A dizzying read: High-Rise by J. G. Ballard

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I’m finding it’s good to read a J. G. Ballard novel every few years.  More frequently might not be healthy, but thoughtfully dispersed they offer a dazzling view into a disturbingly recognisable world that throws everything else into the shade.  After reading ‘The Empire of the Sun,’ I really got the impression that Ballard knows he’s probably the only person who thinks and feels the way he does, but he still wants to share his demented priorities and passions.  All he asks is that his readers suspend their disbelief; the fact is that his obsessive, destructive characters may not resemble anyone I know, but they do seem to reflect the reality of their creator and so feel frighteningly realistic, even as they … well, you really have to read the books to find out exactly what they do but it’s pretty grim, societally unacceptable and almost certainly extremely unhygienic.

With ‘High Rise’ he throws you into this world from the wonderful first sentence: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Lang reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.‘  It feel like a statement of intent; the Hollywood rule is that you can do what you like to men (and certainly to women), but you must never alienate your audience by killing the dog.  Ballard is having none of it.

In fact, a different dog is involved in the first mysterious violent event we learn of, near the start of the three months which take the tower block from aspirational community to apocalyptic hell hole.  It turns out that when man’s base instincts are unleashed the last thing he needs is a best friend.  Then again, the power dynamics of conventional relationships are presented throughout the novel as factors that will either shatter or sustain the survivors of this destructive experiment in modern living.

Although surrounded by death, it is the exploration of life that permeates the novel, as violence permeates the claustrophobic setting.  Life as a communal activity, life as an individual’s fight for survival, the inner psychological life and the ways in which life cannot be quantified or contained.  Throughout the book, the high rise itself seems to be alive, exerting terrible pressure on its captive inhabitants, simultaneously attractive and repulsive.  (It’s one of those Ballard things.  Reading the book, I found nothing attractive about the tower, but the inhabitants themselves are clearly seduced, unable to leave and increasingly caught in a dependent, destructive relationship with the physical structure itself.  Imagine Jack Torrance in ‘The Shining’, without any ghosts or history, but also without the snow to offer any excuse for staying.)

The book is short and the premise simple.  The inhabitants of a modern, self-contained building start to go through their own stages of societal evolution, or devolution, depending on your point of view.  As the title demands, there are layers to the story.  I read somewhere that the three main male characters embody different levels of the psyche, with the building’s penthouse-dwelling architect as the superego, the brutal, unstable documentary film-maker who originally lives in the lower levels as the id and the dog-eating Dr Lang as the ego.  It’s an intriguing interpretation and a testament to Ballard’s craft that it really doesn’t cover half of the weirdness of his novel.  And if you’re wondering what role women play in this model, like I say, you have to read the book.  Just be aware that its very Freudian and very disturbing (or possibly not Freudian at all, but still disturbing.  Like I said, there are layers).

I wouldn’t want to stay for too long in a J G Ballard novel, but they really are invigorating places to visit.   After a long bath, a lot of fresh air and a decent amount of exposure to the more normal world, I’m looking forward to venturing further into the works of one of the most original writers of the last century.

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‘Absent Place – An April Day’: My Dickinson poem of the month

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I love April and I love daffodils, but I have often struggled with poems that only focus on the sublime or pretty aspects of spring without allowing space for the season to be difficult.  This feels especially true at the moment.  A few years ago my April poem of the month was Robert Browning’s ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad.’  Even if you’re not familiar with the whole poem, you may know the first lines: ‘Oh to be in England, now that April’s there.’  Given how fraught England currently is, it just doesn’t seem appropriate.

Instead, my 2019 April poem is by a very different poet, writing about very different emotions.  Emily Dickinson’s poem is not about comfortable belonging, but about impermanence and illusion.

Absent Place—an April Day—
Daffodils a-blow
Homesick curiosity
To the Souls that snow—

Drift may block within it
Deeper than without—
Daffodil delight but
Him it duplicate—

As with my favourite Dickinson poems, I don’t read it in search of full understanding or meaning.  It’s not about a coherent narrative, that’s what prose is for, instead her lyric poems convey emotions through beautifully crafted, often unexpected, images and symbols.

We begin with the idea of an absent place which is contrasted with, or shown to be the same as, an April day.  It’s not clear if this is an absent place in space or time, but this sense of something lacking will haunt the short poem, full though it is with evocative images.  We are then presented with daffodils, then snow, then daffodils again, the daffodils always plural, the snow at the heart of the poem, a deep blocking weight.

Again, it may be something about where I am at the moment, but I love the chill at the centre of this poem as much as I love the ‘delightful’ image of daffodils around it.  Daffodils (Latin name ‘Narcissus pseudonarcissus’) are the eponymous flowers in the myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection and was turned into the flower that bears his name, always turning down to stare into water.  This gives a cool terror to the idea of duplication which closes the poem.  The myth of Narcussus is all about a shallow appreciation of surfaces rather than depth, bringing us back to the idea of absence in the opening words.

As I said at the start of this post, I really do love April and its most famous flowers.  I also however love the way Dickinson invites us to step back and look beneath the surface, for the challenges and also the seductive attraction beneath the confusing changeability of the season

Posted in Emily Dickinson, Poem of the Month | 2 Comments

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi

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‘Beside the Sea’ is one of those short stylist books published by Peirene where the brevity of the story belies its formidable strength and power.  The narrative, in which a single mother takes her two young sons on a trip to the sea side is also slight and, frankly, if I were to spoil the ending now it might even seem clichéd in its exploration of destructive families.  What makes it remarkable is the cold precision of the first person narration, the force of which would probably be unsustainable through a longer book, but works perfectly within Peirene’s conditions for publication (under 200 pages, can be read in the same time as it takes to watch a film).

Our narrator takes us through the events of the trip, from the over-long bus ride (taken late at night so no-one will see them) to the grim, shabby hotel room, all described through the eyes of a woman who tells us emphatically ‘I did my best, yes really my best, so the kids didn’t notice anything.’  Then, with increasing dread, we see how much the kids do indeed notice, how terribly inadequate her best really is, and how any fault in perception lies with the woman guiding us through the story and not with the characters whose lives she controls.

I am a huge fan of unreliable narrators, and rarely are they as perfectly realised as in Olmi’s novella (translated from the French by Adriana Hunter).  The unnamed mother’s skewed and deeply subjective view of the world is compelling, believable and ultimately horrific as we get glimpses of how the same situation appears to others, from the strangers they encounter to her withdrawn and frightened children.  She is not a narrator out to fool the readers, but a woman unable to see past her own preoccupations or immediate emotions; a situation which is relatable, but increasingly terrifying as we see how this impacts on her own relationships and the tragic fate of her family.

‘Beside the Sea’ is the perfect Pierene novel.  An introduction to an acclaimed French author, it won’t take you long to read, but it will stay with you far beyond the under-two-hours reading time promised by the publishers.  As illustrated by its disturbed narrator, its not about what actually happens in a story, but how it makes you feel that counts, and, for me, ‘Beside the Sea’ carries more emotional weight than I could have imagined when I first picked it up.  Possibly my favourite Pierene book to date, and certainly a story to make me see the positive side of having no holidays lined up in the immediate future, because who needs the disillusionment out there in the real world when there is such wonderfully-crafted literature to escape into.

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It’s all very bleak: ‘Outer Dark’ by Cormac McCarthy

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My first experience of reading Cormac McCarthy was with ‘The Road,’ a book I picked up after hearing that the author was a Great American Novelist, not realising that I was letting myself in for several hundred pages of apocalyptic grimness. ‘The Road’ is about a father and his son walking through a sparsely populated wasteland, with a lot of unspecified terror and very little in the way of hope.

‘The Road’ was published in 2006 and I remember feeling that it spoke to a very 21st century fear for the current state and future of the human race.  It’s taken me more than a decade to see what further dystopian bleakness McCarthy novels might hold, but I’ve now read my second, ‘Outer Dark,’ which was written over 50 years ago and so could be expected to reflect a very different time and society.

‘Outer Dark’ is set in an incoherent, sparsely populated world with lots of unspecified terror and very little in the way of hope.  Like ‘The Road,’ it involves journeys and a central relationship is with a father and son, but that’s really where the similarities end.  The earlier novel is not a dystopian vision of the future, but a story firmly rooted in the Southern Gothic past, complete with isolation, incest, mutilation and cannibalism.  None of this is for the comparatively logical reasons of ‘The Road’ (because we all understand that complete societal breakdown following an apocalypse is likely to result in higher levels of dangerous behaviour).  Instead the horror in ‘Outer Dark’ stems from the way violent and portentous things just happen with no logical sequence or consequences.

The main two characters, Culla and Rithy, are siblings and also parents to a child born and then lost in the early pages of the novel.  I don’t want to give away what story there is, but the son will become an illusive figure that could lead to redemption or a final confrontation with sin.  As for the tone, the book is prefaced by a description of three anonymous figures wordlessly camping, sleeping and fighting.  Our first encounter with the protagonists comes with Rithy waking Culla from a nightmare involving a prophet, a mob and his own request to be blessed:

There began a restlessness and a muttering.  The sun did not return.  It grew cold and more black and silent and some began to cry out and some despaired but the sun did not return.  Now the dreamer grew fearful.  Voices were being raised against him.  He was caught up in the crowd and the stink of their rags filled his nostrils.  They grew seething and more mutinous and he tried to hide among them but they knew him even in that pit of hopeless dark and fell upon him with howls of outrage.

A single blog post can not do justice to the weirdness, the symbolism and hypnotic terror of ‘Outer Dark.’  Its grotesque confusion reminded me of Flan O’Brien, its obsessive characters of William Faulkner and its painful exploration of religious themes of Flannery O’Connor.  The novel as a whole also reminded me that there are many shades of bleakness in the world – when I next want to explore more of them, I have lots of books by Cormac McCathy waiting for me, with all the ominous patience of his laconically threatening characters.

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Another adulterous woman: ‘Effi Briest’ by Thoedor Fontane

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Possibly a symptom of how little it is read in England – there are no good paper-back book covers for ‘Effi Briest’

This year I decided to collect the last of the set.  Arguably there are three great nineteenth-century adultery novels of which the French ‘Madame Bovary’ is the oldest and the Russian ‘Anna Karenina’ is the longest.  Fontane’s contribution to the genre is the youngest and shortest and is also the least known, at least to English readers.

Possibly as a result of this, ‘Effi Briest’ also feels fresher than her predecessors.  She’s the only protagonist with her maiden name as the book title, indicating that it is her unmarried identity that is dominant in her character.  She is also the only one of our women who opens her own story; it may be a small point, but Tolstoy starts his masterpiece with an account of Anna’s brother’s marital unfaithfulness while Flaubert begins with a description of Charles, rather than Emma Bovary.

Effi is young and immature.  She doesn’t seem to be aware of any potential for drama or personal development when she uncomplainingly marries a man twice her age (he was originally her mother’s old suitor, but seems to bear no grudge against his previous love and is perfectly happy to become a part of her new family).  As far as heroines go, she mostly reminded me of Katherine Morland, from Austen’s Northanger Abbey.  Practical as far as her experience will take her and superstitious of anything the least bit exotic, she is generally complacent in her ignorance and content with her lot in life.  The excitement of her marriage mostly focuses around the knowledge that someone Chinese once spent a bit of time in the house where she now lives and has, for decades, been buried by the local cemetery.  Quite why this should be so significant for her is not conveyed in the translation and I can only assume meant more to contemporary readers.  Effi certainly spends more time thinking about possible ghosts than she does about her blink-and-you-miss it infidelity.  Again distancing herself from Anna and Emma, Effi’s feelings towards her seducer never approach anything like infatuation and even the deaths towards the tragic end of the novel feel more like the outcomes of unimaginative routine than impassioned emotions.

It could be the translation (my edition was by Rorrison and Chambers) or it could be Fontane, but I suppose I can see why Effi Briest is not better known in English.  It’s just so much more pragmatic than we expect of our nineteenth century adultery novels.  There are eventual repercussions from actions it’s true, but then the characters just get on with their lives afterwards, all with a minimum of neuroses and sentimentality.  This also means that discovering Effi feels like an unexpected treat, far less depressingly weighty than expected and also far more complex in what it brings to the genre.  I don’t think I’d ever recommend it over its better known companions, but after you’ve spend time with the sophistication and tragedy of Charles Bovary and Alexei Karenin’s wives, it’s worth getting acquainted with the young Effi, who is defined far more by her links to other fictional heroines than by her prosaic marital status.

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Writing the Revolution: ‘March 1917’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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I was so excited to be given the opportunity of reviewing Marian Schwartz’s English translation of ‘Node 3, book 1’ of Solzhenitsyn’s monumental historical novel cycle ‘The Red Wheel.’  Of course, when I jumped at the chance, I hadn’t quite realised what an undertaking this would be.  As it happens, I had previously read ‘August 1914,’ but not the door stop that is ‘November 1916’, and even my experience with the first book was so long ago that I couldn’t confidently remember the characters (of which there are many) or main plot points (of which there are very few).  It’s taken me a while, but I’m finally up to date.  You can read by views on the previous nodes here, meanwhile, I’m going to throw myself into the frenetic excitement of the early days of the Russian revolution.

‘March 1917’ is over 600 pages long and takes the reader from 8th March to 12th March of that decisive year in Russian history.  This means the Bolsheviks don’t get much of a mention (Lenin won’t even start his journey back to Russia for another month), but a lot of time is spent with public and private individuals who played key roles later forgotten by history.  For Solzhenitsyn, these include the first soldiers who start mutineering before realising that they will be court martialed if order is ever restored, the initially apathetic revolutionaries who know that no uprising has been planned and don’t want to take a minor public disturbance too seriously and the politicians convinced they will be the future leaders of free Russia.

It is almost impossible to set the scene for the action of the book, because this scene (notwithstanding maps at the end of the volume) is just so disparate.  The revolution begins with what seem like minor bread riots in some areas of St Petersburg, mostly described through blackly comic descriptions of Duma (the elected legislative assembly) speeches in which the Tzarist government prove there is no bread shortage and the elected officials say there must be because it is impossible for the government to be competent enough to feed the city and can they have more power now.  Other chapters take us to the Tzar and his wife in neighbouring Tsarskoye Selo where he tries to make appropriately autocratic wartime decisions and she advises him and mourns for her recently assassinated ‘dear friend’ Rasputin.  Still other chapters cover the love lives of various fictional characters with pretty much no attention for the ongoing world war and outbreak of revolution.

Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918, a year after the events he depicts with such vigour in the novel.  Instead, he lived with the consequences of this cataclysmic historical moment, and his anger against the authorities who sought revolution without understanding their responsibilities to the nation drives the narrative.  It is a true strength of the book that, despite the almost overwhelming detail, it never allows the reader to imagine they have the full story or a definitive answer about everything that happened during these tumultuous few days.  Instead it shows the multitudes affected and their immediate, confused and ignorant responses.  As the wheel moves forward some will rise and others will be crushed.  And I for one am very excited about book 2 (covering 13-15th March), being published in English later this year.  The revolution might be inevitable, but no one in St Petersburg knows it yet, and Solzhenitsyn makes both these realities equally poignant and believable.

I received my copy of ‘The Red Wheel: March 1917’ from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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My kind of spy novel: Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

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There are so many reasons for me to love ‘Our Man in Havana,’ even if the first sentence is a sad reminder of a reason to hate it.  Graham Greene was a man of his time; to take this further, Graham Greene was a white British man of his time and while I am generally comfortable with turning off certain modern sensibilities when reading classic fiction, racial slurs in the opening sentence of a book are never going to endear me to the author, his characters or whatever his eventual message might be.

Fortunately, things quickly improve, at least in part because the humour of the book is not geared at the difference between the Anglo protagonists and their Caribbean setting, but instead takes aim at the British secret service.  As it happens, the Intelligence community contains more than enough targets to fill this very funny book, leaving Greene little time for ambiguous comment on the multicultural side characters that cross our hero’s path.

Wormold, for his part, is the perfect example of an unexpected hero.  By the time ‘Our Man’ was published in 1958, James Bond had been spying and charming the pants off everyone in Europe, the UK, the US and the Caribbean for half a decade.  It’s wonderful to think what 007 would have made of this vacuum cleaner salesman somehow recruited into The Service.  Possibly he would have been as impressed as the team back home, who are deeply grateful for the increasingly detailed reports Wormold supplies.  Or possibly not.

Personally, I have no  need to judge spies by Bond’s standard.   Graham frankly invites us to celebrate how Wormold rises to the occasion, doing his best to please his bosses and justify his salary, despite extremely unpromising materials:

‘When he was alone, Wormold unscrewed the cleaner into its various parts.  Then he sat down at his desk and began to make a series of careful drawings.  As he sat back and contemplated his sketches of the sprayer detached from the hose-handle of the cleaner, the needle-jet, the nozzle and the telescopic tube, he wondered: Am I perhaps going too far? He realised that he had forgotten to indicate the scale.  He ruled a line and numbered it off: one inch representing three feet.  Then for better measure he drew a little man two inches high below the nozzle.  He dressed him neatly in a dark suit, and gave him a bowler hat and an umbrella.’

By the end of the book, I found myself imagining Wormold as a slightly less suave Cary Grant in North by Northwest (which came out the year after ‘Our Man’ was published).  He may not have any training or inclination for the Secret Service, but his special combination of confusion and enthusiasm will mean he gets taken seriously by his own side, by the women he encounters and also by the enemy.  When I wasn’t laughing out loud, I was gripping the pages in suspense, not just to see if he would get away with it all, but also how he was going to survive with his heart and his life intact.

How much the novel can transcend its historical moment will be up to individual readers.  There are joys but also serious problems arising from the historically specific culture it depicts.  For me, the joys ultimately outweigh the issues – I’ve both planned on a re-read and also decided that I’ll skip the first page when doing so.  I’m aware however that this might say something about my own distance from what the book describes.  I suppose my relationship with ‘Our Man in Havana’ will always be a little uncertain and given the plot, characters and tone, this is probably the most appropriate response anyone could have.

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