Monday, May 25, 2015

Three Seasons by Mike Robbins

Three novellas about
life in the 1980s
Three Seasons is an accomplished, highly readable collection of three novellas by a writer whose a master of the novella – that “almost” Cinderella of the literary world. Subtitled Three Stories of England in the Eighties, all are connected only by being set in three seasons, spring, summer and autumn.

I love reading novellas – longer than short stories, shorter than novels, yet long enough to be immersed in a world that is slightly simpler than that of the more convoluted novel.

And these were engaging indeed.

In the first, Spring, a middle-aged Hull trawler skipper, sixtysomething Skip has one last chance to make it big. Kevin, an eager young working class teen joins the crew on the boat that early morning, oozing enthusiasm and eagerness. And then there’s the young twenty-two old reporter, Katherine, reporting on the events of the fishing village. How each story edges alongside the other is part of the beauty of this piece filled with fishing and trawler detail, the vessel bobbing on the cold seas. But there’s a disaster at the heart of this story, and Robbins’ skilled hand leads us onward, breathlessly to its inevitable conclusion.

In the second, Summer, we’re in the heart of the booming merciless 1980s. Terry strides into the story, ambitious, adulterous, his eye on the booming Thames Valley property market. Terry was the least likeable or sympathetic of the characters, but nevertheless holds interest despite his bravado and arrogance. In a story that epitomises the worst of eighties greed and immorality, the story ranges across a weekend, while its roots stretch back ten years. An allegory for a decade long gone, yet immorality can never be confined to a single time.

The last, Autumn, is a mediative piece that centres on the Master of an Oxford College, Makepeace. Long married to Christine, he’s settled into a rigid severity: “Makepeace’s face was lined and rather severe, the eyes themselves of mid-blue, the hair wiry, strong, grey now of course, but complete and slightly curled.”
His two grown-up and very different sons are coming home for a viist Tim, home from working abroad in Africa and the Amazon, and James, arriving with his new wife of two weeks. Still living at home is their impressionable teen daughter, Liz. The story takes place over the night and morning of the sons’ visit, playing out against each of their histories, roving from Makepeace to Tim to James to the new wife, Tamsin with the exotic aura of being an actress about her. The story loops into the past, shedding light on how the man grew into his and how the past has the ability to not only to erode with its corrosiveness, but also how memory helps us to heal, to bend. How it is possible to release the pain of the past and ultimately learn to forgive and learn new ways of being and relating.      

Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara

Machi Tawara's first book of fifteen poems, Salad Anniversary was first published in 1987 in Japan where, remarkably for a poetry book, it sold over two million copies. In this slim, but delightful volume, she combines the classical ‘tanka’ Japanese form of short poetry, consisting of 30 tone syllables in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern) to document a doomed love affair.

The poetry is sensuously beautiful, yet pared down, the language deceptively simple, yet talking in unsentimental tones about the beginning and the ending of love.

In August Morning the narrator is with her lover: “You and I on a night beach face to face in silence – a sparkler softy sputters. /Breaking your hesitation, I watch you hunt for words to break the silence/Your left hand/exploring my fingers one by one – maybe this is love.” Or is it? Later on in the same poem, the narrator says simply: “Now that I wait for you no more, sunny Saturdays and rainy Tuesdays are all the same to me.” 

Longing suffuses these poems, moments are briefly captured as in the title poem Salad Anniversary: “Folding towels,/I wrap the smell of the sun – /perhaps one day I too shall be a mother.”
The love affair continues in Baseball Game, but the signs are there: “You have your future, I mine, and so we take no snapshots”, and later in the same poem, “Cooking an omelette/flavoured with tears/of coming morning and farewell.”

This achingly beautiful set of poems is accompanied by an afterward by the translator Juliet Winters Carpenter. Highly recommended.  

A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert

A Wilder Rose is the story of the
Little House books and the possible literary
deception behind them
This extremely readable novel tells the story of Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of The Little House books (Little House on the Prairie and others in the series). Or was Laura really the sole and accomplished author of the books?

Lane was already a successful popular writer when she returned to her parents’ Ozark farm in Rocky Ridge in 1928. Divorced from a husband, she had also lived abroad and had rich experiences behind her. She had a plump portfolio of investments behind her. There she imagined she would both add to her portfolio as well as build her parents a modern farmhouse wired with electricity and indoor plumbing. She was making money with her writing – and her income was going through the stock market roof. Life was good. She was accompanied by her friend Troub, with whom she had a relationship – although this is somewhat opaquely referred to in this novel.

Writer Albert re-imagines the events of these years. With a foreboding known to us through history only we read as Lane and her companion experience the horrors of the stock market crash of 1929. Lane finds herself stuck through circumstance and desperation on the farm; finds her relationship with Troub withering away bewilderingly: “We had prided ourselves on enjoying each other, without obligation. And now that we reached the end, neither of us gave way to tears – not then, anyway.” Troub would later go on to write children’s novels penning the Sue Barton and Carol Page series.

And into this chasm her mother, a pioneer girl, comes to her with a scrap of a story of her early years. It’s poorly written, hardly publishable, hardly even a book, but Lane sets out to fix the writing, and it’s eventually published with more books promised. The literary deception, begun so innocuously and innocently, is in full force. Her mother will be known as the author of the children’s books – even though the truth is, it’s more of a collaboration between mother and daughter. Or is it? 

This is a novel of that collaboration, although there is still some doubt as to the veracity of that claim, as well as of the complicated knot of the mother/daughter relationship between Laura and her only child, a tie that Lane sometimes felt like a stranglehold, and of how Lane shaped her mother’s story into publishable books.

The world of 1930s small-town America is also intricately recreated in this book – a time when modern conveniences such as electricity and plumbing were still luxuries in rural areas; and pioneer women could still remember the wagons and wildness that permeated their youth.  But it’s a bleak time in history with the country decimated by the disaster and the great dust storms. When Lane travels the country, writing a book on it, the harshness edges through: “Dust, dirt, wind. ‘We know where the dust comes from by its colours,’ one farmer’s wife told me, holding her apron across her face.”

But it is also a story of Lane herself – little known now beyond the history books – and it’s a fascinating story. A woman who lived by her own rules in a time when most women married and subsumed themselves in that bond; a woman who took up her pen and wrote her way to fortune and kept on writing even when that pile disappeared. A woman who had been born in poverty, who managed to move beyond her life’s circumstances.  Lane is an spirited woman and one of the treasures of this novel is how enormously likeable she is; with Wittig creating an empathy that leads you through the book.  Lane’s life is at times unrelentingly hard in those years: trapped, failing dental health, growing older, her life moving away from her. But I found myself compulsively reading to the end, drawn on, entranced by this woman’s strength and vigour.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Peculiar State – single short story

Thought-provoking short story by
South American writer 
Patricio Pron

In this thought-provoking story, The Peculiar State by South American, Patricio Pron, we’re introduced to the world of a lapsed writer living in Homburg with his statistician girlfriend. 
Unnamed, the protagonists are simply referred to as he and she – which lends the story a bare, stripped down essence. 

Although once a successful novelist, the muse hasn't visited for some time and he spends his days as a “creative consultant” answering questions on his first impressions of chocolate and other mundane objects, trying to get as far away as possible from the problems of “the death of the novel and the peculiar state of the short story”.   

But the real meat of the story takes place when he and his girlfriend go away to various foreign cities to play a game the girlfriend has made up. They go to the same city – but travel separately, stay in separate hotels – neither knows where the other is. The game consists in finding each other in these European cities – deducing where each might go, based on their own interests, and of course, knowledge of each other. In many ways it’s a dangerous game – what if they don’t find each other in these places and return home alone, having failed? The consequences would be serious: it means they don’t know each other as well as they would have hoped – and what does that, in turn, mean for their coupling?

“She remembers something he said to her one day, maybe after the first or second they’d played their game: that the day they can’t find each other is the day on which everything between them will be over... She realises she’s about to cry because she feels herself capsizing from within.”   

The story is shot through cleverly with a number of statistics – referencing the girlfriend’s interest in the subject – which also has inspired the game. What are the probable statistics that they will find themselves in such and such a city, for instance? This is a question with more meaning than recounting such obvious facts as: “women cry an average of 5.3 times a month; men 1.4” or that he is part of the 41 percent of the German population that hasn't read a single book in the last three months.”

In this story the couple go away to Berlin – searching for each other over the roughly a week they are there? But what happens if they can’t find each other? Is the “losing game” as she’s thought of dubbing it, a way back into their relationship, or a chilling arrow pointing out something more sinister in their relations?

This short story throws up so many questions and possibilities about the probabilities in our lives, the people who are there in it, or not, and whether numbers on a page, those endless statistics should really be used to measure our happiness and progress through life.

This endlessly interesting and inventive short story comes from Pron, one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists and the author of a debut novel, My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain, described as a daring and deeply affecting story of one Argentine family’s buried secrets. When a young writer returns home to visit his dying father, he finds himself drawn into an obsessive search for a local man gone missing.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

PEN SA’s Q&A with Arja Salafranca

Favourite South African novel / poem?
I don’t have a particular favourite South African poem or novel and that does change with every new book read – but I do enjoy novels by South African novelists such as Damon Galgut and Ingrid Winterbach, for instance. I’m looking very forward to reading Craig Higginson’s just published The Dream House, andFinuala Dowling’s The Fetch... Read more.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Art of Unpacking Your Life by Shireen Jilla

Set on a luxury game farm in the Kalahari,  Shireen Jilla’s The Art of Unpacking Your Life is an entertaining, although at times flawed novel type of read about a group of old university friends from England celebrating a birthday.

An entertaining read about the
choices we make in our lives 
The birthday is that of forty-year-old Connie, who has been responsible for bring them all to South Africa. It’s set on Gau, a fictional lodge, but one that closely resembles those in real life, lending an authenticity to this novel. The story opens as the group arrive on the reserve, with a “sociable weaver bird nest splayed across the acacia thorn tree like an ancient, sun-damaged headdress”.

Jilla’s writing is evocative and descriptive, bringing the sun-baked yet mysterious Kalahari desert alive through the story, from descriptions of the typically thatch lodge to the burning sands, to the wild animals who survive there.     

At first it’s a little hard keeping track of the characters, but each soon emerges in their own right as strongly well-developed individuals. There’s Connie’s philandering politician husband, Julian, devoted to her, certainly, but with each infidelity he wounds her further, although she’s long got used to it, or so she thinks. There’s Sara, an ambitious single barrister who’s come away on this trip harbouring a guilty secret about her latest case. Lizzie bemoans the path her life has taken – no man, and a low-end job in which she’s failed to advance.

Author Shireen Jilla
There’s sensitive Luke – newly divorced – and an old flame of barrister Sara, and Matt, having a surrogate baby with his new wife, which he confesses soon after they all arrive. Daniel wants to settle by buying land, but his partner Alan is less sure about that, which highlights a crack in their relationship.

And then there’s Gus, the game ranger, who will add further spice to the mix with his own blend of romantic allure.

The story of their individual dramas and a series of revelations plays out against the backdrop of the days at the lodge, the game drives, a night spent in the dessert for “the girls” of the group, and the sightings of the animals, which lends further excitement and tension to the story. This is what I like to call a “travel novel” in which the action is set against a place foreign to the protagonists, in which place is both character and mover of the action as that of the characters. And Jilla writes well about the African bush, bringing it to vivid real life.

At times the plot development becomes a little too obvious, a tad trite, but by then you’re so well engrossed in the story that you barely notice. This is a well-written, entertaining read about the choices we make in our lives, and the hope that can undo those decisions we thought were written in stone. 

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

I am in agreement with Goethe, who said that every day one ought to ‘hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words’. I would add to this the need to love. Without it, the rest is dust.”

"The need to love. Without it, the
rest is dust"
Nineteenth century writer George Sand lived life on her own terms. Born in 1804 in France, she married young, and badly, as they say. After two children and trying to make it work, she separated from her husband, and moved towards a creation of herself that was constantly evolving. She’d already taken a man’s name to publish her works under; and then had affairs with many. She finally settled into a long-term relationship with the composer Chopin. A disagreement over his attitude towards her daughter, hardened her towards him, and the sick composer died not long after.

These are the facts. Elizabeth Berg has fashioned the bare bones of Sand’s remarkable life into a highly readable novel that throws a very human light on the woman behind the fame and the reputation.  Written in the first person, Berg creates a credible Sand persona. 

The narrative alternates between  Nohant, the family home where Sand was brought up in the French countryside under her grandmother’s tutelage, and the years of her adulthood, ranging from Paris, back to Nohant, where Sand lived out her ill-fated marriage and then subsequent years. 
Elizabeth Berg re-imagines the life of
nineteenth century writer George Sand

It also touches on what Berg suggests was Sand’s great love – for the actress Marie Dorval. In truth this lesbian affair was only rumoured, but Berg imagines the brief affair and the life-long consequences it would have on Sand, with a longing that suffuses the text. Love, and its many nuances framed much of Sand’s life. Referring to Dorval, she writes: “‘Love has given me a new virginity,’ she said from the stage that night, and the line seemed directed at me.” And, “Being loved let me breathe, let me work, let me live.”

And that a nineteenth century not only lived life on her own terms, made an independent and successful living as a writer, and took her love wherever she felt she needed it, is remarkable. 

As Sand moves into middle age, the novel loses detail, and fades further as Sand enters old age. The Dream Lover is a beguiling read; full of interesting detail and the novel brings this fascinating character and her world to gentle life.   

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Under This Beautiful Dome: A Senator, a Journalist and the Politics of Gay Love in America by Terry Mutchler

"A jolt of electricity passed
through me"

When journalist, Terry Mutchler, then AP Statehouse Bureau Chief in Illinois saw Penny Severns, an Illinois State Senator, for the first time in 1993, “a jolt of electricity passed through me”.

Captivated from the first, she didn’t even know what the woman’s name was: “It didn't make sense for me to be so captivated. Yet this unknown woman held my attention. I could not, and still can’t explain it but when I saw her, I felt something inside me shift.”

From the beginning their relationship was both circumspect and circumscribed. Both were dealing with a gay relationship in the political landscape of the America of the 1990s – not so far away, but yet a million years away in attitude perceptions, as we look back. And in addition, Mutchler’s profession as a journalist meant that she supposed to be neutral and objective. Dating a senator, let alone becoming involved with her, was dangerous stuff.

Their first date included five people, including themselves – an intimate dinner that simply expanded. Mutchler was to learn that the demands of a politician’s life were beyond what she could have imagined. A politician truly belongs to the people who elect him or her, and Severns was committed to her job of serving her constituency. The relationship had to remain secret – and so, the five-year relationship did, but at huge cost and hardship to both. The consequences of “loving in secret” are spelled out here in a way that is almost unbelievable to read about. Of sneaking out of each others’ homes at some ungodly hour of the morning so as not to be seen, parking a far distance away overnight – these are the physical, every day difficulties. But there was also the fact that their families never really knew what role they played in each others’ lives. There never seemed to be the “right” time to talk. Both also grappled with their religious sensitivities – concerned that what they were doing was against their religion and God.

Author Terry Mutchler
When they bought a home together, and lived in it together, with Mutchler being described as her “press secretary”, only Severns’ name was on the bond, out of necessity. To add both names to the bond – which could be accessed by publically – meant possible discovery. So in this as so much else, Mutchler’s role and part was secret. Only when travelling overseas could they be freer in their relationship. And yet although their bond was strong and powerful – and the jolt of electricity lasted throughout their coupling, “the best years of our life were written in invisible ink”. 

When Severns was diagnosed with cancer, neither knew the end was coming. A cancer that not so slowly made its way through her body. Severns died in February 1998. Not only did Mutchler have to announce her death on TV, but also had to contend with hiding her grief from so many, both publically and privately. In addition Severns’ family  cut her out of the inner circle, denying her not only recognition, but her share in anything she had contributed towards with Severns.  

"Sad too, to see the effect of prejudice and stigma on the lives of just one couple living in secret."

It all happened so long ago in terms of attitudes and yet we’re only looking at the 1990s from a distance of two decades. Same sex unions were stigmatised, and same sex marriages a seemingly long way into the future. When more and more high profile people are coming out, and it’s increasingly accepted in our more “permissive” society, it’s mind-boggling to believe that a same sex relationship could spell the end of a career. There’s a sadness in reading this account because of this. Mutchler and Severns seemed to share that rare love – and the fact that it was cut short by cancer, and so sadly hidden – is cause for sadness. And sad too, to see the effect of prejudice and stigma on the lives of just one couple living in secret.

Mutchler writes the story of their love, and her subsequent unravelling after Severns died, with a fresh immediacy that brings the past alive vividly and compellingly. The pain is there, but never threatens to overwhelm the telling of the story. The story is told is beautiful, although sad; and also illuminates and reminds us how far we have come in the past few decades. The story ends full circle, as it were – with same sex marriages being signed into law in the state of Illinois. A remarkable, hauntingly told story. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and her Sister is
a fictionalised
 imagining of some of the
events in their lives.
There are some secrets that haunt us forever. We vow to never repeat it, but still, the mistakes keep on haunting us, becoming a thread that runs through our lives.

Such an event is at the heart of this wonderful novel, based on the lives of the writer Virginia Woolf and her painter sister, Vanessa and is a fictionalised account and imagining of some of the events.
Vanessa and Her Sister opens in 1905 when the sisters and their two brothers, Thoby and Adrian Stephen, have just moved into 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, after the death of their father, their mother having died some years before. At home in the Bloomsbury district, they will soon come to scandalise “polite society” with their unconventional ways. They will start a “salon”, giving rise to the moniker the Bloomsbury group, and will have men and women conversing in their home at all hours of the night. Throwing convention to the winds and living free from the strictures of Victorian society is more appealing.

Painter Vanessa Bell,
sister to writer Virginia 

“And what if people are shocked that we have no curtains and hold mixed at home and invite guests who don’t know when to leave? Only we live here, and we can do it how we like,” says Vanessa.
This is long before Virginia marries, and the two are still the young and beautiful Stephen sisters, desirable and desired.

The story is told through Vanessa’s diary – although in reality Vanessa never kept a diary. Instead it was Virginia who kept famously kept one. 

But this is primarily Vanessa’s story and the story is told through her prism, and the fictional device is an effective one here. Vanessa’s imagined diary is like a painting – light seeps in through the lines, and there’s a poetic feeling to her words. Vanessa is a gentle, artistic sort – and this is rendered through the writing.

Interspersed through the diary entries though are letters and telegrams sent from the Stephens and the friends who orbited them and also formed part of the group – and so these move the narrative along too. This also provides another view of the group and the events, including some letters from Virginia as well, presenting another, sometime oblique view of things.

For those with an interest in the Bloomsbury group, there’s a frisson of delight in reading about them all in this fictionalised way. 
Lytton Strachey, member of
the Bloomsbury Group

There’s Lytton Strachey, biographer and writer, instrumental in getting his friend Leonard Woolf to seriously consider Virginia as a wife, socialite and literary hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell, poet Rupert Brooke, art critic Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and so on. 

When art critic Clive Bell sets his sights on the Stephen sisters, he sets in motion a chain of events that will alter all their lives. Virginia is strangely distant and aloof, and he begins to court Vanessa. There’s no great love though for him, a fact she repeats to herself over and over, “I like him. But it stops there. I do not think I could love him. I remember Stella when she decided to marry Jack. I watched her with the critical eye of a younger sister but I could find no flaw in her certainty. ... She recognised him. ... She had been waiting for him. I do not recognise Clive. He is not mine.”

The young Virginia 
Woolf, whose attachment  
to Vanessa is beyond
the ordinary
And she’s able to resist his efforts, until suffering grief over the death of their brother Thoby, she gives in. There will be a wedding, Clive has his Stephen sister. But when his infidelities push to the fore, after she has given birth and isn’t as attentive to him as he’d like, she’s told that they are different and theirs is to be an open, more unusual marriage.

And when his eyes start roving towards her sister, we sense the delicate balance of the sisters’ love for each other might be threatened. Vanessa is protective of Virginia, ever watchful too that Virginia doesn’t slip back into her periodic bouts of madness: “It is when she is in a quiet mood one should be careful. The stillness that presages that squall.” 

And, “I could feel Virginia pulled taut, on the brink of something, and I was not up to a mad scene today.” 

Virginia with her intense attachment to her sister has not taken easily to Vanessa’s marriage or to her involvement with her two children. There’s a line where they ask if Virginia is Sapphic, and indeed her attachment to Vanessa seems to go beyond ordinary sibling love. Busy with her children, and her painting, Vanessa watches as Clive pursues Virginia, and Virginia dances dangerously on the edge of this precipice.
Virginia Woolf and
Clive Bell in 1910

Throughout Vanessa’s voice is carefully matched and measured against the others who will watch this scenario play out. The years play on, and the book comes to its dénouement with Virginia’s marriage to Woolf.

A delicate and fine study of sibling love with all its complications, this finely written novel brings the Bloomsbury Group to life in a way that is masterful and astonishing. Vanessa’s soft voice beautifully holds the thread of the narrative, and we’re left contemplating the complicated bonds of sisterhood, as well as the broader complications of the relationships that encircle us.

A fine, beautiful novel, a definite highlight. Priya Parmar’s research is worn delicately, lightly, yet brings this historical period to wonderful, broad life.

First published in the Pretoria News, February 1 2015