Twilit or Otherwise?

For the Glasgow Review of Books, I’ve reviewed Iain Galbraith’s almighty translation of Esther Kinsky’s River:

Only a few pages into Esther Kinsky’s River, I began to anticipate a very particular word. Sure enough, fifty or so pages later, there it was. The novel is narrated by a young woman from Germany who has spent a significant portion of her life in London, and at one point she recalls the summer she “landed temporary work in a basement office” while coming to terms with the death of her father. The office “was situated in a dark building on a permanently busy thoroughfare near the big north London train stations”, and every evening, after she had completed her menial work pulling files, she would step out into the smog and make her escape from “the crepuscular cellar”. “Crepuscular” is the word I was waiting for.

The use of that word is an intriguing choice on the part of Kinsky’s translator, Iain Galbraith, since Kinsky’s original text, in German, describes the cellar simply as “dämmrigen”: “dim”. Strictly speaking, in English, “crepuscular” is an adjective that applies only to motion or behaviour, not to a static space like a cellar. Foxes and badgers are crepuscular animals, awake and active twice a day, once in the hours between sunset and true darkness and again between the softening of night and the first rays of dawn. The light at these times of day is crepuscular, too, moving as it does, ever so slowly, from one state of illumination to another. With regard to a space like the cellar, dank and dim but not in a state of activity or flux, a term of greater precision but similar poetry would be “twilit”. “Crepuscular” might apply to the people who work there, but not to the cellar itself. Still, I was happy to see the word appear in River — and reappear five or six times throughout the novel — because even if it felt askew, it didn’t feel like an error of judgment on the translator’s part. It is, in fact, the word most apt to describe the mechanics of River as a whole, as the novel sets about enacting an aesthetics of the crepuscular.

That said, Anna MacDonald’s review of River, published at 3AM Magazine, is by far the best review of this book out of the many I have read.

Beautiful, But Not Sublime

Like most readers new to Olga Tokarczuk, I was won over by Jennifer Croft’s recent translation of the novel Flights. This week, for Splice, I’ve taken a look at how Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ more recent translation of Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead compares to the dizzying heights of Flights:

No doubt, by this point, readers who discovered Tokarczuk with Flights will suspect that Drive Your Plow sounds like something rather different. It certainly is, and there’s no escaping the feeling that it’s a comparatively minor work. That’s not necessarily to fault the novel on its own terms. Like Flights, it does something exciting, something structurally daring, in casting onto the page a handful of dissociated topics and striving to foreground the spirit that unites them. Unlike Flights, however, it doesn’t leave much to the reader’s imagination, as the whodunit narrative and the consistent first-person narration work together to funnel everything through Janina’s consciousness. The connections between events are explicated and streamlined, closing down the spaces for speculation that Tokarczuk meticulously carved into FlightsDrive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a simpler book, more of a closed circuit, so carefully and holistically constructed as to seal off the access points that would invite readers to participate in making it meaningful. To put this in terms that William Blake would appreciate, it’s a beautiful book that arrives in the wake of a sublime one; it is thoughtful and suspenseful, cinematic and gripping, but its beauty is easier to regard and admire than to immerse oneself in.

The Poetry of the Tarn

Although I had some serious reservations about the first hundred pages of Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole, particularly regarding its mythologisation of its nativist protagonist, I found the novel taking a more critical turn and I ended up admiring it. I reviewed it at length this week for Splice:

Consider the poetry of the tarn. Does it even exist? Glaciers, waterfalls, windswept moors: these are the features of landscape typically taken up for romanticisation. Tarns tend to be disregarded, ugly black pools fringed with reeds, or else construed as the dwelling places of demons, hags, Grendel’s mother. If there’s any hope for a poetry of such things, it’s to be penned by way of an inverse romance: a celebration of mud and muck, spindles and gorse, the suck and squelch of claggy soil, and an adoration of the guttural language which, in its own peculiar way, breathes a beautiful onomatopoeia into these usually maligned aspects of terra Britannica. But not content with simply pulling poetry from the tarn and its dreary surrounds, Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole is a novel that aims for something more difficult. It trains its gaze upon a group of hardbitten, weatherbeaten men who find the tarn a thing of beauty anyway, regardless of any attempts at romanticisation, and it sets out to give voice to their latent poetic sensibilities.

Obsession and Repetition

At Splice, I’ve got a brief Q&A with the poet Katharine Kilalea, whose début novel OK, Mr Field is published this month by Faber:

You’ve written a novel that has all the basic ingredients for tension, suspense, mystery — a plot to be complicated and resolved — but the tone, and the things you focus on from scene to scene, don’t work to generate those sensations. Why take this route with your first novel? How did you settle on this idiosyncratic form?

What intrigued me was not what happened between Mr Field and Hannah Kallenbach so much as the intensity of his affection for her. Sometimes when I wondered about his feelings for her, I thought of K in The Castle. Why does K persist in his fruitless pursuit of the Castle? Why doesn’t he just give up on the whole business of wanting to be a land surveyor and go home? What makes someone (or something) so wonderful that they’re worth pursuing endlessly?

The problem with writing about a persistent feeling, like obsession, is that it seems structurally at odds with the form of a novel. A novel is built on the idea of progress — that one thing leads to another towards some kind of end or conclusion — whereas an infatuation is about someone stuck in a rut, doing or thinking or feeling the same thing over and over again. So the issue here was to find a way of writing a plot in which nothing really happened. Or rather, in which the same thing kept happening. And, when you think about it, why not? There’s an implied criticism in the idea that something is getting repetitive, as if progression, rather than repetition, were the correct order of things. But of course, if something gives me pleasure, I might say I want to do it all over again.

Hanging, Suspended, Ongoing

With the artform of literature having come to a certain point, how to write? and indeed, how to read? What remains possible? And what possibilities are closed or exhausted? Especially when the literary impulse doesn’t falter, when there’s still an imperative to keep going: how?

That’s me, briefly making the case for Nicholas John Turner’s Hang Him When He Is Not There as a true descendant of the novels of Samuel Beckett, over on Twitter.

After the End of Point-of-View

Last week I went to an event in London organised by the people behind the White Review: a panel discussion featuring Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and Lara Feigel, on the topic of “Writing Motherhood.” I was struck by most of the things said by Cusk, in particular, and especially one remark she made and prefaced with “We haven’t spoken about literary form yet,” so she could open the doors to a discussion of form. What she wanted to say was this: “Point-of-view fiction has led the novel into a carpark full of overflowing skips, or some such un-aesthetic place.” That’s a slight paraphrase, but the key words were actually spoken by Cusk: “point-of-view,” “carpark,” “skips,” “un-aesthetic” or “not very aesthetic.” Continue reading

Reading Foster’s Letter

Over at The Collagist, I’ve reviewed Tristan Foster’s début collection of short stories and/or prose poetry — let’s call it a collection of “pieces” — entitled Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father:

Foster’s signature move, again and again, is to flag a subject, suggest that it has some sort of meaning, and then deflate or revoke the suggestion. Sometimes he does this by signaling that a piece is “about” something and then carving out spaces in which it isn’t “about” that thing at all. “Stories About You,” for instance, takes form as a series of discrete, inscrutable statements about “you”—”You remember the dead and rest your head in your hand, or against a wall. Then you remember something else”—until the fifth one appears inexplicably to be scrubbed of human presence, containing no “you” to which its meaning could apply. Likewise, in two pieces both titled “Neighbourhood Myths,” accounts of extravagant suburban folklore (“Friend’s dad killed friend’s brother in law”) subside into two paragraphs of pure, stirring description: a tranquil summer breeze, the interplay of shade and light, no scandalous rumors whatsoever.

At other times, Foster bores holes into the meaning of a text by withholding contextual details that would make the piece intelligible. “Alive and Well” takes the form of a letter that starts with these words: “In response to your notice from 04/09: I believe the individual you are referring to is me.” But while the text comprises the letter writer’s reply to the notice, it offers few clues to the references that apparently prompted the writing. Striking a similar note in the collection’s title piece, another letter writer begins: “Dear Sir, I send it anyway, but I hope this letter fails to reach you. A failure here seems only right.” What follows is a letter written in response to an earlier letter intercepted and read illicitly, the interception implying that the original didn’t reach its intended recipient. This letter, then, opens onto a textual hall of mirrors, each text addressed explicitly to readers who are or will be deprived of its meaning.