Sunday, 30 October 2011

My Month in Novels (Oct)

1. Ali Smith — There but for the

I hate to resort to crude Americanisms, but Ali Smith is the motherfucking BOMB. Her latest novel, circa October 2011, shares a structure all but identical to The Accidental—four sections with little one-two-page prefaces—but also shares its masterful grasp over narrative voice, language, style, humour, and subtly heartbreaking strangeness.

The title refers to the first word in a significant phrase deployed in each section of the novel. For example, in the first part ‘There I was’ is used when the character Anna is speaking to someone about journalism (which can be summed up in six words: I was there, there I was), and later ‘The fact is’ is used by precocious child Brooke for her little book of facts. These words and their significance within the narrative allude to the book’s questions of representation and presentation, both in a literary sense, and in broader notions of reality.

The novel’s four strands revolve around an opaque stranger named Miles who attends a dinner party and locks himself inside his host’s spare room, thenceforth refusing to budge. The reasons behind Miles’s motivation are never made clear, and the event is merely a pull for the four protagonists, each rendered in a breathtaking close third-person style that demonstrates the truly balletic skill Smith has with language. At the heart of this book—and it seems a lot of her work—is a fascination with storytelling itself and how language distorts and enriches our understanding of life in equal measures, and how baffling and wonderful words can be, whether their meanings are monstrous or delightful.

The novel plays elaborate games with chronology in frequent bracketed sections (the structural design of which eludes me) but There but for the is another lovingly designed work of art, bordering on masterpiece, from my newly crowned Favourite Ever Scottish Writer.

2. Ali Smith — Hotel World

Another astonishing piece of work from Ms. Smith. Is there anything this writer can’t do? I have domestic duties and a rumbling stomach at present, so this review might be brief, and gushing. But here goes.

I love Ali Smith. I love Ali Smith because she moves me, and being a man, I’m not supposed to be moved by books. I’m supposed to be stirred by the raging masculinity of men in battle: the sound of gunfire in the crisp Vienna air as heads rain down upon the blood-soaked streets. But no. This pink-covered novel moved me to bits, and I am proud of the fact.

Split into six sections marked by a separate tense, Hotel World uses a corporate hotel and the accidental death of Sara Wilby as a pull for its five characters, establishing a style and structure used in her later novels The Accidental and There but for the. Each section varies in rhythm, style and narrative position, opening with Sara’s ghost conversing with her corpse to get the scoop on her death. Crouching in a dumbwaiter (a lift shaft for tea trolleys), Sara plummeted to a horrible death aged twenty.

Entangled in this tale is the predicament of homeless woman Else who plots to steal money from Sara’s sister Clare, crouched outside the hotel in a state of incoherent grief. She is invited in by Lisa (third character who later is stricken with a debilitating disease) and then hounded by the unpleasant Penny (fourth character: a journo seeking a scoop in Else). Each section immerses the reader deeply in these characters’ worlds, each drawn to this grim hotel with their own motives, problems, tenuous links to life.

Most staggering of all, however, is the internal monologue from Clare, a stream-of-consciousness outpouring and the most bone-shudderingly effective representation of grief I have read. The moment the mist clears and we realise Clare is throwing objects down the hotel’s dumbwaiter to determine the duration of her sister’s fall, our hearts break like Sara’s brittle bones.

Outrageously good. Books are rarely as skilful nowadays. Smith is a singular talent.

3. Ali Smith — Girl Meets Boy

Another day, another terrific novel from Ali Smith. I have resolved to gobble up her canon in the most heroic time possible, like an overweight man backing a lorryload of curries and waffles into his ecstatic gob. In Glasgow we have a meal called the Everything & More, which is enough food for an entire Ethiopian village in a bucket. Battered.

This delightful story frames the myth of Iphis (woman disguises her daughter as a man, daughter turns into a man later on) within a tale of sexual identity and social injustice in contemporary Inverness. Flicking between sisters Imogen and Anthea, Imogen is a young go-getting business type working for Pure Water while Anthea is her younger sister who falls in love with the mannish girl Robin.

In no time at all, Anthea is spray-painting Inverness with radical slogans and Imogen is learning about the darker side of global commerce (as if there’s a light side). Imogen’s sections use internal monologue and more parentheses than is healthy in one novel, while Anthea’s sections are in more straightforward first-person. This is certainly a lighter work from Smith, despite the polemic at the heart of the text, but it’s still better than you, me, them and us.

4. Ali Smith — Like

Like is the blossoming talent of Ali Smith splurged into one long rambling debut novel. This is a novel from a writer who doesn’t hold out much hope of writing a second. Over three decades’ worth of glorious descriptions and metaphors and ornate language festoon this funsize monster, nothing like her subsequent novels in the slightest.

Split into two parts, the first concerns Amy, a former scholastic prodigy who, despite being a lesbian, has a child, and despite being a scholar, has forgotten how to read. The second concerns Aisling (Ash) who lives in Inverness and spends all her energy pursuing the student Amy, whose hauteur and priggishness she finds irresistible.

The language is the most compelling facet of the story, as these aren’t characters we are set up to “like”—in fact, they are selfish and often unbearable people—but Smith is a hypnotic and tireless writer, and pulls the reader into her strange, semi-autobiographical tale like a pro. Certainly not one for those new to Smith, but putty for the fan.

5. Ali Smith — The First Person & Other Stories

A ragbag of tales here, ranging from the directly emotional (‘True Short Story’ and the title piece), to the intellectually playful (‘Fidelio and Bess’ and ‘Astute Fiery Luxurious’) to the downright hilarious and strange (‘The Child’ and ‘No Exit’). When I first read Ali Smith I was unimpressed (hence my two-rating of Other Stories) and narked at her constant inclusion of the reader as a character—most of the first-person stories replace a character name with ‘you,’ which I found a contrived ploy at times, then quite repetitive. This technique is still present here, but its purpose is a little clearer, more intimate. Plus I have built up a resistance to it, having read the previous collection.

Smith’s shorts are the opposite of her novels: stripped-down language, conversational, loose syntax, a lazy feel. Clearly these are mere deceptions, for deeper down her work subverts old story forms and has a more postmodern aesthetic, and moments of warmth and radiance rise from the page regardless of how many cockamamie dialogues we’re being drawn into. Still: I can’t help the feeling I won’t fully embrace her shorts as I did her novels. Here’s hoping.

6. Ali Smith — Free Love & Other Stories

OK, the Ali Smith marathon is over. Please mop up your drool, pull up your pants, and sod off home. It's been real. This book is her first story collection, a little more straightforwardly literary than her other works. Most of the stories here are excellent, others found me yawning and itchy. But I have been reading A LOT. And most of that has been Ali Smith. My bum (and head) hurts.

7. André Gide — The Immoralist

My foray into Frenchies continues with this peculiar, off-the-scale subtle novel about forbidden pleasures. The pleasures in question are young lads and loosing one’s morals. Michel starts out as a bedridden lump, unsure about his wife but sure about young Tunisian visitors. As his health improves, he tends to his vast acreage of land and resumes his academic work, growing fonder of his doormat missus, as well as power and cheating farmers. As we slump towards the final third, his wife becomes the bedridden lump and he sneaks out for illicit pleasures as she degenerates. Sometimes he feels guilty, but mostly he’s haughty and prone to exclamatory remarks. Odd. Queer. I liked it.

8. François Mauriac — The Knot of Vipers

An embittered old turd writes a mad, furious letter to his wife, whom he hates with a vengeance, which becomes a lengthier journal to his family, whom he hates with an even bigger vengeance. Because he hates them so darned much, he spends his every waking hour planning to diddle them out their inheritance, while they fret about how much their Grandpa hates them and is planning to diddle them out their inheritance. At certain rare moments, the Grandpa takes a break from his hatred and tries out affection and tenderness, but then goes back to pure spitefulness until the last twenty pages, when he almost repents before dropping dead at his desk. Well . . . at least the title is an absolute blinder.

My edition had handwritten notes inside, where the user underlined words he or she didn’t know. For extra likes, who can tell me the meaning of (no cheating): jejune, daguerreotype, heliotrope, evanescent, bier, filial

9. Madame de LaFayette — The Princesse de Clèves

A little too far back into French literary history for me. This is one of the earliest French “novels,” inasmuch as it tells historical events with inaccuracies. These inaccuracies form the “fiction” part of what is ostensibly an historical account of events at court over a century earlier. Madame de LaFayette might not even be the author/chronicler of this tale! What intrigue! What potential for interpretation! The prose is what one might call “prehensile” and the story what one might call “shit.” Kidding. I hate pouring scorn over influential works. This is best left to students of French literature and other trainspotters. Bonus features include The Comtesse de Tende, The Princesse de Montpensier, and outtakes from M. de Nemours’s zany final speech.

10. Jacques Jouet — Mountain R

Oulipo with teeth. Part of Jouet’s la République roman series—a series unavailable in English, though two other Jouet books are out from Dalkey—this is an inventive satire of a corrupt Republican who elects to erect a public mountain for his own delusional purposes. Recent parallels in UK politics include Boris Johnson’s proposed “Tower of Boris” for the 2012 Olympics, and Edinburgh council spending £8m on a tram system.

Insert your country’s insane fund-spunking here. The novel is told from three POVs in a ‘before-during-after’ structure, and the cosy satire gives way into something more sinister, inverting our opinion of these funny, strange characters. Clever, Swiftian and swift.

11. Émile Zola — The Drinking Den

Whenever I think I had a rough upbringing I read a book like this and realise I am a fluffed little pillow of good fortune. I was raised in a council tenement in a backwater semi-village in Central Scotland amid a backdrop of Protestant activism and spinster gossiping. But compared to Zola’s Paris in L’Assommoir, I was mollycoddled in a warm nook of familial love and warmth.

So: Gervaise is hardworking laundress whose life is blown to smithereens by rotten good-for-nothing beer-sodden bastard men. Men are responsible for taking her life and flushing it down the sad Parisian cludgie, along with a family of unfeeling guttersnipe witches who make you want to pound their faces in with soldering irons. Oh, poor Gervaise!

Zola’s style pioneers the close third-person, later taken to blistering heights of anal acuity in Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’ The translator Robin Buss strikes a good balance between modern slang while retaining a sense of the original French dialect and mode of speech. To translate a book that uses archaic working-class slang and keep it both authentic and readable is no mean feat. So forgive little slips like ‘getting laid’ that creep in there.

I haven’t been as stupefied by a work of hysterical genius since the hectoring morality of Tolstoy’s Resurrection or the brutal sadism of Hubert Selby’s ‘Tralala.’ Think twice about that extra beer before bed.

12. Honoré de Balzac — Eugénie Grandet

A heartclenching pain-turner of a classic, a perfect manifesto for choosing love over money. The French do desolation and hopelessness so well! Must be the heat. In certain respects, Eugénie gets off lightly. She steals a kiss with her cousin before her bastard father packs him off to the Indies to get rich off slave plantations, and stays a virgin her whole life for that one moment of stolen love. Nowadays, anyone marrying their cousin would be hounded out the hamlet, Daily Mails flung at their backs, ruined forever in their hometowns. The relationship would buckle under the weight of this shame, and the couple would fall apart, doomed to shoot smack in tower blocks to numb the pain. Having said that, I have been sleeping with my sister on and off since I was thirteen, and no one’s ever ostracised me. Huh! Strange world! The novel is excellent, though takes thirty-odd pages to properly kick into gear.

13. Théophile Gautier — Mademoiselle de Maupin

More people should know about this pioneering feminist lovestruck poetical drivelling masterpiece. Your plot antics are bare: a poet looking for his perfect Venus encounters hurdles in his search, finding no luck in the pink-cheeked Rosette whom he diddles for five months out of kindness. When he claps eyes on the girlish man Theodore (who happens to be a woman, but ssshhh) he finds his Venus par excellence and goes stark raving mad like all melodramatic romantic poets who want to mainline beauty into their veins. Theodore is a woman kicking against the limitations of her gender, outclassing all the men with her horsing and fencing prowess, beating off Rosette who also topples arse-over-head-over-elbows in love with her. But this novel is not about the banalities of upper-class debauchery, it’s about the excess. The irresistible ravings of this eloquent romantic, his glorious tracts on beauty, love and the sensual world. This novel is like caressing the buttocks of a Greek odalisque while having wine skooshed into one’s parched throat. It is a sublime, delicious concoction and so pulsatingly erotic, the pages throb in one’s palms like the quivering want of a girded loin before the fast release of orgasm. Find it.

14. Jacques Roubaud — The Princess Hoppy or The Tale of the Labrador

For such a gifted mathematician, linguist, historian and poet, Jacques Roubaud is a cute wee daftie. This novel delights in wordplay, maths problems, storytelling tropes, subverting the reader-writer relationship with callisthenic nonsense prose whose games and riddles are either deeply imbedded, or one great confidence trick. Mr Roubaud is an accomplished prose-poet and Oulipo legend whose Hortense novels might pigeonhole him as a postmodern prankster. But his genius runs deeper. See, for instance, his latest book, Mathématique.

15. Gustave Flaubert — A Sentimental Education

An exhausting thrill-ride through the zany world of womanising socialite Frédéric, or—for the first 300 pages, at least—wannabe womanising socialite Frédéric. Because Frédéric can’t make it happen with his mate Arnoux’s missus, nor his mate Arnoux’s mistress, and this frustration is the bane of his existence as he falls in and out of money, society and love. Against the backdrop of the 1848 Paris uprising this novel heaves with ornate descriptive grandeur, political commentary and violence, a frenetic comic energy, and more love triangles than the HMS Hefner in Bermuda. A classic that delights, frustrates, amuses and teases in equal measure—what more could you ask for? Sex? Well, there’s no sex. You have sex on the brain, you do. Take a cold shower.

16. Warren F. Motte — Fables of the Novel: French Fiction Since 1990

Ten academic essays on contemporary French fiction, grouped together through their formal hijinks and language games, and how each text constitutes a “fable” of the novel form. Among the books in English translation are Onitsha by J.M.G. Clézio, The Crab Nebula by Eric Chevillard, Slander by Linda Lê, Mountain R by Jacques Jouet, Television by Jean-Phillipe Toussaint, and The Lecture by Lydie Salvayre. Other books from the four remaining writers are available too, those writers being Eric Laurrent, Marie NDiaye, Jean Echenoz and Christian Osler. The essays are lively and light on academic verbiage, but the book feels less like a unified manifesto, more a series of separate papers from journals tied together with this “fable” connection, which didn’t convince me!

17. Jacques Roubaud — Hortense in Exile

More cartwheeling absurdism from Oulipo’s lesser-known genius. Hortense is back and so are her breasts, buttocks, and her watchful cat Alexandre Vladimirovitch. In the previous novel she married Prince Gormanskoï or some other irrelevant plot detail, and here she finds herself caught up in a production of Hatmel as her honour is threatened by the clone Whortense. As ever, wordplay, digression, authorial intrusion, lunatic antics of a nonsense nature and high-wire Oulipo games are all served on a platter of complete mayhem. At times the technique does feel like breaking out the postmodern bag o’ tricks—there’s nothing here we couldn’t find in Queneau, Share, O’Brien or Sorrentino—and novel-long absurdism only stretches so far. Still: Jacques has some more “serious” books in English translation, among them the exquisite poem-photo montage Some Thing Black, and these novels are a testament to the comic spirit of the French avant-garde. Delightful.

18. Geoff Dyer — Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It

Geoff takes various shirts, various drugs, and various girls, to various locations around the world, intellectualising as he goes, sometimes having impish larks along the way, sometimes having nervous breakdowns, sometimes having sex with black women. At first, I was amused at this bourgeois intellect mincing around like a Club 18-30 member, then I found his antics a little drab, indulgent and flâneurish. At first his laid-back prose reads like a treat, but lapses at midpoint into a meandering and pedestrian snooze. I think the essays could use more thematic focus, and less obsessive personal detail, quite a whack of which paints Geoff as a tosspot. But all in all . . . a nice airport read.

19. Émile Zola — Germinal

This novel is about as grim and horrendous as literature gets. Instead of ranting about the history of human suffering at various pitches of bowel-plopping rage, let me take a more facetious route. Let me instead discuss various mining experiences lived out on the Sega Mega Drive. Remember Mega Bomberman? Those who do will remember the mine level.

This level was pivotal in the game, since here a remote-controlled power-up was available which was crucial for facing down the final boss, whose beardy metamorphoses proved impossible without both a back-up life and a self-detonator. The problem was using the detonator hastily, as an ill-timed whack of the C button would invariably blow up the hero, who had a hard enough time dodging bombs. The mining level itself involved negotiating the terrain on a little blue cart and threats from crazed red baddies, stumbling around the scorching hellhole with startled eyes, running into bombs like kamikaze hearts.

Then there was Lava Reef Zone, on Sonic & Knuckles. The presence of fire and darkness usually indicated the impending doom of Robotnik and his enormous egg-shaped earth-conquering moustachiopod. Since the introduction of fire-proof TVs, leaping onto scorching lava wasn’t a great concern for Sonic. This level involved spinning down into an underground mine, where giant crushers and ledges threatened his pretty blue head.

And there was Scrap Brain Zone. A factory filled with trap-flaps, flame pipes and crushers, its backdrop a bleak brown silhouette of chimneys and skyscrapers. The foes being caterpillars who died by careful bops to the head and little bomb-men in metal helmets who blew up when you ran past. The challenges were all mechanical—spinning ledges, squishing ledges, vanishing ledges. A holy wine cup with black grapes shooting electricity from both sides, razors looming over sluggish conveyor belts. Some of the most terrifying moments of my childhood happened on this level. Fact.

But about Germinal? Imagine the amount of times Sonic gets crushed by gamers the world over, then transfer that to human lives, and you have the sorry state of 1800s French mining. For more info read my forthcoming book Zola the Hedgehog: When Rocks Fall on Top of People.

20. Marguerite Duras — Moderato Cantabile

A slim, seductive novel, sort of a nouveau roman version of Brief Encounter. Anne Desbaresdes meets Chauvin after a shooting heard at her son’s piano lesson, where she sits in with the haughty Mademoiselle Giraud, urging her stubborn son to play a Diabelli sontana moderato cantabile (moderately and singingly). We later learn Anne is a drunk and is desperately in love with Chauvin, but nothing is ever said—only the poetic, slippery prose helps make the subtext clear, and the ending quietly heartbreaking. The wiki page on this book is oddly detailed.

21. Propser Mérimée — A Slight Misunderstanding

At first, swept up in the author’s charming and sardonic style, this seemed a promising short in the Gautierian mould, before lapsing into melodrama and a typically hysterical ending. The author is best known for the short story Carmen, based on the highly successful opera and TV series starring Julie Delpy as a mushroom.

Book of the Month: Ali Smith — There but for the


  1. I am sorry, but you are not allowed to read 21 novel in just one month. It makes me look terrible by comparison.

    Also, I am left with many questions regarding the author/title relationship of many of these books. For instance, did Madame de LaFayette write "The Princesse de Clèves", or did The Princesse de Clèves write "Madame de LaFayette"? Such things make me ponder.

  2. That is a good point. Some of the authors and titles have been reversed. Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, for example, is one of my favourite writers, and Geoff Dyer is his masterpiece.

  3. Think of your eyes, boy! You know reading can make you go blind? Oh wait. That's something else, isn't it. OK, read away. I love these posts.

  4. HA! I love to read but struggle to fit it in with all the other goings on. I am lucky to lay down one chapter a night. Your accomplished list exhausted me and made me feel a wee bit guilty.

  5. bloody hell, nicholls! how can you read so much in one month?????that's madness. I'm lucky if I read a 'dinner is in the over' note from cinn.
    I must check out Ali Smith...

  6. Chris: Somehow "my month in wanks" might not be as culturally enriching a monthly post. But you never know.

    Jenn B: I have no kids or commitments except writing and stuffing my face. I'm fortunate enough not to have to hump coal for my daily bread (at the moment), leaving many hours free to slurp up books. A chapter a night is fine! Keep reading!

    Evernonymous: Hello! Ali Smith is heaven. I wouldn't want to recommend her... you'd end up hating her on principle.

  7. Ali Smith is fantastic! I actually had no idea she had written very much, though. I've only read The Accidental and a very short book of short stories. I will definitely be getting her other novels soon.

    I'm really interested in your point about her being fascinated with storytelling itself. I wrote an essay about it for my degree, and there was a lot of it in The Accidental. The way she uses words - and the way she makes her characters use words - is completely mind-bogglingly amazing sometimes! Yet in interviews she comes across as completely dismissive of fiction writing as a practice - there's one where she says she refuses to class herself as an author, and when asked about winning the Booker Prize she basically said it was a distraction and she could have done without it.

    Now before I recite my entire essay to you, I will depart. I like your blog!

  8. Emily: Yes! I haven't read many interviews with her, but I can see her point about fiction-as-practice. Her writing, mostly in the novels, slides into the postmodern "about writing" category at times, though it's more "about language" than anything else. I think she's more interested in linguistics/language as a practice than fiction. Your essay sounds great, I'd like to read it.