Open Thread: recommended essay collections

I’ve been thinking about trying some essay collections, so I asked on Twitter what people would recommend. I got so many good responses that I wanted to share then, so I’ve put them together on Storify here. There are also a few tweets that I wasn’t able to add to the main story:

Thanks to everyone who offered suggestions – and, if you have any favourite essay collections, please feel free to recommend them in the comments.

The shape of language and the spectre of history: Paul Kingsnorth and Mathias Enard

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (2014)
Mathias Enard, Zone (2008)
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (2010)

It often strikes me that, in England at least, we tend to treat history as safe and unproblematic – a source of colourful stories, perhaps; but not necessarily something that needs to be thought about much in order for us to engage with it. 1066, for example, is probably the most famous date in English history; our perception of it is likely to be dominated by a few names and images that we think we know – William the Conqueror; the Bayeux Tapestry; King Harold with an arrow in his eye. But how many of us really think about this as a lived moment in time?

KingsnorthThat’s a central issue in Paul Kingsnorth’s Booker-longlisted debut novel The Wake, which is narrated by one Buccmaster of Holland, a Lincolnshire freeman who first knows that ‘there is sum thing cuman’ when strange portents are seen in the sky. News of an invasion from France gradually arrives; twice, Buccmaster’s sons go away to fight – and the second time, they do not return. When Buccmaster’s house is later burned down with his wife inside, he forms a small band of fighters dedicated to resisting Norman rule.

As a plot summary, that may not sound particularly remarkable; but The Wake is transfigured through its use of language. Kingsnorth has written his novel in what he calls a ‘shadow tongue’, a version of Old English which has been tweaked to make it comprehensible to modern readers. ‘Comprehensible’ is relative, of course; here, for example, is how the novel begins:

the night was clere though i slept I seen it. though I slept I seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when I gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still

So let’s be clear that, like The Luminaries and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing before it, The Wake is a novel that demands total engagement from the reader, because it is uncompromising in the vision of the world that it presents. But (again, as with those two earlier books) give The Wake space and time and it will reveal its aesthetic logic (there is a partial glossary at the back, but I managed well enough without it). Kingsnorth’s language makes his past England an alien place, brings us a character whose thought processes are likely different from our own, and makes us confront that difference. It’s a fine  example of what I wrote about for Fiction Uncovered the other day, of language shaping the world of the novel.

It is also worth noting that, like The Luminaries, Kingsnorth’s novel has an acute sense of its own artifice. As the author notes in his afterword, his shadow tongue never existed; so, in a fundamental sense, the world it depicts never existed, either. What is the value of using a specifically artificial form of English? I would say that it helps to keep the past an open question: read in Old English or modern English, we might know too easily where we were (be it somewhere familiar or unfamiliar). With the shadow tongue, the door is opened just enough for us to see glimpses of understanding amidst the strangeness; we don’t know where we are, and this keeps the world of The Wake alive.

So too does Kingsnorth’s use of perception. Buccmaster frequently has visions of (and conversations with) Welland the Smith, and it remains ambiguous as to what these actually are. Kingsnorth takes his novel in directions that we may not expect of historical fiction, all the while making clear that there’s no real reason to have those expectations in the first place. Even though we may know how the story of the Norman invasion of England ends, we don’t know how the story of The Wake ends – and that’s because Kingsnorth creates the sense of a historical moment that’s alive on its own terms, where the future can still be contested.

***

Enard

Where we might say that The Wake depicts a past haunted by the spectre of the future, Mathias Enard’s Zone shows a present suffused with the ghosts of history. The novel revolves around Francis Mirković, once a mercenary, now an agent of the French secret service. For fifteen years, he has worked in the lands around the Mediterranean – a region he calls ‘the Zone’ – being involved in violence there as well as gathering information on it. Now, he is bringing that life to an end, as he takes a briefcase filled with intelligence form Milan to Rome, with the intention of selling it to the Vatican. We join him on his train journey, as he reflects on his own past and that of the Zone.

Each chapter of Mirković’s thoughts is presented as a pages-long sentence fragment (a superb feat of translation from Charlotte Mandell). The best way I found to read this was simply to jump in and let it carry me forward; there is a constant, driving momentum and rhythm to the book, like the motion of Mirković’s train. But, though the train may travel inexorably on, the novel’s overall sense is of an unending cycle, as conflicts recur throughout history, and the countries of the Zone remain scarred by the violence they have witnessed.

There’s also a thread running through Zone which concerns how lives may become reduced to memory, a text. Mirković carries the lives of war criminals and others in his briefcase; he himself has lived under several aliases, which he now intends to put away. Then there are the three chapters which are taken from the (fictitious) novel that Mirković occasionally reads while on the train. These tell of a Palestinian resistance fighter named Intissar, and are conventional in form and punctuation. Intissar’s story is serious and powerful; so it’s jarring indeed to return from her chapters to Mirković, and find him enjoying her tale as a thrilling adventure. (Ah, but isn’t that the sort of thing we do all the time as readers?) And, of course, Mirković himself is only a figure in the text of Enard’s novel… If The Wake gives a sense of deep vitality to a moment in history, Zone shows how easily history can be reduced to paper.

***

Finally, a note on the publication of these books. The Wake was crowdfunded through Unbound; having been published in the US by Open Letter Books, Zone is now the launch title of the UK small press Fitzcarraldo Editions – and I can scarcely think of a bolder statement for a new publisher to make. Publishing may be in a precarious position right now, but in many respects this is also a golden age for adventurous readers. And, while interesting books are certainly still being released by the major houses, smaller publishers play a vital role in bringing such books to our attention. I’m glad that there are novels like The Wake and Zone in the world, and that there are people who believe in them so strongly. They are right to do so.

Links

New Fiction Uncovered column: The Language of Fiction

This is it: my fourth and final column as guest editor of Fiction Uncovered. For this article, I decided to write about how tone and style can shape the world of a piece of fiction. I think it’s all to easy to overlook language and prose when reading and thinking about fiction (certainly I’ve overlooked them in the past) – when, actually, they’re fundamental to what fiction is. So I’ve chosen four novels with a distinctive use of style, and looked at what they do and how.

The new column is here, and you can find all of my reviews and columns for Fiction Uncovered here. And, if you want to read more from me on the books mentioned in the column, step this way:

Finally, I’d like to thank Fiction Uncovered for inviting me to be guest editor, and for hosting me this last month. I’ve really enjoyed it, and I can only hope that others have found my columns interesting, and maybe even discovered a few new books that they’d like to read.

We Love This Book reviews: Susan Barker and Julia Crouch

A couple of my recent reviews from We Love This Book:

Susan Barker, The Incarnations (2014)

BarkerSomeone is watching Wang Jun, leaving letters in his taxi, claiming to be his soulmate. This person insists that they and Wang have known each other for a thousand years, and has stories to tell of their various incarnations throughout Chinese history, from the Tang Dynasty to Mao’s regime. In these stories, Wang and his correspondent variously love and hate each other, live together or die at the other’s hand. Back in 21st Century Beijing, Wang has his suspicions about who is writing these letters, though confirming them might drive his family apart.

True to its title, the idea of “incarnations” runs all the way through Susan Barker’s third novel. It’s not just the various historical incarnations of Wang and his “soulmate” – there’s also the sense that a place can go through different incarnations (Wang has seen the city of Beijing change as the 2008 Olympics approach), and that the stages of a person’s life can function in the same way. Wang has experienced several upheavals in his life, and there are family secrets to be uncovered as well – and the gaps between these can seem as great as those between different eras of history.

Barker’s novel balances past and present, the grand sweep of history and the intensely personal, all wrapped up in brisk and densely evocative prose. You can never quite be sure where Wang’s story is going to turn next – not even after a thousand years.

(Original review.)

Julia Crouch, The Long Fall (2014)

CrouchIn 1980, Emma James is eighteen, travelling in Greece before going to university, when an event occurs that will permanently alter the course of her life. In the present day she is Kate Barratt, charity figurehead and wife of a wealthy hedge-fund manager, with the past safely behind her. At least, that’s what Kate thinks: but she discovers that a figure from the old days is back, and has the seemingly limitless capability to threaten her and those she holds dear.

There’s an interesting theme of identity running through The Long Fall: at a time of life when people are finding out who they are, Emma has to change herself, radically and unexpectedly. As Kate, she appears to have built up a happy life (albeit one marked by personal tragedy); other characters have not been so lucky. Kate finds herself questioning how far she has put up a façade, in her marriage and as the face of her charity.

Then there is the plot, which Julia Crouch controls very well: first Emma’s travel diary, leading up to the tragedy that we glimpse in the opening pages, then Kate’s present-day nightmare. The pages turn, the revelations come along at a brisk pace, the sense of dread grows as Kate’s world is systematically undermined. All leads up to a conclusion that brings the narrative satisfyingly full-circle.

(Original review.)

Reading round-up: early September

Time for another round-up of some of the books I’ve read lately.

Nikesh Shukla, Meatspace (2014)

Nikesh Shukla’s follow-up to Coconut Unlimited is another exploration of how personal identities are shaped, this time revolving around the online world. Kitab Balasubramanyam is a writer who performs better on social media than he does in real life. Having lost his job and girlfriend, he’s drifting along – until a namesake who’s found him on the internet pays a visit, and his brother goes off to the US to find someone with the same tattoo. Shukla gradually reveals just how much Kitab is struggling to find stability for himself, and the lengths to which he’s prepared to go for it. Published by The Friday Project.

MalvaldiMarco Malvaldi, The Art of Killing Well (2011)

Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis, 2014

In 1895, Italy’s first cookery writer, Pellegrino Artusi, takes a break from his travels at the castle of Barine di Roccapendente – only for his rest to be disrupted when a body is found in the cellar. This is a rather jolly and enjoyable murder mystery, whose waspish third-person narrator takes swipes at the aristocratic characters, and makes arch comments about writing a novel set in the nineteenth century. The tongue-in-cheek quality of Marco Malvadi’s prose keeps it on the right side of charming, and I definitely want to more by him. Published by MacLehose Press.

Annie Ernaux, A Woman’s Story (1988)

Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie, 1990

This is a short book about the life of the Annie Ernaux’s mother, but it’s not a straightforward memoir. It engages with the author’s deep-seated feeling that she needed to write about her mother, and the inevitable limits to what she could achieve by doing so. There’s a real power in the underlying themes of change and loss. Published by Quartet Books.

Royle

Nicholas Royle (ed.), The Best British Short Stories 2014

The fourth entry in Salt Publishing’s annual anthology series. It’s a varied mix: there are writers whose work I’m familiar with and admire, such as M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest, and Stuart Evers. Then there others who were unknown to me: there’s David Grubb, whose ‘Roof Space’ tells poignantly of the relationship of a father and son by way of their model railway. In ‘Ladies’ Day’, Vicki Jarrett examines how a group of young mothers are searching for a new sense of direction in life, focused through a day at the races. ‘Guests’ is Joanne Rush’s first published story, and I hope there will be many more, as this one is superb: the tale of a woman whose house becomes filled with the ghosts of war dead while her husband is working in Bosnia. Whatever your taste in short fiction, there should be something to intrigue in here.

José Carlos Llop, The Stein Report (1995)

Translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis, 2014

1960s Majorca: Guillermo Stein is a newcomer at school, mysteriously different from the other boys. A group of his schoolmates tries to find out more about him; what they discover goes far beyond the life of one individual. What makes The Stein Report work for me is the sense of friction between the worlds of adults and children. The schoolboys’ world is complete to them; they know its contours. But when investigating Stein gives them a partial window on the adult world, we see just how much they still have to learn. Published by Hispabooks.

MaineSarah Maine, Bhalla Strand (2014)

In 2010, Hetty Deveraux visits her inheritance – an old house gone to seed in the Outer Hebrides – and uncovers human remains while repairing the place. A hundred years earlier, Hetty’s ancestor Beatrice marries the owner of Bhalla House, painter Theodore Blake. An intriguing mystery unfolds between the two timelines, but perhaps strongest of all is Sarah Maine’s evocation of the raw Hebridean landscape and the lives of its inhabitants. Published by Frieght Books.

Andrew Crofts, Confessions of a Ghostwriter (2014)

I really liked the idea of this latest title in The Friday Project’s Confessions series; it promised to open a part of the book world that we don’t usually get to see. And so it does – though only to an extent, naturally. Andrew Crofts mixes tales of his encounters with celebrities, politicians, and others with a story to tell; and entries on the day-to-day of the writing life. It’s an interesting combination that reveals a varied professional life; Crofts’ enthusiasm for what he does is palpable.

Neil Williamson, The Moon King (2014)

I reviewed Neil Williamson’s debut story collection way back in 2006; now he’s followed it up with a first novel. The Moon King looks rather different from much of Williamson’s short fiction, but it has the same dextrous approach to the fantastic. In a city whose inhabitants’ temperaments change with the phases of the moon, Anton Dunn wakes one day to find himself closer to the centre of power than he ever thought he’d be. There’s a vein of strangeness running through this novel that adds an extra dimension to an already intriguing story. Published by Newcon Press.

New Fiction Uncovered column: three Welsh novels in translation

For my third Fiction Uncovered guest column, I wanted to write about fiction in translation. I’ve reviewed three novels translated from Welsh, each of which won the Wales Book of the Year award:

  • Martha, Jack & Shanco by Caryl Lewis (translated by Gwen Davies)
  • The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (translated by Lloyd Jones)
  • Faith, Hope & Love by Llwyd Owen (translated by the author)

I didn’t really have a greater rationale for choosing those specific books, but actually I think they fit together quite well as a set of novels that deal with the effect of place on character. And they’re all worth reading in their own right.

You can read my new column here, and find links to the previous ones here.

Elsewhere: Unsung Female Writers and SF Masterworks

After this year’s male-dominated Booker longlist was announced, Naomi from The Writes of Woman got together a few other female book bloggers, who each suggested five female writers who they felt deserved more recognition (see parts one and two of the Unsung Female Writers series). Now, as a follow-up, Naomi has sought a male perspective: she asked me and Eric of Lonesome Reader for our suggestions. She also asked me to suggest a science fiction writer, as that’s not a field she knows much about. In the end, my entire list is SF-tinged to varying degrees – but you’ll have to read the post at Naomi’s blog to find out who I chose. Eric’s list is also well worth checking out.

***

In another place, the SF fanzine Big Sky has marked Loncon 3 by putting together two special issues in celebration of the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. In issue 4, you’ll find reprints of my blog posts on Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation and The Prestige, and Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty.