I wrote about Donal Ryan’s Man Booker-longlisted novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, on Bookmunch
I wrote about Donal Ryan’s Man Booker-longlisted novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, on Bookmunch
Martyn Bedford explains on his website how he never had a foreign holiday until he was seventeen years old. When he did eventually go abroad, his parents took him to Belgium he says “to prove he hadn’t been missing anything”. After stints working as a journalist and travelling the world (perhaps he felt he was actually missing out on something), he enrolled on a creative writing course at East Anglia where he began his first novel, Acts of Revision, which ensuingly won the Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award. This was followed by four more novels for adults, and three novels for young adults; one of the latter, Flip, was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award amongst others. His work has now been translated into fifteen languages.
I’m speaking to Martyn about the publication of Letters Home, a collection of short stories that have been published over his career as well as some written especially for the collection. Martyn now lives in West Yorkshire and works at Leeds Trinity University as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing. We conducted the interview by email.
It felt to me that locality and place and particularly the absence of, was important to the stories. Considering that you’ve written these stories over the years, would you say this is a conscious idea, or something that might have developed and changed in your writing?
Place, for me, functions in two main ways in fiction: (a) as a physical location in which the events take place; and/or (b) as integral to thematic intent through the setting’s relationship to character or plot. In some of the stories in Letters Home, the setting is primarily the former – a backdrop – but, in several pieces, it plays a more vital role. For instance, in the title story, the asylum seeker’s separation from his home country, and family, and his struggle to build a new life in an alien land, in a hostile neighbourhood of Leeds, goes right to the heart of the narrative. In “Waiting at the Pumpkin”, the setting of a café at Manchester Oxford Road station seems, at first glance, to be incidental to a disaffected employee’s annual appraisal with her odious line manager. But, as the scene unfolds, the coming and going of the trains, and the announcements of their destinations, allude to the notion that she is static in a place of constant motion – and to her growing realisation of being trapped (in her job, at that café table) and of the possibilities of escape.
I have always been interested in the interplay between people and place, and how we often identify ourselves in relation to the localities in which our lives are lived. So, yes, it is very much a conscious, explorative process in my writing. It features in the older as well as the more recent stories in this collection, which spans two decades of my writing career, and is a recurrent theme – to one extent or another – in all of my novels as well.
There was a lot transition between places as well. Characters didn’t always seem aware of where their desires or actions were taking them. Is this an idea that you tie into a sense of ‘Home’ or place?
‘Home’ is a slippery concept in an age when people are more mobile than was the case in previous generations. Almost all of us will live in numerous homes during the course of our lives – different buildings, different places, possibly different countries – so you could say that the physicality of our home is mutable, or transient, but our abstract concept of what constitutes home, for each of us, might remain intact. Wherever I lay my hat . . . and all that. In comparison to our forbears, most of us will also have many more changes of job and relationship during our lifetime, so the ‘transition between places’ you refer to is echoed, in some of the stories, in a transition or shift in some other aspect of my characters’ existences.
It’s true that several of the protagonists seem unconscious of where their desires or actions might lead: the man fixated on finding out whether the Beckhams are, as rumoured, dining in Betty’s tearooms, in Ilkley; the boy playing detective in trying to solve the mystery of his mother’s failure to return home from a trip to London; the British backpacker taken ill while smuggling drugs in India. In these and other stories, what I’m seeking to explore are the tensions between the transitory nature of human experience and our desire to establish a reliable sense of ‘self’, a point of stability in the midst of flux.
On a blog, when you’re discussing fiction and autobiography, you reference Philip Roth’s rebuttal of his critics on the publication of his memoirs ‘The Facts’. He retaliated that nobody believed he was writing a work of non-fiction but still continued to mine his fiction for his autobiography. I’m certainly not asking you if your work is autobiographical, but as an artist and thinking of the stories, what are you looking for in your own environment to construct the environment of your stories? What drew you to a particular locality for instance?
Milan Kundera said (and I’m paraphrasing) that the novelist demolishes the house of his/her life and uses the bricks to build the houses of his/her fiction. Like most analogies, this is an over-simplification of a complex process; it also places undue emphasis on an author’s autobiographical experience in relation to two other essential sources of fictional material: research and, of course, the imagination. However, like many writers, I draw on the events of my own life to varying extents, with varying degrees of disguise and embellishment, in most of my fiction.
Sometimes, as in “The Beckhams are in Betty’s”, the premise is rooted in direct experience: the first half of the story (in which the narrator is told by his dental hygienist that the Beckhams are in town) happened to me, more or less as described. But the protagonist is not me and his response to the rumour was not mine, so the story shifts from semi-autobiographical to fictional as it proceeds. With other stories, the material might be sourced from something I’ve read in a newspaper or seen on TV; for example, “Here’s a Little Baby, One, Two, Three” was prompted by a nature documentary about bee-eaters (although my characters are human, not birds). The most overtly autobiographical piece in the collection, “Unsaid” – a story told entirely in dialogue – is based on the last weeks of my dad’s life, with many of the exchanges taken verbatim from real conversations, as best as I can recall them, albeit that ‘my’ character is female. As for locality, the drug-smuggler’s grim hotel room in “A Representative in Automotive Components” (as well as his illness and the unlikely friendship with the sales rep who helps him), were drawn directly from my own experiences as a backpacker in India – although the drug-smuggling aspect is made up, in order to provide a plot that enables a particular episode in my life to function as a story rather than memoir.
I don’t subscribe to the old creative-writing adage that you should ‘write what you know’, or not exclusively at least. But I do believe that personal experience, when filtered through a writer’s imagination, can lend essential depth and authenticity – both contextual and emotional – to a fictional narrative.
There certainly felt alienation in the stories here in deeply personal places of the characters, like their homes. For instance, in ‘Because of Olsen’ we have a man who enacts the role of the artist who used to live in the apartment he lives in now, because he’s visited by tourists every weekend. Is this alienation tangible as the writer/artist creates or is it a mere aspect of the story?
I didn’t mention this story in my first answer in this Q&A, as I’d spotted this question looming on the horizon. But the relationship between place and character is more central to “Because of Olsen” than it is to any other piece in Letters Home. The out-of-work actor’s bedsit isn’t actually haunted by the ghost of a long-dead Danish artist who once lived there, but his spirit certainly finds a place of revenance in the narrator’s psyche.
You rightly identify alienation as a key theme in this story, as it is in many of the pieces, with a recurrent focus on characters who are living isolated or marginalised existences, or who are struggling to find a sense of themselves in relation to those around them. In several cases, the protagonists – consciously or unconsciously – try to establish their identity vicariously through (sometimes unhealthy) attachment to others. This is especially true of the sleep-clinic technician in “My Soul to Keep”, who becomes fixated on her permanently sleeping young patient, and most of all in “Because of Olsen”, where Miller almost literally becomes Olsen as the story progresses.
For me, this goes to the heart of one of the vital dilemmas of the human condition: how to express ourselves as individuals within the collective constraints and expectations of society. Many of us are caught in this tension between fitting in and feeling alienated and I’ve often returned to this theme in my fiction.
I thought there was an element of the Kafkaesque in the stories. ‘My Soul to Keep’ reminded me of ‘The Hunger Artist’ and ‘Because of Olsen’, ‘In the Penal Colony’ in particular. The stories are also laced with a very dry humour and irony we might expect from Kafka. Perhaps we’re back to this sense of alienation but is this irony apparent as you write, or not write, or is it imparted as a defence against something else?
Well, I read a lot of Kafka during my twenties and have revisited his work down the years – Metamorphosis and The Trial, in particular – so, while I didn’t set out to emulate his style or to echo specific stories, I’m not surprised if Kafkaesque elements surface in this collection. I’ve always been especially drawn to his undercurrent of humour and irony – for all its dark oppressive menace, Kafka’s fiction is leavened by sardonic, absurdist comedy. And, as you identify, the theme of alienation is a central Kafkaesque preoccupation – as it is in Letters Home, as well as in some of my novels.
I wouldn’t say that the irony in these stories is a ‘defence’ against anything so much as a counterpoint: the juxtaposition of the comic and the tragic, the serious and the ridiculous. It is the light that illuminates the shade. As Kafka (Sartre, Camus, Ionesco, Pinter and others) remind us: without a sense of humour, our lives – our search for meaning in a notionally meaningless existence – would be intolerable.
In ‘Withen’ you tell the story of a family dispute that has lasted for thirty years due to one of the uncles crossing a miners’ picket line. There are certain cliches of Northernness and the idea of mining and picket lines is potentially one of them. You make an interesting story out of it though, so what drew you to this idea for a story considering that it has been used often before? (Or perhaps you think it’s not been used often enough).
This story originated with a commission from Comma Press to contribute to the anthology Protest: Stories of Resistance, published in 2016. Comma offered authors a list of episodes in history from which to choose and I opted for the so-called Battle of Orgreave, during the 1984-85 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers. For the anthology, Comma paired the fiction-writers with historians, academics and other experts with specialist knowledge of the particular events – in my case, I consulted Prof. David Waddington at Sheffield Hallam University, whose research enabled me to place my fiction in an authentic socio-historical and political context.
I take your point about the potential Northern cliché-trap of coalmining and picket lines but, in my defence, these aspects are unavoidable in a story about Orgreave! Of course, as you infer, the challenge is to take hackneyed or over-exploited tropes somewhere different or cast them through a new prism, and I hope I’ve achieved that in “Withen”. What drew me to this particular topic was the personal as much as the political. Like the story’s narrator, I was a young journalist living in Hong Kong at the time of the miners’ strike and deeply affected by TV news footage from the UK of the violent clashes between riot police and pickets. Unlike the narrator, my dad wasn’t a South Yorkshire miner but a sheet-metal worker in Croydon, south London, where I grew up. The story, then, is as much about post-industrial concepts of masculinity, social class, and father-son relationships, as it is about Orgreave, or the strike, or Northernness.
There are clichés for certain reasons sometimes and I would say you averted any clichéd story. You say though, the story is personal as much as it is political; I just wonder if, that in a story like this, and with seemingly several elements that went into its development, and although you chose to write this story, whether something like this would have been ‘necessary’ for you to write at some point anyway? If not in this form, another?
Yes, I already had an underlying urge to delve into the personal context that informs “Withen” and the commission for this story came along at a time when I was ready – personally and creatively – to go there. As a man from working-class origins who has lived a middle-class, white-collar life since becoming an adult (newspaper journalist, novelist, university creative-writing lecturer), I’ve long been interested in the contrast between my working experiences and those of my father, grandfathers, great-grandfathers (sheet-metal worker, gasworks furnaceman, stone mason, wheelwrights, agricultural labourers). They used their hands to make things, I use mine to make things up.
In fact, I explored this theme some twenty years ago – in my second novel, Exit, Orange & Red – albeit in a much less overtly autobiographical way. But it seems I had unfinished business with this topic, and you might well be right: if “Withen” hadn’t provided the outlet for it, I would probably have found another way to approach it sooner or later.
Letters Home is published by Comma Press is out now. A discussion of the work will be featured on Curb Complex.
Such Small Hands
(translated by Lisa Dillman; with an afterword by Edmund White)
Portobello Books: 101pp.: £9.99
Childhood has been used historically in fiction, but recently there seems to be new sense of realism along with it, exploring the desires that people experience but hardly ever talk about, as if childhood was, or is, that testing ground. Writers like Elena Ferrante and Zadie Smith have laid a path, that has not just exposed a new way of talking about our concealed, inner world that is even concealed from ourselves, but literature as well. Why are using the children to talk about it?
Strangely, to me, it seems to be specifically the female childhood that has had this focus. It’s interesting then that a male chooses to tackle it, or use the experience of the female child, in the work discussed here. I’m not sure what happened, but speaking as a male, it seems that women can more honestly and openly discuss the things that are not so openly and honestly talked about, both in fiction and in life. What this is down to i’m not sure (this could just be the male looking from the outside-in wishing it was not so). The archaic male archetype of ‘manliness’ is still a powerful marker of the man, and comes with it, clossetedness and the inability to talk about it.
Barba then begins with dolls and somebody who has an inability to talk. Both males and females use toys and dolls to say the things we can’t as children, but Ferrante’s epic tetralogy begins with Lenu and Lila playing with dolls in My Brilliant Friend. Dolls and toys of course are a way to enact things we can’t be or say. In Ferrante’s work, Lila, often the object and subject of Lenu’s projections in this recollection of her childhood that Lenu writes, does the inexplicable act of pushing Lenu’s doll down a grate. These are the dolls in which “the terrors that we tasted every day were theirs”, the doll that at first, talks about Lenu’s fears out loud for her.
Ferrante’s work, both My Brilliant Friend and the ensuing saga of course, has a much longer trajectory, but this provides a neat way of framing Barba’s work. Because both novels do start with the protagonists owning dolls, but as Lenu loses hers and finds its childhood power waning, the dolls begin to hold an infinite power for Barba’s protagonist Marina. Ferrante’s work develops into a multi-volume saga of ‘realism’ where Barba’s short novella stays within the confines of childhood, and fantasy, not something magical, but a childhood fantasy (or more comfortably associated with childhood). And both novels start with a loss, although Barba’s would appear of a deeper trauma.
The loss is central though, as the novels in part, become a way in which to describe or depict this loss, or new space that has formed as result. Lenu hears of a her friend, Lila’s, disappearance (before losing the doll), decades after last speaking to her, and so what begins is an exploration, a rewriting of her childhood, in a pursuit of not ‘letting her win again’ (there is also a game in Barba’s work). And Marina, in Such Small Hands, must now try and deal with the hideously vacant space left by her parents death from a car crash. This is the description of the crash:
“The car falling, and where it fell, transforming. The car, making space for itself. That, more than ever, was when she had to fall back on the words. As if, of all the words that might describe the accident, those were the only ones that possessed the virtue of stating what could never be stated; or, as if they, of all words, were the only ones there, so close at hand, so easy to grasp, making what could never possibly be discerned somehow accessible.” [author’s emphasis]
Marina sees a psychologist whom brings her a doll presumably to help her understand her grief. She calls the doll Marina, rather bafflingly to the psychologist, before she is unwittingly sent to an orphanage. She does know that she is leaving the care of the professionals, but she does not know where to. It is the prospect of space, the big open space of the future that has suddenly been opened up to her, but she knows that it’s not so simple as that: “It wasn’t so much the fear of leaving that terrified Marina but the idea of that space, that intricate, bountiful, preconceived place, full of beforehands.” ‘Beforehands’, an obvious reference to the title, but such an acute way of describing the world we’re not supposed to believe we’re stepping into; daubed and touched by many others before us.
As much as a novel is a work of imagination, it’s about the imagination as well, and the question here is how far can that imagination go. Marina has been thrust into the world, the unrestrained adult world, prematurely. She seems to anticipate that it’s not original and uncharted. Or perhaps it’s because it’s a world where she realises you don’t need imagination but a sense of reality. As she arrives at the orphanage she is treated as an outsider. Yet the girls there are fascinated by her as much as Marina is fascinated by them, as the novel jumps between third person direct observer of Marina, to first person plural of the girls. Edmund White in the afterword, notes an important and rendered scene of watching the other girls eat (eating is important here and as White also notes, Marina appears to have come from a comfortable middle class background). And so being coerced into the girls world, she manages to coerce them into hers, in which she invents a game where a girl is selected as a doll to be used whilst they are asleep and motionless.
White says in the afterword though, Barba chooses not to make this a ‘psychological study’ of a young girl’s grief. This is why the darkness imbued in the novel feels all too real. White believes that the introduction of the girls in the orphanage helps to propel it away from that, and perhaps it’s also implicated in the opening pages when the doctors and psychologists are given short shrift by Barba, ushered on and off the scene in all their professional swiftness. As White says of Barba , he “is not a scientist and his book is not the demonstration of a theory but….we are convinced that we are plunged into an archaic system we’ve forgotten but that is oddly remiscient”. A psychologist would have done their best to disband the fantasy, impart some reality into the doll, but instead it’s like a relic with a mysterious capacity out of his hands. In a way it becomes more spiritual or totemic – a family heirloom that is believed to have enigmatic capacities.
What is theory but an attempt to describe something that is there but isn’t? The attempt (and ultimately failure) to render a space with words? Barba’s novel abounds in this sense of space, debating whether it’s positive or negative. I am the outskirts of a non-existent town” wrote Fernando Pessoa in one of his elusive passages, and that takes on a prominence here , indeed formalises in the section where the girls describe the orphanage, “It was once a happy city; we were once happy girls.” The girls are at the whim of their desires, transported around their city of themselves without them knowing how or why they got there. You notice how often though, invisible forces are alluded to, ‘tremors’, ‘vibrations’, ‘spasms’ but are definitely felt. The girls themselves almost seem invisible, like ghostly voices haunting the lonely Marina. At one point they question their pursuit of Marina:
“How did our desire begin? We don’t know. Everything was silent in our desire, like acrobats in motion, like tight-rope walkers.”
You can see them balancing in the air, that precarious line, and one of those ‘tremors’ enough to tilt them over the edge. The question is, what would falling over the edge constitute? That’s a question I would love to discuss and write more about, and I could talk a lot more about this book, only 94 pages long; it is so precise and accumulates in a way that isn’t a contrivance to genre, but a steady development of its ideas, but I need to leave it there for the reader.
I’ll finish on this though; White suggests that the scar from Marina’s crash could be the wing of an angel removed; as Rilke said, “all angels are terrible”. Rilke’s ‘First Elegy’ (who notably was dressed up as a girl by his mother, so desperate was she to have one) seems like it may have been consulted by Barba either before or during writing the novel. Rilke writes:
“to be no longer all that one used to be/in endlessly anxious hands, and to lay aside/even one’s proper name like a broken toy.”
Such small hands, such little power. “Strange, not to go on wishing one’s wishes,” Rilke then writes in the next line. It wouldn’t be perverse to say there is something desired and concealed within Barba’s work but as Barba’s suggests all along, we need to find a way to talk about it. A novel, that at it’s heart is not necessarily about finding a way to talk, but allowing the space for things to be talked about – even if it could be exploring the heart of a trauma.
Alejandro Zambra (translated by Megan McDowell)
Granta: 101 pp.: £8.99 (paperback)
Pablo Larrains’ s film No (2012) is set during the time of the plebiscite referendum in 1988, when it was put to a public vote as to whether there would be a democratic election for the new leader of Chile (vote No), or Pinochet should continue his autocratic regime (vote Yes). In reality, the campaign took place across 27 nights of television advertisements, where each side had fifteen minutes to present their arguments. In the film René (Gael García Bernal), an ad-man who is hired to lead the ‘No’ campaign, takes a maverick approach, and instead of focusing on the dismal injustices of Pinochet, imparts a positive, carnival-esque theme into the No broadcasts. His model seems to be the Coca-Cola adverts he’s seen in the United States. Whereas the Yes team choose to overwhelm the viewer with statistics, evidence (positivist rather than positive you might say) and parody. As history tells us, 56% of the nation voted No, against the odds.
The beautiful paradox of the film is that rebuttal of the desire becomes the way to access the desire. Or put simply, no means yes here. You can ask what they are offering those who do say No, but in fact they probably don’t even know themselves (there are parallels I think with the campaign conducted Jeremy Corbyn led in the 2017 General Election,and specifically the campaign, not the politics). Because the point of it is that they, whether this is the eventuality or not, are opening up a pathway that is not currently there. The only way to get there they believe is to say No to what you know, which, even if you deride what you already have, is still a difficult thing to do.
Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra also frames life in the Pinochet regime as a choice. This time it’s not between Yes and No, but multiple choices, like you’d get in an examination (the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test more specifically, Zambra explains at the end). This book/exam has five sections; Excluded Term, Sentence Order, Sentence Completion, Sentence Elimination and Reading Comprehension. Each section then comes with a brief set of instructions, after which you’re tasked with making your way through the book and each part, so make no mistake; this whole book is the structure of an exam. Quite hilariously, you are asking yourself, like the student who hasn’t done his revision, how am I going to tackle this? How am I going to get through this?
Other reviewers and readers have described how the book likens itself to the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ stories you might have read as a child. Intentionally or not, there is a much more devilish irony within that if you consider that you would probably be taking the exam Zambra bases his novel on, to get admitted into University. ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ even sounds like a strapline, a prophetic marketing myth that seems to be a given aspect of the modern University’s image. But there’s a feeling that the more choices you’re represented with here, the less you’ve potentially to actually choose from.
I’m not sure if it’s a universal trait of exams, but even here you’re presented with the easier questions first, or the shorter ones at least (here it is probably harder if we’re thinking in terms of trying to read this as a novel). In ‘Excluded Term’s you must remove the word that does not fit with the title word.
For some readers this might be a breaking point, because the book will invite you to scrawl and dirty it with your scribing. Deconstructionists would have a field day debating who ‘owns’ the text, but you’ll find yourself re-reading questions, frustrated, wanting to know more, wanting to, ultimately, know the answers. There might be some debate around the ingenuity of Multiple Choices, but whatever the purpose of the structure is, here, it is the material of the text as much as the text is alone. Text here feels ephemeral, subsumed by its structural necessities. Question 27 from ‘Sentence Order’ seemed to emphasise that:
27. A Child
1. You dream that you lose a child
2. You wake up.
3. You cry.
4. You lose a child.
5. You cry.
What follows here then is a list of options in which you could put the order of the sentences in (eg.5-3-1-2-4). On other questions you may wonder if this has an implicative effect on the result, but because of the structure, and perhaps where No finishes off wondering about ‘choice’, the structure looks ready to almost undermine the text at every instant, to undermine specifically, the sense of choice. And as you skit through the options, re-framing the phrases in each of the orders, the action itself of doing that, instead, seems to really represent what Multiple Choices has to say or asks. Where does the choice lie?
In the ‘Sentence Completion’ section you’re given a series of sentences to finish:
53. You were a bad son, but ___
You were a bad father, but _____
You are alone, but _____
The 5 options are then:
A) people vote for you
people vote for you
people vote for you
B) I love you
I love you
I love you
C) I’m not your father
I’m not your son
that’s not my problem
D) you know it
you know it
you know it
E) no one knows
no one knows
no one knows
There is perhaps a hint here of the heavy religious influence that permeates Chilean society, but all the choices in this instance seem inextricably linked with the other options, irony abounding, as if the question recognises the redundancy of the options, and why they all go back to the variance C offers. But the ambiguity in what the process aligns itself with, and what wrests it from Zambra making some kind of overwhelming moralistic statement (and would eventually be supremely cynical if that was the case), is that it is very difficult to claim what the process aligns itself with. Is it ideological? Or is it the tyranny of syntax? The banal prospect of individual fulfilment in capitalism? Or something like a Marxist superstructure? Or is this the embodiment of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar? Or just a simple choose your adventure story?
Finally, you come to some longer passages in ‘Reading Comprehension’ in which you answer a series of questions based upon what you’ve just read. Here is a paragraph about twins from the ‘Covarrubia family’:
“Covarrubias family tradition dictated that the firstborn son should be named Luis Antonio, but when Covarrubias senior found out that twins were on the way he decided to divide his name between them. During their first years of life, Luis and Antonio Covarrubias enjoyed – or suffered through – the excessively equal treatment that parents tend to give to twins: the same haircut, the same clothes, the same class in the same school.”
It’s there in the ‘excessively equal treatment’, a euphemism if there ever was one. But the excessive ‘equalness’ and rigidness in the twins life, two people who, on appearance, will look like the same person, probably constitutes every person that has ever sat this exam. It reminded me of that final moment in Kafka’s short story ‘Before the Law’ where the man from the country walks up to the doorkeeper and asks to be admitted to the law. On his refusal at being allowed in by the doorkeeper, the man chooses to sit and wait, which transpires to be his whole life. As he nears the end of his life, the man asks why he was never allowed in and the doorkeeper bellows “No one else could gain admission here, because this entrance was intended for you alone. Now am I going to shut it.”
Not to spin too much of an allegory on Kafka’s story but there does seem a question here at the potency of choice and the potency of the person to enter, indeed, through that door. The doors, or the structure, even when the option may be presented to you, and indeed, presented to be made for you, could still be the thing that doesn’t allow you to access it. Or perhaps that is the moralising statement that Zambra wanted me to make? Or maybe the choice isn’t for you to make? Who knows? Maybe it’s just a question of choosing.
A Hero of Our Time
Mikhail Lermontov (translated by Martin Parker and Neil Cornwell)
Alma: 217pp.: £4.99 rrp.
We’re accustomed to seeing book jackets and the opening pages adorned with quips and praise by other authors, newspapers and journals, and if you look through any bookshop, you’ll be guaranteed that 70% of those books will be described as the best thing you’ll read all year. Here, opening the pages of A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov’s work from 1839, you’re first greeted by a vanguard of four of the most lauded writers of all time; Gogol, Chekhov, Lessing and Nabokov (the latter of which even doing his own translation), all of them testifying to a A Hero’s… brilliance. And what is most startling about this is their range: you wouldn’t imagine Nabokov enjoying Lessing or them snugly next to each other in an anthology.
With all classic, esteemed objects or works, things that sustain the centuries, we’re asking is it justified? Is it still relevant? We’re all familiar with the feeling of bemusement and boredom at school, which probably does its best to avert you to any classic literature later in life, only disposing you to wonder what the hell sustains these archaic pursuits of love in archaic language. You’re not given time to answer, what is this going to give me now? What is Lermontov’s work going to give me, like it gave something to Gogol and Chekhov? Schooling and dictation does not allow you to consider that. Nabokov and Lessing were not in the same classroom and were allowed to take something different away.
Indeed, you’d be forbidden for feeling timid, like you probably are when you confront any classic work of literature, and the vanguard probably adds to that. But then this is a novel about timidity; a Byronic anti-hero, a swaggering exile who’s looking for a duel, and written by a man who seems to share similar traits to his character. In fact, it’s bordering on the bullish.
For a work of realism, taking from the likes of Walter Scott’s marauding heroes, Lermontov’s work is a fragmented, layered composition, with hazy lines between fact and fiction that we’d perhaps not expect of that time. The introduction provided with this edition (worth defining as the introduction provided by Neil Cornwell, and not the author’s preface, but more about that shortly), states that “one of the most striking formal features of A Hero of Our Time is its generic mix. It is made up, prefaces apart of five short stories…”Regardless of its structure, in each section the identity of the writer and narrator is not always tangible.
James Wood in his essay on Lermontov (‘Unfathomable!’) draws analogues with Samuel Johnson’s description of the Highlands in his expedition with James Boswell: “Apparently unable to banish his dead fascination, Johnson can only fixate on the terrible depth of the loch…the real interest of the passage is Dr Johnson’s obscure knowledge of himself.” You’re on board with Wood’s hypothesis and that is certainly what pervades the reading of Pechorin and Lermontov, but it’s also what you’re feeling yourself; that here you’ve come upon a piece of work, great and mysterious, deep from the annals of literary history, something that you were not quite expecting, and ironic to its title, not of its time, beyond time.
Wood’s essay then is an attempt to reconcile the writer Lermontov and the character, Pechorin, whom is initially recounted to us by a soldier, Maxim Maximych. The first time we meet Pechorin, we already know him as dead. The last three sections we are reading Pechorin’s words but only because we’re reading his diary (there is also the attempt at another story/novel in Princess Ligovskaya which features Pechorin but is distinct from A Hero of Our Time). It’s mysterious, not in its inconclusiveness or at the expense of its narrative, but in its elusiveness. Unlike the great romanticist escapades that were so popular and fashionable at the time (and perhaps, in a different way, still are now), the mystery is at the behest of the man, not the mystery itself. The real interest, like Wood says of Johnson’s account, is the ‘obscure knowledge of himself’. This is what I think, makes it the powerful ‘literary’ novel that it is and why it has sustained such power over so many writers and readers over the centuries. Wood notes how it enamoured writers like Dostoevsky who would at first seem a very different writer to Lermontov. But like Chekhov, Gogol, Lessing, and Nabokov, what is uniting them, making them equal, is that they have all become, in the wake of the novel, writers reduced to mere readers: they submit, like we all do, to the wonder and possibility of Lermontov’s work.
As it opens, the nameless traveller and the Captain are forced to stop in the mountains whereupon they will hear about the hero, Pechorin. Lermontov was himself exiled into the Caucassian mountains which is what you’d assume provides the material for the scenery. This isn’t all though. Perhaps it’s more like ‘screenery’ similar to what Wood described in Johnson’s fixation with the Loch, where there is a “nameless stream that noisily bursts from a black, gloom-filled gorge” and “a thick mist rolled in waves from the gorges, blanketed it completely, and not a sound reached us from the depths”. And even the people who live there might be aware of it as well:
The captain then says
“We’ll have to stay here overnight,” he said, annoyed. “You can’t get through the hills in a blizzard like this. Seen any avalanches on Krestoyava?” he asked a coachman.
“No sir,” the Ossetian replied, “But there’s a lot just waiting to come down.”
They might as well be sat at the tip of an iceberg. It is not just scenery, but as Wood talks about, that unfathomable rejection of categorisation. Lermontov here though, realises that the mystery of humanity doesn’t mean determining who the person is, and their identity, it’s a mystery of the composition and the contradictions. You’ll see then how duality is so important in A Hero…, as it represents the dual way in which we can never truly know ourselves fully and consciously, as gaps in the narration and Pechorin’s character begin to explain one another. “I have an inborn urge to contradict,” Pechorin says in his diaries.
This sense of duality pervades not just the novel but the life of Lermontov as well, both literally and ironically, as both our characters and author died in duels. And they are duelling with one another here as to who takes precedence. The author’s preface for example could be ‘written’ by Lermontov, Pechorin, Maxim Maximych, a nameless traveller, but the word itself represents what it actually is here. The Pre-Face and the Fore-Word: the author applying the mask, the writer ready to project themselves, the jutting confrontation to the reader:
“A Hero of Our Time, my dear sirs is indeed a portrait, but not of one man; it is a portrait built up of all our generation’s vices in full bloom. You will again tell me that a human being cannot be so wicked, and I shall reply that if you can believe in the existence of all the villians of tragedy ad romance, why should you not believe that this is not Pechorin? If you could admire far more terrifying and repulsive types, why are you not more merciful to this character even if it is fictitious?”
Go on then, come and have a go, but be prepared for the duel. Our heroes are often projections of our unreal fantasies, and whilst Lermontov on some level is parodising the ‘hero’ fashionable at the time (and parody as Wood remarks, is often loaded with admiration), our ‘hero’ is actually, lost, exiled, probably scared and ready for battle. The romanticist’s dreams were often caught up in nationalism, but this hero isn’t even wanted by his native land. And we’re hard on him as well because he’s hard on the reader, and perhaps he’s giving us a warning: identify with this hero at your peril, but it might be a peril you’ll need to make at some point. You discover things about yourself that you did not want to discover. You will want to defeat the part of yourself that wants to defeat you.
Duality carries into ‘Princess Ligovskaya’, an unfinished piece included as an appendix in this edition. It is equally as sublime so don’t let the fact it’s an appendix make it seem any less superior. There is more duelling; weaponry leaks into descriptions of the tears of women, described as both“offensive and defensive” weapons and it seems that to fall in love, to be at the abeyance of your own emotions, is either to be conquered or conquer them:
“Pechorin, throughout the campaign, distinguished himself, just as every Russian officer distinguished himself, and fought boldy as did every Russian soldier. He paid his compliments to many Polish misses, but the instant of his last farewell and the image of Verochka invariably alarmed his imagination. How strange this was! He had gone away with the set intention of forgetting her, and the contrary happened (which is almost always the way it works in such matters). What is more, Pechorin was possessed of a most unfortunate disposition: impressions which at first might seem insignificant would little by little push themselves ever deeper and deeper into his mind. Thus as time unfolded, this love assumed the right of longest-standing over his heart – the most sacrosanct of the rights of humanity.”
It’s interesting that the paragraph following this is relaying Pechorin’s role in the “taking of Warsaw”. But there is even a duel there in how her love “assumed the longest-standing over his heart”. And also, does not the way he pushes those impressions deeper and deeper into the mind sound like the deep and dark gorges we were greeted with at the start of A Hero…? There is so much intent to do something and then realising that the mastery is not always possible, realisations that culminate in the awareness that humanity is not even capable at being at one with its own failings and contradictions, that Pechorin, in his inborn urge to contradict is upon the only way of understanding oneself. Through the duel, where one aspect will fail, at the hope the prevailing truth or nature will show itself.
Lermontov does make this about the obscure knowledge of himself, but there is an extra dimension to it. The character of Pechorin is so elusive that we’re always searching for him, and often like the dual, where the battle may seem to be between two very opposing sides, it is, in itself, over a very similar rejection: what is seen in the other that is seen in the self. Lermontov, like his hero, died in a duel. To stare into the abyss was what Lermontov did, and he may not have won the duel over himself, but he did win one over his readers. That is a battle you’ll be more than happy to lose. Great literature wins every time.
James Wood’s essay ‘Unfathomable’ was originally printed as ‘In a Spa Town’ (February, 2010) in the London Review of Books and reprinted in his essay collection, The Fun Stuff, published by Vintage.
The Nest of the Gentry
Ivan Turgenev (translated by Michael Pursglove)
Alma: 224pp.: £7.99 rrp.
The home, the nest: are the lessons we learn there healthy? We leave and we retreat to it, sometimes wisely sometimes not. There’s a time in life when we’re confronted with the fact that we’re going to leave the nest, and we can choose either to really leave and create our new nest and trust our own nature, or not. This, at least for me, has been a difficult quandary. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not, we can go on recreating the nest we’ve left, and enter into the same, sometimes, debilitating patterns. It is the latter of these that can tell us the best stories.
Admittedly, this could be a narcissistic statement from a man who has read too many books about self-defeating narcissistic males. I immediately think of Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom from Updike’s Rabbit novels, or even though Saul Bellow had different protagonists each time, there’s not much separating Joseph from Dangling Man and the later, exemplary Moses Herzog, of which the novel gave its name (one suspects that there is not much to separate them from Bellow either). Although a slightly different texture here – early nineteenth century Russia – and where the omniscient narrator reigns supreme, The Nest of the Gentry suggests a place where the Rabbit might return: but are the lessons learnt there positive ones?
It is amiable Lavretsky who has returned home. Turning his back, according to the book’s jacket, on his European lifestyle and unfaithful wife, he is going back to the town he was born in, O-. The notes suggest that this is Orlyo, Turgenev’s own birthplace, and like Lavretsky, one wonders if Turgenev was returning to his own nest and indeed, why? Some expected home-spun wisdom and recuperation? A re-setting of the morals and reminder of what matters in life? The nest is a powerful metaphor for Turgenev clearly, who according to the introduction (my first reading of Turgenev, so we’ll have to trust it), frequently used imagery from the natural world. Familial, security, simple naturalness in nature certainly broods in the idea of the nest, but the first few pages suggest that this isn’t such a simple matter.
Whilst Lavretsky might have spent some time in the socialite (and infidel) Europa, the different ways that might have been learnt there, don’t seem to count for much in Turgenev’s novel, yet there’s not a plenitude of honesty in the naturalistic settings of the country either it seems. What is acute then is that sense of rigidity and almost a fear. With Lavretsky coming back, we’re poised with a person who is on the outside-looking in but at the same time, not.
Feelings for his cousin, Lizaveta, percolate. She already has two suitors in in the dandyish Panshin, and the brooding Lemm. This is a short novel though, and with a cast befitting of a Russian epic (no character list supplied in this edition from Alma: I think character lists should be compulsory in every Russian novel), there is a sense that the nest is purposefully crowded. You think of the chicks fighting for the mother’s rations on the return to the nest and slowly secreting is the idea that within the nest, as homely as it is, it can be quite a vicious place, as people battle for love and affection. The ones that are battling though, are the men for the affection and approval of the Mrs Bennett figure of Marya Dmitriyevna; the sage, yet wry, Marya Timofeyevna; and the aforementioned Lizaveta, Bathsheba Everdene-like with her triumvirate of suitors. But unlike Hardy’s novel also set in the country, and what perhaps makes Turgenev’s more accomplished than it, is that she will not get as much agency as Bathsheba.
As Lizaveta and Lavretsky’s feelings develop for one another, the stricture of which they’re in becomes apparent. It’s intense and muddled, reaching its epitome when Panshin proposes to Lizaveta, and attains subsequent approval of the elders in the nest. It’s around the same time Lavretsky has heard about the fate of his wife. Love isn’t possible, yet they feel it.
Turgenev constructs a masterful scene at this point. The six page chapter is almost entirely dialogue and it comes down to the steady accumulation of affects by Turgenev, the repression of the powers that lie beneath the two characters and their inability to confront it.
Laveretsky “does not know what he is feeling at the news” and would have felt more upset if’ he’d found out two weeks earlier. A tear holds in his eye as he speaks about it, a recurring image, that suggests what? Restraint? The need or necessity for them to withhold their emotions to the rest of their families and themselves?
“I learnt what a pure womanly soul means, and my past fell away from me even more”. At the news Lizaveta retreats, but Lavretsky follows her and feels he owed something as honest from her. Frankness, decides Lizaveta then, is the only way.
“Did you know I got a letter today?”
“Yes, from him…how did you know?”
“He asked for your hand?”
“Yes,” said Liza, looking directly and seriously into Lavretsky’s eyes.
Lavretsky, in his turn, looked seriously at Liza.
“Well, and what reply did you give him?” he said finally.
“I don’t know how to reply,” returned Liza, unfolding and lowering her arms.
“What? You love him, don’t you?”
“Yes, I like him. He seems to be a nice man.”
“You said the same thing in the same terms three days ago. I want to know whether you love him with that powerful, passionate feeling which we’re accustomed to call love?”
“As you understand it – no.”
“You’re not in love with him?”
“No. Is that really necessary?” [Author’s emphasis].
It’s going to be tough for Lavretsky, especially when Lizaveta’s mother approves of Panshin as well. This mattered back then, but we’d foolish to say that it didn’t matter now; it just works in different ways. Or is it just a case of Lavretsky’s European ways imdebting him with ridiculous conceptions of love? If that’s the case, he’s not quitting on those ways now: “Obey your heart: it will alone tell you the truth,” Lavretsky interposed. “Experience, reason – that’s all dust and ashes! Don’t deprive yourself of the best, the only happiness on earth.”
Hopeless romantic or an unashamed truth? Much too fancifully French for these rural Russians? But there is that pertinent feeling within that pervades the novel and is leaked out in that admonishment of experience and reason, as ‘dust and ashes’. Death and dust, something that we’re all fated for, whether we’re religious or not. One can see why somebody like Hemingway admired the novel so much; the way Turgenev keeps the surface bubbling, direct and honest, yet that thing that cannot be named (that even the most manly of Hemingway’s characters cannot confront) unavoidably influences that. It’s almost so restrained, yet so desperate, that they appear to be speaking to themselves through one another – “you said the same thing, in the same terms, three days ago.”
Lizaveta cannot comprehend the fact that Lavretsky has ‘loved’ before and indeed this is the question she appears to be battling with. There’s a reason that they want to keep Lizaveta at the nest and there’s a reason that she is sceptical of Lavretsky’s proclamations of love. Perhaps this is Turgenev’s scepticism and he has returned to the nest to write this story.
“Bitterness filled her soul: she had not deserved such humiliation. Love had not made itself felt as happiness: for the second time since the previous evening she wept. This new and unexpected feeling had only just been engendered in her heart, but already how heavy the price she had paid for it, how crude the touch of the alien hands on her cherished secret!…As long as she had lacked understanding of herself she had hesitated, but after that meeting, after that kiss, she could no longer hesitate: she knew she was in love, that she had fallen in love honourably and seriously, had committed herself firmly and for life, and was not afraid of threats – she felt that this union could be broken by force.”
This would seem a tone of valedictory from Lizaveta, but in the passage quoted prior to that, Lizaveta also embodies a feeling “akin to terror [that] had taken her breath away.” There’s not many moments of seclusion in the novel, but this is one of them, and it feels like something is falling through, giving away, in this acute moment of privacy.
Who knows what made Lavretsky and indeed, Turgenev, go back to the nest. But although the force may feel like a return to safety, it could in fact be the force that bred there in the first place. As Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is drying his wife’s hair for her, he notices “Nature is full of nests”. There’s a reason he’s called Rabbit.
The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) went some way in launching or propelling the careers of the likes of Steve Carell and Seth Rogen (Jonah Hill would probably have to wait until Superbad), and confirmed Judd Apatow’s credence as a director. It shows, what we now know, as the usual Apatow comedy traits. Rather than sustained laughs and continual, quipping smart dialogue, it instead revolves around several set pieces of physical, body-centred hilarity, not necessarily gross-out, through sexual awkwardness or near death.
You can see the familiar patterns. The waxing scene in 40YOV (absolutely superb), Andy’s (Carell) awkward stripping when he takes Beth (Elizabeth Banks) home, and him then being catapulted through the advertising from his bike (‘Eruption’, a joke that Carell’s character, is all too aware of). Here’s Trainwreck (2015): Steven’s repressed homosexuality (played by John Cena – his hulking body the paradox of his crushing insecurity), Amy’s (Schumer) awkward sex with her co-worker that, like Carell’s character, she doesn’t actually want; and then her trying to impress Aaron (Bill Hader) at a basketball game in which she falls flat on her face. One can see the lineage, but comedy is about formula, funny formulas at least.
Carell plays something of a cliché; the nerd, the comic-book lover, the guy who won’t take his action figures out of their box in case they lose their value. Perhaps there is something else in that sense of value, because there seems to be an element of preservation in Apatow’s films. The question is never answered as to why Andy is a virgin. Surely it is not enough to assume it’s because he’s a nerd? Clearly there is a meta-commentary available, that this was Apatow’s directing virginity (yuck), but what is the reason Andy has been keeping it in the box for twenty-or-so years? The greatest shock does not come from the fact that he is a virgin but rather that he seems to have never been exposed to sex. He has never watched pornorgraphy and refuses to when David (Paul Rudd) hands him a box of the stuff. Think how Trish (Catherine Keener), his future wife, is not annoyed that he has spent half of a night with Beth (Elizabeth Banks), but that he owns the porn David gave him. Sure, he feels awkward when he’s being goaded by his colleagues, but who wouldn’t? He seems to want something else, something antiquarian almost and something that I think makes the film most appealing; this is an attempt at an ‘adult’ comedy in the sense that it is talking about something often treated with juvenility in the cinema, and that like Carell’s character, doesn’t at first present itself as that. It’s a film that Andy seems to have been waiting for but found himself the star of. An subject that is about something young adult and invigorating but wants to be treated with maturity.
The poster of the film shows Carell surrounded by a halo-like glow. There is no sign that his character is religious but there is a feeling of holy abstinence. Andy is trying to step away from it, to not be immersed in this world of excessive sexual messages and media. Think of the joke when he is about to consummate his marriage (also note that there is lapse in the film, so that we don’t see the lead-up to the marriage where presumably he hasn’t done it either). He carries his wife into the hotel room. Hold on; there is a cleaner in there. How you can parse this moment as the cleaner stands there not finished ‘buffering’. Is he cleaning up the previous mess? Is Andy so naïve that he thinks nobody has been there before? But Andy is going to have to wait for him to stop buffering, like the internet video with the poor connection.
There is a real sweetness to the film though, an actual naivety that you don’t often get in cinema these days. Modern cinema is about complete exposure, not hiding things away: how much can we get away with, instead of how much can we keep under wraps. There is no sense of entitlement, nor backing away with immaturity (but after all, sex is funny), and it does confront finally that it won’t be able to avoid the subject forever. A real coming of age, twenty years late. And as if to emphasise its appeal to more innocent times, it ends in a musical number, yet what is the musical but an elaborate gesture of courting and pursuit like the birds that show their feathers to the mating partner? I’m reminded of Honest Trailers skit of Frozen with their “We’re gonna pork…” song. A film then that is perhaps about the means to celebration, to find something to sing and dance about, whatever it is, or isn’t.