And why wouldn’t I show him how like butter I was?

André Aciman – Call Me By Your Name (Atlantic Books)

With all of the press surrounding the new film adaptation directed by Luca Guadagnino, I thought I should revisit André Aciman’s beautiful book Call Me By Your Name. Several months have passed since I set out to write this review, and I think this adjournment is a testament to that beauty of Aciman’s work. I often find it difficult to write about things that I love.

The film, of course, is beautiful in its own respect. It is very visual, where the book is entirely insular. However, despite existing from and within inside the protagonist’s head, the novel itself achieves such impressive visual stimulation. It is no wonder that Guadagnino made the decision to focus on the outside rather than the inside. As reader, we are privy to all the things that in the film are left unsaid. They are left unsaid because they are in fact unsaid – they are thought and felt. And for me, the incessant and passionate divulge of Elio’s thoughts and feelings is wonderful.

This work presents the devastating infiltration of passion and desire with such poignancy and veracity. Love; the way it rushes in and out; like waves. I could be sat in the Italian sun. There is romance in every word. Aciman conveys the energy and dedication of infatuation in a way that I have never come across before. The wholeheartedness and wholemindedness of love. He creates such familiarity with the feeling that one would do anything for the object of their longing, “from ice to sunshine”.

The desperate wondering that we might have all experienced is so genuinely translated. We feel the violence of Elio’s obsession with Oliver: “Fire like fear, like panic, like one more minute of this and I’ll die if he doesn’t knock at my door”. We feel the impossible pace of feeling, so wonderfully expressed.

This portrayal of a young love offers so much as an examination of the essence of humanness. How everything changes in the light of love. There is a delightful voice created throughout, with abundant poetic offerings on every page – “that foot in the water – I could have kissed every toe on it”.

We follow Elio through the different stages of obsession, the indignation, and the denial. He tells us “I didn’t even care for him or his shoulders or the white of his arms. The bottom of his feet, the flat of his palms…” and it is perfect. We don’t believe him and he doesn’t believe himself. We see the wonderful uncertainty of adolescence, of self discovery. “I want to know your body, I want to know how you feel, I want to know you, and through you, me”. There is a beautiful, almost pederastic, resistance between the two. The life and death absoluteness of it all, the “mournful silence” and the “I don’t know how I’d have survived another day like this.”

While writing, now that I am finally writing, I realise I am still yet to say anything worthwhile. I am tempted to simply make a list of quotes from the book. Aciman is a wonderful writer, and his words resonate with me. Son of Nabokov. Dream machine. The book is just so beautiful. Just read it, please. A review couldn’t touch it.

– Blair James 

Advertisements

Of Means and Endings

Megan Hunter – The End We Start From (Picador, 2017)

I want to tell you about a book. I liked reading it and I think that you, too, would like reading it. Where do I start? I tell you its genre: it’s about an apocalypse. What type? A flood. And who’s the protagonist? A mother of a newborn son… so I suppose you could say it’s about motherhood too.

But already I feel worried, and guilty. A book recommendation is a dangerous thing. I am asking to take hours of your life from you, asking you to spend them reading sentence after sentence. There are some great lines, I clarify. It is short, I add. But there are so many other things you might be doing. So many things that don’t involve reading.

The book I am describing is The End We Start From; the 2017 debut of author and poet Megan Hunter. It is, as I say, a novel about a new mother navigating Britain after an apocalyptic flood. Society has collapsed, refugee camps abound and our hero, with her son ‘Z’, must entrust themselves to a shifting array of men, women and officials as they wait for a new normality to return.

The most fascinating aspect of Hunter’s work, however, is not so much the story as the way it is constructed. The narrative is communicated through tiny paragraphs, mostly between one or two sentences in length. The characters’ names are single letters: S, J, N, R, G. There is very little by way of description and no speech. There is, nevertheless, a full plot and, within those tiny paragraphs, many moments of pure, sweet imagery.

It is the reading equivalent of Ian Simpson’s architecture: the structure is there, you can see its shape, but instead of bricks and mortar there is a wall of glass.

And, as with glass and steel, Hunter’s prose represents a response to twenty-first century technology; a kind of minimalist ornament. The novel might be a quick read (I got through it in a single afternoon) but it is not a fast read. One lingers on the imagery. All that white space on the page is there to promote reverie and reflection. Faced with the impatience of the modern reader, Hunter has bartered a small wordcount for high rate of impact-per-word. This promises a new route for the stylist. A baroque in miniature.

What we lose in Hunter’s writing is the rhythmical journey. For characters defined by their wandering, our protagonists nevertheless seem to exist in an eternal present. There is no space in the narrative for their hopes or their regrets, for mundane conversations or the details of setting. Perhaps these elements have been usurped by visual mediums? What is left for literature, Hunter’s writing seems to suggest, is the allusive detail and the perfect sentence… the stylistics which have become our substance. But then, the story tells itself in a moving way – so perhaps these hesitancies are unwarranted.

The End We Start From is an intriguing prospect. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary writing. To writers I’d recommend it for its innovations, for readers I’d recommend it for its pace. More than anything I’d recommend it because it’s easy to recommend. It is a fundamentally recommendable book.

– Joe Darlington

The Story Ritual

Zoe Gilbert – Folk (Bloomsbury, 2018)

Humans have never been an apex predator. Not for us the noble complacency of the lion. No, our intelligence is born of a low cunning and fear. The appeal of the folktale is that it reminds us of these old fears and the cunning magics we used to overcome them. Zoe Gilbert’s debut book, Folk, channels these ancient energies, focuses and enhances them. The results are captivating.

Folk, like any magical item, unsettles you even while it entices. The gorgeous dust jacket by David Mann (admittedly, the reason I first bought the book) seems, at a distance, like a William Morris print. Look closer, however, and you notice the blood spattering sparrow’s beaks, the bees in the roses and, considering the detailed foliage, a notable lack of green. Gilbert’s stories have the same effect; pastoral scenes with underlying threats, dangers by the hearth. Her prose too combines a capitating flair for linguistic ornament with short, punchy, brutal sentences.

Gilbert, in capturing the essence of the folktale, has structured the book as a series of overlapping stories. There is no overarching narrative in novelistic terms. Instead, by setting the book in the small island community of Neverness in some non-specific pre-modern time, Gilbert achieves a sense of continuity through the recurrence of characters, the passage of time, and the rituals which bind them all together. The book is structured as Neverness is structured.

Gilbert has a knack for conjuring believable rituals. The book opens and closes with the gorse maze game. The girls tie their names to arrows and fire them deep in the gorse. The boys shave their heads and dive in to get them, the deepest divers winning the dearest hearts. When a boy emerges with a girls arrow she kisses him on his bloody lips. The bloodier the better, is how the girls talk of it.

There is magic in Neverness too, of a sort. “Verlyn’s Blessings”, my favourite of the tales, is about a man born with a wing for an arm. One sees how he has adapted, weaving baskets as his fisherman brothers go to sea, and while his wife has him hide the arm, his son is proud of the feathered thumb he has inherited. Gilbert captures how a community deals with difference, and how it feels to be different. She emphasises the realism in magic realism; a refreshing approach in a genre still too much in the shadow of Angela Carter.

A theme runs through the book concerning the pleasures of the wilderness, of the dark and unrestrained. “The Water Bull Bride” embodies this attraction in an amphibious lover, the story “Turning” embodies it through shamanic visions. There are things we catch glimpses of, out of the corner of our eyes, which promise a rampant and devastating freedom. “Civilisation”, if it means anything, means turning away from these dangers. Folk, in its daring, holds up a mirror where, looking carefully, we can see them reflected.

There is a category of novel, hard to define, that includes Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness. They are novels about the conflict inside the soul of every person; a conflict between order and chaos, between freedom and dignity.

Critics of late have sought to purge the canon of these texts on account of their colonial implications. Folk, I would argue, demonstrates that such conflicts are real, they are everyday and they are important subjects for literature. By setting her tales on a remote island, Gilbert repositions these stories away from the colonial. That is perhaps what Neverness means: there are no tribes, there are no “Others”, we are doing these things to ourselves.

A final, and critically important thing to note about Folk, is its use of third person. Every novel I read that was published in 2017 was written in first person. Individually, each had its reasons, but collectively the effect was disconcerting. A novelist’s ability to evoke the third person, the objective observer outside the situation, demonstrates our medium’s capacity to depict the universal. By returning us to our folk roots, I hope that Zoe Gilbert will remind us of our duties in this matter. I hope this book becomes a bestseller.

Folk is a brilliant piece of fictionwork. One that promises to stick in the mind for years to come.

– Joe Darlington

Until shame came to drive a wedge between us

Édouard Louis – The End of Eddy (Vintage, 2018)

There is a lot gained from a strong opening line, and Édouard Louis certainly gave me what I look for in The End of Eddy (2014): “From my childhood I have no happy memories.” Sometimes enduring pain can only be expressed simply, and the book continues in this curt style. Louis deals with brutality casually and without indulgence, offering many of these concise sentiments: “You never get used to insults.” The book is full of calm observations of his crippling childhood fears and punishable treatment. I would in fact go as far as to call Eddy a masterpiece of observation, written with dignity and control, anti-hysterical, a hard past laid out neatly and assuredly. It is a telling of shame unburdened by self-pity or flowery prose. His presentation of memory, its wanderings and coming-back-agains, is beautiful and veracious in its simplicity. The book is thoughtfully punctuated in an extremely literal sense of the word; Louis writes with a cognitive pace.

Louis’ reflections on the pressure he felt growing up are pertinent to our culture’s current dialogue on masculinity, and it seems that this has played a large part in Eddy’s critical acclaim. It is indeed a brutal unveiling of “masculinity” and its misconceptions, a contemplation of what it means to be a man often disgusted in its musings but never obtusely so. The italicised and often rambling dialogue of his family and surrounding persons is drastically opposed in nature to his own controlled, concise and elegant prose – theirs so desperate and exaggerated, and so often delivering perverse statements of “manliness”.

