February in Canada: Additional Writers

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.

Events Summary for September

I started off writing a weekly summary of events for this post and then realised that it is the end of September, so a monthly summary might also be appropriate. But first the weekly bit.

Two rather lovely events this week. First, a literary evening as part of the Festival America events across London, with Canadian writers Heather O’Neill and Michael Redhill at the very beautiful Canada House in Trafalgar Square. They even had a throne under lock and key, made specially for George V when he visited Canada.

The main staircase at Canada House.

Both of them are prize-winning authors in Canada, less well-known over here, but there is such a contrast between the two of them. Heather O’Neill has been on my radar since I stumbled almost accidentally across her debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals in the McGill University bookshop while I was on a business trip to Montreal. I was so moved by that story that I automatically wanted to read everything else written by O’Neill. Yet when I got to The Lonely Hearts Hotel, I was equally entranced and repulsed by it. Hearing about Heather’s crazy childhood and parents who ‘had no idea how to function in the real world’, it is understandable that her view of the world is a combination of hardcore cynicism and childish wonder. She is extremely entertaining when she talks about her horrific experiences as a child, but she has clearly turned to fiction as a way to process trauma. As she said ‘Children have no language to express the bad things that have happened to them. My fiction tries to give them that language without taking away any of the nuances.’

She also had interesting things to say about literary prizes, having been a judge on the Giller Prize (the Canadian equivalent of the Man Booker) this year. She said that most of the books she felt strongly about none of the other judges liked – ever the rebel!

Michael Redhill is a poet and novelist, and seems at first glance to fit very much into the mainstream straight white male cannon. I didn’t quite get what he tried to achieve with Bellevue Square, but I thought it was an interesting and brave attempt, like Paul Auster’s New York trilogy. Then you find out that he has also published crime fiction under the pseudonym Inger Ash Wolfe – now I look forward to reading some of those. And there was quite a bit of subversion in the way he talked about literature and literary prizes – in his opinion the books that win most years are the second place vote for everybody. In other words, the book that all the judges mind least if it wins. He said that for him Bellevue Square is a clearing house for humanity, with such an assortment of characters from all walks of life, and he particularly admired how Heather gave such depth of character to the people in her novels – people that we would normally dismiss or avoid or run away from. 

Heather O’Neill (left) and Michael Redhill being interviewed by Georgina Godwin.

On Friday I had the unexpected good fortune to go to an evening of ballet at the Peacock Theatre. The New English Ballet Theatre, who are a young, energetic company very much open to innovation, had a double bill of Remembrance/The Four Seasons and I reviewed it for View from the Cheap Seat.

September has gone by even faster than the previous months, so what have been the highlights?

We started off the month in one of my favourite places in England, Cambridge, then continued with another mother-and-sons trip down memory lane to Vienna. Although it is always bittersweet to go back to the places where you were once so happy, I hope that I’ve inspired a future generation to take advantage of opportunities and expand their horizons.

I had the bestest of times singing and dancing along to one of my living heroines, Janelle Monae. I did a short workshop with Isabel Costello and Voula Tsoflias about developing your resilience as a writer, which made me decide to focus more of my energy on submissions once more. I saw another of my writing heroines, Sarah Moss, and was inspired by the Poetry Book and Magazine Fair. And, alongside all that, I’ve been learning a new (and very counter-intuitive) events management system at work and helping roll out a new initiative, getting the boys settled into their new school year and starting contemporary dance classes. 

October is set to be just as busy, so let’s hope that this sprained ankle which has laid me low this weekend is nothing more serious (X-ray to follow tomorrow) and won’t slow me down at all.

Books That Puzzled Me

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

I’ve finished a few books lately which left me intrigued but unsure of my own feelings about them. While I cannot say I disliked them, I’m not quite sure I would say that I liked them either. And if I were to reread them, it would be not so much out of love for the book, but because I want to see if I can understand what the author is trying to achieve the second time around.

