Review of Shiva Rahbaran’s invaluable book of interviews, Iranian Cinema Uncensored, in Wasafiri’s summer issue 2018. Available for sale on the Wasafiri website.
Posts about reviews
“Too often, writing about Africa has been at a distance, a view to a place far away,” says Ellah Wakatama Allfrey in her introduction to Safe House, Explorations in Creative Nonfiction. She edited this non-fiction anthology to offer an alternative to the texts, often by Western journalists sent to Africa for news reports, that give the reader the facts from the point of view of an outsider. The book is a mix of themes chosen by the writers themselves and of commissioned pieces about specific subjects, such as Ebola and the lives of gay Africans…”
¡No Pasarán!: Writings from the Spanish Civil War, edited by Pete Ayrton, reviewed for the Bookbag.
“In ¡No Pasarán!: Writings from the Spanish Civil War, Pete Ayrton has chosen a majority of texts by Spanish writers, arguing that the conflict has long been written about from the point of view of the international brigades.
The anthology starts with an extract from Luis Buñuel’s autobiography, My Last Breath. The passage begins in Madrid July 1936, when Franco arrived in Spain with his troops. Madrid is under siege and Buñuel describes his shock when the revolution he had so ardently desired starts. We get an understanding of the first months of the conflict, when the Republican side was disorganised and split into factions (Communists, Socialists, anarchists and the Trotskyite group POUM). He reminds us of an often forgotten aspect of the Civil War: the revolutionary attempts by the anarchists to organise their ideal world. After persecuting and murdering priests and anyone they suspected of being powerful, they attempted to start communes and to impose free love in villages such as Calanda. Buñuel’s clear exposition is a great way to start the anthology; the reader becomes familiar with the protagonists and their rivalries and grasps the state of utter confusion created by the war. (…)”
“The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen (Vintage, £9.99) Dinah Delacroix, an elegant, whimsical woman, tracks down two childhood friends, nostalgic for their closeness at St Agatha’s, the school where they met before the First World War. It is not a touching reunion but rather a guarded one, with excellent spiky dialogue whose disjointed sentences reveal the characters’ inner worlds. Objects take on a symbolic importance and in two instances, are treated like a treasure to be hidden for future generations…
“The Road: A Story of Life & Death by Marc Isaacs (2012)
‘The Road’ in the title is the A5, which started off as a Roman trade route and joins Holyhead and Marble Arch, culminating in the Edgware Road. In this documentary, Marc Isaacs follows immigrants who have ended up somewhere along the Edgware Road. He even shows the Cricklewood Bingo hall, a dispiriting building where people flock to for company rather than just for the lure of the game. The film is poignant and the intimacy of the portraits brings to mind the work of Raymond Depardon. Showing us figures such as Buddhist monks, new and established Irish immigrants and travelers from Kashmir, this is a very multicultural film.”
“Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain begins with a beautiful sentence: ‘Here you are then, going back, the man who changed his name to escape the consequences of what he’d done.’ The themes of exile and return and the concept of identity are announced from the very start. The sentence is also notable for its particular rhythm, a slow enchanting movement which continues throughout the novel.
In a complex structure, we see Adham Jaber/Younis al-Khattat, a dissident who left the fictitious country of Hamiya twenty years before, returning as a dying man. Hamiya may well be based on Jordan, where Nasser comes from, and the city of Red and Grey probably stands for London, where he now lives. The use of these fictional names gives the novel an allegorical feel…”
“(…)Characters are sketched effectively, sometimes according to strangely corporate principles. A sign of a strong moral character is arriving to meetings on time – this is frequently referred to, and lateness is not the only failure. Adams, a man “with a full head of mostly gray hair and an aura of confidence” is “equally dismissive of people who arrived much too early. It was a sign of insecurity, which made him suspicious.” Sometimes the descriptions are nearly clichéd – an academic has a “receding hairline” and “rimless glasses”, as though chosen by the casting director of a Hollywood blockbuster. But it works, and the characters come alive as soon as they appear.
As in most Mary Higgins Clark thrillers, class features heavily and is alluded to in blatant terms. People with “impeccable backgrounds” interact with strong-willed individuals who have made it into highest ranks of society from humbler beginnings. Here, the cast features a countess with uncertain credentials, a self-made millionaire, a grocer’s daughter, a construction worker, the child of a congressman and many, many others.
The references to class would be indelicate, except that no moral judgment is made about characters relative to their background. Rather, human values are what prevail, and the narrative can sometimes show leniency towards a character with dubious ethics but guts and charm. The only unforgivable behaviour is Evil, and in Higgins Clark’s books the baddie can originate from any background. Rather, the setting of high society gives us interesting views of characters who perform, who pretend to be what they are not. In The Melody Lingers on, this impossibility of guessing who is wearing a mask keeps the reader wondering and results in a satisfying and surprising finale.
The Melody Lingers on starts more slowly than other Mary Higgins Clark thrillers but picks up and acquires an unputdownable quality half way through. The sometimes lazy writing is swept away as the vital force of the story keeps the reader glued to the page. Another compulsive read by this maestro of suspense.”
“A book about a woman from a war-shredded country, who discovers she has breast cancer… Not a bundle of laughs, one would assume. One would be wrong. Chernobyl Strawberries is, amongst other things, very funny.
Goldsworthy decided to write this memoir after her cancer diagnosis, as a record for her son. She plays on the contradictions of her life to great effect. A bourgeois from a socialist country, she doesn’t have any misery stories about Tito’s dictatorship. Indeed, she concentrates on the ridicule moments of a government in decline. The reader also witnesses the high level of education offered by the communist country. State subsidies helped poetry magazines and festivals to survive. One of the nicest things about being a poet in socialist Yugoslavia was the idea that poetry mattered, Goldsworthy observes. She was invited to read her poems in front of an audience of thirty thousand people at a commemoration for Tito, an event discreetly supervised by the police. As a student, she was also a presenter on a radio station funded by the government. These skills prove useful when she moves to London and works for the BBC.
Her early life in Belgrade is presented to us non-chronologically so that the reader constantly dips in and out of it. We get to know the young Vesna well. A confident young woman, she seems to have been successful in every ambition, while intelligent and good-looking young men courted her. The one who she finally settled on was English, and Goldsworthy moved to London.
We see her settling into her new country and the funniest moments of the book are when she contrasts her English life with the very different customs of her native country.
As a woman caught in history, Goldsworthy appears remarkably adaptable. Rather than try and influence events or engage politically, she adapts and survives with ease. She comments on the chameleon-like quality of her youth and concludes that, at forty-one, I discovered that I was no longer able to change colour at all. I stretched my white body on my big green leaf, a bald, wounded caterpillar. I was free. This journey is intelligently written. The beauty of Belgrade provides a melancholic undertone and we can only mourn, with the writer, the lost world which she conjures up.”
“How to be a Heroine is a pleasant and addictive read. Playwright Samantha Ellis looks back at her childhood as a voracious reader and remembers the characters that influenced her. These are as diverse as Sylvia Plath, Little Women and Scheherazade.
Each chapter is titled after a heroine (Anne of Green Gables, the Dolls from the Valley), in which Ellis focuses on that particular heroine and lets her thoughts seemingly drift to other characters. Some of the heroines who inspired her are young women who write, like Anne of Green Gables or Jo March. Often their writing career ends abruptly and Ellis looks for the reasons behind this. For instance, LM Montgomery, who wrote the Anne of Green Gables books, had a disappointing marriage with a man who resented her success and Ellis wonders whether this could be the reason why Anne stopped writing after getting married. This habit of standing up for her heroines, defending them against unfair treatment from their creators, makes Ellis a formidable and endearing narrator. It also shows us how characters in literature escape the confines of their books and belong to the readers rather than to their creators.
Ellis, with the experience of adulthood, revisits earlier allegiances and sometimes changes her mind about them. For instance, she had always admired Cathy in Wuthering Heights but after re-reading the book, decides she is snobbish and too dramatic. Is Jane Eyre, with her calm intelligence, a better role model?
Ellis’s style is clear and frequently amusing. At one point, she wonders what Lizzie Bennett from Pride and Prejudice would have made of the Twilight series. She also looks at her heroines in the setting of their times; while Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice navigates the rules of Regency society, the women in Shakespeare refuse to play the game and instead break the rules.
Ellis allows her life to shine through until she becomes as familiar as one of the heroines. It is an interesting life; the daughter of Iraqi Jewish immigrants, she is expected to marry a man from the small pool of Iraqi Jews, a fate she rebels against. She becomes a playwright after going to Cambridge and trying out different career paths that distract her from her vocation.
These glimpses into the author’s life are fascinating. In the chapter about the women in The Valley of the Dolls, she describes her time working as an editor for a vanity press, proof-reading novels from deluded writers in which the characters change sex midway through. The description of the office and of her colleagues is precise and vivid and the publishing house comes to life in a few lines. The young Ellis’s fears are also relatable to: if these bad writers are convinced they are good, how can she be sure that she herself can write? Luckily, she has now more than answered that question.”
Here are the Young Men by Rob Doyle, an exciting first novel set in Dublin.
“Here are the Young Men surges forward, oozing edginess, from the very first sentence. Is that a bad thing? Probably not. It just means that readers may at times slip out of the story, feel themselves taking a step back and admiring the spare coolness of the novel before easing back into the narrative.
The characters, teenage boys who are awaiting the results of their Leaving Cert, feel alienated. They take drugs and walk the streets of Dublin during the Celtic Tiger boom years. The novel shines an interesting light on this recent period in Ireland’s history. In fact, viewing it from a teenage perspective is effective – everyone else seems gripped by the country’s newly found riches, living the moment and unable to see its negative aspects. The city’s wealth is obvious, flaunted in the trendy haircut of a young woman or in the impregnable gates encircling Bono’s mansion. In contrast, the young men’s dejection and aimlessness make them seem wiser than their countrymen…”
Honeyville by Daisy Waugh.
“Honeyville is like a glass of champagne: light, sparkling and impossible to put down. Daisy Waugh excels at immersing the reader in a historical era, a skill she has displayed before in Last Dance with Valentino and the Melting the Snow on Hester Street.
The story is told by Dora Whitworth, a call girl in one of the most exclusive brothels in Trinidad, Colorado. At the time, the town was the only place in the West where prostitution was legal and it was infamous for its red-light district. Dora’s voice rings true and her life is convincingly described. The sumptuous brothel in Plum Street, with its smells of perfume and disinfectant, is as claustrophobic as a prison and Phoebe, the madam, particularly chilling.
Dora becomes friends with Inez, a younger woman from a wealthy local family. The friendship would be unlikely in normal circumstances. The town is owned by men and they’ve managed to keep their women separate, with the marrying type living alongside the ‘fallen women’ but both sets divided by an invisible barrier. But this is the start of tumultuous times. The union is urging the miners to strike, pitting them against the mining company and the town’s rich owners. Lawlessness takes over. This will result in the Ludlow massacre of 1914, the tragedy which inspired the novel.
There is something thrilling about novels set amid traumatic historic moments. Graham Greene did it and so did Ronan Bennett in The Catastrophist, in which Patrice Lumumba’s Congo is the backdrop to a hopeless love story. It should be wrong to use history in such a way but nothing beats the atmosphere it creates or the political and ideological questions which arise as a result. Waugh, in an after note, says she was annoyed at how biased journalist Max Eastman was when reporting from Trinidad (Eastman plays an important role in the novel, too). A socialist, he denounced Trinidad’s elite for its attitude to the miners. Waugh’s own belief that things are never as black and white comes across in her narrative.
Also, placing characters in such troubled times enables the writer to reveal unexpected facets of their personalities as they react to extraordinary events. Here, the story rests on a strong cast of characters. Each has a set of qualities and foibles which brings them vividly alive. Dora is a worldly narrator. Hers has been a hard life but she is neither petty nor bitter; she appears to be de-sensitised and it is a pleasure to witness her starting to feel again as a result of her new friendship.
Indeed, friendship is an important theme in Honeyville – the meeting between the two women is shown as a precious, fragile occurrence. Love, or lust, on the other hand, is depicted as an overwhelming force, impossible to resist. The sexual chemistry between the exquisite Inez and tough union man Lawrence O’Neill jumps out of the page and makes the ensuing mystery all the more credible. The plot, spanning twenty years, is both subtle and solid and readers will be rewarded with a satisfying ending.“
“(…)It raises so many issues, both political and economic, caused by the dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea, that it attracts attention for its scope alone. The story transcends the small island and its protagonists. It is the classic and ever tragic tale of a wealthy and repressive elite keeping its subjects in poverty and isolation.
It is the perfectly pitched tone, however, and the simplicity of the recounting that make it a truly polished work. The writer has excised anger and moralising from his writing and his craft is neatly at work in the background, leaving the illusion of a story that weaves itself as it goes along. The result is a luminous tapestry of people reacting in different ways to the assaults of natural catastrophes, accidents and economic hardship.
This is the first book by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel to have been translated into English. Jethro Soutar has done an exquisite job, in particular in rendering the rhythm of the writing. It is to be hoped that he will also translate the author’s other works. ”
Clara’s Daughter, in the short space of 144 pages, paints the portrait of the relationships threatening to destroy a family unit. The intensity is conveyed with sharp stabs from Ziervogel’s spare sentences.
Michele’s mother Clara can no longer live on her own. Should she be put into a home, as Jim, Michele’s husband, insists on? Or should she move into Michele’s basement? Filial love doesn’t seem to play a part in the ultimate decision. Concerns over the inheritance on the part of Hilary, Michele’s emotionally manipulative sister, and Michele’s own guilt are the driving forces. The daughters are caught up in the demanding routines of busy lives, leaving little time to analyse and feel. Clara is more clear-eyed. In her role of matriarch, she will eventually see the extent of the unfolding tragedy much more accurately than the others do. The pain this causes her will jolt her out of her own dejection.
We feel sorry for Michele, who is a bound by her unemotional personality (a ‘cold fish’, in the words of her mother). But Clara is the most tragic character. A complex woman, mother of two middle-aged daughters, she’s always been defined in relation to them. Yet when she works at her pottery, we get a feeling of a potential misused talent, of a yearning to do other things. But Clara finds it impossible to escape domesticity and after a promising sculpture of a mother and daughter, spends years making indifferent vases. The symbolism of the mother/daughter sculpture is potent. It looms over the book. Is it Clara’s best sculpture because its subject was so important to her? Michele is aware of the honour of receiving the statuette as a gift, but her husband scoffs at it.
Jim is described as ‘accommodating’ yet it is his intransigence, brought on by an untimely middle-aged crisis, which endangers the couple’s relationship. His character is subtly drawn, even though his reactions are no different to those of similar men, in similar novels and films. In such a situation, the range of gestures available to people is limited, especially in the setting of an upper middle class Hampstead household. But the force that drives him, the final, mulish single-mindedness, we recognise as one of the tragic masculine waves capable of destroying everything before them. The area of the potential disaster is small – a comfortable family in North London – yet Ziervogel’s talent means the reader cares about the outcome of the drama. She uses flashbacks of the couple’s warm embraces to precisely convey how harmonious their marriage used to be. She circles the defining incident between them with these flashbacks and with leaps forward in time. This structure works well; it feels like the autopsy of a network of family relationships, with the writer as a highly skilled pathologist and the readers as mesmerized medical students.
A derelict mental hospital, gloomy railway arches, the bleak countryside of the English coast. It all comes at us in grey flashes. If Wreaking was a film, it would saturated with cool tones. It’s an easy novel to visualise: Scudamore’s spare, elegant style creates an almost palpable atmosphere.
The main characters, Jasper Scriven and his daughter Cleo, are estranged. Their difficult relationship is based on painful past events, which for most of the book we can only guess at. Their attempts at communication have us holding our breaths. Indeed, the intricacies of the father-daughter relation are the most gripping elements of this novel. Each tentative telephone conversation is like a battle between them. There are no screaming rows but silence proves to be as important as words and is certainly more threatening. It is easy to relate to both characters. Both are loners; they have a self-sufficiency which is close to harshness yet is laced with vulnerability. But it’s Cleo who we fear for during the phone conversations and during the flashbacks to the past.
The flashbacks take us to Wreaking, the derelict psychiatric hospital which Scriven bought when Cleo was a child and where he continues his reclusive existence. Roland and Oliver, who were teenage friends of Cleo’s when she lived at Wreaking, were also affected by events there.
In particular, Roland, a hulking man who works for seedy characters in a labyrinth of railways arches, is still haunted by what happened. We follow him around the rainy London streets, tortured by his thoughts and uncomfortable in his large body. In fact the other characters are constantly aware of their bodies too – Scriven needs an oxygen mask to breathe and Cleo often fiddles with her glass eye.
If the bodies cause discomfort, mental health looms large over the characters, which is unsurprising in a novel featuring an old psychiatric hospital. As the story unveils in complex layers, we realise that nothing is definite. Sanity, memory and identity prove unstable. The structure of the novel, told in a mix of flashbacks and of present and past tenses, mirrors this (…)
“The cover of the 1966 Panther edition of Juan Goytisolo’s The Party’s Over, has a woman lying on the sand, eyelashes spiky with mascara, her head resting on a naked man’s chest. I wonder how successful the publisher’s attempt to pass Goytisolo’s collection of four stories as a steamy summer read was. The book, subtitled Four Attempts to Define a Love Story, is far subtler than the cover infers. I read it in Spanish when I was a teenager, having discovered Goytisolo through his novel Duelo en el Paraiso, set during the Spanish civil war.(…)”
“Because of the subtitle, we read the book with love in mind, yet it proves elusive. The question, for the characters and for the reader, might be: what love is possible in these conditions? We are left with the sense that it is ethereal. These four variations on the theme manage to draw its outline, nothing more. It is striking that the ingredients of lust are ever present, seemingly fulfilling the promise of the garish book cover. Lust permeates the book: it’s in Loles’s young body, in the muscular arms of a fisherman, in the low-cut blouse of a Portuguese tourist. But it is a hopeless lust; those who satiate it end up discontented. It does not signal love, nor does love grow from it. When the characters were twenty, their mutual attraction might have been the start of something, but now they know better.(…)”
There is never any end to Paris. The sentence pops up, hypnotic, through most of the book. At times ironic, thoughtful or questioning, it is a quote from Hemingway’s novel, A Moveable Feast, in which the American author looked back at his days in Paris, where he was ‘very poor and very happy.’ The narrator of Never Any End to Paris tells us that when he lived in Paris, he was ‘very poor and very unhappy.’
The narrator is based on Enrique Vila-Matas and he presents the book as a three-day lecture on Irony. Irony, indeed, is the book’s central theme. The narrator quotes other writers on the subject. Sometimes the definitions contradict one another. Or rather, each one illuminates a new facet of irony. Often, it seems to be used as a way of trying to apprehend reality. The narrator’s own definition, in the context of a book that goes through so much, is vivid: he prefers irony ‘that vacillates between desperation and hope.’
Vila-Matas has described Never Any End to Paris as a parody of a bildungsroman. The narrator sounds a lot like Vila-Matas – the title of the novel he’s writing is ‘The Lettered Assassin (Vila-Matas’ novel La asesina ilustrada, is in fact his second novel but was written in Paris). The Paris he describes is a hyper-charged concentrated extract of literary life. The narrator is friendly with exiles, transvestites, writers and poets. He hangs around at the Café de Flore and prestigious literary figures are never far away. One day, when he’s walking in the street, a car screeches to a halt. In it, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers and Marcelin Pleynet on their way to China. At a party, the narrator meets the beautiful actress Isabelle Adjani. He will use her eyes, turned towards him in murderous disdain, as those of the killer in his first novel.
The book that he’s writing progresses and matches the novel’s narrative arc. The narrator has decided to write a book that will kill those who read it and his apprenticeship is keenly portrayed. The narrator’s younger self, a pretentious young man who smokes a pipe and likes to be seen at café terraces pretending to read profound books, is certain that he wants to be a writer. As he has no idea how to go about it, he goes around collecting advice. He acquires a sense of irony and tentatively builds up experience as he writes, often lonely and desperately poor in the garret he rents from Marguerite Duras.
Although the books proffers to be a lecture and ambles off in different directions, much like a man reminiscing about his past then remembering to pick up the threads of the lecture about irony, Paris and Hemingway, it seems to be built according to a remarkable structure. Like in a piece of contemporary music, the repeated use of similar sentences creates different tunes. At one point, each paragraph begins with ‘I went to the cinema a lot,’ expanding on the idea until it has been explored in full. It is rhythmic and riveting. Then the narrator jumps to Hemingway’s liberation of the bar of the Ritz hotel, then to Franco’s death.
Never Any End to Paris is a delightful novel, both a homage to Hemingway and the lively tale of a literary apprenticeship in what was, in the 1970s, the centre of the literary world.
Adnan’s Mahmutović’s How to Fare Well and Stay Fair and Tadeusz Różewicz’s Mother Departs are books by two Eastern European writers at opposite ends of their careers.
Mahmutović is a young writer, born in 1974, who moved to Sweden in 1993 as a refugee from the Bosnian war. His short story collection is predominantly concerned with home, or rather the homelessness of refugees and their unsettled identity. This concept permeates the collection yet is treated with level-headed subtlety. Mahmutović excels at getting his ideas across by involving the reader in the daily lives of his characters.
The title story gives us a darkly ironic overview of the experiences of a refugee. Set like a ‘how to’ guide, it takes us through the lives of people who fled Bosnia. It covers everything from the horrible to the routine. (…)
If one didn’t know of Angela Thirkell’s distinguished background as a granddaughter of Sir Edward Burne-Jones and daughter of a classicist, it would be tempting to describe her as a kind of country cousin of P.G. Wodehouse’s. An unaffected and intelligent one, whose humour is less sophisticated but bubbles over with just as much glee. The middle-class world she has created, where young men come from families that are comfortably wealthy rather than outrageously so, offers a counterpoint to the Mitford or Wodehouse worlds with their aristocratic characters who travel the world and mingle with more louche, bohemian ones.
There is no bohemia in ‘Summer Half. It tells of Colin Keith, a university graduate who is supposed to be training for the bar but decides to take a teaching job at Southbridge school instead. He’s spurred on by a sense that at his age, he should be earning his keep. He feels both heroic and dejected by his decision; how will he fare, faced with a classroom full of bright, sarcastic boys? The adventures that follow make for an excellent comic novel inhabited by teachers, pupils and Colin’s family members.
The environment is typical middle England, with a gentle suspicion of anyone who stands out too much. Two men are described as having ‘middle’ political opinions. Indeed, throughout the book, the characters who come out best are the commonsensical ones who hold no extremes of political or personal views. The atmosphere brings to mind the Twins at St Clare’s series by Enid Blyton, in which people are good sports, where vanity and affectation are relentlessly bulldozed over by timely doses of ridicule.
For instance Rose Birkett, the vain and feather-headed daughter of the headmaster, is far too pretty; such prettiness is suspicious and comes out a loser when compared to the unselfconscious sartorial disorder of Colin’s young sister Lydia. Thirkell opposes Rose, a delightful apparition in ‘pale pink organdie,’ to Lydia, who was sitting on the ground, her feet straight out in front of her, her face, neck, arms and legs bright red, and her hair tied back with an old tie of Swan’s that she had borrowed.
Less suspect than beautiful Rose is Kate, Colin’s other sister, a practical young woman. Thirkell pokes kindly at her obsession with sewing people’s buttons on for them, darning socks or and worrying about navy thread having been used instead of black.
In one funny passage, well-bred Kate tries to make polite conversation with Philip Winter, a communist teacher who is in a bad mood because he’s in love with flirtatious Rose. He replies with sour rejoinders about poor people ‘in the depressed areas’ and the evils of fascism, much to Kate’s bewilderment. A general conversation ensues; other people butt in, good old common sense wins out and Philip is made to look pretentious.
In such scenes, Thirkell’s exquisite observations skills are apparent. Out of a deceptively simple mix of people she creates conflict to great comic effect. The characters are multi-layered and yanked in different directions by their moods and internal worries, just as people are in real life. And Thirkell displays subtlety in the development of her characters; they evolve realistically, learn from each other and avoid becoming caricatures.
The setting of a school, its rituals and daily life, is entertaining and informative to a contemporary reader. Teachers and pupils alike show a deep passion for literature. Their lively discussions offer a respite from the intrigues and crossed lovers’ quid pro quos . As young Colin hesitates between his law studies and his school-teaching job, we get an insight into what the two different careers would mean, both socially and intellectually.
This portrait of parochial England in the 1930s is enlightening and charming. It is striking to be reminded of the impending war (the book was first published in 1937). When Rose comes back from an outing with two admirers, they describe the man in a black shirt they saw outside the cinema. Fairweather Junior says: It was a man selling little books. One of those blackshirt fellows, you know, like Puss in Boots in a polo jersey. I don’t know why, but it was awfully funny. Lord! It was funny!
The blackshirts are treated with derision. Lydia adds that no one knows who they are; they are ‘seedy’ whereas the communists, like Philip, are people you meet having tea at people’s houses:
I’ll tell you another funny thing about these blackshirts, said Lydia. No one knows who they are, or where they go. I mean, have you ever seen one, except standing on the pavement in waders, looking a bit seedy?
Such historical nuggets add to the interest of Summer Half. Virago is reprinting Thirkell’s books, with three coming out this May, for which readers will be thankful. The writer’s ability to create a fully formed world peopled with attaching characters should ensure her success lives on.
Reading letters by writers affords a particular pleasure. They give us access to the functioning of a writer’s mind when it’s somewhere between work and rest. Sometimes they reveal secrets, offer startling revelations about their writers and insights about the times they lived in. Here and Now, an exchange of letters between J M Coetzee and Paul Auster between 2008 and 2011, describes itself as ‘an epistolary dialogue between two great writers who became great friends.’
Accordingly, the theme of friendship runs through the book. It is at first theoretical as Coetzee, in his first letter, reflects on its enigmatic nature. As the correspondence goes on, the men’s friendship cements, helped along by face-to-face meetings all over the world.
The book is understated and thoughtful, led by Coetzee’s observations and questions and Auster’s attempts to answer them. The exchanges show us two curious people intent on understanding things as varied as sport on TV and the 2008 financial crash.
There are interesting insights. Auster is bewildered by a set of coincidences. Coetzee shows exquisite self-awareness when he tells of his inability to remember anything distinct about his travels, wondering why all he picks up are signs that tell me that life is the same everywhere in the world, rather than signs of the distinctiveness of every tiny part of creation?
As the book progresses and the reader gets attuned to the writers’ voices, it takes on a hypnotic rhythm, with references to sports becoming a friendly leitmotiv. By the end of it you feel like you’ve spent time with two intelligent friends.
However, these letters, riveting as they are, seem to be the result of an experiment rather than respond to a need. Now that letters are an optional mode of communication, they have lost their vital nature. When you hear about letter-writing nowadays, it is often preceded by the words ‘death of.’ This means that such an exchange can seem contrived, especially as the letters are devoid of personal revelations or strong opinions about contemporary writers. The writers remain composed throughout and the enjoyment in reading these letters comes from the intellectual exchanges.
Of course, the loss of letter writing is to be lamented and in a way this collection reminds us of what we have lost. It shows us just how important writing was in building a rapport between two people. Letters used to be the only way in which friends living far away from each other could communicate. Everyone got a chance to experience the particular alchemy that happens when you express a thought or describe an event, however minute, in writing. As Paul Auster says, soldiers from the American Civil War used to write better letters than many English professors do now.
So yes, a delightful journey in the company of Coetzee and Auster, but a peaceful rather than a startling one. The tone is never urgent. When the writers discuss the financial crisis or foreign affairs, it is not with an ardent desire to solve these things. Does this stem from the place of the writer in our society, no longer as ‘engagé,’ or from the fact that the two men have reached a placid stage in their life and writing? They are after all established writers, approaching the third stage of a life in art brilliantly described by Coetzee in one of his letters.