Archives » Literary Fiction

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Europa Editions, 2015, 462 p, including v p List of Characters.

Book Four, The Neapolitan Novels Maturity, Old Age. Translated from the Italian Storia della bambina perduta (Edizione E/O, Rome) by Ann Goldstein.

 The Story of the Lost Child cover

This is the last of the author’s Neapolitan Quartet chronicling the divergent lives of two schoolfriends, Lena and Lila, both of whom had literary talent but only our narrator, Lena (Elena Greco,) had the encouragement to take her education beyond elementary school and so make a career for herself as an author. The first instalment, My Brilliant Friend, I found too bogged down in minutiae, the second and third were less irritating on that score but in this one I felt we were again at times provided with too much detail: paradoxically so as the time-scale covered here is more elongated, ranging from the main characters’ maturity into older age. While many incidents are described minutely much of the material is told to us rather than shown. Had all the cardinal incidents been presented in the way that Ferrante obviously thinks were the important ones though, the book would have been far too unwieldy.

The Neapolitan Quartet is not just a portrait of a friendship, or of a mother’s guilt at not always being present for her children in order to advance her career, a guilt which Elena certainly feels; it is also a comment on the times Elena lived through, the struggles women have to be recognised as worthy. “To assert myself I had always sought to be male in intelligence – I felt I had been invented by men, colonised by their imagination.” Yet Lila’s success in her computer business is entirely of her own making. (In a demonstration of how much things have changed over the years the books span Lila at one point shows Lena how to use a word processing programme. A magical experience. Elena describes the miraculous transformation of thought into words appearing on a computer screen, so unlike typewriting. A miracle now absolutely taken for granted.)

Ferrante also gives us a reason, beyond perhaps writing what she knows, for setting her quartet in what, since we do not know her real identity, we must assume is her home city. “Naples was the great European metropolis, where faith in technology, in science, in economic development, in the kindness of nature, in history that leads of necessity to improvement, in democracy, was revealed, most clearly and far in advance, to be completely without foundation. To be born in that city …. is useful for only one thing: to have always known, almost instinctively, what today, with endless fine distinctions, everyone is beginning to claim: that the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.” Lila is particularly clear-sighted about this but it takes Elena longer to come to it.

Elena has a further realisation that the politics which had seemed so important to the characters’ youth and which continue to thread the background of the book have become passé. “The old skills … suddenly seemed senseless. Anarchist, Marxist, Gramscian, Communist, Leninist, Trotskyist, Maoist, worker, were quickly becoming obsolete labels or, worse, a mark of brutality.”

Most brutal in this context though, was the triumph of the opposite political mode of thought, “The exploitation of man by man and the logic of maximum profit, which before had been considered an abomination, had returned to become the linchpins of freedom and democracy everywhere.”

In one of their conversations Lila offers Elena a way to ease her mother’s anguish at the thought of death and being unable to look out for her children any more,
“‘Comfort her.’
She smiled.
‘With lies. Lies are better than tranquillisers.’”

Elena’s relationship with the love of her life, the object of her adolescent infatuation, Nino Sarratore, for whom she leaves her husband, is the fractured core of that life, the source of a mostly unspoken friction between Lila and herself, his inveterate womanising made unmistakably plain when Elena comes upon him in the act with their much older housekeeper/nanny. Then again, “love and sex are unreasonable and brutal.”

Maturity brings Elena an insight she perhaps ought to have had earlier – certainly Lila did, as she evinces knowledge of male weakness or is at least less blind to the tendency, or more likely simply protecting her friend from hurt (in which of course she fails.) “Even the most brilliant men sooner or later turned out to be disillusioned, raging at a cruel fate, witty and yet subtly malicious.” This doesn’t stop Elena continuing to have relationships with them however; late in the book she mentions her latest lover.

How Elena’s daughters Dede and Elsa (both of whom she had with her husband) and Nino’s child Imma, fare is one of her eternal preoccupations, juggling their welfare with her commitments to writing and binding her more closely to Lila.

The central event of the book, though, the one which gives it its title, the one which marks Lila ever after and which heightens her observations of dissolving boundaries, her sense of marginalisation, comes suddenly and is never resolved. And while Elena clearly thinks the dissolving boundaries are important (or else why mention them?) she never delves into exactly what Lila means or whether there may be an explanation for them.

But Elena reflects, “Unlike stories, real life when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity.”

Pedant’s corner:- Translated into USian. “she wanted to know how far my knowledge when it came to meaning of the words I had uttered” (is missing ‘went’ after knowledge and ‘the’ before meaning,) “had showed me” (xb2, shown,) “leading him into a mad love for her, for him” (I have no idea why that ‘for him’ is there,) “‘I also know you you’re with’” (know who you’re with,)

Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams

Influx Press, 2017, 171 p.

The first impression on reading this collection of short stories is that Williams has an abiding interest in words – see two of the story titles, not to mention aphaeresis* and apocope. That is all to the good, authors ought to have such an interest. So here we find Williams using stark and spectrum as verbs, giving us an unusual meaning for the word ‘boggling’ to do with the movements of rat’s eyes and also the pleasing coinage Timbucktootle. However she doesn’t appear to know that ‘staunch’ is not the spelling used to indicate suppression of blood flow.

The stories themselves are short, none is more than fourteen pages long and the typeface is quite large, but all say what they need to.

The Alphabet (or Love Letters or Writing Love Letters, Before I Forget How To Use Them or These Miserable Loops Look So Much Better On Paper Than in Practice) is narrated by someone who has lost the plot – and her glasses – describing the disintegration of her world after a diagnosis of aphasia. It has a list of the letters of the alphabet and the shapes they each describe.
Swatch features a boy worried about the multi-coloured flecks in his eyes – even after his father has shown him the definition of the Scottish word glaiks (flashes) on his phone screen.
In Attrib. a Foley artist commissioned to provide the sound effects for the audio of an exhibition of huge reproductions of Michael Angelo’s works is annoyed by the sounds she has been asked to add to the description of The Creation of Eve.
Smote (or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You In Front Of A Print By Bridget Riley) is a stream of consciousness of someone in a gallery standing before that artist’s Movement in Squares – “a painting the surface of which itches with vertigo” – being too self-conscious to kiss their companion. The story is shot through with black-and-white images.
Bs are the thoughts of a half-awake woman in her partner’s bed as she is disturbed by the noises of a bird outside and a bee trapped the night before in a used Nutella jar.
Alight at the Next has non-standard typography. It presents the thoughts of someone about to get off a tube train beside their lover, who is standing very close, but a man obstructs them by trying to get on. Our narrator places a finger on the man’s forehead to stop him.
Concision invokes words from Finnish, Bantu and Rapa Nui to describe the feelings of the recipient of a telephone call staring at the dots on the receiver while being unable to respond to the caller, whom we assume is a lover or spouse.
In And Back Again the answer to an easy question about love brings to the responder’s mind a lyric from the musical Oliver! and conjures the fantasy of a trip to Timbuktu to prove the extent of devotion.
Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef is exactly what its title says, an enumeration of the thoughts of a chef who – highly illegally – “drowns ortolan in Armagnac” before cooking them to be eaten by diners who cover their heads in blankets while doing so.
Synaesthete, Would Like to Meet is narrated by someone who had the Yellow Pages dropped on her head aged 8 and ever since suffered from synæsthesia. Until, that is, a reply on a dating service and the subsequent date provides relief. Her therapist is not so happy about that.
Bulk sees a group of people with varied purposes converge on the carcase of a whale washed up on a beach early one morning.
In Platform, someone recalls the moment their friend left them forever via a poster made from a blown-up photograph taken at the time. The photograph reveals details of the scene unnoticed at the time.
Rosette Manufacture: A Catalogue and Spotter’s Guide is exactly what its title says. An employee of a rosette manufacture describing its wares.
Scutiform follows the thoughts of a museum attendant on their habitual route taken on their daily break past three particular statues.
Mischief features the consciousness of someone in charge of rats which have been trained to detect landmines.
Spines describes a small incident involving a hedgehog in a swimming pool on a family holiday to the south of France.
Spins opens with Johnson’s Dictionary definition of the word ‘spider’ complete with the letter ‘s’ rendered in that old style I can only reproduce as f. The fpider concerned is noticed by someone lying on a bed for hours trying to think of what could have been after a lover had slammed the door on their way out following an argument.

Pedant’s corner:- “millions of potentials colours” (potential colours,) Blu-Tack (x 2, Blu-Tak,) “the chew of a maw” (maws do not chew; they are stomachs,) “the Tube doors, doors shut” (the repetition is not needed but may be an attempt at ) “lickerish plastic” (lickerish means dainty, tempting or lecherous. Williams has her spellings confused; she had previously described the plastic as having the colour of liquorice,) “the hotel might provided” (might provide,) Areopagitca (Areopagitica,) “pulled the door close behind me” (closed?) “the woman with the urn ask the group” (asked.) Synaesthete (I’d prefer Synæsthete,) “you are not here any more to remine me that the plural should be croci” (the character has this wrong, the plural of crocus in English is indeed crocuses. In any case, crocus is derived from Greek [krokos] not Latin: the Greek plural would be krokodes.) “‘The bakers was shut’” (baker’s,) staunch (stanch,) “is an ‘an insect’” (has ‘an’ once too many.) In the acknowledgements; skillfully (skilfully.)

Something Like Breathing by Angela Readman

And Other Stories, 2019, 245 p.

This novel of adolescent friendship is told in alternating sections from two viewpoints, one written in retrospect by Lorrie who at the book’s start has just moved from further south to live on a Scottish island that is her family’s ancestral home, and the other as extracts from the diary of Sylvie Tyler, who lives in the next door property.

Sylvie’s mother is strict with her and reluctant for her to make friends – with anyone. It is only gradually, through an incident which Lorri witnesses and the episodes Sylvie confides to her diary, that we learn exactly why.

Both strands are well written and capture their character’s viewpoints all but perfectly. That ‘all but’ is one major caveat, which I shall come to.

The island is certainly Scottish. (Lorrie’s grandfather – Grumps – owns the distillery there.) Her observation that, “‘they’re alright’ was the most glowing review I’d heard anyone on the island give anyone. Compliments were spat out as reluctantly as saying the weather looked fine; acknowledging anything was okay was tempting fate,” could not encapsulate the national character of the 1950s (and later) any better.

Sylvie and Lorrie have their ups and downs but at one point as they grow older and boys begin to come into the equation Lorrie is swayed towards the more outgoing and freer spirited Blair Munro as a potential friend. Sylvie is the one who is more sensible, though. Adults and their ways are suitably mysterious.

Two things did not ring true for me. Despite no apparent connection with the place beyond her mother’s correspondence with someone living there and through them introducing tupperware to the island, Sylvie employs US terms such as ‘ain’t’ and ‘assignment’ (for homework) but above all, ‘kinda’. Sylvie also mentions a hound dog – not a traditional Scottish or even British usage – yet has the word fearty in the same sentence. These also bleed into Lorrie’s narrative – raise instead of rise, snuck for sneaked. Jarring. Then we had Lorrie’s mother and a workman, albeit one she’d known in school (and with whom it is obvious both still hold a torch for each other,) sit out one afternoon and sip beers. A woman drinking beer in public on a Scottish island in the 1950s? No. Just no. It wouldn’t have happened.

Though in both strands the writing is resolutely realistic Sylvie’s secret lends an element of the fantastical to the tale. Without it, though, the overall story would have to have been utterly different as it is the catalyst for the novel’s dénouement and Sylvie’s later fabled status on the island.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover blurb “two complimentary styles” (complementary.) Otherwise; span (spun,) fit (fitted,) Grumps’ (x 2, Grumps’s,) “agreeing to play for same stakes next week” (for the same stakes,) “tartar sauce” (tartare sauce,) “Sylvie begged Seth to let stay”(let us stay?) “We lay on our bellies” (the rest of the passage is in present tense; so, “We lie on our bellies.) “And none of them are good” (none of them is good,) “for as long possible” (as long as possible,) assignment (homework,) raise (rise,) snuck (x 2, sneaked,) “though they’d never spoke till that day” (spoken,) “take her hand and be lead” (and be led,) bannisters (banisters,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, imbedded (embedded,) lay (laid,) “be furious at me for me for getting her boyfriend in trouble” (no need for that ‘for me’,) “sour plums” (in Scotland these sweets were always ‘soor plooms’.) “Neither of us move” (moves.)

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Viking, 1992, 878 p, plus ii p Contents, ii p Author’s Note, viii p Cast of Characters, ii p Map of Revolutionary Paris.

A Place of Greater Safety cover

There is a view in certain circles which questions the legitimacy of authors describing milieux and inhabiting characters of which they have little or no direct experience, of writing, as you might say, outside themselves. This attitude focuses on the potentially dubious aspects of what is sometimes described as cultural appropriation; what some might go so far as to call exploitation. It is not a new issue: authors – aspiring authors at any rate – have over the years frequently been advised to write what they know. (There is a similar debate in the acting profession over who ought to be allowed to play certain roles. While in this context I recognise the point about adequate representation and lack of access by some actors to particular parts in a production or film it seems to me to be slightly off the point. An actor’s job after all is and always has been to pretend to be someone else. Who actually gets to do that, though, is a different challenge.) For writers an opposite problem exists though, that if they do write outside what is deemed (by others) to be their experience they could be ghettoised or even ignored, barred from any acceptance. Both the extremes are best avoided. In the best of all possible worlds they would be. This is not, of course, the best of all possible worlds.

Hilary Mantel is not a French Revolutionary, that turbulent era – one of many to try to seek the best of worlds – is well outside her experience, yet had she stuck to her lane readers would have been deprived of a very fine work of fiction indeed. In A Place of Greater Safety she has produced perhaps the most convincing novelistic account in English of what those times were like. That this was effectively her first novel is astonishing. All the hallmarks that made her Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell so compelling – getting into her character’s minds, formidable research, attention to detail, sympathetic portrayals of people who in most respects were far from admirable – are here.

The narrative focus of the novel lies mainly with three principal revolutionaries, Camille Desmoulins, good with words, making him a highly successful pamphletist but afflicted with a stutter, the charismatic Georges-Jacques d’Anton (later Danton) marred by a facial disfigurement, and the reserved and ascetic Maximilien Robespierre, but also encompasses their respective households and acquaintances. Desmoulins and Danton are more or less serial womanisers, Robespierre’s reticence means he is a reluctant lover when it comes to the point.

As Wolf Hall began with incidents in Cromwell’s childhood so too does A Place of Greater Safety with those of its three main characters. The background political situation, the slow tipping into insurrection, is dealt with mainly by asides, rarely carrying the thrust of the story. History unfolds in the margins of these lives – as it does more generally, to all of us. In particular Mantel shows us the daily concerns and thoughts of Desmoulins’s and Danton’s wives, respectively Lucile, and Gabrielle then Louise. There is a comment on another woman’s appearance, “she had employed one of those expensive hairdressers who make you look as if you’ve never been near a hairdresser in your life,” that has no doubt occurred to many.

The scenario inspires a few sardonic exchanges. Someone asks, “‘Would they kill the king?’” and is replied to with, “‘Heavens, no. We leave that sort of thing to the English.’” The same topic arises later in an exchange between Camille and Fabre d’Églantine when the latter asks, “‘Do you think that Mr Pitt really cares whether we have Louis executed?’
‘Personally? Oh no, no one gives a damn for Louis. But they think it is a bad precedent to cut off monarch’s heads.’
‘It was the English who set the precedent.’
‘They try to forget that.’”

The changes and dislocations revolutions entrain are summed up by, “Because of the changes in the street names it will become impossible to direct people around the city. The calendar will be changed too, January is abolished, goodbye to aristocratic June. People will ask each other, ‘What’s today in real days?’” Camille says acidically, “The situation of the poor does not change. It is just that the people who think it can change are admired by posterity.”

The Terror comes on bit by bit, apparently without anyone consciously willing it, but has its own momentum. The characters ride the times as best they can, while they can, towards the end under the increasingly looming menace that is Saint-Just.

The best advice is given by Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville to Lucile, “‘Concentrate on surviving yourself, my love. I do.’” Not that it can necessarily be followed.

A Place of Greater Safety is not perhaps for the faint-hearted reader, but it is brilliantly achieved.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Cast of Characters; “a delicatessan” (delicatessen.) Otherwise, “about the price of a woman’s hats” (strictly that should be ‘prices’,) epicentre (context did not imply ‘off-centre’; so, centre,) Champs-de-Mars (Champ-de-Mars,) uncurably (usually incurably,) “if the crowd let the police take him” (the crowd is a single entity here; so, ‘if the crowd lets’,) “M Soulès eyes were drawn” (Soulès’s,) “kicked around like a football” (football, as such, had not been codified in 1789.) “A Bodyguard” (no need for the capital ‘B’.) “The crowd cheer” (The crowd cheers,) “Georges’ mother” (Georges’s,) publically (publicly,) stongly (strongly,) “to his army command the frontier” (at the frontier is more natural,) “as they stoved in the door” (stove in, or, staved in,) “stray voices in the street that call – line break from the middle of a line, next line starts – pass on.” “‘I’ll tell it you when I get back.’” (‘I’ll tell you it’ is more natural,) “and accusation drip from unseen mouths” (accusations,) “he called the members, opinion-mongers” (doesn’t need the comma,) “a jury retiring at this hour were unlikely to agonize over their verdict” (was unlikely; its verdict.) “The jury were back” (was back,) “‘Is that Danton’s plan.’” (is a question and so requires a question mark rather than a full stop.) “The only sound in the apartment were the dissonant chords and broken notes” (sounds … were,) Cassius’ (Cassius’s.) The public applaud (applauds.)

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2006, 377 p.

It is early 1982. Jason Taylor is about to turn thirteen. His elder sister Julia treats him as an annoyance, his parents are forever arguing and he, like all more or less diffident more or less misfits, is bullied at school. In Jason’s case the fact that he stammers only makes things worse. Thoughts he attributes to figures in his head occasionally intrude. The one he calls Hangman knows he is about to stammer and therefore can allow substitution of a different, less problematic – though delayed – word, while Unborn Twin sometimes offers a commentary on proceedings. Black Swan Green, with its view of the Malvern Hills, is the small town in Worcestershire where Jason lives. It has no swans, black or otherwise. Another burden for Jason is his poetry which he submits to the local church magazine using the pseudonym Eliot Bolivar but he cannot reveal this to the wider world for fear of further ridicule.

As a novel Black Swan Green is peopled by a range of well-drawn characters – distracted parents, various schoolmates (or enemies,) out of touch teachers, supercilious cousins, a frightful uncle, suspicious but not ill-meaning gypsies – and the minutiae that make up a thirteen-year-old’s life. A lot is packed into the year spanning Jason’s thirteenth and fourteenth birthdays in which the book is set. Dad’s forbidden study where strange phone calls are received, an accident on the frozen lake in the woods, interviews with the intimidating Madame Crommelynck who acts as intermediary for transmission of Eliot Bolivar’s poems to the vicar, unfruitful appointments with a speech therapist, a local secret society for young bloods, the Falklands War, an accident at the Goose Fair, his mother’s suspicions and vindication, numerous instances of bullying, plus the ordeal of negotiating school with a stammer, but above all the terrifying unknowableness of girls.

Occasionally Jason’s awareness betrays signs of being assigned to him by an older person, “Human beings need to watch out for reasonless niceness too. It’s never reasonless and its reason’s not usually nice,” and, “A disco’s a zoo. Some of the animals’re wilder than they are by day, some funnier, some posier, some shyer, some sexier,” but others of his thoughts ring truer to someone on the cusp of adolescence, “But all this excitement’ll never turn dusty and brown in archives and libraries. No way. People’ll remember everything about the Falklands till the end of the world,” though “Neil Young sings like a barn’s collapsing but his music’s brill,” could be said by anyone.

In particular “not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right” is fine for an author to put into the head of a character who’s barely a teenager but even though it’s spot-on would, in print, appear humdrum coming from an older person.

Jason’s thirteen year-old enthusiasm, primed no doubt by his Dad and intolerant right wing uncle, for the outpourings of the Daily Mail and utterances of Margaret Thatcher are counterbalanced by Julia’s Guardian reading perspective. The anti-Romany prejudice of a town-hall meeting to discuss the County Council’s proposal to place a permanent site for gypsies near the town (one contributor says, “Dark as niggers,” about what he calls ‘real’ gypsies) is allowed to speak for itself. When Jason has an accidental encounter with some travellers we learn their take on it; the relevant legislation is all a plot to expunge their way of life. Put like that the incident seems an unnecessary interpolation into the book but it reads much more organically.

Mitchell appears to have successfully got into, or remembered well, the head of an adolescent boy and conjures up 1982 convincingly. His control is such that the reader knows right from the start that Jason’s parents’ marriage has deeper flaws than he thinks and that Julia is not merely an annoying sibling but is on his side against them. This picture of a young teenager struggling to come to terms with the mysteries of the adult world (and the utterly bewildering conundrum of the salience in that world of sexual intercourse) and trying to fit in to that of his peers is beguiling, but Black Swan Green is notable above all for the sympathy with which Mitchell treats all of his characters.

Pedant’s corner:- I noted Scalectrix, (Scalextric,) British Bulldogs (British Bulldog,) Milk of Magnesium (Magnesia,) and Metro Gnome (Metronome) before I recognised that Mitchell was probably trying to represent the spellings of a thirteen year-old. It’s strange though in that case that memsahib is spelled correctly even though Jason tells us he doesn’t know what a memsahib is.
Otherwise; occasionally commas were missing before a piece of direct speech, Margaret Thatcher’s injunction to the nation to ‘Rejoice! Just rejoice!’ is said to come at the end of the Falklands conflict; my memory is that it was on the retaking of South Georgia, before the war proper started, she said that; “put then on the chest of drawers” (put them.) “I wasn’t going to solve this equation and it knew it” (‘and I knew it’ makes more sense,) “black-and-orange Wolverhampton Wanderers tracksuit” (Wolves play in gold and black, not orange,) “Guy Fawkes’ Night” (Guy Fawkes Night,) Socrates’ (Socrates’s,) vacuumed (vacuumed.)

The Thistle and the Grail by Robin Jenkins

Polygon, 2006, 296 p, plus vi p Introduction by Harry Reid. First published 1954.

 The Thistle and the Grail cover

The thistle of the title is the local team of the small town of Drumsagart, Drumsagart Thistle Junior Football Club, whose blue shirts have a red thistle crest. The grail is the ultimate quest for a Junior* football team, the Scottish Junior Cup.

Despite the apparent thrust of the title that the novel will be about football, it isn’t really. There may one day be a definitive novel that deals with that perennial Scottish obsession but this isn’t (quite) it. The quote from John Cairney on the cover to the effect that this is “easily the best book written on the relation between football and society in Scotland” may well be true but the novel’s narrative more or less skirts football. Instead, it is more about a small town, the characters who inhabit it, and the distraction from their lives that football represents. Bill Shankly is supposed once to have said, “Football isn’t a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that.” While at times, in the throes of a match, it can perhaps seem that way, it really isn’t. But as a distraction from life’s tribulations it can be a temporary balm – even while adding to them.

At the start of the novel Drumsagart Juniors are hopeless, suffering regular drubbings – usually to nil – every week. This culminates in a mass protest after a 7-0 humiliation at the hands of their fiercest local rivals, Lettrickhill Violet, wherein the committee members are the subject of intemperate threats and club president Andrew Rutherford is in danger of being dismissed. Mysie Dugarry, granddaughter of the club’s most famous player, who had gone on to play for Scotland, suggests they try one Alec Elrigmuir whom she describes as the best centre forward in Scotland. (He plays for a pit team and she is sweet on him.) Under pressure Rutherford agrees. Committee member and local pub owner Sam Malarkin offers to provide a free drink to everyone should the Thistle go on to lift the Cup, safe in the knowledge it won’t happen.

Apart from the possibility of Elrigmuir, a further potential hero arrives when Turk McCabe, a former centre-half, returns to the town from a sojourn in England. Now in his mid-to-late thirties he is an unlikely saviour but has determination and turns out still to have positional sense. And so the journey to the grail begins. There is a brief description of the first-round game at Carrick Celtic but Jenkins’s writerly gifts are not convincing here. (I suspect this may be true of any attempt by any novelist to depict an imaginary football match.)

There is a whole cast of minor characters each of whom is drawn realistically and sympathetically. Sam Malarkin’s interest in Alec Elrigmuir is more than football related as is his sister Margot’s – a source of dismay later on when Mysie gets to hear of it and Elrigmuir threatens not to play as a result of her displeasure. Elrigmuir himself may be a good footballer but off the field he is all but a simpleton.

Despite not being published till 1954 this reads like an interwar, even a 1920s, novel. Harry Reid’s introduction tells us, though, that Jenkins was a reluctant author with many manuscripts kept in his locker.

The attitudes to women of the male characters in the book read as being decidedly off-kilter these days. “The apple had been a gift. Eve’s to Adam had been free too, and it had soured the world,” and, “With women it was, of course, different; their brains were lighter, no-one could expect them to be as serious as men.” At a club committee meeting discussing the team’s problems we have, “‘Have you noticed, gentlemen,’ said Wattie Cleugh, ‘how it’s women causing all the trouble? …. It would seem that what started in Eden’s still going on.’” However, Agnes Elvan’s observation that, “‘There’s not a woman in Scotland doesn’t know the importance of football is exaggerated,” is probably still widely applicable. There is also a wonderful Scotticism when a character describes another as having, “the mind of a five-year old lassie whose backside was underskelped.”

That the times have changed in other ways too is illustrated when a doctor – called in to examine Turk after his put upon mother had poured boiling water over his feet – says of the offer of a cigarette, “‘Do him good.’ The doctor intercepted the packet and took one himself. ‘Do me good.’”

Turk is of course an habitué of the pub. When the local minister, who does not like football – or pubs – came to proselytise, Turk, in his eagerness to berate religion but wanting to show some knowledge, responded with a misquote, saying, “‘I am become a sounding brass or a tingling simple.’ That’s Bible.” A few lines later Jenkins transforms this double Malapropism into an inspired pun. On leaving the pub McCabe castigates those who remain as, “A shower of tingling simples.’”

The novel does not neglect wider issues. There is a small diversion into Politics. Rutherford’s father is a long-time socialist councillor, while Rutherford himself runs on behalf of his brother-in-law a biscuit factory, producing Drumsagart Bannocks in their distinctive blue and red liveried packets. His dismissal of Lizzie Anderson for theft, leaving her and her mother to likely penury excites his father’s ire. That Lizzie has falsely implied Rutherford had got her pregnant does not weigh in the balance for him. In his turn Rutherford interprets his father’s concern for the poor as a desire not to have the latter’s grandson well provided for. Poverty and the misery of unemployment are described but presented as matters of fact. Fecklessness on the part of impecunious men spending money on a triviality like football is implicitly deplored.

Yet it does not escape Scottishness. On a trip to an away game Rutherford reflects, “Scotland was a country where faith lay rotted like neglected roses, and the secret of resurrection was lost. We are a dreich, miserable, back-biting, self-tormenting, haunted, self-pitying crew, he thought. This sunshine is as bright as any on Earth, these moors are splendid: why are not the brightness and splendour in our lives? Seeking them, here we are speeding at fifty miles an hour to see what – a football match, a game invented for exercise and recreation, but now our only substitute for faith and purpose.” But there is still the lingering shadow of Calvinism, “too much pleasure on Earth weakened the promise of heaven and strengthened the threat of hell.”

*This designation does not mean for young players. It was a peculiarity of the Scottish footballing landscape that up until a year or so ago there were two separate non-amateur grades of football in Scotland; the Seniors, all those whose names are familiar from the Saturday football scores plus some in four non-national leagues, and the Juniors, still (semi-)professional but playing in a different set of closely geographically-based leagues – except for the all-encompassing Scotland-wide Junior Cup. The former Junior sides have now all joined the Scottish football pyramid system.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “fifty miles and hour” (miles an hour.) Otherwise; “Wheehst” (Wheesht,) “‘They’s come flocking in’” (they’ll come flocking in,) “crotcheted tie” (x 2, crocheted,) Saunders’ (Saunders’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “as any owner at potential Derby winner” (at a potential Derby winner.)

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Penguin, 2017, 552 p. First published 2000.

I almost certainly would not have read this if the good lady had not borrowed it from the nearest public library. (We feel we have to patronise it as otherwise it may suffer the same fate of closure as our local one did a few years ago now.) She is on a project to read as many James Tait Black Memorial Prize winners as she can. White Teeth won it for 2000. I’m glad I did read it though as it’s very well written.

If you were unkind you could describe it as a family saga but at the same time it is more specific and broader than that. In addition it is peppered with living, breathing characters who appear overwhelmingly real to the reader, even in their contradictoriness.

The main relationship in the book is that between Englishman Archie Jones and Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal, who met in the latter stages of World War 2, when they manned a tank in the Balkans. After his immigration to Britain and arranged marriage to Alsana, Samad met up again with Archie and their friendship ensued. The novel starts with Archie, depressed on his divorce, flipping a coin to decide his fate and subsequently meeting Clara Bowden, daughter of the half-Jamaican and very religious Hortense. Archie and Clara soon marry and have a daughter, Irie. Samad and Alsana have twin boys, Magid and Millat, of around the same age as Irie, who in adolescence moons after Millat.

Samad claims descent from Mangal Pande, the man who fired the first shot in the Indian Mutiny (and was hanged for his pains.) Samad says Pande wasn’t the fool that he has been portrayed as, that Pande couldn’t have been drugged up, but instead sacrificed his life in the name of justice for India. Archie remains much more sceptical about the circumstances surrounding Pande’s actions.

Samad berates himself for failing to live up to his Muslim beliefs – in particular for an affair with his children’s music teacher Poppy Burt-Jones – and as a result packs Magid off to Bangladesh to ensure he is brought up in true Muslim correctness. Alsana doesn’t forgive him for this removal of one of her children and thereafter no longer speaks directly to him. This gives the narrative a touch of comedy as does her description of a near relative as Niece-of-Shame.

Samad’s stratagem fails, Millat has an attractive persona, women seem to find him irresistible, yet despite his many conquests, joins a fundamentalist Islam movement called Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (they are aware of the “unfortunate” acronym, KEVIN,) while in Bangladesh Magid becomes a rationalist and scientist.

The lives of Irie and Millat become entwined with the middle-class Chalfen family, who have a philosophy of questioning everything. Marcus is a genetics engineer and his wife Joyce is one of those people who is convinced she knows better than the people she is talking to what is happening to them and how they feel.

Teeth are mentioned infrequently. A (minor) character says, “When I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth, if you see what I mean. Horrid business. Dark as buggery it was. And they died because of it, you see?” Irie is ‘bitten’ by her mother’s false teeth one night when she knocks over her glass in the darkness.

The novel of course interrogates the immigrant experience. “‘Who would want to stay?” Samad says to Irie. “Cold, wet, miserable food, dreadful newspapers – who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Like you are an animal finally house-trained. Who would want to stay? But you have made a devil’s pact … it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong nowhere.’”

Elsewhere he adds, “There is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that.” However, “The fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation,” are “small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears – dissolution, disappearance ….. In Jamaica it is even in the grammar: there is no choice of personal pronoun, no splits between me or you or they, there is only the pure homogenous I.” (Often spoken as ‘I and I.’)

There are also warnings, “When an Englishman wants to be generous, the first thing you ask is why, because there is always a reason,” and explanations, “It is not that he ….. doesn’t love her (oh, he loves her: just as the English loved India and Africa and Ireland; it is the love that is the problem, people treat their lovers badly.)”

The final scene in the book echoes back to the reason why Archie is forever flipping coins to make a decision and brought to my mind Sophie’s Choice, though Archie’s critical one had no potential devastating consequences for his immediate family.

Pedant’s corner:- curb (kerb.) “Wrapped around the room in a panoramic” (a panoramic what? Panoramic is an adjective it requires a noun to describe. ‘A panorama’ would have been okay,) “someone who, to put it simply, fucks their sisters” (either ‘someone who fucks his sisters’ or, ‘people/men who fuck their sisters’.) “‘Show’s how much you know’” (‘Shows how much,) collander (colander.) “’O’Connell’s’ said Samad” (missing comma; ‘O’Connell’s,’ said Samad,) dypsomaniac (dipsomaniac,) bannister (banister,) “the largest community of Earth, the animal kingdom, were oppressed, imprisoned and murdered on a daily basis” (the largest community … was oppressed… .) “Didn’t use to be” (Didn’t used to be.)

Snow Country; and, Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

Penguin, 1971, 204 p. Translated from the Japanese 雪国 (Yukinugi) and 雪国 (Senbazuru) by Edward G Seidenstecker. First published in English in 1956 and 1958, respectively.

This book contains two of the author’s novels, Snow Country and Thousand Cranes. Kawabata is also known as a poet and some of his sentences here are short and enigmatic, as in haiku. The nuances of Japanese culture can perhaps never be properly illuminated by a translation; there is though something ineluctably Japanese about the two tales – at least to someone brought up with no contact with the country – a sort of understanding not fully expressed by the prose.

Snow Country is the story of the relationship between Shimamura, who goes on a trip from the city to the hot springs of the snow country of Western Japan, and Komako, a local part-time geisha. On the train there Shimamura observes the ministrations of a young woman named Yoko to a young man who is obviously ill, returning to his home to die. Yoko is an off-screen presence for most of the novel, though her importance to Shimamura, perhaps as some sort of ideal, is not in doubt. It is his dealings with Komako that take up most of the story though, a liaison never completely spelled out but indicated by implication, yet most likely utterly transparent to a Japanese reader.

Thousand Cranes is a bit more straightforward. As a boy, Kikuji was once brought by his father to a meeting with his mistress, Chikako, when he glimpsed the birthmark on her left breast. Years later, after his father’s death, his mother also being dead, Chikako unwarrantedly assumes loco parentis and tries to inveigle him into marrying Yokiko Inamura, who on introduction to him wore a dress decorated with pictures of cranes. He is not interested. Instead, he becomes briefly involved with Mrs Ota, who had replaced Chikako as his father’s mistress, and friendly with her daughter Fumiko. A lot of their interactions are mediated through the rituals of the tea ceremony and of gifts and usage of various kinds of Japanese pottery.

These two short novels were interesting reading, if a little opaque to my anglophone sensibilities.

Despite this being in translation (albeit into USian) amazingly I found not a single typo or any other possible entrant for Pedant’s corner in this book.

Night by Edna O’Brien

Penguin, 1978, 120 p. First published 1972.

Night cover

Mary Hooligan has trouble sleeping. The usual remedies – counting sheep or apples, pills – have no effect. The novel is a rendering of her thoughts during one night of such sleeplessness, involving memories of her upbringing in Coose in Connemara, various odd encounters, sometimes scatological, and a multitude of sexual (mis)adventures.

Though I have read neither and so cannot comment, the narration apparently reflects Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses and prefigures Eimear MacBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. I’ll take their word for it.

With its focus on one person’s life experience, the novel stands in contrast to O’Brien’s “Country Girls” trilogy. There is no doubting, however, the author’s technical skill as a writer nor her proficiency with words; the book is peppered with Latinate derivations, Irishisms and seeming neologisms (gaimbeaux?) but even so is easy enough to read. Fifty years on from first publication what is striking about the book is its brevity. Nevertheless it says what it needs to say. Economy is a welcome attribute in a writer.

Fair enough it’s only 120 pages worth, but also revealing is the cover price of the edition I read. 75p! Those were the days.

Pedant’s corner:- tête-a-têtes (têtes-a-tête?) “doh ray me fa” (doh re mi fa,) frequent omissions of commas before a piece of direct speech, sherbert (seven lines earlier was the correct ‘sherbet’, with sherbert again a further seven lines on,) jelley (of frog spawn; surely usually spelled ‘jelly’,) “the think I couldn’t endure” (the thing,) seemliness’ (seemliness’s,) she’s (‘she’d’ made more sense,) an opening quote mark that was never closed, Leuwenhoech (Leuwenhoek?) caprolites (coprolites.)

Crabwalk by Günter Grass

faber and faber, 2004, 238 p. Translated from the German Im Krebsgang by Krishna Winston.

On 30th January 1945, the twelfth anniversary of Hitler achieving power, Paul Pokriefke, the narrator of this novel, was born. This was exactly fifty years after the birth of one Wilhelm Gustloff. On 30th January 1945, a former Strength through Joy ship named after this Nazi “martyr,” a ship now packed with refugees – mostly women and children but with some wounded soldiers aboard – fleeing the Red Army advance into Germany, was sunk after being hit by three torpedoes fired by the Soviet submarine S-13, delivering its cargo of humans, dead or not yet dead, into -18oC temperatures. Paul’s nine months pregnant mother was one of the passengers. The shock turned her hair white.

That sinking comprised the single greatest loss of life in one event in maritime history, even if the exact number who died can never be known. Yet years later “it still seems as though nothing can top the Titanic, as if the Wilhelm Gustloff had never existed, as if there were no room for another maritime disaster.”

So how, especially as a German, does a writer approach this tangled topic? Though their losses have been acknowledged, victimhood has not traditionally been claimed for German casualties of the Second World War. Still less afforded to them. How could a near contemporary of the perpetrators of the biggest set of crimes in history (certainly modern history) dare to?

Calmly, soberly, authoritatively and novelistically, it turns out. But also obliquely. As Grass asks us via Paul, “Do I sneak up on time in a crabwalk, seeming to go backward but actually scuttling sideways, and thereby working my way forward more rapidly?”

So, embedded in the tale of Paul’s existence – forever dogged by the circumstances of his birth – we have the life story of “the martyr,” Wilhelm Gustloff, born in Schwerin in 1895, who joined the Nazi party and recruited over 5,000 members from German and Austrian citizens living in Switzerland, where he was killed by a man named David Frankfurter, who claimed to have fired the fatal shots “because I am a Jew.” And that of the submariner, Aleksandr Marinesko, who commanded the S-13. Plus details of the construction and dimensions of the Wilhelm Gustloff (originally to have been named after Adolf Hitler but changed at his request to that of the Nazi’s latest martyr,) its Strength through Joy cruises with no class distinctions between its passengers, its use as a hospital ship in the Norway campaign and later as a military and refugee transport.

Paul, always fatherless – several men were subsequently implied by his mother to be possible candidates – is haunted by that thrice cursed date, as was his mother. Her accounts of the sinking and his birth vary, however, and like Paul’s fatherhood are not to be trusted. Paul’s lack of a father possibly led to his estrangement from his own son Konrad (Konny) whom Paul suspects, in a ramification of how that fateful January date echoes through his life, is behind an internet site named the Friends of Schwerin which lauds the memory of the ‘martyr’ and the ship which bore his name. He follows the online spats that result between Konny and a supporter of Gustloff’s killer (calling himself of course David Frankfurter) with something between bemusement and frustration.

Grass does not flinch from, but neither does he overly dwell on, the sinking – a catalogue of errors on the part of its officers, at the time the Wilhelm Gustloff had astonishingly no less than four captains each arguing with the others – and its many horrors, nor on the grisly prospect of being overrun by the Red Army. The German reoccupation of Nemmersdorf had revealed how brutal Soviet revenge could be. Publication of its details in Germany, intended to stiffen the population’s resistance, instead led to streams of refugees fleeing westwards.

Despite never mentioning the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their cohorts, nor does he try to exculpate his countrymen, “History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising.”

As to the fatalities; in retrospect, “One zero more or less – what does it matter? In statistics, what disappears behind rows of numbers is death.” Each death, even in a larger catastrophe, is an individual tragedy.

At the heart of this novel – and it is a novel despite all its statistics and historical details – is the impossibility of escaping history. The circumstances of Paul’s birth, that sinking, toll through the years, Konny’s distance from his father and closeness to his grandmother manifesting itself in an almost wilful obsession, unamenable to reason and leading to yet more tragedy.

Paul feels it. “Everything that I try to crabwalk away from, or admit to in relative proximity to the truth, or reveal as if under duress, comes out, as he” (Konny) “sees it, ‘after the fact and from a guilty conscience.’”

For history is personal. Perhaps only the novel can deal with it.

Pedant’s corner:- In the preamble; versitilty (versatility.) Otherwise; “never miss an chance” (a chance,) “the planned invasion of England, Operation Seal” (that operation’s code name was Seelöwe, Sealion, not Seal,) Ruanda (German spelling of Rwanda?) “With August Pokriefke might there have been trouble” (‘With August Pokriefke there might have been trouble’ is a more natural word order,) an extraneous end-quotation mark, botswain (x 2, boatswain,) “with premediated deliberateness” (premeditated?)

free hit counter script