Sunday, November 20, 2022

Writing migration

Helping us to reflect on our particular position in the wider sweep of social and cultural life is something that literature does well. I don't mean that all literature does or indeed should do that, but it is often the case. It was a pre-occupation of nineteenth century novelists, who often constructed dynamic localised narratives against the backdrop of social and political change. The parochial or provincial drama played out on a larger canvas. Flaubert's Madame Bovary is subtitled 'provincial lives'; Eliot's Middlemarch  'a study of provincial life'. Nowadays it doesn't get spelt out in the same way. Go, Went, Gone could be about anything, from the title, but what you get it is a chilling blast of what it might be like to be an illegal migrant in modern day Europe. Jenny Erpenbeck's novel centres on a recently retired professor and his encounters with a group of African migrants in Berlin. Pause for thought. What is it with these recently retired professor types? Is there an offer on at the Writers'R'Us character warehouse? I'd only just recently retired the recently retired professor in Orkney for heaven's sake! They're full of ideas, and good intentions, not quite sure what to do with themselves, well-read and disturbingly adrift in their cardigans. Do they themselves represent something - tell us something about ourselves, our comfortable, rational, cloistered, male ineffectiveness, perhaps? In stark contrast the migrants in Erpenbeck have each in their own way become ambiguous, hurt or in some sense erased. They live in limbo. When Erpenbeck isn't being pedagogical - feeding us snippets about sub-Saharan politics, religion, culture and conflict, she's being rather clever. The retired professor is a character formed in pre-unification Germany and this adds depth. So here, identity, nationality, and the effects of political extremism create a shadowy backdrop to the story. What's clever, is that Erpenbeck doesn't have to tell us all this, she just gestures towards it. She doesn't need to tell us because we know it. We are her readers, after all, not the migrants that she writes about. And this is the problematic bit of Go, Went, Gone - even as she is helping us to empathise with the lives, the stories and the hardships of the migrants she is objectifying them, she is othering them, at just the point at which she's trying not to. I think this is partly a structural problem. She zooms in on the main characters one by one and gives each their individual story. It's almost as if she had found a similar group of migrants and interviewed them. You end up with something like a collection of pen portraits. But Erpenbeck is too sophisticated a writer to hang her story on this alone. Richard, that's the name of our retired professor - the same as the retired professor in Orkney, unfortunately - Richard has his own story, his own suffering, and this is partially resolved towards the end of the novel in a way that the plight of the migrants isn't - and thank goodness, because that's true to life. There's also a clever metaphor at work throughout the novel - something about surfaces, and what's beneath the surface. A quote at the beginning informs us that 'surfaces were invented by the devil'. The novel ends with Richard saying 'the things I can endure are only just the surface of what I can't possibly endure'. But what exactly is it about surfaces, when staying on the surface seems so vital in some of the dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean that Erpenbeck also writes about? Go, Went, Gone will stay with me because it's a story about nationality and migration in contemporary Europe, and it's a story that should be told more often.

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

In one way or another a work of fiction is always subject to the gravitational pull of the time in which it is made. Whether we're thinking of its material form as Ozeki does, or whether we're thinking of its subject matter, shape and substance are important. A print book has a particular heft and the 550 pages of The Book of Form and Emptiness lend it a certain weight. The extent to which that weight is simply ballast could be what distinguishes good writing from the rest. The Book of Form and Emptiness faces a challenge common to much contemporary fiction that directly addresses the current milieu. To put it simply, issues like environmental catastrophe, the inequities forced on us by global capitalism and the rise of national populism do not readily present us with opportunities for resolution or narrative closure. The predominant cultural story, if it's not straightforward disaster porn, is one of unsustainability and collapse rather than one of noble decline or a utopian back-to-nature simple life. Ozeki piles on the tragedies, both personal and social. I'd not encountered the term 'psychic diversity' before, but it takes its place alongside disability, mental health issues, substance abuse and poverty. If loss and grief act as a pivot for the book, hoarding, self-harm and even gender fluidity also play a part. Nearly all the principle characters are in some way lost, confused or misguided. Exceptions are the author of the fictional book-within-a-book 'Tidy Magic', Cory the children's librarian, and the unnamed woman in the library who is always typing away on her laptop - perhaps typing the book itself. Reading all this was a lot to digest, particularly since it included the post-modern device of having the book itself addressing the characters and the reader and even reflecting on the nature of books themselves. Served up with a side dish of new materialism, there was a lot here on the agency of objects, enchantment, vibrant matter and so on - as if Ozeki had taken a crash course with Jane Bennett. As a result I could have done without the potted biography of Walter Benjamin and quotations from his essays - and the Borges garnish that was liberally applied.

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

The passenger sees the world from a particular point of view. Separate, like a spectator, a world unfolds through the frame of the window. The framed scene outside is textualized, having a cinematic quality, as the passenger moves through the world without engaging with it in any other way than simply viewing it. There is a quality to this experience that prompts reflection, and it turns up time and again in literature. Towards the end of Anna Karenina Tolstoy uses this reflective experience to conjure up Anna's troubled state of mind. He sets the scene, "Sitting in the corner of the comfortable carriage, barely rocking on its resilient springs to the quick pace of the greys, again going over the events of the last few days, under the incessant clatter of the wheels and the quickly changing impressions of the open air, Anna saw her situation quite differently from the way it had seemed to her at her home." This introduces the reader to the reflective quality. What Anna thinks and feels is interspersed with the noise and movement of the carriage and the changing scene through the window, to the "incessant clatter of the wheels" and the "quickly changing impressions" outside. Her attention is drawn to the urban environment she is moving through "...she began to read the signboards. 'Office and Warehouse. Yes, I'll tell Dolly everything..." The signboards are particularly interesting conveying a familiar modern street scene. Later, on her return journey she looks at passers-by "'This one is pleased with himself,' she thought of a fat, red-cheeked gentleman who, as he drove by in the opposite direction, took her for an acquaintance and raised a shiny hat over his bald shiny head and then realized he was mistaken, 'He thought he knew me. And he knows me as little as anyone else in the world knows me'" Anna's mental state is captured in stream-of-consciousness writing that predates Mrs Dalloway by nearly fifty years - but it is the way in which Tolstoy juxtaposes the Moscow streets with her reflections that again captivates us. "Twitkin, Coiffeur...Je me fais coiffer par Twitkin...I'll tell him when he comes,' she thought and smiled. But at the same moment she remembered that she now had no one to tell anything funny to." Anna, as passenger, reads the world outside. Her grief only hits home when she thinks that she has no-one to share it with.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Texting characters

In the study of writing we often overlook the fact that the most commonly spoken language in the world is Chinese. Using characters - a form of logographic writing, is the most obvious choice for a population of over 1.5 billion. And so associating literacy with the alphabet is both limiting and inaccurate. In fact, there is no better illustration of how political and economic power intersect with the development and propagation of writing than the character-based system of Chinese writing. The technologies of writing that developed with industrialisation from mid-nineteenth century telegraphy, the invention of the typewriter through to the personal computer have all favoured alphabetic writing. Jing Tsu's wonderful book Kingdom of Characters - A Tale of Obsession and Genius in Modern China traces the struggles of inventors and language reformers who have fought against alphabetic domination. The inequities of telegraph tariffs, the design challenge of Chinese language typewriters and the innovative development of the 'digital sinosphere' are carefully charted. Understanding that an educated Chinese speaker can recognise and reproduce somewhere between two and three thousand different characters, gives an impression of the magnitude of the challenge. The massive take up of mobile communication has resulted in a sort of compromise. It seems as if the majority now use pinyin (a modified alphabetic system) to write, supplemented by the software's predictive text which translates their message into characters. If I had one criticism of Jing Tsu's book it's that she doesn't give enough space to the complexity, innovation and variation of text messaging in Chinese - (and Japanese-) speaking communities. The prevalence of mobile instant messaging in these communities and the heavy use of WeChat and WhatsApp means that this is now an important site for semiotic work.

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. 

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Powerpoint fiction....anybody?


If you'd told me that the novel I was about to read contained over 60 pages of Powerpoint slides using some of the standard insert graphics you get, I think I'd change my mind and pick something else. Haven't we all had enough of Powerpoint? Surprisingly though, Jennifer Egan makes this device work so well in A Visit from the Goon Squad that I actually found myself really enjoying it. It's one of the many small triumphs in this Pulitzer Prize winner - a work that is packed full of insights and intrigues. I'd missed it when it won in 2011, but came to it late through the first chapter, Found Objects, which appeared as a short story in the New Yorker. It could be argued that the freestanding piece Found Objects has the edge. After all, it's tightly written and only hints at the broader landscape of events. In that sense it's more open for the reader. You can speculate all you like about Sasha, the focal character, about what is lost, found or stolen in her life and the fragmented dialogue with her therapist works very well in prompting this sort of perspective. I like the economy of the short story form for some of these reasons. I think George Saunders writes about making every word count in a short story - and that's why Found Objects works. Egan's stand alone tale raises all sorts of questions most of which are answered in the novel, so I suppose if you're the sort who hopes for some sort of closure in fiction you'd prefer A Visit from the Goon Squad; but both are very good. After several unsuccessful attempts to surf the wave of enthusiasm for Richard Powers, Egan has re-established my flagging confidence in American fiction.