Of course bookshelves are the best kind of shelves, but I have to admit that I’m nosy and like to see what people put on any kind of shelves. Here are some shelves where you can proudly display your favourite things.
BY RYAN CALAIS CAMERON
DIRECTED BY ANASTASIA OSEI-KUFFOUR
STARRING RICHARD BLACKWOOD
A powerful exploration of racism and how British society stereotypes Black masculinity. I have to admit that I went into this (online) show without knowing the story of Christopher Alder, but it is a heartbreaking example of the institutional racism and police brutality which recent events and Black Lives Matter have brought to the fore.
In 1998, Christopher Alder, a former British army paratrooper, was injured during a fight outside of a night club in Hull and taken to hospital for treatment to a head injury. He was arrested by two police officers for a breach of the peace after apparently becoming aggressive and taken to the police station. CCTV footage from the custody suite shows him being dragged in by officers and left lying face down on the floor, motionless, with his trousers around his ankles. Officers stand around laughing while he lies there, dying, for 10 minutes. A post-mortem failed to establish the cause of Christopher’s death, but a later inquest returned a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’. Five Humberside police officers were put on trial for the manslaughter of Christopher, but the case later collapsed, and all officers were cleared. In 2011, the Government publicly apologised for breaching Christopher’s right to life, right not to be tortured or treated inhumanely, and the right not to be discriminated against.
This roughly one-hour one-man show is a real tour-de-force for Richard Blackwood, who manages to convincingly portray both Christopher himself and the characters he encounters over the course of his fateful last evening against a very plain, minimalistic decor. The story is told through music, lighting and Blackwood’s face and body, which seem to effortlessly shapeshift from middle-aged, slightly overweight, to tall and debonair, to somewhat shy and awkward, from aggressive punter in a nightclub to drunk girl on a night out.
The show starts with the oldest cliché in the book: a man waking up and getting ready to go out, while musing about his circumstances. And yet, in this context, the cliché works – because we find out this is a man like any other, his race doesn’t matter at all. At least not while he is at home. We discover he is middle-aged, divorced, looking for a career change, looking forward to spending time with his two boys the next weekend, feeling rather lonely, starting to worry about aging, not doing too great a job of looking after himself with food and exercise. He sounds like so many people we know, and yet completely himself and unique at the same time, with the rhythm and lilt of his delivery. There is wit and self-deprecation in there a-plenty, as well as word associations and clever one-liners, such as ‘I scare myself half to life’ when looking in the mirror, or ‘Marriage is the process of finding out the type of man your wife prefers to you’. Not knowing what to expect, I almost had the feeling I was watching a comedy show – and that innocence is perhaps the best attitude to have when sitting down to watch this show, because what follows comes as a complete shock.
Christopher goes out with his friends, commenting that they are ‘just old men talking about old shit’. Even though his friends seem to have sunk into domesticity and blandness, he is nevertheless determined to enjoy himself. As he queues to get into the nightclub, as he dances inside, as he chats up a girl, he encounters numerous micro-aggressions, which end up not being all that micro. Every time, he talks himself down from losing his temper and reacting violently. He keeps repeating: ‘They need me to be the bad guy. I know the cost. Leave me alone.’
The scenes at the hospital and the police station are brutal but incredibly effective. They are also, mercifully, much shorter than the humorous scenes establishing the character in the first half, or the growing discomfort we experience as witnesses to both the overt and hidden discrimination he experiences as he goes about a very normal Saturday evening in a city centre somewhere in England. There is a crescendo of abuse, but above all there is a complete unwillingness to listen or to see the person in front of them as anything other than the stereotype of aggressive black guy. Holding his hand to his head wound, Christopher keeps repeating: ‘I am the victim here. I just want to be heard. Nobody’s hearing me.’ The final scenes, with the repetition of the words ‘I can’t breathe’ and the shaky camerawork, have an added poignancy after the death of George Floyd. Blackwood’s face fills the whole screen and forces us to look into his eyes. It is impossible to look away, it is impossible to remain unmoved.
First performed in 2019 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, before transferring to Soho Theatre for a sell-out run, this exciting hybrid of theatre and film was shot during the pandemic on location at Soho Theatre. It certainly deserves to be seen, shared and discussed far more widely, so it’s good to know that it is now available as Theatre on Demand from Soho Theatre and Nouveau Riche productions.
