“Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible” (Javier Pascual Salcedo)

Last week I looked at politics with a big P; this week I thought I’d look at politics with a small p, the civil servants and bureaucrats that keep the machine turning. Hence one novel about a postman and one about a clerk, and two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Firstly, The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault (2005, trans. Liedewy Hawke, 2008) which I first heard about over at Naomi’s blog Consumed by Ink – do check out her review! This novella (108 pages) is a wee gem. It tells the story of Bilodo, the titular mail deliverer, who loves his job.

“He wouldn’t have wanted to swap places with anyone in the world, Except perhaps with another postman.”

He spends his days delivering mail and practising calligraphy, and his nights steaming open the (increasingly rare) personal letters which he subsequently delivers the next day. He is a loner who enjoys the drama of life at a step removed:

“Love in every grammatical form and every possible tone, dished up in every imaginable shape: passionate letters or courteous ones, sometimes suggestive and sometimes chaste, either calm or dramatic, occasionally violent, often lyrical, and especially moving when the feelings were expressed in simple terms, and never quite as touching as  when the emotions hid between the lines, burning away almost invisibly behind a screen of innocuous words.”

Eventually though, he comes to obsess about one correspondence only, that between Segolene, a teacher in Guadalupe, and Gaston, a Canadian poet, which takes place through an exchange of haikus. Gradually Bilodo’s life becomes narrower and narrower as he is convinced he is in love with Segolene:

“Bilodo dreamt, and wished for nothing else; he wanted only to continue on like this, to keep savouring the dazzling dreams and ecstatic visions Segolene’s words conjured up for him. His only desire was that the pleasant status quo might endure, that nothing would disturb his quiet bliss.”

Needless to say, the status quo does not endure. Rather Bilodo’s life starts to rapidly unravel and reconstruct in a way that challenges who he is and his sense of self. I can’t say too much more for fear of spoilers in such a short book, but it is a beautifully written tale that has stayed with me.  Miraculously, Bilodo seems sad and misguided rather than creepy and disturbing.  The haikus are a great touch and a surprising source of comedy as Bilodo tries his hand and fails miserably. It’s most certainly a peculiar tale, melancholy yet playful, and with a truly surprising ending.

Secondly, All the Names by Nobel Prize- winning author Jose Saramago (1997, trans. Margaret Jull Costa, 1999). Superficially at least, this has many similarities with The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman. A male loner becomes obsessed with a woman he has never met, and his life is increasingly consumed in the quest for knowledge of her, whilst remaining removed from the woman herself. But All the Names has a very different feel to it, almost fabulist and bordering on the surreal.

Senhor Jose works in the Central Registry for Births, Marriages and Deaths. He thinks of himself as elderly although he’s only in his 50s, and is a reliable, unobstrusive worker.

“the Registry contains a record of everything and everyone, thanks to the persistent efforts of an unbroken line of great registrars, all that is most sublime and most trivial about public office has been brought together, the qualities that make the civil servant a creature apart, both usufructuary and dependent on the physical and mental space defined by the reach of his pen nib.”

However, Senhor Jose secretly flouts the Registry’s rules, by compiling records of celebrities, tracking the events in their lives and using the Registry’s documents to do so. In such a regimented place where everyone follows numerous rules, customs and protocols, the increased use of file documents is noted. At this point though, Senhor Jose accidently takes the file card of a perfectly ordinary woman, and subsequently becomes obsessed with piecing together her life without arousing the suspicions of his monolith employer.

“One of the many mysteries in life in the Central Registry, which really would be worth investigating if the matter of Senhor Jose and the unknown woman had not absorbed all our attention, was how the staff, despite the traffic jams affecting the city, always managed to arrive at work in the same order, first the clerks, regardless of length of service, then the deputy who opened the door, then the senior clerks, in order of precedence, then the oldest deputy, and finally, the Registrar, who arrives when he has to arrive and does not have to answer to anyone. Anyway, the fact stands recorded.”

As Senhor Jose pieces together the woman’s history, Saramago is able to explore enormous themes around life, death, purpose, memorial, memory, the state and individual free will. He does so with such wit and humanity that it is never a heavy going, but rather a careful balance of compassion and absurdity which makes for an unsettling, though-provoking read.

“There was almost an absolute silence, you could scarcely hear the noise made by the few cars still out and about in the city. What you could hear most clearly was a muffled sound that rose and fell, like a distant bellows, but Senhor Jose was used to that, it was the Central Registry breathing.”

To end, I know Pete Burns is singing about vinyl not paper, but there are surprisingly few pop songs about administrative record-keeping:

“War is Peace” (George Orwell, 1984)

Of course, Orwell’s doublethink, whereby directly contradictory political messages obfuscate any sort of truth, looks completely ridiculous in this day and age…

giphy-10

(Miss you, Carrie)

A slight departure this week Reader, as rather than two books linked by a theme, for this post its one book only. One novel which is the size of 4 novels and has tested my aversion to e-books to the extreme, as lugging it around town on my commute and various evenings out has seen my back reach a place that even the most experienced osteopath would baulk at.  Look at the size of this beast:

img_0840

It is of course, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1865-8) and for once a new year’s resolution fulfilled, as I decided 2017 was going to be the year. Such an epic stretches my limited reviewing capabilities so instead I present my War and Peace reading diary.  Thrills! Spills! Intrigue! Romance! Or none of the above and instead one bibliophile risking permanent musculo-skeletal disfigurement in the name of experiencing a cornerstone of classic literature – you decide! (Warning: this post is nearly as long as the Russian epic itself, my apologies Reader, I think Tolstoy is catching…)

Day 1

I planned to start reading War and Peace 6 days ago. One day I’ll be a disciplined person. Or possibly not.

There are 1444 pages in my Penguin edition (trans. Rosemary Edmonds, 1962-3, revised 1978). There’s a list of principal characters, which I thought was helpful until Wiki informed me that there are nearly 600 characters in this novel. The list names a full 26. What have I taken on?

As a further incentive to get this read I decide to reward completion with the BBC adaptation which everyone seemed to rate so highly:

js79326775

Or more specifically, I choose to reward myself with this (shameless objectification alert):

The foil blanket awaiting the end of this marathon….

The foil blanket awaiting the end of this marathon….

Day one and so far I’m finding Tolstoy enjoyably cynical (so long as I forget he was horrible to his wife IRL):

“Never, never marry my dear fellow. This is my advice to you – don’t marry until you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of doing, and until you cease to love the woman of your choice and see her plainly, as she really is; or else you will be making a cruel and irreparable mistake. Marry when you are old and good for nothing. Otherwise everything that is fine and noble in you will be thrown away.”

And also a rival to Austen in the bitchy social commentary stakes:

They wept because they were friends, and because they were warm hearted, and because they – friends from childhood – should have to think about anything so sordid as money, and because their youth was over…But the tears of both were sweet to them.”

Both good things.

Pages read: 65 (pathetic) Pages remaining: 1379

Day 2

It’s predictable and trite to moan about the patronymic system in Russian novels so I won’t mention the fact that I’m struggling with the fact that everyone has 27 names. Instead I’ll restrict myself to sharing my frustration that three – three! –  principal characters are called Nikolai and the narrator refers to ‘the princess’ when there’s more than one princess in the room.

These quibbles aside – I’m hooked. War and Peace is completely brilliant.

Total pages read: 204 (better) Pages remaining: 1240

Days 3 – 5

War and Peace should come with a health warning: will induce antisocial behaviour. I’m really annoyed that social engagements arranged BWP (Before War and Peace) are taking me away from my reading time. I look up at the end of my commute disappointed that no-one around me looks even vaguely Cossack-like and apparently we’re no longer at war with Napoleon.

The peace sections are full of astute observations about socially mannered manipulations:

 “Weierother met all objections with a firm and contemptuous smile that was evidently prepared beforehand against any piece of criticism, whatever it might be.”

We’re also getting more into the psychology of soldiering and war, which is bleak and depressing, such as Andrei’s attitude to his loved ones:

“ ‘All the same, the only thing I love and prize is triumph over all of them. I care for nothing but this mysterious power and glory which I seem to feel in the haze that hangs above my head’ ”

Tolstoy is astonishing. Maybe no-one mentions his wit because his psychological insights are so devastating.

Total pages read: 404 (rubbish – stupid social life) Pages remaining: 1040

Day 6 – 7

Is it wrong that manipulative, destructive, serial seducer Dolokhov is my favourite character? (Answer: yes.) I know I should prefer sweet Pierre: “Moscow gave him the sensation of peace and warmth that one has in an old and dirty dressing gown”

or noble Andrei “the chief reason for his wanting to weep was a sudden acute sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable existing within him and the narrow material something which he, even she, was.”

But who are they to this one-man dirty bomb blasting his way through the drawing rooms of Moscow? I wonder who plays him in the BBC adaptation?

I doff my hat to you, BBC casting director.

I doff my hat to you, BBC casting director.

Bitchy social commentary of the day: “He believed that just as a duck is so created that it must live in water, so he was created by God for the purpose of spending thirty thousand roubles a year and occupying the highest pinnacle of society. He was so firmly grounded in this opinion that others, looking at him, were persuaded of it too, and refused him neither the exalted position in society nor the money, which he borrowed right and left with no notion of ever repaying it.”

Total pages read: 702 Pages remaining: 742 (managed to catch up to my goal of 100 pages a day). Nearly halfway!

Day 8

War! What is it good for?

“The forces of Western Europe crossed the frontiers of Russia, and war began: in other words, an event took place to counter all the laws of human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetuated against one another such innumerable crimes, deceptions, treacheries, robberies, forgeries, issues of false monies, depredations, incendiarisms and murders as the annals of all the courts of justice in the world could not muster in the course of whole centuries, but which those who committed them did not at the time regards as crimes.”

Absolutely nothing. Say it again, y’all.

Total pages read: 864 Pages remaining: 580

Day 9

The serious tone continues, with the bitchy social commentary sadly no more, but it does sharpen the focus on the horrors of war and the psychological fallout on the characters.

 “behind the veil of smoke the sun still stood high, and in front… a turmoil still seethed in the smoke, and the thunder of canon and musketry, far from slackening, grew louder and more desperate, like a man who puts all his remaining strength into one final cry”

A man sat next to me on my commute today sporting an enormous white beard and a Cossack hat. He has no idea how happy he made me.

Total pages read: 1006 Pages remaining: 438

Day 10 -11

The final stretch! I can’t say too much about what I’m reading for fear of spoilers.

Instead I’ll just say that I’ll be sorry to see it go, and frankly, I wonder if Tolstoy could have made it a bit longer.

Although I do think most editors today would try and dissuade authors from ending a 1400+ page novel with an abandonment of all narrative for a 40 page philosophical discussion on the nature of power and freewill…

Total pages read: 1444 Pages remaining: none!

So that’s me done, and I can’t quite believe it. There will be no stopping me now from reading other epics which have lain languishing in my TBR. Next: Ulysses! Infinite Jest! The Count of Monte Cristo! A different translation of War and Peace! I think I need a little lie down…

“Let it snow!” (Dean Martin)

Or, you know, don’t.  A friend of mine from the east coast of America asked me last week why all the weather reports in the UK were focussing on snowmageddon when really, very little happened. A German colleague is baffled every year by our total inability to deal with anything above a flurry. I have no answers for them. What I do have, in honour of the snow that barely made an appearance last week, is novels where there is serious snow. Snow that means business. Snow you have to dig yourself out of. If only because then I get to include this gif:

199676-penguin-in-the-snow

Firstly Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson (2010, tr.2015 Quentin Bates 2015). I’m not a huge reader of crime fiction set any time after the middle of the last century, but I was convinced by the enthusiastic reviews of FictionFan and Sarah from Hard Book Habit, and the promise that this was like a golden age crime novel but with a contemporary, Icelandic setting (the author translated Agatha Christie into Icelandic when he was 17).

Rookie copper Ari Thor Arason leaves Reykjavik and his girlfriend behind to take a posting in the remote town of Siglufjordur, in the far north of Iceland. A place so small you don’t need to drive to get around, and only accessible via a mountain pass.

“On the right were the snow white mountains, magnificent and formidable, while on the other side was a terrifying, sheer drop onto the expanse of Skagafjordur. One mistake on a patch of ice and there would be no tomorrow…he relaxed as the tunnel entrance finally approached. They had made it all the way in one piece. But his relief was short-lived. He expected a broad, well-lit modern tunnel, but what lay in front of him looked forbidding. It was a narrow single track. Ari Thor later learned it had been carved through the mountainside more than forty years ago when there were only a few tunnels in Iceland. It didn’t help that water dripped here and there from the unseen rock ceiling above. Ari Thor suddenly felt himself struck by a feeling he had never experienced before – an overwhelming claustrophobia.”

As Ari Thor settles into life in place where everyone knows everyone and no-one locks their doors, a local celebrity falls down some stairs whilst drunk and dies (or did he? or was he?) When a woman is found close to death, bleeding out in the snow in her garden, the police start to suspect that the two may be linked. As “every winter is a heavy winter in Siglufjordur”, the mountain pass is soon made unpassable through an avalanche, and so essentially what  Jonasson has done is use the snow to create a claustrophobic, tense, locked-room murder mystery (please commend me on my enormous restraint in avoiding snow-based puns like ‘chilling’ or ‘unsettling’, despite the fact it is both those things).

Snowblind is a short novel (252 pages in my edition) and so I can’t say much more without spoilers. What I will say is that it feels resolutely contemporary with references to the financial crash which devastated Iceland at the time (although for the once-busy port of Siglufjordur, “if there’s a recession here, it comes from the sea”) whilst at the same time being part of a tradition of non-gory, page-turning whodunits. Siglufjordur itself is wonderfully evoked, with a real sense of place created, whilst at the same time becoming a fictional other, and somewhat eerie.

Siglufjordur

Siglufjordur

Image from here

“This peaceful little town was being compressed by the snow, no longer a familiar winter embrace but a threat like never before. The white was no longer pure, but tinged blood red.”

Secondly, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg (1992, tr. F David 1993) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit (new year’s resolution from now on – stop being so euro-centric with this challenge). I distinctly remember all the hype around this novel when it first came out. Not that I’m slow on the uptake, but 24 years later, I’ve finally read it. These days we are awash with antisocial-genius detectives but back in the day Smilla Jaspersen may have been more of a novelty:

“I feel the same way about solitude as some people feel about the blessing of the church. It’s the light of grace for me.”

Smilla does need people, even if she doesn’t like to admit it, and when her neighbour, six year old  Isiah, falls to his death from a roof, she is galvanised to act:

“Isiah’s death is an irregularity, an eruption that produced a fissure. That fissure has set me free. For a brief time, and I can’t explain how, I have been set in motion, I have become a foreign body skating on top of the ice.”

Smilla, half-Greenlandic, can read the snow and she knows Isiah’s last footprints tell a different story to the one the authorities are spinning. This is a theme throughout the novel, which is as much a commentary on post-colonial power structures as it a detective story. Smilla has a history of far left political activism and is not easily cowed by those trying to silence her. I found her a believable, idiosyncratic heroine and really enjoyed her matter-of-fact voice:

 “The knives I keep in my apartment are just sharp enough to open envelopes with… I don’t need anything sharper. Otherwise, on bad days, it might easily occur to me that I could always go and stand in the bathroom and slit my throat. Against such a contingency it’s nice to have the added security of needing to go downstairs and borrow a decent knife from a neighbour.”

My quibble would be that I thought the story lost momentum a bit when Smilla left Denmark and journeyed towards Greenland; I think the return to the land of her childhood was inevitable so maybe it needed a heavier edit earlier in the novel. But overall, an intriguing premise for an intelligent mystery with a strong political message.

“Reading snow is like listening to music. To describe what you’ve read is to try and explain music in writing.”

To end, the unintentionally hilarious trailer for the film adaptation. So very earnest, so very heavy-handed 😀  (and yet still following the Hollywood tradition of whitewashing, unless Julia Ormond is part-indigenous Greenlander?)

“At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.” (W. Somerset Maugham)

‘Tis the season of the works Christmas do, and this week I’ll be stuffing my face at not one but two dinners, as I’m going to both my old job and new job’s yuletide outing. I hate works outings, so I’d be tempted to proclaim that there is no God, but that’s not really in keeping with the season. So I’ll just say I’m not happy about the week’s forthcoming events.

robin-llorando

This week I’m looking at two stories that will help me stop being so ungrateful, as they feature horrific dinners with despicable people. Buon Natale!

Firstly, The Dinner by Herman Koch (2009, tr. 2012 Sam Garrett) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Paul and his wife Claire are meeting his brother Serge and his wife Babette at a swish Amsterdam restaurant. Fairly quickly, it is apparent that Paul harbours a great deal of resentment towards his brother:

“Through and through, Serge remained a yokel, a boorish lout: the same boorish lout who used to get sent from the table for farting”

The dinner begins to unravel from the beginning. Babette arrives visibly upset:

 “Yet there was something else, something different about her this time, like a room where someone has thrown out all the flowers while you were gone: a change in the interior you don’t even notice at first, not until you see the stems sticking out of the garbage.”

As they work their way through the dinner (the different sections of the book are split into the consecutive sections of a menu), Paul reflects on why they are actually all meeting – to discuss a horrific crime which has taken place – and recent events in his life. The further we get into the novel, the more of Paul’s personality begins to emerge, from a slightly controversial take on memorial stones…

 “The injustice is found more in the fact that the assholes are also put on the list of innocent victims. That their names are also chiselled onto the war memorials.”

…escalating to an increasingly apparent violent nature and fascistic attitude to people.  A worrying combination:

“The little hairs on the back of my neck and my tingling fingers had not betrayed me: when the lower intelligences are about to lose an argument, they grasp at other straws in order to justify themselves.”

I won’t say too much more for fear spoilers, but The Dinner is a quick read, its light touch belying its serious concerns: should personal interest ever outweigh societal responsibility and what are the ramifications if it does?

Safe to say you’ll finish the novel mightily relieved that you never have to sit down to a meal with a single character portrayed within. And this is Koch’s master stroke. I desperately wanted the whole family to implode, for justice to be done. In doing so, I realised I wasn’t so very different to these repugnant people and their feeling of moral superiority towards others. It was not a comfortable place to be. The Dinner leaves a bad taste in the mouth, exactly as its creator intended.

Secondly, Festen (2004), the stage play by David Eldridge of the 1998 film by Thomas Vinterberg (trigger warning: mentions incest). I was a huge fan of the Dogme 95 films and I saw the play in 2004 where it translated well to the stage. It’s a simple plot but powerful: Christian’s twin sister Linda has killed herself and as the family meet to celebrate their father’s 60th birthday, Christian makes a speech about why Linda would do such thing – the sexual abuse she and Christian endured as children at the hands of their father.

“Christian: I apologise for interrupting again.

A slight pause.

I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten the most important thing. We’re here today because it is my father’s birthday. We’re not here for any other reason.

A slight pause.

I’m sorry if I led you all up the garden path before. I am sorry. I’d like to make it all up to you all now by asking you to charge your glasses. To my father.

Helmut: Well done Christian.

Poul: Yes, well done.

Christian: If you would all like to stand with me. And raise your glasses.

Everyone stands.

To the man who killed my sister. To a murderer.”

Unsurprisingly, all hell breaks loose. Unlike The Dinner, there are people to care about and root for. Despite the horrific subject matter, there are moments of levity and the play is warm towards the majority of the characters.  Reading plays can be an odd business, because it’s not the primary form for the story. I found the playtext of Festen very readable and affecting, but if you don’t fancy it, do give the film a go, as the story is a moving one and brilliantly directed (contains swearing):

What a depressing post this has turned into! ‘Tis the season of being grumpy about enforced joviality 😉 I promise I’ve a much lighter-hearted Crimbo post planned for next week. For this week, I wish you all a lovely load of Christmas parties, may they be as adorable as this dinner:

tumblr_mgy6596y1n1rjmdrro1_500

“Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories.” (Steven Wright)

I’m a month into my new job and the main effect it’s having is that my memory is shot to pieces. Trying to cram #allthefacts about one particular health condition into my head means all other knowledge has dribbled out of my ears. In fairness, my short and long-term memory has always been appalling and I used to claim I operated in a constantly shifting 3 hour window. This is currently down to about 30 minutes. Plus I got lost at Bank the other day, when I’ve lived in London MY WHOLE LIFE. And there’s a bloomin’ great building at Bank (guess which one) to help you orient yourself.

Where am I again? Oh, yeah...

Where am I again? Oh, yeah…

So to console myself this week I’m looking at novels which explore memory. Its inherently unreliable nature means memory is a gift to novelists who want to consider how we construct reality and decide who we are. (At the moment I’m happy if I manage to construct a sentence, never mind reality and coherent sense of self).

Firstly, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2003, tr. Stephen Snyder 2008).I’m a huge admirer of Ogawa and her spare, stunning writing. In this short novel she details the relationship between a young housekeeper, her son, and the Professor she works for, who since a car accident in 1975 has a memory which lasts 80 minutes, though his memory from before the accident is intact.

“At the end of my first day, I noticed a new note on the cuff of his jacket. ‘The new housekeeper,’ it said. The words were written in tiny, delicate characters, and above them a sketch of a woman’s face. It looked like the work of a small child…but I knew instantly it was portrait of me. I imagined the Professor hurrying to draw this likeness before the memory had vanished. The note was proof of something, that he had interrupted his thinking for my sake.”

These notes cover the Professor’s suit and give him an eccentric experience which belies his brilliant mind. He is talented mathematician who sees numbers everywhere. His housekeeper became pregnant at 18 and needed to work to support her child; she is intelligent but not highly educated. Gradually though, he is able to convey the magic of numbers to her and her mind relishes the new challenge:

“With my finger I traced the trail of numbers from the ones the Professor had written to the ones I’d added, and they all seemed to flow together, as if we’d been connecting up the constellations in the night sky.”

Meanwhile Ogawa is able to convey the magic of numbers to the reader. There is no-one more resistant to mathematics than me – I won’t even play soduku. Yet the Housekeeper’s response to the discoveries the Professor opens up for her is so creative and joyful that I found myself carried along:

“I wondered why ordinary words seemed so exotic when they were used in relation to numbers. Amicable numbers or twin primes had a precise quality about them, and yet they sounded as though they’d been taken straight out of a poem. In my mind, the twins had matching outfits and stood holding hands as they waited in the number line.”

The titular characters and the Housekeeper’s son – nicknamed Root as his flat head reminds the Professor of the square root sign – form a tender alliance. The Professor cannot remember them from one day to the next, and yet he changes their lives forever, through his love of numbers and how he uses these to reach out to people.  The novel is a love story, but not a romance.  It is about the love of friends, of family, of vocation. It contains tragedy but also endurance beyond such, with Ogawa’s sparse style bringing the story a great delicacy. I adored it.

“I thought of the Professor whenever I saw a prime number – which, as it turned out, was almost everywhere I looked: price tags at the supermarket, house numbers above doors, on bus schedules or the expiration date on a package of ham, Root’s score on a test. On the face of it, these numbers faithfully played their official roles, but in secret they were primes and I knew that was what gave them their true meaning.”

Secondly, The Sea by John Banville, which won the Booker Prize in 2005. I’m still a bit conflicted about how I feel about this one, but it’s given me food for thought and is undoubtedly well-written, so I decided to add it to this blog where I only write about books I like. The Sea is narrated by Max Morden, coming to terms with the recent death of his wife. He returns to the holiday cottage which in his childhood was rented by a family, the Graces’, while Max and his family had a nearby chalet.

“I approached the Cedars circumspectly. How is it in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known, returning in a different form, a revenant?”

The Sea is an effective exploration of memory as Max’s memories of the childhood holiday are jumbled alongside those of his marriage and especially his wife’s final illness. Chloe and Myles Grace are twins who never quite reveal themselves to Max, although he begins a tentative romance with Chloe.

“Her hands. Her eyes. Her bitten fingernails. All this I remember, intensely remember, yet it is all disparate, I cannot assemble it into a unity.”

As Max remembers the events of that summer he is forced to reflect on his wider choices and the man he is, particularly as he is now single again.

“Life, authentic life, is supposed to be all struggle, unflagging action and affirmation, the will butting its blunt head against the world’s wall, suchlike, but when I look back I see the greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit, it, for cosiness.”

So… my reservations about this novel are weirdly some of its strengths. It is written in considered, careful prose, expertly structured overall to build to a conclusion that reconciles past and present. But for me it almost felt too considered, too artful. Then I wondered if Max, insecure about his social background, was supposed to be a slightly ponderous man out to prove his own cleverness? I’m not sure, I would have to read another of Banville’s novels to know. There are certainly moments of wry humour to lift the narrative at moments:

“these days I must take the world in small and carefully measured doses, it is a sort of homeopathic cure I am undergoing”

I’m undecided about Banville at present but I’ll certainly give him another try. If you’ve read him I’d really appreciate enlightenment as to his style and other novels that would be worth a read? The reason The Sea made it onto this determinedly positive blog was the final line of the novel, the final image. It was so powerful, such a perfect end, so moving and insightful: a moment of pure brilliance.

To end, it had to be either this or Elaine Paige dressed as a giant feline. Ultimately I decided to have my memories misty-water-coloured rather than alone in the moonlight. Take it away, Babs:

“It’s the end of the world as we know it” (REM)

Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest suggested this week’s title & theme  – I think we all know why.

http-%2f%2fmashable-com%2fwp-content%2fuploads%2f2013%2f06%2fjohnny-depp-panics

Starting with an obvious choice, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (2009, tr. Lisa Dillon 2015), published by the wonderful &Other Stories Press – I wrote about another of their Mexican novels here. Herrera looks at the illegal immigrant experience through Makina, seeking out her brother at the behest of her mother, and desperate to return home.

“You’re going to cross and you’re going to get your feet wet and you’re going to be up against real roughnecks; you’ll get desperate of course, but you’ll see wonders and in the end you’ll find your brother, and even if you’re sad, you’ll wind up where you need to be.”

Makina’s journey is both physical and mythical.  As she travels through her homeland she has to ask men with pseudonyms for different types of help to get her across the border. The places she visits have similarly folkloric names: ‘The Place Where The Hills Meet’, ‘The Big Chilango’, ‘The Place Where People’s Hearts Are Eaten’ and across the border ‘The Place Where The Wind Cuts Like A Knife’. By not grounding Signs Preceding the End of the World in recognisable names and places, Herrera expands the simple journey to something much larger. Any tale of illegal immigration is going to have particular political resonances, but Herrera makes his heroine an Odysseus character and her trials a quest. While the tale is not surreal, there is a sense, as in myths and fables, that anything could happen:

“She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only never-ending front, curving forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds. If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.”

Herrera is a writer who invents neologisms (definitely worth reading the interesting Translator’s Note for this novel) and so is fascinated by language. Through Makina’s journey he tracks the way that boundaries of countries, self and language are all permeable, and how this creates a modern, constantly shifting society:

“Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect  and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent  they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one.”

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a fascinating, multi-layered novel, at once a story for our times but also engages with enduring, expansive themes. Hugely impressive.

And now I pause for thought to wonder if there are enough pictures of kittens in barrels to get me through a single news bulletin right now:

Secondly, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (2015) which I was alerted to last year by the many bloggers who loved this debut novel (written when the author was in her 40s – I must remember to tell my friend C who is coming to terms with the fact that she’s missed her window for those ‘30 Under 30’ type lists). I’m not going to buck the trend on this – I found it a compulsive read which I whizzed through to its gut-wrenching conclusion.

Peggy lives with her parents in the kind of north London middle-class bohemia that keeps Mini Boden in business.  Peggy doesn’t wear Mini Boden though, as it’s 1976 and her mother is busy being a concert pianist while her father gets into arguments with his friends in the North London Retreaters group. This collection of (male) survivalists are convinced nuclear war is imminent. A personal crisis forces Peggy’s father to act on his rhetoric, and he takes her to Germany, to live entirely isolated in “Die Hutte”, in the middle of a forest.  We know this fairytale has unravelled horribly from the opening line, told 9 years later by Peggy who is back in Highgate after a long absence:

“This morning, I found a black and white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer. He didn’t look like a liar.”

The lie Peggy’s father told is astronomical: that the rest of the world has disappeared and they are the only two left living.

“ ‘We’re not going to live by somebody else’s rules of hours and minutes anymore,’ he said. ‘When to get up, when to go to church, when to go to work.’

I couldn’t remember my father ever going to church, or even to work.”

What follows is a narrative that moves back and forth between Peggy’s life in Die Hutte and that in 1985 Highgate with her mother and brother she never knew, Oskar. Fuller handles this extremely well, and I didn’t find the chopping back and forth disruptive or gimmicky. While not a thriller, Our Endless Numbered Days is definitely a page-turner, as Peggy’s comments drip-feed us information about what has gone on: there has been a fire, she has no hair, part of her ear is missing, her teeth are rotten, there is a man called Reuben involved in some way… and her father is no longer around.

The writing style is simple, and I found this a quick read, but the ideas are complex. Fuller is interested in the fantasies we tell ourselves and others in order to survive and the dangers inherent in not questioning these (insert heavy-handed political parallel here). She is interested in the price paid by powerless members of society when the powerful seek fulfilment by disregarding the needs of others (insert… well, you get the idea) and she is interested in the psychological fallout from childhood and our parents.  I saw the twists a mile off, and sometimes Peggy’s voice wavered, but this may have been intentional and it really didn’t matter. Peggy’s complex fairytale was both extreme and subtle, quite a feat.

“Oskar rapped his knuckles on the thick white ice which had risen like a soufflé out of a bucket hanging on a nail beside the back door. I recognised it, it was the bucket my father and I had used…Oskar laughed and turned the handle twisting it hard; his mouth twisting too with the effort. The tap snapped off. And for the first time since I had come home I cried – for the music, for Reuben, but most of all for the waste of a bucket.”

To end, goodbye to a poet and musician whose work is bringing me some comfort – as always – in these troubled times:

“Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself.” (John Milton)

Well, Milton’s got my number. My shallowness extends to books themselves –against conventional wisdom, I definitely judge by the cover.  Thank goodness I do, otherwise whole publishing marketing teams would be out of business.  This week I’m hoping other people aren’t as shallow as me as I’m starting a new job and I hope they overlook whatever gibbering first impression I make to see the hard-working-team-playing-but-definitely-not-a jobsworth- and-will-never-steal-your-lunch-from-the-fridge colleague within.

50ba5ea307fe9576ddd4d4bfcb86d13c

I was also thinking about first impressions and book covers following an interesting post by Lady Fancifull a few weeks back, about a marketing campaign which played on this exact bias.  Earlier in the year, I was persuaded by another blogger, Cathy at 746 books, to stop being so shallow when I won a book in her giveaway, encouraged by her great review, although its cover meant I would never have picked it up normally. So in this post I’m going to look at the book I was lucky enough to win, and a book whose cover would have attracted me even if I wasn’t already a fan of the author.

Firstly then, Fallen by Lia Mills (2014). Here’s the cover:

51v0yqwpal-_sx324_bo1204203200_

Yuck, right? Curlicues – seriously? I would never have picked this up, thinking it looked like a fluffy romance, which is not my taste at all. But while there is a love affair in Fallen, it is not romanticised. Mills is interested in the fallout from war on both those who served and those who remained behind (often women) and how a generation of young people were irrevocably damaged.

