader you can’t help feeling Dick’s talking about his contemporary America.

There’s some lovely irony as the people on the ship, the sane ones, justify to themselves what’s essentially an act of unprovoked aggression on their part. Here Mary briefs the rest of the crew:

Our presence here will accelerate the hallucinating tendency; we have to face that and be prepared. And the hallucination will take the form of seeing us as elements of dire menace; we, our ship, will literally be viewed—I don’t mean interpreted, I mean actually perceived—as threatening. What they undoubtedly will see in us is an invading spearhead that intends to overthrow their society, make it a satellite of our own.”

“But that’s true. We intend to take the leadership out of their hands, place them back where they were twenty-five years ago. Patients in enforced hospitalization circumstances—in other words, captivity.”

It was a good point. But not quite good enough. She said, “There is a distinction you’re not making; it’s a slender one, but vital. We will be attempting therapy of these people, trying to put them actually in the position which, by accident, they now improperly hold. If our program is successful they will govern themselves, as legitimate settlers on this moon, eventually. First a few, then more and more of them. This is not a form of captivity—even if they imagine it is. The moment any person on this moon is free of psychosis, is capable of viewing reality without the distortion of projection—”

“Do you think it’ll be possible to persuade these people voluntarily to resume their hospitalized status?”

“No,” Mary said. “We’ll have to bring force to bear on them; with the possible exception of a few Heebs we’re going to have to take out commitment papers for an entire planet.” She corrected herself, “Or rather moon.”

I’ve barely touched here on the plot. Chuck tries to kill himself, but is interrupted by his next door neighbour, a telepathic slime mold from Ganymede (“I had planned to borrow a cup of yogurt culture from you, but in view of your preoccupation it seems an insulting request.”) With the Ganymedean as unlikely mentor he decides instead to remote control a propaganda robot on Mary’s ship to murder her, figuring he can blame it on the colonists. Can the colonists defeat the Earth ship? Can Chuck and Mary reconcile their differences? Are the CIA right that Bunny Hentman is really a spy for blind alien insects? If you want to know the answers, you’ll have to read it to find out.

I’ll end with one final quote. I’ve chosen this one because it illustrates why despite the appalling sexism I still rather like this book. Here the council is voting on a plan that might just save them all:

When the total vote had been verified everyone but Dino Watters, the miserable Dep, turned out to have declared in the affirmative.

“What was wrong with you?” Gabriel Baines asked the Dep curiously.

In his hollow, despairing voice the Dep answered, “I think it’s hopeless. The Terran warships are too close. The Manses’ shield just can’t last that long. Or else we won’t be able to contact Hentman’s ship. Something will go wrong, and then the Terrans will decimate us.” He added, “And in addition I’ve been having stomach pains ever since we originally convened; I think I’ve got cancer.”

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, though I’m sure there are some. There’s a great piece here in the Guardian though by writer Sandra Newman which uses Clans as an example of how some old-school SF could be at the same time wildly inventive and wildly offensive, and how perhaps both qualities arose out of the genre’s lack of literary credibility and so the lack of any need to pander to any expectations of good taste or convention. It’s a good article, and even if you never read the book I think her argument is still worth considering.

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Filed under Dick, Philip K, Science Fiction

The bridge looked good again.

Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra and her identical twin sister, Judith, have been inseparable all their lives. Cassandra thought they always would be, but nine months ago Judith went to New York for a year leaving her behind.

Cassandra expected Judith to return and for them to build their lives together, sisters against the world. Instead Judith has announced she’s getting married to some doctor she met out East, and Cassandra’s been invited to the wedding.

And I knew right now … why I’d been asked to the wedding. I’d been asked because I could stop it in time, I could stage a last-minute rescue.

Cassandra

Cassandra and Judith grew up on a California ranch. Their family was close-knit: their father, a retired and politely drunk professor of philosophy, raised them using the Socratic method, treating his children as if they were adoring students; their mother, a famous writer, died a few years back but helped instill in them a sense of their own intellectual merit; their grandmother is a kind and loving woman but with a distinct preference for maintaining propriety rather than for seeing uncomfortable truths. As a family they were rich, artistic, elitist and above all self-contained (“we had our own pinnacle to look down from”).

When Cassandra and Judith left home, they left home together. They got an apartment in Berkeley, and because Judith was musical Cassandra bought a high-end piano for them to share. For Cassandra the piano is a symbol of the sisters, of their indivisibility.

I only listened and knew how good she was and what a piano we had, and later that night when she quit playing and came out onto the deck where I was looking at the lights and listening, she said, “We ought to live this way, don’t you think?” It was as if I’d been waiting all my life to hear her say it, and I said yes, oh yes, how could we imagine it ever being any other way? Let’s never get stuck with outsiders, just be ourselves and keep it honest, now we’ve got this piano.

When Judith moves to New York that’s bad, but marriage is much worse. The piano is beautiful, but cut in half it would be ruined. The parallel is obvious.

The book opens with Cassandra driving to the wedding. It’s first person voice, and immediately that voice is a troubled one. In a marvellously hardboiled line (so fitting for a book set in California) Cassandra glances at the Golden Gate bridge, noting that it looks good again. She means it looks tempting, like an exit.

En route she stops at a bar, drinks more than she should, and looks at her reflection. I have a pet hate of characters looking in mirrors and describing themselves, but here it works because of course Cassandra has spent her entire life looking at herself mirrored in Judith. Without Judith as contrast and support, Cassandra’s own identity starts to unravel.

my face in a blue mirror between two shelves of bottles. The bottles looked familiar enough, but I didn’t immediately recognize the face, mostly, I think, because I didn’t want to. It’s a face that’s given me a lot of trouble.

As Cassandra drives along you quickly get a sense of her: intelligent; brittle; impulsive; self-destructive. She sees a pumphouse spraying out water in the desert heat, stops, climbs a ladder to it and dunks her head straight into the jet to refresh herself; she wants to phone ahead to let the family know she’s arriving early, so calls from a phonebooth intended only to be used for emergencies. She drives with the top down on her car, the resulting sunburn leaving her uncomfortable in her own skin literally as well as figuratively. She’s fearless, except for her fear of living.

Judith later drives down the same road with her fiancé by her side, in a section of the book narrated by her. They don’t stop for a drink. They drive responsibly.

We were passing a pumphouse with a long pipe sticking out of it and throwing a beautiful head of white water into a cement weir. I wished I could put my head into it, but I laid it on Jack’s shoulder instead and thought about the door we’d open not so long from now.

“How would it be to phone ahead?” I said. “There’s an emergency telephone booth along here somewhere.” “This isn’t an emergency,” Jack said.

A book like this lives and dies by its characters. Cassandra’s narrative voice is intense, almost overwhelming, but also wry and observant of everything except the things she doesn’t want to see. Judith’s only emerges when Cassandra’s is briefly silenced. Judith is sensible, practical, normal. Cassandra, who it slowly emerges is gay, doesn’t even have the option of being normal (the book was published in 1962 – even without Cassandra’s emotional issues it’s not a period where a gay woman could aspire to a life of suburban married contentment).

