Book Review: Starbook (Ben Okri)

This review has been three months in the making. Starbook is, at once, an investment of time and an endurance through stages of reading will. At over 400 pages in length, the reader knows from the outset that this novel will take some commitment; however, what transpires is the ever-increasing reading hope that Okri’s opening line (‘This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child’) will, at some point, amount to something. Around a third of the way into the book, Okri writes about a ‘sculpture of pure air and sunlight’ and this is apt in describing the work in question here.

Starbook (published by Rider Books, 2008) is a poetic assemblage of no great solidity. It is a liquid flow of words which purports to meditative depths but, in reality, delivers a silted stodge to wade through. The reader reaches the point of no return somewhere along the line: that is, there is a stage in every book, at different pages, where the reader will close the cover for good or carry on in bloodymindedness (either through hope or the challenge of finishing, or both). Okri may well be a fine poet, but Starbook’s ambition of presenting a long mythic poetic prose tale shines only at the achievement of the final word.

Around half-way through the book, Okri writes of another art-piece (art being a central theme):

‘It amounted to an outrage, an insult. It seemed such a wilful diversion. A distraction, an irrelevance, a conceit, a private, unnecessary indulgence in imagery and aesthetics. The work seemed without direction, without prophecy, without vision. It did not speak. It did not address the need of the times . . . it did not relate to anything that anyone could care about. It seemed beautiful and sad and well-wrought just for the sake of it. The sculpture seemed an exercise in displaying personal artistic accomplishment, a display of genius unfolding . . .’

This is ironic and perfect in describing the affect that Starbook has. Without doubt, Okri is capable of dropping in a fine and succinct line of thought (e.g. ‘The memories of a land are vast and deep’); however, a story needs anchoring in belief, even — or especially — if it’s the telling of the origins of myth, as this is.

Starbook is the rendering of once in time, in a tribal community, somewhere unnamed, of the simple tale of a prince, a maiden, and the protracted account of their coming together. For the most part Okri eschews the naming of places and people: preferring the archetypal description of ‘the prince’, ‘the maiden’, ‘the king’, and so on. Even the slave-traders who arrive and decimate the communities are referred to as the White Wind. On one level, this works in the context of the formation of myth-making; on another level, as a novel-story, this is wholly unsatisfactory. What Okri therefore produces is a series of characters who are as airy or as liquid as the words he lays down. It is even more curious that Okri then deigns it necessary to stamp a nickname onto one of the characters who washes in and out of the tale (‘the Mamba’, a suitor to the hand of the maiden) and he names another (Chief Okadu, an elder, who doesn’t stay long enough on the pages for character examination but who has a hand in causing the prince’s capture by the slaver-traders).

The prince and the maiden mope through the pages of the book and nothing really happens for long, long periods. At times Okri’s writing feels like an exercise in poetic thesaurus development: he spins out his idea of the moment in tautological litanies. For example, he writes:

‘The sculpture accused, haunted, frightened, soothed, troubled, perplexed, annoyed, paralysed, trapped and engulfed them. It was like a curse, an anathema. It was stronger in the mind than in reality.’

Yet more turgid though are lines such as:

‘The king was moved by the tenderness of his people. He watched from the palace window the great crowds that had gathered from all over the known world to show their support for his family. The ragged women, the fishermen, the market women, the quarrelsome bar owners, the seamstresses, the warriors from distant lands, the one-armed, the one-legged, the crippled, the blind, the mad, the refugees from other kingdoms, the fugitives, the clowns, the fools, the celebrated heroes, the boxers, the wrestlers, jugglers, mendicants, the pregnant mothers, the albinos, the runaways . . .’ (and so on for another eleven lines).

Dialogue, in its relative scarcity, is similarly poetically delivered: sometimes with torturous lack of reality, sometimes with torturous rhyme:

‘That which is best will be lost so that that which is greatest can be found.’

‘Our art and our song.’
‘That have lasted long.’
‘Our dreams, our freedom.’
‘Better than any kingdom.’
‘Our vision.’
‘Our mission.’
‘We will protect them all.’
‘That sick maiden will not create our fall.’

Belief, especially in the telling of myth, is essential. Okri deals with magic in such a way as to alchemise it into plastic. He writes of gaps between the trees through which the prince can pass in order to reach the liminal realm of the tribe of master artists (of which the maiden belongs), or of how the prince induces the maiden’s master-artist father to become his apprentice, but then proceeds to sit in his wood-sculpting workshop, as if a sculpture himself, still and unnoticed by the maiden: Okri’s ideas might well be worth magic consideration, but his way of writing on them just brings the reader to the point of drifting off because of a lack of belief.

We cannot entertain the notion that the spirits of the workshop are, for example, imbuing the wooden sculptures with added depths of time and other intrigues if we cannot believe that the prince, in his immobile invisibility, is ‘hearing’ all the wisdom of the realm from his time amongst the cobwebs. Certainly there are ideas here that are worth creative investment of writing and reading, but Okri rather spoils their shine with words for the sake of words.

In the end, Starbook is a lengthy poetic indulgence for the writer, which might well have been delivered better in more succinct and shining ways. If the intention was to promote the idea of myth-magical story-telling, then Okri only partly succeeds: that is, the idea is greater than the depth in its pages. It is a sculpture, for sure, but one of pure air and sunlight.
 
 

Book Review: The Following Story (Cees Nooteboom)

Herman Mussert, Nooteboom’s first person narrator, is an academic, ‘a classical scholar, one-time teacher of Latin and Greek’, and he wakes one morning in a room in Lisbon having gone to bed the previous night in Amsterdam. So far so good is the feeling as we settle down to the potential unwinding of this mystery. It is, Mussert goes on to say about this strange predicament, a room in which he slept ‘twenty years ago with another man’s wife’. The scene is set for an explanation and exploration of time, perhaps. However, Nooteboom’s story is soon cluttered with irritating pretensions of cleverness and, half-way through, a disorientating shift in scene altogether. What transpires is the feeling of being cheated, not of the ‘Aha!’ smile that might have been the aim. Like Nooteboom’s writing though, this review already threatens to get ahead of itself.

Having struggled to complete Ben Okri’s Starbook, and still wading through the stage of bloodymindedness in order to get to that tome’s final page, it seemed a blessing to find by chance this slim book just slightly fewer than one hundred pages in length. These review pages have already suffered in the waiting for Okri to reveal himself: so finding Nooteboom (and the promise of intrigue as set up, by and large, by the overview above) appeared to be the kick-start a latent reviewer needed.

The Following Story (English version translated from the original Dutch — Het volgende Verhaal, 1991 — by Ina Rilke, Harvill Press 1996) was, apparently, the 1993 European Literary Prize winner. The criteria for the award of this prize would be of interest to this reader. Nooteboom’s Herman Mussert is written well enough, but he soon presents as a pretentious scholarly bore. Perhaps this is more accurately descriptive of Nooteboom himself though: the character and the author seem to share some aspects of their existence, such as the travel writing personas of both. Either way, Nooteboom soon has Mussert referencing all manner of classical characters and inserting Latin phrases with footnotes of explanation. Mussert’s alter ego persona is the author known as Dr Strabo, a travel writer creation, as a result of Mussert’s unseemly departure from his job at a Dutch grammar school. Strabo’s superficial writing for the masses, as it were, is not enough to allow the crusty pretentious edges of Mussert (or, indeed, Nooteboom himself) to be flaked away.

At its simplest level, The Following Story is a tale of Mussert’s affair with a fellow teacher, Maria Zeinstra, whose husband — Arend Herfst — is equally enwrapped with one of the students, Lisa d’India. Zeinstra is painted in fiery tones, red-headed tempest as she is; Herfst is a basketball coach and author of poor poetry, according to Mussert; d’India is the almost divine beauty, adored by all, though Mussert claims not to have been bewitched himself. If Mussert has been thrown back in time when he wakes in Lisbon, having gone to bed in Amsterdam, we (and Nooteboom) wonder if the unrequited potential of Lisa d’India has anything to do with it.

Having reached the half-way stage of the book, still so far so possible. However, here Nooteboom throws the reader completely. Now, at the start of the second half of the book, we find that Mussert is on a boat somewhere and somewhen. It isn’t at all clear what is going on. Perhaps Nooteboom intended it this way, but a reader doesn’t often like to be taken from one story and placed in the middle of another without forewarning. It isn’t entirely fair to say this is another story completely because, as it transpires, things do become clearer. There are clues on the opening page, but those clues are washed over in the reading because they come too soon.

What Nooteboom does at the start of the second half of the book is lands his lead character on a ship which, it turns out, is sailing up the wide estuary of the Amazon. He surrounds Mussert with a series of flimsily sketched other characters who mope about on deck and stare off into the evening sky. Those characters are reminiscent, perhaps, of beginner writers’ early attempts at creating believable people: stereotypical, paper-thin, verging on archetypal. Nooteboom’s narrative flips between tenses and his attempts at cleverness in this knitting process sometimes fall short. By this time though the reader is urging the writer to proceed quickly to the denouement.

There are two writerly points of positive note that can be offered up here, however (one of subtlety, and one which almost works, in context). In the first instance, and with self-conscious regard to the flipping between points of view tenses, perhaps, allied to the nature of an affair, Nooteboom writes: ‘Arend Herfst. Third person.’ In the second instance, as a means of drawing a narrative digression back to an earlier observation of a character trait, Nooteboom writes that ‘the world is a never-ending cross-reference’. The attempt is noted, but it falls just short of its mark.

Mussert’s fall from grace at the school builds in slow exposition until the telling scene in which Herfst assaults him in the playground. Mussert is disgraced, and Herfst also loses his job, but not before the single line that pinpoints Lisa d’India’s fate is thrown out abruptly. Mussert narrates several excruciating pages of pretentious classical-mythological analogy to account for his final lesson, citing d’India as his Crito in his rendering of Plato’s Phaedo, Mussert being cast as Socrates about to take the poison that would end his life. Nooteboom writes:

‘Now I am about to die. I gaze into the eyes of my pupils just as he must have gazed into the eyes of his, I know exactly who is Simmias and who Cebes, and all the time Lisa d’India had assuredly been Crito who, at the bottom of his heart, does not believe in immortality.’

Nooteboom’s tenses continue to shift, and he returns late on in an attempt at point of view shift: that is, trying to draw the reader into the tale, as he also attempts early on (which is washed over because the reference is unintelligible: ‘At this point I would like to be still, to wash away all those words. You have not told me how much time I have for my story.’) As the flimsy paper-thin ship passengers tell their tales one by one, then depart late on, Nooteboom writes: ‘Only Deng is left . . . the two of you are already there when I arrive. I will have to tell my story to you alone.’

As far as can be made out, Nooteboom seems to base his entire tale on the following premise: ‘It was not my soul that would set out on a journey, as the real Socrates had imagined, it was my body that would embark on endless wanderings . . .’ If this is the constituent matter of European Literary Prize winners, there may well be a very long long-list every year. Perhaps the criteria also took into account the clever clumsiness of reference lines such as ‘The Lost World — had I ever read that book by Conan Doyle, there was a ship in it sailing up the Amazon, too, the Esmeralda?’ Or perhaps the following quip is of note: ‘I would like to hear a madrigal right now, by Sigismundo d’India.’ Nooteboom’s characterisation overspills into shedding light on the potential of his own pretension.

What begins as a promising intrigue, when Mussert awakes to find himself in a Lisbon bedroom having gone to bed the previous night in Amsterdam, dissolves into a contorted affair. It ends with a return to the intrigue, though the reader is, by now, somewhat weary and wary of the enforced ‘cleverness’ at play, even in fewer than a hundred pages. Suffice is to say that Nooteboom’s tale ‘ends’ with the unpunctuated line that is ‘the following story’, insinuating the reader’s continuing circular journey. This reader finished at the insertion of his own final full-stop.
 
 

Book Review: Sputnik Sweetheart (Haruki Murakami)

As a first time reader of Murakami, the overall affect of Sputnik Sweetheart is one of ambiguity and ambivalence. This is a novel that is at once readable yet frustrating, promising but clumsy. Ultimately, this is a tale that attempts to press some deeper concerns into the short- and long-term conscious process of the reader, but which falls short of this presumed target because of the shortcomings of its details. The Vintage Books copy reviewed here has, on its back cover, a journalist’s line which states: ‘Sputnik Sweetheart has touched me deeper and pushed me further than anything I’ve read in a long time.’ (Julie Myerson, The Guardian) — alas, closer analysis of Murakami’s writing leads to other conclusions.

The plot of Sputnik Sweetheart (Vintage Books, 2002, translated from the original Japanese by Philip Gabriel; originally published by Kodansha Ltd, 1999) involves three main characters: the young, first person narrator (known only as K., a teacher); his friend, Sumire, who he fantasises over; the enigmatic Miu, she who acts as a catalyst for Sumire’s disappearance. Murakami initially draws the characters well enough and Sumire’s somewhat grungy, bookishness bodes well in the potential of the pages to come. However, the first seeds of doubt are sown in the reader when it becomes apparent that Murakami either has a short attention span for maintaining motifs or anchor references in his story telling, choosing to introduce them and then just ignore them, or he has an inability to keep them in check.

The title of the work is, in part, set up via a somewhat contrived conversation when Sumire (in her early twenties) meets Miu, who is in her late thirties. Bookish Sumire expresses her penchant for the writings of Jack Kerouac and Miu manages to confuse the word Sputnik with Beatnik. Kerouac exits the pages following a brief pause on a quote from Lonesome Traveler, his purpose for the most part now spent. Murakami attempts to imbue Sumire as an exponent of being Beat, but even before the plot demands her transformation, Pygmalion style, towards an altogether more becoming young lady in the service of Miu, Murakami seems to have forgotten that Kerouac even walked her way.

Other motifs enter and depart, or return briefly without any great insistence of depth. It is to this depth that the reader is in expectation of reward, but the writing never fully reaches the level it is presumed to be aiming at. Murakami takes a sudden turn, a good way into the book, when he relays the reported story of Miu, earlier in her life, having had an experience of great personal epiphany in which she essentially split into two: we can read this in something akin to magical realism terms or we can read this in the analogy. Murakami doesn’t clarify his writerly intentions and it is this vagueness that we must suppose is the attempted insistence of depth.

Before this episode, the story flows well enough: Sumire, confused at her sexuality, gradually falls for Miu and undergoes her transformation into a more cultured being (though the suggestion in the reading is that the bookish girl is already somewhat open to the finer arts); she agrees to accompany Miu on a business trip to Italy and France (Miu is in the business of importing wine), and the two end up on a small and remote Greek island, in holiday detour mode, following the chance meeting with an extremely sketched and ridiculously stereotyped Englishman who happens to own a rent-free villa there. There are bumps such as this along the way, but on the whole Murakami writes easily enough for superficial comprehension.

It is perhaps indicative of works translated from other languages that English versions are left wanting: I will never know the grammatical nuances of Japanese; however, Sputnik Sweetheart’s English translation is peppered with incomplete sentences. At first these can perhaps be overlooked as something akin to quirky idiosyncrasy; however, the proliferation soon becomes cumbersome and annoying. The same can be said for Murakami’s penchant for clumsy similes, which are also often combined with his habit of incomplete sentence writing. He writes, as a new sentence, for example: ‘Like smoke.’

On the Greek island, Sumire disappears. Miu eventually phones K., the narrator, for his help even though she doesn’t know him. Murakami concocts an explanation as to why Miu hadn’t phoned earlier (Sumire had been missing for several days) — the substandard local telephone system — and, later, a reason why Miu hasn’t phoned Sumire’s parents instead. It is all as if Murakami is self-consciously trying to fill in the holes he’s left, looking to smooth it all over and say to the reader how that’s all been cleared up, let’s move on. Indeed, this is even more curious when considering another of Murakami’s neglected motifs: that of writing about writing. The problem with the meta-fiction approach is at least two-fold: the reader becomes acutely aware of the writer’s thinking on writing, somewhat drawing the author as character into the piece (Paul Auster also suffered, more directly, as author-character in The New York Trilogy), and the author needs to ensure everything he writes thereafter is faultless. Murakami’s writing is far from faultless: he even has the audacity to have K. instruct Sumire (a would-be writer herself) on another of Murakami’s motifs to float away — the ‘metaphor’ in the story of Chinese gates and bones and fresh dog’s blood. Suffice is to say that there is no god or devil, whatever your flavour, in the detail.

When Sumire disappears from the island, Murakami sets the story up as a form of detective mystery. We settle into the potential of an unfolding and ultimately illuminating narrative. However, Murakami’s long expositions build without any great pace or urgency to a point of frustration: please, Murakami, just say what you want to say, is the over-riding feeling. He takes this position in his first person writing, but also when he reports the expositions of Miu and of Sumire, the latter through two documents she’s written and saved onto disks (immediately also dating the piece).

Murakami starts to warm to his new idea (or, if it’s been there all along, it’s been difficult to tell) that is Sumire’s disappearance being linked to how she’s split herself, found a ‘door’ to the mystical other side. He draws parallels with Miu’s experience some years earlier of getting stuck on a fairground Ferris wheel and seeing herself, through binoculars (which he explains away the presence of, clumsily again), in her own window some way off, sexually engaged with a man of no real importance. Murakami interjects this tale only now, almost as an afterthought, as he does with the reveal that Miu actually has pure white hair, which she dyes, and which turned that way following this traumatic and strange event.

Sumire, we’re told, is lost forever and so, naively, we believe Murakami. Yet conveniently, she appears late again in the book and we don’t know for sure if she’s really there or if K. is deluded. The undertow of depth tries to coalesce into something but ultimately the tale is too fractured to serve this purpose. Murakami does not seem to know what this book is: is it some discourse on metaphysical angst, an exploration of meta-fiction, detective-mystery magical allusion, or any or none of the above?

In keeping with the feel of this book, I can only conclude that (by way of introducing an idea in an unseemly place here), as readable in part as Sputnik Sweetheart is, it is ultimately somewhat lost (just like the occasional reference to the Sputnik satellite that Murakami also draws our attention to). Maybe that was Murakami’s point: just like the original Japanese though, I shall never know.
 
 

Book Review: Satori in Paris (Jack Kerouac)

Once, when I knew no better, Kerouac shone because I had discovered him and I was pleased with myself for doing so. After a time away, Kerouac leaves me somewhat disillusioned. Satori in Paris is, in short, a garbled concoction not becoming of its publisher’s billing of ‘modern classic’. This is a shame because Kerouac is still the writer of one of the most beautiful descriptions my reading memory holds (that of dusk and tangerine groves and ‘fields the colour of love and Spanish mysteries’ in On the Road). Sadly, there’s scant reproduction of this example of writing in Satori in Paris (written in, or soon after 1965, following a trip to France, and some fourteen years after the original writing of his most infamous work).

Satori in Paris (Flamingo, 2001; originally published by André Deutsch Ltd, Great Britain, 1967; Grafton Books, 1982; Paladin, 1991) is a short 109 pages in length but plenty of this is also white space, so the actual text covers something in the region of 75 pages. The instigation of the satori (enlightenment) in question is attributed to a taxi driver, named as Raymond Baillet, who takes Kerouac to Orly airport en route back to Florida following his genealogical search in Paris and Brittany. However, Kerouac also attempts to obfuscate the moment by at first claiming that he doesn’t know for sure when his epiphany comes. This is both a ruse to get us to read the entirety of the book, one feels, but also, in fairness, does serve to reward the reader for the bloody-minded journey in trudging through the whole in order to get to the final line.

To clarify: Kerouac paints himself as a graceless, crashing bore of a drunkard; he’s a know-it-all in French dialect (by dint, he says, of his French-Canadian upbringing), but he’s also fixated on his name, as writer, on his ego as part thereof, and on his sometimes obscure references, some more easily comprehensible than others: Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold, Nabokov, perhaps, but he asks of one character he meets late on in the book ‘did he read Nicholas Breton of England, John Skelton of Cambridge, or the ever-grand Henry Vaughan not to mention George Herbert — and you could add, or John Taylor the Water-Poet of the Thames?’

The final line of Satori in Paris alludes to this gracelessness; the entirety of Kerouac’s self-decanonisation as proffered in his tales of endless cognacs for the road, or at unbecoming early hours, or just waiting for his train to come in, and as shown in his grossly stereotypical American-abroad persona (perhaps a send-up, but perhaps not), and so on, all therefore goes some way to setting up the satori ‘a-ha’ moment he aims to show us. It isn’t such a kick in the backside, a shaking of the aura, as he might have wanted us to believe, in print; in fact, it’s a blessing to get to the end at all. The end justifies the means, Kerouac may well have been aiming at here, but it’s not a pretty means by any stretch.

Early on Kerouac is at pains to point out that he wishes to be known, in this book, by his real ‘full name in this case, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac’. Names form a central motif to the book and Kerouac studies the etymological links of his name to the Breton French, Cornish, Celtic and any other romantic whim that passes him in the ‘moment’ that is his, admittedly, planned trip to France (which transpires to last ten days). In the stereotypical perception of the American abroad, there is the relentless belief woven into the whole that Kerouac is Breton, or at least Breton enough, underpinned by the equally relentless and frankly irritating insistence of including French language as the primary source of much dialogue, followed by English translations or vice versa (as if to say, grandiosely, ‘look I speak French/am French and how superior I must be’).

Identity is key to the piece and this is appreciated. Kerouac explores names and connections to places (Lebris, we’re told has links to the people of Brest in Brittany, Le bris, where Kerouac travels to in search of genealogical information); however, the gracelessness of the exploration is a growing agitation in the read. In retrospect, Kerouac does allude to self-awareness of the grating character of himself he offers up to us, and he repeats this refrain:

‘Why do people change their name? Have they done anything bad, are they criminals, are they ashamed of their real names? Are they afraid of something? Is there any law in America against using your own real name?’

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac and Jack Kerouac, writer, ‘King of the Beats’, ego post-On the Road (as tackled head-on in Big Sur, 1962) also meet here head-on.

A reader’s retrospective realisation, however, is not enough to fill the void left by Kerouac-as-caricature. The man-myth is a frustration in the short reading. Kerouac writes, for example:

‘This cowardly Breton (me) watered down by two centuries in Canada and America . . .’

‘I knew that . . . I had an additive name ‘Le Bris’ and here I was in ‘Brest’ and did this make me a Cimbric spy from the stone monuments of Riestedt in Germany? Rietstap also the name of the German who painstakingly compiled names of families and their scocheons and had my family included in ‘Rivista Araldica’?’

In the first and second instances, no Kerouac, you are an American, born in Massachusetts, admittedly of French-Canadian parentage and speaking English after French, but an American by early cultural inheritance, perhaps; at the very least, not watered down at all because what does it matter what several generations of our families were when it doesn’t change who we are now? In the second instance, also, Kerouac’s meandering, sometimes unfathomable writing style jars repeatedly.

Indeed, this style is not the lauded fresh new Beat-extravagance once tolerated in his earlier works. Satori in Paris is a fair percentage full of seemingly drunkard-penned ramblings in need of a good editorial savaging. Swift and succinct editing could have cut this already short offering down by maybe half as much again without losing the impact with which the author may well have wished it be imbued.

A red pen can easily extract such obfuscations, for example, as Kerouac’s intellectual amusements on the mutual conversations of himself and a newly met other Lebris, one of many we’re told, in Brest:

‘But I’m home, there’s no doubt about it, except if I were to want a strawberry, or loosen Alice’s shoetongue, old Herrick in his grave and Ulysse Lebris would both yell at me to leave things alone, and that’s when I raw my wide pony and roll.’

It is this rambling, unintelligible, non-contextual aspect of Kerouac’s writing that is the most bafflingly frustrating. Undoubtedly there are some literary scholars who will attest to the artistic twisted in-joke unseen by the great unwashed (as seen in works, perhaps, of Dada-ism, or Tracey Emin, or the like). It is a case of the Emperor’s new clothes: Kerouac, drunk on cognac and his own writer-ego, not far short of his death in 1969, seeks to continue the man-myth whilst simultaneously trying to debunk the same. He fails unfortunately. The first lines of Satori in Paris read:

‘Somewhere during my ten days in Paris (and Brittany) I received an illumination of some kind that seems to’ve [sic] changed me again, towards what I suppose’ll be my pattern for another seven years or more . . .’

Kerouac had four years to live. The illumination that can be read into the book as a whole is that a state of grace should prevail, gracelessness should be rejected, but Kerouac failed, and the illumination is, it transpires, only a satori moment for the reader, this reader, on a man who was mythical but got drunk on alcohol and himself.
 
 

Book Review: Hideous Kinky (Esther Freud)

Hideous Kinky is another of those books that seems to have pressed a lasting mark on this reader’s mind: though truth be told, the many years between the first and most recent readings has left a ghost imprint rather than an abundance of specific detail. Perhaps there is some comfort for the writer in knowing that their book has left just such an imprint: we are, as readers, not blessed with unlimited memory after all. Esther Freud’s achievement here, however, is to place this book in its own time, imbuing it with its own sense of memory (it is an account from a child’s perspective): it is not perfect, but its second reading does confirm the impressions of the first.

Freud’s title comes from words apparently uttered by Maretta, a somewhat fey and moping character who joins the unnamed young child narrator and her slightly older sister, Bea, with their mother and Maretta’s partner John on a road trip, en route for Morocco, in what we can assume to be the late 1960s or early 1970s. Maretta’s whole raison d’être at the start of the book (before Freud ships her back to England again and out of the way) is to set up the children’s burgeoning grappling at the meaning of words and ways of life. Freud writes, early on, following the travellers’ meeting with what the children’s mother calls an ‘undesirable’ at the port in Tangier:

‘Is it very hideous to be an undesirable?’ Bea asked.
Hideous was Bea’s and my favourite word. ‘Hideous’ and ‘kinky’. They were the only words we could remember Maretta ever having said.
‘Hideous kinky. Hideous kinky,’ I chanted to myself.

The words, and later other words that seem to fit the mould of trying to come to terms with where they are, are used by the children in their private games of chase/tap. This process of trying to come to terms is a continuing thread throughout the book. Hideous Kinky (Penguin Books, 1993; first published by Hamish Hamilton, 1992) carefully and gradually draws a picture of a somewhat self-serving (albeit undoubtedly loving) mother who takes her two young children on the road to Marrakech in search of self-fulfilment, immersion in the culture, and later a hankering to convert to Sufi Islam. On the way, she seems to forget her responsibilities towards the children who, in their own ways, both try to immerse and hanker after the ‘normality’ of mashed potato, school, fizzy drinks and sweets.

Such is Freud’s skill at writing from the younger child’s perspective (not in saccharine sweet stereotyped ways) that she manages to convince us of the magic of place at the same time as slowly unfolding the frustrating mother, who is also madly loved, before our eyes. The younger narrator child, for example, is taken by the mother on a hastily concocted hitch-hike from Marrakech to Algiers to visit and live at a mosque, the Zaouia, where the Sufi holy man Sheikh Bentounes lives; Bea, the older sibling, doesn’t want to go and is left behind with someone we’re only just introduced to, and later, we find that she’s been shifted around various unknown or unsavoury types and found in a hospice for polio sufferers. Bea is understandably upset at her mother (though in the narrative it must be pointed out that the damage that should have been done by this escapade is not played out for as long as one might expect). All the while, the child narrator suffers nightmares and bed-wetting. She fears the ‘Black Hand’ will come to strangle her mother and leave her lost. The child puts her own hand to her mother’s neck to try to protect her as she sleeps.

Her mother is an unpredictable force, albeit one who meditates, and the children can only hold on as best they can. Freud weaves in some beautiful imagery and sensory assemblages of market places and the crowded players in the Djemaa El Fna (the main square in Marrakech). There is an assortment of peripheral characters such as the dancing Senegalese Gnaoua, the Henna Ladies/Nappy Thieves from across the way in the Hotel Moulay Idriss where the family sometimes stay, the Fool who follows the children and their mother home on dark nights and who the children take a shining to in the Djemaa El Fna, the beggar girls of the square, and especially Khadija (in whose service, later in the book, the narrator’s mother partly reclaims some karmic respect by taking her to the Hammam — public baths — along with the other beggar girls before buying new caftans for them: although, of course, we find that the girls don’t then wear them because, we assume, they have to work after all).

Along the way, the mostly self-concerned mother is portrayed as someone who meets confusing strangers and does confusing things (the enigmatic Pedro the guitarist and his fellow travellers, for example, who the children wake to, unexpectedly bundled up warm in the garden, finding them running around naked and semi-naked). The adults tell a story of an earthquake and its sudden surprise. The children’s mother meets the suave and wealthy Luigi Mancini, who they’re impressed with, and who they hope their mother will continue a relationship with. He disappears, however, along with his estate: a place of magic that moves of its own accord, the girls surmise, because they can’t find it again. Mancini, or the epitome of him, hovers from time to time in the children’s thoughts as the story goes on, though we and they don’t meet again.

The most dominate non-family member in the book appears as a deeper driving force though, similarly in his absence, for the child narrator. Bilal works for the travelling Hadaoui, some form of ‘magic man’, early on, and takes the child as his flower girl in performances. The younger girl seems to love him very dearly and, indeed, Bilal and her mother seem set to continue their relationship until, too confusingly and suddenly for the child to grasp, he must leave to find further work. Bilal’s long hoped-for return is a ghost that hangs in the pages throughout. It is as if he represents some form of stability that the children desperately need, though won’t quite express.

Freud’s story is a journey, though one without defined plot. This doesn’t matter because what we’re presented with is a tale of subtle love and frustration, abandonments, confusions, immersions and beauty. What these subtleties ought also to be provided with, however, is a closer editorial insistence on correctly finished sentences. There is a proliferation of partly constructed sentences throughout the book, which does have a tendency to distract the discerning eye. This minor gripe aside though, Hideous Kinky is a weave of colour, love and an attentive eye on what it is to be a child in an adult’s slipstream of dreams.

Freud has pressed Hideous Kinky in time, and as such it continues to impress itself upon the reader’s mind.
 
 

Book Review: A Winter Book (Tove Jansson)

Some accounts offer us the heightened middle of a life led: A Winter Book offers us the book-ends to Tove Jansson’s long life. Herein lie twenty stories dealing with childhood and older age; however, for the larger part, the reader is really engaging with semi-autobiographical material. We can suspend our imaginations for a certain period and indulge in the idea that pure fictions are present, but at the back of the reading mind is the knowledge of something different taking shape. The feeling is all the more succinct for this reader, having recently immersed in Jansson’s much acclaimed The Summer Book (1972, 2003) and her novel, The True Deceiver (1982, 2009). The body of work is like a succession of waves.

A Winter Book (Sort Of Books, English translation from the original Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart, 2006) is, according to the introduction by Ali Smith, a combination of select stories about childhood from Jansson’s first collection (Sculptor’s Daughter; Bildhuggarens dotter, 1968) and a smattering of pieces from various later sources, translated into English for the first time. The stories span periods between 1968-71 and 1991-98: the latter being three years before Jansson’s death at the age of 86.

The reader must first accept the slow pace of the story offerings in this collection in order to begin the process of engagement (whether having read previous Jansson offerings or not). Each piece stands alone, but as the reader delves deeper into the pages, Jansson’s characters start to return to the shore, in the analogy: of course, here are the repetitions of Jansson’s parents, Signe (known as Ham, for Hammarsten) and Viktor, both artists, but here too are others such Old Charlie, sketched in to a few of the stories, before taking his leave again. This sketching process is one of Jansson’s signatures. She uses an economy of words which, for the most part, works well (we are left to think); however, perhaps a little more could have been offered in the economy of words that form some of the story titles: Albert, Jeremiah, Annie are titles that don’t frame the story offerings so well.

Fourteen of the twenty stories in A Winter Book are concerned with childhood. It is Jansson’s childhood and what soon becomes clear is the worldview of this child as inculcated by two artistic, Bohemian parents in the early 1920s or thereabouts, in Helsinki and the outer lying islands of the Gulf of Finland. Parties, for example, is an account of a child/Jansson who is subsumed into the culture of her father’s Bohemian gatherings, and her mother’s own art and engagement with these parties, and who doesn’t question any of this way of being: she just accepts it as the normal way of things. She writes as the child narrator, in concluding the piece:

‘I go to bed and hear Daddy tuning his balalaika. Mummy lights the oil lamp. There’s a completely round window in the bedroom . . . One can see out across all the roofs and over the harbour and gradually all the windows go dark except one. It is the one under Victor Ek’s asbestos wall. There’s a light on there all night. I think they’re having a party there too. Or perhaps they’re illustrating books.’

Jansson’s mother was an illustrator. Added to this forming worldview, as written, are moments of understanding of childness, some succinct wisdoms extolled, and comprehension of the (ir)rational logic that children sometimes express. For example, in The Stone, the child narrator pushes a metallic-like object she’s found all the way home and up several flights of steps, believing it to be made of silver (silver, not gold, which will make her rich); there are wisdoms such as ‘a [male] friend never forgives, he just forgets, and a woman forgives but never forgets’, and the quiet Zen-like quality of ‘One always lands up somewhere. That’s important’; of the irrational — or rational — logic, in The Iceberg a child narrator articulates that, if no-one speaks about the iceberg that the family row past, then that iceberg therefore belongs to her.

Jansson’s accumulated wisdoms, as spoken through her child narrator, also include (in Parties), regarding breaking the day in gradually following a gathering, ‘One must be able to move about in peace and quiet and see how one feels and wonder what it is one really wants to do’, and (in The Dark) ‘It is terribly important to find a hiding place in time.’ In fact, this is another wave to gently form and break (in the reading realisation that this ‘hiding’ is a motif that finds its occasional return): Jansson is hiding from the world that troubles her — in the very real sense of her returns to her summer island retreat (as seen in The Summer Book), as well as can be assumed in her children’s books about Moominvalley and its own worldview, and also in particular Winter Book moments such as in Snow (in which a child/Jansson, and her mother hide away in a snow-bound country house, where the latter works at her art); in Flying (in which the child narrator imagines flying and effectively hides away on the ceiling); in The Iceberg (in which the child expresses a desire to climb into a small grotto on the eponymous ‘vehicle’ floating by).

In The Boat and Me, Jansson describes her older child self, defying her father’s wishes by taking a small boat out for a solo rowing trek around the islands. It is a process of hiding, in part, but it’s also indicative of the spirit of adventure, the love of raw nature, and a certain sign of the times. Jansson shows here how children just need to do things sometimes (‘I don’t know why it’s important’, implying that it just is), and tells of ritual and rite of passage in rowing all the creeks and headlands and seeing ‘her territory’ (land) from the vantage point of the sea.

Albert is related as a childhood friend, and the story also touches on the child logic: ‘[On the raft] we reached deep water, but that was alright because we had both nearly learned to swim.’ There is that spirit of adventure to the story of the child narrator and Albert setting sail and getting caught out by the fog, but there are also the child ruminations here on death and fear (the former being an area Jansson returns to in later life, later in the collection, but from a more world-weary perspective). When looking closely enough at the collection as a whole, we begin to see the way that nascent processes on death, as well as on love and beauty, art and play, begin to form.

