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  

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Reading group: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Jenny said it again during our discussion of this book, shortlisted for the Women's Prize: how awful people could think it, that our group so readily trashes praised and revered books. In fact, this book did have one defender in the group, Clare, who had suggested it, and some of the rest of us were less negative than others.

It's basically a retelling of Homer's Iliad, an account of the latter days of the Battle of Troy chiefly from a female viewpoint. Narrator Briseis is a lesser-known queen, captured by the Greeks in their sacking of the city of Lyrnessus, and taken to live in the Greek camp outside Troy as a slave and concubine to the Greek warrior Achilles. In a scenario not unsimilar to that at the heart of the Trojan war, (the Greek attempt to recapture the beautiful Helen, wife of King Menelaus), Briseis becomes a pawn in the tussle between warriors, in this case between the two Greeks Achilles and King Agamemnon, a conflict that affects the course of the battle.

Some of the younger members of the group appreciated and found innovative the authorial stratagem of countering the male-oriented history with a female perspective, though others of us found it a familiar, indeed now somewhat old-fashioned, feminist fictive mode, and Ann pointed out that it wasn't as if it hadn't been done already in Greek literature itself, in Euripedes' play The Trojan Women. And some of us felt that here it was not at all well executed.

Not everyone was familiar with Greek literature, and it was those of us who were who objected most. For Ann and me fundamentally problematic were the tone and linguistic register, which I characterised as bourgeois British housewife, and which to us entirely belied the ethos of the world, and world-view, of ancient Greece. There is a coyness to the language and mentality that is entirely divorced from the powerfully tragic and elemental emotions of the fallen and captured royal women of Euripedes' play, which though imagined by a man seem to me more psychologically authentic. Someone countered that Barker was showing how the women were forced to adjust to life in the Greek camp, and found it perfectly conceivable that they would, but I have to say that the scenes in which the captured women gather made me think of nothing more than seventies meetings of the UK British Housewives' Register (though the younger members of our group didn't know what that was). Witness the following exchange concerning the women's realisation that one of them is suffering physical abuse by her captor:
...the folds of cloth fell open to reveal black fingermarks round her throat. She knew we'd seen. For a long time, nobody spoke.
'Trouble in Paradise?' Uza asked, addressing herself, apparently, to vacant air.
Ritsa shook her head, but it was too late.
Such polite delicacy and coy reluctance do not seem to me at all authentic in the situation in which these women have found themselves, having watched their brothers and sons butchered, and having been taken as slaves, basically raped, some of them sodomised.
Similarly with the following in the same scene:
'I'm amazed [Chryseis is] not pregnant.'
'He prefers the back door,' Ritsa said.
She'd know. Ritsa had a jar of goose fat mixed with crushed roots and herbs that the common women round the campfires relied on if they'd had a particularly rough night. She was too discreet to reveal that Chryseis had been to see her, but the implication was obvious.
As Doug said, why was there a need to use that coy phrase 'the back door'? Why not use the word 'sodomy', which is after all, famously, an Ancient Greek word.

The point may be to avoid abstract language and thus make the situation more concrete and vivid for a modern readership, but it seems to me that if you use language so specifically associated with modern society, and thus drenched in its ethos and connotations, then you are not in fact conjuring the character of the original. ('Oooh, sorry I spoke!' says someone; Yeah, you and me both, thinks someone else, and the whole book is scattered with the construction would'vecould've etc.) Updating something in order to allow a modern audience to relate to it is one thing, but there's no point if in doing so you simply destroy the whole ethos of the original. Someone pointed out that it wasn't even the present day that was always referenced in the updating - for instance, there is a reference to a 'half-crown' - and John said the book reminded him of fifties and sixties films like Cleopatra, overlaid as they were with mid-twentieth-century fashions and obsessions.

Ann also pointed out another way in which the book fails to represent the Greek world view. For the Ancient Greeks the gods were ever-present, meddling full-time in human affairs, and appear as full-blown characters in Greek literature, but there is little sense of them here apart from the emergence from the sea (towards the end) of Achilles' sea-nymph mother with supernatural armour to help him in battle, which sits oddly within the entirely human-occupied rest of the book.

Jenny said she had enjoyed the book but felt that it wasn't well written, and it was generally agreed that another major fault was its mode of telling rather than showing, as in the following passage:
...though I sympathised, almost involuntarily, with [the Greek] men having their wounds stitched up or clawing at their bandages in the intolerable heat, I still hated and despised them all.
It's an ambivalence we have to take on trust; we are given no emotive description to create any somatic sense of it for the reader. It is this that made the book for me very lacking in vividness or ability to engage emotionally.

Doug said that since the idea seems to be to redress the balance, replacing the traditional male viewpoint with that of a woman, he couldn't see the point of sections devoted to Achilles' viewpoint that begin to appear some way into the book. While Briseis's sections are a first-person narrative told in the past tense, these are third person and present tense. No one could see the point of these shifts, except perhaps that it gives the author the chance to portray the male experience of being in the thick of battle, which Ann pointed out is an almost word-for-word imitation of Homer. But, people asked, what is the point of that? I noted that Briseis's narrative voice isn't actually clear. Sometimes it seems to be an interior monologue taking place long after the events described, but at other times it adopts the mode of a dramatic monologue addressed to an unidentified listener unfamiliar with the world and situation she is describing - though as Briseis's tale comes to an end, the battle over, she appears to have been telling her story to someone present there and then, as she embarks with the Greeks for their homeland.

People also pointed out some factual errors: Mark had been struck by a mistake in the portrayal of the weaving that occupies the women: you don't 'spin' on a loom, you weave; and Ann, an expert in such matters, pointed out that the author has Helen stitching the scenes of tapestries by hand (again, tapestries aren't embroidered they're woven), and she didn't think that several of the looms of the size needed would fit into the one tent into which Barker places them. People also wondered how the camp, which lasted for years outside the walls of Troy, could possibly have been supplied with sustenance on land that Barker describes as laid waste by the battle. Where, since the book seemed ostensibly to be about the daily life overlooked in the male histories, were the ships and caravans bringing goods from elsewhere? And where on earth did they get all the fatted bulls they sacrificed? And, asked Jenny, since the whole point of the book seemed to be the quality of life in the camp for the women, and since the whole point of their existence there was to be sex slaves, where were the births that must have inevitably resulted, and would surely have radically coloured the quality of that life?

Basically, we were all left wondering at the rave reviews and accolades that this book has received.

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


Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Reading group: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.

Halfway through our discussion of this book, Jenny commented with a shamed grin: 'Isn't it awful how in this group we take famous and respected novels and tear them to bits?' We approached Picnic at Hanging Rock with the knowledge that it is considered one of the great books of Australian literature, but by the time we came to the meeting, we were all pretty much wondering how it could have achieved such status.

In fact, it is important from a thematic point view. Published in the late sixties and set in the year 1900, it concerns the unresolved disappearance of three senior boarders from Mrs Appleyard's College for Young Ladies, along with one of their teachers, while on a picnic trip to the mysterious Hanging Rock, the distinctive geological formation in central Victoria. The school, and the neighbourhood in which it is situated, with its English-suburban-type gardens, are the seat of a colonial mentality that has no understanding of the wild land outside its own boundaries, a land believed by its indigenous people to be alive with spirits of its own. Under the influence of the hot day and the surroundings, the schoolgirls on the trip unbutton the civilised trappings of their gloves, and four of them wander too far from the designated picnic site and onto the rock. As the three elder girls climb, seeming to be overcome by some dream-like state, the youngest, Edith, the 'school dunce', becomes frightened and runs back, seeing in the near distance as she does so their teacher stumbling upwards through the bracken minus her skirt and in her pantaloons. By nightfall none of the others has returned to the picnic site and searches of the rock have failed to find them. Over the next days, further attempts, including a search by an indigenous tracker, fail in the same way. While the school party had been picnicking, another group had been picnicking nearby, Colonel and Mrs Fitzhubert and their nephew from England, Michael, along with their coachman. As the four girls walked towards the rock they passed this group, the coachman wolf-whistling, and Michael falling instantly in love with one of the three senior boarders, Miranda. Consequently, after all the official searches have failed, Michael makes a lone trip to search the rock for Miranda, only to be found unconscious with a broken ankle and mysterious scratches, though not before having laid a trail that leads his rescuers to the slumped, unconscious and bloody body of another of the missing girls, Irma. Later the narration will tell us that Irma is no longer wearing her corset, a fact overlooked by the Fitzhubert's housekeeper who puts her to bed to recover in their house. Afterwards, neither Michael nor Irma will have any memory of what happened to them, and the other two girls and the teacher will never be found, which will lead to the ruin of the school.

In retrospect all of this can be read as the undoing of the fabric of colonial civilisation by the forces of Australian nature. We didn't however find that this message was very strongly realised in the book, and it didn't particularly impress itself on us as we read. There are indeed detailed depictions of the teeming life of the landscape: 'unheard rustlings and twitterings, scufflings, scratchings, the light brush of unseen wings', and the point is made early on:

Insulated from natural contacts with earth, air and sunlight, by corsets pressing on the solar plexus, by voluminous petticoats, cotton stockings and kid boots, the drowsy well-fed girls lounging in the shade were no more part of their environment than figures in a photograph album, arbitrarily posed against a backcloth of cork rocks and cardboard trees.
However, the prose style is somewhat workaday, failing to conjure for us readers any tangible sense of the mystery and force of the landscape, and leading one to read the book as a realist mystery. John said he spent a lot of energy trying to work out whodunnit, and some of us agreed: there do indeed seem to be clues that push the reader in this direction. Did the fact that Irma was wearing no corset mean she'd been raped? Was it Albert the coachman, who is pulled up by Michael for his crude behaviour in whistling at the girls? It's also made clear later that Albert is sexually attracted to Irma. (And what about the missing teacher's state of undress, as witnessed by Edith?) Was the headmistress Mrs Appleyard responsible for doing away with them, since it's quite clear she's a dodgy character, and she seems implicated in the later death of another pupil, Sara, whom she hates for her stubbornness and tendency to challenge? While most of these suspicions are dissipated by subsequent events, they serve to distract attention away from any notion of a force greater than mere human agents at work. And the death of Sara is indeed treated in a realist-crime-novel manner, with planted clues - which however people in our group failed to pick up, presumably because of poor pacing in the narration. I never understood the reference to a note which Mrs Appleyard looks for on Sara's dressing table after her death, and looking back I failed to find a previous reference to it. No one in the group could enlighten me, as it seemed they had missed it altogether. Furthermore, in spite of this realist-crime treatment, it is never clear exactly what part Mrs Appleyard did play in Sarah's death. 

I said that I actually found the writing quite clumsy (which again militated against the possibility of an atmosphere of mystery). There are sentences that don't even make sense, such as this description of the rock before the girls start to climb: 'The immediate impact of its soaring peaks induced a silence so impregnated with its powerful presence that even Edith was struck dumb.' A lack of clarity at the start when the schoolgirls are introduced to us (either through poor pacing or lack of vividness or both) - and elsewhere - meant that I failed to register or remember who was who and had to keep looking back to find out, and at the long list of characters with which the book is prefaced. Others said it had been the same for them, and Clare said that the need for a Dramatis Personae was comment enough in itself. The bulk of the book concerns the breakdown of everything at the school after the girls go missing, and although the narration states that this is the 'spreading pattern' of the incident playing itself out in the lives of all of the characters, it did seem 
to us artificially manipulated. I suppose one can theorise that the psychological effect on the headmistress of the impending financial ruin of the school leads her into irrational behaviour, which leads in turn to her cruel treatment of Sara, and to other teachers leaving. However, because of the flat telling, it doesn't feel like an inevitable propulsion, and the subsequent immediate death of one of the departed teachers in a fire is surely coincidental. The section in which the rescued Irma falls unrequitedly in love with Michael (who is still holding a torch for the lost Miranda) seems (on the contrary) inconsequential (flatly told as it is).

A major fault for me was the fact that the novel affects the mode of omniscience, ie all-knowingness, entering the viewpoints of different characters at different times, and sometimes telling us facts that none of the characters know (such as that of Irma's missing corset), yet the narration withholds information about those characters and, of course, about the wider situation. Having been party to some of Mrs Appleyard's private and unspoken anguish about her school, we are suddenly told: 'Whether the events just related [an incident in the school gym] were eventually made known to Mrs Appleyard can only be surmised'.  For me such inconsistencies make for an uncertain narrative voice, and the end result is to make the mysteries seem tricksy and manipulative of the reader. 


Everyone in the group was dissatisfied by the seemingly manipulated mysteries and the lack of narratorial resolution. John suggested that part of the problem may have been that author Lindsay, who was interested in the occult, had in fact written a further, final chapter in which it was revealed that the three girls and their teacher had been overtaken by the spirit of the rock and had gone through a mysterious entrance into another world, their abandoned corsets hanging magically in the air before dropping from the cliff and disappearing. Her publisher, it seemed, persuaded her to cut that final chapter, and thus perhaps pushed the novel into the unfulfilled realism through which our group read it.


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

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Writing kicks off again


I've had a long period away from my desk, and haven't written anything since September. First of all, John had ankle surgery and for a while was completely immobile, in a wheelchair and requiring round-the-clock help. On top of that, a week after John came out of hospital, and was at his most helpless, I had to have urgent eye surgery, with follow-up procedures since. I seem to have been living a life of fetching and carrying and medications and eye drops - and my forays from home seem chiefly to have been visits to the eye hospital (with some light relief at the fracture clinic with John). All the while the room I usually work in was dark and cold and empty - apart from the stuff the family visitors dumped there when they were here at Christmas! However, John is now swinging around on crutches, and last week I was free to tidy up and heat the workroom - just in time, it turned out, as writing business suddenly kicked back into life.

Firstly, I had an unexpected, indeed thrilling email telling me that a story, 'Going On', had been longlisted and highly commended in the Manchester Fiction Prize. (It didn't make the shortlist; congratulations to those whose stories did; you can read the shortlist here.) The picture above features the author and editor Nicholas Royle, who has chaired the prize since its inception. The very same day I received the proofs of my story, 'Double Helix', which is due in the next issue of the London Magazine, and I needed to sit down straightaway and work on that. And then the day after that, Jen at Salt sent me the first edits of my novel Astral Travel, due very soon, and which I'm working on now. Yesterday another nice email came: my story 'Kiss', which was longlisted in the Short Fiction Journal Prize, published at MIROnline, reprinted in Best British Short Stories 2019 and picked up from there for The Barcelona Review, is to be featured in a Norwegian textbook for High School students. I am suddenly feeling like a writer again!

There is an award ceremony for the Manchester Fiction and Poetry Prizes at Chetham's School on February 7th, when the shortlists will be featured and the two winners announced. Entrance is free but booking is essential.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Reading group: A Month in the Country by J L Carr

Warning: plot spoil.

John's suggestion, this slim book, published in 1980 and Booker-shortlisted, is the first-person narration of Tom Birkin, old now but looking back to a time when, as a young man traumatised by the first world war, he was employed for a summer to uncover a medieval church painting in the (fictional) Yorkshire village of Oxgodby. As the painting is slowly revealed, and as he makes contact with the people around him and absorbs the peace and beauty of the rural surroundings, Tom moves slowly towards psychological healing.

Some commentaries seem to see the book as rooted in a perception of English pastoral and of English cultural heritage as constants that can heal, and indeed admire it as such. We didn't think it was as simple as that.

For one thing, narrator Birkin makes several references to the fact that the world described - a world of horses and oil lamps - is a world gone. John had begun by suggesting that perhaps the book was in consequence nostalgic - and nostalgia, as he pointed out, is often linked to nationalism and even fascism. He pointed to the moment when narrator Birkin appears to bemoan the fact that the strong dialect of the place at that time, 'that splendid twang', is probably now flattened by 'comprehensive schools and the BBC ... with their dread stamp.' At the same time, however, there is a certain paradoxical patronisation and 'othering' in Birkin's attitude to the dialect: he says it 'might have been ... a foreign language' and replicates it phonetically (a mode I nearly always find patronising), and says seemingly without censure that the English of the local lay preachers was 'so wild' that the organist and choir 'choked behind their handkerchiefs'.  John added here that in fact he had found the character Birkin rather dubious - he appears to read the Daily Mail (known for its fascist sympathies between the wars), and, narrating the story, the older Birkin tells us that when he first arrived at the village, struggling through unmoving passengers to get his kit off the train, he thought (xenophobically), 'If this was a fair sample of northerners, then this was enemy country so I wasn't too careful where I put my boots.' (John also pointed out that Birkin shares his name with the protagonist of Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence, an author whose sometimes paradoxically reactionary tendencies have often been noted, and I would agree that Carr's book does have something of a Lawrentian tone.)

Others in the group however weren't so sure that the book was nostalgically reactionary, and when it came to the matter of cultural heritage John wasn't sure, either. The painting Birkin is painstakingly uncovering is not exactly a site of peaceful resolution, but rather of disruption and mystery. A Judgement, depicting the Righteous 'trooping off to Paradise' and the Damned 'dropping into the bonfire' of hell, it turns out to be a 'masterpiece', created with expensive materials including gold leaf (at least to depict the Saved). So why, Birkin wonders, was it covered over with limewash? And there is something disruptive and strange in the painting itself: the Damned are executed more crudely, apart from one figure which stands out from the rest - vivid with bright hair and a crescent-shaped scar on his forehead and tortured by demons in a startling Breughelesque style long before Breughel himself, a figure Birkin comes to refer to as the 'falling man.'

While Birkin is working on the painting, an archeologist, Moon, is camped in the nearby meadow and digging, employed by the local heiress, before her death, to look for the grave of an ancestor discovered to have been excommunicated and thus likely to be buried outside the churchyard. Privately, however, he is taking the opportunity to uncover the remains of an early chapel, the signs of which he has spotted from an aeroplane. The two strike up a companionship. Moon sees the depiction of the Damned in the painting as reminiscent of the tortures of the trenches which he too had experienced, although Birkin, seeking calm from the painting's artistry, is reluctant to see it in that light. As the book comes to a close, as both the summer and the men's employment come to an end, Moon calls Birkin to help him uncover the grave where all along he has guessed (from a depression seen from the air) that it lies, just outside the churchyard wall. What they uncover is a true revelation (and the clear reason for the ancestor's excommunication). Inside the tomb lies the skeleton of a man wearing a chain with a crescent - a noble ancestor who clearly converted to Islam on a Crusade, and whom Moon immediately realises is the 'falling man' of Birkin's painting.

Thus the novel seems in fact to be actively challenging the very myth of English Christian heritage and continuity that the covering over of the painting was clearly intended to preserve and to which the young Birkin cleaves (and which some have seen the novel as relishing). A look at the author's Foreword is perhaps instructive. There the author admits that when he set out to write the book he did indeed have in mind simply to depict a 'rural idyll', and although it was a world 'irrecoverably lost', to have his narrator 'look back [on it] regretfully' (ie regretting its loss; ie nostalgically). However, he tells us, 'original intentions slip away. And I found myself looking through another window at a darker landscape inhabited by neither the present nor the past.' The character of young Birkin can be seen as representing this shift, in particular in his attitude to the young wife of the vicar, Alice Keach. To him she represents an idyllic beauty and goodness - 'I was reminded of Botticelli... - the Primavera' - and he falls romantically in love with her, and sees her as horrifically trapped by her older, ascetic husband, the Reverend Keach. By the end of the novel, however, he must come to terms with the fact that it is a useless love, and there is a growing maturity in his recognition that the vicar, who is suddenly more open with him, is more complex than he had allowed. ' "It's not easy, he said. "I wasn't always, well, not as I may appear to be." ... And partly ... he was right: we had cast him in the role of a sour paymaster'. Finally, as the older Birkin recounts his youthful departure from the village, his 'land of lost content', he muses: 'We can ask and ask but we can't have what once seemed ours forever'. 'This was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off,' he tell us, but it's clear that Birkin is now embarked on a lifelong lesson. After all, his initial hostility to the locals very quickly turned to affection, and his faults, often commented on by the more mature Moon, can be seen as primed to be erased by that journey.

Clare, or maybe Jenny, noted that the title, 'A Month in the Country' is a misnomer, since Birkin spends a whole summer in Oxgodby. Others pointed to the fact that one of the names (the vicar's first name, I think) changes halfway through the novel, and it was clear that these were editing errors due to the fact that the book was initially self-published. On the whole, we thought, in view of this last fact, the book was impeccably written in terms of correctness.

Everyone liked the book, and I was the only one not to have entirely enjoyed reading it. I'm afraid I found the overall tone foygeish - something which does seem to me reactionary - and the conversations between Birkin and Moon artificial and indeed sometimes twee (not to mention my discomfort at the way the dialect was represented). It hadn't struck any of the others that way, however, and since I read the book during the long day in the hospital cafe as I waited while John had a three-hour operation and then lay for a worryingly long time in the recovery room, I thought at the time of the discussion that maybe I hadn't given the book the commitment it deserved.

I must say that some of the connections and meanings I've outlined above weren't clear to me on that first reading, registering only when I trawled through the book to write this. I failed to register, for instance, the fact of the shape of the scar on the forehead of the falling man in the painting, as well as the significance of the painting's quality, and the relevance of this to the fact that it has been hidden. The quality of the painting - the fact that certain expensive pigments had been used rather than others - didn't in fact strike me as being of particular interest. Nor did Moon's arrangements and his motives for being there, which were consequently hazy to me. But then John now says that he missed the same things, and looking back at our group discussion I sense that others did too: none of these details were actually mentioned in the discussion, and there was indeed some puzzled wondering about the significance of the Muslim-converted ancestor as well as about some of the characters, in particular Moon and the vicar. I do wonder on reflection if this was a result of a failure of pacing and attention in the writing - ie a failure to slow down or construct the narrative at significant moments to correctly direct the reader's attention. Moon's arrangements and motives, for instance, are conveyed via dialogue (or rather a speech): he tells Birkin about them on their first meeting in a conversation that is potentially superficial, since we don't yet know Moon's character (and therefore how much importance to give anything he says), and when the reader's attention is directed rather towards the drama of the encounter and the interaction between the two men. The information about the composition of the painting is conveyed in a similar way: it is one of the things Birkin tells Alice Keach when she sits watching him work, when again the chief interest is the drama of the situation, ie his growing attraction to her, and when it's possible that his emotions are forcing him to gabble (although much of the dialogue throughout the book consists of somewhat artificial speechifying). And although the matter of the mystery of the painting is sometimes located in Birkin's private musings (rather than in dialogue with others), as I say, it didn't impress me as it should (John and I both failing to register the shape of the scar in the painting) and I do wonder now if this is a function of the foygeishness I thought I detected in the overall voice of the novel, a rhythmic over-smoothness stemming from a fundamental complacency concerning meaning and significance.

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

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Reading group: Milkman by Anna Burns

Since we read this book both John and I have had surgery, from which we are both still recovering, and our discussion seems to belong to an earlier, pre-surgery time, its details lost to me apart from the fact that most of us really loved the book.

The book is written in a totally original style - the first-person stream-of-consciouness narration of a seventeen-year-old woman who, at the time of the Irish Troubles, attracts the sexual attention of Milkman, a leading 'renouncer', a Republican paramilitary, a man respected but feared in the society over which he holds sway. Identifying herself only as 'middle sister' (and referring similarly to other characters as 'third brother-in-law', 'maybe boyfriend' and so on), she tells of the stresses and dangers that this forced her into in a community ruled by rigid roles and partisan assumptions and fears. The originality of the voice lies in its combination of the demotic and the effects of her voracious literary reading. Thus it encodes the paradoxes of her situation and psychology: the necessary self-preserving refusal of the poetic (the sunset of the cover) that she shares with her brutalised community, alongside a sophisticated understanding of psychological complexity, and a wilful blindness to her situation alongside a sense of its complex dangers and implications. There is also a certain resultant malapropism, which doesn't come over in fact as malapropism, but as a new diction with its own authority, entirely appropriate for the unique situation of the protagonist and for the uncertainties of the world she inhabits, and its psychology.

Most of us were entirely taken with this voice, and with its humour combined with a deadly seriousness, which makes the story both frightening and at times wildly funny, sometimes both together. Take for instance an episode when the women of the community go to see the renouncers after a group of feminists (for whom they usually have no time) have tried to stand up to the bullying demands of the renouncers, ill advisedly crying 'Over our dead bodies!'
'Don't be ridiculous,' they said. 'You can't kill them. They're simpletons. Intellectual simpletons. Academe! That's all they're fit for.' They added that to do away with the issue women, no matter how annoying they were, would be tantamount to unjust, inconsiderate and merciless behaviour towards the more fragile of our district; that by doing so, the renouncers would create one of those landmark incidents such as would bring regretful consequences for their reputation in history books later on.

However, Mark, who due to personal circumstances hadn't managed to read much of the book, said that before he abandoned it he had been finding the stream-of-consciouness diversions wearying. John agreed with him, saying that he occasionally found the mode too dense and insistent, and that it was perhaps a mode that worked better for a short story, where it wouldn't have to be sustained at length. (In fact, Milkman is 350 tightly-packed pages). This reminded me that when I started the book, because I was very busy I was reading it only intermittently and had had the same reaction, but that later, when I had more time and was able to settle into the book, I had become entranced. Doug said that now that he remembered, he had had exactly the same experience. We were very glad we had persisted, and those of us who had read the book were very glad to have done so.

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

'Space Travel' in Confingo Magazine


Today through the letterbox came the newest issue of Confingo Magazine which includes my story, 'Space Travel.' I have only belatedly realised the similarity of the title to that of my forthcoming novel, Astral Travel: they are completely different in subject matter! 'Space Travel', the short story, is about a pregnant couple who have been undergoing IVF, and the way that the uncertainty of the pregnancy, and the vulnerability of the babies they have already lost, have made them hyper-aware of the dangers and uncertainty of our present-day world, and our lack of control within it. The title is basically meant as metaphoric - the metaphor of a spaceman connected to his spaceship but floating outside it is used more than once. At one point, when I showed the draft of the story to some writer friends, they suggested I should change the title as it could be misleading, signalling wrongly that the story was science fiction. In fact, however, the possibility of strange things in the sky underpins the story - and indeed begins it, as you can see below - and so I decided to keep the title.



Confingo is a beautifully designed magazine. As usual there is stunning artwork (this time by Elle Brotherhood), and this issue takes an unusual form: the pages are thin card rather than paper, and the whole book is ring-bound. It looks like nothing less than an art publication. You can order it from the Confingo website once it has been added to the shop.