The Knight and Death & One Way or Another by Leonardo Sciascia

Having discovered Sciascia for the first time a few months ago, in a chance encounter at a Leiden bookshop, I grabbed four more in London, wrapped them up for Christmas and waited….

This slim volume is in the same vein as To Each His Own. Both contain murder, but one wouldn’t recommend them to a crime fiction aficionado. Nothing is solved, the stories stop and some observations about the human condition have been made. The first of these two stories, some fifty pages, is a reverie by a dying detective, who is on his last case whilst reflecting on life, death, and setting about some of the things one might do in the face of a rapidly and permanently closing window of time.

The second story, One way or Another, is the more substantial of the two, around one hundred pages.  An artist happens upon a most peculiar hotel, run by priests and about to host some of the movers and shakers (as they would no doubt now be called) of Italy. Industrial and political leaders rubbing shoulders with cardinals. It’s a yearly spiritual retreat. Fine food is eaten, the best wine drunk and five mistresses are lodged there, though they never appear in company. Deaths – murders – begin to take place. But whereas in the average murder mystery such occurrences are at the heart of the story, here they are – not incidental – but merely part of the story. The priest who organises the event and the curious artist who is permitted to stay, verbally joust with each other throughout. Interesting thoughts about religion consequently abound. Poirot it is not.

I suspect that both of these stories may be allegorical, but I’m way too literal to get that. On a concrete level, Sciascia deals with the realities of institutionalised corruption in Italy. Can one do that and be allegorical as well? I don’t know.

At any rate, I strongly disagree with the way these stories are presented on the cover of my edition:

The Knight and Death follows an unnamed detective, investigating the killing of a prominent lawyer named Sandoz. A terrorist group, the ‘Children of the Eight-Nine’, are the convenient prime suspects. But hours before his death, Sandoz was exchanging cryptic notes at a dinner party with Aurispa, the president of a large corporation, and the detective believes that Aurispa knows more about the death than he is letting on.

In his troubling and mysterious One Way or Another, the narrator chances on a cement palace in a square surrounded by beautiful oak and chestnut trees. The palace is filled with the great and good of Italy, making deals, making conversation and seeking spiritual respite. It is an idyllic, idealistic scene – until the murders begin.

Interesting that this is so accurate and yet so misleading. I suppose this is deliberately trying to give the impression that these are typical murder genre fiction – that will sell some copies. (I can’t help thinking of James Thurber at this point.) I will end by countering this with the start of One Way or Another. The cover blurb makes it sound like an episode of Midsomer Murders. Please judge for yourself:

The greatest Italian critic of our time has written: If, as a famous definition puts it, the Kantian universe is a chain of causalities suspended on an act of freedom, we could likewise say that the Pirandellian universe is endless slavery in a world devoid of music suspended on an infinite musical potentiality – on the unimpaired fulfilled music of an isolated man.

I believed I’d retraced a whole chain of causalities. Reached, an isolated man, the infinite musical potentiality of those childhood or adolescent experiences when, in the summer in the country, I used to retire for long hours to some spot which became in my fantasy remote, inaccessible, full of forests and streams and my whole life, its brief past and long, long future, merged musically and endlessly with my present freedom. And for a number of reasons – not least that I was born and had lived for years in Pirandellian landscapes, among Pirandellian characters, with Pirandellian traumas, so that between the author’s text and the life I’d led till I grew up there wasn’t a gap either in my memories or my feelings – for a number of reasons, that critic’s words rang in my head (with such persistent clarity that I can now transcribe them from memory without checking) rather like a phrase or a theme of that infinite musical potentiality I’d achieved. Or thought I’d achieved.

Highly recommended!


The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

Spoilers abound.

The good: there are far fewer of those make-you-want-to-vomit-your-last-feed comparisons she makes. The ones she does make are fabulously ludicrously inept.

For instance: she describes stealing a doll from a little girl who is extremely attached to it as ‘A gesture like you make in sleep, when you turn over in bed and upset the lamp on the night table.’ Huh?

And here: she has decided to leave her husband and children to hang out with an old heavyweight academic who has the hots for her. She describes that as ‘I had run away like a burn victim who, screaming, tears off the burned skin, believing that she is tearing off the burning herself.’

One can see – again – why Ferrante wanted to be anonymous. I’m kind of amazed and impressed that a person can proclaim to the world how completely repulsive she is. She does it over and over again and there can’t be anything she is holding back. Not from somebody who is willing to talk about the things of which she writes. I wonder how many women and mothers are really like this? Are we supposed to think that she is neurotic, mentally ill, way out there? Or normal, this is what it is like for women?

I love, again, her depictions of ordinary people. But as I have complained about elsewhere, she falls down in her constant obsession with herself. I keep wanting to say, every time she starts on about her ghastliness, enough already. We get it. Yet, take it away and she doesn’t have a story.

I want to ask ‘Who wants to read over and over again her maudlin reveries about her own inadequate existence?’ I suppose the answer could be ‘Me’, apparently. But to be fair, I started with the Neopolitan series. It has a proper saga-like story line. I bought up a few more in Rome a few months ago and here I am. Stuck with them. But this excuse will only work if I don’t buy any more and my sneaking suspicion is that I would buy another one. Just to complain about it again. I seem to be trapped in this woman’s life as much as she is. Damn it.

The Sky Changes by Gilbert Sorrentino

I’ve only read one road-trip book before. Quirky, girl-gets-over-old-love, meets-new-love, feel-good but-not-too-good, lots of asides about those bits of the US y’all laugh at. Not my cup of tea, though it sold lots of copies and it won’t surprise me if the movie version pops up on your (sic) netflix menu.

I didn’t realise, when I opened this that it was a road-trip novel. For a start, it takes some pages to figure out what’s going on. And I found the poetry of it stopped any flow. It has an Under Milkwood beguiling sense that it should be read aloud. I would read a couple of pages and then go back and read it aloud in my head. Maybe half way through the book I stopped doing that, and I’m not sure if that was just taking for granted what earlier distracted me, or if the style of writing somewhat changes. I should note that I read the 1986 edition, a revision of the 1966 edition, itself the author’s first novel.

Feel good (but not too good), girly lit this is not. I’m not surprised to see that he takes on the mantle and the cause of William Carlos Williams: the similarities are obvious. For more on Sorrentino’s work and his relationship with WCW, see Ken Bolton’s article in Jacket Magazine.

It you read Sorrentino’s wiki page, you are immediately hit by ‘post-modernist’ and ‘meta-fiction’ and that makes you go to goodreads with a sneaking feeling….yes, the only one of your friends to have reviewed this is MJ. Fortunately I only did this after finishing the book. Post-modern? Meta-fiction? Absolutely not – and perhaps that’s why MJ excoriated it after his first reading. It’s just a straightforward tale of the breakdown of social relations at a time we now remember fondly for the social devastation wreaked. I wonder if you needed to be closer in generation to that period in order to feel the heat of this book? Sorrentino muses on the nature of memory. I love this:

If they hadn’t built that fucking house we would have stayed, he thought, we would have stayed and everything would have been OK. What he meant by OK was that everything would have remained in its long-ago attained state of rot, but it would have been submerged rot. He needed, however, the monumentally trite fable of the good old days to avoid their drab truth, in his heart he suspected, even, that the time would come when he would speak, and perhaps even think, of this trip as fun, as adventure, this very moment would become part of the good old days.

This book is incredibly dense, it’s short but has so much in it. His inept relationship with his kids, the false nature of friendship. The pissing away of life – through alcohol in particular – that was integral to the scene he is part of. The changing geography and social fabric of the America they pass through as they head from NY to Mexico. The North South divide. Lying and denial as the basis of relationships. It’s quite misleading to talk of this as a book about divorce. It is about relationships of all sorts and their fraught, dishonest bases.

Sex. I try to recall the last time I read a book where the sex was well-done and I come up with 2011, Vox by Nicholson Baker. That was trivial, this is desperate and will speak to everybody who reads it.

They are on a mattress on the floor. Their children are in a bed beside them, it is black in the room. His fingers touch her thigh, they move up to her cunt. She moves beneath them, not movements in space, but within her own body, a tension, a tightening. That he thought it would be different. What did he think, that in southern air something would happen? Or what else did he think? that in a strange house, that on the floor, that this adventure would make things change, would make her move toward him, warmly, her flesh soft? Her flesh is rigid, she is stone, she says if he wants to but the children. Howling secrets writhe in her brain, she stays rigid, what does she know, what does she want, that she cannot speak of it? If he wants to but. To say that. A kind of insanity, that is. Certainly. An insanity. His fingers are ddep in her pubic thatch and she says that. Yes, he says. The voice that he hears seems to come from somewhere behind him, so that he actually looks over his shoulder. Yes, then he knows it is coming from him, it is not someone else in the room, not the driver peering at them, answering for him. He moves on her, she lies quite still, he pries her lips apart with his tongue, her teeth are clenched, she opens them slightly, here hands rest lightly on his shoulders, she is still and he is pumping on her, she is still, he thinks of what he must look like, he thinks of that she is thinking of what he must look like, she has plenty of opportunity to think there, so still. He moves faster, harder, he thinks that he might make her come, she does not want to come, she has turned off the switch, she turned it off the moment she lay down on the mattress. He feels himself coming, blinded with fury. What happens that he comes and it is vinegar? The spasm that shakes him is one of anger, she can’t help him. She won’t try, she is throttled by secrets that have fixed her someplace else. That’s what has happened. He moans. She strokes his back, she feigns a movement of her belly, but her hips alone move. He has finished coming, he supposes. For when did it start, he cannot tell, it is almost the same, orgasm almost the same. He hears the driver turn in his sleep, he hears his children breathing. In some madness he asks her if she came. In the same madness she says no. They clutch at each other. Tell me! his brain screams, tell me! Who are you, whose children are those, tell me that which burns white in you, that turns your eyes to marble, glass. Why are you searching for my hand? His son gives a quiet cry. What dreams he walks through are no more fantastic than this searching hand. While their hearts crumble.

The driver. I envy those who have never had one of those in their lives. I did once and suffered all the doubts, denials and torments of the husband here. The hatred of others and self. I love the way the people are named. The husband, the wife, the driver, the son, the daughter. W and R and W’s son and so on. Far from making this impersonal, it permits it to be everybody’s life. You will slip into this story.

Moral, non-didactic, observation. The scene where their host S throws a spear he has fashioned from a branch into a goose. In front of the children.

They walk in silence. Cruelty surrounds them, the children are changed in his eyes, the obscure misery that hurts them, though they have no word for it, is guilt. S and the husband have full awareness of it. Their guilt. S’s act, the husband’s inability to say even one word to him, or better yet, splash into the water and pull the torture instrument from the hapless bird, the children swing against the greying sky, no more is said, they are in the centre of the United States of America and their host is a college instructor. In the humanities.

The description later of the husband forcing his son to box another host’s son. I wonder what sort of movie this would make? Why not? Do road trip  movies have to be trivial?

Flashback to their first sex.

He was so drunk that he thought the top of her garter belt was a girdle and he was struggling to pull it down, when she said, no, no, it’s all right, and he looked down at her spread thighs and the dark swatch between them. Somewhere to their right he heard W and his girl laughing and the clink of a bottle against pebbles. He pushed himself into her, deliriously happy, the first time! The first time after all these months of courting. He came instantly, and forever after she thought of him as a bad lay. He lay back on the cool grass, the wind from the bay cold against his wet genitals; he watched her pull up her panties and adjust her skirt and he loved her, felt that since he had seen her do this thing in front of him, she was his, completely his. He lit a cigarette and wondered how W was making out with his girl, a girl he detested for her simpering pretensions to intelligence. Not like his girl. They loved each other. Hadn’t she pulled up her panties in front of him? Hadn’t she smiled? What was love if not that?

Perfect preservation of a period. I could write out this whole book here. I’m so glad MJ recanted.

And, in fact, with Christmas 2018 about to descend upon us, I must share one more excerpt. The husband is young, with his mother, it’s Christmas Eve in Brooklyn, NY.

He was delighted because his mother asked him if he’d like French fries for supper, and he loved French fries. The house was cold and he and she sat in the kitchen, the oven on to warm them. His grand-father had been over, brought a little artificial tree, the decorations permanently attached to it, and it was set in the living room. His mother peeled the potato, sliced it, and pan-fried it, served it to him with ketchup, and bread and margarine. The whole potato? he said, mom? The whole potato for me, don’t you want any? She said, no, son, I’m not hungry, you eat it, I’ll have a sandwich later, after you go to sleep and Santa comes. He finished the potato, then poured ketchup on a piece of bread and made a sandwich, ate it with tea. His mother put him to bed, and he fell asleep, thinking of Santa, and electric trains, except that his mother said that electric trains only went to boys in the country because in the city they had the subway. It must be true, none of his friends had trains. He woke up in the night, and heard a noise in the living room, sneaked to the door to catch Santa, and saw his mother placing a little metal pig, dressed in a sailor suit, under the tree. The pig and a drum, and then he saw his mother sit on the couch and begin to cry. He wondered why the tree didn’t have any lights, and he wondered why his mother had put the pig under the tree – he hadn’t asked for a pig, that was for babies. And why was she crying? Well, Santa wasn’t her yet. In the morning, the pig stared at him, and he picked it up, wound it with the key sticking out of its blue jumper. He put it down, and it bounced and clattered on the linoleum spastically, pounding on the tin drum. He couldn’t understand why he had this pig, and why Santa hadn’t come, after all…he hadn’t come, because his mother had put the pig under the tree. And why was she crying? The pig skittered to a stop and fell over, and he saw his mother in the doorway, do you like your present, son? she said. Yes, he said, winding it up again. It would take him a long time to figure this out. Who wants a toy pig?

Merry Christmas, everybody.


From A to X: A Story in Letters by John Berger

Stansted 15 terrorists

In the UK as I write, these people are waiting to be sentenced, having been convicted under anti-terrorism legislation. I think it’s obvious what a hardened bunch they are. They are called the Stansted 15.

The terrorist may be a hardened killer of his fellow man. Or she may be that smiling face in the middle of the front row, wearing a fetching yellow coat and a pink scarf. She may feel that injustice must be protested against. And in the UK right now, the freedom to protest is being dismantled by the politicians. So far the legal system is still on the side of the protesters, but for how long, we may wonder. Around the world politicians are at war with the legal system…or doing dirty deals with it. We knew when we started giving increased powers to ‘deal’ with terrorism, that people like those photographed would eventually pay a price.

This book is about two terrorists. One is in gaol for two life-times. We don’t know whether it is for death and destruction or for some simple peaceable act of bravery, such as carried out by these fine young people who were willing to stand in front of a plane. The other, his lover, is on the outside. She writes him letters, the intimacy of which are supposed to make them feel that they are together. She weaves together reports of the small acts of living with the acts of war being carried out against them. We don’t know where it is.

I’ve never really understood the expression ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’. One minute, one hour, one day, one week, one month, one year, one lifetime. That expressions starts and stops somewhere. It isn’t infinite. These two terrorists will never be together again. Yet with a modest past and a dangerous present, the letter writer creates a life, a shared life, which may approach infinity, despite their irrevocable separation.

There is, as always in John Berger’s books, specific knowledge, radical thought, and the precise and sympathetic eye of the artist. He finds beauty where ever he looks. You will side, as he does, with the terrorists.

To follow the fate of The Stanstead 15, go here.


Slow Man by JM Coetzee

Having been alienated by the end of Foe, I nonetheless plugged on with another Coetzee, bought at Antiquariaat Klikspaan in Leiden. It’s a shop with an excellent range of interesting literature, I picked up lots of books on spec.

Some complain of the tedious nature of the Costello woman but I think that Coetzee is being ruthlessly honest. Writers are self-centered bores with their own ends at heart. Dispensing bits of wisdom to their captive audience at will – and who is more captive than one’s own invention? The writing process not going smoothly today? She drama queens it – she’s going to die, her heart, sleeping in the rough, all that. She doesn’t give a rats about Paul. She wants her story to work, but Paul is not prepared to help her out as she would wish to be. Isn’t this the writer’s life? Characters not behaving themselves. Doing things that the writer disapproves of, or is uneasy about, or can’t see the path of, pages crossed out, files erased, paragraphs blocked and deleted. And in this case in the end, realising that it isn’t possible to change the character. He is what he is.

I love the way his stubbornness is up to hers. Presumably Coetzee himself is both of them.

I did find his portrayal of Paul as being ‘old’ rather odd, given that he is only sixty. The book itself isn’t old enough for that to make sense. That is to say, in 2005, when the book was published, ‘sixty’ was not old. Probably not ‘seventy’ either. My father (also ‘Paul’) was having cancer treatment in 2009 when he was seventy. We all told him he was old because he wanted to be that, he wanted to die ‘old’ and he explicitly corrected us when we called him otherwise.

Given that we are supposed to consider the central character ‘old’, the difficulties he has with that are handled in the way an observant and impartial writer might write of himself. As the book came out in 2005 when he was 65, I guess that it is very personal, this idea he has of his age and how others see him. How he is treated at the hospital. The way in which he is patronised. The way in which aloneness seems to become loneliness. The way which his being physically crippled makes him aware of that he may be emotionally so as well. And all this makes him think he wants children, though I suspect this is just the old person’s regret that a lack of investment in them earlier is now revealing a price. Children could move him around, keep him company. Make him whole again. Justify his existence.

It’s beautifully written. I’m impressed at  how Australian it is too, he captures Adelaide on the page, the migrant experience, the questions and doubts about home and what that is, despite the fact that his own migrant experience was to say the least unique and easy. He fell in love with Adelaide on a visit and migrated there, taking on Australian citizenship, as  Nobel-prize winning novelist. I imagine that such a person never has a difficult time whatever path he wants to take. He is, like Paul, reclusive, and no doubt Adelaide is a good place to practise that habit. We are very tolerant and accepting, we Adelaideans. Want to be a solitary, perhaps even crotchetty Nobel-prize winner? Righto. We’ll leave you to it, but give us a shout if you need anything.


The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

It’s hard not to be impressed that Maugham has managed to make a firecracker of a novel whilst making much of internal reverie, the joys of the nunnery and the possibilities of Tao. Somehow he does this in a manner not exactly modern, but not old-fashioned either. Passages like this:

It was singular that men attached so much importance to their wives’ faithfulness; when first she had gone with Charlie she had expected to feel quite different, a changed woman; but she had seemed to  herself exactly the same, she had experienced only well-being and a greater vitality. She wished now that she had been able to tell Walter that the child was his; the lie would have meant so little to her, and the assurance would have been so great a comfort to him. And after all it might not be a lie: it was funny, that something in her heart which had prevented her from giving herself the benefit of the doubt. How silly men were! Their part in procreation was so unimportant; it was the woman who carried the child through long months of uneasiness and bore it with pain, and yet a man because of his momentary connection made such preposterous claims.

Why should that make any difference to him in his feeling towards the child? Then Kitty’s thoughts wandered to the child which she herself would bear; she thought of it not with emotion nor with a passion of maternity, but with an idle curiosity.

She’s such an interesting character. She was happy not to get married until circumstances forced it upon her. She loves nobody, not even the one person who loves her, not even the baby she’s carrying, not even the idea of the baby. She knows herself. And as she develops from a girl without a thought in her head, to this uncomfortable state of being self-aware and alone in the world, she changes. She uses her experiences to become as admirable as she was once despicable.

She is good enough to herself to know none of the awfulness was really her fault. She’d been born and raised to be what she was. Hence another speech at the end, militating for women to be equal to men, starting with her own to-be-born child. The conversation is with her recently bereaved father. Both of them are in the situation of having been liberated by their spouses’ deaths.

“…what fun we’re going to have together.”
“You haven’t forgotten that you’re going to have a baby.”
“I’m glad she’ll be born out there within sound of the sea and under a wide blue sky.”
“Have you already made up your mind about the sex?” he murmured, with his thin, dry smile.
“I want a girl because I want to bring her up so that she shan’t make the mistakes I’ve made. When I look back upon the girl I was I hate myself. But I never had a chance. I’m going to bring up my daughter so that she’s free and can stand on her own feet. I’m not going to bring a child into the world, and love her, and bring her up, just so that some man may want to sleep with her so much that he’s willing to provide her with board and lodging for the rest of her life.”

She felt her father stiffen. He had never spoken of ‘such things’ and it shocked him to hear these words in his daughter’s mouth.
“Let me be frank just this once, father. I’ve been foolish and wicked and hateful. I’ve been terribly punished. I’m determined to save my daughter from all that. I want her to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person, independent of others because she is possessed of herself, and I want her to take life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have.”
“Why, my love, you talk as though you were fifty. You’ve got all your life before you. You mustn’t be down-hearted.”
Kitty shook her head and slowly smiled.
“I’m not. I have hope and courage.”
The past was finished; let the dead bury their dead.

Other than the odd short story by Maugham, I have neglected him. I can see this was a mistake which I need to rectify.

Foe by JM Coetzee

Fancy being driven to pictures. When I read a novel, I’m looking for this:

sign post this way

and this:

sign post one way

with big hints along the way like:

sign post real world
and this:

sign post truth lie

I thought I was doing fine with this Coetzee I found in Leiden recently. There’s a woman and she is on a desert island for a while and then she’s rescued and she’s bogged down with Man Friday and Daniel Defoe’s in it writing her story and I thought I got it. But I couldn’t help feeling now and again like:

Questions and Answers signpost

and trying to figure it all out made things worse.

sign post lost

Frankly, in the end, I felt like I was in the middle of xkcd’s google map directions:

sign posts google_maps

I don’t know, Mr Coetzee. I really don’t know. I wish when I’d got to the lake and saw the trouble ahead, I’d just turned back. I’m going to have a lie down and a nice cup of tea now. That’s if I’m still alive, if I was real. Perhaps the book has the answer to that.