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Review of 2015: Part 3

Welcome to the third and final instalment of this year’s ‘Review of the Year’. We owe a huge thanks to all our contributors and readers, without whom the DRTF project would be a lifeless irrelevance; 2015 has been wonderful and we look forward to seeing more of you in 2016.

 

Editor 1

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. This account of a Ted Hughes scholar aided in rearing his sons by a foul-mouthed crow, summoned by their jagged mourning, was simply brilliant. For anyone who admits to not knowing what to say when it comes to an absence, for anyone who has ever loved Ted Hughes, and for everyone who is keen for some lucidity and dark humour.

Mislaid by Nell Zink. This book will make you laugh on public transport, sometimes in a shocked ‘I hope no one is reading over my shoulder’ sort of way. Zink is outrageous, and I cannot compare her lolloping pace and wit to anyone writing today. The collapse of a marriage, unconventional upbringings of the best sort, intellectual snobbery defied and some brilliant defiant female characters I would love to befriend.

Porcelain by Benjamin Read. Read creates graphic novels that could loosely be described as fairy tales, but they owe a lot to H G Wells, steampunk, the gothic tradition and the Art-Deco movement, to name a few influences apparent in his work. This tale of an alchemist creating animated porcelain figures within Dickensian London is beautifully drawn by Christian Wildgoose.

Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. This book is not beautifully written, but just as with Gomorrah (also reviewed on this site) that does not seem quite as paramount as the treatment of such an enormous global topic as the trade and treatment of illegal drugs and its inevitable consequences. Hari, a journalist, travels to the most affected parts of the world to better understand how addiction can be tackled and the perception of addicts changed for the better.

 

Editor 2

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. This brilliant book is the most clear and concise refutation of twenty-first negativity I have yet encountered. By studying the decline of violence (of all kinds) over the course of human history, Pinker persuasively makes the case that humanity is not in fact doomed to a never-ending recurrence of genocide and destruction, despite what the media may have us believe. Although it was first published back in 2011, I felt this was the perfect antidote to the growing sense of impending disaster that seems to have gripped the world in 2015.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel. As is usually the case with literary trends and me, I arrived several years late at the Hilary Mantel party. I got there eventually, and have since been making up for lost time. In February this year I was even lucky enough to hear Mantel read from the as yet unpublished The Mirror and The Light (see review). For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Mantel’s ability to make the 16th century seem like it happened a few weeks ago is an absolute delight.  

 

 

Review of 2015: Part 2

The second instalment in our “best books read in 2015” series.

 

Charlotte Joll

The Poet’s Daughters by Katie Waldegrave…aka they fuck you up those famous Dads which might also be an appropriate comment on my second choice: Eleanor Marx by Rachel Holmes though her real (and possibly not unconnected) problem was being a HOPELESS picker of men.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. Best depiction of what it’s like to have dementia – I learnt a lot more reading this than from Atol Gwande’s Being Mortal which I found banal as well as depressing (but perhaps that’s because the issues he deals with are all too familiar to anyone who works in the NHS).

Night Waking by Sarah Moss.  The modern v historical plot line doesn’t entirely work (Possession has spawned a great many imitations) but it’s brilliant on the simultaneous intense pleasure to be experienced from having and holding small children and the soul destroying boredom of being made to look after them when all you want to do is work or sleep.

 

Olivia Amory

The only books I have read this year which were published in 2015 have been the Ferrante novels, which I loved mostly because of the quick movement in the language and realistic portrayal of a female friend, and A Little Life which I feel I enjoyed despite my better nature.

I have also read Far From the Madding Crowd which I thought was wonderful but somehow took me a very long time and got rather confused with the film in my head and a couple of books about old men thinking about their lives (Stoner / Disgrace) which were moving but also remained quite distant from my own emotional life.

H is for Hawk which I thought could have been shorter. The Narrow Road to the Deep North which I have now turned against in my head for some reason but has made me want to read something about Australia. Now I look back it seems rather a depressing year!

But I did read and love both A Month in the Country by J. L Carr and Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

I think I have become worse at reading books and don’t really like things that I find hard to relate to anymore. I’m reading Bonfire of the Vanities at the moment and everyone in it is so horrible, silly and unimportant that I can’t enjoy it at all. And why should I relation to Carr or Gibbon – I must have a rather warped, twee image of myself.

I think A Month in the Country is my best because it just gives you this very complete image in your mind, which is strictly limited both in terms of time (a month) and place (a church) that make the memory of reading it stay intact in your mind so that can look back on it with more satisfaction than most novels.

 

Anna-Jean Hughes

Co-founder of https://thepigeonhole.com/

Hands down my favourite has been a book of short stories called Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan. Can’t laud it hard enough.

 

Alexander Starritt

http://www.apolitical.co

For me this year it’s been the revelation that is The Adventures of Augie March. I’ve never read a book so slowly in my life, at first because it’s so directionless (like Augie’s adventures), then because each page shows you your own heart with more understanding of it than you could ever hope to muster. One of the few books you would go to your grave more ignorantly for having never read. Plus the sentences are some of the finest and it’s sometimes very funny.

Review of 2015: Part 1

Our approach to reviewing the year, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is to look at what people have read in the last twelve months, as opposed to what was published during that time. So without further ado, here is the best of what our contributors managed to get through over the course of 2015.

 

Candia McWilliam

Young Eliot by Robert Crawford: A poet and scholar, Crawford, thinks himself into the growing mind and childhood  of the poet and scholar T.S Eliot, whom it has been all too easy to think of as one who arrived with assured celerity at some judicious “version” of middle age. A lovely book rich in fully inhabited detail that can only whet the reader’s appetite for the next volume.

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. Surfing – and why surf ?-  put into words that just about convey the pointful pointlessness of sitting inside the little green room at the end of the curl of the wave, and in so doing, of writing, slippery words eluding you as you try to make standing upright among their tides and fathoms seem natural and easy.

The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in our Times by Barbara Taylor. The account by a high achieving intellectual of utter breakdown and its redressing; and of changes in the treatment of such isolating mental pain,  with particularly attentive reference to Friern Barnett Hospital -now made into luxury apartments, while “care” has fallen into “the community “.

Step Aside, Pops! by Kate Beaton teases the culturally smug in elegant graphic form .

A Very Private Celebrity: The Nine Lives of John Freeman by Hugh Purcell.  Ignore the off-putting title. Anything is good that takes you back to Freeman,  who, in addition to being a soldier, a politician, a journalist, an intellectual and a diplomat, made some of the greatest ever telly, with his Face To Face interviews. Pleasingly, these interviews are often wreathed in smoke.

The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie. The great poet of nature and its unharnessability by soppiness has asked of herself that she make a poem a week for a year.  Do read it;  nothing but the matter as it matters.

For pure sensual pleasure at the eye: Silent Beauties. Flower photographs made by the Dutchman Leendert Blok in the 1920s.

Queer Saint: The Cultured Life of Peter Watson . A curiosity and much more. Written by two authors (Adrian Clark and Jeremy Dronfield) which is somehow always a piquant, and inextricable poser for a reader. Watson was very beautiful, very rich, very generous and very intelligent. He was an enigma and exerts a forceful elegance beyond his grave, to which he was sent too soon by a jealous act of murder.

Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes by Richard Davenport-Hines. This book demonstrates its subject’s variform mighty intelligence (his Cambridge Tripos was Classics and Mathematics) and dares approach the emotional make-up and flowering of the great economist. A generous affecting energetic transfusion of a book.

My discoveries, amid the annually increasing re-reading, have been the works of the novelist, costume historian and very sharp opiner, Doris Langley Moore, who so loved Lord Byron that she arranged to marry him although he had been dead for more than a hundred years  .

Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, a short novel, concrete yet poetic, irreversible, merciless as to the fate of a woman who is understood to have sinned.

The Black Mirror by Raymond Tallis. It is an investigation of the ubiquity of the idea and awareness and sense of death such that it intensifies our relish for, understanding of, and love of being alive and of -what is it? – life itself.

 

Hannah Joll

Howard’s End by E. M Forster. I started the year with this. Sisters, family, personal choices. I loved it and know I will reread later on down the line. The evocation of how it feels to fall in love with a family (the Wilcoxes) is brilliant.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson. This made me want to read more by Robinson. It’s simple and graceful and quite ghostly/haunting for it. Lila the protagonist is a strange, innocent tomcat – an inspiration.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Murakami. ‘In each shave lies a philosophy’, so Murakami, quoting Somerset Maugham, opens a short book I read in one sitting. Murakami presents his choices, unusual as they are (such as running the original marathon to Athens backwards) plainly. There is something meditative about his orderly routines and the rhythm of his runs that suggests he knows his limits and emanates calm because of it.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Anger and reflection, restrained and channelled into this prose poem on casual, ubiquitous racism has made this book startling. Rankine describes multiple vignettes: the Tooting riots; the Williams sisters and the introduction of Hawkeye in tennis; her acquaintances’ lazy pronouncements on affirmative action. She does something very clever with narration and changing ‘you’ and ‘I’ to recreate the distance and alienation felt due to repeated racist acts.

Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante. Enough written on these elsewhere but I think that we are lucky to be alive when books such as these are being written: a paean to friendship; a dissection of violence in our characters, many things.

The best poem I’ve read this year by far is Paul Muldoon’s ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’, it punches above ALL the weights: ‘I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead’.

 

Margot Gibbs

@MargotGibbs

Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith: Originally recommended by Imogen Lloyd.  One of my favourite openings to a book ever, “Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says“. Delight in imagination, its silliness, the silliness of thoughts- whilst remaining serious at its heart; no poe-face. Lots of writing that talks about myth making and storytelling within the narrative makes me numb with boredom; this is completely alive. Some of the nicest writing on beauty and sex that I’ve read (on par if not better than Hollinghurst or maybe I just love gay books).

Elizabeth Costello, JM Coetzee: Novel dressed up as philosophical dialogue. A female novelist at the end of her life, interrogating her beliefs and the rationalist and humanist roots of modern thought. Easy to dislike at first for its self-consciousness, but it’s fantastically way too fleshy for that, and the most intellectually exciting book I’ve read for ages. Made me feel like a teenager.

This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein: I didn’t read it for ages because I thought I knew it, but when I read it I was like a new convert. Deeply historical, political and global. Links on well to her earlier work on the WTO and Shock Doctrine. First half arms you with every fact you ever wanted. Second half focuses on the small scale “barricades” being made by resistant communities but avoids sentimentalising. Her positive diagnosis comes naturally from the negative: localised politics are the way to defeat this brand of destructive capitalism.

Ahab’s Ambition

moby-dick-1For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”

At what point does young ambition tip into morbid disease? When does general optimism about the future turn into a narrow fixation with a specific goal? These are the great questions at the heart of the juxtaposition between Moby Dick’s young narrator, Ishmael, and the grizzled, twisted figure of the Pequod’s captain, Ahab. It is difficult not to wonder what exactly it is that separates them, particularly when Ahab reflects on his early years as a whaler: did he ever share Ishmael’s enthusiasm for the open sea, or was monomania always a defining part of his character? It is tempting to think that perhaps Ahab’s all-consuming ambition is a product of his age, that he is merely a wizened replica of the fresh-faced Ishmael: a man whose passion for whaling generally has been chiseled into a hard-edged obsession with the single white whale.

“…Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey – more a demon than a man! – aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool – old fool, has old Ahab been!

But that seems simplistic, and it is easier to imagine that Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick merely replaced some previous yearning. Perhaps Ahab was a young mariner hell-bent on rising within his chosen profession, dreaming of one day commanding his own ship. When that goal was successfully reached (and we know he has spent thirty-seven of the previous forty years at sea, abandoning his wife in the process) he was probably forced to reset his sights, to aim higher at some new unreachable target. To this extent, we might contrast Ahab with the captains who remain ashore, Peleg and Bildad, whose life at sea has been replaced by a very material dedication to the purely financial interests of the whaling ships they send on their way. Ishmael, on the other hand, has no interest in worldly gain of that sort. We learn at the outset that he is almost contemptuous of those who aspire towards positions of authority:

“…I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever.”

On the contrary, Ishmael is drawn to the sea by something altogether less tangible. His adventure aboard the Pequod is not limited in scope, and it is clear that his journey is more of a personal, spiritual quest than that of the other members of the crew, excepting maybe Queequeg the harpooneer, who is happy to let his portable god make his decisions for him. The distance between Ishmael’s open-mindedness and Ahab’s tunnel vision is most obvious when one considers their different experiences at the top of the Pequod’s mast-head. Ishmael confesses to being a terrible lookout: “let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard.” Indeed, chapter 35 (‘The Mast-Head’) quickly becomes a classic Ishmaelian digression ranging from the greats of history to ancient Greek philosophy. Ishmael enjoys looking, but not for anything in particular. He explains his poor watch-keeping thus:

With the problem of the universe revolving around me, how could I – being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude…”

In fact, Ishmael describes the expansive view of the sea from the top of the mast-head as his “ultimate destination.” Not so Ahab, who climbs the mast-head in chapter 130 (despite his wooden leg) with the single objective of sighting the white whale. Whilst he is “perched aloft”, he gazes so intently at the horizon for signs of his prey that he fails to notice the sea-hawk that symbolically swoops down to remove his hat, later dropping it in the distance, never to be recovered.

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

Ahab recognizes the absurdity of his quest in one stark moment of lucidity and candour in which he tells Starbuck, his first mate, not to follow him when he lowers his boat to give chase to Moby Dick. However, he also asserts that he himself has no choice in the matter, that he is merely the puppet of a “remorseless emperor.”   This passage confirms the role of linear authority aboard the Pequod.  Just as Ahab is unable to disobey what he sees as his fate, so Starbuck is unable to disobey Ahab, despite being all too aware of the madness of the chase.  It also confirms the helplessness of Ahab’s situation: he has spent so long pursuing his goal that he is now merely the victim of a terrible disease which drives him forward, almost in spite of himself. And yet, notwithstanding Ahab’s suicide mission, Melville’s novel is certainly not dismissive of the spirit of adventure in general terms. The fact that Ishmael endures as the sole surviving member of the Pequod is surely intended as a salute to that spirit of adventure, a spirit that does not allow itself to be curtailed by narrow-mindedness.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: A Little Life

A Little LifeHanya Yanagihara – A Little Life

Harrowing is the word most commonly used in reviews and in conversation where A Little Life is involved. It is a word more commonly associated with a dreadful ordeal than a seven hundred page novel. There is no point shying away from the fact that the book is far too long. However, Hanya Yanagihara is such a pro in the world of books that no one can blame her editor from baulking at the prospect of that particular conversation, especially as the story itself is undoubtedly compelling. The friendship between four university friends as it twists and breaks over several decades living in New York is as gripping as it is complicated.

Except it is not about four ‘little’ lives, because the stage is set for just one. Anyone intrigued by Malcolm’s daddy issues and burgeoning architecture career will be disappointed – he is really just a supplier of divine interiors after page 200. JB is the only one with a sense of silliness, and the release the reader feels from his comical presence is palpable, until the jokes and then his presence also recedes. Willem is the kind heart who seems to be a dim failed actor, until he gets his break, and is the best friend Jude could ever ask for. He is endlessly patient, and somehow avoids being annoying.

Jude is the unwilling star; the bleeding angel, the lawyer, baker, studio assistant, adopted son and abused vessel of what loosely represents the care system in America. Such is his beauty and grace that those who don’t want to paint him want to carve their marks into his (already battered) flesh to appropriate a piece of him for themselves. His story has been compared to a misery memoir, but whilst A Child Called It contains mawkish sentiment, and gestures of hopeful rhetoric, A Little Life has none of the above. The ending is not happy, and the very worst things happen to good people. Yanagihara, when asked about the expanding taint of child abuse in the novel, has explained that it is not that she is especially interested in children or abuse, but in this form of abuse as the ultimate form of abusive power.

Where Yanagihara has the edge over a well written journalistic by-line on an amazingly accomplished and complicated individual is her setting. The former careers from humble box room beginnings and cheap Vietnamese food to slick urban mega flats and haute cuisine. A few people left the narrative here: the endless square footage and minimalist contemporary art provide a bleak contrast to Jude’s scarred wreck of a life. Or perhaps their hearts just creaked with envy at the mental image these palaces summoned, which was too much when the reader has already been put under a certain amount of emotional duress. As covered in our Booker Prize piece, Yanagihara wanted to move away from the typical portrayal of New York’s geography and capture the hunger of the city’s inhabitants. She accomplishes this in every sense of the word – everyone works till they drop, they are always moving into bigger apartments or building new houses, expanding their empires and upgrading. Strangely, when it comes to appetite, despite her descriptions of iced cakes and Thanksgiving meals, I have never felt less hungry while reading about food. The opposite was the case when reading Fleming’s Bond books – never have scrambled eggs sounded so tempting.

Her most enchanting character is a supporting role. Harold the law professor first meets Jude at law school, where he buys Jude some clothes for a job interview. He is gentle, funny, a devoted husband and father and an appalling cook. He adopts Jude, and loves him persistently when Jude – like many victims of abuse – desperately tries to push him away. He gently continues to reappear, and that is his simple and irrefutable way of showing love. Harold is Mr Tom, Gandalf, John Keating and Atticus Finch combined. He represents the most pure manifestation of familial, paternal love in a novel which is interesting in tracing every kind, including the fleeting and the inadequate. Blood ties are replaced by friendships as the important family structure for Yanagihara’s characters, especially for those without children.

So harrowing, yes, too long, certainly. However, A Little Life is a detailed tapestry of style without being overly stylized, honest without being brutal for the sake of impact, and Yanagihara’s characters will floor the reader, often when they least expect it. It is not the image of a broken figure curled up on the floor in the dark that sears, but the gentle insistence that you look the speaker in the eye, figuratively speaking, as they are showing you something new.

The Editors

Jonathan Franzen on Purity

Franzen

An Evening with Jonathan Franzen: Intelligence Squared, 30 September 2015

At the end of last month, Intelligence Squared (the world’s “premier forum for debate and discussion”) hosted an evening of Franzen in discussion with Sarah Churchwell at The Royal Geographical Society for the launch of his latest novel: Purity. Two Americans discussing America in a room of ex-pat Americans. Plus two British people feeling very underdressed and obliged to ask each other questions like “What is Stevia?” [The answer turned out to be a sweetener; we were not missing out].

Once we managed to shoulder past the American academic habit of using longer words than necessary – like supererogatory – and they had each brought up their credentials frequently enough to feel well established, appreciated and legitimate, we were all delighted to get on with it.

Before reading from his latest novel, Purity, Franzen claimed it is a hard book to read from, but rose above this to deliver three entertaining passages in an appropriately wry tone. It was best when he dropped the voices and let his words do the job, as he has created a very entertaining story.

The protagonist Pip and her mother talk on the phone. The latter is a recluse living in the California hills, bleating: “you have no idea how much I envy you your cubicle” as she blenches at the visibility of the human form. Pip wishes to be in the world, but is stuck in a non-job hampered by student loans, and feels she cannot get much further without knowing who her father is. It is the only taboo topic between them, and so they dance around hypochondria and passive aggressive commentary: “No phone call was complete before each had made the other wretched”.

Next, down to Amarillo, Texas, where Leila the investigative journalist looks into a missing nuclear weapon. A listener so sympathetic she receives Christmas Cards from the Unabomber ten years after she wrote a piece on him that he felt painted him in a more favourable light than most. Leila is interviewing a woman about her ex-boyfriend, who showed her a B16 thermonuclear warhead, before asking her to strip and climb on so they could have sex on it. The payoff for this part of the narrative came from her initially playing for time by saying she didn’t want to get radiation poisoning.

Franzen avoided his Denver and Bolivia sections to provide his final reading: a first person narrative in early ‘90s New York. A recently divorced couple fight over the phone until he agrees to cross state lines so they can continue dysfunctionally sleeping with one another. At this point Franzen was at his most engaging, and rapid dialogue is hard to read well aloud.

As we entered the discussion section of the evening, Churchwell opened by saying Purity was a continuation of themes introduced first in The Corrections [published a week before 9/11] and then in Freedom – such as the corporatisation of America. The internet, and associated questions of privacy drive Purity. Not only was it unclear where a question lurked within this statement, but writers (as discussed in a recent piece on the Man Booker) do tend to pursue themes that hound them. This is hardly a revelation. Regardless, Franzen was deft with these questions that were more like earnest statements of intent.

This was not the case in the recent FT interview, where he came across as precious and evasive – almost keen to stoke the concept of him being the second most loathed man in America (Kanye West has top billing). He did not help himself with comments such as:

I am literally, in terms of my income, a 1 per center, yes,”, “I spend my time connected to the poverty that’s fundamental to mankind, because I’m a fiction writer.”, and “I’m a poor person who has money.”

He claims that he tells the truth, and he claims people do not like him as they do not like the truth. Rachel Kushner’s review is a classic example barely even touching on the novel’s content, cosily referring to the author as “Jon” while colouring in Franzen’s snobbery and mean spiritedness.

Returning to the podium, Franzen’s decision to name his protagonist Pip inevitably raised a question regarding his interest in 19th century literature. As we moved from Dickens to Trollope and How We Live Now, questions surrounding writing about the moment as it happens were parried by Franzen requesting who ‘we’ are now, as Dickens was able to have a much clearer idea of who ‘we’ were. This was explored in the last two novels and he struggled with it when writing the third before coming to a different understanding of who ‘we’ are: a community of readers and writers. This seemed to be rather stating the obvious and until he explained that he still aims to write for the imagined audience of 5000 that were present when he crafted The Corrections.

He cited anxiety and all kinds of shame stemming from digital communication as big drivers: he writes about these and “what the world is doing to me”. When asked about shame, he stressed the ironic nature of Purity as a title, and said his duty as a writer as he sees it is to ironize. The novel’s epigraph is Goethe’s Mephistopheles (Franzen called him Mephisto) introducing himself to Faust. Franzen explained: “He’s still a villain and because the universe is so big, some of the bad things cannot help but have good outcomes”. This applies to the internet – good coming out of bad – and specifically the character of Andreas Wolf, an Assange like figure. Assange is referred to several times in the novel in contrast to Wolf. When Churchwell asked: “How much emphasis do you want to put on their differences?” Franzen’s eventual response was “Quite a bit”. Like Assange, Andreas Wolf craves fame, but unlike him does not want to be seen as a hero. He resembles a compulsive lab rat with a like button.

Purity is surprisingly enjoyable to read – perhaps because Franzen’s pained tones do not pervade his narrative in the same way as when he is interviewed. The novel is an amusing sprawl through 80s East Germany, Bolivia and (as ever) a modern America that readers in the UK will never be part of but we somehow find compelling to read all about. There is no doubting his skill as a storyteller, and fortunately there is little risk for most of us in finding ourselves engaged in conversation with him.

The Editors

Man Booker Prize 2015: Readings

man-booker-prize-longlist-2015

“This group shows what a broad church we are. Long may it remain so. ”

Man Booker Prize Readings, 12th October 2015, Southbank Centre, London

The night before the winner was announced, the six shortlisted Booker Prize nominees met at the Southbank Centre. Mariella Frostrup was presenting, and appeared to have mislaid her notes before mounting the podium, as her summary of Hanya Yagihara’s novel was:four men descending into horror because of one’s childhood secrets”. Anyone who has read A Little Life knows it is all about Jude. More on this from the Book Club Spy next week.

Much more important to focus on the six writers, starting with Marlon James*, who read from A Brief History of Seven Killings, set in 1976 Jamaica with “an ill wind, a malaria”, and “now, something new is blowing”. Bob Marley is playing football with anyone who will play with him, when his toe is skewered by an errant wire hidden inside his boot, his toenail is torn off, he nearly loses it entirely to cancer. Time speeds up rapidly and a litany of injuries whirl together in a global journey that seems full of blood – his boot fills with it every night on stage. Marley is ill, “the mattress has sucked two pounds of water from your skin”. One minute he is running in Central Park, the next his hips lock, then his neck, finally his arms, bringing him crashing to the ground with a dead scream in his throat. The cancer in his foot spreads throughout his body and he is transported around a series of hospitals before dying.

When questioned about his choice of Marley as a subject, it was not his music that clinched it (James is a Pet Shop Boys fan: “For me, reggae is like a family member, it’s great, I love it, but then I just want it to leave”) but his desire to find the 1976 his parents lived through while in Jamaica, the place James was born and where: “For me, a crisis was Starsky or Hutch”. He talked compellingly about his childhood reading of Dickens, who recounted history via marginal characters who, in the process, made history.

Tom McCarthy followed him with a brilliantly delivered reading from Satin Island. His hero is a corporate anthropologist, who writes in numbered paragraphs. McCarthy (who is also a performance artist, the head of an extraordinary group called the International Necronautical Society that seems to promote death) placed entirely perfect stresses upon the phrase “fucking buffering”. He revels in playing with language used by corporate structures and information exchange; seeing the data powering the spinning hourglass on his screen reassures our hero “a grace conferring act of generosity….an inexhaustive torment of giving”. The horror to him is that the spinning circle we are all painfully familiar with isn’t anything but the things itself: “We become buffering and buffering becomes everything”.

McCarthy feels that the digital world is the terra we live on now, citing the opening scene of the Oresteia, where Clytemnestra sees the beacons being lit, bringing news from Troy as proof that the remote transmissions of signs is nothing new. He asked what Hamlet is if not an examination of personal correspondence by the state. He later responded to an audience member asking if one needs to like a central character by crying: “No, look at Hamlet, he’s not even a character.

When probed on his continual treatment of themes such as doubling and transcendence, McCarthy politely answered that one tends to return to old wounds; however a blunter response could arguably be is this not what writers do?

Third came Chigozie Obioma with The Fishermen, reading a passage in which a group of boys, returning from the river with two large tilapia, find a dead man lying under a mango tree next to the Celestial Church. The ugliness of the soles of his feet are commented upon. He is, it turns out, not dead at all, simply mad. He performs a ‘calisthenics display’ covered in rotting mango, while the boys goggle at him in the gloaming, comparing him to a lion or Superman. They then watch him throw a mango twenty miles. From Obioma’s part of West Africa, there is strong belief in everything being pre-ordained, of the power of fate, spells and superstitions. He created his tale of fratricide while he was at college abroad and extremely homesick for…his brothers and sisters.

Next up was Sunjeev Sahota with The Year of the Runaways, which he rather undersold with the description of the novel as “four people together in Sheffield”. He read a scene where one character – “alone in the world and in himself” – leaves a suitcase of clothes at his future wife’s flat. The couple talk of the weather, and there is clearly something staged and/or sinister going on. He shows her clearly falsified photographs of them on holidays they never took, created by his lawyer. His involvement is not entirely fabricated, as he searches for excuses to stay in her company: “he couldn’t remember ever feeling that warm”.

Frostrup asked about his decision to write (as the child of migrants) about migration in light of recent press coverage devoted to the topic. He very gently answered that the question of migration had always been ‘gnawing’ at him – on his frequent trips to India it is an “open conversation” regarding the number of people who want to move to the UK or Canada – and for the 34 years he has been alive the question has been there, so it is not, for him, a topical issue.

The penultimate reading came from Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. She read the contents of a phone call between an (estranged) brother and sister in Baltimore that was more of a monologue, with the sister using rather clichéd language – dusty motes of sun, doors being flung open and people sitting on stoops – in order to manipulate her brother with shared memories, or simply punish him through boredom. She was more engaging during the Q&A, exclaiming: “I don’t know why we’re all so fascinated by family, but I’m sure I’m not the only one”. Her description of reducing a novel’s plan to one sheet of paper over the course of a month, then knitting it together through an intricate editing process with multiple stages.

Finally, Hanya Yagihara read from A Little Life. The passage focussed on the main character Jude’s process of managing memory by erasing the small and avoiding the big, but the gaps he creates in his memory widen and try to infiltrate his waking life. His techniques (phyically checking locks, and those of the mind where he envisions a white expanse, where he is finally clean) are employed to make himself feel safe. Yagihara described her way of writing the novel as frenzied and exhilarating, though physically and emotionally difficult. Upon being complimented for her competence at writing as a man, she explained she felt that she has always been surrounded by women and thus is more interested in men (though “less as I grow older”). She was wry and polished, quipping that as someone having lived there for twenty years and who works in the literary world, she was tired of people writing about the physical geography of New York. What she is interested in is the shared ambition of those who live there, as everyone is on the run from something. To be continued.

The quote in the title of this review was from Sunjeev Sahota and felt apt: in the course of an hour, six writers gave us a dizzying range of style in every sense of the word, while showing a quiet regard for one another and the canon into which they had all been hurled headlong.

*Marlon James was announced as the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize on Wednesday 15th

The Editors

The Literature of Dreaming: Part 1

Decalcomania

And people who don’t dream, who don’t have any kind of imaginative life, they must… they must go nuts. I can’t imagine that.”
― Stephen King

In the late 1910s, the surrealists, led by Andre Breton, invented a process they called “automatic” writing, which involved, among other techniques, waking each other up in the middle of the night in order to write immediately and attempt to capture something approaching the purity of unconscious thought. In this they were inspired by Freud’s works of psychoanalysis, and in particular the theory that the subconscious mind, free from the shackles of reason, is somehow capable of revealing a deeper truth. For both writers the dream was a purveyor of this deeper truth; the surrealists simply went to greater lengths to try to harvest the dream as a source of creative expression. It is noticeable, however, that between the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 and Breton’s The Magnetic Fields (the first automatic text) in 1919, there was a world war, and it makes sense to me that this global catastrophe should have contributed somewhat to the urgency and pragmatism that the surrealists invested in their attempts to flee the constraints of rational thought.

But the surrealists were not the first writers to see the world of dreams as a way of escaping the strictures of waking life. Lewis Carroll was also fascinated by the contemporary science on the interpretation of dreams, and used the dream as a narrative form through which he could satirise staid Victorian didacticism. Alice in Wonderland is in many ways just an escape from the limitations of English society in the mid-19th century, and for Carroll the dream was the perfect vehicle for that escape. Conventional views of logic, order and morality are thus subverted in favour of a sort of gleeful anarchy of the mind.

I’m not strange, weird, off, nor crazy, my reality is just different from yours.”

In discussing dreams and escapology in literature it seems entirely necessary to mention the famed use of the dream as a hackneyed narrative technique to obviate apparently inevitable fictional developments – otherwise known as the “I woke up and it was all a dream” ending. This device does of course have a more highbrow name – the deus ex macchina trope – whereby authors brazenly interfere with otherwise plausible plots just because they can and they don’t like the way things are going. Apparently Alex Garland’s novel The Coma has the message “I WOKE UP AND IT WAS ALL A DREAM” encoded in final paragraph. God knows what he was hoping to achieve with that, but presumably it was intended as some sort of play on the abovementioned cliché.

I suppose the point this post is meandering towards is that the dream in literature is often used as a sort of escape hatch to an alternate reality; an escape hatch used by authors to forget and to criticise the reality of waking life, or simply to indulge in whimsical doodles. The unifying thread seems to be dissatisfaction with contemporary reality and a yearning for something that may only be possible in the dim half-light of the dream world. And yet the escape is often not just from objective reality, but also from the reality of subjective consciousness. Returning to Breton and the Surrealists, automatic writing was intended in large part as a way of evading a subjective understanding of reality that was conditioned by a mind taught to think in a particular way. In other words, it was an escape from Western ideas of rationality and logic, as well as from the broader historical and social context of the time. Given that the prison bars of the mind are less clearly defined than other more objective constraints, it takes a very particular form of escape within oneself to break free from them. And what better temporary leave from the conscious self than the dream? Surely not drugs, despite certain similarities and what some claim to be the hallucinogenic aspects of Alice in Wonderland. No, the purest drift into unconsciousness is the dream. As William Blake, that king of dreamers, wrote:

Father, O father! what do we here
In this land of unbelief and fear?
The Land of Dreams is better far,
Above the light of the morning star.

The Editors

Elena Ferrante, or Naples, Part Two

ferrante

A panel discussion was held at Lutyens and Rubenstein on the eve of the release of the final novel in Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy. The panel was made up of Cathy Rentzenbrink, Jonathan Gibbs, Susanna Gross and Tessa Hadley – all writers and critics, but more importantly, ardent Ferrante fans. Although none of them were especially keen on speaking in front of an audience, when it comes to this author none of them could bear the alternative prospect of sitting in the audience and watching another panel get it wrong. Such is the fervour for Ferrante.

For those who have not yet been introduced, the books chart the course of a friendship over several decades. The two women – Elena and Lila – are co-dependent rivals and know each other better than anyone. The novels open with Elena writing their story down as Lila has disappeared. Her aim to recapture what may soon be forgotten becomes, we realize, memoir as as an aggressive, defiant act. Elena is punishing Lila by colonizing their story. She seems to own it by providing the only side, however, in telling the full version of events, there are moments when she clearly hands the reader’s sympathy over to Lila by recounting her own actions. There is little objectivity, but at the same time, there is little bias.

In the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Greco admits: “I had been conditioned by my education, which has shaped my mind, my voice. To what secret pacts with myself had I consented, just to excel. And now, after the hard work of learning, what I must unlearn. Also, I had been forced by the powerful presence of Lila to imagine myself as I was not. I was added to her, and I felt mutilated as soon as I removed myself. Not an idea, without Lila. Not a thought I trusted, without the support of her thoughts. Not an image. I had to accept myself outside of her. ” Indeed, Lila affects every sentence: “she has managed to insert herself into this extremely long chain of words to modify my text, to purposely supply the missing links to unhook others without letting it show, to say more of me than I want, more than I’m able to say”. Despite becoming a successful author, Elena Greco feels she owes all she has to Lila’s inspiration, to her very existence. Lila (beautiful and wild) overshadows Elena, but the former feels she must live vicariously through the latter because she ducked out of formal education, failed to get out their neighbourhood in Naples, and succumbed to its cycle of savagery.

In the second novel, The Story of A New Name, when Lila realizes on her wedding day just how significant her groom’s shortcomings are, she barely restrains herself: “She used all her strength, and I who knew her thoroughly felt that if she could she would have wrenched [his arm] from his body, crossed the room holding it high above her head, blood dripping in her train, and she would have used it as a club or a donkey’s jawbone to crush Marcello’s face with a solid blow.” Upon realizing she cannot leave the old life, or indeed change it, she retreats into blackness: “I think how much blood there is in a person’s body. If you put too much stuff in things, they break. Or they catch fire and burn. ”

In the final instalment The Lost Child, Ferrante describes Naples as “a city that reveals or underlines that dreams of unhindered progress is utterly pessimistic and unfounded. We are in fact in an age of savagery, unknowing.” The tonal overlap with Saviano is striking when she describes the lack of “decipherable order, only an unruly and controllable crowd on streets…in the place where they threw out beasts and garbage a lot of human blood was shed”. As Saviano alerted the world to the presence of the Camorra at the centre of global crime, Ferrante shows that Naples is a microcosmic world: “The entire planet, she said, is a Fosso Carbonario”.

The complexity of local life in Naples is initially baffling, not least because of the various intertwined family trees by the end of the final book. Every family has a function within the neighbourhood, which Ferrante manages to stretch out over the course of thirty years. This is, perhaps, where people see the soap opera element to her writing. The end of the tetralogy was compared (perhaps sacrilegiously on both sides) to the end of Coronation Street, as the number of characters was gradually reduced until barely eight remain. All minor characters blend together on the second rung – an act of will to draw attention to the central dynamic – burnished by brilliant touches, such as Nella with her “laugh of an ageing virgin” talking about cutting people’s cocks off. She tells Elena that she is “much better” than her friend, who “knows how to wound” but so indeed does Elena, we learn.

Some readers have questioned whether these novels are feminist. In an attempt to answer this question, it has been pointed out that they are both full of rage, and the obligation to conform in rooms of men. One panellist cited the idea of bleeding likeability when the word feminist was mentioned in a recent conference, and that is not dissimilar from how I feel when rage and feminism are so swiftly connected. One thing is for sure: Ferrante’s books are full of blood. For those that still find swearing amusing (guilty) then the level of violence in the dialectic insults thrown around is superb. Ferrante treats language like a set of land mines beneath your feet: the path is difficult until only one way is possible: forward.

Only irony is made difficult as [you would imagine the books would be saturated with it] – especially when it comes to Nino, the love rat. He goes from hero to rotter as the years go past, and if you consider how Alice Munroe would write a love scene with him in it, it would be awash with irony. In this way, the tetralogy does not conform to our understanding of what novels are. There are no nods for the reader to give us a hint as to what to expect – no beams of sunlight shining on a character to let us know all will be well, no black cats as a warning. Her apparent lack of tricks – seeming like a memoir with all the tricks employed in fiction – makes one realize the unspoken conventions writers employ: such as never having two characters called John in the same story, as there so often is in life. The characters feel like flesh and blood acting of their own volition, rather than constructs with strings being pulled by the author.

Lila dissects her own form when she gives an explicit account of her own formlessness, after an earthquake. When she is overwhelmed, unreal things are “plunged into a jumbled, sticky reality”, and solid forms have dissolving boundaries. This underlines the lack of formal, stylized style in these novels. They run on messily – much like life – colliding and repeating in a realistic fashion. There are no good or bad characters; they all devolve or change. Her characters are true in every flaw, and can arouse and disgust us.

Just as outsiders identify themselves with her characters, Ferrante’s decision to remain an outsider through anonymity is the source of much speculation (though the panel felt disloyal discussing this rather than the novels themselves). Unencumbered by identity, Ferrante is as free to live as we are to read.

The Editors

Ulysses between Homer and Dante Alighieri

map-of-herodotus

The three kingdoms of the Divine Comedy are populated by people of different social classes. However, because it is also a pedagogical work, Dante prioritises exchanges with well-known characters, both mythical and real, in order to use them as universal examples.  Ulysses is one of the most prominent of these well-known figures.  So what do we know about him?  The legendary king of Ithaca appears in several classical works, but it is from the Odyssey, the epic poem which tells of his troubled return trip home after the Trojan War, that the collective consciousness learns of those peculiar traits which made him an icon. In this second poem we can barely recognize the warrior of the Iliad, in which he only really plays a marginal role. In the Odyssey, on the other hand, he is presented without the privileges befitting his royal rank, and he is forced to rely solely on his intelligence and cunning in order to survive. The most suitable Homeric adjective is polytropos (πολùτρoπoς), which we can translate as “someone having multiple faces”, or “many-sided”: in other words, someone who is able to face different situations and to adapt in order to survive and succeed. His craftiness and courage, his faith in himself and the innate curiosity driving him to plumb the depths of human understanding, make him a symbol of secular humanity, a kind of Vitruvian Man of literature, someone who is the measure of the creation that surrounds him.

In typical fashion, Dante chooses the person who embodies the highest form of these virtues, and then proceeds to show that without faith they amount to nothing. Which is why I believe that the Florentine author depicts his Ulysses as a catastrophic failure: according to Dante if man is guided by faith he can become a giant: “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8), but when he is alone he is like a reed bent by the wind, to use Pascal’s famous image. In fact, man’s inanity also leads the psalmist to write: what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8 again).

Because in the Bible it is the right hand of God that saves man from death on numerous occasions, Dante is able to link Ulysses’ spectacular fall to his blind faith in himself as a man. This new interpretation was only made possible by a drastic abandonment of the central Homeric tradition, which doesn’t tell us his death, but which predicts it in Book 11 of the Odyssey (as per the famous soothsayer Tiresia) as a death coming in old age, at home and from the sea. This compelled Dante to revive a second and less famous mythological vein, which is mainly attested in Seneca and Pliny the Elder, according to which our hero didn’t return to Ithaca at all but instead passed through the Pillars of Hercules.

In the Inferno, Ulysses tells Virgil and Dante his story from the moment of his departure from Circe, the sorceress who had hosted him for over a year and given him a son, Telegonus. He then continues to tell of how his fondness for his son Telemachus, his deep respect for his elderly father and his love of his wife Penelope (the strongest of human sentiments) could not surpass his burning desire (literally described almost as a fire) to be fully acquainted with man’s vices and virtues, the two poles that embrace the whole complexity of humankind. The search for knowledge is emphasised by recalling all the lands Ulysses passed through, but also by highlighting the old age of the man who has seen it all and who is now facing the ultimate and most coveted challenge, the Pillars of Hercules, the westernmost limit of the world, the crowning glory of a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge. At this point Dante makes his brilliant move: while the Christian hero has an obvious (albeit not simple) choice to make between good and evil, Ulysses, like the other tragic heroes from classical antiquity, has to choose between two evils. The choice is either to obey God by not passing beyond the geographical limits of the world, thereby renouncing knowledge, or to disobey Divine prohibition but to live like a man: both choices lead to punishment. Ulysses’ choice will be the most significant of his entire life, and he wants to remain true to himself and indeed he does. And so, thanks to a refined syncretism, the Pillars of Hercules, near Gibraltar (see map above), become the metaphor for the limits given to man by God. In medieval theological thought, God supplied man with all that was necessary to live, but man had to accept the existence of a mystery he couldn’t understand and which he should not investigate. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas advised man to restrain his desire to know, even about the good!

Ulysses therefore makes his understandable but calamitous decision: to go beyond human limits. This has often been read as a moment of supreme human dignity, but also reflects a situation well known in the great 5 b.C. Athenian tragedy: hubris (ὕβϱις), where by his arrogance man fails to recognize the distance between his own nature and that of God. As with Greek tragedy, nemesis (νέμεσις), the equalising punishment of the gods, immediately springs into action and casts man down to a position so low  to make him wish he had never been born.

We find similar situations in the Bible, for instance in the book of Genesis, 2, 16-17: “The Lord God gave man this order: ‘You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad. From that tree you shall not eat‘”. Of course, this prohibition is the equivalent of that regarding the Pillars of Hercules: a restriction on man’s freedom. But here the prohibition does not have an end in itself because “the moment you eat from it” – the Bible continues – “you are surely doomed to die”. The prohibition aims, then, to maintain a universal equilibrium, we could say a natural one, between divinity and creature, between the highest knowledge of God and those who can’t properly handle that knowledge.

Nevertheless, man is often seduced by the desire to embrace absolute knowledge. In fact in Genesis 3, 4-5, “the serpent said to the woman: ‘You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.‘” By eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve surrender to hubris and in doing so they lose earthly paradise forever, instead becoming acquainted with strain, pain and death, which may precisely be the knowledge from which God wanted Man to be spared. Ulysses can be read as the exact Dantesque parallel to this biblical episode: he accepts an impossible challenge. Man will always be inadequate in his relationship with God, and Ulysses is presented in the same terms. In fact, when facing his supreme challenge, he is described as an old man, accompanied only by a handful of weak friends and sailing an old ship, a remnant from a formerly glorious fleet, which Dante calls a “log”. In spite of this he refuses to exclude himself from the dream of absolute knowledge, and utters the famous ‘orazion picciola‘. This short speech is one of the best-known passages of Italian literature, a majestic tribute to the classical idea of oratory as the art of persuasion. The ‘orazion picciola‘ states non only Ulysses’ life essence, but also that of the whole of Greek culture:

And then I said: ‘O brothers, ye who now

have through a hundred thousand perils reached

the West, to this so short a waking-time

still left your senses, do not deny yourselves

experience of that world behind the sun

which knows not man! Consider the seed

whence ye have sprung; for ye were not created

to lead the life of stupid animals,

but manliness and knowledge to pursue.’

The Italian hendecasyllable’s musicality gives this passage great emotion and the result is never in doubt: Ulysses persuades his old friends to follow him. As a mark of respect for Ulysses, Dante prolongs his tragedy and as a last tribute to him, for a little time he gives him what he is looking for. For five months, in fact, our hero sails across a hemisphere that no living human had ever seen before, and he sees, just before the end, the incredible view of the mountain of Purgatory, whose enormity is in itself a symbol of divine disproportion relative to man, while the astonishment of the sailors is both amazement at the view and of the inevitable death to come. The eyes of faith, for Dante certainly, should be the only way for man to know God. Indeed, man, by his very nature is unable to see him face to face: in Exodus 3,6 we read “‘I am the God of your father – he continued – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God‘. But then comes the moment of retribution: a sudden wind rises from the island, forming a whirlpool, swallowing the ship and its passengers together with their load of unfettered knowledge, thus restoring the equilibrium between man and God.

This is what we can say about Ulysses as a character. But if we analyse this episode within the context of the work as a whole, we can see it also as a clear sign of the high esteem Dante held himself in as a poet. As early as the first Canto, he establishes himself as an enthusiastic follower of Virgil not only as regards the tragic style (the highest form of poetry) but also regarding the prophetic mission carried out through literature. This idea will be reaffirmed later in Paradise 25, when he describes the Divine Comedy as a work “that hath made both Heaven and Earth copartners in its toil”. Again in Inferno 4, when he visits Limbo, a place populated by the unbaptized, he is accepted by the five most celebrated classical poets (Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Lucan) as one of their limited group, and this feels like a sort of official poetic investiture. Later on, in Purgatory 11, he runs through the most refined poets of contemporary (and only recently born) Italian literature and asserts that Guinizzelli’s greatness as a poet has already been surpassed by Cavalcanti’s, and that that of another poet (clearly Dante) is going to leave them both trailing in its wake. With respect to this aspect then, the episode of Ulysses is enlightening.  Just as Virgil, in recounting the conquest of Troy in Book 2 of the Aeneid, is Homer’s direct successor, so Dante feels he is able to carry on from that Latin masterpiece, not only taking up one of its prominent characters, but also incorporating a novel death for Ulysses, and moreover giving it a deeper sense: that enlightened by faith.

Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer course in Sale Marasino, Italy – info: http://www.iseolakess.it