Cassandra is writing a thesis she can’t finish, staying cocooned in the academic world she learned from her father. Her relationships are brief encounters only, nothing with even a hint of a future. In a sense she’s insisting on living forever as she did as a child, her and Judith sufficient and separate and aloof. Judith though, Judith doesn’t want to be separate and aloof. She wants to marry, to have a nice house, to settle down. This quote is from Cassandra’s section:

“You told me so many things,” I said. She waited a minute, looking back over her shoulder toward the pool; then she looked down at me, and said very quietly, “No, I don’t think I really told you anything. It was all you, you did the talking, you made all the plans, and I, I don’t know, but I think I got sort of drowned in it, or snowed under. When you hit your stride you’re—” “I’m what. Tell me. I absolutely have to know what I am when I hit my stride.” “You’re overwhelming. It’s some sort of crazy vitality and it goes out like rays. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be with you—kind of a circus. Only—”

A lesser novelist would have made Jack, Judith’s fiancé, unsympathetic. In fact though he and Judith are a good match and he’s a definite catch. He’s a handsome young doctor, friendly and polite, and he loves Judith as much as she loves him. He’s exasperated by Cassandra, but more because he sees her as self-indulgent than anything else. Where Cassandra talks about wanting to die, Jack replies “Quit talking about wanting to die,” … “Dying is a big thing.” Jack offers Judith an equal union, not a perpetual role as Cassandra’s ballast.

Dorothy Baker was a playwright as well as an author, and it shows here. Cassandra at the Wedding is in essence a three-part play (Cassandra’s section, Judith’s section, Cassandra’s second section). It almost all takes place in the same location, there’s only a handful of characters, and it features that classic dramatic motif of a family reunion leading to personal revelations and conflicts.

If this were a play, it would be an excellent one. It has sharply written characters and dialogue, cleanly delineated scenes and no fat. It’s packed with great little exchanges and observations (mostly Cassandra’s, Judith’s nicer and not looking from the outside):

“There’s probably a school for wives,” I said, “but you don’t need to go.” I felt better, and I looked at her obliquely to see if she felt worse, but there was no sure way to tell.

I don’t like things rumpled up. If there is tissue paper all over everywhere I shove it under the bed. I have ideas of order.

His hair was so clean that each single hair had its own halo.

He’d never known his mother, and his father died when he was twelve. No home life at all, which is probably why he turned out so well.

The heat hung in wavy layers above the road and made it look like water.

I could keep quoting, but I’ve done so too much already. I’ll wrap up then by just saying that this is a perfect example of exactly why I and so many others regard NYRB Classics as a go-to publisher for quality work.

On a final note, while the NYRB Classics edition is the one I read, while looking for a picture of the cover to add to this post I came across the alternative cover below. It’s just about the most misleading thing I’ve seen in ages.

Cassandra2

If you bought Cassandra at the Wedding hoping for a light pastel beach read about twins’ comic misadventures around a wedding, well, I think you’d be entitled to feel a little misled.

Other reviews

The review that persuaded me to read this was Jacqui’s at JacquiWine’s Journal, here. There’s also a great review at 1streading’sblog here, which went up back when I was still reading the book myself. Please feel free to link to others in the comments.

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Filed under Baker, Dorothy, US Literature

fields of mud crushed under the weight of of the impending dark

The A26, by Pascal Garnier and translated by Melanie Florence

I’ve long wanted to read Pascal Garnier. He’s been well reviewed on the blogosphere, I love noir and his books sounded punchy and darkly funny. The A26 was my first. Unfortunately, I absolutely hated it.

the-a26

Bernard and Yolande are brother and sister. Bernard is in advanced middle age, Yolande is elderly and hasn’t left their house in decades. They’re hoarders, nothing is ever thrown out; Yolande never leaves and she and Bernard inhabit a bizarre twilight world of their own creation. Bernard however is dying.

‘Bernard’s not gone to work today, he wasn’t up to it. He’s getting tireder and tireder, thinner and thinner. His body’s like this house, coming apart at the seams. Where am I going to put him when he’s dead? There’s not a bit of space left anywhere. We’ll get by, we’ve always got by, ever since I can remember. Nothing has ever left this house, even the toilet’s blocked up. We keep everything. Some day, we won’t need anything else, it’ll all be here, for ever.’

Yolande’s only interaction with the outside world is peering at it through a small hole in the door. There’s a new road being constructed nearby, progress continuing in the wider world while utterly resisted in their private one. Bernard used to go out to work, but now he’s retired so mostly he just goes out for shopping and to kill strangers.

Yup, Bernard’s a serial killer. There’s no particular reason he is. He starts killing for no obvious reason other than that the plot kind of demands it, and the fact that the entire book wallows in horrible and pointless deaths. At one point one poor sod happens just to drive past a character and moments later is described as being killed in a terrible car crash. It’s post-bleak, absurdly so (but not for me comically so).

Yolande is a solipsistic narcissistic delusional psychopath. Bernard isn’t particularly narcissistic or delusional, but he still does ok on the solipsistic psychopathy front.

In the sky the dark was spreading like a pool of ink. A sprinkling of stars appeared. Bernard aimed his finger and rubbed out a few. Every second, some of them died, people said. What did that matter when four times as many were born in the same time? The sky was an enormous rubbish tip.

His attitude to people reflects his attitude to stars. We don’t matter, and there’s always more where any of us came from.

I found the characters and story here a parade of grotesqueries, utterly artificial and contrived. It reminded me in some ways of Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, with his (in that case initially credible) characters tortuously contorted, prodded and pulled into the shape demanded by his improbable plot. I also found it rather sexist (“A woman, even if she’s in her pinny and wearing a black eye, always tidies her hair in the rear-view mirror.” – seriously?).

Anyway, I hated this one too much to give it a fair review. For me it had no real redeeming features but was just 100 pages of relentless ugliness, but I’m in a minority and it’s been very well received on the blogosphere as has Garnier more generally. I’m not therefore arguing that this is a bad book, simply that it was a (very) bad book for me.

It may be that I’m not just not Garnier’s reader, or it may be that I am but not for this book. I will note however that the Melanie Florence translation read well, quite simply it wouldn’t be possible to dislike it as much as I did if the translation were weak (odd as that may sound).

Other reviews

There’s a good few, but I’ll link to two in particular and invite anyone reading to link to others in the comments. This is from Stu at Winstonsdad, because Stu is always good value and there’s nobody better informed on translated literature, and this from Tomcat of Tomcat in the Red Room because I love his blog and I don’t get to link to it as often as I’d like since we often read different books.

I suspect most reading this already know Stu and don’t need me to recommend him further. Tomcat though you may not know, in which case I’d encourage you to take a look over his blog generally as his level of analysis really is very good indeed. Frankly here I think he just gets the novel better than I did, I simply bounced off it and that was that, but Tomcat’s review is sophisticated and well-informed and a great example of why I follow his blog.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Garnier, Pascal, Noir, Novellas

“The log has gone away.”

The Inheritors, by William Golding

The Inheritors is a hard book to describe, and in particular it’s hard to describe without making it sound forbidding or pointless. It’s the story of a small group of neanderthals facing extinction as they encounter their nemesis, us. That’s potentially interesting, but not so much so that I’d want to read the book for that alone. What’s really interesting here is the use Golding makes here of language to take us into the minds and experiences of creatures almost, but not quite, like us.

golding-inheritors

The people are a small tribe of neanderthals. They believe they are all the people in the world, which of course is itself an indication that they must already be fairly near extinction. There aren’t many of them: Mal the old man who is their leader; Ha who is brave and will be leader when Mal dies; Lok who is the protagonist and is something of a happy-go-lucky idiot, dim even by the undemanding standards of these Neanderthals; Fa who is a fiercely intelligent (for a neanderthal) and independent minded young woman; a young mother and the “young one”, a baby which clings to the fur of her neck as they travel; Liku, a small and inquisitive child; and the “old woman” who keeps the tribe’s fire in a clay container and acts as their priestess.

The reason I just listed out all the characters is very simple. A month after reading this I can still remember each of them by name, with the exception of the young mother. I can bring them instantly to mind as people, as personalities, distinct and alive. It’s a remarkable feat of characterisation. Golding can make a semi-sentient caveman alive in a way most writers struggle to achieve for a contemporary character of a sort I might actually meet.

The people do not experience themselves as separate to the world, they do not see human and animal as fundamentally separate categories. To them the whole world is alive, their perspective essentially animist. When they move to their summer territory and find a rock they had left in a cave there Ha comments that it is a good rock, because it has stayed in place. In Biblical terms they are of the creation, not set above it or apart from it. They are pre-lapsarian.

The people were silent. Life was fulfilled, there was no need to look farther for food, tomorrow was secure and the day after that so remote that no one would bother to think of it. Life was exquisitely allayed hunger.

When the people have a memory they wish to share, or are imagining something not present or in the future, they are incredibly literal about it. “I have a picture” they declare, holding their hands on their heads to indicate where the picture is. Lok only ever has the one picture, of how he found a tree-root that looks a bit like a person and which is now Liku’s favourite (only) toy. As I said he’s not the brightest.

The end of the world, of their world, when it comes arrives suddenly and without explanation. It is literally beyond their understanding. It starts with something small, a log they use each year to cross a deep river is missing, moved, but who could have moved it? There is after all only the people. It’s a foretaste of the damage we will do. Someone, one of us, has passed by and changed the environment without any awareness of the possible harm. Now the people have to cross the freezing cold river without the log, Mal falls in and the chill he receives will be the death of him. Already we’re killing them and we don’t even know they’re there yet.

Soon the people realise that they’re not alone, there are new people, others. The others do not live within the world as the people do. They change it. In a key piece of symbolism (flagged in the excellent foreword, so I can’t claim my own insight here) the others haul their canoes up the waterfall that exists in the summer territory, going literally against the current. They control the world, impose their own rules upon it. Separate to the world as they are though they don’t instinctively understand it as the people do. What they don’t understand they fear, and what they fear they hate. They don’t understand the people.

Although the book has a classic objective narrative voice, much of it is described from the level of the neanderthals’ own understanding and perspective. That makes something of a detective of the reader, partly as sometimes you have to work out aspects of their religious and cultural life which they reference but never examine (they’re not an introspective lot), but also as the book progresses as you have to work out what’s actually happening when they themselves don’t understand it.

Suddenly Lok understood that the man was holding the stick out to him but neither he nor Lok could reach across the river. He would have laughed if it were not for the echo of the screaming in his head. The stick began to grow shorter at both ends. Then it shot out to full length again. The dead tree by Lok’s ear acquired a voice. “Clop!” His ears twitched and he turned to the tree. By his face there had grown a twig: a twig that smelt of other, and of goose, and of the bitter berries that Lok’s stomach told him he must not eat. This twig had a white bone at the end. There were hooks in the bone and sticky brown stuff hung in the crooks. His nose examined this stuff and did not like it.

It can take a moment to realise that what’s happened is the other has fired an arrow at Lok. It’s incomprehensible on two levels, firstly because Lok can’t imagine a bow and arrow or how they’d work, but secondly and just as importantly because from Lok’s perspective there is absolutely no reason for the other to wish to harm him.

The neanderthals’ world is brilliantly evoked. They live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, largely subsisting on berries and the occasional scavenged meat left after a predator kill (they don’t hunt animals themselves, and appear to have religious objections to killing, the existence of which must mean that the idea of killing is not unfamiliar to them). They rely almost as much on smell as sight, and among the many mysteries the new people present is how they seem blind to the scent-traces they leave behind them. The people fear water because they cannot swim, value fire because while they can tend it they cannot make it. They have religion, burial practices, segregation of roles by gender, a whole world of culture and significance all of which persuades and all of which is utterly doomed.

In a way The Inheritors becomes a parable of the fall of man. The people exist in the garden, in a state of innocence. The others as Lok observes (referring to the waterfall rather than the bible, but I think Golding’s meaning is pretty clear), “are a people of the fall; nothing stands against them.” At one point Lok and Fa spy on the others, see them getting drunk (the people have no concept of brewing); fighting among themselves (the people have no concept of that either); see one man’s mate slip behind a tree to have sex with his rival. They see sin, but being themselves not fallen aren’t tainted by it, not that that will save them.

The Inheritors is an extraordinary and exceptional novel. It presents challenges, particularly as it can take a while to get into the people’s mindset and very different way of seeing the world. Early on there’s a fairly ill-judged episode where Lok falls from a cliff, barely catching on to some roots to save himself, for reasons he doesn’t understand. It’s an utterly confusing passage not just in terms of why it happened but even what exactly happens, the reader sharing Lok’s utter bafflement (I reread it three times then just gave up and moved on). Interestingly, the foreword notes that Golding’s wife advised him to change that section as it would confuse readers. He didn’t, perhaps because he wanted the reader to share Lok’s confusion, but she was right.

Once you get past those initial difficulties though the rest of the book immerses you in a perspective that is alien but always consistent. Golding creates a new world through language. It’s a dazzling example of what literature is capable of, making us see the world through different eyes and in doing so see ourselves anew.

Other reviews

The only one I’m aware of on the blogosphere is the one that first got me interested in the book, and that’s John Self’s review at The Asylum, here. He covers some aspects of the book I didn’t touch on above (there’s a lot in this one and not all the points fitted well with what I wanted most to talk about). I completely recommend and agree with his review.

There’s also a great review here by the marvellous Penelope Lively in the Guardian. The Lively review contains some fairly hefty spoilers, but since the neanderthals aren’t still with us (save perhaps traces of them in our genes) it’s pretty obvious right from the beginning how this one ends so even if you normally avoid them I don’t think spoilers are much of an issue with this book.

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Filed under Golding, William, Science Fiction

The sound of a motorhorn separated us like thieves.

Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan and translated by Irene Ash

It’s nearly a month now since I read Bonjour Tristesse, but the memory of it still cuts through the books I’ve read since. It’s no surprise this was a massive hit when first published; it’s delicious.

bonjour-tristesse

Now that, that is a good cover. Brilliant even.

Cécile, “seventeen and perfectly happy”, is on holiday with her father, “a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and attractive to women.” They’ve taken a villa on the French Riviera and it’s no wonder she’s so happy, for she’s her daddy’s darling and she’s young, pretty and rich. “I dare say I owed most of my pleasures of that time to money; the pleasure of driving fast, of having a new dress, buying records, books, flowers.”

Her father’s current mistress is staying with them, Elsa, “a tall red-haired girl, sensual and worldly, gentle, rather simple, and unpretentious; one might have come across her any day in the studios and bars of the Champs-Élysées.” Cécile, emulating her father, idles her time away with Cyril, a university student who is “tall and sometimes beautiful, with the sort of good looks that immediately inspire one with confidence.”

The holiday is a sojourn in paradise. Everything is perfect, for Cécile anyway. Her days are awash with confident, spot-free adolescent sensuality.

The first days were dazzling. We spent hours on the beach overwhelmed by the heat and gradually assuming a healthy golden tan; except Elsa, whose skin reddened and peeled, causing her atrocious suffering. My father performed all sorts of complicated leg exercises to reduce a rounding stomach unsuitable for a Don Juan. From dawn onwards I was in the water. It was cool and transparent and I plunged wildly about in my efforts to wash away the shadows and dust of the city. I lay full length on the sand, took up a handful and let it run through my fingers in soft yellow streams. I told myself that it ran out like time. It was an idle thought, and it was pleasant to have idle thoughts, for it was summer.

Then however comes the “amiable and distant” Anne – “At forty-two she was a most attractive woman, much sought after, with a beautiful face, proud, tired and indifferent.” Elsa has youth and enthusiasm on her side, but Anne is in a different league. Educated, sophisticated, possessed of unquestionable taste, Anne is the epitome of bon chic, bon genre. Elsa hasn’t a hope against competition like that.

Soon Elsa’s out and Anne’s firmly in, and Cécile’s at first delighted since she likes Anne and perhaps aspires one day to be like her. Then it dawns that Anne has quite clear ideas about the kind of life she wants, and about the desirability of father and daughter leading a carefree existence of sun and pleasure (and Anne has a point, given that Cécile frequently wakes up with a hangover).

Worse yet, Cécile’s father seems actually serious about Anne, she’s not just another lover, she’s genuine competition for his interest and affections. Quite quickly Cécile decides she wants Anne back out, and the easy-going Elsa back in the picture.

The Times’ quote on the cover refers to the book as “thoroughly immoral”, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Instead I’d say it’s delightfully amoral. Cécile is like a less innocent Emma, arranging the lives of those around her in accordance with her views of how things should be, but unlike Emma she’s working to her convenience rather than their perceived benefit. In a way Cécile is something like a cat, attractive and affectionate but essentially self-interested.

Sagan was 18 when she wrote this and in part that shows. The emotions here are big emotions, this is (as the old Hollywood cliché goes) a summer that Cécile will never forget and it’s all rather dramatic. We’re definitely not in Colm Tóibín-type territory here where nothing much happens, slowly.

Bonjour Tristesse is a novel of surfaces, perhaps also reflecting Sagan’s age. Everyone here is pretty much as they appear to be, the only person with any ulterior motives is Cécile and we know those as she’s the narrator (and she’s a reliable narrator). This isn’t a novel where you’ll be spending ages considering possible meanings, symbolism and themes, it is what it fairly plainly is. That’s ok though, because it’s not trying for that kind of depth and it succeeds marvellously at what it does try for, at evoking an immediacy of experience.

The next morning I was awakened by a slanting ray of hot sunshine that flooded my bed and put an end to my strange and rather confused dreams. Still half asleep I raised my hand to shield my face from the insistent heat, then gave it up. It was ten o’ clock. I went down to the terrace in my pyjamas and found Anne glancing through the newspapers. I noticed that she was lightly, but perfectly, made up; apparently she never allowed herself a real holiday. As she paid no attention to me, I sat down on the steps with a cup of coffee and an orange to enjoy the delicious morning. I bit the orange and let its sweet juice run into my mouth, then took a gulp of scalding black coffee and went back to the orange again. The sun warmed my hair and smoothed away the marks of the sheet on my skin. I thought in five minutes I would go and bathe.

I love that quote. There’s a tremendous intensity about the sun and the coffee and the orange. Even a month later it still resonates with me, and when I think of this book that’s what I think of, Cécile sitting in the fierce sun gulping scalding black coffee and biting into an orange. It’s character made manifest through breakfast.

To an extent Bonjour Tristesse reminds me of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which is high praise given that’s one of my favourite novels of all time. It has that same sense of people playing with others’ lives without troubling themselves as to the damage they might do in the process. It has that same sense too of revelling in sheer physical pleasure and a heedlessness born of privilege without responsibility.

In case it’s not obvious I distinctly enjoyed Bonjour Tristesse. I had meant to buy the Heather Lloyd translation (I don’t recall why), but the Irene Nash was the one in stock when I went to Foyles so that’s what I read. I can’t of course compare the two translations, not having enough French and more importantly not having read both, but the Nash was a fluid read that didn’t once jar me with apparent anachronisms or odd turns of phrase so I’d have no hesitation at all in recommending it (though that doesn’t mean of course it’s good, for all I know the French text is packed with anachronisms and odd turns of phrase after all).

Other reviews

I’m not aware of any other reviews of this in the blogosphere, but if I’ve missed any please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under French Literature, Sagan, Françoise

It is a small town and it will guard you.

Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín

Back in 2011 I loved Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. He managed the remarkable feat of writing an engaging novel about a rather passive young woman who encounters essentially nothing but help as she makes her way through life. In lesser hands it would have been excruciatingly dull, but in fact it made my best of 2011 list.

In Nora Webster, Tóibín returns to the territory he staked out in Brooklyn. The time now is the late ’60s/early ’70s rather than the ’50s, but we’re back in the town of Enniscorthy and characters who first appeared in Brooklyn crop up in minor parts here too. Tóibín is creating his own fictional geography, as Hardy and others did before him.

NoraWebster

Isn’t that just the most godawful cover? Mercifully I read this on kindle. That Observer quote by the way is a paraphrase, and actually fairly misleading. It’s not a love story.

Nora Webster is a fortysomething widow, with two daughters each of whom has left home and two younger sons both of whom still depend on her. Her husband, Maurice, was the love of her life and died relatively young. Now she’s steeped in grief and trying to find a life without him.

Enniscorthy is a small town, one where everybody knows everybody and they all know each other’s business. As the novel opens Maurice is newly dead and Nora spends her evenings receiving visitors who are well-meaning but also nosy, each demanding her time so they can express their condolences.

Nora’s eldest son, Donal, has developed a stutter since his father’s death. The younger, Conor, seems less obviously affected but with his brother is ever-watchful and suspicious of any potential threat of further change. Both boys have been hit hard, and Nora doesn’t know how to speak to them of what’s happened or even to what extent she should.

Nora Webster shares with Brooklyn an emphasis on ordinary drama in normal lives. It soon becomes clear that Nora largely neglected the boys while Maurice was dying, so intent on trying to be there for him that she forgot they needed her too. She’s a conscientious mother though, one who has made mistakes but who cares deeply for her children.

She thought back to that time, but certain images were so filled with detail, certain hours so filled with pure, unforgettable moments, that the remaining time seemed as though it had been watched through glass covered with rainwater. Walking with Maurice into the lobby of the hospital in the knowledge that he might not come out of there alive. The moment when he had said he would like to go one more time to look at the sky and that she was to wait for him in the lobby, let him do it alone. And then the watching as he began to cry when he reached the door.

Without Maurice, Nora needs to return to work. As in Brooklyn those around the central character are largely keen to help. A friendly nun to help her back to an old job, left when she married all those years ago. She runs into a petty and domineering office manager who proves something of a small-scale enemy, but there are hints that even this foe has a humanity beyond that Nora sees. Again as in Brooklyn, there are people who may not be easily likable, but no villains.

What follows then is a gradual tale of Nora adjusting to life without Maurice. She sells their holiday home, as much because she can’t bear to return to it without Maurice as because she needs the money. She works, looks after the boys, starts to socialise again with friends and family. Nothing particularly unusual.

Eilis in Brooklyn is young and has choices. Nora has far fewer. She’s older, she’s not emigrating to a new country, she has children. She’s constantly aware of the judgements of those around her, concerned when she buys new clothes or has her hair dyed of what people will think and whether it’s too soon since Maurice’s death to consider such things. It’s not that she’s easily cowed, she’s distinctly not, but she’s one of these people and she has to live with them.

For a moment, Nora felt impatient with her [daughter]. She was starting her life, she could live where she liked, do what she liked. She did not have to get the train back to the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.

What works wonderfully here is the sense that Nora and Maurice had a rich and fulfilling marriage. It’s evident she loved him deeply, and him her. A lesser novelist would make her finding her own way a voyage of self-realisation, in which she puts aside the limitations he’d placed on her so as to find her true self. Tóibín instead shows that where she had chosen one life, which meant leaving other possible lives behind, now she has to choose another life; not better or truer, merely different.

Later in the novel Nora takes up an interest in music, joining an appreciation society and taking singing lessons. Maurice had no interest in such things and would have found them pretentious, a suitable subject for gentle mocking. For all his many merits, he was a conservative man born of a conservative time and culture. One of the many threads running through this novel is the sense of small-town Ireland as a provincial place suspicious of culture or interests everyone else doesn’t already share.

Nora remembered a night in the new Assembly Hall of the Presentation Convent when Maurice and herself and Jim had gone to a fund-raising concert for the St Vincent de Paul Society. Laurie O’Keefe was conducting an orchestra. As her style grew more vigorous and expressive, Maurice and Jim began to laugh quietly and she had nudged Maurice in disapproval. Halfway through the concert Jim had to make his way to the toilet, all the while silently shaking with laughter. Nora had given Maurice a fierce look before he had to follow Jim. Neither of them returned to their seats. Afterwards, she remembered, she had found them both standing sheepishly at the back of the hall.

Tóibín is particularly brilliant in his quiet portrayal of depression, of Nora’s deep glacial grief; the impossibility of conversation after the enormity of a death.

At the moment the only topic she could discuss was herself. And everyone, she felt, had heard enough about her. They believed it was time that she stop brooding and think of other things. But there were no other things. There was only what had happened. It was as though she lived under water and had given up on the struggle to swim towards air. It would be too much. Being released into the world of others seemed impossible; it was something she did not even want. How could she explain this to anyone who sought to know how she was or asked if she was getting over what happened?

Slowly though she does of course return to life. As the book progresses Nora’s character reasserts itself. It becomes apparent that in fact she’s a fairly formidable woman, determined and intelligent and held in a certain amount of fear and respect by most of those who know her. She’s too independent-minded to be easy company, with ironically her marriage to Maurice having perhaps made her more approachable with his easy manner making social inroads for the both of them.

The book becomes shot through with a certain humour, not least as Nora realises how much of what goes on around her she’s left out of because people are too intimidated by her to tell her about it. She learns of a sister’s engagement by accident through her own daughter, the sister having been too scared of Nora’s disapproval to tell her. She starts to express political opinions, something she’d previously left to Maurice and which decidedly discomfits the men around her.

Unfortunately, while there’s much here to praise, this isn’t as successful a book as Brooklyn. Partly that’s because with Nora as self-contained and closed-off as she is she tends not to talk much with the other characters, which meant that at times they became hard to distinguish. Nora and the boys are sharply defined, but her sisters and aunts blurred together for me and from time to time I had to flick back to check who someone was. That’s forgivable in something like The Luminaries, but not really in a novel as small screen as this one is.

Worse, I became utterly confused at one point by the chronology. Tóibín uses the age-old technique of having the characters establish period by reference to tv news reports that Nora or the children watch. That’s fine, except that unfortunately my knowledge of late 1960s/early 1970s Irish politics is near non-existent. At one point I thought the action had moved on by a decade or so, only realising I was wrong by the fact the boys were still in school. I had to resort to google in the end to work out what year it was.

Looking back at my comments on Brooklyn I see that I mention that I spent the first half of that thinking it was set in the 1930s rather than the 1950s. Tóibín is tremendous at evoking space, sound, how light plays in a room, but he’s frankly terrible at period. His characters exist in a timeless Ireland of memory. Both Brooklyn and Nora Webster are ostensibly set in specific decades against a specific backdrop of events, really though they’re set in the endless years of Tóibín’s own childhood.

It’ll be interesting to see how Nora Webster settles into memory. There’s much to love in it, not least Tóibín’s incredible prose which remains an utter joy to me. He can describe an empty room in a way that fills it with utter beauty.

The problems though of characterisation for the supporting cast and the muddy sense of time weakened it for me considerably. Still, Nora Webster herself is an incredible creation, an utterly credible and flawed human being who though quite ordinary is extraordinary in the way only real people can be.

Other reviews

Plenty in the press, mostly much more favourable than I’ve been above. None I’ve seen so far in the blogosphere. If I’ve missed some though please do let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Irish Literature, Tóibín, Colm

everything is harder once you reach man’s estate

 Zone, by Mathias Enard and translated by Charlotte Mandell

Zone is famously, and misleadingly, a novel in the form of a single 517 page sentence. It’s about the least interesting thing you can say about the book, and it’s not even actually true.

Zone-Mathias-Enard

Francis Servain Mirkovic is travelling by night-train from Paris to Rome. He’s a French intelligence agent, formerly a Croatian nationalist fighter in the Yugoslav civil war. He’s a fascist sympathiser, a war criminal, and now arguably a traitor as his only luggage is a briefcase full of faded secrets that he plans to sell to the Vatican so that he can make a new life.

Zone follows Francis’ thoughts on the journey. Unable to sleep his mind scatters over his own past and the history of the places the train passes. Geography here is history, with near every inch of European soil the site of ancient or modern atrocities, horror and death. From time to time he dips into a novel about a Palestinian fighter, his stream of consciousness being replaced each time by the far more conventional narrative structure of that tale.

The bulk of the book, all save the three chapters where Francis is reading the novel within the novel, is stream of consciousness. Enard uses commas and natural pauses in place of full stops, so that while the narrative never quite stops (until you reach the end) it has a natural rhythm and is actually very easy to follow. Practically this means that the book does in fact have fairly clear sentences and isn’t any harder to read than most any other book, but the lack of full stops helps convey the sense of irresistible forward momentum.

History too often seems to have an irresistible forward momentum. What happens, happens, and is then left behind vanishing from view as we hurtle ever onwards into the future. If only. The reality of course is that history leaves traces that linger with us, echoes through the years and since we never learn anything from it repeats itself with changed details but a wearyingly familiar pattern.

Zone doesn’t wear its influences lightly (you really don’t need to worry much here about missing them, Apollinaire is about the only one that isn’t pretty much spelled out). Images of the Iliad in particular recur constantly, an epic poem densely packed with the tragedy and futility of war. The Trojans and Achaeans fought for money, pride and a woman, causes no less irrational than most of those which followed in future wars.

As a young man Francis was inspired by nationalist sentiment to fight in Yugoslavia, following a path of radicalisation distinctly comparable to that followed by contemporary teenagers going to join up as Jihadis in the Middle East. Francis thinks of his battles in Homerian terms, and perhaps he’s right to do so since the reality appears to have been one of lengthy waits interspersed with moments of terror and brutality, which is largely what the Iliad portrays.

