Archive for category Literature
Once again I have been denied the chance to share with the readership of the quality newspapers my pick of this year’s reading. Ah well, the discerning audience that appreciates my blog will, I am sure, be grateful that I share it with them instead. You’re so very welcome.
Because my default response to a challenge (unless it involves serious physical activity) is ‘challenge accepted’, I aimed to read 80 books this year (as set by Penguin Books for some reason). That’s 80 properly read, cover to cover or the electronic equivalent, not mined for relevant info for the PhD. Of course I exceeded this arbitrary target, and enjoyed doing so. I’ve picked out some of the books that meant the most to me in 2015.
The Bear Comes Home – Ravi Zabor. Hard to explain this book – it sounds bonkers and indeed it is, but gloriously so, and it is some of the best writing about music I’ve come across, so vivid that, as Annie Proulx, who was on the panel of judges that gave it the PEN/Faulkner award said, ”Rafi Zabor somehow makes the reader hear music”. Yes, there is a bear. He plays alto sax. That’s all I can say really – as one of Zabor’s editors said, ‘you have to read it to get it’.
The City and the City – China Mieville. I should have read Mieville earlier, but having loved this one, I am looking forward to Perdido Street Station. It’s a detective novel, but with a kind of sci-fi premise, which I won’t explain in case anyone hasn’t read it and would like to. It’s a fiercely intelligent novel which works brilliantly as crime fiction as well as sci fi.
Two novels dealing with Alzheimer’s gripped, in different ways. Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is a tour de force by a young debut novelist, with a protagonist who is in the grip of dementia and gradually losing touch with the world around her. Because of her condition, her conviction that her friend Elizabeth is missing is dismissed by everyone – meanwhile another mystery from much longer ago keeps on surfacing and demanding answers. We see things from Maud’s perspective, so we share her confusion. This is quite exceptionally skilled writing. Elizabeth… manages to be funny, without one ever laughing at Maud’s confusion and muddle, because even without a functioning memory, she is a fully rounded character with a sometimes acerbic and sometimes bizarre take on people and events. Lisa Genova’s Still Alice was a heart-breaking read – again our perspective is that of the person with dementia although in this case when we first hear Alice’s voice she is still very much herself, before the first ambiguous signs of the disease occur. Whereas in Healey’s novel the dementia is context and sub-text, here it is the text itself, the narrative following the process of the disease as it robs Alice of so much more than her memory.
Memory was a theme too in Linda Buckley-Archer’s The Many Lives of John Stone. Again, it would be unfair to give too much away – it’s beautifully written, interweaving a vivid historical narrative with the present day. There’s no time travel, or supernatural/paranormal elements – as with some of the other novels I’ve picked out, it just uses a hypothetical genetic characteristic as the basis for the plot. It’s engaging, gripping and ultimately very moving.
Emma Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, about Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s time in Suffolk during WWI (reminiscent of Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness, about D H Lawrence in Cornwall)
Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, a hugely ambitious historical novel with an utterly compelling central character, 19th century botanist Alma Whittaker. It’s completely absorbing.
Owen Sheers’ Resistance is a cracking alternative history, where the Allies lost WWII, set in the Welsh valleys. It evokes something of Vercors’ Le Silence de la mer, or Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française in the portrayal of the interaction between occupying troops and the local population, but is also firmly rooted in the particular landscape and history of its setting.
Steven Alcock’s Blood Relatives evoked very different and more recent années noires, in the city of Leeds during the Yorkshire Ripper years. But the Ripper is not the subject, but part of the background. He’s what people are talking about, but the protagonist is more concerned, as most teenagers would be, with himself and Alcock exuberantly captures the tensions and the textures of this life in full on Yorkshire.
And Cath Staincliffe, primarily known as a crime writer (the Sal Kilkenny series, Blue Murder, and novelisations of Scott & Bailey) made me sob my socks off with Trio, which follows the lives of three young women who give up babies for adoption in the 1960s, the families who took those babies in, and the children themselves as they grow to adulthood.
I also enjoyed a heap of Laura Lippmann’s terrific novels featuring Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan, discovered a new series by Sarah Hilary with DI Marnie Rome, J K Rowling’s Robert Galbraith novels, and Peter May’s Lewis trilogy.
Viv Albertine’s fab memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys was fascinating and heart-breaking and funny. Peter Piot’s life battling Ebola, AIDs and the bureaucracy and politics which gets in the way of tackling those challenges was an inspiration. And – to return to the theme of Alzheimer’s – Andrea Gillies’ Keeper told the story of caring for her mother-in-law whilst attempting to run a B&B, and how the dementia gradually took over all of their lives and thoughts. It’s honest, sometimes brutally so, but there’s black humour too, and poignancy.
Oh, and I finally finished Proust’s La Prisonnière. Two more to go…
I also read and recommend:
Fiction: Iain Banks – Whit, Ann Cleeves – various Shetland and Vera crime novels, Teju Cole – Open City, Michel Faber – Under the Skin, Will Ferguson – 419, Richard Flanagan – Wanting, Andre Gide – Thesee, Paula Hawkins – Girl on the Train, Anne Holt – The Blind Goddess, Kazuo Ishiguro – Nocturnes, Susanna Jones – When Nights were Cold, Han Kang – The Vegetarian, Philip Kerr – Berlin Noir trilogy, Stephen King – Finders Keepers, Tiffany Murray – Happy Accidents, Catherine O’Flynn – What was Lost, Edward St Aubyn – Never Mind, Jim Shephard – The Book of Aron, Louise Welsh – Plague Times vols 1 and 2 (hurry up with 3!!), Markus Zusak – The Book Thief
Non-fiction: John Bayley – Iris, Alan Bennett – The Lady in the Van, Charles Dickens – Selected Letters, Robert Gildea – Fighters in the Shadows, Iain Hacking – Mad Travelers, Sarah Helm – If This is a Woman, Caroline Moorhead – A Train in Winter, Vladimir Nabokov – Speak Memory, Wladyslaw Szpilman – The Pianist
(adapted from a paper given at ‘There & Back Again’, a postgraduate conference at the University of Nottingham, organised by the Landscape, Space, Place Research Group. The title is taken from Iain Hacking’s fascinating study of the fugueur phenomenon)
The idea of wandering, of travelling without constraints, without a humdrum practical purpose, is perennially appealing to most of us, even if, for most of us, the drawbacks come to mind pretty speedily if we start to entertain the notion. Some do it anyway – seize the moment when the obstacles are not insuperable – but generally it’s something to enjoy vicariously, or to indulge in short bursts, taking time out of a holiday schedule to just have a stroll around foreign streets.
Throughout myth and literature there are many wanderers who cross seas, continents and centuries. For some it’s a pastime, a means of avoiding commitments or encumbrance:
I’m the type of guy that likes to roam around
I’m never in one place, I roam from town to town
And when I find myself fallin’ for some girl
I hop right into that car of mine and ride around the world (Dion, The Wanderer, 1961)
Everyday in the week I’m in a different city
If I stay too long people try to pull me down
Hendrix suggests that the prejudices of the cities in which he finds himself push him to leave, as well as, like Dion, that if he does sometimes feel his heart ‘kinda gettin’ hot’ for some woman, he moves on before he gets caught. For some, wandering is a subversive practice (not using the city streets in the prescribed way), for others it’s a compulsion, even a curse.
The flâneur is one of those archetypal wanderers. This classic definition is by Baudelaire, writing in 1863 in his ‘Le Peintre de la vie moderne’.
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not—to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.
He is a perfect stroller, a passionate spectator, an erudite wanderer. He walks the streets, probably alone, with no map or itinerary, with the confidence that comes from being male, well-educated and wealthy. His milieu is the city, and quintessentially Paris. One might think that the boulevards and arcades of Haussmann’s Paris lent themselves to strolling so much better than the labyrinthine streets of the old city, but it was that old city that defined the flâneur, allowing (in Edmund White’s words) ‘a passive surrender to the aleatory flux of the innumerable and surprising streets’.
The flâneur is a prototype detective, his apparent indolence masking intense watchfulness. This recalls Edgar Allen Poe’s story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (which was translated by Baudelaire), in which a man recovering from illness sits in a London coffee shop, watching the passers-by, and engaging in Holmesian deductions about their occupation and character. His attention is drawn by an old man who he is unable to read, and he feels compelled by insatiable curiosity to follow him, for a night and a day, as the man moves unceasingly through the city: he is the man of the crowd – not only hiding within it, but unable to exist outside it.
Walter Benjamin in his 1935 study of Baudelaire suggests that Baudelaire identifies the old man as a flâneur. This must be a misreading on Benjamin’s part, since the old man is as manic as the flâneur is composed. The flâneur may ‘set up house’ in the heart of the crowd, becoming part of ‘the ebb and flow of movement’, but he remains separate, above the mass. He is, like Baudelaire and Benjamin, at the same time engaged with and alienated by the city.
Poe’s story does give us a flâneur, however, in the person of the narrator, who can and does choose to abandon his pursuit, stepping aside to resume his life, and a different kind of wanderer, in the person of the man of the crowd. Steven Fink argues persuasively that the man of the crowd is the mythological figure of the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander endlessly as punishment for a terrible crime. (He has a number of counterparts, including, amongst others, Cain, the Flying Dutchman, and the Ancient Mariner.) Certainly this description by Benjamin’s contemporary, Siegfried Krakauer, is remarkably close to Poe’s description of the old man:
‘there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of bloodthirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense – of supreme despair … How wild a history … is written within that bosom!’. (Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’)
Imagine [his face] to be many faces, each reflecting one of the periods which he traversed and all of them combining into ever new patterns as he restlessly and vainly tries on his wanderings to reconstruct out of the times that shaped him the one time he is doomed to incarnate. It is a terrible face, ‘assembled from the many faces of the dead’. (Siegfried Krakauer – History, the Last Things Before the Last (OUP, 1969))
If the man of the crowd is no flâneur, he does bear a stronger resemblance to the fugueur, a lesser-known (and shorter-lived) phenomenon which emerged in the 1880s. Bordeaux medical student Philippe Tissié and neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris documented a number of cases of men undertaking strange and unexpected trips, in states of obscured consciousness. They were subject to hallucinations, and often dominated by ideas of persecution. Their conduct during the episode appeared normal, but they were unconscious of what they were doing, and had no memory of it afterwards – in a state of dissociative fugue. A fugue state is defined as involving selective memory loss, the inability to recall specific – perhaps traumatic – events. This may be accompanied by wandering and travelling, in an attempt to recover memory/identity, or perhaps in a flight from it – the etymological paradox of flight/pursuit.
The fugueur is quite distinct from the flâneur whose journeying is deliberately aimless and random, an end in itself. His itinerary may defy linear logic but nonetheless is purposeful, even if that purpose can be discovered only retrospectively. The flâneur, in his fine clothes, walked the streets as if he owned them because, wealthy and well-educated, he could. The fugueur, in his state of obscured consciousness, was likely to be mistaken, instead, for a vagrant. Albert Dadas, ‘patient zero’ in the mini-epidemic of ‘mad travelling’, was repeatedly arrested for vagabondage. The fugueurs were generally of more modest means than the flâneurs – tradesmen, craftsmen or clerks – and their travels took them much further afield. If someone spoke of a city or a country Albert was seized by the need to go there, and did so, often then finding himself in difficulties due to lack of funds.
One of Charcot’s patients was a young Hungarian Jew named Klein, who was ‘constantly driven by an irresistible need to change his surroundings, to travel, without being able to settle down anywhere’. This particular patient prompted a link with the then prevailing view that Jews were more prone than other races to various forms of neurasthenia and that this particular manifestation was ‘in the character of their race’. Thus the Wandering Jew was, according to Henri Meige’s thesis, ‘only a sort of prototype of neurotic Israelites journeying throughout the world’. Even at the time it was pointed out, fairly acerbically, that if the Jews had a tendency to move from place to place, this was in generally externally rather than internally driven, as persecution and prejudice made it necessary to leave one home in search of another.
Charcot’s diagnosis, and his use of the term ‘hystero-epilepsy’ in particular, fell out of favour, largely due to the failure to identify a common cause that would account for a collection of rather disparate individual cases. In the twentieth century the two types of wanderer seem often to merge, as trauma and exile create a more melancholy and more driven wanderer. One can trace a line from Baudelaire’s flâneur to the Surrealists, via Walter Benjamin’s description of flânerie as a dream state in which ‘The city as a mnemonic for the lonely walker [: it] conjures up more than his childhood and youth, more than its own history’, to Guy Debord’s dérive as subversive practice, and on to today’s psychogeographers. Rather than being a disaffected and detached observer, the flâneur in the late 20th and 21st century may be in flight from memory, from identity, at home nowhere, an exile who feels no connection, or only a highly problematic one, to homeland or origins.
Michel Butor’s 1956 novel, L’Emploi du temps is set in a northern English industrial city, called Bleston but clearly inspired by Manchester, where Butor had worked a few years earlier. It takes the form of a diary kept by his protagonist, Jacques Revel, in the city for a one-year placement. We know nothing of Revel’s life before his arrival in Bleston, or of what he will do after he leaves. He speaks of his year there as a prison sentence – he is unable to leave the city during that period, and compelled to leave it on a specific date. He is certainly not at home in Bleston, but he seems entirely rootless, without any connection elsewhere. In his restless wanderings through the streets, he seems to be searching – mostly fruitlessly – for lodgings, for someone whose name he does not know who he met on an earlier walk, for the elusive countryside. But ultimately his quest is to master the city by walking its streets, grasping the reality which seems to be changing around him as he walks – it is a phantasmagorical city, whose heavily polluted atmosphere creates a narcotic dream-like state, distorting his perceptions and leaving him disorientated.
Butor’s novel had a significant influence on W G Sebald, who came to Manchester about 15 years later. Sebald read L’Emploi du temps when he first arrived, and it inspired a poem, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, as well as having a wider impact on his work.
In Sebald’s novels, the narrator (who may or may not be, to some extent, Sebald) invariably begins by describing a journey. He is precise about when, and where, although the layering of timeframes and locations means that we can lose these certainties as the narrative progresses, but frequently the ‘why’ is obscure, not just to the reader but to the narrator himself. The narrator and the various protagonists are rarely, if ever, ‘at home’. They are often in transit or in provisional, interim spaces such as waiting rooms, railway stations, and transport cafes. Their journeys often induce episodes of near paralysis, physical or mental, and they end inconclusively, often with a sense that the quest will continue after the final page.
But if the Sebaldian narrator is a contemporary example of the melancholy flâneur, Jacques Austerlitz connects us directly with the fugueur, and with wandering as a response to trauma and loss. As a child, Austerlitz arrived in England on the Kindertransport, where his foster parents gave him a new life, and a new name, telling him nothing of his past, or the fate of his parents, until, as a sixth former, he learns that he is not Dafydd Elias.
For many years he avoids any topic or image which might shed light on or raise questions about his origins. But, increasingly isolated, and with his life ‘clouded by unrelieved despair’, tormented by insomnia, he undertakes nocturnal wanderings through London, alone, outwards into the suburbs, and then back at dawn with the commuters into the city. These excursions begin to trigger hallucinations, visions from the past, for example, the impression that ‘the noises of the city were dying down around me and the traffic was flowing silently down the street, or as if someone had plucked me by the sleeve. And I would hear people behind my back speaking in a foreign tongue …’. He is irresistibly drawn to Liverpool Street Station, a place full of ghosts, built as it is on the remains of Bedlam hospital, and, in the disused Ladies’ Waiting Room, encounters the ghosts of his foster parents and the small boy he once was.
Thus his obsessive wanderings appear to have had a sub-conscious purpose, taking him back to the point of rupture between one life and another. He embarks upon a new phase of wandering, driven by the need to find his home and his parents. Overhearing a radio documentary about the Kindertransport, and the reference to a ship named The Prague, like Albert Dadas, the original fugueur: ‘the mere mention of the city’s name in the present context was enough to convince me that I would have to go there’.
Austerlitz’s quest remains incomplete at the end of the novel. In the course of his wanderings he has, he believes, discovered his former home in Prague and traced his mother to Teresienstadt and his father to the Gurs concentration camp in France in 1942. Beyond that he knows only that his mother ‘was sent east’ in 1944. He does not know where, when, or even whether they died.
His quest, and his confrontation with the losses that defined his life, leads to ‘several fainting fits … temporary but complete loss of memory, a condition described in psychiatric textbooks … as hysterical epilepsy’. He is taken, significantly, to the Salpêtrière, where Charcot established this diagnosis almost a century earlier. This diagnosis would only be included in psychiatric textbooks as a historical footnote – an example of Sebald’s dense or layered time – we know precisely where we are, but the ‘when’ is not so straightforward.
Thus we’ve come full circle. And I want to make another tentative, perhaps fanciful connection. Sebald invites us to make all sorts of links with the name Austerlitz – the battle, the Parisian railway station, even Fred Astaire. And there’s always the echo of another name, the likely final destination of both of his parents, unspoken here except in a reference to the Auschowitz Springs near Marienbad. One more then – Ahasuerus, the name often given to the mythological Wandering Jew.
Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur – ‘être hors de chez soi, et pourtant se sentir partout chez soi (away from home and yet at home everywhere)’ has echoed through the twentieth century and into our own, accumulating more and more melancholy baggage. That this phrase has darker undertones than Baudelaire will have intended is brought home by a speech made by Hitler in 1933, in which he described the Jewish people, the ‘small, rootless international clique’, as ‘the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere’.
In our time then, rather than someone at ease wherever he finds himself, we are likely to think of the refugee and the exile, adapting without putting down roots, unable to return but unable fully to belong, always sub-consciously ready to move on or even keeping a bag permanently packed, just in case. For the original flâneur this characteristic was an affectation, a chosen detachment and rootlessness. For the fugueur, driven by trauma or crisis of identity, it is a curse, to have to wander, and never to find answers, or find home.
Anderson, George K, The Legend of the Wandering Jew (Hanover/London: Brown UP, 1991)
Benjamin, Walter, ed. Michael W Jennings, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire (Cambridge, MA/London: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2006)
Brunel, Pierre (ed), translated by Wendy Allatson et al, Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes (NY/London: Routledge, 1996)
Coverley, Merlin, Psychogeography (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006)
Fink, Steven, ‘Who is Poe’s Man of the Crowd?’, Poe Studies, 44, 2011 (17-38)
Gilloch, Graeme, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Cam.: Polity, 1996)
Goldstein, Jan, ‘The Wandering Jew and the Problem of Psychiatric Anti-Semitism in Fin-de-Siècle France’, Journal of Contemporary History, 20, 4(October 1985), 521-52
Hacking, Ian, ‘Automatisme Ambulatoire: Fugue, Hysteria and Gender at the Turn of the Century’, Modernism/Modernity, 32 (1996), 31-43
__, ‘Les Alienés voyageurs: How Fugue Became a Medical Entity, History of Psychiatry, 7, 3 (September 1996), 425-49
__, Mad Travellers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses (Free Association Books, 1998)
Kuo, Michelle and Albert Wu, ‘Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, W G Sebald and the Alienated Cosmopolitan’, Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 February 2013
Lauster, Martina, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Myth of the Flâneur’, Modern Language Review, 102, 1 (January 2007), 139-56
McDonough, Tom, ‘The Crimes of the Flâneur’, October, 102 (2002), 101-22
Micale, Mark S, In the Mind of Modernism: Medicine, Psychology and the Cultural Arts in Europe and American, 1880-1940 (Stanford UP, 2004)
Seal, Bobby, ‘Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur’, Psychogeographic Review, 14 November 2013
White, Edmund, The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris (Bloomsbury, 2008)
Serendipitously, the start of Refugee Week 2015, with its theme of the contribution that refugees make to the communities in which they make their new homes, coincides with the 92nd birthday of Judith Kerr.
Her books were not part of my own childhood – I was too old by 1968 to enjoy The Tiger Who Came To Tea, and certainly by 1970 when the first Mog book appeared. But I read those books – again and again and again – to my own children. And unlike some books which I read to them again and again and again, which irritated me more with every rendition, it was always a joy to read anything by Kerr.
