Sunday, November 20, 2022
Sunday, October 09, 2022
Remote island fiction
You could imagine a particular kind writing workshop. There's an assignment: sketch out a story set on an island. Have two main characters, and a small cast of locals. The main characters go to the island, some events unfold and then they return to the mainland. End of story. It doesn't seem like much, but there's still plenty of possibility. Amy Sackville's novel Orkney and Audrey Magee's The Colony are both framed in this way, but pull in very different directions, as if to illustrate this possibility. Orkney is a tale of enchantment and loss - inward, psychologically oriented; The Colony a set piece on cultural dominance and exploitation, outward-looking, political. But first, more on similarities. Both stories are set on remote islands of what might be called the Celtic fringe of Europe. Orkney, as its title suggests is set on a Scottish island - probably Westray, whereas Magee's island is somewhere off the Irish coast. Both contain lyrical descriptions of the island seascapes in ways that thicken the narrative. Magee has one of her characters scramble 'on hands and knees along the cliff's edge to peer at caves and archways cut by the ocean' whereas Sackville's studies the 'flats and crevices between the ridges', which are 'strewn with snake-like seaweed'. And both have epigraph's by clever people that signal their orientation: Nietzsche for Magee and Cixous for Sackville. The narrator of Orkney is a professor on the brink retirement, but the island of his experience is refracted through the mysterious, almost mythical presence of his young wife and former student. The Colony dwells most consistently on the character of Mr Lloyd, the artist. Although we repeatedly see the island through Mr Lloyd's eyes there are a number of disrupting devices at work; the character JP, a French linguist studying the island variety of the Irish language, several of the islanders themselves, and the brief almost journalistic accounts of the Troubles - or to be more precise, the deaths of ordinary people caught up in sectarian violence, and these accounts are interspersed with the narrative. The plot of Orkney has none of this structural complexity, it dwells on the slightly uncomfortable Lolita-ish relationship between Richard the professor and his lover, it draws us in like an obsession or an addiction. We are hypnotised, we are enchanted, just like Richard, as slowly his young lover dissolves into pure myth. She - and we never learn her name - she seems to slowly escape his grasp, to fade away, until she finally disappears. Readers are left with the enigmatic sense of Richard's young wife and the character of Richard himself, aloof, misanthropic, obsessional, not particularly attractive, but at the end of his tether, 'I am a cancelled man. I cannot see what I should do with the days ahead; I cannot see tomorrow morning even.' It is as if he is about to be erased, too.
Reading The Colony straight after Orkney is one thing. But I wonder what it might be like to do it the other way round? Would it force a different set of comparisons? Or are they just very different kinds of writing, with different purposes, different preoccupations? I would prefer it that way, but reading both, so close together, made me wonder about the attraction of what might be thought of as remote island fiction. There are plenty of examples of it, and they're not all recent. Perhaps it's simply that a specific and circumscribed setting helps to sharpen a writer's focus. But it also seems that the symbolic separation from the mainland that the island motif provides actually offers us new perspectives on the mainland itself. The poetic, the lyrical Orkney could be read as a critique of our dull, grey conformity, the ways in which we can be trapped (is that what Richard really stands for?). The island is nothing if not beautiful, haunting and dangerous, whereas Richard's life before the island is...well, boring. Standing on The Colony we see a mainland that is deeply marked by political domination and struggle in ways that also play out in social, cultural and linguistic worlds. In Sackville, Orkney can safely remain a placemarker for the romantic imagination and folklore (that's hopeful), but Magee's island exists in a dynamic relationship with the mainland. What will become of the language, of the lives of the islanders, their creative and economic ambitions? It is a different story and it poses different sorts of questions.
Friday, August 19, 2022
Half full and half empty
The Zen that the author claims suffuses the book is hard to see amongst all this clutter. Its most overt appearance is in the figure of Aikon, the Marie Kondo like author of Tidy Magic who dispenses advice on how to fold your t-shirts and underwear. At times I longed for an Aikon editor who might clear a path for the characters and events that were building some momentum. But perhaps that's unfair. The prophetic old Zen master may be a stereotype, but he is important in his own way. And Benny's koan is the question 'What is real?' which forms an interesting counterpoint to the critique of consumerism that flavours the book. They come close to being brought together when Ozeki asks 'What gives things the power to enchant and is there a limit to the desire for more?'. To combine these thoughts with the idea that things, both made and unmade, have agency sets an almost impossible question...and if a book, too, is agentive what then? And how do you square a critique of consumerism with Benjamin's obsession with collecting books? Perhaps these are just meant as a collection of ideas to think about. All told, books and libraries have a central place in this fictional world, but there are unresolved tensions even here. Early on Ozeki observes that within this 'social hierarchy of matter, we books lived on top'. But the past tense is telling. Benji's mother, Annabelle, is laid off as media goes digital, and towards the end something similar is happening with the thinning out of library shelves. There's some print nostalgia at work here, but Ozeki is up front about this. In the end perhaps, The Book of Form and Emptiness is a timely reflection on the ways in which books shape our lives in different ways.
Sunday, March 13, 2022
Travelling with Tolstoy
Sunday, February 27, 2022
Saturday, February 05, 2022
Literacy practices in libraries
The public library was an important landmark in my childhood. It was in safe cycling distance, it was always warm, and it was the context for a ritualized, and mildly intimidating, interface with the adult world. I can clearly recall the heart-thumping point at which I would offer up my chosen books to be date stamped. I was in awe of the librarians who to my childish mind held the power to refuse me, point out my errors or even fine me. Invariably they were friendly, but they represented a powerful bureaucracy, an arm of local administration, that was strong and ought to be taken seriously. A successful visit to the library was rewarded by a subsequent rush of excitement - checking out was an experience like the end of a school day, clearing passport control or leaving a shop with just the toy you had in mind. But the pinch point at the library desk held all the power. It was the power that charged the anticipation as well as the release. The point where everything seemed to hang in the balance. With repeated visits and growing confidence I gradually became more and more interested in what happened at that point. The way in which a book's identifier - the book card, was deftly removed from a paper pouch glued to the endpapers, date stamped and then slipped with ease into my personal library card, snuggly held in alphabetical order in the custom-built wooden card index. As time went by I learnt more and more about the library system. Ways of classifying books, using card indexes and even requesting books that weren't in my particular branch. Home from my travels, in 1972, I was delighted to find that my mum had put in a request form for Herman Hesse's Magister Ludi - The Glass Bead Game. A postcard arrived at our home address on the 5th August that year with a hand franked two and half pence stamp. I know all this because the form dropped out of a book the other day. Evidently I used it as a bookmark and then forgot all about it. But the card is a fascinating record of a set of social and material literacy practices that were very much alive at the time, in libraries - and elsewhere too. The card - a reservation slip, a standard 6 x 3 inch postcard, serrated on one of its narrower edges at the point where it was detached from the counterfoil. One side with four pre-printed and indented rows of dots (for the address), the other with clearly labelled positions for the book's details - author, title, publisher and so on. The local branch name is ink-stamped on (oh, those ink stamps, so often the seals of officialdom!). All the specific details are captured in the distinctive flourish of my mother's handwriting. And one other feature that deserves a mention: two small holes and an impressed line in one corner, the scars of an earlier stapling, which tell something about a prior process of attachment. Such an efficient system, a marker of a sophisticated analogue literacy practice in its heyday, at a time when public libraries were generously funded. I could go on, but as I nostalgically turn this yellow-edged card in my hands I realise it's also charged with all those memories - returning home, my mother, reading Hesse, the smell of the public library, date stamps, stationery. It is slowly becoming other, its original and specific meaning is tucked into a card pocket in a much larger multidimensional catalogue.