Category: fiction

Curiouser and Curiouser: My Favorite Alices – Post by Christina Henry, bestselling novelist

Blogging/editorial note from bobbygw: In celebration of the UK publication of Alice by bestselling novelist Christina Henry  (also author of the highly successful Black Wings trilogy, comprising Black Spring, Black Heart, Black City), this post is by her as part of her blog tour series to promote this great novel. There’s more info about her entertaining tour at the end of this post, so you can read all her posts in the series at your leisure. Note: Titan Books publish Red Queen, the sequel to Alice, on July 12 2016 in paperback and ebook editions.

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One of the most influential fantasy stories of all time is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I’ve written before that Alice and her story have become embedded in our cultural memory in such a way that even people who’ve never read the original story feel as though they must have.

Alice’s story is so iconic and has such a fairy-tale-like, almost mythical quality that many filmmakers and authors (including myself) have dipped into that sandbox to create our own Wonderlands (or in my case, more of a Nightmareland) and shape our own versions of Alice.

There have been lots of direct interpretations of the story, and I love many of them, but I’m especially interested in the stories that have Alice’s DNA without being specifically Alice stories. After all, any story that has a hole for the hero/heroine to fall through or a magical door to another world owes a debt to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Here are my four favorite Alices (and almost Alices):

4) Disney’s 1951 Alice in Wonderland film – This is the first version of the story that I remember seeing, and it remains one of the most enduring for me.  The Cheshire Cat, in particular, becomes much more whimsical and charming in this version. In the book I always felt he just enjoyed thwarting Alice, but his mischievous expressions in the film mitigate that to some degree.

3) C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Supernatural passageway to another world? Check. Young heroine who discovers a magical world and creatures and accepts them in a matter-of-fact way? Check. Much is made of both the Christian allegory and epic fantasy elements of this story, but at its heart this book is Lucy’s Adventures in Narnia.

2) Neil Gaiman’s Coraline – Here Alice is called Coraline, and the passage she goes through brings her to a place that seems wonderful at first but quickly turns dark and frightening. There’s even a black cat whose helpful unhelpfulness rivals the Cheshire’s.

1) Angela Carter’s “Wolf-Alice” from The Bloody Chamber and Other StoriesThis story has a loose tie to Through the Looking Glass and also to a version of Little Red Riding Hood. I adore Angela Carter and the way she interpreted the darkness in well-known fairy tales. In this story Alice becomes a self-aware adult, which is a theme that runs underneath the Carroll stories – all along Alice is becoming less childlike, more grownup.

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More about Christina Henry’s wonderful blog tour:

 

Alice Blog Tour Banner#2
Welcome to Nightmareland: A blog tour with Christina Henry, author of Alice and Red Queen

 

 

Agota Kristof’s Trilogy of Novels: Remarkable fiction on loss, identity and the traumatic impact of war

Agota Kristof - book cover for her trilogy of novelsWritten by an unreliable narrator, the first part of this trilogy, The Notebook, won two prestigious European literary awards and was Hungarian writer Agota Kristof’s debut novel, published when the author was 51. It is, along with The Proof and The Third Lie, astonishing and brilliantly written in the tone of a moral fable. All the novels use beautifully simple, even clinical, language, from a first person viewpoint. What’s remarkable about them is the pure clarity of voice and language and – most importantly – morals without sentimentality, and the rejection of conventional, socially conformist behaviour.

With the onslaught of WW2, in an unnamed Hungary, identical twin brothers C(K)laus and Lucas record an ‘objective’ narrative of each day or days of significance that each agrees must be dependent solely on fact. This means that the brothers destroy any daily account that reflects judgement, whether implied or explicit, whether emotional, moral or even tonal in the words they use.

Only once they approve the best version of the day’s events, do they commit one as the permanent record of that day, to be written up in the Notebook.

Their purity of purpose and determination to lead lives grounded in their own way, extends to them deciding to strip themselves of emotion as they learn to disregard and be invulnerable to the devastating consequences of war. They also choose to act on occasion in ways that threaten and harm those who harm others, and always based upon their own distinctive, yet always logical, moral code. As a metaphor for the impact of war on children it’s a powerful and compelling one.

The more you read, the more troubling the stories of each novel, yet the more enriched and nuanced the overall story becomes.

The novels don’t shy away from the impact of war, psychological, social or physical. Limbs and people destroyed, antisemitism wreaked, loved ones blown apart. Life goes on, but always the factual narrative strips life of value and meaning as the war dehumanises and devastates. While the brother(s) survive(s), it’s clear not in any meaningful way living. There’s no joy felt or shared, no relief described, no coming to terms. The tone becomes ever more despairing and melancholic, as WW2 transitions into what is clearly meant to be Russia’s occupation of the country.

To describe the plots would be to undermine the intensity of loss, sadness, disorientation and trauma of war inflicted upon the narrator(s). What matters most is the extraordinary perspective of the brothers/unreliable narrator. It’s a troubling, powerful, moving story, driven by conflict, often disturbed and disorientating. It never resolves, which, given the subject of war and loss, is surely a morally honest conclusion and one free from false sentiment. Utterly compelling (especially The Notebook), the trilogy is highly recommended for lovers of great, modernist literature.

Let’s Celebrate! The Magic Wagon – A Classic Joe R. Lansdale Tale is Available Once Again

The Magic Wagon by Joe R. Lansdale - Kindle edition cover
Click on the book cover to buy this Kindle edition for $2.99

This new edition is a cause for celebration. First published in 1986 when Joe R. Lansdale was little known, and re-issued in 2001 by Subterranean Press, the wonderful US indie publisher, The Magic Wagon has sadly been unavailable since then.  Well, not only is it now easily available because it’s a Kindle edition, the price is a mere $2.99. It’d be worth it at triple the price.  And, even better, this early Lansdale fiction remains one of his very best.  In fact, it’s worthy of the title classic: a funny, quirky and utterly charming literary fiction, brilliantly told.

Set in Texas at the turn of the 20th century, The Magic Wagon is the tale of Buster Fogg’s life as well as other eccentric characters that he encounters. By the time he’s 17, his life has been pock-marked by tragedy, yet Buster tells you about each sad event in such a way as to make them Candide-like – tragic-comic, even farcical.

It reads like a combination of an S. E. Hinton novel (Rumblefish, The Outsiders), in its convincing account of a boy’s youth and, throughout, a feeling that if Jorge Luis Borges had ever written a literary, magical Western, I think he’d have been proud to have the result that is The Magic Wagon.

A List of Top 100 Novels: stats and trivia

Always fun to see a top # list of authors and check who you’ve read and who you may have missed it like to add. Some fascinating stats here, too.

News from the San Diego Becks

Before I put up the full Top 100 list (and do the post for #1), I am tossing up this bit of various trivia and statistics about the novels on my Top 100 list and on the 101-200 list.

Please note that none of the lists involving 101-200 have numbers attached because I didn’t rank them.

  • Longest Top 100 Novel:  In Search of Lost Time  (4651 pages)
  • Shortest Top 100 Novel:  Heart of Darkness  (96 pages)
  • Earliest Top 100 Novel:  Gulliver’s Travels  (1726)
  • Latest Top 100 Novel:  Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel  (2004)
  • Latest Top 200 Novel:  The Night Circus / The Tiger’s Wife  (2011)

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The battle of the sexes in fiction – Lawrence Naumoff’s Taller Women

Click on the image to buy this book for a penny, excluding postage & packing.

Occasionally a novel comes along that swallows you whole, making you sigh with pleasure, think deep thoughts, and blink with a delighted astonishment. Taller Women is just such a novel. Following hot on the heels of Naumoff’s previous novel, Rootie Kazootie (Harvest Book), it continues the theme of wise women, filled with hope and sadness, and near-silent men afraid of the truth in their hearts and the questions from their lovers.

In manic Lydia and whimsical Monroe, Naumoff portrays a tangled relationship that steers off the road into emotional territory for which neither has prepared. Like the shifting plates beneath the earth’s surface, they bump and grind, facing mutual confusion and a hope for something better around the corner. With off-beat humour and genuine insight, Naumoff recognises the sad, funny, scary and absurd battles that occur between the sexes.  He is a wonderful novelist and, absurdly, not well-known or appreciated enough.  Try him, he’s marvellous and I don’t believe you will be disappointed if you like the view above.

 

Celine’s existential nightmare novel on the human condition

To buy with free worldwide delivery, just click on the book image. Nice!

This was Celine‘s second novel after Journey to the End of the Night and is a prequel to it. It focuses on Ferdinand Bardamu‘s (Celine’s fictional alter ego) troubled childhood and youth in Paris.

Reading Celine, you experience his incredibly intense emotional and intellectual understanding of our desperate, existentialist and unresolved – conundrum – human condition.

Celine makes it clear he sees no escape and that humanity – what there is of it – is pathetic, disease-ridden and without hope. The one consolation? To grasp a few moments of joy in a life of poverty and hardship. It is a story that is powerfully told, and you can’t help but be overwhelmed by it.

His raw, unadulterated, yet poetic style of writing – the use of ellipses and hallucinatory scenes mixing with the gutter and destitution – worked powerfully with his themes of desperation and poverty. In the 1930s there was no one with whom to compare him or to match him for the depth, complexity and violent negativity of his impoverished world.

You find yourself being drawn into and compromised by Bardamu’s viewpoint, anger and hatred. You drown with him and his constantly argumentative father and are at a loss to help his exhausted-to-the-bones mother.

You also can’t forget Celine’s deep and abiding compassion and that he later qualified and practiced as a doctor who worked only in the poorest, most deprived neighbourhoods of Paris (about which he writes so effectively in Journey to the End of Night). Nor, too, the fact that he was himself persona non grata before and after his “profession”; and you are further troubled by knowing that, besides, he lost his reputation as a writer – shunned by the literati of Paris – in his own lifetime because of his fascistic views (even though it’s important to note that in practising his medicine, he attended to everybody, irrespective of whether the person was Jewish or otherwise).

And while Celine and Bardamu both hated “humanity”, both were always specific, explicit and thankful for those few people that made a difference in their lives, including the wonderful characters of certain women, who plied the trade of prostitution, Violette, Lola (in Journey), and others.

It is a compelling novel, and in some ways is even darker and more troubling than his first, and most famous novel. If you come to this having been impressed by Journey, you will be all the more so when you finish reading this prequel.

To sever your head from your heart: Dangerous liaisons & Iris Murdoch

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch
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A prolific, brilliant author, intellectual and philosopher, the remarkable Iris Murdoch wrote 26 novels.  The Severed Head was the second fiction of hers that I’d ever read (my first was the overwhelming Philosopher’s Pupil, also reviewed in this blog – click here).  More reviews of her terrific novels will follow (whether you like it or not – ahem).

Plot: Martin Lynch-Gibbon, established wine merchant, and happily dedicated two-timing sophisticate (he has betrayed his wife, Antonia, by having an affair for some time with Georgie, a friend, and LSE lecturer), tells you the story of the collapse of his marriage, his wife’s affair with no less than two men (one of which, with the manipulative, obnoxiously patronising, slimy psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson, began even before Martin’s marriage with Antonia; the other with Martin’s sculptor brother, Alexander) and his stormy entanglement – and eventual (well, potential) resurrection, with the devilish, deeply disturbing brilliant academic Honor Klein (sister to Palmer).

So is it any good? God, yes. It is beautifully, compellingly written and from the viewpoint of Martin’s narration. (The notion that men can’t ‘write’ women characters, or vice versa, or one ethnicity can’t ‘write’ another, or sexuality, etc., I think is total nonsense.  Imagination has only the limit of one’s mind and preconceptions. Any other judgement is a prejudgment of the reader, surely?)

The author’s intelligence heats every page and the deft, brilliant drawings of her characters – she can do men and women with equal aplomb, by which I mean their psychology, self-deceptions, quirks, temperaments and dialogue – are always powerfully evoked, even – perhaps, especially – when their natures are most troubling.

Martin clearly finds himself falling into an almighty mess. Having thought he was the one in control of his life, it becomes clear he is the more easily duped – and cuckolded, while deceiving himself and others (as do the other characters). Murdoch understands the vicissitudes and muddle, confusion and self-deception of what it can often mean to be human.

Amazingly, while it is difficult to care for or certainly empathise with any of her characters (besides Georgie, who doesn’t display any of the obnoxious characteristics of the others), as a reader you are drawn in relentlessly, and you find from the outset that you just can’t wait to turn over each page, desperate to find out what other levels of hell will transpire in the telling of the tale (Murdoch is clearly a fan of Dante, and often evokes him, as she does in The Philosopher’s Pupil).

Besides Georgie, then, the characters to a tee are pretty much loathsome. Antonia is foul – full of meaningless platitudes, always insistently and with pressure pleading, demanding, coaxing that others comply with her notions of love and consideration (which prove to be more about pleasing herself, rather than others). She’s a true narcissist, with her monstrous need to be loved and loving; in her case, the latter experience is simply an opportunity to cement the prospect of her being loved.

What troubled me most in the novel was the portrayal of Honor Klein, because of Martin’s anti-Semitic, obsessively hateful – even on one occasion, violent (until towards the end of the narrative) way of describing her. While it is vital to keep in mind that this anti-Semitism is clearly Martin’s – he associates her `Jewish’ looks (the word is in single quotation marks to highlight the absurdity of this notion) with ugliness, and hardly a scene in which she is present takes place without the smell of sulphur in the atmosphere; never mind him literally describing her as a devil, as a demon, and the seeming cold, clinical, monstrous nature of her (compounded by Honor committing a taboo that still shocks, for any reader, to this day). But because the hatred is so absurdly over the top, as a reader you realise soon enough that Martin’s negative obsession with her, coupled with your knowing that his happy two-timing world has utterly collapsed, is a reflection of his deeply troubled self. This is confirmed when, regaining his sense of self and a more balanced view, Martin’s perception of Honor as ugly and demon-like transitions slowly but surely into a sort of moving beauty to him (like a ‘Hebrew angel’, he writes towards the end).  Anyway, if you read biographies of Murdoch, you’ll know  she was probably the least prejudiced (of any kind) person you could hope to have met and most definitely not anti-semitic.  (To learn more about her life, click Iris Murdoch – Biographical profile, which includes sources/resources, and is written by the estimable Peter J. Conradi, one of the authorities on her life, work and letters.)

Still, amid this awfulness, you are addicted to learning more about her; she is utterly fascinating and a force to be reckoned with. I loved, for example, the scene in which Martin – drunk, as usual – note: if you don’t appreciate your narrator being a relentless whisky and wine drinker, you will probably need to stay clear of this novel – sitting alone in a candle-lit drawing-room, asks Honor to show how to use the samurai sword she owns (she has trained with a master for several years in Japan, but states simply that she is only a `beginner’). She refuses to do so but then, moments later and in a flash, she slices in half two handkerchiefs with the blade, and so fast Martin doesn’t even see the blade as it whisks through the air.

A Severed Head is disturbing, nightmarish and brilliantly depicts the shenanigans, deceptions and self-deceptions of having an affair. It is also clever, compelling, thought-provoking, powerful and thoroughly entertaining fiction. Reader, be warned, but I have no doubt you will find plenty to sink your teeth into (even if on occasion you feel you are helplessly staring at a god-awful car crash).

A Visit from the Sh*it Squad: Jennifer Egan’s novel about watching toxic paint dry on cr*ap music

To order the Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Sh*it - oops - I mean Goon Squad, with free worldwide delivery, click on the book image here

Ah, dear reader.  I can tell from this post’s title and you clicking on it that you’re obviously expecting a rave review of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, aren’t you? (Ahem.)  In fact, this really is a brilliant, wondrous, stunning novel and one of the masterpieces of 21st century literature.

Actually, no. Sorry. It really is Sh*it.

Don’t leave yet!  Please allow me to tell you why, because this snapshot review will be sure to save a few hours of your precious time by helping you to avoid – I hope – making the same mistake I and many other horribly disappointed readers did by purchasing this novel and believing it was actually, really literature.

No, it’s not. I’ve read pulp fiction with more class and intelligence than this. And certainly more entertaining.

So why is this novel – notably a winner of prestigious literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize – and recipient of rave reviews and accolades from The New York Times, The Guardian, The Village Voice and countless others; that was endlessly cited as one of the Best Books of 2010 (Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Time Magazine, Village Voice and more, besides) – well, why is it so frickin execrable?!

Well, first, obviously disregard the positive reviews. They must have all been snorting washing up powder or something.

Egan’s attempts to be wry, clever and ‘with it’ – in this instance, the focus is on the American music industry, and the trials, shenanigans and viewpoints of some individuals within it and its periphery – leave you feeling nothing at all for her characters (because they’re all ego-inflated bores).

Sadly, pathetically (in every sense), her attempts at being clever amount to nothing more than sophistry, and two particular scenes/chapters highlighted by many reviewers to date as good are uninspired and tiresome. These involve a chapter in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, detailing in schematic/diagrammatic form a family matrix and its individuals’ views and connections; and an article written in the style of David Foster Wallace, including – of course – footnotes and digressions galore (arguably an homage, more in truth a dull-witted effort, with none of the brilliance or ingenuity or riffing, clever tangents that Wallace so effortlessly produced in his fiction and journalism).

You keep on hoping it will get better, but sadly, miserably, it doesn’t. Plodding stuff that will bore you to tears and, unless your proclivities include watching paint dry or wallpaper peel, I’d stay clear of this abysmal, contrived effort.  Spend a couple of hours with a friend. Call a family member you’ve not spoken to in a while and have been meaning to catch up. Paint your nails.  Do your hair. Take a long nap. Bunjy-jump.  Do a Tom Cruise backward jump onto a sofa (impossible spontaneously, so it’ll take you probably the same time as reading this novel to succeed). But don’t, under any circumstances, be fooled by this Empress’s New Clothes.

If you do, be sure to hold the book with a pair of kitchen or gardening gloves. Do not contaminate your skin!  Apart from that: enjoy!

A beautiful literary classic: The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole

A stunning rites of passage novel to rank with Catcher in the Rye,

Toole committed suicide at the age of 32, leaving behind two unpublished novels and an impressively determined mother who succeeded – after much badgering – in gaining the novelist Walker Percy’s interest and support in the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces.

Cover of
Cover of A Confederacy of Dunces. Published posthumously, the novel garnered instant and great acclaim and has been continuously in print ever since and translated into numerous languages.

While The Neon Bible was in fact written before A Confederacy of Dunces, it only came to light during the successful reception of the later novel, and its publication was delayed by some years because of legal wrangling involving Toole’s mother, the publishers and the courts.

Nonetheless, the novel is an astonishing achievement, not least because it was written, it seems, when the author was barely a teenager. It’s a classic of contemporary American fiction, and of Bildungsroman literature, offering a haunting and poetic evocation of a boy’s loss of innocence in the rural America of the 1930s and 40s. There are echoes of Mark Twain, John Cheever, J. D. Salinger and S. E. Hinton, to name but a few and, impressively, the ‘voice’ and identity of the central character, the young boy, Dave, are as distinct and compelling as any by those others.

In a series of linking memories we learn about Dave and his painful trials and tribulations growing up. His mother becomes emotionally unstable when her husband returns in a coffin, from fighting in Europe during the second world war; his Aunt Mae, an eccentric, once-travelling singer, and Dave’s only real friend and companion, discards him for the sake of her infatuation with a 70-year-old fiddle-playing boyfriend and the temptations of Nashville; and his local preacher inflicts a destructive hypocrisy upon him (in fact, it is this preacher’s church that displays the tacky, monolithic, ‘neon bible’). As if these weren’t enough, yet more troubles ensue, accumulating to the point that he is compelled to escape to the city, leaving innocence in his wake, and only the memory of bitter experience for reflection.

Juxtaposed, Toole’s two novels differ in style, language and humour – understandably, as he was just 13 or so when he wrote The Neon Bible, whereas he wrote A Confederacy of Dunces as an adult.

In the latter novel, we have the fantastic figure of Ignatius J. Reilly, towering, Rabelaisian and Falstaff-like, battling against the dim-witted and the short-sighted in his quest for truth, beauty, and a bountiful supply of hot dogs, his favourite food. Its language is rich and boisterous, its style sweeping in its intensity.

In The Neon Bible, Dave is the centre, holding the novel together with his rural speech; his gentle, graceful and easy language complementing the impression we have of him and his world. Even so, their lives and their principles are, arguably, the same: both value Platonic ideals above all else; both are outsiders, most often alone – feeling the loss of their innocence – and reflect a pervading sadness that is at the very heart of their lives. There is no question that the publication of this, his only other fiction, underlines the awful tragedy of Toole’s death.

Who’s Your Daddy? An appreciation of Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Fathers and Sons by Turgenev - Penguin book cover
Click on the image for free delivery in the UK. For worldwide, click on the book title in the first paragraph

During his lifetime, Turgenev was the most popular Russian novelist in Europe, even taking into account Dostoyevksy and Tolstoy. Fascinatingly, he was also the most controversial.  (The controversy surrounding this novel continued at least up until the 1950s.)

While he spent most of his life abroad, living in Paris, in particular (he was a passionate Europhile), he remained throughout his life devoted to Russia and its people.

Turgenev’s greater popularity, compared with his two most famous counterparts, arguably rests on his lead characters’ deeper humanity and greater emotional complexity in his novella-length fictions. With Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, their own characters often begin in conflict and are riddled with anxieties that get progressively worse while often see sawing still between only two opposing viewpoints over many hundreds of pages .

Of the characters themselves, there is much about them to enjoy, be engaged with as well as challenged by. Bazarov and Arkady, university students, take a holiday together, visiting Arkady’s landlord and liberal-minded, caring father (Nikolai) and uncle (Pavel), formerly a distinguished army captain, at Nikolia’s farm and home, with whom Pavel also lives. The conflict between `fathers and sons’ is played out primarily in this holiday, arising because of Bazarov’s deep-seated nihilism and his insistent, relentlessly stern advocacy of such miserable, cynical views to Nikolai and Pavel.

The story is worth reading just for two characters alone: Bazarov, who is infuriating and an unforgettable anti-hero. Supremely arrogant and contemptuous of others, he respects no codes of conduct and appreciates nothing, save that which he defines and determines. He’s rude to his charming and much devoted friend, Arkady, who himself is in such awe of Bazarov he can’t help but appear to collude with his all-encompassing miserable and bitter worldview.

Bazarov’s nihilism confounds and upset Arkady’s father – and angers Pavel. Yet ironically it is Bazarov’s own rejection of Arkady’s friendship that brings Arkady to his senses, reconnecting him with a sense of humanity, empathy and love he always felt for both his father and uncle.

Pavel is another compelling character; he’s amusing, with a caustic sense of humour and irony and is superbly realised. He’s a Russian who, while now elderly, remains as he was from his youth: distinguished, handsome, with a reputation as a `lady-killer’, sustained by his aristocratic flair and his taste for colourful English bespoke tailoring and fancy accoutrements (handkerchiefs, cufflinks, neckerchiefs). He’s deeply civilised, graceful, yet in no doubt of his views, with a strong and independent perspective and depth of character. He is also deeply generous and caring, having given much of his money to Nikolai, to help his brother keep his farm and land. 

It is no surprise, given the brilliantly drawn and vivid characters of Bazarov and Pavel, that it is their debates that make the novel such a compelling read. We witness Pavel regress from civilised decorum to bemusement, yet all the while becoming increasingly agitated, and failing in trying to stay true to his sense of honour and code of conduct. Bazarov mirrors him for integrity, yet insults by his bored manner, his steely, offensive and effortless cynicism. 

Their discussions constitute the heart of the novel and convey Turgenev’s conflict over the ever-deepening rift between his own generation of ‘fathers’ and that of Russia’s ‘sons’; a portrait of a country in turbulent times and anticipating even more troubled times ahead. Powerful, evocative and deeply thoughtful: it more than merits its status as a classic novel.

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A note on this edition:

There are several English editions of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1861) including some cheaper than this (e.g., the Wordsworth edition), but this is by far the best to date for two reasons:

  • Rosemary Edmonds’ translation from Russian into English in this edition is elegant and smooth, and her own introduction is excellent – providing meaningful reflection and understanding not only of the novel, but Turgenev’s talent, other works, and the political and literary times he lived through.
  • The second reason is that as far as I can tell, this edition is the only one that has Isaiah Berlin’s brilliant, insightful lecture on the novel that he first gave in 1970, and was included in this edition from 1975 onwards. It has an invaluable review of the novel’s historical context and background in terms of philosophy and politics in Russia during Turgenev’s lifetime.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner – A moving meditation on love and personal choices

Book cover Hotel du Lac
Click here to buy the book with free worldwide delivery

Despite Anita Brookner winning the Booker Prize for Hotel du Lac, and her publishing a literary novel once a year – sort of like Woody Allen with movies, except in Brookner’s case the quality rarely falters – and excellent reviews, there still remains a view of her fiction that it is not quite literature. That is a false criticism and applied only because she doesn’t ‘do’ brick-sized, sprawling Franzen-type fiction. She’s also criticised for publishing the ‘same’ thing each time – true only in the sense that she always explores certain distinct themes certain – as do most of literature’s best novelists.

And then there’s the tiresome refrain that her middle-class female characters are too ‘minor’ to sustain a fiction or its hold on you as a reader. Again, not true: they are fully realised, complex, always true to life and well-drawn.

These contentions, all of which seem absurdly unjustified, remind me of the type of pejorative remarks you get about Austen’s and other female writers’ work as being lightweight and usually from those who’ve either read only Austen’s Mansfield Park (atypical of her oeuvre) or none and hence based on nothing but a sort of blinkered tenacity to insist on what is not evident at all.

So let me reassure you that if you do take the time out to enjoy her fiction, you should be rewarded.  She is superb at capturing the quiet, troubling, complicated patterns and moments of women’s lives, of feelings often unspoken but pervasive, of psychological depths to her characters and the closed world environments that they at times struggle within but none the less manage stoically.

You can expect from her the delicate, fine touch of a miniature portrait artist, rather than the broad brushstrokes of some modern fiction, and an appreciation of her style that is intelligent, reflective, understated and elegiac in tone, with a pervading sadness that runs throughout the story and its characters’ lives – arguably points which could apply just as well to most of Anita Brookner’s oeuvre.

Hotel du Lac is a charming and thoughtful novel focused on Edith Hope, a successful middle-aged novelist of romantic fiction (though a realist about the world of the living, she never denies her heroines the mythical joys of true romantic journeys and endings), who comes to stay at the genteel, select Hotel du Lac, an old world establishment in Switzerland, to reflect on recent events in her life.

Through the course of the novella, Edith comes to engage with the hotel’s other residents, all beautifully drawn. There’s Monica, with her tiny dog that she passes her hotel food to (she has an eating disorder, and focuses mainly on cakes, coffee and cigarettes to keep her going), while vaguely thinking about her marriage that has come to an impasse.

There’s the relentlessly self-obsessed, rich, always-on-display and well-dressed, elegant Mrs Pusey and her shadowy daughter, Jennifer (acting as a short-form silly Greek Chorus to Mrs Pusey’s endless exclamations about her own life and opinions).

We have stalwart, sad, alone, Mme de Bonneuil, dumped by her only son to live for part of each year at the hotel; and Mr Neville, charming, devilish, always insightful, but without sentiment or love.

He intrigues Edith and is her catalyst to consider making radical changes in her life. He does this by questioning her way of living, and the way she thinks about love, relationships and self – but from his self-interested yet disinterested viewpoint only (such that he proposes marriage but would never declare love).

Faced with a pattern and routine in her life that Edith finds both comforting and sad, including her affair with a married man, Mr Simmons, and for which she is typically pigeon-holed, she is seen by her friends and others as less than she really is in terms of character and depth.

These conflicts act as triggers that, combined, conspire to a decision that ultimately leads her to the Hotel du Lac.

The dialogue and characterisation are consistently rich, entertaining and often provoke the reader into reflecting on her or his own approach to love and a life worth living, and what this says about ourselves.

At the end of the story, Edith’s decision and next step reflect her complete self-awareness and the options available to her, including that of taking a radically different, perhaps more positive (self-interested) approach to her life. 

Her decision is very much feminist in spirit and likewise in action: it is solely her own and she is true to whom she is and what she needs in her life.

A thoughtful, moving meditation on personal choices, love and life-changing decisions and ways of living. If you haven’t read Brookner before, this is a great place to start and, I hope, you’ll enjoy it as much I did enough to read some of her later work.

An appreciation of Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil

This is a Dantesque tale of love: as in an Inferno of evil, not of Beatrice. Along the way, Murdoch introduces you to numerous sinners, from dishonest to honourable, self-defeating to masochistic, platonic to deviant, and never ever simply just one type at any one time.

Set in Ennistone, it’s a town renowned for natural hot water springs and baths, and is filled to the brim with the heat of gossip, anger, passions, and small-minded mischief makers.  

But this review is not about the plot, as that’s for you to enjoy in your own reading.

This is an homage to the vivid and remarkable characters that Murdoch’s genius has given life to in this novel.

She has a mature nineteenth century novelist’s depth to her characters; and is a match for Tolstoy, Trollope and Eliot, to name some of the giants of classic fiction.  

Her fictional beings are beautifully, fully realised in scope and complexity, and each draws you in with their own personal world view, reasoning as well as often troubled emotional life. You become captivated in observing and listening to them live and breathe and assert themselves in their muddled worlds.

Her dialogue alone is worth the price of the novel — and the prologue, relating the car ‘accident’ is by itself worth the price of the paperback.

(for it really isn’t one, but an incident resulting from a violent action), is a tour de force, introducing George, the novel’s devil in (barely) human form.  

He is scarily human: the most fully realised and horribly convincing, nightmarish psychopath and sociopath I have read in fiction. Far more disturbing than Hannibal Lecter as a fictional creation, and more believable than a real-life monster like Ed Gein.  

From the prologue on, you are witness To his extreme ranting and raving, his hatred and violent, misogynistic behaviour. He is apocalyptic in tone and revenge.  

Yet he could just as well be one of your neighbours who has by the by become utterly mad, while going through the motions of sanity

He is the strongest case and example — though there are several others in this novel — of Murdoch’s tremendous ability to create flesh-and-blood human beings that convey her passionate intellectual and creative interests, while never failing to be merely conduits or foils for her fictional plotting.  

There’s never any sense of novelistic Deus ex Machina at work, here — her creatures spring from the page, and are all tremendously personal in language, thought and action.

As if psychotic George wasn’t enough for one novel, there’s also the philosopher of the novel’s title as well, John Robert Rozanov (George was once one of John’s pupils). Manipulative, amoral, uncaring, soul-less, intellectual and emotionally moribund and, in many ways, he’s far more of a devil than George himself (though never committing physical acts of violence, or verbal, as George does with such relish and ease).

Then there are George’s brothers: Brian, who must be one of the most bloody miserable, whining sods in fiction but who, thanks to Murdoch’s scalpel humour, becomes a great doom and gloom comic character for our amusement.

And then there’s Tom: the youngest of the brothers, at university and who, to his teenage years, is naive, delightfully happy and at one with his world and his peers. That is, until he’s corrupted by a Faustian task that John compels him to take up.

Alongside them, you have Gabriel, Brian’s put-upon wife, poor, defeated, always tearful, troubled, and ready to blubber at the drop of the proverbial hat; and the intellectual, yet remote, and incredibly martyrish Stella, wife of the monstrous George.

And while George spews with murderous rage, violence and hatred if womankind, he also saves Zed.  

Now Zed is probably one of fiction’s most charming, delightful and convincing portraits of a clever little doggie. He’s Zen-like — “Zed” as a name is more than a hint, I think — and always understanding, even when he’s clueless; both part of the natural world, and yet connected with his human peers – including, most particularly, the other marvel in this novel: the boy Adam.

Adam is the offspring of Gabriel and Brian. Francis of Assisi-like, as well as Buddhist in his immediate and deep empathy with all living things. He is Schopenhauer’s ideal saint-artist, able to see beyond the veil of Maya.

Murdoch clearly knows her Varieties of Religious Experience, and if the Gabriel, Stella and Zed weren’t enough, you have Father Bernard.

An Anglican priest who’s also an atheist, he believes ultimately that the only hope and saviour for the world is religion without God. He ends up an ethereal ascetic-Russian hermit-ancient Desert Father-type, living on a remote Greek island with kindly peasants, birds, the sea and rocks.

This is a rare gem of a novel. It’s phwor and fab, funny and dark, with substance, yet as light as a perfect soufflé.

There’s also plenty here for lovers of Plato and Dante, yet such allusions are never done ostentatiously, but rather flow seamlessly within the events and thinking of the novel and her characters.  And all these riches are carried through with zest right to the end and beyond, with you being totally immersed in and absorbed by the mess and muddle of these human lives (a true Murdochian talent).

You are left joyous,  breathless and happy and utterly, utterly impressed by Murdoch for her philosophical wisdom, her mischievous wit, her darkness and light, her psychological insights and her innate appreciation of what it means to be human.  It is an extraordinary novel from a brilliant mind.

At last – The true heir to Kafka’s fiction – Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy

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Any number of modern, nightmarish novels are given the epithet of ‘Kafkaesque’, but the fiction of most contemporary writers pales in comparison to the disturbing, oppressive, claustrophobic work of Kafka.

Ferenc Karinthy, himself the son of a famous Hungarian satirist/novelist/journalist, is a contemporary of Hungary and, with Metropole, his first novel translated into English, you find a truly worthy successor to Kafka, not only for his most famous work, The Trial, but also (for its equally claustrophobic, trapped sense of nightmare without end) The Metamorphosis as well, familiar to readers as being his most  surreal and famous short story about the uncertainty of one’s identity and of being an outsider/alienated from those familiar to you, as well as to yourself.

The plot itself, as with most of Kafka’s stories, is actually simple and straightforward.  But it’s in the novel’s machinations, the relentless struggles and hurdles his character has to endure that he is most reminiscent of those Joseph K. faces in The Trial.  In place of Joseph K., you have Budai, a hugely talented multi-lingual linguist (he knows dozens of languages and has rudimentary knowledge of many more).  His first person narration draws you ever in alongside him, spiralling downwards into an alien, distressing world.

It begins with Budai on a plane journey to a linguists’ conference but, instead of landing in the country and city he expects, he arrives to find himself in completely unfamiliar surroundings; the classic stranger in a strange land. The city is  horribly overpopulated and everywhere he goes, on the streets, in a café, in his hotel, there are hordes of people jostling, struggling to get to the beginning of whatever mass group they’re in (one can hardly call them queues as most appear so arbitrary and overwhelming – like kids crowding to get onto a school bus).

To make matters worse, the language of the city/country is so truly alien, he doesn’t  recognise anything whatsoever of its etymology at all; there appears to be no discernible grammar or coherence to it; it really just appears to be gobbledegooking piffle twitter (ahem).  No one seems to engage with anyone else; in his hotel, there is nothing to face but queues and a sort of anarchic order, if that makes sense.  Without communication of any sort, where most sign and body language appears to make no sense to those with whom he makes such efforts, Budai is continually challenged to fend for himself, yet always facing what appears to be infernal defeat, alienation and incomprehension. This is an Orwellian/Dantesque hell by any other name.

It is an astonishing work of fiction, with a translation that appears seamless and reads beautifully.  Is there light for Budai at the end of the clichéd tunnel of this inferno? Ah, well; that’d be letting the meowing cliché out of the bag.  Trust me, it’s worth the read, right the way through.  The only caveat  is that there are many copy-editing/proof-reading errors, which as all readers know can jar and upset the suspension of disbelief necessary to stay fully immersed in the fiction reading process itself.  I’ve come to expect this from corporate-sized publishers who no longer have their own in-house and dedicated copy-editing and proof-reading teams, as they used to do in the 90s and before.  But I feel more chagrin when it’s a respectable indie publisher.  Perhaps this is unfair, given the size of resources available to the large publishers, compared with the indies; but surely one of the key points about being an indie is that you are so dedicated to your own list of fiction/non-fiction, that you do everything in your power to be an independent and to publish books worthy of the authors.  No?

Still, highly  recommended (as in phwor, “this is the dog’s proverbials and the bee’s knees”).  I’ve no doubt Kafka himself would have been envious of this wonderful novel or, based on his diaries and letters, would have absolutely admired Karinthy’s achievement and cheered him on as best he could.

Tours of the Black Clock by Steve Erickson – Great literary fiction

 book cover Tours of the Black Clock
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Unfair though it is, Erickson has gained only a small readership, despite achieving impressive reviews on both sides of the pond.

Sadly, Neither Erickson nor Tours of the Black Clock have ever been marketed or promoted properly, or with any real understanding, of how amazing and original a novelist he is.

Tours of the Black Clock is his third novel, and should have been the key to his literary stardom; his ‘breakout’ fiction that should have, but didn’t, take him to new and more popular heights, following his marvellous Rubican Beach and equally wonderful Days Between Stations.

Sadly, this has not been the case and his novels since, while still gaining some excellent reviews, have led him to a readership that is tiny by comparison to many other more popular contemporary literary novelists, such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Paul Auster. Tours compares favourably with any of the best of these authors and, frankly, his prose is much more intimate, graceful and moving. (FYI, a new paperback edition is quite expensive, but you can purchase it by clicking on the book cover to your left; however, if you want to buy a low-cost secondhand copy, then look no further than Bookfinder. That link is set already to search for the title and reflects results in US$ for delivery in the US; you can easily revise the search to adjust location and currency when you have allowed the site to process the initial click through.)

For Tours at least, there is no doubt that Erickson merited more serious attention as well as celebration, besides popularity. His fiction has a stark, poetic and haunting brilliance, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez at his best (Love in the Time of Cholera, The Autumn of the Patriarch) and Toni Morrison (at her most intense and richly poetic; i.e., with her novels, Beloved and The Bluest Eye). It is a fantastic, fantastical work that cannot  —  should not  — be ignored and is a wonderful alternate 20th century history that ranks with Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and easily surpasses Robert Harris’ Fatherland (Harris is great at plotting and pace, like Jeffrey Archer, but matches Archer for literary style as well; or, if that sounds rude, then how about as literary and moving as a boiled potato?).

The novel begins with Banning Jainlight, who is found dead in a boarding room, along with Dania, the obsession of his life, and Marc, their son  —  the offspring of surreality and magical realism. Dania’s and Marc’s presence acts as a sort of catalyst, enabling Banning to narrate his story and, by doing so, reveals the myriad and complex memories that connect them and shape their histories.

Banning’s life is experienced in a non-linear way; chronology and space become multi-dimensional as one memory merges with another. At the same time, his thoughts often assume a physicality, shaping the history of Dania’s life, and extending and weaving the web of characters and stories through the process of his imagination.

Without his at first realising, Banning becomes a writer of erotic, strange stories for Adolf Hitler’s consumption during WW2; stories which – unbeknownst to Banning – fuel Hitler’s megalomaniacal passions. History overturns itself, becoming a nightmarish Wonderland, and the world becomes bleak and decidedly Orwellian in this alternative reality.

The last several lines ending this tour de force are a match for (and an homage to) James Joyce’s ending in his most famous short story, The Dead (the link takes you to the complete story online), from his collection, Dubliners, when the main character Gabriel watches the snow fall.  Here’s Joyce’s, which I hope you find as moving as I did and continue to do (I never tire of re-reading the story, simply to anticipate reading this last paragraph; one of the greatest conclusions among short storytelling):

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

And I’ll just quote Erickson’s last line only— admittedly not just as a teaser, but first as proof that he does echo the sound and rhythm of Joyce’s ending:

Through the warm fog of his last breath, he watched the memories of a hundred ghosts drift skyward to finally and vainly burst.

The entire last paragraph of Erickson’s ending is brilliantly, beautifully written and moving; though you’ll just have to read it for yourself to be sure!

This is truly mesmeric modern fiction at its best. It portrays an overwhelming knot of obsessions of voyeurism, erotic desire, of the licentious nature of power unchecked, as well as the pain and anguish that make up the absurd time (black clock) that ticked away on the face of the 20th century. It is world-class literature.

Vengeance is mine. Want some? Hubert Selby’s Waiting Period

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(Please note: the only edition of this title in print is costly because it’s a hardback; however, if you want to search for a variety of options for a secondhand copy, just click on the book cover to the left.)

Hubert Selby, Jr. is one of the true masters of 20th century literature.

An uncompromising, fearless and visceral writer from the outset with Last Exit to Brooklyn, Selby’s first novel arguably remains the most controversial fiction he ever published. It caused such outrage at the time of its publication, including being banned (in the UK) and there remain readers to this day that find it difficult to stomach. With an unrelenting power it conveys the lives of his overwhelmingly desperate characters: miserable, troubled, often extremely violent, amoral, women-hating, angry, self-loathing individuals. The novel remains an existential nightmare that most contemporary fiction can’t match for its intensity and dark vision of despair. (Click here to see my review of it on this site.)

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Waiting Period focuses on the huge frustration and anger that we all feel about the ‘forces’ in our life (read: bureaucracy, government and other institutions, suffocating status quo attitudes and behaviour, endless forms to fill in, a demanded subservience to authority).

There are several powerful reasons to read this novel: Most importantly, it gives a compelling, meaningful voice for those in society whom, for one or more reasons, are disenfranchised, struggling, oppressed, exploited; for those who are most often made silent by the oppressive forces and circumstances of their lives; the vast many who feel their lives are slowly in a state of entropy; wasting away, drained, the long-term neglected under-class; society’s invisible many.

The nameless first-person narrator of the story speaks directly to you, though the stream of words inside his head — frankly, it starts as a sluggish stream, reflecting his depression and evolves – regresses? You follow his thoughts and apparent actions as if in real-time; his Dostoyevskian his trough of despair; his unbearable state of being. 

As you “listen” to him, you soon understand he represents of the invisible whose lives are seeping away into nothingness.

Frustratingly for him, he has always been a responsible citizen: he’s served the government, done his duty (he’s a war veteran) and yet his life as we ‘meet’ him is consumed with the endless arbitrage of dealing with government bureaucracy to receive benefits that are rightly his.

Humiliated by facing this Dantesque nightmare, of having been continually ignored over too much time, and feeling, in conclusion, desperately suicidal, he decides to buy a gun and kill himself.

And this is where the novel suddenly takes a dramatic turn; a wild, lusting leap into the fantasy of revenge: When he applies to buy his handgun, there’s a glitch in the computer system for vetting those who buy them and the few days it takes for him to wait for delivery makes him radically re-interpret his future actions and purpose.

He decides, instead of killing himself, he should kill at least the principal figure who controls the finances of the government administration and who, automatically, continues to deny him his rightful claims to support.  Most especially, because you are reading the novel from his deeply personal, angry viewpoint, you are left with no choice as a reader but to figure out for yourself whether what he’s thinking, says he’s going to do and does, is simply fantasy and fiction or real truth, or a strange mixture of the two.

Is he enacting these thoughts in life as some sort of retribution for the tormented misery of his otherwise plodding, passive, lonely life, or has he in reality transfigured from potential suicide to an obsessive, relentless dark angel of destruction, a slayer of the demons who have made his life – and those of others — such a misery, as he thinks further on the matter, spiralling ever downwards into a more entrenched, visceral anger.

One aspect of Selby’s genius is that he enables you to experience these violent emotions, the narrator’s depression and sense of deprivation, frustration and anxiety of a Vet, changing over time to emotions that are manifestly pure vengeance.  And all the while you’re ‘hearing’ the narrator trying, always, to rationalise his behaviour, because he is determined to do the ‘right’ thing; he has always led an ethical, morally responsible and socially conformist life. 

You ask yourself during the course of reading the novel whether or not he’s ‘only’ unhinged from his terrible depression and miserable life, or is he becoming something/someone genuinely dangerous to others, as well as himself? 

What further draws you in — and again is a quality that Selby cleverly gives his narrator, is logic: whatever he’s thinking, he seems to do so with such unerring logic; but is it logic without a heart and therefore invidious, corrupt?  Or is it a logic that stems from a clarity of truth that leads him to such a violent conclusion in terms of action he feels compelled to take?

The novel’s sheer, unrelenting intensity and power of narrative — comparable to Celine, but more visceral, I think, going far beyond the nightmare quality envisaged by that superb modernist — seems to intend to draw you only to one conclusion and this point is yet another part of Selby’s genius: helplessly, as it were, inevitably, you feel — frankly, even justifiably — you should side with the narrator as he fantasises and commits acts of — well, what should we call them as we begin to find ourselves cheering for him, wanting him to commit these acts?  Have you, as the reader, become corrupted, being inside the narrator’s mind, or are you seeing things logically?  Is he actually seeing/doing these things he thinks of?  Are they thoughts or actions of ‘justifiable homicide with mitigating circumstances’?; Death Wish-like ‘executions’?  Well, Selby so cleverly reels you in that you can’t help but feel the character is not a vigilante but doing what is right and what is justified, period. (I know, scary thought, that.)

After all, consider for a moment those whom he claims to kills or intends to kill — keeping in mind, all the while a key question: if he is indeed actually killing or intending to do so, or simply day-dreaming; the dreams of a lost soul with nothing but fantasies to live for on his sad and sorry arse. He targets the person at the Veteran Association who smugly and shamelessly continues to deny him his right to his benefits; besides the most disgusting, sulphur-stenched unrepentant racists, who joyously celebrate together as an entire town for their peers who have sadistically murdered black people; the town folk thereafter glorifying such actions by yearly family festivities, fairground rides, barbecues, beer and hotdogs included.

Click on this image to go to Selby’s official website & other great details about his books & life

This is without a doubt an amazing novel: incredibly focused, relentless, overwhelming, addictive. And it packs one helluva punch. Yet it’s also deeply moving and, as with all Selby’s lost souls who are his characters, while he never justifies their actions, he can get into their hearts and minds so you know them as if they were a part of you or vice versa.  He never judges, simply tells you the story from inside his characters’ own minds; that is his ultimate genius, because you have nowhere and no one to turn to when immersed in the reading, but your own self and perspective. 

Waiting Period is an important novel and a literary classic.  It’s a howl of despair, anxiety, alienation and frustration screamed at the powerful, the institutions and society that Celine first articulated in the 1930s onwards and whom, with Selby’s fiction, a literary heir to his legacy was realised.  But since his death, who is there now that continues such a legacy and that writes so well about the dispossessed and the lives of those who remain nameless, underground and invisible?  Please do let me now if you have any reading recommendations and/or thoughts on any of the above.