Back To Life

spectreofalex‘Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.’ So begins Gaito Gazdanov’s haunting and mercurial novella, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. The narrator was a mere sixteen years old when he became caught up in the Russian civil war, and it was after a period of intense and sleepless battle that he found himself cut off from his troop. Fortunately, he came across a riderless Cossack mare and hoisted himself into the saddle, but he had scarcely begun to canter before the horse collapsed under him, brought down by a sniper. Scrabbling in the dirt, the narrator saw a white stallion approaching, carrying his assailant. A pure reflex reaction; he shot back in self-defence and the man fell. In the brief moment after this, our narrator walked over to where the body lay, saw a young man of twenty-three or four slowly dying, and then as he registered the sound of horses’ hooves, he took the stallion and made his escape.

Many years later, in Paris, he comes across a book of short stories by an English author unknown to him. One of those stories is entitled ‘The Adventure in the Steppe’ and it is, of course, exactly the same story as his long-held memory, only from the point of view of the man he killed. From this moment on, the story’s author, Alexander Wolf, holds a magnetic attraction for him. To begin with, he tries to seek him out, approaching his English publisher who does not know where he is and clearly hates him. But then Alexander Wolf seems to have been supernaturally summoned, as the narrator walks into a bar and falls into conversation with an old soak there, only to find he is a friend of Wolf; one who was his comrade in the war, and who took him to hospital when he found him dying of a gunshot wound.

So, our narrator’s victim does indeed live on, and fate seems determined to draw them closer together to finish what they started. When the narrator falls headlong in love with a Russian woman he meets at a boxing match, and she has a mysterious lover in her past about whom she will not speak… well, the narrator doesn’t cotton on, but the reader certainly will.

This is a dense and curious story, psychologically fraught with the devastating power of what it means to take a life. A man who kills, our narrator argues, “is given the opportunity to become, for some short space of time, more powerful than fate and chance, earthquake and tempest, and to know the exact moment when he’ll put a stop to that long and complex evolution…Love, hatred, fear, regret, remorse, will, passion…all is helpless before the momentary power of murder.” Having known this power – in a guilty, stricken, senseless kind of way – the narrator is unable to recover from it. It’s as if a part of his own life has stopped at the moment he shot the rider of the white horse, and in consequence all he has subsequently lived through has been full of “regrets, dissatisfaction and a sense of manifest futility of everything I did.” The resurrection of Alexander Wolf is galvanizing, as is the relationship with Yelena (“Every love affair is an attempt to thwart fate.”), but playing with the power of fate is a crazy thing to do, the novella suggests, as it is jealous, and all too inclined to make puppets out of those who try to rise above its reach.

This is beautifully written and steeped in that glorious world-weary-emigré atmosphere of mid-20th century Europe. Gazdanov was a taxi driver at night in Paris to fund his writing, and this was his fifth novel, published in 1947. I am sorry to say that I put this on my wish list after reading a review of one of Gazdanov’s novels at Karen’s blog which featured a photo of the wondrously handsome author. It’s good to know that being shallow as a teaspoon doesn’t prevent a person from falling into the path of little-known masterpieces.

curtaincallA very different kind of novel, though also one intrigued by what it means to escape death, is Anthony Quinn’s Curtain Call. It’s 1936 and actress Nina Land is in a hotel room with artist Stephen Wyley, a place neither of them should be. Slipping out for cigarettes, Nina hears the most disturbing noises coming from behind one of the doors in another corridor. She knocks and enters and a young woman slips past her, sobbing and distraught. Only later does Nina realise that she has caught a glimpse of the man the papers are calling ‘the Tie-Pin Killer’. Quickly realising that she is probably the only person in London to have witnessed the man, Nina is determined to do what she can to help the police. But the plan she and Stephen cook up between them will end up causing more trouble than they imagine.

This is a novel that comes into being because of an attempted murder, but it is not solely focused on that crime. Instead, it’s more concerned with the lives of a group of people who are brought into contact with one another because of it. These include primarily the theatre critic, James Erskine, an egotistical elderly man whose homosexuality keeps drawing him into troublesome situations, and who is based on the life of a real critic and diarist, James Agate. Also, the critic’s put-upon secretary, Tom, whose epilepsy he attempts to keep secret (again with damaging results) and Madeleine, the young woman whose poverty has forced her to turn tricks, and who is the near-victim that Nina’s intervention saves.

In all honesty, it’s a while since I read this and the details are already hazy. But I did read it with enjoyment, feeling quite safe in the confident hands of this novelist. The fact it isn’t properly speaking a piece of crime fiction but a historical novel makes the ending feel a little odd, when the mystery is hastily solved. But the period detail is beautifully done and the story held my attention effortlessly. Given I’ve had a slightly disappointing run of contemporary novels lately, this was a step back onto higher ground.

Ooh and I nearly forgot to mention – on Thursday the Extra Shiny is out – with more reviews and article, plus our Book Club discussion on Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, which I have just finished (am longing to compare notes with others). Also, we’ve got a new competition to announce. All this and more on the 20th!

Three Unique Voices

janice gallowaySometimes it’s good to read a book that does things a little differently and shakes up the reading experience. Scottish writer, Janice Galloway, is an author with an exceptionally dry wit, a poet’s use of words and a tendency to use white space on the page with great innovation. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, inhabited the inside of a young teacher’s head as she spiralled into breakdown, which might not sound awfully tempting, but is actually so well done and so witty and perceptive that the synopsis is misleading. If you wanted to try her, though, I might suggest beginning with her two volumes of memoir, This Is Not About Me, and All Made Up. They are straight narratives, wonderfully written, about the sort of crazy childhood that is a gift to a talented writer. I wrote a profile of her for Numero Cinq, the new (to me) literary journal I mentioned, if you’d like to know more.

Hotel AndromedaI also recently finished Hotel Andromeda, by the outstanding Gabriel Josipovici. This short novel revolves around Helena, an art critic struggling to write a book about the odd, reclusive American artist, Joseph Cornell. Cornell created a series of artworks, slim boxes containing a collage of writing paper from seedy French hotels with glamourous names (Hotel Andromeda, Hotel de l’Univers, etc) and images from classical mythology, that are evocative but defy clear meaning. Does the mythology elevate the seediness of the French hotels, or do the hotels corrupt the mythology? With art this undecidable, it’s not surprising that Helena wants a new form to discuss it, not a conventional critique or biography. The action in the foreground of the novel concerns Ed, a photo journalist recently made to leave Chechnya where he was covering the conflict. He turns up on Helena’s doorstep, saying he is a friend of her sister, Alice, who is out in Chechnya as an aid worker, helping to run an orphanage. Helena is hungry for details of her sister who never writes, and who she believes despises her work for its seemingly useless abstraction. Ed assures her this isn’t so, that her sister admires her, and feels her own work to be hopeless, an insufficient drop in an ocean of human suffering.

One of Joseph Cornell's Hotel Andromeda boxes

One of Joseph Cornell’s Hotel Andromeda boxes

So this is a novel which, in the simplest of ways possible, starts to play with irreconcilable extremes – what kind of a life has meaning? One in which we turn to the best in humanity, its creativity and art, or one that deals with the worst, its brutality and violence? Is Western civilisation an aberration that is bound to revert, over time, to the tyrannies that dominate the rest of the world? How are we even to understand a world that can contain such extremes of beauty and evil? I do love the way that Josipovici writes such lucid, easy stories, based on very natural dialogue, that blossom out into powerful, provocative ideas.

jeff burseyFinally, I’ve been reading my friend, Jeff Bursey’s, latest novel, Mirrors On Which Dust Has Fallen. You may remember a few years back I reviewed his first book, Verbatim; A Novel, which took the form of written reports from a fictitious Canadian parliament. This new novel creates a panorama of the fictional province itself, exploring the lives of a cross-section of inhabitants as they unfold against one another in the mid 1990s. There are a number of featured locations – the local radio station, Johnny’s Bar, the Catholic churches, the art gallery, the offices of a clothing warehouse, and numerous family sitting rooms. It’s a really tricky book to describe, because everything I might say about it is not entirely accurate. It’s a highly realistic novel in many ways, the voices that weave it together are all exactly the kind you’d hear if you stood in the middle of a bar and listened to everything going on around you, but then we often hop in and out of the characters’ heads, too. In the opening chapter, we’re following disgruntled employee, Loyola, as he packs suits for distribution, but when he turns the radio on to listen to the lunchtime news, it becomes a portal that shoots us down into the studios of the radio station. So we readers move about the world of Bowmount in an unusually fluid and dynamic way.

That being said, most of the chapters sink down deep into the characters and their preoccupations. The action arises out of everyday concerns, and yet it also has that edge of satire to it. Whilst a lot of the interest revolves around uncongenial work places, subject to ever more ruthless management directives, there’s also a notable and extensive debate around the place of the Catholic faith at the dog end of the 20th century, fraught as it is in Bowmount with a shameful number of sexual scandals involving children. And equally prominent is the place of art, as explored through a painter creating a very unusual tryptich and a photographer of graphic sexual images. Characters have their fervent opinions, which they impress upon others, and discussions, as they often do in reality, are a mass of interruptions, declarations and exclamations.

