Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Reading group: The Notebook by Agota Kristof

Warning: plot spoil.

John suggested this short and, to quote Doug, 'extremely unusual and thought-provoking' novel.

Exiled after the Hungarian revolution of 1956, its author, Agota Kristof, settled in France at the age of twenty-one, and thirty years later produced The Notebook, written in French, the first of a trilogy of novels concerning twin brothers. This first novel takes the form of the notebook that the clever twin brothers, in this book unnamed, keep after being evacuated as children during wartime to stay with their grandmother. It is a present-tense record of events as they adjust to life under those circumstances, written in the plural first person, 'we', with no differentiation whatever between the two brothers. It charts their self-conscious adjustment to amorality in order to survive in a world of immorality and perversion. They learn to steal, blackmail and even kill, always as a matter of expediency for both themselves and the downtrodden others they help. We can assume that it all takes place during World War Two and in the Hungarian countryside, but neither is ever named, nor are the occupying armies (clearly the Germans and then the Russians), nor the persecuted and murdered Jews.

Our discussion opened with two basic questions that were puzzling members. Firstly, the book is written in a very simple style. Early on in the novel the twins make a rule for themselves for writing: 

...the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do... Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to the description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.

Mark said he couldn't understand how, in spite of that simplicity, it was somehow a really great book. I think that very objectivity gives the book a great poignancy, formally illustrating the repression of feeling that is necessary for the boys to survive (and the reduction of humanity created by war). The simplicity also gives the book a fairytale air and a consequent universality, as does the lack of naming. The novel, too, is full of fairytale-like grotesques, the grandmother who poisoned her husband and deprives her grandsons of basic comforts and the money their mother sends for them, the sexually incontinent hair-lipped girl and her mother who pretends to be deaf and blind, the priest who interferes with the girl, and his young female housekeeper and the masochistic billeted officer, both of whom make sexual use of the twins.

The second question led to the bulk of our discussion. During the whole of the novel the twins speak entirely as one - their utterances are prefaced only with 'We say' - and they are as one in their actions and plans. However: at the very end of the book, their father appears, needing help to escape into the West across the nearby barbed-wire frontier erected by the Russians. They agree to help him. Their father goes over the first section of the double fence, steps on a mine and is killed, and the last words of the novel follow:

Yes, there is a way of crossing the frontier: it's to get someone else to go first.

Picking up the sack, walking in Father's footprints, then over his inert body, one of us goes to the other country.

The other goes back to Grandmother's house.

Clare wanted to know Why? Why, in the first place, did either of them need to go across the frontier when they had finally built themselves a good life where they were? And, more importantly, why did they separate when they had been as one for the whole of the book preceding?

Had they planned together that only one of them should go over, or had one of the brothers been tricking the other? Had one brother been speaking for the other all along; were they not after all as one in their plans as portrayed? I said, but there is no hint whatever that the narrator is unreliable, and everyone agreed. John, who had been profoundly impressed by that ending, felt that, having been so bound together, the twins in the end needed to individuate. My view is that such realist-psychological explanations are inappropriate: the novel is not intended as psychologically realist in that way. Like the notebook it purports to be, it eschews feelings and motives. A question I asked in the meeting, but which never got a satisfactory answer at the time, was Why has the author chosen to make the narrative voice that of twins speaking as one? The answer, I think, is that, rather than realist characters, they are a kind of collective, or at least doubled, Everyman undergoing the universal circumstance of wartime upheaval. Having read about the following two novels in the trilogy (though I haven't read them), it seems to me that the point of separating the twins at the end is to allow in the following novels an exploration of the differing and/or similar circumstances of Communism and capitalism that Kristof herself experienced. However, perhaps reading the first book in isolation led to more psychological interpretations of its ending.

All in all, we thought it a great and memorable novel, which seemed here to be brilliantly translated by Alan Sheridan, and we were extremely pleased to have read it.

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

Friday, May 14, 2021

New story shortlisted

I'm very happy that a new story of mine has been shortlisted for the Short Fiction Journall/University of Essex Wild Writing Prize. I'm not allowed at this stage to say which one of the shortlisted stories it is, as they have to be presented anonymously to the two judges who consider them at this stage. It's a nice boost, as I have felt at something of a distance from writing recently, other, more practical matters having kept me away from my desk and displacing from my head a new novel idea I've had brewing. 

Astral Travel keeps me busy: all four of the videos I made about novels with which Astral Travel has certain connections can now be seen together on my YouTube playlist.

And in June there will be a blog tour for Astral Travel, organised by the wonderful Anne Cater.

And now I think I have a few days at least to sink back into that day-dreamy parallel dimension that a new idea always is...

Friday, April 23, 2021

Talking About Astral Travel (4)

Here's the fourth and last of the short videos in which I talk about novels with which my own, Astral Travel, has some connection. This time two classics I read when I was young, Tristram Shandy and Wuthering Heights. Both have had a huge influence on my writing in general. Tristram Shandy is particularly interesting for its non-linear structure, which seems postmodern long before postmodernism. To me it's a searingly truthful mode, as it mimics the non-linear way in which we tend to think and remember. Wuthering Heights is notable for its structure - a story filtered by first one narrator and then another to whom she tells the tale, in a way that explores viewpoint and the way that stories are experenced and told. Inevitably, with my literary obsession with the fluidity of time and with contingency, Astral Travel carries the imprint of both.

Interview: Lucky 13

Today I'm featured on the blog of energetic writer Matthew Clark Leach. He's running a series of author interviews in which 13 questions are posed, and today it's my turn - answering on subjects from my own writing to my favourite karaoke song. Thanks to Matthew for inviting me. It was great fun!

You can read the interview here.

And Matthew's children's book, Henry Took and the Secret of Christmas, is available here.  

Reading group: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

A long time ago now, we read Beloved by Toni Morrison, considered by many to be her greatest novel, and all of us loved it. This time Jenny suggested her first novel, The Bluest Eye. Although we were agreed that it doesn't have the stature of Beloved, we all also really liked it, and Mark, who couldn't make the meeting, sent word that he had loved it.

Set in post-Depression 1940s Ohio, it concerns the tragic figure of Pecola, a young girl from a poor black family who is so degraded and effaced by the racist white gaze that she longs for blue eyes like Shirley Temple - for, in other words, the only concept she has of beauty, whiteness. With a narrative frame that is the voice of a less downtrodden schoolfriend, now adult, the novel also includes the voices and histories of other characters, in particular Pecola's parents whose stories have led them to the degradation, including at one point homelessness, in which they end up. Morrison explains in an Afterword written many years later that her aim with this structure was to avoid leading readers into 'the comfort of pitying Pecola rather than into an interrogation of themselves for [her] smashing.' The idea was to 'break the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader', and thus, presumably, involve the reader's complicity and intimacy with the story and therefore Pecola's fate. Another laudable aim, provided later in the Afterword, is that she 'didn't want to dehumanize the characters who trashed Pecola' and be thus complicit in 'the demonization process Pecola was subjected to.' However, she expresses dissatisfaction with this stratagem, saying that it didn't work: it doesn't 'handle effectively the silence at its centre: the void that is Pecola's "unbeing" ' and readers 'remained touched but not moved'.

We discussed this matter. In spite of our general admiration for the novel, some people expressed agreement with Morrison about the structure, noting that Pecola is out of focus whenever the narrative gives voice and pays attention to the stories of other characters, which it does a good deal of the time. This was the case at the crucial start of the novel, which made most of us of think for some good while that the novel was going to be about the narrator Claudia and her sister Frieda. Some wondered however if it would be impossible to make more concrete or focal a character who is such a 'void', inarticulate and silenced and overlooked by the gaze of just about everyone, including other black people (apart from Claudia and Frieda), someone who has no sense whatever of self

I said however that I didn't think it was quite true that she had no sense of self. While the novel's first incursion into Pecola's point of view has her wishing she could disappear (from the brutality of her home situation and, more crucially from the ugliness she believes she suffers), even forcing herself, psychologically, to become invisible, this scene segues into another in which is she walking down the street to buy candy. Still sharing her point of view, we share her sensations and thoughts. She is carrying her pennies in her shoe:

A sweet, endurable, even cherished irritation, full of promise and delicate security... She moves down the avenue gently buffeted by the familiar and therefore loved images. The dandelions at the base of the telephone pole... She thought they were pretty... Skates would go well over this sidewalk.

There is a personality here, a concrete self with which we are allowed to identify. Therefore when it all goes wrong, when the white shop owner fails to meet her gaze, looking everywhere but at her as if she is non-human or invisible, we have an already concrete sense of the self that is being negated and denied, and a visceral knowledge of the fact that that negation comes from outside.

Immediately after this scene another follows in which Pecola makes one of her regular visits to the women who live in the apartment above her family, three jolly sex workers. As someone in our group pointed out, unlike the general population, the three women treat her with affection and respect, and she is reflected in their eyes for both Pecola and us - and portrayed through the dramatic mode of dialogue - as a curious, chatty and normal little girl. And after all, I said, doesn't the fact that Pecola has a dream - even if it is a self-negating dream to be physically different - imply a certain dynamism? At which Jenny, I think, pointed out that Pecola is in fact proactive in trying to get blue eyes, taking charge of her own fate, however misguidedly and tragically.

Towards the end there is a scene composed entirely of dialogue between two voices of Pecola: that of the Pecola who now believes she has blue eyes, and that of a rational no-nonsense Pecola who questions what she has done, indeed calls her 'silly'. In her Afterword Morrison refers to this scene as Pecola 'hallucinating' a self, which implies that the no-nonsense Pecola is not the 'real' one, and her speeches are presented in italics, as though somehow parenthesised. However, to me at any rate, it doesn't actually read like that; it reads more like the very real psychological split or double vision of oneself that can occur when one is presented by the outside world with a warped image of oneself. Morrison comments critically of this scene that it is 'a kind of outside-the-book conversation', which is perhaps true, since scenes located in Pecola's viewpoint are vastly outnumbered by those from others' viewpoints: Pecola's first menstruation, for instance is seen from the viewpoint of Claudia and Frieda, as is the searing scene in which the three girls witness Pecola's mother being more attentive and caring with the little white girl whose family she works for than she ever is with Pecola, while Pecola's rape by her father is portrayed from his point of view (the last being the reason, I assume, that the book was at one time banned in the USA).

However, we all really liked the book and appreciated its political message and the impact it must have had on publication in 1970. In particular Jenny and Ann were impressed by the way the novel shows that the contempt of the white gaze can poison the black gaze in turn, making lighter-skinned black people despise those who are darker, and those who are darker despise themselves. Doug had one quibble, which concerned the language of the book. In her Afterword, Morrison writes in detail about its language. She wanted a language for the book that was 'undeniably black', she says, but wanted to draw a wide constituency of readers into identification. She was trying therefore  for a 'race-specific yet race-free prose. Prose free of racial hierarchy and triumphalism'. For this reason, she says, she began with a colloquial phrase, 'Quiet as it's kept', implying a secret about to be revealed, and thus drawing the reader into gossipy confidence. I'm afraid I don't know what Doug's precise doubt was, whether he wondered if it was too colloquial or not colloquial enough. He did make a reference to its possibly greater suitability at the time of first publication, but I'm afraid Zoom, with its tendency to foreground and highlight interruptions, zoomed us on to other matters.

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

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Talking About Astral Travel (3)

Here's the third of the videos in which I talk about novels that are connected in one way or another with my own, Astral Travel. This time, two Irish novels - Edna O'Brien's Girl With Green Eyes and John McGahern's Amongst Women - and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5.  The first two share with Astral Travel a figure common in Irish literature, the difficult and oppressive father. Vonnegut's book, which I first read a very long time ago, is a very different kind of novel from Astral Travel, but I guess it influenced a certain aspect of the structure of Astral Travel, and a particular motif. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Review: Cocky Watchman by Ailsa Cox

Cocky Watchman by Ailsa cox is the latest from Nicholas Royle's Nightjar imprint, limited-edition singe-story pamphlets, dedicated to the uncanny. 

This haunting story opens with intimations of unease as a writer and teacher of writing takes a ride home in a taxi through the dark eerie plain of west Lancashire, the trains having been cancelled for no explained reason. It's Mischief Night, the night before Halloween, when children cause mayhem, an ancient Liverpool tradition much older than Halloween. In the distance there are bursts of pre-bonfire-night explosions - at home her dog will be whimpering and cowering - and the Scouse cabbie is a potentially threatening man, 'big' and with a 'closed-shaved head'. But he wants to talk, in fact he came from the suburb in which she lives, and 'he liked to reminisce'. The writer, our narrator, is eager to draw him out. 'A writer's never off duty,' she thinks pragmatically, 'that's what I always told my students'. 
And he has indeed a tale to tell, a mysterious tale connected with Mischief Night, of a 'cocky watchman' (a Liverpool term for a sharp-eyed and alert watchman) who once guarded the small park near where she lives and told tales to the kids who gathered around his brazier. It is a tale of fire, of fascination with fire, and of the way that stories can leap like flames and take hold in the sometimes dangerous obsessions of others. Meanwhile, in a subtle authorial manoeuvre, the narrative voice takes over the story from that of the cabbie, as the tale catches in the narrator's mind and begins to flare.

Arrived home, the narrator thinks of the ghost story she could write if she made use of the tale. But the haunting is much deeper than any conventional ghostly apparition. For someone involved in what happened to the watchman, she muses, there would be 'always the smell of smoke coming from somewhere'. And it is the story itself, and its telling, that haunts the narrator, in a way that moves her on to a different future. 

To be haunted in turn by this cleverly calibrated story, you can buy it here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Mainstream published

This week sees the publication of Mainstream, an anthology of stories from the edges to which I was invited to contribute. It's really exciting. Editors Justin David and Nathan Evans have done a wonderful job of publicity - I don't think I've been involved in a non-mainstream project that has been quite so buzzy. There's even a song ,'Permission', written and recorded by Andrew M Pisnu of Memory Flowers, and a video. The book was crowd-funded with the publisher Unbound, and thank you so much to those who pledged support. It includes several of the more well-known authors writing about experiences that tend to be overlooked in mainstream literary culture, but also 15 exciting newcomers. My own contribution, 'Alignment', set in a hospital, is a story about conceptions of class inferiority and the power plays and gaslighting that can result.

The book can be bought here.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Talking About AstralTravel (2)

Here's another video in which I talk about novels with some connection with my own, Astral Travel, this time All My Puny sorrows by Miriam Toews and The Gathering by Anne Enright. I read both of these novels while I was already embarked on Astral Travel, and was struck by some of the similarities, particularly in theme. As I say in the video, sometimes when you're writing a novel, you keep coming across connections with what you're doing - in the news, in books, in things people say, etc - and it's a though you're tuning into something in the air, and it's a very exciting feeling!