Francis isn’t the cheeriest of souls:

I dreamed, sitting between two dead cities the way a tourist, swept along by the ferry that carries him, watches the Mediterranean flow by under his eyes, endless, lined with rocks and mountains those cairns signaling so many tombs mass graves slaughter-grounds a new map another network of traces of roads of railroads of rivers continuing to carry along corpses remains scraps shouts bones forgotten honored anonymous or decried in the great roll-call of history cheap glossy stock vainly imitating marble that looks like the twopenny magazine my neighbor folded carefully so as to be able to read it without effort,

By virtue of sentiment and occupation Francis looks out on the landscape and sees not the art, the social movements, the steady advances in comfort and widened opportunity, but instead the endless unmarked graves. He sees the march of industry and technology, but through the lens of two world wars, the Holocaust, the Bosnian camps and the commoditisation of carnage.

Apollo the archer of the East also guided the Turkish artillerymen near the well-guarded Dardanelles, on the banks of the Scamander, facing Cape Helles where the monument to unknown soldiers of the battle of Gallipoli stands, white as a lighthouse, you can read over 2,000 British names there for as many bodies whose remains are scattered throughout the peninsula along with the dusty bones of 1,200 unidentifiable Frenchmen from the years 1915-1916, before the Eastern Expeditionary Corps gave up and went to try its luck near Thessalonica in support of the Serbs against the Bulgarians, leaving the Dardanelles and the Bosporus inviolate after ten months of battle and 150,000 French, Algerian, Senegalese, English, Australian, New Zealanders, Sikh, Hindu, Turkish, Albanian, Arab, and German corpses, like so many Boeotians, Mycenaeans, brave Arcadians, or magnanimous Cephallenians against the Dardanians, Thracians, Pelasgians with the furious javelins, or Lycians come from afar, guided by the spear of blameless Sarpedon,

He’s right of course, ours is a bloody history. Francis was once one of those warriors, he looks back on his soldier-days and remembers companions he loved and saw maimed and killed; it was horrible but at the same time he was filled with youthful passion and purpose, he believed in something. Since then he became a bloodless functionary, recording grim secrets of uncertain importance. His briefcase is a record of testimonies of betrayals and killings across the twentieth century, lost stories destined to be locked in a Vatican archive.

Zone has been hailed as potentially one of the first truly great books of our century. I think it’s far too early to call that, but it is a thoughtful and resonant read. There’s a lot more here than statistics of slaughter. Francis’ mind turns to the three great relationships of his life, one long ended, one more recently and one that he hopes waits for him in Rome. He thinks back to his family; to his companions in Yugoslavia; to the lives and works of people like William Burroughs, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Curzio Malaparte (he has a fondness for writers of greater talent than wisdom); reflects on the daily lives and rationalisations of Nazis as they carried out their industrialised murder.

From time to time he dips into the novel he carries, about a Palestinian fighter named Intissar who has just lost her lover to an Israeli machine gun. Francis finds Intissar’s story intensely moving, its deeply personal focus on a single woman’s struggle reminds him of his own experiences in Yugoslavia but given dramatic weight, and her loss is easier to empathise with than the mass anonymity of 3,000 years of organised killing.

Defeat begins with the feet. It insinuates itself first into the same boots that were supposed to lead to victory, the ones you’d gotten ready, for years, for the last parade. Defeat begins with the boots that you polished every morning, the ones that grew misshapen, covered with dust, the ones that kept the blood from your toes as well as they could, that crushed insects, protected you from snakes, withstood stones on the path. Physical at first, like a cramp that makes you limp, defeat is a weary surprise, you begin to stumble, in war you totter on fragile feet. Suddenly you feel what you’d never felt before, your feet can no longer run, they refuse to carry you into the attack—suddenly they’re paralyzed, frozen despite the heat, they no longer want to serve the body that owns them.

Many reviews have commented on the novel within the novel having a notably clumsier technique than Francis’ own narrative, seeing it as a pastiche of banal mainstream thrillers. I think that’s a misreading, partly as I don’t think the Intissar passages are particularly badly written but mostly as Francis makes frequent literary references pretty much every one of which is to highly regarded and influential literary figures (Tsirkas crops up a lot too, and Cavafy). Instead I think the Intissar passages are showing what Francis longs for, a narrative that even if terribly sad follows a path that makes sense, that has personal meaning and that carries at the end a possibility of redemption. Francis wants to leave his own history behind, reinvent himself as a new man in Rome, trade his briefcase of dry tragedy for a life and a future that doesn’t merely continue his past.

I let myself be carried away, page after page, and although I’ve already spent a large part of my day as an ambiguous functionary reading—notes, reports, forms, on my well-guarded screen—there is nothing I desire more then than a novel, where the people are characters, a play of masks and desires, and little by little to forget myself, forget my body at rest in this chair, forget my apartment building, Paris, life itself as the paragraphs, dialogues, adventures, strange worlds flow by,

Because Zone follows the train’s route precisely we can’t of course know what happens to Francis once he disembarks. We have only his journey; his memories, fantasies and brief dreams in snatched moments of sleep. Spend 500 pages in anyone’s skull and it becomes hard not to sympathise with them, particularly if they want to reinvent themselves, to be better than they were. He has doubts himself about the possibility of what he seeks, knowing too well his own history of incipient alcoholism and mood swings as pitilessly set forth in his own personnel file held by his agency and shown to him by a friend.

I’ll have to let myself be carried to Rome and continue the battle, the fight against the Trojans great tamers of mares, against myself my memories and my dead who are watching me, making faces

The Paris-Rome train is a metal cage crossing history but never escaping it. Francis’ own history is carried with him, chained to him as he chains his briefcase to the luggage shelf. Enard avoids any easy redemptive arc; Francis may despair of the past but he can’t let go of it, he enjoys too much the minutiae of old incidents. He knows the Iliad portrays nothing worth praising, but he’s aware too of how it makes that nothing both thrilling and majestic.

I drank as I thought of Andrija’s anger of his tears after the city fell, Andi a toast for you, for your rage that day or the next I forget when Fate sent us two prisoners after an ambush, one was wounded, the other unhurt was trembling with fear he said my father has money, my father has money, if you let me go he’ ll give you a lot of money, he was too afraid to lie, we had picked them up when they were trying to desert, I was tempted to let them run, I was about to hand them over to a grunt so he could take them to Osijek, but Andrija arrived, are you out of your mind? You forgot Vukovar already? Not one of them should escape, and he machine-gunned them at length, right away, without hesitating, looking them in the eyes, fifteen cartridges each in the chest, on my bed in the Hotel Danube a toast for Andi great shepherd of warriors, a toast for the stupefied gaze of the two little Serbs when the brass pierced them, a toast for the Vukovar cemetery in the falling night, for the Ivry cemetery one spring morning, for the soldiers of ’14, the Resistants the ones condemned to death and a toast for my pater probably a murderer neither a Resistant nor a man condemned to death who is keeping them company today, as the train slows down to enter Reggio in gentle and beautiful Emilia,

I chose that final quote because while it doesn’t reference the Iliad it reminded me of it very strongly, and I think intentionally. In one scene Ulysses takes a prisoner and promises life in exchange for information, but kills as soon as he learns what he wanted to know. In another Achilles takes a young man captive who begs for his life offering ransom and who Achilles has no reason to kill, but Achilles is mad with grief for Patroclus and kills the young man anyway. Anyone who thinks the Iliad heroic in the modern sense hasn’t read it. This passage is the Iliad reduced down from myth, stripped back to needless murder.

