Book Review: Peach (Emma Glass)

When experimental writing wallows in its own writing class attempts at cleverness and quirky poetic ‘ripping up of all the known rules’, it runs the very real risk of disenfranchising the reader. One ought to be wary of such offerings already plastered on front and back covers and on its opening pages with high praise to the author’s ‘utterly singular’, ‘scintillating’, ‘daring’ writing. It is a high bar. In this case, the comments prove far too high to reach, in truth.

Peach (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019) begins with the punch of a predatory attack on the eponymously named female narrator and follows the shock ramifications of this crime thereafter, but it dissolves into a messy quagmire of soggy words and ideas. On the penultimate page, there is the suggestion that, amongst other heavily laboured analogies and metaphors, the ‘all that may have seemed’ is, in fact, embedded in the possibility of a crassness: the story as vehicle for the possibility of something else entirely. Nothing is entirely clear in Emma Glass’ sometimes surrealist narrative.

The young Peach grows bigger in the belly, but she is not pregnant: neither by her attacker, named only as Lincoln, nor by her boyfriend, known as Green. At the centre of a peach is a stone, and so it is with Peach, in the pit of her stomach. Glass seems to love her continual word play. Green is a tree: or rather, all his actions and gestures and his physical stature are written as such. He is forever, and nauseatingly, kissing Peach on the top of her head. All Glass’ loosely named characters are rendered in such ways as Peach and Green: Mr Custard, Peach’s biology lecturer at college, slumps to the floor in the fashion of his name, and Glass crosses the line here between analogy and aptronymic absurdity masquerading as some distorted reality; Spud is Green’s friend and is depicted, physically, as one would expect of someone with such a name, causing a heavy-footed commotion of furniture when he enters a cafe, which no-one else cares to be concerned by; Sandy is a friend of Peach’s, depicted as shedding sand in his devotion to her; Trunk is a stout lifeguard, Hair Netty a hairy cook. Lincoln’s name seems derived from the image of links of sausages.

The image of sausages is a repeated motif and central factor throughout. Peach feels grease-stained but the motif repeat, ad nauseum, obliterates the gravity of the opening. Justification for such readerly feeling springs forth in the ridiculous final scenes. By this stage, however, acceptance of the experimental non-reality, which has shifted to the quirky and sometimes queasy surreality, has become just a desire to slip through to the final page of this very short offering and out the other side, back into the stable world. Glass’ characters are shapeless ideas, even with her fanciful naming convention; her unnamed, as such, characters are cardboard at best — Peach’s parents (sex-focused, overly-liberal, embarrassments) and her baby brother (given the name of, simply, Baby, as in Jelly, with accompanying textures).

Glass’ writing does occasionally hit a short moment of exquisite poetry, but such moments are few and far between. There is far too much clumsiness that tries too hard to be different, clever or lyrical that follows. When her sentences work, Glass produces a fine thread such as: ‘The moon has swapped with the sun and is climbing a silver string of stars to the centre of the sky.’ Very soon after this, however, she ruins the reading light with: ‘He’s chewing on something that looks chewy.’ Elsewhere, Peach looks down on her baby brother and Glass captures this beautifully with: ‘He doesn’t stir. I smile at his peace and think a simple blessing. He feels it fall upon him and smiles without waking.’ Before the end of the page, however, the elegant beauty has disappeared with the line that is: ‘I put the shower on, make the water hot . . .’ There are plenty of examples on offer, such as these above, that one might reasonably describe as juvenile level. This is not to denigrate the writing of many children who, on the contrary, can often deliver a great proficiency in description of ideas. Glass writes, for example, as Peach sinks underwater in a swimming pool, ‘Tangy on my tongue, the memory comes flooding back, flowing, flooding flood in my lungs, stopped up, tight fright water-tight.’

She appears to be a great lover of alliteration, which can be worked well in the right hands. In Glass’ hands, the alliterative impact is either clunky (‘The jam in the jam pot jiggles. Cutlery is clattering. The table trembles. Green grins . . .’) or it is a deafening cacophony rather than a subtle textual slightness:

Sentences slither around my brain. Scattered words. Scatterbrained. Scatter sentences. Scattered semantics. Scattered seeds. Scatter my brains.

When she combines her alliterations with a deadening rhyme of closely following words, the overall effect is ungainly and graceless: ‘to rake the blade over the fuzz of my flesh, feel the sharp edge . . . The edge. The edge I am on, I am on edge, standing on a ledge . . .’ There are other unnecessary appendages to sentences such as: ‘I’m already naked so I don’t undress.’ There is an increasingly dispiriting fondness for verb forms of nouns immediately following those nouns, such as in: ‘Silvery silhouettes silhouetted by the glowing green lights . . .’ or ‘Spores sporing, pouring.’

Perhaps Glass’ greater writing sins, under the protective guise of writing experimentation, come with barbarous acts such as: ‘I feel for the thread. And. Pull.’ Similarly, there is: ‘I suck my last breath in. Shut my eyes and. Sink. [sic]’ Perhaps worse still, she writes:

And, oh. In goes the air that clings to the hairs in my nose, the air freezing in my throat, the air that makes me choke. Choke. The smell. Of. Smoke. Barbecued pork. I smell pork. Pork smoke forking my nose, filling my throat. I choke. I choke. I choke. He is here.

Peach is a lauded offering, according to the many lines of praise printed on its covers and innards, which compliment its fresh and visceral content. However, whilst writing experimentation and newness of form are not, in and of themselves, wholly unacceptable to the seasoned reader, clumsy execution should not come as part of the package. Peach is, unfortunately, dry and lacking.
 
 

Book Review: The Black Lake (Hella S. Haasse)

In deceptively clean and simple, beautiful prose, this eulogy to a Javanese boy, Oeroeg, as told by his unnamed friend, is delicately threaded through with the affects of inter-war colonialism. Both boys are born at Kebon Djati, a tea plantation, but where Oeroeg is ‘native’, the narrator is the son of the Dutch estate manager. Hella Haasse clearly draws on her own East Indies upbringing, as gleaned from the biographical notes, and as such this slim offering is deeply-rooted and gracefully so.

The Black Lake (Portobello Books, 2012, translated from the original Dutch by Ina Rilke; originally published as Oeroeg, Collective Propaganda van het Nederlandse Boek, 1948) draws its modern title from a mountainside location, darkly perceived by the children because of the stories they’re told about it. It is the location, early on, of an accident which seems to affect the narrator’s father’s sense of guilt. Oeroeg (pronounced as Ooroog, according to glossary notes) has his education paid for him, and the boys, inseparable in their childhoods, are able to continue their relationship, seemingly largely equal, as only children might seem to be able to do. The lake (Telaga Hideung) also makes a later appearance in proceedings, but this time, after the war, and in the midst of Indonesia’s battle for independence, the colonial impact is an insufferable rent in the relationship of the boys who are now men.

Whilst the modern title can be seen to make some sense, given the significance provided to the location in question, the original title makes much more. Oeroeg is beloved of the narrator, who is, though naively portrayed, unable to really come to terms with change. With the onset of adolescence, Haasse writes, as her presumed alter-ego, of the shift in perceptions of the boys’ former places of play and innocence:

The difference was that we now saw it all — the bathing, the rocks in the river, the sparkling current — with different eyes, eyes that had lost the ability to see the real world as a world of wonder. Gone was the magical kingdom in which we were the heroes and explorers. The mysterious grottos were nothing but deep shadows beneath overhanging foliage, our old hunting-ground of rocky plateaus and unbridgeable rapids only a mountain stream coursing over its bed of gravel and jutting stones . . . We were children no longer.

Haasse’s ability to conjure the lush landscape and carefree days of her narrator and Oeroeg’s home, all that they ever knew before school days in Soekaboemi, is a great strength. She writes, for example:

When the rains came, turning the garden into a swamp and the paths into mountain torrents, we would sit on the steps of the back veranda with our toes stretched out into the spray of droplets bouncing up from the gutter. Streams gushed from the rainspouts into the ditches and on towards the well in a monotonous minor key while the frogs croaked all day long, and apart from this no other sound could be heard beneath the low, slate-grey clouds hiding the mountaintops.

The narrator is comfortable in Oeroeg’s home, the latter being the son of the estate mandoer (overseer or foreman) but slowly the childhood idyll starts to unravel. It is imperceptible, in some regard, despite the major incidents of the accident at the lake, the separation of the narrator’s parents, his mother’s return to Europe. Educational pursuits variously continue for the boys in Batavia (the colonial name of modern-day Jakarta), Soerabaja, and briefly (for the narrator) in Holland before the war breaks out. The boys are provided boarding by a Dutch woman, Lida, whose aspirations of running her guesthouse shift in the developing new cause that is Oeroeg. She uproots her business and Oeroeg follows. Subtly, we see a political undertone.

Peppered throughout the text, Haasse includes a sprinkling of Dutch vernacular words, but lightly so. A short glossary ably assists, and we are soon able to discern that a desa is a hamlet, a sawah is a rice-field, a kampong is a native settlement or worker’s dwellings. The words act as additional flavourings and do not distract. As such, there are in places the blends of descriptive elegance, local flavour and feel, and a simple love. Despite the stories of the lake told to the boys by Satih, Oeroeg’s cousin, and despite the mythical status they attribute to it, the narrator’s foreboding is rendered as a child-like fear. When he and his parents and some of the locals, but not Oeroeg, go on a night-time excursion up the mountain to the lake, there is a party mood in the adults. There is no dark, true sense of danger, though the child has his trepidation. The description is love-lit, if edged beneath:

It was just after sundown, and the trees bordering the garden stood sharply outlined against the red cloud-banks in the west. The mountaintops were still bathed in light. A soporific whirr of insects sounded from the darkness under bushes and trees. From the kampong came the beat of a hollow tree-trunk drum, signalling nightfall.

We are lulled through the jungle on a richness of words:

The night sky was metallic blue, spangled with stars. The moon stood higher now, and had lost the russet glow it had had earlier. The wind sifted through the grass and the thickets of bamboo on either side of the road, which wound its way up the mountainside in wide curves . . . As we drove on we heard the clatter of falling water. Between the mossy rocks on the steep slope trickled sparkling rivulets, which converged into a brook by the wayside. The air at this altitude was almost cold, smelling of moist earth and decaying leaves.

The Black Lake occupies an almost liminal territory where change takes place with imperceptible grace, yet where change happens clearly before the eyes. There are foreshadowed hints, undoubted love (of a friend, of lost childhood, of the land), and there is a graceful arc to it all. Only very slightly do we ever feel a cloying overdoing of the eulogy to Oeroeg, but this is forgiven because the whole is gently worked. Dutch colonialism finally renders a childhood friendship split and, as such, it weaves its way throughout, but Haasse chooses not to wallow too murkily in these waters. The character of Oeroeg can be read as a propaganda vehicle for Haasse to proclaim a Dutch love for Java and Indonesia when, at the time of publication, the Indonesian nationalists were rising, but her story is still a harking back to a time lost. She writes of Oeroeg: ‘His eyes glittered darkly like the surface of Telaga Hideung, with the same refusal to reveal what lay submerged in the deep.’ The Black Lake is a story of loss.
 
 

Book Review: Perfume (Patrick Süskind)

The story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is a fantastical affair, in essence, blended with a low macabre tone, which takes a shift to queasiness towards its latter pages, and descends into a scene of farce before rounding back to the low macabre again. That this is a fantasy of almost supernatural olfactory perception (though grounded in a character at once extraordinarily gifted but not so blessed) is, for the most part, accepted. However, credulity is somewhat stretched as the reader is constantly asked to believe, for example, that Grenouille can discern the scent of a particular person in a crowded city, amongst hundreds of thousands of others, at some distance and in amongst the multitude of other scents of a pungent 18th century scene.

Perfume (Penguin Books, 1987, translated from the original German by John E. Woods; originally published as Das Parfum by Diogenes Verlag AG, 1985) begins in Paris in 1738, where Grenouille is born in the rue aux Fers, near to the ‘fiendish stench’ of the Cimetière des Innocents. His mother is scaling and gutting fish and Grenouille is born there as she does this, under the fish stall. In due course, his mother is executed because she attempts to kill the infant, and Grenouille’s itinerant journey begins. Father Terrier, a monk of Saint-Merri, takes possession of him after a succession of wet nurses reject him for his greediness, and the last of these declares a repulsion because Grenouille has no smell, as other babies do. Terrier, in turn, hands the child over to Madame Gaillard, an emotionless woman who runs a house, for payment, for the abandoned like Grenouille, and there he stays for several years. By the age of eight, he has sufficiently disturbed the Madame and the other children, and Saint-Merri has stopped paying for his upkeep, that he is sold on to Grimal, a tanner, who sets him to work and for whom he works for several more years. All the while, Grenouille learns to discern Paris by all its many scents that overlay and inter-mingle.

There is a subtitle to Perfume and it is ‘the story of a murderer’. In 1753, Grenouille commits the first of these (and it is a long while before he commits his next: so long, in fact, that the reader begins to suspect that the aforementioned is the whole of it). Grenouille’s nose makes out the trace of the smell of a girl (‘she might have been thirteen, fourteen years old’), cleaning and pitting plums some way across the river and down a narrow alley, deep in amongst the city. He murders her and drinks in the smell of her, committing it to memory. The murder of the girl in the rue des Marais is a catalyst for Grenouille’s future quest of capturing the ingredients for and manufacturing the finest perfume in the world. His success in this endeavour comes at a price, and by nefarious means. Süskind writes:

He [Grenouille] possessed . . . a power stronger than the power of money or the power of terror or the power of death: the invincible power to command the love of mankind. There was only one thing that power could not do: it could not make him smell himself. And though his perfume might allow him to appear before the world as a god — if he could not smell himself and thus never know who he was, to hell with it, with the world, with himself, with his perfume.

From Grimal’s tannery, Grenouille takes up work with Giuseppe Baldini, a perfumer on the Pont au Change across the Seine. Baldini has fallen on hard times and, though reluctant at first to allow Grenouille to work for him, he soon realises the benefit of the young man’s olfactory skills. Baldini’s business reaps the rewards of Grenouille’s discerning nose and raw talent at blending ingredients, and Grenouille begins to learn the methods that he will develop in his ultimate quest. Both Grimal, the tanner, and Baldini, the perfumer, meet unceremonious ends and we begin to wonder if their contact with the unusual other is what the subtitle points us to.

From Baldini, Grenouille earns his journeyman papers and travels south, away from the stench of Paris and its hundreds of thousands of people. He seeks solace in a cave in the Plomb du Cantal (described as both a mountain and a volcano), about as far from any human scents as he can get, where he stays as a hermit for some seven years. In his mid-twenties, he has the realisation that the cave has no trace of him, as it should rightly do. Dishevelled and almost inhuman, he makes his way back to the world of people. Cleaned and exhibited by the Marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse, an advocate of a quirky theory that fluidum letale seeps through the earth, that a man who has lived in a cave for several years is proof of this, that by various methods and devices, he, Taillade-Espinasse can prove and provide a healthy remedy, Grenouille is fortuitously, perhaps, and rapidly reacquainted with the human world. Via the Marquis, Grenouille comes into contact with another perfumer, Runel, of Montpellier, in whose workshop he teaches himself to imitate the human odour (by way of a manufactured perfume whose ingredients include a piece of rancid cheese, some ‘cat-shit’, drops of vinegar, the scrapings from a sardine tub, and so on). Grenouille can go about in disguise, as it were, almost invisible with this odour applied. The Marquis, like Grimal and Baldini before him, is eased from the pages: in this case, nakedly marching up an ice-cold mountain in the Pyrenees, in search of the ultimate distance from debilitating earth-bound fluidum letale as he can get.

Eventually, Grenouille finds his way to Grasse: the holiest place of perfumery in France. It is 1765 and Grenouille is in the employ of another perfumer, or rather, the businesswoman, Madame Arnulfi. His journeyman’s papers have come in useful, though he performs the menial tasks in assisting the Madame’s first journeyman, Druot. Grenouille hones his trade, still with his ultimate goal in mind, and it is here in Grasse that Süskind has him murder twenty-four girls, on the cusp of womanhood. The low macabre jolts into reading queasiness. On first arriving in Grasse, Grenouille discerns the scent of a girl so exquisite to him that he determines he must possess it: he has no wish for the visual. He waits for her scent to mature, as it were. In the meantime, whilst perfecting his perfumery skills, Grenouille murders the other girls, having learned how to capture their olfactory essences, and he needs just the last, that of Laure Richis, daughter of a rich town council member, to create his ultimate goal: the finest scent in the world.

Despite the uncomfortable realisation of what is occurring in the narrative, despite it having being in the fabric of the piece from early on, Perfume might well have defied fantastical incredulity until its final pages had it not been for Süskind’s descent into farcical arrangements, late on. At ‘the parade ground before the city gates’ of Grasse, in 1766, Grenouille stands in front of many thousands of onlookers, wearing his finest perfume gleaned by nefarious means and, unexpectantly to the crowd and to us, he suddenly becomes entirely adored, loved, almost worshipped, and a mass orgy takes place because of this. The affects of such adoration extend to the father of Laure, Antoine Richis, whose initial desire for retribution dissolves into love. Fantastical credulity finally snaps.

The story of the odourless man in a pungent 18th century, a man who cannot smell himself, has its existential undertone. Süskind eases the reader through a wealth of olfactory description, and he transitions and blends notes and tones into one another, and then into the more visceral, but there is an uneasy tang threaded through it all. Grenouille cannot be and is not loved, but his olfactory mask, slyly described, does sometimes suggest a tugging at the reader’s sensibilities that he might elude an almost inevitable fate. Then we remember what he has done and the deception that a scent will create disperses: Grenouille departs the pages and is not loved, despite Süskind’s final line.

 
 

Book Review: The House of Sleep (Jonathan Coe)

In a residence on the cliff-top of an unnamed coastal town, within reasonable driving distance of London, a group of students are variously preoccupied with sleep. A series of fluid relationships are woven throughout the whole (those that take place and those that are hoped for; those that are damaging and those that will, ultimately, damage), yet the fanciful arrangements of co-incidence that seem to hold them all together are a little too inelegantly devised.

The House of Sleep (Penguin Books, 1998) is populated by a relatively small cast as we follow their travails in chapters that alternate between their early 1980s student days and their mid-1990s selves, and much of the setting detail of both eras is also dominated by the cliff-top residence, Ashdown, which later becomes repurposed as a clinic for the study of sleep irregularities. In the 1990s, Dr Gregory Dudden runs the clinic that bears his name. His student self is in an ultimately failed relationship with Sarah Tudor, later to become a primary school teacher, always a narcoleptic (which does not bode well for her chosen profession). The earlier incarnation of Ashdown also details the interactions of Terry (a film student who initially needs fourteen hours of sleep every night but who later needs no sleep at all), Robert, who is besotted with Sarah, and Veronica, who Sarah leaves Gregory for.

Gregory’s treatment of Sarah becomes the subject of her later psychological support: his fascination for her eyes (and not in a poetic way) renders her disturbed. Variously, throughout this offering, Sarah experiences pre-dreaming episodes, the inability to distiguish real experiences from those she’s dreamed, shifts in her sexuality, and the inability to distinguish the true depth of Robert’s feelings for her. There are moments of farce in Sarah’s miscomprehensions, and Coe also seems intent on injecting occasional attempted comedic elements, not always with great success. Gregory descends into a madness matched only by the steady stripping of any initial characterisation as Coe renders him in merely comic-book terms towards the end. Terry, who, post-studentdom, becomes a film journalist who watches a marathon of screenings without the need for sleep, is invited to the clinic for research purposes, fuelling Dr Dudden’s increasing need to eradicate his own need for the worthless endeavour of the practice. Terry is also on his own mission, seeking out a film, his own Holy Grail, that no-one (or perhaps very few) has or have ever seen, and this sub-plot dovetails with jarring inexplicability with a dream Robert once had as a child. Into the fray are added Dr Madison (whose identity, once she becomes more established as a character, is not so difficult to ascertain) and Ruby Sharp, a child who spent a day on the beach with Sarah and Robert once, who becomes a catalyst for actions later in her early adulthood. Coe weaves a tangle of relationships across and between the time frames.

Whilst there is an ease enough in the reading, the plot strands are fairly docile in their laying down: Gregory’s descent from eccentric and somewhat despicable to ridiculously deranged; Sarah’s psychological journey borne of eyes and sleep; Robert’s descent caused by such stretched-out fantasy of Sarah, and his transformation along the way; Terry’s search for something that may not even exist at all. It is the co-incidental aspect that Coe sews into the sleep examination that jars, however. It is a stretch, for example, to completely believe in the idea that Sarah, a teacher, now in London, takes pity on a child in a class her student teacher teaches, a child who waits out of school for hours because there’s no-one home, whom she takes care of for the afternoon (in unwise fashion, sparking a meeting with the mother), whose mother turns out not to be her mother but her aunt, who is, or was, the partner of Veronica, who Sarah left twelve years previously in a coastal town some drive away, unspecified by name. Perhaps such threads as these coincidences tangling are the substrata of Coe’s thinking: dreams may have the nature of the non sequitur or they may be tangled at a far deeper and unknowable level. It is impossible to say for certain; however, the resultant writing does list a little towards the lack of subtlety in this regard.

Likewise, this is also evident when Coe seems to want to press on tangential points, such as in his flippant treatment of a handful of characters engaged in what most of them regard as a pointless training exercise (that is, in the thinking on how health care can be made more businesslike). A group of medical professionals, including Dr Gregory Dudden, are obliged to attend a training course in London and only he, of the assembled psychiatrists and psychotherapists, embraces the possibility of change. The young trainers engage the professionals in game play, which they do not take kindly to, and there ensues a juvenile series of exchanges before a case study paper is read by one of the delegates (another incredulous detail, insofar as the analysand in question transpires to be a certain Sarah Tudor and the subject matter is her psychologically traumatic student relationship with a medical student who has a preoccupation with her eyes). Coe seems unwilling or unable not to tangle every line he lays.

There is no great and over-arching conclusion or any great epiphany that can be gleaned from The House of Sleep: Gregory is deranged, Sarah is adrift, Robert is delusional, and Terry is dogged by something dreamed for. In a sense, all the characters are in a sort of dream state, as detached from reality as they are in their various ways. It has taken a certain resistance, thus far, not to sink into easy appraisal of a work whose themes are sleep by way of similar hooks to hang the words on; however, in the final analysis, Jonathan Coe’s writing here does drift on without any huge concern, save for the occasional jolt, like muscular spasms, of coincidental nature, and what lingers afterwards, like most dreams, is a feeling of having dreamed, not necessarily of having dreamed a great and beautiful significance.

 
 

Book Review: Magdalena the Sinner (Lilian Faschinger)

Seldom might we ever prove to be delivered into the pages of such poorly executed fare as Lilian Faschinger’s murder-confessional offering: anything read immediately after must reasonably be expected to raise the literary bar. With a positivist perspective, there can only be hope for all aspiring authors in the knowledge that such a work has passed the litmus test of a reputable publishing house; on the other hand, how such a work could have passed muster is bewildering. Biographical notes for the offering under review state that Faschinger ‘holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Graz [and has] received literary prizes, both for her own writing and for her achievements as a translator.’ On the strength of this showing, one has surely to wonder at the merit of such educated background.

Magdalena the Sinner (Review, 1997: translated from the original German by Shaun Whiteside) is predominately narrated by the eponymous main character, an Austrian who despises her own people, and who kidnaps a Catholic priest from a church, transports him via an oft-cited Puch 800 motorcycle and sidecar to a bucolic setting, loosely representing a form of Eden, and proceeds to confess to him the murder of seven men unfortunate enough to have made her acquaintance in quick succession. Faschinger structures her work on approximations of the Seven Deadly Sins and returns on occasion to the motif of a search for paradise, but there is no desire to read any more deeply because the writing is utterly devoid of merit. Magdalena’s confessions are episodic, though the whole is a relentless scroll, without chapters, largely of her monologue, occasionally switching to the first person internal monologue of the priest. By Magdalena’s account, she chances on one man after murdering another, and the cycle repeats again and again. Faschinger’s writing begins poorly, with an inability to render believable speech delivered by Magdalena to the captured priest, and continues in a like vein, passing through the ridiculous, the laughable (though not in comedic terms) and the farcical. 

In setting up the landscape for her confessions, Magdalena rids herself of most of her possessions and opts for a nomadic lifestyle across Europe after purchasing the Puch 800 and donning her unsubtly suggestive ‘tight black leather jump suit’ (which, unaccountably, is overlooked in later discussion on the idea, cited by news reporters, that police think they’re looking for a male abductor). She meets a melancholic Frisian lying in an open coffin in an Italian abbey and takes him to a nearby island, immediately setting up to live with him. After financially supporting him for a while by donning a nun’s habit and stealing from locals on the mainland, and following a succession of wearisome sexual episodes at the nearby beach, she decides to drown him in a grotto because of his apparent need to feel the sensation of death. Soon enough, Magdalena finds herself in Paris where she first meets, lives with, then dispenses of Igor, a jealous Ukrainian, by setting him alight, and then the Spaniard Pablo by way of poisoning. She meets a Scottish down-and-out, Jonathan, and runs away with him (by way of her Puch 800) to London, convinces herself he’s a vampire, so stabs him dead in the shower of a run-down digs, because of the suggestion of the half-Romanian (yes, of Transylvanian stock) Jehovah’s Witness, Michael, who she chances on by running into the room where he lives in trying to escape the man with the unusual canines and the liking for raw meat.

Magdalena changes her life course again and agrees to accompany the drab workings of Michael in preaching in his dead mother’s solemn attire on the London Underground, or at Hyde Park Corner, but Michael comes to an untimely death by being shot by Magdalena as she watches him engage in homosexual activity. She returns to the continent and meets an elderly millionaire, Baron Otto, in a casino in Baden-Baden, agreeing to take up a position at his personal residence as his private ‘companion’, leads a brief double existence there by also falling for the initially disliked Austrian chauffeur, Clemens, and promptly strangles the former in his BDSM cellar because of his anger at the discovery of her affair, making it look like a suicide. Magdalena does not wish to take up Clemens’ offer of marriage for fear of turning him into a vampire too! She sends him on his way and flees with the aim of reaching Prague but she ends up in Bavaria, where she soon agrees to the domestic drudgery imposed on her by the thrice-married Karl, who she meets when singing karaoke (to a Rod Stewart song) in a sparsely populated cafe. Magdalena is ridiculously cured of apparent vampirism after a chance swimming pool accident, but then Karl’s demanding and critical treatment of the eponymous heroine, as it were, results in his demise by way of a fall from a mountain whilst hiking. These spoilers are all entirely justified because the text is, from the outset, already entirely spoilt.

Magdalena’s justifications for staying with each of the men she later kills largely revolve around her desire to be sexually or sensually needed. She tolerates various male transgressions in these endeavours but the stains of masculine personality so disclosed do not justify such violent Feminist cause. Had this offering been written by a male author, the whole would have been entirely risible; the pronoun attributed to the actual author only partially saves it. Faschinger’s Magdalena has a self-centred need for gratification in her lamentable search for a paradise, and various male shortcomings serve only to attempt justification for ridding herself of undesirables before moving on. 

The captive Catholic priest speaks only at the very end of this sorry collection of episodal confessions, after Magdalena has fled again. At first, she has him gagged and tied to a tree. He resists looking at her as she changes from her biker leathers, standing naked in front of him, and then into her nun’s costume in order to go to the local shop for food supplies. He has an unhealthily inappropriate relationship with his sister, as his inner monologue recounts in his naivety, but then, as Magdalena gradually releases him from his strictures, her deliberate sexuality entices him and he develops a Stockholm Syndrome contrivance of imaginings about relinquishing his role and riding off with her. The priest, like every other character including Magdalena herself, elicits no pity, sympathy or concern in the reading.

Faschinger’s lamentable attempts at delivering Magdalena’s stories by way of her relentless monologue include numerous and dire information dumps, delivered in the manner one might expect either of an academic who’d read too much and was eager to furnish that knowledge on an inferior audience, or an amateur writer without a shred of understanding of the craft. Magdalena recounts, for example, the story of how she was being tutored in the art of relieving a woman of her pearl necklace by Sergei, a Russian pickpocket acquaintance of Igor the Ukrainian in Paris, when the possessive Igor came in and reached a wrong conclusion:

‘He first accused Sergei of being a traitor, a vulgar seducer and adulterer, and moved on from there to the tragic history of the Ukraine which had endured centuries of oppression by the Russians, and thus by him, Sergei. He need only mention the partition of 1667, the Northern War and Masepa, 1796 and the annexation of the regions on the right bank of the Dniepr and Volhynia in the wake of the Second and Third Polish Partitions, not to speak of the suppression of the Saporov Cossacks in 1775. Then he pulled him to the door by his coat lapels, threw him down the stairs and called after him that he was sorry the hotel stairs didn’t have a hundred and ninety-two steps like the Potemkin steps built between 1837 and 1841 on the Nikolai Promenade in his home town of Odessa on the Black Sea.’

The ludicrous speech attributed to Magdalena is matched by the ridiculous supporting cast. Faschinger has two removals men come to take away a stash of Magdalena’s worldly belongings before her travels begin and the main character proceeds to tell of her conversing with them on the assertion that such types, and not so-called intellectual academics, are the real connoisseurs of art: ‘The larger of the furniture packers dated my little English hunting scene very accurately, and there followed a brief and stimulating discussion about nineteenth-century English landscape painting in general and William Turner in particular, especially about his way of depicting light, as further developed by the French Impressionists. After the smaller furniture packer had correctly estimated the value of a Japanese wash drawing, we talked a little about sinboku technique which had developed in fifth-century Japan under the influence of Zen, as well as the Japanese colour woodcut, discovering a shared love of Utamaro.’ Later, in London, Faschinger describes the Scottish supposed-vampire’s ‘tramp’ acquaintances, scattered around the city, in terms suggesting all know each other and very much as a tribe of intellectual aficionados intimately acquainted with the works of Freud, Shakespeare, Milton and the like. On the London Underground, Magdalena’s various other chance contacts all unaccountably converge in a scene utterly ignoring the reality of daily comings and goings in a large metropolis and, as the would-be Jehovah’s Witness is confronted by a ‘tramp’ who seems to know her complicity in the murder of Jonathan in the shower, one of those contacts, an ‘advertising specialist’, saves her from the advance of ‘three skinheads . . . brandishing rattling chains . . . skilfully distract[ing] the skinheads’ attention from me by drawing them into a little conversation about the colour, form, material and emblematic significance of the current brands of bovver boot.’

Magdalena carries a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy in her Puch 800’s panniers (along with her pink Sony Walkman and other juxtapositions of pretension and the jarringly dated): Faschinger’s offering is, however, the comedy of low fare, the ridiculous and the ludicrous wrapped in relentless pretension and served with writerly heavy-handedness and lamentable, if not mirthlessly laughable, amateurism. Confessional atonement is sought by Magdalena the Sinner, the character, but it should be Lilian Faschinger, the author, who ought rather to seek forgiveness for literary murder.

 
 

Book Review: Transition (Iain Banks)

A book set somewhere, or some many wheres, within an infinity of infinities, in an ever-expanding multiverse, will no doubt inevitably suffer from the limitations of the space between its physical covers. Iain Banks’ characters visit necessarily limited versions of reality. That much might be forgiven, given the infinite possibilities on offer; however, even within the finite, Banks still manages to turn out a convoluted and unsatisfactorily messy affair. Writers are sometimes seemingly prescient in how their works may be received, insofar as messages they leave within the work itself are concerned; sometimes they might be entirely unaware of how certain lines can come to define or describe their final creations. How Banks perceived his writing in his final years is currently unclear. Consideration, in either regard, should however be given to the following though, as the author labours towards the end of the offering under review: he writes about ‘a swirling, hideously complicated, topologically tortuous, possibly knotted exposition.’ He is describing a plate of spaghetti as analogy of his main character’s life, but it might as well be something else entirely.

Transition (Abacus, 2010) primarily focuses on Temudjin Oh, an agent of what is known as the Concern, or l’Expédience, a shady organisation nominally determined to ‘help societies across the many worlds, aiding and advancing positive forces and confounding and disabling negative, regressive ones.’ All is not as it seems, however. From the outset, Banks declares an ‘unreliable narrator’ status. The Concern is governed by members of the Central Council and, in particular, one Madame Theodora d’Ortolan, power-crazed and determined to rid herself of all those not allied to her aims. In opposition, one Mrs Mulverhill, one rung down in the hierarchy but not without her own powers. The main characters are able to ‘transition’ between alternate realities by means of a drug, septus, monopolised by d’Ortolan. Temudjin Oh is drawn into the power struggle, develops into an assassin, and then, beyond this, he emerges as some super-‘Awake’ demi-god of the many worlds, able to transition or ‘flit’ without the use of septus at all. We have seen this sort of trope in a variety of films, of course, many times.

Banks seemingly sets out to embrace the tried and tired filmic essences in much of what Transition is (he also book-ends his novel with a character, Mike Esteros, who just wants to make a film about alien tourists to Earth): there is a dose of The Matrix, complete with Neo’s woken transformation, there is the Sliding Doors take, and there are splashes of Harry Potter or the sceneries of Terry Pratchett (notwithstanding the fact of the books before the screen versions) in the ludicrous setting of the University of Practical Talents, complete with its multitude of ‘piled-together’ buildings ‘all domes, spires, elongated windows and flying buttresses’ and its central gold-capped Dome of the Mists. This world is Calbefraques, a version of Earth uniquely not called Earth, base-home of Temudjin Oh. When he transitions, on mission, he leaves his own body, which then operates in a low-watt, powered-down and stripped-back, purely functional state, occupying the body of some unknown other, somewhere in the infinity of Earths. It is always Earth. Banks slowly unfurls the purposes of a variety of other characters along the way: Adrian Cubbish, a greedy city trader, enlisted to Mrs Mulverhill’s cause, ultimately for a singular purpose in a version of Venice, late on; The Philosopher, a torturer; the Lady Bisquitine, a delinquent, an experiment, developed late in the proceedings, harnessed by d’Ortolan for her powers and pitted against Oh; Patient 8262, lying in a hospital bed, somewhere unidentified, hiding, waiting. We know he will be significant, and we surmise him early on, but Banks drags out his existence and purpose to tedious lengths.

As one might expect of a seasoned writer, there are lines of subtle intelligence (‘I live in a Switzerland,’ Banks writes, as Temudjin Oh. ‘The indefinite article is germane.’); there are lines that may have amused the writer in their appearance (as Adrian Cubbish, the trader, he writes: ‘Blood might be thicker than water but it’s no match for liquidity.’); there are lines and passages that suggest that Banks does not care that he might offend (again, as Cubbish: ‘I’d left my own current main girl back at the flat. She was lovely, a dancer called Lysanne and all legs and gorgeous long real blonde hair but she had a Scouse accent you could have etched steel with.’). Character development aside, and Cubbish does stand out as someone successfully odious, Banks’ writing in Transition embraces the afore-mentioned spaghetti plate essence in its whole.

To borrow a concept which Banks comes back to from time to time, the essence of his writing here is perhaps synonymous with what he terms ‘fragre’. That is, when Temudjin Oh transitions, or flits, between realities he has an additional sense on which he can rely: he can take in the feel of the place, the tone or timbre, as it were. Banks’ main character knows, for example, when he has landed in a ‘Greedist’ world by way of its essential ‘fragre’. In our day-to-day reality, or whatever we perceive that as, we may perhaps also go quietly through our considerations of it all with a kind of sense of place, of season, or of milieu. Transition’s fragre is a complicated affair to try to define, and so that spaghetti plate suffices, if not fully satisfactorily.

In the burgeoning Neo-fication (Matrix-style) of Temudjin Oh, Banks has him slide in and out of Venice, a Venice at least, and soon enough he is able to perceive all manner of perspectives that the mere throng of tourists and locals around him cannot even begin to imagine. Madame d’Ortolan tracks him down and throws all her available resources at him in her power-play and near five hundred page background war against Mrs Mulverhill. Along the way, there are hints at an interchangeability of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’, but we can be fairly sure which way Banks wishes our allegiances to lie come the final scenes. Hindered by an array of the not fully explored or developed ‘blockers’, ‘spotters’, ‘trackers’, and the seemingly unhinged and volatile Bisquitine (a powerful child-like enigma in a woman’s body, spurting a gush of apparent nonsense along the canals), Banks brings us to the Rialto Bridge, a denouement, in anticipation of a grand finale.

However, it seems that the author has long-since tired of any intention that might have been to provide anything other than an unsatisfactory ending. It is a shame because, throughout, Transition does contain some notable characterisation (for example, the annoying Adrian Cubbish), locations (a Moscow nightclub, a warehouse/office in the deserted zone around Chernobyl, a palace on the top of Mount Everest), and flights of fancy (albeit some elicit the feel of sexual fantasy and exploration seemingly only provided for the author’s own indulgence and amusement). It is an irony, perhaps not entirely lost on an author such as Banks (should he still have been around to perceive it), one certainly blessed with the ability to create, that in an infinity of infinities (if such a case were to be true) there are a multitude of other Transitions — some of which must, by definition, rest more elegantly in the mind.

 

Book Review: American Pastoral (Philip Roth)

To a reader not born or raised in the United States, promise of investigation into the post-war American psyche is an intrigue in the making. Philip Roth’s main character is Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov: a seemingly uncomplicated man whose dream, it transpires, is just to embody the spirit of ‘Johnny Appleseed’: who ‘wasn’t a Jew, wasn’t an Irish Catholic, wasn’t a Protestant Christian — nope, Johnny Appleseed was just a happy American. Big. Ruddy. Happy. No brains probably, but didn’t need ‘em — a great walker was all Johnny Appleseed needed to be. All physical joy. Had a big stride and a bag of seeds and a huge spontaneous affection for the landscape, and everywhere he went he scattered the seeds.’ Needless to say, Swede Levov’s life is not so simple.

American Pastoral (Vintage, 1998) begins in the first person by way of the narration of Nathan ‘Skip’ Zuckerman, a writer some six years the junior of ‘the Swede’, who he idolises at school in the 1940s. Swede Levov excels at all the school sports but he seems to suffer no egotism in receipt of universal hero worship. He breaks the school basketball scoring record on the same day in 1943 when ‘fifty-eight Flying Fortresses were shot down by Luftwaffe fighter planes’ and the Swede becomes a symbol of hope, of distraction for the local people of this small corner of New Jersey that is his home. In 1995, Zuckerman receives a letter from the Swede, via his publishers, asking to meet. There is a line that proves intriguing to the writer: it is a line that suggests the possibility of uncovering layers beneath the surface of the almost perfect man. However, on meeting in a restaurant in New York, Zuckerman is left disappointed: the Swede discloses nothing. Soon after, at a school reunion, Zuckerman learns that the Swede has died. Thus he determines to write an account of Swede Levov’s great intrigue, as he begins to perceive it.

Swede Levov is a third generation immigrant Jew, nominally, who follows his father and grandfather into the family glove-making trade in Newark, New Jersey. He takes over the business and makes a success of it, marries the former Miss New Jersey 1949, Dawn Dwyer, a Catholic of Irish descent, and they live in a two-hundred year-old stone house in the small village of Old Rimrock, Morris County, and raise their daughter, Merry. Such bucolic calm is the epitome of the American pastoral dream for Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov. Merry, however, proves to be the undoing of all his inner peace. At the age of sixteen, vehemently against what she sees as the atrocities exacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Vietnam War, Merry Levov ‘brings the war home’ to American soil and plants a bomb at the local Old Rimrock general store and post office. She kills the doctor, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, goes into hiding and then on the run, finds herself in a commune in Oregon, and kills three more people in terrorist attacks across the United States. Swede Levov’s life is slowly undone. His wife, Dawn (who only agreed to enter the local beauty pageant to raise money for her brother’s scholarship, who went to Atlantic City as the home state’s great hope at the Miss America contest, but didn’t win, who only wants to raise cows for a living), suffers psychological trauma. Nothing is the same for the Levov family, or their community, again. Yet, the Swede remains, for the most part, stoical: at least in appearance. All that is written after Nathan Zuckerman, the writer, learns of the Swede’s death at the school reunion in 1995 is a third person account of ‘the shocks that befell’ Swede Levov and his family, as unravelled and assumed by the writer. Problematically, however, the writer-narrator never returns to the first person again, and the whole affair ends weakly.

Roth’s writing is, at times, immersively engaging in its visceral fullness and unrelenting pace and staccato-attack dialogue. However, the reader also has to account for long, long lines, often unaccountably split open with inserted meanders in inexplicable places before returning to the point in hand. Furthermore, the American syntax used is sometimes a little torturous for the non-American reader. Roth’s writing is replete with detail, but it is a fine line between delivering depth that truly enhances the context of the tale, resulting in a reader’s respect for the writer’s knowledge, and delivering detail that is just sheer information dump. The minutiae of the glove-making process is a case in hand.

Roth writes of the ‘disruption of the anticipated American future’, in which successive generations of immigrant families were supposed to have got smarter and smarter, ‘breaking away from the parochialism a little further, out of the desire to go to the limit in America with your rights, forming yourself as an ideal person who gets rid of the traditional Jewish habits and attitudes, who frees himself of the pre-America insecurities and the old’. Swede Levov is a personification of ideals but, when Merry bombs the local general store and post office, it is ‘the daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral — into the indigeneous American berserk.’

Five years after the Old Rimrock bombing in 1968, Swede Levov is holding onto the dream of his life. His wife has all but jettisoned the memory of their daughter and wishes to jettison the old stone house with it. Roth introduces a cast of characters in a long, drawn-out dinner gathering scene and there are allegories to be had in the form of neighbour, Bill Orcutt, for example: self-styled custodian of local history, descendant of New Jersey men stretching back to the days of the founding fathers. Roth tackles morality, race, religion, immigration, and what it purportedly means to be American in the late 20th century.

In exploration of the post-war American psyche, American Pastoral attempts to peel back the layers in the same way that the layers of Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov’s life are unfurled. For the reader of a national psyche according to one writer, there is an immersion to fall into in the details of a timeline predominately between the Second World War and the cusp of the 21st century. More than this, however, Roth proves prescient in his examination of what is transpiring to be the turning of the historical cycle. By way of the words of Lou Levov, the Swede’s father, who is watching the unfolding of the Watergate affair on TV in 1973, Roth writes: ‘If we can just tar and feather Nixon, America will be America again, without everything loathsome and lawless that’s crept in, without all this violence and malice and madness and hate. Put him in a cage, cage the crook, and we’ll have our great country back the way it was!’ With the imminence of a new President-elect, at the time of writing, what shall be the fate of Johnny Appleseed?

 

Book Review: A Fool’s Alphabet (Sebastian Faulks)

The essential plot lines of a life may, conceivably, be read as randomised if disarranged and placed down again in a different order. What then, asks Sebastian Faulks, might a life look like if that new arrangement were structured by the alphabetical order of some of the places a character has visited? This then being the central conceit and framework of an idea, we are introduced to Pietro Russell who has reason to travel widely because of his photography profession. Faulks lays down what we are to assume to be key moments and, by extension, places of Pietro’s life (though we’re later told that, of course, these are not the only places that he has been to, and therefore a different story altogether could have been told); however, the writing is unchallenging, to the point of being bland — so much so that even Pietro’s great psychological meltdown in Quezaltenango, Guatemala is drab, barely registering as potentially important.

A Fool’s Alphabet (Vintage, 1993) begins before Pietro Russell’s birth, with A for Anzio, Italy in 1944, where his father, Raymond Russell, is engaged in the war, convalescing then in Sorrento from a shell wound. Whilst in the country, Russell Senior meets Francesca: a beautiful nineteen year-old farmer’s niece who lives with her uncle and aunt on the farm with their three large sons. Francesca, of course, is the future mother of Pietro, who will be born in 1950. After the war, Russell Senior develops into a dull man, interested in etymology. From an early stage in the reading, Faulks’ reliance on stereotypical characters becomes obvious. The offspring of such parents can perhaps be forgiven for having no spark of character himself. Pietro is, despite Faulks’ attempts at rendering him as a little troubled by the tribulations of his life, for all intents and purposes merely a hook on which an author hangs his idea.

Pietro’s life is placed down in non-chronological order, skipping back and forth in time between Anzio in 1944 (his parents’ meeting being, of course, important to his own life) to Yarmouth, England in 1991, taking in various places in America, Europe, the Far East, Central America, the Middle East, and England along the way, and ending back in time with a trip to Zanica, Italy in 1970, where his parents once rented a room for a night. Of course, this was the room in which Pietro was conceived. During the course of his life, variously, Pietro meets a business partner in the States, marries a Flemish woman and has children with her, makes a life-long friendship, works at a ski resort, falls in love with a girl he meets at school in West London, is left by her in California, talks with a psychologist in Oxford, 1976, has a breakdown in Guatemala in 1974, and so forth. A little after half-way through the telling of the travails of Pietro Russell, Faulks has his main character saying to Dr. Simon, his pyschologist (who makes only a brief appearance, despite what we are led to believe by the Observer’s reviewer on the inner leaves): ‘Couldn’t we talk about someone else? I’m so bored with this character.’ Indeed.

Once the premise of any book is accepted, it can be lived with and the author and reader can walk on in relative ease. Faulks’ construct of non-chronology ordered by means of alphabetising places (Anzio, Italy, 1944; Backley, England, 1950; Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1980; Dorking, England, 1963, and so on) requires a little patience to begin with, but his writing style is not arduous to follow. There is a certain physical flipping back and forth that may be necessary, in order to reacquaint the reader with what happened when, where and with whom, but there is nothing too taxing in this and the words settle easily. Where the construct risks a descent into fakery is in the knowledge that the author will need to crowbar in places and events for letters such as Q and X. By the time we reach Xianyang, China (which is the only chapter not to be accorded a year), we realise just how much a conceit has been played out. Pietro Russell never visits China, though he does look out into it from Kowloon, Hong Kong in 1980: Faulks cheats when he declares that Pietro had ‘let it [Xianyang] become in his mind the representation of all the places he would not go, and Xianyang was the name he gave in his mind to the place or the time in which the half-remembered love affair and the healing birth had happened.’

There is the feeling that Faulks tries to trail such literary significance beneath the surface. Very early on, in the chapter nominally regarding Anzio, he writes of Russell Senior in the streets of Sorrento: ‘As he began to walk downhill he passed a magnificent sign in which the iron was wrought like arthrithic fingers to read ‘Pasticceria’ and hammered into a pink wall on the corner of a street. Under his feet the pavements were ankle-deep in grey dust from the volcano [Vesuvius].’ The line sticks out like a sore thumb. Later, in Sorrento, 1958, we read that the boy Pietro and his mother, Francesca, ‘continued uphill [and] passed a magnificent sign in which the iron was wrought like arthrithic fingers to read ‘Pasticceria’ and hammered into a peeling pink wall on the corner of a street. Under their feet the pavements were damp and cool where the cleaning lorry had passed.’ In his literary undertow, Faulks repeats names for different characters, leaving the reader to wonder why, but nothing of significance transpires. Pietro’s life, despite attempts to render him of interest, is still dull and uninspiring. The only event of any potential emotional impact on the reader occurs when Pietro’s young daughter, Mary, has an altercation with a lorry in Uzes, France in 1987. Faulks toys with the reader for a few lines and we find that Mary is fine.

In truth, so is Pietro, though the author would have it that he is troubled. Pietro Russell has a loving wife, a young family, a job he is capable of doing and one which has allowed him to travel the world. Some places highlighted as chapter titles are barely excuses for using the initial letter (Vladimirci, Yugoslavia, 1986, offers a brief meeting at a printing works for Pietro and his business associate, Paul Coleman), veering off on other tangents afterwards; Jerusalem, Israel, 1982, has Faulks attempting to weigh in on the socio-political issues of the region; many other chapters are merely stopping off points and passing places.

In a work such as A Fool’s Alphabet, which despite its hints at the contrary offers little by the way of any great significance, it is inevitable that its author will attempt to close the circle by relating the story of its main character’s conception. In Zanica, Italy in 1970, the twenty year-old Pietro makes a form of pilgrimage, finding the bar in this small place in which his parents had asked for a room, having once lost their way on an excursion. Pietro convinces the owner (a young woman when his parents called in twenty years or so previously) to let him stay, and the scene shifts to Russell Senior and Francesca. Faulks’ description of how Pietro was conceived is, frankly, embarrassing, and Pietro’s story ends, not begins, in the final pages, with his father’s ‘milky fluid spurting and charging into the rosy flesh’ and with Russell Senior visualising the ‘brave outrider of himself . . . urging the seed on, willing it home.’ In light of Pietro Russell’s unremarkable travails, his father and Faulks might well have been better advised to avoid the energy expended altogether in the moment and the moments of their creative endeavours.
 
 

Book Review: The Iguana (Anna Maria Ortese)

Pressed deep in the tangle of a convoluted text, a line of almost self-conscious abashment lies limply, whereby its author, Anna Maria Ortese, writes of her main character (aside from her eponymous one): ‘The Count felt tired, finding this whole affair to resemble some tormented story out of Seventeenth Century Spain [sic], and utter madness within the clarity of the present age.’ It is an ironic moment of lucidity from a much-acclaimed darling of the post-war Italian avant-garde, encapsulating her torturous novel so fittingly: for the most part, the exploratory magical realism of her writing is sucked dry of any marvellous trace of the ordinary/extraordinary inter-play, sunk as it is in a quagmire of farce which is either (and sometimes both) fey or deliberately disjointed.

The Iguana (Minerva, 1990, translated from the original Italian by Henry Martin; originally published, 1965) attempts to shine a light on aspects of the human cultural condition, or to ensnare it in a glare, and the act of reading must be entered into with a great faith that art can appease the spirit; however, Ortese’s prose is either too high in its self-regard or often too vapid in its long, drawn-out sentence structures for great faith to be repaid (compounded by a late descent into a destabilised narrative of rapidly shifting neurosis/dream-type scenes). With regards to language and structure, fairly early on in the piece comes the likes of the following:

The Marquis observed that he surely had no right to overlook the contrasting economic conditions that differentiated the two countries, Italy and Portugal — bringing the one to the fore, as it were, and leaving the other considerably behind — but that this, for as much as he could see (and here, he added, he might be wrong but felt better off if not) was fairly irrelevant to any real explanation of the delay, in Portugal, of an artistic and literary renascence, and thus of the enterprise of publishing.

The Count, or Daddo, or Aleardo, is the character through which Ortese chooses to play the main thread of her story, which deals in degrees with such themes as oppressions, love, rights, good and evil. Don Carlo Ludovico Aleardo di Grees, of the Dukes of Estremadura-Aleardi and Count of Milan, to give him his full title, sets off on a sea voyage, nominally in search of new land to buy for real estate, but also on a mission to discover new literature for his Milanese friend, Boro Adelchi, to publish. The Count discovers a small uncharted island, Ocaña, off the coast of Portugal, inhabited by three brothers and an iguana, their servant. Don Ilario Jimenes of the Marquis of Segovia, Count of Guzman (also later referred to, in alternate guise, as ‘no longer the tremulous Ilario, but the hard and determined Mendes: that gorgeous and self-confident youth’) is a Portuguese noble and a poet of questionable skill. He is young and fey and not at all worldly-wise and the Count, continually referred to as good of nature, wishes to take the Marquis back with him to introduce his foppish sensitivity to the high people of Milan. His brothers, Felipe and Hipolito, are for the most part pantomime figures, ugly sisters, interchangeably arranged. The Count and Ilario, the Marquis, quickly begin to interact with each other as ‘my friend’ or ‘my dear’, following the former rowing ashore from his anchored yacht and staying as guest at the latter’s residence. In the basement, accessible both via a trapdoor in the large wardrobe of the Count’s guestroom and similar in the kitchen next door, resides the servant, Estrelita, the iguana.

Ortese anthropomorphises this creature, having her clothed and able to speak, though she is the figure of oppression in the work and so the Count, good of nature, succumbs to another cause in the attempted aiding of her lot. The iguana is loved by the Count, though despised by the Portuguese nobles, paid in stones (enabling the author to address the virtue, or lack thereof, in capitalism), and treated as a figure of evil in her ‘soul-less’-ness. The iguana is depicted as infantile and stupid, greedy, and bloody-minded, yet at the same time as a tragic figure, intended as pitiable and worthy of greater respect.

At no point, however, does any character succeed in rousing the reader to such considerations. Dialogue of turgid self-importance and an overall irreality of scenes render the playing out of themes opaque at best; in such a wavering structure, characterisation becomes a flimsy quip between author and other such literati invited into the sorry joke of it all. If the middle section of The Iguana can be read in some state of pallid acceptance of the viscous narrative we find ourselves in, and it is possible, then the final quarter of the book quickly submerges us in a spongy no-mans-land of confusion. Scenes chop and change, the island falls away, there is a hearing regarding the death of God, and God is a butterfly, and the iguana is at the bottom of a well. Ortese has lured us into a trap of thinking that we might start to feel some affinity for someone, or anything portrayed, an understanding of context and content, but she repays the reader’s faith in their continuance of turning pages with her greater literary joke: a complete disassemblage of coherent structure seals the fate of the Count, Ilario the Marquis, his brothers, and their iguana in a cask as curio with no connective capability.

There is a great deal to be said for the high art of simplicity in response to works such as Ortese’s The Iguana: that is to say, it is a shame that the condition of the writer cannot always grasp the beautiful, the sublime, the extraordinary of the ordinary. A baroque deluge can result in a richness of texture, but only in careful hands, though a simple thoughtfulness (as opposed to an overwroughtness) can have far more weight. Ortese’s writing has its small moments of such capability (for example, the simple descriptive that is ‘. . . of occasions in the garden and downstairs drawing room of the villa: occasions when golden liqueurs and crisp pastries unfailingly emerged from heavy walnut sideboards and flower-encrusted porcelain boxes’), but the moments are lost in the whole.
 
 

Book Review: The Ghost Road (Pat Barker)

It is the summer of 1918 and the third and final book in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy opens with Billy Prior holed up in Scarborough, following his departure from the Ministry of Munitions in London, waiting on the prospects of being sent back to France. Despite the potential chances of being killed or, for the survivors, further psychological trauma, it is in France that Prior, an officer, feels the least alienated. Billy Prior is a psycho-sexual mess, but the war offers him some modicum of purpose.

The Ghost Road (Penguin Books, 2008; originally published by Viking in 1995) takes Barker’s main characters, Prior and Dr W. H. R. Rivers, headlong into the final months of the First World War, though via different countries and by way of very differing experiences. Divided into three parts, the first section of one hundred pages or so is largely slow-going. Prior is in the acquaintance of Wilfred Owen in the north, whilst Rivers works at a hospital in London, and nothing of huge consequence takes place. It is a waiting game, or merely a going about the business of one another’s daily lives. The reader is left wondering where this lack of narrative drive can go. Barker drops in Prior’s engagement to Sarah Lumb in the north, and there are psycho-sexual allusions placed in Rivers’ recollections — with references to his and his siblings’ childhood memories of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) — but this latter investigation is left merely as a faint form of apparition in the text.

Indeed there are several strands of understanding the apparitional or the ghost-like in this work, whether as perceived by the reader, as above, or as intended by the author: the ghosts can be seen as the young men sent to war, but also in the apparitions seen by those who are traumatised and hospitalised, suffering nightmares of guilt and so forth, whom Rivers supports; there are also the ghost ancestors of the skull houses of Melanesia, where Rivers and his anthropology colleague, Hocart, study and live with the indigenous people of Eddystone Island in 1908. Parts two and three of The Ghost Road intersperse accounts of Rivers’ memories of this experience, told in the third person, with Prior’s first person diary on his return to France.

The pace of Barker’s writing picks up in the second section, but not until after Prior has spent another short sojourn, in Amiens, with Owen and a few other officers, thinking that the war has somehow overlooked them. Drafts of men are eventually sent to them. Wilfred Owen is, perhaps, one of or the most synonymous of names associated with the First World War, yet Barker reduces him here to a secondary character. This is, after all, not an account, as such, of Owen’s war: it is Billy Prior’s war (internal and external) that we are following. In the Western Solomon Islands ten years earlier, Rivers and Hocart meet Njiru who is their ‘best translator’, healer, spiritual guide, shaman, though not the chief. There are overt and covert parallels drawn between Rivers and Njiru. They speak pidgin English to one another, and Njiru is sometimes keen to show Rivers the minutiae of his society’s culture and sometimes reluctant to share such offerings. Rivers is particularly intrigued by the funerary rites: the islanders revere their ancestors’ ghosts and keep their skulls secure on a mountainside. The ‘old ghosts’ wait seated for the ‘new ghosts’ at a particular rock. The undertow, the parallels with the ghosts of war, are not difficult to ascertain.

For the most part, the quickening of pace in the second and third sections of this offering does present a more discernible focus. That said, Rivers’ and Hocart’s fieldwork expedition of 1908 makes for a more engaging story than the final months of Prior’s First World War experience, as recounted by Barker. There is an inevitability in the latter, worn into place by a certain knowledge and some degree of historical desensitisation: Owen will die a week before the Armistice; there is the ‘no quarters given’ attitude and propaganda of the Army top brass; there is mud and rain and utter futility sown into all the fighting. This we know, sadly.

This is Billy Prior’s war but again, as in the previous books of this trilogy, Rivers’ presence on the pages is the more engrossing. Barker writes Prior’s voice with a fair consistency throughout his missive offerings (notwithstanding the occasional jarring of an incongruous word more suited to authorial narrative rather than the writing of ‘working class boy made good’); however, there is also the occasional sense that the ride the writer often takes (when deep enough into the creation of a work) has overtaken the characters — the dovetailing of Prior’s diary, for example, sometimes fits too neatly into the very different (and not explicitly known or necessarily knowable to Prior) anthropological experiences of Rivers. Elsewhere, Prior writes that he’s had second thoughts about an entry he made days earlier and so destroyed it, though it is an entry we have already read. Such authorial instances of being ‘in too deeply’ can cause a dissonance in the reading experience.

At the attempted bridging of the Sambre–Oise Canal in France, Barker duly kills off Owen; Billy Prior, of the ‘Manchesters’ (2nd Manchester Regiment), lies in the wet fields between his own artillery and the German machine-gunners on the opposite bank, focused only on the battle at hand. Meanwhile, in London, Rivers and his sparse staff take care of the wounded, such as Hallet: a young officer shot in the head in France some weeks earlier, and rescued by Prior. Hallet’s fate has parallels with the inevitability of those deemed soon to die by the islanders of the southwest Pacific (those who are essentially already dead). Barker also makes links between Hallet’s head wounds and the revered ancestral skulls of the likes of Ngea, a chief whose body is left to decompose but whose cranium and jaw are then carefully held together and subsequently placed in the skull house.

Following the events at the Sambre–Oise Canal, Barker has one final ghost to bring to the pages. Rivers, in many ways the heart of the Regeneration trilogy, is exhausted at the hospital and, in keeping with the hallucinations of many of the traumatised men he has treated, he himself is visited by the apparition of Njiru — shaman, translator, healer, the one ‘who knows’. It is understated yet, in some ways, fitting. The Ghost Road, as with Regeneration and The Eye in the Door, is at its most successful when with Rivers: Billy Prior’s war is a seedy, murky, grim affair and its lead character is not one who can be readily sympathised with, despite the hopelessness of his situation; W. H. R. Rivers is, by contrast, this war’s humanity, as known by Barker.