Lisbon: City of Books

I always thought the title “City of Books” belonged to Paris or Dublin, but now I’ve visited Lisbon. In four days I only scanned the first page but I sense volumes more beneath. Let me set the scene:

Lisbon scape 2

This is a city where the first time tourist needs a 3D map. Maybe our sense of direction is poor, or our orienteering skills have faded with satnavs and Google maps. Whatever the reason, we were pretty useless for the first two days, until we realised the roads we saw on the map as a simple left turn or clear right angle were just as likely to be a flight of steps, an alleyway, even an outdoor lift or funicular, possibly right above our heads or below our feet as they slithered on the shiny cobbles. “I’m sure we’ve already walked along here,” we heard a plaintive English voice say, and chuckled knowingly until our target eluded us yet again and we ceased to see the joke.

We climbed and we slipped, we clung by our fingernails to the back windowsills of trams with our belongings squeezed against our tummies to deter pickpockets, we gasped at stunning views, admired skilled graffiti and deplored senseless scrawls. We stepped over endless building sites and began to take Roman stones for granted. We encountered skilful fado buskers on anarchic exhibition sites.

Lisbon street art
busker in Alfama

We stood in queues for elevators where turning a simple corner would have brought us to the same spot, and we abandoned the laws of physics for we couldn’t understand how that could be.

Strange priests greeted us silently from behind closed grilles, next to ordinary homes selling cherry liqueur (ginjinha) for one euro a glass. A fierce and friendly lady gave us an impromptu but demanding Portuguese lesson for the full half hour of the tram out to see the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos at Belém (which means Bethlehem – it’s in Lisbon too) and when we arrived who was there but the archangel Gabriel himself/ herself/ theirself/ itself.

On the way back from meeting the archangel we failed to visit the main Art Gallery because although we succeeded in identifying the nameless bus stop from inside a bus with no route maps, the doors were broken and no passengers could disembark until the terminus.

I knew nothing of Portuguese literature so as always I turned to trusty TripFiction to help me, with their list of “Books set in Lisbon”. More confusion! The first two books to catch my eye had the same title: Night Train to Lisbon, and neither is by a Portuguese author. The one that intrigued me was by Swiss author Pascal Mercier.

Goodness, it’s a clever book. I thought it might be a bit pretentious, but translations, however well done, often have a slightly pompous tone, and European literary fiction always pins its intellectual colours to the mast more confidently than the diffident English. The book has many compensating qualities. The hero, Gregorius to the author, is a dry Swiss teacher, nicknamed Mundus by his pupils. He has an encyclopedic command of classical Greek, Latin and Hebrew, German mother tongue, and can quickly learn other languages. Suddenly throwing away the prudent habits of a lifetime when he’s entranced by the sibilant murmurings of a Portuguese lady he has possibly saved from jumping off a bridge, he sets off for Lisbon from Bern after coming across a strange book of musings and memories privately and posthumously published by a Portuguese doctor thirty years before. In a second hand bookshop. You know, as you do.

The attraction was that the unknown Portuguese woman’s vowels “came together in a melody that sounded much longer than it really was, and that he could have listened to all day long“. I’m a Spanish speaker, but I certainly preferred the sound of Portuguese. Gregorius/Mundus sets about learning it: “Before, it had possessed the magic of a jewel from a distant, inaccessible land, and now it was like one of a thousand gems in a palace whose door he had just pushed open.” He’s a natural linguist but even he has setbacks, days when the language won’t work for him and he can’t communicate. That, of course, has implications beyond the simple physical fact of hearing and forming the correct words.

Lisbon arch
Igreja do Carmo

In Lisbon Gregorius, “about to take his life into his own hands for the first time” (and always wondering what would have happened had he taken other paths earlier) sets about hunting down the surviving siblings of the author, Amadeu de Prado, and his friends, his colleagues, his patients… Amadeu was a popular doctor, “a dreamer and a poet…but at the the same time, someone who could resolutely direct a weapon or a scalpel.” But he made one mistake, which wasn’t a mistake. He followed the Hippocratic Oath and treated a hated servant of the dictator Salazar, thereby saving his life and enabling him to continue torturing hundreds of others. For this his local patients hounded and loathed him, so he tried to make up for it by working for the resistance.

When Amadeu reads, “the books seemed to disappear inside him, leaving empty husks on the shelf afterwards” and when he writes, his book is a series of philosophical ramblings, justifications, enquiries and self doubt. It resonates with Gregorius as he traipses or takes trains and trams about the city hunting down clues to Amadeu’s real state of mind. In the process Gregorius breaks his glasses, leading to much clear/blurred new/old vision related imagery, plays a lot of chess, stares at the outside of old houses and gently breaks into Amadeo’s old, now abandoned school to set up a temporary HQ.

Lisbon graffitti
street in Alfama

Gregorius’ many train trips, like those of the man he seeks, enable comparisons between stations and the stages of life, views rushing past, unscheduled halts, fellow passengers and so on. He tracks down Amadeu’s contemporaries – and how lovely to read a book with so many elderly characters who are not defined simply by being old, but have individual traits, personalities and plot functions. On his journey Gregorius/Mundus learns to make friends, attempts to square the circle of Amadeu’s judge father who administered the law he hated under the dictatorship, and liberates Amadeu’s sisters from their memories – or does he?

