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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Festival of Insignificance’ by Milan Kundera ***

Milan Kundera’s The Festival of Insignificance was translated from the French by Linda Asher, and was first published in the United Kingdom in 2015.  I hadn’t heard of it before I spotted it in the library, and thought it would be perfect for my Saturdays in Translation challenge.  I have largely enjoyed Kundera’s writing in the past, and the blurb certainly intrigued: ‘Casting light on the most serious of problems and at the same time saying not one serious sentence; being fascinated by the reality of the contemporary world and at the same time avoiding realism – that’s The Festival of Insignificance’. 9780571316465

Split into seven parts, and filling just over one hundred pages, the novella begins in a way that, to me, smacked of Kundera: ‘It was the month of June, the morning sun was emerging from the clouds, and Alain was walking slowly down a Paris street.  He observed the young girls, who – every one of them – showed her naked navel between trousers belted very low and a T-shirt cut very short.  He was captivated; captivated and even disturbed: It was as if their seductive power no longer resided in their thighs, their buttocks, or their breasts, but in that small round hole located in the center of the body’.  In the opening section of the book, we meet what Kundera terms the ‘Heroes’ of the piece.  D’Ardelo, for instance, has been given the all-clear following a rigorous series of medical tests, but decides to fabricate an illness when he meets former colleague Ramon in the park: ‘Just simply, without knowing why, his fictional cancer pleased him’.

As with a lot of Kundera’s work, elaborately philosophical ideas and chapter headings have been inserted into every chapter – for instance, ‘Ramon’s Lesson on Brilliance and Insignificance’, and ‘Alain Sets a Bottle of Armagnac on Top of His Armoire’.  Many of these details are superfluous, but they do occasionally add a little humour to what would otherwise feel like quite a serious, slow-moving piece of literature.  The inclusions about Russian history were fascinating, but some of the philosophy, and a lot of the initial ideas, were repeated, often several times.  The Festival of Insignificance was, to me, a book which I could happily have not read; it was not as compelling as other works of Kundera’s, and did not really reach a favourable ending, slim as it was.  I do admire Kundera’s books, but I certainly wouldn’t count him as among my favourite authors.  It was, I suppose, rather an insignificant entry upon my reading list; one which I am relatively indifferent to.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Garden’ by Magnus Florin ***

I hadn’t heard of Magnus Florin’s The Garden before spotting it in the library, but when I slid its small form out from where it was sandwiched on the shelf, its premise intrigued me and I added it to the large pile already finding breathing room in my arms.  Florin’s book was first published in Sweden in 1995, and has ‘long been regarded there as a classic of contemporary literature’.  The edition which I read, printed by the small press Vagabond Voices in Glasgow, has been translated into English by Harry Watson.  Florin’s prose is deemed ‘brave’ and ‘colourful’, and the book is proclaimed as ‘a work of imagination of intrigue, unafraid to question the shape of our world and the roots of existence’.

9781908251268Before I began, I was expecting to be able to draw some parallels between this and Kristina Carlsson’s Mr Darwin’s Gardener, which was published a couple of years ago by the wonderful Peirene Press.  Whilst it deals with different figures – one Charles Darwin, and the other Carl Linnaeus – there are many themes in common, and even the structures share some similarities.  The Garden presents a fictionalised account of Linnaeus’ life, the leading figure of the Swedish Enlightenment, whose classifications of plants and animals are still used in biology.

Linnaeus and his scientific counterpart in Sweden, Petrous Arctaedius, ‘imagined everything in the world divided into two halves.  The hard things in one half and the soft things in another.  The fixed and the moveable.  The annual and the perennial.  What had no tail and what had a tail.  That which was fast and that which was slow.  The two-legged and the four-legged’.  The pair take a straightforward approach to classification; they decide to simply halve the animals and plants to give one another a pool to work from: ‘Arctaedius took the amphibians, the reptiles, the frogs and toads and the fish.  Linnaeus took the birds and the insects, the mammals and the stones.  Along with the plants’.

Florin denotes the vast differences between Linnaeus and his gardener, the latter of whom ‘perceives things for what they are in themselves – and for their beauty or usefulness’.  The pair ‘often find themselves in dialogue, but rarely understand one another’.  For me, the gardener was a  shadowy figure; Linnaeus also only came to life in his fictionalised form in the sections in which his young siblings are taken ill, and when he himself is suffering.

Florin’s use of imagery and sense of place are deftly crafted, and there are certainly some lovely ideas here: ‘Linnaeus, awake, steps outside, strolls to his grove.  He hangs pairs of green Kungsholm glasses as bells on the branches of an oak, an elm and an ash in order to listen to the jingling caused by the wind when it rises.  They are his Aeolian beakers, his mind-harps of glass.  But this morning the wind is still, and the bells are motionless’.  Watson’s translation is nice and fluid; the prose is intelligent, and the patterns of dialogue interesting.  The novella, which runs to just ninety pages, is told in slim fragments, which do not lead seamlessly from one to another.  In fact, the overall feel is a little disjointed.  Whilst the story which Florin presents is fascinating, especially with its roots in reality, the structure makes it feel too fragmented to connect with.  The Garden is an interesting tale, but overall, it is a little underwhelming.

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‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift ***

Getting my hands on a copy of this book was rather difficult.  There was a one hundred and twenty-person strong waiting list in my home library system, and I felt guilty trying to procure a full-price copy whilst on a book buying ban.  My patience (yes, for once I had some) paid off, and I was able to borrow it from a Glasgow library by just walking into a branch and locating it on the shelf.  Wonders shall never cease.

9781471155239Mothering Sunday was a choice for mine and the excellent Katie’s Chai and Sheep book club, and both of us very much liked the premise when the book was co-selected.  At the time of picking it up, it seemed fitting; I had just been in a three-hour induction session led by one of my dissertation supervisors, whose current specialism is in daily novels.  This marked my first foray into Swift’s work too; he has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but I was unsure as to which book of his I should begin with.  Then this incredibly hyped, very popular (in my home county, at least!) novella came along, and I hoped that it would provide a good introduction to his work.

The novella’s setting is Mothering Sunday in March 1924: ‘It wasn’t June, but it was a day like June.  And it must have been a little after noon’.  Jane Fairchild, ‘orphan and housemaid’, has nothing with which to occupy her time on this, the day in which maids nationwide were allowed the day off so that they could visit their mothers.  The blurb which accompanies the book is rather intriguing, particularly with regard to the questions which it asks: ‘How, shaped by the events of this never to be forgotten day, will her future unfold?’  It goes on to praise the novel highly, as ‘constantly surprising, joyously sensual and deeply moving’, and declares it ‘Graham Swift at his thinking best’.

Paul, beloved sole remaining son of the well-to-do Cunningham family, has been having clandestine liaisons with Jane for quite some time, but on this Sunday, the pair being the only two in the house after his parents travel ‘to Henley for lunch’, things escalate, and they make love in Paul’s bedroom.  The aftermath of the act is what Swift appears to be interested in: ‘… and she wasn’t going to say, now he was on his feet and the decision all but made, “Please, don’t go.  Please, don’t leave me.”  She was disqualified from the upper world in which such dramas were staged.  She had her lowly contempt for such stuff anyway.  As if she couldn’t have used – but she wasn’t his wife, it was all the other way round – a different, quieter but fiercer language.  Or just the bullet of a look.’

The opening sentence of Mothering Sunday marvellously sets both the scene and the historical period: ‘Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid…’.  Some of Swift’s imagery is just lovely; for instance, when he writes: ‘The shadows from the latticework in the window slipped over him like foliage’.

Whilst I wasn’t blown away by the whole, I did find the class divides which Swift portrayed rather interesting.  His descriptions were largely well evoked, and did work well with the story, but I found some of his prose rather jarring in its style.  I’m unsure as to whether Swift is an author I’ll pick up again; I certainly wasn’t as enamoured with this as I believed I would be at the outset.

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Reviews: ‘The Porcupine’ and ‘The Trick Is To Keep Breathing’

The Porcupine by Julian Barnes ** 9780099540144
‘Stoyo Petkanov, the deposed Party leader of a former Soviet satellite country, is on trial. His adversary, the prosecutor general, stands for the new government’s ideals and liberal certainties, and is attempting to ensnare Petkanov with the dictator’s own totalitarian laws. But Petkanov is not beaten yet. He has been given his chance to fight back and he takes it with a vengeance, to the increasing discomfort and surprise of those around him. In this sharp, powerful novel Julian Barnes examines one for the most dramatic political downfalls of our times – that of Eastern Europe.’

I have read around four of Barnes’ books to date, and simply cannot make my mind up as to whether I enjoy him as an author.  Some of his works have definitely been better than others, although I must admit that my favourite so far has been The Sense of an Ending, which I only gave a three-star rating.  I borrowed The Porcupine from the library because it looked interesting and was relatively short.  I must admit that I wasn’t overly sold on it.

I liked the idea of a crumbling Soviet state described in the blurb far more than I enjoyed Barnes’ execution.  He can definitely write, but The Porcupine simply did not grab me at all.  It might perhaps had been better had it been longer, but if I’m honest, I’m not sure I would have had the patience to complete it had that been the case.  This novella could have presented some originality, but it read like rather a dull semi-historical account.  There is no real flair to the piece, as I have found with the majority of Barnes’ books which I have read.  To cut a long story short, he is an author whom I’m going to move to my ‘please avoid in order to avoid reading disappointment’ pile.

 

The Trick Is To Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway *****
9781784870133‘From the corner of a darkened room Joy Stone watches herself. As memories of the deaths of her lover and mother surface unbidden, life for Joy narrows – to negotiating each day, each encounter, each second; to finding the trick to keep living. Told with shattering clarity and wry wit, this is a Scottish classic fit for our time.’

I have wanted to read this for absolutely ages.  I am quite familiar with Galloway’s work, having read both volumes of her autobiographies which have been published thus far, and her collected short stories, but I hadn’t got to any of her novels before spotting this in the library.

I was expecting such to be the case, but The Trick Is To Keep Breathing is beautifully written from the beginning.  Indeed, from the first paragraph alone, I knew that I would be awarding it at least a four-star, if not a five-star review.  I must admit that I did have highly elevated hopes as to how good it would be, but it has wonderfully surpassed them all.  Galloway uses the stream-of-consciousness technique to great effect, rendering her narrator’s voice almost breathless at times.  This novel presents a simple premise, which has been both beautifully and believably executed.

There is an astounding amount of depth to it.  It is as though Galloway has clawed away at every inch of Joy in order to learn every little thing it is possible to know about her.  The Trick Is To Keep Breathing is not just a splendid novel; it is a masterpiece, and that is not a word that I apply to literature very often.

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Mini Reviews: ‘Fantastic Night’ and ‘The Lightkeepers’

Fantastic Night by Stefan Zweig ****
9781782271482I purchased Fantastic Night as part of Oxfam’s wonderful 2016 Scorching Summer Reads campaign.  I was already familiar with Zweig’s work, and remember how enraptured I was when reading the excellent The Post Office Girl some years ago.  Fantastic Night provides a mixture of novellas and short stories, many of which I hadn’t come across before.

As with all of the Pushkin Press titles which I have had the pleasure of reading thus far, the translation here is seamless. There were a couple of tales I wasn’t that enamoured with, but those which I loved or very much admired greatly outweighed these. Zweig is a masterfully perceptive author, and there was such a difference to every one of the stories here. ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ is stunning. Fantastic Night is a real joy to read.

 

The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni ***** 9781619026001
Before gushing uncontrollably about Abby Geni’s masterful The Lightkeepers, I shall just copy the blurb so that you get some context about the story: ‘In The Lightkeepers, we follow Miranda, a nature photographer who travels to the Farallon Islands, an exotic and dangerous archipelago off the coast of California, for a one-year residency capturing the landscape. Her only companions are the scientists studying there, odd and quirky refugees from the mainland living in rustic conditions; they document the fish populations around the island, the bold trio of sharks called the Sisters that hunt the surrounding waters, and the overwhelming bird population who, at times, create the need to wear hard hats as protection from their attacks. Shortly after her arrival, Miranda is assaulted by one of the inhabitants of the islands. A few days later, her assailant is found dead, perhaps the result of an accident. As the novel unfolds, Miranda gives witness to the natural wonders of this special place as she grapples with what has happened to her and deepens her connection (and her suspicions) to her companions, while falling under the thrall of the legends of the place nicknamed “the Islands of the Dead.” And when more violence occurs, each member of this strange community falls under suspicion. The Lightkeepers upends the traditional structure of a mystery novel –an isolated environment, a limited group of characters who might not be trustworthy, a death that may or may not have been accidental, a balance of discovery and action –while also exploring wider themes of the natural world, the power of loss, and the nature of recovery.’

I very much enjoyed Geni’s short story collection, The Last Animal, and couldn’t wait to read her debut novel.  My parents scoured The Strand for me on a recent trip to New York, and I couldn’t have been happier when they presented me with it (and three other equally wonderful tomes).  Geni’s novel explores similar themes to those in her story collection – nature, humans, and the effects of one upon the other.

Geni’s writing is electric.  Such emphasis has been placed upon every single sense that the whole springs to life immediately.  You can almost smell the salt on the breeze, taste the stale crackers and tuna macaroni, and, despite living on an isolated island with just a few others, feel their eyes on you as you read.  Geni uses both the first and third person perspectives effortlessly, and even the more simplistic or mundane elements of life on the Farallon Islands feel extremely creative due to the way in which she presents them.  Everything here feels original.  The Lightkeepers has been so well researched, particularly with regard to the nature around Miranda, and the photography techniques which she utilises.  The Lightkeepers is exquisite.

 

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‘Mr Cosway and the Landlady’ by Wilkie Collins ***

I downloaded the Complete Collection of Collins’ work to my Kindle some time ago, and must admit that I had completely forgotten about it until I was scouring my device for something to read on holiday. My original plan had been to read it through in its entirety. Obviously that has not happened, and is still rather unlikely to going forward. Whilst Collins is an author I have very much enjoyed in the past, he isn’t one whom I feel I need to read the work of immediately. 9781447470809

Mr Cosway and the Landlady is one of his pieces of shorter fiction. I really enjoyed the opening paragraph, and as with Collins’ longer work, I felt that he set the scene nicely: ‘The guests would have enjoyed their visit to Sir Peter’s country house – but for Mr Cosway. And to make matters worse, it was not Mr Cosway but the guests who were to blame. They repeated the old story of Adam and Eve, on a larger scale. The women were the first sinners; and the men were demoralized by the woman’.

The description of Mr Cosway himself too helps to create a picture in the mind of the reader: ‘Mr Cosway’s bittersweet enemy could not have denied that he was a handsome, well-bred, unassuming man’. He is ex-Navy, and arrives at the house on an income left to him by his late parents. He is rather a mysterious presence: ‘With perfect courtesy, he baffled curiosity, and kept his supposed secret to himself’. Perhaps most surprisingly in the piece, he is shows a great sense of relief when his wife drowns; it is only when the piece goes back in time to explain Mr Cosway’s past that we understand why this is. Collins’ reasoning is inventive and well-wrought; I shall not give it away for the surprise of any future readers.

