Yesterday I had the pleasure of being a guest over on another blog. We chatted about books and bears. You may check it out here. Thank you for having me Caryl.
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 The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo (illustrated by Susanna Kajermo Törner), which is published by Tramp Press.
Tramp Press is a small Irish publisher which aims
to find, nuture and publish exceptional literary talent and … is committed to finding only the best and most deserving books, by new and established writers
Its greatest success to date has been Mike McCormack’s 2016 Goldsmith Prize winning Solar Bones (which was Booker longlisted on its subsequent publication by a UK publisher). More recently Sara Baume’s A Line Made Walking has been shortlisted for the 2017 Goldsmith Prize, following on from her wonderful debut novel.
Arja Kajermo is a cartoonist – born in Finland, raised in Sweden, and living in Ireland. The Iron Age, her debut novel was based on notes for a graphic novel, and was then written as a short story which was a finalist for the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award (won by Sara Baume) before being developed into this short novel/novella.
The book is narrated by a girl, growing up in the first half of the book in rural poverty in Finland in the 1950s, the youngest in a family of four – her father, injured in the defeat in the Continuation War of 1941-1944 and seemingly suffering from PTSD.
“It’s the war” [her mother] said father’s nerves are shot. It was from all the bad things he had seen and been through
He struggles to find employment to feed and clothe his family and ends up returning repeatedly to the family farm where he struggles with his widowed mother who owns it
Grandmother was an angry woman. She was angry with father most days ….. But most of all she was angry with Grandfather because he was dead
and in an increasingly bitter marriage.
Father was always telling mother to shut up. He had married her for her good looks and plucky attitude. Then he set to trying his damnedest to destroy both the looks and the attitude
Eventually he decides that his family should move to Sweden (minus his oldest son, who he unsuccessfully plans to inherit the family farm on the death of his other relatives).
But we bought our war with us. The shrapnel that had gone into Father’s legs, in 1944 in the painful retreat when the war was lost, had somehow worked its way into his children. Each of us carried a shard of that iron in our hearts. We would never be at peace. Not in Sweden. Not anywhere.
The second half of the book chronicles the start of the family’s life in Sweden – which in many ways takes an even darker turn. The family struggle between Father’s insistence that they assimilate and yet that they also keep their proud martial Finnish identity amongst the peace loving socialist Swedes. Further, it is often their Father who draws the most attention to their foreignness (for example his Finnish dress making him look like a Nazi).
I felt that the family’s struggles to maintain this dual identity while also not drawing attention to themselves could serve as a metaphor for the difficult path of neutrality that Finland navigated after the World War.
They struggle even more with language
We were now what mother called ummikko. We were people who could only speak our own language and we could not understand the language around us. And the people around us could not understand us. It was a terrible fate to be ummikko. It was like being deaf and dumb mother said. Outside our own home we were like cows that could only stand and stare.
The narrator’s reaction both to her father’s continuing anger and the ummikko issue is a two fold withdrawal. She stops speaking altogether and draws into herself
There was a strange safety net in not saying anything. It was like being very small inside a big bomb shelter and looking out through narrow slits that were my own eyes.
and further escapes into the world of books.
I did not just read books. I lived the stories in the books
In particular she escapes into the world of the Little Mermaid – identifying with the sacrifices that the Mermaid made to live with her prince
If you leave your true home you have to give something up. I had traded in my tongue too but I had got nothing for it
but ultimately rejecting the Mermaid’s choice and instead fantasising that she stays underwater in a mer-Kingdom where the bitterness of her father, the choices and sacrifices her family have made, the long lasting effects of war, all play no part, and are replaced by calmness, peace and togetherness.
Under the water everyone can stay together and nobody has to go away
In a devastating ending to the book she opens her eyes during one such fantasy and realises
I had no tail
The book is atmospherically illustrated by the author’s niece – Susanna Kajermo – in a series of black and white pencil drawings.
The illustrator Susanna has commented that
I had heard several of the anecdotes in it, told in various ways, by my Dad when I grew up. I have always been interested in the way people tell or remember things …… … my art often relates to childhood and storytelling ….. Arja gave me some old photographs for inspiration, and I also had my Dad’s, rather thin photo album to look at … I tried to make illustrations that would work with the text but also as separate pictures that could somehow tell a story of their own … I appreciate pictures that have both seriousness or a sort of darkness, combined with humour or absurdity in them. That is something I strive for in my art. Arja’s novel has all of those components and so I had a really good time working with it
And this quote picks up many of the themes of the book: its concentration on storytelling and remembrance – family stories and legends, the war stories that the narrator’s Father uses to draw on his lessons for life, the interpretation of dreams, constant reminiscing on those that fell in the Wars, Finnish folklore particularly around a witch like figure, the stories in which the narrator increasingly takes refuge; the illustrations which while clearly relating to the story often have a deeper dark fairy tale element (for example – a dinosaur skull buried under the roots of a tree, a ghost figure on a sled); the juxtaposition of the darkness of much of the life of the narrator with the absurd incidents that occur and the dry humour with which she relates them.
Overall this is a simple book but one with surprising depth.
You may read my review of The Iron Age here.
Coming tomorrow, an interview with the publisher of this book.
Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc
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 In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie, which is published by Salt.
This book is published by Salt Publishing “an independent publisher committed to the discovery and publication of contemporary British literature …. advocates for writers at all stages of their careers … [ensuring] that diverse voices can be heard in an abundant, global marketplace.” They have twice been Booker longlisted, most recently in 2016 for The Many by Wyl Menmuir and recently received a Costa First Novel shortlisting for The Clock In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks.
In the Absence of Absalon is a sequel to the brilliantly original Whatever Happened To Harold Absalon?, a lengthy book but one whose plot could be reproduced in its entirety in a brief paragraph:
Marguerite is investigating the disappearance of Harold Absalon, the mayor’s transport advisor. He starts in a hotel where he has seen Harold’s wife Isobel entering a lift, he climbs the stairs to the floor where she alights and observes her eating in a restaurant with her baby and a friend. Ejected from the hotel, he then follows them and seeing her hail a taxi, and realising she has spotted him, he boards a bus and goes to the top deck. Concerned that Isobel may be on the deck below and that some of her associates may be following him in another bus he decides to leave the bus. He lets the passenger beside him stand up and walk down the aisle, and then follows him down the aisle, pausing to allow another passenger (a businesswoman) enter the aisle between them. That lady appears to pay his bus fare. At the next stop he rings the bell twice in the manner of the conductress so as to cause the bus to set off again – and while the bus is still accelerating away goes down the stairs and leaves the bus. As he is exiting he sees Harold through a window of a showroom the bus had just passed.
Clearly the author has decided that the pace of that book was inappropriate and has slowed it down for this book. The sequel features an unnamed detective carrying out “his investigation into the disappearance of his colleague, Marguerite, last seen on the trail of Harold Absalon, the Mayor’s transport advisor, who had been missing”. At the start of the book the investigator is approaching a townhouse, owned by Richard Knox, who Harold was known to have fallen out with before his disappearance. He believes he is being closely followed by Harold and that the house holds the key to resolving the mystery of his disappearance. By the book’s end he has walked up to the gate of the townhouse, looked for and found in his trousers the keys to the house, found that the apparently padlocked gate is not secured, walked up to the door which is opened by Harold’s wife Isobel, walked towards the stairs resisting the distraction of a ringing phone by then changing his plan when he hears a baby crying.
The narrator has been trained and mentored by Marguerite and is similarly meticulous in his thoughts – unlike Marguerite his thoughts are typically more focused on the actual case in hand though and (with the exception of rare Marguerite digressions into areas only very tangentially related to his investigation (one particularly entertaining one starting with a reference to whether Isobel is free to leave, quickly departing by route of the ease of leaving a non-dinner party into a four page discussion of what the concept of cooking and preparing means in the context of the three types of pizza (take-away, shop bought and home-made))) are often related to his physical progress and the motions of his body.
Overall a hugely enjoyable and at the same time thought provoking book and one very much in the unique style of its predecessor. Comparing it to that there are negatives and positives.
On the negative side, at times the physical descriptions shaded at times into a level of tedium I did not experience in “Whatever Happened …”. The book also makes, like the paragraph above extensive use of brackets, but, unlike the paragraph above does not seem capable of correctly un-nesting them, by omitting the use of double (or triple) closing right brackets. Only a mathematical pedant would notice this – but of course this is exactly the type of book a mathematical pedant enjoys!
On the positive side, the much stronger aspect of this book compared to the first, is the greater sense of meta-narrative in a number of senses: the unnamed narrator refers at times to what the investigator may be doing during chapter breaks; the investigator himself is aware (without understanding the mechanisms) that his thoughts and actions are somehow being monitored; the footnotes relate even more closely to the case than before; the narrator himself starts to get involved in the book, in particular as it ends following the investigator into the room where they baby seems to be crying “determined, once again, to understand the circumstances of his disappearance”. As a result the real conceit at the heart of this series – examining the very idea of sheer complexities of life and how they can be rendered in fiction, comes out more strongly.
This and its predecessor are highly recommended.
You may read my review of In the Absence of Absalon here.
Tomorrow on my blog, an interview with Simon Okotie, the author of this book.
Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc
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 Paul Fulcher who provides his thoughts on Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell, which is published by And Other Stories.
“Why wouldn’t anyone admit that a life is not a life but a deathward existence?”
Helen, in Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell.
“Just as Altensam was alien to him, so he must have seemed a foreign element to his family, they had in the end worn each other up on chronic mutual recriminations, primordial recriminations, Roithamer wrote, that is, he, Roithamer , on the one side and Roithamer’s family on the other, were wearing each other out in the most inhuman way, a way least worthy of human beings, in this process of sheer mutual exhaustion. His natural bent for studying ie for studying everything, however, had enabled him quite early in life, by studying Altensam, to see through Altensam and thereby to see through himself and to achieve insight and to take action and thanks to these constant ongoing lifelong studies he’d always had to do as he ended up doing, all his life, though he’d rather call it his existence, or better still, his deathwards existence, everything he’d ever done had been based on nothing but this habit of studying which he’d never been able to shake off, where other people get ahead easily and often quite rapidly, he’d never gotten ahead easily or rapidly, obsessed as he was with the habit of always studying, all of him, his organism, his mind, and everything he did, determined by his habit of studying.”
Roithamer in Correction, Thomas Bernhard tr. Sophie Wilkins.
And Other Stories is one of the UK’s wonderful small independent publishers: they aim to ‘publish writing that is mind-blowing, often ‘challenging’ (Maureen Freely) and ‘shamelessly literary’ (Stuart Evers) – opening a space for exploration and discovery’.
As a subscriber, this novel is the 5th book from them I have read this year and the description given in apposite. All of the books were ones I am proud to have helped get published but some were a challenge to read (e.g. Black Wave): these aren’t novels that are meant to sit in the reader’s comfort zone.
Sorry to Disrupt The Peace certainly fits the challenging mould but this is one of my favourite books of 2017.
Our first-person narrator Helen was born in Korea but adopted at a young age by a white American couple in Milwaukee, who also adopted another Korean boy.
“I’m sorry to disrupt the peace was my stock apology: I used it all the time at my workplace, it was a good apology because it could mean so many different things to people. It could mean, I’m sorry, I made a mistake. It could mean, I’m sorry, I’ll ruin you.”
The novel opens with the 32 year-old Helen in New York, barely scraping together a living, where she receives the news that her adoptive brother (as she consistently refers to him) has committed suicide.
“At the time of his death I was a thirty-two-year-old woman, single, childless, irregularly menstruating, college-educated, and partially employed. If I looked in the mirror, I saw something upright and plain. Or perhaps hunched over and plain, it depended. Long, long ago I made peace with my plainness. I made peace with piano lessons that went nowhere because I had no natural talent or aptitude for music. I made peace with the coarse black hair that grows out of my head and hangs down stiffly to my shoulders. One day I even made peace with my uterus.”
“Living in New York City for five years, I had discovered the easiest way to distinguish oneself was to have a conscience or a sense of morality, since most people in Manhattan were extraordinary thieves of various standing, some of them multi-billionaires. Over time, I became a genius at being ethical, I discovered that it was my true calling. I made little to no money as a part-time after-school supervisor of troubled young people, with the side work of ordering paper products for the toilets. After my first week, the troubled people gave me a nickname.”
“Hey, Sister Reliability, what’s up? Bum me a cigarette. Suck my dick. They never stopped smoking or saying disgusting things to me, those troubled young people living and dying in Manhattan, sewer of the earth! I was living and dying right next to them all the while attempting to maintain an ethical stance as their supervisor, although some days I will admit it was difficult to tell who was supervising whom.”
Helen is in reality subject to a disciplinary investigations at work – perhaps related to her purloining of the toilet supplies or her sourcing of marijuana as her personal therapeutic device her ‘troubled young people’ (another constant refrain), amongst other failings. An email to her supervisor excusing her absence is entitled “A DEATH IN THE FAMILY (NOT THE BOOK)”, a nicely Knausgaardian nod, and she signs off
(“even though he refused to call me Sister Reliability, the troubled young people certainly did”).
Highly dysfunctional she is nevertheless wonderfully self-obsessed and delusional (“I always related any given situation to myself, another of my great talents”) and decides that she will go home to help her estranged parents:
“I shouted things to the passersby on the crummy sidewalks below. I can be a very helpful person! I screamed. A woman pushing a double-wide stroller looked up at me with concern. At your service, bitches! I shouted. I saluted the pigeons and the rats. I said to no one, What you are doing, Helen, is not only very ethical, it is what is required.
I would envelop them in warmth of my charity and my supportive beam of light. I am a helpfulness virtuoso and it is time to take my talents to my childhood home.”
Her ‘adoptive parents’ (again she always refers to them that way) are none too please to see her – regarding her, realistically, as more likely to be a burden than a help: she puts flowers sent for the funeral into a bucket, which proves to be filled with diluted bleach and eats the cake intended for the reception afterwards. But she nevertheless embarks on her own investigation into the causes of her brother’s death, an investigation which, unsurprisingly given her personality, is as much about discovering the causes of her own unhappiness as her brother’s.
There is a lot of autobiographical overlap with Cottrell’s own life (see The Guardian for the detail) and the novel is clearly grounded in her own experience and emotion, but still fictional.
“The autobiographical details that overlap with the book—they’re very emotional, I was writing from a place of emotion. But I wasn’t hoping to create confusion between me and Helen. If people want to read the details of my life into the events in Helen’s, that choice has nothing to do with me. That’s the reader’s response, which is private and subjective. I’m aware I need to hold space for all different types of responses, and I’m hopeful I can do that.”
Source: Paris Review interview.
Given this invitation to make one’s own subjective response, to me the novel was most resonant as a novel in response to the greatest novelist of the last 50 years, Thomas Bernhard, and in particular his masterful Correction – albeit with a very different if ultimately equally tragic brother-sister relationship. In Cottrell’s own words:
“Interior books are the books I prefer to spend my time with. I would venture that Thomas Bernhard is the master of interior prose. I remember sitting with Jesse Ball, who is a genius, at The School of the Art Institute in 2010 and he had Correction on the table. That moment of reading Correction and then going on to The Loser, Extinction, Concrete, Woodcutters, Frost, Gargoyles, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, all of those books changed things for me. In the opening 20 pages or so in The Loser, the narrator is standing in a doorway or in the process of entering an inn. There’s no description of his physical movement, it’s simply stated, which was exciting to me.
I admire Thomas Bernhard and the writers he has inspired, W. G. Sebald and Javier Marías for example. The rhythm of Bernhard’s sentences is something I want to study for the rest of my life. His narrators are repellent and misogynistic, and yet, there’s very little artifice or decoration, and in that way, they seem really pure. I dislike artificial books, books that have nice manners, books that are designed to show off the writer’s ease with developing characters, settings, et cetera. Those books work well as doorstoppers, I think, or you can use them to press flowers or whatever. I have a list of voice-driven novels that I turn to when I forget how to write. Some of the books on that list: Nobody is Ever Missing, By Night in Chile, Fra Keeler, The Face of Another, The Rings of Saturn. My favorite interior novels are written from a feeling of desperation and urgency.”
Source: LA Review of Books
Helen’s one brief moment of success, as a performance artist, was ended by accusations of plagiarism, but she justifies her approach to herself:
“A side-by-side comparison of my work to the world of Connell and Darger showed certain similar technical flourishes and extensions, and although it was easy to see am unabashed and perhaps uncritical admiration, my found texts and assemblages were not exact copies, my intention had been to participate in the conversation, not to reproduce what had already been produced.”
Her writing in this first-person account has a similar approach, drawing heavily on the patterns of other authors, notably Thomas Bernhard but also Kafka and Lispector, sometimes appropriating their turns-of-phrase directly as in the quote that opens the review (Cottrell provides the references at the back that Helen omits).
And her prose is full of wonderful black comedy:
“I pictured the funeral, that great spectacle of mourning. I saw strangers standing around taking part in a superficial grief performance ostensibly to both celebrate and mourn a dead person they never bothered to know when he was alive.”
Or, as she travels from the airport to her childhood home, in the evening gloom, her fond recall of her childhood home is typically bleak:
“I saw in my head the nunnery where all the nuns died and the priests took over, the pharmacy that houses a child pornography ring, the bird sanctuary where a governmental agency collects the geese to feed to wolves.”
One striking theme is Helen and her brother’s situation. As I write the review today the English newspapers headlines relate in typically scandalised tones the story of a English girl fostered by a devout Muslim family (“Christian girl, 5, is forced into foster care with Burka-wearing Muslim carers who ‘took away her crucifix and stopped her eating bacon”, Daily Mail) – but I suspect the same papers would praise Helen’s adoptive parents for making her integrate:
“When [my adoptive father] played Mozart or Schubert the house filled up with white male European culture. We were expected to worship it, which we did for a while, but once I went to college, I stopped. There is a world and history of non white culture, I wrote to them once in a furious letter. And you kept us in the dark our entire childhood! The two white people raised their Asian children to think Asian art was decorative: Oriental jugs and vases! Jade elephants! Enamel chopsticks!”
The final straw for her is her first communion (“stupid white bitches getting married to God!”) although she has no interest in finding her real mother, unlike her adoptive brother. Indeed when her ‘investigation’ is abruptly resolved by finding a suicide note of sorts left by her brother explaining everything, a note her parents were aware of had she but asked them rather than pursue her own course, his search for his own roots proves to have played a key role.
Ultimately a blackly comic, emotionally moving and highly literary novel – strongly recommended.
You may read my review of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace here.
Tomorrow on my blog, an interview with the author of this book.
Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc
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.
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.
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 Carolina Orloff from Charco Press, which published Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz.
Charco Press was founded at the end of 2016 by myself, Carolina Orloff, and my partner Samuel McDowell. We were spurred into action by what we saw as a stagnated landscape with regards to Latin American literature available in English. ‘Oh I love Latin American writers’, was the usual refrain when we asked friends and colleagues, before the usual names would be rattled off: García Marquez, Isabel Allende, maybe Borges, and very seldom a more contemporary name such as Bolaño; and always ‘magic realism’. In other words, although all these writers are iconic and still very much referential, the general view we encountered of the literature from this part of the world tended to be dated by 30 or more years.
Meanwhile, across Latin America, scores of extremely talented writers have been emerging in the last decades, with stories and perspectives that have captured the attention of readers not just in Latin America and Spain, but across the world. These are voices that have been shaped by a very different experience of recent history, politically and socio-economically speaking. They have stories to tell that are fuelled by experiences that can be touching, funny and, at times, brutal. Why should English language readers be left out? Why should they be denied the discovery of these award-winning authors?
So, we started Charco Press. The name itself is a nod to our mission – charco is Spanish for ‘puddle’, and ‘crossing the puddle’ is a colloquial euphemism in some parts of Latin America for heading overseas, going to new territory. That is what we are doing with these titles – bringing them across the puddle into the territory of the English-speaking readership.
We are both new to publishing, although not new to literature, and it is fair to say we have been learning the ropes as we go. Our first three books were released in September 2017. Three very different titles, by three very different authors, each with a very distinct style, and none of them have been translated into English before. All three are from Argentina, a way of us demonstrating our point, of demonstrating the breadth of originality coming out of just that one country alone. In 2018, we are publishing authors from a broad array of countries: Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, Brazil.
Upon embarking on this venture, we were buoyed to quickly discover that we are not alone in our mission to put forward new voices in literature, to take some risks and put some faith in the reading public. There is a sturdy group of proud independent publishers that are forging their way in the literary world, and making a radically positive change. That is what makes prizes like the Republic of Consciousness invaluable, highlighting the amazing work being put in, and the incredible writing being unearthed by these publishers. We are thrilled that one of our first titles, Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, has been selected as part of such a high-calibre longlist. It is a wild ride, bruising and inescapable, very much the epitome of Ariana’s style of writing, which is definitely impactful and quite unique.
Gradually, and in unison with this group of likeminded publishers, we hope to enrich the literary landscape for the English-speaking reader. To provide them with new and exciting options – whether they choose to take them or not!
My thanks to Carolina for participating in this feature. You may follow Charco Press on Twitter: @CharcoPress
Click on the book cover above to find out more about Die, My Love.
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 Paul Fulcher who provides his thoughts on Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), published by Charco Press.
“People here prepare for winter like animals. Nothing distinguishes us from them. Take me, an educated woman, a university graduate – I’m more of an animal than those half-dead foxes, their faces stained red, sticks propping their mouths wide open.”
My 2017 reading year has focused on the UK’s small independent press scene, source of the most exciting literary fiction. Many were already familiar to me (Fitzcarraldo, Tramp Press, Peirene, Galley Beggar, And Other Stories) but Charco Press is new, not just to me, but to the publishing scene generally. Their name is taken from the colloquial expression ‘cruzar el charco’ meaning ‘crossing the puddle’, a way of referring to when someone is going overseas, or travelling between continents, and their mission is to bring exciting Latin American literature, via translation, to the UK. Their mission statement is worth quoting in full:
“Charco Press was born from a desire to do something a little out of the ordinary. To bring you, the reader, books from a different part of the world. Outstanding books. Books you want to read. Maybe even books you need to read.
Charco Press is ambitious. We aim to change the current literary scene and make room for a kind of literature that has been overlooked. We want to be that bridge between a world of talented contemporary writers and yourself.
We select authors whose works feed the imagination, challenge perspective and spark debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors whose works have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.
Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz was one of their two launch books last Summer and tells the story of an unnamed new mother and her – strikingly also unnamed in her narration – husband and first born child, six months old as the novel opens. It is a visceral and haunting story of post-partum depression which begins:
“I lay back in the grass among fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular. Behind me, against the backdrop of a house somewhere between dilapidated and homely, I could hear the voices of my son and my husband. Both of them naked. Both of them splashing around in the blue paddling pool, the water thirty-five degrees. It was the Sunday before a bank holiday. I was a few steps away, hidden in the underbrush. Spying on them. How could a weak, perverse woman like me, someone who dreams of a knife in her hand, be the mother and wife of those two individuals?”
This is not a mother who is sentimental for her child or the mystery of birth:
“If I’d closed my legs and grabbed his dick, I wouldn’t have to go to the bakery for cream cake or chocolate cake and candles, half a year already. The moment other women give birth they usually say, I can’t imagine my life without him now, it’s as though he’s always been here. I’m coming, baby! I want to scream, but I sink deeper into the cracked earth.”
University educated and from urban surrounds, the French countryside where she lives also depresses her:
“These people are going to make me lose it. I wish I had Egon Schiele, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon for neighbours; then my son could grow up and develop intellectually by learning that there’s more to the world I brought him into than opening old skylights you can’t see out of anyway. As soon as all the others had escaped to their rooms to digest their meals, I heard my father-in-law cutting the grass beneath the snow with his new green tractor and thought that if I could lynch my whole family to be alone for one minute with Glenn Gould, I’d do it.”
Harwicz wrote the book listening ‘obsessively’ to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata n. 13 in E flat major, Op. 27 n. 1 and Glenn Gould‘s rendition of part of the Sonata captures the book’s mood.
As the novel progresses, in a stream of fevered thoughts, it is not always clear what actually takes place and what – notably an affair with another parent in the locality – is imagined:
“My baby was practically asleep on his feet but he still went on stumbling through the house, holding onto the curtains and the century-old coffee tables and throwing whatever he found to the floor. Ashtrays, cutlery. Maybe he was staying awake to make sure I didn’t spend the night in another man’s arms. It was a long time before I was finally able to put him in the cot, stop his crying, turn the pages of one of his books about astronauts or sea captains and convince him that the best thing you can do at night is sleep. Mummy’s telling lies.
As soon I stepped outside, I saw him and forgot about everything that had come before, about the smouldering house, about my little soldier sleeping with his eyes open like a rabbit, about all those days of anguished anticipation. And I devoured him. Because that, my dear son, is what the night is for.”
But her relationship with her, even in her account, remarkably patient husband is characterised by an extreme form of love-hate:
“We’re one of those couples who mechanise the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other. I never want to see you again, my love.”
(and some years later at her son’s birthday party)
“Something made me rush inside and shut myself in my bedroom, slamming the door behind me. I hope you all die, every last one of you. As usual, he came knocking on my door. Darling, honey, sugar, sweetheart, my bunny rabbit, my love, I can’t remember all the names he called me. And I said nothing. Are you okay? And I still said nothing. Come out, all the guests are leaving, don’t ruin this. Where are the party bags? And I said, Why don’t you leave me the hell alone and die. Just die, my love.”
The contemporary translation by Sarah Moses (Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina) and Carolina Orioff (Editor and Co-Director of Charco Press) adds to the power of the work.
It has, as other reviewers have noted, a flavour of Fever Dream meets Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. A striking novel, and I was immediately prompted to subscribe to Charco Press’s forthcoming releases.
You may read my review of Die, My Love here.
Coming later this week, a guest post from the publisher and an interview with the author of this book.
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 Paul Fulcher who provides his thoughts on The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, published by Bluemoose Books.
Paul is a father of 3 girls, lives in Wimbledon, works in the City, and has a particular interest in the culture and literature of his wife’s homeland of Korea. He is also my other guest reviewer for this feature, Graham Fulcher’s, identical twin.
“So name your Gods lads. Honour them. Live amongst them. And always remember your place. Because England is changing. The wheels of industry turn ever onwards and the trees are falling still. Last week I did chance to meet a man down there in Cragg Vale who told me that soon this valley is to be invaded. He spoke of chimneys and waterways and told of work for those that wanted it, but work that pays a pittance and keeps you enslaved to those that make the money. This man – he told me that this land around us was soon no longer to be our land but that of those who want to reap and rape and bind those of us whose blood is in the sod.”
The independent publisher Bluemoose Books aims to deliver ‘brilliant stories that have travelled from Hebden Bridge, across the border into Lancashire, down to London across to Moscow, Sofia and Budapest and into the United States, Australia, India, Colombia and Greenland, Iceland and Bosnia Herzevogina.
Ben Myers’ The Gallows Pole certainly fits that bill, a story firmly rooted in the Yorkshire moors. Myers’s debut novel Pig Iron was winner of the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize – a prize awarded to ‘novels which dare to enter history and interrogate the past…literature which challenges perceived notions of genre and makes us think again about just what it is that we are reading’, but has chosen to remain with an independent publisher rather than adapt his work to more conventional tastes:
“I feel like as a writer, I’m from the margins, or the underground – a lot of my heroes and influences are people who are on the edge … so I think ‘why bother to chase [the big] publishers?’” (The Guardian)
The Gallows Pole tells the real-life story of “King” David Hartley, leader of the Cragg Vale Coiners in the 18th Century, who clipped gold coins and then produced forged coins with the clippings. Their activities were of sufficient economic import to come to the attention of Parliament and the London authorities, and Hartley’s life (and the novel) ended on the gallows.
Their approach, which, while considerably enriching themselves, enlisted the support of many (but not all) of the local populace is explained on the website Yorkshire Coiners maintained by a present-day direct descendent of David Hartley:
“The Cragg Vale Coiners would pay 22 Shillings for a full size coin (worth 21 shillings) and would then clip and shave up to forty Pence worth of gold from it before returning it to circulation for its face value of 21 Shillings. The lender themselves therefore gained a shilling as a result of the transaction whilst not actually being involved in the clipping. This helped to gain support locally and to conceal the activities of the Coiners, since nobody (except the excise collectors and the Government) suffered a loss and generally all involved made a small gain.”
“The Coiners would use the gold collected from about 7 or 8 genuine coins to create an imitation Portuguese Moidore, with a higher face value of 27 Shillings and feed this fake coin into circulation for its face value. They would only use about 22 Shillings worth of gold to create the fake, so making a substantial profit on each new coin they forged.”
An 18th century Portuguese Moidore:
One of the coiners tools from the Heptonstall Museum:
Reviewers saw present-day political references, to Margaret Thatcher’s antagonism to the North, in Myers debut novel that the author himself had not consciously placed there but agreed could be present as a sub-conscious metaphor (A Fiction Habit).
And with The Gallows Pole there are again obvious parallels (implicit and perhaps sub-conscious) to Brexit and the 2017 general election and the rebellion against globalisation. The Coiners saw themselves as fighting – what even David Hartley realises is a losing battle – against the economic forces of the industrial revolution: see the quote that opens my review.
Whereas the authorities – represented by the solicitor Robert Parker (believed by some to be the real-life model for Bronte’s Heathcliff) and the exciseman William Deighton – see them as a regressive resistance to positive change. Deighton wants to:
“Send a message. A message to the hill folk. That times were changing. The empire expanding. That men earned money not made it; that a country ran on rules. Rules for everyone. Call it society. Call it civilisation. From the crown all the way down. Rules. Laws. Restrictions. The dark days were over. New ways were coming. Big ideas. Ideas that would change the world. Call it economy. Call it industry. Call it England.”
And on a second read in December 2017, I could also see echoes of the current fad of cryptocurrencies, threatening to debase fiat money, and cryptoanarchy:
“He had been warned: the authoritarian grip was weakening and this way outright anarchy beckoned.”
Myers has also worked as a freelance music journalist and for each of his novels constructs a playlist ‘of songs and sounds that might shape the narrative. … compiled as one would an imaginary soundtrack to a film adaptation of the work.’
His playlist for this novel can be found at The Quietus, including Leadbelly’s version of The Gallows Pole (itself an adaption of the traditional song ‘The Maid Freed From the Gallows’), from which the novel takes both its name and its epigraph, and, my favourite, Winterfylleth’s The Divination Of Antiquity, from a band that produces ‘passionate, anthemic black metal inspired by the history, heritage and landscapes of England’.
Although the list excludes Chumbawumba’s ‘Snip, Snip, Snip’, directly inspired by the Coiners’ story.
“Pick a coin, any coin, and with a snip snip snip you turn a portuguese guinea to a threepenny bit; and every last watermark just curled up and died and now the king and the queen got a bit on the side. Don’t be bloody silly keep away from bloody Billy cause he’s shopping all the chopping going down along the valley, and supergrassing catches like a plague, to be sure, but it’s nothing that a bullet in the belly couldn’t cure.”
There is also a related musicality to the novel itself, a deliberately dull repetitiveness, strongly reminiscent of David Peace. Myers himself explains it perfectly:
“I was aiming to achieve in the novel – a sort of haunted and ethereal earthiness, which draws on a limited vocabulary and heavy use of repetition. The Gallows Pole features the names of people and places repeated over and over again almost to absurd and annoying levels, in an attempt to induce a trance or evoke a rural reverie within the reader.”
Yet at the same time, when it comes to descriptions of natural surroundings – the weather, flora and fauna and people of the vale – the prose is beautifully lyrical:
“The rain fell like the filings of a milled guinea bit onto a folded piece of paper.”
And describing the ‘supergrasses’ who eventually brought down the Coiners:
“All his life Joseph ‘Belch’ Broadbent had been shrouded in smoke. Years tending the charcoal clamp meant it flavoured not just his clothes and hair with the slow dampened burn of oak and willow and alder, nor merely tanned his skin with soot and blackened dirt, but was within him; it had smoked him from the inside out and left Belch Broadbent with rheumy lidded eyes and a hacking cough that rattled most violently in the early hours.
James Broadbent walked towards the distant rising plume that marked his father’s position as if it were a swarm of wasps leaving its fissure of an arid woodland floor or curl of a crawling tree root.
The earth was in his father’s scalp and his stubble. It had become him. His body hosted smoke. It was stirred into his essence to dilute that which made him human so that he was now part of the landscape and part of the fire; he was made of the smoke that billowed and rolled and tumbled during the slow process that took felled timber through combustion to become the shards and clots of carbon that fuelled fires and furnaces the length and breadth of Calderdale. He was wood-smoke manifest; man as a settled miasma. A nebulous fellow, burnt brume in stout boots, with a clay pipe clicking between what remained of his teeth.”
The Guardian has already made the comparison that The Gallows Pole might be 2017’s His Bloody Project, but in my view it is much much better than that. A notable point of comparison is that both feature excerpts of a condemned-cell confession but whereas HBP’s version was unrealistically literate, King David Hartley’s thoughts are written in a sort of pidgin English that reads oddly but works if read aloud (rather reminiscent of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, another Gordon Burn Prize winner), and give insight into his motivations, both his self-importance but also his doubts, and his rather delusional visions of the stag-men
“I saw them. Stag-headed men dancing at on the moor at midnight, nostrils flared and steam rising.”
Both the narrative tension and the perspective of the novel are at the micro-level in the enclosed world of the moors and particularly in the thoughts and actions of Hartley. We hear allusions to the impact of the debasement of the coin of the realm on the wider economy, but this largely happens off-page. And both the title of the novel and the fatalistic attitude of the Hartleys leave us in little doubt where the story will end: even the identity of their ultimate betrayer is pretty clear from the opening pages (hence lack of any spoiler alerts in my review).
Perhaps one small weakness of the work was the lack of development of Hartley’s wife.
Unbeknownst to her husband she salts away some of the Coiners output to protect her family from the likely hard times ahead, and, in reality, she bought a new home (for a considerable sum in hard cash) after her husband’s execution and outlived him for 30 or more years. It would have been interesting to have seen into her thoughts, as she acts mostly in the novel as a rather passive observer.
But that is a small flaw – and indeed perhaps no flaw at all, since no novel is entirely comprehensive – in a fascinating work. A book deserving of wider attention and one I hope to see – as His Bloody Project did – featuring in awards.
You may read my review of The Gallows Pole here.
Next week on my blog look out for an interview with Benjamin Myers, the author of this book.
Throughout January I will be running a feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. This will include interviews and guest posts from some of the publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist. The first title to be featured is Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner, published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe. To kick things off, today I have a guest review of the book from my fellow judge, Graham Fulcher. Graham is a father of 3 girls and a new puppy, lives in Reigate, Surrey and works in London (with monthly trips to New York which gives plenty of reading time). You may follow him on Twitter: @GrahamFulcher
Gaudy Bauble is published by a small UK publisher, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, who “publish and exhibit independent/experimental/underground things”
Given this aim it is far from a coincidence that Isabel Waidner is the ex-bassist of the indie, experimental group “Klang” – who struggled at times with matching their underground philosophy with the attention they gained from their lead singer being Donna Matthews of Elastica. Their main single was “L.O.V.E.” from their early post punk period. The author is now a research fellow in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton, London, where she invites inquiries from prospective research students in “areas of innovative fiction, avant-garde writing, and creative writing at the intersections with cultural studies, gender studies, queer studies, body studies, subjectivity and independent publishing.” These research themes are key to the motivation behind this novel – even more so on the realisation that this novel was in fact an integral part of Waidner’s PhD Thesis. The reading of this was crucial to cementing and amplifying my (admittedly still limited) understanding of this hugely experimental book.
Attempting to put that understanding in my own words, I believe that Waidner’s key idea is to link two areas: conceptual art (something which she feels has only had limited cross over into literature) and post-identity gender fluidity – this leads to her concept of trans-literature.
Further, a key element of the book is its rejection of the traditional novelistic structure featuring a main character, other key characters, minor characters and then passive objects with which they interact. I believe that Waidner implicitly equates this rigid and hierarchical structure with a traditional patriarchal, gender-rigid society.
In this book by contrast the dominant character is a fluid concept – and just as an hierarchy starts to form (often to the relief of the reader, who finally starts to be able to identify the book with conventional concepts of plot and character and feels they are returning to something they know), Waidner very deliberately overturns this hierarchy and introduces a new main character, including in many cases what initially seemed inanimate objects – often based around patterns or illustrations on clothing (clothing often described in detail, and all it seems based on items that Waidner or her friends have worn).
Another way of saying this is that just as we start to find some solid ground Waidner pulls the rug from under our feet – a cliché but one I have chosen deliberately as a key example of this idea (and one Waidner explains at length in her thesis) is when a pattern on a carpet suddenly emerges as the main protagonist of the book, only for, just when the reader is starting to accept this, the polyester-style material of the carpet to take over from the pattern as the protagonist.
Other thematic elements of the book which stood out to me on my initial read (and before reading the thesis) were: the clear use of Google as a tool to take an idea and extend in a kind of free-association exploration of an initial concept and a search for links or word plays that can be incorporated to alter the course of the novel or to facilitate the introduction of new protagonists; the slightly odd narrative which at times can read like a rather literal translation from German (an idea crystallised by the occassional insertion of German sentences). To my interest, both of these elements (which I may have regarded as criticisms) are dwelt on and examined in the thesis.
The actual style and plot (to the extent such reactionary concepts even have any validity in this ultra-progressive, post-everything novel) is best captured by simply giving links to a number of websites that have published excerpts from the novel (others are embedded and conceptualised in the author’s PhD thesis).
And this perhaps gets to the heart of my only criticism of the book – accessibility. I suspect for many (if not most) readers, these excerpts are not going to encourage further engagement with this book. Another Goodreads reviewer who ended up giving this book a 4* rating, originally could not get past the first page for several days.
One of the very few mainstream authors that Waidner admires is Ali Smith, and in fact Smith’s partner, Sarah Wood, provides the photography for this book. However Smith has made a breakthrough into the literary mainstream. I was critical of elements of her latest book “Autumn”, which I felt owed more to the absurdity of Harry Hill than cutting edge literature, but it’s clear from Goodreads reviews that it’s exactly those passages that have drawn many others into the book, giving them an entry point with which to engage with the more radical and experimental themes.
I suspect if (and this may be a significant if) Waidner wishes to really challenge the mainstream with her ideas, then she may need to think about this concept of allowing an entry point into her work.
However, once engaged I found this a fascinating novel.
You may read my review of Gaudy Bauble here.
I will be posting interviews with the publisher and author later this week.