Book Review: Seven Kinds of People You Find In Bookshops

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

If the number of review copies arriving through my letter box is anything to go by, publishers are on as big a push as ever to capture the Christmas market in book sales, despite the difficulties put in their way this year by bookshop closures and the ever changing rules on social contact. This little title, however, was the first to arrive that I would describe as a stocking filler. Please don’t think from that classification that I am putting it down. Any reader finding this book in their stocking on Christmas morning should feel lucky. It contains plenty to amuse – an excellent diversion for a recipient doing their best to avoid interacting with rarely encountered relatives, ones who insist on sharing distasteful opinions or recounting anecdotes about people only they have any interest in.

Of course, I digress, as does the author of this book on many occasions. It is these digressions that make the contents so entertaining. Like Bythell’s previous two publications – Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller – the tone is one of caustic wit woven through complaints about the behaviour of the customers encountered in the second hand bookshop he has owned and run for the previous two decades. There is, however, a greater generosity of spirit than was apparent in his earlier books. Perhaps this is due to the lack of people he has been permitted to observe and serve this year.

In the introduction, the author explains the focus of this latest work.

“It is about our customers: those wretched creatures with whom we’re forced to interact on a daily basis, and who – as I write this under coronovirus lockdown – I miss like long-lost friends.”

He then goes on to categorise and castigate these much missed providers of his income. Using what he describes as ‘a sort of Linnaean system of taxonomy’, the reader may muse over the failings of such customers as: expert, young family, loiterer, bearded pensioner. He introduces the last of these thus:

“This genus includes both males and females, although it tends to be dominated by males (by a whisker).”

Each chapter is further subdivided as the author sees fit. His Genus: occultist, includes the species, ghost hunter. He quotes from a YouGov survey from 2014 in which:

“alarmingly, 9 per cent of people claim to have communicated with the dead (although technically this could include shouting at a gravestone, as it’s unclear from the question whether or not the dead were required to respond).”

In amongst Bythell’s complaints about conduct within his shop are tangential rants about typical behaviour of various customers beyond his walls. Motor home drivers in particular are vilified for driving slowly and emptying their chemical toilets inappropriately.

The sartorial choices of each species are derided and compared – hipsters ignite the author’s ire even more than Goths; the pantalons rouge brigade are encapsulated with relish.

Habits highlighted are, of course, being mined for their entertainment value. In that, the writing succeeds, albeit in a mordant manner. For each smile or chuckle elicited there may be a tremor of guilt in the reader who wishes to regard themselves as of a more generous nature.

Such generosity would, however, be severely tested by regular and unavoidable encounters with many of the customers described within these pages. The corollary is that, as a bookshop customer, the more anxious may ponder how staff have judged their dress and behaviour.

Any Cop?: Many readers will doubtless enjoy pigeon holing themselves and their acquaintances into the genera and species depicted. Just as booksellers come in shades spanning Shaun Bythell to Frank Doel – both adding colour and interest to their métier– so I would counter that life would be a lot less interesting if all customers were of Bythell’s final genus – perfect.

Jackie Law

Gig Review: Adam Scovell in Bristol

On Tuesday of this week I travelled to Stanfords bookshop in Bristol to hear author, Adam Scovell, in conversation with bookseller, Callum Churchill. Having enjoyed both of Adam’s novels – Mothlight and How Pale the Winter Has Made Us, I was interested in hearing from an writer whose style strikes me as haunting and original. I discovered that he has been compared to Sebald, an author I am unfamiliar with. Adam’s books reference many people and works that I could say the same of – I have not come across them. This did not detract from my enjoyment of his books but does give me pause for thought. I wonder how many links I have missed in the plot threads woven.

I arrived early at the bookshop so had plenty of time to enjoy my complimentary glass of wine and peruse the shelves. Callum was busy recommending books to Adam. When I spotted a copy of Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul on a book table I caught myself doing the same to his colleague. I’m not sure random customers are supposed to recommend books to booksellers…

Stanfords is a lovely bookshop. If you get a chance to visit be sure to admire the map of the city that covers the entire staircase wall from ground floor to basement. I spotted several small piles of Adam’s book strategically set out around the store.

As is customary with my gig reviews, what follows is a write-up of notes I took on the night – some sparse, and not a complete record of all that was discussed. Nevertheless, I hope it is of interest.

The event started with an introduction by Callum followed by a brief summary of How Pale the Winter Has Made Us from Adam. He told us that he split the narrative into two voices. The protagonist, Isabelle, is a stressed academic living alone in Strasbourg when she hears of her father’s suicide. The second voice is that of Isabelle’s research and is more academic in style. Adam then read to us a section of the book in which Isabelle is preparing to meet a market trader who sells her old photographs. The scene is set in the early morning. The language used has a dream like quality.

Callum asked about the Erl King and was told this mythical creature came from a poem by Goethe.

How Pale the Winter Has Made Us came from Adam’s wanderings around Strasbourg where his girlfriend has a flat (the one Isabelle’s partner’s is based on).

Callum asked about Adam’s interest in objects that are old and battered.

Adam talked of his fascination with inorganic demons from weird fiction – the sense of what has accumulated in them over time. He mentioned books he read while writing, including Georges Perec’s Life: A User Manual. Isabelle lists objects seen in the streets she walks. Adam views objects as portals to history, their aesthetic a part of the city to be absorbed.

Callum mentioned that both Adam’s novels have a sense of crumbling.

Adam talked of his love of detective fiction such as that written by MR James. In these, what is real is presented convincingly, only to have this reality broken down. The banal and ordinary becomes unexpected, not of this world.

Callum asked about using hurtling towards mania as a trope in writing.

Last month Adam was interviewed by Deborah Levy at an event held in Foyles, London. She expressed concern that the intensity inherent in Adam’s writing was autobiographical. He explained that he admired [Bernhard or Bernhardt?]’s narrators for their manic qualities and wanted to see what he could do with this himself.

Adam told us that Gary at Influx, his publisher, didn’t like Isabelle for her insufferable, unbearable condescension. Much of the initial drafts were edited to soften her.

Callum mentioned the plethora of characters introduced along with the variety of information presented in essay style. He asked how Adam chose what to include.

Adam approached his initial research much as he would if writing a thesis. He then tried to make this interesting. It was about finding a balance between what is real and what is readable (not everything included is real). This approach made editing a challenge as facts had to be checked. For example, a book with a frankly unbelievable title actually exists.

Callum asked why Strasbourg, if its borders were significant.

Adam was going to the city regularly to visit his girlfriend when Brexit was starting. The European Parliament is there. It is possible to walk from the city into Germany. Jean Hans Arp used his French and German names as suited. Adam became interested in the people who had also passed through.

Callum asked about mapping a place – psychogeography.

Adam talked about getting to know a place at a level beyond what a tourist sees – its history and local residents. It can feel as though the city becomes ingrained within its people.

Callum mentioned that obsession is a theme in both books and asked how Adam drew up Isabelle’s character.

Adam wanted to subtly reflect her through her research – to insinuate rather than tell. He also wished to ensure that his girlfriend did not think Isabelle’s terrible relationship with her partner was a reflection of their’s! To help achieve this he deliberately sent Isabelle’s partner away. This created distance – a factor in all Isabelle’s relationships.

Callum talked of fragments included, intertextual references. He asked how Adam knew what to make explicit and what to assume the reader would know.

Adam talked of the many photos he purchased in Strasbourg (as Isabelle does), many of which were not included in the final edition. These offered stories that Adam realised could be included. What was difficult was reflecting in prose the real and personal impact of images and art encountered.

Mention is made in the book of Gutenberg’s holy mirrors. Adam was amused by the bizarre image this tidbit conjured, of Gutenberg trying to make money from pilgrims, tourists, and people believing that a mirror could capture a religious relic’s aura.

Callum asked what photography lends to text.

Adam explained that Mothlight grew from a suitcase of inherited photographs. How Pale the Winter Has Made Us came from research in which photographs featured. It became a case of what image fitted with a character – which historical moment captured fitted the narrative.

Adam’s next book also has photographs but these are ones Adam has taken. He finds the process rewarding – using photographs rather than text for inspiration.

The audience were then treated to another reading, this times from one of the more academic sections, before Callum invited questions.

Q: Isabelle’s father is a failed painter. Why was this fact set up so early?

A: Wanted to drip this back in during Isabelle’s disintegration, along with the critical comments from her mother. Used reflection and insinuation as a destabilisation technique. Wanted to suggest there might be other aspects that were not being revealed.

Q: Is first person narration important to you? Also, what lessons did you learn writing a book second time around?

A: Likes the potential of the unreliable narrator, when well done. Not sure what was learned. Writing Mothlight was cathartic. Pale the Winter is not as autobiographical, more is concocted, although had technique of writing set down from Mothlight. Wanted a little more solidity, not as brief.

Q: Was it written in Strasbourg?

A: Largely, yes. Walked the routes many times, visited the cafes, spotted characters to include.

Q: Any anxiety in writing a gender different to own?

A: Yes. In first draft gender wasn’t set down. Once set down there was pressure to get it right. Watched certain films [Cléo from 5 to 7 ?] over and over that seemed relevant or proved useful in providing a blueprint.

Q: Walking features in both books. You live in London. What is it like walking around there?

A: Love it. My income is from freelance writing, researching film locations, which is a bizarre way of mapping the city. This is different to Isabelle’s experience but find it addictive, rewarding. Wouldn’t use it in fiction as it has already been done.

Q: Mapping. What is lost when transferred on to the page – cartography as story?

A: The sense of excavating a city, recognising the impact of random discoveries of the bizarre.

Q: Arriving at a place before seeing it – what of the impact of preconceptions derived from reading other work?

A: You do bring assumptions – included some in the book. For example, Isabelle visits one of her partner’s relatives outside Strasbourg. The house described is my girlfriend’s grandmother’s. Attempt must be made to get past clichés. Many of the scenes are set in real places and the preconceptions are Adam’s at times – he let them flow.

Q: Is there food in the book? Religion?

A: Yes. Isabelle visits a bakery. Items are linked to folklore. She visits a cathedral with an historic astronomical clock. Other churches feature.

Adam shared an anecdote. Flights direct to Strasbourg stop over winter. He made a journey to visit his girlfriend that took him via Colmar, Basle. He was reading Sebold and came across a poem in which exact route was being followed…

Callum drew the event to a close by thanking Adam and inviting the audience to purchase signed books that could then have a dedication added. As I had not purchased my copy from Stanfords I was unsure of the etiquette so did not join the queue.

And with that I had to leave to catch my train home. It was a fascinating evening offering insights into the writing process of a fine author. I am looking forward already to reading Adam’s next book.

How Pale the Winter Has Made Us is published by Influx Press 

Gig Review: Ariana Harwicz in Bath

On Wednesday of this week I travelled to Bath for an unusual but very much enjoyed literary event. Hosted by Toppings Bookshop, Ariana Harwicz, author of Die My Love and Feebleminded, was there to talk about her writing and her books. These are available in English from the fabulous Charco Press who are based in Edinburgh and publish books in translation, several from South America. Born in Buenos Aires, Ariana currently lives in France and writes in Spanish. She spoke to the audience in her mother tongue and was ably translated by Carolina Orloff. Carolina is co-founder of Charco Press and co-translated both of Ariana’s books. As someone who speaks only English, I was impressed that so many in the audience appeared to understand all that was being said.

The evening opened with an introduction by Matt, one of Toppings’ booksellers, who spoke of how viscerally he had been affected reading Die My Love. Ariana then gave a reading from the original version of Feebleminded. This was followed by the same section read from the English translation by Carolina.

“if we don’t suffer there’s no passion”

“falling in love is the ultimate curse”

Matt asked a series of pertinent questions that enabled an interesting discourse on the creation of Ariana’s trilogy (the third book will be published in English next year). The following summary is produced from notes I took on the night. Some of the responses are translations of Ariana’s answers and some are additional comments from Carolina. My aim is to reflect the gist of what was said. I hope it will be of interest.

Q: What is the purpose of the trilogy?

When asked this question an author tries to go back in time. This process happens later, when the author becomes a reader of their own work. It is a deconstruction process. The more truthful answer is the writing comes from a mystery. I don’t know where it comes from.

What unites the three books is a feeling of desperation in the main character. There is a certain style, perhaps like musicians creating a triad. It is the punctuation that unites the books.

Q: How does it feel to revisit your published books that are only now coming out in English?

To write a book is a miracle. To see a translation is another miracle. It is as if I have written another book. Translation is like two people making music. It has to work together. There can be slight changes – politically, ideologically. Some authors hand over their work to a translator and don’t get involved – beyond their responsibility. I am not like that. The involvement comes from the dialectics. Writing is an act of translation.

C: Ariana was recently told her books were thought in French but written in Spanish. This was said as a criticism but she thinks it is a good thing.

Q: Has there been variation in response from Spanish and English readers?

To be here is a political act. It is expected that a Latin American author will write about certain things. I have an eight year old son who is Franco-Argentinean. All he gets from television is: sexist, stereotypical, poverty, dictatorship. I am not interested in these clichés.

It was through the English translation that Die My Love came to be translated into fifteen languages. Now it cannot be so easily pigeonholed. I write literature, not just feminist Latin American.

C: One of the biggest aims as publisher is to do away with such limitations. Charco launched with five Argentinean writers from the same generation yet all are different. It is good to break preconceptions.

A: Reactions of different readerships stems from cultural history. The Hebrew version is getting very different reactions from the English. Some regard the writing as akin to science fiction, others recognise it as realism.

C: These social constructs and clichés exist because Latin American authors are not widely read. Charco wishes to change this.

A: The true political act is to step away from expectations and write what I want.

Q: What was it about the English translation that particularly resonated?

I live in a small French village, write from the margins, produce cryptic literature. English being such a massive language it opens work up to so many readers. What I want to do is break language, undo and then remake, add new meaning. I was told when the books came out they would be impossible to translate.

The challenge of translation is to get across something of that which is broken. The translation had to be hidden, quiet, convoluted – whatever the original conveyed. To leave the bare minimum of image or colour or feeling.

I would not wish to live without writing – inventing language. It is the language that is the main character.

After a second reading, the audience were invited to ask questions.

Q: Characters are never named. Do they recur in the trilogy?

C: Ariana has a background in drama and film.

I am interested in the idea that characters have no names, that it is up to the reader to assign them. I would even prefer books to have no titles, preferring to keep things as pure as possible. There are darker elements. Each character is condoned to their role in society. It is this that defines them.

Q: The ‘mad woman’ – are they thrust into this role? Do they embrace it?

Having to name people, reducing them, creates a misunderstanding. When Die My Love came out many readers understood it was a woman suffering post partum depression. But I never thought of this pathologically. I wanted to give a wider perspective.

Q: The language moves as though alive. Does Ariana edit to achieve this?

Consider artists who paint outside, trying to find an image but the image cannot exist without surrounding sound. Feebleminded comes from an image of a female village idiot. I then saw her again on a train and realised it was not idiocy but obsession.

I also observed the relationships between mothers and daughters. I found something disturbing. There were two bodies that looked alike. What was going on there, between them?

Sound matters more than realism. I just write, uninterrupted. The language comes out.

Q: When you picture the people who love your books are you surprised that they look like me? (a young, white, male)

That they are normal? To answer I go back to my first novel. Being a foreigner is a lonely experience. I wrote for myself, out of desperation. I didn’t know it would become a novel. When I heard it was to be published I went into the forest and cried. It was a way of saving myself.

C: In Argentina the book has been adapted for the stage yet uses the same words as in the novel – it is striking.

I am interested in writing from deep solitude, sorrow, tortuous loneliness.

Matt: The power of good writers is that they evoke situations the reader has been unable to express themselves.

Indie publishers are great because they are places of discovery. And unlike some, Charco has not published a bad book.

As audience members queued to have their purchases signed by both Ariana and Carolina, I left to catch my train home. The evening offered much to consider about both the power of writing and of quality translation.

Die My Love and Feebleminded are available to buy from good bookshops such as Toppings, and direct from Charco Press.

 

Book Review: Browse

Browse: Love Letters to Bookshops Around the World, is a collection of fifteen essays by various writers about what bookshops have meant to them throughout the course of their lives. Opening with an introduction by the book’s editor, Henry Hitchings, each contributor shares their experiences from a diverse selection of outlets that have, in some way, helped nurture and shape their development. The contributions are eclectic in style, preferences and setting. Not all the bookshops mentioned still exist but are fondly remembered.

Secondhand retailers feature, with Ali Smith writing of the treasures to be discovered between pages, not just the words. In a charity shop where she volunteered she has found letters, photographs and poignant inscriptions. A book’s value is not just what someone else will pay for it.

Michael Dirda also writes of a secondhand bookshop he regularly visits although he seeks titles as investments – rare bindings and first editions – to add to his vast collection. His enjoyment of reading has been affected by his job as a reviewer.

“while reading remains a pleasure it’s become a guarded pleasure, tinged with suspicion.”

Ian Sansom writes of working in the old Foyles on Charing Cross Road where he would try to avoid customers. His colleagues would help themselves to stock – this is not the usual dreamy depiction of avuncular booksellers. Despite the somewhat downbeat experience he laments the shiny edifice the shop has since become.

Daniel Kehlmann, on the other hand, prefers a vast, modern and impersonal bookshop that is well organised – he likes to be left in peace to browse. His essay is written in the form of a conversation between two writers and offers many witty observations. On the importance of bookshops in providing authors with an income his character says:

“I live off giving readings and talks. Also teaching sometimes. I teach people who want to write books how to write books that sell so well that you can live off them. I do that because my books don’t sell so well that I can live off them.”

Stefano Benni opens his essay with a poem that concludes:

“Books speak even when they are closed
Lucky the man who can hear
their persistent murmur”

He writes of a bookseller who, if he distrusted a customer’s motives, would refuse to sell to them. It is in these smaller bookshops that the writers get to know the proprietors and recall conversations that led them to books they would not otherwise have discovered. Benni recalls that the bookseller was also a writer and offered him the following advice:

“There comes a time when your work is over and it starts belonging to other people.”

Iain Sinclair writes of the closing of a beloved bookshop, and also of booksellers becoming writers.

“You would think that booksellers would be the last to write bks, surrounded as they are by bestsellers that are now forgotten”

Not all the tales told are positive. Dorthe Nors’s essay recounts a painful bookshop experience when a scathing proprietor ordered her to leave for daring to move her latest publication face out on the shelf.

My favourite essay was by Saša Stanišić in which he writes of his need to find a dealer for his regular supply, one he can trust to offer a quality fix. The depiction of books as drugs is cleverly done, humorous and apt.

The essays are from all over the world and reflect the varied tastes of the authors. Whether they prefer: big shops or small, old books or new, cluttered or well organised outlets, antiquarian or stocking their own latest works; there is a nostalgia for the past that is understandable given the memories evoked. In our current times this did leave me a tad wary – the past is not always rose coloured.

What is clear though is how important bookshops are in widening the perspectives of aspiring writers.

“We have the potential to become greater than the role we’ve been expected to play.”

Many of the recollections of second hand bookshops revolve around treasures found amongst the stacks before the internet offered instant valuations for sellers to compare. I did feel rather sorry for the business owners who lost out. On line sellers are, however, blamed for the decline in the number of bookshops and this is understandably lamented.

As someone who derives pleasure from visiting bookshops but who buys books to read rather than with an eye on resale value, not all the essays resonated. Nevertheless they offer a fascinating window into the eclectic nature of bookshops worldwide, and the preferences of both customers and proprietors.

On writers and the evolving business of book selling, this is an affable and entertaining read.

“A book is not just a product; a book is an experience”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.