Swiss in October: Pascale Kramer

Pascale Kramer was born in Geneva and bred in Lausanne, worked in Zurich, but has also spent long stints abroad, in LA and Paris, and this shows in her writing. I don’t expect you’ll have heard of her, unless you are very passionate about Swiss authors, but she has written 14 novels, is a prize winner in her home country and has had three books translated into English and published by Bellevue Literary Press: The Living, The Child, and Autopsy of a Father. The latter has been reviewed by the EuroLitNetwork.

The novel I picked up on my last visit to Geneva L’implacable brutalité du réveil (The Unbearable Brutality of Waking) has not been translated yet, and it seems less ambitious in scope than some of her other works. She has a reputation for observing minute reactions and behaviours, and for exploring tricky family dynamics. She certainly does so here, but the wider social aspect which appears in Autopsy of a Father is missing.

I bought this one under the mistaken assumption that it was about expat life, but in fact Alissa and Richard seem to be Americans living in LA. They have only recently moved into their own condo and have a five week old daughter. Alissa seems to be struggling with post-natal depression and feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion. Her parents live nearby and have supported her all her life, but now they are trying to get her to cut the apron-strings, and she feels somewhat neglected. Then her mother drops the bombshell that she has fallen in love with somebody else and left the parental home.

Alissa’s little world seems to split wide open at this news. She feels no desire for her husband, struggles to connect with her baby, finds it a pain to keep in touch with her girlfriends, makes silly mistakes and is far too attracted to their male neighbour whom she sees swimming and embracing a woman one day.

This is familiar ground, one that has been treated in a much more emotionally wrenching way by Ariana Harwicz in Die, My Love. Alissa seems spoilt and whiny in a way that Harwicz’ narrator (who is far closer to a violent breakdown) does not. The close observation of Alissa’s daily routine is stifling, but a trifle predictable and not all that interesting, while the flights of poetry and the peaks and troughs of an unstable state of mind in the Harwics novel are exhilarating (if depressing). Could that be a cultural difference between an Argentinian and a Swiss writer, both of them now settled in France?

It also had me wondering why Swiss writers are quite often keen to set their novels abroad, particularly in the United States. I’m thinking of Joel Dicker, of course, with his Harry Quebert Affair and its sequel. But if I just glance at the Swiss books I’ve piled up on my bedside table, such a large proportion of them are set elsewhere: Tunisia (Jonas Lüscher), Norway (Peter Stamm), Italy (Pascal Mercier), East Africa (Alex Capus). Of course, I’m not suggesting that writers have to stick to their homeland, but perhaps the Swiss feel more confined than most by their very small country and its many, many rules?

So, overall a rather disappointing read, although I might explore other books by this author at some other point. By way of contrast, I turn next towards an author who describes village life in Switzerland in disconcertingly perfect detail: Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz.

Nicola Barker: I Am Sovereign

Nicola Barker is having fun. She has waved good-bye to the traditional novel form and is experimenting left, right and centre. She is playing with words and characters, and we are the audience privileged to witness the joy and games.

You might deduce from that how much I enjoyed her latest ‘anti-novel’ I Am Sovereign. It is short, sharp, often hilarious and it might feel like it has less philosophical heft than some of her previous novels… but that’s not a bad thing. It is far less dense and therefore more accessible: in short, a great introduction for those who have yet to discover Barker’s work.

The action takes place over the 20 minutes or so that a typical house viewing might take place (although there are some things which delay the process, but still no longer than 30 minutes). The house in question is a rather run-down two up, two down on a grimy street in Llandudno and belongs to Charles’ late mother. Perhaps the reason the house isn’t selling is because Charles insists on ‘helping out with the viewings’, much to estate agent Avigail’s disgust, since this 40 year old, introverted teddy-bear maker is both chronically shy and prone to inappropriate over-sharing. For instance, he keeps mentioning an attempted burglary that took place at the property over 12 years ago, and forcing popcorn makers and other superfluous gadgets onto hapless prospective buyers.

When Wang Shu, a busy Chinese woman, constantly on the phone, and her daughter Ying Yue view the house, a mysterious and violent oyster shell incident occurs, which makes nearly all those present question their lives, their identities and their ambitions. And that’s before you even take into account their obsession with certain You Tube stars and self-development gurus. It all becomes funnier still and even more chaotic when the author grapples to regain her authority over her characters, as they disagree with her interpretation of things or even refuse to allow themselves to be portrayed at all in the book.

… it is necessary at this moment in the novella (henceforth referred to as I am Sovereign) to warn the reader that Nicola Barker (henceforth referred to as The Author) has been granted absolutely no access to the thoughts and feelings of the character Gyasi ‘Chance’ Ebo (henceforth referred to as The Subject). At his inception, The Subject seemed not only a willing, but an actively enthusiastic participant in the project, yet after several weeks of engagement became increasingly cynical and uncooperative, to the point of threatening to withdraw from the enterprise altogether if The Author deigned to encroach, unduly, upon his ‘interior life’.

You will find all the trademark Nicola Barker playing around with fonts and appearance of the text on the page. Yet somehow, it never feels too gimmicky. Things that might annoy me in other writers just make me giggle in this case.

You need to be in the right mood for a Nicola Barker novel, but when you meet it head-on, without knowing too much about it, without any expectations and an open frame of mind, what a beautiful collision (between fiction and reality) it makes!

Too Close for Comfort: Three Quick Reviews

All three of these recently read books were a little too close to home for me: on a personal, social or political level. Absolutely compelling reading, although each one required some coffee and cake or deep breathing breaks.

Rodrigo de Souza Leao: All Dogs are Blue (transl. Zoe Perry and Stefan Tobler)

This was part of my Brazilians in August personal challenge, the only man who sneaked onto my list of Brazilian authors in translation. Much like Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, it gives you an insight into what it must feel like to be deeply depressed, paranoid and schizophrenic. Regardless of diagnostic, the morbidly obese narrator finds himself in an asylum in Rio. He believes he has swallowed a chip that makes him behave out of character and do things he doesn’t want to do. His descriptions of life both inside and outside the asylum, in all its madcap noise and grossness, are hilarious. Knowing that the author himself suffered from mental health problems and died at a young age, soon after the publication of this book, gives a bitter edge to the comedy. It is the black humour of despair, and it’s not surprising that his chosen fantasy chums are Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

To read this book is to abandon yourself to its rhythm and let its waves overpower you. It’s not a pleasant experience, it tosses you about and can feel like drowning at times.

I swallowed a chip. I swallowed a cricket. What else is left to devour in this world? Carnival only wears the colours of short-lived happiness. Dealing with lunatics or with normal people: what’s the difference? What is reality? How many pieces of wood do you need to make that canoe? How many mortars do you need to sink that boat?

But Souza Leao is very clever and also has a poet’s felicity of expression: he tosses a throwaway line into the mix that you simply have to stop and wonder over.

I left the hotel and went to the bus station. I was possessed by a fertile spirit of modern madness, one that had helped twentieth-century poetry many times and had put contemporary literature in its rightful place. My persecution complex had reached the pinnacle of its glory.

Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living

At the age of fifty, Levy leaves her marriage and makes a new life for herself and her children. This slim volume is the story of her reinvention, a sort of ‘swimming home’, finding herself and her purpose, while also dealing with the irritating, intractable, unforgiving day to day. As a woman, mother and writer who is struggling with many of the same things, it has simply meant so much to me. It’s a book I’ve filled up with post-its and shall be returning to again and again. It is also very insightful into gender relations and often feels like she has been inhabiting my head and heart. Here are just a few favourite quotes:

At first I wasn’t sure I’d make it back to the boat and then I realized I didn’t want to make it back to the boat. Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want. If we don’t believe in the future we are planning, the house we are mortgaged to, the person who sleeps by our side, it is possible that a tempest (long lurking in the clouds) might bring us closer to how we want to be in the world.

I will never stop grieving for my long-held wish for enduring love that does not reduce its major players to something less than they are. I am not sure I have often witnessed love that achieves all of these things, so perhaps this ideal is fated to be phantom.

To strip the wallpaper off the fairy tale of The Family House in which the comfort and happiness of men and children have been the priority is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman.

Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then mock her for having no dreams? As the vintage story goes, it is the father who is the hero and the dreamer. He detaches himself from the pitiful needs of his women and children and strides out into the world to do his thing. He is expected to be himself. When he returns to the home that our mothers have made for us… he tells us some of what he has seen in his world. We give him an edited version of the living we do every day. Our mothers live with us in this living and we blame her for everything because she is near by.

Sinclair Lewis: It Can’t Happen Here

A late entry to my Americans in June challenge. Moving from the personal and gendered to the more purely political, this book is just as painful as the other two. It was written in 1935 as a satire and a warning against the rise of populists and tyrants like Hitler and Stalin in what must have seemed very frightening end of world times. (Hence the rise of dystopian fiction during that period, so similar to our own.)

A narcissistic, rude, almost illiterate, anti-immigrant, fear-mongering demagogue Buzz Windrip promises to make America proud and prosperous once more and wins the presidential election. The results are predictable but even more dire than the peace-loving newspaper editor Doremus Jessup had feared. His original ‘wait and see’ policy, the complacency of the ‘it can’t happen here’ type of those around him soon leads to the regime slipping ever more deeply into disturbing authoritarianism.

At first, Doremus and his family seem comfortable and protected, nobody seems to share his discomfort at the election of Buzz as president, and he has a bit of tantrum-ridden stomping off ‘fine then, don’t listen to me’ attitude that I can understand all too well.

All right. Hell with this country, if it’s like that. All these years I’ve worked – and I never did want to be on all these committees and boards and charity drives! – and don’t they look silly now! What I always wanted to do was to sneak off to an ivory tower – or anyway, celluloid, imitation ivory – and read everything I’ve been too busy to read.

But soon things go beyond a joke and beyond mere discomfort. There is no more sitting on the fence or ignoring the way the country is heading. It’s no longer about compromise and self-censorship, very soon it turns into attempting to escape, being tortured and even killed.

Interestingly enough, Buzz is a Democrat and originally runs on a socialist platform, showing that any ideology can be taken to extremes and abused. An absolutely chilling novel, sadly possibly more topical now than at any other time since the Second World War.

Reading Summary Sept 2019

10 books and some excellent ones amongst them this month. I read 4 authors for China in September: the rude and rowdy The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, the fascinating speculative fiction of Maggie Shen King, the disappointing Shanghai Baby and the sophisticated, subtle work of Eileen Chang. The settings were in the east, south-west and north of China, and the authors were as diverse as those regions.

These were all women writers, as were in fact 8 of the 10 authors I read this month. The other four were: Joyce Porter from the 1960s, creator of the obnoxious Inspector Dover and writing a fairly enjoyable (occasionally dated) comic detective fiction genre; Deborah Levy’s excellent memoir The Cost of Living (review to follow); Nicola Barker’s witty reinvention of the novel I Am Sovereign (review to follow); and Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne.

The two male authors I read this month were as different as they could possibly be from each other: the earnest political novel It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (review to follow) and the easy escapism (and night frightener) A Noise Downstairs by Linwood Barclay.

So, after some of the largest countries of the world: US, Russia, Brazil, China, maybe it’s time to tackle a small but diverse country in October. Or at least, diverse in terms of languages, because it’s almost exclusively male authors. It’s Switzerland and Pascale Kramer is the only woman amongst the others: Alex Capus, Pascale Kramer, Jonas Lüscher, Pascal Mercier, Sebastien Meier and Joseph Incardona. Let’s see how many of these I manage to read…

Rediscovering Montaigne

I say rediscovering, but I doubt that I ever discovered him properly the first time round. I vaguely read his essays in my omnivorous teens, jotted down a few quotes, but probably confused him quite a bit with Montesquieu (well, they both start with M and are roughly categorised as philosophers) and de Tocqueville (I know, no excuses there!).

In 2015 we holidayed in Aquitaine and I kept stumbling across Montaigne in Bordeaux (he was mayor of the city from 1580 to 1585). I borrowed his essays from the library when we returned to our then-home in Prevessin, but once again failed to read them in great depth. I had simply too many other books to review.

Then I recently came across this sort-of-biography of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Entitled How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, it is nothing less than a declaration of love for Montaigne the man and the writer, for his tolerant spirit and for not being judgemental (rare during those times of religious wars in France), his openness to new things, his love of the good life but also desire for solitude. Montaigne feels very modern, very akin to us, even to the point where he claims to despise in-depth scholarship.

I leaf through now one book, now another, without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments… If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.

He also endeared himself to me by preferring his books and travels to family life. Had he been free to choose, he would not have been the marrying kind at all, yet he reached a kind of contentment within it:

Of my own choice, I would have voided marrying Wisdom herself, if she had wanted me. But say what we will, the custom and practice of ordinary life bears us along.

Yet he was by no means a hermit. He enjoyed company and cultivated friendships, highly praised kind-spirited and friendly conversations – about anything, no subject was taboo in his household. He was also one of the first to establish a rapport with animals and think of them as sentient beings.

He is also ahead of his time regarding women: he was very conscious of the double standard used to judge male and female behaviour, and believed that by nature males and females are cast in the same mould.

Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them.

Above all, I can relate to his glorious laziness. Looking after his estate was an onerous task, and he was useless around the house because he had other interests. He hated doing the things that bored him – a dereliction of duty which was shocking for his time, but which we can empathise with nowadays.

I stand up well under hard work; but I do so only if I go to it of my own will, and as much as my desire leads me to it… Extremely idle, extremely independent, both by nature and by art.

As Sarah Bakewell notes, he ‘knew there was a price to be paid’ for this unwillingness to be a micro-manager, that people would take advantage of his ignorance. ‘Yet it seemed to him better to lose money occasionally that to waste time tracking every penny and watching his servants’ tiniest movements.’ Of course, this comes from a position of privilege, where he could afford not to track the pennies.

Finally, perhaps his most endearing quality is his acceptance of everything that happens and everything you have done and been. His was not the Christian doctrine of repentance, but nor did he try to airbrush his past. He knew that some of the things he’d done a long time ago no longer made sense to him now, but he is forgiving to himself and to others for their mistakes. We are all made up of what we’ve done throughout our lives and what we’ve learnt from that.

We are all patchwork; and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game… our being is cemented with sickly qualities… Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.

Yet the author also points out, that for all his individualistic modernity, Montaigne also has much to teach people in the 21st century about moderation, being courteous, that no utopia or fantasist vision of the future can ever justify hurting others in the present or outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

Coincidentally, a French writer friend Lou Sarabadzic has just been busy curating an exhibition about Montaigne at the library Abbé-Grégoire in Blois, as part of her travelling and writing residency there. And I can now understand her passion for this author and wish I’d discussed him with her sooner! If you want to see the author Sarah Bakewell talk about Montaigne, here is the link to a video from the LRB Bookshop.

I will certainly add him to my list of favourite classic French writers : Voltaire and Molière.

China in September: An Excess Male

Maggie Shen King grew up in Taiwan but is now living in the US and writing in English. Nevertheless, since her novel An Excess Male takes place in a 2030 China that has to grapple with the consequences of its one child policy, I thought it was more than appropriate to include her in the China in September reading plans.

This was a really excellent, enjoyable read set in a recognisable near-future, a companion piece in some ways to The Handmaid’s Tale. Labelled as science fiction, I would consider it speculative fiction, the ‘what if’ scenario with the focus far more on the characters and their relationships, the technology only slightly more advanced than what we have nowadays but still chillingly plausible.

The premise itself is simple: China’s long-running one-child policy (revoked since the book was published in 2017), combined with the cultural preference for male heirs, has led to a severe shortage of women in this imagined 2030 scenario. Polyandry is therefore common, with men having to save up for years if not decades for a dowry, but many are left on the sidelines, at the mercy of state intervention. They are allowed to engage in regulated war games to let off any pent-up frustrations, are assigned a Helpmate to engage in monthly (or so) sex, and are periodically checked for sexual cleanliness in the most intrusive manner. They are also regarded with suspicion – could they be Willfully Sterile (i.e. homosexual), which is against the law, or perhaps one of the Lost Boys (introverted personality with no social skills and perhaps some mental health conditions), in which case they should not marry, for fear they might pass on their condition to their children.

Wei-guo is a personal trainer with a touching belief that as long as he continues to work hard, live by the rules and save money, his chance at marriage will come. He’s finally saved up enough money and goes to a matchmaker to find a suitable family – albeit only for the least prestigious of husband roles, namely the third husband (only recently allowed by law). The family he meets is not at all prepossessing at first: Hann, the first husband, is an imposing but cold businessman, the second husband is his younger brother, a taciturn computer specialist and inveterate gamer who wants to be known as XX. Yet Wei-guo feels an instant attraction to the wife May-ling, and even seems to get on well with her boisterous toddler son BeiBei, shunned by everyone at the playground.

However, it turns out this is a family with dangerous secrets. May-ling comes from a family of ‘daughter breeders’, who sell off their prized assets to the highest bidder. So the parents of Hann and XX, who long suspected their sons were not ‘normal’, paid very well to protect them by giving them the semblance of a normal family life. It turns out that Hann is gay and XX is what might be called an incel nowadays, and all of them would be severely punished if the state found out about their true situation. Can they trust Wei-guo to keep their secrets, especially in a state where surveillance is a given and none of your colleagues, friends or neighbours can be trusted?

The first part of this novel – in actual fact, three quarters of it – is all about the gradual burgeoining of the relationships between the four main characters, and is told from their alternating viewpoints. The world-building is subtle, rather than the main focus. Science-fiction or action fans will perhaps be disappointed that the fighting climax and rebellion come very late in the book. But this is precisely what I liked about it: it’s an exploration of the complexities of love, family, sense of belonging, about being allowed to show your true colours. It is also about the claustrophobia of living in a state that so heavily regulates your personal life, which needless to say resonated with me.

A book that throws up many interesting questions, with well-developed characters that I found myself truly caring for. I’m not sure why this hasn’t achieved the same buzz as The Power or The Last, for example, because it is absolutely deserving of it.

China in September: Shanghai Then and Now

This month I’ve been meaning to read mainly Chinese writers – as it happens, all women in translation, so my #WITMonth continues.

Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution and Other Stories (transl. Julia Lovell, Karen Kingsbury, Janet Ng, Simon Patton and Eva Hung)

Eileen Chang had a brief moment of fame in Japan-occupied Shanghai during the Second World War, which she was never quite able to replicate later, when she moved to Hong Kong and then to the United States. She became a recluse; sadly, her body was found in her apartment in LA several days after she died in 1995.

However, her posthumous success in China has been phenomenal. Her essays and stories were rediscovered in the 1970/80s and she became one of the most influential writers for younger authors in Taiwan, Hong Kong and finally mainland China, but she is not that well known in the West, even after director Ang Lee adapted her story Lust, Caution into a film in 2007. Although she is not an overtly political writer and has occasionally been criticised for focusing almost exclusively on the lives of women, there is no one to match her sharp observational skills. She not only manages to give us a slice of life of a certain period in Shanghai’s history, but also captures issues of class, exploitation and gender expectations in a way that feels perenially relevant. The stories are often very funny, for example In the Waiting Room, with quirky and diverse characters such as you would expect to find in a doctor’s waiting room, but far more willing to open up about their personal lives and worries than anything you might encounter in England.

Above all, I like the way she describes the simmering resentments and misunderstandings between East and West in cosmopolitan Shanghai. My favourite story in this slim volume is Steamed Osmanthus Flower, in which a Chinese housekeeper navigates the tricky relationship with her English master, while simultaneously trying to keep her husband and child content.

The title story Lust, Caution is about an affair but also a tale of war-time espionage and an assassination attempt. Apparently, it took nearly twenty years to write, and it shows: each word is so precise, so perfectly placed, the dialogue is so sparkling and full of innuendo. This is perhaps the most openly ‘political’ of her stories, but it shows how ordinary people’s everyday lives are being shaped (and sometimes destroyed) by politics rather than arguing for or against a particular political thesis.

Zhou Wei Hui: Shanghai Baby, transl. Bruce Humes

By way of contrast, Zhou Wei Hui’s novel set in late 1990s Shanghai has little of Chang’s subtlety or awareness of the complexity of East/West relations. It is the story of Coco, a young woman who aspires to be a writer, and who is torn between two men: her romance with a Chinese boyfriend who is impotent and her sexual entanglements with a married German. The Shanghai she describes certainly doesn’t correspond to any images of China you might still have lingering in your head: people in Mao suits riding bicycles or struggling to make ends meet. This is the Shanghai of the well-off, a consumer’s paradise, a city full of nightclubs and drugs, a ‘feminine’ city as the narrator describes it, in comparison to the macho cities of northern China. Coco and her friends think nothing of hopping onto a plane at short notice to attend a concert by a band in Beijing.

Ironically, the hedonistic lifestyle she describes was regarded with suspicion by the Chinese authorities and the book was banned shortly after publication for its immoral nature and irreverent style. There is nothing there that is very shocking to a Western reader: a lot of sex, a lot of drug-taking, but the details are not prurient or voyeuristic. It is clear that the author admires Western culture – there are several quotes from Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath, Milan Kundera but also from various musicians, but overall the style is pedestrian, while trying achingly hard to be hipsterish (if the term was in existence back in 2000 when this was first published). It is a young person’s book, so perhaps I am being a little harsh: it reminded me of the so-called millenial writers like Otessa Moshfegh or Sally Rooney (neither of whom I’ve read exhaustively because… they bore me. I am not the target age group, I think.) But, needless to say, there are plenty of people who love those English-speaking writers, so you might love this book. It certainly helps to dismantle some stereotypes and shows a Chinese society in flux.