CAN MIKE LEIGH DO HAPPINESS?

The next post will be on or before Sunday 30th June

CAN MIKE LEIGH DO HAPPINESS?

Some of Mike Leigh’s early movies were exercises in unremitting bleakness, or rather they showed just how miserable some people’s lives can be thanks to marital and other kinds of bullying. In Hard Labour (1973) an old charwoman played by Liz Smith is treated like dirt by her gruff, cantankerous husband, who in turn is bullied by an officious supervisor in his precarious job as a nightwatchman. Meanwhile the couple’s son, a gentle mechanic played by Bernard Hill (best known as Yozzer of Boys from the Blackstuff) is harassed by his pretentious nagging wife portrayed by that virtuoso veteran Alison Steadman (born 1946) who was also the wife of Mike Leigh from 1973-2001. That was preceded by the director’s first movie, made when he was 27, accurately entitled Bleak Moments, and summarised by one no-nonsense critic as ‘tortured semi-articulated anguish in suburban West Norwood’. However, Leigh’s is a complex and idiosyncratic talent, and even in the 70s he was capable of laugh out loud farce, best exemplified by everyone’s favourite, Nuts in May (1976). Here Steadman plays the gormless and submissive Candice-Marie married to the insufferable Keith (Roger Sloman, born 1946) both of them into spartan camping, the pious study of local history and fossil geology, not to speak of chirruping tuneless folk songs together and driving everyone around them mad. By contrast, my own Leigh favourite is the flawless 1993 Naked which is a fearlessly raw and uncompromising account of a young Mancunian vagabond at large in faceless nocturnal central London. The vagabond Johnny is played with impeccable brilliance by David Thewlis, born 1963, and his ranting apocalyptic eloquence (he knows vast chunks of Revelation by heart), and even more, his sexual and emotional neediness, are, I would agree, shocking and disturbing, but not in the last analysis bleak, for there are numerous moments of redeeming black comedy, and Johnny is anything but self-pitying.

Leigh has made 2 films overtly celebrating human happiness, both of them released close together over almost a 50-year career: Happy Go Lucky (2008) and Another Year (2010). The first one starred  Leigh regular, Sally Hawkins (born 1976) as a London primary school teacher perkily called Poppy, and idealistically portrayed as cheerful and kindly no matter what. At the start of the film, when someone is rude to her in a shop, she smiles and bears no grudge, and right after that, when her bike is pinched, her only sadness is that she didn’t get to say goodbye to it properly, so that even at this early stage one wonders if she is too good to be true. By that I mean if it weren’t for the dramatic foil of her incredibly disturbing driving instructor played to perfection by Eddie Marsan (born 1968) the film would be so sinewless, it might all but disappear.  Poppy’s monotonal happiness is a kind of rosy childlike innocence and much of her dialogue is a chuckling entirely harmless tit for tat banter. I think this is a significant Leigh statement, because in the film I will concentrate on, Another Year, we get almost an identical persona in the shape of Katie, the girlfriend of the son of the central happy couple, jovially if ironically named as Tom and Gerri. The husband, a geologist played by Jim Broadbent (born 1949) has had a long and happy marriage with Gerri (Ruth Sheen, born 1952) who works as a counsellor attached to a medical practice, and their only real worry is their son Joe, played by Oliver Maltman, who also had a part in Happy Go Lucky. Joe works as a solicitor specialising in housing problems, but is very tight lipped about personal matters, so they have no idea if he has a girlfriend, much less if he is happy or not. Eventually he springs a girlfriend on them by literally hiding and leaping out from behind the door with her, much to everyone’s hilarity. Katie has a demanding job as a residential social worker in an Old Peoples’ Home, and she like Poppy is cheerful, positive and bristling with light-hearted and inconsequential repartee. So already we perceive that happiness is frequently linked to a caring and selfless profession (social work, primary school teaching and counselling) and that when it comes to the younger end, Katie and Poppy, they banter and sustain themselves and cheer their often doleful and problematic friends by a sort of medicinal light-heartedness. This apparent conviction on the part of the director is made even more overt when twice during the film Gerri says with deep feeling to various friends who ask about Joe’s girlfriend (and, remember, with the authority of a counsellor):

‘She is lovely. She is really lovely.’

The finest acting on view is right at the start, where Imelda Staunton is a depressed insomniac housewife, interviewed first by her GP and subsequently by colleague Gerri. With her facial muscles alone, and barely any dialogue, Staunton portrays a whole nuanced range of despair, anger, resentment and a twitching stoniness that refuses to tell anyone what is really upsetting her. She believes if she gets a few nights sleep she will be able to cope, and is openly contemptuous of Gerri digging away at any irrelevant personal issues. But this counsellor not only has problematic clients, she has problematic friends, and the other virtuoso acting is that of Lesley Manville (born 1956) who plays Mary, her GP secretary colleague and old family friend. And apropos Manville and Sheen, it is worth reminding ourselves here that Leigh has a pool of tried and tested actors who appear and reappear in his films, and which to a certain  extent explains the sustained excellence of much of his work. Manville was the decorous Scotswoman in the 2014 Turner and the posh Yuppie in High Hopes (1988) and likewise Sheen was the great artist’s put upon and estranged wife, and also the council gardener wife of Cyril the Marxist  motorcycle courier in the earlier movie. Likewise, you will recall Jim Broadbent was Andy the catering chef and would-be burger entrepreneur in the excellent 1990 Life is Sweet, and in that film, happy though he was in many ways, he had a severely bulimic daughter (Absolutely Fabulous’s Jane Horrocks, born 1964) who gorged herself in secret and never left her bedroom. You could say that sweet as Andy’s life was in some ways, he had a major and horrific problem at close quarters, whereas with Tom the problems are much more at a manageable distance in the shape of neurotic friends.

Dysfunctional Mary then is the foil to the marital contentment of Tom and Gerri, one of whose major consolations and joys is their allotment gardening which punctuates the film at regular points (the healing potential of allotments is indeed rammed home by the counsellor at various points, and she tells someone at one of her barbecues that he too should grow tomatoes for therapeutic purposes). Brittle and nervous Mary is divorced and lives in a poky flat, and would love to have a nice man but finding one who is not a rogue nor a liar, proves to be elusive. She drinks a great deal and often discerns sexual attraction in public places when none is there. Absurdly she has a crush on Joe who she remembers as a little boy, and prior to his dating Katie she flirts with him and keeps suggesting they meet up for a drink with or preferably without his Mum. Invariably half cut and slurring her words, she has a habit of inviting others to confide their closest secrets, as she is, she believes, a sensitive listener. She offers her confessional role to both counsellor Gerri who smiles ruefully, and to the counsellor’s son, who in fairness to Mary does in fact behave in an ambiguously playful manner with a woman very much older. In any event Mary is fecklessness personified, and she gets so drunk at dinner with Tom and Gerri she has to stay overnight and collapses fully clothed on the bed. Manville is excellent at portraying Mary’s bleary loneliness when she has to go home to her empty flat the next morning, and throughout the film this gifted actor has her character staring naively at the people around her, trying to work out what it is they have that she doesn’t, and how just possibly she might acquire the secret of happiness.

And just as Gerri has her hopeless female counterpart, so Tom has an unhappy old college mate Ken (Peter Wight, another Leigh regular, born 1950) an office worker who is well on the way to an early heart attack as he drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney and gets no exercise. He lives up in Hull as does Tom’s morose and unhappily married brother Ronnie, and Ken travels down for the weekend by train clutching an armful of cans from the bar and a giant packet of tomato crisps. Once he’s arrived in London, the old mates indulge in boyish horseplay with Tom leaping on Ken’s back just as Ken later shrieks and disconcerts Tom when he is making a careful shot in a friendly golf match.  Worryingly Ken has reached an impressively advanced state of bachelor piggery, for as he snorts up his food like a hoover (Tom is a gourmet cook) he is both swilling beer and glugging wine alternately. Later he admits his perennial loneliness, his hatred of his job, the fact that his favourite occupation of sitting in a pub is ruined these days by noisy and arrogant kids. Then drunk he breaks down as he remembers the death of a close friend, and Tom is so concerned he suggests that to lift his spirits they should go walking together in the Peak District in the autumn, stopping over in country pubs along the way. But Ken is a lost cause, and agrees to the pubs but not to any walking, something obviously beyond him by this stage. There follows a set piece where his hosts celebrate his arrival with a barbecue, and which dizzy Mary arrives at 3 hours late. Like many unhappy people, she believes that a single novel thing might change her life completely, and in this case, she acquires a little car very cheap from 2 dubious brothers who insist on being paid in cash. However she hasn’t driven since 1984, so the insurance is steep and add to that that coming to Tom and Gerri’s by tube for years, has meant she got completely lost in her car. While she swiftly homes in on still single Joe, hopeless Ken decides that he and Mary might make two happily united lost causes, and makes futile attempts to gain her attention. Instead Mary treats Ken very rudely and spends her time running away from him, just as when she later discovers Joe has a girlfriend, she is so shocked and put out she treats Katie with a blatant aggression and incurs Gerri’s indignation as a result.

The scene then changes dramatically to up north, for Tom’s sister in law has died suddenly, and the son Carl having broken off with both parents, Tom and Gerri go up to organise the funeral on brother Ronnie’s behalf. Ronnie is played by the reliably saturnine David Bradley (born 1942), well known for his Harry Potter and Game of Thrones parts, as well as his TV Dickens and stage King Lear. Ronnie is a Neanderthal Northerner at his worst, monosyllabic and borderline mute, and having been mothered all his marriage by his wife, he allows Tom to take over the catering for the funeral tea. At the cremation ceremony his ranting and alienated son Carl (played by Martin Savage) arrives late and he shouts embarrassingly at Ronnie for not delaying the service. Tom eloquently defends his brother, but Carl is unappeasable and even confronts his cousin Joe, nastily accusing him of staring at him. He also says at the funeral tea that his Dad didn’t love his Mum, and he briskly orders the neighbours who have come to pay their respects to get out. Tense as this showdown sounds, I was waiting for Carl pace classic Leigh to turn truly and squirmingly volcanic, instead of which it all turned to anti-climax and he stormed out to buy a bottle of wine and that was the last we saw of him.

The final section of the film reaches a kind of rounded conclusion but by an initially unpredictable route which ultimately for me turns formulaic. Tom invites his bereaved brother to come and spend a week or two with them, so that the mute man from Hull is transposed to leafy London where he sits alone watching the telly, apathetic enough to refuse an invite to his brother’s allotment. While the happy couple are out planting their tomatoes, hopeless Mary suddenly turns up unannounced, nursing a terrible hangover. Her car had predictably fallen to bits and the £20 the salvage garage gave her she had spent on a bottle of champagne.  Faced with stony Ronnie for company and no one else, anyone but Mary would have gone home, but instead she worms her way in where she finds herself chatting doggedly to the hawklike mute. She asks him a string of kindly questions but receives either monosyllables or a paralysing silence. Then bearing in mind both his bereavement and her own confessional skills, she comes out with the truly astonishing:

“Would you like a hug?”

Even this evinces no surprise in basilisk Ronnie, so that eventually she begs time out and lies down on the couch for a remedial snooze. At which point the happy couple return from the allotment, and for once Gerri loses her cool and reproves her hopeless friend in a way I simply did not believe of any credible counsellor. She is at first huffy and then accuses Mary of ‘letting her down’ but unless I was missing something, the only crimes Mary had actually committed were to turn up unannounced to see an old friend, and to be in a very low way emotionally. Surely no counsellor on earth would come out with that guilt-inducing formula, as in therapeutic terms it is the authoritarian parent reproving the adapted child, and you would wonder why a bright and clued up man like Leigh who writes as well as directs his films, would not know as much. In any event, after Mary’s wretched tears and contrite apologies, she is allowed to stay for tea, where she now observes 2 happy couples, Tom and Gerri and Joe and Katie, so vividly in contrast to herself and wooden Ronnie. The last thing Gerri had said to her was as a matter of urgency to go and see a counsellor and the film concludes with her staring diagnostically at everyone who is happy and wondering what on earth it is they are so privileged to possess and that she is not.

 

Advertisements

WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ LIAM O’ FLAHERTY

The next post will be on or before Sunday 17th June

WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ LIAM O’ FLAHERTY

‘[In the hotel] they bustled around serving mutton chops and potatoes, huge pots of tea…and charging 7 times the normal price for each meal, for even though Kilmurrage was in uncivilized Inverara, it had nevertheless become civilized through contact with priests, bishops, county court judges, Government officials and shopkeepers…to the extent that it had already mastered what is known and appreciated in the civilized world as “the business instinct”’

Thy Neighbour’s Wife (1923) by Liam O’Flaherty

For Inverara read Inishmore in the Galway Aran Islands, and for Kilmurrage read Kilronan which is Inishmore’s biggest village. The Aran Islands were made famous by the playwright and folklorist John Millington Synge (1871-1909) who spent 6 summers there and published his classic Aran travelogue in 1907, and who also fictionalised rural Mayo in his controversial play The Playboy of the Western World which caused riots on its first night in the Abbey Theatre. Liam O’ Flaherty (1896-1984) was born on Inishmore of a politically radicalised father, and after a spell at University College, Dublin, and then renouncing training for the priesthood,  under the name ‘Bill Ganly’ he joined the British army, the Irish Guards, and fought in WW1 on the western front where he was badly wounded. As he had two severe nervous breakdowns from 1933 onwards, it is also possible he might have suffered delayed shellshock.  Returned from the war, he became a founding member of the Communist Party of Ireland and in 1922 he and others seized the Rotunda Concert Hall in Dublin, sited where is now the Gate Theatre. They held it for 4 days in protest at the apathy of the governing Irish Free State, until the latter eventually forced their surrender. Shortly afterwards he moved to London where destitute and workless, he turned to writing and within a year his first novel Thy Neighbour’s Wife was published when he was only 27. It is a compelling and undoubted masterpiece, given that among other things O’Flaherty manages to take a tiny, infinitely obscure community and effortlessly universalises it, so that Inverara/ Inishmore stands as emblematic of anywhere in the world, hamlet or metropolis, where greed, hypocrisy, power wangling, corruption, sexual perversion and sexual jealousy hold sway.

The protagonist is Hugh McMahon, the young, ascetic and troubled island curate, who before joining the priesthood was loved by another Inveraran, the beautiful Lily McSherry. Young Lily had been heartbroken by her rejection in favour of Hugh’s vocation, but eventually was married off by her uncle, the priest Father O’ Reilly, to an appalling businessman in his fifties, Mr McSherry, who had spirited her away at once to South America. The novel starts with the return of the McSherrys to Inverara, somewhere pre-Irish independence, and Lily already looking openly distraught as her awful husband is quite simply out of control. Not only is he a drunk but he is also drunkenly lecherous in public and at her first interview with Father O’Reilly, Lily starts to tell her uncle exactly what her husband did to a woman on the way here…but the priest shouts at her to stop and rapidly urges her to accept whatever cross has been put upon her. And here Lily, who her uncle had taken in when she was orphaned and even sent her to university in Dublin, shows she is no squashed little flower, when she accuses him before his housekeeper of crudely selling her off to an aging drunkard in exchange for extensive funds to refurbish his church. McMahon, observing Lily’s distress at a distance and learning more via the gossip of his housekeeper, suddenly has his priestly feelings turned upside down as he realises he is smitten and in love again with his former sweetheart. And of course, he being a priest and she being married, even to a dissolute monster, makes any kind of romantic reconciliation impossible.

As for Lily’s uncle and McMahon’s superior, Fr O’ Reilly:

‘On steamer days, when he stood down at the end of the Pier, he looked like a well-bred English country gentleman, and many people said he greatly resembled a fox-hunting squire, standing on his hearth rug before a roaring log fire, with fox terriers scattered around the room, and the local gentry singing Tally ho! Tally ho…!’

51-year-old O’Reilly is the most powerful person on the island, with only a strictly necessary quantity of spirituality and sanctity, so to speak. He is more famed for his wheeling and dealing, and his always pragmatic approach, one which wins him the loyalty of the fishermen, for with typical shrewdness he allows them to break the Sabbath when there is a glut of fish. Notably he had campaigned to get the Congested Districts Board to buy the land for the fine new Pier from the landlord (even though it was Land League agitation actually did that) though less selfless was the fact he has accumulated estimable sums of money from Government officials for getting the islanders to jump to heel in paying their rents. As a result, this handsomely grey-haired priest who long ago arrived on the island penniless, has:

‘…a greyness that could be associated with a well-fed body…a well-fed priest who knew that his reputation for sanctity was secure, as secure as his bank account, which ran well into 4 figures sterling…and the reddish tinge in his nose, and the pimple on the tip of it, showed according to his enemies he was “a little fond of the bottle”.’

Alcohol, and especially that of the non-taxable kind, the poteen as brewed in Inverara shebeens, is central to the novel, for McMahon whose solicitor father had died in a home for inebriates, has taken a vow of lifelong abstinence. Before Lily came back to Inverara he had been relatively happy with his priestly duties, his token Home Rule idealism, his occasional article for religious journals about ancient Inverara architecture. He had also penned poems published in little magazines, which the islanders, poetry lovers to a man, were very proud of, but which an unkind Dublin critic had dubbed as ‘schoolgirlish’. Now that he is obsessed with Lily and already hating her oafish husband he feels an overwhelming need to drink, and a significant part of the novel deals with his efforts to distract himself and stop himself breaking his vow. But then, worse still, another rival arrives on the scene, in the form of one O’Malley, revered by the islanders as his Inverara line goes back to hoary antiquity, to island heroes, ancient kings and the days of Finn MacCool. O’ Malley, as well as being a handsome and radical Republican, hence contemptuous of Home Rulers and Landleaguers and the kilted Gaelic Leaguers etc, is educated and contributes to Dublin reviews to earn a living, something which O’ Flaherty with his own panoptic view of the various compromised alliances cannot help satirising.

‘And although O’ Malley would rather die than work for his living in Inverara, he was quite content to do so as a journalist in Dublin, and yet was proud of his ancestry as a peacock of his feathers, but he questioned the right of Pat Coleman to be proud of the fact he was a postmaster and of value to the community, or of the right of Mr Mulligan to be proud of the fact he was a publican and sold bad porter instead of unadulterated porter and made money by his cunning…”

McMahon several times secretly observes a budding tenderness developing between Lily and O’ Malley and finally unable to endure it, he goes out at dead of night to a remote shebeen, which functions as a kind of clandestine pub, to get himself some poteen. He had previously beaten Brannigan the poteen maker in public with a stick for his wicked trade (O’ Reilly by contrast always had a bottle put by for those who wanted it at his table) so he has to invent a devious means of acquiring it. Ranting and threatening to put a curse on him in his shack, he commands Brannigan to hand over for destruction all the evil poteen he has in his possession, so that the wily publican gives him 2 big bottles, a fraction of his stock, and sends him on his way. McMahon smuggles the bottles past his housekeeper into the hotel room where he lives, and it takes some protracted agony and deliberation before he can open one, but once he does, he consumes enough on successive nights to go unconscious, and is obliged to miss several early communions as a result. In his drunkenness he wavers between morbidly harrowing guilt and a kind of sublime indifference where he wonders why he ever chose the priesthood in the first place. But his most painful trial is that he cannot give Communion to the islanders unless he has made his own Confession to another priest, in his case O’ Reilly, and of course if he does so he must confess his new addiction. He escapes this partly by feigning illness, and by a stroke of luck O’ Reilly one day has to go the mainland on urgent, meaning worldly affairs. In a succession of set pieces, McMahon then follows deviously in pursuit of Lily and spies on her various rendezvous with O’ Malley, on one occasion being so drunk on his return he falls off his bike and has to be carried home by worried peasants. Miraculously, no one discerns his drink problem, aside from a spectacularly old and deaf physician Doctor Cassidy, who is so inept his wife has to chaperone him everywhere, and she hushes him scandalised for suggesting the curate might be a drinker. Cassidy is one of a range of confidently drawn island eccentrics, including an unworldly Church of Ireland clergyman who gives no services whatever to the 6 Protestants on the island but spends his time lying on his back reading works in ancient Greek. There is also the stinking rich Englishman Mr Blake who has his own yacht for taking his favourites around and says things like ‘Pon my soul’ at every opportunity. Most poignant in the context of McMahon’s approaching tragedy though, is Seameen O’ Toole the island recluse and anarchist, who happens to get in the way one day when the curate is close to confronting Lily and professing his love for her.

‘He never worked as other men work, with an objective, to raise a family or perpetuate themselves. Seameen just worked to exist…he raised a few sheep and sowed a few potatoes every year, potatoes which he never dug or weeded or sprayed, but scratched a few from the ground when he needed them. He fished most of the time when the weather was fine and when the weather was not fine he slept…’

With his symbolic opposite Seameen idling nearby as indifferent audience, and despite his terrible constraint McMahon attempts to declare himself to Lily. But to no avail.

‘She shrugged her shoulders a second time and taking the tip of her skirt in her right hand, she walked past him into the fort, looking away from him out to sea.’

Meanwhile, shameless McSherry having assaulted one of his young servants and made her flee the house in terror, means that he and Lily no longer have any marital relations, which inevitably makes his drinking worse. Parallel with his gradual dissolution, Lily’s fascination with charismatic O’ Malley reaches a climax on the day of the Boat Race, an event so famous that it attracts visitors from a hundred hamlets and villages on the mainland, not to speak of dozens of itinerant food and drink stalls and those dedicated to holy trinkets, as a rule and bizarrely, manned by Jewish vendors. O’ Malley is the favourite for the race and O’ Flaherty gives a bravura account of the cliff edge excitement throughout.  The island hero wins by a short head, but far from heroically, with his boat collapsed and letting in water, and with the other contender’s prow comically stuck up its stern and shoving it to the touchline.

Shortly after his victory, he and Lily have a passionate rendezvous and they declare their mutual love, O’Malley promptly offering to take her far away from the island, married or not. Lily shudders and demurs at something which even in liberal Catholic terms was well beyond the pale, but the whole thing becomes academic when news reaches them that McSherry has finally dropped dead of a heart attack. In his last few seconds he had angrily confessed that he was a priest’s bastard, though the paternity is not elaborated on and we can only conclude that his alcoholism and hostility to women might have its roots in that well-kept secret. Aware of all this, McMahon decides to resort to something he had read concerning the customs of the monks on this island long ago. Sometimes to test the seriousness of their piety they would set off in coracles into the ocean but without any oars, and simply allow themselves to be blown by the wind. If they were truly pious monks, no matter how bad the weather, they would eventually be blown back to land, but if they were at root evil, they would perish. McMahon sets off drunk to achieve this feat of divination and he goes to the obscurest part of the island called Rooruck which thanks to the Inverara topography was short on sunshine and big on overwhelming grimness and desolation. The village had 6 cabins and a population of 35 and was so remote and unvisited that some inhabitants had never even got as far as Kilmurrage. McMahon prevails upon a Rooruck man called Big John to have his coracle and ends up surlily demanding it, even though as its owner points out the weather is turning terrible and it is his only means of earning a living should it be wrecked. Nevertheless, the drunken curate sets off into a brewing storm in his stupor, unaware that Big John has slung a pair of oars into the coracle at the last minute. The curate duly faces his terrifying Nemesis, and I won’t give away the tense ending, but suffice to say he survives after a fashion and in the end goes a very long way away from Inverara.

If you have read O’ Flaherty at all, it is probably some of his short stories you looked at when you were studying anthologies at school, most likely from his fine 1950 collection The Pedlar’s Revenge. Alternatively, you may have read his most successful novel, The Informer (1925), about a confused Republican who betrays his companions, which won the James Tait Black prize that year, and was made into a film by John Ford in 1935. But O’Flaherty wrote a total of 16 novels, 14 of which appeared between 1923 and 1937, and despite their consistent excellence most of them have long been disgracefully out of print in the UK. The heroic and sad to say late Wolfhound Press of Dublin put them all back into circulation in the 1990s, and I can recommend every one of them and especially: Skerrett (1932) with its quirky and disturbing protagonist, plus the harrowing epic about the potato famines, Famine (1937) and the idiosyncratic Mr Gilhooley (1926) which strikes me as virtuoso forerunner and possible superior model for the early novels of Samuel Beckett, viz More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and Murphy (1938).

 

 

 

THE END OF THE PHRASEBOOK AND THE END OF THE OLD GREECE

The next post will be on or before Sunday 17th June

THE END OF THE PHRASEBOOK AND THE END OF THE OLD GREECE

Yesterday I was having an amiable if passionate argument with an Athenian man who has several generations of family connections with the island where I’ve lived for 5 years now. In his mid-50s, let’s call him Kostas, has a good job in the capital connected to natural energy resources, but that is not where his heart is, and what Kostas really wants to do is get into upmarket themed tourism, meaning upmarket themed Kythnos tourism. In the last few years there have been 2 local initiatives started up providing guided walks and island experiences on the lines of learning Kythnos cookery and Kythnos pottery. Add to that one of them works in conjunction with someone who offers kayaking trips to remote beaches, and as a separate initiative altogether, someone is teaching yoga in a big house on one of the obscurest bays along one of the worst island roads, and undeniably quiet and sleepy Kythnos has been transformed and stands to be changed yet further. The rumour is that within a few years there will be a fast train from Athens to the port of Lavrio (at present there is only a crawling 2 hour bus ride) and that many of the Piraeus routes will be decanted to Greece’s 2nd port, which already living on whispers, is a boom town when it comes to real estate. Lavrio is currently one of the 2 ports that serves Kythnos and the only one to serve nearby Kea, and if there is going to be fast transport there from Athens, then Kythnos being close to the mainland, stands to be immoderately inundated. Kostas of course is very excited by this, for although he loves the pure and simple and authentic Kythnos and is one of its most vocal prophets, he also likes the idea of crowds of wealthy foreigners flocking here, some of whom will stay in the upmarket villas he plans to build, replete with wifi, jacuzzis, exquisite classical furnishings, and of course optional themed cultural activities, stuck out along a pristine bay on the eastern side of the island. You can imagine how I assured him that the old and simple peasant Kythnos, which is still discernible from time to time with its donkeys and dusty kafeneia and tavernas that have no written menus, doesn’t sit easily side by side with jacuzzis and organised walks with everyone wielding those splendid hiking sticks and sporting the inverted plant pot hats that wrinkled foreign walkers adore so much. In any case I told him drily, over a decade ago an elderly taxi driver high up in the Nea Demokratia party had forecast to me Lavrio’s imminent renaissance and its eventual take over of Piraeus, and precisely bugger all had happened since. But Kostas had a prophetic gleam in his eye and like all gleaming prophets, he believes with great intensity whatever it is that he wants to happen.

You don’t need to be a prophet to guess that I would prefer that Kythnos had stayed the way it was, and that if people wanted to e.g. go walking on this compact and easily navigable little island, they could do it themselves easily enough rather than fork out 30 plus euros for the privilege. Buy any decent Kythnos map nowadays, and the main hiking routes are laid out, and on the back of the map it will give you enough information in Greek and English about the island and the walks to last you for a month at least. Examine the new themed tourism websites and they don’t have much more to say, and in any case there is copious historical, archaeological and cultural information in English on the numerous free luxuriously printed pamphlets handed out every year by the tourist office in the Kythnos port. That said, it doesn’t take a genius to work out why foreigners like guided walks as opposed to going by themselves. Greek is not an easy language and not one in a hundred foreign tourists has even the simplest Greek, even the ones who have been coming here for decades. On that basis they feel simply nervous about navigating anything, whether it be explaining their needs to a taxi driver (only 1 out 5 here speaks any English) or asking a passing farmer if this is the right route for Kastro Tis Orias. Fair enough, not everyone has to be a linguist, but there are such things as phrasebooks and what I have noticed in Kythnos, is that not a single tourist deigns to use them, and instead they think they are a hero if they cheerily manage to say yassas (hello/goodbye) and efkharisto (thank you). To use a phrasebook really is minimal effort, and aside from anything else can help you to make sense of mad taverna mistranslations (e.g. courgettes/zucchini as ‘pumpkins’ and the revolting galeos = abominable lamprey as ‘cod’). Moreover, if you are frightened of mispronouncing, then you can just point to the Greek phrase itself which is surely better than doing some of the inane and at times rude mime language (2 fingers stroked near the mouth to indicate ‘I want food’) I have seen one or two British and US monoglots resort to. Reflect also that if you are anything but anglophone you will damn well have to be a linguist when in Greece, like it or not. Greeks communicate with French, German, Russian, Japanese, Senegal and every other tourist via English, as not one in a hundred Greeks speaks any other foreign language.

All these things are structurally related though. If you don’t speak any Greek and won’t use a phrase book, nor even the linguistic gizmos and apps on your smartphone, you cannot go off the beaten track as you don’t know whether they want 7 or 70 or  700 euros for the lovely icon reproduction, or whether they are talking about rooms (domatia) or tomatoes (domates) that are of such sterling quality. It’s appropriate to conclude then that giving up on phrasebooks and their equivalents encourages a learned helplessness, and that the antidote for all true Greece fans is to push themselves to go somewhere really out of the way, like some of the obscurer reaches of the northern mainland towards the Albanian or Bulgarian borders. There they really will need their phrasebooks or they will come close to starving, and they will find no decent hotel nor rooms nor nice tomatoes, and even if they do, they might have to share the same room with a senile granddad and 2 goats, as simple as that. Meanwhile if they manage to fish out a Pocket Berlitz or a Pocket Collins Greek-English from a UK charity shop, they will pay only a quid or so to make life easier both for themselves and for the hospitable and warm-hearted Greeks who are busting to enjoy a bit of chat and banter with that enterprising rarity that is the visiting stranger.

PHILISTINES AND FLAGELLATION AND HERMANN BROCH

the next post will be on or before Sunday 17th June

PHILISTINES AND FLAGELLATION AND HERMANN BROCH

‘Broch is the greatest novelist European literature has provided since Joyce’

George Steiner

‘We are at the very limits of the expressible…impeccable virtuosity’

Aldous Huxley

‘“You’re right,” Zerline admitted. “Nobody understands it. If you sleep with too many it’s bad: if you sleep with too few it’s bad, and if you don’t sleep with anybody it’s even worse.”’

The Guiltless by Hermann Broch (1950)

Thus speaks the old, ugly and conniving servant of the Baroness, who routinely refers to her employer’s beautiful unmarried daughter Hildegard as ‘the bastard’ as she knows who her real father was and it wasn’t the Baron, an eminent judge. The novel in set is in the unnamed capital of one of the old German municipalities in between the two world wars, and there are regular references to chronic inflation and the precariousness of the Deustchmark. The young hero A who is surely Broch’s alter ego has Dutch citizenship and has moved here to a kind of premature retirement as he is stinking rich from his time as a diamond collector in South Africa. In reality Broch himself (1886-1951) was an Austrian Jew who came of a very wealthy family and after entering their textile business changed course at the age of 42 to attend Vienna University where he studied Maths, Philosophy and Psychology. Strikingly, he converted to Catholicism in 1909 in order to marry the aristocratic Franziska von Rothermann. He was regularly unfaithful however, and they divorced in 1923. His first novel, a trilogy called The Sleepwalkers came out when he was 45 in 1931 and 7 years later with the Austrian Anschluss he was arrested by the Nazis, and, Catholic convert notwithstanding, put in prison. Friends of his including James Joyce successfully campaigned to have him freed, and after a brief while in the UK he settled for the rest of his life in America. In Vienna he had been acquainted with many of the great Modernists of the day including Rilke, Robert Musil and the Bulgarian Jewish Elias Canetti (1905-1994), subsequently the lover of Iris Murdoch and the Nobel winner in 1981. Like Canetti, Broch was fascinated by the phenomenon of crowds and there are enlightening references to his obsession in The Guiltless. Among others, Milan Kundera has claimed to be greatly influenced by the Austrian master and specially by The Sleepwalkers.

Broch’s last work The Guiltless assembled 2 years before his death, is something of a complex patchwork. His Munich publisher wanted to put out some uncollected stories from the 1920s, but Broch decided they would make more impression if 6 extra stories were added, and the whole was given a lyrical unifying framework with some of the original stories expanded. Thus, we have a collection that reads like a novel of sorts, with a core of mesmerising characters reappearing throughout. The central stories extend the tale of wealthy A in his mid-30s who decides to move in as lodger with the Baroness, much to the chagrin of her very hostile but beautiful daughter Hildegard. We fully expect Zeline the stony and knowing old maid, to be a tangential character, instead of which she immediately reveals Hildegard’s illegitimacy to A, meaning the shocking details of the Baroness’s affair with the rake of a diplomat Herr von Juna, who once lived in the castle’s hunting lodge. It is fair to say Zerline is contemptuous of almost everyone and especially of women of all ages, and given that she was once a beauty herself, she also has a strong line in declaring sexual manipulation is at the root of all power and self-assertion.

‘“Except that if you took a good look at him [Herr von Juna] you could see the ugliness behind his pretty goatee, even behind his pretty mouth, you could see that he couldn’t and kept on wanting to, the ugly lust that comes of weakness. That kind of man is easy to get. If I had wanted him” -she pinched an imaginary flea between two fingers – “I’d have had him just like that.”

Even though the pair of them openly loathe each other, both Zerline’s and Hildegard’s unrepentant wickedness knows no bounds. Fascinated by the handsome diplomat, and contemptuous of the Baroness, the young Zerline lies in wait one day and flings herself upon him, driving him half mad with lust, as he has another mistress over in the Lodge so cannot take her there. Later, the maid starts to muse in a way extremely untypical of peasant servants, and rather more like A and other highly sophisticated refractions of the author, Broch.

‘“Everything that passed between me and Herr Juna was such a darkly gentle timeless gift of death, and one day it will help to gently carry me down, itself carried by the fullness of memory. Anyone would say it was love, love to the death.”’

Whereafter Broch, jumps athletically out of the implausibility of peasants ruminating like literary intellectuals in their profoundest moments, by adding:

‘That was what A had heard, but there was no certainty that is what Zerline had said. Many old people have a way of breaking into a mumbling chant, into which the imagination can easily read one thing and another…’

And then dramatically, one of von Juna’s hunting lodge lovers dies in suspicious circumstances, and the rumour is that he must have poisoned her, meaning in Zerline’s crude terms that Hildegard is the bastard child of a murderer. However, it transpires the same lover was a morphine addict, with a whole pharmacy by her bedside, so that von Juna looks set to escape the guillotine as the capital punishment method was in inter-war Germany then. At which point, merciless Zerline decides she wants to make all of her superiors and especially her diplomat lover suffer, by unearthing the Baroness’s and von Juna’s love letters and sending them anonymously to the trial judge, who happens to be no other than the Baron, the cuckold himself. As Zerline explains to A, the Baron, stern as he is, is such a moral man that he will refuse to be swayed by personal interests and will almost certainly acquit von Juna, even supposing the rake did deserve the guillotine. This indeed is exactly what happens and the diplomat retires abroad where he will die in safe obscurity.

Zerline in old age also takes upon herself the questionable role of procuress when she brings the young peasant girl Melitta, currently a humble laundress, to be A the new lodger’s mistress. A had already met Melitta which means ‘little bee’ (her doting grandfather keeps beehives) in her own grubby part of town, had shown a keen romantic interest, and presented her with a beautiful handbag which had won her heart immediately. Zerline now arrives with a fictitious invitation from A and then leads her to the hunting lodge where she promptly orders Melitta to undress.

‘“Not bad,” she says, lifting the girl’s breasts a little. “A bit soft and heavy. Mine were firmer at your age, but you’re all right. Just what lots of men like, they’re mad about them, and pink little nipples like yours are like milk and honey to them.”

After a tender night of love, A duly falls in love with Melitta and she with him. A. then makes the bizarre proposal that he will buy a huge house in the countryside and will take the Baroness there, and be for her the son she never had. Zerline who will also be going there, is delighted at the news, whereas Hildegard the daughter is horrified and thinks it will just make more intolerable anxiety and uncertainty for her, especially if A dies before her mother. Nevertheless, A proceeds with his cloyingly sentimental plans, the only problem being that Zerline refuses to countenance Melitta moving in with them too. That would mean that she the family servant would be skivvying for a laundress and her pride cannot bear it. A. may sleep with Melitta and pamper her wherever he likes, but not in the new mansion, where he fully intends to spoil his new mother who is the Baroness. Hildegard is even more cruelly prescient, in this respect, and she goes round to the laundress’s slum and tells her that A no longer loves her and has other women besides. Soon after she leaves, the distraught young girl flings herself out of the window to her instant death. And well before this, and as part of her plan, Hildegard had already seduced A in a scene that is infinitely disturbing in its portrayal of absolute moral nihilism. She urges A to rape her when he gently insists he loves her, and the more she demands to be raped, the less he is able to perform. Hildegard prophesies that he A will now be incapable with all women, and then commits another riot of violence on his body.

‘A cry of triumph and of lust, of pure animal lust. He made a forlorn move to escape her, but he was helpless: she held him in an iron grip and her teeth bit into his shoulder until the blood came; every movement increased the raging pain. Then, when she saw that he had given in and was holding still, she fell suddenly asleep.’

What follows all this ugly violence and harrowing suicide is blackly comic in its anti-climax. A and the Baroness and Zerline all move into the new house, where the old maid proceeds to stuff the other two with infinite amounts of food, so that A especially becomes obese and tranquil and loses his hair and suddenly has no sex drive, just as Hildegard had obliquely prophesied. His sole activity apart from chatting to and doting on his replacement mother, is lying on his back reading the details of his always steady stocks and shares. Bizarrely he tries to counter the overall sloth with leaving at least one window open in all weathers, so that he almost petrifies and has to wrap himself in umpteen blankets. In this cosy living death, he is one night visited by a strange, blind, very old man who we soon guess is the grandfather of Melitta. This prophetic old man had previously appeared in a story called The Ballad of the Beekeeper and rather like one of the pantheistic seers out of a Jean Giono novel, such as Bobi in Joy of Man’s Desiring, he comes to confront A in his terminal sickness, his sloth, his asexuality and his guilt about the tragic death of the old man’s granddaughter. I won’t give away the surprise ending but suffice to say this dialogue between white bearded prophet and obese sybarite, is far too expositional and idealised, so that we are more or less being treated to a contrived moral lecture by the author. The point is that Bloch’s genius is as Huxley says, in writing about the inexpressible, and he does it best when it comes as a kind of integral and subtle meditation from one of his more complex characters, especially A, or for that matter Hildegard. For Bloch’s real fictional concern is the understanding of Evil, a proper enough obsession given that as a Viennese Jewish intellectual he saw the decades building up to Hitler, and now in New Haven, USA, has had another decade to reflect on the appalling aftermath. His conclusion is that evil is rooted in philistinism and that the worst philistine ever was Hitler, the kind who would not for a second baulk at the monstrousness of concentration camps nor gas ovens but might well be prudishly affronted by sexual frankness as witnessed in both the arts and in ordinary culture.

However, Broch’s account of the inexpressible does not just touch on the coordinates of Good and Evil, but also on the infinitely inexpressive mystery of Experience itself, and it is here he is reminiscent of writers like Proust, William Gerhardie, and, at least in his critical musings, Vladimir Nabokov.

‘The red geraniums sparkled in harmony with the glittering glass as though the soul of man were born to pure joy, nay more, as though it had existed since the beginning of time and would live forever. This of course was only the façade, of that A was well aware, and he was no less aware that there are dark cubicles behind the brightest, the most timeless façade; he knew that there is no colour without a substance behind it, but all this knowledge was diffused and attenuated by the blueness of the air and the gladdening arch of the fragmentary rainbow, which now stretched over the square, giving with its veined transparency, an intimation of the dark, immeasurable cosmos behind it: a spectrum connecting the dark and earthly, the solid and substantial, with the open light of heaven and nevertheless leading back to immeasurable darkness.’

If all this seems too enormous and too abstruse, be aware that in The Guiltless there is also a hilarious one-off tale about a preposterous teacher called Zacharias who A bumps into in a pub before he moves in with the Baroness in her castle. Zacharias is the most pompous stuffed shirt you have ever met, albeit he is a prominent Social Democrat, though one of  those who doesn’t believe in going too far. Hence he decries Einstein for doing just that with his Relativity Theory, and though it is not emphasised in the text, Einstein was of course a Jew.

‘“Did I say anything about killing it by silence?” Zacharias countered sternly. “You weren’t playing close attention…didn’t I make it very clear that I am only opposed to modishness, not to progress…I am a member of the Social Democratic Party, which stands foursquare behind the theory of Relativity. But progress must not be allowed to confuse the schoolboy’s undeveloped mind. Now do you understand?”’

With the Social Democrat piously protesting, A buys the pair of them more and more drinks, until both of them are good and drunk. As A has somehow mislaid his hat, the suddenly uninhibited Zacharias is inspired to share his own with his inattentive companion. He swiftly cuts it in two and keeps the brim for himself, and the brimless cup for A. He then orders A to come home with him, where it all turns into grotesque albeit worryingly German vaudeville. His angry wife is waiting up for her drunken husband with a punitive feather duster, and before A’s eyes she inverts it to employ it as a cane. Her prudent and reasonable Social Democrat husband then submissively extends his backside for a flogging, which his bridling wife administers with due gusto. Just as A is leaving, he sees the stern teacher pulling his trousers down for a more effective flagellation, and it is apparent that this kind of drama is a regular pattern for the philistine social democrat and his unforgiving and equally philistine wife.

‘The Guiltless’ was translated by the legendary Geman translator Ralph Mannheim and published in the USA in 1974, and then in the UK by Quartet Encounter in 1990

 

 

 

 

IONE ON IONA AND IN FLORIDA

The next post will be on or before Friday 8th June

IONE ON IONA AND IN FLORIDA

What We Did and I Read in 1999

In early 1999 my wife Annie continued her weekly sessions of chemotherapy, and I went along to the hospital and sat reading the Irishman Walter Macken in the oncology waiting room, while she walked through to be hooked up to the drip. We were blessed inasmuch as she suffered no side effects whatever from the chemo, whereas many women have depressing hair loss and crippling nausea. Her work schedule as a busy consultant trainer carried on as normal, and that year we took two holidays in powerfully contrasting locations. For the August trip we along with 10-year-old Ione opted for a budget fortnight’s camping in our favourite part of Britain, the Scottish Hebrides, and we were lucky enough to have hot and sunny weather throughout. Otherwise that trip was full of surprises, not all of them delightful. We chose to stay on Mull and then its beautiful little satellite, Iona, and thought that lonely Calgary Bay north of Mull’s capital Tobermory would make a good start. It was a boiling hot evening when we arrived and the only place we might have camped was astonishingly teeming with hectic nay feverish Glaswegians. By that I mean there were about a hundred of them at least: kids, parents, grandparents, dogs and maybe one or two cats and budgies, and they were making more joyous noise and racket than if it had been Sauchiehall Street of a Saturday night. Nearly 20 years on, I have no idea what they were doing so far from their usual holiday haunts (e.g. Rothesay or Arran) nor why they were in such mesmerising quantity in such a remote unpeopled place. It is one of those experiences one has that will always be inexplicable and I suppose I am in the end glad that not all things in this baffling and unhinging pageant we call Life can be solved like an easy crossword puzzle.

We drove off at speed to the far west of the island and chose the beautiful hamlet of Uisken which is exactly opposite Iona, and close to the departure port of Fionnphort. Remarkably there was a campsite there and it was the cheapest one in the world, at 10p per person per night with all vehicles free. The reason for the Uisken farmer’s philanthropy was that he offered no facilities whatever other than a freshwater tap and the loan of a spade for excavating a lavatorial hole at a remote point from the tents. Another reason might have been it was plagued with midges to a degree I had never experienced, and which indeed confuted my own determined theory that midges were never to be found near beautiful shell sand and machair such as is found in Uisken. In assembling both tents my face was literally devoured by midges as in some kind of surreal fantasy or symbolic battle and after swearing the worst filth imaginable (Ione was well out of earshot on the beach) I became hysterical and started to laugh at the so-called personality as I understood it of these fearless entomological giants.

I wasn’t laughing the next morning though. We had decided it was easiest for Annie and Ione to share the big tent, and for me to sleep in the small one, but at the age of 48 I impulsively decided that I would lie in my dossbag on the hard ground as I had done with nil effort on Mull in 1975 when I was 24. My wife and daughter slept on an inflatable lilo and Annie urged me to do the same, but I told her it was a test and a proof that I had not aged, for the business of ageing I had decided was both an ontological and optical illusion which ought to be roundly ignored. Needless to say, I awoke crippled with backache and the rest of the day I was comically taking half an hour to descend to rinse the panniers in the little stream and then another half an hour to stand upright. Later we drove to Tobermory and parked up the steep hill and as the 3 of us walked down into the town, I was bent and shuffling like I believed the legendary Old Zip Coon might have been, so that for light relief I started to sing the brainless and of course racist ditty, so that Annie and Ione were helpless with an avowedly sympathetic mirth. Otherwise my wife and I reflected that it ought to have been the child Ione par excellence who loved the adventure of rough camping, washing in a cold Hebridean stream, and our pungently odorous barbecues, whereas, while Annie and I attempted our pioneering Davy Crockett joy, Ione sat stonily in the car for midge-free comfort in order to read her book. She also declared that she would prefer a bar meal in nearby Bunessan to half cooked veggie sausages burnt by supermarket charcoal. After reproving her lack of spirit we eventually decided that we felt much the same ourselves so that we parked the car in Fionnphort (pronounced Finny Fort) and took the boat across to beautiful Iona which at its best is a tender eternal dream and a sacred dream at that, sacred being an anagram of scared, of which state of mind it is the antithesis.

Eventually we found a pleasant bungalow in the centre of the village where the handsome young mother could offer us B and B for 2 nights, and then we could camp on her lawn for the rest of our stay. Ione perked up enormously at the prospect of a bedroom and a telly and was so starved of pals that she befriended the little boy and girl who were 5 and 7, joined in all their games without any embarrassment, and even left us speechless by going along to church where their Mum took them on the Sabbath. As for me I was captivated by the Iona public library, a kind of little old-fashioned school room, which happened to be having a book sale and I picked up an excellent Jean Stafford story collection Bad Characters, which I read the same night.

Florida which we visited in December was a horse of another colour. We went there because Ione wanted to go to Disneyland and because my brother Bryce had moved to Bradenton near Sarasota to start up as a US accountant, whilst keeping his Cumbrian business alive largely via 2-way fax, as remarkably it then was. To be candid though, I am one of those who only likes to go abroad where they speak a foreign language, otherwise I do not feel I am abroad. To summarise, the best thing about America as witnessed in atypical Florida, is the overall friendliness and readiness of everyone to help you. This goes too far the other way however, when it comes to restaurants where the waiters gravely ask you what kind of dressing you want on your green salad, as if it really is a matter of life or death. Ditto whether you want your fried egg over-easy or sunny side up, for to put it plainly who in their right mind gives a shite? Some of the younger waiters were so rigidly punctilious, like clockwork automatons, I laughed at them gently and told them to relax. At that one young man hesitantly stared at me as he tried to work out why on earth I might possibly question his robotic attentiveness, but the more I tried to clarify that I didn’t want him to be my head-nodding slave, the more rigid and uneasy he got. I would have been happy to ask him about his life, his family, his girlfriend, his studies, his interests, anything, but for him it would have been an extraneous and unintelligible language, and above all much of this zealous bell boy alertness is all about earning an essential tip, as the waiter’s basic wage it turns out, is far from generous.

We drove down to the Everglades where alligators and crocodiles stand about in the middle of nowhere like leery and unfoolable off duty policemen. We also passed by signs for Dade County Prison, where not many years before they would have been regularly executing people by electric chair, a very queasy reflection, for it must be one of the ugliest and cruellest and truly torturous means of killing anyone, and especially given that it is done by forethought and due process. I often think supporters of capital punishment are far worse than even the worst murderer, as the latter is regularly overwhelmed by psychopathic albeit revolting urges, whereas the former are people who think themselves nice and decent folk but in pious cold blood would play God and take away another life as if it was the snuff of a candle.

What I Read in 1999 (from my Reading Diary)

A Void by Georges Perec (1936-1982. The legendary 1969 novel by the playful genius. which incredibly has no letter ‘e’ in it. Note that it took 25 years to be translated into English. Perec’s Jewish mother was killed in the Holocaust and he died aged only 45)

La Testament Francais by Andrei Makhine (born 1957. The 1995 novel of the Russian born French author who has won both the Prix Goncourt and Prix Medicis)

The Troublesome Spring of Cardinal Guzman by Louis de Bernieres (born 1954. One of his Colombian trilogy novels published 1992. With one or two reservations I prefer these very much to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin)

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis de Bernieres ( his 1990 Colombian novel)

Lemona’s Tale by Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995. Posthumous 1996 novel of a Nigerian writer and environmental activist hanged with 8 others in a rigged military tribunal trial, for the supposed murder of the Ogoni chiefs. His execution caused international outrage)

The Matriarch by GB Stern ( 1890-1973.Wonderful 1924 novel which appeared along with 4 others in the Matriarch series. Spanning hundreds of years they are all about the ebullient and very prosperous Rakonitz Czelovar family of Hungarian Jewish extraction which settles down in London. Available in Virago Classics)

Losing Battles by Eudora Welty (1909-2001. The 1970 novel of the great Mississippi writer whose 1941 story collection A Curtain of Green is I think one of the finest ever written)

The Photographer’s Wife by Robert Sole (born 1946. Fine 1996 novel by French author of Egyptian origin)

The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte (born 1951. The dashing 1988 novel by a gifted Spanish author and journalist which was turned into a film in 1992)

Senor Viva and the Coca Lord (the 1991 work in the Colombia trilogy. De Bernieres actually worked as a cowboy in Colombia)

The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell (1908-2000. Fine 1945 novel by one time New Yorker fiction editor)

The Flint Anchor by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978. The 1954 novel of a writer influenced by TF Powys and who was the lover of the woman poet Valentine Ackland. A one-time member of the communist party she wrote a biography of TH White, author of The Once and Future King,  where she controversially revealed his gayness)

Each Man In His Darkness by Julien Green (1900-1998. The 1960 novel of a hugely gifted American who lived in Paris and wrote mostly in French)

The Story of the Night by Colm Toibin (born 1955. Much praised Co Wexford writer who I have always struggled with and yes the fault is possibly mine. This is his 1996 novel)

The Lone Woman by Bernardo Atxaga (born 1951. Excellent 1996 novel by the best known of Basque writers)

The Farewell Angel by Carmen Maria Gaite (1925-2000. Enjoyable 1999 novel by the celebrated Spanish writer who studied philosophy at Salamanca University)

Darkness Casts No Shadow by Arnost Lustig (1926-2011. Harrowing and brilliant 1976 novel by Czech Jewish writer who entered Auschwitz when only a teenager)

Jackson’s Dilemma by Iris Murdoch (1919-1999. Her 1995 novel published 2 years before she started with Alzheimer’s and not one of her best. Otherwise and for all her implausibilities, I am a paid up Murdoch fan)

Second Harvest by Jean Giono (1895-1970. One of my all-time favourite authors who hailed from Manosque, Provence. This 1930 novel was turned into a famous Marcel Pagnol film in 1937)

Cecile Among the Pasquiers by Georges Duhamel (1884-1966. Another of my favourite writers and his Pasquiers Chronicles published 1933-1945 are truly addictive)

Suzanne and Joseph by Georges Duhamel (one of the Pasquier Chronicles)

Adventures of Bindle by Herbert Jenkins (1876-1923. The 1919 novel of author and publisher of PG Wodehouse among others. His Bindle character is a kind of WW1 Cockney rogue with a strong line in jingoism and chauvinism but the novels are very enjoyable nonetheless. I was first introduced to Bindle by my brother Bryce in 1966 when he lived in Leeds)

The Death of Ahasuerus by Per Lagerkvist (1891-1954. Swedish novelist who won the Nobel Prize in 1951. Ahasuerus was also called The Wandering Jew)

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (born 1949. This 1994 novel is the only book of his I have ever admired, despite the Japanese author’s enormous acclaim. I thought the 1987 Norwegian Wood was really awful for example)

The Severed Head by Iris Murdoch (1919-1999. One of her best and unputdownable novels)

Robinson by Muriel Spark (1918-2006. The 1958 novel of an enormously gifted darkly comic writer capable of extreme and remarkable economy)

Carmen by Prosper Merimee (1803-1870. The famous 1845 novel which Bizet used for his opera of the same name. He was also an important archaeologist. He and Georges Sand collaborated together on various projects but had a single awkward romantic liaison)

Mosaic by GB Stern (another excellent Matriarch novel, see above)

The Relic by Eca de Queiroz (1845-1900. Portugal’s greatest 19th C novelist considered by Zola to be far greater than Flaubert. Like The Sin of Father Amaro, this 1887 novel was thought by some at the time to be blasphemous and sacrilegious)

Kitty and Vergil by Paul Bailey (born 1937. The 1998 novel of the biographer of Cynthia Payne and Quentin Crisp, who was Booker shortlisted with the excellent 1986 Gabriel’s Lament)

The Public Image by Muriel Spark (her 1968 novel shortlisted for the Booker)

The Bandit on the Billiard Table by Alan Ross (1922-2001. An enjoyable travel book about Sardinia published 1954. Ross was legendary editor of the wonderful London Magazine, currently and sadly not a patch on what it was)

Two Days at Aragon by Mollie Keane (1904-1996. Her 1941 novel. She also wrote as MJ Farrell and was rediscovered in 1981 when she had not written anything for decades. She is a wonderfully talented and insightful writer whose only dud was her first book  The Knight of Cheerful Countenance published when she was 21 Nearly all her books are reissued by Virago)

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1835-1910. Published in 1885 this is the first major US work written in vernacular. Critics argue about whether it is guilty or not of racial stereotyping but it certainly uses the word nigger throughout and has over the years been banned in certain US schools)

My Oedipus Complex by Frank O’ Connor (1903-1966. A superb 1963 collection from Ireland’s great short story writer)

Quarantine by Jim Crace (born 1946. This 1997 novel won the Whitbread Prize and is a retelling of the gospel story of Jesus being tempted in the desert by Satan. Jesus is called Gally (derived from Galilee) throughout the book. I really hoped that I would like it, but I gave up half way through)

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961. The 1929 novel of a major talent famous for extreme economy which in some of his books e.g. To Have And Have Not make him read almost as autistic. He was also fond of bullfighting and hunting which means he is very hard work for me at times. One of his 4 wives, Martha Gellhorn, said the only 2 things he could do were writing and drinking, so that when he wasn’t writing he was drunk or heading that way)

A Priest In the House by Emile Zola (1840-1902. Fourth in his epic Rougon Macquart series of novels where he played out his naturalistic ideas of heredity via a linked set of family characters. One of the greatest writers ever, he bravely stood up for the paradigm victim of antisemitism, Dreyfus, and there is good reason to think Zola’s death by carbon monoxide poisoning, due to a blocked flue, was a successful assassination by his fanatical enemies)

Painted Lives by Max Egremont (born 1948. Egremont is a 2nd Baron with an ancestral home in Sussex and is a biographer and a very good novelist)

A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch (her 13th novel published in 1970. Very enjoyable and all about appalling posh people with names like Julius trying to wreck the lives of other people with names like Axel)

Tender is the Night by Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940. I reread this 1934 novel recently and didn’t think it a patch on The Great Gatsby, the film of which with Robert Redford is one of my all time cinema favourites)

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (this 1952 novel about a Cuban fisherman was one of the reasons cited for awarding him the Nobel Prize in 1954)

Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1873-1947. A 1927 novel by the great Frontier novelist which is about the attempt of a Catholic bishop to establish a diocese in New Mexico)

Bad Characters by Jean Stafford (1915-1979. This excellent 1964 collection is by the acclaimed US story writer and novelist who was married to the troubled and troubling poet Robert Lowell in the 1940s. I read it on Iona in August 1999)

The Slide by James Buchan (born 1954. A very good 1991 novel by the grandson of John Buchan, no less. Buchan is a fine writer and deserves to be better known)

Ports of Call by Amin Maalouf (born 1949. Very gifted Francophone writer born in the Lebanon. This 1996 novel is about a couple, a Muslim man and a Jewish woman, who become separated during WW2)

Love and Garbage by Ivan Klima (born 1931. Czech Jewish writer who spent his childhood in the infamous Terezin concentration camp. By a miracle both he and his parents survived)

All The Names by Jose Saramago (1922-2010. The dazzling 1997 novel of the massively gifted Portuguese novelist who won the Nobel Prize a year later. He is one of my very favourite writers)

To Have And Have Not by Ernest Hemingway (his 1937 novel about a Key West fisherman was turned into a famous 1944 movie with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren McCall)

A Bit Off the Map by Angus Wilson (1913-1991. Not much read these days, but I like his early books especially the waspish 1952 Hemlock and After, and this 1957 story collection. I don’t care for his later novels which sadly get ever less waspish. He was an English prof at UEA, Norwich and instrumental in setting up their famous Creative Writing MA)

The Country Wife by William Wycherley (1641-1716. Bawdy and very entertaining Restoration drama which went long unperformed because of its explicit anti-Puritan language. The first syllable of the second word of the title is relevant in this context. It was based on earlier Moliere dramas)

The Rising Tide by Mollie Keane aka MJ Farrell (see above. Everyone should read Mollie Keane/MJ Farrell as she is wonderfully funny, serious, and infinitely original. I hate all the stuff about Anglo Irish fox hunting, but everything else is great)

The Murdered House by Pierre Magnan (1922-2012. Superb French crime writer born Manosque as was Jean Giono of whom he was a great fan. I gave this 1999 novel a 5 star notice in the Literary Review)

The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch (see above. The plot about an uptight schoolmaster in love with an artistic free spirit is bonkers, but I enjoyed this immensely and have read it 3 times)

Out of Place by Edward Said (1935-2003. This is the engaging 1999 memoir of the Palestinian and US academic who wrote the controversial 1978 polemic Orientalism where he decried the patronising and ultimately racist attitudes of certain Western scholars when writing about the East)

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather (see above. The 1923 novel of the great US Pioneer writer)

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (her first novel published in 1954 about a writer called Jake. Very enjoyable)

A Good Place to Die by James Buchan (see above re the grandson of John Buchan. His excellent 1997 novel)

The Red and the Green by Iris Murdoch (one of the few of her novels, nominally about Ireland, that I actually dislike. I usually like her preposterous characters but not these ones)

The Track by Arturo Barea (1897-1957. Volume 2 of his wonderful autobiography trilogy, The Forging of a Rebel. He was a leftist journalist who had to get out of Spain and he moved to the UK in 1939 where he worked for the BBC World Service. He died in Faringdon, Oxon)

The Artist’s Widow by Shena Mackay(born 1944. I have read quite a lot of her books though oddly I don’t actually like them that much. This is her 1998 novel)

Leo the African by Amin Maalouf (see above. Told as the memoir of a Renaissance era traveller Leo Africanus and very well received when published in 1986)

The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (born 1954. The Hungarian writer translated by George Szirtes, known for his melancholy and dystopian novels, some of which have been filmed. This one appeared in 1989. To pronounce his surname is very easy, just try Krishna Hawkeye)

An Unofficial Rose by Iris Murdoch (see above. Very enjoyable. This 1962 novel is all about serial adulterous affairs, typically Murdoch)

A Tale of the Unknown Island by Jose Saramago ( see above. A very engaging 42 page fable published 1997, a year before he won the Nobel)

La Batarde by Violette Leduc (1907-1972. The powerful autobiography of a writer whose mother was a servant girl and her father a rich Protestant who refused to acknowledge her. Leduc was admired by Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir, and some of her Lesbian writings were censored as late as the mid 1950s)

Iris by John Bayley (1925-2015. Husband of Iris Murdoch and Prof of English at Oxford. This memoir came out in 1998)

October, Eight O’ Clock by Norman Manea (born 1936. Rumanian Jewish writer who spent time in a concentration camp in Fascist Rumania during WW2. Later he was a US professor. This fine collection of stories came out in 1981)

Albanian Spring by Ismail Kadare (born 1936. A very informative account of volatile Albanian politics before the great writer and opponent of totalitarianism claimed political asylum in Paris in 1990)

Vertigo by WG Sebald (1944-2001. His 1990 novel which is partly about Stendhal. The German academic teaching at UEA achieved huge and deserved success in the late 1990s with his original novels and panoptic and often politically astute musings. He died in a car crash after a heart attack)

 

 

BREAST CANCER AND THE ABANDONED VILLAGE

I am on holiday for 2 weeks and the next post will be on or before Thursday May 31st

WHAT  ANNIE, IONE AND I DID, AND WHAT I READ IN 1998

 In June of 1998 a few days after her 43rd birthday, my wife Annie noticed puckering in one of her breasts and immediately got herself along to her very efficient woman GP in North Cumbria. At the impressive speed of light (for of course not all hospital authorities are lightning fast) she was referred to a stocky and moustachioed consultant, also in his forties, who in retrospect was perfect for what lay ahead. He had nil bedside manner and was bluff and brusque to the point of comedy, but was a proven and uncompromising expert in his field. He also worked like a maniac and ran clinics where he saw literally hundreds of Cumbrian and South Scottish women about their worrying lumps and told them they were either benign or that they needed immediate intervention. He had Annie swiftly take a mammogram and a needle biopsy and though the latter was inconclusive he turned to us and declared:

“Forty-three and breast puckering? I don’t believe the needle result. There is something definitely not right.”

He ordered an exploratory lumpectomy and sure enough a few days later found a heap of calcified tissue in the breast. We didn’t know that when I drove Annie home, after which, dozy from the anaesthetic, she got into bed and I lay on top of it, and we watched a ponderously second-rate movie Dolores Claiborne, which it transpired was adapted from a Stephen King novel. Since then I have never liked Stephen King movies and his novels even less, though when I think about it I didn’t like them pre-1998 either. The Shawshank Redemption for example is admittedly compelling viewing, but watch it a few times and you will see all the cracks, the inconsistencies, the rank incredibilities, and the conflation of extreme and sickly violence and an oddly cloying kind of wishful thinking.

Let’s call the consultant Mr Wilkinson. About a week after the lumpectomy we had to see him in his office where in rat a tat fashion he told us about the calcified tissue and recommended a mastectomy, lymph node clearance and most likely a course of chemotherapy to follow. This was exactly what was to happen between August 1998 and the spring of 1999, but his matter of fact explanation came as an overwhelming shock to both of us. At once Annie collapsed against my shoulder and burst into sobs.

Wilkinson, truly mystified, turned to look at me.

“What’s wrong with her?”

I stared at the specialist and ought to have been angry, but instead divined that this was the unflinching if graceless expert that we really needed and that sometimes the people we require most in this world are not always the nicest and might even be half mad. He probably really liked Stephen King novels, though being a workaholic no doubt fell asleep on page 24. I pondered, then translated the perplexing phenomenon of a deeply upset woman for his benefit.

“She’s very upset, Mr Wilkinson. That’s why she’s crying.”

“Oh,” he blinked, not at all comprehending, as he drummed his stubby fingers. “But it is very straightforward what we have to do.”

After the mastectomy, he explained that he would reconstruct the breast by injecting fluid, then build it up after the manner of a modest but confident sculptor. All that would begin in August which meant our planned fortnight with our dogs Bonnie and Monty up in a beautiful South Uist cottage had to be immediately cancelled. We also had to tell Annie’s worried Mum and Dad as well as all our friends, and we hid nothing from Ione, but being only 9, thankfully it seemed to pass her by. The night after Annie’s surgery I arranged her little pal Maria to come down for a sleepover and the pair of them raced around above my head hooting hilariously, and of course I really relished that din as it was obvious that my daughter’s innocence knew nothing of the fear of mortality. I had just come back from the hospital where Annie was sat waiting and smiling in the patterned floral blouse I’d bought for her birthday in Alston. With a natural and unfeigned assurance, she was adamant she would survive all this, and I had nil doubt either. That said, I observed her courage very humbly, for in her shoes I would have openly shit myself at such drastic surgery. But she like several other remarkable women I have known with breast cancer, just took a deep breath and opted to get on with it. She was already planning her work schedule months ahead, when the chemotherapy and reconstruction were to start, and she was to drive poor Wilkinson bonkers when she refused several appointments and demanded others.

He gasped. “But you simply can’t put your work first at this stage! You have to have urgent treatment for a serious condition and you…”

“I know that. Of course, I want the treatment, but I also want to have flexible appointments, because I have an important job and I happen to be a breadwinner.  And no, before you say it, the chemotherapy won’t make me sick, I’m confident of that. I definitely intend to carry on and work as normal.”

Right enough, seemingly clairvoyantly, she had nil side effects, for she lost no hair, nor was she even mildly nauseous at any stage. She had an important conference in Belfast in early September and with my encouragement she treated herself to a holiday and drove her hire car over the border to Donegal. Donegal is paradise of course, and having sampled the lovely Gaeltachd, Annie carried on down to Dublin, and went to see a very shocking Sarah Kane play, the last word in defiance and the first word in assertive attitude you might say. Annie did not put it in so many words, but instead of cowering and shivering and worse, she was determined to bloody well enjoy herself in Ireland, and make the most of things. I meanwhile cashed in an insurance policy so that we could have a fortnight’s recuperation in Greece, for Annie had always said that Greek islands were the only place where it was possible to swim in a warm and above all gentle sea. She like me was a doting Portugal fan, but the Algarve often has huge breakers, and the sea along the Costa Verde though beautiful can be bloody cold even in August.

We chose Tilos in the Dodecanese in the end, because of its relative obscurity. It is close to both Turkey and tiny and waterless Symi which has so many Brit expats they even have an English language newspaper, which must surely be some sort of coded warning sign. In 1998 Tilos had only a handful of tourists and the port where we stayed was a tranquil backwater with a silver haired domatia owner who provided breakfast and was infinitely courteous to young Ione. She always chose peach flavoured iced tea, but he always gravely asked her, what kind today, madam, as if the choice and she as discerning customer were of infinite importance. Three other Tilos cameos are worth recounting.

A grizzled and handsome young farmer of about thirty selling watermelons from his van had no English whatever other than the following two words, which he bawled at everyone he believed to be a foreigner:

‘Sexy veetamins! Sexy veetamins!”

Talking of vending, a state of the art supermarket had just opened in the port, stocking massive quantities of every kind of cigarette, for the Greeks have long been notorious as Europe’s most unashamed smokers.  Touching to behold, directly opposite was an old fashioned and grubby periptero, i.e.  a Greek kiosk that specialised in cigarettes, sweets, chewing gum, pens, combs and the like. With the new arrival the old kiosk was severely ailing, and the proprietor had only a few loyal smokers and customers, meaning that much of the time and especially during the midday heat he would stand feebly upright in his kiosk, then bit by bit sag and doze the hours away. More strikingly the proprietor was of indeterminate sex, what in the old days would have been called a hermaphrodite (2 Greek gods in one you understand). He dressed like a man but could have been a woman and he had a look of melancholy and lifelong endurance though he was always greeted very warmly by everyone who passed by.

One midday he was happily asleep and probably dreaming about the good old days when he sold dozens of juddering 200 packs of fags every exhilarating Friday evening… when suddenly an insistent if shy knocking on his glass roused him from one of his few consolations. It was roasting hot and inside his kiosk must have been an oven, a fournos bakery. The knocking came from a tourist called Ione aged 9, wanting a lordly/ladily 10 cents worth of chewing gum. Annie and I standing at a distance were expecting him to show a reflex  irritability, but he merely yawned and passed across the gum and duly gave her the 40 cents change.

Finally there was the abandoned village of Gera (pronounced ‘Yera’, it means simply The Old Place) which was not mentioned in the Rough Guide To Greece but which the domatia owner had told us about with unabashed tears in his eyes, as it was where he had spent his early years. It was deserted in the late 1940s, and was a mere half hour’s walk from the port, presumably the villagers having migrated there for an easier if hard enough life. Our Tilos map was one of those cheerful tourist ones which still flourish alongside the posh digital and cartographic ones you get nowadays in ever increasing profusion. This meant that the distances and dispositions were of an intuitive order, i.e. vague and frequently contradictory and often downright wrong.  As a result, it took us longer than we’d thought to find Gera and we almost gave up. At one point I spotted some insignificant ruins, a mere heap of stones which I claimed must be it, but they were probably much older ruins from a much older abandoned hamlet. Then at last and through some trees and right next to the sea there it was, there was Gera, and our excitement and our emotion were profound. There was Gera which was about forty little cubic houses sprawled along a summit, empty of windows of course, and a kind of seabird grey with half a century’s weathering, looking infinitely biblical and eternal as they faced out to sea and to Turkey, innocuously hidden away by the copse of trees and to all intents and purposes the very end of the world.

Annie and I were helplessly moved and we did not say as much but we both instinctively felt that the desertion of this little protective cove for a new place close by, yet in human terms a million miles away, was rather like our own cruel transmutation. A few months ago Annie Murray aged 43 was without diagnosed breast cancer, that was her old, safe and obviously eternal state. Then only days after her birthday, she was a woman invaded with this thing called cancer, meaning inevitably and completely against her will, she had been obliged to abandon her old secure existence. So it was that Gera at the deepest level represented Annie as she was, as she and it were both hauntingly beautiful and in a curious state of grace called Divine Sadness…which of course you might well disbelieve and will only know yourself once you have tasted it.

 

What I Read in 1998 (from my Reading Diary)

Solzhenitsyn by DM Thomas

The Emigrants by WG Sebald (1944-2001. The brilliant and innovative German writer who taught at Norwich University, UK was massively popular in the late 90s with his books about memory and collective memory loss, e.g. The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. He was tragically killed in a car crash when he suffered a sudden aneurysm)

Light on my Days by George Duhamel (1884-1966. The memoirs of one of my favourite writers, author of the wonderfully exhilarating The Pasquier Chronicles. Duhamel was also a doctor)

Fermina Marquez by Valery Larbaud (1881-1957. A boarding school novel by a poet and novelist born in Vichy of a wealthy spa water bottling family)

Diaries of Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud (his best known novel)

The Retreat by Aharon Appelfeld (1932-2018. Israeli Holocaust writer born in the Bukovina and put in a labour camp by pro-Nazi Romanians in WW2. Multilingual, he wrote in Hebrew as he could not bear to write in his first language which was German)

Babylon by Rene Crevel (1900-1935. The 1927 novel of a bisexual communist and Surrealist who was excluded from the movement by Andre Breton. He suffered with TB and like his father before him he committed suicide)

Life in the Tomb by Stratis Myrvilis (1890-1969. A haunting war novel by one of Greece’s best known writers, born in Lesvos when it was under the Ottomans. During WW2 he urged resistance to the Germans but was also fiercely critical of the communist partisans)

Doruntine by Ismail Kadare (born 1936. Albania’s best known author and a massively gifted writer. I interviewed him in Paris in 1997)

The Liar by Martin A Hansen (1909-1955. The 1950 novel of a powerful Danish writer who was active in the Resistance in WW2. He suffered appalling head injuries as a child)

Night and Hope by Arnost Lustig (1926-2011. Czech Jewish Holocaust author who was only a boy of 16 when sent to Auschwitz. The greatest modern Czech writer in my view, though barely known beside say Milan Kundera)

Blindness by Jose Saramago (1922-2010. One of the 1998 Nobel winner’s best known novels as it was turned into a controversial 2008 English language film starring Julianne Moore. The Portuguese genius is one of my abiding literary heroes as he combines phenomenal technical talent and fastidious sentence control with a wonderfully subtle irony)

Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis (1923-2013. Colombian writer much praised by his friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Maqroll is the engaging antihero whose adventures run to 7 novellas, the first published 1986)

Reading In The Dark by Seamus Deane (born 1940. This is his prizewinning first novel, published in 1996. Born in Derry, N Ireland, he is also a university professor)

The Time of Secrets and The Time of Love by Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974. Phenomenal Provencal polymath who was both a great writer and a great filmmaker. His 1952 Jean de Florette movie was remade by Claude Berri in 1986)

Noli Me Tangere By Jose Rizal (1861-1896. Novelist and polemicist Rizal, is the Philippine’s greatest national hero as he was a prime agitator against the Spanish colonial occupation. He was executed for sedition by a dragooned Filipino firing squad with Spanish soldiers stood behind, ready to shoot them if they failed to do the grisly job. This excellent and harrowing novel with the Latin title means, Do Not Touch Me)

Rainbow by Wanda Wasilewska (1905-1964). The 1944 novel of a Communist Socialist Realist who was Polish but moved to the Soviet Union during the war. Despite her rigid ideology this is a very readable novel.

Scene in Passing by Robert Neumann (1897-1975). The 1942 novel of a very prolific German Jewish writer who was a convinced social democrat.

Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell (1908-2000. Fine 1948 novel by the legendary New Yorker fiction editor. He is also of interest as he has a character called Ione which is the very rare name my own daughter has)

The Disenchanted by Pierre Loti (1850-1923. Neglected but very readable novelist who was also a navy officer and passionate Turcophile, greatly enamoured of the Ottoman Empire. He is best known for An Icelandic Fisherman)

Dark Horses by Karl Miller (1931-2014. Essays by a fearlessly independent literary editor who was crucial to my own career, as he took my first story The Senor and the Celtic Cross for the London Review of Books, a story which was so long he had to put it across 2 issues. He was ultimately sacked from the LRB which no longer prints short stories and ever since has become ever more complaisant and complacent )

The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn

The Green Fool by Patrick Kavanagh(1904-1967. Very funny 1938 novel by Irish poet and novelist who had a hard time getting established, and was famously irritable as a result. Born in rural Monaghan he also wrote the hilarious 1948 Tarry Flynn)

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler (born 1956 Richard is a New Yorker who lives in Portugal and who had great international success with this harrowing 1996 novel about the Portuguese Inquisition. He also won the 1994 Panurge International Fiction Competition, Panurge being the magazine I founded in 1984)

Bad to the Bone by James Waddington (born 1942. Debut literary thriller about the Tour de France)

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (his 1980 novel)

Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald ( I gave this a star review in the Independent on Sunday)

Plagued by the Nightingale by Kay Boyle (1902-1992. The 1931 novel of the famous American author and activist who was jailed in the 1960s for her anti Vietnam war protests and one of whose husbands was called Baron von Frankenstein. My favourite book of hers is the 1944 Avalanche)

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Victory by Joseph Conrad

Damascus by Richard Beard (born 1967. I printed this successful UK writer’s fine story in Panurge in 1995, but I didn’t care at all for this uneven and uneasily picaresque novel )

Life, A User’s Manual by Georges Perec  (1936-1982. Epic 1978 masterpiece which took 15 years to appear in English which says much for so called UK culture. Perec was a playful genius obsessed with games, puzzles, acrostics etc and who tragically died aged only 45)

Crocodile Soup by Julia Darling (1956-2005. Courtesy of Panurge Publishing I printed Julia’s first book, a story collection called Bloodlines in 1995, when she was also diagnosed with breast cancer. She also won Joint 2nd Prize in the 1994 Panurge International Short Story Competition. She and I were both longlisted for the Booker in the same year, 2003, as, come to think of it was fellow Cumbrian, Melvyn Bragg. Julia died aged only 49, after a 10 year remission. My wife’s remission was also 10 years long as it happened)

Pleasured by Philip Hensher (born 1965 and a leading UK novelist and columnist. I thought this book was very bad with weird things like clumsy and cloth-eared redundance in some of the sentences. The literary editor at the Independent on Sunday, Suzi Feay, refused to print my review with the wondrously bizarre logic that Hensher’s distinguished publisher could not possibly print anything bad. If ever you think British literary culture might be just a trifle on the cloying Masonic side, you wouldn’t be far wrong)

Salman the Solitary by Yashar Kemal (1923-2015. Wonderful 1980 novel which took 17 years to appear in the UK. Turkey’s greatest writer by far, and also a courageous human rights activist and supporter of the Kurds. Appallingly he never won the Nobel Prize, though surely a far bigger writer than the very talented Orhan Pamuk who did so in 2006)

Dita Saxova by Arnost Lustig (published 1962, translated 1979, and also filmed in the former Czechoslovakia)

The Three Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare (the 1998 novel about an old Balkan folk myth)

Albania, A History by Miranda Vickers

The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov (1899-1951. Though a Communist his work was mostly banned in the USSR as he satirised Stalinism and the revolutionary work ethic in absurdist existentialist terms This novel was written in 1930, but only published in the USSR in 1987, 36 years after his death

Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks (born 1953. A riveting and very convincing 1998 novel about the French resistance, turned into a really awful 2001 film starring Cate Blanchett)

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather (1873-1947. The 1915 novel of the great US writer famous for her frontier fiction, including the 1918 My Antonia)

Skellig by David Almond (born 1951. Acclaimed UK children’s writer and this is his debut masterpiece which is written as much for adults as children. He and I co-edited Panurge fiction magazine between 1984 and 1996. His poignant story collection Counting Stars dealing with his Felling on Tyne childhood is another masterpiece)

The Pasquier Chronicles by Georges Duhamel (my copy of this came from the library of the sailing hero Sir Francis Chichester)

The Common Chord by Frank O’ Connor (1903-1966. Pen name of Michael O’ Donovan and a great short story writer who also wrote 2 enjoyable novels that seemingly only I have ever read. Born into an impoverished Cork family with a drunken father and a stoical mother, after Irish independence he fought for the IRA)

Silent Day in Tangier by Tahar ben Jalloun (born 1944. Hugely talented Moroccan writer who writes in French and won the Prix Goncourt)

Consequences of the Heart by Peter Cunningham (born 1944, an Irish novelist whose Monument is a fictionalised Waterford where he grew up. This book is one of 4  Monument novels)

Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago (this is the Nobel winner’s 1982 novel which is an 18th  C love story)

Stories of Eva Lunes by Isabel Allende (born 1942. One of Chile’s best known writers and her father was a cousin of the ousted president Salvador Allende who was murdered by Augusto Pinochet, Margaret Thatcher’s friend, in 1973. I love some of Allende’s novels and dislike others, perhaps because her particular type of Magical Realism is not always aimed at the same imaginative depths)

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago (one of my favourites among his remarkable novels, with a fine urbane humour. It was published in 1984)

After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima (1925-1970. This novel was published in 1960. Considered one of the world’s greatest writers, Mishima was also a right-wing nationalist with his own fanatical uniformed militia. Hoping to reinstall the Japanese emperor, he failed in a coup to take a military base, then committed seppuku or ritual disembowelment

Fields of Glory by Jean Rouaud (born 1952. He won the Prix Goncourt with this 1992 novel)

Death in Midsummer and Other Stories by Yukio Mishima (his 1953 collection)

The Garden of the Finzi Continis by Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000. Born of a prosperous Ferrara Jewish family he joined the anti-Fascist resistance and was briefly jailed for it, much of which is reflected in this famous 1962 novel. It was filmed by Vittorio de Sica in 1970.

The Infinite Plan by Isabel Allende (published 1991)

Of Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende (published 1985)

Room For a Single Lady by Clare Boylan (1948-2006. I recommend this 1997 novel to everyone and everyone really loves it, my late wife Annie included. Boylan is brilliant at the comical portrayal of feckless fathers and hopeless mothers failing to keep up appearances in impoverished middle class Dublin, as depicted in both the 19th and 20th centuries.

Runaway Horses by Yukio Mishima (published 1969)

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997. This hilarious 1964 novella by the Czech master, is remarkably written as a single sentence from start to finish. It is among other things a string of mad anecdotes, appealing to someone like me who is a lifelong fan of Cumbrian Tall Tales (Cummerlan Tyals)

Ecstasy by Louis Couperus (1863-1923. The 1897 novel subtitled A Study of Happiness by one of Holland’s greatest authors. Surprisingly it was translated into English very quickly, but it took another 100 years before the enterprising Pushkin Press put it out again in the UK)

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (born 1954. Corelli is the word of mouth 1994 runaway success which is certainly very readable, but curiously soft centred and rosy-eyed re the central love affair. The same wishful thinking is evident in his earlier Latin American trilogy of novels which I think are excellent apart from the bonkers fantasy of men and women and pumas living happily side by side. Corelli was made into a film starring Nick Cage which received very mixed reviews)

Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson (born 1943. Enormously successful novel about 3 generations of women by an Idaho writer who also won the Pulitzer. It was turned into a 1987 film directed by Bill Forsyth)

A Small Yes and a Big No by George Grosz (1893-1959. Superb memoir by brilliant satirical German artist who was a prime member in the Dada movement. He emigrated to the States in 1933 but he died in Berlin)

House of Children by Joyce Cary (1888-1957. This is his 1941 novel. Not much read these days, Cary was massively popular in his day and in the early 80s I read almost everything he wrote. His mad artist Gulley Jimson in the 1944 The Horse’s Mouth took everyone by storm but in fact Jimson was violent towards women and in my view was a vicarious and uneven bit of wishful thinking by Cary who was formerly a colonial administrator in Nigeria. I think his best book was the 1939 colonial novel Mister Johnson, made into an enjoyable 1990 movie with Maynard Eziashi, Pierce Brosnan and Edward Upward)

The Sacred Night by Tahar ben Jalloun (his 1987 novel)

The Palace by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (born 1953. One of the few UK writers of my generation who I would say is of real stature, as she is one of the few who is capable of writing prose of a truly enduring quality. It is telling that her Dad was Guyanese, that her family origins are Channel Island French, that one of her husbands was Venezuelan, and that she now lives in Mozambique. This is the 1998 novel of an authentically cosmopolitan and very gifted writer)

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte (born 1951.The 1990 work of the Spanish novelist and former war correspondent. He writes gripping and very filmable historical novels but was accused of stealing one of her plots by the Mexican writer Veronica Murgula)

Paula by Isabel Allende (the harrowing 1994 memoir about her daughter Paula who died after entering a porphyria coma in 1991)

Count d’Orgel by Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923. A friend of Picasso and Cocteau who was his mentor, this posthumous 1924 novel is about adultery, as was his explosive and autobiographical 1923 The Devil and the Flesh, about a 16 year old boy having an affair with a married woman whose husband was away fighting at the front. He died aged 20 of TB)

 

 

 

THE LAST OF THE PROPHETS, ALBERT COSSERY

I am taking a fortnight’s holiday and the next post will be on or before 31st May

THE LAST OF THE PROPHETS, ALBERT COSSERY

‘The Lane of The Pissing Child led to the school of beggars. It was the most squalid and also the narrowest in the district. The hovels there are more wretched and dirty than anywhere else; the old petrol tins which compose them are cracked and rusty in the extreme. They all seem ready to collapse; but the eternal misery which built them with its wild hands, had left on them its imprint of eternity.’

Men God Forgot by Albert Cossery

The Egyptian author Albert Cossery (1913-2008) was known as ‘the Voltaire of the Nile’ and he was a friend of celebrated iconoclasts such as Albert Camus, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Alberto Giacometti. Born in Cairo of Greek Orthodox parents of Syrian origin (originally known as al-Qusayr), he emigrated to Paris in 1945 and although all of his half dozen novels are set in Egypt, he wrote exclusively in French. His family was wealthy but much of Cossery’s fiction is about the atrocious poverty of Cairo’s myriad disenfranchised; beggars, thieves, street cleaners, out of work actors and hashish addicts. The titles of his books speak for themselves: Men God Forgot (1940) and Proud Beggars (1955) but he also wrote novels where certain rich Cairenes behaved in highly unorthodox and rebellious ways. At times these middle class Egyptian rebels behave in a manner surreal beyond belief. For instance, in The Lazy Ones (1948) a pampered young man protects his bereaved mother from a paralysing grief, by acting the part of his recently deceased brother in regular improvised 2- hander dramas, which of course necessarily involves his constantly shifting chairs.

His first book Men God Forgot, less than 100 pages long, is a collection of 5 short stories of phenomenal and quite unhinging power. It is all about the down and outs of Cairo as Cossery knew them somewhere around the late 1930s, but it is fair enough to assume from the authoritarian nightmare which constitutes modern Egypt that very little will have changed for the poverty-stricken in the intervening decades. I use the word unhinging because most fiction writers who deal with extreme poverty understandably treat it in straight realistic, possibly impassioned and angry style. The shamefully neglected Ignazio Silone (1900-1978) for example, author of Bread and Wine and The Secret of Lucca writes about Italian peasants slaving all day in order to afford a single plate of unadorned polenta. Ditto the startling 1962 autobiographical novel The Countrywoman by Dubliner Paul Smith (1920-1997) who recounts his unbelievably harrowing childhood when he was a wage earner as a mere infant, and the desperation of his mother in the face of his feckless boozing father. Cossery by contrast turns the pathos coordinates upside down when he elects to treat of what is atrocious with a kind of black gallows humour. In a single word, all his down and outs are irremediably stupefied by the situation they find themselves in, for their lives are so hopeless and so desolate that they constitute a kind of mad dream by which their victims are continually amazed as well as horrified.

The characters in the 5 linked stories cope with the horror of absolute destitution in radically different ways. Nonetheless, there are 3 principal strategies for dealing with a living hell: one can sleep as much as possible; smoke dope as much as possible, or if you are a man, you can go home and vent your misery by beating your wife. Thus, an illiterate laundryman who has no customers to speak of spends his day sleeping, and at night he has his cronies round to smoke the poor man’s panacea, hashish. However one day a postman cruelly ruins his daytime sleeping with a letter from his landlord threatening eviction after 6 months of arrears. As well as viciously cursing the postman (‘and now son of a dog you are going to read it to me, or I’ll kill you’) he decides to go home and beat his wife if only because her parents cannot stand the sound of her wails, and so will give him the backlog of rent. Later, in ‘The Danger of Fantasy’ we have the mindboggling dialogue between Abou Chawali, ‘Professor of Mendicancy’, and the man of letters Tewfik Gad. The Professor who coaches child beggars to look as horrifying as they can, as the only means of melting the hearts of the callous rich, is incensed by Gad suggesting that a handsome little girl should toff up to look as beautiful as possible in a pretty red dress. To compound the irony, the man of letters suffers from chronic diarrhoea which means he is always racing a full kilometre to use the public toilets. The Professor mocks not only his Fantasy/Pretty Dress approach to the reality of mendicancy, but the fact he avoids defecating next to his house like everyone else, presumably because he doesn’t want the world to see his backside. Meanwhile the Professor’s notion of the power of realism when it comes to effective begging, is economically and appallingly stated.

‘It was the turn of little Olla, a new recruit whose case seemed very interesting…In her arms she held a child some months old, blind from birth and wrapped in all kinds of filthy rags. The child seemed to have been dead for a long time and its face had a green pallor.

“Well…” scolded Abou Chawali. “What are you doing with that bundle in your arms. Are you by any chance taking a walk with your trousseau?”

“This bundle is my brother,” said the little girl…

“Does he eat?”

“No…Only he opens his mouth sometimes.”’

Remarkably, the anguish of total destitution is even more harrowingly rendered when a penniless tinker’s little boy turns up to give his Dad an armful of clover to feed the Holiday Sheep, meaning the one sacrificed on special religious days. The Dad has no sheep of course, and his little son’s distress is all too much for him on top of the infernal baseline of a normal pauper’s desolation.

‘“If we are poor it is because God has forgotten us, my son.”

“God!” said the child. “And when will he remember us, father?”

“When God forgets someone, my son, it is forever.”

“All the same I’ll keep the clover,” said the child.’

Later an out of work actor Sayed Karam ( an avatar of the young Cossery perhaps?) suddenly wakes from his idle stupefaction and decides that something needs to be done about the cruel paralysis of all these derelicts he has long been safely observing at a distance. He repents his vicarious and amoral ways, for while he lazes at home, Raya the woman who loves him and who is dying of TB, is out there earning a hotel clerk’s pittance to keep the pair of them off the streets. It is here for once that theology raises its powerful head in Cossery’s fiction, and his character suddenly understands what the truly diabolic amounts to.

‘There was nothing forced here about the demoniac spirit, nothing falsified. It was simply reality, mean and unrehearsed, the violating reality of every day at every moment. Sayed Karam now felt his heart beat at the sight of certain details that the street in its complete nakedness no longer knew how to hide.’

POSTSCRIPT

I was privileged to meet Albert Cossery in December 1997, when he was 84, in his favourite café next to the Paris hotel where he had been living since 1945. My introduction was supposedly because I had published a piece about him in London Magazine, but in fact Cossery was unaware of this and assumed I was someone else. Nevertheless he knew more English than I knew French, and he was very courteous and kind towards his 47-year-old English fan.