Katie Crilly is living in Dublin in 1915 and trying to find her way in a world where she doesn’t know what she wants, except that she definitely doesn’t want what others expect of her. Then her twin brother Liam announces he’s off to join the war effort.

 “He went into his room and shut the door. The latch clicked like a scold’s tongue, made me wish I’d a more generous heart. The silence on the landing was so deep I heard my own pulse tick.”

Liam dies, and Katie has to cope with profound grief, and the fact that her grief is commonplace:

“We’d heard that, in the Dardanelles, many of the Dublins were put off their boats into water that was too deep for them. Pulled under by the weight of their packs, they drowned, while Turkish bullets and mortar fire tore into their comrades and churned the sea red. The gas unleashed at Ypres, around the time that Liam died, was still claiming lives two months later. Every second person on Sackville Street wore a black armband, or a cuff.”

While all this is happening, the Easter Rising explodes onto the already wrecked population of Dublin. Katie finds herself stranded in the home of friends who are also giving shelter to a wounded soldier, Hubie, who knew Liam. Hubie, his wounds visible and invisible, is furious at the ignorance of those who have remained at home. Katie does not turn her face away from the horrors of war and recognises in Hubie a fellow haunted soul:

 “If you love someone, and that person dies, all that love becomes a burden, a weight accumulating, pooling inside you, with nowhere to go. What do you do with it? … Sometimes it gathered itself into a shape, a shadow, peeled itself off the ground and attached itself to my heel. It followed me and spoke, in Liam’s voice”

Fallen is about an ordinary life caught up in exceptional circumstances. It is about how to find meaning in a world where national events dwarf the individual. Ultimately it is a hopeful book, about how a fractured self can be rebuilt, whole but wholly different.

And it is very much about Dublin: Mills evokes a strong sense of place and Fallen was a perfect choice for Two Cities One Book, in the centenary year of the Easter Rising.

“There was something raw about the morning, as though layers of the city’s skin had rubbed off during the night.”

Secondly, The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (2005, tr. Allison Markin Powell, 2016). I was excited to read this as I’d loved Strange Weather in Tokyo and was disappointed that none of Kawakami’s other work had been translated into English. The Nakano Thrift Shop was translated this year and like Strange Weather, the cover features one of Natsumi Hayashi’s beautiful levitating photographs:

Gorgeous, no? The pictures really capture the vibrancy, unpredictability and humour of Kawakami’s writing.

In The Nakano Thrift Shop, Hitomi takes a job at the eponymous business, uncertain of what she wants from life and hoping that the job will be undemanding:

“With its second-hand goods (not antiques), Mr Nakano’s shop was literally filled to overflowing…Mr Nakano would raise the shop’s shutter and, with a cigarette between his lips, he’d arrange the goods intended to tempt customers outside the front of the store…Sometimes ash from his cigarette fell on the turtle paperweight’s back, and Mr Nakano roughly brushed it off with a corner of the black apron that he always wore”

The owner has several ex-wives and a mistress. Despite his unprepossessing appearance, Mr Nakano has irresistible charm:

“I’d heard the phrase ‘a boyish grin’, but Mr Nakano’s grin was decidedly middle-aged. There was something scruffy about it. And yet, at the same time, it was also a winning smile. I suppose it’s the kind of smile that women, as they age, can’t resist”

Hitomi, Nakano, his artist sister Masayo and the driver Takeo form an unlikely quartet as they are thrown together. And really, very little happens. These four idiosyncratic, wholly believable characters rub along together in their day-to-day lives of triumphs and tragedies, some larger than others, explored through different objects in the shop. Takeo and Hitomi begin a tentative, on-again-off-again relationship that was heart-breaking, real and funny in its tenderness, misunderstanding, affection and frustration:

“I would eat a diet rich in vegetables, seaweed, and legumes, and every day would be sparkling and bright, my life brimming with health and vitality. While imagining this, I was again filled with a general sort of sadness. I definitely wasn’t sad because I was thinking about Takeo. Definitely not.”

This is not the novel to read when you’re in the mood for a heavily plotted, eventful story. Yet Kawakami captures the drama of everyday lives and their meaning. Her writing can also be startling, so while it is concerned with the ordinary it is never banal:

“The skin on Saskiko’s cheeks was glowing with an inner light. Just like the bottom of the gin jug, they reflected a dusky and beautiful radiance.”

The Nakano Thrift Shop is touching and life-affirming, but never sentimental. Fingers crossed for further translations…

To end, some shameless objectification of someone whose outward appearance has been my idea of perfection since 1981: