Tag Archives: And Other Stories

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy (transl. by Tim Parks): Happiest days of your life…

Cover imageFleur Jaeggy’s novella is part of And Other Stories’ response to Kamila Shamsie’s ‘provocation’ back in 2015, calling for a year in which only books written by women should be published. For me it’s not so much the gender ratio of authors published that’s the problem, more the level of serious coverage books by women are given. I imagine Shamsie wasn’t expecting much of a take up but And Other Stories responded with alacrity. Written in 1989 and set in post-war Switzerland, Sweet Days of Discipline explores life in a boarding school with all its stifling intensity.

Our unnamed narrator looks back to when she was almost fourteen. She’s boarded at a variety of schools since she was eight, spending holidays alone with her taciturn father. Her mother lives in Brazil, sending instructions about her daughter’s education but having little else to do with her. When an elegantly dressed, perfectly behaved new girl arrives, our narrator determinedly monopolizes her. Soon she and Frédérique are the closest of friends. Our narrator has nothing but contempt for her German roommate with her pink cheeks and frilly dresses, only cool admiration for the girl who tells her all about her Andalusian adventures and talks to her of philosophy. Then Micheline arrives, brightly vivacious and full of tales of her flirtatious father. Frédérique fades into the background but our unnamed narrator will not forget her, meeting her later in life and coming to a deeper understanding of her friend.

Written in austere, pinpoint sharp prose, Jaeggy’s novella takes a scalpel to teenage boarding school relationships. Our narrator’s determination to win Frédérique’s devotion seems, at first, more about the challenge it presents than a sincere interest and yet Frédérique is the person she continues to look for, even in adult life. The cruelty of boarding school life is painfully vivid – our narrator’s apparent regret at the hurt caused by rejecting a younger girl’s overtures turns out to be something else entirely: I had lost a slave, without getting any pleasure out of it. The school’s cloistered claustrophobia is smartly skewered: We saw life pass by beneath our windows, observed it in books and on our walks. The effects of this life stripped of parental affection are clear: The pleasure of disappointment. it wasn’t new to me. I had been relishing it since I was eight years old. Obedience and discipline are the school’s watchwords but love seems nowhere to be found in Jaeggy’s elegantly expressed, forensically observed novella. A deeply unsettling piece of fiction.

The Folly: An apartheid allegory

Cover imageA couple of years ago I read and reviewed Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative. It’s his fourth novel but the first to be published in the UK. The Folly is his debut and entirely different from Double Negative. According to the book’s blurb, when it was published in Vladislavić’s native South Africa back in 1993 it was considered to be an allegory of apartheid but without that prior knowledge I’m not entirely sure I would have come to that conclusion.

It opens with Nieuwenhuizen surveying the desolate plot he’s inherited having arrived by taxi with nothing but an ‘imitation-leather portmanteau’. Next door, the quarrelsome Mr and Mrs Malgas gaze out of the window mystified as to what he’s up to. She’s deeply suspicious, urging her husband to find out what’s going on after Nieuwenhuizen pitches camp. Obediently he wanders over and introduces himself with an offer of help, brushed aside by Nieuwenhuizen who says he’ll call Malgas when he’s ready. So begins an odd relationship in which Nieuwenhuizen cajoles, beguiles, ridicules and exploits Malgas, drawing him into his illusion of a grand house replete with rumpus room and bomb shelter until Malgas sees it with his own eyes, eagerly joining Nieuwenhuizen every evening to gauge the progress of this grandiose edifice. All this is watched by the ever-sceptical Mrs Malgas who diverts her attention from her increasing anger by inventorying her seemingly endless collection of knick-knacks.

Vladislavić’s writing is often very striking – ‘The radio hinted and tipped’ neatly conveys the rather didactic nature of Mrs Malgas’ listening; the ever more baroque descriptions of Nieuwenhuizen’s Plan are vivid – but its allegorical references are somewhat opaque, at least to a present day British reader, although some of its allusions and symbolism are clear. Nieuwenhuizen seduces Malgas using a combination of arrogance and false chuminess, musing that Malgas ‘seems eager to serve. But he’s full of questions, and hard to convince’. He urges Malgas to call him ‘Father’ and at one point in a fit of panic Malgas calls out ‘daddy, daddy’. Towards the end Nieuwenhuizen is striding around in a bandolier and hunter’s hat much to Malgas’ chagrin, eventually turning on his hapless neighbour with ‘This is my house… … My namesake. You’re just a visitor… not even that, some sort of janitor – a junior one, with no qualifications and precious little experience, and damned lucky to have a broom cupboard all to your self’ before proclaiming ‘What’s in a house? There’s plenty where this one came from’ like a true imperialist laying claim to the world. It’s all beautifully expressed, and astonishingly ambitious for a debut. When I reviewed Double Negative I mentioned Teju Cole’s illuminating introduction. Another for The Folly would have been very welcome.

I wasn’t the only one scratching my head about South African allegories. Just before I started writing this review I read Claire’s of Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk which sounds intriguing but I don’t think I’ll be reading it just yet.

Signs Preceding the End of the World: A Mexican fable

Cover imageMade up of only nine short chapters, Yuri Herrera’s novella weighs in at just over one hundred pages. You might be forgiven for thinking you could knock it off in a few hours and move onto the next pressing book on the list that only seems to get longer but that would be a mistake. Herrera packs a great deal of food for thought into this short book. Reading Lisa Dillman’s illuminating translator’s note at the end of it might be best done before you start – there are a few hints as to the turns the story takes but plot isn’t the point here.

This is the tale of Makina and the journey she makes from the Little Town by way of the Big Chilango across the border to the United States in search of her brother who set off three years ago to lay claim to their father’s fabled patch of land. Makina is fluent in her own language, in anglo and in the lingo that has sprung up between the two. A switchboard operator, she’s privy to messages passed back and forth across the border, adept at reading nuance. She’s savvy, smart and – that word that’s always used for strong women – feisty, more than capable of fending off the endless lechery that comes her way. She has no intention of staying in the land of the anglos – she’s only going to please her mother. Her passage is eased by the repayment of favours owed by a gangster and what she finds is surprising. Drawing on Western and Mexican myth, Herrera’s novella tells of Makina’s journey – fraught with hardship and challenge – from one world to the other, beginning with the dramatic disappearance of a man, a dog and a car into a sinkhole, and ending with another journey underground.

The simplicity of Herrera’s words makes the images which shine out of them all the more vivid: a vigilante rancher’s ‘eyes shot bullets through the two windows between them’; ’you are the door, not the one who walks thorough it’ perfectly describes the job of the message carrier avoiding trouble. Makina is a memorable character, powerfully drawn, who makes you look at Westerners afresh. As she journeys from one world to the other, she wonders what to make of this place where there’s only one festival considered worth celebrating, where her fellow Mexicans tacitly recognise but dare not embrace her. She stumbles upon a gay marriage and wonders why the joyful couple might want to enter into this institution which seems to make so many people unhappy. Herrera – and Dillman through what was obviously a difficult translation process – makes us view our world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong, leaving you pondering how being ‘other’ might feel. Quite a feat in just over one hundred pages.

Sworn Virgin by Elivira Dones plus Shiny New Books issue 2

Sworn VirginJust back from my holidays – more about that later in the week – but in case you’ve not yet noticed I thought I’d let you know about the second issue of Shiny New Books. I have a review of the intriguing Elvira Dones’ Sworn Virgin in this issue. It’s set in Northern Albania where the clan system is deeply embedded, blood feuds confine families to their houses for decades and, according to traditional law, a woman can become a ‘sworn virgin’ taking the name, dress and persona of a man providing there are no males of her generation in the family – an honorable choice for a woman left alone in this strictly segregated society. This is what Hana decides to do. Aged nineteen, reluctant to accept an arranged marriage and easy prey for sexual predators, she becomes Mark and remains so until her cousin Lila invites her to join her family in America. Click here for the full review but if that doesn’t take you fancy there are a multitude of reviews and features that might. Do pay them aMarmot in the Dolomites visit.

Back to the laundry mountain but before I go here’s a little taster for my ‘what I did on my holidays’ post. Look very closely and you’ll see a marmot sticking its head up through the gorgeous meadow flowers that were everywhere in the Dolomites. I have to say that s/he reminds me very much of Punxsutawney Phil from Groundhog Day.

Why we need independent publishers

Quercus logoLast week it was announced that Hodder & Stoughton was to buy Stieg Larsson’s publisher, Quercus, an independent  started by Anthony Cheetham back in 2005. For several years it was the book trade’s darling, its success no doubt helped along by Cheetham’s many years of publishing experience combined with his legendary entrepreneurial nous. Finding itself cash-strapped, it had put itself up for sale a few months ago and I had been anxious about who might buy it. It came hard on the heels of the announcement that Little, Brown was buying Constable & Robinson, another independent

I’m very fond of independent publishers – they’re more likely to produce books that are a little out of the mainstream rather than staying on a bandwagon for rather too long. They keep the big boys and girls of the publishing world on their toes but sometimes find themselves swallowed up by the conglomerates as happened to Fourth Estate who caught HarperCollins’ eye. As is often the case with independents their very inventiveness results in a huge success – in this case Dava Soebel’s Longitude which opened up a whole new genre of niche history – attracting the attention of the publishing behemoths. That particular acquisition was accompanied by the appointment of Victoria Barnsley, whose baby Fourth Estate was, to CEO of HarperCollins which ensured that it didn’t entirely lose its personality. Sadly, since her surprise departure last year, Barnsley is longer holding the reins.

I’m a great fan of Quercus – good strong commercial fiction and crime coupled with theCorsair logo literary and translated fiction of Maclehose Press. I’m sure Hodder will take care of them – worries about the takeover of the illustrious John Murray, surely the most venerable of independents, proved unfounded – and that Little, Brown will look after Corsair, Constable & Robinson’s literary fiction imprint, long a favourite of mine. There are a multitude of independents out there, many of them publishing in enterprising and inventive ways: Persephone’s beautifully produced women’s lost classics, originally only sold from their own shop, filled the Virago Classic gap; Profile’s often quirky and original non-fiction is always worth a look; not to mention Alma’s short but carefully chosen list plus And Other Stories’ inventive crowd sourcing, publishing by subscription approach. Some of them have reserves to live off – Faber have a solid backlist of plays, poetry and William Golding while Bloomsbury still has the Harry Potter goldmine. These, along with Canongate who filled that Fourth Estate gap for me, Granta, publishers of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and Atlantic are some of my favourite publishers. I’m sure many of you will have your own treasured independents – I’d love to hear who they are.

Double Negative from And Other Stories: A new approach to publishing

Cover imageI have to confess that I hadn’t heard of And Other Stories until a copy of Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative dropped through my letterbox. They’re a not-for-profit organisation who publish books funded by subscriptions from the likes of you and me, readers keen to support new writing and happy to pay an annual subscription for two, four or six of their books – publisher crowd sourcing, if you will. If Double Negative is anything to go by the standard of writing is well worth the subscription.

Narrated by Neville Lister, the book is structured in three parts each set in a different period forming a triptych of South African apartheid. It opens in the early 1980s with Nev, freshly dropped out of university, becoming embroiled in a minor brawl with his racist new neighbours. His father arranges for him to spend a day with Saul Auerbach, a much-lauded documentary photographer. Nev finds himself playing third wheel to Auerbach and Gerald Brookes a British journalist who sets Auerbach a challenge: they will each choose a house and Auerbach must take a portrait of the occupant. The first two become celebrated emblems of apartheid but time is too short for Nev’s choice. The middle section sees Nev returning from a decade spent in London. He’s now a photographer but not in the Auerbach mould. His are the photos in catalogues, magazines, advertisements. Drawn back to the third house, he listens to the elderly householder’s stories and examines a stash of dead letters sent by poor black workers that never reached their families. The third section is set in 2009. Now married, Nev’s photographs of walls and their faded vestiges of apartheid are about to be shown in an exhibition. He’s being interviewed by an eager young blogger, keen to document his work.

Vladislavić’s writing is beautiful, almost painterly in its subtlety. Metaphors and similes abound, devices often overused by clunky writers but here they work: ‘I don’t care for the excess of paving like pressed grey linen, it’s too proper I think, a city square in a business suit. But on that day it had loosened its buttons’ is the perfect description for the jubilation outside South Africa House on the day of the 1994 South African elections which brought Nelson Mandela to power. Nev’s day with Janie, the blogger, nicely echoes his own with Auerbach contrasting her manic digicam tour of a black village with Auerbach’s patient wait for light and the subject’s story to emerge for his portraits. The book is a treat from start to finish, illuminated by Teju Cole’s fine introduction. If you’re interested in subscribing to And Other Stories or would like to see what else they publish you can visit their website here.

Hugh Masekela and Larry WillisReading Double Negative reminded me of the Hugh Masekela concert H and I went to in Bristol a few weeks back. We couldn’t believe our luck at getting the tickets. He was playing with Larry Willis, the pianist he had met 50 years ago when the two were students in New York. There was a wonderful rapport between them and a tremendous wave of affection from those of us who remembered Masekela’s Free Nelson Mandela days. We had hoped for an evening of excellent music, which we got, but neither of us had expected Masekela to be so funny, or to be such a vivid raconteur of his New York jazz days. He also spoke touchingly of his ex-wife the late Miriam Makeba with whom, it seemed to me, he was still in a little love. A great and memorable evening.

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a few days, written before the sad but not unexpected news of Nelson Mandela’s death. As Aung San Suu Kyi said ‘he made us understand that we can change the world’. And she should know.