Hellfire – Leesa Gazi (tr. Shabnam Nadiya)

The suburbs of Dhaka, Bangladesh, it is Lovely’s birthday and she is heading to the markets, it is the first time she has been allowed to go outside the house unaccompanied, Lovely is forty years old today.

So opens the wonderful ‘Hellfire’ by Lessa Gazi, stunningly translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya. Forty years pretty much confined to her home, outings always with her elder sister Beauty or her mother Farida Khanam.

The holy prophet received his revelations from the Creator at forty. Which meant that even in the eyes of Allah ‘forty’ held some special meaning. Something special happened at forty, something special was going to happen today.

The scene is set in the first few pages that “something special” is going to happen today. ‘Hellfire’ is a novel that explores a single day in the life of a single family in Bangladesh, the rituals, the food, and of course the fact that Farida Khanam, and her passive husband Mukhles shaheb, keep their two daughters under tight lock and key.

Their lives had changed drastically after they were caught sneaking to the rooftop when they were fourteen. That was when the Monipuripara house was built. Until that house went up, the two sisters spent their days in harsh imprisonment. If husband and wife went out together, they locked the girls in with the older maidservant. But neither of the parents really felt comfortable with that. Sometimes they would get halfway to their destination and come back. Sometimes they would go but spend the whole time feeling uneasy. Farida Khanam staked everything she had on building the Monipuripara house, and, even before it was complete, she moved them in.

As the story unfolds, of Lovely’s day in Dhaka, we learn more about the forced “imprisonment” and the “man inside her head”, whose voices guide her on her journey.

(‘Apumoni, listen carefully to what I say. Do you want to go home now?’)
‘No.’
(‘Even if you leave right now, you can’t be sure that you’ll be out of danger. You’ll reach home by two, for sure, but it doesn’t seem like you’ll be able to provide a suitable explanation about what you’ve been up to all this time. You didn’t even get much shopping done. But if you’re late getting back, then you’re done for – doomed. So what I say is, you’re in trouble anyway, whether you’re one hour late or three hours. What’s the point of worrying so much? You’ve come out by yourself this one time in your life. Just take in some air, chill, chat with people, then go home. There’s no harm if you don’t go back at all.’)

This is a novel revealing and depicting the women of the household, they are the primary players, with the men, bit players, sickly, resigned, or impassive, excluding the man inside Lovely’s head. Lovely’s older sister Beauty, and her motivations, her desire to keep Lovely underneath her in the pecking order, or her bitter relationship with her mother and father is also explored, through the rituals of being locked up not knowing when they’ll be allowed out of their rooms.

‘How long does she keep you locked up?’
‘It depends. Sometimes it’s just two or three hours, but sometimes it’s like two or three days. Amma opens the door and brings in food, she stays and chats, asks what we want for lunch or dinner. Sometimes she sits and watches television with us, then she locks the door and leaves. At some point, we figure out that our doors are no longer locked, that we can come out of our rooms and everything is fine. We’ve grown used to it. Today when I get home, she’ll probably lock us up for a month. When Amma locks us, she locks both of us up. It’s good though; we don’t have to do any household chores during those times. We don’t have to do the ironing. We just eat, chill out and watch TV. If anyone comes to visit our home when we’re locked up, Amma unlocks our doors. We go out normally, and then go back to our rooms when the guests leave. We don’t get many visitors anyway. And anyway, both of us do a lot of skin and hair care during those times. We rub eggs and henna in our hair. And we rub turmeric paste on our arms and legs. It brightens our complexion. Amma has the maid get everything ready for us. Generally, I’m not that into beauty care. I don’t enjoy it, and I’m lazy. But when I’m locked up, I do it.’

Lovely eventually goes home, and then the day begins again, this time from the mother Farida Khanam’s (also referred to as Amma) perspective. It is from then that the backstory unfolds. We learn of Farida Khanam’s marriage, her fears, relationships and reasoning behind locking her daughters away. Early in the novel she comes across as simply a domineering character who snaps at the hired help, always complaining about cleanliness, timeliness or cooking, but as her backstory unfolds, a sprinkling of compassion and understanding comes into play. We also learn of why she gave permission for Lovely to go out without a chaperone, and numerous other family issues that are, of course, kept behind closed doors.

When Farida had left the bustling home of her parents in the village to build her own family and household with her husband, she wasn’t sad at all. She hadn’t been one of those girls who were mad about weddings; neither was she the kind who played with dolls from the age of ten, as proxies for their own children and households. But her tie to what was hers, her blind devotion to what belonged to her, had always superseded everything else. My house, my siblings, my parents – this concept of mine was dangerously alive in her. What could be more ‘mine’ than her own husband and her own household? The day she first set foot in her husband’s house, ‘my husband’ and ‘my household’ easily became closer to her than ‘my father’s home’ or ‘my brothers and sisters’. Everything else could be cast aside when compared to husband and home.

A single day in the life of a dysfunctional family, where the characters of Lovely, Beauty and Farida Khanam are revealed in all their ugliness and splendor. A very enjoyable read from a country I haven’t visited often enough in my reading journeys. Translator Shabnam Nadiya has translated Moinul Ahsan Saber’s novel ‘The Mercenary’ for Bengal Lights Books 2016 and Seagull Books 2018 and her work here, splattering the novel with real Bengali names for food, or terms of endearment, allows the reader to feel a part of the Dhaka family life.

Subtle references to the Holy Prophet and “something special” happening on a fortieth birthday are sown throughout, with symbols of impending doom, black crows, or potential escapes, a man wearing a “red-muffler”, all add up to a haunting but gripping read. Highly recommended.

Anyone Who Utters a Consoling Word Is a Traitor – Alexander Kluge (tr. Alta L. Price)

In 1957 Fritz Bauer, a German Jewish judge and prosecutor, relayed information about the whereabouts in Argentina of fugitive Holocaust planner Adolf Eichmann to Israeli Intelligence (the Mossad) that allowed Eichmann to be captured. Fritz Bauer also played a role in the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, Bauer died, aged 64, drowned in his bathtub. A postmortem examination found that he had taken alcohol and sleeping tablets.

‘Anyone Who Utters a Consoling Word Is a Traitor’ by Alexander Kluge, in collaboration with Thomas Combrink, (translated by Alta L. Price) comes with a byline, “48 Stories for Fritz Bauer” and opens with a short anecdote “To Live a Decent Day”, the narrator (one assumes Alexander Kluge) is on his way to Fritz Bauer’s funeral service. A mention is made of the Minister of Cultural Affairs losing his best friend:

On the other hand, none of the present friends or political authorities would have been available had Fritz Bauer tried to reach out to them before he died, or sought someone to talk to. No one among this country’s overburdened leadership had the time or energy required for friendship or human intimacy. ‘Anyone who utters a consoling word is a traitor.’ Bazon Brock

The forty-eight stories that make up this collection come in many varied voices, first person, third person, each a short revelation of the atrocities of Holocaust, a sketch, enough detail to give the reader a shock, for you to question morals, standpoints, political affiliations, but the stories do not contain enough detail for you to feel as though this is a collection of investigative journalism.

The story “On the Bureaucratic Tracks” reflecting on 1944 and the weekly death-camp railway transports from Hungary to Nazi occupied Poland and, ultimately, Auschwitz.

Suggestions began flowing in: could Soviet paratroopers or the Polish underground army be on standby to occupy and destroy the Auschwitz death camp on short notice?

Repeated requests had been made (most recently on 31 March 1941, by a Slovak rabbi) to bomb the railway line between Budapest and Poland, thereby making it impossible for the transports to pass. None of the other territories occupied by the Reich had such reliable informants, or any resistance that came close to becoming and armed insurrection. The easily destroyable 30-metre bridge over a river was a particularly vulnerable point along the railway. It lay directly before a tunnel entrance which such a bombing could readily block. The transports would have had to resort to a long detour via Austria, over strategic railway connections to the Balkans and Greece; in terms of sheer duration, this would be so burdensome that the PART OF PRACTICAL THINKERS would have ceased further evacuation. The Union of Orthodox Rabbis in Switzerland shared this message with the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in New York. Isaac Strenbusch passed it along to Roswell McClelland, the representative of the War Refugee Board in Bern. ‘We request air raids be carried out on the cities of Kaschau and Preschau.’ Reference was made to the Vrba-Wetzler report. In a letter to his fellow associates in the US, Swiss resident Weissmandel added, ‘How guilty will you feel if you do not move heaven and earth?’
All these recommendation and instructions were given to John W. Pehle, the US Department of Treasury lawyer, who was also head of the War Refugee Board. He wrote a carefully weighted, indecisive letter to John McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War at the Pentagon.
On 4 July 1944, McCloy responded that, in accordance with Pehle’s sober assessment, the proposed airstrikes could NOT BE CARRIED OUT. They would call for considerable air-force support that US troops in the Mediterranean required instead.
At the same time, Rudolph H
öss was once again summoned from Berlin to Auschwitz in order to continue preparations for the Hungarian Jews’ destruction. He returned to Berlin on 29 July, and was awarded the next higher rank of the War Merit Cross for his additional contributions.

These “factual” reportage “stories” give the impression that they could be snippets from Fritz Bauer’s files, notes that need further investigation so potential legal action could be launched or people charged with war crimes. These stories move between the distant reportage style to first person accounts, are they actual accounts, are they fictionalized stories, are they accounts that have been changed to a first-person voice? As a reader you become disoriented, overwhelmed with frustration and sadness of these “stories” but at the same time, lost in a maze of atrocities. There are escapers who are then conscripted, empathetic doctors alongside monsters, each time you turn the page you do not know what is in store.

A Touch of Liveliness That Surprised Proust

The eight young officers – exactly as they had left company headquarters on the front lines outside Verdun for the weekend, ‘disreputable’ in their tight uniforms insofar as they stank after the long nighttime journey, but nevertheless ready for amorous adventures – raced into the Duchess of Guermantes’ GRAND BALLROOM. Proust noted their arrival. Later on, he sought to get closer to the youngest of these senior officers, whose calling card bore the name Helbronner. Unnoticed by the latter, Proust lingered for some time, making small talk, trying to stay in the vicinity of this tall youth. The writer was intent on capturing the appearance of this war god amid these society folk in a portrayal that would last for all eternity. At the same time, he was also looking to stand out in the officer’s memory – the officer who would leave for the front, and perhaps death, the very next day. As Proust frantically jotted down scraps of conversation on the back of a menu, he lost track of the gang of sprightly pleasure seekers who had enlivened the ballroom and then taken off. Proust looked among the dancers, the turmoil of spectators, the lounge area near the toilets and by the exits, but Hellbronner was nowhere to be found.

A short collection of anecdotes, very short forays, and observations, one that highlights the atrocities of the Holocaust but at the same time highlights how we continue to ignore the warning signs, has history taught humans anything? A collection that reads like forty-eight scraps for potential further investigation by Fritz Bauer.

Copy courtesy of the publisher Seagull Books.

Suite for Barbara Loden – Nathalie Léger (tr. Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon)

United States, 1970, Kent State and Jackson State shootings occur during violent student protests, there’s a burning disenchantment with President Nixon and the Vietnam War, the previous year’s Woodstock Festival is released on film, along with the counterculture films ‘Five Easy Pieces’ and ‘M*A*S*H’. At the 31st Venice Film Festival a small independent film, ‘Wanda’ premiered, winning the Best Foreign Film gong.  Despite the award ‘Wanda’, directed by Barbara Loden, was released in a single theatre in New York, “Cinema II”, and was never shown in the rest of the country.

It quickly slipped from view “Forgotten in the United States”, but “much admired in Europe”, screening at various festivals and events.     

Pick up a recent textbook about Hollywood movies from the 1970’s and you are likely to come across a ‘Wanda” reference:

…although the auteur renaissance introduced a new American cinema, this generation of movie directors was still by a vast majority male. The few women directors working at the time did not benefit from the commercial Hollywood financing that their male counterparts accessed and instead were relegated to indie micro-financing and playoffs at the art house, university film series, and museum showcases. Even the best of the films made by women in the 1970s remain difficult to find and screen today. For example, in 1970, the accomplished stage actress Barbara Loden produced, wrote, directed, and starred in a terrific no-budget film, Wanda. The film tracks its title character as she stumbles upon a petty criminal with whom she goes on the lam. He treats her with casual cruelty, but she stays with him anyway, because her life before she met him (drinking, sleeping around, sponging off her sister) wasn’t any better. Creatively financed, shot on a shoestring, and distributed by a company otherwise specializing in martial arts imports, Wanda grossed on its first run, such as it was, just over $100,000. “When the Movies Mattered : The New Hollywood Revisited” edited by Johnathan Kirshner & Jon Lewis

This short precis does not give the film any justice, Wanda, disenchanted with her life leaves her husband and children, in search of something better, throughout she carries a large oversized handbag, which contains her worldly possessions, she grips it so tightly you can also believe it contains her hopes, her memories, her desires.

Fast forward forty odd years, and Nathalie Léger has been asked to provide a short encyclopedic entry on ‘Wanda’, and/or Barbara Loden. Her research, obsession, exploration becomes far too detailed to be an encyclopedia entry, it has become a journey, a book, ‘Suite for Barbara Loden’ (translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon), and thankfully the wonderful Dorothy Project has brought this French work to English readers.

What is it that attracts me so to Wanda? I have never been homeless, I have never abandoned my children, I have never given over my existence or even my financial affairs to any man, I don’t think I have ever entrusted even the most banal area of my life to anyone. I’ve left men, sometimes heartlessly, with the trembling joy that one feels slipping away down a side street, or vanishing into a crowd, or jumping onto a passing train, or standing someone up; the acute and rare pleasure of avoiding something, of evading something, of disappearing into the landscape – but never the experience of surrender. And yet: it did happen to me once, just one time and it was enough, but who hasn’t experienced that – not knowing how to say no, not daring to say it, yielding to the mortal threat, escaping in the end by withdrawal, absence, slipping to the ground, no longer even offering him the gift of fear, no longer pretending, no longer thinking the unthinkable, protecting oneselg in shock, vomiting, the lusted-after body suddenly repulsive, leave me alone, leave me alone. But mostly what happened is that I’ve allowed myself to be pushed around, just waiting for it to be over, preferring misunderstanding over confrontation – it’s impossible in moments like that to think that defending my body could be worth the effort, and anyway what does that mean, “my body,” at the age of fifteen? Only this matters: not to be alone, not to be abandoned.

This short work is a blend of auto-fiction, research and memoir, like Wanda, Nathalie Léger is carrying around a metaphorical oversized handbag, a repository for her thoughts, a place to store her memories, and her bag becomes the pages you read.

I watched ‘Wanda’ a few years ago when I was doing a 1970’s Hollywood counter-culture binge, and revisited the movie last year with a poet friend of mine, whose insights into the female psyche added an extra layer to this wonderful film. Now I’ve experienced Nathalie Léger’s response, her “Suite for Barbara Loden” and the appreciation again increases.

Once upon a time the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men. We were in the kitchen having breakfast: he told me that he was afraid of that habit particular to women in general and me in particular, in his opinion, of being either unable or unwilling to resist uninvited male desire, of the madness of giving in to whatever they asked of us. He couldn’t understand how hard it is to say no, to be confronted with the desire of another and to reject it – how hard it is and possibly how pointless. How could he not understand the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it?

The book also plays through the various scenes in the movie, “she sits up and gently strokes his forehead until he cries out”, and then fallows Nathalie Léger’s personal attachment to each scene. A short work, this is also a fine accompaniment to a wonderful film.

I have seen a few reviews, of this book, that are quote scathing and I wonder if the reader hadn’t had the opportunity to view Barbara Loden’s film before reading, it was very hard to find, until recently when the Criterion Collection released a restored print. My reading journey was brilliantly enhanced by having a solid grounding and relationship with the film ‘Wanda’ and a fair understanding of Barbara Loden’s struggle to raise funds, be recognized, be acknowledged as someone other than Elia Kazan’s wife, and her subsequent death at only forty-eight years of age. This allowed me to travel with Nathalie Léger and see her peeling away the layers of the film, applying them to her own experiences, justifying her obsessive travel to understand more about Barbara Loden and simply relishing in a gem of a movie that could easily have been lost.

Once again the Dorothy Project delivers a thoughtful and provocative work of feminist literature, a collection of works that deserve wide readership.

The Juniper Tree – Brothers Grimm, T.S. Eliot & Nietzchka Keene

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining

We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,

Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,

Forgetting themselves and each other, united

In the quiet of the desert.

T.S. Eliot

Black screen, white text, so opens the 1990 film ‘The Juniper Tree’, written and directed by Nietzchka Keene, based on the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale. The quote is a short piece taken from the much longer work by T.S. Eliot’s, “Ash Wednesday”.

The juniper tree is mentioned only twice in Eliot’s poem, both references in part II of the poem, the one above appearing at the end of the section, the other reference at the beginning:

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree

In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity

On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been

contained

In the hollow round of my skull. And God said

Shall these bones live? shall these

Bones live? And that which had been contained

In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:

Because of the goodness of this Lady

And because of her loveliness, and because

She honours the Virgin in meditation,

We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled

Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love

To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.

Reading Eliot’s poem, I found the juniper tree reference removed from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, although there are some similarities.

‘The Juniper Tree’ published in the Grimms’ collection was written by Philipp Otto Range, and has been seen as a counterpart of the Greek myth of Cronus, who devours his children in order to ensure he retains his power. The tale opens:

A long time ago, as many as two thousand years ago, there lived a rich man with a wife who was both beautiful and good. They loved each other dearly, but they had no children, even though they longed for them. Day and night the wife prayed for a child, but still they had none.

She becomes pregnant and “in the seventh month, she picked the berries from the juniper tree and gorged herself on them until she became miserable and was ailing. According to the classical antiquity physician Galen, the juniper tree’s berries can be used for contraceptive purposes and to induce abortion. However the mother eventually “bore a child as white as snow and as red as blood. When she saw the child, she felt so happy that she died of joy.” The child was a boy, the husband buries the mother under the juniper tree.

He remarries and his second wife gives birth to a daughter. “When the woman looked at her daughter, she felt nothing but love for her, but whenever she looked at the little boy, she felt sick at heart….The devil got hold of her so that she began to hate the little boy, and she slapped him around and pinched him here and cuffed him there.” The second wife eventually beheads the young boy by slamming the lid of an apple chest onto him as he is reaching for an apple. “The mother then took the little boy and chopped him up. She put the pieces into a pot and cooked them up into a stew.” The father thought the stew tasted really good and as he ate “he threw the bones under the table.” The daughter collects the bones in her silk handkerchief and puts them “down in the green grass under the juniper tree.”

“The juniper tree began stirring. Its branches parted and came back together again as though it were clapping its hands for joy. A mist arose from the tree, and right in the middle of the mist a flame was burning, and from the flame a beautiful bird emerged and began signing gloriously.”

The bird, the boy reincarnated, sings:

“My mother, she slew me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister, Marlene,
Gathered my bones,
Tied them in silk,
For the juniper tree.
Tweet, tweet, what a fine bird am I!”

Singing and collecting, a golden chain, a pair of red shoes and a mill stone. Continually singing his song, he drops the golden chain for his father, the red shoes for his sister and drops the millstone on the mother’s head crushing “her to death.” The smoke, flames and fire return and the “little brother was back, standing right there. He took his father and Little Marlene by the hand, and the three of them were filled with joy. Then they went back in the house, sat down at the table, and dined.”

A fable filled with eating aligned with death, gorging the juniper berries, apple chest, the child cooked as stew, happily dining once the step-mother is deceased, it is also a tale of childhood innocence vanishing and, according to the notes in “The Annotated Brothers Grimm”,  “by crushing the mother and joining the father, the children have been seen as “successfully” negotiating the path from dependence to autonomy.”

T.S. Eliot’s poem has a few similar references, primarily the bones, other interpretations of his poem state that the juniper tree in Eliot’s poem references the Bible – I Kings 19 (in some Bible versions it is a “broom bush” or “broom tree”, however in the King James Bible it is a “juniper tree”).

And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time. And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers. And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat. And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again. And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.

The poet is lost in the woods and like Elijah in the Bible, who is lost in the desert, he is nourished and renewed by an angel.

Onto the film, where we have a single father, with a son, Jonas, and two sisters who are seeking a new home as their mother has been stoned and burned for being a witch. The older sister becomes the stepmother, by using witchcraft, potions and incantations to attract the single father as her husband. The connection to nature, as appears in the Grimm Brothers tale is here, an early scene showing Björk, who plays the youngest sister Margit, reciting an incantation to stop the buzzing of the fly, and soon thereafter she entertains the young Jonas with shadow puppets, using her hands, whose actions align perfectly with the crowing of the rooster or the barking of the dog. Margit has a power over nature.

The film is filled with religious symbolism, crucifixes, prayer as well as the witchcraft elements. Margit also having visions of a mother figure.

Whilst the film does have elements of the Grimm fairy story, it deviates in a significant number of areas, a stand alone work that feels more aligned to religious and witchcraft themes, and less to the family, natural world, eating associated with death and childhood growth themes.

I loved the Brothers Grimm tale for its extreme themes, I rather enjoyed the movie and I question the T.S. Eliot reference, did the director just see a juniper tree in a poem and thought “I’ll make that the epigraph”?

The Last Days of Mandelstam – Vénus Khoury-Ghata (tr. Teresa Lavender Fagan)

We live, not feeling the ground under our feet,
no one hears us more than a dozen steps away,

And when there’s enough for half a small chat –
ah, we remember the Kremlin mountaineer:

Tick fingers, fat like worms, greasy,
words solid as iron weights,

Huge cockroach-whiskers laughing,
boot-tops beaming.

And all around him a rabble of thin-necked captains:
he toys with the sweat of half-men.

Some whistle, some meow, some snivel,
he’s the only one looking, jabbing.

He forges decrees like horseshoes – decrees and decrees:

This one gets it in the balls, that one in the
                forehead, him right between the eyes.

Whenever he’s got a victim he glows like a broad-chested
Georgian munching a raspberry

  • Quoted from ‘Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam (translated bby Burton Raffel and Alla Burago) (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973)

Russian poet Osip Mandelstam penned this poem, credited as “Stalin Epigram”, a satirical description of Stalin and the prevailing climate of fear for artists in the 1930’s in the Soviet Union, I like the line “huge cockroach-whiskers laughing”. It is two lines from an earlier version of this work that forms a leitmotif in this novella ‘The Last Days of Mandelstam’;

All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer

This poem, “Stalin Epigram”, was recited at a few small private gatherings in Moscow, and a copy, using the term “peasant-slayer”, so the earlier version, was handed into the police. Given the risks involved, neither Mandelstam, nor his wife Nadezhda, had written down the work and therefore one of their so-called trusted friends who had heard the recitation had memorised and copied the piece before handing it to the police. As it was common for the death penalty to be carried out on “dissidents” such as Mandelstam, he rightfully became very concerned and a campaign was launched by his wife Nadezhda and the poet Anna Akhmatova to save him. He was exiled to Cherdyn, in the Northern Urals.

Anna Akhmatova, shortlisted for the Nobel Prize, has her own backstory, her first husband Nikolay Gumilyov, was executed by the Soviet secret police, and her son Lev Gumilyov and her common-law husband Nikolay Punin spent many years in the Gulag, where Punin died

For Mandelstam, there was to be suicide attempts, a return to Moscow where his home was now occupied by others, begging for food, clothes and housing, and further arrests and persecution. All of this captured by Lebanese born, exiled in Paris, writer and poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata in the haunting and reflective work ‘The Last Days of Mandelstam’.

At the beginning of this short work, we join Mandelstam “lying for months – how many? – on a wooden plank, his mattress, Mandelstam wonders if he is dead or still alive.” And we have many a short reflection on his life and the situations that led to him in being in a transit camp near Vladivostok, in the far east of Russia, awaiting his transportation to a correction camp to serve a five-year sentence for “counter-revolutionary activities”.

A frightened old man under his blanket, with his hallucinations and delirium.

The voices of his neighbours reach his ears through the tattered screen of the fabric.

He catches one out of two of the words they speak.

How difficult it is to put the words together in a sentence.

To give meaning to what seems to be important to them.

Listening to them, they have nothing to regret.

Conscience as white as the snow of the Urals but they found themselves in the wrong place, at the mercy of raids.

Should have moved before, left no trace behind.

No telephone or electricity, no children registered at birth, no schooling, no hospitalizations.

No death certificate.

To fade away. If needed, penetrate underground. Di one’s own lair. Imitate the hare, the ant, the weasel…

Wild imaginings flourish in the camp where the dead and the living are piled up like sardines.

Everyone shares his story. The others need not necessarily believe it.

Short, sharp sentences, the blank canvas of Mandelstam’s life populated with a broad brush, minutiae, memories, snippets of experiences, with no sequential order, blur and highlight the poetic, a voice that Mandelstam refused to renounce.

This novella is populated with the memories of other writers, Boris Pasternak who helped Mandelstam whilst remaining in favour with the authorities. According to a biography of Pasternak, in April 1934 Mandelstam recited his “Stalin Epigram” to Pasternak. After listening, Pasternak told Mandelstam: “I didn’t hear this, you didn’t recite it to me, because, you know, very strange and terrible things are happening now: they’ve begun to pick people up. I’m afraid the walls have ears and perhaps even these benches on the boulevard here may be able to listen and tell tales. So let’s make out that I heard nothing.”

There is also the harrowing tale of Anna Akhmatova and her husband’s execution and son’s exile to the Gulag.

Mandelstam, Akhmativa, Tsvetaeva and so many other muzzled poets, isolated from their young readers, deported.

Deportations often followed by executions. Gumilyov, Akhmatova’s husband, shot without a trial at the age of twenty-seven.

Her son Lev deported, Akhmativa didn’t write any more. Her poems could potentially aggravate her son’s case. You had to be invisible to survive. Pretend not to exist.

This is a beautifully rendered, if harrowing, insight into Mandelstam, his persecution, madness, and death in exile. The language flowing poetically, the snippets, fragments slowly forming a picture of a man reduced to a threadbare blanket, stripped of his poetry, his creations, reduced to begging for food from a rapidly decreasing circle of friends.

Vénus Khoury-Ghata uses poetic techniques, such as repetition, divergent metaphors, to recreate the final days of a persecuted, now celebrated, writer. Extremely moving and bringing to life the persecution of artists, some forgotten, but Stalin’s figure remains.

All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer

Copy courtesy of the publisher – Seagull Books.

A Lover’s Discourse – Xiaolu Guo – 2020 Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist

All the romantic stories are flawed.

Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese born British novelist and filmmaker, her novel ‘ Village of Stone’  (translated by Cindy Carter) was shortlisted for the 2005 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (an award that merged with the Booker International Prize and was disbanded after 2015), and was nominated for the Dublin Literary Awards, other books have been nominated or won awards such as the Orange Prize for Fiction, the National Books Critics Circle Award, the Costa Book Award and the Baliey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her film ‘She, a Chinese’ premiered at the 2009 Locarno International Film Festival and it won the highest honour, the Golden Leopard.

Earlier works include ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers’, inspired by Roland Barthes work and it is no accident that this novel shares a title with one of Barthes’ works. The epigraph:

Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. (Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Roland Barthes)

There are a number of reviews of this work in the public domain that explain the linkages to Barthes work of the same name, so I won’t go into those details here, however I will point out one diversion from the novel’s structure that I found interesting.

Each chapter opens with a short one or two sentences of conversation, which is repeated in the chapter itself, discourse generally between the two lovers in the story. The repetition of language that we see referenced in the epigraph, however there is one chapter that uses a Barthes quote, not conversation, as the opening:

An Unknown Language

The murmuring mess of an unknown language constitutes a delicious protection…Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, worldliness, nationality, normality. (Roland Barthes)

The unknown language around me. The murmuring mass around me. Except that this was not a murmuring mass in Japan, this was a loud mass in Italy. This language was not too foreign for you, and you could make out many words, especially from the food menus. But it was foreign for me. Even though this culture uses the same twenty-six Latin letters, just like most European languages – the same alphabet. But I didn’t come from this alphabet. I came from the non-alphabetic. I came from ideograms. I came from 50,000 characters. Each character is composed with many symbols and strokes, like a tangled forest of meanings.
Also, I didn’t feel this ‘delicious protection’ that Barthes felt. The only protection for me would be to really try to
understand the foreign language. So that I, a secondary citizen in a white European world, would not downgrade into a tertiary citizen. But I know that even if one day I could master a foreign language – one of the major European languages – I would still not become a primary citizen of the West.

This is a novel of language, a story of identity, alienation, community and exile. It is brought home by the very structure, in the West we say “North, South, East and West” in Chinese the sequence is “East, South, West and North” and in this novel the first four parts are “West, South, East, North”, displacement, sequentially awkward. The following four parts of the novel are “Down, Up, Left, Right” and whilst the parts roughly align geographically (eg. “Down” the lovers are in Australia), I feel these headings are used to highlight our protagonist’s’ inability to settle, find a home.

This is the story of a Chinese student in Britain, pre/post Brexit, completing her PhD in film, her “project” a documentary about a village and its inhabitants in southern China. A village of two-thousand uneducated workers who have transformed themselves into master copyists. (“They could now reproduce a Monet, Chagall, and da Vinci at the drop of a hat.”) She falls in love with an Australian/German, and the novel follows their journeys, discourses.

However it is not the simple love narrative that is at play here, you are immediately forced into facing the fact that, as Europeans (or in my case white colonial descendent) we have no concept of other’s lives, cultures:

‘Wednesday is a bit tight for me. But I can try,’ you said. ‘Hope the food isn’t too spicy.’
I paused for a second, and thought you must be one of those hypersensitive northern Europeans who couldn’t eat anything hot. You might even be a vegan, who eats tasteless food. No salt in your meals either, because of high blood pressure. I would find out.

This is also a novel of language, the emotional attachment we have to words, there’s numerous examples of looking at translations of words from German, or Chinese that have no similar words in English.

There has been this feeling of wu yu – wordlessness and loss of language – which had enveloped me. It reminded me of something I read in one of Barthes’s books. He described how he felt when he visited Japan. The strange signs and sounds. The miscommunication and the silence. The Japan of my world was London, and the strange signs and sounds were from Britain. In my flat, I had not spoken for some days. My flatmate had gone back to Italy to see her family. Four days, alone, in this enclosed place. I listened to the radio, there seemed to be only two types of news: Brexit and sports. Neither could I connect to, not could I participate.

Throughout there are metaphors and allegories about finding a connection to a place, here, in Italy, oak trees growing atop of Tuscan tower:

As we were leaving, I reached out my hand and touched one of the skinny oak trees, rooted on top of the tower. It trembled in the cruel wind as if it were trying to speak to me. I was disappointed by the sight of it. The tourist guide said these oaks were supposed to be old and even ancient, but in reality they were just skinny young oaks, struggling to stay rooted on top of a vicious tower. They needed real roots, real soil, real ground! I could hear their screaming and cries in the wind.

An interesting novel, where I found the concrete experiences of the protagonist struggling to understand concepts such as “referendum”, “Brexit” an enlightening exploration of displacement and alienation. The exploration of language “rubbing one language against the other” was subtle and moving. The lover’s tale? The heavy allegory? A tad overworked (allegory) or too shallow (relationship). An interesting exploration and structure for a novel, for mine one that is ultimately a disappointing whole, but then again “all romantic stories are flawed.”

Licorice – Bridget Penney

Halloween, a perfect time to review a novel about four people making a horror movie.

Bridget Penney’s ‘Licorice’, primarily, revolves around four characters; Licorice, a “Chinese lady”, middle-aged, overstayed her visa is the co-director of the film, Pete, who lives upstairs and is organized (and has the ability to claim VAT) is made co-director, then there’s Angela a friend of Licorice’s who is playing the lead role and Roy, Angela’s ex, who is playing the Angela’s partner.

The movie they are making, unscripted of course, is about local legend Nan Kemp (played by Angela), who allegedly killed her children and fed them to her husband (played by Roy). She was executed and is buried at the local crossroads

The novel swims in and out of each of the four main character’s thoughts, with no qualifying markers letting you know whose internal monologue you are eavesdropping on, as well as having no punctuation for conversations, you’re not sure who is talking, if they’re talking at all. An “experimental” mishmash of local lore, relationships, movie making and horror. The movie feel coming through as though you’re observing a bunch of rushes, unedited, what will end up as the final product?

The backstory of Licorice, her illegal immigrant status bleeds through the movie theme:

English horror roots itself in the land, celebrating its muck and grooving on the old ultraviolence. People cling dumbly to traditions because they are things they’ve always done not because there’s anything good about them. No one makes any attempt to understand why they act the way they do. They look on anything new, anyone from outside, with fear and suspicion. Any ‘different’ element entering an English horror film has to be consumed before it can threaten their ‘way of life’

The prose rambling and frenetic:

Small tortoiseshell meadow brown gatekeeper orange tip brimstone green hairstreak wall comma common blue Adonis blue chalkhill blue small blue ringlet dingy skipper small skipper grizzled skipper marbled white my favourite one of all painted ladies migrating in huge clouds peacock red admiral and very exceptionally the duke of burgundy might dark up from just in front of your feet.

A style that may disorient a number of readers, however I took the advice of one of the characters:

The most important thing you’ve taught me Licorice is how when your surroundings are brand new and strange you should treat everything as a gift rather than a threat.

Approach the novel with this philosophy in mind and there are riches galore, yes it’s not all comfortable, however persistence will bring forth a number of horror movie tropes, if you’ve watched English horror you find yourself entering into a dream like state, déjà vu as you are sure you’ve come across this scene before.

One of the other prominent “characters” in the novel is the mill, the wind powered structure that turns wheat into flour. There are many references to the multiple strains that are put on the mill’s structural timbers, causing the body of the mill to collapse. An allegory for the relationships between the characters perhaps?

The blurb at the publisher Book Works website points to the book using “Well-worn tropes lifted from films”, three are mentioned and I’ve thought of possibly two others, originally the blurb mentioned there were “more than 25 films”, it has recently had the number edited out. As an avid movie watcher, it would be great if other readers could point me to any films they believe have been included:

  1. Irma Vep (1996) – Licorice the Maggie Cheung character, dressed in black, displaced, lusted after by all
  2. The Mask of Satan (1960) – a witch is put to death by her own brother
  3. The Blair Witch Project (1999) – improvised, hand held footage, missing footage, camping
  4. The Shuttered Room (1967) – set in a mill in Norfolk
  5. The Wicker Man (1973) – I’m not sure the linkage here, even if there is one, but the scenes in the pub and the rural setting brought it to mind as I was reading

A book about a horror story, using horror story tropes, it is the first book in the Book Works “Interstices” series. As the accompanying bookmark explains:

Interstices are very small spaces ‘standing between’ solid objects. Sometimes so minute the eye passes straight over them, yet a beam of light directed through and interstice has the potential to illuminate in an unexpected way. Interstices simultaneously divide and connect what surrounds them. They can be places for distraction, experiment and potentially radical redefinition. An interstice can also be a tiny interval of time, unaccounted for and uncountable, the transitional space at the end of a breath. On the web, interstitials are those annoying pages overlaying the content page you were expecting to reach. On the map, a border or a nobody’s land could be visualized as an interstice; whether it’s safe or dangerous will depend on who you are.

A radical experimentation of a novel from Bridget Penney, who is also the author of ‘Honeymoon with Death and Other Stories’ (1991, Polygon), and ‘Index’, published by Book Workds in 2008, the opening entry in their Semina series of experimental novels. Another of her stories is scheduled to appear in Salt publications ‘ The Best British Stories 2020’. I received my copy of this book through my subscription to the Republic of Consciousness Prize, where a monthly subscription to the Prize is rewarded with a book from a small independent press (fewer than five staff) each month. As did ‘Mr Beethoven’ by Paul Griffiths, and ‘New Passengers’ by Tine Høeg (translated by Misha Hoekstra) two other titles I’ve reviewed here recently. All books worthy contenders for the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize an award for “the best fiction published by publishers with fewer than 5 full-time employees”.

Off-kilter, yes but when your “surroundings are brand new and strange you should treat everything as a gift rather than a threat”.

New Passengers – Tine Høeg (tr. Misha Hoekstra)

Whilst my book deliveries are severely delayed due to various COVID issues, my planned reading of the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist has also been delayed. Fortunately, I have a house full of books and numerous stacks of recently released unread titles. Time to have a look a recent release from Lolli Editions, Danish writer Tine Høeg’s ‘New Passengers’ (translated by Misha Hoekstra).

I’ve come across Misha Hoekstra’s work before, more specifically his translation of ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors, a novel that was shortlisted for the Booker International Prize in 2017 (the winner was David Grossman’s ‘A Horse Walks Into A Bar’ – translated by Jessica Cohen). Nors’ novel introducing us to Sonja, a loner in her forties, single and really wanting to get her driver’s license. The mirror, shoulder, signal theme not simply her driving, it was used as a prompt for looking at the past (mirror), the present (shoulder), and the future (signal).

And there are some parallels with Dorthe Nors’s novel and Tine Høeg’s book, specifically the loneliness, the uncertainty of the future, the reflections on the past but a story deeply rooted in the present.

‘New Passengers’ is a prose verse novel, covering about five months in our unnamed protagonist’s life (August to December). On her first day of work, as a teacher, our protagonist meets a married man on the train and they begin an affair, here’s the opening page:

*
I’ve bought a monthly pass

I’ve been assigned a new name

a teacher’s name

comprised of four letters
from my first and last names

I’ve been given the code to the high school network
which is changed every six months according to the principle

summer16winter16summer17winter17

I’ve been briefed
on the systems

it’s by chance
we fall to talking on the train
my first day of teaching

I’m nervous and our legs
graze each other
when we sit down

you’re a graphic designer at a travel agency

 you’re a commuter too

you’re ten years older than me

you’re married and father to a girl

It is only two pages later when we learn of the affair “the first time I see you naked”. Three pages and the narrative journey has been set, new job, an affair, and uncertainty about this move into adulthood.

There is not an entry for each day of the month (eg. September only has 27 entries) and some entries go for a number of pages, others a single word. It is through these sparse thoughts that we slowly learn of our protagonist’s unravelling, her feelings of inadequacy as a first year teacher, how she feels more connected to her students and their lives than to her fellow teachers, and how after any major event she crawls into her shell even further.

The fellow teachers are named by their four letter names “comprised of four letters/
from my first and last names” and the only people with full names are her students and the wife and daughter of her lover, Maria and Evy. An uneasy imagined relationship begins to form between her and her lover’s daughter Evy, mainly through dream sequences:

*
Evy lies on a red mattress

I kneel and look at her

she’s mumbling

then she reaches for me in her sleep

I don’t dare pick her up

there’s a mist around her skin

I pick her up anyway

she smells of you

then she bursts into flames

I try to put them out with my hands

my hands catch on fire

And a jealous relationship between her and Maria, there’s one page that simply says “Maria”.

It is through the use of space on the pages that I felt the isolation and our protagonists’ lack of a support network to share her emotions. Emptiness made concrete.

Her sexual encounters are in train bathrooms, in sheds, and occasionally at her home (until her lover is recognized near her home), and these are described matter-of-factly, “semen blood summer drizzle”, “I’ve never wanted/someone this way before”. Her relationship with her students brings back recent memories of herself at high school, a student sends a friend request on Facebook and it prompts recollection of a teacher she was in love with. And her lover is short in his communication a text message “you can’t write me/I’ll write you” adds to this sense of helplessness.

“New” passengers, there are the obvious references, our two lovers meet as passengers on the train and continue their daily commutes, there is also the passage to adulthood and us, as readers, are passengers watching our protagonist’s life unfold, we are helpless to offer any solace in her isolation.

A short novel, if you use word count for a definition rather than pages, there are 219 pages, but one that explores an uncertain move into adulthood. The blurb says it has “the immediacy of a text message”, where the deeper context is for you to decipher, whereas I saw these short illuminations and more of a snapshot into our protagonist’s uncertainty. Where shifts from larger events are immediately followed with periods of emptiness and confusion.

Another book that I received through my subscription to the Republic of Consciousness Prize, where a monthly subscription to the Prize is rewarded with a book from a small independent press (fewer than five staff) each month. And one that I wouldn’t be surprised to see on the International Booker Longlist for 2021, given the appearance of the prose poem novel Christoph Ransmayr’s ‘The Flying Mountain’ (translated by Simon Pare) in 2018 and through Misha Hoekstra’s previous listing with Dorthe Nors.

Mr Beethoven – Paul Griffiths – 2020 Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist

Perhaps the only touch of genius which I possess is that my things are not always in very good order…

Ludwig van Beethoven died in 1827, aged 56, however Paul Griffiths’ speculates that Beethoven lives into the 1830’s taking up a commission, made by the Boston Handel & Haydn Society, to compose a Biblical Oratorio based on the Book of Job.  Not only does Paul Griiffiths’ speculative work imagine that Beethoven lives longer, and he continues to compose more, the novel imagines the composer travelling to the US to fulfil these obligations. Due to his profound deafness he tees up with a resident of Martha’s Vineyard, a young girl named Thankful, who teaches him how to use sign language and who acts as his interpreter.

This is the basic premise of Paul Griffiths’ novel; however it is not only in the speculative tale that the riches prevail here. Griffiths is a former music critic of ‘The New Yorker’ and ‘The New York Times’ and, author of ‘Let Me Tell You’ a first-person narration using only the 481-word vocabulary that Shakespeare gives to Ophelia in Hamlet. He also contributed to the 2019 collection ‘The Penguin Book of Oulipo’, the literary constraints applied in this book are rich and varied, it is through the Oulipean constraints and musical knowledge where Griffiths’ book excels.

The novel opens with a past tense chapter, Beethoven is aboard a vessel travelling to the USA, we then move to research of possible vessels, “one sailing for Boston in 1833 from continental Europe, and from a port that would have been accessible at the time from Vienna without quite some difficulty.” Griffith lands on the brig Florida and using the “Familysearch website” comes up with a list of fellow passengers.

Throughout the novel there are signs of meticulous research, I assume it is all correct as I am not going to check it, Beethoven moving to a country estate owned by the Quincy’s to continue his work allows for rich research of the homestead, the extended family and more and when this research is mixed with playful constraints the book becomes an entertaining and unexpected read.

As advised in the ‘Notes’, “Words attributed to Beethoven, throughout; are taken as complete clauses – and, in most cases, complete sentences – from his (translated) letters”. We have chapters, longer than usual, that are a single sentence (Chapter 38) and we even have the readers interrupting the author;

Sorry, but we have to stop you there. You keep teasing us with this “great work” while offering as little information about it as you can get away with. Like these characters who are presumably from the Handel and Haydn Society, perhaps Richardson, Chickering and some other, we are being left in the dark. We know, yes, that this is an oratorio his is supposed to be writing, the “great composer,” as you archly call him, or “distinguished visitor,” or whatever else to avoid giving him his name, which of course we all know, which you had to divulge here and there, for the purposes of your story. Yes, what exactly are the purposes of your story? Do you want to tell us that? Or is that not part of your plan? If there is a plan.

There are chapters where the oratorio’s text is presented on the left-hand page and the action in the crowd appears on the right-hand page. There are letters and cryptic relations, a widow muse? Monologues revealing the detailed research (for example, a walk where the composer, although tone deaf, is addressed about the history and the surrounds)

You fill this book with information. As if to taunt us, you tell us all things of things we do not need to know, such as the names and ages and trades of other passengers (the shipboard septet – oh, please) on the vessel that could have conveyed the “great composer” to Boston. Remember that one? And we know where you find all these annoyingly irrelevant details. You even admit as much: on the Internet. So what?

There are cameo appearances by numerous well-known literary greats, Longfellow appears and there is speculation that Beethoven’s possible composition of an Indian operetta, a cross over and potential inspiration for ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. Herman Melville makes an appearance as a young boy interviewing the maestro;

Q.: (if I had employed my better judgement, it may very well be that I would not have broached this topic, but I include the question here for the sake of the composer’s response, which startled me by its force, as by its unexpected metaphor.) How did you react to the controversial article adverting to your music that appeared recently in one of the German musical periodicals?

A.: I have not read the article. I no longer receive the paper, which is a shabby proceeding. If the editor does not rectify the statement, I shall cause him and his consumptive chief to be harpooned in the northern waters among the whales!

Could Beethoven have sown the seeds for the creation of ‘Moby Dick’ AND ‘The Song of Hiawatha’? Wonderful, controversial (impossible) speculation.

There are a few chapters where I felt a peripheral character was created simply so a line from Beethoven’s letters could be used, for example a discussion takes place over the family breakfast table where Daniel Gregory reveals he is unable to sing the solo in the oratorio and has passed the part to Lowell Junior. Beethoven says; “I was indeed, not a little surprised when I found the boy in a distant room practicing all alone, and neither disturbing not being disturbed by others.” However, there are counterpoints to this, The Composer’s address to the Chorus before the first concert, the interview by Herman Melville are but two examples of using pre-existing material to create a new tale.

Add to all the playfulness the fact that Griffiths has created part of Beethoven’s imagined oratorio and you know you are reading a very skilled writer, one who seems to be having a great time playing with his readers, leading us one way, then the next, throwing in other characters of the era, you never know what the next chapter will throw up.

The book closes with a future tense chapter, the Composer, the members of the Boston Handel & Haydn Society and Thankful are on the dock.

Opening with past tense, closing with future tense, although a linear narrative, gives this an off-kilter unreal, speculative world feel. A very enjoyable and playful read.

Perhaps the only touch of genius which I possess is that my things are not always in very good order…

David Hebblethwaite has a very interesting approach to this novel, the element of communication, you can read his take here .

The book itself is a stunning production by Henningham Family Press (“a microbrewery for books”), litho printed in lilac-grey. French-fold red Takeo Tant cover, debossed with a gloss black and gold design (thanks Paul Fulcher). The paper using recycled coffee cup technology!! I received my copy of this book through my subscription to the Republic of Consciousness Prize, where a monthly subscription to the Prize is rewarded with a book from a small independent press (fewer than five staff) each month. More information on this subscription offer can be found here.

Goldsmiths Prize

2019 winner

In the 2013 the Booker Prize changed their rules, previously only books by English-language authors from the Commonwealth, including the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe were eligible for the Prize. The rules were changed to accept any novels originally published in English by a UK publisher. They also restricted the number of books that a publisher could submit. Previously, any publisher could submit two novels for consideration. Under the new rules, only one could be submitted, unless a publisher who has had one or two longlisted books in the past half-decade, they will be allowed two submissions; a publisher with three or four longlistings three; and a publisher with five or more longlistings will be permitted four submissions.

As Anne Meadows, assistant editor at Granta said at the time, “It means the prize will be dominated by big publishing houses who maybe aren’t taking as many risks. It could make it incredibly elitist.” (BBC)

There was also controversy about the new inclusion of US authors, previously ineligible. As Jackie Kaiser, an agent at Westwood Creative Artists in Toronto who represents Yann Martel, winner in 2002 with Life of Pi (Canongate) said, “I suppose that this move will give the selected books greater publicity and better sales traction in the US, and these aren’t bad things, but while America is clearly the biggest and arguably the most important book market in the world, it isn’t the only one, and with publisher lists in the other English-language territories already allocating valuable fiction slots to US writers, it is hard not to fear that this move may lead to a further Americanisation of literary culture.” (Bookseller)

In the same year, 2013, The Goldsmiths Prize was established by the University of London, “to celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form. The annual prize of £10,000 is awarded to a book that is deemed genuinely novel and which embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.

Launched in the tercentenary year of the births of Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot, the Goldsmiths Prize champions fiction that shares something of the exuberant inventiveness and restlessness with conventions manifest in Tristram Shandy and Jacques the Fatalist. The modern equivalents of Sterne and Diderot are often labelled ‘experimental,’ with the implication that their fiction is an eccentric deviation from the novel’s natural concerns, structures and idioms. A long view of the novel’s history, however, suggests that it is the most flexible and varied of genres, and the Goldsmiths Prize seeks to encourage and reward writers who make best use of its many resources and possibilities.” (Goldsmiths)

I originally established this blog, many many years ago, to track the Booker Prize, previous winners and shortlisted novels and to read, review longlisted works as they were announced each year. When the rules changed in 2013, I stopped reading the Booker Prize nominees, and although I returned to read the longlists in 2018 and 2019, I never posted my thoughts as I felt too many titles were bland, or downright awful (ie. ‘Snap’ by Belinda Bauer, unreadable after one paragraph!!). There are of course exceptions, ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns has been rightfully lauded, earlier this week also picking up the Dublin Literary Award, an award where the longlisted novels are nominated by world libraries.

A week before the announcement of the 2020 Dublin Literary Award , the judges of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize, Frances Wilson (Chair), Will Eaves, Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Chris Power, announced their shortlist.

‘Mr. Beethoven’ by Paul Griffiths (Henningham Family Press)

‘A Lover’s Discourse’ by Xiaolu Guo (Chatto & Windus)

‘The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again’ by M. John Harrison (Gollancz)

‘Meanwhile in Dopamine City’ by DBC Pierre (Faber)

‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press)

‘Bina’ by Anakana Schofield (Fleet)

As a reader who enjoys fiction “that is deemed genuinely novel“ and books that are “an eccentric deviation from the novel’s natural concerns, structures and idioms”, and having enjoyed past winners such as ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride (2013), ‘H(A)PPY’ by Nicola Barker (2017), and ‘Ducks, Newburyport’ by Lucy Ellmann (2019),  I have decided that a reading of the 2020 shortlist is right up my alley . Expect some thoughts from me on the 2020 shortlisted titles in the coming weeks.

The winner will be announced on 11 November 2020, too early for me to have read all six titles, but I do intend to read all six.