An Economic Allegory?

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila

ivan repila

At 110 pages, this short novel in the Pushkin Press Collection is easily read in one session. Once grabbed by this powerful story I wasn’t going to put the book down until I’d finished it.

It concerns two brothers, who are only known as Big and Small appropriately to their comparative sizes. They are trapped at the bottom of a well which, like a mould for an iceberg, is wider under the surface the further it goes down. Their attempts to climb out fail; Big tries to throw Small up and over, this doesn’t work either. No-one hears their cries, despite the well being not far from the path. Will they ever get out, or will they die down there?

The days go on, they survive on worms, maggots and the earthy water from the sludge, portioned as per their size. Big keeps up his exercise regime. Small gets thin, sickly, and feverish but does recover a little. Big admonishes him for not eating.

‘You should eat even if you aren’t hungry.’
‘I’ll eat whem I’m hungry. I’ll drink when I’m thirsty. I’ll shit when I feel like shitting. Like dogs do.’
‘We aren’t dogs.’
‘In here we are. Worse than dogs.’

Later:

‘I think I’ve got rabies,’ he says.
‘No. You don’t have rabies yet.’
Small looks at him lovelessly, and asks:
‘Then what is this anger I can feel inside?’
‘You’re becoming a man,’ says Big.

The days go by and Small starts raving, making up tales including one that he was ‘the boy who stole Attila’s horse’. Big keeps up his regime. It gets harder and harder to find food, and all the time they have had a carrier of bread and cheese they were bringing back for their mother by their side – now beyond eating. The days carry on, Small gets ever-weaker. Big does his best to keep him alive…

This story is so Grimm – it is really a modern fairy tale. The boys’ struggle is told unsparingly in its detail in Sophie Hughes’ translation from the Spanish, from the taste of maggots to their physical state, yet it is not until near the end that we find out what happened. The brothers’ love for each other shines through, although there are some truly dark moments. On this level it is a compelling and touching tale with some flashes of humour just when you thought it was getting too black.

Where I had problems with it though was as an economic allegory of the state of Europe – that’ll teach me to read the publisher’s blurb just before I start a novel!  Indeed the whole book is prefaced with a rather nasty epigraph from Margaret Thatcher (and another by Bertold Brecht). It wasn’t until I read John Self’s excellent review at Asylum that I was able to formulate my thoughts in this regard: The hole or void is pyramid shaped – the boys are at the bottom where they are literal and metaphorical have nots. It would take a miracle for them to reach the surface where they’d join the haves – but how do you climb out of a void?  That’s my take, but I’m not sure I’d have got the economic allegory, even noting the quote from Thatch, if I hadn’t been pre-warned.

This strange little fable was definitely well worth reading for the writing is fine indeed. It’s Repila’s second novel; the first to be translated into English – it’ll be interesting to see what comes next. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (Affiliate link):
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (Pushkin Collection)by Iván Repila, 2013 trans Sophie Hughes 2015. Pushkin Press, paperback original, 110 pages.

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‘I like a fresh bowl.’

Yes, it’s a quote from that late 1990s TV series Ally McBeal which was set in a Boston legal firm. I watched it religiously for most of its run. Partner John Cage was the chap who said it – he had many quirks including a remote control for his favourite toilet stall, which he’d pre-flush before going… I bring it up because it was the first thing that popped into my mind when I spotted this book at a book sale last year!

 

The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms by J.P. Donleavy

donleavy lady clean Donleavy is Irish-American; born in New York he moved to Ireland after WWII where, now aged 88, he still lives. The Ginger Man was his first novel, published in 1955, and he continued writing up until the late 1990s. He wrote several plays in his early career in addition to his novels and occasional non-fiction.

I have The Ginger Man and A Fairytale of New York (1973) on my shelves but, despite them being broadly classed as comedies, I worried that they might be slightly challenging to read. This short, late novel from 1995 with its arresting title thus seemed a perfect compromise as a good introduction to the man and his writing.

Meet Jocelyn – a fit, fortyish divorcée living in Scarsdale, a prosperous suburb of New York City. Jocelyn got the big house and a chunk of cash from the settlement but is rattling around in this money pit and slowly going mad.

…she got so drunk she found herself sitting at midnight with a loaded shotgun across her lap, after she thought she heard funny noises outside around the house. Then watching a bunch of glad facing so called celebrities spout their bullshit on a T.V. talk show and remembering that once someone told her how, when having quaffed many a dram, they turned off T.V. sets in the remote highlands of Scotland, she clicked off the safety, aimed the Purdey at mid-screen and let off the no. 4 cartridges in both barrels. And she said to herself over and over again as the sparks and flames erupted from the smoke.
‘Revenge is what I want. Nothing but pure unadulterated revenge. But my mother brought me up to be a lady.’

Jocelyn’s family harks back to the Mayflower, she went to Bryn Mawr – but since the divorce, her friends have melted away and her children don’t talk to her, she has no help any more. She cashes in the big house, but bad financial advice loses her her capital. She moves again into a tiny apartment in Yonkers (not Scarsdale – eek!), tries waitressing and finds that her fine palate is not suited to serving uneducated ones. She can’t find another job, so she wonders if she can get a man – maybe one of her old flames would pay her for it!

The one thing that keeps Jocelyn sane are her regular forays to the big art galleries in Manhattan. The only problem with being out though is the need to pee – and Jocelyn, like her South Carolina grandmother taught her, “My dear, if you really have to, only clean, very clean rest rooms will do”, and there aren’t many around in the businesses and big hotels that will tolerate regular non-resident visitors. But one day she finds the perfect rest room in a funeral home and has to pretend to be at a viewing …

I won’t deny that this text was an easy read – I so nearly let it bog me down, but persevered as it was only 100 pages or so! Donleavy’s sentence structure can be very convoluted in its clauses, and he ignores grammatical convention a lot of the time. His almost stream of consciousness style of writing, all in the present tense, felt more like the story had been written in the 1960s than the 90s, and it frequently obscured the laughs at first which did become apparent on closer reading – for underneath it all was a funny little plot, although it is a rather sad book.

It was surprisingly vulgar in places and at first I wondered how Jocelyn could stoop so low, but as we all know – social standing is no measure of bad behaviour, and what those Bryn Mawr girls got up to!… Despite her demotion from socialite to lonely mad cat-lady-type, I didn’t like Jocelyn at all and I wasn’t entirely convinced by her characterisation either.

This book is a definite Marmite one – some readers will love it and others will hate it. The experience reminded me of reading Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard as similarly challenging stylistically; I appreciated both, but didn’t like either particularly. (6/10)

Are all Donleavy’s books like this?
Should I go on to try one of his full length novels?

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms: The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to Be Rumoured about Around New York by J P Donleavy. Paperback.

Book Group Report – Jean Teulé

The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé

suicide-shopOur book group read for July into August was actually a re-read for me. We’d wanted something quick and light as due to our schedules we only had three weeks between meetings instead of our usual four or five. I had read Teulé’s 2007 novel, published in English translation by Sue Dyson in 2008 when it first came out pre-blog – but thanks to my spreadsheet that I was already keeping back then I can retrieve my capsule review:

This very French, dystopian fable reminded me very much of the stylish film Delicatessen (a hilarious post-apocalyptic French sort of Sweeney Todd), but lacking some of its virtuosity. That’s not to say that it is unimaginative … Some of the ways that the proprietors of The suicide shop devise to help their customers do away with themselves are really hilarious, but it lacks the film’s lightness of touch with its macabre material. In particular, the Alan Turing suicide kit is inspired, as is the Kiss of Death given to Marilyn as her coming of age birthday present.

The Tuvache family who own the shop are all cartoon characters, all named for famous suicides which tell you all you need to know about them – there’s the father Mishima, the mother Lucrèce, son Vincent, daughter Marilyn, and the wayward youngest son. He’s named Alan after Turing, but does not display any of his namesake’s traits! Alan is the despair of his parents being all too happy, and happiness is catching in this sulphurous City of Lost Religion (presumably a take on Paris being the City of Light?). Usually in novels, it’s the other way around with everyone starting out happy before diving into the slough of despond – but this does allow a neat ending. A clever and funny, quick novel to read, but a little heavy-handed.

Yes, it’s literally about a shop where you can buy everything you need to kill yourself in whatever way you please. M. & Mme. Tuvache are only too happy to will help you decide how. There are some delightfully gruesome jokes here – but I will only share a bit of the Alan Turing one with you in case you want to read the book yourself:

‘The inventor committed suicide in an odd way. On the seventh of June 1954, he soaked an apple in a solution of cyanide and placed it on a small table. Next, he painted a picture of it, and then he ate the apple.’
‘He never did!’
‘It’s said that this is the reason why the apple Macintosh logo depicts an apple with a bit out of it. It’s Alan Turing’s apple.’
‘Well, well… at least I won’t die an idiot.’

(Wikipedia tells me that a half eaten apple was indeed found beside Turing’s bed, but it wasn’t tested for cyanide. His inquest wondered if he had accidentally inhaled cyanide fumes from gold electroplating which he did in his spare room.)

I really enjoyed the book all over again, but what did the others in the group think?  Well – no-one hated it outright. We were split over the plot, or perceived lack of it – some wanted more, others somewhat disagreed with as it is only 160-odd pages of big print – a short novel really and it does have a main storyline with other elements. I think all but me felt a little cheated by the final ending, but I won’t expound further. Everyone did at least like some of the jokes. Needless to say, we all found it very French! Given the amount of discussion though, it did make quite a good book group read. I particularly loved the shop’s slogan – ‘Vous avez râté votre vie, réussisez votre mort…’ translated as, ‘Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success.’ (8.5/10)

By the way, I recommend the film Delicatessen from 1991 directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro – a post-apocalyptic character-based French comedy about the inhabitants of a building block. Full of grotesques and very quirky – very Terry Gilliamesque, but in French. The Suicide Shop has been made into a French animated film too, but I haven’t seen it and aren’t sure if it’s subtitled.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé, Gallic Books, paperback 169 pages.
Le Magasin des suicides (DVD) ~ Patrice Leconte
Delicatessen [DVD]

Australia & New Zealand Literature Month

ANZ-LitMonth-200pixANZ Literature Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters is nearly over but I’ve finally managed to fit in a short novel by Tim Winton to take part reviewing, although I have enjoyed reading contributor’s reviews which are listed here.

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That Eye, The Sky by Tim Winton

that eye
This short novel was published in 1986, so early in Winton’s writing career – his third book. It’s a quirky little thing – not really a coming of age story, but it is definitely a tale about growing up and learning more about what to believe in for young Morton – known as Ort.

Eleven-year-old Ort is in his final term at junior school. In the autumn he’ll have to take the school bus to the city to join the seniors – something he’s not looking forward to.  He lives a way outside their little town – his hippy parents decided to forsake the city for the country when his Mum was pregnant with his older sister Tegwyn. His ancient Grammar also lives with them. His Dad works at the nearby garage for Mr Cherry, whose son Fat is Ort’s best friend. They’re looking forward to a summer swimming in the creek and doing nothing much at all.  Today starts off as a normal day …

‘Seeyaz.’ That’s Dad going. He revs the ute up. He’s in a hurry, going into town for Mr Cherry.
‘Wave him off, Ort,’ Mum says to me. She always reckons you should show people you love them when they go away because you might never see them again. They might die. The world might end. But Dad’s only going to town for an hour. It’s business for Mr Cherry. And there he goes, out the drive and onto the road.

It’s as well that they wave goodbye, for within a few pages, Ort’s Dad has had a bad car accident and is taken to hospital where he lies ‘crook’ in a coma. Neither Ort nor his Mum believe that he won’t come home – Ort himself was in a coma for a fortnight with meningitis as a babe.

Life continues for the Flack family, with added visits to the hospital, when Mr Cherry agrees to take them – although the relationship between the Flacks and the cherries will go sour when Mum finds out what the errand was. Meanwhile, Ort and Fat muck around in the creek and spy on a bum who’s sleeping under the bridge.

Sure enough, one day Sam wakes up. The hospital soon ship him home – he breathes – voicelessly through the tracheostomy hole in his windpipe. He sees, but doesn’t appear to look. He’s little more than a vegetable in appearance, although Ort is sure he hears and understands everything. He’s going to need a lot of looking after.

Help arrives – but not the kind they’d been expecting. Henry Warburton turns up on the doorstep – saying he’s a volunteer. Ort recognises him – but his Mum accepts the offer as she’s getting desperate. So Henry joins the Flack household, an enigmatic stranger, big, grubby and with a speech impediment – he seems to fight with himself a lot. Should they trust him?

Big things in life tend to happen in clusters – and that’s what happens in this novel. Everything coincides that summer and for Ort, that means a certain loss of innocence, yet also an opening of his mind to new things – not always for the better perhaps. Ort has to man up and act as the head of the household. For his Mum, it’s the realisation that their hippy dream only works with both her and Sam in it – and it knocks her for six, making her extremely fragile emotionally and open to suggestion.

Henry brings with him a definite sense of threat; its hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, but intermittently I was reminded of Reverend Harry Powell as played by Robert Mitchum in the film Night of the Hunter, but I don’t think Henry was inherently evil in that way. Certainly creepy though. Winton leaves much to our imagination…

Ort is a great child narrator though, on the cusp of becoming a teenager soon, but not until after that transition year when you start seniors. He’s a practical nature boy too, looking after his ‘chooks’, catching lizards and looking up at that sky…

The sky is the same colour as Mum and Dad’s eyes. When you look at it long enough, like I am now with my nose up in it, it looks exactly like an eye anyway. One big blue eye. Just looking down. At us.

I loved Ort’s voice narrating the story. The contrast between long and short sentences. Winton captures the beginnings of his adolescence perfectly, and his rebellious sister Tegwyn too – she is confused and isolated living out there. Naturally, you cross your fingers when reading a story like this, hoping for a happy outcome – but you’ll have to read it for yourself if you want to find that out.

Although this probably wasn’t the best Winton novel to start off with, it’s the only one I had to hand. If it represents a writer beginning to find his stride, I have high hopes for his later books, as I enjoyed this one. (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
That Eye, the Sky by Tim Winton (pub 1986, Scribner paperback 160 pages.)

Psst! Want to know a secret?

Secret by Philippe Grimbert

Secret

This short novel contains within its 154 widely spaced pages a tale so compelling you will want to read the whole thing in one sitting as I did and still have time to savour the exquisite writing as translated from the French by Polly McLean.

The only problem that I have in writing this review is that I can’t tell you much about it without giving away the central secrets that lie in this family’s past. The narrator tells of his childhood growing up in post-war Paris in the 1950s, the sickly only child of supremely fit and glamorous parents. He wishes he had an older brother and invents one, but it is when he talks to an old family friend once he reaches fifteen that he begins to find out the truth about his heritage, something his parents had wanted to stay buried.

One day while still a child, he helps his mother tidy in the attic …

She had opened a trunk in which she expected to find fashion magazines that used to publish her designs. She jumped when she saw the little dog with Bakelite eyes, sleeping there on top of a pile of blankets. Threadbare and dusty-muzzled, he was wearing a knitted coat. I immediately grabbed him and hugged him to my chest, but had to abandon the idea of taking him to my room: I could feel my mother’s unease as she asked me to put him back in his place.  (page 5)

You should never hide things like that where people may find them – at the very least they should have ‘lost’ the key to the trunk. I shouldn’t be so glib though.  Grimbert himself is a psychoanalyst and he uses all the tricks of the trade to gradually tease out what happened. He also shares a his surname with his protagonist, which will lead you to all sorts of questions, not least the killer one – are there elements of autobiography in this story?  I have no idea of the answer to that by the way.

Published in 2004 in France as Un Secret, and 2007 in the UK dropping the ‘A’, this book was a bestseller in France and won a Prix Goncort. It was also filmed and I can certainly see it as a French drama. Please be aware that it is also available under the title ‘Memory‘.

The style is spare, yet full of the details that we need to get pulled into the story. I enjoyed this novel very much indeed. (9/10)

For another non-spoiler review see Vulpes Libris here

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Secretby Philippe Grimbert. Pub 2007 by Portobello Books, paperback 154 pages.

‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ …

Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies

reasons-she-goes-to-the-woods-9781780743769_0 Deborah Kay Davies is one of those writers who does dark brilliantly.

Her first novel True Things About Me (my review) was disturbing yet unputdownable – about a thrill-seeking young woman who gets into an abusive relationship.  Her second novel, the Baileys longlisted Reasons She Goes to the Woods is also disturbing and unputdownable…

It’s about a child, Pearl, and her family. There’s her little brother The Blob, there’s her mother and her beloved Daddy.  The book’s blurb quotes from the nursery rhyme There was a little girl, (which was actually written by Longfellow, I found out!).

When she was good
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

Except that Pearl is more often horrid than good. She’s an experimenter on other people – when she gets found out, they don’t like it – especially her mother who punishes her. She hides in the woods behind their house. It soon becomes clear that the mother has mental health problems, and Pearl gets blamed, and as she grows up and becomes a teenager, her experiments get nastier, and her mother carries on getting worse. Her poor beloved Daddy is beside himself with worry.

Some might say that the outcome of the novel is predictable given Pearl’s seeming single-mindedness in her actions; the route to get there though is not so obvious and builds up gradually over the course of the book.

The author, tells the story with a great deal of style. Although the book is nominally 250 pages long, only half the pages contain the story. Each pair of pages contains a one or two word heading on the left, and then a single paragraph that fills the page on the right. So the book is only really about 120 pages long.

Each right hand page is a vignette recounting one snapshot of Pearl’s life, moving from primary school through to teenage years. The extract below is the last third of the first of these little stories that make up the whole:

The living room is quiet. In the entire world there is only Pearl and her father. Her mother laid a fire before she went out; taking ages, leaving instructions, dropping things, then slamming the door and coming back. Now Pearl listens to the sounds coming from the grate as the flames lick each other and purr. From the place pressed against her father’s knee she feels a rippling sensation move through her body, as if a delicate, frilled mushroom were expanding, elongating, filling her up. She exhales slowly. She mustn’t disturb him. He would push her off with his beautiful hands if he woke up.

Told in the present tense, there is a dreamy otherworldliness about Pearl’s actions that belies the fact that a lot of what she does is downright nasty. It’s clear that the mother-daughter relationship never happened and that she idolises her father. She also has a controlling relationship with her few friends, and The Blob too of course. After all, Pearl only wants one thing …

Deborah Kay Davies has again probed the dark side of relationships – different ones this time.  I wonder where she’ll go for her next novel?  As I said at the top, this book is disturbing and unputdownable, an uneasy but thought-provoking read.  (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies, pub Feb 2014 by Oneworld, 250pp, Hardback.

Where is your North?

Soonchild by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Alexis Deacon

220px-Soonchild_Cover

This was the last book that Russell Hoban finished before his death in 2011. It was published posthumously by Walker Books as an illustrated short novel for a teen audience, and it is dedicated to Hoban’s grandchildren who are probably the perfect age to read this modern folktale of the frozen north…

Maybe you think there isn’t any north where you are. Maybe it’s warm and cosy and outside the window the street is full of cars or maybe there’s just emptiness and a train whistle. There aren’t any Eskimos or dog sleds, nothing like that. But in your mind there is a North.

There’s a north where it’s so cold that your nose hairs get stiff and your eyeballs get brittle and your face hurts and your hands will freeze if you leave them uncovered too long. A north where the white wind blows, where the night wind wails with the voices of the cold and lonesome dead. Where the ice bear walks alone and he’s never lost. Where the white wolf comes trotting, trotting on the paths of the living, the paths of the dead. Where the snowy owl drifts through the long twilight without a sound. Where the raven speaks his words of black.

In this north there’s a place on the shore of the great northern bay with forty or fifty huts and a co-op and some boats and some of those motorized sleds they call skidoos. Some of the people still live by hunting and fishing but many have jobs and buy their food at the co-op.

These are the opening paragraphs of Soonchild, and those of you who’ve encountered Russell Hoban before will recognise his trademark way of bringing a flight of fantasy down to earth with the introduction of the mundane and a dash of humour.  This novel is full of these touches of humour, but underneath that is a rather dark and profound story of death and rebirth based on Inuit folklore. 

Soonchild is an unnaturally quiet baby, and she plans on staying in her mother No Problem’s womb. She can’t hear the ‘world songs’, so there is no point in coming out, she doesn’t believe there’s a world out there.

Sixteen Face John is her father, he is the local shaman, as was his father and grandfather before him, but he has got fat and lazy drinking Coke and watching baseball on the telly.  No Problem challenges John as shaman to fix it.

Illustration by Alexis Deacon from Soonchild by Russell Hoban

Illustration by Alexis Deacon from Soonchild by Russell Hoban

Somewhat reluctantly, John goes off and makes a big-dream brew – and he jumps into the raven’s eye to go and visit Nanuq, the ice bear, chasing these elusive songs. He will meet all manner of wildlife of the North as well as his ancestors in his quest in which he will die and be reborn many times in his search for the songs, and he will need courage as he finds out some hard truths about himself too.

With the exception of the mysterious snowy owl, Ukpika, many of the animals that John meets are straight talking and worldly.  “… my houth is youw houth and you’we my browther. What can I do fow you, bwo?” says Timertuk the walrus with a shocking lisp.  However, if you took out these playful bits of vernacular and the references to Coca-cola and pizza, what’s left could be a traditional folktale.

What makes the story really come alive, and takes it to a whole new level though are Alexis Deacon’s superb monochrome illustrations as above. They are ghostly and slightly savage – you can see the ribs and skulls of some of the wolves showing through their skin. You can sense that it’s hard to stay alive for the animals in this harsh landscape.

monster 1Given the fantastic nature of Hoban’s story, it lends itself to being illustrated. This was the same for Patrick Ness’s novel A Monster Calls, which I reviewed here. Jim Kay’s Greenaway Award-winning illustrations for that book were elemental, full of a life darker than the story itself. Reading the illustrated version was an absolute pleasure, yet Walker Books also produced an picture-less version of the paperback as a conventional adult crossover edition. I don’t think this would benefit Soonchild – it needs the illustrations to take you past the humour so you can savour the story underneath.

I’m a fan of Hoban, and the allure of the frozen North and its spirits, encountered from my cosy armchair made for a magical hour or two of reading. (9/10)

By the way: Another novel for older children and teens with its roots in the far north that I’d recommend is The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake, which I reviewed here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Soonchild by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Alexis Deacon. Walker Books 2012, 144 pages, paperback – Feb 2014.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, illustrated library binding.
The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake

Life by the tracks …

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

train dreamsI couldn’t bring myself to spend £12.99 on the hardback of this novella, but now it is out in paperback I snapped it up as I’d heard great things about it – and wilderness novels always seem to appeal to me.

Train Dreams tells the life story of Robert Grainier, who as a child arrives in Idaho on the train in the 1880s to live with his uncle having lost his parents – we never learn how. Robert becomes a hard worker, on the railroads and in the forests in the northern tip of the state close to the Canadian border. He marries relatively late, in his thirties, and after his wife and child are presumed dead in forest fire, lives on his own for the rest of his days into his eighties.

As the novel opens, Grainier is working on a railroad bridge across a gorge, and lends a hand to colleagues who are planning to throw a supposedly thieving Chinaman off the bridge. The Chinaman escaped, but Grainier feels cursed by having taken part in the shameful exploit…

Walking home in the falling dark, Grainier almost met the Chinaman everywhere. Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his hands on arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider…

Now Grainier stood by the table in the single-room cabin and worried. The Chinaman, he was sure, had cursed them powerfully while they dragged him along, and any bad thing might come of it. Though astonished now at the frenzy of the afternoon, baffled by the violence, and how it had carried him away like a seed in a wind, young Grainier still wished they’d gone head and killed that Chinaman before he’d cursed them.

He feels the Chinaman’s curse is responsible for the presumed death of his wife and daughter when a terrible forest fire burns everything in the whole valley where their homestead was built. He will eventually return there and rebuild the cabin, living a near hermit life with just his dog for company for half of each year, working the other months. Once his ageing joints are no longer any good for logging work, he becomes a haulier for hire with horses and wagon. He makes enough to get by, but it is a hard life.

I’m not generally comfortable with short stories, which often feel as if they’re over before they’ve started for me. However, I am happy with the novella / short novel form which has enough length to tell a good story, but in keeping it short makes every sentence count.

This is the case with Train Dreams. Johnson manages to compress eighty years into not many more pages, but also to encompass all that was important in Grainier’s life within that constraint, always with the railroad somewhere in the distance or in his dreams. We appreciate Grainier’s sheer hard work and pioneer spirit, we’re sad with him for the loss of his wife and child, and feel his loneliness when he returns to his backwoods cabin where he is left to commune with nature.

Grainier’s life in the cabin brings to mind another book rich with the pioneer spirit – Eowyn Ivey’s wonderful novel The Snow Child. There is more than that point of similarity, but I won’t expound for fear of spoiling, suffice to say that magic plays no part in Grainier’s life, except in his dreams and grief.

What is amazing about this short novel is that, despite its condensed nature, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, it is bigger on the inside. Every sentence does indeed count. Its beginning featuring the episode with the Chinaman may not initially endear you to Grainier, but his strength of character will get you as you read on.  This was my first experience of reading Denis Johnson, I’m sure it won’t be my last. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson – Granta paperback, 116 pages. First published 2002 – Buy

An experiment in greed

This is my second post for Simon’s tribute to his late Gran – Greene for Gran.

Last week I reviewed England Made Me, an early novel from 1935, which I hadn’t read before. This week, my second is Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party, one of his later books published in 1980, a re-read for me.

Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party

doctor fischer

This is a short novel, of only 143 pages in my Penguin edition, but it is one of Greene’s keenest satires – a portrait of greed, and how greed begets more greed.

Alfred Jones is an English widower in his fifties. He lost one of his hands during the Blitz, his wife died in childbirth years before. He now works as a translator in Vevey, Switzerland for a chocolate company – echoing that oft-misquoted line from The Third Man:

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Note – no ‘chocolate’.  However, Vevey, near the eastern end of Lake Geneva is where the HQ of Nestlé is (I always associate them with Dairy Crunch chocolate bars, but in reality they are a huge food company, Nescafe etc.).  But back to the book…

One day, Jones bumps into a young lady in a café, and they strike up an immediate friendship which very soon deepens into love.  Anna-Luise is the daughter of Swiss toothpaste magnate Doctor Fischer (of Geneva), her mother disappeared, presumed dead.  Alfred and Anna-Luise decide to live together and will marry, but Alfred is keen to get her father’s approval.

‘I’d better go and see him.’
‘Why?’
He might set the police looking for you.’
‘They wouldn’t look very hard,’ she said. ‘I’m above the age of consent. We haven’t committed a crime.’
But all the same I wasn’t sure that I had not committed one – a man with only one hand, who was well past fifty, who wrote letters all day about chocolates and who had induced a girl who wasn’t yet twenty-one to live with him: not a legal crime of course, but a crime in the eyes of the father. ‘If you really want to go,’ she said, ‘go, but be careful. Please be careful.’
‘Is he so dangerous?’
‘He’s hell,’ she said.

The first of many references to Fischer as the devil or Satan.  Fischer eventually meets Jones, but doesn’t bother to come to their wedding.

Fischer’s so-called friends meanwhile are called the ‘Toads’ by Anna-Luise, a term that Jones adopts enthusiastically.  They’re all rich in their own right, an alcoholic film actor, a retired general, an international lawyer, a tax adviser and an American widow.  Fischer is infamous for his secret parties which the Toads all go to, soon enough an invitation arrives for Jones – Anna-Luise is distinctly not invited. Jones isn’t sure what to do. ‘The approaching menace of Doctor Fischer’s party had come between us by that time and it filled out silences.‘  They come to an agreement that Alfred should try one party, and that he needn’t stay.

Jones arrives to find the Toads already there…

‘I always insist,’ Doctor Fischer said, ‘at my little parties that everybody enjoys himself.’
‘They are a riot,’ Mrs Montgomery said, ‘a riot.’

They go on to tell Jones about the prizes.

All we have to do is just put up with his little whims,’ Mrs Montgomery explained, ‘and then he distributes the prizes. There was one evening – can you believe it? – he served up live lobsters with bowls of boiling water. We had to catch and cook our own. One lobster nipped the General’s finger.’
‘I bear the scar still,’ Divisionnaire Kreuger complained.

The Toads continue to discuss the prizes, and Fischer reminds them that if they contradict him, they will lose their prizes. Then it is time for dinner to start, and I won’t spoil the fun by describing what happens except that Jones refuses to take part saying ‘I have something of more value than your present waiting for me at home.‘  Eventually Fischer tells Jones what his parties are all about.

… I want to discover, Jones, if the greed of our rich friends has any limit. If there’s a “Thus and no further.” If a day will come when they’ll refuse to earn their presents. Their greed certainly isn’t limited by pride. You can see that for yourself tonight. Mr Kips, like Herr Krupp, would have sat down happily to eat with Hitler in expectation of favours, whatever was placed before him. …

We’re not even halfway through the book, and Fischer’s mind-games with his so-called friends know no bounds, nor his callous disregard for his daughter.  Soon tragedy intervenes, and again Fischer is noted by his absence. When an invitation arrives for Jones to attend his final party the ‘bomb party’ of the novels subtitle, he feels he has nothing to lose…

This is Greene at his funny-grotesque best, but of course underlying the near-gallows humour is a story full of sadness. He comments on the human condition through the nasty deadly sin of avarice, contrasting the haves with the have nots. Fischer has truly become a monster, seeing himself as God playing dice, whereas to everyone else he’s more the devil – ultimately trying to tempt Jones as Jesus in the desert. It is full of the most delicious dialogue, but do remember this is a tragicomedy.

The one odd thing that struck me was that it didn’t feel as if it was set in the 1980s, more like the 1950s say. It’s only the occasional references of modern accoutrements like dishwashers, the pill and credit cards that remind you when it was written, and somehow they seem like anachronisms, when they’re not!

Re-reading this short novel has confirmed it in my mind as one of my favourite Greenes.  (9/10)

Doctor Fischer (1984, BBC)

The novel was adapted for a TV movie by the BBC in 1984 which starred James Mason (above) in his last ever performance as Fischer, with Alan Bates and Greta Scacchi as Jones and Anna-Luise. Sadly, it’s not available on DVD, and it’s years since I’ve seen it on the telly, here’s hoping that they’ll show it again some day.

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dr Fischer Of Genevaby Graham Greene, Vintage paperback.

A life on hold

Intermission by Owen Martell

intermission by owen martellMartell’s short novel takes a real event, the death of jazz bassist Scott LaFaro in a car accident in 1961, and imagines what followed.

LaFaro was the bassist in the Bill Evans Trio and died shortly after they recorded what are regarded as some of the best live jazz albums of all time (Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby). Before forming his own trio, Bill had played piano on Miles Davis’s seminal album Kind of Blue.  Martell’s story imagines what happened when trio leader Bill went to ground for several months after LaFaro’s death.

Fronted by an epigraph from Miles Davis “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” Martell attempts to do that in a way, but more of that later…

Bill is taken in by his brother Harry after Scott’s death, and later goes down to Florida to stay with his parents, Mary and Harry Sr. These three family members respectively take a turn to narrate the story, each taking a solo before handing over to Bill for the coda. Harry, Mary and Harry Sr reminisce about their own and the boys’ childhoods, growing up and how proud they all are of Bill who made something different of himself. No-one could be prouder than Bill’s mother, who is half-Russian and a musician-manqué herself. Her roots are grounded in Stravinsky and her favourite ballet of his, Petrushka, which contains the famous dissonant ‘Petrushka Chord’ much beloved of jazz artists too – indeed Harry’s first section is named after the chord.  Bill, stricken by grief and heroin, resembles nothing as much as the Russian puppet who comes to life.

This novel was not really what I expected from the blurb and the intriguing cover art. We learn virtually nothing about Scott, Paul – the other member of the trio, or the New York jazz scene – they are all peripheral to Bill’s grief,  it concentrates entirely on Bill and his family.

It’s all elegantly done, but there’s little jazz in this novel. Bill’s passivity absorbs all in its wake. The resulting prose is beautiful and carefully crafted, but was too drawn out to keep my full interest during the first two thirds; by the time that Bill begins to snap out of his funk, it was too late, so for me this book was disappointing.

Returning to Miles Davis’s epigraph, the author has looked at “what’s not there” – and eloquently described a musical void. But, the emphasis on the stop light on the cover and the novel’s title itself, do give a strong hint of the hiatus to come. (6/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon Vine, please click below:
Intermissionby Owen Martell. William Heineman hardback, pub Jan 2013, 167 pages.
Sunday At The Village Vanguardby the Bill Evans Trio (CD)
Waltz For Debby [Original Jazz Classics Remasters] by the Bill EVans Trio (CD)
Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis (CD)