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Charles Nicholl: Dazzling the reader with his prose and infectious curiosity

Traces Remain by Charles Nicholl

“I have always found the details of history more interesting,” writes Charles Nicholl in the preface to his new collection of essays, “or anyway more evocative, than the larger perspectives of History.” And this is precisely what Nicholl explores in Traces Remain – the overlooked and forgotten fragments and people that have failed to make it into the textbooks. The 25 essays gathered here originally appeared in a number of literary publications and were guided, according to the writer, by the general principal of “poking around,” libraries and archives “re-examining existing evidence and then trying to ask new questions about it,” sometimes “prospecting”. Despite his seemingly casual air Nicholl is meticulous in his research, taking on the role of a painstakingly assiduous detective as he trawls through the decades, searching for clues to untold mysteries. One of these is the legend of Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett, an intrepid Amazonian explorer described as a “man in hand-to-hand combat with the wilderness,” who disappeared over 80 years ago. Fawcett was accompanied on the doomed expedition by his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell. His last dispatch was dated 25th May 1925 and was sent from Dead Horse Camp, exactly what happened to the three men after that has never been established although some answers have been provided by the subsequent rescue missions. The first and most famous of these was led by Commander George Miller Dyott in 1928, who learned that Fawcett had “played his ukulele for some Xingu Indians a few days before vanishing in the Mato Grosso jungle” and was most likely massacred by the Nahukwa tribe, who in turn blamed the notoriously fierce rival group Saya. “Despite the staring-eyed fantasies of his later years,” writes Nicholl, “he [Fawcett] was in many ways an admirable Englishman, austere, laconic, honourable, and incredibly tough, playing with a straight bat on some of the stickiest wickets the planet could provide.”

Strange and curious personages like Fawcett feature throughout this fascinating book. Among them is a poet by the name of Thomas Coryate, once the “butt for courtly wits and poets like John Donne and Ben Jonson,” he was also a “courageous traveller,” who in 1608 covered 1,975 miles in just over five months and visited 45 cities around Europe. Coryate wrote a book about his voyages called Crudities – loosely alluding to “raw experience” – which managed to make waves alongside such literary triumphs as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist – on stage at the time. Then there’s an English pseudoscientist, clairvoyant and con-man by the name of Edward Kelly, who fooled Bohemian royalty with his  “esoteric flannel,” and later died in suspicious circumstances most likely at the orders of Emperor Rudolph II. “The usual telling of the story is that Rudolph ceased to believe in him,” says Nicholl, “Kelly’s promises, particularly with regard to heaps of transmuted gold pouring into the treasury, had proved empty.”  Kelly’s story is surpassed only by that of another con-man, adventurer, French scribbler, one time heavy-weight boxer and nephew to Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance, Arthur Cravan. He was briefly married to avant-garde poet Mina Loy who had his child and outlived him by several decades. When asked toward the end of her life what had been her happiest instances Loy said: “Every moment spent with Arthur Cravan. ‘And the unhappiest?’ The rest of the time.” He is thought to have drowned off the coast of Mexico around 1918, although according to the most recent theory, Nicholl says, Cravan reinvented himself as the no less mysterious author B. Traven, who went on to write several hard-bitten Mexico based novels.

Along with the mysterious fates of the aforementioned men, Traces Remain includes two murders cases, two discoveries of unmarked graves, one missing Shakespeare play and one very enigmatic portrait recently found in Herefordshire. The latter is a work of art believed to have been painted by Frederick Hurlstone, its subject may or may not be Lord Byron in the guise of one of his own fictional heroes called Manfred. Yet, as Nicholl explains, despite numerous authentications the sitter and artist cannot be conclusively verified. “Does it look like Byron?” he says, speaking of the portrait after seeing photographs of it, “To answer this, one has to ask another question: what did Byron look like? Byron’s appearance changed all the time – because different artists saw him differently and because he was a great believer in diets and regimes, and his weight fluctuated by as much as four stone. Various portraits show around Byrons and thin Byrons, Byron’s with moustache, with mutton-chop whiskers, in costume, in uniform, in Greek helmet, in his dressing gown and so on.” In fact, there are over 40 portraits of the Romantic poet and albeit this latest one cannot be authenticated,  Nicholl says, “the sad-looking man in the fur hat deserves further investigation”. This kind of uncertainly –  a theme throughout the book  –  is one of its pitfalls and in a general sense the trouble with writing about historical marginalia.

Many of the tales within the collection are about the obscure who crossed paths with those that made history. One of them is of a woman for whom William Hazlitt divorced his wife and wrote “with alarming frankness,” as Nicholl puts it, Liber Amoris. The thinly disguised fictional account of Hazlitt’s love bares no resemblance to any other of the writer’s works, and was once considered a thing of great embarrassment. It also caused a bit of a scandal despite being published anonymously, and while Hazlitt managed to recover from it almost instantly being a bullish “spiky” and “self-absorbed” man that he was, Sarah Walker’s reputation as a “dowdy trollop” and “one man’s amour fou”  prevailed. The turn of her fate is difficult to trace, says Nicholl, but all evidence indicates that Hazlitt’s love was unrequited and that Walker went on to marry and have a son. It is most likely she died of “old age” perhaps, the writer speculates, thinking of those “distant days of her youth, and that strange, hectic man who loved her so passionately, and wanted to marry her, and ended up marking her life and her name with the taint of scandal that would never quite go away”. Nicholl goes from subject to subject with ease and authority, from talking about interpersonal relationships between English poets and European dignitaries to Leonardo Da Vinci’s relationship with his art, which is explored  here through the painter’s Milanese notebooks. Unbeknown to many, Nicholl says, Da Vinci was also a keen writer or rather a “writer-down of things: a recorder of observations, a pursuer of data, an explorer of thoughts, an inscriber of lists and memoranda”.

In describing the famous Italian artist, Nicholl also succeeds in describing something of himself for he is very much a modern day polymath – a historian, a scholar, a travel writer and a sleuth looking for greatness in the neglected and the ordinary. Speaking on the subject to the Guardian, Nicholl recently said that he has always aimed to present in his work the “the realities of life as it was lived by that person” with a sense of complete authenticity. “There’s one world that you know these people very well from,” he explained, “so let’s have a look at the other one, at the other, dark side of the moon, as it were: Marlowe as spy, Rimbaud as traveller or explorer and gun-runner, Shakespeare as lodger rather than great playwright.” It is this desire to construct a comprehensive picture of someone that makes Traces Remain  such a consummately engrossing read, full of thrilling details, shady characters, legends and mysteries from all four corners of the world. Much of which Nicholl has travelled himself, after being given tickets to Martinique as part of the prize for the Daily Telegraph Young Writer of the Year award which he won in 1972. He has since travelled most of the globe, Europe, South America, parts of the Middle East. One of the essays in the book is about the quest to find Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, the beautiful and rich “capital of memory,” as described in the eponymous Quartet. “Only fragments remain of Classical Alexandria,” Nicholl tells us sadly, “but its more recent past can be savoured just by wondering aimlessly through the streets, past shabby villas and Rococo facades and dusty brick-a-brac shops. The city seems like an aging dandy fallen on hard times.” Every essay in the collections has something interesting, worthwhile and amusing to impart, whether it be about a person, an artifact or a city. Nicholl is a man who makes history come alive, dazzling the reader with his prose and his infectious curiosity.

Guardian | Charles Nicholl

Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: December 2012
Paperback: 336 pages
ISBN: 9780140296822

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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

“The lights must never go out/The music must always play.”

Christer Strömholm

Here’s hoping the lights never go out and the music always plays in 2013!

Happy New Year!

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

Favourite Reads – 2012

Favourite Reads 2012

Allen Ginsberg by Steve Finbow

Finbow is a resolutely straight-shooting biographer who treats his subject with complete candour, examining Ginsberg’s neuroses, his guilt over his mad mother, his suicidal tendencies, his petty jealousies and sexual perversities in relation to his work and how it shaped him as a poet. The biographer draws on secondary sources and first-hand knowledge with great proficiency and skill in order to evaluate Ginsberg’s place in American letters and beyond.

Reaktion Books  | 239 pages| £10.95

Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant

Maupassant explores the dynamics of urban society through its relationship with politics and the press, power and sex. This book is a conscientiously observed and rendered tale of intrigue, liberated women and old-fashioned men, love, loyalty and social climbing. Written in the 1880s, the book records the social milieu of bourgeois capitalism under La Troisième République, mirroring the reality of its day in this sprightly and compelling tale.

Penguin Classics | 416 pages | £9.99

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

A uniquely relayed story of love, abandonment, pain and triumph of the will. Smart conveys the multifarious graduations of emotion with a sentience rarely matched, but she also has a tendency to fluctuate between disclosing too much and too little, between superbly lyrical prose and overlaboured writing, between aesthetic excellence and a propensity for the melodramatic. Overall, however, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is superb.

Flamingo | 112 pages | £5.59

Hell by Henri Barbusse

A semi-philosophical study of the human condition devised to show us that man’s desire for solitude cannot be reconciled with his desire to live to the utmost degree of fulfilment. A tragic book in many ways but also a triumphant one, which reads like a bold rejection of philosophia Christiana and a homage to secularism, daringly rendering God obsolete.

OneSuch Press | 136 pages | £7.95

John Berger by Andy Merrifield

This wonderful critical study contains an array of insights about Berger the man, the artist, the “concerned citizen” and the “uneasy rider” aboard his Honda Blackbird. Merrifield documents the trajectory of Berger’s professional life with expertise, showing how the modernist novelist, who had given the English novel an art-house Continental twist, has evolved into a craftsman storyteller. In doing so, the biographer conjoins different aspects of Berger together, demystifying the seeming disparities and deriving new meaning from his art, his life and his politics.

Reaktion Books  | 224 pages | £10.95

Museum Without Walls by Jonathan Meades

There really are no walls to Jonathan Meades’ Museum as this book contains everything from seventeenth century literary dicta to the demerits of the Theory of the Value of Ruins. Meades’ spellbinding enthusiasm, his acuity and his crafty prose in writing about social, political and religious issues – which he contemplates with wit and gravitas – are surpassed only by his uncompromising candour, which also extends to his personal life.

Unbound | 352 pages | £20

The Lowlife by Alexander Baron

A compelling and moving book full of optimism where one might see none, relayed in a precise and engaging narrative driven by a rogue but very likable protagonist, who despite his trials, troubles and tribulations aims to see the good in all things. Baron’s extraordinary eye for period detail and his astute observational abilities, combined with his ostensible penchant for storytelling, make The Lowlife a highly enjoyable read.

Black Spring Press | 192 pages | £9.99

The Richard Burton Diaries edited by Chris Williams

The Diaries offer a very candid look at Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s volatile married and professional lives; their travels, interests, passions and temperaments. The collection spanning from 1939 to 1983 comprises frank and spirited accounts of Burton’s carousing, his ambivalent feelings toward his own talent, his caustic impressions of the film industry and its personalities, his role as a doting father, his scholarly appetite for learning and avid interest in literature.

Yale Books  | 704 pages | £25

The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet

A murder mystery with a seemingly straightforward plot, which is anything but straightforward. Robbe-Grillet spent his career experimenting with themes of repressed memory and nebulous identity, the ambiguous complexity of space and time and the intricate nature of truth. The Voyeur is an early example of his style and the erratic chronology, mystic symbolism, incantatory narrative, rounded repetitions and stylised deconstructions of plot that later came to define it. It is a truly new vision of the novel, depicting a familiar yet numinous universe, where a man by the name of Mathias may or may not be implicated in a murder.

Alma Classics | 178 pages| £7.99

White Noise by Don DeLillo

White Noise is a valiant and veracious postmodernist depiction of “human dread” as well as of the horrors and ecstasies of life. DeLillo captures the state of modern family, the society of the spectacle and the notion of the future as the here-and-now with considerable deft. Not only that, he manages to create a neoteric social satire, funny, plangent, absurd, terrifying and skilfully evocative of modern-day life and all its ecstasies and encumbrances.

Picador | 400 pages| £7.99

Seminal Lines

Photograph by Robert Frank

“In love there are no vacations. No such thing. Love has to be lived fully with its boredom and all that.”

On Love – Marguerite Duras

Robert Bird: A diligent and enthusiastic biographer

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Robert Bird

Fyodor Dostoevsky was an enigmatic man. Sigmund Freud, for example, writes Robert Bird in his book on the famous Russian discovered “four distinct faces for Dostoevsky, the creative artist, the neurotic, the moralist and the sinner”. All of these are carefully examined in Bird’s critical study, which suggests that Dostoevsky’s multi-layered image presented the writer himself with certain “mysteries”. As his fame grew Dostoevsky would frequently decline to pose for photographs deeming it an infringement upon one’s person, believing that the physiological was inseparable from the spiritual self. In his case, however, there was a great dichotomy between the two. Bird quotes a number of descriptions of the writer to illustrate the ostensible discord between his physical appearance and his personality, his “intellectual authority” and his “unappealing exterior”. “A little man, skinny, grey fair hair, the colour of his face and of everything was grey,” wrote one observer in 1880, “he read and everyone listened, holding their breath. He began quietly and ended as a prophet.”  Another account of Dostoevsky is provided by Varvara Timofeeva, an editor with whom he worked on the Writer’s Diary. His “was not a kind or evil face,” she wrote in 1873, “it somehow simultaneously attracted and repelled, frightened and captivated”. Bird suggests it is for this reason, among others, this puzzling duality of the corporeal and the spiritual, which also came to define Dostoevsky’s works, that our interest in him has never dwindled and is showing no sign of doing so.

Dostoevsky rose from humble beginnings, although occasionally he liked to suggests otherwise. His father worked in a hospital for the poor and money was always a source of worry, even later on in Dostoevsky’s life when he had achieved considerable success.  “From early on,” explains Bird, “ Dostoevsky’s financial problems were exacerbated by this wholehearted immersion in the imaginary realms opened up by poetry, drama and fiction.” Experiences of monetary hardships infiltrated his fiction from as early as Poor Folk, The Double and White Nights all of which lament, as Bird points out, “the disfigurement of society and the individual psyche under the pressures of modern life,” defined by “forces that constrain human freedom, both exterior forces such as money and power and interior ones like illness and sexual desire”. Bird unveils Dostoevsky as a formidable social commentator, whose works were infused with popular philosophical and ideological ideas akin to those of Karl Marx. “As different as their analyses and solutions were,” writes Bird, “both Dostoevsky and Marx sought to identify the iron fences of necessity in order to establish the conditions of new freedom.” In his own way Dostoevsky sought to form these conditions with every single one of his books, two journals, Vremya and Epokha, and continuous calls for artistic liberty, which saw him arrested for sedition and sent to the Semipalatinsk labour camp. Dostoevsky later described those four years in Siberia as deadening as being “buried alive and enclosed in a coffin”. But Bird notes that surviving documents paint a picture of Dostoevsky as a brave and courageous “man trying to stay true to his artistic vocation in the face of crushing physical and psychological blows”.

Bird is very diligent in chronicling how each period of Dostoevsky’s life shaped his fiction. After leaving the camp, for example, Dostoevsky began “remaking himself as a writer” and resolved to set up house and raise a family. In 1857, he met and married a widow by the name of Maria Dmitrievna Isayeva. “Family, patriotism, religion,” writes Bird about this time in Dostoevsky’s life, “all three elements of this essentially conservative mind-set issue directly from the artist’s attempt to compose a new image for a new time.”  To keep this momentum going Dostoevsky launched the first of his two literary journals, Vremya, with his brother Mikhail, which showcased a “nascent ideology for national unity”. And for a while the future of literature and society seemed to rest with “his talented, socially committed pen,” which deemed it imperative for Russia to find its own place in the world, away from the Western Tradition. “Our task is to create for ourselves a new form, our own, native to us,” Dostoevsky wrote at the time, “taken from our own soil, taken from the national spirit and from national principles.”  This notion would also apply to the writer himself, who in 1861 resumed writing Dead House, a fictionalised account of prison life in a form of “notes” consisting of disconnected and fitful narratives, rich in dominant ideological standpoints. In order to proceed with Dead House, Dostoevsky had to invent a new literary form because his vision, Bird explains, “refused to submit to conventional means of literary representation”. Dead House was an artistic turning point for the writer just as Crime and Punishment would later elevate his “name to a wholly new status”.  But this was also a troubled time for Dostoevsky, who found himself in a dire emotional and financial position following his wife’s death and the folding of both his literary journals. It prompted Dostoevsky to refer to himself as “a literary proletariat,”  perpetually toiling away with little  to show for it.

Dostoevsky’s lack of control over his gambling and his estate haunted him until the end. It was in part due to his impractical nature and his inability to abnegate the vices of the flesh despite his Christianity, which was a dominating element in his personal and professional life. While travelling around Europe, for example, Dostoevsky became fascinated with religious art, deeming the famous Sistine Madonna “the greatest revelation of the human spirit”. The painting was later obsessively mentioned in all of Dostoevsky’s mature novels, except one (The Brothers Karamazov). But even in his early works of the 1860s, the religious element was at the forefront of the writer’s mind as he set out to “create a Christian literature”  in his own unique way. “Christianity infuses his work as a gesture,” Bird explains, “changing the quality of his images by setting them against an infinite horizon. The crucial decision was to stop projecting ideas onto fictional forms and to allow both form and idea to emerge viscerally from his raw experience”. Bird illustrates this point throughout the book with learned enthusiasm, occasionally too academic and scholastic in tone.  But this is no surprise as Bird’s main area of interest is the aesthetic practice and theory of Russian modernism, whose spectres loom over the otherwise very well balanced book, which conscientiously appraises all of Dostoevsky’s faces.

“The Idiot,”  Bird writes mid way through the book, “is a novel that reveals most about Dostoevsky’s inner life, his experience as an epileptic and his dreams of (and for) the world.” One can clearly see elements of Myshkin in Dostoevsky, who fought a lifelong battle between flesh and spirit, between intellect and labour. The book was written abroad, with Dostoevsky pinning for Russia, gambling himself into destitution and feeling increasingly ill  due to his epilepsy. He was by that point married to his second wife, Anna Grigoryevna, with whom he had a daughter that died before Dostoevsky finished the book. This state of mind inevitably shaped the tortured and on occasion torturous work. In the book, explains Bird, Dostoevsky hoped to portray a “positively beautiful individual,” resembling the spirit of the Sistine Madonna, a man endowed with all the qualities that Dostoevsky considered godly: love, humanity, faith. All the qualities he wished in himself, but felt he struggled to find. “You think I’m one of those people who save hearts, resolve souls and dispel grief?” Dostoevsky asked in reply to a  fan’s letter, “Many write such things to me but I know for sure that I am more capable of inciting disappointment and disgust.” It would be easy to assume that this earnestness was part of some perverse affectation, but it is more likely that Dostoevsky genuinely believed himself more capable of the latter than the former. “Even in his final repose,” Bird says, “Dostoevsky was unable to maintain the solemn dignity he so craved.” His funeral was a large scale public spectacle, almost farcical in scope and grandeur. “A student records,”  Bird cites, “that one passer-by asked who was being buried with such pomp: he was given the puzzling answer: A convict.” A sinner. A neurotic. A moralist. But a creative artist, above all.

Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: March 2012
Paperback: 240 pages
ISBN: 9781861899002

Seminal Lines

Photograph by Elliott Erwitt

“Two separate beings, in different circumstances, face to face in freedom and seeking justification of their existence through one another, will always live an adventure full of risk and promise.”

The Second Sex ― Simone de Beauvoir

Charlie Campbell: Keeps the reader amused, informed and regaled

“This is essentially a book about stupidity,” Charlie Campbell writes in the introduction to Scapegoat, his book about the cultural history of blame. In the book, Campbell explores a particular kind of human stupidity, the kind “that hits us after disaster, when we single out one person for blame, and hold them responsible for everything”. This practice, Campbell says, extends to almost everything from world-changing disasters to personal failures, the one thing that doesn’t vary is our need find someone or something to blame. “Marx blamed the capitalist system,” writes Campbell, “Dawkins religion. And Freud thought it all came down to sex. Larkin blamed our parents, Akins the potato and Mohamed Al-Fayed still says it’s all Prince Philips fault.” The subject of Campbell’s book could very easily grow wearisome, but the writer is impressively erudite and tells many an interesting story with flair and enthusiasm, which lends itself immediately to the reader. Campbell’s consideration of scapegoating commences with the word’s derivation (coined by William Tyndale in his 1530 translation of the bible to describe a Jewish Day of Atonement ritual, which included the sacrificing of two goats) and concludes with one of the most hapless instances of the practice in history (an innocent man convicted and hanged for the Great Fire of London), with numerous riveting facts and anecdotes along the way.

One might wonder about the importance of the subject, but in fact as Campbell points out, “the ritual of scapegoat goes back right to the beginning of mankind”. It is also something that has bound different cultures and religious denominations throughout the ages; this idea that “sin was a definitive entity that could be transferred from being to being or object and that wrongdoing could be washed away”. Campbell goes on to illustrate this point by citing similar absolution rituals from various beliefs systems  and societies, and shows how over time the animal scapegoat came to be replaced by a human one, which makes for very interesting reading. The book contains a chapter on animal prosecutions, which Campbell points out is one of the instances when human stupidity excels itself. The writer gives some hair-raising examples of animals being put on trial for such crimes as homicide and sorcery. “In Falaise, Normandy, in 1386 a sow was charged with killing and infant… ” writes Campbell, “In Bale in 1474 an old cock was put in the dock, accused of laying an egg…[and]…There was a case in 1478 in Switzerland involving an insect known as inger, which was devastating the local crop. ” For a time this practice also applied to inanimate objects. Indeed.

In order to understand our need to always find a culprit, Campbell looks to the nature of man “essentially a meaning seeking creature” incapable of accepting the fact that “much of life is inexplicable”.He goes on to show  how we use “myth, art and religion” to try and makes sense of seemingly arbitrary events . “Through them,” he writes, “we tell stories to dispel this frightening notion that the universe is a violent and senseless place where anything can and will happen to us. We listen most carefully to those who tell us that this isn’t actually the case, to those who can offer and explanation. And this all too often turns into blame. Blame tells the most comforting story, one in which there is a villain who seeks to thwart us, the heroes, at every turn.” Our need for explanation is thus directly connected to our fear of the unknown. This fear has been written about for decades, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s narrator in Demons, for example, described it as “the gravest, most tortuous fear of something I cannot define, something unknowable and absent from the order of things”. This was also the topic Friedrich Nietzsche gave some consideration to in Twilight of the Idols. “To trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating,” he wrote, “soothing, gratifying and gives moreover a feeling of power. Danger, disquiet, anxiety attend the unknown – the first instinct is to eliminate these distressing states. First principle: any explanation is better than none.”  This “cause-creating drive,” as Nietzsche referred to it, “conditioned and excited by the feeling of fear” is something that Campbell traces back through history to show how it has led man to find solace in the scapegoat, a usually innocent thing or person “demonised to justify persecution” and to bestow on the act an “illusion of rationality”.

But of course there is nothing rational about it, certainly not the different prototypes of scapegoat. Campbell identifies the following: literal, religious, communist, financial, sexual and medical, all of which have their own purposes and causes. The Christian scapegoat, for example, says Campbell, serves to rationalise evil and “to account for the terrible things that happen in the world”. This is because the religious establishment cannot otherwise justify their putatively omnipotent deity’s failure to safeguard humanity from tragedy and misfortune. The devil is therefore identified as the responsible offender, but this is a rather flawed philosophy because “if we cannot accept the idea that there is evil in our God, there is a danger that we will not be able to endure it in ourselves”. The Communist scapegoat, however, surpasses even the religious one. “Totalitarian regimes moved it up a gear,” writes Campbell, “the self-styled perfect form of government could not be seen to brook any form of failure and so it appointed blame with extraordinary ferocity. They used propaganda to create and enemy, demonising them…creating the idea of this shadowy force responsible for every mishap.” But the worst of these is the Sexual scapegoat; an appellation ascribed to women who were believed to be witches and the trials of whom, Campbell says, serve as “the most spectacular and disturbing examples of blame being misdirected onto the vulnerable,”  tens of thousands of whom were burned, hanged and drowned in Europe in the Middle Ages.

The writer of this slight but comprehensive book has certainly done his research. Every chapter and idea is carefully consider and conveyed, with great historical, social and cultural insight. Campbell skilfully carries the subject from past to present day, where scapegoating seems to be flourishing more than ever because “we are faced with more choice than before” thus “we have a greater number of things to blame”. This notion that evil forces conspire against us has always been a popular one but never more so than in the age of internet and conspiracy theory. And let’s not forget that “every conspiracy theory has a victim”. Campbell chooses one of the most disheartening examples of victimisation in history to show the scapegoating practice at its worst. In 1870, a young French army officer by the name of Alfred Dreyfus was suspected of spying for the Germans. The accusations were based on conjecture but Dreyfus was imprisoned, tortured, his name smeared, largely due to his “Jewishness and family wealth” . Eventually, Dreyfus was cleared of the charges but even after being released from prison he remained a popular figure of blame and died a very unhappy man, after a very unhappy life.  Scapegoat is a marvellous little book written by a fine raconteur, who keeps the reader amused, informed and regaled throughout.

Publisher: Duckworth 
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 208 pages
ISBN: 9780715643785

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

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