Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse. Pushkin Press, 2015. Translated by Sophie Hughes. First published in Spanish 2013.

Iván Repila, cover of The Boy who Stole Attila's HorseTwo young boys, brothers known only as Big and Small, are trapped (or were they thrown?) in a pyramid-shaped well in the heart of a forest. They cling desperately to life, become feral, crazed. This short novella – just over 100 pages on small-format, high quality paper (with French flaps to the cover, which I find inordinately pleasing) – is a surreal…what? Allegory (but for what? The instinct to survive? Political injustice? In ch. 11 we hear ‘the land seems to be governed by a mechanism of suffering that works against every one of nature’s decreees’.) Kafkaesque fable? (about human inhumanity? – in Ch. 23 Big gives Small a lecture on how to kill. Maybe the boys’ mother put them, like the pussy in the rhyme, in the well). Dark fairytale with more monsters than fairies – a Freudian lesson in the unheimlich? A descent into the circles of the human mind and its capacity for insanity and hallucination, a counterpart to Dante’s circles of hell? A variation on Aesop’s fable of the fox in the well and the unsympathetic wolf looking down on him?

I turned to some reviews to seek clarity or confirmation.

Veronica Scott Esposito recommended it at Conversational Readings: cf Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes – I posted on it here – another fantasy/allegory about a person trapped down a hole or pit, exploited, frightened, reverting to an animalistic state.

John Self, Asylum – ‘unpleasant’; allegory of some sort, many possible interpretations, from environmental fable to perils and exigencies of growing up; most probably socio-political (see the epigraphs by Thatcher on free market forces and the rich/poor divide, and Brecht on uprising and revolt) – inequality in social hierarchy. Packs a punch way above its weight.

I also found it unpleasant, though I admired the visceral punch it packs, and the language (brilliantly rendered by Sophie Hughes) is often breathtakingly good. Its depiction of human corporeality, of human corruption (as in bodily putrefaction as well as morally), of the narrow divide between civilised behaviour and bestiality, is very hard to take in anything but short doses.

The boys love and support each other, most of the time. They also harbour unspoken thoughts about cannibalism. Big rations their meagre food in such a way that he gets a much higher proportion, which he justifies by insisting that he’s the one whose superior physique will ultimately lead to their escape. Survival of the fittest. Though he also shows capacity for self-sacrifice.

John Self points out a feature I hadn’t registered: the chapters aren’t numbered sequentially, but as increasing prime numbers (none of them even, of course). He suggests, plausibly, that they correspond to the number of days the brothers spend in the well (the final chapter is 97). Not surprisingly their bodies have wasted almost to nothing in that time.

Descriptions of this process are unstinting, often grimly humorous in their verbal ingenuity, like this one of Small in ch. 59. First, he has named himself Inventor and devised ‘cultural activities’ for his brother, ‘although really he does it because he cannot stop imagining.’ He’s also ‘perfected’ a bizarre ‘osteo-vegetal music’ created by ‘hitting certain bones with dry roots’. He’s frustrated with the childish percussive potential of ‘knees, hips, torso and collarbone’, and would really love to somehow ‘rotate his head and arms and rock out on his spine…’

His extreme boniness makes him look like a misshapen neighbourhood made up entirely of street corners, and this affords him an inordinate range of obscure, high-pitched sounds which come together as a tune when he strums his tendons and thumps his stomach and chest.

The title? In Ch. 31 Small announces his fantasy that he’d stolen Attila’s horse to make shoes out of its hooves; ‘they smelled like the shell of a dragon’s egg or like the skull of an idol’, he explains with unsettlingly calm clarity. When he wore them he killed whatever grew underfoot – he graduated from grass to a camp of sleeping people, where he played a grim game of ‘bouncy hopscotch’. The sleepers woke up screaming and died in agony:

Their bodies turned brown and red. It looked like a poor man’s rainbow: lustreless, born out of a candle and a puddle of urine. I felt important, like a painter.

John Self suggests that last image, narrated with such deadpan lack of affect, can be interpreted as a fable of the artist’s cruelty. Maybe. Or perhaps it’s part of this disturbing, twisted tale’s dark, surreal logic: creativity arising from suffering, like honey-sweetness from  a corpse, the lion and bees image and slogan on Lyle’s syrup tins (at one point the boys wait for a dead bird’s body to decompose so they can feast on the maggots in its corpse).

I don’t know, writing this has made me feel better disposed towards this powerful, highly original, weird little novella.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women. Picador paperback 2016. First published 2015.

Lucia Berlin had an eventful life. Born in Alaska in 1936, she travelled extensively in the USA in her youth because of her mining engineer father’s work; eventually they moved to Chile. She married three times and had four sons, continuing her peripatetic existence, living mostly in the American southwest, California and in Mexico, with spells in New York City, working at menial jobs (many stories like the title one give rueful insight into how a spirited, intelligent woman survived the hardship) to support her family and her drinking. An alcoholic until the early 90s, she then began a new career in teaching creative writing. She died in 2004; her literary reputation only took off with the first publication of this collection.

This motley life is reflected in this collection, which in some ways reads as an embellished auto-fiction. Her female protagonists are usually called some variant of Lucia, or Carlotta, and their experiences mirror Berlin’s own. But she makes something richly strange out of them.

Lucia Berlin, cover of my edition of A Manual for Cleaning WomenHer subject matter is often bleak, and in that respect resembles the addiction stories of Denis Johnson. Like him she doesn’t idealise or condemn her drunks (herself included) or addicts (often the men she loved and was treated badly by). She presents the events of life – ‘fraught with peril’ as she ironically recalls her mother’s favourite phrase.

Oh yes, her mother. Her stories depict a childhood in which her mother, also alcoholic, treated Lucia coldly, even contemptuously, and her grandfather abused her and others in the household. Many of the stories tell how she and her younger sister Sally became close in later life, when their mother had died and Sally was dying of cancer. They argued and fought a lot at this time – friction that proved to them, with characteristic humour, that they must have become ‘real sisters’.

It’s that humanity and lack of bitterness that lifts these stories out of the misery memoir category. They celebrate life in all its harshness: she finds beauty in ugly places (but doesn’t disguise the surface ugliness). And she’s very funny and witty, usually in the most unexpected places and ways.

It’s never easy to convey the experience of reading a short story collection (there are 43 in this volume, some are brilliant flash fiction, just a few paragraphs long, most of them published in small magazines from the 60s onwards; some thirty more have just been published), and this one is so varied in tone and range that all I feel I can do is to give some more or less randomly chosen passages in the hope that some of the uniqueness of this gifted writer comes across.

The voice full of oblique humour is one of the first qualities  I’d commend to you. She has that capacity to buttonhole you and keep you attentive as if she were sitting beside you, chatting, reminiscing, probably smoking, a glass of Jim Beam in her hand: ‘Wait. Let me explain…’ begins one early story. Here’s the beginning of another:

Got into Albuquerque from Baton Rouge. It was about two in the morning. Whipping wind. That’s what the wind does in Albuquerque. I hung out at the Greyhound station until a cabdriver showed up who had so many prison tattoos I figured I could score and he’d tell me where to stay.

Economy of style is an overused phrase for writers’ technique, but look how much she packs into those few lines. The omission of a subject in the opening sentence, of a finite verb in the third, the brevity and clipped syntax, as if she’s thinking faster than she can write. Those resonant place names. But these are clearly crafted sentences with cadences and sonorities all her own – it’s such a distinctive voice, right down to that rueful reference to being pleased her cabdriver is an ex-con because he’ll know where to score drugs and flop out afterwards.

In the next paragraph this colloquial voice continues:

All this happened many years ago or I couldn’t even be talking about it.

And then she ends up in a grim desert detox unit.

Humour: this is her account of one of her clients in the title story – she breaks her own rule and cleans the house of friends:

I don’t make much money with them because I don’t charge by the hour, no carfare. No lunch for sure. I really work hard. But I sit around a lot, stay very late. I smoke and read The New York Times, porno books, How to Build a Patio Roof.

Such random lists, contradictions and non sequiturs abound, delightfully. Grimness and suffering are always lightened by these bizarre detail which seem to say, That happened, but then so did this.

This is from ‘Teenage Punk’: recently divorced, she’s living in a New Mexico house with ‘leaky roof’ and ‘burned-out pump’, but, with typical delight in the natural world, takes her kids and their eponymous drifter friend to watch the arrival of beautiful cranes that come to feed nearby:

We crossed the log above the slow dark irrigation ditch, over to the clear ditch where we lay on our stomachs, silent as guerrillas. I know, I romanticize everything.

The following description of the birds is radiant and graceful.

Endings of her stories are as vivid as the openings. One of her detox stories, ‘Step’, closes with an account of a boxing match the inmates are watching on TV. The defeated fighter sinks, one knee to the canvas:

Briefly, like a Catholic leaving a pew. The slightest deference that meant the fight was over; he had lost. Carlotta whispered,

“God, please help me.”

 

I could quote like this from pretty much every story, but will end with ‘A Love Affair’, which is about her job as a doctor’s assistant. One of her tasks was to assist with gynaecological examinations and tests conducted by the doctor. She was to get the patient in the right (highly undignified) position in the stirrups and then was ‘supposed to get the women to relax’. She was surely good at this: ‘That was easy, the chatting part.’

The doctor would arrive, a ‘painfully shy man with a serious tremor of his hands that occasionally manifested itself.’ He’d switch on his headlamp, take his swab (which he waved with cheerful incongruity from the narrator ‘like a baton’):

At last his head emerged with the stick, now a dizzy metronome aimed at my waiting slide. I still drank in those days, so my hand, holding the slide, shook visibly as it tried to meet his. But in a nervous up-and-down tremble. His was back and forth. Slap, at last.

Surely a male writer couldn’t make such a scene so hilarious and yet sympathetic to the women involved: their world is so absurdly skewed against them. That’s Lucia Berlin – those last three words.

 

 

 

Lost souls: William Trevor, The Boarding-House

William Trevor (1928-2016), The Boarding-House. Penguin, 1968. (fp 1965)

In John, 2:18 Jesus said: Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. He’s predicting his death and resurrection; as such, the words represent a promise, not a threat. In William Trevor’s wickedly funny subversion of the biblical message in his 1965 novel, the proprietor of the eponymous boarding-house, Mr Bird, is more of a satanic than messianic figure, he’s a lord of misrule:

Before he died, an hour or so before the end, Mr Bird had visualized the boarding-house as it would be after his time. He saw a well-run house in the care of his two chosen champions, with all its inmates intact and present, a monument to himself. [He dozed, then woke, imagining the house was dying too] He thought that someone asked him a question, seeking an explanation for his motives and his planning. He heard himself laughing in reply…and he said aloud: ‘I built that I might destroy’. Nurse Clock had looked up from her magazine and told him to take it easy. [My emphasis]

William Trevor, cover of The Boarding-House

My battered, ex-library copy was published in 1968 and it shows

This passage shows the insidious humour of this darkly funny novel. The narrative voice is corrosively, brilliantly ironic. Bird has deliberately chosen as his heirs to the property – a ‘place of my own invention’ as he boasts to a potential inmate – two characters whose mutual hatred and twisted, selfish natures are guaranteed to bring about its dissolution – as he well knows.

Nurse Clock, who was watching over Bird’s deathbed with such bored heartlessness, is a charmless, bitter dragon who terrifies her unfortunate patients and anyone else who meets her. Even the irrepressible Bird, in one of the ‘Notes on residents’ that punctuate the narrative – he keeps a dossier on his residents that reveal his true, disdainful feelings towards them and the sinister reason why he selected them to live in his ark for desperate, lonely outsiders – says this of her:

Nurse Clock has morbid interests. She is a woman I would fear were it not for my superior position.

His other chosen heir is Studdy, a mean-spirited Irish blackmailer, petty thief and trickster, foul-mouthed, crude and vulgar, a lover of lacerating innuendo – the most misanthropic of this group of lost, superfluous souls.

Bird’s legacy then is the engine of the plot. Each of his desolate residents – selected by him because they resemble him in having ‘neither family nor personal ties’ – is shown with all their foibles and weaknesses.

Bird bragged to one resident, with chilling, smug, calculating detachment, that

he had studied the condition of loneliness, looking at people who were solitary for one reason or another as though examining a thing or an insect beneath a microscope.

Yet Trevor never loses sight of the residents’ faltering humanity and consistent vulnerability. Their faults, frailty and touching desperation in a world they don’t fit in with are exacerbated not just by Bird’s nefarious schemes, succeeded by those of Studdy and Clock (who plan to evict all the residents to turn the house into a home for the elderly – these will be easier to bully and fleece), but because the world was changing:

Boarding-houses were becoming a thing of the past; bed-sitters and shared flats were the mid-century rage in London.

This dingy, decaying house, decorated throughout in the depressing colour of rich gravy, is then a ship of fools, but also a microcosm of the state of the nation at the time. Only Mr Obd, the exiled Nigerian whose faithful love is spurned, finally realises as his sanity disintegrates that Bird’s gathering together of these misfits into his house was a ‘cruel action’. He remembers Bird’s words to him on the day he arrived there; he’d said that

the solitary man is a bitter man, and that bitterness begets cruelty.

Like Barbara Pym, to whose novels this one has been likened, Trevor anatomises the marginalised, solitary souls who’ve lost connection in the modern world. Their God is a deus absconditus – or worse, if bitter, cruel Mr Bird is his incarnation. His name might imply the Holy Ghost, but he’s no Mr Weston dispensing good wine. He deals in something more vitriolic and destructive.

Trevor’s cross-section of a part of English life is darker, more surreal and less genteel than Pym’s (maybe more like Elizabeth Taylor’s darker work). These eccentrics are secretariies, clerks and district nurses, vindictive petty criminals, or a phony ex-Army ‘officers’ who frequents sleazy strip-joints, can’t hold his drink, and specialises in ‘dumb insolence’. Pathetic Miss Clerricot has spent decades waiting to be propositioned but when it appears to happen to her it’s as disastrous and farcical as the rest of her timid life.

The prose style and narrative technique owe more to Beckett and Joyce than Pym. There’s more than a touch of Sterne as well in the bizarre eccentricities of the characters and their actions, and the flitting, shifting nature of the narrative.

I hope I haven’t made the novel sound too dour; it’s outrageously, twistedly funny, but it’s the humour of Beckett’s godless tramps beneath a gallows.

 

 

 

A Pure Woman. Lloyd Jones, Hand Me Down World

Lloyd Jones, Hand Me Down World. John Murray, 2011. First published in New Zealand in 2010.

This is a love story and a ghost story.

Jones HMDWorld coverIt tells, in differing, often conflicting versions and recensions – as in the Akutagawa story on which the Kurosawa film ‘Rashomon’ was based – how a young African woman has no real identity, no substance in the eyes of Europeans she meets; even her name used later in the novel is the one she stole from a woman she encounters in Italy, with tragic consequences: Ines, one form of the name Agnes – which significantly derives from the Greek for ‘pure’ or ‘holy’. Ines, like Tess, is a Pure Woman.

The first sections of this gripping novel by the New Zealander Lloyd Jones (who was shortlisted for the Booker for Mister Pip in 2007) consist of the multiple accounts from those who knew her at the start of her quest to reach Berlin. The first is a co-worker at a swanky tourist hotel on the Arabian Sea patronised mostly by white Europeans, where it was a prerequisite for the staff that they shed all vestiges of past or identity: as human beings they were as substanceless as ghosts. Even this colleague/friend who knew her for some years never learned her name, where she came from in Africa, or even her birthday:

When we spoke of home we spoke of somewhere in the past. We might be from different countries but the world we came into contained the same clutter and dazzling light. All the same traps were set for us.

Here the language conveys some of the register of a non-native speaker of English, shot through with the poetic sensibility of Lloyd the artificer who filters these forensic, mediated voices of testimony through his own artist’s sensibility to present them to us. It’s an astonishingly accomplished act of multiple ventriloquism and narrative dexterity and ingenuity. In this quotation he conveys how, for women like these, the tourist resort and its hotel is a playground for the privileged guests, but dangerous for them if they forget their place, to be invisible:

You have to leave your past in order to become hotel staff…you had to be like the palms and the sea, pleasing to the eye. We must not take up space but be there whenever a guest needed us.

Lloyd’s is the heartbreakingly familiar one to those of us in affluent Europe of the desperate people risking their lives in unseaworthy boats to make the dangerous crossing to southern Italy from north Africa. Even if the boats survive the trip, unscrupulous traffickers, for whom the people they convey are just ‘merchandise’ or cargo, are likely, as they do to Ines, to throw them overboard miles from the shore and leave them to drown. Most can’t swim; fortunately, Ines can, and she makes it to land, there to continue her quest.

For unlike the other boat people, she isn’t trying to escape from economic hardship or political turmoil; she is searching for what has been stolen from her and taken to Europe, to Berlin – that city of ghosts, bullet-scarred memorials, squares haunted by the book-burning Nazis, and secret photos of atrocities committed by Berliners in their shameful past.

These early polyvocal fragments take on new significance in the second part of the novel when the perspective shifts and we learn why these narrators are testifying to Ines’ progress towards her goal. Then we realise how partial, unreliable, redacted or just downright untrue they were. Only near the end do we hear Ines’ own voice; like many women (see my recent post on The Silence of the Girls) and migrants, she is for most people both invisible and mute.

Many of those she encounters on her journey and in Berlin show her kindness and sympathy; others exploit her and fail to see beyond the colour of her skin or her gender. When she encounters a group of Italian hunters in the border mountains, for example, it’s notable that it’s the American among them who alone resists giving her money to help her on her way; back home, he says, she’d be seen as ‘an illegal, an alien’. The Italian narrator of this section is clearly horrified at this lack of humanity. This is 2010, pre-Trump.

In Ch. 9 a pastor ‘of the Ibo order’ who works at a refuge for African migrants gives his testimony to the ‘inspector’ who is gathering these witness statements about Ines. He laughs at the officer because

you come here to Berlin to ask a pastor, a black man, about ghosts. Presumably you mean white ghosts…For example, there are ghosts we do not see, the spooky ghosts, the ghosts of the American imagination…These are the ones small children worry are lying beneath their beds at night.

The other kind, the ‘real ones’, he says, ‘are simply the ones whom we choose not to see.’ African migrants like Ines fall into this category of the unseen. At first they have names. Then they don’t: ‘Soon they will turn into ghosts.’ Many are sent back to Libya to a hellish ‘detention centre’ where they ‘turn into ghosts’ and go mad or wander into the desert to die.

As tens of thousands of African migrants blow like sand across the sea, ‘fortress Europe’ nails down the shutters, says the pastor:

It pretends. It pretends like the child afraid of the ghost under the bed.

Lloyd is too astute an artist, however, to turn his compelling love story/quest into a diatribe or message-heavy polemic; this is the only place where the narrative preaches, and it’s because the speaker is a preacher who has good cause to do so. But his message lingers through the rest of the story like fading bells of city churches as one passes through a cemetery on the way to Alexanderplatz.

Lisa Hill at her blog recommended Lloyd’s most recent novel, but suggested I start with this one. She has excellent taste: it’s a terrific novel, and one I feel sure will haunt whoever reads it as it does me. Her post of 2010 examines another theme in the novel: the duality or multiplicity of possibilities or perspectives in interpreting alternative truths and their ‘dual capacities’ – hence the prominence in the narrative of discussions of amphibious lungfish, hermaphrodite snails, people of mixed ethnicity, etc. It’s possible to discern conflicting or opposing ‘truths’ in events or entities that seem irreconcilable, but which can be held simultaneously. It’s a subtle reading that I can’t do justice to in a few words here, for I’ve already gone on too long…I commend her post to you, as I do this remarkable novel. Thanks for the recommendation, Lisa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vita Sackville-West, No Signposts in the Sea

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), No Signposts in the Sea. VMC 1992; first published 1961

Vita Sackville-West gathered much of the material for this novella on some of the sea-cruises she took annually with her husband Harold Nicholson (they married in 1913) for the last six years of her life. The narrative consists of the journal entries of eminent political journalist Edmund Carr as he embarks on the first ocean cruise – and love – of his life.

He observes and records the foibles and relationships of his fellow travellers, from the bridge parties and factions and friendships that spring up on board, to his ventures onshore when the ship docks at exotic locations. In that sense it can be read partly as a travelogue, with vivid descriptions of the ports and islands they visit and pass by, the migrants, crew and social butterflies on board ship, and the ‘natives’ who are sometimes referred to (as are some other ethnic and social groups) in the offensive terms that were still sadly prevalent in people of the author’s class at the time.

VSW Signposts cover

The painting on the cover of my VMC edition is by my namesake, Sir John Lavery – don’t think we’re related, but both our families come originally from Ireland, so who knows?!

It’s clear from early on that Edmund has a terminal illness, and has left his newspaper to follow Laura, the woman with whom he’s falling deeply in love. The narrative relates the toxic effects of jealousy to which he’s subject, building with increasing tension to a foreseeable but still powerful conclusion. Along the way there are philosophical and poetical reflections on life (and mutability), death and love.

By allowing himself for the first time in his life to go with the flow of existence – he’s all at sea in every sense – because he knows his days are numbered, he discovers in himself depths of romantic sensitivity and an ambivalent attitude towards his often abrasive contacts with the mundane that represent the first stage of self-realisation and fulfilment.

The main cause of his jealousy concerning Laura is the handsome and suave Colonel Dalrymple. As the narrative is conveyed from the partial viewpoint of Edmund himself, we initially see this rival as charming and attractive, but as time goes on the Colonel’s attentiveness to Laura causes him great pain. Considering Edmund is fifty and Laura forty, the novella gives a reassuring indication for those of us who are no longer youthful that passion and the pangs of love and jealousy are not the sole province of the young.

Victoria Glendinning, who wrote the Introduction to this edition, finds Edmund’s working-class origins unconvincingly done. But I found this an important aspect of his self-delusion. He’s painfully aware that he isn’t one of the ‘well-bred’ cruising class like the Colonel, the quintessential English gentleman – or Laura. He can’t help but feel inadequate in their company, and by comparing himself unfavourably with them, heightens his sense of worthlessness. Otherwise his bitter jealousy would seem less plausible.

For example, Edmund records in his journal with a self-directed sneer that he’s ‘a man of the people’, a ‘rough terrier beside a greyhound’. Yet Laura often reveals to us that she admires his poetic nature and enjoys his company far beyond the level of a sympathetic fleeting on-board friendship. It’s the fate of the class-conscious jealous man to misinterpret the very narrative he’s in the process of writing.

Laura expresses some interestingly racy views on relationships and marriage that appear to reflect some of Vita’s and Harold’s complicated arrangements. She insists that in a marriage she would treasure her independence, sleeping in a separate bedroom and living an unsubmissive life.

Because of the fragmentary journal structure the narrative flows rapidly and rarely flags. There are some memorable and luminous scenes, like the electric storm at sea or the green flash that Edmund and Laura look out for most evenings as the sun dips beyond the ocean’s horizon (this feature reminded me of Eric Rohmer’s 1986 film ‘The Green Ray’ – ‘Le Rayon vert’). I found the depiction of the almost adolescent but scorching angst and torment of Edmund compensated for the slightly clunky plotting. At only 156 pages it’s a pleasant and entertaining way to pass a grey day of hail and rain in a Cornish November.

Other Vita Sackville-West novels discussed at Tredynas Days are:

All Passion Spent (1931)

The Edwardians (1930)

There’s a good review of Signposts at HeavenAli’s blog

 

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black. Harper Perennial paperback, 2005.

Travelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin’s scrub-grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o’clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling in Potter’s Bar.

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black coverThe opening paragraph of this curious novel sounds like Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographical descriptions of the grubby margins of urban life. Not just because of the subject matter – the orbital motorway with its seedy squalor alongside – but the hallucinatory style and tone. The bizarre imagery resembles his, too – or maybe it strays into Angela Carter territory, especially in the sections of seedy occult showmanship.

Neither of these tendencies is a bad thing. But I found that 451 pages of grand guignol was a bit hard to stomach. The team at the Backlisted podcast on their Halloween show called this the longest ghost story in English literature . Maybe it is – but it’s too long.

The plot, however, is minimal. Alison is an obese medium whose spirit ‘guide’ Morris is a hideous, malevolent ex-circus dwarf. He’s often accompanied by a sickening group of lascivious, vicious thugs who seem to have haunted Alison since her childhood. They slip between the world ‘beyond black’, referred to as ‘spirit world’ by the ‘sensitives’ like Alison, and squat like cut-price demons in the back yards and under the carpets of the living.

Much of the narrative consists of nauseous flashbacks to the squalid house she lived in as a child with her mother. Emmie was a prostitute who had tried to abort Alison, and neglected her when her crude attempts failed and the girl starts to grow up. She makes no attempt to care for the child, and sells her on to these vile, vicious creatures without compunction.

Alison has constant nightmarish flashbacks to the violence and degradation she was subjected to by this troupe of horrors. These are heightened by being contrasted with the humdrum suburban tedium she inhabits in the ‘real’ world.

She acquires a manager/live-in companion. Colette is skinny and spiritually sparse – the reverse of Alison in every way. Their relationship deteriorates as Colette finally has enough of Alison’s bizarrely horrible conversations with people she can’t see.

There are flashes of dark humour, and Mantel has great fun sending up the boringly conventional suburbanites who are the two women’s neighbours.

In the PS section of material at the end of the book Hilary Mantel says that she researched the world of stagey mediums and found their ‘demonstrations’ ‘threatening, unlikely, and slightly repulsive’ – and it shows in this novel.

I think what prevented me from giving up on this rather nasty story was the conviction with which the author portrays Alison’s haunted world. Alison never seriously tries to convince the sceptical Colette that she really does see dead people, and is no charlatan. Her stage act could easily be a mix of shrewd psychology and suggestion – the punters are mostly credulous and naïve. But the narrative suggests that the nightmare Alison appears to live in is real to her, and her attempts to find out who she is, who her father was, what her true history is (not contaminated memories) is strangely gripping.

Yannis Tsirbas, Vic City Express

Yannis Tsirbas, Vic City Express. Baraka Books, Montréal. Published Sept. 2018. Translated from the Greek by Fred A. Reed. ARC

We don’t get many translations into English from contemporary Greek authors, so kudos to this Canadian imprint for bringing out this important little book. At just over 90 pp, it’s more of a long short story than a novella – another rarity in the publishing world.

Tsirbas Vic City coverBut it packs a punch way above its weight. What do you do if you’re trapped in your train seat opposite a bullying racist who insists on spewing out his bigoted views in a diatribe of hatred for foreigners, scrounging, dirty immigrants – anyone not ethnically Greek like him. Other passengers look the other way: no help there. The bigot ends with the usual: a final solution – poison them, as one would rats.

Our anonymous narrator does what most of us would initially do: keep pretty quiet and hope it’ll blow over. I’d like to think, though, that after a time, when the vitriolic monologue persists, and the fellow traveller (hah!) is challenged to comment, that we’d refute these vile slurs and maybe call the police: it’s a hate crime, after all.

Instead, the narrator placates him, or hides behind the banal messages on his phone. He even appears to give a half-hearted defence: we have scavengers of our own. Here’s his own internal justification that we’re made privy to; maybe it’s his ‘bourgeois courtesy’ that his wife upbraids him about;

I don’t want to have strong disagreements with strangers. Not with anybody, actually. What am I supposed to say to him? Talk about democracy and violence and culture?

Vic City is the area around the Victoria metro station in Athens, the man explains, once a proud working-class area for poor Greeks, now “infested” as this ultra-nationalist would put it, with East Europeans and migrants from other troubled parts of the world. It’s a dilemma much of Europe and America now faces: how to welcome and integrate the displaced refugees, fleeing crime, war and poverty, and to counter the rising tide of xenophobia and hostility towards them from people like this train guy.

Tsirbas doesn’t try to provide answers; like all good artists, he simply poses the right questions. They’re disturbing questions. When ordinary decent people don’t speak up, we’re in trouble. And he does so in a structurally and stylistically intriguing way. The story is really a collection of linked short stories, some of them linguistically garbled, perhaps to reflect the distress of the narrators. We get brief narratives of some of the people the racist despises, like the young man fainting from hunger, not having eaten for three days, or the mother too poor to pay for the treatment her premature baby needs.

Most disturbing is Meleti, the violent young racist who randomly attacks non-Greeks. He’s so appalling he even upsets the police, who normally turn a blind eye to racially motivated assaults – but only because he sports a tattoo intended to belittle them. Maybe this is the guy on the train.

Tsirbas shows us an aspect of the economic, political and cultural crisis that is pretty much  endemic. Normally we see it reported in the news media; this Greek novelist confronts it in an original and audaciously challenging way. There will be many more of these extreme Vic City types if we all continue to behave like this near-silent, intimidated narrator – a normal, seemingly decent chap, who in the end just walks away.

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. (Hannah Arendt,The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951)

Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Fourth Estate, London, 2015

Smart GC Station cover

It’s a handsome paperback edition with French flaps – always a nice touch

The title is of course an allusion to the lament of the Jewish people in exile in the first line of Psalm 137. In this prose poem novella – it’s only 134 pages, with plenty of white spaces – Canadian Elizabeth Smart (1913-86) creates something close to a collage of delirious references to amour fou from the Bible, especially the Song of Songs, myths and legends from ancient Greek and Latin sources (the narrator likens herself to no end of romantic heroines, from Cleopatra to Helen of Troy, Leda to Venus). Also in the mix are recurring references to the 15C English lyric also inspired by the Song of Songs, and known for its Latin refrain:

Quia amore langueo. The narrator glosses this:

I am dying for love. This is the language of love.

(See Clerk of Oxford blog for the text and modern version.)

Blake’s ‘Several Questions Answered’ pops up:

What is it men in women do require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

What is it women do in men require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire

and Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ teasingly ironic lyric from Death’s Jest Book, ‘If thou wilt ease thine heart/Of love and all its smart,/Then sleep, dear, sleep’ – with artful inclusion of her own name in this quotation. These are the fragments she shores up to try to articulate and contextualise her passion – and they show she knows it’s an amour fou. She can’t stop it. She knows it’s borderline blasphemy to treat it as sacred – hence all those erotic biblical citations.

A few pages later, as the lover seems to have left her to return to his wife, the narrator spins into a near-suicidal downward spiral of inconsolable longing and depression:

I am lonely. I cannot be a female saint. I want the one I want. He is the one I picked out from the world. I picked him out in cold deliberation. But the passion was not cold. It kindled me. It kindled the world. Love, love, give my heart ease, put your arms round me, give my heart ease. Feel the little bastard.

The hopelessness of her longing – for the lover, and for ‘ease’ – is savagely embodied in that cold reference in the final four words to her unborn child: she’s pregnant by the lover, and is doomed to give birth alone. (Smart went on to bear three more of Barker’s children; he also fathered eleven more with three different women. Makes me wonder whether he merited her fierce love, or appreciated its ferocity.)

My first reading of the novella was a mixed experience. There were passages of exquisitely beautiful lyricism as the narrator sings her paean to her passionate love for the unnamed man she devotes her life to, and attempts to make rational sense of this erotic, destructive madness. From as early as p. 5, when the affair hasn’t started but he’s joined her, she’s aware of the destructive nature of this intoxicating love:

I know these days are offering me only murder for my future.

Three pages later:

But he never passes anywhere near me without every drop of my blood springing to attention. My mind may reason that the tenseness only registers neutrality, but my heart knows no true neutrality was ever so full of passion.

He’s a shadowy figure in the narrative, and appears in the opening pages, ominously, accompanied by his wife.

It’s well known that Grand Central was based on Smart’s pursuit of the English poet George Barker – she fell in love with him through reading some of his poetry in a bookshop in England in 1937. Three years later, after a patient, amorous campaign, aided by Lawrence Durrell, and a lengthy correspondence with the object of her desire, she paid for Barker and his wife to leave Japan, where he was unhappily teaching, and fly to California. They set up a bizarre ménage à trois.

As in real life, the novella depicts the woman following her lover from Monterey to Europe and war-scarred England. There’s a painful interlude alone in Canada, where her parents are scathingly judgemental of what they perceive as her crazy infatuation.

On second reading I began to find my way into this wildly idiosyncratic narrative. Interspersed with the dizzy, intoxicated outpourings of erotic passion (‘set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm, for love is strong as death’ – from the Song of Songs, appears more than once, plus the next line, ‘Jealousy is fierce as the grave’) are brutally contrasting passages of banal incomprehension and cynical dismissal from everyone else she meets, who either disapprove of her dangerous love, or see it as sinful or criminal.

In Part 4, for example, appears the most hilarious and oddly moving of these jarring dichotomies of register. She and the lover had been arrested at the border of Arizona on charges of moral turpitude. Extra-marital sex was (and still is, apparently) a crime. The crude, cruel questions from the leering cops are intercut with soaring verses from that same Song. Not only is this section very comical, bordering on farce, it movingly portrays the woman’s resolution to preserve inside herself her treasured holy passion, even when threatened and bullied by the agents of the secular unromantic state. From her jail cell she fumes:

The eyes of the jealous world peer through the peephole in the door, in the eyes of the keeper. But still the only torture is [the lover’s] absence. (p.45)

Taunted and berated for her illicit love by her interrogators, she returns to her justifying refrain: What do you live for then?

I don’t go for that sort of thing, the officer said, I’m a family man, I belong to the Rotary Club…What a cad [the police inspector] said, and the girl’s a religious maniac.

This is Holden Caulfield’s pompously indignant ‘phoney’ territory – and very funny, because part of her knows it is – but she prefers her crazy love to their mediocrity. And as she says, they’re hypocrites:

But are all Americans virgin and faithful ever after?…The thin-lipped [inspector] was livid with hate of our lineaments of gratified desire [that’s a Blake bombshell lobbed against the philistines again]

Or there’s her landlord, Mr Wurtle, quizzing her on the possibility of the existence of love, her love in particular:

I cannot hear beneath his subtle words the beginning of the world’s antagonism: the hatred of the mediocre for all miracles.

Near the end, the woman now alone and desolate, the novella’s title finally appears, followed by this:

I will not be placated by the mechanical motions of existence, nor find consolation in the solicitude of waiters who notice my devastated face. (p.119)

Even in the extremities of despair she refuses to betray her love. Unlike ‘everyone’, she will not acquiesce or compromise.

Smart portrait back flap

Smart the ‘good-looking blonde’, as the narrator is leeringly called at one point: photo on the back flap

One of my problems on that first reading was a failure to tune in to the subtleties and ironies I’ve just mentioned, and a not very generous inclination to find the woman’s outpourings a little, well, morbid and hysterical – like that whiny ‘They don’t know about us’ pop song – or is it more like the Stranglers’ “La Folie”? Now I notice she’s aware of the potential ridiculousness of her obsession: this is from p. 126, as she continues to voice her attempts not to succumb to despair at being abandoned:

No morbid adolescent ever clutched toward melodramatic conclusion so wildly…Oh yes, it is hysteria that whips me with his name, that drives me with the insane loneliness of the first split amoeba, to shriek beneath his window.

See what I mean? And yet that same quotation shows what still causes me to doubt that this is the masterpiece it’s touted as in the puff quotes on the jacket. The sentences linger just a little too long, engendering more sentences that veer off into surreal imagery that’s often reminiscent of the weaker, more self-indulgent, obscure parts of Dylan lyrics (compare this on p. 28: ‘The parchment philosopher has no traffic with the night, and no conception of the price of love. With smoky circles of thought he tries to combat the fog and with anagrams to defeat anatomy’), or the amphetamine-flow of the Beats. Sometimes she sounds like Sylvia Plath on a bad day, or Whitman on a good one.

Then a few paragraphs later she refers to her inner cradle – I think she means her capacity for consoling herself and her unborn child? – like this:

It buffets me off the road of planned elegance. Girls in love, remember to keep your heads, keep calm, plan your campaign, yours sincerely, Dorothy Dix. Girls in love, be harlots, it hurts less.

(Had to Google D. Dix: seems she was a famous agony aunt.) That first sentence is terrific, wittily self-aware, brilliantly showing the indomitable spirit that’s never quite extinguished among the vicissitudes of the dingy cafés she frequents, as well as her habit of solipsistic wallowing. Maybe it’s just impossible not to sound like a hysterical adolescent when expressing transcendent love for a bastard. Angela Carter certainly disapproved, preferring in this situation to cut his balls off, not weep.

When I started drafting this piece I thought it was going to be a demolition job. It’s turned into something much more appreciative. I still think the book is flawed, but it’s an extraordinary piece of prose, and I’d be interested to hear what others who’ve read it thought of it.

Apologies: I had no idea this post would turn out so long. Maybe the book is better than I think.

 

 

 

 

VS Pritchett: The Complete Essays

V.S. Pritchett, The Complete Essays, Chatto and Windus, London was published in 1991 when the English author was 91 (he died in 1997), and is now out of print.

It was brought to my attention by an appreciation of it last month in The Paris Review by Morten Høi Jensen, to whom it had been recommended by James Wood. Jensen expresses well the strength of this collection:

In a single paragraph, without analyzing or interpreting or even commenting on the novels, Pritchett had somehow managed to capture their essence. And he did it not with the skeptical distance of a scholar but with the messy proximity of the fellow practitioner.

Pritchett Essays coverIt has 1300 pages and is, as he suggests, ‘heavy as a cast iron skillet’. The 203 essays, originally mostly book reviews, cover hundreds of writers from Europe, Asia and the Americas– an idiosyncratic, eclectic but loving and perceptive history of western literature. They were highly esteemed by the likes of Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, Anthony Burgess and Susan Sontag.

Pritchett discusses earlier writers such as Cervantes, Sterne, Smollett (who I’ve still to read) and Fielding; a large body from 19 and 20C – most of the canonical English novelists, and the less canonical like Gissing, the Grossmiths, Samuel Butler and Jerome K. Jerome; then Conrad, Woolf and co. to Orwell and Rushdie; as Jensen says, VSP was ‘generously receptive to younger talent’.

He assesses Americans from Benjamin Franklin, Whitman and Crane to Updike. Poe and Twain are delineated with characteristically controversial broad but telling strokes within the distinctive Puritan tradition of their country.

There’s an affectionate essay on the ‘sayings’ of his close friend, the hispanophile Gerald Brenan. It ends with typical acuity:

Be careful: if he is drawing his portrait he may be drawing yours.

Pritchett admires Brenan’s dislike of ‘critics of poetry who insist on “explicating”’. Maybe because he’s the same; Jensen quotes his biographer describing Pritchett’s quality of ‘undoctrinaire discrimination’ – that fine and sadly now underused term so dear to the great Leavisite tradition of critics (well, maybe not the ‘undoctrinaire’ part) -and the ‘sympathetic and respectful curiosity’ with which he approached characters in literature and in life.

He has the ability to get to the essence of a writer’s nature and work and portray it with elegance, wit and intelligence. I’m not sure I always agree with some of his larger generalisations, but I enjoy the stimulating, cheerful conviction with which he makes them and the polished, convivial style in which he expresses them.

Mostly he deals with prose fiction (and some non-fiction and figures from other artistic disciplines, like Cruikshank and Ruskin). Here’s a typically pleasing and pithy conclusion to the essay on the historian of the fall of the Roman empire:

Gibbon has a taste for the truth that is melancholy, for seeing life as a series of epitaphs.

This isn’t just thrown in as a witty epigram: it’s a logical conclusion arising from the intricate argument that preceded it.

The piece on the eccentric Thomas Day – its title ‘The Crank’ is apt – is brilliant. Day was the shabby enlightenment rationalist – ‘the modest and entrancing crank of the century’ – who was so convinced of the ‘sufficiency’ of men and the ‘insufficiency of women’ as Pritchett puts it, that he set about to ‘construct his own wife from blue prints in advance’. I’ve written here before about this deluded disciple of Rousseau and his notorious experiment to mould a suitable wife for himself from a child plucked from an orphanage, but this essay says to much more and so much better than I was able to in my post on the ‘Lives of the Obscure’ in Virginia Woolf’s first volume of The Common Reader.

There’s a particularly strong representation of major (and lesser) French writers — he almost convinces me to give Anatole France another try.

I’ve borrowed this massive book from the library, and must return it soon. I’ll have to buy a copy to read on, one I can annotate. I’ve only had time to read a few of the essays that appealed most, so I’d commend this review by Jensen to get a fuller picture of Pritchett’s tastes and achievements in these essays and in his short stories – which I intend to read now I’ve sampled this collection.

I found I had to dip in and read in small bursts, slowly. Every sentence and paragraph is so carefully constructed, the arguments and perceptions so cadenced and measured in expression, that every essay needs careful appraisal and rereading. They are to be sipped and savoured, not gulped.

Jensen sums up what I’ve noticed in the essays I’ve read so far:

they sparkle with impression, metaphor, and aphorism.

He goes on to suggest that maybe Pritchett has made less critical impact than Virginia Woolf, another who excelled in fiction and critical essay-writing, because he lacked her ‘fierceness’, her ‘polemical strain’. He was disdainful of what might be called the approach of the professional (ie academic) critics. I suppose he’s what’s usually dismissively categorised as a passionate amateur and aesthete. Nothing wrong with that.

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Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls: not a love story

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls. Hamish Hamilton 2018

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles…How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of these things; we called him the ‘butcher’.

The title of Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls, alludes to the psychological horrors of a different kind in The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps, but mostly to the lack of agency or voice of the women and girls in the novel. These opening words of the novel prepare us for the other story not related by Homer in The Iliad – Euripides gets closer in The Trojan Women: the terrible fate of the defeated side in the Trojan War – especially the women and girls.

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls: front coverBarker imagines for us in painful detail the ordeal endured as a captive by Briseis, wife of King Mynes, after the sacking by Achilles and his fearsome Myrmidons and other Greek warriors, of her city, Lyrnessus (near Troy). It’s a fate shared by all the captured women.

The Silence of the Girls was a painful experience to read because of its brutal depiction of the violence perpetrated by these blood-crazed fighters, and more particularly because of the calculated, brutal subjection, humiliation and dehumanising cruelty perpetrated by them on the captive women.

As in The Iliad, the story relates how Achilles, already notorious for his volatile temper, acquires the epithet ‘rage-filled’. King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, with a reputation for avoiding the dangers of the battlefield, relinquishes his own trophy sex slave when a plague that decimates the Greek camp is attributed to divine assistance on her behalf, at the behest of her priestly father. To replace her, he decides he’ll take Achilles’ prize, Briseis, as the next most beautiful and prestigious (being royal) trophy.

Achilles, insulted and furious at his king’s selfishness and weakness, takes to his tent and sulks, refusing to fight any more. This swings the balance of the war in the Trojans’ favour, so talismanic, murderously efficient and furious is he when fighting at the head of the Greek army. His close friend Patroclus (there are suggestions that the two warriors are lovers) gets him to agree to let him wear Achilles’ distinctive armour and helmet so that the Trojans will believe he’s returned to the battle. He rallies the Greek forces when he enters the fray in this disguise, the Trojans duly lose heart, but Patroclus is killed by the Trojan hero, Hector.

Now Achilles’ rage is unprecedented, augmented by guilt and grief. Supplied with magnificent new armour by his sea-goddess mother, he resumes leadership of the Greeks, and the Trojans are routed. The city is ruthlessly sacked, the citizens slaughtered. As usual, the Greeks murder everyone not to be taken as slaves. Even pregnant women are stabbed through the abdomen, in case the child being carried should turn out to be a boy and become an enemy fighter when grown up.

The highest-born and prettiest girls and women become a new set of sex slaves, subjected to the usual humiliations, treated as chattels – as Briseis is. ‘Don’t think about your previous life,’ Greek Nestor had advised her when she was first enslave. ‘Forget! This is your life now.’ But she refuses to forget: she is determined not to lose her identity, and resolves to remember, retain her voice. Even though this makes the daily indignities and cruelty more difficult to bear, at least then she won’t lose her sense of self. And she’s only nineteen…

The indignities begin when she’s paraded with the other women captives in front of the victorious Greeks after the fall of her city, and they’re inspected as potential prizes by the leaders. Briseis feels like ‘a cow, tethered and waiting to be sacrificed.’ She tries to picture her past life, her eyes closed, but she hears a roar and threatening jokes from the drunken soldiery. Achilles grips her chin and tilts her head to examine her looks. When he walks away she opens her eyes:

”Cheers, lads,” he said. “She’ll do.” And everyone, every single man in that vast arena, laughed.

A chilling echo of the heartbreaking, equally dismissed testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. Barker’s jauntily demotic “laddish” style (that also runs through much of the narrative) makes the horror all the more despicable. It’s simply normal for the men to speak and act like this.

For much of the rest of the novel we are privy to every personal indignity and sexual assault she has to endure, first under Achilles. His brusque couplings are compared at first with a soldier’s crude eagerness to try on new armour, – only this novelty is the living woman, who’s made to feel no more than a coveted commodity. His nightly sexual acts soon turn to something more personal and frenzied when she comes to bed smelling of the salt sea in which she likes to bathe and symbolically cleanse herself each evening. But Barker won’t let us find solace in this: she thus reminds him of the scent of his Nereid mother, and his passion is portrayed as disturbingly Oedipal and hence even more humiliating and degrading for Briseis. But he barely speaks to her once he’s sated; she doesn’t exist for him as a sentient human being. It’s this kind of constant misogyny in the narrative that makes it so hard to keep reading.

Briseis’ other daily ordeal involves being forced to wait on Achilles and his entourage (one of whom wears her murdered father’s tunic as a trophy that’s particularly gruesome for her to have to witness), smiling and enduring their leers and lascivious advances as she pours their wine – though none would dare go further with their general’s ‘prize of honour’. She realises she’s not being treated ‘as a thing. A slave is a thing.’

Her dread is that he’ll tire of her and she’ll be handed over to the common soldiery, without even a roof over her head – a common fate for sex slaves like her.

I struggled to the end of this harrowing, fierce novel, but can’t say I enjoyed it. The bestial cruelty meted out by the men on these reified, terrified women was almost unbearable. The vicious battle scenes were almost as hard to take – more difficult in many ways than the senseless slaughter and psychological trauma Barker depicted in her 1990s WWI Regeneration trilogy, which I read when it first came out.

I suppose I persisted to the end because of the power and contemporary resonance of her central message about gender inequalities and social injustice arising from them, and the importance of Briseis articulating her story in her own voice, against all odds. As in the earlier trilogy, soldiers are portrayed as showing their moral defects more plainly in the hurly-burly of war. It’s generally other men who tell their stories and elide their worst defects.

On the final page, when she considers what the unborn people of the future will ‘make of us’ – the silent girls – she’s certain of only one thing:

…they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told of the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.

His story. His, not mine. It ends at the grave.

 

The Trojan War imagined by Homer (or whoever produced the epic Iliad) is here reimagined, retold by one of the voices silenced by history men, and the traditional narrative takes on a decidedly different, gynocentric nature. Less soft. Not a love story.