Saturday, October 23, 2010

There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

In the introduction to There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby, a recent collection of short stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Keith Gessen describes Petrushevskaya’s tales as night journeys or visits to the underworld. They are haunted – a colonel is warned in a dream not to look at his dead wife’s face, an obese woman splits into two slim dancers for two hours each night, plague overcomes a town, an orphan is saved from rape from a woman who looks like her mother. Just as in fairy tales, loss and longing stalk the stories – desire for an unborn child or for a dead loved one, or simply the wish to forget a terrible experience.

Summarising the plots suggests that the book is a bleak read, but I found it compulsive and humane. Many of the stories are redemptive, though never sentimental.

Petrushevskaya has said that she tries to write ‘in the voice people use to tell their story to another person on the bus – urgently, hastily, making sure you come to the point before the bus stops and the other person has to get off’. Most of the stories in this collection are short, written in a clean, direct style. Here, for example, is the opening of ‘Hygiene’:

One time the doorbell rang at the apartment of the R. family, and the little girl ran to answer it. A young man stood before her. In the hallway light he appeared to be ill, with extremely delicate, pink, shiny skin. He said he’d come to warn the family of an immediate danger: there was an epidemic in the town, an illness that killed in three days. People turned red, they swelled up, and then, mostly, they died.

Often the strength of the main character’s emotion drives them out of normal reality into a world like that of dark, ancient fairy tales. My own favourites were ‘The Black Coat’, a dream-like parable about suicide, and ‘The Father’, which begins:

There once lived a father who couldn’t find his children. He went everywhere, asked everyone – had his little children come running in here? But whenever people responded with the simplest of questions – “What do they look like?” “What are their names?” “Are they boys or girls?” – he didn’t know how to answer. He simply knew that his children were somewhere, and he kept looking. One time, late in the evening, he helped an old lady carry her bags to her apartment. The old lady didn’t invite him in. She didn’t even say thank you. Instead she suddenly told him to take the local train to the Fortieth Kilometer stop.

“What for?” he asked.

“What do you mean, what for?” And the old lady carefully closed the door behind her, bolting it and fastening the chain.

The writing is simple, but the stories tore my heart out. I loved this urgent and wise collection, and am so excited to have encountered Petrushevskaya. Although she is highly acclaimed in Russia very little of her work is available in translation. The traumas of Russian history shape her stories, but they also have the universal appeal of folktale, thanks to their fierce, stark style and depth of feeling in the dark.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Abandoning novels feels sort of cruel, like letting a whole bunch of people just fade out of your life without trying hard enough to get to know them, so generally speaking if I get past the first chapter I won't give up on a novel. It does happen though: Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire and Marcel Proust’s The Guermantes Way come to mind. At least my abandoned novels are fairly diverse. With regret, 200 pages in, I’m adding Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual to the melancholy little list.

Life is an account of a single day in a Parisian apartment block. The chapters move through the buildings from room to room in the way a chess-piece knight moves across a board. Fragments of information about the occupants’ stories appear alongside descriptions of objects filling the rooms. Stories spill out: an account of a painting can explain the story depicted, the life of the artist or a historical event tenuously connected to the picture.

In reading I was torn between frustration at meeting yet another description of a table or empty room and intrigue at how all these stories might fit together. Perec treats the building like a mystery plot with a single figure at the heart of it, the artist Bartlebooth. Ultimately, the descriptions became too much. May the gods of reading forgive me, but I looked up the plot on Wikipedia to decide whether or not to keep going. The plot is this: Bartlebooth spent 20 years travelling and painting ports, then got these pictures turned into jigsaws. He spent the rest of his life putting the jigsaws back together. Once the image is assembled he destroys it, so nothing remains of his art. But tragically for Bartlebooth, he runs out of time and a few paintings are left behind when he dies.

This is just too contrived to bear. I guess Perec wishes to make a point about life, how we fill it up with things, things remain and we don’t. Alongside the persistence of things, presumably there is the meaningless interconnectedness of life, like Derridean philosophy: every thing is known only by its relations to all the things it is not, identity being nothing more than a network of absence or non-identity. Yes, I’m hoping that flippantly misusing Derrida absolves me for abandoning this novel.

Years ago I read Perec’s A Void, a novel written without ever using the letter e. Writing under such a constraint is some feat in French, a language heavy in e’s, and the translator did a superb job replicating the game in English. But Perec is so absorbed in tricks, life finds no way into the novels. Lots of blurbs on Life: A User’s Manual compare it to Ulysses, but the comparison makes no sense to me. Every word of Joyce’s thrums with vitality, but Perec’s novel felt stifled by its rules and, finally, stifling.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Private investigator Philip Marlowe is hired by an ageing general to deal with a blackmail problem, but soon after Marlowe finds the blackmailer dead and the general’s family entangled in the 1930’s Californian underworld of pornography, gambling and murder. The Big Sleep is a gripping mystery but the real pleasure lies in Marlowe’s voice. He’s the archetypal hardboiled detective, laconic and unafraid.

Time and again Marlowe finds himself stuck in a room with a tough guy holding a gun. He never blinks. Here’s how he copes with Luger-toting casino-owner Eddie Mars, who’s just walked in on Marlowe inside the house of the murdered blackmailer (Mars speaks first):

‘Convenient,’ he said. ‘The door being open. When you didn’t have a key.’

‘Yes. How come you had a key?’

‘Is that any of your business, soldier?’

‘I could make it my business.’

He smiled tightly and pushed his hat back on his grey hair. ‘And I could make your business my business.’

‘You wouldn’t like it. The pay’s too small.’

‘All right, bright eyes. I own this house. Geiger is my tenant. Now what do you think of that?’

‘You know such lovely people.'

‘I take them as they come. They come all kinds.’ He glanced down at the Luger, shrugged and tucked it back under his arm.

I’ve always wondered why classic crime writing is so heavy on outlandish similes. Here’s Marlowe tied up in a remote shack where Mars’ wife is hiding out:

She brought the glass over. Bubbles rose in it like false hopes. She bent over me. Her breath was delicate as the eyes of a fawn. I gulped from the glass. She took it away from my mouth and watched some of the liquid run down my neck.

She bent over me again. Blood began to move around in me, like a prospective tenant looking over a house.

At a guess, the similes break up the tension and, like the wisecracks, tell the reader that the narrator’s keeping his cool, no matter what.

Marlowe doesn’t give much away about himself in this novel. We get no family history and few opinions, but he shows a sense of honour and flashes of sympathy as well as that toughness. I’d love to know more about him, so having waited all these years before reading The Big Sleep, I’m ordering an omnibus on Amazon straight away. In the meantime, here are Bogart and Bacall in the 1947 movie:

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Orphan's Tales by Catherynne M. Valente

Secreted away in a garden, a lonely girl spins stories to warm a curious prince: peculiar feats and unspeakable fates that loop through each other and back again to meet in the tapestry of her voice. Inked on her eyelids, each twisting, tattooed tale is a piece in the puzzle of the girl's own hidden history. And what tales she tells! Tales of shape-shifting witches and wild horsewomen, heron kings and beast princesses, snake gods, dog monks, and living stars -- each story more strange and fantastic than the one that came before.

The Orphan’s Tales is seriously ambitious – ‘the Arabian Nights for our time’ according to the blurbs. The book combines myriad individual stories with an over-arching plot fit for an epic novel of the world’s creation, fallen stars, journeys across oceans and through dangerous cities, and one girl’s discovery of her true identity.

Not only does Catherynne Valente revel in great story-telling, she remakes ancient myths and fairy tales to express bold, modern ideas. This is a feminist re-imagining of the heroes, heroines and monsters we all grew up hearing and reading about, and Valente’s sympathies are always with the outcasts. To take a simple example, a maiden trapped in a tower with her abundant golden hair turns out to be dragon-winged and deer-legged. No Prince will rescue her, but a Witch finds her a perfect place in a pirate ship full of monsters.

The stories are nested one inside another, so a prince setting out on a quest will encounter an old woman who tells her tale, in which she encounters a wolf who tells hers and so on. Some stories fill just one chapter, others spill over into many. It’s a real feat of writing that the stories stay clear and memorable, but also that Valente maintains the tension and suspense while growing so many plots. Overall, I found the books beautiful, serious and enjoyable at once.

For me the first volume, In the Night Garden, was fresher and more exciting than the second, In the Cities of Coin and Spice, although the two connect well. My main problem with the second was that there were some very disturbing scenes of cruelty to children. Valente is drawing on a tradition of fairy stories dependent upon mistreated and abandoned orphans so I understand why she wrote these things, but they were hard to read. Also, I started to feel the lack of strong male characters in this book, but that’s a very minor complaint. The books are challenging, but they’re also very special, a unique voyage for the imagination.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

A circle of British magicians trap a naked man in a glass cage and keep him locked in for 70 years. While they age and die the hostage remains silent and unchanged. The Sandman tells the story of the imprisonment of the King of Dreams, his eventual escape and his quest to recover the powers he lost over the decades.

Since its appearance in 1991 The Sandman has become a classic comic book series so I’m very late to the party. I picked this up for the RIP challenge and there’s plenty of horror here, especially when a madman gets control over the world’s dreams and draws humanity into anarchic self-destruction.

This volume might not be the best of the Sandman series – the quests are a little mechanistic – but there are some great scenes, especially in Hell where Dream meets a rather attractive Lucifer. Also, there’s an appearance from John Constantine, which just might be the reason I picked up the book in the first place (maybe the movie wasn't well-loved by the critics, but it's well-loved by me).

I’m ambivalent about graphic novels since usually I prefer to be plunged into the language of story-telling. This one was a pleasure though, full of the imaginative playfulness you’d expect from Gaiman. He’s very skilled at conveying a lot about the characters in few words of dialogue. I might pick up more in the series – graphic novels (la bande dessinĂ©e or BD) are hugely popular in France so the libraries are full them, and it’s an easy way to read French. Okay, this has been about the Sandman so here’s a little more horror and/or a great song...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Living in a foreign country has had all sorts of funny effects on my reading habits. I read a lot more, partially just to enjoy the English language, but there’s a limited choice in the libraries, English books in the shops are pretty expensive, and Amazon orders have to be rationed. This all means I’ve ended up reading lots of books that have been sitting on the shelf a long long time. Crime and Punishment has been waiting years. I don’t even remember why I bought it in the first place. Autumn’s coming on and I was feeling fairly serious so decided to tackle it this week. Well, I finished. It turns out there’s no prize for getting to the end – disappointing.

The plot summary on my copy begins: 'Crime and Punishment (1866) is the story of a murder committed on principle, of a killer who wishes by his action to set himself outside and above society.' However, I felt that this concept – the murder on principle – became more important after the event, as the main character, Raskolnikov, tries to comprehend and justify his actions. When the actual action happens insanity, anger and frustration appear more significant than philosophy. What follows is a psychological-philosophical thriller as Raskolnikov lives in dread of his crime being revealed. Dostoevsky presents a vivid and repellent portrayal of nineteenth-century St Petersburg, peopled by lunatics, consumptives, saintly prostitutes and generally sinister folk. (See that ugly cover image? It's fitting - Russia here is not onion domes, snow-covered steppes and bear-skin but dingy rooms and worn out clothes.)

Dostoevsky wrote this story following his own experiences of interrogation and trial for political activism. He was sentenced to death, but this was changed to penal servitude and exile. Perhaps this is one reason why Raskolnikov’s tortured monologues are convincing rather than hysterical. The book has become a classic for its urgent interrogation of questions of good and evil, madness, and social justice. It seems foolish to criticise it really, but for me it was too long, the suspense was weakened by speeches that lasted pages (single paragraphs that must have been more than 2000 words), and I never felt convinced that the author really cared about his characters or knew them as more than fictional devices. Dostoevsky’s thought to be one of the greatest novelists who ever lived. For what it’s worth, Crime and Punishment is a great book objectively, but it left me cold.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Murakami has narrative magic I can’t resist. He once quoted John Irving as saying that reading a good book is a mainline. Once your readers are addicted, they’re always waiting. The analogy with drugs is a cold one but it makes sense. His novels open up the strange spaces in the world and I fall right in. Having said that, I was worried at the start of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World that this novel might be just a bit too (can I say it?) weird. I love The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore best of the Murkami novels I’ve read, but their strangeness is always rooted in a world I recognise. While superficially ordinary narrators cook elaborate meals, go to the dry cleaners or the gym and look after cats pretty well, I’m ready to accept dry-well portals and magic flutes made of animal souls. But Hard Boiled Wonderland gives the reader no home ground.

The story takes place in two different worlds. Odd chapters tell a sci-fi espionage story of a man figuring out a data-encryption experiment in the sewers below a Tokyo-like city, and within his own consciousness. Even chapters take us to the End of the World, a walled, perfectly ordered city where (another?) narrator finds himself severed from his shadow and set to work reading old dreams in a library full of skulls. There’s a reason why the book cover has no plot description – it’s pretty tricky to sum up. I took a while to find my feet but as the two stories began to draw closer together and I began to understand a little bit better what was at stake the novel became not just pacy but also poignant and thoughtful.

There’s a great summary of Murakami’s stories by John Wray, interviewing the author for The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER: Few novelists have written and rewritten their obsession so compulsively, I think, as you have. Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Dance Dance Dance, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Sputnik Sweetheart almost demand to be read as variations on a theme: a man has been abandoned by, or has otherwise lost, the object of his desire, and is drawn by his inability to forget her into a parallel world that seems to offer the possibility of regaining what he has lost, a possibility that life as he (and the reader) knows it can never offer. Would you agree with this characterization?


That deadpan response to Wray’s analysis makes me smile. Among his other virtues is that Murakami is a funny man, and he combines this with an obsessive, deadly serious narrative search that Wray describes just right. It’s hard for me to love Hard-Boiled Wonderland in the way I do The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It’s so cerebral. But I’m definitely still fascinated, and waiting for the next shot.

(I read this novel as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge.)