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?

Kennedy, W. (1973), The yellow trolley car in Barcelona, and other visions, The Atlantic [Online]. Available from: (Accessed December 24, 2017)

Welton, E. (2014), Gabriel García Márquez in quotes, The Guardian [Online]. Available from: (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.

Ripenings and Twistings: Emergences of the Fantastic

Ideas change, they warp and become salty, they run, they are eclipsed, they go dark. Ideas compost, they drop seeds . . . Ideas are saturated, incubated, stained, and blurred . . . Most live in the substrata, lurking in the forest undergrowth, in the pavement of my city, in the folds of skin behind your knees.

— from Beginnings? (Nora Bateson, 2015)

Come back and around in the art of going around in circles. There are things we can learn about letting things ripen and in our re-twists and returns. Drop in an idea or two and let them brew. You know (I’ll assert) the page can be a fantastic arena for fermentation (and, here, ‘fantastic’ is with a view to the blown out, a starsplash, out of the ordinary): the spread of yeast, the Petri dish. Or, mixing metaphors, drop in a bead of ink and watch it unfold in the water. We write and we wait.

Do you know what you wrote, one day, stone cold sober or otherwise, and later underneath the ink there is, you find, something sweet unique? What does it matter if they might say that all that ever might be written ever has been written? It never has been written quite this way. Though you may not have known it at the time, later when you read again you sensed something just breathing. We write and we wait and we listen in.

It may just be the brewing process, words steeped in the mash of time and place where they were written, steeped in the puttering and bubbling of the states of being, times and places of our returns of reading. We write and we wait, we listen in and we stir.

Underneath the ink is something quite unique. We create our tenebrous soft and wet-winged creatures and leave them in the dark. What is it that they’re silked with? What ‘ineffable utter neatness’ and ‘everything just connects-ness’ smothers them? What lies folded within the nascent, soft wet wings of a line? It may just be its settling that imbues its future reading with an artistry. We write and we wait, we listen in and we stir; we study with the keenness of mothers.

Come back and around in the art of going around in circles. There are things we can learn about letting things ripen and in our re-twists and returns. Drop in an idea or two and let them brew. You know (I’ll assert) the page can be a fantastic arena for fermentation: the spread of yeast, the Petri dish, where the salty long-tongued lick of lips is soft and small — the grub, the pup that opens up its silk-slipped wings, letting leatherings and letterings stiffen in the breeze you breathe across them.

We write, we wait, we listen, and we stir; we study and we are astounded, confounded, by the creatures we have made.

Book Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez)

Some books take in time, and One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of those books. Some four months in the reading, this four-hundred page plus novel also encompasses time within its pages. Popularly considered as one of Márquez’s most celebrated literary contributions, if not the most celebrated of his works, this book has been on this reader’s list for quite some while. It is, once within its pages, an immersive read; however, herein lies a fundamental issue with what Márquez has produced — in returning to the pages, we must find our way back in.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (Penguin Books, 1972, 2014, translated from the original Spanish by Gregory Rabassa; originally published as Cien Años de Soledad, 1967) details the various trials and tribulations of some six generations of the Buendía family. Following the arrival of a group of travelling pioneers — including José Arcadio Buendía and Úrsula Iguarán — in a remote area of Latin America, the founding of the village, and later city, of Macondo soon takes place. So begins the dynasty of the Buendías. It is, however, with the opening gambit of the predicament that will later be the lot of one of their sons, Aureliano, which Márquez chooses to entice us into the tale that will spread out in its pages. Aureliano, later to be known as Colonel Aureliano Buendía, faces the firing squad in the book’s opening lines. He remembers the day his father, José Arcadio, took him to discover ice.

Márquez proceeds to unfold the stories of various characters within the family in the form of interacting vignettes. There is a density to the whole, as illuminated by Alejo Carpentier’s 1975 lecture encompassing his descriptions of ‘the baroque and the marvellous real’, and Márquez confesses in the latter pages of his novel that there is a certain cyclical nature to time that he is portraying. That is to say, deep into the work, we begin to read recurring scenarios and situations between characters, and the by-then aged Úrsula is convinced that history is repeating itself. Márquez declares an interest in the idea that time plays itself out all at once.

Despite the developing appreciation of these concepts throughout the read, the density of it all is exacerbated by the deliberate repetition and re-use of the same character names across generations. It is appreciated, in context, why this is done, but there are, for example, twenty-two different Aurelianos (some merely sketched, such as seventeen of the sons of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, all by different women; some, such as the Colonel himself, are much more detailed in the author’s following of his life); there are four José Arcadios, and a further Arcadio, two Amarantas, and three characters named or partly named Remedios, as well as other characters who also step through the pages. Further to all of this, Márquez makes denser the weave by detailing twins and other brothers, and repetitions of relationships between male characters and their aunts. Such is the complexity of the family by way of its names, it’s a saving grace that the publishers have included a family tree on the opening pages. Without this the danger is that the reader returning to the book after a reading pause of some days might be tempted not to carry on: which José Arcadio or Aureliano is Márquez referring to here, and which aspect of whose vignette are we currently returning to?

What begins as a tale that appears to be one that will follow the life of a revolutionary, who faces and will escape the firing squad — albeit first from the earlier perspective of the Colonel’s childhood — becomes an exposition of digressions into tales of others. Certainly there are tales of fantastic beauty and those which linger in the memory afterwards within all of this: Márquez recounts the manner of Remedios the Beauty’s ascension to heaven; the way in which yellow butterflies flit around Mauricio Babilonia, father of the penultimate Aureliano, wherever he goes; the brief description of the yellow flowers falling after the death of José Arcadio, father of the Colonel. However, we are sometimes left wondering about the tale in progression if we leave it for a reading pause, even at a natural break in the writing. How is it that Márquez has kept track of the abundance of detail, as Carpentier has it, in these vignettes? The author returns, pages later, to a seemingly forgotten aspect of a tale once told, and the reader has either forgotten this and is reminded of it, or the reader has no recollection at all of the aspect he’s being reminded of. Such is the danger of lengthy reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

To the characters who live in its pages, Márquez also adds the evocation of the ghosts of characters who have died and who linger in the memories of the occupants of the house that serves as the central grounding piece of the dynasty. José Arcadio, the original and forefather, is visited by the ghost of a man he killed and who contributed to his desire to travel, in search of the sea, later founding Macondo. In turn, he, José Arcadio, after spending his final days tied to a chestnut tree in the failing of his faculties, is referred to as inhabiting the life of a ghost there, before quietly slipping from the pages as the years also slip by. Melquíades, a gypsy from the early days of Macondo, appears in slight apparitional fashion to subsequent characters from future generations in a room in the house which collects no dust, and in which those future Buendías struggle to translate Melquíades’ parchments, written, as it later transpires, in his native Sanskrit. Those parchments form a thread throughout the novel, a prophesy of the family, but Márquez ensures there are many, many threads to follow.

Time passes within the various travails of members of the Buendía family, whose matriarch, Úrsula, mother of Colonel Aureliano, is a familiar if steadily ageing presence. Children are born, grow, and are abandoned by Márquez in decaying houses till old-age or packed off to the nunnery, forgotten by the reader until the author deems to have them resurface, if they will; or else they leave the house and Macondo, often returning from their travels across seas, from adventures in search of mysteries and myths, only to reach disturbing ends after Márquez has built them up so much in his overlapping vignettes. Such is death in reality, but nevertheless the suddenness of Márquez’s treatment of characters we’ve grown accustomed to over hundreds of pages is affecting. Even Úrsula, at the age of 122 before she lost count, has a death barely given half a paragraph, close to the four-hundred page mark. The Colonel’s eventual demise is likewise briefly attended to, as is his father’s, José Arcadio, who we follow through the fledgling pages of this novel in his ever-enthusiastically imagined schemes and inventions. Márquez writes time quickly, in some senses, despite the expanse of it in the whole of this work, and chooses not to dither too long in dialogue.

Characters are imbued with solitude throughout: such seems to be at the heart of Melquíades the gypsy’s prophesy. Even the house, which sees within its walls the hospitality of Úrsula, the revolutionary comings and goings of Colonel Aureliano’s various campaigns, in his returns, the unrequited and illicit loves and fervent vengeful preoccupations of Amaranta, Rebeca, Amaranta Úrsula, Remedios the Beauty, Aureliano Segundo and Fernanda, et al, seems to wear an air of solitude in itself. The house’s fortunes wax and wane, from the abundant times of Aureliano Segundo to the slow and suffocating stiffness of formality that his wife, Fernanda, later imposes on it, as Úrsula turns blind with age. Fernanda’s darkness consumes pages. Eventually, the house is swamped by four years of constant rain, but nevertheless Fernanda insists on persisting with the staunch formality of her own upbringing. The period of rain is bleak, and Márquez draws it with such skill that we want it to end as much as the characters do. At this time, at the height of bleakness, Márquez brings back Fernanda’s son, another José Arcadio, after her death, who she had sent to Rome to learn to become a Pope. He is as stiff as his mother, but there have been no papal studies. There is brief light though, following José Arcadio’s untimely demise, with the return of the penultimate Aureliano’s young aunt, Amaranta Úrsula, Macondo being a stronger pull than her study and husband in Brussels.

Time happens both quickly and slowly within Márquez’s novel. We forget about certain characters, such as Pilar Ternera, a madame, a prostitute, mother of an earlier Aureliano and an Arcadio, whose fathers are brothers: Márquez brings her back later in the work, at the age of 145 at the last count, fantastic though this is, then he lays her to rest in a vault beneath her final brothel. Rebeca, from the earlier days, slowly decays in a house we see nothing much of, and we forget that she’s there until Márquez tells us that now she’s finally died. We met her when she was young, dragging the bones of her parents in a sack. So much has happened between then and the final pages.

Such is a useful summary of One Hundred Years of Solitude: Márquez packs in so many details, so many vignettes, and so many characters that we struggle to remember it all. Maybe the same is true of generations. Maybe, as Márquez writes, we may see time as cyclical, repeating, or all at once because the ‘marvellous real’ of it all, as Carpentier has it, is that the extraordinary is the ordinary, and vice versa. Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is certainly a read that is immersive, if not a little frustrating with its dizziness of repeated character names, and this reader recommends an immersion of something more like four days rather than four months: time is an essential component of this book.

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: The Songlines (Bruce Chatwin)

Whilst Chatwin’s The Songlines (Vintage, 2003; Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1987) is not a story collection as it were, or a novel, it is a collection of tales of travel and study, and so review here seems fitting. Within the narrative drive that is Chatwin’s journeying of the sacred lands around Alice Springs, Australia, with Arkady Volchok — an Australian citizen of Russian descent — there is an exploration of Aboriginal culture, academic study and conjecture, myth and magic. Despite the notion, as quoted of a character known as Titus towards the end of the book, that ‘there is no such person as an Aboriginal or Aborigine. There are Tjakamarras and Jaburullas and Duburungas like me, and so on all over the country’, Chatwin expends much time and energy in the pursuit of what it is to be an ‘Aboriginal’ native of the land.

What results is a book containing deliberate vast vistas and the occasionally succinct description of place: ‘We forked right at the sign for Middle Bore and headed east along a dusty road that ran parallel to a rocky escarpment. The road rose and fell through a thicket of grey-leaved bushes, and there were pale hawks perching on the fence-posts.’ Chatwin’s direction is exploration of the Aboriginal Songlines (the land is literally sung into being), but his journey meanders. However, whilst it remains fine to meander so, some of the tellings appear, to this reader, questionable in authenticity.

Chatwin meets and references a great many people in his exploration, and although he makes noble attempts at drawing certain individuals with brushstrokes designed at impressing them into the memory (such as with the manner of their demeanour or the idiosyncrasy of their attire), the net effect is that of a general swathe and flow of a traveller’s acquaintances. Chatwin accompanies Arkady for a significant portion of the book, the latter’s role being ‘to identify the traditional landowners . . . and get them to reveal which rock or soak or ghost-gum was the work of a Dreamtime hero.’ Arkady is trusted of the Aboriginal ‘mobs’, working to map the land’s Songlines so that the new railway can’t be driven straight through it all.

Chatwin offers an eloquent account of what these Songlines are, as the exploration deepens, and as a thread to follow throughout the pages. He writes, at various stages, for example:

One should perhaps visualise the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every episode was readable in terms of geology.

Regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes . . . Certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the actions of the Ancestor’s feet.

By naming all the things in his territory, [the Aboriginal] could always count on survival.

In Aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land: since, if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.

Chatwin’s travels to see various important local figures and their ‘managers’, tagging along with Arkady (acting as the hook on which the author can pin his studies), results in a plethora of stories about the land in which they drive. The characters he meets seem mostly reticent but Chatwin is able to relay their songline stories of the Lizard Man, the Tjilpa (native cat), and the like. As with all stories we must sink into them: there is a certain suspension of our learned understandings of the ways of the world to be entered into. Chatwin draws the tales well enough though, insofar as leaving us believing that a man who has never seen the land — which he reels off his learned ‘song’ about — can tell exactly where he is by navigation of the told nodal points of geology and the other nuances of that song.

Chatwin has a notion throughout The Songlines that he never deviates from — it is evident that he has already made up his mind about the assumed preferred state of the human species and now, in the writing, he returns again and again to justifying this idea: we are, he writes, nomadic creatures by nature. Chatwin 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.

There are excursions into previous meetings with academics and writers, unearthing thought-provoking oddities such as via Chatwin’s conversations with Konrad Lorenz (the ‘Father of Ethology’), near Vienna, in which it is claimed that ‘war [is] the collective outpouring of [Man’s] frustrated fighting drives’; there are Chatwin’s tales of his love for notebooks (‘To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe’), specifically moleskine notebooks, and how the Parisian supplier could no longer furnish him with them because the manufacturer had died; there are moments of quoted poetic beauty (‘The most sublime labour of poetry is to give sense and passion to insensate things’ — Giambattista Vico).

Arkady departs from the pages for a substantial stretch of time, on business, leaving Chatwin holed up in the town of Cullen, collecting his thoughts and arranging his notebooks.  It is Arkady’s departure to prompt such meanderings, and despite instances as above, Chatwin must fill the pages with something, but the reader feels obliged to skip-read through plenty of these other offerings in order to return to the flow of the main exploration. When we do so, there is the feeling that some of the interactions and ‘plot lines’ may not be altogether authentic. That is to say, there are moments where Chatwin’s text seems all too contrived. Marian, a research accomplice, for example, who transpires to be Arkady’s love interest, and the latter are depicted in one scene, thus:

I heard the noise of the plane coming in to land. I ran across the airstrip and was in time to watch Arkady get out . . .The golden mop of Marian’s hair followed. She looked deliriously happy. She was in another flowered cotton dress, no less ragged than the others.

‘Hey!’ I shouted. ‘This is wonderful.’

‘Hello, old mate!’ Arkady smiled . . . [he] drew us both into one of his Russian hugs.

‘Let me introduce you to the memsahib?’



‘That is a piece of news!’

‘Isn’t it?’ [Marian] giggled.

It is all a touch too Hollywood at the farthest extremity of the book. These minor misgivings aside, Chatwin’s main exploration of the Songlines offers the reader an insight, via the power of the tradition of oral stories, into ways of being and believing, other than our own. Citing Ted Strehlow, author of Songs of Central Australia, Chatwin writes that he, Strehlow, ‘once compared the study of Aboriginal myths to entering a ‘labyrinth of countless corridors and passages’, all of which were mysteriously connected in ways of baffling complexity.’

Chatwin adds that ‘what makes Aboriginal song so hard to appreciate is the endless accumulation of detail . . . structures of kinship reach out to all living men, to all his fellow creatures, and to the rivers, the rocks and the trees.’ Within The Songlines there is undoubted complexity, as well as the poetic, and there is that accumulation of detail. Chatwin’s legacy is, ultimately, to open up a beginning to our otherness of understanding.

Book Review: Travelling Light (Tove Jansson)

In the continuing discovery of translations of Tove Jansson’s various writings for adults, something becomes ever clearer: thirteen years ago the literary world lost a great talent. The twelve stories in this collection are, for the most part, absorbing, but significantly they mark a shift of form. It becomes evident that the stories collected in Jansson’s previously reviewed A Winter Book (Sort Of Books, 2006; from stories originally written between 1968-71 and 1991-98) are chosen specifically for the overall semi-autobiographical effect. Travelling Light (Sort Of Books, 2010; from the original Swedish Resa Med Lätt Bagage, published by Schildts Förlags Ab, Finland, 1987; English translation by Silvester Mazzarella) is a collection of characters other than Jansson herself, encompassing themes of disorientation, the balancing act of isolation and connection, and the inescapability of our ways of being.

