Tuesday, 7 June 2011

'the keeper of the illusion'

...a small house at the edge of the sea, an isolated white hytte, glimpsed through pine woods, its windows illumined with a soft, golden light, its roof almost black, like the pines and the dark water beyond. Had it been done by anyone else, this would have been taken for a night scene, but Sohlberg had painted the sky - a distant seeming sky, far beyond the inky reach of the Sound - in a pale, eerie blue, an almost powder blue, like the gloaming of summer's end, and the little white house, with its faint gold lights, looked like it was part of a theatre set, impermanent, provisional and only temporarily inhabited.

A Summer Of Drowning 
by John Burnside

With his last couple of novels Burnside has been moving into some interesting territory, using folk tale and fable to infuse his narratives with the very essence of storytelling. Before the written word there was oral storytelling, the means by which cultures could pass down their knowledge and lessons from one generation to the next. Burnside has managed to embrace something of that essence (whilst always rooting his stories in reality, leaving it to the reader to decide just how much to take the narrative voice at face value) with the tales of cloven hooves and two-headed babies in The Devil's Footprints and the poisoned wood and disappearing children in his last novel Glister. His latest is even more obviously immersed in that tradition, located on the small Norwegian island of Kvaløya, deep in the Arctic Circle, a landscape of mountains, forests and fjords, populated by tales of trolls, mermaids and spirits. It is to here that renowned painter Angelika Rossdal escaped several years ago with her daughter Liv, a place where she could pursue her craft in isolation, the kind of self-imposed exile that might be familiar to any other regular readers of Burnside.

It is Liv who narrates the novel, ten years after the titular summer of her eighteenth year, a summer illuminated as ever by the midnattsol, or midnight sun of these northern latitudes but marked out as special initially by the separate drownings of two brothers in calm water, events both uncharacteristic and unexplainable. Liv wasn't particularly close to either of the boys, she isn't particularly close to anyone apart from her mother and their elderly neighbour Kyree Opdahl, but in such a small community she cannot help but be interested in the stories that begin to circulate and when these combine with the old folk tales and her own active thoughts they build into a crescendo that has taken ten years for her to be able to relate to us.

Kvaløya is the perfect environment for blurring the distinctions between myth and reality, even Angelika's remoteness is a 'mythic seclusion' cultivated by those that wish to portray her as an artistic recluse, and there is no doubt that this fiction has become 'central to her artistic success'. Amongst the other inhabitants she has a mythic status also, her home receiving a regular group of 'suitors' each weekend, men who know they stand no chance in capturing this beauty but 'like those men in the Greek myth, come to beguile, or charm, or just outwait Penelope while her lost husband wandered the wine-dark sea trying to find his way home.' In another form of isolation, Liv has never met her father, never been able to draw her mother on anything about him, even his name. That isolated upbringing is total, an environment of limited stimulus, a single parent who is often lost to her work, and few friends to speak of. She may not believe in God 'or not in the usual way, but I do find that I am here for a reason, and that is to keep watch. To pay attention' and that is why she thinks of her self as 'one of God's spies' (which also takes the rather more worldly form of snooping with binoculars). The influences on Liv have been minimal, with the stories and fancies of Kyrre Opdahl assuming a larger significance than she may even realise in shaping her view of the world. Whether they come from his illustrated children's books, or straight from the horse's mouth, his tales have helped Liv to open her mind to the thought that the world might be stranger than we give it credit for - 'Stranger - and more dangerous.'

People from the town didn't believe in such things, of course they didn't, so they made fun of the old stories, not realising that, for a true believer like Kyrre, nothing was ever that crude. But I realise; I know. In Kyrre's house, there were shadows in the folds of every blanket, imperceptible tremors in every glass of water or bowl of cream set out on the table, infinitesimal loopholes of havoc in the fabric of reality that could spill loose and find you, as the first hint of a storm finds a rower out on the open sea. In Kyrre's house, there were memories of real events, of long-dead farm lads and schoolgirls who went out at first light fifty years ago and came home touched - touched for the rest of their lives - by something unnameable, a wingbeat or a gust of wind in their heads, where thought should have been.

It is in the tale of the huldra that Kyrre sees a possible explanation for the boys drowning. The huldra is a beautiful woman who leads young men to their doom - 'Seen from the front, she is perfectly beautiful, perfectly desirable, but if he could only look past this beautiful mask, he would see that, at her back, there is a startling vacancy, a tiny rip in the fabric of the world where everything falls away into emptiness.' Could Maia, a local girl living an almost vagrant existence be involved in the drownings, or the disappearance of a British man using Kyrre's hytte, or cottage, as a retreat? Whilst Liv wrestles with events at home she receives a letter from abroad that brings that unknown father crashing into her consciousness. When she eventually leaves her home to confront that she visits an art gallery where she sees the painting by Harald Sohlberg that adorns the cover of this book and that is described in the extract at the top of this review. The slightly odd experience of viewing such a familiar image whilst in a provincial English gallery provides an almost spiritual experience for Liv which gives us a small clue to her fragile mental state just before returning home where it will unravel still further.

I was home. Not just home, on Kvaløya, but home in my own head, in the place where dreams happened. I was in a place that nobody else could ever see, and I was completely alone there.

Painting is naturally a major theme and inexorably linked to the novel's examination of reality. Angelika has moved away from portraiture to landscapes, not as you might expect because her location demands it, but because she had tried and failed to capture something in that aspect of her work, and in a portrait of her daughter in particular. Her interest is rekindled by the spectre of the huldra and by Maia as a subject, something that naturally causes huge conflict for Liv. Burnside also manages to work in Leon Battista Alberti's theory that Narcissus invented painting. If we accept that Narcissus didn't realise at first that the reflection was of himself then perhaps this was because he had thought of himself as apart from the world, merely an observer of those other people and objects within it. The reflection in the pool showed not only himself but the sky and trees that surrounded him and suddenly made him a part of the world he had observed, 'for the first time, he is part of the world, and art is his way of confirming that. A way of saying that he is in the world, in the world and of it.' This novel of disappearances is also one of realisation, of people struggling to acknowledge the presence of others. Each of the characters could be accused of having regarded themselves as 'an island entire of itself,' content in their isolation but forced over this summer towards 'the difficult realisation that someone other than oneself is real' (Iris Murdoch's definition of love).

A final word about atmosphere, something that Burnside has always excelled at. Not only is the landscape well-suited but that otherworldly light, so brilliantly depicted in Sohlberg's painting and described in Burnside's prose (and even evoked in Radiohead's The Gloaming), is the perfect illumination for such a dreamlike narrative. We can never entirely be sure of our narrator's reliability. Liv may be looking back with hindsight (and almost exhaustively so, the text littered with 'it seemed to me...', ' I can see now...' etc etc) and from a place of happiness, but she has always struggled to reconcile what she witnessed with what others might accept as possible. What we have to remember, going back to what I was saying earlier about the very nature of early storytelling, is that we shouldn't be fooled by something that is merely dream-like.
...it wasn't a dream, it was a story - and that's different. A story stands in for everything that cannot be explained and, though there are many stories, there's really only one and we can tell the difference because the many stories have a beginning and an end, but the one story doesn't work like that. Ryvold used to say that stories are really about time. They tell us that once, in a place that existed before we were born, something occurred -  and we like to hear about that, because we know already that the story is over. We know that we are living in the happily ever after, which means that nothing will happen ever again - and this is the key to a happy life. To live in the ever-after of the present moment: no past, no future.


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