Book Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”
Autumn by Ali Smith

It’s been nearly six months since I last wrote a blog post. 2017 has not been fun. Keeping up with scandals and nominations, violence and presidential tweets, breaking news and old skeletons, incriminations and analyses, insults, retractions and lies has felt like a full time job.

And it’s exhausting.

Though it hasn’t been that I have not been busy–I have read more already this year than in a long time. It’s just that sitting down and putting down my thoughts on this blog seemed so pointless, so self-centered. And god knows the times call for less self-involvement and a lot more outward action.

But here I am again. Because I know that that too is important.

In Issue 221 of The Paris Review (Summer 2017), I read a interview with the Scottish writer, Ali Smith. The conversation was intelligent, thoughtful and enticing.

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Ali Smith (Photo: Antonio Olmos)

So, I went out immediately and bought two books: Artful (2013) and Autumn (2016). (I had read her novel Accidental several years back, was floored by its creativity and beauty, but for some reason never followed up on more.)

Artful, on the surface, is made up of the four lectures on literary criticism that Smith was ask to deliver at Oxford. It is also, at the same time, a ghost story, a love story, and a novel–a combination that only Ali Smith would attempt and could pull-off. It is an extraordinary feat–the criticism is sparkling (I have underlined passages and dog-eared pages) and the narrative is engrossing and engaging.

The novel Autumn, however, is the more current, and is what I so much needed to read, in these “interesting days.” And again, it is magical.

Daniel Gluck is an old man and he is dying. He is 101 years old. Housed in the

Autumn book cover

Book Cover for Autumn

Maltings Care Providers institution, he is visited often by Elisabeth Demand, the young woman who has been his friend since she was thirteen, some twenty years ago. She is now an adjunct instructor of Art History–a subject he inspired in her as he taught her, as a young girl, how to see beyond surfaces and think and question all that she witnesses.

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Scandal-63 by Pauline Boty

The remembered scenes of their past, innocent relationship are wonderful and inspiring and hopeful. Daniel is a wonderful and creative teacher and a fine companion for the young Elisabeth. He introduces her to Chaplin, to Keats, and to Plath.

More importantly, he introduces her to the British POP ART artist, Pauline Boty. It is she, a forgotten artist of the 1960s whose work captured the zeitgeist of the day–from Bob Dylan to Christine Keeler–whom Elisabeth writes her doctoral thesis on.

(And the scandal of Christine Keeler and the machinations of the two governments involved with her, sorely reflect the tenor of our own times. It is capturing this scandal that Boty is perhaps best remembered for.)

But now Daniel is dying and it is the summer of 2016, after the Brexit vote, and the UK is in turmoil. Elisabeth’s mother puts in best when she says:

I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.
Autumn (
page 56-57)

Ali Smith  is writing in 2016 England but it very much could be here, now.

And that is what makes it so hopeful. For Daniel’s lessons and Elisabeth’s understanding of them underscore the importance and ultimate permanence of ART in turbulent times. For we learn that governments explode and implode, that pendulums swing one way and then the other, that movements and hatreds and despots come and go. But ART remains.

Daniel and Elisabeth’s relationship–a relationship with a 68 year age difference–is one that is based on love and trust and hope and acceptance.

And that, at least, is a bright light in these dark times.

Review: The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien…there are wolves among the lambs.

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On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.
Epigraph to The Little Red Chairs

 

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien came out in March of 2016, her 23rd book of fiction. Late to pick it up, I finished it only this weekend, January 28, 2017. While I was reading it, the United States put a ban on refugees entering the country. I wish those who had signed the papers ordering the ban had read O’Brien’s work beforehand. The unforgettable stories of refugees–which make up a very small part of the novel–put a face and a family and a humanity on these very people trying to escape the most unimaginable horrors. And the horrors themselves become real on the page.

However, I am sure that those in power have little time or inclination for reading.

In the 1990s my extended family–a few of my sisters, my mother, my auntie–as well as a good number of friends had begun watching a BBC series called Ballykissangel. (Run on various Public Television stations.) It was really no more than an Irish soap opera in a little town in the southeast of Ireland, yet the characters were memorable and well-drawn, their village ways often intruded on by the outside world and their own insular in-fighting propeled the story.

It was this show that I was reminded of at the beginning of The Little Red Chairs:  A lovely, charming Irish village with likeable characters visited by a elegant and charismatic stranger from the outside. But in this case, the stranger is the incarnation of evil.

One night, the simple village of Cloonoila in the west of Ireland is visited by a strange man. Dressed in a long black coat and with a flowing white beard, he stops at the local pub to inquire about finding lodgings. The barman who is idle, as it is early yet for the normal crowd, chats the stranger up and finds him “an out and out gentleman.” What surprises him, however, is his business card: Dr. Vladimir Dragan, Healer and Sex Therapist.

As soon as the visitor leaves, the pub fills with a crowd asking for information about the strange and elegant visitor, and it is a crowd out of central casting: the policeman, the ex-schoolteacher, the widow, the town punk, etc. You can imagine how the fact that he advertised himself as a “sex therapist” sets this town atwitter.

But nevertheless, they are enchanted by this wonder that has stumbled into their lives.

And the doctor is truly magnetic. Everyone, particular the women, is soon charmed and fascinated by him. He wins over the local priest and his landlady, sets up shop in an out-of-business dress shop, and offers the town his services. His first customer is a relatively liberal nun, Sister Bonaventure, who has come for a “medicinal massage.” (She is too embarassed to tell her fellow sisters how electrically alive she felt afterwards.)

His most important patient, however, is Fidelma, a 40-something women, married to a much older man, who longs for a child having miscarried twice, but sees that her chances are dwindling. The two become lovers, and soon Fidelma finds herself pregnant.

But before she can tell him, however, he is discovered, arrested and brought to an international tribune in the Hague. The stranger is the notorious war criminal known as the Beast of Bosnia. (O’Brien’s fictional Vladimir Dragan is largely based on Radovan Karadzic, the Butcher of Bosnia, and the retelling of his atrocities are a stark reminder of the bestial, sadistic violence that humans can visit on one another.)

Immediately after his arrest, Fidelma is assaulted and left for dead by three of his compatriots. When she is found, after she has recovered, she is discarded by her husband and shunned by her town. And she understandably falls apart, not so much from love lost, but because she has been touched by such unimaginable evil.

The second half of the novel follows a lost and disgraced Fidelma in London.  She walks among the refugees, the homeless, the downtrodden. She hears their stories, but she cannot share her own. She has not been brutalized like they; she has slept with the devil. And she cannot feel clean.

Until she faces her tormentor.

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Edna O’Brien at the Irish Book Awards

Edna O’Brien has been writing for more than fifty years and has garnered most of the awards that a writer can hope for. From her first novel The Country Girl to this last she has written mesmerizing tales that look at modern life cleanly and honestly–with it all its indelicacies and horrors on full display.

On my shelf, I noticed that I have five titles by O’Brien, ranging through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. I have not read much of her in the last two decades, but I have read her a lot. It is rare for a writer to hit his/her peak at the latter end of one’s career, but this is what O’Brien has done. I can honestly say that The Little Red Chairs is a masterpiece: blending Irish charm with human depravities, human grotesqueness with the capacity for great love, the private stage and the public arena.

The Little Red Chairs is an important book, a wonderful book, a highly readable book.

 

Please Note: I decided on this book after reading the Christmas NYTimes Book Review where it interviewed various writers, artists, thinkers etc. on what books they had read in 2016. The writer Maxine Hong Kingston was one of several who had read this book. However, she noted that she had to skip over the torture parts. There are two of them, and they are difficult, but are probably not the worse you have read or seen.

Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker

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RIP: Leonard Cohen (illustration 2016 by jpbohannon)

About a month ago, a coworker sent me a YouTube link of the title track of Leonard Cohen’s upcoming album, You Want It Darker. She wanted me both to hear it and to help her make sense of it.

And it was dark. It was almost a challenge to a god that has allowed humanity to do what it has in the course of human history. It was punctuated by the opening prayer of Rosh Hashana, “Hineni, Hineni.” (Here I am, Lord).  And then it was followed by Cohen’s line: “I am ready, Lord.”

(Perhaps, Cohen shouldn’t have issued the challenge when he did. For in the week that he died, the world indeed became darker in many ways for many of us.)

There have been many wonderful obituaries written over the past week, articles that celebrated his music, his poetry, his novels, obits that detailed his fully-lived life, both the loves and the disappointments, the treacheries and the successes. (Here is The London Times’ obituary.)

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Cohen in London in 1978 (SIPA PRESS/REX/Shutterstock)

And, of course, there were the inevitable comparisons to Dylan. Over the past several weeks, both have been rightly acclaimed as momentous poets of  our times–death and international prizes undoubtedly will do that–but too many of the commentators positioned it as some sort  a race, a competition.

It isn’t. It never is.

Certainly, they were both poets, but they are greatly different. Dylan’s words, he claims, come easy; Cohen struggled long and hard on his. (He claims that “Hallelujah” took him five years to write.) But they both brought to their work an elevated sense of language and imagery, a modern sensibility far removed from the insipid themes of most popular music of the time.

I learned about both of them when I was a very, young boy. When I was eleven, my eighteen-year old cousin and I both got guitars for Christmas. So we learned together, except he was 18 and much more part of the world and the emerging folk scene. Consequently, what I first learned on guitar was the Dylan songbook and the folk music published in SingOut magazine.

My first songs were Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” (one chord, E-minor, throughout) and “To Romana” (two chords, C and G). Before too long I moved on to Cohen’s “Suzanne.” In the small and insulated world of folk music, the song “Suzanne” was everywhere, as everyone it seemed was covering it. ( I mainly knew Judy Collins’ version. I can’t imagine my cracking adolescent voice trying to imitate her beautiful soprano. But oh well, …)

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Milton Glaser’s iconic poster of Bob Dylan

My fascination with Cohen, however, came much later. Dylan was Dylan and, if I had a musical idol, it was certainly he. For most of my adult life. But as I grew older, Cohen seemed to speak to me more readily. Oddly, Dylan’s writing began to seem overly specific, whereas Cohen was speaking to me individually and universally.

And as I grew older, his disappointments were more understandable. In a October 17, 2016 profile in The New Yorker, Cohen stated that “I am ready to die.”

I have been thinking about my own death a lot recently. One learns only gradually that one is not immortal, or at least the understanding of that comes on gradually. Cohen knew that, but he still kept creating;  at 82, two weeks before he died, he put out this last album.

It is serious and resigned and thoughtful.

It is beautiful. And sometimes funny.

And it is wonderful to listen to.

 

 

Book Review: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (In where John gets wisdom from a seal in the West of Ireland.)

Seal and John

The seal and John talk on the beach at Clew Bay                                                                                                          2016 by jpbohanno

And I’ll tell you another thing.
Go on?
All this …
He swings his head to indicate the world beyond–he’s got a fat stern head like a bouncer.
Fucked, he says.
You don’t mean…
I do, John. It won’t last.
You mean everything?
The works, he says.
But it sounds as wherks.
The wind, the waves, the water, he says.
But it sounded as wawteh.
It’s all in extra time, he says. It’s all of it fucked, son.
Mostly what John cannot get his head around is the Scouse accent.

And so it is 1978 and we are in the West of Ireland in the town of Newport in County Mayo. We have booked a B&B in the town before heading out to the uncle’s farm, knowing that he and Ana and Carmel and Tony would insist that we stay with them. But we are twenty-four and will not be bridled. That night there is a ceilidh in the local pub and all the aunts and uncles and cousins and friends–long heard of but never met–gather and we the Yanks are the guests of honor. We crawl back in the wee hours but once again in the morning the whole crowd is together at Mass and when we leave we speak to a few new faces on the church steps which gives the priest time to beat us to the pub.  Two nights earlier in Kerry we had played guitar in an old sheep-farmers pub, but the caravan of hippies that showed up with their instruments wanted only country-and-western which was not my strong suit. But I was able to give them some Woody and some Hank nevertheless, and then a few rebel songs. It was a long and dangerous night on the Kerry road.

And at the same time, unbeknownst to me, John Lennon was in my uncle’s town, hiding, according to Kevin Barry’s brilliant novel Beatlebone. I would have loved to have met him, but in the novel, he was not in a very good state of mind. And he was trying very hard to stay under-the-radar.bookcover

The novel is built on the fact that in 1967 John bought Dorinish Island, one of the many small islands off the west coast of Ireland. He had great plans for it, but few of them succeeded. And he only visited it a few times.

But now in Beatlebone, it is a decade later, John’s creativity seems to have flat-lined and his life consists of baking bread and raising his young son, Sean. He rarely leaves his New York City high-rise. He is not feeling right. He has been through Primal Scream therapy, but is still forever haunted by the father who abandoned him and the mother who lived around the corner from the aunt who raised him.

And so, he comes to Ireland to spend some time on his island and to heal himself.

Neither of which is an easy task to complete.

John is chauffeured by an irascible driver named Cornelius O’Grady, who very well may be a shape-shifter and who has taken the responsibility to hide John from the press, which has been alerted that he is there in the West.

Cornelius is open and honest and uncowed by his famous fare. In fact, his advice and wisdom and observations show no sign of tact or concern. And his and John’s conversations are great fun. (At one point, Cornelius convinces John to grease back his hair, wear Cornelius’s dead father’s eyeglasses–he is already wearing the dead man’s suit– and say that he is his stuttering cousin Kenneth from England. All so that they can go undetected into a pop-up moonshine pub in the hills of Mayo.)

It is after escaping the hotel that Cornelius has stashed him in and spending the night in a cave on the beach that John has his conversation with the seal and where he realizes his new album BEATLEBONE. He maps the entire thing out in his head before he is gathered up by Cornelius. He is sure that it will be the album that will change his reputation, his legacy forever.

As I was reading Beatlebone for the first hundred pages, I wanted to text, e-mail, call friends and tell them that no more novels need be written for this is the definitive example. (I lean towards hyperbole.)  The language itself is exquisite and daring and

ARTS / FEATURES Kevin Barry

The novelist Kevin Barry. Photograph: BryanO’Brien/IRISHTIMES

imaginative. And that is what one would expect from Kevin Barry, whose greatly awarded City of Bohane was a tour-de-force of underworld argot and Dublin slang positioned in a post-apocalyptic Ireland.

Beatlebone is a novel that is so fresh, so funny, so beautifully amazing and accurate that one finds oneself reading out passages to anyone who listens. (Another fault of mine.) There is one oddly placed chapter where the author talks about his research for the novel that, while fascinating, might better have been placed  at the end or the beginning of the novel. But that is a minor quibble.

The rest is perfect. So much so, that many may give up writing fiction entirely.

Book Review: Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad

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“The Quiet Christmas” illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

In Camus’ iconic novel The Stranger, a man murders another and spends the second half of the novel trying to understand and rationalize both his actions and their consequence. Despite Camus’ distancing himself from the term, The Stranger is the quintessential “existential” novel.

As is the Norwegian writer Dag Solstad’s novel Professor Andersen’s Night.

But unlike Camus’ Meursault who kills an unnamed Arab on a beach in Algiers. Professor Andersen does not kill but witnesses a murder, on Christmas Eve night in the apartment across from his. And his internal struggles are every bit as Sisyphean as Camus’ protagonist.

In Solstad’s novel, a literature professor in Oslo who specializes in Ibsen is a loner who enjoys both his solitude and communal traditions. (Shyness and DignitySolstad’s first novel translated in English–featured a high-school literature teacher who had his moment of crisis while teaching Ibsen.) Thus on Christmas Eve night, Professor Andersen dresses in a suit and tie, cooks a traditional Christmas dinner and opens the two gifts under the fully decorated, full-sized tree while enjoying his after-dinner coffee and cognac. It is the perfect traditional Christmas Eve… except that he is willfully alone.

To compensate, he draws the curtains of his apartment window and stares out at the festivities in the windows across from him. In the various windows, he sees people sitting at meals, standing convivially with drinks in hand, sitting around distributing gifts.

And one man strangle a woman.

Naturally, Professor Andersen is shocked. He reaches for the phone, dials the police, but hangs up before he is connected.

He cannot make the call.

Through the holidays and for the next month after, he is obsessed with the murder and with his decision not to call. He searches the various newspapers for mention of the murder or mention of a missing woman. He goes over to the apartment building and discovers the man’s name. He watches from behind the curtains the man’s comings and goings.

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Book cover of the Norwegian paperback edition.

At a dinner party, he considers telling his friends, all radicals when they were together in college, but now quite comfortable in their professions. He knows that they would not understand his decision, that their advice, concerns, discussion would be far off the mark.

And so he examines his every thought–past and present. Is he committed– as a member of a civilized society–to tell? Or does his championing of the individual commit him not to tell?  He considers his options, his mental growth, his expertise in literature (where, after all, he is consistently analyzing men who are put into crisis and must act). He examines his soul, his basic beliefs, to a degree that most of us do not.

And then he meets the murderer–unintentionally, in a sushi restaurant. Afterwards, he invites the man in to his apartment for a drink.

Even this encounter, does not quell his internal wrestling. He has a quasi-religious experience, believes he has received some sort of divine grace. And yet still he must ponder the consequences of both his acting and not acting.

Professor Andersen’s Night is a short, but dense, novel. The internal dialog that Professor Andersen conducts is wrought by philosophical quibbling, rich in existential anguish, and accessible in its “everyman” applicability.

Like Elias Rukla in Shyness and Dignity, he too comes to doubt all that he has believed and professed, to second-guess his career and all that it purported to do. And he too must fathom, exactly what it is he stands for and where he goes from here.

Professor Andersen’s Night is a thoughtful novel–a novel of ideas and questions. It is a novel that stays with you for the better.

And makes one consider where any of us actually stand.

Book Review: Broken Umbrellas and Ennui: Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad

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“Broken Umbrella” illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

Dag Solstad, a novelist and playwright, has won numerous prizes for his writing, including the prestigious Nordic Prize for Literature. He is the only author to have recived the Norwegian Literary Critics Award three times. This is the first English translation of his work. Solstad lives in both Oslo and Berlin.
Back Cover copy of Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad

And most of us have never heard of him.

In general, we Americans are very ignorant of writers in other languages. It is not our fault (despite our staunch embrace of our mono-lingualism). American publishing houses take very few chances with translated works. Of course, there are exceptions. Publishing houses such as Europa Editions, Graywolf Press, and Vintage have been steadfast in bringing forth translated novels. And every so often they catch on. Elena Ferrante is a phenomenon; Jo Nesbo continues to thrill; and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series was a publishing behemoth.  But in general, we are isolationists when it comes to reading.

To wit, Shyness and Dignity, Solstad’s first novel to be translated into English, was published in Norway in 1996 and in the States in 2006. It was his first novel translated into English–thirty-seven years after his first book came out in 1969.

(One would think that his books covering each of the FIFA World Cups from 1982 on would have introduced him to Americans. But then again, we as a nation are just beginning to watch soccer; obsessive reading about it is probably a bit down the road.)

And so we have Shyness and Dignity. (As of now, there are three novels translated: Shyness and Dignity, Professor Andersen’s Night, and Novel 11, Book 18.)Shynessbookcover

Elias Rukla is a middle-aged teacher, teaching Norwegian Literature in a National high-school in Oslo. He is frustrated by his work, has lost belief in the relevance of what he professes, and feels useless in the new  educational arena. One day, after his last class, a class in which he felt he was being particularly trenchant, in which for the first time in a while he believed he had said something original, something worthwhile, and in which at his greatest moment of insight, he was interrupted by the bored groan of one of his students, Elias left the building for the day.

It was raining, he was prepared, but his umbrella would not open. Another moment of frustration. Many attempts at opening it escalated into a battle. He sliced his hands with the umbrella ribs,  threw the umbrella on the ground and began jumping on it.  As students gathered around to watch their teacher wrestle with this inanimate object, he lashed out, calling one tall blond student a “fat snout” and a “damned bitch.”

At that moment, he realized his career was over.

This scene is actually a very small part of the novel. The opening frame, if you will. As he wanders the streets of Oslo, considering the irreparable consequences of his actions, he thinks of how he would tell his wife.

And then he thinks of how he had met her. And then he thinks of the friend who had introduced them. And then he thinks of what he and she and the friend had once been and had now become.

It is a story of hopes unrealized, optimism and activism dampened, and life soullessly borne.

We follow Elias through his graduate school days and his fascination with a young philosophy student who is the darling of both his peers and his professors. Not only is Johan Corneliussen a prodigy in philosophy–particularly Kantian philosophy–but he is a prodigy in life. As Elias explains:

Johan Corneliussen moved without difficulty from ice hockey to Kant, from interest in advertising posters to the Frankfurt school of philosophy, from rock ‘n’ roll to classical music. Operettas and Arne Nordheim …  Music, ice hockey, literature, film, soccer, advertising, politics, skating.

It was this total immersion into life–so different from the shy and insecure Elias Rukla–that was Corneliussen’s attraction. And Rukla became his shadow, inseparable friend, partaking in it all and basking in the reflected adulation that was directed towards his companion.

As we follow the college students through their various interests and politics, their associates and lovers, we also see the crumbling of young certainties. Except that Elias retains his much further into life.

It is struggle with his umbrella that brought about this realization that all has changed, his career, his wife, his beliefs, his interests.

And with this meandering journey homeward, he has reviewed his entire life up to this very moment, this moment when he feared what he would say to his wife. All had changed and he was just realizing it now.

Solstad’s novel is an examination into what makes us act, what compromises we make, and what indignities we are willing to bear. It is an internal examination, not of conscience, but of consciousness. It is a somewhat dreary look at the dampening of hope, the degrading of cultural literacy, the momentum of capitalism. Solstad’s sentences are long and meandering, walking through a paragraph much the way the Elias walks through the streets of Oslo, but each one is perfect.

Each one brings us a few steps closer to the destination that Elias must ultimately reach.