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.