The Birdcage Archives

Monday 1 July 2024

Ismail Kadare Dies Aged 88

Hello Gentle Reader,

Ismail Kadare was a singular writer. A towering figure of European literature, Kadare’s reputation was built and fortified on a literary body of work which was as immense as Balzac’s and of unimpeachable quality; uncompromising in its allegory and critique of political injustices and dictatorships; while exploring the existentially horrors such dictatorships force upon its citizens, and their reality warping and corroding effects. Ismail Kadare was a unextinguishable beacon of light, whose pen became a necessary form of resistance against the Soviet endorsed communist regime of Enver Hoxha (before Hoxha broke ties with the communist superpower, while retaining its Stalinist principles), and the infectious paranoia such a society breeds. Ismail Kadare—be it willing or unwillingly—became the palpable hope of Albania, who withered under repressive policies of communism. To quote Ismail Kadare:

“Literature has often produced magnificent works in dark ages as if it was seeking to remedy the misfortune inflicted on people.”

Allegory and irony were Kadare’s greatest literary weapons. The ability to craft a compelling metaphor, provided Kadare enough ability to criticize Hoxha, while seemingly able to avoid punitive political recourse. Where other writers were arrested (and some executed), Kadare avoided the fate, though he was exiled to a remote village for a year. How, Kadare avoided political persecution, had often been a subject of debate and attack on the writer. It turned out, however, that Enver Hoxha considered himself a literary man, and while there have been reports that the former dictator did in fact order Kadare’s arrest and execution, he always spared him in the end, perhaps out of begrudged respect or literary appreciation. I suspect, it was more international renown in addition to literary merit that saved Kadare from imprisonment and execution. If Kadare’s reputation was not as stellar and his literary talents but a fraction, Hoxha would have done away with him. By the end of the 80’s though, Kadare fled Albania for France, and his international stature was now set in stone. For the past thirty to forty years, Ismail Kadare was rumored to be a future Nobel Laureate in Literature and a perennial contender, in addition to Milan Kundera, Chinua Achebe, and Philip Roth. In 2005, Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize, for a lifetime assessment of his literary work. Further international accolades include: the Princess of Asturias award in 2009, the Jerusalem prize in 2015 and the Neustadt international prize for literature in 2020. The elusiveness of the Nobel Prize in Literature, will be marked down as another missed opportunity for the Swedish Academy.

Today, Ismail Kadare died and Europe has lost not only of its towering figures, an institution of literary resistance and political discourse, but also a writer who is perhaps one of the few writers, who remained unabashedly a national writer. The kind of writer who captured and celebrated a geographical place. In his work, Ismail Kadare, celebrated Albania as an ancient and shackled nation, overlooked or ignored by the its European neighbours. In doing so, Ismail Kadare elevated the south-eastern Balkan nation to new literary heights, as Kadare promoted and encouraged many young Albanian writers, championing their work abroad.

Rest in Peace Ismail Kadare, you were truly one of the greatest writers of the past 20th Century and early 21st Century.

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

M. Mary 

Sunday 30 June 2024

– XXIX –

If it is one thing cats have taught me: investing in indifference to others, pays dividends in peace.

Thursday 27 June 2024

Treacle Walker

Hello Gentle Reader, 

The 2022 Booker Prize shortlist remains the most resonant in recent memory. The two stand out novels of the shortlist: Claire Keegan’s “Small Things Like These,” and Alan Garner’s “Treacle Walker,” were exquisite cut diamonds, proving that reductionist prose is not akin to minimalist starvation. Instead, they were a testament to the principles of craftsmanship, technical brilliance, and lithe design. In complete contrast and revolt against the bloated maximalist writing parading itself as epicist in perspective (if only Atlas did indeed shrug, sparing everyone the slog and drudgery). Despite being the two standout novels with their principled executions, neither one received the Booker Prize, still they benefited from the nomination. In addition to their work, Claire Keegan and Alan Garner came to the forefront as two writers who entered the Booker Prize conversation as outsiders, and not conforming to the usual Booker Prize literary pedigree. Keegan is renowned as a master of the short story. Her two previous published collections “Antarctica,” and “Walk the Blue Fields,” were unanimously praised for their technical brilliance, further exemplifying that the Irish short story remained one of the most poignant portraits of the human experience. Keegan’s expanded short story turned novella “Foster,” remains a haunting and beautiful masterpiece of profound human tragedy and hope undercut by disappointment and reality’s uncanny ability to thwart expectations. Alan Garner in turn has built a magnified and solid career as a fabulist and folklorist, whose deep appreciation for Cheshire history and geography remain the defining bedrock of his work. Garner’s novels are renowned for their folkloric magic and fantasy, in addition to their cinematic pacing. Beloved by both children and adults in equal measure, Alan Garner is a literary chimera who refuses to acknowledge or swear allegiance to either canon, while “The Owl Service,” remains a classic novel that straddles the border between children’s literature and adult fiction, proving that literature maneuvers seamlessly between these two worlds and their divergent experiences, and that literature is not restricted or governed by age.

Alan Garner is a writer of place. Specifically of the Cheshire village Alderley Edge, where his family had settled since the 16th century, and their family history had become interwoven within it. Folktales, myths, legends, and stories were inherited with each generation, mythologizing the landscape. Garner’s own upbringing was one of rural-working class (while the area has since become gentrified and suburban in Manchester’s sprawl). Garner proved to be a capable student, and as education entered the public sphere seeking to single and rise capable youth above their working-class backgrounds, Garner was provided the opportunity to study at a Grammar School, where his fees were waived because of his means-testing, and eventually studied at Classics at Magdalene College in Oxford. Education, however, proved to be a schism between Garner’s background and family and himself. Removed from the insular and provincial world of Alderley Edge, Garner was suddenly a castaway in the larger society and in turn world. At once emancipated and exiled. Writing, then became Garner’s way of reconciling these cultural and social divisions, at point returning home and remediating his new found academic worldliness with the hardscrabble working-class background and those old myths and folklore stories; and his new appreciation for history, research, narrative, prose and grammar, and the ability to transform and share the mythic world of Alderley Edge and the Cheshire landscape with a wider reading public.

While not being an individual who is necessarily fond of children – we often find each other at an awkward impasse of polite pleasantries and then courtesy, if albeit, abrupt departures – children can be compelling characters and narrators. For many works, they work and succeed on the character of their childlike characters. Be it the titular fool in the ornamental and baroque lavish and loquacious novel “Firefly,” by Severo Sarduy; or the delight and cheek of Kamal in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, specifically “Palace Walk,”; or the rebellious Lullaby from the aptly named J.M.G Le Clezio’s novella, who engages in truancy and takes it upon herself to explore the world outside of the classroom, or all the other Le Clezio characters, such as the miraculously feral and fond Mondo, or Daniel in search of the sea. Childhood is not always one of innocence and sundrenched imagination. Patrick Modiano’s child-oriented characters who are at once abandoned to boarding school, family friends, or hired help, then adorned as an accessory or paraded around as a pet, before being left behind once more. In Alan Garner’s case, childhood is both a place of lonesome solitude and the last refuge. It’s a state of being, in which the real world remains at bay, and possibilities of imagination still hold some influence and sway. Garner, however, is no garden variety of fabulist. Impossibility is introduced via historical and arcane like measures, rituals, and objects. Whimsy and magical thinking are not in the repertoire. The strange manifests itself through the otherworldly and the historically unknown.

For readers who have been led to believe that complexity is exclusive to mammoth novels or dense uncompromising works of text, “Treacle Walker,” proves not only be the exception to this adage, but also a glowing example that complexity is not weighted by word or page count, but to the level in which a writer is able to refine and manipulate language into new startling forms of perspective; all the while providing commentary on complex themes and ideas. “Treacle Walker,” is a novel where language is layered and slightly obfuscated. The ‘Treacle,’ in question is not the sugared syrup of refined sugar of contemporary definition and understanding, but dates back to its previous incarnations, when treacle (or triacle) was considered an antidote. In the words of the titular rag-and-bone man, Treacle Walker, he advertises his ability to heal:

            “[. . .] all things. Save jealousy. Which none can.”

Joe Coppock, is a sensitive and creative boy whose childhood is punctuated with loneliness and illness. He wears an eye patch to help correct a lazy eye, and he’s been instructed to reduce his exposure to the sun. Time is marked by Noony, the midday train passing through, whose steam coils through the fields and meadows of Joe’s home. As for Joe, he spends his days reading comics, collecting bird eggs, and bone, which are curated in his museum. These otherwise carbon copy lonely days are interrupted by the arrival of the rag-and-bone man who announces himself in the yard:

            “Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rages! Donkey stone!”

After a transaction of an old pair of pajamas and a lamb’s shoulder-blade, to the rag-and-bone man, Joe Coppock will find himself central to an adventure of strange events, as Joe in turn is provided a stone with a primitive image of a horse etched on its surface, and a treasure from Treacle Walkers chest, whereby Joe pulls a cup of a strange ointment. Treacle Walker, speaks in enigmatic aphorisms, turns of phrases, and general nonsense, leaving Joe to retort frequently: “Bleeding heck!” Garner is a cinematic writer, seamlessly moving the narrative through quick cuts and snaps of dialogue, his true flourishes come through in flashes of action, as seen in the following scenes when both the titular vagabond and Joe sit at the chimney space becomes a bewildering scene, as Treacle Walker plays a tune on a shin bone:

“a tune with wings, trampling things, tightened strings, boggarts and bogles and brags on their feet; the man in the oak, sickness and fever, that set in long, lasting sleep the whole great world with the sweetness of sound the bone did play.”

When Joe plays on the same bone he summons the harbinger of summer: the cuckoo; whose cries echo throughout the following narrative. Other instances include the sporadic assault of a: “hurlothrumbo of winter,” [. . .] “A lomperhomock of night.” Due to an affliction or perhaps application with or of glamourie, Joe Coppock soon finds that a routine childhood disability provides him the means in which to perceive the world as it is and what’s behind it. What follows suit are comic book characters who find themselves emancipated from their panels; an encounter with an Iron-Age bog man named Thin Amren whose even more cryptic than Treacle Walker, who he dismisses as a “pickthank psychopomp.” All of which transpires within 150 pages. What would otherwise be a breeze of a novel, is instead slowed down by the thicket of ideas and the language, which prunes anything superfluous while ensuring enough barbed complexity will demand full attention. the narrative itself, may describe itself as octane fantasy, but its firmly rooted in reality, and delights in neither being fantastical or parabolic while completely abandoning any notion of realism. Language and truly specific cultural elements are what make “Treacle Walker,” more alienating, such as understanding what a ‘donkey stone,’ is and their antiquated application. Or what it means when an individual does a shufti. This specific vocabulary and vernacular understanding with no context and no definition, can be otherwise off-putting for some readers, but after a bit of digging and understanding of the terms, it comes to enrich the narrative, firmly rooting it in its specific landscape and history, which Garner celebrates. Though ‘clanjandering,’ and ‘nookshotten,’ remain unknown and impenetrable. “Treacle Walker,” remains one of the most interesting novels to have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and while many parts of the novel flew over my head or the language ensure I never entered into complete comprehension, it remains a surreal and interesting read.

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

M. Mary

Sunday 26 May 2024

– XXVIII –

Unfulfilled ambitions? Reminisces of paths and possibilities not taken? This is no tragedy. You just described in actuality, the kitchen sink drama of life. 

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Jenny Erpenbeck Wins the International Booker Prize 2024

Jenny Erpenbeck wins the International Booker Prize 2024, with her novel: “Kairos.”

Jenny Erpenbeck is one of the most remarkable German language writers currently at work; whose novels reckon with and wrestle with the individual and personal histories and their relation to historical and sociopolitical moments, which change course and direction. Growing up in East Germany, Erpenbeck recalled with casual indifference that she was asleep when the Berlin Wall was in its initial stages of being torn down. While the world and the city partied at the conflux of the divided city reconciling, Erpenbeck was tucked in for the night, surrendering herself to tomorrow. For Erpenbeck, the Berlin Wall was merely the edge of the world for her, a mundane place where her family had outings or partook in picnics. The wall lacked the grimness depicted in western media. Throughout her novels, Jenny Erpenbeck maintains an accountancy of history and time, both in its historical developments and consequences, but also the personal and emotional driftwood, always at risk of being washed away or bowled over by the more substantial and transformative waves.

“Kairos,” her International Booker Prize winning novel is no different. With the dissolution of East Germany as the backdrop, Erpenbeck traces the disintegration of a love affair, between a young student and an old writer. Of course, the novel is not just a testament to the imbalances of love as power; the whirls of passion which inevitably burn themselves out; it provides testimony on the nature of art, power, and culture. If anything, “Kairos,” uses the love affair and its damaging ignition and turbulent end, as allegory of the end of an era, a nation, and a city. An era of immense gains and new found freedoms, undercut by the complete collapse and loss of an entire reality. The International Booker Prize jury praised, Michael Hoffman for his beautiful translation, by embodying the layered and eccentric language of Erpenbeck, with her run on sentences, but also expansive emotional resonance and vocabulary. It was marvelous to hear

“Kairos,” is a novel of intimate secrets and passions, but also the imbalance and cruelty of passionate love, while branching out and being infected by the historical and social changes of the time, which threaten to complete upend one’s own understanding and certainty on reality. “Kairos,” proves Jenny Erpenbeck herself to be one of the most important contemporary German writers at work currently writing today. This award also cements Michael Hoffman as one of the most important translators currently working, and this is the first time the International Booker Prize went to a German language writer and a male translator.

Congratulations to Jenny Erpenbeck, a very well-deserved award!

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

M. Mary

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Alice Munro Dies Aged 92

Hello Gentle Reader,

Few names are as lauded and admired in Canadian literature and the short story format as Alice Munro’s. There are few who are considered her contemporary or equal in master of the short story form, and those who are: pay tribute to their debt to Munro. Despite her gigantic status as literary icon, Munro, never appeared distant or celestial. There was no insistence that she was a regular and or normal person, she merely was, who also happened to be a magnificent writer. Munro’s warmth and graciousness are equally praised in addition to her literary achievement. As the “Master of the Contemporary Short Story,” as the Swedish Academy declared, when announcing Alice Munro as a Nobel Laureate in Literature (2013), Munro proved herself to be an incisive and psychological portraitist, whose narratives were less interested in parading fact and dissecting the narrative to its sequential events; instead, Munro evoked narratives and embedded them with a sense of joy undercut with an understanding of tragedy. Admired for her stories which celebrated the everyday and the common, Munro often seemed perplexed by this sometimes-unintended backhanded compliment. Her characters were housewives, chambermaids, civil servants, farmers. All in all, ordinary people; but their lives were extraordinary, full of personal heartbreaks, open secrets, private tragedies, moral hypocrisy (and decay), through the expansive and isolative Canadian landscape, and the often-puritanical Canadian small town, with its social scriptures and edifices. The short story structure also changed in Munro’s hands. Time, once reserved only for the novel, was employed in full in Munro’s work. Short stories were no longer limited in the temporal space in which they could cover, they were capable of moving decades into the future and backwards, providing a long view of the characters progressions through their lives, and all their successes and failings, providing a humanistic and extensive overview of a life. “The Love of a Good Woman,” opens with this narrative perfectly, providing a beautiful full circle portrait of a cast of characters and their private failings, misunderstandings, and even crimes. The extraordinary tragedy of the ordinary is also beautiful captured in Munro’s work. Infanticide, sexual exploitation, murder, domestic abuse, illness, these are no longer sensationalist themes or tropes, but are sculpted in beautiful and understated prose, completive void of ostentatious exaggeration, and are remarked with an almost blunt matter of fact recount. Having retired from writing in 2012 with her final collection “Dear Life,” the world has come to accept there will be no more Alice Munro stories in the future, but now with her death, its resounding clear that the world has lost one of its great psychological surveyors who celebrated and elevated the ordinary to extortionary heights. Who through hard work and dedication, with a strict adherence to form, finally ensure the short story got its overdue recognition as a literary form of equal respect.

Rest in Peace Alice Munro.

 
Thank You for Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
 

M. Mary  

Thursday 2 May 2024

Paul Auster, Dies Aged 77

Hello Gentle Reader,

Paul Auster is one of the most well known and regarded postmodernists of American literature. Just as cerebral as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo; Auster became famous for his pastiche and slipstream novels, defying the psychological and realistic narrative premises often associated with literary fiction, and playfully explored themes of identity, chance, coincidence, loss, grief, and one’s sense reality (or their perception of it) being altered, or becoming alienated from it. Styled, the Brooklyn Bard, and though regarded as a New York literary institution, Brooklyn, remained the haunting ground of Paul Austre, in similar fashion to James Joyce’s Dublin, Philip Roth’s New Jersey, or Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul. Brooklyn became immortalized in Auster’s literary universe through his “New York Trilogy,” (“City of Glass,” “Ghosts,” “The Locked Room,”) this trilogy of novels, not only infiltrates the noir mystery genre, but inverts the medium into a postmodern portrait, whereby the nature of identity and reality are deconstructed, examined, and left in a state of post-structuralist disarray. Identity and reality are not static elements in Auster’s work, its palpable, adaptable, and changeable. Throughout “The New York Trilogy,” identity is both lost and replaced. Identity in turn becomes an increasingly metafictional conundrum for the writer, whereby fictional reality and the intrusion of autobiography or reality can become difficult to delineate. The enduring appeal and success of “The New York Trilogy,” showcased the promise of an otherwise brilliant writer and foreshadowed a brilliant career. Auster did not disappoint. What followed suit was a brilliant and prolific literary career, with a variety of interests in different literary mediums, Auster continually returned to the pen and paper out of curiosity, interest, and enduring appreciation for the literary. Paul Auster was always that unique blend of late postmodernism, echoing sentiments of rockstar appeal for being new and exciting, while also being a writer whose literary depth defied superficial criticism challenging his credentials and charging him as an imposter. Throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Auster remained a fashionable and hip postmodernist, never coming to rest on his laurels, and bask on previously treaded ground, and continued to produce on a novel a year, his last one “Baumgartner,” released just last year, and was heralded as a beautiful novel tracing the aches of memory and the spiraling delirium of old age, grief, and loneliness. Of his generation, Paul Auster, is perhaps the most accessible and enjoyable. What both endears and confounds, is perhaps the contrariness of his work. Auster’s language literary language is lucid and agreeable, never twisting itself into an esoteric code or enigmatic linguistic puzzle, but his narratives and plots delight in breaking and warping the conventions of narrative, much to the irritation of critics and theorists. Paul Auster’s death is an immense loss to contemporary American Literature. Truly one of the greatest postmodernist writers of its canon, an unequivocal and unapologetic practitioner of the form and style, while remaining a inherently American sensibility.

Rest in Peace Paul Auster.


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

M. Mary

Sunday 28 April 2024

– XXVII –

Life exists between two opposing forces: the grief of homesickness and the cry for transience. Happiness is found in the provisional periphery, in anonymity.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Patricia Highsmith & The Enduring Allure of the Shadow

Hello Gentle Reader,

It’s been almost thirty years since Patricia Highsmith died, yet her literary legacy cuts a haunting figure. There have been a variety of film adaptions of her work, from Alfred Hitchcock’s watered-down version of “Strangers on the Train,” to the first adaption of the “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” rebranded as “Purple Noon,” and then once again made more famous with the 1999 film “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” which remains an audience favourite, despite not being the most accurate adaption of the novel. Then there was the film, “Carol,” an adaption of the classic lesbian novel, “The Price of Salt,” which was not only gorgeously shot and produced, but captured the rarely seen softer side of Highsmith. Of course there are the myriad of other adaptions: “Black Water,” “The Two Faces of January,” “The Glass Cell,” “The Cry of the Owl,” “The Sweet Sickness,” to name but a few. Then there is the plethora of theatrical and radio adaptions, which fail to be accounted for. These past two decades there have been two biographies of Patrica Highsmith, the first “Beautiful Shadow,” by Andrew Wilson was published in 2003; the second, “The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith,” by the late Joan Schenkar was published in 2009. In 2014 Joanna Murray-Smith’s play “Switzerland,” was produced and staged. “Switzerland,” imagines a fictional version of the well-known reclusive, misanthropic, bitter, and private Highsmith, who, secluded in her Swiss modernist bunker-like house, is visited by perhaps her most famous literary creation. In 2021, at long last the infamous Highsmith Journals were compiled and released for public consumption. Previously, they had only been quoted, analyzed, and presented via the biographies, where they took on a dangerous appeal. In hardcover form, the book is almost a thousand pages long and traces the years of 1941 – 1995. Now, Netflix has released a new adaption of Patricia Highsmith’s most famous literary invention: Tom Ripley, with their miniseries “Ripley.” All of which proves that Patricia Highsmith, be it her literary work, life and biography, journals, or character, continues to be the dry ice of inspiration, which we reach out to tantalizingly touch and recoil at not only the burn, but the lasting chill.

Patricia Highsmith remains an enduring and alluring figure for a variety of reasons. In discussing her literary output, critics agree that Highsmith has been (pun intended) criminally miscategorized as a crime writer or thriller writer; and while her works certainly revolve around criminal inclinations and devious acts; Highsmith was more concerned with the existential and psychological aspects of these mindsets. Crime novels, during Highsmith’s times were concerned with upholding the moral integrity and probity of good always overcomes the nefarious, dubious, and diabolical. They were cozy reads of an otherwise garden variety. Puzzles for readers to sniff out the killer lurking amongst the pages, while justice as a virtue would ultimately prevail. Patricia Highsmith in turn obliterated these concepts. First, Highsmith began to autopsy the placid normalcy of daily life, revealing layer by layer the festering filth and debauchery which lurked within everyone’s psyche. Thoughts people never spoke of. Be it threats of violence, or fantasies of murder, or compulsive obsessions. As “Strangers on the Train,” eloquently calculates that in desperation and debauchery, murder can change otherwise unhappy circumstances, be it the death of an unfaithful wife, or an oppressive father. Murder was no longer reduced to an unforgivable act of moral failing and falter, but evolved into a somewhat cooler arresting concept resembling a mundane transaction or basic commerce. When Agatha Christie caused an outrage and controversy with the twist ending of “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” Highsmith, a prolific alcoholic, quite literally said: “hold my beer,” and continued to push that literary envelope. Yet, Highsmith’s treatment of crime and murder went beyond a thriller novel’s usual resume and output. When Graham Greene styled Highsmith “The Poet of Apprehension,” it was with good reason, as Patricia Highsmith, was more interested in spelunking and analyzing the character traits of her otherwise placidly normal people who had finally begun to entertain and entreat their darker thoughts, fantasies, obsessions and desires. This is perhaps why throughout her lifetime, Highsmith had a warmer reception in Europe for her work, where they viewed her as an existential modernist, whereas in the United States of America, she was viewed a crime writer who broke the conventions of the format.

Patrica Highsmith’s character and life remain a fascinating display of mercurial contrary paradoxes. Both biographies of Patricia Highsmith (“Beautiful Shadow,” and “The Talented Miss Highsmith,”) agree she was a complex and difficult woman, which is further supported by her journals. Throughout her life, Highsmith was militant in her defense of her private life. Publicly, Highsmith presented a cold and aloof personality. Highsmith never married, and openly remarked on her preference for bestial company to that of people, going so far as to proclaim her distaste for others by being quoted:

            “My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.”   

Solitude was preferable. The late sage of Suffolk, friend and frequent visitor Ronald Blythe, remarked she often grew tired of his company. Fun fact, both Blythe and Highsmith were gay, though they kept this part of their lives to themselves, and yet still they still initiated and attempted sex. The nature of her sexual preference, was a bone of contention for Highsmith. In her youth she attempted psychoanalysis to rid herself of her infatuation of women. It obviously didn’t work, as Highsmith would go on to have a laundry list of lovers who she intensely and passionately adored and desired, and then abruptly abandoned and discarded. A few turned up in her books as victims, brutally murdered, proving that Highsmith had no sympathies for victims. Still, after a lifetime of curating and assembling a public persona that was obviously cold, bitter, and warningly misanthropic, it came as a shock for readers to learn that Highsmith was not reptilian, but warm blooded. She did, however, remain cruel in the end. In her later years, Patricia Highsmith had carved out a home within the sunless Swiss mountains, which physically emancipated her from public life, and facilitated her solitary lifestyle, which she viciously protected like a brown recluse spider. Overtime, Highsmith’s misanthropy graduated to equal opportunity offender, where she would unleash onslaughts and tirades, regardless of venue and revel in the indignation. She was known to spew venom vitriol with equal liberty and without concern. Otto Penzler (a former editor and publisher of Highsmith, before dropping her) described her as:

“She [Patricia Higsmith] was a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being…I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly.”

The late aged Patricia Highsmith is the most recognizable image of the author. Reclusive and unapologetically misanthropic, whose mean-spirited endeavors rivaled Olympic sporting events in both agility and testament to skill. What has since come about, is Highsmith was a mercurial and complex individual and writer, impossible to pin down and completely ungraspable. Forever shifting and ambiguous, with quicksilver changes, Highsmith defied concrete definitions and compartmentalization’s, and didn’t suffer those fool hearty enough to try to force her into any pre-conceived notion or expectation. To summarize Highsmith as being hardboiled and embittered, and venomously vicious when provoked or disturbed, overlooks her penchant for mordant humour, caustic wit, and unique insight into the consciousness of guilt, apprehension, and obsession. The truth is, Patricia Highsmith was amorphous. A shifting shroud of shade and shadow. One moment on the attack unleashing a torrent of racist and antisemitic remarks. The next, dreaming about some frivolous notion of domestic life with a woman she might love. At her best, however, she was hunched over her Olympia typewriter at her roll top desk, punching away at another novel or short story that delved into the abnormality and darkness of the human soul. Then the pendulum would swing back once again, whereby fueled by cigarettes and alcohol, Highsmith would once again recount, document, record, and scribble in her journals, be it an observation, idea, a list, fantasy, or any other notion. Highsmith loved and hated in equal vein and with the same intensity, often felt simultaneously as a singular experience.

While I haven’t finished the series, “Ripley,” just yet, I’ve enjoyed it thus far. It's a slow burn. Masterfully shot and stylish. The atmosphere is taut with apprehension and menace. The climatic confrontation between Ripley and Dickie is perfect. Ripley, never loses control, carrying out the act with meticulous cold precision. I have found it so disappointing in some reviews the fixation on the ambiguity of Highsmith’s famous American antihero, Tom Ripley’s sexual orientation. The infamous “clothes scene,” seems to have some viewers convinced that Tom Ripley is gay. For the record, Patricia Highsmith dismissed these theories long ago. Furthermore, the term ‘queer,’ when used in the show is not used in its new fashionably remediated format. It’s the old form carrying the tar and feather motivation such an insult was meant to invoke and incite, to purposefully denigrate an individual with no basis, into a category that defines them as somehow a corruption or mistake of nature, perverted and foul. Hearing the term used makes my fingers curl. The subject of Ripley’s sexuality is rather an unimaginative talking point in turn. Sex, much like con artistry, forgery or murder, for Ripley is merely an application or a tool, it is purely utilitarian. What is alluring and so enduring about the talented Tom Ripley, is his nebulous nature, completely chameleonic, shifting and adapting, measured and controlled. Ripley is the cuckoo bird or a changeling, the believable imposter. In the case of Dickie Greenleaf, there may have been adoration for the wayward prodigal son, as Ripley saw a cash cow which he could syphon and symbiotically leech off of. Its climatic conclusion was not the end for Ripley, it was only the beginning of an even more rewarding life. This is what is perhaps most compelling about Tom Ripley as a character, he's not outwardly deranged nor interiorly disturbed. Ripley (much like Highsmith) longed to be inducted and included among the elites. The two of them wanted a life of leisure and pleasure. The amicable good life. Ripley’s transformation is nothing short of Gatsby in its achievement.

Patricia Highsmith, never had the success in her native homeland of the United States. She was perennially shunned because she refused to subscribe and disseminate the virtues of justice and moral probity. Instead, Highsmith kept company with a more nefarious breed, plumbing the depths of the darker recess of the mind. Highsmith was the eclipse on the ideals of American justice, which she found not only hypocritical but puritanically misapplied. As a writer, Patricia Highsmith wrote as a dark mirror reflecting the hidden noctuary of the human condition, all the lusts, envies, greed, obsessions, strange desires, and all the devils clawing at the door. In existentialist fashion, she sought to bring readers face to face with these unacknowledged corners of our own consciousness. As a compelling character and individual, Patricia Highsmith strikes a profoundly complex figure, one who completely refuses to be captured in some neat portrait. Highsmith’s figure shifts unapologetically from the beautiful young woman of her youth, striking and gorgeous, to the gorgonized hardened gargoyle visage of her older years, which remains the most recognizable version to many readers. Her literary works remain compelling, dark glacier wellsprings which readers and writers often return to peer into the dark inky ice ridden depths, as if summon some new form of inspiration. Almost thirty years after her death, and Patricia Highsmith experiences an almost reoccurring sense of renewed appreciation, which was so lacking in her own lifetime. If anything, Patricia Highsmith has proven that there is an enduring allure to the shadow, the inscrutable and unknowable darkness of the human consciousnesses. As a writer, Highsmith was surveyor and spelunker of these amoral landscapes, exploring the depths of guilt, the thralls of obsessions, and conductor of the apprehension.


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

M. Mary

Tuesday 9 April 2024

The International Booker Prize Shortlist, 2024

Hello Gentle Reader,

This years International Booker Prize Shortlist has just been released. Six novels have made the cut, with surprising omissions being trimmed away during the judges’ deliberations. This year’s shortlist consists of the following writers and novels:

            Jenny Erpenbeck – Germany – “Kairos,”
            Hwang Sok-young – (South) Korea – “Mater 2-10,”
            Jente Posthuma – The Netherlands – “What I’d Rather Not Think About,”
            Selva Almada – Argentina – “Not a River,”
            Ia Genberg – Sweden – “The Details,”
            Itamar Vieira Junio – Brazil – “Crooked Plow,”

It’s a twisted fate for previous winners and globally recognized writers. Including them on the shortlist, and the judges are accused of being predictable or playing it safe. Excluding them, however, raises the charge of superficial radicalism. In the case of Ismail Kadare, one could have expected to see him included on the shortlist because of his dignified decades long literary career; while in turn this reputation played against him via optics of the award. Personally, I was rather disappointed to see marvelous Italian writer, Domenico Starnone was omitted from the shortlist. While the longlisted novel (“Via Gemito,”) premise did not completely entice me, other novels such as “Trust,” “Ties,” and the forthcoming novel “The Mortal and Immortal Life of the Girl from Milan,” did pique my interest, as Domenico Starnone positions himself as a surveyor and portraits of the existential follies and interior dramas and private spaces of the individual. I look forward to reading Domenico Starnone in the near future.

The inclusion of Hwang Sok-young showcases the compelling interest of (South) Korean literature in translation, as this marks the third time in a row, a (South) Korean writer has been shortlisted for the prize. This is also a point of testament and pride for the (South) Korean governments increased sponsorship of literary translations abroad, whereby Korean language writers are finding a new readership as their work crosses linguistic thresholds. Hwang Sok-young’s novel “Mater 2-10,” is an epic in scope (and length, by far the largest novel on the shortlist), it traces a worker’s perspective of history through the 20th century, as a laid off factory worker stages a sit-down strike atop a 16-story factory chimney, whereby he communicates with his ancestors, who witnessed colonialization, calamity, war, partition, and dictatorship through their lifetimes. “Mater 2-10,” cements and confirms that Hwang Sok-young is one of the most important novelists of his generation, with a keen understanding of historical context as pretext and foundation to the present.

Jenny Erpenbeck is a well known and beloved German writer, whose works are frequently translated into English. “Kairos,” recounts societal change and German reunification, while fixating on the personal dissolution of a relationship. Erpenbeck reminds readers as to why she is considered one of the most important contemporary German language writers as, “Kairos,” weaves the weight and macro forces of history into the personal life, recounting how memory and the subtilties of western and eastern cultures, shapes and individuals’ identity and their relationship to history, but also the bewildering state of moving between states and ideologies into a new state.

