Writing in the Author’s Note and Acknowledgments at the end of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler says she “tried to adhere as much as possible to the established particulars” of Zelda and Scott F. Fitzgerald’s lives. And in that she has succeeded. It is apparent from the first few pages of Z that the writer has done her research which, as she explains, offered varied – and greatly conflicting – versions of their story. “I often felt as if I’d been dropped into a raging argument between what I came to call Team Zelda and Team Scott,” Fowler says at the end of the book, “For every biographer or scholar who believes Zelda derailed Scott’s life, there is one who believes Scott ruined Zelda’s.” This, no doubt, made Fowler’s undertaking a very tricky one, not least because of the Fitzgeralds’ own mythmaking. Their accounts – sourced from their epistolary exchanges – are riddled with liberal embellishments, exaggerations and occasionally downright machinations, rendering the truth indeterminable. As Fowler points out, it is difficult to establish whether it was Scott who brought about Zelda’s downfall or visa versa because opinion varies, paving way for pedagogic wrangling and biographical confusion. It is, however, clear that their mutual predisposition for excess played a large part in their undoing. This is something Fowler aims to convey in the book, distributing the culpability equally between Zelda and Scott. Yet occasionally, Zelda’s voice is also that of Fowler’s who, somewhat inevitably, has far more sympathy with her protagonist than she does with her literary husband.
Z is an interesting but deeply flawed book. Fowler writes wonderfully of the background sights and sounds that constituted the couple’s lives, their time in Alabama, their stint in New York, their travels around Europe and their sultry summers on the French Rivera. The writer’s imagination roams freely across the dance floor of Montgomery Country Club’s high-ceilinged ballroom where Zelda first meets Scott, the benevolent warmth of the Mediterranean landscape where Zelda begins to yearn for independence and the resonating buzz of the casinos and cafes around Antibes where the couple’s glamorous life begins to crumble. This is something that Fowler does very well, conjuring up consummately vibrant accounts of the atmosphere, places and people with impressive lucidity and verisimilitude. But Zelda’s voice – the linchpin of the book – is somewhat less convincing. We are introduced to Zelda as a precocious and effervescent 17 year old Southern Bell, running riot in her home town much to the dismay of her stolid and disapproving father. “Boys liked me,” she tells us, “because I shot spitballs and because I told sassy jokes and because I let ‘em kiss me if they smelled nice and I felt like it.” This seemingly carefree attitude, however, quickly dissolves when Zelda meets Scott and after a brief courtship begins to contemplate her future. “I knew that if I let Scott go, I’ll most certainly end up married to some nice, proper fella from a good family whose people have deep roots in the South,” she says, thinking on the matter, “I’ll be the same girl I’ve always been only the parties I go to will take place in drawing rooms instead of the Club or the Exchange Hotel…Looking down the road in the other direction, I see the life Scott offers me…It’s more unpredictable than Alabama’s weather in springtime…It will be an adventure…”
And the pair do indeed have an adventure, which Zelda then spends most of her time bemoaning. Fowler documents the couple’s domestic disputes, financial troubles and champagne-fuelled misadventures, speaking directly through Zelda, who never really manages to ingratiate herself with the reader. Her voice, inflected with a sensationally Southern drawl, fluctuates between frivolous and fatuous, conceited, rapacious and inane. Her contemplations are sometimes interspersed with witty and amusing observations, but even in her most private and reflective moments Zelda appears to be quite uninspired and uninspiring. And this is Z’s biggest failing because the woman behind the reputation is never quite exhilarating, complex or compelling enough in comparison to the idea we already have of her. It is somewhat unfortunate that in writing about Zelda, Fowler was always going to be competing with the man who knew her best. F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalised his wife perfectly – if not altogether accurately – in his books, writing about her in various fictional guises for several decades. From The Beautiful and the Damned (1920) – the first of Fitzgerald’s works to include a portrait of Zelda as the volatile beauty Gloria Patch – to Tender Is the Night (1934), his last book in which Zelda appears as the beautiful but unhinged Nicole Diver, wife to the equally troubled Dick. The Divers were reportedly modelled on Fitzgeralds’ friends on the French Riviera, Gerald and Sara Murphy, yet the fictional couple’s marriage and all its elements – alcoholism, mental illness, a mounting emotional chasm and eventual separation – is more closely allied to that of Zelda and Scott. Again, this is something Fowler explores in the book, paying particular attention to Zelda’s looming breakdown, which was reportedly spurred by Scott. “I was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realise myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it” Zelda says toward the end, “He wanted to control everything…He wanted his adoring flapper, his Jazz Age muse.”
Fowler does well to show us Zelda’s evolution as a personality – and a woman – who outgrows her lavish lifestyle and her insular existence. “I considered how I might become more like the women I respected and admired,” she muses as the novel progresses, “Surrounded as I was by such ambitious, accomplished women, I couldn’t ignore the little voice in my head that said maybe I was supposed to shed halfway and do something significant. Contribute something. Accomplish something. Choose. Be.” In highlighting Zelda’s personal development, Flower permits us to get a glimpse of her as someone who was deeply driven, intelligent and ambitions. Her introspection, her dreams, worries, aspirations and observations make for some interesting reading, especially in regard to other historical figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Dorothy Parker, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Edmund Wilson, whom Zelda asses with incisive consideration. But again, there is little real indication of just how unstable Zelda is (aside from reference of “blackness” in her head) or how it may have affected Scott. Fowler does, however, tap into the popular idea that Scott hindered Zelda’s literary progress as well as her rights as a woman, subjugating her to the role of his sidekick and that of a mother. “There’s no need for you to be a professional dancer, writer, anything,” he says to his muse, “Be a mother. Be a wife. I’ve made a good life for you, Zelda; stop rejecting it.” Fowler also explores the idea that those in Scott’s camp (namely Hemingway) believed the opposite was true and that Zelda, driven by professional jealously, set out to bring down her husband. This, again, is the area where Fowler sides with her protagonist.
Reading Z one senses a distinct lack of sympathy with Scott, who for all his faults – passing off Zelda’s work as his own, pilfering dialogue straight out of her diaries, controlling and neglecting her – was someone that loved her very deeply and was fiercely protective of her. “I fell in love with her courage,” he once wrote in a letter, “her sincerity and her flaming self-respect and it’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be, I love her and that’s the beginning and the end of it.” It is difficult to ascertain the true nature of their relationship, or be objective in the process, as even their own records are filled with misinformation devised to contribute to their romantic myth. The Fitzgeralds’ story, however, should be read as a cautionary one, a tale of two people who ruined themselves and each other through carelessness and excess. And in many ways, this is how Fowler sets out to project it through granting Zelda a voice of her own, allowing her to tell her story and debunk the unjust depictions of her circulating in the literary ether. But Fowler’s Zelda never quite manages to make herself heard in the way she deserves, often lacking conviction and clout. This is perhaps due to the fact that the writer aimed for objectivity, but if so it begs the question why write the story from Zelda’s perspective at all? Zelda was a hurricane of a woman - disarmingly intelligent, outspoken, passionate, fearless, ambitious and unapologetic, everything that Z is not.
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date: April 2013
Hardback: 384 pages
Clerkenwell Tales is a charming little bookshop on Exmouth Market, off Rosebery Avenue. It has a beautiful teal shop-front and vibrant window displays, thoughtfully chosen to reflect the area’s varied and eclectic character. The shop opened in July 2009 under the stewardship of former Waterstone’s bookseller Peter Ho. Peter wasn’t there during my visit – chaperoned by the incorrigible Mr Tim Wells (pictured) – but I was greeted by the lovely Anna, the other booklover who helps Peter run the shop.
We talked briefly about the selection of books on offer, which range from contemporary to classic fiction, non-fiction, design, cooking and poetry. Anna explained that the books are picked intuitively with booklovers in mind, which is something that distinguishes Clarkenwell Tales from a lot of the other shops. It also has a relaxed and friendly atmosphere and a great layout that offers perfect space for browsing, nosing around and stopping off to flick through a comic or two.
The shop also sells an interesting range of cards, wrapping papers and other literary paraphernalia. It’s small and intimate but well organised and uncluttered, which is something Peter says he was “very conscious” of when designing it. This, he explains, was done so that “every book would be given the chance to catch the eye”. And it certainly does. Clarkenwell Tales is a wonderful shop, which offers a great choice of books and an inviting atmosphere in which to peruse them.
30 Exmouth Market
Opening Hours: Monday – Friday: 10:00 am – 7.00pm/Saturday: 11:00 am – 6.00pm/Sunday: 12:00 am – 4.00pm
PS If you’d like to recommend a bookshop please leave a comment on my blog, tweet me (@DollyDelightly) or send me an email. Thanks.
William Shaw – long-time editor of The New Yorker – once prophesised that Rebecca West would have a “lasting place in English literature”. Sadly, today, she is largely forgotten except among those with an avid interest in either feminism or books or a combination of both. In her time, however, West was a ubiquitous literary figure, revered and feared in equal measure due to her formidable intelligence and forthright opinions. Speaking during a routine interview, for example, West once described T.S Eliot as a “poseur,” proclaimed she held no admiration for E.M Forster due to his nonsensical novel about India, deemed that George Bernard Shaw had a “poor mind,” said W.B Yeats “boomed like a foghorn” and quipped that Somerset Maugham “couldn’t write for toffee”. This, of course, made for some very titillating copy but there was much more to West than acerbic apothegms. Rebecca West – born Cicely Isabel Fairfield – was a force of nature; wilful, obstinate, exacting, highly influential and successful, she was also a woman of vertiginous contradictions. “A uniquely talented personality, West was showered with rewards and tributes for her novels and journalism during her lifetime,” writes Lorna Gibb in her new biography of the early feminist icon, “Sadly her eclecticism was her undoing; her writing could not be categorised into those pigeon holes so beloved by the literati.” Gibb is an acutely conscientious biographer who goes to painstaking lengths to document the precariously momentous rise of her subject, whose seditious temperament and intrepid nature was evident from early childhood.
While at George Watson’s Ladies College, West was described by the headmistress as having “difficult and radical views” which stemmed from a longing for equal rights for women, and a proactive approach to attain them. Gibb notes, however, that while deeply sympathetic to the Suffragette Movement West also enjoyed the drama surrounding it, which eventually led her to the stage. It was then, after several very average forays into acting, that she became involved with the Fabian Society and began mixing in the same social circles as H. G Wells. The infamous intertwining of their lives and their subsequent tidings is something that Gibb explores throughout the book, focusing considerately on the affair which West dismissed in later life as being wholly uninteresting. This statement, however, smacks of defensive flippancy and Gibb does well to contradict her subject’s proclamation by unravelling their torturous, passionate, dizzyingly intense, mutually stimulating and destructive love affair that changed both their lives. West bore Wells an illegitimate son – Anthony – whose childhood, Gibb explains, was one of “isolation and rejection…bewilderment and great loneliness”. The couple’s domestic life was highly unstable and conducted entirely as an open secret, their son sent away to boarding school at the tender age of three, to guard against gossip and proliferating murmurs of impropriety. Gibb writes assiduously of the difficulties posed to the couple by Wells’ marriage, by the outbreak of war, by West’s tempestuous nature and her lover’s infidelities, by her mounting aversion to domesticity and his growing dependence.
It is through her examination of West’s personal life that Gibb chronicles her subject’s development as a novelist, journalist and a zealous political activist. West’s immersion in various causes, her prolific output and her thriving social life was a direct result of domestic problems with her son, her possessive older lover and her fruitless love affairs, including one with Max Beaverbrook, John Gunther, Tommy Kilner and Steven Martin. Despite her manifest admiration for West, Gibb remains objective throughout the book, portraying its heroine both at her worst and her best, as a neglectful mother and a brilliant writer, as a whimpering paramour and vivacious companion, as a generous friend and a woman of guts and conviction. We get to see various sides to West, which Gibb uncovers page by page, in a bid to give us a clear picture of this now obscure writer, who once yielded tremendous power. West’s World is an intriguing book, carefully researched and written, it reads like a comprehensive account of both West’s personal and professional achievements. But it is also a work whose writer boldly includes the more ridiculous and amusing aspects of human nature, pertaining to her subject’s life and all those who entered it. Gibb documents, for example, an incident when in a bout of rage Wells accused his long-time friend [George Bernard] Shaw of being an “ass”. And another instance when Ford Madox Ford’s wife, Violet Hunt, prompted by impending madness, flung her lace-trimmed knickers out of the balcony. She also comprises less notable but no less humorous bon mots such as when Virginia Woolf likened West’s first novel, The Return of the Soldier, to an “over-stuffed sausage” or when Zelda Fitzgerald threw the biggest party of her entire life in West’s honour, which the latter failed to attend due to logistical glitches. These diversions, however, do not detract from the gravitas of the work but rather add to it a very humane quality which makes West’s World both an insightful and exciting book.
One of the most germane and considered aspects of the biography is West’s familial relationships, among them that with her sisters, her son and her husband, Henry Maxwell Andrews, with whom she felt an affinity due to a mutual sense of social inferiority. Not only that Gibb suggests that West initially saw Henry as a refuge from her troubled past and married him as a sign of “gratitude”. Unlike her relationship with Wells, West’s marriage was more or less solid. Speaking of it once during an interview, she said it had been the most important thing in her life. But the union was by no means an entirely happy one, due to incessant difficulties with Anthony, Wells’ interference and Henry’s chronic philandering, the strain of which rendered the couple’s sex life non-existent. While West’s personal life was always troubled her career prospered, bringing her together with other literary notables such as Anaïs Nin, with whom she formed a friendship bordering on a love affair, Woolf whom West admired but found condescending as she did the whole Bloomsbury set and D.H Lawrence whom she deemed an “angel”. And yet despite her growing reputation, her accolades and tireless work ethic, West faced continuous sexism, which prompted her to famously retort that people thought her militant and a feminist simply because she expressed sentiments that differentiated her from “a doormat or a prostitute”. Gibb touches on this in the book, noting the various unsolicited sexual advances toward West, but never really explores the adversities they presented. She does, however, point out that the only two male contemporaries to offer congratulations to West after she was made a Dame were Eliot and Noel Coward.
But for West sexism was an on-going battle, which often manifested in covert criticism of her work as it did after her coverage of King George VI’s funeral. “If one is a woman writer,” she wrote in reply, “there are certain things one must do – first; not be too good, second, die young, what an edge Katherine Mansfield has on all of us; third, commit suicide like Virginia Woolf. To go on writing and writing well just cannot be forgiven.” Sadly this sentiment still rings true today, particularly in regard to West’s own work, which is now largely overlooked and ignored. But in her time, West was considered among the best political and social commentators, her book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon deemed a definitive account of political travel writing. Her reputation, however, as Gibb explains at the start of West’s World, has suffered greatly due to her “eclecticism” and the fact that she had once been Wells’ mistress. It is difficult to gauge the merits of these two very different writers or try to ascertain the superior of the two, but rather better to concentrate on the facts which Gibb does here. West’s World gives us a well-rounded if somewhat rudimentary picture of Rebecca West as she was – taking into account both the positive and the negative – but it doesn’t consider what her having been might mean today, or how it influenced women’s history. Rebecca West was a writer of great strength, wit and intelligence who rose through the ranks from fairly humble beginnings at a time when social status, money and class determined everything. It would be wrong to deify her for she was a woman of many failings but it would also be wrong to speak of her as a *woman first and a writer after at least in terms of her work and her legacy, which is something West’s World aims to highlight.
*”I’m a writer first and a woman after.” Katherine Mansfield
Publication Date: March 2013
Hardback: 304 pages
“Colette is a writer one should know something about.”
“I started reading DeLillo pretty much when he started publishing. He was, and is, one of my heroes.”
“Milton…was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
“Angela Carter has remarkable descriptive gifts, a powerful imagination, and… a capacity for looking at the mess of contemporary life without flinching.”
“I still think Shelley is an underestimated poet.”
“I am a fanatical admirer of A. L Barker. If you cannot read her it is your fault.”
“I do like to write dialogue, intense forms of which I admire in Henry Green’s novels.”
“Being in a garret doesn’t do you any good unless you’re some sort of a Keats.”
“Saki says that youth is like hors d’oeuvres: you are so busy thinking of the next courses you don’t notice it. When you’ve had them, you wish you’d had more hors d’oeuvres.”
“William James says that in times of trauma and crisis a door is opened to a place where facts and apparitions mix.”
“Part of growing up is learning, unfortunately, to develop loyalties to abstractions: the state, the nation, the idea,” writes Aleksandar Hemon in The Book of My Lives, “You pledge allegiance; you love the leader. You have to be taught to recognise and care about differences, you have to be instructed who you really are; you have to learn how generations of dead people and their incomprehensible accomplishments made you the way you are; you have to define your loyalty to an abstraction-based herd that transcends your individuality.” This is the way in most cultures and countries, but especially those saddled with a draconian regime. Hemon, who grew up in Sarajevo, writes of the experience with ebullience that hasn’t dulled with either years or geographical distance. The Book of My Lives documents some of the social injustices and cruelties endured by the Bosnian people prior to and during the 1990s war. It regards the subject through a personal lens, delivering moving accounts of the villainies witnessed by Hemon, his family and friends. Hemon recalls vividly the exact moment he realised the pernicious nature of the Socialist rule, when after (a grossly misjudged) fascist-themed birthday party he and some of his friends were summoned to the State Security offices. “They interrogated me for thirteen hours straight,” Hemon recalls, “in the course of which I discovered that all the other people who attended the party had visited or were going to visit the warm State Security offices…Naïvely, I assumed that if I explain to them that it was really just a performance, a bad joke at worst…they would just slap our wrists…and let us go home.” They did, of course, let the adolescents go eventually but the story developed into nationwide news with the group being labelled the “Nazi Nineteen,” which Hemon says was a very surreal experience, likening it to “reading a novel in which one of the characters – a feckless nihilistic prick – had my name”.
For a while after and despite evidence to the contrary Hemon and his friends continued to rely on what they “stubbornly perceived as normalcy,” ignoring the fact that Croatia was in the throes of war and Bosnia was soon to follow. Working as a writer for a magazine at the time, Hemon recalls the months preceding the war through a fuliginous haze of hashish, sex, writing assignments and Dean Martin’s euphonious crooning. “We did it all,” he says nostalgically, “staying up all night to close and lay out an issue of the magazine, subsisting on coffee and cigarettes and trance; consuming pornography and writing poetry; participating in passionate soccer-related discussions and endless manic debates…Then there was rampant, ecstatic promiscuity…It was a great fucking time.” A time that was swiftly succeeded, he goes on to tell us, by the incontrovertible fact that “the war had arrived and now we were all waiting to see, who would live, who would kill, and who would die.” Hemon writes of his subsequent depression and hopelessness with intense acuity, imbuing this time spent largely in isolation with cultural and philosophical contemplations which enrich the narrative with a sense of universal resonance. It is here that Hemon’s memoir works best, when his voice is subjective, idiosyncratic and entirely his own. There are moments in the book, however, when Hemon writes as a seemingly impartial observer as he does, for example, in a chapter called Let There Be What Cannot Be. “In April, [Radovan] Karadžić’s snipers aimed at a peaceful anti-war demonstration in front of the parliament building,” he reports, “and two women were killed. On May 2, Sarajevo was cut off from the rest of the world and the longest siege in modern history began. By the end of the summer, nearly every front page in the universe had published a picture of a Serbian death camp.” This kind of divagation is no surprise when one learns that all the pieces in The Book of My Lives were written individually rather than as a collective whole. They have since been revised and reassembled, but the narrative disparity – infinitesimal as it its – contributes to the overall fragmentation of the book. This is compounded by the middle chapter called This Is Why I Do Not Want To Leave Chicago, which is essentially a list – a very interesting and articulate list but nevertheless a list – at odds with the rest of the book.
The all-important aspects of Hemon’s life, however, are certainly here . The birth of his sister which marked a “tormentful, lonely period” in the writer’s formative development; his early experiences of the divisive ethic system; his realisation about his parents’ fallibility; the “ceaseless debasement” of army life; the atrocities of war; the torturous complexity of immigration; incurable homesickness and the protracted and debilitating process of constructing a new life. The latter is something Hemon ruminates on with the weight of bitter experience, conveying the hardships of adapting to a new world through his own eyes as well as those of his mother and father. A year after Hemon left Sarajevo for the US (1992) his parents and his sister immigrated to Canada. The escape itself had been precarious enough, but no one could have prepared the Hemons for the difficulties that followed. “Things were very complicated for them,” writes Hemon of his parents in Canada, “what with the language my parents couldn’t speak, the generic shock of displacement and the cold climate that was extremely unfriendly to randomly warm human interactions.” In fact, as we go on to learn, the whole process was far more serious than that. “Within months my parents started cataloguing the differences between us and them,” Hemon explains, “we being Bosnians or ex Yugoslavs, they being purely Canadian.” At one point, the writer recalls how this caused a rift between him and his family, who was beset by “devastating nostalgia and hopelessness” at their new life. Hemon writes very candidly about the various adversities in adapting and trying to encourage his parents to do the same. “I was incapable of helping them in any way,” he writes, “During my visits, we argued too much: their despair annoyed me, because it exactly matched mine and prevented them from offering comfort to me…Everything we did in Canada reminded us of what we used to do together in Bosnia.”
