“The light of the day is followed by night, as a shadow follows a body.” (Aristotle)

We’ve arrived at the equinox where day and night are of equal length. In the northern hemisphere it’s the Spring Equinox and I’d love to say that winter finally seems far behind us but it’s still bloomin’ freezing.

Still, I’m hopeful that the weather will soon rectify my plummeting levels of vitamin D, and to celebrate I’ve chosen one novel set over a single day, and one set over a single night.

Firstly, daytime with The Pigeon by Patrick Suskind (1987, trans. John E Woods), which is a novella of just 77 pages in my edition, and yet feels entirely complete. It tells of a day in the life of Jonathan Noel, a bank security guard whose ordered, circumscribed life suits him perfectly. He lives in one room, goes to work, comes home and follows a routine whereby he tries to draw as little attention to himself as possible. Then one morning he opens his front door to find a pigeon sat there. The pigeon has also fouled the communal hallway.

“no human being can go on living in the same house with a pigeon, a pigeon is the epitome of chaos and anarchy, a pigeon that whizzes around unpredictably, that sets its claws in you, picks at your eyes, a pigeon that never stops soiling and spreading the filth and havoc of bacteria and meningitis virus, that doesn’t just stay alone, one pigeon lures other pigeons…”

As a Londoner that passage definitely spoke to me.

Jonathan manages to leave his room and get himself to work, but the presence of the pigeon has entirely destabilised him.

“But today everything was different. Today Jonathan was having no success whatever at achieving his sphinx-like calm. After only a few minutes he could feel the burden of his body as a painful pressure”

As we follow Jonathan through his day, a day beset by small catastrophes, Suskind shows “how quickly the solidly laid foundation of one’s existence could crumble.” Why Jonathan is so utterly discombobulated by the pigeon is never fully explained, but the tale is entirely believable. Jonathan is lonely and frustrated and the pigeon exposes the fissures in his careful façade.

“He had a mighty urge to pull out his pistol and let loose in every direction […] into the hot sky, into the horrible, oppressive, vaporous, pigeon blue-grey sky, bursting it, sending the leaden lid crashing with one shot, smashing down and pulverising everything and burying it all”

The Pigeon was Suskind’s follow-up to the massively successful Perfume. This is a very different tale  but an equally memorable piece of writing. Determinedly grounded in banal everyday detail, The Pigeon highlights the extraordinary inner lives that could be taking place beneath the most ordinary of outer lives.

 

Secondly, into night with After Dark by Haruki Murakami (2004, trans. Jay Rubin) which follows a group of characters from just before midnight to just before dawn in Tokyo. A young girl, Mari, is reading in a nearly empty diner, when she encounters Takahasi, a musician who knows her and her beautiful model sister Eri. He’s chatty and seemingly unperturbed by Eri’s self-contained reticence. The difficulty of communication between people is a recurring theme:

“ ‘Finally, no matter what I say, it doesn’t reach her. This layer, like some kind of transparent sponge kind of thing, stands there between Eri Asai and me, and the words that come out of my mouth have to pass through it, and when that happens, The sponge sucks almost all the nutrients right out of them.’ ”

This idea of permeable surfaces also recurs, bring a surreal element to the story. Eri is asleep, watched by a masked man through an unplugged television set. At one point, Eri is dragged into the scene within the television. Meanwhile, Mari walks away from a mirror she has been gazing into:

“A closer look reveals that Mari’s image is still reflected in the mirror over the sink. The Mari in the mirror is looking from her side into this side. Her sombre gaze seems to be expecting some kind of occurrence. But there is no one on this side. Only her image is left in the Skylark’s restroom mirror.”

This surreal quality mixes with the viscerally real – a Chinese prostitute is beaten up and Mari is asked by the ex-wrestler manager of a love hotel to come and translate for her; characters search for and consume food; Shirakawa, the attacker, works late in his office and does sit-ups. The matter-of-fact narration is highly effective in grounding the story in a recognisable reality but also emphasising the unsettling, eerie quality of the tale. It is precisely because Tokyo and its inhabitants are so recognisable that the unpredictable, nocturnal elements are so unnerving. From this background, there is the possibility that Mari and Takahasi may begin a tentative romance:

“ ‘Wanna walk a little?’ Mari says.

‘Sure, let’s walk. Walking is good for you. Walk slowly, drink lots of water.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘It’s my motto for life. ‘Walk slowly; drink lots of water.’

Mari looks at him. Weird motto. She does not comment on it however, or ask him about it. She gets out of the swing and starts walking. He follows her.”

I read After Dark in a wonderfully apt setting: a weirdly empty night bus (at only 201 pages I was able to finish it on the journey). I felt Murakami perfectly captured a sense of night, of the unknown, and of possibility.  He uses the night to heighten his portrayal of transgressed boundaries and of what is hidden, both knowingly and unknowingly, from others and from ourselves.

 “ ‘It’s not as if our lives are divided simply into light and dark. There’s a shadowy middle ground. Recognising and understanding the shadows is what a healthy intelligence does.’”