In Snow, the child narrator/Jansson becomes anxious at the snow trapping them in their country retreat, but her mother stops working and tells her that they’re hibernating, and they play, and the child is overwhelmed with love for her because of all of this. In Annie, the housekeeper by that name has a tempestuous relationship with the child Jansson; the child admires Annie’s strength and beauty and Annie understands the state of childness when the child becomes anxious at them stealing bird-cherry flowers openly and brazenly (Annie acknowledges the child’s sense of ‘wrongness’ and introduces hiding into the act of theft). Later in the same story, Jansson describes how the child plays ‘house’ with the things left out for her by Annie, with a sense of duty, knowing that a better house could be built in a different room. In High Water, Jansson describes her father, a sculptor, and his love of- and inspiration gleaned from storms: so Jansson, the child, loves storms too. They are of art. It is another small incoming wave to tell of this child’s forming worldview, taken on from the adults around her. Jansson’s father seems to need purpose and/or to be someone in touch with the seascape. Perhaps this is also true of Jansson herself.

Flotsam and Jetsam brings these ideas of worldview, seascape, art or beauty together. Despite the story being a tale of the convoluted local rules of salvage and principle, we can see how the idea of ‘doing things correctly’ is forming. There is some degree of twisted correctness here in the tale, but there is the nuance that is with due concern to the process of art: art is in the doing. This can be further read in The Spinster Who Had an Idea, in which the eponymous regular summer island guest and would-be artist tries her hand at various art endeavours but then interrupts the almost sacred ritual involved in Jansson’s parents’ casting of plaster.

Art and play come together, in the interpretation, in Jeremiah, in which the child narrator/Jansson sees play as a kind of art form after meeting and being in attendance to (‘looking after’) a visiting geologist where neither speaks the other’s language and so the communication is in play. When a female geologist also turns up, it unsettles the play/art relationship. In The Spinster Who Had an Idea, the child ultimately struggles with the concept ‘what is art?’ and with her father’s interpretations of what this is to him (albeit unwritten, this is heavily implied).

There are stories in this collection that aren’t so subtle or are laden and convoluted and which don’t reach the depths to which they might aspire. The Dark, for example, is a messy stream of consciousness affair with no real focus apart from being the continued inculcated worldview of the child who believes her lot to be the way it is, perhaps the only way we can or should be. German Measles is concerned with jealousy for a pet monkey and about having a guilty conscience. As such, the tale is very slight and without great depth. The first of Jansson’s later writings in this collection, The Squirrel, is similarly somewhat lacking. Despite the occasional succinct observation, such as Jansson’s insight into words placed face down overnight (‘because if words lie face down there’s a chance they might change during the night’), The Squirrel is a long and somewhat turgid exposition alluding to age: the routines and fixations of an isolated old woman who hides away (between her island’s rocks, in her bed), who potters with unnecessary necessaries, and who considers exactnesses. A squirrel invades her island, but there’s no empathy or sympathy here for her or for the squirrel. It is the child Jansson as an elderly woman but it doesn’t feel like that child character who naively takes on everything of the adult world around her.

There is a similar distancing felt in Letters from Klara. The theme is the tribulations of age but this epistolary piece reveals little of any great significance, despite (again) the occasional moment or enigmatic touch, such as in one of the crotchety Klara Nygård’s letters regarding how the aged start to give away their possessions. There is a passing thought, however, that maybe Klara Nygård may well be linked to the wise old Madame Nygård, portrayed in Jansson’s novel The True Deceiver (there being a penchant for returning characters, as would seem to be the case). This is as much as can be taken from this piece.

Jansson then delivers a piece of unexpected art. Messages begins in prosaic manner with a brief note from Tuulikki Pietilä (Tooti), Jansson’s partner, to her. It soon transpires that Messages is a collection of excerpts, no more than a few lines long each, received in various correspondences following Jansson’s success as an author. It is, at first, difficult to grasp the idea of this piece, as seemingly banal as these messages begin. However, gradually, through careful selection and juxtaposition, there is a sort of world-weary nuance at play, and the whole is shot through at exactly the right positions with banal and beautiful counterpoints. In amongst the variety of requests for product endorsements for Moomin pictures (on sanitary towels and marmalade jars, for example), for specially requested tattoo designs, or a request made by a sheepish ‘friend’ in asking for a drawing for her grand-daughter, in amongst a missive from a plagiarist incredulous that permission should have been sought for use of Jansson’s work, and amongst sinister accusations and cold warnings of Jansson being ‘watched’, there are the short, unneedy information-giving banalities of love from Tooti and the occasional poignant and extremely beautiful comments of a young Japanese fan.

For example, immediately after the confident arrogance of a group of young upstarts seeking endorsement for plastic products (as also referenced in the writing on Anna Aemelin in The True Deceiver), there is the elegance of Japanese Tamiko’s humility:

‘Dear Jansson san, I have collected money for a long time. I will come and sit at your feet to understand. Please when can I come there?’

The final two messages read:

‘I brought the washing in, you can put the potatoes on at 6. Someone called Anttiia phoned.’

‘Dear Jansson san, Take good care of yourself in this dangerous world. Please have a long life. With love.’

The overall effect is quite stunning. This reader/writer is left to wonder what Jansson would have made of these comments/messages here. There is a natural connection from Messages to Correspondence, in which Jansson creates a story of some of Tamiko Atsumi’s letters to her. Tamiko comes across as increasingly obsessive in her ‘love’ for Jansson from afar. In its overall brevity, the piece develops an uneasiness because of this ‘love’, albeit potentially lost in translation in the faltering English of someone admittedly coming to grips with learning the language. However, deftly and simply, Jansson brings us back to Tamiko’s elegant, humble and poignant concluding words.

We have been on a journey and we continue with the final two story offerings in this collection. In Travelling Light, Jansson writes ‘My voyage had suddenly been altered and my peace destroyed.’ This line is apt for this piece as we initially travel with the author in what we read as an at least semi-autobiographical tale of someone determined to escape the clamour of people by leaving life behind for a trip on a ship into the unknown. However, the tale of the fictionalised Jansson we fall into the fictive flow with is unsettled some half-way through when the narrator transpires to be a Mr Melander. At this point a certain degree of interest is lost because, in the context of the collection as a whole, this just does not fit. Perhaps Jansson has been far too deft here for her own good in successfully unsettling the reading process in a piece that focuses, in part, on the unsettling nature of other people (though we can’t read this for sure). It is a shame because Jansson offers some fine perspectives of world-weariness, though the nagging returns as to who is narrating here and this, ultimately, overwhelms the idea of how someone eventually returns to character traits they’ve always apparently exhibited, as is the direction of the end of this story.

The collection ends with Taking Leave: undoubtedly an account of some poignancy for Jansson (being concerned with the inevitability of age and of having to leave her summer island retreat with her partner, Tooti, for the very last time); however, the deliverance of that poignancy is not altogether realised in the writing. There is a short and satisfying detour about whether to signpost visitors to the ‘secret room’ in their soon-to-be discarded house (they don’t signpost but Jansson writes ‘We put a small bottle of rum in [the secret room] as a surprise and as a reward’), but for the larger part Jansson makes use of the writerly device of Tooti narrating to her the tale of their boat being sunk one summer in a storm. It is a back-story nod towards the memories of place, times, objects, and leaving the island behind. The device feels somewhat clumsy though and Jansson then moves into her final symbolic ending: that of an old kite of theirs, found again, and taken away on the wind across the Gulf of Finland. Despite this, Taking Leave doesn’t quite leave us with a feeling of everything being left behind: Jansson floats off, as does her kite.

What A Winter Book does do is add to the character that is Tove Jansson, who we see in her childhood adventures and forming worldview and comprehensions of art and beauty and play, through her primary interactions with her artist parents, and in the affects on her by the occasional childhood friend, adult acquaintance rowing by, or oddity of adult such as Jeremiah the geologist or Annie the housekeeper rowing by her life in the analogy; A Winter Book also delivers the wisdoms of Jansson the elder, her world-weariness and resignations, and her coping strategies with the world that is so much bigger than she ever could deal with. Jansson’s identity is of the seascape: her writing is of waves and returns. In the end, Jansson lost faith in the sea, became fearful of it, and she knew it was the beginning of the end.

A Winter Book marks the book-ends of a long life in art and beauty, love and nature.
 
 

Book Review: The True Deceiver (Tove Jansson)

Deception is a slow restlessness: several days after finishing this novel, I’m left to ponder, in a measured manner, what it is that is the heart of this book. By the very nature of the book’s ghost-marking, it’s true to say that, in The True Deceiver, Jansson has delivered something — if not overwhelmingly beautiful, as The Summer Book is, then at least — significant in some way. That she’s able to stretch out the small disturbances of a tiny snowbound community, one winter, waiting for the spring to return, and still make each page, each short and sweet chapter, engaging is commendable. However, it is to the question, once again, that is ‘what is it that is the heart (not at the heart) of this book?’ that some small restlessness is focused.

Jansson’s two principal characters are, in their own ways, engaged in forms of deception: Katri Kling (‘little witch’ as one of the other characters calls her) is cold and calculating; Anna Aemelin, an illustrator, the old woman who lives — in what the villagers call the ‘rabbit house’ — in a state of some seclusion, is painted as someone who deceives herself in her naivety. In the gradual interactions between the two women, what Jansson does is to bring each towards the other: Katri softens from her position of ice hardness; Anna tends the other way. The concern here though is that, even in this slow and careful movement which Jansson successfully unfolds, there is little love that can be shown to either character by the reader.

Indeed, it isn’t until we’re offered the insight into Katri’s true devotion to her brother, Mats (who is the loving reason for all her machinations amongst the villagers), that we see anything resembling something ‘true’. Katri schemes her way through the book: good at accountancy and in her advice to the villagers in lieu of a lawyer, calculating, cynical and ice-hard Katri ploughs all her focus into ways in which she can collect sufficient funds in order to commission a boat for Mats (whom she has looked after since his childhood, and for whom a boat is the dream). Mats volunteers his time, or is underpaid and taken advantage of to some extent, by the Liljeberg brothers, the boat builders in the small village of Västerby. It is Anna’s eventual affection for Mats — through their mutual love of adventure books — that, in part, leads her to offer to buy the boat that the Liljebergs are building (via the anonymous patronage of Katri, and until she can come up with the funds): Anna offers to buy the boat for Mats, unbeknownst to Katri.

These two insights are the moments in which Katri and Anna can be seen to shine in any way, but it is — to a certain extent — Mats who glues the story into place: without him, Katri has no reason for being, no focus, no devotion; without Mats, Anna’s reclusive lifestyle cannot be unsettled by Katri. Mats is the pivot, and Jansson has successfully sketched him in the neutrality that is required in order for Katri Kling and Anna Aemelin to be as shaded as they are.

The True Deceiver (Sort Of Books, English translation, from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, 2009; originally published as Den ärliga bedragaran, 1982), is certainly readable and, in places, sprinkled with the beautiful description that can be found in Jansson’s The Summer Book. In one scene, for example, Mats takes Katri into the Liljebergs’ boat shed, where everything is described as immaculately clean and looked after and in its place; Jansson describes the instance of dark gold light, and the moment described and the writing itself are fleeting yet lingering. What Jansson also creates, however, perhaps with full intention, is the overwhelming feel of something cold, winterstruck, and crisp yet troubling.

Katri Kling, in her hardness, and Anna Aemelin, in her softness, have perfect names for their characters. Whenever the reader comes across the word ‘Katri’ there is the icy crispness of its consonants upon the tongue, just as Katri Kling is etched as. ‘Anna Aemelin’, in a similar respect, is a whisper on the lips, as the character herself is in her waiting for the snow to melt, in her waiting for the soft moss below to show so she can paint it. The True Deceiver’s cold winterstruckness of being though is evident in all manner of difficult details: Katri, we’re told, has yellow eyes; the village of Västerby is only lightly sketched; Anna’s demeanour is unsettling in its oscillations between softness and tartness and in her annoying (to Katri, at least) habit of gently whistling. All of these elements, and more, leave the reader just a little askew in trying to keep hold of something that might resemble the ‘truth’ of any given character or place.

Perhaps Jansson has this in mind all along: ‘deception’, after all, is her eponymous focus, and perhaps there is a subtle intentional layer of trying to make the reader wonder what might and what might not be true in the formation of this written reality and these characters. There is certainly the element of uncertainty sewn, throughout, into the idle gossip of the villagers (regarding matters of what is true), the motives of the principal characters, the veracity of the ‘truths’ that Katri feeds Anna as a means of achieving her aim of providing for Mats’ dream. There are only a few characters who come out of the whole with any degree of consistent integrity though: Mats, in his neutrality, is one; the other is wise old Madame Nygård, who offers Anna Aemelin her occasional counsel; Edvard Liljeberg, the eldest and only named Liljeberg brother, can — despite Jansson’s efforts at unsettling his integrity here and there via minor slights — hold his head up too, perhaps because Jansson has the skill to make us believe (or even slightly deceive us into believing) the way of things from Katri’s perspective. She writes, for example:

Later that day, Liljeberg was standing outside the boat shed smoking when Katri came by on the road. ‘Hi, little witch,’ he said. ‘So things are starting to fall into place.’

Katri and the dog stopped. She liked Liljeberg.

The dog has no name. It is another of Jansson’s unsettling techniques. Anna later calls the dog Teddy, after Katri and Mats have moved into the ‘rabbit house’ with her, nominally as protection after Katri engineers a burglary in order to gain this outcome. It transpires though that Jansson creates the dog as a symbol of Katri’s belief that we’re more comfortable in quiet obedience of others (as she tries to engineer Anna to be towards herself). Anna ‘corrupts’ the dog, inciting it to ‘Fetch! Play!’ (Katri, she says, doesn’t play at anything; everything is ‘serious’ to her). The dog, of course, becomes confused and turns somewhat feral.

There are layers that Jansson has, undoubtedly, deliberately stitched into this book. She has created with as much loving care as Anna Aemelin paints her forest-floor-scapes (albeit paintings which she then corrupts with seemingly incomprehensible flowered rabbits — another aspect which can be read, eventually, as metaphor); Jansson writes with the care the villagers exhibit in the crocheting of coverlets in the long winter quietnesses of Västerby, with the care Mats takes in his boat sketch designs, with the care in which Mats and Anna open the regular book deliveries, and with the care which Katri takes in the accuracy of her accountancy. All of this is crisply evident.

What we are left with is something that lingers, certainly, yet there is also a slow restlessness: that is, what is it that is the heart of this book?
 
 

Book Review: The Summer Book (Tove Jansson)

Every so often in our adventures in reading we come across a book that is an object of astounding beauty. We think that we can’t let the pages run out. If we’re also writers as well as readers, we think ‘this is the book I wish I’d written’. Tove Jansson’s Summer Book is as delicate and as beautiful as an object found on a beach. It would be accurate to say that this book is not, and will not be, for everyone: there is no definite plot, no narrative sweep of direction, no main crucible or conflict for the characters to navigate. It is, instead, a string of beautiful arrangements told in the time of a small island in the Gulf of Finland.

Jansson’s island is based on a true place, as are the two main characters of Sophia (who starts off in the book as a six year old) and Sophia’s Grandmother (based on Jansson’s own mother, Signe Hammarsten). There is a sprinkling of other characters in the book, but these people are passers-by in the soft flow of the writing. This is a book of love, essentially: a book in which Jansson manages to sculpt the Grandmother’s character as benevolent, wise, humble, playful. It can be read as a love story to Jansson’s mother.

The publishers (Sort Of Books, English translation, from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, 2003; originally published as Sommerboken, 1972) have contributed greatly to Jansson’s content in the creation of an object of beauty. The Summer Book is finished to a high standard: it’s tactile, and even the typesetting is done in a pleasing manner. I turned the pages like handling pieces of eggshell. This is what must be done with such well-crafted works.

What we find herein are twenty-two ‘chapters’ or vignettes, spread over unspecified summer time. If these short vignettes are read slowly and thoughtfully, the characters of Grandmother and Sophia start to enmesh in a deepening relationship in which there is, at once, a delicate form of co-dependency and the slightest of tensions inherent in the generational dissonances. Grandmother (who is otherwise not named throughout), for example, is portrayed as sometimes seemingly aloof to Sophia’s ways and needs but nearly always in tune with her; Sophia, perhaps as might be expected for a child spending so much time not in the environs of other children, needs her Grandmother’s playful attention, thoughtful conversation, and every so often has an aching for all that modernity can offer.

Grandmother has awareness of time and nature; Sophia engages with this, but every so often Jansson drops in a moment to consider about the child and what she represents. In contrasting the two characters, Jansson writes of Grandmother: ‘And because it was June almost all of the wildflowers they had picked were white,’ (and we bow down to the nature knowledge and suppose that it is true); on the mainland, Sophia sees a bulldozer ‘an enormous, infernal, bright yellow machine that thundered and roared and floundered through the woods with clanging jaws . . . Grandmother was waiting by the boat out at the point. What a machine! Sophia thought.’

Grandmother’s wisdom shines through in this book. Jansson has her lying down in the ‘magic forest’ on the island, or examining the flora from extremely close perspectives; reflecting on age to a similarly aged friend who passes by the island ‘But you’re only seventy five’; waiting for the rain which she knows will come. None of this wisdom is dispatched in a holier-than-thou or preached manner though. Grandmother is loved and, indeed, learns things for herself. When she becomes worried about Sophia climbing the channel marker, ever higher, Grandmother deals with this as best she can but in the new-found knowledge that Sophia, after all, knows best about herself here.

Grandmother is many things to Sophia: teacher, protector, friend, playmate. Jansson tells an episode whereby the two of them decide to build their own version of Venice in the lagoon that is the marsh pool. The city gets washed away though, and Grandmother stays up all night re-carving the Doge’s Palace that has been swept off, in the hope that Sophia won’t notice the loss. Grandmother also attempts to assuage the anxieties or bravado in the child when she becomes overcome by stories of superstition, or by the fate of an accidentally sliced angleworm, or by a lack of confidence in swimming. Grandmother is a catalyst for the myth-building that can often take place in children: she carves from old pieces of wood and the two of them take the carvings to the ‘magic forest’ at, and only at, sunset.

The Summer Book is infused with such myth and love and play. I read with several lenses in places (flipping between them like flipping coloured glass to the page): writer, reader, analyst/reviewer, someone who has worked in- and continues to work in the field that is the study of children’s play. It is for this latter reason that the various infusions of this book are evident here. The question arises though, in this reader’s awareness, of whether Sophia can be seen as ‘a real child’. That is, it can be easy to slip into the trap of writing a child character in stereotypical sugary-sweet form.

Sophia is, by and large, real enough. She expresses herself in ways that are certainly true (‘How’s the water?’ Grandmother said . . . ‘Pretty bloody cold.’); she attempts other ways to communicate when relations are strained (shouting through Grandmother’s window, for example, ‘Is it true you were born in the eighteen-hundreds?’); expressing real emotions many an adult has heard before (‘I hate you’, Sophia writes in a letter pushed under her Grandmother’s door). That said, Jansson does also add the precocious and somewhat off-kilter aspect to Sophia’s character: I’m not convinced that an average child would want to use words such as ‘aristocratic’ in speech, or that she would finish off her ‘I hate you’ letter by adding ‘with warm personal wishes’. Perhaps Sophia is not an average child.

Where Sophia comes across well is in the details such as an episode involving a cat who, it transpires, kills birds, and this disturbs Sophia. Jansson writes one of Sophia’s interactions with Grandmother as:

‘You know, sometimes I think I hate Moppy [the cat]. I don’t have the strength to go on loving him, but I think about him all the time.’

A little saccharine, perhaps, but the episode of Moppy, and Moppy’s subsequently lazy replacement, are well-observed moments about a child who can’t think of anything but a cat who refuses to be affectionate. It is all that the world holds in the moment. If Sophia can be angry and expressive, thoughtful and precocious, she’s also written in places as funny in her earnest play. When a potion is made, an elixir, to help ward off the potential of harm to her father, Sophia announces:  ‘I’ve turned superstitious’, and when Grandmother says that her father won’t drink it anyway, Sophia replies that ‘Maybe we could pour it in his ear.’ Jansson presents this matter-of-factly and it resonates with a truth.

Where The Summer Book is most perplexing though is in Jansson’s treatment of the shadow figure that is Sophia’s father (Papa). He is on the island throughout, but it’s not until page 113 that we sense any real concreteness to him, and not until page 169 of 172 that he utters his first and only line. On the one hand, Jansson is concentrating on the relationship between Sophia and her Grandmother and this is appreciated; on the other hand, that Sophia’s unnamed father is always ‘working’ in some other room, or hauling nets whilst the trio are between islands, or he’s otherwise subtly eased off the frame of the page, is a little off-putting. On such a small island, we might expect his presence to have a greater impact on the female characters’ affairs. Sophia does become somewhat anxious about superstition towards the end of the book and of how all manner of signs may affect her father, but this is a little late to rescue his shadow in the pages of the book.

If we learn to quickly focus in on Jansson’s arrangements though, we can read some truly beautiful descriptions in amongst the wisdoms and balances of the generations:

‘The sunset was in different shades of red, and the light flooded in over the whole island so that even the ground turned scarlet.’

‘She ran behind a rock with the milk can in one hand and watched the machine pluck up huge boulders that had lain in their moss for a thousand years.’

The Summer Book is filled with clean, efficient, beautiful language. There is a degree of ‘head hopping’ taking place in the writing, but it hardly matters. Jansson holds the thread of the book well: despite its lack of plot or narrative direction, this book is built on love — a love of nature, for the island itself, for beauty (because undoubtedly Jansson has beauty in mind here), for Sophia (who is based on Jansson’s niece of the same name), for Grandmother (who is, in the fiction, Signe, Jansson’s mother).

Signe Hammarsten died shortly before Tove Jansson wrote this book. Through all my lenses combined, I read it as a daughter’s love story for her mother.
 
 

Book Review: About the Body (Christopher Burns)

Burns’ collection of short stories has been sitting on my bookshelves for the best part of at least fifteen years. It seems to have always been part of the fabric of my book collection, and a book which has been mentally tagged over time as ‘commendable’. This tagging process is a curious one: one of some sort of indelible internal inking; it suggests that the book must have been previously read. That said, on reflection after reading the collection these past few weeks, there’s only a faint trace of recall of parts of its contents. Does this suggest that the stories therein just weren’t strong enough (or is it more to do with the eroding nature of the passing of time)?

I decided to read ‘again’ almost on a whim: partly confident that the mental tagging would serve me fine, partly in trepidation that my reading tastes or acuity in analysis weren’t once sufficiently developed. What I find is that all of the above is true. About the Body (first published 1988; Sceptre edition 1990) is, for the most part, subtle, well-written, and well-constructed. Certainly in the first half of this collection of fourteen stories Burns delivers precise, cut-glass, clear, clean prose. Hardly anything is wasted in the arrangements of words. Markers are placed early on in stories and economically returned to later. These stories have the feel of care in construction, thought, considerations of structure and texture. There are some slender and beautiful juxtapositions in place. Sometimes it feels as if Burns is crafting a piece, out and out, from a single kernel of an idea or from the delicate arrangement of one notion touched against another.

Embracing the Slaughterer (the first story in the collection, and one of the better pieces therein) builds from a few lines referenced to Marxist German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. Burns constructs a tale that is both somewhat predictable in direction yet engaging. We soon learn to analyse the probable style of his stories to come, insofar as locking on to the key elements which we suppose Burns to have built out from. Not only does Brecht’s three lines from Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken, 1955) form a central spine of Burns’ story (‘Sink in the dirt, embrace the slaughterer, but change the world; the world needs it’), but succinct lines such as the following, as narrated by the assassin character therein (having a whiff of Plato’s Republic, though this is not directly referenced), focus the reader:

‘Good food and wine, I told him, should not be the province of the merely wealthy, just as high culture must, if it is to survive, be taken up once more by the masses.’

John’s Return to Liverpool is at first a little odd to fathom, though it soon forms around us like steam in the warmth of the bathroom. Is ‘John’ the Lennon of Liverpool we automatically concoct in our minds? It isn’t immediately clear, but it doesn’t need to be: Burns leads us through the story and we see that, yes, here is Lennon, though in a form other than we suppose him to be. Burns seems to be playing with the way we construct connections in our heads. Very deliberate structural arrangements begin to form in stories such as How Things are Put Together, and here Burns explores filmic qualities in his writing. The body of work so far tends towards a complementary, precise and crafted affair. Even the story lengths, as individual pieces, seem honed and clipped — as consistently similar as they are.

Subtle juxtapositions form in stories such as Practical Living: ostensibly about the death of a pet rabbit, this story develops around emotional connections and unspoken difficulties regarding a disabled child. Later, in My Life as an Artist, a man and his wife each can’t let go of their separate passions or, rather, that which troubles and forms them: he, a maintenance man/caretaker aspires to be an artist; his wife is in continual grief for their lost baby from many years gone by. Burns shifts the dialogue well, creating a believable pair of gender perspectives, and he manages to blend the sensibilities of the two characters into the whole. In Blue, a man awaits the outcome of an archaeological dig in which it’s anticipated that his RAF pilot father will be found, having crash-landed there before the main character was born: Burns plays with the reality/imagined liminal spaces that the emotive connection can blur.

However, from Guido’s Castle onwards, at the half-way point of the collection, there’s almost a deconstruction taking place: several of Burns’ careful connection methods from the earlier part of the book begin to slip into the more exploratory. The aforementioned Guido’s Castle builds to a point of empty non-commitment on the part of the writer: why did Guido build the tower at the back of the villa that he and his dying wife share? Burns leads us towards some succinct and teasingly cerebral conclusion, but we discover that the tower is merely folly. Burns means to leave us unsatisfied, but it isn’t a taste that is embraced.

A Country Priest and Fogged Plates seem at first to be pieces back in form, but significant twists in each only serve to disturb the reader: the slightest of fictive cheating has taken place. The former, for example, unexpectedly places us in a far more profound scenario than we at first realised; the latter plays with where we are in time. That we gradually work out a time and place in any given story should work as a reward for our reading and connecting the puzzle pieces: when we’re shifted from that path, rudely as it were, when we’re walking comfortably along in the story’s authority, it risks unsettling us.

By the time Burns presents us with Babel, towards the end of the collection, the exploratory is well-bedded in: the result here, however, is somewhat confused in its descriptions, place, time, and reason for being. The very last and longest story, Dealing in Fictions, makes a promising start, concerned as it initially is with a man and his analytical, intellectual partner, and the promise of some great truth playing itself out, as evidenced in the opening line: ‘Life always leaves you unfinished.’ Burns soon throws us completely with a sudden and unexpected event that rips through the narrative thread. This is not as unbecoming as in previous stories, as noted above, but what transpires thereafter is an eventual petering out of the potential force of the tale, and indeed the collection as a whole.

In Dealing in Fictions, Burns starts to explore (not so subtly this time) the ideas of one of his characters (the Polish literary critic, Zurawski) within the structure of the story itself. Set against the backdrop of Irish terrorist activity in London, Burns explores the story of Peter and Ruth, and of terrorist activists Mary and Tony, through Zurawski’s eight hypothesised narrative structures. However, Burns only seems focused on the first of these (the intersecting biographies theme) before losing interest in dwindling word counts towards the rest. Perhaps this is another play on Burns’ account, though if it is then it’s far too subtle to be appreciated.

Thinking on the collection as a whole, it is appreciated by this reader to be engaged in an English language book that hasn’t either been mangled by presumably erroneous translation or which slightly irritates at the edges with its own particular syntax. Burns writes as a British English-speaking native and we must always appreciate that which doesn’t slightly buzz at our own ears. That said though, there is a slight irritation in Burns’ choices of flat, almost prosaic, character names: Simon, Peter, Mary, Andrew, Neville, Tony, et al. It raises the question that has sometimes formed in my own writerly consideration: should we place our characters so blatantly in their landscapes by such choices, or can we afford to exercise more in the way of flourish and embellishment in this respect? Guido may even also fit into Burns’ characterisation structure, fitting neatly into his Italian landscape as he does.

This all said, the mental tagging that first inked itself into my reading perceptions, regarding About the Body, is for the large part still intact: Burns writes here with some efficient, subtle, elegant prose, and for that the ink remains as was. Perhaps his subtleties in the first reading, several years ago (if, in fact, I did at all) were lost to me. My ability to analyse has deepened and broadened, and so Burns’ juxtapositional arrangements and structural explorations are now more evident. This said though, I’m left wondering what will remain, internally and indelibly, of Burns’ About the Body in another fifteen years’ time.
 
 

Book Review: Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories (Gabriel García Márquez)

After reading and reviewing Márquez’s Strange Pilgrims it seemed fitting to return to some of his earlier stories. In my previous review I had, after all, written that ‘reading Márquez is like coming home’. I stand by that, but now I qualify it with the following amendment: ‘reading Márquez’s more recent stories is like coming home’. It’s not that this collection as a whole is bad, it’s just that Márquez seemed in general to have turned a corner (on this evidence alone) at around or about the start of his forties (being around or about the late 1960s/early 1970s).

Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories is largely comprised of stories from 1947-1953 (Márquez being, therefore, around 19-25 years old when having written them). These offerings, in places, are reminiscent — for this reader — of some of Kafka’s Meditations: their unnamed characters and settings, and their introspective focus, are not the precursors of Strange Pilgrims we might expect. The strapline on the Penguin Books copy of Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories (2007; first published 1972) states: ‘These stories abound with love affairs, ruined beauty, and magical women.’ This is inaccurate. These stories abound with perspectives on death.

In retrospect, it perhaps cannot come as any great surprise that the running order of the book is such as it is. The first piece, The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother is a novella length story, but its date is more significant (1972). This is followed by the less successful The Sea of Lost Time (1961), and Death Constant Beyond Love (1970). Thereafter, the collection retreats to the late 40s and early 50s period of Márquez’s writing career. With the exception of the beautifully crafted Someone Has Been Disarranging These Flowers (1952), these nine stories can best be described as experiments along the way.

There are flourishes of things still to come in these offerings, but by and large the early Márquez had greater words and ideas still inside him. By the time he writes Innocent Eréndira we see a shift in capability start to unfold, as glimmerings of writerly hope have done in earlier pieces such as Someone Has Been Disarranging These Flowers and, to a lesser extent, the latter portion of Eyes of a Blue Dog (1950). The novella length work that is Innocent Eréndira is something Márquez is more adept at than the very short piece. He likes to unfold the story and there is engagement in this in the process. Márquez skilfully reveals the story and the characters: so much so that we forget that, actually, The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother is a tale encompassing some sordid form of child abuse (Eréndira, the teenager, is subjected to prostitution by her grandmother as a means of ‘paying off the debt’ that Eréndira has brought upon herself in an accidental fire).

Márquez drops in moments of what he’s later seen to embody — magical realism — for example, Ulises (Eréndira’s young love interest) turns glass objects to different colours just by touching them. Having offered us this glimpse of something interesting, however, Márquez doesn’t then follow through with it: leaving it to fester in the background and leaving the reader wondering if it will reappear at some stage. It doesn’t. It’s just a throwaway line. It needed nurturing.

In contrast, Márquez does have a particular predilection in this collection for certain favourite words or motifs: the adjective ‘phosphorescent’ is repeated in various stories (as it also tends to turn up in Strange Pilgrims, if memory serves correctly); Márquez also has a penchant for the lone cricket, the sensory appeal of cement, and the death-imbued violet. Whilst these are not negative observations (aiding the connection of elements of a body of work), the English translation read here does suffer from the repeated and distracting use of such words as ‘lighted’ or ‘unlighted’, instead of ‘lit’ and ‘unlit’. Indeed, it is to the American English translation (from the original Spanish by Gregory Rabassa) that particular irritations are levelled when encountering such colloquialisms as: ‘Boy, you’re asking a mint’, ‘Don’t be a tightwad’, and ‘Then beat it . . . you lowlife!’ (The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother). I wonder how the original Spanish phrasing played itself out.

The translator, perhaps, may also be at fault (though I shalln’t know without further research) for the repeated inability to cope with certain grammatical structures: for example, in The Third Resignation (1947), Márquez is attributed with ‘He would have liked to catch the noise . . .’ It is, though, more for the early Márquez to straighten out the incomplete sentences that do tend to crop up in his writing, e.g. ‘Like all hard blows against nature’s firm things.’ (ibid).

Some of Márquez’s shorter, earlier stories get lost completely from early on. The Night of the Curlews (1953) is, frankly, unfathomable with its repeated use of ‘we’ and its uncertain characters and place (it is not a wise story on which to end a collection that started with Eréndira herself); some stories in this collection lose their way part-way through a struggling piece, e.g. Bitterness for Three Sleepwalkers (1949); some stories here show early promise but then go astray, such as in The Sea of Lost Time (1961), in which — presumably — the lead character retreats under the sea to swim with the dead.

Eyes of a Blue Dog (1950) could easily have had its first two and a half pages removed: being, as they are, littered with ‘he said, she said’, ‘then this happened, then that happened’. What follows from that difficult beginning though is a story in which the reader can immerse: a tale of two people who meet only in dreams. Márquez is in a period of wavering capabilities. Dialogue with the Mirror (1949) includes the dense, impenetrable text that is:

‘There, under his fingertips — and after the fingertips, bone against bone — his irrevocable anatomical condition held an order of compositions buried, a tight universe of weaves, of lesser worlds, which bore him along, raising his fleshy armor toward a height less enduring than the natural and final position of his bones.’

This all said, there are the linguistic flourishes in his early work that amount to some chronicle of a Márquez foretold: ‘That cold, cutting, vertical noise . . .’ (The Third Resignation, 1947); ‘She turned her face to profile and her skin, from copper to red, suddenly became sad’ (Eyes of a Blue Dog, 1950); ‘. . . then she paused on the threshold, coming halfway into the room after, and with the voice of someone calling a sleeping person she said: ‘Boy! Boy!’’ (Someone Has Been Disarranging These Roses, 1952).

It is this latter short story that particularly presses itself to my reading psyche: it did, and delicately so, back in 2009 when I first read this collection, and it does so again five years later. Perhaps the afterglow of that first read has shaped a preconceived notion that it would still be fine in its crafting, weight, and poise. This is an aside. What matters here on the second reading is that Someone Has Been Disarranging These Roses marks a significant point in this collection, coming at the end of the running order, and tarnished only slightly by the unfathomable The Night of the Curlews (1953). The narrator in the former tale is the boy in question, sought by the now grown woman who was party to the young child’s death some years beforehand. That the narrator, ghost, ethereal boy in question, is a child using adult language can be overlooked because the writing here is some of Márquez’s best in this collection.

Thereafter, save the issues already outlined in the chronologically subsequent stories, Márquez starts to build his characters and places. Senator Onésimo Sánchez appears here in Death Constant Beyond Love (1970) and also, later, and to a lesser extent, in The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother (1972). Márquez also describes Laura Farina here in the former story, come to sexually frustrate the ailing senator in order that he ‘straighten out’ her father’s ‘situation’: ‘Laura Farina sat down on a schoolboy’s stool. Her skin was smooth and firm, with the same color and the same solar density as crude oil, her hair was the mane of a young mare, and her huge eyes were brighter than the light.’ The Sea of Lost Time (1961), despite my aforementioned misgivings, does begin with the prospect of sensory place. Innocent Eréndira itself brings place, character, and the sensory together.

What Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories as a whole offers us is not Márquez’s best work: it does show us flashes of the writer he is to become, but it does also lay before us some dusty, sometimes confused and confounding Kafkaesque introspections perhaps best documented as experiments along the way. In this collection the ripening of Márquez’s long writing career comes to fruition somewhere after these early predispositions on the theme of death are passed.