Such wordiness is not becoming of Jansson’s fine clipped prose. Her characterisations tend to sit well and cleanly in the mind, even if sometimes given only a brevity of pages. Within this more eclectic range of people pressed into the lines, even the character in the title story seems more at ease: this piece also having been included in A Winter Book, Jansson’s first person male narrative there feels a little incongruous. Here, the character of Mr Melander is surrounded by other stories that don’t make him jump out sharply from the whole.

Also here, regarding characterisations in the Travelling Light collection, Jansson presents two elderly men, in The Hothouse, whose quiet squabbling over a bench used for reading and contemplation leads to some mutual respect and even longing; there is a well-drawn but loathsome child, in The Summer Child, who casts doom and gloom over his island hosts; a woman tends to an injured lover, following an unknown and unnamed external catastrophe in the rather prosaically titled Shopping, yet there is an edge of the psychological drama creeping in.

Indeed, it is this edge that is a welcome shift in Jansson’s writings (or in this reviewer’s readings of what has washed up on the shore of the desk to date). Elis, the summer child, certainly presents as disturbed but also as desperately and quietly missing something. Jansson writes:

Elis buried the grebe up near the road to the town where there had been a forest fire and there was nothing left among the tree stumps but willowherb; trust him to find a spot like that. He put up a cross with a number on it. Number one. Other graves followed — rat-trap victims, birds that had flown into windows, poisoned field-mice, all solemnly buried and numbered. Sometimes Elis would remark in passing about all the lonely graves that had no one to care for them. ‘And where is your own family graveyard? I’m interested. Do you have a lot of relatives buried there?’

In Shopping, Emily goes out at dawn whilst Kristian recovers from an injured leg, but there is the nagging feel that whilst she ‘shops’ (that is, loots), she also ‘keeps’ Kristian: is Kristian being told the whole truth there behind the boarded up window? In other stories, Jansson attempts the same feel but to varying degrees of success. In The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, for example, Stella returns to a studio apartment she used to live in fifteen years earlier and where, now, Wanda occupies the place. Wanda tells Stella that really it was she, Wanda, to have been benevolent to Stella in her parties there and not, as Stella believes as true, the other way around. There is an undertow, for sure, but Jansson does not quite set the tone as cleanly as she could have done. There is the motif of a more modern lift installation which recurs in the tale, but it doesn’t play itself out fully into enlightenment.

In The PE Teacher’s Death, Jansson has her characters arranged in a somewhat stiffly-put dinner date, deliberately drawn in the manner of received wisdom on social etiquette. Whilst some observations are succinct enough, the attempts at psychological disturbance fall a little short. Henri’s wife, Flo, wavers in her coming to terms with the eponymous character’s demise, an environmentalist, and with the social rigour of the occasion, at the house of Nicole, whose husband, Michel, a property developer, is away. The effect of the whole, however, doesn’t quite strike true enough. The same can be said for the lead character, Viktoria Johansson, in The Garden of Eden. That she is a professor visiting her God-daughter, who is suddenly called away, in Spain is fine enough; even that she begins to fall into all the social trappings that might appear in any other place does not perturb the reader: however, that Viktoria so readily manages to assume mediator role between two feuding women, and the delicate potential psychological nuances in the microcosm, feels a little out of kilter with believability.

In respect of disorientations, of sorts, in An Eightieth Birthday, young May and her partner meet a group of ‘real artists’. May is told:

In the whole silly business [of life], the only thing that really matters is passion. It comes and goes. At first it just comes to you free of charge, and you don’t understand, and you waste it. And then it becomes a thing to nurture.

Later, regarding a flowering bird cherry seen on their walk, May hears:

What can you do with something like that? Just let it flower . . . Look, here’s our lovely hostess! Isn’t that right — shouldn’t we just let it flower and admire it? It’s one way to live. Trying to recreate it is another. That’s what it boils down to.

It is a small nudge out of social ways they are otherwise expected to engage in for May and her partner, Jonny. In The Gulls, Jansson returns to island retreat territory in placing over-stressed Arne, child-like in his dependence on Elsa, far from the urban crowd. It is a transition Arne struggles with, and he seeks the love and patience of Elsa who, in her nature-knowledgeable ways, chooses to hide small pieces of the brutal real world from him. Jansson is really far more at home in this sort of landscape than in the urban territory. In A Foreign City, for example, small disorientation attempts aside, the reader feels as claustrophobic in the words as Jansson may well have done amongst the bricks and stones.

