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When I was at university I read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s highly acclaimed 1988 novel “Nervous Conditions”. Earlier this year, the BBC named this novel as one of the top 100 books that shaped the world and it’s claimed that this was the first book published by a black woman from Zimbabwe in English. The story focuses on the story of Tambu who is a young woman who strives to obtain an education in her post-Rhodesian society. The book explores some of the conflicts she encounters including gender inequality and racism in the educational system which is still influenced by colonialism. The author has continued to write about her character Tambu’s struggles in society in two further novels “The Book of Not” which was published in 2006 and “This Mournable Body” which was published this year. That means this trilogy has been thirty years in the making! I find it fascinating how Dangarembga has spent so long living with this character, especially since the most autobiographical character in this trilogy isn’t Tambu but her cousin Nyasha whose educational background and work most closely resembles Dangarembga’s. I think the long gestation of this trilogy’s creation works to both its fault and benefit.

“This Mournable Body” takes its title from an article by Teju Cole called ‘Unmournable Bodies’ which poignantly addresses the issue of free speech and how public opinion in Western countries often chooses not to recognize the victims who speak out against their own state’s power. The novel begins with Tambu living in a precarious state of being. She’s unemployed and seeking accommodation somewhere other than the hostel which she is technically too old to still inhabit. Dangarembga narrates her account in the second person, but it remains closely aligned to Tambu’s point of view so it’s as if Tambu is viewing herself from the outside and also highly conscious that she is being scrutinized by those around her. While this style of narrative offers opportunities to uniquely examine a kind of self-consciousness in a character, I felt the novel largely failed to take advantage of opportunities to explore this complexity. Throughout the novel Tambu is primarily a very passive character observing those around her. We’re introduced to different characters and situations before quickly moving on from them. So the story touches on subjects such as misogynistic violence against women, a failing education system, mental healthcare and the continued exploitation of Zimbabwe’s black working class by Westerners. However, I found it frustrating that the novel doesn’t dramatize these issues very effectively in the story because of the style of narration. Since Tambu doesn’t actually have much contact with people there’s little sense of the distinction between how she feels about herself and how people around Tambu are perceiving her.

The sections of the book which came to life the most for me were when Tambu must interact with others in different jobs she holds, first as a teacher and later as an executive and innovator in a travel agency. Here her aspirations to find a secure place in society and her daydreams to acquire wealth and status are met with cold reality. Because attaining her desires is so difficult given her status and the state of her country, she often acts out in selfish or violent ways. It’s so interesting how Dangarembga sees this as symptomatic of how Zimbabwean women feel they must be immoral in order to wrestle back any sense of agency. She states: “Zimbabwean women, you remind yourself, know how to order things to go away. They shriek with grief and throw themselves around. They go to war. They drug patients in order to get ahead. They get on with it. If one thing doesn't turn out, Zimbabwean woman simply turns to another.”

This is such a fascinating perspective and I enjoy it when novels explore so-called “difficult” characters, but unfortunately I think the way Dangarembga told this story prevented her from realising its full potential. Very intense scenes when a woman on public transportation is attacked for dressing provocatively or when Tambu violently beats a girl are lost in murky poetic descriptions of Tambu’s emotional state. Other brief interactions with her cousin Nyasha who worries about her children receiving corporal punishment at school or Tambu’s sister who was left disabled after losing her leg during a battle only touch upon issues which really deserve their own novels. I feel that if Dangarembga has concentrated on just one period of Tambu’s life where she worked at a particular institution it would have given more space in the novel to address the full complexities involved and it would have created a more engaging story.  

Author Tsitsi Dangarembga

Author Tsitsi Dangarembga

There were certain images and scenes which I felt were really powerful. Throughout Tambu’s journey it describes how she laboriously lugs around a sack of mealie meal, a kind of cheap maize that can be used to make porridge. This is a staple food her mother gave her which she doesn’t want to eat because she desires other food, but she can’t bring herself to dispose of it. So the sack slowly rots and grows more disgusting while existing as a symbol of her family’s lower class rural life that she wants to distance herself from. Later, when Tambu returns to her village and interacts with her mother again she observes how “the patina of what your mother, with stinging distaste, labelled ‘The Englishness,’ which you acquired at the Young Ladies’ College of the Sacred Heart, at last turns into a grand advantage. How restoring it is, even as you plod toward middle age, to reap a positive outcome from the convent that, while it educated you, rendered you ‘them,’ ‘they,’ ‘the Africans.’” I felt this was such an interesting way of approaching Tambu’s conflict in identity being a Zimbabwean with a Western education. It shows how the subtleties of this struggle have continued to evolve since the first novel of Dangarembga’s trilogy. Yet these flashes of insight fell too far in between sections of the novel which plod through an over-complicated narrative style.

I was so curious about why Dangarembga chose to narrate this novel in the second person and I came across an interview she did with The Rumpus book club. In it she states: “I wrote it in the second person because that was the only way I could access the subject matter in a way that I felt made sense. I just didn’t have the heart to use the first person. I needed distance and I imagined the reader would to. On the other hand, I didn’t want to jump into the third person when the other two books were in the first. I also thought that might be too much distance. So I tried it out in the second and I liked the effect.” While it’s an intriguing experiment, I felt this style of narration confused the author’s proximity to her character and this was to the detriment of the story. If the book had been narrated in the third person it would have allowed the reader a bigger picture of Tambu’s life. Before even reading about how the author is more autobiographically aligned with Tambu’s cousin Nyasha, I felt like Dangarembga’s sympathy and sense of justice resided more with this peripheral character. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Tambu ultimately finds solace living and working alongside Nyasha. It functions as a kind of homecoming where the author and her fictional counterpart can be one. This has a certain poignancy to it, but ultimately I felt this novel didn’t succeed in realising its vision and it’s extremely disappointing because I felt it had so much potential.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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There’s an interesting tradition of feminist utopian novels which speculate about futures or alternative societies that feature populations dominated by or entirely composed of women. These range from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Herland Trilogy” to Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s witty parody “Sultana’s Dream” to Marge Piercy’s science fiction classic “Woman on the Edge of Time” to Mary E. Bradley’s “Mizora” where women can reproduce through parthenogenesis (reproduction from an ovum without fertilization.) These imaginative works radically envision places where men are of secondary importance or become entirely irrelevant. These idealistic visions offer a breath of fresh air and a welcome counter-reality to the patriarchy which has dominated society for centuries.

Given enormous recent advances in science, it’s not hard to imagine the prospect of a technology which enables women to reproduce without men. That’s exactly the premise of Angela Chadwick’s enthralling debut novel “XX” which tells the story of lesbian couple Rosie and Jules who enrol in the trial stage of a ground-breaking new Ovum-to-Ovum treatment. It allows them to become pregnant through an IVF technique using two eggs rather than needing a sperm-donor. Since there is no XY sex-determination system at play in this method of reproduction it means the child will always be born with the sex chromosome XX and must be female. But Chadwick doesn’t posit this advancement as an opportunity for a world-dominating matriarchy; it’s exactly the opposite. The great drama of the novel comes from the wide-scale social resistance to such an advancement which will enable a small group of isolated individuals a unique opportunity to reproduce together. A conservative backlash perceives this technology as a threat to the status quo as they assert all children need a mother and father. They also fear boys will be phased out of the species. Rosie and Jules find themselves at the centre of a horrific and politically-contentious media storm. It’s a vivid story of personal struggle reflecting how any advancement with society is sadly met with reactionary politics.

It’s a difficult fact for many same-sex couples who wish to have children that some alternative method is currently required to assist them in becoming parents. This can be very painful and complicated because it means both people in the relationship don’t have an equal genetic stake in their child. I admire how Chadwick addresses this issue in her novel by offering a solution and exploring the challenges that would arise from this. In doing so, she addresses how pregnancy, relationships and family life are filled with infinite complexities so the road to becoming parents is never simple or easy. But, in the case of this couple it’s particularly complicated given how they become the focus of media scrutiny from becoming pregnant with the first O-O child. The story is told through the perspective of Jules whose partner Rosie becomes pregnant from the treatment. As a journalist at a local newspaper, she finds herself in a unique position of being a reporter who is herself the top news story.

Filmmakers Debra Chasnoff and Kim Klausner editing their 1985 documentary ‘Choosing Children’ about lesbians who become parents

Filmmakers Debra Chasnoff and Kim Klausner editing their 1985 documentary ‘Choosing Children’ about lesbians who become parents

Jules strives to keep her personal life and work separate, but this sadly becomes impossible. The novel serves as an interesting commentary on our sensational media system which exploits individuals for the sake of broader attention-grabbing contentious issues. A local Tory politician named Richard Prior emerges as a spokesman and campaigner for an organization called the Alliance for Natural Reproduction. He’s recognizable as a composite of right-wing figures who develop platforms to rile up the public with paranoias and fears about threats to the “natural” order of things. The story meaningfully reflects how such cases have become more and more common in recent years regarding a whole range of issues including marriage rights, health care, education and immigration. It also comments on how a large section of the population now consumes such news stories by “flick-throughs and social media posts” and form opinions about issues without engaging with their full complexity or considering the real facts. It’s striking how Chadwick realistically envisions how an optimistic advancement such as this would be blown up into a much larger political issue with a vicious backlash.

“XX” is one of the debut titles from an exciting new imprint called Dialogue Books. The imprint’s goal is to publish writers and reach audiences from areas and groups of people currently under-represented by the mainstream publishing industry. It aims to spark a dialogue across different communities about subjects we ought to be talking about. This novel certainly touches on a number of subjects that feel relevant today and takes a refreshing perspective. It does this through a well-plotted story and characters that I grew increasingly attached to. There’s nothing flashy about the prose, but this feels completely appropriate for a story about a normal couple that find themselves swept into an extraordinary situation. It also feels positive how we might no longer need stories of extravagant extremes that envision all female societies as a correction for the gender imbalances in our world. Instead, Chadwick offers a very rational and practical vision of how incremental steps can be taken to create more inclusive communities and dynamic families for everyone.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAngela Chadwick
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We’ve all had those nights when we wake up in some dark hour and can’t get back to sleep no matter what method we use to try to trick ourselves back into unconsciousness. I’ve found watching a good nature or outer space programme can often lull me, but sometimes nothing works. Although I occasionally go through periods when sleeplessness plagues me night after night leaving me exhausted and bleary-eyed throughout the workday, I’ve never considered it to be a serious or chronic problem. But other people experience more severe cases that are seriously debilitating – such as my partner who has tried many different treatments.

Most books about insomnia offer advice or methods for overcoming it, but what I appreciate so much about Marina Benjamin’s short, impactful and beautifully-written book “Insomnia” is that she approaches the condition from a more philosophical point of view. It’s a deeply personal account because she’s someone who has suffered from insomnia for years and tried just about every scheme out there to sleep better. But rather than write a guidebook she offers a different kind of solace in how we’re all unified by sleep or the lack of it. She draws upon references from mythology, psychology, art and literature to illuminate how we often have an uneasy relationship with our night time selves.

I enjoyed how the author gives such a radically different look at the condition and the meaning of sleep itself. She challenges the conception of sleep as a peaceful state noting how the body can often be restless during the night and a realistic version of Sleeping Beauty probably wouldn’t keep her name if she were pictured snoring and sweating. She’s also mistrustful of viewing mindfulness as a form of tranquillity when she sees it as a tragic kind of stasis: “It leaves the world unchanged.” These observations are really helpful at encouraging us to rethink how we consider and relate to sleeping.

‘Empire of Light’ by Rene Magritte

‘Empire of Light’ by Rene Magritte

She also raises many good points about the portrayal of women in relation to sleep in fairy tales and mythology. She draws upon a dizzying range of fascinating references, but they remain in context and illuminate different ways of considering sleep. I was most drawn to her reflections about the odd loneliness which accompanies insomnia but she observes how “Imprisoned within these solitary cells of wakefulness, insomniacs make for a strange kind of collective… No doubt we could easily spew a textbookful of shared anxieties. Yet we cannot commune with one another.” It feels like this relates to ideas (central to this blog) about how reading is such an essential lonely activity, yet it also unites us in a cultural conversation. Any solitary space where we can consider ideas with such concentrated intensity seems to come attached to a feeling of melancholy because those ideas won’t ever flourish as fully in the blunt arena of normality.

Marina Benjamin playfully refers to her partner as Zzz (because he often is asleep while she’s still awake.) It creates a unique sort of estrangement being perpetually awake while your partner is asleep and this adds another dimension to the loneliness of insomnia. She observes how “Zzz is next to me, but miles away. In those lonesome hours when I fear I might drown in a well of unspecified longing, I sense a danger that my most intimate space might also become my most alienated. Estranged from the night, I am locked out of my own rest. If I reached out to Zzz would I even find him?” It feels only natural that the overactive sleepless mind becomes consumed with paranoias, fears and poetic turns of thought. Being exposed to too much night we think of the daytime and night time self as being two distinct states of being, but this impactful book does a lot to creatively bridge the space between them.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMarina Benjamin
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I bought this book several weeks ago but after far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil last week and I read author Julián Fuks’ powerful response in this Guardian article I felt prompted to prioritize reading his novel “Resistance”. It’s a very meditative story about the narrator’s reflections on his family history – in particular his adopted brother’s troubled life and his parents’ move from Argentina to Brazil after living under a tyrannical dictatorship. It felt ominously prescient when I came to the line “Dictatorships can come back, I know, and I also know that the arbitrariness, the oppressions, the suffering, exist in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of regimes, even when hordes of citizens march biennially to the ballot box”. But, of course, Fuks must have experienced and read about many shifts in leadership over the years to see how frighteningly quickly oppressive political leaderships can take control of a country. So yes, this is a novel about personal and political resistance to these tyrannical governments, but it’s more about a resistance to the categories and interpretations of history which diminish its reality.

The narrator struggles to describe his pressing concerns about his brother without stating this sibling was adopted. He’s anxious that just stating this fact will encourage all sorts of presumptions about why his brother grew into being a certain kind of man. This inner-conflict about giving details is echoed throughout the novel where the narrator questions both his memory and the meaning such information has in truly understanding the past and his family’s situation. It’s an anxiety I really understand and can relate to because of the way creating narratives necessarily means taking a certain slant on the past and it can impose limitations. This is especially true in families when a child or relative is defined in family stories as being a certain type of person. It perpetuates a certain understanding of them and can become a self-perpetuating thing which inhibits the freedom of an individual. The same is true when looking at the history of a country or a community of people who have lived through certain events. The narrator is just as reticent to define his parents’ political affiliations and the events which led to their defection from Argentina. This makes a compelling conflict that runs throughout the novel where the author not only questions the truth about the past, but about how it’s related.

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Barely any names are used throughout the book and I think the narrator abstains from using them because of this same reason of not wanting to limit or define his family members. However, one character who is named is Martha Brea, a colleague of his mother's who is abruptly taken away in a car, executed and her body isn’t found until many years later. The narrator describes how “her absence lived in our house, and her absence lives in infinite circles around other unknown houses – the absences of many Marthas, different in their unrecovered remains, in their distorted features, in their silent ruins.” The novel describes the way many families experienced personal loss because of people who were “disappeared” for political reasons and the development of the famous movement by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to recover children stolen under Argentine dictatorship. It’s powerful how the narrator considers the way his parents would have undoubtably been lost as well if they hadn’t taken the step to flee the country.

“Resistance” was a very different novel from what I was expecting but I was glad to be surprised by its deep thoughtfulness and philosophical quest to question the way we define family and history. Although the circumstances described are quite specific, Fuks’ unique methodology means the story takes on a much more universal meaning as the reader reflects on their own family and country. It certainly prompted me to rethink how I consider my own. In the coming years we’ll hopefully see many more strong Brazilian voices like Julián Fuks being heard and published as the country lives through this difficult period of time.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJulián Fuks
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It’s been frequently observed how retellings of Greek myths have dominated literary fiction lately - from Madeline Miller’s “Circe” to Colm Toibin’s “House of Names” to modern retakes like “Home Fire” and “Everything Under”. You’d think with this prolific focus on the same characters and situations it’d come to feel repetitive, but I’m finding the more retellings I read the more engaged I am. It was particularly interesting coming to “The Silence of the Girls” having read “The Song of Achilles” and “House of Names” since they take different perspectives on the same cast. Pat Barker’s narrator is Briseis, a queen of Lyrnessus who is captured when Achilles attacks her city and kills her family. She becomes a trophy lover and a point of contention between Achilles and Agamemnon amidst their squabbling in the Trojan War. This status allows her unique access to some of the most intimate moments leading to the downfall of Troy, but she incisively recounts how painfully dehumanizing these men treat her and how her “privileged” status is in reality no more than that of a slave. It’s a refreshing reassessment of the positions of many characters associated with these tales of war who’ve traditionally been treated as peripheral and the novel’s vividly engaging storytelling kept me gripped.

Briseis is viewed as a possession and exclusively for Achilles’ sexual use. At some points I became frustrated that the focus is placed so much on Achilles rather than taking more time to explore the lives of Briseis and the enslaved women she lives with (such as when they work in the infirmary producing herbal mixtures to treat the wounded soldiers.) But it makes sense that her entire world is consumed with Achilles since she’s completely controlled by him and the other Greeks. Their coupling gives her such an interesting perspective on his private life – especially his issues concerning his mother and male lover. Achilles is presented as such a dynamic and fascinating figure (as well as being a thug.) There are humorous observations such as “no girl ever dressed more carefully for her wedding day than Achilles for the battlefield” as well as more subtle takes on his uniquely intimate relationship with Patroclus: “what I saw on the beach that night went beyond sex, and perhaps even beyond love.” So it feels natural at one point when the narrative is basically handed over to Achilles and Patroclus, but thankfully the focus comes back around to Briseis.

‘Thetis Bringing the Armor to Achilles’ by Benjamin West, 1804

‘Thetis Bringing the Armor to Achilles’ by Benjamin West, 1804

It feels like there is modern relevance in the way Pat Barker writes about several characters and situations. The bloated sense of entitlement and tyrannical egotism of Agamemnon can be seen in any number of bolshy political leaders we have today. The figure of Helen is publicly despised “for the part she’d played in starting this ruinous war” yet all the men want to bed her and the women seek to imitate how she dresses and looks. It feels like there have been modern equivalents in women entangled in sex scandals with political leaders/celebrities who are simultaneously envied and reviled. But the strongest message of the novel is in its insistence on giving voice to the stories of women who’ve traditionally been dismissed or seen as less interesting than the men who subjugated them.  

Briseis is magnanimous in recognizing the hardship and suffering of men, many of whom are young and forced to go to war. But she’s absolutely clear in the imbalance that existed between men and women: “They were men, and free. I was a woman, and a slave. And that’s a chasm no amount of sentimental chit-chat about shared imprisonment should be allowed to obscure.” As the novel goes on and the legend of the male figures around her grows, she seems to be cognizant of the diminutive place she’ll take in the songs and stories about them that will live through time. Her frustration about the unbalanced value given to men’s suffering over her own is palpable: “I’d been trying hard to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles’ story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story – his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter.” This novel wonderfully wrestles back control of that narrative to give visibility to the emotions and perspectives of the many women sidelined in traditional recitations of The Odyssey.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPat Barker
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No doubt Niviaq Korneliussen’s debut novel will catch many people’s eye for the novelty that its young author is from Greenland, but its real appeal and power resides in its diversity of assertive young voices. The narrative follows five different characters whose romantic and familial entanglements with each other produce moments of self-revelation and big life changes over a night of drinking and partying in the city of Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. “Crimson” is heavily inflected with Greenlandic and Danish language, references and culture, but its themes of young adults trying to come to terms with their gender and sexuality have a much more global outlook. The characters communicate with each other through Facebook and SMS text messages, sum up their moods in hashtags and search Google for answers to life’s questions. These are young people you could meet anywhere in the world. I found it poignant how the characters corner themselves into moments of intense self-reflection through these intensely private and confessional forms of electronic communication. In this virtual space they gradually sift through ways of being to discover who they really are and what they really want. By relating their different points of view in a finely-orchestrated succession, Korneliussen builds an engaging story with many revelations and forms a picture of a modern generation in microcosm.

This novel was first published in its native language with the title “Homo Sapienne” in 2014, but has now been translated into English. It’s just been published in the UK under the title “Crimson” but the American publication in January 2019 will publish it with the title “Last Night in Nuuk”. The UK title no doubt arose from the song ‘Crimson and Clover’ by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts which in the story plays in the bar on the night in question and is referenced several times throughout the text. The song’s dream-like quality and expression of spontaneous sensual intimacy amidst emotional confusion sums up the tone of the novel quite well. I’d have projected this book would take on a kind of cult status a generation ago, but it feels like its decidedly queer perspective will have a much more mainstream appeal today. I can imagine many kinds of young people relating to it and many mature people appreciating it. It’s not so much a novel that recognizably comes from a Nordic literary tradition, but from that of a new generation. It’s more in line with a novel such as “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney which is an Irish novel that doesn’t carry many hallmarks which make it specifically Irish. There’s something exciting about an emerging literary movement which isn’t restrained by national borders and alights on common experiences mediated through the digital world.

The five different characters may share a kind of frenetic energy and express different forms of queer experience, but each voice is quite distinct in its timbre and point of view. The opening section is narrated by Fia whose rapid-fire train of thought sparks with intriguing moments of reflection: “I make up my mind because death won’t leave my mind. There has always been something missing here.” She finds it challenging to articulately sum up how her desire can be defined and instead humorously relates her abrupt break with her boyfriend by stating “My thoughts make no sense. I’m simply tired of sausages.” Fia’s brother Inuk wrestles more combatively with issues of sexuality and national identity to show how deeply ingrained traditions die hard.

Later in the novel, the character of Ivik is more assertive in volleying back society’s confusion so as not to limit how he’s defined: “I was an enigma to my friends. They didn’t know which box to put me in. When they began to question me, I began to question them. I began to question why they called me into question. My parents, siblings and family began to be uncertain about me. They were uncertain about who I was. Since my family were uncertain about me, I began to be uncertain about myself. I was uncertain about why they were uncertain about me.” I enjoy how this string of logic takes on a musical quality in its repetition of words. But it’s also really powerful in how it shows the inner dialogue which takes place in response to being made to feel like a social outcast or oddity. I found it especially striking how Korneliussen captures Ivik’s emotional confusion in how physical barriers arise from sexual contact.

When the novel arrives at the final perspective of Sara it’s striking how the story takes on a much more hopeful tone. Throughout “Crimson” the characters must naturally stumble through a lot of messy drunkenness and unwieldy sexual encounters to gain insight into their own motivations. Sara discovers profundity and solace in the pleasure of really knowing oneself: “Being alone isn’t all bad. It’s enough that somebody loves you and you love somebody. If you love yourself, you’re not lonely when you’re alone.” Korneliussen is a welcome new voice in global fiction not because of the specifics of her geography, but because she captures so perceptively and vividly the expansive heart of a new generation.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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One of my highlights of visiting Madrid for the first time was being able to go to the Museo del Prado and see Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas in person. This is a painting I’d studied in art history at university and appreciated for its technique, but there’s something so arresting about seeing it in person with its odd composition and the confrontational stares from several figures depicted. So I was enticed to read Amy Sackville’s most recent novel because it portrays the life of Velázquez in his appointment to the royal court of King Philip IV of Spain. I wasn’t prepared for what a unique take the author gives on the historical novel which doesn’t simply tell the story the painter, the king and people associated with his court, but Sackville inserts her own voice and invites the reader to participate as well. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Patricia Duncker’s “Sophie and the Sybil” which depicts George Eliot’s tangled relationships as well as Duncker’s own feelings towards Eliot. In “Painter to the King” we’re led through Velázquez’s major paintings and shown the scenes and social milieu they sprung out of. But we’re also drawn to focus on certain aspects of the paintings (as pictorial details are reproduced throughout the text) and paintings which have been lost but which we know about through historical references. Sackville queries the gaps in history and the way the figures involved wanted their images and time period to be remembered. It forms such an original take on the past which invites the reader to participate in looking at its many layers as well as enjoying the experience of it in the story.

Philip IV of Spain is a fascinating figure as he was married to a French princess at the age of ten and made king of Spain and Portugal at the age of fifteen. That’s quite a responsibility for such a young boy! Of course, throughout his life he was bred and trained to uphold the Spanish Empire and pressured to secure his lineage with a son. Sackville refers to the urgency he feels to produce a healthy son throughout the novel and as the story progresses it becomes evident this isn’t a novel so much about Velázquez, but about this boy trapped in an impossibly high pressure situation. The painter faithfully records the toll Philip’s royal position takes on him with wrinkles and shadows around his eyes. I felt a growing sympathy for him as Philip frequently takes refuge in the quiet periods he spends with Velázquez while being painted. Sackville also compelling describes the way Philip struggles with his duties, urges, faith and fidelity. At the same time there is a tension between the professional and personal relationship Philip and Velázquez share. But Philip emerges as the most dynamic and fully rounded character in the novel.

Philip IV of Spain painted by Velazquez

Philip IV of Spain painted by Velazquez

Many other fascinating figures emerge as Sackville records this period of the royal court in Spain. There’s a red haired actress who sacrifices her promising career to be Philip’s long term mistress and she bears him the healthy son he always longed for but this boy must be classified as illegitimate. There’s also Sor Maria or Mary of Jesus of Ágreda who was a visionary abbess and spiritual writer that Philip takes as a trusted advisor and he corresponds with her throughout his life. So I felt somewhat disappointed that Sackville dipped into the stories of figures like this, but didn’t develop them further. I appreciated that doing so would have taken over the narrative and strayed from the central focus of the novel. I felt the author’s primary intent with this story is summed up in this quote where she’s writing about Velázquez’s process of painting: “To describe a thing, you describe the space around it; until you encounter the brim, the fringe, the outline, where the thing’s edges meet the world you find it in.” But it sometimes detracted from the pleasure of the novel that Sackville so determinedly portrays the outlines of life at court and glimpses of its most intriguing figures without going further into the heart of their stories.

However, overall I really enjoyed and appreciated how much more Sackville adds to the experience of a historical novel. It was fascinating to consider how this accumulation of paintings of the king must have made Philip reflective in a way not many other people could be in the 1600s because most wouldn’t have a visual record of their lives. It’s interesting to consider how this compares to our experience today since so many people now do have free access to photography which casually records our images over the years. Just as Philip must consider the way Velázquez has chosen to interpret his reign, we consider the way we’ve selected and catalogued out images to give a certain slant to our lives. Though I sometimes felt ambiguous about the authorial intrusion of the narrative, it felt poignant in how Sackville expresses how looking at paintings is a desire for a shared experience. There’s a tragedy in never really knowing how personal experience syncs with or differs from the figures and mood captured in paint. It’s a complex way of engaging with the past and I admire how Sackville gives so many unique ways of seeing this beguiling period of history.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAmy Sackville
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When Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent previous novel “Flight Behaviour” was published I remember her describing in an interview how she couldn’t imagine not addressing environmental concerns in her writing given the state of global warming. It’s been six years since then and her new novel “Unsheltered” also has environmental issues at its heart, but takes a different angle. The novel has two storylines woven together in alternating chapters that switch back and forth between the years 1871 and 2016. However, both stories are set within the same house in the community of Vineland. We follow the people who inhabit this plot of land in different centuries as they struggle with financial worries, reactionary politics and fractious family life. Through this Kingsolver creates a poignant dialogue with the past to show how some things change and others remain the same on both a personal and political level as society advances and evolves. What’s always so brilliant about Kingsolver’s writing is the depth of humanity she instils in her characters so that they feel very real and heartfelt.

I always find stories that frankly address the way average people must grapple with money trouble to be especially moving. So often books circumvent financial concerns by portraying privileged characters or they simply don’t address the issue at all. What Kingsolver seems particularly concerned in showing in this novel is the gradual disappearance of the middle class of America. The storyline that takes place near our present time focuses on a freelance journalist named Willa Knox whose family is on the brink of poverty despite the fact she and her husband Iano have worked hard their whole lives. Iano is a teacher at a university but he’s been unable to secure tenure. After a great tragedy their adult son Zeke who is a Harvard Business School graduate is left with an infant to care for on his own. Iano’s father Nick’s health is failing quickly, but Willa must painfully argue with their medical insurers to get the treatment he needs. The family partly subsists on food brought home by Willa’s daughter Tig from her job at a restaurant. Their house is literally falling apart around them and Willa often feels desperate despite having tried to make all the right choices to secure their family’s future. It’s a damning critique of the state of America that a family like this is crippled by financial pressures, but Kingsolver portrays their tenacity and warmth with wonderful insight.

The sections of the novel that take place during the 19th century also feature a central character struggling with money. Thatcher Greenwood is a science teacher whose new home has been shoddily built and he struggles to provide for his young wife and other members of their family. But he also grapples with the conservative religious values of his school who disallow him from teaching Darwin’s revolutionary findings and he’s eventually corralled into a gruelling public debate to defend the theory of evolution. He finds solace in befriending his neighbour Mary Treat, a biologist and real historical figure who assiduously observed and tested natural phenomena in her locality to the point of placing her finger in a Venus-flytrap for many hours to see if it’d feed on her! Mary Treat also kept a steady correspondence with Darwin himself. She’s a fascinating historical figure I’d never heard of before. Her surviving writing and letters attest to her pioneering scientific discoveries. Unfortunately, this historical section veers away from the budding relationship between Thatcher and Mary.

Scientist Mary Treat and a letter Darwin wrote to her.

Scientist Mary Treat and a letter Darwin wrote to her.

Kingsolver instead focuses on the murder case involving Charles Landis, a property developer who shot a journalist in cold blood after a critical article was published about him. It’s outrageous that Landis was judged in court to be not guilty based on temporary insanity. This is a significant and striking historical case and Kingsolver pointedly pairs it alongside the election of Donald Trump in the present day. But it unfortunately felt a bit too hastily crowbarred into the narrative so the author could make a statement. I feel it would have been truer to the story and integrity of its characters to keep Thatcher and Mary the focus of these sections instead. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating incident and it’s dismayingly noteworthy how bloated capitalists have criminally bent the law to their own purposes throughout American history.

Overall, the past and present sections are artfully woven together – a final phrase of each chapter creates the chapter title of every new section. These pairings combine to raise interesting questions about the meaning of history, progress and family. The question of shelter is explored throughout on a number of different levels from individual homes to the planet’s ability to provide to the way in which a country nurtures or neglects its people. These ideas are dramatically played out in the two families’ engaging stories. Kingsolver is wonderful at making shrewd observations about human nature whether it’s the process of grief “When someone mattered like that, you didn’t lose her at death. You lost her as you keep living” or humorously terse statements such as “Beautiful people liked to claim looks didn’t matter, while throwing that currency around like novice bank robbers.” She’s such a thoughtful and empathetic writer that I completely fall into her novels every time. “Unsheltered” is a book that’s fiercely concerned about where we’re going as a society, but offers a steely message of hope.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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When discussing the shortlist for this year’s prize I described how difficult it was to call who might win and I was surprised to see “Milkman” triumph last night. But I think this is a fantastic result for a number of reasons despite my heart’s wish to see “Washington Black” win and my finding Anna Burns’ novel a bit of a slog to read overall.

Many people will now buy “Milkman”, but I think the reality is that not many people will finish reading it. This goes to the centre of a longstanding tension between what you could term readability vs literary quality. Often we’re made to feel that challenging books are something we should force ourselves to read because they are “good” for us. Not many people would describe “Ulysses” or “Moby Dick” as delightful reading, but they’ve had an undeniable cultural influence and, of course, you can still find great pleasure in reading them. Many times challenging yourself to better understand a complex text can yield a lot of joy. My point is that I don’t think readability and literary quality are mutually exclusive. Also, we’re often made to feel if we don’t “get” a book we’re somehow less of a reader. If you’re not enjoying something don’t force yourself to read it. It simply might not be a book for you. Our relationships with individual books is complex. Sometimes it might be a question of timing or the circumstances in which you’re reading it. In this case, despite my reservations while reading “Milkman” I kept reading it not because I felt I had to, but because there were such insightful gems and moments of brilliance I wanted to see how the novel played out. I’m certainly glad I stuck with it because I really connected with the dilemma and justified indignation of its narrator, but if you gave up on it or start reading it now and decide to give up on it that’s a totally valid decision. And maybe you’ll want to try it again some day.

Here’s a special edition of the novel which the prize designed just for the author.

Here’s a special edition of the novel which the prize designed just for the author.

It also feels like “Milkman” being selected as the winner was something of a political choice. As has been often noted, a female author hasn’t won the prize since Eleanor Catton took the trophy in 2013. That Anna Burns is also from Northern Ireland feels significant as well – especially in the midst of Brexit. It’s great that the novel winning this award will bring more of a focus to female voices from this part of the world. If you’re interested in discovering more writers from Northern Ireland I’d highly suggest reading the anthology “The Glass Shore” which includes a wide range of short stories from many talented female writers from the North of Ireland. The fact that Burns’ gender or country of origin might have played a factor in the judges’ decision shouldn’t detract from the individual literary quality of “Milkman”. It’s a singular achievement (as all the novels on the shortlist are) so it just adds another dimension to the joy of this book winning.

I was lucky enough to be invited along to some of the parties last night so I also made a video discussing the shortlist a bit more and filming a vlog of my experiences on the night which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5X1vVokxfo&t=200s

Let me know what you think of “Milkman” winning the prize this year? Have you read it or are you tempted to read it now?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s been such an interesting year for the Booker Prize, not only in its Man Booker 50 celebrations but also in the dynamic and controversial longlist that this year’s judges created. I’ve enjoyed reading so many of the nominated books and discussing the prize with other readers. While I’d have loved to see novels like Jessie Greengrass’ “Sight” or Sophie Mackintosh’s “The Water Cure” in the final running, this is an absolutely fascinating and impressive shortlist. In past years, I’ve been able to make fairly confident predictions about winners such as Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” or George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo”. But I think it’s really too difficult to call this year! So I’ll try to weigh all the options that I’d consider if I were a judge.

“The Overstory” is so impressive for the way Powers’ language and style of writing changes the way the reader conceives of time by shifting focus to nature and the pace of trees. It’s also filled with such compelling characters and, while I didn’t think all the storylines worked, I was drawn into their complex emotional journey and the urgent message of their struggles. But I can already imagine the enormous outcry if another weighty American novel wins the prize since Yanks have snatched the trophy for two years running. It’s the novel most people are predicting will win, but I think we may be surprised.

There’s also the fact that a female author hasn’t won the prize since Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” in 2013. While I don’t think gender should be a determining factor in picking a prize that simply seeks to honour “the best novel in the opinion of the judges” you have to hope that men won’t come out on top year after year. Thankfully, since there are four women on this year’s shortlist, the odds are in favour of one of them taking the prize. Certainly, “Milkman” is an equally impressive feat for the vivid way it immerses the reader into a culture of fear and distrust in a country so violently divided by politics and religion. It’s certainly a challenging read, but if it wins I feel like the judges would be declaring “Trust us. Stick with it. It’s worth it!” And they’d be right to make that statement because Anna Burns’ writing is incredibly moving and powerful in certain sections of the book.

“Everything Under” is also a uniquely challenging reading experience for the way Daisy Johnson presents a fragmented portrait of broken families and outside individuals. But her prose are so invigorating, lyrical and give such a unique perspective on identity and language that I found this novel so moving. And, given that Johnson is the youngest ever shortlisted author for this prize, it’d be very encouraging to see a new writer of such talent and who represents such a refreshing perspective win the Booker.

I have to say for me it feels like “The Mars Room” is the weakest novel on the list but (like with Anna Burns’ novel) I felt there were sections of it which shone very powerfully. I really admire the way Rachel Kushner chose to highlight the complex lives of incarcerated individuals, but I felt the novel wasn’t structured in the best way. I think rereading Kushner’s novel (as the Booker judges are meant to read all the novels on the shortlist multiple times) would probably emphasize the problems in this novel’s unnecessary subplots.

I’m guessing the opposite would be true for Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take” which is a book I would really like to reread at one point. It’s so clever how he pairs the narrator’s tortured journey meeting the beleaguered and forgotten people of America with flashbacks to his traumatic experiences in the military and his pre-war life with his family. All this is told with such poetic power that I’m sure revisiting this narrative (especially by reading it aloud) would emphasize what a beautiful piece of storytelling it is.

However, the novel I keep thinking back on and which really captured my heart is Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black”. It’s a book that takes the reader on such an immersive and imaginative journey that I was totally captivated throughout. Some readers may be sceptical about the borderline fantastical elements of the plot. But I think it’s making such a positive message amidst so much suffering that individuals who have little opportunity to realise their full potential can discover ways to traverse the narrowmindedness and oppression of their times. Leaving aside any politics or other considerations, I think it’s the most accomplished novel on the list. I hope it wins.

The winner will be announced on the evening of Tuesday, October 16th. What book do you hope will win the Booker Prize this year?

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Robin Robertson is a Scottish writer who has published several successful collections of poetry. His book “The Long Take” is described on the inside flap of the dust jacket as “a noir narrative written with the intensity and power of poetry.” I'm all for cross-genre novels and blended forms of writing. I don't think categorization of books makes an impact on the actual reading experience. But I do get slightly anxious when self-proclaimed poets write books which are classified as novels as I described in my post about Katharine Kilalea's debut novel “OK, Mr Field” because sometimes the lyricism of the language used can overwhelm the narrative. Robertson's story follows a WWII veteran named Walker who feels like he can't return to his home in Canada because the war changed him. Instead he treads the streets of NYC and cities in California where he becomes a journalist investigating the homeless and other dispossessed broken individuals who are churned under the wheels of progress. Interspersed with his conversations and encounters are italicised recollections of his time in battle and with his family. It forms a powerful portrait of an individual haunted by the bitter truth of war who casts a skeptical eye on a country determined to move forward while forgetting the past and its downtrodden people. The narrative is formed like an epic poem but completely works as a novel with many breathtakingly beautiful passages. 

Because Walker suffers from PTSD, he's highly sensitised to certain violent sights and sounds which trigger his memories. So it makes sense that the novel is layered so much in its passages where brutal actions seem to blend between past and present. What shone through the most for me were the voices of people who Walker meets. Their idiosyncratic speech springs out in dialogue that seems to fully encapsulate their characters. So even if there aren't descriptions of their physical characteristics I felt like I could see the person he was talking to. These exchanges veer from heartbreaking confessions to aggressive exchanges to comic observations such as when a woman on a bus shouts at her unruly daughter “I got two words for you. Be-have.” This made me feel like I was really experiencing Walker's journey with him when paired with his poetic observations of the streets and buildings surrounding him. 

Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame in ‘Sudden Fear’

Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame in ‘Sudden Fear’

Walker testifies to the reality of many soldiers who returned and found they couldn't find work or didn't receive adequate support for the physical and mental trauma they received in wartime. But he also observes the many casualties of change in LA and how the new physical structures of the city seem to reinforce its divisions: “It's the only city-planning there is – segregation.” He extrapolates from this to criticism of the country in general in its systematic oppression of racial minorities: “We're back to circling the wagons. This is our fear of 'the other' – Indians, blacks, Mexicans, Communists, Muslims, whatever – America has to have its monsters, so we can zone them, segregate them, if possible, shoot them.” He is determined to document the voices which aren't represented in the larger media and the mythology of the movies which seem to pave over the truth of ordinary citizens. At several points its as if the very nature of the physical locations he visits has been eclipsed by the role they've played in cinematic history rather than existing in reality. 

As the story progresses, Walker's character evolves and he reveals aspects of himself in a way I found really effective and it's why I think this book works so convincingly as a novel. Robertson perfectly encapsulates Walker as a forgotten figure when he writes “He's like the faded lettering on buildings, old advertisements for things you can't buy, that aren't made any more: ghost signs.” It's a striking portrait of a person and a country that's both powerfully heartfelt and relevant to our world today. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRobin Robertson
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Over the weekend my partner kindly took me to Berlin as a belated birthday present. This is the first time I’ve visited the city and one of the highlights was taking a tour of the primary neighbourhood Christopher Isherwood inhabited when he lived there from 1929-1933. This tour was given by a gracious and informative man named Brendan who has an extensive amount of knowledge about Isherwood’s writing/experiences and life in Berlin during the interwar period and you can find information about his tours on the site Isherwood’s Neighbourhood.

I read “The Berlin Stories” when I was a teenager and, like many people, came to this book after watching the film ‘Cabaret’. So, even though Isherwood only lived in Berlin for a relatively short amount of time, he’s inextricably associated with the city in my mind. I reread sections of the stories to my partner while we were staying there. What I so admire about them is how lively and fun they are while also containing such an ominous feeling about this incredibly politically troubled city. There’s a glamour to the bohemian sensibility of the many freewheeling sexually-liberated characters, but also a melancholy edge to some like landlady Frl Schroeder whose position in society was so reduced due to rising inflation and the downfall of the middle class. And, of course, the encroaching control of Nazis in the city darkly colours all the stories.  

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We weren’t able to enter the apartment Isherwood rented because it’s still privately owned, but there’s a plaque outside. Passages of the novel really came alive as we looked at the facades of the buildings, many of which were stripped of decoration from Nazi influence or which had to be rebuilt after wartime bombing. One of the most striking locations we stopped at was the former site of the Eldorado club, a nightspot popular with gay crowds and famous for its cabarets which featured performances from people such as Marlene Dietrich in the late 20s and early 30s. It was a venue that Isherwood undoubtably frequented and informed his writing. But it was bracing hearing about how this space of liberation was turned from such a lively club to the local headquarters for the Sturmabteilung, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary. This happened over the space of a few short years and its sobering to think about how quickly things can change.

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Berlin is an absolutely beautiful and lively city, but it’s also filled with such a weighty sense of absence. This can be seen on both a large and small scale wherever you go. There’s the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which stands badly damaged from a 1943 bombing raid and I also took a tour of the Tempelhof Airport which is enormous and largely empty, but the airfield is currently the site of a refugee camp as featured in Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel “Go, Went, Gone”. There’s the Stolpersteine which are small brass memorial plates inscribed with the names and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution that can be found throughout the city. I also visited the Bebelplatz, a square which was the site of the largest Nazi book burning ceremonies and now has a memorial of a glass plate set into the cobbles giving a view down below to empty bookcases with space enough for 20,000 books.

I’d love to spend longer than a weekend in Berlin and learn more about it. I feel like my knowledge of German literature is seriously lacking so if you have any suggestions for books about Berlin I’d be grateful to hear them.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
6 CommentsPost a comment
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I’ve been hesitant about reading Richard Powers for years because some readers I know have dismissed his writing as pretentious. I know I shouldn’t have let this put me off. He’s produced such an impressive body of work with weighty highly-praised novels that have won him the National Book Award, a Pushcart Prize and made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His recent shortlisting on the Man Booker Prize finally pushed me to give his writing a try and I’m so glad I did because this novel is magnificent. What’s more it’s much more approachable and enjoyable than I thought it would be. It’s a truly epic tale primarily about ecological activism, family heritage and the surprising interconnections between people and the natural world. I was immediately enthralled by the long separate stories of nine individuals which vary so wildly in subject matter. They range from tales about a Chinese immigrant to a farmer that embarks on an ambitious photography project to a boy with a flair for writing code at the dawn of the computer age to a college girl with a hazardous bad-girl streak. He frames these stories through the lens of trees so time is altered to recount events at their pace of life. The stories initially leap through years and big events are recounted in brief. While they seem so disparate at first they gradually thread together throughout the novel to tell a much larger story. Powers structures the novel like a tree itself from the roots to the trunk to the crown to the seeds. While I don’t think every storyline or device he used worked, I was nevertheless astounded by the ambitious scope of this novel and found it continuously engaging despite its considerable length.

It’s quite a challenge to get humans to think on a timescale like that which trees experience, but Powers accomplishes this in such an inventive way. One character photographs a certain tree at a particular time for many years and its observed how “The generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos’ frame.” In this way, Powers trains the reader to think beyond the emotions which rule our daily lives and consider the way which trees bear themselves throughout time and in the world. His mission for doing this is admirable because it encourages the reader to really feel the central concern of the novel which is the rapid destruction of our natural world.

One scene vividly describes the soulless task of working in a mega website’s fulfilment centre.

One scene vividly describes the soulless task of working in a mega website’s fulfilment centre.

Powers even seems to doubt the ambition of his mission within the course of the book. Late in the novel he observes how “To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.” It’s so challenging for us to conceive of the larger struggles of the world which is why watching news about depressing world events feels important to us, but doesn’t often motivate us to instigate any actual changes. What I think Powers is attempting to do in this novel is compel us to re-view how we look at time and nature in a radically different way – while also doing that exact thing of compelling his readers with the stories about a few lost people.

I was most strongly drawn to the story of Adam who possesses unique psychological insight because he found it so difficult to connect with other people as a child. It’s so moving how Powers describes that for Adam “Every hug is a small, soft jail.” Equally, I really enjoyed the story of Neelay whose physical disability compels him to vividly conjure alternate lives. It’s also very effective how Powers shows the trajectory of student Olivia’s life and how he frames this within sections of the novel. But I was somewhat put off by the story of Ray and Dorothy’s relationship. Their sections aren’t badly told, but the progression of their story felt somewhat cliched to me and noticeably separate from the intertwining stories of the other characters. I’m not sure the way in which the characters’ stories mix together was always believable either. But they are so dramatically told and contain such fascinating insights drawn from a wide range of subjects. I was glad sink wholeheartedly into this wildly energetic and impressive novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRichard Powers
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I’ve not read “Orlando” since university so in my memory it felt like one of her more flighty and playful novels focusing on gender. It is that but there is so much more in the novel I’d forgotten about or missed when I read it the first time. I think Woolf’s highly stylised prose that are packed with so many ideas make her an especially interesting author to revisit at different stages of your life. Orlando is famously about an individual who begins as a teenage nobleman in the Elizabethan era and who lives through a few centuries aging little and swapping genders. It’s remarkably inventive and forward thinking. The character was perfectly realized by Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter’s 1992 film and I recently visited the Charleston Trust where they are currently celebrating the book’s 90th birthday with different events and exhibits. I relish visiting the Charleston House and Monk’s House whenever I can. I saw writer Olivia Laing and the artist/writer La JohnJoseph give an interesting performance responding to the book. Seeing different modern takes and interpretations of the novel has given me a whole new appreciation of Woolf’s vision alongside revisiting the text itself.

Something I didn’t recall from my first reading of the book was the way Woolf pokes fun at and satirizes being a writer throughout the novel. Orlando aspires to be a poet working on a poem about an oak tree for a few centuries. But Orlando’s opinions about writing and the literary community change over time. Orlando encounters Alexander Pope and other literary figures who disillusion him/her about being a writer and Woolf marks how writers’ reputation and stature changes dramatically over time. The book recounts how insular some literary circles can be (how little has changed over time!) and how Orlando is drawn to only writing for himself and then abandoning writing altogether to just appreciate nature, but Orlando is eventually drawn back to working on that epic poem. There’s a lot of ironic humour when Woolf contemplates how “once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens it so that it falls in easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.” Woolf herself is such a fixture in the literary canon now that I feel this statement really humanizes her. The way she writes about conflicted feelings about the meaning and pursuit of literature makes me consider how she must have felt so conflicted herself despite her stature as a highly stylized writer devoted to the arts.

Connected to that is the whole premise of “Orlando” which is ostensibly a biography of this fantastical figure. The novel frequently makes references to the problem of writing a biography and the difficulties of trying to summarize someone’s life when really a person is infinitely more complex than recounting the facts about their history. This feels especially poignant since Woolf’s own father Leslie Stephen was a biographer himself. When Orlando considers biographical information about Alexander Pope it’s observed how “every secret of a writer’s soul every experience of his life every quality of his mind is written large in his works. Yet we require critics to explain the one and biographers to expound the other. That time hangs heavy on people’s hands is the only explanation of the monstrous growth.” It’s so interesting how Woolf seems to be skewering literary criticism and biography here which can only give a subjective interpretation of a writer’s work. But also the observation about people having too much time on their hands when Orlando is in some ways plagued with an immortality which forces him/her to continue forth without ever discovering answers or true revelations. All that changes is the proliferation of literature which increases when the development of mass printing takes place and Orlando studiously orders all the latest literature available.

I was also excited by noticing imagery and symbolism in Orlando which recurs in other books by Woolf. So, as in “To the Lighthouse” she makes the same metaphor about a lighthouse beam temporarily illuminating something just as our fleeting thoughts give a fleeting insight into our being. She also portrays an individual observing waves and toy boats at the Serpentine and then imaginatively inflates these to much larger events and occurrences in civilization. The character of Rhoda does the same thing rocking paper ships in a basin of water in “The Waves”. It’s interesting seeing how Woolf reworked certain metaphors over her different novels to assiduously probe the questions about life which were most central to her endeavours. Also, since I read Cavendish’s “The Blazing World” for the first time this year I was struck by how part of “Orlando’s” boundary-breaking imaginative influence must have come from this earlier 17th century novel. This is despite Woolf’s dismissive tone about how Cavendish “frittered her time away scribbling nonsense and plunging ever deeper into obscurity and folly” as she wrote in her essay “A Room of One’s Own”.

Orlando frequently refers to an emerald frog throughout the novel

Orlando frequently refers to an emerald frog throughout the novel

Of course, one of the brightest and most striking things about the book is how Orlando changes sex halfway through. But I’d forgotten how several other characters in the book also have a more fluid sense of gender and swap their sex at certain points. One of the great points that Laing and La JohnJoseph made in their talk was how enlivening it is to read a story about a character who swaps genders without their being oppressed for doing so and there’s something liberating and freeing about the way Orlando simply wakes up one day as a woman. Of course, Orlando does experience social trouble for the way the question of his/her gender is taken to court, there’s the issue of property ownership and how restrictive female clothes become for Orlando over time. But overall, it’s seen as a positive natural thing. One of the strongest statements Woolf makes about this is “Different though the sexes are they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness while underneath the sex is the very opposite from what it is above.” This powerfully marks the subtly of gender identity, but I was struck by how Laing observed that Woolf also frequently makes moving statements about how (as well as the question of gender) she portrays the way we’re all ever-changing beings beneath the identity on the surface. Later on in the book, Orlando frequently changes back and forth between male and female clothes and takes on a proliferation of identities to suit Orlando’s mood and the occasion. It feels like this character is an early proponent of how everything about the way we socially present ourselves is a form of drag.

I really appreciated the emotional and intellectual pleasures of this novel by revisiting it after such a long time. As much as I’m inspired by many aspects of it, I could also argue with Woolf’s perspective and point of view. One of the most notable the privileged and classist attitude Woolf exhibits through the novel and her other writing. She makes questionable statements about the worth of teaching the working class to read and at one point when Orlando goes out to try to appreciate the world he/she condescending exclaims “I like peasants. I understand crops”. But it would be easy to argue that Woolf is highly aware of writing from a position of privilege and mocking this state within the novel. Nevertheless, these opinions make Woolf all the more interesting and worthy of revisiting as a writer who contains infinite complexity and who is endlessly enjoyable to discuss.

You can watch more of my reaction to revisiting Woolf in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_brld3IHRq4

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesVirginia Woolf
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There’s something so invitingly intoxicating about the way Sarah Perry blends the tone of classic Victorian literature with a modern sensibility. Her previous novel “The Essex Serpent” was actually set in the Victorian era and new novel “Melmoth” is set roughly in present-day Prague. But they both employ a self-conscious authorial control over the narrative that contemplates many moral questions while (most importantly) telling a riveting gothic-inflected story at the same time.

“Melmoth” centres around the story of Helen Franklin, an English woman with a guilty secret working as a translator of mundane manuals in the Czech Rep. But the novel also includes many fictional documents from the past detailing Nazi occupations and the forced migration of different ethnicities. All these accounts are tied together with occasional sightings of a figure called Melmoth, a dark-clad woman with bleeding feet who legend claims roams the Earth for eternity seeking to assuage her piteous loneliness. As Helen surveys these documents from different cultures about individuals who make dubious choices in times of political unrest, she gradually confronts her own past and the possibility that Melmoth is now pursuing her.

Helen goes to a dramatic production of the opera Rusalka about a water sprite from Slavic mythology

Helen goes to a dramatic production of the opera Rusalka about a water sprite from Slavic mythology

Perry creates a menacing sense of atmosphere filled with unsettling natural phenomena and things which seem to be lurking in the shadows just out of sight. The question of whether Melmoth is real or not is teased out in quite a unique way where her presence is both feared and invited. At one point Helen contemplates how “I wasn’t only scared. I wanted something to be there – I wanted to see something waiting for me – do you think you can long for something that scares you half to death.” There’s the dark desire to be titillated by what scares us the most and there’s the conscience-stricken belief we deserve to be punished. Helen is challenged over the course of this tale to radically confront and judge herself. This is a richly evocative novel that provokes unsettling questions about our obligations to people in need and what we do with our guilt when we’re all on our own.  

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Perry