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.