Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

"Storia della bambina perduta" by Elena Ferrante (Edizione e/o, 2014)

The books starts with several pages of character biographies for readers like me who haven't read the earlier books. This one begins in 1978. Elena (the book's from her PoV) has left Pietro and their children. She's busy with book launches and a publicity tour. She has no fixed abode. Her new partner Nino claims to have cleanly split with his wife Eleonora and his children. Elena asks her children to live with her - "Bambine ... Voi volete venire con me o restare coi nonni?" Di quella domanda, ancora oggi mentre ne scrivo, mi vergono. Prima Dede, poi subito dopo Elsa risposero: "Coi nonni. Pero tu, quando puoi, torna e portaci dei regoli". (p.69) ("Children, do you want to come with me or stay with your grand-parents?" Even today as I write this I'm embarrassed by that question. First Dede, then straight after Elsa replied "With gran and grandad, but you can come and bring us presents whenever you like"). She doesn't seem to learn from that experience.

Years pass - Ci vollero piu di due anni pieni di gioie, tormenti, brutte sorprese e mediazioni sofferte, perche riuscissi a rimettere un po d'ordine nella mia vita (p.70) (It would take more than two years full of joy, torments, horrible surprises and mediation to acheive some order in my life). She walks into friend Franco's room, discovers he's committed suicide messily. Pietro finds a new, young partner. There's a renewed battle for custody of Elena's children. Nino and Elena find a house in Napoli. She gets the kids back from Genova/Milano. She finds out that Nino's been seeing the distressed Eleonora. Then she discovers that Eleonora's pregnant. Nino claims that it's to keep Eleonora calm. The birth of Lidia to Eleonora is reported upon only in passing, though I would have expected it to have had a psychological impact. Elena's still hoping that their unconventional situation is manageable. However, she realises that her return to Naples has affected her work prospects. Her children are unhappy at their new schools. And all because she wanted to start a new life with her lover who lied to her.

Elena's public statements about women's attitude to men don't match the way she lives - "Parlai di come avessi cercato da sempre, per impormi, di essere maschi nell'intelligenza - io mi sono sentita inventata dai maschi, colonizzata dalla loro immaginazione". (I spoke as if I'd always tried to have a masculine intelligence - I felt created by males, colonized by their imagination) And the political climate in Italian is volatile.

The culture of Naples doesn't figure for the first hundred or so pages but Elena eventually returns there - "Il rione per me, prima ancora che i miei parenti, era Lila" (p.105) (the neighbourhood for me meant, even more than my parents, Lila). Elena's doubtful about her old friend Lila, but leaves her children with her when suddenly Elena and Nino have a fortnight in the states - "Io, almeno, non sono mai stata piu cosi bene come in quei giorni" (p.121) (I had never felt so good as in those days). However, the trip's summarised in a paragraph. Elena and Lila are now pregnant, both worried about how to break the news to ex-husbands, lovers and children. Pietro and Nino both have political books out. Pietro's gets much more praise. Nino still spends half the week sleeping with his wife yet he's grumpy when Elena spends time socially with Pietro. Elena's sister has a baby. Elena's mother is diagnosed with cancer. All the events in this paragraph are rushed through in less than 15 pages. It sounds like the summary of a soap-opera where they couldn't afford to film abroad - or even outside. The Bologna bomb of 2 August 1980 gets the briefest of mentions.

Her mother's illness brings the two women together. From being the child her mother seems to most disliked, her mother admits that Elena's always been her favourite. Her mother thinks that Lila will put the neighbourhood to rights, using means fair and foul. Lila's business computing company, "Basic Sight", gives her access to compromising information. Elena comes to think that a lot's going on that she's not being told about. She thinks Lila knows something about Nino that she's not revealing. Elena takes advantage of Lila's fatigue to get the answers to some questions - e.g. Marcello (the partner of Elena's sister) is the neighbourhood's drug supplier. She knows that Mariarosa's a recreational user. But Lila tells her that a local boy overdosed recently. Elena thinks that some of her acquaintances might also be drug-takers.

The numerous comparisons between the pregnancies of Elena and Lila become irritating. Then, as if there aren't crises enough, there's an earthquake (23rd Nov, 1980). It upsets Lila sufficiently for her to have a bit of a melt-down, telling Elena about how she sees the world - her synaesthesia, etc. There's a lot of tell-not-show - "E ripeteva ossessivamente aggettivi e sostantivi del tutto incongrui con situazione in cui ci trovavamo, articolava frasi prive di senso e tutavia le pronunciava con convinzione, strattonandomi" (p.160) (And she obsessively repeated incongruous adjectives and adverbs in situations where we found ourselves, saying phrases that made no sense yet stated with conviction, pulling me). Elena has a baby girl, Imma. Elena's mother goes into a clinic. Elena learns where the money from to care for their mother. She learns more about the secrets of those she knows. It's hard for any 4 characters to be in the same room without a complex pattern of love, envy, secrecy and fear having to be dealt with. Elena's threatened, and told that Nino should stay away. Lila's life is at risk too. Lila has a baby girl, Tina, so again there's lots of compare/contrast.

Elena plans to write a novel - she needs the money because she has doubts about Nino's support. She thinks about how childhood friendships affect relationships with the same people later. She theorizes about the difference between male and female social interaction, particularly with respect to Nino, who seems to prefer female friends and thinks his friends cleverer than Elena's - [Nino:] "Be, la tua liberazione non deve significare per forza la perdita della mia libertá" Anche in frasi di questo tipo, pronunciate per gioco, riconobbi presto, con disagio, echi dei conflitti con Pietro (Well, your freedom doesn't mean I have to lose mine. In phrases like this, said for fun, I recognised with discomfort some echoes of conflict with Pietro). Then she catches Nino having sex with her (fat? uncultured? mature?) home-help. She learns that Nino has slept with many women she knows, including some that she's hosted meals for. She finally breaks up with him. She has intense sex with Antonio, an old flame, and others.

She soon moves with the children to a place above Lila, back in her neighbourhood. She manages to sell a novel that had been rejected years before, written while she was in Firenze but about her Naples neighbourhood. Lila's invited to read it first, but she doesn't. The book makes Elena more famous, but it causes trouble locally. "Cosa avevo fatto, come potevo essere stata così imprunte" (p.266)) she thinks. "Avevo scritto un romanzo" (p.267) (What have I done? How could I have been so thoughtless?), she claims, when (surprise, surprise) people treat it as documentary/autobiography. Lila and her see things differently - Elena thinks about principles and schools of thought but "A [Lila] interessavano solo le tristissime beghe locali" (Lila was only interested in local squabbles) (p.281).

Things take a turn for the worse. Carmen issues a legal complaint about the novel (an action paid for by Marcello). He made her do it by saying that he knew where Pasquale (her brother, who had killed Marcello's mother) might be in hiding. Alfonso (who works for Lila) is found dead. At the funeral Michele (brother of Marcello) punches Lila. Then Tina (aged 4) disappears.

A new part of the book, "Vecchiaia", begins. The narrative jumps 20 years. Elena's girls studied abroad (Boston and Paris). We learn that by 2003 Elena's published 13 novels. She publishes "Un'amicizia in 2007, about Tina. It revives her fame but she later regrets writing it. Then the events after the disappearance are recounted. Elena and her family stayed on after the tragedy, though Dede in particular was unkind to Lila, saying that she never wanted a third child anyway. People think Lila's repressed her feelings. Talking to Lila inspires Elena to write about her neighbourhood and the past. The Solari brothers are killed outside the church. Dede (Elena's daughter) goes out with Lila's older, workshy son. Under-age Elsa (Elena's daughter) runs off with him (with jewellery and money too). Next day Dede announces that she's moving to the States (can she even speak English?). Lila wants to sell her company. Pasquale's arrested. Enzo (Lila's partner) is held for questioning for a long time. Nino has become a parliamentary politician. Elena gets an interview with him, asking for his help with Pasquale. She thinks about Nino's past-romances, realises that they were often part of career tactics. She consequently worries that Lila's son isn't good for her daughters. Then Nino's disgraced politically.

This write-up makes the book sound as if it's just one damn thing after another, crisis piled upon crisis. But it's not hyper-realist disorder. Whenever the plot requires a trait, there's always a character at hand to add that trait to.

Lila ("appena scolarizzata", p.426, though she runs a software company) is writing about Naples without first telling Elena about it. She tells Imma though, who tells Elena - "Ebbi spesso l'impressione che Lila usasse il passato per normalizzare il presente burrascoso di Imma. Nelle cose napoletane che le raccontava c'era sempre all'origine qualcosa di brutto, di scomposto, che in seguito prendeva la forma di un bell'edificio, di una strada, di un monumento, per poi perdere memoria e senso, peggiorare, migliorare, peggiorare, secondo un flusso per sua natura imprevedibile, fatto tutto di onde " (p.418) (I often had the impression that Lila used to past to normalise Imma's confused present. In the Neopolitan events she talked about there was always an unpleasant cause that led eventually to the construction of a beautiful building, a road, a monument that lost its memory and purpose, got worse, improved, got worse again like an unpredictable flux made of waves). Lila mixes truth and legend. Elena thinks "Stavo per lasciare la città per la seconda volta, ... e tuttavia del luogo dov'ero nata non sapevo granché" (p.281) (I was again to leave the city for the second time ... and yet I didn't know much about my birthplace). She leaves by train for Torino in 1995, to work for a publishing company. She hopes to publish Lila's work as a book - she thinks it might be better, more enduring than her own books. Dede marries an Iranian (cue 9/11!) and has a child. At a family gathering, by a shelf of her books, Elena has a crisis. She evaluates her life - "Avevo calcato su certi temi: il lavoro, i conflitti di classe, il femminismo, gli emarginati" (p.436) (I've emphasised certain themes: work, class conflict, feminism, marginalisation). She thinks that "L'intera mia vita si sarebbe ridotta soltanto a una battaglia meschina per cambiare classe sociale" (p.437) (My entire life could be reduced to a petty battle to change class).

The section ends with Elena pondering why Lila cut her off after Elena's book came out - content or treatment? Well, Elena had promised not to write about the events, and the book had enhanced Elena's bank balance. In the book she pointed out that a doll that Lila had lost as a child was also called Tina.

In the 5-page epilogue Lila has disappeared. Her son doesn't seem to know where she is. Is she dead? Elena meets Nino at a funeral, asks him who took Tina, who killed the Solara brothers. Back home, a mysterious package appears - the dolls that Elena and Lila had lost in childhood.

There are contrasts drawn between her neigbourhood and elsewhere, between dialect and Italian, between literature and life, between rational and emotional. These contrasts are often personified by Elena and Lila -

