Tuesday 31 May 2011

'the thread that leads love out'

The Rest Is Silence 
by Carla Guelfenbein
translated by Katherine Silver

I don't tend to read bestsellers. It isn't snobbery I promise, it just doesn't tend to end that well. But this title from Portobello Books might have been the literary equivalent of having your cake and eating it; translated fiction (big tick), the first to be translated into English from a Chilean author who was the bestselling in Spain five years ago and has outsold both Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer (really big tick). So how has Guelfenbein managed to do that? By writing thrillers or resorting to the occult? Well the cover doesn't suggest as much and in this book at least it seems that a combination of slowly revealed family secrets and the emotional release that comes with them was enough to propel this book to the top of the charts.

The novel has three narrators (each of their respective chapters carries an identifying icon although it's almost always immediately obvious who has taken over the story) Tommy, a twelve year old boy, Juan his surgeon father, and Juan's second wife Alma. This modern family set-up has come about after the sudden death of Juan's first wife Soledad. Tommy has always believed that this was due to a sudden illness but at a family gathering he overhears a conversation whilst hidden under the table.

All I can see down here are lots of legs, moving around. Every kind of leg: camel legs, rabbit legs, flamenco legs, monkey legs, legs of other animals who have names I haven't learnt yet. There are three women sitting at my table with knees as thick as elephants' legs, and a man wearing golf shoes, and a giraffe who quickly takes off her golden sandals. Even though they're all talking over each other and it'll be hard to get anything worthwhile, I turn on my MP3 player and voice recorder and start recording.
It is there he hears that his mother was briefly committed before taking her own life, a revelation that sends him off spinning, searching for answers to all sorts of new questions about his mother. That carefully constructed fiction was put in place by his father Juan who seems to have literally erased that portion of his life in order to move forward, removing photos from albums and eventually beginning a new relationship with Alma. He is the kind of man who likes to have control over his life and we can see several examples of this along with the line he has drawn under his past. Tommy was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome and Juan has been able to use his skills and knowledge to help that condition but exerts the control that he must never be allowed to over-exert himself (this is a measure of control over both Tommy and Alma of course). His days are ordered but he becomes ruffled by the condition of another boy with a similar condition to Tommy's but a far less hopeful prognosis. His major control is to keep so much hidden from Alma who can't help but fear for her own future when it is built on such an uncertain foundation.

What lay under Juan's facade of calm and respectability? Just like the white spaces where there had once been photographs of his wife, there must be other aspects of his life that would remain invisible to me: hidden desires, fears obsessions. Perhaps I too would one day become a blank space in a photo album.

Alma's uncertainties are heightened with the return of an old flame and with all three characters essentially off on quests of their own this is a novel with very separate strands, where your interest is always in danger of unravelling. Tommy's discovery of possible Jewish ancestry seems to be too large a topic to be dealt with satisfactorily, especially along with all of the other discoveries, and it is a shame that we don't get to see more, if not all, of the novel from his viewpoint (and anyone who knows how I usually feel about child narrators will be surprised to hear me say that!) The text is occasionally illustrated by drawings of his, which are actually rather brilliant at conveying the confusion and pain of discovery, drawing on myths like that of the Minotaur, where the image of the maze and the thread that will lead the hero out to safety becomes one way of picturing Tommy's journey (and indeed that of his parents). It is his charm and way of seeing the world that provides most of the light within that labyrinth. 'It's the things that are invisible that hurt most of all.'

Juan's control never really allows him to catch fire as a character and Alma's struggles with her amoral mother tend to litter the text with some of its clunkier moments ("Sometimes you're exactly like your mother, imagining that if we only do what our infallible hearts tell us to do, everything will turn out just fine.", or 'Fortunately, I always managed to to shake off any painful illusions and abandon myself to the erotic promise of momentary pleasure.', or 'It's that I wanted so badly to distance myself from my mother's chaos that I deliberately set about making an institution of our love, without realizing that by doing so, I was destroying love's inherent spontaneity.'), so as a whole I wasn't as wild about this book as the legions who bought it in Spain. But the slow trickle of information does help it to build its tension and there's no doubt that it wields a hefty emotional thump at the denouement.


Tuesday 24 May 2011

'Somehow it should be easier than this.'