For all Amadeu’s intellect, “there was only one thing he couldn’t do: celebrate, play, let himself go”. The key may be held by a woman he admired, perhaps loved, who is not intellectual but calm and reassuring: ‘ “Not everything can be important, and not always,” (Maria João) said. “That would be awful.” ‘ You’d have to read the book to find out whether Amadeu, and thus Gregorius, sort out the meaning of life to their satisfaction or achieve “the calm of someone who always seemed to know who he was and where he belonged“. But if you’re on a trip to Lisbon it will be a good companion, with each location carefully namechecked and described. Maybe the Tourist Office provides Night Train to Lisbon walks. (Just make sure you get on the right one!)

Lisbon nativity scene detail
Details from a nativity scene in Sao Roque

Gregorius finds the Portuguese people he meets warmly receptive to his needs and requirements. They go the extra mile to make him comfortable and guide him in their confusing, stimulating city. We found this too. Perhaps the Portuguese have a natural inclination (like their city) to ramblings and questions, to wondering why things and others are what they seem, and whether they can be trusted or, in another light, reveal themselves as something else entirely? What is a human being – or more exactly, who is a human being? What they think themselves to be, or what others think of them? And what of change, in different lights, at different times, from one age to another, in different states of health and solitary or befriended? What of age (Gregorius is fifty-seven): how does that enable or confuse self knowledge and how does our awareness of death affect us as we grow older? Gregorius dreads death but in Lisbon takes up smoking for the first time. It is not always the young or uneducated who act most foolishly.

Here’s a piece of good advice from Gregorius’ one close friend (a Greek optician) back home in Switzerland: ‘ “Talk to the doctors in your mother tongue. Fear and foreign languages don’t go well together.” ‘ He’s caught the Portuguese aphorisms bug: they turned up in restaurant menus, on walls and café toilets. And they seem to be something of a literary tradition.

Night Train to Lisbon – if you’re still on board, we’re approaching the final stop – is not all philosophy: it has a plot, dialogue and love interest too. It’s a book for book lovers, for linguists, teachers, doctors and patients, puzzle solvers and chess players, travellers, poets, those with a conscience, who have lost or retained religious faith or who have something to celebrate or regret. The fictitious book (Amadeu’s) that this fictitious hero (Gregorius/Mundus) is almost literally tracking down mirrors (and quotes) another, real book, O Livro do Desassossego (listen to those sibilants) by Fernando Pessoa (although Pessoa’s conceit was to claim other characters had written it, in typical multi layered Portuguese fashion). In English The Book of Disquiet, it’s a source of great pride to Lisboetas and Mercier quotes it in his prologue: “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.”

Lisbon praca do comercio
Praca do Comercio

I’ll write about The Book of Disquiet next week, as I’m still lost somewhere in the first 100 pages, and I hope to write about Saramago, Portuguese Nobel Literature Prize winner. There’s no need for a health warning: from what I’ve read so far the heavyweights are not too impenetrable – they check themselves from time to time with self deprecation and humour. I’d rather Pessoa than Henry James. But that’s for another journey.

Inexcusably, the only book I bought in Lisbon’s oldest bookshop (it’s a city of old fashioned bookshops, music shops, haberdashers and hat shops: use them while you can) was for my translator daughter who likes to teach herself new languages by reading  Harry Potter. But back home it turned out she already had it and would have preferred a different volume, in German.

Meanwhile I wonder which city others would call the City of Books?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

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Jane Austen recast

When I studied European Literature (Sussex, 1981), our only sources of criticism and commentary were lectures and the library. If you were studying an obscure text, there wasn’t much to go on. For example, for one assessment I compared versions of Troilus and Cressida. I found plenty about the Shakespeare play and lots on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, a few books about their source which was probably Boccacio‘s Il Filostrato, and one short chapter on a Scottish poet called Henryson. His narrative poem The Testament of Cresseid featured Cressida punished for her love affair by contracting leprosy. I took as gospel everything the critic said about Henryson, because who else was there to consult? And Henryson took a starring role in my essay, to gain me marks for originality.

Undergraduates often depend too much on second hand opinions partly because they respect more senior researchers (good) and partly because they lack confidence in their own views (bad). Thus, at feedback for my essay on Crime and Punishment, the eminent Professor Thorlby greeted me: “I didn’t know you were a lapsed Catholic.” I’d had no idea, dependent as I was on discussing the words of the only Russian critic I could find translated into comprehensible English, that was the impression I’d given. I  thought my essay was contrasting individualism with social responsibility. (I did know enough to know I liked criticism to be rooted in a social and economic context as well as discussing language and style. So with one confused eye on the semiotics and structuralism then still shunned at Cambridge but a big deal at trendy Sussex, the critics I favoured tended to be Marxist, which also made them easier to read.)

As an exchange postgraduate in France, I had to teach Hamlet to students older and more qualified than myself. I fled back to England, to the Sussex library and in horror found over a dozen shelves in the “stacks”, of Hamlet criticism alone. How to sort out the brilliance from the dead wood? And how much worse this dilemma must be now. I just Googled “Hamlet – critical articles” and found 21,600,000 results.

Since that eye opening Sussex foundation, with more decades of reading and some writing of my own, I’m less blinded by academic credentials and more able to judge whether a critical study is telling me something new. One such is Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. Now Austen is an author I thought I knew well. But – “Forget the Jane Austen you think you know. Forget the biographies, forget the pretty adaptations. Ignore the banknote. Read Jane’s novels,” says Kelly (p.311). Well, I’ve done that, several times32441705. I studied Persuasion for A level (Don’t knock A levels. A good teacher leading on a great book, covering the solid old style A level syllabus, can provide a key to thinking about literature that’s equal to anything on Google or mouldering in the library stacks.) My Economic History A level covered the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in the UK, and I studied the French Revolution at university, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft, Marx, and Freud. So I was prepared for much of Kelly’s thinking, and I’d never dismissed Austen’s novels as pretty drawing room dramas. I agree with Kelly that if you “…understand what serious subject marriage was then…all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.” (p.31) Even so – take a deep breath.

Northanger Abbey, is not as I thought about a young girl carried away into silly fantasies by reading Gothic novels. 50398Kelly points out, in this novel about reading, how little reading actually gets done. But there does seem to be female masturbation, thinly veiled as unlocking a door: “Jane’s society viewed it as common knowledge that girls, as well as boys, indulged in the ‘secret and destructive vice’.” (p.66) There are a number of footnotes and a short bibliography, but this particular assertion is not backed up though Freud must be drooling in his grave. I found the claims that death through sex and childbirth was a major theme, both overt and coded, more convincingly argued through the sad statistics of social history.

Sense and Sensibility is, to Kelly, about “brass” (money). She points out the imagery of 14935metals, money and jewellery, and how this novel, like Pride and Prejudice, highlights unfair inheritance laws and primogeniture. The money references are given so precisely in Sense and Sensibility, the 21st century reader can calculate the exact incomes of various grades of clergy, army personnel, landowners and their dependents, and understand how patronage makes or ruins them. But here’s Freud again: Kelly highlights sexual symbolism, hinting at abuse, and her delving into the moral character of even apparently worthy suitors raise few hopes for the marriages contracted. If Kelly’s reading is correct, Austen is cynically pessimistic about the future for the Dashwood brides.

Most of us are most familiar with Pride and Prejudice. But here’s a less chintzy angle. Kelly is into her stride now, and highlights 1885
how “the presence of the militia in the novel …introduces layer upon layer of anxiety…Invasions..naval mutinies…food riots…They’re in the background, but they’re there.” (p 128). She situates the novel amid precise historical events through indicators like the style of Elizabeth’s petticoat – not a petticoat at all but a fashion that was definitely old fashioned by the mid 1790s. She also explains the extra resonance in the word “prejudice” for contemporary readers – a strength of Kelly’s book is her ability to decode references that would have been much more obvious to Austen’s immediate audience than they are to us. One thing we’d have to be blind to miss is the criticism of the clergy, represented by the absurd Mr Collins, but Kelly is none too impressed by Mr Darcy’s aristocrat either, even after the proud and prejudiced scales have fallen from his eyes. Whoops – here’s another marriage auguring well but, Kelly implies, too much of a fairy tale to ring true.

It’s always gratifying when an expert echoes one’s own thoughts. For Kelly as for me, Mansfield Park was Austen’s most radical and daring novel, and she is moving on Austen’s disappointment at the lack of reviews. Perhaps, says Kelly – the word perhaps appears often in JA:The Secret Radical: not all Kelly’s ideas are fully substantiated – this isn’t surprising. Mansfield Park is a barely coded attack on slavery. Although the 45032abolitionist cause had much public support by Austen’s time, much wealth was still enmeshed with slavery, from her own family to great landowners and the Church of England. It reflected well on the enlightened British to support abolishing slavery in the Caribbean, but at home nobody wanted to see their standard of living fall, or run short of sugar. Kelly finds child abuse and sadism in the novel, as well as fortunes built on slavery and ecclesiastical hypocrisy. “(Mansfield Park) is filled with infidelities, not-so-genteel-poverty, with bullying and threats of violence.” (p. 168). She points out how the names Mansfield, Norris, Madeira (as in wine) and Moor Park (the type of apricot tree planted at Mansfield Parsonage) would have resonated with contemporary readers, who’d recognise the names of players in the slavery debate; she counts many instances of the words “plantation, slave, chains”. She shows how daring it was for a clergyman’s daughter to write a novel so critical of the Church. No wonder it wasn’t reviewed.

I said in my previous post on Jane Austen that I found the story and character of Emma least interesting of all the novels. Kelly len6969ds more meaning to the story, explaining how the plot reflects the enclosures movement. “Enclosing” covered any kind of fencing, walling, hedging or barring access to common and waste ground. It was at its height when Emma was written. It challenged the poor, who had previously been able to supplement their meagre incomes grazing livestock, growing vegetables, gathering firewood and foraging on such land. Without access, the numbers of destitute people swelled, and there was high population growth too. Kelly shows the landscape of Emma emphasising enclosures, “respectable” people reduced to begging for parish relief, gypsies forced off their traditional sites, and the better off feeling vulnerable too. Mr Knightly is not the kind, urbane gentleman he appears, with his enclosure projects; Mr Woodhouse is perhaps justified in being querulous; the gypsies are not threatening but threatened, in Kelly’s reading. Birth advantages can be taken away; illegitimate children cosseted or cast off at whim; the domestic world of Emma is as threatening as the warring background to Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion.

Kelly is least sure of herself talking about 2156Persuasion. She is interesting, but perhaps not original (I don’t know enough about Austen scholarship to say) on the theme of fossils and old certainties giving way to Darwinism, conjecturing Austen may have come across the child Mary Anning on the beach at Lyme Regis. She’s amusing about the idea of marrying to regain an ancestral home and on snobbery – but Austen does that all so well herself with her portrait of Sir Walter Elliot, it barely needs repeating. I felt her writing about Persuasion was like history in the novel: “… disrupted, random, chaotic…You can’t escape the tide of history; you can’t stay firm against that kind of pressure; you have to give way and let yourself be carried, if you want any hope of surviving.” (p 289).

I may give the impression, wrongly, that Kelly discusses only the six principal novels. But she does so in the context of Jane Austen’s letters, of imagined scenes from her life, historical events, her comic verse and fragments of writing, memoirs by the Austen family, contemporary novels and polemic, and the scholarship of others. There are snippets of social history; daring, forthright opinions, and there’s quite a lot of “perhaps” along with a few “undoubtedly”s. It’ s a long time since I’ve been fascinated enough to review a secondary source. I may even go and study literature again.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

More to unite us than divide us

Last week I wrote about a book which resonated. I thought I might feel more detached about Mark Dowd’s just published memoir Queer and Catholic  – I’m neither gay nor Roman Catholic. Nonetheless our common humanity made it both pleasurable and instructive. We do have our age in common – he’s a year younger than I am. It was at university that I was first aware of so many fanciable young men coming out. The same year Dowd was nipping between stints on the adjacent Gay Soc and Catholic Society stalls at the Exeter Freshers’ Fair, I was consoling female friends in the Sussex Union bar when our fellow student Simon Fanshawe didn’t respond to their flirting. Also I did, briefly, go to a Catholic school, where as Dowd found there was relatively little bullying and much gentleness, though he was taught by Brothers rather than by Daisy (Sister Des Anges), Ratty (Sister Mary Raphael) and Revvie (Reverend Mother).

Dowd 17

Dowd grew up the son of northern working class parents, a decade or so after Alan Bennett and David Hockney, contemporaneously with Jeanette Winterson. He began training as a priest but switched to academia and then journalism, a practising but critical Roman Catholic through steady and not so steady relationships,  the 1980s AIDS epidemic, the homophobia of Cardinal Ratzinger, and the revelations of paedophilia in the church (he only came across one instance of this and is otherwise complimentary about the priests who taught him). His tone starts rueful and witty: he knew he was gay, or at least “different” from early childhood: “A Catholic blessed (or cursed) with same sex attraction is rather akin to the orthodox Jew who cannot get the smell of sizzling bacon rashers out of his head, or a fervent Muslim with an irresistible devotion to single malt whisky.” (p.8). See what I mean about common humanity? This is a kind book: to paraphrase Jo Cox, there is more in it to unite us than divide us. So we read his story of adolescent encounters, of fearing discovery, of naivety and disappointment and lust and adoration with, I hope, equal empathy whatever our faith and orientation.

Dowd 6
Handout for visitors to the Tate Britain Hockney exhibition, 2017

A theme throughout is the illogicality of the Catholic church not accepting same sex attraction, when so many of its practitioners are gay and so many of its practices are so attractive to gay men. At his interview for training to be a priest, Dowd is asked if there is anything the college should know about him. In trepidation, he stammers he is gay. “‘Put it this way,’ said Father Weston. ‘I don’t think you’ll be the only one.'”(p. 71)

It’s very funny in parts: the much older partner who pretends for the sake of appearances to be his father and the consequent difficulties of explaining two dads;  the intellectual Oxford Dominican friars who make peach wine in the bathtub; the Vatican priest who greets him with friendship in St Peter’s Square before realising he knows Dowd’s face from a BBC documentary about queer Catholics. It’s very touching: his parents never specifically accept his gayness but they give him brightly coloured nylon double sheets as a housewarming present when he moves in with his partner. Sometimes it’s touching and funny: at the funeral of an AIDS victim friend, the Mother Superior eulogises that his key attributes were “infectious” and none of the mostly gay congregation know where to look.

Dowd alludes with a light touch to the loneliness of longing for both sex and love, against the Church’s requirement of celibacy (for a compassionate and balanced fictional treatment of this, see John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness). His writing is increasingly emotional as the book goes on: where Winterson describes in Why be happy when you could be normal?  the (entirely justifiable) anger she has to resolve, Dowd learns to cry and then what his crying teaches him about himself and others. Anyone who’s read the recent Robert Webb memoir How Not To Be a Boy, or heard Grayson Perry talking about identity will appreciate this openness: Dowd bares his feelings and thoughts to the world with a candidness that is even now unusual. He’s narrated the audiobook himself and my guess is it would be an emotional listen. Think David Sedaris, but with a lot more shared insight. And for the memories of parents and home, think Alan Bennett, or Hockney’s wonderful pictures of his mother. They are all related, and related to us all.

 

The book is political with a small “p”: he discusses others’ research into homosexuality in the Church and poses the question himself: “How can you use the antiquated language of ‘disorder’ about a perfectly naturally occurring minority phenomenon…when you rely on such people to represent Jesus in the daily acts of administering the sacrament?” (p.143). In his BBC career he fronts documentaries about Rwanda and Sarajevo; he discusses male mental health and goes to El Salvador to help set up a radio station in a remote and poverty stricken area. But there is always a light touch, a joke, an anecdote, to help us through the darkest moments.

11395597It’s one to be read in conjunction with others: try Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit which jollies along in the caricature which was all the young Winterson could bear to reveal of her childhood, and the much darker Why Be Happy when You Could Be Normal? which tells us what really happened. The  title is a quote from her fearsome adoptive mother. Read it in conjunction with what Alan Bennett does NOT say; read it in conjunction with the fiction of John Boyne and Elena Ferrante. Read these books whether you are gay or straight or trans or whatever; whether you have faith or none; whether you are old or young or left or right wing or “apolitical”.

“…to this day the brass crucifix that my parents had given me, a holy communion present when I was seven…remains unstable and slightly skew-whiff on account of a botched repair job with the superglue.” (This after using it as a missile during a row). “So when I see the good Lord staring at me at an odd angle, I think of torrid times with Pablo and the brokenness of fallen humanity.” (p175)

Dowd 15

I think that means there’s hope for us all.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Building without dust

Sometimes episodes in a book echo the reader’s life. It’s reassuring, and can be cathartic. Certainly any book whose style or content makes me react: “That’s me/my thoughts/my situation you’re describing!” during the first few pages is one I’d continue reading. It works whether the moment is essential to the plot or a sideline. This week I read “Transit” by Rachel Cusk, and the number of echoes were uncanny.

29939363

To some extent it’s because Cusk deals with universals. Like a fortune teller (and the book opens with one) she discusses the great preoccupations of life: getting together; separating; maternal guilt; moving house; memory. We can all relate to these, and she explores them with subtlety and depth, going inside her character’s heads and saying the unsayable. “There! She’s said it for me!” the reader thinks with relief, as her nameless narrator admits to not fully responding to her distressed child, to not listening to the students she’s teaching, to absolutely loathing her neighbours. (I’m assuming this is a narrator, not Cusk herself.)

Narrator makes so many observations, some Cusk 2are bound to be true for each reader. Even so, what a lot of coincidences, right from page 1 (where the fortune teller’s junk email expresses her situation for her): “I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come.” (P.2)  Sneering at this resonating description as just a “computer algorithm” reveals Narrator’s own vulnerability. Quickly she distances herself, describing a divorced friend who admits he’s affected by such mailshots too, then moving from him to an estate agent describing his clients: “...the same people who had stormed and wept like frustrated children because  a property was being denied them, would be found days later sitting calmly in his office, expressing gratitude for the fact that they hadn’t got it…For most people, he said, finding and procuring a home was an intensely active state; and activity entails a certain blindness, the blindness of fixation. Only when their will has been exhausted do the majority of people realise the decree of fate.” Thus at a remove of four or more people (self, friend, agent, clients) Narrator/Cusk expresses how we all feel.

My goodness, that’s only on page 3 and already Narrator’s pinpointed me. I’m currently deciding whether to move to “the country” to a just affordable detached house. In “the country” the houses are all different, unlike London where you know what you’re going to see as soon as you ring the bell. Everything in London is white painted and laminate floored, but elsewhere houses are different shapes and sizes, in quirky states of repair and the decor and contents rumble with the lives of their present owners. (I can’t afford the nicer ones and others have fatal flaws that back in the agent’s office I realise would soon have had my blood pressure on the boil.)

Cusk 9
Shall we move to “the country”?