  • "Solo nei romanzi brutti la gente pensa sempre la cosa giusta, dice sempre la cosa guista, ogni effetto ha la sua causa, ci sono quelli simpatici e quelli antipatici, quelli buonii e quelli cattivi, tutto alla fini ti consola. Mormorò: può essere che Tina torni stasera e allora chi se ne frega di come è andata;" (p.429) (Only in bad novels do people always think the right things, every action has a cause, there are pleasant and unpleasnt people, good and bad, and a happy ending. She murmers: it could be that Tina returns this evening and then who cares how it happened).
  • [Lila:] "Per scrivere bisogna desiderare che qualcosa ti sopravviva. Io invece non ho nemmeno la voglia di vivere" (p.433) (To write you have to want something to survive you. I however lack even the wish to live).
  • [Lila:] "io non sono andata in giro per il mondo come hai fatto tu, pero, vedi, il mondo è venuto lui da me" (p.438) ... "[Lila] Non era mai salita su un treno, nemmeno per andare a Roma. Non aveva mai preso un aereo" (p.441). (I haven't gone round the world like you have, however, the world has come to me ... She'd never jumped on a train, not even to go to Rome. She'd never flown)
  • "Sbaglio, mi [Elena] disse confusamente, a scrivere come ho fatto finora, registrando tutto quello che so. Dovrei scrivere come lei parla, lasciare voragini, construire ponti e non finirli, costringere il lettore a fissare la corrente" (p.155) (I've been wrong to write the way I have until now, recording all I know. I should have written as she spoke, left gaps, started connections but never ended them, made readers work out the flow)
  • We're told that the dialogue switches between Italian and dialect, but there's little dialect in the book. Lina becomes Lila and Elena becomes Lenù. But the choice of language has a significance to Lila and Elena - "lei ricorreva all'italiano come a una barriera, io cercavo di spingerla verso il dialetto, la nostra lingua dell franchezza. " (p.344) (she resorts to Italian as a barrier, I tried to lead her into dialect, our language of honesty)

Events seem to contrived and schematic to me, without any compensations. Why does Elena bother with Nino? Why does she take so many chances bringing up her children? If she's that kind of person, why isn't she more aware of her tendencies? There's a lot of out-of-character behaviour by Elena and others. I don't see much point in the first 100 pages or so. But my Italian's not very good.

Other reviews

  • Joanna Biggs (LRB) (the Neapolitan quartet also has an almost deranging narrative pleasure, delivered in a style that’s more of an admission that the author cares too much about the truth to bother with style. ... Ferrante is like a writer of genre rather than literary fiction in her handling of time; she has said she employs ‘all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity’ – acknowledging rather than excusing the soapy twists of the last volume of the quartet. ... How is it that a book written by LenĂ¹ can so entirely capture Lila’s experience? Ferrante’s direct, almost naive style is greedy, willing to adopt the habits of other genres – the thriller’s cliffhangers, the romance’s love triangles, the mystery’s plot twists – and to absorb voices other than its narrator’s.)
  • Alex Clark (The Guardian) (That ambiguity is stitched into the novels, emblematised by the pair’s variant names (Lenuccia, LenĂ¹, Raffaella, Lina), by the tension between Italian and dialect, and by the terrifying, recurrent episodes of dissociation that Lila suffers, and calls “dissolving boundaries”)
  • Michiko Kakutani (New York Times) (Indeed, Ms. Ferrante’s writing — lucid and direct, but with a cyclonic undertow — is very much a mirror of both her heroines. Elena has a decidedly linear approach to life, and, as a narrator, she often takes a matter-of-fact tone, but that appearance of control belies the roiling, chaotic, Lila-like emotions beneath. This constant pull between detachment and turmoil (or, to put it in terms of the classics that the author loves, between Apollonian rationality and Dionysian ferocity) creates a kind of alternating electrical current that lends these novels a compelling narrative tension.)
  • Joan Acocella (New Yorker) (She has two subjects, basically. The first is women. This is the most thoroughgoing feminist novel I have ever read. ... Ferrante’s other subject is language. ... Much of the thrill of the four books lies just in this elastic back and forth between realism and hallucination.)
  • Jennifer Kurdyla (Harvard Review)
  • Eileen Battersby (Irish Times) (Ferrante is so exhausting to read in one go not because of her intensity but because of her lack of humour. ... Elena’s career as writer within the novel is at best hastily outlined and never that convincing, ... Elena’s weakness, and possibly that of the entire novel, is Nino Sarratore. ... Ferrante’s vision is candid and fraught. She does not shape beautiful sentences; she articulates painful sensations and exposes nerve endings.)
  • Suzanne Joinson (Independent) (Ferrante has achieved is a perfect marriage of immense storytelling with chillingly effective literary artistry. ... The emotional devastation is so intimately rendered that at times, as I read, I couldn’t breathe. I felt I was trapped in the inevitability of pain brought on by the circumstances of her social and biological destiny. ... I loved these Neapolitan novels in a way I haven’t enjoyed reading for a long time, owing to the immersion in another world ... Lila’s obsession with the architecture and history of Naples does not ring as true as earlier depictions of her complex, manipulative character. It’s a little contrived (a fact on which Elena comments), as is the return to a significant event from the very beginning. But this neatly sewn-up ending to what has felt unnervingly true provides us with welcome relief.)

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

"All That Man Is" by David Szalay (Vintage, 2016)

In each of these 9 stories (average length about 50 pages) males in a european setting experiences a pivotal moment in life, though they might not realise at the time. In the first story, student-to-be Simon wonders "What am I doing here" (p.6). Later, another character "experienced a sort of dark afternoon of the soul. Some hours of terrible negativity. A sense, essentially, that he had wasted his entire life" (p.305). Even one of the women, Waleria, feels that her life has become completely messed up (p.176) - though by a man.

The stories are ordered according to the age of the protagonist - an InterRailer, a bodyguard, journalist, lecturer, etc. Some of younger ones are failing to find their place in the world. Others, fearing a steady, predictable middle-age decline, consider taking new risks. They fear humiliation, and worse, pity. The lecturer and estate agent seem rather controlling personalities. The others drift, falling back with each crisis having drunk too much.

Cars and journeys figure in many of the stories. The men's aims aren't complex, nor are their schemes. They want more money, women, and fame. In story 8 the man had it all - a super-yacht worth 250 million euros (called Europa, with a mini-sub) and a private plane. We meet him after a failed court-case and his partner abandoning him. He's contemplating suicide having once planned to "write a monumental multi-volume account of his own life and times" (p.365). In story 9, the 73 year-old character's buying lager in Lidl's having just flown by Ryanair. He thinks about death - "he finds it hard to understand - properly understand - that he will die as well" (p.390). He's the grandfather of the InterRailing Simon of the first story. He realises that he enjoys losing himself in the act of perception. We learn that his wife had affairs because he was a closet gay, and that he's knighted. He thinks it's important "to feel part of something larger, something ... something permanent" (p.435). But also "There is a sense, he is sure, in which he is tricking himself into these feelings, about everything embodying something endless and eternal. Fear and sadness are obliging him to come up with something. Something to soften the nightmarish fact of ageing and dying" (p.436).

He is articulate, and is beginning to engage in complex interactions with others. He's the exception. Much of the time we learn of characters not by what they think but by what they notice or ignore. A bodyguard will see different things to what a reporter sees even if they walk down the same street. The millionaire's rather caricatured, but the other characters aren't depicted by infodumping or providing a back-story. We live their life for the length of the story. After the story about newspaper reporters, I thought that the author was a reporter. After the estate agent story, I thought he was an estate agent. Is he young or old? Hard to say from the stories.

Here are some extracts -

  • "Spring showers strafe the peeling hoardings, the overpasses spilling the sound of unseen traffic" (p.7)
  • "He is short, blonde, with a moustache - Asterix, basically" (p.51)
  • "He sits there for a few seconds, enjoying a feeling of inviolable solitude. Solitude, freedom. They seem like nearly the same thing as he sits there. Then he starts the engine, which sounds loud in the silence of the square" (p.153)
  • "He was sad in an abstracted way, for a day or two, when she ended it with that letter in her schoolgirl's handwriting, that letter which so pathetically overestimated his own emotional engagement in the situation. And he understood that he had also overestimated her emotional engagement in it. As he had been intent on enacting his own long-standing fantasy, so she had been enacting a fantasy of her own, in no way less selfish. Except that she was nineteen or twenty, and still entitled to selfishness - not having learned yet, perhaps, how easily and lastingly people are hurt - and he was more than ten years older and ought to have understood that by now.
    Only when he saw her, soon after, in the arms of someone her own age - some kid - did he experience anything like a moment's actual pain, something Nabokovian and poisonous, seeing them there in the spring sunlight of the quad
    " (p.158)
  • "It is so obviously not what she is thinking about, so obviously not the aspect of the image that is absorbing her, that to say it makes him sound much less sensitive than he actually is, much less perceptive. He knows that, and knows that it's the price he pays for steering things away from what he does not want to talk about, or for trying to steer them away" (p.431)

Other reviews

  • Edward Docx (This is a book about men who are existentially marooned and its subject matter is reasonably and abidingly male: fair enough. But all the same, Szalay’s women are experienced too often in a sexual or objectified context)
  • William Skidelsky (Far from celebrating’s man’s infinite variety, the book reveals his endless repetitiveness. The characters we encounter, no matter how ostensibly different, are all caught up in the same narrow set of concerns, chief among which are love and money (or variations thereof). They’re all fundamentally lonely, and have a tendency to drift, in mild befuddlement, through life.)
  • Duncan White (Plot, grand ideas and even sustained character development come second to the evocation of the most transitory moments of lived experience. ... like Flaubert, he is a scrupulously self-effacing narrator.)
  • Garth Greenwell
  • Dwight Garner
  • James Wood (These stories are not without plot, but they don’t have much in the way of conventional fictional shaping; each seizes on a moment of crisis in a man’s life and quickly dramatizes it. The entire book is narrated in an urgent, poking present tense, and the pithed characters, of different ages, are presented without complex histories ... Szalay practices a kind of startup mimesis: in canny, broad strokes, full of intelligently managed detail, each story funds its new fictional enterprise ... His stories begin, like movies, in the middle of things, with slick setups and brisk establishing shots. ... The artless repetitions, the indented lines, the earnest question marks, the lack of subterfuge or extraneous commentary, the ingenuous vitality—all this makes use, I suspect, of the atmosphere of contemporary songwriting. ... although Szalay’s gender apartheid has the virtue of training an intense focus on a certain kind of male appetite, that emphasis can also render his fictional universe monochromatic. Put aside the absence of female leads; it would be a welcome gift if the male ones just achieved joined-up thoughts. Their limitations set limits on the complexity of the book. Only in the last story do we encounter a kind of subtlety that—so beguiling is Szalay’s directness—we had not quite realized we lacked.)
  • Christopher Tayler (He writes clean, unshowy sentences that move easily between the diction of casual speech and a more distanced tone. And he’s able to hold a reader even when there isn’t much going on, relying on assured storytelling rather than busy plotting. )
  • Max Liu (With scant narrative overlap between chapters, this book could have been a collection of stories, and Szalay relies too heavily on its themes to give it the unity of a novel. He’s a skilful writer but readers will be divided between those who admire his formal bravery and others who find the book’s loose ends frustrating.)
  • Matthew Adams (this uneven and sometimes diverting book ... Elsewhere, we find further examples of men whose emotional life is threatened or stultified by various forms of vanity and fear (pride, self-denial, avarice, an excessive capacity for self-interest, self-preservation, self-pity) ... Szalay’s handling of this material is sensitive, generous and often accomplished. ... More often, however, Szalay’s prose is careless, inert, repetitive, melodramatic, irritatingly portentous)
  • James McNair (for every character here is fully realised and wholly believable ... Profound, sometimes moving and often blackly comic, All That Man Is delights even as it unsettles.)
  • Matthew Oglesby (In perhaps my favorite story, the second ... I wondered, as I read the book, given Szalay’s clear versatility and range, are his female characters so flat? ... Part of the problem, I think, is when Szalay tries too heavy-handedly to tie everything back to the novel’s eponymous theme.)
  • Goodreads

Saturday, 11 February 2017

"Aphrodrite's Hat" by Salley Vickers (Fourth Estate, 2011)

The endings are generally interesting, but the setting up can be slow. In "Join me for Christmas" the beginning's so ponderous that the ending had to be surprising, and hence was easily guessed. The writing can be verbose, "telling" rather than (or as well as) "showing" at the crucial moments -

  • Emily knew from this that change was called for. 'This won't do,' she said sternly to herself (p.20)
  • 'Mum never let me swear.'
    It wasn't true. But he felt a weird obligation to assert a spurious vigilance on his mother's part, to distance her from this discovered act of treachery. For more years than he could bear to calculate, he had longed for some token from his father. The news that this had been denied him, deliberately withheld, prompted a general defensiveness.
    (p.35)
  • Another 'reason' for loving James was that he was quick. He didn't say much but his understanding was as swift as mine, so he didn't now say, as most men would, 'Who?' or 'Whose hat?' Although he had made no comment on the painting we had looked at that morning together he knew at once who I meant (p.82)
  • he behaved with overt kindness towards Luke, and Luke, unused to receiving the love of more than one parent, prospered. To Laura's surprise it was Nellie who was the fly in the ointment of their new life. For, gradually she became aware, the bitter truth was that Nellie and Simon did not get on. Used to the customary daily friction between Terence and Luke, Laura was lulled at first into a false sense of the success of her enterprise when she saw the way Simon responded to her son (p.170)

I'm not sure that she's entirely in control of the lower levels of language.

  • Idiom usage seems unconscious. That final quote for example contains several in a bunch.
  • Would Charlie's father in "Epiphany" really say "Was is the operative word."?
  • When mental states are described, the same non-character-specific style is used.
  • The narrator sometimes slips the odd phrase into a story. In the 3rd person story "Pruning" there's "The charm, as charm generally is, was ephemeral" (p.88). In "The Green Bus from St Ives" there's "he felt, as old recidivists are said to feel, nostalgic for familiar constraints" (p.114). In p.258 there's "They had waited; but as anyone who has been in this situation discovers, children are never 'old enough' for their parents to split up safely".

Not infrequently at the end of a story I wondered what there was in the story that made the author persist in writing it. "Pruning" for example has an inconsequential plot. At the end one person's therapeutic pruning parallels another's - so what? "The Deal" has a more jaunty narrative style, presumably leakage as a consequence of the main (albeit 3rd-person) character being a child. The child's only six though. I liked "Troubles" the most - it has a main character who suits the narrative voice, and an interesting plot. As in many of the other stories, wife and husband don't seem very close. Little is at stake when affairs are suggested.

Other reviews

  • Frank Cottrell Boyce (Vickers's first collection proves beyond doubt that she's a really good writer)
  • Michael Arditti (Vickers repeatedly employs artworks as a plot device, backdrop or metaphor, and sometimes all three ... Although a couple of the stories are duds and a couple more are predictable in their unpredictability, the collection is shot through with a gentle wit and a winning charm)
  • Pauline Masurel
  • William Palmer (The stories are filled with women who are not sure why they married their husbands and husbands who have run out of anything to say to their wives)
  • Brandon Robshaw (The stories in Aphrodite's Hat are so light, the characters so interesting, the situations so immediately appealing that you can devour them one after the other, like crisps

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

"Wrote for luck" by D.J. Taylor (Galley Beggar Press, 2015)

These short stories, written from 1991 to 2014, have appeared in The Independent on Sunday, The Sunday Express, The Eastern Daily Express, the Mail on Sunday, and BBC Radio 4.

Many concern social/work situations that become awkward, with several lawns. There's some repetition of phrases too. Compare

  • "hedges rose on three sides to a height of eight or nine feet" (p.11) with "Hemmed in on three sides - the gardens came tightly packed" (p.47)
  • "there came a moment when the jigsaw of their association fell neatly into place" (p.14) with "From nowhere, half a dozen other images from that day in Ireland fell smartly into place" (p.52)
  • "The children's antennae ..., were finely tuned to the mention of restaurants" (p.37) with "his antennae were finely tuned to this kind of conversational shorthand" (p.47)

I think the language lapses sometimes -

  • "It was true, Claire acknowledged to herself, pushing the uneaten tomatoes to the edge of her plate. They had seen Hugo and Anna last time they came here. And Tom was weird. But friendships, Jamie's friendships, took no account of repetition or incremental oddity.
    'Well, it will be nice to see them again,' she found herself saying, to no one in particular. 'And now Mummy has to go.'
    " (p.37)
  • "long ships apparently motionless on the horizon, so slow-moving that they were almost inert" (p.66)
  • "Another thing about the new headmaster was his habit of not finishing sentences, of allowing these streams of words to dry up on the river-bed leaving only inference to re-hydrate them" (p.92)
  • "her hair was redder then he'd thought, Morris realised" (p.152) (correcting the "then/than" typo only helps a little)

I've seen "Some Versions of Pastoral" before. I think it works. So does "The Disappointed" and "Wonderland". But "Blow-ins", "Rainy Season", "Passage Migrants", "Birthday Lunch", and "Cranked up really high" more than make up for the better stories. All the pieces have credible characters who often make a decision during the story, but that's as far as it goes.

Typo on p.16 - "as if he were going to sat something"

Other reviews

  • James Smart (Art often clashes with commerce and modernity, and is usually elbowed aside ... Life ... is largely disappointing, and most relationships are failing. Yet if his stories tread similar ground, Taylor has a great knack of pulling the reader in, and his endings, which spin out into rather mournful, very British epiphanies, linger long in the mind.)
  • James Kidd (The overriding mood of Taylor’s 15 miniatures is of cut-glass melancholy culminating in epiphanies of existential gloom. ... The grand theme is loss – of an age passing, of ideals compromised by material concerns, of love not living up to scratch.)
  • Jackie Law (I found [Some Versions of Pastoral] along with ‘Wrote for Luck’, ‘The Disappointed’ and the concluding tale, ‘Wonderland’, particularly poignant.)
  • JJ Marsh
  • Matilda Bathurst (The characters of D.J. Taylor’s Wrote For Luck are an unlucky bunch. Cursed by self-awareness amid the chattering classes, his loveable bluffers and tragic Cassandras fight for intellectual superiority against a slough of biddies, bimbos and incorrigible bores. ... there’s no denying that Taylor is a master of his art. Then again, there are only so many wry little disappointments, so many narratives left poignantly unravelled before you feel you’ve just read a manual on how to write the perfect short story.)

Saturday, 4 February 2017

"Say something back" by Denise Riley (Picador, 2016)

The back cover blurb begins with "Say Something Back will allow readers to see just why the name of Denise Riley has been held in such high regard by her fellow poets for so long" which is, I suppose, another way of saying she's a poet's poet. Over the years she's stuck to her guns, waiting for the audience to come to her, rather than vice versa. Recently she's gained wider attention. I've always found her rather difficult to read - in the way that a poker player is difficult to read. Is she hiding something or bluffing? Is the awkwardness a deliberate diversionary tactic or a tic? And when she suddenly bursts out with something straightforward - even clichéd - is it just an allusion that I haven't registered?

I find her difficult in standard textual ways too. I struggled with the first poem, "Maybe; maybe not", so I looked around for help. I found that 1 Corinthians 13:11 reads: ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known’. Ah. Peter Riley adds that "The Blake and the Yeats are the most immediately apparent (Blake: “The Clod and the Pebble” in Songs of Experience; Yeats: “Down by the Salley Gardens”)", going on to write "IT IS NOT only by echoing that this piece proclaims its status as poetry, and thus requests a distinct mode of reading. It hovers throughout on the edge of a song-like condition, with the rhythmic evenness of lines 1-2, and a rather bumpy iambic couplet in lines 3-4. But in the rather strange figures of lines 5-6 it seems that a claimed attachment to song-poetry is followed by a claimed freedom from it. Those lines could be seen as attachments to a more modern poetical texture, marked by unexpected, and contracted figurations, here of hooves in mud, which is plain enough, but “squat under” is more or less impossible to envisage, and “for kindness” is very summary. This is where awkwardness intrudes itself into this song".

This is helpful. I had detected the awkwardness but hadn't got much further than that. Peter Riley develops his argument - "Lyric cannot at the same time be direct transmission of the author’s own “thoughts and sentiments”, and the highly impersonal work involved in close attention to the formalities, the metrical and phonetic events involved in fitting words to music or assuring a recognisably song-like writing. It seems more likely that lyric is not a kind of poetry at all, but a poetical technique. The purpose of the technique is to create an illusion of song. ... AND WHY SHOULD you want to do that? Song (actual, sung song) is collective. It is sent out into the world in search of auditors and to form or confirm a body of felt mutuality. It is this whether it is social song or art song or graveside lament or “Ta-ra-ra Boom-dee-ay” or whatever."

She employs techniques that the content critiques or disrupts. When she uses song and rhyme she wants us to know that she's knowingly, consciously using these tricks - one 5-liner is called "An awkward lyric". This is particularly evident in ‘Death makes dead metaphor revive’, which several people have commented upon.

  • Denise Riley says in an interview that it's "‘a curious piece in that it’s so consciously thought-saturated, its thought was willed and imposed by its writer, and it sets down these thoughts quite baldly. The thinking in it might have lived instead as prose; ... The speculation in ‘Death makes dead metaphor revive’ is, as you can see, about rhyme’s own relation to temporality, and how this links to that feeling of ‘time stopped’ that you might inhabit after someone’s unexpected death. Whereas rhyme, both anticipated and recurring, acts as a guarantor of continuing and perceived time, and of human listening, attuned to that faithfulness of sounding language. Also, I wrote it ... with an eye to the kind of affect that rises up from Isaac Watts’ boxy hymn quatrains. I was wondering about the ‘automated’ nature of the feeling that can shine through rhyme. I’m struck by rhyme’s capacity to lend its mechanical aspects to feeling. For it to exist as feeling. There’s an impersonality in rhyme that’s, in the same breath, deeply personal. ".
  • It was a Guardian poem of the month - Carol Rumens wrote that "The notion of echo is at first bitterly, hollowly comic (“I parrot”, “clowns around”, “punning repartee”) but later seems productive. It evolves into rhyme"
  • Ange Mlinko wrote that the poem "describes, in rhyming quatrains, how grief revealed the truth in devices that modernity tells us are arbitrary, ornamental, outmoded. Comparing a flood of tears to a spring spate is a simile that goes back to Homer, but Riley reworks it in her fashion—as our new Echo—to force the “orphic engine” out of its rusty silence"

Throughout the book there are many stanzas (e.g "Over bristling plains/ By six municipalities/ Eagerly I'll bounce/ Into a thronged arcade" - p.15) and whole poems ("Pythian" for example) I don't get. The long poem (or sequence) "A Part Song" has deservedly attracted attention. I like it, though I still stumble on details. One of my favourite parts is (xiii) where the persona is flat on a cliff, inching towards its edge. The sea is "chopped-up", not choppy. The poem ends with

Pressed round my fingertips are spikes
And papery calyx frills of fading thrift
That men call sea pinks - so I can take
A studied joy in natural separateness.
And I shan't fabricate some nodding:
'She's off again somewhere, a good sign.
By now, she must have got over it.'

As an end to a narrative poem this makes sense to me, though I have a few queries

  • Is the italicised text a quote? Is it gender-focused?
  • I've heard of "take pleasure in" but not "take joy in".
  • I don't get the "nodding" line - nodding off? (sleep); pretending to agree with?

From part (ii) David Coates quotes "... I make this note of dread, I register it./ Neither my note nor my critique of it/ Will save us one iota. I know it. And.", saying that it's "characteristic of Riley’s tone and attitude – bleak humour, self-correction, a capacity to confront the horrendous and render it (almost) mundane, to recognise one’s final powerlessness except in one’s continued survival. It documents the grieving mind (heart?) in action, and with heartbreaking economy lays out an entire dramatic arc in the poem’s last four words. I don’t remember anyone writing so little and saying so much."

Well, the show must go on ("I can't go on. I'll go on" - Beckett; "After great pain a formal feeling comes" - Dickinson). To over-simplify, a common theme in her work is that language is inadequate. This is followed up by a variation of "I know it. And."; e.g.

  • but it's all I've got
  • but actually, it works
  • but I'll pretend it works

Sometimes a particular instance of inadequacy is pointed out. Sometimes a success is highlighted. Sometimes the general term language is replaced by another term, introducing new themes -

  • rhyme is inadequate - themes: poetry and technique
  • song is inadequate - themes: beauty and communal behaviour
  • hymn is inadequate - themes: ritual and the sacred (the hollower the words, the more the echoes)

There's a realisation that there must be some utility in these techniques otherwise they wouldn't have survived this long.

In essays, there would be quotes to support the assertions. In these poems there are quotes and allusions. The poem itself can serve as an example, along the lines of "language is inadequate - see?". To increase the distance between the intent and the execution, one option is to strengthen the intent (e.g. talk about life and love rather than some aesthetic nuance) and formalize the execution - make it sound more hollow or clichéd.

Doubt can be expressed about a term by putting quote-marks around it. Alternatively, quote-marks can be put around others' words. If one can't feel proud to say I love you right out loud, at least one can feel pride in showing how words lied. However, I wonder sometimes why we need to be reminded so often about the inadequacy of language. Sometimes I feel a mite offended that the poet thinks I'm naive enough to trust the word love, or beauty, or being. Or poem come to that.

In "The Dark Horse" Gerry Cambridge wrote "As I have got older, my taste both in reading poems and in what I aspire to write myself has tended away from the ludic towards a poetry stripped bare, even when written in persona, of affectation: a simplified writing of plain statement, but a simplicity achieved having passed through complexity, not halting before it" (p.131). I think that there's always a place for the ludic even if one regains a trust in simplicity, but even so, it needn't be used all the time. Surely we're sufficiently post-lyrical by now that we needn't apologise for, or undercut, each rhyme or lyric we write.

That said, I think she more frequently than before wields poetic phrases ("days tighten round each/ other as the hours weaken" - p.31), though there are puzzles, especially with endings -

  • A short poem ends with "Hymns ancient/ & modern, buoy us up/ though I am faithless" (p.26). Note the effect of the comma, and the punning "buoy" but even so, it's not a punchline that justifies the poem.

  • "All hindsight shakes itself out vigorously like a wet dog" - is that adverb worth it?
  • "The souls of the dead are the spirit of language:/ you hear them alight inside that spoken thought" (p.32). I think the spoken thought is 'They died', but it sounds like a lame ending to me
  • A poem's entitled A man 'was stood' there - what are those quote-marks about?
  • A reader's response to "Cardiomyopathy" may well depend on how much they know about the sudden death of Riley's son. It could be viewed as a standard flesh vs spirit piece taken to an extreme - "Unlovely meaty thing ... But it can be a pump that cells itself ... I'm sounding too forensic? - but you'll go on with your dead, go as far as you can; that's why my imagination wouldn't wait outside the morgue, but burst in ... his too-big heart got flopped down on a metal tray ... I can't quite leave the autopsy room for good. ... There is heart failure, and however well we mean, the failure's mutual; the worse loss is yours.". Given the immensity of a mother's loss, it may be hard to imagine a greater loss. That final phrase points out that there is, but I'm not convinced.

'A Gramophone on the Subject' was a commissioned piece written about the 1914-1918 war. The subject fits with with earlier pieces - "I never could grasp human absence./ It always escaped me, the real name// of this unfathomable simplest thing./ It's his hands I remember the most" (p.70). It has 2 pages of notes, some of them more than factual - e.g. "A notes on post war aesthetic isolation, as if by some 'modernist' writer" (note those quote-marks again). The other poems could have done with more notes. I noticed that something like "She do the bereaved in different voices" (p.14) was said by Eliot who got it from someone else, but I've missed a lot elsewhere.

Other reviews

  • Kate Kellaway
  • Dave Coates (A great many poems in the new book seem to originate as critical or creative responses to other poets and artists; ... Outside of its opening sequence, Say Something Back is a series of short lyrics about loss, with a few commissions/occasional pieces – to my reading ‘The patient who had no insides’ is one of the weaker sections ... I’m personally drawn to moments where Riley allows herself to be boldly declarative, gothically dramatic, or more openly parabolic ... I’m fairly confident that two different readers could pick their favourite half-dozen without their choices overlapping)
  • Stephen Burt (Throughout the book the dead-level, understated, broken-hearted and demotic make their peace with the counter-intuitive and nearly abstruse: it is as if Riley had worked all the way through the storm of poststructuralist critique of voice and lyric and so on and discovered them, after the rain, still standing. ... [these poems] find force by seeking accuracy, and never minding whether they’re awkward: they are like rigorous twelve-tone compositions that, somehow, also work as pop songs you can hum)
  • Peter Riley (I am particularly nagged by a number of short poems in the book which I am unable to get my head round, and cannot recognise their subjects or the degrees of figuration or the final message of the various factors)
  • Ange Mlinko (Riley’s titular pun is on “apart” - partialness, partiality, and parts in a play. ...  Form is finally achieved in the last part, spoken in the italicized voice of the dead and evoking The Tempest’s “Full fathom five” ...  she adds a remark of Jacques Lacan’s: “To make yourself seen reflects back to you, but to make yourself heard goes out toward another.” )
  • Alice Troy-Donovan

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

"The Importance of Elsewhere" by Richard Bradford (Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2015)

It's a book about Larkin's photos with chapters entitled "Monica", "Lucky Jim", "Celebrity", etc. About 5000 of his prints and negatives are in the Hull History Centre, and some are in the reviews mentioned below. He was serious about photography, owning a "Houghton-Butcher Ensign Carbine no.5", a "Purma Special" then a "Rolleiflex Automat twin lens reflex". There are the expected photos of trains, churches and street signs. He often cropped photos (perhaps so that he didn't need to get too close to the subject). He photographed different woman in similar poses and places. He sometimes cycled miles to photograph gloomy, bleak places.

The complex Larkin-Amis-Monica triangle is only one of the situations where selective secrecy prevailed. There's photographic evidence of Larkin's affairs with married women, who clearly found him attractive both in long-term and short-term ways. Here are some miscellaneous quotes -

  • His father Sydney's council office contained Nazi regalia including a 12 inch Fuhrer which saluted at the press of a button. He had advanced tastes in literature - Eliot, Joyce, etc. "Sydney treated Larkin as his beloved alter ego" (p.24).
  • "Without loathing any person in particular [Larkin] resented the network of relationships and friendships that, daily, demanded some kind of emotional accountability" (p.74)
  • "One does not require any knowledge of psychology to discern a link between Larkin's growing sense of inadequacy as a writer and his new investment [in a camera]" (p.75)
  • "One cannot overstate the effect that the move to Belfast had on his work - it wrought the transformation of Larkin from frustrated novelist to the finest English poet of the last twentieth century" (p.80)
  • "He now felt more confident as an outsider" (p.81)
  • "For the next two decades Larkin and Kitty [his sister] would argue continuously over who should be more involved with the care of their mother" (p.84)
  • "Anything that carried even a remote indication of commitment, including such apparently innocuous activities as buying plates and table lamps, felt ominous to Larkin." (p.125)
  • "Larkin's poetic output between 1956 and 1960 was relatively infrequent - on average two and a half poems a year" (p.153)
  • "for Larkin [Conquest] supplied pornographic magazines ... 'I admire the painstaking realism of it ... the action and standard of definition left something to be desired'" (p.155)
  • "Larkin opened a Scotland Yard embossed envelope informing him that he, Philip Arthur Larkin, should make himself ready to attend court proceedings already being undertaken under the Obscene Publications Act of 1921 ... Larkin ... spent the day in the offices of his solicitor." (p.155). But it was a trick composed by Amis and Conquest.
  • "Often, Larkin placed a large mirror behind the timed camera so that he could form an expression" (p.189)
  • He could compartmentalise his life. When Monica learns of his unfaithfulness, his letters to her are strange - "The sense of empathy and compassion is by parts convincing and bizarre. He has caused her misery yet he seems to have taken a step back to a point where he can console her without a collateral requirement to take responsibility, let alone apologise" (p.197)
  • "he treated [his mother] as his emotional alter ego" (p.241)
  • "He was respected for his [librarianship] achievements throughout the UK by fellow librarians ... He enquired about early retirement, knowing that he could never deal with the prospect" (p.241)

Other reviews

Saturday, 28 January 2017

"Maxwell's Rainbow" by Diana Syder (Smith/Doorstep, 2002)

Poems from Ambit, The North, Poetry Ireland Review, etc.

Though I like "Terra Firma", "Town of Bethlehem", "In a tea cup" and "The Second Coming" (Flash?) I prefer the longer poems in the middle of the book - they're more nuanced and open, the analogies more interesting. In "The Earth Factory" "A JCB grinds its gears out of sight,/ dumps a load of thunder that breaks/ into smaller and smaller pieces/ till a final pebble rocks to a stop" (p.37). I liked "The Devil's Arse" the most. It begins with "Jackdaw/ His voice is a hammer on the cliff,/ sore on the throat, scrapes down/ to the bone, a sudden storm in which/ everything rattles and drops sharp as stone.// His flight is vertigo, an abyss/ into which the hill folds and night falls." (p.42). It's patchy though: the Titan section's not worth it, though I like the variety of Peake Hole - "I don't understand this cavernous love./ Somewhere in my heart's chambers/ the grass has grown itself greener here,/ the houses safer, the bedrock steadier./ And so I am docked, settled with the door shut,/ fire lit, kettle on and the immense effort over" (p.47).

"The Edges" has its moments - "as the eye of the universe/ turns tender for a moment/ above the creaking cradle of earth" (p.51). The book ends with 2 science-influenced longer poems, neither of which convinced me. The persona in "Project Phoenix" asks "Alone or not?/ Either beggar belief when even/ a lifeless universe would be amazing ... How did our slippery cells ever come/ to be born among balls of gas colliding? ... If complexity is rare,/ the result of fluctuations/ in the fundamentals from one part/ to another, then we're an anomaly/ in the giddy ways of space-time/ and the worth of every creature/ rockets sky high ... but surely, any creature that is born/ from the ash of suns, builds a telescope,/ predicts a lunar eclipse and waits up for it,/ is excited, elated, consumed with longing/ at the sight and homesick -/ such a creature is well-equipped/ to cope with a fallout of wonders". In "The Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank", "And the farmer, what has the sky given him?/ Rain, certainly/ and the multiple stomachs of cows/ in whose tender, weighted udders/ have swung Milky Way drifts/ of fat globules in solution.// Enough white stuff to paint/ the telescope umpteen times over."

There's some science, though it's GCSE level and classical, and the poems both short and long that I didn't see much value in tended to be the science ones - "Newton's Law" (an inauspicious start to the collection), "Genes", "The Cell", "Protestations of Innocence", "The History Game", and "Time of the month".

Other reviews