Archive for the 'fiction' Category

Sequioa Nagamatsu: How high we go in the dark

April 10, 2022

     My acquaintance with Japanese fiction is pretty slight, and I’ve found it hard to access in certain ways, as I find it quite different from what I’m used to (European, English, American fiction mainly). Nagamatsu is a Japanese-American writer and the novel was written in English, but there’s an approach to story, and also a narrative tone, I think, which I find hard to get used to. And I’ve forgotten what it was that prompted me to want to read this novel.

It’s set in a near, and fairly recognisable future, a world where the climate emergency has continued and made the planet far worse; it has released a deadly virus from the distant past through the melting of frozen land in Siberia, and humans no longer have any defences against it. The novel is a series of loosely related chapters or episodes that cluster around the consequences of this event, as they gradually unfold and humanity grapples in a pretty ineffectual manner with them.

The prose feels business-like, but is polished; there is pace to the unfolding of the plot, and interesting intellectual concepts are explored, too. Characters develop interestingly. Initially the plague seems only or mainly to affect children: euthanasia parks in the manner of Disneyworld are set up. Then adults become susceptible, perhaps to a different variant, and the story becomes more disjointed, almost hallucinatory at times. I think one of the things I found challenging was the matter-of-fact tone of the narrative here, almost as if the writer is saying, “well, of course this is what would happen, naturally this is what we would do in these circumstances” whilst at the same time describing what we think of as quite alarming courses of action… And the characters are emotionally involved in the events; the overall effect is Brechtian, unsettling in the extreme. At the same time as realising that such events are easily possible now, there is also a sense almost of detachment, disembodiment from our world. Robot pets, to which people become strongly emotionally attached, are people’s response at one stage. A reflection of Japan as a technological nation? That’s trite, I know, and the chapter is surprisingly poignant.

It’s very depressing, at times surprisingly maudlin, and yet the images of a disintegrating world, beyond our capacity to put right, are very powerful. It’s not an easy read, but it is a compelling one, given that mortality is at the heart of the novel, watching death and dying, following characters experiencing it. One most unnerving chapter tells of a woman whose marriage falls apart as she has an affair with a dying man…

I found many of the separate chapters intriguing, even gripping, and yet I had an overall feeling as I worked my way to the end of something missing, the sense of an ambitious hotch-potch that didn’t quite gel, at least for me. At the same time, I realised I was possibly being unfair, and decided I’d read it again soon.

The novel ends with humanity sending a craft into space to try and reach another planet to colonise it; while it’s on its centuries-long journey, somehow the plague is cured, and humanity sets about addressing the climate emergency; the people on the spacecraft are left to their own devices. Bleak, this one, in so many ways.

Philip Pullman: The Ruby in the Smoke

April 4, 2022

     Philip Pullman has written a series of mystery/detective stories featuring a young woman – Sally Lockheart – as the heroine, set roughly in the Sherlockian/ Victorian London of the late nineteenth century; I’ve read some of them and had been intending to revisit them when my hand was forced, by the absence of my library during our recent house move. As with the His Dark Materials trilogy, there’s both the sense that the novel is written for a young adult readership, and also the feeling that Pullman writes for everyone and for all time, if I may put it like that; I certainly didn’t feel excluded.

We’re thrown in at the deep end, and Pullman quickly shows how he can create a sense of mystery, and speedily develop real characters with whom we can empathise. It’s a fast-paced yarn, that develops well – no surprises there, then, given the writer’s pedigree – and various political and social messages and moral lessons are also woven in as the plot progresses, linking in to behaviour and attitudes, but even more into the idea of trusting oneself and believing in oneself.

There is the sense of a debt to Conan Doyle, perhaps particularly in the way that children and young people assist the hero in her quest (in the vein of the famous Baker Street Irregulars), but here, while the hero of the story is female, the villain is a particularly vicious and nasty woman, too. There are echoes of The Sign of Four, too. Plenty of excitement, tension and suspense here, although there was a bit of a deus ex machina moment in the denouement which I found a trifle disappointing. Overall, though, a superb story which gripped me thoroughly, and I’ll be looking out for the rest of the series some time soon.

Rebecca West: The Return of the Soldier

February 15, 2022

     An early start with the book group choice for next month, and what an astonishing book this first novel by Rebecca West, published in 1918, was. As First World War literature was one of the topics I specialised in teaching towards the end of my career, I was surprised never to have encountered this short novel, but since the Great War is only incidental to its plot, perhaps this is not surprising.

An officer suffers from shellshock, and all memories of fifteen years of his life have vanished; he has no recollection of his wife, the death of their small son, any of the changes which have taken place at his home. His memories are stuck on the idyllic happiness of his first love years back, and the first message from the field hospital contacts her… you can imagine the complexities West has set up here.

You are quite shockingly thrown in at the deep end, and West’s style is brief, sparse, and yet very tightly focused in terms of close observation of characters’ movements, gestures; it felt cinematographic in many ways. I was struck by how she developed a complex, moving and ultimately tragic plot in fewer than a hundred pages, and mentally imagined how a contemporary writer might have wittered through several hundred more without any improvement… Equally, I realised the immediacy West achieved, a quality I’ve encountered in other writings from the war itself and its immediate aftermath, where the horrors are well-known and widely known, as opposed to today’s writers who have to weave in so much contextual information and background a century and more later.

The flaw for me, and obviously it’s a reflection of the time when West wrote, was the simplistic use of Freudian psychology as a trigger for the denouement; it’s a minor flaw as it’s merely a trigger and the ending itself is brief enough and tragic enough to overshadow it.

Although the story is ostensibly about the return of the soldier – and the multiple meanings of the title have only just leapt out to me – actually the main interest is the complex and evolving relationship between the three women, the soldier’s wife, his first love, and the cousin who is the narrator but also deeply involved with the events as they unfold.

From the time itself, all those years ago, the story seems to express a longing, a nostalgia for the time before, the world before, the innocence before the horrors, at the same time as perhaps unconsciously recognising that those times are gone forever, that you cannot rewind. It’s a very powerful, well-written and extremely moving novel.

On choices and prejudices

February 8, 2022

My reaction to The English Patient has had me thinking. Regular and long-term readers of this blog will know that I have occasionally admitted to gaps in my reading, and to certain preferences – prejudices, even – in what I choose to read.

We all make choices about what we read or don’t read; as I get older, mine are increasingly based on limited time. But that won’t do as an excuse. There are fellow bloggers I follow with interest who only write about women’s fiction, or science fiction, for example; I’ve no way of knowing whether these are deliberate choices or their exclusive reading matter. I write about every book I read; very occasionally, if I’ve re-read a book quite quickly but have nothing to add, I won’t write about it a second time.

So where have all my prejudices and predilections come from?

Science fiction from my childhood, and from my student days, but I read very little of it now, and most of that is re-reading of old favourites. I used to have the run of the Science Fiction Foundation library as a postgrad and wrote reviews for Foundation magazine. My prejudice now, when I reflect, is due to my impression that fantasy has long overwhelmed the market, and I’m not interested in fantasy. Science fiction made me reflect on the world I live in; fantasy is merely escape and doesn’t cut it for me on those grounds.

Travel writing is a relatively recent pleasure, though it’s now fading, ironically, when I can’t do very much of my own. Specifically, I link it to the recommendation by a very helpful bookseller in a shop in Dinan who persuaded me to buy a couple of books by the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart about 20 years ago. I’ve never looked back. My prejudices here are about the kind of travel and the traveller: I like travel that borders on exploration, that involves effort and hardship, where the writer observes and reports rather than centring the narrative around themselves – so a lot of more recent stuff doesn’t get a look-in from me. I’m also picky about where: deserts and isolated places are what I most enjoy reading about; South America, the Far East and a lot of Oceania don’t interest me at all. What’s going on here?

English and American literature I studied for my degree; I necessarily met the ‘classics’, a lot of which I liked, many I didn’t. Dickens and Hardy, for example, bored me stiff and I cannot be bothered with them, a statement many will find rather shocking, no doubt. Most stuff written in the eighteenth century, apart from the very earliest novels, I have completely forgotten. And there was a fair amount of very dull American literature. I’m surprised that the student-era reactions have stuck, and I’ve never gone back to such writing. My main feeling was of twentieth century writing in English largely disappearing into self-obsession and triviality, almost as if there was nothing real left to write about; my regular readers will perhaps recall my saying that I found much more meaningful and relevant writing in other languages, all of which apart from French I have to read in translation.

My deep interest in, and exploration of, Eastern European literature is perhaps a positive prejudice and deliberate choice, given my family background: I seek to understand something of my origins, the history of my father’s country, and the troubled and strange choices made by, and forced upon, nations in that part of the world over the last century or so.

Looking back at what I’ve written, there are clearly some pretty lame excuses! There’s a brief, and not very long-lasting sense of regret about some of the lacunae in my reading, but in the end there’s so much out there to read that I will never get to the end of; I sometimes joke that I’m compiling reading lists for my next existence… And when students used to express amazement at how well-read I appeared to be, I disabused them, referring to my age compared with theirs, and telling them about some of the gaps, and prejudices I’ve confessed to earlier.

There was a time – centuries ago – when it was possible for someone to know or be familiar with everything in their field. I’m both humbled and astounded by people like Athanasius Kircher, who some have described as the last man to have known everything in his time, or Isidore of Seville, patron saint of the internet, who wrote the first encyclopaedia, containing all that was known in his time, the seventh century. My translation of his Etymologies has about 400 pages. So, choices are now inevitable. I’ve made mine, or mine have made me. So be it. What about you?

Ursula Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

February 6, 2022

     I’m always glad to re-read anything by Ursula Le Guin. This time, it’s for my book group, and it’s also only a couple of years since I last read this one. Since then, I’ve learnt rather more about her background in anthropology, which casts an interesting light on her ‘thought experiments’ as she calls them, in the range of Hainish novels and stories. It’s the way she can make the reader think about our own particular species of humanity, its greatnesses and limitations, by imagining variations on the template, particularly in this novel in terms of gender and sexuality, that is the great success of her oeuvre.

The Left Hand of Darkness was written over half a century ago now, in the early days of the second feminist wave, and Le Guin’s later reflections on what and how she wrote back then are also interesting: she acknowledges that she comes across as having made the reader picture the androgynous Estraven as basically male, and being focused only on heterosexuality in her imagined society… However, what struck me most in reading around the novel this time was that she apparently started off with the premise of a planet which did nthought experiments,ot know war, and the androgyny of the inhabitants only came along after that.

We see the Envoy’s awkwardness – he is apparently a Terran, as we are – faced with the Gethenians; he cannot grasp the implications of their sexuality and often seems to put them down or demean them for not being clearly one gender or the other; this is significant, as clearly we are invited to remove our own blinkers when he is narrating the story.

So this novel is an anthropological experiment as much as a political story, with obvious undertones of the Cold War era whence it originates. The science fiction elements include faster-than-light travel and the ansible, an instant communication device which keeps the many planets of the Ekumen in contact with each other. Parts of the anthropological experiment are the skill of ‘foretelling’, and also ‘mind speech’, both of which are self-explanatory. The two nations of the planet which concern us are very different, one clearly a Soviet-style state and the other almost mediaeval; the well-intentioned Estraven, who can see what becoming part of the Ekumen will mean for his fellow-humans, attempts well-intentioned manipulations and duplicity, which inevitably lead to personal and political misunderstandings and disaster.

The title of the novel comes from the Tao Te Ching, and Le Guin produced what she called a ‘version’ of it in English; I have to say that when I read it, I felt that for the first time I was attaining some understanding of its wisdom. I came across a reference to someone writing a biography of Le Guin; I’m not normally one for reading biography but I shall be keeping an eye open for that, most certainly.

Finally I have to mention how well Le Guin writes; this is no run-of-the-mill, plot driven science fiction with wooden characters and stilted writing. This is literature that deserves to last, and, at the moment, I think it will.

Tolstoy: Resurrection

January 22, 2022

     Tolstoy tiresome and tedious: I never knew I’d find myself writing that one day, but in the end that is my considered verdict on Resurrection. I just about kept going through its 500+ pages, prepared for ultimate disappointment, and was…

The idea of a worthless man being saved by his loved for a woman had been done rather better 30 years previously by Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment; the plot of Resurrection is a vague approximation, on first sight. Raskolnikov our hero isn’t. No murderer, just a useless Russian aristocrat with nothing to do other than live a pointless life off his estates, he thoughtlessly seduces a servant girl, gives her money as if she’s a prostitute and disappears. She falls pregnant, and her life degenerates into prostitution and pointlessness… until he finds himself, ten years later, on jury service where she is on trial as one of the co-accused of a murder. He is conscience-stricken, and determines to follow the unjustly convicted woman to Siberia and hard labour, whether she wants it or not.

Very quickly, the problem becomes the author’s moralising tone as he tells the reader what to think about every evil of contemporary Russian society – and we are given a very thorough tour of it all. It’s particularly annoying when we have to endure pages of this just in order to see how the plot will move on.

The hero’s psychology and his introspection as he reconsiders his life, and ponders the evils of society and how they might be remedied, are interesting enough, though obviously not as dramatic as in Dostoevsky’s novel. But in the end both the psychology and the introspection feel rather too saccharine, too mealy-mouthed and goody-goody, perhaps because conveyed through internal monologue, though again I remember Dostoevsky managed to carry this off very effectively.

The plot rambles seriously, losing itself in an interminable examination of the Russian justice and penal system, and I did find myself wondering where on earth Tolstoy was going with all this. The characters fade almost into cardboard cut-outs amid Tolstoy’s didacticism. Certainly we are provided with a scathing indictment of everything that is wrong in that society, but I had thought I was meant to be reading a novel… And I found myself also thinking that nothing much seemed to have changed in the intervening century or more, as far as Russia and the Russians are concerned. The country just felt too large to ever be able to function fairly and efficiently.

So, a social novel, then. I did find myself admiring the hero’s determination to follow through his attempts to right his initial wrong – the seduction – and his encounters with the criminal and revolutionary classes of his day, and his attempts to use his privilege and influence as an aristocrat to help people, were also interesting, but the author’s heavy hand weighs too much for us not constantly to be aware of it.

The ending is most unsatisfactory. Having been scathing about the church in his society – one of the most extraordinary chapters is Tolstoy’s savage attack on the Orthodox Mass, which he depicts almost as a circus activity – we are left with the hero realising that the woman has saved him by determining she will not marry him, and that the answer to all the evils and problems of his society and the world are to be found in the aphorisms presented in Matthew’s gospel. Not that I reject that gospel, but it was an almighty cop-out.

Anthony Brigg’s translation is excellent, flowing well and managing, for this reader at least, to smooth out some of the awkwardnesses that can occur in Russian literary style. His endnotes are very useful, too.

Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient

January 9, 2022

      I’m in several minds about this novel, which many people rate highly and which I’ve effortlessly avoided for the last 30 years but have now read because it’s our book group choice for January. For me, it joins the list of oddball takes on the Second World War in novels, perhaps the most successful of which is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin an eminently forgettable one, for me at least.

It’s well-written: I like the ways Ondaatje uses the language to create atmosphere, particularly through the use of the impersonal ‘he’ and ‘she’. At times I felt a sense of showiness with so many names and places and foreign terms, and the narrative often felt too disjointed and disconnected, overly impressionistic. I could see the effect the writer wanted to achieve… The muddling of the story strands and the various timeshifts made for an oddly compelling narrative involving the isolated individuals in the Italian villa; it took quite a while, but eventually the interplay between the four very different characters began to work for me. This setting seemed to echo the isolation of the characters in the desert sections which I liked very much (well, I would, wouldn’t I?)

For me, by far the most interesting character was Kip, the Sikh sapper. I liked his inscrutability and his personality came across very well via the narrative style; the ending of his storyline was very powerful and moving, even more so because of the effect and message of the previous book I read (see the last post above). Even so, I found myself wondering if this interest in him was triggered by all the boys’ stuff, bombs and bomb disposal and so on.

And yet… somewhere I remain unsatisfied. I’m glad I read the book, in the end, but there was a certain self-consciously arty archness about it which I couldn’t shake off, and the quite sudden degeneration into an unpicking of the different spies mystery as the identity of the English patient became clear, I found really annoying. But the ending was unexpected and powerful because of that. It feels like a novel that needs a re-read to become clearer and yet I don’t really see myself finding the time.

Tayeb Salih: Season of Migration to the North

January 6, 2022

     I can’t now remember where I came across the review which aroused my interest in this novel, by a Sudanese writer, first published in 1969. It’s a challenging read, powerful and perplexing. I’m happy to admit that, as an inhabitant of the first world, I find novels from African and Asia difficult reads at times, in the sense that they come from and are about cultures and lives that are so different from the ones I’m familiar with from my privileged European perspective. And yet, I’m curious to know more.

This is the story, set about a century ago, of two Sudanese men who spend time in Britain – their country was a colony of ours at that time, the ‘Anglo-Egyptian Sudan’. Both eventually return home; one having had a decent education, becomes a minor government official; the second is rather odder: falling in love with the western lifestyle, he realises he is exotic to western women and leads a wild life seducing and abandoning them, and eventually murders one he had married. He escapes hanging and eventually returns to the Sudan, seeking anonymity… after a fashion. The lives of the two men are inevitably intertwined, given their common background.

That’s the plot in a nutshell, that fails to do the wider story justice, as there is much broader reflection on the nature and effects of colonisation, on both coloniser and colonised, on the mutual incomprehension and on the ultimately destructive connection. It is hard to avoid the picture of Sudanese lives blighted by contact with Britain.

The storyteller is happy to be back in his homeland, but has become not quite a stranger in his home village but someone now different from everyone else, and all his friends and neighbours are inevitably curious about the strange land across the sea where he has lived. The other man seeks him out, befriends him, and evidently has a secret which he eventually shares partially before being lost in a Nile flood, leaving the narrator to piece together the rest. There was a weird unworldliness about him, a man without feelings or emotions, only focused on the intellect; he leaves behind a curious locked room in his house, which the narrator eventually visits: it is a shrine to Britain and things British.

It’s well-written, with sudden bombshells lobbed in that create both suspense and astonishment; the narrative thread shifts in time and focus, blurring the flow, slowing us down and forcing the reader to reflect. What, exactly, is the message here? The insidiousness of rule by another race and nation which regards itself as superior percolates through everywhere, and the inevitable corruption which follows in its wake is also laid bare.

It’s a challenging novel – as I mentioned at the start – perhaps particularly to the western reader who knows himself to be perhaps not a target, but certainly implicated in the blame, perhaps also because it comes from a place that we as westerners are not, and cannot, be a part of; there is no sense of comfort or tranquillity available to such a reader. I can’t pretend I’ve exhausted everything the novel has to say on a first reading, and so I expect to be re-reading it quite soon. If you’re up to be rattled, I recommend this one.

Susanna Clarke: Piranesi

December 31, 2021

     Spoiler alert!

Well, in all honesty I should go back and amend this post – or not write about a year until it’s properly over, because this novel deserves an accolade. Read it in a day, and it stunned me, so utterly weird it was. Initially it reminded me of some of the drug-crazed ramblings I read during my hippy days, then reminded me of the utter weirdness of Ben MarcusThe Age of Wire and String, finally reminded me of some of the best detective stories I’ve ever read.

Weird beyond belief, the tale of someone trapped or marooned in what seems at first a strange parallel universe modelled on the bizarre drawings of the eponymous Italian artist: at first I found myself wondering whether there was some complex allegory developing. A world with only two people in it. And the behaviour of the other (or the Other) was quite quickly not exactly what it seemed to be. A story that defied attempts to parse it from the outset.

Do the two characters have anything in common, do they share a goal? Is one misleading the other? Do they understand each other, have they a rapport or were they just thrown together? And why is the Other so much better equipped than the narrator?

Another weirdness: although the narrator/writer of the journals is named as a male character, I cannot fathom why I never shook off the very strong impression that the story was being told by a female.

What triggered the comparison with Ben Marcus was the initial impression that there was just enough commonality between my world and my language and those of the narrator for me to be able to make some vague sense of what was going on. Gradually, as the plot develops and ideas suggest themselves, the story begins to mutate into detective fiction, although that term fails to do justice to the tour-de-force of motivations, clues and evidence that Susanna Clarke weaves to deceive and delude. It turns in on itself, there are wheels within wheels, and then there are doors between universes à la Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials.

Incomprehensible things have been happening, and rightly do we wonder, along with the narrator, where our and her (!) sanity lies; the mind plays tricks – has mountains, as Gerard Manley Hopkins once said – and the gradual and painful unpicking by the narrator of what actually happened to him, aided by his meticulous and obsessively-indexed journals, and his coming finally to entertain the possibility of being rescued from the bizarre world which he has grown to know and love unfold beautifully, sweeps you along.

It’s a truly mind-blowing tale as it plays with your head all the while you are reading. It’s really a stunner. Unputdownable.

Amin Maalouf: Balthasar’s Odyssey

December 26, 2021

     I’ve just re-read another of my favourites by Amin Maalouf, and find myself wondering what it is I find so captivating in his writing. The socio-cultural and historical essays such as Adrift I find very interesting not just because his analyses largely concur with mine, but because they are far-sighted and take me out of my limited Western perspective and comfort-zone. With the novels, it’s different, and I’m beginning to wonder if this is to do with the nature of storytelling being different in other cultures; I’m not widely-enough read to judge at the moment.

I cam to Maalouf via Samarcand, then Leo the African, then this book. The settings are exotic, in the sense of a historical past, either in what we would have called mediaeval times, or else the Renaissance, and located in the Middle East, and the European parts of the Muslim world at those times. There are also usually characters from all three religions of the book, living together reasonably peacefully and tolerantly (within the parameters of their age), so perhaps Maalouf is looking back to a golden age in more ways than one, compared with our times. There is obviously an overlap – wishful thinking? – with his non-fiction.

This story is set in 1665-66, with overtones of the year of the Beast (666) and end times; there is a mysterious book which comes into and leaves the possession of the narrator repeatedly, which allegedly tells how to learn the mysterious hundredth name of God (according to the Qur’an there are ninety-nine) which will bring about transformation. Our narrator ranges the known world in obsessive pursuit of the book, which brings calamity in its wake; even in his possession and open in front of him, somehow it is impossible to read more than a few pages…

Maalouf’s characters in many of his novels are seekers, wanderers about the world; they are thinkers and they meet other kindred spirits on their travels and discuss religious and philosophical notions. Not only questing after truth, they are also on personal journeys of self-discovery and seeking happiness. Balthasar is 40 – significant, perhaps – seeking a book, love, a purpose for his future. I think this is one of the aspects of this novel, and Maalouf’s writing in general that appeals to me: there are real ideas and insights woven into the fiction.

There’s also something in the style of the story-telling: it’s first person, done through dated journal entries, so at one level there’s the potential for it to be fairly dull in terms of no suspense or changing viewpoints. But it’s not, it works in the sense that it’s the mind of his character that Maalouf wants us to know, and there is suspense via the gaps between the journal entries, and the unexpected changes of location of our narrator. It’s definitely not a Western novel as most of us might understand the term. In a way, it’s how some of the earliest English fiction was crafted; perhaps Maalouf is deliberately imitating something like Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year?

Finally, there’s a kind of meta-fiction here too, a book about a book or books, such as we find in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in various of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories, in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind or in Gilbert Sinoué’s Livre de Saphir. There are books containing hidden or arcane knowledge for those who care to look or seek it, although perhaps not with the obsessiveness of the hero of this novel.

There’s a lot here. It’s not the average, evanescent stuff of much contemporary fiction – this is the third time I’ve read and enjoyed the novel, and it’s gone back on my shelves for the future.

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