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Category: Fiction

The Folded Man by Matt Hill

The Folded Man by Matt Hill

The cover of Matt Hill’s debut bears a quote by Stephen Fry, which tells us that the work within captures the “smell and essence of Britain”. This is a considerable claim but one that rings entirely true, despite the book’s post-apocalyptic premise. The Folded Man offers a frighteningly plausible rendition of the future, bleak and disturbing.  The city is Manchester, the year is 2018. The five year leap forward sees the country in ruins, plunged into social disorder, widespread deprivation, violence, crime and vigilante rule. We learn of this desolate new world through the book’s protagonist Brian Meredith, a drug-addled “cripple” reliant on the state which he fears and despises. It is both through Brian’s internal meditations and external experiences that Hill creates a chilling picture of the outside world – a phantasmagorical panorama which constitutes the backdrop of the story. Both dynamic and very craftily constructed, it compells the reader to fully immerse in the writer’s vision of the future, bereft of the social norms and conventions that govern modern Britain.

The Folded Man crosses several genres and defies exact classification, comprising elements of Sci-Fi, surrealism, traditional storytelling and experimentation. Hill locks a range of themes into a novel literary whole, defined by intricate plot turns, seemingly freeform dialogue and a prolonged sense of suspense. It is Hill’s ability to tap into our collective consciousness that lends the book much of its realism, and his dark imagination that turns a straightforward narrative into a dystopian riddle. But it is the book’s protagonist, Brian, that’s The Folded Man’s real strength. Albeit a highly divisive character, Brian is predominantly a victim. Wheelchair bound by a rare genetic condition called Sirenomelia (Mermaid Syndrome), he spends his time in his squalid flat watching the world on CCTV and eating his own hair. There are reasons behind Brian’s psychological idiosyncrasies, which Hill weaves into the plot seamlessly. We learn in vivid snapshots of his early life and his upbringing, his fears, desires and worries and discover a very complicated and downtrodden man, who has resigned from life until his mate Noah coaxes him into an outing across the city.

The pair’s excursion leads to a series of events and characters that are at times as bizarre as they are exhilarating. Hill fuses the real with the imaginary, the factual with the fantastic to create a world characterised by an eerie introverted externality. This eeriness also extends to Hill’s literary stylings, which give the book its narrative verve. Written entirely in northern dialect, The Folded Man is full of linguistic quirks, colloquialisms and staccato sentences, sometimes as short as a single adjective. “Brian’s in his chair – the wheelchair in the middle of his world,” writes Hill of his protagonist when he returns home from the outing with Noah, “All the days are the same. All day, every hour – trapped. The fat man in his yawning city. Ageing. Smoking and sleeping between damp walls and under bare bulbs. The fat man who sat through power cuts and water shortages. Listened to new riots and masked radicals on his telly. The same chair at the arse-end of Manchester, old capital of the north. The cold city, the blinking city.” The Folded Man is both a dark tale of humanity and a tribute to Hill’s home city. Manchester is very much at the heart of the novel – a city once great now reduced to an abject quagmire by an “endless war for love between the dead and dying”.

It is difficult to imagine The Folded Man being set anywhere else, just as it is difficult to imagine the protagonist being anyone other than Brian. This is a great achievement on Hill’s part, a writer whose style and subject matter may be considered challenging. But Hill is someone who didn’t set out to write a challenging debut, merely a book that came together almost miraculously inspired by his interest in folklore, urban legends and strange phenomena, his home town and some of the people he’s met there. Brian, for example, Hill told me recently, was partly a result of his experiences with “a close relative who had terrible hip problems from a very young age” and partly a product of his own imagination, fuelled by “one of those crap, slightly exploitative documentaries about a girl born with Sirenomelia”. Brian’s congenital disorder is as integral to the plot as it is to his character. “I wanted Brian’s condition to be as ‘realistic’ a treatment of the mermaid myth as possible,” Hill explains, “So even though the book veers away from reality (far, far away in places), there’s at least a medical grounding.” There certainly is that but there is also more – much more – than that to this intriguing debut which, as Stephen Fry said, has a “direct vividness that keeps one inside its totally realised world”.

The Folded Man is an absorbing and original work that falls into a somewhat nebulous field of literary production. Hill has a keen eye for topical peculiarity similar to the writers in the prophetic tradition, distinguished by their ability to penetrate surface-reality and delve into the deepest recesses of the human psyche. In line with this tradition Hill tells the story from an outsider’s perspective, which gives The Folded Man its disturbing immediacy. It also prompts the reader to question – or at the very least ponder – the validity of the moral, cultural and socio-economic structures that frame our society and the potential consequences of their abolition. J.G Ballard once wrote that “civilised life” is based “on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly” and the trouble is that we sometimes forget “that that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us”. Hill’s book serves as a stark reminder of this, urging us to look at the uncomfortable and unsightly possibilities behind those seemingly orderly and burnished optical trickeries.

Publisher: Sandstone Press 
Publication Date: May 2013
Paperback:  240 pages
ISBN: 9781908737342

All That Is by James Salter

All That Is by James Salter

James Salter is one of few modern writers able to create equally compelling male and female characters. He says it’s because he has made a conscious “effort to nurture the feminine” in himself and in his responses to the world around him which “pure masculinity” often discounts. This very shrewdly cultivated skill is something one can clearly see in All That Is, rippling with atmospheric vitality and meticulously developed men and women vying for the reader’s attention. The story of Salter’s first novel in over 30 years revolves around former naval officer, now book editor, Philip Bowman and the people who drift in and out of his life. The book itself is primarily concerned with the nature of love, the hardship of relationships and the way in which people deal with both. After returning home from Okinawa and a stint at Harvard, Bowman meets and falls for a young woman by the name of Vivian Amussen. “He saw himself tumbled with her among the bedclothes and fragrance of married life,” Salter writes of Bowman’s daydreams, “the meals and holidays of it, the shared rooms, the glimpses of her half-dressed, her blondness, the pale hair where her legs met, the sexual riches that would be there forever.” Shortly after the couple tie the knot, however, Bowman learns that nothing lasts forever, especially marriage. Theirs sours rapidly as Vivian loses interested in her husband’s bookish whimsies, in his talk of high culture and his quixotic reveries.

With his marriage over, Bowman travels to London on business where he meets Enid Armour – a sultry South African English blonde with a chronic philanderer for a husband. The pair embark on an affair and following Bowman’s divorce travel to Spain to consummate their romance, to consolidate their fledgling love. It is here in his descriptions of cities and their poetry through the eyes of the lovers that Salter reveals himself to be a master of etymology and lyrical precision. His rolling sentences flow mellifluously from one page to the next, creating iridescent snapshots of García Lorca’s homeland, effortlessly integrating his story and the country’s history into the narrative. “He was…an angel of the re-awakening of Spain in the 1920s and ‘30s,” Slater writes, “[his] books and plays filled with a pure, fatal music, and poems rich in colors with fierce emotion and despairing love.”  Numerous historical elements and literary references are interwoven into the plot, adding to the wonderfully rich tapestry of Salter’s prose. Salter captures the glamorous milieu of Europe – Greece, France, Spain – in all its glory, through opulent literary ruminations over its present and its past. He goes from describing places to describing people in them with graceful fluency, connecting the two to create a larger, more vivid picture. “They went to Toledo for a day and then on to Seville, where summer lingered and the voice of the city, as the poet said, brought tears,” he writes of the two lovers in Spain, “They walked through walled alleyways, she in high heels, bare-shouldered, and sat in the silent darkness as deep chords of a guitar slowly began and the air itself stilled.”

This kind of tender evocation also extends to Salter’s images of the lovers in their most intimate moments. “The glory of her,” Bowman marvells looking at Enid, “England stood before him, naked in the darkness…He pulled her over him by her wrists, like a torn sheet.” But for all their passion, Bowman’s relationship with Enid eventually fizzles out and the two part.  Shortly after, he meets Christine Vassilaros and her young daughter. The pair fall in love and set up house, living in blissful domesticity or so Bowman thinks until one day Christine decides it’s over. Inexperienced, uncertain and self-doubting Bowman appears to be the very antithesis of a romantic lead and in many ways remains so until the end. He laments his incompetence with women from the start, blaming it on his absent father. There are nebulous questions over Bowman’s masculinity and there is but one moment in the book when he exercises its full force, revealing the truly chilling side of man. Wounded by Christine’s betrayal and humiliated by having to forgo the house they shared Bowman waits patiently to take his revenge, which comes as an unexpected twist in the otherwise linear plot. Salter brings the story to an equally unexpected close, which in many ways reflects the precariousness of life. “He had been married, once, wholeheartedly and been mistaken,” Salter writes of Bowman toward the end of the book‚ “He had fallen wildly in love with a woman in London, and it had somehow faded away. As if by fate one night in the most romantic encounter of his life he had met a woman and been betrayed. He believed in love – all his life he had – but now it was likely to be too late”. This rather reductive view is relegated by Bowman himself just pages later as he realises that it is, in fact, never too.

All That Is is a lyrical meditation on the human condition, replete with languorously poetic turns cut with fastidious precision. The book’s key themes evoke universal interconnections, between love and death, loneliness and companionship drawing the conclusion that one’s fate depends almost entirely upon oneself. Yet the book is much more than a romantic allegory, All That Is also deals with a number of other topics such as identity, social exclusion and inclusive alienation. The latter are diligently rooted in the plot. Bowman feels an outsider, an interloper at Harvard and a stranger in his American-Jewish social circles despite being inexorably linked to his friends and acquaintances by a shared cultural heritage. Bowman is the vessel through which Slater channels the search for one’s identity, in and out of relationships. And in this Bowman is uncompromising, refusing to settle into a cosy existence by way marriage, electing to teeter on the peripheries of the in-crowd. “He might have married one [a Jewish woman] and become part of that world, slowly being accepted into it like a convert,” Salter writes of Bowman’s decision, “He might have lived among them in that practical family density that had been formed by the ages, been a familiar presence at seder tables, birthday gathering, funerals, wearing a hat and throwing a handful of earth into the grave. He felt some regret at not having done it, of not having had the chance. On the other hand, he could not really imagine it. He would never have belonged.”

This sense of otherness is a motif throughout the book. Bowman’s search for a place in the world is defined by his romantic failures, which continuously distort and destabilise his sense of self until he finds love once again. All That Is is characterised by Salter’s trademarks, his geometric prose, his tacit force, decisive authority and erotic realism. Sex lends the book much of its thematic unity both individually and in relation to Salter’s other works. On occasion, the amorous liaisons lack the poetry of the more commonplace scenes but Salter redeems himself through those. Speaking in a recent interview, the writer said that he “will never again write a book in which there’s a single sexual act”. This might prove to be an interesting exercise if, indeed, Salter decides to write another book. Certainly, his “energy and desire” seem to be intact as is his lifelong passion for flying. Like his protagonist, Salter was a military man, a US air force pilot, who gave it up to pursue a career in the literary world. This inevitably invites one to draw comparisons between the two men, but while Bowman often appears finite and fallible Salter does not. He commands attention with the inimitable certainty of a master storyteller, a literary  frotteur, a man who likes to “rub words in his hand”  but one who never minces them.

The Paris Review | James Salter 

Guardian | James Salter

Publisher: Picador
Publication Date: May 2013
Hardback:  304 pages
ISBN: 978-1447238249

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Z_A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Writing in the Author’s Note and Acknowledgments at the end of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgeral 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 captivating 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 the reference to“blackness” in her head) or how this 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 own 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 authority. 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
ISBN: 9781444761405

Intermission by Owen Martell

Intermission by Owen Martell

Writing about the death of a lover in a letter, Edna St. Vincent Millay described his absence as “a hole in the world,” which she found herself “constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night”. Jazz pianist Bill Evans fell into an identical hole in 1961 following the death of his friend and fellow band mate, bassist, Scott LaFaro. The difference was Bill never returned from the abyss, not wholly and certainly not intact. His retreat into the introspective darkness is the subject of Owen Martell’s new book, which chronicles this largely isolated and deeply troubled period of the pianist’s life. The story of Intermission is told primarily by Bill’s family with Bill casting his eminent shadow over the narrative from afar. We are introduced to him by his older brother Harry at the start of his fame, with a handful of albums already behind him. The success of the Bill Evans’ Trio is, however, impeded when LaFaro dies, leaving Bill utterly devastated.  “You wouldn’t have put them together, that was for sure,” Harry says thinking about the two musicians, “Scott was happy to assume all the authority of this youth. Bill, thirty-two in August but only a few years older, looked like the junior partner. You’d have said coming at them blind, that they were too different. Scott was astounding – he actually sounded as good as he looked. Bill, on the other hand, well, you heard him feeling his way. Or you felt him listening…Then you spoke to him after and he wanted to fade into the decor. As if the places he played weren’t already dim lit or unfussy enough. He didn’t want to talk about the set or listen to you tell him that you’d enjoyed it.” But people did enjoy it and the Trio were on their way up after recording two live albums, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. It was reportedly Bill and Scott’s rapport that made magic, their “opposite identicality” which bound the two together into what Bill thought would be an indefinitely “lasting partnership”.

But the partnership was cut short when Scott died unexpectedly in a car crash. Martell takes this particular period of Bill’s life and fashions it into an imaginative fictional account of a man’s plight to come to terms with loss. Already under the spell of heroin, Bill finds himself yielding more and more to the paregoric. Concerned about his brother, Harry takes Bill in to look after him. It is through his interaction with other people and their reactions to him that we learn of Bill’s fractured consciousness and the magnitude of his bereavement. Bill remains almost exclusively silent throughout the book, ever-present in the background but rendered mute by grief. He vanishes like a ghost from his brother’s apartment at night, disappearing into nocturnal drug-addled trysts around New York City. The only time he comes alive is in the company of his niece Debby, the “bounding, boundless” child who seems to dispel his demons. Martell juxtaposes Innocence and Experience, freedom and constrain,  in a similar way William Blake did in the pointed prophesies of his eponymous Songs, where he contrasts good with bad, concluding that one preordains the other. Martell uses this method throughout the book, when Harry, for example, envious of his “odd” and troubled brother’s budding relationship with his daughter packs him off to their retired parents in Florida, under the pretext of safeguarding his own family. “He persuaded himself by Monday morning, sleeping on it hard, that, for Debby’s sake, they could no longer have Bill in the house,” writes Martell of Harry, “He was too erratic and might only become more so.” Bill’s mother feels a similar anxiety and copes with it the only way she knows how, by infantilising her son who to her mind is a little boy lost and needs protecting.

Here, again, Martell pits virtue against vice when conveying a mother’s love toward her addict son to show how one is connected to the other. Martell writes poignantly of familial ties, of mother and son sitting on the sofa in a soft embrace and later of Mary watching him sleep unable to bed down for the night herself. “She wanted to take Bill out of the world, she thought,” Martell says of Mary as she sits by her son’s bedside, “That was her goal all along.  Out of localised hardships – Pennsylvania, New Jersey – and out of the greater patchwork too. Gifts and ingratitude, immodesty, all the capital crimes. To allow him access at least to a different world. One in which he wouldn’t be obliged to remake the imperfect cycle…Again Mary tried to see Bill through the dark and she reached out her hand now as though decided at last that she would touch him. She drew a long sustaining breath and held it. Bill had music.” It is in fact the music that the whole family is counting on to disperse Bill’s “sadness that won’t bear discussion, that won’t even bear recognition”. Even his father, who at first appears stoically taciturn, is terrified for his son’s future and hopeful that the music might came to the rescue. In a few very short chapters Martell manages to capture the whole history of the Evans’ family, their life prior to Florida, their early years in Plainfield, New Jersey, the brothers’ first band and the genius of Bill’s ensorcelled musical flourishes.

Intermission is a craftily formulated and written book, which traverses several genres – history, biography, fiction. It is also a haunting and maudlin work that dares to sideline and subordinate its subject – to achieve something quite novel – choosing to tell his story through the people around him. Bill looms over the narrative, but remains a spectre throughout; even in the last couple of chapters when Martell shifts his attention away from the family and on to the pianist. Back in New York, after two months away, Bill is suddenly struck by the realisation that he owes it to his “mother to not be unhappy…and to his father too” and to “the troubled look in his brother’s eyes and the togetherness of their youth”. Above all, however,  he knows he owes it to himself and yet he continues to wish he could keep the “world at bay for as as long as possible”. Nevertheless, Bill gets up and out of bed and by the onset of winter begins touring again, now “more or less operational” and back in the realm of the living.  Intermission is Martell’s first book in English, the rest of his work being in Welsh the language he grew up with in Pontneddfechan. Speaking about his decision to write in English, Martell said it had less to do with the pianist’s American origins and more with Evans himself. “I’ve wanted to write a book based in some way on Bill Evans’ story for a good many years now,” he explained in an interview recently, “The idea came from the music – a friend gave me a copy of Sunday at the Village Vanguard back in 2001. It was a thrilling thing to discover. As well as being improvisatory in large part there are structures there too. It’s a way of putting freedom and constraint to the test, playing one against the other, and figuring out, perhaps, that the distinction between the two is less meaningful than we imagine.”

This idea of duality, of being liberated and manacled, good and bad, and the line that falls in between is something that Martell ruminates on from the outset. Thinking about Scott and Bill in the first few chapters Harry chronicles their differences, which in the end was the thing that bound them. “Scotty handles his bass with implausible, almost arrogant ease,” Harry tells us, while for Bill playing was something that “troubled him – in the sense of movement inside, rather than affliction necessarily – the way he bent double over the piano, head almost touching the keys, fingers like willow stalks dragging along in the swell.”  Intermission is by no means a comprehensive account of Evans’ life, work or his legacy. It is, however, a skilfully constructed interpretation of a very dark period in Bill’s history, which shaped him both as a person and a musician. “I don’t think the book I ended up writing is a jazz book – in the sense that its rhythms aren’t jazz rhythms,” Martell says, “But having to make phrases and think about form is common to jazz, music in general, writing, everything, pretty much, and I’m happy to engage with that”. And he certainly does, through his deft manipulation of language and the way it communicates a sense of melancholy and ruefulness almost by itself, almost miraculously. Intermission is a captivating and evocative book, which compounds the mystique of Bill Evans, adding to his inviolable elusiveness which reverberates with Martell’s very own brand of music.

The Independent | Owen Martell 

Publisher: William Heinemann
Publication Date: January 2013
Paperback: 192 pages
ISBN: 9780434022045

Sheila Heti: Representing the feminist narrative with renewed resonance and verve

How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

How Should A Person Be? is a question that has no definitive answer, varying from one individual to the next. The only absolute is that one should always be oneself because “everyone else is already taken,” as Oscar Wilde observed some years ago. This is something Sheila Heti explores during the course of her book, which she spends trying to answer this pressing query. Written in semi fictionalised free-form, How Should A Person Be? comprises dialogue, monologue, meditation, reverie and playwriting elements into a loosely assembled whole.  A substantial part of it is based on Heti’s conversations with several of her friends, most notably an artist by the name of Margaux who has very admirably “never quit anything”. The narrator – also named Sheila – uses her personal experiences as a framework to explore modernist themes such as freedom, creativity, language, gender and the underlying impetuses that drive us. Heti’s work is defined by a very discernible feminist ethos both in her creative endeavours – a play about women – and her quest for self-actualisation by means of interaction with Margaux. “I felt like I was the tin man, the lion, and the scarecrow in one,” Sheila tells us thinking of her life before meeting Margaux, “I could not feel my heart, I had no courage, I could not use my brain.” This sentiment is later echoed in Sheila’s perception of her new friend, who in turn becomes the sum of all her aspirations. “I admired her courage, her heart, and her brain,” Sheila says, “I envied the freedom I suspected in her, and wanted to know it better, and become the same way too.”

The pair’s friendship begins in earnest when Sheila decides that Margaux may be the inspiration she needs to finish her play despite having reservations about female friendships. “Two women as alchemy I did not understand,” Sheila says contemplating the subject, “…ever since I was a teenager, I had been drawn to men exclusively, and they drew themselves to me – as lovers, as friends. They pursued me. It was simple. It was men I enjoyed talking to at parties, and whose opinions I was interested in hearing. It was men I wanted to grow close to and be influence by.” Somewhere mid-way through the book, after a dozen conversations with Margaux and a trip to Miami, Sheila realises that her sense of self-realisation has always been defined by men, especially men who “wanted to teach her something”. Among these is her new lover Israel, who wants to teach Sheila how to suck cock and fuck with complete abandon. And at one point Sheila finds herself completely immersed in the distraction – “the interlude” – which only drives her further away from her goal of self-discovery, her fledgling relationship with Margaux and most importantly from her playwriting. “I don’t know why all of you just sit in libraries when you could be fucked by Israel,” she says thinking about her new lover, “I don’t see why you’re getting so excited about, snuggling in with your book, you little bookworms, when instead Israel could be stuffing his cock into you and teaching you a lesson.” In the end, however, it is Sheila that teaches us a lesson by manumitting herself from the need to conform to what someone else thinks a person should be.

In many ways How Should A Person Be? is a nubile (twice removed and reworked) extension of Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. In Sheila’s case this realisation is reached when she ceases to see herself through the eyes of the men in her life – past and present. Yet despite her  attachment to the feminine, Sheila promotes an androgynous ideal of self-formation relaying her experiences through a traditionally male model of storytelling, belonging to the coming of age genre. Yet there are moments, when feeling lost, nullified and caught up in the search for love, creative freedom and oneself – all very unisex goals – Sheila speaks with a non-gender-specific ineligibility. “We are worse off than we were at the beginning,” she says thinking on humanity, “but this could have been predicted from our starting point. In the beginning the gods gave us liberty; in the end, we discovered cheating. Instead of developing the capacities within, we took two roads: the delusion and oblivion of drugs – which didn’t start off as cheating, but as access to the sublime…One is a reproduction of the human type – one sleeps like other humans, eats like other humans, loves like other humans, and is born and dies like other humans. We are gestures, but we less resemble an original painting than one unit of a hundred thousand copies of a book being sold. Now the gestures we chose are revealed as cheating. Instead of being, one appears to be.” This form of scepticism is very closely aligned with Immanuel Kant’s idea of transcendental reality, which Heti ruminates on briefly without much gravitas or depth.

There are several other moments in the book when one can very clearly see her academic credentials in philosophy, particularly when Sheila ponders subconscious impulses, the meaning of life and relationships. “…Love, which can’t be helped, slips into the death drive,” she says, “The death drive seeks comfort and knowledge of the future. It wants the final answer and is afraid of life…It hopes to drive you off your course like a car plunging into the center of the earth. It strives for love, annihilation, comfort and death. Now the future is clear! it cries. It wants to drag you down…It is death coming, masquerading as life, and blessed is the man who can see the death drive in the woman. Blessed is he who leaves in the morning without any promise of love. And blessed is the woman who can answer for herself, What about living? What is it about living that you want?” This is a question which Heti’s fictional self finds even harder to answer than her original probe, as she vacillates between wanting everything (fame, veneration, personal and professional fulfillment)  and nothing at all. Speaking about how Sheila’s yearning for celebrity materialised Heti said she was trying to identify and exaggerate similarities between herself and “those girls like Lindsay Lohan who were in the tabloids”. This experimental projection adds a somewhat contrived dimension to the book and leads to several very banal exchanges between Sheila and Margaux, most notable of which is over a dress. How Should A Person Be? could have done without it but Heti says she has always associated writing with performance and “if you understand yourself to be in relation to the people around you, and to the world around you, the audience for the performance expands”. An interesting point, but the performance in How Should A Person Be? expands a little too liberally, detracting from rather than enhancing the work.

Equally there are some very shrewd and interesting observations in the book like, for example, when speaking about modern day recreational pursuits Sheila says “the rule is: drink as much as you can afford to drink. We all, anyway, work better when we are drunk, or wake up the next morning, hungover. In either case, we lack the capacity to second-guess ourselves,” or when thinking about one of her past relationships she concludes that sadly “we don’t know the effects we have on each other, but we have them” or notes that “women apologise too much” and needlessly. Women and their relationships with men as well as each other is Heti’s strong point. Speaking about the subject in an interview she recently said: “I always thought marriage hurt female genius more than it helped.” This is a sentiment Sheila reiterates several times in the book, after leaving her husband, liberating herself from Israel and trying to find the courage to construct an identity on her own terms.  How Should A Person Be? is a novel from life which as the by-line suggests attempts to capture the immediacy of experiences and thoughts as they unfold.  And in a way Heti succeeds by employing a number of genres to convey the “benevolent operation of destiny in every moment” and a sense “of the inevitability of things” as they materialise, even if she sometimes does so at the cost of her prose which veers from inspired to jejune. How Should A Person Be? is Heti’s second book but a first in a much greater sense of the feminist narrative defined here by renewed resonance and verve.

Joyland Magazine | Sheila Heti

The Paris Review | Sheila Heti 

Publisher: Harvill Secker
Publication Date: January 2013
Hardback: 320 pages
ISBN: 9781846557545

Jenn Ashworth: A very gifted storyteller

The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth

The Friday Gospels is a book about a Mormon family awaiting the return of their son, Gary, from a pilgrimage to Salt Lake City, where he’s been studying as a missionary for two years. Although Mormonism is very much the cynosure of the story, The Friday Gospels is a book about family in a very universal sense. It is a carefully crafted work that deals with lost innocence, the burden of experience and the trials and tribulations that can sever and fortify familial bonds. The saga unfolds on the day of Gary’s return with every member of the Leeke household –  including the prodigal son – telling their own story, which gradually builds into a very resonantly ticking time bomb. Several chapters in and one is struck by how skillfully – convincingly – Jenn Ashworth formulates each character, giving them a distinctly unique personality and voice. Jeannie, the teenage daughter, for example, is shy, a little withdrawn but all heart. Gary is callow and very earnest and has a number of covert aspirations that have nothing to do with missionary work. Martin, the man of the house, is on the surface an uxorious husband but underneath feels downtrodden by the realities of family life. Pauline, the long suffering wife and mother, fits her role perfectly veering between an obdurate matriarch and a perpetual nurturer. And then there’s Julian, the tearaway eldest son, angry and unpredictable – a grave concern to the rest of the Leeke clan.

Julian is the common thread that weaves through every character’s narrative as their concern for his increasingly erratic behavior mounts, temporarily distracting them from their own personal troubles. “Julian had been being right weird,” Jeannie says at one point, “running up and down the stairs and making the house feel small with his shouting and moaning and moving things around in his bedroom.” Similar thoughts occur to Pauline who fears he might “start tearing down the house,” Martin who says Julian’s “not much to look at” among other things and Gary to whom Jeannie grumbles about the older brother, urging the younger one to come home. “Jeannie writes that he [Julian] is getting worse,” Gary tells us, “that he speaks like a robot, that a family from the Ward had complained to Dad about him looking into their windows. He’s going to do something, she says, he’s going to blow a gasket.”  Yet unbeknown to anyone Julian plans to get away before he blows, leaving his shitty job, his depraved boss and his neurotic family behind because, as he explains, a “person cannot be expected to live his life around the edges of an ash cloud”. While no one is aware of Julian’s intentions, they know that something is awry and feel it will be up to Gary to put it right. “Gary’s homecoming is going to be a real triumph for me personally,” Pauline says proudly, thinking on the subject, “and for our family generally.”

But she has no idea, neither about Jeannie and her ever-growing predicament nor Julian and his objectives toward a little girl called Angela, and certainly not about Gary’s sense of presiding inferiority or Martin, who has been in love with someone else for over three weeks. In fact, Pauline’s sense of awareness is completely subsumed by her physical ailments, her hysterical muliebrity and, as Martin puts it, her overwhelming “interest in the moral dimensions of carpets, paint, net curtains and tablecloths,” which has landed the family up to their “eyeballs in debt”. All these problems are compounded by secrecy, and the prevailing delusion among the Leekes that Gary’s homecoming will be their individual and collective salvation. And yet, ironically, it is Julian who comes to the rescue when the hypothetical bomb detonates. The Friday Gospels is an intricate examination of family, brilliantly conceived and executed by a wonderfully imaginative writer with a penchant for irony and an ear for dialogue. Having been brought up in a Mormon household Ashworth writes about the religion, its customs and traditions, with ostensible familiarity without prejudice (in either direction) and with a rare ability to interweave it seamlessly into the narrative. She allows her characters to rely on their faith and have doubts about it, to experience confusion about its practices and, in Julian’s case, to feel animosity toward its edicts and mandates. “If you are not breeding, shitting out four or six or even nine kids,” he rages after being accosted by two Elders, who suggest marriage might save him from sin, “then there is something wrong with you. You are sick, or deformed or gay.”

Ashworth manages to convey the finer points of Mormonism without preaching, rooting them into the story, rich in practical and spiritual examples, which debunk some stereotypes but also expose some of the myths integral to the faith. The struggle between good as defined by Latter-Day-Saints (LDS) and that by the rest of the world is something that is evident among all the characters, who waver in their beliefs and convictions intermittently through the book. This is a theme that Ashworth partially set out to explore. “My upbringing has influenced my fiction massively,” she recently said in an interview with the Guardian, “If I hadn’t been brought up LDS, I wouldn’t have ended up a writer. I am certain about that. The connection is something that’s hovered over me my whole life, and I am only just now getting to grips with it. My preoccupation with truth and reliability, unstable identities caused by slippery language, isolation, reading between the lines, mistranslation and misunderstandings are a very clear hangover from being told I was a member of the only true church in the entire world, restored on to the earth by some magical acts of translation and revelation, and led by a person who could not and would not lie. And then I found out that this was not so.” Ashworth is also keen to point out that there is no link between her own family and the Leekes except in a very general way, a way in which, she says, it shows “some of what can happen when you’re told the world is orderly and certain and then you discover that it isn’t”.

Ashworth has written a number of short stories and two other novels, A Kind of Intimacy (2009) and Cold Light (2012).  And yet despite her modest output, The Friday Gospels has the maturity one would expect from a seasoned writer, who is consistently inventive and original, her prose humorous, intelligent and moving without ever seeming laboured or strained. This is perhaps due to Ashworth’s experience as a Writing Fellow at the University of Manchester – where she studied for her own MA in creative writing in 2005 – her teaching position at the University of Central Lancashire and all the “standalone workshops” that she has done. But I suspect it is because she has a very authentic knack for storytelling, clever, inspired and resonating all in one. “I think I’m a very messy, instinctive writer” Ashworth says, “teaching forces me to theorise about what I do, and extract some observations (not rules) that I can pass on to others. Mainly though, I always say I teach close reading and editing; the writing they have to do on their own. I’m constantly impressed and humbled by the hard work, originality and sheer bloody-mindedness of my students. It’s heartening to be around people who are struggling to make their writing better, the same as I am.” And yet one would hardly know of Ashworth’s struggle reading her latest work, which is an accomplished tale about humanity at its best and its worst, relayed by a very gifted storyteller on the first rungs of a brilliant literary career.

Guardian | Jenn Ashworth 

Publisher: Sceptre
Publication Date: January 2013
Hardback: 336 pages
ISBN: 9781444707724

Nicholas Royle: Gripping, innovative and fluent

First Novel by Nicholas Royle

Nicholas Royle’s First Novel is a bit of a misnomer because in fact it is his seventh. The title, however, is integral to the book whose protagonist Paul Kinder is obsessed with literary debuts. This is something he shares with Royle who says he’s also “very interested in first novels”. And that’s not the only similarity between the two men. Royle like Kinder is a novelist and a lecturer, albeit a more successful one than his fictional counterpart. He has several novellas and six other novels to his name while Kinder is a one book wonder, striving to complete his second undertaking in between teaching, dogging, housebreaking, petty pilfering and uncovering a connection between his former wife Veronica, his neighbour Lewis and a man called Trevor. In truth, Kinder’s literary aspirations are secondary to the plot unlike his fascination with first novels, especially those that “have been lost or supressed or never followed up”. Kinder’s pathological interest in the subject is a projection of his own predicament, of his own failure to follow up his debut and his subsequent exploration of the psychologies of singular authors. “Why do we hear no more from these very talented writers,” he says to one of his students, “while others, far less talented, continue to write book after book after book?” It is a question that is never really answered, except to say “that first novels are important because it’s the first thing an author says about the world”. This notion is fundamental to the plot, which twists toward a startling and wholly unexpected revelation divulged by way of someone else’s first book.

Kinder is an idiosyncratic man. We know he’s idiosyncratic because he’s probably the only “Mancunian in his forties who doesn’t like the Smiths” and is into pyramids, straight lines and fucking to the sonic onslaught of a 747. He’s also quite a compelling man, whose inner thoughts and ruminations keep the reader intrigued throughout. Royle’s prose and his plot amuse and surprise, challenging the reader’s powers of anticipation at every other turn. The tone of First Novel is expertly set in the opening chapter, when in an impromptu bout of Luddite revolt Kinder dismantles a Kindle. “I pick up the waste-paper bin and return to my side of the desk,” he says having taken the device apart, “I hold the bin under the edge of the desk and use my other hand to sweep all the various part and pieces of the Kindle into it.” A Kindle doesn’t smell of anything, Kinder tells us, unlike its print equivalents, which contain within them infinite possibilities and just as many scents. Trampled grass, funfairs, futility, life are but to name a few. As the novel progresses we discover that Kinder is actually a bit of a shit and yet quite likable, despite his calculated womanising, passive but pervasive egotism and anti-social behaviour.  All of which has been exacerbated by the loss of his wife and two children, following revelations about his philandering.  There is little indication of just how acute Kinder’s separation anxiety from his family is until toward the end of the book, which given the conclusion perhaps demanded a little more focus on the subject all the way through. “I kept up appearance, but when I was alone I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I couldn’t read or write,” Kinder tells us with a sense of overwhelming defeat in regard to losing his twins, “There was a chance or so I believed at that stage, before the case reached the courts, that I’d get visitation rights. A good chance. But I felt that chance receding once the case began and Veronica’s lawyer, predictably, went to town on the dogging angle.”

There’s another story that runs in tandem with Kinder’s, that of a former RAF pilot turned poet called Ray and his son Nicholas. The stories appear completely unconnected until the last chapter, and while in theory the idea is brilliant in practice Ray’s tale just doesn’t grip the reader in the same way as Kinder’s. Royle’s technique and delivery is innovative and fluent, although occasionally inconsistent. It nevertheless puts his work into a category entirely its own. The book is written in episodic vignettes, which skip back and forth in time. “Everything is either or,” says Kinder at one point, “and inside each either or is another either or, like Russian dolls”. This is essentially the principal upon which First Novel operates, because there’s always something lurking beneath the surface of the narrative, something offering nebulous clues if one is discerning enough. In many ways, First Novel is a book about the chaos of modern day life, upon which, according to Henry Miller, “reality is written”.  This chaos is presented in First Novel through the overabundance of choices we face every day and the ensuing confusion that can lead our lives into disarray. “Sometime I will look at the taps on a wash basin,” Kinder says while contemplating this predicament, “even ones affixed with a blue or red spot, and I don’t know which one to turn. Like on and off. Televisions have become so complicated, having so many external devices. Standby, remote, on/off, hard switch off. Sometimes I don’t know whether it’s on or off. Life and death is another.”  In Kinder’s case, this confusion is also indicative of his general mental health, which is more unbalanced than idiosyncratic as we eventually learn.

“Nothing is beautiful. Nothing makes me feel anything,” he confesses candidly, “Everything either exists or it doesn’t. Everything either has a physical presence or it doesn’t. Everything – everyone – is either alive or dead. And that’s about all I can say.” It is at this point that the reader is alerted to the fact that Kinder may be undergoing some sort of existentialist crisis, which Royle builds up slowly, adding momentum, to the climax which reveals the second one of the two major twists. First Novel defies categorisation, albeit Vintage publisher Dan Franklin had a point when he said it was combination of “a murder mystery, a campus novel, [and] a meditation on identity”. All these elements are certainly present and blend together quite well into a unique book. The genre hoping is no surprise when one discovers Royle’s key literary influences are Derek Marlowe and M John Harrison, both of whom are known to “flit in and out of genres”. There are also other influences or perhaps unwitting likenesses, between Royle’s protagonist and others of his ilk. There is definitely something of Chris Duffy of Palace Pier by Keith Waterhouse, about Kinder in his fixation with the literary world and his personal lack of success, his diffidence and arrogance, substance and blatherskite. And there is undeniably something of Malcolm Bradbury’s Stuart Treece about him, especially when it comes to his commentary on campus life and all the bureaucratic hoops one is expected to jump through.

Reading First Novel, one also wonder about the similarities between Kinder and Royle, who teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, while working as an editor (Salt) and a publisher (Nightjar Press). One certainly  wonder whether some of Kinder’s views about the industry (“Few are interested in articles about untranslated foreign-language novels that are not set to become the latest publishing sensation,”) and his fiction (“It was overwritten, it was too weird, it was unlikely to gain a mass audience,”) may also belong to Royle. But it is difficult to say, at least without speaking to the author, and yet one thing’s for sure Royle is a writer’s writer. Unlike Kinder who wouldn’t recommend writing as a career to anyone, Royle spends a great deal of his time mentoring, whether through “editing anthologies or publishing stories with Nightjar Press, or novels at Salt or teaching creative writing, or even doing actual professional mentoring”. In fact, Royle says he loves it. “I find it exciting,” he explains, “and satisfying to work with people who I can see – and you do see it straight away, in the first paragraph, the first line sometimes – are really, really good, but maybe their talent has rough edges, their craft needs a little work, and all you have to do is encourage them and help them to see what works and what doesn’t.” This is undoubtedly the mark of a true teacher and more importantly a true writer, whose latest book is a great addition to his already large and varied oeuvre.

Negative Press | Nicholas Royle 

Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Publication Date: January 2013
Hardback: 304 pages
ISBN: 9780224096980

Eduardo Halfon: A gifted storyteller

The writer of The Polish Boxer is also its narrator or at least the two men share the same name, the same experiences and the same history. Are they in fact the same man? The reader is left to draw his own conclusions as Eduardo Halfon fuses reality and fiction, mystery and memoir into one. The Polish Boxer is divided into ten chapters, which read like individual stories told by the same narrator who spends much of his time traveling, discussing literature and contemplating his ancestral past. From the outset the reader is alerted to the fact that The Polish Boxer has a dual structure. “The visible narrative always hides a secret tale,” Halfon asserts in the opening paragraph. He later consolidates this notion when identifying the qualities of a great writer which, according to him, rest on the ability to use “language as a means of accessing a sublime, ephemeral metalanguage”. This is something Halfon does himself as he embarks on a journey to unravel the story of his grandfather while also telling his own. The narrator, a young Guatemalan literature professor with an identical background as Halfon, is jaded, disillusioned with his job and his students. Halfon’s weariness is briefly dispelled when he meets a budding undergraduate poet. Juan Kalel is a summation of Halfon’s own literary ambitions, a well of potential which the narrator immediately recognises and aims to nurture, but Kalel is forced to drop out of university to support his mother and his three sisters after his father’s sudden passing. The narrator goes to the boy’s hometown of Tecpán to return his notebook and to ask him to come back but Kalel is bound by duty, which must come before his studies, his art. Leaving the town, Halfon asserts that someone like Kalel could never abandon poetry “because poetry would never abandon him,” bringing the story to a lovely conclusion.

The eponymous chapter and two others centred exclusively on Halfon’s grandfather are by far the best of the lot. Halfon relays his grandfather’s story of surviving Auschwitz with a certain tenderness and a certain curiosity, a universal curiosity, which the writer bravely yields to. It took Halfon’s grandfather nearly 60 years to reveal to him the origin of the mysterious five digit number on his forearm. “It was in Auschwitz,” he told his grandson one evening. “At first I wasn’t sure I heard him,” writes Halfon, “I looked up. He was covering the number with his right hand. Drizzle poured against the roof tiles. This, he said rubbing his forearm gently. It was in Auschwitz, he said.” The chapter showcases Halfon’s prowess both as a writer and a storyteller. The startling images conveying the tragic events at Sachsenhausen concentration camp stick in the mind with uneasy, lingering, poignancy. The writer brings the story to an equally startling close“All I could imagine,” he writes , “was an endless line of individuals, all naked, all pale, all thin, all weeping or saying Kaddish in absolute silence, all devout believers in a religion whose faith is based on numbers, as they waited in line to be numbered themselves.” Elsewhere in the book, however, Halfon doesn’t do so well. Often, his descriptions and analogies jar as they do, for example, when he says his friend Milan Rakić has the look of a “well meaning vampire,” or observes that “the air smelled clean, naked,” or refers to a pair of eyes as “sky blue” or describes a particular word falling “like a dead dragonfly into a bowl of warm lentil soup”.   

Halfon excels as a writer when dealing with intangible, abstract, themes such as memory, desire and identity but errs again with relentless name dropping. Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway  Bob Dylan, Franz Kafka, Thelonious Monk, Lee Marvin, Andrei Tarkovsky, e.e cummings, Woody Allen, Fred Astaire, Federico Fellini, Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Liv Ullman, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Amedeo Modigliani all get a mention. This list is not exhaustive either.  The 192 page book is inundated with mentions of the great and the famous, to a gratuitous degree akin to boastful perorations about one’s intelligence. And there is little doubt that Halfon is intelligent, certainly in the way he deals with difficult and contentious subjects,  intrepidly confronting his own fears, prejudices and insecurities. “I couldn’t get far enough away from Judaism,” he confesses, “while Milan would never be close enough to the Gypsies.”  Halfon makes no secret of his apostasy, of his distaste for organised religion, of his distaste for Judaism in particular, the faith of his father and his “glass house world”. On the other hand, the writer is very clearly passionate about and fascinated by his immediate heritage. Guatemala is a place of wonder for Halfon, who pays homage to its rich and varied cultural traditions throughout the book. “Guatemala place names never cease to amaze me,” Halfon writes, for example, “They can be like gentle waterfalls, or beautiful cats purring, erotically, or itinerant jokes – it all depends…I suppose Guatemalan place names are the same as Guatemalans, when it comes down to it: a mix of delicate indigenous breezes and coarse Spanish phrases used by equally coarse conquistadors whose draconian imperialism is imposed in a ludicrous, brutal way.”

As the story progresses Halfon’s attention shifts from his grandfather to Milan, whom the writer travels to Belgrade to find after his postcards cease arriving. “I felt seduced, I guess,” Halfon tells his girlfriend Lía when she asks what had prompted him to go in search of the Gypsy pianist, “seduced by his music, seduced by his postcards, seduced by his story, seduced by the revolutionary tremors of his spirit, seduced by a smokey, erotic image…” Contemplating his experiences, Halfon concludes that there is always “more than one truth to everything”.  Life, love, literature. This point is further fortified when Halfon’s grandfather changes details of his survival story, reshaping his own memories, his own history and his grandson’s telling of it. “A story is nothing but a lie. An illusion,” Halfon writes early in the book, “And that illusion only works if we trust in it.” But sadly we no longer do; the writer shatters it in order to show literature’s chimerical nature, its artifice and casuistry. Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a sorcerer might perform,” Halfon writes toward the end of the book, “making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing. Or perhaps literature needs to construct one reality by destroying another – something that in a very intuitive sense my Grandfather knew – that is, by destroying and resurrecting itself from its own debris.” Halfon’s examination of perception and reality, fact and fiction, is interesting and interestingly approached, but if a story is in fact false does it make it less beautiful, moving or engrossing? On the whole, The Polish Boxer lacks cohesion. The three chapters dedicated to Halfon’s grandfather read like an independent story integrated between other independent stories, loosely bound together by a singular narrator and a handful of reoccurring references.

