Beyond ‘Brokeback Mountain’: ‘Close Range: Wyoming Stories’ by Annie Proulx

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I have been meaning to read ‘Close Range’ for years.  I even managed to kid myself that I’d read most of it, when I found a stand-alone edition of ‘Brokeback Mountain’, the last novella in the collection, at my local library.  Now that I have the real thing though, I can speak down to my former self, ‘Brokeback’ might be tender, bitter and sublime, but it is only a part of the fierce glory of the whole ‘Wyoming Stories.’

The insular, brutal lives of the characters are especially striking given the current tenor of American politics.  Characters very rarely leave their home territory.  In ‘A Lonely Coast’ the narrator remembers her one vacation outside the state ‘to Oregon where my brother lived … up the lonely coast a stuttering blink warned ships away.  I said to Riley that was what we needed in Wyoming – lighthouses.  He said no, what we needed was a wall around the state and turrets with machine guns in them.‘  As with states, so with people; the collections’ characters are walled off from each other, trapped as much in society as they are by the lonely and never-ending landscape around them.  We see how those who don’t fit in become victims, but also how even the most secure must endure daily hardship.  In the twisted and brilliant ‘People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water’ for example, incidental detail creates a distressing portrait of deprivation with ‘Bliss, who had not tasted candy until he was fourteen and then spat it out, saying, too much taste.’ 

The stories aren’t all about misery and violence though, or at least, they’re not only about misery and violence.  There are laugh-out-loud moments of comedy, summed up in the deadpan ’55 Miles to the Gas Pump’; I don’t want to give away the punchline, but this two page story was a highlight of the collection.  There are also fantastical elements, with magical spurs and an abandoned tractor whose interactions with a lonely girl are far more shocking than the realist setting would lead you to expect.  I still have a hard time reconciling my imagination with the events in ‘The Bunchgrass at the Edge of the World,’ but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it.

Proulx’s most recent novel, ‘Barkskins’ (reviewed here) has been long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize.  ‘Barkskins’ is a epic novel about the American forests.  It is an ambitious book with an attractive premise, but I know the ‘Close Range’ is going to be more of a personal favourite.  It may present a less clear cut and sympathetic message, but despite, or perhaps because of this, it is utterly enthralling.  Even while I’m yearning for pleasant escapism in my reading, the visceral stories in this collection have touched me and pulled me back into a dark and lonely world that is somehow still alive with love, majesty and magic.

Posted in Annie Proulx, Reading America, Short story collections | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

‘The Accusation: Forbidden Stories From Inside North Korea’ by Bandi

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As readers of this blog will know, I’m a huge fan of translated literature, especially when it gives me an insight into a new country or culture.  It’s always exciting when I’m able to read my first book from a new place; highlights so far have included Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches from Rwanda, Paulina Chiziane’s ‘The First Wife‘ from Mozambique and the Haitian ‘Dance on the Volcano‘ by Marie Vieux-Chauvet.  Reliant on translation as I am, I feel extremely privileged at having access to such books.

I never would have imagined being able to add a dissident North Korean voice to my round-the-world reading.  North Korea is, after all, a famously secretive country, closely controlling both what happens within its borders and also what can be made public to the enemies outside.  Kim Seong-dong’s Afterword to ‘The Accusation’ includes details of how the manuscript was smuggled out of North Korea and some information about Bandi (not the author’s real name).  It is a harsh reminder of the freedoms we in the West are lucky enough to take for granted.  When Kim Soeng-dong describes the manuscript in telling detail ‘the indentations made by the pressure of the writer’s pencil are plainly visible, while the faded paper indicates the long gestation of the work‘ before reminding us that ‘these were works that could not be written without risking one’s life,‘ the indictments and bravery of these stories become even more forceful.

Bandi’s characters are ordinary men and women trying to live ordinary lives.  Their ambitions range from wishing to succeed at work, wishing to visit family members, wishing to join the Communist party to wishing relations would succeed better at fitting in with society’s expectations.  Because the setting is North Korea though, such aspirations are thwarted swiftly and crushingly.  The woman who draws her curtains at the wrong time of day, the man who wishes to travel to see his dying mother – motivation, intention, final results are all irrelevant when they come up against the relentless repressive regime.

The stories themselves are vehicles for the passionate accusation against an unjust government.  Each follows a similar structure of conformity to the unspoken rules followed by a realisation of their inhumanity.  The symbolism is equally direct, as pet birds are caged, beloved trees are cut down and poisonous mushrooms appear red on the ground.  The book has been translated by Deborah Smith, who (with Han Kang) won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for ‘The Vegetarian.’  Smith also translated Kang’s brutal ‘Human Acts‘; here she shows her versatility with the, very different, direct tone of ‘The Accusation.’

The risks taken to write, save and finally bring these stories to publication have been immense.  I feel the only response from those of us fortunate enough to be able to work, travel and write freely, must be to read and discuss them.  It is a reminder of the important work done by organisations such as PEN (who selected this book for one of their awards, designed to encourage UK publishers to acquire more books from other languages).  There is no way of knowing what is happening to Bandi since the publication of this collection.  His identity has been scrupulously protected by the few South Koreans who can connect him to the book, but the stories themselves show the power and reach of the North Korean authorities.  Through his writing however, Bandi has succeeded in standing witness to his society, and I hope that his stories will spread his ideas to readers from worlds so cruelly barred to him.

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

Posted in Bandi, Reading in translation | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

One of the Best Books You’ve Never Read: ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones’ by Charles Neider

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Last year Apollo books published 8 novels in their provocatively titled list ‘The Best Books You’ve Never Read.’  I felt utterly shamed by the collected novels; they were right, I’d read none of them.  The gauntlet had been thrown down, and what better place to pick it up than with the gunslinging antics of ‘The Kid’ – Charles Neider’s love letter to the Wild West.

It all felt like very new territory for me.  Not only had I never heard of Neider (though I was very excited to see him compared with fellow Odessan Isaac Babel on the blurb), I have read very few cowboy novels.  It may be that the fluent sparse language and wonderful character names are typical to the genre; the combination of daring machismo and jaded fatigue might be overly familiar to lovers of Western.  Personally, I was completely won over, both by the charismatic Hendry (aka ‘the Kid’) and by our matter of fact narrator, Doc Baker.

Doc was with the Kid during the final showdown and has decided it’s time to set the story straight.  From the men he shot, the woman he loved and the land he couldn’t leave, Doc promises the whole story of his friend’s death.  Along the way, we not only get to know the charismatic Kid, but also the untamed land he roams:

You must remember that in those times things weren’t all figured out the way they are now.  There were times for example when a rustler was not a rustler, but a fellow who made a living rounding up unbranded strays and who was a good and necessary hand in the business – until somebody got it into his head that it didn’t pay to have him around any more and passed a law and armed a lot of men and went sneaking around looking for branding irons that it was death from then on to have on you.  But I will admit that once you became one you were likely to continue being one.  And why not? Who wants to be fenced in if you don’t have to be? There was plenty of stray beef around, and plenty of loose money and land, and women for the asking.  So that in a nutshell is the story of our turning outlaw and if it makes you unhappy why write me a letter and I’ll see what I can do about it for you.’

For much of the novel, the Kid is indeed fenced in (locked in a jail, awaiting a death sentence), and his response is as unflustered as Doc’s narration.  Of course, the reader knows from the first page that Kid is never going die following a straightforward execution.  Doc still builds up the suspense though, greatly assisted by his hero’s fatalistic indifference to the odds stacked against him.

As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones.’  It has got me interested in reading more literature of the Wild West and made me even keener to seek out Apollo’s other great titles.

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Image from www.foyles.co.uk

Full list of Apollo’s ‘Best Books You’ve Never Heard of’:

‘Bosnian Chronicle’ by Iva Andrić
‘Now in November’ by Josephine Johnson
‘The Lost Europeans’ by Emanuel Litvinoff
‘The Day of Judgement’ by Salvatore Satta
‘My Son, My Son’ by Howard Spring
‘The Man Who Loved Children’ by Christina Stead
‘Delta Wedding’ by Eudora Welty
And, of course, ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones’ by Charles Neider.

Posted in Charles Neider, Reading America | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Roman Hoodlums: ‘The Ragazzi’ by Pier Paolo Pasonlini

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When I picked up Pasolini’s ‘The Ragazzi’, I think I was expecting a male counterpart to Elena Ferrante’s wonderful Neapolitan novels (I’ve read and reviewed ‘My Brilliant Friend‘ and ‘The Story of a New Name‘ on the blog).  Like Ferrante’s books, ‘The Ragazzi’ is set in a poverty-stricken community and deals with young protagonists on the brink of adulthood.  The blurb for my copy of Pasolini’s novel was as stylishly vague as the cover, so I had little to guide me when I started reading.

The fact is ‘The Ragazzi’ is closer to Ernst Haffner’s ‘Blood Brothers’ than anything else I’ve reviewed recently.  It is about those ignored by mainstream society and the communities they end up forming for themselves.  The brutality of the lives and society depicted takes precedent over a more traditional story or message.  For one thing, although there is a smattering of Christ imagery, the book is determinedly non-literary.  Apparently the original edition contained a glossary of ‘Romano’ words for Italian readers and even in translation the focus remains on the prosaic experiences of the protagonists, consistently stripped of any comforting ‘artistic’ touches or descriptions.  Instead of a clearly structured novel therefore, ‘The Ragazzi’ is made up of episodes in a the lives of a group teenagers and boys in post-war Rome.  At times almost like a collection of short stories, we follow certain key characters through nights of crime and days of loitering, each individual episode likely to be disrupted by arrest, flight or simply a change of scene or new escapade.

Emile Capouya’s translation brings home the stifling monotony and violence of the boys’ lives, in a way that feels true to the Neorealism of Pasolini’s original Italian.  This does not always make for a pleasant read; the miserable world these young men inhabit is not one that I’d ever want to visit, and the documentary style narration feels uncomfortably unsympathetic in the face of their troubles and the torments they inflict on others.  ‘The Ragazzi’ was shocking when it was first published in 1955 and the vivid, unforgiving tone ensures it is still powerful today; a chilling novel albeit set under the Roman sun.

Posted in Italian Literature, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Reading in translation, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Loving Dostoyevsky in Winter: Summer in Badenen by Leonid Tsypkin

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The title of Tsypkin’s wonderful novel may not seem terribly seasonal, but then frankly nothing about this book is quite what you’d expect.  Part of it is set in 1970s Russia, as our narrator takes a long train journey to freezing Leningrad.  Ever present in his mind: on the train, at his friend’s apartment, while walking through the city, are thoughts of that most tormented and most Russian of tormented Russian writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Adding to the contrasts of summer and winter, twentieth century and nineteenth century, is that of Russia against Europe; the main biographical event that haunts the novel is Dostoyevsky’s 1867 visit to the spa town of Baden Baden.  Failing to manage his gambling addiction, the great writer’s time abroad is blackly comic as he fumbles his way around the ex-pat scene, trying to impress fellow celebrities, having tantrums and generally self-destructing.  Hysterical, self-obsessed and prejudiced, the man who emerges is no hero, a fact of which our narrator is well aware; Tsypkin self-consciously highlights the contradiction of the anti-Semitic Dostoyevsky’s appeal for Russian readers of Jewish descent.  One of the things I love about great Russian literature is the way it embraces complexity.  With his sensitive but exposing biographical set-pieces, Tsypkin shows himself to be consciously working within this tradition.

Providing cohesion between the different timeframes and tones are long, flowing sentences that perfectly capture Dostoyevsky’s nervous energy and the narrator’s own literary obsession.  A quotation on the cover of my edition (brilliantly translated by Roger and Angela Keys) compares it to W G Sebald’s prose, and those who like Sebald will certainly enjoy Tsypkin’s interweaving of biography and philosophy.  This review should make my own feelings clear: as a Dostoyevsky fan, it was wonderful to learn more about his life and trials; as a lover of Russian literature who’s been on nearly a year’s break, reading ‘Summer in Baden Baden’ felt like coming home after being away for far too long.

Posted in Leonid Tsypkin, Reading in translation, Russian Reading, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Bringing my Nordic reading home: Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf

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This year, I decided to go for a mini reading project which would take me away from the grey London winter and into the realms of ice and snow.  My January was truly illuminating as I discovered books and rediscovered authors from Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.  We’re well into February now and it’s time to come home, but before I really claim the project is complete I feel the need to revisit a crucial part of my own English literary heritage.

