Reading round-up: late July

Notes on some of my recent reading…

BurtonJessie Burton, The Miniaturist (2014)

Amsterdam, 1686: Nella Oortman is aged eighteen and about to begin her new life as wife of the successful merchant Johannes Brandt – but she is met at the house by Brandt’s stand-offish sister, Marin; the merchant himself is nowhere to be seen. There are secrets to be uncovered in the Brandt household, and someone seems to know about them than ought to be possible – the mysterious miniaturist who sends Nella models for the replica house that was Brandt’s wedding gift. The Miniaturist is a pacey historical mystery; but it’s also about what it means to challenge social roles – Nella, Brandt and Marin all step outside the norms that society prescribes for them, and Jessie Burton explores the ramifications of this in an intriguing debut.

Andrew Crumey, Mr Mee (2000) and Mobius Dick (2004)

Andrew Crumey has been on my list of authors to try for quite some time, having head very good things about his work. Now I have tried him – thanks to Dedalus Books and their new editions of two Crumey novels – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up Crumey’s work in a few words than ‘comedy of ideas’, which is how its blurb describes Mr Mee. Crumey presents us with three narrative threads. In the first, Mr Mee – an elderly amateur researcher – writes to an unknown correspondent detailing his attempts to find out more about Jean-Bernard Rosier, an 18th century French thinker who appeared to have some fairly advanced ideas on physics. The second thread takes us to Paris of 1761 and Ferrand and Minard, copyists in possession of Rosier’s writings, who flee the city and end up living next to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third strand concerns Petrie, a university lecturer on Rousseau who wants to get closer to one of his students. There’s a good deal of humour in this novel – particularly in Mr Mee’s delightful unworldliness, as he tries to navigate the byways of the internet – but also intrigue from seeing how the different plot threads will tie together. And, though Rosier’s rarefied ideas may be at the root, I find it’s the simpler, more personal revelations that really hit home in Mr Mee.

Both of these books remind me of Christopher Priest’s work, particularly in the sense that reality within them is mutable, but this is mediated through textual accounts, with the added layers of uncertainty that they bring. Mobius Dick put me specifically in mind of Priest’s The Affirmation, as both create multiple realities that vie for validity. Crumey switches between the stories of John Ringer, a university lecturer in quantum physics; and Harry Dick, a man who wakes up in hospital having lost his memory. Alongside these are extracts from novels by one Heinrich Behring, often featuring Erwin Schrödinger. There are contradictions between the different narrative tracks, and once again, the intrigue comes from seeing exactly how these will be resolved. Science and art are intertwined in Mobius Dick, with the sense that both are different ways of addressing the idea of ‘reality’. I like that approach, and I’ll be reading more of Crumey in the future.

Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (2011)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2014

This short novel by Usbek writer Hamid Ismailov is the first title in Peirene Press’s ‘coming-of-age’ series. It’s the tale of Yerzhan, a promising young violinist from the Kazakh steppes who has a crush on his neighbour’s daughter, Aisulu. Yerzhan’s life is changed irrevocably when, trying to impress, Aisulu, he dives into a lake which has been poisoned by nuclear testing – and his growth is arrested from thereon.

There’s a fairytale quality to The Dead Lake, as events take an absurd, exaggerated turn; for example, while Yerzhan’s body remains that of a child, Aisulu grows immensely tall. This quality is reflected in the tone of Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which also evokes the vast openness of the landscape in which Ismailov’s story takes place – an openness that contrasts with the way Yerzhan has become trapped. The Dead Lake as a whole is a work of contrast, one that might appear whimsical at times, but never lets you forget the seriousness lying underneath.

Linda Mannheim, Above Sugar Hill (2014)

This collection is from Influx Press, a publisher of ‘site-specific’ fiction. The stories in Above Sugar Hill are all set in Washington Heights, the area of New York City where Linda Mannheim grew up. It’s not a place I know myself, but Mannheim’s characters, and the worlds they inhabit, come vividly off the page. A couple of examples: ‘Once’ tells of a troubled girl’s on-off friendship with a woman who had a difficult past of her own; the background is one of idealism and protest fading away, just as some of the local buildings are decaying. In ‘Tenor’, through a series of interviews, we hear of Ira Gittman, a housing activist who disappeared in tragic circumstances; it is implied that Gittman’s story could be the story of many others – and the whole collection implies that there are many more stories like these out there, waiting to be told.

Two from the Friday Project: Charles Lambert and Harry Karlinsky

Charles Lambert, With A Zero at its Heart (2014)
Harry Karlinsky, The Stonehenge Letters (2014)

The Friday Project is one of my favourite imprints of any mainstream publisher; their range is eclectic, and their selection of fiction always interesting. Here are my thoughts on a couple of their recent novels.

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LambertYou can calculate the length of Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at its Heart precisely: there are 24 chapters (themed on topics like ‘Travel’, ‘Art’ and ‘Waiting’), each with ten numbered paragraphs of 120 words, plus one final paragraph as a coda. Each paragraph represents an episode from its protagonist’s life (a fictionalised version of Lambert’s own, I understand). The paragraphs in each chapter aren’t necessarily in chronological order, but there is a sense of movement: so, for example, the chapter on ‘Clothes’ begins with the protagonist as a ten-year-old with his first pair of jeans; goes on to depict him as an adult in Italy shopping for clothes with his partner (“It is hot, and so are they, and they have no idea how hot”); and ends with him buying the suit that he will wear at his father’s funeral.

There’s an interesting dissonance between the rigid structure of the book, and the very fluid nature of what’s being described; this highlights that the memories we each hold are ultimately what we make of them (which is underlined further by Lambert’s distancing third-person voice). The individual paragraphs may be affecting, but the contrasts and linkages created by their arrangement deepen the book’s power.

With a Zero at its Heart makes an interesting point of comparison with Knausgaard, in that both treat incidents from the author’s life as a way of exploring memory. But where (say) A Death in the Family creates a dense thicket of detail shot through with moments of transcendence, Lambert’s book is quite spare and crystalline; the experience of reading it is more a gradual accumulation of pieces that coalesce into a whole picture. Like Knausgaard, though, Lambert juxtaposes the incidents of everyday life with the unchanging realities of living.

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Karlinsky

Harry Karlinsky’s first novel, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, was such an idiosyncratic book that it made me wonder what on Earth the author would write next. Here’s the answer: another work of fiction disguised as non-fiction, and drawing (to an extent!) on genuine historical documents. Karlinsky’s narrator is a psychiatrist preoccupied with why Sigmund Freud never won a Nobel Prize. The narrator’s researches reveal that a secret codicil to Alfred Nobel’s will established another contest: winners of one of the official Nobel Prizes would be invited to submit their theories explaining the mystery of Stonehenge; The Stonehenge Letters recounts the theories of several Nobel laureates, including Marie Curie and Rudyard Kipling.

Well, there wasn’t actually a Stonehenge Prize, but Karlinsky makes the thought of it very plausible. There are sly nudges that what we’re reading is a spoof: the narrator’s footnotes, which bring everything back to Freud; and some oddly random illustrations (“Figure 5. A one-legged stool”). But all the theories put forward about Stonehenge are genuine enough, even if they were advanced by different people. When Einstein is quoted as assessing Marie Curie’s theory (which we’d recognise as carbon-dating) as “decidedly theoretical”, it’s almost goading us into doubting what we think is fiction and what fact. I’m in no doubt, however, that Harry Karlinsky has written another delightful book in The Stonehenge Letters.

 

What They Don’t See: Emma Healey and Timur Vermes

Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing (2014)

Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back (2012)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (2014)

Today I’m looking at two debut novels which really stand out to me for how they use first-person narration to create dramatic irony – so we know more than their narrators do, sometimes amusingly so, sometimes tragically.

ElizabethEmma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is simply one of the most haunting books I’ve read so far this year. Its protagonist, Maud Horsham, has dementia, which makes her narration a constantly renewing present. Here, for example, is Maud looking in a drawer:

…there is a packet of lamp posts, tiny lamp posts with lead through the middle. The right word for them is gone and I pick one up, trying to remember it, pressing the end into the wood of the drawer until the tip breaks off. It’s satisfying and I pick up another just to break it.

The doorbell rings. I drop the pencil and bang into a bookcase in my hurry to leave the room. There are two dirty cups on a shelf. I collect them, and in the hall realize one has some tea in it. I drink it up, though it’s cold, and then put both cups on the bottom stair. (p. 217)

One moment, Maud can’t remember what a pencil is called; the next, she knows, without realising that she had ever forgotten. An action intended to jog her memory immediately becomes an empty ritual – and so on. Over the course of the book, as we get to know Maud better, these kinds of details have a powerful cumulative effect.

But Healey goes further than this: in the present, Maud searches for her friend Elizabeth; she also takes us back seventy years, to the time (which she recalls quite clearly) when her sister Sukey disappeared. In other words, the novel revolves around two mysteries, which would normally be all about making connections between details to create a bigger picture – but Maud is losing her ability to make such connections. This is what truly gives Elizabeth is Missing its power: the further along she goes, the more Maud is able to uncover – but she can’t perceive what it is that she has revealed. Only we, as readers, can.

In some ways, Elizabeth is Missing reminded me of Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, in its depiction of a narrator with a damaged psyche – and it won’t surprise me at all if Healey’s novel becomes as widely read. But Elizabeth is Missing really got under my skin, gave me that shivery feeling that comes when I realise I’m reading a book’s that’s very special. That feeling is why I read books in the first place.

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LookTimur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back sees Adolf Hitler waking up, alive and well, in 2011. He’s not too bothered about finding out why this has happened, more saddened at the condition of the Germany he sees around him, and sets his heart on putting it right. Soon he has a platform that befits the age: mistaken for an exceptionally talented impersonator, he’s soon a YouTube sensation, and even given his own TV show.

Look Who’s Back makes much play of the incongruity of Hitler being in the present day: Vermes’ Hitler is quick on the uptake in some respects (he readily grasps the Internet and sees how useful it could have been for him in wartime), but not others (‘We’re all agreed the Jews are no laughing matter,’ says his producer; Hitler agrees, though for very different reasons). I expect I won’t have caught all the nuances of the satire that a German audience would; but still I found Look Who’s Back satisfyingly amusing.

Jamie Bulloch’s translation casts Hitler’s voice as long-winded, old-fashion, sure of itself. And it’s the certainty of that voice that helps create what, for me, is perhaps the most interesting effect in the novel. Look Who’s Back turns the insidiousness of Hitler’s rhetoric back on itself: where once he could persuade people around to his way of thinking, now Hitler is being outmanoeuvred by language – he doesn’t realise that he’s being made fun of by the media folk around him. As with Elizabeth is Missing, the very restrictions of the narrative voice give us a better vantage-point – and the view is one to savour.

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Elizabeth is Missing will be published in the UK by Viking on 5 June. Read more reviews at: 50 a Year; Novelicious; Lily Meyer for Tottenville Review; My Good Bookshelf.

Look Who’s Back is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Read more reviews at: Workshy Fop; A Common Reader; The Friendly Shelf; Winstonsdad’s Blog.

Sworn Virgin and Bonita Avenue

Elvira Dones, Sworn Virgin (2007)
Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (2014)

edsvIn 2001, Hana Doda flies from Albania to the US, where she has been invited to live with her cousin’s family – but her neighbouring passenger calls her ‘Mr’, and Hana is travelling as Mark Doda. Hana is a ‘sworn virgin’: a series of events in 1986, including her dying uncle’s demand that she abandon her studies in the city to marry a village boy, led her to follow an ancient custom which allowed her to live as and have the status of a man, on condition of lifelong celibacy. Now, in America, Hana has the opportunity to leave Mark Doda behind – if she can learn how.

Elvira Dones is an Albanian writer and film-maker who now lives in the US and writes in Italian; she has previously made a documentary about sworn virgins, but this novel is very much a study of Hana’s character specifically. Dones makes the complexity of Hana’s situation clear: it’s not just that Hana doesn’t want to lose her independence by marrying; it’s also that she loves her uncle deeply, and doesn’t want something to happen which would put that love at risk.

Hana’s gender identity also remains complex for her. Clarissa Botsford’s translation shifts between ‘she’ and ‘he’ at times, emphasising that Hana cannot settle into one persona. Though it seems clear enough that Hana was uneasy in the role of Mark (‘that man was only a carapace,’ p. 178), she also finds it difficult to establish a new self-identity as a woman. And she has to adjust to life in a new country: the life of her cousin’s daughter Jonida may be as remote from Hana as Hana’s life studying in the city was from her uncle’s in the village.

So, Sworn Virgin digs deeply into its protagonist’s psychology, and delineates the contours of her world in some detail. Strikingly, though, there are some key aspects of Hana’s life that we never see; for example, she kept a diary of her years living alone as Mark – but we don’t get to read any of it. Even after all that we’ve seen, the novel seems to say, the true heart of a person must remain private.

Sworn Virgin will be published by And Other Stories on 13 May.

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Peter Buwalda, Bonita Avenue (2010)
Translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder (2014)

pbbaFrom the outside, Peter Buwalda’s Bonita Avenue may appear to be a fairly straightforward family saga: a great slab of a book (538 large-format pages), which begins with a young man meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. And the young news photographer, Aaron Bever, is as intimidated by the celebrated mathematician, Siem Sigerius, as you might anticipate. But Aaron swiftly notices the cauliflower ears which are a mark of Sigerius’ past commitment to judo; this is the first of many details that set the book off kilter. Then this meeting becomes a memory, occasioned by the now-single Aaron seeing his ex Joni’s barely-recognisable mother on a train some years later – and that indicates something of how Bonita Avenue will be told: in a complicated knot of perspective and memory that mirrors the knots whose mathematics Sigerius studied.

So Bonita Avenue isn’t quite what it appears to be at first; which is appropriate for a novel whose characters pretty much all have their secrets. We discover, for example, that Sigerius is really Joni’s stepfather, and has a biological son who’s in prison; and that Joni and Aarojn were not quite as squeaky-clean as Sigerius liked to think. These (and more) revelations are handled very well indeed, as Buwalda piles layer upon layer of story, constantly reconfiguring what we thought we knew. Jonathan Reeder’s translation is also key to this, as it dances back and forth between past and present tense, first- and third-person narration, without missing a step.

Perspective in Buwalda’s novel is constantly being destabilised: we read from the viewpoints of Aaron, Sigerius, and Joni; but we know something about each of them that causes us – for at least part of the book – to question the truth of what we’re reading. Bonita Avenue twists and turns and shifts to the very end; it’s such an intriguing delight.

Bonita Avenue is published by Pushkin Press.

“We are all the things we’ll ever be”

Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013)

Girl is a Half Formed ThingThis is the latest example of a small press title breaking through: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was published last year by Norwich’s Galley Beggar Press; it has since won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize (awarded to “fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”), been shortlisted for the Baileys Prize and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize (which is the context in which I’m now reading it). It has also now been published in a new edition by Faber & Faber, which comes with a cover quote from Eleanor Catton. That’s apposite: both Catton and Eimear McBride have debuted with intense portraits of girlhood, and and their work carries the sense of writers seeking to embody their concerns in the form of what they write.

McBride’s novel is written in a choppy, largely fragmented style that, in one interview, she dubbed “stream of pre-consciousness”. Anyone who loved The Rehearsal will recognise the mental adjustment needed to engage with prose like this:

Sons for breaking chairs on the backs of. Daughters to shoo from the bath for a wee. Rich-ish husbands or they got a crack in the jaw. Chaste-ish wives or the boys got more. Goodfornothinglumpofshitgodforgiveyou. Ours got for a wedding a glare though he paid.He, at least, knew how to behave. Though a man like our father could be nothing to him. Not to lick his boots. Not to be his dog. (p. 12)

My first instinct at one time would have been to call this kind of writing ‘difficult’, but in practice it’s not as simple as that. Taking the above passage as an example, there’s a compelling rhythm and cadence to McBride’s prose, and some striking detail of character (the narrator is talking about her grandfather and his children). What A Girl is a Half-formed Thing really demands is a different way of reading: concentration, yes, because what we’re being told is ‘unprocessed'; but it means that we experience the events of the narrator’s life in a similar way to her.

The ultimate effect of McBride’s prose style, I think, is to collapse the narrator’s interior and exterior lives together: so, experience is sensation is emotion is detail is thought. This makes the novel all the more harrowing, because we are that much closer to what the narrator goes through. And A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is uncompromising: while seeing her elder brother struggle with the effects of a brain tumour, its protagonist (McBride’s characters don’t receive names) experiences a strict religious upbringing in rural Ireland, and the unwelcome attentions of her abusive uncle. When the girl leaves home for the city, she finally has the chance to spread her wings – if she can.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing‘s form underlines how its protagonist experiences what happens to her. The most coherent language within the text is often religious or some other voice of adult authority, thereby suggesting sources of structure and order – but the narrator will find them ultimately lacking. The girl’s relationships with her brother and uncle become ghastly mirror images of each other: she fears for her brother, but his illness creates an unbridgeable gap between them. In contrast, the girl’s uncle comes horrifically close to her – but she experiences both relationships with the same intensity.

After twenty years of life, McBride’s narrator looks around her:

I see the water. Look upon the lake I’ve been in. I’ve been known of. Come to know. Well. Touched and loved and ripped here all by the same hands teeth and claws and waded in. Swim. See my scrawl there. Under my feet. Mud and weeds where I was, my blood split on. Running in running in among the reeds where the ripple fish go. And vomit and some half drunk can, some things, some paper bags some cigarette rolled and stuffed and smoked. Ground to the heel. This home I know. (p. 201)

Just as the text has elided her experiences and emotions, so the girl sees this place as coexisting with what occurred there. For all that has happened to her, this is what she knows; for good or ill, this has been her life.

Going back to Eleanor Catton, I’m reminded of her essay about literature as encounter, the idea that our relationship with a book can be as complex and rich as those we have with people. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is like that for me: I can’t see it as a book to love – it’s too unforgiving for that – but neither can I see it as anything less than a triumph. McBride’s novel does what it does, remorselessly, completely, powerfully. I can only be glad that it’s with us.

Read my other posts on the 2014 Desmond Elliott Prize here.

Elsewhere

Interview with Eimear McBride at The Honest Ulsterman

Reviews of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by other members of the shadow DE jury: Utter Biblio; Between the Covers; Sarah Noakes.

Shiny New Books and Jam

First of all, I need to tell you about a new book recommendation site: Shiny New Books. It’s the brainchild of four UK book bloggers (Annabel, Victoria, Simon, and Harriet), and features original and reprint reviews by contributors from all corners of the blogosphere. I’m in the first issue, with a revised version of my piece on Ray Robinson’s Jawbone Lake (think of this as the Director’s Cut of the original review). Have a look around the rest of SNB; there’s some great stuff on there, and I hope the site will go from strength to strength.

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In another corner of the web, Fiction Uncovered (now the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize) is gearing up for another year, and I’ve reviewed for them the new novel by a Fiction Uncovered alumnus. Here are my thoughts on Jam by Jake Wallis Simons…

JamJake Wallis Simons appeared on the first Fiction Uncovered list in 2011 for The English German Girl, his novel about a girl sent to England on the Kindertransport in the 1930s. Following a thriller (2012’s The Pure, written as Jake Simons), the author returns with Jam, a novel which follows a varied cast as they experience one of modern life’s nuisances: being stuck in traffic.

Structurally, Jam resembles a disaster novel, insofar as it moves between the perspectives of multiple characters all affected by the same event – though here the event is not the end of the world, but a traffic jam on the M25; and Wallis Simons is less interested in the jam itself than in how his characters are changed by encountering each other. We begin with Ursula and Max, a couple not quite as firmly in love as they once were, and particularly concerned right now with letting their friends (whose daughter they’re bringing home) know about the delay. With no phone signal, Max heads out to find someone who will let him make a call; he gets talking to Jim, a supermarket delivery driver who makes clear that he can’t give away the stock in his van – though he does have some crisps in the front, if Max wants some. Other characters see what’s going on, and Jim’s van becomes the locus of attention, not all of it welcome.

To an extent, the traffic jam works as a metaphor for the characters’ life situations. Many of them feel stuck in some way – like Shauna, who’s looking for her dream man; or young Shahid, who rues his messed-up trial for Chelsea – and the night’s events enable at least some of them to move on. The way Wallis Simons orchestrates this is perhaps his novel’s key strength: some characters make a central contribution to events, others are peripheral; but all take their place as significant parts of the whole. By the end of Jam, we’ve seen a slice of life: some people win, some lose; one individual may be changed forever, while another just carries on as before. The vehicles start to move again, and those circumstances that brought everyone together become lost in the flow; but Wallis Simons has shown how extraordinary a mundane situation can be to those caught up in it.

(Original review.)

“Ernest, the great writer, standing in the middle of the story”

Naomi Wood, Mrs. Hemingway (2014)

Mrs HemingwayI find it intriguing when an author’s second novel is very different in subject from his or her first makes me want to look for the deeper connections that point to what the writer’s key concerns may be. Naomi Wood’s first novel, The Godless Boys (2011), concerned an alternate history in which atheist rebels had been exiled to an island off the coast of a theocratic English state. What does any of that have to do with Ernest Hemingway’s wives?

Ah, but it’s not the subject that counts: it’s the treatment. The Godless Boys could be seen as a ‘what if?’ character study: place a set of characters in an unusual situation, and explore how they might react. Wood does a similar thing in Mrs. Hemingway; it’s just that the unusual situation is real, as are the characters.

(I should say at this point that I don’t know much about Hemingway’s life or work, or the women concerned; so I approach Mrs. Hemingway very much as a work of fiction; I believe that Wood’s novel isn’t meant to be taken as entirely historically accurate in any case.)

What makes the situation of Hemingway’s wives particularly unusual is there in the book’s first sentence: ‘Everything, now, is done à trois (p. 3).’ The scene is the Hemingways’ villa in the French coastal town of Antibes, 1926: Ernest’s marriage to his first wife, Hadley, is on the ropes. She invited his mistress, Fife, to the villa in the hope of stopping the affair in its tracks; instead, Fife has effectively become part of the Hemingway household, and Hadley comes to realise that it’s only a matter of time before she loses Ernest to the other woman (when Ernest and Hadley leave the villa one morning, trying not to wake Fife, ‘it feels, to Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway, as if they are the ones who are having the affair,’ (p. 5).

This is the structure of Mrs. Hemingway: each of its four sections begins with one of Hemingway’s wives approaching the end of her relationship with him; we go back to see how that relationship developed; and past alternates with present. The thing is that each wife knows Ernest is having an affair, and with whom; the mistresses become a part of the relationship. When Martha (Ernest’s third wife), learns of his infidelity, she goes to meet her husband’s new lover, Mary; and she’s resigned to the knowledge that her marriage will soon come to an end:

They walk down the Élysées together, Mrs. Hemingway and Mr. Hemingway’s mistress…They stop off at the tobacconist to see if they can get more cigarettes. Martha holds out the door for her and lets the other woman in (p. 184).

The idea of an affair and subsequent divorce has gone from something to be fought against, to the price that one pays for loving Ernest Hemingway. Some of the wives even keep in touch with each other down the years.

So the title of Mrs. Hemingway is just that: a title, not an individual; almost an office, to be held for a finite term. Wood delineates the different ways in which Hemingway’s wives perceive that title, also showing how the women change as they move from mistress to wife (and beyond), and how the way others perceive them may not be how they actually are. For example, Hadley sees Fife as the kind of modern, confident young woman that she is not; when the story is told from Fife’s viewpoint, we see that she’s not quite so self-assured; but Fife’s glamour returns when Martha meets her some years later.

There’s another interloper in all these relationships: Hemingway’s writing. It is so often what brings Ernest and his lovers together; and so often what ultimately drives them apart. When Hadley meets Hemingway, his writing is one source of his charisma, and something he wears lightly (‘I’d rather be read by crooks than critics,’ he says at a party in Antibes [p. 58]). By the time he’s living with Fife in Key West, Ernest has become rather more concerned with what the critics think; his relationship with his writing grows more troubled as the years go by, and he sometimes turns violent. When we meet the widowed Mary at the Hemingways’ Idaho home in 1961, there’s a rueful double irony: all that’s left of Ernest is his writing, and his papers are now what feed the fire.

Mrs. Hemingway explores the characters of four women united by an experience that places them in opposition to each other, yet is also something only they can ever share. As in her debut, Wood depicts lives and individuals shaped by an extraordinary external force (in this case, their encounters with the person of Ernest Hemingway), and creates a fine work of fiction in the process.

Elsewhere
M. Denise C. interviews Naomi Wood.

The sound of fury

Joanna Kavenna, Come to the Edge (2012)

Last week, I went to the launch of the new Best European Fiction 2013 anthology; I was struck by a comment made there by the Welsh writer Robert Minhinnick before he gave his reading: that he was less interested in what a story was ‘about’ than in what it sounded like. Sure enough, there was indeed a distinctive and captivating rhythm to his delivery; it seemed to me quite a different experience from that of reading words on a page.

I was reminded of hearing Janice Galloway reading one of her stories at ShortStoryVille a few years ago. I’d read one of Galloway’s collections not long before, but that hadn’t prepared me for this. It wasn’t simply that she was reading in the Scottish accent of her narrator (something I could only ever approximate in my mind); it was that she was able to inhabit that narrative voice in a way that just wasn’t possible for me sitting on my own with a book. I can think of several other occasions when a text has been transformed for me by hearing it read aloud – transformed in a way that is hard to capture in words.

Come to the EdgeSo, how to describe the experience of reading a book like Joanna Kavenna’s Come to the Edge, which seems almost made to be spoken, and where so much of the affect is cumulative? Well, let’s see. Kavenna’s unnamed narrator has been abandoned by her husband; feeling disillusioned with her comfortable suburban life, she answers a newspaper ad to be the helping-hand on a widow’s farm, and finds herself driving up to Cumbria. The widow is Cassandra White, a larger-than-life character with forthright views on modern life (she detests most of it, from plastic food packaging, to bread, even soap). She promptly puts the narrator to work – dirty, back-breaking work.

The first chapter of Come to the Edge shows a vision of rural apocalypse: guns firing, houses burning, helicopters approaching. The bulk of the novel is the story of how that came about. The seed is planted when a couple of long-standing local residents are evicted so their house can be sold on. Cassandra decides to ‘resettle’ them in the well appointed, but rarely occupied, second home of a banker. A thriving resettlement programme is soon underway, but always with the nagging possibility that the owners of those second homes could return at any moment…

In the back of my mind when reading Come to the Edge was a comment I heard Joanna Kavenna make last year: that she was writing as though her characters didn’t have the usual inhibitions. The resulting book is darkly comic, as Cassandra pushes things ever further; and of course there’s an element of satire on contemporary aspirational lifestyles. But it seems to me there’s also a cautionary tale here about becoming too entrenched in a given viewpoint: as the first chapter shows, the valley doesn’t do all that well out of Cassandra’s high-minded ideals; and the narrator eventually realises that she’s the one doing all the leg-work.

I loved Kavenna’s prose in this novel, and I’ve thought about quoting from it; but so much is gained from context and repetition that I don’t know whether an isolated snippet can really convey what I want to. That’s why I would also think this book would be great read aloud: that momentum would build, the characters’ voices would ring out… Then again, there’s such an energy to Come to the Edge that it almost shouts from the page.

Links
Joanna Kavenna’s website
Kavenna writes about her inspiration for the book

Four tales of war

Monsieur le CommandantIn Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur le Commandant (2011; translated from the French by Jesse Browner, 2013), it is 1942 when Paul-Jean Husson – a respected writer and member of l’Académie française – writes to his local SS officer, unable to remain silent any longer. Husson begins his story ten years earlier, when his son introduced him to his new love: a beautiful blonde German girl named Ilse Wolffsohn, whom Husson later discovered to be Jewish. Husson was immediately attracted to Ilse, an attraction that only intensified as the years went by; all the while, he remained a Nazi sympathiser, regularly publishing anti-Semitic articles. But matters would eventually come to a head; and Husson’s letter to the Commandant is the only way forward he can see.

Monsieur le Commandant is an uncompromising book, which confronts the implacability and inherent contradictions of its protagonist’s worldview head-on: Husson is a character who has no qualms about describing graphic violence or venting his hatred, and the results of that are right there on the page. The novel becomes a grim, inexorable march towards a bitterly ironic ending; the weight of history bears down on our reading; but its starkness gives Slocombe’s book a power of its own.

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King of Hearts

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall (2006; translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm, 2013) is a view of 1942 from Warsaw. There are perhaps two things that matter most to Izolda: the love of her husband Shayek, and finding a way out of the Warsaw Ghetto. When Shayek is imprisoned, Izolda’s love for him leads her to do whatever she can to free him; and what she’s prepared to do seems almost without limit – she hides her identity and religion, smuggles goods into the ghetto… Even though she’s captured more than once, she refuses to give up.

In contrast with Monsieur le Commandant’s harsh precision, the tone of Krall’s book is somewhat hazier; told in a series of vignettes, the choppiness of its structure gives the text a dream-like quality, which enhances the sense of the Holocaust as something larger than those caught up in it can truly comprehend. There are moments of horror (made all the more effective by the subdued tone in which they’re written), but a deep sense of love as well. We know from several chapters within the book that Izolda survives into old age, but even then she finds herself dwelling on the past and what might have been. Chasing the King of Hearts is the story of a hard-won personal victory, and the mixed consequences it brings.

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News from BerlinHusson and Izolda could be seen as being at two opposite ends of a continuum of experience of World War Two, a continuum that Oscar Verschuur – the protagonist of Otto de Kat’s News from Berlin (2012; translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke, 2014) – might (at first glance, anyway) appear to be completely outside. Oscar is a Dutch diplomat in Switzerland, well away from the day-to-day realities of the war. That’s until his daughter Emma visits from Berlin, with information from her German husband Carl, a civil servant who covertly opposes the Nazi regime:  an invasion of Russia is planned, codenamed Barbarossa. Now Oscar must decide whether to disclose this information, knowing that to do so may place Emma and Carl in danger.

Relationships, it seems to me, are at the heart of News from Berlin: Oscar’s relationship with his wife Kate is pretty lukewarm and distant (literally so, as she’s currently a nurse in London). Both characters themselves drawn to someone else: he to Lara, a free-spirited Dutch woman he meets in a village hotel; she to Matteous, a wounded Congolese soldier whom she helps to treat. There’s a sense that both of Verschuurs are searching for something in these other people, not that they’re necessarily going to find it (Kate especially comes to realise how it hard it would be for Matteous to adapt to a life in London). Interestingly, Oscar’s new attraction draws him away from the reality of the war, whilst Kate’s draws her towards it; this mirrors their instinctive feelings about the Barbarossa dilemma. As a diplomat, Oscar’s work is fundamentally about relationships on a grand scale; the choice he now has to make brings that work down to the most intimate of levels. Like Slocombe and Krall in their books, de Kat explores the personal effects of war, how individual lives are shaped by conflict.

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Wake

War’s effect on individuals is also the focus of Anna Hope’s debut, Wake (2014), which is set in the aftermath of World War One – specifically in the five days leading up to the parading of the Unknown Warrior through London in 1920. Hope tells of three women: Hettie, a dance instructress who becomes intrigued by a charismatic man she meets at the Hammersmith Palais; Evelyn, who works at the Pensions Office and has a quite a tense relationship with her army-captain brother – but still wants to know why a man comes to her office asking after him; and Ada, a housewife grieving for her son lost in the war, who receives a visit from a boy who appears to know of him.

All three of Hope’s protagonists have seen their lives changed by war: Hettie’s brother is affected by shell-shock, but the world of the dance instructress has opened a new avenue in her own life; Evelyn lost her partner in the war and now finds herself, as an unattached woman nearing 30, outside of social norms; for Ada, it’s not so much a case of needing to find a new path as of coming to terms with the one she has travelled. In Wake, the arrival of the Unknown Warrior is presented as a moment when the British people collectively took stock of the war and its consequences, a recognition of and reflection on the changing times; this is also what Hope does individually for her characters. But there is also the sense that change continues; and, indeed, the women’s stories go on beyond the final page of this vivid novel.

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Links

Monsieur le Commandant
Interview with Romain Slocombe by Gallic Books.
Other reviews: A Life in Books; These Little Words; The Friendly Shelf; Literary Relish.

Chasing the King of Hearts
Interview with Hanna Krall by PEN Atlas.
Other reviews: Andrew Blackman; Sabotage Reviews; A Discount Ticket to Everywhere; Tony’s Reading List.

News from Berlin
Other reviews: 1streading; Lucy Popescu for the Independent.

Wake
BBC interview with Anna Hope (and Judith Allnatt, author of The Moon Field)
Other reviews: For Winter Nights; Book Oxygen; The Unlikely Bookworm; Cleopatra Loves Books.

“There is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read”

Simon Garfield, To the Letter (2013)
Shaun Usher, Letters of Note (2013)
Kressmann Taylor, Address Unknown (1938)

A few weeks ago I read Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall, which argues quite convincingly that there are analogues of social media (that is, ways of sharing information through personal networks) going back 2,000 years in history. From that point of view, there’s more continuity between how we communicate now, and how we used to, than one might suppose. But I’ve had cause to think about these issues again after reading a couple of new books from Canongate which are all about the history of letters. I’ve been wondering whether there is something unique about letters that might potentially be lost.

totheletterSimon Garfield has written a number of acclaimed non-fiction books (including 2010’s Just My Type, a history of typography, which I have been meaning to read for ages). His new book, To the Letter, is subtitled ‘A journey through a vanishing world’; so we know that this isn’t going to be just a factual account but – well, a love letter to letters. ‘Letters have the power to grant us a larger life,’ says Garfield (p. 19), telling of how he became intrigued by the story of a magician named Val Walker, after discovering a set of Walker’s correspondence for sale at an auction. There are similar glimpses of different lives and stories throughout To the Letter, as Garfield weaves together the history of postal delivery, the contents of letter-writing manuals, and notable correspondents from throughout the centuries, all into a fascinating tapestry.

If, like me, you have ever enjoyed writing or receiving letters (or both!), there will be plenty to delight you in Garfield’s book. But also, there will almost certainly be something to cause a feeling of regret and disappointment; for me it was learning that the Postman Pat theme has been changed  so he brings ‘parcels to your door,’ rather than letters. (Now I look into this further, it seems that the change came about because the new series is about Pat running a parcel delivery service, which alters my view a little, though I suppose it’s still illustrative of a general trend.) The thing is, though, that I’m really just being nostalgic for the trappings of the physical letter here; if I want to get to the heart of what letters really represent, I think I need to go deeper than that.

Tom Standage’s first example of historical social media in Writing on the Wall is Cicero staying in contact with Rome by copying and sharing letters, some of which were intended to be public documents. Garfield also has a chapter on the Romans, but he make a distinction between the public (in a sense performative) correspondence of a Cicero, and the letters of someone like Pliny the Younger, which were generally more private.  The sense of letters as a private and personal space comes through time and again in To the Letter, perhaps never more so than in the wartime correspondence which intersperses the book. Chris Barker (an RAF communications officer stationed in the south Mediterranean) began writing home to his friend Bessie Moore (who translated Morse code messages for the Foreign Office) in 1943; as time went on, their friendship turned to love – and the expression of that love as we see it in their letters is deeply affecting. I was as captivated by the tale unfolding in their correspondence as I could have been by any fictional story.

Perhaps this is what the personal letter fundamentally represents: a space for an extended, reflective engagement between two individuals. This is something that can also be accomplished by email, of course; but I do think that the act of physically writing a letter encourages it more. Either way, Simon Garfield’s book leaves me appreciating letters anew, and thinking that perhaps I should write more of my own.

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lettersofnote

The quotation heading this post is from Pliny (as mentioned by Garfield); I think it’s correct, but I was also struck on reading To the Letter (especially the Barker-Moore correspondence) at how letters can turn history inside-out, can give a view that one might not see otherwise. That feeling was brought to mind again when I read Letters of Note, a book based on Shaun Usher’s website of the same name. This book was published in association with the crowdfunding site Unbound; so that’s an online service used to facilitate a printed book derived from a website that celebrates paper correspondence – phew! Letters of Note reproduces the text of 125 letters, often alongside images of the actual documents. It’s a big, beautiful object.

It is also wonderful to read. There are the amusing entries, such as the young Queen Elizabeth II sending President Eisenhower her recipe for drop scones; or an eight-year-old boy’s letter to Richard Nixon (who was recovering from pneumonia at the time) urging him to ‘be a good boy and eat your vegetables like I had too!!’. There are letters which, as I said earlier, open up history in a way that only personal documents can: Francis Crick’s letter to his young son describing the newly-discovered DNA molecule; or a Japanese lady’s farewell to her samurai husband, whom she was sure would fall in battle. There’s the poignant and the inspiring, the romantic and the furious. I could go on, but Letters of Note is something you really have to experience for yourself. It’s difficult to imagine a better demonstration of the power and value of written correspondence.

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addressunknownNow seems a good time to talk about what I’d imagine to be one of the most powerful epistolatory stories in the English language. Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s Address Unknown was first published in Story magazine in 1938; I read it this year in a stand-alone volume published by Souvenir Press. It takes the form of a correspondence between Max Eisenstein, a Jewish American gallery owner; and his old friend and business partner Martin Schulse, who has recently returned to Germany as the tale begins, in 1932. At first, Schulse is hopeful for the future of his country under Hitler, but also expresses his reservations to Eisenstein. Schulse’s attitude soon hardens, though, and he orders Eisenstein to stop writing. The American attempts to appeal to his old friend’s better nature, but Schulse will have none of it – until events take a tragic turn, and the letters become weapons.

I think it’s the epistolatory form that really makes this story; Taylor brings together the personal and performative  aspects of letter-writing, using both to cutting effect. We see the changing nature of the two men’s relationship, and sense the deep personal connection that Eisenstein wishes were still there (and that letters can forge and capture so well). But I’m also struck by how much the letters in Address Unknown don’t show – how they filter out certain aspects of their thoughts. I’m thinking especially of the ending, where the letters advance implacably (you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean), and we have to infer what must be in their writer’s mind. Letters may be able to forge a connection between two people, but Taylor’s story shows how they might also sever one irrevocably.