The Polish Boxer is Halfon’s first book in English, his ninth overall. It was originally conceived as a collection of stories and perhaps this is the reason why the chapters read like episodic shorts, each one varying in matter and subject yet linked to the next by seemingly arbitrary yet correlated elements: Guatemala, history, religion, identity, literature. The interconnection is made seamless by Halfon’s expert hand; it’s clear he is a seasoned writer and a gifted storyteller capable of producing vivid and beautiful prose. But sometimes his aesthetic and value decisions show lapses in judgement. As they do, for example, when Halfon assert that he cannot image anyone being able to resist falling in love with a woman “who had come back from vacation with her pubis shaved smooth” or when he says he associates “acts of power with sexual acts” and it may have “something to do with being Jewish”. But these are trivial grievances, and one can easily see why Halfon has recently been named one of the best young Latin American writers by the Hay Festival of Bogotá and was awarded the prestigious José María de Pereda Prize. He has also received the Guggenheim Fellowship to work on continuing The Polish Boxer, which is a great story and one that makes the reader feel as if he’s being “dragged along in the author’s wake,” through Guatemala, Belgrade and Auschwitz, through literature and history, through death and love, through life.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 192 pages
ISBN: 9781908968074

F. Scott Fitzgerald: A wondrous prosateur

In the roaring 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were for a time the golden couple of New York’s high society. Twenty years later, Fitzgerald was dead from a second heart attack while Zelda was in and out of mental institutions where she eventually died in a fire in 1948. Their slow but steady descent toward ruin was documented – as skilfully dramatised fiction – in several of Fitzgerald’s books all of which have recently been published in lavish paperbacks by Alma Classics. The Beautiful and the Damned (1920) was the first of Fitzgerald’s works to include a fictionalised portrait of Zelda as the volatile beauty Gloria Patch, wife to Fitzgerald’s Anthony Patch, a louche and sybaritic heir apparent. The story of man’s obsession with power, money and love was retold again and for the final time in Fitzgerald’s last completed work, Tender Is the Night (1934). The book relays the tale of Dick and Nicole Driver, their tempestuous marriage and gradual undoing. Fitzgerald was one of the most autobiographical and luculent writers with a wondrous binary proficiency to tell a story of a man and his times. A quality so rare yet organic his one-time friend Ernest Hemingway said it was “as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings”. Indeed, one cannot help but agree with Hemingway for there is something spellbinding about Fitzgerald’s prose; its decadence, its verisimilitude, its fatalism, which captured the dazzling milieu of the Jazz Age with masterly foresight and vision.

Unfortunately, Fitzgerald’s life paralleled the trajectory of his generation. It boomed in the hedonistic 20s – defined by a wave of liberated women and bootleg booze – and floundered with the advent of the Great Crash when both he and Zelda buckled under the pressures of excess and financial profligacy. Fitzgerald’s fiction echoed the national mood, his insight and personal experience formed the basis of all his work, reflecting the glamour and the strain of living the American Dream. Their story, an embodiment of the triumph and tragedy that afflicted their decade, began in 1918 when Fitzgerald was stationed at Camp Sheridan, Alabama, where he met 18 year old Zelda Sayre, youngest daughter of a wealthy Alabama Supreme Court judge. The couple quickly became engaged but due to Fitzgerald’s lowly financial prospects Zelda broke it off in 1919. In that same year, Fitzgerald began work on his first novel This Side of Paradise, the early prototype which was to set the precedent for all his later works. The book tells the story of a “sophisticated and quite charming – but delicate” young man by the name of Amory Blaine, his professional aspirations and romantic travails. While working on it, Fitzgerald also began a career as a prosateur for mass-circulation magazines. His moneymaking prospects were further improved by the publication of This Side of Paradise on 26th March 1920, which made the 24 year old Fitzgerald an overnight success. A mere week later, he and Zelda were married and swung full-force into a bustling life of parties, power-play and intrigue.

The realisation of Fitzgerald’s plan to get the girl, however, came at a price, which engendered in him “an abiding distrust” and “an animosity, towards the leisure class”. This enmity echoes stridently in all his works, particularly in the young, handsome and ostensibly successful male protagonists (Anthony Patch, Dick Driver) riddled with a financial and social sense of inferiority, which manifests itself most notably in relation to other mostly female characters. Zelda’s penchant for throwing Gatsbyesque parties, champagne and mink meant the couple were almost always broke, despite Fitzgerald writing profusely in between novels. But neither this nor the questionable start to their affinal life stopped the couple from creating their carefully crafted yet seemingly carefree public personas, which contributed greatly to their overall mythmaking. Both Zelda and Fitzgerald were highly conscious of their media image and kept scrapbooks of press cuttings detailing their professional and personal exploits. Almost from the start, following the success of This Side of Paradise the couple began their courtship with the national press, which they monopolised to up their popular appeal and keep their star ever present in the nation’s imagination. The Fitzgeralds were often featured in newspaper gossip columns as the happily married power-couple having a riotous time in their 27 bedroom mansion. In truth, by the early 1930s Fitzgerald was increasingly turning to alcohol to placate his personal insecurities while Zelda’s ditzy-Southern-belle act had become trite and taxing. The gradual collapse of their marriage and the emotional upheaval that preceded and followed is probably most discernible in Tender Is the Night, which seems to be one of Fitzgerald’s most divisive works. Praised for its literary prowess but condemned for its ostentatious show of overindulgence at the time of austerity and ration it received highly mixed reviews.

The book was conceived and written during a particularly grim period in Fitzgerald’s life, around Zelda’s breakdown and hospitalisation for schizophrenia in 1932. Dick and Nicole Diver 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 separation – seem more closely allied to that of the Fitzgeralds. At one point in the novel writing of Dick, Fitzgerald notes that he “had the power of arousing a fascinated and uncritical love” which he always returned with “carnivals of affection” yet upon which he looked back “as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal blood lust”. Fitzgerald writes of love here with exsanguinating fatalism and with an intimacy of knowledge which can only be forged through familiarity, through lived experience. The same acutely autobiographical aesthetic runs through The Beautiful and the Damned, which explores the dissolution of another couple, Anthony and Gloria Patch. Speaking of the fictional wife, also stricken with schizophrenia, Fitzgerald seems to be describing his own, a beautiful but merciless party girl who rebels with “incessant guerrilla warfare” against “organised dullness” . Zelda like Gloria was notorious for her contumacious behaviour such as riding on top of taxis, dancing on kitchen tables at the Waldorf and greeting guest from her bathtub.

There is a sad irony to their story, a story which Fitzgerald spent almost two decades writing about. He must have prevised the tragic end before it approached but if so he did nothing to stop it perhaps because by that point he was no longer able to distinguish between his life and his fiction, speaking of which he once confessed: “Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.” And yet before the blurring of the line and their subsequent troubles, their story was one of intense if deeply flawed love, which provided Fitzgerald with the necessary material for his greatest works. Writing of their relationship in response to criticism from Hemingway and other contemporariesFitzgerald retorted: “I fell in love with her courage, 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.” For her part, Zelda’s grandiose shows of affection and her devotion to him never wavered even if her loyalty did. There is little doubt that theirs was a passionate and enduring love, just as there is little doubt that their abject ends were precipitated by mutual proclivity for self-destruction, drinking and artistic rivalry. The capping crisis of their marriage was offset by Zelda’s novel Save Me the Waltz (1932), which used exactly the same autobiographical material as Fitzgerald was incorporating into Tender is the Night. Outraged by Zelda’s audacity Fitzgerald wrote to his publisher Max Perkins forbidding publication. Eventually, however, after stipulating a number of changes and cuts he allowed it to go ahead, which it did two years before his own complete final book. The great romance of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald has been dissected, disputed and debated many times over, with blame shifted onto one and the other, but perhaps in the end they were just two people in love who sadly couldn’t live either apart or together.

Publisher: Alma Classics 
Publication Date: September 2012
Paperback: 320 pages
ISBN: 9781847492593

Henri Barbusse: Revived the power of art to influence popular opinion

Henri Barbusse’s Hell – much like Jean Paul Sartre’s – consists of other people. Only Barbusse’s Hell is devised to show us that man’s desire for solitude cannot be reconciled with his desire to live to the utmost degree of fulfillment. Written in 1908, Hell is considered Barbusse’s first significant book and one most closely identified with neonaturalism, which later came to define his work. It wasn’t until 1916, however, that Barbusse gained critical acclaim with the publication of Under Fire, a novel comprising evocative first person vignettes about his experiences of World War I. Barbusse enlisted in the French Army in 1914, at the age of 41, and served in the war until the end. Much of his subsequent work consists of visceral and unsparing accounts of the carnage of trench warfare, which have earned him a reputation as the definitive voice of soldiers in combat. By taking an uncompromising look at both politics and conflict in his fiction, Barbusse revived the power of art to influence popular opinion, enter national debate and transform society, which he had unapologetically shocked eight years before with the publication of Hell.

The book – about a young bachelor, who moves into a lowly boarding house and inadvertently begins spying on his fellow boarders through a crack in the wall – sparked a scandal and was deemed a work of gratuitous voyeurism and moral aberration. The latter due to the fact that Barbusse’s anonymous Peeping Tom witnesses all manner of human behaviour contravening social conventions. Highly realistic and detailed in its portrayal, Hell is narrated by a rather average and “rather short” but “quite correctly dressed” man of 30, who speaking for the first time hastily asserts his theological proclivity, saying he believes “in many things,” but “above all, in the existence of God, if not in the dogmas of religion”.  As a believer, he declares himself to be a moral man, with an absolute “sense of good and evil,” who could not commit “an indelicacy even if certain of impunity”. Barbusse, very cleverly, fashions his protagonist as the everyman, honourable and decent and self-righteously affirmed in his belief until his belief is tested and found wanting. There is clearly a biblical element to Barbusse’s story of forbidden fruit and man’s subsequent downfall, which makes the appellation of the book all the more significant. But there is also another hell, which Barbusse is keen to illustrate, namely that of man’s perdurable yearning “for something infinite and something new,” and the tragedy of this on-going inner conflict.

After peering through the crack into the Room and discovering life in all its varying forms, Hell’s protagonist, who has led an unremarkable humdrum existence, is suddenly and unexpectedly stirred by inexplicable avarice. And thus he finds himself immodestly longing for glory, love and success; all this in spite of the fact that he has nothing to offer “no genius, no mission to fulfill, no great heart to bestow”. He laments his predicament, saying: “I thought I was wise and content with my lot [but]…I longed to take everything that was not mine…God, I was lost!  I prayed to Him to have pity on me.” But his God does not have pity. Nor does he intervene in the “frightful, regular crisis” strewn in man’s way or “preserve man from having to mourn the loss of all his dreams,” as the protagonist gradually discovers. Transfixed by life in the Room, he watches it unfold day by day, revealing the suffering and the struggle innate in the human condition. “Suffering,” Barbusse writes, “leads us to the heart of reality. It is an error to believe that we can be happy in perfect calm and clearness, as abstract as formula. We are made too much out of shadow and some form of suffering. If everything that hurt us were to be removed, what would remain? Happiness needs unhappiness. Joy goes in hand with sorrow.” This Jungian idea of cosmic equilibrium and the notion that sorrow is balanced out by joy, tears by laughter, death by birth,  constitutes a significant part of the narrative, illustrated skilfully through the changing scenarios taking place in the Room. And as the story progresses it also serves to eliminate the notion of a Divine being. The novel’s moment of peripeteia arrives when the protagonist, formerly a religious sort, having seen the whole spectrum of human experience comes to the realisation that “man is the only absolute thing in the world”.

In drawing this conclusion, Barbusse unveils “a frightfully difficult truth”. A truth he unwaveringly believed and later propagated in several other works, including The Judas of Jesus (1927), a portrayal of Christ as an early communist revolutionary. Barbusse joined the French Communist Party shortly after the war and became a leading figure in the campaign of French leftist intellectuals to combat fascism and improve workers’ rights. He later set up a literary journal by the name of Monde, which served as a vehicle for his ideas.  Much of his ensuing partisan writing was subjected to very harsh criticism, but for Barbusse there was no division between politics and art and the later served merely as a tool to achieve the aims of the former. Barbusse’s progressive social role for literature, however, was becoming increasingly incompatible with other newly emerging aesthetic attitudes, especially those about the place of political discourse in the creative sphere. And while he endeavoured to continue to write about the past in order to shape the outlook of the future, the likes of the Surrealists and the Dadaists sought to destroy it in order to begin anew.

Somewhere along the changing literary landscape Barbusse fell out of favour, mainly due to his astringent political activism and communist sentiments. In January 1918, he left France and moved to Moscow where he married, joined the Bolshevik Party and wrote a book about Stalin, for which he was objurgated along with his propagandistic activities on behalf of Soviet Russia. While writing a second biography of the Russian leader, Barbusse fell ill with pneumonia and died on 30th August 1935. All this long after the publication of Hell, a revealing first look at Barbusse’s fledgling social, religious and political dissidence. In the introduction to Hell, Edward J. O’Brien asserts that despite being a “tragic book” it demonstrates its writer’s hope and belief in the future. I’m not sure about Barbusse’s belief in the future but I would argue that Hell is a triumphant rather than tragic book, which reads like a bold rejection of philosophia Christiana and a homage to secularism, daringly rendering God obsolete. “We are divinely alone,” Barbusse declares toward the end, “the heavens have fallen on our heads…And God Himself, who is all these kinds of heavens in one, has fallen on our heads like thunder, and His infinity is ours,” and thus we hold “the place that God used to occupy” sure in the knowledge “that there is no paradise” and “there is no hell, no inferno except the frenzy of living”. 

Publisher: OneSuch Press
Publication Date: September 2011
Paperback: 136 pages
ISBN: 9780987153289

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