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Spoken Word III

Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries interviewed by Robert Macfarlane

RSL, Union Chapel, Thursday 3rd April

The winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, 27 year old Eleanor Catton from New Zealand, was interviewed by travel writer and academic Robert Macfarlane* earlier this month as part of the RSL event series. The evening kicked off with two men singing various traditional Maori songs, followed inevitably by the Haka. With our focus determinedly set on New Zealand – in case we had been inclined to wander – Macfarlane introduced Catton by describing the night The Luminaries won, with an anecdote highlighting the fact that Ben Okri is clearly great company as well as a good friend of Macfarlane’s, and that Catton was obviously startled to have won. She recalled for the audience that the moment she won, the internet ‘broke’ in New Zealand – her parents had to find out via the radio. 

Catton veered between making statements with a glint of steel – despite the prize, she said “the same task is before me now” – and being charming to the point where it almost beggared belief. Every question he posed was ‘interesting’, everything she wrote was ‘gorgeous’ to Macfarlane.  In their shared love of landscape they were brought together, and when they discussed this it felt like the audience were able to see where the bones of the novel came from. The Luminaries is a thin strip of a novel in that it covers the main street of a pioneering town and the beach, where the rivers meet as they come down from the hills. Catton spoke of this meniscus of land being trapped between the savage sea and impassable peaks. It is a land caught between ‘dangers’ where people refer to drowning as ‘the West Coast disease’.

Even when she has been abroad, Catton has been pulled toward her native land: her grandmother sent her the shipping news from microfiche across the ocean when she was in Iowa. She writes with two family maxims in mind: the idea that effort is individual, and that you cannot buy a view, it must be deserved. In addition, the Cattons maintain that everything looks better in the rain. This will not be news to any resident of the United Kingdom. 

Despite the undeniable importance of the setting in terms of the initial events within the narrative, the action mostly happens inside. Virginia Woolf commented on how hard it is to move characters out of one room and into another. The chances of this happening and of then meeting others are significantly increased by being inside, on the whole. It also helps that the rain is relentless in the novel. 

Without wishing to ruin it for those yet to tackle this huge novel, The Luminaries charts the interwoven fates of several characters within a gold mining town. A local prostitute and infamous opium addict is found badly injured by the side of the road, a shipwreck causes a key crate to go missing, a hermit is found dead and his estate hotly contested. As the town elders vie for prominence and a séance reveals a common desire to be hoodwinked, everyone is of course obsessed with gold. In many ways it is a novel about dividends, and Catton is clever on the subject of relations being bought. She feels love and money are opposite, and that the latter is only ever a transient vehicle for enabling the former in some way. 

Catton planned out the structure of the novel with a piece of software that enables the user to program the night skies. By inputting the longitude and latitude, it shows you the stars in sky above that location, by adding any date it shows you the constellations at that time in order to see the skies revolve as well as the phases of the moon. In the late nineteenth century she found ‘a month without a moon’ between two full moons, and deemed it the sign to start her off. She had already been interested in astrology (to Maori New Zealanders, Orion’s belt is the bottom of a catamaran), but the idea of both fixed and moving parts interested her as well as providing assistance in crafting a plot of that complexity. She took astronomy archetypes and turned them into a novel: Sagittarius – said to represent the collective unconscious – is also the House of Journeys, suitable for a novel where the arrival of the mysterious stranger is key. 

Macfarlane enquired after Catton’s casual use of the word ‘whore’ throughout the narrative; it did not lose its impact for him no matter how many times it cropped up. She agreed the word was a shock, and that she would never normally use it but in this case had no compunction doing so, before pointing out that the words whore, ore, California and Victoria all contain the same sound. Catton sees patterns in apparently randomly distributed data. She is clearly interested in connections, describing them in a neat way.

The evening concluded with a reading by Kerry Fox in darkness so complete that Macfarlane said he felt like he was at a séance himself. He helped Catton towards increasingly voluble responses as the hour progressed and was the ideal choice to interview such a modest writer at the start of her undoubtedly stellar career. I just wish there had been slightly less awareness of this fact throughout the evening. 

*Kathleen Jamie’s 2008 review of Macfarlane’s book The Wild Places is one of the most crushingly funny pieces I have ever encountered. It may not be entirely fair, but with sentences like the below, that ceases to matter quite so much: “ if we do find a Wild Place, we can prance about there knowing that no bears or wolves will appear over the bluff, because we disposed of the top predators centuries ago, and if we do come unstuck there’s a fair chance that, like the man on Ben Nevis, we’ll get a mobile signal, and be rescued.”

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n05/kathleen-jamie/a-lone-enraptured-male

The Editors

Books for prisoners

Books to prisoners

It is a special kind of ignorance that classes reading as a privilege that should be banned. Reading is not a privilege, nor is it a right. It is an act of consciousness. The symbols and the medium need not be letters and paper. Human beings read everything that they look at. Books, newspapers, pictures, faces, eyes, actions, landscapes, patterns of behaviour, groups of individuals, subliminal messages, reading is the act of sensing and interpreting.

Man is by nature a social animal”, says Aristotle, and reading is how we converse with the world, even in silence. Reading is not a drawbridge to be retracted nor can its object be erased. A text, once read, lives on in the mind far longer than the act of reading it. Books are the captured voices of others and they can lead us anywhere we need or wish to go. Why then deprive prisoners of guidance? That is not an act of punishment, nor even of vengeance. To guide the misguided must be one purpose of a justice system.

To those prisoners who are allowed to read, or who seek a book to accompany them in prison as they pass time: two of the best companions you could ask for are a collected works of Shakespeare and a copy of the King James Bible. Both are untempting and intimidating books to many readers on the outside but they are the richest and most rewarding books when read with time. Read them slowly, read them for pleasure. If it is all that is available to you, then you are rich: “Why, nature needs not what thou, gorgeous, wear’st, / Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But for true need – / You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.” (here).

I can’t imagine how I would react to imprisonment. Not well. Bryan Keenan’s amazing An Evil Cradling dispelled my teenage idea that being kidnapped might be an interesting path to self-discovery. It is tempting, however, to think of the books that could be read, particularly by someone starting reading in earnest for the first time, in prison.

Perhaps one should start with stoic literature. BoethiusConsolation of Philosophy is a book I read at least once a year as a free person. It contains among my favourite lines of literature: “If you seek the help of the surgeon, you must first expose the wound” and I think I would revisit it as often as I could if I were in prison.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius might also offer solace and a model for survival: “If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you should be bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happy.” Or Fox’s Book of Martyrs, on surviving and internalising persecution: “Before he went to the stake he confessed his adherence to those opinions which Luther held; and, when at it, he smiled, and said, “I have had many storms in this world, but now my vessel will soon be on shore in heaven.” He stood unmoved in the flames, crying out, ‘Jesus, I believe’; and these were the last words he was heard to utter.”

Or perhaps there is more comfort to be had in the literature of imprisonment, exile or disaster providing a kind of commonality of experience. Kafka’s The Trial or Voltaire’s Candide might be my first ports of call (“I am the best man in the world, and yet I have already killed three men, and of these three, two were priests.”). I might attempt Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipeligo, though I have never managed yet, or branch out into the literature of metaphorical imprisonment, Zóla’s L’Oeuvre, in which a young artist is imprisoned by his artistic ambition, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or more literally, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Perhaps instead, the literature of escapism would be more enticing, giving life to J M G Le Clézio’s contention that literature is the true travel and opening up worlds real and unreal for the reader to escape into.

Either way, once read, a book can never be taken from you. So a lesson for all of us from the deprivation of literature from prisons is to read as much and as widely as we can, while we can. And for those suffering a ban on reading, perhaps they can take solace in the words of Benjamin Disraeli: “When I want to read a good book, I write one.”

The Editors

Spoken Word II

Daunt Books Festival 27/28 March – Part Two

Bright Young Novelists: Adam Foulds, Rebecca Hunt and Evie Wyld interviewed by Edmund Gordon

The second event in the first day of the very first Daunt Books Festival recently featured Edmund Gordon – a critic currently writing a life of Angela Carter – speaking to three young writers based in the UK but keen on far flung settings.

Rebecca Hunt’s Everland plots two Antarctic expeditions 100 years apart, commencing in 1913 with three sailors trying to make their way to the small island of Everland in a dinghy after a storm. She highlights the danger of hope at the poles – in the form of kelp, or a cormorant – as a sign that land is nearby can of course be a mirage or salvation.

Hunt is very good on the practicality of life in this extreme place – of lugging things and people – that Scott and others were irritatingly noble and upbeat about in their diaries. It was drudgery. Also, carrying a dead or ailing body at the Pole is a dead weight that can kill you. It slows you down when there is no such thing as time to spare. She also deftly illustrates fraying tempers as a result of this pressured race, often with language ‘so violent it didn’t have a sound’.

It is also always good to hear about Hunt’s explorers living on pemmican (spiced, preserved seal meat) as a staple of the Polar menu. The last time I encountered this calorific snack was in an almost unbearably perky book provided by my grandmother: Susannah of the Yukon. Susannah is quite the explorer, defying the Mounties to strike her own gold claim aged nine. Her love of the frontier started this whole messy personal obsession with frosty horizons and the ends of the earth.

