Favourite books

THE BLUE FLOWER BY PENELOPE FITZGERALD

I grew up in a home in which a washing machine, for example, was an extravagance we could not afford. However, we did own a large selection of hardback books, which my father – perhaps in an effort to convince my mother that he was a sensitive and high-minded man – had purchased during the early stages of his marriage. Yet most of these books – including the complete works of Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, and some hefty poetry anthologies – remained untouched until I was old enough to understand that they were not simply a decorative feature. Of course, I could not make sense of the greater part of what I read, but I found comfort in emotions and situations that were alien to me and beyond my personal experience, in being able to transport myself away from my dreary surroundings. When I read, say, a poem by Dylan Thomas I felt as though he was trying to tell me something, was reaching out to me, but, at the same time, had endeavoured to make that message as beautiful or interesting as possible, like a woman putting on her best underwear before jumping into bed with her partner.

By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was writing my own poetry and short stories. I wrote terribly, of course, but it was something that I felt compelled to do. It didn’t seem strange to me then, although it does now, to express myself in words rather than with violence. My parents did not encourage me to be creative; I don’t think they even knew that I spent most of my time reading and writing. They had no expectations for me, wanted nothing for me, as far as I could tell, except that perhaps I would not ‘get into trouble’ like the majority of my contemporaries. I was fifteen when my English teacher entered a story I had written in a competition, and I won. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t attend the prize-giving. I was awkward, insular and unambitious. My father was a bed maker, my mother, when she could find work, was a cleaner or barmaid. I wasn’t ashamed of them, I was ashamed of myself. I subsequently went to college, then to university, to study English literature and Philosophy; and at each stage I felt unfit for purpose.

“But even more heavenly than the flashing stars are those infinite eyes which the night opens within us, and which see further even than the palest of those innumerable hosts.” – Novalis

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald concentrates on a few years in the life of young Fritz von Hardenberg, who later made his name as the romantic poet and philosopher Novalis. Approaching the novel, one might expect that the aim would be to show his development as an artist, and there is some of that, but what came through most clearly, and movingly, for me was a portrait of a man who is unsuited to a practical existence, and who is at odds with his most practical parents. Indeed, the Hardenbergs are said to not invite neighbours to their home, and not accept invitations, as this ‘might lead to worldliness.’ When the French revolution is reported in the newspaper the Freiherr believes the people to have gone ‘mad’ and bans the paper from the home. He is strict man who does not like new ideas, and will not tolerate frivolity in his children. Fritz’s mother, on the other hand, is described as having a ‘narrowness of mind’; she sees the disturbances in France as being ‘no more than a device to infuriate her husband.’

Yet it would be wrong to give the impression that Fritz’s parents are hard and unloving. The Freifrau is simple, yes, but she is a good, affectionate woman. She, for example, offers Fritz her bracelet – the only one she considers truly her own – from which he might fashion his engagement rings. Even his tough old father breaks down in tears after visiting his son’s sick wife-to-be and proposes to give her some of his property. The Hardenberg’s are, in fact, a happy family, who would, says Fritz, give their lives for each other. It is simply that there is a generational clash, between the parents and all their children, but which is most keenly felt in their relationship with Fritz. So while the Freiherr wants his eldest son to be educated ‘in the German manner’, to take a year of Law so as to be able to protect the family’s property, Fritz instead enrols in courses for philosophy and history. The old man expects him to begin a career as an inspector of salt mines, while the ‘dreamy, seemingly backward’ son is only really fit for being a poet and writer. The novel, therefore, is not really concerned with the creative process, but rather with how a artist responds to being raised in an environment that doesn’t nurture, or even acknowledge, his creativity.

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The Blue Flower is often described, or sold, as a love story, and yet for me his relationship with Sophie von Kuhn is simply further evidence of Fritz’s impractical, romantic nature. First of all, she is only twelve years old when they meet and so is not, and could not be, his intellectual equal; in fact, she can barely write. Moreover, she is portrayed as being somewhat uncouth, which is of course not unusual in a child. One of the central questions in the novel is, then, why does Fritz love Sophie? Certainly, it is not due to her supreme physical attractiveness, for we are given to believe that the ‘decent good-hearted saxon girl’ is very ordinary looking. Nor is the answer simply that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, as some have tritely argued. It is the case that Fritz sees in her childish ways something natural, free and easy. She represents for him, as women do for a number of men, nature, innocence, etc. She is uninhibited. The most significant moment in the novel in terms of understanding her appeal is when Erasmus asks her for a lock of her hair, and she laughs at him because, unknown to the boy, she has lost her hair due to illness. Her lack of embarrassment and ego is charming. In this way, there is a subtle change in the way that one reacts to the novel, for the real issue is not can Sophie make Fritz happy, but can he do the same for her, for she has no romantic ideals on which to build her love.

“A word of advice. If, as a young man, student, you are tormented by a desire for women, it is best to get out into the fresh air as much as possible.”

There is one other, perhaps more interesting and tragic, love story in The Blue Flower, which involves Karoline Just’s unrequited feelings for Fritz. Sophie von Kuhn dies, and this is upsetting, of course, but, as noted above, at no point did I believe that her marriage to Fritz would be a successful one. Karoline, on the other hand, is, at least on the surface, perfect for him. She is intelligent, warm-hearted, and, most crucially, believes in him and looks up to him. With her Fritz would have been happy, and yet he fails to see it. In a novel that is full of wonderful character portraits, she is, if not my favourite, then certainly the one that most moved me, for her cross is that she is not exciting enough. She is not poetry, she is not philosophy; she does not encourage romantic ideas; she is too practical, too conventional a choice for a man of genius.

NIGHTWOOD BY DJUNA BARNES

They come without being called, dog-nosing the air as though they sense a hard surface upon which they can lean or dash their heads. They claw at my heart, like a dog that has been put out for the night, with tales of infidelity, premature ejaculation, and a knife to the throat. And I sit impassively, sometimes sullenly, saying things like: ‘love means swallowing your pride and not letting the bitter taste show on your face.’ Do they believe that I can help them because I was born lost? Born lost, yes, but therefore never having known defeat. For them it is a new feeling, a new state of being, and that is why they are wild, why they writhe and howl in its strong arms. They come without being called and have their say. It is never anything I haven’t heard before. I am the defrocked priest of this parish. I am the comb they drag through their knotted hair. I tell them: read Jean Rhys. Read de Nerval. Christ, read The Daily Mail. Read Nightwood, if you must do something. Here’s your razor; here’s your rope. I cannot help you.

“I was doing well enough until you came along and kicked my stone over, and out I came, all moss and eyes.”

Of the many books that concern themselves with outcasts, with those on the periphery of life, Nightwood is the one I return to most often. Guido: a Jew, at a time – has there ever not been such a time? – when, and in a place where, to be Jewish was inadvisable. Guido: who is, by living in Europe, cut-off from his people both geographically and spiritually; and who, moreover, cannot accept himself, or perhaps dare not, and so pays ‘remorseless homage’ to a nobility that he has no genuine claim to. As does his son, Felix. With his mixed blood, he is perhaps even more rootless, more displaced, than his father. The wandering half-Jew. He is, we’re told, ‘everywhere from nowhere’. He is at odds with the world; and at home, if not at ease, only with the odd. There is something ‘missing and whole’ about him. He dresses, it is written, as though expecting to participate in a great event, and yet there is no event for which he could be said to be appropriately dressed. Even his hair, that symbol of vitality, strength and self worth, is wrong, for it starts ‘too far back’.

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As for the important others, I may deal with them later, if I can find them. Robin, however, is easier to pin down, although she flits around the margins of the story. Easier, because predictable, because like me. Which is to say that she lacks substance, lacks blood and guts. What is love, I once said, without fear? To love truly, successfully, one must be afraid; yet I am not, and nor is Robin. She is ‘fading’ and ‘noncommittal’; her attention, it is felt, has ‘already been taken’. She is easily appropriated – by Felix, by Nora, by Jenny – because she is not looking, or is looking, but somewhere far off, her eyes fixed on some nonexistent thing, on ‘something not yet in history’. Yes, Nightwood has sorrow and pain under its fingernails, nails hidden inside wet gloves. Even the minor characters, the off-cuts, the offal, are maimed: the girl with no legs who has at least a mouth to cry out her lover’s lament, Felix’s and Robin’s sickly and ‘strange’ child. Yes, all, all who are contained within the book are attired in grave weeds.

“We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality. We sleep in a long reproachful dust against ourselves. We are full to the gorge with our own names for misery. Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death. We were created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it.”

Yet they are not entirely lost; no, I wouldn’t say that. Say: avoiding themselves. Say: trying to be something they are not. Guido, remember, and Felix too, falsely lays claim to a Baronetcy. Dr. Matthew O’Connor is not really a doctor, either. And the Count? ‘Her Gott,’ said the Duchess. ‘Am I what I say? Are you?’ Everywhere there is imitation, pretence. The paintings of Guido’s parents, which show a accidental familial resemblance, are ‘reproductions of two intrepid and ancient actors.’ On Jenny’s finger hangs someone else’s marriage ring; Jenny, the ‘bold and authentic’ robber. But more than that: no one is any sole definitive thing. There is ambiguity, fluidity. Hedwig, Felix’s mother, who dies during childbirth, has ‘the masterly piano stroke of a man.’ Robin – a name suitable for both sexes, mark that – is a tall girl with the body of a boy. And O’Connor again? Misericordia.

Matthew-mighty-pinch-of-salt-O’Connor. Transvestite. Fabricator. Exaggerator. Drunk. Irish, but not really. Exile, certainly. His bearing is ‘apologetic’, ‘slouching, ‘pathetic.’ And yet he dominates the novel, with his mouth, with the ‘insistent hum’ of his words. Indeed, he acts almost as the narrator, or commentator. He sizes up, he diagnoses, he unleashes. Yes, it is fitting that he is a doctor, or a fake doctor, for Nightwood‘s losers drift towards him for advice, for commiseration, for illumination. He is the rock upon which they intend to lean, or fling themselves to weep, only to find that it is in fact made of sponge. He is necessary, O’Connor. Maddening at times, of course, though he is, he is indIspensable, for them and for us. His moments are the only moments when one isn’t kept at arm’s length, when one doesn’t feel as though one’s nose is pressed against aquarium glass, watching ugly fish swim in unclean water.

JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT BY LOUIS-FERDINAND CELINE

Here’s how it started. I didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at it funny, but 2016 took a dislike to me from the first moment. Initially, it was only small things, relatively insignificant things. A sharp whack on the head when my back was turned. A quick kick to the shins. That sort of thing. But then, with generic horror film tempo, the bad began to escalate. Every sphere of my life became compromised, to such an extent that I was actually afraid. I was spooked. I tried to flee, to another country. But that plan turned to shit too. I was on the run, while remaining stationary. By the end of the year, I expected the worst out of every situation, and I was never disappointed. So as midnight on the thirty-first of December struck, I waved 2016 away with glee; I watched it die with a sadistic smirk. Good riddance.

“The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time.”

As the new year slouched into being, one of my first acts was to pick up Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It seemed appropriate. Whenever Céline’s work is discussed, it is invariably impressed upon you how hateful and irate it is. I’ve never quite agreed with that, or certainly not in relation to the novel under review here. The chateau trilogy, which arrived at the end of his career, would perhaps fit the bill, but Céline’s debut is too literary, too controlled to deserve that description. If, for example, you compare this novel with Castle to Castle, with its torrent of ellipses, the differences are clear. That book starts with a formless, seemingly autobiographical, rant about royalties, which continues for numerous pages, with no other characters in sight. Journey, on the other hand, begins conventionally, with something of a plot, concerning Ferdinand Bardamu’s enlistment in the army. In fact, in relation to his later novels, Journey seems almost quaint, in that it delivers some fairly straightforward literary pleasures.

To say that it is relatively conventional is not, of course, the same as saying that its outlook is positive. It isn’t; Journey is unrelentingly cynical and that, I felt, would chime with my current mood. However, what struck me most vehemently this time around [I’ve read the book twice now] is how sad and moving it is. For me, it is not hate that is the dominant emotion, but fear; and, consequently, the book resonated with me in an unexpected way. Bardamu passes through four circles of hell: the army, Africa, America, and back home in France as a doctor. During all of these stages he is worried about his life, his prospects, and the state of the world; he is constantly scared of, and baffled by, the situations, and danger, that he finds himself in. Indeed, one of the things I most like about Journey, in contrast to the writers that it influenced, is that the Frenchman’s protagonist is not self-glorifying, he is always at pains to convince you of how weak and small he is. He is the archetypal rabbit in a forest teeming with wolves; and, by his own admission, he is shitting himself.

Of the four circles, the first, which takes up roughly the first 100 pages, and which deals with Bardamu’s experiences during World War 1, is the most impressive. I would, in fact, go as far as to say it is amongst the finest war-writing that I have ever read; and I have read a lot. Perhaps only the Russians, Victor Serge and Vasily Grossman, in their respective novels Unforgiving Years and Life & Fate, did an equally fine job of portraying the sheer senselessness and horror of being caught up in a military conflict. Bardamu, as the self-appointed last coward on earth, is absolutely out of his element. He cannot understand why the Germans want to kill him nor why his own countrymen want to send him to his death. Every moment for him is an effort to stay alive, to fuck fate; he is the ultimate anti-hero. At one point he even tries to get himself captured, because he sees in that the surest way of saving his skin.

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The following section of the book, featuring Bardamu’s adventures in Africa, is, I would argue, the weakest. On the surface, there is very little to distinguish it from the war section – Ferdinand is still being oppressed by others, is still scared and trying to make it through the day – but it feels somewhat derivative, or at least too obvious. Indeed, it is essentially a re-write of Heart of Darkness. The European enters colonised, inhospitable Africa, which strikes him as dangerous and alien, and goes in search of an enigmatic figure. Yet it differs from Conrad’s work in one crucial aspect, in that having already been through the war section, one understands that Céline isn’t singling Africa out, that, as far as the Frenchman is concerned, everyone everywhere is crazy and dangerous and alien, not just Africans.

However, there were, for me, too many clichés and stereotypes, even bearing in mind that Céline did in fact spend time in Africa [and so ought to be able to bring a kind of truthfulness to his fictional account of the place]. Maybe it is simply a sign of the times, or rather a sign of the prevailing attitudes of our respective times, but I was made uncomfortable by how lazy some of the descriptions and references seemed, such as frequently mentioning cannibalism, or tom-tom drums, or the mumbo-jumbo African language. Having said that, I do think it is possible to defend the book in this regard. Céline was not a subtle writer; all of his work, regardless of what subject he was dealing with, is exaggerated, all of his characters are broad. So, if there is a boss he will unfailingly be a maniacal shyster, who takes advantage of his employees; if there’s an army general he’ll be a bad tempered lunatic, intent on seeing his charges blown to bits or riddled with bullets. Céline just did not do nuanced characters; he did not do realism.

“Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself.”

In terms of influences, Céline’s writing is a mixture of Knut Hamsun [particularly Hunger] and Dostoevsky [most obviously Notes from Underground], with a little French surrealism thrown in. What came out of those influences, however, was identifiably his own. Part of that is to do with his fearlessness [ironically enough], his ability to look all kinds of misery in the face without blanching. Furthermore, his hopelessness, his despair, is more relatable for the average person. Hamsun’s and Dostoevsky’s protagonists are complicated people, and their tragedies are often on a much grander philosophical-existential-emotional scale. Ferdinand Bardamu’s concerns – lack of money, not being able to keep a woman, the misery of low-paid employment – are, on the other hand, perhaps similar to yours, especially if you are a man. What is so fascinating about his oeuvre is that Céline consistently pitches this everyman, this poor frightened bastard, into some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century…and then allows us to watch as he inevitably flounders.

THE EVENINGS BY GERARD REVE

‘The potatoes are very good,’ her mother said making prolonged eye contact with me. I looked down at my plate. The potatoes were fine, but very good seemed like an exaggeration. This thought lay wriggling on my tongue, but I managed to swallow it and instead make an unconvincing noise of agreement. ‘It’s warm in here, isn’t it?’ her father said to no one in particular. ‘It is,’ I felt compelled to reply, and immediately regretted it. Her mother pursed her lips. Should I have said that the temperature was just right? ‘But it’s nice,’ I continued after a long pause, ‘it’s just right, in fact.’ Unnerved by the silence that followed this statement I put more potato in my mouth and tried to arrange my face to give the impression that I really did think that what I was eating was very, very good indeed.

Once the last mouthful had disappeared down my throat I placed my knife and fork on my plate to indicate that I had finished. My girlfriend, whose family this was, tapped my knee affectionately. ‘Do you want some more?’ her mother said. What a question! How does one answer it correctly? ‘Do you want me to have some more?’ I imagined myself asking her. ‘No thank you,’ I said. ‘I’m full,’ I said. And I ought to have left it at that, but I couldn’t help myself; I had to justify my answer, to explain why I did not want another helping of this wonderful food, these divine potatoes; but most of all I needed to do something to put an end to the interminable, dreary small talk. ‘I used to have an eating disorder,’ I said. ‘It was quite bad. My mother threatened to have me put in hospital. I’m ok now, but I’m still not a big eater.’

“I’m only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death. Or set the house on fire. For God’s sake, let it be that. So why hasn’t it happened yet ? But let us not despair. All things come to those who wait.”

The Evenings by Gerard Kornelis van het Reve was originally published in Holland in 1947, but it wasn’t until this year, this interminable and dreary year of 2016, that an English translation became available. The novel follows Frits van Egters, a twenty-three year old Amsterdammer, through the last days of 1946, days that are, in large part, spent in dismal interaction with his parents and various acquaintances. Indeed, there is no other novel that I know of that features such relentlessly uncomfortable, strained and tedious conversations. There are any number of passages that one could pick out from the text as illustration, but one that has stuck in my mind is the discussion about the pickled herring, the stale pickled herring, that Frits’ mother is intent on serving to her family, but which they are none too keen on.

The relationship between Frits and his parents is, at least for him, one of irritation, at best, and, at worst, outright loathing. Throughout The Evenings one has not only access to the young man’s words but his thoughts also, with the two often running concurrently. So while he may engage in polite[ish] small talk, we know that what he is thinking is invariably something negative. He fixates upon his father’s warts, for example, and wonders why he doesn’t get them removed. When he does give voice to his displeasure he does so in a jocular, passive-aggressive fashion, such that it is not clear whether he is being serious or not. ‘The way you smoke is both incredibly clumsy and ridiculous,’ he says to his mother, while advising himself: ‘make it sound like I am joking.’

It would be easy to characterise Frits as a bully, and there is certainly a sadistic side to him, as evidenced by his desire to consistently highlight other people’s physical and character defects, even though he does so, as noted, in a way that means they do not often take offence. He comments upon their weak hearts; their baldness, or inevitable baldness; their heavy drinking; their unappealing children, whom, he points out, probably won’t live very long. Most mercilessly, he ridicules Maurits for his missing eye, which, he tells him, makes him unattractive to women. In this instance, more than any of the others, it appears as though it is Frits’ intention to provoke his friend into doing something drastic, into perhaps harming himself or someone else; and I think this gives an indication as to what is underlying his cruel behaviour.

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If one lives a humdrum existence, one that promises no excitement or stimulation, if your conversations are banal, and your environment is drab and wearisome, then it makes sense that one would look to enliven it all somehow, to create for yourself some of the excitement that is lacking. While it may not be a healthy way of dealing with his dissatisfaction, or boredom, one gets the impression that Frits’ provoking of Maurits is a little like poking a big, powerful dog or bungee jumping; which is to say that it is thrill seeking by virtue of dicing with danger. Likewise, when he declares that the death of a child makes him happy, he is of course trying to shock, to create a stir, to cause an outrage, because this too would be exciting, would be something different from what he experiences day-to-day, or would at least put an end to the unbearable chatter he was listening to previously.

Moreover, it is clear that Frits has mortality on his mind. The novel begins, for instance, with him dreaming about a funeral and the decomposition, the ‘thin, yellow mush’, that is the fate of us all. Indeed, this partly explains his obsession with baldness, which is most often a sign of ageing, is, you might say, a kind of decomposition or certainly malfunction of the body. The young man also frequently examines himself, at one stage checking his genitals with a shaving mirror and finding it all ‘very distasteful.’ What this focus on death and the human body suggests is that Frits is aware that he is wasting his life, that precious days are slipping away from him as he potters around doing next to nothing, besides irritating others and being irritated himself. In this way, it isn’t only his parents, his circumstances, etc, that are oppressing him, but time also.

“‘All is lost,’” he thought, ‘everything is ruined. It’s ten past three.’”

Much of what I have written so far will, I imagine, give the impression that The Evenings is a dour reading experience. Certainly it is slow-paced and bleak; and it is repetitious too, with almost all of Frits’ conversations and activities being essentially the same. What is remarkable about it, however, is that it is also very funny. In fact, the comedy is a consequence of the repetition and the bleakness. For example, the second or third time Frits highlights the impending baldness of one of his friends one might legitimately furrow one’s brow, yet you come to look forward to it, to gleefully anticipate it, the next time he runs into one of them. Likewise, when he meets someone new and one knows that he will find something, some ailment or flaw or deformity, to comment upon. Frits is a cunt, yes, but he is an amusing one, a sympathetic one even, or at least the kind of cunt that I can identify with myself.

HILL BY JEAN GIONO

It wasn’t often that I went to school, but, during my irregular appearances, I somehow managed – perhaps by virtue of having a big mouth and an even bigger chip on my shoulder – to develop a friendship with the tough kid. He was stocky and ginger, like a red brick wall, and lived out of town, on a run down farm. His attendance record was almost as sketchy as mine, only he went hunting when he skipped school and I went to the local library. Yet sometimes we would both be in lessons on the same day and we would sit together and talk about whatever young men talk about when they have nothing in common except their poverty and their anger.

Looking back, it seems strange that his interest in hunting didn’t immediately lead to hostility between us. It was almost as though I didn’t really know what hunting was. I lived on a council estate; nature was unreal to me; it floated nebulously on the periphery of my consciousness, far from my conception of the world. Then one day he brought something into school for me, a present. It was a squirrel’s tail. Only it was not a squirrel’s tail, no more than a severed hand belongs to the man from whom it was removed. It was dead matter; and it nauseated and disorientated me. For years I had witnessed human beings fighting each other, beating and abusing each other, but it hadn’t before occurred to me that this was how we treated the earth too.

“Is he directly to blame for the suffering of plants and animals? Can he not even cut down a tree without committing murder? It’s true, when he cuts down a tree, he does kill. And when he scythes, he slays. So that’s the way it is – is he killing all the time? Is he living like a gigantic, runaway barrel, levelling everything in his path?”

Hill was Jean Giono’s first novel, of something like fifty, and was published in 1929. It begins with an almost edenic description of the Bastides Blanches, where ‘bees dance around birches sticky with sap’ and ‘a fountain murmurs and overflows in two streams that plunge from a ledge and scatter into the wind.’ It is, he writes, ‘the land of the untamed’, of wild and flourishing nature. And it is the land of people also. There are white houses ‘perched like doves on the hill’s shoulder.’ In them live an isolated agricultural community, so isolated, and distant from others, that even the postman rarely visits and a doctor makes excuses not to return as the journey takes too long.

The men and women of the Bastides Blanches are often described in natural terms, giving the impression that, at least for the author, the two – humanity and the natural world – are not, or should not be, separate entities. One man has the ‘movement of a growing branch,’ another dances ‘the way marmots do’, still another is said to pant rapidly like a bird. Indeed, one of the principle characters, Gagou, is essentially an animal. He is mentally impaired, his sole form of communication being the grunting of his name. His needs are animalistic too, in that he appears only to require shelter, water and sex. Moreover, the way that he dies is, one might say, by sacrificing himself to nature, or in an attempt to become one with it, by walking into a fire.

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Yet while this united kingdom, this trinity, of people, animals, and earth is for Giono clearly the ideal, he was too smart to suggest that it is a reality. Indeed, in a significant, if perhaps somewhat heavy-handed, move the idyllic opening I touched upon earlier is violently disturbed by the introduction of a human presence, when Jaume fires a round of buckshot at a boar bathing in a spring. The truth of the matter is that the community at the Bastides Blanches are reliant upon the natural world, take from it, use it, but do not give anything back; they are, in the phoney war between the three forms of life, the aggressors, the tyrants, the exploiters.

It is Janet, the bed-bound quasi-mystic, who gives voice to this truth and others like it. He is, you might say, the community’s bad conscience. ‘The world isn’t made for you alone’, he admonishes Jaume when he seeks the old man’s advice. As the conversation unfolds, which is in fact more of a cosmic monologue, he talks about the suffering of animals, of trees, of ‘hundreds of holes in the flesh of living creatures and in living wood’ out of which ‘the blood and the sap flow over the world like a gigantic river.’ Janet is a truly memorable creation, so captivating and believable that, even in his most theatrical moments, his sermons unnerve the reader as much as the characters.

Much is made in reviews of the environmental aspect of the narrative, and yet, while the above shows that it is quite clearly there in the text, I believe that it is overplayed, or overemphasised, to the exclusion of its other noteworthy themes or qualities. I used the word ‘war’ before to describe the relationship between humanity and other forms of life, and I think there is something fascinating, and grimly amusing, about the way that we – for I don’t exclude myself from this – view inanimate objects or unconscious creatures as our enemies, as being in opposition to us. Consider for a moment the scene with the boar: Jaume, after firing at it, calls it a ‘son of a whore’ as though it had personally wronged him, as though it could understand this taunt, this insult, when of course it had not and it could not.

As the novel progresses, the characters, rattled by Janet’s ramblings and a run of bad luck, come to believe that the earth is out to get them, is bent on revenge; not figuratively, literally. If this sounds like the clever set-up of a comedy, that is because it is. There is no doubt in my mind that Giono plays for laughs, that he deliberately ramps up the absurdity. At one point, the men gather together in order to discuss their options, to make a plan, and what they decide is to go down to the woods…with their guns. Seriously. Their plan is to shoot nature, to pistol-whip the wind. They also bolt their doors; and one of them moves his bed into his mother’s room. What we see here is an exaggerated, satirical, form of the mindset outlined in the previous paragraph, which is that of imbuing the natural world with human, or even supernatural, qualities, and then pitching ourselves against it.

I would also argue, and I have already hinted at this, that Hill is a horror story. It is often said, when discussing the horror film genre, that the scariest examples are those where the ‘evil’, where the malevolent entity, remains off screen or hidden, where it is implied rather than proven by sight; and that is exactly how Giono’s novel plays out. Bad things start to happen – people fall ill, the water supply dries up, and so on – and no one can explain how or why; these events are, for the men, inexplicable, their causes unseeable, and therefore frightening. Out of this fear, a paranoia develops, and they begin to place significance in ordinary events, such as the appearance of a harmless black cat and the ‘foreign’ silence. It is telling, in this regard, that when a forest fire breaks out Jaume is relieved, because, he himself admits, he now knows what he is dealing with; this terrible something is better than a terrible nothing. Indeed, the men aren’t oppressed by a spook, they spook themselves, and Giono’s novel is, in this way, something like a Gallic, superior version of The Blair Witch Project.

THE STREET OF CROCODILES BY BRUNO SCHULZ

For years I didn’t see it, even though I was present as my mother plotted her strange course to lands known only to herself. In the forest of childhood, truths are obscured. I was alone, deep within that forest, interpreting gestures observed through the gaps between close-standing trees. I remember once inexpertly drawing the curtains together and she – my mad mother – strode into the room, as though she had sensed an impropriety and needed immediately to address it, her anger already dashing against the frail structure of her body. Without acknowledging my presence she tore at the curtains, almost pulling them to the ground. She shouted wild threats and lamentations into the air, her eyes vacant as she entered her own forest, chasing her madness like a cat would its tail.

My mother is an ill woman. Her brain is swollen with fantastical scenarios and characters; it is like a crowded prison, a prison she has been tasked with running but over which she does not have complete control. It is only at some remove, both in age and distance, that I have been able to recognise the power and range of her fevered imagination, her theatrical genius. We now see each other once a year, on Christmas day; and as that day approaches I am filled with both nostalgia and unease. Certainly, it is nostalgia, and a desire to mentally prepare myself for visiting my mother, that has motivated me to turn to the work of Bruno Schulz at this time, specifically The Street of Crocodiles.

The Street of Crocodiles [Sklepy cynamonowe; Cinnamon Shops] was the second of Schulz’s story collections, although it was published first, in 1934, with Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass seeing the light of day in 1937. It begins with August, which, although it is arguably the most beautiful story in the book, and perhaps the most well-known and well-regarded, is, at least for me, the hardest to love, even to endure. It is a kind of Schulz party piece, Schulz cranked up to ten; it contains all the recognisable elements of his style but in such a concentrated form that it is almost overbearing, almost sickly. The best way to demonstrate what I mean by this is with a quote:

“On those luminous mornings Adela returned from the market, like Pomona emerging from the flames of day, spilling from her basket the colourful beauty of the sun – the shiny pink cherries full of juice under their transparent skins, the mysterious apricots in whose golden pulp lay the core of long afternoons. And next to that pure poetry of fruit, she unloaded sides of meat with their keyboard of ribs swollen with energy and strength, and seaweeds of vegetables like dead octopuses and squids–the raw material of meals with a yet undefined taste, the vegetative and terrestrial ingredients of dinner, exuding a wild and rustic smell.”

While there is no doubt that Schulz had a talent for imagery, for large parts of August, at least in translation, he piles metaphor upon metaphor in a way that borders on the absurd. Indeed, later, in just a couple of sentences, he writes of the tangled grasses that crackle, the garden that sleeps, the field that shouts, and the crickets that scream. It’s all a bit too much, for my taste. It is as though he is at times putting on a show, a demonstration of his abilities, rather than making choices to best serve his material. And yet there is undeniably poetry on display also, certain lines or sentences when he gets it just right, such as when he writes of having ‘dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.’

However, one might justifiably argue that the lavishness, the overabundance, was entirely the point. The title is August, the height of summer, when the world is at its most abundant, most overbearing, sickly, and, yes, maybe its most absurd. In any case, the stories that follow are executed with greater restraint. As with August, they deal with the narrator’s childhood in Poland. Yet what is more important to me personally is that many of them focus on his father’s mental instability. There is so much that is recognisable, and therefore comforting, to me in the way that Schulz documents his decline and erratic behaviour. He is a man who spends ‘whole days in bed, surrounded by bottles of medicine and boxes of pills’; a man who is, at times, ‘almost insane with anger’ while, at others, he is ‘calm and composed.’

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I cannot think of another novel or collection of stories that showcases mental illness, and what it is like to live with someone breaking down in this way, so movingly and compassionately. There are strange and distressing incidents; for example, his father is said to feel the wallpaper closing in on him, to hear ‘whispers, lisping and hissing’ coming from it; and yet it was the small details, such as when he raises his eyes from his ledger and looks around ‘helplessly, as though searching for something,’ that most got to me. Moreover, although I used the phrase ‘breaking down’ there is more a sense of transformation. Indeed, twice Schulz compares him to other creatures, once a bird and once a cockroach. The cockroach incident is, in fact, the book’s most horrifying scene, as the old man lays on the floor naked ‘in the grip of the obsession of loathing,’ his movements imitating ‘the ceremonial crawl’ of the bug. ‘From that day on,’ we are told, ‘we gave Father up for lost.’

I do not, however, want to give the impression that The Street of Crocodiles is entirely downbeat and melancholy. What is remarkable about the collection, and the rest of the author’s work, is how he so consistently transforms his material, his world, our world, into something charming, extraordinary, and heroic. There are numerous examples of this one could pick out from the text, such as when he writes about the baby birds that are like a ‘dragon brood’, or the ‘intense dreams’ of the squares of brightness, and so on. In these instances he is able to imbue the mundane with drama and magic. Yet, once again, I want to return to the father, because it is in relation to him that Schulz performs his most impressive, and difficult, conjuring trick. In Tailors’ Dummies, he describes his father’s mad obsession with birds, which he kept and bred in the house, as a ‘splendid counteroffensive of fantasy’; he calls him a defender of the ’cause of poetry’, an ‘incorrigible improviser’ and, most wonderfully of all, the ‘fencing master of imagination’, which is, I believe, the most appropriate way to sum up Bruno Schulz himself.

TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE BY BOHUMIL HRABAL

This is not a love story. It was once, but my relationship with books has soured. Reading is, these days, like swallowing a cheap broth, one that contains the occasional scrap of meat, but which is, for the most part, thin, watery and bitter. Yet as a child I would avoid school and every day take myself to the local library. I would stand before the shelves in awe, almost afraid to touch, as I was so unused to things offering themselves to me. The rows seemed endless, unconquerable; and yet I perhaps now own more books than that library ever contained. I own so many; too many. But really they own me, and they oppress me. What was once my passion has become my prison. In my room I am surrounded on all sides by shaky towers of books. It is as though I am trying to wall myself in, when in fact I want to break out. I fantasise about giving them all away or creating a huge pyre and setting fire to it. Yet books, I’m told, do not burn. So picking up Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude seems, at best, like a form of masochism. Not only is it a book, but it is a book about the value of books and the pleasures of reading. The value of books and the pleasure of reading? I am convinced that one day my towers will fall and crush me. They are crushing me already, slowly but surely. Too Loud A Solitude is narrated by Haňt’a, a man who for thirty-five years has been compacting wastepaper, smearing himself with letters until, he says, he has come to resemble an encyclopaedia. As a character, he is the Hrabalian archetype, which is to say that he seems naive, perhaps at times even something of an idiot, but is, simultaneously, unassumingly, capable of great insight or displays of great intelligence. He is a man, a drunk you might say, who, for example, will sit dreaming at a bar and when he moves to open his wallet will fling upon the counter a mouse or let fall one from his trouser-leg. Yet he also quotes Nietzsche, Hegel, Rimbaud and Kant. Although lacking in formal education, Haňt’a is well read, having received an ‘unwitting education’ from the books he saves from destruction, from the jaws of his press, and takes home. In this way, I am reminded again of that child, myself as a child, standing before the seemingly endless rows of books, timidly reaching out my hand. Where would I be without the activity that I now so disparage, which gave me my own unwitting education? At least Haňt’a has the good grace to feel gratitude. He writes, lovingly, lovely lines about popping a sentence into his mouth and sucking it like a fruit drop, lines about thoughts that dissolve within him, infusing his brain and heart. Am I so bitter these days that I cannot acknowledge how beautiful that is? For Haňt’a education allows, or gives birth to, thought; without access to profound ideas, one cannot have profound ideas of one’s own; one’s brain remains foetal. Yet, for me, education was a means of escape from a situation I found intolerable, from an environment that was harmful. My mother, bless her, cried at the station as I boarded the train that was taking me away to university. She cried, I’m sure, because she understood that I had dug my way out, which is something she had once hoped for herself but never achieved; and books had been my tools, books it was that had broken the earth; without them I would have exhausted myself frantically clawing at the hard surface without making an impression. Haňt’a, however, is much less demanding of life than I was. One does not get the impression that he has ambitions to be elevated above his current station; and yet books allow him to escape too. He is so good-natured that it would be easy to take lightly how heavy-hearted a man might feel deep in a mouse-infested cellar, compacting wastepaper, day in and day out, for thirty-five years; all while living in a police-state; a police-state that doesn’t look too kindly upon books, to boot. It is no surprise, therefore, that he drinks; and it is no surprise that this underground man values, and takes pleasure in, the printed words that transport him to another, better world. Our world, Haňt’a repeatedly informs us, is not humane; and he, furthermore, provides the reader with numerous examples of this inhumanity, such as the working girls who draw the insides from still living chickens and his gypsy lover who is murdered in a concentration camp. Yes, there is a cellar-deep strain of melancholy running through the book, although it is easy to miss it, to be seduced into missing it by the soothingly good-natured, and unassuming, voice of the narrator. Indeed, Too Loud a Solitude is a book of contrasts of this sort: Haňt’a, the wise fool, the intellectual simpleton, who decorates his bails of wastepaper with art and rare books, like flowers in the barrels of guns; Haňt’a, the ‘refined butcher’, the cultured artist and the destroyer of culture. Doesn’t this topsy-turviness, this two-facedness, sum up human existence? The supreme and the inhumane, the good and the bad, love and hate, creation and destruction, suffering and joy, etc. Just look at Manka, poor Manka, the pretty girl who, when at her most divine, her most winning, twice falls foul of faeces. And Haňt’a too, who takes pride in his work – which is itself a kind of shitting, what with paper going in one end and lumpy bails coming out the other – to such an extent that he wishes to purchase his press for his retirement; Haňt’a, poor Haňt’a, who falls foul, not of faeces, but progress, inhumane progress. Ah, how beautiful the world’s hands are, but how dirty its fingernails. Bohumil Hrabal, as much as any writer, understood this; and I can’t help but love him for it, even now. So I guess that this is a love story, in the end. Yet it is the worst kind of love, the kind that flickers with life, that occasionally reminds you of what you once had, that tricks you, for a short time, into thinking that you will have it again.