A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

I wish the short story commanded more respect. We live in a world where anything that isn’t a novel is ‘a short story’. I doubt one of these, not really a book by Tove Jansson, but a collection of her work put together by others, stands  up as a ‘story’. It’s an odd hotchpotch of pieces. Why isn’t that a word used more often for writing? Why can’t we have a book of ‘pieces’?

I’m about to start Susan Hill’s eulogy to books and don’t get me wrong, I have spent my life with books, as a writer, as a seller, as a buyer and a reader. Nonetheless, I found the following, from the piece ‘The Squirrel’ a refreshing take.

She is living in isolation on her island and having broken her bottle of Madeira, the thing by which she measures her life and makes it bearable, she takes to housework.

She cleaned the windows and reorganised her bookshelves, this time not by writers but alphabetically. When she’d done this she thought of a better and more personal system: she would have the books she liked best on the top shelf and the ones she liked least on the bottom. But she was astonished to find that there wasn’t a single book that she really liked.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

No doubt Out Stealing Horses has been reviewed thus:

Too many long sentences.

Or, to put it another way,

Who does he think he is, anyway, this Per Petterson, with his immodestly large sentences that have no inkling when to end, no brakes, no sensitivity to the situation of the poor reader who has drawn the most enormous amount of oxygen into their lungs, sucking it in until fit to burst, face red and bulging, in order to start at the beginning and be able to go through right to the end of just one of these sentences which one could call indecently long in their unconcern for the reader, gasping for air again when the end of one of these sentences is finally reached, because after all Petterson is no Shakespeare, and certainly no JK Rowling, who might have the right to inflict such sentences upon their readers.

Who does he think he is?

But for me it is like this:

Sometimes people tell me I should write and I say but I do write, to which they reply, no, a novel, I mean.

(Like other writing doesn’t really count.)

And every now and then something I read reminds me, in case for a moment I had been taken in by the notion that I should write, that I can’t hold a candle to, or let’s say, a lit match even, to a real writer, the proper-like writer my friends intimate that I too could be, if only I would just set myself to it, instead of writing these trivial bits and pieces that require not much more dedication or concentration than a facebook OMG.

If I were a real writer, the kind of writer my friends think I should be, I would keep the suspense at this point, but I’m not and in any case, is there any suspense in a piece like this, obviously, after all, I’m going to say that Per Petterson is such a writer, the one who reminds me that I, like an infinite number of slightly talented writers in the world is nothing, not worthy of the name, which indeed, though my friends insist upon my using, I have never used myself.

It doesn’t matter whether Petterson is giving insights into the soul, describing the snow and the forest, the light and the water and the mountains, trying to find the past in the present, or perhaps what he is now in what has gone, showing us the shelves of his memory and how he slips into that same piece of the past over and over again or, not so much that his first marriage ended because his wife knitted, but because her knitting made the wrong sound and the wrong sound itself was an echo of what was unsustainable, it doesn’t matter what he is talking about, there is not a word, a nuance, a thought that is out of place.

His haunting long sentences.
His lilting poetry.
Its cadence and rhythm.
The guarded emotion.
The puzzle.

He grips something inside you and never lets go.

Wonderful. Five stars.

Martin Birck’s Youth by Hjalmar Söderberg

Söderberg states at the end of this short work that it will probably prove more interesting to him than to others. It is certainly an unsatisfactory book from the reader’s perspective and this dissatisfaction derives at least in part from the very thing that makes it interesting to the author: as a young writer he started the story and put it away. Much later he came upon it and decided it was worth carrying on with. Consequently it is rather disjointed in tone and subject, rather confusing to this reader until I came upon Söderberg’s explanation.

The point of reading this might be as much sociological as literary, it serves to detail much about social life around the late nineteenth century in Sweden. It might also be used as a warning – and this will come as no surprise to those who have had close up experiences with poets – that the species is to be avoided at all costs. With the possible exception of Ted Hughes, what person has ever deserved the fate of being involved with one? I exclude from this general observation those like Roger McGough who think poetry should be fun, but Söderberg does not think life – or poetry – a laughing matter. He is – reading into the text of the story – a mere amateur poet, but no less to be avoided for that and parts of this make one cringe as he acknowledges without shrinking from the task himself, the ways in which Young Men of a Certain Sensitive Disposition think. Oh dear.

Certainly not in the class of Dr Glas, but worth a look all the same.

Summer Book by Tove Jansson

Doubtless all that can be said about this charming collection has been. I don’t understand why it is called a novel – it’s prose, it’s longer than a short story, therefore it’s a novel? In fact this is 22 small pieces contained and constrained by setting and character. Everybody will have the points in this book that stand out for them in some way. My bookmark has stayed here:

Here you come, headlong into a tight little group of people who have always lived together, who have the habit of moving around each other on land they know and own and understand, and every threat to what they’re used to only makes them still more compact and self-assured. An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.

For a book like this to come to be available to a person like me, Englishly and stubbornly mono-lingual, requires some work. When the re-issue I read referred to the ‘flawless’ translation by Thomas Teal, I wondered who he is. An online search won’t exactly bombard you with details. He is an American who has a degree in Scandinavian literature and languages and lived/worked in various parts of Scandinavia for some years. Translation is what he does for love, not money, a familiar tune, no doubt. He has a particular association with Jansson’s work.

I also wondered about the publisher of my edition. ‘Sort of‘ books is a small UK publisher, the kind of organisation one hopes survives the trashing of the publishing middleman going on right now. They certainly seem to have an eye for what to go with. There is an acceptance speech of an award for the translation of True Deceivers by Teal, in which he tells a great story about Sort of books and the part they play in his standing there. You can see it here – fast forward to the 7 minute mark.

Evening Land by Pär Lagerkvist

Poetry continued. It is hard not to notice the fashion-driven nature of goodreads. I wrote the following in late 2009, so four years ago, and it has yet to receive a vote. I have, I might add, over the years, got many votes for writing crap about the right books. Be rude about Harry Potter, rake them in. Poetry, in particular, is shunned, but for a couple of poets like Plath with whose private lives non-poetry readers are obsessed. Arrgghhhhhhhhh!! It drives me crazy. It is such a shame that poetry was taken over by people who don’t like it and turned it into something unreadable and inaccessible. It is not what poetry is supposed to be. By all means do that to long-writing and call it something snobby – ‘literature’, let’s say. But to do that to poetry is a cruel act of deprivation. The odd thing is that although obtuse literature has some fans, the same can’t be said of difficult poetry.

RD Fitzgerald once said:

Among both the learned and the not so learned it is accepted that poetry can be the language of the emotions; what does not gain such ready acceptance is that poetry is a living language whose syllables fall naturally into verse. And yet both these effects may be illustrated simultaneously by the easy experiment of dropping a weight on your toe. Any really prolonged and heartfelt profanity may lack originality but its imagery is elaborately fantastic; and it invariably scans.

Due to some misunderstanding of these very simple principles verse is considered difficult. Some modern poets have surrendered to this belief by writing not free-verse, which is legitimate, but outright prose; though as an act of appeasement to conventions which they affect to despise they saw it unceremoniously into lengths; and some have contributed to the belief by being as unintelligible as possible. It is an illogical belief nevertheless; for written verse is always far more carefully constructed than prose; the ideas are more carefully set out; the words are more carefully selected; the very spacing of the lines relieves the eye and assists the mind in following the sense.

For more of this elegant essay on what poetry is and is not, go to my post here:

The good news about Evening Land is that it would not offend the poetic sensibilities of Fitzgerald. Here follows my original text.

I can’t imagine a more special book of poetry. Start off with the poems of a Swedish Nobel Prize winner. Have them translated by WH Auden. And already you are interrupting. Yes, I know. You didn’t know that Auden spoke Swedish. Well he doesn’t. This book has a go-between, Leif Sjoberg, who gave a plain literal translation of each poem, with alternatives for words when appropriate.

It’s a bi-lingual edition and, as a compulsive researcher who always wants too much information, I have to say my disappointment with this book is that I would like a third version of the poem: Sjoberg’s. Then, without having the ability to speak Swedish I could better judge how each poem has ended up, what Auden has done with them. In fact I spent some time lying in bed on the weekend wondering how to go about this. Might I find the originals in Auden’s papers wherever they are kept? Or Sjoberg’s? I played the literary detective in my sleep.

For I think it is important to know at the outset, this not being explained in the book’s introduction, that Sjoberg is no pedantic dull chooser of words himself. A rivet man he is not. He had an important career as teacher and academic while single-handedly doing more than anybody else in the period to see Swedish literature made accessible to the English-speaking world with the help of many, including Auden.

Upon the death of Sjoberg, the novelist Folke Isaksson, said:

As I write this on a dark November day, Leif becomes again visible to me, a man with light above his brow. There was a fresh wind in his life but also consistency, fidelity to the assignment, his way of speaking at once hesitantly and eagerly, as if each syllable had its meaning. There was something pure-heartedly beautiful in him that one never can forget.

Elsewhere his ‘blinding intuition and liberating humour’ were remembered.

So, I think we can say that it is not unreasonable that this book is listed as having two translators, both Auden and Sjoberg.

There is only so far an Australian could go in terms of a meaningful critique of this book. It is a book of the most delicate laments and gentle regrets that get under your skin and stay there. How to compare it with Ikea and Abba? I just don’t know. And, yes, we do have Bergman retrospectives on TV from time to time, but. Somehow right now as I finish this book, Bergman seems like a chap with a big hammer.

I can’t do better than present a couple that especially moved me.

p. 99

Who walked past the window of my childhood
and breathed on it?
Who walked past in the deep night of childhood,
that still was starless?

With his finger he made a sign on the pane,
on the moist pane
with the ball of his finger,
and then passed on to think of other things,
leaving me deserted
for ever.

How should I be able to interpret the sign,
the sign in the moist afterwards of his breath?
It stayed there a while, but not long enough
for me to be able to interpret it.
For ever and ever would not have sufficed to interpret it.

and

p. 119

My friend is a stranger, someone I do not know.
A stranger far, far away.
For his sake my heart is full of disquiet
because he is not with me.
Because, perhaps, after all he does not exist?

Who are you who so fill my heart with your absence?
Who fill the entire world with your absence?

It was serendipity at work that I got to read this book. A customer ordered it, it is missing four pages and thus it is mine. I don’t know how one otherwise goes about acquiring a copy…but if you live anywhere near me and ask nicely, you may borrow it. Well…I think you can…right now I feel a bit like I can’t part with it, even for a minute, but I should get over that.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

If you are Australian you’ve been through all the hype with this one….if you are overseas, it is yet to come. A runaway bestseller if ever there was one.

To whatever else is out there on this one, may I add:

(1) the hype is completely justified. The ending is never a surprise and yet you will weep as it comes upon you.

(2) having laboured through a Laxness, a badly written, tedious Nobel-prize winning work, it was pleasing to see that something so moving and gripping could be written about much the same subject matter. I wonder if Kent is going to be another Tartt, somebody who labours long over each new work, producing a masterpiece each time? For now, one wonders how somebody in their early twenties could create such a novel as this, let alone maintain the expectations that must now weigh upon her.

(3) there is something very sad observing that the death penalty is – typically? ALWAYS? – repealed by society after being applied to one who may be innocent. It is an easy argument against capital punishment – what if an innocent person is killed? – but is not the harder one the truer, should we kill at all?

Independent People by Laxness and Pericles by Shakespeare

Reading Smiley on the back cover of Independent People:

‘I can’t imagine any greater delight than coming to Independent People for the first time’ Really? I mean, REALLY????? Better than sex? Chocolate icecream??? What sort of life has Smiley lived that makes her say that. I couldn’t help thinking of this exchange on the comments of my Harry Potter review:

Brook: “I hav read every single book 14 times and i read an average of 200 books per year and have never read a better written book.”

Manny: “Hey, talk about a run of bad luck! My commiserations.”

And how on earth, of all the words to use of this book could you come up with ‘delight’? Conversation with Manny last week:

‘Where’s your review of Laxness?’

‘I have no idea what to say.’

‘Does it have sheep?’

‘Yes, on every page, relentless numbers of sheep.’

‘Grim determination?’

‘On every page.’

‘Death in child-birth?’

‘Yes.’

‘Incest?’

YES!!

This is such an awful book, I really don’t know where to start. The worst is, as I reeled, battered by the author’s not very interesting opinions about the world at which he was pounding away, I wondered if Perlman’s The Seven Types of Ambiguity will survive. Will it too in 80 years seem no more than the pompous heavy-handed opinionated yawnings that this one appears to me now? I very much hope not.

This, seriously, is how the whole book is written. It is the scene where the girl is in bed with her father.

At first she thought he was asleep and had not noticed anything. The moments passed. She heard his breathing and listened also to the strong heavy beating of his heart. But gradually she realised from his movements which were far too small and wary that he could not be sleeping; he was awake. And she was ashamed of herself – would he rise and strike her, angry because she had dared to turn around after he had ordered her to face the wall? In her despair she nestled even closer to him and for a while they lay thus with their hearts beating quickly one against the other. She was lying motionless now with her face against his neck pretending to be asleep. Little by little almost without her being conscious of it his hand had come nearer, involuntarily of course; all that he had done was make a very slight change of position. One of the two buttons of her knickers had by chance become unfastened and in the next moment she felt his hand warm and strong on her flesh.

She had never known anything like it. All her fear was suddenly gone. The shiver that now passed through body and soul was of a kind altogether different from the cold shivering that had kept her awake all night and in her mouth there was suddenly something that resembled a ravenous appetite, except that it was not the sight of food but his movements that had roused her hunger. Nothing, nothing must ever separate them again; and she gripped his body fiercely and passionately with both hands in the intoxication of this impersonal, importunate selfishness that in a moment in time had wiped everything from her memory. pp. 237-238

I’m sorry, I just have to say this. Fucking what the fuck. I mean, really. SERIOUSLY??? And may I reply to your usual argument before you make it, Manny Rayner, bullshit. You can’t say every time something is read in translation and not liked that this is because of the translation, any more than you could argue every time I liked something in translation that it was because of that fact. It does make me retract everything I’ve said about Larsson’s mind-numbingly dull descriptions of Swedish food. If you want them to sound like a gourmand’s delight, tuck into this book. What is it about the Scandanavians that drives them to talk endlessly about food and drink that is best left unmentioned?

So, this is it, Laxness at – so we are told – his best. Coincidentally I read Pericles immediately thereafter, the play often seen as problematical and certainly not Shakespeare at his shining best. Reviewing that list:

Sheep? Not as such, but lots of Greek men, so, you know.
Grim determination? Check.
Death in child-birth. Check.
Incest? Check.

Pretty much, that is, the same subject matter to both stories. That Pericles nonetheless is an absolute pleasure to read and see, is maybe as great a tribute to Shakespeare as one could give. Being good at your best is easy, but good at one’s worst, that’s something we’d all give a lot for, would we not?

Maybe this is the ultimate test. A few years ago my father fell into a coma after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. When I joined him in intensive care and was wondering what might make him talk, I came up with the idea of asking him if I should see Pericles, which was playing in Melbourne at the time. He roused himself for long enough to whisper weakly that it was a difficult play, but yes, I should go and see it. Then he went back to his seemingly unconscious world. I would bet my last dollar that if I’d asked him if I should read Laxness, I probably would have killed him for good.

I have no idea if Laxness writes accurately and well about Iceland sociologically, though this is clearly where his forte lies. He, like Singer, couldn’t paint a character to save his life. They are all wooden caricatures, not a thing rings true about them. So, I guess if you want a kind of social geography of part of Iceland set in a particular historical period, this could be the book for you. But if you want a book about human beings, look elsewhere. I am gobsmacked that the NY Review of Books says that this is ‘the book of your life’. Who wrote that? Presumably he meant the book of his life, it surely isn’t the book of mine. Poor fucker, that’s all I can think to say. And what a turnaround that he managed to escape the life of 22 hours of darkness a day, eating gruel whilst living above horseshit, illiterate with nothing but sheep for company. How did he get to NY? Now HIS story would be interesting.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, in Pericles starts with sheep, death in childbirth, incest and grim determination, but instead of turning them into a dreary social history, he manages to write entertainingly, as usual about the meaning of life, with some great characterisations in the minor characters, Cleon, his ghastly wife, the brothel owners and Boult. The main characters, Marina and her father, are good. I mean really really good, so it is hard to call them interesting. They represent how we should live as they survive the privations they face. It is rather Lord of the Rings where the main characters are so much cardboard, whilst Golem is so alive and real. And yet that cardboard is important.

After the utter humourlessness of Laxness, it was a relief to read something which could be both horrific and hilarious at the same time. Good fair Marina is condemned to be murdered by the servant of Cleon’s wife. He is about to do the deed when the two of them are beset upon by pirates who take Marina with them. The servant is simultaneously relieved that he can go home and tell his mistress that the deed has been done without having done it, but worried that maybe the pirates won’t take her. Maybe they will merely gang rape her and leave her there on the beach. He will wait, he tells us. If that is what they do, then he will murder her. Oh, okay….it doesn’t sound funny, but trust me, it is!