Paused in an atmosphere of extraordinary pallor and thickness

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by Rachel Cusk

Though Cusk has written eight other books in-between, this new novel shares a lot in common with her first two books. There is a vagueness about it and a distinct lack of story, but there is also some beautiful writing.

The narrator is an English divorcee writer (a little autobiography peeking through perhaps?) who goes to Greece to teach a writing class for a week. That’s pretty much the whole story. She speaks with a series of people, some friends, some random strangers, and recounts their stories. She has a knack of getting people to open up to her but reveals very little about herself. And yet she does seem concerned with the truth and questions the honesty of those she speaks to.

The title appears to refer to the series of sketches of people’s lives that the narrator presents, but a quote from towards the end of the book suggests another reason:

“She began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her…a sense of who she now was.”

Continue reading “Paused in an atmosphere of extraordinary pallor and thickness”

I wish you to gasp not only at what you read

Pale Fire

Pale Fire
by Vladimir Nabokov

I need to let you know from the start that this is one crazy crazy book. The structure, the plot and the characters are complex to the point of inscrutable. This is truly experimental literary fiction.

How to describe this book? The poet and academic John Shade has been murdered and this is his last poem, introduced and analysed by a neighbour and colleague of the poet, Charles Kinbote. Kinbote is clearly crazy, but the question is exactly how crazy.

Kinbote’s “commentary” mostly ignores the actual poem and rambles on about the last king of Zembla, the country he has emigrated from to the small New England college where he met Shade. The story of this king is one of wild adventure, preposterous even, and Kinbote is clearly obsessed with it. He had told this story to Shade in the hope that the great poet would write a great poem about it, but that’s not what this final poem is and Kinbote’s disappointment is palpable.

“What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students)…I can do what only a true artist can do – pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and weft of that web.”

The whole conceit, and Kinbote himself, are often frustrating, occasionally tedious and frankly wholly ridiculous and yet at times it becomes almost, almost, believable. Kinbote’s obsessive nature has attached itself to his learned neighbour and he has clearly read the situation wrong time and time again, convincing himself that he became Shade’s dearest friend on the basis of flimsy evidence. It’s not a new story, but it’s nevertheless an interesting one and it’s being told in a very new way.

Thankfully, the scholarly frame of the novel is not entirely po-faced. This is a comedy, packed full of satire, poking fun at poets and scholars and literary criticism. Kinbote is somehow both subtly ambiguous and a broad comic character. The language is laughably over-the-top academic and delights in putting together pleasing sounds and amazing, if unwieldy, sentences.

“The heating system was a farce, depending as it did on registers in the floor wherefrom the tepid exhalations of a throbbing and groaning basement furnace were transmitted to the rooms with the faintness of a moribund’s last breath. By occluding the temperatures upstairs I attempted to give more energy to the register in the living room but its climate proved to be incurably vitiated by there being by there being nothing between it and the arctic regions save a sleezy front door without a vestige of a vestibule.”

It’s a clever balancing act and I would be thoroughly impressed by a book that made me laugh out loud despite such an outlandish structure if I hadn’t found other sections painfully tedious. This is a short book but it took me a long time to read, partly because I kept putting it down and declaring “This is batshit insane.” Which it is.

“The coming of summer presented a problem in optics: the encroaching foliage did not always see eye to eye with me: it confused a green monocle with an opaque occludent, and the idea of protection with that of obstruction.”

I must admit, this is one of those books I’m a little bit proud of having got through. Which perhaps undersells it. Many people consider this a masterpiece and I certainly see that there’s plenty to admire but I don’t think Nabokov will ever be a favourite of mine.

First published 1962 by G B Putnam’s Sons.

Source: Secondhand, probably from the Oxfam Bookshop on Park Street, Bristol.

Coming soon: Literary Giveaway Blog Hop (23–27 June)

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop

It’s back! Once again, Judith of Leeswammes’ Blog is hosting the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop. Quite simply, 50+ book bloggers will be giving away literary books between 23rd and 27th June. Brilliant, right?

If you want to join in the giveaway, you can sign up here. If you just want a chance to win stuff then check back in on 23 June to see what’s on offer!

A tale for winter

And Now You Can Go
by Vendela Vida

I partly picked this because the stylised cover picture looked like a girl walking in the snow and I thought it would fit nicely with my wintry feeling. However, aside from the book starting in December, it was hardly wintry at all. Quite good, though.

Ellis has only recently moved to New York for grad school when she is accosted during a walk in the park by a man with a gun. She manages to escape after quoting poetry in an attempt to change the man’s mood. The book opens with this encounter and goes on to describe the next few months of Ellis learning to deal with what has happened, how it has changed her and how others treat her.

This isn’t the dark story that it might seem from that description. Ellis is funny, terrible with relationships and continually frustrated by everyone else’s expectations of how she should act now that she is officially a victim. Not that this is a comedy either. I really don’t know how to classify it. Maybe as a character piece?

Vida does a good job of collating the various reactions a person might get to the announcement that they’ve been held at gunpoint. There’s the people who suddenly want to hang out with her, the people who want to protect her, the people full of advice. But every one of them is a rounded character as well, fully and fallibly human.

This book challenges preconceptions. Ellis’s attacker is white and politely spoken. His intention is not to rob or rape Ellis. Vida deliberately leads the reader astray, omitting important details until later in the story.

This is definitely a literary novel, in that it’s about the effects of events rather than events themselves, and it picks out interesting little details, but it also has a clear storyline with a decisive beginning and end.

First published in 2003 by Jonathan Cape.

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop: the winners!

Give Away Blog Hop!

And the winners are…drumroll please!

Thanks to random.org, Col of Col Reads won Our Spoons Came From Woolworths and Tanya won Naked Lunch. Congratulations! I have e-mailed you both, please badger me if you don’t receive the e-mail!

Thank you to everyone who entered, I was surprised by how much of a response this got. I’m sorry I can’t give you all a little prize. However, I do plan to do another giveaway soon, so keep an eye out for it!

If anyone is completely confused and doesn’t know what all this is about, this was a blog hop giveaway with a literary flavour run by Judith of Leeswammes. Thank you so much Judith. Entries are now closed.

It’s here! Literary Giveaway Blog Hop (25–29 June)

** This competition is now closed. Winners announced here. **

Give Away Blog Hop!

WIN a copy of Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs or Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment below saying which book you’d prefer, if you have a preference, before midnight on Wednesday 29 June. I will then pick a name out of a hat and announce the lucky winners.

Naked Lunch, first published in 1959, is sometimes called a modern classic. A series of loosely related vignettes travel from the US to Mexico to the dream state “Interzone” and cover topics including drug addiction, politics and murder. It’s dark and there’s a lot of bad language. You have been warned!

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a partially fictionalised autobiography. “Sophia” lives in London, eking a meagre living as an artist in a commercial studio. She and her artist lover Charles marry young and struggle against poverty, a fight that gets harder when Sophia falls pregnant and loses her job. (You can read my recent review of this book here.)

Both books are “spare” copies that have not been read, but have been sat on my shelves for a while. I hope someone can give them a loving home! This competition is open to anyone living anywhere.

This blog hop with a literary flavour is being run by Judith of Leeswammes. To find out more check out the blog hop starting post. And do take some time to visit some of the other participants, listed below.

List of participants

  1. Leeswammes (Int)
  2. The Book Whisperer (Int)
  3. Kristi Loves Books (Int)
  4. Teadevotee (Int)
  5. Bookworm with a View (Int)
  6. Bibliosue (Int)
  7. Sarah Reads Too Much (Int)
  8. write meg! (USA)
  9. My Love Affair With Books (Int)
  10. Seaside Book Nook (Int)
  11. Uniflame Creates (Int)
  12. Always Cooking Up Something (Int)
  13. Book Journey (Int)
  14. ThirtyCreativeStudio (Int)
  15. Col Reads (Int)
  16. The Book Diva’s Reads (Int)
  17. The Scarlet Letter (USA)
  18. The Parrish Lantern (Int)
  19. Lizzy’s Literary Life (Int)
  20. Read, Write & Live (Int)
  21. Book’d Out (Int)
  22. The Readers’ Suite (Int)
  23. I Am A Reader, Not A Writer (USA)
  24. Ephemeral Digest (Int)
  25. Miel et lait (Int)
  26. Bibliophile By the Sea (Int)
  27. Polychrome Interest (Int)
  28. Book World In My Head (Int)
  29. In Spring it is the Dawn (Int)
  30. everybookhasasoul (Int)
  31. Nishita’s Rants and Raves (Int)
  32. Fresh Ink Books (Int)
  33. Teach with Picture Books (USA)
  34. How to Teach a Novel (USA)
  35. The Blue Bookcase (Int)
  36. Gaskella (Int)
  37. Reflections from the Hinterland (USA)
  38. chasing bawa (Int)
  39. 51stories (Int)
  40. No Page Left Behind (USA)
  1. Silver’s Reviews (USA)
  2. Nose in a book (Int)
  3. Lit in the Last Frontier (Int)
  4. The Book Club Blog (Int)
  5. Under My Apple Tree (Int)
  6. Caribousmom (USA)
  7. breienineking (Netherlands)
  8. Let’s Go on a Picnic! (Int)
  9. Rikki’s Teleidoscope (Int)
  10. De Boekblogger (Netherlands)
  11. Knitting and Sundries (Int)
  12. Elle Lit (USA)
  13. Indie Reader Houston (Int)
  14. The Book Stop (Int)
  15. Eliza Does Very Little (Int)
  16. Joy’s Book Blog (Int)
  17. Lit Endeavors (USA)
  18. Roof Beam Reader (Int)
  19. The House of the Seven Tails (Int)
  20. Tony’s Reading List (Int)
  21. Sabrina @ Thinking About Loud! (Int)
  22. Rebecca Reads (Int)
  23. Kinna Reads (Int)
  24. In One Eye, Out the Other (USA)
  25. Books in the City (Int)
  26. Lucybird’s Book Blog (Europe)
  27. Book Clutter (USA)
  28. Exurbanis (Int)
  29. Lu’s Raves and Rants (USA & Canada)
  30. Sam Still Reading (Int)
  31. Dolce Bellezza (Int)
  32. Lena Sledge’s Blog…Books, Reviews and Interviews (Int)
  33. a Thousand Books with Quotes (Int)

What a character

The Book of Other People
edited by Zadie Smith

This book caught my eye on a recent trip to one of Tim’s favourite shops, Forbidden Planet. It’s a collection of short stories written by some pretty big names in the literary world, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Miranda July, Toby Litt, David Mitchell, Vendela Vida and ZZ Packer. They were all commissioned to “make somebody up”, in aid of homelessness charity 826 New York. It’s interesting just to see the many ways that can be interpreted, but it has also resulted in a genuinely very good collection.

The 23 contributions cover a range of ages, characters, backgrounds, storytelling methods (first person, second person, third person, illustrated, comic strip, reliable narration, unreliable narration, linear, nonlinear, etc etc) and even venture beyond humanity in a few cases (“Theo” by Dave Eggers is a very touching story about a giant). There is a certain tendency to white, western, middle-class-ness, which reflects the authors involved, but beyond that the only link is the high-quality of the writing.

Not all of the characters are likeable, in fact those that stuck with me most are decidedly unlikeable. David Mitchell’s “Judith Castle” is first a snob, then increasingly unreliable until I felt so cold toward her that only Mitchell’s wonderful humour could make me want to read about her. AM Homes’s “Cindy Stubenstock” is vomit-inducingly rich, taking a private jet with her equally rich friends to Miami and gossiping about other people, art, how less rich people live. It’s darkly ironically comic.

There are also some very sad stories. “Puppy” by George Saunders was tough for me (Note to Tim: Do Not Read It, trust me.) – the story of a mother taking her children to buy a puppy from a less well-off neighbourhood than their own. The title is a little misleading because it’s not told from the dog’s perspective, but the dog is key.

For me, this book acts as a little snapshot of the writing styles of all sorts of names that I have heard great things about but not yet sampled (I mean, not all of them, I have read novels by six of the contributors, I think, and some of the names were entirely new to me). Though, Zadie Smith does mention in her introduction that she felt the brief gave writers a chance to break free from their usual style or method, if they wanted to, so maybe it’s not the best way to decide if I want to read more by any of them.

I don’t think there were any stories here that I outright disliked and I am having a little trouble choosing a favourite, but I think it has to be “Judge Gladys Parks-Schultz” by Heidi Julavits, about an old woman sat in her study with a book that she isn’t enjoying, reminiscing about her life recent and long past. Julavits uses the language of the mystery novel (good ones, that is) to make this simple evening into a fascinating tale.

Published 2007 by Penguin Books.