Reflections: reading through a doorway, reading through a hole

FilerI have an on-off relationship with my ereader. I’m not particularly averse to electronic reading; it’s just that I rarely think to pick the ereader up when all the shelves of print books are so much more visible. I still prefer paper books at heart; indeed, very few of the ebooks I own are titles that I could also have bought as a print copy.

One of those few is Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, which I’ve been re-reading for my book group. I’d forgotten how much I liked it – the way it creeps up on you, gradually revealing that its form and narrator are not as they first appeared to be. I had put that forgetting down to not having read Shock until after it became a Big Name Book and somehow subconsciously (erroneously) assuming that meant it couldn’t be good, even though I remembered otherwise. But I also wonder if the experience of reading the book electronically didn’t have something to do with it.

“A book…is a doorway,” wrote Eleanor Catton recently. Her metaphor was more general, and made in a different context; but let’s run with the specifics of it for a while. When I open a print book, it is like stepping through a doorway, into the world of the book. Whatever distractions there may be from outside, it is ultimately just me and the book, and I have the whole text – its whole world – before me.

Catton goes on: “A screen is all surface. How many adults can sit at a computer terminal and read diligently and immersively, for hours?” It’s worth pointing out that, these days, such electronic reading is less likely to be done on a terminal than on something like a tablet or phone. But I think she does have a point here, because I find that, when I try to read on a multifunction device, I don’t have the same level of focus. After all, in those circumstances, reading is just one function among many.

I would distinguish, though, between multifunction devices and dedicated ereaders. With an ereader, it is still just me and the book, but the experience is different. If reading a print book is like opening a door, using an ereader to me is like peering through a hole. With a printed text, I can feel that I have the whole book in my hands. With the ereader, I have a single page (or page fragment) in front of me at any one time; I can’t flick so easily back and forth through the book; and an electronic page or percentage count give me a less intuitive sense of where I am in the book than holding a physical volume.

The effect of this is that, with ebooks, I find myself focusing much more on the isolated moment, less so on the context. It may be no coincidence that the only book read electronically that I’ve reviewed on this blog at any length is Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a novel that demands – and rewards – attention to and engagement with its language, which is something that reading in the moment can encourage. On the other hand, The Shock of the Fall, which takes you through different texts and styles, rewards an appreciation of its cumulative effect. I appreciated Filer’s novel well enough on the electronic page, but perhaps I would have experienced it better on the printed one.

 

Reflections: On Immunity and reading non-fiction

ImmunityI’m a reader of fiction by instinct; I read for experience more than information. This sometimes leaves me with a question when it comes to non-fiction, as happened when my book club chose E.O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life. The question is: if I can’t assess this book as a work of science (or whatever the book happens to be), what can I fall back on? ‘The quality of the writing’ seems an inadequate answer, not least because it effectively brushes aside the specific nature of a given book.

Eighteen months on, I might now have found an answer, after reading my first non-fiction book of the year: On Immunity: an Inoculation by Eula Biss, the latest essay from Fitzcarraldo Editions. The book starts from Biss hearing about the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, shortly after the birth of her son. The mothers in her social circle discuss whether to vaccinate their children against H1N1, before a vaccine is even available. Biss uses this as a foundation for reflecting on topics such as the different metaphors we use to describe disease and medicine; the perception and reality of risk; and the relationship between immunity and attitudes to the body.

It struck me when reading Biss’ book that here was a kind of writing I hadn’t really come across before. On Immunity is not strictly a scientific text, or a historical account, or a social commentary, memoir, or polemic (though it does have elements of all these things). It feels to me more like a writer responding to an event by thinking her way around a subject; the medium is non-fiction, but it seems to come from a similar impulse as fiction. This (non-fiction that… behaves like fiction? explores like fiction?) is clearly something which has been missing from my reading life, and I want to read more of it. And it also suggests to me that I can still think and write about the experience of reading non-fiction, just as I do with fiction, even if I don’t know about the subject. On Immunity opens up that possibility because the book is effectively discovering its subject as it goes.

So what was my experience of reading On Immunity like? Strangely, perhaps, I found myself less conscious than usual of the effect of language. When I read (for example) Weathering or The Wandering Pine, I was very much aware of the distinct ‘worlds’ being created by the words. It wasn’t like that with Biss’ volume; maybe that’s in the nature of the essay, or at least in the nature of this particular essay. But I did (as I often do with fiction) find myself appreciating how the form of the book contributed to its theme: constantly moving from topic to topic, searching for different angles on the central subject.

These ‘reflections’ posts are meant to be about thinking out loud, and I do feel that I understand my approach to reading non-fiction better. But it’s also clear to me that it will take more reading to bring these thoughts properly into focus; so I expect I’ll be returning to this topic at some point.

Lucy Wood, Weathering (2015)

WeatheringThree years on from her marvellous story collection Diving Belles, Lucy Wood returns with her debut novel. Let’s not beat about the bush: Weathering is just as marvellous. In fact, it had me from the first paragraph:

Arse over elbow and a mouthful of river. Which she couldn’t spit out. Which soaked in and weighed her down until she was steeped in silt and water, like old tea. But where was her arse anyway, where was her elbow? There was nothing but water as far as she could tell. A stew of water and leaves and small stones and herself all mixed up in it – a strange grey grit. Scattered, then dragged under again, everything teeming, and not sure which way was up or down. Light and dark, light and dark, like a door opening and closing. (p. 1)

I love the rhythm of that prose, and the way it erases the line between character and river. It does so for good reason, too: the character, Pearl, has died; those are her ashes being scattered in the river, apparently still self-aware. They’re being scattered by Pearl’s daughter Ada, who’s returned to the valley to sort out Pearl’s old house; and Ada’s six-year-old daughter Pepper, who never knew Pearl at all. Weathering is the story of how the three generations deal with their sudden change in circumstances.

It’s easy enough to imagine a situation like this being the subject of a straightforward social realist novel – but such a novel would likely have been less interesting and powerful than Weathering. What makes Wood’s book so striking is its sense of what it is to be in that raw landscape. Each of the three protagonists has reason to feel particularly close to the valley: Pearl lived there for years, and of course is now literally part of it. For a wild soul like Pepper, whose life is just beginning, the valley is a place of excitement and colour. For Ada, who thought she’d got away from the valley years ago, it’s dreary and miserable.

Key to Wood’s technique is that she does not allow the valley to become known. For all the vivid descriptions of place, there are no names; this is not somewhere that can be given a label, and thereby given shape. Choppy sentence fragments disrupt the easy flow of understanding; like the characters, we as readers are plunged straight into a new world and have to orient ourselves as best we can.

We can also see this at work in the dialogue, which – like real conversation – is often laden with the unspoken, which can be stifling for Ada, because she finds herself having to be the person others remember, rather than the person she feels she is now; when the village shopkeeper tells her about a collection for ‘old Edwards’, Ada’s emphatic reply of ‘I don’t know who he is’ (p. 35) seems very much like a forlorn attempt to distance herself from the past. As the novel progresses, and Pepper and Ada become more comfortable in their surroundings, so the dialogue and descriptive prose become more conventionally novelistic – but never entirely; the valley will not be tamed.

The title of Weathering has two meanings: being worn away by time, but also holding on, riding out the storm. Ultimately, Wood’s characters experience something of both, as they try to find a place for themselves when the river is the thing that will carry on. Whereas in Diving Belles magic and story lay beneath the surface of everyday life, here it’s the deeper reality of the landscape that pushes through into the characters’ lives.

I want to end with another quotation, which may be tricky, because you really need the momentum of context to understand what Weathering is like.  But here’s a stretch of dialogue between Pepper and a woman on the riverbank, which to me captures something of the novel’s general attitude, as well as showing how amusing Wood’s writing can be:

[…]‘It certainly is cold today,’ [Pepper] said.

‘What are you talking about that for?’ The woman said.

Pepper shrugged. ‘I’m trying to make conversation.’

‘Oh,’ the woman said. ‘That.’

‘This is what you have to do. I say, whereabouts do you live and what do you do for a living? And then you tell me. And then I say it’s cold. And then you agree. And then I say I hope the road doesn’t get ice. And then you say you heard the road will get ice. And then I say—‘

‘Christ,’ the woman said. ‘Why do we have to say all that?’

