A Thousand Acres
Events and characters from A Thousand Acres continue to echoe in my mind. They come as I am washing the dishes, I think, is it plausible to think that way of your own sister? Hanging up the clothes I wonder, was what happened really more about forgiveness than revenge?
The narrative of A Thousand Acres follows the breakdown of a farming family in Zebulon County, Iowa. It traces the division of land, and of a father’s love and sin, and his father’s love and sin, and his father’s, and so on back in time until the land was a swamp and the meanest creatures squirmed on their bellies in the mud.
The parallels with an ancient tale stalk me most. Questions rise and fall. Yes, this happened the same, but this did not. Suddenly it seems important that am I correctly remembering the original. Why should this bother me so much? Perhaps the original is so imprinted on my mind that a remake is always going to sit poorly, like a mail order dress.
There are good basic reasons to be sympathetic to the main character Ginny. She hardly recognises her half-life as a half-life, each realisation must be winnowed from her consciousness, the chaff separated and the grains of truth recovered. Yet, even close to the end she is there with a toothpick removing dirt around the range feet. Meticulous and relentless, a foreboding the exculpation to come.
The cleaner the house though, the more sinful her thoughts, and the more honest she becomes about the blood and dirt that has gone before. The love and sin.
The layers of Smiley’s characters are carefully psychologically constructed, they are built before us, flashing with likability and social acceptability. Sure enough they will disintegrate and any reprieve is only temporary.
The reader shares Ginny’s conflict and confusion. She thinks most clearly at the abandoned quarry, the water is poisoned, hazardous items lurk below the surface of the greasy water – and still this place is preferable to her home and her cursed domesticity.
Within the melodrama there are subtle observations on relationships within marriage and between sisters that are highly relatable. The rise and fall of anger and jealousy and the nagging tethers of familial love provide hooks for the reader, how else do we find a way to understand? We cannot simply throw our hands in the air and say, ‘There is poison in their blood. The land is bitter from generations of pain and this is the payment,’ when there is something we recognise of ourselves and our own families.
Smiley is dexterous, maintaining atmosphere with apposite details of farm equipment, seasons and the great unforgiving sky that watches overhead. Parts are utterly compulsive. Ginny, as far as we can trust her, tells us what we need to know, but she remains unpredictable, in many ways she remains unresolved.
For the Cook family the punishment falls as it falls. There will be no final confession or absolution for Larry Cook – there is no purgatory.
The denouement could have fallen many different ways to my mind. It is satisfying, yet it remains determinedly bleak, and still the echoes keep returning.
Orkney, 19th June, 2018
An Artist of the Floating World
Set in Japan following the end of the second world war, An Artist of the Floating World takes an oblique look at the recent seismic world events through the lens of Masuji Ono’s reflections. It brings tenderness and forgiveness that is infrequently found in the subject matter.
The opening pages achieve a delicate balance between describing setting and following the flow of mood from one character to the next and draws the reader into the heart of the Ono’s world. The small domestic events such as a shared drawing activity with his grandson are peripheral to the unfolding of the past events and yet deftly reveal attitudes that have shaped a life-long’s decision making.
The variety and dexterity by which Ishiguro manages a single sentence is admirable, a lesson in delivering well-rounded prose. In turn the settings are believable, pinned with telling details and allowing the evocation of varied atmosphere. The description of the young artist being required to forsake his paintings to his disapproving father, when he knows destruction will be their fate, is absolutely taught with foreboding. It is how the reader’s understanding, tacit in the boy and wilfully misread by his mother, is gradually nurtured that makes the scene so piquant and the father’s actions so barbarous. It is a character forming moment. Yet, when years later history repeats itself and Ono is requested to relinquish his paintings the reader’s response is less guided, the tension diminished.
Ambiguity surrounds Ono’s decision to withhold his pieces from his drawing master, was this his coming of age? A moment where the truth of more mature judgement is unveiled? Or is it an occasion where not wisdom, but ego triumphed?
There are moments that although deft and subtle, and dexterous in their creation, waver in their emotional resonance. Partly this is because Ono does not always treat others with the candid sympathy he seeks. He remains silent, complicit with his peers, as another student searches for his disappeared paintings and joins in with his ostracism from the inner circle of artists.
Similarly, other people’s points of view remain obscure to Ono, he makes promises to his grandson without the consultation of his daughters, certain in his power to deliver but is surprised and confounded by their disapproval.
The floating nature of the narrative, a wandering stream of memories moving backwards and forwards through time, leads the reader though many insightful vignettes yet the search for something more substantial remains at times out of reach.
True to his own beliefs, Ono holds onto the justification for his actions. His personal journey is hesitant, his desire for change equivocal, and perhaps this ultimately limits the sympathy the reader feels for him. The promise of the opening pages do not blossom as expected, yet there are still many riches to be found in the unfolding narrative.
Orkney, 11th June, 2018
To the Lighthouse
In To the Lighthouse there is luxurious suspension of disbelief, a suspension of the commonplace boundaries between one mind and another. Woolf’s writing captures how the passage of seconds, minutes and years can extend beyond their physical limits, moments concertina together so incidents that happen far apart in time are synched tightly and grow in meaning.
The continuation of life and the interference of death in life is puzzled over in the summer house, that question most succinctly phrased as, ‘To be or not to be,’ is explored in the fading of wallpaper and the advancement of weeds.
The passage of mood and emotion are handled deftly, a slight of hand that takes the reader from one instant to the next, which if done poorly it would result in characters that feel inconsequential and inconsistent but here they have depth and a satisfying humanity.
The response of the reader themselves is proof that emotions and desire can change quickly, something so insubstantial as a particular word or a phrase and our sympathy is shredded and into little pieces, only to be miraculously handed back and unfolded whole again a sentence or who later. Yes, were did feel sorry for Charles, and James was a prig, and Mrs Ramsay how could we not love Mrs Ramsay? Wasn’t everyone in love with her? Wasn’t that the problem all along?
The reader passes from one connecting scene to the next rapidly, like beads trickling through fingers, jewels falling back into their velvet case. Wouldn’t we like the pleasure of helping Mrs Ramsay choose, and yes isn’t it everything that she catches her husband’s eye just so?
There are certain descriptions that draw the attention more abruptly. Woolf’s playful poet’s ear has ‘waves chuckling’ around the boat, and has Mrs Ramsay ‘rise in a rosey-flowered fruit tree laid with leaves and dancing boughs.’ However, the same poet turns acerbic on Mr Ramsay, as he breaks through like a ‘beak of brass, the arid scimitar.’
The lighthouse, with its sweeping beam cutting and caressing the summer house, stands on a higher-plane, an aspirational summit and a place of joy, yet at the same time the ultimate symbol of despair. Signs and symbols are so many and varied in the text that the reader at times drowns in the glut and must kick hard to the surface to move on.
Ultimately the reader is sated, yet unsure of all the exact details they have consumed. So utterly absorbing is the reading experience that it is a shock to stop and realise it has been an indulgence in a created work. It is a work to be read with carefree abandon and then returned to with a magnifying glass.
Orkney, 17th May, 2018
Seven Icelandic Short Stories
Introduced by Steingrimur J. Porsteinsson
These tales have a freshness that draws the reader eagerly into their heart. The shape of the narratives move beyond expectations formed by years of reading and deliver something new, and at times something tantalisingly subtle and insightful.
The introduction of the book briefs any reader new to Icelandic writing on the history of its development. This itself is very much worth reading, erudite and scholarly the reader receives a whistle stop tour of how the isolated Icelandic community preserved its language and traditions and blossomed a generation of farmer writers.
The background of the writers reveals the experiences that yielded such rich details of rural life against which are set the follies, strengths and tragedies of the human condition.
The first and most familiar story is Audunn and the Bear, a folk tale written six centuries before the rest of the collection it is very much older. Yet despite the gulf in time there are still deep connections between how the central characters move through their lives.
It is not the simplicity of the setting or the vignette like telling of the stories have that strikes me most, it’s something else, something to do with the rhythm of the stories. They unfold in the same way as landscape can, fooling the eye – yes, that outcrop I thought was close is actually distant or no, what I thought was water is only shadow. This type of realisation occurs again and again, and is a delight.
The poignant, Father and Son by Gunnar Gunnarsson is rude with poverty and tragedy, and yet it is never hopeless. Whether you could call this a personal romantic notion I do not know.
The final story, written by Halldor Laxness, a subsequent Nobel Prize winner, is New Iceland and is Shakespearean in the scope as it follows one man’s journey and sacrifices in a new land.
I feel this collection will mark the beginning of an exploration of Icelandic writing.
Orkney, 1st May, 2018
This is a book to be swallowed in quick indulgent mouthfuls, a fry up of a book, dotted with globules of Daddies sauce. Each item an erstwhile stranger to its neighbour, but belonging together, companions on a plate that confuses, delights and satisfies.
The narrator and central character of Barnard’s narrative is the idiosyncratic Alexander A. Alexander, resident during his early years of a Bu in God’s own kingdom of Birsay, West Mainland, Orkney.
Like the sky that rudely intrudes through the Kirk roof after the great gales of 1951 Alexander’s vision of the world has the commonplace and extraordinary existing side by side. The effortful interpretation of events and people by our hero is only one of the many jobs he must perform, there is also the collection of eggs, driving the tractor and the understanding of great scholarly works. Various homicidal impulses also interfere with the daily grind.
Bernard’s prose is pacy, disconcerting and demanding. It entertains with a rare freshness. The reader is fed puzzle pieces for ferreting away, to be collected like eggs that will eventually hatch and deliver the twists to his tale.
The second half of the novel immerses the reader in a Flann O’ Brianesque parochial and absurd world which suits our hero A.A.A down to the ground. Perhaps we should all think more about the molecular transference that occurs when we are sitting on our favourite chair. Perhaps we should feel more gratitude for the Big Sky and knowing our own time and place. Perhaps the lightness and brightness that glows like a fat gold watch as it flows along the shores of obsession should simply be marvelled at for its beauty rather than coveted.
Confused? Sometimes it’s good to be confused, very good. Relax and don’t let the chiffchaff bother you either.
Orkney, 8th April, 2018
Published in the Orcadian newspaper 12th April, 2018
The House With The Green Shutters
George Douglas Brown
The fictional town of Barbie slumbers in self-righteous envy, loving most of all to hate Gourley, a man who despite his brutish and limited vision has prospered.
It is hard to decide whether the novel is outmoded or truly modern. On the one hand gender stereotyping sits heavily on the female characters but on the other they are suffer equal viciousness under Douglas Brown’s satire. Neither men or women are blessed with redeeming characteristics, there is no salvation through good deeds, no journey to redemptive self-knowledge, there is progressive dissolute weakness through self-indulgence and giving way to temptation.
In this respect the novel reminds me of Zola and more particularly the tale of Gervaise the washerwoman in L’assommoir. After a brief spell of diligence and self-discipline Gervaise rises to some small success and security only to gradually fall into easy and squalid ways. Released in 1877 just over two decades before The House With The Green Shutters it is plausible that this influenced Douglas Brown’s work.
A workaholic, obsessed with having the biggest and best, Gourley’s squalor is less obvious than his son’s drunkenness. Gourley’s is the conceited squalor of the mind. His arrogance and deceit are fuelled by an animal energy and the perverse certainly of entitlement to the things he covets. He feels a moral right to crush men as wantonly as his son would crush flies.
Gourley’s downfall is exquisitely poised. His son, blessed with sensitivity without intellect or moral force is cowardly egotistical. He carries a vacuous vanity that gains courage and then becomes reliant on drink. From here on the story unfolds like a blighted rose.
Ten years ago I would have found the Scots dialect problematic, slow, cumbersome even, but now habituated to the cadence and some of the vocabulary the language added a richness to a tale that would be hard to convey any other way. In fact the language used by Douglas Brown is a delight, from ‘frowsy’ to ‘skirling’ the characters are drawn needle sharp in his own tongue.
The picturesque summer Scottish hills are much needed to relieve the readers eye from the unfolding misery. Perhaps this is where the hope, if there is any, in the novel lies. The continuity and beauty of the landscape is a constant presence, defying the ugly quarry, the railways and new settlements. It dishes out its benevolent blessings free of charge to the people of Barbie – should they ever choose to look.
Orkney, 28th March, 2018
Ling Di Long
Twelve poems, each a treasure, each with their own pace and their own way of walking, seeing and feeling. Some like the title poem Ling Di Long are nuggets of historical fiction re-imagining the lives of others, full of bittersweet notes that live in internal rhymes and vowels.
Others drift like a ‘lilting river’ of words as we ramble with Wynn-Rydderch though her thought and themes. In Why Men Fish we are ensconced in the fog on the riverbank, utterly transported into the scene.
The variety and consistency of precision with words and meter make the collection deeply satisfying, not just to read, but to experience. We touch the wool, feel the weft of many brilliantly coloured blankets.
These are poems of texture and energy. The heart of each poem beats clearly and unpretentiously, from the knife-edge Under the Rubble, so clear and full of desperate hope to the poignant work of Moths.
Perhaps there is less of a beating heart in On the Road, but then again what did you expect from a certain Madame Tussaud’s travelling show – needless to say there is humour in the collection too.
Anyone lucky enough to lay their hands on one of these pamphlets will have a treasure to keep and return to, something that will be a pleasure to dilly dally* with again and again.
*ling di long is a Welsh phrase meaning to dilly dally.
Orkney, 7th March, 2018
The Overcoat and other short stories.
Can a story simply go anywhere?
Gogol, where so much begins. These stories demand our utter suspension of disbelief in one way or another. How else could the reader live with the fact that a nose can leave its owner and live a rebellious life of its own. How is that one man is so disgusted by a trifling insult that he overturns the happiness of his own life. And yet within the absurdity there is the ring of truth.
Gogol shows the vagaries of human nature, he feeds the desire of the reader for a good yarn, one that is grown with intelligence and humour and delights the mind.
In Old Fashioned Farmers the detail and sympathy for a simple rural existence is luxurious. We see no threat, no cloud on the horizon. If there is fraud and sloth, well it doesn’t matter as long as delicacies are still regularly on the table for the landowner. The compelling comfortableness of the house and garden veils the reader’s eyes and when death comes it is bizarre. Yet it seems inevitable. No one is to blame for the ruin that comes – Gogol has us so comfortable in our chair that we sit back, take another drink and watch.
Gogol, the master of misdirection, yet the reader is never confused or shortchanged, simply taken on a new and unexpected leg of the journey. Every character, from a faithless cat to a dishonest steward are sketched brilliantly.
Perhaps too many miserable dystopias surround the book buyer at the moment, so that the longing for a new coat and the austerity required to afford the garment seems premise enough for degradation, obsession and misery. In fact, this is not where the tale leads us as we walk the cold streets of provincial Russian town. The narrative revolves around the more subtle, more profound interactions that Akakii Akakievich has with others whilst wearing the new beloved coat.
Even when we think Akaii Akakievich is quite finished Gogol revives the story once more and offers the reader the most satisfying of digestives to a brilliantly conceived and executed short story.
These stories, with their depth, their observation of human character, their joyousness and their entertaining spirit offer the reader rich rewards and some very diverting journeys indeed.
Orkney, 28th Feb, 2018
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Jean Brodie who are you? Bold? Sensual? Virtuous? There will be diversity of opinion. Undoubtably she is a brilliant portrait by a writer of sharp wit and intellect, unafraid to pour herself generously onto the page.
The novel is pacy with an unnerving knack of undoing its own suspense by stating baldly the facts and endings before they play out before the reader. However, the denouement is very far from the point.
The ‘transformation of the everyday’ is a marker laid down to any writer who sets their work in real places. Does this phrase imply though that our own psychology is beyond our conscious control or domain? Where does religion stand within all this? How do we fare against the inevitability that context alone seems to dictate action – why she could have done nothing else?
Sandy is one of the Brodie set, she is repeatedly denigrated physically and ultimately becoming a reclusive nun. It is she who becomes most entangled in Brodie’s schemes, she acts with has no sense of victory or accomplishment, spite rules her world, fuelled by repressed and confused sexuality. She is a proxy for both Miss Brodie and Lloyd, physically and emotionally. It is ambiguous whether her vision of the paintings is true or imagined. Who is more deeply obsessed with the enigma of Miss Brodie?
Does the liberalism that Miss Brodie symbolise actually strike the girls deeply? She is unconventional to the heart and yet the meaning behind this remains difficult to pin down. Does it show something new or is her world simply caught in its time and place? Enduringly, Sharp captures beautifully a strange sadistic quality that the most carefully self-constructed people hold.
Oh, the self-sacrifice of not interfering with a ‘married man’ yet there are no qualms in altering the girls. Miss Brodie grooms their perspectives decidedly towards her own.
In the end Miss Brodie’s tragedy is her passing out of the girls lives (children always grow up). She was a temporary influence, like a lover, a maker, a memory. She was part of their hearts and minds, but never part of their home, and home has a tendency to triumph.
The text is tight, brilliantly edited and full of close observation on character and hypocrisy. Perhaps of its time is the less than nuanced vision of catholicism and slightly predictable weaknesses of the male characters. This aside, peeling away the layers and walking along with the girls with Miss Brodie out in front is a delight.
This age of reason in young people, the first intuition of strong confusing emotions brings to mind the same feeling as the boys on an island hunting pigs. There is less bloodshed with Muriel Spark though, it would ruin the tablecloth.
A modern curriculum with its emphasis on personal and social education is perhaps eroding an entire genre of books based on the end of innocence. Still the ideas at the heart of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie will continue to captivate.
Bergen, July, 2017
The Death of the Heart
The Death of The Heart explores the end of innocence, each character reveals their own journey to a disabused vision of how people live. The principal character is Portia, an orphan who goes to stay with her half-brother and his wife. It is here that Portia’s innocence clashes with the self-obsessed Anna, expert in emotional manipulation, and Thomas, whose only relationship is the strange unnamed passion he has for his wife.
In many ways the book drips poignancy throughout. As the sweet and guileless Portia gradually looses her illusions and awakens to other peoples’ selfishness she herself picks up measure by measure the behaviours that she not so very long ago found totally confusing.
It is a circular dance, as she learns, she looses the protection of naivety. As her vision is truer, so it is darker. When she throws herself into the arms of an experience philanderer she learns in minutes what she had at first not had an inkling of at all – that wanting and resisting pleasure inexorably take over the simple act of being.
The descriptions of the falling away of winter and the coming of spring are glorious, skilfully couched in words that echo character and theme the landscape supports the narrative. The desolate house on the sea front at Seale where Portia cannot grasp the urge that makes her young philanderer touch another woman is a perfect foil to the gradual dilapidation of her youthful perspective.
Bowen writes with verve and precision, creating atmosphere through layers of telling detail that is enviable and a pleasure to read. Every device she uses carries its weight, the diary, the changes in setting – nothing is superfluous. The writing and sensitivity to human nature is exquisite, however, I must admit that the denouement left me non-plussed.
Perhaps I do not share Bowen’s sardonic sense of humour – I rarely found my lips twitching to laugh. Perhaps it is the terrible absurdity of it all that makes the cruelty, outrageous self-allowances and prudery resound as tragic as well as comic.
Again, it could be that these characters are so subtle and three-dimensional that they are a bit too much like a person one knows well, and that makes it hard to laugh.
Or perhaps it is because I have daughter reaching a certain age.
Orkney, 31st Jan, 2018
The Heart of a Dog
by Mikhal Bulgakov
Astounding, simply incredible, to mix the most macabre of ghost story plot lines with political satire and a vision of the future that borders on science fiction.
The immediacy of the prose pounds at the reader, exclamations and melodrama mingle with subtle and extended suspense. The eerie atmosphere and heightened sensuality throughout is nothing less than delightful. It’s a piece that reminds me of the carved stone balls that fit one inside another. Perhaps a better analogy would be Russian dolls! Yes! Of course you know this review has to be over-exaggerated because any hum-drum literary analysis would be nonsensical.
The dog – Sharikov, begins with his doggy consciousness in his doggy perceived world, starved and abused, ready to die and ready to worship anyone who offers him food. Food, he must have food! Warmth and protection are desirable but secondary. It is of the utmost importance not to be starving! Only when this is satisfied do other elements become important.
Yet there is the small matter of Philip Philipovich replacing the dog’s testicles and pituitary gland with those of a recently deceased man who was a gambler, a drinker etc. Add to this the erupting conflict with the house committee that demands the surgeon share his apartment and the result is brutal slapstick mayhem. Naturally, the dog falls in with the Committee.
Philip Philipovich is protected by friends of course, people who owe him their virility.
The larger analogy is to the Russian revolution, sadly I miss much of the subtlety because of my ignorance. And yet the central point remains. What was the motivation of the surgeon after all? To aid the patient? To give him freedom of thought and enlightenment? Or was it for his own aggrandisement? A cruel experiment?
Ultimately, the ‘monster’ becomes too much of a challenge for its creator’s authority. Brain and balls are reverted. The emasculation of the animal is done without agonising moral dilemma. It is a pragmatic solution – better than simply murdering the thing. But then what of its life back in the shadows, gradually forgetting everything it has learned, forgetting everything that for a short period it was allowed to dream, to choose, to learn and perhaps one day to love.
Ten days that shook the world and back again, all in a seven room apartment. Brilliant.
Orkney, 8th Jan, 2018
by George Mackay Brown
Magnus is an atmospheric mystical book that guides the reader through the key events leading up to the martyrdom of Magnus Erlendson whose 900th anniversary was celebrated this year.
The tale is frequently carried by two peasants, Mans and Hild. Their lives are bound to the seasons, to their faith and to their poverty. They who suffer first hand the effects of civil strife between Magnus and his cousin Hakon Paulson because of the divided Orcadian Earlship. At times, two tinkers also take up the narrative. The pair are made up of the good hearted Jock and the blind, irascible Mary who is eventually cured following Jock makes devotion to the recently slain Magnus.
The diversions into the scraps between the Paulson and Erlson men are thrown into sharp modern day relief with a sinister passage set in the Jew extermination camps of Nazi Germany (I wondered for a long time why my library copy had a swastika on its cover). Again a chef is called upon to do a filthy and barbarous act by men who are barely recognisable as animals, never mind humans.
This is far more than a pastoral sequence and the telling of the life of a saint. There are no pallid tableaux to warm the hearts of the faithful and send comfort that even in this windswept locality great martyrs rise. The narrative is an indictment of human weakness and the negative effect of logical political conclusions on the lives of the people that leaders are meant to serve rather than exploit. Modern parallels abound.
There is no aggrandisement of Magnus the man, nothing convoluted or hyperbolic about his uniting with Christ during that final night of torment and prayer.
What choice did Magnus have? That remains an eternal question for so many human actions. It can be applied to Hakon as freely as to Magnus, to their men at arms, to the way Mans drinks and abuses Hild, to the way Mary remains ungrateful and feckless. Do they have any more choice than the barely seed thrown into the rill on the hillside? or the seeds carried by the wind and throttled by weeds?
There is delightful richness in George Mackay Brown’s prose, slowing the reader down as poetry does, producing a steady rhythm, an ebb and release of story that is born of confidence and mastery of the form. It is certainly not a book to be rushed through, as the library will know from my many renewals.
There are passages that I want to revisit, to hold again in my mind – I will now return my copy and in time, seek out a copy of my own.
Orkney, 1st Nov, 2017