Jokes, banalities and metaphors assaulted her sensibilities

rabbit-back-literature-societyThe Rabbit Back Literature Society
by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
translated from Finnish by Lola M Rogers

This book was one of the staff recommendations at Mr B’s Reading Emporium and I was attracted to the title and the sinister tone of the blurb. I waited until it was suitably wintry outside (it is set in Finland, after all) and then settled in for something magical.

Ella Milana has recently moved back to her home town of Rabbit Back to teach literature and help her mother cope with Ella’s father’s decline into dementia. Rabbit Back is renowned throughout Finland, indeed the world, for being the home of acclaimed children’s author Laura White, who is not only a beloved bestseller herself, but also declared that she could take ten children from her home town and turn them into successful writers as well. To this end she formed the Rabbit Back Literature Society, to which she invited nine children who have grown up to become great writers. As Ella is both an adult and not a regular writer (she dabbles), she is rather taken aback to be chosen as the society’s tenth member.

“The essays blared through her consciousness…Jokes, banalities and metaphors assaulted her sensibilities, and the floodgates of language standards creaked as dubious sentence structures and hyphenation errors dribbled through their cracks. Every imperfect essay left a dent in Ella’s mind.”

This passport to greatness appears to have been curtailed as soon as it began when at a dinner party thrown at Laura White’s house, a key person disappears in a cloud of snow. But Ella is still a member of this writers’ society and she is determined to dig up all its secrets, big and small, real and imagined. Why are words changing in library books? Why is society member sci-fi writer Arne C Ahlqvist (real name Aura Jokinen) creeping around Ella’s house at night? And was there a previous tenth member of the society who has been written out of its history?

I love that when the first few strange things happen, including Ella’s invite to the society, she is too busy with her normal life to pay it all much heed. She has a job, difficult parents, her own preoccupations. This really highlighted for me how often in books characters jump to something new in their life with no regard for what they would otherwise have been doing.

“He just wanted to look at the garden, to watch it grow – that’s how he explained it to his wife, Marjatta, who had begun to think of herself as a widow and sometimes suffered from a terrible feeling of guilt because of it. Old age doesn’t always wait till you’re old, was her way of answering him. Every day seemed to break off another little piece of Paavo Emil Milana’s personality, and piece by piece he was less and less the Paavo Emil Milana she had married.”

The story hints at and creeps into several genres. The overall structure is that of the detective novel, but it’s not clear whether any crime has been committed. Similarly, there are strange hints of the supernatural in various forms – ghosts, faerie creatures, magic – but nothing is definite, nothing is explained. Could it all just be over-fired imaginations?

The imagination is certainly central to everything else in this novel. White has trained her writers to tap into their and each other’s deepest, most buried thoughts to fuel their writing. The whole town seems to believe in magical creatures, in dark shapes in the shadows become manifest. Even the dogs are behaving strangely. But there is also the beautiful possibility of imagination, the joy that books (and other writing – one of the society members writes for TV and another for film) bring.

“ ‘It was a lovely collapse,’ Saaristo said. ‘Like something out of an old melodrama. All that was missing were the smelling salts. It’s no wonder you fainted in this crowd. Free coffee and cake will get the masses out better than resurrection day.’ She looked around, smiled broadly, and said, ‘But if you want to find characters for a book, this is a good place to do it, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I found bits of a serial killer’s mother, half of a hero’s lover, and three whole peripheral characters today. A nice haul.’ ”

As Ella learns the rituals of the secretive society and unearths its and the town’s secrets, there is always the potential for something awful to come to light, but what is hidden is more often sad in an everyday way, or at least everyday for the world – loneliness, infertility, the death of parents, the love affair that ended.

And yet somehow it isn’t a sad book, this tinge of sorrow underlines but doesn’t overwhelm the magical otherness, the sense of fun and adventure, the intrigue of mystery. There’s a black humour, a nod to the idea of the idyllic-seeming town harbouring dark secrets, but it’s so much stranger than that.

Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta first published 2006 by Atena Kustannus.

This translation published 2013 by Pushkin Press.

Source: Mr B’s Reading Emporium.

October bookishness

So I am breaking with tradition (my own self-imposed one-and-a-half-year-old tradition, that is) and actually taking part in a readalong! The Discovering Daphne season is a month-long Daphne du Maurier readalong hosted by Simon of Savidge Reads and Polly of Novel Insights. As a Daphne fan, how could I resist?

Also this month is the first ever Bristol Festival of Literature. It runs from 14 to 23 October in venues all over the city and features some fascinating-sounding discussions about publishing and writing, as well as all the usual author events.

With some crossover with, but organised separately from the literature festival, on 22 October it’s BristolCon11. It’s the third year for the science fiction and fantasy convention, which I only stumbled across thanks to Twitter but am now eagerly looking forward to attending. There will be some big names there including Paul McAuley and Justina Robson.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, this weekend the Royal Society throws open its doors for the One Culture festival where “some of the best novelists, scientists, poets and historians will explore the crosscurrents between science and culture”. I sadly can’t get to London for that – my weekend is busy enough already – so I’ll be looking out for reports on how it went.

Simple pleasures, elegantly phrased

Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid
by Virginia Woolf

This collection of essays in the Penguin Great Ideas series were originally published between 1925 and 1942 (a few being from a posthumous collection). I think I am growing to prefer Woolf’s essays to her fiction, which is probably some kind of heresy in a literature graduate, but these are truly beautiful pieces of writing.

The majority of these essays are about books, though there are a couple about the pleasures of walking in London, plus the titular essay which is literally what it says, though of course in Woolf’s inimitable style, full of imagination and passion and ideals. Woolf writes about how men are by nature inclined to war, and how women must help them to rise above such base instinct. Her politics creep in as she wonders whether, with more women in government and other high positions, there would be any war.

It is interesting to read an essay from the 1920s or 1930s pondering whether the fiction of the time stands up to the classics of the past, seeing what names are mentioned and whether they mean anything to me now, so many years later. Woolf suggests what will last will be “a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mere” (Yeats and de la Mere, yes, but Davies? I’m not sure who she means) and “Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness but hours of something very different” (assuming she means D H Lawrence then that is indeed one critics continue to argue over the “greatness” of) and “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster”, which may be my favourite opinion of that book!

There are several essays here in a slim little volume; each one short and self-contained. Woolf has a point to make but occasionally seems to change her mind halfway through, before concluding that the original question in fact has no clearcut answer. She is concise, intelligent and informed but her prose is still beautiful:

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit…?”

I do not always agree with Woolf’s arguments or conclusions. For instance, in “The art of biography” she states that biography was a late-18th century invention (wrong! though there was a major resurgence in the form at that time) and that it is a mistake to combine facts with fiction or speculation (I actually think this can lead to some remarkable writing, as long as it is made plain to the reader that it isn’t a straightforward history). But she argues her case so well that I don’t mind disagreeing.

The collection ends with “How should one read a book?”, in which Woolf says that there is no simple answer to that question, and then goes on to talk around the subject in what is, more than anything, a treatise on the joy of reading. I was intrigued by her comment about reading poetry, because I know a lot of avid readers avoid it – “the time to read poetry [is] when we are almost able to write it”. She talks about judging a book after having read it, whether we should be kind or harsh, and how the reader’s emotional response signifies a difference between them and the critic:

“Would it not be wiser, then, to remit this part of reading and to allow the critics…to decide the question of the book’s absolute value for us? Yet how impossible!…there is always a demon in us who whispers ‘I hate, I love’, and we cannot silence him. Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate…”

I will definitely be looking out for more Woolf essay collections. Any recommendations?

This selection first published in 2009 by Penguin Books.