Briar Rose and Spanking The Maid 
by Robert Coover

Robert Coover is a writer's writer, a prose stylist with a hugely inventive and influential body of work behind him that has earned him prizes, fellowships and the admiration of countless other wordsmiths. My only previous experience of his work was a story contained within McSweeney's 16. Called Heart Suit, the story was printed on 14 oversized playing cards and by beginning with the King and finishing with the Joker the other 12 cards could be shuffled and read in any order. It was a nice idea although the self-contained nature of each card meant that there wasn't an awful lot to be gained narratively speaking from the shuffling. Four works of his are now getting the Penguin Modern Classics treatment with new introductions and I began with this collection of two novellas (at about 80 pages each are they long stories, novellas..?) billed as 'darkly playful introductions to Coover's writing.' John Banville provides the introduction to this volume and points out that
Any reader who cared to know just what it is like to write a novel will be well instructed here, and will come away from the experience suitably chastened, cheeks aglow from a lesson expertly administered.
He is talking here about Spanking The Maid, a brilliant piece of writing on writing, presented as the interactions of a maid and her master. Each morning it seems they are doomed to follow the same pattern of events; she determined that today will be the day that she gets everything right, he that he will manage not to end up where he always does, administering the usual punishment. He is the writer, she the writing and the frustrations of the process are brilliantly illustrated through this master/ servant relationship. The bond between them couldn't be closer of course 'for though he is her master, her failures are inescapably his.'
He sighs unhappily. How did it all begin, he wonders. Was it destiny, choice, generosity? If she would only get it right for once, he reasons, bringing his stout engine of duty down with a sharp report on her brightly striped but seemingly unimpressionable hinder parts, he might at least have time for a stroll in the garden. Does she - CRACK! - think he enjoys this? 'Well?' 'Be . . . be faithful, honest and submissive to him sir, and -' Whish-SLASH! 'And - gasp! - do not incline to be slothful! Or-' THWOCK! 'Ow! Please, sir!' Hiss-WHAP!
Both novellas have the same slightly disorientating feel, alternating between the two viewpoints but not following a traditional linear structure. There is lots of repetition; of action, reaction and even text; but the subtle differences each time mean that it doesn't feel repetitious but rather like a piece of music that returns to its themes with different instruments. And the very act of writing is repetitious of course and Coover fully exploits his set-up to show the frustrations of trying to get it down right, recalling in his efforts the famous quotation of Beckett's - 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'

Perhaps he should back off a bit, give her a chance to recover some of her ease and spontaneity, even at the expense of a few undisciplined errors. Perhaps . . . yet he knows he could never let up, even if he tried. Not that he enjoys all this punishment, any more (he assumes, but it doesn't matter) than she does...but he is committed to a higher end, his life a mission of sorts, a consecration, and so punish her he must, for to the extent that she fails, he fails.

And that of course is why he cannot give up, must try again each day even if it does end up with the same punishing conclusion. His life is consecrated to hers and so even if it is her in the traditional role of subservience, and she who receives the spanking each day, he is no more free than she is, committed to his role of master even though that too ends in failure each day.

Briar Rose is Coover's play on the fairy-tale of Sleeping Beauty. A maiden bewitched to sleep for the last hundred years awaits the kiss from the questing prince that will awaken her. So far so familiar, except that Coover's story plays with conventions a little. Our maiden is accompanied by an old crone who seems to be both good and bad fairy, filling her sleep with tales of her rescue where her prince is sometimes exactly as you might expect but can also be married to someone else, or violent, or just one of a group that arrives to defile her. There is something very chilling about these different versions of awakening, coming as they do in sleep so that she, and even we, struggle to know what is real and what imagined, what conscious, what unconscious.

Our hero meanwhile has found the beginning of his quest to be almost laughably easy but it isn't long before he is mired in his task and beginning to question why he is bothering at all.

Still, he wishes he could remember more about who or what set him off on this adventure, and how it is he knows that his commitment and courage are so required. It is almost as though his questing - which is probably not even 'his' at all, but rather a something out there in the world beyond this brambly arena into which he has been absorbed, in the way that an idea sucks up thought - were inventing him, from scratch as it were (he is not without his lighter virtues): is this what it means 'to make one's name'?

Once firmly caught up in the briars that surround the fabled tower, and give the heroine her name, he realises that he is compelled to continue 'not for love of her alone, but for love of love, that the world not be emptied of it for want of valor.' Just as the maiden dreams different versions of her rescue so too our hero imagines the many ways his story might play out so that even as he remains trapped in the briars, as much a prisoner as the woman he seeks to rescue, he can transport himself to her chamber and their romantic union.

In both stories it seems, it isn't the characters who are in control of their destinies but some other force far more capricious. The illusion of satisfaction continuously eludes both master and maid, and for prince and princess it is that old crone, the fairy, the storyteller who may have created not just the narrative but the characters themselves.

The good fairy's boon to this child, newborn, was to arrange for her to expire before suffering the misery of the ever-after part of the human span, the wicked fairy in her, for the sake of her own entertainment, transforming that well-meant gift to death in life and life in death without surcease. And, in truth, she has been entertained, is entertained still. How else pass these tedious centuries?

I opened by saying that Coover is a writer's writer and by that I mean that as a reader I appreciated rather than really engaged with both of these novellas. They don't offer up the usual narrative comforts (and a good thing too), something that I expect to be repeated in the other story collection Pricksongs and Descants, so I shall be intrigued to see what he achieves within his novel, Gerald's Party. The playfulness is enjoyable and that sinister undertone keeps it always interesting. No wonder there are so many who want to see Coover's reputation cemented.


Tuesday 17 May 2011

'the word that will hold this world in place'

"The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact"

William Shakespeare

The Horseman's Word 
by Roger Garfitt

Publicists are there to be enthusiastic about books that they are, let's be honest, trying to sell. That means presumably they have to turn it on even with books they aren't that crazy about (and hey, sometimes I have to do a show when quite frankly I'd rather curl up in a ball and hide, but them's the breaks) so how do you know when a publicist is genuinely in raptures about a book of theirs? It turns out to be quite easy to spot. Speech slows down a touch, the tone of voice becomes reverential, the eyes widen and if you happen to be face to face the book is handed over like a precious artefact. Such was the case with this memoir, which is just as well as I'd probably never have heard of it let alone read it if that hadn't been the case (strike one to the publicist!). Also, contrary to popular conception, my involvement in War Horse is far more likely to send me running from a book that involves horses or war than towards it, but the title and rather literal cover of this book are a slightly bum steer. Roger Garfitt is a poet, editor, writer, critic and musician and this memoir focuses on his childhood and young adulthood, the experiences that helped form those varied interests (although form is far too ordered a word to apply to the chaos within these pages).