After recounting her hairdresser’s views on life (I too have an articulate, empathetic hairdresser, who I pay as much for his company as for what he does to my hair), Narrator runs into an old boyfriend. How civil they can now be! How objectively she can analyse the way they treated each other! They swap stories of children and homes, and he wishes her well in her move back to London. Yes, I’ve known that…

She’s moving too, but in the opposite direction. Like me three years ago, she has to find something in an expensive city and has limited resources (it’s all relative: I do realise millions of people are far worse off than I am). Like me, she ends up with a dreadful property, all dodgy wiring, rotting floorboards and creatures you’d rather not think about inside and out. It’s a first floor flat, similar to one I once had. Like me then, she has elderly council tenant neighbours below – but where mine there and in my present house were welcoming and insisted my building projects were no trouble, hers are resentful, filthy and offensive. There’s no doubt the work has to be done, but they resist it every step of the way.

building close up
When you share a wall with a building site

Again, the same story as mine, though from the opposite viewpoint. My charming neighbour here died and next door was sold. Cusk is now holding up a mirror to me of how obstreperous neighbours can seem: it ain’t pleasant. To find Narrator describing her dissenting neighbour as a monster troll is disturbing, knowing my emotions run every bit as strong as those expressed in the foul mouthed tirades she receives from  the basement. “It’s these single skin buildings,” the builder said, shaking his head. “Every sound goes right through them.” (P 51. On cue, drilling has started through my party wall and revolting though they sound, I do sympathise with the neighbours. Not only the building is thin-skinned. I find the monster troll in me is very close to the surface.)

builders everywhere 2
Builders, builders everywhere

As I did, Narrator builds a relationship with her builder, (not a “relationship”, you understand, an affinity), and also with his sub contractors. She’s interested in their back stories, their health and their emotional well being, and they in turn try to protect her from the worst of living in a building site, sometimes by acting off their own initiative in ways that surprise and unsettle her. She seeks out friends having similar experiences: “…(Amanda) couldn’t remember what it was like to live somewhere normal,…where you didn’t have to … thoroughly remove the dust and dirt from your person in order to leave the house, rather than the other way around…she had gone to meetings with grout in her hair and plaster under her fingernails…” (p.169).

I’ve only achieved the title of my proposed novel about building, used for this review pending a text to go with it. But Cusk’s done the lot, and unlike me is able to throw in chapters on the sort of literary festival that would never ask me to speak and on having the sort of creative writing student who would never choose me. Like me, Narrator is still building a new life after divorce and it seems to involve as much mess, as many wrong turns, as much expenditure and clumsiness and mood swings and anecdotes as mine. She recounts them dispassionately, hence the catharsis.

21400742“Transit” is also a novel about new people she meets, new chances Narrator builds or encounters; it’s a novel of glimmering possibilities and foul interactions she must either put behind her or put up with. And it’s about self and other: how others have the same thoughts she does; how the light they shine is only slightly different. She shows how expressing experiences and opinions through them (he said that/ she said she/ I asked her what…) permits just enough distance, enough observational objectivity, for writer and reader to step over the boundaries of what it’s conventionally acceptable to explore and confess. The language is simple and clear, almost clinical: it needs to be, because the thoughts she explores develop in sometimes complex and shocking ways. Yet we should not be shocked, because we have thought them too.

13380846I must now read the first novel in this trilogy, “Outline” from 2015, and also “Aftermath” (2009), which was criticised by some as revenge for the rawness of separation and for involving others beside herself. Other reviewers found it pure and cathartic.“Why can’t we just be normal? Why does everything have to be so weird?”  asks the older son in a desperate phone to his mother, when he’s lost his keys to his dad’s house. “I said I was sorry but I had to go.” (p.133) Sometimes, you can’t provide an answer, although you can keep asking the questions, and you do just have to go. At least reading Cusk you know you are not alone.

I’d be interested to know if any readers have had the same experience of identifying with a book, fiction or not, and the effect it had on them.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

Inspired by Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

This writing blog got diverted and may seem more like a travel blog, so let me, Japanese fashion, impose some order. (Travelling followers picked up recently, please do stay on board: I think our interests coincide.) Hiroshima was so striking I wanted to deal with it first, but now back to what I read to complement my trip.

Why did I go to Japan? My fascination arose from childhood, and a book called Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. A small girl receives a present of two Japanese dolls, and her cousin models a house for them to live in.

Of course it’s dated now. Girls may design and work with wood as much as boys; children, sadly, no longer go to the high street by themselves to find information at the bookshop (so few local bookshops remain, for one thing). But nevertheless it was a delight to reread, thirty or more years later, the night before leaving for Japan.

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Geiko dancers on stage in Kyoto

Rumer Godden deals, with a light touch, on culture shock and homesickness and efforts by both sides to integrate. The children Nona and Tom understand the dolls need a home different from British homes, where the walls slide and discrete areas may be screened or opened up according to temporary considerations. Everything must be polite and ordered, and there is beauty in small, humble moments – one flower in a tiny vase, a scrap of silk for a pillow. The dolls have very human characteristics; Miss Happiness is optimistic and can accept hardship;  Miss Flower is nervous, can’t believe a foreigner can understand her and is so grateful and gracious when the foreigner attempts to do so. In a bonus for those with a talent for carpentry, the book includes instructions on how to make a Japanese doll’s house.