The difficulty here with quotes is that it’s impossible to get the sense of the sheer sweep of the book. Dark as it is it’s an enjoyable read, filled with frequent diversions (admittedly mostly on rather horrible subjects) and observations. Enard’s prose rocks the reader along; you’re travelling first class here with a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.

I can’t say of course if Charlotte Mandell’s translation is any good or not (it never jars, but for all I know the original could be clunky as anything), but it’s a hell of an achievement. The sheer number of reviews of this book is in part a testament to how readable it actually is and how rewarding (or to how none of us dare criticise a book so highly praised, something I’m not looking forward to when I review Nora Webster which apparently everyone loves but me).

I’ll end with a brief comment on the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions, which is a new small press publisher in the UK with so far only four books published. Zone is exactly the sort of novel I want to see getting published in the UK. It takes risks, it tackles difficult questions of memory and history, it experiments with style without losing itself into unreadability in the process. That doesn’t mean I want more Zones; but I do want more publishers like Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Other reviews

Before I give links to some other reviews, it’s worth flagging a fascinating interview with the translator here which includes some really interesting insights into the book’s structure (including the page count being equal to the number of miles between Rome and Paris, which I hadn’t realised). If you’re cautious about spoilers it may be best leaving the interview though until after you’ve read the book, though this isn’t really a book that’s vulnerable to spoilers particularly.

On the blog front this has been very widely reviewed, particularly brilliantly by Stephen Mitchelmore at thisspace here. Other reviews I found worth noting are by Stu of Winstondad’s Blog here, at 1streading’s blog here, at the ever marvellous Workshy Fop’s blog here, and at David Hebblethwaite’s blog here, There are also of course plenty of newspaper reviews, many very good indeed. The only one I’ll link to though is Nicholas Lezard’s here, because it’s by far the most ambivalent review I’ve read of the book and so provides a nice counterpoint to the others.

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Filed under Enard, Mathias, Fitzcarraldo Editions, French Literature, Modernist Fiction

I am not a chauvinist. I am a Marseillais.

This is a double review of two books from my longer term backlog, both read last year while travelling on trains between Montpelier and Marseilles. I picked them because they were by authors I enjoy and because they seemed to fit idle Mediterranean days. Unfortunately, neither of them entirely worked out for me. The first is an Izzo; the second a Camus.

Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil, by Jean-Claude Izzo and translated by Howard Curtis

A while before I started this blog I read Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos and was blown away by it. It’s a brilliantly written slice of Marseilles noir, the first of a trilogy. I’ve long planned to reread it and then to read the sequels.

Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil (wonderful title) is a collection of Izzo essays about the Mediterranean, about Marseilles, and finally about Fabio Montale (the protagonist of the Marseilles trilogy).

Garlic

The essays here are mostly brief thought pieces, slightly reminiscent of the Bustina di Minerva column that Eco does for L’Espresso in Italy. Feuilletons essentially, Joseph Roth would have recognised them.

Izzo’s philosophy as set out in these pieces is warm, humanist, inclusive. You shouldn’t read this when hungry, as he lavishes sensuous attention on the food of Marseilles and the Mediterranean. The essays pulse with a love of life, a sheer joy in physical existence.

Izzo takes joy too in fellowship, in people breaking bread together or sharing a drink on a summer evening. He abhors rigid borders, closed doors on common humanity. Some of what he writes here is remarkably timely, particularly when you consider that Izzo died in 2000. When he speaks of our facing a “choice between the old economic, separatist, segregationist way of thinking (of the World Bank and international private capital) and a new culture, diverse, mixed, where man remains master both of his time and of his geographical and social space”, that seems to me a choice that remains urgent today.

Izzo feared a Europe that defined itself by what it wasn’t, and that in its drive to close itself off lost part of itself in the process. He was concerned that an insular Europe would have nowhere left in it for people like him:

It’s enough to make you despair. Because I don’t see any European future for Marseilles. In spite of what they say. Marseilles is a Mediterranean city. And the Mediterranean has two shores. Not just ours. Today, Europe only talks of one, and France is all too ready to fall in line. Making this sea, for the first time, a border between East and West, North and South. Separating us from Africa and Asia Minor. On behalf of the lost Andalucias, the silent Alexandria, the divided Tangier, the massacred Beirut, we ought to remember that European culture was born on the shores of the Mediterranean, in the Middle East. Europa, lest we forget, was a Phoenician goddess abducted by Zeus!

I suspect Izzo would feel today that his concerns were being borne out, particularly as we now face an ever narrower conception of the European model; a selfish and shrinking Europe which may next leave behind the Greeks, the Italians, the Portuguese, as it puts economic dogma ahead of people. Izzo recognises the ease with which we can turn people into unknown others, and the dangers of a world too sharply divided between us and them.

I also like to think that there is no point going anywhere else if we do not recognize ourselves in the eyes of the Other. That, I think, is why most tourist resorts resemble fortified camps. We don’t try to meet the Other. We only want what belongs to him. His sea, his beaches, his palm trees.

Izzo holds out Marseilles as an alternative. For him we could have something better than armed borders and fearful populations staring at each other in envy and resentment; we could have an appreciation of our own marvellous diversity and a shared delight in the sheer marvel of being alive. It’s impossibly romantic, as I’m sure he knew, but that doesn’t make it any the less powerful.

The only thing that matters is the essential, not the superfluous. And the only thing that exists here is the pleasure of the day. Tomorrow belongs to tomorrow, and is quite another story. That is the happiness of the Mediterranean, a way of giving meaning to the day, day after day.

I enjoyed these pieces and Izzo’s thoughts on food, how to live and the Mediterranean as model for the rest of Europe. It’s hard however to escape a feeling of slightness to the book.

The total page count is about 120 pages and the final fifth or so of that is pieces relating to Fabio Montale. There’s a definite bottom-of-the-drawer sense to these. They consist of a short story; a short piece by Izzo where he talks about Montale’s character in the course of which he discusses the ending of the Marseilles trilogy, which I haven’t finished yet; then some lists of places Fabio Montale likes to visit, music that relates to each book of the trilogy and finally some books Montale likes (or which are otherwise relevant to him).

Ultimately, Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil has some lovely essays which shine with a warm humanity which I think most readers would find hard to resist. Izzo’s billets would work well on the back page of a magazine or in a features section of a newspaper, amusing or mildly provoking the reader. The trouble is there just aren’t very many of them. By the time you throw in the Montale stuff at the end there’s a sense that there wasn’t really enough material for a full book.

To end with an analogy I hope Izzo might have appreciated, this is a meal consisting of a great starter, a tasty but too small main course and a pudding (in the shape of the massive spoiler) which leaves something of a sour taste. For all that though, if you have read the trilogy or are prepared to skip the Montale essay this is still worth reading, just don’t expect it to fill you up.

The Sea Close By, by Albert Camus, translated by Hamish Hamilton and Justin O’Brien

That takes me on to the second book of my train trip, a reissue by Penguin of two Camus essays – The Sea Close By (1954) and Summer in Algiers (1938).

Sea close by

These are short pieces by Camus, written at different ends of his life but sharing common themes. They’re both effortlessly quotable, even at his slightest Camus has a wonderful prose style. These are summer essays, drenched in heat and light. They’re lovely to read, but surprisingly hard to remember even moments afterwards (save perhaps for an impression of light glittering across the waves, but perhaps that’s fitting given Camus’ philosophy).

The famous Camusian existentialism (absurdism, properly speaking) makes its appearance here, but perhaps less harshly than in some of his more famous works. This sentence, for me clearly born of a Catholic upbringing, is I think tremendously powerful:

For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.

Unfortunately, it’s all rather undercut by the description of the Algerians themselves, which is colonialist if you’re feeling kind and just plain racist if you’re not. Camus here treats Algerians as a form of noble savage, people in touch with some essence of life but devoid of culture. They are beautiful animals to him, denied their own interiority:

Here intelligence has no place as in Italy. This race is indifferent to the mind. It has a cult for an admiration of the body.

It’s an ugly note and one that for me rather poisoned the whole piece. Izzo romanticises, but he makes himself part of what he romanticises and he does so I think knowingly, because he’s creating a dream of a better Europe. Camus here romanticises as a tourist, rendering human beings into scenery.

There’s actually a lot more to it than that of course, and like all Camus pieces it’s easy to dig deeper and pull out much more meaning (so why haven’t I? I read these months ago and quite frankly they just don’t stick in the memory the way, say, The Stranger does). Still, it’s a slight read with some unfortunately patrician undertones and I think there’s a reason this part of the Camus back-catalogue isn’t better remembered. Lovely cover though.

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Filed under Camus, Albert, Izzo, Jean-Claude

I was meant to be doing all the things I used to talk about and I was doing nothing

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, by Alice Furse

It takes a particular talent to depict boredom without being boring; to show stasis without losing the reader along the way. In Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, Alice Furse brilliantly captures that awful sense that your life is happening almost independently of you, trundling along without any regard to what you might have wanted from it.

The unnamed narrator in Everybody is recently graduated, finally starting to live her independent adult life. It’s not what she’d hoped for. Her English degree isn’t in much demand; her boyfriend from university whom she loves has only managed to find work as a traffic warden; and  she spends her days watching daytime tv, eating toasted cheese sandwiches and buying second-hand books. She “had been led to believe that such a lifestyle would be romantic and bohemian, but it was neither.”

Furse

She gets a data input job at a company called Weblands. It’s not entirely clear what they do there, or if anyone would much care if they stopped doing it. It’s a heads-down sort of place, and she doesn’t have much in common with the rest of the staff. She turns up, fills out forms online, eats lunch, fills out more forms, goes home. All her education and aspirations have led to this, and what’s worse is she doesn’t even have an idea of what might be better.

One day, I got up at 17.00 and said, “Goodbye, everyone,” to all of the customer services. No one even looked up.

pointlessjobs2

Life with her boyfriend is settling into the ordinary routines of buying groceries, cooking dinner, cleaning the flat, arguing with neighbours over noise or bins, mundanity. I suspect most people reading this blog have been there and it’s a bloody time; that Schrodinger collapse from the student world of freedom and possibility into a life suddenly crammed with structure and things that have to be done just to keep everything ticking along.

After two months of living with the Traffic Warden it was obvious that our trips round the supermarket had changed from when we’d been students. We were not stoned and in pyjamas, there to pick up ready-made potato wedges and muffins and chocolate milk and fags and then speed back to the warmth of my messy bedroom. Suddenly we were a Young Couple who had a small trolley together instead of a basket each and argued over salt content and what bread to get.

The traffic warden (she never gives his name) is showing signs of being more traditional than she’d realised when they were at university. He figures that eventually she’ll give up work, have children and stay at home. He has their life mapped out, but he hasn’t asked her about it as it didn’t occur to him her plans were any different. She loves him, but that doesn’t stop her feeling lonely.

In one sense Everybody is an utterly contemporary book, showing exactly what it’s like to find yourself with a useless degree and a mountain of student debt emerging into an economy that has no use for you. In another sense though it captures a classic moment of crisis – that shock of finding quite how dull the adult world can be, that sense of being adrift while you try to work out what the hell you want to do with your life and if there’s any chance of actually doing it.

Sometimes I decided that there had to be another life out there, waiting for me to step into it like a new shoe. My life felt as if it didn’t match me at all, as if I’d picked up the wrong one by accident. I’d arrived here by mistake, taken a wrong turning on the map. I imagined that I was a character in a video game, and there was a button for a trapdoor, to take me to the next level, somewhere else, anywhere else, and all I had to do was find it.

What’s rather wonderful about Everybody is that all this could be terribly bleak, or worse yet dull, and yet it isn’t. Furse has a neat sense of comedy, partly in situations like the narrator’s habit of stealing office supplies as a form of revenge on the tedium of office life, but mostly in Furse’s deadpan tone.

Some of the humour here is decidedly pointed, such as the slightly surreal series of visits by an elderly neighbour who refuses to speak to the narrator and who when she asks a question replies as if it had been the traffic warden instead of her who’d spoken. It reminded me of restaurants I’ve been too where my wife asks for the wine menu only for it to be given to me, where she then chooses the wine only for them to offer me the chance to taste it, and where if she asks for the bill they hand it to me (restaurants we don’t go back to I should add).

In one of the cleverer aspects of the novel, Furse early on sharply defines the characters of the narrator and the traffic warden, but the office staff seem fuzzy and interchangeable. As the book progresses their personalities emerge too, reflecting the narrator’s increasing ability to distinguish between them. It’s elegantly done, so that by the time you’re two-thirds of the way into the novel people who at first seemed to be bland clones of each other have become utterly separate and convincing. To her horror the narrator realises that some of them, maybe even all of them, may be having the same doubts she is and may be just as bored and surprised by the life they find themselves living.

It’s easy to see how one could say this is a novel about the problems of being a young woman or a new graduate in modern Britain, but I’m none of those things and yet it resonated hugely with me. I think that’s because while at one level it’s all very particular and specific, the underlying emotions are ones many of us have had.

As I was reading Everybody I was reminded of Post Office and Factotum, Bukowski’s forensic examinations of the absurdity of work (and by his economy of style too). Interestingly, just as I was thinking that the narrator picked up a copy of a Bukowski that her boyfriend was reading. She doesn’t like it, finding the ease with which he gets women to sleep with him in his narrative fantastical and pathetic given he’s an aging alcoholic with a ruined body (which is a pretty fair point). Perhaps that’s another way to view Everybody, as like a Bukowski novel with a young contemporary woman in place of an aging alcoholic man.

Looking back at my writeup of Factotum I see I said “The point is looking straight at what is and writing it down.” That sentence works pretty well for Furse too. She looks at what is and she writes it down. Put that way it sounds simple, but if it were more writers would be doing it.

Other reviews

Anthony of Timesflowstemmed wrote an elegant and punchy review of Everybody here, which first alerted me to the book and without which I would never have heard of it. There’s another excellent review here from the marvellously named Workshy Fop blog, which I note also calls the book deadpan. It’s always reassuring to find someone else describing a book the same way as you have yourself, it suggests you haven’t utterly missed the point (or if you have at least you’re not the only one who has).

Finally, there’s a nice interview with Furse here on Dan Holloway’s blog. Furse says at one point “I like cold hard reality and no frills dialogue.” which is certainly true, and absolutely key to the book’s success. Also, she argues that Plath’s Bell Jar isn’t just for teenage girls, which I absolutely agree with and which I think is an incredibly dismissive way to treat a genuinely classic novel. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Seriously, that’s a great opening line for any book.

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Filed under Furse, Alice