Thursday 15 December 2011

2011 - Books of the Year

Yes, you may have already noticed that 2011's end of year post is just about books rather than also including my favourite music, films and other cultural highlights. The reason for this is quite simple: I've barely listened/watched/been to any as any regular readers will have noticed over the year. It has in fact been all I could manage to maintain a steady stream of book reviews this year and I have my fingers crossed about being able to do the same next year. It hasn't been easy. But every time I think I'm about to throw in the towel something comes along to make me persevere and I'm always glad that I do. The books below are all brilliant for different reasons and a couple of them are so good that they're worth writing the blog for alone. And then of course there's you and your comments.....

Many thanks to every single one of you who has read my blog this year and a seasonal hug and kiss to everyone who's left a comment. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it.

A Taste of Chlorine by Bastien Vives

It may be at the bottom of the pile in the photo above but this graphic novel is right at the top of my books of the year. If you want to read a graphic novel that truly uses pictures to tell a story that words wouldn't have been able to then this book is perfect. The story of a boy using swimming to help treat curvature of the spine is all about body-language, gesture and movement. There's hardly any text and yet volumes are spoken in Vives' exquisitely drawn panels, with the underwater environment particularly well presented, you can almost smell the chlorine. Like reading a perfect short story it is enigmatic, moving and left me with a warm glow in my heart.

A genuine masterpiece about tyranny and control from a writer who may only have produced two novels in his long lifetime but who made sure they were both in their own ways completely brilliant. This novel examines the symbiotic relationship between a man who is clearly Jewish (though never named as such) in 1930's Germany (though this is never made explicit) and the leader, or adversary, (clearly Hitler though again he is not named) who tyrannises him. Brave in its hypotheses, brutal in its psychological insights and honesty, this novel is a classic because it manages to be about all situations in which one group makes a pariah of another. Indispensable.

Great House by Nicole Krauss

This novel is by no means perfect but its failings come from ambition rather than lack of talent which Krauss seems to have in spades. There is a feeling that comes from reading the work of a mature writer, an ease that you are in the hands of someone who has something to say. This usually comes from writers far more experienced than Krauss but her maturity is just one of the attractive features in this novel about a desk and the various hands it passes through, characters created with such detail that they cease to feel like characters at all, and the novel as a whole written with a complexity that forces the reader to slow down and appreciate the thought, intelligence and humanity that has gone into creating it.

A collection of stories so unique, so specific, so perfect as to need little more than that from me to send you straight out to buy a copy. Pancake died without ever really knowing just how good a writer he was and too young for us to know just how good and influential he might have become. As it stands several writers cite him as an influence and the warmth and reverence with which they do this is worth noting. His stories embody the area of West Virginia in which Pancake grew up, with authentic details and voices but these aren't simply stories rooted in a particular geography so that we can indulge in a kind of literary tourism, he also shows with a couple of stories just how formally inventive he might have been. Just buy the damn book, ok?

The Summer Of Drowning by John Burnside

I have no shame in admitting that I am a fan of Burnside and take a small amount of pride in being one of the voices that has helped convince John Self over at Asylum to read more of him and realise just how good he is (although in his own end of the year round-up he mentions that he did so in order to shut people like me up). This latest novel shows a writer at the height of his powers returning to a story he failed to complete a decade ago and delivering a novel filled with atmosphere, unease, myth, storytelling, artistry and writing so good it sometimes make you want to take a moment and nod your head in appreciation. Set in the Arctic Circle and drawing on the folk myths of the area this is a book infused with the spectral light of the midnight sun; deeply unsettling, wonderfully complex, another weapon in my arsenal to make sure that you all make the effort to pick up one of his books. Soon.

An unalloyed pleasure from first page to last, Towles debut is a perfectly mixed dry Martini. Set in 1920's New York it tells the story of a life-changing year for Katherine Kontent, the only fictional character I have ever fallen in love with. Taking inspiration from Walker Evans' candid subway photographs Towles effortlessly recreates an era and peoples it with characters in which I believed totally and couldn't hope to forget. It's the kind of novel where you genuinely care about what happens to them and can't help but wonder what happens to them after the final page. Witty, funny, smart and beautiful: that's just Katey Kontent, but also a good description of the novel as a whole.

Lazarus Is Dead by Richard Beard

One of the most exciting reads of the year for the way in which its form was hard to pin down, Beard's 'novel' is a re-examination of the story behind one of Jesus' miracles. By taking an almost forensic approach Beard manages to tell the story more fully than ever before, bravely hypothesising about the childhoods of both men, drawing inspiration and evidence from other artistic sources, research into the period and of course the invention of the author. Structured around the number seven the chapters count down to Lazarus' death and then back up again after his resurrection, where Beard is brave enough not just to imagine what happens to the story of Lazarus after its usefulness in the Bible ends but to posit an even greater significance for the man who came back from the dead. If you want to know why fiction can still be exciting then pick this book up.

If I had a pound for every novel that takes a male protagonist, wipes his memory and then starts from there then I'd have a load more money to spend on books, but this novel from linguist Marani is ingenious and far smarter than most. A man is found badly beaten on the quay in Trieste in 1943. When he comes to he has no memory of who he is or even which language he speaks. The Finnish doctor on a German hospital ship that treats him presumes that he is also Finnish after spotting a name inside his coat and an initialled handkerchief and so begins to re-teach him his language in the hope it will unlock memories and lead him to recover his identity. This relatively slim novel covers huge themes around memory, identity and truth and manages to intrigue even further with the perspective from which it is written. Exactly the kind of novel I would hope to unearth on this blog (although Nicholas Lezard gets the credit on this one).

I Am A Chechen by German Sadulaev

A book that melds memoir with fiction, folk tale with fantasy, Sadulaev's account of the conflict in Chechnya doesn't fit into any easy categories and is all the more exciting for it. It may not be consistent but the early sections in particular are stunning in the way they weave Chechen myth with personal testimony to create something that manages to be grand and specific at the same time. Infused with the guilt of a man who wasn't there when things were at their worst, Sadulaev uses his creativity instead to speak on behalf of a people and give voice to a conflict the like of  which all too easily passes us by on the ticker tape of rolling news.

This is hardly news to anyone as the book was already well regarded by the time I came to read it at the very beginning of this year but it has remained very strong in my mind, a perfect example of why we should all read more literature in translation. Bakker's novel is written with the kind of quiet confidence that let's the reader relax in the knowledge that they are in safe hands. Reserved to the point of repression, the prose mimics the flat landscape of rural Holland but gives little hints along the way of the power that lurks beneath the surface. A farmer and his father inhabit a lonely farmhouse and the son's appalling treatment of his father leads us to wonder what might have happened in the past. Bakker expertly releases fragments from the past in his examination of love, loss and the special bond between twin brothers.

The Horseman's Word by Roger Garfitt

I don't tend to read an awful lot of non-fiction but I'm lucky that when I do it tends to be first rate. This memoir was literally forced into my hand by an excited publicist and her enthusiasm wasn't misplaced. The prose is beautiful as you might expect from a poet and its evocations of childhood innocence are heart-warming and comforting. When it follows Garfitt's misadventures at university and beyond it becomes a fascinating portrait of a mind unravelling and the writing shows the tissue-thin barriers between lunatic, lover and poet. A book that took many years to write and hone, and the passion of one publisher in particular to finally bring to print, this is a labour of love and madness that rewards the effort.

Over a decade after it was originally published and won the Booker Prize I finally get over my Coetzee hoodoo and discover just why this book, and writer, are so well regarded. A Cape Town university professor is forced to leave in disgrace after an affair with a student and goes to stay with his daughter on her smallholding. When the two of them are subjected to a brutal assault by three black men South Africa's fragile new politics are laid bare for examination. A brave and uncomfortable read that retains its ability to shock, this is a novel filled with anger and love, containing so many ideas and themes that you could happily discuss it for hours and hours. It has also of course made me want to read more Coetzee. Ah well, there's always next year....

And a few books that came close and deserve honourable mentions: At Last by Edward St Aubyn, A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, From The Mouth Of The Whale by Sjón and Today by David Miller.


Tuesday 13 December 2011

'Who said there were no surprises left in life?'

The Sense Of An Ending
by Julian Barnes

Each year there is often a fervour amongst book bloggers to try and get ahead of the Booker game and guess what books might make the longlist, then to read read the entire longlist (or shortlist if you're a wuss) so that you can pick your winner before the panel of judges. I've never fancied a Bookerthon myself, mainly because it seems, in spite of the seemingly wide variety of books that can appear on the list, an unnecessary narrowing of one's reading for a good portion of the year. I happened to read a few by chance and yet weirdly the one I probably should have read, based on having enjoyed his writing before and its eminently digestible size, was one that I didn't get around to until after it had already won the prize. It was seen by some as the only winner capable of mollifying the critics who had picked up on the rather unfortunate phrases used by the judges at various points in the process. As someone who was disappointed in varous ways by the books I read before the announcement I can say now that the eventual winner has its own failings but is a book we can be happy to see brought to more readers, and welcome recognition for a writer who deserves plenty of praise (although maybe for other books......discuss!)

The first thing to enjoy about this book is the feeling of calm and comfort that comes from reading the work of a well established writer (actually the first thing to enjoy is the delicious muted cover design, the dark edged pages...). No tricks or gimmicks, plenty of mature observation and detail, sentences and paragraphs filled with insight that make you want to stop for a moment to savour their import. This short novel wastes no time in introducing its major theme of memory, the opening sentence 'I remember, in no particular order:' followed by six images of relative normality, all of which will be illuminated in the pages that follow. That too is another joy, the way in which Barnes can take an image and make it mean so much more by adding to it experience and loss. Each memory as it is reclaimed and re-examined only highlights the way in which loss and remembrance go hand in hand, for 'Memory is what we thought we'd forgotten."

Our narrator Tony Webster has reached the point in his life where the stasis he always aspired to has been reached. A career ended in retirement, a marriage ended in amicable divorce - 'I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.' Then comes a letter from solicitors dealing with the estate of his childhood friend Adrian, informing him that Adrian's diary has been left to him, although it is currently in the possession of another figure from his past, ex-girlfriend Veronica. The reappearance of these names from the past is nothing less than an exhumation, literally in the case of Adrian who committed suicide, and metaphorically in the case of Veronica who left Tony so hurt he decided to practically erase her from his life (the scant details he passed on about her to his wife have rendered her a caricature - 'The Fruitcake') and whilst this forces him to examine once again his school days and first relationships the diary promises some kind of secret or revelation that may shed light on his whole life. If he can only get a hold of it.

Let's not worry about the plot any more though. As I mentioned in my review of Sebald's Austerlitz there seems to be far more pleasure in the effort to remember than in what is actually remembered. The revelations in this novel, the 'twist' that you may have heard mentioned in other reviews, are probably the parts that I liked least (someone else, who shall remain anonymous, said it was tantamount to the ending of an episode of Eastenders), it is the insight into the idea of remembering, of the narrative we tell ourselves about our life that engages more than the plot itself ('...the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly - to ourselves.'). Barnes also uses two or three recurring images to great effect in his exploration of time and shows also that the tiniest gesture can have the most profound meaning if we can only see it. As I said earlier, those fleeting images in the first few sentences of the book will all assume a greater significance.

Back in those school days where Tony and his classmates were filled with that confidence that comes with privilege - 'that they had ever been anything like us, and we knew that we grasped life -  and truth, and morality, and art - far more clearly than out compromised elders' - he and his two closest friends marked their union in a simple way.

Another detail I remember: the three of us, as a symbol of our bond, used to wear with the face on the inside of our wrist. It was an affectation, of course, but perhaps something more. It made time feel like a personal, even a secret, thing.

This image is typical of Barnes. It resonates immediately as truthful, acknowledges its own pretension straight away and also sets itself up for a payoff later; all in three short sentences. This novel seems to be filled with moments like this. Classroom discussions about who gets to decide what becomes history feedback into the personal relationships we follow. 'History isn't the lies of the victors...It's more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious or defeated' but they are presumably damaged and this is a theme that Barnes develops as Tony looks back on his relationship with Veronica.

I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealing with others. Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.

Tony's memories of his defining relationship with Veronica are filled with deliciously insightful comments ranging from where she and her family lived - 'in Kent, out on the Orpington line, in one of those suburbs which had stopped concreting over nature at the very last minute, and ever since smugly claimed rural status.' (This is Chislehurst, which is down the road from where I grew up, meaning that the sentence above had me guffawing on the train) - to the ability of a jilted partner to skewer his ex. When Veronica and Adrian partner up after the end of her relationship with Tony he writes a vitriolic letter which will become another of the documents of this novel. But after Adrian's suicide Tony is pithy in his analysis.

The bitch, I thought. If there was one woman in the entire world a man could fall in love with and still think life worth refusing, it was Veronica.

Ow. John Self covers some interesting ground with regard to regretting our harsh words in his own review of this book so I won't say any more on that but return once more to time and memory. Another of Barnes' recurring images is the Severn Bore, a natural tidal surge that sends a sizeable wave the wrong way up the River Severn (follow this link to see some amazing videos of the phenomena). If we look back through our lives, follow the river of our memories, we expect to always see time flowing in one direction. But as Tony is forced to look once again at his life, or the story of his life as told by himself, his very concept of time alters.

I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory. So when this strange thing happened - when these new memories suddenly came upon me - it was as if, for that moment, time had been placed in reverse. As if, for that moment, the river ran upstream.

Such are these revelations that some readers may be tempted into their own reversal, turning back to the first page to begin the novel again with a new perspective.


Tuesday 6 December 2011

'Not a bad man but not good either'

by J. M. Coetzee

I mentioned my trepidation when approaching Sebald in my review of Austerlitz last week but that was nothing compared to the downright anxiety I felt about making a start on Coetzee. I knew I had to read him but with each successive publication my sense of where to start with him got more and more confused. Step in the Folio Society with another lovely edition that gives the Booker Prize winning Disgrace a well deserved re-appraisal more than 10 years after its original publication. I still feel a certain anxiety about Coetzee but it is now that I will find his later work as intimidating as ever whilst secretly wanting to read more of his earlier work, so brilliant was this intelligent, brave, angry and confused novel. As someone who began to find their reading maturity on a diet of Philip Roth's more passionate novels I felt as though I had found a replacement source of that fervour now that Roth has begun to focus so much on mortality and death. Disgrace is every bit as risky and controversial as I expected but also richly symbolic, brutal and exhilarating. What an introduction.

The man at the centre of the novel is David Lurie, a professor in a Cape Town university where modernisation has seen him move from teaching Literature to 'Communications' a title that doesn't sit well with this lover of the Romantic poets. His life has achieved a kind of stasis; he has been married and divorced, remaining on good terms with his ex-wife; sex has become a transaction as easily managed as any utility bill with his weekly visits to a woman named 'Soraya'; and a personal project to write an opera about Byron is always simmering away on the back burner.

Is he happy? By most measurements, yes, he believes he is. However, he has not forgotten the last chorus of Oedipus: Call no man happy until he is dead.

This routine is ruptured when Lurie spots Soraya in the street with two children who can only be hers and the two of them catch each other's eye. This intrusion of her personal life into their private arrangement is never mentioned by either of them at their next appointment but they both know something has changed and their arrangement comes to an end. Lurie's solution to this problem is to fall back on the tried and tested formula of sleeping with one of his students. The girl he selects, Melanie Isaacs, is 20 years old 'small and thin, with close cropped hair, wide, almost Chinese cheekbones, large, dark eyes', and whilst he finds himself falling rather harder for her than he intended she never seems to be fully committed. One sexual episode in particular highlights what we might call acquiescence rather than real participation.

Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away.

A complaint is made, probably by or at least at the encouragement of Melanie's boyfriend; a tribunal is held at which Lurie refuses to kowtow to the demands of some of the board to show penitence or do more than simply admit guilt and he is dismissed from his position, eventually leaving in disgrace to stay with his daughter on the smallholding she owns on the Eastern Cape.

This retreat doesn't offer the solace that he might have hoped for. Not only is there the slightly fractious relationship between father and daughter but in a moment of shocking violence the two of them are subjected to an ordeal that further polarises their positions as well as forcing the reader to confront an uncomfortable image of the new South Africa. As a reviewer I might chose to skirt around the details of the incident in order to avoid spoilers but Coetzee keeps things unclear by placing Lurie in a different room to his daughter as she endures what he presumes to be rape by one or all of the three (black) men who attack them in their home. Lucy's refusal to discuss what actually happened or seek any recourse to the law leaves Lurie baffled and frustrated but she is quite clear about her stance.

'...what happened to me is a purely private matter. In another time, in another place it might be held to be a public matter. But in this place, at this time, it is not. It is my business, mine alone.'
'This place being what?'
'This place being South Africa.'

Coetzee's genius is that an event that would be shocking and painful enough on its own is given a far deeper resonance by the circumstances that surround it. What kind of guilt or pressure is it that forces Lucy to endure her shame rather than challenge it? Is David right to question whether Petrus, the (black) neighbour who has gone from worker to co-owner of the smallholding, has any connection to the attack? How can David hope to talk to his daughter fully about her ordeal when we consider the charges that brought him to her home in the first place? It's no surprise that this book caused controversy in South Africa. In its bluntest interpretation we might see a brutal justice being administered to the white population after the end of apartheid, a vicious illustration that 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.' This metaphor becomes even more concentrated if we think that Melanie, whose ethnicity is never specified beyond the enigmatic description I gave above, might herself be black. If, within this tight narrative framework, we have seen father bear down on a black student and then his daughter assaulted by three black men we have a pressure of almost unbearable degree, a potent symbol of racial division as well as one of ownership, control and power. It is that kind of pent-up energy that had me thinking of (and rejoicing) Roth's angriest novels when reading this one. Lucy's personal disgrace is to endure the attack and then to hear the story version of it of it spread across the district unchallenged.

That is what their visitors have achieved; that is what they have done to this confident, modern young woman. Like a stain the story is spreading across the district. Not her story to spread but theirs: they are its owners. How they put her in her place, how they showed her what a woman is for.

And the question she is left asking herself comes when considering the personal animosity she witnessed - 'Why did they hate me so?' Surely only as a symbol of something wider.

And what are we to make of the novel's protagonist? Christopher Hope in his introduction gives us a little guidance in trying to seek out his motivations and wondering what kind of sympathy we might have for him as a character (it is also worth noting that Hope, who hasn't always given Coetzee the easiest of rides, is in no doubt about the virtues of this novel). We might consider the way Lurie speaks to his students about one of his life's passions, Byron, and the way in which Byron describes Lucifer in particular.

'He doesn't act on principle but on impulse, and the source of his impulses is dark to him. Read a few lines further: "His madness was not of the head, but heart." A mad heart. What is a mad heart?'

That is the question both we and Lurie must ask of him and nearer the end of the novel, when he begins to reckon himself it doesn't seem as if even that has been enough.

Not a bad man but not good either. Not cold but not hot, even at its hottest. Not by the measure of Theresa, not even by the measure of Byron. Lacking in fire. Will that be the verdict on him, the verdict of the universe and its all-seeing eye?

A novel then filled with potent images, difficult questions, complicated motivations and a good dose of anger (just my cup of tea); as challenging to read now as it was when published and a pleasure as ever to do so in this quality edition from Folio. Right, what Coetzee next...?


Tuesday 29 November 2011

'the reverse of a shadow'

by W.G. Sebald

Well it took almost two years to make good on my promise to read some more Sebald after The Emigrants but I got there in the end. It took a fair bit of planetary alignment: a lovely hardback found in a charity shop for a bargain price of £3, a passing comment in a conversation I had with an author about one of my favourite books of the year, and the publication of an essay by James Wood in the LRB. All those nudges finally pushed me headlong into Sebald's final book before his premature death at just 57. In the spirit of the trepidation that accompanied my move to read it I have also been terrified of writing up my thoughts on it, this is after all a vast book by a supremely intelligent writer, chock-full of weighty themes and ideas and the considerable weight of the Holocaust bearing down on it too. I shall therefore focus on a couple of aspects that I found interesting and leave you safe in the knowledge that there is far more to discuss than I could hope to cover right here for the moment (if you'd like to read a lengthier post from another book blogger then may I recommend Tom's over at A Common Reader).

As ever we have a narrator that it might be too simple to presume is Sebald himself, this is 'fiction' after all, and a chance meeting that provides the book's narrative. In the late 1960's, during a period of regular trips to Belgium, Sebald meets on several occasions the same man, Jaques Austerlitz. The pair meet first in the waiting room of the central station in Antwerp where they discuss their shared interest in architecture. The anatomy of buildings, their cultural and political significance, the ways in which they express something about the humans who created and built them will all be discussed and as someone whose general interest in architecture extends to watching the odd episode of Grand Designs it's worth noting that some of these extended thoughts are fascinating. The grandness of some of these buildings is forbidding and yet at the same time, as Austerlitz notes, revealing.

Yet, he said, it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity. The construction of fortifications, for instance....clearly showed how we feel obliged to keep surrounding ourselves with defences.

As the two men enjoy each other's company, bumping into each other repeatedly, we sense that we are being prepared for the real narrative and so it is twenty years later that the two men meet again, in a rail terminus once more, this time London's Liverpool Street Station, and Austerlitz reveals that he has been looking for someone 'to whom he could relate his own story, a story which he had learned only in the last few years and for which he needed the kind of listener I had once been in Antwerp.' This is because Jaques Austerlitz had actually been raised as Dafydd Elias, evacuated from Europe on the Kindertransport and raised by a pastor and his wife in Bala, Wales. It is just before his school exams that he receives the shocking news that the name he must legally write on the papers is not the one by which he has gone for so long, but a name which feels immediately alien.

At first, what disconcerted me most was that I could connect no ideas at all with the word Austerlitz. If my new name had been Morgan or Jones, I could have related it to reality. I even new the name Jaques froma French nursery rhyme. But I had never heard of an Austerlitz before, and from the first I was convinced that no one else bore that name, no one in Wales, or in the Isles, or anywhere else in the world.

His discovery soon afterwards that Fred Astaire was actually born to a Viennese father with the same surname comes as scant consolation. What Austerlitz is left with, what any of us would be left with where we to be told that everything we thought we knew about ourselves was built on shaky foundations, is a gigantic void which he needs to fill. I couldn't help but be reminded of one of my favourite books of the year, New Finnish Grammar, which tells the story of a man rendered a blank slate after a terrible beating, presumed to be Finnish, who learns from scratch the language he hopes will unlock who he really is. It is this aspect of Austerlitz that I found fascinating and it is a sense that there had always been something not quite right that he latches onto immediately.

It is a fact that through all the years I spent in the manse in Bala I never shook off the feeling that something very obvious, very manifest in itself was hidden from me. Sometimes it was as if I was in a dream and trying to perceive reality: then again I felt as if an invisible twin brother were walking beside me, the reverse of a shadow, so to speak.

In his search for memory, for that is what he must undertake in order to learn and understand from where he came, Sebald's trademark photographs play an important role. These photographs are presented throughout the text to illustrate people and places that 'Sebald' or Austerlitz make reference to. We cannot help regard at least some of them as genuine as the text that accompanies them describes the photo exactly as we see it and yet we know that apart from a few which look as though they have been taken by Sebald for the book, most of these images are found and have been appropriated for this fiction. That striking photo on the front cover for example of the young Austerlitz dressed for a ball, 'the unusual hairline running at a slant over the forehead...the piercing, inquiring gaze of the page boy who had come to demand his dues, who was waiting in the grey light of dawn on the empty field for me to accept the challenge and avert the misfortune lying ahead of him.' So convincing and yet of course Austerlitz is a fiction, this is some other boy, the only clue on the back of the photo in Sebald's archive are the words "Stockport: 30p" The book is filled with moments like this where we have to remind ourselves that what we are both reading and seeing is not real, but it is also worth reminding ourselves that whilst the construction isn't 'real' every episode of fear, exile and death within the book was someone's reality.

When Austerlitz travels to the Czech Republic, quite literally going through the phonebook Austerlitz's, and meets Vera, a woman who had served his family, a slew of photographs, testimony and memory comes back and with the pictures in particular we get a real sense of 'the mysterious quality peculiar to such photographs when they surface from oblivion.'

...as if the pictures had a memory of their own and remembered us, remembered the roles that we, the survivors, and those no longer among us had played in our former lives.

Photography is also used as a metaphor for memory itself.

In my photographic work I was especially entranced, said Austerlitz, by the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again if you try to cling to them, just like a photographic print left in the developing bath too long.

This emergence of memory is clearly a classic Sebald theme and the murk that surrounds it is repeated several times in the recurring image of the darkening light of dusk. When the two men first meet in Antwerp 'Sebald' has already compared the dusk of the station to the light in the Nocturama at the local zoo. The shadowy space of that waiting room has an otherworldy quality perfect for memories to emerge from and much later in the book, when the scene shifts to Liverpool Street Station, the concourse is cast as some kind of entrance to the underworld.

Even on sunny days only a faint greyness illuminated at all by the globes of the station lights, came through the glass roof over the main hall, and in this eternal dusk, which was full of a muffled babble of voices, a quiet scraping and trampling of feet, innumerable people passed in great tides...

The book is haunted by these passing ghosts; the weight of the Holocaust I mentioned earlier is a very real and oppressive thing, and in fact as Austerlitz's story is revealed I found myself becoming less and less interested in the actual details but rather more fascinated by the descriptions of the mechanics of their recovery. The waiting room in that metropolitan underworld for example becomes the place where memories come flooding back.

In fact I felt, said Austerlitz, that the waiting room where I stood as if dazzled contained all the hours of my past life, all the suppressed and extinguished fears and wishes I had ever entertained, as if the black and white diamond pattern of the stone slabs beneath my feet were the board on which the end game would be played, and it covered the entire plane of time.

Austerlitz is a book I could go on discussing for much longer as I said but I hope that what I have already raised is enough to recommend it. It isn't perfect by any means; some have suggested it is in fact his 'least best' book, and as well as having to surmount the challenge of the often relentlessly paragraph-less pages I definitely thought the book was strongest in the first third and collapsed under its own weight at times later on. But there is no doubt that Sebald is a writer who has to be read by any serious reader, I just hope it won't be another two years before I pick up another of his volumes.


Thursday 24 November 2011

'a veritable powder keg'

Bye Bye Babylon
by Lamia Ziadé

When I was growing up I remember the news frequently made mention of Beirut and Lebanon accompanied by pictures of a city almost entirely devastated by shelling, rocket attacks and gunfire. I never had any real inkling of what the conflict was about or where it was happening, just that it seemed to be unresolvable and endless. This may be because the civil war in Lebanon  began in the same year I did and continued almost until I left home and in any conflict that lasts that long, and that so devastates a region, it is easy to forget that Beirut was once a thriving and prosperous capital city. Lamia Ziadé was born in Lebanon seven years before the conflict began and moved to Paris at the age of eighteen where she became a fabric designer for fashion houses like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Issey Miyake as well as an artist and illustrator of everything from children's books to album covers. In this hybrid book, described as 'part artist's sketchbook, part travel notebook and part family album', Ziadé shows us Beirut in the first four years of the civil war through the eyes of a child seeing her city and family torn apart.

In 1975 I was seven years old and loved the Bazookas my mother bought for Walid and me at Spinney's in the Ramlet al-Baida neighbourhood.
Ziadé uses bright watercolours infused with a Pop Art sensibility, perfect in the opening pages to highlight the obsessions of a young girl in thrall to 'the best of what the Western world can offer' in Spinney's supermarket. Trolleys, escalators, marshmallows and Kellog's cereals are all lovingly recreated in their garish glory but just as we might be falling for the lure of nostalgia an upended bottle of blood-red ketchup heralds the beginning of violence and the pages of consumer goods turn into  several pages of munitions, each described with the same verve, as if the allure of these weapons provoked the same feeling in the various militias around Beirut as the sugary sweetness of processed food did to Ziadé.
This feeling is important because what came before violence was the fervour of arming oneself up, the joy of getting more and more hardware, and the inevitability of violence when groups of men are fully equipped and dying to give it a go. The sheer number of different groups and their conflicting interests and aims may excuse in some part my immense confusion at the time this was all happening. And this is also the reason why Ziadé's account is so accessible, because she, as a child in that same period, was as confused as I was. Living as part of the Christian community, her father a lawyer, her grandfather the owner of a fabric shop in the Muslim area, she goes from living somewhere where two cultures seem to mix to a place divided along simple lines but with several factions fighting their own battles. At one point when she asks her father whether the Palestinians are indeed, as she has been told by her nanny, scum she gets a response which in its attempt at clarity only goes to illustrate the impossibility of that aim
He closes the door and right then and there I get a short, age-appropriate geopolitical class on the Middle East. Palestine, the English bastards, Balfour, Zionism, Jerusalem, the King David Hotel, David Ben-Gurion, the state of Israel, refugees, the Israeli bastards, the settlers, the camps, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Six-Day War, Moshe Dayan, the Yom Kippur War, Hussein of Jordan, Black September, the PLO, the American bastards, terrorism, armed struggle, the weakness of Lebanon, the mistakes the Palestinians made, the Christian fears, the beginning of the war...
The various factions of the struggle are illustrated with characteristic colour, as are important objects from a period that involved virtual siege within one's home. So radios, batteries, camping stoves and Enid Blyton paperback's are all accorded the same iconic status in Ziadé's mind as the supposed icons of the struggle. The various leaders tend to be represented in far more muted tones for these are the villains of the piece, in fact Ziadé even goes as far as to develop their portraits into something far more sinister when comparing the heroes of her dreams to the serpent-tongued, bloody-clawed politicians. It isn't all naïveté though, some of the violence, especially in the head-rush of the early period is pretty gruesome and there is a telling moment when Ziadé considers the veracity of what she hears.

In Lebanon, the violence takes on legendary status...Torture and mutilations are common practice...The Phalangists carve crosses into their victim's skin while their opponents commit murder with axes...Walid and I hear these stories and other similar ones from Tamar, our nanny; from Salim, the grocer; or from neighbours gossiping in the kitchen. But I think they're wrong, as neither my mother nor my father ever talk about this sort of thing. I conclude that this information must fall into the category of tofnis, fabrications, and I don't dare speak to my parents about what I hear for fear of making a fool of myself.
We need to protect ourselves as children of course, perhaps I can use that as excuse for my own ignorance too, and whilst that means that this is an account that barely scratches the surface of the conflict (and lacks the kind of easy insight that makes Joe Sacco's work so indispensible) it is also the reason for the book's charm and appeal.


Tuesday 22 November 2011

'You just got to pick the right time'

The Devil All The Time
by Donald Ray Pollock

I didn't read Pollock's collection of stories, Knockemstiff, but after reading this, his first novel, I am sorely tempted. I was drawn in in the first place by the mention of Denis Johnson's name on the back cover quote and fan's of his writing and also that of Cormac McCarthy would be well advised to follow that lead. Pollock writes about a brutal world filled with physical and sexual violence, where life can be cheap and the chances to transcend it few and far between, but if you don't mind getting knocked about a bit and in fact find that there's something redemptive in the end about that kind of hard hitting fiction then whether you begin with novel or stories I think you may be in for a treat.

In a stunning prologue we follow Arvin Eugene Russell on a dismal October morning as he follows his father, Willard, through pasture and woods until they reach a clearing where the remains of a big red oak tree lies on its side.

Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn't know which was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that his father had fought the Devil all the time.

Here at this 'prayer log' the two of them are disturbed by a couple of hunters, one of whom makes a few wisecracks about visiting Willard's wife whilst he's busy praying. Arvin is ashamed that his father continues his prayers and does nothing rather than standing up for himself as he had instructed Arvin to do in the face of some bullying on the school bus. But when later the two of them go for a ride to fill the truck with petrol he watches as his father comes across the two hunters, leaps out and beats the mouthy one senseless for a good couple of minutes before getting back into the truck.

"You remember what I told you the other day?" he asked Arvin.
"About them boys on the bus?"
"Well that's what I meant," Willard said, nodding over at the hunter..."You just got to pick the right time."
This becomes something of a maxim for Arvin who is the very thin cord that holds this novel together. Pollock has taken the approach favoured by many successful story writers, of creating characters with clear story arcs of their own and then tying them together. If we were being uncharitable we might accuse this novel of being little more than a series of stories tenuously linked together but how you fell about that might well depend on how integrated and whole you like a 'novel' to be. This is Ohio after Second World War, a semi rural community in the 1950's where relgion mixes with alcohol in competition for predminant pastime outside of work. WIllard has returned from the war traumatised to a degree by one thing in particular he saw while he was out there in the Pacific. Marriage and the beginning of a family bring him back to the world in part.
Sitting there watching his son, Willard suddenly had an intense desire to pray. Though he hadn't talked to God in years, not a single petition or word of praise since he'd come across the crucified marine during the war, he could feel it welling up inside him now, the urge to get right with his Maker before something bad happened to his family. But looking around the cramped apartment, he knew he couldn't get in touch with God here, no more than he'd ever been able to in a church. He was going to need some woods to worship his way.
But it will be a battle. Willard's fraught relationship with God will be tested by drink, disease and death; his search for 'peace and calm' constantly threatened. The personal relationship with God is one theme that unites the novel's characters and it will gve you an idea of the diversity of them if I mention quickly a pair of preachers, a serial-killing couple and a priest with a taste for young flesh.

Roy and Theodore are a curious double act, cousins who preach on the road where Roy speaks to the congregation and Theodore, confined to a wheelchair after drinking strychnine to prove his faith, accompanies him on guitar. The book's cover is adorned with the spiders Roy routinely pours over his head, to show how God cured him of his phobia, and which repay him occasionally with a nasty bite or two and accompanying infection. Theodore's paedophilia and Roy's increasingly extreme behaviour hustle them from one bad place to another. One moment of violence is so shocking because of the slow, inexorable build up to it and the innocence of the victim. As I said at the beginning, this is a brutal book which will not be for those of a sensitive disposition. I have my own qualm about it which I'll come to later.

Then we have Carl and Sandy, a pair of serial killers who use their frequent 'holidays' as cover for their murderous road trips. Carl is a photographer and Sandy, when she isn't selling her body out the back of the bar she works in is using it as bait to lure in the next victim. Whilst driving around they pick up hitch-hikers and slowly bring the conversation around to the idea of their passenger having sex with Sandy whilst Carl takes some photos. These pictures go on to document the men's deaths, something which the two of them have subtly different reactions to. It is never entirely clear why Sandy would go along with this way of life, apart from having little alternative and a seriously screwed up sense of her own self-worth. She gets satisfaction from the killing with some of them and from the sex with others. Carl meanwhile not only considers what he does art but also feels that the whole experience brings him closer to God.

To his way of thinking, it was the one true religion, the thing he'd been searching for all his life. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.

I mentioned that personal relationship with God as a unifying theme and it will come as no surprise that there is a pastor amongst the characters and he is just as deplorable as those characters who do not enjoy his elevated status. Preston Teagardin preys on his female congregation, particularly young girls, making it his mission to deflower them and his view of women as repositories for his lust, guilt and total disregard for women as anything other than objects makes him a truly horrific character. In a way perhaps only a man of the cloth can Teagardin gets off on his guilt finding that it is just this feeling that intensifies his connection to God, that gives it its drive and meaning.

To him such emotion proved that he still had a chance of going to heaven, regardless of how corrupt and cruel he might be, that is, if he repented his wretched, whoring ways before he took his last breath. It all came down to a matter of timing, which, of course, made things all that much more exciting.

All of these disparate characters are gradually linked together and a novel that has been filled with violence has a suitably bloody end. Pollock manages to make these deeply flawed and occasionally downright wicked characters more than just evil stereotypes. In fact you remain engaged and even occasionally entertained by them, the kind of complicity that makes you cringe every now and then that you are so enjoying reading about these horrific exploits. My one worry is about the portrayal of women. There isn't a single female character who isn't subjected to sexual violence, painful death or debasement of one kind or another apart from perhaps Arvin's grandmother, and even she is the one person left cleaning up the wreckage. I am always resistant to writers being accused of misogyny because a character of theirs has a misogynistic view but the hatred of women and the danger posed to them is so consistent in this book that I did feel a little uncomfortable about it by the end. Yes, Willard very much loves his wife and is driven to do some extraordinary things in order to prove that to God but it is that very fanaticism that ensures her death is as painful and degrading as it could possibly be. This aspect of the book is something that I am still wrestling with even whilst writing this review and it is not at all that I think it should stop anyone reading the book. On the contrary, it is the difficulty of that, and of the brutal world view of the novel in general that means I would recommend it, so as to be able to confront its demons head on and see whether we are prepared to accept or allow this vision of humanity.


Tuesday 15 November 2011

'we must just face our fate'

The Old Man And His Sons
by Heðin Brú
translated by John F. West

It's pronounced Hay-in Broo before you ask (or something close to that anyway) and if you ever get asked, in a pub quiz or during a lull in conversation with a particular kind of bibliophile, 'What author's novel was chosen by the Faroese as their Book of the 20th Century?' you'll be able to answer with confidence (and for a bonus point you can say it was actually the pen name of Hans Jacob Jacobson. And if you really want to be a smart arse you can add that he translated into Faroese works as diverse as Hamlet, The Tempest, Hedda Gabler, The Brothers Karamazov, Wuthering Heights, and the tales of the Brothers Grimm). Publishers Telegram are the marvellous folks that brought Sjon into English translation (whose two books I would recommend to anyone looking for a literary shot of something a little different) and so I couldn't resist when they sent me this novel originally published in Faroese in 1940 and finally translated into English thirty years later. It is this same translation by John F. West which we can read today, a further forty years later, and it stands up remarkably well. It may be describing a way of life that was slowly being eclipsed 70 years ago but the wit and verve of Brú's observations come through loud and clear and in our current economic climate, a perilous one brought about through a reliance on debt (both personal and state-owned), this novel actually couldn't be more relevant. You may not think that a novel about the fishing community on a small island halfway between Scotland and Iceland in the inter-war years had anything to say to you beyond its only local interests but you'd be wrong.

The novel begins with a fabulous opening scene as a school of two or three hundred small whales swim around in Seyrvags Fjord and the village descends, 'a vast, bustling throng of whale hunters.'

Over here, you can see sturdy old men clad from head to foot in their thick homespun, their heavy whaling knives at their belts. These are men who grew up at the oar, and trod out the mountain paths. For them, all journeys were long journeys and risky ones. They are all keyed up to meet any problems, and they take life very seriously. These men stride onwards with ponderous footsteps - strong men of few words.

We follow the 70-year old Ketil and his youngest son Kalvur as they make their way to be amongst the kill, Kalvur joining a boat on the water whilst his father joins the many onlookers on the shore. It is a frantic scene in which Kalvur is dragged down with his boat when a whale rears up and lands on its stern. Luckily he doesn't drown, escaping with a dislocated shoulder and wounded pride, but it's a measure of the frenzied atmosphere that his father initially misses the whole episode, being so caught up in the kill itself. This atmosphere is important because in the ensuing auction of the whales Ketil finds himself giddy with excitement and bidding way beyond his means, landing himself with a huge amount of whale meat but the burden of a hefty bill to come. Pride won't allow him to go back and admit he can't pay and so we follow the consequences of this moment of hot-headedness.

Ketil is a father to several son's who now have wives and families of their own (only the simple-minded Kalvur remains a burden), all of them more upwardly mobile than their father and through these relationships Brú is able to point up the different attitudes that separate the generations. The turf roof that adorns Ketil's house for example and which is in peril during every storm causes barks of frustration from one son who wants him to replace it with one of corrugated iron - 'Fancy having a damn roof that you have to ask folk to sit and hold onto, every time there's a real use for it!' After the frenzy of the whale hunt and the re-location of Kalvur's shoulder by the doctor Ketil makes an offering to him of a whale kidney. It is through the eyes of the doctor's wife that we see the contrast between old world and new.

He stood there in his home-made skin shoes, his loose breeches and long jacket. His blood-flecked beard hung down towards his belt, and on this hung a double sheath with a pair of white-handled knives, one above the other. And he was extending his earthy hands - holding up that bloody thing.
There are a couple of more humorous examples of the changing times, one occurring when Ketil and the extraordinary character of Klavus are disturbed first thing in the morning as they urinate outdoors by the slightly more progressive Tummas as he finds his way with a torch. It falls on Tummas to lets them know that folk don't do that sort of thing in public anymore, 'No, I suppose not - everything's got to be so classy nowadays' comes the reply. One person who feels the full effect of Ketil's impulsive moment is of course his wife and it is the shame of debt that worries her most, it being the one thing that worries her most about the next generation.

'I don't know,' she replied. 'Young people nowadays are never satisfied; they always want more and more. They want everything that folk have overseas...you all demand so much from life - you're never satisfied. In the old days, a poor man was content if he had something to eat and a roof over his head. Nowadays everything has to be so high-and-mighty. Everything you set your minds on, you have to have, whether you can afford it or not...And everyone's up to their eyebrows in debt...A fat lot of use it is having schools and books and I don't know what! In the old days we used to be a lot more reasonable.'

Above all this is the confusion that 'the folk who are in debt hold their heads as high as everyone else.' And that's one of the more interesting aspects for the modern reader, to consider when it was that everyone decided that credit was fine and the ability to pay it back almost secondary. Brú's keen sense of the shift between these two generations means that this novel manages to poke fun at both sides and that whilst the detail is entirely specific to a certain type of people in a certain place at a certain time he manages to say something to us today about the dangers of excess, of living beyond your means and where the true measure of self-worth and pride might be made.


Thursday 10 November 2011

'what kind of story is it?'

by Pierre Oscar Levy 
and Frederick Peeters

I just love the cover to this book. It's disconcerting before you even open the cover and that should be fair warning to anyone who's intrigued to find what's inside. This is certainly the oddest graphic novel I've read in a while and quite possibly the oddest piece of fiction, graphic or otherwise, for quite some time too. With artwork from Peeters and storyline from film-maker Levy this is a graphic novel that seems to be in one kind of genre, switches to another and may possibly be in another category of storytelling altogether. That's quite a feat in a hundred pages.

The location is a beach, a haven amongst some rocky cliffs, and we watch as several characters make there way to it. One is already there, an Arabic looking man, who watches as a young girl undresses completely and goes for a swim in the sea. A couple of families make their way to the sand and whilst they bicker and banter a grandmother and her grandson make the gruesome discovery of the floating corpse of the girl we watched undress earlier. So we might be reading a crime novel and the patriarch of one of the families thinks he has it solved when he sees the Arabic man from earlier (he is in fact Kabyle but the casual racism of his accuser doesn't care about distinctions like that). But there is something far stranger going on and it is some time before the assembled company begin to notice the signs. One woman's children appear to have outgrown their swimming costumes despite only just having purchased them and on closer inspection she notices that her 'baby boy' of three looks for more like a child of five or six and has quite clearly grown in line with that. His older sister appears to have grown up too and when she walks off with the young boy from another family the two of them appear to go through a fast track adolescence and sexual awakening. When grandmother takes ill and then stops breathing the group begin to start asking what on earth is going on.

A writer is amongst them and when he reveals that it is science fiction he specialises in they want to know what possible explanation there could be for their apparent accelrated ageing and inability to leave the beach itself. His theories don't result in any kind of satisfactory solution and whilst the adults find themselves confronting their own mortality (with each half hour representing a year it is clear that some of them won't make it through the night let alone the next day) the children are experiencing the opposite, an explosion of sexual awareness and procreation energy that will see that young girl from earlier get pregnant, come full term and even give birth on the same beach on which she lost her virginity.

So it isn't crime and once we get past the slightly Twilight Zone feel of the device you can't help but wonder if this graphic novel isn't offering something rather more profound. This isn't quite a life compressed into a day but it isn't far off, and it's certainly the sudden end of life for many of the characters; and the different ways in which they deal with that, or the way in which it comes about, provide some truly moving sequences and images. To find a husband and wife slowly reconciled into a spooned hug, or to watch a once powerful man reduced to second infancy as he makes a sandcastle on the beach are just a couple of those highlights. And whilst the fast approaching death of these older characters might make this feel like a slightly hopeless book there is always the hope provided by new life and the promise for its future. Like I said, quite a feat to get you thinking about all that in just 100 pages and some lovely artwork in places too.


Tuesday 8 November 2011

'When I was eleven...'

The Dubious Salvation Of Jack V.
by Jaques Strauss

Being absolutely honest, I wouldn't have read this book (which came en spec from the publisher) if it hadn't been for a very favourable review at the ever-reliable Asylum. Even with that it languished on the TBR shelf until such time as a genuine pause appeared in my reading schedule (yeah, it's that bad) and I found myself finally taking a punt. I'm glad I did, books that are easily entertaining, witty, political and populated with sharp characters are a joy when they plop in your lap at the right time and it is the seeming ease of this book which makes it such a pleasurable read. The fact that it has received so little newspaper review space even with a big-name publisher is a little saddening, especially when I think about some of the books that have received lots of undeserved column inches (some from the same big-name publisher), but that's what us book bloggers are here for I guess.

The novel is a confessional from Jack Viljee; half English, half Afrikaans resident of 'a very nice street' in Johannesburg, looking back on the definitive moment from his childhood. As an eleven year old during the final years of the Apartheid regime in South Africa Jack is able to give an interesting perspective on the shifting politics of a country about to undergo momentous change. It is his dual ancestry however that provides the real interest for it allows him to point out the differences between the two cultures, their attitudes towards the black population and the way in which Jack's own mixed-race status, if we dare call it that, leaves him in an uncomfortable no-man's land between the two. A prologue sets the tone, several paragraphs each beginning 'When I was eleven...' and informing us of the preoccupations of any boy heading towards his teenage years. This is the period when he 'was stupid enough to try to have sex with a shampoo bottle' or 'old enough to know that peeing in the bath was disgusting but young enough not to care and do it anyway' but it is also the time '...I betrayed Susie, our housekeeper, my friend, my second mother, and perhaps in other significant ways, my first.'

The closeness of the relationship he enjoys with Susie is highlighted and indeed jeopardised by the arrival of her own son into the household but I don't need to go into any plot details as such, that isn't where the real enjoyment of this novel lies. Jack is an engaging, funny and perceptive narrator (particularly from his retrospective viewpoint - of which more later) and the sheer scope of his observations mean that this novel, which feels so light and easy to read, is actually packed full interest. By making Jack's 'distinguishing characteristic' the fact that he is half English and half Afrikaans, 'that I could slip unnoticed between the two peoples like a spy,' Strauss has lots of fun pointing up the differences between the two sides of his family, the Afrikaaner's obsessions with suffering and food for example, and creates a fabulous character in grand-matriarch Ouma who 'had the required quota of grief to make most quirks permissible; mild anti-Semitism, mild racism - nothing rampant or unseemly, nothing undignified.' It is Ouma's admiration for the 'debonair' Pik Botha that allows Jack to make one of his telling observations about the time when Pik Botha, whilst overseas, said that he would be happy to serve under a black president, only to change his tune when back in front of his president PW Botha.

It was a little bit like saying 'fuck' in front of your friends - for a while it seemed like a very brave, very manly thing to do, but unless you were prepared to say it in front of your mother it didn't mean much at all.

This kind of comment can only be made by an adult looking back on their childhood and is so much more perceptive and interesting than anything the child themselves might say at the time. This is why it remains a mystery to me why authors are so seduced by child narration. In the same way Jack can tell us about the very real pains of growing up: the embarrassment of growing awareness; that your parents don't necessarily like all their friends, that the relationship as it stands between whites and blacks makes you feel awkward and embarrassed in a way that it doesn't to your parents and some of your friends, that your desires can be surprising. Jack's burgeoning sexuality is rather brilliantly handled, allowing moments of comedy and painful revelation. Young boy's willy obsession achieves due prominence and a unique detail from Jack's dual-luanguage skills.

I guess around eleven we all thought that to coax our dicks out of hibernation we should stop calling them 'willies' and start referring to them as 'cocks', but my mother detested this word almost as much as the Afrikaans equivalent, vöel, which means 'bird'. Calling your cock a vöel was a very Afrikaans and manly thing to do. It was enough to make my willy look bigger and my voice sound deeper.

The selfishness of children is something of a recurring theme given even greater significance by Jack's privileged status. He has something of an obsession with deformity and disability (perhaps this comes from having a neighbourhood prosthetics shop) even finds 'something alluring about these broken children with missing arms and missing legs.'

And I wished that, for the afternoon, I might be without a limb too, so that I could be part of this orgy of tragedy, of heartbroken but proud parents, of the paraphernalia, the prosthetic limbs, the wheelchairs, the crutches, like Tiny Tim, the epicentre of sympathy and tragedy and poetry. 

Jack has a tendency towards the grand gesture, particularly when it might atone for the guilt he feels for certain actions or simply for being white. These again come about from his privileged position so that the purchase of an ice-cream from the weathered (black) ice-cream salesman on the beach, or the donation of his pocket money to a homeless woman would allow him to 'act like a God.' And this all ties in with one of the great lessons he learnt from his childhood on the school visit to the Natural History Museum. The exhibit of a caveman family being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger contains the rather graphic image of skull-piercing teeth to drive home the point that our survival 'was dependent on the suffering of some other innocent creature.'

...that life is an economy of suffering so that when we die, like my grandmother, we are an accumulation of those compromises, bones and loose skin, mildly anti-Semitic, mildly racist, nothing rampant or unseemly, having suffered and caused suffering, dying, I suppose, with a small credit but completely ravaged by all the exchanges.

Jack's story is a reckoning, but a hugely entertaining one. My only worry when reading it was that the ease in its telling was due to Strauss mining his own childhood for all the sparkling details, would that mean that his next novel would suffer from the depleting stocks of autobiographical riches? I have no idea whether this novel is in any way autobiographical and the only way to find out whether Strauss has real legs as a novelist is to read what comes next. I, for one, look forward to finding out what that is (and won't take so long to get around to it next time) and can only hope that these thoughts on a hugely enjoyable debut might tempt you to do the same.


Thursday 3 November 2011

'I will return'

A Sky Full Of Kindness
by Rob Ryan

There's a good chance you may have seen Rob Ryan's work already. Greetings cards, posters, mugs, cushions, book covers, umbrellas, bags, and even vases and crockery have all been emblazoned with his distinctive paper-cut designs in gift ranges at stores like Liberty and Heals. He even has his own shop on London's Columbia Road where his work can be seen in many forms. There's no substitute for seeing one of his extraordinarily intricate paper-cuts in the flesh, even the mass-produced card I bought for my recent anniversary is a tactile beauty and the detail of some of his larger works is truly staggering.

He has also written, or created, one previous book, This Is For You, which concerned one man's search for a soulmate. His latest is described by Helena Bonham Carter on the back cover as 'a bedtime story for every age' and follows the fortunes of two birds who have a baby. The mother has an important seeming dream and soon finds herself undertaking an epic journey to discover its meaning. That's all you really need to know plot-wise; this fable or fairytale-like story uses the mother's journey to explore themes of friendship, discovery, freedom, release, reliance and the ways in which we need the help of others.

Ryan's artwork really is astonishing, it's hard not to turn each successive page and ask 'How does he do that?' Some pages have a decent bit of background colour to them and so you can feel the relative solidity of the page from which they were cut but others are almost impossibly fragile, it's hard to see  how the lines of text, or twigs that make up a nest, the flocks of birds or clouds in the sky manage to remain connected to the rest of the picture so that the paper remains unbroken. The wonder of that really does sustain for the book's 64 pages. What I might question is the quality of the writing itself. It's hard not to think of the wisdom of greeting's cards when reading certain passages in this book, the vaguely comforting feeling that comes from vague and comforting phrases, and it makes the intricacy of the labour all the more extraordinary when you find that all the effort to cut out those words has been in the service of words that could possibly be improved on. This is similar to the effect of Brian Selznick's recent book Wonder Struck, whose beautiful pencil drawings were let down by some truly pedestrian prose. Ryan's book is way better than that, I'm having a relatively minor quibble, but it does just highlight that it isn't enough for a book to look beautiful and have its heart in the right place, I still want the quality of the writing itself to be as high as the craftsmanship that created it. That said, I can easily imagine plenty of parents getting as much pleasure from reading this book as their children will get from both hearing and seeing it.


Tuesday 1 November 2011

'wounds that will never heal'

Brodeck's Report
by Phillipe Claudel
translated by John Cullen

Another one from the Shelf of Guaranteed Literary Fulfilment (this is an actual shelf in my home, although it hasn't been actually labelled as such. Yet.) this book found its place there after my review of Claudel's more recent novella, Monsieur Linh and his Child, drew lots of comments from admirers of this winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Both books deal with the legacy of war and violence but whereas the title character in Monsieur Linh was most obviously an example of trauma brought about through conflict, Claudel uses the title character in this novel to look at themes of persecution, isolation and otherness.

A little as in the recently reviewed Death Of The Adversary, Claudel keeps many of the details hidden in this novel. A time period isn't specified but we can guess, the location too isn't named but seems to be somewhere in Alsace-Lorraine where a German dialect is spoken by the French population. This dialect is important for a couple of reasons: firstly because it highlights the way in which a country's borders are shown to be the arbitrary things they are when two countries find themselves at war and two regions on either side of that imaginary line, their age-old histories linked, have in common 'legends, songs, poets, choruses, a way of preparing meat and making soups, an identical melancholy and a similar propensity to lapse into drunkenness.' Claudel retains many of this dialect's words, explaining their sometimes ambiguous meaning, or rather his narrator Brodeck explains. Brodeck has been assigned the task of writing an account of the events that lead up to the murder of 'the Anderer' (or 'other'), a visitor to the village. He has been assigned this task despite thinking himself unequal to it - 'To be able to tell stories is a skill, but it is not mine. I write only brief reports on the state of the flora and fauna...I am not sure my reports are still reaching their destination, or, if they are, whether anyone reads them.' We needn't worry about that lack of confidence for Brodeck is a fine writer and there are even some extraordinary moments where his usual subject matter is perverted by the fact that this is a village that has recently been through a war and that he is a man who has been made to suffer more than any other resident of that village. The River Staubi for example that runs nearby, usually a place of animal life and movement became something else entirely at moments during the war when 'creatures other than fish were to be found floating in it, blue creatures, some of them still looking a little astonished, others with their eyes firmly closed, as if they had been put to sleep by surprise and tucked up in pretty liquid sheets.'

In putting together his account of the 'Ereigniës' - the thing that happened - Brodeck introduces us to the increasingly sinister inhabitants of his village. The very fact that so many of them were together on the evening of the murder and Brodeck absent highlights his isolation within the community, something only heightened by the job he has been assigned by them; a task that can only increase the sense of fear and guilt with which they already regard him. And what of the Anderer, what kind of threat did he pose when he wandered into their village '...dressed like a character from another century, with his unusual beasts [a horse and donkey] and his imposing baggage, entering our village which no stranger had entered for years, and moreover arriving here just like that, without any ado, with the greatest of ease. Who would not have been a little afraid?'

In a telling episode, when it becomes clear that the Anderer will be staying for a while rather than passing through it is decided that a proper welcome should be organised with a banner, music and some speeches. It is the banner with it's ambiguous message that gives us a taste of the tension that exists.

"Wi sund vroh wen neu kamme" can mean "We are happy when a new person arrives." But it can also mean "We are happy when something new comes along" which is not the same thing at all. Strangest of all, the word vroh has two meanings, depending on the context: it can be equivalent to "glad" or "happy", but it can also mean "wary" or "watchful", and if you favour this second sense, then you find yourself faced with a bizarre, disquieting statement which nobody perceived at the time, but which has been resounding in my head ever since; a kind of warning pregnant with small threats; a greeting like a knife brandished in a fist, the blade twisting a little and glinting in the sun.

The Anderer doesn't do anything other than observe and make notes and enquiries into this village's life and its inhabitants are antagonised by this being held to account. He may not have ridden in on the donkey itself but there is something Christ-like about his arrival, impact and sacrifice. The village priest, a man driven to drink by the impact of war and all the filth that has been confessed to him over the years, doesn't make such an explicit connection but provides a useful image for Brodeck to consider.

That man was like a mirror, you see. He did not have to say a single word. Each of them saw their reflection in him. Or maybe he was God's last messenger before He closes up shop and throws away the keys. I am the sewer, but that fellow was the mirror. And mirrors, Brodeck - mirrors can only be smashed.

Brodeck's project may be about the Anderer but it is also really about himself and his own tragic history in this community. Having come from 'a country which had never appeared on a map, a country no tale had ever evoked, a country which had sprung from the earth and flourished for a few months, but whose memory was destined to weigh heavily for centuries to come' he has always been something of an outsider himself. When war came to the village with its desire to cleanse the area of undesirable elements Brodeck stood no chance. Sent of to a camp, from which he wasn't supposed to return, Brodeck managed to survive physically only by abasing himself, becoming 'Brodeck the Dog', kept as a kind of pet by one of the guards, led around on a collar, and crucially fed scraps of food that kept him healthier than his fellow internees. Spiritually he was sustained by the memories of his surrogate mother Fedorine and lover Emilia to whom he has promised to return. When he does he is haunted by the void of those two years away, something which has its own unique word in this dialect.

The Kazerskwir - that was because of the war: I spent nearly two long years far from the village. I was taken away like thousands of other people, because we had names, faces or beliefs different from those of others...Those were two years of total darkness. I look upon that time as a void in my life - very black and very deep - and therefore I call it the Kaserskwir, the crater. Often, at night, I still venture out on its rim.

This is a novel that bursts at the seams with themes but one last thing to mention is the way in which the legacy of conflict extends beyond Brodeck's personal experience. For those that survived the camps, those that escaped the attempt by neighbours and friends to wipe them from memory there is not only the burden of survival-guilt but the fear of uncertainty in the future.
We can never meet the eyes of other people without wondering whether they harbour a desire to hunt us down, to torture us, to kill us. We have become perpetual prey...I think we have become and will remain until the day we die, a reminder of humanity destroyed. We are wounds that will never heal.


Thursday 27 October 2011

'where's Robbie?'

The Wrong Place
by Brecht Evens

As you can see from the cover above Brecht Evens graphic novel is a colourful affair. Painted in watercolour throughout the Belgian artist uses his palette brilliantly to delineate character, to create vast scenescapes, to capture movement and in a few pages near the centre to create possibly the only convincing sex-scene I've found so far in graphic fiction (you can see just how graphic below). In a book which is light on plot there is still loads to enjoy in its depiction of social interaction, akward personal relationships and the frenzy of an impulsive night out. The energy that is created by people desparate to have a good time is what drives this book along and that energy is just as likely to end up exploding in a moment of tragedy as of triumph, and how lovely and dangerous that is.

Two entirely mismatched friends are at the heart of this book. First of all we meet Gary, a drab persona rendered in grey who is hosting a party in his flat which many people (mainly female) seen to be attending because they expect his friend Robbie to make an appearance. Gary is the kind of guy who'd prefer it if you smoked in the kitchen and turned on the oven extractor fan. The kind of person who joins a conversation and effectively kills it, as we see him do several times in the opening pages. Through the awkward chats at his party we begin to form an idea of his friend Robbie, a man so infamous that he has several imitators, one of whom is even rumoured to have had plastic surgery to look more like him. Whilst Gary is the grey man, Robbie is an electric-blue satyr, a party animal par excellence who has managed to turn around the fading fortunes of a nightclub called Disco Harem through his attendance. But whilst he has managed to make that place the coolest in town by coming again and again, his no-show at Gary's party sends the assembled guests off into the night and Gary is once again alone in his drab apartment.

We then meet Naomi, recently dumped by her boyfriend but encouraged by a friend to go out on the town, even adorning a pair of kitten ears and even a new persona under the name of Lulu. Identified easily by her bright red colour, Evens creates some brilliant panels where a supposedly static wide shot of the nightclub actually contains several highlighted Naomis which track her progress through the room.

Naomi's night at Disco Harem lifts off when a case of mistaken identity brings Robbie himself hurtling into view. Naomi is literally swept off her feet and treated to exactly the kind of evening that her friend thought she needed, providing us with page after page of excitement as Naomi is swept from one location to the next, Robbie is pawed at by one person after another and the two of them finally fall into a room and upon each other to satisfy their carnal desires.

Then it's time for Gary to have his night out and at Disco Harem once again he hooks up with his incongruous friend Robbie. How these two ever became friends is a mystery but I'm sure you can think of a couple of people in your own life who really had nothing in common with each other and yet somehow hit it off and became inseparable. Such is the case with Gary and Robbie who have a catch up, pop up to another room to have a sword-fight (as you do) and then create the evening's climax in a moment of extreme crowd-surfing that will define the two men

On a first reading to be absolutely honest this book didn't make a massive impression. Perhaps it was the lack of any real 'plot' but I was able to flick through it quickly and be left with not much of an aftertaste when I got to the final page. Subsequent viewings however have shown up not only that brilliant use of colour I mentioned but also the way in which Evens is able to hide lots of complexity in seemingly simple brush strokes. On many pages and in many panels a character is really only depicted using a few dashes of colour and a couple of details and yet even with those restricting tools we can see sensuality, vulnerability, fear and ecstasy. It even takes a few viewings after that to realise that you are looking at work that is influenced by painters like George Grosz and deserves to be taken incredibly seriously for its artistic merit alone. As I've said before I cannot draw to save my life so I would never denigrate the talents of any artist but this isn't mere doodling, this includes some really fantastic watercolour work, particularly in the crowd and wider-angle shots and Evens deserves plenty of praise for those panels alone.

If the perfect night out is all about being in the right place at the right time then perhaps this book is more about the slightly jarring sensation that comes when things don't align quite so fortuitously, those nights when you might need a little help to piece together the exact sequence of events and find yourself shaking your head ever so slightly at the ways in which it seemed to be enjoyed by someone who wasn't quite you.


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