Tuesday 23 November 2010

'language is the sound of longing'

The Secret Lives Of People In Love
by Simon Van Booy

The very marvellous Rob Around Books has been a passionate advocate of Simon Van Booy, a writer I'm ashamed to admit I had never head of before Rob brought him to my attention with pieces about each of the stories from this collection in detail. Once you've seen a picture of him he's difficult to forget, cutting a distinctive figure with his trademark smart clothing and typewriter or even when divested of his vestments for this rather bizarre portrait with bookshelves and picnic. Born in London, raised in Wales, with stints living in the US, Paris and Athens, Van Booy's stories have a similar internationalism, moving from location to location as they explore various themes around love and allow us into the private world of their protagonists.

This rather handsome collection from indie publisher Beautiful Books has a P.S. section at the back with more information about the author and words from him about his process, inspirations and the importance of finally finding his own voice. Unlike some other examples of this kind of postscript, it was genuinely enlightening to read his thoughts about hotels written on their distinctive hotel stationary and to see copies of the discarded train tickets that had been the seed for some of his stories. The discovery and adherence to his own authorial voice is all important as it dominates the style. This is both his strength and perhaps the only criticism I would make of this collection. Written in a pared-down prose, Van Booy's stories are characterised by memorable phrases, moments of poetry and what I will call the surprise of profundity - sentences hidden amidst the story that jump out with humane observations like maxims. The slight criticism is that this style is so consistent that despite several first person narrations it is Van Booy's voice we hear rather than an individual character's. I say it is a slight criticism because this consistency never feels like homogeneity, it is an author proudly displaying the voice he has developed, and that voice produces so many moments of pure reading pleasure that this reader easily forgave him.

The very first story, Little Birds, provides one of those surprising maxims on only the second page. It is a prosaic scene: our 15-year-old narrator observes American tourists on the Pont des Arts laughing politely at the jokes of a filthy homeless man. He is mature enough to spot their politeness but that still doesn't prepare us for the throwaway comment that follows.

I suppose the key to a good life is to gently overlook the truth and hope that at any moment we can all be reborn.

The stories are filled with moments like this. I hope I haven't made it sound like fortune-cookie wisdom in isolation as that isn't how they read. Our narrator's perceptiveness about others is matched by his naivety of himself and we will learn more than he can through his own words. His father figure, Michel, provides a rather neat description of how Van Booy's writing can linger with you after closing the cover having explained his love of the poet Giorgio Caproni: 'his words are like little birds that follow him around and sing in his ear.'

Quite often those birds are a pitch-perfect phrase. A train that 'grieves into the station', a cold warehouse where workers wear their 'breath like beards', or 'the fleshy star' of a child's hand. But Van Booy isn't limited to occasional fireworks. Some Bloom In Darkness is a perfect short story. Saboné works as a ticket clerk at the train station. A lonely man prone to dreaming and sketching, his dormant desire for the companionship of a young lady is awakened after witnessing a violent incident at work. He finds himself suddenly obsessed with a girl who stands in a shop window that he passes every day on his way to work.
For days he held the image of this shopgirl in his mind, carrying it around like an egg until he could get home and escape into sleep where it hatched into fantasy.

To say anymore would genuinely spoil a quite magical story about loneliness and desire, a story that left me feeling that I needed no more from this collection for it to have been worth reading. Apples is another gem where we learn the genesis of an apple orchard in the middle of a vacant lot in Brooklyn and the perennial apple festival it has inspired. In the midst of grief and shortly before leaving his native Russia, Serge spends an evening in his family orchard.

At dawn, with a film of dew upon his skin and clothes, Serge rose to his knees in order to kiss the gravestone one final time. However, at some moment during the night, an apple had swollen just enough to sit perfectly on the head of the stone. Serge was breathless and picked the apple so the branch - madly and gratefully - could return to the tangle of branches above.

'Madly and gratefully', that's the part of the sentence that elevates the writing into a higher tier for me. There is humour too, often in the strangest places. Perhaps no more so than in The Shepherd On The Rock which finds a mad Irishman living out the last days of his life in John F. Kennedy airport, a place he sees as quite natural given that he'd 'always been attracted to the idea of heaven'. A former seminary student he has reason to question the existence of a God - '(I'm not saying there isn't - I'm just saying that I don't believe in Him, like a mother who's given up on her son's delinquent ways)'- and it is it is quite an achievement to include a wry humour in a story that details his madness and retreat into himself. There is something far more experimental in French Artist Killed In Sunday's Earthquake, where we are witness to last moments of the life of Marie-Françoise; a literal translation of a life flashing before one's eyes, carried off with far more aplomb than my rather pat description of it. 

Having recently discovered his voice Van Booy's stories in this collection have a bravery about them, he's nailing his colours to the mast whether you like them or not. The final story, The Mute Ventriloquist, gives another description of their appeal, and of the short form generally.

Children spend the mornings of their lives in a sea of imagination before being hauled out onto rocks by jealous adults who've forgotten how to swim.

Occasionally it pays to live like a child again and dive right in.


Rob 23 November 2010 at 09:13  

Will, you've made me weep! Why? Well it's not because you've mentioned me (very much appreciated though. Thank you very much!). And it's certainly not because you're featuring Simon (well maybe it is, a little :)). Rather it's the fact that you seem to have tuned in to Van Booy on the profound level that I hope that most readers would tune in to him, and that makes my heart glow!

You've not only written a review that to me rings with the same literary resonance as the man you're writing about, but the spotlight you put on Simon - even taking into account your minor criticism (one incidentally, which I agree with) - is a warm and golden one. You've made my day, Will!
Warmest regards

Anonymous,  24 November 2010 at 00:18  

I keep meaning to pick up a van booy ,Know rob loves him and you ve seen to have to so he must be worth the Hype ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 24 November 2010 at 08:56  

Steady on Rob, you'll set me off! Thank you for such a lovely comment and for pointing me towards Van Booy in the first place. Really enjoyed the stories and very pleased to have another collection on the shelf ad the prospect of a novel in the near future. I wonder whether his style will suit or be changed by the longer form...

William Rycroft 24 November 2010 at 09:03  

There was lots to enjoy in this collection, Stu. I'd be interested to know your own thoughts if you read any Van Booy. As would Rob, no doubt!

Anonymous,  3 December 2010 at 23:58  

Sometimes clicking from link to link sends you to just the right place. I love novels written by poets and authors who use poetical language.

Thanks for the review, I would never have known about this author without stumbling around this afternoon.

William Rycroft 4 December 2010 at 10:41  

What a lovely comment to wake up to. Thank you pburt and so pleased that you found something so appropriate whilst clicking around. Please do click back here in the future and let me know how you found this collection.

Anonymous,  7 December 2010 at 03:13  

Little Birds is the story that made me pick up a pen and start writing. After 30 years of thinking about it. Wonderful, poetic story telling of beautiful sadness.

William Rycroft 15 December 2010 at 08:28  

I bet it would feel fantastic to know that something you had written had inspired someone to pick up the pen themselves. thanks for the comment sybawrite.

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