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Florian Zeller: Artificial Snow

One of the pitfalls of reading literature in translation is that some authors see their work, if they see it all, come to the English language in a chronology all of their own. Artificial Snow (2002) was Florian Zeller’s debut novel, but it’s the last of his four to be translated and published. Reading his book, therefore, has almost been an exercise in regression. Having started with the mature and satisfying, The Fascination Of Evil, we now find ourselves back when the author, in his early twenties, was learning his trade and was style trying veer off from Kundera to a style all his own.

Artificial Snow, like Zeller’s recent novel, Julien Parme, is a coming of age novel, although it has more in common with his second, Lovers Or Something Like It, in that it deals with young Parisians caught up in the foibles of love, relationships, and their own self-importance. The last of these is exemplified when Zeller makes the decision to include himself in the novel:

Florian was a strange guy. He was twenty-one and a bit. Quite a bit. His life had been turned upside down by one incident and he’s never been the same again. When he was ten, during one of his experiments, he’d poked a piece of wire into an electric socket while holding it in his mouth. […] It was feared he’d lose the power of speech but, after intensive care, the only after-effects were a fierce desire to write books and a weird hairstyle: his hair seemed to be permanently crystallised on his head like untidy stalagmites.

Zeller, author of the novel, opens with a section titled ‘Boring prologue’ that reflects the disaffected nature of himself, which in turn sets the mood for the book itself:

Everything seemed terribly boring: getting up in the morning, going to bed at night, pretending not to pretend, shaking hands, being polite and romantic, studying and getting good marks, everything. I even found the prologue of the novel I was trying to write after a fashion tragically boring. But, then again, deleting it was even more boring.

From here we move into the narrator’s story, which begins with him missing his train on the Metro.  It’s a fine, if obvious, metaphor that foreshadows the main plot of the novel – that of relationships being like trains, where you hop on and off as life dictates. The train the narrator has missed was to take him to a party which carries some importance to him: Lou is going to be there (“In my dreams, she called me “my darling”; in reality, she didn’t call me at all…”) and he’s quite interested in getting back together with her after a brief relationship a few years before, even if it goes against all he believes in:

We’d spent a few nights together at the time and I didn’t like the idea of doing something I’d already done before. I felt that repeating things was always proof of failure. Getting back together with a girl was like admitting you hadn’t found anything better since, it was like admitting you’d reached your sexual peak somewhere between fifteen and sixteen; that sucked.

Even if the narrator would prefer not to go back, his love for Lou snowballs into obsession, so much so that he finds himself following her, maintaining a distance, and seeing his love melt when she doesn’t notice him, kisses another lover. When it looks as if all hope of reconciliation has faded, there seems only one solution: to wreak terrible acts of violence on her, to kill her. However:

The best crime, the best revenge, was to cheat on her, cheat on her as much as possible, defile her memory with fleeting moments of pleasure.

As far as story goes in Artificial Snow, there’s little of it, with Zeller preferring to relay a few events, presumably autobiographical, given his own inclusion in the novel, and to reflect on them, preferring philosophy over plot. While some of his lines are a tad simple (“making love and fucking are two very different things”) there’s still an invigorating energy running through the prose that skips past these, like them or not, and leads straight in to the next. Also, following the narration can be a little difficult at times, what with Zeller narrating in addition to his narrator, who just so happens to have a recurrent friend called Florian Zeller? Are the two Zellers the same? It’s foggy, but the openness of it is a welcome ponderable.

Shakespeare provides an epigraph at the start of the book, one that recurs later in the prose, saying where goes the white when melts the snow? Zeller’s snow is that of childhood, those crisp sheets of memory that we play over in our mind but can never return to. Here, the white turns to sludge, something tricky for the narrator to pull himself out from but altogether necessary for growing up. In writing Artificial Snow it seems a vessel for Zeller to grow up in. Later books show that it worked.

December 4, 2008  1 Comment

Evelio Rosero: The Armies

Colombia has, for some time now, been plagued by all manner of violence, starting with La Violencia in the late forties, through the rise of guerilla groups, and continuing to this day with the sprawling narcotics industry. Sixty years of bloodshed, naturally, will hang heavy on the national consciousness, and it’s this that Evelio Rosero turns to in his novel, The Armies (2007), which won the Premio Tusquets Editories de Novela in 2006. (The book came out in Spanish after the prize was won, in case you’re wondering.)

It’s little surprise that, with a novel built around a situation notorious for the gross violation of human rights that the book should come recommended by PEN. The recommendation is not a one off, as they’ve recently been supporting a number of translated titles which in some way reflect the PEN Charter. It’s a worthy cause, freedom of speech, and in The Armies Rosero gives a voice to those caught up in a turmoil not of their making, who have no voice.

Ismael is a seventy year old man, a retired teacher, living in the sunny mountain town of San José with his wife, Otilia. There’s not much to his days, now that he’s retired. He feeds the fish, takes walks, and climbs the ladder to pick from the orange tree as a subterfuge to spying on his neighbour’s wife, something which his wife tells him he should at least try and be subtle about. All in all, the pace Rosero opens his novel with is an enjoyable, breezy read, where you just want to take your time and admire the view:

The Brazilian’s wife, the slender Geraldina, sought out the heat on her terrace, completely naked, lying face down on the red floral quilt. At her side, in the refreshing shade of a ceiba tree, the Brazilian’s enormous hands roved astutely along his guitar, and his voice rose, placid and persistent, between the sweet laughter of the macaws; this is how the hours proceeded on their terrace, amid sunlight and music.

While San José sounds almost paradisial, there are hints that all is not well with the world. Explosions and gunshots are heard, first far off, then nearer. Rosero casually mentions coca fields located near the town, which clue the reader in to the proximity of the drug trafficking trade, and by proxy the guerrillas who fund themselves through it. People disappear, sometimes never to be heard of again. Despite all these intrusions on daily life, the author deals not with the people who threaten the village but how the lives of those resident are affected, not just in San José, but all over Colombia:

Years ago, before the attack on the church, displaced people from other towns used to pass through our town; we used to see them crossing the highway, interminable lines of men and children and women, silent crowds with neither bread nor destinations. Years ago, three thousand indigenous people stayed for a long while in San José, but eventually had to leave due to extreme food shortages in the improvised shelters.

Now it is our turn.

While the majority of the population flees, Ismail stays. His wife has gone missing and, having nothing to live for, sees no reason to run. He spends the time looking for her, asking people returning with ransom notices if she was with the taken. Added to his desperation is the fact his age is not so much creeping up on him but gaining: his memory is not what it used to be, he finds himself more and more confused by events going on around him. Sadly, the confusion that Rosero generates in the character transfers to the reader. Not the understanding of the man’s increasing disorientation, but actual confusion brought about by vague passages the book sometimes becomes guilty of. At times like this Ismail’s narration never runs as deep as it could, never quite giving a good account of his inner turmoil, and leaving the surface with few tangible scratches.

There are occasions when being vague works. The title, for example. San José represents any old town in Colombia, its streets home to the full set of stock trades: the doctor, the priest, the pastry seller. From time to time the towns find themselves the target of kidnappings, murders, rapes, and other atrocities. It’s so commonplace that the victimes don’t even know who their aggressors are this time. Are they guerrillas? Paramilitaries? Perhaps even the national armed forces? What makes it all the more shocking is the government’s attitude:

The contingents of soldiers, who while away their time in San José, for months, as if it were reborn peacetime, have been  considerably reduced. In any case, with them or without them the events of war will always loom, intensifies. If we see fewer soldiers, we are not informed of this in an official way; the only declaration from the authorities is that everything is under control; we hear it on the news – on small battery-operated radios, because we still have no electricity – we read it in the delayed newspapers; the President affirms that nothing is happening here, neither here nor anywhere in the country is there a war; according to him Otilia is not missing…and so many others of this town died of old age, and I laugh again, why do I laugh just when I discover that all I want to do is sleep without waking?

In The Armies Rosero does his nation a service, bringing the plight of its innocent people to the forefront of others’ imaginations. Issues of prolongued abduction, unnecessary murder, and child soldiers all brought under the spotlight. The biggest issue is in the telling, Ismail’s failing mind ultimately failing to wrench a huge roar back at the world, leaving him whimpering for the most part about how he’d rather be dead than alive. Surely there’s more to be said?

When the soldiers of whatever army to come down to San José they always come with a list of names.

Why do they ask for names? They kill whoever they please, no matter what their names might be. I would like to know what is written on the paper with the names, that “list”. It is a blank sheet of paper, for God’s sake. A paper where all the names they want can fit.

Between the lines of The Armies is a list of names, unprinted, and non-fictional. It’s an eye-opener of a book, and in this respect it’s certainly important. But the narration of Ismail, in his confusion, is quite capable of closing a few eyes too.

December 1, 2008  2 Comments

J.D. Salinger: The Catcher In The Rye

There are a number of novels out there that people are expected to have read at some point in their youth. Not to have done so is, in a word, shameful. This is the position that I’ve found myself in with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye (1951), a copy of which I bought many years ago, perhaps even twelve, when I was the same age as its infamous narrator, Holden Caulfield. That copy has sat unread on my shelves all that time, its pages yellowing.

Part of the reason I’ve not read it is that I thought I knew it already.  What with its famous opening, the defiant nature of Holden Caulfiend, and a slim understanding that the novel concerned, to some degree, Caulfield’s younger sister, what more was there to know? Loads, apparently, especially on realising the book wasn’t about baseball. What forced me to finally take the book off the shelves is that it’s a universal reference point for so much fiction employing a youthful narrator shaking his fist at the world.

Having mentioned the opening to the novel, it seems only fair to show it, acknowledging the immediate strength and attitude to Caulfield’s voice:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Although novels had long moved from the verbiage of the serial novel, Salinger is quick to show that this is no payment-by-the-word affair, but that of a person with their own ideas of what the story should be. Salinger maintains the consistency of the voice through almost two hundred pages, but what’s most interesting is who Caulfield is addressing. At first it appears he is speaking to us, the reader, but as the opening paragraph rolls on there are references that suggest this isn’t just any old tête à tête between book and reader. References to his brother visiting him once a week in “this crumby place” and going home, but not for a while yet, hint at what’s going on, but as the novel progresses the truth becomes clear.

The Catcher In The Rye sees Caulfield reflecting on an event that happened to him the year before. He begins at Pencey, his preparatory school, in the lead up to Christmas. He won’t be coming back after the holiday, having flunked all his subjects save English, and a letter has been dispatched to his parents back home in New York. After a few altercations with fellow students, a plan forms in his head:

I’d decided what I’d really do, I’d get the hell out of Pencey – right that same night and all. I mean not wait till Wednesday or anything. I just didn’t want to hang around any more. It made me sad and lonesome. So what I’d decided to do, I decided I’d take a room in a hotel in New York – some very inexpensive hotel and all – and just take it easy till Wednesday. Then, on Wednesday, I’d go home all rested up and feeling swell…I sort of needed a little vacation. My nerves were shot. They really were.

Even though Caulfield is a year older, and seems more calm and collected than the younger self he describes, there is a sense that he’s never being fully honest with us. It’s to be expected from someone who says he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.” At one point, early in the story, he discusses the way he acts, and although the lies he tells us about telling to others at times sound absurd, the down to earth believability of this are deliberately ambiguous. Truth or not, the sad thing is that while he thinks he’s deceiving others, he’s deceiving himself about why he does it: for attention.

I was sixteen then, and I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen. It’s really ironical, because I’m six foot two and a half and I have gray hair. I really do. The one side of my head – the right side – is full of millions of gray hairs. I’ve had them ever since I was a kid. And yet I still act sometimes like I was only about twelve. Everybody says that, especially my father. It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. People always think something’s all true. I don’t give a damn, except that I get bored sometimes when people tell me to act my age. Sometimes I act a lot older than I am – I really do – but people never notice it. People never notice anything.

In my misconceptions of The Catcher In The Rye being about baseball (although a baseball glove does feature), I’d assumed that the title referred, in some way, to playing baseball in a field of rye. Simple, I know. I was surprised, however, to see, as the story makes clear, that it’s another classic American novel, like Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, taking its title from a Robert Burns poem, in this case Comin’ Thro’ The Rye, a poem that calls for self responsibility without busybodies interfering. It’s a reference to an image Caulfield has of children playing in a field of rye near a cliff where he is there to catch them as they fall, something he misinterprets as to do with the preservation of his sister Phoebe’s childhood, a misunderstanding that leads to epiphany.

That The Catcher In The Rye is often seen as a novel best read in one’s youth is perhaps true in part. The wise words of a teacher, coupled with Caulfield’s realisation showing he is on the path to adulthood, is geared for that age group. The masterly control Salinger shows in his anti-hero’s voice, a casual, limited vernacular, capable of expressing (and suppressing) a great deal of content and experience. Growing up is painful, and Caulfield’s as good a guide as any. But as an adult, the enjoyment of the book is not in its lessons but its allusions, tone, and its character, all satisfying, and nary a whiff of didacticism making the novel feel like a life lived than one taught. In talking about books, Holden says it best:

What I like best is a book that’s at least funny once in a while. I read a lot of classical books like The Return of the Native and all, and I like them, and I read a lot of war books and mysteries and all, but they don’t knock me out too much. What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.

Ah, Salinger: he doesn’t write, he doesn’t call. Perhaps that’s why.

November 27, 2008  10 Comments

Augusto Monterroso: The Black Sheep and Other Fables

To call him an unknown name is perhaps to do Augusto Monterroso a disservice, for while he may not be known in many English speaking circles, he’s a well known writer among Spanish speakers. An influential one too, considering the praise that this dinky edition of fables from Acorn Book Company, carries inside. Names such as Gabriel García Márquez, Maria Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes – all familiar names in Latin American letters. Even Italo Calvino, citing Monterroso’s work as “the most beautiful stories in the world”, can’t hold back.

Monterroso’s seeming obscurity, in the face of better known names, is perhaps down to his output. He wrote, for the most part, short stories. Or, more apt, based on the array of titles in this slim volume, short-short stories. Indeed, he arguably lays claim to the shortest short story put to print, the single sentence The Dinosaur (“When he woke the dinosaur was still there.”)

This terse storytelling, where only the bare details are given, force the stories onto the reader’s imagination. Monterroso, however, isn’t just about le mot juste that allows him to skimp on the detail, but he’s also interested in subverting well known notions. In the opening fable he brings about the meeting of a rabbit and lion, the former fleeing while the latter roars and claws the air. Only, the lion is declared the coward, thanks to a psychoanalyst watching over and citing how this can be so.

Animals play a large part in The Black Sheep and Other Fables (1969), each recognisably human in their own way. In one story, The Owl Who Wanted To Save Humankind, Monterroso casts his net over the animal world and captures all this is human:

…he took to musing on the evident acts of wickedness that the Lion commits with his power; on the frailty of the Ant, who gets squashed flat every day, even when he is at his busiest; on the laughter of the Hyena, which is always out of place; on the Dove, who complains about the very air that sustains him in flight; on the Spider, who traps the Fly, and on the Fly, who with all his intelligence lets the Spider trap him; in short, on the whole range of defects that made Humankind so wretched…

In Penelope’s Cloth, or Who Is Deceiving Whom, there are no animals, and instead we get a retelling of the Ulysses myth, supposing that Ulysses hasn’t went off adventuring of his own volition, leaving Penelope at home, but was pushed. Other Classical figures featuring among the collection are Pygmalion and Achilles, cursing Zeno of Elea for his loss, in the philosophical race against the tortoise.

That the stories be considered fables may be a further subversion by Monterroso, being a far cry from the traditional moral tale popularly ascribed to Aesop. But in their brevity, they take on an all-knowing life of their own, sketching complex traits that can be coloured in with meaning. Even when there’s no physical life in the story, such as in The Lightning That Struck In The Same Place Twice, Monterroso forces emotion into the story, creating an unexpected depth, with the slightest of brush strokes:

Once there was a Flash of Lightning that struck in the same place twice. But it found that it had done enough damage the first time round and was no longer necessary, and it got very depressed.

In parallel to the thick vein of human understanding, there runs a strong sense of humour. The unexpected delight of The Monologue Of Evil, countered with the monologue of its opposite number, works extremely well; the satire of The Chameleon Who Ended Up Not Knowing What Colour To Turn expertly mocks politics; and one can just imagine Franz Kafka enjoying this twisting story:

Once there was a Cockroach called Gregor Samsa who dreamt he was a Cockroach called Franz Kafka who dreamt he was a writer who wrote about a clerk called Gregor Samsa who dreamt he was a Cockroach.

While the stories may be beautiful, to echo Calvino’s praise, the stories often feel too lightweight to truly enjoy. Marvel at, yes; ponder, yes; but enjoy? It’s hard to enjoy when they are over, almost before they’ve begun.  Perhaps the brevity that makes them so influential in the Spanish speaking world, having been captured in their initial language, is their albatross in the English language, making Monterroso a sort of black sheep of Latin American literature: a hugely popular writer we hardly know. In the title fable the black sheep is shot to give sculptors a muse; the lack of Monterroso’s work in English, over a fifty year career, may be his sacrifice so that we get Márquez, Llosa, Fuentes, and the rest of the flock.

November 24, 2008  1 Comment

James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice

Following on from a recent review of Albert Camus’ L’Étranger at Mookse, I was struck by something read in the comment – that Camus took his inspiration from an American crime novel. Now, I’d heard of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), was aware it had been adapted for the screen, but still knew nothing about it. In all honesty, when I thought about it, all I could recall was a Sesame Street spoof from the Monsterpiece Theatre series with Alistair Cookie.

That the title, at least, had ingrained itself in culture made me curious enough to read it, my previous indifference to Camus’ acclaimed novel aside. In preparing to do so there was the feeling, not having read much crime fiction before, that it would be best to understand what ‘hardboiled’ meant in relation to the text, to get an angle on it. Interestingly, I came across a quote by Raymond Chandler, himself a name from the hardboiled stable, calling Cain “a Proust in greasy overalls”, amongst other things.

The Postman Always Rings Twice was Cain’s first novel, following on from a collection of essays, and is arguably one of the most important crime novels of the 20th Century. Where most crime fiction would follow the detective, Cain’s novel throws out such characters and instead zooms in on the people that matter most: the criminals and their victim.

Much of the action here takes place at the Twin Oaks Tavern, “a roadside sandwich joint, like a million others in California” run by Nick Papadakis, commonly referred to as the Greek, and his attractive young wife, Cora. It’s the presence of the latter that leads the narrator, a drifter called Frank Edwards, to quickly change his tune about the ubiquity of such joints.

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

The speed of the prose is exhilarating, for having only just spotted Cora a couple of pages into the book, they have a furtive relationship cooked up in little more than a few pages of terse dialogue, a relationship simmering with so much steam that when she implores him to ‘Bite me! Bite me!’, you believe she means it. It’s what the moment will do for you.

I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

Relationships built to last were never meant to have a third person and in all this, marriage or not, the Greek falls foul of the nefarious plans of wife and her beau. Once again, Cain’s performance in all this is a high octane approach to his prose and it’s a matter of mere pages before the couple are plotting the Greek’s death so as to ensure she keep the diner. Over-plotting is more apt, for the meticulous detailing of the perfect murder unravels due to an unforeseen – and unforseeable – circumstance, becoming a botched operation. Thankfully, the Greek remains blissfully unaware of the conspiracy around him. It’s only when they get up the courage to have a second attempt at dispatching him, on a road trip this time, that the novel’s greater complexity kicks off.

She got in, and took the wheel again, and me and the Greek kept on singing, and we went on. It was all part of the play. I had to be drunk, because that other time had cured me of this idea we could pull a perfect murder. This was going to be such a lousy murder it wouldn’t even be a murder.

Prosecutions, accidents, murder, blackmail – all these comes together in a lattice of twists and turns that solidify the novel as a whole, even if a passage on the ins, outs, and bucking of the legal system proved a tad confusing for this reader. Even when Cain has seen his characters go through hell and back he delivers a final twist that, to be honest, was probably more of a twist at the time of publication. Likewise, in a day when sexual content in a book barely causes the batting of an eyelid, the tame nature of the sex in The Postman Always Rings Twice, what was once considered controversial, makes it hard to gauge objectively the impact of its force.

It’s easy to see what Chandler meant when describing Cain in greasy overalls as there’s a certain roughness to the prose, although the colloquial style feels right here, feels believable. This is Cain’s strength, that he can get to the heart of people, capture their basic impulse, and make a wider story from a  patchwork of dialogue and snappy sentences. While the novel’s effect may have worn with age, there’s no denying that in The Postman Always Rings Twice Cain delivers, which is more than can be said for the postman, who doesn’t even make an appearance. Not in person, anyway.

November 19, 2008  4 Comments

John Fante: 1933 Was A Bad Year

As the opening to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina makes clear, unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, and in dealing only with its own families it leaves a wealth of stories about unhappy families to be told. 1933 Was A Bad Year (1985), a posthumously published novel by John Fante, concerns one such unhappy family: the Molises, a three generation family with its roots in Italy and branches in the United States.

It should be noted that Fante himself was the son of an Italian immigrant and his fiction bears a  semi-autobiographical signature. The hardships of life in the Depression and his Catholic upbringing are readily present in his fiction, and in a life that stretched over seventy years he produced a paltry amount of it: not because he took his time, but that times were hard and he drifted into movies, penning scripts, like him, long forgotten, because the money was better. Indeed, it was only once Bukowski declared him “his God” that he was ‘remembered’ again.

As the title of the book makes clear, the action is set in 1933. At that time our narrator, Dominic Molise, is a seventeen year old with dreams of becoming an American sporting legend, a southpaw pitching for the Chicago Cubs. His poverty stricken situation doesn’t deter his dreams – after all, some of the most successful names he can rhyme off were once like him.

I could feel my future making waves around me, the promise of days to come, the exciting years that lay ahead. It was always this way with great men, a stirring in their bones, a mysterious energy that set them apart from the rest of mankind. They knew! They were different. Edison was deaf. Steinmetz was a hunchback. Babe Ruth was an orphan, Ty Cobb a poor Georgia boy. Giannini started with nothing. People thought Henry Ford was crazy. Carnegie was a runt like myself. Tony Canzoneri came out of the slums. Poor young men, touched with magic, lucky in America.

Molise’s left arm is his ticket to the big time, so much so that it’s a character of its own, which he refers to as Arm throughout ( “Oh, Arm! Strong and faithful arm, talk sweetly to me now.”). While he would use it for baseball, for “fame and fortune and victory”, his father has other ideas – like training him up in the family trade, bricklaying, so that they can be father and son, working together, paying debts and, with their savings, some day going into the lumber business.

So, there it was. The whole book. The Tragic Life of Dominic Molise, written by his father. Part One: The Thrills of Bricklaying. Part Two: Fun in a Lumber Yard. Part Three: How To Let Your Father Ruin Your Life. Part Four: Here Lies Dominic Molise, Obedient Son.

Molise has had a stint working for his father before, a summer job, and what he recalls most is that “the Arm resented it and was sore all the time”. To his mind, it wouldn’t make sense to toil away with bricks chasing a dream of lumber yards when, observing his father, he notes:

He himself was a very good bricklayer, laying them as expertly as he shot pool, fast and neat and with a rhythm, but he stayed poor just the same, no matter how hard he worked, until it was plain that being poor was not his fault but the fault of his trade.

Why put your back out when other dreams are less intensive? Molise, with his friend, Ken Parrish, a richer kid from the other side of town, contrive a plan to earn the cash to travel east from Colorado. The only problem is that in raising the cash, the effect on the family could be catastrophic, especially such a tightknit family living in a single house, all dependent on the income of an ailing business.

The focus on family, another of Fante’s staples, is drawn well in 1933 Was A Bad Year. Molise’s siblings come and go, more than can be said of his father. The tensions brought about by debts (“‘the rent, the lights, the gas, the butcher, the doctor, the bank, the lumber yard'”) threaten to implode the family. And, always at home, never making things any easier, are Grandma Bettina (“She had not wanted to come to America, but my grandfather had given her no other choice.”), and Molise’s mother, too rapt in religion to truly care for what’s going on around her:

Prayer! What good was it? What had it done for her? My father beside her in bed every night, listening to the clicking of her rosary, finding her on her knees, shivering in the cold, what the hell are you doing down there, come to bed for Christ’s sake before you freeze to death, her prayers a snapping whip at his ass, reminding him of his worthlessness, his wife like a child writing letters to Santa Claus, collapsing from life into the arms of God, of St Teresa, of the Virgin Mary….God’s victim, my father’s victim, her children’s victim, she walked about with the wounds of Christ in her hands and feet, a crown of thorns about her head…I longed for the day of revolt when she would break a wine jug over my father’s head, smack Bettina in the mouth and beat us children with a stick. But she punished us instead with Our Fathers and Hail Marys, she strangled us with a string of rosary beads.

Reading Fante is always a joy, his prose punchy, breezy, and warm with humour. That he can, seemingly without effort, make a light work of a time in history where life was downright miserable brings to mind Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, although the two could hardly be any further from each other in style. Like Fante’s Wait Until Spring, Bandini, this novel is also a coming-of-age novel – bricklayers, poverty, Depression – but then, as I noted before, unhappy famililes are different in their own way, and, even though both books follow Fante’s themes, the Bandinis and the Molises are unhappy in their own way.

November 16, 2008  9 Comments

Alasdair Gray @ Waterstone’s 6th-Nov-2008

A great deal of my reading tends to involve works from all over the world. Places as far flung as Japan, Hungary, and Mexico. Rarely does it occur to me to dig around the literature concerning home. It may, in part, be a rebellion against the Scottish writers read during school, even though in retrospect I liked the poetry of Edwin Morgan and Robert Burns; I liked Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, later voted Scotland’s favourite novel. An honourable mention to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, too – my favourite of his plays that I’ve read or attended live.

Alasdair Gray is, as well as being a home town man, an all round polymath. Novelist, artist, poet, playwright, and more. His most famous work is Lanark: A Life In 4 Books, which prompted Anthony Burgess to say “it was time Scotland produced a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom. This is it…” expanding this by calling Gray “the best Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott.” His other works perhaps live in its shadow, but he has consistently published new work, last year’s Old Men In Love ending an eleven year year wait for a new novel – a wait that had nevertheless been punctuated with short stories, poetry, and non-fiction.

This evening a small crowd has gathered for the launch of Fleck, Gray’s new play. Fleck, as the author reveals, began as an attempt to create a modern verse translation of Goethe’s Faust, something that was quite tricky since he doesn’t speak German. While he acknowledges that the prologue and first act are faithful to Goethe’s play, he found that there were deviations to be made. The contemporary setting led him on a different path and, where Goethe’s Faust gets an eleventh hour reprieve, Gray says he felt that a level of purgatory was required for “the rotten bastard.” Thus it came to be that Faust became Fleck, although an extended version appears on his publisher’s website: “I hoped the National Theatre of Scotland would commission me to complete it, but learned that Theatre had just produced a new translation of Goethe’s Faust by John Clifford. So I changed the name to Fleck, and the last two Acts and Epilogue are wholly un-Goethean.”

Gray’s publisher this time round is Two Ravens Press, a husband and wife team based in Ullapool, a far cry from the literary hub of London. Gray publishes with Scottish firms for patriotic reasons and has picked a rising star of the publishing scene this time out. Two Ravens Press, having recently turned two years old, has been prodigious in its output, putting out over thirty books. Most have been new names, although if Alice Thompson’s name can raise a few eyebrows as to the pull of Two Ravens Press, the name of Alasdair Gray must surely be the jewel in the crown. Part of the reason is that Gray likes to work with typesetters so that his vision of how the book should look is realised. In days gone by Canongate, Bloomsbury, and Jonathan Cape would have paid to typeset in Glasgow so that Gray, with his friend Joe Murray, could watch over.

David Knowles, one half of the publisher, introduced Gray with the question of how to introduce Alasdair Gray. In fact he was introducing Gray and his former secretary, Rodge Glass, here to assist him with a reading. And what a reading it was. Gray’s voice is grounded in his Glaswegian accent, although it’s enhanced with crisp pronunciation, and lilted with playful sparkle. When he reads he captures the voice and rhythm of Nick so well – and so he should, he wrote him – that the belief is there that he could add actor to his repertoire – if he hasn’t already. The pair bounded through the prologue and a section of the first act, playing lines off against each other and coming back twice as enthusing.

By contrast the following question and answer section was a tad disappointing. While I attend author events more for this section, I was wishing for more from the reading. It had its moments though, opened by a question from Knowles, asking about how the idea for something in Fleck came about, to which Gray proceeded in a Tristram Shandy tale of diversions, beginning with the Bible and the story of Job and leading off in all directions, halfway through noting that he was “raving”, and then carrying on with the plot of Goethe’s Faust to the point where, in explaining the changes in Fleck, he ceased, after bemused flappings from Two Ravens Press at the side, as he was about to give away the secrets of the play. Then did so anyway. Sort of.

Beyond that there was only one other question on whether there are plans afoot to stage Fleck. No, and the BBC most likely won’t film it as a one-off due to certain content in the ending, whatever that is. It must be a relief for the writer, when questions aren’t forthcoming; it means they can get their pen out, sign some books, and call a cab early. But it must also be upsetting that people make the effort to turn up without a question to air. Many, it seems, have their questions best asked one to one and I, standing at the rear of a queue, listen to the laughter coming my way from both Gray and his fans. I’ve not read him myself, and in telling him this he notes that Lanark is jumping in at the deep end. It may be that, but deep ends are the best place to dive into.

November 7, 2008  10 Comments

Michel Faber: The Fire Gospel

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I have a hit or miss relationship with the Canongate Myths series. The contributions of Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood failed to excite me and, expecting no less from Ali Smith (see Girl Meets Boy), found myself suitably impressed. Now Michel Faber has entered the arena to present his reworking of the Prometheus myth, of how he stole fire from Zeus and gifted it to humanity, subsequently being punished for his crime.

Unlike the other writers in the Myths series so far, Faber is one I do enjoy reading: his style is always light, his subject matter nothing if not protean. One only has to read his story collections to get a feel for the variety he’s capable of. Introduced via his The Crimsol Petal And The White, a huge, postmodern Victorian tale concerning the rise of a prostitute to civilised society, I was quick to seek out his other works – another novel, two novellas, and three short story collections. Add to that The Fire Gospel (2008).

Faber’s Prometheus is Theo Griepenkerl,  a Canadian academic with a heightened sense of himself. He’s in Iraq, courtesy of the museum he works for, to tour a looted musem with the intention shipping artefacts home. The tour doesn’t last long as a bomb goes off killing the curator and, by chance, spilling forth some papyrus scrolls hidden for almost two thousand years. His talent being Aramaic, Theo recognises the potential power of the scrolls and smuggles them out of the country:

He could barely wait. Those papyri were burning a hole in his briefcase. They were like a stash of pornography that he’d been forced to delay getting to grips with. Not that there was anything kinky in his attraction to the scrolls; the porn comparison was just…a metaphor. A metaphor for the promises the papyri were urgently whispering from the back seat, of what they were going to do for him.

The scrolls are written by Malchus, the high priest named in the Gospel of John, and deviate from the accepted story of the Gospels.What makes them historically significant is that they are an eye witness account of the Crucifixion, predating the other Gospels by at least thirty years. What else can Theo do but publish them? In doing so, in his role as Prometheus, he brings fire to the world.

The tone of The Fire Gospels is satire. To a publishing industry that has seen Dan Brown’s odious The Da Vinci Code and Richard Dawkins’ confrontational The God Delusion upset the apple cart of Christianity,  generating huge profits as they go, it remains to be seen what the reaction to physical evidence dispelling the Christian faith would be. Faber imagines the likely scenario, that of outrage, and has great fun with the worldwide reactions to such material, nowhere more so than a pitch-perfect chapter of Amazon reviews, complete with the spelling mistakes, irrelevant opinion, or ignorance that someone always seems to find helpful.

I did not buy this book, so this author will not make a dime off me. I read it over a two day period in my local bookstore. The so-called gospel of Malchus is a blatant forgery produced by Muslims to undermine our faith. It’s been tried before. When will they learn?

Beyond the religious aspect Faber takes time out to send up the book industry, in areas such as remuneration, book tours, and marketing. Then, beyond that, the very decline in culture itself, be it in the vacuous array of choice television offers or in noting that the advances for those contributing to culture is low while sportsmen are signing $10m deals.

In continuing with the Prometheus myth Faber has to continue the parallel. The punishment meted out by Zeus was being chained to a rock and have an eagle peck out and consume his liver, once it had grown back, daily. With Theo interested only in money and sex, and never straying into likeable or unlikable territory, it’s hard to care for his predicament when his punishment comes. It’s a low point in the book, especially at such a crucial point in the story, but given the satirical tone Faber just about gets away with it.

Like other Faber works, The Fire Gospels remains an open ended affair leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. It’s good at what it does, spoofing the publishing hysteria over religious books in recent years, but all the time there’s the nagging sensation that Faber can do better.  However, as Theo notes, it’s a case of different strokes for different folks:

If there was one thing the Pandora’s box of Amazon customers had taught him, it was that there was no fiction so outrageously, laughably, arrogantly false that somebody somewhere wasn’t moved to tears by it.

November 1, 2008  3 Comments

Chinua Achebe: Home And Exile

In 1958 Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart, the novel that helped usher in a new wave of African literature. Until that point literature concerning African had been written by European colonials, and was rife with derogatory depictions of African people and their varied cultures. With the contributions of Camara Laye, Amos Tutuola, and Chinua Achebe, amongst others, there came a rebellion of sorts – the African novel, going against “an age-old practice: the colonization of one people’s story by another.”

African literature is the subject of Home And Exile (2001),  a gathering of three lectures Achebe gave to an audience at Harvard University in 1998. Across these he uses his podium to to discuss the effect of colonialism on African letters and the need for balance. Of particular interest are the autobiographical elements peppered throughout, which give insights into Achebe’s early life in Nigeria and the beginnings of his adult life as a writer.

Achebe starts with his own people, the Igbo. He dismisses the notion that, in numbering over ten million, they can be a tribe by dictionary definition. He finds nation fits better, acknowledging that it’s not a perfect fit. In describing the Igbo culture, a culture of stories, he finds room to open up the differences wrought by colonialism, impressing upon the reader a little tale about a meeting of animals where the chicken, instead attending to a personal matter, is voted man’s primary sacrificial animal in his absence. It’s a fitting parallel with the native in colonial African literature whereby a portrait of the continent has been drawn up by outsiders, at least as far back as 1561, when John Lok, writing of his voyage to West Africa, describes Africans as:

…a people of beastly living, without a God, lawe, religion … whose women are common for they contract no matrimonie, neither have respect to chastitie … whose inhabitants dwell in caves and dennes: for these are their houses, and the flesh of serpents their meat as writeth Plinie and Diodorus Siculus. They have no speach, but rather a grinning and chattering. There are also people without heads, having their eyes and mouths in their breasts.

Compound that with centuries of unfair writing and you get to a moment in a Nigerian school when, having read Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, about a young Nigerian, it strikes as being superficial:

It was a landmark rebellion. Here was a whole class of young Nigerian students, among the brightest of their generation, united in their view of a book of English fiction in complete opposition to their English teacher, who was moreover backed by the authority of metropolitan critical judgment.

In talking of colonial literature, Achebe understands the treatment of African people as a way of justifying colonialism and the slave trade it produced, citing works by the likes of the aforementioned Cary, Joseph Conrad, and, especially, Elspeth Huxley. V.S. Naipaul, for whom much was made of his nastiness in Patrick French’s authorised biography earlier in the year, is also lambasted for his ignorant portrayal of Africa in A Bend In The River.

Although she’s not named, Buchi Emecheta, also gets a notable mention: not for her portrayal of Africa, but for going in the opposite direction. Having moved to London to pursue her writing career, she is quoted on the subject of African fiction and the dilution of her Africanness. (“After reading the first page you tell yourself you are plodding. But when you are reading the same thing written by an English person who lives here you find you are enjoying it because the language is so academic, so perfect.”) This notion of going in the opposite directon echoes an account opening the book of Achebe’s first ride in a car, in which he was seated so as to watch the road behind. It’s something he returns to in the third lecture, given that he, like Emecheta, no longer lives in Nigeria:

People have sometimes asked me if I have thought of writing a novel about America since I have now been living here for some years. My answer has always been “No, I don’t think so.” Actually, living in America for some years is not the only reason for writing a novel on it. Kafka wrote such a novel without leaving Prague. No, my reason is that America has enough novelists writing about her, and Nigeria too few.

Achebe’s focus now, unlike the child looking back, is squarely on the road ahead for Africa and its literature, noting his anxiety over “what remains to be done, in Africa and in the world at large”. From his podium he calls for writers to remain at home and write about it, to post their manuscripts rather than go overseas and risk dilution. Only with the right people contributing their own stories can literature find the necessary balance be made that will lead to a universal civilisation.

On literature he calls for a fair appraisal of writers’ work, comparing Dylan Thomas’ review of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard to Huxley’s, wherein Thomas praises it for its language, Huxley uses the opportunity to take a broad swipe at African art (“It is possessed by spirits and the spirits are malign.”) Regardless of unfair treatments, Achebe notes that to read them:

…is the strongest vote of confidence we can give our writers and their work – to put them on notice that we will go to their offering for wholesome pleasure and insight, and not a rehash of old stereotypes which gained currency long ago in the slave trade and poisoned, perhaps forever, the wellsprings of our common humanity.

That Achebe covers so much ground in just over a hundred pages shows a highly concentrated approach to African literature. Those seeking a true autobiography will not find it here, given that it only touches on his early years, but what it does provide is an interesting insight into Achebe’s mind, with him pointing out the little details that have made him the influential writer that he is today, home and away.

October 29, 2008  2 Comments

Raymond Queneau: Exercises In Style

One of the most famous works by the French writer, Raymond Queneau, is Exercises In Style (1947), a fiction with the slightest of plots. So slight, the whole story can be summarised in a few sentences, and it wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that the narrator boards the ‘S’ bus, spots a minor conflict between one man – noting particularly his long neck and odd hat – and another passenger, spotting him again two hours later getting advice on a button for his overcoat. Yes, that slight.

It’s not, however, the story that matters as much as the conceit of the book. As the title implies, the book is a series of experiments, taking the same story over and over and presenting it in no less than ninety-nine different ways. To other writers it seems there’s a certain attraction to it, what with some well known writers translating and adapting the book to their own tongue, notably Umberto Eco (to Italian), Patrik Ouředník (to Czech), and Danilo Kiš, to (Serbian).

In her foreword, the translator Barbara Wright notes that the idea came to Queneau after attending a performace of Bach’s The Art Of Fugue. (“What particularly struck Queneau about this piece was that, although based on a rather slight theme, its variations ‘proliferated almost to infinity.’ It would be interesting, he thought, to create a similar work of literature.”) She also notes that although he stopped at ninety-nine exercises, a later French edition went on to list a further 140 potential exercises.

Each exercise comes with a title descriptive of the stylistic challenge. These offer up a range of different ideas, many representing linguistic ideas such as parachesis, with others forcing more wide ranging constrictions, such as the consistent use of metaphors, colours, or medical terms. One such exercise, Retrograde, tells the story in reverse:

You ought to put another button on your overcoat, his friend told him. I met him in the middle of the Cour de Rome, after having left him rushing avidly towards a seat. He had just protested against being pushed by another passenger who, he said, was jostling him every time anyone got off. This scraggy young man was the wearer of a ridiculous hat. This took place on the platform of an S bus which was full that particular midday.

In the production of so many variations Queneau has obviously had a great deal of fun and the humour flows through the whole book. The premise of Precision has the story told with an over the top level of detail (“In a bus of the S-line, 10 metres long, 3 wide, 6 high, at 3km. 600m from its starting point, loaded with 48 people, at 12.17 p.m…”) while the brilliance of Homeoptotes is in the repetition of a single sound (“On a certain date, a corporate crate on which the electorate congregate when they migrate at a great rate, late…”).

When the exercises work with a simple idea the effect can be witty and varied enough to maintain interest. However, there are times when the exercise looses any sense of coherence and it becomes hard to wonder at the benefit of writing in that particular style. A series of exercises presenting the story in permutations of letter seems meaningless and undecipherabl, like in this opening paragraph using permutations of two letters:

Ed on to ay rd wa id sm yo da he nt ar re at pl rm fo an of us sb aw is ou ay ma ng ho nw ne se wa ck oo st ng lo dw an wa ho ea sw ng ri at ah th wi la ap ro it dt un sa he me.

Even if an exercise confuses, and some certainly do, the brevity of them ensures that a new idea is just a page turn away. One of the longest, Opera English, presents the story in two acts with all the pomposity of the art, while one of few flirtations with poetic forms sees, in Haiku, the story told in the most concise of details:

Summer S long neck

plait hat toes abuse retreat

station button friend

The exercises in this English translation sometimes adhere to the French originals, while others deviate from the mould. It would, as Wright notes, be a futile task to translate to English, an exercise already in English, and in this she is also party to the fun, freely lifting, as she admits, from Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners for an exercise in a West Indian dialect. As an example of Oulipo, it’s no wonder that Exercises In Style was the work Queneau most wanted to see translated – the potential for literature like this, in any language, helps achieve the proliferation almost to infinity that he initially set out to do.

In writing Exercises In Style, the hurdle in how to end it, to ensure a robust ninety-nine, must surely have been entertained by Queneau. After repeating the same story for page after page, be it as a sonnet, antiphrasis, or the triptych of prosthesis, epenthesis, and paragoge, it needs an acceptable conclusion and Queneau delivers a welcome twist, just the thing for an exercise titled Unexpected. Understandably, the book doesn’t add up to much, but as a document of how tackling a subject from myriad angles opens up a story to countless possibilities, it is indispensible.

October 26, 2008  8 Comments

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