Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Reading group: Distant Star by Roberto Bolano

John has read several of BolaƱo's door-stopper novels but the book of his he suggested for the group is short, a novella, and in fact an amplification - or correction, as the author's note has it - of the last chapter of a longer work, Nazi Literature in America. It consists of the reminiscences of narrator Artruro B (whom we can read as an alter ego for the author), along with reports he has heard from others down the years, concerning an enigmatic figure, Carlos Wieder. His first encounter with Wieder was as a student poet in Chile in the early 70s. At that time Wieder goes under a different name, Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, and though clearly not a student - he calls himself an 'autodidact' - arrives on the student-dominated left-wing poetry scene. He stands out for his difference, his expensive clothes and accommodation and his somewhat distant manner, and immediately captures the hearts of the Garmendia sisters - the most accomplished poets in the group, with whom the other male members are unrequitedly in love. When the army takes power under Pinochet in 1973, the left-wing students are scattered, either arrested or gone into hiding or disappeared, and by the end of the first chapter, which began with wry depictions of student poetic and romantic passions, it is clear that 'Ruiz-Tagle' has been an informer of a most viscous kind.

The narrator's next encounter with Ruiz-Tagle, now known as Carlos Wieder, comes when the narrator is a prisoner arrested by the Pinochet regime as a suspected terrorist. The prisoners are exercising in the yard when Wieder, now a pilot in the Chilean airforce, appears on the horizon in a WW2 Messerschmitt (a 'distant star' - the motto of the Chilean airforce refers to the stars). Directly above the prison he writes in the sky the beginning of the Vulgate version of the Bible, which mesmerises and spooks those watching below. This is the first of his patriotic and repressive sky writings and part of his fascistic avant-garde performance-poetry project, for which he becomes generally feted and enamoured of the regime.

At this point Wieder drops out of Artruro's narration as Artruro recounts the subsequent fates of some of his fellow poets, including a heroic tale about their former poetry professor Julian Stein, which when Artruro's friend Bibiano O'Ryan tried to track Stein down, turned out to be probably not true. Inevitably, however, Wieder pops up once again in the narration, and in Artruro's life, like a bad penny: after his release (without charge) from prison, Artruro, like so many, left Chile and wandered in Europe, and he tells now of then hearing occasionally of Wieder's exploits, in particular of a photographic exhibition of the worst atrocities of the regime, a graphic representation that so offended its officials that Wieder was subsequently sidelined and disappeared from public view.

Artruro narrates how he was finally settled in Barcelona when he was approached by a Chilean private detective, Abel Romero, and we are now treated to Romero's story - inevitably entangled with the country's recent history - and it seems as if Wieder once again has dropped from the focus of the novel just as he dropped from public consciousness. But guess what, Romero turns out to have been employed by an unidentified avenger to find Wieder, and he has come to Artruro bearing various neo-fascist avant-garde magazines in which he would like Artruro, with his poet's eye, to look for possible pseudonymous writing by Wieder. After some searching, Artruro does identify Wieder's writing in one magazine, after which Romero is able to track him down living under his new pseudonym surprisingly close by. The two set off there by train and Wieder is finally 'dealt with' by Romero.

John and I had thoroughly enjoyed and admired this novel, and were surprised by the reactions of some of the group -  those of Jenny, Doug and, most especially, Mark. Mark had found it tedious, lacking in narrative drive and all over the place with its stops and starts and changes of focus. John had indeed begun the discussion by saying that the book was 'all over the place', but that this was deliberate, and artistically interesting. The novel doesn't so much centre on Wieder as circle him, and the way he drops out of the narrative (making it seem to switch periodically to a new focus) is a formal representation of the way Wieder drops in out of things with his dissemblings and changes of persona, as well as the switches and uncertainties of life under a totalitarian regime. I said I found very satisfying (and horrifying) the sense it gives of the impossibilty of escaping the sinister forces of such a regime, the way they underpin and connect everything even when they seem to disappear from view. I said too that the uncertainty about Juan Stein's fate, which others, in particular I think Jenny, had found unsatisfying, was surely instructive, illustrative of those horrifying uncertainties. 

Basically, though, Mark's opinion was that this wasn't a book with an easy entry for an uninitiated audience. He and the others had said that they were bored by the early pages concerning the poetry workshops - nothing happens, they said, until the atrocity at the end of the first chapter and the revelation of Wieder's true role. If you guess from the start that Ruiz-Tagle/Wieder is an informer in the student camp - as did Ann, who had lived as a child under a similar regime, and as did I with my personal experience of political organisations - then those early pages are charged with tension, but this was sadly lacking for them who, with no familiarity with the experience, did not. I'm thinking now, as I write this, that perhaps one difficulty for an uninitiated readership is that at this point the narrative takes the viewpoint (though ironically) of the unsuspecting students, an irony to which an audience familiar with the experience would be much more readily attuned. Mark also really disliked the long lists of poets, which for me and John graphically signalled the tragedy of a regime that suppressed poets - they are a kind of memorial - (and the irony of the fact that in our own country poets would never be considered so important as to need to be suppressed). As a result of this difficulty in engaging with the book, Doug (agreed with by Mark) said he had not been at all able during the reading to get to grips with the point of Wieder's so-called artistic exploits, the sky-writing and the photographic exhibition, and he didn't seem immediately convinced by our explications - that they were illustrative of the fascist avant-garde, and the way that art, including poetry, can be subverted for immoral and political ends. Jenny agreed with them both. She didn't like the lack of clarity or the lack of a decent narrative arc, and was unimpressed when I said that I felt that these were functions of the postmodern aspects of the book, the fact that it was about the unreality and uncertainty of both life and literature.

It was left to John and Ann and me to praise the book. I said that it had shocked me with the gut reality of something that I had only heard about at the time on the news in the corner of a suburban living room. Ann said how the book opened one's eyes to the multinational nature of Chile, as marked in the multinational names of the characters. John was very affected by the links you can make between elements of the book and our present day political situation - Wieder's religious sky writing and the religious fundamentalism embraced by the contemporary right, the way that the regime embraces a popular figure and the way politicians do so now, and the link that occurred to him between the regime's obsession with Wieder's aerial career and Trump's obsession with appearing everywhere with Air Force One in the background. And by the end of the meeting both Mark and Doug were saying that they would go away and look at the novel again and reassess.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Reading group: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I recommended this Booker-shortlisted book as I had loved it when I wrote about the books on another shortlist it made: the 2018 Young Writer of the Year Award.  It's the first-person narration of Daniel, who tells the story of how, at the age of fourteen, he lived with his father and elder sister in a house his father built in a Yorkshire wood, the remains of the wooded Celtic kingdom of Elmet, which once stretched right across Yorkshire. Neither children attend school.  A sensitive boy, Daniel keeps house and makes a garden, growing vegetables and cooking, while his sister Cathy prefers to learn the tough, foraging ways of their father John. John is something of a giant of a man, renowned among the drifters and travellers on the edge of society for winning wagered bare-fist fights, somewhat lawless but fiercely moral when it comes to fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, in particular against cruel landlords and landowners. As someone in the group said - I think Ann - he's a latter-day Robin Hood who is indeed name-checked at the start of the book when Daniel describes the wood in which the three settle:

The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up the undergrowth and back into our lives... Robyn Hode and his pack of scrawny vagrants...

It is not long before the three begin to feel threat from the owner of the land on which they are living, and we are soon caught up in the violence that erupts when those on the edge of society come into conflict with it over land and property.

The book begins with one of several italicised sections occurring through the book, in which, in the aftermath of the shockingly violent denouement, Daniel is drifting throughout the country looking for his lost sister. The bulk of the story, seen through this lens, has too an elegiac and mythical, almost fairytale quality, and the prose in which it is told is both tough and lyrical. As I said in my earlier blog I found the book engrossing - exciting and moving, and drenched in an atmosphere that is entirely affecting. I said then that I found one fault with it, which was that perhaps the lyrical language and some of the thought processes were too sophisticated to have been expressed by the fourteen-year-old Daniel who has not long escaped the violent ending of the life in the wood. However, on my second reading it occurred to me that we are not necessarily meant to take this period of Daniel's life as the narrative time frame - the present tense in which the italicised sections are told could be read as historic.

Most others in the group wholeheartledyly shared my enthusiasm. Mark, who couldn't attend, phoned beforehand to say how wonderful he thought the book was, and how amazed he was that a debut from such a young author (Mozley was 29 when the book was published) could be so beautifully written and so mature in its insights. Others entirely agreed, and there was much admiration for the convincing nature of the depiction of the tough and violent underside of society, of the simmering violence of those seemingly 'civilized' and in charge, and indeed, by implication, the fundamental violence of capitalism. We also found, in the way the characters of Daniel and Cathy upend conventional expectations, an insightful examination of gender. 

There were just two waverers. John said he found the book 'long-winded' - which basically took our breath away; we simply couldn't see how he could have thought that of a book so compelling, the pages of which you just kept turning. He said it took far too long for something to happen, ie for the landowner Price to start threatening the little family. We totally disagreed and thought he must simply have been having an offday and unable to attend to the book properly: we felt that both the existential threat to the family and the threat of violence from Price are there from very early on. Jenny expressed some dissatisfaction: she found that there were too many things that were unlikely or unexplained. For one thing, people don't just build houses in the wood like that in this day and age, and what about the children not attending school, that would surely have been followed up. We all strongly disagreed. For one thing, the mythic, fairtale quality of the book allows suspension of disbelief, but in any case, children do sometimes scandalously fall through the net of contemporary social structures. As for the house in the woods, well, apart from the fact that some of us knew of makeshift woodland houses of homeless people to which the authorities are turning a convenient blind eye, there is a substantial plot twist involving the children's mother which  explains (the character) John's sense of his right to the piece of land on which he builds (and also Price's impulse for  revenge). Jenny also said she didn't think a girl could in any way manage the acts of violence and strength carried out by Cathy at the end, but we all disagreed - as (our) John said, at the end it would be a matter of the training she'd had in the woods, but also fundamentally it would be the element of surprise - after all, a main thing that had prompted the family's retreat from society was that Cathy, who has inherited her father's mindset and strength, had beaten up the boys who bullied Daniel in school, but was punished because no one could believe that a girl could do such a thing. 

I don't think we convinced Jenny, as when Mark asked at the next meeting what we'd all thought of the book, she reiterated her criticisms, but she did also say both times that she'd enjoyed it and found it engrossing, and we praised it all over again. 

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Friday, October 23, 2020

Reading group: The Braid by Laetitia Colombani


This was our first-ever zoom meeting, conducted in lockdown. Most of us weren't much used to zoom at the time, and when John and I bumped into Jenny in the park beforehand - at a socially-responsible distance, of course - she suggested it would stop us interrupting each other, but in the event it did nothing of the sort! 

It was Jenny who had suggested this short book, an international bestseller and apparently a reading group favourite, translated from French. It alternates between the stories of three women in very different circumstances and different parts of the world - Smita in India, an untouchable who flees with her young daughter to save her from the life of clearing excrement to which Smita herself has been condemned; Giulia in Palermo, Sicily, who works in her father's wig-making workshop and must take over when he has an accident and face the fact that, due to the growing local scarcity of human hair, the business faces ruin; and Sarah, a Canadian lawyer whose role and identity as a forceful career woman is threatened by her diagnosis of cancer. These stories run along unconnected, until, through the very matter of hair, they are braided together like the hanks of hair with which Guilia works.

Although this sounds like an interesting proposition, I'm afraid to say that Jenny was alone in finding anything very much to praise about this book. We all thought the way the stories of the women were finally drawn together was somewhat superficial, and, much more seriously, we found the book not at all well written. It's sometimes hard to judge from a translation, as Jenny said in its defence, but there are so many cliches, repeated so often - for instance, Smita gets 'butterflies in her stomach' on the second line of the book, and the phrase keeps recurring throughout - and so much repetitive overstatement, that we felt that the clumsiness and naivity we found in the narration must lie with the original prose. Jenny conceded these things, and was perhaps more confused and irritated than anyone by interjected sections in italics set out like poetry, the unidentified first-person voice of someone braiding strands of various materials. Nevertheless, she said she found the book fascinating, as it taught her things she didn't know, about wig-making, and the fact that untouchables in India have to clear the excrement with their bare hands. Which goes back to a long-running argument we have had in this group - whether or not you go to fiction for factual information or something much deeper and metaphysical.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Monday, October 05, 2020

Dreams into books


Here they are - the fattest (ie longest) book I've ever published! (Though I'm told by those who saw the manuscript that it's a speedy read!) It's always an exciting moment when your author copies arrive - that feeling never goes - but this time I had to bite down on the anticipation. They had been expected to arrive in early September, but it seems that the post is still slow and they didn't come after all before I was heading off to Wales for a week. So there I was amongst the autumnal hills of Snowdonia wondering whether they had arrived yet, and worrying that they might go missing. Had the postman knocked next door and left them safely there, or were they sitting forlorn and exposed on the doorstep? Or been taken away again, only to be lost in the system?  As it happened, when I got back there was a note saying that they were being kept at the post office, so off I hared to stand in a line of masked customers and collect them, and then at last there they were - my years dreaming up the story, the hours of sitting at the desk, the typewritten files and the mounded print-outs, all turned into printed and bound books! It does feel like magic.

Publication day is 15th November. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Astral Travel off to press


I'm so happy to say that Astral Travel, my latest novel, which was postponed due to the coronavirus lockdown, is now scheduled for publication in the autumn, and yesterday went off to the printer's. This novel, unlike some - I wrote Too Many Magpies in six weeks - had a long gestation: I wrote several drafts over several years alongside a load of other stuff.  No draft ever took me very long, but each one was never right, and the final version, which I did write in a white heat, turned out pretty different from the rest, but you could say that the basic idea was a long time developing. So although it was frustrating when lockdown put a break on it just as we were gearing up for publication, it seemed almost like part of the process!

I just have to pull myself out of my state of literary stasis now. Since, like many writers, I couldn't write, and even found reading quite hard, I've spent lockdown in a practical matters, turning this attic room into something useable. (It was worse than this when I started, with huge holes in the plaster, and it's not quite finished yet, papered but not painted, so I don't have proper before and after pics.)


Saturday, May 23, 2020

Coronavirus delays

It will be obvious by now that my novel, Astral Travel, which was due in early spring, has been delayed as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. My publisher Salt predicted rightly that bookshops would close, supply chains break down and sales of books would drop just as we would have been trying to launch the book into the world, and made the quick early decision to postpone their spring/summer list. I'm grateful for their perspicacity and even more grateful that they've now received an ACE grant to help them over the crisis and enable them to go ahead with the list they had planned for spring and summer.

I don't think it's just that that has given me a sense of arrest and has created in me a complete creative stalling. I read that it's not just me who can't write in this situation - other writers seem to be suffering just the same thing. I've thought long and hard about why this should be - after all, lockdown, you might think, is the perfect opportunity to get down to it: all the quietness and lack of distraction that you normally fight for to be able to carve time and headspace as a writer. But there is distraction, after all: plenty of it. In fact, there's so much to think about - making sure you don't stand too close to others, disinfecting or quarantining your shopping, watching all the time what you touch and washing your hands, worrying about your elderly relatives. You have to be on the alert for your environment, you can't just ignore it and live in your head, your day-dream world which is the psychological state that I at any rate need for writing. And it seems to me too that we're undergoing a huge psychological shift in our alignment to the world around us, a shift that is still in flux, and to write, for me, you need to feel pretty sure of your relationship with world, at least for the duration of a project. And we can't know what kind of future, and therefore what context,  you'd be writing into. It's made me realise that when I write I have a definite sense of the society I'm writing into and speaking to: its assumptions and prejudices and contradictions. But will those be different in our post-lockdown or post-coronavirus future, as some hope? Maybe they won't, maybe we'll go back quickly to our old commercial, polluting ways. But to write I need to feel I have a good grasp of at least some aspect of the world, and right now most of it seems so uncertain.

Still, I'm lucky enough to have a garden to tend, and I'm watching the birds nesting in our bushes. There's nothing better to make you feel hope and a sense of things moving forward after all than the sight of blackbirds, goldfinch and sparrows going about as usual tending their nests and their young.

Not a very good photo: he came right up to my chair but I didn't catch him before he hopped off.


Sunday, March 15, 2020

Reading group: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

At last, a book everyone present loved (apart, maybe, from John, for the reason I'll reveal below).

Suggested by Doug, it's the first-person narration of Janina Duszejko, a woman of a 'certain age' with a wonderfully unique take on the world. An ex bridge builder turned schoolteacher, she recounts the events when a series of deaths of men, all but the first clearly murders, occurs in the tiny settlement on a windswept Polish plateau where she lives. All of the men who die were hunters, and Duszejko (she hates her first name) is convinced that they have been killed by animals in revenge. Obsessed also with astrology, she calculates that the fates of these men were written in the stars. She sets out to try and convince everyone else including the local police.

Her letters to the police are hilarious - at one point she lists various instances of medieval cases of animals (such as rats) having been indicted for upsetting human affairs. Needless to say, she is dismissed by the police as a nutty old lady, as she well understands:
I could almost hear [the police Commandant's] thoughts - to his mind I was definitely a 'little old lady'   ... 'a silly old bag', 'crazy old crone', or madwoman'.

John's objection was to the long sections devoted to astrology, which he found offputting. Duszejko does in fact, hilariously, say that she knows they would be boring to anyone not interested in astrology, and most of us took that as a cue to skim them, and we didn't mind. The chapters are prefaced with quotes from William Blake, another original and anti-establishment thinker, whose poetry Duszejko and her former pupil Dizzy are translating.

While some people in our group did think Duszejko could be characterised as mad - in a likeable way: Ann called the book 'gloriously bonkers' - so many of her insights and observations are utterly sane: '... the human psyche evolved in order to defend us against seeing the truth'. And it seems to me that the denouement of this novel - as clever as any in the crime genre the book in fact upends - can be considered as showing that she is anything but mad. It would be hard to go into why here without giving the game away. Suffice it to say that we thought the book great - as well as the English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones: the English translation of several different attempts by Duszejko and Dizzy to translate a Blake poem into Polish was a tour de force.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here