Oh Shillings!

Original creative and critical writing by Scott Morris

Category: Reviews

A Finger in the Fishes Mouth: The Legacy of Derek Jarman


I’ve reported on the launch of A Finger in the Fishes Mouth, Derek Jarman’s sole poetry collection which has recently been republished by the wonderful Test Centre.

If Jarman’s cinema is devoutly poetic, tonight’s panel are in agreement that his poetry is singularly cinematic. The collection is extremely visual, from Wilhelm von Gloeden’s photo of a prepubescent boy adorning the front cover, to the postcard images printed alongside all but one of these short poems (the missing postcard depicted a nun pleasuring a priest, which the original printers refused to include). These images, washed in green, come from Jarman’s personal collection, mementoes from places he visited and places he would have liked to visit. In some instances, they complement the poems; in others – such as the Black Madonna or the card divining the ‘feminine virtues’ of ‘Your Ideal Love Mate’ – they wilfully disrupt, they answer back.  In poetry as in film, word and image are inextricably intertwined for Jarman. However, this conjunction of poetry and cinema still ‘upsets people’ in this country; British audiences, Mayer maintains, are terrified by ‘the dangerous inversions and hallucinations that word and image can effect on each other’. As such, experiments in this vein have more commonly been continental (take Cocteau or Pasolini, filmmakers and poets both). In Britain, perhaps Jarman’s only identifiable comrades-in-arms are Margaret Tait and Sally Potter.

Read the full report here.


Test Centre: The Museum of Loneliness LP Launch


Over at The Literateur, I’ve written a report on the launch of Chris Petit’s new LP, The Museum of Loneliness. The night featured readings from Petit and Iain Sinclair, as well as a screening of their brilliant collaborative film, Asylum.

It’s a dizzying examination of the ways in which we curate and reorganise ourselves, an exercise in self-stacking, you could say. “Live long enough, and you have a thing called an archive,” Iain Sinclair says by way of an introduction, something that could just as equally be applied to The Museum of Loneliness. Both are projects of obsessive sorting, of reworking; like the clownish figure in Krapp’s Last Tape, we see Petit and Sinclair revisit, time and again, their own records, their own traces, relentlessly, ceaselessly editing ‘versions’ of their work, tentatively proposing some kind of continuum at the same time as radically undermining the prospect. Essentially, they are building upon the legacy of another subversive double-act: William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s tape experiments from the 1960’s pioneered the use of recorded voice as a disruptive weapon. “You are a programmed tape recorder set to record and play back,” Burroughs concedes in The Ticket that Exploded, but “you don’t have to listen to that sound… you can program your own playback”.

Test Centre are the masterminds behind the project, one of the recent crop of brilliant, bold small presses that are finally making publishing exciting again. Find out more about them and order the LP (among other things) here.

Television – Jean-Philippe Toussaint

The protagonist of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s fifth novel, Television (2005), has given up TV – “cold turkey, once and for all, never to watch another show, not even sports”. Why? He’s not entirely sure, though he optimistically believes he can devote his newly liberated time to academic work: a monograph on Titian, inspired by an apocryphal story of Charles V handing the artist a dropped paintbrush in his studio. Throughout the course of the novel, however, he never progresses beyond the opening phrase, “When Musset”. He spends hours arranging the objects in his study, only to leave the house and go swimming, or flying with a friend’s student across the Berlin cityscape. He claims these leisurely adventures to be part of “a gestational process, demanding looseness and flexibility, a game and open mind”, but he’s fooling nobody. This is not a book about withdrawal or obsession or society’s addiction to television. It’s a book about something that anybody who has ever tried to do anything for any period of time will have sympathy with: procrastination.

Indeed, the narrator’s relationship to television, monomaniacal as we might expect it to be, is constantly and comically undercut by Toussaint. Halfway through the novel, when we assume the hero to have been valiantly resisting temptation for months, he mentions in passing that it has almost been 24 hours. He phones his pregnant wife – holidaying in Italy with their son – and announces his resolution, only to receive an indifferent reply: “Yes, we don’t watch much TV here either”. Toussaint makes it clear that the act of abstinence is not nearly as epic as the narrator might consider it; the viewing habits of the book’s characters never resemble the pathology obvious in Videodrome or Baudrillard, say. In fact, the narrator is a pretty half-arsed philosopher on the subject of television. His musings on collective behaviour, simulacra and simulation are intermittent, underwhelming, hardly profound. His later diagnosis of TV as a “disease” doesn’t hold much water: no character is portrayed as addicted or malformed as a result of owning or watching television.

Indeed, Television is a novel curiously lacking action or drama. If Toussaint is, in Tom McCarthy’s words, a writer of the “nouveau nouveau roman”, then in this novel he abandons the traditional strictures of plot – twists, tensions, a denouement etc – in a much softer manner than his radical Francophone forebears. The narrator and his wife are separated geographically, but not romantically; he encounters a possible burglar on the stairs of his apartment block, but his reaction is one of embarrassment rather than alarm. The greatest threats he faces are an old tutor encountering him swimming nude, or accidentally leaving a neighbour’s prized fern in the fridge. The result would hardly make for high-octane TV. However, as a study of scholarly timewasting, Television manages to exert its own captivating and comedic charm.

Satantango – László Krasznahorkai

Originally published at The Cadaverine.

It’s easy to feel intimidated by Satantango. This long overdue translation of László Krasznahorkai’s debut novel is preceded for English audiences by Béla Tarr’s 1994 film adaptation (and one of Krasznahorkai’s many collaborations with the director). Over seven hours in length and shot in bleak monochrome, Tarr’s film has unfairly become something of a shorthand for European art-house cinema as endurance test, for a heavy type of art that people can only subject themselves to, god forbid enjoy (Peter Bradshaw, for example, writes in The Guardian that “compared with the Abu Dhabi section of Sex and the City 2Satantango zips past like an episode of Spongebob Squarepants“). At first glance, solid, unbroken chapter-slabs of prose and lengthy sentences might seem to confirm these fears, but it quickly becomes clear that this novel – much like the film – is sublimely beautiful, exhilarating and often wryly comic.

Krasznahorkai is constantly writing on the brink of something. The inhabitants of a failed, decaying collective farm in rural Hungary are expecting a sudden change in fortune, a possible return to a ‘golden age’, after hearing news of the reappearance of the mysterious Irimiás. His arrival is unexpected; he’s long been thought dead. His relationship to the farmstead remains ambiguous (like so much in this novel), but the villagers are adamant that he is “an angel of hope to hopeless people with hopeless difficulties”. This sense of promise, of impending change, infects even the language of the novel. Take the opening line, which almost trips over itself, racing ahead to a future version of the scene before reining itself back in:

“One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells”.

The ‘apocalyptic tense’ of Krasznahorkai’s writing has been much commented upon, but it carries with it as much expectation of salvation as it does damnation. His characters are goats who would like to think of themselves as sheep.

Tarr’s movie is all about single shots that stretch on for uncomfortable periods of time in resounding silence. In the novel, however, nobody shuts up. Those infamous, protracted sentences build a steady momentum, swallowing quotations, digressions and qualifications up and spewing them out in polyphonic parentheses. “The short sentence seems to me like something artificial, affected,” Krasznahorkai says in a recent interview with Guernica magazine, “When we speak, we speak fluent, unbroken sentences, and this kind of speech doesn’t need any periods. Only God needs the period—and at the end He will use one, I am sure.” Indeed, you would think that this cacophony of narrative voices would be anti-divine by nature, anti-authorial, working towards Bakhtin’s “unfinalisable”, polyphonic truth. But there are occasional clues pointing towards a sinister, authorial presence lurking within the labyrinthine sentences (does a peasant woman, elsewhere consistently prosaic, really recall her lover in terms of “him beating at ‘the grassy cliffs of her consciousness like a roaring sea in a storm’”?), a central and containing force that in turn points towards the novel’s strange and structurally ‘ingrown’ ending.

In contrast to the momentum built by the sentences is the way each chapter in the book’s first half replays the same few hours of anticipation from different perspectives. We meet the Schmidts, Futaki the crippled existentialist, a doctor with a “pathological love of order” who keeps meticulous files on his fellow villagers, a cat-torturing child, an afflicted landlord. Their meticulously charted narratives are simultaneous, creating a sense of short-circuited restlessness, a stuck tape. After all, the tango of the novel’s title – which the villagers drunkenly perform ad nauseum(quite literally) in a central scene – is a dance that goes nowhere, each dancer moving back and forth but gaining no ground. The sections of the novel are accordingly choreographed, building from chapter one to six, only to retreat from six to one in its second half. Excitement is stalled, dissipated. As Irimiás notes, “We think we’re breaking free but all we’re doing is readjusting the locks”. The story of a mysterious stranger entering and corrupting a community is a very familiar one (think of Hamsun’s Mysteries, Gogol’s Dead Souls, even Krasznahorkai’s own The Melancholy of Resistance), but this is a case of someone stepping back into the dance: a return, a repetition, a déjà vu, an actual Second Coming. Soon after Irimiás appears, he makes a grand, motivational speech, which inspires the villagers to begin smashing their houses to pieces on the strength of their renewed hopes for the future. Very rapidly, however, Irimiás proves himself a disappointing and deceptive Messiah.

In this soggy landscape of ruined estates, Krasznahorkai lays on the doom and gloom thickly. He depicts its inhabitants “watching helplessly, day after day, the plaster falling off the walls, the walls cracking, the roofs sagging”. A sense of menace is captured perfectly in George Szirtes’ translation (his third translation of Krasznahorkai’s works), in which acacias are described as “panicking”, a pub is full of “terrified larval faces” and the air is saturated with the “demanding wails of babies, their cries sliding off into the tin-smell of dusk”. Young girls prostitute themselves in a church attic, while their still younger sister meets a particularly desolate and tragic end. There is all manner of immorality and futility, exploitation, betrayal, greed, jealousy, grimy lust.

And yet, in spite of this, the book is an absolute joy to read. Biblical or existential angst is rescued from excessive heaviness by an irrepressible humour and irony. We are always on the brink of laughter, as well as of apocalypse. The sexually frustrated landlord covertly turns the heating up in his bar in the hope that Mrs Schmidt will continue to shed more layers of her clothing. The villagers’ faith in Irimiás and his accomplice Petrina as saviours is shattered as soon as we are introduced to them, ridiculously twiddling their thumbs in a police station corridor, as if Beckett had suddenly cut to Godot leafing through Ideal Home in a dentist’s waiting room. In an especially brilliant chapter towards the end of the novel, we are shown an office of clerks charged with the task of transcribing Irimiás’ notes on the villagers, bathetically sanitising his overly gloomy and melodramatic language (“wrinkled drink-sodden dwarf” becomes “elderly alcoholic of small stature”), as if Krasznahorkai is poking fun at the pretensions of his own prose, bursting his own bubbles of mud. These episodes never undermine the book’s more solemn, more awful moments, but they do show the way in which life must often involve a combination of the two. As Petrina remarks, “jokes are just like life… Things that begin badly, end badly. Everything’s fine in the middle, it’s the end you need to worry about”.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis


In Lydia Davis’ ‘The Center of the Story’, a female writer struggles to find a focal point to her work. She reasons that

‘if she takes out things that are not interesting, or do not belong in the story for other reasons, this will give it more of a center, since as soon as there is less in a story, more of it must be in the center.’

Davis’ hefty Collected Stories gives the lie to this rationale, containing as it does so many remarkable examples of one-line, one-sentence, one-paragraph micro-stories that are distinctly lacking in centres. ‘Certain Knowledge from Herodotus’, for example, reads in full as

 ‘These are the facts about the fish in the Nile:’

 That concluding colon is no typo. Rather, it emphasises how typically skewed, off-kilter these stories are, strategically ‘incomplete’ stories that appear to sidestep conventional narrative meaning, pushing it offstage. These are stories set starkly in the middle of so much blank space, and that blankness can be intimidating, off-putting. Short, they may be, but easily digestible, they are not.

The paperback edition of Collected Stories will be a long overdue introduction to Davis’ work for many UK readers, most of whom will have heretofore only really encountered her translations of Flaubert, Blanchot or Proust. Davis has described her very short pieces as ‘a reaction’ to the long, verbose sentences of the latter, which made her ‘want to see how short a piece of fiction could be that would still have a point to it, and not just be a throwaway joke’. While some, like ‘Idea for a Short Documentary Film’ (‘Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging’), do indeed read as literary one-liners, they are in the company of an incredible stylistic diversity. This is a heady collection of aphorisms, monologues, thought experiments, unashamedly facetious word games, domestic fables, celebrity sketches in the tradition of Barthelme and Coover (‘How W. H. Auden Spends the Night in a Friend’s House’, ‘Kafka Cooks Dinner’) and psychological and ethical quandaries explored with an satirically obsessive logical correctness (‘We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders’ smacks of David Foster Wallace, in a good way).

However, for all their formal experimentation, Davis’ stories return again and again to the same themes and issues. There are lots of stories about food; lots of stories about houses in the country; lots of stories about growing old. There are a tremendous number of stories about animals, both domestic and exotic, which prod at the mysteries of our companion species; how, Davis asks in a story like ‘The Old Dictionary’, does a relationship with a dog compare to or influence a relationship with one’s own child? Most evidently, there are stories about family relationships – recurring themes of marriage breakdown, emotional alienation and childrearing that, for all their stylistic oddities, can feel uncomfortably autobiographical. Refuting that notion that postmodern experimentation is always empty and disconnected from real feeling, these stories often seem as if Davis is forcing herself to replay painful, personal moments from many different vantage points and voices in an attempt to articulate them better. In her first collection,Break It Down (1986), Davis writes a series of pieces on family members as abstract, self-contained objects, including the brilliant ‘The Brother-in-Law’ (‘Whose brother-in-law they did not know. Or where he came from, or if he would leave’). Funny as these pieces are, they also betray a serious concern with the exact roles of mothers, husbands and great-grandmothers within the modern family.

This volume comprises the four collections that Davis has previously had published in the US, and so gathers together material from 1986 to 2007. Undoubtedly the most accomplished of these collections is 2001’s Samuel Johnson is Indignant, which includes some of Davis’ most hilarious (‘Companion’), bizarre (‘My Husband and I’) and poignant (‘Betrayal’, ‘The Old Dictionary’) writing. Davis is seemingly allergic to direct dialogue, always preferring to narrate in a removed, essayistic manner, creating stories that often read as summaries of stories rather than stories themselves. Ben Marcus has diagnosed Davis with a ‘nearly autistic failure to acknowledge the emotional heart of the matter’, which, while capturing the clinical quality to her writing, nonetheless overlooks the beautiful and circuitously moving heights that Davis’ prose regularly achieves. For the most part, her detached technique successfully expands the possibilities of the short story form, but in some instances, detachment leads to an unintentional flatness, and stories like the long ‘Lord Royston’s Tour’ are more admirable in conception than in execution. Still, this collection is an invaluable overview of Davis’ career, and proof of the extreme malleability of the short story form, in the hands of one of its masters.

Originally published at The Cadaverine.

The Brothers – Asko Sahlberg

Originally published at The Cadaverine.

It’s entirely appropriate that Peirene Press begins its 2012 series of ‘Small Epics’ with a Finnish author, as Finland is essentially a country born from epic. The Kalevala, a collection of folk stories, poems and songs compiled by Elias Lönnrot in the early part of the nineteenth century, has been credited with inspiring a sense of national identity and a shared mythology amongst Finns, as well as elevating the long subordinated Finnish language. This new imaginative consensus and feeling of cultural autonomy gathered momentum over the course of the century and paved the way for 1917, when Finland finally shrugged off the Russian Empire and declared its independence.

Asko Sahlberg’s The Brothers is not, however, an epic concerning the birth of nations, but their ownership and domination. It is set on a farm immediately after the end of the Finnish War of 1808-1809, in which Russia wrested the country from Swedish hands and re-christened it the Grand Duchy of Finland. Familiar, epic themes of conflict, treachery, violence and tragedy are vacuum-packed into this novella.  Two brothers, Henrik and Erik, have spent the War on opposing sides. Henrik has long estranged himself from the family, after being cheated out of a neighbour’s prized horse (by the neighbour) and the neighbour’s prized daughter Anna (by Erik) in his youth. He has lived for the last few years in St Petersburg, making only sporadic visits back to the house, each time appearing with more ostentatious horses and women at his side. The novel begins with his unexpected and unwelcome arrival back at the farmhouse, which can only spell trouble.

Despite the specificity of the time period, this novel wears its history lightly. This is not a costume drama; period details are largely disregarded, balancing the drama between the familiar, the contemporary and an ancient timelessness. Space is prioritised over time, and Sahlberg shows a real talent for depicting place. Throughout the book, he establishes the snow-coated homestead as a character in its own right. ‘At least the place hasn’t been left to rot,’ are Henrik’s first words to the farmhand – ultimately spoken too soon, as he later comes to admit:

 ‘This house is a cadaver. The others are too close to see it, but it has already begun to decompose… It is as if a collection of bones had been unearthed and dressed up in fine clothing to create the illusion of a real body. The wallpaper and chandeliers make no difference.’

The Brothers is a novel of perspectives and proximities, told through a series of first person, present tense monologues. Information is conveyed or withheld depending on whether certain characters happen to be in earshot. Henrik’s conversation with the farmhand, for example, is narrated by neither of the men, but by Anna, who has sneaked behind the cowshed to listen in.

The opposite is the case in a masterfully crafted centrepiece scene, in which the Crown Bailiff arrives to relay the novella’s crucial twist. All the characters are present, ‘[coming] into view as if by mutual, fateful agreement’, arranged around the snow-coated yard like actors awaiting direction. The revelation and its reaction are narrated with cold precision by the house’s Old Mistress, positioned too far away to hear the exchange. This removal from the drama allows it to unfold as if watched in widescreen with the sound off – a silent, stylised, beautiful sequence, in stark contrast to the frenzied emotion of the actual event.

Sahlberg writes with restraint, each short, serious sentence loaded with melancholy, and the occasionally striking image. A man’s fear of other men is distinguished from that of women, ‘like water newly drawn from a well compared with water that has long been standing in a jug.’ The Crown Bailiff speaks as if his words are ‘squeezed out through a tangle of worms.’ For all his austerity, however, Sahlberg just as often misfires with awkward phrasings: Henrik is ‘echoey with emptiness’; Anna says of Henrik that she ‘did not allow him to throb inside me.’ It is possible that these expressions lose something in translation, but they certainly cannot be excused as idiosyncracies of the different voices. All eight of the novel’s narrators speak in a markedly similar way, all blending into a uniform, flat tone by its close.

In a prefatory note, publisher Meike Ziervogel describes The Brothers as a book ‘as Finnish as a forest in winter but that resembles a work from the American South: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.’ The structural similarities between these two novels, namely their headed character chapters, are obvious, but for me the more immediate point of comparison was Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Both books chart the deathbed twitches of proud families confined to disintegrating houses, picking themselves apart through acts of petty vengeance. The Old Mistress, the widowed, damaged and yet magisterial matriarch, reads like Faulkner’s Mrs Compson; Mauri, the malformed, exploited relation, is like a malevolent version of Benjamin Compson. But while Faulkner manages to elevate domestic disputes to the level of true epic tragedy, Sahlberg does not get half so far. The Brothersultimately feels like a sketch for an epic, using big themes but failing to handle them with much originality. His terse language evokes an absorbing, frozen backdrop, but The Brothers is a predominantly lukewarm  read.

Best European Fiction 2012 (so far…)

Dalkey Archive Press is fast becoming my favourite publisher (though with strong competition from And Other Stories), dedicated as it is to promoting or reviving the overlooked, the unheard-of, the out-there. In 2011, it introduced me to the likes of Juan Goytisolo, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Dumitru Tsepeneag and Eileen Myles, and its volume of The Review of Contemporary Fiction on ‘failure’ is yet to leave my bedside. Its annual collection of European short stories was, therefore, an obvious choice for a Christmas present. I’m currently thirteen stories in (out of thirty-four), but these are my thoughts so far.

The collection opens a little underwhelmingly, with not one of the three authors included in the section named ‘love’ offering a distinctly original take on that cuddly subject. Maja Hrgović’s ‘Zlatka’ is a euphoric read at least, presenting the disarmingly uplifting story of a one night stand between a hairdresser and her client. ‘This Strange Lucidity’ by Agustín Fernández Paz, on the other hand, suffers from an overused and clumsily deployed conceit, having a dog as a narrator. Bulgakov and Kafka have shown that there is some creative mileage in this idea, but in Paz’s hands it becomes wearily sentimental and obvious. ‘My Hand is Exhausted’ by Patricia de Martelaere is not the sort of love story you’d expect from its title, but rather an examination of the relationships a portrait painter forms with her sitters.

Things get much more exciting when we reach the second section, ‘desire’, and more specifically, ‘The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus’ by Janusz Rudnicki. It’s a real metafictional salad of a story: its title recalls Goethe, its narrator quotes relentlessly from fellow Pole, Bruno Schulz (‘I could become chairman of the Schulz Club, if such a thing were to be founded’) and it reads like a blackly comic retelling of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Like Mann’s Aschenbach, an ageing author-academic flees to an Italian town where he becomes infatuated with a youth while the people around him are threatened by a deadly epidemic (or bird flu, in Rudnicki’s case).

The decision to organise the stories thematically (love, thought, music, children etc) rather than geographically allows these stylistically diverse writers to escape any kind of nationalising theory, the idea that these authors are representative of a national tradition. As you would expect, the borders between the sections are impossible to police. In the first part of the anthology, war is especially predominant. There is a chapter set aside specifically for the subject. This includes a piece from David Dephy, cult poet and innovator of the new Georgian generation and author of the ‘STOP RUSSIA’ slogan; a powerful story of gang criminality in Limerick by Desmond Hogan; and ‘The Telescope’ by Russian author Danila Davydov, a fantastic piece reading like an excerpt from a Beckett novel, in which war threatens to come variously from outer space, China and a young boy’s mind. However, editor Aleksandar Hemon has arranged the collection so that the stories bookending this section also toy with ideas of the battlefield: Rui Zink’s ‘Tourist Destination’ (‘elsewhere’) charts a suicidal holidaymaker’s journey to a conflict-ravaged, unnamed country, while Jiří Kratochvil (‘thought’) tells his story of Second World War perversion and barbarity from the perspective of an intelligent and articulate Cossack cavalry horse (an animal POV that works far more successfully and imaginatively than in Paz’s story). Themes spill into one another.

So far, my favourite story is Arno Camenisch’s ‘Sez Ner’, something of an alpine fable, a fairy tale sparsely peopled by what could be the cast of a Werner Herzog movie. The piece opens with a striking and hilarious image: ‘The dairyman’s hanging from a paraglider, in the red firs below the hut on the alp at the foot of Sez Ner. You can hear him cursing from the hut.’ It’s as if you’re watching the scene from a distance, viewing it in wide screen, and there is an element of creepy detachment that pervades the rest of the story – the characters are unnamed, the narrator dispassionate.

The trouble with growing to love stories in this anthology is that it can lead to a romantic cul-de-sac. Typing Camenisch into Google or Amazon, for example, yields no other translations from Rhaeto-Romanic or German. The same goes for many of these writers. This is frustrating for those looking to delve deeper into the backlists of these new finds, but it also emphasises the importance of this collection. Access may be somewhat limited for English monoglots like myself, but I am thankful to Dalkey Archive Press and their cadre of translators for at least providing an insight into some of the continent’s more unusual and innovative storytellers.

Swimming Home – Deborah Levy

 This review first appeared in The Cadaverine, October 2011.

In reality, depression is a terrible illness, but in the realm of fiction, film and music, it can often be little more than a worn-out cliché. Lars von Trier’s recently released Melancholia seemed determined to avoid identikit, angst-ridden narratives; it uses a highly stylised cinematography and a conceit so utterly bombastic (Kirsten Dunst’s character’s descent into depression coincides with the earth’s collision with the planet ‘Melancholia’) that it drags the audience out of its comfort zone. Orbiting somewhere between The Bell Jar and Deep Impact, the result is a startlingly beautiful and original take on depression, challenging our ‘overfamiliarity’ and conveying something of the very real horrors of the condition.

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home adopts an opposite approach. Rather than escaping them, she wilfully recycles the clichés and over-familiar scenarios associated with depression. We have heard it all before. Kitty Finch, a beautiful, damaged, frequently naked girl infiltrates the middle-class Jacobs family and their guests, while they holiday at a villa in the south of France. As the novel progresses, we uncover a history of eating disorders, institutionalisation, electroconvulsive therapy. There is a suicidal cry for help, thinly veiled within a poem. There’s the brash, hypermasculine hunter who dismisses Kitty as mad; the sensitive poet with a similar mental health history who can best understand her. Levy confronts these formulae of depression head-on, straining them until they crack, revealing something strange, unique and exceptionally moving.

Her characters are instantly recognisable and react in recognisable ways, becoming almost types. Levy describes the holidaymakers in the terms they use to pigeonhole each other. To Madeleine, an elderly neighbour, Mitchell is ‘the fat man who liked guns’; to Mitchell, Joe Jacobs is ‘the arsehole poet known to his readers as JHJ (Joe to every one else except his wife)’. Isabel Jacobs, on the verge of leaving her husband, is referred to over the course of only a few pages as ‘the journalist wife’, ‘the betrayed wife’ and ‘the exotic wife of the poet’. If these characters are foisted between pre-written roles, it is because Levy is keen to emphasise that this drama has been playing itself out for millennia. Considering the prehistoric humans that once inhabited the area, Joe realises a continuity between them and him: ‘They knew the past lived in rocks and trees and they knew that desire made them awkward, mad, mysterious, messed up.’

The novel is written with a discreet, discomfiting surrealism. Take the opening sequence, in which a body is spotted floating in the villa swimming pool. The holidaymakers’ reaction is absurdly cool, illogically indifferent: ‘’Jozef thinks she’s a bear,’ Isabel Jacobs replied in her detached war-correspondent voice.’ Shortly after, this bizarre comment is put into context when we learn that the party has been reading reports of a bear taking a swim in a celebrity’s Los Angeles pool. Still, from the very beginning, Levy wrong-foots her reader; even when we know that the ‘bear’ is in fact Kitty, and that she is alive and well, we cannot shake off the strangeness surrounding her entrance into the Jacobs family.

Levy works with a limited set of metaphors, which she reuses, placing them into striking contrast with one another. Characters fall back on the same language, are unwillingly drawn together through the same symbols: ‘[Madeleine’s] eyes were cloudy like the pool Kitty Finch had complained about to Jurgen and she thought she might be losing her sight.’ Often, metaphors are stretched, awkwardly. Suddenly desperate to secure his wife’s love, Joe asks if she likes honey: ‘He would poke his paw inside every hollow of every tree to scoop up the honeycomb and lay it at her feet if he thought she might stay a little longer with him and their cub.’ What at first seems overwritten falls into place when we remember the opening talk of bears, when we notice the dead bees dotted around the pool, when we find the block of honeycomb that Joe eventually does buy his wife.

It’s maybe tempting to assume, from all this talk of self-conscious language and character types, that Swimming Home is a dehumanised, abstract novel. Indeed, judging from Tom McCarthy’s overcooked introduction, in which he laboriously namechecks Deleuze, Lacan, Freud and Robbe-Grillet, you’d think it to be one big exercise in literary theory. However, this would be to completely disregard the subtlety of Levy’s writing and to brazenly ignore the defiantly human and positive message of the book. This is not merely a meditation on the destructive potential of depression, but also a poignant case for resisting it. Nina, Joe’s daughter, remarks that people ‘have to dream themselves out of life and back into it, because life must always win us back.’ It is this mixture of style and sentiment that gives Swimming Home its mysterious, disquieting power. On the one hand, the novel unfolds with all the restrained, cool assurance of French nouvelle vague cinema (think Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad), but this is tempered by an urgent optimism, an unashamedly compassionate portrayal of lives losing their way. In a novel so full of clichés, Levy’s writing transcends them all, producing instead something profound, unsettling, magnificent.

Jude in London – Julian Gough

This review first appeared in The CadaverineOctober 2011.

Julian Gough’s Jude in London is best described as a ‘metafictional titty-pincher’, to snatch David Foster Wallace’s phrase. The titty-pinching is real and ever present, not to mention the titty-stroking, the titty-grasping, the fellating and the fluffing (corrective surgery has left Jude, our hero, with a nose made from erectile tissue). However, Gough is no less caustic, madcap and irreverent when dabbling in the metafictional side of things – that is, books talking about books. But beneath the slapstick humour of the book’s literary references, there is a deadly seriousness. Again and again we are reminded that this is a ‘State Of The Irish Novel’ Novel. And, as one character suggests, it is in a very sorry state indeed:

‘Ours is the first generation in three hundred years… in which the Novel has made no progress. Indeed, it has retreated. And a novel which is not novel is not a novel.’

The supposed villains and perpetrators of this decline are those Irish novelists who bog their writing down with funerals, family secrets, the rain – and more funerals. These are the likes of ‘Colm Tóbleróne’ (Colm Tóibín) and ‘Shawn Bawn’ (John Banville), the latter even making an appearance in cruelly caricatured form, as the Fantastic Four’s ‘The Thing’.

Gough is on a mission to rescue the novel from this dreary rut. But how to go about it? A blind Librarian, encountered by Jude in the cellar of a Soho pub, prophesies that the saviour of literature will come ‘disguised as a comedy’. Elsewhere, Gough has written about literature’s ‘lopsided’ over-fondness for the tragic mode, and has urged a return to the criminally trivialised comic tradition. In an article for Prospect magazine, he advises writers to ‘steal from The Simpsons, not Henry James’, to aim for ‘realistic texture and a cartoon event-rate with a broad range of reference.’

Such a novel is Jude in London. Second in a trilogy, the novel continues the adventures of Jude in Ireland (a summary of which is provided as prologue), following orphan Jude on a double quest to reclaim Angela, his (seemingly disinterested) True Love, and to expose the Secret of his Origins. Ultimately, this quest matters to nobody aside from Jude, and Gough uses the quest narrative as a way of stringing together a series of often brilliant set pieces. As a result, Jude is a sequence of almost self-contained episodes: The One Where Jude Recreates the Universe in a Particle Accelerator, The One Where Jude Wins the Turner Prize, The One Where a Somalian Cameraman Explains the Irish Banking Crisis to Jude in Terms of Goats Mown Down by Landing Planes.

But is it funny? The comedy is wide-ranging, unrelenting and, often, hilarious. Gough draws on farce, wordplay, satire, absurdism, sitcoms, cartoons, slapstick and toilet humour; he accumulates references pinched from sources as diverse as The Sound of Music, Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’ and Roland Barthes, building these up with impressive comic timing to arrive at excellently atrocious punchlines. A particularly funny scene sees a gaggle of Irish speculators attempt to build a wall using a single brick (‘I’ve an asset I want to leverage. Will you give me ten on it? … Now I’ve ten blocks’); another finds Jude debating literature with a Great Irish Novelist in a pub-cum-porn-studio (a writer renowned for having ‘translated Finnegans Wake into English’).

Gough knows his comedy lineage, and wants us to know that he knows this too. He returns obsessively to Ireland’s great comic novelists, casting them as ‘superheroes’ against the villainous likes of Sebastian Barry and Anne Enright. Trying to get his bearings on the canon, Jude envisions James Joyce as Superman (‘A journalist. Wore glasses. Lived in exile, from a lost and distant world to which he could never return’), Samuel Beckett as Batman and Flann O’Brien as Spiderman. Elsewhere, positive reference is made to Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift. These writers have clearly influenced Gough’s approach to language and grotesque characterisation, but his comedy sometimes suffers from making these connections too forcefully, too desperately. In these instances, the humour feels militant and contrived, humourless as a result.

Most of the laughs derive from Jude’s cataclysmic innocence; he merrily swans through events with an almost autistic inability to understand situations as they really are, mistaking a motorway for a river, a prostitute for an artist’s model. The dramatic irony of these misperceptions lends them an amusing charm, but it occasionally backfires. In a concluding scene at Tate Modern, the oblivious Jude goes about making Tracey Emin’s bed, cleaning out Damien Hirst’s ‘fishtank’, sweeping away Chris Ofili’s elephant dung and switching off Martin Creed’s light. Taking potshots at the Young British Artists not only comes fifteen years late, it’s also a cheap joke that has been overdone a hundred times already, not least of all by reactionary voices that I’m sure Gough would not like to align himself with.

Moments of this novel induce that feeling of awkwardness you get seeing a stand-up comedian fall flat but, mercifully, they do not ruin the enjoyment of what is, for the most part, a fast-paced, engaging and clever novel. Through certainly not the ‘new Ulysses’ that his characters urge Jude to write (Gough is an ambitious writer, but I think even he’d draw the line there), Jude in London is a genuinely unusual bit of writing, and a refreshing anomaly in modern fiction. Feck knows what will become of Jude in the final part of the trilogy, but it is probably safe to assume there won’t be a funeral in sight.

Embassytown – China Miéville

Embassytown finds China Miéville moving from science-fiction towards something that might more accurately be classified as a ‘semiotic-fiction’. Of course, the novel is full of androids, monster races and intricately realised worlds; indeed, it is more unapologetically alien than its immediate predecessors, the more terrestrial Kraken and The City and the City. This is a universe in which space travellers move through the ‘immer’, an ambiguous dimension that ‘underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole’; aliens farm half-living, ‘biorigged’ architecture, vehicles and weaponry, transported across their planet by colossal oesophagi. However, it is not just the limits of physics and biology that Miéville shows interest in – Embassytown is, first and foremost, a masterful interrogation of the limits and possibilities of language itself.

The novel centres on the Ariekei, a race of beings incapable of lying. In an evolutionary development that would have given Derrida a nervous breakdown, the Ariekei speak a language (known as ‘Language’) in which words correspond directly to ideas, in which the signifier is indistinguishable from the signified. As the book’s humanoid narrator, Avice, explains:

‘In the beginning was each word of Language, sound isomorphic with some Real: not a thought, not really, only self-expressed worldness, speaking itself through the Ariekei.’

As a result, Language is distinctly anti-literary. It has no grasp of hyperbole, of metaphor – it can just about stomach the non-committal vagueness of a simile, and only then if the events it describes are ritually enacted and preserved in the Ariekei’s cultural memory. This is what happens to Avice who, following a sinister childhood encounter with the Ariekei, is now used to describe things ‘like the girl who ate what was given to her’. She becomes Language. Avice is a citizen of Embassytown, an outpost colony that maintains prosperous trade with the Ariekei (its ‘Hosts’) via a cadre of Ambassadors – genetically engineered doppelganger pairs who, alone amongst the non-Ariekei, can speak Language and be understood. It takes a good hundred pages to get to grips with this complex linguistic symbiosis, after which point a strange new Ambassador arrives and unwittingly begins to dismantle it.

Throughout his career, Miéville has coupled a visionary sci-fi talent with a keen appreciation of the built environment. Consequently, his made-up cities are described with a lurid conviction that makes him something of a space age Baudelaire. He consistently portrays city life as a clash between the different and seemingly mutually exclusive experiences of individuals and communities. This idea is expertly literalised in The City and the City, in which the ‘doppel-cities’ of Besźel and Ul Qoma share the same geographical location, but manage to conceal themselves from one another through an amazing act of collective ‘unseeing’. Embassytown portrays yet another bifurcated, ‘doppel-city’, in which language renders two groups virtually unknowable to one another. When the mediating powers of the Ambassadors are thrown into question, Embassytown very much becomes a book about rescuing inter-group relations, about empathising with an alien ‘Other’. While Miéville’s plots are often as high-octane as the best thrillers, Embassytown successfully evokes and then derails notions of goodies and baddies and escapist star wars, in favour of pragmatic political strategies. This is a writer, after all, with a PhD in International Relations to set alongside his three Arthur C. Clarke Awards.

In opposition to the anti-figurative ‘Language’ stands Miéville’s own skilful stylistics, and Embassytown certainly demonstrates his development as a literary craftsman. Early works like Perdido Street Station, imaginatively ambitious as they may have been, were spoiled by clunking sentences and monstrously purple prose. With each new novel, however, his words take on a new tautness, an added muscularity, and Embassytown contains some of Miéville’s most exhilarating passages to date. His descriptive powers are most impressive when describing the Ariekei’s ‘biorigged’, half-sentient architecture: he depicts ‘walls sweating’ and ‘window-ventricles opening’, houses with ears that ‘flex with expectation’. His sentences also betray an increasing awareness of the limitations and drawbacks of his own language; midway through the novel, Avice admits with defeat that she can no longer tell her story in line with her intended structure – ‘for whatever reasons, it doesn’t want to be what I want to make it.’ ‘Literary sci-fi’ is an ugly and insulting phrase, often used to ‘rescue’ adept writers from the perceived evils of genre-writing, and is constantly applied to Miéville and his work. Embassytown, moreso than any of his previous novels, shows a willingness to tackle the big questions of language, literature and creative communication, while defiantly sticking to the tropes and tentacles of the genre.