Highly recommended for all of you who have missed theatre as much as I have.
It is absurdly early to be writing an end of month review but a) I’ve got some online theatre to watch and review over the last few days of February; b) with some translation edits coming in and another planned full day of working on my novel, I don’t think I’ll have time to read and review any more books.
I was quite good at sticking to my February in Canada plan and, although I’d have liked more Quebecois authors in the mix, I remained faithful to my plan to read only what was already available on my bookshelves. I was fairly happy with all of the six Canadian books I read. While the subject matter of the Inger Ash Wolfe crime novel did feel like far too well-trodden territory to me, I was intrigued and inspired by Anne Carson (as ever) and surprised and delighted by Carol Shields and Marian Engel. In fact, I enjoyed Bear so much that I instantly decided to read another Marian Engel book, Lunatic Villas, which was very different to Bear, although the portrayal of harassed motherhood is very similar to Celia Fremlin‘s The Hours Before Dawn, but on the humorous rather than the sinister side of things.
In addition to Celia Fremlin, I also read several more crime novels:
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman for our Virtual Crime Book Club, which was fun although not quite as good as the hype makes it out to be. I do generally struggle with books written by celebrities, as I feel: a) are they just cashing in on their fame and writing books because everyone thinks it’s an easy thing to do?; b) do they really need any more money, when they have n other sources of very good income? However, to be fair to Osman, it is a witty book, mostly because of the characters and the age group depicted (showing what a variety of types of people you can find in a retirement community, not all old people are boring and cautious etc.). The plot does have some rather too convenient coincidences and a bit of an odd coming-out-of-nowhere conclusion, but I liked it enough to want to read more about these characters on a very occasional basis.
Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev: This is a book of many parts and many tonalities, which might put some readers off, but which really appealed to me. It is a thoughtful analysis of why a scientist would choose to collaborate with an evil regime, how science can be subverted, and how ideals go out the window. It is also a historical picture of the mess and lack of certainties after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is of course also a spy thriller, with a sinister opening and a mounting sense of dread. Yet, in certain parts, when the would-be assassins are embarking on a road-trip to find the rogue scientist, it becomes quite comical, even farcical. All in all, a really enjoyable read.
The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse: February always puts me in the mood for skiing and therefore a mountain setting, so this book set in a Swiss mountaintop hotel seemed irresistible. The claustrophobic setting is indeed the star in this novel, the author clearly knows her Swiss winters, but the plot seemed rather far-fetched and I wasn’t that keen on the characters’ rather histrionic reactions to everything.
Finally, with a lingering glance back towards my January in Japan love, I read a graphic novel adaptation of No Longer Human, which was far more explicit and creepy than the novel, but also diverged from the story in interesting ways. I also read the first volume of Bungo Stray Dogs manga, in which Dazai is a detective with some supernatural powers – I’m not sure how appropriate it is to make fun of Dazai’s suicidal tendencies, although, given he made fun of them himself at times in his work, it’s probably OK. Plus, it features all sorts of other writers, Kunikida Doppo with a very bureaucratic mentality, Edogawa Ranpo who is firmly convinced he has supernatural abilities but in fact is simply very good at questioning and detecting, Akutagawa, who is a skilled adversary and so on. For someone obsessed with Japanese literature and familiar with most of the authors featured here, this is an absolute riot!
So 12 books, of which 2 graphic novels, 6 fitting the Canadian theme, and 4 crime novels. Only three books in translation (or other languages) this month, a low proportion by my standards, and an even gender distribution.
But have I contributed at all to #readindies? Well, hard to tell. Most of the books were bought second-hand and at the time of publication the publishers may have been independent, but have since been bought up (McCleeland and Steward are Penguin Random House now, Fourth Estate is Harper Collins, Pandora Women Crime Writers is Routledge). But I have found a few. My Quebecois writer is published by Editions Druide, a small independent funded by the Canadian and Quebecois governments and the Canadian Arts Council. Bear was published by Nonpareil Books, an imprint of Godine, an independent publisher located in Boston, Massachusetts. And Untraceable is published by New York-based New Vessel Press, which specialises in translated fiction.
I’ve watched mainly TV series this month (Lupin, The Sopranos, My Brilliant Friend), but the few films I watched were very good:
- a rewatch of Do the Right Thing, which was a classic film of my teenage years and still stands up so well today (sadly, not much has changed);
- High and Low, a Kurosawa with a good deal of social commentary and personal dilemma, about the kidnapping of a child;
- Uppercase Print, the latest film by Radu Jude, the case of a young student who was investigated by the security forces during the Ceausescu years – an unusual mix of actors reciting from the security files, interwoven with extracts from TV documentaries of the 1970s and 80s. This was hard for me to watch, because I was so familiar with it all from my childhood, but it’s an interesting piece of history that should be preserved for the next generation (or for those who are not familiar with what it’s like to live in a dictatorship).
With one son not caring very much about films and the other having very fixed ideas about what he wants to watch and generally poo-poohing Mubi, saying they only have films that about five people in the world want to see (despite all the evidence to the contrary), our chances of watching films together are decreasing. Meanwhile, I’m getting a little tired of doing things that don’t interest me simply to fit in with someone else’s taste (I’ve had years of practice with their father – and look how well that turned out!). Maybe the pressures of being together all the time is starting to get to us all…
I recently read an article about how men have finally discovered the hidden labour of childcare and household concerns that women have been doing for decades or even centuries (alongside the workplace). I’m tempted to argue that it is nothing new: divorced fathers discover it when they share custody and no longer have the luxury of being purely ‘fun Dad’ and asking their partner what their child likes to eat or when parents’ evening is. Of course, there have been many fictional depictions of the chaos of motherhood that fathers could have referred to, but I suppose there is a difference between reading about it (and many would perhaps not choose to read about it) and actually experiencing it for yourself.
Two of those depictions I coincidentally read this February half-term, which was actually more peaceful than many others because: a) we couldn’t go away anywhere; b) although I was working full-time, the boys didn’t have to sit glued to their computer screen for home schooling purposes many hours every day, which makes them restless and grumpy. So, instead, they learnt ‘life skills’ such as cooking, laundry and cleaning.
Marian Engel: Lunatic Villas (February in Canada read), 1981.
Harriet Ross is a divorced single mother, a freelance writer with a weekly column entitled, appropriately enough, ‘Depressed Housewife’. She lives in a Toronto street that has been gentrified, but her own townhouse is a bit ramshackle, as it has become the refuge for a ragtag assortment of children and teenagers (some of them her own, some of them fostered for various reasons), depressed sisters, random old ladies, eccentric neighbours, spiteful ex-husband and his new crusading wife and so on.
While each of the people in her life seem to have problems and demand something from her, although she is being pulled in all directions and can hardly hear herself think at times, Harriet shows a generosity of spirit that is finally somewhat rewarded when she herself falls ill and the neighbours all pitch in to help her.
For all the grim realities depicted (alcoholism, drug-taking, child abuse, mental illness, manipulation, family courts), there is a certain joyfulness in the chaos depicted here, and a lot of solidarity amidst all the abandonment and betrayal. But there is no sugarcoating of the difficulties of being the lynchpin of a family:
Mornings are precious new beginnings, every day a chance to exorcise yesterday’s and before yesterday’s sins: mostly. Harriet begins her day very carefully, without shaking it hard enough to break the thin film of semi-consciousness that keeps her close to her dreams. She scoots downstairs as soon as the alarm goes off, puts the kettle on, collects the paper: and this year, the first in fourteen, takes the coffee and the paper upsatirs again with her, the better to protect herself from reality. They are really better off without her in the morning, the mob, and as long as there are milk and sugar and bowl and spooons and four kinds of cereal on the table they consider themselves looked after. Then, in bed, pretending to read the paper that is in fact reading her, she counts flushes, scrapes, shouts, clouts, hears Sim’s gruff ‘Get on with it, you guys,’ before his great thumping exit and slam; Melanie’s ‘Pervert’ to Mick’s ‘Slut’ and the resulting clashing of spoons; piggish little snorts from the twins; Sidonia, late and serene, descending the stairs like a queen… ‘Ma, where’s my…?’ can be dealt with more easily from upstairs.
Not all of the scenes are from Harriet’s point of view, and we get many different perspectives on her household, but also on life more generally, including this delicious rant about marraige by neighbour and friend Marshallene:
Marriage is a state for which I am sublimely unsuited. I dislike housework of all kinds and am well known for scorning the culinary arts. Little dinner parties make me want to get drunk and little black dresses make me want to stuff myself and burst out of them. I am capable of walking around a vacuum cleaner left prominently in the middle of the hall floor for a week. I am past child-bearing… I am no help and no comfort to anyone. I am a writer and writers are notoriously self-centred. I do not have to look at the outside world to find my material, nor do I need to live out someone else’s life to survive…
Although the narrative gets messy and bewildering in parts (no doubt reflecting the messiness of Harriet’s life), it is a warm-hearted, often very funny book, completely unsentimental about families and friendships, very clear-eyed about the often contradictory feelings in our bosom. A slice of life which reminded me of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.
Celia Fremlin: The Hours Before Dawn, 1958.
Marian Engel’s novel portrays urban life in Canada in the late 1970s, but Fremlin’s novel takes us to London two decades earlier. With much younger children to cope with (only three instead of seven, but one of them a baby), Fremlin’s Louise is a stay at home mother, but just like Harriet, she cannot count on anyone else to help her.
Her husband is the breadwinner and expects some peace and quiet when he comes home, but, with a baby that refuses to sleep at night, Louise is completely exhausted and overwhelmed, and gradually losing her grip on reality.
This is a much tighter, well-paced book, with a very clear narrative arc. Fremlin initially doesn’t put a foot wrong in depicting the frustrations of a well-educated woman trying to be reasonable, yet feeling increasingly out of her depth. When the schoolteacher Miss Brandon moves in as a lodger, Louise initially feels judged, but then gets increasingly suspicious about this mysterious guest and her motivations. Every turn of the screw, we as readers get more anxious and suspicious as well, although we realise that Louise’s sleeplessness makes her a less than reliable witness. The only fault of the novel is that the reveal through the use of diaries does feel rather Victorian. Overall, however, there is a very grown-up, knowing and ironical tone which I find sadly missing from most of the psychological thrillers being published today.
Bother! All the eggs would be hard by now, and Margery was the only one who liked them hard. Harriet liked hers soft, and Mark liked his very soft. As to Louise herself, she had long forgotten which way she liked them. It made the housekeeping that much easier if there was one person out of the five whose tastes didn’t have to be considered. To neglect one’s own tastes was more labour-saving than any vacuum cleaner, and it was a form of neglect about which no one would call you to account.
Although the author is at pains to point out that she didn’t mean to portray the husband as a monster and that expectations were probably different back in the days when she wrote the book, she also makes the very acute observation in the preface:
Although I am assured by some that nowadays everything is quite different and that modern young couples share and share alike when it comes to child-raising problems, I am not convinced. My own observation tells me that there are still many, many couples who believe, and certainly act, as if the babies and young children are the mother’s responsibility entirely.
Which. brings me back to the article with which I started this book, in which fathers say that they did enjoy getting to know their children better but that it also is incredibly hard work, and that they are starting to experience some of the guilt that mothers feel about never quite doing or being enough in all areas of their life. Will the concept of fatherhood and fairer distribution of household labour really change permanently, as the article asks somewhat optimistically? Or will it be more similar to my experience, when any complaints about labour not equally shared, were met with: ‘well, get a cleaner or a nanny’? (Which might make you wonder if this is more of a middle class problem, except I remember my working class and rural relatives behaving the same… and the extended family coming to the rescue in those instances.)
Not that we need any excuse to show beautiful mansions or palaces, but, following the Canadian novel about musicians that I read earlier this week, I was inspired to find a bit of a musical theme to the following gorgeous pictures.
Mathieu Boutin: L’Oreille Absolue (Perfect Pitch), Druide, 2013.
Mathieu Boutin is a Quebecois originally trained as a musician – and in fact worked as a violonist doing private gigs to support himself through law school. He practices as a lawyer and then became an editor of law texts for a publishing house. As if he weren’t busy enough, he also wrote several children’s books on the side, and this was his debut novel for adults. I met him in 2015 at Chateau de Lavigny in Switzerland, where he was on a writing retreat, gave a reading and of course signed his book for me. I am giving all this background, because in this novel we find all of his knowledge of music, experience of a musician’s lifestyle and the very readable style that is often more present in YA or children’s literature than in literary fiction.