Evie Wyld then discussed her second novel: All the Birds, Singing (her debut was reviewed on the site here). The protagonist moves to a sheep station after an offer to become a form of maid ‘with advantages’, having been a prostitute in the city. The arrangement, having turned out to be less than advantageous, turns south and our heroine prepares to flee her trap. Amid a general backdrop of acute unease, she tries to plot her captor Otto’s mood every morning by the time he unlocks her door to release her in order to pick the perfect moment to run. The description of her disabling a truck engine on guesswork – throwing washers away frantically to buy herself time – is one of the most tense pieces of writing I have ever encountered.

Her escape is foiled by the dog jumping up and down with rage at the sight of her starting its master’s Ute (a car for those like me who did not know). The woman and dog are bound together; however it is the lady who runs the risk of being tapped on the nose with a rolled up comic for a misdemeanour. Wyld is always great on dog behaviour, describing “not a smell of hello but a smell of what are you up to”. She also delivers painfully sharp flashes of physical interaction: “every time we finish” having sex, Otto acknowledges this by “slapping the meat of his gut”.

At the sheep station, by dawn the air is already thick with flies. Breakfast is chops with eggs. There is a ewe with a black spotted nose. All of these shards of imagery are nearly familiar but ultimately combine to form an undeniable picture of Otherness. Australia is as familiar as a photograph, but blurred and off kilter. In response to a question about writing about far removed places rather than attempting to capture the areas of London that are currently moving fast, Wyld explained that she would rather get lost in her imagination than write about the Peckham she knows and get it ‘wrong’, as she would incur the wrath of the locals directly in the bookshop she runs.

Adam Foulds, having read a section from his most recent novel The Quickening Maze, was asked by an audience member when the best time to have been a writer was. His answer was 1885, due to the sheer number of contemporaries he could have enjoyed – Robert Musil and Thomas Mann in particular – however someone made the valid point that he would have been called in that case. A short pause ensured before he responded with a gentle defence for his choice: “Obviously, it had its risks.”

The process of writing a second novel was more like going back to square one than any of the three authors could have predicted. Each new endeavour is started by saying “This will be the one where I say what I mean”. Which in turn drives the impulse to keep going. Which is good news for the reader.

The Editors

Spoken Word

Daunt Books Festival, 27/28 March 2014

Celebrating Virago Modern Classics: Maggie O’Farrell, Susie Boyt and Deborah Levy, questions by Lennie Goodings

Virago was created as a publisher in 1973 to challenge the notion of ‘great’ women writers. They calmly and effectively appropriated the idea of Penguin Modern Classics for themselves, and O’Farrell, Boyt and Levy opened the inaugural Daunt Books Festival by discussing which Virago novels particularly inspired them. It was a relatively unusual opportunity to hear writers talk about reading without their being obliged to tie in their own work unless they felt like it.

Deborah Levy (Black Vodka and Hot Milk are two of her recent titles) chose Angela Carter and Muriel Spark as her authors. She compared Carter’s ‘long, luscious, feverish and slightly inflamed sentences’, that are all about revealing desire to Spark’s short, spiky sentences about it being concealed.

Spark feathers her books with many beautiful, slightly psychopathic female figures, about whom she is unapologetic. Levy described Spark as a genius at depicting human frailty and human cruelty, which she did not appreciate until years after first reading her. Spark inserts a kind of ‘mild panic’ into her calm sentences, which informed the way Levy wrote Swimming Home, creating a splinter on the surface of the prose. In this way, Levy explained her feeling that “books are laid inside us” until you re-read them and uncover more at a later stage.

Carter was described as altogether more theatrical, with desiring female characters; their bodies no longer buttoned up – in fact, they tend to have the first five undone. Levy cited Baudelaire’s influence on Carter before reading a passage from The Magic Toyshop in closing.

Overall, Levy’s confidence in her choices was partly derived from the fact that neither writer tends to have characters doing things like putting a chicken in the oven. The characters are given minds, enabled to travel on horseback – vulnerable and fragile – but are often ‘travelling across terrain to find something they need’.

Every time Maggie O’Farrell sees a dark green Virago spine in a second-hand bookshop, she buys it on principle. She described being drawn to the aesthetic of it: the portrait on the cover and the whiteness of the pages.

Her first choice was Our Spoons came from Woolworth’s by Barbara Comyn (the ‘daughter of a madwoman and a violent, cruel man’). She asked that you not be put off by the title, having herself been transfixed by Comyn’s unique prose style within five minutes. Quick as a whip, she pre-empted my next thought by acknowledging that the word ‘unique’ is overused, but asserted that Comyn’s narrative voice is unlike any other. Her character will take a newt to a dinner party and let it swim in the water jug, delivered in the same tone as a child dying of scarlet fever. The novel illustrates 1930s Bohemian London pre-Beveridge report, wherein barbed comedy rapidly descends into the destruction of a marriage.

Her next choice was Mollie Keane, ‘a Hibernian Evelyn Waugh’, who wrote about the minute calibrations of class and family in the Anglo-Irish last days of Empire. The novel portrays a family of poverty stricken snobs who value dogs above one another, and who would rather die than eat rabbit mousse, as it is ‘low’ food – having been caught for free rather than bought in a butcher. Their servants – who are starving – are sacked for eating starch in the laundry, and grocers are ‘robbers’ if they have the temerity to actually send a bill. You say nothing when your husband sleeps with servants, or when your son dies. If you are still standing after all of that charm, the language will still hold you fast, as every word Keane uses pulls its weight. She is the master of the disparity between what we feel and what we say: let’s take the dogs for a walk rather than actually talking about it.

Her third and final choice was Rosamond Lehmann’s The Invitation to the Waltz, which captures a seventeen year old girl preparing for a party – and that true insight that the prospect of the night is always better than what actually takes place, the anticipation always being superior to the event. At the party she encounters the master of the house’s son. More on this at a later date (when I have finished the book).

The final speaker Susie Boyt chose Elizabeth Taylor in the hope that one day the film star will be called the “other Elizabeth Taylor”.

Boyt carefully explained that Taylor repeatedly pulls off effects that are very hard to achieve with no effort at all, from simple, perfect sentences (“The chair scraped back and talk broke out”) to expertly set moral thermostats and particularly good group portraits: one scene was cited where a clutch of ladies cook their lunch – lamb chops on a Baby Belling – at the same time as melting wax in a little pan to do their moustaches.

She also described an air of recklessness to Taylor’s stories, including one where a new groom gets so caught up in the joy of being in the pub that he simply forgets about his new bride upstairs in her lilac underwear. He automatically goes home to his mum’s house at the end of the night, alone, and ‘no one knows what to think at all’.

Boyt also gave a synopsis of a brilliant short story by Taylor of two people posing as a married couple in order to land a job offered to a pair of married waiters: these people are serious enough about their vocation to be lifted by ‘the glacial table linen’ and the elegance of the clientele. The ‘husband’ takes their cover story seriously enough to put a photograph of ‘their son’ in the flat, and asks her to leave out her hairbrush and a pot of face cream in order to convince any curious visitors. Of course the story does not end well.

Taylor expertly shows all the things in family life that can go wrong, something that Boyt, who described herself as liking ‘to write dark books with high spirits’* and with the same moral agenda as Taylor, clearly sympathizes with. A slightly more optimistic way of describing it could be a way of showing how to be good in the world without being ground down to a paste.
This concludes Part One. Part Two, featuring Evie Wyld and others will follow shortly.

*Boyt on cities: “I like dual carriageways and litter and all the things you are not supposed to like but I really do”.

The Editors

Night Walks

Night Walks – Charles Dickens, Penguin Books ‘Great Ideas’

Penguin do a couple of great lines in quirky short books called ‘Great Ideas’ [eds: we review another here]. About one hundred authors are showcased and, from what I can tell, the series is aimed at introducing the reader to an essay or a passage from an extremely famous writer/politician/philosopher/champion of the arts. Some books are a more natural fit than others. Engels’ and Marx’s Communist Manifesto fits the 100-200 page bill perfectly. There is, however, a danger that a reader might approach this literary fast-food and then believe themself to be familiar with the author. This is likely to end in disappointment bearing in mind the collection of contributors range from Kant to Rousseau, Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky. Gaining familiarity, confidence and enjoyment from these gods takes a rather more sustained effort. That isn’t to say that fast food isn’t enjoyable.

 

nightwalks

 

It was seeing the photo above, a study of night time London in the 1920s which encouraged me to seek out Dickens’ Night Walks. I never really need much convincing where Dickens is concerned. He is the author of one of my favourite books – Great Expectations – and his writing has a conversational style which, to me, sounds like a quirky uncle time-travelling from the mid 19th Century to tell you a story. Furthermore, whilst his English is obviously not modern I never find it old-fashioned, which makes for a more relaxed read when compared with other literary greats.

