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Posts from the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Unmapped Country

Quin unmapped

Ann Quin. The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments. And Other Stories, 2018.

“The Unmapped Country,” which is the title story from this just-released collection of writings by Ann Quin (1936-1973), might well serve as the password to all of Quin’s work. Before drowning herself in the English Channel in Brighton, Quin published four novels, three of which I have written about in the last three months (Berg, Three, and Passages). In The Unmapped Country, Jennifer Hodgson has collected Quin’s published stories and tracked down unpublished fragments from personal collections and public repositories. The result is a collection of such stylistic diversity that I can’t help but pay homage to the drive that kept Quin pushing further and further into an “unmapped country” of writing.

Written over a brief period of something like seven years, these fourteen pieces could probably pass as an anthology by several different writers. While some writers seek to find their voice, Quin seemed to have a need to explore voices. Her narrators and main characters are female, male, children, passive, angry, feminist, conservative, well off, working class. In “A Double Room,” a woman, traveling on a train with her married lover, says to herself “Already, I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might.” The male narrator of “Tripticks” tells us that his “special interests” are “living out other peoples’ fantasies,” which might be another way of saying—at least in part—what a writer does.

Quin was also a great mimic of the abbreviated and sometimes contorted fragments that pass for full sentences in our conversations. Here’s the speaker in the wonderfully titled “Motherlogue,” which gives us only one side of a telephone call between a mother and daughter:

you know Peggy who was found dead after a whole week the landlady discovered her only because of the smell coming out of the landing there she was a whole week rotting away well apparently she’s earth bound they’ve had several new lodgers in and each one hasn’t stayed long terrible things happening in the night bedclothes taken off furniture thrown about and one girl even had her nightie torn off…

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Go, Went, Gone

Go-Went-Gone

Jenny Erpenbeck. Go, Went, Gone. New Directions, 2017. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Writers of fiction (however you define it) have no obligation to make their writing relevant to the present moment; one of the great freedoms of fiction is its ability to be irrelevant, even frivolous. Still, there is a certain frisson that strikes me when a writer brilliantly encapsulates the specific now that we live in. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone does just that. It’s a book that deals with the range of conflicting emotional, political, and legal responses to the current refugee crisis. Among the many things that Erpenbeck deftly accomplishes in Go, Went, Gone is to personalize the human consequences of government policies.

“So here in room 2017, we are, so to speak, in Nigeria.” Richard has just retired from his position as a distinguished professor of classics and, out of a curiosity he can’t yet explain, he has decided to visit a former nursing home that now temporarily houses some of the refugees that have flooded into Berlin. He is being led into a roomful of Nigerians  (“There’s also a Ghana room, a Niger room, and so on.”), with whom he will sit and talk, all the while taking notes. He’s still programmed to act like a professor on a research project; he’s prepared a long list of questions to ask: “Where did you grow up? What’s your native language? What’s your religious affiliation?” But his initial conversations with some of the refugees seem inadequate, and he wishes “he knew what questions would lead to the land of beautiful answers.” Read more

Greb v. Berg

Quin Berg

In Ann Quin’s first novel, the black comedy Berg, “Alistair Berg, alias Greb, commercial traveler, seller of wigs, hair tonic, paranoid paramour” has set out to murder his father, a semi-itinerant womanizer living in a flop house with his current girlfriend Judith. Alistair’s father abandoned him at such a young age that he does not know that the young man who has moved into the adjacent room is his own son, bent on parricide. Alistair befriends the couple, then proceeds to spy on them, listening to them making love and fighting through the thin partition that separates their rooms. He slowly insinuates himself into their lives, but, when presented with several opportunities to murder Berg, Alistair falters, and in a role reversal, he suddenly becomes his father’s rescuer, more than once steering his hopelessly drunken father safely home. By the end of the novel, the hapless Alistair has displaced his father and is living with Judith. Beyond that brief plot summary, don’t ask. It’s complicated. Read more

“Disrupt the certainties”: Ann Quin’s Three

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One of the extraordinary gifts the British writer Ann Quin had was to see the real discourse going on beneath the surface of ordinary conversation, the prejudices, messages, and class distinctions encapsulated in tiny, seemingly innocuous phrases, the roiling power struggles in the daily chatter of couples. In Three, her second novel, published in 1966, a good portion of the text is devoted to the conversations that take place between Leonard and Ruth, a married couple, who are puzzling over the disappearance of a young woman—known only as S.— who rented a room from them and had become part of their family, so to speak. They suspect she has drowned by swimming too far out to sea, either recklessly or on purpose. Quin often gives us their conversations as if they were a verbatim transcript, interspersed only with brief indications of what the two are doing as they speak. These sections are written without any quotation marks or line breaks or indication of who is speaking. At first, this is likely to make the reader a little seasick until, slowly, the text begins to level out as the mind learns to sort out the dialogue.

Do you think she was in love with you I mean. . . .Good heavens what makes you say that Ruth? Well it’s conceivable after all you’re attractive lots of young girls look at you I’ve noticed and don’t pretend you hadn’t realised that. I wasn’t denying it. How long did you in fact know her Leon before—well before I met her? Can’t remember exactly came to work for me let’s see must be a year or so. Did you know she had an abort—abortion? When? Before she came here in fact that’s what she said and not the illness we were led to believe. Oh. Is that all you can say Leon? What is there to say I know you don’t agree with that sort of thing but she was a practical girl in many ways. He continued reading, turning the pages carefully over. She fell back against the pillows, stared at the folds in the curtains. More tea love?

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A Doll for Throwing

Bang Doll

“I learned to use a camera to see what I could be.”

Mary Jo Bang’s A Doll for Throwing is, among other things, a book about photography, but it is also about photographs stolen and appropriated through, shall we say, the arrogance of gender and fame. But first, about the title. It comes from a soft type of doll designed in the 1920s by the Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher. (Examples of the doll can be seen at the Bauhaus website.) The doll (or wurfpuppe in German) has a fiber body and wooden head and was meant to be safely tossed between children, but in Bang’s book it takes on an entirely different meaning.

The poems in A Doll for Throwing adopt the voice of Lucia Moholy (1894-1989), the Austrian photographer who met the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy in Berlin in 1920, during the fraught early years of the Weimar Republic. They married and two years later he became one of the legendary professors at the Bauhaus. To an extent that is not fully known, she taught him about photography and collaborated with him on works for which credit is often given only to him (including the four images reproduced on the book’s cover). They divorced in 1929 and in 1933 Lucia had to hastily flee Germany when her new lover, a prominent Communist, was arrested in their apartment. She did, however, manage to leave her negatives in the care of Moholy-Nagy. When he himself became an emigre, he turned the negatives over for safekeeping to the famous German architect and founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, who proceeded to use some of Lucia’s photographs for decades without crediting her. Once she was established in England, Lucia began a long correspondence to try to regain her negatives from Gropius. In the 1960s, she finally managed to get a limited number of them back, but by then her work had become submerged beneath the reputations of two famous men and she was nearly forgotten to history. Read more

Infinite Gradations of Mystery

Anne Michaels Gradation-001

Halfway through Anne Michael’s short, beautiful book, Infinite Gradation, we finally come across the two words that form the book’s title.

You said you wanted to keep your eyes open at the end; to miss nothing.

Four months before you died, during your last summer, you looked at the sea. For weeks, the most conscious act of looking. If you could take in that unending movement, that light, the moment water is displaced by water. You knew there was an answer there. In that infinite gradation.

Michael’s book about writing, art, memory, love, and loss is infused with death and grief on nearly every page. And yet, Infinite Gradation is a surprisingly celebratory and compassionate book. Death motivates Michaels to try to spin a fragile web of words that might help her (and us) understand the relationship between art and death. And the answer lies – as always – hidden, unspeakable, unseeable, but somehow known or felt in that “infinite gradation.” The art that Michaels writes about is not so much a product but a state of being, a way of “belonging,” an ability to participate in life using  “the most conscious act of looking.” Read more

“Unlanguagable reality”: Wolfgang Hilbig’s “Old Rendering Plant”

Hilbig Old Rendering Plant

It was the hour when some dark utterance waxed within me, needing no words, no names, no logical thoughts…a language in which the nouns lost their meaning, the language of an awareness that responded only to wordless, fleeting moments, made from the nameless sensations of the breath that quickened my blood or made it pulse more strongly.

Old Rendering Plant, Wolfgang Hilbig’s allegorical novel about East Germany and the Stasi, begins benignly with its nameless narrator recalling the times as a boy when he would explore the forest at the edge of his small town. The book opens with “I recalled a brook outside town whose current, strangely shimmering, sometimes almost milky, I once followed for miles all autumn or longer” and the boy proceeds to do what many boys have done over the ages. He explores the brook and follows it as far as a high railway embankment. He plays warrior, brandishing sabers made from sticks. He’s alert to the flora and fauna and the traces of an old watermill, hidden by dense brush and a rickety old fence. It’s a place for the imagination to roam. In the forest he sometimes experiences a sense of vertigo and “the distant, skyward-flickering din of expanding infinitude.” The forest is also the place where he starts to grasp the inadequacies of language—and the first hints that language can be dangerous. “The relevant nouns at my command proved again and again to be treacherous tools, perpetually demonstrating the impotence of all descriptions…compared to the nuances of the visible they seemed, at best, to be sketchy information.”

But the forest also has a menacing aspect. It has eyes and voices. It’s full of ruins. The river can resemble “the bluish blade of a long, straight knife.” One day he becomes aware of a stench that originates beyond the railroad embankment, a stench which, for years, he had somehow been able to ignore. But eventually he realizes it was everywhere. Malodorous smells seep up from the ground and the brook is befouled.

The smell soaked the banks and seeped under the fields; the mist over the river channel was this smell, and that mist rose from the topsoil too, infecting everything that grew in the fields, and it rose from the meadows, the grass of the paddocks smelled of the river mist’s cloying essence, the bushes on the banks thrived amid this smell, a smell of flesh…old, useless flesh.

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Ann Quin’s Passages

Quin Passages cover

“A new order of space.”

Ann Quin’s Passages (1969) is a brilliant blur of a novel. When you are done with its 112 pages, you will know you have been on breathtaking roller coaster of a journey, but you won’t know where you’ve been or remember much of what you witnessed on the way.  A man and a woman (both nameless) are traveling through some vaguely Mediterranean country. Part of the time the couple appear to be searching for the woman’s missing brother, who might already be dead. There are fleeting rumors of torture, a firing squad, detention camps, a sinister right-wing government, suggesting that they are most likely in Greece, which came under the rule of a military junta in 1967. The two suspect they are being followed. At one border crossing they are told their papers aren’t in order; a bribe is paid and suddenly they are told it’s “a case of mistaken identity, let’s say.” Read more

“Behind Every Name Is a Story”: Trieste

Behind every name is a story.

In the middle of Croatian writer Daša Drndić’s documentary novel Trieste (MacLehose Press, 2012) there is a forty-four page, double-columned list naming the 9,000 or so Jews “who were deported from Italy or killed in Italy in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945,” starting with Clemente Abeasis and ending with Jerachmil Zynger. This memorial to the murdered is followed by another, much shorter listing—complete with mini-biographies—of the more senior S.S. members of the Aktion T4 group who worked in Trieste at the notorious prison known as San Sabba, which served as a transit center to Auschwitz and other concentration camps and housed its own gas chamber.

In this novel so dedicated to documenting victims and perpetrators alike, Drndić gives us a central character who is neither and both. Haya Tedeschi was born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother in Gorizia, an Italian town near Trieste. Now in her eighties (it’s 2006), Haya spends her day sifting through a basket of photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, and magazines, the only remaining documents of her life. When the Nazis took over Gorizia in 1943 she was barely twenty and she—like the rest of her family—used her Catholic upbringing and membership in a fascist organization to be shielded from the persecution brought upon many of its Jewish residents. (Drndić’s list of murdered Jews includes more than forty people named Tedeschi, which, ironically, means German in Italian.) Haya even entered into a wartime romance with a German who already happened to have a family back in Germany, S.S. Untersturmführer Kurt Franz. This liaison led to the birth of a baby boy. But when Franz was ordered to a new post the baby boy mysteriously disappeared. Haya has spent the sixty years since then trying to find out what happened to her son. Read more

Chronicle of a Sin

The most authentic thing about you is your sin…

Great, long novels are something the reader inhabits for days, like a visit to a foreign country where the history and the customs and the social mores are different and take time to untangle. Even the sins may be different there. Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House is just such a novel. Originally published in Brazil 1959, it has finally been translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson and was issued last year by the fabulous Open Letter. It is currently the only novel by Cardoso (1912-1968) in print in English. This year it won the Best Translated Book of the Year Award for fiction.

As a family, the Meneses have seen better days and finer generations than the three brothers who live together at Chacara, the slowly rotting family estate in the rural state of Minas Gerais. Demetrio, the overly proud head of the family, is married to Ana, a drab and desperately unhappy woman. Timotéo is a cross-dressing alcoholic who rarely leaves his room. And the third brother, Valdo, upsets whatever equilibrium might have still existed at Chacara when he imports Nina, “a poisonously malevolent beauty,” from Rio De Janeiro to be his wife. The claustrophobic grounds of Chacara act like a hothouse, heating up and intensifying the emotions of its inhabitants. Read more