The reading experience was, for me, a highly unusual one. Sometimes, I felt like I was looking at swarming bacteria in a petri dish, everything felt so up close and I was so deep into it. I had to put the book down in order to gain sufficient distance to see the relationships of everyone intertwined in this microcosm, to feel the outlines of the story again. There were parts (mostly in bars) where I felt very entangled in the dialogue, but then there were other places when the head-hopping was fluid and lovely, as in a wedding service near the end of the book where we shift between a number of storylines that have been developing over the course of the narrative, each unfolding inside a different character’s head. Which is to say that you are taken through a number of experiences that are oddly akin to the experience of reality, whilst being at the same time clearly artificial and only possible in the realm of storytelling.

I had to look up the title, which seems to come from Bahá’í teaching and talks of children as being mirrors on which no dust has fallen, clear receptors of their world. As opposed, then, to the characters in this novel, whose perceptions are all cloudy from experience, disappointment and desire. It’s a really unique and unusual novel, quite unlike anything else I’ve read, I think.

 

Frenchman’s Creek

johnny deppEver since the success – and general pervasiveness – of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I’ve found it hard to imagine a pirate without the vision of a heavily guylinered Johnny Depp floating across my mind. But the pirate in Daphne du Maurier’s romantic classic, Frenchman’s Creek, is not very Deppish at all. He is refined and artistic, thoughtful and efficient, a gentleman warrior whose crimes are mostly bloodless. He is not a drunken maniac, teetering on the edge of madness. And yet still Johnny Depp’s face persisted. Oh, popular culture, what an unexpected stranglehold you exert!

frenchman's creekDu Maurier’s novel, first published in 1941, stands up very well indeed to present day reading, partly because it’s already set in a Restoration past, partly because the heroine is as spirited and lively as any modern reader could wish. Dona St Columb is a spoiled party girl, bored with marriage to an aristocratic oaf, and desperate for some release for her excessive energies. She’s caused scandal in London already, frequenting taverns with her husband and his cronies, wearing men’s breeches to ride her horse bareback, flirting with all the beaus who cross her path. Shortly before the story begins, she has taken her quest for fun too far, pretending to be a highwayman with the rather sinister Lord Rockingham and threatening the carriage of a rich elderly lady. Sickened by her own behaviour and determined to escape the unwholesome influences at Court (of which Rockingham is clearly the worst), she takes her two young children down to Cornwall, where her husband’s childhood estate, Navron, is situated.

Navron is evoked every bit as gorgeously as you might expect, and at first all Dona wants is peace and quiet. There’s only one servant in situ when she arrives, a strange little man called William, who is quite adroit at being both cheeky and deferential to her, a combination she rather admires. Though when she finds tobacco and a book of French poetry in her bedside drawer, she wonders if she should sack him for the impudence of sleeping in her chamber when she was not there. Not long after her arrival, she is visited by one of the local lords, a very ponderous and smug man called Godolphin, who warns her that the coast is being terrorised by a French pirate and his band. Ships and jewels have been taken, local women have been ‘distressed’, and Godolphin is all for summoning Harry, Dona’s husband, to protect her.

In actual fact, it’s Dona that the locals will need protecting from, for of course, you will have guessed by now whose tobacco was by her bed, and whose servant William is. Dona stumbles on the pirates at anchor in a hidden creek on her own land, and before you can say ‘not a bit like Johnny Depp’, she has fallen passionately in love with their Captain and taken to piracy with a ready will. It’s represented in the story as a sort of fulfilling-her-potential affair, a matter of growing up and finding her soulmate, though really all she’s done is swap a botched attempt at amateur crime for a more encouraging attempt as a professional. But hey, du Maurier tells her tale with terrific verve and panache and frankly I didn’t even care, it was such a fun piece of froth.

Although that’s unfair. It just so happened that while I was reading the book, I also read an essay by Adam Phillips entitled ‘On Getting Away With It’. If there’s one imperative in Frenchman’s Creek, it’s that Dona and the pirates should get away with their activities, though as a mother and a wife, Dona has limits to what she can give up lightly. Phillips points out that getting away with things is in no ways a ruination of the law, in fact, transgression needs the law in order to be validated. You can’t be getting away with something there’s no injunction against. What happens is that the character changes while the world stays the same, and what changes is that the character swaps being a Good Person, for being an Impressive Person.

This makes a lot more sense when applied to the laws in place for women in 1941, or indeed in the Restoration period. Restrictions on women’s behaviour were not about to lift any time soon, the only option they had was to try to find their adventures in a space outside the law and hope to get away with it. It’s funny how most fiction assures us that you can’t get away with things – that there will be a price to pay of some kind, a final reckoning or an absolute judgement. But Daphne du Maurier allowed her heroine to be impressive at the cost of being good. Perhaps also in 1941, in the middle of the war in Britain, women were actually getting away with more danger and excitement than they had ever been able to access before. Maybe Daphne saw how they could finally play at being boys, just as she had always longed to do herself.

Frenchman’s Creek is vintage du Maurier, a quick and engrossing read with a romance that is not in the least sentimental, portrayed in writing that has a touch of class. I thought I’d enjoy it, and was surprised by how much I did.

Friends, I continue to be a dreadful blogger but I have not abandoned you, as it may seem. There are all sorts of things going on chez Litlove that I am not able to tell you about at the moment but will as soon as I can. Nothing to worry about, we’re all fine, but big changes on the way. I’m just a bit distracted!

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Three Types of Awe

wind in the willowsA couple of weeks ago audible suckered me in with a big sale, and I found myself purchasing The Wind in the Willows for a bargain price. I had never read this book as either a child or a mother, although I must have seen countless bits of adaptations on the television. It did have undeniable charm, with Ratty, Moley, Badger and Toad all as I had gathered they would be from osmosis of the general culture. The rather delightful mash-up of fantasy and reality gave me that frivolous feeling, and I couldn’t help but ponder foolish questions, like, who was manufacturing and supplying small armaments to water rats, and how could Mr Toad brush his hair? But I did realise that was beside the point. If you want to read a rational book, you don’t pick one that features talking animals.

After a while, I realised that Wind in the Willows is essentially made up of two different books, which is why it made no great name for itself until A. A. Milne filleted out the plotline concerning the exploits of Toad and turned it into a successful play. The other side of the story is harder to summarize, but it essentially concerns Rat and Mole as they experience certain iconic emotional states – the experience of friendship, for instance, and the pull of home, as well as the lure of wanderlust. Because I was listening to this book at night when I’d gone to bed, it was inevitable that I should drift at certain points, and so it was with some sense of disorientation that I came to in the middle of the chapter entitled ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’.

In this episode, Ratty and Mole have been searching all night for the otter’s lost son, Portly. They take to the river in their boat, and finally, in the mystical light of dawn, come upon young Portly, curled up asleep at the feet of the great Pan. The narration goes completely bonkers at this point, evoking what I eventually understood was a state of divine awe. And it occurred to me to wonder whether awe of this nature, the experience of the sublime, is ever present in contemporary children’s books? Awe seems so much more secular these days, if it exists at all. I couldn’t help but feel that if Portly had been discovered thus in a more up to date book, Pan would have found himself under a paedophilia charge.

the magus of hayI found myself thinking about awe again, however, whilst reading a very recently published crime fiction novel. Phil Rickman’s The Magus of Hay features Merrily Watkins, a diocesan exorcist working from Hereford cathedral. This is apparently the twelfth novel in a series concerning Merrily, which has an interest in alternative spirituality, paganism, and generally unexplained potentially superstitious religious occurrences. Merrily herself held a somewhat wishy-washy position, a good Christian woman who comes to offer a few prayers for those who feel troubled by the dark side, uncertain herself whether they will do any good or not. However, Phil Rickman’s interest in all matters of the occult and alternative spirituality was clearly heavily researched, respectful, curious and exploratory. He provided a lot of information, and whilst the tone is essentially skeptical, this was a much more serious novel than your average outing into the paranormal.

I’d picked the book up originally because the main story was set in Hay-on-Wye where a couple are opening a secondhand bookshop which turns out to have a disturbing atmosphere. Meanwhile, not far away, an elderly man is found drowned in the pool of a waterfall. The young police detective who finds him admits to the investigating officer that as a kid, they all used to call him a wizard and dare each other to run up to his house. It’s a long and quite complicated story that eventually draws these events together and I enjoyed it, though I’m not sure I’d rush to get another in the series, mostly because Merrily didn’t win my heart. But it was well done, and I did appreciate the treatment of the supernatural.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you about my Uncle Graham, have I? Well, I do love my crime fiction, but Uncle Gray is a good excuse to read a steady stream of it. He is a retired widower and a voracious reader; he’s also a man of economical ways, which see him, in winter, in bed reading every evening and night with his scarf and hat and gloves on. This tickles me, probably because I aspire to much the same sort of retirement myself, only with central heating. Well, once Uncle Gray had worked his way through my dad’s not inconsiderable library of crime fiction, my parents asked me if I had any books I could lend him. Did I have books! So now I keep the crime I read to one side, supplemented by the review copies I’m sent, and goodness knows what Uncle Gray makes of some of them (The Magus of Hay will be a good case in point), but he’s never been known to complain.

this boy's lifeA last burst of awe, of a brief but powerful nature: Tobias Wolff. I’ve been on a reading kick of his writing lately and He. Is. Amazing. I read This Boy’s Life, then some of his short stories. The writing is genius – pure, clean, completely without pretention, but he says so much. And he’s funny too. Why is it so hard to write about the books that make the most impact on you? I have no words, but much awe.