Mr Cosway and the Landlady has a far more modern feel to it than both The Woman in White and The Moonstone; its prose style does to feel quite characteristic, as I was expecting it would. Whilst an interesting little tale, it did not feel wholly finished; rather than write fully about Mr Cosway, he does not feel a fully developed character as the work progresses. The interesting elements of the story petered out after a while. It had a good and promising start, but rather a disappointing end.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Pearl’ by John Steinbeck ***

The 29th book upon my Classics Club list is yet another Steinbeck novella, The Pearl.  First published in 1947, The Pearl provides a departure from Steinbeck’s usual Californian setting.  Set largely in a poor community somewhere in the Gulf, which consists almost entirely of ‘brush houses’, the protagonist of The Pearl is a native man named Kino, who lacks education.  He lives with his wife, Juana, and their baby son, Coyotito.

When a scorpion makes his way into Coyotito’s crib and stings him, the parental roles are reversed somewhat; Juana becomes strong and authoritative, and Kino ‘hovered; he was helpless, he was in the way’.  Steinbeck demonstrates the way in which Juana gains control of the situation in the following manner: ‘And they repeated among themselves, “Juana wants the doctor”.  A wonderful thing, a memorable thing, to want the doctor.  To get him would be a remarkable thing.  The doctor never came to the cluster of brush houses.  Why should he, when he had more than he could do to take care of the rich people who lived in the stone and plaster houses of the town’.  When the family travel to the doctor’s abode, and a message is sent to him – reclining with a plate full of sweets in bed – by his manservant, he is nothing short of scornful.  The manservant hands him a pouch filled with ‘eight small misshapen seed pearls, as ugly and gray as little ulcers, flattened and almost valueless’, with which Kino and Juana are hoping to pay.  The doctor refuses to see them.

A search ensues, using Kino’s precious canoe – the only thing of monetary value which he owns – to find a more serviceable pearl which the doctor will accept.  The lack of hope in such an endeavour is exemplified thus: ‘But the pearls were accidents, and the finding of one was luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods or both’.  The family triumphs, however, finding a pearl which has the power to change their lives for the better: ‘Kino lifted the flesh [of the oyster], and there it lay, the great pearl, perfect as the moon.  It captured the light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence.  It was as large as a sea-gull’s egg.  It was the greatest pearl in the world’.  News of their find soon spreads: ‘The news came early to the beggars in front of the church, and it made them giggle a little with pleasure, for they knew that there is no almsgiver in the world like a poor man who is suddenly lucky’.

As ever, Steinbeck’s descriptions are striking, and he has a real knack for capturing the world which his protagonists inhabit: ‘The stars still shone and the day had drawn only a pale wash of light in the lower sky to the east’.  Culturally, the novella is well established: ‘Kino heard the little splash of morning waves on the beach…  [He] closed his eyes again to listen to his music.  Perhaps he alone did this and perhaps all of his people did it…  His people had once been great makers of songs so that everything they thought or did or heard became a song’.  Racial issues are highlighted, particularly with regard to the wealth which the white inhabitants of the area enjoy, and the poverty which the natives live in.  One of the real strengths in The Pearl is the way in which the cruelty and greed which can come about when money is involved is exemplified.

The rather simplistic narrative style within The Pearl causes it to feel almost fable-like in its telling.  It is not the best told of Steinbeck’s stories, but it is still vivid, particularly with regard to the descriptions given of characters: ‘Kino was young and strong and his black hair hung over his brown forehead.  His eyes were warm and fierce and bright and his mustache was thin and coarse’.  It is fair to say that the novella is largely concerned with the actions of its characters, rather than adding a wealth of hidden depths which many of Steinbeck’s longer works contain; at times, it feels almost like ‘he did this, and then she did this, and then they both did this’ in its style.  Elements of what could be termed magical realism creep in, and I found these fascinating, particularly with regard to Steinbeck’s usual grasp of reality within his fiction.

The Pearl is a relatively engaging novella, and whilst it was by no means my favourite Steinbeck, it still contains many points of interest.  It does, however, lack the majority of the strengths which are prevalent in the author’s other works, and does not hold the power of such works as Of Mice and Men and East of Eden.