‘I don’t know,’ Pepper said. (p. 108)

Why indeed? Weathering is a novel that says just what it needs to say, in its own idiosyncratic fashion. It cements Lucy Wood’s voice as one that will continue to have my full attention.

Elsewhere

Weathering has been picking up very positive mentions all over the place; here are a few of them:

Reflections: ‘light reading’

Since I’m aiming this year to think more deeply about what I read and why, I wanted to begin this occasional series of posts on how things are working out and thoughts that come my way. It’s been a good start: I’ve read three books which are certainly going to stay with me – The Vegetarian, Manazuru, and The Wandering Pine. They inspired strong responses from me, and I can recall vividly what it was like. That, ultimately, is what I’m looking for.

But there was a time, towards the end of last month, when I felt the need to read something ‘lighter’. I wasn’t even sure what that was going to mean in my current reading context; I suppose it really meant a book which I could read once and wouldn’t mind if it didn’t stay with me. I tried a few books and found voices with the potential to entertain – voices telling of crime capers or small American towns under the burden of peril; or a quirky voice masking a darker experience of the world – but I put them aside. Some of those books would probably have done the job I wanted them to; the thing was that I felt I knew where their voices would take me, and it turned out I didn’t want that.

It’s one thing to abandon books that you’re not enjoying; I have no qualms about doing that. But putting aside books which might pass the time pleasantly enough – that’s new to me, and it is not easy. Yet I resolved to do it more this year, and it’s something I will have to do to get closer to the books that really count for me. It’s a risk with every book we don’t finish, and every book we never start, that we’ll miss something vital. But that’s the way it is, so I let my instinct prevail.

HaynesThe book I chose to read in the end was The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes, which is a thriller about a woman who takes a job as a drama teacher in a pupil referral unit in Edinburgh; manages to get one of her classes interested in Greek tragedy; then finds that a tragedy has unfolded in front of her before she realised what was happening. I was immediately intrigued by the protagonist’s voice:

The first thing they’ll ask me is how I met her. They already know how we met, of course. But that won’t be why they’re asking. It never is. (p. 5)

Naturally, this opening prompts plenty of questions in the reader’s mind. There were soon hints of tragedy in the narrator’s past, and of course an uncertain future. The Amber Fury held out the promise of leading somewhere perhaps largely familiar, but not entirely. It was enough for that moment. I carried on.

Did I get what I wanted from The Amber Fury? Yes and no. It might have helped if I knew more about Greek tragedy, because I suspect there were deeper parallels in Haynes’s novel that I missed. As it was, I had to rely mainly on the book’s qualities as a thriller, and… Well, all thrillers of course play a certain kind of game, and to read one is implicitly to accept that game. The Amber Fury’s game played out pleasantly enough; but, towards the end, I was getting impatient with it. I’d had enough ‘light reading’ and was ready for something else.

Don’t get me wrong: I wanted to be ready for something else, but I’d anticipated that being at the end of an enjoyable palate-cleanser; I hadn’t imagined that I would get fed up with the whole idea of palate-cleansing before it was finished. Of course, it could just have been the choice of book; but the experience has left me wondering: if this ‘light reading’ got me hankering after something else, was it really what I wanted in the first place at all? If it was, will the price of light reading always be that I end up falling out with it? Time will tell.

 

 

The Vegetarian and Bilbao – New York – Bilbao: Shiny New Books

I have a couple of reviews in the new issue of Shiny New Books, both of novels in translation which I’d heartily recommend to you.

VegetarianFirst up is a Korean novel, The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith). It’s the story of  Yeong-hye, a woman who first stops eating meat, then refuses all food – seemingly with the ambition to renounce her body and become a tree. But The Vegetarian is also as much about the people around Yeong-hye and how they see her. It’s a superb piece of work (with an excellent cover by Tom Darracott – look more closely and you’ll see it’s not just an arrangement of flowers), which I expect will be a strong contender for the IFFP – but it’ll be eligible for next year’s Prize, so we’ll have to wait a while.

(Speaking of the IFFP, Tony and Stu are looking for new Shadow Panel members; I’m planning to join in again this year, and it’s a lot of fun of you fancy having a go.)

Bilbao

One book that might might come up in this year’s IFFP is the subject of my second review: Bilbao – New York – Bilbao by Kirmen Uribe (translated from the Basque by Elizabeth Macklin). On one level, this is a novel about the author’s father and grandfather, both fishermen. On another, it’s about the process by which Uribe (or at least a character with his name) drew on their lives to write a novel, and about the tensions between life and art.

Go and have a look, do check the books out, and be sure to spend some time exploring the Shiny New Books site – there’s a lot of great stuff on there.

“He can only speak through a book and they only listen through it”

Per Olov Enquist, The Wandering Pine (2008)
Translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner (2015)

EnquistThere’s something disconcerting about meeting a veteran author’s work for the first time in what is effectively a fictionalised autobiography. You have the sense of coming to know that author more deeply than others whom you might have read for years (though of you course you don’t know them, or at least can’t be sure what you know), but without the context that a greater knowledge of the writer’s work might bring.

Perhaps that goes double for The Wandering Pine, a book that sometimes brings you almost unbearably close to its author-protagonist’s experiences, and at other times reminds you how distant it remains. Per Olov Enquist was in his early seventies when the book was first published in Swedish in 2008, though the events narrated run up to about 1990. It’s written in the third person, which has an immediate fictionalising and distancing effect; the obliqueness of its structure and style only add to that.

The first part of The Wandering Pine is one of the finest depictions of childhood that I’ve read in a long time – albeit one of a very particular childhood. The young Per-Ola, as he’s known, grows up in a village in northern Sweden; his mother is the deeply religious village teacher; he doesn’t remember his father, who died when he was six months old. There are vivid flashes of life, such as the great expedition to visit family each Christmas (a bus journey in the darkness, then though the forest on uncle’s sleigh). But Enquist’s main focus is the personal, and his book shines as it depicts Per-Ola trying to make sense of the competing forces at work in the world around him. For example, out of duty the boy invents a sin for Saturday confession, because he feels that he never has any real sins to confess. Later, he struggles to reconcile the piety of the local revivalist movement with his own burgeoning sexual awareness and the (to him) obvious links between sexuality and the movement’s emphasis on ritual: “You had to bow your head in the anguish of sin, and only in silence feel the irresistible draw of the warm, the forbidden…Where everyone else found warmth and security, he found only guilt and anxiety” (p, 96). Deborah Bragan-Turner’s translation comes into its own when treating such personal themes, as they become undercurrents in the text that bind together disparate scenes.

Per-Ola may feel that he can’t find his way in the world, but there is one thing above all that gives him a measure of security: “it becomes natural for him to feel no fear when he writes. But only when he writes” (p. 82). Indeed, it’s striking that there is so much in The Wandering Pine about writing in comparison to, say, Enquist’s personal relationships. This is very much a  chronicle of a writer’s life, in the sense that writing is how its protagonist engages with the world, and his problems and concerns are largely mediated through the act of writing.

The middle of The Wandering Pine concerns the beginnings and continuing success of Enquist’s writing career. I have my reservations about this section: it is not that it doesn’t work – on the contrary, there are some quite effective passages, such as when P.O. (no longer Per-Ola) decides to write a novel about a particularly contentious aspect of recent Swedish history, and discovers that many potential pitfalls lie in wait. But for me, this stretch of the book just doesn’t have the same intensity as the opening. I think it’s because the subject matter feels less fundamental, more concerned with the ‘busyness’ of life.

But the final section of the book heads into darker, more deeply personal territory, and regains the strength of the beginning. The hints are oblique at first: a comment that “he knows he is sinking” (p. 313); or an abrupt shift in circumstances – P.O. living alone in Paris, writing about a childhood home he never had, in more sustained detail than anything we’ve come across previously. The truth emerges: P.O. is an alcoholic. This section then becomes in some ways an inversion of the beginning: periods of treatment slip from the narrator’s memory, driving the scenes apart where at the start they were drawn together. A scene where the treatment centre inmates are forced into painful confrontations with their relatives stands in opposition to Per-Ola’s childhood, where the hurt came from what he did not have the opportunity to say to his family. This whole period is a bleak one for P.O., but he does come through; and he knows his life has turned around when he can visualise – what else? – his next book.

The original Swedish title of this book, Ett Annat Liv, can be translated as ‘Another Life’, or ‘A Different Life’ as it appears in the text of the English version. This is a reference to P.O.’s desire to hold on to his true self when being subjected to treatment (which he regards as an intrusion) for his addiction, and the new life he feels he that he gains on recovery. The Wandering Pine, on the other hand, is how Enquist describes himself as a reporter at the 1972 Munich Olympics – the tall but unobtrusive observer. The English title gives the book a different emphasis: the author as quiet documentarian of his own life, rather than the central transformation indicated by the Swedish title. In the end, I think the two titles sum up the different sides of Enquist’s book: a journey through a life that we experience as passengers, but with a vivid sense of what it was to live that life – in fiction, at any rate.

The Wandering Pine is published in the UK by MacLehose Press.

“It is not, exactly, that I want to go, it is simply that I go”

Hiromi Kawakami, Manazuru (2006)
Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich (2010)

KawakamiLet’s say that my relationship with Hiromi Kawakami’s work is evolving. I first read her back in 2013, when The Briefcase was the group read for the first January in Japan. I was going to join in, but – well, I just didn’t get it. Looking back, and to be more accurate, I simply couldn’t see what I was reading. The Briefcase was listed for the IFFP last year (under its UK title, Strange Weather in Tokyo), and I re-read it as part of the shadow judging. This time, I noticed a ritualistic quality to the relationship between the protagonists; that made me feel closer to unlocking the novel, but I still didn’t quite find the key to it.

So, when I saw that an earlier Kawakami novel was lined up as one of this year’s January in Japan group reads, I was a little apprehensive. I needn’t have been, because I really liked Manazuru – to the point that I think I’ll have to revisit The Briefcase some time.

We first meet Kawakami’s narrator, Kei, on a visit to the seaside town of Manazuru; it’s a quiet place, with its own rhythm of life – two hours from Tokyo, but it could just as well be a world away. Something keeps drawing Kei back here: it may have to do with the disappearance of her husband Rei twelve years earlier; maybe Kei could find out, if only she could grasp what seems to be hovering on the fringes of her memory.

Manazuru is a disconcerting combination of the precise and the hazy. Its structure is fragmented, sliding easily between past and present, between reality, memory and fantasy (Kei is followed by a woman-figure who may be some sort of spirit – or even a version of Kei herself – but often seems as real as any of the protagonist’s human interlocutors). But, even as those categories start to blur, the emotional detail remains pin-sharp and striking (a delicate balance achieved by Michael Emmerich in his translation).

Here, for example, is Kei describing how her mother felt about Rei:

She never tried to look at him, at Rei, the man I was married to, except through a sort of fish-eye lens. I don’t mean she saw him from a prejudiced perspective. She was unwilling to regard him as a man with a form. She preferred to peer through her lens at his distorted, bulging toes, or at his ballooning head. Nothing else. She didn’t dislike him enough to look away. She didn’t hate him enough to stare. She chose to keep him indistinct. (p. 46)

Images of bodily form and perception of others recur throughout Manazuru. Kei tells how she always used to feel the edges of her body blurring, until she started her affair with Seiji, a married man (“I don’t blur with Seiji. My shape is always the same, contained,” p. 71); Kei’s relationship with Seiji is constricting and distant in some ways, but it fulfils a need. Kei may have felt close to Rei when they were together; but, reading his diary now, she realises that there was a side of him she didn’t know; looking at old photographs of herself and Rei, their relationship suddenly starts to seem real to Kei, as though it somehow wasn’t previously. Kei comments that her daughter Momo can hurt her more deeply than others can (“she presses, unconcerned, into the softest places,” p. 30) because, knowing that Momo came from her body, Kei is unable to erect her emotional defences. But it doesn’t necessarily work both ways, as Kei finds that the teenage Momo can be distant and inscrutable. So the novel continues, with these nuanced, shifting patterns of emotion.

Kei’s perception of reality is fluid as well: for example, she has a vivid memory of following Rei and seeing him meet another woman – but apparently it’s a false one. In the end, Manazuru is a portrait of a woman lost between the elusive past and the seemingly unreachable future – and whether or she finds her way is open to interpretation.

This review is part of January in Japan, a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List. Read my other January in Japan 2015 posts here.