The Book of My Lives is full of such plaintive moments. Hemon remembers the acclimatisation process with plangent astuteness, his words reverberating with a familiar if distant echo of longing. “Displacement results in a tenuous relationship with the past,” he explains, ”with the self that used to exist and operate in a different place, where the qualities that constituted us were in no need of negotiation. Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances…At the same time there is the inescapable reality of the self-transformed by immigration – whoever we used to be, we are now split between us-here (say, in Canada) and us-there (say, in Bosnia).” To bridge this gap, between his old and new self, Hemon set out to explore his adopted hometown and this is precisely how he documents his time in Chicago; as a wanderer, a searching flaneur, who grows to love his new city through familiarity, slowly forging relationships with its places and people. “I realized that my immigrant interior had begun to merge with my American exterior,” Hemon recalls after a couple of years of living in the US, “Large parts of Chicago had entered me and settled there; I fully owned those parts now. I saw Chicago through the eyes of Sarajevo and the two cities now created a complicated internal landscape in which stories could be generated.” And there are certainly many – and wonderful – stories that have been generated and gathered here, which Hemon started writing in English as soon as his displacement anxiety began to dissipate. They are the Lives referred to in the book’s title, split between his early years in Bosnia and subsequent struggles and his time in the US, focusing on the city of Chicago; his local football team, the chess players with whom he shared his passion, his past lovers, his ex and present wife, his daughter Isabel’s battle with cancer and his older daughter Ella’s imaginary friend.
The Book of My Lives is Hemon’s first collection of non-fiction, consisting of 15 pieces of autobiography assembled loosely together into a variegated whole. It is a short but surprisingly compendious read, offering great insight into the writer’s past and present. Hemon is someone who manages to convey the emotional complexities of loss and extant pain with superb clarity and feeling.“How can you possibly ease yourself into the death of your own child,” he asks, “For one thing, it is supposed to happen well after your own dissolution into nothingness. Your children are supposed to outlive you by several decades, in the course of which they’ll live their lives, happily devoid of the burden of your presence, eventually completing the same mortal trajectory as their parents: oblivion, denial, fear, the end…And even if you could imagine your own child’s death, why would you?” But sadly the unimaginable became a reality for Hemon and his family, when their infant daughter died of a rare brain tumour . “Teri [Hemon's wife] and I held our dead child – our beautiful, ever-smiling daughter, her body bloated with liquid and beaten by compression,” he writes, “- kissing her cheeks and toes. Through I recall the moment with absolute, crushing clarity, it is still unimaginable to me.” Hemon lays himself bare on the page, vacillating candidly, unashamedly, from hope to joy to grief to disbelief and anger. ”One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling,” he rages, “that it is a step on the path of some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. The only result of her suffering that matters is her death. We learned no lesson worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anybody.” Hemon’s memoir ends with this heart-wrenching story, which is both overwhelming and very moving. Speaking about writing, in more general terms, Hemon recently said that literature was “human experience in language” and that what mattered was not the “information about the past or the present” but the “intensity and depth of experience of reading and imagining other lives.” And this is the key to the Book of his, his many lives, all of which – the good, the bad, the joyous and the tragic – are very much worth reading and imagining.
Publication Date: March 2013
Hardback: 224 pages
Joseph Conrad once said that there is nothing more fantastical than life. This, I think, is largely true if we exclude imagination from the discussion. We dare to imagine things that are beyond the realm of possibility and probability, beyond the limits of convention and the likelihood of the everyday. Karen Russell’s imagination, however, stretches farther than most, from the plane of the surreal to the terrain of the absurd, from the wickedly magical to the downright supernatural. Even the title of her new short story collection – Vampires in the Lemon Grove – requires some assimilation. Russell takes the orthodox idea of the Gothic fable and turns it on its head, with humour, intelligence and linguistic gusto. The eponymous story follows Clyde and Magreb – a married couple – who resides in Sorrento, Italy, trying to contend with the impracticalities of being vampires by feasting on lemons instead of human blood. “Over the years, Magreb and I have tried everything,” Clyde says, “fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls. We have lived everywhere: Tunis, Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca. We spent our honeymoon hopping continents, hunting liquid chimeras: mint tea in Fez, coconut slurries in Oahu, jet-black coffee in Bogota, jackal’s mil in Dakar, Cherry Coke floats in rural Alabama, a thousand beverages purported to have magical quenching properties. We went thirsty in every region of the globe before finding our oasis here, in the blue boot of Italy, at this dead nun’s lemonade stand. It’s only these lemons that give us any relief.” The story is, of course, about more than just lemons and vampires. It is a candid inquiry into the varied course of human relationships, into marriage in particular, the general brevity and customs of which Clyde finds deeply dispiriting.
Every story in the collections is rooted in some topical theme, some conscientious exposition on the human condition which is one of the things that make them so resonant. Reeling for the Empires is, for example, about oppression and empowerment. It is told by a Japanese silkworm worker, living in a reeling mill in Japan. The twist here – and there’s always a twist with Russell’s work – is that the female factory workers manufacture the silk themselves by being plugged into a machine. The women are recruited for this specific purpose from villages across the country; their fathers sold a machination about nobility, about their daughters being specially selected to reel for the Empire. But the truth of it is quite contrary. “Every aspect of our new lives,” the narrator tells us, “from working to sleeping, bathing when we can get wastewater from the Machine is conducted in one big room.” Russell makes very explicit allusions here to the debasement of factory-working culture, human rights infringements and the patriarchal forces driving it. The Agent, who recruits the silkworm workers, is the embodiment of capitalism, an abjectly oppressive force in the women’s lives, from whom they liberate themselves by way of direct reversal of fortune. It is a simple enough story, but one told in an entirely unique voice and from an entirely unique perspective. Russell finds new and innovative ways in which to relay old and familiar ideas, surprising, challenging and entertaining the reader. Every one of her narratives has foundations in some aspect of our cultural heritage – be it folklore, fairy tale, legend, myth – and is scrupulously researched before being transformed into something quite new and unexpected, akin to modern day folklore and allegorical dreams.
Russell is also someone who finds inspiration in the world around her, in the things that have – directly and indirectly – impacted all our lives. She borrows her plots from reality and loops them round, drawing out the comedy, the mystery, the eeriness and the despair out of the ordinary. One of the stories in the collection is about a young sergeant back from Iraq, haunted by the death of his friend. The New Veterans is an emotionally loaded look at the past’s influence over the present, combining psychoanalytical examination of memory and how it can redeem and offer salvation. Here again the story’s seemingly straightforward plot is given the Russell treatment, when Derek begins physiotherapy and the woman treating him is able to manipulate the commemorative tattoo on his back, depicting the death day of his comrade Arlo. Russell’s brand of storytelling has been invariably described as magic realism and while the appellation certainly fits I think her work would be more accurately described as macabre realism in its use of dark and haunting ideas and human experiences. All the stories gathered in Vampires in the Lemon Grove toy with some ominously pathological aspect of human personality or despotic element of nature, which Russell explores with great psychological insight. In The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach 1979, for example, she chooses betrayal as her topic centering the story on a 14 year old boy called Nal, who loses the girl of his dreams to his older brother. The story could quite easily read as a simple tale of adolescent angst if it weren’t for Nal’s ominous encounter with a minatory sea gull, who proffers the youngster the possibility of reconfiguring his life. This is something Russell does time and again in the collection, by adding extra-ordinary elements to everyday life.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove is Russell’s second short story collection, and showcases her talent as a writer who is coming into her own. She has a preternatural capability of combining the old with the new and making it appear original and inventive. And her inventiveness extends throughout the book, even to the less convincing stories such Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating, which is precisely as the title suggest – a loosely assembled list of axioms about dehydrated foods, Zodiac boots and gaiters to aid aficionados of the sport in their endeavours, because ”tailgating in the Antarctic is not joke”; and The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, which reads like a gauche cautionary tale about a gang of bullies, who torment an outcast peer until they come across a scarecrow that resembles their victim and haunted by the effigy begin to feel remorse. The stories gathered here vary in quality and calibre, but have a sustained originality which reverberates with imaginative effulgence. There is a tangible materialism to every world that Russell creates, down to the seemingly inconsequential details, from the colour of sunsets on the Mediterranean coast in Vampires in the Lemon Grove to the adolescent jargon in The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, from the partisan divisions among the dead presidents in A Barn at the end of Our Term to the ins and outs of the Homestead Act in Proving Up. Russell pays very close attention to the little things while pushing narrative and linguistic boundaries, and paving the way for unexplored possibilities in new fiction, stretching over several genres and categories. This brave young writer clearly enjoys creating bewildering scenarios, designed to highlight the more unsettling aspects of composite realities, which on the surface appear intrinsically “normal” and average.
This is something Russell set out to explore, she says, adding that she’s fascinated by how “matter-of-factly people talk about crazy things that happen”. This quality of everyday madness echoes through the volume with a sense of bizarre verisimilitude. One wonders what source of voodoo Russell uses to solicits her ability to render life so eerie and unnerving, which when she does successfully attests to her literary brilliance. Vampires in the Lemon Grove offers a real mix, however, ranging from the superb to the mediocre but reading Russell’s work one can certainly see why this young writer was nominated or the Pulitzer Prize. And even though her ideas can sometimes fall a little flat and her language feels a little over-laboured – often relying too heavily on metaphor, which makes her prose seem florid and overly imagistic – Russell never fails to redeem herself through her exuberance and use of humour which surges through the collection. Speaking about writing in a recent interview Russell said she had two rules both of which materialised from advice given to her by two of her professors. One of which urged her to remember that “blue doesn’t stand out on blue” when juxtaposing “fantastic elements to the naturalistic elements in a story” and the other that “good writing should be surprising and true”. The heed of the latter is especially evident in Russell’s work, as the line between reality and fantasy is almost indistinguishable and only made conspicuous by the writer’s flourishing imagination.
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Publication Date: March 2013
Hardback: 256 pages
I have somehow – in a bout of inadvertent spontaneity – set myself the challenge of visiting every independent bookshop on the London Bookshop Map. Upon making my London Bookshop Map Challenge (LBMC) known on Twitter I received several shop recommendations, urging me to go to Judd Books, The Broadway Bookshop, Clerkenwell Tales and the Kirkdale Bookshop, all of which I now also intent to visit. This brings the total to a hefty 109 different shops, in different parts of town! What was I thinking? Probably not very much at that precise moment, but I like a challenge and have sulfur in my blood! (The latter is something Henry Miller used to say. Not sure if it applies here but it kind of sounds good.)
The first bookshop I went to is the Swedenborg Society one, which I picked because of its proximity to my work. The shop is located on the corner of Barter Street, opposite Bloomsbury Square. It specialises in the work’s of Swedish philosopher, theologian, scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Most of the books in the shop are published by The Swedenborg Society, which has been going since 1810. This wonderful little establishment also sells other editions, most of which pertain to the philosopher, his ideas and his cultural and historic significance.
The books published by the Society are absolutely beautiful. The intention is to have them look like classics, Nora (Foster), the Society’s Publicist and Assistant Curator, told me. A lovely idea, I agreed, marvelling at the handsome hardbacks. I was greeted and shown around by the very lovey Company Secretary Richard Lines, who offered me a potted history of the famous philosopher and took me on a guided tour of the Grade II listed premises. The building houses a vast and impressive library, which contains the most extensive collection of Swedenborg editions in Europe, some in their original languages of Swedish and Latin. I was also lucky enough to be shown a couple of leather bound manuscripts written in Swedenborg’s own hand, which looked fantastic if indecipherable.
Richard took me up and down several flights of stairs annotating our journey as we went, telling me about the Society’s heritage, its early patrons and contemporary friends (A. S. Byatt, Iain Sinclair, Homero Aridjis among them). As we made our way through the building, Richard explained that the Society is currently in the process of cataloging Swedenborg’s Library and Archives online, to make them accessible to the general public. All the antiquated hardbacks and manuscripts are stored around this grand scholastic hub, which also has a 100 seat neo-classical hall, where the Society hosts literary evenings, talks, exhibitions, performances and lectures. Their programme is extensive and varied and has in the past included an Ingmar Bergman season, a poetry reading by Ali Smith, a special screening of Grant Gee’s documentary on the writer WG Max Sebald and a musical performance by Jozef Van Wissem.
The Swedenborg Society bookshop is one of Bloomsbury’s little treasures. It has a wonderful array of specialist books and great staff, who are infectiously enthused about them.
The Swedenborg Society
20-21 Bloomsbury Way
Opening Hours: Monday – Friday/9.30 am – 5.00 pm
PS If you’d like to recommend a bookshop please leave a comment on my blog, tweet me (@DollyDelightly) or send me an email: email@example.com. Thanks.