Review of Reviews 2014

As the end of the reading and writing year is upon us, I have been considering the content of my various reviews over the past twelve months. What follows is an admittedly lengthy piece but one which, I trust, can be returned to or read in sections: it is a piece that can be analysed in itself, certainly. The collection of sixteen titles reviewed in 2014 forms just a proportion of total reading content in the past year; however, the reviews that have been inspired by these books do offer the opportunity for this writer to further engage with the process of writing. To be better writers we must continue to read, to analyse, and to learn.

What follows is a review of the reviews of those sixteen titles. The salient aspects of each review have been republished in this post, re-worded for greater clarity in some cases, and roughly categorised (anonymising here, for the most part, regarding comment references to particular authors). The intention is that each comment can stand alone as a point of reflection for writers in consideration of their own work.

This review of reviews has been a process of reading, analysis and synthesis in itself. It embraces various short story collections, novels, novellas, and a form of travel-journal. Twelve authors’ works are included, namely: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Diego Marani, Javier Marías, Gabriel García Márquez, Christopher Burns, Tove Jansson, Esther Freud, Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Ben Okri, and Bruce Chatwin. The original reviews can be found via the left-hand side bar.

The review points to follow offer this writer some food for thought. I trust that they can do likewise for you too.
• The author tries to deliver as much hook in the first paragraphs of his stories as he can.
• There is an interesting opening idea and we settle down to the potential unwinding of this mystery.
• However, the author’s story is soon cluttered with irritating pretensions of cleverness and, half-way through, a disorientating shift in scene altogether.
• The ever-increasing reading hope that the author’s opening line will, at some point, amount to something fails to materialise.
Reader engagement
• Something may be happening. A reader must care.
• A story not entirely believable might be forgiven (a reader might go with the flow).
• The author exercises skill at immersing the reader in his places, characters’ situations, and in moments in time.
• He has the ability to sink the reader down into the fabric of the book, the place and person in the print.
• Moments of magic realism left unnurtured cause some reading dissatisfaction.
• What we are left with is something that lingers, certainly.
• Of a collection engaging with semi-autobiographical material: we can suspend our imaginations for a certain period and indulge in the idea that pure fictions are present, but at the back of the reading mind is the knowledge of something different taking shape.
• The effect of the story must strike true enough.
• Obscure literary references: some are more easily comprehensible than others.
• Also avoid the relentless and frankly irritating insistence of including foreign language as the primary source of much dialogue, followed by English translations or vice versa (as if to say, grandiosely, ‘look I speak French/am French and how superior I must be’).
• The gracelessness of the exploration is a growing agitation in the read.
• The author’s meandering, sometimes unfathomable writing style jars repeatedly.
• It is the rambling, unintelligible, non-contextual aspect of the author’s writing that is the most bafflingly frustrating.
• Having reached the half-way stage of the book, still so far so possible. However, here the author throws the reader completely. Now, at the start of the second half of the book, we find that the main character is somewhere and somewhen else. It isn’t at all clear what is going on.
• A reader doesn’t often like to be taken from one story and placed in what appears to be the middle of another without forewarning.
• The main character narrates several excruciating pages of pretentious classical-mythological analogy.
• This book is a lengthy poetic indulgence for the author, which might well have been delivered better in more succinct and shining ways.
• Whilst it remains fine to meander, some of the tellings of tales appear, to this reader, questionable in authenticity.
• The author meets and references a great many people in his exploration, with noble attempts at drawing certain individuals with brushstrokes designed at impressing them into the memory, but the net effect is that of a general swathe and flow of a traveller’s acquaintances.
• The author offers up pages of excerpts from his previous notebook travels, some of which provide succinct pause for thought, but the overall effect rather spoils the narrative drive of the whole.
Fictive suspension/flow
• Fictive suspension must be maintained.
• In a semi-autobiographical collection, writing as another gender disturbs the fictive flow: a certain degree of interest is lost because, in the context of the collection as a whole, this just does not fit; the nagging returns as to who is narrating here.
Brilliance and beauty
• Expertly describes bleaknesses and deftly describes raw power and beauty.
• Describes small slices of scenes with colour and delicate words.
• He has the succinct ability to pinpoint a description with a minute but significant object detail.
• The author does offer up moments of linguistic flourish.
• As delicate and as beautiful as an object found on a beach.
• A string of beautiful arrangements.
• In places, sprinkled with beautiful description.
• The author weaves in some beautiful imagery and sensory assemblages of market places.
• There are some small successes in playing with language.
• The author is capable of dropping in a fine and succinct line of thought.
• There are moments of quoted poetic beauty.
• Avoid jamming into a narrative apparent knowledge of the nuances of a subject matter in clumsy ways.
• The writerly device of a character narrating to the author a personal shared back-story tale (memories of place, times, objects) can feel somewhat clumsy.
• Do not set up titles for books by way of contrived conversations between characters.
• There is a proliferation of clumsy similes.
Identity of a book
• Pay attention to the potential for a crisis of identity (what is this book trying to be?)
• One story is confused in its descriptions, place, time, and reason for being.
• What is it that is the heart (not at the heart) of this book?
• The author does not seem to know what this book is: is it some discourse on metaphysical angst, an exploration of meta-fiction, detective-mystery magical allusion, or any or none of the above?
Body of work
• The practice of ‘writing on writing’ (as in building on the body of work), can be a useful device for development of the art form, but the body of work must have an integrity regarding its development (every writer’s quality of output will shift over time).
• A story might be ‘re-purposed’, by altering the title, character names and setting of a previous story.
• A story collection can form from ideas for a novel.
• ‘I had found what I needed to complete the book, what only the passing of years could give: a perspective in time’ — Márquez (the whole process took some eighteen years).
• Characters may be linked across the author’s body of work (there being a penchant for returning characters, as would seem to be the case).
• Names are used in dialogue to introduce characters, or to try to indicate who says what next. This feels somewhat amateurish.
• If we’re to immerse in the voices of characters presented to us, we need to be able to differentiate between those characters.
• Characters, Latin Americans in Europe, spring quickly from the page.
• The author has a penchant for the full name (immediately giving us some sense of a person; some feel for the possibility of a history).
• There are believable patterns of lives, though in sometimes slightly fabulous ways.
• The author seems to enjoy the ‘folding in’ of characters in his stories: a promising opening; offering us place and character and a rough idea of where those characters are heading in the piece; he folds in some extra details to give further colour to the whole, before often folding in further still by delivering some back story details to the personal histories of those characters.
• There is slight irritation in the author’s choices of flat, almost prosaic, character names: Simon, Peter, Mary, Andrew, Neville, Tony, et al (should we place our characters so blatantly in their landscapes by such choices, or can we afford to exercise more in the way of flourish and embellishment in this respect?)
• We bow down to the nature knowledge of one of the characters and suppose that it is true.
• None of the wisdom portrayed is dispatched in a holier-than-thou or preached manner.
• Can a character be seen as ‘a real child’? That is, it can be easy to slip into the trap of writing a child character in stereotypical sugary-sweet form; or, would an average child want to use words such as ‘aristocratic’ in speech?
• It is perplexing that a character referred to as existing on an island does not become in any way concrete for the majority of a book, and does not speak until three pages from the end. That he’s subtly eased off the frame of the page is a little off-putting.
• There are gradual interactions between characters.
• There is a concern though: little love can be shown to either of the main characters by the reader.
• A third character is the pivot, and the author has successfully sketched him in the neutrality that is required in order for the other characters to be as shaded as they are.
• Katri Kling, in her hardness, and Anna Aemelin, in her softness, have perfect names for their characters.
• In short story collections, surround a character by other stories that don’t make him/her jump out sharply from the whole.
• She exhibits a deep understanding of what it is to be child age.
• The author carefully and gradually draws a picture of the main character.
• Such is the author’s skill at writing from the younger child’s perspective (not in saccharine sweet stereotyped ways) that she manages to convince us of the magic of place at the same time as slowly unfolding the frustrating mother character.
• However, more psychological damage should have been caused to one of the child characters as a result of the mother character’s actions.
• Avoid extremely sketched and ridiculous stereotypes.
• The main character presents as a pretentious scholarly bore. Perhaps this is more accurately descriptive of the author himself though: the character and the author seem to share some aspects of their existence.
• The author surrounds the main character with a series of flimsily sketched other characters who mope about and stare off into the evening sky. Those characters are reminiscent, perhaps, of beginner writers’ early attempts at creating believable people: stereotypical, paper-thin, verging on archetypal.
• The author mostly eschews the naming of places and people (on one level, this works in the context of the formation of myth-making; on another level, as a novel-story, this is wholly unsatisfactory).
• Even more curious is that the author then deems it necessary to stamp a nickname onto one of the characters who washes in and out of the tale, and he names another who doesn’t stay long enough on the pages for character examination.
• This book includes a series of characters who are as airy or as liquid as the words the author lays down.
• The main characters mope through the pages of the book and nothing really happens for long, long periods.
• A flow of alternating dialogue — a collection of people and their overlapping conversations — although not difficult to follow, is clumsy in its execution.
• Dialogue here, in its relative scarcity, is unconvincingly poetically delivered: sometimes with torturous lack of reality, sometimes with torturous rhyme.
Sewing up
• Beware of writing that feels like after-thoughts, as a means of sewing up bits the author has neither the wit nor the inclination to think through as he goes.
• The author writes in a seemingly self-conscious manner at times, trying to fill in the holes he’s left, looking to smooth it all over and say to the reader how that’s all been cleared up, let’s move on.
• Avoid late and turgid long myth-tales as meandering excursions.
• The author’s long expositions build without any great pace or urgency to a point of frustration.
Twists and deviations
• Significant twists in some stories only serve to disturb the reader: the slightest of fictive cheating has taken place.
• That we gradually work out a time and place in any given story should work as a reward for our reading and connecting the puzzle pieces: when we’re shifted from that path, rudely as it were, when we’re walking comfortably along in the story’s authority, it risks unsettling us.
• Meta-fiction can be a dangerous game to play.
• When an author rides a vehicle such as ‘language’, a reader will inevitably find his thoughts turning to thoughts on language.
• The problem with the meta-fiction approach is at least two-fold: the reader becomes acutely aware of the writer’s thinking on writing, somewhat drawing the author as character into the piece, and the author needs to ensure everything he writes thereafter is faultless.
• There is consistently something lying beneath the surface in the author’s stories.
• The author’s writing appears to develop from conceptual inception, but the full depth of that thinking on the author’s part doesn’t always shine through.
• There are stories in this collection that aren’t so subtle or are laden and convoluted and which don’t reach the depths to which they might aspire. One, for example, is a messy stream of consciousness affair with no real focus; another is very slight and without great depth; another is a long and somewhat turgid exposition alluding to age.
• This is a tale that attempts to press some deeper concerns into the short- and long-term conscious process of the reader, but which falls short of this presumed target because of the shortcomings of its details.
• The story flows well enough, initially, but ultimately vagueness does not always result in depth.
• A poetic assemblage of no great solidity.
• It is a liquid flow of words which purports to meditative depths but, in reality, delivers a silted stodge to wade through.
• The idea is greater than the depth in its pages.
• There is undoubted complexity, as well as the poetic, and there is an accumulation of detail.
• Readability is let down by the author’s penchant for the occasional long and convoluted sentence.
• Consider syntax word orders of sentences and grammatical structures.
• Straighten out the incomplete sentences that tend to crop up.
• Avoid dense, impenetrable text.
• Markers are placed early on in stories and economically returned to later.
• There are recurring motifs.
• There is, however, a proliferation of partly constructed sentences throughout the book, which does have a tendency to distract the discerning eye.
• The author has presented, in short, a garbled concoction.
• ‘The end justifies the means’ is not a pretty means by any stretch.
• Stereotypical perceptions are to be avoided.
• This work is a fair percentage full of seemingly drunkard-penned ramblings in need of a good editorial savaging.
• It becomes apparent that the author either has a short attention span for maintaining motifs or anchor references in his story telling, choosing to introduce them and then just ignore them, or he has an inability to keep them in check.
• English translations may not accurately represent the nuances of the original language, but this work is peppered with incomplete sentences (the proliferation soon becomes cumbersome and annoying).
• He starts to warm to a new idea (or, if it’s been there all along, it’s been difficult to tell).
• There are clues on the opening page, but those clues are washed over in the reading because they come too soon.
• There is ambition of presenting a long mythic poetic prose tale which is not wholly achieved.
• At times the author’s writing feels like an exercise in poetic thesaurus development: he spins out his idea of the moment in tautological litanies.
• Do not replicate the author’s repetitive listed descriptions, for line upon line.
• Not for everyone: there is no definite plot, no narrative sweep of direction, no main crucible or conflict for the characters to navigate.
• The author’s story is a journey, though one without defined plot. This doesn’t matter because what we’re presented with is a tale of subtle love and frustration, abandonments, confusions, immersions and beauty.
• He spends time on his words.
• There is a predilection for certain favourite words or motifs.
• Precise, cut-glass, clear, clean prose. Hardly anything is wasted in the arrangements of words.
• For the most part, this collection is subtle, well-written, with the feel of care in construction, thought, considerations of structure and texture.
• There are some slender and beautiful juxtapositions in place.
• Juxtapositioning the prosaic and the beautiful can result in unexpected art.
• Sometimes it feels as if the author is crafting a piece, out and out, from a single kernel of an idea or from the delicate arrangement of one notion touched against another.
• There are some very deliberate structural arrangements/filmic qualities, in places.
• A book of love, a sculpting of character, enmeshing of characters.
• A book filled with clean, efficient, beautiful language.
• Despite its lack of plot or narrative direction, this book is built on love — a love of nature, for the island itself, for beauty, for characters.
• The author creates, perhaps with full intention, the overwhelming feel of something cold, winterstruck, and crisp yet troubling.
• There are layers that the author has, undoubtedly, deliberately stitched into this book.
• The ‘sketching’ process is one of the author’s signatures. She uses an economy of words which, for the most part, works well (we are left to think).
• The author’s contribution to the written form encompasses the crisp, the clean, the sharp, and the beautiful.
• One character’s long hoped-for return is a ghost that hangs in the pages throughout.
• Certainly there are ideas here that are worth creative investment of writing and reading, but the author rather spoils their shine with words for the sake of words.
Place and time
• The author’s travels have given him an eye for description of place and how that might feel for his characters.
• The author’s achievement here is to place this book in its own time, imbuing it with its own sense of memory.
• This is a book containing deliberate vast vistas and the occasionally succinct description of place.
Magic and myth
• The author deals with magic in such a way as to alchemise it into plastic.
• The author’s ideas might well be worth magic consideration, but his way of writing on them just brings the reader to the point of drifting off because of a lack of belief.
• A story needs anchoring in belief, even — or especially — if it’s the telling of the origins of myth.
• Avoid clumsy and unsatisfactory endings.
• On occasion, the author ends a story abruptly and seemingly on the cusp of an idea.
• Take care not to let a story peter out: the potential force of the tale fades.
• This collection ends with effective poignancy.

Book Review: New Finnish Grammar (Diego Marani)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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