Book Review: The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)

With a refined elegance of language consistent throughout the entirety of its pages, Kazuo Ishiguro’s inter- and post-war set novel at once cleanly embodies its main character whilst also enfolding its text around several subtle strands that unwind throughout its whole. The first person reverie of Mr Stevens, whose first name we are never in a position to discover, a butler to Lord Darlington at his grand great house in Oxfordshire, is related whilst the former engages on a motoring trip to Cornwall in 1956. It is, however, the various events both on an international and political scale and on a personal working relationship level that occur during the 1920s and 1930s that Stevens is ostensibly and primarily focused. The book’s denouement is directed, early on, towards a reunion with the former Miss Kenton, erstwhile housekeeper at Darlington Hall; there is, however, a far more subtle, somewhat elegant and endearing strand of storytelling inherent in the piece, regarding Mr Stevens and his relationship with the sometimes volatile Miss Kenton.

The Remains of the Day (published by Faber and Faber, 2005; originally published in 1989) is a slow unfolding of a love story, a story of political shenanigans, a rumination on the concepts of dignity and professionalism, of tradition and the perception of modernity, and of coming to terms. Stevens has learned his trade, has discussed it at length at gatherings of others who also perform the same duties at other great houses, and cannot, on the face of it, not encapsulate the epitome of service. His every waking moment is dedicated to his craft, his reflections on his manner and application, and his consideration of the details. Stevens is, however, somewhat of an unreliable narrator. Such is Ishiguro’s skill at writing in this offering that this epiphany only slowly begins to dawn on the reader.

Stevens has a particular worldview and his explanations of events and ideas appear rational and understandable. Gradually, however, there are hints as to how this worldview begins to unravel. Stevens is loyal to his lordship, but the latter’s political sympathies can, more and more, be perceived as either deliberate or naive in the gathering machinations of 1930s Europe. First there are references to hosting Sir Oswald Mosley, of ‘blackshirts’ infamy, then increasingly there is the suggestion that Lord Darlington’s sympathy for the defeated populace of the Great War is, in fact, a perfect canvas on which Hitler can manipulate political advantage. Darlington is capable and suitably esteemed in the gathering and hosting of conferences of important inter-war politicians and ambassadors, though he is, it transpires (or, as we’re told) being made good use of by the foreign powers. Stevens, for his part, keeps a respectful distance and will not question his lordship as it is not his place to do so.

As the political machinations slowly unfold, so too do the details of Stevens’ sometimes difficult relationship with Miss Kenton. Their staffing responsibilities are largely split between the male and the female employees and, though Miss Kenton is relatively young when we first meet her, she is a capable housekeeper. Stevens is ultimately responsible for the entire staff team. It becomes clear that she suffers much exasperation at Stevens’ manner, though Ishiguro’s writing is careful enough only to paint the finer edges of this. Miss Kenton wishes to brighten Stevens’ private working room with flowers, for example, and Stevens is brusque in his refusal. Miss Kenton adopts a petty insistence on being addressed only through written messages. Ishiguro returns at several stages throughout the book to several periods in the two main characters’ unfolding relationship during the 1920s and 1930s. At times we read a softening of the interactions, borne out of familiarity over years of working together. At other times, we read Miss Kenton’s restrained tempestuousness. There is an interplay between the telling of the death of Stevens’ father (himself a butler, brought to the house to serve in his old age) and the death of Miss Kenton’s beloved aunt: two incidents separated by a fair chunk of the book. In the former, early in the 1920s, Stevens tells the story of the passing of his father in respect of an adjunct to his claims on dignity, whilst Ishiguro affords Miss Kenton the honour of the piece in her actions; in the case of her own loss, years later, Stevens is too tied to professional restraint for him to offer condolences.

The structure of the book is nominally with regard to the motoring trip that Stevens takes, on the insistence of Darlington Hall’s new owner that he take time off. Mr Farraday is an American, someone who Stevens struggles to comprehend the ways of, but Stevens takes his Ford, heading towards the West Country following the receipt of a letter from Miss Kenton (now, in 1956, being Mrs Benn, having married and left the house some years before the war). Stevens reckons on there being some lament in the letter, reading that his former housekeeper has separated from her husband and, in need of good staff, he sees it as an ideal opportunity to ask her if she would come back to work with him. Herein lies a subtle love. Stevens is, on the face of it, aloof to anything that might be perceived as personal; yet, we gradually discover, he and Miss Kenton share an affection, albeit wrapped in professional interaction.

Ishiguro draws a neat connection in the examination of ‘professionalism’ when Stevens relays an account of the behaviour of an American delegate at the house in 1923, regarding the addressing of Lord Darlington. Mr Lewis, the somewhat amiable but ultimately conniving American at the conference brought together to discuss the injustices of the Versailles Treaty following the Great War, eventually stands at dinner to accuse his host of amateurism. Darlington is, according to Lewis, not skilled at the cold politics required, leading with his heart, as it were. Stevens’ narration of professionalism in his stance on dignity in his own role tallies with the clinical approach we read as advocated by Lewis and, in effect, with the relations between Stevens and Miss Kenton.

Ishiguro touches lightly but succinctly on concepts of democracy and aristocracy, on the relative benefits of decisions that might be made by the ill-educated in the steering of the nation’s fate and on those made by those higher up the social food chain. Only several pages later is the reader necessarily aware that a group of West Country locals gathering to meet a man they perceive as perhaps a lord or a duke (that is, Stevens himself, who does not correct their error) is, in fact, a device on which the author hangs a strand of his exposition. We are, to a certain extent, drawn in to the manner of writing that we allow ourselves to be subsumed by the content and strategy of the text. Ishiguro writes, for example, deep in to the work:

. . . but then it is perhaps in the nature of coming away on a trip such as this that one is prompted towards such surprising new perspectives on topics one imagined one had long ago thought through thoroughly.

