Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Vintage)

“I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first – among all the things that have vanished from the island.”

THE original Japanese version was titled Secret Crystalisation which also marries with the snow falling across the island and perhaps the fate of some of the characters, but the more menacing Memory Police (and an equally graphically intimidating cover) seems more topical, more on message, for our times. Although first published in 1994 this is a very Orwellian, Kafka-esque vision. A dystopian world without memory, without voices, without compassion, a passive acceptance of the unmentionable. A communal Alzheimer’s descends.

Probably Ogawa may also have read Margaret Attwood’s Handmaid’s Tale which first appeared a decade earlier. This is a standout book of similar calibre. Stephen Snyder’s neat translation earned it a place on the International Booker shortlist.  

“It always snows when the onions’ skins are deep brown, like these, and thin as butterfly wings.”

It feels contemporary, rather worryingly so. There are twin plots. Our heroine is a writer. Her latest novel edges closer and closer to her own main story.  You might not say it is totally believable but it is not unbelievable either.

What gets vanished? It starts with rose petals, ribbons, and hats and later calendars, domestic ideological trinkets but also more vital things like birds. All this is enforced by the smartly overcoated, fur collared, heavy booted, inscrutable interlocutors of the title who could have marched out of Peking or Red Square or for that matter the National Guard. The common vocabulary is being shaved away. Memory is not allowed. Was this a first prediction of fake news? The process has begun before we have arrived, our narrator is anonymous, her parents disappeared, her friend is the Old Man, her editor is R. Names might be dangerous.

But even our heroine is succumbing to the general malaise, the acceptance, the idea that the fading memories are for the best.   In her novel the heroine is mute. She communicates by writing and typing. She is in the sway of her typewriting teacher. She frets:

“Does he gently move her finger to the correct spot, as he used to do for me?” she wonders. We have a double life within a double life.

Both heroines are incarcerated, held by invisible forces, their freewill removed, but perhaps that may equally be true of their brusque inquisitors. They have a vague sense of a need to fight back. Ogawa nurses them nervelessly through to the bizarre, fateful but faithful climax.

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Summer by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

“Everybody said: so? As in so what?”

SO, we have the younger genius brother from hell, the father’s mistress who is struck dumb. This is the fourth in the quartet (I presume) and like the other volumes the opening salvo takes no prisoners. “As in, so what?” Smith’s present tense is catastrophe, get over it.

The cover illustration from the David Hockney series of changing seasons reinforce the point that this is writing firstly about time. As in Time. And memory. A record for the future.

It is a brave tradition. Hamish Hamilton first published writers such as Chandler, Capote, Salinger in Britain, then in translation Camus, Sartre, Simenon. A sparkling intellectual heritage is upheld.

Smith toys with the story telling dropping through different episodes of the family saga stretching back beyond world war two. But she plays free and easy with the narrative so, she said, may mean Grace said, may mean mother said…as her characters assume their different roles and perspectives…in Grace’s case as a once aspiring actress made famous by a TV advert…stay awake, children.

Superficially it is an obituary to the Brexit fracture in history, although to label her a Brexit author/protester as the Sunday Times suggested in a pretty awful spoiling review rather dismisses her grander ideas of compassionate internationalism, her perspective through society and her stiletto humour. I was thinking how would a project like this have been for the 1960s or 1930s or even earlier – which all get a mention although here we are grounded in what we know, the now, but what is that? What was it then? And if the characters veer on the side of dotty they are still likeably (mostly) of their time, our time.

Thoughts and memories move between generations: “So here’s another fragment of moving image from across time”.

And so there is a connection being Einstein, being brother and evangelical sister, of truths erased, of messages not delivered, of old violins in the attic, of art that passes, of memories and their value…of distorted realities. And Smith’s bubbling playfulness with language and surreal imagery. It is a dance of ideas. Summer is also an old term for the large beam that holds up a ceiling.

Here the literary references are to Winter’s Tale where in Winter it was to Cymbeline, the social conscience returns to the detention centres of Spring, we meet Charlotte and Art again, in Cornwall again, and a finale that is quite unexpectedly soft and touching.

What to make of the whole quartet? Any one can stand alone because in that sense it is their themes and styles that connect them not the story. Their time. I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s first novel Blue Eyes which is also divided by seasons but it is not as joined up or as focused as that, its interests and enthusiasm are more varied and abstract notions about writing, art, here also film and popular culture. There is life in old causes like Greenham Common. And the despair of being locked up by real and imaginary predators, which extend painfully in this volume as far as the old people’s home.

Smith is a bit of an old hippy, but no harm in being reminded of days when young people did wish each other peace and love. I have a sense that I have been invited into some front parlor with floral wall paper and a large comfortable armchair and offered a cup of tea. So, Ali, tell me how it was, for you…what’s really troubling you?

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The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos (Pushkin)

“In 1971, the American writer Richard Brautigan published a quirky love story about a male librarian and a young woman with a spectacular body.”

A PROPER mystery of the kind that perhaps might not have even been translated into English had Walter not chosen it as the first of his book endorsements following on from his TV tie-ins for foreign films at Channel 4. If you have a tricky to pronounce surname like Foekinos, Walter is a bit of a boon. Walter himself has a slightly tricky last name too by way of Luzzolino while Foekinos, who has 14 novels and films of note to his name in France, enjoys the more familiar David.

This is a literary mystery but plays out more like a board game, much of the pleasure is in considering each twist and turn, not so much a page turner as page contemplater.

In brief, star editor falls for favourite author. They decamp to Brittany and discover a lost masterpiece, written apparently in the local pizzeria. The Henri Pick of the title will be their Vivian Maier, the French nanny in Chicago whose brilliant photography only came to light after her death in 2009.

“Pick’s novel…echoes the fantasy of being somebody else, the unsuspected superhero, the ordinary seeming man whose secret is that he possesses an imperceptible literary sensibility”.

It is a light touch rom com – the back cover tells me it is sparkling, mischievous, satirical. Walter says briefly it contains: Paris, Intrigue and Desire, none of which arrive in the first 200 pages. It is laced with literary references, so even the Pushkin Press publishers get a name check via Pushkin the writer appearing in the said lost masterpiece…. And yes there really was a Richard Brautigan, who did publish a story in 1971…and quite a character he was too. There is some hat tipping to the Brautigan style of black comedy in Foenkinos’s approach. He says:

“Readers always find themselves in a good book, in one way or another. Reading is a complete egotistical pleasure. Unconsciously we expect books to speak to us.”

I am not sure egotistical is quite the correct word in translation here. Solitary, meditative, singular?

Perhaps only a Frenchman would write a sentence like: “She dressed the way he wanted, so that he would undress her in the way she wanted.” But then “normally a very elegant man with almost British self control…”

I cannot see this as television, it would be more of a publishing soap opera, an Emmerdale/Chesapeake set in Brittany/Paris but Delphine is the kind of editor many in publishing might aspire to and Pick’s daughter Josephine fairly sparkles through her unhappinesses. In fact all the women are very well drawn. And it is a snapshot of a bookish era which is passing quickly.

You might park it around the house and return to it at different times, more rhombic than a rumbustious romp – a game of chess –  skillfully assembled, the mystery carefully dissembled, and with a pleasing touch in the manner of the story telling. And also it riffs on the notions of reality and fiction and what we believe. And nobody gets killed. Thank you, Walter, good start.

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The Panda Theory by Pascal Garnier (Gallic)

“He was sitting alone at the end of a bench on a deserted railway station.”

I REALLY like the way Passcal Garnier writes. Setting aside the surrealist crimo plotlines, his characters breathe. They are in the moment. We are with them. They think. The atmosphere is gangster-ish in that the women are molls and the men have secrets. The plot unfolds carefully like a piece of origami. Everyone is going here, there, there is motion and development… Joe’s wife is in hospital. Rita’s boyfriend needs money, Madelene wants to go back to Guadaloupe, Gabriel wins a giant panda at the funfair shooting gallery…

Each short chapter opens slightly off-message. Things have moved on. Like his last book How Is the Pain which Gallic are re-releasing this month, we open with a hotel scene, we are in provincial France, this time Brittany, food and drink are notable assets, Gabriel our central figure likes to cook for other people and asks the reception desk to look after the liver he just bought at the butchers. There are some wonderful not necessarily complimentary descriptions of the women. “She resembled a cake that been left too long in the shop window”. Or this one

“Francoise stood on her doorstep flanked by two small children. Had they been replaced by weapons she would have made a magnificent war memorial.”

Humour is not easy, especially in translation, but each of these reprobates manages to elicit a wry smile. Technically you might say the ending is a bit form-over-substance, the poor old panda does not get a look in, but what leads up to it is classy and mesmerizing.

I liked this other cover, which I think is from Croatia:

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Love Many by Niamh Campbell (winner of Sunday Times audio award)

IT is scandalous to suggest that this blog is in some way in the pay of the James Joyce Jolly bursary to promote writers of Irish descent. It is true that I took a drink (an obscure poteen derivation) from the Irish chef Richard Corrigan. And I was recently in receipt of an email from one Joseph O’Connor who was having trouble with his Proust. I protest my innocence. But here is yet more corroboration of Irish literacy.

The once great (and in this regard perhaps still great) Sunday Times of London awards its Audible Short Story Award worth £30,000 to Niamh Campbell of Dublin. And blow me down if last year’s winner was not Danielle McLaughlin from Cork who became the third Irish writer in four years to also win the most lucrative literary award of our times in the Windham-Campbell Prize being worth £165,000. Her Art of Falling is already being talked up as the novel of 2021.

But as of Niamh, you don’t really need to read/or listen very far into her winning story Love Many to be convinced that her economy of phrase, her directness, her confidence in this semi fiction – because it is an autobiographical, ongoing romance, so in that sense she has played a trump card – gallops along. Recovering from a broken heart she embarks on a series of encounters via Tinder.

“I was wearing my passive-aggressive first date ensemble of plain blouse and faded jeans, with no jewellery and a plaque lipstick, pillar box red”. And stiletto heels. She meets a boy in combat boots….

In interview Campbell suggests Irish writing is resurgent because of shared social upheavals in divorce, contraception, abortion plus of course the troubles and the economic extremes so there is something topical, meaningful and fresh to be transcribed. “A commonality of experience” she says. Also in 1996 university fees were abolished so these are a highly educated generation. She has a novel This Happy (W&N which is brand speak for Weidenfeld and Nicolson , after George and Nigel, founded 1949) which I will get to soon.

Her name Niamh, is old Irish equivalent of Neve meaning radiance.

You can hear her story here and other finalists also last year’s winner Danielle McLaughlin at https://www.shortstoryaward.co.uk/awards/2020/

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Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor (Secker & Warburg)

All night long he would walk the ship, from bow to stern, from dusk until quarterlight, that stick-like limping man from Connemara with the drooping shoulders and ash-coloured clothes”.

I HAD to re-read Joseph O’Connor’s towering fiction on the Irish famine for an upcoming review for Literary Journeys (Modern Books, this autumn). I am struck at how little credit has been bestowed on this tome or indeed the likes of the mendacious and menacing Pius Mulvey – introduced above – as one of the iconic anti-heroes of 21st century writing.

This is drama on a grand Victorian scale that spans continents and the best part of a century.  O’Connor reduces it into believable bite size chunks of drama, of letters, of fragments so at no point does it lurch into ponderousness. To give it its full due, it is an Irish Grapes of Wrath. It first appeared in 2002 when another seafaring epic – the more psychological Life of Pi by Yann Martel – won the Booker. This is a tougher read but from a writing point of view much more interesting, both populist but also psycho-intellectual. For all its anchoring in the miseries of the famine, the individuals rise up through their poverty and never lose sight of their own humanity, for better or worse, for sin or sinner or sinned against. 2002 also saw another vintage journey in Tim Winton’s Dirt Music, a bit of a classic year, then.

There are more decks to this story of an iconic transatlantic crossing than there are on the good ship of the title itself. Buried in the bulwarks could be a chest of treasures by way of letters, etchings, memories, log entries, poems, songs. You might read this as a murder mystery where there are many motivations.  Or for a rich history of the Irish famine that has forced all these different people to make the perilous journey to New York in stormy mid November. Or as a political novel. Or for their individual stories told across 26 days like an oceanic Canterbury Tales. Or just an upstairs downstairs shanty of Anglo Irish social sparring circa 1847.  It probably manages to be a bit of all of them.

O’Connor squeezes many elements on board. Hold on Captain, I have a couple more bags here…But it rattles along with a good wind in its sails, a purposeful sense of its own direction and masterly, wonderful use of language throughout.

There are some memorable, extended dialogues especially between rivals the liberal American writer Grantley Dixon and Lord Kinscourt; a jousting tournament of Olympian linguistics.

“Caressed your little nerve, have I, Grantley, old thing?”

Plus a few small, delicious literary asides creep in with mention of bumping into Charles Dickens and the real story behind Oliver Twist, of the unmasking of Ellis Bell (Emily Bronte’s pseudonym; Wuthering Heights first edition was indeed published in that year; Bronte’s Yorkshire moors, here replaced by Connemara and/or even the Atlantic itself), of an eloquent literary agent and printer in Thomas Newby, who did indeed publish Bronte. The above Grantley has an ulterior, desperate motive for needing to be published quickly.

Before any other words are on the page we have met our monster Mulvey.  He is the title of the prologue. His left foot drags, he is in a tattered military overcoat, his arms are very long. His destitution is more manifest but perhaps no less real than the others on board. He stalks this ship. Intertwined journeys, our monster moving along the galleys and guardrails checking cargo and crew, our chip heading out to sea. And other journeys back into Ireland to explain how these people came to set sail in the first place.

To add an extra layer of drama, this ship of their salvation is itself  “absurdly out of its element, a creaking, leaking, incompetent concoction of oak and pitch and nails and faith bobbing on a wilderness of black water.”

There are so many holes, widgets and new weldings needed to patch it up over the years that it whistles and sings when the wind gets up in the right direction.

Within a few paragraphs O’Connor has set up his stall. His ship, his Star, is of the same ilk and literary provenance as the Melville’s Pequot in Moby Dick, his voyage as important as Conrad’s up the Congo in Heart of Darkness, a thought underlined by the Gothic conceit of opening each chapter with an encouraging explanation of its own, in which we learn etc… (in order) the Leave Taking, The Victim, The Cause….

“In which the captain makes note of a disturbing event (which shall have the most severe repercussions).”

The subtitle is a Farewell to Old Ireland and there are quotes from the time that pitch us into the heart of the potato famine. The prologue is from the above Grantley of a New York newspaper recollecting events of decades previous . But much of this is just decoration, almost distraction, from the elegance of the prose, of the way the narratives emerge out of a fog of perceptions. Like the sailors on board, we get a sense of a presence before we actually see it. We get a sense of one story, when there are more. We do not get one hero, heroine or villain but a choice of five or six.

Faced with all this, a camaraderie emerges, “a republic of the night time” that encompasses all ranks, and also draws us in, as readers, to be spectators at ringside of a fracture in history.  We are on that boat, hopefully not in second class.

We move quickly from fear of this monster to curiosity, to wonder if perhaps this man who shares the features of many men may not be so evil after all? Maybe the monstrousness is what has been done to him? One of O’Connor’s notable skills is to create characters who can change, evolve, develop through plot and dialogue and morph into something else. They are indelible but not cartoons, they emerge graciously. They want things. If it is the men who are the cause here, it will be the women who are the effect.

The scene setting is guilefully cinematic: the overview, the log, a peek below stairs, an argument at the top table, letters from across the Atlantic, an old newspaper opinion piece where the author goes wonderfully, scandalously and libelously over the top in defaming his targets.

Beneath all this there is mission. There is rhyme and reason among these characters where seemingly the rest of the world has been abandoned.  

“The reasons why things are the way they are could be ferociously complicated, Mulvey knew, but in this corner of the empire they worked themselves out into cadences of mathematical inevitability.”

The blank sea, the big weather, severe showers, sleet since dawn, a growler of an iceberg; the Master Lockwood reports to his employers in his log which helps anchor the multiple strands.

It is more than a polemic against the English in Ireland, other well worked subtleties interweave and taunt established covenants. The occasional use of Gaelic is a reminder of the heritage people are leaving behind and a pointer that neither side could really talk to each other.

O’Connor reveals something of his own methods when describing the love the same Mulvey suddenly finds hearing the music coming out of the local inns.

“The songs intersected like springs through the lowland. You saw the shadows of some flit across others: lines borrowed, phrases improved, verses polished and moved around, events edited…as though once there had been only one great song from which the song makers kept drawing, a hidden holy well”.

We are presented with Mary Duane, whose story might have furnished more than one ballad herself as it does here in a Penny Dreadful sort of way. And as with travelling people on a journey, O’Connor’s characters often arrive to find things have also changed in the time they have been away.

Of course we have the sea too, which is allotted aristocratic prose:

“Rolling. Foaming. Rushing. Surging. Beginning to thicken and swell in strength. Now it was a battlement of ink black water, almost crumpling under its own weight, but still rising, and now roaring. It smashed into the side of the bucking Star…”

The oceanic wrath and power is matched, even surpassed, by the emotional turmoil of everyone onboard, caught in a purgatory between eras and civilizations.

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A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry (Faber)

I am Winona. In early times I was Ojinjintka, which means rose.”

SO we are back with those McNulty’s again are we, Sebastian? Another tome in the family history? More about naughty uncle Thomas in Tennessee?

Barry’s prose can read like he is polishing the family silver. Try this:

“The wide river seemed fattened with temperature. Brightly it pushed along, singing that pebble song of rivers.”

There are some memorable individual passages, a couple with fire and one with a storm that stand out like poems in themselves erupting out of the narrative. The scene in the blacksmiths is a furnace of emotion. These almost push you up against a wall and ask: Are you following this? Are you paying proper attention?

I am surprised reading the credits that Barry has written more plays – 14 including Blueberry Hill which was to have premiered in London this month – where this is only his seventh novel (he is also, by the way, the current Laureate for Irish Fiction). But the opening pages are a monologue that might have captivated a theatre audience, held them in thrall, scared them, taken their breath away, sprinkled water on their curiosity, set up a bravura stage performance, rehearsing the forging of deep mental metal prejudice. We are fearful for Winona. We know what happened in the book before this Days Without End. Henry County, Tennessee is no place for an orphan injun.

There is a hierarchy of post civil war, post Indian war oppressions that swing uncertainly back and forth between white immigrant, black draftee, half cast, ex slave, former Indian, girl…militia patrol the straggle of ex soldiers along the road outside the town of Paris. Exceptionally Winona is the only one among this bunch of reprobates that has learned her numbers and gets to work for the lawyer Briscoe who is almost as totemic as she is. On one level Winona is the American story, things happen to her.

The opening has a familiar western style plot lurking …it is a crime and revenge piece, only the usual actors have been moved around a little, like chess, if you will, with different, altered pieces. Our values have been smelted in the ferocious furnace of wars. He mother taught her that time is not a straight line, but a loop. Suddenly Winona will affirm:

“How was I so lucky to have those good-as-women men? Only a woman knows how to live…but in my men I found fierce womanliness living. What fortune…”

Not such good fortune, maybe…Barry fills out his characters in the old shack with such elegant detail that they are believable even when they are a bit unbelievable…You can hear them spit. Aurelius “was as trim as a boat”

Where Days Without End was a travelogue, this is a singular Indian fable, one you might like to believe you would find on the bookshelf of an old log cabin, next to the jug of moonshine.

One of the joys of a new book from an established figure, is the publishers, here Faber, get out their full toolbox of typographics, of leading, of white space, of a frontispiece, of thick recyclable paper, of a mysterious 10 pages at the back of the book left luxuriously blank as if someone miscalculated. It is a pleasing 250 pages to hold in the hands. As is the idiom, an oral story telling given a Victorian accent:

“No kindness or cruelty in whiteeye America was ever done without a piece of paper…” Unless, of course it was with a gun.

GET IT HERE

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Ireland’s Green Larder by Margaret Hickey (Unbound)

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The island of Ireland is so small you can drive across it in a few hours…yet it became the cradle of literature, music and dance, of politicians and soldiers, of philosophers and saints, of boozers and brawlers, and managed to be world class in all categories.”

THE extraordinary feat and joy in this book is the sheer arching rainbow span it covers, a bridge between not just centuries but millenia. Margaret Hickey follows the story of Ireland from the Neolithic bones found by archeologists, triads being very ancient three part poems/ sayings, legends such the hermit Earc of Slane who prayed all day up to his armpits in the River Boyne, travellers’ tales from the well known such as Jonathan Swift to the less so, diary entries from Mrs Delany of June 1750, recipes and advises from the first published cooks right up to the present day where we meet the likes of Anita Hayes of the Irish Seed Savers Association: The whole of the known world, or the known Ireland at least. And she has a further advantage in that  the Gaelic language speaks without using the empire’s tongue, so welcome to a world of shebeen (moonshine) and sloke (seawed) and spailpins (labourers). That she manages to condense all this into a mere 314 breathlessly enchanting, elegant pages is some achievement of the story telling.

Old academics might raise an eyebrow that you can have a food history like this, or not at least for a country with no reputation for food or cooking, but Hickey will have dismantled all such thoughts in a few pages. For me, I prefer my history like this rather than the faction of Hilary Mantel.

The role model if you like for this kind of book was the totemic Food in England by Dorothy Hartley, first published in 1954 although 30 years in the compiling and quoted here…in similar vein Hickey paints an enlightening vision of how ordinary folk survived and in some cases thrived on that small island.

Here are some old cheeses you may not have heard about: tanag, tanach, meathal milsean, grus and mullahawn. And she postulates that it was maybe Irish monks who first brought cheesemaking to more familiar names like Appenzell in Switzerland in AD 620. And even Munster. An Irishman called Walton, she tells us, was shipwrecked off La Rochelle in 1235 and hung his pole out in the waters to which mussels attached, a form of aquaculture still used today, if you follow the blarney.

She goes back further than most textbooks. Sometimes dropping into Latin or old Gaelic texts. This is from 9th century legend:

“Mac Datho’s pig is supposed to have been fed on the milk of 60 cows for seven years culminating in a bulk so huge that 40 oxen are needed to drag its carcass into the feasting hall and nine men are required to hold up its belly.”

There is the Ireland of popular imagination held dear by émigrés and there is the one they left behind which is what we have here. A nation built on bog butter, barley loaves and cabbage, forests once so dense the above pigs grazed on the mast of acorns and nuts like the fabled jamon d’iberico of southern Spain. When the forest was cleared it was for the cattle to fatten on the lush grazing. At this stage the people counted their wealth in terms of beef, a habit that had been passed down by custom and law since 200 BC,  but the arriving Normans had other ideas. They counted richness in terms of acres and land. The troubles you might think had already begun.

Hickey also has another advantage in that she knows her way around a kitchen as her recipes show. I am heading off to do my cabbage and bacon forthwith. Get my boxty on the griddle.

Somewhere between the 11th and 12th century, the hermit Marban is looking forward to his dinner with this poem that is almost a haiku, albeit rather superior in form:

All at evening

The day’s first meal

Since dawn’s bread:

Trapped trout, sweet sloes

And honey, haws

Beer and herbs

Hickey covers most things edible but also finds room for essays on the notion of hospitality as much as on the famine – by when the Irishman was counting his wealth in potatoes not beef – and fairies. Here is a an immortal one liner from someone who knows:

“A potato is judged to be cooked when its skin has just split, when it is said be smiling or laughing.”

Well that is sorted once ,and for all, then.

Published by the friend funding team at Unbound, but there will be a few Irish publishing houses that surely would have wanted to carry this fine feather in their hats.

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AN ISOLATIONIST'S READING LIST

FOR the best in modern writing compiled over much of the past decade just tick the 101 button to the right, a compendium of independent recommendations from my book shelf, fairly scrupulously curated, in no order because each rewards the reading, the only criteria being that these are fiction and non fiction written and published in this century, so for the most part living authors. Some isolationist highlights/recommendations for this week:

In Love with George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy,  perhaps the ioslationist’s book of choice by way of an introduction to the great Eliot, who wrote Middlemarch which is often said to be one of the novels of that century which is often said to be the century of the novel. A book-ish delight

For conspiracy theorists and for those who want to flex their paranoia The Unathutorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James is a cult in the making, a journalistic detective story set in the art world that fairly races along…

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor might also encourage you to read other works by O’Connor. This is a gentle paced Victorian romp through theatre with typically lyrical paragraphs on which you can dwell or return to between cups of tea. For rock’n’roll, especially those of a David Bowie persuasion,  there was the much underated pastiche The Thrill of It All and the American trilogy which starts with the Star of the Sea.

Plenty more recommendations of all sorts are here from unrequited Japanese love to Australian killers to Booker prize winners, perhaps outshone by inimitable Toni Morrison.

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In Love with George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy (Scribe)

inlovewithgeorgeeliot

“The train had shuddered to a halt. Clatter of doors-opening and shutting, noise echoing in the huge vault of Euston station, a smell of oil-flavoured steam and soot. A last door opens…”

 THERE might be a warning on this: do not be tempted to Google George Eliot before you read this, let the story run. It is a good yarn and Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s prose moves, as in the opening quote above, quickly along….

Aptly titled, though the accent is very much on the word love as  it confronts a woman in the Victorian era. If you enjoyed any of Eliot’s writings from Middlemarch, often said to be the book of that century, back to Adam Bede this is a good companion, not so much biography as an explainer, a contexturaliser, elegantly written in homage style. If you have not ready any, you probably will want to after this. Take this coy euphemism:

“and for the first time in a long time, they made their way hand in hand up to the bedroom, intent only on each other.”

This is one of those books you might want to read in Highgate cemetery (where Eliot is buried) and dip in and out, slow or fast, so carefully is it composed that its themes take over the characters and consume them.

From the outset there are subliminal waves of pent up emotions. Eliot, aka Polly, aka Marian, aka Mary Ann Evans, aka Mrs Lewis aka the voice of her century, enjoys her admirers. Here is one:

”There is deep charm in that soft, rich voice. The sense too that one is approaching a hinterland behind that soft voice. A vast hinterland, rich with thought and experience, and the golden thread of erudition…”

It is her mind they covet. She needs such support to give her the determination to write and put down her demons. There is a quote from one of her letters at the start asking;

“What shall I be without my Father? It will seem as if part of my moral nature were gone.”

O’Shaughnessy teases the morals of the era into such thorny subjects such as motherhood and the Woman Question. It is 1857. The men seem to all have endless children, the main women none.

We have hardly begun and she is being propositioned with the gift of a grand piano. Scandalously she moves in with a married man and is ostracized, but we already know from the opening page:

“Yes, this is why we live, she thinks, with a sort of joyous sigh, an inner trembling and sensation of release.”

The prose bravely goes into her double even triple life as linguistic polymath, lover and author where she has tactically accepted the necessity of masquerading behind a male pseudonym. We are in her study.

“Enough. She turns to her other notebook. Her notes, in violet ink, on Lucretius. She lets her mind follow him. Drawing back and down into thought. And suddenly her mood changes. The sky outside moving pleasantly further away. At the edges, a moving object, almost in the visual field, yet just out of sight, configurations forming…”

This is all constructed by our narrator Kate who is organizing a George Eliot conference with her colleague Ann who is also writing a book on Eliot but not a fiction, rather a revisionary critique from a feminist perspective. This subplot is key to opening up some of the later emotional heft.

The letters and quotes we are told are from Eliot’s hand, but the portrayal is from Kate, an ardent, faithful, investigative chronicler. The construction is like a train journey through well to do Victorian society, so Mr James, is actually Henry, so, Burne-Jones is Edward, the painter, so the shirtmaker Simcox is Edith, the pioneering feminist, each presented like small tableaux. Eliot is a watcher:

“As if she could fillet them, know them so completely that she would no longer be jealous, she would be inhabiting them instead.”

But also an independent spirit.

“We women are always in danger of living too exclusively in the affections.”

Another bookish joy is how reading in that era was a shared event, ideas swapped and considered, an essential component of elite society conversation. Something to do through long dark unelectrified, oil lamp lit nights. In the morning to write and receive letters. And a jingoistic celebration that publishers always like, we all like, that an author can make a lot of money, as Eliot did. For them. But credit to Scribe, they have made a beautiful job of designing and printing this book, so it feels like literary treasure in the hands.

 

 

 

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