There is light, in The Forest, and love, in Correspondence (which also features in A Winter Book). In the former, Jansson relates a short tale of two brothers: the narrator assumes the mantle of father-figure to the younger boy, and though there are darknesses of child-fear here in the story-telling, there is also a deep understanding of what it is to be this age. Of the boys’ imaginings of being out, as Tarzan, Jansson writes:

When we came home to eat, Anna [the hired help] asked what we’d been playing and my son told her we were much too old to play. We were exploring the jungle.

‘That’s nice,’ said Anna. ‘You go right ahead. But do try not to be late for supper.’

Travelling Light ends with Correspondence: this being a collection of letters from Jansson’s young Japanese admirer, Tamiko Atsumi. The affect is just as powerful as is delivered by its inclusion in A Winter Book, and it’s fitting that this collection should end so poignantly. This passage, from the staccato English prose that peppers the text throughout, leaves the reader aching:

It’s been snowing all day.
I’m learning to write about snow.
Today my mother died.

It is love, it is light in both its forms, and it encompasses disorientation, isolation and connection, and — in Tamiko’s resignation that Jansson won’t receive her in Finland (Tamiko’s next line highlights a subtlety: ‘When you’re the eldest in your family in Japan, you can’t leave home and you don’t want to’) — there is also an inescapability of our ways of being.

There is no doubt that Jansson’s contribution to the written form encompasses the crisp, the clean, the sharp, and the beautiful.

Book Review: Starbook (Ben Okri)

This review has been three months in the making. Starbook is, at once, an investment of time and an endurance through stages of reading will. At over 400 pages in length, the reader knows from the outset that this novel will take some commitment; however, what transpires is the ever-increasing reading hope that Okri’s opening line (‘This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child’) will, at some point, amount to something. Around a third of the way into the book, Okri writes about a ‘sculpture of pure air and sunlight’ and this is apt in describing the work in question here.

Starbook (published by Rider Books, 2008) is 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 reader reaches the point of no return somewhere along the line: that is, there is a stage in every troubling book, at different pages, where the reader will close the cover for good or carry on in bloodymindedness (either through hope or the challenge of finishing, or both). Okri may well be a fine poet, but Starbook’s ambition of presenting a long mythic poetic prose tale shines only at the achievement of the final word.

Around half-way through the book, Okri writes of another art-piece (art being a central theme):

It amounted to an outrage, an insult. It seemed such a wilful diversion. A distraction, an irrelevance, a conceit, a private, unnecessary indulgence in imagery and aesthetics. The work seemed without direction, without prophecy, without vision. It did not speak. It did not address the need of the times . . . it did not relate to anything that anyone could care about. It seemed beautiful and sad and well-wrought just for the sake of it. The sculpture seemed an exercise in displaying personal artistic accomplishment, a display of genius unfolding . . .

This is ironic and perfect in describing the affect that Starbook has. Without doubt, Okri is capable of dropping in a fine and succinct line of thought (e.g. ‘The memories of a land are vast and deep’); however, a story needs anchoring in belief, even — or especially — if it’s the telling of the origins of myth, as this is.

Starbook is the rendering of once in time, in a tribal community, somewhere unnamed, of the simple tale of a prince, a maiden, and the protracted account of their coming together. For the most part Okri eschews the naming of places and people: preferring the archetypal description of ‘the prince’, ‘the maiden’, ‘the king’, and so on. Even the slave-traders who arrive and decimate the communities are referred to as the White Wind. 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. What Okri therefore produces is a series of characters who are as airy or as liquid as the words he lays down. It is even more curious that Okri then deems it necessary to stamp a nickname onto one of the characters who washes in and out of the tale (‘the Mamba’, a suitor to the hand of the maiden) and he names another (Chief Okadu, an elder, who doesn’t stay long enough on the pages for character examination but who has a hand in causing the prince’s capture by the slaver-traders).

The prince and the maiden mope through the pages of the book and nothing really happens for long, long periods. At times Okri’s writing feels like an exercise in poetic thesaurus development: he spins out his idea of the moment in tautological litanies. For example, he writes:

The sculpture accused, haunted, frightened, soothed, troubled, perplexed, annoyed, paralysed, trapped and engulfed them. It was like a curse, an anathema. It was stronger in the mind than in reality.

Yet more turgid though are lines such as:

The king was moved by the tenderness of his people. He watched from the palace window the great crowds that had gathered from all over the known world to show their support for his family. The ragged women, the fishermen, the market women, the quarrelsome bar owners, the seamstresses, the warriors from distant lands, the one-armed, the one-legged, the crippled, the blind, the mad, the refugees from other kingdoms, the fugitives, the clowns, the fools, the celebrated heroes, the boxers, the wrestlers, jugglers, mendicants, the pregnant mothers, the albinos, the runaways . . . (and so on for another eleven lines).

Dialogue, in its relative scarcity, is similarly poetically delivered: sometimes with torturous lack of reality, sometimes with torturous rhyme:

‘That which is best will be lost so that that which is greatest can be found.’

‘Our art and our song.’
‘That have lasted long.’
‘Our dreams, our freedom.’
‘Better than any kingdom.’
‘Our vision.’
‘Our mission.’
‘We will protect them all.’
‘That sick maiden will not create our fall.’

Belief, especially in the telling of myth, is essential. Okri deals with magic in such a way as to alchemise it into plastic. He writes of gaps between the trees through which the prince can pass in order to reach the liminal realm of the tribe of master artists (of which the maiden belongs), or of how the prince induces the maiden’s master-artist father to become his apprentice, but then proceeds to sit in his wood-sculpting workshop, as if a sculpture himself, still and unnoticed by the maiden: Okri’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.

We cannot entertain the notion that the spirits of the workshop are, for example, imbuing the wooden sculptures with added depths of time and other intrigues if we cannot believe that the prince, in his immobile invisibility, is ‘hearing’ all the wisdom of the realm from his time amongst the cobwebs. Certainly there are ideas here that are worth creative investment of writing and reading, but Okri rather spoils their shine with words for the sake of words.

In the end, Starbook is a lengthy poetic indulgence for the writer, which might well have been delivered better in more succinct and shining ways. If the intention was to promote the idea of myth-magical story-telling, then Okri only partly succeeds: that is, the idea is greater than the depth in its pages. It is a sculpture, for sure, but one of pure air and sunlight.

Book Review: The Following Story (Cees Nooteboom)

Herman Mussert, Nooteboom’s first person narrator, is an academic, ‘a classical scholar, one-time teacher of Latin and Greek’, and he wakes one morning in a room in Lisbon having gone to bed the previous night in Amsterdam. So far so good is the feeling as we settle down to the potential unwinding of this mystery. It is, Mussert goes on to say about this strange predicament, a room in which he slept ‘twenty years ago with another man’s wife’. The scene is set for an explanation and exploration of time, perhaps. However, Nooteboom’s story is soon cluttered with irritating pretensions of cleverness and, half-way through, a disorientating shift in scene altogether. What transpires is the feeling of being cheated, not of the ‘Aha!’ smile that might have been the aim. Like Nooteboom’s writing though, this review already threatens to get ahead of itself.

Having struggled to complete Ben Okri’s Starbook, and still wading through the stage of bloodymindedness in order to get to that tome’s final page, it seemed a blessing to find by chance this slim book just slightly fewer than one hundred pages in length. These review pages have already suffered in the waiting for Okri to reveal himself: so finding Nooteboom (and the promise of intrigue as set up, by and large, by the overview above) appeared to be the kick-start a latent reviewer needed.

The Following Story (English version translated from the original Dutch — Het volgende Verhaal, 1991 — by Ina Rilke, Harvill Press 1996) was, apparently, the 1993 European Literary Prize winner. The criteria for the award of this prize would be of interest to this reader. Nooteboom’s Herman Mussert is written well enough, but he soon presents as a pretentious scholarly bore. Perhaps this is more accurately descriptive of Nooteboom himself though: the character and the author seem to share some aspects of their existence, such as the travel writing personas of both. Either way, Nooteboom soon has Mussert referencing all manner of classical characters and inserting Latin phrases with footnotes of explanation. Mussert’s alter ego persona is the author known as Dr Strabo, a travel writer creation, as a result of Mussert’s unseemly departure from his job at a Dutch grammar school. Strabo’s superficial writing for the masses, as it were, is not enough to allow the crusty pretentious edges of Mussert (or, indeed, Nooteboom himself) to be flaked away.

At its simplest level, The Following Story is a tale of Mussert’s affair with a fellow teacher, Maria Zeinstra, whose husband — Arend Herfst — is equally enwrapped with one of the students, Lisa d’India. Zeinstra is painted in fiery tones, red-headed tempest as she is; Herfst is a basketball coach and author of poor poetry, according to Mussert; d’India is the almost divine beauty, adored by all, though Mussert claims not to have been bewitched himself. If Mussert has been thrown back in time when he wakes in Lisbon, having gone to bed in Amsterdam, we (and Nooteboom) wonder if the unrequited potential of Lisa d’India has anything to do with it.

Having reached the half-way stage of the book, still so far so possible. However, here Nooteboom throws the reader completely. Now, at the start of the second half of the book, we find that Mussert is on a boat somewhere and somewhen. It isn’t at all clear what is going on. Perhaps Nooteboom intended it this way, but a reader doesn’t often like to be taken from one story and placed in the middle of another without forewarning. It isn’t entirely fair to say this is another story completely because, as it transpires, things do become clearer. There are clues on the opening page, but those clues are washed over in the reading because they come too soon.

What Nooteboom does at the start of the second half of the book is lands his lead character on a ship which, it turns out, is sailing up the wide estuary of the Amazon. He surrounds Mussert with a series of flimsily sketched other characters who mope about on deck 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. Nooteboom’s narrative flips between tenses and his attempts at cleverness in this knitting process sometimes fall short. By this time though the reader is urging the writer to proceed quickly to the denouement.

There are two writerly points of positive note that can be offered up here, however (one of subtlety, and one which almost works, in context). In the first instance, and with self-conscious regard to the flipping between points of view tenses, perhaps, allied to the nature of an affair, Nooteboom writes: ‘Arend Herfst. Third person.’ In the second instance, as a means of drawing a narrative digression back to an earlier observation of a character trait, Nooteboom writes that ‘the world is a never-ending cross-reference’. The attempt is noted, but it falls just short of its mark.

Mussert’s fall from grace at the school builds in slow exposition until the telling scene in which Herfst assaults him in the playground. Mussert is disgraced, and Herfst also loses his job, but not before the single line that pinpoints Lisa d’India’s fate is thrown out abruptly. Mussert narrates several excruciating pages of pretentious classical-mythological analogy to account for his final lesson, citing d’India as his Crito in his rendering of Plato’s Phaedo, Mussert being cast as Socrates about to take the poison that would end his life. Nooteboom writes:

Now I am about to die. I gaze into the eyes of my pupils just as he must have gazed into the eyes of his, I know exactly who is Simmias and who Cebes, and all the time Lisa d’India had assuredly been Crito who, at the bottom of his heart, does not believe in immortality.

Nooteboom’s tenses continue to shift, and he returns late on in an attempt at point of view shift: that is, trying to draw the reader into the tale, as he also attempts early on (which is washed over because the reference is unintelligible: ‘At this point I would like to be still, to wash away all those words. You have not told me how much time I have for my story.’) As the flimsy paper-thin ship passengers tell their tales one by one, then depart late on, Nooteboom writes: ‘Only Deng is left . . . the two of you are already there when I arrive. I will have to tell my story to you alone.’

As far as can be made out, Nooteboom seems to base his entire tale on the following premise: ‘It was not my soul that would set out on a journey, as the real Socrates had imagined, it was my body that would embark on endless wanderings . . .’ If this is the constituent matter of European Literary Prize winners, there may well be a very long long-list every year. Perhaps the criteria also took into account the clever clumsiness of reference lines such as ‘The Lost World — had I ever read that book by Conan Doyle, there was a ship in it sailing up the Amazon, too, the Esmeralda?’ Or perhaps the following quip is of note: ‘I would like to hear a madrigal right now, by Sigismundo d’India.’ Nooteboom’s characterisation overspills into shedding light on the potential of his own pretension.

What begins as a promising intrigue, when Mussert awakes to find himself in a Lisbon bedroom having gone to bed the previous night in Amsterdam, dissolves into a contorted affair. It ends with a return to the intrigue, though the reader is, by now, somewhat weary and wary of the enforced ‘cleverness’ at play, even in fewer than a hundred pages. Suffice is to say that Nooteboom’s tale ‘ends’ with the unpunctuated line that is ‘the following story’, insinuating the reader’s continuing circular journey. This reader finished at the insertion of his own final full-stop.