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.