Friday, 30 November 2012

Sarah Hall: The Beautiful Indifference

This is a collection of prize-winning, much applauded stories.  They certainly gleam - sharp-edged, flawlessly designed -  ‘showing’ as perfectly as video clips, the language deliberately challenging, the situations diverse.  But, for me, there is something so self-consciously intended about them, it takes away some of the pleasure of reading. 

But then I think, if I were not another writer, would I be aware of the puppeteer pulling the strings?  As a writer you read differently.  Sarah Hall’s writing is always excellent, honed and polished to shine brightly. But these stories lack some essential emotional quality that would take them from the exceptional into the category of brilliant. After thinking about it for some time, I realise that one of  my main problems with them was that the voice of the young woman in each story is very similar - all the stories could be spoken by the same woman. And I can't get away from the fact that the stories leave me rather cold.  In fact, feeling exactly like the title story ‘a beautiful indifference’.

There are two outstanding stories.  The first is Vuotjarvi, where a young couple stay in a borrowed house beside a remote lake and ecstasy turns to tragedy.  The suspense is compelling.  The other story that stands out is She Murdered Mortal He (first published in Granta), an interior monologue, set in a remote African location, where a young couple are again on holiday.  The story is unsettling, and one is never sure of exactly what has happened, or what the roles of each individual are exactly.

Butcher’s Perfume is set in my own home territory, and I know the templates of the characters - real people she has caught on the page, like pinned butterflies.

One of the most beautiful stories (The Nightlong River) is about two young women set in some fictional past or future and their relationship.  That, for me was one of the most successful - the title story less so.

These stories are interesting as examples of modern short fiction - they’ve been described as ‘dazzling’ and they are, but I don’t want to be just dazzled, I also want to feel the warmth of the light.  For me the very best contemporary short fiction writers are still David Malouf, Alice Munro, and Ali Smith. But Sarah Hall isn’t far behind.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory

Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory is not a biography.  It is exactly what it says in the subtitle on the cover ‘The working life of Herbert Allingham’.  I read it because I’m a fan of his daughter, the crime writer Margery Allingham, and I was fascinated to learn about her family background.  I hadn’t known that her father (in fact her whole family) worked in the popular literature industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Herbert Allingham was born into it.

Julia Jones (no relation!) inherited the Allingham family archive when Herbert’s youngest daughter, Joyce, died, and Julia has also written a biography of Margery - soon also to be released as an e-book. The archive has proved to be a wonderful resource - a unique collection of documents giving us a window onto the world of ephemeral popular literature - the soap operas of our great grandparents’ generations.

Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory  is a fascinating account of the growth, flowering and diminishing of mass-market literary culture - the penny and half-penny illustrated weekly papers that my grandmother used to refer to as ‘penny dreadfuls’, but read all the same. Most of the titles have now vanished, but Tit-Bits was still around when I was a child and my mother was still reading Women’s Weekly and My Weekly (in their modern transformations) when she died a few years ago.

This book tells a big part of the social history of Britain - how the weekly papers with their serials and stories both reflected and influenced a sector of society. They often had titles such as ‘A Woman Scorned’, or ‘A Mother Cast Out’, and plots that resemble silent movie classics like ‘The Perils of Pauline’. Like modern day soap operas, they were unashamedly formulaic with every episode ending on a cliff-hanger. Rags to Riches stories were very popular.  Uneducated boys from homes of unimaginable poverty, with dead-end jobs in factories, women who spent their lives in household drudgery, read them or had them read to them.  The periodicals were even sent to the front during the first world war to brighten the lives of the ‘Tommys’. 

Julia Jones clearly describes how changing social conditions - divorce, feminism, education etc, changed the content that Herbert Allingham scribbled every week for 50 years until he died.  He was as much a factory or industrial worker as any of those who bought the papers.  There are no holidays when you have three children to feed and educate and you’re paid by the yard.  There was no welfare state.

Although Herbert’s work was published in almost all the periodicals throughout this time, his name rarely appeared - the authors of serial fiction were usually anonymous.  This seems rather cruel.  Cruel too that Allingham, unlike his daughter, never had the chance to see his fiction between the covers of a book. 

His personal life seems to have been sometimes quite bleak - his wife Em is described as a ‘cough drop’ - a bit of an acquired taste.  She appears neurotic and wilful and her daughter Margery obviously had a difficult relationship with her.  But Em too, was often part of the Fiction Factory - helping Allingham write some of his serials, writing stories of her own. A strange, possibly unrequited, love affair with a doctor resulted in a complete breakdown.  Allingham wrote through it all, producing his 10,000 words a week whatever calamity was taking place at home.

So, at least I now know the context that framed Margery Allingham’s development as a writer.  She described herself once as her ‘father’s apprentice’.  He helped her all he could, though he didn’t always understand her different gifts.

This is a fascinating book, beautifully illustrated with frames from the ‘penny papers’ and it will please those with an academic interest in the history of popular culture as well as the casual reader interested in social history and biography. The paperback is expensive, though it’s a bargain when you think of the research that has gone into it and the amount of information it provides, but the E-book is affordable on Amazon at 7.99.  Hurrah for E-books!!

Saturday, 10 November 2012

The Light Between Oceans: M.L. Stedman

I bought this book because it had good write-ups and I liked the first couple of pages I sampled.  the beginning is a really good example of how to start a book and hook the reader in.  The descriptions of the remote island off the coast of Australia, the sea and the lighthouse were to die for - it really tapped into that romantic childhood fantasy about living on a lighthouse and being a lighthouse keeper (yes, I know I'm a girl!!!)

But it was the reading on that I found difficult.  I found it quite an upsetting book to read and found myself skipping chunks - big chunks  - because I needed to know what happened but I couldn't bear to read about it.  There are some books that just tap into deep emotions and they're not always ones you want to experience.  I'm not going to say more because I don't want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn't yet read it.

Briefly - Tom, a returning hero from World War One, becomes a lighthouse keeper and meets his wife Isobel, a small town girl, and takes her out to Janus Island where things don't exactly go to plan.  Then, one day, a boat washes up onshore containing a dead man and a live baby.....  The moral and ethical decisions that the couple make have repercussions no one anticipates.

The novel is beautifully written, but is also somewhat uneven, as you'd expect from a first book, and I found some of the plot elements stretched my credibility at times.  But it's a very clever and impressive piece of writing.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Asko Sahlberg: The Brothers

I’ve been a convert to Peirene Press’s editions of contemporary European fiction since I read The Murder of Halland by Danish author Pia Juul, and the short stories of Austrian Alois HotschnigThe Brothers comes from Finland and is by Asko Sahlberg, one of the country’s best poets and prose writers, but very little known in England. The book blurb was terse and very brief, but when I read it, I knew I wanted to read the book:
      ‘Finland, 1809. Henrik and Erik are brothers who fought on opposite sides in the war between Sweden and Russia. With peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm. But who is the master? Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga.’

It all begins with a horse - Henrik ‘was a man born to understand horses’.  As a young boy, working his father’s estate, Henrik sees a young colt in a neighbour’s field and knows immediately that he wants it.  It’s a big, ugly, beast of a horse, which has‘the burning eyes of a wolf or a lion, or maybe the Beast of the Book of Revelation’, but there’s a definite, uncanny, connection between boy and colt.

Henrik works five years to get the money to pay for the horse, but in the end he is cheated out of it, as he is cheated of the woman he loves.  He leaves the house in anger and despair to fight for the Russian Emperor, in the war over Finland, while his brother fights on the Swedish side. Henrik hopes to find a new identity in Russia:  ‘In St Petersburg, I thought I could strip off this nation like a torn shirt, but it was not that easy.’  There is too much unfinished business at home, particularly the enmity between the brothers.

When Henrik returns, his presence causes ripples of fear and unease in the house. As the Farmhand remarks, ‘A human being never sheds his past.  He drags it around like an old overcoat....’  Henrik’s father is dead, his brother Erik now manages the estate and his mother, ‘the Old Mistress’ is in charge of the house. Henrik has little regard for her either, commenting, ‘I might as well pay my respects to the whore of Babylon.’  

We are inside each character’s head in turn and this gives the narrative a certain intensity, but also a claustrophobic feeling, as if you are in an Ibsen drama, inhabiting one character after the other, playing them all.  It took a little getting used to, but in the end I thought it was very effective, and the language is as economical as poetry.

Henrik has returned home at a critical moment.  His brother Erik is mysteriously absent, Anna, Erik’s wife, believes he is having an affair.  Henrik’s mother has taken to drink and the destitute cousin, Mauri, who lives with them as a kind of superior servant, is behaving oddly.  Only the Farmhand is what he has always been.  Although Henrik treats him with contempt, he is also aware that ‘he is the only one of us who is free from the sin of lying and thus he is innocent’.  The atmosphere inside the isolated farmhouse is tense with mutual distrust and dislike.

The novel builds to a very satisfying climax, which I didn’t expect.  Because you see every character from every other character’s perspective, you begin to have a detailed picture of each person and a cumulative knowledge of what is about to happen.

It’s wonderful to get these glimpses into what is going on in European literature at the moment.  What is published in England these days seems mostly to look across the Atlantic to America.  In Europe there are different traditions of story-telling and much more experimental writing.  I suppose the nearest I’ve read recently would be The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, published by Salt - that’s definitely in the European tradition, and about the same length.  I’ve got a couple more Peirene Press books on the virtual bookshelf, but I’m saving them for a treat!  Peirene Press have the added advantage that their e-books are very attractively priced in relation to the paper back.