Dolls and puppets are important in Japanese culture, and feature in the next novel I read. Junichiro Tanizaki is a classic Japanese author, and Some Prefer Nettles was published in 1928. I returned to Tanizaki after another absence of thirty years, having as a teenager adored his epic The Makioka Sisters, about a family of sisters living in Osaka (It’s comparable, perhaps, with Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba, Chekhov’s Three Sisters and any number of green spined Virago Modern Classics. Or even Jane Austen). 51jqirzmz2l

I wasn’t disappointed. Here again was the clear prose; the economical, poetic images conveying in one line as much as a page of Western description; psychology rendered through gestures, clothing, or choices of food and drink. Tanizaki’s characters think carefully about the design of every object they use, in order to enhance the experience in anticipation, during use, and and in memory. It’s a centuries old Japanese trait that continues today- think of Japanese technology, or think of a Zen garden.

In Some Prefer Nettles, a couple are preparing for divorce. There is no animosity between Kaname and Misako, they are simply tired of each other, but they have a child and an elderly father to consider. And so they proceed with care, with resignation, almost hoping to be denied the pleasure they seek, if it will help diminish the shock to the order of things. Meanwhile there are doll festivals and puppet theatre outings in which their situation is reflected through age old Japanese culture. (The puppets are life size and operated by up to three puppet masters at a time: I saw the one below at the theatre in Kyoto.)

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The husband, Kaname, was brought up in old Tokyo “before the earthquake” (of 1923) and harks increasingly towards tradition; the wife seeks modernity but remains adept at selecting his kimonos and arranging  flowers for the shrine. “He looked down on her, a sort of mute regret rising in him, without fear of meeting her eyes…..The early cherries were just coming into bloom.” It’s a beautiful, elegiac portrait of a society and a marriage, with a surprising number of echos for the contemporary Western reader.

41uvfhb2pslI considered reading Murakami, having found the same simple, limpid prose quality in Norwegian Wood, but felt I should explore a wider range of Japanese novelists and discovered Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. Where Tanizaki told a story of modern marriage in a traditional society, this book, set in contemporary Tokyo, tells of timeless romance under modern conditions. A youngish woman meets her old teacher by chance, and he’s now retired and a widower. As with Tanizaki, you can open any page at random and be sure of finding elegiac, gentle prose, a yearning quality: the teacher’s name is Sensei and the narrator murmurs and repeats it just for the joy in the sound of the name. There’s the design commitment again: practical details investing everyday items with a touch of poetry. “The hot spiciness of the crackers really did go quite well with saké…I heard a faint chirping and then the sound of the leaves on the branches rustling for a moment, and then it was quiet again.” I suspect this simple beauty is a quality of the Japanese language, or it may be something that happens in the interface when Japanese is translated into English. But both novels – in which not a huge amount happens – are immensely clear, readable, universal and moving despite the significant cultural differences between us.

I read these two novels on my return. While I was in Japan, I read Motions and Moments, the third essay collection by Michael Pronko, an American professor who has made his home in Tokyo. At first I found these illuminating: as we moved around Tokyo I recognised quirks that he (affectionately) identifies. I was helped to understand certain customs through his intermediary insights; I enjoyed his descriptions of Japanese gardening (they use tiny secateurs like nail scissors to clip their shrubs with minute precision) and understood what he meant by getting lost in Tokyo “vertically as well as horizontally”. The first two parts of the book (Surfaces and Miniatures) were well written, witty and informative. Part 3, Constructs, could have used some editorial help with, er, construction (and I’m aware he acknowledges the help of Newsweek editors at the end). Perhaps by then I was too immersed in the spare beauty of Japanese expression to enjoy American verbosity and repetition. But it’s worth a read if you are going to Tokyo.

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Tokyo street scene

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

“Exposure” by Helen Dunmore

Exposure
I’ve admired Helen Dunmore for a long time, for the lucidity and fluency of her writing. Her deceptively simple style can be read so easily that the story seeps effortlessly into your mind and you gather detail about the characters and settings almost incidentally. Then a particularly beautiful sentence stops you in your tracks and you begin to appreciate the poetry of what you are reading as well. “Each time the wind slams against the glass, her nerves crisp, but she works on calmly.” We’ve all experienced wind slamming and our nerves crisping at a sudden noise, but few of us can express it so economically. Only once in the whole book does she(or her editor) go wrong and the reason this jars so much is because of the overall perfection: “Julian Clowde’s eyes were like lizard’s.”
This story resonated for me because I am the age of the youngest child in the story; I too grew up in North London; my friends were the children of Jewish refugees, and the Cold War hung threatening in the background. We played English vs Germans in the school playground; my parents had been on CND marches; there was talk on the news and in the fiction I read later of spies, references that I didn’t understand (and still usually don’t) and that at the time were menacing and sinister. As the years pass those stories have become cartoonish, but in the 1960s spy activity represented the interface between civilisation and the Eastern Bloc, with nuclear annihilation the penalty if the delicate balance were to be disturbed.
Helen Dunmore writes of spies and suspicion, but without bringing in too much minutiae. The document and photographs to which the characters’ fate is hooked are not described in detail. Their bearing on world events, if any, is not clarified at all. That fits too, with my general incomprehension of espionage. What is clear is the effect on ordinary lives when they happen to become caught up: domesticity, not the world stage, is under threat here: home comforts, personal security, well being. Any child of the 60s can relate to inadequate heating in a Victorian villa and then a seaside cottage, a temperamental coal boiler and single glazing that rattles. More positively, any teacher (as I now am and as Lily is in the book) can dream with nostalgia of paperwork which went no further than a pile of marking, and of a time when junior school children walked home from school in sole charge of their younger siblings. This book abounds with such details that pinpoint an era as definitively as any set of dates.
Exposure is a clever title, for the exposure here gives another clear glimpse of the period, a time when homosexuality was as disgraceful, or more so, than betraying your country. Youthful sexual experiment that can now shrugged off even by top politicians, was then a criminal offence, individuals, households, governments could be brought down by the scandal. My parents had gay friends who lived openly together: it took many years for me to understand how brave that was. Helen Dunmore and her characters quote Oscar Wilde to haunting effect, before some of them are exposed in a different sense, on the freezing North Kent coast, scrabbling for sea coal at low tide. Throughout the book, objects, feelings, and facts are buried, consciously or subconsciously, for mistaken or sensible reasons, and the fear is that they will be exposed like the roll of film on the crucial Minox camera. None of this would be so necessary in a different society or a different story.
Dunmore references “The Railway Children” too, in an unlikely literary juxtaposition that works brilliantly. This time the children know a little more, the country dwelling and the train are not so friendly, the mother seen as more vulnerable and not always right. But the repeated reminder of a children’s book (in fact two because Dunmore also refers to another classic that I loved as a child, “The Children who lived in a Barn” by Eleanor Graham) is comforting for the reader: children’s stories involve passing through trials to a happy ending, so maybe everything will turn out fine for the Callington family too. After all, “No one will come at this hour, and those are only shadows under the lamp posts.”
It’s for the reader to judge the happiness, actual, potential, fragile or disguised of the ending, or whether a sequel would spell doom. This is real life in the way that only a cleverly constructed fiction can present it, and the consequences of hidden events may not be so simple as they were for the original Railway Children.

copyright Jessica Norrie 2016

Review of “The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes

noise-of-timeAs so often, Julian Barnes has created an intriguing, beautifully written novel full of trenchantly expressed universal truths.  His subject is music and conscience.  To write great music, providing you have the necessary talent, should be a process involving the composer, his or her inspiration, psychology and external influences.  For the Russian composer Shostakovich, it also had to involve avoiding the displeasure of the authorities, an impossible feat given that they were headed by Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev. One moment he was feted, the next he had become an enemy of the people. If he wrote what he wanted to write, he was accused of formalism, revisionism, the cult of the individual. If he wrote what the NKPD or the KGB wanted him to write, his friends, colleagues, the Soviet public and the foreign press questioned his integrity. But he had little choice in the matter as the potential price of not complying with the authorities was death and banishment for his family. Time and again he had to compromise, to sign speeches he had not written, produce music he despised and swallow being used by the Soviet machine as an ambassador for Soviet values and practices.

Barnes, in the composer’s voice, calls the authorities Power. His only weapon against Power is irony, and yet if people do not recognise what he produces as ironic, he will just appear Power’s  stooge. This book is full of striking images – the composer one of many Soviet citizens who, expecting at any moment to be arrested in the night, wait fully clothed with a bag packed by the lift instead, rather than put their families through the horror of seeing them seized from their beds. He sits at meetings carefully applauding at the right time, but not listening, and accidentally one day claps loud criticism of himself. When this is pointed out by a friend, he just shrugs. His self disgust has become so great that he agrees with the criticism, he says.

I was reminded of “The Sense of an Ending” by the number of times I came across statements, half composer’s voice, half that of Barnes, that encapsulate a universal truth with elegant, simple precision. It was chilling, too, to find so many of these could be applied not just as Barnes does to life under Stalin and Khrushchev, but to the diktats of our own democratic governments too (we’re obviously not under the same level of threat, but nonetheless the description is familiar):

“Bureaucrats assessed musical output as they did other categories of output; there were established norms, and deviations from those norms.”  (p.26).  “…yes, things did get easier and some filthy secrets emerged; but there was no sudden idealistic attachment to the truth, merely an awareness that it could now be used to political advantage.” (p130).

This novel is written in short, stand alone paragraphs, each representing a point in Shostakovich’s thinking, for example, thinking about his first love, his vulnerability, his musical legacy, his relationship to authority and so on.  It’s a short book, but takes a while tor read as the ideas and implacable nature of the composer’s predicament are so intense. It would be an insensitive reader who could race through without putting the book down frequently to take in and digest all the implications and wisdom (or resigned bafflement) of what has been said. This format suited me, though I seem to remember some critics not appreciating it when the book came out.

Finally, it’s a portrait of the interface between genius and an ordinary life lived as best it can be under prevailing conditions.  Very much recommended – for more details visit The Noise of Time.

© Jessica Norrie 2016