Saturday, 29 June 2013

Touch me with your cold hard fingers: Elizabeth Stott

Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers

by Elizabeth Stott

published by Nightjar Press

It takes skill to create a sense of unease, to permeate the everyday with the surreal, but that’s what Elizabeth Stott has done with this story, published as a chapbook this month by Nightjar Press.

Nightjar has been issuing chapbooks for a while now, curated by Nicholas Royle, the editor of the Best British Book of Short Stories 2013, pub by Salt.  A novelist himself, and a lecturer at Manchester Uni’s Creative Writing department, he has the knack of recognising a good story and a good story-teller.

This one concerns a woman who thinks she has found her soul-mate - a very private, rather secretive man who has finally given her the key to his flat - the first woman to be given that honour.  But, visiting his flat for their usual Saturday night meal together, she finds someone, or something, else in her place.

Elizabeth Stott is a skilled author of short fiction She is a scientiest as well as an author and she admits to having a dark sense of humour.   Elizabeth captures exactly the quiet horror of what begins to unfold.  The prose is almost clinical - definitely a case where less is more.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Indie Book of the Month: The Threads of Time, by Cally Phillips

The Threads of Time

Cally Phillips

Pub by HoAmPresst

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to wander around an archaeological dig and be physically whisked back in time?

Paul is taking part in a dig in Galloway, southern Scotland, one of the lowly muck-shifters.  But he really fancies one of the senior archaeologists - Diane - older than him, beautiful, out of his league. 

Strange things begin to happen.  Paul has dreams, but are they dreams?  And Diane begins to notice him.  Is she really interested, or is it a game she’s playing with their boss, the man in charge of the dig who has his own agenda and isn’t playing by the rules?

This is a time-slip novel with good, passionate characters and a thorough knowledge of archaeology and pre-history. As you'd expect from an experienced actor and playwright, the dialogue is excellent. It’s a little slow in parts, but apparently it was Cally Phillips’ first novel. Wonder too about this current fashion for brevity and galloping pace - perhaps we should have a new ‘slow book’ movement as in ‘slow food’?  Paragraphs of reflection and description are, perhaps, something we should give time to in our crowded lives. The Threads of Time is definitely a good read, a page-turner, and the ending is very unexpected.

I've also read Cally's Cuban novel 'Another World is Possible' - definitely worth checking out!  And I really liked her short story collection 'Voices in Ma Heid', written entirely in Scots - not easy for a sassenach to read initially, but when I got my ear in, the stories were moving and sometimes shocking.  Cally is a highly political writer and her books are a must-read if you're looking for something different.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

David Golder by Irene Nemirovsky

David Golder
by Irene Nemirovsky
Random House

There was a time when it was perfectly acceptable to write short novels without the danger of it being classed as a ‘novella’.  David Golder is short - 159 pages of large type in paperback, but it says everything that’s necessary - terse, efficient and unsettling.  It was first published in 1929 but it’s a modern parable.

The central character is a wealthy entrepreneur, who has made his money from oil and financial currency speculation (sound familiar?).  David had been born in Russia, on the Black Sea, in extreme poverty and had come to Europe and America, as many Jews did, to escape the pograms.  But it’s a long time since he has thought about his origins.  Now, David is in his late sixties, and his body is beginning to show the stress of a life spent amassing wealth by constantly taking risks.  He is overweight, physically unfit, driven, lonely and unhappy.  Taken to a small kosher restaurant in the poor quarter of Paris by an old acquaintance, he has a moment of recall. 

‘Outside, a man walked by carrying a long pole; he touched the street lamp opposite the restaurant and a flame shot out, lighting up a narrow, dark window where washing was hanging above some empty old flowerpots. Golder suddenly remembered a little crooked window just like it, opposite the shop where he’d been born . . . remembered his street, in the wind and snow, as it sometimes appeared in his dreams.
“It’s a long road,” he said out loud.’

David’s wife Gloria and daughter Joy live a life of luxury in Biarritz, supported by his money.  They have no affection for him and, as his life begins to collapse around him in the financial melt-down of the late nineteen twenties, he begins to realise that he may have spent his life in a hopeless quest.

 ‘What a fool he was!  He had really believed he could possess something precious on this earth . . .  To work all his life just to end up empty-handed, alone and vulnerable, that was his fate.’
But this isn’t just a moral tale of the Midas type. David Golder is the product of what poverty and despair have created between them.  It’s a very powerful novel - the first one that Irene Nemirovsky published, when she was only 26 and living in France. Quite a startling feat for a young woman to portray the anguish of growing old and the fear of death.  It is apparently a portrait informed by her father, who was a Russian refugee in Paris - forced to take a job in the same bank he had once owned, but destined to rebuild his financial empire again at the cost of his family life.  He is not an attractive figure: ‘Golder was an enormous man . . . he had flabby arms and legs, piercing eyes the colour of water, thick white hair and a ravaged face so hard it looked as if it had been hewn from stone by a rough, clumsy hand.’

David Golder’s wife Gloria is believed to owe much to Irene’s own unhappy mother, and this too is not a flattering portrait.  Gloria cares only for status and wealth - her diamonds, her house, her white Rolls Royce and her lovers - burying the memories of Havke, the impoverished Jewish girl, daughter of a money lender, who had left Russia with David Golder in search of a new life.  It seems that the only thing they ever had in common was a desire for material wealth.  Gloria and Joy are parasites who, when one host has gone, will re-attach themselves to another. Despite Golder’s enormity - he’s a monster - we are left, at the end of the novel, with a great sadness and sympathy.  That is the great achievement of the young Irene Nemirovsky.

David Golder
by Irene Nemirovsky

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Life of Irene Nemirovsky

The Life of Irene Nemirovsky

 by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt

translated by Euan Cameron

The tragic story of Irene Nemirovsky has fascinated me since I read Suite Francaise.  I was working on the biography of Katherine Mansfield at the time and the knowledge that Irene had read and been influenced by Mansfield, and had been reading Katherine Mansfield’s diaries when she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, gave me a deeper involvement in her work.

More recently I read her first, published novel, David Golder - an almost vicious portrait of her father and mother - and became more determined to find out about her life.  This biography was written by two people and translated into English by a third, so perhaps this has something to do with its difficulty.  The amount of information crammed into it is incredible, but also makes the book a battleground where the reader fights for clarity and a thread of chronological stability.  It doesn’t help that stories and novels not available in English are referred to and quoted without explanation, making it a bewildering maze of literary allusion.  The narrative facts of Irene Nemirovsky’s life are buried in it (as Katherine Mansfield once said of Frieda Lawrence’s good qualities) like a sixpence in a gigantic plum pudding.

Yet, as a study of Irene Nemirovsky’s work, it’s context and influences, the biography is invaluable.  Irene’s parents were Russian Jews, her father a banker and financial wheeler-dealer; her mother a vain socialite who was terrified of growing old.  ‘Fanny’ as she liked to be called, kept her daughter in children’s clothes even after she had grown up - and tried to keep Irene out of sight so that she wouldn’t give Fanny’s age away to her many lovers. Irene hated her mother and made her the subject of a number of vitriolic novels, including one called Jezebel.

The family spent a lot of time in France, living the life-style of rich Europeans - Irene’s preferred language was French.  But all this changed dramatically with the financial collapse that occurred at the end of the nineteen twenties. St Petersburg became unsafe for anyone of Jewish ethnicity. A cook saved Irene from the Russian pograms by hiding her behind the bed clutching a Christian, orthodox, cross. The Nemirovsky’s left Russia via Finland with their jewellery concealed in their clothes and settled permanently in France, but in much reduced circumstances.

In Paris, Irene tore herself away from her family and married the son of another Jewish Banker, Michel Epstein. She had started writing as a young girl and continued to write after her marriage.  Her first major novel, David Golder, was sent to the publisher just as Irene was about to give birth to her first child.  She had given a poste restante address because she didn’t want her family to know if the novel was rejected.  David Golder caused a great stir at the publishing house and they were desperate to find the author. When Irene did, eventually, arrive at their office, they were amazed to find a very young woman, olive skinned, dark eyed, modest, and could hardly believe that she was the author of such a brutal novel about male pride and the horrors of growing old and powerless.

As the banking sector grew steadily weaker, Irene became the family’s main breadwinner.  She and her husband were consistently denied French citizenship in an atmosphere of increasing anti-semitism.  Irene was one of France’s leading novelists, a Christian convert and her children were born there, but she would never become French. But she still believed that France was safe, despite German occupation, and refused to leave when she had the opportunity.  She and her husband were arrested and deported, separately, to the concentration camp at Auschwitz where they both died.  The children were saved by a friend who hid them until the war was over.  The eldest treasured the suitcase that contained her mother’s manuscript of Suite Francaise, but it was many years before she could finally bear to look at it.

The concluding chapters of this biography make you very sad, because they give a very clear picture of how genocide can happen without ordinary, reasonable people acknowledging what is going on.  It’s terrifying to think that immigrant-phobia can become genocide so easily. 

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Wanderer in Unknown Realms: John Connolly

John Connolly
The Wanderer in Unknown Realms

I’m having trouble with Kindle Singles - they’re either so short they’re barely a short story, or they really need to be a novel to do the subject justice.  You just don’t know what you’re getting.   The Wanderer in Unknown Realms is John Connolly’s much publicised Kindle Single, a horror story of novella length that should really be a novel.  He’s a brilliant writer, so I wasn’t surprised to be engaged with a world of Dickensian characters (the lawyer Quayle, the sinister booksellers Dunwidge and Daughter) all caught up in a spine tingling plot.  Soter - a world war one veteran, shell-shocked and bereaved, works as a private detective and takes on the case of missing Lionel Maulding, an elderly country gentlemen with a taste for antiquarian books.

Soters search takes him into the world of arcana and rare occult books.  Soon he begins to experience the occult world for himself and has moments when he doubts his sanity.  Lionel Maulding had been on the trail of a book so rare, so dangerous, that it has eluded generations of occult specialists.  The Atlas of Unknown Realms has the power to change the space time continuum and re-write the nature of reality.  Soter soon has reason to fear that the book has been found and opened when time begins to bend around him and horrific creatures materialise out of the darkness.
At this point I was really gripped.  I wanted to know what had happened to Lionel Maulding and how the world was going to be saved - hopefully by Soter.  But the novella’s ending is a complete let-down and unfortunately ruined the whole for me.  Maybe others will disagree. I’m not going to do a spoiler - but I think it was a cop-out!

There are wonderful, creepy illustrations by Emily Hall that make the production of this book a class act.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The Long Delirious Burning Blue by Sharon Blackie

The Long Delirious Burning Blue
by Sharon Blackie
Published by Two Ravens Press

This is one of the most satisfying novels I've read in a long time - it really had me gripped and when I got to the end, I cried.  Not many books nowadays reduce me to tears, particularly ones that have happy endings.

The main character, Cat, is a 39 year old legal executive with an American pharmaceutical firm based in Arizona.  She's in a long term relationship with a nice guy, earns lots of money, has a beautiful home and is deeply unhappy.  Cat has begun to have crippling panic attacks which, at first, she believes to be the symptoms of physical illness and it is only when faced with a doctor's diagnosis that she realises they have their roots in anxieties that go back to childhood.

Everyone believes Cat to be completely in control and indestructible.  But it's only a mask to hide her vulnerability. Not even her partner knows how fragile she is.  Cat is afraid of flying, and when she has a massive panic attack on a business trip and is almost unable to get on the plane, she makes up her mind to deal with her fear the only way she knows how; by confronting it.  Cat decides to learn to fly and the terror and exhilaration she experiences become the key to understanding herself.

  'I have been asleep for forty years. This is what I need: this fear, this risk, this wind rocking my wings. This is what I have been missing. This is what it means to be alive – up here, on the edge of death.’ 

This is a novel about how fear can cripple our lives and prevent us living fully.  It's a novel about mothers and daughters - Cat's mother is an alcoholic and their relationship has been poisoned by guilt and blame and anger. But it's also a novel about the power of stories.  Our lives are a narrative and we can choose how to tell it - not only that, if we don't like the story we can change it.  As Cat does when she walks out of her career and her relationship into 'the long, delirious, burning blue'.

Cat's mother, Laura, is a story-teller, an author of children's books.  When the novel opens she has been sober for years, but has lost the ability to write.  Returning to the west-highland village where she had lived with her violent husband, she begins to work through her own story and, in writing it down, begins to heal herself and her relationship with her daughter.

One of my favourite bits from the book is the 'mission statement' Cat has to approve in a board meeting, which is the subject of her first rebellion against corporate America.  She can no longer swallow the meaningless jargon and the half-truths.  My other favourites were the flying scenes - so vivid I was up there in the cockpit almost sick with vertigo.  And I really fancied the flying instructor . . .

The author, Sharon Blackie, is the editor of Two Ravens Press, based on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Two Ravens publish poetry and fiction and the beautiful glossy magazine 'Earthlines'.  Their remit is broadly 'ecoliterature' but they state that they are looking for 'writing that is capable of challenging and unpicking the status quo, of shifting the worldview of their readers away from the creed of "Progress is Growth is Consumption".'  This novel certainly does that.  It's Sharon's first novel - and the only parallel I can think of is Barbara Kingsolver, who manages to combine ecological and political issues with beautiful prose. I'm now eagerly awaiting Sharon's second novel, The Bee Dancer, which is apparently coming soon.

The title is a quote from a poem called 'High Flight' written by 19 year old Canadian poet John Gillespie Magee, a spitfire pilot killed in a mid-air collision in 1941.