A Question of Style: Writing in the present tense

Phew, it’s been a busy few weeks trying to cram in all my reviews of first the Bailey’s Prize and then the Man Booker International Prize shortlists.  I’ve still got a pile of books from spring waiting to be written about, but I think the sensible thing might be to pause and catch my breath before I attempt to catch up with myself.

Or, maybe I should re-phrase that first sentence:

It is a busy few weeks trying to cram in all my reviews of the recent prize shortlists.

I’m afraid I still prefer my first version.  Even when blogging I can’t deny my bias against the past tense.  And things only get more dogmatic when it comes to my reading choices.  Writing in the first tense is one of those things that can move a book straight off the to-be-read pile.  I can’t describe how much I struggled with ‘Wolf Hall,’ but can vividly recall how I felt when I finally put my finger on what was bugging me so much about the lauded epic.

All this is by way of introduction, you see I really enjoyed my reading for the Man Booker International Prize, but I can’t quite get over the fact that three of the six books selected were written in the present tense.  ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,’ ‘The Unseen‘ and even my favourite ‘Fever Dream‘ all took me more or less off-guard.  I didn’t want to mention it in my reviews (because I realise not everyone gets as hung up on these issues as I do), but it has got me thinking about how I really feel about this stylistic choice.

The fact is, I find reading stories in the present tense an odd experience.  It jars me out of my comfort zone and the fact that it is uncommon for literary fiction means I end up reading more slowly as a result.  I don’t think all books can take this meditative pace, especially not compounded with the arch knowingness that seems to come with such a provocative choice on the part of the author.  On the other hand, if I’m honest with myself, some of my favourite novels use this style to magical effect.  In ‘The Night Circus‘ my favourite moments, the timeless passages in which we are invited into the circus itself, are all in the present tense.  In Italo Calvino’s ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ the present tense second person sections, all about the joys of reading, make me smile from ear to ear.  In ‘Fever Dream’ the delirious chronicling demands the immediacy of Amanda’s deeply personal present tense narration.

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I suppose the two factors here are intention and brevity.  It seems I can adore present tense narration for up to (but not over) 150 pages.  It has to be used to create a somewhat magical or out-of-body experience, with the awareness that this is an unusual literary choice and so only fit for very unusual books or topics.  The success of ‘Fever Dream’ however also shows that I should try not to be so restrictive in my acknowledged tastes.  I’m not sure I’m quite ready to try ‘Bringing up the Bodies,’ but will try to be more open-minded in the future when it comes to authors’ stylistic choices.  As a bit of honest soul-searching has shown, going beyond my comfort zone has already given me my top prize read of the year and possibly one of my favourite books from 2017.


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Frightening and Powerful: ‘Fever Dream’ by Samanta Schweblin


If it wasn’t for the fact that I want this review to sit alongside its fellows on the Man Booker International shortlist, I would be holding off until Halloween.  From witchcraft to pollution, from deserted hospitals to unexpected personality shifts in children, it is quite remarkable how many truly terrifying ideas Schweblin explores in the 150 pages of ‘Fever Dream.’

The set up is as confusing and disorienting as the title suggests.  Two people are having a conversation in one is being encouraged to remember the immediate past as a matter of urgency.  Lurking within her story will be the clue to whatever tragedy has created this situation, but between fear, illness and confusion the resulting story is fragmented and disjointed.  We know that our main narrator’s daughter, Nina, could be in serious danger and that her questioner might be able to help her if he can get hold of the important details.  As Amanda’s narrative continues, we become chillingly aware that whatever is wrong goes beyond the rational:

I take a few more steps toward the kitchen and I see that my husband is there, sitting across the table from Nina.  It’s an impossible image – how could he have come in without my hearing him?  He’s not supposed to be here until the weekend.  I lean against the doorway.  Something’s happening, something’s happening, I tell myself, but I’m still half asleep.  He has his hands folded on the table, he’s leaning towards Nina and looking at her with his brow furrowed.
Then he looks at me.
“Nina has something to tell you,” he says.
But Nina looks at her father and copies the position of his hands on the table.  She doesn’t say anything.
“Nina …” says my husband.
“I’m not Nina,” says Nina.
She leans back and crosses one leg over the other in a way I have never seen her do before.
“Tell your mother why you aren’t Nina,” says my husband.
“It’s an experiment, Miss Amanda,” she says, and she pushes a can towards me.
My husband takes the can and turns it so I can see the label.  It’s a can of peas of a brand I don’t buy, one I would never buy.  They’re a bigger, much harder kind of pea than what we eat, coarser and cheaper.  A product I would never choose to feed my family with, and that Nina can’t have found in our cupboards.  On the table, at that early-morning hour, the can has an alarming presence.  This is important, right?
This is very important.

And so the story continues, increasingly creepy details hinting at a collapse of the soul, the family unit, even the whole country.  The original title of the novel is ‘Distancia de Rescate’, or ‘rescue distance,’ the constantly changing distance between mother and daughter, within which is safety and outside of which is any danger beyond the parent’s protection.  Weaving its way fluidly between maternal love and society’s deepest fears ‘Fever Dream’ is as impressive as it is ambitious.  This is the kind of writing I hope to discover through translation prizes and I am thrilled that the Man Booker International judges have introduced me to such a new, compelling author.

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Never knowing what’s coming next: ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’ by David Grossman


Grossman’s novel begins enthusiastically and with cringing embarrassment.  ”Good evening!  Good evening!  Good evening to the majestic city of Caesariyaaaaaah!’ … A short, slight, bespectacled man lurches onto the stage from a side door, as if he’d been kicked through it.  He takes a few faltering steps, trips, brakes himself on the wooden floor with both hands, then sharply juts his rear-end straight up.‘  It’s the exuberant beginning of Dovaleh G’s stand up show, and is only the first kick (physical and metaphorical) Dovaleh is going to receive in front of his scattered audience.  Oh, and they’re not in Caesarea, the setting is Netanya, a completely different town on the Israeli coast.

Wondering why he is witnessing all this, is a retired judge with a list of good reasons for not wanting to watch the show.  He’s there because of a childhood connection with Dovaleh, in fact it soon becomes apparent that the performance is all about the comic’s traumatic past.  In terms of hysterical soul-baring ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’ reminded me of early Philip Roth novels, but while the joke with ‘Portnoy’ is that he doesn’t really have anything to complain about, the tormented Dovaleh does.  On this night especially, he is determined to tell the defining story of his life, a story that begins with child abuse and bullying and then digs deeper and deeper into how humans behave to each other and to themselves.

From his plan for the performance to his offensive jokes to the brutal way he insults and even hits himself on stage (”Hello!  It’s a stand-up show!  Do you still not get that? Putz!’ He gives his forehead a loud, unfathomably powerful smack. ‘That’s what they’re here for!  They’re here to laugh at you!”), everything about Dovaleh’s story is shocking and disturbing.  The result is one of the most striking books on the Man Booker International Shortlist.  Grossman’s premise is that his anti-hero must walk the finest of lines in telling his desperately un-funny life-story while retaining his audience.  It’s a balancing act that shouldn’t work; indeed, from the judge’s perspective we hear of heckling, walk-outs and an unexpected guest who almost derails the whole show.  To witness such a evening might be excruciating, to read a world-class author present it is exhilarating.  The Man Booker International Prize will be announced tomorrow, and this brave and painful novel is exactly the kind of work I count on them to publicise for those of us seeking the new and brilliant in translated fiction.

I received my copy of ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in David Grossman, Man Booker International Prize 2017, Reading in translation | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

One way of viewing the world: ‘Compass’ by Mathias Enard

105.Mathias Enard-Compass

I wonder if in future years, ‘Compass’ will appeal to those in search of obscure book challenges.  The novel is set over one insomniac night; instead of chapters, we are given timings, starting (after a prelude) at 11.10pm and tracking the night hours till 6 in the morning.  If it wasn’t for having to go to work in the morning, I would have been sorely tempted to see if I could keep track with the narrator.  I’m sure it would have been a stretch (it’s a long book) but it would have been a great way to read the rambling, circular prose.

One of the reasons this target-driven project so appeals to me is that, aside from the timing notifications, the ‘Compass’ seems ironically fond of losing itself along tangents.  The title comes from a joke present given to our narrator Franz, a replica of Beethoven’s compass, altered so that ‘pulled unremittingly by magnetism, on its drop of water, the double red and blue needle points east‘.  The contents of the novel are also constantly pulled to the East, the focus of Franz’s study and the obsession of the woman he loves.

‘Compass’ convincingly takes us into the mind of an academic fixated on a scholarly topic.  There are digressions about music, art, history, archeology, medicine … everything links together and reinforces the idea that the concept of the ‘East’ is the paramount obsession of the West.  The incidental details are fascinating, especially the biographies of eccentric early ‘Orientalists.’  Less convincing are the comments on the current reality of the region.  Franz tells us ‘I’d like to write a long article on Julien Jalaleddin Weiss, homonymous with Leopold, another convert, who has just died of cancer, a cancer that coincides so much with the destruction of Aleppo and Syria that one could wonder if the two events are linked‘.  I think the point being made is that those who love Syrian culture have been devastated by the tragedies that have befallen the region, but I am deeply uncomfortable both with the suggestion that cancer is linked to foreign wars and with what seems horribly close to European appropriation of a Middle-Eastern country’s loss and grief.

The fact is, ‘Compass’ is interested in the cerebral rather than the physical.  We’re told that Franz suffers from a debilitating illness (hence the insomnia) but he is uncharacteristically reticent about specifics, giving the excuse that ‘I don’t want to plunge into these names of disease …‘  The love of his life, Sarah, is as close as the novel gets to a woman of action, and we discover that she spends most of her time meditating in Buddhist retreats.  If you want a nighttime ramble through European myths of the Middle East, ‘Compass’ will be a rewarding read, filled with unexpected historical gems and a wealth of trivia about the Western obsession with the Orient.  For me, many of the conclusions don’t hold up in the cold light of day, though that may not be the point.  As the book’s title suggests, it probably depends on how you approach it.

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

Posted in Man Booker International Prize 2017, Mathias Enard, Reading in translation | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Revisiting Norway: ‘The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen


In January of this year, I had a wonderful time immersing myself in Nordic literature.  I was entranced by the isolation, the human endurance and the untameable environment.  Roy Jacobsen’s ‘The Unseen’ felt like a glorious return to so much of what I loved about these novels from the far north.

The book is set in a remote collection of islands off the coast of Norway.  We are introduced to them in the company of a seasick priest on his first visit to ‘the fisherman-cum-farmer Hans Barrøy, the island’s rightful owner and head of its sole family’.  What strikes the priest most is the unexpected view of the mainland, which he ‘has never seen before from such a novel vantage point … [he] stands admiring the whitewashed church that emerges and looks like a faded postage stamp beneath the black mountains where a few remaining patches of snow resemble teeth in a rotten mouth.

It’s a great introduction, but not really typical of the rest of the novel, in as much as the Barrøys spend very little time worrying about the mainland or appreciating their outsider perspectives.  Instead, they follow in the footsteps of the hard-working Bjartur from Laxness’s ‘Independent People,’ Hamsun’s sturdy colonisers in ‘Growth of the Soil‘ and the close-knit families depicted by Tove Jansson.  They are concerned with surviving in the here and now, living in an uneasy truce with the unforgiving weather and determined to make the most of whatever comes to hand.  Everything brought in by the tides is kept and put to use, while what the tides and storms blow away is scarcely mourned.

‘The Unseen’, with its enterprising and stoic characters, makes for charming reading.  It may not feel very new, partly because it falls so clearly within its literary tradition, partly because the prosaic, uncomplaining protagonists are reminiscent of last year’s Man Booker International short-lister ‘A Whole Life’ and partly because its use of dialect when characters speak is more Thomas Hardy than 21st century.  I suspect all of the above will form a part of its appeal for readers; personally, I’m always happy to hide in my room and curl up with book in which brave characters show integrity and strength when battling the forces around them.

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

Posted in Man Booker International Prize 2017, Nordic literature, Roy Jacobsen | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Navigating life: ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors


I’m fairly certain this is the first book I’ve read in which the plot centres around the main character learning to drive.  It makes me wonder if I (and writers everywhere) are missing a trick, because the premise is fantastic.  From the opportunities for comedy to the claustrophobic power dynamics of the practical lessons to the philosophical implications of movement, control and freedom, ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ shows quite how good this set up is when it comes to exploring individuals, relationships and the complex twenty-first century.

We begin with Sonja sitting in front of the wheel trying to feel confident about the hour ahead. ‘Her driving lessons have been plagued with problems.  The biggest of them is sitting in the car right now, next to Sonja.  Her name is Jytte, and it’s her smoke that clings to the theory classroom.  Surfaces at the driving school are galvanized with cigarette smoke, and most of it took a trip through Jytte’s lungs first.’  Sonja’s time with Jytte is very very funny and it almost feels a shame when Nors takes pity on her heroine and allows her to escape.

By escape, of course, I mean suddenly appear in a new chapter with what appears to be very little agency when moving from one set piece moment to another.  In structure, ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ reminded me of Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline‘ in which another lost protagonist jerks from one awkward social encounter to another, cumulatively building up our understanding of her history and character.  For contrast, the other book that came to mind during reading was Høeg’s ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow‘ Sonja may not be from Greenland, but she is extremely conscious of her status as an outsider, always trying to identify accents in others and mournfully remembering ‘when she was six, maybe seven.  Back then she spoke Jutlandic without irony.  Now she no longer knows what language she speaks.’  I suspect in the original Danish, the regional language variations are an integral part of the narrative, complementing Sonja’s own conflicted personality.

There is much to enjoy in ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,’ not least the comedy of many of the situations Sonja finds herself in.  I can’t help feel it is an odd choice for Man Booker International shortlist however.  I read a lot of translated literature, but it is rare for me to feel so strongly that I am missing key elements in a novel.  From Sonja’s job as a translator to her difficulties communicating with those closest to her, this book felt like it should be all about language. Misha Hoekstra’s translation is engaging and extremely readable, but it never gave me the impression that these themes were being engaged with on a stylistic level.  Or maybe I was just looking for something that wasn’t there, a worrying appropriate response to a witty, concise book entitled ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,’ if so, the joke is definitely on me.

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

Posted in Dorthe Nors, Nordic literature, Reading in translation | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Getting started with the Man Booker International Shortlist: ‘Judas’ by Amos Oz


Then he went out into the street, which was bathed in a pleasant winter light, a light of pine trees and stones.  He was suddenly assailed by a strange, sharp feeling that anything was possible, that what was lost only seemed to be lost, but that in fact nothing was completely lost and what would happen depended only on his audacity.  He decided to change there and then.  To change his whole life from that moment on.  Henceforth he would be calm and bold, a man who knew what he wanted and did everything in his power to achieve it, with no holding back and hesitation.

The above quotation comes roughly one third through ‘Judas,’ and the ‘he‘ in question is the diffident Shmuel.  The passage grabbed me when I read it, not only because of the beauty of the language but because of the power and irony of the sentiments.  Shmuel is not a man of action.  He starts the book a person things happen to (girlfriend leaving, parents losing their money and so becoming unable to support him through his studies) and when he has the above epiphany it’s hard to know if Oz is laughing at the reader.  Are we expected to believe that Shmuel will finally act out of character, actually realise ‘what he wanted‘ and make genuine steps towards achieving it?  Or is this one more mini-crisis in an already settled life, like Oblomov’s plans to get out of bed or my own optimistic spurts of gym membership?

Main character aside, the novel’s title reminds us that individuals can have epic importance on the course of history.  Shmuel’s research, in and out of university, is about Jesus and Judas, focusing heavily on their personalities and biographies; he’s not Christian, but is fascinated by the ideas of love, brotherhood, friendship and betrayal conveyed by these teaching and stories.  Thus, while aimlessly wandering round the divided city of Jerusalem (the book is set in the winter of 1959-60) Shmuel is able to bring a significant but very unusual perspective to the decade-old country in which he lives.  The State of Israel was founded in 1948 and much of the novel takes place in the grief-filled house once inhabited by the only member of the Zionist executive committee to oppose the creation of the State.  Oz’s fictional Shealtiel Abravanel believed that Jews and Arabs should live in peace in a country under international control.  There are clear parallels drawn between Abravanel and Judas and, while no easy answers are provided, the book painstakingly explores the idea of betrayal, belief and loyalty in uncomfortably personal detail.

It can be hard at times to see if ‘Judas’ is supposed to be a coming of age story, or a political, philosophical tract.  Shmuel included, all the characters are stuck in rigid repetitive routines which can be difficult to engage with, though their intense discussions are well worth reading.  With its complex ideas and sensitive view of humanity, this book will be welcomed by fans of Oz’s writing.  For newcomers, it is a good introduction to one of Israel’s most famous authors.

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

Posted in Amos Oz, Man Booker International Prize 2017 | Tagged , , | 11 Comments