To end, a classy song choice for once 😉

“In springtime, the only pretty ring time,/When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding” (William Shakespeare)

Things are not going well, reader. I won’t bore you with details, but as I survey the Beckettian wasteland that is my life (never piss off a bibliophile, we can exaggerate and self-pity in such literary terms) two things bring me solace: one, that the forty minute commute to my circumlocution-office job gives me fixed time to read (apart from one particularly bad day where I spent the journey staring out of the window into the abyss of my existential crisis gardens of south London); and two, that my favourite season is finally here. Hooray for Spring!

giphy (7)

So this week I thought I’d look at novels that are linked with Spring in some way.  Firstly Haweswater by Sarah Hall (2002). The connection to Spring is tenuous at best – I chose it because it’s set in the Lake District, which thanks to Wordsworth is irrevocably linked with this time of year. Hall’s highly accomplished first novel centres around the true story of the valley of Mardale being flooded in 1935 to create a reservoir to supply water to Manchester.

“This valley, with its own natural shape, created as the earth’s muscles cramped and pulled with ferocious sloth millennia earlier, was perfect.  Six miles down, at the bottom of the dale, where the fells curved towards the ground and flattened inwards, hard volcanic rock came to the surface, and it would be possible to lay down a flat arm of cement and brick.”

Images from here and here

The Lightburn family work the land, raising sheep and living lives deeply connected to their environment. Janet, their daughter, works as hard as anyone, refusing to let her gender limit her. She is formed by her strong independent nature and the land that surrounds her:

“There are deaths that have made more sense than lives here. But nothing hangs in the balance. She has been pressed between two vast mountain ranges without claustrophobia or repression; each year she is re-forged. She accepts the weather and the ability of the rain to overwhelm all else. It’s inconsequential. This is a sacred place.”

The charismatic and glamourous Jack Liggett arrives from Manchester to tell the villagers that their entire lives are about to be literally swept away, and Janet’s pious mother has a horrible sense of what is to come:

“There was a vast black bird in her heart, she said to him, foreboding. It warned her of sickness and ill change, lifting its morbid wings. And with the dark man in their midst there was danger, she knew it. But Samuel could not understand. And how could he see fear taking shape or feel its feathery wingtips along her ribcage?”

Haweswater is a beautifully written account of ordinary lives caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Hall has a deep understanding of landscape and a sensitive approach to her characters. It is a sad, poignant novel, but not depressing: people, like the land, mostly endure.

“He was here, within reach. The landscape had him enfolded, safe, like bark holding back the spreading rings of a tree. She put her face in the grass and her tears swept down concave blades and soaked into the dry earth, into the fossils and claws and muscles of rock from thousands of years ago.”

If that all sounds a bit depressing, my second choice may be more to your liking: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922), which I was inspired to rescue from the depths of my TBR by reading Shoshi’s wonderful review.

IMG_0698

This novel is an absolute joy: a heartwarming, silly, acerbic, funny, insightful joy.  Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are drawn to an advertisement in The Times which promises “wisteria and sunshine” at an Italian medieval castle for the duration of the titular month.  Mrs Wilkins is in need of a change:

“She was the kind of person who is not noticed at parties.  Her clothes, infested by thrift, made her practically invisible; her face was non-arresting; her conversation reluctant; she was shy. And if one’s clothes and face and conversation are all negligible, thought Mrs Wilkins, who recognised her disabilities, what, at parties, is there left of one?”

While Mrs Arbuthnot needs space to work out what on earth to do with her marriage:

“And Frederick, from her passionately loved bridegroom, from her worshipped young husband, had become second only to God in her list of duties and forebearances. There he hung, second in importance, a bloodless thing bled white by her prayers.”

They decide to take the plunge, and advertise for two more women to join them, ending up with young and feckless Lady Caroline and older and self-absorbed Mrs Fisher. The women take a while to adjust to one another, but the magic of Italian Riviera is impossible to resist (as is von Arnim’s writing, permit me a lovely long quote):

 “All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. She stared. Such beauty; and she was there to see it. Such beauty; and she was alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light.”

Surrounded by this picturesque scene, all the women, wanting to escape their lives for a variety of reasons, undergo a healing process, a regeneration. If this makes the novel sound worthy and heavy-handed, it really isn’t.  It’s a wonderful study of group dynamics and how what we need can be brought to us by the most unlikely people. Even Mrs Fisher is powerless to resist:

“She knew the feeling, because she had sometimes had it in childhood in specially swift springs when the lilacs and syringas seemed to rush out into blossom in a single night, but it was strange to have it again after over fifty years. She would have liked to remark on the sensation to some one, but she was ashamed. It was such an absurd sensation at her age. Yet oftener and oftener, and every day more and more, did Mrs Fisher have a ridiculous feeling  as if she were presently going to burgeon.”

Von Armin doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of life: “She felt small and dreadfully alone. She felt uncovered and defenceless. Instinctively she pulled her wrap closer. With this thing of chiffon she tried to protect herself from the eternities” but what she suggests is that if we open ourselves to possibilities, the insurmountable becomes surmountable, our fears conquerable. If you need a lift; a fun, escapist read that still has something to say but does so with the lightest of touches, then The Enchanted April is for you. Enchanting indeed!

To end, there has been Shakespeare galore this weekend as it is 400 years since his death, and I opened this post with some of the weakest lines he ever wrote 😀 To redress the balance, here are some of the greatest lines he ever wrote: