As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome back Graham Fulcher who provides his thoughts on An Overcoat by Jack Robinson.
“Here’s another tip: if you’re planning to write about someone who existed in history, be wary. Once you’ve put an actual person into a book, they become larger than life, because larger than death.”
CB editions is a very small UK publisher, which publishes short fiction, poetry, translations and other work which, as the Guardian noted, ‘might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers’.
One notable success was The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves which made the incredibly strong shortlist for the 2014 Goldsmith award.
Jack Robinson is one of the pseudonyms of Charles Boyle the founder of CB Editions, which is largely a one person operation.
And this book is an imagined afterlife of Marie-Henri Beyle – the 19th century author who operated under a number of pseudonyms, most famously Stendhal.
The book imagines Beyle in a modern day city, reflecting on what he sees around him, just as he did in life of other cities, together with a seemingly similarly reincarnated ex-lover M (Mathilde Dembowski) and a cast of contemporary characters such as a waitress Anna and a hotel manager/tour guide Franco. However this is vastly simplifying the complexity of this short book.
As a far from exhaustive list of examples of what it contains: two chapters create an imaginary dialogue of which alternate lines are taken first from a Spanish primer and secondly a Colloquial Persian phrase book; copious footnotes (some of which give rise to further sub-footnotes) pick up on themes in the text and relate them to Stendhal’s life or writing – often in fact pointing out that Stendhal’s writing (even his supposedly non-fictional writing) had a best a troubled relationship to his actual life and experiences; characters move into and out of the book – including the author who at one point joins Beyle for dinner; references are made in the text and footnotes to the works of other artists and authors – typically but not exclusively those who mention of implicitly reference Stendhal or his works in their own works – such as Sophie Calle, Ford Madox Ford, Elizabeth Bowen, Gogol Nikolai; there are frequent meditations on the afterlife and comparisons to worldly sensations.
Stendhal syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder arising from physical reactions (from rapid heartbeat to fainting) that are linked to the emotional impact of art – or as the book puts it “being overwhelmed by art”
For me the reading equivalent is to read images or phrases in a book which simply stop my reading in its tracks, making me pause and reflect on them and note them down. I experienced this often during this book:
“He discovers that in a town frequented by tourists it is hard to walk in a straight line. Tourists walk slowly and stop for no reason at all in the middle of the pavement, like children before the dawning of spatial awareness.”
“The light is silent now. It’s like bottled light. As you might bring back from holiday a bottle of some local liquor that on a winter night at home will taste sickly sweet, nothing like it tasted on the terrace by the sea. This light does what it is expected to do – there are shadows behind where it gets blocked – but it is a little clotted, heavy tired, which is understandable, given that it’s been travelling from so far away and at such a ridiculous speed and with no notion of where it is headed or why”
“People don’t die in novels … you flick back to chapter 2 and they are still there, in the bloom of youth. You look up to your shelves and they are still there. Even when you don’t look up to your shelves, they are still there. And when you tell what happens in novels, you speak in the present tense – everything still in play, all options open.”
“He likes watching people who are doing repetitive work – cashiers at supermarket checkouts, scaffolders, soldiers, street-sweepers, married couples, writers.”
“To reduce congestion, a plan for a bypass from conception to the afterlife is being considered”
(Of films) “For those who are hard of hearing or for whom the plot is just too silly to bother keeping track of, there remains simply “the bits where”.”
(Of a detective who suddenly is inserted in the text) “He suspects that he has caught a but from something rotten in the genre itself , something long past it’s use-by date, a plate of left over subplots at the back of the fridge that are growing mould.”
In style I was at times, in the lightness and playfulness of the style set alongside deeply embedded cross-references, reminded of the early and strongest novels of Milan Kundera or those of Alain de Botton (who more typically references philosophy rather than literature). But there is a uniqueness to the style of the author which makes me both interested to read his other works, and very keen to return again to this one.
You may read my review of An Overcoat here.
Next week on my blog look out for a guest post from the publisher/author of this book.
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