“Oh Rio, Rio hear them shout across the land/From mountains in the north down to the Rio Grande” (Duran Duran)

The 2016 Olympics have come to an end (boo!) but we still have the Paralympics to come (hooray!) There have been astonishing achievements by those who seem to have been made from very different stuff to us mere mortals. When they seem doused in more than their fair share of charisma as well, you can’t even make yourself feel better by thinking that they’re probably horrible people, because they’re just so funny and charming about it all. Who could I be thinking of….?

Human being: 2.0

Human being: 2.0

To celebrate the Olympics, I thought I’d take up triathlon sit on my backside reading, of course. It’s Women In Translation Month (head over to Meytal’s blog to read all about WITmonth) so I’m looking at two novellas by Brazilian women writers. This will also be one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

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Firstly, Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector (1973, tr. Stefan Tobler 2012). Although I’ve called this a novella, I’m not sure that’s really what it is. It’s a series of impressions and observations, plotless but definitely not artless.

“This is life seen by life. I may not have meaning but it is the same lack of meaning that the pulsing vein has.”

I say it’s not artless, because although Agua Viva can give the impression of randomness, it’s carefully constructed to carry you through, the different passages building on and echoing one another.

“So writing is the method of using the word as bait: the word fishing for whatever is not word. When this non-word – between the lines – takes the bait, something has been written…so what saves you is writing absentmindedly.

I don’t want to have the terrible limitation of those who live merely from what can make sense. Not I: I want an invented truth.”

“I notice that I’m writing as if I were between sleep and wakefulness.”

Agua Viva quite a difficult work to talk about, because it resists being pinned down.  I could attach various labels to it: impressionistic, modernist, stream-of-consciousness, but none of these are quite right. On this reading – for I suspect it changes every time you read it – I felt it was about trying to capture the immediate present, to pin down moments knowing that they are gone forever just as you recognise them.  The style lends itself to this theme, as it jumps and disorientates, on occasions tipping over into surrealism:

“I am feeling the martyrdom of an untimely sensuality. In the early hours I awake full of fruit. Who will come to gather the fruit of my life? If not you and I myself? Why is it that things an instant before they happen already seem to have happened? It’s because of the simultaneity of time. And so I ask you questions and these will be many. Because I am a question.”

I read Agua Viva cover to cover, and I do wonder if this was the wrong approach. While the kaleidoscopic style and images build towards an overall impression, Agua Viva would equally lend itself to being dipped into, reading a single passage and ruminating on it. Apparently the Brazilian singer Cazuza read Agua Viva 111 times. I suspect it’s that sort of book: either you hurl it against the wall within minutes of opening it, or it becomes a mercurial companion for life.

I can’t sum myself up because you can’t add a chair and two apples. I am a chair and two apples. And I cannot be added up.”

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Secondly, With My Dog-Eyes by Hilda Hilst (1986 tr. Adam Morris 2014). This is also a disorienting , unsettling work, non-linear and impressionistic. Hilst uses this style to create a highly effective portrait of Professor Amos Keres, who is having some sort of breakdown or psychotic episode. The fractured story-telling serves to take the reader inside the mind of someone who is extremely unwell.

“Poetry and mathematics. The black stone structure breaks and you see yourself in a saturation of lights, a clear-cut unhoped-for. A clear-cut unhoped-for was what he felt and understood at the top of that small hill. But he didn’t see shapes or lines, didn’t see contours or lights, he was invaded by colours, life, flashless, dazzling, dense, comely, a sunburst that was not fire. He was invaded by incommensurable meaning. He could only say that. Invaded by incommensurable meaning.”

The narrative shifts from third to first person as Keres copes with his boss suggesting he take a break, and then spends the day thinking over his life since boyhood, his career and his marriage. This makes it sound more linear and contained than it is, and does With My Dog-Eyes a great disservice. Its power comes from its layering of ideas and images with such rapidity as to almost assault the reader – never incoherent but an effective immersion in an unravelling mind.

“And everything begins anew, the patience of these animals infinitely digging a hole, until one day (I hoped, why not?) transparence inundates body and heart, body and heart of mine, Amos, animal infinitely digging a hole. In mathematics, the old world of catastrophes and syllables, of imprecision and pain was cracking up. I no longer saw hard faces twisting into questions, in tears so many times, I didn’t see the gaze of the other on mine, what a thing it can be to have eyes on your eyes, eyes on your mouth. Waiting for what kind of word? Such formidable cruelties occurring every day, humans meeting and in the good-mornings and good-afternoons such secrets, such crimes, such chalice of lies…”

It’s a good job this was a novella (59 pages in my edition) as I don’t think I could have taken much more of it (that’s a recommendation, not a criticism). With My Dog-Eyes is a short, sharp, shock: a plunge into madness.

To end, I was very excited that Caetano Veloso was performing at the Olympic opening ceremony, but I don’t think the acoustics did him any favours in capturing his wonderfully sensitive voice.  Here he is as part of the Pedro Almodovar film Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her):

“One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by.” (Jeanette Walls)

A couple of weeks ago the news reported it was the busiest day for holiday getaways. And just in case there was any doubt that this was a British news story, it was delivered by a reporter standing next to a motorway, framed within a narrative context of extreme traffic jams, while the traffic behind her was disappointingly free-flowing. Brilliant. It’s the first bit of news that raised a smile from me after Brexit.

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Sadly, my finances are as dire as ever so I will have to leave the joys of non-existent traffic jams to more solvent souls. Instead I looked to my TBR for some suitably summery titles and came up with two that by coincidence are both short story collections. So not quite the traditional holiday doorstop reading matter, but highly recommended nonetheless.

Firstly, Sunstroke by Tessa Hadley (2007), whose stories explore desire in various guises, showing how it is both extraordinary and everyday. The titular story looks at old friends Rachel and Janie, married with kids, committed to their lives yet willing to risk it all for a moment’s sexual excitement:

“Neither is exactly unhappy, but what has built up in them instead is a sense of surplus, of life unlived. Somewhere else, while they are absorbed in pushchairs and fish fingers and wiping bottoms, there must be another world of intense experiences for grown-ups.”

Hadley is very good at placing dramatic tension within these ordinary domestic details. Her settings and characters are wholly recogniseable, and it is this that makes her writing challenging: you can’t step away from it as something outside your experience. So even if you’ve never had an affair with your lecturer, tracked down the older woman who got away, or recreated the sexual betrayals of your parents within your own love life, as the protagonists of Hadley’s short stories have, it is difficult to claim that these experiences are entirely alien. Is it out of character behaviour, or is it that someone’s character is sublimated beneath the ordinary? Hadley questions how secure anything is, how sure we can be of the foundations of our lives, when in a moment, something can happen to change the narrative we’ve constructed:

“Even if we were good, if we were perfectly and completely chaste, we can’t control what happen in our imagination. So being good might only be another kind of lie.”

Hadley is a highly skilled writer. Often I found myself on finishing the stories thinking “Oh, that’s clever.” The collection works as a whole and the individual stories are exactly what the genre should be: powerful, contained, strengthened rather than weakened by their limited words. She’s also great at effective turns of phrase:

For a moment he was sure she could smell something on him, see something of the dazzle that was clinging to him, dripping off him, flashing round in his veins. But he saw her deliberately tidy that intimation away, out of consciousness. This was her husband, the man she knew. He was a physics teacher and competition-standard chess player, wasn’t he?”

Duran Duran taking a formal approach to their barging holiday along Birmingham's canal system

Duran Duran taking a formal approach to their barging holiday along Birmingham’s canal system

Secondly, The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr (2002), written 12 years before the Pulitzer prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See. Having read this collection, I don’t think it’s too much to say the Pulitzer potential was already evident – this is a brilliantly written collection of stories, spanning several countries: Kenya, Liberia, the US,  Finland, Tanzania. In the titular story, a young boy loses his sight and discovers the love of his life:

“‘That’s a mouse cowry,’ the doctor said. ‘A lovely find. It has brown spots, and darker stripes at its base, like tiger stripes. You can’t see it, can you?’

But he could. He’d never seen anything so clearly in his life. His fingers caressed the shell, flipped and rotated it. He had never felt anything so smooth – had never imagined something could possess such deep polish. He asked, nearly whispering: ‘Who made this?’ The shell was still in his hand, a week later, when his father pried it out, complaining of the stink.”

As an adult, his quiet life collecting on the coast is disturbed by people wanting him to sting them with cone shells, convinced it will cure their various ills. It is a melancholy tale, about a search for meaning in the world, about loneliness and grief. Ultimately though, it is about resilience and love.

“He took the cone shell and flung it, as far as he could, back into he lagoon. He would not poison them. It felt wonderful to make a decision like this. He wished he had more shells to hurl back into the sea, more poisons to rid himself of.”