It was no surprise (and some relief) to see Jente Posthuma included on the shortlist with her novel “What I’d Rather Not Think About.” A compelling story regarding life, death, grief, from the unique perspective of twins, and the contrary nature of oppositional desires. Told through vignette’s, Jente Posthuma provides bitter insight into grief and loss, while recounting two lives intertwined and lived within a celestial orbit of one another, until diverting and crumbling in part to life’s disappointments and mishandlings, all the while sparking alive with humour. While the remaining three novels are equally noteworthy for tackling the complexities of history, both a national and personal level, in addition to their narrative techniques. Ia Genberg’s use of nonlinear narrative and falling into the fever dream of memory in her novel “The Details,” is a hallmark of a literary stylist at the height of her game.

This year’s shortlist is compelling with some surprise omissions. I think (personally) that the novels of most notoriety are: “Mater 2-10,” “Kairos,” “What I’d Rather Not Think About,” and “The Details.” Yet its up to the judges to make that decision on who will be crowned as this years International Booker Prize Winner. May they tackle the good work. The hard work. And the outright bitter work with gusto. I hope this years judges (chaired by the very well read Canadian writer and broadcaster, Eleanor Wachtel) have productive discussions, lively debates, and meaningful compromises in their future deliberations.

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

M. Mary

Saturday 6 April 2024

Lynne Reid Banks, Dies Aged 94

Hello Gentle Reader,

Lynne Reid Banks has been immortalized by her monumental novel “The Indian in the Cupboard,” both for its fantastical storytelling; and now mired in the tar and drudgery of sensitivity criticism. The novel and its subsequent sequels have often been challenged by select parents’ groups, social activists, and any to all affiliated special interest groups. It regularly appears on challenged or censored children’s books, which incudes such titles as “Bridge to Terabithia,” “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” “The Chocolate War,” and a plethora of novels from Ronald Dahl archive. While the novels portrayal of Aboriginal peoples is as thin as varnish, its depiction can be a starting point for meaningful dialogues regarding representation and misrepresentation. Beyond her literary work for children, Lynne Reid Banks curated controversy with her debut novel, “The L-Shaped Room,” which dissected the prevalent social conservatism and mid-century modern moral subscriptions, by recounting the story of an unwed woman pregnant, whose been cast out of her comfortable middle class up bringing with the revelation she’s pregnant. What follows is a narrative of an otherwise fallen figure, who finds refuge in a dingy boarding house full of other such societal outsiders. The novel moves through the motions of pregnancy and the recount the bungled sexual encounter. Lynne Reid Banks career, however, compromised of a variety of other children’s books and literary novels. From “Tiger, Tiger,” a riveting tragic story of ancient Rome, to biographical fiction of the famous Brontë siblings, including the troubled Bramwell. Lynne Reid Banks remained a slippery and mercurial writer, capable of entertaining and writing for children about complex themes; while adjusting her pen for mature and adult readers, questioning prevalent societal notions and puritanical perspectives. Reid Banks life was also of adventure and gusto, complete with a sharpness of observation and tongue. Her otherwise signature forthrightness was guaranteed to start a spat or an argument, but was keen to admit her own follies and failures before anyone else could tack them to the wall. Lynne Reid Banks work will endure. I suspect her children’s work will always circulate, both on their own merits and the updraft of controversy and outrage of some parental group, while her literary output will be shielded under the shadow of “The L-Shaped Room.”

Rest in Peace, Lynne Reid Banks.

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

M. Mary

Friday 5 April 2024

John Barth, Dies Aged 92

John Barth Dies Aged 92

Hello Gentle Reader,

John Barth was one of the great American postmodernist writers of the 20th Century, a towering figure and contemporary of many other playfully erudite and frustrating writers of the same generation, including Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and Kurt Vonnegut; whose work confounded, perplexed, and perhaps even irritated, all the while being the polar opposites of John Updike, John Cheever, and Philip Roth. John Barth found the literary modes and methods of narration had become exhausted, predictable, were on the verge of antiquation and obsoletion. Perhaps serendipitously during the liberating 1960’s, John Barth and other writers, began to challenge preconceived notions of narrative conventions, plot and story; but also, the standards of langue and the purpose of fiction. In a metaphorical fashion similar to their predecessors (the modernists of the late 19th and early 20th century), this new ragtag team of loosely affiliated writers began to unfold and inject new literary methods in their work, challenging established literary theory and criticism. This unabashed promotional propagation of postmodern literary theory, is due in part to John Barth being an accomplished, respected, and beloved professor of literature, and sought to inspire students to move beyond the preconceived parameters of literature and instead create and explore new modes of narration. Barth’s first mature postmodernist novel “The Sot-Weed Factor,” takes inspiration from the pre-revolutionary poet and satirist Ebenezer Cooke and his titular poem, whereby Barth revisions and reimagines comical adventures and misadventures which become the farcical basis of the poem. By turns playful and complex, John Barth became recognized as a writer’s writer. John Barth’s follow up novel “Giles Goat-Boy,” would only confirm Barth as a writer of the highest postmodern sensibilities, again employing farce, metaphor, fable, analogy, and metafiction into a complex and twisted funhouse mirror of contortions. Subsequent publications “Lost in the Funhouse,” and “LETTERS,” became more intensely metafictional, proving that John Barth was not just a literary innovator, but an accomplished theorist and thinker. Once again, the discussion of the purposefulness of narrative and self-reflective narrative became areas of discussion. The experimentation and literary seriousness of John Barth’s work was never undermined by the use of parody, in fact satire and farce, became central components to Barth’s work, once again dispelling the myth that all literature of any merit or seriousness must be as grave and grim as T.S. Eliot. Sadly, John Barth died at the age of 92 on April 2nd, 2024. Barth’s legacy as a accomplished academic, beloved teacher and mentor, and revolutionary postmodernist writer will endure.

Rest in Peace, John Barth.

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

 

M. Mary

Tuesday 2 April 2024

Maryse Condé, Dies Aged 90

Hello Gentle Reader,

Renowned as a Grand Dame of French Literature and giant of French Caribbean Literature, Maryse Condé was always introduced on cyclonic winds rivaling the reverence of a hurricane. Yet in interviews and engagements, Maryse Condé never appears to be aloof or distantly Olympian in her engagement. Instead, Condé was warm, earthly, and generous with her intellect and insight. This only proved that the veneration that was attributed to Condé, was justly deserved. As a writer from Guadeloupe, Condé reckoned with colonial experiences and postcolonial perspectives of the small island nation. A narrative autopsy of colonialism is one of the essential components of Maryse Condé’s literary oeuvre, providing the entry point to further discussions regarding race, the female experience, and slavery, through a variety of locales and historical time periods. This is most famously seen in her novel “I, Tituba: The Black Witch of Salem,” a novel renowned for its subversive critique of racial and sexist themes from a historical perspective as a reflection of contemporary issues. “I, Tituba: The Black Witch of Salem,” showed Maryse Condé as a high literary operative, by being both academically critical and rigorous, but also engaging with readers on a level of enjoyment. “Segu,” published two years before “I, Tituba: The Black Witch of Salem,” provided evidence of Maryse Condé epicist capacities. The novel once again takes place within a historical setting, but subverts and reignites the narrative of (for lack of better terms,) ‘the African Diaspora,’ by usurping preconceived notions and presenting a new chronicle. “Segu,” recounts the story of an African royal family who must contend with a multitude of changing social principles and outside influences, such as burgeoning slave trade, the spread of Islam and Christianity, and white colonialization, all of which violently tear apart the social order and fabric of the kingdom. In a similar fashion to Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Maryse Condé has rewritten and reinvented the African narrative, dispelling the spurious notions that the continent was merely ‘ripe for the taking,’ or anarchistic and susceptible for chaos, requiring the modernizing guidance of third-party influences. “Windward Heights,” proved Maryse Condé was not just an epicist and visionary novelist, but a playful writer who embraced postmodern and pastiche literary techniques, by revising and reimagining Emily Brontë’s brooding grey and gothic novel: “Wuthering Heights,” onto the island of Guadeloupe with a new angle and slant. Maryse Condé was a formidable writer and warmly recognized around the world as one of the greatest contemporary French language writers of the time and a monolith of French Caribbean literature. Often whispered and speculated as a potential Nobel Laureate in Literature, Maryse Condé received the conciliatory prize in 2018, when she accepted the “New Academy Prize in Literature,” which sought to console the public at the postponement of the Nobel Prize in Literature for the year. Condé proved herself to be generous and magnanimous once again at receiving the award, thanking the expedited academy for the honour. Despite her advancing age and her failing eyesight, Maryse Condé continued to write (with assistance), her last novel “The Gospel According to the New World,” was originally published in 2021 and translated to English in 2023, whereby it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.

Rest in Peace Maryse Condé.

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

Sunday 31 March 2024

– XXVI –

I’m not spoilt for choice. I am Canadian, which means I live in a real-life monopoly, and as a matter of fact, I do not get to pass GO, or collect $200.00, or have any stake in Marvin Gardens.

Monday 11 March 2024

The International Booker Prize Longlist, 2024

Hello Gentle Reader,

The International Booker Prize Shortlist for 2024 has released this year’s longlist of thirteen titles each competing for a coveted spot on the shortlist (which will be announced in April). Of this year’s longlist, South American writers dominate, with a quarter of the titles heralding from writers from Peru, Argentia, Brazil and Venezuela, which showcases a thriving literary scene thriving in the absence of the previous Latin Boom giants of old, and showcasing the talent of a new generation.

Without waiting further, the following are the thirteen shortlisted writers and their works (in no particular order):

Jenny Erpenbeck – Germany – “Kairos,”
Rodrigo Blanco Calderón – Venezuela – “Simpatía,”
Jente Posthuma – The Netherlands – “What I’d Rather Not Think About,”
Domenico Starnone – Italy – “The House on Via Gemito,”
Gabriela Wiener – Peru – “Undiscovered,”
Hwang Sok-yong – (South) Korea – “Mater 2-10,”
Selva Almada – Argentina – “Not a River,”
Andrey Kurkov – Ukraine – “The Silver Bone,”
Veronica Raimo – Italy – “Lost on Me,”
Itamar Vieira Junio – Brazil – “Crooked Plow,”
Ismail Kadare – Albania – “A Dictator Calls,”
Urszula Honek – Poland – “White Nights,”
Ia Genberg – Sweden – “The Details,”

Of the longlisted writers, Ismail Kadare is the only writer to have won the International Booker Prize in its previous format, when the prize was awarded biennially and sought to recognize an author’s entire literary output and career. if Kadare were to take the prize again with his novel “A Dictator Calls,” he will be the first writer to receive the prize first (in both formats). In addition to Ismail Kadare, the German writer, Jenny Erpenbeck is another internationally applauded and recognizable stalwart. “Kairos,” is described as a bleak portrait of two individuals locked with a state of intense desire and further cruelty amidst the collapsing and changing world as the GDR crumbles around them, proving that Jenny Erpenbeck is a master of capturing the balance between seismic historical shifts, and intimate human dramas.

This is not the first time Hwang Sok-yong has been nominated for the award either, having been longlisted for the prize in 2019 with the novel “At Dusk,” which recounts the memoirs of an otherwise successfully architectural director, reflect on his own participation in the erasure and rapid development of Korean society, away from its poverty and in the process the erasure of his own roots. Sok-yong traces contemporary Korean society through three generations of a railway family in “Mater 2-10,” – from the Japanese colonialization; through liberation, and its rapid development into the 21st century, the hard scrabble life of ordinary Koreans and their drive to be free of oppression, as well as a strangely lyrical folktale rising to a crescendo depicting the sacrifices and indignities endured by the Korean populace. A showcase of what makes Hwang Sok-yong one of the most important (South) Korean writers of his generation.

Andrey Kurkov finds himself longlisted with his novel “The Silver Bone,” is a novel praised by critics and readers alike, as it bubbles with Kurkov’s sense of absurdism and unapologetic use of the uncanny, made all that more glorious for his historical detail, which explores the complexities of Eastern Europe, and despite being set in 1919 draws parallel with the current struggles of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Jente Posthuma’s novel “What I’d Rather Not Think About,” is one of the novels to watch closely, a beautiful narrative of bitter insight that waltz between melancholy and humour, of the special relationship between twins, with emphasis on the ache of loss. The Brazilian writer Itamar Vieira Junio “Crooked Plow,” has been called one of the most important Brazilian novels of this century, a combination of both magical and social realism, recounts the lost voices of the black diaspora and their stories after the abolition of slavery in Brazil, revealing both the racial and economic inequalities of Brazil in powerful prose.

Veronica Raimo’s “Lost on Me,” is a firecracker coming of age novel, exploring the germination of a writer, whose inventions is her only way in which to emancipate herself from her family’s neurosis, and seek independence and life outside of the comforts and constraints of her own homelife. Witty, daring, and highly nostalgic capturing the palpations of Rome in the 80’s through to the early 21st century. All the while, Ia Genberg’s novel “The Details,” is a fever dream of delirium, recounting the shards and details, those formulative relationships which define one’s portrait of their life.

It’s an interesting longlist which blends both defined and established international literary talents with emerging and new voices and narratives. It’ll be a unique shortlist in turn, at which point the judges have the unenviable task of reducing the titles to a concentrated form.

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

For Further Reading:

The Guardian: Latin American fiction ‘booms’ again on International Booker prize longlist

Sunday 25 February 2024

– XXV –

Loss is a private affair, overcrowded with cooing good intentions and superficial sympathies.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

Transparent Life: Regarding Mr. Bleaney

 Hello Gentle Reader,

Few poets carve through the niceties of window-dressing in a manner as eloquent and straightforward as Philip Larkin. The poem, “This Be The Verse,” opens with the line: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Curiosity, be it from shock or agreeance, compels readers to continue through the poem, while Larkin in his usual no-nonsense and forthright manner continued to provide his assessment of the condition of parental failings, as not a singular event but one of routine fatalistic inheritance. Each generation adding its own signature complex, imprint and fuckery into the lives of unsuspecting children, as Larkin put it: “Man hands on misery to man.” Finally concluding with the most logical answer, which runs contrary to our economic systems and primal urge to reproduce, “Get out as early as you can,/And don’t have kids yourself.” Philip Larkin is that staunchly English postwar generation poet. One stripped of all delicate constitutions and sensibilities. A complete tonic and bitter pill to the romantics of old, channeling the palpable sense of loss and devastation left behind in a postwar world. A world whose foundations had forever shifted by unquantifiable destruction, desolation, and disregard for any previous precedence of possibility. Girded with an impenetrable sense of the ironic, and with a cynic’s edge, Larkin surveyed the hardboiled landscape and its people adrift within ruin, reduced further by rations, and with little in regards to prospects to look forward to. Philip Larkin rose to prominence with the others of his generation, who collectively were referred to as: “Angry young men,” a collective of young British writers from working class and middle-class backgrounds, who began publishing in the 1950’s. Included in their ranks was John Osborne, whose play, “Look Back in Anger,” is credited for sparking the movements prominence and denominating the term; Kingsley Amis, John Braine, and Alan Sillitoe; while Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, and Iris Murdoch are regarded as associates. Each of them balked and raddled their chains and struck their ire out against the morally bankrupt sociopolitical system of the era. Philip Larkin much like Kingsley Amis, proved to move beyond what would become a diminutive product of its time, much as all movements are. Larkin’s poetry retained both breadth and depth to maneuver beyond the immediate and ruminate on the eternal. Larkin retained a palpable quality to his work, to the point it veered on prosaic. Speakers and voices are provided further shape and form. Not concealed in image or metaphor. Where other poets plucked and planted from flowerbeds and fields of flowers, Larkin carved his out of concrete.

Often caricaturized and parodied as a toad, in a tongue and check homage to the poem: “Toads,” were Philip Larkin takes aim at the misery induced by the drudgery of work, masterfully captured in the second stanza:

            “Six days of the week it soils
            With its sickening poison –
            Just for paying a few bills!
            That’s out of proportion.” 

And while the poem rollicks to a crescendo of rebellion; Larkin deflates and brings the speaker back down to reality:

            “Ah, were I courageous enough
            To shout Stuff your pension!
            But I know, all to well, that’s the stuff
            That dreams are made on:”

As the practicalities of life in all their prudent measures, inevitably means suffrage in the hardscrabble monotony of work and no fortune. Whereby one lives within their means. Those always imperfect means. It brings to mind that quote from Herta Müller’s novel “The Appointment,”:

“From here to there it’s all just the farty sputter of a lantern. And they call that having lived. It’s not worth the bother of putting on your shoes.”

Philip Larkin’s professional life as a librarian ran in parallel to his work as a poet, jazz critic, and casual novelist. There are competing theories of whether or not Larkin held his professional life in serious contempt. Private correspondence reveals a curmudgeonly tone regarding the nature of work. Larkin’s poetry provides further evidence to his dismissive opinion on the nature of work. This theory has of course won out, being cast and certified in bronzed truth: Larkin viewed the mundane as a chore to endure, not enjoy. Contrary, however, further records and transactional documents from his librarianship days, showcase Larkin in a completely different context, one who enjoyed the routines, structures, and orderliness of daily work. Neither poem or letter will provide any enlightenment into Larkin’s own personal views of his professional life and literary endeavours. Its easy to speculate that without the repetitive schedule of his professional obligations, Larkin’s authority on observing the quotidian components of a normal life and subsequent goals of elevating the everyday, would be significantly cheapened and disingenuous. This echoes the weary complaints of Horace Engdahl, who in an interview with La Croix in 2014, criticized the professionalization of writing. Now days, writers are manufactured and fabricated through graduate degrees and masters of fine arts programs, then entering into a symbiotic waltz with literary institutions, universities, and write. Gone, Engdahl laments, are writers engaged with the actual business of life, referencing T.S. Eliots career as a bank clerk.

The poem “Mr. Bleaney,” is one of elegiac observation of a life of mediocrity which amounts to nothing, but a bare room in a third-rate bordering house. The cost-of-living has its economic principles and aesthetics are ranked lower on the list or concern and approval. Mr. Bleaney’s world is contained within such meager borders. The inventory of the room leaves little to the imagination, all the while the current occupant of the room attempts to summon Mr. Bleaney, or at least come to understand his predecessor’s routine, inner thoughts, and life, which includes summer holidaying at Frinton-on-sea, and Christmases at his sisters in Stoke. It becomes apparent that the former resident, Mr. Bleaney’s life was one so lacking in any sense of life it had been reduced to seasonal routines and cycles. There is no significant occurrence or growth within the titular characters life. Nothing remarked as being exceptional or extraordinary or out of place. Mr. Bleaney’s attempts at gardening are observed at being equally futile, showcasing a lack of ability to instill the proper conditions for growth and development. Philip Larkin ends the poem with the final two stanzas:

            “But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
            Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
            Telling himself that this was home, and grinned
            And shivered, without shaking off the dread

            That how we live measures our own nature,
            And at his age having no more to show
            Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
            He warranted no better, I don’t know.”

The metrics to measure life are clearly applied to Mr. Bleaney, who lived a transparent life. A complete ghost, who became interred to the structures and routines of his orderly existence. A man neither in the way or out of the way, but merely apart of it. Adrift in current. Much like the speaker of “Toads,” who fantasies about telling his employer to ‘Shove,’ the pension, Mr. Bleaney is winningly reduced by circumstance and expectation. Those prudent provisions of life, all the accountancy of what one needs and the transactional exchange of service or labour to acquire those requirements. The current occupant questions the lack of material and accomplishments that decorate Mr. Bleaney’s life, and wonders in turn if this constitutes to a life at all? At no point in time is Mr. Bleaney remarked as to having any sense of enjoyment or distraction to partake in. He exists within a complete grey zone. deprived of colour and void of form. This is Philip Larkin at his most poignant, questioning the fates and meanings of one’s own life, and the entrapments of living a mediocre life. Mr. Bleaney cuts a haunting figure, who in Larkins vision removes the contemplation of the meaning of life away from the ostentatious heights of philosophical ponderings and theological edicts, and anchors it into the world through an otherwise shapeless and characterless everyday man, whose entire life slipped him by, and in its place was an ordered routine and distracted with the squatting toad work, and obliged in the lack of agency in his life, never confirming or denying his contentment in his solitary existence.

Philip Larkin’s poetry can become moored in the mire of cynical pessimism as the defining doctrine and only authority regarding the notion of realism. Regardless, Larkin’s poetry does retain a concern for the quotidian details, those otherwise palpable concerns of life, with all of its daily struggles, established ruttish routine, immovable social structure, and often soul crushing realities. Whether or not daily life (or life in general) was but an exercise in enduring task and chore, or a middlebrow drama in which each of us were presented with our own scenes and episodes within its never-ending soap operatic cycles; Larkin proved to be a poet who thought deeply and cared greatly for the concerns of an existential questioning regarding the meaning to life; human beings inherent freedom; the physical manifestation of time as both experience and governing factor; and the ever present reality of death; all the while lamenting on individuals fated inability to find it, while resigning themselves to a state of mediocrity. Reading the poem “Mr. Bleaney,” one particularly mackerel day in February was enough to solicit chills, looking out into a landscape of varying shades of grey and white with streaks of blue and clotted cream, accompanied by tuffs of exposed brown freeze-dried grass and wonder to what extent are you finding yourself neatly wrapped up within the confines of a mediocre existence, further marked with milestones to signify the holiday or Christmas dinners with obliging siblings. The case of Mr. Bleaney is Larkin’s elegy for the nameless, faceless, and shapeless individuals who go through life in a structured daze; all the while remaining an ominous forewarning to others to recognize their own life passing them by into a state of transparency, where the inconsequential, the mediocre, and limited expectancy becomes the death sentence of good enough and as good as it gets. 


Thank you for Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
 
M. Mary

Thursday 15 February 2024

The Housekeeper and the Professor

Hello Gentle Reader,

Translations of Ogawa Yōko’s work into English are slim when compared to other languages. What has been translated, however, has created a sustainable growing interest. Ogawa’s most recent translated novel “The Memory Police,” became an unintentional relevant metaphor for the pandemic. A period where the slogan “the new normal,” and “return to normal,” infiltrated everyday nomenclature, framing individuals’ linguistic relationship with the events unfolding around them. This of course was a period of public health measures, mandates, and restrictions; following a cycle of lock downs and easing of restrictions, then abrupt return to point zero. Throughout the pandemic there was a continued sense of the world being reduced, redacted, or amputated. Gradually the concept of normalcy and the individuals own attachment or relationship to it, was being hollowed out. Inch by inch.  Component by component. It was reduced to a point where the whole was no longer available, let alone recognizable. In “The Memory Police,” everyday events, objects, sensations, seasons—an entire catalogue of reference points—is wormed away by the titular memory police, who through metaphysical and physical Kafkaesque edicts, reduced the island world. Birds disappear. Roses become contraband. Perfume evaporates into nothing. The inhabitants of this world accept the gradual reduction of their lives with complacent subservience, all the while acknowledging their own self is being erased in the process. “The Memory Police,” was originally published thirty years ago, and framed as an allegorical depiction of an authoritarian society subjected to absurd physical redactions of their world. The novel examined the nature of memory, the art of reminiscence, the responsibility to remember, and the dangers of forgetting. Ogawa’s “The Memory Police,” is often juxtaposed against Orwell’s classic “1984,” because its narrative revolved around a totalitarian state attempting to subjugate an entire populace to its will, exercising complete control over their lives and reality.

The two narratives diverge significantly, however, in both literary intention and execution. Orwell’s novel explores unchecked political power and the inhumane measures in which authoritarian governments will take to retain it. The threat of independent thought and language in “1984,” is the foundation of the novels premise. Big Brother, dominates through a variety of soft practices, administrative procedures, and physical controls. For example, the Thought Police manufacture and maintain a cult of personality; while mass surveillance ensures abject compliance; the Ministry of Truth, disseminates propaganda, curates historical negation, and destroys any to all information that runs counter to the states positions or party lines; while the Ministry of Love takes more physical approach in compliance, through torturing, brainwashing, interrogating, and if necessary, exterminating dissidence. Orwell’s novel journeys through the dehumanizing hellscape, proposing the question what does it mean to live in this kind of society and what are the associated costs and consequences to resist it? Ogawa Yōko’s “The Memory Police,” never traced or examined the evils of authoritarian government regimes. The bureaucratic absurdity of the memory police existed in the periphery a component of the landscape and menacing shadow circling. Ogawa, fixated the narrative on a small collective of individuals, who preserve within the oppression of their circumstance. The atmosphere is intimate and suffocating. A world completely closed off.

Self-contained worlds, liminal spaces, private interiors, and intimate narratives, is one of the defining features of Ogawa’s work. In “The Memory Police,” the unnamed island remains severed and cut off from the rest of the world. In addition to this, the narrator conceals her editor R in a small room in her house, which is described as being suspended in space. These otherwise, normal landscapes or scenes, however, are always tilted off kilter. An atmosphere of dread or menace infiltrates the narratives. A vacant lot is littered with old appliances, where a boy suffocated to death. An abandoned post office is full of kiwis. A bakery’s confectionary kingdom is tainted by a shadow of a woman buying a birthday cake for her dead son. In Ogawa’s fiction the clean uniform surface of modern conformity society is a superficial façade, one in which pulled back reveals a grotesque and unacknowledged shadow. The grotesque does not translate into extreme violence or gore. A turner of subtle, Ogawa Yōko crafts and curates disquieting inflections tainting or revealing a shift in a character’s positioning and their interactions with the world that is slowly growing incomprehensible. Ogawa’s crystalline and placid prose is devoid of sensationalism and melodramatics, which maintains that Ogawa remains fixated on the characters perspective and their interaction with a world slowly sinking into the visceral.

Before the critically acclaimed publication of “The Memory Police,” in 2019, ten years prior a slim novel, “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” was published and warmly received by critics and readers alike. However, “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” found itself suffering from a poor marketing campaign. The late 2000’s was peak Murakami Mania with the publication of his long awaited: “1Q84,”, and publishers have (and remain) eager to capitalize on the next big Japanese literary export. “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” was adored by the reading public and critics alike. Yet, the novel was marketed with a lighthearted air, playing up a narrative that could quite easily become entrapped in kitschy sentimentality and coated in sweetened saccharine sensibilities. As the novel was marketed as heartwarming and hallmark oriented, void of more serious literary concerns. Personally, I kept a safe distance from “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” viewing it suspicion and disinterest. Similarly, the short story collection “Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales,” was equally poorly marketed, attempting to pawn off the interconnected set of short stories as horror stories, which would disappoint any reader looking for gore, dismemberment, and splattering entertainment. “Revenge,” instead explored the unacknowledged viscera beneath the complacent surface of polite society. “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” is not a narrative that has been excessively sweetened. This is not a novel that could be deemed bubblegum for the mind. Just as in the “The Memory police,” Ogawa has designed a surrogate family unite for three characters, who held together by a common thread. In “The Memory Police,” it’s the subtle resistance to the authorities, by concealing R who’s capable of retaining and recalling memories, attachments, and sensations that have since been obliviated. Whereas in “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” it’s the patterns and subtle intricate beauty of mathematics.   

“The Housekeeper and the Professor,” is narrated by the Housekeeper, a single mother whose past and personal life is blanched to the point of transparency. An only child raised by a single mother, her profession is more circumstance and vocation then passionate interest. A single mother herself, the birth of her son initially caused a fallout between mother and daughter. The Housekeeper reflects on her own mother’s perseverance at a casual job, became a venue and event manager. This work ethic and ability to transfigure difficult circumstances are key survival tactics for a single mother living in a society where single parenthood is considered a moral failing where mothers endure relentless discrimination resulting in poverty and social disenfranchisement. Regardless, the Housekeeper is renowned with her agency for being amicable, agreeable, and professional, which is why she is dispatched to a client with nine blue stars listed on their card—any star is a note of a difficult client with particular needs. The Housekeeper interviews with a woman, who is hiring a housekeeper for her brother-in-law a brilliant mathematician, who lives in the cottage in the garden. The catch? Due to an automobile accident, the Professors memory stops in 1975, and his short-term memory only lasts for eighty minutes:

“It’s as if he has a single, 80-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories. 

Aware of his lacking short-term memory, the Professor has clipped and pinned a variety of notes to his suit, one specifically reminds him of his lacking memory. Conventional pleasantries are quickly dismissed. The Professor immediately begins to ask questions regarding shoe size and telephone number, and showcases his mathematical aptitude for not only computing but also explaining the theories and equations in practice. When the Professor learns of that the Housekeeper has a son, he grows insistently concerned for the boy’s welfare, as he’s provided great autonomy and agency, left at home while his mother works. The Professor becomes insistent that the Housekeeper bring her son moving forward, which is in violation of the agencies code of conduct. The Professor becomes smitten with Housekeeper’s son calling him ‘Root,’ due to the flatness of his head. The three become a surrogate family, which is woven through with an appreciation of mathematics and a love of baseball. The remainder of the novel recounts the episodic encounters, challenges, and trials the family encounters throughout their daily lives and interactions. Math, however, is elevated not just as a quirk for the Professor to understand and retreat into, but becomes the focal point of how he interacts and engages with the world. His memory may fail him like clockwork, but numbers and equations, their logic is never changing, remaining a constant point of comfort and security.

It’s an extortionary feat for a writer to incorporate mathematics with such restrained, grace, and elegant beauty. The Professor finds comfort in the predictability and pattern recognition of mathematics. They are natural riddles which are solved, if only to heighten our understanding of the world. Mathematics and numbers are the foundations and the scaffolding of the universe and the natural world. Yet, their treatment by the professor is one akin to a musical or symphonic composition reaching a harmonic crescendo. Numbers are free from the follies and failures of people, and in their ordered realm they provide the Professor the means and the escape to understand the world.

“Soon after I began working for the Professor, I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do. Numbers were also his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort.”

As a teacher, the Professor is the kind of mathematics mentor everyone who has grown up to hate and avoid math (including myself) has needed. He is a complete 180 to the typical mathematics teacher who is more interested in sounding off equations and drilling quick computation. To this day a timed math drill is enough to make me panic. Yet, the Professor is not interested in the end result or the amount of time it takes one to linger over a problem, but instead to appreciate the process of contemplation, understanding the theorem in question, and how mathematics brings order to a universe which on its surface roils and boils in sustained chaos. He is far more delighted when the question produces another tangent and another question. Math becomes a sustained reaction of more questions and possible answers, but moving ceaselessly forward to heightened levels.  

There is good reason why readers fall in love with Ogawa Yōko’s “The Housekeeper and the Professor.” Ogawa ensnared a trio of mundane characters brought together by chance and circumstance, and allow their confined space to blossom into an intimate universe. A simple story of love and friendship transformed and defied the expectations that it was a novel dripping in sugared mawkish second-hand exaggerated emotion, when instead it moved beyond the immediate and into the infinite, contemplating the nature of memory but also the underappreciated poetry and aesthetic beauty of mathematics and numbers. “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” is a delicate and sophisticated novel, one which never lingers over the details but continually expands within the possibilities. Airy would be a marvelous way to describe this novel, not because of its length or to insinuate its lacking robust depth or character, but because the language and style is free of ostentatious posturing. Other writers who might incorporate mathematics as metaphor or point of interest in their work, would certainly ensure it was a method to cement and confirm their own cleverness, by shrouding it further in esoteric complexity. “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” may not convert any to all suffers of mathematical anxiety to open a math textbook, but it does provide the context to math’s ability to provide harmony and order to a world, especially one in which an individual no longer finds themselves instep or in time with. “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” is a masterclass in understatement that assembles a surprisingly compelling narrative about three individuals adrift in the world, finding comfort and solace within the infinite symphonic composition of numbers and the interplay within each other.


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