When it’s hard to find words, ‘The White Book’ by Han Kang

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My recent posts have been seasonally themed, in as much as V and Lanark work with my annual temptation to escape winter into imaginative flights of fancy.  Han Kang’s meditation on mourning is something else entirely.

I read this book when it was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, though that was really just an excuse.  After falling in love with The Vegetarian I resolved to read everything Kang wrote and then spread the word in the hope it would mean she’d continue to be translated and published in English.

This means that I’ve also read and reviewed Human Acts, which felt like a natural successor to ‘The Vegetarian’ in its exploration of public and private violence and the devastating impact of society on the individual.  What was different in ‘Human Acts’ was that the violence which skirted just beneath the surface of ‘The Vegetarian’ was now right on the page, making for an even more uncomfortable, though no less awe-inspiring, reading experience.

Also translated by Deborah Smith, ‘The White Book’ feels both like a development on familiar themes and also a departure from the previous novels.  Its topic is loss and bereavement, both implicitly or explicitly addressed in ‘The Vegetarian’ and ‘Human Acts.’ ‘The White Book’ however moves into a new literary form, one in which, fittingly, the white spaces on the page are as important as the words themselves; what cannot be said is as significant as what is expressed.  The book contains black and white photographs and prose poems taking the reader through a journey of mourning.  It is an intensely private experience, the narrator is isolated emotionally and physically and it seems she is running both from and towards the same impossible situation:

When I go out into the streets, the scraps of conversation which pull into focus when the speaker brushes past me, the words stamped on street and shop signs, are almost all incomprehensible.  At times my body feels like a prison, a solid, shifting island threading through the crowd.  A sealed chamber carrying all the memories of the life I have lived, and the mother tongue from which they are inseparable.  The more stubborn the isolation, the more vivid these unlooked-for fragments, the more oppressive their weight. So that it seems the place I flee to is not so much a city on the other side of the world as further into my own interior.

Each one of Kang’s books makes me more eager for the next.  Within a slew of literary works that make heavy (and long) work of exploring the inner experiences of intellectual outsiders, she demonstrates how, in 160 pages, silence and sparse narrative can truly convey the most intense of human experiences.  Even reading a few pages is enough to make me slow down and consider the world anew.  It’s hard to think of a bigger contrast to the colourful exuberance of ‘The Vegetarian’ but the ambition and and precision of the writing ties the books together – and make me very excited for whatever Kang writes next.

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Posted in Han Kang, Reading in translation | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Where to begin? Reviewing ‘Lanark’ by Alastair Gray

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I was so excited to find a second-hand copy of Gray’s novel ‘Lanark: A life in four books’ when I was up in Glasgow last year.  It may not have had the cover I’d previously associated with this Scottish classic, but, in addition to the rather perfect cover image Gray, it also had the traditional Lanark prints inside the book:

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Coupled with the wonderful illustrations, the musty and rather nasty second-hand book smell which accompanied my reading on the train all the way back to London gave a thoroughly appropriate ambience to the whole experience.  Lanark is ambitious, dark and convoluted but it was never intended to be a pleasant read.

Gray’s artwork probably does a better job of explaining his novel my feeble words ever could, but I’ll give it a go.  Lanark indeed tells a ‘life in four books,’ but confusingly starts literally in medias res, opening with book 3, which is set in a dystopian Glasgow; there is no sunshine to penetrate the gloom and some very odd diseases afflict the lost and dispossessed inhabitants.

The amnesiac protagonist, with no idea what or where he is, wanders through this alternate world buffeted by fate, fortune and people becoming covered with dragon-hide or crying mouths (the symbolism is relentless and audacious, but rarely subtle).  Taking the name of Lanark because he saw it written on an advertisement in a train, he will embark on adventures that will take him to the edges of existence – up to heaven itself (Edinburgh).

I loved the surrealism of Lanark’s narrative and was thoroughly engaged until suddenly book 3 came to an end, and I was faced with the novel’s prologue, followed by books 1 and 2.  These are set in real post-war Glasgow and feature a young protagonist who is even more similar to Gray than his book 3 alter ego.  Duncan Thaw is ailing, selfish and talented and while I would ordinarily have found his life story very readable with its accomplished balancing between the engaging and the repulsive, I really wanted to get back to Lanark, where everything Duncan experienced and felt is reflected back in heightened and hallucinogenic splendour.

Lanark is a dazzlingly accomplished book – weird, wonderful, and when I say it’s as good as the illustrations I hope I’m giving a sense of the scale and oddness of it all.  If you haven’t read it yet, it really should go on the list for 2019.  If, like me you have, you may also be joining me in contemplating a re-read.

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‘Nothing makes any waking sense’: ‘V’ by Thomas Pynchon

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Oh dear, it was over a year ago that I actually read ‘V’ by Thomas Pynchon.  Needless to say, my new year’s resolution has nothing to do with prospective reading challenges and is far more concerned with catching up with the pile of books to review left over from 2018.

The good news is that, in the case of ‘V’, it really doesn’t matter.  In the aimlessly paranoid, hallucinogenic haze that I associate with Pynchon’s novels, a year here or there barely registers.  Even though an overriding apocalyptic dread or protagonist’s ostensible quest (both, in the case of ‘V’) give purpose to the narrative, this is gently undercut by Pynchon’s incredibly ability to meander through the most pressing of 20th century issues.  In the words of the original Time magazine review for the book, ‘in this sort of book, there is no total to arrive at. Nothing makes any waking sense.’ This is of course meant as a compliment.

The plot, for what there is, involves the search for V, which could be a person or a place or something else entirely.  Given the nebulous nature of the quest, the book only spends a certain number of hysterical pages tracing it, focusing instead on equally important tangents (my favourite probably being the hunt for alligators in the New York sewer system).  The lack of sense is a definite blessing – for me, it palliates dated and offensive ideas lurking through the narrative.  For all his otherworldliness, Pynchon was very much a writer of his historical moment and, in addition to beautiful flights of fancy, I also found myself noting phrases such as the throw-away line ‘a woman is only half of something there are usually two sides to.’

Trigger warning in place, I do recommend ‘V’ if you fancy something non-urgent and dreamlike in which to lose yourself this winter.  I’m almost tempted to start a re-read myself – but of course I’ll have to finish my reviews of the equally weird and meandering ‘Lanark’ and ‘The Magic Mountain’ first!

Posted in Reading America, Thomas Pynchon | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

A top read from 2018: ‘Fun Home’ by Alison Bechdel

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Before reading ‘Fun Home,’ I only knew of Alison Bechdel from The Bechdel Test.  Then I saw that there was a musical based on her memoir ‘Fun Home’ and heard that it was about her father coming out as gay.

None of this prepared me for the virtuosity of Bechdel’s debut.  I don’t want to write too much about the plot, because it contains a couple of jaw-dropping reveals quite early on and I would hate to spoil them for anyone.  Instead I’ll focus on the second breath-taking aspect of the book, the barrage of literary allusions that bring an intellectual joy to the most traumatic of subject matters.

Take the opening page in which we see a snapshot of happiness, the young Kate playing ‘airplane’ with her father, balancing, arms outstretched, on his feet as he lies on the floor.  It would take a better art critic than me to do justice to the drawing skill shown in the simple figures, but I feel perfectly placed to relish the accompanying prose: ‘It was a discomfort well worth the rare physical contact, and certainly worth the moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.‘  An accompanying text box tells us that in circus acrobatics such balancings are called Icarian Games.  In an example of the dead-pan timing displayed throughout the book, it’s not until you turn the page that that you see the collapse, the caption reading ‘considering the fate of Icarus after he flaunted his father’s advice and flew so close to the sun his wings melted, perhaps some dark humour is intended.‘ An eye-flick later you read the poignant reflection, ‘In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky.

I should also mention a small detail in the first panel; at the start of the game, we see Kate’s father’s hand keeping his place in a book, even as his daughter positions herself on his feet.  The book’s title is Anna Karenina and, without going into too much detail of exactly how much tragedy this foreshadows, I also felt it gave me permission to step away from the family drama depicted in ‘Fun Home’ whenever I fancied, to focus instead on the wealth of literary gems self-consciously lurking on and beneath the surface.

Each chapter looks at a literary great, moving from the Classics of the beginning, through Camus, Wilde and a host of canonical American figures.  Possibly my favourite was Chapter 4: ‘In the shadow of young girls in flower,’ built around Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ which Bechdel’s father started reading the year before he died.  It starts with a long quotation about lilacs blossoming, followed by over a page describing how flowers appear in ‘Swans Way’ (the first volume of ‘Lost Time’).  All this serves to caption illustrations of Bechdel’s dad cultivating the family garden.  The final panel of the section reads: ‘If there was ever a bigger pansy than my father, it was Marcel Proust.’

If this all sounds a bit cerebral, it’s because I’ve underplayed the incredibly sensitive handling of grief.  The book begins by showing how metaphors and literature are a way of understanding relationships.  It goes on to argue forcefully that, in the absence of answers, looking to books for explanations can be an important stage in understanding each other and ourselves.  Bechdel begins by accusing her father of living through literature and fictions, but her own book is a knowing example of how these tools for coping have also become central to her personal ways of processing the trauma of his death.  In its form and structure, the whole book is as beautifully complex and balanced as the very first pages and, as in those pages, the reader is reminded again and again that they are in completely safe hands.

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Looking back: ‘August 1914’ and ‘November 1916’ by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

download.jpgI’ve actually read ‘August 1914’ before, but never blogged about it because I found the whole experience so confusing.  It is the first volume in Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Red Wheel’ cycle and delivers exactly what the title promises – over 700 pages dealing with one month of Russia’s experiences in World War I.  The level of detail is overwhelming and I’m afraid that without a basic grounding in exactly what was going on during this time it’s easy to feel as lost and bogged down as the poor soldiers endlessly advancing and retreating over the same unmapped patch of land.

Apparently inspired by the same masochism or desire for senseless achievement as the main characters, I decided to have another go at it.  I knew I’d be aided this time round by knowing much more about the First World War thanks all the recent events and TV programmes commemorating its end.

It paid off, and if ‘August 1914’ is not on the level of Cancer Ward or ‘The First Circle’ for delivering a knock-out literary blow, it is still an impressive example of unexpected World War I literature.  Unexpected because, in the UK, we know so little about the Russian experience of the conflict; in nearly all my other Russian reading so far it has been glossed over in haste to get to the revolution.

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Solzhenitsyn clearly wasn’t even tempted to push ahead in his epic historical cycle.  Instead ‘August’ is followed up with ‘November 1916,’ which has the same mixture of fictional and historical characters somehow making no progress whatsoever as world events unfold round them incredibly slowly.

I realise I may not be adequately selling the first two novels in this cycle.  Personally, I found something charming about the incredible lack of compromise in their scope and scale. ‘November 1916’ for example is almost entirely concerned with Russia’s provisional government and the Kadet (Constitutional Democrat) political party which tried to control it. They get a footnote in most histories of the revolution; Solzhenitsyn gives them over 1000 pages.  This book is also memorable for a sympathetic character’s heartfelt defence of autocracy.  It may not be fashionable, but I was won over by the fact that the novel simply doesn’t care.

Across both volumes, the main character (within a cast of hundreds) is the fictional Geórgii Vorotyntsev, an idealistic career officer who was told by cryptic fortune -teller that he’d survive the first world war.  This gives me two certainties going forward: Vorotyntsev will be there to guide me through the rest of the cycle and, like Pierre in War and Peace, he won’t actually be able to save Russia.  But that doesn’t mean I won’t be engrossed in his continued attempts.  I’m holding on to volume 3, ‘March 1917,’ till the appropriate month, but I’m already looking forward to immersing myself in the minutia of the precise historical moment.

Posted in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russian Reading | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

A novel for our times: ‘Now in November’ by Josephine Johnson

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I first encountered ‘Now in November,’ appropriately enough, as one of Apollo’s ‘Best Books You’ve Never Read‘ and knew I simply had to take up the implied challenge  – not only am I simply incapable of resisting such a tag-line, but it also put Johnson’s Pulitzer prize winner in the same category as The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones‘ a Babel-inflected cowboy novel that utterly charmed me last year.

‘Now in November’ also makes for an interesting companion for Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn,’ which was my last seasonal read.  Set in rural America during the Depression, Johnson’s novel is engaging not only for its historical authenticity but also for how relevant it still seems today.  It would have been an interesting experiment to present the first paragraph of the Brexit and Depression-era novels and see if anyone could guess which was which (if Smith wins out on literary playfulness, Johnson may have the upper hand when it comes to frustrated powerlessness).

Now in November I can see our years as a whole.  This autumn is like both an end and a beginning to our lives, and those days which seemed confused with the blur of all things too near and too familiar are clear and strange now.  It has been a long year, longer and more full of meaning than all those ten years that went before it.  There were nights when I felt we were moving toward some awful and hopeless hour, but when that hour came it was broken up and confused because we were too near, and I did not even quite realise that it had come.

The ‘I’ in the passage is Marget, unlovely middle daughter of a hard-working family who are in their eleventh year of trying to survive on a heavily mortgaged farm in the dust-bowl.  In the course of the novel, she takes us through this last tragic year, but also reflects on the preceding decade, when, despite the ever-present insecurity, there was still joy, hope and beauty in her family’s fierce love for their land.

Don’t be put off by the bleakness (though it is very very bleak).  The sensitivity and sincerity of Marget’s beloved mother and younger sister illuminate the harshness of much of the story and the romance when a new worker joins the family is as understated and yearning as I could have wished for.  Meanwhile cutting through the calm routines of life, Marget’s troubled older sister brings a contemporary edge, making it hard to remember that this book was written in the 1930s.  Defying categorisation,  the independent Kerrin, ‘alien and odd,’ is a truly intriguing character, presented with just enough detail to be tantalisingly unknowable.

I’ve put off reading this book for too long (it kept coming to the top of the reading pile during the wrong month), but I urge you not to follow my example.  ‘Now in November’ is an enduring tale of love and endurance and a genuine classic of American literature whose presentation of the harsh realities of life resonates across time.

I received my copy of ‘Now in November’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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The first Brexit novel, two years on: ‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith

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‘Autumn’ came out in 2016, heralded as the first post-Brexit novel.  I’m afraid I didn’t read it then; at the time, literature was a rare refuge from current events and I wasn’t going to let politics intrude, even for Ali Smith.

Two years down the line, this excuse was starting to feel out of date. For added pressure, Smith’s sequel, ‘Winter,’ has been looking reproachfully at me from my to-be-read shelf for about 12 months now and ‘Spring’ is due to come out in March next year; either I read ‘Autumn’ before the season ends or I fall yet further behind.  It was time to find out how the first post-Brexit novel holds up, even as the turmoil of 2018 politics unfolds around us.

First things first, there is a lot here for Ali Smith fans to love. The book starts with a joyfully confusing moment on a beach, which crams reference to at least three literary greats into a mere five sentences:

‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have always will, it’s in their nature. So an old old man washes up on the shore.’

To go from A Tale of Two Cities to the Tempest via Yeats’ The Second Coming is a typically audacious Smith beginning.  The chapter then goes on to have a bit of fun with Blake, Milton and (I’m sure) James Joyce’s Ulysses. Along with probably hundreds of other references that passed me by.  It’s knowing fun that contains nothing explicit about Brexit but a lot of insight into how people see themselves as powerful or powerless in the world around them.

Then the book moves into the real word, and Elisabeth Demand, a ‘thirty two years old, no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer at a university in London‘ is trying to send off her passport form at an understaffed post office.  Oddly though, despite seeming like the perfect set up for a commentary on the way in which the pettiest details of British passport production have dominated the post-referendum news, this passage somehow skirts the issue.  It was odd to realise that my memories have condensed the time frame – these debates did not necessarily hit the front pages in the immediate aftermath of the vote, but sometimes took a while to hit peak public prominence.

And so the novel continues bouncing back and forth.  Between Daniel (our old man on the beach) and Elizabeth, between musings on the passing of time and glimpses into a precise historical moment, ‘Autumn’ is frustratingly hard to pin down.

I suppose it makes sense.  Following the hectic news events of the last few days, it’s impossible to have any clear idea of what a post-Brexit Britain will actually look like; in this context, it seems churlish to wish for more precision in Smith’s depiction of the immediate aftermath of the referendum.  Still, this doesn’t stop the book from feeling somewhat uneven as it juggles realities and characters, frustrations with NHS and public sector staff with nostalgia for ‘less cruel and more philanthropic times.’  Of course, this is Ali Smith and so it could be that this the point.  A sometimes stormy and sometimes charming, often raw and disconcertingly changeable book named for a transitional season is really far more appropriate to the task than my lingering hope for consistency and certainty.  I have no idea what’s coming in ‘Winter’, and suspect this is for the best – if there’s one thing that ‘Autumn’ does make clear, it’s that the relationship between art and the real word can bring joy even if it can’t be counted on to provide closure.

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