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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Leech’ by Cora Sandel ****

I chose to purchase Cora Sandel’s The Leech for my Reading the World project, as she is an author whom has been on my radar for an awfully long time, but whose books appear to be few and far between.  I had originally thought that I would start with the Alberta trilogy which Sandel is arguably most famous for, but  The Leech was the most easily available of her books to me through Abebooks, and so I plumped for it as what I hoped would be a good introduction to her work.  The only other person who has reviewed it on Goodreads also compared it to Virginia Woolf, so of course it was almost inevitable that I was going to begin with this one.

The Leech was first published in Norway in 1958, and in the United Kingdom two years later.  This particular translation has been wonderfully rendered by Elizabeth Rakkan, and printed by The Women’s Press.  Interestingly, we do not meet the woman, Dondi, whom the story revolves around until almost the end of the work.  She is relatively young, and left her home in southern Norway to head to a small town within the Arctic Circle in order to marry.  The Leech begins ten years after Dondi’s decision has been made, and things have not turned out quite as she was expecting them to.  Her writer husband, Gregor, is less than famous, her twin children Bella and Beppo are rebellious, and she is ‘miserable to the point of hysteria’.  Added to this, Gregor’s extended family see Dondi as the reason why he has not quite realised his full potential as a writer; they believe that she has sapped his talent pool dry. 9780704340053-us

The Leech takes place over two days in Midsummer, and from the beginning, Sandel sets the scene perfectly: ‘The veranda doors were open to the radiant North Norwegian summer: a summer which heaps light upon light, shining and brittle, only to fade too soon’.  The majority of the prose takes place within conversations; it opens with Lagerta speaking to her grandmother, who is berating everything modern, from jazz music to motorcycles.  She is grimly comic and belligerent, most fulfilled when she has something to complain about, and somebody to argue her points against.  She is shrewd, and notices everything, telling her granddaughter the following in the opening passage: ‘”But you Lagerta, are over-nervous, my dear.  You must have something in your hands all the time.  You can’t rest any more, don’t think I haven’t noticed it.  One can simply get too tired.”‘

Gregor’s brother, Jonas, acts with his aunt Lagerta and his great-grandmother as a voice of reason in the novel.  We learn an awful lot about Dondi, and her relationship with Gregor, but our view of her is always through their disapproving eyes until she appears in the flesh.  She has very little agency; until she is given a voice of her own, our interpretation of her is negatively biased, and when she is allowed her say, she is forever being fussed over and ordered around somewhat by those around her.  Whilst Dondi is always the focus of their speech, the characters do become protagonists in the piece through Sandel’s clever and effective prose techniques.  Lagerta particularly describes how she has had to live through and adapt to a changing world; she is a thoroughly three-dimensional being, and the most realistic character in the book.

The geographical isolation of the family is best described by Lagerta, when she states: ‘”Coming up here was a violent experience…  I don’t know what to compare it with – being killed and slowly coming alive again.  I was not myself for a while…”‘.  The relationships which Sandel draws are complex and interesting, and the homestead in the middle of nowhere exacerbates the fact that they have few other people for company outside of the familial base.

Sadly, and undeservedly, The Leech has fallen by the wayside.  Using Goodreads as a marker, it has had only a few ratings, and one review other than mine.  There is a marvellous flow to the whole thanks to Rakkan’s translation.  The Leech is a wonderful read, full of interesting and important points about the state of the world and a woman’s place within it, and great writing.  If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a book which I would certainly recommend.

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‘The PowerBook’ by Jeanette Winterson *****

‘The PowerBook is twenty-first century fiction that uses past, present and future as shifting dimensions of a multiple reality. The story is simple. An e-writer called Ali or Alix will write to order anything you like, provided that you are prepared to enter the story as yourself and take the risk of leaving it as someone else. You can be the hero of your own life. You can have freedom just for one night. But there is a price to pay.’

9780099598299My last outstanding Winterson, The PowerBook was as superbly written as I have come to expect.  Winterson says some absolutely wonderful things about the craft of writing throughout, and weaves together so many narrative strands to give the novel an almost bottomless depth.  Her prose is exquisite: ‘I was the place where you anchored.  I was the deep water where you could be weightless.  I was the surface where you saw your own reflection.  You scooped me up in your hands.’

As with several of Winterson’s other works of fiction, we do not always know a great deal about our narrator, or even who is speaking in parts.  This makes the whole even more captivating, however; the details which are not concretely defined become even more beguiling than they perhaps would be otherwise.  Here, there is mystery, myth, fairytale, and realism.  The PowerBook is rather an intense read, which has been masterfully structured.  It is wild, vivid, and enchanting, and I shall be recommending it to everyone.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The World According to Anna’ by Jostein Gaarder **

I have read several of Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder’s books in the past, many of them during my teenage years when I was just discovering the joy of the adult world of translated literature.  Thus far, nothing has matched up to the strength of The Orange Girl for me, a wonderful and underrated festive tale about how the young protagonist’s late father kept crossing paths with a woman he named ‘The Orange Girl’ in his native Oslo. The overtly philosophical Sophie’s World, the book which has been sold over thirty million copies, and which Gaarder is undoubtedly most well-known for, didn’t appeal to me anywhere near as much; whilst it raised some interesting questions, I felt that the plot let the whole down, and the characters which peopled the tome were not as realistic as they should have been for me to invest my feeling with them.  The same can sadly be said for the newest novel of Gaarder’s to be translated into English by Don Bartlett, The World According to Anna.

The novel’s storyline piqued my interest; our protagonist is Anna, a young woman on the eve of her sixteenth birthday.  She begins to have vivid dreams set in the future – in 2082, to be precise – which feature her granddaughter, Nova.  These are not just dreams to Anna; rather, messages are transmitted to her through the medium.  Her parents, who reside in a secluded part of Norway, decide to consult a doctor in Oslo, who refers Anna to a psychologist.  He, of course, believes that there ‘may be some truth to what she is seeing’.

9780297609735The World According to Anna begins on New Year’s Eve, but there is little that is festive about it, despite its promising opening sentence: ‘New Year’s Eve was a special time.  Normal rules did not apply, and everyone mixed freely.  On that evening they left one year behind and entered the next.  They stepped over an invisible boundary between what had been and what would be’.  In fact, the novel can be termed a dystopian work in some ways.  The future which Anna sees is barren and isolated.  She follows Nova through the landscape, along with ‘a band of survivors, after animals and plants have died out’.  Dystopia is not my personal favourite in terms of a literary genre, but if it is done well – for instance, in works by Margaret Atwood – it can be incredibly effective.  Not so here.  It soon becomes up to Anna alone to save the world, which is where the whole thing turned sour as far as I was concerned.

Anna is not a good character.  She is flat and underdeveloped, and the way in which she speaks often seems far above her fifteen years.  She seems to have an unshakeable wisdom, which one would expect of a literary character far older than she.  There is little here, in fact, to indicate that she is a teenager.  When her psychologist, Dr Benjamin, asks her what she is afraid of, she gives this answer, which is at once important, but also curiously impersonal: ‘”… I’m afraid of climate change.  I’m afraid that we’re risking our climate and environment without a second thought for future generations.”‘  Along with the conversations, much of the prose within The World According to Anna tends to read like a geography textbook at times, particularly with regard to the interactions between Anna and Dr Benjamin.  Whilst what they say is interesting, it is relayed so matter-of-factly that it feels as though they are merely reading from a book.  The relationship between them is incredibly strange too; perhaps the professionalism is lost in translation or something of the like, but it is unsettling almost to the point of becoming creepy.

The Norwegian winter is well set out, as are the changing conditions and altered migration patterns which Gaarder portrays.  This is perhaps the strength of the novel; we as readers do see the landscape altering irrevocably.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout is essentially a distancing device; Anna does not feel realistic enough to stand alone in this manner, and it perhaps would have been a more effective novel had Gaarder written from her perspective.  The use of the narrative dream too is unsuccessful, largely because it is a device which is repeated over and over, and thus loses much of its meaning.

The World According to Anna undoubtedly makes one think about issues which our planet and civilisation face.  However, the entirety is rather melodramatic.  The novel sounded promising and important, but it soon becomes trite; its potential has not been reached.  Gaarder has barely scratched the surface at times; it does not feel as though he ever goes deep enough to make his book believable.  There is no lightness of touch in the prose or the translation, and it feels rather banausic in consequence.  Whilst he has clearly attempted to tell this novel in a similar manner to Sophie’s World, The World According to Anna is neither as philosophical, nor as thoughtful.

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‘Novel on Yellow Paper’ by Stevie Smith ***

‘But first, Reader, I will give you a word of warning. This is a foot-off-the-ground novel that came by the left hand. And the thoughts come and go and sometimes they do not quite come and I do not pursue them to embarrass them with formality to pursue them into a harsh captivity. And if you are a foot-off-the-ground person I make no bones to say that is how you will write and only how you will write. And if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation. So put it down. Leave it alone. It was a mistake that you made to get this book. You could not know.’

9780860681465The 27th entry on the Virago Modern Classics list, which has been reissued in the last few years, is Novel on Yellow Paper, ‘the bestselling debut novel that made Stevie Smith a star’, and which took her only ten weeks to write. Published for the first time in 1936, and the first of only three novels, Novel on Yellow Paper feels thoroughly modern in many ways. Art historian and writer Frances Spalding believes that ‘Virginia Woolf’s roving consciousness lies behind the prose… but the tone owes more to Dorothy Parker…’. Upon its publication, the book was ‘acclaimed by some critics and abhorred by others’.

The reprint features a new introduction by Rachel Cooke. She emphasises what Spalding says when she states that one literary figure of the period believed that this was the work of Woolf herself, published under the guise of a pseudonym. Originally a fan of Smith’s poetry – ‘it was her tone that really delighted me. Her irony, her wit, that slight edge of malice: these things spoke to a moody teenager. Her voice was irresistible, bending the world into a shape that was disorientatingly odd, even as it was instantly recognisable’ – Cooke was both amazed and awestruck by her prose. Of her writing, Cooke says that Smith ‘likened her fiction to the sea: on the surface bright and sunny, but seven miles down “black and cold”‘.

Our protagonist, Pompey Casmilus, is Stevie’s own alter-ego, ‘a more antic version of herself’. She is ‘young, in love and working as a secretary for the magnificent Sir Phoebus Ullwater’. Cooke writes that there is ‘a certainty about Pompey; like her creator, she has the courage of her (somewhat weird) convictions’. Between her office duties, she ‘scribbles down – on yellow office paper – her quirky thoughts’. These thoughts go off at random tangents, and ‘her flights of inspiration’ consequently cover ‘Euripedes, sex education, Nazi Germany and the Catholic Church, shattering conventions in their wake’.

Small strands of story and sharp observations wind their way through the novel – for example, ‘Yes, always someone dies, someone weeps, in tune with the laurels dripping, and the tap dripping, and the spout dripping into the water-butt, and the dim gas flickering greenly in the damp conservatory’. In this manner, one thought leads into another seemingly unconnected idea, and strange thoughts manifest and embed themselves. The sentence above, for example, is followed with this: ‘Like that flood that kid made in its cradle with that thar cunning cat sitting atop of it. And perhaps if the kid rode the flood o.k. that thar cat smothered it. For you can’t escape your fate. And I’ve known cats overlay babies. It was in the newspapers’. Smith surges from the present to the distant past and back again, placing Pompey’s present against the backdrop of the past. Due to this, at times, the plot – what little there is of it, really – can be rendered rather difficult to follow.

Smith’s prose style is incredibly interesting – that perhaps goes without saying. Her writing swirls and spirals; sometimes it is almost rhythmical, and at others it is though a barrage of thoughts, which will never cease, have been unleashed upon the reader. Novel on Yellow Paper is a reading experience and a half, and is certainly one of the most experimental titles on the Virago list which I have come across to date. It isn’t the easiest of books to get into, and Pompey is not the best of narrators for a handful of reasons. The most grating element which I found about her was the way in which she refers to herself using both the first and third person perspectives. Whilst one cannot say that she is wonderfully developed, or well rounded, she is certainly a thoroughly interesting being, however: ‘And often I think, I have a sword hanging over my head that must fall one day, because I am conscious of sin in my black heart and I think that God is saving up something that will carry Pompey away’. The entirety of the book is intense and rather erratic – quite like the impression one forms of its narrator, really.

Whilst the stream of consciousness style which has been used here is decidedly Woolfian, the same exhilaration and beauty cannot be found in Smith’s work. Novel on Yellow Paper does not read anywhere near as well as Virginia Woolf’s work does, in my opinion. Whilst it is clear that she was inspired by Woolf’s groundbreaking writing style, I do not feel that some elements here have been controlled as well as they could have been; or, indeed, explored and discussed as well as Woolf would have handled them. It is as though Smith saw the entirety of her novel merely as an experiment, rather than as an exercise to create a wondrously memorable work of fiction. Pompey herself writes that ‘this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to paint the moral, to adorn the tale’.

Novel on Yellow Paper is a melancholy work, breathy and almost exhausting to read in places. It is not a novel to be taken lightly; the whole is memorable and quite powerful in places. The novel’s sequel, Over the Frontier, has also been reissued by Virago, and is sure to be of interest to all of those who are drawn into Smith’s experimental style.

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One From the Archive: ‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood *****

Whilst I have found some of Atwood’s work a little hit and miss in the past, I was very much looking forward to engrossing myself in this, an incredibly appealing-sounding historical novel.  Of all her works, the thread of story within Alias Grace is the one which captured my attention the most.

Alias Grace was shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and was the recipient of the Canadian Giller Prize.  The novel has received wondrous acclaim from reviewers since its publication in 1996. It centres around the true story of Grace Marks, a servant who was arrested for her ‘cold-blooded’ part in two notorious murders in July 1843, at the age of sixteen.  Thomas Kinnear, a wealthy farmer in Ontario, and his housekeeper-cum-mistress, Nancy Montgomery, were shot and strangled respectively.  Grace’s co-worker and accomplice, a twenty-year-old stable hand named James McDermott, was hung for his part in proceedings.  Grace, on account of her sex and young age, was committed to an asylum in Kingston, Ontario, where she remained for thirty years.

Atwood is masterful at using a variety of different techniques to set the scene throughout.  As well as the story told in Grace’s own words – or, at least, Atwood’s imagining of them – we also have a narrative based upon a fictional doctor named Simon Jordan, who is researching Grace’s case.  Materials such as newspaper articles and poems have also been used to further shape the historical context.

Alias Grace is beautifully written.  Grace’s voice particularly has been incredibly tautly crafted, and Atwood’s portrayal of her feels realistic from the very beginning: ‘Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: murderess, murderess.  It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.  Murderer is merely brutal.  It’s like a hammer, a lump of metal.  I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices’.  Grace is a captivating protagonist; although we know from the first what she has been convicted of, an awful lot of sympathy is soon created for her on behalf of the reader.  Atwood is empathetic towards her young character, and makes her come to life once more upon the page.

Whilst I didn’t adore Alias Grace, it is certainly an incredibly well-crafted – and even quite moving – novel, and it is my favourite of Atwood’s books to date.  I particularly admired the way in which she tied so many historical elements together – the use of historical quilt designs and foodstuffs, for example.  Alias Grace, despite its length, is a gripping and fast-moving novel, which is sure to appeal to any reader with an interest in crime or general historical fiction.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Rabbit Back Literature Society’ by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskalainen ****

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskalainen was first published in Finland in 2006.  The novel in its lovely Pushkin Press edition has been translated from its original Finnish by Lola M. Rogers.

The novel’s protagonist, twenty six-year-old Ella Milana, is first introduced to us as ‘the reader’.  She is a Finnish language and literature teacher – ‘a dreamy substitute with defective ovaries and gracefully curved lips’ – who has returned to her hometown, Rabbit Back, to work as a substitute at the high school.  Whilst living in her childhood home once more, Ella finds herself with rather a lot to deal with – along with a stressful pile of marking each evening, her father is suffering from quite extreme memory loss, and all that interests her mother are ‘television shows and entering raffle drawings in the hope of winning a prize’.

Ella’s story begins when one of her students is found reading an incorrect version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which the plot has been altered considerably: ‘… the existence of the irregular Dostoevky deeply offended her, and when she was offended she could sometimes do impulsive, purely intuitive things’.  When returning it to the local library, Ella becomes suspicious that the librarian is not more surprised by the incident: ‘A prank like that would take a very unusual saboteur and it was hard to imagine what the motive would be.  And how could such a book remain in circulation for nearly twenty years without anyone noticing anything strange about it?’

The Rabbit Back Literature Society of the novel’s title is ‘a collection of gifted children who would, with [Laura] White’s guidance, grow up to be writers’.  Promising students at the Rabbit Back school have work sent to local and revered children’s author Laura White, who is continually involved in ‘her search for the new members she desires’.  At the beginning of the novel, however, the society has had no new members for three decades: ‘The possibility of joining the society was practically theoretical, since the entire present membership – nine lifetime member authors – had all joined in the first three years after the Society was established in 1968’.

After one of Ella’s short stories is published in a supplement in the local paper, however, she is invited to join the Society.  We are given quite a fascinating insight into the world of the elite in consequence.  At a society get together, for example, ‘The members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society don’t seem to be talking with each other.  They pass close by each other now and then, but never look each other in the eye, never indulge in conversation.  One could very easily assume that they don’t know each other at all’.  Two elements of mystery – one of which revolves around a shadowy past member whom nobody really remembers, and the other of which deals with the sudden unexplained disappearance of Laura White herself – soon come to light.

Bookish Ella is a character whom I found myself immediately endeared to: ‘She’d read more than was healthy, hundreds of books every year.  Some of them she read twice, or even three times, before returning them.  Some of them she would check out again after letting them sink in a while.  She’d thought at that time that books were at their best when you’d read them two or three times’.

The novel’s third person perspective focuses mainly upon Ella and her place in Rabbit Back; a lot of thought has clearly gone into her character, her past and her actions. Such care has been taken over the translation of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and it flows wonderfully.  The whole is compelling, and is filled with some lovely passages and ideas.  There is a creative aspect to be found in The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and Jaaskalainen has woven in elements of magical realism here and there, which add a wonderful balance to the whole.  The novel becomes darker as it goes on, and it has been so well crafted that it is a true joy to read.

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‘I Pose’ by Stella Benson ***

Having loved what I have read of Stella Benson’s thus far, I jumped at the chance of receiving a review copy of her debut novel, I Pose from Michael Walmer.  First published in 1915, Walmer has chosen to republish it due to its ‘significance in literary history and its humane excellence in all other respects’.  The blurb states that ‘Benson’s cheekiness in commenting directly to the reader on the progress of the story, the saltiness of her slightly cynical view of the world and its ways, and the strange newness of the tale she was telling meant that, on first publication in 1915, the literary world’s curiosity was most certainly piqued’.

The novel’s protagonists are known as The Gardener and The Suffragette.  Both, the blurb says, are ‘beautifully mixed, endearingly crazy creations of Benson’s unusual talent’.  We do not learn their names at any point, which is a very interesting stylistic touch.  The structure of the novel, too, is a little deviant from most of the novels which would have served as the contemporaries of I Pose; it is comprised of an initial chapter which runs to over three hundred pages, and a second chapter which is just eight pages long.9780987483522

The novel’s beginning is lovely and witty, and certainly sets the tone for the whole: ‘There was once a gardener…  Nobody would ever try to introduce him into a real book, for he was in no way suitable.  He was not a philosopher.  Not an adventurer.  Not a gay dog.  Not lively: but he lived, and that at least is a great merit’.  As one can see from the aforementioned, Benson’s character descriptions are somewhat refreshingly original: ‘He was not indispensible to any one, but he believed that he was a pillar supporting the world.  It sometimes makes one nervous to reflect what very amateur pillars the world seems to employ’.

The Suffragette whom he meets at the beginning of the novel, and whom he converses with throughout, has this to say for herself: ‘”One is born a woman…  A woman in her sphere – which is the home.  One starts by thinking of one’s dolls, later one thinks about one’s looks, and later still about one’s clothes.  But nobody marries one.  And then one finds that one’s sphere – which is the home – has been a prison all along.  Has it ever struck you that the tragedy of a woman’s life is that she has time to think – she can think and organise her sphere at the same time’.

The whole feels incredibly modern at times; the issues which Benson discusses are wholly relevant to the twenty-first century, particularly with the looming threat of right-leaning governments and such things as women’s rights, and the meaning of freedom.  I Pose is a curiously poignant book, in fact.  Benson’s sense of humour is rather wicked; she makes swipes at both characters at points, as well as addressing, in the most tongue-in-cheek manner, the things which they stand for: ‘(You need not be afraid.  There is not going to be very much about the cause in this book.)’

There are many serious themes at play within I Pose, but there is a comical edge to the whole; nothing becomes too serious that it feels maudlin to the reader.  For instance, ‘The Suffragette gave Holloway Gaol as her permanent address’.  The storyline is rather exciting, and offers something rather different to the majority of its contemporaries.  The Gardener and the Suffragette decide to go along with societal convention in a way, and pose as a married couple.  Their reasoning for such a choice, however, is a little out of the ordinary; they do so in order to be able to board a ship and travel to a secluded island community.

I Pose is a nicely balanced work, and another which does not deserve to go unread by the majority.  It has so much to say about the world – both that which has passed, and that which we are currently living within.  I do think, however, on reflection, that I had been a little spoilt by beginning my foray into Benson’s work with This Is The End and Living Alone.  Both are immediately engaging, and whilst I was continually intrigued and surprised by I Pose, it didn’t quite have the same amount of polish.  One can understand why – this is a debut novel after all – but the lack of magical realism, which I have become so fond of in Benson’s later work, is felt.  I got a little less out of the novel than I thought I would, unfortunately, but it is still one which I would heartily recommend, particularly if you are just starting off with Benson’s work.

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