by SRB

Volume 1 – Issue 2 – Reviews

October 28, 2009 | by SRB

To Travel Hopefully – Journal of a Death Not Foretold
Christopher Rush
PROFILE BOOKS: £15.99
pp.264 ISBN 1-86197-708-5

Robert Louis Stevenson – A Biography
Claire Harman
HARPERCOLLINS: £25.00
pp.528 ISBN 0007113218

REVIEWER: IAN BELL

“How poor is the language of happiness,” wrote Osip Mandelstam, a poet sanctified by grief and loss. His meaning is plain to anyone who has ever navigated the hinterlands of language. We have many words for suffering. Such is the human condition, in dismal contrast, that we define a happy life by antonyms, by all the grievous things it is not. Happiness is the absence of hurt.

That linguistic gap causes problems for anyone trying to weigh out a quantity of pain. Journalism fails in the challenge as a matter of routine: what isn’t (pace Aristotle) “a tragedy” for the nightly news? How often do you hear tell of “untold” suffering? Poets, meanwhile, are melancholy as a matter of professional obligation and novelists are bleak because bleak, unlike comic, gets all the praise.

In literature, in other words, pain is a cliché, an artistic convention we believe we understand. Yet if the die is pressed into the soft metal of language too often, we are left with almost nothing: happy, good; unhappy, bad. Experience is reduced to a few tags.

Grief, for one example, is often introduced with the redundant word “inconsolable”. You have to stop and think: if there is the hope of consolation, how can there be grief? If there is true grief, why mention the impossible idea that it might ever be consoled? Christopher Rush’s magnificent memoir begins to answer the questions.

I doubt that such was his intention. My guess is that To Travel Hopefully is one of those books that demanded an existence. It is, in part, a work born of unquenchable art, of a talent refusing to expire in the face of death. Robert Louis Stevenson once said that he felt “unmanned” by persistent illness. In the case of Rush, the brutal facts are that the loss of his wife to breast cancer almost killed him in its turn, and came very close to unmanning him as an artist. Both he and his talent were lucky to survive.

For that, we can thank Louis. The very sentence speaks to a phenomenon with few parallels in literature. It is like being a member of a not-so-secret society. If you are a friend of Louis (Robert Lewis Bal-four) Stevenson, you are drawn into a kinship that cannot easily be summarised. It has something to do with the idea of writing as a heroic endeavour. It has more to do, perhaps, with the knowledge that life and art have deeper connections than we suspect.

Louis “played the part of man” with “some reasonable fullness” and “resisted the diabolic” to the end: it was a modest yet enveloping credo. In finding the mountains of the Cevennes and a donkey named Anatole, Rush did something similar after his wife’s passing. He retraced Stevenson’s journey through France, step by step (as much as that is possible, these days), and somehow cured the diabolic urge to quit the planet. To die was a temptation, to live was hard. Rush travelled with his donkey for less than a fortnight and, in the most important sense, came home.

It is difficult to convey the praise the book deserves. First, the opening pages involve a torrent of remembered pain that few would be capable of putting into words. Rush conquers a basic problem: the language has precious few resources with which to make bereavement palpable. Secondly, the prose possesses an honesty that is fresh, still bleeding, yet shorn of the confessional guff that infests the modern media. This is a man who simply wanted to die.

He had Larkin and Tennyson balancing Anatole’s panniers. He had a sense that the assuaging experiment attempted by Louis, a young man who believed he had lost the love of his life, might work for a 49-year-old teacher of English from Edinburgh and Fife. But as an inveterate dissident in the matter of travel, a believer in the notion that the local is always universal, Rush took to the debatable lands of the Cevennes nevertheless. Hopefully.

Here begins the third note of praise. Rush, like Louis, healed himself in a magical place. The Cevennes range is scarred these days by a convenient new auto-route. The RLS tourist trade is obnoxious when it is not merely silly. The monks of Notre Dame des Neiges have a very keen eye for a visiting euro. But when you have quit the Place de la Poste in the little upland town of Le Monastier, when you have crossed the high tops – by car, in this writer’s lazy fashion – and crawled through an apocalyptic thunderstorm, the landscape is transforming. So here’s one for the dust-jacket: Rush captures all of this almost as well as RLS.

I am partisan, I suspect, almost of necessity, but a memoir that snags on the memory seems to me a better memorial for the author’s dead wife, Patricia, than any funerary ornament. Rush has the courage, for one thing, to talk about sexual loss. For my money, there is a single yardstick: Louis would have got it.

He would also have seen Claire Harman coming. Her branch of academia was and is a plague on his life and work. The latest biographer – and God knows, there have been enough of us – bases her reheated narrative on the old canard that RLS is not “canonical”.

That is probably as much as you need to know, or say, about the supposed canon. If room remains for a critic who does not actually respect her subject’s achievements, Columbia U is welcome. The man, uncharacteristically dishonest, got there first.

“It was a very little dose of inspiration,” he wrote, “and a pretty little trick of style, long lost, improved by the most heroic industry. So far, I have managed to please the journalists. But I am a fictitious article, and have long known it. I am read by journalists, by my fellow novelists, and by boys; with these, incipit et explicit my vogue…”

Not a word of it true, of course. The glory of Louis was in the very sinews of the prose itself, a truth Rush grasps by instinct, yet a truth for which licensed scholars such as Harman have never been equipped to taste, to smell, or to feel.

Poor Mercy
Jonathan Falla
POLYGON: £9.99
304pp. ISBN 1-904598-28-5

REVIEWER: JENNIE RENTON

Set in the Darfur region of western Sudan, Jonathan Falla’s Poor Mercy is a profound and engrossing novel that works on several levels – emotional, political and moral. An unusual love story told with insight and tenderness, it is studded with beautifully observed descriptions of place, ranging from desert to fertile valley to mountain gorge, landscapes as disparate as the ethnic groups that people them.

Described by the UN as undergoing “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, Darfur has become a byword for violence and suffering. While the UN debates the meaning of the word ‘genocide’ and whether it can strictly be said to apply to the Sudanese government’s actions in Darfur, what is beyond debate is that 70,000 ‘rebels’ in the region have been killed in the past four years and many more people have been displaced.

Poor Mercy is set in 1991 and has been ten years in the writing. Illuminating the roots of the current situation, its documentary assurance comes from the author’s extensive experience of working with aid agencies around the world, including in the Sudan. It poses sharp questions about the impact of aid programmes, raising issues such as their vulnerability to political manipulation, the corruption of their values and standards, and the virtual impossibility of operating in chaotic war zones, with no security for workers.

Personality and relationship are the emotional vertebrae of the novel. For me, Poor Mercy dissolved the numbness induced by images of human misery in the mass and focused my response on individual experience. Strongly plotted and electric with personality, the story revolves around an aid team’s desperate efforts to distribute supplies in time to stave off a predicted famine.

Mogga and Leila, he black and from the south, she an Arab from the north, find themselves working together on the programme. The story of their growing affection and tentative intimacy flows through the narrative, prevailing sweetly through circumstances that are often bitter with distrust. In a country where the fault lines of social and ethnic division run deep and vicious, Leila takes a very real personal risk in being open about their friendship. The consequences are far-reaching, providing the novel’s terrifying climax.

Although he presents events in an uncluttered, almost understated style, Falla refuses to simplify or stereotype. Among the complex moral issues he addresses is that of female circumcision, which is still practised in Sudan. His description of Leila and her sister undergoing this dreadful rite of passage, held down by chanting women and hacked at with rough blades, is not for the faint-hearted. But it is women as much as men who guard the tradition and it is Leila’s mother who sees to it that her daughters are circumcised, in defiance of her husband. She regards his high-minded vision for their future and their potential role in shaping a free Sudan as no more than an impediment to their finding good husbands and maintaining social acceptance.

Fulfilling her father’s hopes, Leila becomes an agronomist and marries a fellow academic. Their relationship is close but comes under increasing strain due to her infertility, which was probably caused by the severe infection that followed her circumcision. When her husband publishes a report criticising a government agricultural initiative, he is thrown into jail as a dangerous dissident. It is at this turning point that she becomes involved in the Darfur aid programme and meets Mogga.

Mogga is destitute when he first reaches Darfur. War has forced him to leave the village of his birth, where he taught in the school founded by his father. Fleeing north by rail, he is caught up in an attack by government forces, who chuck cakes of camel fodder soaked in petrol into the crowded train. Their main targets are Dinka passengers. Because Mogga belongs to another tribe, he is spared. But where a lesser man would quietly retreat, thankful to be alive, he shows his mettle and faces up to the marauding soldiers, who give him a harsh beating.

Still traumatised by these events, he is taken on by the aid agency as a translator, his predecessor having been murdered by bandits. Xavier Hopkins, the director, is surprised at Mogga’s skills, observing that it is “no more likely that a southern Sudanese should speak Arabic than a Cockney should speak Gaelic.” He is even more surprised at the extent to which he comes to rely on this man who has drifted into their ambit. An unprepossessing and even comical figure physically, Mogga turns out to be charismatic and forceful. Possessed of an irresistible honesty and sense of the ridiculous, he has a natural authority with others. Among the many vividly drawn characters, his is the most intriguing. He and Leila embody hope for the future of Sudan.

Poor Mercy, which takes its title from The Pilgrim’s Progress, shows Jonathan Falla to be a mature storyteller in full command of his craft. Provocative and moving, it is an altogether memorable piece of writing.

Bringing Back Some Brightness: 20 Years of New Writing Scotland
Edited by Valerie Thornton and Hamish Whyte
ASLS, £6.95
pp.200 ISBN 094887760X

REVIEWER: ROSEMARY GORING

Twenty years is a long time in literature. In the mid-1980s, many of the poets, novelists and short story writers who are now recognised as the cream of Scotland’s talent had scarcely begun to set word to paper, and the astonishingly prolific and energetic new wave of Scottish fiction that has distinguished the last 15 or so years was still in its infancy, mewling and bawling, but not yet on its feet.

Throughout these two decades, the small and unobtrusive annual magazine, New Writing Scotland, was publishing work by some of the most interesting names in the business: many of them wholly or virtually unknown when they first went into print here, others legends already. What role this magazine has played in establishing Scottish literary confidence is hard to calculate; what is clear, however, reading this collation of pieces from its 20-year history, is how diverse an array of voices Scottish poetry and fiction nurtures, and what a sense of playful irreverence.

The literary sprint seems to suit the Scottish temperament, for both writer and reader. The result is an invigorating collection that could be used to encapsulate the Caledonian psyche. Whether it’s suppressed violence, spiritual lyricism, politically-fired comment or pirouetting whimsy, Bringing Back Some Brightness offers a highly-charged taste of the Scottish creative mind.

For a slim work, it punches well above its weight. With only a handful of pieces from each year, it might be accused by some of short changing its heritage. Yet the editors should, rather, be congratulated for this lesson in economy, in restraining the urge to cram in as much as possible and instead relying on the impact of the work they select which, along with its many other virtues, highlights the skill of many writers in saying what they must in as few words as possible.

Some of the nation’s bestselling successes are represented here, notably Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh, with an early short story by each in which their mature tone is already well developed. Theirs are, however, by no means the best of the lot – far from it, in fact. There’s poetry from Norman MacCaig, G.F. Dutton, Edwin Morgan and Aonghas Macneacail, all of it striking; fiction from Iain Crichton Smith, sardonic prose from AL Kennedy, and a bitingly memorable piece by Janice Galloway, called ‘Fearless’, in which her narrator recalls her hometown’s high-street terrorist, a tramp-like little man with a persecution complex. “Christ,” says Galloway’s angry, uncowed heroine, “some people seemed to admire this drunken wee tragedy as a local hero.”

Then there are names far less familiar to the mainstream reader (as yet). Among the most powerful yet simple poems is Kevin MacNeil’s ‘The Harbour’, published both in Gaelic and English, but there’s also Brent Hodgson’s original and witty series of prose poems, ‘Pepys In My Diary’; James McGonigall’s poem ‘Feet First’, about the role of feet in a man’s life, is both humorous and true, and David Kinloch’s meditation on being a stranger in a foreign city, ‘Dustie-Fute’, sounds an echo of medieval philosophy, insight and stoicism. Indeed feet and toes are a recurring theme throughout this compilation. Is this a reminder that even the most literary of Scots are, at heart, not only rooted in their own land but inescapably down to earth?

Barring only a couple of contributions whose ordinariness stands out all the more for the quality of their company, this is an excellent anthology. Yet what is most intriguing and at the same time disturbing about this footpath through recent history is the obvious fickleness of literary fate.

There are writers here – Brian McCabe and Dilys Rose are the first to mind – whose talent is vastly greater than their fame. In a pair of stories, ‘Not About the Kids’, and ‘All the Little Loved Ones’, placed shoulder to shoulder, McCabe and Rose demonstrate their terrific craftsmanship and subtlety. They are the sort of writers who could create a Chekhovian tale from nothing more substantial than watching the burning butt of a cigarette. Short stories, however, are not the road to success, at least not in the UK. Genre fiction, it seems, is almost the only route to wealth and glory, and even then success is not guaranteed.

What is so abundantly, and pleasingly, evident from this compilation is the unquenchable drive among Scottish writers to eschew the well-trodden path and strike out with originality and courage. The great pleasure that this collection offers is paid for dearly, in many cases, by the writers themselves. Writing is a long game, but for some represented here, it must seem not just long but cruelly unfair.

Summer of the Cicada
Will Napier
CHATTO & WINDUS: £10.99
pp.325 ISBN 0224073575

REVIEWER: COLIN WATERS

The American high school system has become familiar to Europeans through books, films, and news reports on the latest playground massacre. From this remove, it resembles an informal caste system with a brute social Darwinism fuelling its division into jocks and geeks. In the battle for survival of the coolest, Will Napier’s hero, Joseph Pullman, is failing. As the new kid in Maritime, Maryland, he’s already a target but there’s something else about Joseph that makes him a howling fist-magnet. Perhaps it’s that his sense of victimhood runs deep and wide and clear to all. Even his magnificently unconcerned mother comments, “They never attack the strong ones, Joseph.”

This is a world in which social status is confirmed and wellbeing achieved through violence. Any notion of disputes being settled by a bout of gentlemanly boxing is as dead as the Marquess of Queens-berry. A defining image of how this world works is summoned at the top of chapter two when a neighbour’s dogs tear apart a stray cat. “The kind of guys wanting to fight me came in teams and fought in packs,” Joseph thinks, and then later as danger swirls around him, he adds, in an image recalling that second chapter, “I just stood there like a cat in the circle of a pack of dogs.” Assuming the sacrificial role of communal punchbag, Joseph provides sustenance to romantic bullies looking to wow easily impressed girls, and chorus lines of bored thugs in search of a torture toy.

Home life incredibly is worse. When we first meet Joseph, battered, bloody, and with “a face like a busted melon,” we assume he has just suffered a tanking from pugilistic peers. But, no: “There was my old man standing over me.” His hellish academic life, it becomes transparent, flows from his equally miserable home life. Schoolwork suffers when his parents keep him home post-beatings, long enough to heal and so not attract unwelcome questions. Violence flies from Joseph’s unpredictable father like sparks off a Catherine-wheel, to the extent the boy goes to sleep with a penknife in his hand. His mother is acquiescent in her husband’s rages, telling the police boys beat Joseph up when her son’s injuries are so bad they require the attention of a doctor. Nor does she provide succour: “You have a face that asks for it, Joseph. He can’t hold back when you’re around.” Between this domestic tyrant and the junior sadists at school, there’s barely a page that doesn’t see Joseph’s eye being blackened or his stomach catching a punch. “Does he hit you?” his headmistress asks, nearing the truth of the boy’s home life. “Who doesn’t?” Joseph replies.

What little emotional nourishment Joseph receives comes by way of his sole friendship, with a fellow outcast, Dean Gillespie. “We were both socially inept, but Dean was almost entombed within himself.” Dean’s mother, whom Joseph comes to view as a surrogate in place of his wretched own, provides the few chinks of kindness shown by any character. This provides Dean with a weakness to exploit, knowing a word from him would banish Joseph from the single, slim ray of hope illuminating his life. “If I fucked up things with the Gillespies, it would’ve been just me and my old man.” Despite the friendship being the only one in both the boy’s lives, Dean and Joseph’s alliance is not healthy, centred as it is on killing and collecting dead animals, in particular the cicadas that have returned to the town after a seventeen year absence. “Sometimes I want to kill something more than insects,” Dean pointedly comments.

Napier, an American who studied at Glasgow University’s writing course and is now resident in Dundee, has crafted a debut novel that recalls early Ian McEwan’s interest in children cut loose from adult morality, and Stephen King at his most considered. While accomplished, it does suffer the usual first time writer traits: it is a little too long and a few characters, Joseph’s neighbours mainly, are introduced without contributing anything to the ecology of the novel.

Of the characters the reader grows intimate with, Joseph’s dad is most troubling, not merely in terms of his capacious appetite for fatherly assault but in the blankness with which his character is rendered. Because the first person narrative is poured entirely through Joseph’s consciousness, we never know where his parent’s anger comes from; we’re not even sure what dad’s job is. Consequently his father assumes the status of a bogeyman, sacrificing a psychological edge in the process. Similarily, there’s a complete absence of humour to lift the novel’s chilly mood.

Yet the power of the world Summer Of The Cicada creates is bleak and undeniable. One need only follow Joseph’s trajectory from an absorber of violence to its dispenser to understand abuse’s vampiric nature. Napier has given a voice to the voiceless – the child in the paper the social services didn’t reach in time, the hectored kid who one day snaps disastrously – and he does it without patronising them by making them obviously sympathetic. That is what writers do.

The Good Neighbour
By John Burnside
JONATHAN CAPE: £9.00
pp. 83. ISBN 0-224-07517-9

REVIEWER: ALASDAIR MACRAE

In the ‘East Coker’ section of Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot writes: “Here or there does not matter/We must be still and still moving/Into another intensity/For a further union, a deeper communion.” In the poem, Eliot is in Somerset in the late 1930s and thinking of America where he was brought up and to which his ancestors emigrated from Somerset in the seventeenth century. The ‘here’ and ‘there’ are spatial and temporal but they are also spiritual in the sense of an actual, tangible situation and an imagined elsewhere experienced in the mind. Significance in our human lives resides in the points of intersection between the here and the there.

John Burnside’s The Good Neighbour, his ninth and latest collection of poems, is arranged in two sections, ‘Here’ and ‘There’. The shared qualities across the two sections are much more apparent than the differences although the poems in the first section tend to be located around Burnside’s home in Fife whereas many of the poems in the second section are located abroad. Over and over, the intellectual pressure in the poems persuades us of the falsity of distinctions and clear categories. Describing Arctic charr and their behaviour in a shoal, he writes of “a unity of eyes/ and movement, centred everywhere at once/ and nowhere, as the centre of the world/ is here, and now, in every blade of grass/ or poppy head that shivers in the wind,/ though when we stop to look, nothing is there.” Or it could be the systolic, diastolic movements of a large flock of birds, bunching almost to invisibility and then fanning out to darken the sky, denying solidity and mere counting. Burnside’s concern is with the transformative moment, an inbetween-ness. A recurring phrase across the collection is ‘not quite’ as in ‘not quite there’, ‘a not quite human form’, ‘not quite true’ and ‘not quite dawn’, and his favoured settings are in haar, twilight, at the edge of the woods, the tide half-out.

For a poet who is intensely erudite in a range of subjects and one of whose hobbies is taxonomy, the poetry, while often demanding, is curiously unassuming and tentative. Even in a poem with the daunting title ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’ and acknowledged to be ‘after Vesalius’, the poet confesses: “I know the names of almost/ nothing.” Actually it is a wonderful exploration of the mixture of knowledge and ignorance common to us all. His alertness in his own observations and an appreciation of the scientist’s or artist’s fierce scrutiny are deeply moving: “how Stubbs would peel/ the cold hide from a horse/ and peer into the dark machinery/ of savage grace.” There is a strong environmental awareness in all of Burnside’s work but he does not do Norman MacCaig cameos of birds or burns, nor does he offer homilies on the future of the planet. Although there are many lovely descriptive phrases of creatures, his priority is less with description than with registering forms of process, less with the physical and more with something psychological. One of the epigraphs to the collection is from Wallace Stevens: “But how does one feel? / One grows used to the weather, / The landscape and that; / And the sublime comes down/ To the spirit itself.” Certainly, some of the poems relate closely to late Stevens and his enquiries into feeling and being, but another epigraph derives from a very different poet, Robert Frost, a much more socially minded writer.

In the opening and title poem ‘The Good Neighbour’ and the penultimate poem ‘Good Fences’, Burnside continues the discussion deriving from the phrase “Good fences make good neighbours” quoted in Frost’s famous poem ‘Mending Wall’. Many of the poems in this collection are firmly grounded in recognisable landscapes, small town streets, houses, weathers, but the ordinary often becomes extraordinary, the familiar seems startlingly strange, the lived-in here is an alien elsewhere. When domestic surroundings and the people we know behave out of character, is the wobble into foreignness in the observed or the observer? These are poems exploring boundary areas of the mind, sometimes intoxicating, sometimes terrifying. Even the syntax, punctuation and lineation lose expected definition and become integral to the wandering, questing persona. John Burnside’s latest collection shimmers with beauty, excitement and apprehension – a wondrous advance even on his excellent earlier work.

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