Book Review: The Other Jack

the other jack

“‘The characters in this book are fictional and bear no relation to actual persons, living or dead.’ These disclaimers are there, I assume, in case of libel actions, but I’ve always believed they are part of the fiction.”

I have met Charles Boyle on a handful of occasions at book events. The first time was a gathering linked to a literary prize I was helping judge and for which one of his novels had been submitted, albeit under a pseudonym. The prize was to reward the publisher as well as the author. In this case, Boyle was both.

“In 2007 I published four books under an imprint I made up on a whim and two of them were by me. I planned to take copies of the books into local bookshops and humbly suggest they might like to stock them … In a bookseller’s book, self-published authors are shady characters. They can come across as a little desperate – with reason, but it’s not a good look. So, Jack Robinson.”

My impression of this creator of CB editions – which publishes, among other fine authors, himself and Will Eaves (The Absent Therapist, Broken Consort, Murmur) – was gleaned not so much from our brief conversations but from the esteem in which he is obviously held by those who know him better. I detected no artifice in his public persona but rather a desire to remain in the background. He appeared more embarrassed than anything when presented with a special recognition award.

As part of my coverage of the prize I invited Boyle to write this guest post in which he indicated his intent to wind down his publishing activity. As a reader, I am pleased it does not yet appear to have happened, not least because this latest book by him is an absolute gem.

The Other Jack offers a window into the author’s thoughts on a wide variety of literature, including literary history, habits and tropes. It is framed around conversations with a young woman, Robyn, who the narrator meets in coffee shops. The reader may assume it is autobiographical, although if Robyn exists she too has a pseudonym.

“Exposing the artificiality of conventions involves even more artifice than was originally required”

The book is about: books, publishing, readers, writers, class, prejudice, rivalries, and what the author describes as poshlust. There are regular mentions of Stendhal, an ‘obsession’ that the narrator admits to and, in certain ways, appears to learn from personally. Impressions gleaned of Boyle are of a fierce intellect but self-deprecating demeanour. His writing oozes wit and intelligence while never appearing clever for the sake of it.

We learn that the author grew up in Yorkshire, boarded at an all boys school – although the only further abuse mentioned of his time there was being beaten for tardiness – and then went up to Cambridge.

“I read Dostoevsky and a whole shelf of fat black Penguin Classics in translation when I was at Cambridge, a period in my life I have few fond memories of. Very long books are often read by people at times when they were unhappy and perhaps lonely.”

Now living in London, this straight, white man is searingly aware of the tribe he fits into – supposedly well-educated Guardian readers who like to grumble when their views are not more widely agreed with. And yet, this book proves that Boyle thinks more deeply and possesses an understanding of alternative views, something that can appear absent among his cohorts. Although about him, this book is as much a take-down of his ilk as about the literati he could claim a valid place with. He offers nuggets of rebellion against what may be expected by ‘serious’ readers.

“In bookshops I often read last pages. I take browsing seriously. In life you can’t know how it’s going to end but in books you can, and I’ve never seen any reason not to … skipping to the end before the author is expecting me there – getting the ending out of the way – protects me against anticlimax. Endings so often disappoint.”

The book is structured in bite sized musings that circle and segue effortlessly. There are reflections on: dead authors, death, pretentious posturing, sticking pins in those who readers are suddenly encouraged to condemn.

On getting published, Boyle writes:

“Is serial rejection a calculated initiation rite? A way of culling down to the ones who just won’t go away?”

On banning books, he points out the double standards and conceits.

“The trial of Madame Bovary for obscenity in 1857 was an attempt not to ban its publication – photo studios and shops selling pornography were flourishing in Paris at the time – but to prevent women from reading.”

A century later, in the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover for obscenity, the jury were told:

“You, sir, may be trusted with this book, but heaven forfend that it should be read by women and the working classes.”

I have quoted widely here yet have barely skimmed the surface of the many subjects brought under the author’s piercing lens – and wryly shared. Robyn requests that he mention umbrellas less frequently yet each inclusion added merit to the discourse, as was the case for each topic breached.

A book about books by a writer who writes with elan and repartee. A joy of a read for readers who enjoy not just stories but what is behind them.

The Other Jack is published by CB editions.

Book Review: Spring Journal

“there is no joie de vivre,
None at all. It is absolutely banned.”

Spring Journal, by Jonathan Gibbs, was inspired by Louis MacNeice’s long poem, Autumn Journal, which he wrote in late 1938 in response to the impending world war. I am not familiar with this earlier work. Gibbs’ offering is divided into twenty-four cantos, written between March and August 2020. It provides a response to Covid 19, England’s first lockdown, and the summer release that was not the hoped for return to freedom.

I was eager to get hold of a copy of this book as a sort of memento of a time I felt would be a significant life event, however the future pans out. On reading I realised it offered even more than expected, mainly because it highlighted to me how all appeared to enter that first lockdown as a country united to fight an unknown threat, but quickly divided into angry, polarised units of righteously indignant opinion on how others should behave.

“And its March coming in as the last daffs are fading
And the first nasturtiums coming, blithely ignorant of the farce”

The early cantos beautifully capture the early weeks of lockdown – the strange silence of streets devoid of people and traffic; the pause that felt as though the world held its breath, even as nature continued to bring forth new life, as it has always done.

When the impact of both the pandemic and the country’s response became better understood, sides were quickly taken. Focus shifted to anger, with many blaming politicians, as happens when it is not ‘their’ people in charge.

The author acknowledges his privilege. He remained healthy, not alone, able to exercise outdoors.

There is a reminder of the protests that happened about non-Covid related issues (how quickly we forget that which does not directly affect us).

“And if the pubs and restaurants go under, what about the theatres
And galleries and concert halls?
Will we stay at home and mutter nostrums
For the benefit of our four bare walls?”

As I read this I pondered the plight of those who would never use such facilities, through lack of means or desire. A journal will obviously be deeply personal – a strength in the window it offers. The author’s response, at first so familiar, was diverging from my own.

My reaction to this divergence slammed home when Gibbs wrote of a holiday in Greece, taken when released from the first lockdown. I was reminded of the angry tweets at the time from those who still never left their homes and expected others to do the same. Even when laws are not broken there can be a form of moral outrage honing in on what matters most to each individual. I remembered those who attended raves regardless, and those who have chosen to remain under personal lockdown throughout.

“don’t ask why our spending’s more vital than our earning
Or why the economy depends
On us giving out more than we can gather back”

The underlying concern, the gnawing anxiety over future impact, comes through strongly. As summer progressed the author wrote of the young people whose future prospects became ever more uncertain. There were musings on who will bear the brunt of what will be lost.

“everything we’ve grown up to take for granted
And are losing now to toffs and spivs
Who dress like lawyers and act like thieves
And know not to waste a good crisis.”

The final canto reeled me back in as the author reflects on the future, that man’s concerns are insular, that climate continues to change.

The journal is elegantly written and offers much to reminisce over and reflect upon. I shall now put it aside to read in future months and years when what has happened may be put into context of fallout, when we have moved on to whatever must be dealt with beyond.

“it seems we have forgotten how to shout,
Or have lost our voices;
Will we get to forgive ourselves our weakness,
Our failure to act on our justified doubts?”

We are living through ever increasing state intervention on day to day behaviour. This long poem offers a reminder of how it started, how as a country we acquiesced. Worth reading for the literary quality. Recommended as an encouragement towards greater critical thinking.

Spring Journal is published by CB editions.

Book Review: The Absent Therapist

“because a thing is unseen doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In order to see it properly, you may find you need to look away. Some things do not like to be observed too directly. Staring fixes them and creates a blind spot.”

The Absent Therapist, by Will Eaves, is a book of vignettes arranged into five sections. The voices are various and rarely explained other than to provide necessary context. Written in the first person, they come across as thoughts and personal opinions. Some may appear shocking to more sheltered readers. Mostly they highlight situations the author may or may not have encountered, that he then runs with for effect. A superficial read may raise questions as to what is being conveyed – the intention in writing the piece. Somehow, though, the stories linger. They are clever – perhaps too clever at times for me to fully appreciate.

“Thinking is the set of mental processes we don’t understand. It is the soul in conference with itself.”

Many of the entries cover encounters with people – friends, colleagues, love interests. They highlight aspects of character that may concern the narrator along with recollections from memory that, with hindsight, shaped them. Settings vary across continents although Australia features regularly. A recurring theme is musings on AI and how it is unhelpful to anthropomorphise machine intelligence.

Certain entries go back to ancient times but mostly they offer thoughts on more contemporary, day to day situations. The narrators have varying careers, including that of a writer.

“‘I could have done that’, people cry, especially relatives. ‘You’ve taken my story and written it down verbatim. How dare you?’ To them I say: ‘Well, you weren’t doing anything with it. You didn’t see that it was a story worth telling.”

I enjoyed the final section the most and wonder if it took me this long to find the author’s cadence. Throughout the book I was questioning how much of the deeper aspects I was getting.

“What draws everyone on is knowing that we’re denied objectivity by the limits of our perception while simultaneously denying that we are denied it”

I wouldn’t wish you to think I did not enjoy what I was reading. It is more that I felt unable to fully grasp all that could be gleaned from the shadows cast by the author’s carefully crafted words.

A book that will doubtless offer more on subsequent read throughs. An intriguing and intelligent glimpse at facets of lives recognisable, here offered careful and perspicacious consideration.

The Absent Therapist is published by CB editions.

Book Review: Broken Consort

“There are a lot of serious idiots out there who could do with being a shade less convinced by themselves.”

A good number of the people I follow in the book world have degrees in English or similar. My degree is in Computer Science. Although I achieved A grades in the various English subjects at ‘O’ level (Literature, Language, Use of), I opted not to take English at ‘A’ level. My older sister had been through this and I had seen the books she was required to read. I had no wish to spend two years slogging through Chaucer, Shakespeare and some of the more modern classics published in previous centuries.

As a teenager I was enjoying books by various romance writers, along with output from the likes of Jeffrey Archer and James Clavell. At fourteen, I had given myself a pat on the back for finishing The Lord of the Rings but, truthfully, found the endless journeying tedious. In my twenties I tackled the likes of Homer, Ovid and Plato in an attempt to become better read. I skimmed the surface rather than gaining understanding. I could now enjoy Austin, Hardy and Eliot. I still disliked Dickens.

My appreciation of the more worthy tomes in literature was much like my reaction to the little known films or music my university friends discussed in rapturous terms. I wanted to be a part of their arty circle but, in truth, still preferred instant gratification to clever depth. Looking back I suspect I was tolerated by these, mostly male, friends because some found me attractive – opinions I voiced were of little interest.

Why am I telling you this? What I wish to get across is that I have always read voraciously but do not consider myself well read. Unlike Will Eaves who, in the many book reviews included within Broken Consort, references a plethora of mighty works. His reviews are detailed critiques, written in a style that I could only aspire to. Not having read the books he mentions, I found few hooks to draw me in.

Broken Consort is Eaves’ latest published work and offers exactly what it claims on the back cover.

“a chronicle of close attention (to books, films, plays, paintings, music, notebooks and car-boot sales) which will confound anyone who thinks rigour and generosity are contradictory.”

The entries are mostly presented in the order they were written, from around 1992 to the present day. Several include more personal details – a relocation to Australia, a back injury, mention of relationships. The essays musing on human reactions and other behaviours were the ones I found most interesting.

I engaged more easily with the film reviews than those offering opinion on books or art. This is likely because I am familiar with the Bond series and Titanic. It was entertaining to consider the depths with which these could be viewed.

Please don’t think I drew nothing from the many book reviews included. Being and Doing was fascinating in its discussion of attitudes across centuries to what we now call homosexuality. Laura Riding mentioned the ‘notion of an intellectual oligarchy’ – it seems high minded literati have long held the view that they are better than the hoi polloi, as my university friends were wont to do.

Beginnings is the car-boot sale essay mentioned and I very much enjoyed the author’s observations. In this, he came across as more self-deprecating than in certain later entries.

Situation was written during his time living in Australia and muses on many interesting ideas of home and how we deal with the past, and potential futures.

“I sat down on a bench, on which someone had carved the words ‘You Are Here’ and I realised, a bit late, that the answer to my mid-life jitters was just that.”

The more high brow literary and artistic commentary may have gone over my head but I could still learn from the perceptive writing style. I enjoyed the essays on writing, and on the author’s experiences teaching the subject at university. He notes that some students are eager to have written a book, more than actually writing one. He pokes fun at texts regarded by some as essential. Although at times playful in this way, what comes across is the rigour with which he approaches any subject.

The later essays and articles are, as I mentioned, less generous than the earlier entries. In Trees and Sympathy he offers a glimpse of what appears to be disdain for bloggers.

“If I had a pound for every blogger who demands relatable characters, I could retire.”

In Q&A he offers a view on those who consider themselves writers.

“Writers are presumably people who write. It’s too vague a term to be much use, though people do like to call themselves writers, Don’t they?”

The same interview provides a hint as to why I have enjoyed Will Eaves’ fiction. He is asked if he feels ‘any ethical responsibility as a writer’.

“Lots of books have been written about the social role of the artist, and I don’t wish to misrepresent the complexity of that commentary, because there are many different ways of making an artistic contribution to society. But, as I see it, my ethical responsibility is not to wear uniform.”

The author is published by CB Editions, a tiny press run by Charles Boyle since 2007. I have met Charles on a few occasions, at events attended by authors and publishers of high end literary fiction. He was obviously well regarded and appeared a tad embarrassed by the veneration. His reaction to me came across as bemused – what was I, a book blogger, doing amongst these peers of his? I suspect I was, as in my university days, mixing with those I admired but would never truly belong alongside.

And I doubt I am the target audience for Broken Consort. I can admire the quality of the prose, and enjoy the more personal musings, but my lack of knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman texts too often stymied full appreciation.

This is a fine collection for those of a more intellectual persuasion – those who can appreciate art beyond its superficial aesthetic. I may have moved beyond my desire for instant gratification, but doubt I will ever reach the literary heights of Will Eaves and his ilk.

Broken Consort is published by CB Editions.

Book Review: Murmur

Murmur, by Will Eaves, is a stunningly original imagining of how the mathematician Alan Turing may have responded to the punishment imposed on him by the state – chemical castration – following his conviction for gross indecency. It is a mingling of self-awareness and dreams, both fascinating and heart-breaking. It is a study of what it means to be conscious within a world where understanding of another’s inner being remains out of reach.

Alan Turing was more than just a member of the team that cracked the wartime Enigma code using a machine akin to an early computer, impressive though this achievement may be. He was a mathematician and theoretical biologist who pioneered ideas on artificial intelligence.

Murmur opens with the events that led to his trial. His punishment was administered over the course of a year during which he attended a hospital for weekly injections and met fortnightly with a sympathetic psychoanalyst.

“Dr Stallbrook often asks me how I feel. I reply that I do not know. How does one feel? It is one of the imponderables. I am better equipped to say what it is that I feel, and that is mysterious enough. For I feel that I am a man stripped of manhood, a being but not a body. Like the Invisible Man, I put on clothes to give myself a stable form. I’m at some point of disclosure between the real and the abstract – changing and shifting, trying to stay close to the transformation, not to flee it.”

“much of life is a pointless algorithm, an evolutionary process without an interpreter.”

The narrator muses on the kindly nurse doing her job to the best of her ability whilst taking no responsibility for the effects of the drugs on her patient – the suffering and wasted potential.

“Soldiers are permitted to kill each other and are maddened, sooner or later, by the realisation that someone else, somewhere relatively comfortable, thinks this is the right thing for them to do.”

The author names his protagonist Alec Pryce – he has stated that he did not wish to put imagined words into the mouth of a genius who in reality existed.

In the second and longest section of the book, Alec exchanges letters with June (the author’s name for the real Joan Clarke), a trusted friend he was once engaged to. They discuss Alec’s changing condition during his treatment with mutual fondness and candour. Between these letters are details of vivid dreams Alec suffers – a mixing of events from his past, present and future.

Alec is exploring his reactions to the changes wrought on his body – the shrivelling and burning away, the growth of fatty deposits on hips and breasts. The harrowing pain he suffers is both physical and mental. In one exchange he describes what he is becoming as a freak. He remains curious and stoic but fears that what he is losing is his sense of self – that his mind will be irrevocably changed.

“Somehow it is the case that the mind arises from a biology and a physics to which it may not return. That is what I mean when I say that we won’t know what machines are thinking once they start to think. We won’t know because once consciousness has come about, it looks out of different eyes.”

The narrative is devastatingly effective at conveying the pain of losing what one is and values about one’s self. Those responsible for Alec’s care show more prosaic concerns, failing to understand the essence of what their patient is going through.

“It’s all about the “how” they get you stable […] “How would you cope? How would you pay for that?” Nothing about the who – the who is left. To deal with this. […] What will be left of you.”

“they’re treating me as if I’ve gone away or been exchanged and will not ever really understand again.”

Alec dreams of futures now lost. He has been tortured, altered. As others congratulate themselves and each other on what they have made, what is left of the old finds they do not wish to live in the new. It is not them.

“When I began to look better, like my old self, after the changing treatment stopped, I seemed to disappear from the inside. I felt as if I’d been replaced.”

I pondered the wider message of how society continues to demand that all conform, encouraging rejection of those who resist.

Alec imagines his essence as an inner room that he furnishes with memories and objects he is free to choose. This freedom exists because the room will never be seen by others. Ultimately each person lives alone, something that parents struggle with in their desire to help and guide offspring.

“nothing is guaranteed by education; nothing is assured; of how I am, and always was”

The work Alec has done with machines, his belief that one day they will achieve consciousness, relies on the development of algorithms for thought as well as behaviour.

“Therein lies a conundrum for thinking machines. They can do nothing by halves. In theory, they will be made to remember everything, and with such a lot to remember they might not grasp how important it is, sometimes, for persons to forget.”

This is an exceptional novel that gets to the core of what it means to be a conscious member of a conformist society. Piercing yet beautifully written, it is an intelligent and recommended read.

Murmur is published by CB Editions

Gig Review: Will Eaves in Bath

It is rare for me to attend an author event when I haven’t yet read the book being discussed. However, when I spotted that Will Eaves was to visit Toppings in Bath I couldn’t resist. His latest book, Murmur, has garnered many rave reviews on a wide variety of sites. Also, it is published by CB Editions. If Charles Boyle is willing to get behind an author then they must be worth checking out.

On the day of the event I was caught somewhat on the hop. Due to a clash with a popular sports broadcast the start time was changed, a message I received only a couple of hours before. It was worth the rush to get there. Will proved to be a friendly, patient and considerate speaker, attributes that were needed given some of the persistent questioning he encountered from one particular member of his audience.

Murmur was inspired by Alan Turing and is written from the point of view of an avatar based on the famous mathematician, biologist and philosopher. Will did not wish to cover Turing’s role at Bletchley Park as this has been much written about already. Instead he was interested in how such a genius would cope with the state sponsored torture of chemical castration, his barbaric punishment, having being charged with gross indecency. The book is about the experience of taking the drugs prescribed – the pain, stress and humiliation. It is about intelligence and secrets, trying to to decode a biological response.

Will imagined that Turing would study his own reaction, attempting to strip away the personal yet never being able to get away from this. Any experience is only ever fully felt by the person involved. Will’s Turing wishes to discover where his pain lies, emotional as well as physical.

The central section of the book is a series of dreams that are relayed as they occur. The importance of each dream isn’t what happens – other people’s dreams are rarely of interest to any other than them – but rather how they felt. These dreams are book-ended by letters between Turing and his fiancée in which he tries to work out what is happening to him. The dreams are at times surreal. They are written with a pulsing beat, a structure that sometimes constrained the author but also provided discipline.

Turing was administered the prescribed drugs at the Royal Infirmary. He was also required to meet with a psychoanalyst who proved more sympathetic to Turing’s predicament than expected. What he had been, a past self, would remain irretrievable. Will believed Turing would wish to understand what he had become, to uncover any pattern formation.

Two readings provided a flavour of the book. The audience were then invited to ask questions.

Will was asked if he understood the maths.

He talked of wanting to solve a puzzle, of Turing’s theory of consciousness, of artificial intelligence. He mentioned that in any system there are aspects that will never be proved. He consulted with a mathematician and physicist, not from the university where he works.

He was asked if he thought that Turing had committed suicide (this seemed to be veering even further away from the subject under discussion but the questioner was proving persistent). Will didn’t know, and the event chair intervened to bring things back on line.

Will told us that the book had taken six years to write. To gain background information about dreams he read Freud and Jung but wouldn’t describe this as research.

He was asked why he changed Turing’s name.

This was to avoid the sticky situation of putting words into the mouth of a genius. None of Turing’s dreams were written down so these were entirely invented. The pivotal sexual encounter occurred in London rather than Manchester as Will is unfamiliar with the latter city.

He was asked what started him on his journey to write the book

Will couldn’t remember. Perhaps it was the centenary of Turing’s birth, reading essays he had written. Will had just started a new job and was looking for a fresh project. Turing’s voice was asking to be heard.

The evening was drawn to a close with time to have books signed. I enjoyed a conversation with one of Will’s former students who was most complementary of his teaching. I then made my way to the front with my purchase. By this time the persistent questioner had once again commandeered Will’s attention so I did not have the opportunity to talk further. Whilst I regret the missed opportunity it did not spoil my evening. I now look forward to reading what sounds like a fascinating book.

 

Murmur is published by CB Editions. Signed copies are currently available at Toppings in Bath.

Guest post by independent publisher, CB Editions

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Charles Boyle from CB editions, which published An Overcoat by Jack Robinson. Jack Robinson is one of Charles Boyle’s pseudonyms.

CB editions publishes short fiction, poetry, translations and other work which, as the Guardian noted, ‘might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers’. Charles provided me with a few sentences which succinctly express his thoughts on being longlisted for this prize.

 

During the last decade in British publishing, nothing has been more interesting than the blossoming of a range of small presses publishing writers, most of them new, whom the old guard had got too tired and hidebound to be interested in.

The traditional ways in which new books get known about and distributed have not kept pace. The Republic of Consciousness Prize is a wonderful and necessary means of focusing attention on the essential work of the small presses and enlarging the readership for their books.

CB editions has been publishing for ten years. Number of staff: one. Office: living-room desk. Start-up cost: £2,000. Arts Council funding for the books: zero. CBe currently has around 50 books in print, and that’s as far as the one-man-and-his-cat model can stretch. Rather than pursuing the ‘growth’ model, CBe is now reducing its activity. Ten years is a good innings and there are plenty of others to celebrate.

CBe published just two books in 2017. Following the Republic of Consciousness shortlisting of one its books for last year’s prize, it is immensely heart-warming to have one of these two books on this year’s longlist.

Does there have to be a winner? Boringly, yes. It’s how the world tick-tocks. But that doesn’t matter, because the real point of the Republic of Consciousness Prize is to celebrate a movement and a community.

 

My thanks to Charles for participating in this feature. You may follow him on Twitter: @CBeditions

Click on the book cover above to find out more about An Overcoat. 

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

An Overcoat by Jack Robinson, published by CB editions

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.

GF

 

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.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

Book Review: An Overcoat

“It’s not hard, de Saupicquet once told me, to gain entry into other people’s lives: they generally leave the spare key under the plant pot by the back door, the usual place. But once you’re in, it hits you that they have gone out, and you have no idea when they’ll be coming back.”

An Overcoat, by Jack Robinson, takes episodes from the life of 19th-century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, and muses on them from different perspectives. The book is structured in scenes with copious footnotes. Beyle is portrayed existing in an afterlife where he interacts with people from a variety of times, including our own.

Rarely have I read a book that I feel less qualified to review. I had never heard of Beyle, nor am I familiar with many of the other writers mentioned throughout. Those I did recognise wrote works I haven’t read. Thus I came at this blind and offer my thoughts without prior knowledge of the subject being so imaginatively portrayed.

Beyle dons an overcoat as a disguise. Throughout his life he adopted many disguises in the form of pseudonyms, just as readers today create internet usernames. His attempts at masking his identity are compared to modern day habits of changing hair colour when dissatisfied with one’s own. Those who already know a person see through such behaviour instantly. A person may try to reinvent themselves – adopting a new look, name, place or occupation – but in time will revert to whatever they have always been.

Beyle was an inveterate womaniser who was obsessed with his sexual conquests. He desired Mathilde Dembowski, who he met while living in Milan. She rejected his advances. Many of the scenes involve M, her children, Beyle’s attempts at dissimulation.

He wanders the streets of a contemporary town, visits coffee shops, observes tourists, ponders the continuance of existence after death. Although placed in current times many of the scenes are based on what is known of his life, with footnotes providing references and tangential musings. Beyle concocts fantasies involving himself and those around him. There are deliberations on accepted absurdities. The author’s commentary provides nuggets of insight, the vignettes a sympathetic retelling.

Although somewhat rambling and meandering this was a curiously satisfying book to read. There is no story as such, it is more a rumination on a writer and existence. As a reader I felt a little overwhelmed at times due to my lack of knowledge. What I learned of Beyle did not endear him to me, but I enjoyed the playfulness of the portrayal.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, CB Editions.

Book Review: Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

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Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, by Diane Williams, is a collection of forty very short stories exploring such wide ranging themes as life, death, love, sex and associated, often fractious, relationships. There is a rough honesty to the thoughts and interactions in each snapshot – for a snapshot is all that can be offered in a tale that plays out in so few words. These are little moments of detail, vividly recalled with a point that is not always clear.

The opacity adds to the sense that the reader is observing rather than participating in each scenario. Characters share their thoughts with a dark, sometimes fevered intensity. There are moments of quiet reflection, gatherings where participants seem barely able to tolerate each other’s company, family groups displaying their love and despair at behaviours. Partners and friends huff over habits that grate.

A number of the stories provide observations on possessions when moving house or dealing with inheritance. The changing dynamics of relationships caused by the passage of time and a perceived lack of appreciation are touched upon. There is an apartness to each individual with occasional geysers of feeling spilling over those who happen to share proximity. Participants wade through many petty vexations.

Although easy enough to read and offering plenty to ponder I did not find this collection satisfying. As with incidents in life few tales offer a tidy conclusion. They are ripples in time, keenly considered, but sometimes frustratingly opaque. There is depth and immersion but too often I missed the point, if there was one, being made.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, CB Editions.