And I thought of myself too, of my foot, and of Oddball’s thin, wiry body; it seemed shot through with appalling sorrow, quite unbearable. As I gazed at the black-and-white landscape of the plateau I realized that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.
In the past year or two my fiction and non-fiction reading has generally tended to become focused on the Nordic and Russian/Slavic countries, by pure chance, and I’ve unearthed a great wealth of rewarding material. For example, my interests in Russian and Soviet history has dovetailed greatly with the rich and rewarding trove of literature that the citizens of the east have produced, and continue to produce. The latest novel that I find myself reading is the Soviet-era classic Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, a thoroughly documented and powerful kaleidoscopic panoply of a Soviet society which finds itself engaged in total war with the fascist threat from Nazi Germany and her allies. It is a novel which very nearly did not see the light of day due to the harsh censors of the Soviet Union, but thankfully the volume was smuggled out and printed elsewhere.
However, it is a little collection of books that I’ve read recently that remind me that fiction and reality aren’t always so clear-cut, and that they often inform one another with varying viewpoints. I had the pleasure to read one of my favourite travel writer’s recent publications, Horatio Clare’s Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North (Penguin), over the festive holiday and was ably transported once again to somewhere quite new (and rather cold) as he undertook a mission to accompany a Finnish icebreaker crew.
Another recent publication is The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat & Other Stories (Puskin Press), edited by Sjón & Ted Hodgkinson, which brings together a wide range of Nordic writers producing short sagas set in the fantastical north. This reminded me of a volume I read a few years ago which was entitled Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin), edited by Robert Chandler, which took a historical approach to understanding the cultural importance of magic tales that underpin Russia’s literature over two centuries. This is an exquisite volume, one that allowed me to appreciate the form and beauty of often simple moral tales which bled into the surreal via the use of anthropomorphism. This can be seen in some of the works produced before and during the Soviet period (Platonov’s ‘The Foundation Pit’ say, or Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’).
This was just a quick view into some of my recent reading habits and where they have led me. Let me know below if you’ve been having fun exploring literature and fiction from around the world!
The Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s latest cycle of books, the Seasons Quartet, has recently seen its first release, Autumn, in English this month. (A quick note – the Seasons Quartet was originally published in Norwegian throughout 2015-16). Styled as a series of letters to his unborn daughter, the quartet takes everyday objects or landscape features as their starting point for Knausgaard’s short and varied digressions on what it means to be alive. I currently have Autumn by my bedside and it is a beautiful publication indeed, illustrated in style by Vanessa Baird and ably translated by Ingvild Burkey. I haven’t yet started reading it but I shall do tonight, as it seems fitting to do so as the clouds roll in and the temperature drops. Autumn truly is my favourite season and I look forward to the changing colour of the landscape as trees shed their leaves and the nights draw in.
The second volume in the series, Winter, is released on the 2nd November 2017 and I cannot wait to hold and to read it. I note on the publisher’s website that the volume has a different illustrator; I’m quite impressed that Knausgaard (or at least his publisher) is bringing together other artists into the fold of his new publications. It also introduces the English-speaking world to new Scandinavian writers and artists that they may otherwise have not come across. In the meantime Knausgaard’s much-anticipated sixth volume of his My Struggle cycle of novels isn’t released until late 2018, in the English translation, but the Seasons Quartet more than makes up for the long wait. Happy reading!
‘At first pass (= shot) some ten or so Numbers from our hangar were caught napping beneath the engine exhaust – absolutely nothing was left of them but some sort of crumbs and soot. I’m proud to note down here that this did not cause a second’s hitch in the rhythm of our work, no one flinched; and we and our work teams continued our rectilinear and circular movement with exactly the same precision as though nothing had happened. Ten Numbers – that is scarcely one hundred-millionth part of the mass of OneState. For all practical purposes, it’s a third-order infinitesimal. Innumerate pity is a thing known only to the ancients; to us it’s funny.’
He stumbled into the room, roughly grasping the top of the chair by his well-worn desk and cursing each former lover in his moist and ailing breath, fell into a sorry heap upon the bed, too tired to pull off his boots and too saddened by the decline in his quality of life to remove his glasses. Nothing, save the frothing fury of the tropical sea rising up and laying salty claim to all the beaches in the land, could save the loss of face that he had endured that day. For in front of his red-headed daughter, who was buxom, proud and ready to marry the young military captain that had so captured her heart and stained it so openly on his own uniformed arm, he had been stripped of all power, humiliated and whipped like a cowering dog chained to a post in the yard.
The cause of his mistreatment was the maid, who had so blithely started that fateful day as gormless as she had entered this life, the daughter of a whore who had given her up at the first opportunity. That is not to say that she, the maid, was unaware of the power that her accusation would bring to her master, as she knew from her dilapidated upbringing that the raw power of sexual lust could do strange things to a man’s heart. It was a memory passed down in blood from her estranged mother, the one who would die empty-handed clutching helplessly at the passing shoes of the sons and daughters of her customers. It was an ignoble end to a life lived in the shadows, but one that her daughter would not share with her mother, or so she had thought.
Instead she would carry around with her a glowing heart filled at the memories of a holiday romance, a fling that had lit a thousand nights of self-fueled passion spread across the decades following the now hazy memories of a lifetime ago. These were the glimpses into her past that brought her body and mind onto the edge of so fantastic an experience that she temporarily blinded herself each and every time she accessed them. Although her current life lacked little in the way of attention from the opposite sex, keeping as she had the plump and youthful looks of her mother, the willingness to partake in the tasting of the flesh was strictly divorced from the cannibalization of her own memories. In short, it was these that she feasted on instead of the current attention that she attracted and returned to again and again in the silence of the night.
Time passed silently, the moon forever chasing the sun as the weeks leaped into months and the seasons dictated the passing of the years. By chance work had found her employed as a maid for an owner of a large tract of land, which included numerous rented apartments and holiday villas for tourists that visited this small Caribbean nation alongside the owner’s main housing complex, hidden in a corner behind a curving perimeter wall. The owner coveted his private life and communicated with both his retinue and his staff by way of paper notes, dotted across the working surfaces of a life he had little known intimately but instead managed from afar. The practice worked as if by magic though, the newer members of staff at first baffled by the notes left in green ink each morning, documenting the previous day’s stock figures, both incoming and outgoing, and dictating the actions of the next. The older staff however were well used to this method and blithely accepted whatever the writer of the note wanted, trusting as they did the path ahead as an apparition of the successful path behind.
The persistent rumours of the sightings of the owner were frequent among the staff, with wild recollections of a golden-haired Lothario prowling the grounds at night or that he was actually a hunchback man who had been seen howling at the moon in rage and despair. Lucinda, the young slip of a girl who worked in the granary, had once caught a slender grey-haired gentlemen helping himself to the kitchen stores but he had pranced off into the night before she had a chance to shout his name. No sightings were confirmed although that did not stop the rumours being mulled over and created late into the night by the staff at the end of their long shifts; instead the owner preferred always to communicate by his spidery flowing script rather than by sight and sound.
The maid had seen his notes and was taken by the veracity of the green ink on the faded, golden papers. The twirls of the P’s and the L’s satisfied some small section of her stomach, pleasingly looped as they were. In time she started to collect a number of the notes once the older ones had been discarded, their actions carried out by the ever observant and trusting staff. It was late one springs night, in her provided for one bed-roomed cleaners cottage, that the maid noticed the odd word or phrase that silently rung a long-dormant bell within her memory.
Surely the owner could not be the very flame that had burnt for eternity within her chest, ever since that fleeting coastal romance? She gathered up the dozen or so notes spread across the duvet and held them close to her tight chest, breathing in the vapors of the ink as her pupils dilated and the clothes fell from her body of their own volition. When she woke she noted the cold sweat of her body, the notes plastered on the inside of her thighs, on top of her belly and on her breasts, a love intent on the recreation of the physical and the spiritual. She knew then that the owner was indeed her former lover.
Some days later a note went up on the main noticeboard: ‘To wit: My Daughter to Marry the Captain, Two Days Hence – Staff Welcome’.
The owner’s daughter was most unlike her father in that she was well-known in the community, haughty but well-known. Little did she communicate directly with the staff, she was instead seen and not heard. Two days until the wedding! Some of the staff, the kitchen women and the mucker outers especially, expressed surprise that they were invited to view the proceedings, but all were excited by the prospect of finally seeing with their own eyes the owner of the land. Much was made of the brevity of the note in comparison to the usual notes but none could argue that the next 48 hours were to pass in a state of increasing frenzy and intrigue.
Today was the day that she was going to proclaim that this stored fountain of love was directly transferable to the object of her affections, the owner. In her fevered night-long dreams she could foresee a double marriage taking place, father and daughter pleased and pressed into unions of love, her simple maid’s status raised to the title of owner’s wife! Oh, what pleasure awaited them both! Dressing in her finest clothes and smartening up her shoes, she went to join the rest of the workers gathered outside in the courtyard, ready to proceed to the wedding venue – an outdoor folly that took into its expansive view the bay and the mountains in the background and the luscious greens in the foreground.
The crowd waited with bated breath as the procession of the captain and his bride, and assembled groomsmen and bride’s maids of honor, sorted themselves within the folly. A minute or two later the owner strode into view, each booted foot planted with firm resolution, his tight thin-lipped mouth curled up into the slightest imitation of a sneer, framed by golden-greying hair. A complete hush fell over the crowd of workers and some swore they could see green ink stains on his fingertips, a visual clue that this was who they suspected that he was.
It was at this moment that the maid, her breasts almost bursting out of her tight white top, lunged forward, one foot unsteadily following the other as a faint scream of ecstasy escaped her lips and the faint light of terror entered the owner’s eyes.
‘Matías! Matías! My love, it is me, Natalia!’
It was later recalled it was at this moment that the owner’s heart sunk fully into the very bowels of his body.
What for her had been an unforgettable romance by the sea, had been instead for him a desultory sink in status, one that he had revelled in at the time for its feeling of desperation but had since been forced into the very back of his mind. Instead, and ever since that long weekend spent entwined in both the arms and breasts of Natalia, he had made love to women only on par with his social standing, determined to remove the grit that he had felt instilled itself in him from sinking so low that one time.
In short, there could be no worse time for his past to haunt the owner then at the very moment he chose to show himself for the first time to his staff at his daughter’s wedding.
His eyes sunk into their sockets, and continued to join his heart, whilst his cheeks became maroon curtains of the richest silk.
He ran and he did not look back as Natalia stumbled onto her knees and tried clasping onto his fleeing heels, just as her mother had once done in the street where she lay dying …
She never regretted moving to this flat. It was her bolt hole in this fast paced city, a place where she could flutter and eventually fly free of her parents, beloved though they were. In fact, they were the reason why she had moved to the city. She couldn’t quite face looking into their eyes once Robert had been to visit her at her parent’s house. If they had known of all of the positions that they had made love in then her cheeks would be forever burnished, matching only those of rosy fresh apples. No, much better that she had moved away to a swanky new flat with him instead, free to both explore their love and to allow their careers to take a foothold upon the employment ladder in their chosen fields.
The flat wasn’t really swanky in all honesty. Sometimes, especially after a heated remark or two, it could feel like a shoe box and one that she yearned to escape. It was at times like those that she felt she could happily return to her parent’s house, to become engulfed once again in their loving embrace. But she realized that this would never happen again, she had flown the coop and would not return to live there in this lifetime. She visited, from time to time, and had hosted her mother and father in her adopted city, but they would not meaningfully live side by side again.
Robert was her immediate family now, her lover and confidant, her romancer and family man. Her father wrote often though, kept the familial bonds strong and she wrote back as often as she could, though writing was not her forte and clearly her path in life was not to follow her father. She loved his letters though, decorated as they were with doodles on each page. The notes on his latest writing project filled her with hope for her father and his health, as she often mistakenly equated the health of his imagination with the health of his ailing body. Her mother sometimes added a page or two of notes as well, updated her on school crushes and old boyfriends. It was these tidbits from her mother that she really enjoyed, that kept her in the loop of small town life and let her feel guilt-free pangs of happiness. In this raging city of 24/7 access, it was grounding to know that life continued as much as it ever had in other parts of the country, parts that the creeping suburbia of the city hadn’t yet reached.
The illness unhinged her for a while though, the images of her father spraying droplets of blood was not something that she wanted to think about, neither was the fact that her parents were indeed mortal and not immortal, as a childish version of her thought still. Her foundation of independence had just become solidified, yet it felt like even as she started to make her mark on the world, the world instead turned and had started to shake the rock that she built her life upon.
In all honesty she tried not to think about the condition slowly taking over her father’s life. To put death at a distance and to keep love close. That was her motto, though she could never think of the words to articulate it; it was how she lived her life in the shadow of her parent’s slow, earthly demise. Her father would probably be writing a poem at this very moment and she could just picture it, his pen gliding across the paper in what would seem to be a well-rehearsed manner. The words would flow, the inconvertible truth that this man was born to give a voice to his generation would be undeniable.
In her darkest moments, sometimes the ones that followed the passionate lovemaking sessions with Robert where she lay in quiet repose, the thoughts would intrude into her mind like unbidden shards of shattered glass. He would be remembered by the many, not by the few.
It would not be long now.
Sometimes I read novels and often think that they hit the spot a bit too close to home. This was the case recently as I came to the concluding pages of On the Beach, which was written by the novelist Nevil Shute Norway in the decades following World War Two. The scene includes two of the main characters discussing the context for the apocalyptic situation that they face and openly lament the global use of nuclear weapons during an escalation of an international war:
“Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?”
“I don’t know… Some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop”, he said. “I mean, if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there’s not much that you or I can do about it. The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness.”
“But how could you have done that, Peter? I mean, they’d all left school.”
“Newspapers”, he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”
Quoted from the novel One the Beach (1957), by Nevil Shute Norway.
It is a wonderful novel and a book that I highly recommend. For me one of the most moving aspects of the characters portrayed throughout the text was their attitude and civility in the manner in which they led their lives, and how this civility influenced their actions throughout the novel despite the fact that they knew what was to come.
Next up on my reading list is a newly published novel that I have started reading earlier today entitled Here I Am, by the American author Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer has previously released a clutch of interesting and diverse novels over the past decade and a half that have really captured my attention, especially his first novel Everything is Illuminated, which was published in 2002. Perhaps unwittingly I noticed that the Here I Am novel continues the theme of international and national destruction set in On the Beach. Perhaps it is somewhat fitting considering the way 2016 has so far developed…
I have been away for a while but nothing much really changes within the hearts of humans. We are all flesh, we all feel, love and grieve, and we are all united by life and divided by it:
“What you find in him are cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history – how people betray each other for the sake of nations, how people fall in love… How old did you say you were?”
“I was much older when I fell in love.”
Hana pauses. “Who was she?”
But his eyes are away from her now.
Quoted from the novel The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje.
My room, I realize, is covered in books and CD’s. Stacks of both poke out from under my bed, bulge on shelves, take root on free patches on the floor. I have boxes of academic books and reference texts resting below where I sleep, buried alongside those are boxes of CD’s and cassette tapes, filled with yesterday’s music and recorded jam sessions made during the proclivities of my youth. They are, it appears, my media of choice for consuming the experiences and thoughts of being human.
To be human, as to recognize to being alive, is temporary but what a beauty that it is in itself:
‘But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestige of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limb and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again. And what we never really comprehend , or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.’
From My Struggle: Part 2. A Man In Love (2014) by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
I love finding new novels to read, new authors whose previous publications I didn’t know existed and have not yet read. I find life mixed into these stories, the full panoply of humanity. I came across this passage recently and it struck me forcefully for the way in which we now, online and face to face, communicate differently:
“What is this rating, a sex appeal thing?” I asked him once.
Steve tried to persuade me it was more innocent than that. “It’s more like, do they show up on time, can they keep their end of a conversation, are they clean? Do they spend all their time checking their phones?”
“You check your phone constantly.”
“That’s because you’re a friend,” he said. “I would never behave that way with a virtual friend. It kills your rating.”
“Well, where do I get to rate you?”
“You only get to rate me if you respond to one of my posts. But you never would. You’re a Luddite.”
A wonderful exchange between the main character and a friend in Benjamin Markovits 2015 novel You Don’t Have To Live Like This.
I’m a good portion of the way through the above book at the moment and I’m really happy I tracked down a copy of this novel. Lined up next to read is the Will Self’s Shark, a truly modern novel examining the threads of consciousness and time in an experimental format.
Thinking back to the beginning of this year, I had discovered Javier Marías, the eloquent Spanish author. I’ve managed to read a number of his novels now (including A Heart So White, Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me, When I Was Mortal) and I remain deeply in love with his style.
I’m looking forward to the second half of this year and to what authors may come. What are you currently reading and why?