Helen Dunmore was a British writer who produced an impressive amount of work over the past thirty years with dozens of novels, children's books, short stories and poetry collections. She's someone I always meant to read but never got around to. Sadly she died in 2017, but the following year her final poetry collection posthumously won the Costa Book Awards Book of the Year. Since I'm currently reading the novels longlisted for this year's Women's Prize I thought I'd go back and read Dunmore's “A Spell of Winter” which won this award's very first prize in 1996 (when it was known as the Orange Prize.) The story is told from the point of view of Catherine who grows up in a country estate with her brother Rob and their grandfather. Their father is housed in an asylum and their mother is a figure of local scandal who lives in France. The children are never told exactly what caused their family to splinter apart so they grow to rely solely on each other in this circumscribed world. But as they enter adulthood the close bond they share must be left behind though Catherine ardently wants things to remain the same. There are some very surprising twists in this novel and I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it. 

The novel is mostly made up of Catherine's sensory experience as she describes her life in the estate and changing relationships with people associated with it. There are a lot of beautiful descriptions and clever glimpses of psychological insight. These include humorous descriptions such as a comment about how the girl's teacher dresses so darkly: “Miss Gallagher could make a sunny day look like a funeral.” Or there are sometimes larger insights such as this description about how Catherine relates to history: “The past was not something we could live in, because it had nothing to do with life. It was something we lugged about, as heavy as a sack of rotting apples.” In this way, the sharp observations and melancholy tone of the story reminded me of Marilynne Robinson brilliant novel “Housekeeping”.

Though the plot takes a couple surprising turns in a way that builds a lot of suspense, I found the end of the novel to be somewhat disappointing and lackadaisical. It's odd because it feels like it ends at what should be a very dramatic point, but instead of feeling gripped it felt like a glum inevitability. I'm not someone who often gets overly concerned with plot as I can enjoy beautiful writing and rich descriptions of everyday experience. But ultimately I found it hard to relate to or understand Catherine which left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed and mystified by the book as a whole. I'll be curious now to go back and read what people made of this novel at the time since it was a prize winner. And, though this novel wasn't an entirely satisfying experience, I'll be very curious to read more of Dunmore's writing in the future.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHelen Dunmore

When I was very young one of my favourite books was “James and the Giant Peach”. I can still remember the vivid descriptions of James tasting a peach which made me crave the fruit for years to come. For some reason I never read more of his famous tales for children, but of course I was familiar with the stories from popular films like ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’. What’s so interesting about Dahl is that his imaginatively off-kilter way of presenting the world shines through these dark fable-like stories that often involve some lesson about morality. I only became aware that Dahl also wrote stories for adults with Penguin’s recent publication of new series of books of short stories grouped under particular topics. It’s fascinating how Dahl’s distinct style still shows in these tales but they concentrate more on adult themes such as ambition, power, madness, cruelty and lust. I read the collection which centres around “Trickery” and hence each story involves a certain twist where different characters’ attempts to deceive cause them unexpected trouble. These play out in a series of creative and engaging ways which make them an absolute pleasure to read.

Although these stories are definitely for adults, Dahl’s sensibility is particularly suited to a child-like mentality. That’s not to say it’s naïve but it’s a perspective of wonder that shows how our imaginations continue to play a heavy role in our everyday lives even when we’re older. This can especially be seen in very short pieces that begin and end this collection. In the stunningly beautiful opening story ‘The Wish’ a boy plays a familiar game where he traverses sections of a carpet that has different coloured patches. He jumps between patches as if avoiding lava or snakes. Soon it begins to feel all too real and it’s as if his feverish imagination has overtaken his reality. Dahl demonstrates how this also occurs for adults as well in many different fascinating situations where characters believe their ingenious methods of trickery can manipulate things for their benefit. For instance, poachers try out a new method of trapping pheasants, a man in a foreign country tries to sleep with another man’s wife and daughter, a passenger displays unexpected talents, a couple attempt to conceal a diamond that unexpectedly comes into their possession. But our ability to control the world and other people often isn’t as strong as we think. Events go awry and we often get bitten back.

Episode from Alfred Hitchcock Presents inspired by a Dahl story.

Episode from Alfred Hitchcock Presents inspired by a Dahl story.

One particularly interesting story induced a feeling of déjà vu for me. ‘Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat’ is about a philandering wife who attempts to conceal from her husband an expensive gift that her lover gave her. When I was younger I loved watching the short and clever series of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As I was reading the story it started to feel increasingly familiar and I finally realized that this was one of Dahl’s many tales which was turned into an episode from this Hitchcock series. Dahl’s writing is well suited for Hitchcock since his stories so frequently involve a fun twist and this story is no exception. It’s also an example of a story which hasn’t aged that well or contains a method of writing that would fall under greater scrutiny today. It begins with a paranoid rant about the deception and greed of women which is obviously meant to be satirical. But occasionally the language Dahl uses for discussing women or people of different ethnic identities might come across as insensitive or cringe-worthy to some modern readers – particularly in the story ‘The Visitor’ which contains a lot of degrading references to Egyptians and Arabs. It’s true that these are all made through the subjective perspective of a particular character so can’t necessarily be attributed to Dahl’s point of view. But they are used in the structure of the story to create a feeling of menace and it’s this narrative strategy by the author that comes across as somewhat xenophobic. I’m sure the tone of this writing wouldn’t have mattered to most readers at the time it was published but it seems worth pointing it out now and stating that it’s mainly confined to this particular story in this collection.

I think this all adds another interesting element to the stories about how fear and prejudice can play into the way adults can imagine illogical threats coming from people and places outside their experience of normality. When writing about this its only right for Dahl to bring in people’s complicated opinions and prejudices as long as its done in a way which still respects the humanity of all the characters rather than just as a means of serving the plot or making a cheap joke. Regardless of these issues, it’s easy to enjoy these stories for their ingenious ways of showing how people can entrap themselves in sticky situations when they consciously attempt to deceive. Sometimes I could guess what the twist of the story would be before it happened, but part of the pleasure in these types of tales is anticipating how it might play out and then seeing how things are actually resolved in the story. I think Dahl’s fiction is particularly suited to being read aloud so people can share in that anticipation as it unfolds. The tales in “Trickery” have sparked my interest in reading the other volumes of Dahl’s stories in this beautifully designed new series.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRoald Dahl

“Wide Sargasso Sea” is probably Jean Rhys’ most famous novel as it is widely taught in literature courses. It’s seen as an important novel for being a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” by imagining the life of Bertha Antoinetta Mason (the famous mad woman in the attic/first Mrs Rochester at Thornfield Hall). It’s also hailed as an important work of postcolonial literature for its portrayal of Antoinette’s conflicted sense of national/racial identity as her husband is repulsed and rejects her Creole heritage leading to her descent into madness. I read this novel considering these aspects many years ago, but it’s been such a pleasure revisiting it alongside Rhys’ earlier novels as they share or provide a different perspective on many of its ideas, themes and characters. For instance, Antoinette’s claim that “I often stay in bed all day” echoes closely Anna in “Voyage in the Dark” who often does the same. In addition, Antoinette’s Caribbean upbringing is so clearly twined with Rhys’ own childhood in the island of Dominica. This makes “Wide Sargasso Sea” a fascinating encapsulation of much of the material Rhys was working out in her writing throughout her entire life. It’s tremendously moving to think how Rhys came to identify with Brontë’s slighted “mad woman” when her second husband gave her a copy of “Jane Eyre” to read. In the decades between the publication of her previous novel “Good Morning, Midnight” in 1939 and the eventual publication of “Wide Sargasso Sea” in 1966, Rhys laboured to formulate this story by writing many drafts and perfecting the language. The result is a stunning slender novel that stands as the crowning achievement of Rhys’ literary career.

The first third of the novel is about Antoinette’s Jamaican childhood. It’s filled with vibrant invocations of the sensations and social makeup of this racially-divided community. She and her mother live reclusively in the run-down house after the death of her father. But one day her mother marries again and, though they live in relative harmony, the racial tension increases as resentment against the family grows. One tense night their house is set upon and burnt to the ground leading to the tragic death of Antoinette’s disabled brother. This event foreshadows what is to come many years later when Antoinette lives as a virtual prisoner in Thornfield Hall and resolves to burn it down. These destructions of home are physical expressions of the untenable existence of their inhabitants. In Jamaica, the house was burnt because some of the island’s black community were showing this Creole family (whose forefathers owned slaves) that they don’t belong. It leads Antoinette to feel “I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.” This anxiety can be felt throughout all of Jean Rhys’ writing, but in this novel it gives a kind of logic to her eventual destruction of Thornfield Hall because it’s somewhere she clearly feels like she doesn’t belong. It’s her way of shattering what she views to be an illusion.

After the destruction of her family’s Jamaican home her mother suffers from mental instability and she is sequestered in a sanatorium. Antoinette’s future is ambivalent, but in the second part we learn an unnamed English gentleman has come to marry her as the marriage comes with a large dowry. Here Rhys narrates from a man’s perspective which is highly uncommon in her fiction. We get his cold-minded blunt thoughts about this marriage of convenience: “I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did.” Because he cannot understand her or life on the island, he grows increasingly estranged and mistrustful. A man named Daniel begins sending him letters making accusations about madness in Antoinette’s family and Antoinette’s old nurse Christophine expresses her mistrust of him and plies him with her Obeah potions making him violently ill. In a weakened delusional state he comes to feel that “it seemed everything around me was hostile. The telescope drew away and said don't touch me. The trees were threatening.” This curiously echoes the wild fantasies and paranoia of Anna in “Voyage in the Dark” when she becomes seriously ill towards the end of that novel. It also leads him to abandon Island life and return to England, especially after his father and brother’s death lead him to inheriting the family fortune and stately home.

You can visit the attic in the stately home  Norton Conveyers  which inspired Charlotte Bronte after she heard stories of a woman known as "Mad Mary" who was confined here.

You can visit the attic in the stately home Norton Conveyers which inspired Charlotte Bronte after she heard stories of a woman known as "Mad Mary" who was confined here.

The short third part of this novel shifts to Grace who is charged with caring for Antoinette (renamed Bertha by her husband) while she’s hidden away in Thornfield Hall. For Antoinette, the England she experiences does not match the England in her mind. Throughout the novel the reality of England is questioned. Antoinette states early on that an island friend who now lives in England writes her that “London is a cold dark dream sometimes. I want to wake up.” Christophine questions whether England even exists because she’s never seen it. And when Antoinette sneaks out of her attic prison in the evenings she feels “This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.” The reality of the country can never match its mythological status in the minds of these people from the Caribbean. In his frenzied state of mind Antoinette’s husband comes to find “suddenly, bewilderingly, I was certain that everything I had imagined to be truth was false. False. Only the magic and the dream are true – all the rest's a lie.” Such a revelation also seems to come to Antoinette who seeks to destroy the lie of the life around her with fire.

While “Wide Sargasso Sea” has a beautiful artfulness to it, I slightly missed the raw feeling of Rhys’ earlier novels which in some ways seem like more a pure expression of her state of being. She set herself the noble task of telling Antoinette’s story to show the potential full complexity of a character that is often thought of dismissingly as simply the “mad woman in the attic.” But, whatever nuance she gave to her back story, Antoinette had to suffer the same fate as Brontë’s character. This inhibits the story in a way, but it also allowed Rhys the freedom to fully explore the complicated aspects of identity she’d been writing about for years by going back to the Caribbean in her fiction. It feels like a disservice to Rhys that this novel is often only read in isolation because I think I understand it so much better seeing it in relation to her other writing. I think of it more like a crystallization of her life’s work. Being part of this Jean Rhys Reading Week has shown me what beautiful variations Rhys created in her short powerful novels to expound upon her preoccupations and unique perspective about life. I hope that this week has done a little to encourage people to see in Jean Rhys’ other books that there is so much more to her writing than only “Wide Sargasso Sea”.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJean Rhys
7 CommentsPost a comment

In Jean Rhys’ third published novel “Voyage in the Dark”, the conflict the author feels between her childhood growing up in the Caribbean island of Dominica and European adulthood comes to the forefront. The novel begins with eighteen year old Anna who makes a meagre living as an actress in London. In richly descriptive passages Rhys observes the marked differences between the colours, textures and smells of this city compared to her West Indies childhood. Flashes of her island life recur throughout the novel, but she doesn’t sentimentalize this experience. Instead, Rhys shows how this upbringing and move to England created a deeply conflicted sense of identity for Anna which has persisted and grown as she navigates life in the capital. She has a number of difficult affairs with men who she becomes financially and emotionally dependent upon while sinking further into a desultory existence. This novel shows with a rare and brutal honesty a young woman’s conflicted feelings about relationships, her national/racial identity and aimless place in society.

One of the most glaring things I found at the start of this novel were references to black people in the West Indies – Rhys uses the N word – which today is shocking to read, but I get the feeling that this was simply the common parlance of the time. However, at a couple of points she also makes concerning references to Jewish people – again, this feels more like an attitude of the time rather than there being anything explicitly anti-Semitic. I’m not trying to excuse or condone any dodgy references to race, but I’m just trying to place them in context and highlight the problematic nature of reading these things.

Race was clearly a highly politicised subject for Anna growing up in the Caribbean. In one scene her stepmother Hester expresses disgust that a member of Anna’s family lived openly with his mixed race children. Anna herself views black people as “better” than white people and even states “I wanted to be black. I always wanted to be black... Being black is warm and gay, being white is cold and sad.” Making any generalization about race is simplistic, but Anna’s statement shows part of the reason why she seems to have such low self-worth. She’s very aware of power imbalances between different races and she doesn’t want to inhabit her own skin. The person she recalls most fondly from her childhood is a black housekeeper named Francine who she was very close to, but who she’s lost contact with since moving to England. When meeting her stepmother Hester she’s belittled and caught between the arguments of family members about who should help support her. She’s made to feel she doesn’t belong anywhere.

Anna’s solution for taking care of herself is to partly rely on men. She and her friend Maudie go out to pick up gentlemen. An older well-to-do man named Walter takes her up for a time. Interestingly her initial reaction to many of the men she meets is disgust: “He kissed me again, and his mouth was hard… and I hated him.” Yet, soon after, she seems to try to convince herself to fall for him: “Soon he'll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He'll be different and so I'll be different. It'll be different. I thought, 'It'll be different, different. It must be different.” This repetition of “different” is like a desperate plea to change her own attitude and tragically it seems to work because when Walter finally tries to throw her off she acts heartbroken and lovesick. Whether she genuinely grew to love him or not can be debated. She follows similar patterns with several other men where her emotions careen between passion and disgust with an expectation that they’ll help financially support her. Anna makes the humorous observation that “Money ought to be everybody's. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly.”

Over the course of the novel Anna strikes up a number of compelling female friendships. She has multiple friends she used to be in shows with who seem to be in a similar situation. They’re unable to make much of a career out of performing and try instead to foster financially convenient relationships with men. Her friend Laurie is one of the most accomplished at this, circulating through several amenable gentlemen. She shows financial savvy in claiming to always put half of whatever she’s given aside for a time when getting dates won’t be as easy. I found the dialogue of these women to be particularly delightful with their evocative terminology. Maudie advises her that “The more you swank the better. If you don't swank a bit nothing's any use.” And later Laurie uses the hard-hitting logic that “When you start thinking about things the answer's a lemon. A lemon, that's what the answer is.” These zippy bits of dialogue add to the sense that Anna and these other girls have a definite world-weariness. They’ve taken a self-reliant stance believing that they must trade upon a performed sense of femininity to get what they want and, once they’ve got the money/clothing/real estate that they want out of men, they don’t expect any genuine feelings to remain. By ushering in convenient acquaintances with men Anna comes to believe “it's true, isn't it? People are much cheaper than things.” An emotionally-volatile woman named Ethel who Anna rooms with later in the novel and who tries to set up a profitable business for herself becomes a figure of ridicule to Anna and her friend. It appears that such ambition is beyond them.

It’s interesting how essentially unlikeable Anna becomes in the novel, but how deeply I felt for her. She spends as much time as possible lounging in a bath or her bedroom and frequently feigns illnesses. Rhys has an unerring knack for writing about women whose desires in life have been so blunted by disappointment they can’t commit to any hopeful vision of the future. Just when I felt like shouting at Anna to pull herself up and try to accomplish something worthwhile it’s like Rhys answered me: “what happens if you don't hope any more, if your back's broken? What happens then?” Anna is a character who acts as if she’s physically debilitated. Her spirit is what is broken making it impossible for her to progress or grow.

A soucriant

A soucriant

Instead of finding hope, the novel takes increasingly dark turns and brings Anna close to death. In this distressed state the narrative becomes more hallucinatory. Her imagination is populated by Caribbean mythology. The image of a soucriant (a blood sucking hag in folklore) becomes particularly clear to Anna – both as a monster that wants to destroy her and the monster she believes she has become. It’s particularly skilful and emotional how Rhys writes about Anna in this state. Rhys deals with abortion in quite a vivid way in this novel and I can’t help but feel this must have come across as quite a taboo and shocking subject at the time of its publication in 1934.

It feels like the real tragedy about Anna (and many of the central characters in Rhys’ novels) is that she has no touchstone to lift her out of her own experience. In this novel a character named Vincent tries to coax Anna to read claiming “a good book... It makes you see what is real and what is just imaginary.” I think Rhys probably viewed this as a very simplistic way of reading. Her books don’t make a clear distinction between real/imaginary, but brilliantly show what is true for her characters’ experience by artistically showing us their psychological reality. Perhaps Anna (and Rhys when she was Anna’s age) believed that she was excluded from engaging meaningfully with literature because it didn’t reflect her experience. At one point she observes “There was a damned bust of Voltaire, stuck up on a shelf, sneering away. There are all sorts of sneers, of course, the high and the low.” In typical Rhys style, even inanimate objects have an emotional reaction to the central character who seemingly has an antagonistic relationship with everyone and everything in the world.

Given how heavily “Voyage in the Dark” refers back to Anna’s experience growing up in the West Indies, it’s especially interesting to compare this novel to Rhys’ most famous novel “Wide Sargasso Sea”. Here the struggle of cross-national identity reaches an entirely different kind of crisis point. The more I read of Rhys the more I become aware of particular subjects and ideas she returns to. Her style of writing has a special humour amidst all the overwhelming bleakness. Every book feels exquisitely crafted and exists independently on its own. This novel focuses on an individual whose expectations for life have been flattened before her adult life has even begun. The haunting question is where can she go from here?

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJean Rhys
4 CommentsPost a comment

We’re getting to a point where a library isn’t a library anymore. As Ali Smith humorously discovers in the opening of her new book of short stories, a building in central London marked library is now more likely to be a private members’ club that is focused on lists of cocktails rather than sharing literature. Despite the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act in the UK which states local councils are under a legal obligation to provide library services, over ten percent of the libraries in this country are under threat of closure. We’re told there isn’t enough money for libraries; we’re told banks need the money more. Campaigns have been afoot across the country to save these vital cultural institutions. This book is a way of weaving together the way in which literature is a physical part of our everyday lives. Interspersed with the stylistically-daring short stories in this collection are testimonies about our personal relationships with libraries by people ranging from authors such as Helen Oyeyemi, Kate Atkinson, Kamila Shamsie, Miriam Toews and Jackie Kay to fabulous, passionate people in publishing like Anna Ridley and Anna James. Libraries make authors and publishers who make more books which in turn make more libraries and authors and publishers. Ali Smith’s “Public Library” is a vibrant, loving tribute to libraries, our passion for books and how they are an integral part of our communities.

In several stories there are seemingly closed systems which the characters struggle against. One narrator tries to convince a newspaper that he’s still alive after they publish a false story about his death – twice! Another narrator argues with a credit card company that she never purchased a plane ticket which has appeared on her statement. One narrator speaks on the phone with a doctor’s office about the tree which is growing out of her/his chest until the important things being said fade into the background and there is just the beauty of the blossoming tree. There is a lot of drifting away from the trivial everydayness of the world and rigid ways in which people can limit language. Drawn by thoughts of poetry, fiction and song characters walk away from important meetings, important people, important places. Literature draws them into the imagination, into the unknown because you never know what you’ll find between the covers of a book. If you crack a book open there may even be poetry sewn into its spine. People lose themselves in books (as the title of one story states) to take them to “The art of elsewhere.”

As clever and as sophisticated as Ali Smith’s stories are, they always pay close attention to the importance of human relationships so the characters feel immediate and real. They have arguments, misunderstandings, money worries and jealousy. The voices of these characters shine through. It feels like it could be Smith herself stating her writing mission when one character remarks: “I want it to be about voice, not image, because everything’s image these days and I have a feeling we’re getting further and further away from human voices.” It’s amazing the way Smith is able to make her characters feel so familiar even though in many cases the protagonists remain nameless and sometimes we don’t even know their gender. They speak intimately about grief, fear and love in a way that draws you into their experience and you can absorb it into your own life.

There is also so much lively humour in this book. There’s confusion between D.H. Lawrence and DHL “The deliveryman.” There is a boy/girl who pleads to pay for a new toaster with flowers. There is a character whose partner is so engaged with Katherine Mansfield’s life and writing that she becomes like an ex-wife between them. There is wordplay: it’s explained that a girl whose father is in and out of prison “from time to time, did time.” It’s as if Ali Smith can peel open words to consider their origins and the way they are commonly used to then blend them into her narrative and conversations between characters to give them whole new meanings.

Most importantly, “Public Library” shows the way literature is a part of our consciousness, shaping and moulding who we are and influencing our actions. It’s not abstract or separate from our everyday lives. It’s physical. Smith shows that long dead authors themselves are still a solid presence in the world. D.H. Lawrence’s ashes could be scattered anywhere. Remnants of Katharine Mansfield are a part of the wings of planes. The records and recorders of our culture don’t hang in an ethereal way above our lives; we interact with them every day. These stories make the world feel refreshing and new. They draw you back into life. They make you want to run to your nearest library.


Since this book is filled with so many moving personal statements about what libraries mean to us, I’m going to give my own…

In 1999, I left my small college in Vermont (which is close to a town called Norwich) in order to live for several months in Norwich, England. I went as part of a study abroad programme, but really I made the hasty decision to leave the US after the breakdown of a relationship. What can be more satisfying than casually mentioning to your former lover who has left you: “Oh, didn’t you know? I’m moving to England.”

Arriving at the stark concrete University of East Anglia campus which is surrounded by fields with rabbits and Shetland ponies, I was suddenly on my own and I had no idea what I was doing there. I found out there was something called a Union Pub & Bar where members of my student residential building took me to drink and socialize. I didn’t like to drink (at that time) and I could never hear what people were saying over the loud music. Soon I made a hasty retreat to the large library on campus.

There on the quiet floors filled with books my friend Carolyn and I played games like “who can find the gaudiest-looking book in the library” and there she introduced me to the first book I read by Joyce Carol Oates who would go on to be my favourite author. There I discovered a much-battered old edition of a book containing two holograph drafts of Virginia Woolf’s novel “The Waves” where you can see copies of the actual words crossed-out and additions she made in the margins when writing it. There I watched a black and white VHS recording of an interview between Lorna Sage, Malcolm Bradbury and Iris Murdoch who all smoked throughout the discussion making the screen appear like a hazy intellectual fantasy set in heaven.

There I sat in the library one dreary lonely afternoon taking notes and plotting the key points of a literary graph I planned to mark the years of key publications by modernist authors so I could physically see where they intersected. It wasn’t a class project – just a fun thing to put on the wall in my little dorm room. I was excited to find that T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” came out the same year as Virginia Woolf’s “Jacob’s Room” and the same year as D.H. Lawrence’s “Aaron’s Rod” and the same year as James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” And there, surrounded by my reference books and poster board and ruler and pencils and mess of notes, a man who I’d go on to live with and love for the next sixteen years approached me and said with an amused grin, “Hi, aren’t we in the same creative writing class? What on Earth are you doing?”

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAli Smith
5 CommentsPost a comment

When John Self wrote on his blog about Benjamin Wood’s novel “The Ecliptic” (a novel that I also greatly admired and wrote about here), he noted how novelists have a curious appeal towards writing about visual artists as there have been a string of books about them recently. And here is another by the great John Banville! Perhaps writers like to focus on visual artists because they sometimes imagine it would be easier to grapple with the tactile challenge of creating a painting rather than the literary challenges of writing. In Banville’s new novel his narrator moans “How treacherous language is, more slippery even than paint.” Interestingly, Banville previously wrote a novel called “Eclipse” whose title sounds so similar to Wood’s novel, but whose meanings differ sharply. The only book by Banville I’ve read previously is his Booker Prize winning “The Sea” which is about a retired art historian. “The Blue Guitar” is written from the perspective of a retired artist Oliver Orme or, as he jokingly refers to himself, a painter who lives as if he was dead: “Rigor artis.” The novel is similar to Wood’s “The Ecliptic” in that they are both largely about a crisis in the artistic process whereby these successful artists haven’t been able to create any new work in some time. But where Wood’s protagonist Elspeth ardently seeks to rediscover her muse, Oliver has resolutely given up painting and retreated to his previously abandoned home to mull over his life and make connections. His story is a tragedy which keeps brightly bobbing along in a sea of melancholy because of the verve and humour of his narrative voice. The admirable precision and revelatory turns of phrase used in Banville’s writing entertain while he makes fascinating insights about life, our relationship to the physical world and his protagonist’s insistently self-justified kleptomania.

The bulk of this novel concerns Oliver’s love entanglements, particularly his secret affair with his friend’s wife Polly. They have heated encounters in the artist’s studio, but soon their love affair descends into the farcical where Oliver finds himself squatting in Polly’s childhood home while her father makes awkward conversation and her mother suffers from the onset of dementia. Yet still Oliver lusts and curses “What a shameless cullion it is, the libido.” Meanwhile, he is estranged from his wife whose care for him died with their three year old daughter Olivia. Banville makes meaningful observations about the stretch and pull of love and love affairs over time. He uses powerfully descriptive language to describe the pinch of its attendant emotions: “Is there anything more overwhelming than the sudden onset of jealousy? It rolls over one inexorably, like lava, boiling and smoking.” It won’t be surprising to the reader that his affairs end badly and he admits his own actions have a sort of tragic inevitability. Although he knows what the outcome will be he states with resignation that “One does what one does, and blunders bleeding out of the china shop.” He retreats even more into thoughts of the past no matter how hard he tries to resist it. Although the novel begins with him declaring himself to be like the Greek God Autolycus, he shows through his blundering actions how he feels barely human. He mentally laments to his lover: “I was no god, dear Polly; I was hardly a man.” It’s satisfying how Oliver’s deceptions turn out to fool no one as the women in his life: Polly, his wife and his sister all eventually reveal how aware they are of the shortcomings he believes he’s kept hidden.

Banville describes Polly as sitting like Dürer's engraving 'Melencolia'

Banville describes Polly as sitting like Dürer's engraving 'Melencolia'

It’s Oliver’s sense of being removed from reality which makes his digressions about existence so compelling and so relatable. He states that “world is resistant, it lives turned away from us, in blithe communion with itself. World won’t let us in.” His strategy to connect with other people and physical objects is to steal. His sense of relentless acquisition is a way to connect and finally dispel his feelings of exclusion. He states that “My aim in the art of thieving, as it was in the art of painting, is the absorption of the world into self.” The final long-abandoned artwork he only half finished contained an abstract image which could be the blue guitar of the title or another object entirely. In it he tried to represent the “formless tension floating in the darkness inside my skull” but ultimately he fails to do so. This makes him lose his mojo for creating art. So he resigns himself to a singular life, but finds his position as an outsider somewhat advantageous to better comprehend the grand nexus of existence. As much as he likes to present his revelations, he relishes undermining them even more. He remarks: “How dull and dulling they can be, these sudden insights. Better not to have them, perhaps, and cleave to a primordial bumpkinhood.”

It’s difficult not to feel at times Oliver’s voice becoming like that of a Beckett character as occasionally his thoughts are interrupted on the page. He’s pulled out of his mental process by reality in a way that slaps him into the present and exposes the weary triviality of his search for meaning. The question about whether you’re prepared to go along with his musings depends on how compelling you find the narrator’s voice. For much of it I was bewitched, but in one instance I was yanked out of the pleasure of his abstract meditations due to an unfortunate choice of words. There is a speculative description of the planet’s destruction where “Terrible tides… drowning small brown folk in their tens of thousands” struck me as having all the empathy for humanity that a Hollywood disaster movie would have for a third world society it might blithely destroy in a cutaway scene. Otherwise, I found his self-obsessed reflections and examinations of his state of being comforting like some of Beckett’s best prose.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn Banville

Like many people I was shocked by the revelations about the activities and documents of the US National Security Agency that Edward Snowden leaked in 2013. The scale of online and computer surveillance being conducted by this government-approved/funded agency in cooperation with telecommunication companies and other countries’ governments is staggering. The journalist that Snowden worked with to break this story, Glenn Greenwald, has written his account of the dramatic release of this information. “No Place to Hide” recounts their meeting, the intense period of launching this momentous news story from a hotel in Hong Kong and some of the key events which occurred after the story broke. Greenwald goes on to reproduce and explain some of the key documents which helpfully outlines why these top secret communications, memos and manuals revealed are so significant. He convincingly explains why online privacy is so important in our society and the important role that journalism should play in keeping governments in check. These points should be obvious, but as Greenwald astutely observes their meaning has been obfuscated by the ways in which governments and the mainstream media work jointly to push their own agenda.

Although I’m obviously freaked out by the idea of my personal communications being observed or collected by a government agency, I have to admit part of me has always felt about this story ‘Well, I don’t have anything to hide… or, at least, nothing that would be of interest to the secret service or the general public.” Greenwald does a fantastic job of addressing this exact reaction. He intelligently breaks down exactly why “Everyone, even those who do not engage in dissenting advocacy or political activism, suffers when that freedom is stifled by the fear of being watched.” It’s also easy to make the argument that if it’s for the greater good and if it helps to isolate participants in illegal or terrorist activities shouldn’t we accept general surveillance of the internet? Firstly, the trouble is that much of the surveillance activities aren’t actually about combating terrorists. They are more often about gaining economic and political advantages for the government using them. Secondly, it’s a grave folly to leave ourselves so exposed because you never know how the information may be used against you. Greenwald also observes that “Forgoing privacy in a quest for absolute safety is as harmful to a healthy psyche and life of an individual as it is to a healthy political culture.”

Glenn Greenwald's TED talk

I was shocked and horrified by many of the facts which Greenwald recounts in “No Place to Hide.” It’s given me a much more clear-sighted understanding and guarded attitude towards the media I consume as well as both the Obama administration and the British government I currently live under. The revelations contained in this book aren’t limited to the US, but show the horrendous way the British secret service ransacked and destroyed information given to the Guardian by Snowden and the intimidating tactics used to hold Greenwald’s partner in custody without cause during his layover in London.

The internet has become such an integral part of our lives; the revelations contained in Snowden’s files have made a significant impact in making everyone think harder about how we want this virtual landscape to be governed or policed. As well as being a highly informative account of what is probably the most significant leak of top secret US agency files in history, this book is a powerful reminder that we must always be vigilant of the government we live under no matter how easy it is to be complacent.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGlenn Greenwald
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