It is clipped and consistent throughout. Stevens engages with life by the background hum of whatever it might be to make him tick. Characterisation, therefore, and to some extent, goes some way to usurping device, such as other lesser novels make far too obvious. Lord Darlington’s apparent manipulation by Nazi forces is painted as such by Stevens, and though this unravelling becomes evident to the reader, Ishiguro crafts this process through the lens of Stevens’ own naïveté and misplaced loyalty. When Darlington insists that two Jewish maids are relieved of their positions, Stevens does not protest, although there is the hint that he doesn’t agree, but he goes about the task his employer has decreed and for the good of the house, as stated to him. Miss Kenton is vehemently in disagreement and threatens to resign, but she has nowhere to go, it later transpires. We also gather, later, that she too has a loyalty, in her affection, to Stevens.

The Remains of the Day is an entanglement of fine threads, played out on an ostensibly insular backdrop which, nevertheless, has its reach into the wider affairs of inter-war Europe. In his later years, post-Second World War, Stevens embarks on a journey, part holiday, part mission to restore the order and esteem to his great house, but he encounters an epiphany that lends its essence to the book’s title. Stevens’ eventual reunion with Miss Kenton, reconciled now as she is with her husband, is delicately replete with what might have been. Later, at a seaside town, Stevens’ chance encounter with a stranger leaves him pondering on the nature of the past and the future and of what remains of his day, that is, his time. Ishiguro’s novel is clean, elegant, readable and, with its trace of visceral lament, it has the potential to remain memorable for years to come, such is the ‘feel’ that some books are prone to impress.
 
 

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Book Review: The Outsider (Albert Camus)

Camus’ The Outsider is, on first impressions, a miserable affair of nihilistic detachment. With staccato regularity of dirge-like prose, he begins attempted enmeshment of the reader into the life and worldview of his first person protagonist, Meursault, by way of notification of the death of his narrator’s elderly mother at an old people’s home near Algiers. Meursault receives the message by curt telegram and is, all things considered, unperturbed. Such is his focus of attention and priority to aspects of the physical realm, rather than in the redundancy of the emotional, that this state of being, his stance in life, is ultimately to be his undoing. What we might therefore read, as the prose slowly shifts into a more flowing exposition, is a philosophical undercurrent to Camus’ intentions.

The Outsider (published by Penguin Classics, 2013, translated from the original French by Sandra Smith; originally published by Librairie Gallimard, 1942, as L’Étranger), is a short read, tightly executed. It becomes apparent, in the gradual unfolding, that Camus has deliberately planted seeds early on, and the seeds are specifically referred back to in later scenes. That said, the tightness of the writing in the crucial scene towards the end of part one of the book (about which the entire story revolves) becomes mechanical in Camus’ rendering of the exact ordering of events, the comings and goings of Meursault and his associates, Masson and Raymond, and Meursault’s girlfriend, Marie, on a beach where a terrible event unfolds. Part one concludes, some fifty or so short pages in, and part two, of similar length, is a detailing of consequences, rinsed through as they are with an almost autistic rationality.

Meursault, who we’re given no first name for, has a somewhat sociopathic detachment, devoid of any significant empathy for those around him. He takes a course of least resistance through his life. It is not until the very end of the book that Camus renders him with any degree of emotional content in association with his fellow humans. It is a reaction, in large part, to persuance by a chaplain in his attempts at bringing redemption upon Meursault by way of an acknowledgement of God for his sins. Meursault has none of it. For him, as he rationalises, life happens and it will end, some time or another, and God has nothing to do with it. That Meursault has committed murder on the beach in cold-mannered circumstances, according to his prosecutor, is the complication of the piece.

Very late on in the book, Meursault’s whole attitude can be summed up with the inclusion of a few short lines — Camus writes of his narrator’s ponderings on the cessation of contact by Marie whilst he, Meursault, is in prison:

‘It also occurred to me that she might be sick or dead. Such things happen: it was natural . . . nothing bound us to each other, nothing kept us alive to each other. Although, if I discovered that was the case, I would become indifferent to the memory of Marie. She would no longer interest me once she was dead. I found that idea normal, just as I completely understood why people would forget me after I died.’

We should read this in the context of the scenes on the beach at the end of part one of the book. Meursault has become friends, rather by default, with a neighbour, Raymond Sintès, an alleged pimp (though, in his own words, he ‘works in a warehouse’) who assaults a woman by reasoning of a lack of fidelity. Sintès embroils Meursault into a plan to exact some revenge on her and Meursault, devoid of empathy or any morality to the contrary, agrees. His is a coldly rational approach. What transpires is that offence taken by the woman’s brother, an Arab as he’s described, and his cohort, results in an altercation on the beach where Sintès, Meursault and Marie have gone to visit Sintès’ friend, Masson, and his wife for a day out. Meursault, ostensibly due to the unfortunate circumstances of finding himself in possession of Sintès’ gun and being overcome by sensory stimuli (the heat of the sun and a dazzling from the blade of the Arab’s knife), kills the latter. Meursault has walked out alone along the beach after the first altercation and chanced upon the man again, and this is viewed dimly as premeditation by the prosecutor. Meursault kills a man and there is no concern for the man, or regret, on Meursault’s part. It is, in his worldview, simply something that has happened.

The first part of the book builds a bleak character study, from Meursault’s mother’s wake and his detachment in attendance at this, to his subsequent days of interaction with Marie and his long, slow art-house-worthy observation of people passing down below his balcony and in the street, and on towards the incident at the beach. In his day-long observation of people, Meursault operates within the realms of a tiresome tirade of short dreary sentences: he smokes; he cooks eggs; he watches the trams go by; he eats a piece of chocolate; he leans against a wall; the sky changes; he watches the sky; he smokes more. The second part of the book is a study of the unfolding of Meursault’s trial. Camus writes him almost as if he, Meursault, is removed from the courtroom, studying his trial with a rational calculation, weighing things up and nodding agreement with things that appear fair enough, given the circumstances.

Meursault’s prosecutor is at pains to point out the minutiae that the reader is already aware of but which now they are also reminded of: Meursault’s actions and way of being at his mother’s wake and funeral and his quiet acceptance of the disreputable Sintès and his plans, for example, and the potential linking of these cold hard aspects to Meursault’s apparent calculated revenge out of loyalty to a friend who’s engaged in a dispute, albeit ‘petty’. His own lawyer, by contrast, attempts a mediation, of sorts, despite his admittance that Meursault did kill the man.

Meursault is not a likeable character, as such, but neither is he so dislikeable as to be repugnant: he is just what he is, despite his crime. He largely accepts his circumstances with a reasoned and analytical air. In this we might find him difficult to connect with. Perhaps Camus’ philosophical undercurrent has its affect here: for Meursault, the emotional connection to other humans is irrelevant and how might that play out in the reader? Only in aspects of the sensory affects of the natural world (the sun, the sea, the sand, for example) does Meursault seem to have any degree of internal/external association. Meursault, the outsider, is of the world, if not in the human one.

Ultimately, what Camus has left behind in the pages, if the reader can suffer the opening section beyond Meursault’s mother’s death, is a trace consideration of what it might mean to be human, in the book’s shadows of reason or emotion, detachment or connection. What, we might find ourselves pondering on, is life for?
 
 

Book Review: Things We Nearly Knew (Jim Powell)

That we do not, or cannot, know everything of those we suppose we know, or that we might be variations of ourselves when around different people, are the essential building blocks of Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew (Picador, 2018). Set in an unnamed small American town, Powell’s similarly unnamed narrator owns a bar out at the very periphery of the place: the back-drop hub to a whole plethora of gossip and amateur sleuthing on the comings and goings, by the locals, of their fellow denizens. Powell explores his themes via a handful of these characters, of various shades of depth or passings-by. His writing, as befitting the vocation of his main narrator character, is conversational in tone, easy to read, dotted with bar psychology, though nothing too profound threatens to endanger the flow of the read.

That said, Powell does manage to touch on small moments such as is the everydayness of most bar-goers’ lives: a little on politics, small diversions into loss, excursions into the meanings of things. If this is a conscious effort to relate the life of the bar to the style of the writing, then Powell has achieved this well. Not having yet read any of his other works, this reflection shall need to be returned to in due course. There is a limit to how many characters an author can reasonably expect to maintain within any given piece, and so necessarily this author only details a few (there are nods to how the bar has its flow of other trade, but mostly we see the bar as sparsely populated).

The catalyst for the narrator’s reflections and the locals’ changing lives takes place one winter when Arlene, a late thirties-something mystery woman, enters the bar. She’s looking for a man called Jack, though, as we’re told, there are plenty of those around, potentially. Arlene has no surname to go on and very little other information. No-one knows why she wants to find him because she won’t tell, and neither does she say anything to the locals about herself. They are curious to find out about her. Arlene becomes a sporadic regular and sets the narrative in motion.

Along the way, we meet other locals: Davy, who we’re told is more intelligent than his chosen work positions suggest he is, who has some anger issues, who has his secrets, and who very soon starts a relationship with Arlene; Nelson, a failed politician, a corporate crook who likes the sound of his own voice; Mike, a quiet and unassuming man who Powell does not choose to colour in in any great detail. The bar owner-narrator’s wife, Marcie, is a rational, level-headed woman, depicted as someone who encapsulates the comfortable knowledge of a thirty year marriage, who supports and is supported, but who also has her secrets. To this mix, Powell adds Franky Albertino: Franky is the Fonz character, come back to town after thirty years away, still playing the slippery wide-boy, still not totally trusted, but still exerting the same gravitational pull that he always did. In Powell’s writing here, practically everyone has their history, their skeletons in the closet, and as Arlene suggests early on (whilst she, Davy, the bar owner and his wife go on a short break to the bleak scenes of Coney Island out of season), everyone presents a different version of themselves according to who they’re with.

Before long we’re embroiled in the gossip of the handful of locals and bar owners who variously ask one another (or the reader asks of the writer) who Arlene is, where she’s from, why she’s looking for someone called Jack and who he is, why Franky’s back in town and what he wants, why Franky wants to take over the abandoned mansion next to the bar, who the reclusive Mr Hammond who purportedly lives or lived there is, what might be happening in the slow-spiralling relationship between Davy and Arlene, who the money was stolen by, what happened to Marcie thirty years ago, what the cause of sadness for Marcie and her husband is, and so on. In writing a review, it’s difficult not to accidentally create spoilers but, suffice is to say, progeny and identity and versions of presentations of characters are strongly alluded to. What was particularly pleasing to read in Powell’s writing was that he does not always go the whole way in his explanations: he leaves the reader to piece things together, giving enough clues so that the risk of too much ambiguity is reduced.

It isn’t clear where the bar owner-narrator’s town is in America, but it takes him, Marcie, Davy and Arlene the best part of a day to drive from there to Coney Island on the coast. In some respects it doesn’t matter that the author has chosen not to specify a location: this could be an everyday story of any group of locals anywhere. Powell has just chosen to set his story in Anyplace, America. He mostly succeeds in this, referencing American phraseology and cultural practices. However, the pedantic reviewer will often root out the odd slip-up. Towards the end of the book, Franky sends the narrator a cheque: Powell writes it this way (‘cheque’; in British English, rather than the American ‘check’). It is a small detail but something that causes the moment of a temporary stepping out of the fictive flow. It is a small criticism, but one that this reader feels is worth expressing.

How does an author end any given novel? That is, at what point does the wind-down begin? In some ways, endings could be seen to be even more important than beginnings. It isn’t clear at what stage Powell starts to wind down towards the final pages, and this is testament to his writing, but there is a feel in this reader’s perception that some final scenes are not given such due attention as earlier ones. In the narrator’s discussions with another bartender, in a town some fifty miles away, there is the feel of a stilted wrapping up taking place: the other bartender is depicted as distracted or uncaring (the anti-bartender, as it were, in the previously written thinking that there is a certain pastoral duty to undertake in the role), and the narrator quizzes him, receiving an unlikely staccato flow of responses. The suspicion is that such an exchange is disingenuous to the reality of people who have only just met like this, irrespective of their shared vocation.

