The story of “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal” by Dorthe Nors is fairly simple on the surface. Sonja is in her 40s living in modern-day Copenhagen and working as a translator of sensational Scandinavian crime fiction by Gosta Svensson (who is compared to Steig Larsson). Her occupation as a translator allows the author to explore thoughts about the nature of writing: “Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest alteration can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.” Sonja is learning how to drive at an academy although she’s self-conscious that she’s older than most of the people in her class. The story follows her lessons on the road, her experiences receiving treatment from a New Age-type masseuse Ellen and reflecting on memories of her family/childhood. Sonja feels in some curious way cut off from both her past and future so struggles to navigate her way through a nebulous present. What begins as a light and comic tale gradually turns much darker and soul-searching.

The beginning of this book reminded me of the start of Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Scoop” which shows a socialite’s madcap car ride through the streets of London. Sonja isn’t a very good driver and from Nors’ descriptions you can almost feel the car careering through the streets of Copenhagen narrowly escaping multiple accidents. Her education is not helped by her instructor in the passenger seat Jytte who smokes, frequently seizes control of the car and makes xenophobic/racist comments. As she’s disturbed by this behaviour she switches instructors to the centre’s owner Folke and a romantic tension forms. As Sonja’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic it becomes clear how lonely and troubled she really is although on the surface she appears completely calm.

Sonja finds it relaxing to visit Western Cemetery in Copenhagen.

Sonja finds it relaxing to visit Western Cemetery in Copenhagen.

It feels like Nors wrote this novel partly as a self conscious foil to the kind of Scandi crime that Sonja translates. Her character feels slightly contemptuous of the genre and the people who avidly read it. She remarks that politicians who like taking these books on holiday will happily “rub themselves in SPF 50 and wallow in evil like it’s a party.” In contrast to the tales of violence and intrigue that she translates, Sonja’s story is something much more considered and subtle. Nothing extraordinary happens to her, but the schism which exists between her and her family – especially her sister Kate is intensely felt: “If Sonja and Kate were apples, you’d say that they’d fallen on two different sides of the tree.” Rather than explosive action, it’s only in unsent letters she writes and a telephone call to Kate that you’re really given a sense of how unhinged Sonja really is.

Sonja obsessively mulls over details of her childhood. There is a feeling of nostalgia and sense of loss that I think a lot of people feel especially if in adulthood they’ve moved away from where they were raised: “the place you come from is a place you can never return to. It’s transmogrified, and you yourself are a stranger.” Some descriptive details come up multiple times (such as a sandwich made from brown sugar pressed into bread). In particular, she frequently recalls a past visit to a strange fortune teller in a curry tunic that somehow obstructed her moving forward in her life: “If you don’t believe in the occult, you can’t guard against it, Sonja realizes. And if you do believe, you’re in deep shit.” I couldn’t quite make out why this encounter was so significant to Sonja, but it’s disallowed her from maturing into a healthy adult. Instead she’s trapped in this slightly infantile state where she can’t emotionally relate to many people or, indeed, drive no matter how earnestly she tries to learn. As it progresses the story has a curiously melancholic and haunting effect. Although “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal” didn’t feel entirely satisfying, it was an intriguing and thoughtful novel. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDorthe Nors
3 CommentsPost a comment

Books are an important physical presence around anyone who feels reading is a major part of living. I can spend a lot of time just gazing at my shelves wondering what I should read or reread next or simply enjoying the company of my books. Of course, no book was created in isolation but produced by someone who was influenced by reading countless other books. The traditional hub for many great writers to discover books that inspire and inform them has been the library. This year The London Library which is the world's largest independent library with more than a million books and periodicals in its collection is turning 175 years old. “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books” is a compact collection of pieces by great writers such as Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, EM Foster and the poet Leigh Hunt – all of whom were active members of The London Library. They contemplate the experience of being committed writers and readers who share the same wonder, joy and excitement we all feel when staring at a shelf filled with books.  

It's surprising how relevant some of the arguments and questions raised in these pieces still feel today. I suppose this is because the experience of being an enthusiastic reader never changes. George Eliot muses upon the profession of writing in her essay 'Authorship' and how writing for a living can cause someone to compromise their vision and morals due to commercial pressure. She considers the cultural impact of great writing against the degree to which its valued by society. These feel like the same arguments that are made in current articles on how authors are woefully underpaid. Virginia Woolf addresses the issue of criticism and urges readers to come to books with no preconceived notions or expectations about the text: “Do not dictate to your author; try to become him.” In her typically ingenious way she meditates upon the interplay between the physical world around us, the imaginative world the author places us in and how these intermingle.

Charles Dickens' letter to George Eliot is filled with praise for her first publication “Scenes of Clerical Life” yet he shows himself to be incredibly astute guessing in a friendly manner that she is not male as her pen names suggests but female (something which was not publicly known at the time). Leigh Hunt contemplates his passion for the books around him, the manner in which books are consumed and how they are a touchstone to the past. He shows a certain snobbishness about different kinds of literature and how access to books is connected with privilege (this was certainly true when he was alive in the mid-1800s.) In a way all book lovers can relate to, he goes through some of his prize possessions on his bookshelves developing a fetishism for the beauty of certain books. He also covets the books other readers' possess remarking: “I cannot see a work that interests me on another person's shelf, without a wish to carry it off.”

EM Forster wrote his piece about The London Library itself at a time directly before WWII when he was aware of how precarious books and the inheritance of knowledge was in the face of rampant destruction. In this bleak time he ardently remarked about the library that “It is a symbol of civilization. It is a reminder of sanity and a promise of sanity to come.” It's comforting to know that The London Library is still thriving. This week from May 5th-8th to celebrate their 175 year a number of readings and events called Words in the Square are taking place.

This book is a fantastic touchstone for readers and lovers of literary culture exploring from different angles the way literature plays an active part of daily life. It makes a wonderful companion to Ali Smith's recent book of stories and collection of testaments about the importance of libraries Public Library. In the preface to each piece in “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books” there is a short fascinating paragraph about each author's relationship with The London Library – for instance, when Virginia Woolf joined she gave her occupation as “Spinster”. These pieces reinforce how important the library was for these writers and this anthology is a wonderful celebration of our literary culture.

Novels can sometimes feel so emotionally raw it’s like the story has come straight out of the author’s unconsciousness without any editorial mediation. Rachel Elliott’s writing in “Whispers Through a Megaphone” has a primal power that is tied very closely to her central fictional creation of Miriam Delaney. This is a 35 year-old woman who has spent three years in her house without leaving except to step into her back garden. A traumatic event has caused this retreat from society. Here she mulls over her belief that she’s abnormal and her traumatic upbringing with her mentally ill mother Frances who taught her not to speak in more than a whisper. She chillingly observes that “The world is a safe place until it isn’t. People are good until they’re not.” Buried within these sentences is unfathomable trauma and pain. This novel is like a complex confession which gradually unfolds as several characters strive to make the connections they need to progress forward in their lives.

As a counterpoint to Miriam’s shut-in existence, this is also a novel equally about Ralph Swoon who gradually retreats from the pressurized life of friends and family until one day he walks out of his own birthday party. He’s a psychologist who is very good at empathizing with other people’s problems, but finds it very difficult to process his own. His wife Sadie is undergoing a personal crisis where she tries to reconcile her same-sex attraction to certain friends throughout her life. She keeps a private-public life separate from Ralph where she tweets frequently and these Twitter interactions are recorded in the text of the novel. She feels “What’s the point of an experience if you can’t share it? If you can’t tell other people what’s going on?” After rekindling a connection with her old friend Alison she gradually understands the importance of maintaining a degree of privacy in a relationship and how to manage her repressed longing.

While these central characters’ story lines follow an arc which shows their growth and development, I found at times Elliott’s focus veers off too sharply to briefly focus on other characters without giving them sufficient narrative space to grow. There are some fascinating people touched upon such as Ralph and Sadie’s son Stanley who has just entered his first gay relationship, Miriam’s neighbour Boo who obsessively cleans or an old flame of Ralph’s named Julie Parsley who independently runs a business and cares for her father. I wanted to know more about these characters, but we only get a glancing understanding of their fascinating lives. While presenting complex peripheral characters can really add to a main story, it can also be frustrating when it feels like the storyline rushes towards them but must quickly retreat to focus on the central characters again. By doing this, it feels like their independence isn’t being sufficiently honoured.  

Sadie recalls going to a Tori Amos concert with her friend Alison where Tori performed 'Cornflake Girl' while "staring at them as she sings"

Miriam’s mother Frances is perhaps the character who receives the most uneven treatment. For much of the novel she comes across purely as a villain disrupting her daughter’s development in the most shocking and cruel ways. There are some fantastically perverse lines which hint at Frances’ deranged way of thinking such as “Her mother always said that love was for people with dirty houses.” Yet, something strange happens towards the end of the novel where her relationship with Miriam’s school Headmaster is expanded upon in a chance meeting between the two. It doesn’t give an insight into why Frances might have acted the way she did towards her daughter, but it suggests why she met an untimely end. However, instead of adding another layer of insight this felt jarring and problematic to me. Prior to this, we only get an external view of Frances and when we finally see her point of view it feels like it comes too late.

Nevertheless, this novel is full of life and vigour. Where it really shines is in moments of deep introspection and acute psychological observation. Elliott states how “The mind is a fairground of unearthly rides. Intrapsychic theme parks. The constant rattle of ghost trains.” The past is continuously drawn into the present of these characters’ reality causing them to stutter in their interactions with each other. Scenes happening now are frequently interspersed with paragraphs that abruptly leap backward to a crucial time in that character’s past. Elliott writes sympathetically about people who find it very difficult to reconcile their internal and external realities. She weaves a lot of humour and jovial human interaction into her story which provides welcome light relief from some of the darkest moments in this novel. “Whispers Through a Megaphone” is an emotional read whose story touchingly suggests people can thrive when they make the right crucial connections with others.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Elliott

Several years ago I read Zweig’s biography of Balzac and it remains one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Balzac led an impassioned, rigorous and tragically bumbling life that is great fun to read about. But what was so gripping about this book was the tension between Zweig who was evidently a writer of high ideals and his subject Balzac who was a brilliantly gifted writer with frivolous values. Zweig was a man dedicated to art and a freedom of spirit. Balzac desired status and fortune and only wrote so prolifically to get himself out of the enormous debts he accrued through get-rich-quick schemes. Thus reading Zweig’s intense frustration at Balzac’s indifference to his obvious talent and foolish striving for material goods and pretentious society is incredibly compelling to read about. Zweig is a thoroughly subjective biographer who makes his opinions known in a way that works so well more than a biographer trying to present an objective portrait of a life. He sticks to the facts, but focuses on aspects of his subject’s personal history and the statements their work made which he deems important to our culture and that have the most relevance to where he was in his own life.

“Montaigne” is a biography which is almost more compelling for what it says about Zweig than it does about his subject. Translator Will Stone gives a thorough and intelligent introduction to this brief book which is more a sketch of Montaigne’s life than a comprehensive account. (His biography of Balzac was much more extensive.) Normally I get impatient with such introductions and want to get to the real text of the book I’ve bought. But Stone’s account gives vital information about where Zweig was in his life when he wrote about Montaigne and why he was so drawn to this subject at this point in his life. Zweig famously retreated to a house in Brazil to escape the increasing influence of Hitler’s rise to power and the authoritarian forces threatening Europe. Despairing about the state of the world, he and his wife committed suicide in 1942.

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    “What Montaigne seeks is his interior self… which Goethe labelled the ‘citadel’, where all access is prohibited… This citadel, which for Goethe was only symbolic, Montaigne erects with real stones, a lock and a key… the famous tower of Montaigne.”

“What Montaigne seeks is his interior self… which Goethe labelled the ‘citadel’, where all access is prohibited… This citadel, which for Goethe was only symbolic, Montaigne erects with real stones, a lock and a key… the famous tower of Montaigne.”

This biography was written in the crucial year before this act and the psychological cracks show in the text. The first section of the biography is an impassioned account of Montaigne’s high ideals. The values which he believed Montaigne exhibited are ones which felt so crucially relevant to Zweig’s own life that he seized upon him as a subject for the highest reverence. Zweig feverishly states: “Only he whose soul is in turmoil, forced to live in an epoch where war, violence and ideological tyranny threaten the life of every individual, and the most precious substance in that life, the freedom of the soul, can know how much courage, sincerity and resolve are required to remain faithful to his inner self in these times of the herd’s rampancy.” It’s as if he’s leapt upon Montaigne as a life raft in a time where he felt hemmed in by the ideological forces of his time which threatened the civilization Zweig valued so highly.

Zweig focuses on only the most crucial facts of Montaigne’s life, those which are relevant to him, and skips over huge chunks. What he seizes upon is gold and wholly engaging. No doubt if Zweig had lived longer he would have written much more extensively about this famous essayist. I can feel very sympathetic to Montaigne’s abrupt removal from his family and public life in his late thirties since it’s the same age I’m at now. Montaigne retreated to a tower to study, read and write while blocking out the everyday distracting realties of the world as much as possible. As a great reader Montaigne felt “Books are my kingdom. And here I seek to reign as absolute lord.” It’s interesting the way that Montaigne’s life played out – because, of course, however much we try to completely retreat into books the world draws us back into it. Montaigne’s reading tastes suited Zweig perfectly as he remarks “Concerning Montaigne’s judgement on books I am 100 per cent in accordance.” Thus Zweig found in Montaigne an intellectual kinship across centuries and found strength to stand against the tyranny of his own time. More disturbingly, it’s possible that Montaigne’s reasoning might have heavily influenced Zweig’s own decision to end his own life. This can be intimated in the line: “the last freedom: in the face of death. Life hangs on the will of others, but death on our own will.”

This is such a fascinating book for what it says about both its biographer Stefan Zweig and its subject of Montaigne. I’m now inspired to go out and read more by both of these fascinating authors.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesStefan Zweig

Last year I read Emma Healey's moving novel “Elizabeth is Missing” which is daringly written from the perspective of a woman with dementia. She captured the inner life of someone lost to herself. It's a tremendous challenge to write meaningfully about the indignities that dementia entails and make sense of the senseless. When a rational, lively person loses the facility to interact with the world accompanied by all their memories and sense of self in tow they are left only with the functions of the body and fleeting reactions to stimuli. Erwin Mortier's memoir “Stammered Songbook” is a highly personal account of the loss of his mother to dementia, but more than that it's a poetic examination of family, what loving relationships mean and the human condition. In a series of highly compressed short sections, Mortier conveys the daily experience of caring for his mother and sifting through memories of his past.

Mortier describes working with his father and other family members to care for his mother as her symptoms get progressively worse. Much of the time there is a sense of being suspended in an amorphous state: “We live in and outside of time.” Mortier’s mother is there in body, but the essence of what made her a mother, wife and friend has left with all her memories and sense of self. There are the daily tasks of care for her wellbeing which require more and more from the family. Eventually they become incapable of the fulfilling the necessary actions required to properly feed her and prevent her from hurting herself. When it becomes necessary to restrain her, the author hauntingly questions “When does care become another word for torture?” There is a solemn sense of inevitability and acknowledgement that her condition can only get worse. Yet, Mortier travels through this territory with courage savouring the remaining time he has with his mother and reflecting tenderly on family life. He powerfully describes the way that those who have left us still remain in our thoughts: “The dead have a busy time no longer being there.” There are many moments of sorrow in this account of his mother’s disease, but also some blissful light-hearted moments of relief. Passages effortlessly move from blunt facts about the reality of living with someone with dementia to memories to ruminations about life – all infused with a poetic sense that allows the specifics of his experiences to extend into a more universal, beautifully-unifying meaning.

One of the passages I found most powerful in the book was this long meditation on the meaning of love and the way in which we connect to one another: “love is attention. That they are two words for the same thing. That it isn't necessary to try to clear up every typo and obscure passage that we come across when we read the other person attentively – that a human being is difficult poetry, which you must be able to listen to without always demanding clarification, and that the best thing that can happen to us is the absolution that a loved one grants us for the unjustifiable fact that we exist and drag along with us a self that has been marked and shaped by so many others.” This so elegantly summarizes the way in which love is a form of caring without judgement. I find it a very inspirational perspective to have when considering what it really means to love someone throughout the long hard line of a lifetime no matter how much they change or become lost to us.

“Stammered Songbook” is a profound, utterly-unique book.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesErwin Mortier

I haven’t felt this ambivalent about a novel for a long time. I generally get to a point fifty pages into a novel or halfway through where I pause to consider what I’m getting out of this book. If the answer is nothing I generally put it aside. I wouldn’t throw it out because there are novels I’ve come back to years later and become captivated by after dismissing them on a first reading. Books that don’t grip my imagination more often bore me than offend me. But reading González’s “In the Beginning Was the Sea” I had to patiently consider the intentions behind what I was reading. The trouble is the tone of this narrative about a couple named Elena and J. who move to a rural area in Colombia, a small farm by the sea to live a more wholesome artistically-pure existence by eschewing the materialism of the big city. Immediately they are out of their element. We’re given descriptions of the repulsive sights and smells of the local rustic population. The focal point of this story is undoubtedly Elena and J. but the narrative isn’t in their voices. So do these judgemental descriptions belong to the author, the characters or some faceless narrator in between? This question felt like a vital one to me in determining whether this novel was essentially abhorrent or not.

Let me give you an example of some of the many descriptions of characters viewed only fleetingly in this novel: “Julito’s wife was fat – unsurprisingly – and surly.” It’s a distasteful and limited amount of information to give about a character, but it’s the pompous dismissive “unsurprisingly” which really grates in my mind. Who made the assumption about her character here? Is it J., the narrator or the author? Perhaps these opinions could be counterbalanced if Julito’s wife were granted some integrity later in the novel, but she’s never given this. Even when any praise is given to characters it’s done in a backhanded way such as this passage about a fisherman named Salomon: “Though taciturn and physically unremarkable, he seemed to have an extraordinary talent.” The overriding feeling of this voice we’re reading is someone who fundamentally dislikes people. J. and Elena are not immune to such critiques either, but the novel is dedicated to rendering their grand mission as a noble – if fatally-foolish and tragic enterprise – whereas the rural population they live amongst are considered simply repulsive. Later on J. engages in an affair with a local man’s wife who “was an abysmally stupid and sensual woman, a warm mass of listless, voluptuous flesh.” Although he’s disgusted by her, he’s aroused enough to screw her. No doubt these protagonists from a privileged background refuse to grant the people around them human respect, but I don’t want the author trying to convince me that such a narrow-minded, sneering perspective of people is the only one that exists.

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   J. drinks a phenomenal amount of an alcohol called  aguardiente  in this novel.

J. drinks a phenomenal amount of an alcohol called aguardiente in this novel.

The narrative is muddled by the intentions of Elena and J. If you’re worried about reading spoilers here you really shouldn’t be because the book never makes any mystery about what a tragic enterprise it is that they embark on. Throughout the book we’re given flashes forward to how it all ends. The couple move to their new life to become farmers and merchants because they have an idealized notion about the nobility of the working class. The novel records the painful process of these notions being demystified as their business flops and people they hire fail them. J. sinks into alcoholism while Elena makes an enemy of everyone in the village. What seemed at first like paradise turns into a nightmare. Such naivety does seem ripe for satire – yet, I don’t believe it should be done at the expense of people who have resided in one place all their lives and are simply going about their day. Very late in the novel it’s remarked that J. “thought back to the time when he considered a pretentious critic at some literary magazine more truthful, more important than a taxi driver and his family washing their car and bathing in a cold, rocky stream.” If he really considers their existence as dignified, the narrator grants all these peripheral characters precious little dignity.

This novel was originally published in 1983. González has gone on to become a well-respected novelist in Colombia and is slowly gaining more global recognition. I don’t normally read reviews of novels I’m blogging about until after writing my own thoughts because I don’t want my opinion to be swayed. But this novel had me so confused I had a look at a few. I learned from this review in the Independent that the novel was inspired by González’s own brother who embarked on an identical kind of tragic enterprise. Knowing how close to home it’s subject and themes were to the novelist makes the question of narrative tone even murkier. Surely the author could not help feeling critical of the protagonists as well as the rural population – some of whose actions led to his brother’s destitution and death. That’s not to say I think people of disadvantaged socio-economic groups should be idealized or the actions of specific individuals shouldn’t be open to criticism. But how to take descriptions which sneer so openly at people? Normally readers look to literature for a sense of empathy. Though we may dislike or condemn some characters’ actions, we generally want to understand their point of view. “In the Beginning Was the Sea” resists such openings for sympathy by presenting blunt opinions and a world of discordant, closed points of view. By the end of the novel, I was somewhat beguiled by the removed and severe nature of the story. Yet I also found myself wanting more compassion to assuage the cruelty of this version of reality.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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