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 Anna. 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 instant 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.
 
 

Book Review: Strange Pilgrims (Gabriel García Márquez)

Reading Márquez is like coming home. The connection of this thinking to the title of this story collection was not an intentional one when I first wrote that line; however, it is, I find now, quite apt. Márquez’s skill at immersing the reader in his places, characters’ situations, and in moments in time is, on reflection, worthy of analysis by any writer looking to hone their own craft. Márquez spends time on his words, and that time rewards his efforts.

In his prologue to this collection (originally published in Spanish as Doce Cuentos Peregrinos, 1992; this English translation by Márquez himself, Penguin Books, 1994), the author delivers the history of the stories. He started with sixty four ideas (notes to form a novel): he wrote some of these ideas up, lost energy on others, lost the notes to many more, reconstructed as many as possible, and whittled those down to the final twelve. As a former reporter and foreign correspondent in various cities across Europe (where the stories are set), Márquez, the Colombian, then needed to check that his memories of places tallied with how those places actually were. He found that they didn’t. He re-wrote the stories, stating that ‘I could not detect the dividing line between disillusionment and nostalgia . . . I had found what I needed to complete the book, what only the passing of years could give: a perspective in time.’ The whole process took some eighteen years, from the early seventies to the early nineties. The stories, these strange pilgrims, had come home.

Reading Márquez is like coming home. His characters, Latin Americans in Europe, spring quickly from the page. Márquez tries to deliver as much hook in the first paragraphs of his stories as he can. This reader’s analysis focuses on some minute but telling details: in his characters, Márquez has a penchant for the full name (immediately giving us some sense of a person; some feel for the possibility of a history; some flavour of the Spanish language flow of the tale that could well be melted into the original language, but which also flows, for the most part, well in English). So, we have María de la Luz Cervantes, Miguel Otero Silva, Maria dos Prazeres, Señora Prudencia Linero, Fulvia Flaminea, Nena Daconte, et al.

This is not all. Márquez’s travels have given him an eye for description of place and how that might feel for his characters: descriptions of the portentous wind at Cadaqués near Barcelona; desolation in the side-streets of Paris; the squalid hotel room of an exiled president in Les Grottes, Geneva. It is this ability to sink the reader down into the fabric of the book, the place and person in the print, that Márquez excels at. To this he also adds to the mix something that every writer ought really to aspire to: that is, the succinct ability to pinpoint a description with a minute but significant object detail (something I have been thinking of for quite a while, and something I currently think of as the ‘specific integrities’ of those objects). Márquez offers up not just ordinary words and phrases, but rather the specific details: ‘he cooked his own food in a can over an alcohol lamp’ (Tramontana); ‘he wore a kind of street pajama made of raw cotton’ (I Only Came to Use the Phone); ‘the glacial factories, the vast fields of Roissy devastated by fierce lions’ (Beauty and the Airplane).

What these stories present, for the most part, is believable patterns of lives, though in sometimes slightly fabulous ways. Could a small wound caused by a rose, such as suffered by Nena Daconte in The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow, really bleed so much on the road trip from Madrid to Paris? Could seventeen poisoned Englishmen in the lobby of a hotel in Naples (‘seated in symmetrical order, as if they were only one man repeated many times in a hall of mirrors’), in Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen, all succumb so to the oyster soup at supper? Could a sea wave issue forth with enough force to embed a car into a hotel wall, in I Sell My Dreams (‘the body of a woman found secured behind the steering wheel by a seat belt . . . [the blow having been] so brutal that not a single one of her bones was left whole’)?

It doesn’t matter. This is the beauty and the power of Márquez’s immersive abilities. As we get to the final stages of the collection, Márquez plays more with the fantastical. Toying with the knowledge that Madrid has no river, landlocked, Márquez tells the tale (with a slight detour into authorial explanation), in Light is Like Water, of two boys, bought an aluminium boat by their parents as a reward for school work, who break a bulb and flood the apartment with light. They invite their classmates when their parents are out and a party ensues, though thirty seven classmates end up drowning in the light there. ‘[Light] spilled over balconies, poured in torrents down the façade, and rushed along the great avenue in a golden flood that lit the city all the way to the Guadarrama.’

Though such beautiful arrangements above are evident in this collection, I can’t help wondering if Márquez’s writing is better suited, on balance, to the longer form. Certainly on the odd occasion in this collection, such as in The Ghosts of August, Márquez ends abruptly and seemingly on the cusp of an idea. That we might wake in a room different to the one we went to sleep in is, for this collection at least, not so satisfactory a tale. Márquez seems to enjoy the ‘folding in’ of characters in his stories: that is to say, he delivers a promising opening; he offers us place and character and a rough idea of where those characters are heading in the piece; then he folds in some extra details to give further colour to the whole, before often folding in further still by delivering some back story details to the personal histories of those characters. Sometimes this works and sometimes it’s a distraction. Sometimes the reader is left a little frustrated but then, wait, Márquez knows what he’s doing and this back tale here is needed later, we find. This folding, as I call it, needs space, and that space in the short story is precious.

There are some other minor aspects of this particular translation that cause slight pause for concern, for this reader at least. There is the odd occasion of tortured syntax, the dogged insistence in not splitting the infinitive, and the American English use of such stylistic decisions as capital letters following colons. These quibbles could be a result of translations for the American English version, and/or due to the author’s own writing choices in the original Spanish (the latter I won’t know). That said, in the case of punctuation, even in matters of house style there ought to be some consistency and there are occasions where this does not follow in this collection. Of sentence structure, moments such as ‘we had bathed in a steaming pool of waters so dense you almost could walk on them’ (Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness) cause some small irritation.

These moments, however, are more than offset but the abundance of beautiful arrangement, skilled immersion, and the odd flash of wry humour in this collection. Márquez writes, for example, ‘we ate under a mauve sky with a single star’ (The Ghosts of August); ‘We would ride on his Vespa, he driving and I sitting behind, and bring ices and chocolates to the little summer whores who fluttered under the centuries-old laurels in the Villa Borghese’ (The Saint); ‘The functionary who received him in the name of the ambassador looked as if he had just recovered from a fatal disease’ (The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow).

Reading Márquez is like coming home because, once encountered and if immersed, he and his writing are far-flung friends for life.
 
 

Book Review: While the Women are Sleeping (Javier Marías)

Javier Marías writes at length: by which I mean the span of his written body of work and the extent of some of his sentences. I suspect that that body of work has, in places, been re-edited, re-imagined, and re-purposed (this is surmised by way of the author’s own brief notes to this collection, but also by way of a cursory analysis of his rather consistent style over the thirty year period that contains the ten stories here). However, despite the overall readability of Marías’ work in this collection, it would appear that the establishment of his ‘name’, in the eyes of the publishers, has henceforth done away with the necessity to edit some of those brutally long sentence structures.

While the Women are Sleeping, published in 2011 (English translation from the original Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa), is a collection of stories of various length which span a writing period between 1968 and 1998. Marías asks the reader in his notes to ‘be kind, please’ regarding the story titled The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga (originally published in El Noticiero, 1968). This is, in fact, a story written by the fourteen year old Marías in 1965. It is short and perfectly readable, concerning the brief life and dull existence (and ultimately dull after life existence) of its eponymous narrator. There is very little to suggest the writing of an average fourteen year old here. So the conclusion is that either Marías was well on his way to becoming a good writer by that age, or the original manuscript has been edited to fit the later emergent body of work.

Marías notes that this story does bear resemblance to a later story, When I Was Mortal (1993), not included in this collection. This practice of writing on writing, as it were, is not one I’m against — in fact, I find it a useful device for development of the art form: my slight irritation here in this collection, however, is the perceived implication of ‘this is how the writing has always been’. If this is the case, then so be it; I am suspicious though because surely every writer’s quality of output will shift over time, especially over a thirty year period.

What does appear to remain more or less consistent though, in Marías’ work here, is that there are subtle suggestions of something lying beneath the surface in his stories. The narrator Iturriaga, for example, ends his story by stating (whilst lying in his coffin), ‘this is my life and death, where there is nothing.’ The title story (While the Women are Sleeping) and The Resignation Letter of Señor de Santiesteban, the two longest offerings, deal in part with time and power. There is, however, the sense that Marías wishes to convey more than just these concepts between the lines. It is this notion of ‘between the lines’ that this reader finds himself focused on, in thinking about the overall impact of this collection. Marías’ writing appears to develop from conceptual inception, but the full depth of that thinking on the author’s part doesn’t always shine through.

This is a shame because, for the large part, Marías’ writing is readable. The story titled Gualta, for example, clearly presents us with the tale (albeit not entirely believable, though we go with the flow in this instance) of a man who meets his exact doppelgänger in looks and actions. (Marías’ conceptual preoccupation is present here too). A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps (re-purposed, according to the author’s notes, by altering the title, character names and setting of a previous story due to a short deadline for a commission) tells the tale of a ghost and a reader. Lord Rendall’s Song, apparently built around a bittersweet retort in a song of that title, by the author’s account, concerns time and loss and, on the face of it, the main character’s return from war to find his wife involved with another man.

In An Epigram of Fealty there is, again on the face of it, another simple tale: this time of a bookstore manager who comes into contact with a beggar, John Gawsworth, purportedly King of Redonda and subject of allegiance, as written into a display copy of a rare pamphlet. That pamphlet, concerning rare poems by Dylan Thomas, offers a snippet of information regarding Gawsworth’s uptake of the title Juan I, King of Redonda. The story goes that Gawsworth, literary executor to the late writer M. P. Shiel, inherited the title from the latter who, it would seem, developed the idea of being king of his own small uninhabited island in the West Indies, near his birthplace. Gawsworth saw it fit, so says Marías, to name Thomas as a Duke of the realm. Marías himself became the disputed ‘King of Redonda’ following a later ‘abdication’. Redonda is an elaborate and long-lived literary fantasy and joke, it would seem.

The whole story of Gawsworth and Redonda appears, I remember, in Marías’ Dark Back of Time (Vintage, 2004, English translation by Esther Allen; Spanish original, 1988). This book itself builds on Marías’ novel, All Souls (various editions, English 1992), and the affect that that book seems to have had. It is this building on a body of work and the cross-referencing of ideas that Marías seems to take particular comfort and refuge in.

This is all an aside to the pressing concern of the collection While the Women are Sleeping. Returning to the readability, in most part, of Marías’ writing here, this is only let down by his penchant for the occasional long and convoluted sentence. One sentence in particular is 110 words in length, punctuated by multiple commas and other means of breaking it all up in order to stretch the point. It seems that, in places, Marías finds it difficult to accept the notion of the succinct. There are only two conclusions, namely: that the original Spanish lends itself better to Marías’ flow of thought and writing; or, as implied earlier in this piece, Marías has reached the point of being beyond the pull of editorial reins.

In conclusion, what While the Women are Sleeping offers is a collection that is at once readable but sometimes readable only in a quiet place (the distraction of external stimuli may well disrupt the bubble of some of Marías’ long sentences). The stories therein aren’t formed in their entirety in this way, far from it, but concentration is suggested. That too would be a skill worth considering when trying to dig down deeper into Marías’ apparent love of ‘something beneath’ the superficial, of his building on the body of work he’s amassed, and of his penchant for the fantastical and literary, such as Gawsworth and all things Redonda.

Marías writes at length, in that body of work and in his sentences: there may well be more here than meets the eye; however, Marías may well be the only one to truly see everything therein.
 
 

Book Review: New Finnish Grammar (Diego Marani)

Finnish is an ugly language. At least that’s how I read it, as transcribed in its scraps in Marani’s novel (English translation, Dedalus, 2011). This is somewhat contrary to the intention of the author who, at great pains, attempts to convince the reader of the ineffable beauty of the curious and practically unique poetry inherent in the language’s spoken form. Perhaps Marani may have a point to make about the liquidity and sing-song nature of the language in the aural realm (the few Finnish people I’ve met, on reflection, did seem to have a somewhat melodic nuance to their spoken English); however, describing this aural sensation on paper is on a par with the oft-quoted description of jazz — that is, compare ‘written jazz’ with dancing to architecture.

All this is an aside because this book’s delvings into language are a vehicle to explore its main theme: identity. It’s a touch ironic then that New Finnish Grammar also has its own, presumably unintended, crisis of identity. This English translation (less than perfect English it must be noted, despite the gushing cover notes, by Judith Landry) is originally written in the author’s native language: Marani being (according to the book’s notes) an Italian, working in Belgium, writing a weekly column for a Swiss newspaper in a Euro-language of his own devising; the main protagonists of New Finnish Grammar are, variously, a German-Finnish neurologist, an Italian-cum-purportedly Finnish amnesiac, and a half-Swedish pastor with a stubborn disdain for all things Russian. Marani’s Europhilic tendencies are clear enough, but the identity crisis in New Finnish Grammar lies not so much in this or via his own personal biography; rather, it lies in trying to ascertain what this book is trying to be.

We know this is not a book about grammar: that much is clear to us from the outset because we know that we have chosen a novel, of sorts. We come into the reading perfectly well informed in this instance. However, what did soon become clear during the reading, for this reader, was that Marani appears to want to be jamming into a narrative his apparent knowledge of the nuances of the Finnish language and mythology in some very clumsy ways. It is as if the story of (who we assume to be) Sampo Karjalainen, a man left for dead on the quayside in Trieste, Italy, in 1943, is secondary to the author’s need to batter the reader senseless with a somewhat academic treatise on language and myth. New Finnish Grammar is about identity, but it lumbers between academia and the novel/writerly in its telling.

That Marani uses the neurologist, Petri Friari, as a first person device (occasionally interposing supposed notes on Karjalainen’s found journal/manuscript into the fictive stream) is a testament to the clumsiness of execution in certain places in this book. At times there’s a self-conscious air to those interjections by Friari: it’s almost as if Marani has inserted them as an after-thought, as a means of sewing up bits he had neither the wit nor the inclination to think through as he went.

For example, writing as Friari, Marani inserts into Karjalainen’s found manuscript some notes about the long private oratories on Finnish mythology, as given by Pastor Olof Koskela to the attentive Karjalainen (who, it must be remembered, is learning the complicated Finnish language from scratch following a clout on the head and a loss of all memory). Marani, writing as Friari, notes:

‘As to Koskela’s dense reflections on language, here and elsewhere, I have been able to reconstruct them thanks to the substantial notes written on the back of the illustrations in his copy of the Kalevala [of epic Finnish myth-poetry], which I came across together with this manuscript. In an envelope glued into the jacket flap, along with sacred images and old Russian stamps, I also found various theological writings, indeed virtual dissertations, by the pastor which I incorporated into the manuscript where I felt the author’s notes seemed to be referring to them.’

Never mind that the fiendishly difficult language that is Finnish is being learned from scratch, and that this in itself must take some Herculean effort of sustained concentration if Marani’s description of Finnish grammar complexities is to be believed: the after-thought of Karjalainen’s learning difficulties here has been conveniently cleaned up by the sudden materialisation of Koskela’s found writings inserted into proceedings and then swept away again. The reader is distracted throughout the book by the nagging concern of just how does one learn Finnish from scratch and also manage to understand all the complexities of mythological oratory, as presented by the ever-extending tale-telling of Olof Koskela? That Karjalainen is thorough in his study skills after the event, as part explanation (the other being Friari’s inserts), just doesn’t wash enough to allow the fictive suspension to be maintained.

This then brings me to consideration of ‘voice’ in the targeted suspension of the reader within the world of Helsinki, 1944 (being where the majority of this book is set). If we’re to immerse in the voices of characters presented to us, we need to be able to differentiate between those characters. Marani, here, speaks as Friari, Koskela, Karjalainen, and as Ilma Koivisto (the erstwhile love interest of the latter); however, actually, Marani speaks as Marani throughout. It is, perhaps, indicative of Marani the linguist, the journalist, the academic at large within the pages of this book, rather than Marani the novelist, that Friari, Koskela, Karjalainen and Ilma Koivisto fail to lift themselves adequately from those pages.

It may only have been for bloody-minded self-satisfaction that I laboured on past Koskela’s late and turgid Kalevala-tales of characters such as Kullervo, Kalervo, Untamo, and so forth: I lost interest in the point, if there was one, of these tellings — bloody-mindedness carried me along to the inevitable denouement and the finding out of who Karjalainen actually was. This ending was clumsy and unsatisfactory. It felt like Marani had got to a point where Friari’s final notes (which make up those last few pages) needed some Friari-like inserts themselves to explain away the plot holes.

This all said, it would be unrepresentative of the whole if this review were not to also include some positives (after all, New Finnish Grammar is not a book I failed to finish). There are places where Marani flourishes his linguistic imagery and comes up sweetly: he describes small slices of scenes with colour and delicate words, which work in the English version let alone the original Italian. For example:

‘The red light falling in through the window was now becoming slowly tinged with grey. The sun was sinking behind the forests and a dense layer of salt-laden cloud was settling over the sleeping city.’

That these presumably Finnish words, presented by the language student Karjalainen, are just too succinct can be momentarily forgotten (though not entirely). When an author rides a vehicle such as ‘language’, a reader will inevitably find his thoughts turning to thoughts on language.

Taken at face value, some of Friari’s inserted text also has some aesthetic worth and depth (Friari being, at least, Finnish by birth and so a native speaker):

‘I prefer to believe that the universe is driven not by some all-powerful will, but by the random play of chemistry. The thousand substances of which it is composed clash and mingle each time they meet . . . [their reactions] as mighty as the splitting of the atom or as sublime as the flowering of a cherry tree. When everything has finally mixed and merged, when oxireduction is complete, when matter is made of nuclei as small as grains of sand but as heavy as this planet, and each electron is set upon its fatal course, then there will be peace in the universe.’

Sadly though, these moments of Marani’s writing are rare. The majority of this reader’s thought is taken up not by beautiful arrangements of words but by matters of character, composition, and clumsiness. Judith Landry’s translation is described as ‘seamless’: one can only then assume that it’s the fault of the author at points where Landry confuses the restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, or maybe the original Italian has grammatical structures that don’t translate easily. The publishers, Dedalus, also ought really to be checking their offerings more carefully for spelling and typesetting errors.

By way of drawing towards conclusion, I first offer up one of Marani’s descriptions of the spoken Finnish language:

‘In European languages the sentence is a straight line; in Finnish it is a circle, within which something happens.’

This may well be true in the spoken world: that there may be beauty in the spoken Finnish may be undeniable; yet, an excerpt of a transcribed song in the book goes along the lines of:

‘Kauniina vaikkyy muisto urhojemme,
Kuolossa mekin vasta kalpenemme.
Eespain rohkeasti vaan,
Ei kunniaansa myo
Sun poikas milloinkaan!’

The written language of Finnish is ugly. There may be something here, as spoken, or indeed there may be a circle here. Who’s to know? It is the same with Marani’s New Finnish Grammar: what is it, its identity, within the circle it attempts to describe? Something may be happening. Sadly, I fail to appreciate or care enough.
 
 

Book Review: Stories and Prose Poems (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)

It is my intention to read more. I don’t call this a resolution of the New Year kind because it’s always my intention to read more. Having had the opportunity to kick-start that process recently, I need some means of being held accountable. This site can offer that accountability. There are book reviews all over the internet and so, in adding to that body of writing, I write here to create a personal catalogue — for public consumption if that proves of interest. It’s January 5 and I’m already a book and a half in, my partner in accountability! There will follow writing on that reading in due course.

In the meantime, I’ve dug up a review written under a pseudonym in December 2011: Stories and Prose Poems by Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

I discovered this somewhat tersely titled slim collection by chance. I’m glad that I did, despite some minor misgivings about the author’s manner of writing. Some weeks back, I chanced on a small bookshop, down an alley. On the very top floor, on a bottom shelf, nestled between other dustily forgotten literary types, was Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the 1971 Penguin Books version (translated by Michael Glenny) features a bright red square overlaid by a man’s hand holding a sickle over an open book. I had all the intrigue I needed.

Solzhenitsyn, an army captain, was arrested in an East Prussian village in 1945 for making derogatory remarks about Stalin. He spent eight years in labour camps. It must be assumed that this time was spent stewing on his lot and forming his writerly direction: to find the ‘real Russia’. In Stories and Prose Poems, which consists of six of the former and sixteen of the latter, Solzhenitsyn displays both astounding brilliance and alarming clumsiness.

In the opening story, the author focuses on Matryona: a self-effacing woman who takes the narrator into her squalid home. Solzhenitsyn expertly describes a bleak state of affairs (being semi-autobiographical, following the narrator’s search for some isolation). However, the reader isn’t depressed by bleak descriptions of a cockroach-infested kitchen, for example. Instead, Matryona is depicted as someone with beautiful grace. There is the definite undertone of Soviet mentality (whether that’s due to indoctrination or inner desire) inherent in Matryona’s work ethic: despite her physical difficulties and poverty, she does what she can for the good of her community. The ending is tragic, as one might expect. There is a whiff of allegory about the whole.

Similarly brilliant in execution are some of Solzhenitsyn’s prose poems. I was astounded by A Storm in the Mountains, for example. Barely half a page long, this piece deftly describes the raw power and beauty of its subject matter:

‘Everything was black — no peaks, no valleys, no horizon to be seen, only the searing flashes of lightning separating darkness from light and the gigantic peaks of Belaya-Kaya and Djuguturlyuchat looming up out of the night . . . the voice of thunder filled the gorge, drowning the ceaseless roar of the rivers . . . the lightning flashes rained down on the peaks, then split up into serpentine streams as though bursting into spray against the rock face, or striking and then shattering like a living thing.’

There are, however, downsides to this collection. The story For the Good of the Cause starts with a flow of alternating dialogue — a collection of people and their overlapping conversations. It is not only difficult to follow but clumsy in its execution. Names are used in dialogue to introduce characters, or to try to indicate who says what next. It feels somewhat amateurish:

‘Susanna Samoilovna! How are you? . . . Lydia Georgievna? Lydia, my dear!’

That said though, Matryona Vasilievna Grigorieva, from the first story, is regularly referred to as Matryona Vasilievna, so perhaps this is a Russian convention I’m not aware of. Clumsiness, or dullness, can always be ironed out, however, in stilted dialogue (despite a social history inherent between the words) such as:

‘I’m in the same position: electronic and ionic appliances are separate from insulating materials, which have been left with lightning engineering.’

Solzhenitsyn can hardly be blamed for a lack of social or scientific foresight when writing forty years ago, but sometimes his writing does strike a chord with modern times. In the story, The Easter Procession, for example, he describes a rabble of bored youths spoiling to agitate at a church. One need not look too far to see such disaffected actions in modern society. However, there are other aspects that Solzhenitsyn gets wrong. In the prose poem, The Duckling, which is simple and beautiful in its own way (espousing the wonder of such delicacy as the titular creature), the author asserts — perhaps with tongue in cheek — that we will all soon be flying to Venus, yet we won’t be able to re-create such a thing as a delicate duckling. In the twenty-first century, sheep have already been cloned!

Solzhenitsyn’s prose poetry is where he really excels. Several of these pieces have reflective morals attached to them. It is perhaps a sign of the personal history of the author, of the Cold War times in which he wrote, and of the Soviet society he lived in, that such reflection is written in such a manner. The collection has been thoughtfully rounded off with the final prose poem (We Will Never Die): it explores the notion, despite the fact that ‘more men died for us Russians than any other people’, that Russia had no day of remembrance, unlike ‘all [other] nations [who] dedicate one day to remembering’. The piece, and the book, ends with a foresightful quip: why consider the past and the dead, when ‘we will never die!’?

Small pieces of huge histories can be found on the dusty bottom shelves of the very top floor of little bookshops, hidden away down side alleys. Solzhenitsyn’s writing, in this collection, does oscillate between the beautiful and the clumsy, between the sublimely tragic and the utilitarian; perhaps, though, we shouldn’t hold this against a man whose restless mind was shaped by war, imprisonment, and a search for something true in his homeland.
 
 

Book Release: Four Kinds of Wreckage (Savage Short Loves: Volume II)

Four Kinds of Wreckage (Savage Short Loves: Volume II)Announcing the release of my latest fiction offering (following my previous post and waiting for the KDP process to filter its way back to my inbox). Four Kinds of Wreckage (Savage Short Loves: Volume II) is available for purchase via the bookshop link on the left-hand side bar.

At the start of this particular writing process, I didn’t envisage a year long project in all honesty. The previous instalment of this series took the best part of three years to come to fruition, but Volume II was intended to be a quicker write. What we learn along the way is that words won’t be rushed.

As a taster of the contents of this second volume (and something I haven’t yet done in order to promote the contents of the first volume), there follows at the end of this post a very brief overview of the thirty pieces therein. I call them ‘pieces’ because I always have: they’re not stories in the conventional sense of the definition (by which I mean, the view that such writing has a ‘beginning, middle, end, plot, crucible/conflict’, and so forth); these pieces, in their intentional brevity, sometimes have a storyline to them, are sometimes a moment in the telling, sometimes they’re the middle of things that might expand out in the mind, etc.

How to write a synopsis of such brief affairs (being in the region of 60-1000 words per piece)? The succinct, below, shall describe the brief.

Prices have been reconsidered to reflect the individual work in question, but I’m open to the idea of a free copy coming your way if you drop me a line on my Joel Seath: Writer Facebook page, or send a message on this blog site. This free giveaway is for promotional purposes and therefore with a limited initial period (if it’s successful, I’ll do likewise again sometime). So, contact me by January 17 please.

As the independent writer/publisher’s promotional work is aided by honest reviews, you’ll know then — as a reader — that a review of the book is requested in return for a free copy. There is a reviews page set up on this site for readers’ comments. I thank you kindly in advance of your interest.
 
So, to the writing in Four Kinds of Wreckage (Savage Short Loves: Volume II):

Soak
being a story of love taken to its inevitable ends

Sugar
in which we cannot escape

I, Revenant
exploring the unreliable

The Glass Girl
being a fractured moment of a fractured man

The Wasps’ Nest
in the midst of a garden tale

A Memory of a Love We Almost Shared
exploring what could have been

When We Never Were
in which we see peripherally

All is Far from Clear in War of Love
continuing battles fought in love

Written on the Streets
a window on the fearful follower

Cardboard Love
a small sliver on dimensions

Red Queen of Stones and Wings
being a fractured obsession

The Fragility of Sense Geographies
exploring an inner urban landscape

Our River’s Bones
in which one inner landscape is condensed and falls

Sprung
exploring a city we don’t control

Composition in Water and Other Elements that Mark
being the self-portrait of a city

City of Trees
in which she murders

The Lure of the Threshold
an urban escape

Future Perfect
a simple tense construction of the world

Whisperings
in which we might see other than we usually see

Incorrigible Mr Yu
being the reflections of the eponymous maybe-misguided

Stained in the Republic of Amnesia
exploring a simple construct of love

Chiaroscuro
following a twisted flame

Absence and Fondness
in consideration of misplaced loves

Orphans of the Wasteland
a small view of loss

Soldiers of the Hidden World
in which empathy and the sensory overcome the emptiness

To the Slippery Wordlessness of Us
in celebration of words and wordlessness

Paper Trees
a brief moment in dejection

She Salutes, and Waves
a true story told

The Thought of Disappearing
in contemplation of time

My Boy the Writer; My Father in Dementia
for my father, who is missed
 
Peace be to my readers (here on the blog and there in my books).