Best of the Year: New Discoveries

I just can’t seem to stop reading this year – 160 books and counting! So obviously, a simple Top Ten List won’t do for me. Bear with me, as this is yet another of my posts by categories. When I say New Discoveries, I don’t mean books that were published this year (I’ve already got a post on those), but authors that I may have previously heard about from social media or my blogger friends, but I’ve only just started reading this year.

Ioanna Karystiani: Back to Delphi, transl. Konstantine Matsoukas, Europa Editions.

Quite a challenging read for a mother of sons, this is the story about a middle-aged woman trying to reconnect with her son, who is on a brief release from prison for a rather grim crime. Told first from the mother’s point of view, and then from the son’s, it is a powerful story of the emotional baggage we all carry around with us and the challenges of communicating within the family.

…no matter how well you think you are communicating, no matter how close you think you are, there is still something about the young man in front of you that remains unknowable and slightly frightening. And you know that society places the onus far more on you than on any father figure for the way you raised your child. Any of their flaws and inexplicable impulses are a reflection on you; psychoanalysts and the press, as well as public opinion, will put you on trial. 

I’m not sure that anything else by this author has been translated into English, and I wish my Greek were good enough to read more. I hear she is also active as a scriptwriter, so maybe I can dig out some films written by her.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Admiring Silence.

I was at work in London the day they announced the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I instantly rushed upstairs to the library to seek out the work of this British/Tanzianian writer. This was the first one I picked up, and on the strength of it, I have bought two more of his books (including a signed copy of his latest Afterlives from the London Review Bookshop, who organised a Q&A one evening with him recently, with Kamila Shamsie as the interviewer). His novels of displacement, of recreating an identity, of the impossibility of a return to your old life, really spoke to me. The quote below, for example, really shook me to the core (a sense of guilt I’ll probably carry for the rest of my life):

we need you here. Forgive me for saying this, but they don’t need you there. They have enough of their own people to do whatever is necessary, and sooner or later they will say that they have no use for you. Then you will find yourself in an alien land that is unable to resist mocking people of our kind. If you come back, you’ll be with your own people, of your own religion, who speak your own language. What you do will have meaning and a place in the world you know. You’ll be with your family. You’ll matter, and what you do will matter. Everything that you have learned there will be of benefit to us. It will make a difference here, rather than being… another anonymous contribution to the petty comfort and well-being of a society that does not care for you.

Marian Engel: Bear.

After hearing Dorian enthuse so much about this book, I had to read it and make up my own mind. I was certainly intrigued by it – although it was far less titillating than some recent reviews have tried to make it out to be. It felt much more like a fable, a simple story but with hidden depths. It is a novel about loneliness, about losing and regaining your passion, about reconnecting with nature and with your own true self.

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 

I immediately went on to read another novel by Marian Engel, the far more messy and obviously feminist Lunatic Villas, which I liked less, perhaps because of its sprawling nature. Yet I will certainly explore more of her body of work (not all that extensive, unfortunately, since she died relatively young).

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police, transl. Stephen Snyder, Vintage.

Of course I’ve read many reviews of Ogawa’s books, a number of which have been translated into English. But somehow, I never quite took the plunge. Hearing her talk about The Memory Police (published nearly 30 years ago) at the Edinburgh Literary Festival last year made me think it would be perfect reading matter for me, but I did nothing about it. That’s just how it goes sometimes with inertia! Luckily, book expert Jacqui and her colleagues at the Chorleywood Bookshop sent this to my son as part of his subscription, so I got a chance to read it before he did. I am still discombobulated by the beautiful descriptions which contrast with the rather frightening subject matter of enforced collective forgetting.

… this is the kind of book that can be interpreted in many ways: a political allegory; a story about grieving and the fear of ‘losing’ the loved one all over again as the memories fade; the inevitable physical and psychological decline as we grow older, even a slide into dementia; the impossibility of ever fully conveying the world as a writer; that the arts may be the only thing that save us ultimately and differentiate humans from other living beings.

Brian Moore: The Doctor’s Wife.

Another shocking omission from my reading: Irish (later Canadian) author Brian Moore. I have heard of his work, even bought the Judith Hearne book a few years back, but it’s still sitting patiently, unread, on my shelves. So it’s thanks to the #1976Club and several of my favourite book bloggers reviewing this title that I finally made his acquaintance – and it certainly was memorable, even if the book and its premise feel slightly dated. It is a Madame Bovary for the 1970s, I suppose, but the 1970s in Northern Ireland, which was probably more like the 1950s in England. Nevertheless, I became completely immersed in the story and felt sorry for everyone concerned. Even when they don’t deserve it.

The other thing that most readers take issue with is her apparent readiness to abandon her son. I wonder if Moore is once again pointing out double standards here (how many men readily abandon their children and embark upon new relationships and build new families), but also pointing out that uncomfortable truth that mothers discover their own redundancy when their children hit their late teens, especially boys, who might side more with their father. 

Isn’t it funny how, even when you are sure that a certain writer will be your precise cup of tea, you keep on postponing that moment of becoming acquainted? Maybe I am saving them for a rainy day? Well, these past two years have certainly taught us to make the most of things, and not delay for the rainy day…

Brief Reviews of Two Books Which Deserve Better

It’s a choice between either giving brief reviews of two books which I really loved recently… or being forever silent about them, as more and more time passes since I read them. So, with apologies to those who were hoping for more thoughtful and detailed reviews, let me tell you about two unusual, beautifully written novels by two authors who certainly ploughed their own furrow and avoided any fashionable trends.

Brigid Brophy: The Snow Ball (1964)

For once, it was not Backlisted Podcast that drew my attention to this work (although I loved listening to their episode on it afterwards). I came to it via a passion for Mozart, particularly Don Giovanni, which clearly Brigid Brophy shared (she wrote a book about Mozart’s operas).

The novel is basically a Mozart opera set in the present-day (or, rather, what passed for present day back in the 1960s, when she wrote it). Yet there is a strange timelessness about the setting as well, so that the mention of phones and taxis seems almost jarring. The two ‘main’ characters describe the plot (such as it is) very well when they say that all they think about is ‘Mozart and sex’ or ‘Mozart, sex and death.’

The scene is a New Year’s Eve masked ball at a very large and impressive mansion somewhere in London. Anna is the friend of the hostess Anne (they also shared a husband at some point – although not at the same time) and she has come dressed as Donna Anna from Mozart’s opera. We witness the ritual of seduction between her and a stranger dressed as Don Giovanni, but we also witness the pas de deux between two other couples, the middle-aged hosts, and judgemental, ostensibly bored teenagers. Of course, we also have the interactions between these various couples and other assembled guests. Duets briefly turn into trios or quartets, with the occasional chorus of voices chiming in. Outside, it starts snowing, bringing an occasional hush and wonder to the proceedings.

The book is a playful look at the identities we toy with and then discard, the masks we put on to seduce and confuse, to attract and distract, or even to repel unwanted advances. It has sizzling flirtatious dialogue, a whirlwind of images, a crescendo of passion and one of the best descriptions of postcoital pleasure tinged with melancholy that I have ever read. Although it also brings in the awkward and self-absorbed adolescent voice through the diary that young Ruth (dressed as Cherubino) is keeping throughout the party, it is the verbal sparring of the grown-ups that set the tone for this novel. No one speaks like that in real life, we feel – or at least not with strangers you have barely met – and yet don’t we all wish we could?

There is quite a bit of discussion in the book about whether Donna Anna was seduced or not by Don Giovanni at the start of the opera, but the debate I found even more fascinating was whether the operatic Don Giovanni is brave or merely a cad, whether he chooses to provoke Hell into taking him prematurely, rather than passively wait for death to come. However, I don’t want to give the impression the book is all high-brow flights of fancy, or that you need an in-depth knowledge of Mozart’s operas to appreciate it. It is also surprisingly down-to-earth, very funny and full of witty observations, such as:

… the rich have libraries, whereas people like us have books. People like us read books. The rich have them catalogued.

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police, transl. Stephen Snyder (1994)

From a joyous celebration of life, to a more melancholy book, which I believe nevertheless does celebrate life.

The Memory Police of the title seems to be the elite squad operating in an unnamed island where Ogawa sets her quasi-dystopian novel – but they are not content to merely make things disappear from time to time, they want to make sure that the memories of all the disappeared objects are erased too. Their methods of enforcing compliance get more and more brutal, as they seek out those who cannot forget. One such person who cannot erase his memories is the editor of the narrator, who is a novelist. None of the characters have names, they are described by their physical attributes – the old man – or their jobs, or else simply initials – the editor is also R – as if the names themselves are fading away. The novelist decides to try and save him: despite the great risk, she prepares a small secret room in her house with the help of her faithful friend, the old man with DIY skills, and invites the editor to hide there. Meanwhile, the editor tries to teach them to remember, with the help of a few forbidden ‘missing’ objects which the narrator’s mother had hidden long ago. But the most frightening and sad aspect of the book is that these objects no longer awaken any feelings in them.

Earlier in the book, the novelist wonders sensibly enough about the ratio between the disappearance and the creation of objects:

‘I mean, things are disappearing more quickly than they are being created, right?… What can the people on this island create? A few kinds of vegetables, cars that constantly break down, heavy bulky stoves, some half-starved stock animals, oily cosmetics, babies, the occasional simple play, books that no one reads… Poor unreliable things that will never make up for those that are disappearing – and the energy that goes along with them… If it goes on like this and we can’t compensate for the things that get lost, the island will soon be nothing but absence and holes, and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace.’

I have to admit that this and other passages shook me a little: they reminded me a little too much of my years of being shut in a totalitarian country, cut off from the outside world, with no possibility of leaving, and being forcibly told to forget my friends from abroad or any other interpretation of reality other than the ‘official one’.

However, this is the kind of book that can be interpreted in many ways: a political allegory; a story about grieving and the fear of ‘losing’ the loved one all over again as the memories fade; the inevitable physical and psychological decline as we grow older, even a slide into dementia; the impossibility of ever fully conveying the world as a writer; that the arts may be the only thing that save us ultimately and differentiate humans from other living beings.

Yet, despite the often shocking disappearances and the consequences they have on each of the individuals, the characters try to lead as normal a life as possible, to celebrate birthdays, and cook nice meals, wash and sleep and talk. It’s this resistance, this almost futile resistance, of the small, vulnerable person in the face of the behemoth (which could be a hostile authority, or simply time itself) which makes this book so incredibly subtle and poignant.

The whole book is written in a calm, matter-of-fact yet somewhat dreamy style. I felt as if I was standing in a soft but constant rain, ready to melt and disappear myself, despite the occasional shock of the story within a story told periodically, about a typist who has lost the power of speech, and is emprisoned in a tower full of broken typewriters (this is the novel the main protagonist is writing).

My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.

A huge thanks, incidentally, to Jacqui and Debbie from the Gerrards Cross and Chorleywood Bookshops, who sent this book as part of the subscription package for my fifteen-year-old son. He has been too busy with GCSE exam-replacement assessments to read it yet, and it may be a little too subtle for him, but I absolutely loved borrowing it off his bookshelves. The more I think about the book, the more I love it: it has left a very profound echo in my heart.

#6Degrees April 2021

Time for another random bookish chain, where we all start with the same book but end up on very different journeys, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with the Booker Prize winning Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which I have considered reading but fear I might find too depressing. Books about bad parenting get me all flustered.

I mean, the book Back to Delphi by Ioanna Karystiani (transl. Konstantine Matsoukas) was disquieting enough, and the mother in that is not necessarily a bad one, just a tad self-absorbed and trying to hide her suffering from her son… which of course gets misinterpreted. The two of them end up incapable of communicating with each other – and the son goes on to become a rapist and a murderer. He is granted a brief furlough from prison and she takes him to Delphi in an attempt to reconnect with him, and to try and find out where she went wrong.

The next book in the chain is another Ioana, a Romanian one this time: Ioana Parvulescu’s Life Begins on Friday, a time-travelling mystery and love letter to the city of Bucharest, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013. It has been translated into English by Alastair Ian Blyth for Istros Books, and deserves to be better known.

I used to be more of a fan of time-travelling novels in my youth, not so much now. The last memorable one I read was Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, about a time-travelling serial killer. It is not an easy book to describe, perfectly bonkers, but as always with Lauren Beukes, utterly compelling.

However, I preferred another of her novels, Moxyland, set in an alternative future Cape Town, where people are increasingly controlled by their mobile phones and apps, leading to a sort of corporate apartheid dictatorship.

I haven’t yet read Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (transl. Stephen Snyder) but it seems to have a similar premise, except here the authoritarian regime seems bent on destroying people’s memories. This was written more than twenty years ago. Perhaps if it had been written more recently the internet and mobile phones might have played a bigger part, as they do in Moxyland.

Of course, the concept of erasing memories or of accepting only one official version of history is something that all dictatorships have in common, and one of the best examples of this is the description of the ‘retouched’ photograph, a frequent occurence in an attempt to get rid of someone who became politically undesirable, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera.

Scotland, Greece, Romania, Chicago, South Africa, Japan and Czechoslovakia – a well-travelled series of links this month. Where will your spontaneous bookishness take you?