15 March 2019

International Booker Prize Longlist 2019

International Booker Prize: That's its new official name from June onwards, but it was always easier to say, so it's nice this is now the proper name too. (This post also uses the old abbreviation MBI.) I'm old enough that it felt jarring to call the awards the Man Booker prize, because I remembered the time before Man Group had anything to do with the literary world - but I'm too young to automatically think of "Booker" as another big company of similar ilk, albeit one dealing in tangible goods. (John Berger protested about Booker's unethical practices when he won in 1972.) Rightly or wrongly, Booker feels like the intrinsic name of the prize, due the word's happy confluence with the subject of literature.

I was too frazzled to make a post about the longlist shortly after the announcement, what with the list being released at midnight Tuesday 12th / Wednesday 13th. (Having slept badly the night before, I was usefully tired enough to sleep c. 6.30-11.45pm) Immediately afterwards, I was doing forum/Goodreads (GR) admin such as starting a series of threads featuring cover pics and blurbs. A couple of days' online conversation has now given time for thoughts to percolate, and to make this post more than another copy+paste of the longlist. (Thanks very much to everyone whose comments I've bounced these thoughts off; quite a lot of this post is rephrased from my own comments elsewhere.)

Image from Man Booker Prize announcement page.

The longlisted books

Jokha Alharthi (Arabic / Omani), tr. Marilyn Booth, Celestial Bodies (Sandstone Press Ltd)

Can Xue (Chinese / Chinese), tr. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Love In The New Millennium (Yale University Press)

Annie Ernaux (French / French), tr. Alison L. Strayer, The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Hwang Sok-yong (Korean / Korean), tr. Sora Kim-Russell, At Dusk (Scribe UK)

Mazen Maarouf (Arabic / Icelandic and Palestinian), tr. Jonathan Wright, Jokes For The Gunmen (Granta, Portobello Books)

Hubert Mingarelli (French / French), tr. Sam Taylor, Four Soldiers (Granta, Portobello Books)

Marion Poschmann (German / German), tr. Jen Calleja, The Pine Islands (Profile Books, Serpent's Tail)

Samanta Schweblin (Spanish / Argentine and Italian), tr. Megan McDowell, Mouthful Of Birds (Oneworld)

Sara Stridsberg (Swedish / Swedish), tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner, The Faculty Of Dreams (Quercus, MacLehose Press)

Olga Tokarczuk (Polish / Polish), tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Spanish / Colombian), tr. Anne McLean, The Shape Of The Ruins (Quercus, MacLehose Press)

Tommy Wieringa (Dutch / Dutch), tr. Sam Garrett, The Death Of Murat Idrissi (Scribe UK)

Alia Trabucco Zeran (Spanish / Chilean), tr. Sophie Hughes, The Remainder (And Other Stories)

(The first set of brackets shows language of original book/author nationality).

My reaction to this longlist

I have a cycle of feelings about book-prize longlists. In the preceding months or weeks, I get excited about the forthcoming list and join conversations about it. Then the list is announced, which *never* contains as many of the books I wanted to read, or have read, as I hoped it would. It's a lot like getting a Christmas present of socks, or bath products you don't usually use. Over the following weeks, there are more discussions, and become acclimatised to the list as I read from it. (The socks are actually quite useful and comfortable, and the bath products can be used or sold for money.) For me, this lit-prize business is at least as much about the social aspect as about the books themselves.

Via compiling the Goodreads list of MBI eligible books, all of the longlisted titles and covers were familiar to me apart from Celestial Bodies. (At some point I'd looked at Sandstone's website, didn't see any translated fiction, assumed they didn't publish it, and failed to check again - although I did with many other similar publishers' sites. Doh!) There are a few titles I hoped not to see - but I'd acclimatised to that by making myself a list a few weeks ago of about 20 books I didn't want to be longlisted and looking at it a few times.

I'm delighted to see The Years on here. I've been slowly reading this over the last couple of weeks (savouring it and looking up references) and it's the only 2019-MBI eligible book I've read that I love *and* which feels like it has the buzz of greatness about it. (I loved Marie Darrieussecq's Our Life in the Forest because I connected with it personally. I loved Vernon Subutex 2; I think that VS as a whole is important, as well as a great fun read - and it's rarer still you find both of those in one package. But volume 2 is really the middle section of a 1000+ page novel - VS was originally meant to be one book - and structurally and rhythmically it doesn't work as a standalone, which I think is important for a prize like this one.) When a couple of other forum members said last week "I don't feel like I've read the winner yet" - I said I did, and The Years was that book. I'll be surprised if any of the other longlisted books top it in my estimation.

Drive Your Plow is the only one of these books I'd read in full before the announcement. Whilst I'm not sure about all aspects of the book, I (unusually) think it's a better work than last year's winner Flights, also by Tokarczuk, and more complex in the way it plays ideas and tropes off one another. A good contender for the shortlist.

I read Hubert Mingarelli's A Meal in Winter when it was shortlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) - and didn't like it. Four Soldiers has the same premise - a historical novella about a small band of military men, set outside Mingarelli's home country of France. I don't think it makes sense to read a book by an author whose very similar previous work you disliked, especially an author who isn't a stone-cold classic, and normally I'd steer clear - but the Shadow Jury project necessitates an exception to the rule.

The Pine Islands, with blurb about "a journeyman lecturer on beard fashions in film", and its West European male protagonist's trip to Japan in search of stress relief, suggests a satire on hipsters hitting middle-age, although the tone seems quite serious. It'll be intriguing to see how this works in English, and I'm very grateful to Profile Books for sending out a PDF review copy of this so quickly. Thank you!

The Death of Murat Idrissi makes me apprehensive, although it's the shortest book on the list. When I first noticed it a couple of months ago, I thought it could be controversial, but that it was more likely it wouldn't get much attention in the online world of translated lit, because a white male author was writing about women of colour. The story didn't interest me a great deal, and it was also not something I wanted the responsibility of reviewing, because I don't know anything about the North African disapora in the Netherlands - I'd rather read reviews by people from or close to that community than write my uninformed own. Then, a few days ago, I saw a Twitter thread from an Arabic literature specialist expressing reservations, and hinting that the book might be a big deal. (The latter puzzled me at the time…) As Death of Murat Idrissi is apparently based on a true story, I'd like to find out more about that before reading the novel. By now, I've had a quick look at the first few pages, and the prose, for what it's worth, is superb. (Murat Idrissi, along with At Dusk, The Years, Mouthful of Birds- and brand new additions Celestial Bodies and Drive Your Plow is currently available on the UK version of ebook and audiobook subscription service Scribd, which I use regularly and which is good value if you are okay with reading on a tablet, desktop or smartphone.)

Also intimidating for a different reason is Can Xue's Love In The New Millennium. Can Xue is one of the most notoriously difficult writers in contemporary world literature. Her novel The Last Lover won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), an American prize which often favours experimental literature. I read a small amount of The Last Lover in 2016, and the opening chapters, about Joe, his clothing company and his wife Maria, seemed okay (I gather it gets more complex later) but life got in the way, I put the book aside and still haven't returned to it. In the last six months, I've read Satantango, and Tom Jones (one of the longest novels I've ever finished, and which had been 'on hold' in a similar manner after reading a little bit in 2011) - but Can Xue seems a different order of things altogether.

Favourite cover designs

Of the four books with my favourite cover designs from among the MBI-eligible titles, two were longlisted. If only I'd used them as predictions, that would have been a 50% success rate (unlike my actual predictions).

Longlisted: Jokes for the Gunmen - short stories (Granta). A plastic toy soldier can be an eloquent image in modern art as it is. Here, covered in multicoloured paint, it has a (literally) new layer of fresh, subversive playfulness, offset by the sober grey background.
Very eye-catching.

Longlisted: Mouthful of Birds - short stories (Oneworld Publications). Original design may be from PRH USA imprint Riverhead, which published it slightly earlier. Iridescent butterflies: beautiful, but disconcerting in their thick multitude. (As the story will indicate.) Their wing pattern reminds me of old striped present-ribbon. And making the lettering look as if it's light projected on to the mass of butterflies is another lovely touch.

Balco Atlantico (Maclehose Press). I'm not much of a summer person - but that sea, sky, secluded house and perfectly-chosen sunshine-orange border make me think again. Idyllic lighting and great composition in this photo.

Tokyo Ueno Station (Tilted Axis Press). There's so much going on here, and I really want to know the stories (or maybe metaphors?) behind these scenes.

Predictions and pre-prize reading

As almost everyone posting in the translated fiction blogosphere and GR discussions has said, not many of the widely-predicted titles are on this longlist.

Some of those I'm glad not to see on here - e.g. Javier Marías' 500 pager Berta Isla. 350 pages of him in 2014 IFFP and BTBA longlister The Infatuations was quite enough as far as I'm concerned. Fans say The Infatuations isn't his best work, but when one former Marías aficionado described the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy as 'James Bond with cod philosophy' I concluded I wouldn't like it any better - the cod philosophy was one of the most irritating aspects of The Infatuations. (And the only Bond film I really love is Skyfall.)

There were other touted books I was looking forward to reading: Sjón's CoDex 1962 (I've read all of his other novels translated to English), Tokyo Ueno Station, EU political satire The Capital by Robert Menasse, and two titles from new Latin-American focused small press Charco: Resistance by Julián Fuks - an author who's had some unfortunately timely press coverage because of Bolsonaro's election in Brazil - and The German Room by Carla Maliandi.

I realised last autumn that I was still doing too many "duty reads" - books I didn't expect to like much and which I was reading because they fitted the MBI prize criteria, were available (especially as ARCs or library books), and were short. (I usually have a good idea of what I will and won't like, and only one of said 'duty reads' from among the MBI-eligible titles - Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq - turned out to be an unexpected 5-star.) I still read a few of these duty books in Feb-March, and although I found Last Children of Tokyo very interesting, there were several others I rather wish I hadn't read, instead spending the time on longer eligible books I wanted to read regardless of the prize (such as either of the two new books by Evgeny Vodolazkin, finishing Lala by Jacek Dehnel, or the titles mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Drive Your Plow and The Years are the two on this longlist I'd previosuly read, in part or in whole, and in both instances I wanted to read them regardless of prize eligibility. Maybe I'd be saying something different if The Order of the Day, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants and other books I've read but didn't love *had* appeared on the list. But in general I see less and less good in reading a book because you think you should (assuming this is for leisure reading, unpaid blogging etc and not for study or cash). One blogger @Mondyboy, came up with an excellent metaphor on Twitter for the surprises sprung on well-read translated fiction bloggers by this longlist: "it's like you've done your homework, but for the wrong class". I'd rather not approach it like homework in the first place - over the past five years or so, I've already read enough books I didn't like by doing things that way - would rather read for enjoyment and intrinsic interest rather than to try and anticipate the decisions of a group of 5 other readers who are being paid to read an even larger number of books. And on the subject of reading books only because they are widely talked about - after many years of feeling one should in order to stay in touch - I am coming round to the idea that a polite "it really wouldn't be my sort of thing" is a better response than baffled embitterment about one's own time and media column inches expended on the thing. (I think a really well-written hatchet job - that old Fleet Street tradition - can still be great, but it must be witty, and they are difficult to get right.) Saying all this feels foolish and cognitively-dissonant, as I've just read Four Soldiers, and rated it only 2.5 stars. But I read it because I'd signed up to the MBI bloggers' Shadow Jury, which I've wanted to do for years, and had vacillated about joining before. Very happy to have been accepted once I said I wanted to go ahead with it.

Let the reading begin… (Or rather, it already has).

Soundtrack: Pastoral by Gazelle Twin

3 March 2019

Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb, tr. Alison Anderson

[3.5] My first Amélie Nothomb book (and the author's 25th novel). I don't think I've ever read a novella which read so much like a short story. Its economy of style and summary descriptions of time passing are like a paradigm of the short form's approach to long durations. In tone and content it feels like an intermingling of realist fable with case studies from psychology and self-help texts.

The focus is family psychodrama. In 1971, beautiful, egotistical teenager Marie has started secretarial college, and can't wait to launch herself into the era's burgeoning youth culture and put her stamp on life: "Wherever you went, you heard: “Make way for the young.”". But within 6 months she is pregnant and married to the local eligible bachelor (a genuinely nice young chap) in her provincial French home town - and she feels that *her* story is over. Thereafter there are only a handful of references to culture or the news, and the reader is placed into the inner life of Marie's perceptive eldest daughter Diane, trying to come to terms with a mother who is jealous of her. The narrative follows Diane from babyhood through her exemplary school career and the birth two siblings - while she spends more and more time with her loving grandparents - to university as a workaholic postgrad medical student, where, with the magnetic female lecturer she assists, she re-enacts her relationship to her mother.

Much like psychological case studies, there are aspects of Diane, Marie and their relatives which can be achingly relatable, or familiar from people one knows, but the story and pattern is a little too tidy. Real people, if one knows them well enough - not just via brief acquaintance or forum posts - don't often conform this neatly to labels; they have bits and pieces that don't fit, or they seem partly like one type and partly like others.

My reading experience oscillated between emotive identification and finding plot points contrived or plasticky. I loved Diane's realisation from an early age that no matter how much you understand the inner workings of a difficult parent, above-average insight and empathy does nothing to change them; apparently you're good at this thing, they may even say so, but it's irrelevant: the brick wall remains steadfast. I've seen a family where a lovely grandma, apparently inexplicably, had also produced a daughter who was very unpleasant to some of her own children, and tried to make up for it. And Mme Aubusson was different enough from Marie - and in the initial descriptions of her similar to several teachers I liked but most other kids were scared of - that I found it wholly believable that Diane might be drawn to her. The book is spot on about the attitudes of some medics of that older generation:
"You’ll see what it’s like, dealing with heart patients: nine times out of ten, the pathology is caused by excess fat, and the treatment means putting the patient on a diet. When you tell them to stop eating butter, they’ll look at you as if you were a murderer. When they come back three months later and you’re surprised there’s been no change, they will tell you a blatant lie: ‘Doctor, I don’t understand, I followed all your recommendations.’"

But deaths and other big changes in the novel occurred at conveniently deus-ex-machina times; the conversations between child siblings read as if the kids already had grounding in psychology. I could absolutely believe little Diane's inner insight, which was beautifully described as an adult might articulate inchoate understanding many years later, but the utterances often read as if the kids had got the concepts from a self-help book, rather than expressing them as experienced, or as if thinking of them anew.

I had recently read this New Statesman interview with Leïla Slimani in which Slimani says she interviewed psychiatrists to help build the sex-addict protagonist of Adèle; this made it seem even more plausible that Nothomb had used case-studies as a starting point for Strike Your Heart, at least as much as the Alfred de Musset quote referenced in the title and which becomes a touchstone for Diane.

Before the last 18 months or so, I was very interested in novels that provided opportunities for psychological processing - but now, I feel like I have gone over the same ground enough times. These books are no longer as compelling as they were, and I'd rather read something with a more outward focus. Not necessarily a stack of state-of-the-nation novels, but a book in which the action is related to the wider world. At the moment, I'm also reading Annie Ernaux's The Years: a 'collective biography' of Frenchwomen born during the Second World War, replete with folk and pop culture, and life lived against a backdrop of politics and social change. That is my catnip, and almost every paragraph is thrilling. Whereas Nothomb's chamber-piece Strike Your Heart - although in its narrow focus appropriately evocative of Marie's effects on Diane, and likely to connect deeply with readers who are in the right place for it - doesn't press the buttons it would have if I'd read it a few years ago, and I'm more aware of its flaws because I hear beyond the chords striking in my head.

As in the Latvian novella Soviet Milk (English tr. 2018, Peirene Press) also about a difficult mother-daughter relationship of the same era in which one of the pair is a doctor (these two books would make a good dual review), I felt that the author doesn't give enough attention to the social and historical circumstances that lead the mother to being in the position she is. i.e. To being a mother in her early twenties when, had she been that age more recently, she may be more likely to have decided motherhood was not for her at all because of her mental health and dedication to work (Soviet Milk) or to postpone it because she wanted to live 'for herself' more first, as has become entirely normal.

This is a book that could be a 5-star experience for the right reader, although it wasn't for me. It doesn't entirely put me off reading more Nothomb, especially as many of her books are short, but if I tried one more and also found this case-study like aspect to it, I wouldn't be keen to read further volumes.

The review on Goodreads

Goodreads and book blogging

I've been reviewing books on Goodreads since autumn 2011, and the posts on this blog are, so far, pasted from there, sometimes with minor edits. Whilst I've long been in the habit of weaving other topics and tangents into my reviews (inspired by the LRB approach, although I'm not pretending these posts are as polished as an LRB article), a blog provides the opportunity for posts on other subjects, or on groupings of books, in a way that Goodreads does not so readily - and I hope to write a few of those on here.

I have also written reviews of films and music on similar social cataloguing sites, but it has been around books that I've found the most interesting discussion and a place for the sort of writing I wanted to do.

The worlds of Goodreads and of [literary-fiction] book blogging have crossed over increasingly in recent years, with more bloggers participating on GR, but there are still some differing values and trends. One is the aversion in the blogosphere, small literary journals and new media sites to posting negative reviews - often these reviewers aspire to, or already do, mix with authors on social media and/or at literary events, so it can be awkward to criticise their work, and they do not have the permanency and status of newspaper critics or tenured academics, who can be negative with fewer consequences. Meanwhile, there are places on Goodreads (such as the Feedback Group) where it is openly stated that prolific posters have lower trust in others whose average rating for books is too high. As on quite a few topics, my opinions have evolved over the last few years. I grew up reading British broadsheet book sections of the late 1980s onwards, and the music press of the 1990s; the hatchet job was considered an art form and as a teenager I wanted to be a journalist. So it's not surprising that I felt more at home in a setting where negative reviews were welcome - even though I don't write a lot of them in practice. (Life's too short to spend your leisure time reading books you don't think you'll like.) However, the polarisation and increased antagonism of online discourse and wider politics in the last couple of years has meant that I no longer see old-school Christopher Hitchens style polemic and bluster as something to aspire to in online discussion. (His pronouncements on being prepared to change one's mind, however, remain a touchstone and regardless of my disagreement with some of the directions in which he changed his in his last decade.) I've always felt it's important to try to understand other viewpoints without losing oneself, but it feels more important now. It's a complicated - and interesting - time to talk about the way and extent to which opinions are expressed, and I don't have any definite conclusions, which may be for the best. Anyway, I figure that for now, I will not cross-post negative reviews to the blog, apart from one or two of my favourite essay-reviews which are substantially about other topics as well as the book.

I have wanted to write about books for places other than Goodreads for several years now, and a handful of friends have tried to nudge me towards it - but I blocked myself with, among other reasons, but not limited to, a diffidence about the other social media which are the best avenues towards this, and a lack of inspiration and pessimism about pitching from scratch. (Whereas with duller commercial writing, there are listings or ads to respond to, and there's a reasonable sense of what is required).

The bloggers' Man Booker International Shadow Jury (or IFFP Shadow Jury as it then was) is a project I've wanted to participate in since I first became aware of it. I think it was in early 2016 when I first tentatively enquired about getting involved, but I then decided not to do it. Actually going ahead with it - there's never going to be a perfect time, so I may as well get on with it - is a way of giving myself a kick up the arse towards writing about books beyond Goodreads.

19 February 2019

The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard, tr. Mark Polizzotti

Winner of the 2017 Prize Goncourt, newly translated to English and published by Picador UK in January 2019.
⭐⭐⭐ ½
What is the purpose of novels like this one, with stories that stick closely to real historical events?

I can only suppose that here, one purpose was to relate history in a style different from a serious non-fiction history book. And, if you are not otherwise very interested in the minutiae of the events, and don't object to the addition of the occasional sneeze, speculation on how a historical figure felt, and conversations about [classical] music politicians were known to like, it makes for more lively reading.

The other is perhaps to get the attention of that subgroup of literary fiction readers who rarely pick up a history book - especially in a case like this, where historical events are related with an eye to contemporary political relevance; it is one of the countless books that could share the title The Nazis: A Warning from History. It addresses support for the Nazis from German big business of the 1930s, and the stages of the Austrian Anschluss.

The Order of the Day is very short and was first published, in France, in May 2017 so it's reasonable to assume it, or most of it, was written in 2016 - although French writers were already concerned about the rise of nationalism a little earlier: there are several far-right characters in Virginie Despentes' Vernon Subutex 1, released in January 2015.

In 2016, analogies between the Nazis, the 1930s, and current global politics seemed urgent and novel to Anglo-American readers of centre and left-leaning mainstream news, but over the last 2-3 years they have become commonplace cliché, and been joined or superseded by more nuanced comment that we should be mindful equally of similarities and of differences. So The Order of the Day does not feel as fresh and timely as it may have when it was entered for (and won) the 2017 Prix Goncourt.

In a recent discussion thread, The Order of the Day was mooted as a potential inclusion on next month's Booker International longlist, as a 'Brexit book'. However, in the UK, the Brexit vote created divisions which do not mirror those in the novel, especially as readers of translated literary fiction are more likely than the average person to be Remain supporters, and most moderate individuals are tired of the accusation of "Nazi" being flung around by both sides. The Order of the Day is bookended by chapters indicting German captains of industry for financially and politically enabling the rise and endurance of Hitler's regime; they felt that a Nazi government would provide a stable environment for business. (For those outside the UK, big business is overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, and this is known to probably everyone in the country who's able to understand the news - but the idea of 'dark money' backing a no-deal Brexit only has currency among politics geeks on the left.) Near the end of the book, Alfried Krupp - son of one of those business leaders, and who, behind a facade of good publicity for making reparations to Jews, is said to have made anti-Semitic remarks and dragged out the reparation negotiations deliberately - "would nonetheless become one of the most powerful figures in the Common Market, the king of coal and steel, a pillar of Pax Europaea." The pro-European idea of the Pax Europaea as a strategy to prevent a similar war or repression happening again does not obviously come up in the book. Nazi entanglement with German manufacturing is shown as an inescapable legacy, in the same way that historians of colonial slavery in the Americas have shown that its influence remains with us not only because of racial inequality, but in via Western taste for sugar, coffee and cotton.

I don't think The Order of the Day works as a Brexit novel specifically- it is better seen as one relating to the rise of the far right in general, and a cautionary tale about the complacency of neighbouring countries - British and French inaction and appeasement are prominent in the diplomatic scenes.

Although recent events do not bear out some of Vuillard's details:
It’s strange how the most dyed-in-the-wool tyrants still vaguely respect due process, as if they want to make it appear that they aren’t abusing procedure, even while riding roughshod over every convention.
Whilst it is overkill to describe Trump as a tyrant, this generalisation about dangerous political leaders is clearly not true of him.

Other reviews, and blurbs, for the book have described it as narrating a series of steps by which the Nazis rose to power and war became inevitable. However, it jumps straight from the meeting of business leaders with Hitler in early 1933, to the 1938 "summit" which preceded the Anschluss. There are many points in between which could have been highlighted if charting that trajectory was the novel's aim, not least Britain and France's impassive stance on Nazi involvement in the Spanish Civil War. It isn't clear to me why Vuillard has chosen the Anschluss as his focus (perhaps he is implying that another power should have invaded and destroyed the broken-down German materiel near Linz, starting the war earlier) - but it was quite interesting, as I haven't studied the political history of WWII formally since secondary school, and most of my own reading has been about social history or tactics. There were quite a few details here I hadn't heard before, or had long forgotten. I suppose I've never actively sought this stuff out because I still find it a bit distasteful reading about the Nazi leadership without comedy to take the edge off - these warmongers without whom none of my grandparents would have met, and two of them would not have had to hide in cargo crates - and in some echo of that, I felt slightly nervous through the 1930s and the war in the book, and relaxed once the narrative got to the Nuremberg Trials and we've 'survived'.

The first review I read of this book was from the Spectator, posted in a Goodreads discussion thread. There was some suggestion that the Spectator reviewer disliked the book because of opinions in the narrative. Not those about Hitler and other major politicians, which it describes as 'uncontroversial' but some phrases about business, for example: Corruption is an irreducible line item in the budget of large companies, and it goes by several names: lobbying fees, gifts, political contributions.. Or perhaps the hints that the contemporary global situation is growing more and more like Chamberlain's dinner party with Ribbentrop, where the PM, a model of upper-middle class politeness, continued to listen to the German ambassador's small-talk without confrontation, although he'd been handed news of the Anschluss.

For me personally, the most interesting and confrontational point was part of a sentence from Lord Halifax: "'And I daresay if we were in their [the Nazis'] position we might feel the same.’ Such were the foundations of what, still today, we call the Policy of Appeasement."
For those of us who grew up with the ideal of listening to, understanding and empathising with all sides - and that it was more laudable to strive to understand those on the other side than to be partisan (a product of the tail end of the post-war consensus and the dawn of third-way politics) the recent shift towards polarised extremes and no-platform/don't debate fascists is disorientating. It is hard to find your footing when some of the ideas you learnt as the polestar of everyday morality don't always correlate with magnetic north any more, but sometimes they still do. Now the rules have different patterns, but only in some places, and the pin of the compass won't quite settle.

Otherwise, for me the most interesting parts of The Order of the Day were not about political leaders. They were about the lesser-known famous people mentioned in passing, like the artist Louis Soutter (whose drawings, made in an asylum, Vuillard sees as an unwitting allegory for the looming war); the tennis player Bill Tilden, about who Ribbentrop bores on; and the brief list of ordinary Austrian men and women who killed themselves as the Germans were, to all intents and purposes, invading, and the life stories Vuillard imagines for them.

I am not sure to whom I'd recommend this book - it seems like something you'd read because you think you should, or because it won't take long - but if you want to know more about the Anschluss beyond its definition, whilst recognising that this is slightly embellished fiction, this novella is less dry than a textbook, and short enough not to overstay its welcome.

(read & reviewed Feb 2019)

12 February 2019

The Last Children of Tokyo aka The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, tr. Margaret Mitsutani

Winner of the 2018 US National Book Award for Translated Fiction, under its American title, The Emissary.


A curious blend of dystopia and utopia, with themes extrapolating from recent events and trends. It is set in a contaminated future Japan where the elderly are super-fit and support everyone, and children are plagued by severe health problems. In this world, most countries are isolationist. For its subject, it has an unusually peaceful and quirky tone and atmosphere, one which may be familiar from light Japanese literary fiction.

Many details of its world-building do not fit together logically, and are far from hard SF - but it makes a refreshing change from the standard projections of future technology and society in scenarios of environmental degeneration, which become hackneyed once you have read enough of them, and which are often American, or American-influenced. I was especially alert to the material and world-building aspects of Tawada's novel because recently, I attempted to plan a story starting in 2095; I had wanted to push past the sometimes lazy received wisdom of the usual American collapsitarian guys, and I ideally wanted to be able to have a logical story behind every object around my characters and everything they knew and thought. Where and when was this made, with materials from where and how did it reach them, or how has it survived? Where did they learn what they know? What influences their words and accents? What communications or media reach them and by what logistical and material means? How would social relations develop with and without various items, taking into account that this is also development from the present, not just a reversion to the past? It was overwhelming to try and work out such stuff along with questioning a lot of material I'd previously read, and I felt a surprising sense of relief at some of the cop-outs involved in Tawada's strangely cosy dystopia, in which it's not terribly clear how the economy works, and in where a Japan that apparently does not import anything from abroad nevertheless has solar powered items (although not in vast numbers), and advanced medical care. There's also what seems to be an entirely new type of trade, in which some countries (including South Africa and India - two of the BRICS group, you may notice) export language, but it's never explained what this entails.

The novel's world attains a combination of technology usages which would be particularly desirable to left-leaning environmentalists, via a sleight of hand combining the isolationist policy and a fantastical shift in public opinion and science in which "Electrical appliances had met with disapproval ever since electric current was discovered to cause nervous disorders, numbness in the extremities, and insomnia — a condition generally known as bzzt-bzzt syndrome." (The author evidently recognises how central public demand is for consumer electricals, and that trying to get rid of them with legislation would be incredibly unpopular.) It would have seemed more plausible if this condition only affected the children, who are all very delicate and afflicted with multiple novel medical problems. Or perhaps it's connected to nuclear radiation, which is hinted as the cause of the major disaster in the recent past. But the revolt against electrical machinery seems to be universal, and as a result, the only household appliances are now solar-powered refrigerators (I wonder if Tawada also loves those moments when every machine in the home is switched off apart from the fridge freezer). Almost everything else - other than high-tech disability aids and the remaining, shambolic, public transport - has seen a return to pre-industrial manual technology such as cloth, wood and horse-drawn carts, and it's very common to employ cleaners. (There are many parallels to the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s, which has been having a small revival in recent years.) Manual labour is highly respected, and people such as academics also take turns doing work like cleaning school toilets. Resources such as paper have to be treated carefully and there is no unnecessary consumerist tat, the product of the old "global rat race in which huge corporations turned underground resources into anything they could sell at inhuman speeds while ruthlessly competing to keep the lowest production costs".

It is not only different forms of work that are equally respected: the society has abolished the "distinction between useful and useless people" and children are discouraged from using expressions that might even tangentially support it, such as "putting people to a lot of trouble". All the children seem to be treasured by society at large, and by the grandparents and great-grandparents who look after them, and unlike in the real world for all but the very rich with complex medical issues and disabilities, they never have to contend with anyone misunderstanding or disbelieving their problems, or with delays or blocks to accessing any treatments available in their country. The children tend to be calm and good-natured, but rather than this being some sort of stereotype of disabled people as patient martyrs, I see this as relating to the huge difference in stress levels I've seen between disabled people who have to manage on UK and US benefits and other insecure resources, versus those who have comfortable private income or come from countries with the best welfare states, such as an old online friend from Norway.

This level of respect and provision on an apparently national scale is a relatively recent phenomenon in recorded human history, but as far as other aspects of the book's society are concerned - the isolationism, the pre-industrial technology and the frugal use of resources - it was no surprise when references to the Edo Period (1603-1868) began to appear more and more frequently. From the first few pages onwards, it had already looked as if the novel was alluding to the Edo, and probably to modern usages of the period, where the Edo is held up as a real-life model of a sustainable society: see for example here, here, here, or here, and more informally in the environmental blogosphere. This page mentions in addition that "Today, the Japanese have an insatiable appetite for all things Edo. This goes deeper than the daily long lines outside the Edo-Tokyo Museum or the very popular historical dramas on TV every Sunday evening." Tawada refers to historically inaccurate usages of the Edo for political ends, when the wise great-grandfather protagonist tries to contradict them: " When Yoshiro submitted an essay entitled “Japan Was Not Isolated” to the newspaper, they refused to publish it. He wrote it to show how strong Japan’s connections to the outside world had been during the Edo period, through the channels of Holland and China, but the newspaper’s official scholar refused to give it his stamp of approval. He decided to hang onto the manuscript until the next time a magazine asked him for a contribution, yet strangely enough, all those requests from magazines dried up completely after that."

The allusions to the Edo may be clear, and the contaminated land and health effects strongly suggest radiation (not to mention the blurb's mention of Fukushima) but exactly how and why things became this way is never really explained, and the government is shadowy and faceless - no one is quite sure where it is based any more, and no politicians are ever named, although there are allusions to capricious changes, and policies restricting freedom of speech on certain topics, or the ability to settle outside your home region. This vagueness often reminded me of another odd and not altogether logical literary dystopia, J by Howard Jacobson. However the repressions and changes rarely seem as frightening as in J. Other than people being anxious not to mention a few topics, chiefly to do with abroad, society remains mysteriously ordered, peaceful and in a way friendly, for a country which has gone through major upheaval and has next to no visible police - there isn't the suspicion that anyone may denounce you, which stalks fully totalitarian dystopias. (The police are privatised and now mostly concern themselves with their brass bands.) Foreign words are strictly to be avoided (though writing should be in Chinese characters), likewise mannerisms (waving is now up and down, like a maneki neko, not side-to-side), and travel abroad is forbidden. However, a mixed-race school teacher, Mr Yonatani, does not appear to face discrimination. "Though his mother was so attached to the name Yonatan that she wanted to keep it as her own, at a time when having non-Japanese relatives was enough to bring you under suspicion, such a foreign-sounding surname was sure to be a strike against her. She did, in fact, often feel she was being watched. She would come home to find signs of a break-in; even when nothing had been taken, the police would come round to investigate."

It's hard to tell what is intentional and what is accidental in the generally cosy and sometimes whimsical style of this book. Sometimes we are told that aspects of Yoshiro's life are unpleasant or sad - and it might sound boring to a reader in their twenties - but his life of enduring good physical healthy, jogging with dogs (rented), trying to get decent fruit from the market, having someone to look after for whom state services provide well, and apparently not having to worry about money sounds pretty pleasant compared with a lot of people's lives now, even if there are a few things he needs to be careful not to say. His great-grandson Mumei has a lot of medical problems, but until late in the book, physical pain and discomfort is only rarely mentioned. Before that they seem like logistical matters, described in such a way that the reader doesn't feel them (nor the physical aspects of helping) - and because most kids have similar problems, and schools always have doctors on hand, he doesn't feel unusual or left out. The way the characters are narrated is strangely unembodied. (After mention of Mumei's digestive problems, I thought another oblique Edo reference might appear - the He-gassen or fart scrolls [N.B. link includes thumbnails of pics which in close up are NSFW], but there was nothing like that whatsoever. Ribaldry isn't a big part of this book) As I found the beginning of Tawada's Memoirs of a Polar Bear *too* embodied, uncomfortably so, it was surprising to find the opposite here.

I wasn't sure what the reader was supposed to make of the Emissary scheme. I found myself worrying that the children might not be treated well at the other end - but I'm not sure where that came from. Perhaps because the attitudes and services for them seemed so positive in Japan, and it was easy to imagine things being worse elsewhere, because almost anywhere in the real world, they are.

It would be interesting to hear what Japanese readers think of this book, as it is easy to see it as the novel of a writer living abroad. There are passing references to international concerns such as climate change, or pollution leading to spontaneous sex changes in wildlife, and the book presages a shift away from globalisation and towards nationalism (it was first published in 2014). But in terms of Japanese issues, it appears to be referring to those that are well-known internationally, such as Fukushima, the ageing population, young people refusing to carry on traditions, and restrictions on inward immigration - even the early 2010s youth fashion for grey hair - and Yoshiro's descriptions of central Tokyo and come from the memory of a character who has not been there for years.

This is a strange little book, and its light approaches to (or outright elision of) a number of serious issues have put off some readers. However, if you are getting bored with the typical cli-fi and environmental decline dystopias, while remaining interested in the general idea - and you aren't too irritated by illogical worldbuilding - this may be an interesting change.


My response to this book is quite different from that of a lot of Goodreads posters and bloggers.
A lot of people find its scenario wholly negative.

- The kind and generous way disability and chronic illness is treated in the book's society won't be so noticeable to people who haven't had to deal with what the equivalent would be like IRL, service provision problems and so on. The heavy presence of disability and illness in the narrative may be more frightening to those who are not used to disability as a routine part of everyday life. They may focus more on the fact that there is so very much disability about in the book's society - i.e. an entire generation.

-It depends on readers' quality of life and/or what they have witnessed first hand. Aspects of some dystopias (ones that do not have totalitarianism or total societal breakdown) featuring middle-class characters from countries with very high quality of life in the present (Scandinavia is usually the case in point) can seem quite okay compared with difficult real lives. I didn't even get much sense of a class system in this book. It seems rather egalitarian.

- Quite a lot of people will think the return to earlier technologies in many spheres merely sounds frightening. But not only does it work here on a day to day basis and the people are apparently happy with it - it conveniently sidesteps the most common dispute when people advocate such stuff "what about healthcare?', by having advanced tech still around for that. (Even if some characters do think that there might be better advances abroad or possible to create by international collaborative working.)

- In the last few months I have been reading a lot about Stalinism and the Eastern Bloc: the political repression in this novel is not on that level, nor is it presented in as scary a tone.

- A lot of the other reviews focus strongly on the words / language / things characters can't say. If that is the aspect people care and think about most, or personally feel to be most different from now, the scenario in the book will feel worse.

(Read & reviewed Feb 2019. See the review and comment thread on Goodreads.)

31 January 2019

Soviet Milk by by Nora Ikstena, tr. Margita Gailitis

This Latvian autofiction from 2015 was widely acclaimed in its homeland, and its English translation was published by the London-based specialists in translated European novellas Peirene Press in March 2018. I read it at this time because it was longlisted in January 2019 for two awards, the Republic of Consciousness Prize (a UK award for small-press literature) - which has a bit of discussion on the Goodreads group I'm active in, The Mookse and the Gripes - and the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) Literature Prize.


This seems like a good novella to read if you're interested in exploring the history of the Baltic States through literature. It's about lives lived, a daughter and mother, under the final 20 years of Soviet communism, a period not covered so often in other recently translated novels I've encountered, and it's one of the too-small number of Latvian books translated to English.

But if you are already familiar with the history, and/or were alive, even in the West, to see it on the news, the book (or perhaps this English translation) over-explains the basics of events and general tendencies, and avoids some specific vocabulary; for example samizdats aren't called samizdats, but "photocopies of smuggled books". It still includes some beautiful descriptions of local scenery and everyday items, but it feels like a novel written with an eye to a mainstream foreign market, or for young people in its home region. Maybe these explanations were added in the translation, but I'd have expected Peirene Press to assume a greater level of knowledge than this in their audience - perhaps the translation was done this way to make it palatable for sale to less boutique-y publishers outside the UK.

That would be understandable, as novels about difficult mother-daughter relationships - a small subset of those also with references to milk in the title (e.g. Deborah Levy's Hot Milk) - have been a recent publishing trend. I'm not sure that Soviet Milk stands out enough from these - although perhaps the mother having a serious full-time professional job (a gynaecologist) helps it to differ from all the books about mothers who were housewives, who were unable to work, or who did not identify themselves with a career. There are, though, some experiences in Soviet Milk which don't get a lot of coverage in fiction and drama, especially being a young carer, and being in a lone parent family which has a decent income.

I didn't especially like the way that the story was presented, and from a more objective standpoint this is, frankly, petty. I'd noticed Soviet Milk described as "autofiction" shortly before I read it, and I would rather have read this story presented as a memoir, with the adult daughter's understanding and analysis sitting alongside events rather seeing things presented from the child point of view, including incidents where a lack of wider knowledge and context underlay the apparent negative feeling, e.g. Hamsters do sometimes eat their young - this was well known at my primary school. Latchkey kids were a common phenomenon in Western countries in the 1970s too, and under Russian communism from its earliest days. The lack of childcare whilst the mother worked was systemic rather than a personal failing. A child doesn't experience such things in the aggregate, yes, but these understandings are part of the process of mature, informed adult making-sense of the past. (I often asked myself, especially in the early part of the book, whether it was framed the way it was as a literary device, or because it reflected where the writer was at psychologically. If the latter, my criticism was particularly unfair.) Sometimes understandings emerged as the narrator grew up, but I had already felt frustrated and irritable too often while reading the book, and I would rather have read this material in a different narrative framework.

I usually find it contrived when characters in novels are very passionate readers and find books a means of survival - it seems like a cheap tactic designed to get a certain type of reader on side, when a lot of real people get solace in other ways: however it also makes sense in the family context, as the mother's obsession with literature probably contributed to her daughter becoming a writer; and besides literature feels more valuable when it is something genuinely difficult to obtain, as it was under Soviet Communism, than when there is a surfeit.

And, whilst it isn't an issue that affects me personally, there are some women readers who would find it a problem that the book symbolically equates breastfeeding with being a good mother.

There were a lot of moments, especially in the first two thirds of the book, when I felt the book could have done a better job of explaining why characters felt as they did. It was just assumed the reader would get things. It seemed to be on an oddly surface level for a psychological novel. About many of the situations and sentences, there were questions a counsellor would ask to probe further. I want a memoir or autofiction to answer more of those. Although this silence could also be an effect of the setting, of living under the Soviet system: one had to keep some doors closed in one's head (about Latvian independence, personal feelings or their intertwining) and the type of self-reflection now encouraged by Western psychology was not a readily available tool - so why would narratives about c.1969-89 use it? Perhaps it is also a question of the ultimate unfathomability of chronic severe depression to a person who only gets reactively depressed: regardless of whether you grok it, it simply has to be accepted that it exists and some people experience it; and a child or teenager witnessing it may not understand it that way, and also has plenty of other problems to deal with.

I wasn't totally convinced by the mother's first person narrative. The voices were too similar, especially given their differences in age in the daughter's earlier years, and, although asterisks always marked a change of narrator, I sometimes forgot and would only realise a few paragraphs in that it was now someone different telling the story, and I would skip back and re-read with that context. It didn't go into much depth in describing how the mother felt in being away from the city and not fulfilling her youthful ambitions. She was living in what, to many, could seem like an idyllic location doing useful work with lower pressure than in an urban setting (the sort of life of which great memoirs are made - being a rural doctor with a great rapport with patients in a vanished world). I had to try and extrapolate, and remember that while that sounds idyllic to me now, I'd have felt exiled too if I'd had no choice but to live in such an area much before the age of 35 (she is only about 25 at the start). But it's a psychological novel: shouldn't it be saying what that meant to her? Should the reader have to mess around with guesswork and projection? Better for it to be a memoir in which the narrator says openly that she didn't understand such and such about her mother, or she imagined her mother might have felt like____. But fiction has more of an international market than memoir, so if you are writing in a small language, autofiction is a cannier choice.

As my irritation decreased, a day or two after finishing the book, it became easier to see a few positives. The mother is presented as excellent at her job and worthy of respect for that. It is absolutely not some kind of searing indictment of her as a person. It shows without telling the paradox that her child gave her motivation to live and do useful work despite her severe depression, at the same time that she wasn't terribly good or suitable as a mother (although there are also many worse out there). In a society where motherhood was not put on a pedestal, she perhaps would have made a conscious decision not to have a kid. The mother is an example of a sort of person known in psychological literature to be especially sensitive to conditions around her, conditions which don't affect the majority that way. It's previously been difficult to provide accessible supporting links for this idea, but this recent review of a new book, The Orchid and the Dandelion, now makes it possible. In Soviet Milk there isn't any of that romanticisation or overt association between mental illness and brilliance which is common in western literature, including medical memoir, see for example Kay Redfield Jamison. (The mother's bosses are instead puzzled by their coexistence in one person.) The mother's abilities academically and in bedside manner, and the severity of her depression, are both major features of her life, but they are not seen as inevitably interdependent.

The background feelings about Communism and independence were particularly similar to those I've previously encountered in Estonian literature (e.g. Sofie Oksanen). I guess this is inevitable given the similar circumstances and location of the countries, and the shortness of this book not providing more space to explore what is distinctively Latvian. There are a couple of Latvian books I've been thinking about reading for years, High Tide by Inga Ābele, and Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš, but Soviet Milk is the first time I've actually got round to reading one. For the first experience of reading a book from a country, there was surprisingly little that felt new about it. Although it would take more than one novella to get a feel for a country's literature and its distinctiveness.

I am puzzled by the very high average rating for Soviet Milk. It strikes me as a work similar to Guguły by Wioletta Greg: a short autobiographical or semi-autobiographical book about a girl growing up in the later years of the Communist Bloc, containing both lyrical descriptions and tough experiences - one which is going to connect strongly with some readers but not be overwhelmingly special to others. Yet Greg's book has an average of 3.79. In Soviet Milk, there is more material on the psychological repressiveness and occasional benefits of the Communist regime, because the family was more directly affected, and because the writer is five years older, but this subject had been documented in many novels before. There must be something unusual about Soviet Milk within the context of Latvian literature, and which I am missing. It would be good to know more background about it.

(Read Jan 2019, reviewed Feb 2019; the review on Goodreads.)

7 January 2019

Marta by Eliza Orzeszkowa, tr. Anna Gąsienica-Byrcyn & Stephanie Kraft


A short feminist novel set in 1870s Warsaw, published in English translation by Ohio University Press for the first time in 2018. Marta is a young upper-middle class woman whose husband has just died, leaving her almost no money. She discovers that her perfunctory education in ladies' accomplishments has not equipped her for the limited range of jobs available to women - while working-class women of her age already have years of experience under their belts - and she struggles with increasing desperation to support herself and her small daughter.

Eliza Orzeszkowa is most famous in Poland for On the Niemen (1888), a longer, rural, novel which is on the school curriculum. (It has so far only had a self-published translation to English.) So far as I can tell, Marta is the first new professionally-published English translation of any Orzeszkowa work for decades, which is quite exciting if you want to read Polish classics in English. (There was previously The Forsaken (1980?) and The Argonauts (1901).)

Marta has been variously described as melodrama, as social realism and as naturalistic. Eliza Orzeszkowa was part of the Polish Positivist cultural movement, of realist writing influenced by Dickens, Balzac and Zola, of watchful stoicism about Poland's occupied status, and, as was was popular in much of 19th century Europe, middle-class advocacy for hard work and social and technological progress. The Positivist outlook was also a pragmatic way of staying safe whilst maintaining a public voice, especially under the more repressive Tsarist regime that ruled Warsaw and the rural area where Orzeszkowa lived for most of her adult life. (Somewhat greater latitude was possible in the Austro-Hungarian zone in the south.) As Prof. Grażyna J. Kozaczka explains in the introduction to Marta,
"The Polish intellectual elite, the intelligentsia, found Positivist ideas very attractive as they justified the rejection of military actions in favor of refocusing attention on rebuilding Polish society and ensuring that cultural connections persisted in the nation split among three separate foreign empires. Positivists set their goal on organic work that involved using only legal means to achieve the cultural and economic growth of Polish society."

Marta is based on a "there but for the grace of god go I" scenario. Some years earlier, Orzeszkowa had taken the unusual step of divorcing her husband, and her opportunities were also limited by the ruling Russian regime's restrictions on Poles who, like her, had supported the 1863 uprising. But due to her considerable language skills, she was able to support herself with translation, writing and publishing work. She was aware that similar financial independence was not possible for most of her female peers.

In the years immediately after it was written, Marta had a significant impact in Polish and other Continental European languages. The protagonist's situation was commoner in Poland than in some other countries due to "the loss of estates due to punitive confiscation or poor management in the changing economy", as Kozaczka explains in the introduction; and that it was soon translated into, among others, "Russian, German, Czech, Swedish, Dutch, and even Esperanto". Borkowska says that it "became the bible of German feminist movements".

This pan-European impact was probably enhanced because, as Kozaczka notes, the Polish setting is not strongly emphasised. Locations are mentioned, but the novel's subject is the unprepared woman struggling to stay afloat not in Warsaw in particular, but in the city in general, which "takes on a menacing quality" now she is unprotected by her husband: the late-19th century city a-bustle in the process of industrialising and commercialising.

"the great city assumed the form of a huge hive in which a multitude of human beings moved, surging with life and joining in a race. Each one had his own place for work and for rest, his own goals to reach, and his own tools to forge a way through the crowd."

"Here, as everywhere else, the degree of a worker’s well-being is in direct relation to the excellence of what he produces." [Whilst these days, at the level of work Marta is trying to obtain, consistency, presenteeism and promptness are probably more important provided there is basic competence.]

A handful of features pop out as locally distinctive. There are some attitudes and thoughts more Catholic than Protestant, although none which changes the story. The most noticeable was the preference, even in shops selling goods of feminine interest such as haberdashery, for dapper male staff - who were considered good for business because they were attractive to wealthy female customers; this is also a major feature of The Doll by Bolesław Prus (1890), the greatest Positivist classic. (These men were expected to flirt, but not *too* much.) It contrasts with the popular figure of the late 19th-century and early 20th-century shopgirl in Britain, and Zola's The Ladies' Paradise.

As someone from a professional middle-class background whose capacity for work and earning is, for health reasons, not what I once thought it would be, I expected I would feel a connection and sympathy with Marta, regardless of the story's overt didacticism and its fairly basic style of writing. I also anticipated it would be interesting as a historical document.

In a translation where one is reading both the author and the translators for the first time, and the translators are also quite new to book-length fiction, it's not easy to be sure how much of the style reflects the original. However, the small amount of commentary I've been able access in English suggests that the flaws were in Orzeszkowa's writing. "Her first works are not very well-written and may only be of interest as testimony to the author's sympathy for the trends of modernization,", says Grażyna Borkowska in Ten Centuries of Polish Literature (2004) (p. 182). Czesław Miłosz, in his History of Polish Literature (1969, rev.1983) implies that although novels were her most famous output, they were not, perhaps, her forte: "their technique is old-fashioned and perhaps not up to the level of the exceptional mind which she revealed in her correspondence with the most eminent intellectuals of Poland and Europe" (p.303). She recognised this herself, saying in one letter, "If I was born with a creative faculty, it was a mediocre one. That spark was a little enlivened by considerable intellectual capabilities, and great emotional capabilities, perhaps too much for one heart." (p.314).
Whatever one thinks of Orzeszkowa's writing, she had an interesting life and mind: perhaps a biography would be more interesting than some of her novels, and she may have been better-suited to non-fiction writing. But novels were where the opportunities lay in her day. Between the lines of Miłosz's (and others) descriptions of her, I'm seeing an intellectual writing "accessible" fiction to earn money to live off, and because it got her message across:
"the most open to new intellectual trends, and until her death in 1910 she reacted with understanding to currents which seemed to the Positivists just madness" (p.304)
"her abundant literary production could be qualified as 'populist' although the term has not been used in Polish criticism" (pp.304-305).

The simple style made it readable on occasions when I might have been too tired for more complex writing, and - though it's much long since I read Frances Hodgson Burnett to be wholly confident of similarities - I often thought of A Little Princess when I started reading Marta, not least during the scenes in her new, spartan accommodation. Although unlike a children's book, one shouldn't necessarily expect a happy ending. I always felt that likelihood that made it better and more honest. This feeling was captured by some lines in an article about burnout that went viral the weekend just before I finished writing this post: "In the movie version of this story, this man moves to an island to rediscover the good life, or figures out he loves woodworking and opens a shop. But that’s the sort of fantasy solution that makes millennial burnout so pervasive." Yes, that kind of stuff gets annoying and obscures real problems. I found myself preferring this 19th century story to many contemporary ones, because it seems truer to those who fall through safety-nets, whilst so much recent material still assumes a greater level of security than actually exists now for plenty of people, as compared with 10-20 years ago.

This was one of those novels in which the author seems to be warming up, as the writing becomes more gripping further into the story. Its trajectory follows Marta through increased levels of need, from early stages which will probably be most recognisable to other people originally from comfortable backgrounds, such as trying to refuse wages from a kind employer for work of a low standard, although she had put a lot of time into it and needs the money. It is about the process by which such principles are whittled away as she becomes better acquainted with real need and what it entails. She learns to work backbreakingly hard for a while and survive on a couple of hours' sleep a night for weeks doing two jobs. But because her skills are few, and training opportunities non-existent, there is further to fall.

As the novel's crescendo built towards the end, I found a description of a state of mind I hadn't seen written about so recognisably before - it was possibly the character's background as well as the timing. Of moments of discovering the operation of a clawing, reflex-level, almost spasmodic desperation for the means of further survival - who knew little bits of money could matter that much, not that they looked like little bits any more - in which former care about manners and propriety is sunk and unfelt; and how it feels depersonalised, dreamlike and surreal, for this is not an existence one ever expected - expectations still lodged in a subconscious quite untrained for these circumstances, built for a life in which requests would mostly be answered and sometimes not even necessary. I read much of Marta around the same time as Vernon Subutex 1 - very contemporary but also dealing with a formerly comfortable character's descent into destitution - and for a few days the two novels were a small chorus, showing a situation which is a social problem, but one not seen as so bad now, because these people have been more privileged in the past, and there will always be some decisions people will say they could have made differently (albeit more so in Vernon's case than Marta's).

Kozaczka makes a powerful argument which quotes Kelleter and Mayer from Melodrama!: The Mode of Excess from Early America to Hollywood: “the melodramatic mode has always lent itself to stories of power struggles and to enactments of socio-cultural processes of marginalization and stratification.” There are plenty of occasions when seeing real life in melodramatic terms can be positively disadvantageous on a personal level. But extrapolating from this cultural relationship between melodrama and inequality both prompted me to re-evaluate forms and tropes that have often been derided in more recent times - and to consider that rather than being antiquated, it may be a form and tendency *increasingly* suitable for arts in the contemporary landscape of growing inequality and political polarisation, manifest climate change and mass population movements - shaking up the background complacency remaining after the stability and optimism of recent decades in most Western countries. (The news has already become more melodramatic over the past two and a half years - illustrating some of the drawbacks of melodrama as a real-life format, full of, in Kozaczka's words about the form in general, "the unambiguously drawn conflict between good and evil set on the stage of a “modern metropolis”; the effusive expressions of feelings; and the presence of stock characters who may not have deep “psychological complexity,”¹⁹ such as wealthy villains and beleaguered heroines whose virtue is constantly tested—should not to be discounted altogether.")

Despite what I thought when starting Marta - and my reservations in recommending it for anything other than historical interest - the style and the melodrama doesn't seem to have been an obstacle to other recent English readers either: several, on GR and one in this blog post by a judge for the 2019 US Best Translated Book Award, have also found the book more involving and affecting than expected - so there seems to be something about it; maybe it's not just me.

(Read Oct-Nov 2018; reviewed Jan 2019. The review on Goodreads.

4 January 2019

A Christmas Carol and Other Writings by Charles Dickens, introduction & notes by Michael Slater


This Guardian article on Dickens and Christmas nudged me into re-reading A Christmas Carol. The introduction to this Penguin edition even starts with the same anecdote, about the costermonger's daughter who asked “Mr Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”

I rarely re-read books, not least because there are too many classics I wish I'd read, and which I haven't yet read once, to launch myself into a project of re-reading. But also because I know that re-reading is more time-consuming both to do and to write about, because it's not just about the book and the current reading experience, but a reconsideration of what I'd previously got out of the story. (This post is, for the moment, just about A Christmas Carol and not the other Christmas Writings. People's appetite for Christmas material is probably already waning on 4th January, and I don't expect to finish this whole collection by Twelfth Night.)

The early pages of A Christmas Carol remained so familiar that I thought it might be basically impossible to review the book. It was simply itself and that's how it was. Goodness knows how many times I'd read them when I was growing up - I'd been given two different editions as presents before the age of ten, and would have opened and browsed them frequently. The only surprises were that some of Scrooge's anti-Christmas rants were genuinely funny, and that he was suffering from a cold throughout proceedings. However, I found it less familiar once I hit Stave Two, and more possible to think about it as I would another book, although every now and again, there were occasional sentences that had resounding familiarity from childhood, because they'd just got into my head, like "who and what are you?" or because they were probably captions to illustrations in other editions.

It was hard to tell whether this is an effect of my own early habituation to the text, or if I was spotting genuine influence at work, but there is a tone here which seems like the essence of British children's writing, especially, though not only, children's fantasy writing, and fantasy stories which aim to have cross-age appeal. Did Dickens essentially invent it? Or did he simply popularise it so that almost everyone since has been influenced via his work? Probably its greatest contemporary exponent is Neil Gaiman - including with that storyteller voice and occasional authorial breaking of the fourth wall that has become connected with the trust many readers have in his public persona (a clause which I feel could be saying equally about Dickens or Gaiman). I don't read much in the way of contemporary children's or YA, but it's also the tone A.L. Kennedy was going for in her Little Prince spin-off, The Little Snake, which I read a few months ago.

Often the sentences seemed astonishingly modern - noticeably more of them would work in contemporary writing than would sentences from, for example, Henry Fielding, written a century earlier. Perhaps this is due to the overwhelming popularity of the Carol which has led a huge readership and reuse, often unwitting, of many of the phrasings. I did not find myself struck by modernity of wording in the same way when I read the less popular Hard Times a couple of years earlier. But just when I was marvelling at all this, of course there would come along some paragraph really quite antiquated and tangled to 21st century ears, showing that this is indeed still a work of 1843.

What never would have occurred to me as a kid is that Scrooge is essentially forced through a rapid course of psychotherapy in order to effect personality change - only he didn't seek it out himself. (Did Freud read much Dickens?) Its transformative outcome in either three days or one, depending how you measure time in the book, is one that promoters of accelerated programmes like the Hoffmann Process can probably only dream of. He is made to examine how the past made him who he is, including a number of painful moments which reawaken a dormant capacity for a variety of emotions; he is shown the adverse effects he has on others, and his separation from what are considered healthy social norms; and then to reinforce it all, just in case his repentance - to use a term from religion that would have been recognisable to early Victorians - is not yet deep and sincere, he is forced to look in the eye the probable future consequences of his current way of life. His response to the final Spirit is basically the idea of psychological integration: "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future."

The main, intended, message of A Christmas Carol is one of charity, and, ultimately, in tandem with Dickens' other works, the need to improve economic equality. However, I think that alongside this it also ends up showing lavish material consumption (via spending rather than hoarding of money) as a sign of being good-hearted. (Picking out unhelpful influences I absorbed from books and films when I was younger is, for me, an inevitable part of revisiting them. In some cases these influences occurred because I didn't properly understand the wider context or social norms beyond the work, but in the case of A Christmas Carol I think it's something the text in its many forms has actually put into the wider Anglo-American culture. 'Moderation in all things', or lagom to use the Swedish term increasingly fashionable in English, is not what it's about.) Whilst Scrooge is possibly malnourished himself, living on gruel to save money, Scrooge's nephew's house evidently has more than anyone could ever need. Bob Cratchit definitely needed a substantial pay rise and decent heating at work. (Which I think of all the more keenly knowing some of my own ancestors were unhealthy Victorian clerks, and another a milliner like one of the daughters.) But his Christmas dinner sounds very nice as it was - and would he have even been able to cook that giant turkey? Would the local ovens have had space for a thing like that, which would have normally been bought by a wealthy household? Would it have cost them more to cook and delayed neighbours' dinners by taking up communal oven space? I guess in an age of extreme wealth inequality there is lavishness and there is poverty, and Dickens' own life story had a hand in how he showed this. Issues of the later 20th and 21st century - of prevalent commercial and media pressures to overconsume leading to stress and overspending, and of ecological depletion - were certainly not on the radar of the Hungry Forties, when mouthwatering accounts of mountains of food could provide thrills and comfort to poorer readers who were scraping by, much as the Cratchits were. Slater's introduction refers to real letters readers sent to Dickens also saying how much they loved the scene of the family's dinner. Which, it’s interesting to see, includes a Christmas pudding cooked in the laundry copper - would that affect the taste? (I assume the name 'Cratchit' is supposed to have a scraping-by sort of sound and perhaps to echo Tiny Tim's crutch, but its echoes of 'crotchety' and 'crabbit' mean it also sounds ill-natured in a way that emphatically does not suit Bob and his family.)

The abundance of works like this one, showing great positive change in difficult people, can also lead to frustration over the years, as one gradually discovers that, in the reality of adult life, people do not necessarily change and 'grow' as much as would be helpful - but that is hardly peculiar to A Christmas Carol.

However, in terms of evaluating A Christmas Carol by modern mores, I suppose one can't much fault Dickens on healthy eating! Often in the 19th century, meat and carbohydrates were valued over vegetables, which could be seen as a food for the poor. (No sprouts to spoil the Cratchits' dinner!) Yet a paragraph this ecstatic about veg and fruit (Dickens even sexualises it somewhat) could only fit these days into food or travel writing; anywhere else it would sound like a parodic escape from a public health campaign - normally it is cakes and chocolate that are extolled this way:
There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars; and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.

The notes in this edition seem very good. There is very little in the way of material so obvious it's patronising, and only a couple of things missed out which could have done with notes: " a twice-turned gown" and " like a bad lobster in a dark cellar" (in 2018 the combination of lobsters and basements made one think of Jordan Peterson fans; goodness knows what greater significance it had in 1843).

Something I keep mulling over more generally about Dickens is how he was, in his day, so effective in his social reform agenda, and so well-loved by readers, whereas fiction doing the same now - not least because he's done it before - easily comes across as either mawkish, or written by and for a particular small audience (which has in the past couple of years come to be called 'liberal elites'). As far as I can work out, reasons for this on a larger scale would have included the reform-mindedness of some 19th century parliaments, the prevalence of some strands of Christianity, and the abundance of cheap energy fuelled industrialisation which required better education and thereby societal participation of workers. Whereas nowadays many people are aggrieved about declining standards of living, making them feel, en masse, less inclined to share, and the economic underpinnings have a different trajectory. (Not that Dickens didn't have opponents, of course. The introduction mentions that the Westminster Review condemned him, in June 1844, for his ignorance of political economy and the ‘laws’ of supply and demand: ‘Who went without turkey and punch in order that Bob Cratchit might get them – for, unless there were turkeys and punch in surplus, some one must go without – is a disagreeable reflection kept wholly out of sight [by Dickens].’ But this was a predictable reaction from Utilitarian extremists. ('Utilitarian extremists' seems somehow an absurd phrase now, if utilitarianism is an abstract idea from introductory philosophy courses, but evidently they were a thing!) Yet although the sight of the poor was surely more familiar to the wealthy of the 18th and 19th century than to their 21st century contemporaries in many western cities, people were shocked by reports on working and living conditions - Earlier in the year [1843] he, like Elizabeth Barrett and many others, had been appalled by the brutal revelations of the Second Report (Trades and Manufactures) of the Children’s Employment Commission set up by Parliament.. Were many shocked this way, or were plenty of others inured? There was evidently some shift of ideas and sentiment which I've not really read about, and of which Dickens was no doubt part - it was not just underlying economic factors, even if they are the growth medium - which made those with power gradually start caring more and doing more. The biggest change was the post-WWII welfare state, but there was a broad trajectory of improvement over the century or so before that. Something I'd like to read more about.

What Christmas is as We Grow Older is a short piece Dickens wrote in 1851 at the age of 39. The introduction explains the background: for some years Dickens had been struggling with memories of family members and friends who had died, and he had started to find Christmas increasingly sad because of this. This article is a kind of resolution in which he concludes that it is fine and right to think of them as well as of those present, and to remember youthful ambitions unfulfilled as well as enjoying what is happening now. (Although probably the latter had been easier for him, as a successful man.) It mirrors the integration he'd written about Scrooge experiencing, but after he'd had more struggles of his own that marred his wish to find Christmas special. It shows how much death it was normal for someone of that age to have experienced at that age in the Victorian era (very different from now, though I thought of one good friend who, quite recently, at the same age, lost a much-loved parent), and that regardless of its being a universal experience then, and despite Dickens' religious belief, it was still a struggle. I'm sure this is the sort of writing that makes some people scoff at Dickens' sentimentality (the bit about child angels especially); and I couldn't help but speculate that it might have annoyed people who knew the less pleasant sides of Dickens' character - yet overall I found the piece incredibly moving; it instilled a sense of reverence, and before the end I cried in a way few books have ever provoked (not just welling up a bit, the actually-need-a-handkerchief sort) and couldn't read anything else straight afterwards.

(Read Dec 2018 - Jan 2019; reviewed January 2019. The review on Goodreads.)

2 January 2019

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Winner of the 1979 Booker Prize


This was lovely, and I think it suffers, poor thing, from miscategorised expectations. A lot of 21st century readers approach it as A Booker Winner, but seen that way, by readers who are seeking out old Booker winners, it may seem inconsequential - to quote Warwick's (a Goodreads friend) review of Fitzgerald's The Bookshop, "teetering on the edge of tweeness". However, if it were placed alongside the likes of Persephone Books, it would fit perfectly among their collection of escapist, elegantly written realist works by mid-20th century British women writers, "neither too literary nor too commercial", or "quality middlebrow": comfort reading from a lower-tech, slower world. But more down-at-heel than the typical upper-middle-class setting of Persephones. This was something I'd been looking for anyway - reaching for a description a couple of months ago I'd said "like Barbara Pym but grittier"… Offshore is also more eccentric.

It's a world with characters like this:
"Richard was the kind of man who has two clean handkerchiefs on him at half past three in the morning."
But it also undercuts some of the pretensions of the conventional world of well-off land-dwellers:
"The waiter invited them to choose between coq au vin and navarin of lamb, either of which, in other circumstances, would have been called stew."
and the bohemians themselves:
"Like many marine painters he had never been to sea."
and has awareness of the ways people may feel about their circumstances:
‘There is nothing to be ashamed of in being poor,’ said Heinrich. ‘Yes, there is,’ Martha replied, with a firmness which she could hardly have inherited either from her father or her mother, ‘but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t go and look at things.

It even has the occasional inadvertantly amusing double-entendre that adds entertainment value to many vintage books.

Offshore has the comforting feeling of "a children's book for adults", set in the romantic but grubby world of Thames houseboats, in which everyone is escaping in one way or another from conventional lifestyle, and has "the curious acquired characteristics of the river dwellers, which made them scarcely at home in London’s streets". Its shabby-genteel 1960s setting, which could have been any non-wartime decade from the 20s to the 80s, felt like the world of many books I read as a child and teenager. And as in all those stories found in kids' books, of children having adventures unsupervised by parents (a few of which actually happen in Offshore as well), there are among these grown-ups the scattier people and the sensible ones who look after them. This houseboat world is one which appealed to me when I was younger, before I realised that living in small cramped spaces with things sliding about on surfaces, wouldn't be idyllic, even if I stopped being a martyr to motion sickness. No matter how much I badgered for a barge holiday as a child, we never went on one: quite right, as I would have spent the week literally puking and whining, and it would have been a stressful waste of money and time off. However, it was a joy to experience houseboat life second-hand via Fitzgerald's characters. She had lived on a barge herself and uses many technical terms for parts of the boats; she manages to make boat life picturesque (and picaresque) to read about, whilst not concealing the inconveniences, making it, rightly, something many would want to hear about, whilst showing why plenty of people wouldn't want to live it themselves:
"All these old boats leak like sieves. Just as all these period houses are as rotten as old cheese. Everyone knows that. But age has its value.’"

I loved the way that, near the beginning, a guided tour is overheard describing the boats as an "artist's colony" - although in fact only one resident is an artist, as is so very much the way with real-life bohemias I've encountered. Among the others are two financially secure chaps with, or retired from, office jobs who just prefer barge living to houses. There's a rent boy named Maurice, no doubt after the E.M. Forster novel published a few years before Offshore. (As I'd only got round to watching A Very English Scandal - considered one of the best TV programmes of 2018 - a few days before reading this, I kept hearing Maurice as a more grounded version of Ben Whishaw's Norman Scott). Nenna is a quondam classical musician, sweet but generally hopeless at life skills - in a way an attractive middle class woman could still just about carry off back then - separated from her equally incompetent and disorganised husband; her two daughters are exactly the sort of clever children that fans of books like this one would have wanted to be friends with when *they* were kids themselves - though to older eyes, one has taken on rather a lot of codependent / young carer characteristics.

Alan Hollinghurst's introduction explains that the book is set in the early 1960s, although when characters venture out to the King's Road, it becomes a blended, dreamlike version of the whole 60s in which preteens are excited to buy cheap Woolworths cover versions Cliff Richard records, while hippie boutiques waft incense. There are little details about the era otherwise rarely heard, like the late opening times of the fashionable shops:
‘I should like to visit a boutique,’ said Heinrich. ‘Well, that will be best about five or six, when everybody leaves work. A lot of them don’t open till then.’

How the market for a marine painter has dwindled since the 1920s and 30s: "After the war the number of readers who would laugh at pictures of seasick passengers, or bosuns getting the better of the second mate, diminished rapidly."

I had thought a fashion for interest in the 18th century was an 00s thing, but perhaps the revival started earlier: "The brewers to whom it belonged, having ideas, like all brewers in the 1960s, of reviving the supposed jollity of the eighteenth century"

London has changed so much in certain ways:
‘42b Milvain Street, Stoke Newington.’ ‘In Christ’s name, who’s ever heard of such a place?’ (Did that already sound comical in the late 70s?)
and so has Britain:
‘You don’t have to stay there! There’s plenty of jobs! Anyone can get a job anywhere!’

These were common types of shop on the Kingsland Road, which wouldn't be seeing gentrification for another 45 years or so: "Radio shop, bicycle shop, family planning shop, funeral parlour, bicycles, radio spare parts, television hire, herbalist, family planning, a florist" … was this the early-60s equivalent of listing vape shops, nail bars, those places that sell mobile phone covers and suitcases, charity shops and bookies - or something more local and specific?

Commuting from Northampton was already going on, although not for cash-strapped young professionals desperate for a toehold on the property ladder, and who can only dream of these hours:
Oh, a gentleman’s county,’ Pinkie replied, wallowing through his barrier of ice, ‘Say Northamptonshire. You can drive up every morning easily, be in the office by ten, down in the evening by half past six.

Fitzgerald has a good understanding of Catholic schools and the ideas learnt there:
"It came to her that it was wrong to pray for anything simply because you felt you needed it personally. Prayer should be beyond self, and so Nenna repeated a Hail Mary for everyone in the world who was lost in Kingsland Road without their bus fares."
It wasn't difficult to believe (as some schools did far worse) that praying publicly for certain pupils and their families happened then. Martha's instinctive affront at this, a sense of strong boundaries she has developed despite, or somehow in response to, her muddled family life, made me think again about something - indignation about knowing one is being prayed for - that I'd seen as a feature of the New Atheist movement.

In a conversation between a sixth-form age boy and an eleven-year-old developing a crush on him (the one part of the book which would be frowned on today), Fitzgerald's 1995 historical novel The Blue Flower is prefigured: "you are like the blonde mistress of Heine, the poet Heine, wenig Fleisch, sehr viel Gemüt, little body, but so much spirit’. He leaned forward and kissed her cheek"

If I'd read Offshore in my teens I suspect it would have stayed with me as a favourite in a rosy glow, alongside similar books like Rumer Godden's The Greengage Summer, with the perfect balance of cosy and slightly but discreetly unsuitable, books I probably wouldn't dare re-read now in case they weren't as good as I remembered. It was still lovely to read now, although not such an event, and shows a bohemiana akin to that which overwhelmed me with nostalgia in Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton (1987), one almost gone now, apart from a few ageing survivors, due to astronomical property prices and the need to spruce everything up for social media. For a while I thought I was going to be disappointed by the ending, though it seems to have worked out reasonably well - however Offshore does suffer a little from the idea that it's more 'literary' to have a partly inconclusive ending. These days it would seem braver, with growing respect for genre in the literary world, to go ahead and write a neater ending in a story like this one, which would suit it - unless planning a sequel (which if this were a recent film, it would surely get) - but that wasn't how things worked 40 years ago.

(Read Dec 2018, reviewed Jan 2019. The review on Goodreads.)

Popular Posts