Thursday, July 23, 2015

Reading group: Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas

Another book (suggested by Ann) which tended to prompt discussion of the history on which it centres - in this case the Spanish Civil War - rather than of its treatment of those issues or the book as a literary artefact. However, the unusual structure of this book is of great interest both politically and aesthetically.

It is constructed in three parts, the central one taking a different form and voice from those of the two sandwiching it. In the first part, titled 'Forest Friends', the first-person present-day narrator, who has the same name as the author, disarmingly and wittily recounts his own failures as both a fiction writer and husband, and relates how, in an attempt to resurrect his earlier career as a journalist, he ended up interviewing a writer and lecturer who happened to be the son of the deceased fascist and writer Rafael Sanchez Mazas, a founder of the original Falangist movement that first whipped up agitation against the Spanish Republican government in the 1930s. During the interview, Cercas relates, the son mentioned the fact that in January 1938, as the Republican troops were advancing near the French border, his father faced a firing squad at Collell but escaped the bullets and fled into the woods, hounded by Republican militiamen. As he cowered in a gulley, a Republican militiaman came upon him, but called to the others that there was no one there, and turned away, thus saving his life. Subsequently Mazas was given succour by a group of deserted Republicans, 'the forest friends'.

Cercas relates how, intrigued by this, he became curious about Sanchez Mazas and about the Civil War and its 'horrific stories' which 'till then I'd considered excuses for old men's nostalgia and fuel for the imagination of unimaginative novelists' - the pain of the Spanish Civil War, as Ann said, having since been largely buried in Spanish public consciousness. Cercas then relates how he followed up a series of connections and contacts resulting from a newspaper article in which he had recounted the incident of the firing squad, ending up speaking to some of those involved, including a son of one of the 'forest friends'. He came, he says, to understand that the story of the firing squad was well known after the war, when the louche, aristocratic Mazas lived off it as a famous personality and (inactive) politician. The question that then came to obsess Cercas was whether or not the story was true, and he reached a point where he knew he had to write a book about it, not a novel, but a 'true tale, a tale cut from the cloth of reality, concocted out of true events and characters'.

Part Two is different in mode. The confessional mode is dropped, and the section, titled 'Soldiers of Salamis' - a reference to the outnumbered Greeks who routed the invading Persian fleet in 480 BC, and the title of the book that Sanchez Mazas had told the 'forest friends' he would write about his time with them, but didn't - takes the conventional academic mode of a history. Beginning with an incident after the war that was related to Cercas by a son of one of the forest friends, in which Mazas intercedes on behalf of his imprisoned former forest companions, and hinging on the whole firing-squad and forest-friends episode, it is an account of the life and career of Sanchez Mazas, an anatomisation of the muddled politics and loyalties of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, and a meditation on the involvement with a violent movement of a cowardly and aesthetically conservative mind.

Part Three reverts to the mode of Part One. Here Cercas relates wryly how he wrote his book about Sanchez Mazas in a heat of inspiration, and then realised it was rubbish: it was missing something important he couldn't identify. (By now we have realised that Part Two is indeed the book in question.) Despairing, Cercas returns to his newspaper once more. Once again, a chance interview he is conducting, this time with the famous and exiled Chilean writer, Roberto Bolano, leads to an unexpected link with Sanchez Mazas and the firing squad incident: it becomes clear that an old friend of Bolano's could have been one of the Republican soldiers who took part in the firing squad, a man called Miralles who, unlike the effete Mazas who evaded military action in the war he helped to agitate, spent the entire war fighting on one front or another. A link with something Cercas was told earlier about the soldier who saved Mazas's life makes him think, and hope, that this is the very man - and that this is the element that is missing from his book - and he sets out to find him in his retirement home. But the old man won't admit that he is the same man, and the whole book must thus end on uncertainty. Yet Cercas is happy: now the otherwise forgotten Miralles, a true 'soldier of Salamis', and his companions, will 'still be alive in some way'.

Introducing the book, Ann said that she had enjoyed the first part, but when she got to the second part, with its dry historical account and lists of names unknown to us English readers, she nearly gave up. However, she was very glad she hadn't, as the final section of the book, which was very moving, redeemed it. Most people nodded agreement, and people commented on the contrast: the lightness of touch of much of the first and last sections, and the wryly-portrayed relationship between Cercas and his down-to-earth TV fortune-teller girlfriend who must listen to his writerly woes. (' "Shit!" said Conchi. "Didn't I tell you not to write about a fascist? Those people fuck up everything they touch!" ') Ann, a historian, was very impressed by the book's central message: that history is always just a construct built on hearsay and myth and opinion, that the truth is always muddled, or indeed unattainable. I strongly agreed, since this is my own main obsession as a writer, and felt that the structure of the book makes an important literary point about the contingency of storytelling - of which, as Ann said, history is just one form, often, as in this case, a desiccated form. Also impressive is its questioning of what makes a hero - Sanchez Mazas makes a surviving hero of himself after the war by telling the firing-squad story, but is the hero really the man who let him live, and the ordinary man who has to fight in the war? Are those whom history holds up as heroes the real heroes? It's impossible, though, to know why the soldier let Mazas live, and as Cercas and Bolano discuss, is a hero someone who makes a conscious choice in acting bravely, or someone who does so by instinct? In recording the known facts of history you can't in fact impute motives, and thus can only ever tell a partial story.

The book has been a major success in Spain, and, Ann said, it must of course have had far more resonance for those familiar with the names of political figures and historical events. (In fact, so divorced were we as a group from Spanish history and Spanish-language culture, that several people had not heard of Bolano, and for them Cercas's meeting with Bolano inevitably had less resonance than for those who had heard of or read him). Ann made the point that the book is of course striking, as Conchi's speech indicates, in focussing on a fascist at a time when Spain's fascist history has been largely buried. It is also remarkable for its depiction of the political ambiguities of the war, and it was noted that one reviewer commented that it made Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls 'look like play-acting'.

The discussion was then opened out to the room, and Doug and Trevor immediately began an argument about the facts of the Spanish Civil War, to which the rest of us had to object in order to bring focus back to the book. Doug challenged me on my statement that the structure of the book, its switching of modes, made an important and resonant literary point. Although he could see what I meant, he said that surely Cercas could have made the historical section more entertaining, and that, although he absolutely agreed about the bits with Conchi, which he really enjoyed, and that the end of the book concerning Miralles was very moving, in the middle section he was frankly bored shitless. Jenny said that it wasn't just the middle section she found difficult and boring - there was the long section in Part One when Cercas is contacting all those people in order to try and find out the truth about Sanchez Mazas - all those similar-sounding unfamiliar Spanish names; she kept getting muddled between them all - and that section in Part Three when Bolano recounts to Cercas at great length Miralles' experience of the campaigns of the war. People generally agreed, and someone said that their impression while reading Part Two was that the story they had already read about (the firing-squad story) was merely being repeated in a more boring way. (In fact, we encounter the telling of the story several times, as in Part One we read in full the article in which Cercas repeats it, and Cercas ponders the variations in the different subsequent tellings he hears from others.) John, having read the book on a Kindle, made the interesting point that he might have had a better experience of it if he had read a print copy: he would then have had a better overview of its structure and would have known better where things might be leading as he read. People also commented on the difficulty of the very long sentences in the non-dramatised sections (contrasting strongly with the prose and dialogue of the more personal dramatised sections). There was also the fact that the book is not divided into chapters. I feel that this is a pretty normal convention for a book divided into parts, but most people found it unusual and that, along with a general lack of paragraphing, it made the book a difficult read. There was speculation - taking into account Don Quixote and the enormous length of Bolano's books pointed to by John - that lengthiness may be a general characteristic of Spanish-language writing. We all agreed, however, that the language of this book (which is not long) was nevertheless beautifully wry and incisive, and the contemporary dialogue in the personal sections very telling of character and mood, and we were not surprised that the translator, Anne McLean, had won a prize for the translation.

After which, the talk veered unstoppably back onto the issues, and on to the connected but general subject of false memory, and on from that to child abuse, and on...

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Dan Powell interviews me about 'Looking for the Castle'.

There's an interview with me over on the Unthology Blog, in which Dan Powell, fellow contributor to Unthology 7, quizzes me about my story 'Looking for the Castle' and other writing issues. In particular he asks me about my use of the second person, which I would never at one time have used, seeing it as a bit of fashionable tic, but then got interested in, and in which this story and my previous Unthology story, 'Clarrie and You' (Unthology 5) are cast.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Reading group: In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason

Another book (Mark's suggestion) that everyone liked, but one of those novels that tend to prompt discussion of the issues on which they hinge, and it was hard to keep the focus on the book as a book. Published in 1985, it takes the third-person viewpoint of seventeen-year-old Sam Hughes, living in a small Kentucky town with her gentle uncle Emmett who is traumatised by the Vietnam war - her father, whom she never knew, having been killed in Vietnam, and her mother having later married and moved away, Sam refusing to go with her. The novel opens with a short section in which Sam and Emmett, accompanied by Sam's paternal grandmother, set out on a road trip to Washington with a mission not identified, or at least not spelled out, until the end of the novel, and then moves back to the summer that Emmett came back from Vietnam and her father didn't, going on to chart the events in between. Not that the life that Sam and Emmett have led together is eventful. In a delightful sisterly-brotherly relationship that everyone in the reading group loved, they jog along in a seemingly ordinary way, Sam going to school and working at the Burger Boy, Emmett initially doing odd jobs but eventually stopping working altogether and unaccountably dropping his girlfriend, sitting around the house with his beloved cat or watching out for a rare bird at the local swamp into which a man once slipped and was lost. In the evenings Sam and Emmett sit around joshing and listening to golden oldie music and watching TV with Sam's boyfriend Lonnie, in particular the TV drama series M.A.S.H which follows the fortunes of a medical corps in the Korean war. This last is of course an indication of the unaddressed issue of the damage inflicted by the Vietnam war on Emmett and his peers. Sam becomes increasingly aware of it, increasingly aware of her own father's fate and increasingly worried that Emmett's bad acne and headaches mean that he is affected by Agent Orange. Her worries come to a head when she falls in love with an 'older man', Tom, another Vietnam vet, and discovers him to be impotent, and comes to wonder if this may be Emmet's problem, too, and a general problem for men returned from Vietnam.

Introducing the book, Mark pointed out that this was an anti-Vietnam war book written before any of the eighties films about the war - a point he had made when we discussed Jayne Ann Phillips' Machine Dreams, published the previous year in 1984. Others commented that the films, such as Apocalypse Now, glorified the role of the soldiers, whereas this showed its damaging effects. This was the point in the meeting (basically, immediately) that people started talking about the war. It was noted that the Vietnam war was the first war in which the damaging human effects of war could be publicly seen on newsreels, which prompted anti-war feeling; on the other hand, as the book illustrates, and as Emmett's veteran friends complain, the damage to the men was never properly acknowledged by the American government, or understood by the societies to which they returned.

We had to keep consciously bringing the discussion back to the book, and its treatment of the issues, and so our consideration of it consisted of random comments rather than a developed argument. I said that I felt that the voice of the book was more mature than that of Machine Dreams - the narrator is more wryly objective about Sam than the young female Donner of Machine Dreams can be about herself as a first-person narrator - and it was noted that Bobbie Ann Mason was an older writer than Jayne Ann Phillips. (I had met Mark in the street one day beforehand, and we had both said we felt that this was the better book, and wondered if the fact that Machine Dreams made a greater splash were down to the fact of Phillips' youth and looks in a cynical market-obsessed literary industry.) This prompted John to say that he thought that Sam seemed a little too mature and insightful for a seventeen-year-old, but I disagreed, feeling that a mature and intelligent seventeen-year-old could have all of the thoughts and make all of the inferences that Sam does.

Everyone loved the relationship between Sam and Emmett, finding it really touching, and we all thought they were both great characters, the gentle, kooky and troubled Emmett being especially engaging. We thought the prose excellent, and the dialogue vivid and telling. I said I thought the central point of the book - that macho war in fact emasculates - extremely powerful, and everyone agreed. Mark said strongly that he thought it a feminist book, which baffled everyone for a moment, since feminist issues are not directly addressed in it, but then people could see that viewing the war from the domestic arena and a female viewpoint could be said to be feminist. Mark argued that giving Sam an active role in addressing the issues and trying to do something about them, does make it fundamentally - and, he thought, importantly - feminist. John said he found very arresting Sam's realisation that these men she considers older - Tom and Emmett and their vet contemporaries - were in fact only boys when they returned from Vietnam. People did agree that in fact the book, having started dynamically with an action-filled road trip, did then slump somewhat in the middle without much of a narrative arc - some people said that they began to feel that the book was going nowhere - but that it was redeemed by the very moving ending.

Finally, we wondered how relevant and important the book seems today, especially to young people. As we had noted, and as the book illustrates, there's a collective amnesia about Vietnam, America's greatest military failure, and Mark said that when he studied this book as a mature university student a few years ago, his younger fellow students didn't have the background and the novel had been of little interest to them. In particular a main motif of the book, the TV series M.A.S.H, which is referenced in detail in a way that both makes political points and throws light on Emmett's situation and psychological state, meant nothing at all to them (a warning, I'd say, to those writers who subscribe to the current fashion for including contemporary popular cultural references for the sake of mere contemporaneity and a superficial air of coolness!). We all thought it a shame, as we felt that this was, both politically and aesthetically, an important book.

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

Too Many Magpies as book group choice on Hubpages

Chuffed that Andrea Jackson has chosen to recommend Too Many Magpies as a reading group choice on Hubpages. It's flattering, but to be honest I'd rather not think too hard about people pulling my books apart in the cruel way we do our reading group even with the greats! Andrea proposes some very astute questions to consider in a discussion, which show a gratifying understanding of my aims in the book, but I can't help cringing at some of the possible answers!

Many thanks to Andrea for her thoughtfulness and attention.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Edge Hill awards

So Kirsty Gunn won the Edge Hill award for her superb, moving and technically brilliant collection of stories, Infidelities. After having read and loved her book, I was chuffed to meet her at the awards ceremony last week, as well as to meet again Madeleine D'Arcy, whom I'd briefly met last year at the Vienna short story conference, and who won the student readers' prize for a story in her sizzling collection, Waiting for the Bullet (sorry the photo is blurred):

 I would hate to have been a judge of the shortlist, though: the other four books, by Carys Davies (The Redemption of Galen Pike), Annaliese Mackintosh (Any Other Mouth), Toby Litt (Life-Like) and Rose Tremain (the American Lover) were all wonderful, as I said here. It was lovely too to meet Annaliese and Toby, and to see Carys again, whom, as a fellow Salt writer, I have known for some time (and whose book I reviewed here.) I always love this event - a celebration of the short story, and a rare chance to meet up with some of the best story writers of our time. Kudos to short-story expert and writer Ailsa Cox for founding and administrating the prize!

Monday, July 06, 2015

Writers travelling: wear dark specs unless you're looking for a story

What a wonderful time I had at the Unthology 7 launch in Norwich - great readings from Dan Powell, Elaine Chiew, Adrian Cross, Gary Budden and Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, and great craic in the pub afterwards with fellow contributors Barney Walsh and Amanda Oosthuizen. But what an eventful journey there. When I stepped on the train at Stockport, chaos was reigning: the carriages turned out to have fewer seats than had been reserved, and the stocky bouncy sixtyish guy in the seat next to mine was taking charge, promptly ousting the poor woman who had perched on my seat in the hope, presumably, that I wouldn't turn up, and finding her another elsewhere, and generally looking out for everyone. 'Isn't he a kind man?' said an old lady to me, as, instructed by him, she sat in his seat while he looked for another for her. Yes, he was kind, and really likeable, and tremendously gregarious, and that was the trouble for the next four-and-a half hours of the journey, which I had intended to spend re-reading the stories in Unthology 7 and looking at the scenery of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. As things calmed down he began explaining it all to me: how the seat numbers only went up to 54 (my seat), but the reservations went up to 60-odd, and how the guard had explained that the wrong carriages had ended up on the train, and that that poor old dear there had a reservation for seat number 63! I got out my book and he asked what I was doing. I said I had things to read before I got to Norwich. He said, 'Oh, I'd better leave you to do your homework!'  I put my head in Unthology. Two minutes later he nudged me, and started telling me more. Then he told me why he was travelling, and all about the job he'd done on the oil rigs, and how now he was retired he really missed it and had to find ways to fill his time, and he'd decided to have a new way of living and had given up drinking during the week and was eating healthy foods, and he didn't really know many people in the place he had moved to, but it was great, and he had two budgies to keep him company, and he always had these trips to his relatives (and luckily, one friend to look after the budgies; and how he lets the budgies out to fly round the room and perch on the curtain rail, and no, they don't shit on the curtains because he rigs up a towel in this special way I couldn't follow because he had a very strong Liverpool accent and seemed not have his teeth in and had a way of talking with his head turned away so I had lean forward and strain to listen). And he'd given up driving, he'd done so much driving for his job - he'd been away so much, it had just put too much strain on the marriage and his wife had just got fed up - and it was so nice just to relax and take the train everywhere, and, by the way, he really liked my double denim.

Well, how could any writer resist? He was such a great character: there was such a subtext of loneliness and loss, yet he was so well-meaning and determinedly cheerful. Finally he said, nudging me again, 'Hey you get on with your homework!' so I turned to the book again. But as soon as I looked up from it to see the Pennines he took the opportunity and started saying it all again. And so it went on, all the way to Norwich, for four and a half hours. Every time I looked up from the book he pounced, so in the end I didn't dare look up, and missed the Lincolnshire and Norfolk countryside altogether, but he pounced anyway, even while my nose was in the pages, and in the end I gave up and was treated to all the photos of his siblings and kids and grandkids on his camera. As Elaine Chiew said to me when I got to The Library Restaurant that evening in Norwich for the launch and told her, 'That's the kind of time to slip on the dark glasses!'

So I didn't get to read the stories again that day, but I really didn't need to: they are all so vivid still in my mind from the first reading, Elaine's language-busting and gut-wrenching tale of paedophile grooming, Dan Powell's eerie and unsettling portrayal of a marriage in danger, Garry Budden's haunting story of a return to the place of one's youth, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt's evocative depiction of the loss of a childhood friend, Adrian Cross's creepily impressive account of murder by homeopathy, Amanda Oosthuizen's story in which a past trauma creeps unsettlingly into the present, and Barney Walsh's stunning first-person account, 'My Lobotomy'. And all of the others. Do read them: you won't be disappointed. The book is available here.