A Chilling Summer Read: ‘The Birds’ by Tarjei Vesaas

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Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace was one of the most memorable reads from my immersion in Nordic literature last January.  After the magical and terrifying evocation of winter in that most chilling of Norwegian novels, I was fully prepared to shiver my way through the next Vesaas translation on my bookshelf this February, only to discover how untimely such an attempt would be.  While ‘The Ice Palace’ begins in late autumn and ends with the thaw, punctuated by the forming, creaking and melting of ice, ‘The Birds’ starts in the summer and dramatic moments are accompanied by awe-inspiring summer thunderstorms.

Terrified by such storms, the main character, Mattis, lives in an uncannily close relationship with the nature that surrounds him.  Uncomfortable with people, utterly dependent on his long-suffering sister, he is enraptured by birds, by song and by the idea of love.  His tortured encounters with his neighbours almost reminded me of the start of We Have Always Lived in the Castle but Mattis is far more of a fairy-tale simpleton than Jackson’s fearsome protagonist.  Indeed, when his relationship with his sister is threatened by an unexpected stranger, the interloper is no urban smooth-talker, but a hardy and capable woodcutter.

And so the fable continues, but, somehow, the magic that I found in ‘The Ice Palace’ failed to ring true.  Instead, I found myself increasingly troubled by the view Vesaas gives of outsiders and their place in society.  I don’t want to give away any plot points, but the two of his novels that I’ve read explore doomed love between an insider and someone who is not part of the community, someone without the skills to survive the dangers of the natural world.  While the descriptions are dreamy and beautiful in their simplicity, the underlying message is worrying and, the more I became aware of it, the less I was able to lose myself in the story.

If anyone can recommend other books by Vesaas I’d love to learn about them.  I am going to be wary though, ‘The Birds’ actually made me concerned about re-reading ‘The Ice Palace’ for fear that the message I managed to ignore the first time round will now be impossible to overlook.  Still, the good news is that it’s months away from winter now. Maybe by the time the cold weather starts I’ll be able to face ‘The Ice Palace’ with cool indifference to what might lie beneath, only taking the best from a writer with a masterful sense of space, time and how humans can both love and fear their natural environment.

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Posted in Nordic literature, Reading in translation, Tarjei Vesaas | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

A worthy winner of the Woman’s Prize for Fiction: ‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

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Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone was one of my top reads of 2015.  In fact, I loved it so much I had mentally picked ‘Home Fire’ as the winner for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction before reading any of the shortlist.  I’m willing to believe the judges were not working to quite my methodology, but there was no harm done in the end.  Following our different reading schedules we all came to the same decision; ‘Home Fire’ is every bit as impressive as Shamsie’s previous novels and a thoroughly worthy winner of any and all accolades going.

Like so many novels published over the last few years, ‘Home Fire’ is a reworking of a famous classic text.  The original in this case however is far older and, for me at least, more obscure than the Shakespeare and Austen updates with which we are all so familiar.  Shamsie has taken the story of Antigone, a Greek tragedy with a Wikipedia summary so dense it took me multiple readings to make any sense of the characters’ names, actions and relationships to each other, and moved it to twenty-first Britain with breathtaking assurance.

For a start, the context of the original  is some kind of ancient civil war (to quote Wikipedia, ‘Oedipus’s sons, Etocles and Polynices, had shared the rule jointly until they quarrelled, and Eteocles expelled his brother. In Sophocles’ account, the two brothers agreed to alternate rule each year, but Eteocles decided not to share power with his brother after his tenure expired. Polynices left the kingdom, gathered an army and attacked the city of Thebes in a conflict called the Seven Against Thebes. Both brothers were killed in the battle. King Creon, who has ascended to the throne of Thebes after the death of the brothers, decrees that Polynices is not to be buried or even mourned …)  I suppose for those steeped in the Classics, the characters and settings of Antigone fit comfortably within a known narrative.  By placing ‘Home Fire’ in the here and now, Shamsie gives her readers exactly that sense of understanding society, characters and nuance.  The novel begins with the headscarf-wearing Isma missing her flight to the US from Britain, ‘The ticket wouldn’t be refunded because the airline took no responsibility for passengers who arrived at the airport three hours ahead of the departure time and were escorted to an interrogation room.‘  The familiar context of the War on Terror, Islamophobia and debates about citizenship and British national identity means ‘Home Fire’ pulls off the most difficult challenge of re-writing traditional stories.  Rather than finding inventive ways of twisting them to fit a different setting, it utterly recasts its foundational material, helping us to understand the present day and the power of old stories by removing the comforting distance of time and space and making them immediate and unequivocally relevant.

There is absolutely no distance between recognisable, everyday life and the experiences of the characters in ‘Home Fire’.  From Isma, the older sister, quietly confident with an identity which encompasses her strongly-held religious beliefs and academic ambitions to Karamat, the secular Muslim British MP with a very public stance against Terror, all the characters are fully formed; believable and tragic, they appear to be controlled by conventions, traditions and the media quite as much as their Greek counterparts were by fate.

‘Home Fire’ builds beautifully from its classical foundations, but it is a resolutely modern novel.  If on first reading I was focusing on how it took on and worked with the traditional story of Antigone, I think on re-reading I’ll want to look harder at the ways it explores gender.  (In a dry aside, we’re told how the young male characters struggle to learn how to be men because ‘For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition.‘)  That will be the future though, for now I will simply bask in satisfaction of reading such a successful novel.  If I was blown away by the way in which Shamsie helped me understand the past in ‘A God in Every Stone’ I am no less impressed with the insight she has given me into the present in her latest literary triumph.  ‘Home Fire’ is a novel for those who like the Classics and those drawn to the contemporary, those who wish to understand ancient stories and those who want to explore twenty-first century society.  It is a novel for anyone who wants to see what the very best of modern fiction has to offer; from Shamsie, I would expect nothing less.

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

Posted in Baileys Prize, Kamila Shamsie, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Musings on Time and Space: ‘Flights’ by Olga Tokarczuk

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With its beautiful stark blue cover, the Fitzcarraldo Edition of ‘Flights’ doesn’t give away much about the book’s content.  The blub, starting with the sentence ‘Flights, a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy, is Olga Tokarczuk’s most ambitious to date’ is scarcely more helpful, especially if, like me, you have no prior familiarity with Tokarczuk’s work for comparison.

I’ll try to be a bit more precise with this blog post, though it won’t be easy.  ‘Flights’ is indeed ambitious, an intricate patchwork of short fiction, travel writing, philosophical musings and as it says on the cover, details of human anatomy.  There is probably something clever going on in the structure of the book too; perhaps it echoes the precision of the sketches made by Philip Verheyen, the seventeenth century anatomist and surgeon who dissected and drew pictures of his amputated leg in an attempt to understand the phantom pain which afflicted him.  I can imagine that the tonal contrasts and varying chapter lengths are a reflection of the ‘fanciful arrangements’ of his contemporary, Frederik Ruysch, famous for his developments in anatomical preservation and dioramas made up of body parts.  For the record, I hadn’t even heard of these men before reading Tokarczuk; ‘Flights’ is the kind of book that leaves you desperate to show off your new-found knowledge of the dark, morbid history of anatomy and embalming.

The book is more than a collection of historical oddities however.  At its heart is the self-contained short story that shares a title with the book; the tale of a woman’s descent into a modern hell as she emotionally and spiritually loses her way, departing from her normal routine as a carer for her disabled son and wife to her traumatised husband to live an underworld existence on the metro system of an unnamed post-Soviet city. The pathos of her situation and the frightening realism of her nightmarish existence are beautifully evoked, anchoring the intellectual ambition and literary playfulness of the chapters that surround it.

‘Flights’ is thoughtful and intelligent, dancing across time and space to weave together its disparate  narratives of migration and permanence, of preserving and forgetting.  It’s not the kind of book that can be easily summarised, but the fluid prose (translated by Jennifer Croft) and sensitively explored themes clearly show how such ambition can pay off.

Posted in Man Booker International Prize 2018, Olga Tokarczuk, Reading in translation | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Melancholy Beauty: ‘The Hour of the Star’ by Clarice Lispector (translated by Giovanni Pontiero)

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It is hard to know where to begin with this review.  ‘The Hour of the Star’ is a novella that is so short and so full of perfectly crafted sentences and images, my strong temptation to fill the blog post with quotations is tempered by the knowledge that this would end up in me copying out a ridiculously large percentage of the book itself.  The title isn’t far off, it doesn’t take much more than an hour to read Lispector’s melancholy masterpiece.  Attempting to describe it is only ever going to be clumsy, imprecise and shabby by comparison.

