Before ‘Wolf Hall’ there was: ‘The Man on a Donkey’ by H F M Prescott

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I’m a sucker for a good long book when it comes to providing proper escapism.  If the action in the story all takes place in a fashionable historical period, things are even more promising.  ‘The Man on a Donkey’ is presented as a chronicle of events in England between 1509 and 1537.  As fans of Hillary Mantel and Tudor history will know, this covers Henry VIII’s first marriages, the beginning of the Church of England and the dissolution of the English Monasteries and Nunneries.

At over 700 pages, Prescott’s 1952 novel sets out to do justice to the complexities of this time period.  The story follows five main characters, a prioress, a lord, a gentlewoman, a squire and a priest.  All of them will have their lives shattered by the Reformation, but their stories are nonetheless unexpected and surprising, convincingly debunking any stereotypical expectations you might have about Tudor behaviour or beliefs.

My favourite character is probably the Prioress, Christabel Cowper.  A unsentimental business woman, we trace her life and success from first entering the Marrick Priory as a child to her seemingly inevitable rise up the hierarchy.  In the twenty-first century she would have been the CEO of an international business; in this book she utterly dominates her sphere and is an argument both for and against the holy orders in pre-Reformation England.  The argument for, is the power it gave at least a few women – legal power far in excess of any wife in the realm.  As for the arguments against, well Chistabel is as secular a prioress as you could even imagine, far more concerned with increasing her Priory’s wealth than ever sharing any of it with the poor.  Countering this woman within the Catholic establishment is the priest’s narrative.  Gilbert Dawe is poor and, at heart, a revolutionary believer in the reformed church.  He is also utterly mean-spirited, abusive towards his family (the woman who bore him a child and the poor child himself) and filled with bitter hatred toward anyone with wealth or power.  The other central characters are equally well-drawn, complex and unexpected; I suspect each reader or reading will uncover a new personal favourite.

On a deeper level however, this epic is not really about these fictional or fictionalised characters at all, but about the world in which they live.  This is an England ruled by a tyrant, in which the whims of those in power can destroy the lives of thousands.  It is also a traumatised nation; the civil War of the Roses is within living memory for the older generation.  Prescott makes a convincing case that this fear of renewed bloody conflict is what cows Henry’s opponents into supporting his increasingly destabilising policies.  In today’s frightening political climate, ‘The Man on a Donkey’ is an unexpectedly timely reflection on power and fear.

In another way, this is also a book about faith.  Prescott explores what it means for a religion which preaches peace to be at the heart of conflict.  How can a single faith account for such different public faces as Christabel Cowper and Gilber Dawe?  Possibly more significantly, how could Christianity in its essence have survived the schisms and violence of the Reformation?  Her solution is spiritual, heart-felt and, whether or not you believe in her conclusion, extremely moving.  ‘The Man on a Donkey’ delivers everything you could want from a doorstop of historical escapism and it is also the most sincere book of religious struggle I have read since Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead.’  Read it for the period, for the characters, for the politics or for the theology.  Or read it because it has a beautiful cover and will keep you happy over hundreds of pages; either way, you won’t regret it.

Posted in H F M Prescott, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

A Random Russian Discovery: ‘A Russian Gentleman’ by Sergei Aksakov

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A joy of working for a London university is that I have access to the wonderful Senate House Library.  This library is not only massive, but it arranges its literature geographically and has a delightful nook which houses the Russian literature.  This may sound odd given the traumatic and depressing topics so often associated with such writings, but this small corner of the 5th floor is my happy place, filled with so many old friends.  It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have access to these shelves when I was working through my epic Russian reading challenge a couple of years ago.  It would have destroyed all the thrill of hunting down obscure authors and would have probably overwhelmed me before I got sucked in.  Now it’s perfect; I can approach with the shelves with the confidence of recognising many names, but also with the hope of discovering new and unexpected gems.

I know I’ll be relying on the Senate House Library catalogue heavily when I finally free up enough reading time to move into more Soviet-era literature, but I hadn’t really expected many new writers from the 19th century.  Imagine my delight when I came across Sergei Aksakov, an author who didn’t even show up in my 2015 research, but whose novel ‘A Russian Gentleman’ was awaiting my discovery.

According Edward Crankshaw’s introduction, ‘‘A Russian Gentleman‘ is a classic example of that essentially Russian genre, a factual record faintly disguised as fiction, or a fiction so actual , so apparently inconsequent and uncontrived, that it reads like fact.  The first master of this style however, was not Gogol but Pushkin, with his wonderfully matter-of-fact treatment of everyday affairs just as they come, without heroics and with perfect simplicity.’  It just goes to show how little I still know of Russian literature.  Not only was I completely unaware of this essential genre, I’ve always found Pushkin and Gogol gloriously over-the-top in their different ways.  ‘Heroic’ feels like the perfect adjective to describe many of Pushkin’s stories and my favourite works by Gogol combine the tragic, the sublime, the supernatural and the insane with a lot of brilliance but with little simplicity.  I clearly need to do a fair bit of re-reading and possibly hunt out some new translations …

Crankshaw is right in highlighting the ‘inconsequent’ ‘matter-of-fact’ tone of the book.  Aksakov engages with wider themes about the Russian character and unique attributes, but his narrative is personal to the extent of feeling naive.  The sections about the different generations of his family are called ‘fragments’ rather than chapters and his portraits, especially of his neurotic and beloved mother, can be so uncritical as to take you out of the story.

That’s not to say there are no points of interest.  It’s been a bit of jump back in time to read a novel published in 1846, 15 years before the emancipation of the serfs.  The book begins with the eponymous hero, our narrator’s grandfather, transplanting his peasants so they can cultivate a new and previously uninhabited estate he has purchased. ‘The carts were packed with the women and children and old people, and awnings of bast bent over them to protect them from the sun and rain … the poor settlers shed bitter tears as they parted for ever with their past life, with the church in which they had been christened and married, and with the graves of their fathers and grandfathers.’  Fortunately things all go splendidly.  ‘With unremitting care and attention my grandfather watched the labour of the people on their own land and on his; the hay was mown, the winter rye and spring corn were cut down and carried, and the right moments was chosen for each operation.  The yield of the crops was fabulous.  The peasants thought things were not so bad after all.’

Reading books from the past is a chance to see with world and its inhabitants through new eyes.  I don’t know how fair it is to be angry at Aksakov for his acceptance of the status quo and his family’s place therein.  I must confess however, that the novel did not contain enough insights to balance the unquestioning recording of his family’s thinly disguised history.  Still, with such a well-stocked library I’ve no reason to be downhearted if I don’t love every pick.  It’s always exciting to learn about new Russian authors (and whole genres!) at least this way I can try to avoid complacency of my own when I think about what I’ve read and what I think I know.

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Maybe I would have preferred the book if the library edition had boasted this racy (if somewhat inexplicable) cover.  Available to buy at Amazon.co.uk

Posted in Russian Reading, Sergei Aksakov | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

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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Posted in Erin Morgenstern, How to pick which book to read | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Frightening and Powerful: ‘Fever Dream’ by Samanta Schweblin

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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.

Posted in Man Booker International Prize 2017, Reading in translation, Samanta Schweblin | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

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

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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

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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

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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