Là-Bas – J.-K. Huysmans (tr. Brendan King)

‘Là-bas’ is the opening novel in J.-K. Huysmans’ tetralogy that tracks the character Durtal and his spiritual journey. The main character, Durtal is a thinly veiled version of Huysmans himself, the sequence of novels beginning with ‘Là-bas’, and is followed by ‘En Route’, ‘La Cathédrale’ and ‘L’oblat’.

After ‘Là-bas’ appeared in serialized form in the newspaper ‘Écho de Paris’ irate readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions, once in book form it was banned from sale at railway station kiosks and therefore took on an underground notoriety. As mentioned in my previous post, about the two recent English translations, the book was even burned in the USA by the Society for the Suppression of Vice as it “constituted an outrage on public morals”.

Our work opens with a discussion, a rejection of Naturalism. As we know, Huysmans moved away from Naturalism towards Decadence in the late 1800’s. This novel appearing seven years after ‘À Rebours’ (‘Against Nature’). The opening paragraph talks of Zola’s ‘L’Assommoir’ and a further discussion is prompted by the mention of Goncourt and Flaubert:

“I grant you that, they are honest, rebellious, proud artists, and so I put them in a class apart. I admit, too, and without your prompting, that Zola is a great landscape painter, a marvellous handler of crowd scenes and a spokesman of the people. Besides, in his novels he hasn’t, thank God, pushed the theories he expounds in his articles – which advocate the intrusion of Positivism into art – to their logical limits. But the work of his best disciple, Rosny, the only novelist of talent who’s fully absorbed his master’s ideas, has become a tedious display of amateurish learning, the wisdom of a lab-technician written-up in pseudo-scientific jargon. No, there’s nothing more to say. The whole school of Naturalism, such as it exists today, reflects the desires of a hideous age. With it, we’ve arrived at an art so shabby and so hackneyed I would rather call it ‘conciergism’. Why? Just read their latest books and what do you find? Simple anecdotes, scraps of news cut out of the papers, nothing but tired old stories and unreliable histories, without a single idea about life, about the soul, to prop them up, and all related in a style like that of a bad stained-glass window. I’ve reached the point where, after I’ve finished one of these books, I can’t recall any of the inconsequential descriptions, the insipid harangues, they contain. Nothing remains with me but the astonishing thought that a man can write three or four hundred pages, even though he has absolutely nothing to reveal to us, nothing to say to us.”

This paragraph alone, which appears within the first three pages, tells us that Huysmans is undergoing a novelistic journey of a different type, we are about to undertake a journey of the soul.

‘Là-bas’ is constructed using a number of concurrent streams, past and present. Our protagonist, Durtal, is a writer and is researching Gilles de Rais, a lord and a knight, who served in the French army and was a companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc. More notoriously de Rais, post Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake, became erratic, spending heavily, falling foul of the church and the Royals and then turned to the occult, kidnapping and murdering hundreds (accounts vary between 100 and 600) of young boys, he admitted guilt and was executed by “hanging and burning” in October 1440.

The novel explores Durtal’s research about de Rais, anecdotes of the horrendous torture and defilement of young boys, but it also concurrently explores Durtal’s investigations into contemporary satanic practices, looking for characters who can remove death spells, attending a black mass, sacrilegious potions, discussions about the symbolism of bell ringing and astrology, fallen priests, defiled religious hosts…

We also have another thread, with Dural conducting a sordid affair with a friend’s wife, Hyacinthe, the temptations of the flesh.

All of this bound up by Durtal’s struggles with his own demons, all set at the turn of the century, a Fin de Siècle novel, a world that is in decay:

“…but it’s a very good thing is dust. Besides having a bouquet of stale biscuits and the faint aroma of old books, it’s the liquid velvet of things, a fine dry rain which bleaches out excessive colour and brutal tones. Not only that, it’s the cloak of abandonment, the veil of oblivion. Who, therefore, could dislike it, except certain people of a pitiful sort who you ought to think about now and then? Indeed, imagine what life’s like for someone who lives in one of Paris’s passages. Well, picture a consumptive spitting blood and choking in a room on the first floor, under the arched glass roof of an arcade, that of the Passage du Panorama, for example. The window is open, stirring up dust saturated with stale tobacco and lukewarm sweat. The unfortunate is suffocating, begging for someone to give him air. You rush to the window . . . and you close it, because how can you help him to breathe if you can’t shelter him from the dustiness of the arcade and isolate him from it? Well, isn’t this dust which induces haemoptysis and coughing fits rather more harmful than the stuff you’re complaining about?…..
“With regard to dust, looking at it in relation to the way it recalls our origins and reminds us of our ends, did you know that after death our carcasses are devoured by different species of worms, according to whether they’re fat or whether they’re thin? In the corpses of obese people, you find one type of larvae, the rhizophage; in the corpses of lean people, you discover those of the phora. These latter are obviously the aristocrats of the parasite world, a kind of ascetic worm which scorns huge meals, disdaining to feed on large breasts and the piquant stew of a big fat belly. To think that there isn’t even perfect equality in the way larvae extract the dust of death from each one of us . . .”

The Fin de Siècle period is even discussed as a time where attraction to the satanic was inevitable:

“But it has always been so, the ends of centuries are all alike. All are periods of vacillation and confusion. When materialism rages, magic rears its head. This phenomenon occurs every hundred years. Not to go back any further, just look at the close of the last century. Aside from the rationalists and the atheists, you find Saint-Germain, Cagliostro, Saint-Martin, Gabalis, Cazotte, Rosicrucian societies and Hell-Fire Clubs, just like today!”

As I have previously explored with Huysmans’ work (see ‘Drifting’) he highlights what he sees as the advancement of science as being detrimental to society, where is the attraction to the spiritual, more specifically Roman Catholicism?

It’s just the same with demonomaniacs, who, whether consciously or unconsciously, do evil for evil’s sake. They’re no more mad than the monk falling into ecstasies in his cell, or the man who does good for good’s sake. There people, who are completely beyond the reach of medical science, are just at the two opposite poles of the soul, and that’s all.

Durtal’s journey into satanic rituals, researching evil, sins of the flesh, results in him questioning the role of the Devil and how, in this era of decadence, he has settled within Durtal himself:

The Devil has no need to show himself in human or animal form in order to attest to his presence. For him to prove himself, it’s enough that he chooses to reside in those souls whom he exulcerates and incites to unaccountable crimes. Moreover, he can then hold them with the hope – which he himself breathes into them – instead of living inside them, as is really the case and which they’re often unaware of, he’ll submit to their invocations, will appear to them and negotiate, in lawyer-like fashion, the benefits that he’ll grant in exchange for certain forfeits. Even the mere desire to make a pact with him must sometimes result in his seeping into us.

Huysmans manages to blend the past (de Rais and his abdominal crimes) with the present (Durtal’s affair with Hyacinthe). For instance, de Rais is (1) a brave and pious soldier, (2) he is a refined, but a criminally-minded artist, and (3) he becomes a repentant sinner and mystic. Hyacinthe is (1) reserved, haughty, a friend, affectionate and tender, but (2) in bed she is “a whore spitting filth and lost to shame” and (3) she is “a ruthless minx, a truly nasty Satanic woman”.

This is a multi-layered, complex novel exploring Satanism, the occult, and our protagonists’ pursuit of a sinful life. As the cycle of novels unfolds we will learn of Durtal’s move from Hell, to purgatory (‘En Route’) where he struggles with what road to take, the road to heaven, là-haut, or the road to hell, là-bas.

‘Là-bas’ or ‘The Damned’? J.-K. Huysmans

J.-K. Huysmans’ tetralogy following the character Durtal, a thinly veiled version of Huysmans himself, begins with the novel ‘Là-bas’, and is followed by ‘En Route’, ‘La Cathédrale’ and concludes with ‘L’oblat’. Over time I will write about each novel individually, the themes, Durtal’s journey towards Catholic conversion, the symbolism and a whole lot more. Today I want to look at the two currently available English translations of the first novel ‘Là-bas’.

As translator Brendan King points out in his introduction to the Dedalus Books version:

Là-bas is a book to make us look again at what we are and what we believe, and to decide whether we are on the road to heaven, là-haut, or on the road to hell, là-bas.

Translator King has chosen to retain the French title, however the Penguin Classics edition,  translated by Terry Hale, is titled ‘The Damned’. Personally I think the original title retention suits Huysmans work better as it is capturing the journey, “the road to hell” where Durtal starts before taking a different route, là-haut, whereas ‘The Damned’ seems suited to a group of people who are doomed, it has become individualized, who are the damned? Is Durtal damned? For my futher comments in this piece I will refer to the novel as ‘Là-bas’ unless I am quoting Terry Hale who refers to the work as ‘The Damned’.

In their introductions both translators write about the English versions of Huysmans work, and more specifically the subject matter. ‘Là-bas’ was not translated unto English until 1924 with the other three volumes appearing in translation before the first volume ‘En Route’ translated in 1896, ‘La Cathédrale’ 1898, ‘L’oblat’ also appearing in 1924. The novel originally appeared in print serialised in ‘Écho de Paris’, and when the book appeared it was banned from sale in railway station kiosks.  Interestingly when the book appeared in translation in the United States (tr. Keene Wallis) a reviewer stated that “the book was not for smut-hunters”. Apparently this then raised the interest of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and in 1930 the Sanitation Department incinerator received ‘Là-bas’ along with works by Joyce, Schnitzler and Lawrence.

The Penguin Classics edition ‘Introduction’ contains a potted history of the translation of this work into English, the heavily edited versions, the digested versions, and the publishers from the pornographic book trade. This leads to many versions of the work being available. The Dedalus version claiming “‘Là-bas’ has never, until now, been publicly available in a complete and unexpurgated English translation.”

Let’s quickly look at the opening paragraph of each translation:

‘Là-bas’ – Dedalus Books

“So you believe in these ideas so completely, my friend, that you’ve abandoned adultery, love and ambition, all the subjects that the modern novel has made us only too familiar with, to write a history of Gilles de Rais?” Then, after a pause, he added, “I don’t reproach Naturalism for its prison slang or for using the vocabulary of the army latrine and the poorhouse, because that would be unjust and it would be absurd. In the first place, certain subjects call out for them, and in the second, such expressions and words are the plaster and pitch with which it’s possible to build immense and imposing works, as Zola proved with L’Assommoir. No the problem lies elsewhere, what I reproach Naturalism for isn’t the thick stucco of its crude style, but the shoddiness of its ideas, what I reproach it for is for having embodied materialism in literature, and for having glorified the democracy of art.

‘The Damned’ – Penguin Classics

‘Then you are so convinced by these new theories that you plan to jettison all the cliches of the modern novel – adultery, love, ambition – in order to write a biography of Gilles de Rais!’
After a pause, he continued:
‘It is not the obscenity of Naturalism I detest – the language of the lockup, the dosshouse and the latrines – that would be foolish and absurd. Let’s face it, some subjects can’t be treated any other way – Zola’s
L’Assommoir is living proof that works of tremendous vision and power can be constructed out of the linguistic equivalent of pitch and tar. That is not the issue, any more than the fact that I have serious reservations about Naturalism’s heavy-handed, slapdash style. No, what I really object to is Naturalism’s immorality on the intellectual plain – they way it has turned literature into the living incarnation of materialism, the way it promotes the idea of art as something democratic!’

Let’s look at one further paragraph from each:

‘Là-bas’ – Dedalus Books (Chapter VIII page 113)

“Because essentially that’s what Satanism is,” he said to himself, “The question of physical manifestations, which has been disputed since the world began, is really a secondary one when you think about it. The Devil has no need to show himself in human or animal form in order to attest to his presence. For him to prove himself, it’s enough that he chooses to reside in these souls whom he exulcerates and incites to unaccountable crimes. Moreover, he can then hold them with the hope – which he himself breathes into them – that instead of living inside them, as is really the case and which they’re often unaware of, he’ll submit to their invocations, will appear to them and negotiate, in lawyer-like fashion, the benefits that he’ll grant in exchange for certain forfeits. Even the mere desire to make a pact with him must sometimes result in his seeping into us.”

‘The Damned’ – Penguin Classics (Chapter VIII page 94)

‘In fact, that’s what Satanism is really all about,’ said Durtal to himself. ‘The questions everyone always asks, the primordial question, concerning the Devil’s physical appearance, hardly matters when you think about it. Satan does not exactly need to reveal himself either in human or bestial from to make his presence felt. All he has to do, in order to affirm himself, is select the soul in which he wishes to take up residence, the souls he intends to ulcerate and incite to the commission of the most inexplicable crimes; and, to this end, he needs only whisper in the ear of his victim that, instead of domiciling himself in his body without his knowledge, he will obey his summons, appear before him at will, confer advantages on him on the basis of a legally binding pact in exchange for certain concessions. The very fact of being willing to enter into such a pact will often be enough to bring out his presence in us.

I have fully read the Dedalus edition, translated by Brendan King, and have dabbled in the Penguin Classics edition. My personal choice being the Dedalus ‘Là-bas’, however I thought I would present a few examples of the different translations so you could make up your own mind as to the version that suits your reading style. Interestingly Penguin only publish two novels by Huysmans, ‘Against Nature’ (‘A Rebours’) and ‘The Damned’, which I think is a strange choice, why only publish the first volume of a series of four books and even refer to those four books in the introduction?

I will return with a look at ‘Là-bas’ the themes, the high level narrative precis, the symbolism etc. as a separate post.

2021 Miles Franklin Longlist

I know how you all love a list so here is a new one for you.

Today the longlist for the 2021 Miles Franklin Award was announced.

A literature award that was first awarded in 1957, it is presented each year to the novel “of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.”

A first prize of AUD$60,000 makes the Miles Franklin Award one of the most sought after in Australia. The Award was established through the will of the author Miles Franklin (most well-known for the work “My Brilliant Career”).

The winner will be announced on 15 July 2021, with the shortlist to be announced on 16 June 2021.

Here is the 2021 longlist:

‘Amnesty’ by Aravind Adiga (Pan Macmillan Australia)

‘The Rain Heron’ by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing)

‘At the Edge of the Solid World’ by Daniel Davis Wood (Brio)

‘Our Shadows’ by Gail Jones (Text Publishing)

‘Infinite Splendours’ by Sofie Laguna (Allen & Unwin)

‘The Labyrinth’ by Amanda Lohrey (Text Publishing)

‘The Animals in That Country’ by Laura Jean McKay (Scribe Publications)

‘Lucky’s’ by Andrew Pippos (Pan Macmillan Australia)

‘Stone Sky Gold Mountain’ by Mirandi Riwoe (University of Queensland Press)

‘The Fifth Season’ by Philip Salom (Transit Lounge)

‘Song of the Crocodile’ by Nardi Simpson (Hachette Australia)

‘The Inland Sea’ by Madeleine Watts (Pushkin Press)

Personally I will not be reading the long, nor the short, list of this award, after having many disappointing expeditions over the last few years, I have read one title from this list, it does not appear on my blog as it didn’t at all impress.

For more on the award visit https://www.perpetual.com.au/milesfranklin

Drifting – J.-K. Huysmans (tr. Brendan King)

Kafka’s Gregor Samsa cannot get to work because he has become a giant insect, Herman Melville’s Bartleby responds to the menial office tasks with “I would prefer not to” and now I have discovered J.-K. Huysmans’ Monsieur Jean Folantin, a bored office worker who spends his life looking for the perfect meal. As Guy de Maupassant said in his review of Huysmans’ short work: “It’s the story of a clerk looking for a beefsteak. Nothing more.” 

This story, which counts for sixty of the 104 pages of this text, first appeared in 1882, shortly before Huysmans defining ‘À rebours’ (‘Against Nature’), and it contains a number of interesting references and themes which would come to appear in Huysmans later work, the disdain of the Americanisation of Paris, the longing for the better times of the past, Catholic rejection, and the themes of decadence, for example the colour purple.

As the translator, Brendan King, points out the title ‘À vau- l’eau’ is not easily translatable, “in general terms the phrase means to go along in the direction of a flow of water, and is used both literally and metaphorically.” Other translations have been ‘Downstream’, and as King argues this “suffers from the fact that it refers more to a location than an action”, and ‘With the Flow’ which “expresses the literal movement implicit in the original, but is slightly less effective in conveying its existential sense.” King, who has translated a substantial amount of Huysmans’ work, lands on ‘Drifting’ and I feel that captures both the mood and the action.

The seeds of decadence are scattered throughout this work, as Brendan King points out in his introduction:

With the advantage of hindsight, À vau- l’eau, with tis radical blend of dark irony and idiosyncratic subjectivity, seems less an addendum to Huysmans’ earlier Naturalist work, and more a precursor to what would follow.

As our protagonist moves from eating house to eating house, searching for the perfect meal, he contemplates other options, he could move to another neighbourhood for example:

‘If only I had the courage to leave,’ sighed M. Folantin from time to time. But his office was here, and besides he’d been born here, his family had always lived here; all his memories were rooted in this quiet old district, already starting to be disfigured by the knocking through of new streets, by dismal boulevards that were baking in summer and freezing in winter, by bleak avenues that had Americanised the look of the area and destroyed its intimate charm forever, without bringing any benefits in exchange in terms of comfort, gaiety or life.

Or as Monsieur Jean Folantin wanders the banks of the Seine, wasting time looking at the spines of books on stall outside of shops, or contemplating the buildings, before he moves onto another dreadful eating experience:

‘But there you go, the old easygoing attitude has disappeared; besides, the centre of the trade is shifting: nowadays all the antique dealers and antiquarian booksellers in this area are just marking time, and as soon as their leases expire they’ll flee to the other side of the river. Ten years from now the brasseries and cafés will have taken over all the ground-floor premises on the quay. There’s no doubt about it, Paris is turning into a sinister Chicago.’ And by now totally depressed, M. Folantin kept repeating to himself: ‘Let’s make the most of the time left to us, before the crass vulgarity of the New World takes over completely.’

As Parisians are approaching the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the traditions of the past are disappearing, the future is not rosy but bleak, the crass vulgarity of the New World is taking over. This story is an acerbic view of an impotent bachelor’s life in 1880’s Paris. Filled with depressing anecdotes and descriptions, you are dragged into the drudgery of Monsieur Jean Folantin’s existence. In the opening pages we find him:

Feet frozen, squeezed inside boots stiffened by showers and puddles, skull white hot from the gas burner hissing above his head, M. Folantin had barely eaten anything and even now bad luck wouldn’t let him be; his fire was faltering, his lamp was smoking, his tobacco was damp and kept going out, staining the cigarette paper with yellow nicotine.

The insignificant man, single with no romantic prospects, suffering from syphilis, described as, “suddenly one night, for no reason, she deserted him, leaving him a souvenir he had difficulty curing himself of”, our anti-hero simply exists…and looks for a decent meal:

Neither the next day, nor the day after that, did M. Folantin’s unhappiness dissipate; he simply let himself drift, incapable of resisting under this crushing feeling of depression. Mechanically, under a rainy sky, he would make his way to his office; then he would leave it, eat, and go to bed at nine, only to resume the following day the exact same routine; little by little he slid into complete spiritual apathy.

It is worth noting that Huysmans, until the huge success of ‘The Cathedral’ in 1898, worked as a clerk, his writing not drawing a sufficient income to be self-sustainable, are these ramblings of a disenchanted, depressed, apathetic worker reflections of Huysmans himself? In later works Huysmans himself is thinly disguised as the character Durtal, however he is a writer on a spiritual journey, here M. Folantin is a clerk.

The sequence of the Durtal novels ‘Là-Bas’, ‘En Route’, ‘The Cathedral’ and ‘The Oblate of St. Benedict’ deal with a journey through the occult, religious uncertainty and conversion to Catholicism, here there is still the questioning, the agnostic statements, and, interestingly enough, an obsession with the virgin birth (more on that subject when I get to formalizing some thoughts on ‘The Cathedral’):

‘Yes, but why are the consolations of religion only fit for simpletons? Why sis the Church want to elevate the most absurd beliefs into dogmatic truths? There’s no way I can accept either the virginity of an expectant mother, or the divinity of a comestible prepared by a breadmaker,’ and besides, the intolerance of the clergy revolted him. ‘And yet mysticism alone could heal the wound that torments me. All the same, it would be wrong to point out to the faithful the futility of their devotions, because if they can accept all the vexations, all the afflictions of their present life as a passing trial they are happy indeed…’

Apologies, Guy de Maupassant this may be “the story of a clerk looking for a beefsteak”, but it is a whole lot more. I’ve not touched on the meal elements at all and whether M. Folantin get’s his precious meal, you’ll have to read this yourselves to find out. I am very grateful to Brendan King and his ongoing translation work of Huysmans, and of course Dedalus Books for publishing them, these lesser-known works add another layer to his more recognized pieces, as you see a writer developing, honing his skills. Another wonderful addition to the Huysmans oeuvre at Dedalus.

J.-K. Huysmans and food

‘À vau-l’eau’ (translated as ‘Drifting’ by Brendan King) is a novella by J.-K. Huysmans, it was published just prior to his much lauded ‘A rebours’ (‘Against Nature’). Guy de Maupassant reviewed the work in ‘La Gaulois’ on 9 March 1882, he said; “It’s the story of a clerk looking for a beefsteak. Nothing more.” Whilst I would argue the story is a whole lot more, and I will save that for a later post specifically about the book, it is also a “Ulysses of the eatery” (again Guy de Maupassant, in the same review).

As our bachelor protagonist, M. Jean Folantin, moves from eating house to eating house, wine shop to wine shop, his eating experiences are described in fine satirical detail.

The opening sentence contains a waiter, and the first page explains our lamentable protagonist’s terrible degustation’s:

And M. Jean Folantin, sitting at a table cluttered with plates of congealed leftovers and empty wine bottles whose bottoms had left their imprimatur in purple on the cloth, grimaces, certain that he was going to eat a wretched cheese; his expectations were not disappointed: the waiter brought a kind of white laced marbled with indigo, evidently cut from a cake of Marseilles soap.

As I was reading this book, it occurred to me that there are many references to food throughout Huysmans’ writing, his characters do not simply “dine” their dining experience is explored. So here is a few passages from four books by Huysmans where the meal becomes the subject.

From ‘À vau-l’eau’, I could quote innumerable passges, however I’ll simply present one that deals with his never ending search “looking for a beefsteak”:

M. Folantin wondered if all the changing around was worth it, seeing that everywhere the wine was adulterated with lead oxide and diluted with pump water, the eggs were never cooked how you wanted them, the steaks always lacked juice, and  the boiled vegetables looked like prison leftovers: but he went in them anyway – ‘If I keep looking, I might find something’ – and he continued to roam among taverns and bars…

The opening pages of chapter one of ‘A rebours’ (‘Against Nature’ also translated by Brendan King):

From black-bordered plates they had eaten turtle soup, Russian rye bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, salted mullet roes, smoked black pudding from Frankfurt, game birds covered in sauces the colour of liquorish and boot polish, truffle gravy, chocolate-flavoured ice cream, plum-puddings, brugnon musqué peaches, fruit preserves in grape juice, mulberries and black-heart cherries; from dark glasses they had drunk wines from Limagne and Roussillon, from Tenedos, Valdepeñas and Oporto; and after coffee and walnut brandy, they had savoured kvass, porter and stout.

‘Là-Bas’ (also translated by Brendan King) is the first novel in a series of four detailing a protagonist’s, Durtal, journey from decadence to religious conversion, here Durtal, a writer, investigates the life of Gilles de Rais and explores alternative medicines, astrology, satanism, horrific satanic rituals and more. Several times Durtal meets various experts in these fields at the bell tower, where the bell ringer and his wife reside. They debate these topics over a meal:

Carhaix served the soup and everyone fell silent, taking cooler spoonfuls from the edge of their bowls; then his wife brought in the celebrated lamb à l’anglaise and gave it to des Hermies to carve.
It was a magnificent red in colour, oozing large drops of juice at the touch of the knife. Everyone went into ecstasies as soon as they tried the strong-tasting meat, which was flavoured with puréed turnips and sweetened with a white caper sauce.

In the next novel in the series ‘En Route’ (translated by W. Fleming) Durtal struggles with his learnings, a man who is drawn to Catholicism but who questions every opportunity to commit to conversion. Convinced that a visit to a monastery, and the change in diet would not agree with him, Durtal even has to “convert” his digestive temptations:

“As to the cookery, it matters little that it is uncivilized, if my stomach can digest it; to have bad food, and get up in the middle of the night is nothing, provided the body can stand it, and not doubt I shall find some means of smoking cigarettes by stealth in the woods.”

Once at the monastery the simple food, of each meal, is described:

The dishes were on the table, two poached eggs, a bowl of rice, another of French beans, and a pot of honey.

He discusses, with the Oblate, the meals:

“The food is not bad,” he said, “but I do not quite understand the same strange and identical taste in all the dishes; it smells, how shall I express it? Like burnt fat or suet.”
“That is the warm oil with which the vegetables are dressed, you will soon grow accustomed to it, in a couple of days you will cease to notice it.”

These food references throughout Huysmans’ work had got me thinking about contemporary literature, do any of these modern characters eat?

I’ve only presented you a few small appetizers, a nibble of the Huysmans menu, his characters delving into culinary extremes, from rancid fat, adulterated wines to oozing juices, extravagant fruits and deserts to top shelf vignerons.

I do intend to visit these works individually, and not from the food angle, it was simply a theme that jumped out at me, I hope you can come back to the blog as I explore the other themes in each of these multi layered works – and I haven’t even started ‘The Cathedral’ and ‘The Oblate of St. Benedict’, the last two works about Durtal (the thinly disguised version of Huysmans himself).

A Decadent Woman – Georges De Peyrebrune (tr. Brian Stableford)

Mathilde-Marie-Georgina-Élisabeth de Peyrebrune, a decadent name if I’ve ever seen one, wrote under the pseudonym of Georges de Peyrebrune and according to ‘A Library of the World’s Best Literature – Ancient and Modern, Volume XLIII’ was “one of the most popular women novelists in France”.

Her novella ‘Une Décadente’ (translated here as ‘A Decadent Woman’) first appeared, in two parts, in the ‘Revue Bleue’ 20 March and 27 March 1886.

The novella tells the story of Hélione d’Orval, possibly suffering from tuberculosis, and primarily her interactions with her immediate family, sister Marguerite and brother in law Marcus, who is a doctor.

As the introduction advises:

The early 1880s was the hey day of the Parisian “Amazons,” women who took satirical advantage of an old city statute that permitted them to apply to the Prefecture of Police for a permit to wear male attire in public. The political fashion statement had been made before, but the possibility of making it “official” when it was challenged was an attractive floupetterie of which several determined self-publicists took advantage. The fencing-schools of the city, running low on their traditional customers, had recently opened their doors wide to female clients, who flocked there in much the same spirit, compounding the scandal in the eyes of the popular press, which swiftly created a mythology of female duelists that was enthusiastically transplanted into fiction by writers proud to belong to the largely fictitious “decadent school,” including Catulle Mendès.

Our novella opens with a description of protagonist Hélione’s portrait, full of pleats of silk and pearls, however later we learn of her slip into decadence, her wearing of male clothes, fencing, smoking and generally lazing about awaiting death;

“…Oh, certainly we’re decadent – but if we begin to take pleasure in it proudly, we’ll be doomed. How many sick people one could save if we could leave them ignorant of their disease! Fortunately Messieurs the Decadents are almost all poets – which is to say, not dangerous from the viewpoint of the propagation of their theory, for, as soon as they express it in verse, no one hears them any longer.”

There is the juxtaposition of the eloquent portrait against Hélione’s descent into decadence, is it an illness, is her rejection of the social norms a mental degeneration? There’s a tinge of satire here, the protagonist who has rejected society vs the expectations of her accepting amour, becoming a mother and therefore being cured of her “illness”.

“He’s not effeminate, spoiled, pomaded, like the stupid young men of your so-called artistic cirlces; he doesn’t wear a necklace or bracelets under his garments, doesn’t make himself up like a girl, doesn’t intoxicate himself with morphine or hashish, and doesn’t walk lazily with his eyes half-closed, swinging his hips. He’s a man. But it’s evident that that type of virile, strong, powerful beauty, full of health and life, can’t please a young woman like you, who preaches the reversal of sex roles, dresses in masculine fashion, binds her delicate forms in vests and waistcoats, salutes with the neck, shakes hands brutally, fences with a sword, hunts, smokes cigarettes . . . that’s evident, that’s evident! You no longer need a master today, a leader or a support, you clever women, bold, artistic and decadent to excess. You no longer need a defender, you who kill with revolver in hand those who get in your way or wound you. You no longer need amour, that slavery of the true woman, nor children, that meek embarrassment of your arms, henceforth occupied in a virile manner…”

The novella is primarily conversationally based, the characters bantering about her health, her decadence and her potential cure.

“Since we’re born to die, isn’t it in the very spirit of the work of nature to do everything with a view to hastening that end, which is its goal?”
“It’s nihilism that you’re practicing in that?”
“Exactly; it’s the philosophical theory of nations in decadence. We’re a finished people, so let’s hasten to disappear and make way for the races to come!…”

This work’s language is florid, with rambling philosophical debates of the will or reasons to live, layer upon layer of extravagant arguments, as though they are the blooming silk pleats in Hélione’s portrait. To exaggerate the satire, Hélione is sent to a country retreat to possibly cure her decadent “illness”, a place populated with simple folk, an environment where nature giving life may transform Hélione and give her back the will to live, a regression to simpler times, away from the uncertainty of the turn of the century, where science had taken over religion, where the putrid atmosphere hangs over Paris, where the new century held too many uncertainties.

Only it was becoming extremely difficult to reflect and sharpen one’s thought, to excite subtle reasoning in one’s mind, in the absorbing environment, much more sensational and subjective than she had believed it to be previously. Something very material, very alive, but very pleasant, invaded you, which seemed to rise from the warm earth, from the germination of plants, from the electricity spread by all the beings scattered in great active nature; something obscure, but powerful, inexpressible but perfectly sensed and understood, as if the beings and things, saps, breaths and perfumes, were pushing you in the direction of their own activity, their movement and their life, toward a goal identical to theirs, fatal, inexorable and definite. It was like an enlacement in the vibrant chain of existence common to all organic beings, a recovery of possession by Mother Nature, a remembrance of primitive needs stifled by purely cerebral fictitious desires issued from the unhealthy exasperation of the nerves. It was like the diminution of a fever under the mollified circulation of refreshed blood, a penetrating health that brought into play all the regenerated physical forces.

A nice addition to the decadent works of the late 1800’s and having the satirical, tongue in cheek approach of a decadent woman, being part of the feminist movement and being considered unwell is a very interesting approach.

The book also contains three short stories. ‘The Fays’, which appeared as a supplement to the short novel ‘Giselle’ in 1891, a gothic fairy story of a King and Queen, “when she was taken to him, scarcely nubile, he found her to be not to his liking, and neglected her shortly thereafter.” She gives birth to a daughter and we have a feminist climax to the tale. ‘The Red Bird’, which appeared in L’Écho de Paris in the 19 September issue of 1889, a very short story of a heart being a red bird enclosed in the rib cage  and ‘Salome’ which also appeared in L’Écho de Paris but in the 27 December issue in 1889, another very short story about a cremation of an artist’s studio model.

Another addition to the Women In Translation catalogue, de Peyrebrune’s works now making their way into English, being translated by Brian Stableford, a regular translator for Snuggly Books, who specialize in decadent literature. Although de Peyrebrune was one of the “most popular women novelists in France” she, like many artists, unfortunately died in poverty and oblivion in Paris in 1917.

Nature in Octave Mirbeau and J-K Huysmans

By Aubrey Beardsley – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13703

Like the alienated individuals of twentieth-century fiction, he is at odds with his surroundings, a victim of history, unsure of himself, dragged down by unhealthy living, and on the look out for something valuable in a worthless world.

  • David Blow, Introduction to ‘En-Route’ by JK Huysmans (tr. W Fleming)

The subject of this quote is Durtal, the thinly disguised autobiographical protagonist of Huysmans’ four novel sequence, ‘Là-Bas’, ‘En Route’, ‘The Cathedral’ and ‘The Oblate of St. Benedict’.

A decadent sequence of works, it explores satanism, the occult, Benedictine monks, the enrichment of the soul, a conversion to Catholicism, the art and architecture of the past amongst a raft of subjects. However today I am going to simply look at Huysmans’ view of the natural world as opposed to Octave Mirbeau’s, which I presented yesterday.

In each there is a longing for the simpler times of the past, and this is melded with nature by Mirbeau in ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ (tr. Douglas Jarman):

Nevertheless, I was happy, and longed for June to come. Oh, the daisies growing in the meadows, and the little footpaths through the woods, and the fluttering leaves . . . And then the birds’ nests that you find in the clumps of ivy, hanging from old walls . . . And the nightingales singing in the moonlight, as you sit on the wall of a well, covered with maidenhair fern and moss and honeysuckle climbing all over it, holding hands and talking quietly to one another . . . And the great bowls of warm milk, and the big straw hats, and the baby chicks, and going to mass in the village church, and the sound of bells, and all the rest of it . . . Why, it makes you feel as though your heart would burst with happiness, like those lovely songs they sing in the cafés in Paris! . . .

On the other hand, when Huysmans’ travels to, what most would consider, more idyllic settings the description is in opposition to Mirbeau’s:

It was as if you had been transported to Brittany itself. Here was the same sky and the same landscape, a melancholy, sombre sky, a sun which seemed older than elsewhere and which gilded but feebly the mournful gloom of the ancient forests and the old, moss-covered sandstone, a landscape which stretched out, as far as they eye could see, in barren moors, a landscape pock-marked by pools of rusty water, bristling with rocks, and riddled by little pink bells of heather and small yellow gorses, by clumps of furze and tufts of broom.
You felt that his iron-coloured sky, this famished earth, empurpled here and there by the blood-red flowers of buckwheat, that these roads bordered by walls of stone, piled one on top of the other without plaster or cement, that these footpaths edged by a wild tangle of hedgerows, that these crabbed weeds and untilled fields, that these crippled beggars eaten by vermin and scoured with filth, that even the mean and neglected livestock, the stunted cows and the black sheep whose blue eyes had the clear, cold stare of the degenerate or the Slav, had endured absolutely unchanged in and identical landscape for centuries.

From ‘Là-Bas’ (translated by Brendan King) pg 116 of Dedalus edition.

Unchanged for centuries, but here it is a “degenerate” past, “rusty”, “mournful”, a gothic past.

Mirbeau’s protagonist Célestine looking fondly backwards, not sure of her future, will it be valuable in a worthless world? Huysmans’ Durtal looking back to sombre times, his future possibly more valuable.

I will touch on Durtal’s future, and his attraction to old architecture, writing, art, religious teachings, and rituals (for example, the unaccompanied Gregorian chant is much preferred to the hymns accompanied by an organ) in future posts as I explore his four novels.

The Diary of a Chambermaid – Octave Mirbeau (tr. Douglas Jarman)

‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ was originally published in 1900, during what was known as the “fin de siècle” period, the “end of century” or as the English refer to it, the “turn of the century”. A period considered one of degeneracy, whilst also looking towards the hope for a new beginning, the closing of one era and the opening of another. As Wikipedia tells us:

Works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886); Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891); Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894); H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) all explore themes of change, development, evolution, mutation, corruption and decay in relation to the human body and mind. These literary conventions were a direct reflection of many evolutionary, scientific, social and medical theories and advancements that emerged toward the end of the 19th century.

It is also a period where rejection of religion and the acceptance of the evolution of science, was reflected in numerous literary works, notably the decadent works of JK Huysmans:

‘What about Paul Bourget, Father?’
‘Bourget? Well, he’s certainly turned over a new leaf . . . I wouldn’t say no, I wouldn’t say no. But he’s not a genuine Catholic, not yet at least . . . He’s still very muddled . . . He seems to me, this Bourget, rather like a wash-basin . . . Yes, that’s it . . . a wash-basin that all sorts of people have been washing in, where you’re apt to find olives from Mount Calvary floating amongst bits of soap and hair . . . It would be better to wait a bit . . . And Huysmans? Well, he’s a bit steep. . . Still, he’s quite orthodox.’

This novel was also written and released at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, an anti-Semite miscarriage of justice and a huge political scandal. Whilst there are small references to the affair itself the book does contain a character who is deeply anti-Semite, him reading newspaper articles about the affair, having his walls plastered with nationalistic images etc.

As the name implies, ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ is a diary of a chambermaid’s, Célestine’s, present-day employment peppered with memories of previous engagements:

I shall spend this night reviving once again, perhaps for the last time, memories of my past. IT is the only way to stop myself brooding about my present problems, or plaguing myself with dreams about the future. These memories amuse me, yet at the same time they deepen my feeling of contempt. After all, what singular and monotonous faces I have encountered in my life of servitude! . . . When I see them again, in imagination, they no longer strike me as being really alive. They only live, or at least create the illusion of being alive, through their vices . . . Take away their vices, which preserve them like the bandages that preserve a mummy, and they are no longer even ghosts . . . merely dust and ashes . . . death . . .

The memories are of past lovers, past employers who sexually harass, abuse or mistreat their staff, a scandalous collection of bourgeois exploitation:

Servants are not normal social beings, not part of society. The lives they lead are disjointed, and they themselves are made up of bits and pieces that do not fit together. They are worse than that, they are monstrous hybrids. They have ceased to be part of the common people from whom they spring and they will never become part of the bourgeoisie whom they live amongst and wait on. They have lost the generous responses, the native strength, of the people they have rejected, and have acquired the shameful vices of the bourgeoisie without the necessary means of satisfying them; they have adopted their vile feelings, their cowardly fears, their criminal appetites, without the background, and therefore without the excuse, of their wealth. Living in this ‘respectable’ bourgeois world, simply from breathing in the fatal atmosphere that rises from this putrid drain, they lose all sense of spiritual security, and cease to be aware of their own separate existence. They wander like ghosts of themselves amongst a crowd of strangers, and when they search their memories all they can find there is filth and suffering. They are always laughing, but the laughter is forced; and, realized, it always wears the bitter grimace of revolt, the cruel sneer of sarcasm. Nothing is so heart-rendingly ugly as this laughter – it burns and withers . . . Perhaps it would have been better if I had cried! Yet I don’t know . . . Anyhow, to hell with it!

Using standard first person literary devices such as eavesdropping, partaking in the country gossip or being present whilst arguments amongst the bourgeoisie occur, this work holds a mirror up to late 19th Century society, the servant’s role, the degeneration of society, whilst also containing Célestine’s dreams of a better future, the fin de siècle, a new beginning.

Another interesting element is the occasional foray into naturalism, pastoralism, where the horrors of the current day filth, the putrid existence, the decadent lifestyle is set aside for a romantic view of the past:

Nevertheless, I was happy, and longed for June to come. Oh, the daisies growing in the meadows, and the little footpaths through the woods, and the fluttering leaves . . . And then the birds’ nests that you find in the clumps of ivy, hanging from old walls . . . And the nightingales singing in the moonlight, as you sit on the wall of a well, covered with maidenhair fern and moss and honeysuckle climbing all over it, holding hands and talking quietly to one another . . . And the great bowls of warm milk, and the big straw hats, and the baby chicks, and going to mass in the village church, and the sound of bells, and all the rest of it . . . Why, it makes you feel as though your heart would burst with happiness, like those lovely songs they sing in the cafés in Paris! . . .

These slight respites occasionally appear against the backdrop of an anarchist view of the world, a place where there is no justice for the working classes, a world where the bourgeoisie treat the servants worse than their pets:

… whichever way you tun, it’s always the same, and naturally it’s always those that have got the least that get robbed the worst . . . But what can you do about it? You can rage as much as  you like, you can try and revolt, but in the end you just have to admit that it’s better to be cheated than to starve, and die in the street like a dog . . . There’s only one thing certain, and that is that the world’s damned badly organized . . .

I’ve only lightly touched on the dominant theme of the exploitation of servants, sexually, physically, financially, however it is this dark undercurrent that pervades throughout the novel, Célestine merely portraying tales of debauchery, for example her shoes are taken by an old man, who is found dead in his bed, naked, in his teeth the leather, or the scraps the servants eat whilst the bourgeoisie feed prime beef to their dogs.

Célestine’s diary also contains her tales of promiscuity, including manipulation of her employers, loves, fraternizations with fellow employees as well as her unfulfilled desires, the rape and murder of a young girl, and so many more reflections on a society that has fallen into disgrace.

There’s enough late 1800’s spice to ensure decent circulation, for example, at one stage she catches up with an old friend Clémemce, “Cléclé I used to call her”, at accommodation for unemployed, destitute servants the “Sisters of Our Lady of the Thirty-Six Sorrows”, a place where they are exploited even further, working for gruel and if getting a placement having to pay back a sum plus interest for their board and lodgings:

As our cubicles were next to one another, on the second night she came into my bed . . . After all, what else could you expect? Force of example, perhaps . . . but also, perhaps, the craze to satisfy a curiosity that had for a long time been plaguing me . . . And, besides with Cléclé it was a passion . . . ever since she had been seduced, four years ago, by one of her mistresses, a General’s wife.

‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ is a not a difficult read, it addresses social issues of the late 1800’s, adds in the decadent elements of an era of degeneracy, whilst also looking towards Célestine’s hope for a new beginning. Using a style that is not simply a diary, there’s the non-linear approach with the flashbacks, eavesdropping, social commentary and scandal you are engaged throughout. If you have seen the Luis Buñuel film that is based on this book, I suggest you read this work as it contains a whole lot more depth of riches (the flashbacks) and the story of Célestine’s redemption, if it can be called that, is significantly different. For anybody who is intrigued by the literature of the French decadent period this is a worthwhile novel to add to the list of possible reads. Currently, I am continuing with the writers of that era, presently focusing on JK Huysman’s four semi-autobiographical novels about Durtal and his rise from decadence to Roman Catholic saving and I will write up my thoughts about these books over the coming weeks.

handiwork – Sara Buame

Writer and visual artist Sara Baume’s latest book ‘handiwork’ is her non-fiction debut and has been shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, along with another work from Tramp Press, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s wonderful ‘A Ghost in the Throat’.

Sara Baume won the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award for ‘SoleSearcher1’, and went on to receive the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, the Rooney Prize for Literature and an Irish Book Award for Best Newcomer in 2015. Her debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Warwick Prize for Writing, the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction and the International Dublin Literary Award. It was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.

‘handiwork’ is a short contemplative work that compares the flights of migratory birds to the art of creation, both writing and sculpture, as well as her daily artistic practices:

I HAVE ALWAYS FELT a terrible responsibility for time.

The impotent urgency manifests at minimum as an internalised twitch, at maximum as the murmuring of a voice in my head, arguing that the solid form at hand is not symmetrical enough – the wrong angle, the wrong shape, the wrong stroke – causing me to carve it smaller and smaller in the name of an inconceivable perfection – to carve it away completely, back into plaster dust.

The nemesis voice never acquiesces to flow; it is always reasoning and glancing ahead into the coming weather. You could stop now, the voice murmurs, or you could get ahead for tomorrow. And then, tomorrow – you could stop now, it will murmur, or you could get ahead for tomorrow….

Like the migrant birds who, one year, find they have to go a little farther than the year before – for a superior food source, a safer resting spot, because the weather is peculiar.

And then, again, the year after, a little farther still…

This book is a collection of short pieces, with space for you to pause and contemplate each little thought. Some pages containing a single sentence.

‘INDEED, VERY FEW PEOPLE are aware’, José Saramago writes in The Cave, ‘that in each of our fingers, located somewhere between the first phalange, the mesophalange and the metaphalange, there is a tiny brain.’

Broken into fourteen sections, each introduced with an image of a single model bird from a series built by Sara Baume in the spring of 2019 and photographed in the autumn. Each made from plaster that has been carved, painted and mounted onto a length of timber dowel, and studded with a pair of glass beads. The creation of these birds, the moulding, the carving, the painting becomes the contemplation, as is the writing of this book, of exploring what it is to create. Meta-non-fiction? Auto-non-fiction?

Facts about migratory birds interject and then play with the text, the writer’s journey.

WHEN WE FIRST MOVED into this house, I assigned myself a room where I would write. I carried in a desk and tucked the swivel chair beneath it and raised a bastion of books around it. As for the other stations, they have never been formally designated. Instead, they have asserted themselves gradually, as if the walls and floors and furniture are somehow sympathetic to my preoccupations and repetitions and observances; as if this house has diligently ordered itself around my daily practices, my daily handiwork.

However, not simply a book about writing and creating, this is also an homage to the writer’s father, a man who created working equipment from scraps, a handyman, and her grandfather who diligently made wooden models, carts that she never thought much of until much later in life. As Sara Baume creates her bird sculptures she dwells on her relationship with her father, his dedication of a work area for her once she had completed her studies, and ultimately these contemplations become her writing, our reading. An acknowledgment of grieving:

He died of a cancer conjured from the fine traces of toxins that accumulated in his lungs over the course of decades; which emanated from his daily bashing, clanging, whirring and grinding, and hovered in the air of his sheds – the unwanted produce of his progress, ungraspable yet ubiquitous as the sky in a model railway.

A short but deep book, one that radiates joy as the writer’s keen observances and her connection to nature exude the poetic, the artistic and the melancholic. Another wonderful book from the small independent publisher Tramp Press, it is a joy to read these quality works from female Irish writers.

Jhalak Prize Longlist 2021

The Jhalak Prize was first awarded in March 2017, it is an award to celebrate books by British/British resident BAME (British Black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers.

It was started in 2016 by authors Sunny Singh, Nikesh Shukla and Media Diversified and winner of the award takes home a prize of £1000. A “sister” award, the Jhalak Children’s & YA Prize was founded in 2020, but here I will concentrate on the main award. If you are interested in the Children’s and YA Longlist you can find a list of the titles here.

The Prize includes, but is not limited to, fiction, non-fiction, short stories, graphic novels, and poetry, written by writers of colour and published in the UK. Unlike a number of awards it is open to self-published writers.

Winners to date have been:

2017 – ‘The Bone Readers’ by Jacob Ross

2018 – ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge

2019 – ‘In Our Mad and Furious City’ by Guy Gunaratne

2020 – ‘Afropean’ by Johny Pitts

The longlist for the 2021 Prize was announced earlier today. The twelve titles are as follows, blurbs taken from the publisher’s websites):

Romalyn Ante – Antiemetic for Homesickness (Chatto & Windus)

The poems in Romalyn Ante’s luminous debut build a bridge between two worlds: journeying from the country ‘na nagluwal sa ‘yo’ – that gave birth to you – to a new life in the United Kingdom.

Steeped in the richness of Filipino folklore, and studded with Tagalog, these poems speak of the ache of assimilation and the complexities of belonging, telling the stories of generations of migrants who find exile through employment – through the voices of the mothers who leave and the children who are left behind.

With dazzling formal dexterity and emotional resonance, this expansive debut offers a unique perspective on family, colonialism, homeland and heritage: from the countries we carry with us, to the places we call home.

Catherine Cho – Inferno (Bloomsbury Circus)

My psychosis, for all its destruction and wrath, was a love story.

When Catherine left London for the US with her husband James, to introduce her family to their newborn son, she could not have envisaged how that trip would end. Catherine would find herself in an involuntary psych ward in New Jersey, separated from her husband and child, unable to understand who she was, and how she had got there.

It’s difficult to know where the story of psychosis begins. Was it the moment I met my son? Or was it decided in the before, something rooted deeper in my fate, generations ago?

In an attempt to hold on to her sense of self, Catherine had to reconstruct her life, from her early childhood, to a harrowing previous relationship, and her eventual marriage to James.

The result is a powerful exploration of psychosis and motherhood, at once intensely personal, yet holding within it a universal experience – of how we love, live and understand ourselves in relation to each other.

Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi – [re: desire] (Burning Eye Books)

Afshan D’souza-Lodhi’s debut poetry collection [re:desire] explores the yearning to love, be loved and belong from a desi (South Asian) perspective. Her work sits on the intersections of flash fiction, poetry and script, echoing the hybridity of the worlds that many young British desis find themselves occupying. Drawing on the poetry of many different languages and cultures – Urdu, English, Konkani, Islamic and Christian – this collection explores how we access our traditions from a distance.

[re:desire] draws upon literary traditions and cultural references to flip the male gaze common in mushairas on its head. Common themes for mushairas are love, God and being drunk or intoxicated by love and God – but is usually seen from a male perspective. The pieces in re: desire are mainly told from a female perspective, and question the gender given to particular acts, objects and ideas.

Caleb Femi – Poor (Penguin)

What is it like to grow up in a place where the same police officer who told your primary school class they were special stops and searches you at 13 because ‘you fit the description of a man’ – and where it is possible to walk two and a half miles through an estate of 1,444 homes without ever touching the ground?

In Poor, Caleb Femi combines poetry and original photography to explore the trials, tribulations, dreams and joys of young Black boys in twenty-first century Peckham. He contemplates the ways in which they are informed by the built environment of concrete walls and gentrifying neighbourhoods that form their stage, writes a coded, near-mythical history of the personalities and sagas of his South London youth, and pays tribute to the rappers and artists who spoke to their lives.

Above all, this is a tribute to the world that shaped a poet, and to the people forging difficult lives and finding magic within it. As Femi writes in one of the final poems of this book: ‘I have never loved anything the way I love the endz.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave – The Mercies (Picador)

On Christmas Eve, 1617, the sea around the remote Norwegian island of Vardø is thrown into a reckless storm. As Maren Magnusdatter watches, forty fishermen, including her father and brother, are lost to the waves, the menfolk of Vardø wiped out in an instant.

Now the women must fend for themselves.

Eighteen months later, a sinister figure arrives. Summoned from Scotland to take control of a place at the edge of the civilized world, Absalom Cornet knows what he needs to do to bring the women of Vardø to heel. With him travels his young wife, Ursa. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa finds something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty and terrible evil, one he must root out at all costs.

Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies is a story about how suspicion can twist its way through a community, and a love that may prove as dangerous as it is powerful.

Tammye Huf – A More Perfect Union (Myriad Editions)

This extraordinary debut novel heralds the arrival of an exciting new voice in Black women’s writing. It is an interracial love story set in pre-Civil War America, and inspired by the true story of author Tammye’s great-great grandparents. Along with love and race, it touches on themes of identity, sacrifice, belonging and survival.

Henry O’Toole sails to America in 1848 to escape poverty and famine in Ireland, only to find anti-Irish prejudice awaiting him. Determined never to starve again, he changes his surname to Taylor and heads south to the state of Virginia, seeking work as a travelling blacksmith on the prosperous plantations.

Sarah is a slave. Torn from her family and sold to Jubilee Plantation, she must navigate the hierarchy of her fellow slaves, the whims of her white masters, and now the attentions of the mysterious blacksmith.

Fellow slave Maple oversees the big house with bitterness and bile, and knows that a white man’s attention spells trouble. Given to her half-sister as a wedding present by their white father, she is set on being reunited with her husband and daughter, at any cost.

Research included contemporary slave narratives (printed to further the abolitionist cause), digitally remastered audio recordings of former slaves, legislation on the question of slavery in the mid-19th century, historical texts on the Irish famine and first-hand accounts of English visitors to Ireland at the time, the writings of Charles Trevelyan (responsible for famine relief under Peel and Russell), historical texts on the antebellum South, and visits to the historically preserved Jubilee Plantation in Virginia on which the novel’s plantation is based.

Rachel Long – My Darling From the Lions (Picador)

Rachel Long’s much-anticipated debut collection of poems, My Darling from the Lions, announces the arrival of a thrilling new presence in poetry.

Each poem has a vivid story to tell – of family quirks, the perils of dating, the grip of religion or sexual awakening – stories that are, by turn, emotionally insightful, politically conscious, wise, funny and outrageous.

Long reveals herself as a razor-sharp and original voice on the issues of sexual politics and cultural inheritance that polarize our current moment. But it’s her refreshing commitment to the power of the individual poem that will leave the reader turning each page in eager anticipation: here is an immediate, wide-awake poetry that entertains royally, without sacrificing a note of its urgency or remarkable skill.

Deirdre Mask – The Address Book (Profile Books)

Starting with a simple question, ‘what do street addresses do?’, Deirdre Mask travels the world and back in time to work out how we describe where we live and what that says about us. From the chronological numbers of Tokyo to the naming of Bobby Sands Street in Iran, she explores how our address – or lack of one – expresses our politics, culture and technology. It affects our health and wealth, and it can even affect the working of our brains.

From Ancient Rome to Kolkata today, from cholera epidemics to tax hungry monarchs, Mask discovers the different ways street names are created, celebrated, and in some cases, banned. Filled with fascinating people and histories, this incisive, entertaining book shows how addresses are about identity, class and race. But most of all they are about power: the power to name, to hide, to decide who counts, who doesn’t, and why.

Katy Massey – Are We Home Yet (jacaranda)

Spanning the years from 1935 to 2010, Are We Home Yet? is the moving and funny story of a girl and her mother.

As a girl, Katy accidentally discovers her mother is earning money as a sex worker at the family home, rupturing their bond. As an adult, Katy contends with grief and mental health challenges before she and her mother attempt to heal their relationship. From Canada, to Leeds and Jamaica, and exploring shame, immigration and class, the pair share their stories but struggle to understand each other’s choices in a fast-changing world.

By revealing their truths, can these two strong women call a truce on their hostilities and overcome the oppressive ghosts of the past?

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – The First Woman (Oneworld Publications)

For one young girl, discovering what it means to become a woman in a family, a community and a country determined to silence her will take all the courage she has.

Growing up in a small Ugandan village, Kirabo is surrounded by powerful women. Her grandmother, her aunts, her friends and cousins are all desperate for her to conform, but Kirabo is inquisitive, headstrong and determined. Up until now, she has been perfectly content with her life at the heart of this prosperous extended family, but as she enters her teenage years, she begins to feel the absence of the mother she has never known. The First Woman follows Kirabo on her journey to becoming a young woman and finding her place in the world, as her country is transformed by the bloody dictatorship of Idi Amin.

Jennifer Makumbi has written a sweeping tale of longing and rebellion, at once epic and deeply personal, steeped in an intoxicating mix of ancient Ugandan folklore and modern feminism, that will linger in the memory long after the final page.

Paul Mendez  – Rainbow Milk (Dialogue Books)

Rainbow Milk is an intersectional coming-of-age story, following nineteen-year-old Jesse McCarthy as he grapples with his racial and sexual identities against the backdrop of a Jehovah’s Witness upbringing and the legacies of the Windrush generation.

In the Black Country in the 1950s, ex-boxer Norman Alonso is a determined and humble Jamaican who has moved to Britain with his wife to secure a brighter future for themselves and their children. Blighted with unexpected illness and racism, Norman and his family are resilient in the face of such hostilities, but are all too aware that they will need more than just hope to survive.

At the turn of the millennium, Jesse seeks a fresh start in London – escaping from a broken immediate family, a repressive religious community and the desolate, disempowered Black Country – but finds himself at a loss for a new centre of gravity, and turns to sex work to create new notions of love, fatherhood and spirituality.

Rainbow Milk is a bold exploration of race, class, sexuality, freedom and religion across generations, time and cultures. Paul Mendez is a fervent new writer with an original and urgent voice.

Stephanie Scott – What’s Left of Me Is Yours (W&N)

In Japan, a covert industry has grown up around the wakaresaseya (literally “breaker-upper”), a person hired by one spouse to seduce the other in order to gain the advantage in divorce proceedings.

When Sato hires Kaitaro, a wakaresaseya agent, to have an affair with his wife, Rina, he assumes it will be an easy case. But Sato has never truly understood Rina or her desires and Kaitaro’s job is to do exactly that – until he does it too well.

While Rina remains ignorant of the circumstances that brought them together, she and Kaitaro fall in a desperate, singular love, setting in motion a series of violent acts that will forever haunt her daughter Sumiko’s life.

Told from alternating points of view and across the breathtaking landscapes of Japan, What’s Left of Me Is Yours explores the thorny psychological and moral grounds of the actions we take in the name of love, asking where we draw the line between passion and possession.

​Judges for the 2021 prize are Yvonne Battle-Felton, an American writer living in the UK and author of ‘Remembered’, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2019) and shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize (2020), Louise Doughty, author of nine novels including the ‘Whatever You Love’ nominated for the Orange and Costa Novel Awards, and Peter Kalu, short story, plays, poetry, creative non-fiction and essay writer.