People’s behaviour changes, “Society” changes, but not feelings. And while we’re on “society” let me remind you of something you said to me in that terrible pub, something about repressive attitudes making me feel sexually unrelaxed. Repressive? In 1977? I was doing fine when things really were repressive, if they ever were, it’s only since they’ve become, oh, permissive that I’ve had trouble.
From what I’ve read of Kingsley Amis’s work, an underlying theme of things being better in the past emerges. ‘Ending Up’ featuring five aged characters all lamenting earlier days, and now ‘Jake’s Thing’ where we have the main protagonist, Jake, an Oxford professor, searching for the cause of his sexual inactivity, it is not erectile dysfunction, it is a lack of interest in sex.
Besides the plot being oh so tedious, a stuffy old professor can’t sexually function anymore, the character of Jake is utterly deplorable. He may represent a 1970’s attitude, and, yes, the novel is forty-three years old, however I couldn’t help but feel as though this popular literature of the Boomer generation has something to do with their current attitudes. Jake seen as a comic hero, when basically he is a misogynistic, racist, narcissistic, stuck-up arsehole.
Here are a few excerpts from the first chapter:
[At the bus stop] No sooner had one black, brown or yellow person, or group of such, been set down on the pavement than Americans, Germans, Spaniards were taken up and vice versa.
[At the doctor] Rosenberg. Presumably he’s some sort of –
[Leaving the doctor] The receptionist, a girl of twenty or twenty-five, was in attendance. Jake noticed that her breasts were either remarkably large or got up to seem so by a professional.
[Coming home] The near end of the latter consisted of two longish brick terraces put up a hundred years before to house the workers of some vanished local industry and these days much in demand among recently married couples, pairs of homosexuals and older persons whose children had left or never existed.
This is the FIRST CHAPTER, and there are twenty-eight of them, all containing something along the lines of descriptions of women for their physical appearance, some interaction with a homosexual colleague, masturbation over pornographic magazines, “therapy” to help Jake’s problem (his wife attends therapy too, she needs to lose weight – to help Jake’s problem). This is a relentless barrage of old attitudes, passed off as satire.
We have a whole chapter debating the possibility of females being admitted into the Oxford College.
‘And the desirability of admitting them to this college,’ added the Master. This time the two sighed noisily and flapped their hands, and Jake wondered what stopped them from seeing that, for good or ill, this was the most interesting matter ever likely to come their way, short of death. ‘As you know, it’s on tomorrow’s agenda,’ said the Master when he and Jake had moved off.
Jake is asked to provide the case “for” females being admitted into the College, why not have a misogynistic, narcissist prepare the case “for”? Massively hungover Jake presents a somewhat feeble argument, and then eventually shows his true colours:
No doubt they do think, the youngsters, it’d be more fun to be under the same roof, but who cares what they think? All very well for the women no doubt, it’s the men who are going to be the losers – oh, it’ll, it’ll happen alright, no holding it up now. When the first glow has faded and it’s quite normal to have girls in the same building and on the same staircase and across the landing, they’ll start realizing that that’s exactly what they’ve got, girls everywhere and not a common-room, not a club, not a pub where they can get away from them. And the same thing’s going to happen to us which is much more important. Roger’s absolutely right, all this will go and there will be women everywhere, chattering, gossiping, telling you what they did today and what their daughter did yesterday and what their friend did last week and what somebody they heard about did last month and horrified if a chap brings up a topic or an argument. They don’t mean what they say, they don’t use language for discourse but for extending their personality, they take all disagreement as opposition, yes they do, even the brightest of them, and that’s the end of the search for truth which is what the whole thing’s supposed to be about. So let’s pass a motion suggesting they bugger off back to Somerville, LMH, St Hugh’s and St Hilda’s where they began and stay there. It won’t make any bloody difference but at least we’ll have told ‘em what we think of ‘em.’
To have an unlikeable main protagonist, is not an easy ask, and yes, Kingsley Amis is using satire to drag out the ugly qualities of certain belief’s however it is the small references to “blacks” at the shops or bus stop, the anti-Semite ideals based purely on somebody’s name, the underlying story that women exist for Jake’s sexual pleasure (and by the way, he’s a straight up missionary position, nothing more, in fact even pictures put him off) where my issues with this novel occur. For Amis to write such content there has to be at least a hint of belief in these values in his own personal armory.
Given both ‘Ending Up’ and ‘Jake’s Thing’ (and the first half of ‘The Old Devils’) all deal with characters lamenting a better time, and yes Margaret Thatcher was about to come into power so maybe earlier times were a better place. It is the use of sexism, racism, homophobia etc. where I find his works a difficult read. Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Sea, the Sea’ won the Booker Prize the year this was shortlisted, another work dealing with male egotism and self-absorption – 1978, what a year!!!
Moonlight Kiss Oysters w. Native Citrus Macadamia Tofu w. Kelp & Caviar Heirloom Tomatoes & Mirabelle plum Western Australian Marron “Curry” Lemon Verbena & Wood Sorrel Lamb Rib – Lamb Tea Lamb Saddle & Wild Garlic Trolley of Australian Cheese Cantaloupe & Green Ants Chocolate Soufflé w. Billy Tea Ice-Cream Mum’s Gumnuts Rivermint Kangaroo Saltbush “Caramello” Koala
When it comes dinner time you have many choices, you can go for the full-blown degustation menu (with matching wines of course) of Vue De Monde in Melbourne, or you can go for lighter fare, maybe a salad with some added protein. Then there is everything in between.
Similarly, when choosing your next novel to read, you can pick up ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ or the latest best seller.
Kingsley Amis’ ‘Ending Up’ I liken to a light salad, with five pieces of tofu for the protein intake, you know the thing, something quite bland, each piece almost indistinguishable from another, excepting the amount of chilli that managed to stick whilst it was in the frying pan.
Your light salad, the backdrop, is ageing, have a mouthful of general dismay of getting older and being abandoned, now a nibble on something a little more substantial, a character.
Your five pieces of tofu are each of the characters in this novella.
In summary ‘Ending Up’ is about five old people all living together in a dilapidated house, Tuppenny-hapenny Cottage. Let’s explore our tofu:
Adeala – Bernard’s sister, runs the household and does the shopping in town. Never married, explained as being too ugly, never had any real friends, excluding Marigold at school. Spends her time waiting on everybody and not complaining about it.
Marigold – speaks as though she is making baby talk with everybody, believes she is “above” all other people in the house, has grandchildren who come to visit, manipulates Adela, is starting to show first signs of amnesia (Alzheimer’s?)
George – bedridden after having a stroke before the novella begins, his sister had married Bernard. Can’t remember nouns so babbles
Bernard – homosexual ex-Army but had a marriage of convenience, rumoured to have a child that nobody has met, hates everyone in the house and plays nasty juvenile practical jokes on them (generally involving urine or laxatives), plays up the fact that he has a bad leg to get out of any household chore.
Shorty – Bernard’s ex-lover from the Army, does the odd jobs around the house and drinks a great deal, always putting on funny voices or signing songs
That’s it – a novella that details the interactions between this unlikeable bunch and the children and grandchildren that come to visit. Have another lettuce leaf (another bitter remark about getting old, or a reflection from one of the visitors “hope we don’t end up like that” kind of thing).
Here is a superficial farce that does the job of satiating your hunger, one that offends with its misogyny, homophobia, racism (more of that when I review another Kingsley Amis work in the coming days) and one that has little spine or oomph. No wood sorrel or rivermint kangaroo here.
I was going to compare this to a complex work, such as William Gaddis’ ‘The Recognitions’, a masterwork of many layers, a complex painting that becomes more radiant the more you look at it, with this book being a cheap water colour with a wash background (again ageing) but that would be crediting it with some level of art. Basically it is a bland salad, totally forgettable. How on earth did it make the 1974 Booker Prize Shortlist? Probably the same reason the 2019 award was jointly awarded to Margaret Atwood for ‘The Testaments’.
“Why? I hear you ask. Very well . . . This is why . . . Because storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit – in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university of wherever. That’s why.”
Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe was a lauded storyteller, to list his achievements would take pages, although a winner of the Booker International Prize in 2007, when the award was presented bi-annually for a body of work, he never won the Booker Prize (for a single novel), only being shortlisted once, in 1987, for ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ (the winner that years was Penelope Lively for ‘Moon Tiger’).
The novel ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ takes place in an imaginary West African country, Kangan, where an officer “Sam” and known as “His Excellency”, has taken power following a military coup. IT is mainly through the eyes of Sam’s fellow friends Chris Oriko, the government’s Commissioner for Information and Ikem Osodi, a newspaper editor critical of the regime, as well as Beatrice Okoh, an official in the Ministry of Finance and girlfriend of Chris, that this novel of unstable and corrupt Government unfolds. The history of colonial interference and ruling, as well as the associated racist practices always simmering in the background:
You see, they are not in the least like ourselves. They don’t need and can’t use the luxuries that you and I must have. They have the animal capacity to endure the pain of, shall we say, domestication. The very words the white master had said in his time about the black race as a whole. Now we say them about the poor.
This is a novel that alternates the point of view and narration, giving voice to the many players. The main theme being the African political agenda, characters with English university educations, returning and taking power etc. these elements are all “givens”. However, it is not these themes of Chinua Achebe’s novel that I want to explore today, as they’ve been written about, studied, debated many times before.
It its through the strength of Chinua Achebe’s characters that this novel comes alive, how we sympathise with one faction and abhor another, how we question one but give ourselves over to blind obedience of another. The nuances that Chinua Achebe builds throughout his work.
Sam, the dictator, as narrated by Ikem:
To say that Sam was never very bright is not to suggest that he was a dunce at any time in the past or that he is one now. His major flaw was that all he ever wanted was to do what was expected of him especially by the English whom he admired sometimes to the point of foolishness. When our headmaster, John Williams, told him that the army was the career for gentlemen he immediately abandoned thoughts of becoming a doctor and became a soldier. I am sure the only reason he didn’t marry the English girl MM found for him in Surrey was the shattering example of Chris and his American wife Louise whom he married, if you please, not in New York with might have made a certain sense but in London. I suppose it is not impossible for two strangers to fabricate and affinity of sorts from being exiled to the same desert island even from opposite ends of the earth.
Chris, as relayed in an awkward cabinet meeting where Sam is intimidating Chris:
“He doesn’t need a word from you. Remember, he owns all the words in this country – newspapers, radio and television stations…” “The Honorable Commissioner for Words”
Beatrice, as told in a chapter using traditional stories about the Pillar of Water:
Beatrice Nwanyibuife did not know these traditions and legends of her people because they played little part in her upbringing. She was born as we have seen in a world apart; was baptized and sent to schools which made much about the English and the Jews and the Hindu and practically everybody else but hardly put a word in for her forebears and the divinities with whom they had evolved. So she came to barely knowing who she was. Barely, we say though, because she did carry a vague sense more acute at certain critical moments than others of being two different people. Her father had deplored the soldier-girl who fell out of trees. Chris saw the quiet demure damsel whose still waters nonetheless could conceal deep overpowering eddies of passion that always almost sucked him into fatal depths. Perhaps Ikem alone came close to sensing the village priestess who will prophesy when her divinity rides her abandoning if need be her soup-pot on the fire, but returning again when the god departs to the domesticity of kitchen or the bargaining market-stool behind her little display of peppers and dry fish and green vegetables. He knew it better than Beatrice herself. But knowing or not knowing does not save us from being known and even recruited and put to work. For, as a newly-minted proverb among her people has it, baptism (translated in their language a Water of God) is no antidote against possession by Agwu the capricious god of diviners and artists.
Ikem, the writer, sees the Nation’s issues with clarity:
The prime failure of this government began also to take on a clearer meaning for him. It can’t be the massive corruption though its scale and pervasiveness are truly intolerable; it isn’t the subservience to foreign manipulation, degrading as it is; it isn’t even this second-class, hand-me-down capitalism, ludicrous and doomed; nor is it the damnable shooting of striking railway-workers and demonstrating students and the destruction and banning thereafter of independent unions and cooperatives. It is the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation’s being.
A novel filled with wonderful metaphors, proverbs, and stories of the oppressed, even though told through the eyes of the well-to-do. This is a great example of the wonders the Booker Prize used to bring to our tables in the 1970-1980’s, only four years after this novel made the Booker shortlists, fellow Nigerian Ben Okri took home the prize for his novel ‘The Famished Road’, another work that I intend to revisit in the coming months (don’t hold me to it!!!)
One might say that immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity. – Gaston Bachelard ‘The Poetics of Space’
Anuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel, ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage’ won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. It took place in the Tamil-majority north of Sri Lanka and summarises a few days during the harrowing final months of that country’s civil war. In his second novel, ‘A Passage North’, Anuk Arudpragasam uses the civil war as an historical artefact, a memory, but one that bears many irreparable scars.
Using a basic plot, the novel follows a few days in the life of Krishan, living in the capital Columbo in the South. He has just received a phone call informing him that his grandmother’s former caregiver, Rani, has died after falling down a well in the north of the island. Only a short time prior he had received an email from a former lover and activist Anjum, an email he had yet to properly read and digest. Krishan makes the journey by train to the previously war-torn north of the island for Rani’s funeral.