Though set in (roughly) sixth century Scandinavia, Beowulf was written in England between the seventh and tenth century and it’s generally credited with being the longest poem surviving from this place and time.  My first real encounter with it came when I ‘read’ sections as an English undergraduate.  It wasn’t really reading though, it was a filling-in-the-gaps exercise during a unit on Old English.  Without wishing to go into too much detail, Old English really is a foreign language (unlike ‘Middle English’ as written by Chaucer or the technically-modern-but-nonetheless-archaic language of Shakespeare).   Old English looks like this:

Cóm on wanre niht
scríðan sceadugenga      scéotend swaéfon
þá þæt hornreced      healdan scoldon

I am no Seamus Heaney and I’m pleased that my scrappy attempts at translation have all disappeared.  I do think such matters are best left in the hands of experts; Heaney gives us the above lines as:

Then, out of the night
Came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift

the hall-guards were slack, asleep at their posts

I can’t help feel that reading this version gets me far closer to the intended suspense, tension and excitement than my own painstaking and crippling slow cross-referencing ever could.

If you’ve ever been tempted to go back to the earliest of English stories, I really recommend this modern English version.  Heaney makes use of powerful and vigorous language, echoing the formal style of the original poem (two balancing halves to each line, each half containing two stressed syllables).  Rather than rhymes, the poem is built on this pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.  Couple that with the relentlessly flowing alliteration and you’re left with a poem so invigorating and dynamic its easy to imagine listening spellbound to the bards as they wove their magic over long winter nights.

For lovers of more modern classics, Beowulf was one of the ancient texts loved by Tolkien, and its monsters, gold hoards and heroes were a template for his own larger-than-life creations.  Its legacy still holds, and on this reading I was delighted to spot several connections to Harry Potter (because underwater adventures never go out of fashion).  I may never have sat in a mead-hall terrorised by hellish monsters or been saved by ring-giving heroes, but for the 3,000 or so lines of the poem I could image that I had.  It may not be seasonally wintry, but a legend like ‘Beowulf’ never goes out of fashion and it has been the perfect conclusion to my Nordic winter reading.

Posted in Nordic literature, Seamus Heaney | Tagged , | 10 Comments

A wonderful introduction to modern Icelandic fiction: ‘Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was’ by Sjón

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About a month ago, I reviewed the first book of my Nordic winter reading challenge – Halldór Laxness’s miserable Icelandic epic ‘Independent People.’  Since then, I’ve had a wonderful time reading my way around Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.  It feels only fitting to conclude by returning to my original location; albeit with a very different kind of novel.  Though set a century ago, ‘Moonstone’ is a consciously modern look at Iceland’s past.  In contrast to ‘Independent People’ it’s short, cosmopolitan and ambiguous; a wonderful introduction to contemporary Icelandic literature.

As an indication of the novel’s tone, ‘Moonstone’ begins on October 12th 1918 with a boy giving an older man a blow job on the edge of town.  Neither is named, and the anonymous act is accompanied by the throbbing of customised motorbike.  Immediately after, the rider of the bike appears in a striking pose against the volcanic sky, Sóla G – ‘a girl like no other,’ a femme fatale straight from silver screen.  The story which follows will be equally modern, industrial and ambiguous, marrying meticulously researched period details with a magical air of near-unreality.

The fluidity between the real and the hyper-real is masterfully rooted in actual history.  Thus Sóla G – ‘appears on the brink like a goddess risen from the depths of the sea, silhouetted against the backdrop of a sky ablaze with the volacnic fires of Katla‘ (Katla errupted in 1918).  Then, within a very few pages, the devastation of Spanish flu renders all other plot threads suddenly un-dramatic and irrelevant.  Towards the end of the novel, the ceremonies around Iceland’s independence from Denmark become a comedy of errors implicating more characters than you might first expect.

For all of the bleakness of the period and subject matter, ‘Moonstone’ is ultimately a love story.  A love story for movement and modernity, for freedom and for illusion.  While the less pleasant sides of such ideals are never hidden, the calm delight of the boy who discovers them shines through.  A massive thank you to Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog for recommending this book so highly in January.  I’m adding my voice to hers in recommending you seek out this unexpected and extremely powerful story.

Posted in Nordic literature, Reading in translation, Sjón | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments