My favourite book of January (Normal People), and a pile of translated fiction I got for my birthday the other day.
My favourite book of January (Normal People), and a pile of translated fiction I got for my birthday the other day.
A couple of days before Christmas I woke in the early hours struggling to breathe and feeling sweat trickling down my back and covering my brow. I’d had a bad dream. It’s not unusual for me to sleep badly, I often wake up worrying about stuff but this was unusual for me; I don’t normally dream at all, let alone have nightmares. Something had spooked me though; I sat up startled and confused unable to piece together what had happened in my night terror to distress me so much – faceless people I didn’t recognise lurking in doorways, a beaker full of spit, another containing teeth, a third holding paintbrushes. Metal coat-hangers clattering in the background (this is something I had nightmares about a lot as a child), me emerging from a winnebago confused and feeling and unseen menace. And that’s it. That’s as much as I remember. When I tried to understand what it was all about the following day, an explanation felt just out of reach, as though an important puzzle piece was missing. I couldn’t quite work it out.
This is exactly how I felt reading Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. The Catalan writer’s posthumously published novel is an oppressive read and horrific in places. This story is narrated by an unnamed young man describing life in a restless and rules-driven society governed by weirdness and occult-like regimens. Where the status quo is a given. Noone questions the strange reoccurring activities the villagers carry out every year. The residents are compliant with the horrific traditions they adhere to. Treating each other with contempt and casting out our committing violence against anyone stepping out of line. I never quite got to grips with what was going on or what it all symbolised. Like my night terror, I had a notion that the answer would be on the next page, or perhaps the one after that – and when it didn’t emerge, I wondered whether my capacity to understand was just not quite developed enough; I’m not bright enough to comprehend the meaning. Though I did manage to work out that the oppression of village life symbolised life for many Spaniards under Franco’s dictatorship.
I may not be clever enough to understand what the heck this book is about or what was going on most of the time but I am clever enough to realise the quality of Rodoreda’s writing. Her description of nature, mountains, butterflies, rivers and woodland are utterly sublime, even though most of these natural features are the cause of some of the horrors meted out to the villagers. Her prose is dreamlike and ethereal, shifting and repeating, sometimes surprising you by jerking from one moment to another. Many scenes are described as viewed from a distance; from the back of a crowd, from behind a shrub, from up a tree, rarely straight on, as though described by an onlooker rather than a participant. It’s this style that reminded me of my nightmare where I felt removed from and confused by the scene I dreamt.
The only other thing I fathomed was the source of the oppression:
Let suffering be removed, but not desire, because desire keeps you alive. That’s why they are afraid. They are consumed by the fear of desire. They want to suffer so they won’t think about desire. You’re maimed when you’re little, and fear is hammered into the back of your head. Because desire keeps you alive, they kill it off while you’re growing up, the desire for all things, in that way when you’re grown…
Life without desire of any kind, is a life lived in fear and not worth living at all.
Everyone in our house does anyway, even the most reluctant of readers (I thought the Ladybird Expert books may help with GCSE revision; let’s see). As usual, mine is the biggest pile. I finished Cassandra Darke by Christmas Day night and have almost finished Death in Spring – which I don’t really understand but am enjoying nevertheless.
Last January I imposed vegetarianism on my family. Just for the month. We all survived. It was pretty good actually; the challenge of rethinking our entire menu choices appealed to my need to do something different to herald the new year. We are doing it again in 2018. The kids aren’t happy but took great delight in the realisation they can eat meaty things at the school canteen, which is beyond my jurisdiction.
Our commitment to going veggie is nothing to the “completely unremarkable” Yeong-hye’s in Hang Kang’s award winning novel, The Vegetarian. Being vegetarian is not well received in Korea. In fact, it’s viewed with suspicion. A violent and disturbing dream is the catalyst to Yeong-hye’s dietary decsion. The following day she throws away all the meat in the house and refuses to eat anything but vegetables. Her family is unsupportive and none of them understand her choice. The isolation spirals Yeong-hye’s mental and physical well-being to beyond even medical help.
Yeong-hye’s story is told from three points of view over a number of years. The first is her husband’s testament. He describes how her decision is met by other family members and society in general. The second narrator is Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an unsuccessful artist who becomes obsessed with her body and it being the key to his much desired commercial success and artistic acceptance. The last part is told by her sister who guides us through the familial fall-out and feuds that result from Yeong-hye’s decision to turn veggie.
All three sections describe a conservative society not designed to deal with choices outside the mainstream. It is a society obsessed with how others view you and one constantly concerned with reputation when someone dares to break with tradition. Yeong-hye is a frustrating character. She is passionate about her decision yet entirely dispassionate at every point, almost blank and expressionless – we never get her view though and so the 3 narrators describe her with the same lack of passion they are expected to display themselves in a community so obsessed with the “right” image.
This is a visceral and violent novel (there is a force-feeding scene that made me feel physically sick), which goes against the grain of everything I associate with being vegetarian. Yet it works in this context. The only means of breaking out of the social constraints placed on Yeong-hye, is for her to abuse her body and maintain control of her mental and physical self. The unpleasant scenes are necessary.
The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International prize in 2016 for a reason; because it is unique and extraordinary.
In an effort to write up some of the scribbles I’ve penned in my notebook this year, I’m shamelessly stealing an idea I saw at The Tate bookshop in November. More of these to come.
P.S. I know my handwriting is appalling – sorry.
This time last year, I suggested we talk about love. Shall we do it again? I think we should.
This year has seen even less writing here than last year. Despite the lack of new “content” I got lots of visitors (that story’s for another time). Although I’ve not been active here, I’ve been writing bits elsewhere and short pieces for work. My year’s been hectic beyond belief with nothing more than everyday life and surviving it, which has inevitably impacted my reading choices. In the main, I’ve chosen slim volumes this year; brevity has been everything.
Writers have to work hard with short fiction (I’m not suggesting that writers of longer fiction don’t work hard btw). I continue to marvel at how writers use style and language to convey a story in a short volume. What they leave out tends to be almost as important as the words they include. Their omissions make the reader toil for their literary enjoyment. This is a good thing for a reader like me – I like to be challenged. I like filling in the gaps.
What I’m trying to say is that I’ve fallen in love with shorter fiction. I got so much enjoyment from all the slim volumes I’ve read this year – I’ve loved being immediately plunged into a plot, getting swiftly to the nub of the tale and being propelled to a conclusion. My head can’t seem to cope any more with layered plots and lengthy, multi-character tomes. I’ve felt a massive sense of achievement when putting books back on the shelf in quick succession. Also, from a practical perspective, small books are much easier to commute with!
Much of what I’ve read this year has been about love – check the 3 books I wrote about earlier in the year as good examples. Other stand out titles include Ask The Dust by John Fante, Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, In Love by Alfred Hayes, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner and The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. I could go on, but I’m already breaking all the rules of brevity in writing….
All these books deal with love in its myriad forms; passionate, obsessive, platonic, married, secretive, contented, fractious. You get the idea. Tin Man by Sarah Winman is a beautiful example of a love story about longing and grief. It affected me emotionally (not with Essex Serpent-ine tears, admittedly). I got a tight, heavy feeling in my chest that means I’ve read something moving. I felt enormous compassion and empathy for the main characters. The warmth I feel for it has encouraged me out of my hiatus.
Tin Man is a story of 3 people whose lives are linked through shared experience, compassion, friendship and love for each other. The story of their lives is revealed through Ellis and Michael’s recollections and memories, with Annie featuring as the glue that binds them and the reason for their estrangement despite being firm childhood friends. It’s tinged with regret and sadness overshadowed by a tragedy only hinted at until near the end and which prompts the memories. With her subtle and muted prose, Winman manages to evoke a feeling of loss and yearning for the relationship, creative and career decisions that might have been. How would their lives be, had they chosen differently? A feeling I suspect most of us can relate to.
The bond and connection between Michael and Ellis is emotionally strong. There is a touching moment when Michael worries about how he will be received by his old friend after a long period away with no contact. He turns up unannounced and is greeted as though he’s never been away – it made my heart sing.
For me, this book and that passage in particular perfectly articulates what love and friendship is about. When two people experience intimate emotional moments and connection they remain unbroken by time and space. The moments and connection eternally bind them, no matter how many days or years go by or how much geography separates them, the moments, even if fleeting, still exist in their memories as though they were recent encounters. (I’m getting a lump in my throat just writing those words, and I’ve not even had a festive sherry yet!).
Winman navigates us through the decades, deftly providing a glimpse of working life disappointments, trips of discovery to the South of France, life with Aids in the 1980s/90s and carefree summer days by the river. Over a few pages we become intimately involved with these characters until we understand them fully. I love writing that does this. I know I’ve told you very little about what TinMan is about; It’s about love – you don’t really need to know much more and in hindsight maybe that’s all I should have written.
In the spirit of this theme of love and friendship, I’m going to add the same line I closed last year’s post with, and it’s as fitting this year as it was then.
Care for others even when they don’t care for you. All. The. Time.