In conclusion, these are books that I admire for what they are attempting to do, but I’m not quite sure they have succeeded in doing it for this particular reader. In some cases, I have to admit that I haven’t got a clue if I am interpreting them correctly at all. Not that it matters.

Michael Redhill: Bellevue Square

The book starts out conventionally enough, almost like a thriller. Jean Mason is a bookshop owner in downtown Toronto, happily married (although there are indications that there is sourness beneath the bliss), mother of two kids. When customers start telling her that she seems to have a doppelgänger who is wandering around the Kensington Market area, she has to try and find out more. She starts a stakeout in Bellevue Square, and although she never catches a glimpse of her alter ego, who is supposedly called Ingrid, she soon befriends all of the eccentric characters, scam artists, homeless people, druggies and so on that populate the area.

Bellevue Square before its demolition.

Jean befriends Katerina, a waitress at a churros shop, who seems to have a close, but not always friendly relationship with the elusive Ingrid. Then Katerina is found dead and Jean begins to wonder if Ingrid killed her. Up to this point, you could visualise this as a Hitchcock film, following Jean’s desperate attempt to prove that she is not the murderer even when all fingers are pointing accusingly at her.

But the book veers into unpredictable territory here. We discover that Jean has a troubled background and mental health issues, and we start to wonder just what is real and what is fantasy. Of course, the theme of the ‘doppelgänger’ as an evil twin or the darker side of the same person is very well established in literature (A Tale of Two Cities, Dostoevsky’s The Double, Jekyll and Hyde, and of course Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James have eerie ghost stories about doubles). But it gets even more complicated and meta, with past tragedies resurfacing and pseudonyms appearing for Ingrid which indicate that she might be an alter ego for the author. 

The refurbished Bellevue Square has a distinctly more family-friendly vibe

So I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret this, but quite enjoyed the journey (and the description of a certain part of Toronto). Redhill is planning a triptych of novels entitled Modern Ghosts, of which this is the first, and the term ‘ghosts’ fits in very well with what Poe and James were doing.


Rachel Cusk: Kudos

I’ve been fascinated by Cusk’s trilogy, which started with a Greek Odyssey in Outline, turned into a London obsession with property prices in Transit, and now concludes with a conference or literary festival being held someplace that could be Sicily or Portugal. As usual, her protagonist Faye is such a good listener that she almost disappears from the narrative. This culminates in a very funny moment when she is being interviewed by a series of journalists, who all end up talking more about themselves than trying to find out anything about her or her work.

This final volume is more combative and political in tone. There are much sharper observations about parenting, which were almost curiously absent from the first two books. There is a particularly touching scene, which the author handles almost in passing, where Faye admits that her son often wished he could belong to another family when he was younger. Above all, however, it’s quite a battle of the sexes which emerges here, all the more ferocious because it is not explicitly endorsed by the narrator, merely expressed by other women she encounters.

I quickly came to see… that in fact there was nothing worse than to be an average white male of average talents and intelligence: even the most oppressed housewife… is close to the drama and poetry of life than he is, because as Louise Bourgeois shows us she is capable at least of holding more than one perspective. And it was true.. that a number of girls were achieving academic success and cultivating professional ambitions, to the extent that people had begun to feel sorry for these average boys and to worry that their feelings were being hurt. Yet, if you looked only a little way ahead, … you could see that the girls’ ambitions led nowhere, like the roads you often find yourself on in this country, that start off new and wide and smooth and then simply stop in the middle of nowhere, because the government ran out of money to finish building them

Rachel Cusk: Kudos, p. 192.

I loved the way the book incites me to think and the very vivid vignettes of encounters – as I said before, I find it great anthropological material, but I have my doubts about how it all hangs together and cannot help wondering if it’s just lazy editing by the author herself. (I felt there was more of a pattern to Tokarczuk’s Flights, in case you were wondering). As for the ending – that was so viscerally unpleasant, it very nearly spoilt the whole trilogy for me (although it fits in well with the Battle of the Sexes idea).


Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett: Naked Men

Well, if you want a full-on battle between the sexes and a bit of a reversal of roles, then this book is for you! It’s about middle-aged women who are wealthy enough to pay for male escorts and about men who in the austerity economy of Spain are taking on jobs as strippers and escorts. 

Irene is an odd, cold fish, a Daddy’s girl who has obediently taken over the helm at her father’s company after his death, and married for comfort and business sense rather than for passion. When her husband leaves her for a younger woman, she doesn’t really go off the rails. Or at least not at first. Because she never felt much passion, she doesn’t feel much despair, more of a wounded ego and not wanting to give her so-called the satisfaction of gossiping about her. Meanwhile, Javier is a bit of a loser, an unemployed supply teacher with ideals that fit better into his vast collection of books rather than real life. This mismatched pair will eventually get together, but it takes far too long to get to that point, and the ending is far too abrupt and rushed. 

Although the book had some interesting things to say about social class and gender differences, and although it was quite funny in parts (that passage about moving all of Javier’s books!), it felt like 90% build-up, 10% story and then only 0.0001% denouement. And, despite the extensive build-up, the psychological motivation for what happens at the end still seemed wrong. There was also the odd head-hopping that occurs throughout the book – which keeps you on your toes, as you have to figure out who is thinking that next paragraph in a scene of dialogue. I also have to admit that I was far more interested in the secondary characters, Javier’s down-to-earth friend Ivan and Irene’s more uninhibited friend Genoveva. 

WWWednesday: What Are You Reading on 5th September 2018?

I only get around to doing it approximately once a month, but here is a lovely meme you might want to take part in, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently:

After reading Tana French’s latest book, I had a craving for more by her, so I went back to The Secret Place, which I had avoided thus far because it had been described as ‘similar to The Secret History by Donna Tartt’. That was NOT an enticement for me. But fortunately, it is about mixed-up teenagers rather than people in their 20s, so it is much more interesting and poignant. A girls’ boarding school, a boy from the neighbouring boys’ school found murdered on the premises, a case that didn’t yield anything the first time round, but reopens a year later as the youngsters have grown and changed.

The other book which I seem to be taking forever to read is Romain Gary’s Au-delĂ  de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable (Your Ticket Isn’t Valid Beyond This Point). Sorry, Emma! I suppose the subject of male midlife crisis is putting me off somewhat, although when I do get to read a chapter or so of it, it is actually very self-deprecating and enjoyable.

Finished:

Rachel Cusk’s Kudos is the finale to the so-called auto-fiction trilogy and I plan to write a full review at some point, but suffice it to say that it has one of the strangest endings I’ve ever come across: a man urinating in the sea where the narrator is floating.

In one of those strange happenstances that often seem to occur in my reading (clearly my subconscious gets to decide the next read quite often!), the other book I recently finished is also partly auto-fiction. Part -diary, part ideas or observations for writing, and full of memorable stories: Marina Tsvetaeva’s Moscow Diaries

Next:

I’ll be travelling with hand luggage only so I should be sensible and take my Kindle and I have The Trailing Spouse by Jo Furniss on that as a bit of light entertainment. Besides, it’s got a beautiful cover, doesn’t it?

However, I’m also tempted to take Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill with me, since it sounds a bit like Vertigo, one of my favourite Hitchcock movies.

Jean lives in downtown Toronto with her husband and two kids. The proud owner of a thriving bookstore, she doesn’t rattle easily not like she used to. But after two of her customers insist they’ve seen her double, Jean decides to investigate. Curiosity grows to obsession and soon Jean s concerns shift from the identity of the woman, to her very own.

What have you been reading lately? No, you won’t tempt me. Especially since I took a whole bunch of books to Waterstones for the ‘Buy Back Books’ scheme and got the risible sum of ÂŁ1.53 for those they did accept (that includes 9 p for a signed copy of Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow).