She has an Anglo-Saxon sternness. She could be 20 or 40 years of age, her religious conviction writ large in her plain facial features. She loves warmly but disciplines firmly, an island of austerity in a world of plenty.
My mother has this Christmas tradition that, when we have all taken our seats and just before we have taken our first bite of a long-awaited roast dinner, we raise a toast to the dearly departed, to those members of the family who are no longer with us and to those friends that no longer accompany us throughout our life journey. It reminds us, the living, to be thankful that we are seeing the close of yet another year together, to remain thankful to have known the dearly departed and that we remember them still.
The fact that this takes place before we have tasted our food is of the utmost importance. To say thank you on an empty stomach is to accept that we have lost those that will never be by our sides again, that we will never break bread with them and share our laughter and sadness across the table. Our eyes will never again catch theirs.
I sometimes like to imagine where the deceased are now, as if their memories have somehow broken free of their corporeal remains and drift uninhibited across the globe. It can be difficult to think that all that we have ever known and all that we have ever loved and experienced can be so self-contained in our floating globe, silently rotating in the great big soup of the universe. But it is and it must be, that is why we remember and why we say goodbye once again at the close of the year.
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!
‘They say war is coming, that they want it so it’ll happen . . . Just like that! It doesn’t matter if you are the son of the mayor or of the dustbin man, it doesn’t matter what you think or what you feel. As soon as you join up, they’ll ship you out. Give you a rifle, a round, help you point it and let you start shooting. It doesn’t matter that you are scared or do not want to kill, it doesn’t matter if you miss the birthdays of your nearest and dearest. This is war! War does not stop for the dead, and it doesn’t stop for the living! It will continue regardless of what you think, so they say. Join up and get in the fight, prove yourself, prove that you are a man!’
Here, at this junction, he takes a rest and leans against the pillow before starting again.
‘I’ve heard it before and I’ll hear it again. Our lives are not so short that we won’t live through war, a war, any war. Just think about it boy, there must be a hundred wars going on right now – all across the globe people are fighting for this or that, spilling blood for the power of belief. Killing is justified, they say, it is justified because it helps to prove that what you say, what you believe, is right, is the only way. We must fight to take back our land! We must fight to stop them! We must fight to prove ourselves! We must fight because this fat bastard insulted me!’
Another rest before he carries on more lucidly.
‘Wars are funny things my son, they are odd things . . . They are both natural and unnatural. Nature telling us that we are too numerous and too many, that we need to thin the population somewhat, create a bottleneck so we can survive. Wars are the outcome of the idle rich, of those that seek power and revenge. War ain’t nothing good, but we’re used to it. Society accepts the causes and the outcomes, realizes that there is always a price to pay.’
War is war, the living are the living, and the dead are the dead, I wanted to add.
‘There is nothing to see here son but history, the ashes of a thousand dreams . . .’
‘Dad? Can you hear me dad, I’m right here . . . Just give me your hand dad, you’ll be okay. I love you. I’ll be back soon, okay?’
I shepherd the son out, who is caught briefly off-guard by the single tear running down the older man’s left cheek.
This speech wasn’t anything knew, but I knew that the son had to try and talk to his father, to try and establish reality once more.
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!
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.
Peering at it he saw translucent wings that could be seen against the screen which, in turn, were attached to a fat round body with pinprick legs. Looking more carefully he could just about focus onto the fly’s multi-lensed eyes and searching feeding tube, flickering as it was here and there. The folded first pair of legs rubbed against each other seemingly in pure joy at the location that it had found itself in.
A flicker of disgust rose in his belly on seeing all of this.
To top it off that incessant buzzing noise was so annoying!
‘Hey there, do you mind not staring at me as I try to feed please!’, politely opined the insect under view.
Jumping back slightly and slowly rocking in his seat Joseph sensed that this was not quite right, flies did not normally respond in such a manner to human inspection.
‘I… well I beg your pardon Mr Fly! It seems as i you have chose a rather inconsiderate position, upon my computer screen where you currently reside, to settle yourself’, he stammered with half empty lungs still gulping down air in mid shock.
‘Well be that as it may but give me some peace please! I am more than half way through my life cycle and my weary wings need a rest!’ replied the fly curtly.
‘Also, could you please stop spraying that awful chemical around your house! You have already killed my brothers and sisters willingly, at least let me give your screen a quick clean’.
At this the fly gently patted his first few limbs against the screen’s surface and shook his head slowly to express his disappointment.
‘Well yes of course, please make yourself at home’.
His default manner in shock was one of prime consideration to his fellow man and, in this instance, insectoid. If the fly really did make itself at home and start to feed in such a manner flies are known to feed in, well then he felt that he really wouldn’t be able to keep the rising bile contained within his throat and would have to let rip in full bodily disgust.
‘So… how did you come to be able to speak?’, his question contained mild awe at the somewhat deep voice that the fly had spoken in.
‘Well sir, you are really asking but two questions there and I shall have to go into them on a granular level’, counted the fly in reply.
He started to regale the fellow as to how he first noticed he could talk to these upright lumbering beasts…
‘Since my answer is granular on a most profound scale, could I ask of you that you lay out some bread crumbs first so that I may feast before I tell my tale?’
‘Yes, why of course I shall be back in a moment’.
In the kitchen Joseph couldn’t quite believe he was rubbing pieces of bread together to collect a small surfeit of crumbs for his winged guest. Winged speaking guest no less! A dab of water was needed to cool his forehead but he did as Mr Fly suggested and brought the crumbs through to the office room and lay them out on a small dish.
Choking back the sickness that had welled in his throat he watched Mr Fly saunter from screen to saucer, hop onto a large crumb and attach his sucker. Presumably he digested it there and then, but his human audience did not care to look upon this part.
‘Just the ticket!’ squealed the fly in sheer delight. A small leg pad rubbed his belly and Joseph almost swore he could see a smile on his little insectoid face. He had to admit he was growing quite accustomed to his winged guest and admired his good behaviour.
‘Thank you Joseph for the food, it is much appreciated. Now let me start my tale of when I first knew I could speak to you humans…
On a summers day I found myself seeking shade from the blazing sun, we flies can get too hot you know and I could spy a blackbird, a hundred seagulls and more, who were all desperately trying to peck me. So I flew and I found shade and safety in an office, the door magically opening as I followed a human in. This human was bald, not like the rest of you haired apes (Yes Joseph, I too know my animals!).
He moved into another smaller room within this office and closed the door, but not before I snuck in and latched upon the wall, resting, tasting. I could hear him speaking but at first I could not make out the words as to what he was saying. This was to be expected! Fly speech is very different to human speech, our special buzzes hide all sort of sonorous tones that emit signals for how we are and what we want. You may hear our buzzes and
think nothing of it but we are speaking Joseph, we are speaking to each other!
I was glad to be on that wall, the pesky bumble bee bastards were buzzing me earlier in the day and getting me agitated. I knew I had to find a safe and clean place, and what is more sterile than a human office!
As I tuned in a most magical thing happened! I could understand partly what he was saying. I caught the odd word as he stared at his face in the mirror world.
I could hear ‘ha ha ha, haha haha haha, haaa haaaa’ and variations within. Every once and a while the words ‘game plan’, ‘going forward, go-ing forr-wood’, ‘in this instance’ and that most special of words – ‘granular, grain ula, gran-ular’ were spoken a hundred times, each inflection more varied than the last.
I admit it Joseph, that word had a special effect on me. I could feel the bass notes shivering through my thorax and my wings fluttered in simple delight. I felt I must try this word, I must speak it myself!’
At this Mr Fly shivered and slumped upon the remaining breadcrumbs and remained quiet.
‘Are you alright Mr Fly?’ ventured Joseph to no apparent reply.
‘Mr Fly… ? Hello… ?’
After what seemed like an eternity Mr Fly shook his wings and re-awoke. Joseph shook too, but with with thankfulness that his little insectoid friend had not become the late Mr Fly and instead resumed his previous courteous manner.
‘And so, when I had heard those words uttered from this humanoid form I could not help but be bewitched and in turn wanted to utter those words myself,’ he stated having not realised he had momentarily passed out.
‘But.. but how could you? You do not have the right anatomical equipment to utter such words nor the brain to understand them!’ stammered Joseph, at a loss to explain how this fly had gone from pest to best friend within a matter of some minutes.
‘Well all you see is not what you all get my dear fellow’.
A forelimb wiped gently at his lensed right eye and a quick shake of his wings indicated Mr Fly had something rather further more to say on the matter.
‘I practiced again and again at getting the words just so, how I yearned to emulate my master in the mirror world and utter the word ‘granular’, how beautiful did it sound to my fly ears and how each letter reverberated across my thorax! You see you humanoids all think that we insects are the same, that we cannot think individually and act instead as a mass of self denial, acknowledging only our queen or basic instincts but this is simply not true!
We lead lives just as you do! We too have feelings, thoughts, desires and romances, our hearts, little though they are, burst forth with the beauty and decadence of this life as do your best writers, painters and actors, thinkers and do’ers.
But of course we cannot express this – we are entwined with nature in such a way as to be invisible without it whereas you humans, you create whole new worlds of meaning, locked away in sterile isolated buildings full of arbitrary rules and regulations to govern each and every action and reaction.
No, I know of your world but I am not of it.’
Mimicking a courtesy head bow Mr Fly prepared to fly off into that world once more.
‘But wait! Why mimic human speech? Why become fascinated by something so much that you emulate it and then cast it aside?’ questioned Joseph, an imploring look plastered across his shrew-like features.
‘Why use language, we could talk you and I, our species could talk! Good God Mr Fly, could you think of the implications!’
At this Mr Fly shivered, cast his multi-lensed eyes across the room and wiped them once more with his tiny forelimbs.
‘No, I have seen your kind, preening in the mirror world. Only for today are my words for your ears Joseph.
I thank you though for sharing your bread with me, it is much appreciated and it will not be forgotten. But now I must go and join my own!’
‘Thank you, a thousand times thank you!’, cried Joseph in return.
The fly raised its head as if to sniff the air and then flew off, out of Joseph’s home office and back into the world of the living.
Meanwhile, in the work office in which the fly had learnt to use the language of humans but briefly, the balded man sat at his desk staring into his computer screen.
First his arm spasmed, then his left leg jerked uncontrollably. He tried to speak, to shout out in mounting horror but no words emanated forth from his now twitching mouth. Instead, only a series of low buzzes poured out which attracted each and every fly around to dance around his shoulders and atop the crown of his head.
The staff, not quite used to seeing the spectacle of winged insects invading their office, quickly shrieked and shirked in primal horror and abandoned their workstations en masse.
Mr Fly, at the centre of it all, landed on the computer screen observing each and every movement made by the now crowned man and his flailing colleagues. Yes, he thought, they may run now but in time each will respond as did Joseph, with warmth, kindness and compassion.
He flicked his wings, clicked his forelimbs and took flight.
How could I possibly tell her that I had thought we had a future together when these thoughts alone were just the remanent of fragmented dreams, and that those dreams were recalled by the half light ecstasy of sexual mores that only I could gain personal satisfaction in? No, these feelings and lust-filled thoughts were just that. They were simply a morning temptation before the creeping light of dawn awoke me fully to the realities of the day ahead. I held the phone in my right hand, her number displayed on the screen with a text half-finished underneath. I reread the message and cringed in shame, the liquid warm against my belly whilst I drew deep breaths. Deleted. For the betterment of us both.
Besides I had double English to attend and I still needed to scrub the sleep from my eyes, shower and dress. The walk to the college alone would take twenty minutes and I had an hour at the most to get ready, prepare for the class and to arrive on time. Timekeeping was never a strong point for me, the lack of punctuality ran in the family and infuriated my mother continually throughout her children’s adolescence. My eldest brother, for I was one of four and the second youngest of our parent’s brood, would drive my mother crazy by getting up late, sometimes comically late and especially so if we had to be somewhere on time. This would then cascade a chain of fury from my mother to my father, who got annoyed on her behalf before the fury finally found us, his younger brothers. Once we were out of the house however we were fine and I think Dad sensed this when he saw the frustration spreading and urged us out as fast as was humanely possible.
The house was empty this morning though so I could blast the music, keep the bedroom door open and move about freely as naked as the day my poor mother had pushed me out. I loved it – the feeling of an empty house where my favourite music reverberated from wall to wall; where I could eat quickly before I jumped into the shower, laughing as I did so as the water followed and flowed over the contours of my limbs and ran down my thighs. They were where the thick surgical scars outlined the orthopaedic surgeon’s fixation. I was proud of these scars, they were my personal tattoos of a specific time and place, my memories of pain and pleasure entwined to produce a better me (or so the hope went).
The first lesson passed without incidence, we learnt of the black ram tupping the white ewe and the lecturer expounded on what this meant for the play, for the deft characterisation and turn of phrase the author was so well-known for. I wondered of his contemporaries, of his hopes and dreams. I wondered what became of his loves and hungers, what his reaction would be if he knew that his plays would be enacted out four centuries hence whilst his fellow playwrights would lie largely forgotten in the lands that birthed them. But still, I had the break to look forward to where I would see her and think ashamedly back to my morning scene. I wanted to hold her hair in my hands and look deep into the blues of her eyes. This was a fantasy, the girl who I would later call my partner had brown eyes and curly hair, she wasn’t the person who I had dreamt of whilst I had lain in bed, regretting the passing of the minutes that I was powerless to stop.
This was the contract, signed by us both. Remaining friends but no more, the blushes of a late teenage crush hidden by a mop of hair. Instead I put aside my fantasy of my cheek against hers, my lips kissing hers, my body entwined with hers, and put our friendship on a higher plane. There was no underlying hidden moral heroism driving this, it was purely the shame of not trying and never asking for her hand. The joy of seeing her and sharing stories over drinks replaced this erotic dream of mine, one that I had subconsciously harboured since school and let blossom fully at college. Instead I focused on the give and take of friendship. The unsaid declaration of the fact that she and I were always willing to be there for one another, at the end of a text, a phone call or in person, that it remained hanging in the air never needing to be vocalised.
Taken by the author with a Pentax S1a camera using Lomography Lady Grey film. If reproduced elsewhere please credit as appropriate.
The office I worked in dealt with applications from students and our daily targets were monitored and recorded for prosperity, and to check against what was and what wasn’t correctly documented in our individual tally sheets. Of course these sheets were digital spreadsheets that were specially formatted for each different piece of work that was allocated to the worker. The spreadsheets highlighted how much allotted time was given dependent on the category that the piece of work fell into, whether we’d have five minutes to complete it or ten minutes. Simple pieces of work could be given only a few minutes whilst more complicated pieces, such as responding to emails with extensive trails or queries, were given a timing of a quarter of an hour or more. We felt that luck was on our side when one such piece of work fell out of the electronic basket and into our caseload, we had time to breath, to relax, to look into the faces of the person sat beside ourselves and to realize that we each went through the same, day in and day out.
Many kept to this electronic tally, toting it up at the end of the night by memory or by scrolling through the master sheet. I, unlike many of my work colleagues, kept a ink tally in Roman numerals of each type of piece of work that I had completed that day. Towards the end of the evening, when we each heaved a sigh of relief and gladness that the working day was over, I looked down with fondness upon my scrap of paper to find an ever changing squiggle of lines, crossed and solitary, segmented by type and time.
It was the last action of the working shift that so pleased me, that I could scrupple up the piece of paper with my jottings on, tear it in two if needs be and thrice more into smaller pieces so that no readable piece remained, and declare that I was the master of myself once again. No greater feeling of satisfaction came with the job then that final action of labour destruction, or rather rapprochement that my work towards the whole could be so simply and so justifiably torn up. That my value as a worker was counted as so little that I needed to be constantly monitored for each and every movement within the workplace, each piece of work accounted for and judged against the character of my soul. The residual of feeling of loyalty, that thinning pool of employee liquid that had somehow lingered through the various turbulent governmental changes and process improvements, now felt at a very low ebb indeed. It could evaporate at any moment.
My action was, in its way, a minor everyday rebellion at the absurdity of employment itself. That each man and woman shall spend a third of their life strapped to the face of labour so that the other third can be slept through and the final third can be lived in a state of fretful suspense. It is perhaps not fair to categorize in this way what so many want, what so many need, but for me it is not enough nor is it a rightful use of the labour market. To rebel, in whatever fashion is feasible or at least in which way is not detrimental to your standards, is to acknowledge that you recognize that this is so. Such is life.