Saturday, 18 August 2012

A Fisherman's Tale

I'm not sure whether this is a self-contained short story or the first chapter of something bigger. I haven't quite worked out what happens next. Bon appetit.


Gaius was hungry. He twisted the coarse fibres in his hands, and hefted the weight of the net again. He'd been fishing all afternoon, and as he turned, coiling his muscles, he could feel his strength waning.

He watched as the net bunched and flared, carving diamonds into the water and closing like a flower. Despite his hunger and fatigue, the beauty of it still moved him.

As the net sank, Gaius' hungry mind compiled a hypothetical inventory of the waters beneath him. He thought of the darting minnows that would escape his clutches, and the sleek, fat mackerel that would futilely struggle for freedom in the narrow places of the net. And deeper still, the prehistoric introverts of the sea floor, gnarled spider crabs and sea urchins that had to be cracked with a rock, like a nut, before yielding their flesh.

He began to haul in the net with the unassailable optimism of the hungry fisherman. When the slack was gone, Gaius raised his eyebrows in excitement, for the net at the bottom of the sea was heavy.

Very heavy, in fact. Surely heavier than the largest spider crab he'd ever seen - now distorted with time and memory, the enormous crab his father and uncle had caught when Gaius was just nine years old. They had carried it back to the village between them, such was its weight. The diminutive Gaius had stared at this leviathan for hours, reconstructing the splinters of its shell by firelight, after the entire family had been satiated.

These memories flooded through Gaius' mind as he bent his tired limbs to the chore of hauling the net in. He could not possibly believe that he had caught anything so heavy. The net must have just snagged on a rock.

But a fisherman is by his nature superstitious, and a hungry brain is an unpredictable creature. Gaius was unable to completely extinguish his hopes of so large a meal. He sweated as he hauled in his net.

After several minutes of feverish effort, his shoulders slackened. The water was dark with the dying day but clear, and he could see that the net contained nothing more than a large, round rock. Gaius sighed, and hauled his catch ashore. At least there was bread at home.

The rock was somewhat larger than a man's head, and as it emerged from the sea Gaius' interest was re-engaged. What a perfect pattern the sea had wrought on it! The ceaseless efforts of tides and sands had created luxuriant curls over its surface. In the water and the evening sunlight, it shone like marble.

The dragging net rolled the rock along the sand, and Gaius was transfixed. An eye. An unmistakable eye stared at him through the crust of sand.

No spider crab this, but no round rock either. The fisherman's cold hands clumsily freed the head from its confinement and brushed the sand from aristocratic cheekbone and flowing beard.

Gaius looked around thoughtfully. He would not carry the head home, not on an empty stomach, not to an expectant family who would see him bearing a burden in the half-light. He returned to the small grotto, little more than a hollow in the rocks by the shore, where he had earlier placed his knapsack, canteen and pocket knife. Removing his belongings from the small shelf, he placed the head there and returned to his net, coiling it about his arm.

As he turned for home, he felt a pang of the same superstition that had made him keep hauling that net in all day, the superstition that had been so intense following that final cast. The head stared at him reproachfully, sand on its wide brows, sand still in the artful curls of its hair.

Gaius took his canteen from his knapsack and finished what little fresh water he had left, before kneeling on the rocks and filling it from the sea. He carried it over to the relic and, with a reverential air that made him feel self-conscious, poured the water over the head.

The saltwater pooled like tears in the blank, marble eyes. The oblique evening light pooled in the water and lay there winking. The great grey eyes blinked.

Gaius took a step back, convinced that the light was playing a trick on him. The eyes blinked again and their marmoreal emptiness vanished. They were the colour of oceans.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Briefing for a Descent into Hell

Briefing for a Descent into Hell - Doris Lessing
Great title, isn’t it? Doris Lessing’s 1971 novel relates the inner rumblings of the disturbed mind of Charles Watkins, a classics professor from Cambridge, found wandering near the Embankment with no identification and no memory of who he is. The story is related through a slightly clunky mixture of Watkins’ internal narrative, snatches of semi-lucid conversation between him and his doctors, and letters from concerned friends and family delving into the strange events of his past.

This is a book that splits very obligingly into three sections. The first is dominated by the Professor’s delusions. He is shipwrecked after his friends are taken from their vessel by a mysterious, crystalline UFO. He survives on a beautiful island, discovering an ancient city. He sleeps amongst the deserted ruins, developing an unhealthy obsession with the moon, and awaits the return of the crystal which, he feels sure, must have simply overlooked him the first time. But before it returns the city is tarnished, invaded by dog-men and monkeys who desecrate the buildings, fight savage battles and choke the ancient streets with corpses. The crystal does not come.

Part two of the novel could be said to be the denouement (spoiler alert) as we are elevated to the heavens for a conversation amongst the gods. This is where the title comes in. They see a poor planet, wracked by meteor damage, inhabited by a race of primitive apes whose brains are choked by a poisonous atmosphere and who can barely cling to existence, despite their delusions of technological advancement. A party of gods are briefed to descend and drag this planet back from the brink, before instability spreads throughout the solar system. They are warned before they set out that, although they will be brain-printed with the knowledge of their mission and what they are, the descent and transformation into human beings will be so traumatic that there is a good chance they will have no awareness of themselves as they were before.

Charles Watkins is a god. He doesn’t know it, but the vague imprint is on his brain, like something glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye. The final third of the novel is driven by the hope that he will unearth this ancient knowledge before his doctors cure him.

My main problem with this novel (and you might not think it from that synopsis) is that not very much happens in it. For much of the time it is duty rather than interest that pulls you through. The plot is implicit, and only begins to surface when you understand what is going on above the Earth. When something does happen – the conflict in the ancient city, or a beautiful, Hemingway-esque vignette of Watkins’ wartime experience fighting with guerrillas in the mountains of Yugoslavia – it is perfectly executed, reminding you that you are in the hands of a Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

The ideas that Lessing plays with and brings to life with incredible colour and realism are the kind of ideas more often found in short stories than in novels. She takes an idea – what if some of us were once gods, descended into a corrupt world, but have no idea that this is the case? – and twists it to its logical extreme, like Calvino or Borges. Do you ever feel anxious for no discernible reason? Ever feel like your brain is straining to uncover something that you can't even guess at? These little things connect us all, but we have no idea why. 

This is a fantastic way of writing short stories, but it is a tactic that easily reaches its limit, which is probably why it doesn’t drive many novels. You can only stretch an idea so far before you run out of material, and this method seems fundamentally hostile to those tricky little things like plot and character development that make a novel tick.

That sounds like a harsh review for a novel that I really did enjoy, but I think there were many aspects of it that could have been improved. I felt all along that Lessing’s imagination and purpose were constrained by the form of this novel. The letters, the doctors’ notes, the stilted conversations – all these felt like unwise literary devices that got in the way of the beautiful idea behind the book. Clearly this was a highly experimental effort, but I think it could have been just as beautiful and far more readable if it had been a little more conventional.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Crime, Punishment and Occasional Bewilderment

Well, cross that one off the bucket list. Finally. Last night I finished reading Crime and Punishment. It's taken a while, and I had to read two other books in the middle of it for a rest. It's not that Dostoyevsky's prose is denser and less accessible than that of any other 19th Century author – what really got me were the names. Allow me to explain.

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The crime in question is committed by the splendidly alliterative Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikoff (this is not a spoiler – the dramatis personae lists him as 'Student and Murderer'). Raskolnikoff kills an old moneylender and her sister in what initially appears to be a fairly amateurish robbery, and Dostoyevsky charts his consequent mental disintegration amidst a colourful cast of people with irritatingly similar names.

Perhaps I just haven't read enough Russian literature, but I found it difficult to keep track of Peter Petrovitch, Porphyrius Petrovitch and Elia Petrovitch (none of whom are related). The fact that some characters are known by as many as three different names or diminutives - I'm looking at you, Eudoxia/Dounia/Dounetchka - doesn't help either.

Once these minor hurdles are negotiated, C&P reveals itself as an intensely harrowing and human account of Raskolnikoff's encroaching insanity, and of the disastrous effects it has on his doting sister and mother. The crime takes place early in the narrative and is foreseen in a way that calls to mind the 'murderee' in Martin Amis' London Fields. The official 'punishment' is more or less an epilogue - Raskolnikoff's restless mind provides more punishment than any Siberian labour camp.

Eventually it emerges that Raskolnikoff isn't being driven mad purely by remorse or fear of capture. The student committed his crime to test an academic hypothesis, to see if he could join Napoleon amid the ranks of the übermenschen, to see if he could reject society's conventions and act purely in his own interests, even to the point of murder. Clearly, Raskolnikoff is not that kind of person, and he becomes increasingly exasperated by his own weakness and the fact that, in trying and failing to be like Napoleon, he has ruined himself.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
With a beard like that, who needs happiness?
To me, this was the most interesting aspect of C&P and yet it seemed like an underdeveloped sub-plot. Amid the misery and suffering which Dostoyevsky does so well, I would have liked to see more of this Borgesian idea of taking an intellectual curiosity to its monstrous extreme.

Other plot strands include alcoholic fathers, consumptive widows, misogynistic fiancées, starving children and the ubiquitous tart-with-a-heart, who follows the doomed Raskolnikoff almost literally to the ends of the earth. These threads are drawn together with breathtaking skill, although you might find yourself leafing backwards once in a while to remind yourself who on earth all these people are.

On the plus side Dostoyevsky's dialogue is remarkably accessible to the modern reader, particularly Raskolnikoff's feverish internal ruminations. His emotional turmoil is conveyed without apparent effort and the reader's empathy for the murderer is truly poignant. I've never murdered anyone, but now I know exactly what it feels like.

In short, C&P is a horrifying romp through a Dickensian carnival of human misery. There is, mercifully, a glimmer of redemption at the end of the trans-Siberian tunnel, but this certainly isn't a book for the faint-hearted.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Trouble in Wayne County

Glenn Taylor is an author I’d never heard of before, and I picked out a copy of The Marrowbone Marble Company because of the interesting jacket design. Don’t act like you don’t do it too. The reviews on the back compare Taylor to one of my favourite authors, Cormac McCarthy, as well as other American greats like Steinbeck and Irving. A lot to live up to, then.

The Marrowbone Marble Company - Glenn Taylor
Set in the USA during the 1940s and 50s, Marrowbone begins with a graphic account of the wartime experiences of its protagonist, Loyal Ledford. A one-time glass factory worker, Ledford joins the marines and ends up slitting Japanese throats under cover of darkness in Guadalcanal.

When he returns home, injured and alcoholic, Ledford can no longer stomach conditions at the Mann Glass Factory and the racism towards his black colleague, the floor-sweeper Mack Wells. Ledford is entranced by the factory fires, and haunted by echoes of his father, who comes to him in a dream and tells him to build a factory producing children’s marbles. He packs up his wife and kids, and travels out into the wilderness of Wayne County to begin his new venture.

The land around Marrowbone Cut is rugged and the people set in their ways. Ledford’s distant kin, the semi-feral Bonecutter brothers, agree to his using their land for the factory, and as word gets around more and more people join the Ledfords at Marrowbone. The community prospers as men and women of different colours and creeds are admitted without question.

Fortunately, there’s trouble in paradise with plenty of cross-burning locals and corrupt sheriffs out to ruin this harmonious scene.

Essentially, Marrowbone is a story about a man struggling to overcome a violent past and build a half-decent future. It sounds like a cliché, and there are times when Taylor’s world seems a little too, well, black-and-white. The middle of the novel is crushingly idyllic, in a transparent, the-shit’s-about-to-hit-the-fan kind of way.

That said, when it does all kick off, Taylor is certainly in his element. He does have an excellent way with blood and brimstone, in the tradition of writers like Cormac McCarthy, and a terseness that fits perfectly with the harsh existence of his characters: ‘The auto driver was out on bond. He’d be dead inside a day. The corned beef hash steamed.’

This is a novel of sweat and flames, of rough people and simple needs. Despite the racial tensions at the heart of the book, you can tell that Taylor has a desire for this simplicity, and it’s hard not to be seduced by that.

At the same time, it isn’t simply an idyllic American dream. This, I suppose, is where Steinbeck comes in. The dream is shattered by men’s actions (remember when Lennie snapped the neck of Curly’s wife?) and for all it’s earthiness it turns out that Marrowbone is also a novel of symbols and judgements, and of very modern and very American ideals of faith and pragmatism. A novel about people doing the right thing, even if it means occasionally doing the wrong thing.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Tales from the Churchyard

Think of William Golding, and you probably think of Lord of the Flies. Recently I’ve got hold of a couple of his other books and this one – The Spire – should hit the spot for the medievalists out there. And in fact, for anyone who enjoys a bit of hubris, nemesis and good old fashioned lust.

Dean Jocelin is granted a vision by God and becomes determined that his church should be graced by the tallest spire for miles around. The only problem, master builder Roger Mason tells him, is that the church was built on the cheap, years ago, and lacks proper foundations. Jocelin will not let such petty concerns get in the way of his divine mission and orders the builders to go ahead regardless.

One of the features that makes Lord of the Flies such a compelling read is the sense of impending doom that Golding constructs – we know it’s only a matter of time before these schoolboys and their island society becomes savage and violent. He does something very similar in The Spire, as the reader knows from the start that this extraordinary project cannot end well.

This is partly because Jocelin occupies an awkward space somewhere between religious fervour and hubristic arrogance - his motives are never made entirely clear, which torments Jocelin himself and builds the tension for the reader. The odd rumble of thunder or minor earthquake further destabilise him and us, and Jocelin’s divine inspiration begins to look a lot like a very personal mania.

Jocelin is also tormented by a growing lust for the young wife of his crippled servant, Pangall. In one of the most memorable passages of the novel, Goody Pangall’s flame-red hair spills out from under her cowl and across Jocelin’s thoughts - and prayers - like blood. The implication, presumably, is that somewhere beneath Jocelin’s heavenly project there are far more earthly concerns at work. There are even one or two phallocentric jokes thrown in to push the reader a little further towards this conclusion.

As the spire nears completion, Jocelin’s mental condition deteriorates. He takes to hitching up his robes and climbing up the scaffolding, admiring the flight of the birds and the sensation of the spire shifting and stretching in the breeze. The spire’s internal columns make a whining sound as they move, which comes to terrify the workmen and plague Jocelin wherever he goes.

The rest, as they say, is history. The spire is built, and totters perilously. Jocelin is simultaneously reinforced by faith and plagued by doubt, and the paving stones beneath his feet grow warm with the fires of hell.

Jocelin ends the novel a broken man. He becomes a wanderer and a beggar, seeking the long-gone builder, Roger Mason, for some kind of forgiveness for the actions which endangered the lives of so many men. Throughout the novel, Jocelin is caught between the divine and the human – in motives, in desires – and he ends up with a faith inverted, seeking redemption from a coarse man who trusts only in bricks and mortar.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Doppelgangers, Golems and Hermaphrodites

The first thing to say about Gustav Meyrink’s novel, The Golem, is that it’s not really what you would expect. It is surprisingly light on directly golem-related material. Fortunately, this is still a delightfully dark gothic novel.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a golem is a human-like figure which is magically created and animated. Meyrink explores the Hebrew tradition of the golem, which is given life by inscribing the Hebrew word emet (‘truth’) on its forehead, and returned to its inanimate state by removing the first letter of the inscription, leaving met, meaning ‘death’. Meyrink’s golem manifests itself once every thirty-three years, in a room with no doors and one tiny, barred window.
The Golem - Gustav Meyrink

The setting is the Jewish ghetto in Prague, towards the end of the nineteenth century. This is a richly atmospheric environment which Meyrink fully exploits, giving us all the claustrophobic sights, sounds and smells of the city. The narrow houses, for instance, subsist by exhaling humans each morning and drawing them back every evening to leech out their life as they sleep.

Such colourful descriptions suggest just how much Meyrink drew on his own experiences while writing The Golem. The main character, the splendidly named Athanasius Pernath, endures insanity and imprisonment just as the author did. Descriptions of both, and of the city in which they took place, are consequently very powerful.

Pernath is an engraver of gems whose frequent bouts of insanity mean that the plot of the novel plays second fiddle to Meyrink’s darkly colourful imagination. This imagination draws on the hermaphroditic cults of ancient Egypt just as readily as it does on Hebrew mythology and the kaballah, making for a rocky ride. When the plot does surface, it seems that our protagonist must save the woman he loves from a blackmailing junk-dealer, whilst simultaneously trying to piece together fragmented memories of his troubled past.

So far then, no golem. But during Pernath’s lapses into unconsciousness and insanity it gradually becomes clear that he is inextricably linked with the creature. Neighbours who see the golem rushing through the streets swear that it looks just like him. During his somnambulations beneath the streets of Prague, Pernath emerges into a room with no doors and just one window, with a pack of tarot cards strewn across the floor.

It’s all very confusing, and it is sometimes hard to tell whether this is intentional or not. The first half of the novel is fairly humdrum and revolves around the petty activities of the ghetto-dwellers. The second half snowballs rapidly, becoming ever harder to follow as Pernath’s condition deteriorates in prison.

Eventually, when the fog clears, Meyrink hits you with a plot twist so unexpected (and so unsubtle) that you have to stop and think for a few moments. The ending of the novel is beautiful, despite its appearance out of the blue: Pernath’s hallucinations coalesce and elevate him to some vague, semi-divine state. A stranger arrives. He and Pernath mistakenly swapped hats at a recent gathering. The stranger hopes that his hat has not given Herr Pernath a headache.

Throughout the novel identities are manipulated by the author and episodes of madness  are strategically deployed to make it a remarkably confusing read. Although it is engrossing and well worth reading, The Golem ultimately leaves you feeling much like the unsuspecting victim of some stranger's weighty headgear.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

A Very British Whodunnit...

If you ever feel the need for an utterly whimsical detective story, you might like to try Edmund Crispin. His gentleman sleuth, Gervase Fen, is a professor of literature at Oxford, giving the author plenty of opportunities to display his erudition. Think Inspector Morse, but half a century earlier. This particular novel, Buried for Pleasure, was first published in 1948.

Surprisingly, it has aged very well indeed. Crispin’s style probably wasn’t cutting edge even then, but now it seems beautifully dated. I hate the word ‘quaint’ because it’s so patronising, but I’m struggling to come up with anything better. Fortunately, Crispin is aware of the kitsch-ness of his story and he pokes enough ironic holes in it to make it all incredibly funny.

This is a murder mystery with a political subplot, as, for no particular reason, Fen attempts to become the MP for the obscure country hamlet of Sanford Morvel. Sometimes this subplot seems poorly thought out and unnecessary, apparently existing only as an excuse for Fen’s presence in the village and a chance for Crispin to air his political views. Whence this gem: ‘...the Civil Service is a body whose mistakes are made so thoroughly and definitively, that they can only be rectified by a procedure equally searching and elaborate.’ Mind you, any threadbare excuse can justify that kind of statement.

As we follow Fen’s nascent political career, it becomes alarmingly clear that although he doesn’t really care for the electorate or for politics – and is spending much of his time investigating various sinister happenings – there is a real danger that he might get elected. Fen’s final speech, in which he desperately tries not to get elected, is a real barnstormer. ‘I am bound to conclude,’ he tells a hushed village hall, ‘that this proven obtuseness is not unrepresentative of the British people as a whole, since their predilection for putting brainless megalomaniacs into positions of power stems, in the last analysis, from an identical vacuity of the intellect.’ Not only can you tell that Crispin doesn’t care much for politics (is it me, or does this all seem remarkably resonant?) but you can also tell that he was a schoolteacher who unashamedly enjoyed the aesthetics of words. This is what made Buried for Pleasure so enjoyable for me. Anyone who can casually drop the adjective ‘Rhadamanthine’ into a sentence certainly gets my vote.

So, what about the murders? Well, I can’t say much, but there are enough of them to keep the story interesting. Although there was one plot twist I could see coming, there were a couple of others I missed. Since Crispin clearly isn’t trying to write a ‘serious’ detective story (if there is such a thing) I think he does pretty well.

The fabulously eccentric cast-list also helps. There is an escaped lunatic with a periodic conviction that he is Woodrow Wilson, a Rector who conspiratorially shelters his resident poltergeist, a crime-writer who likes to test his plots first-hand, and buxom wenches aplenty (‘She’m a rare un for mollocking, is Olive.’) And there is Fen himself, of course, with his absurd rhetoric and his uniquely civilised ability to consume five pints of bitter before lunch.

Overall, this is a very funny book that can be breezed through in an afternoon, although you might find yourself reaching for the dictionary from time to time. And beneath all the wordplay and the witticisms, Crispin has a genuine knack for expressing himself with some beautifully crafted sentences which are a pleasure to chew over.