Mountains of Men

Michael Nath – British Story: A Romance (Route, 2014)

When I came across Michael Nath’s novel, British Story, at a book fair last month, I was hesitant to buy. It seemed like an interesting story, published by the small press Route, who I trust. My worry was more that, since 2016, anything with “British” or “English” or “England” in the title means Brexit.

And it doesn’t just mean Brexit. It means a Guardian reader’s Brexit. Veering wildly from sneering at the proles to trembling at jackboots within the space of moments. Brexit hasn’t even happened yet and it’s already ruined literature.

Which is why I was so pleased to discover in Nath’s novel an antidote to all of the post-Brexit ugliness. Where other novelists promised to find the “real Britain”, and “capture the spirit of a troubled nation”, only to end up embarrassing themselves, Nath has managed to say something meaningful.

His secret? He wrote the book in 2014.

Yes, I came to British Story a little late. But I feel like, perhaps, it was I who read the story at the correct time, and Nath who made the mistake of writing it too early.

The story follows Kennedy, an English Lit lecturer who, thankfully, is rather cynical about the over-intellectualised puff that is the bane of his subject area. Kennedy is old school. He understands that literature, or perhaps good literature, is all about character.

“But what is character?” his postmodernised colleagues ask. For them, it is a construct. For the blokes he meets down the pub it’s just something made up – made up stories. But characters are real, Kennedy knows. Not real as in physical. Not objects as such. But they exist and they exert power in the world.

He is studying Falstaff, the character of characters. Shakespeare’s trickster spirit who can charm the King, and who can make even gluttony and cowardice somehow heroic.

It is in the aftermath of an unsuccessful conference when Kennedy finally encounters a Falstaff of his own. The true character who emerges from the novel, overpowering Kennedy like Gatsby does Nick. He’s a Welshman: Arthur Mountain.

Once Arthur enters, the novel is impossible to put down. He is a compelling, dangerous character. A man of big passions and ancient beliefs. He drags Kennedy into a real world of character: underworld villains, football firms, a Mancunian dreamer called Ian Brown; it is a tour of the country’s big mythic heroes.

This is the beauty of Nath’s writing. He has brought to life a range of Brits who all bark and bite with equal ferocity, but love and dream as well. He is not a realist, but his characters linger on the border of reality. They are as real as feelings – the feelings of pride, shame, and frustration that led us to Brexit. Nath truly speaks to the heart of Britain in this book.

And so Arthur is revealed, in a battle with sword-drawing Michael Stone, to have been an Arthurian legend all along. But Arthur is Britain. He’s a hero so English that he was here before the English, and so is actually Welsh. If anything, his people were the enemies of the English. And you can’t get more English than that.

British Story is a novel for our time. Michael Nath knows how to write real literature, stuff with heart and character. He isn’t afraid to look life in the eye, despite all of its jagged edges and contradictions, and he knows how to take this and turn it into a story. A British story at that.

– Joe Darlington

Canals Repeatedly

Jeremy Over – Fur Coats in Tahiti (Carcanet, 2019).

What is the function of poetry? Well, its uncertain. Like fine art, it’s partly defined by its lack of function. Yet, like song, its core functionlessness lends it a wide variety of partial functions.

Poetry is always serving a purpose, but it never serves only that purpose.

When it comes to the writing of Jeremy Over, fathoming the core purpose is a difficult, perhaps even impossible task. His latest collection, Fur Coats in Tahiti, could, if encountered in the wild, unprompted and without prior forewarning, present the reader with a poetry of total meaninglessness.

Over is a borrower of techniques and tricks from across a wide variety of opaque movements: Dada, Ou Li Po, Japanese conceptual art, Victorian nonsense. One is tempted to describe his work as the next step down this crooked literary path.

But to do so would be to miss out on some of the less immediate functions of Over’s poetry. I had the pleasure of seeing Over read during a triple book launch this month. Hearing Over’s poems read through Over’s own delivery, punctuated by his stories and explanations, reveal in the works a world of semi-magic, semi-humour, semi-musicality, and semi-tragedy, that all overlaps while never quite explaining away his enigmas.

“Kenneth Kock Uncorked”, for example, is the strangest poem in the collection: appearing as a series of “O”s strung out over pages. An in-person reading reveals these to be holes in a punchcard. Koch, a poet fond of exclaiming “O!”, has had his work processed by Over, each O punched through, and the resulting pattern is fed through a music box, creating an uncanny, yet magical soundscape.

The same semi-humour and semi-magic is found in “Eat Your Cherries Mary”. A Steve Reichian celebration of repetition, it makes reference to Dan Maskell, the BBC’s “voice of tennis”, whose inability to pronounce Eastern European surnames introduces humour into the poems repetitions.

You’d never know this by reading the page, although you may intuit it. Over’s poems are all funny, especially if read aloud, although you don’t quite know what you’re laughing at.

They also seem magical. Like magic words, or Latin mass: more powerful for all its uncertainty.

It is for this reason that I’d recommend reading Over’s poetry aloud. Perhaps even share the duties with a friend, so that at least one of you might be able to experience the purely aural poem, while the other reads the page. I feel as if Over works on both levels – read and heard – but that one can never fully substitute for the other.

There was indeed something in Over’s reading that suggested to me the hidden power of language that each poet, intentionally or not, is seeking to uncover and harness. It is the power of making something of the silence come through. Using words to dig up raw meaning, instead of merely covering it over with language.

How else do you explain a room being moved by pure syllables, or finding laughter in a music box?

On a few rare occasions, the full power of Over’s funny little mysteries communicates itself purely upon the page. The final section of “Red Sock in Yellow Box” is just such a moment:

One cannot put one’s foot into the same river twice.

One cannot even put the same foot in the same river twice.

It’s hard to explain why but one cannot. One has tried.

One can however fall in the same canal repeatedly

One can

One canal

One can easily

Just when you think that the function is cerebral, it is comic. But just as you’re certain it’s comic, it is linguistic. It is sound.

This is my first encounter with Jeremy Over’s work and I suspect that it won’t be the last. His poems are compulsively re-readable, and never fully explicable. They are always up for reconsideration. If you can hear him read, cancel everything else and go do so. But if not, I’d still recommend his new collection.

Perhaps new powers linger in there that are yet to be uncovered. They will be well worth discovering.

– Joe Darlington

Screaming bloody murder

Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey – Macbeth, Macbeth (Beyond Criticism, 2016)

This is the shit that things grow out of. This is the shit that things were already growing out of before the ink was dry in messrs. Fernie and Palfrey’s notebooks.

No mysticism, it’s because they are steeped. Up to their waists in the loam, the historical and psychological doo-doo.

Their stated ambition is to reach inside Macbeth’s torture chamber, a place all the bloodier in Shakespeare because of the curtains drawn around it. A place all the bloodier because of the lack of blood.

In Fernie and Palfrey’s version there is comedy, sheer amoral brutality, rape.

In each and every era civilisation appears to be finally completed before we are disabused of the illusion. Good riddance, I say.

I was in top set for English at school and our hippy teacher – an excellent teacher, to be fair – showed us Threads, which traumatised me for life. She also showed us Polanski’s Macbeth. Crackling VHS images captured on YouTube have come with an evil hiss ever since.

A scene was going on in Macbeth as the white static snow strafed the screen, and there was some screaming down the corridor. The hippy teacher flatly explained ‘of course, all the women would be raped when a siege broke.’

Even at this distance I can still access the shock I felt in my body as it sunk in. Like ice in the veins and then anti-freeze. My face burning red. This teacher opened my eyes to the brutality of humans. Fernie and Palfrey have done this all over again.

Then we all had to shuffle out of the classroom, by girls, girls in skirts, girls who suddenly – after seeming so scarily, shapeshiftingly advanced in comparison to us puny boys – looked vulnerable.

Fernie and Palfrey’s writing is incredible. They can conjure something greener than the greenest green without the colour ever appearing. I still cannot remember or find again the sentence they connived to do this but the image remains.

But what Fernie and Palfrey have really done here – the very big thing they have done – is to explore the psychology of humans all over again. They have also re-created human history, in which the glorious lineages of the present are lies that hide absurd accidents, smashed apart continuums – here the arrival of industrial bread factories – and fake heritage, all underpinned by murder, rape and more rape.

The filth and the lies are then scraped together into a dark, sweet confection and served to a glad-hearted population. How very now.

Everyone should read this book, academics, adults, children. It is not an academic experiment, the tone they have found makes it far wider in appeal.

Fernie and Palfrey’s book, emerging in 2016 and written before the current mess showed its full shape, has stood its own test of time already by re-lighting 2019, a place almost impossible to see from, say, 2014.

In this it stands up to their ultimate subject, to Shakespeare himself, and there isn’t a higher compliment than that.

– Steve Hanson

To the Lighthouse

Vincent de Swarte – Pharricide (Confingo Publishing, 2019)

It’s not often that you read a whole novel in a day. It’s even rarer to find a novel that encourages you to do so. Vicente de Swarte’s Pharricide, newly translated into English by Nicholas Royle, is just such a novel; and the effect is tremendous.

You almost feel bad for the efforts of both writer and translator, that their work can be consumed in a single, nerve-tingling afternoon. But, in the reader’s defense, Pharricide is a roller coaster ride that is perfectly suited to rapid reading.

It is a descent into madness with action that dips and rises rapidly. It has many facets, all hanging together in an apparently simply arrangement which, when viewed closely, reveals a more complex structure filled with allusion, hints and suggestions.

It follows the progress of one Geoffrey Lefayen, lighthouse keeper and “executioner of Cordouan”, whose winter spent alone in the Cordouan lighthouse drives him into a state of murderous rage.

No reasons are given for his rage, other than his solitude and the hint of a traumatic childhood, although I suspect these may have been thrown in merely to supply the demanded motive. His violence is, instead, compulsive, ritualistic, and driven by pure animus.

De Swarte’s terrifying protagonist can be charmingly quirky at times. A taxidermist in love with his work; he amasses a small animal following including a friendly conga eel, a “red, red” crayfish “painted as if cooked”, a sick seagull and, later on, even bigger game.

Lefayen’s derangements culminate in a fantastical wedding ceremony. There are stuffed sea creatures presiding and the bride is a murderer on the run.

Lefayen’s lighthouse seems to attract criminals in fact. Like Lefayen himself, it casts out a light into the shadows, drawing in a variety of victims both deserving and undeserving. Early in the novel, Lefayen feels himself transforming into the lighthouse. He, as Lucifer, the lightbringer, attracts his victims as an anglerfish does its prey.

As a lot of Pharricide’s readerly enjoyment derives from the twists in its tale, the surprises and the shocks, I feel that to truly recommend the book I must leave my description of the text minimal. It isn’t often that a novel surprises me nowadays, and this one truly did. It would be unfair of me to ruin such surprises for others.

But rest assured that Pharricide is pacey, direct, and translated with a concision that rewards the quick reader, as the original too is said to have done. First published in 1998, the novel has taken a while to arrive upon our shores but it does now in a translation that is destined to win over plenty of new readers.

It is an excellent introduction to its small press, Confingo, and to an author still almost unknown in the Anglophone world.

Short, snappy, fun and frightening. Vincent de Swarte’s Pharricide is a must-read for the summer. A perfect book for a lazy afternoon, a long-haul flight, or for passing the time while trapped alone inside a desolate lighthouse.

– Joe Darlington