Thinking about Wolves

One of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had of late comes from a short book with a ridiculously long title – One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-first Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig.

The premise is a simple one – during a snow storm on the Polish-German border, a wolf is spotted heading towards Berlin. A motorist stranded in traffic takes a photo that soon goes viral. Written in a clear precise prose, reminiscent of Raymond Carver, the narrative is a patchwork of interlocking stories, the lives of characters who have seen or hear about the wolf.  This excerpt from a scene with a minor character shows the power of the narrative:

It was three o’clock in the morning when the woman on the balcony in Lychener Strasse stopped burning her mother’s diaries. She was standing in her coat and scarf on the balcony of her apartment. The two children hadn’t come back.

Then, down below, where Lychener Strasse ended abruptly with a fence, she saw a large dog, or as it seemed to her, a wolf.

Wolves in literature have had a mixed-treatment. In children’s tales, they represent evilness, consume children and grandmothers and where they are anthropomorphised, they are cunning. In other literary forms, such as Native American stories, wolves are seen as guardians, known for their loyalty to the humans, but who are ultimately savage and best kept at a distance. These characteristics have given wolves a cult status, emerging in kitsch posters and tattoos.Wolf 2

In Schimmelpfennig’s novel, which is more about people than wolves, the wolf is a solitary figure who comes into scenes of people’s lives, often at turning-points, touches them briefly and moves on. Is he a guardian? Or something that makes these characters think outside of themselves? At times, he is a camera lens of sorts, a narrator without a voice, taking the reader into the part of the story we need to discover next.

While the filmic structure of the storytelling and the appearance of the wolf lend themselves to parables, and indeed make this an enjoyable read, there is something deeper going on. That rests in the honesty of the narrator and the nature of the stories themselves – immigrants, runaways, characters broken by relationships and alcohol. To say more risks being a spoiler. I honour this short gem of a book with a short review.

Light reading

I don’t do light reading very well. I’ve preferred challenging reads with engaging characters and creative (though not purple) prose for years.  As a teenager, I once picked up an Agatha Christie novel – I still recall the cover with an old-fashioned typewriter on it – hoping that it would be as good as some of the film adaptions I had already grown to love (I was a teen after all). About five pages in, I was bored rigid. It was simply too simple – the characters two-dimensional, the language too straight forward.

That incident was followed by decades of John Updike, A.S. Byatt, William Faulkner and the occasional dip into James Joyce. Added to this were some hefty works in translation from Dostoyevsky, Fuentes and Eco, to name a few.

A glutton for punishment? Quite the opposite. There’s an intense feeling of satisfaction that comes from working to understand a text – learning new words, decrypting the symbolism – while being entertained and moved by the story.

I’ve tried to lighten up over the years. When I was in the grips of insomnia, the doctor advised some light reading before bedtime. After I explained about Agatha Christie, John Updike etc., the good doctor offered a compromise with Jane Austen – reading that for modern audiences isn’t particularly light, and with well-developed characters, but which is more-or-less predictable, especially given the umpteen screen adaptations of each novel. It did help send me off to sleep. These days, I often have a non-fiction book by my bedside, such as travel writing or memoirs, that I can read in small bits without getting hooked into a red-eyed readathon.

To add to my light-reading credentials, I’ve read a lot of Marc Levy, described by many as a light read. The French call his books ‘romans des gares,’ train station novels, or ‘airport books’ for anglophiles. Levy’s works are light, but not simplistic. There are twists and turns and interesting sympathetic characters, but his books do read like rom-coms or thrillers, often with a dose of magical realism. Fine by me. But I probably wouldn’t be reading them in their English translations. Yes, dear reader, I tackle these light reads in French, which make them not such light reads after all, especially with the profuse colloquialism in the dialogues. I guess I can’t escape a challenge after all.

Of course, what’s ‘light’ for some might be ‘serious’ reading for others. There’s an element of subjectivity to consider. Or not – why even discuss the lightness or seriousness of books? This blog is usually about politics, literature, feminism, art and society. As I’m in the middle of several academic marking assignments and writing projects, perhaps I needed to convince myself that I could still engage in light writing.

Magical Realism, Women Writers and Brexit

I was not not not going to write about Brexit this week. I started out a few days ago writing on Jesmyn Ward’s moving novel Sing Unburied Sing. This was going to be about women writers of magical realism in honour of International Women’s Day – okay, a few days late as that was 8 March, but I was in Italy, where everything runs late.

Ward’s novel is set in post-Hurricane-Katrina Mississippi and is about a culture trapped in poverty that spirals into drug abuse, violence, imprisonment and broken families brought together by older generations raising their grandchildren. This grim narrative is lifted by tender moments between the children and between the grandfather and his grandson and by the writing itself. Often poetic in its descriptions, the story abounds with metaphors that run throughout its telling. I was also carried along in what was otherwise bleak by imaginative scenes that would place this work in the category of magical realism. At least for me. I haven’t seen this novel treated as magical realism in any review.

What is magical realism then? In literature (it’s also found in other art forms) it refers to fiction that is set in the real world, but has some magical or fable-like elements to it. It differs from Sci-Fi and Fantasy by being in a highly plausible world and one that the reader recognises, such as modern-day America. The magical elements in such fiction are understood by the characters to be real – that is not in dreams or hallucinations. Some well-known examples are the novels and short stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka and Salmon Rushdie’s’ Midnight’s Children.

Any online list on authors of magical realism tends to be a rather Y-chromosome affair. The exceptions are the odd book written by women writers, such as Allende’s House of the Spirits and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. There are plenty of women writers missing from these lists, including Ursula K Le Guin, who tends to be seen only for Fantasy, and Louise Erdrich, who gets lumped into Native American Literature.

Maybe these are just categories of interest to publishers and literary scholars, and ultimately they have nothing to do with enjoying such books. I accept that view. Yet, I wonder if magical realism has become a less-used category of writing because of the way modern readers are viewing the world around them. This is where Brexit reared its head. We live in an age of alternative truths and facticide, where magical thinking has become normalised.

Perhaps there is a danger in writing about magical realism while Parliament was once again voting against the government’s proposed Brexit deal. It appears as if a recurring dream, full of fanciful ideas and characters openly contradicting themselves with speeches of the sort found in Kafka’s The Castle. But we all know that these scenes are not from dreams or hallucinations.Brexit - next steps

The DRC: Another Chapter of The Poisonwood Bible

It’s hard to follow the elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo without a sense of disbelief coupled with exasperation. As I write, voting has ended, although millions have not been allowed to vote supposedly due to security issues and another outbreak of Ebola. While the votes are being counted, amidst rumours of fraud and both main parties claiming victory, Congolese officials have shut down the internet and SMS services. I feel as though I’m still in the storyline of The Poisonwood Bible.

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel is a heart wrenching and often humorous saga about an American family whose patriarch transports his family to the Belgium Congo to convert people to Christianity. Unfortunately for them it’s 1960, when the Belgians give the Congolese their independence after more than 100 years of oppressive, exploitative colonial rule, started by the notorious King Leopold II. The Price family, already having difficulties – many self-inflicted – with living in the Congo, become entangled in the hostilities against whites, while Belgium and American companies continued to have a stronghold on the rubber plantations and diamond mines. Tensions grow within the Price family following the death of one of the daughters and for the country after President Eisenhower had the CIA assassinate the first democratically-elected prime minister. The Congo becomes Zaire and the Prices split in several directions, some returning to America, others remaining in Zaire and elsewhere in Africa. All of them scarred for life from their time in the Congo.

The engaging narrative weaves together five monologues told by the four daughters and the mother. Each passage of monologue is marked by turns of phrase and the limited wisdom and naivete of each narrator. This made me think of my childhood growing up in America when I thought that Africa was a country prefaced by the phrase ‘starving people.’  Some forty plus years later, Africa is a continent and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a country still suffering under the weight of poverty while its mineral resources are now being drained by multi-national companies for use in high-tech industries. In the intervening years and since the publication of The Poisonwood Bible in 1998, the country has been through civil wars, outbreaks of Ebola and famine and large-scale corruption, essentially giving corporate sponsorship to territorial warlords. This week’s elections marred by violence and injustice are a testament to this oppressive way of life, but also to the resilience of its people.

This week as I watched television and read the newspapers, amidst the reports from the DRC, I saw the New Year’s fireworks and festivities at the usual places – London, Paris, New York, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Dubai, Hong Kong. But not one African capital. Our media coverage of world events makes Price family members of all of us.

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Last week, I visited Berlin with the intention of, among other things, dipping into the world of Cabaret and the writings of Christopher Isherwood. This might sound odd given that Isherwood’s Berlin was during the 1930s. But I haven’t been in this city since the early 80s, when I could only go to West Berlin, and I rationalised that the present day with a reunited Berlin might appear more like the days of Weimar Germany than my last visit.

We stayed in a hotel in the former East Berlin, with its 60s and 70s austere blocks of buildings and its wide roads, intended for tanks to topple any revolution. Aside from the timeless train stations and pillar boxes covered with posters, little else felt like Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher and his Friends or those iconic scenes from Cabaret. My imagination could have filled in the gaps if I hadn’t run up against a wall – the Berlin Wall, of course.

The remnants of the wall serve as reminders of the latter half of the 20th century and fears that the cold war would escalate into a combative war, or worse still, a nuclear war. My mind shifted far from the world of seedy night clubs and Sally Bowles. I was once again tainted by living in the age of Trump. With the reign of the 45th president, literal and metaphorical walls have become pervasive. While I write this, armed guards along the US-Mexican border have started using teargas against economic migrants and asylum-seeking refugees.  These acts seem that much more ludicrous in the knowledge that illegal crossings at this border are at their lowest since they peaked in the early 2000s (Source: USGov Border Statistics).

I’m reminded of a poem I first read as a child. Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall,’ pointed to the absurdity of such walls with obvious political metaphors:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.

The physical wall that Trump is trying to build has been drummed up with the president’s usual bluster and hate-filled rhetoric. More concerning to me are those other walls being built behind the scenes and not necessarily from Trump himself, but from the far-right that supports him and have been empowered by him. Again, I return to Frost:

I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

For Germany, and more importantly for western Europe, the tale has a happy ending. Not only did the wall come down – as ideological walls inevitably do – but it also helped to nurture the peace movement that continues in many forms across Europe today. One stretch of the old wall captures this spirit with paintings and graffiti.

As I return to life in France and England, I wonder what Christopher Isherwood, who became an American citizen and died three years before the wall came down, would have thought of all of this.

To Autumn

No political metaphors here. I just wanted to say something about my favourite season. There have been many great poems in English about autumn, its imagery well exploited. Even though its symbolism has found its way into idiom – the autumn of our lives – I’m still moved by it.

Perhaps there is some nostalgia at work here. I first read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem in primary school and remember the experience largely because it was autumn at the time. It is favourite season by far. It brought words to the images I saw outside the classroom window:

Thou comest, Autumn, heralded by the rain,

With banners, by great gales incessant fanned.

At the same time it fed my escapist’s fantasies, adding scenes and aromas of a rural idyll far removed from anything I had seen in Chicago:

Thy steps are by the farmer’s prayers attended;
Like flames upon an altar shine the sheaves;
And, following thee, in thy ovation splendid,
Thine almoner, the wind, scatters the golden leaves!

At secondary school, I discovered Keats’ often quoted ‘Ode To Autumn’ (‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…’) and a glut of other writers taking up the subject – Edna St Vincent Malay, Carl Sandburg, William Blake, Katherine Mansfield, to name a few.

Contemporary poets have also borrowed from this season, either as a subject in itself or as a leitmotif. But these works appear far and few between. Is it that urban landscapes have replaced rural ones for the majority of the world’s population? Or do we comment about it more visually with computers? Instead of poetry, my Facebook friends and I have often posted photos of our gardens or nearby countryside and city parks in the autumn months.

As a short-story writer, I pay my respects to the season by having the occasional character slip on wet leaves or take in the bright red-brown spectrum of colours or inhale the scents of dried lawns and wood-burning fireplaces. As I can’t paint or draw, here I reproduce Klimt’s The Beech Forest, alongside my photos of Ely at this time year. But whatever I do, I fear it pales next to the real thing. As with my childhood, autumn still provides escape, only now I take these meditative moments to allow my brain a rest from the toxic illiberal world we live in – political, but not a metaphor.

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Greek Tragedies and Shamsie’s Home Fire

Occasionally, I plunge into a book without any foreknowledge – no reviews, no jacket blurbs (thanks to Kindle), no personal recommendations. I added Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire to my Kindle collection solely on the basis that it had won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

In brief, the story is set in Britain’s Pakistani community at a time when Britain has its first Muslim Home Secretary (the book went to press before MP Sajid Javid became Home Secretary – a fortuitous coincidence). The Secretary’s son gets involved with a young woman whose twin brother, desperate to learn about their dead jihadi father, has left the UK to join ISIS. As the narration weaves its plot, it reflects on the nature of grieving and the power of loss alongside the machinations of our 24-hour media.

When one of the principle characters dies (no spoiler here) the reaction from one of the other characters is fierce and edges on melodrama. At that point in my reading I started to think about this as a Greek tragedy. Then the unburied corpse appeared. Lightbulb – this is a retelling of Antigone. For me, this realisation happened well into the novel. That, I think, is a good sign. The story reads as something very modern and gratefully without all of the self-righteous suicides of Sophocles’ original play – apologies to classicists.

This modern-day Antigone veers from the original in several other ways, which really would be a spoiler to talk about. But I will say this, unlike other versions (Brecht, Anouilh, etc.), this one has a cracking sense of humour that I wouldn’t have expected had I been told about the book and its themes beforehand. Clever banter between the characters, especially the adult twins who jibe each other in text messages, keeps the story pacey and the tragic elements more shocking and poignant.greek tragedies 2

Of course, by reading this blog, you won’t have the same lightbulb going on in your head somewhere in the middle of the story. But in our time of online reviews, book groups and reader talk, you probably would have heard it from someone anyhow.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout

I’ve probably said too often that I prefer the Man Booker shortlist over the winner. But not for 2016. Thanks to Ely Public Library, I’ve finally caught up with the list, arriving at The Sellout by Paul Beatty. It’s brilliant social satire. The premise says it all – an African-American man becomes a slave-owner and brings back segregation in an effort to put his town back on the map.

There are many quotable passages, but I’ll just share a few: ‘They say, “pimpin’ ain’t easy.” Well, neither is slaveholdin’. Like children, dogs, dice, and overpromising politicians, and apparently prostitutes, slaves don’t do what you tell them to do.’ And ‘No one other than college hippies, Negro jubilee singers, Cubs fans and other assorted idealists knows verses two through six of “We Shall Overcome”…’ Growing up as a Chicago Cubs’ fan makes this one especially poignant. He – we never get the name of the narrator – explains the true reason why the Supreme Court doesn’t allow cameras. ‘It’s to protect the country from seeing what’s underneath Plymouth Rock. Because the Supreme Court takes out its dick and tits and decides who’s going to get fucked and who’s going to get a taste of mother’s milk.’

The novel manages references to contemporary pop culture, along side more scholarly descriptions involving, Piaget, Skinner, Goddard and Tennyson, to name a few. It’s a thoughtful read that masquerades as a page-turning comedy. One of my favourite comic novelists is Stephen Fry and, although Beatty has a more satirical edge, there are some overtones of Fry’s style and erudition in Beatty’s work.

While the comic asides fill the book, it still has solid plot and character development. It reminded me of the also marvellous BBC comedy-drama Fleabag, written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge. We see a character warts and all as they stumble through life dealing with the rawness of their sexual encounters, their awkward familial relationships and close, yet ambiguous friendships while up against a world they are constantly at odds with. Like Fleabag, The Sellout, keeps its audience aware that the protagonist is a product of our present-day society.  And like coming to the end of Fleabag, The Sellout left me wanting more.

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Carl Jung and Writing ‘New Shoes’

‘New Shoes’ began as an early chapter in my second unpublished novel, introducing my protagonist at a low point in her life. She’d been fired from her job. Aside from the humiliation of being sacked, she had to deal with the culture of unemployment – anxiety about job interviews, rejection, the loss colleagues and the worst thing of all – daytime television.

This is a story about work-related identities, a term I would use now, after about a dozen rewrites over the course of two decades. No one said writing was easy. Back when the story was a novel chapter, I thought of it as being about Jungian archetypes. I was living in Washington DC and it was the mid-nineties. In academia and new age thinking, Jungian psychology was all the rage and it found its way into literary and cultural criticism, which I was teaching at the time. And if that weren’t enough, Joseph Campbell had taken Jung and turned him into an industry through the PBS television series The Power of Myth, which of course came with a best-selling book. An offshoot of this can be found in the fiction writers’ bible The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.

‘New Shoes’ looks at changing one’s role in life and identity in Jungian terms. The visually-impaired old lady fulfils the mentor archetype. As Karena goes down her hallway looking for the old women, she comes across other archetypes and rejects them – or they reject her. The characters on the television, presented as two-dimensional, are also archetypal, pandering to an audience of types of people (rather than individuals). The somewhat open-ended conclusion stresses the importance of the process over the outcome. In Jungian-based psychotherapy, the emphasis is on the process of self-discovery, which is often aided by the analysis of dreams. Neither Karena nor the reader knows if she’s dreaming in parts of the story.

Over the years, only a couple of people who have read the story and commented on it have picked up on the Jungian references. But that’s okay. I’m reminded of the scholar who spent years analysing and writing about Shoeless Joe and its screenplay adaptation Field of Dreams, as explorations of Jungian psychology. It makes loads of sense to me with a story so obviously full of symbolism. When the scholar met the author of Shoeless Joe, W.P. Kinsella, and asked about the Jungian influences, Kinsella had no idea what the scholar was talking about.

Summer Reading 2018

If you’re expecting light-weight, page-turners for the beach, you’ve come to the wrong blogger. For reasons unknown, I like thematic and/or challenging reading over the hot months when I don’t usually have writing deadlines and my colleagues and students are on extended breaks.

A couple of years ago I had an Isherwood summer, rereading Goodbye to Berlin and reading for the first time a couple of volumes of memoirs surrounding that time period in Isherwood’s life. I escaped into that world quite easily, making it one of my more memorable reading summers.

This summer hasn’t followed a theme, but has been a time to catch up with books people have passed on to me and those Kindle books that I picked up on sale and forget that I had them. The summer started with Jonathan Franzen’s hefty novel Purity. This dark comedy is like other Franzen novels, very much a mocking reflection of our times. It interweaves seven overlapping sections of narrative into one story of surveillance culture, social media paranoia and clumsy sex. While I did internally chuckle along the way, I was uneasy at times with his often psychologically weak and yet manipulative female characters.

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After that 500+ pager, I needed a novella. Lionel Shriver’s The Standing Chandelier is an excellent study on the psychology of relationships. It stands off a plutonic friendship with a former lover against the relationship that will end up in marriage. While Shriver exercises precision in her word-choice and descriptions, I felt it was in places a bit overwritten, with too much telling analysis, rather than showing and allowing readers to draw the conclusions for themselves. But still a worthwhile and thankfully short read.

Catching-up with my booklist has meant that I’m finally reading Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. I’m not overtaken by the story-within-the-story, and since most of you have probably already read this, you’ll know what I mean. But the main story, set in the early part of summer reading 2018-3 the 20th century in Canada, is exquisitely written and fully engaging.

I confess that I read a book earlier this summer that for some might be deemed a beach read. Wendy Cope’s collection of prose, Life, Love and the Archers, can be read in bitesize segments, which I guess qualify it for the interrupted reading associated with beaches and sitting out in the garden. Like her poetry, her prose is accessible, thought-provoking and often humorous.

Another beach book of sorts on this season’s eclectic menu is Antoine Compagnon’s collection of vignettes from the 16th century philosopher Montaigne, couched in Compagnon’s historical and biographical commentary. Even the title suggests summertime beach reading – Un été avec Montaigne. That is, summer reading if you’re French. I’m having to look up the occasional modern French word and use context and basic Latin to guess some meanings of archaic terms. Language aside, it’s been interesting to learn that Montaigne was ahead of his time in being an anti-colonialist, drawing attention to the barbarism and oppression Europeans brought to Africa and the Americas. His comments on gender fluidity and hermaphroditism also read as if from a more 21st century liberal-minded time.

So, those are the highlights of the summer book reading, naturally sandwiched between newspapers, online magazines and short stories. Happy reading and stay cool (in every sense of the word).