If pressed, I could probably still recite part of The Tiger, and certainly odd phrases from the Mog series (the cat who ‘forgot she had a catflap’, and who got an egg AND a medal after unwittingly foiling a burglary) have passed into our family language.
Nothing in the world depicted in these delightful stories suggests the circumstances in which Judith Kerr arrived in the UK. They’re not cloyingly cosy – after all, the final Mog book says a final goodbye to that forgetful cat. But one wouldn’t guess that her family had to leave their Berlin home suddenly in 1933, when the Nazis came to power, because her father had been openly critical of the party. He left first, having been tipped off that he was at risk, and her mother and the two children followed not long afterwards, travelling initially to Sweden and then to France, before applying for and being granted British citizenship. They could not have known in 1933 the full extent of the danger that they, as Jews, would have faced had they stayed, and they left France before that country ceased to be a safe haven, but as the war went on, Judith’s parents carried suicide pills with them, in case of a Nazi invasion.
Michael Rosen has suggested that the Tiger, who comes to tea and eats everything in the house, drinks all Daddy’s beer and all the water in the taps, was suggested at some subconscious level by the childhood awareness of an unexplained threat, that your home could be invaded, everything you have could be taken, without warning. That may be, and it’s certainly part of the unsettling charm of the book that we never forget that the Tiger is a tiger, that if not placated with all the food and drink he demands he could be dangerous. But at the same time, the willingness of the family to allow this unexpected visitor to empty their pantry conveys generosity and hospitality, along with imperturbability, rather than fear. It could be that this reflects the way in which parents maintain a calm unflappable air in order not to frighten children too young to understand real danger. But of course the Tiger leaves, of his own accord, and never comes back.
Kerr did write directly about her past, in three autobiographical novels collectively titled ‘Out of the Hitler Time’. She’s very conscious of her own good fortune, not only in that, unlike so many other families, they lost no one, but that they found a safe home and a welcome, and the chance to build new lives.
‘People here were so good to us in the war. It must have been awful for my parents, but when you consider what happened to the others who stayed behind, nothing bad happened to us. We didn’t lose anyone. All our family got out: my grandparents, uncles, aunts, they all got out. Nobody died. We had a terrible time with money, but so did lots of people, and people were very good to us wherever we went.’ (http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/children/illustrators/interviews/104)
Happy birthday Judith Kerr, and thank you.
Inexplicably, the quality press has not yet invited me to name my top reads over the last twelve months, but no matter, I’ll do it anyway.
There is no attempt to rank or compare, or to identify one top title – just to share some of this year’s reading pleasure.
First, Taiye Selasi’s gorgeous Ghana Must Go. Drawn to it at first just for the title, I was blown away by the opening chapter, and as the narrative pulled back from that minute detail, that moment by moment evocation of a man looking out at his garden, realising that he is about to die, the breadth of the locations and the expanding cast in no way diluted the power of the writing. I did not realise at first that I was reading it aloud in my head, the way I read a novel in French, rather than hoovering up a page in one go as I normally do. In this case it wasn’t in order to understand it, but in order to feel the rhythm of the text. This is a poem as much as it is a novel.
John Williams’ Stoner had massive word of mouth before I got round to reading it. I was not disappointed – of course the academic milieu that it describes is very familiar to me and that helped to draw me in. But the emotional punch it pulled was unexpected and I rather regretted reading it in public.
I’ve written elsewhere about the final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, from John Harvey. I read a lot of detective novels – it was a year of long train journeys – and discovered new writers, notably Ann Cleeves, Laura Lippman, Louise Doughty, Belinda Bauer and Anne Holt, as well as enjoying new stuff from existing favourite Cath Staincliffe. Her Letters to my Daughter’s Killer is powerful stuff.
Tiffany Murray’s Diamond Star Halo rocked my world, and Sugar Hall chilled my spine. I read the whole Game of Thrones series, and am eager for more. Other favourites from writers new to me were John Lanchester’s Capital, Patrick McGuiness’s The Last Hundred Days, and Sue Eckstein’s Interpreters. I will seek out more by all of them, though very sadly, Sue Eckstein’s early death means that there is only one more from her to look forward to.
Danny Rhodes’ Fan inspired me to reminisce and ruminate about my relationship with the game of football, and with Nottingham Forest in particular, and Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl both made me laugh uproariously, and moved me to tears. It prompted a blog too.
As well as discovering new writers, I had the delight of reading more by some great favourites. Lesley Glaister’s Little Egypt, Stevie Davies’ Into Suez, Liz Jensen’s The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, all very different, and all on top form.
Lynn Shepherd’s latest literary mystery, The Pierced Heart, played beautifully with the Dracula myth, and the set up – a young man travels into the heart of Europe, an older, darker Europe, is welcomed by a mysterious Baron in a castle full of alchemical texts and other, more troubling collections – not only echoes Bram Stoker but reminded me of Michel Butor’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape, about which I hope to write something in due course. And oddly there were echoes of other aspects of The Pierced Heart in Stephen King’s excellent Revival, despite the very different setting. My most recent Doctor Who blog touched on these themes.
I didn’t expect Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass to be such a page-turner. I expected it to be enlightening and stimulating, sure, but it’s a huge achievement that it was genuinely difficult to put the book down. I wanted to find out ‘what happened next’, how through the centuries and the continents the human race grappled with the big questions of what it is to be good.
Other non-fiction that had an impact on me included Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, which I read before I saw Steve McQueen’s harrowing and viscerally powerful film, and Dan Jacobson’s Heshel’s Kingdom, to which I was led by W G Sebald (in the final pages of Austerlitz). There was also Philippa Comber’s fascinating memoir of her friendship with Sebald, Ariadne’s Thread, another future blog, I hope.
Belinda Bauer – Blacklands, Darkside, Finders Keepers
Ann Cleeves – Dead Water, Red Bones, Silent Voices, Burial of Ghosts
Philippa Comber – Ariadne’s Thread
Stevie Davies – Into Suez
Louise Doughty – Apple Tree Yard
Sue Eckstein – Interpreters
Lesley Glaister – Little Egypt
John Harvey – Darkness, Darkness
Anne Holt – Blessed are Those who Thirst
Dan Jacobson – Heshel’s Kingdom
Liz Jensen – The Ninth Life of Louis Drax
Stephen King – Revival
John Lanchester – Capital
Laura Lippmann – The Innocents, Life Sentences, Don’t Look Back
Patrick McGuinness – The Last Hundred Days
Kenan Malik – The Quest for a Moral Compass
Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl
Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo; Sugar Hall
Solomon Northrop – Twelve Years a Slave
Danny Rhodes – Fan
Lynn Shepherd – The Pierced Heart
Cath Staincliffe – Letters to my Daughter’s Killer
John Williams – Stoner
We go back a fair few years, Charlie and me. Pretty much instant, the connection, the attraction too. We had things in common – places (I lived near Nottingham as a teenager, so my Nottingham wasn’t his – it was the Playhouse, Goose Fair, the City Ground, and the shops), music (listening to Miles as I write this), cats (ours was called Mingus. RIP), football (I was on the Trent End, still loyal to the Reds to this day, glory days long past, whilst he’s a County man).
Never very lucky in love, our Charlie. But attractive to women, no question. That crumpled, rumpled melancholy hard to resist – had we met in person, I’d have spectacularly failed to do so – but making it work in the long term, a lot tougher. He nearly found that, so very nearly, and it broke my heart when… but I won’t say, in case you don’t know, and if you don’t, you need to go back, as I’ve just done, to Lonely Hearts, and make his acquaintance for yourself, and follow him through the years, through to Darkness, Darkness.
I won’t say much about Darkness, Darkness, except that, as so many reviewers have already said, it’s a fitting coda to the series. It focuses on the miners’ strike – an event which still reverberates in Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire, so that Nottingham football supporters still get called scabs by Yorkshire football supporters, though in both cases their parents were toddlers, if that, at the time of the strike – but it encompasses so much more. It’s an elegy really, a blues for Charlie.
So many of the cops whose investigations we follow on screen or on the page seem to be constructed according to a formula. A bit of (preferably traumatic) back story, a few quirks (an addiction, past or current, an obsession), and a tendency to go off piste, to break the rules. That can work – Rachel Bailey comes storming off the screen and the page (in Cath Staincliffe’s excellent novels) and into real life, so that when she (inevitably) does something monumentally daft, we, along with her long-suffering colleagues and friends, want to yell at her, shake her into common sense. The best ones, the ones we re-read even when we remember exactly who dunnit, where, why and how, turn that formula into someone we can invest in, not just in their ability to put the bad guy behind bars, but in their humanity, their vulnerability, their emotional life. And Charlie is one of the best, no question. Of course he has a back story (a broken marriage, nothing out of the ordinary), and a few quirks (his tendency to wear his most recent meal on his shirt front or his tie, for example). But he’s a rounded (and that’s not a crack about his waistline), nuanced, complicated character,
And so many of the narratives of crime and punishment that we consume rely on convoluted plots – plots not just in the sense of the narrative arc, but machinations, devilishly clever serial killers, hidden identities, etc. All very enjoyable, but bearing, one imagines, little relation to the day to day of policing. We suspend our disbelief, accept for the duration that in the picture postcard villages of Midsomer a deranged serial killer lurks behind every cottage doorway, or that the academics of Oxford are busier plotting their next murder than preparing their next research bid. The volume and the type of crime here is a tad more realistic, Charlie’s cases are more likely to involve cock-ups than conspiracies, individuals with chaotic lives committing chaotic crimes, often with consequences they could never have imagined. It’s not that there aren’t any serial killers, or any conspiracies, but they are interwoven with the mundanity, the banality, of ‘normal’ urban crime.
The other trope that those of us who watch the detectives can get a bit weary of, or even sickened by, is the reliance on sexual violence as a plot device. Again, this does feature in Charlie’s caseload over the years, as you’d expect. But there’s nothing sexy, nothing titillating here. The reality of rape and the fear of rape, the murky areas of human sexuality, the casual violence of language used towards women, are all shown clear-sightedly and compassionately, through Charlie’s eyes. It’s not that he’s so very PC. But his attractiveness to women isn’t just about his crumpled melancholy, it’s about his instinctive respect, his empathy. Even when he’s getting it wrong (as he does, often), fundamentally he’s a good man, someone you could lean on, trust. Those murky areas, and how fiction deals with them, are not just sub-text either – in both Living Proof and Still Water we confront them head on.
There’s so much humanity in these stories. And there’s music of course, flowing through them. There’s Millington’s regular assaults on the Petula Clark songbook, the bands at the Polish Club where Charlie dances with Marian, or the Otis Redding track that was playing when he met Elaine… But it’s the jazz that’s vital. It’s integral, it’s the atmosphere, those blue notes echoing Charlie’s melancholy, bringing out the noir on Nottingham’s mean streets. It’s the soundtrack to what we see of his life, to the daily grappling with petty crime, dysfunctional families, and the viciousness and brutality of which human beings are capable, and with the politics of policing, the admin, the power play. He goes home, and he finds a record, a track, that echoes his mood and as the music is described we can almost believe we’re hearing it too, the descriptions so vivid, so perceptive.
And so it seemed fitting, as I re-read the books, focusing less on the plot and more on the atmosphere, the background, the soundtrack, to put together a little playlist. One song for each novel. I hope Charlie would approve.
‘He’ll be okay. He’s got a flat white and yet another version of ‘Blue Monk’ to keep him warm’ (Darkness, Darkness, p. 416).
I’ll not worry about him then, and lord knows I have done sometimes, wondering if the sadness and the loneliness in him would take him over. But he’ll be okay. Cheers Charlie.
A Resnick playlist
Lonely Hearts (1989) Billie Holiday – (I don’t stand a) Ghost of a Chance (with you) (Music for Torching, 1955)
Rough Treatment (1990) Red Rodney Quintet – Shaw ‘Nuff (Red Rodney Returns, 1959)
Cutting Edge (1991) Art Pepper – Straight Life (Straight Life, 1979)
Off Minor (1992) Thelonious Monk – Off Minor (Monk’s Music, 1957)
Wasted Years (1993) Thelonious Monk – Evidence (Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk, 1960)
Cold Light (1994) Duke Ellington Orchestra – Cottontail (The Carnegie Hall Concerts, 1943)
Living Proof (1995) Stan Tracey Duo – Some Other Blues (Live at the QEH, 1994)
Easy Meat (1996) Billie Holiday – Body and Soul (Body and Soul, 1957)
Still Water (1997) Miles Davis – Bag’s Groove (Bag’s Groove, 1957)
Last Rites (1998) Sandy Brown – In the Evening (In the Evening, 1970)
Cold in Hand (2008) Bessie Smith – Cold in Hand Blues (1925, The Bessie Smith Story, Vol. 3, 1951)
Darkness Darkness (2014) Thelonious Monk – Blue Monk (Thelonious Monk Trio, 1954)
It’s rare that I finish a novel that I really haven’t enjoyed and find myself obsessed with it. That’s what’s happened, though, with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. This is a novel I was strongly recommended to read, and I can see why. I can recognise its beauty and brilliance. I can recognise the things it has in common with works that I love and revere – Butor’s L’Emploi du temps, for example, and W G Sebald’s Vertigo, or The Rings of Saturn.
But the experience of reading it – I so nearly gave up. It was as if I was trapped in one of my own anxiety dreams. Knowing I need to be somewhere, that I’m responsible for something, and finding that time and space are conspiring against me. From the start, the protagonist appears to know, vaguely, that he is here (wherever that is) in order to do something important, but not precisely what, when, or why. As in dreams, the relationship of the people he meets to him and to each other shifts and some who appear at the start to be strangers to him become in the course of the novel his father in law, wife and son. Other people from his past appear, incongruously, whilst his parents, expected throughout the course of the narrative, are never encountered at all. Even the common feature of such dreams that one is inappropriately (or not at all) dressed occurs as Ryder is swept off to undertake high-profile public engagements in his dressing gown (the inappropriateness appears to go unnoticed by everyone else). I read on with such reluctance, fearing that Ryder’s experiences would find their way into and would amplify my own nightly unsettledness – and they did.
It also tied in spookily well with my ongoing fascination with labyrinths and mazes. The city in which Ryder arrives, ahead of his concert, is one in which you could walk in circles indefinitely, as Ryder himself notes. He encounters dead ends – a street blocked off by a brick wall, with no way around it and no opening, but which lies between him and his destination. He is constantly getting lost, his journeys taking him seemingly very far from his destination, only for him to realise he has come back to his starting point. The novel traces ‘an odd, sepulchral, maze-like journey’, through a ‘deterring labyrinth’. But it’s not just a static labyrinth or maze, as baffling and disorienting as they can be, because space is constantly distorting itself, like Butor’s Bleston, which ‘grows and alters even while I explore it’ (Passing Time, pp. 182-3).
But it was only after I had, finally, finished the book that I remembered that I had, some months previously, lent it to someone else, someone who suffers from serious problems with short-term memory, and increasingly with anxiety associated with that condition, needing frequent reassurance as what happened even ten minutes ago is lost in fog. I had wondered idly at other times what impact this would have on her reading – and she does read, making good use of her local library – surely after a few pages she would have forgotten what she had just read, and have to go back again and again, so that she would never actually finish the book? But this book … as she read it, did she recognise her own anxieties in its pages?
It seems to me that living with that kind of memory loss must be like a waking anxiety dream. To have, throughout the day, that sense that you are missing something, that you should be doing something, that you should be somewhere, and to be unable to retrieve the information with any sense of certainty… If you write things down, how do you know for sure whether the writing is telling you that something will happen, or that something has happened? As events from the past float into your memory you have no way of anchoring them in chronology, they could have happened yesterday, or months ago. The gaps are troubling so you may fill them with explanations that start off as speculation but become fixed as you hang on to them for reassurance that you know what happened really. And whilst sometimes you are anxious and you know that the cause of the fear is that your memory is so poor, at other times you don’t remember that you can’t remember, and deny that you need help and can’t see why people keep reminding you of things.
I can’t see that I will want to re-read The Unconsoled any time soon. It simply troubles me too much, taps too accurately into my own anxieties and insecurities, and into the fog of memory loss that I witness second hand. But it’s brilliant, and it’s still in my head, weeks after I reached the final page.
The long history of Belle Vue Gardens in Manchester is being celebrated this month, and it seems timely to note its appearance, under the name of Pleasance Gardens, in Michel Butor’s Manchester-inspired 1956 novel L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time).
Butor’s view of Manchester (Bleston in the novel) was, it must be admitted, largely negative. He loathed the climate, and the food, and seems to have been deeply unhappy in the city, where he arrived to take up the post of lecteur in the French department at the University in 1952.
He seems to have taken to Belle Vue, however. Pleasance Gardens, along with the various peripatetic fairs which rotated around the periphery of the city, on the areas of waste land, represent a mobile and open element in a closed, even carceral city, and a window on different kinds of community than those indigenous to Bleston. The narrator sees the friends he knows in a different light in these places, which may be in Bleston but are not fully part of it and don’t share its malaise.
Pleasance Gardens appears on the frontispiece map, in the bottom left-hand corner, its shape not dissimilar to that of the real Belle Vue. Butor took from the real city of Manchester the geography and architecture that interested him and that fitted with his narrative preoccupations, and ignored or altered the rest. The descriptions include a great deal of precision and detail – however, the historians of Belle Vue will have to judge where the fictional version departs from its model.
He describes the entrance to the Gardens:
The monumental entrance-gates whose two square towers, adorned with grimy stucco, are crowned … with two enormous yellow half-moons fixed to lightning conductors, and are joined by two iron rods bearing an inscription in red-painted letters beaded with electric bulbs then gleaming softly pink: ‘Pleasance Gardens’.
The big folding door which is armoured as if to protect a safe, and only opens on great occasions and for important processions, whereas we, the daily crowd, have to make our way in by one of the six wicket-gates on the right (those on the left are for the way out) with their turnstiles and ticket collectors’
The earthenware topped table which displayed, on a larger scale and in greater detail, with fresh colours and crude lettering, that green quarter circle with its apex pointing towards the town centre…
The tickets themselves are described in detail:
the slip of grey cardboard covered with printed lettering: On one side in tall capitals PLEASANCE GARDENS, and then in smaller letters: Valid for one visitor, Sunday, December 2nd. And on the other side: REMEMBER that this garden is intended for recreation, not for disorderly behaviour; please keep your dignity in all circumstances’
On this winter visit:
There was scarcely anybody in the big, cheap restaurants or in the billiard-rooms; avenues, all round, bore black and white arrows directing one to the bear-pit, the stadium, the switch-back, the aviaries, the exit and the monkey-house.
We walked in silence past roundabouts with metal aeroplanes and wooden horses, … and past the station for the miniature railway where three children sat shivering in an open truck waiting to start; and past the lake, which was empty because its concrete bottom was being cleaned’.
Posters everywhere echoed: ‘Come back for the New Year, come and see the fireworks’.
A later visit, in summer, followed one of the fires that feature so frequently in the novel. Belle Vue was devastated by fire in 1958, and whether this account was inspired by a real event I do not know – it may well be that whilst Manchester was plagued by an unusually large number of arson attacks over the period that Butor was there, he extrapolated from that to a fire at Pleasance Gardens, purely for narrative purposes.
In the open air cafe that is set up there in summer in the middle of the zoological section, among the wolves’ and foxes’ cages and the ragged-winged cranes’ enclosure, the duck-ponds and the seals’ basins with their white-painted concrete islands. I could see, above the stationary booths of this mammoth fairground, eerily outlined in the faint luminous haze, the tops of the calcined posts of the Scenic Railway, with a few beams still fixed to them like gibbets or like the branch-stumps that project from the peeled trunks of trees struck by lightning; and I listened to the noise of the demolition-workers’ axes’
If Butor generally warmed to the Gardens, his portrayal of the animals in the Zoo is less enthusiastic – he speaks of the cries of the animals and birds mingling with the noise of demolition, of melancholy zebras and wretched wild beasts, and of their howls during the firework display. Perhaps their imprisonment chimed uncomfortably with his own sense of being trapped in the city.