Two Apologies

I have been a terrible book blogger this year and whilst I owe apologies all round for visiting so infrequently and not replying to comments (I do hope for better things in the second half of 2016), I’ve also got two book reviews particularly on my conscience. Steven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage and Britta Böhler’s The Decision were novels I read in December of 2015 and faithfully promised to review either on this site or Shiny. Six months late they may be, but the following accounts do seem oddly pertinent to the political moment, one way or another.

lady of steerageSteven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage is a novel about emigration, the story of ‘Everyone who ever crossed an ocean to escape the inescapable.’ Its central focus is Mariasse Knyszinski who runs away from an overbearing father and a downtrodden mother in Poland to follow her beloved cousin, Piotr, to the promised land of Canada. The year is 1923 and she boards the S. S. Montmartre in Cherbourg for the week-long trip across the Atlantic, a voyage that will indelibly alter the lives of several of the travellers. Mariasse meets a young Jewish couple, Shulim and Betye who have suffered a tragedy during the train journey from Bucharest to Paris: their five-year-old son fell ill and died en route. Betye is so prostrated by grief that she is unable to care for her baby, Dvorah, (known as Dora for most of the novel), and Mariasse willingly takes on this task. The week of devotion creates a life-long bond between Mariasse and Dora, and also links Mariasse with the Krager family, whose son, Aaron, will come to benefit from the innate goodness in Mariasse that his parents so admire.

What follows is the account of these intertwined lives from the early 1920s to the early 1960s, but the recounting of the events is in no way linear. Instead, we skip around in time, visiting moments in  the 1940s or 30s before heading into the past to understand what provoked them. From very early on in the novel, we realise that Mariasse and Dora are destined for terrible emotional hardships that will break them both, and only gradually do we piece together the chain of events that befall them. I thought that the disjointed chronological structure was the most impressive part of this novel. It is clever and well-orchestrated and adds depth and tension to the narrative. Mayoff teases the reader who wants to know what happens when Mariasse and Piotr finally meet (he doesn’t know she is coming), what drives Dora to a suicide attempt and electric shock therapy, what happens to the angry, bitter Betye, why Mariasse abandons Catholicism and embraces Judaism – and then why she converts back again. For me, the constant switchbacks really made the reading experience.

What’s perhaps more problematic is the bleakness of the story. It didn’t feel like a political point was being made here – it’s not the treatment the immigrants receive at the hands of the Canadians, for instance, that gives the characters pain. A more likely cause seems to be the displacement a person feels when they leave their native land behind, when family trouble or political unrest or poverty forces them into an exile that they will never really come to terms with, even when it has been undertaken with determined hope. And then again, there seems to be a deep vein of mental instability in the characters, combined with the hardship of just living, that cannot be assuaged. The bleakness is inevitable, however, when we consider the characterisation of Mariasse, who is supposed to be the light and hope of the novel, but who never really feels convincing on the page. Had she been a stronger force for good, rather than a nice person who is continually put-upon until she cracks, a more balanced novel might have resulted. Betye, on the other hand, leaps off the page at you and electrifies her scenes, and Dora never seems to overcome the legacy of being her daughter, or of her early neglect.

A very interesting part of Canadian history under the microscope and some fine storytelling to be had, then, but a dark, dark story.

the decisionBritta Böhler’s novel The Decision, focuses on three momentous days in the life of the German Nobel prize-winning author, Thomas Mann. Between the 31st January and the 2nd of February 1936, Mann frets over a terrible choice he must make. Does he or does he not denounce the Nazi party in the Swiss press? On the one hand, he feels morally compelled to do so, horrified by all that is happening in his beloved homeland and urged on by his politically-minded daughter. But on the other, any such denunciation comes at the cost of permanent exile, the loss of his German readership, the probable burning of his books.

This is only a short novella, but it achieves a masterful portrait of Thomas Mann. Sitting comfortably in the close third person, the voice is a brilliant evocation of a committed artist – the hypersensitivity, the hypochondria, the euphoria and the passion of creation, along with the lengthy stretches of insufficient work done, the anxieties over creative sterility. Thomas Mann loved Germany, and he needed his routine, clung to it and all the other beloved familiarities that allowed him to venture into the realm of his imagination. The occasion for his exile is an ironic one, a long essay he wrote about his hero, Wagner that became the basis for a lecture tour, and which was used by the authorities to denounce him, claiming he had ‘besmirched the memory of the great composer’. Mann is hurt, bewildered, and aware of the danger he is in. The denunciation is used as an excuse for the Nazis to search his house and he fears for the safety of his notebooks, in which he has written everything he could never say elsewhere, not least his romantic feelings for beautiful young men.

And so a holiday in Switzerland turns into a permanent exile, and from this most uncomfortable of positions, Mann must negotiate not only his personal effects, but his critical reputation. What sustains him during this time is, naturally, his creativity. He is writing the first novel in his tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers, in what would become an epic work demanding 16 years of his life.

The great novel is set in the distant past, and yet it’s so near. Joseph, too, is an outcast, driven against his will from his own land by his jealous brothers, he has to find a new home in a strange country. A stranger in a world that he doesn’t understand. And Joseph, too, takes satisfaction in order and wants everything to be consistent; he takes a stand against chaos and disorder. Against the emergence of destructive forces that threaten a peace that is only apparently safe. It’s as if when he started the book he had an inkling that the same fate would befall him one day.’

I just loved this; I have a weakness for novels about writers in any case, and this is so exquisitely done. The whole of Mann’s life is here, combined with a neat but powerful account of what was happening in the German republic. Mann is a public figure and he takes pride in his prominence; he feels a duty to speak out, at a time when ‘anyone who does nothing, participates’. But he knows to do so might be the end of his life as a published writer. The decision he comes to, and how he makes it, feel exactly right.

The Other Part of the Reason…

Why I’ve been quiet, is to be found here at the wonderful Numero Cinq.

I’ve been writing about one of my favourite French authors, Patrick Modiano, whose name may be familiar to you after his unexpected win of the Nobel Prize for literature.

patrick modiano for numero cinq

His novels are almost ridiculously accessible – very simple and elegant language, very simple plots in which the main protagonist seeks the answers to some ongoing enigma, often concerning his own past, and yet immense psychological depth. He became famous in France for writing about the period of the Occupation, just at a time when the French were beginning to realise that their own history was much darker and more complex than was comfortable. I think he’s an amazing writer, and well worth your time. Lots of his novels are coming out in translation now, thanks to the Nobel, but my suggestion would be you start with either Missing Person or Honeymoon. And do let me know how you get on.

Ten Brilliant Women Writers You May Not Have Heard Of

Okay so my tooth comes out next Thursday, and I don’t want to think about that, so something completely different. A few weeks ago, I saw a post doing the rounds about 11 Brilliant Female Authors You’ve Never Heard Of, and naturally I was interested. I agreed the authors were brilliant, but I didn’t think they were all that obscure. And of course that got me thinking about the sort of list I might put together on similar lines… The following authors are, I think, less well-known than those on the original list, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have heard of some of them, or indeed read them. Mostly these things depend on geography and how keen you are on female authors!

 

Maryse Condé

I titubaBorn in Guadeloupe in 1937, Condé’s native language is French and that’s what she writes in, but most of her career has been spent in America in academia. Her novels are deeply concerned with gender, race and culture and often they are historical, like my favourite, I, Tituba; Black Witch of Salem. She had a particular interest in the African diaspora, especially in the Caribbean, and everything she writes has a sharp political edge. But saying these things doesn’t really connect with the heart of her writing, which is just so vivid and vibrant. Tituba, for instance, is about a young slave girl who escapes her life of hardship to come to America where she gets mixed up in the Salem witch trials because she is black and her cultural beliefs as well as her medical knowledge, are different to the norm. It’s completely engrossing, but it captures the reader’s mind as well as heart.

 

Madeleine St John

The Essence of the ThingMadeleine St John is an Australian writer who’s been shortlisted for the Booker before (in 1997 for The Essence of the Thing) so she ought to be better known than she is. She seems to have this ability to slide off the radar, despite the wonderfully funny, accessible, sparklingly clever novels she writes. She’s got a most intriguing writing history, having spent eight years trying to write a biography of the spirit medium, Helena Blavatsky, and eventually destroying the manuscript in frustration. She finally turned to writing novels in the early 1990s and was successful but found herself deeply uncomfortable with the publicity that brought, which turned her almost into a recluse. Alas, she is with us no more, having died in 2006, but she leaves behind four wonderful novels (though her will stipulates that none shall ever be translated): The Women in Black, A Pure, Clear Light, The Essence of the Thing, A Stairway to Paradise.

 

Anne Hébert

kamouraskaBorn in Quebec in 1916, Hébert had a terrifically successful career in Canada, winning The Governor General’s Award three times, but doesn’t seem to be particularly well known beyond her native borders. She was an equally brilliant poet and novelist though she had to self-publish a couple of her early works in order to break into the literary scene. In her personal life she lost two people she was close to – her cousin and her sister – in sudden and violent illness and this very much shaped her poetic imagination. My favourite of her novels is Kamouraska, set in the 19th century, in which the female protagonist conspires with her lover, a doctor, to kill her husband. It’s based on a true story which possibly adds to the kick it gives, but it’s the atmosphere of the novel I’ve never forgotten, a sort of intense fever dream that manages nevertheless to ask some tough questions about love and morality.

 

Magda Szabó

izasBalladSzabó was a Hungarian writer whose writing was suppressed during the Stalinist rule from 1949 to 1956. She began her career as a poet, her second book of poetry winning the Baumgarten prize which was taken away from her for political reasons on the day it was awarded. During the years that followed she turned to writing novels and from 1958 until her death in 2007 was a revered literary figure. Her novels are gradually coming back into print in English. The Door, the story of the relationship between a writer and her house cleaner, was shortlisted for a number of prizes and turned into a film. Just recently, Iza’s Ballad was translated into English and published, the touching story of an elderly widow attempting and failing to escape the well-meaning but claustrophobic love of her daughter. Her stories are simple, but the depth of characterisation, the psychological insight and the quality of the writing are amazing.

 

Nina Bawden

the birds on the treesNina Bawden is better known as a children’s writer – Carrie’s War or The Peppermint Pig, anyone? – but she also wrote elegant, austere and psychologically piercing novels, too. Circles of Deceit was shortlisted for the Booker in 1987, and in 2010 The Birds on the Trees made the shortlist for the Lost Man Booker Prize. She had a life that seems marred by tragedy, losing a son to suicide, a daughter who died six months before Nina Bawden died herself, and a second husband killed in a train crash in which she was also badly injured. Yet over her lifetime she wrote 55 books. She’s a writer I would rate as highly as Penelope Mortimer or Elaine Dundy yet she seems to be sliding into obscurity at the moment. Time for an enterprising publisher to bring her work back into print.

 

 

Marie NDiaye

ladivineGiven that NDiaye has  been longlisted for this years International Man Booker with her novel Ladivine, I imagine that her name is much better known than it was a few months or so ago. If you live in France, there’s no doubt you’ll have heard of her. NDiaye is a prodigy, publishing her first novel at the age of 17 and winning the Prix Femina in 2001 for Rosie Carpe and the Prix Goncourt in 2009 for Three Strong Women. Her father is Senegalese (and he returned there when she was a baby, leaving her to be brought up by her mother) and one of her concerns is the situation of immigrants in metropolitan Paris, though she writes essentially about identity in the broadest sense. In her most recent novel, the female protagonist’s problems all arise because she can’t bear to admit that her mother was a poor, black housekeeper, and instead claims she is an orphan. My favourite of her novels is Rosie Carpe, though it won’t be to everyone’s taste. NDiaye had a strong interest in a delicate kind of magical realism (not a bit like the Latin American version – you’d have to read her to see why) and I find her novels completely entrancing.

 

Janice Galloway

this is not about meScottish writer, Janice Galloway, is – or at least was in her first three novels – what you might call an experimental or innovative writer. This gives some authors a bad name, like they might be pretentious. But Galloway’s down-to-earth female characters are anything but that. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, is a funny and terrifying account of a descent into mental illness, and that doesn’t sound too appealing either. But if you like Ali Smith, and you get that sharp-edged, black-humoured, rigorous and yet musical Scottish style, you’ll love her. Galloway’s recent volumes of memoir, This Is Not About Me and All  Made Up are excellent places for cautious readers to begin, and I urge you to try her because she has a wonderful voice.

 

Paula Fox

desperate charactersPaula Fox has reached the grand age of 92, which is long enough on the earth to have a great career, get forgotten and then be revived again. She was a highly successful children’s author, but I know her from her novel, Desperate Characters and her memoir, Borrowed Finery. Fox was abandoned at birth by her mother and put in a foundling home. Rescued by her grandmother who couldn’t look after her, she was placed in a series of households, the first belonging to a kindly Reverend who gave her a decent start in life. She worked as a teacher and a mentor for troubled youngsters, so no wonder she went on to write children’s literature, though she was in her 40s before she began to write seriously.  She was also writing novels with mixed success; these were all critically acclaimed but sold poorly. Goodness only knows why, for she’s an amazing writer. In 2011 she was placed in the New York State Writers’ Hall of Fame, and thanks to being championed by Jonathan Franzen, some of her work is now being reissued.

 

Willa Cather

DeathComesNow if you live in America, Willa Cather is going to be a very familiar name to you. However, I don’t think her works have ever become truly widely known outside of the States. And this is madness, because Cather is completely brilliant, probably my favourite prose stylist of all (okay, maybe tied with Colette). She is best known for her ‘prairie novels’, O Pioneers! and My Antonia, but I much prefer the run of novels that followed: Death Comes for the Archbishop, My Mortal Enemy, The Professor’s House, A Lost Lady. Cather really hit her stride in mid-career, and may have continued writing brilliantly right up to her death if critical opinion hadn’t turned against her, something that upset her deeply. Critics have a lot to answer for, in fact, as her work was taken up again by the feminists after her death (Cather was known for cross-dressing and having only significant female friends) and sort of mutilated once again, stuck under yet another label that narrowed her literary accomplishment. If you haven’t ever read her, pick up her novels. She is outstanding.

 

Jane Gardam

crusoe's daughterAnother name that will be very familiar to some, Gardam is a British writer whose recent trilogy of novels, Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends have definitely had some critical and commercial recognition. But Gardam has been writing for donkey’s years, and the novels from the early part of her career are every bit as wonderful and worth your time. I remember reading Bilgewater in my early 20s when it was one of the first coming-of-age novels I’d come across and being hugely impressed by it. She began writing in her 40s when her children had grown up enough for her to have time to herself, and from that moment on she was highly prolific. She is the only writer to have won the Whitbread Prize for best novel twice – for The Hollow Land in 1981 and Queen of the Tambourine in 1991. She was shortlisted for the Booker in 1978 for God on the Rocks. And yet despite the critical acclaim, I don’t think she is as well-known as she deserves to be. It’s like her zenith has passed, but that would be premature; start with Old Filth or Crusoe’s Daughter if you’ve never read her before.

 

And feel free to mention any other brilliant women writers who you think should be better known!

 

 

 

Your Blog Post Might Change The World Yet

The SwerveIt’s been an appropriate time to be reading about the way that war and religion – and especially religious wars – have caused more trouble to mankind than just about anything else. In Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book, The Swerve, he trots us through a couple of millenium of human history in which two very generalized modes of human existence – one based on civilized, intellectual pleasures, one based on the interplay of power and suffering – have come into conflict with each other over and over again. It’s a shame that the gospel doesn’t suggest it’s the geeks that will inherit the earth, as the historical evidence in this book proposes that we’d all be better for it.

The specific focus of the story is one book-hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, who in the winter of 1417 made a spectacular discovery in a German monastery. Looking for lost texts from the classical world, he found a copy of Lucretius’s De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) a book that had been written some fourteen hundred and fifty years earlier. This book was a doozy; it suggested that the universe was not created by the gods, but was constructed from infinitely small particles, that moved about, collided, came apart again. Everything in the world was the result of a swerve, in which one atom swerved into and combined with another, and this in a process of ceaseless, dynamic movement. That swerve ‘is the source of free will’ because it is random and not predetermined, and it also means that the world was not created especially for human beings – it just happened. And so, if all organised religions are just delusions, as Lucretius’s vision argued, and when we die there is no afterlife, then it’s pretty pointless to organise life around our fears of divine judgement. The essential point of existence was to increase pleasure and avoid pain. Lucretius was profoundly influenced by Epicurus, who advocated for a life of simple, immediate pleasures, and not as later discrediting critics argued, for mindless hedonism.

This was dangerously heretical stuff to be broadcast in the fifteenth century. But Poggio was one of the breed of ‘humanists’ who loved and revered the classical world, and who adored books – they were his comfort and his escape from a life that was constantly threatened and full of conflict. Because of his gorgeous handwriting skills, Poggio had risen to the grand position of the pope’s apostolic secretary. It was a good job but a difficult life in a papal court that was riven with corruption. Poggio’s boss, Baldassare Cossa (John XXIII) came from a family whose business was piracy, and that pretty much tells you all you need to know about him. Except, maybe, that at the time Poggio worked for him, there were three Popes knocking about Europe, all claiming to be the real one. (And Cossa had already poisoned a fourth.) Well, this situation was eventually resolved by a huge meeting of the authorities in Constance, Switzerland, to which all the popes (reluctantly) came. The aim was to settle on one pope and also to sort out various issues with heresy – for instance, the intolerable lobbying of church reformer Jan Hus, a Czech priest. Hus repeatedly attacked the clergy for their greed, hypocrisy and immorality (there was a roaring trade in ‘indulgences’ which, if you paid good money for one, would supposedly make the going easier through purgatory). He felt the state should control the church and that laymen should judge their spiritual leaders. ‘An immoral pope could not possibly claim infallibility.’ Well, yikes, thems were fighting words, and deeply unpopular ones. It was very unfortunate that they were mostly accurate and true.

How it all shook down is also very informative. Essentially, realising which way the wind was blowing, Cossa made a run for it and went into hiding. He was tracked down and imprisoned on a count of 70 criminal charges. Ironically enough, he ended up in the same prison as poor old Jan Hus, who had negotiated a safe passage to the conference only to see it blithely ignored. Cossa bought his release, and enjoyed a quiet retirement. Hus was taken to the stake and burned. Poggio, unemployed, decided a little holiday might be the thing, and so, enamoured of Germany and ever more in love with the classical golden age, he went book-hunting.

Greenblatt is – or at least seemed to me – very good on the vast ocean of lost texts that had been created in the classical world but were abandoned and neglected in the Dark Ages, but this has been one of the contentious parts of his book. Thousands of works came out of Greek and Roman philosophy, but since they were mostly written on papyrus, climate and bugs were their major destroyers. However, Greenblatt argues that it was a change in ideology that made the most important difference, and he uses the great library at Alexandria to illustrate his point. This library was essentially a world class university, to which scholars and researchers were invited and where the foundation for calculus, hydraulics and pneumatics and our understanding of the body were discovered. It was a vast treasure trove of learning. As such, it recognised no distinctions in doctrine – all knowledge was valuable. But the Jews and the Christians who lived in 4th century Alexandria were not happy at all – they only recognised the one god, and so this polytheistic environment was anathema to them.

The spiritual leader of the Christian community, Theophilus, set mobs of Christians onto the pagans, which resulted in riots and mass destruction. Then Theophilius’s successor, his even more brutal nephew, Cyril, demanded the expulsion of the Jews. He came up against an extraordinary young woman, Hypatia, who was beautiful and intellectually gifted. She was the representative of the pagan intellectual elite, most unusually for a woman. Hypatia supported the Jews. And so, Cyril sent out his henchman to whip up a frenzied mob. They pulled Hypatia from her chariot, stripped her, flayed her, then dragged her corpse around the city and burned it. Things were never the same again afterwards, Greenblatt suggests. It was the end of an era – ‘a loss of cultural moorings, a descent into febrile triviality’. Superstition took the place of open-minded intellectual debate.

Now, Greenblatt’s book has been highly criticized for what is seen by some as too great a simplification of the cultural shift, and a disservice to Christianity. You’ll have to read it yourself to see what you think. I felt that he wasn’t arguing that all kindness, pleasure and academic research ended when Europe embraced Christianity; but that it was harder to think clearly with the thumbscrews of the Inquisition hovering at the back of your mind. It seems fair enough to me that Lucretius’s text would be seen as a wildly inflammatory document when set against the reality of fifteenth century Italy. But also, that there might be a small band of brothers who would find its ideas radical but tempting. Greenblatt’s implied claim, that it was the book that tipped intellectual culture towards new, modernist ways of thinking is probably a bit much. But he does make of its life an impressive and highly engrossing story. I knew absolutely nothing about this part of history, and I found it fascinating.

And in the light of recent events, I also found it sobering. I know I bang on here a lot about tolerance and compassion, but I cannot regret it. I don’t think we’ve ever come to terms with the innate violence of human beings, and perhaps most dangerous of all, their fervent desire for retaliation. Across history, this desire has been successfully pitted against thought, consideration and contemplation; we still scorn intellectuals and prize strength and a show of might above all else. This is a very good book for hearing the lessons of history speaking loud and clear to us. Oh wouldn’t it be good if one day, we could finally listen.