I suppose a good place to start is with the book’s titles.  The first page gives a long list of possibilities with ‘The Hour of the Star’ appearing second after ‘The Blame is Mine,’ and above other equally brilliant phrases that are a haunting introduction to the novella, from ‘I Can Do Nothing’ to ‘She Doesn’t Know How to Protest.’  The list would appear playful and coy if it wasn’t for the sense of despair it evokes, an uncomfortably mixed tone that is continued as the story is narrated by an intrusive narrator, the author Rodrigo S. M.,  describing his creative struggles in capturing his protagonist in print: ‘Nobody desires her, she is a harmless virgin whom nobody needs.  It strikes me that I don’t need her either and that what I am writing could be written by another.  Another writer, of course, but it would have to be a man for a woman would weep her heart out.’

The emotions conjured up by the self-conscious narrator are constantly fighting with those evoked by his creation, an immature woman who is both intensely pitiable and yet problematically pure in her acceptance of her stunted existence.  If it is difficult to establish a relationship with the patronising and sympathetic, hostile and loving narrator, how much more so to pin down Macabéa, the ‘star’ of the novel, introduced to us as ‘inept.  Inept for living.’  Abused, monumentally lonely and desperate for affection, we see her torments from the outside (because she never recognises them as such) and are welcomed into her painfully modest joys.  Simultaneously complex and simple, her message is, for me, one of both hope and despair: She wasn’t aware of her own unhappiness.  The only thing she desired was to live.  She could not explain, for she didn’t probe her situation.  Perhaps she felt there was some glory in living.  She thought that a person was obliged to be happy.  So she was happy.’

There is an overt social message in the book; it is clear that Macabéa is one of so many ignored lives in society, and the unfairness and inhumanity of her situation is never excused through her own acceptance of it.  Equally powerful however is the way Macabéa emerges as a character in her own right, evading her narrator as he ties to pin her down and never giving the reader the comfort of a conclusive understanding of her motivations or inner life.

This is likely to be my only contribution to the 1977 book club (hosted kaggsysbookishramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book) and I only managed it in time because it really is extremely short.  In terms of quality though, I can’t imagine many better books can have been published that year. ‘The Hour of the Star’ is a true timeless classic and I am so pleased that the club finally pushed me to read and review it.

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Posted in Clarice Lispector, Reading in translation | Tagged , | 3 Comments

First read from the Man Booker International Prize longlist: ‘The Impostor’ by Javier Cercas

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It’s that time of year again: the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was announced (16 books and the only one I’ve read so far is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness), followed immediately by the Man Booker International Prize longlist (13 books and I hadn’t read any of them).  The only way to calm my panic at so many books and so little time was to see what might be on the shelves at the local library and hope for the best.  Of course, I do own a copy of the wonderful Han Kang’s long-listed ‘The White Book’ already, but I know how powerful and raw her writing is and so I’m saving it for the right time.

Instead, I wanted to try something completely new for my first look at the International Prize longlist and the library delivered by offering up Javier Cercas’s ‘The Imposter’. I’m aware that I haven’t read much Spanish language literature and I’ve read even less from the county of  Spain itself.  I also couldn’t help but notice how many of the books selected seem to play genre games as they self-consciously flip between fiction, memoir, biography.  If I liked ‘The Impostor’ it could be  both my entry into Spanish literature and the mind-sets of the judging panel for this year’s prize.

‘The Impostor’ is the combined story of the author as he struggles, researches and writes his biography of Enric Marco, the Catalonian who became a celebrity survivor of deportation and incarceration only to be revealed as a liar and fraud in 2005.  Cercas writes as if his topic is familiar to his audience, a flattering assumption about the international knowledge of the English language readers who will hopefully pick up the book following its nomination.  Personally, I’d never heard of Marco or his story before, but then the insider view of a new culture and country is exactly why I love The Man Booker International Prize.  ‘The Impostor’ is a deeply Spanish book; For Cercas, the reason Marco was able to pass himself off as a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp and even become the president of the Amical de Mauthausen, the main Spanish association for survivors of Mauthausen can only be explained through his relationship with the nation’s sense of self and memory:

Marco invented a past for himself (or embellished or gilded it) at a moment when, all around him in Spain, almost everyone was embellishing, or gilding up, or inventing a past; Marco reinvented his life at a moment when the entire country was reinventing itself.  This is what happened during the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain.  With Franco dead, almost everyone began to construct a past to better face the present and prepare for the future

Along with presenting his subject as a metaphor for national identity, Cercas also explicitly looks at the responsibilities of story tellers in society.  He discusses how Marco can be seen as a modern Don Quixote, that most famous Catalan madman, while comparing himself as the author of a non-fiction novel to Truman Capote writing ‘In Cold Blood.’

It’s a lot of unreliable storytelling, philosophical musing and cultural analysis to fit into a single book.  Possibly the best praise I can offer is that it never gets bogged down in its own arguments.  Frank Wynne’s translation conveys the most complex ideas about the nature of memory, fiction and national identity with clarity and precision, never letting the messiness of real life seep into the style of the writing.  In the short term, it’s made me eager to read more of this year’s longlist (I’m especially looking forward to Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’).  In the long term, it’s brought home how much I’ve been missing by not seeking out more Spanish literature.  Let’s forget what I wrote earlier about panicking over reading lists, please let me know what Spanish books I should read and review so that Cercas won’t be the sole representative of his county on my blog for too long.

Posted in Javier Cercas, Man Booker International Prize 2018, Reading in translation | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Classic Science Fiction: ‘I Robot’ by Asimov

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As the recent silence on my blog demonstrates, I’ve been suffering from something of a reading slump.  As all experienced readers know, the only way to combat such misery is to wait it out, holding on to the hope that the perfect choice of books will suddenly rekindle the old magic.  Thanks to a judicious mixture of non-fiction, genre reading and staring into space, things are slowly getting back to normal and I’m going to celebrate by reviewing a book has been staring at me reproachfully for weeks, waiting for me to spread the word.

Asimov’s ‘I Robot’ is a series of short stories, which, taken together, provide a ‘history’ of robots from the early stages of their development to an imaginatively realised robot-controlled future.  Given that a certain amount of my day job involves computers (including a real world engagement with what developments artificial intelligence might bring) it was delightful to immerse myself in Asimov’s twentieth-century presentation of the future of technology.

The robots in the book are exactly what you see on the cover, humanoid, gesticulating and emoting beings who are best understood by our ‘robopsychologist’ narrator.  The set-up is beautiful in its simplicity; at the heart of robopsychology, and of each story, lie the famous three laws:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction allow a human being to come to harm
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law

The drama in the stories comes from seeing how robots, and humans, navigate these rules.  The additional bonus for 21st century readers is that we can always replace the word ‘robot’ with the word iphone and so turn futuristic sci-fi into attractive nostalgia.  Even the most dystopian and most forward-looking story somehow brings a measure of comfort to anyone concerned about the place of technology in our own world. Reading ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ during the last year has allowed me to escape into past, but ‘I Robot’ goes one better with it’s ability to transport the reader to a version of the future as imagined by the visionaries of the previous century.  It also contains a drunk robot singing Gilbert and Sullivan while trundling round in circles, and I’m not sure classic science fiction gets much better than that!

Posted in Asimov, Science Fiction | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

A very full year: ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (part 3 – winter) by Anthony Powell

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I realise I am late with this, and trying to use the recent terrible weather as an excuse for thinking it’s still winter isn’t entirely convincing. Maybe I should claim instead that the somewhat languid pace of the Dance sequence has affected my reading and reviewing pattern. Its narrator, Jenkins, has never been the most proactive literary character, but as the modern world catches up with him in his old age, the books become even more bewildered in their attempts to record post war and swinging Britain.

The fact is that I had no idea what to expect when I started ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ in spring 2017. All I knew was that it was a long novel cycle, themed according to the times of the year. I certainly didn’t expected to love the opening volumes as much as I did. It could have been that their combination of snobbery, stupidly long cast lists and sarcastic humour gave me the perfect escapism for 2017. Now I have come to the end of the series, I have also realised that I found something hugely appealing about the passivity with which Jenkins views the world. This may be why my favourite seasons were Spring (the school years, university and the start of a professional career) and Autumn (the army). Jenkins is so far from being an active agent in his own life that things work beautifully when the events around him are, through necessity, out of his control. I’m also aware I don’t share his taste in friends, so the enforced companionship of these books inevitably pleased me more than the tedious description of time spent with his artistic heroes in the Summer and Winter sections.

Even without claiming them as favourites though, the winter novels still contained enough spiky humour and deadpan observations to make them a fitting conclusion to the project. There is much to relish in learning how Jenkins’ battered and ageing generation deal with post-World War II austerity (‘Books do Furnish a Room’), the Cold War (‘Temporary Kings’) and hippy cults (‘Hearing Secret Harmonies’). As always, the determinedly unimpressive Widmerpool is wonderful whenever he appears while the pleasure of encountering familiar characters increases with each successive novel.

I’m sure Jenkins (and Powell) would approve of my melancholy at the realisation that I will never again be able to enjoy this book without knowing the gruesome ends of so many key characters.  Fortunately, also like them, I see books a lifelong companions and fully plan to return to the series in a future year; based on previous experience, I’ll be sure to chose one when I’m in need of heavy-duty escapism.

Posted in Anthony Powell | Tagged , | 8 Comments