However, it is not in the simple narrative where the riches of this novel lie, it is through the intimate descriptions of relationships, the physical and mental journey that Krishan undertakes, the exploration of the spaces we inhabit and the blurring of time where the gems are discovered.
The novel opens with the words “The present, we assume, is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted.” A novel rooted in time, but in the present, we can draw on our memories, dwell on the past, or we can daydream the endless possibilities of our future. A work that takes place over only a few days, always rooted in the present, but drawing on the experiences and remembrances of the past.
This is also a novel of space, whether it is the enclosed spaces the characters inhabit, for example Krishan’s grandmother is restricted to her bedroom because of mobility issues, or the space behind a curtain in a sleeping partition on a train, or the separation of the north and south in Sir Lanka or even the restriction of staying in Sri Lanka.
The predominant associations he’d had of the northeast for most of his life had been formed during short trips to Trincomalee and Vavuniya when he was a child and a longer trip to Jaffna during the cease fire, when he was seventeen or eighteen, from the painfully nostalgic accounts he always heard from older relatives living abroad about how idyllic their childhoods in the village had been. For most of his life he’d visualized, then he thought of the northeast, wide landscapes of salt flats and palmyra trees, the copper-colored dirt roads of the Vanni and the tracts of hard, dry earth that made up most of the peninsula, the piercing, lilting rhythms of devotional music rising up from temples during festival season, the sound of people speaking their untainted Tamil loudly and musically, without restraint. These images had filled him with a sense of freedom, with the possibility of living a life radically different from his own, but they’d been suffused at the same time with a dreamlike quality that made it hard to think about them in any concrete way, just as the news that arrived each day in the newspapers about shelling and skirmishes, about advances, retreats, and cease-fires, had always been of importance and concern but rarely disrupted the flow of events in his own life in the south of the country, part of the white noise of life that he’d learned since childhood to take for granted.
Although aged an infirm, Krishan’s grandmother, Appamma, is keeping her connection with the outside world through constant questioning, Krishan himself views the civil war through images, videos on the internet, not relying on the mainstream media, they are alike, it is through others that they are informed.
A novel of digressions, some have mentioned Thomas Bernhard, it is constructed by long winding sentences, paragraphs that run to pages and no dialogue. Throughout Krishan’s journey, not only his train travel to the north, he recollects images and learning from his past, the text incorporates the Tamil story of Poosla story from the Periya Purānam, the Sanskrit story The Cloud Messenger, a Sanskrit version of the Life of the Buddha, the story of Kuttimani’s death, a Tamil leader, remembrances from a documentary My Daughter the Terrorist about female members of the Black Tigers, Buddhist women’s poetry originally written in Pali along with a raft of observations about the civil war.
I found the section about Australia’s advertising and treatment of refugees most pertinent, as I know the campaign does exist. As Krishan travels north, post war, he observes:
Looking out through the opposite window at the other platform, where a small group of people were waiting for the train headed south, Krishan noticed a large, freshly pasted billboard on the far end, its left half depicting a rough sea under dark clouds that seemed on the verge of erupting. Tossing and turning in the midst of the waves, seemingly on the point of being engulfed, was a small, rickety fishing boat, and in thick red Tamil letters, emblazoned across the centre of the image, were the words THERE’S NO WAY: YOU WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO SET FOOT IN AUSTRALIA. The right half of the billboard consisted of a black background with dense white text that Krishan couldn’t decipher at first, though as the train jerked back into motion and his carriage moved past the billboard he was able to make out a few line, which stated that traffickers were trying to profit by cheating people who wanted to move to Australia, that Australia was no longer accepting people who tried to come to the country by boat, that boats attempting to reach the country would be steered back into deep waters by the Australian navy. He’d heard similar advertisements on Tamil radio stations and TV channels, usually aired in prime-time spots in the late evening and night, but this was the first billboard he’d seen and it was no accident, he knew, that it had been put up at Vavuniya, the first station in the Tamil part of the country. The Australian government had put tens of millions of dollars into such advertisements, not just in Sri Lanka but in other countries with large displaced populations like Iraq, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, hoping to stem the tide of people from these countries who tried to make the long and arduous journey by boat. It was difficult to say whether the advertisements actually worked, for most of the people who made the journey chose to make it despite the exorbitant sums they had to pay the middlemen, knowing very well the danger of crossing thousands of miles of deep sea in dilapidated fishing boats, tightly packed for weeks with other asylum seekers in nearly uninhabitable conditions. Such people made the journey knowing their chances of reaching Australia were slim, that even if they did survive the boat trip they were likely to be kept in illegal offshore detention centers of years. The majority of them were people who’d lost everything during the war, people who, even if they hadn’t been detained, bereaved, tortured, or raped, had seen untold amounts of violence, for whom life in their homeland had become more or less unbearable. It was true probably that severe trauma could never be escaped, that you carried it with you wherever you went, but trauma Krishan knew was also indelibly linked to the physical environments in which it was experienced, to specific sounds, images, languages, and times of day, as a result of which it was often impossible for people to continue living in the places they’d seen violence occur. It was often hard, he’d read somewhere, to convince a person who’d had a serious car accident to get back into a car, many such people preferring to take another mode of transport wherever they could from then on, and if this was the case with car accidents how much harder must it have been to convince people to remain in places they’d been bombarded by shelling, places they’d come face-to-face with punctured bodies and severed limbs? Even if they were the only places they’d ever known, places their forebears had lived and that they themselves had never imagined leaving, how was it possible to convince such people not to risk their lives going elsewhere, not to attempt migrating to countries that seemed, in their minds, far removed from these sites of trauma, even if they know they were likely to die in the process and even if they knew, in the heart of hearts, that most people in places like Australia and America and Europe would never let them live in their countries with full dignity?
Our novel slips into these recollections of trauma and current circumstances and then quickly digresses to memories of his activist lover, their physical connections, where the intimacy of space is explored, or to another musing on the smoking of a cigarette and the addictive personality. A novel combining the exploration of spaces, and the passing of time. Here the Krishan is musing on the levelling of Tamil cemeteries:
The truth was that eventually most people would have ceased remembering the past anyway, even if all remaining traces of the Tigers had been left untouched, for the truth was that all monuments lose their meaning and significance with the passing of time, disappearing, like the statues and memorials in Columbo dedicated to the so-called independence struggle against the British, into the vast unseen and unconsidered background of everyday life. Deliberately or not the past was always being forgotten, in all places and among all peoples, a phenomenon that had less to do with the forces that seek or erase or rewrite history than simply the nature of time, with the precedence the present always seems to have over what has come before, the precedence not of the present moment, which we never seen to have access to, but of the present situation, which is always demanding our attention, always so forceful and vivid and overwhelming that as soon as one of its elements disappears we forget it ever existed. A short we wore every week for several years can be thrown away and then forgotten forever the week after, a table on which we ate two meals a day for a decade can be replaced and the strangeness of the new arrangement gone within a month, and even when something vital disappears, something our lives have centered on for years, even then we move on very quickly, very quickly adjusting to the new circumstanced, so that within a few months or years the new way stats to seem like the way things have always been.
Despite the enclosed spaces where Krishan lives, travels, funeral rooms etc. he is also always musing on the horizon, the space of endless possibilities, contemplating grandeur, the immense future, a place (possibly) away from Tamil struggles. You’ll have to read the book to understand all the references to the horizon as I do not want to add spoiler alerts.
This was an immensely enjoyable novel, dense and with many a philosophical or political musing. I am very pleased it has made the Booker Prize shortlist. I am also very pleased that more people in the wider world will at least read two pages about our archaic government’s refugee policies, the more international knowledge, the more international pressure. Thank you Anuk Arudpragasam.
The shortlist for the 2021 Booker Prize has just been announced. Here are the six novels that will be vying for the main gong that will be announced on Wednesday 3 November 2021:
A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam
The Promise by Damon Galgut
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed
Bewliderment by Richard Powers
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
South African Damon Galgut has made the shortlist for the third time (‘The Good Doctor’ and ‘In A Strange Room’), Richard Powers for the second time (‘The Overstory’) and Patricia Lockwood has made the list with her debut novel.
Chair of the Judges, Maya Jasanoff said the following:
With so many ambitious and intelligent books before us, the judges engaged in rich discussions not only about the qualities of any given title, but often about the purpose of fiction itself. We are pleased to present a shortlist that delivers as wide a range of original stories as it does voices and styles.
I’ve recently finished reading Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel and will be back in the following days with my look at that work.
We lack a language for speaking honestly about suicide because we find the topic so hard to think about, at once both deeply unpleasant and gruesomely compelling. When someone ends their own life, whether a friend, a family member or even a celebrity who we identify with – think about the confused reactions to the deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman in recent times (although I suspect we could identify stories exerting a similar effect in any year) – one of two reactions habitually follow. We either quietly think that they were being foolish, selfish and irresponsible, or we decide their actions were caused by factors outside of their control (severe depression, chronic addiction, and so on). That is, if they acted freely in killing themselves, we implicitly condemn them: but if we declare that their actions were constrained by uncontrollable behavioural factors like depression, we remove their freedom.
Against this tendency, I want to open up a space for thinking about suicide as a free act that should not be morally reproached or quietly condemned. Suicide needs to be understood and we desperately need a more grown-up, forgiving and reflective discussion of the topic. Too often, the entire debate about suicide is dominated by rage. The surviving spouses, families and friends of someone who committed suicide meet any attempt to discuss suicide with an understandable anger. But we have to dare. We have to speak.
When I published the original blog post I was inundated with inclusions to the list of writers. Today I present ten more writers who took their own lives and who you may not have read.
Ann Quinn (1936-1973). British born author of the novels ‘Berg’ (1964), ‘Three’ (1966), ‘Passages’ (1969) and ‘Tripticks’ (1972), her works have recently been republished by both Dalkey Archive and And Other Stories. In August 1973 a witness saw a woman walking into the sea near Brighton pier and contacted the police; the next day, a yachtsman found a body who was later identified at Quinn. In 2018 And Other Stories published ‘The Unmapped Country. Stories and Fragments’, here’s the opening of the title story:
‘Good morning and how are we today?’ ‘Blood rotten if you must know.’ ‘Why is that – tell me more?’ Silence. Patient confronted psychiatrist. Woman and man. She looked at the thin hair he had carefully placed over his yellow hust. Thin lips, almost no lips. Thich hands, bunches of spiders on his knuckles. He wrote or doodled, leaning forward, back. ‘I don’t like your madness.’ ‘What do you mean by that Sandra?’ Pen poised, ready to stab yet another record. She could not see his eyes, the light bounced, spiralled in his spectacles. Black tentacles crept from his nostrils. In the distance a woman screamed. ‘Won’t you explain further Sandra – tell me what you are thinking?’
Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972). Born in the same year as Ann Quinn and taking her own life one year prior, Alejandra Pizarnik was an Argentine poet. New Directions published a collection of her poems in 2016, translated by Yvette Siegert. Titled ‘Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972’. After leaving a hospital, where she was institutionalized, Alejandra Pizarnik took an overdose of barbituates. Here is the opening to the ‘Extracting the Stone of Madness’ (without the epigraph):
The bad light is near and nothing is real. When I think of all that I’ve read of the spirit – when I closed my eyes, I saw luminous bodies turning in the mist, on the site of tenuous dwellings. Don’t be afraid, no one will come after you. All the grave robbers have gone. Silence, always silence; the gold coins of sleep. I speak the way I speak inside. Not with the voice intent on sounding human, but with the other one, the one that insists I’m still a creature of the forest.
Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972). Maybe Kawabata shouldn’t be named here as he did win the Nobel Prize in 1968 so he is likely to have been read by more people than some of the other writers I am featuring. There is also speculation that his death by gassing was an accident, and there are also claims that he was haunted by his friend’s Yukio Mishima’s suicide two years prior. A raft of works that I could quote from and I have reviewed a number of his books over the years, most recently his collection of short stories “House of the Sleeping Beauties and other stories (translated by Edward G. Seidensticker), the title story following the tale of an aged man paying to sleep with young drugged virginal girls, the drugs causing them to be asleep when he arrives:
It was a house frequented by old men who could no longer use women as women; but Eguchi, on this third visit, knew that to sleep with such a girl was a fleeting consolation, the pursuit of a vanished happiness in being alive. And were there among them old men who secretly asked to sleep forever beside a girl who had been put to sleep? There seemed to be a sadness in the young girl’s body that called up in an old man a longing for death. But perhaps Eguchi was, among the old men who came to the house, one of the more easily moved; and perhaps most of them but wanted to drink in the youth of girls put to sleep, to enjoy girls who would not awaken. (pp58-59)
Guido Morselli (1912-1973). Morselli’s tale is a tragic one in that all his novels and essays were posthumously published after he committed suicide, due to the rejection of his manuscripts by many publishing houses. His novel ‘Dissipatio H.G.: The Vanishing’, translated by Frederika Randall, was published in 2020 by The New York Review of Books. The novel was their December 2020 Book of the month, their summary is as follows:
From his solitary buen retiro in the mountains, the last man on earth drives to the capital Chrysopolis to see if anyone else has survived the Vanishing. But there’s no one else, living or dead, in that city of “holy plutocracy,” with its fifty-six banks and as many churches. He’d left the metropolis to escape his fellow humans and their struggles and ambitions, but to find that the entire human race has evaporated in an instant is more than he had bargained for. Meanwhile, life itself—the rest of nature—is just beginning to flourish now that human beings are gone.
Guido Morselli’s arresting postapocalyptic novel, written just before he died by suicide in 1973, depicts a man much like the author himself—lonely, brilliant, difficult—and a world much like our own, mesmerized by money, speed, and machines. Dissipatio H.G. is a precocious portrait of our Anthropocene world, and a philosophical last will and testament from a great Italian outsider.
Karin Boye (1900-1941). A Swedish poet, who is more well known in the English speaking world for her dystopian novel ‘Kallocain’ (1940), translated by David McDuff in the Penguin Classics edition, Karin Boye overdoes on sleeping pills, in the open, curled up on a boulder, which is now a memorial stone, in her later years she lived with Margot Hanel, who she referred to as “her wife”, who laso suicided soon after Karin Boye’s death. Here is a the opening of ‘Kallocain’ (tr. David McDuff):
The book I now sit down to write will inevitably appear pointless to many – if indeed I dare suppose that ‘many’ will ever have a chance to read it – since quite on my own initiative, without anyone’s orders, I am beginning a task of this king and yet am myself not really clear about its purpose. I will and must, and that is all. Ever more inexorable are the demands for purpose and method in what is done and said, so that not a word shall fall at random – it is only the author of this book who has been compelled to go the other way, out into futility. For although my years here as a prisoner and chemist – they must be over twenty, I imagine – have been full enough of work and hurry, there must be something that feels this to be insufficient, and has directed and envisioned another task within me, one that I myself had no possibility of envisioning, and in what I nevertheless have had a deep and almost painful interest. That task will be completed when I have written my book. SO although I realize how absurd my writings must appear in the light of all rational and practical thinking, I shall write all the same.
Sanmao (1943-1991). Born Chen Mao-ping, Sanmao adopted the pen name adopted from the main character of Zhang Leping’s most famous work. Sanmao studied philosophy at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan, her partner, to whom she was engaged died of a heart attack and after returning to Madrid, (where she had studied) she rekindled a relationship with a Spanish marine engineer José María Quero y Ruíz they later married in 1973 while living together in the then Spanish-controlled Western Sahara. It was from her experiences here that she wrote the autobiographical ‘The Stories of the Sahara’ part travelogue part memoir about her experiences with her husband living in the desert. Her husband drowned three years after the book’s publication, and little more than eleven years later Sanmao took her own life by hanging herself in the Taipei Veterans General Hospital with a pair of silk stockings. She has also written the script for the film ‘Red Dust’ a highly awarded film directed by Yim Ho, but interestingly at the 1990 Taiwan Golden Horse Awards, where the film won eight awards, it did not win the best screenplay category.
Henri Roorda (1870-1925). Roorda was raised amidst revolutionary ideals: when he was a child, his family had to relocate to Switzerland after his father was declared persona non grata by the Dutch government, and there his parents befriended the anarchist thinkers Élisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin [taken from Asymptote Journal]. Although the author of numerous political and educational essays, Roorda is known for his essay published in 1925, ‘Mon suicide’ soon after publication shooting himself in the heart. An excerpt from the essay has been translated by Eva Richter and published by Asymptote Journal. You can read that excerpt here.
Aliocha Coll (1948-1990). Aliocha Coll’s writing is described as “avant-garde verbal experimentalism” along the lines of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett , Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Julián Ríos. The Javier Marias blog apparently quotes Marias about Coll’s writing:
“I asked him why he didn’t try to do something less avant-garde. He really had a lot of literary talent and could have done anything. Admittedly, his texts were very hermetic. It was difficult for an editor to take the risk of publishing something that the most conventional reader would not understand”
Coll’s novels ‘Atila’ (1991) and ‘El thread de seda’ (1992) were published posthumously. His works remain untranslated into English.
Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868). Adalbert Stifter’s Wiki page states, “He was notable for the vivid natural landscapes depicted in his writing and has long been popular in the German-speaking world, while remaining almost entirely unknown to English readers.” Hopefully that view will change with the recent publication of ‘Motley Stones’, by The New York Review of Books, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole. Adalbert Stifler, suffering from the effects of cirrhosis of the liver, slashed his own throat with a razor, taking three days to die. HE left behind a substantial body of work, here is the blurb from NYRB for ‘Motley Stones’:
For Kafka he was “my fat brother”; Thomas Mann called him “one of the most peculiar, enigmatic, secretly audacious and strangely gripping storytellers in world literature.” Often misunderstood as an idyllic poet of “beetles and buttercups,” the nineteenth-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter can now be seen as a radical experimenter with narrative and a forerunner of nature writing’s darker currents. One of his best-known works, the novella cycle Motley Stones now appears in its first complete English translation, a rendition that respects the bracing strangeness of the original. In six thematically linked novellas, including the beloved classic “Rock Crystal,” human dramas play out amid the natural cycles of the Alps or the urban rhythms of Vienna—environments so keenly observed that they emerge as the tales’ most indomitable protagonists. Stifter’s human characters are equally haunting—children braving perils, eccentrics and loners harboring enigmatic torments. “We seek to glimpse the gentle law that guides the human race,” Stifter famously wrote. What he glimpsed, more often than not, was the abyss that lies behind the idyll. The tension between his humane sensitivity and his dark visions is what lends his writing its heartbreaking power.
Unica Zürn (1916-1970). A German author and artist, Zürn is remembered for her works of anagram poetry and automatic drawing and for her photographic collaborations with Hans Bellmer. This from Zürn’s Wiki page:
The majority of her mature texts, if not explicitly autobiographical, closely resemble the author’s life experiences. Dark Spring is a coming-of-age novel, of sorts, that follows a young woman as she has her first sexual encounters and experiences the first hints of mental illness. Several recurring archetypal characters appear in the book: the idealized father, the despised mother, and a troubled girl with masochistic tendencies. Disconcertingly, Zürn’s death seems to be foreshadowed in the text as the protagonist of Dark Spring eventually commits suicide by jumping out of her bedroom window.
Zürn did commit suicide by jumping from her Paris apartment window, whilst on five days leave from a mental hospital. Her most recent work to be published in English is ‘The Trumpets of Jericho’ (translated by Christina Svendsen) and published in 2015 by Wakefield Press. Here is Wakefiled’s blurb of Unica Zürn’s book:
This fierce fable of childbirth by German Surrealist Unica Zürn was written after she had already given birth to two children and undergone the self-induced abortion of another in Berlin in the 1950s. Beginning in the relatively straightforward, if disturbing, narrative of a young woman in a tower (with a bat in her hair and ravens for company) engaged in a psychic war with the parasitic son in her belly, The Trumpets of Jericho dissolves into a beautiful nightmare of hypnotic obsession and mythical language, stitched together with anagrams and private ruminations. Arguably Zürn’s most extreme experiment in prose, and never before translated into English, this novella dramatizes the frontiers of the body—its defensive walls as well as its cavities and thresholds—animating a harrowing and painfully, twistedly honest depiction of motherhood as a breakdown in the distinction between self and other, transposed into the language of darkest fairy tales.
There are still many many more writers I could have included in this list, and maybe I will do another post, in another year or so, listing a few more. Again, will leave you with the same closing quote from Simon Critchley’s ‘Notes on Suicide’:
Perhaps the closest we come to dying is through writing, in a sense that writing is a leave-taking from life, a temporary abandonment of the world and one’s petty preoccupations in order to see things more clearly. In writing, one steps back and steps outside life in order to view it more dispassionately, both more distantly and more proximately. With a steadier eye. One can lay things to rest in writing: ghosts, hauntings, regrets, and the memories that flay us alive.
Sometimes I read simply for pleasure, when I read this novel I had no intention of writing anything about it, but when I went to log my reading on that Bezos review site I found that only FIVE people had entered a rating, I was stunned as this is an outstanding work. I then thought I better jot down some thoughts as it may lead to a few more people reading the book. Please note – I didn’t take notes throughout my reading so this is a quick look, recalling, off the top of my head, passages that have stuck with me.
I’ve consulted the Ricorso Irish writers database to ensure that Eimar O’Duffy actually existed. Why? His novel ‘King Goshawk and the Birds’, “republished” by Dalkey Archive in 2017, states that the book was “originally published in 1926”, set in the future the depictions of a Capitalist society gone rife, and especially the references to war, were too close to current truth that I felt there was no way this work could have been published before World War II.
‘King Goshawk and the Birds’ is the first novel in a trilogy, a Menippean satire, the next two volumes being ‘The Spacious Adventures of the Man in the Street’ (1928) and ‘Asses in Clover’ (1933), the second was due to be published by Dalkey in 2018, however I’m not sure it has actually made it to the printers and the third volume is available through Veritas Books.
Veritas Books has a precis of ‘King Goshawk and the Birds’ as an introduction to their edition of the third volume.
‘King Goshawk and the Birds’ is set in a future world devastated by ‘progress’ and ruled by King Capitalists. King Goshawk, the supreme King Capitalist, decides to buy up all the flowers and birds, placing them in the theme parks for which an entrance fee is charged. Enraged at this desecration of nature and human rights, an ancient Dublin philosopher calls the mythical Cuchulain back to earth. He sires a son, Cuanduine, whose task is to right the wrongs perpetrated by the capitalists.
Cuchulain, one of the greatest heroes of Irish mythology and legend, was a warrior in the service of Conchobhar, king of Ulster. Best known for his single-handed defense of Ulster, Cuchulain is said to have lived in the first century B . C ., and tales about him and other heroes began to be written down in the A . D . 700S. Cuchulain’s adventures were recorded in a series of tales known as the Ulster Cycle.
So we have a setting, referencing Irish mythical characters, however it is not in the straight narrative flow where the riches of this novel lie. This is a deeply black satirical work, scathing of capitalism, and the rolling over of the working classes, the antipathy of any character other than the Philosopher, and the defeatist attitudes of all. It covers the media, manipulative journalists, the arts, cheap literature, the church, parliaments, millionaires clubs and a whole lot more.
Using a range of techniques, you don’t know what the next chapter will bring. For example one chapter is the newspaper that Cuanduine is holding, being new to Earth he doesn’t understand what a newspaper is, the Philosopher explains; “It is written down the news of all the things that happened yesterday in the world; and to-morrow I shall get another which will relate all that happened to-day.” “But how, asked Cuanduine , “can the truth be ascertained in so short a time?” “I did not say that it told the truth,” replied the Philosopher. “I only said it told the news.” Here are a couple of examples from that newspaper:
BRITISH LABOUR TROUBLE A general strike is threatened in British coal mines as a result of the proposed cut of two shillings per week in wages. The Coal Trust have issues a statement that it will be impossible to work the mines at a profit unless the cut is accepted.
HOUSES TO LET A five-roomed house to let. South Suburbs. Moderate rent. No children. Cosy house. Two bedrooms, sitting-room, kitchen, bath. £150 and taxes. No dogs. No children. Delightful house. Five miles from city. Six bed., four reception rooms. Billiard room, conservatory, stables, garage, kennels, garden and kitchen garden. No children. Fine house, beautifully situated in own ground ten miles from city. Children objected. Gate lodge to let. Five rooms. No dogs, no poultry, no children. Suit married couple. Perfect house. Situated on own grounds. Beautiful scenery. Healthy climate. Five bedrooms, four reception. Day and night nursery. School-room. Large Bower garden. Playing field, with goal-posts., etc. Tennis-court. Suit married couple. No children. Pigstye to let. 10s weekly. Suit large family. Victorian mansion. Beyond repair. Situated in formerly fashionable quarter in heart of city. Reasonable rent. No objection to dogs, cats, poultry, canaries, tortoises, goldfish, axolotls, or even children.
There is a later part of the novel where two rival newspapers battle to provide coverage of Cuanduine’s tour of England:
One half of the Press of England was in those days owned by Lord Mammoth, and the other half by Lord Cumbersome. These two potentates had bought up all their smaller rivals, and would have bought up each other if they could: for though both were staunch upholders of the principles of competitive civilization, they knew better than to allow any competition against themselves if they could help it.
Cuanduine, being a descendent of a mythical legend, is far from educated in matters of etiquette and courts numerous women at the same time. One incident about his transgressions is presented as a play “A Comedy of Loves”.
By having a mythical descendant, Eimar O’Duffy is able to use the innocent and incorruptible eyes to put a mirror on society, a base society, one that has allowed all of the world’s birds and flowers to be plundered for capitalist gain. A message of almost 100 years ago about nature being usurped for wealth creation by just a few.
We have countries in dispute over minor differences, unable to come to terms over a minor clause in a ceasefire agreement, even the League of Nations is inept. We have corrupt Governments, gated estates housing millionaires, hardly an altruistic inhabitant. The world of the Cuanduine trilogy is dark, very dark.
Laugh out loud bleak, this is an outstanding novel of its time, there are hints that O’Duffy had read James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (the chapter that is a play?), however its scathing and quite extraordinary crystal ball gazing is a pleasure to read. Pity not a lot has changed in 95 years.
Born in 1954, Bruck an der Mur, Austria; lives and works in Vienna, Austria
Porsche Carrera chassis, body and interior, with polystyrene and fiberglass
Many of you may know the “Fat Car” an artwork exhibited in the Museum of Old and New Art (more commonly known as “MONA”) in Tasmania. If you don’t know it the accompanying artwork summary, above,, without a picture, means little.
A month or so ago I had a look at J.-K. Huysmans’ ‘The Cathedral’ (translated by Brendan King), a novel that follows the life of Huymans’ alter-ego Durtal and is set in Chartres where he details the Chartres Cathedral in excruciating detail. Here’s a description of a pair of statues (and there are thousands):
Saint Vincent, in his long gown, was bowing his head contritely. He was tortured in a wholly culinary way, thought Durtal, because according to Voragine’s legend they scraped his body so furiously with sharp brass rakes that his guts fell out . . . Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris, was thrown as food to the lions, who wouldn’t go near him, then beheaded at Montmartre . . . he wasn’t humble and plaintive, like his neighbour, the Spanish deacon, but upright and imperious, his hand raised, more perhaps to admonish the faithful than to bless them…
Huysmans novel was his best seller, allowing him to retire from his day job completely and to concentrate on his religious calling and writing full time. Nowadays you can call up images of the relevant sections of the church on your device and read Huysmans’ descriptions alongside a picture, when published you would have had to travel to the Chartres Cathedral to observe the artworks, statues, stained glass windows, architecture in question.
When reading Huysmans I thought it may be a good idea to put his book side by side with Fernando Pessoa’s ‘Lisbon. What the tourist should see’, another “tour guide” written by a well know writer. How wrong could I be? Have you ever tried reviewing a handbook?
I’ve always found the awakening of a city, whether wreathed in mists or not, more moving than sunrise in the country. There is a stronger sense of rebirth, more to look forward to; instead of merely illuminating the fields, the silhouettes of trees and the open palms of leaves with first dark then liquid light and finally with pure luminous gold, the sun multiplies its every effect in windows, on walls, on roof […] – so many windows, so many different walls, so many varied rooftops – a splendid morning, diverse among all those diverse realities. Seeing dawn in the countryside does me good, seeing dawn in the city affects me for both good and ill and therefore does me even more good. For the greater hope it brings me contains, as does all hope, the far-off, nostalgic aftertaste of unreality Dawn in the countryside just exists, dawn in the city overflows with promise. One makes you live, the other makes you think. And, along with all the other great unfortunates, I’ve always believed it better to think than to live.
Fernando Pessoa ‘The Book of Disquiet’ [no 318] (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
For the uninitiated, Fernando Pessoa’s ‘The Book of Disquiet’, first published in 1982, is a fragmentary modernist work, pieced together from thousands of pages, scraps and notes, left behind by Pessoa after his death in 1935. In places it celebrates Lisbon, Pessoa’s city, however it is more a haunting autobiography (imagined). If you would like a better homage to Pessoa’s Lisbon then his book ‘Lisbon. What the tourist should see’ is the tonic.
This is one obscure title, written by Pessoa, in English sometime, in the 1920s. Never published, the manuscript was found amongst his papers long after his death. Shearsman Books first published this obscure title in 2008.
It starts off promisingly, a setting from Pessoa’s pen, an imagined arrival at the port:
Over seven hills, which are as many points of observation whence the most magnificent panoramas may be enjoyed, the vast irregular and many-coloured mass of houses that constitute Lisbon is scattered. For the traveller who comes in from the sea, Lisbon, even from afar, rises like a fair vision in a dream, clear cut against a bright blue sky which the sun gladdens with its gold, And the domes, the monuments, the old castles jut up above the mass of houses, like far-off heralds of this delightful seat, of this blessed region. The tourist’s wonder begins when the ship approaches the bar, and, after passing the Bugio lighthouse – that little guardian-tower at the mouth of the river, built three centuries ago on the plan of Friar João Turriano – the castled Tower of Belém appears, a magnificent specimen of sixteenth century military architecture, in the romantic-gothic-moorish style. As the ship moves forward, the river grows more narrow, soon to widen again, forming one of the largest natural harbours in the world, with ample anchorage for the greatest of fleets. Then, on the left, the masses of houses cluster brightly over the hills. That is Lisbon.
We are then guided through a landing, disembarking, Customs, then:
We shall now ask the tourist to come with us. We will act as his cicerone and go over the capital with him, pointing out the monuments, the gardens, the more remarkable buildings, the museums – all that is in any way worth seeing in this marvellous Lisbon. After his baggage has been handed to a trustworthy porter, who will deliver it at the hotel if the tourist is staying awhile, let him take his place with us in a motor-car and go on towards the centre of the city. On the way we will be showing him everything that is worth seeing.
From here the book becomes tedious in the extreme, unless you are actually holding it, have a chaperone and a trustworthy driver of your motor-car and can observe all of the features that Pessoa points out.
As an example, I thought I would choose the section about the library, readers of literature are always excited by stories of libraries:
The National Library (Biblioteca Nacional) is on the second floor. It was founded in 1796 with the name of Real Biblioteca Pública da Corte (Royal Court Public Library), being made up with the books that formed the library of the Board of Censors, that is to say, the booked that had belonged to the Jesuits and to the Royal Academy of History. The library has been successively added to by purchase and gift. The library has 11 rooms and 14 passages, on two floors, and contains 360,000 volumes. At the entrance stands the statue of Queen Maria I, by Machado de Castro, and the busts of Castilho (by Jose Simões de Almeida) and of Dom António da Costa. The coloured glazed-tiles (azulejos) of the sixteenth century are worth seeing; the formerly belonged to the Senhora da Vida chapel, in St. Andrew’s Church, now no longer in existence.
The tiles may be glazed, so were my eyes.
A book I will keep, in the lost hope that one day I will travel to Lisbon and I can walk in Pessoa’s footsteps and have him narrate the experience, however as a literary text it falls flat.
The book contains some very interesting maps taken from the 1920 French edition of the Baedeker guide to Spain and Portugal and there are plenty of photographs, all from pre-war postcard, dating from roughly 1920 up until the late 1930’s. As a curio yes, as a book you read from cover to cover??? A bit like my reading of ‘The Book of Disquiet’, one I dabble in.
‘The Oblate of St. Benedict’ is the final instalment in J.-K. Huysmans’ tetralogy following the spiritual journey of Durtal, a thinly veiled version of Huysmans himself. The sequence began with ‘Là-bas’, and is followed by ‘En Route’, ‘La Cathédrale’ (‘The Cathedral’) and ‘L’oblat’. For the Dedalus Editions of the four works the translators vary, with ‘Là-bas’ and ‘The Cathedral’ translated by Brendan King, ‘En Route’ by W. Fleming, and the final work by Edward Perceval.
A high level summary of our journey with Durtal so far, shows him dabbling with Satanism and attending Black Masses in ‘Là-bas’, before he begins to question decadence and enters a personal purgatory where he questions his faith, his sexual liaisons with a friend’s wife and turns to Catholicism, finally spending some time in a monastery, La Trappe, in ‘En Route’, before committing to a life of dedication to the Virgin Mary and being installed at Chartres where he reflects on the architecture, religious art, stained glass windows and the role it plays in Christian faith in the novel ‘The Cathedral’.
We now join Durtal ten years after his time at La Trappe, and now follow his his time as an oblate at Val-des-Saints and the Abbey of Solesmes. Whilst earlier novels dealt specifically with Durtal’s beliefs and his struggles to “covert” here we learn, on the opening page, his struggles with remaining cloistered, “the only monastic life that I could live is the life seen there!”, as opposed to being free to move about, unlike the monks:
And yet he could not forget how, every time he left the Abbey and sat in the carriage conveying him to Sablé station, he had breathed deeply, as a man might do when relieved of an awful load; how, too, directly he was in the train, he said to himself, “Thank God! Here I am, a free man again!” And yet, in spite of this, he really missed that feeling of discomfort and of restraint due to being with others, and was sorry for his deliverance rom set hours and from unlooked-for distraction and inevitable minor worries. He found it difficult to analyse these feelings or to account for such abrupt changes. “Yes, certainly,” he would declare, “Solesmes stands alone; there is no place like it in the whole of France; religion there has an artistic splendour to be met with nowhere else; the chant is perfect; the services are conducted with matchless pomp. Where else, too, could I ever hope to meet an Abbot as broad-minded as Dom Delatte, or experts in musical palaeography more skilled learned than Dom Mocquereau and Dom Cagin, or, for that matter, with any monks more helpful and engaging — quite so, but…”
Whilst the earlier works dealt with Durtal’s struggle with his spiritual vocation here the reality of the monastic rules plays havoc with Durtal’s reconciliation with his writing career:
“Supposing the Abbot allows me to work at my books in peace,” he said to himself, “and agrees not to meddle with literary matters (and so broad-minded a man as he can be trusted in this), that would be no use for I should be absolutely incapable of writing a book in this Abbey. On several occasions I tried to write, but the mornings and the afternoons are so broken up by services that all work of an artistic kind is out of the question. This sort of life, cut up into little slices, may be first-rate for collecting materials and for amassing notes, but for turning out good literary work, oh dear no!” And he remembered certain distressing occasions when, playing truant from one service, he had endeavoured to work at a chapter only to be oppressed by the thought that, directly he had begun to get under way, he would have to leave his cell and go to the chapel for another service. “Thus,” he concluded, “the cloister is useful for preparing materials for a book, but it is best written elsewhere.”
The theological struggle that we have seen in the earlier novels, has made way and he is now struggling with his art, throughout we learn of Durtal’s settling with his demons of the past:
By way of consolation it is well to bear in mind that the devil has no power over the will and very little over the mind, but an unlimited power of the fancy. There he is master and there he holds revel with his myrmidons; but all this riot is of no more consequence than the din of a military band which passes your windows. The panes rattle, everything in the room shakes and you are deafened. But you have only to sit tight and wait till the blare of the brass and the noise of the drums have died away; the tumult is without; we feel its effect, indeed, but we are not responsible for the effect, unless, of course, we go to the window the better to hear; then, there would be assent. All this is easily said, but . . . another question on which light is needed is that of charity ort brotherly love. Everybody admits that we must love our neighbour; but, in certain cases, where does love begin and where does it end? At certain times, too, we may ask what becomes of truth, justice, candour, under this cloak of charity! For, after all, hypocrisy, sloth and injustice are often separated from charity only by a thread’s breadth. To avoide giving offence you may help a bad cause; you do harm by professing no to judge another, and cowardice and a wish to avoid getting entangled in unpleasantnesses, play no small part. The boundary line between this virtue and these vices is so indefinite that you never know if you have not crossed it. The theological theory is all right in its way: we must be ruthless as regards evil deeds, but merciful to evil doers; but this general principle doesn’t solve the special cases, and all the cases are special. The border-line that must be crossed is ill-defined and dark; nor is there any fence or warning-board to prevent you breaking your neck.
As in the previous works there are detailed historical explanations of the religious orders, the roles of white and black monks, and more specifically the role of the oblate. They “occupy that position half way between Fathers and lay-brothers”, the live in, or near, the monastery (in Durtal’s case near), but they have not taken vows.
Like ‘The Cathedral’ this book can tend towards the tedious, wherein the previous work there were detailed descriptions of stained-glass windows, art works or sculptures, a la a guidebook for people who cannot visit Chartres Cathedral, here we dip into more ekphrastic pages again on art works and sculptures. Huysmans is returning to his earlier writing days as an art critic. Now with instant copies of images available on the internet, detailed descriptions of a painting can be seen as peripheral, however, to call up the art works and then read Huysmans descriptions helps you to see the works with his eyes, with his experience, his trove of religious knowledge. As he says religious art is the “best form of propaganda.”
There is also political subjects and the Communities Bill of the time, rulings impacting monks, and oblates, with Benedictines being banished from France. This leads to lamentations on the future of monasteries, his order, his role. And as we learned in earlier works the Dreyfus Affair, with the Catholics showing their anti-Semite views, also plays a part here:
Durtal – who had always been persuaded that eh Devil had his finger in the Dreyfus Affair, and looked upon it as noting more than a spring-board, set up by Jews and Protestants, from which to leap at the Church’s throat and strangle her…”
At times a work that causes frustration, even a questioning as to why I was even reading it, however a decent conclusion to a spiritual journey. In my mind the works peter out over the last two instalments, becoming overly involved with obsessions with the Virgin Mary and the endless theological arguments, then again they do capture the mind of a man who has become overtly converted to his religion. A long journey, and, at times, a tedious one, however one I am glad I undertook.
I know you all love a list, and this blog did start to track the Booker Prize (and due to various reasons morphed into something completely different). So today, here are the longlisted titles for the 2021 Booker Prize.
‘A Passage North’ by Anuk Arudpragasam
‘Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk
‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut
‘The Sweetness of Water’ by Nathan Harris
‘Klara and the Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro
‘An Island’ by Karen Jennings
‘A Town Called Solace’ by Mary Lawson
‘No One is Talking About This’ by Patricia Lockwood
‘The Fortune Men’ by Nadifa Mohamed
‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers
‘China Room’ by Sunjeev Sahota
‘Great Circle’ by Maggie Shipstead
‘Light Perpetual’ by Francis Spufford
The thirteen longlisted titles come from 158 submissions. The award is open to novels, written in English, published in the UK or Ireland between 1 October 2020 and 30 September 2021, which means there are still titles unavailable to the reading public.
The shortlist will be announced on 14 September, before the winner is announced on 3 November.
Not too sure I’ll get to any of these myself (although a couple of titles have appealed for a little while so never say never – hint, one of them I’ve used as the header photo).