A Monstrous Burlesque: ‘As I lay Dying’ by William Faulkner

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A huge thank you is owed to the #1930 club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book, for inspiring me to re-read one of my favourite novels from the last century.  ‘As I Lay Dying’ is a demented story about America, family, bereavement, faith and lots more; none of these concepts can be logically understood – to be honest, I’m not sure any of them really make sense – but then neither does the book itself.

As shown in the 1963 Penguin book cover, the story concerns a woman who is watched over, in her coffin, by her family.  What is wonderful about the illustration is that it engages perfectly with the off-kilter world of the characters.  While the coffin itself is a conventional shape, the bulges at the side, which you would assume to fit its incumbent’s shoulders, actually make space for her ballooning skirt.  This means her feet are where you would expect her head to be; either she is going to be buried upside-down or everyone around her must be looking at the world from a decidedly unconventional angle.

A further detail – the face of the corpse in the image is somewhat obscured.  After Addie Bundren dies her youngest son, in uncomprehending grief, uses an auger to bore holes in the top of the coffin to allow her to breath, an imprecise act that leads to his mother ultimately wearing an improvised veil made out of a mosquito net before the mended lid is resealed.

It’s shocking, grotesque details like this which make the heavily experimental novel, narrated through stream of consciousness by fifteen different voices, such a page-turner.  The story is simple.  In what is either an uncharacteristic display of devotion or a totally characteristic show of obstinate, selfish stupidity, Addie’s husband is determined to honour his wife’s wish to be buried where she grew up.  This means that ‘beholden to no man’ the whole family are to travel forty miles, through biblical and manmade obstacles (including flood and fire).  They meet helpful and horrified neighbours along the way, and are also accompanied by an increasingly large entourage of buzzards as the days pass.

The whole book is genuinely funny and terribly terribly sad; probably my ideal example of black comedy, with different moments to make me gasp with laughter or at the pathos of the situation on each re-reading.  While the characters and actions may seem almost gratuitously shocking, the beauty of the prose, which is some of Faulkner’s evocative best, elevates the story.  A thoroughly enjoyable re-read and a further reason (if any was necessary) to join the 1930 club!

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Posted in Gothic Literature, William Faulkner | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Armchair excitement: H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’

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While there are some books that glory in subtle or ironic titles, others are proud to display their themes, locations and plot for all to see.  Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ falls squarely within this second camp; I couldn’t spoil its contents even if I wanted to and I really don’t want to because no amount of foreshadowing can dim the pleasure of this science-fiction horror classic.

Published in the 1930s, the book is framed as a plea against further scientific exploration into the mystic and mysterious regions around the South Pole.  The narrator himself was part of such an expedition and has returned home determined to deter any new hubristic investigation –  rather like Frankenstein really, only much shorter and without the dense nineteenth-century prose.  For a more explicit comparison, ‘The Mountains’ frequently evokes Poe, going so far as to quote ‘Ulalume’ and drawing heavily on ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.’  With conspiracy theory dependence on demented apocalyptic supporting texts throughout the novella, it can be hard to know how far Lovecraft was being derivative and how far he was an innovator.  This is not to undermine the joy of reading ‘The Mountains’; part of the fun of genre literature is seeing how it shoe-horns in and plays with the expected tropes.  Personally, when I read that the narrator is one of only two survivors of a traumatic attempt to explore the titular mountains, and that the other has gone mad, I felt an enjoyable shiver of recognition and familiarity.

It’s also worth pointing out that, for a 1930s science fiction/horror classic that was written by H P Lovecraft, draws on Poe’s fiercely racist ‘Arthur Gordon Pym’ and is set entirely in an exotic location where brave white men pit their inner strength against unknown terrors ,’The Mountains of Madness’ manages to generally skirt the potential offensiveness of its premise.  Lovecraft himself had hideous views on pretty much everything, which I find always adds a frisson of fear to any encounter with him. Horror is one thing but I do tend to approach his work with trepidation because you never quite know if or when his personal obsessions will emerge.  Fortunately, ‘The Mountains’ are disturbing in the right way, with the tension building consistently and the insane climax a delightfully grotesque pay-off.

As the weather turns grey and uninspiring, there is nothing to lift the mood like a truly fantastical Antarctic-set romp.  I recently watched John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ and revelled in its combination of outrageous special effects and icy, isolated setting.  Though written half a century earlier, ‘The Mountains of Madness’ has been the perfect literary counterpart, providing armchair escapism and emotional thrills, immersion in a genre classic and relief from anything resembling every-day concerns.

Posted in H P Lovecraft, Science Fiction | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The 2019 Booker Prize Shortlist

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Having blogged about my Booker longlist reading, it’s time to turn my attention to the judge’s shortlist.

Personally, I’m still not sure I’m ready for a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (I haven’t been watching the TV version), so am a little apprehensive about Atwood’s ‘The Testaments.’  I also went through a Salmon Rushdie phase about 15 years ago, but have not read his more recent works; I do love ‘Don Quixote’ though so ‘Quichotte’ might be the book to bring me back.

All I can say about Lucy Ellmann’s ‘Ducks, Newburyport’ is that I don’t understand the title, but have heard it’s a nearly 1000 page long stream-of-consciousness monologue, largely made up of one continuous sentence.  Sort of the opposite of ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘.  This could be the book of a lifetime (I am a massive fan of Ulysses so won’t rule it out) but I’ll be looking for personal recommendations before I dive in.  I know even less about Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ and Elif Shafak’s ’10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World’ but I understand they’re not excessively long so I’m not too intimidated to try to find out.

Of course the book I’m really excited for is ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’ by Chigozie Obioma.  I raved about The Fishermen, when it was Booker shortlisted in 2015 and can’t wait to see how he’s followed up on such an impressive debut.  All in all, it’s looking to be a very interesting Booker year!

Posted in Book Lists, Booker Prize 2019, How to pick which book to read | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The 2019 Booker Prize

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The 2019 Man Booker Shortlist has been announced, and it contains none of the long-listed books I’ve actually read.  Still, while a bout of summer flu prevented me from posting this before the nominations were narrowed down, I do want to share my thoughts on the quarter (more or less) of the books originally in contention.

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Frankly, it would be a surprise were Deborah Levy not to be nominated for her latest novel.  Her books are cool, short, intelligent and highly lauded.  This felt like an interesting departure from previous works of hers that I’ve read, in that it covers a complicatedly split timeline rather than honing in on one significant event.  Or maybe it is really all about one event after all, because in it our hero experiences and remembers a single critical visit to 1988 East Berlin.  At the time, he is a self-absorbed and stunningly beautiful young man, it is only when we encounter him old and in hospital decades later, remembering and reliving the same traumatic events, that we see the impact of this brief trip.  It’s an interesting, complex novel that is sure to strike a chord with fans of Levy’s earlier work as well as possibly finding her some new admirers.

41Y43AFcMUL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg‘Lost Children Archive’ first came to my attention when it was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year.  Its title is more true than you might expect – far more an archive than a traditional novel, it is made up of photos, quotations, disjointed texts and lots and lots of lists.  In place of chapters it is arranged in ‘boxes,’ literally the boxes taken by a documentarist and a documentarian (you’ll have to read the book to learn the difference) on an American road trip with a difference.  Rather than focusing on the boundless glory of the USA, Luiselli is concerned with migrant children from across the boarder.  ‘Lost Children Archive’ is an exploration of their fate and a commentary on the impossibility of fully narrating it.  Personally, I found the fact-based engagements with the children’s plight more engaging than the post-Modern playfulness of the structure, but the book as a whole is a valuable example of English-language fiction focusing on this topic.

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‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’ was the book that most appealed to me from the 2019 Woman’s Prize for Fiction.  Sometimes I feel literary fiction prizes lean a bit too heavily on books where nothing happens; with this title, I felt confident of a change in pace.  Braithwaite doesn’t disappoint, her debut novel thrusts the reader into the action, beginning with our narrator cleaning an apartment and disposing of a dead body while her beautiful younger sister ineffectually assists from the sidelines.  The novel deals with themes of femininity, class and family dynamics in 21st century Lagos, but does so through the unexpectedly skewed gaze that comes from association with someone who does not play by any of the established rules.  ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’ is a fun fast read, that may give away its punchline in the title, but still serves to add welcome spice to a long-list of books in which time is often fluid and subjective rather precious and short.

I received my copies of ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’ and ‘Lost Children Archive’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in Booker Prize 2019, Deborah Levy, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Valeria Luiselli | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Another kind of Western: ‘True Grit’ by Charles Portis

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My edition of ‘True Grit’ has a picture of a smoking gun on the cover, but no images of any of the action or characters, certainly no kind of introduction to the narrator who would so charm me for the 200 or so pages of the novel.  Maybe I would have been better off with the original cover version, which shows a dowdily dressed dour-faced girl holding a horse by the bridal and a gun by the barrel.  In retrospect though, I think not.  The precious, powerful and very funny heroine of ‘True Grit’ is a new favourite literary protagonist and neither covers do her any kind of justice. (For the record, the UK posters for the 2010 film adaptation either pushe her to background or abandon her entirely for a still of Jeff Bridges, which may have helped sell the picture, but do nothing to convey the freshness of the source-text’s viewpoint and protagonist).

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The preamble is all to say that my favourite thing about the book was the presence of young Maggie, who brought life, humour, pathos and what felt like real originality to a genre I’m increasingly growing to know and love.

The novel opens with Maggie explaining her quest and giving us a taste of her personality:

‘People do not give it credence that a fourteen year old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father”s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.  I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort South, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horses and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.’

In order to get the very direct revenge she seeks, Maggie decides to recruit Rooster, a man of ‘true grit.’  We first encounter this paragon in court, where he is challenged on his habit of prematurely shooting suspects rather than following due process.  There is no real doubt about the legality of his actions, making him the perfect companion for Maggie in her search for Wild West justice.  Naturally, she is coming along too because nothing makes for a good pairing like a trigger-happy US marshal and a precocious young teenager.  Actually it’s more than a pair because there is also an (according to Maggie) arrogant and smug Texas Ranger after their man.

Despite the ever-present threat of violence, the book contains a charming amount of bickering as each of the revenge party is convinced they have the most practical plans and the most reasonable aims.  With the same deadpan humour and equally dramatic set-pieces (though fitted into a much shorter narrative) ‘True Grit’ reminded me of the fabulous ‘Lonesome Dove’ while its brusk story-telling had echoes of ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones’.  It is a true Western classic and one made even more special by its indomitable and unexpected heroine.

Posted in Charles Portis, Reading America | 3 Comments

Summer holiday fun: ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ by Stuart Turton

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To be honest, ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ would also serve as autumn fun, winter fun or spring fun, it just so happens that I read Turton’s debut novel during the summer and I enjoyed it more than I can say.  As the attractive cover suggests, this murder mystery consciously draws on the great tradition of Agatha Christie style period crime novels.  As the baffling title implies, it adds its own touch of originality, with a delightful level of time-travelling confusion doing to classic crime what ‘Groundhog Day’ did to the formulaic rom-com.

Like any good whodunit, the set-up is fiendishly confusing, but I’ll do my best.  We begin with a frightened man in a forest.  Utterly lost, he tries to make sense of the mysterious and often violent strangers he meets as he finds his way to a nearby stately home.  First is the mystery of who this amnesiac protagonist actually is, but compounding and then overshadowing this is the reveal of his mission – our narrator will inhabit a series of guests as they re-live one tragic day at the isolated Blackheath House.  He has seven days and seven hosts to solve the mystery of Evelyn Hardcastle’s death, due to occur under the same tragic circumstances at the height of the evening’s grand ball.

If this sounds overly complex, believe me, I’ve only scraped the surface.  There are cryptic friends and surprise enemies, often embodied by our very own narrator as he encounters, leaves clues and sets up puzzles for future and past hosts.   Turton handles the multiple timelines and self-conscious world-building with an aplomb reminiscent of Diana Wynne-Jones (anyone who has read her incredible Chrestomanci books or ‘Archer’s Goon’ will understand what high praise this is).  Adding to the joy is the humour and pathos of our hero’s plight; with each passing day he becomes more accustomed to his environment, but complacency has its own dangers as his inner self becomes increasingly vulnerable to the infectious malevolence of Blackheath House and his various hosts.  Wonderfully, these hosts in turn have an emotional and practical impact on his investigation.  Conventional fictional detectives do sometimes have to struggle in their quests for truth, but I’ve never read of one afflicted with an unexpectedly short attention span during a stake-out or a characteristic compulsion towards sadism hindering his attempts to help a damsel in distress.

‘The Seven Deaths’ even charmed me into accepting its use of the present tense throughout.  I’ve previously set my limit on toleration for this affectation at 150 pages.  Turton smashes this.  His writing is not only fluid, fluent and compelling, but is also completely appropriate to the task – how could an amnesiac hosted spirit wandering through a complex timeline and around a closed-house mystery express himself if not in the first person present tense?  I don’t expect to come across this perfect set of conditions very often in my reading, but I hope I am generous enough to applaud the author when I see them.

I hope that, when balanced by my babbling enthusiasm, the confusion of this blog post will not put anyone off the book.  Yes it is complex and almost overwhelmingly ambitious, but it succeeds in achieving its own incredible aims. I don’t expect to read many odder books this summer, but I’d be delighted to encounter even a handful that can bring me such pleasure.

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Before Marlene Dietrich and ‘The Blue Angel’ there was: ‘Professor Unrat’ by Heinrich Mann

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Marlene Dietrich became an international star following her role as the seductive cabaret singer Lola Lola in ‘The Blue Angel.’  It’s not hard to see why, she is utterly captivating as the fame fatale responsible for the downfall of Emil Janning’s Professor Rath.  In fact, ‘The Blue Angel’ with its familiar tale of respectability brought low, makes for an interesting contrast with the source story; Mann’s novel has a far more active tragic hero if a less iconic heroine (Rosa Fröhlich doesn’t have quite the same ring as Lola Lola).

Names are all-important in this book, so we should start by getting some straight.  The author was Heinrich Mann, brother of the more famous Thomas, and the full German-language title literally translates as ‘Professor Filth or The End of a Tyrant.’  The tyrant in question has been cursed with the name ‘Raat,’ changed by generations of students to ‘Unrat,’ a cruel nickname, the validity of which will be explored throughout the novel.

Professor Unrat’s life is fuelled by antagonism towards everyone who has ever insulted him, essentially, the entire population of the small town as each student passes through his class and is found to be insubordinate and unworthy.  His pathological hatred of current and ex-students is almost Roald Dahlish, you feel he might have got on well with Miss Trunchbull from ‘Matilda’, though his anger is matched by his impotence rather than any physical sadism.  Just as he never actually catches students calling him by the detested nickname, so he is unable to enact any but the most petty of punishments on his tormentors.

And then, in a beauty and the beast moment, Unrat meets Rosa.  Although his original aim is to catch, humiliate and expose the students who illicitly form her entourage, this drive is shaken by the encounter with an outsider.  In a different novel, such an experience of love could temper what Mann describes as ‘the accustomed malice of his world.  For the professor however, it makes things more complex, but no less vindictive.

‘Professor Unrat’, is available in English as ‘Small Town Tyrant’ (though I can’t find the name of the translator), and the title is appropriate.  Although, in one sense, Unrat is brought low by Rosa, he never loses his desire to dominate his enemies and his vengeance becomes inextricably linked to her demi-monde life-style with all the opportunities this affords for disgrace.  Mann subverted everything I expected from this story, from the seduced Rath to the good-time-girl Rosa, nobody conforms to their traditional roles.  If you haven’t seen ‘The Blue Angel,’ I recommend it for Dietrich’s captivating performance and Jannings’ tragic starring role.  Even if you’re familiar with the film, I really recommend you seek out the book, for a very different and genuinely enthralling take on a story you think you already know.

Posted in Books vs films, Heinrich Mann | Tagged , , | 2 Comments