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.
 
Openings
• 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.
 
Clumsiness
• 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).
 
Characters
• 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.
 
Dialogue
• 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.
 
Meanderings
• 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
• 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.
 
Depth
• 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.
 
Structure
• 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.
 
Plot
• 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.
 
Crafting
• 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.
 
Endings
• 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: While the Women are Sleeping (Javier Marías)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Voice Analysis of a Body (of Fictional Work)

In a continual analysis of the way I’m writing, in building a new collection of fictions, I find there’s a need to be aware of the way of writing that is taking place ‘now’. That is, it keeps changing: what is it now? I’m of the opinion that a writer needs to be in touch with the idea that analysis of their own writing is important. Even in streams of consciousness writing, we can analyse the process. Being able to deconstruct certain elements in the writing or reading process (if not necessarily in writing that all down, then at least in thought), contributes towards a fuller whole. A body of work can be read in various ways: simple chronology of works created forms a basic frame of reference; maybe that body of work can also be read by way of deflections in and out of themes, motifs, structural arrangements, influences, ways of representing concepts and characters, etc.; maybe the body of work can be read by way of individual voices, or tones of the same voice, within the whole.

The trouble with writing a collection that follows a broad theme, but yet is intended as an array of situations and characters, and which allows for deflections in and out of all the above in the previous paragraph, is that one strong piece written in a certain manner becomes the unintended benchmark. This is an aside, yet something discovered in the process of analysis. That a piece can be strong in its own right, without a need for it to have to correlate with the strengths of the other piece, is something that might need embracing. Matching fictions within a collection against each other might well end up converging on the same way of writing: the same first or third person point of view, the same archetypal characters, crucibles or conflicts, resolutions, and/or patterns in twists in the tales.

In analysis of the individuality of fictions found in various notebooks, as the weeks go by, I’m left wondering about the individual voices contained within each, and whether they’re on the path towards aggregating into some coherent whole. That is, the authoritative, the reflective, the defensive (maybe), the unreliable, might converge into something substantial; yet the ‘now’ being such as it is, we’re not to know. Can we leave it to trust, or should we hone in on one strand (because at least then we know what the end result will have the feel of)?

A recent TV documentary about psychological studies into preferred human states concluded that we tend towards people who present as authoritative. Similarly, in our reading we prefer a strong hand, someone to lead the way in the writing, telling us that this is the way things are. We don’t want someone to be evasive or unsure. We want to be taken somewhere and they can steer. We’ll just enjoy the ride. This is true.

Is this true? I’m often drawn to writers who offer me a chance to think for myself, by way of their reflection, or their device of reflecting so as to draw me into what they want to say. In Dark Back of Time, Javier Marías writes in the very first line: ‘I believe I’ve still never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once.’ Similarly, in Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, her first line offers a thought: ‘Why is the measure of love loss?’

My next logical step from reflection is the possible defensive. The tone that is ‘I write this because I have to’, as I read it, often opens windows into the writer’s body of work. ‘Having to’ being an implication of the dark draw or gravitational pull of words that will out, no matter what. Franz Kafka wrote a series of meditations that he, perhaps, would have preferred not to be published. In The Men Running Past, he writes: ‘If one is walking along a street at night and a man who can be seen a long way off . . . comes running towards us, then we shan’t lay hands on him . . . after all, haven’t we a right to be tired, haven’t we drunk so much wine?’ Writing because the writing needs to be laid down can be less dour than this. An injection of energy, because the energy of the moment requires it, will run through the whole. In this way it’s real.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita could be the epitome of unreliable narration. Within this strand of thinking — that we can fuse reality and fiction as writers and leave the reader wondering which is which — is a constant fascination for this writer: it’s akin to trying to differentiate the blurred line between indoor and outdoor space (when there are no doors, no marks, just some indication of a possible roof overhead). Or it links to cartography and the way that maps of the edges of islands are never correct: if the map marks the high tide line, or the average tide, this is still never the exact shape of the island at any given moment. What is the exact definition of inside/outside, outline of island, reality/fiction in a piece of writing? This individual way of writing is a strong pull.

Can we leave the potential aggregation of voices (tones of the same voice) to trust (the authoritative, the reflective, the defensive, the fusion of reality/fiction or unreliably natured)? Will trust result in a coherent voice in the whole? Analysis and deconstruction, at least, help this writer to understand the writing of the ‘now’.