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Sunday, 14 September 2014

You & Me

You & Me

HAMM: We're not beginning to... to... mean something?

CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that's a good one!

-- Endgame, Samuel Beckett

It is tempting—and numerous esteemed and not so estimable reviewers have been unable to resist—so let’s get it out of the road: If you’re aware of the existence of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot then the first thing that will jump to your mind when you begin reading You & Me [You&I here in the UK] is: This feels an awful lot like Waiting for Godot. Which it does. Now whether it was intended to is another matter but there are plenty of examples in literature (and film especially) of couples who natter away like this. All we know for certain is this:

Somewhere between Bakersfield, California, and Jacksonville, Florida—we think spiritually nearer the former and geographically nearer the latter—two weirdly agreeable dudes are on a porch in a not upscale neighbourhood, apparently within walking distance of a liquor store, talking a lot. It’s all they have. Things disturb them. Some things do not.

You&IWe never learn their names—one talks, the other responds but we don’t know who’s who nor does it matter—or their ages but if we accept that at least some of what comes out of their mouths is true then they’re probably in their seventies and have been friends for most, but not all, of their lives. This could been set in the deep South—imagine two rednecks in rocking chairs on a porch overlooking a swamp—or these two could be a couple of Jews perched on a bench in New York’s Central Park kvetching about life; they could just as easily be a pair of yokels leaning over a fence staring out over some field in East Anglia chewing on a piece of straw or even two teuchters sheltering under a tree ruminating on how many words the Scots have for rain. There’s universality to these two. We recognise them immediately. What sets these two apart from most old men is their marked lack of grumpiness. There’s a surprising—indeed refreshing—cheerfulness to these two; they actually moan very little although it would be too much to ask them not to moan at all and they do seem genuinely content with their lot—not that it is a lot—in life.

I first saw Godot when I was nineteen. I got up at the crack of dawn to watch an Open University programme knowing little about the play other than it was one of those things I would likely benefit from viewing. The next morning when it was repeated I insisted my wife and my best friend’s girlfriend who was staying with us at the time get up at the same ungodly hour to watch it again with me and I was frankly puzzled why they weren’t as excited as I was to have discovered this little gem. Had I read You & Me when I was nineteen I’d’ve been buying up copies to post to friends and family for birthdays and Christmases and been genuinely mystified when effusive letters of thanks and phone calls didn’t follow within a few days of receipt. I’m fifty-five now and know better. But I’m nineteen on the inside and it’s been a while since anything’s delighted me quite as much as this. Withnail and I did it. Lars Iyer’s Spurious did it. Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited did it. Sartre’s No Exit did it. The first time I saw Abbott and Costello do their ‘Who’s on First’ routine—that did it. I love banter. Beckett does it well but he’s far from being the only one.

These two aren’t even waiting for anything. There is no Godot equivalent. I thought “the codgers” who get mentioned in the opening few exchanges—you really can’t call them chapters—might be some people who were talked about but who never turned up to defend themselves but, no, that was never the case. No one turns up. No one’s expected. But it’s not awful. Of course ultimately they’re going to die but then we’re all going to shuffle off this mortal coil sometime it’s just that some of us have started to realise we’ve significantly less time than most and towards the end of the book I did wonder if Powell might not actually bump them off. This is, of course, assuming that they’re not already dead and this is some “antechamber to heaven” they’re in that Powell mentions in his quote from Barthelme at the start of the book and in the body of the text. It doesn’t matter. Wherever they are they’re enjoying themselves.

They have more props than Didi and Gogo ever had. And they do talk as if they’ve done things in between their confabs but it’s academic. Mostly they don’t talk much sense anyway. But it’s not all nonsense either, far from it:

    There is a fine line between humour and stupidity.
      The line is finer all the time.

They’ve lived a long time and have opinions—often not especially flattering opinions—on most things from film stars to politicians. They stand outside all of that so feel free to have their say. In an interview with Lee Griffith Powell talks a little about the conception of these two:

I had no visualisation. As characters, these two boys are not really distinguished from one another. They don’t have names for a reason. They’re just convenient position takers, taking somewhat oppositional positions in order to keep talking—more or less in the way that friends do. I tend to call this book a monologue as opposed to a dialogue because their positions are so suspiciously and conveniently similar. It is one mind having a little argument. [1]

And that’s effusive by Powell’s standards from what I can see of him and interviewers but then Beckett was not one for explaining his works either if one does insist (it’s fun to, let’s put it that way) we keep trying to compare the two. I’ve heard similar said about Didi and Gogo, that they’re “two sides of the same existential coin”[2] and the play should not be taken literally. So why should You & Me? At the end of the day what we have is nothing more complicated than an author talking to himself and writing that down for his own—and hopefully others’—entertainment. And I was fine with that. After much digging I did find this response from Powell:

The issue of Godot has certainly come up in America. They want to put that on the jacket but is it fair to say that this is reminiscent to a specific Beckett play when at best it might be called Becketty? Aren’t there other plays of Beckett in which two people talk for a long time? It’s a label and handy enough, but probably injurious in the long run.[3]

When I first watched Waiting for Godot at whatever unearthly hour it was all those years ago I didn’t get it. I didn’t get a fraction of it but I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Thirty-six years later having watched the play performed several times and studied it at length I can now see why it’s such a great play. Assuming I survive another thirty six years—55 + 36 = 91, so unlikely—I doubt I’ll be saying the same about You & Me because although this is a fun book—and it is great fun—that doesn’t mean it’s great-with-a-capital-g unless it’s hiding its greatness under a bushel. If I might illustrate:

      Is it better to have continuity of no content or discontinuous content?
      What is “content”?
      I use it as an irritatingly vague substitute for seriousness of purpose or meaningfulness in living, or something similarly perhaps as irritating as “content”—
      I get the drift. I would say it is better to have content without the continuity if the alternative is smooth unbroken vapidness such as the sort we practice in these dialogues every day.
      I’ll mark you down in the intellectual column. I am not surprised. I’m pencilling you in right beside Bertrand Russell.
      I’ll take it. One might be pencilled in beside, say, Jerry Lewis.
      Listen, I’d rather not talk today. I want to go watch old tennis players be displaced by young tennis players and the crowd weep as they retire and then start cheering for the new cocky-bastard upstarts who have sent them to pasture. This I want to do today, and nothing else. I want a cool soda water in my hand and a hat on my head and to not be overweight myself watching the elderly depart. I can from this position think gently of my own death.
      You almost got some content going on.
      I got it going on.
      You’ll look like a tennis groupie but you’ll have secret ponderment.
      No one will know.
      You’ll be a subversive in the stands, a thought arsonist. You’ll be like a Frenchman.

No one can tell me that exchange isn’t fun because it is but is it anything else? The mention of tennis inevitably reminds me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

Is there great meaning in Stoppard’s exchange? Isolated like that it doesn’t sound like it. It just looks as if they’re having fun with words and much of the time you could say the same about Powell’s argy-bargying pair but when you consider all the other references to questions in Stoppard’s play you start to realise that this might be a part of a bigger picture. I’ve only read the book the once but I’m not sure a similar search of You & Me would be as rewarding; I’ve tried but would be pleased to be proved wrong. I think for the most part Powell is simply having fun with words and he could just as easily have been influenced by Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal because in a 2006 interview[4]—so six years before You & Me was published—he himself cited this exchange from the Mailer, Vidal and Janet Flanner interview on The Dick Cavett Show:

MAILER: I would not hit anyone here, you’re all too small.

CAVETT: Smaller?

MAILER: Intellectually smaller.

CAVETT: Perhaps you’d like another chair to help contain your giant intellect.

MAILER: I’ll accept the chair if you’ll accept fingerbowls.

CAVETT: Fingerbowls? Fingerbowls. I don’t get that. Does anyone on our team [Vidal and Janet Flanner] want that one?

MAILER: Think about it.

CAVETT: Fingerbowls.

MAILER: Why don’t you just read another question off your list, Cavett?

CAVETT: Why don’t you just fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?

But let’s not be too quick to trivialise Powell’s book. In a more recent interview[5] following the publication of You & Me Royal Young gets Powell talking about the lost art of the conversation:

POWELL: Conversations are the most direct way to connect with people. There's conversations and violence. There's a lot of phones; but I'm out of that field. They make me feel like a prisoner of war; there's not going to be any texting for me. The pre-paid phone is the frontier of my technological advance. I already had one voided by AT&T, cause I didn't pay as I went.