These small criticisms aside, Powell offers a novel that flows easily with sub-plots and a little subtlety. Some characters are a little thin in the fleshing out, but other relationships depicted are graceful, caring, curious or open to debate: an interwoven gossiping, though without the negative connotation of the word. Ultimately, what we can come away with is that Things We Nearly Knew gently questions us on the various versions of ourselves.
 
 

Book Review: The Children (Carolina Sanín)

Quite what the Colombian writer Carolina Sanín’s message is in The Children (MacLehose Press, English translation, from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, 2017; originally published as Los Niños, 2014) is entirely unclear. What we are presented with is, initially, the mystery of why a six year old boy has suddenly turned up at her main character’s door, apparently without family or history. What transpires is a slow descent into a muddle of potential main character neurosis, possible allegory, and an attempted blur of realities and fantasies.

The ideas in Sanín’s work might well have proved worthy of consideration had they not been so confused by such deliberate obfuscation, such convoluted execution and, frankly, such poor technique in the writing. She briefly touches on thinking such as ‘ghosts within ghosts’ and the construct of mentally ‘keeping’ those who have been met in the past on a distant imaginary island, neither dead or alive, but overall her writing is amateurish at best: she describes her main character’s appearance as if she were writing as her secondary character himself (the six year old Elvis, who the main character Laura Romero prefers to refer to as Fidel); on the first page she writes that: ‘Laura used to leave the Renault in the car park outside the Olímpica, which was the name of the supermarket.’ The sleeve notes inform us that Sanín obtained a PhD in Hispanic Literature. This, unfortunately, does not correlate with the style of her fiction writing, as presented in The Children.

Laura Romero is a somewhat needy woman of indeterminate age, fortunate enough to receive an income from a family salt industry, but who undertakes a cleaning job three times per week nonetheless. This position changes when, after a meeting with one of the beggars who operate a protection racket at the supermarket, watching out for cars in exchange for money, Laura attributes something said to her as meaning that she is being offered a child. A child duly arrives outside her apartment, looking dishevelled and in need of care. There follows a slow descent into the possibility of magic realist terrain, Sanín being in good local company such as Márquez, for example, as she is. The frustrating, baffling and sometimes potentially bizarre but apparently ordinary machinations of bureaucratic procedures manifest in Laura’s attempts at finding the boy again after she has done the right thing in reporting the case of the unknown child to the authorities and then losing him in the system. What is more at odds though is the apparent ease with which Laura has taken to the child in the first place and the equally strange idea that the boy could be so easily given away to any fostering or adopting suitor.

Laura Romero is portrayed as a woman with a possible painful past as regards a child, of an early age, who was lost. Sanín is not specific and, presumably, this deliberate obfuscation is intended as just one of the blurrings of the piece as a whole. Blurring, as a device, is entirely acceptable; however, whatever device is in operation, a basic plausibility must also thread through the whole. Sanín’s writing suffers from just this deficit: a boy appears in the street and Laura alters her life around him, the authorities act with distant greyness but with surprising benevolence towards her claims on the child, and the boy himself does not act in the manner we might expect (by the time she traces him again) of a seven year old. There are other characters who stake claims on the child, and he duly goes along with their visits. Elvis (or Fidel, we never find out why Sanín chooses to have Laura prefer this name she has invented) is a strange child, but potentially in the construct of the story and also in the reading perception, he’s not akin to a real child. Perhaps this is a point Sanín has tried to explore; perhaps this is an entirely misconstrued interpretation.

Laura’s mental health is an undertow within the narrative, though this is never so explicit. Whether in a magic realist manner or otherwise, Sanín has her wondering if Elvis wasn’t conceived, as such, on a bus journey she takes in her home city of Bogotá, when she is also accosted by a pressuring bread selling beggar. The allusion is towards the unknown nature and appearance of the child but the execution of the ideas is clumsily overlaid. The motif of a whale recurs throughout the pages, linking to the occasional note that Laura is reading Moby Dick. What the purpose of this is, is unclear. Elvis becomes attached to Laura’s dog, Brus, equally without such explicit purpose, with the confusion at one point that Elvis is Brus.

In the final stages, Laura visits a fortune teller, with whom she has had dealings some years before and who had revealed to her that she would have a child. The pages of this short book are running out at this point and it is, with some hope and expectation, that Sanín might now present the purpose of her fictional thesis. However, after some quantity of fortune telling nonsensical rambling, Laura Romero is depicted back in her apartment again and the boy effectively vandalises his room, and the book ends. It is an entirely unsatisfactory conclusion.

In the final reckoning, a work of ideas, a story of something, should have its plausibility, even if the fantastical elements are an important strand (that is, after all, the art and the skill that should be inherent in the technique of the writer); the writing should have its internal structure, even if that structure is amorphous, and it should have an elegance that it can call its own. Sanín’s writing here, unfortunately, has little of any of these and this is a great shame because, with better application of the written word, the story of how and why Laura Romero and Elvis/Fidel came to cross life paths might well have become something more than just a few garnered snapshots of unfulfilled ideas such as ghosts within ghosts, possible children and lost lives.
 
 

Book Review: Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness (Simon Kinch)

Simon Kinch’s Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness (Salt Publishing, 2017) is described in its blurb as being a ‘daring, experimental novel’: in a sense, perhaps every novel can be described as experimental because a writer cannot hope to know exactly every eventuality of every page before they’ve sat down to write. Kinch’s writing here is, presumably, described thus because of its playing with two parallel time lines in the main character’s life. It’s an intriguing device, for sure; it’s experimental, yes maybe, but daring, no: unless this attribute of the work can be bestowed upon the author’s ability to invest little to no passion or zest, at all, into the main character.

It is difficult to know the author’s intentions in this respect. What we’re able to work with, as readers, is that his main character is given the name of Granville: a dull and dreary, old-fashioned name, not becoming of the twenty-three year old summer traveller who reaches a point of decision making following a text message from his girlfriend, Alyson — return home to Madison, Wisconsin, or ignore his European visa expiration and travel back south from the French-Spanish border, via Barcelona, and on to Sevilla. Granville throws the phone into the sea and chooses the latter. En route south he has his bag stolen (though fortuitously the author has had the foresight to ensure that Granville tucks his credit card into his shirt pocket beforehand). Small details matter, and herein lies an issue with the set up of Kinch’s novel: Granville has his bag stolen and all that it holds, including his passport. Kinch writes as much early on: ‘No satchel, no wallet, no laptop, no passport.’ (p.11). Yet, the set up of the novel relies on one version of Granville travelling back north, after this, via Paris and London to the U.S. (presumably needing his stolen passport) and the other version of him staying on in Sevilla. Small details matter, and this reader was distracted by the author’s oversight for a good portion of the rest of the book.

Kinch writes his chapters in very short form: just a few pages each. By the time we quickly reach Chapter 7, Granville has an epiphany whilst sitting at a river jetty in the district of Triana in Sevilla: he feels the sun heat the hairs on his skin and this is the moment of small rupture. From the next chapters on we settle into the knowledge that alternating chapters are going to document the parallel lives of Granville: one version of him returns home to pick up a dull life of being an office temp, sorting invoices for an accountancy firm; the other version of him takes up a position working for a local property owner, Señora Rosales, organising her diary and liaising with foreign holiday-makers for her, as a native English speaker. Both versions of Granville are administrators. Both versions of his life begin to intersect: situations that occur in one version start to mirror themselves in his other life. The construct is fine enough, but the lack of character in Granville begins to aggravate.

Along both versions of his lives, he interacts with various women he meets (whilst resisting the thought of making contact again with his erstwhile girlfriend, Alyson). Granville meets Jess, a young woman from Newcastle, in Sevilla, and drinks with her. He meets Clara, who works at the local hostel, and he drinks with her. He eats and drinks with Señora Rosales at the apartment she’s lent him. In his other life, Granville develops a relationship of sorts with Laura, who also works at the accountancy office, and with whom he has lunch, and the occasional Friday evening drinks. In one life or the other, Granville drinks plenty of coffee or beers, he smokes, he drinks more coffee, he smokes more. (Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, without the colour, briefly crosses the mind). Granville wonders why Alyson had sent him a text message implying that they were breaking up (‘. . . we need to talk’): the matter is obvious to the reader — dishwater is less boring than Granville. He fails to act on Clara’s advances, leaves Jess to herself, and doesn’t get excited by his relations with Laura. The reader is left to wonder if Granville’s dullness is intentional, or if this is a fault of the author and his technique.

On a similar note, writing as an American, Kinch sprinkles in various Americanisations of word or phrase use or of cultural reference, yet the feel of the writing is that of a British English writer: the syntax plays into this hand and there are words that are spelt this way too (e.g. centre), which would imply that either there has been an editorial slip in this respect or that the author has mixed his versions of English. Small details matter.

There is an attempt at such small detailings throughout; however, many of these are lost on this reader. For example, whilst the idea of the ‘flâneur’ is explicitly introduced (Granville observes the almost theatrical aspects of street life taking place around, and almost for, him), Kinch attaches weighty importance to Granville’s brief eye contact with a man with a moustache at the guest house he stays at in Sevilla. Later, Granville sees this man again at a street bar. The man engages in a fraught conversation with a woman and Granville is intrigued, hooked in, but he doesn’t know why and he can only really try to grasp their body language, not being proficient in Spanish. The small detail of the importance of the man with the moustache is not apparent.

Towards this last portion of the book, Kinch’s narrative begins to unravel. A few chapters earlier, his tight construct of alternating lives breaks down, as does his use of present tense for the U.S. Granville version and the past tense for his Sevilla life. The final two chapters are (somewhat pretentiously) actually just one. The idea is to blur the time lines back together again, but Kinch has attached importance to various aspects of the story where no great significance can be perceived by this reader. It is, perhaps, a question of reader engagement.

The title of Kinch’s novel suggests a form of contentedness with the lots that have been dealt to Granville and his, albeit ‘disjointed’, happinesses. However, Granville lacks sufficient wit to perceive the relationships potentially forming around him, let alone understand the potential of relations he’s engaging in himself, so it is a stretch to believe that there is some form of contentedness, albeit flavoured with existential concern, at play. Ultimately, Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness is an artistic attempt at a simple construct, weighed with importances that only the author might well see, foregoing some simple, small but important, details in the process.
 
 

Book Review: Ghost Light (Joseph O’Connor)

‘Ghost light,’ writes O’Connor, deep into the last few dozen pages of his offering of studied Irish dialect and Edwardian sensibility, is an ‘ancient superstition among people of the stage. One lamp must always be left burning when the theatre is dark, so the ghosts can perform their own plays.’ The main characters, based loosely on a historical playwright and his somewhat younger actress fiancée, are impressed here in time.

Ghost Light (Vintage, 2011) opens at a sad scene in a lonely lodging-house in London in 1952. We observe the beginnings of a day in the life of the ageing actress Molly Allgood, sometimes known as Molly O’Neill or by the stage name of Maire O’Neill. In her heyday and in her youth, Molly became the rising star, the darling of the stage. It twisted the innocence and expressionate nature of herself, in the interpretation, and Molly became drunk on it all. Three versions of Molly are recounted, though not in linear narrative, as we progress. The beginnings of Molly’s day in question, in late October 1952, see her navigate the London streets towards an appointment at the BBC: hungry and desperately in need of the work, though too proud to admit her circumstances, her journey is interspliced with reverie.

We are transported to the Dublin of 1908. Molly is an actress at a theatre company whose leading playwright is the acclaimed John Millington Synge (pronounced ‘Sing’). O’Connor documents the playwright’s sometimes difficult relationship with Molly Allgood/O’Neill: Synge struggles to explain how it is, exactly, he wishes his actors to say his lines (to which Molly bristles, earthily); the two lead characters take stilted walks in the depths of the Irish landscape together; they find themselves engaged in a deeper relationship, where the edges of both characters begin to soften; they become engaged to marry, though Synge is grievously ill, and his early death will later prove to haunt Molly.

There is a ghost light left on in her, for sure, forty years into the future, past the war years and into the shifting social landscape that ensues. In the continual toggling of time and times, Synge’s relationships are explored: with his friend, the poet, Yeats; with his patron, Lady Gregory; with his stiffly unforgiving mother, with whom he lives. Molly must also contend with these characters, as well as with the spectre of her sister, Sara/Sally’s, reputation, she also being an actress of some repute, making her way in the brave new world of America. A strand of O’Connor’s writing focuses on Irish emigration, on the matter of making new. In the final reckoning, however, it is the ghost light of the past that pervades in Molly.

In his notes, O’Connor makes reference to his study and interest in authentic Irish dialect and dialogue, and this aspect does come through in the writing very clearly. In places, the text is bright with such particularity and the reader might easily find the nuance of the accent tripping through the mind and from the pages. At other times, however, the text is thick and too opaque to fully comprehend. In a chapter entitled ‘Scene from a half-imagined stage play’ (written as if it were such a concoction of life as acted), O’Connor offers the following bewildering dialogue, for example:

A root up their holes for them and God send they get another. Ah me dear dark Erin and the bould Fenian men. I’d rain bombs on every cur and bitch of them for a pack of huer’s melts.

Thankfully, these instances are rare. Where the writing does stand out more, and favourably, is in O’Connor’s somewhat beautiful evocation of the scenescape. He writes, of Synge and Molly’s walking in County Wicklow:

Crushed butterwort and heather and the odour of mountain chives. Sheep-shit, honeysuckle, bog myrtle and rose-root; the sweetness of wet wild strawberries. In the distance, breasting the coast, the southbound train from Dublin leaves an after-thought of smoke in its wake. The trundling of its engine is borne faintly to them on a breeze that smells of the peat and the dulse. A shrieked, mournful hoot as it chugs into a tunnel gouged years ago through the groin of Eagle Mountain.

O’Connor’s literary constructions, however, sometimes only serve to frustrate or confuse: the back and forth in time is not an issue, it being a device that prompts the reflective narrative, but the author’s choice of tense and points of view switches is beyond the exactness of knowing. There may be rhyme and reason, in the analysis, but it is an unnecessary distraction which, in the greater scheme of things, must be tolerated.

What also needs entrusting to faith is the difficulty in perceiving the incarnations of Molly Allgood/O’Neill as potentially relating to the same character throughout. In her youth, in her spiky, vocal and volatile self, we meet a young woman caught up in the possibility of love in starched sensibilities of pre-First World War Edwardian tours and in Ireland. Later, after Synge’s death, and much later in the non-linear narrative, Molly has transformed into something of a diva character, touring America with her stony dresser and assistant, Moody. In between it all, Molly is her sixty-five year-old lonely self in 1952, hungry and heading for the BBC in the very twilight of her fading days. Molly does not resonate so easily throughout.

There is repeated reference to the differences between her upbringing in the poorer part (‘the slums’) of Dublin and, in contrast, to Synge’s life in the affluent suburb of Kingstown. This, and their age difference of nearly twenty years, the differences of their religious upbringings, and their initial outlooks on life and professional positions, is all sewn into the starchy socio-political complexities of early twentieth century life. This all said, Molly never really truly seems to adjust after Synge’s untimely and early death, diseased and suffering though he is. She carries his ghost light within her till the end.

The relationship between the two main characters cannot be said, by this reader, to be in any way passionate. Perhaps it is a testament to the times portrayed, but even the love letter touch of the dialogue and the physical words written (as fictionalised) by the two fail to really affect the reading senses. Where O’Connor does seem to touch a nerve of love and compassion, however, is in a scene at the BBC, late on, shortly before Molly performs in a live radio play: a young and aspiring actress, a devoted fan, is introduced to the older woman, by the younger woman’s mother, and Molly offers advice and a gift. It is simple and beautiful, in its own way.

Ghost Light has an oscillation, a never-stillness, at its heart (in its narrative devices of tenses and points of view; in the author’s predilection for name shifts — which can cause confusion: Sara/Sally, Allgood/O’Neill; in time and times). It has beauty in its descriptions and it has a certain authority, as assumed, albeit sometimes bewildering, in its dialects portrayed. Despite its occasional difficulties in the connections of characters and the correlation of the present to the past, Joseph O’Connor has created a work that may prove to shine a light through the sheets of future time.
 
 

Of Ghost-Pressed Process

Words are urgent, some days, though quietly so. Time piles in and on, and words press against the edges of the writer. The issue, that is the disengorgement, is delivered — of course — because words won’t always so readily reveal their colours, their shapes, their species, their dimensions. All that settles is an insistent ghost, fat and heavy, engorged on the air of sitting still, collecting the dry dust that slowly fills and bloats the cursive dips of letters yet conceived. Yes, waiting is advisable, sometimes, but even a ghost will want to unfold its skin eventually. Out may come the weight of dust, just, or out may come matter more alchemical in regard. Often we’re too close to see the difference, or we’re shapeshifted into approximations of medieval piety: unable to discern if the illuminated script, held aloft before us in the god-awed bless’ed aisle, is merely reflecting light from golden inlays or if it’s radiating the brightness of divinity from deep within.

The ghost unfurls. It is necessary, else it might take up all the air in the room, suffocating and pressing the writer up against the walls. There is a film, seen many years ago, whose title and wider details are lost in the ether for now, where one scene transcends the others and continues to mark, even now: a character is hunched and weighed down throughout, but then, in the reveal, we see that really they carry the extra weight of a ghost. It’s taken as beautiful rather than sullen here, just as the press of words sits on the writer’s shoulders or at their side, slowly sucking up all the molecules and minutiae of days.

Words are all we have.

— Samuel Beckett

So, we let them unfold, as if we could try to stop them when they sigh. The ghost unravels its skin and there, then, seeps either the sanctity of light or the grey gradations of soil. It hardly matters because the day is written, the ghost has shed the thinnesses of all its layers, like a breathing onion wilting and wailing silently. Its flesh of days, and its entrails of coiled dust, thickly, loosely sludge the floor. There may be nuggets in the slush but writing, really, is just a process of breathing out again. We can breathe, as the ghost too — turned inside out — leaking, breathes.

Words . . . are minded things.

— William Gass

Here is the page: it is an imprint of our breath. There is a certain sanctimony in the assured knowledge that those who won’t write, can’t know such things. What can it matter at all? Precious, precocious us: we sit in our rooms of few sounds and careful light and only we and the remains of the ghost, twitching, can comprehend. The day is written and nothing matters of what the words are. The words are. This is all that matters. A salty reek begins to permeate, but it doesn’t always offend.

A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavours and odours like butter in a refrigerator.

— John Steinbeck

The ghost expires. Its final wheeze is a long, drawn-out plume that rattles with the gas of deep toxicity, violets and a density of sweetness. It sticks to the skin. The words are done, the bloated thing that was seeps down between the ragged cracks of floorboards. There is a film, a greasy layer on the wood. Little clots of blackened gristle, here and there, may reveal a tiny speck of gold within, pressed hard by the thumb and finger, as if holding a pen or pencil, carefully. We might put these pieces in a jar, for later, on a windowsill. For now, however, what was once the weight of a ghost that pressed us to the walls, waiting, sitting at our side or on our shoulders, is good and gone, released. What matters is not the matter left behind but the matter that it was.

The minuscule mass of a mote of dust, meanwhile, settles on the shoulder, as fresh as a new snowflake, hardly noticed at all, or yet.
 
 

A Writer in Time: Multiplicity and Process

Art takes time. As painters can keep and harbour many canvasses in a state of benign neglect for years, so too of course can writers have many pieces scattered along the skirtings of the walls and laid out upon the easels of the mind. All are pieces in the decadence of recline. Or, in the swirl of metaphors, a twist to something else, a writer’s spawnings can be restless, though they sit and brood. Others are gathered in the dusty corners, misanthropes mired in the cobwebs of darkened notebook pages. They peer out sullenly and silently, on being rediscovered in their aged reverie.

Are the very many scraps, vignettes, cut-and-discardeds, notes on ideas, first drafts, drafts set adrift, beached drafts and dead drafts, workings and weavings, the bonsai’d and the brutalised, the retouched and the dust-heavy, the waiting and the slowly breathing all slivers of the artist as was? Perhaps we can trace a route through time and times, processes of thinking and relating, seeing and reading and the myriad affectors of any given period of any given colour or lightness or cloudedness.

Art takes time. A brief paddle in the stream of others’ ideas and research offers up the ten years of writing of Junot Diaz; the daily painting and repainting of a mural by the street artist, Blu; Christian Marclay’s three year labour of editing thousands of film clips (Hagen, undated).

In Norway, ‘[Artist] Katie Anderson has planted 100 saplings,’ writes Jason Farago (2015).

. . . they will grow for 100 years, and then be chopped down, pulped and turned into books. Not just any books, either. These books are to be written over the coming century, one per year, but may not be read until the trees come down and the books are published. Margaret Atwood is contributing the first book for 2015, but you’ll have to live another 99 years if you want to read it.

Anderson’s Future Library is a 100-year artwork: a vision of the future that will only be fully visible long after our deaths.

As our books grow, so too do we; as we grow, so too do they. If we come to be embarrassed by our background workings of our outpourings, should we sink them in the depths of our notes or the caves of our screens, or should we embrace them as us, an us that has been? If there’s no accounting for taste, is there no accounting too for quality? Though each reader has their own cliché, has their own poison of particularity, and though much mud must be thrown in order for some of it to stick, there are far too many offerings of thin and greyness masquerading as mastery of words. Much of it, really, in truth, is the content of others’ caves.

Maybe all our darkened things should reside in darkened spaces, though loved as us there. We have many. We work on them daily, weekly, monthly or hardly at all. Yet, they persist, weakly or insistently. Some day, they may spawn their tawdry others who, in turn, may bring forth more who evolve into creatures of the day. All our offerings can only ever be a process of the now (though the now has absorbed the flavours of all that has been); we can only ever be a process of the now; some day, the now will shift.

All our offerings, all our slivers of the self, are necessary. Da Vinci, Picasso, Michelangelo all, no doubt, had their pieces and their processes, their notes, their workings, their discarded and their left-to-broods. Even those whose art is more in keeping with the modesty of human scale, those not of the higher echelons of a Michelangelo, especially those of such everydayness of art, have a multitude of themselves to nurture, to wait for, to leave in the corners of the dark: artists ever of becomingness.

Art takes time, as we do; we, and words, are myriad mirrors, slivers, fragments. We are immanent.

(Addendum: it is as if to prove a point, engineered by the universal play of synchronicity, when all the constituent elements of this electronic writing system malfunction, rendering inactivity for several hours, at the exact moment of attempting to deliver these words to the web. Art, and other powers, take time).
 
 
References:

Farago, J. (2015), Taking it slow: art that’s in it for the long haul. BBC Culture [Online]. Available from: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150107-can-this-art-bend-time (Accessed Mar 26, 2018).

Hagen, C. (undated), In praise of slow mastery: ten achievements that took time. 99u [Online]. Available from: http://99u.adobe.com/articles/7168/in-praise-of-slow-mastery-10-great-achievements-that-took-time (Accessed Mar 26, 2018).
 
 

On Body-Mind Feedback Loops: How is it That the Affect of Writing is?

Feelings have not been given the credit they deserve as motives, monitors, and negotiators of human cultural endeavours.

The idea, in essence, is that cultural activity began and remains deeply embedded in feeling.

— Damasio (2018)

How is it that the act of writing feels? That is, what is it that the ‘affect’ of writing is on the writer, this writer, you, the writer? There is a body-mind feedback loop, a phenomenological quality and an organic sensibility, to the kinaesthetic lived experience of somehow creating words on page or screen where, once, a short moment before, there were none. It is a magic transformation in multiple ways.

John Banville writes, in review of Antonio Damasio’s new book, The Strange Order of Things (Pantheon, 2018):

For [Damasio], as for Nietzsche, what the body feels is every bit as significant as what the mind thinks, and further, both functions are inextricably intertwined.

— Banville (2018)

On a cold winter day, with the hint of lightest rain in the air, I take a notebook out to cover within it the intermittent pencil markings of my observations: en plein air, in media res. It is the way to capture not just the words that may form but also the feel that shapes the words. There is a shiver in the pencil markings, I see, back in the warm. The shape and weight and thick- or thin-ness of the notebook affects: how it needs to be balanced if it’s portrait-aligned, if it does or doesn’t fit neatly in the palm — words pressed therein are directly connected to such factors and more: weight of page, colour, texture, the way the weather plays with all of these, and so forth.

When we write we consciously choose our media of expression. The pencil will have its fragility, its potential for mortality, its scrape or its smear. There are sensory extensions to these choices that we make. The pen will either scratch or roll, stick in the grease or flow through our consequent disregard for cursive connectedness of individual and collective letters. Our conscious cerebral selves, or our semi-thinking selves, will affect our near-future affected, body-feeling selves. There is a feedback loop at play.

When we touch our fingertips to the keyboard, lightly rest our fingerprints in the barely perceptible but entirely intuited dips at the centres of the individual little squares, press down, make a perfect sound, repeat, repeat, pick up speed, we feel the spring back, the push on and on, and words vibrate. On the magic of the flat screen, somewhere ineffably deeper, pixels that might as well be the size of bacteria form themselves into meaning. We see it all take shape and what is it that we feel?

How we feel isn’t about merely what we touch, or its extensions: it is what touches us, abstractly, distantly. This is how art works. At the National Gallery in London there is a painting by Paul Delaroche (The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833). It is a huge work and on-screen versions don’t do it the proper justice. Standing beneath the depiction of the eponymous character, faltering as she does, being guided as she is, towards the block, floods me with a sense of awe, not so far removed — I suspect — from the anti-rationalist awe of the Romantics’ views and sweeps on nature.

The creation of art, the process and the standing back from what transpires, has this potential for abstract touch. How is it that we are, when we stand back and look on ourselves, into ourselves, when we have created? We may engage in the intellectual exercise, this is true, but there is mind and body at play on such occasions: how might we walk, see, sense, hold ourselves, stop and pause, feel in our nerves and weight of our limbs, after the writing is good and done? If we don’t write, if we haven’t written, we won’t know: you won’t know.

Ultimately, our body — in all its multifarious manner of messages — will connect to our consciousness, to our minds of electrical analysis and chemical fluidity, and we should pay attention: affect begets words begets affect begets words . . .

How is it that the affect of writing is? Writing is more than merely just the product of an art.
 
 
References:

Banville, J. (2018), The strange order of things by Antonio Damasio review — why feelings are the unstoppable force. The Guardian [Online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/02/strange-order-of-things-antonio-damasio-review (Accessed Feb 4, 2018)

Damasio, A. (2018), The strange order of things. New York: Pantheon.
 
 

In Search of Astounding Grace

Simplicity is complexity with grace.

— from Without Shields (Nora Bateson, 2017)

Longshadows of mid-day lie quietly on the grass. They’re waiting. There might be words beneath or sodden into them. The city is small, chinking with the peripheral pebbling of sounds that no-one tall and would-be-mighty hears. ‘What’s that?’ says a girl of maybe three, in croaky asymmetric voice, wrapped up warm and close to the ground, where the distant ghost of a siren echoes around. Her mother listens and explains what might just have been lifted up to her. There are words and other quietnesses, which harbour them.

Listen, but see. The city is a tumble of static blocks. Words slide in the light, down the smooth clean walls, like fingers on prickled skin (and so, close up, there are secrets to be seen). There are angles we have known a thousand thousand times before, but not this time, this day, now. When we walk at the resonant speed of our thoughts, we are in tune with the shift-scape, delicate or dense: a river hisses over weirs, under the bridge and road, and words bubble and froth and disappear downstream. Earlier, beneath the thin-watered veneer of the unparked-in bay, beneath the red- and silver-leaf peel of road-signage, reflected under the winter white-blue sky, how deep down does the puddle go?

There are words in all the right places, waiting to be found.

Wisdom begins in wonder.

— Socrates

There are days when even light is heavy, when all we may breathe is dark, when words are all the tenebrous stuff of undergrowth, night forests, unlit tunnels, hospitals or hostels. There is no search to be had: beauty is another’s game. Yet, and yet, what lies invisible is always there, still, and still. What lies beneath, lies around, waiting to be found: it’s ‘finders, keepers’, this slow soluble swill of this play of the day, of this bringing home all the marvellous marble and agate of the sensible world.

The material of the world is not in the materialism of it all. There is no bottom line: the words go all the way down. Words hide in plain sight, in plainsong without the aid of strings, not because of duplicity, as the complicit narrow-hearted ‘leaders’ hide, but because their purpose is in the being looked for, found. The material depth of this world, and beyond, is in its quietness, even in its sounds, not in the illusions of its glare and noise.

Simplicity should not be identified with bareness.

— Felix Adler

Longshadows of mid-day lie quietly on the grass. They’re waiting. There are words here and around, on and within the sodden ground; in and within the distant sounds of siren streets; the blocks of buildings known and unknown; the shift of time and space, stirring rivers; the hidden secret depths of waters standing on the empty surfaces of roads.

Slow your step,
so the ground where you are
can be washed by your tears.

— from Close (These Are Not My Words: Rachel Holstead, 2013)

Somewhere, there are little lines of perfect words . . .