Night Walks is a rather awkwardly cobbled together collection of commentaries by Dickens on the London of his day. The best parts are invariably the chapters which chart the walks which Dickens took during the nights where he lost his battle with insomnia, hence the name of the book I suppose. There is also a wonderful chapter where Dickens recounts a time when as an 8-year-old he spends a day lost in the City pondering what to do with his life and how to find his fame and fortune. Following in the footsteps of Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington is entertained at length. It might be complete fabrication, but it makes for a good tale nonetheless. There are also passages on the prevalence of betting shops, regular state funerals, and other peculiarities of the time which I found less interesting. Nonetheless, there is some genius about this book and it has little to do with the excellence of the writing or the writer.

One of the marvellous things about London is that the streets and the boroughs are unchanging. The British capital has never enjoyed/suffered a major reworking at the hands of a revolutionary band, an occupying power or any other force for radical change. You and I can walk the streets as Dickens once did, you and I can reconstruct the Limehouse, Whitechapel, Covent Garden or The Borough of the time based on the information provided by Dickens. Whilst the docklands that Dickens talks of are now in the shadow of Canary Wharf, the old streets and yards remain. The abject poverty of Tower Hamlets may have been somewhat relieved and the streets paved, but it isn’t beyond the realms of imagination to mentally recreate Dickens’ London.

Indeed, it seems as though some of the author’s reflections on certain areas of the city are not too far removed from modern sentiment: “When I go into the City, now, it makes me sorrowful to think that I am quite an artful wretch. Strolling about it as a lost child, I thought of the British Merchant and the Lord Mayor, and was full of reverence. Strolling about it now, I laugh at the sacred liveries of state, and get indignant at the corporation as one of the strongest practical jokes of the present day.”

In Night Walks you have both a guide and a companion.

Matt Bradley

Don Quixote 3: the beautiful shepherdess

The genius of the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha, Sñr Don Quixote, lies partly in the juxtaposition of his lunacy against absurd social norms. Cervantes splits open the idiocy of social conventions by the non-conformity of his ludicrous knight ‘errant’. Don Quixote does not fit within the social constructs of his day and the characters he meets regularly depart from his company in discussion of his madness: “they left him and continued their journey, during which they had much to talk about, from the history of Marcela and Grisóstomo, to the madness of Don Quixote.”

But in the episode preceding this passage, Cervantes’ caustic irony splits open the normative chauvinism of the group of male shepherds who consider Don Quixote to be mad. Cervantes portrays them in their ignorance, despite their apparently acceptable views, by leaving reason to be defended by a woman (albeit a beautiful one) and a madman.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the shepherds, who are at this point travelling together, come across the funeral procession of the young shepherd Grisóstomo. Telling the tale, Ambrosio, one of the funeral party, says: “He loved deeply and was rejected; he adored and was scorned; he pleaded with a wild beast, importuned a piece of marble, pursued the wind, shouted in the desert, served ingratitude and his reward was to fall victim to death in the middle of his life, which was ended by a shepherdess whom he attempted to immortalise so that she would live on in memory.” The shrill cry of a masculine group, forming around their lost companion. The tone is clichéd and anti-intellectual, it shows no appreciation that the poignancy of love is bound as much to the imminency of loss as to the strength of feeling of the lover. It says only, he loved, was unrequited and this is somehow an offence of the subject of his love.

A short while later the group, now travelling together, comes upon Marcela, the shepherdess in question. Ambrosio, in his ludicrous almost camp manner, accuses her of several ridiculous things including coming “in your arrogance, to tread on this unfortunate corpse”, a string of accusations which prompt an exceptional response from the beautiful shepherdess.

“The lover of the beautiful thing might be ugly and since ugliness is worthy of being avoided, it is absurd to say: “I love you because you are beautiful; you must love me even though I am ugly”… According to what I have heard, true love is not divided and must be voluntary, not forced. If this is true, as I believe it is, why do you want to force me to surrender my will, obliged to do so simply because you say you love me? But if this is not true, then tell me: if the heaven that made me beautiful made me ugly instead, would it be fair for me to complain that none of you loved me?… if chastity is one of the virtues that most adorn and beautify both the body and soul, why should a woman, loved for being beautiful, lose that virtue in order to satisfy the desire of a man who, for the sake of his pleasure, attempts with all his might and main to have her lose it?… it is correct to say that his obstinacy, not my cruelty, is what killed him. 

… I am free and do not care to submit to another… The limits of my desires are these mountains, and if they go beyond here, it is to contemplate the beauty of heaven and the steps whereby the soul travels to its first home.” 

After her astounding and excellent soliloquy she departs into a dense thicket of forest, intending not to be followed. “And some – those who were pierced by the powerful arrow of the light of her beautiful eyes – gave indications of wishing to follow her, disregarding the patent discouragement they had heard.” But Don Quixote refuses to allow them: “Let no person, whatever his circumstance or condition, dare to follow the beautiful Marcela lest he fall victim to my fury and outrage.”

The truth in Cervantes, it seems, is like a paste-board knight, riding on a lean old donkey, frail, regularly beaten but determined in the face of ignorance, convention and stupidity. Don Quixote forever challenges accepted convention with his naive honesty, is dubbed mad and ignoble as a result and pays no attention to his critics. For that, we can only salute him.

The Editors

Making it up


100YOMThe Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared
– Jonas Jonasson

Reading this book gave me the feeling that Mr Jonasson was writing to an urgent deadline and making things up as he went along. More often than not, novels give the opposite feeling, a feeling of profound heaviness as though the author has weighed every word against its alternatives over a period of years, maybe decades, in order to refine what it is that he or she actually wanted to say. This can work well, and it is fair to say that most of the ‘great’ works of literature are probably crafted agonisingly slowly by committed people prepared to dedicate an enormous amount of time to their art. However, as we would like to think this blog has show over the course of its two-and-a-bit year existence, books are not confined to any one type (or weight) and this particular book about an old man who goes AWOL from his care home is ample proof of the ability of literature to depart from the expectations of even the most seasoned readers.

Perhaps Jonas Jonasson was not writing to a deadline, but his plot unfolds like a bedtime story that has ballooned grotesquely out of proportion into something it was never intended to be. As though, scrambling desperately for something to keep his child interested, Jonasson stumbled upon the goldmine of twentieth century history in all its convoluted glory and blithely sourced it for the invention of preposterous anecdotes revolving around key geopolitical events and characters. It is in this way that the 100-year-old-man, Allan Karlsson, comes to meet President Truman, Chairman Mao, Stalin, Albert Einstein’s brother and an infant Kim Jong-Il. But the narrative, like its protagonist, remains both impulsive and utterly indifferent to its inherent absurdity: Karlsson’s life story develops as a sort of funfair ride through the 1900s, reminding us in the process that a lot can (and did) happen in 100 years. Embarrassingly, I still found myself having to do a lot of background research on Wikipedia.

The president continued to describe military strategy, but Allan had stopped listening. He looked absentmindedly around the Oval Office, wondering whether the windows were bulletproof and where the door to the left might lead.”

In short, Allan Karlsson may seem a man like any other, but he is not. He is willing to drop his hundredth birthday party on a whim and embark on an adventure because he still has the legs for it. He rallies around himself a ragtag band of misfits and although it seems only a matter of time before the curtain comes down on his remarkable life, he defies convention much as Mr Jonasson does, carrying on as indifferent to politics/the opinion of others as he is to the fact of his geriatric status. In a world overrun by cynicism, Mr Karlsson is a man whose unquenchable lust for life is too inspiring to ridicule.

So what does it amount to? To be honest, the question seems obtuse when asked of a book that is essentially a shameless literary joyride over several hundred pages. There is a genuine sense throughout that caution was thrown to the wind, that the question “why stop there?” was asked at every step of the way and received the ecstatic response “why indeed!” – like Forrest Gump when he got to the end of his driveway – and perhaps this is how, at a stretch, it was meant to tie together.

The Editors

S.

sJJ Abrams used to be a fairly acquired taste. An elite few of us sat, agape, through several seasons of his TV series Roswell High many years ago, but not everyone could stomach the subtle metaphor for teen alienation being delivered via the plot vehicle of teen aliens attending high school in Roswell, New Mexico, famed for an alleged UFO crash and resulting cover up in 1947. Subtle and fairly casual about timelines, he went on to make Lost which made him more popular, until the ending made everyone cross.

However, now there is no way of evading Abrams, even if you wanted to. Much like Joss Whedon’s ascent post-Buffy and Firefly, these geeks have sidled into commanding mainstream cinema in the form of The Avengers for Whedon, and Star Trek and Star Wars for Abrams. To be helming two major science fiction franchises at once is unheard of, but regrettably this post is not about fanatical loyalty, but about Abrams’ literary side project.

An interesting reaction to the pressure of taking several massive professional commitments is writing a book. However, what makes it more intriguing is the form in which the book appears. S. was co-authored by Doug Dorst (a slightly shadowy figure who writes full time as well as being a three time Jeopardy winner), and is a singularly beautiful – or at the very least pleasing – object. The hardback appears in a box, and resembles a library book down to the label on the spine and the stamps on the inside cover. What is more, it is entitled Ship of Theseus, by an unknown 19th century writer called V M Straka, and it is full of pieces of paper: maps, letters and postcards hidden between the pages. It is also covered in notes scribbled in the margins, written in two very different (but wonderfully legible) kinds of handwriting. It emerges that this book is in fact more like three stories: there is the science fiction novel by ‘Straka’, the footnotes by Straka’s translator arguably add another level as it turns out Straka’s true identity remains a mystery to this day, and the relationship developing between the two people who take it in turns borrowing this volume from their university library in order to crack who Straka was. The stakes are raised by a rival group who are trying to uncover the Straka myth at the same time, and seem to be supported by a larger entity with nefarious influences.

s2

Trying to keep track of the varying strands at the same time while juggling the marginalia and various paper clues means that the reader has to work rather harder than they may be used to, but this may be a welcome change for the readers so habitual they tend to gallop faster than they’d like. Going back and forth and around makes you reconsider the pages, which is both refreshing and exasperating. The reader encounters a ship manned by a silent, gaunt crew with a grim mission reminiscent of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a country broken by revolution, an American university in the grip of winter plagued by apparently random acts of violence and theft, an elderly Brazilian lady refusing to give up her secrets in any of the many languages she speaks, and two chippy academics with a certain amount of self-pity who still manage to fall rather touchingly in love.

The stories themselves may not stand up to prolonged scrutiny, but it is such a creative way of changing one of the more established formats that it does not matter hugely. The production must have been an expensive labour of love, as the end product costs no more than a standard hardback and is the sort of object you would be delighted to hold on to. S. has been compared to Nabokov’s Pale Fire and A S Byatt’s Possession with some justification, and even if you are still seething about Lost, this book will not entirely repair the damage, but it may both mollify and entertain you in the process.

The Editors

 

The Reason I Jump

The Reason I Jump, Don't Read Too Fast

The Reason I Jump – Naoki Higashida

I bought a copy of The Reason I Jump after reading this outstanding article on autism on medium.com proposing the ‘intense world’ theory of autism.

Traditional understandings of autism have been predicated on the idea that autism stems from a cortical deficit, most commonly relating to language and emotion. As Oliver Sacks wrote in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: “Neurology’s favourite word is ‘deficit’.”

But the intense world theory takes the opposite view: autism is not a deficit of feeling, but a superabundance of it, so much so as to be overwhelming. Instead of feeling no emotion, autistic people feel so much emotion that they shut themselves down in order to protect themselves from it. They are so attuned to their surroundings and the emotions of others that they are intensely affected by them. This overwhelming of the senses affects every aspect of their lives, from the ability to speak their minds, to the ability to conduct conversations. They require constant attention to maintain a daily routine and severe autism prevents a person from living any kind of independent existence.

The Reason I Jump is a charming book. It is written with a ferocious honesty: “I ask you, those of you who are with us all day, not to stress yourselves out because of us. When you do this, it feels as if you’re denying any value at all that our lives may have – and that saps the spirit we need to soldier on. The hardest ordeal for us is the idea that we are causing grief for other people. We can put up with our own hardships okay, but the thought that our lives are the source of other people’s unhappiness, that’s plain unbearable.”

Framed as a sequence of fifty seven questions, The Reason I Jump is one of the most refreshing autobiographical works I have read.  A window on a part of our own mental lives that is so often hidden away. Written by Higashida when only thirteen years old using a writing frame to point at each letter individually, the crisp clarity of the language is astounding.

“It’s not that we dislike holding hands, it’s just that, if we happen to spot something interesting, we can’t help but dash off and let go of the hand we were holding.” or my favourite in answer to the question, why do you ask the same questions over and over?: “I imagine that a normal person’s memory is arranged continuously, like a line. My memory, however, is more like a pool of dots. I’m always ‘picking up’ these dots – by asking my questions – so I can arrive back at the memory that the dots represent.”

The Reason I Jump is a charming view of our own behaviours from the perspective of someone living at their mercy. That autism represents the extreme condition is no barrier to it revealing the absurdity of many behaviours of the non-autistic (particularly stress induced lapses of lucidity: “when I see I’ve made a mistake, my mind shuts down. I cry, I scream, I make a huge fuss and I just can’t think straight any more”).

Reading The Reason I Jump is like reading about someone who wears the central tenets of the human psyche at the surface so that the social and linguistic elements of our beings which protect our soft psychological centres like a veneer are displaced, leaving the centre exposed, overwhelmed and seemingly vulnerable. It struck me, reading the voice of a person who could not speak, that there might be two challenges with autism. The first, to make us a little more like them: clear, honest and emotionally aware. And the second of course, to help them live their lives with clarity, honesty and an understanding that penetrates beyond the veneer.

The Editors

Book of Mammon, Part II

dontreadtoofast.comBarbarians at the Gate - Bryan Burrough and John Heylar

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” - George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

There is something fiendish about that element of finance directed purely at the acquisitive fabrication of money that did not previously exist.

One of the most enterprising of these solutions (progress of a kind: like the rack or the guillotine) is commonly referred to as ‘PIK’ debt or ‘payment in kind’ debt: I pay you for a company with a loan note (literally an ‘I owe you’); if needed, I can pay you back with more loan notes (more ‘I owe yous’). The price of my purchase shoots up and the amount of cash required remains the same. If things go well, you get paid when I refinance the PIK debt. If they go badly, Lehman Brothers collapses under the weight of its now ‘toxic’ I owe yous. Or as our protagonist, Ross Johnson puts it:

I mean,” Johnson went on, “we have found something that’s better than the U.S. printing press. And they’ve got it all down here on Wall Street. And nobody knows it’s going on. I wonder if the World Bank knows about it. You could solve the third world debt crisis with this stuff. It’s a brand new currency…”

The development of this practice is really the birthplace of Barbarians at the Gate, a steaming missive written by two Wall Street Journal journalists hot from the trail of one of the most decadent and extraordinary leveraged buy-out competitions (LBOs) of the already decadent 1980s. The confluence of an LBO market just coming to its adolescent maturity on the rise of PIK and other exotic debt types, the petrol burning machismo that fuelled it and the extravagant talent and whimsy of, Ross Johnson, CEO, “a man who devoted his life to shaking things up”.

The book centres around the bidding war leading up to the purchase by KKR of Johnson’s company RJR Nabisco. An LBO is essentially a purchase of a company by a private equity fund using debt and a friendly (well-remunerated) management team to secure a purchase. The existing shareholders are bought out at a premium. The managers take a large equity position in the company in exchange for performance incentives. The company is taken off the stock market. The private equity fund trims the company’s fat (in RJR Nabisco’s case, a thirty aircraft strong private fleet of jets compiled by Ross Johnson and colloquially known as the ‘RJR Air Force’) to make room in the cash flows to accommodate interest repayments on debt. Three or five or more years down the line the company is either broken up and sold in more valuable constituent parts or taken back to the stock market to be sold, hopefully at a profit.

The book is one of the few business thrillers I have ever read, and it gripped me more tightly than any novel I have read in the last year. It takes as its raw material such a rich subject, such intense characters (“Kravis went numb. He had been fighting for this for so long. He had lost eight pounds in the last six weeks…All he could think of was how much work was ahead”) that at times Burrough’s and Heylar must force on their writing a dead-pan description of “the biggest prize in history” without which the book would have become unreadable.

The authors gather around their plot a litany of Shakespearean characters, Henry Kravis, one of the three founders of KKR, plays a kind of Goneril to Ross Johnson’s Lear. Ted Forstmann, founder and CEO of Forstmann, Little & Co, a Cordelia, decries the debt funded buyout practices pioneered by KKR: “We are not comparable. When I started this business ten years ago, I said I wanted to be the best. I didn’t care about being the biggest. If you think the biggest is the best, go away. You belong with Kravis. Our returns are three and four times the returns they lie about getting.”

On the other side, the loose management style of Ross Johnson (“A few million dollars are lost in the sands of time”) and the extraordinary governance practices of RJR Nabisco make the problems of valuing this behemoth of a company intractable: “If missing figures weren’t bad enough, Stuart didn’t completely understand the ones he had. One number in particular puzzled them all. On the initial projections they had obtained from RJR Nabisco was a heading “Other uses of cash”. Beside it was a row of figures stretching out ten years, each ranging from $300 million to $500 million. Stuart had no idea what the numbers meant.” Never has so much fun been had reading about the accounting woes of others.

Barbarians at the Gate is a fast paced, American thriller. A book that doesn’t give up being read (“We’d like to think that Barbarians has aged well”, the authors coyly note) and has survived the twenty years since its publication, rather like the LBO market but unlike RJR Nabisco.

More notably for us, the PIK notes that fuelled the eventual $25 billion valuation of RJR Nabisco are still in use. Last year nearly $15.3 billion dollars of debt was raised by PIK notes in 39 different deals. Perhaps this is a cost of economic recovery. Perhaps it is the sign of the green shoots of economic progress that we would like to see. Regardless of interpretation, if ever there was a time to understand the unreasonable man it is now because doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result isn’t progress, according to Albert Einstein, it’s insanity.

The Editors

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