All eight stories in this collection are beautifully written; wise and moving. Even in such company, one of the stories which stood out for me was The Caretaker, about a Liberian refugee. Joseph Saleeby is not a particularly likable man when we first meet him: selfish, spoilt and making a living illegally. Then war breaks out, and he suffers horribly. He arrives in the US to claim refuge, deeply traumatised.  When the bodies of six whales are washed ashore, he takes their hearts and buries them on the estate where he is caretaker:

“He fills the hole, and as he leaves it, a mound of earth and muscle, stark amid a thicket of salmonberry with the trunks of spruce falling back all around it… he feels removed from himself, as though his body were a clumsy tool needed only a little longer. He parks in the yard and falls into bed, gore-soaked and unwashed, the door to the apartment open, the hearts of all six whales wrapped in the earth, slowly cooling. He thinks: I have never been so tired. He thinks: at least I have buried something.”

He starts growing fruit and vegetables on the plot of land and befriends the unhappy daughter of the owners. Things do not go well for Joseph as people don’t realise how mentally fragile he is, but his friendship with Belle endures:

“The girl saws a wedge from one of the halves. The flesh is wet and shining and Joseph cannot believe the colour – it is as if the melon carried light within it. They each lift a chunk of it to their lips and eat. It seems to him that he can taste the forest, the trees, the storms of the winter and the size of the whales, the stars and the wind. A tiny gob of melon slides down Belle’s chin.”

Doerr writes with delicacy but without sentimentality. His view is penetrating and unblinking, but compassionate. Just devastating.

To end, summer = Pimms, and this advert = another chance to acknowledge the enduring genius of Adam Ant:

“Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.” (George Steiner)

Last week I looked at a Nordic mystery as part of Women in Translation month, and this week I thought I’d make it the central theme – head over to Meytal’s blog to read all about WITmonth. The need for Women in Translation month was brought home to me when I went to my TBR shelves thinking “No problem! I have loads of translated literature waiting to be read.” Well, yes, I do, but looking at the titles I suddenly realised it was very much dominated by male writers.

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I’m glad you asked, Mads. Firstly, The Vegetarian by Korean writer Han Kang (2007, tr. Deborah Smith 2015) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. You probably don’t need me to tell you how good The Vegetarian is; it was the glowing reviews and enthusiasm from bloggers that led me to pick up this novel in the first place. The hype was well deserved – The Vegetarian is an unsettling, brutal and beautifully written tale which has stayed with me long after I finished it.

It is the story of Yeong-hye, the titular herbivore, told from three points of view: her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister, over the course of a few years, from the point she starts refusing to eat meat. Her husband can’t believe that his wife – whose main appeal was that she impinges on his life in no way whatsoever – would do something so antisocial.

“As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.”

Yeong-hye’s behaviour is not rooted in any of these ‘reasonable grounds’ but in a deep disturbance at thought of eating meat, something which is not easy to cope with or explain:

“Something is lodged in my solar plexus. I don’t know what it might be. It’s lodged there permanently these days. Even though I stopped wearing a bra, I can feel this lump all the time. No matter how deeply I inhale, it doesn’t go away. Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of all the animals I ate are lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives stick stubbornly to my insides.”

Yeong-hye’s behaviour exposes the fractures in her family: the tensions, hidden desires, and loyalties which on one occasion spills over into physical violence. She can’t be what her husband wants her to be. Subject to her brother-in-law’s sexual fetishes, she cannot answer all of his needs either. Nor can she start eating to please her sister who sees her wasting away. Her deterioration – mental and physical – is painful but her determination is relentless.

“Her voice had no weight to it, like feathers. It was neither gloomy nor absent minded, as might be expected of someone who was ill. But it wasn’t bright or light-hearted either. It was the quiet tone of a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.”

The Vegetarian is a short novel, 183 pages in my edition, but it punches far above its weight. Kang’s voice is strong and unique, her writing all the more dramatic for its concise understatement, and she refuses to offer any easy answers. Disturbing and brilliant.

Secondly, a classic of Spanish literature, Nada by Carmen Laforet (1945 tr. Edith Grossman 2007). Andrea, a young student, leaves her rural home to attend university and moves in her with grandmother, aunt, two uncles, her uncle’s wife, a green-toothed maid and a dog. Although filled with youthful hope for opportunities and change, the atmosphere is unsettling from the start:

“We rode down Calle Aribau, where my relatives lived, its plane trees full of dense green that October, and its silence vivid with the respiration of a thousand souls behind darkened balconies.”

Once inside the house, things worsen. The house is cluttered, dirty, filled with layers of past glories.

“That bathroom seemed like a witches house, the stained walls had traces of hook-shaped hands, of screams of despair. Everywhere the scaling walls opened their toothless mouths oozing dampness. Over the mirror, because it didn’t fit anywhere else, they’d hung a macabre still-life of pale bream and onions against a black background. Madness smiled from the bent taps.”

The Spanish Civil War – over six years previously – is mentioned in passing but never dwelt upon, though there is the sense that this is a family and a city, possibly a nation, dealing with the aftershocks of trauma. The family are entirely dysfunctional, locked in abusive, sado-masochistic, manipulative relationships to a greater or lesser extent. Andrea’s uncle Juan savagely beats his wife Gloria; her aunt Angustias tries to control Andrea through a  mix of overbearing affection and oppressive boundary-setting; her uncle Roman plays  cat-and-mouse with just about everyone he encounters. Andrea’s friend Ena offers a possibility of escape:

“Ena never resembled on weekdays the rash girl, almost childish in her high spirits, that she turned into on Sundays. As for me – and I came from the countryside – she made me see a new meaning in nature that I’d never thought of before. She made me understand the pulsing of damp mud heavy with vital juices, the mysterious emotion of buds that were still closed, the melancholy charm of algae listless on the sand, the potency, the ardour, the splendid appeal of the sea.”

Nada is a gothic tale without a doubt, but never quite spills over into the camp that gothic often skirts along. The novel had to pass through Franco’s censors, and while its not overtly a political tale, I think the Gothicism helps disguise the fact that it is a tale of a society in shock; of resistance to oppression; of survival and escape.

“The memory of nights on Calle de Aribau comes to me now. Those nights that ran like a black river beneath the bridges of the days, nights when stagnant odours gave off the breath of ghosts.”

To end, an example of gothic that doesn’t skirt around camp but rather dives straight in – quite the maddest film I’ve ever seen:

“I don’t like to be out of my comfort zone, which is about a half an inch wide.” (Larry David)

Last week I wrote about dystopian novels, and Kaggsy commented that when things are bad, comfort reading is the thing, particularly golden age crime. A sage suggestion – it offers the escape of another time, and the reassurance of puzzles being solved, things being put right. So this week’s post is all about comfort. The comfort of people being stabbed in the back with knives, and left to freeze to death in the snow.

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Firstly, the golden age classic A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh (1934), the first of her novels featuring Chief Inspector Alleyn. I did enjoy this: a country house murder, a closed circle of suspects, class snobbery, unfounded paranoia about Bolsheviks; it was a perfect example of the genre😀

Sir Hubert Handesley throws a party at his country house, to include a game of ‘Murder’ – you can probably guess what happens. During the time allotted to the game, a man who disappointingly, is never referred to as a cad or bounder though he is clearly both those things, is found stabbed in back, bleeding out next to the cocktail tray and the  dinner gong (love the incidental details of golden age mysteries!)  What’s more, the knife is Russian:

“‘Rum coincidence that the knife, your butler, and your guest should all be of the same nationality.’”

Enter Inspector Alleyn – dry of wit, Oxford of education, mysterious of background but suspiciously posh, not a man to be carried away by xenophobic paranoia, who sets about investigating the murder through an appealing mix of dogged attention to detail and flashes of flamboyance fuelled by his prodigious intelligence:

“‘As a rule,’ he observed, ‘there is much less to be gleaned from the clothes of a man with a valet  than from those of the poorer classes. “Highly recommended by successful homicide” would be a telling reference for any man-servant.’”

Ngaio Marsh’s authorial voice is similarly witty, making this novel a funny, entertaining puzzle.

“Mr Benningden was one of those small, desiccated gentleman so like the accepted traditional figure of a lawyer that they lose their individuality in their perfect conformation to type.”

A Man Lay Dead is perfectly paced (only 176 pages in my edition) and of course Alleyn gets his murderer, with a few red herrings along the way. I bought this as part of the perennially tempting collected sets from Book People, and I’m looking forward to working my way through the rest…

Patrick Malahide as Inspector Alleyn in the BBC adaptation

Patrick Malahide as Inspector Alleyn in the BBC adaptation

Secondly, a novel I’m including as part of Women in Translation month – head over to Meytal’s blog to read all about WITmonth. Under the Snow by Kerstin Ekman (1961, trans. Joan Tate 1996) is not a golden age novel, but it offers much of the same appeal, being a straightforward, non-gory whodunit. Reading in the midst of a UK summer (such as it is) it also offered me an escape into a wintry Lapland landscape, far away from real life and the daily news which currently evokes this reaction in me:

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One winter’s night in a remote northern village in Lapland, a mah jong party gets out of hand (as they so frequently do, those crazy mah jong players) and the art teacher of the local school, Matti, is found frozen to death in the snow. Police officer Torsson is called into this small community:

“just like Torsson, the chief of police of this mining town had originally come from the south. Having carried out his duties for thirty-five years among a taciturn breed in a country where the winter is five thousand and sixty-four hours long, he had lost some of the animation in his speech and the cheerfulness he associated with brightly lit shopping streets and apple blossom. He did not like to be disturbed.”

Torsson feels something is not right with Matti’s death, but can’t prove it. The story then jumps forward to the summer, when Matti’s friend David arrives in the area:

“Occasionally the road seemed to be leading up to heaven, the car climbing in growling second-gear up kilometre-long hills towards the empty sky…this July day was clear, the sky blue. The mountains seemed to him to be the most immobile and largest objects he had ever seen. Top marks to you, old chap, he thought, for David Malm travels round the world, painting, and he’s seen a thing or two”

David and Torsson form an unlikely partnership as they start exploring the events of the winter night in the midst of the relentless daylight of summer within the Arctic Circle. The overweight, steady, unemotional Torsson has been underestimated by the villagers but alongside the more flamboyant David progress is made. The mystery itself is straightforward (the novel is only just over 200 pages) but the atmosphere evoked by the extremes of light in the different seasons is fully utilised by Ekman to create an eerie, unsettling atmosphere.

“there is infinite patience up here. This is due to time, which thanks to the sun’s strange behaviour exists here in different proportions. A year is one long cycle of cold night and blistering light day. The celestial clock turns rather majestically when you live right underneath the pendulum.”

To end, a cornucopia of comfort🙂

“From our myopia arose our dystopia.” (Anthony Marais)

How are you feeling about the current state of the world, Reader? Yeah, me too.This week’s theme is dystopian novels…

Firstly, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman (2014) which I first heard about over on Naomi’s blog. Ice Cream Fifteen Star lives sometime in the future, in the Nighted States, at a time when a disease called posies means life expectancy is around eighteen years.

“Posies grown inside and outside, blackish death put roots into your body and its flowers bloom.”

A disease called WAKS – which may or may not be the same as posies – has wiped out ‘sleepers’, the white population. The children and young adults who make up the surviving population of the Nighted States grow up quickly. Ice Cream is a hunter, sergeant to her tribe – the Sengles – and under pressure to hurry up and have a baby before she too succumbs to posies.

“The dusking sleep of Lowell City take my loneliness. I ride home to my full-grown trouble, to my people few and feary small, my Sengle town.”

Ice Cream Star is a wonderful protagonist: strong, feisty, dynamic. The language that Newman has created for her is highly effective, capturing a sense of new speech for a new world, a world where ‘standard’ English no longer holds dominance or relevance. The language furthers the context of a story told by a young woman of colour, where to be middle aged and white is ‘Other’.  This is not a future where an older, white, middle-class patriarchy dominate. When Ice Cream meets a white man in his thirties, a “roo”, the lines on his face, blond hair and blue eyes are deeply odd to her.

“Something liven in his frosten eyes, like water stirred by fish.”

This never entirely goes away, even as the two become deeply bonded. The fact that roos live longer, that they may have a cure for posies, takes on a new urgency as Ice-Cream’s beloved older brother, Driver, starts to show signs of the disease.

“My brother lain like sleeping water, loose. Arm rest above the covers, and his hand itself look easy. I touch his shoulder careful, and his breath pause like a question. I hold my breath along. Sigh gratty when he breathe again.”

Ice Cream and her roo set out on a quest for a cure, taking them into contact with other tribes, danger and desolate cities, long abandoned.

“And the cloud slow from the moon. Light give back its silver grief. Empty towers sharpen, like a goliath monument of loss; a burial yard of giants left upon the fearing world.”

The Country of Ice Cream Star is a novel of big themes: gender, race, religion, civilisation, war. As I was reading it I first thought it was about 100 pages too long (its 629 pages in my edition) but now I’m not sure. It may have just been where my mind was when I was reading it – stressed out & tired! Having finished it a few weeks ago, the novel – and particularly the idiosyncratic, poetic voice of Ice Cream Star – have really stayed with me. She’s a truly unique heroine.

In the Country of Ice Cream Star also reminded me of a film I saw a few years back, Beasts of the Southern Wild, which featured a similarly impressive female protagonist and an astonishing lead performance by Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee ever:

Secondly, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005), which was shortlisted for the Booker. We are categorically told the setting is “England, late 1990s”, and so this is an alternative version of recent history in a recogniseable land. Ishiguro cleverly drip-feeds the reader information so that you slowly piece together what is happening to make this different to the “England, late 1990s” we know. As such, to avoid spoilers, this will be an uncharacteristically short discussion😉

The narrator Kath describes growing up at a residential school, Hailsham, and her friendship with fellow students Ruth and Tommy. Gradually, Kath starts to realise that there is something about Hailsham students, utterly cut off from the outside world, which sets them apart from other people.

“So you’re waiting, even if you don’t quite know it, waiting for the moment when you realise that you really are different to them; that there are people out there… who don’t hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you – of how you brought into this world and why – and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs. The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment. It’s like walking past a mirror that you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.”

On the one hand, as Kath explores her relationship with Ruth and Tommy,  it is a simple tale of three people and the dynamics between them, the deep love they hold for one another alongside the petty betrayals they inflict on one another.

“I now felt awful, and I was confused. But as we stood there staring at the fog and rain, I could think of no way now to repair the damage I’d done… then after a few further seconds of silence, Ruth walked off into the rain.”

But of course it’s so much more, because Ishiguro is a complex writer interested in difficult subjects, and he is exploring how we work out our place in the world and how much of that is pre-determined.  Although the novel could be described as science fiction, it shares much with his Booker winning The Remains of the Day, being about transience, lost opportunities, duty and regret.

“‘I keep thinking about this river somewhere, and the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.’”

As I was reading this, I was thinking: why don’t they fight? Why do they just unquestioningly accept their lot? Why don’t they rail against those dictating how they spend their lives? Don’t they want more? Why aren’t they kicking against it all and demanding justice? And then I realised this is Ishiguro’s master stroke. It’s not science fiction he’s writing. Why aren’t I doing more of those things, for myself and for others?

Never Let Me Go was adapted in 2010 into a film starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, as well as my long standing girl-crush Charlotte Rampling (I basically want to be her/Jane Birkin, fluent in French with artfully dishevelled hair, living a bohemian transcontinental life. Never going to happen.) All the spoilers I’ve so carefully avoided are included in this trailer, so don’t click play if you don’t want to know!

“He that loves reading has everything within his reach.” (William Godwin)

Let’s ignore the sexism of the title quote and focus on the sentiment (especially as Godwin was married to Mary Wollstonecraft who I like to think told him off for any gender assumptions)🙂  I was prompted to think along these lines a few weeks ago when I watched the moving and joyous BBC4 documentary B is for Book.

I don’t generally write about children’s or YA fiction, but I felt quite inspired by the documentary showing the jubilant discovery and magic of the written word.  My Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century Reading Challenge has some kids books on it, so this week I’m channelling my inner child (not that difficult, tbh)

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Firstly, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943), ranked number 4 on Le Monde’s list; it is the most translated French book and the fourth most translated book worldwide. And how is this for a CV: Wiki describes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  as “writer, poet, aristocrat, journalist, and pioneering aviator”. I feel so inadequate.

The Little Prince is narrated by an aviator who crashes in the desert, where he meets a visiting alien prince. The prince is from a planet where he lives alone, and which is so small that the sun is always setting:

“For as everyone knows, when it is noon in the United States the sun is setting over France. If you could get to France in a twinkling, you could watch the sunset right now. Unfortunately France is rather too far away. But on your tiny planet, little prince, you only had to move your chair a few steps. You could watch night fall whenever you liked.

‘One day,’ you said, ‘I watched the sunset forty-three times!’

And a little later you added:

‘You know, when one is that sad, one can get to love the sunset.’

‘Were you that sad, then, on the day of forty-three sunsets?’

But the prince made no answer.”

This melancholy tinge continues throughout the tale. The prince is a sad character and remains mysterious to the aviator.  It is a children’s book though, and has some lovely touches to stir the imagination:

“On the morning of his departure he set his planet in good order. He carefully swept out his active volcanoes. He had two active volcanoes – which were very useful for heating up breakfast in the morning.”

The prince describes his travels, in which he has met six adults, also living alone on isolated tiny planets: a king (who rules over no-one), a vain man, an alcoholic, a businessman (who wants to own the stars), a lamplighter (who constantly lights a lamp for no purpose) and a cartographer (who has never been anywhere). Thus the story is a critique of adults placing meaning in acquisition and status rather than in emotional connection and adventure. The aviator is an adult himself but does not hold adults in high regard:

“Grownups love figures. When you describe a new friend to them, they never ask about important things. They never say: ‘What’s his voice like? What are his favourite games? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much does his father earn?’ Only then do they feel he know him.”

The Little Prince is a sweet, sad tale, one which will appeal to children for the  adventure and imaginative leaps, but also has a great deal to offer adults, as a fable regarding a search for meaning in the world.

“You can only see things clearly with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

It is also illustrated with gorgeous watercolours by the author (yet another string to his bow):

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Secondly, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf (1906–1907), number 68 on Le Monde’s list. This classic of Swedish literature has been immortalised on stamps, on currency, and Lagerlöf won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Nils is a self-centred, lazy, cruel ungrateful boy. Bunking off church to stay at home, he gets on the wrong side of an elf. Everyone knows you don’t mess with elves, Nils.  Of course the elf wreaks his revenge:

“For in the glass he saw plainly a little, little creature who was dressed in a hood and leather breeches.

“Why, that one is dressed exactly like me!” said the boy, clasping his hands in astonishment. And then he saw that the thing in the mirror did the same thing. Thereupon he began to pull his hair and pinch his arms and swing round; and instantly he did the same thing after him; he, who was seen in the mirror.

The boy ran around the glass several times, to see if there wasn’t a little man hidden behind it, but he found no one there, and then he began to shake with terror. For now he understood that the elf had bewitched him, and that the creature whose image he saw in the glass was – himself.”

Nils’ family goose, who has the excellent appellation of Morten Goosey-Gander, decides to follow a flock of wild geese on their migration to Lapland and Nils tags along, riding on Goosey-Gander’s back. As an elf, Nils finds he can understand animals’ speech, and learns to be kind rather than torture them.

“The wild geese challenged the white goosey-gander to take part in all kinds of sports. They had swimming races, running races, and flying races with him. The big tame one did his level best to hold his own, but the clever wild geese beat him every time. All the while, the boy sat on the goosey-gander’s back and encouraged him, and he had as much fun as the rest.”

Lagerlöf was commissioned to write this by the National Teachers Association, so in the course of reading about Nils’ journey, you learn about wildlife and Swedish geography: win/win.

“Just as the first spring showers pattered against the ground, there arose such shouts of joy from all the small birds in groves and pastures that the whole air rang with them, and the boy leaped high where he sat. ‘Now we’ll have rain. Rain gives us spring; spring gives us flowers and green leaves; green leaves and flowers give us worms and insects; worms and insects give us food; and plentiful, and good food is the best thing there is,’ sang the birds.”

He didn’t know exactly where on earth he was: if he was in Skåne, in Småland, or in Blekinge. But just before reaching the swamp, he had glimpsed a large village, and thither he directed his steps. Nor was it long before he discovered a road. Soon he was in the village street, which was long, and had trees on both sides, and was bordered with garden after garden. The boy had come to one of the big cathedral towns, which are so common on the uplands, but can hardly be seen at all down in the plain.”

Nils’ wonderful adventures also include seeing off his arch-nemesis Smirre Fox and learning to think of others rather than being such a deeply unpleasant person.  For a book with such a didactic purpose, it really doesn’t read as instructive and moralistic. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils is written with a real lightness of touch and is great fun.

To end, a taster of my favourite book from when I was a child:

“One fine day.” (Carole King)

Last week I mentioned that 2016 has been a terrible year so far. I don’t follow sport in any shape or form, but even I know Andy Murray has done his best to cheer up a post-Brexit UK by winning the men’s singles final at Wimbledon. Congratulations to all the winners!

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Obviously these wins are the result of years of dedicated training, but we all experience things that culminate in one day now and again. So to celebrate I’ve picked two novels that deal with the events of one day.

Firstly, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey (1932), who was one of the Bloomsbury group; this novel was originally published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, she was a niece of Lytton Strachey and was painted by Dora Carrington:

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This novella details the morning of a wedding: the preparations, the arrival of guests, the bustling of servants. The bride doesn’t make an entrance for a while, instead we are treated to her mother, Mrs Thatcham, giving contradictory instructions to all and not seeing that this why things are not organised as she expects:

“with a look of sharp anxiety on her face as usual – as though she had inadvertently swallowed a packet of live bumble-bees and was now beginning to feel them stirring about inside her. She stopped and looked at the clock.

‘I simply fail to understand it!’ burst from her lips.

She trotted briskly out of the drawing-room in the direction of the kitchen.”

Apparently this woman, who veers between being frustratingly tedious and a downright bully, was based on Strachey’s mother-in-law…

Meanwhile, the guests start to arrive. There are some lovely character sketches of family members and assorted hangers-on, told with gentle – in the main – humour.

“a tall, grey-haired man, in black clerical clothes, with a gaunt white face reminiscent of a Pre-Raphaelite painting of Dante. It was Canon Dakin, or Cousin Bob of Hadley Hill as the family called him.”

There is a hilarious description of a lampshade wedding gift and Aunt Katie’s verdurous wedding hat. My favourite little scene was between deluded Aunt Bella, who is busy boring her nephew Lob with tales of how her servants “simply cherish me”, and is met with the following non-sequitur:

“‘My dear lady,’ replied the cheerful Lob, speaking unexpectedly loudly, and holding his glass of wine up to the light for a moment, “I don’t care two pins about all that! No! The question, as I see it, is quite a different one. The whole thing is simply this: Is it possible to be a Reckless Libertine without spending a great deal of money?’”

When we finally meet the bride, Dolly, it is clear all is not well. For starters, she has put away most of a bottle of rum to enable her to stagger down the aisle:

“At this moment Dolly was trailing slowly down the back staircase (which was nearer to her part of the house than the main one), her lace train wound round and round her arm. From out of the voluminous folds of this there peeped a cork and the top of the neck of the bottle. In her other hand was her large bunch of carnations and lillies.” 

As Dolly is unsure of what she is doing and why, simultaneously there is an admirer of hers, Joseph, who may at any minute stop the wedding, though he is not sure of his motivations for doing so. Apparently Strachey was a fan of Chekov, and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding shows this influence in domestic subject matter and conflicted characters unable to take action. The humour is bittersweet: while the preparations and family members are portrayed with a light irreverence, the drunk bride and her inert friend? lover? – we are never told – bring a genuine sadness to proceedings. I couldn’t help feeling they were both on the brink of disaster.

“Dolly knew, as she looked around at the long wedding-veil stretching away forever, and at the women too, so busy all around her, that something remarkable and upsetting in her life was going steadily forward.”

Virginia Woolf’s opinion of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was high: ‘I think it astonishingly good – complete and sharp and individual.’ Strachey doesn’t explain everything and leaves many questions in the reader’s mind as to what is going unsaid and undone on this nuptial morning (looking at the trailer for the 2012 film it looks as if everything is spelled out, so I will not be watching the film version – why? WHY??)  While it is short, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is not slight – witty, sardonic, sad and wise – it is a fully realised portrait of everyday tragedy.

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Image from here

Secondly, A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964) tells a day in the life of George Falconer, an ex-pat English professor living alone in California just after the Cuban missile crisis, and grieving the loss of his partner Jim, killed suddenly in road traffic collision.

“And it is here, nearly every morning, that George, having reached the bottom of the stairs, has this sensation of suddenly finding himself on an abrupt, brutally broken off, jagged edge – as though the track had disappeared down a landslide. It is here that he stops short and knows, with a sick newness, almost as though it were for the first time: Jim is dead. Is dead.”

In the midst of this enormous pain, George carries on with his life: teaching a class, shopping, going to the gym, getting drunk with a friend.

“In ten minutes, George will have to be George; the George they have named and will recognise. So now he consciously applies himself to thinking their thoughts, getting into their mood. With the skill of a veteran, he rapidly puts on the psychological makeup for this role he must play.”

A Single Man is perfectly paced, capturing George’s numb putting-on-foot-in-front-of-the-other coping without losing narrative drive. The tone is gentle, treating George kindly, but without sentimentality – he is not always kind himself, and his views on those he encounters are unblinking. However, as we spend the day with George, we start to get glimmers of his desire to keep living, a sense that he will find meaning in carrying on. But then his grief completely side-swipes him:

“He pictures the evening he might have spent, snugly at home…only after a few instants does George notice the omission which makes it meaningless. What is left out of the picture is Jim, lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of the other’s presence.”

There is sadness in A Single Man but it is not depressing. Rather it shows how life goes on in all its messy imperfection, and that can be OK, even when you are feeling far from fine.

 A Single Man was made into a film in 2009, the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford. It certainly looked amazing and had some wonderful performances by Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, but the screenplay made some significant changes and unsurprisingly, I prefer the book for its subtlety and nuance. Kudos to Ford though, for filming a book that takes place almost entirely within one man’s head.

I hope you all have a great day ahead🙂