We are presented with an articulation of the threat perceived in difference – the working class fear of the unknown. Louis communicates the idea that we are complicit in our own mistreatment, or, at least, that low status seems to be accompanied by this complicity. The book portrays the isolation of poverty – both forced and chosen, and the distancing of the working class both suffered and perpetuated. The characters that surround Eddy are complicit in the perpetuation of their own poverty in all senses: financial, moral and sentimental. Louis writes “There is a will that exists, a desperate, continual, constantly renewed effort to place some people on a level below you, not to be on the lowest rung of the social ladder” and captures a kind of communal distance – the seemingly inescapable fate of the working class. However despite this overwhelming representation of isolation, this beautiful portrait of himself is actually built up through his detailed meditations on those around him. Louis highlights our condition as a social species, that we must tell the stories of others in order to tell your own, making the distancing all the more apparent and cruel. Thoughtfulness in the very absence of thought.

The main disappointment that I have felt with regards to Eddy is Louis’ refusal to claim it as his own story. If I wanted to be facile, I could say that this generic fear stems from the fear instilled within Louis as a child. Genre shame caused by the unadulterated fear told in the book. There is very little more shameful than being forced to lap up freshly spat gobs of someone else’s phlegm from your sleeve. I believe that this book would be more courageously, appropriately and importantly named as non-fiction. Are we still living in the shadow of the James Frey scandal? Are you happy Oprah?

Louis writes “here I am simply trying to imagine, to reconstitute what must have been my cousin’s state of mind at that moment”, evoking the autobiographical contract. But why include comments such as this to then brand the work a novel? It is important for this book to be read in terms of our dire need to readdress our understanding of genre. It makes no sense to offer these excusatory comments in fiction – as we currently define it. Do we still feel that the novel is the only respectable form? Are memoirs an embarrassing relic of the past?

Literary journalism in the modern climate seems to trump subject matter over writing style and achievement, however Louis does deserve commendation – if not to the dramatic extent it has been awarded – for his prose. It is also surprising that most reviewers of this book have gone away in wonder at Louis’ success in spite of his desperate beginnings; experience shows us that it is from the depths that most heroes rise. Adversity surely brings us strength. The question is not one of whether we can rise, but of how well we can rise from our falls. Louis has put his troubles to good use.

Overall, here is a refreshing voice and an invigorating handling of suffering, evocative without laud or gaud, but it is disappointing that this courage couldn’t traverse in generic terms.

– Blair James

Footprints in the Snow

Han Kang – The White Book (Portobello Books, 2017)

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Nonsense! Books are physical objects. Things to be experienced. That a writer should leave a book’s design to chance, or worse, a half-conscious set of inherited expectations, strikes me as carelessness.

That isn’t to say that every writer should be considering presentation from the moment of conception, but when a book comes along to which this level of thought has been put, one can’t help but take a moment to appreciate it.

Han Kang’s The White Book is the novel to which I’m alluding. It is a novel about a woman reflecting on life’s poignant moments and its presentation – stark white with short paragraphs like footprints through snow – invites a mood of reflection before one has even read the first page. We are addressed by the narrator, who begins her story by listing white things: ‘swaddling bands, newborn gown, salt, snow, ice…’.

We find she has moved from Korea to a ‘town with white walls’ in the Mediterranean. From here she imagines her mother who, lost in a snowstorm deep in their rural homeland, gave birth to a stillborn child.

Her mother told her the baby was as white as a ricecake. From here the colour white enters, and then recurs, recurs, recurs, at times clever, at times surprising, at times heartbreaking, until the close of the book. As the book moves forward in short, self-contained sections it is tempting to compare it to poetry. The use of the poetic moment, deep but without obvious metaphor, is most closely associated with haiku (particularly Basho).

But this is nevertheless a rigidly structured novel. Each step forward in the narrative is subtly announced beforehand, a catalogue of white imagery interlaces disparate sections, tying together moments across time. The recurrence itself is accounted for, becoming a metaphor for memories whose emotion fades more with each remembering. The translation by Deborah Smith is itself a thing of subtle beauty.

Some Korean words appear, couched naturally in context, as do some translated phrases – ‘laughing whitely’, for example – which draw attention to themselves as curiosities of language to be commented on. The unjustified text and short sentences complement the sense of the writing as a fragile thing. Small marks stamped black on a white page, the whiteness threatening to swallow it all up.

White is not a colour, it is an absence of colour, and The White Book is made, in a similar paradox, of words defined by their silences. The sparing black on the tundra of white pages, the scattering of moments which rely on white images to connect them together; all of it seems to suggest our continued desire for language to communicate in the face of its impossibility.

The use of traditional imagery reinforces this; snow, the sea, birdsong, all carefully deployed to invoke the poetic while avoiding cliché. Trying to say something about the unsayable, again.

We are wandering on, leaving footprints in snow, as more and more snow seems to fall. It’s difficult to review a book like this other than to admire its power and the wholeness of its vision.

The White Book represents a significant achievement in the area of book-as-experience. Everyone who picks up this book will get something out of it, but people who read a lot of novels will, I think, adore it. There is nothing careless about this book. It commands the whole attention. It is a book which realises that reading too is an art form.

– Joe Darlington

Cold Comfort

Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Gini Alhadeff) – I Am the Brother of XX and Other Stories (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017)

In an interview conducted for TANK Magazine, interviewer Claudia Steinberg questions the Swiss author Fleur Jeaggy on the choice of narrative technique for her biographical work, ‘Three Possible Lives.’ Jaeggy responds, ‘I would prefer to tell you that I own a Hermes typewriter.’ She follows this with a brief description of the typewriter.

When Steinberg muses on ‘silence’ as a theme in Jaeggy’s writing, Jaeggy offers in return an account of her friendship with a swan, a friendship made a number of years ago.

The swan, which she named Erich, was a resident of a pond in Berlin. Jaeggy had been staying in an apartment near to the pond.  ‘A good friend,’ she remembers of Erich, before she describes strolling, with Erich waddling beside her, around the pond water.

The interview concludes with Jaeggy remarking, ‘We have talked very much. I hope there will be far fewer words in the magazine. Promise to mention Erich, and then say close to nothing.’

The interview, a rare thing for Jaeggy, was conducted on the occasion of publication of ‘I Am the Brother of XX.’ This is her latest collection of short stories, translated from Italian by Gini Alhadeff.

Throughout the interview, Jaeggy resists Steinberg’s efforts to elicit explanations of her peculiar prose. She swerves questions pertaining to craft, literary influences and formative childhood experiences. Above the interview text on the TANK Magazine website is a black and white photograph of Jaeggy. She has neatly bobbed hair and a thin smile.

I first encountered Jaeggy’s work on the website of literary magazine, The Paris Review. Her short story ‘Agnes,’ was published there last spring. Like many of the stories included in the collection, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ of which it is a part, ‘Agnes’ is concerned largely with death and madness.

The narrator of the story, a jilted lover, details the fallout of an infatuation. Of the stories I read that lunchtime at work, sat listlessly before my computer, it is ‘Agnes’ that I remember very clearly. I was struck by Jaeggy’s written style. Her sentences are so terse and sharp it is like they have been spat out.

The story has a strange structure. The narrator breaks off abruptly from one train of thought before beginning on another, apparently disconnected, thread. Past events are depicted in brief, bizarre flashes. Characters appear unintroduced, except by name, and are quickly discarded. It has a disorientating effect. It is a superb piece.

The stories included in ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ are also expertly, and peculiarly, composed. It is a collection of almost unremitting bleakness, both in setting and plot. The stories are situated in isolated places; a decrepit castle, a snowed under village, a mountain-top boarding school surrounded by boulders, a massive, suspended bird cage. 

Death looms large. Whether one takes place, has taken place, or a character is pre-occupied by the thought it.

The depressed, heavily sedated narrator of the title story, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ recalls, ‘once when I was eight years old my grandmother asked me, ‘what will you do when you grow up?’ And I answered, I want to die.’

Characters are described as having ‘cold’ and ‘dead’, ‘blank’ and ’empty’ eyes, a, sometimes laboured, intimation as to their inner states. Relationships are antagonistic. Denouements are brutal. Jaeggy recounts the fates of her characters very coolly.

Flowers have been placed on the coffin… a flowery meadow on our mothers’ skull,’ remarks one character observing his mother’s funeral. 

In the aforementioned interview for TANK magazine, Jaeggy remarks that she dislikes ‘effusion.’ Her descriptions and observations, indeed, are very precise. 

The narrator of the story, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ recalls of his stylish, disaffected-seeming sister, ‘She was saying she liked solitude. Meanwhile she was going out every night, coming back late, her mascara smudged.’

In one of the collection’s best stories, ‘The Black Veil,’ the narrator chances upon an old photograph of her mother. The photograph shows her, now deceased, mother at an audience with the Pope. She has a ‘desperate, depressed’ look in her eyes. For the daughter, the idea that her elegant, composed mother might have been ‘desperate’, is as startling as punch in the face. Jaeggy conveys this brilliantly.

Jaeggy writes reverently of her famed writer friends Ingrid Bachman, Oliver Sacks and Josef Brodsky. She writes warmly of animals. In the story, ‘Encounter in the Bronx,’ the narrator, dining out with two companions, describes feeling a sense of kinship with a kind eyed fish gliding about the restaurant aquarium. It is the kind of easy friendship that might have existed between Jaeggy and swan.

Such moments of relief are brief, however.

How unfortunate, the narrator reflects, that at any moment the fish will be fetched, killed and made into a meal.

– Abby Kearney

References

‘Promise to mention Erich and then say close to nothing,’ Fleur Jaeggy interview with Claudia Steinberg, Tank Magazine, The Book Issue, Summer 2017

‘Agnes’ by Fleur Jaeggy, The Paris Review, Issue 220, Spring 2017

Trials and Tribulations

James Miller – UnAmerican Activities (Dodo Ink)

Not every book can be perfect. The prologue and epilogue of this one, for example, are absolutely obnoxious and will ruin your reading experience, if not your whole day. Thankfully, books aren’t sacred either. Upon first purchasing a copy of UnAmerican Activities I recommend tearing these pages out and burning them. Congratulations, you are now left with a brilliant book.

UnAmerican Activities is a series of short stories which, as the book progresses, become tantalisingly close to a novel, before once again dissipating into tall tales. Their subject is America, the dark side of Americana, and, in particular, that dark side as it appears to a writer from London, England. It is a romantic ballad of trailer parks and badlands, or evangelists and good ol’ boys, seedy motels, crack and conspiracies. It’s B-movie America, and who doesn’t love a good B-Movie?

The first stories, with catchy titles like “Eat my Face” and “Exploding Zombie Cock”, establish a postlapsarian nation where all are sinners and there are no good intentions. The characters border on caricature but, as in Fielding, their lack of moral qualms is what makes them compelling. These stories are punchy. No-one’s wasting time. Everyone acts. Into this mix, Miller pours movie monsters, and then the story really gets moving.

The best part of UnAmerican Activities is the monsters. Miller’s monsters really deserve the name. Of all the movies, books and games of recent years to be about monsters, so many have been metaphors for something, or sub-Frankenstinian exercises in sympathy for the outsider, that to encounter real monsters – brutal, terrifying, evil – is refreshing.

Miller knows how to write them too. I found myself asking at a Halloween party this year, “-but are vampires really scary?” Miller’s vampires haunt the imagination. The second half of the book features an extended arc with Nephilim, vampire hunters, occult plagues and ancient evils uncovered in the desert. There is a real sense of danger; of something dark at the heart of a nation already tearing itself apart. “The Abomination of Desolation”, above all, is an exercise in sustained tension which could rival anything by Stephen King.

The book is sparing in its use of hero characters, with only two innocents among its expansive cast. Abraham Helsing, the cheery Christian bounty hunter who tracks vampires on the side, and Esther Daniels, a teen writer with loopy survivalist parents, provide our only respite from an unremittingly bleak panorama. Their presence provides the contrast the narrative needs. They help us to discern the merely weak and self-deluding humans from the truly evil monsters.

It is for this reason that, perhaps against Miller’s intention, I find UnAmerican Activities to be a truly American, morally righteous set of parables. It makes me look back to recent novels like The Girl With All The Gifts (2014) which, in a fever of zombie-relativism, finds a happy ending in the total destruction of mankind. The author, M.R. Carey, implies this is deserved as humans weren’t tolerant enough to coexist with flesh eating monsters. In Miller’s world, by contrast, when you give yourself up to dark powers, bad things happen. At times the writing in UnAmerican Activities may appear nihilistic, but there’s some old time religion hidden in its heart that is extremely refreshing.

This isn’t to say that UnAmerican Activities is purely a horror book. It breaks enough genre conventions and rings enough lit crit bells that I would hope it appeals to a discerning readership as well. It deserves to be widely read. Every story is tightly plotted, the prose is controlled and well-paced, while the publishers – DoDo Ink – have presented the work beautifully. I would highly recommend reading it… but only if you start at page 17. I can’t get over that implied author. James Miller, I hope it aint you.

– Joe Darlington 

Burgess beyond Burgess

Anthony Burgess, Life, Work, Reputation, Centenary Conference – International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester

One thing marked this conference out from the start, a simple rule: No Clockwork Orange. That slim work has become so swollen that it has eclipsed the burning star of Burgess’s talent. It definitely needs to orbit away somewhat.

But can you imagine another conference or arts festival doing that, at this point in history? Or even a university event? There would be Alex mugs and bowler hats for sale with expensive ironic vitamin milk during the breaks.

Not here. There was a straightforward dignity about this event. The idea of Burgess scholars relaying the dark side of The Burgess World for three days might sound off-putting to the more casual reader. But the papers were all accessible, as well as high quality. There was a generous intellectual atmosphere on both sides, that of the presenters and the audience. People enquired in the spirit of wanting to know, there was no needling. There was an early start each day – lots of papers were got through – and the atmosphere was unpretentious and non-combative, at the same time as it was never dumbed-down. All of these things are possible, they can exist in one space. PhD students can give papers without feeling they are about to be torn apart by horrible grey wolf professors.

One of the main pleasures over the three days was this: To take a slice of Burgess is to take a slice of the entire twentieth century. Earthly Powers is perhaps the concentrated form of this, but Burgess is clearly a world-historical writer, and many of the papers spoke to that theme. The papers were skilfully grouped to speak to the larger dimensions of Burgess’s work, Empire, for instance.

According to Nicholas Rankin on ‘Burgess in Gibraltar’, the ‘comic dimension’ of Burgess’s take on Empire was ‘well-meaningness gone wrong’. Siti Saridah Adenan followed this with a paper on ‘Lethargic Empire’ and ‘Boredom in Burgess’s Malayan Novels’. She discussed empire and detachment, in the Burgess character Fenella Crabbe, who sees her new Malayan surroundings as a ‘shabby version of Europe’. Here we got Malaya as boring, as opposed to London, the thrilling centre of Empire.

Crabbe also described the north of England as provincial. Crabbe believed civilisation only happens in temperate climates, ‘where sweat starts, nothing starts’, she explained. There are echoes of this in the current although fundamentally broken London-centric attitudes that have recently been cracked by the vote to leave the EU in 2016. The start of the Cold War in Gibraltar, said Burgess, will also ‘be the end of it’, and perhaps only now can we see how truly prophetic that was.

Matthew Whittle explained how Matthew Arnold was important to Burgess. He took up the quest of the middle class guide for the masses. For Burgess the TV was static and the music hall was social. Television, for Burgess, was the ‘brutal hypnotic eye’. Great points were made here about Burgess’s theme of the little individual versus the imposition of the state, in his novel The Doctor Is Sick, Clockwork Orange and elsewhere. The paper on the The Doctor Is Sick, actually, by Jess Roberts was enthralling.

Burgess’s Toryism must surely be a part of his attitude, but elsewhere we heard how in Italy ‘Burgess rooted for the anarchists and communists’. Burgess was one of those truly independent liberal intellectuals, in the strong sense of that, a permanent dissident and a man who knew his own mind seemingly instinctively, then put that opinion forward no matter who it offended.

Burgess, uncovered by the obscuring bulk of Clockwork Orange, is essentially a rich archive curated by Andrew Biswell and his colleagues, novels, non-fiction, poetry and music. We went to the Bridgewater Hall on Tuesday night for the premiere of a Burgess symphony. The book reviews of Burgess, as with Orwell, are a whole other historical dimension. Joe Darlington’s paper on these was magnificent.

In a break, Manchester Review of Books writers discussed the Burgess reviews and blurbs they had encountered: As novel readers, in their student days; they were all over, including one on the dust jacket of a single-volume dictionary which simply said ‘this is a fine dictionary’. Burgess perhaps over-reviewed, but he was a staunch advocate of the less successful writers he admired, as well as those he considered to have potential.

There are very large archives beyond not only Clockwork Orange, but beyond all the published work. This said, the ‘No Clockwork’ rule was actually broken three times (let’s call it a rule of thumb) for a paper on performing and re-performing the work for theatre in different countries, translating it into French, and a keynote presentation by Jonathon Green, the slang expert who has been described as the ‘greatest Lexicographer since Johnson’.

Green was there to talk about the recently discovered Nadsat Dictionary fragments. And they are really fragments. But the other thing this conference had was a sense of humour. Green and others addressed this aborted project with an endearing mix of reverence and gentle laughter. Andrew Biswell put up a slide ‘of Burgess getting pissed’, how he would like us to remember him, and Burgess was well remembered throughout.

In fact it felt like he was strangely present, as his piano and other bits of furniture were in the room with us. Many of the discussions ended up talking of ‘Anthony Burgess’ – after all, only a pen name for a bloke called John Wilson – as a shifting series of layers, rather than a solid core. Taken this way, Burgess was in fact present, as the archive holds many of those layers, some of which are still being discovered. Burgess had not, as the saying goes, ‘left the building’. I think John Wilson would have loved this.

We took a coach ride to see No End To Enderby at The Whitworth, which is definitely worth a visit. Then we went on to Xaverian College, Burgess’s old school, then to a drinks reception. Some have claimed that Manchester and Burgess have little real connection, International Anthony Burgess Foundation is changing that erroneous perception.

But they are doing so much more: Here, actually, is the model for the new arts festival, the new conference, and perhaps even the new university. The idiocy of student tuition fees is only just being declared by the politicians who originally advised them. The conference was clearly subsidised, there were no berserk, excluding fees. In fact it was probably cheaper to go to this conference than to sit at home and eat your own supplies. There were no patronising, infantile stage dressings or speeches. The usual galaxy of alibis on a double page spread at the back of the guide was entirely absent. There was no feedback form with a marketing intern standing over you waiting to collect.

The generosity of the Burgess estate is clear: Burgess was a tax exile and criticised for it; he put his money into properties when the tax rate for his income bracket – under Wilson – was 90%, but his estate has now put that money back into Manchester with a faith in the city even Burgess couldn’t quite match some days.

If you swap the patrician capitalism of International Anthony Burgess Foundation for a return to state funding, you have a very good model, in this conference, of how to do things. Formally, the ‘less-is-more’ approach of concentrating on the things that matter and doing them with style, humour, generosity and a fuss-free seriousness should be adopted all over the arts and humanities.

International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester Review of Books salutes you, and all who sail in you.

Don’t Go West

David Gaffney – All The Places I Have Ever Lived (Urbane)

When Iain Sinclair started to turn from an obscure poet, film maker and parks gardener, into a new explorer of Britain, there were places that he described as essentially ‘off the map’. This meant under-explored parts of London, of Wales, as well as stories so badly served by mainstream accounts, be they from historians or journalists, that entirely alternative readings needed to be produced.

The problem now is that those places, once ‘off the map’, are now firmly delineated in a new canonical cartography. Martin Rowson drew a cartoon of the Iain Sinclair A-Z, all Dr Dee and occult curate’s eggs. This cartoon now hangs in Sinclair’s study. Sinclair’s idea of what is or isn’t a psychogeographic hot zone is now wearing a bit thin. John Harris has a better manifesto, which is ‘everywhere is interesting’, or my own version of that, which is ‘nowhere is not interesting.’

David Gaffney takes us to one of the strangest and most under-explored parts of Britain, a place that is really ‘off the map’ and that is West Cumbria. There is a David Peace-esque Red Riding Trilogy sense to this book, but it is much more magical and strange. Of course, the television series The Lakes delivered an alternative view to the pleasure cruise vision of the area. But West Cumbria is not The Lakes and be very wary of suggesting so to a West Cumbrian.

This novel is also an exploration of stigmata that operates on multiple levels: The original stigmata of Catholic orthodoxy; the stigma of being from nowheresville; the possibly universal stigma arising from the foolishness of youth; the stigma of existing at odds with the status quo on an always already conservative island. The simple stigma of being ‘thin skinned’.

The main signifier for these stigmas is the metallic blisters the main character breaks out in, Gregor Samsa-like, on the opening page. For the celebrated American Sociologist, Erving Goffman, ‘stigma management’ can mean a positive or negative social reaction. If this novel is a manifestation of stigma management as Goffman figured it, it is breaking out in joyful rashes of David Lynch and then singing to them.

But the blisters and rashes are also the burstings out of the Sellafield nuclear power plant. The horrifying everyday risk of one area of the country, mapped onto other horrifying everyday risks, along with the idea that all these risks may or may not be connected…

This novel also has shades of The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills. The caravan. The moronic punk songs. The deadpan, everyday weirdness. It has that dark northern sense of doom, coupled with sheer absurdity. That the problem of life is not, as with Gregor Samsa, the eternal struggle of a basic life form, but an existence tainted by a sheer lack of seriousness from start to finish.

The probem is not necessarily that we are ruled, but that we cannot believe in or take seriously those who rule us, and our stigmas in that sense become marks of belonging to a secret tribe who were born with this truth already installed. But there is a much darker side to this idea, that under these conditions one might flip into extreme reaction.

What is truly great about this book is its confident and economic prose. One example of this is the section where the confession booth is described as ‘talking to a man in a box who is wearing a dress.’ Gaffney only needs to describe the ritual this way to explode it, to expose all its hypocrisy of sexuality, gender and belief.

This economy and skill runs all the way through the book. Fun and psychological disturbance mingle. One laughs, then one thinks, and sometimes what has been dislodged or disturbed in the mind, in your own personal history, is not immediately clear. That is not an easy thing for a novelist to pull off. But we all grew up in a locale that was strange to us, precisely because we formed as humans there. Gaffney explores his own experiences of primal strangeness through this, but in doing so makes you think about your own.

But the thing that really seperates this out from other work is that it has the bravery to deal, if tangentially, with a series of highly traumatic real-life incidents, that of the Whitehaven shootings of 2010. Not only this, but it weaves its strange fiction into the place and events.

If as Adorno said, there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, this novel seems to be prescribing ways to deal with local transgression. Moments that arrive like a lightning strike, where the darkness all around is briefly illuminated, not just on the tiny spot where the amoral transgression hits: These should be responded to by accounting for that whole surreal landscape; a freeze frame, in that one giant moment of flashbulb shock. This is what Walter Benjamin called ‘profane illumination’.

This book is a classic in a heterodox canon of works about Britain that are as far from a Bill Bryson book as it is possible to get. It is the antidote to the default daytime television view of the country, all suburban aesthetics and neatly farmed fields. It is also an alternative type of ghost story to those Sinclair tells, one not loaded with the fetish of occult figures, but stories about real people who are ghosts and the ghosts of real people.

Sous les paves, la vide

Neil Campbell – Sky Hooks (Salt)

The landscape of this novel is very particular and familiar. Apart from some trips away, the story takes place almost completely in the strip around the Manchester university campuses which stretches out to Ardwick, then up to Longsight and Levenshulme. The protagonist gets a black eye outside Retro Bar: These are real places; and of course one asks how much of this is simply biographical, but with the names of those who might litigate changed. In fact, it feels as though it is exactly that.

The tower blocks by the MMU and Manchester University campuses are already important urban geography lessons: Here the largely privileged young make their way through everyday rites of credentialism and qualification, they enjoy the city centre with all its exhilarating, transgressive cultural scenes; yet in and among all of this are places of acute poverty and misery.

This is in fact the landscape of the Russell Club and post-punk Manchester: Hulme is on the border of this book’s territory too. But it is also the post-rave landscape of Mark Fisher, the hollowed out futureless emptiness. Except in Manchester, that void has always been there.

As Peck and Ward observed in 2001, even before the crash of 2008, jaw dropping structural poverty existed. Here, in a tower block by the Mancunian Way, women are on the game, blokes are mugging people for their phones and selling drugs. Campbell is essentially describing the ‘qualities’ of structural, unecessary abjection in the name of riches for the few.

Manchester has long had a psychogeographic tradition, but in 2016, with all the sinkholes opening up – including the now legendary chasm under the Mancunian Way – it is no longer ‘sous les paves, la plage’, but Under the Paving Stones, The Void.

Those holes are very far from just metaphorical: There are terrible jobs in vast, freezing warehouses. At one point our narrator says that manual labour is the worst kind of work there is. He is right. Yet we still hear it, from the Northern Powerhouse House rhetoric to leftwing chest-beating: ‘This wonderful world “we” have lost’; but how many of those who bemoan the loss of industry actually worked a factory job for any length of time without alternatives? I expect none of them.

The protagonist describes being threatened on a monthly basis with job loss, by the company boss, if they don’t work harder. He doesn’t give a toss and rightly so. His work regime only speeds up when he wants to get through the day that way: He knows this life is a dead end, he can see it in those who have been there for forty years. I have had all of those experiences and so have many people I know. This is a book of shared ‘experience’ in the sense that Raymond Williams uses that word: That the working classes have what the posh people call ‘heritage’; and this is fucking it.

J.B. Priestly said something like, when you’re done in the factory, all you want to do is go to a pub to quench your thirst, preferably where there are some girls. You don’t go home and read a book by the fireside like the middle classes. This is not a ‘choice’, this is structural, it is in the labour, and it is in the division of labour. Yet the right and far right dogma piles up, that ‘these people’ have a choice, that behaving differently is somehow a flat decision between good and bad. It is not. Our protagonist says exactly the same as Priestly: Your first pint after work is the best thing you have ever tasted. But the trajectory from there on, short, medium and long term, is of course something else.

But there are no chumpy political speeches or cloying sentiments here. This book is strong precisely because it doesn’t have characters standing by the fireplace talking about co-operation, like some ghastly Walter Greenwood novel. The work it does is largely done through flat description and that description is as close to the interior monologue of a young Mancunian lad of a particular generation as it is possible to get and still end up with a saleable book. For that alone, this novel is surely already a regional classic of some sort.

This book has its nearest equivalent in Mark Hodkinson’s northern writing. It is unpretentious and powerful, cuttingly honest. It would be a mistake to put this book in the lineage of the ‘lad fiction’ that emerged in the 1990s, with Irvine Welsh as its Guru, although I expect some reviewers might.

This book is far too subtle. It tightens its grip on you by loosening its hold. It achieves high results by not trying. It is the first time in a long time that I have immersed myself in a novel, forgetting, for significant periods of time, that I was reading at all. This may be because I am of the same gender, class and probably generation, give or take a decade or so. But that isn’t the whole reason. It silently slides its tentacles around you, showing you how life in structural poverty feels.

All of this is achieved through very workaday description, interior monologue and dialoge. A football, blowing in the wind on the roof of the International College, links back to the protagonist’s failed career with Manchester City. The author has mastered the art of tiny details that do massive amounts of work. It should be given to creative writing undergraduates for exactly that reason. ‘Creative’ as a word arrives loaded with connotations of being ostentatiously free to overflow with ‘expression’. Campbell’s writing sticks deadpan to its own minimal code and by doing so is hugely creative.

There is a section where the protagonist goes through a brief phase of picking prostitutes up on the streets. It is chillingly, shockingly matter-of-fact. It is an incredibly refreshing antidote to the hearts and flowers gush of… well, most contemporary writing, frankly. His youth is rising in him constantly, he ogles the women at work. These obsessive oglings are not edited out, but the book is far stronger and more honest for that. Some, of course, might object.

He goes off to America, naive, and on other trips. He tries to have sex. He honestly describes the banality of failure. He comes back and it feels ten times worse. He is looking for something, but without any of the familiar signposts or advice that arrives naturally in middle class households. His escape, finally, is going to university, one of the big Manchester ones.

At one point he describes folding university hoodies and putting them on sale where the German literature used to be. He is clear that he becomes someone else by going to university and emerging out the other side. I am equally clear, as I work in them, and this detail speaks to the idea, that the university is becoming something else. The book ends with the author publishing his first novel.

Much of the narrative is bleak. But it is what might happen to the escape routes writers such as Campbell have taken that is, for me, the bleakest story of all. The unwritten story, that is nonetheless present. The people who don’t make it through this rite-of-passage, through the class maze, which at the bottom has no clear signposts, will be stuck in dead end jobs. Turning to drink, drugs, prostitution and crime. Or just stagnating in nothing. An early death in emiserating circumstances is the price of this obscene masterpiece we live in.

George Osborne still fantasises about it, and anyone who clings to this fantasy, even just a little bit, should read this book and renew their refusal one thousand fold.