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 fiancé, 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.
 
 

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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 . . .
 
 

The Improbable and the Analogous of Innocent Eréndira

. . . there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.

— Gabriel García Márquez, quoted by Emma Welton, The Guardian, (2014)

. . . a surreal quality, a rendering of the improbable and impossible as real, pervades [Márquez’s] work.

— William Kennedy (1973)

For Gabriel García Márquez, there was, as can be surmised from direct quoted material from the author himself, from others’ analysis of interview material, and from analysis of his fiction, more than one way of looking at reality. Our cultural grounding necessarily colours our perceptions of what occurs around us in our lives. If Márquez was witness to all manner of improbability being commonplace in his native South American surroundings, what separates that improbability from the analogous?

Kennedy (1973) refers to the abrupt response of Márquez regarding his questioning of the trail of blood scene in One Hundred Years of Solitude: Márquez dismisses both the question and the meaning of the blood with the brief statement that it was ‘an umbilical cord’ between mother and son, and nothing more. There are, perhaps, differentiations and comparisons to be made between the symbolic and the stance that everything that Márquez wrote had its basis in reality. The author is being disingenuous, of course: he’s playing with ideas, even if the origin of those ideas was something witnessed, felt or perceived.

Analogy sends the eponymous Eréndira, of Márquez’s The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother (1972), on her narrative way. The ‘wind of misfortune’ skulks within the tale throughout, affecting Eréndira’s shifting fortunes at certain key moments. At what point, though, in its register of imagery does the analogy give way to the possibility of improbability, to the magical realism of a different perception of reality? There is no easy delineation. The blur of imprecision presides.

Early on in Eréndira’s story, we see that she has no need to wind the clocks (which, ordinarily, consumes a large part of her servitude): Márquez seems to be making the suggestion that time operates in its own ways because the clocks don’t require her assistance, making a misfortune of her life (she goes on to burn the mansion down with a candle). It is as if time, not needing the clocks to be wound, has to rechannel, to repurpose itself.

Eréndira is so tired that she works as she sleeps. We often know this feeling ourselves, in our own lives, but Eréndira has to be abruptly and literally woken. She drops the tureen onto the rug as a result. Much later, her grandmother eats ‘enough arsenic to exterminate a whole generation of rats’, hidden in the mixture of a cake, and yet she still lives. These events are improbable but, in the manner of there being other ways of perceiving reality, still possible.

What though of the goats who commit ‘suicide from desolation’? What of the ingrained sounds embedded deep within the storm . . .?

Over the whistle of the storm and the lash of the water one could hear distant shouts, the howling of far-off animals, the cries of a shipwreck.

The settlement that surrounds the mansion where this scene takes place is ‘lost in the solitude of the desert’. Is it with the symbol of the conceivable or the sense of the perceivable that the cries of the shipwreck can be heard? Where do the analogy and the witness start and end?

In seeking to free Eréndira after her capture, or after her saving, by missionaries, her grandmother seeks the help of the local mayor. He’s found ‘shooting with an army rifle at a dark and solitary cloud in the burning sky . . . trying to perforate it to bring on rain.’ It is his sincere role, the ‘official duties’ by which he has purpose. We may have met people in our own lives blessed or hindered by such purpose and such ludicrousies of job description. Perhaps the end justifies the means in the fiction; perhaps Márquez once met this man.

Has Márquez, however, seen ‘oily blood, shiny and green, just like mint honey’, which he specifies a further three times in quick succession in describing the murder of the grandmother and the issue of her death? Could it be a trick of the light, an illusion of the perception, or does Eréndira’s grandmother represent something more, something else, something other? There is purpose in the green repetition.

There is purpose infused in the changing of the colour of glass, bottle and pitcher as Ulises, besotted with Eréndira, touches them. It is, his mother tells him, ‘because of love’: though the blur of perceived reality, infused with cultural belief, and the symbolic or the analogous, still readily merge here, we still have some semblance of an understanding. The improbable yet still faintly possible lingers, just, in reading that Eréndira (prostituted by her grandmother) is patiently waited for by ‘the endless wavy line composed of men [snaking through the city]’.

What, though, can we make of diamonds grown inside living oranges by Ulises’ father, ready to be smuggled over the border, or the woman in the city ‘who had been changed into a spider for having disobeyed her parents, who would let herself be touched for fifty cents so that people would see there was no trick’?

Perhaps we need comfort back in our own perceptions, in our own cultural worldviews. Contrary to some opinion, there is magical reasoning on the opposite side of the Atlantic, in the islands and heartlands of European thought: Márquez writes that Eréndira’s grandmother can find things out by dreaming them, and we can understand this from a position of faith and sometimes from direct experience. Similarly, it isn’t too beyond our beliefs to comprehend that Eréndira calls Ulises with her inner voice and how, in a distant place, on his orange plantation, Ulises has ‘heard’ that voice ‘so clearly that he was looking for her in the shadows of the room’.

So it is, or so it must be, that nothing is as set as sometimes it may seem. If we can be seen to comprehend, in part, in the magical reasoning of own cultural heritage, the possibility of the improbable, what then if anything separates that improbability from the analogous in Márquez’s writing?
 
 
References:

Kennedy, W. (1973), The yellow trolley car in Barcelona, and other visions, The Atlantic [Online]. Available from: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1973/01/the-yellow-trolley-car-in-barcelona-and-other-visions/360848/ (Accessed December 24, 2017)

Welton, E. (2014), Gabriel García Márquez in quotes, The Guardian [Online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/18/gabriel-garcia-marquez-in-quotes (Accessed December 24, 2017)
 
 

Book Review: The Prophets of Eternal Fjord (Kim Leine)

Opening with a character — fallaciously known as ‘the widow’ — being kicked from a cliff at a remote Danish colony in western Greenland in 1793, The Prophets of Eternal Fjord (Atlantic Books, 2016, translated from the original Danish by Martin Aitken; originally published by Gyldendal as Profeterne i Evighedsfjorden, 2012) proceeds to become as immersive as such a fall might be. The lead character, the Norwegian-born Magister Morten Falck, missionary and would-be physician, is steadily drawn downwards, run down and weighed upon by the claustrophobic relations of the colony at Sukkertoppen, by the misfortunes that befall him, and by the vagaries of his own decisions, faith and morality. The author, Kim Leine, spins the chronicles of Falck’s mission in Greenland, and his studies, formative years and his later more worldly-weary self in Copenhagen, in a to and fro of time.

At well over 500 pages in length, Leine has given himself plenty of space in which to explore the deeds and further demise of Morten Falck. The Magister-to-be does not begin his journey entirely in innocence. From his home in Lier, Norway, Falck travels to Copenhagen, for theological study, in the early 1780s and Leine soon has him indulging in sexual debauchery in the most squalid parts of town, as well as undertaking the liberation of corpses from the canals for the purpose of the medical enquiry he also partakes of. Leine does not shy away from the stench of the place. Indeed, it is this attention to the very many sensory affectors in the late 18th century urbanscape, at sea, and on the harsh, hostile coast of Greenland that is a particular strength of the writing. Leine has no qualms in rendering the sensory seediness of subversive sexual encounter, of Falck’s defecations over the long drop of a cliff, of his attempted abortion of the unwanted pregnancy of the colony master’s wife by way of oil soaked rags and gunpowder.

A recurring motif is reference to a quote by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, namely: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’. It is to this concept of liberation that Leine draws attention, not only in terms of the itinerant Falck and his seemingly unplanned-out life but also in terms of Greenland itself and its natives. Under the Danish crown, the Greenlanders are subjects obliged towards Christianity from their native ‘heathenism’, obliged towards the commerce and ‘civilisation’ of European ways. The events in Paris during the late 18th century French Revolution coincide neatly in terms of the idea of liberty and the ruling classes.

Agreeing to a position replacing the previous unfortunate incumbent in Sukkertoppen, Greenland, offered by the Mission, Morten Falck must do political battle with the colony master, otherwise known as the Trader Kragstedt. He finds himself necessarily obsequient to the officious Overseer Dahl. He must sidestep the dangerous and brusque smith who rapes Madame Kragstedt, and he must maintain the sullen relationship with his catechist Bertel Jensen. These are, in some respects, the least of his problems: he has his missionary work to fulfil amongst the natives, some of whom live in what he sees as hot, naked squalor in an encampment on the edges of the settlement. Falck is drawn to the Greenlanders, some of whom are euphemistically referred to as ‘mixtures’: half native and half Dane. The vile Missionary Oxbøl, up the coast at Holsteinsborg, is father of many such progeny. He is also not beyond spawning grandchildren via his own children.

So it is we come to Lydia, incongruously named, who is known for the most part as ‘the widow’. It is she who occupies Falck’s thinking processes: first in life, as she nurses him in his convalescence following his farcical destruction of the colony house in his attempts at stealing provisions, and in marriage as they escape the settlement and go to join the eponymous prophets up coast, and then in death as she trails his travels as a ghost. Her latter presence seems to persuade Falck to return to the colony from the ruins of the great fire of Copenhagen in 1795, some years after her death and after his unseemly departure from Greenland. There is a reading that can be made into this: that is, regarding the Rousseau motif, and regarding Leine’s explicit attention towards the conjunction that is ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ (Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains), Lydia, the widow, the ghost, necessarily enchains Falck in his freedom.

The prophets at Eternal Fjord are merely bit players in the set of the novel. It is true that they represent the liberation of the native Greenlanders in their attempts at eschewing the Danish mission, and thus largely the European culture, but it is rendered as a cult, albeit subtly so, and Falck falls into this for a while. Leine portrays Maria Magdalene, who dreams her visions and relays them to Habakuk, her husband, who preaches to their assembled followers, as charismatic enough, but their presence does not last long (neither directly on the page or in the background light of the book). Habakuk is a philanderer, as seems to be tolerated in the isolated fjord settlement of Igdlut, and he runs off with Lydia, the fallacious widow, Falck’s wife. When the Trader Kragstedt attacks the settlement, no doubt concerned more about the effects of congregations of people on the economic viability of his whaling plans than on those people’s spiritual well-being, Falck is obliged to return to Sukkertoppen.

It is the widow Lydia’s dis-ease and desire for salvation that drives her to seek her own death. With her young daughter dead and with a need to atone for atrocious but justifiable sins, she knows suicide will not deliver her. She seeks collusion. It is this act with which Leine begins his narrative before delving back and then forwards again in time. There is a thread of forgiveness that the author follows throughout the novel’s pages: Falck seeks forgiveness for leaving the woman he was about to marry in his early stint in Copenhagen, Abelone Schultz, departing to take up post for the Mission as he does; there is the tone of forgiveness desired in Falck’s acceptance of the ghost’s occasional appearances in the latter pages; the smith is briefly seen as trying to atone for his sins. The author seems to need to tie up the loose ends of his writing as he goes: we’re told that Bertel, the catechist, leaves the colony on the death of his son (under the medically naive stewardship of Falck and his attempted surgery) and the departure of his pregnant wife — Leine writes several pages of digression to explain Bertel’s months away; Falck takes a long trek by foot across Norway, from Bergen to Lier, so that he may speak to his father again; the Magister seeks out Abelone in Copenhagen, during his second stint, in search of her forgiveness. The author chooses to close with an account of forgiveness-seeking at graves on the fells above Igdlut.

So it is that The Prophets of Eternal Fjord starts and ends on the heights of western Greenland’s sparsely populated, harsh terrain. Kim Leine has produced a narrative that weaves historical events with the fictional intensity of his characters, in sensory landscapes of coasts and urban squalor, in the religious and socio-political claustrophobia of the late 18th century Danish crown. Its occasional digressions sometimes fail to drive the narrative onwards and, as such, it is overly long, but the whole is represented by an immersion, nonetheless, leaving the reader with an after-image of significant depth, sense, and consideration on time, place, journey, and liberty.
 
 

In the Nature of Nature: Notebook Stitchings

It snowed: I snowed. It rained: I rained. As if in some pre-verbal state, whatever ‘it’ was, I was too. I was warm in May because the sun was: I couldn’t tell the difference. I was all the world and all the world was me, saturated with presence. Grass. Blue. Tree. Water. Wind.

— Jay Griffiths, Kith: the Riddle of the Childscape (2013)

I can tell you about the search for perfect words but, really, do you know just how those words can have affect for this mind and body and for this sensitivity? Words are like the weather.

The dust and particles of sand blow up from far in the south, from the deserts, across the seas, and high into the stream of the sky. The air turns dense, a sepia-yellow. The wind blows through. The children in the playground whip around. It feels apocalyptic, but it’s the tail of the storm.

Or, sometimes, in moments still and wide, words are great gashes, sweeps and strokes: all dimensions crammed into two. Words are in the vast theatre-flats, the sets of the world.

Through the raindrops on glass, the sky is a thin wash painting: one of Rothko’s experiments, perhaps. Spread below the thick dark grey, a weak orange, a washy yellow, a bright pale blue and a weathered tinge of green — bands that mark beyond the black bare trees.

I can tell you about the need not to break the lovely ghosts of words, but I would need to whisper this. Words are the china-delicacy of time.

The morning is quiet before the day sets in. Let’s just stop time. Here we can be supple, maleable, soft. Things are possible, but just now, in mornings.

We may talk, you and me, but we might not fully comprehend: our own thoughts fall in the way. Words are water, the art of attention.

The river listens to the liquid conversations we have with ourselves: silent us and silent it. Occasionally it speaks, in ripples, but mostly it just waits and hears.

Or, words are a blurring, out and out across the land and sea, back and back through geographies and histories. Words are like waves, hypnotic, sloshing and smearing us out and away.

Here at the sea, the long sweep along the coast to other places known, and what was this rock thousands of years before we built on it? Later, still far back for us, the early travellers are out on the waves.

I can tell you many things, but I don’t have the wisdom of the trees. Words are such as these.

The trees speak, in languages other than words, in words other than sound, in sounds of colour and light. The trees speak in poetry we have to read by standing still.

I can tell you about the search for perfect words but, really, it’s all written in the stars. Or maybe we don’t believe in matters of astrology.

Perhaps in our written words we’re starlight: we should concentrate all efforts on precision and arrangements. We never know who might look on us — how we can be seen.

In the end, at this end, at this moment, I suppose, it is in the nature of nature, the world and its weather, its sets and time, its waters, seas and trees, its in the stars, if we’ll see, that perfect words can be.
 
 

Disintegration and Other Stories: Ebook Cover Re-Design

Eventually, the re-designed new cover for Disintegration and Other Stories, in ebook format, has worked its way through the channels at KDP.

The old placeholder version was a little too rough and ready, and this suits the bill much better. Is anything ever finished, or should we just move on?

All books are available at the bookshop.
 
 
 
 

Book Release: Once Upon a Teller Fell

Once Upon a Teller Fell (Amazon Cover) Introducing the new book Once Upon a Teller Fell, which is available to purchase via the bookshop link.

Here’s the blurb on the Amazon and CreateSpace pages:

‘This train is the last of the night, travelling north and east. It falters, with a long unearthly squeal, and it surrenders, this evening in the deep and still surrounds.

‘Who else here discovers green-blue gloss across the vast night sky? Beyond the nebulous solidity of the embankment, a corona of unexpected light weakly washes the world
. . . even time can go nowhere when the world is precisely lit.’

Ragnar, Teller of Tales, alights from the broken down train and is lost in the City of Trees, the city that doesn’t exist: a place experienced in degrees of perception. Nature and the urban slide between each other. Illusions and realities of past and future-poems start to intertwine.

At home, somewhere and somewhen amongst it all, are Ragnar’s wife and children. In the City of Trees, the city that doesn’t exist, he must decide who to trust in his entanglements and navigations to find his family: Avia and her kin, fey but sharp in what might be witcheries; Ingmar, who would be king, obsessed by luck and also seeking escape; the missive other children of the place, illusory or otherwise.

Once Upon a Teller Fell is a story of intersecting illusions and realities, of past and future tales, of looking for the now.

If we look — what might we see, with which we may believe.

~

The author would like to acknowledge some of the various influences, to greater or lesser degrees, in the completion of this project. In alphabetical order of writers: the ‘good city’ considerations of Ash Amin; the spatial poetics of Gaston Bachelard; the invisible cities of Italo Calvino; the phenomenological inquiries into ‘played-with-ness’ of Sylwyn Guilbaud; the introduction to psychogeographic tracings in Peter Ackroyd’s London writings, as presented by Will Self. In alphabetical order of fragmentary aspects of certain places: the village of Avebury, Wiltshire; the coves and beaches of west Cornwall; the various forests of the former East Germany, Hampshire and Kent; the Larmer Tree Gardens on the Wiltshire/Dorset border; slices of Old Oak, Shepherd’s Bush and White City, west London; the old Wessex capital of Winchester; the city of Zaragoza, Spain. A place is many-layered.