It’s the story of two violonists. Young David is an itinerant musician, competent but no genius, desperate to prove to his family that he can make a living as a musician, but also quite enjoying the various freelance gigs that he gets to do as a member of a quartet (the other members of the quartet all being beautiful young women). Meanwhile, Robert is in his fifties and has a steady job as a violonist in the second row of an orchestra. Although he has the perfect pitch of the title, he is quite content to never quite be the musical genius his glamorous, hugely talented pianist mother had hoped he would become. Now even he has to admit his mother is suffering from dementia, but he can’t bring himself to put her into a home, where she wouldn’t be able to play piano any time she felt like it. He also wants to help David to build a career, but his social skills are poor and he makes David feel uncomfortable.
It is a fun read, especially for those who are fond of classical music. It has many specialist references, some of which were probably way over my head, but which I enjoyed nevertheless. For example, do you know that the Italians and French call the sound-box in a violin the ‘anima’ or ‘âme’, which means ‘soul’, while the English use the more prosaic term ‘sound box’? Then there is a beautiful passage, which reminded me of the description of the circulation of the plague in Hamnet, which links the death of Bach in 1750 with a squirrel dropping acorns in the village of Thoiry in the French Jura, which grow into a beautiful oak tree that then gets cut down and used to make a beautifully-sounding violin that David inherits from his uncle.
Although the ending seems a bit too coincidental, it makes for a refreshing change to read about characters who may appear somewhat strange, but overall are quite nice… and passionate about what they do. And of course there are sharp digs at those who hire classical musicians for various corporate or life events, but treat the musicians like servants and don’t even like the kind of music they play. It’s a shame that Boutin doesn’t seem to have published anything since, because I’d really like to read more by him.
Inger Ash Wolfe: A Door in the River, Pegasus Crime, 2012.
The Canadian author Michael Redhill uses this pseudonym for his Hazel Micallef crime fiction series. I had seen the author talking about his work at Canada House in 2018 and found his literary fiction interesting, though challenging. So I wanted to give his crime fiction a whirl.
Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef herself is quite a lovely creation: middle-aged, divorced, sensible, a pillar of the community in Westmuir County, Ontario, trying to look after her fragile yet stubborn elderly mother. However, the story of women in captivity being forced into prostitution is one of those themes that I’ve become heartily sick of in recent years. Perhaps it would have made more of an impression if I had read the book when it first came out. It is certainly not badly written, and at least one of the victims manages to get out and plan a revenge. (Although she is a killer on the rampage, you cannot help but wish her well – or at least have conflicted loyalties.)
Anne Carson: Plainwater
I’m not quite sure how to describe this volume – it’s a collection of essays, some fragments of poetry, something like travel memoir, flash fictions… a little bit of everything, really. There doesn’t seem to be a unified theme. We have the poems (not sure if they are real or imagined) of Mimnermos, an Ancient Greek hedonistic poet, and also a series of interviews with him. A whole section of poems dedicated to towns: desert town, wolf town, memory town, town of the exhumation, town of my farewell to you and so on. Some sections felt almost trite, and I was unsure whether they deserved to be included,
It’s impossible really to review Anne Carson’s work: half of the time I think she is far too clever for me and I cannot possibly keep up with her. The other half of the time, she makes me want to stop and ruminate, she provides me with so much inspiration and source material for my own poems.
My favourite part was the section entitled The Anthropology of Water, which starts with the words:
Water is something you cannot hold. Like men. I have tried.
It is actually about a trip that the narrator makes, a pilgrimage to Compostela, when the pain of seeing the father sink into dementia becomes too much. Although there are place names, historical figures such as El Cid, and descriptions of towns and landscapes and the people the pilgrim meets, it is of course equally about an inner journey.
To look for the simplest question, the most obvious facts, the doors that no one may close, is what I meant by anthropology. I was a strong soul. Look I will change everything, all the meanings!… After all, the only rule of travel is, Don’t come back the way you went. Come a new way.
There is another road trip, this time in the American Mid-West: Indiana, Kansas, Colorado. The voyage also becomes a reason to delve deeper into family relationships and sense of identity – there are very interesting observations here about gender and, as you might expect if you’ve read anything else by Anne Carson, an ambiguous feeling about love, almost a fear of the physicality of it. Everything meaningful should be happening from the neck upwards, the poet persona seems to say – or is that where our greatest power to wound lies?
Humans in love are terrible. You see them come hungering at one another like prehistoric wolves, you see something struggling for life in between them like a root or a soul and it flares for a moment, then they smash it. The difference between them smashes the bones out. So delicate the bones.
Carol Shields: Mary Swann, Fourth Estate, 1990.
This book has a similar premise as The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos – the unexpected legacy of a simple person from the countryside, whom nobody believed to have literary ambitions – but goes in a slightly different, although equally funny direction. While Foenkinos mocks the Parisian publishing coterie, Carol Shields mocks the academic world trying to build up all sorts of theories about Mary Swann and her poetic influences.
Mary Swann was a (fictional) uneducated farmer’s wife, living on a remote smallholding in Ontario. She diffidently brought her poems in a paper bag to a small local publisher, a mere few hours before her husband brutally murdered her. Only a small number of her limited edition of poems published in 1966 are known to exist – but her fame is beginning to grow (as the book opens) and Sarah Maloney is a Chicago-based academic who is planning to organise a symposium dedicated to the life and work of this niche poet.
As everyone prepares for the symposium, we see Mary Swann and her legacy through the eyes of Sarah Maloney, feminist scholar, Morton Jimroy, insufferable would-be biographer, Rose Hindmarch, the librarian in Mary’s hometown, said to be Mary’s closest friend, and Frederic Cruzzi, the publisher. The final section of the book takes place at the actual symposium and (although the action and denouement turns a bit silly and far-fetched) is the funniest description of pretentious academic conferences that I have ever suffered through.
What the book brilliantly conveys is how we want to find something deeper, more meaningful in people’s lives (and literature) and how we are ready to deceive ourselves and others in the desire to improve upon reality. There is a wonderfully funny passage where the biographer tries to force his fanciful interpretation of Mary Swann despite the more down-to-earth explanations of those who knew her.
‘…in Swann’s work the spiritual impulse shines like a light on every detail of weather or habit or natural object. The quest for the spiritual. The lust for the spiritual.’
Spirituality from Mary Swann? That rough-featured woman who never once went to church?…
‘You don’t suppose that Swann felt her spirituality was, well, less explicit than it was for regular churchgoers in the area. That it was outside the bounds, as it were, of church doctrine?’…
‘I see what you mean, Mr Jimroy. Morton. But I really think, well, it was probably a question of not having the right kind of clothes.’
It is not a book for mystery fans (we never really discover what happened to get Mary killed), nor for those expecting a tight plot or character development. It is a book that will appeal mostly to those deeply steeped in the literary world.
Along the way, we encounter extremely recognisable characters (I have known a few Morton Jimroys and Willard Langs in my time), and witty observations (whether true or not, they are very revealing of the character that utters them) such as:
Clever men create themselves, but clever women… are created by their mothers. Women can never quite escape their mother’s cosmic pull, nor their lip-biting expectations of their faulty love…. I have all her little judgements filed away, word perfect… women carry with them the full freight of their mother’s words.
Or this about literary biographies (worth noting that Carol Shields was a novelist, poet, playwright, literary critic and biographer, so she was familiar with the entire range of literary figures and hangers-on that she portrays in this book):
Jimroy detests the popular fallacy that biographers fall in love with their subjects… so easy, so coy… such an invitation to sentimentality… Writing biography is the hardest work in the world and it can, just as easily as not, be an act of contempt…The longer he spent closeted with the Pound papers… the more he desired to hold the man up to ridicule… When a line of Pound’s poetry failed to yield to analysis, he left it for the stubborn little nut of pomposity it was. Let Pound be his own hangman… Why should a biographer be expected to explain, justify, interpret or even judge?
I loved the description of the librarian Rose gorging on her favourite genre: spy thrillers.
What Rose Hindmarch appreciates in most tales of espionage is the fine clean absence of extenuating circumstances… the way the universe falls so sparely into two equal parts, good on one side, evil on the other. There’s nothing random about the world of espionage… Rose postpones a trip to the bathroom, though her bladder is burning.
There were some passages, particularly in the section dedicated to the publisher, where the long lists of people and actions became repetitive and tiresome. Carol Shield’s best known work is The Stone Diaries, and this is not at that level, but it was a very enjoyable read nevertheless. I’d previously read some of her essays and quotes, and was lucky to find this novel at the second-hand shelves outside the Waterstones Gower Street (which I still call Dillons, as it was when I first moved to London), but I will certainly try to find more of her work.
Marian Engel: Bear, 1976.
My impression of the 1970s is that they must all have been on drugs for most of the decade – and the films, books and music of that period (perhaps starting a couple of years earlier, from about 1967-68) have that same dreamy, occasionally frenzied and lurid quality to them. At the same time, it must have been an exciting time of questioning, rebelling, reassessing and ‘finding your true self’. Even if the wins of that generation ended up being transient and often illusory.
I can’t help feeling that, in some respects, we have regressed as a culture in the 2010s, i.e. that there is less of a willingness to explore and push boundaries, that it’s all about bestseller lists and celebrities. This is all by way of introducing the novel Bear by Marian Engel, which has been described as ‘the most controversial novel ever written in Canada’, although at the time it was generally well received by critics and even won the Governor General’s Literary Award that year. Let’s not be coy about it: it is about a woman who develops a passion for a captive bear, and this passion includes quite explicit sex. What surprised me, however, is how much more shocked readers seem to be about this now, in an age when the worst kind of pornography is readily available to all.
Are we in danger of focusing so much on the bestiality aspect of the book that we miss what it is about entirely? Given the vigorous over-reactions, I was expecting something a lot more titillating, but the sex scenes constitute a very small part of the novel. Failing that, I expected it to be a much more surreal type of novel, full of heavy symbolism. It is in fact quite a straightforward narrative, although it does have a fable-like quality about it.
It is actually a novel about loneliness, about feeling alienated from the world, about being a woman in a world where men and career paths and options have proved disappointing. Lou is an introverted librarian in her late 20s who is sent on a mission to assess the estate bequeathed to her institute by the last of the Cary family, an oddly luxurious house with no indoor toilet on a small island on a lake in the remotest reaches of Ontario.
For some time things had been going badly for her. She could cite nothing in particular as a problem; rather, it was as if life in general had a grudge against her. Things persisted in turning grey. Although at first she had revelled in the erudite seclsuion of her job, in the protection against the vulgarities of the world that it offered, after five years she now felt that in some way it had aged her disproportionately that she was as old as the yellowed papers she spent her days unfolding.
Spending time by herself in this house which seems strangely incongrous with the surrounding landscape, Lou tries to reconcile the rather conventional library of 19th century classics with the bear that ‘has always been there’ on the grounds, captive, yet obviously important somehow to the family. Notes about bear myths and legends fall out of books as she catalogues them. She discovers documents by and about the early settlers in that region, documents which are sometimes at odds with the official history of Canada.
The ones who were most truly romantic perished horribly… Fell through the ice, contracted pneumonia or tuberculosis, died of strange fevers, scurvy, depression, or neglect. Only the hardies survived and their few memoirs. Often the diaires that were left to the Institute broke off when the settlers arrived from England. If you were building your own cabin, making your own cloth and soap and candles, furniture and tools, there was no time to concoct a bottle of ink or find a quill to use it with.
Although she can buy food from the shop on the mainland, in some ways Lou is imitating the lifestyle of those early settlers. Her few interactions with the people in the area prove rather unsatisfactory and leave her feeling more alone than when she is by herself in the house, or swimming in the lake with the bear. It is the bear who provides uncritical companionship.
She loved him with a clean passion that she had never felt before. Once, briefly, she had had as a lover a man of elegance and charm, but she had felt uncomfortable when he said he loved her, felt it meant something she did not understand, and indeed, it meant, she discovered, that he loved her as long as the socks were folded and she was at his disposal on demand… She loved the bear. There was a depth in him she could not reach, could not probe and with her intellectual fingers destroy.
This is much more a novel about trying to find a sense of purpose, agency and yes, perhaps reconnect with nature. It reminds me a lot of Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, with its close observation of the rhythms of nature and with no anthropomorphising of the animal. What we have here is a smelly bear, farting freely, with suspicious little eyes and a dirty bum. Yet all this ceases to matter as the narrator bonds with the creature – or perhaps with what the creature represents to her. There are moments when she wishes to be annihilated by the bear – and at some point she very nearly is – a bent towards self-destruction that I have never understood, but which many people seem to experience at some point in their lives.
So, while I’m not sure if this is the greatest Canadian novel of all time (I haven’t read enough Canadian literature to make an informed decision about this), it is certainly a beautiful piece of writing. I am glad this novel has been rediscovered and I hope that it won’t be read and discussed for all the wrong reasons.
I have two more books by Marian Engel on my shelf – I found all three of them second-hand at a bookshop a couple of years ago and couldn’t resist buying all three. The Honeyman Festival and Lunatic Villas seem to feature older female protagonists in urban environments, tied down by marriage and children, trying in vain to recreate something of their past glory and hopes and dreams. Ah, my perfect cup of tea, then! I might continue with one of them for my February in Canada month…
Britain is far less open to revolutionary modern architecture when it comes to residential property. A severe case of nostalgia or the result of far too many inadequate poky modern developments? Yet, undeniably, there is a charm to old buildings, especially if they have been sympathetically restored.
One area where the independent publishers really excel is poetry. Probably because there is little money to be made from it on the whole (presidential inauguration ceremony effect excepted – hurrah for Amanda Gorman!), and so most big publishing conglomerates won’t touch it with a bargepole.
Many of these poetry publishers are tiny, often one-person outfits, operating on a shoestring, often run by other poets. And all of us who love (or write) poetry are all the richer for having them: they are worth every penny of arts funding that they can get (although many don’t get any). I have written about discovering and splurging on poetry books back in 2018, so I won’t mention Ignition, Sad Press, V Press, Tapsalteerie, Bad Betty Press, Midsummer Night’s Press, Stranger Press or Burning Eye Books again here, other than to encourage you to seek out their beautifully produced volumes of poetry (occasionally flash fiction) and explore the boundaries of both English language and translated poetry written today.
In this post, I will wax lyrical about the slightly better-known poetry publishers that appear most frequently on my bookshelves and show some of their most beautiful covers.
Seren Books is the book imprint of Poetry Wales, but does not publish poetry exclusively. It does, however, focus on English language writing from Wales, although its range has expanded more recently, for example this fine dual language (English-Arabic) edition of the epic poem Uruk’s Anthem or recent poetry from Latin America. I also admire their beautiful anthologies about Women’s Work or Motherhood, and the way many of their ‘classic’ books reflect the enormous changes in Wales over the past hundred years.
Out-Spoken Press arose from the Out-Spoken monthly poetry and music events which were started in London in 2012 by Anthony Anaxagorou and other poet friends. The press was established in 2015 to give voice to writers that had been under-represented by mainstream poetry magazines and publishers, and it has demonstrated a real knack for finding talent. I’ve been following them since their creation and have had the opportunity to read poets such as Raymond Antrobus, Sabrina Mahfouz, Wayne Holloway-Smith, Hannah Lowe before they became prize-winning household names.
Peepal Tree Press is the Leeds-based home of Caribbean and Black British writing and literary or social studies. They always punch well above their weight and, most recently, have won the Costa Book of the Year Award with Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch. However, I encountered them through poetry, and one particular favourite is Tiphanie Yanique’s moving, by turns tender and broken, combative and submissive, Wife.
The Emma Press is the brainchild and labour of love of Emma Dai’an Wright and publishes lovely poetry chapbooks, anthologies and children’s books, including some in translation. I’ve attended a couple of their launch events and they are brilliant at creating a wonderful sense of community. I would recommend their anthologies on love, aunts and the sea (to just name a few), as well as Poems the Wind Blew In – an anthology of children’s poems translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, with amusing illustrations by Riya Chowdhury. It’s never too soon to expose children to poetry from all over the world!
Carcanet Press barely needs any introduction – it is one of the leading publishers of both classical and modern poetry (and literary criticism). Most recently, I’ve been smitten with Caroline Bird’s The Air Year and Eavan Boland’s The Historian, both shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards for Poetry (Boland’s posthumous work went on to win the prize). One of my favourite poetry collections, that I keep returning to again and again, is Her Birth by Rebecca Goss, which might explain why I was so delighted that Rebecca agreed to work with me as a mentor back in 2019.
Last and possibly the best-known of these poetry publishers is Bloodaxe Books, which, in its 40 years of existence, has really redefined poetry for the English-speaking world, always one step ahead in terms of discovering new voices, both in English and in translation. Best known perhaps for their thick, diverse anthologies such as Being Alive, Staying Alive, Being Human, I love them especially for their translations of Romanian poets (naturally!). They have introduced me to far too many poets to mention here, but let me just call out a few on my shelves: Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica, Gillian Allnutt’s Wake, Denise Levertov and Anna Akhmatova (translated by Richard McKane).