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Archive for November, 2009

The Church and the Crown (2002)
Cavan Scott and Mark Wright
Big Finish #38
Starring: Peter Davison, Nicola Bryant, Caroline Morris

One of the refreshing aspects of Doctor Who is the ability of the format to adapt to any type of story – so that one week we can have hard science fiction, the next a monster story, the next something else. The something else in this tale is that it contains no monsters, no science fiction (other than the time travel the characters undertake to arrive in 17th France) – it is simply a historical romp, a story of doubles, cardinals, musketeers, and monarchs: how very Dumas (who warrants a wonderful deconstruction from the Doctor). We are in Richelieu’s time, and an English duke, Buckingham, is beginning his invasion of France by kidnapping Queen Anne – only Peri is Anne’s double, and the men grab the wrong woman, and a comedy of errors begins.

As the first story to feature Erimem as a companion – following her leaving ancient Egypt at the end of The Eye of the Scorpion – this story has a lot to pack in: its dramatic storyline, but seeing how Erimem copes with finding herself in a new time, a new place, far from home. It is in these first stories that we see how a companion will handle themselves travelling with the Doctor – from the outset Erimem is taking charge, blagging her way into the Royal Court and pretending to be a princess of a foreign land (which, I suppose, she was). She handles herself well in battle. She is a confident young woman. I suspect this confidence will dismount her at some point in a future story, but for now Erimem is kick-ass and wonderful.

The story, by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright, the duo behind the atmospheric Project: Twilight, rips along, full of some witty one lines, and a question the Doctor cannot answer: “Exactly how does one swash ones buckle?” There are moments here when it does appear somewhat slight – perhaps where the comedy should be highlighted more and is not – but overall The Church and the Crown holds up as a fun adventure – though the huge number of anachronistic words almost takes you out of the narrative.

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Legend of a Suicide (2008)
David Vann
Penguin, 228pp

David Vann’s debut novel, Legend of a Suicide, is six short stories on a theme: the suicide of a father. Autobiographical in tone – Vann grew up in Alaska, as Fenn does in these stories, and his father did take his own life – they are stories distilled through a McCarthy lens. In a recent essay Vann has praised McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: it is not hard to discern the lessons Vann last learnt regarding the treatment of landscape: the island of Sukkwan, on which the longest of these six pieces takes place, is drawn with such clarity and fever, when the snow comes down and the rest of the world is forgotten, it is men against nature, spirit against circumstance.

As every review of Vann’s novel has said, it is difficult to truly talk about this book without revealing the shocking turn of events in the middle of Sukkwan Island, the fourth of the stories. This event reverberates back through everything that has come and everything that will come: it is the key to Vann’s understanding of his father’s suicide. It also contains a much deeper philosophical thought – the idea that though one can die before ones time, ones time on earth is determined, and when you are supposed to go, you go. It is determined. It is inexorable. Vann’s language is equally fatalist.

From the end of the first piece in Legend of a Suicide, Ichthyologist: “he took his .44 Magnum handgun from the cabin and walked back to stand alone on the bright silver stern under a heavy, gray-white sky and the cries of gulls, his boots slathered with the dark blood of freshly caught salmon. He may have paused for a moment to reflect, but I doubt it. His momentum was made up only of air, without the distraction of ground. He splattered himself amid the entrails of salmon, his remains picked at by gulls for several hours before my uncle came up from the engine room and found him.”

In that extract you can hear McCarthy, Faulkner, the pantheon of American Gothic landscaping in literature. It has a sharp brutality. It is language unencumbered. You have the event and nothing more. It is the writing style I deeply admire – and that seems only to work within the mythos of America – and as such I found Vann’s debut extraordinary. I read it one evening, in two sittings (stopping at the midway point in Sukkwan Island), and as I read the last of that outstanding story, the winter wind howled up our street, rattling the windowpanes, and it was not hard to imagine being trapped in the wildness of Alaska, with the winter closing in, and the future so uncertain.

As I do not wish to spoil the surprises of Vann’s narrative, I shall say nothing more on it, other than to say this is a great American debut, a work I am sure will appear in the Penguin Modern Classics range in a decade or two, and one that all lovers of fine literature should seek out. A powerful, humbling, moving debut.

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The Humbling (2009)
Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape, 140pp

Philip Roth’s thirtieth novel arrives with much controversy. The man often dubbed – by myself included – America’s Greatest Living Author – has written a book that for some is atrocious, for others another masterpiece of Roth’s late blossoming. I read it before reading a single review and my first instinct was one of immense praise – I am a Rothian, though, one of the converted. Much scorn was placed at this books door, especially in its treatment of sex and sexual activity. The lengthy ménage à trois with its graphic sexual detailing that occupies the centre of this novel being the truly decisive moment. William Skidelsky called it: “more an old man’s sexual fantasy dressed up in the garb of literature”, whilst Aravind Adiga called it “a voluptuous essay on extinction masquerading as a novel.” Whatever it is, The Humbling is a much debated book.

Simon Axler has “lost his magic”; a renowned stage actor he finds himself caught unstage, unable to act. He withdraws from public life, his wife leaves him (in a sentence) and checks into a psychiatric hospital. There he meets a woman whose husband is sexually abusing their daughter, and she asks Axler to kill him. He leaves the hospital and returns to an empty home – his agent tries to persuade him to return to the stage – he meets the lesbian daughter of an old friend whom he seduces and talks into the infamous three-way, is then rejected by her and ends his life. The Humbling, then, is action packed but at the same time condensed; Roth’s writing is like a scalpel. He knows how to cut.

This novel is a two hander between Axler and Pegeen, the voluptuous lesbian: both are people lost in the world. Axler his magic, Pegeen her partner who has become a man. He woos her with expensive coats, turns her from a dour type into a glamourous dominating woman; their sexual lust is immediate and, because this is Roth, comic. Because of Axler’s dodgy back, we learn that Pegeen “mounted him” and he guides her: “You’re on a horse. Ride it.” They begin to experiment: “he worked his thumb into her ass” and “later he put his cock in there”. (“‘Did it hurt?’ he asked her. ‘It hurt, but it’s you.'”)Then Pegeen unveils her range of erotic paraphernalia. Her green strap-on dildo proves no match for Axler’s penis, which Pegeen contemplates lovingly before telling him: “It fills you up… the way dildos and fingers don’t.” Some commentators have argued that Roth in these sections is misogynistic, too fantastical, but Axler allows Pegeen to dominate him, it is her that chooses him, the partner that joins them, and it is she that chooses to leave him. Axler is at her mercy. Axler is pathetic. It is the women here that are forceful. Axler wants to be filthy, but he is no match for Pegeen.

If one removed this sexual dalliance from The Humbling then one would have a very powerful short story about ageing and the nature of performance – but by including this sequence, which is all about performance and ageing – The Humbling becomes a greater work; its canvas is expanded. It reveals again Roth as the master craftsman of American letters. The sex may seem unnecessary, and I’m sure it will at least be nominated for the bad sex in fiction award, but it is absolutely essential to understanding these characters and the themes of this novel, and of Roth’s recent oeuvre. The Humbling is absolute proof of Roth’s genius.

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Indignation (2008)
Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape, 231pp

Philip Roth’s late blossoming continued with this, his thirty-ninth novel, his third in as many years. Indignation, unlike Everyman and Exit Ghost with their explorations of modern morality and ageing, is the story of a teenager, Marcus Messner, who leaves his father’s butchers in New Jersey to go study at a university at Winesburg College in Ohio. Like many of Roth’s previous novels, Messner’s maturation at university is mostly a sexual one and much of Roth’s trademark is here: the deconstruction of a blowjob in a car is wonderfully done.

The backdrop to Indignation is the 1950s, and in particular the Korean War which hovers in the background, the threat Messner faces if he does not succeed at university. Luckily Messner is a talented and knowledgeable student, but one whom in attempting to escape his Jewish roots becomes entangled in the fundamentalist Christian mores of Ohio: can Messner survive in a place whose doctrines he does not share?

Much of Indignation can be read as a subversion of the film genre of frat movies: the students undertake a ‘panty raid’ of the female dorms; there is the uptight dean, a riot and lots of ejaculation. If Roth weren’t the foremost novelist in America today, giving the synopsis one might imagine him writing screenplays for the American Pie film series. This reading is only an incidental one: Roth has much more erudite fish to fry. In a lengthy sequence Messner, challenging the Dean, quotes from Bertrand Russell’s infamous essay ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’, and it is this doctrinal fight that reverberates throughout Indignation. Messner is choosing not to be certain things based upon his reading, and even his choosing of Olivia Hutton, the suicidal practitioner of fellatio with whom he becomes enamoured, is based more upon the effect it will have rather than any true feeling. Messner seems to want to rebel (much as many teenagers did in the 1950s), and like the famous cinematic rebel, he is without a cause.

This, though, is not just a novel about teenage life in the 1950s. At times Roth’s true intent is subtle; it worms away under the frat house antics, seeps into your subconscious – and it is only when the Dean gives a final rallying call to his students does it all become clear:

“Beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear. Beyond your fraternities, history unfolds daily—warfare, bombings, wholesale slaughter, and you are oblivious of it all. Well, you won’t be oblivious for long! You can be as stupid as you like, can even give every sign, as you did here on Friday night, of passionately wanting to be stupid, but history will catch you in the end. Because history is not the background—history is the stage! And you are on the stage! Oh, how sickening is your appalling ignorance of your own times! Most sickening of all is that it is just that ignorance that you are purportedly at Winesburg to expunge. What kind of a time do you think you belong to, anyway? Can you answer? Do you know? Do you have any idea that you belong to a time at all?”

Indignation is a novel about today as well as the past; Roth, after all, is on his familiar terrain. When, in a final sudden moment, we learn Marcus Messner’s fate, we learn how transitory life is, how we cannot take all that we have for granted, how we should rise with indignation and fight. Roth is a writer with a cause, and we should be grateful he still writes.

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Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt (The Passport) (1986)
Herta Müller
Translated by Martin Chalmers
Serpent’s Tail, 93pp

Herta Müller was awarded The Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, bringing the fiction of this Romanian writer to a world audience. Before this accolade, there were no novels by Müller available in English – though this one, and a few others, had previously been published but were now out of print. The small but wonderful publishing group Serpent’s Tail rushed to get Müller back into print.

The Passport (the title in German means literally “Man is a large pheasant in the world”, a Romanian proverb) tells the story of Windisch, who applies for a passport to leave his country. The thinness of the plot hides a multitude. Tibor Fischer, in his Guardian review of this novel, was rather scathing: he claimed without a knowledge of Romanian racial history, much of The Passport would make little sense. He claimed Müller’s writing “the most rudimentary”. The first impression of Müller’s style was indeed that she is rather clipped. Here is her opening: “Around the war memorial are roses. They form a thicket. So overgrown that they suffocate the grass. Their blooms are white, rolled tight like paper. They rustle. Dawn is breaking. Soon it will be day.” I read, imaging a quiet voice reading these words, a voice telling us this story with fear trembling there: to tell this story is to risk death. And indeed that is the point for life in Ceausescu’s Romania was like this. Windisch, trying to leave, risks bringing the wrath of the government upon his head. Only Müller’s portraiture is not of urban malaise, but of Romania’s unchanged, almost primitive countryside. It is her milieu. Her terse, taut prose reveals the rotten heart of her country and the open honesty of the people that populate it. Her politics may not be as savage or as immediately clear as in other writers, but the indictment is just as damning.

One of the most revelatory aspects of Müller’s writing is her use of metaphor and at times surreal imagery. “Windisch pulls the blade of grass through his teeth. The blade of grass is cold. His gums are cold. Windisch holds the sky in his mouth. The wind and the night sky. The blade of grass shreds between his teeth.” Open The Passport on any page and you will find such surreal beauty, such illuminating statements. The Nobel committee was not wrong when it claimed that “with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, Müller depicts the language of the dispossessed.” In many ways her writing of such poverty stricken lives reminded me of Gwyn Thomas: both writers are able to see the beauty and the outlandishness of such lives, and find the poetry in ordinariness. Such are the gifts of the writer.

Herta Müller will now see her literary star in ascendance, after the crumbling of the regime she loathed in a country she so loved, and one can only wait to see how she uses this new found respect to continue to tell stories such as The Passport, stories that revel in the humanity of man, even in the face of such adversity. One may not like her style, but the in the end it is the power of her words that consume you. Simplicity does not mean simple. The Passport is an astounding story.

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The Diary of a Young Girl (1942 – 1944)
Anne Frank
Penguin, 351pp

With a week in Amsterdam it would have been remiss of me not to visit the Anne Frank Huis on Prinsengracht. The building, unassuming, almost invisible in the row that runs from the Westerkerk downward, was the hiding place of the Frank family and others from 1942 until their capture in August 1944 – they almost made it through the war. Their ‘Secret Annexe’ (as Anne called it and was to call her first novel based on their experiences) has been left unfurnished – the Nazi’s ransacked their home, and only by the immediate action of Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl was Anne’s diary saved. When they returned it to Otto Frank, when it became clear his daughters had died in Bergen-Belsen, he saw the power of his daughter’s words and after a protracted editorial discourse, Anne’s diary was revealed to the world. Not an immediate success in the Netherlands, it sold well enough to warrant an English translation. When the first print run of 5,000 copies were sold in the first afternoon, The Diary of a Young Girl, better known as The Diary of Anne Frank, became a global phenomenon with Anne’s message inspiring people the world over.

That first edition of Anne’s diary was a considered affair: while in the Annexe, Anne heard that a British radio station was looking to collect and collate stories of survival after the war, and she began to turn her diary into a novel called The Secret Annexe – so in truth there are two Anne Frank diaries – known as versions a and b. When Otto Frank came to publish the diaries he censored, understandably, the negative comments Anne had made about her family and other residents and the details of her sexual awakening. The edition that I bought in the Anne Frank Huis, the 60th anniversary edition, is based upon the b edition but also contains diary pages that have become known since the first publication. It is also unexpurgated, so the entries excised by Otto Frank have been reinstated. Nevertheless it is not the complete diary as left by Anne – for that one would need to read both the a and b editions, found in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank: The Revised Critical Edition’ which also contains the later discovered material and more beside, and is thusly known as the c edition.

My knowledge of Anne Frank and her diary was limited. I had no idea another family resided in the Annexe, nor that she wrote so much or that her thoughts were so developed. I had not seen any of the many versions of her story that have appeared on film or television. To visit the house was a truly moving and humbling experience, and even before reaching the end of the tour I knew I would buy her diary; standing in the room that was her bedroom with its photographs of film stars tacked to the wall, in the unbearable small space that she shared –shared! – I was bought to tears. Her diary is moving, but its power is as much derived from knowledge that she will not survive this, that the dreams she has will lay unrealised, broken in the mud of a German concentration camp, as it is from her words. Anne Frank was a good writer, even at the age of thirteen, and would undoubtedly have become a great writer: but would the words she wrote in the Annexe have had such power had she not died? It is perhaps not a question easily or often asked, and is undoubtedly insensitive to ask, for the Diary is a monument, a worthy memorial, an icon of an age and an experience, a reminder that we, as a species, should never allow ourselves to return to such barbarism, but it is the question that I kept asking whilst reading. There are other such stories out there, dimmed because the victim survived, dimmed because the victim was not a beautiful child, and though Anne could only ever record what she knew and saw and felt, her monument seems to stand and inspire as a solitary beacon, shorn of its contextualisation, of the other stories. Monuments may affect us, but their effect can never be total. To hear the voice they commemorate loosens the monument, makes it tangible – that is where Anne’s Diary works well, for to read it makes it real (especially if you have stood in those rooms) – but what I suppose I am afraid of is this: is one lone voice coming out of the blackness of human history enough to stop it happening again? I read this Diary in the week that a vile human being in British politics expounded his propaganda on national television, a propaganda that could lead all too quickly to another atrocity, could lead to another child living in shadows in an Annexe, fearing the knock on the door, fearing for her life. I suppose what I am saying is this: Anne Frank’s Diary has moved me more than anything I have read in such a long time, but because the tide of history is sweeping back to a nationalist and religious hatred that defined and took her life, it makes me ask: what was it all for?

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Faber New Poets 1 (2009)
Fiona Benson
Faber & Faber, 17pp

For over forty years Faber has been publishing the best of new poetry from around the world. In 2009, with assistance from the Arts Council England, they have surveyed again the poetical landscape of Britain, seeking voices that they believe will become the defining one of the twenty-first century. As such they selected four poets, the first of whom is Fiona Benson, an Anglo-Scottish writer, graduate of Trinity College, Oxford with a PhD from St Andrews, and recipient of an Eric Gregory Award in 2006. This, her first collection, is constructed with seventeen poems.

This collection, a mixture of works, reveals just occasionally Benson’s influences: for the majority Benson’s voice is clear, sober with a wonderful eye for the contemplative, such as this from Corpo Santo. “…the milky spores/and coral globes of last night’s spawning season/thread through my fingers and briefly luminesce/as if I had somehow found a back door/and, uninvited, entered grace.” Sean O’Brien made the same comment as I will here: a poem with an ending such as this asks of us what is grace? What is her grace? It seems to be a question that echoes through other works in this small collection, that search for a moment that brings grace. It is there with the lovers in the snow (Snow-Screens), the brutal miscarriage in Sheep, and in the opening poem Lares that sees the narrator facing up to animal hunting: “I say a prayer to you, small ghost, small nooses spirit of the eaves, dangling from the prow of the house”.

If this collection is anything to go by, Fiona Benson is shaping up to be a writer of significant power, a writer whose interest is in the detail, a writer whose poetical voice lingers long afterward. I am looking forward to her first full collection.

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