YOUNG: They want you to keep talking.

POWELL: They do. It's hard to say conversation has become a minimal thing, because look at the rise of mobile communications in the last 10 years. It used to be only the President had a mobile phone. Now everyone on earth, even if they have nothing else, they have a cell phone. It's a larger anthropological shift in my mind than even the tattoo age in the United States.

We live in a world where conversation exists as a thing in its own right. You & Me could easily be chat log. For the most part you can’t tell they’re in the same place. Nor does it matter. So although on the surface You & Me feels old fashioned it’s also one of the most contemporary books out there and I’m a big fan of its bare bones approach to communicating a message. Calling it postmodern only does it a disservice.

Much of the time there is no great message:

      Why do we talk?
      Why would we not?
      I suspect that is why we talk: what would we do if we did not talk?
      Precious little else, darlin’.
      My point.
      Your point is that we do nothing but talk . . .
      And that if we cease, we do nothing, are nothing.
      Well, given how little we talk about, we are next to nothing already.
      I dispute you not.
      You brought this up, suggesting you might dispute it—I’m sorry, here I am talking inaccurately, doing the next-to-nothing thing we do sloppily. I mean to say: your bringing this up might suggest you are concerned with how little or nothing we are.
      No, I am content to be nothing.

but again there’s more here than meets the eye because what we are talking about—who is doing the talking—are old men who are working their way towards being nothing. There’s no indication that either of these men is demented but they freely admit to being senile:

      God I feel small and dumb.
      Anything happen?
      No, the usual small and dumb.
      When, what I want to know, did we feel otherwise?
      When we were five.
      When we were small and dumb.
      Yes, then we did not feel small and dumb.
      Were we large and smart?

You & Me rambles; it’s not in a great rush to get anywhere. Our two curmudgeons lose the thread, pick it up a day or two later or forget about it completely. The “old codgers” vanish after about thirty pages never to reappear whoever they were. Towards the end the conversations do veer towards fears—or at least concerns—about death:

      I’ve about had it.
      Me too.
      I’m done.
      The battle is over.
      Not lost, or won, but over.
      Amen. Take me to funky town.

The review in The Metro says, “'Powell … holds a mirror up to what we have become and what we have lost, giving voice to a yearning that avoids sentimentality.” It’s a cracked mirror to be sure but within its fragmented images it does indeed paint a picture of modern society and not always a pretty one but there’s no point crying about it. It holds your attention more than a nice, clean, polished, full length, frameless wall mirror from Argos ever will.

Not everyone’s loved this book. Thomas Mallon in The New York Times Book Review wrote, “[S]scattershot aperçus do not make a novel. Any number of this book’s offhand insights and hypotheses could be developed into full-blown stories that move instead of meander, that do more than click their way from one YouTube morsel to the next,” and Dwight Garner in The New York Times said that the sound the book “mostly makes is that of a writer not hitting a dead end, exactly, but of a writer not appearing to try very hard. This short book, with its short chapters each topped by an ampersand, is mostly winding filler, talk that doesn’t seem quite worthy of the name.” They are, of course, entitled to their opinions. All I have to say in answer is: Remember the early responses to Godot.

In 2009 Dan Halpern interviewed Powell following the publication of his previous book, The Interrogative Mood. The book consists of 192 pages of nothing but questions and, as one might imagine, was also not well received by all. At the end of the interview Halpern makes this comment which I expect stands well today:

During my visit, Powell had been loath to defend himself from any criticisms, mostly happy to confess that if the stories had broken no hearts it was probably their own fault — that he’d just failed. But now, back from fishing, having caught no mullet and gearing up, finally, to shoot the raccoon, whose carcass he’d promised to the fisherman with the worm in his mouth, Powell said: “If you do what you mean to, if you ever can, that will come out on the page. But if you go around saying anything that seems preposterous is bad, that anything that doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to look is false and heartless — well, I think, I think — I think you do lose something.”[6]

You can read extracts from the book here and here.


Padgett-Powell-author-photo-credit-Gately-WIlliams1Padgett Powell has taught writing at the University of Florida since 1984. He has published six novels and two collections of short stories. His debut novel, Edisto (1984), was nominated for the American Book Award . His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Paris Review, Grand Street, Esquire, The New York Times Book Review and Magazine among others. Powell has won the Prix de Rome, the Whiting Writers Award, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the UK’s oldest literary prize.




[1] ‘An Improbable Business: PW Talks with Padgett Powell’, Publishers Weekly, 20 April 2012

[2] John L. Kundert-Gibbs, No-thing is Left to Tell: Zen/Chaos Theory in the Dramatic Art of Samuel Beckett, p.80

[3] Quoted in ‘Padgett Powell, author of You & I – interview, The List, 18 October 2011

[4] Interview with Brian J. Barr in The Believer, September 2006

[5] ‘Padgett Powell by Royal Young’, Interview Magazine

[6] ‘Southern Discomfort’, The New York Times, 16 October 2009

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Wall


The crows have risen, and circle screeching over the forest. When they are out of sight I shall go to the clearing and feed the white crow. It will already be waiting for me. – Marlen Haushofer, The Wall

I read this book shortly after watching the first season of the television adaptation of Stephen King’s Under the Dome and it’s impossible not to compare the two although really the only thing they have in common is that an invisible and seemingly impenetrable barrier mysteriously appears one day imprisoning (or protecting, depending on your point of view) those within. In King’s case it’s the town of Chester’s Mill in Maine; in Haushofer’s it’s a number of chalets and hunting lodges in a corner of the Salzkammergut in Upper Austria. The dimensions of King’s dome are assessed quickly enough but the woman who narrates The Wall never learns the exact size or shape of whatever it is that’s surrounding her. Because of where she’s located it’s not impossible that there are others somewhere in the mountains but pretty soon she starts to realise that the likelihood of anyone else having been trapped inside the wall is virtually nil and she, in very practical fashion, gets down to the day-to-day business of survival. The idea of rescue is also a possibility but she doesn’t rest on her laurels or allow herself time to feel sorry for herself (or mourn the death of her family); she assumes it’s going to take a long time if, indeed, anyone does come.

On the surface then her story is not so dissimilar a story to Robinson Crusoe or Cast Away; she has to work with what she’s got. Luckily her cousin's husband, Hugo—whose hunting lodge she’s been staying in—had been a bit of a hoarder and a hypochondriac so she has an excess of some very helpful things like medicines but there are also perishables she’s going to run out of quickly like food. Her luckiest find is a cow, which she names Bella, but there are pros and cons of having a cow and the main problem is the milking which has to be done daily and so restricts how far she can travel. This is partially why she never manages to map the wall but this isn’t something that really seems to bother her.

Film_poster_for_The_Wall_(2012_film)If I had one problem with the book (although, of course, my problem is with the character of the book’s narrator) it’s how little time she spends investigating the wall. One of the questions posed very early on in Under the Dome was whether rain would be able to penetrate the dome but the woman never wonders about how high the wall might be and, indeed, when the rains come I got no sense of relief. Let’s face it, it might’ve been eight feet tall and she could’ve clambered over it. I’m being facetious when I say that but, in the book at least, she does give in to being trapped a little too readily. In the film adaptation (which I watched the day after finishing the book) there are more encounters with the wall, including crashing a Mercedes Benz into it (which wasn’t in the novel but gave the special effects guys something to do), but even there I couldn’t stop myself thinking that a part of her was relieved to be trapped, that she wasn’t so much trapped as freed from a life she really wasn’t revelling in much. She does talk about her life before but she doesn’t pine after it. Significantly she never reveals the names of her husband or children.

She does talk about trying to dig under the wall at some future time. In fact she talks about digging a tunnel under it big enough to allow large animals to escape. Why she doesn’t try sooner is that she realises she’s protected within the wall. Outside the only person she can see is a man frozen; death must’ve come very quickly indeed. There are no birds, except dead ones on the ground, and no animals and no signs of human life for as far as she can see through her binoculars. Whether the danger has passed she can’t be certain. (Again I had to wonder about the birds within the wall and why they didn’t fly over it and why she didn’t wonder why they didn’t fly over it.)

We do know she survives two and a half years. Because of a tragedy (the deaths of her bull—it turned out the cow was pregnant—and Hugo’s dog, a Bavarian bloodhound called Lynx) at this point in time she sits down to write a report, not that she expects anyone to ever read it, but everything in the book is leading up to these losses which she’s struggling to come to terms with. Not that these are the only deaths in the book—she loses two cats along the way—and we know these deaths are coming because she talks about them in the past tense even though in her narrative they’re still future. She has enough matches to last another couple of years, her crops have been more of a success than she could’ve hoped, the deer are plentiful and there are fish in the stream (although how the water penetrates the wall is another unexplored puzzle): her life may not be an easy one (and in this respect the film brought home to me just how hard some of the things she was describing must have been without the aid of machinery) and she’s far from happy but she does note that, for the first time in her life, she is calm.

The book is keen in its blurb to suggest that multiple readings of The Wall are possible and an obvious bandwagon to jump on is the feminist one but really this is no feminist manifesto. It may well be a world without men but it’s also a world without other women. Although, of course, there is a male in the book, Lynx the dog, who is the woman’s support, protector and becomes, in her words, her “best friend”. Sure there’s no sex involved and I’m stretching a point but quite often I see points stretched in order to provide feminist readings of books that are just books. I’m not a feminist but then neither am I a masculinist; there’s both room (and a need) for both sexes so I guess that makes me a humanist (without the capital h) although I’ve never really thought about it until now. Who reads Robinson Crusoe as a masculinist novel just because there’re no women in it? It could be said that one of the things that drives the woman to keep surviving is the mother in her who refuses to leave her animals, the cow especially, to their own devices but as a man with pets to care for I don’t see that as an especially feminine perspective. It’s in our DNA to take care of things. And I think this desire is amplified when we’re isolated—look at the Birdman of Alcatraz, for example.

One review said she didn’t think men would like this book. And Doris Lessing wrote:

It is not often that you can say only a woman could have written this book, but women in particular will understand the heroine’s loving devotion to the details of making and keeping life, every day felt as a victory.

I’m not sure I agree with either of them.

Of course this is also, strictly speaking, a work of speculative fiction and there are loads of last-man-on-earth-who-turns-out-not-be-the-last-man-on-earth stories to pick from although I can think of a few where we only have a cast of one. Not so many lThe Quier Earthast-woman-on-earth stories whether or not she proves to be the only person. In that respect this book is exceptional but the problems she faces aren’t unique to women. She mostly, for example, enjoys the solitude but still gets lonely from time to time, especially after the death of the dog, and I suspect it’s that overbearing loneliness that has driven her to write, to talk to an anonymous future reader. As post-apocalyptic tales go this is no The Road although like The Road we are kept in complete ignorance about what’s happened or who’s to blame. In that respect the book also reminded me a little of The Quiet Earth which investigates what happens after an attempt to establish a worldwide electrical grid leads to the mysterious disappearance of most of the earth's population; it’s also a bloodless, silent apocalypse.

Human beings had played their own games, and in almost every case they had ended badly. And how could I complain? I was one of them and couldn’t judge them, because I understood them so well. […] The great game of the sun, moon and stars seemed to be working out, and that hadn’t been invented by humans. But it wasn’t completed yet, and might bear the seeds of failure within it. I was only an attentive and enchanted onlooker; my whole life would be too short to grasp even the tiniest stage of the game. I’d spent most of my life struggling with daily human concerns. Now that I had barely anything left, I could sit in peace on the bench and watch the stars dancing against the black firmament.

As for the book being “a philosophical parable of human isolation” that it is, too. I’m always wary of words like ‘parable’ because they have a tendency to reduce people to cardboard cut-outs and there are moments in this book when, and this isn’t helped by the fact we never know her name, we find ourselves thinking of the narrator as simply ‘the woman’ and not a person with wants and desires and perhaps this is partly because she is reduced to an automaton going through the motions necessary to maintain her world and keep herself and her animals alive. She gets depressed, naturally. She gets sick. She contemplates—although not very seriously—ending her life. What she doesn’t seem to do is grieve. Clearly she hasn’t left much of a life behind her. What she finds herself missing are practical things, things that would make her work easier—in the novel she doesn’t have keys to the car for example—and treats like sugar and even bread although it’s hard to imagine thinking of bread as a treat but then I’ve never had to live without it. She doesn’t miss a man and by that I mean she doesn’t miss sex; the subject is never broached and I very much doubt this is due to any special sensitivity on the author’s behalf looking at her other work. Had the woman been older I might not struggle with that but she’s only in her forties. There is something a little old-fashioned about her though, the way she talks about the animals when they’re in season:

From all I’ve seen, being in love can’t be a pleasant state for an animal. They can’t know, after all, that it’s a temporary thing; as far as they’re concerned every moment is as eternity. Bella’s gloomy calls, the laments of the old cat and Tiger’s despair, nowhere a trace of happiness. And afterwards exhaustion, dull coats and cadaverous sleep.

(It’s interesting that I’ve just read The Millstone which was written about the same time, another novel that gets labelled ‘feminist’ and which really isn’t, and which also focuses on an essentially sexless woman.)

In a very literal sense this is a utopian novel. Bear in mind that the literal translation of utopia is “no place”; the real world is outside the wall. Inside is populated by innocents. Death is only a part of the natural order here as a result of old age, ill health, accident or a predator and what one needs to bear in mind about predatory behaviour is that it’s not bad or evil. The only living creature within the wall capable of moral judgement is the interloper, the woman. The rest are governed by the instinct to survive. And even she finds the temptation to abandon civilised behaviour (hard not to think of Lord of the Flies here) not entirely unattractive. Utopian fiction is also escapist fiction. Odd then that so much dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction is being churned out at the moment when the escapist culture of the American Depression revolved around finding inexpensive forms of entertainment that diverted attention from life's hardships. I suppose all we can glean from what’s coming out at the moment is: Things could be worse. Haushofer’s novel is no Herland, however. It is also not a dream from which she can expect to wake up any day now.

In my dreams I bring children into the world, and they aren’t only human children; there are cats among them, dogs, calves, bears and quite peculiar furry creatures. But they emerge from me, and there is nothing about them that could frighten or repel me.

The Year of the HareWe can read the novel, too, as an anti-rat-race novel like The Year of the Hare but the difference there is that Vatanen voluntarily—albeit on the spur of the moment—chooses to walk out of his old life and opt for a simpler way of doing things. So, no, the woman didn’t opt to abandon her family but when the opportunity arose she didn’t object much either: Oh there’s an invisible wall. What a shame. I’ll just have to make a new life for myself here. Luckily, unlike me (I’d last about a month and a half on my own), she’s a practical sort. Some of the books she comes across are helpful but it’s not as if she has access to the Internet and can just look up how to get a calf out of a cow when it’s stuck.

You could even read the novel allegorically if you so choose. The woman is a writer. She was a housewife, as was Haushofer and as are many women novelists. Haushofer complained about lacking space to write and so here she provides her proxy with Woolf’s “room of one’s own” and an imaginary world to explore, one protected from all outside influences by a glass wall, the book’s working title. How many writers, too, slog away day after day working on books that no one will ever read?

Of course the book could simply be about what it’s like to be an outcast. Why else would the woman feel such empathy for the white crow ostracised by the rest of the flock?

On the whole this isn’t an exciting book, indeed it can actually be a bit boring at times, but then the woman’s life is boring. There is only one surprise near the end. We know her bull and dog die and she hints that they’re killed but we don’t learn the details until the moment’s right on us and it all happens so quickly that within a page or two it’s over. It does, however, change her life because she does mourn the loss of her dog and even imagines his ghost tagging along with her:

At times now, when I walk alone in the wintery forest, I talk to Lynx as I did before. I have no idea I’m doing it until something startles me and I fall silent. I turn my head and catch the gleam of a reddish-brown coat. But the path is empty: bare bushes and wet stones. I’m not surprised that I still hear the dry branches cracking under the light tread of his feet. Where else would this little dog’s soul go haunting, if not on my trail? He’s a friendly ghost, and I’m not afraid of him. Lynx, beautiful, good dog, my dog…

The unanswered question concerning the death of her animals reflects the book’s bigger question, also unanswered, regarding the fate of humanity: Why? She—we—will never know. It’s tempting to think a man pressed the proverbial button and maybe one did. Or maybe it was a woman. Now that would raise some interesting questions.

I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the film adaptation, too, and, as always, was puzzled by what was left out (although little was changed to give the screenwriter his due). Why the frozen old man needed a frozen old wife I have no idea; it didn’t hurt but I did expect them to revisit the scene as happens in the book, but maybe they blew the special effects budget on the car crash. As films of books go it’s definitely one of the better ones—it took three years to complete—and what was especially nice for non-German speakers is that Martina Gedeck (who at times looked disconcertingly like a dishevelled and slightly-older Davina McCall) redid her voiceover in English for the DVD so no subtitles if you don’t want them. Actual dialogue within the film is virtually non-existent. I would recommend both and I definitely felt the film enhanced my reading of the novel. You can read a considered review of the film here.

What is particularly impressive about the book is how it hasn’t dated. It could’ve been written last week. How you read the book is entirely up to you. There’s no right way although if you approach it with an agenda you’ll likely be disappointed but that’s the case with most things.


Marlen HaushoferMarlen Haushofer was born in Frauenstein in Austria in 1920. She studied German in Vienna and Graz, subsequently settling in Steyr. In 1941 she married Manfred Haushofer, a dentist. She later divorced then remarried her husband, and had two sons. Haushofer published her first novel, A Handful of Life, in 1955. In 1958, We Murder Stella was published. The Wall came out in 1963, and The Loft, her final novel, appeared in 1969. Haushofer received the Grand Austrian State Prize for literature in 1968. She died of cancer in Vienna in 1970.



Laura Kapelari, Feminist Utopia and Dystopia: Marlen Haushofer’s Die Wand

Sunday, 31 August 2014

An arranged faith


Doubt is not a pleasant condition,
but certainty is absurd – Voltaire

I wrote a poem back in 1996 about beliefs:


The thing about beliefs is
they don't need to be true.
That's not their job.

They're there because
so many things aren't true.
Nature abhors a vacuum.

19 December 1996

The word 'belief' is one I struggle with. Like all words the only way you can explain belief is by using other words and the most obvious synonym for 'belief' is 'faith' which I have less of a problem with. The first definition I learned regarding faith came from the Bible where Hebrews 11:1 says that faith is "the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld." Of course the definition on its own doesn't really get to the nitty-gritty of what faith is. Late on in that same chapter (vs. 27) Paul talks about Moses "as seeing him who is invisible." Even though he had never seen God, he was as real to Moses as if he had seen him. His faith was based on experience and evidence. Of course he had the opportunity to talk directly to God and that’ll go a long way to convincing anyone that someone is real. By Paul's day God had stopped making it so easy. Even Paul only got to hear the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus but he still reasoned that there was sufficient evidence in the world about us to convince anyone of the existence of a sentient creator. As he said to the Romans (1:20): "For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God." And yet there are more people than ever who don't believe in God. You would think that all science could possibly do is provide irrefutable proof of intelligent design in nature and yet that doesn't seem to have happened.

As you'll see from the previous paragraph, I know my Bible. I was brought up in a religious household—one that encouraged study and eschewed blind faith—and yet here I am as a grown man, having left the faith I was brought up in and disinterested in finding another. So have I stopped believing in God? I can't answer that question because I never believed in him in the first place which is odd because I have been through tons of evidence and can't refute it. Creation is every bit as believable as evolution. None of the evidence touched me, though. Proof requires more than corroborative evidence. It requires a willingness to accept that evidence.

I don't understand the concept of spirituality. I can appreciate things intellectually and emotionally but not spiritually. I learned facts and figures from the Bible and other literature but that was it. I could prove there was a God (as much as anyone these days can offer up proof) but that proof didn't affect me. Okay, I couldn't get to know God personally (even though I was encouraged to develop a ‘personal relationship’ with God) although I did have "the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16) but I found that trying to "walk in the footsteps of the faith" (Rom. 4:12) was unnatural and uncomfortable. I knew, for example, that fornication was a sin but I couldn't see why it was wrong. In 1966 being gay was a criminal offence in England but in 1967 it wasn't unless you crossed the border into Scotland where it still was (and continued to be until 1980). I'm not gay but my point is that perfect laws don't work in an imperfect world. I understand why God instigated the Law Covenant with Israel (which incorporated the Ten Commandments) because it condemned all of us to death (since no man could keep it, including Moses) and hence evidenced the need for a saviour, but here's the thing: there was no Law in Eden apart from a proviso that they didn't eat from a certain tree. The point's been made, the saviour has come and gone, the ransom paid, so whether we sin or not is neither here nor there.

The way I feel about my religious upbringing is the same way I'd feel about a wife my parents had arranged for me to marry as still happens in parts of the world. There will always be good and reasonable reasons why parents select the kind of prospective bride that they do. They know their son and his needs. And they care for him. Well I know all the reasons why my parents would want me to believe in their God but the fact is I look at him (based on the same evidence as was available to Paul) and feel nothing. In the first of the two "new" commandments that Jesus laid down before his disciples (summarising the essence of the whole Law of Moses) he said, “The most important one … is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’" (Deut. 6:4) I don't love God. I don’t hate God. I don't know God. I can see all his admirable qualities and I've read at length about how he’s reportedly dealt with people—including sending his only-begotten son to Earth—but none of that matters to me. I’m with Patti Smith:

Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
Meltin' in a pot of thieves wild card up my sleeve
Thick heart of stone my sins my own
They belong to me. Me

[from Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)]

I'm not an atheist. I'm not an agnostic. I'm not a believer. To be any one of these I would need to take a stance and the simple fact is I don't care anymore. In 2001 I wrote this poem which basically states my current position. man_sitting_in_bleachers_SMP0012543


(for Richard Brautigan)

A man cannot lose what he never had
but he can give up trying to get it.
Just walk off the track.
Come, join the rest of us on the bleachers.

It's that easy.
Catch your breath now.
It's too hot to run.

I've heard say parallel lines never meet.
Sometimes they seem to – in the distance –
they disappear over the horizon
so no one knows for sure.

25 May 2001

Of course I’ve no axe to grind with those who do find they have a need for God in their lives any more than I’ve no problems with people who choose to pay hundreds of pounds to listen to some opera or other and there was a time in my life I did go through the motions hoping that, by osmosis, I’d acquire a faith: elliotelijackson3-cr


I have heard there is a god
who looks for men of crushed spirits.

I don't know where to look for him.

But if he wants to find me
I will not hide.

23 March 1984

I don’t like not getting things but there’s a lot in this life that I don’t get in addition to religion and opera and as I’ve grown older I’ve reconciled myself to never understanding some things or needing to understand them. And so I focus nowadays on what I’m drawn to. Not everyone walking along the same beach will stop and pick up the same rock or poke the same jellyfish with a stick. “Ezra … spent his entire life studying and obeying the Law of the Lord and teaching it to others.” (Ezra 7:10), Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz spent his entire life studying and advancing logics such as mathematics and philosophy; Sigmund Freud spent his entire life studying human nature and childhood; Morihei Ueshiba spent his entire life studying martial arts; Karl von Frisch spent his entire life studying bees and won a Nobel Prize in 1973 for his research on that subject; Joseph Pilates spent his entire life studying the human form and exercise. You get the idea. It’s not at all abnormal to focus on one area of interest to the exclusion of everything else. For God’s sake, Haldan Keffer Hartline devoted nearly his entire life studying the eyes of horseshoe crabs and Dave Shealy’s spent his entire life studying a smelly hominid cryptid known as the Skunk Ape!

I wasted so much time searching for the Holy Grail of my own spirituality. So what do you believe in, Jim? Fair question. I found a page where people listed ten things they believed in. Belief in this context really means certitude. People who believe in God are certain that he will do what he says; they have no doubts. I, on the other hand, am riddled with doubts. I’m fairly certain about a lot of things I’m fairly certain my wife’s not going to leave me and run off with Sean Connery but experience has taught me that “time and unforeseen circumstance” (Eccl. 9:11) befall all men. I would like to write another novel but I’m far from certain that I will. The odds are I will based on my previous performance and there are still areas that interest me enough to want to write about them at length. But nothing’s certain.

In that respect I do have a degree of faith in the unknown. The unknown is my subconscious and he plays a hugely important part in my writing. We don’t exactly collaborate, though, but over the years I’ve learned to trust him. While I’m busying with other things, sleeping and stuff, he’s fully occupied getting material ready for me to work on later. The writer Dario Ciriello posted this tweet a while back:

A good writer's subconscious always knows the full story. The challenge is to train the conscious mind to access and transcribe it.

Stephen King talks about “the boys in the basement”:

The boys in the basement are the guys who actually do my heavy lifting. They're the muses. And we have a picture of muses as being very ethereal creatures, but I think they are non-union labour. They are hardworking guys with Camels rolled up in the sleeves of their shirts. – Lisa McRee, Kevin Newman, Stephen King's Bag of Bones, ABC Good Morning America, 23 Sep 1998

A much better image than the airy-fairy muse. I agree.

Every day though I wait for “a sign” (Matt. 12:38). Every thought I have I ask myself: Is this my subconscious tossing out an idea for me to develop? Mostly it’s not. I have a very slow subconscious. He likes to mull over things for a long while. He definitely works in “mysterious ways” which is not a scripture by the way but from a poem by William Cowper.

A friend of mine once fell out with me over religion. She was committing adultery but said that God would understand. I disagreed. He might understand but he wouldn’t condone her actions which is what she wanted. Although some effort was put into making up, our friendship was never the same afterwards. For the record, I’d no problems with her committing adultery, none whatsoever, but it wasn’t my blessing she was looking for. She wanted to reform God in her own image and that’s just not on. If you decide you want to believe in God then here’s what you have to do: Find out what he wants and do it. Or you can shop around and look for a god who shares your values. Or you can do what Henry VIII did and just start your own religion.

A writer’s subconscious is a little god. Let’s not fool ourselves. He’s the guy in charge. You can’t apply the imperatives of industrial output to the mystery of creation. The writer William McIlvanney has said in interview, “I have always written from compulsion. I cannot even write to my own order, never mind anyone else's.” The word ‘compulsion’ crops up often in interviews with him. He was 20,000 words into a novel called Tribute to the Minotaur when he stopped and never returned to it:

The reason wasn’t so much a revulsion away from that book as an overwhelming compulsion towards another. – Alan MacGillivray, Natural Loyalties: The Work of William McIlvanney, The Association for Scottish Literary Studies

Of course I can’t read that without thinking of Matthew 4:1: “Then Jesus was led by the spirit up into the wilderness.” And that’s what a new novel is, a wilderness. Not just a blank page, a desert of blank pages. Who in his right mind would go there willingly? Joan Didion writes in ‘On Keeping a Notebook’:

Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Lil DevilI’m not sure ‘loss’ is the right word for me. When I write I’m looking for something I never had in the first place. Feeling that something is missing is not necessarily the same as loss although I expect the feelings are not dissimilar. I want to rearrange the world to suit me. The world is too big and uncooperative so I make do with a virtual world and in that world I become “like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Maybe I don’t have a bunch of hardworking guys with Camels rolled up in the sleeves of their shirts inside me. Maybe it’s a wee devil.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Waterproof Bible


[T]he only difference between a happy ending and a sad ending is where you decide the story ends – Andrew Kaufman, The Waterproof Bible

Back in the good ol’ days there was real and unreal and that was it; it was one thing or t’other. Then all these other realisms started appearing: surrealism, magic realism, hyperrealism, neorealism, pseudorealism. Suddenly it all got very confusing. Confusion, of course, is a state of mind. And if you were looking for a state of mind in which to approach The Waterproof Bible I would aim for this one: Things only get confusing if you let them get confusing. Accept what’s presented on the page as reality even though a) that reality doesn’t match the one you’re comfortable with and b) it stretches the laws of physics (and possibly credulity) beyond breaking point. Just suspend disbelief, sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s not hard. Fans of science fiction do it all the time. We accept concepts like transwarp beaming—which even its inventor describes (will describe) as “like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet, whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse”—without batting an eye so the notion that another race of sentient humanlike creatures exists under the earth’s oceans and have gone undetected for millennia isn’t such a stretch and the fact that a woman could be born with the ability to project her emotions is nothing. Oddly enough the one thing I found impossible to accept in this book is that the homes of these underwater denizens have stairs. I don’t care what universe this book is set in there is no way anyone needs stairs under the sea. That aside I got on just fine.

Setting the kind of realism Andrew Kaufman writes aside, the reason he doesn’t churn out straightforward stories is made clear in an extract from this essay written after Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature:

42. I just don’t like Realism. I find it dull. I find it adequate to document the whats of a world; what it looked like, what the politics were, what the structure of someone’s day was. But it’s clumsy at best when it tries to capture emotional reality. Even in the hands of a master like Munro, Realism fails to capture the heart. No story where a couple talk, then break up over dinner will have the power of a story where, in between the main course and desert, the girl grows wings and flies away. That poor guy sitting at the table, with everybody else in the restaurant looking at him, broken and stunned: that’s what it feels like to get dumped.

43. Give me Aimee Bender over Alice Munro any day.

44. And I’m pretty sure I’d feel that even if I grew up in Hamilton or Montreal or Barcelona. Realism doesn’t work for me.

45. At best it’s a nature vs. nurture argument. The nature of my love of the metaphoric and the nurture of growing up in the shadow of Alice Munro: they both contributed. Their influence cannot be divided.

For as short a book as this is there’s a lot packed into it. We have no less than five storylines and I wasn’t surprised to discover that the book began life as three separate novellas. Arguably the main one, although not the first one, is the story of two Aquatics, Aby (Aberystwyth, although why she’s named after an historic market town in Wales I have no idea)


and her estranged mother Margaret, and Aby’s long journey to try and reconcile with her mother before Margaret dies of something called “ryð” or “the rust”:

As every Hliðafgoð knows, the ryð signals the beginning of the end. Some have lived for years after its appearance, others for only hours; most live for another few weeks. No cure has ever been found.

The next storyline concerns Rebecca Reynolds. The book’s opening chapter is entitled ‘The woman who couldn’t keep her feelings to herself’ and when we meet her she’s sitting in the back of a limousine with her brother-in-law Lewis on their way to her sister’s—his wife’s—funeral. For some inexplicable reason the limo’s stalled in the middle of an intersection:

        [S]he looked down at the carpeted floor and remembered that she was in a limousine, travelling to her sister’s funeral. Her grief, sadness and guilt returned.
         As Rebecca felt these emotions, Lewis became overwhelmed with them as well. The grief, sadness and guilt were heavy and painful. It had been three days and eleven hours since he’d discovered his wife’s body, but until now Lewis had felt nothing. A sense of relief flooded through him. Then he remembered that he was sitting beside Rebecca and that these feelings weren’t his own, but hers.

While they’re there a white Honda Civic driven by a woman with green skin almost crashes into them. This is Aby who’s getting to grips with driving for the first time but we have to wait for a few chapters before Andrew takes us back in time and explains how she got to that point in time.

Anyway, having got out of the limo to get a better look at this strange-looking woman before she flees, Lewis decides he doesn’t want to go to his wife’s funeral:

         “Lewis? Where are you going?” Rebecca asked, projecting her confusion across two lanes of traffic.
         “I can’t go to the funeral.”
         “Why not?”
         “Because she’ll be there. She’ll see me. She’ll know.”
         “Know what?”
         “I’m so sorry.”
        Gesturing with his right hand, Lewis hailed a taxi, which stopped in front of him. “You’ll regret this,” Rebecca shouted. Her anger reached pedestrians on the far side of the street, causing some to stop and stare, while others scurried away. Lewis climbed inside the cab and shut the door. He looked straight ahead but continued to feel Rebecca’s anger as clearly as if it were his own.

hotel_fort_garry_lgeHe heads to the airport and buys a one-way ticket to Halifax, Nova Scotia; on arriving there he buys a one-way ticket to Vancouver, British Columbia; he doesn’t stay there but buys a third ticket and some twenty-six hours after his wife’s funeral will have ended he finds himself in the Fort Garry Hotel, “the second-finest hotel … in Winnipeg, Manitoba,” waiting for a barber; he’s decided a change of image is in order. Lewis is looking for some sort of closure because he blames himself for his wife’s death:

        On the morning his wife died, Lewis had decided to let her sleep in. He got the newspaper, made coffee and relished the day’s normalcy. Ninety minutes later he went back upstairs to wake her. But she did not wake up. Lewis stood over her, counted to fifteen and then shook her. He checked for a pulse but couldn’t find one. Her skin was cold.
        He then walked downstairs and began reading the business section of the newspaper. It was the only part of the paper he never read. […] He’d reached the Gs when he set down the paper and walked back up the stairs.
        In his mind he rehearsed the conversation he would have with her. He pictured her stretching, her arms over her head. You’ll never believe it, he’d say. I thought you were dead. With a small, embarrassed smile on his lips, Lewis opened the bedroom door, but Lisa was still lying in bed. He checked for a pulse. He still couldn’t find one. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he watched daylight brighten the room. He checked once more and then dialled 911. The receiver was still in his hand as he sat down beside her.
         “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, having already begun to believe that his failure to find a pulse had been what killed her.

As it happens Lewis doesn’t find closure, not at first anyway, but he does find God. Or at least a woman who claims to be God, if only on a part-time basis:

        "Being God isn't a full-time gig?"
        "Who would I invoice?"

Also in Manitoba at this time—in Morris, a small town in the middle of the Red River Valley and just down the road from Winnipeg—is Stewart Findlay:

For three years, six months and one day Stewart had been the Prairie Embassy Hotel’s only employee. This, less three weeks, was exactly the amount of time he’d been building [a] sailboat … in the middle of the Canadian Prairies. Or, more specifically, on a bend of the Red River that could float a boat only once a year, for a few days during spring runoff.

Stewart is Rebecca’s husband. His employer is Aby’s mother who after lived for many years “unwatered” had lost most of her green skin tone and is living as a Siðri, which is what the Hliðafgoð call us humans. I referred to Aby and her mother as “Aquatics” earlier but that’s not strictly correct. Aquaticism is a religion and only Aby continues to practice.

And then there are the Richardsons, Kenneth and his son Anderson:

Kenneth Richardson had begun rainmaking in 1978, at the age of twenty-two. He’d had no one to teach him but had stumbled onto a process of filling small cloth bags with silver iodide and attaching the bags to a flock of starlings he tamed and trained himself. The birds, sixty or seventy at a time, would fly into a cloud. The silver iodide would fall out through tiny holes he’d cut in the cloth. The cloud would be seeded, and rain would begin to fall roughly five minutes later. Kenneth was never sure how it worked. He just knew it did.

Years later he brings his son into the family business but when Anderson invents a new way of making rain using car batteries and a kite the two fall out and haven’t spoken for years. See a theme here in the book? They divvy up their territory but, having forgotten about Canada, end up both been called to attend to the drought that’s been plaguing the area for some fifty-four days. Still refusing to even acknowledge the presence of each other they end up booked into adjoining rooms in Prairie Embassy Hotel and a day or two later one or the other (or indeed both of them) does manage to bring the rain. A rainstorm of biblical proportions.

EZ Self StorageOne other player who deserves mention, although his storyline is entwined with Rebecca’s, is Edward Zimmer. Edward Zimmer is in charge of E.Z. Self Storage which is where Rebecca rents unit #207 which is where she keeps her emotional baggage, literally:

        When Rebecca turned fourteen, she began collecting mementos from all the good moments in her life. Her emotions had become so powerful and important to her that when one of them left her, she felt incredibly vulnerable. Keeping these feelings of joy to herself kept her from feeling exposed. It gave her some privacy. It soon became a habit that every time Rebecca experienced a moment that produced any significant emotion, happy or sad, she stored a souvenir.
        The number of boxes under her bed grew and grew. By the time she was sixteen, the shoeboxes were stacked three high and took up all the space under her bed. When she went to university, she took the shoeboxes with her and rented apartments based on closet space. When the closets weren’t big enough, she got rid of her roommate and used the second bedroom. Then the living room. Then the kitchen. Finally, Rebecca rented unit #207 from E.Z. Self Storage near the corner of Queen and Broadview in downtown Toronto and moved all of her boxes there, where they were safely secured under lock and key.


        Other than Stewart, [Zimmer] was the only person Rebecca had ever trusted with the secret of her collection. Somehow it had seemed not only permissible, but necessary, to confess to Edward the true nature of the objects she stored in unit #207. It was a confidence he had never betrayed.

What will Edward do when Rebecca decides the time has come to empty out her unit, to emotionally detach from her past?

So what’s going on here? Is this allegory, symbolism, a fairy tale or a bit of everything? I’m going to go with the latter. You can read it as straight fantasy or science fiction but there’s obviously a message—well, several messages—underneath. It’s clearly a book about how easy it is to lose connections be they with another individual, yourself or your faith. The Richardsons fall out over something or nothing as far as I’m concerned but it was important to them. The same goes for the Aquatics. I grew up in a society where religion mattered. Hell, what football team you supported mattered. I turned my back on all that and haven’t spoken to the surviving members of my own family in about fifteen years so I empathised strongly with Margaret. Beliefs can be important. They can also be debilitating. Look at Lewis whose life is crippled by guilt because of his ridiculous belief that his failure to find his wife’s pulse killed her. It is more or less ridiculous than the Aquatic’s belief in vilja?

An Aquatic will never question anything that happens by chance. In fact, the greater the coincidence, the more an Aquatic believes it was meant to be. This concept is called vilja, which translates as ‘God’s cheat’, the idea being that what appears to be chance is how God influences the plot of your life. If something extremely improbable happens by chance, it wasn’t chance at all, but Gods hand arranging the events of your life to meet the divine will.

I knew a man who said he didn’t believe in coincidence, only God-incidence. I thought—still think—that he’s a nutter and I can quote scripture to prove that he’s a nutter but let’s not go there. I wrote a poem once:


The thing about beliefs is
they don't need to be true.
That's not their job.

They're there because
so many things aren't true.
Nature abhors a vacuum.

19 December 1996

People believe in the darndest things and for the daftest of reasons. When Aby’s car nearly crashed into the limo Lewis was in, this was how he reacted:

He’d been confident that the grief he so desperately wanted to feel would soon arrive. But now, having nearly been killed by a woman with green skin, it was easy to believe that stranger things could happen and that his grieving might never begin

Or what about Rebecca and her mother’s bracelet?

Rebecca had to leave the room, but she needed something to take with her. An object she could hold, something that would continually confirm that her mother had come home. She knew she couldn’t take the pill bottles, because their absence would be noticed. She looked around, but there were very few things in the room that hadn’t been there before her mother’s return. Then she saw the identification bracelet that her mother had been wearing when they’d carried her into the house.


For the next six weeks, while Rebecca’s mother remained in bed, Rebecca carried the plastic bracelet with her at all times. She held it in her hand while she slept. She kept it in the front right pocket of whichever pair of pants she was wearing. She never forgot to bring it with her, not even once. When someone asked her how her she was doing, Rebecca could just say fine and they would believe her.

Or what about these weird beliefs?

It is important to understand that, for devout Aquatics, simply being unwatered is a sin. At the core of the religion is a belief in the Finnyfir, or Great Flood. In this way, Aquaticism is not unlike Judaism or Christianity, but with one central difference: where those religions believe God flooded the world in order to start again, Aquatics believe God simply liked water better.


While Aquatics believe that it’s a sin to breathe the air, it is a minor sin. Within Aquaticism, there is only one sin that is considered an act so blasphemous it is beyond forgiveness, and this is to die with air-filled lungs. This, Aquatics believe, curses your soul to wander disembodied and alone, unwatered and unforgiven for eternity.


Devoted Aquatics, which Aby certainly was, believe that losing your keys not only predicts, but elicits mental illness. To lose one’s keys is the equivalent of losing one’s mind.

Not knowing about the existence of these marine creatures when Lewis meets God, he doesn’t think to ask her whether she prefers water to land, but he does ask a question that I think would be at the top of many people’s lists of things to ask God if they got half a chance:

        “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
         “Because it makes a good story.”
        Lewis did not know how to respond. Both her response and how quickly she gave it were unexpected. “That’s…cruel,” he said finally.
         “You gotta think about it as if you were dead. Because at the end of your life, all you’ve got is the story of it. If you were guaranteed a happy ending, how satisfied would you be? You’d want some drama! Some intrigue! You’d want to feel that you’d struggled and overcome, even if you’d lost.”
         “So death just makes a good ending?”
         “Works every time,” she said.

Only one of the main characters dies by the end of the book but I’m not sure that necessarily guarantees a sad ending; that’s not what God meant. For a story about a bunch of sad people there’s actually a lot of humour to be found in this book. Aby is a fish out of water metaphorically at least since I assume she’s a mammal and not an amphibian although her genus is ambiguous and don’t get me started on her ability to live in both salt and fresh water. Her ability to cope—and go undetected—in this strange land is as remarkable as it is unbelievable but it’s always entertaining Morkto see Morks and Datas struggle with everyday human activities. Balancing humour and seriousness is not always easy. A little leaven goes a long way. I think Andrew gets it about right although the ending was—perhaps unavoidably—a bit on the sentimental side and sentiment is even harder to work with than humour.

The book ends with a flood. The symbolism there’s perhaps a bit heavy-handed but it works even if the physics do not; I’m thinking here about the water flooding a five-storey hotel. Of course not everyone’s caught in the flood—Rebecca’s some eleven hundred miles away, for example—but most of the players are. Some can swim to safety; others board a leaky “ark” and set off to rescue whoever they can in Winnipeg.

The only difference between a happy ending and a sad ending is where you choose to end the story. I doubt Kaufman thought of that first—God alone knows who did—but he must’ve had that in mind as he brought this one to an end. Assuming, of course, that any story ends when an author stops typing. For me this one hasn’t ended yet. To be honest I can’t get it out of my head and even when I’ve moved on to the next book I can see myself harking back to this one again and again. This is the third book I’ve read by Andrew. I loved his first book, All My Friends are Superheroes; and I liked his third, The Tiny Wife; The Waterproof Bible was his second and, in his opinion, his best. I think it possibly is although I do have a special soft spot for anything to do with superheroes. (Recently read Charles Yu’s Third Class Superhero.) Despite the fantastical aspects of the book each of the characters is very human, even the two non-humans.

To be fair, the ending is probably the weakest thing about the book and I think the problem there is there are too many storylines. It feels as if only the Aby storyline ends properly and the rest just run out of gas; we expect everyone to get over their personal crises and get on with their lives eventually, and a lot of that will happen after the book’s finished, but only Aby gets to close one door and open a new one. I was reading a post by a book club based in Bournemouth and this was what they had to say about the ending:

We had trouble remembering how this book ended, even the members who had only just finished the day of the meet, it just wasn't memorable. Although it didn't have any loose ends, it was too sudden and still left us asking questions. We did discuss that the ending seemed rushed, but was that reflecting the fact that there was a genuine urgency in each of the characters stories?

What is also notable from this article is how much the book polarised opinions:

Nineteen people came to this meeting and gave the book an average score of 6.3 out of 10, our lowest being 1, and our highest score was 8.

I can see why but I still think 1 is very harsh criticism. I liked it. I wouldn’t have sat down the day after finishing the book and written almost 4000 words about it if I didn’t. I have more book reviews written than I know what to do with so I know it’ll be a while before I’ll be able to find a gap in which I can post this but this is a book I wanted to promote. If a guy can’t promote books he loves on his own blog then I don’t know what the world’s coming to. An end most likely.

You can read a good interview with Andrew Kaufman here where he talks a bit about The Waterproof Bible.

I’ll leave you with this video interview with him:


Andrew%20Kaufman_0Andrew Kaufman was born in the town of Wingham, Ontario. This is the same town that Alice Munro was born in, making him the second best writer from a town of 3000. Descending from a long line of librarians and accountants, his first published work was All My Friends Are Superheroes, a story following the adventures of a man turned invisible only to his wife. This novella, first published by Coach House Books in Canada, has also been published in the UK and translated into Italian, French, Norwegian, German, Korean, Spanish and Turkish. He has since published The Waterproof Bible, The Tiny Wife, Selected Business Correspondence and Born Weird. He is also an accomplished screenwriter for film and television, and has completed a Directors Residence at the Canadian Film Centre. He lives in the East Oz district of downtown Toronto with his wife, the film editor Marlo Miazga, and their two children, Phoenix and Frida. He’s currently working on something called The Waterfields and that’s as much as I know.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Twilight of the Eastern Gods


Am I a gangster or murderer?
Of what crime do I stand
Condemned? I made the whole world weep
At the beauty of my land.
Boris Pasternak from ‘Nobel Prize’

This is both an old and an odd book. The copyright says 1978 but its origins date back to 1961 which is when the short story ‘A Summer in Dubulti’ which forms the basis of the first of this novel’s five chapters appeared in print, although the events described date back to the late fifties. Other fragments followed over the next fifteen years which Kadare assembled and buried within a collection along with two other pieces, but even there what was published was not the book I’ve just read. In 1981 a French translation came out and Kadare, according to the English translator David Bellos, “used this opportunity to smuggle back into the novel some of the more forthright passages about girls that had been omitted from the Albanian ‘original’” but please be assured this is no Lady Chatterley’s Lover (which was published in 1959); if memory serves me right our young protagonist has sex once (maybe twice) and there’re no titillating accounts of his night-time gymnastics. Here’s one of the racier bits (or maybe the only racy bit):

Without waiting for a response from her sister [who wants to go for walk in the woods], she took my hand and pulled me towards her bedroom …

Shocking, what? The French version was revised in 1998 and what Canongate has just published is an English translation of that version, not a direct translation from the Albanian. This has been the case with all the novels that are available in English; seven of which that I’m aware of having been handled by Bellos.

In the west we’re so used to freedom of speech that’s it’s really hard to imagine a world where a sentence like that would have to be smuggled into a novel. Maybe in the 1880’s but in the 1980’s? The simple fact is that even today people are being thrown into prison for expressing their opinions on paper. What’s amazing about Kadare is how he managed to survive all these years under the Hoxha regime. It’s not been by kow-towing but it has been by biding his time and picking his battles. So we’ve had to wait a long time to read about Kadare’s youthful experiences at the Gorky Institute of World Literature and how Russia reacted to Pasternak’s being awarded the Nobel Prize. Was it worth the wait? Not really. Now so much is known about the USSR that this is very old news. This doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading but now it’s an historical document. Had it been published in the sixties (even if it had to be smuggled out of Albania and only appeared in the west) people would’ve DrZhivago_Asheetsat up and paid attention. The 1965 film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago was a spectacular box office hit. Can you imagine how people would’ve responded had they learned just how Russia reacted when they learned one of their own was to be awarded the Nobel Prize primarily for this novel although his nomination had been on the cards for years? Even fifty years on it’s upsetting.

But then maybe you don’t know. To be honest I didn’t. The information’s all in Wikipedia. It’s no big secret. But I doubt many people know the full story. Not that we get the full story here. What we get are Kadare’s protagonist’s experiences and, to be honest, he’s a bit too interested in his lacklustre love life to worry about poor old Boris Pasternak and his troubles. He’s astute enough to realise, however, that Pasternak has only two options: refuse the prize or get on a plane to Stockholm and not expect to be allowed back into the country:

On the radio from five a.m. until midnight, on television, in newspapers and magazines and even in children’s comics, the renegade writer was being splattered with venom. As was customary in cases of this kind, the bristling statements of Soviet literati were regurgitated by workers and collective farmers. Newspapers apologised for being able to publish only a minute proportion of the tens of thousands of letters and telegrams pouring in from the four corners of the Soviet lands. Among them were expressions of outrage from oil drillers, drama students, Orthodox priests, Bolshoi ballerinas, mountain climbers, atomic physicists, beekeepers, Caspian Sea salt-rakers, reformed mystics, the mute and so forth. […] Most of the students on our course had also sent in statements and expected to see them in print in due course. One of them was […] Maskiavicius, even though he’d told me the previous day that Pasternak, despite his turpitude, was worth a hundred times more than any of the other runts of Soviet literature.

The thing is Kadare is not a Russian writer. He’s an Albanian and so can view events with some detachment. Being an Albanian may mean little to you or me (most of us couldn’t point to Albania on a map of the world) but there are certain countries around the world where national identity is a big thing, a really big thing, and Albania is one of them. I discovered this when I reviewed the first novel of Kadare’s that I read, The Ghost Rider. It’s a very important novel, too, even though it’s actually a retelling of an old folk tale, the legend of Kostandin and Doruntine. He references it several times in Twilight of the Eastern Gods but unless you’re an Albanian (or have read The Ghost Rider or at the very least my review of the book) its significance will slip by you.

During the fifties young Albanian students were often sent to educational establishments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Soviet aid was generous in those years. But by the late fifties the relationship between the USSR’s new rulers and the Communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha (a diehard Stalinist), were cooling and we see evidence in Kadare’s book where the young man’s called to his country’s embassy:

[W]e were urged to limit, as far as we could, all relations with Muscovites for the time being. ‘I mean especially young female Muscovites…’ he added. My heart sank, not so much from what the counsellor had just said but from his having said it without a shadow of a smile. […] ‘You will therefore have to stop dating them,’ he went on, in what sounded to me like a weary voice. He spoke for two more minutes, stressing that relations between the two countries were good, telling us not to be unnecessarily alarmed and especially not to mention any of this to anyone.

Not that the boy pays a blind bit of attention to that advice but then he’s young and stupid. Stupid as far as women goes but in all other respects he can see the writing on the wall.

Possibly the most striking section in the book is where he takes on the mantel of Dante and describes the various floors on the Gorky Institute:

First floor: that’s where the first-year students stay; they’ve not yet committed many literary sins. Second floor: critics, conformists, playwrights, whitewashers. Third … circle: dogmatics, arse-lickers and Russian nationalists. Fourth circle: women, liberals and people disenchanted with socialism. Fifth circle: slanderers and snitches. Sixth circle: denaturalised writers who have abandoned their own language to write in Russian…

In an interview when asked if he was happy during his stay at the institute Kadare responded:

"Yes. Very happy."

But then he catches himself as though he might have given the wrong impression. "I was happy… as a human being. But I was none the less aware that I was in a college that was somehow twisted. The Gorky Institute was a factory for conformist, dogmatic writers and, because I understood that, I was saved."

Gorky Institute

In his Paris Review interview he expands on what he means here when he says he was “saved”:

At the institute I was disgusted by the indoctrination, which in a way saved me. I kept telling myself that on no account must I do what they taught me but the exact opposite. Their official writers were all slaves of the party, except for a few exceptions like Konstantin Paustovsky, Chukovsky, Yevtushenko.

I understand completely where he’s coming from. I recently watched a documentary about the seventies in the UK and it really was a miserable time as far as the country was concerned but I was young and so wrapped up in my own life and loves that I really was only vaguely aware of the bigger picture. In the same interview Kadare admits:

"There was a classmate I had a relatively long affair with—but then I decided it was not the fashion." I think he means that personal attachment was viewed as anti-Communist. "Long-term relationships were considered out-of-date. One's friends and classmates were the real enemy—it was worse than having the police on your tail! Especially in Moscow. They would say, 'Are you still with that girl there? Time to change!' And I think it's the greatest failure of my life that I dropped girls that I liked because comrades told me to. It was complete madness."

Learning this we can see that the narrator of the novel is not Kadare even if some of the events in the book are (for example, his chancing upon a manuscript copy of part of Doctor Zhivago days before the furore broke out). Our young protagonist spends most of the book pining over a lost love, Lida, in fact during the chapter where the vilification of Pasternak comes to its head he’s probably more upset by the fact Lida’s dumped him and taken up with a fellow student called Stulpanc. The fault there lies squarely with him because in a drunken stupor—it seems college students are the same the world over—he handed over her phone number having decided he wanted to have nothing to do with her. All very childish.

The problems really started for Kadare, of course, when he returned to Albania. Hoxha unsettled the literati when he sided with the upcoming writers when a dispute with the old guard arose which was a clever move because he was in effect putting down a deposit on their allegiance and forming his own nomenklatura who in time he expected to function in exactly the same way as Stalin has expected the writers, artists and composers of his day to behave, as mouthpieces of the state and not of the individual artist. So Kadare has had to tread carefully over the years. Referring to The Great Winter, a 1977 novel in which he portrayed Hoxha in a somewhat flattering light, Kadare said the book was "the price he had to pay for his freedom" although when you look at the book it’s obvious he’s using broad strokes; the official response was neither lavish praise nor prohibition. It was published, yes, but he did get his knuckles rapped later on: in 1975 Kadare's privileged position ended with the publication of ‘The Red Pashas’, a poem which satirized Albania's inefficient bureaucracy. He was subsequently forced into internal exile in a small central Albanian village and forbidden to publish his works; the ban lasted for three years. Kadare’s responses to questions posed by Ben Naparstek are worth reading but are a bit long to reproduce here.

2499774In 1991, when the coast was clear and he could speak his mind (he’d sought political asylum in France by this time), Kadare wrote, in Albanian Spring: The Anatomy of Tyranny:

A writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship. […] Dictatorship and literature and only exist together as two wild beasts that have each other by the throat. Each […] is capable of wounding the other in different ways. The writer’s wounds seem horrible because they come at once. But those the writer inflicts on dictatorship are like a time bomb, and they never heal.

One has to wonder what good Kadare would’ve done had be somehow managed to get Twilight of the Eastern Gods published at the time. Look what happened to Pasternak. Kadare had to undergo similar with regard to his books The Winter of Great Solitude [an earlier version of The Great Winter] and The Palace of Dreams. So why stay? For the same reason Pasternak chose to decline the Nobel Prize. He wrote to Khrushchev:

I cannot conceive of my destiny separate from Russia, or outside it. Whatever my mistakes or failings, I could not imagine that I should find myself at the centre of such a political campaign as has been worked up round my name in the West. Once I was aware of this, I informed the Swedish Academy of my voluntary renunciation of the Nobel Prize. Departure beyond the borders of my country would for me be tantamount to death and I therefore request you not to take this extreme measure with me.

This is how Kadare feels about being Albanian. But he was in it for the long haul. There have been seemingly braver writers: On October 5, 1953, the writer Kasëm Trebeshina wrote an open letter to Hoxha criticising the obsession with socialist realism shared by the Party and the Writers' Union. His predictable reward was seventeen years in gaol and only since the fall of Communism has his work begun to appear in print in Albania. In the Paris Review interview Kadare responds:

From 1967 to 1970 I was under the direct surveillance of the dictator himself. Remember that, to the great misfortune of the intellectuals, Hoxha regarded himself as an author and a poet and therefore a “friend” of writers. As I was the country’s best-known writer, he was interested in me. In such a situation I had three choices: to conform to my own beliefs, which meant death; complete silence, which meant another kind of death; or to pay a tribute, a bribe. I chose the third solution by writing The Long Winter.

All of this leaves me with mixed feelings. What would I have done? I’m certainly not a brave man but I’d be genuinely interested to learn how many truly brave men (and women, of course) there are out there. I think we like the idea of bravery just as we like the ideas of honesty and decency and all the rest. Or maybe it’s heroism we like the idea of and actual bravery—here I am referencing Huxley once more—is “pretty squalid” when compared with how we see bravery portrayed in films, TV shows and even newscasts. Is Kadare’s approach so different to that of, say, Shostakovich who, following his second denunciation, found himself having to compose three categories of work: film music to pay the rent, official works aimed at securing official rehabilitation, and serious works "for the desk drawer"? His response to the first you might recall was the Fifth Symphony with its subtitle, "An artist's creative response to just criticism".

It’s too late now to change what happened in Russia and Albania. It’s probably too late to stop what’s happening in China and Mexico right now. But the Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a valid—although not the most significant—contribution to the world literature that underlines the belief that freedom of speech should be an absolute human right. The evidence is growing. It was a shame what Pasternak went through but what would be a real shame is that he went through it and nothing ever changed. That said, this is not Kadare’s best work although it has its moments. It might have been realistic to include all the romance (for want of a better word) but it does take away from the momentous events going on all around him and yet strangely enough I felt short-changed on both counts.

Other reviews of Kadare’s book by me:


ismail_kadareIsmail Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokastër, in the south of Albania. He studied in Tirana and Moscow, returning to Albania in 1960 after the country broke ties with the Soviet Union. He is known for his novels, although he was first noticed for his poetry collections. He stopped writing poems in the 1960s and focused on short stories until the publication of his first novel, The General of the Dead Army. From 1963 he has been a novelist. In 1996 he became a lifetime member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of France. In 1992, he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca; in 2005, he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in 2009 the Prince of Asturias Award of Arts. He has divided his time between Albania and France since 1990. He began writing very young, in the mid-1950s but published only a few poems. His works have been published in about thirty languages.

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