Whilst there are horses, which we'll come to later, this is a book steeped in nostalgia for summers spent at his grandparent's house in Norfolk through the post-war years and the farm bought by his father at the beginning of the 1960's. The opening pages are intoxicating, the language rich, detailed and completely absorbing so that you are immediately there with the young boy in the slightly alien environment of his holiday retreat. Here for instance is the opening paragraph.

The long path round the back was a cinder path starred with cockleshells. Chalk stones, little flat moons of an unassailable whiteness, dust-dry and spotless as freshly blanco'd plimsolls, edged the path to the front door. The front garden was a beach garden of fine orange gravel. This was land that had once belonged to the sea, a danger removed just far enough to become a source of pride and ornament. The garden made a small, human ceremony of what happened unceremoniously with every flood tide at Titchwell, when skate's eggs and razor shells washed into the mouths of rabbit burrows.
I hope you don't mind the odd extract from a book because it's going to be hard to resist the temptation to quote great chunks of this one, so delicious is the prose. In his descriptions of that house in Norfolk and the bygone world of a rural community after the Second World War there is barely a paragraph that doesn't contain an arresting image, a perfect simile, something to chime with even your own childhood however far removed it might be from the one being described. He might find that just about anywhere, in the construction of a barn's roof or even in something as mundane as a water butt.

...its soaked wood black and speckled with green mould. Rainwater was always used for the wash because it was softer and saved on soap powder, an economy of which I knew nothing. To me the water butt was a presence. The shadow's core, it grew colder as you approached. A wet battery, a condenser, you could almost hear it hum. To lift the tin bowl off the plank, splaying your fingers around its thick wooden handle, and dip into the water was like dipping into a second universe, held in reserve. Specks hung there in slowly revolving constellations. Insects tracked like comets across the surface. We brought the bowl up a third full, just enough water to to mix a similar bowl of chicken meal. But it seemed more than water: it was universal concentrate, a galactic tonic we were feeding the hens on.

Garfitt's great skill in this memoir is to suit his writing to the experience. I'll come back to significance of that later but in the early sections this means that he remembers 'through a child's eyes.' He remembers a very specific era shaped by the war that ended in the first year of his life. One where 'It was not just that clothes were rationed. People rationed themselves. They knew their place. They did not get above themselves. If someone tried to cut a dash, the verdict was swift and unanimous: 'Who does she think she is?' Nostalgia doesn't mean that the world has to be seen through a golden haze, this isn't an evocation of the charm of the village for as Garfitt learns through his family history 'the charm rather depended where you stood in the social scale.' His own grandfather was the village cobbler, 'Painstaking at his craft, he took pains to the point where they impoverished him, putting more time into a boot's reparation than he could possibly charge for.' That kind of description tells you everything you need to know about the man and even the time he lived in. This is an era on the cusp of great social change of course, something felt even in this seemingly isolated rural idyll with the advent of day-trippers. We might imagine that the drunken antics of holidaying Britons are a modern phenomenon brought about by cheap package deals, alcohol and loosening morals but even in the Norfolk of the 1950's 'Cafes had signs saying No Day Trippers. On Sunday evenings the porters worked in teams of six, lifting the drunks off the platform and throwing them back on the train through the open windows.'

As I said, I could happily regurgitate sentence after sentence from this first section but let us move on to the farm his father bought near Esher in Surrey. Not even that far from London and sandwiched between a major road and a housing estate this is not a rural farm as such but a place where Garfitt's father, a barrister, could work once again with the horses that had played a part in his own childhood. Here Garfitt starts once again from basics and learns to ride under the tutelage of the hereditary riding master to the Kings of Portugal, a fiery aristocrat who puts him first on the lunge line and then on to mastering jumps with no saddle, reins or stirrups, hands on head and using just balance and the movement of the horse. Here we see a real development of the book's major theme: control. Through the discipline of riding and the breaking of horses (which begins not with 'strapping a saddle on their backs. It began with a look of recognition, with them coming over to feed from your hand and allowing you to brush the mud from their coats.') we learn a lot about the maturation of a young man, his education both academically and socially and his awareness of his own shortcomings ('I had to move into my own body, to become fingertips, hands and shoulders, rather than this headlong reader of the world').

Control is something he learns about when it comes to writing his own poetry, especially when he compares his own process of writing, by which the poems tend to arrive fully-formed after much thought, to that of his university contemporaries who seem to work and re-work their poems, filling page after page until they are able to distill it down to those few lines that are the finished product. Control is in evidence too in his other great passion: jazz music. Far from being free-form and loose it is during a live performance that he sees the control 'in the stance, in the working of the shoulders as much as the pressure of the fingertips.' Jazz and poetry do have an association I suppose but there is something lovely about the way Garfitt can just as easily quote the lines of a poem like 'sketch maps of where I was' as rhapsodise his appreciation of several classic jazz records.

It is at university that he strikes up his friendship with Redmond O'Hanlon (Red) with whom he shares his forays into that third part, after poetry and jazz, of the 1960's university unholy trinity: cannabis smoking. His initiation is almost comically over-prepared.

I might almost have been in Morocco, so completely had Red transformed his college room, the curtains drawn, one lamp lit and a thickness of rugs and cushions undulation over the floor. There was not a hard surface anywhere, only this cushioning, several layers deep, and it struck me that this was both incredibly thoughtful and oddly like a seduction scene.

It isn't long of course before we start to see a loss of control but it takes a while for us to notice just how far this goes because of that skill I mentioned earlier of suiting the writing to the experience. His slightly eccentric dress-sense, his extravagant behaviour with girlfriends and a general tendency to take things quite far and at an odd tangent all seem relatively reasonable, for so they seemed to him, and it is a while before you realise that he is struggling to retain a grip on reality. Most of this is centred on women, coming from that same well-spring as poetry and passion; who hasn't gone over the top occasionally in the name of love? Garfitt finds himself travelling around Europe after one girl, encountering all sorts of diverse characters along the way and working himself into such a state, a state that I can only liken to creating a character (as he himself acknowledges at one point 'I have to stay in character, even if I'm no longer sure who that character is.') that he will eventually find himself committed to a mental hospital where the doctor's diagnosis on admission is remarkably insightful - 'I think he's a poet who's in love.'

Garfitt's early life is certainly not short of incident. I haven't even mentioned his self-inflicted dabbling with hellfire religion. That doesn't mean that it is irreverent in its telling, far from it, this is a slow read filled with detail and an avoidance of the sensational. I slightly lost my way in the middle somewhere, right about the time he did, this probably absolutely the desired effect, but it did mean that I struggled at times. When I began to emerge the other side however, as he suffers the ignominy of his name being struck from the university rolls after a charge of drug-dealing, I began to appreciate the achievement of this memoir. In John Self's recent interview of Greg Baxter he claimed that he considered the straight memoir 'to be below the grocery list, so far as literature is concerned.' He also admitted not having read any, and to not knowing anything about contemporary memoirs, which he presumed were 'like interviews on daytime television,' so I don't know how seriously we're supposed to take the provocative statement (this experience itself wearily familiar from reading Baxter's A Preparation For Death). He may be right but I suspect that if he read Garfitt's book he would have to accept that a fine memoir isn't just a 'diaristic and largely fabricated narrative', it can be brutally honest even as it invents, and in this book's slow dissociation from absolute reality describe most truthfully why Shakespeare so rightly combined lunatic, lover and poet.


Thursday 12 May 2011

Inside the Folio

When I reviewed The Folio Society edition of Gustav Meyrink's The Golem fellow blogger Kevin From Canada left a comment where he encouraged me to pay a visit to the Member's Room at their offices, just around the corner from where I work. Finding the time was tough but I managed to squeeze in a quick visit in between shows on a Thursday thanks to editor David Hayden. There are plans to give the room a bit of a refit and re-jig but, as Kevin mentioned, it is a great showcase of some of their stunning volumes and it was fantastic to have the chance to speak to David about the process of publishing these books.

One strong incentive for members to visit is that it gives them the chance to lay their hands on some of the exclusive volumes that may be beyond their budgets. A special table held vast tomes like a stunning facsimile of the Luttrell Psalter and a newly illustrated version of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which provides an interesting comparison with Nick Hayes' recent updating). The walls are lined with bookcases that carry copies of the wide variety of Folio titles. How these titles are chosen comes about through a mixture of consultation with members and a strong lead from David and his editorial team. Luckily he happens to be almost absurdly well-read and even in the short time we spent looking at a few of the books you get a real sense of his enthusiasm about everything from the writers and illustrators to the materials themselves. When someone runs their hands across the page and rhapsodises about Letterpress printing and hand-marbling you know you are in the presence of someone with a genuine passion for books.

That passion is expressed in many ways. Some productions are part of a grand project. The decision to build on the success of Andrew Lang's Red Fairy Book means that the entire series will now be published with different illustrators used for each book as well as new introductions from writers like Marina Warner and Joan Aiken. Katherine M. Briggs' Folk Tales of Britain has been published in three volumes and is a book that Hayden feels will still be read and referred to in a hundred years time rather than the literary successes of today. It is whilst looking at books like these that you get a sense of what a personal library really is. When I was lucky enough to see inside the house of the Christie family at Glyndebourne I saw paintings on the wall with alarm wires leading away from them and bookshelves filled with leather-bound volumes of huge worth. We can't all have the fortune to come from the aristocracy but it occurred to me that the purpose of something like the Folio Society is to allow you to build a collection of books that really will stand the test of time and provide an awful lot of pleasure in the meantime as you appreciate the work that has gone into their production.

One great way to test this is to look at a relatively recent book, Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor, a book which you could easily buy a cheap paperback of or even find a second hand one for pennies so why spend considerably more on the Folio edition? Like all of their books the aim is to start from scratch and make it the best book it can possibly be. So as well as a new introduction from the author there are brand new hand-drawn maps and even more extensive photographs. The pictures are in fact so well researched that the book picked up the 'picture research oscar' which I'm sure has a far more official title than that. That rigour is in evidence all over the place but sometimes it is remarkably simple things that can transform a book. It is hard to believe that the original edition of Victoria Finlay's book Colour, a 'history of man’s attempt to reproduce the rainbow' and used as a resource by art students and those with an interest in colour and pigment contained no colour illustrations. That has been corrected with over 100 in the Folio edition, the kind of book that you might find yourself inventing excuses to own.

Now before you start accusing me of running an extended advert for the Folio Society let's be clear that these books are beyond what a lot of people (myself included) are prepared, or able, to pay for a book and the idea of signing into a commitment of so many purchases a year is another turn off (it will soon be easier to buy single, one-off books through the website apparently). What I'm hoping to communicate through this post is the kind of results that can be achieved when the usual financial or commercial constraints are removed, or at least made less important, to the publisher. In an era when the very future of the book itself is being debated, it is useful to be reminded of the full potential of what a book can be. I've never been shy about letting you know when a book has excited me as an object and it seems to me that exactly at the moment when the book as object is threatened it will be productions like the ones I have mentioned, as well as recent favourites like An Atlas of Remote Islands that will ensure that the book in its traditional form remains an irreplaceable part of our culture.


Tuesday 10 May 2011

Ecce homo - Behold the man

Story Of A Secret State
by Jan Karski

60 pages into this memoir there is a chapter entitled The Beginning, where Karski describes the 'simple visit to a good friend' that ended up becoming his enrolment into the Polish Underground. It is typical of his humility that he should not only say that 'There was nothing extraordinary about it; nothing at all romantic. It required no decision on my part, no spurt of courage or adventure' but that he should even call this the beginning. In the preceding 60 pages he has described his call up to the Polish Army, their almost immediate capitulation to the Russians and the imprisonment that followed, his pretence at German descent in order to be exchanged to the German side where conditions were even worse and his escape through the window of a moving train as they were being transferred to who knows what privations. If that can be considered the mere warm-up act to the main feature then you can guess that this memoir tells the story of a quite extraordinary life and the part played by one man in bearing witness to the struggles of his country.

After the runaway success of Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin, Penguin may well be hoping for a similar interest in this non-fictional counterpart (That aim could be supported by potentially the coolest author picture ever). But where Fallada's novel was about homegrown resistance to Nazi rule Karski tells the story of how an entire state can continue to function under the apparatus of imposed rule from an invading force. The extraordinary thing I've learned from this book is what the Underground really means: not simply acts of resistance and disruption but a fully realised administration to run literally underneath that imposed by the Germans. A coalition of vastly different parties, an army, education, newspapers, all working together to ensure that there would be no collaboration with the Nazis so that a strong Polish state could emerge from the wreckage of the Second World War. This is worth drawing attention to mainly because collaboration was so common across Europe and yet Poland managed to last the entire conflict without a single Quisling (the term coined by The Times for fascist collaborators after Vidkun Quisling who seized power in Norway backed by the Nazi's as they invaded). Karski makes clear the strength of anti-German feeling, as well as the 'sacrifice and heroism entailed in our nation-wide refusal to collaborate with the[m].'

With his education, language skills and diplomacy Karski makes himself invaluable to several aspects of Underground work. One of these was as 'father confessor' for each of the four parties that made up the coalition during occupation. Those who think Clegg and Cameron have looked far too cosy at times will be far more comfortable with the unlikely alliance of the Peasant, the Socialist, the Christian Labour and the National Party. Karski was entrusted with task of transmitting 'all the most important secrets, plans, internal affairs and points of view of all four of the political parties to their own representatives in France' a measure of the trust placed in his impartiality. There is something of the spy thriller about Karski's travels; false documents, multiple identities, trails and codewords; it's hard not to feel the old buttocks clenching at times and that's even before Karski's arrest and torture by the Gestapo (and before you learn also that the traditional hiding place for prison contraband is the perineum).

Gestapo tactics in questioning are brutal and bleak, almost always leading to the same fatal conclusion whether they get their information or not. After several horrific sessions and with that end in mind Karski has a new perspective '...I thought how easy it was to think philosophically about pain and torture if they happened to someone else. How could someone explain that after a certain stage of pain had been reached, death became the aim of insensate longing, the greatest of privileges.' Having revealed nothing secret or incriminating Karski's attempted suicide comes after that realisation, but not only is it unsuccessful, it also allows his liberation from Nazi hands. After his recovery he returns to Poland and the Underground with a renewed vigour and determination.

The Warsaw he returns to is remarkable well adapted 'to the network of conspiracy that had now grown and twined through all the varied life of the city. There were so many people working underground that the rest of the population had begun to accept them as a matter of course.' That said, it remained imperative to keep one's identity as an underground operative secret, something that became increasingly difficult when running into old acquaintances who wondered where you might have been for the last few months - 'It is almost as difficult to be tight-lipped to a smiling friend as it is to remain silent under Gestapo torture.' Some of the tactics employed by the Underground are ingenious, some diabolical, all a  measure of the strength of resistance - 'the desperation of an animal caught in a trap.' One ingenious example was reserved for those few Poles who had the remotest claim to German blood and had taken advantage of the offer to become Volksdeutche and gain extra food rations, certain privileges and German citizenship after the war. Regarded by the vast majority of Poles as traitors they might find themselves the victim of 'voluntary enlistment' where men like Karski had faked a letter from them to the Reich begging for the opportunity to serve with the German Army. They were often so scared of the consequences of questioning their surprise call-up that they trotted off to the front line and suffered the same fate as their German brothers.

Far more direct action was taken with those that were actually German. Officers were paired off with prostitutes known to carry venereal infections, diseases were spread by infected lice dispensed by a man known as 'the walking germ', criminals were released from prison and 'encouraged to resume their former professions of thieving and murdering, with the proviso that they confine their activities to Germans...It is a significant sign of the intensity of the collective hatred against the Germans that not one of these criminals committed a single act against a Pole.' There's no faulting the ingenuity even if there are moral questions, even Karski finds himself taking part in activities that he struggles to square entirely with his conscience. And whilst there is lots of thriller-style detail about their work there is also plenty to enjoy in the more day to day aspects of subterfuge and concealment. It's interesting to read about the different roles played by men and women for example, especially when a bit of old-fashioned sexual politics is involved.

I should say that despite the world-wide opinion that women are loquacious and indiscreet, my own experience has led me to believe that women on the whole make better conspiratorial colleagues than men...They are quicker to perceive danger and less inclined to avoid thinking about misfortunes than men. They are indubitably superior at being inconspicuous and generally display much caution, discretion, and common sense...Men are often prone to exaggeration and bluff, are unwilling to face reality and, in most cases, are subconsciously inclined to surround themselves with an air of mystery that sooner or later proves fatal.

But it is Karski's testimony about the fate of the Jewish people in Poland that he is perhaps best known for and that provides the book with its most powerful pages in the final quarter. There is something ominous from the moment he meets two Jewish leaders from the Warsaw ghetto, both of them 'unforgettable, less like men than incarnations of mass suffering and nerves strained in hopeless effort.' They all agree that it would be better for Karski to actually witness the conditions they were living in, and the fate that awaited them on their transfer rather than to be a mere mouthpiece but that of course would entail risking his life whilst also being given the assurance that 'as long as I lived I would also be haunted by the memory of the ghastly scenes I would witness.'

Is it still necessary to describe the Warsaw ghetto? So much has already been written about it, there have been so many accounts by unimpeachable witnesses. A cemetery? No, for these bodies were still moving, were indeed often violently agitated. These were still living people, if you could call them such. For apart from from their skin, eyes, and voice there was nothing human left in these palpitating figures. Everywhere there was hunger, misery, the atrocious stench of decomposing bodies, the pitiful moans of dying children, the desperate cries and gasps of a people struggling for life against impossible odds.
The horror of what Karski describes isn't diminished by being familiar, the dehumanising of the ghetto's inhabitants typified in one section where Karski witnesses 'the hunt' where young Nazi thugs take random potshots at men, women and children as they run for cover. Things only get worse of course when Karski, disguised as an Estonian militiaman, sneaks into one of the death camps where he has to literally clamber over and around the dead and dying, watch as they are loaded in the most brutal fashion into trailers whose floors are scattered with lime, unable to intervene as they are carted off to a slow death by starvation, asphyxiation or decomposition. The fact that he then risked his life again to carry that testimony to Europe and the Allied leaders only for it to be roundly ignored only compounds the tragedy of a man who at the end of the day could only stand up and tell what he had seen.

All I can say is that I saw it and that it is the truth.

As well as reading this extraordinary testimony it is also possible to view the video of Karski's testimony to the Shoah Foundation.


Thursday 5 May 2011

'the most extraordinary gathering'

'Death is not an event in life, we do not live to experience death' - Ludwig Wittgenstein

At Last
by Edward St Aubyn

St Aubyn's previous novel, Mother's Milk, should've won the Booker in 2006 for my money. It is a marvellous book, coruscating one minute, tender the next, a wicked portrait of a man in crisis that sent me back to read the trilogy that preceded it, Some Hope. It is when reading that that you get an idea of the horror of St Aubyn's own biography. Raped by his own father until he confronted him at the age of 8, a heroin addict at 16, a potential suicide in his late twenties, it was writing that prevented him from ending it all, Never Mind, the first volume of the trilogy, quite literally saving his life. Without attempting to sort out exactly what is fact and what fiction we followed Patrick Melrose dealing first with his father's death, his own addiction and finding a measure of redemption in the trilogy and then a transference of his anger onto his mother Eleanor in Mother's Milk as she fell under the spell of a New Age charlatan and gave away the family home in Saint-Nazaire. It's important not to forget the vicious humour that accompanies this dramatic plot, not only in direct relation to his own situation but particularly in Patrick's observations of the vapid socialites that surround him. I generally find it hard to care much about any difficulties faced by the super-wealthy, but the brutal honesty and frequent barbs launched by Patrick Melrose made him a compelling narrator.

So I have been waiting five years for another novel from St Aubyn and I was pleased to find out that it would pick up Patrick's story. As the title and cover suggest this is the final instalment in the Melrose saga, taking place at the funeral service for Patrick's mother Eleanor. Will the passing of both of his parents allow him to move forward into a life free of their influence? I shouldn't have been so surprised I guess, but in a novel that takes place during a funeral service you don't immediately expect to be laughing, but that is exactly what happens from the very first page, thanks largely to the witterings of family friend, Nicholas Pratt ('like Toady in a very grumpy mood').

'I suppose your aunt will be here soon... I saw her last week in New York and I'm pleased to say I was the first to tell her the tragic news about your mother.  She burst into tears and ordered a croque monsieur to swallow with her second helping of diet pills. I felt sorry for her and got her asked to dinner with the Blands. Do you know Freddie Bland? He's the smallest billionaire alive. His parents were practically dwarfs, like General and Mrs Tom Thumb. They used to come into the room with a tremendous fanfare and then disappear under a console table.'

And on he goes. The family gathering is a scenario well exploited for character comedy in many mediums and having already introduced his characters to readers in the previous books St Aubyn is well placed to allow Patrick's attentions to wander around the room, drifting from conversation to conversation, puncturing the pretensions of the upper-class as he goes. But St Aubyn has always been a very humane writer and his real skill is to make you care or at least understand in some way even the most unsympathetic characters, whilst also somehow making you sympathise with the trials of those who have begun life with everything and found themselves with nowhere to go.

As far as Patrick was concerned, the past was a corpse waiting to be cremated, and although his wish was about to be granted in the most literal fashion, in a furnace only a few yards from where he was standing, another kind of fire was needed to incinerate the attitudes which haunted Nancy; the psychological impact of inherited wealth, the raging desire to get rid of it and the raging desire to hang on to it; the demoralizing effect of already having what almost everyone else was sacrificing their precious lives to acquire; the more or less secret superiority and the more or less secret shame of being rich, generating their characteristic disguises: the philanthropy solution, the alcoholic solution, the mask of eccentricity, the search for salvation in perfect taste; the defeated, the idle, and the frivolous, and their opponents, the standard bearers, all living in a world that the dense glitter of alternatives made it hard for love and work to penetrate.
Having gone some way to settling his own demons of addiction Patrick seems to present a far more balanced character, a family man determined to avoid the pitfalls of his own family history in setting up his own. This comes after furious examination though and naturally it is Eleanor who comes under the spotlight here, pinned to the specimen board like a fragile butterfly. If Patrick's father has always been cast as the villain of the piece then his mother has always seemed to be ill-equipped to deal with the life she found herself in -  'a small baby perfectly preserved in the pickling jar of money, alcohol and fantasy.' - but Patrick isn't content to let her off the hook so easily.

No doubt David had searched hard among the foolish and the meek to find a woman who could put up with his special tastes, but once his depravity was on full display, how could Eleanor escape the charge of colluding with a sadist and a paedophile?

He wasn't the only victim of his father's 'depravity' after all; friends who came to stay over were subjected to the same humiliations and there is a real tussle with the apportioning of blame. Even that house in Saint-Nazaire, so bitterly fought over in Mother's Milk, is now tainted by its association, provided by Eleanor 'as a massive substitute for herself, a motherland that was there to cover for her incapacities.' No, Eleanor comes in for a rough ride in this novel, she will be laid to rest only after having been dragged over the coals by a son who can only conclude at her passing that 'I think my mother's death is the best thing to happen to me since . . well, since my father's death.'

That wandering gaze I mentioned earlier lends the prose a wonderful fluidity and the ease with which Patrick can dip back into his memories intensifies this even further. Memory is unsurprisingly a major theme with Patrick first espousing that 'life is just the history of what we give our attention to. The rest is packaging.' Then later realising that some of his childhood memories have been manufactured from family photographs (something I have done several times). Eventually he even questions the value of memory.

What if memories were just memories, without any consolatory or persecutory power? Would they exist at all, or was it always emotional pressure that summoned images from what was potentially all of experience so far. Even if that was the case, there must be better librarians than panic, resentment and dismembering nostalgia to search among the dim and crowded stacks.
It's not that I've been waiting for a brilliant book about death to be written but two have certainly come along at once. After the excellent Today by David Miller, At Last is another beautifully crafted examination of death, grief and remembrance. I mentioned at the beginning that fiction that concerns the privileged can have little concern for the average reader unless it endeavours to speak to them in some way. I also began with a quote from Wittgenstein and it is another that I will finish with to hopefully tie all of that together. If 'nothing is more important in teaching us to understand the concepts we have than constructing fictitious ones.' then both Today and At Last have done just that in order to teach us something about our own reaction to the sudden removal of those people who have helped shape exactly who we are, or thought we were.


Wednesday 4 May 2011


After the joy that was contained within her rough-around-edges debut BiRd-BrAiNs, recorded using a simple digital recorder and free mixing software, the question was always going to be what effect a slightly less DIY approach would have on the unique sound of Merril Garbus, or whether she would keep things as unpolished on her follow-up. The great news is that she has managed to retain what makes her an exciting artist and augment it when necessary with a fuller sound or slightly more production. Yes, this is a more polished final product but that doesn't mean it isn't risky, in fact there's at least one track here that pushes things a little further than anything on that first album, and most importantly this is a sophomore album that doesn't disappoint, that makes you excited all over again about music which can be both popular and edgy.

Tribal drums, looped vocal instrumentation and distorted lead vocals on my country are all familiar and it's not until a huge keyboard stab comes halfway through that you realise what a bit of support can do giving the track an invigorating injection. Horns, group vocals, cowbells and marimba are all added to the mix in a furious finish that ends with the isolated line 'the worst thing about living a lie is just wondering when they'll find out.' that presumably referring to the lie of the American dream, which Garbus is keen to deconstruct, for after all 'we cannot all have it.' The first appearance of heavier guitars comes on es-so along with a stand up bass and Rhodes piano to help create a funky, almost jazzy sound which will be repeated on other tracks. But it finishes with an alarm sound that leads into one of the albums more adventurous tracks, gangsta, which opens with the challenge,'What's a boy to do if he'll never be a gangsta?' There's a sinister chorus with its shouted refrain, 'BANG BANG BANG - oye/ Never move to my hood/ 'Cause danger is crawling out the wood' and then the track breaks apart near the end with the instrumentation and vocals fracturing, moving all over the place if you happen to listen on headphones. It's a thrilling end to a powerful song.

There is a variation on a theme from the first album with the track powa, which adds electric guitar to Garbus' favoured ukelele. She also softens her vocals here in places, showing that she isn't just a belter, although the amazing high notes she hits at the end show that she's an odd match to Aguilera, Carey et al. It's an intensely personal track about the ambiguities of one relationship, the power that can be wielded by one's partner. ''Baby bring me home to bed/ I need you to press me down/ Before my body flies away from me' and later 'Mirror mirror on the wall/ Can you see my face at all?/ My man likes me from behind/ Tell the truth I never mind' The whole track is great example of how she has already developed as an artist in the space of the two albums.

The light ukelele sound is darkened and perverted on riotriot, a fascinating song lyrically which appears to about a sexual fantasy involving a policeman who's come to arrest her brother. It's another track which indulges in a jazzy breakdown halfway through and then accelerates with heavier guitars as Garbus shouts out, 'There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand/ And that I've never felt before.' First single bizness goes back somewhat to the afro-pop influences of BiRd-BrAiNs adding some horns to the sampled vocal loops and bass line and making much more of a production of things than anything on that debut. The groove is much lighter on doorstep even though it deals with the police shooting 'my baby as he crossed over my doorstep.' The return of the police adds some more colour to riotriot of course and the album begins to show more clearly its themes of unrest.

youyesyou returns to the idea of privilege -  'I was born to do it!/ My daddy had enough so I put my back into it/ That man was born to do it too/ He didn't have enough so he can't sing for you.' and for all its playfulness musically ends with another challenge 'Throw your money on the ground and leave it there!/ You yes you.' As I said earlier, Garbus has really developed her voice and on the extraordinarily intimate lullaby, woolywoolygong it is like she's singing right into your ear, showing great control and all the more effectively conveying that worry of bringing up a child in the modern world. There's a haunting line in the melody just as she sings 'Cause they'll try to arm you/ That's what they'll do.' That concern is turned into attack on the album closer, killa. 'I'm a new kinda woman/ I'm a don't take shit from you kinda woman' she sings as if we didn't already know that. There are some pretty powerful subjects tackled on this album, and a fair bit of anger too, but as she makes clear, 'All my violence is here in the sound' and on an album that sees her brilliantly supported and produced, that unique voice seems more powerful than ever.

And if you don't believe me then there is still (so far) the chance to listen to the whole album for free by following this link to a stream from The Guardian. Or watch the video for bizness below.


Monday 2 May 2011

'to all who care to know!'

The Rime of the Modern Mariner
by Nick Hayes

I held off reading this graphic novel as I worried that not having read the classic poem that inspired it would hinder my appreciation (I have since rectified this and you can read it online or download it for free here). But when a copy was put in my hand I couldn't help myself. It is gorgeous. Stiff boards, squared cloth spine with silver lettering, heavy paper stock, ribbon marker; it oozes quality. The pages are bathed in a hazy blue that permeates the black and white artwork and as you work your way through the book it begins to develop in style with gods and mythical creatures giving the work a stature to help it hold its own against the poem that inspired it as well as other great works of art and literature that seek to speak to the human race about its relationship with the planet it lives on. For Nick Hayes has decided to update Coleridge's poem into an eco-fable for our times. A Blackberry-toting office worker eats his 'rubber sandwich' and styrofoamed coffee, carelessly discarding his rubbish in the autumn wind before a salty sea-dog joins him on his bench to tell his tale.

His journey began simply enough before boredom led to his taking potshots at flotsam and the inevitable raising of that gun to the heavens where the fateful albatross was silhouetted against the sun. After it has crashed to the deck the boat's engine dies and the and the crew find themselves in the stillness of the North Pacific Gyre. Hayes retains Coleridge's meter whilst updating the language, sometimes with slightly comic results, 'So I turned around frustrated/And looked across the sea/And saw we were surrounded/By a wash of polythene/Swathes of polystyrene/Bobbed with tonnes of neoprene/And polymethyl methacrylate/Stretched across the scene.

But there are some stunning images; both mundane, like the 'writhing nest' of a trawling net stuffed with animals alive and dead and the plastic detritus that refuses to rot, or the stomach of the fabled albatross filled with the nylon gauze it had mistaken for food; some fantastical like the spectral animations, gods, and tsunamis that batter our mariner as a storm rages around him. The pages become more and more immersive as our narrator's visions become more extreme and it really is the artwork that makes the book work rather than the text. When he eventually washes up on shore and that blue tint is removed from the panels, there is no loss of visual pleasure as Hayes really gives full rein to his mystical, spiritual and very English visual style.

The ecological message couldn't be clearer throughout but whereas Coleridge's wedding guest learns from the Mariner's tale, his modern counterpart ignores his warnings and with time being money returns to work - 'He paid the seaman for his time/ And quickly hurried on/ To a world detached of consequence/ Where he would not live for long.' The dangers of ignoring that warning have been made all to clear and even with the original poem it has always been up to us the reader to learn the lesson or suffer the consequences, however extreme those may be.


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