Sunday, 29 September 2013

Week Thirty-Six - Jeanette

The City & The City by China Miéville (2009)
Recommended by Dan

Dan moved to London only a few weeks before I left. I knew of him, of course; he was a teenage friend of Jude (she writes of him here), and I’d often heard her talk about him, flushed with shared adventure and affection. I remember saying to Dan as I left the capital, you’re great, and I wish I could know you better.

Lovely Dan! I was right that he was great, and justified in my wish to know him better. Last time I saw him was at the Duckie club night a couple of months back: we hit the floor in rare style. Amongst the unbridled joy, I remember getting upset when Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’ came on. (I love Robyn, and I love that song, but those lyrics, sweet Jesus Christ.) Jude gave me a pep-shout over the Scando beats, while Dan bestowed a glowing solidarity smile. Thus I danced (and not on my own).

I do like a cracking detective novel. I particularly enjoy the ponderous end of the genre, where everyone’s a bit dour and the author sprays the bodies with philosophy as well as gunfire. I recall reading Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow in the mid-1990s – it was the book de jour then – and being very impressed with just how expansive yet specific its plot was, the story as bleak as the Copenhagen skies.

The City & The City is – as its title spells out – similarly tied to a place. Or, rather, two places. Beszel is a metropolis somewhere at the very east of Europe, its crumbling architectural grandeur intersected with modern squalor.

Ascension Church is at the end of VulkovStrász, its windows protected by wire grilles, but some of its stained panes broken. A fish market is there every few days.

Beszel has a ‘topolganger’ city: the brasher Ul Qoma.

The Old Town of Ul Qoma was at least half transmuted these days into a financial district, curlicued wooden rooflines next to mirrored steel.

I love the concept of twin cities.

When the Yugoslav conflict was raging, and Novi Sad was always referred to with ‘war-torn’ preceding it, I truly understood the worth of the twin city theory. Novi Sad could have been Norwich. My heart ached for our city siblings over in Serbia, ethnically ripped apart, bombed, polluted, destroyed.

Beszel and Ul Qoma, however, are twinned in an altogether more fantastical way. They exist in the same geographical space, overlaid with one another. The city streets are woven, yet each space remains separate. Not quite parallel, but never integrated.

I could not fail to be aware of all the familiar places I passed grosstopically, the streets at home I regularly walked, now a whole city away, particular cafés I frequented that we passed, but in another country.

The citizens of Beszel and those of Ul Qoma are not only separated by language and custom, they are actually forbidden to acknowledge one another. If they accidentally look, they must ‘unsee’ immediately, or they breach, and breaching is punished by Breach.

Still with me? Good. What’s that you say? Not complicated enough for you?

A secret colony. A city between the cities, its inhabitants living in plain sight. […] Unseen, like Ul Qomans to Besz and vice versa. Walking the streets unseen but overlooking the two. Beyond the Breach.

This is Orciny, a third city. Overlaid with the other two. Not quite parallel, but never integrated. Or does it even exist at all? That’s what Mahalia Geary, a foreign student, was trying to determine. And then she wound up dead. Inspector Borlú of the fabulously-named Extreme Crime Squad follows her trail: it takes him through Beszel and Ul Qoma, forcing him to confront physical, metaphysical, and emotional borders.

The sleuthing aspect of the book is good at the beginning, but unfortunately I worked out Geary’s killer two-thirds in (although not the exact reasons for her death) and I hate being right in detective fiction. It feels as if Miéville used the crime as a glorified MacGuffin; he wanted to explore the idea of liminal physical space and consciousness, and he decided a murder was a sufficiently dramatic way to do so.

The City & The City does fail, for me, as a detective novel and a police procedural, but perhaps that doesn’t matter too much, for it succeeds in its loftier ambitions. The separated Besz and Ul Qoman inhabitants spoke to me as a stylized version of what actually happened in some parts of Eastern Europe at the fall of communism: the new nation-states wrought fresh borders and, in cases like the former Yugoslavia, these came with a rhetoric of intense nationalism to pit neighbour against neighbour.

I found the novel’s idea of ‘unseeing’ still more powerful. Inspector Borlú is constantly seeing (and then forcing himself to unsee).

With a hard start, I realised that she was not on GunterStrász at all, and I should not have seen her.

In real life, we are all too adept at unseeing. If it doesn’t fit with the narrative we know (or the one we wish for), we quickly unsee it, sometimes without our conscious mind even taking a role in the process. A thing can be as blatant as bloodstain on a white sheet, but if we assiduously unsee, it will not alter the story we tell ourselves. However, the awkward fact remains: evidence of the eye has a nasty habit of being far more reliable than evidence of the heart.

We can, and will, forever unsee that too.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Week Thirty-Five - Jeanette

Bartleby The Scrivener: A Story Of Wall Street by Herman Melville (1853)
Recommended by Dave

I’m an ignoramus when it comes to Great American Literature.

Twain? Pynchon? Steinbeck? Fitzgerald? Whitman? Carver? Hemingway? Besides Of Mice And Men and The Great Gatsby (and they hardly merit a brag, length- or difficulty-wise) I’ve read not a one. Those hours spent watching The Wire, re-watching The Wire, re-watching The Wire, watching The Wire commentaries, and re-watching The Wire commentaries have to come from somewhere, and I’m not subtracting them from reading Middlemarch (or re-reading Middlemarch). Starting something like Gravity’s Rainbow seems like an overwhelming chore: I would prefer not to.

Moby Dick is my one flimsy defense against being a total Eurocentric literary fascist. I read it during a university Easter holiday (and, crucially, I didn’t have to, it wasn’t part of a course) and loved it. The atmosphere of the Pequod, and its crew under the obsessive Ahab was magnificently drawn. I’m sure I missed much about American culture and history in my reading, yet I still feel I ‘got’ the book overall. Melville didn’t purposefully over-complicate an already Byzantine work; he urged understanding and care with his meticulous words, and I always appreciate that in an author.

A motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now – pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.

Bartleby is employed in a Wall Street law office. During the course of the story, he steadily refuses to undertake more and more of his allocated tasks and, when faced with the sack, refuses that too. The plot itself has an absurdist and fantastical bent, nicely captured in this scene from the 2001 movie staring the brilliant Crispin Glover. The full trailer is below, and it looks like it might be a worthwhile adaptation.

The narrator (and Bartleby’s boss), an elderly lawyer who holds the venerated office of Master in Chancery, struggles with the unexpected passive resistance of Bartleby. He swings between indulgence and annoyance. His mania to understand Bartleby’s behaviour becomes every bit as compulsive as Captain Ahab’s search for the Whale.

Gradually I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine, touching the scrivener, had been all predestined from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise providence.

Bartleby’s wraithlike presence could encapsulate a dozen, a hundred, meanings. His thousand-yard stare, penetrating nothing yet everything – is this modern urban blankness? His denial of work – is this a comment on the farce of bureaucracy? His squatting in the offices of his former employer – does this relate to the futile wish to rid ourselves of psychological baggage?

Or is it a relatively straightforward tale of a man with chronic depression?

Our narrator takes his sweet time to get to anything. We get intricate detail about each of the copyists in his employ (not just Bartleby), and these descriptions are all in woolgathering prose.

In the morning, one might say, his face was of a fine florid hue, but after twelve o’clock, meridian – his dinner hour – it blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals; and continued blazing – but as it were, with a gradual wane – till six o’clock, PM, or thereabouts; after which I saw no more of the proprietor of the face, which, gaining its meridian with the sun, seemed to set with it, to rise, culminate, and decline the following day, with the like regularity and undiminished glory.

This might be expected in a book the girth of Moby Dick but Bartleby, The Scrivener doesn’t even scrape novella status. I rarely read short stories because basically I’m prejudiced: I believe they will never satisfy me in the same manner as a longer work, reasoning that the word limitation just does not allow for sufficient richness. Simply a matter of physics. But Melville proves me wrong. Wrong with bells jangling. Bartleby The Scrivener rivals even Moby Dick in its vision and accomplishment, and it does so in thirty-six pages.

Dave’s first choice of book to me was something I read only last year: À Rebours. I’ve already bleated about this unique work in relation to Teju Cole’s fantastic Open City; like Bartleby The Scrivener, À Rebours is another, albeit very different, portrait of an eccentric at repose with his own thoughts.

Dave certainly has his fair share of unconventional characteristics. When I first met him he had a quiff and the type of outré glasses you wouldn’t see on anyone outside of a Top Man advertising hoarding. I remember there was once a fancy dress party and the theme was dressing as Dave. I also remember there was another fancy dress party where the theme was dressing as a pop star; Dave came as this Morrissey!

(I came as this Betty Boo.)

Now the quiff has gone, or rather it’s migrated south to form a rather impressive beard. Dave looks like what he is: a musician. His current band is The Drink. I’m almost annoyed that The Drink are my friends, because it makes people think I’ve a vested interest in celebrating them. Not at fucking all. Listen to ‘Microsleep’ and tell me this isn’t the greatest Deerhoof-meets-Essential-Logic-yet-still-utterly-unique song going.

You may have noticed that over these past few weeks I’ve been in a reverie myself; like Bartleby, my default state has been staring into the open plains of the mind. Perhaps with the occasional microsleep.

Come out of it? I would prefer not to.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Week Thirty-Four - Jude

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1951) 
Recommended by Mark Hooper

I read four books on holiday. Four! Three were for this blog, and one wasn't (unless anyone wants to belatedly recommend me Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, as I'd love to write about it).

So first up: Graham Greene. I've loved Graham Greene ever since I picked up a copy of Brighton Rock from Gorseinon Library in my mid-teens. Oh, Gorseinon Library! I read practically everything  there – kids' books, history books, everything about nuclear war, stuff on Welsh poetry, a copy of 1984 that some rotter had hidden in the teenage fiction section (I was 12; I was terrified). I also ordered books in, which seemed to lose themselves into the permanent shelves. That's why I hope a copy of The Cure's song lyrics and Marcus Gray's R.E.M. biography are still there, anyway.

The beginning of Brighton Rock is still one of the best things I've ever read, though. The tension, the characterisation, that drawing of that eerie, compelling seaside scene...argh! The rest of the book isn't half bad, either. Then last year, I read Our Man In Havana. Such a different, dryly funny story from the same writer, making brilliant fun of the British intelligence services....and now comes The End Of The Affair.

These three books have such a separate sense of voice and style, it's staggering really. But perhaps that's Graham Greene's thing: sustaining different approaches to subjects smartly and effortlessly.

The End of the Affair was recommended to me by Mark Hooper. Mark is lovely – a great magazine editor and writer (I've worked for him), currently editing a great quarterly brick called Hole and Corner, about "people who spend more time doing than talking, for whom content is more important than style, whose work is their life". That pretty much sums Mark up for me. As for this book, I'd seen the 1999 Neil Jordan film adaptation already, so knew roughly what happened in the narrative (single man and married woman have a catastrophic affair), although I found it fairly easy to dislodge Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore from my mind. (Saying that, I have refreshed the memory of seeing them today, by watching the awful trailer on YouTube – I particularly recommend the scary-voiceover-man's "IN A TIME OF WAR" section.)

The book is something else. Although it's pretty obvious what will happen to Sarah from the off, Greene's book is a masterclass in how to create heavy claustrophobic atmospheres. Here we are experiencing "black wet January nights on the Common", further darkened by them being in London in the Second World War, and similar states in the mind: when "in that state of blackness one can no more tell the days than a blind man can notice the changes of light".  The structure of the story is also interesting, shaped by a writer-character who is conscious of the limitations of his narrative ("a story has no beginning or end", the book begins, "arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead"). 

The swings between past and present time also demand that the reader involves themselves deeply in the characters' minds, and becomes part of their webby, messy world.

The novel begins with our protagonist, Maurice Bendrix, an upcoming writer, meeting Sarah husband's Henry on Clapham Common (they live at opposite sides of it, a detail that has a certain knowing, oppressive poetry about it). Henry is worried about Sarah, and thinking about hiring a private detective to find out what is wrong with her; Maurice does so himself. It quickly becomes obvious that Bendrix has some history with Sarah, although he is loathe to admit it, but the details of their passionate past slowly, and painfully, start to seep out. 

The hurt I felt while reading this book reminded me of Brief Encounter, one of my favourite films. It's such a stark, modern film in some ways, especially at the point when Celia Johnson (as Laura) talks about not thinking about her children while she is away with her lover, and when you realise her her husband is such a nice, unknowing soul. Greene's story also has an unknowing husband (Henry), but many more physical details that deepen that sense of dread. Take the pages when Maurice and Sarah are having sex in the house in which Henry is also in – I barely breathed.

The last scene of (the wonderful) Brief Encounter

What's not obvious early on, though, is how huge a part religion will play in The End Of The Affair. Catholicism is the real cheat of the hour that enters the frame and rips this relationship apart (I won't say much more here; you'll have to read the book to appreciate what happens). It's also impossible to see this when the narrative starts, and that's one of many things I love about this book. You look at the heavily-loaded title, and Sarah's nasty cough, and all signs point to an obvious melodrama. What we actually get is a story when nothing is truly as it seems, or will work out to be, for both character and reader. 

The last section even takes us somewhere very gothic and strange, where miracles happen, while others implode. Plus, the last line is also surely a contender for the bleakest ever:

"O God, You've done enough, You've robbed me of enough, I'm too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever."

And if this isn't dark enough... Greene lived at 14 Clapham Common Northside. His house was bombed by one of the first V1s, just as Maurice's was. Graham Greene had an affair with Lady Catherine Walston. Her husband was called Henry. 

The English edition of the book is dedicated to C.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Week Thirty-Four - Jeanette

 The Island Of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells (1896)
Recommended by Kieran

If you hadn’t realised already, I’m tackling my Two Readers books in alphabetical order by author surname. So H.G. Wells? At week thirty-four? What’s going on here, then?

Kieran’s going on here, then.

The Island Of Doctor Moreau is his favourite book and last week he gave it to me, his own copy, a beautifully weathered and musky red hardback.

It may seem like a little thing to you, perhaps, but it came like a sudden blow to me.

I’ve read some H.G. Wells before, but not much: The War Of The Worlds and The Time Machine (just like everyone else), plus The History Of Mr. Polly, one of his non-science fiction works and – as I remember – a very sharply-written snark of a novel about a bitterly unhappy man. It’s also useful to know what the ‘H.G.’ stands for (Herbert George), for it’s a regular-rotation pub quiz question.

‘As it happens, we are biologists here. This is a biological station – of a sort.’

Doctor Moreau, ‘a prominent and masterful physiologist, well known in scientific circles for his extraordinary imagination’, has commandeered an island. Prendick, our narrator and a shipwreck victim who washes up there, remembers well the scandal that forced Moreau to leave England: unusual animal experiments brought to public attention via a notorious pamphlet, The Moreau Horrors. The doctor’s cruelty was symbolized by a flayed and mutilated dog, reported as escaping from Moreau’s house with barely its life.

Prendick, a man of science himself, has some initial sympathy for Moreau. He considers vivisection rather unpleasant, but necessary for advance, and he sees the journalists who hounded Moreau as ill-informed dinosaurs. Nevertheless, as Prendick becomes aware that Moreau is experimenting again, his objectivity disappears. The sorrow of a tormented puma rings throughout the island, its baleful yells forcing him to confront his attitude to animal welfare.

The crying sounded even louder out of doors. It was as if all the pain in the world had found a voice.

As I sit here typing this, with a gorgeous cat on my lap (Sprocket), the avoidable suffering of Moreau’s puma makes me want to throw up. (Yet this same cat is fresh from eviscerating a loudly squealing mouse because he wanted to give me a ‘present’. Some animals are more equal than others.)

Wells has written a powerful anti-vivisectionist tract, but preachy books, however much one agrees with the subject being preached on, are usually worth little more than one head-nodding read. The Island Of Doctor Moreau is far deeper. It takes Frankenstein’s idea of a troubled ‘mad scientist’ and races to gorier and more unsettling extremities.

The aspect I found most riveting was the book’s theme of cultural assimilation. Moreau’s tragic vivisected creatures have to find their new identity within themselves, but also within a newly-constructed society. The island is effectively totalitarian with Moreau as Il Duce; the leader cult and the quasi-religious rules are all designed to contain animalistic reactions.

We ran through a long list of prohibitions, and then the chant swung round to a new formula:
                            ‘His is the House of Pain.’
                            ‘His is the Hand that makes.’
                            ‘His is the Hand that wounds.’
                            ‘His is the Hand that heals.’

Dystopian works predate The Island Of Doctor Moreau, of course, but this seems to me a very early sympathetic example of a dystopia for a misfit group. Clive Barker’s Nightbreed immediately popped into my head as an obvious child of Doctor Moreau. Barker’s unhappy monsters are forced into their own marginalized society, as they are pitied and despised by others; the film’s horror is not in how the monsters persecute, but in how they are persecuted. Nightbreed was a flop following the success of Barker’s Hellraiser. While Nightbreed is a less digestible film than Hellraiser (and it certainly has its cinematic limitations), the ideas within it remain unusual for a horror movie.

Perhaps even more pertinent as a reference point (and far better a movie) is the incredible 1959 Georges Franju film, Les Yeux Sans Visage.

Les Yeux Sans Visage, which I saw as a nineteen-year-old in Norwich’s Cinema City, had an overpowering effect on me. It also deals with the tragedy of demented science, and it was the first film I’d ever been to where an audience member queasily walked out. Les Yeux Sans Visage contains a surgery scene that belies belief given the year the film was made (for context, the only other film I’ve seen a walkout from was Takashi Miike’s 1999 sado-fest Audition). It feels like lots of readers might have slammed The Island Of Doctor Moreau shut, nausea overtaking them during passages like this…

One hand was almost severed at the wrist, and his silvery hair was dabbled in blood. His head had been battered in by the fetters of the puma. The broken canes beneath him were smeared with blood.

…and, in fact, the 1932 movie, titled Island Of Lost Souls, was banned in the UK until 1958.

(Love the ‘Panther Woman’ wearing a fur bikini, while Bela Lugosi gets the full-face ugly treatment.)

The subject matter of The Island Of Doctor Moreau is sensationalist, yet the execution of it never is. In this sense it feels very modern. It combines the moral turpitude of a Dostoyevsky work with the surreal savagery of a Jodorowsky film. I adored it.

I had my fifty-two recommendations in before I met Kieran. So, as I’m not going to nudge out any existing friends, I did wonder what to call this ‘week’. Bonus week? Interlude week? Some more poetic variation thereof? But, no, it didn't feel right; he's not a bonus and he's not an interlude. I’ve decided to keep it at ‘Week Thirty-Four’. This means that I’ve now vivisected the calendar, grafting on an extra seven days and making my year fifty-three weeks long.

Well, fair enough. Nothing seems impossible right now.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Week Thirty-Three - Jeanette

Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (1986)
Recommended by Noshee

My favourite programme of 2011 was Charlie Brooker’s How TV Ruined Your Life. The fourth episode tackled love.

Love is like the flu. People often think they’re experiencing it, but most of the time it’s just a cold. And they only realise it was just a cold years later, when they finally catch the flu for real, by which time they’ve got engaged to bloody Ian.

Is love also like cholera? Let’s look at what the NHS Choices website has to say.

                          The most common symptoms of cholera are:
·      extensive, watery diarrhoea
·      nausea (feeling sick)
·      vomiting (being sick)
·      muscle cramps
Left untreated the combination of diarrhoea and vomiting can cause a person to quickly become dehydrated (lack of fluids inside their body) and go into shock (experience a massive drop in blood pressure). In the most severe cases these conditions can be fatal.

Definite crossover, then. But cholera can usually be cured. Love (and lovesickness), well, that’s open to debate.

It was the year they fell into devastating love. Neither one could do anything except think about the other, dream about the other, and wait for letters with the same impatience they felt when they answered them.

Love In The Time Of Cholera, at the beginning, chronicles how Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza find each other. That first flush! Rhapsodising over each other to anyone who’ll listen. Introducing his or her name into conversations under the flimsiest of pretexts. Reliving every tiny interaction a million or more times. Staring into space then realising two hours has passed. Waking up with a grin the size of Greenland on your face.

How the hell do you write adequately about love? Gabriel García Márquez is one of the twentieth century’s most respected authors, not a Mills & Boon hack, so one assumes that if he’s having a bash at love’s ecstasies and convulsions it’ll be worth reading. As a bare minimum, it'll depict more than romance’s cliché: high passion, temporarily thwarted, before a happy ending dabs the tears away. Love In The Time Of Cholera is a complicated and reflective work, and what gives the story its ironic edge is that it’s about the wish for things to be simple and instinctive.

Fermina Daza, Florentino Ariza, and the other main character, Dr Juvenal Urbino (all characters are always referred to by their full names, a curious device that prevents some reader intimacy) live their lives out over this book. What Márquez tells us, via his picturesque prose, is that love might conquer all. But it might not. People are messy and do stupid things. Society is messy and encourages people to do stupid things. The past piles up behind us. Its fetid stench hangs in the air, sometimes mitigated by the over-sweet rose of nostalgia. Plus, there’s our desire to love in itself, to convince ourselves that the lie is the truth. This is another hugely complicating factor in life, and a major tension in the book.

He was aware that he did not love her. […] But as she kissed him for the first time he was sure there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love. They did not speak of it that first night, when they spoke of everything until dawn, nor would they ever speak of it.

How ideals are negotiated with reality – and the effects of doing this, both positive and negative – doesn’t only relate to love, but to our work and our creativity, too. Yet I don’t find it’s as simple as saying ‘never compromise’. People who espouse that are usually hypocrites, or wealthy, or stunted adolescents, or members of Crass. While Márquez is definitely on the side of believing in your dreams, he’s also clear that wishing and hoping alone won’t make them occur, and even with work, your effort could fail you. Although this sounds dour, actually its overall tone is very positive, because hope takes place in the real world of competing concerns, blunders, and shifting situations.

I think the narrative’s often-painful pragmatism surprised me, because Márquez is rarely mentioned without ‘magical realism’ nestling somewhere in the same paragraph. A little digging has revealed Love In The Time Of Cholera is not as ‘magically real’ as some of Márquez’s other works, but it still has snags of the fantastical.

After a time, however, she discovered when she awoke from an exhausting dream that the doll was growing: the original exquisite dress she had arrived in was up above her thighs, and her shoes had burst from the pressure of her feet.

I really liked these elements. They gave the book a hallucinatory quality at times, suiting the fugue state of love. Márquez also gives us plenty of very quotable earthy mediations.

As a young man his stream was so defined and so direct that when he was at school he won contests for marksmanship in filling bottles, but with the ravages of age it was not only decreasing, it was also becoming oblique and scattered, and had at last turned into a fantastic fountain, impossible to control despite his many efforts to direct it.

That film adaptation looks like such a heap of sentimental tripe. I bet the pissing scene isn't in it.

Noshee is one of my literary inner circle. I trust her judgement absolutely and anything she gives to me, I read (eventually; Márquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude, her last year’s birthday gift, is still on my shelf). The first novel she bought me was Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room. Her favourite books are Wilkie Collins’s The Woman In White and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. You see: impeccable taste.

In fact, it is perfectly obvious to me how a high proportion of the world’s population could fall in love with Noshee (even me, it seems; we were once mistaken for partners). When I first saw her I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever met. Bone structure out of her, er, bones. And like Márquez, she is wise and sensitive, with the rare ability to look at the bigger picture and genuinely put herself in another’s situation. These personality traits – perspective, humanity, enthusiasm – all help when one is laid up with love (or by that less exalted illness, infatuation).

So Márquez can ‘do love’, relatively directly, and without the old chestnuts. It reminds me of why I like girl group records of the 1960s so much. They succeed in being so very affecting often because of the believable performances of the vocalists. Here is the isolated vocal track of The Ronettes’ Baby I Love You and, within it, I can find all love’s joy, and all its incipient anguish; well, all that three minutes could ever possibly deliver.