A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family (gorgeously translated by Don Bartlett) joins the pantheon of great opening lines found in literature: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.” It is, like the life of a heart, simple, and it also beats like the organ it reflects upon: aside from “simple”, it is monosyllabic and rumbles along rhythmically. It has another layer: it encapsulates in 14 words what drives the book’s momentum forward. That is, life and death. Death is part of the novel throughout. It either lurks quietly under the surface or is there at the forefront, as with this opening line, and again at the concluding passages of the novel. It is found in the title, too.

Art’s relationship with death is much documented and much thought about. It is a relationship defined by duplicity: in art, we seek to escape death, to immortalise ourselves, but we also confront it, tackle it, and, at times, attempt to make sense of it. It is here, too, where Knausgaard’s novel excels. The opening 25 pages offer a rumination on death quite unlike any I have read before. It examines a strange societal idiosyncrasy: the pervasiveness of death in our collective conscious, placed alongside the desire to dispose of dead bodies. Why, the novel asks, are we so intent on submerging dead bodies in the ground, with taking the dead out of the realm of the sensory, when we live in a time where death is all around us? There, again, is the duplicity – death is everywhere and nowhere, confronted and suppressed.

A Death in the Family not only provides an examination of such a duplicity but is itself characterised by it, because though death is wedged within the title and woven into the fabric of the book, it is also a book about a life. That is, Knausgaard’s himself. It is part novel, part memoir, part treatise on art, part philosophising on death and existence. Within its 400 pages Knausgaard details, in shifting chronological patterns, his childhood, his writing life, his familial relations. In academic circles we are desperate to separate the author and the text; by now, we are used to authors and texts complicating this relationship. The fluctuation of distance here is important, and though it is ostensibly autobiographical, Knausgaard is all too aware of the distance that is a by-product of writing.

It results in some compelling passages on writing itself: “The only thing I have learned from life is to endure it, never to question it, and to burn up the longing generated by this in writing.” This endurance troubles Knausgaard throughout. A Death in the Family is, oftentimes, a sad novel, a novel where we meet a narrator well aware of his misery and depression. He has, however, found a difficult companion in this misery, and this is writing itself:

“You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?”

It is no wonder that A Death in the Family references Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature, itself a gorgeous text that explores the weirdness of writing and its relationship with death. This reference to Blanchot and also to Jacques Derrida seems perfectly compatible. They are both theorists whose writing carries a beauty which is more novelistic than critical. A Death in the Family, meanwhile, is a novel whose level of profundity and critical parlance is much more akin to philosophy or literary theory. The formal boundary pushing of the novel is as equally impressive as the gorgeous style. It is provocative and compelling.

Knausgaard explores his life with clarity, beauty, wit, power and emotional intelligence. As the novel ends, he is confronted again with a dead body. The book comes full circle, and this circularity is apposite when set adjacent to the duplicitous relationship the text is built upon: the duplicity of death and of life and of writing and of reading. Sure enough, this is a circularity one suspects Knausgaard is well aware of. It is difficult to imagine that much escapes his genius. A Death in the Family is a masterpiece imbued with the kind of forensic, kaleidoscopic excellence that you only come across every so often. It is not only a masterpiece of literature but of autobiography, of existentialism, of human consciousness. Read it and be changed.

★★★★★

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life was probably my favourite novel of last year; vast in scope yet surgical in its precision, challenging in premise yet unrelentingly readable, it was a book that has stayed with me ever since. Adorned on the front cover of the English edition of the text is slavering praise from the Wall Street Journal, claiming that the novel “Announces Yanagihara as a major American novelist”. This is, in many ways, true: the text was shortlisted for both the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize, and received the sort of praise outlined above.

Such a claim, though, is in many ways spurious, saying so much yet very little: what on Earth constitutes a ‘major American novelist’ is open to such conjecture that the statement barely leaves the ground before it is swept away by the oncoming tide. Yet there is something discernibly fascinating about Yanagihara and the lovely limpidity of her prose, to the point where one wonders why her 2013 debut The People in the Trees did not receive the same grandiose gushing. Perhaps it is the cumulative effect of both The People in the Trees and A Little Life – that on reading both one is confronted with the fact that we are quite possibly dealing with a contemporary mistress of her craft.

Regardless, let there be no misunderstanding here: The People in the Trees is a fantastic novel, and one that possibly deserves as much recognition as its successor, albeit for very different reasons. Where A Little Life was sprawling and unsettling in its macroscopic density, its story rooted in contemporary realism, The People in the Trees operates on much less sturdy foundations: it is a novel, an (auto)biography, a memoir, an anthropological history, a scientific account and a work of fantasy. It is more than that: it is a dark and unsettling account of love, a mysterious foray into the mind of a brilliantly woven fictional creation, a fascinating examination of the science-literature dichotomy.

Yanagihara’s prowess in A Little Life was tangible in her writing of suffering, her portraiture of character and the sheer driving force of Jude’s story. Here, the markings of her excellence are altogether different at times – as implied above, it is a ceaselessly provoking manifestation of the idea of the ‘novel’, because its branches stretch across unendingly and constantly intertwine with vines of other forms. Structurally and stylistically, the novel veers from descriptive creativity to reflective memoir to scientific and academic footnotes; that it does whilst maintaining a compelling narrative is another string to its bow.

The People in the Trees is, ostensibly, the collated memoirs of Albert Norton Perina, a Nobel-Prize winning scientist who, on travelling to the (entirely fictional) land of U’ivu, discovers Serene syndrome, where the inhabitants of U’ivu can live impossibly long lives – indeed, the suspicion is that they are immortal – at a quite crucial cost: mental degradation. Though the inhabitants of U’ivu can live for decades, even centuries, such physical maintenance is offset by the gradual dysfunction of their mental capacities. “Collated memoirs” is the operative and significant phrase of that paragraph-leading sentence above: Perina’s memoirs are collected and bookended by Dr. Ronald Kubodera, a close friend and defender of Perina who also edits the memoir.

Even here, in this simple outline of the text’s conceptual ideas, one can see the complications: the interspersing of the Nobel Prize, a verifiably ‘real’ human prize, with the scientific findings based on a completely fictional island inhabited by completely fictional people who are afflicted (or, should it be, blessed?) with a completely fictional disease. The People in the Trees is not living within the same strictly realist realm that its successor text does; add to such complications the footnotes added throughout by Kubodera (again a fictive person, as with Perina), and the careful attention on language and narrative that punctures the novel, it becomes clear that the text is immediately complex from the offset.

Such complexity should not deter any prospective reader, however, because from Kubodera’s preface to the Appendix, in which a few selected U’Ivuan words are defined, The People in the Trees is characterised by a dreamy, enticing and engulfing prose. One of the ideas I have pondered aloud about on this blog before is that some of the best literature is instantly accessible whilst being immediately complex: The People in the Trees tows such a line, and it does so to great merit. The effect is that of elevation, from the prosaic to the profound. When Perina meets the anthropologist Paul Tallent for the first time, he is taken aback by how attractive Tallent is (a sensation, I am sure, that we are all familiar with):

“Beautiful people make even those of us who proudly consider ourselves unmoved by another’s appearance dumb with admiration and fear and delight, and struck by the profound, enervating awareness of how inadequate we are, how nothing, not intelligence or education or money, can usurp or overpower or deny beauty.”

Though the sentence is long and winding, this is gorgeous writing done with a crucial tinge of simplicity: as Perina delves into the terra incognita of U’ivu, his story never becomes immersed in the dense foliage he finds himself surrounded by.

Meanwhile, we are constantly on the verge of discovery during The People in the Trees: not only of Perina’s Nobel-Prize winning occupation, but also of the dark undercurrent that runs through the memoir. Perina is writing from a position of disgrace late in life, and it is predominantly through Kubodera’s insistence that he has even undertaken the writing of his memoirs. The relationship between Kubodera and Perina is a subtly and excellently executed element of the novel: Perina has been accused (and, indeed, is guilty) of some truly heinous acts, and yet Kubodera staunchly defends his old friend. This is a clever narrative conceit from the offset: though we learn of Perina’s disgrace before the commencement of his memoirs, we do so through the lens of Kubodera’s loyalty, and his defence of Perina’s virtue. Thus, we are always assessing and reassessing little snippets of the novel, especially in the knowledge of Kubodera’s editorship. Has something been omitted? Has it been collected in such a way to lend a compassion to Perina’s story?

Many questions in the novel are left open, but what Yanagihara does makes this all but inevitable, for The People in the Trees, whilst ostensibly being anchored to the world and ‘reality’ we all know, creates its own hermetic world: other (fictional) texts are cited, a whole people, place and language are significantly juxtaposed against our own notion of language and reality and mode of living. More than anything, for example, The People in the Trees might be read as a damning indictment of colonialism. It is simply a book that carries with it such complexity.

Yanagihara is 2 for 2, now: in the last 5 years she has published two novels which are remarkable for their collective and individual merits. The People in the Trees is a wonderful novel, full of richness and intrigue and mystery and emotion. It may just be that if A Little Life firmly announced Yanagihara as a “major American novelist”, The People in the Trees introduced us to a major American novelist; as begrudgingly superfluous as that phrase is. That being said, she is impossible to ignore now: so fantastic is her tiny oeuvre.

★★★★★

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño is a special writer, and that is on display sporadically in his novel By Night In Chile, which finds Father Sebastián Urrutia seemingly on his deathbed. Fevered, frenzied and scared continually by the “wizened youth” that haunts both his mind and the pages of this short text. At 144 pages long and with no denoted structure, the text in its form resembles the worried mind of a dying man; it rambles, it meanders, it changes colour and meaning constantly.

For the most part this is really enchanting – it reminded me of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz in the way its sentences moved on and on, changing emphasis, shifting the focus, constructing and destroying pattern. This is not a formatted novel, and so the quality of the writing takes on more importance, and it is exceedingly high here. The novel lacks many things – plot and tangible characters (as wonderfully realised as Urrutia is) are the two most glaring instances here – but in many ways that does not matter: the writing is simply too good in places to really care. Spending time with Urrutia and this novel’s infantile attention span is quite a strange experience at times, but what it does do is flex Bolaño’s considerable literary muscles.

Indeed, perhaps one of the virtues of this novel and the stylistic nature of the text is that it does not really need plot; there is hardly time for conceptual linearity when we’re on our deathbed, which is fair enough. By Night in Chile navigates this well, on the whole – the asides and digressions that Urrutia goes through when sporadically looking over his life are often interesting, funny and very beautiful, as when he is observing a Guatemalan painter across the room:

the Guatemalan sat down on the other chair, deliberately placed beside the only window, and while Don Salvador let time slip away sitting in the chair at the back of the room, watching the shifting landscape of his own soul, the gaunt, melancholic Guatemalan let time slip away watching the repetitive and unpredictable landscape of Paris.

There are many such sections in the novel when the writing is tinged not only with the elegiac and nostalgic frenzy that Urrutia’s narration naturally exhibits, but also with a beauty that is rarely seen in novels. That image of the “gaunt, melancholic Guatemalan” letting “time slip away”, that repeated phrase… It’s a beauteous temporality that one may expect from something like The Great Gatsby, not the man who authored a 350-page section of brutally described murders, as Bolaño does in 2666.

Time is, quite expectedly, something that the novel and Urrutia is aware of, and as with above, so below (there are so many passages in this novel worth noting):

my reputation like a sunset will contemplate through half-closed eyelids time’s little-twitch and the devastation it wreaks, time that sweeps over the parade ground like a conjectural breeze, drowning writers in its whirlpools like figures in a painting by Delville, the writers whose books I reviewed, the writers whose work I criticized…

The tragedy of time is laid bare here, easy to see, and By Night in Chile explores this gorgeously, and Chris Andrews’ translation is for the most part immensely enjoyable, especially in the joy of microcosmic phrases: “time’s little twitch”, the way it “sweeps over the parade ground like a conjectural breeze”. Time in this novel slips away, it sweeps over, it has a twitch; the movement is palpable and gorgeous and, for Urrutia, really threatening.

That second passage also brings into focus something which is evident throughout much of the novel: Bolaño in By Night in Chile continues his fascination with writing and here again we have another metafictional Bolaño novel. At the very least, Father Urrutia is a poet and critic, and he is often seen in memory rendezvousing with various members of the Chilean literary establishment. The text has a complex relationship with Chilean literature as a whole; Bolaño famously left Chile and did much of his writing outside of his native home. But this is not really an exclusive thematic trace, accessible only to those with superior knowledge of Chilean literature. As with The Savage Detectives, By Night in Chile namedrops authors and gives a sense of writers and writerly life without ever being annoying or clichéd. Metafiction is a difficult balance, and 3 novels in, I’d wager no-one walks the tightrope with more finesse and brilliance than Bolaño.

By Night in Chile is at the very least an interesting novelistic experiment, and at the very most it is a significant literary text of startling quality prose. Though its quality and attention-grabbing power undulates much in the same way its narrator does, in the hands of a wonderful writer and blessed with a truly incredible ending – so weird, haunting and uncanny – it is a novel that deserves attention.

★★★★

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Novels push us in certain directions. Perhaps sometimes we can pre-empt or predict these pushes, or at the very least anticipate a change in direction. Often great novels will challenge us, too: it may be a stylistic challenge or a thematic challenge, or simply a logistical challenge (some novels are very big). These are challenges that we respond to in different ways; we embrace them, we push them aside, we are infuriated by them (hello Herman). Ultimately, though, this is in essence one of the very core reasons that we read: there is an anticipation that comes with being pushed and being challenged.

Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives, first published in the UK in 2007 and translated by Natasha Wimmer, is such a novel: one that pushes and challenges the reader. Over the impressive and, at times, jaw-droppingly brilliant expanse of its 575 pages, The Savage Detectives is consistently looking to de-centre the reader and the story it tells, and the overall effect of this is to create a text high on quality, intrigue and intelligence.  Indeed, these features are feature we’ve come across on this blog before; Bolaño’s seminal masterpiece 2666 is continually chameleonic, and this is a Joycean virtue that Bolaño exhibits wonderfully. When you’re reading Bolaño, you’re never sure where you actually are, and you’re consistently waiting for something to change or collapse or to be constructed. Despite this awareness, both The Savage Detectives and 2666 are impossible novels to predict.

The Savage Detectives’ first section gives us access to the diary of 17 year-old Juan García Madero. Madero’s diaries chronicle his student life; ostensibly a law student at the demands of his father, Madero actually fancies himself more as a poet and a student of literature. As such, he attends poetry workshops and attempts to ingratiate himself in a group of poets called the visceral realists. Over the course of the novel, these is a fixation with this set of poets working in Latin America but finding here a hustling, bustling centre in Mexico. They are convinced of their own validity, they develop argumentative factions and are particularly scathing of Octavio Paz, the famous Nobel Prize winning Mexican poet. It is here in these early stages that the text establishes one of its foremost focuses and one it never really escapes: it is deeply fascinated by writing, and will often ruminate on the way writing works.

In this sense, we might see the first section of the novel, lasting 120 pages, as less of an incisive examination of Madero’s university life and more as an explicit exploration of what being a writer constitutes and what the doing of writing may lead to. The clues are there: “But poetry (real poetry) is like that: you can sense it, you can feel it in the air…” writes Madero in an early entry. “Poetry is more than enough for me, although sooner or later I’m bound to commit the vulgarity of writing stories” says San Epifanio, one of the many poet-writers that Madero comes across, and one cannot help but feel this is a wry self-reflexive nod on the part of the text, especially considering the novel is notable in parts for being the most autobiographical of Bolaño’s novels (as perilously loaded as that term is).

The beauty of Bolaño though is that intense focus is also remarkably allied by wide-ranging exploration, and we may also read the first section of the text as Madero’s sexual odyssey; he sleeps with numerous women over the course of the section and writes about it at length. Sex is written in such an acutely interesting way here, as it was in 2666, and again there are comparisons to be drawn. In 2666, the critics in the opening section of the novel screw on more than one occasion for “three hours”, and there is a similar numerical focus on it here: “Today Rosario and I had sex from midnight until four-thirty in the morning and I clocked her again. She came ten times, I came twice” writes Madero, and there’s an intensity of focus that is consistently surprising. Sexual scenes in The Savage Detectives are a microcosm of the text’s overall chameleonic experimentation: some are strange, some are arousing, some are unsettling.

Dominic Nozahic, sat in a small and cosy bedroom in a rented student house, Norwich, February 2016

Just as we may settle in to a routine of narrative closeness, enjoyably funny as Madero’s diary entries often are, the text changes and strips us of that privilege. Instead, the second and titular section of The Savage Detectives deals in a very different form of narration. The text’s chapters and sections are delivered in the way I have clumsily mirrored above, before chronicling in first-person some element of that person’s life.

These vary in length and subject, but in some ways it is the polar opposite of Madero’s diary entries: where Madero was giving us a day-by-day or week-by-week account, years and years take place and we are exposed to an extraordinary amount of different narratives. Madero’s diary entries are close, intimate, and personal; the snippets here range in the information they deliver, and all of a sudden we are reading a very different novel. What is most impressive about these sections are the simultaneous cohesion and disconnect it creates. There are conceptual ties that draw what seem to be interviews together – the search for Cesárea Tinajero and the interviewees’ relationship with Arturo Belano – but it is a staggeringly varied piece of literature, and one that takes up most of the book.

It does, then, raise question of narration: how close can we really be to a story? How much of can we ever really know? What becomes flagrantly clear as the novel progresses is the gaps and uncertainty that remain, in spite of the palimpsest of narratives that is built as the second section goes on. It also raises questions about time in the novel; though the interviews generally progress in a linear chronological fashion, one of the main recurring interviewees and stories is that of Amadeo Salvatierra, who is describing his experience of Cesárea Tinajero’s writing to two men who peruse his apartment and drink.

Salvatierra’s story occupies the first and last moments of the whole section, and so despite the progression of the time and the chronological expanse the novel deals with, it is also at the same time rooted in this one moment in time. It’s a glorious section of writing – experimental in the extreme, difficult and invigorating, and it mostly works. There are times the stop-start nature of the sections become ever so slightly tiresome, but when you’re as masterful a writer as Bolaño, that doesn’t matter. There are really remarkable moments of this book and a lot of them come in this section. This is particularly true when it again hones in on writing, and there is one chapter in particular in which writers share their experience of writing, and each concluding line of the interviews begins with “Everything that begins as comedy ends as…” It’s a playful exercise but one that carries with it a lovely profundity too: for all of the ideas postulated here, it’s impossible to know where any writing will end up.

The 3rd and shortest section of the novel returns to Madero’s diary and we find three of the novel’s central characters – Madero, Ulises Lima and the aforementioned Belano – on the search in Santa Teresa (a fictional city in Mexico) looking for Cesárea Tinajero. Once again the links with 2666 crop up: Santa Teresa is arguably the geographical centre of the latter novel, and it is where The Savage Detectives draws to a close. Again these sections are laced with narrative intrigue – there are diagrams and weirdly specific questions about poetic form (so specific that Lima and Belano are convinced that Madero is making up poetic terminology as he goes along… and maybe he is). It is a strange ending to the novel, but this is in keeping with what has come before it.

So we are pushed and pulled, challenged and coerced, by Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. Along the way we come across destitution, lust, love, familial discord, societal inequality and dreamily odd sections of prose (credit must go here again to Natasha Wimmer, whose translation is gorgeous in its clarity). It may not reach the dizzying heights of 2666, but what is clear when reading The Savage Detectives is that it is challenging us in the way that great novels do; and there is no doubt that in Bolaño, we are dealing with an extraordinary writer and storyteller.

★★★★★

Room by Emma Donoghue

If Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin made me incredibly sceptical (and scared) about motherhood and parenthood, perhaps Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room has the reverse effect. It is, at times, a wonderfully poignant and affecting portrait of the relationship between mother and son, and the ways in which lives are changed as a result of this bond. Though it is punctuated and characterised by a tense and painful bleakness throughout the novel, it is also one that re-affirms consistently the perpetual bond that exists between Joy and Jack, a mother and son brought together in unspeakably horrid circumstances.

Indeed, this is no ordinary mother and son relationship, coming together as they do in the midst of a desolate and scary kidnapping. This is never really fleshed out (we find out what happens, but there are no flashbacks to the moment itself, only a short retelling), but the premise becomes clear early on in the book: Room draws its title from its protagonists’ circumstance, as Joy and Jack are confined to a single room. Joy has been stuck there, kidnapped and captured, for seven years. Jack, turning 5 in the early stages of the novel, knows nothing but “Room”, as it is affectionately known to Jack, and resignedly known to Joy. Seven years previously, Joy was kidnapped by Old Nick, and the confined pair now live an incredibly basic life. They have electricity and TV and light, but their lives are also stripped bare to simplicities: they have “Sundaytreat” in which Old Nick may bring them something on request, but otherwise they have little autonomy. Having said that, this is one of the many ways in which Room shines light through what might seem an impenetrable darkness; the startling and defiant way in which Joy acclimatises to motherhood and to the things she must do to bring Jack up in any semblance of “normalcy”.

JacobTremblayBrieLarsonRoom

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson in the recent film adaptation of Room. Larson is expected to win an Oscar for her performance, having already won a Golden Globe and SAG Award. It’s a travesty Tremblay has’t been nominated himself. 

But Joy and Jack are no normal pair, and Room is no normal novel, narrated as it is by the fledging and curious Jack, a character who we become inextricably linked to as the novel progresses. Room is an impressively multi-faceted novel, offering complex and nuanced examinations of many things that its characters are faced with, but the skill with which these explorations are deployed is intensified by the fact that it is mediated by a 5 year-old’s voice. It is an incredibly different path to tread, but one the novel does wonderfully. The narrative voice in Room is perhaps its greatest joy; it is simultaneously sad, beautiful, funny and fresh. I’m in no position to comment on the supposed “authenticity” of a child’s voice that Donoghue taps in to here (I have too many friends who have studied Children’s Literature at University for me to stake any sort of claim), but in Room’s case the narrative choice has absolutely worked. Jack’s logic, his language, his perception of the world, it is all incredibly vivid and intriguing and offers moments of real narrative power.

This offers moments of humour interweaved with despair: “‘Room’s not stinky.’ I’m nearly growling. ‘It’s only stinky sometimes when you do a fart.’” It also does not an excellent job of representing the way ‘Room’ has become Jack’s only idea of existence and the world, and that shows in the tense moments of an attempted escape: “I’m not in Room. Am I still me? Moving now. I’m zooming along in the truck for real for really real.” Moments of extreme danger and pain and complexity are often offset by the funny syntax of a 5 year-old (“for real for really real”) and instead of being jarring it is actually surprising for its ability to intensify these moments.

As a result, Room also often provokes questions from readers, because Jack’s questions and observations are so simply worded so as to be positively philosophical. He hits his head and is told to be careful: “Why do persons only say that after the hurt?” He knew everything there was to know about ‘Room’ and now the wider world offers oddities: “But now I’m in the world all the time, I actually don’t know much, I’m always confused.” It is an admirable virtue of the book that it continues to ask a broad variety of questions: can we ever escape the demons of our past? How strong can a mother-son bond really be, and how far can it take them when surrounded by an infinite amount of outside influences? How adaptable are we really? Room asks questions about mental health, about the nature of storytelling (it is a crucial decision that Joy takes the decision to bring Jack up as if ‘Room’ is the whole world), about the healing (and rupturing) effect of family.

Interestingly, the book’s best section is its final one, ‘Living’, in which Jack and Joy are separated for much of it, and Jack finds himself living with his Grandma and “Steppa” (Step-Grandpa; “word salads”, as Jack calls them). It is here in which Jack’s incessantly new experience of the world results in scenes lovely and difficult, fervent and forlorn. Joy and Jack reunite, of course, for the novel’s concluding scenes; scenes which are notable for their emotion, difficulty and bravery.

In this sense, we may indeed see Room as the anti-We Need To Talk About Kevin (as indisputably brilliant as both of these novels are). About halfway through Jack reads a new book and concludes that “It’s not a very excellent book but it’s excellent to have so many new ones”, and Room ever so slightly subverts that – it is a very excellent book indeed, and it is an excellent, relatively new modern novel.

★★★★★

p.s. the film adaptation is absolutely brilliant and Jacob Tremblay in particular is stunning as Jack; thanks to a friend of mine who took me to the film and recommended the book.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vilas-Matas

So there I am, in the Norwich branch of Waterstones, experiencing that feeling that I am fairly sure most book readers feel at one time or another: “Christ, isn’t it amazing that there are so many books to read? Christ, isn’t it shit that there are so many books to read?” It is, of course, a tragic double bind, and I often feel when I am in a book shop that I am not looking for anything in particular. I either go with the very express purpose of buying a single book, or just hopelessly and hopefully wade through the shelves, reading bite-sized reviews and the occasional blurb, smiling nostalgically at covers I have already read. This is how I found Enrique Vilas-Matas’ Never Any End to Paris, a book published in 2003 and translated by Anne McLean in 2011. It was on a table of assorted books – what thematic link bringing them together escapes me now – but on its front cover read the following: “A writer who has no equal in the contemporary landscape of the Spanish novel”. This is a grandiose and alluring statement in itself (precisely the kind of statement I am prone to making on this blog), but what made it infinitely more enticing is that it was Roberto Bolaño who makes the claim. Bolaño, of course, for those who may have regularly read the blog, authored 2666, which is the best novel I have ever read. Thus, I dove in; unsure of the text’s nature, unsure of the author’s biography. I was pretty much unsure of everything about the novel.

Enrique

What a delightful discovery it was, coming as it did unexpectedly and ending up as it did a brilliant, splendid and clever novel. This is a short novel, but one that makes you excited about reading, one that makes you excited to return to the text. Indeed, reading the novel, this is the emotion it evokes most viscerally: excitement. This is a really exciting piece of literature – it is intelligent, it has depth, it is enjoyably readable and, dare I use what is admittedly a really awful word, it is also really original. In its 197 pages and its 113 chapters, I was positively and perpetually excited by Never Any End to Paris, and it was also a text that made me realise I have not felt excitement for a novel in quite some time. I descended into admiring fits of genuflection when reading 2666, I was calmly and subtly charmed by Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, I was, of course I was, stunned by The Great Gatsby’s everlasting beauty. But none of these books made me feel quite so tangibly excited; I laughed at this book, I turned the pages super quickly, yet I also tried to pause and immerse myself in every sentence.

Never Any End to Paris chronicles Vilas-Matas’ two years living in Paris between 1974 and 1976, a time of his life in which he is trying to emulate his great idol, Ernest Hemingway, and write his first novel, The Lettered Assassin. The parameters of the novel actually sets itself up as a lecture given over the course of the three days, and this is a subject of rumination for our narrator. This is a semi-autobiographical novel par excellence, and as a result it problematizes and scrutinises in great detail, with great wit and wisdom, the relationship that writing and fiction and literature has with the way we experience reality. This may even be seen as the central focus of the text: what is reality? How does storytelling change that? How do we cope with the relationship between literature and reality? In this sense it is a brilliant and ultra-accessible theoretical text as well as a novel, pausing as it does on numerous occasions to take scope of itself and assess the pitfalls and promises of writing.

I hope this does not bestow upon on the text an idea of thematic heaviness; though it is a metafictional book well aware of its own construction, this is never suffocating, and it is also a very funny text, and this is something established from the outset. Our narrator spends stubborn years fattening up to enter a Hemingway lookalike context, much to the chagrin of his wife. He even goes so far as to buy a fake beard in a final bid for authenticity. He is promptly disqualified: “they didn’t throw me out of the competition because they discovered the false beard – which they did not – but because of my ‘absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway’.” This is a novel full of flashes of comedy and ironic self-awareness; the narrator is absolutely obsessed with irony and the impact it has for the way we process our existence and our writing. Dealing with a narrator like this is an immensely rewarding experience, especially for someone who writes as well as reads, because Never Any End to Paris has a remarkable propensity for making plain and vivid those problems of composition which sometimes seem so elusive.

It is a text that dares to “lay bare the challenge of the incessant futility of words” whilst also celebrating them. It takes aim at the stereotypical pretentiousness of writing whilst also revealing the act of writing to be a wonderfully inclusive experience – anyone can read this book. With swagger, humour, simultaneous restraint and expanse, Never Any End to Paris is a novel that makes one excited and thankful for the process of reading.

★★★★★

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Kiran Desai’s 2006 Booker winning novel The Inheritance of Loss is an extraordinarily rich novel; its prose is dense and occasionally labyrinthine, as it moves between time, character and theme. As with many other contemporary novels, it chooses to centre upon individual characters in order to exemplify and explore a wider issue. Biju is an illegal immigrant in America, having left his father, the cook, back in a decrepit house in the Himalayas. The cook lives there with Judge Jemubhai Patel and Sai, Patel’s granddaughter.

The novel moves mostly between a focus on Biju’s struggle to acclimatise and make a life in America; he is surrounded and hindered by employment uncertainty, loneliness and a multitude of other Indians attempting to make a new life in America. Sai, meanwhile, is a young woman surrounded by anachronism and the nostalgia of the past; both the cook and Patel long for a different place or person throughout the novel. The house they live in, decrepit and falling apart, is subject early on to a robbery from thugs, who take the rifles that are displayed on the walls of the house. The trio’s sense of protection is gone, and the novel remains for much of its opening and middle sections teetering on the brink of crisis.

Chapters regularly alternate between the experiences of Biju (he seeks a new job; loses it; seeks a new job; loses it) and Sai, who is struggling with growing up, maintaining a secretive relationship with her tutor, Gyan, and coping with the bleak and moody nostalgia that the Judge and the cook feel. The novel is very much one of its title – all of the characters feel loss either throughout the text or at one stage or another. Desai draws this really nicely, actually – one of the novel’s strong points is the way in which it accentuates that feeling of loss, but also amplifies the multitude of ways we can experience loss.

One of the ways in which The Inheritance of Loss is able to hone in on that sense of loss, on that sense of bleakness, is through occasionally illuminating and skilful prose: “The system might be obsessed with purity, but it excelled in defining the flavour of sin” and “This was how history moved, the slow build, the quick burn, and in an incoherence, the leaping both backward and forward, swallowing the young into old hate. The space between life and death, in the end, too small to measure” are both examples of a writer who is often adept at eking out the intricacies of life and existence. At these moments, the novel is lovely.

Mostly, though, the prose is more frustrating than it is fantastic. This is not to say that it is badly written – The Inheritance of Loss is not badly written – but instead its mechanisms actually serve to build barriers as opposed to breaking them down, and it is when you start to add up its individual elements that the text becomes more and more difficult to immerse yourself within. When you ally the density of the prose with the dislocation of the characters and the switching of narration, there is a lack of closeness to the characters. As the novel draws to a close, with political tensions rising, it exhibits a surprising amount of violence (both in its regularity and intensity).

This does not feel earned; conceptual twists lose their profundity and ability to shock. Both the cook and Sai go through hardships, as does the judge, but it feels difficult to connect with their struggle. Though The Inheritance of Loss ends on a relatively positive note, it was not possible to feel a great outpouring of sympathetic relief or cathartic happiness. It is in fact a real shame; the occasional excellence of the novel glimmers hopefully, but ultimately it is a vast and difficult puzzle, and one that does not quite come together.

★★