The Birdcage Archives

Sunday 31 July 2022

– VI –

Truth is not a possessive term. Truth is not loaded concept. Truth is absolute. There is no moral inflection or bias applied. It’s a statement of fact. Truth cannot be possessed or procured for individual dissemination. An individual is incapable of possessing truth and by extension speaking a possessive version of the truth. They can only broadcast their version of events, their testimony, or their statements. None of which are synonymous with truth. This is not the same as possessing truth. The misappropriation of the term truth as a personal possession devalues the concept. It degrades the term into commoditization and personalization. There is no speaking your truth. There is only stating your version of events. There is only providing your testimony. There is only providing your statement or recollection.

Thursday 28 July 2022

The Booker Prize Longlist, 2022

Hello Gentle Reader,
The Booker Prize Longlist has been announced, which brings to mind (or at least the faintest hope) that perhaps we are nearing the threshold of summers end—or more precisely: the end of the oppressive heat. This year’s Booker Prize is noted for two measures, one the age range between the listed writers is a variety of both youth and seniority, but also once again the American’s are noted for dominating the nominations, which brings to question the prizes’ ability to assess quality over quantity. Yet considering the change has already been in effect for an extended period of time and is as settled as a cat on the windowsill, which inevitably means I doubt the American’s will be excluded any time soon; rather the invasion is here to stay. Yet this year’s longlist does have some peculiar talking points and unique writers.
First the following are the 13 longlisted writers and their works:
Claire Keegan – Ireland – “Small Things Like These,”
Alan Garner – UK – “Treacle Walker,”
Elizabeth Stout – USA – “Oh William!”
Percival Everett – USA – “The Trees,”
Karen Joy Fowler – USA – “Booth,”
Shehan Karunatilaka – Sri Lanka – “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida,”
Audrey Magee – Ireland – “The Colony,”
Leila Mottley – USA – “Nightcrawling,”
Selby Wynn Schwartz – USA – “After Sappho,”
Graeme Macrae Burnet – Scotland/UK – “Case Study,”
Maddie Mortimer – UK – “Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies,”
NoViolet Bulawayo – Zimbabwe – “Glory,”
Hernan Diaz – USA – “Trust,”
Alan Garner is one of the more unique writers on the list, at the age of 87, Garner is the oldest nominee on this year’s longlist with his novel “Treacle Walker,” which is being described as a beautiful novel detailing the remarkable beauty of the world via a child’s perspective, who in turn forms a unique and bewildering relationship with a man drifter by the name of Treacle Walker. “Treacle Walker,” has been described as one of the most refreshing parables of the modern times. Alan Garner’s writing has been recognized (even pigeonholed) within the confines of children’s literature, in a fashion similar to Philip Pullman, where the confines of children’s literature and adult fiction are easily blurred. In more certain terms, Alan Garner’s work is universal in scope, able to be enjoyed by both adults and children in equal fashion. Garner’s work is also known for its fantastical elements, as is described as fantasy in nature, which often means his work is sidestepped or skirted when it comes to discussions of serious literature. But the Booker Prize has shown before that fantasy does not mean cheap, when in 2004 Susanna Clarke’s novel “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Where Susanna Clarke had a literary eye and talent for historical detail and revisionist wonderment, Alan Garner writes with the United Kingdom’s folkloric roots and landscape within his novels, where the archetypes of myth and folklore are components of daily life and psychological reasoning, with archaeological wonderment. Personally, Alan Garner nomination and induction has been described as long overdue, and the recognition well deserved.
In turn, Claire Keegan’s novel “Small Things Like These,” is only 128 pages, and is by far the shortest novel on this year’s longlist. But as a short story writer by trade (and mastery) Claire Keegan proves her greatest literary talent asset is her jeweler’s eye for fine craftsmanship. “Small Things Like These,” has also been described as a ‘Christmas Novel,’ in fashion to enchant and bring for the visions of the Dickensian “A Christmas Carol,” which within its gothic ghost story, exemplifies the moral education of a miserable old miser to find the principles of goodness and charity and reform his cheapened and crooked ways. Claire Keegan’s novel is equally dark dealing with the Magdalene laundries in Ireland, and the oppressive dark authoritarian rule of the Catholic Church throughout Ireland. Keegan proves concision is not an insult, “Small Things Like These,” is as refreshing as a beautiful morning of fresh snowfall, pristine with crystalline prose. Keegan is a master of cadence and tone, her novels reverberate well below what is written on the page, providing enough nuance, context, and insinuation that her work haunts long after the last page has been turned. Claire Keegan also has a talent of dissecting tension after the disaster, providing evidence that the tension is not left to leading up to the catastrophe, but can continue to reverberate after the event. Claire Keegan is a masterful writer, and a genuine master of the short story, a true practitioner of the ‘Irish Short Story,’ which would make William Trevor proud.
Other books of note include the gruesome horrific histography found in Percival Everett’s “Trees,” which recounts the United States historical legacy of lynching. The feminist chorus of womanhood and trailblazing revolutionary. In “Glory,” NoViolet Bulawayo recounts an anthropomorphic political satire depicting the fall of Robert Mugabe. In “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida,” Shehan Karunatilaka has also drafted a searing adventurous political satire set during the mayhem and murder of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Leila Mottley in turn is the youngest writer to be nominated and longlisted for the Booker Prize at the age of 20 with her novel “Nightcrawling,” which is a harrowing realist story about the cruel realities of those overlooked, disenfranchised, and impoverished within the modern world. Detailing the story of siblings Kiara and Marcus, the novel shifts between dreams of rap stardom and the daily struggles of dead-end jobs and taking care of those equally abandoned within the greater world. The novel has been described as an energetically intense and unflinchingly raw.
The Booker Prize Longlist for 2022 is certainly a diverse portfolio. I suspect we will certainly see Alan Garner, Claire Keegan, and NoViolet Bulawayo on the shortlist (though there is a wide margin for error); but personally, the two stand out novels on this year’s longlist truly are: Alan Garner’s “Treacle Walker,” and Clare Keegan’s “Small Things Like These.”
Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
M. Mary

Thursday 14 July 2022

Invisible Ink

Hello Gentle Reader,

There is a short vignette – a brief sentence – from “Invisible Ink,” which provides with understated eloquence the literary visage of Patrick Modiano:

“[. . . ] behind the accused were about 30 suitcases – the only remaining traces of person who had gone missing.”

The image recalls the enclosures and display cases within the Memorial and Museum of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The exhibits display the unmistakable quantity of people who were deported and sentenced to a universe of death. The shoes, the hair, the artificial limbs, become the only tangible anchor and traces of the individuals who were consumed and eradicated in the camp before being released out the chimney. Though 6 million jews were reported to have been exterminated in the holocaust, this number itself becomes vague and intangible, but the physical quantity and expanse of the objects of possessions or even hair, makes the number more palpable. It anchors the lost or incorporeal to the land of the living, to reality. The same can be seen in that scene with the accused. 30 is but a ubiquitous number. Ever present and routinely cycled throughout daily life, in all manners of speech. Even to discuss 30 people who went missing carries the gesture of simple accountancy, a record of an otherwise innocuous transaction. The context, in turn however, of the 30 suitcases become the revealing human element of just how many people went ‘missing,’ or just disappeared. Theses suitcases remain anonymous, but representative of an individual who has unexpectedly and unexplainably been redacted from the world. Perhaps this is what is most frightening regarding the Holocaust and its associative horrors and tragedies, which includes The Occupation and the Vichy Regime of France, is in which the casualty and bureaucratic efficiency of the crimes took place. Mass killing and genocide was treated as business of the day. Through defined and described in the context of ideological rationale and obligation, achieving the prescribed notion of what has been deemed the common good. The clockwork efficiency of its endorsement, deployment, and facilitation remains inhumanely horrifying in the perversion of human life and the basic principles of dignity. This is what makes the 30 empty suitcases a haunting image in Modiano’s elegiac prose. These empty suitcases become the only representation and evidence that its owner existed and lived, that at the time of their departure they had two ears, two eyes, one nose, one pair of lips. Before their abrupt disappearance, they carried on with life in a fashion as unassuming as everyone else’s. Yet, now they are reduced to a commonplace item as the sole representation of the evidentiary existence to the world.

The literary universe of Patrick Modiano is a monochromatic purgatory landscape. An afterthought of a world. A meager shadow which existed within the most elliptical of moments that had since unraveled in the bleaching torrent of ellipses. It is here in the negative space of history; the afterimage of memory; the mere threshold on which Modiano’s characters teeter on the precipice of the abyss. Through simple and elegiac prose, Modiano conjures a world of contemporary history, which has quickly been redacted due to its airs of shame, scandal, and indigent infamy. All of which is facilitated by the act of forgetting, an otherwise collective amnesia. A social and political institution of erasure, to save face. All of which describes the mercurially unknown world of the Occupation and the terrors of Vichy France, which becomes dominate nodal point of Modiano’s literary work.

“Invisible Ink,” deviates from directly commenting on the occupation as the rotten pit obfuscated and removed from contemporary Parisian cityscape and memory, whose shadow crosses the paths of the dubious, the nefarious, and the innocent in equal corruptible measure, and instead takes a more subtle perspective, with an otherwise geriatric and nostalgic gaze towards the past, with haunting questions of curiosity and a sense of unfinished business, a desire for resolution or at least some vague notion of conclusion. Such pursuits are the baseline of Patrick Modiano’s narratives as well-seasoned readers of a Modiano’s particular novels will certainly testify to. In “Invisible Ink,” a retiring middle aged private detective picks up the case from 30 years ago, regarding the missing persons case of a certain Noëlle Lefebvre. The clues regarding Lefebvre’s disappearance are scant, producing nothing of recognizable merit, a few names of inconsequential meaning and a phrase which ominously repeated and peppered throughout the novel:

“If I had known.”

Throughout the mundanity of the few scraps collected regarding the vacant and faint existence of the absent and missing Noëlle Lefebvre, the line: “If I had known,” stands out with forewarning and unresolved consequence, as if someone in passing had meant to let a detail slip or provide some news, but the recipient was late or they themselves were running late, and though they wished to converse they needed to dash off into the ambiguity of their own life. Its vagueness teeters between desolation and an imprecise attempt requesting salvation and forgiveness, a pleading request that a lack of knowledge (if albeit complete ignorance) is defensible enough to be exonerated. Either way, Jean Eyben, the detective circles back to the phrase often, attempting to decipher its content, while it operates as his lodestone, the anchoring point of his investigation and perhaps in turn the old record (by her own hand at least) of Noëlle Lefebvre herself, providing some sketch of a legacy, an acknowledgement of her own existence on the earthly realm.

Springboarding from there, Modiano’s Jean Eyben finds the acquaintances of the elusive and perilous Noëlle Lefebvre and seeks to slip into a two dimensional persona and build an identity and history around the information which is being provided by these shadowy colleagues, and in turn decipher and discern some further knowledge of Noëlle Lefebvre and the circumstances of her disappearance, which stereotypically in archetypal form of Modiano, are elusive if non-existent, which is the charm of Modiano’s work, the exploration of a liminal space. Traversing the precipice between unreliability and fabrication and how they intercept into the realm of memory. The unanswered questions, the deliberate inarticulation, the disintegration of conclusions, and an endless sense of aimless disorientation are the hallmarks of Modiano’s style, and it comes as no surprise that the disappearance of Noëlle Lefebvre, her involvement with what can only be presumed to a shady businessman, and mercurial outdated and less than stellar actors, which in itself is a profession of both glamourous airs and dreams, cruelly denied by realities and the trivial business of life. Yet at the of the novel, there comes a strange reprieve in the instance of Modiano, reminiscent of “Out of the Dark,” where the novel turns to the eternal city of Rome—that fabled city of “After the Circus,” a city which exists in the dreams and the immigration, a place to envision escaping to or running to, hiding in, and eventually existing in—where a curious female, who is heavily implied to be Noëlle Lefebvre enjoys the company of a male companion, whose questions ensure she evades giving a direct answer to her time in Paris. Did Jean Eyben finally accomplish locating the elusive, the vague, the vacant, and absent Noëlle Lefebvre, whose rueful and regretful: “If I had known,” became her legacy in Paris; or is this unknown and even threatening man, one of Noëlle Lefebvre’s acquaintances from all those years ago, who has since hunted her down and is ready to begin anew? Yet on this unknown woman’s part, who may or may not be Noëlle Lefebvre, there is a commitment to come clean, to surface from obscurity and fill the void like wound of absence.

All of Patrick Modiano’s novels are self-contained chamber pieces, small orchestral arrangements of an otherwise intimate nature. Despite their independence they join the symphony of Modiano’s complete bibliography, compromising of variations of the same themes, preoccupations, imagery, and names, but inflected with a new nuance, a different pitch, a cadence all their own, which leads to each new book being a new crescendo cresting on the continuing and endless symphony that Patrick Modiano has composed from his debut novels to his orchestral maturity that changed the direction of his oeuvre and taken on that silvery silk gossamer of a style originating in the seductive novel: “Villa Triste.” “Invisible Ink,” is no different, its own composition of chamber music, intimate and close, but more fermented in its atmosphere, comfortable and well worn. Though not original in Modiano’s work, its niche is complementary to the greater symphony and joins the parade with ease, never out of step or out of tune.  

Thank you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary