Tuesday, 28 June 2011

"Did you understand what I said?'

A Taste Of Chlorine 
by Bastien Vivès

Whenever reading graphic fiction (or indeed graphic non-fiction) I am often looking to see how each book justifies its form. What I mean by that is to ask each time, 'Why is this a graphic novel?' I do the same thing when I read pretty much anything to be honest, is this really a novel or would it be better as a film, is this actually a theatrical monologue etc etc. I think I'm particularly harsh on graphic work to see whether there really is any point in differentiating between 'comics' and any of the other more elitist descriptions of graphic work. Occasionally however you do read a book that couldn't possibly work as well in any other medium and A Taste Of Chlorine is such a book.

A teenage boy who suffers from curvature of the spine is instructed by his chiropractor to start swimming. Whilst at his local pool he meets a girl who helps him with his technique. He slowly grows in confidence not just with his stroke but also with her, their weekly meetings providing a friendship of little conversations but mainly companionship. One day she mouths something to him underwater, but what is it she says? We will never find out and it is just one of the things about this enigmatic book that makes it so charming. There is actually very little text in total, this is a book of gesture and movement, where the body is the main form of communication. Vives' artwork is beautiful in its specificity. Facial expressions speak volumes, our hero is bashful, disappointed, hopeful, distraught, determined; the girl masked behind goggles one minute, open eyed and beautiful the next, so confident in her body that her mere presence and proximity is a threat to the boy and a powerful sexual potential too.

Vivès also creates a brilliant rendering of his underwater environment too, changing the tones and detail to give a real sense of the change in environment and somehow managing to recreate the silence of the underwater realm too. This is important of course for that moment of secret communication I mentioned earlier but also because the very act of swimming, and of swimming underwater in particular, is going to become a very important part of the book's impact. Imagine that moment when you set yourself a task in the pool. Perhaps it was swimming your first length, holding your breath for a minute, or completing a whole length underwater. Remember the lung-bursting final moments when you thought you might not make it but pushed on through sheer force of will? Now you're getting a sense of what it feels like to read this book, and of what it feels like to reach out for something you really want.

This is one of those books that I want to say lots about in order to convince you to read it but find myself  rendered slightly speechless by its simplicity, its beauty and its sheer ability to move the reader. It is easily the best graphic novel I have read this year and for quite some time. A bit like reading a perfectly honed short story or novella. I can't imagine a person who wouldn't find their life enriched by reading it. Maybe that's all I need to say.


Thursday, 23 June 2011

From The Basement

On the 1st July a live performance by Radiohead of The King of Limbs in its entirety will be broadcast by BBC Wordwide. On Tuesday a new track, Staircase, was put online so I thought I'd share it and see if it whets your appetite a little.


Tuesday, 21 June 2011

'That's the sort of nonsense that got us here in the first place!'

From The Mouth Of The Whale
by Sjón
translated by Victoria Cribb

Sjón's first book, The Blue Fox (also published by Telegram), was something I could only have come to read from taking an interest in other book blogs (thank you Scott Pack over at Me And My Big Mouth) and one of those reading experiences of an entirely singular nature that bolsters your belief in the ability to be surprised by writing occasionally. As such, it is the kind of book I recommend to people when they say that they're after something 'a bit different.' A perfectly constructed fable set in 19th century Iceland it followed the Rev. Baldur Skuggason as he hunted the rare vixen of the title and also told the story of Abba, a woman with Down's Syndrome as she is buried by the naturalist who had been her guardian. The two narratives come together neatly at the end and it was the extraordinary connections between man and environment throughout that made it such a magical read. The latest of his works to be translated into English takes us even further back into Iceland's history beginning (after a prologue) at the autumn equinox of 1635. We meet Jónas Pálmason, poet, exorcist, naturalist, living in exile on a barren island with his stoical wife Sigga. Those connections between man and animal so richly explored in The Blue Fox are there again immediately as Jónas observes a bird with which he bears direct comparison.

Clad in a grey-brown coat of narrow cut, with a faint purple sheen in the twilight; bright stockings, a speckled undershirt . . . . Importunate with his own kind, garrulous with others . . . . So might one describe the purple sandpiper and so men describe me

Jónas' exile has come about at the hands of the local sheriff, purportedly for sorcery, blasphemy and his naturalist writings which pepper this almost stream-of-conciousness account. His wife chose to be rowed out to join him and it is her frequent utterance that gives this post its title, hollered when Jónas lifts off on another flight of fancy. And he has plenty of tales with which to regale us, all steeped in the atmosphere of darkness, ignorance, fantasy, suspicion, cruelty, poverty and survival that pervades 17th century Iceland and the landscape of the novel. Jónas first achieved fame of sorts after his spectacular exorcism of a troublesome ghost on the remote Snjafjoll coast. The walking corpse of a parson's son who had been cruelly treated before falling over a cliff whilst trying to prove himself the stronger man in the battle for a woman's affection is a gruesome sight.

White skin, with a fist-sized bruise from the temple to the right-hand corner of its mouth, mouldering cheeks, hair straggling claw-like over its forehead above rolling, red, bestial eyes. The evil youth opened wide his skate's jaw, inside which all the teeth were broken at the root or smashed in from the fall that had sent him to his death on the slab of rock.

In the end it takes the skills of both Jónas and his socerer friend Láfi to defeat him, using poetry to enforce the natural order so that the body can return to the earth and the soul to heaven. But far from bringing him the fame and fortune he sought it is this event that sets him on the collision course with the authorities. Conflict was always bound to arise at some point with such an extraordinary character, a man who as a child would lay his hands on the bellies of the local women to heal their ailments, whilst they in return would bring him the heads of ravens so that he could continue his search for the bezoar, a stone supposed to aid in healing and in the search for the philosopher's stone (those of you who've read Harry Potter knew that already though, didn't you!). A man who grew up in a farming community still at the mercy of omens and portents and who married a girl who used her own intelligence to work out the mysteries of both lunar and solar eclipses. Jónas is a fascinating character, even if the reader may struggle at times to keep up with his 'ramblings.' I'll take no credit whatsoever for drawing your attention to the teachings of Paracelsus that inform the novel, as highlighted by Carolyne Larrington in her superb review from the TLS. In fact as she says it is 'Paracelsian beliefs about the life within all natural things and the interconnectedness of microcosm and macrocosm' that give the novel its structure.

Sjón works wonders in combining moments of magic into what is actually a fairly grim tale. In the central section, titled 'The Kidney-Stone' Jónas is visited and taken from his exile by a sailor who seems to be from the future. Jónas is granted a stunning vision of all living creatures, an insight into the natural order that will assist him when he arrives in Copenhagen to work alongside the scholar Ole Worm. His knowledge of Icelandic nature allows him to expose the true source of the unicorn horns that enjoy a healthy trade in Denmark. He isn't naturally a debunker of myths however, praising for example those that have ascribed all sorts of fantastical tales to his homeland for 'in some strange way they come close to the stories that we ordinary, humble folk tell ourselves in an attempt to comprehend our existence here and make it more bearable.' Bolstered by the elevation that comes from his involvement with Ole Worm he is cleared by the Danish court of the charges that had forced him into exile and returns to Iceland with the hope of seeing that exile quashed; a hope that will be cruelly denied and compounded by the increased harshness of the loneliness he returns to. Any success is buried by the misfortune that follows it and yet somehow Sjón manages to keep us fascinated by the thoughts of this 'stay-at-home hero, edited out of my own story, too thoroughly buried and forgotten to be called on to perform unexpected feats of courage in a far-off kingdom.'

Jónas hasn't just lost his liberty but three of his four children too so it is perhaps no wonder that he has thought so much about mortality. Himself a keen carver he wonders at what stage man looked at the knife in his hand and saw not a tool to create or provide but a weapon to 'find an easy path to the jugular vein of one's fellow man.' And yet in a trademark and beautiful volte-face near the novel's close, in a passage that explains in a way the satisfaction that comes from reading Sjón's challenging and wayward novel, Jónas imagines a conversation between himself and his long-deceased daughter Berglind. Having asked her to fetch him a piece of wood to carve he imagines how he would respond if she asked in return what kind of wood he wanted.

The knottier the branch, the more twisted and misshapen, the more bent people call it, the harder it is to find it a place among the smooth planks, the more people agree that it should be thrown on the fire, the more useless it is, the more unsuitable for anything except letting one's imagination run riot, the more I covet it, the more I yearn to weigh it in my hand, the more I long to let my whetting knife be guided by its knots and veins...Yes, bring that piece to me.

Yet again Sjón has provided me with a rich, rewarding and quite frankly bonkers reading experience that is as easy to recommend as it is hard to summarise. Telegram and translator Victoria Cribb deserve huge praise for the two books they have published so far, one can only hope that we can look forward to more of his work being translated into English soon. He's just too good to be kept in exile.


Tuesday, 14 June 2011

'It's not about guts'

Tomorrow Pamplona
by Jan van Mersbergen

Peirene Press published three novellas in their first year, all featuring female protagonists, the best of which, Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, made its way on to my books of the year list last year. 2011 however is the year of the male and after the first of these titles, Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki, comes Peirene No.5 from Dutch author van Mersbergen who uses his two male characters to explore themes of masculinity, confrontation and escape - fight or flight, if you will. We are thrown into the action immediately in a disorientating opening which sees boxer Danny running through the streets, not in training but on the run from something.

Fragments of sentences echo around his head, accompanied by the ringing of a bell. Disconnected words thud against his eardrums, buzzing sounds, distorted, far away. Then suddenly they become clear.

As rain begins to fall he continues his aimless flight until he finds himself with thumb raised near a motorway and picked up by a man who offers to take him a few kilometres to the nearest petrol station where he can get another ride. But with no clear destination in mind and completely unprepared for his journey Danny ends up staying in the car of Robert, a family man who has often picked up hitchers and the stories they tell - 'I'm just interested. To hear what they have to say.' Danny is taciturn to the extreme in their opening exchanges, like a defensive boxer in the early rounds, but we along with Robert can raise a smile at the pretence of saying 'Who says I'm going to tell you anything?' After all, it wouldn't be much of a book if that was the case. Robert it turns out is making his annual pilgrimage to Pamplona and the running of the bulls.

It's more than an escape, Robert replies. And it's not just about the kick. You've got to have your own reason for running with the bulls...I work all year for my family, but half the time I don't know why I'm doing it. You get what I'm saying? Let's just say I'm not the easiest of people. Bit of a naughty boy sometimes, if you know what I mean. And, somehow, Pamplona helps. When you're standing there and those bulls are coming for you, you forget everything else.

That's about as much as we're going to learn about Robert who remains a sketchily drawn character. The focus is always on Danny and as the two men make their way down through Europe from The Netherlands to that famous city in the north of Spain we follow two narrative courses; their conversation within the car and Danny's remembrance of what came before that flight in the opening pages. The two short extracts so far will give a you taste already of the short, spare sentences employed by van Mersbergen. Without wanting to stretch the boxing analogies too far there is something blunt and punchy about the prose that mirrors the guarded exchanges of male conversation. Unfortunately there is also something of a fist in the face about some of the images and metaphors employed along the way. When they pass a lorry on its side and spot its cargo of chickens failing to take the opportunity of escape that would be enough without the ensuing conversation to spell it all out.

Those chickens. They just stayed where they were. He pauses. They could have flown away but they didn't.
Chickens can't fly.
Well, they could have walked away, says Robert. Anyway, they must be able to flap about a bit. Whatever, it just goes to show they're already half-dead. Not like the bulls in Pamplona - they're a completely different story.

There are a couple of moments like this that can make a slim book feel heavy-handed but they come early on and are particularly surprising given the lightness with which van Mersbergen moves around his narrative. Danny's preparations for a series of fights with a new promoter, Varon, and his work with a new trainer combine with his erotic encounters with a woman who works with Varon and who remains enigmatic to him in spite of their intimacy. Three sex scenes in less than 200 pages isn't just a good return on your investment, these scenes also provide a counterpoint to the very different physicality of Danny's training. We generally feel confident in his abilities as a fighter, his entourage feel relaxed about his chances of success, but even at the same time as he imposes himself physically with his lover, Ragna, we can sense the weakness that comes from handing himself over to her in this way, especially when combined with our sense of unease about the solidity of their relationship.

As Danny gets ever closer to Pamplona and his first confrontation with those bulls, Ragna almost haunts him, and when he comes to actually stand in the streets we realise that he isn't just confronting the very real physical threat of the impending charge but also himself and his actions.

He thinks about the fight and about her. He knows running isn't an option because the referee's four fingers are held high and his voice is counting, strong and clear. Danny stands his ground. A boxer does not run away, a boxer listens to the count, whether he's the boxer who's been hit and is trying to get to his feet or the boxer who dealt the last blow and is looking down at the opponent lying before him. Both boxers listen to the count.

What happens to Danny and Robert in Pamplona will force them both (even Robert who has managed to treat his annual reckoning with the bulls as a kind of atonement for his hinted-at philandering) to confront their existence. They may have covered hundreds of miles on the road down to Spain but the bulk of their personal journey occurs in the few hundred feet of cobbled streets they share with each other, with the bulls, and with their conscience.


Tuesday, 7 June 2011

'the keeper of the illusion'

...a small house at the edge of the sea, an isolated white hytte, glimpsed through pine woods, its windows illumined with a soft, golden light, its roof almost black, like the pines and the dark water beyond. Had it been done by anyone else, this would have been taken for a night scene, but Sohlberg had painted the sky - a distant seeming sky, far beyond the inky reach of the Sound - in a pale, eerie blue, an almost powder blue, like the gloaming of summer's end, and the little white house, with its faint gold lights, looked like it was part of a theatre set, impermanent, provisional and only temporarily inhabited.

A Summer Of Drowning 
by John Burnside

With his last couple of novels Burnside has been moving into some interesting territory, using folk tale and fable to infuse his narratives with the very essence of storytelling. Before the written word there was oral storytelling, the means by which cultures could pass down their knowledge and lessons from one generation to the next. Burnside has managed to embrace something of that essence (whilst always rooting his stories in reality, leaving it to the reader to decide just how much to take the narrative voice at face value) with the tales of cloven hooves and two-headed babies in The Devil's Footprints and the poisoned wood and disappearing children in his last novel Glister. His latest is even more obviously immersed in that tradition, located on the small Norwegian island of Kvaløya, deep in the Arctic Circle, a landscape of mountains, forests and fjords, populated by tales of trolls, mermaids and spirits. It is to here that renowned painter Angelika Rossdal escaped several years ago with her daughter Liv, a place where she could pursue her craft in isolation, the kind of self-imposed exile that might be familiar to any other regular readers of Burnside.

It is Liv who narrates the novel, ten years after the titular summer of her eighteenth year, a summer illuminated as ever by the midnattsol, or midnight sun of these northern latitudes but marked out as special initially by the separate drownings of two brothers in calm water, events both uncharacteristic and unexplainable. Liv wasn't particularly close to either of the boys, she isn't particularly close to anyone apart from her mother and their elderly neighbour Kyree Opdahl, but in such a small community she cannot help but be interested in the stories that begin to circulate and when these combine with the old folk tales and her own active thoughts they build into a crescendo that has taken ten years for her to be able to relate to us.

Kvaløya is the perfect environment for blurring the distinctions between myth and reality, even Angelika's remoteness is a 'mythic seclusion' cultivated by those that wish to portray her as an artistic recluse, and there is no doubt that this fiction has become 'central to her artistic success'. Amongst the other inhabitants she has a mythic status also, her home receiving a regular group of 'suitors' each weekend, men who know they stand no chance in capturing this beauty but 'like those men in the Greek myth, come to beguile, or charm, or just outwait Penelope while her lost husband wandered the wine-dark sea trying to find his way home.' In another form of isolation, Liv has never met her father, never been able to draw her mother on anything about him, even his name. That isolated upbringing is total, an environment of limited stimulus, a single parent who is often lost to her work, and few friends to speak of. She may not believe in God 'or not in the usual way, but I do find that I am here for a reason, and that is to keep watch. To pay attention' and that is why she thinks of her self as 'one of God's spies' (which also takes the rather more worldly form of snooping with binoculars). The influences on Liv have been minimal, with the stories and fancies of Kyrre Opdahl assuming a larger significance than she may even realise in shaping her view of the world. Whether they come from his illustrated children's books, or straight from the horse's mouth, his tales have helped Liv to open her mind to the thought that the world might be stranger than we give it credit for - 'Stranger - and more dangerous.'

People from the town didn't believe in such things, of course they didn't, so they made fun of the old stories, not realising that, for a true believer like Kyrre, nothing was ever that crude. But I realise; I know. In Kyrre's house, there were shadows in the folds of every blanket, imperceptible tremors in every glass of water or bowl of cream set out on the table, infinitesimal loopholes of havoc in the fabric of reality that could spill loose and find you, as the first hint of a storm finds a rower out on the open sea. In Kyrre's house, there were memories of real events, of long-dead farm lads and schoolgirls who went out at first light fifty years ago and came home touched - touched for the rest of their lives - by something unnameable, a wingbeat or a gust of wind in their heads, where thought should have been.

It is in the tale of the huldra that Kyrre sees a possible explanation for the boys drowning. The huldra is a beautiful woman who leads young men to their doom - 'Seen from the front, she is perfectly beautiful, perfectly desirable, but if he could only look past this beautiful mask, he would see that, at her back, there is a startling vacancy, a tiny rip in the fabric of the world where everything falls away into emptiness.' Could Maia, a local girl living an almost vagrant existence be involved in the drownings, or the disappearance of a British man using Kyrre's hytte, or cottage, as a retreat? Whilst Liv wrestles with events at home she receives a letter from abroad that brings that unknown father crashing into her consciousness. When she eventually leaves her home to confront that she visits an art gallery where she sees the painting by Harald Sohlberg that adorns the cover of this book and that is described in the extract at the top of this review. The slightly odd experience of viewing such a familiar image whilst in a provincial English gallery provides an almost spiritual experience for Liv which gives us a small clue to her fragile mental state just before returning home where it will unravel still further.

I was home. Not just home, on Kvaløya, but home in my own head, in the place where dreams happened. I was in a place that nobody else could ever see, and I was completely alone there.

Painting is naturally a major theme and inexorably linked to the novel's examination of reality. Angelika has moved away from portraiture to landscapes, not as you might expect because her location demands it, but because she had tried and failed to capture something in that aspect of her work, and in a portrait of her daughter in particular. Her interest is rekindled by the spectre of the huldra and by Maia as a subject, something that naturally causes huge conflict for Liv. Burnside also manages to work in Leon Battista Alberti's theory that Narcissus invented painting. If we accept that Narcissus didn't realise at first that the reflection was of himself then perhaps this was because he had thought of himself as apart from the world, merely an observer of those other people and objects within it. The reflection in the pool showed not only himself but the sky and trees that surrounded him and suddenly made him a part of the world he had observed, 'for the first time, he is part of the world, and art is his way of confirming that. A way of saying that he is in the world, in the world and of it.' This novel of disappearances is also one of realisation, of people struggling to acknowledge the presence of others. Each of the characters could be accused of having regarded themselves as 'an island entire of itself,' content in their isolation but forced over this summer towards 'the difficult realisation that someone other than oneself is real' (Iris Murdoch's definition of love).

A final word about atmosphere, something that Burnside has always excelled at. Not only is the landscape well-suited but that otherworldly light, so brilliantly depicted in Sohlberg's painting and described in Burnside's prose (and even evoked in Radiohead's The Gloaming), is the perfect illumination for such a dreamlike narrative. We can never entirely be sure of our narrator's reliability. Liv may be looking back with hindsight (and almost exhaustively so, the text littered with 'it seemed to me...', ' I can see now...' etc etc) and from a place of happiness, but she has always struggled to reconcile what she witnessed with what others might accept as possible. What we have to remember, going back to what I was saying earlier about the very nature of early storytelling, is that we shouldn't be fooled by something that is merely dream-like.
...it wasn't a dream, it was a story - and that's different. A story stands in for everything that cannot be explained and, though there are many stories, there's really only one and we can tell the difference because the many stories have a beginning and an end, but the one story doesn't work like that. Ryvold used to say that stories are really about time. They tell us that once, in a place that existed before we were born, something occurred -  and we like to hear about that, because we know already that the story is over. We know that we are living in the happily ever after, which means that nothing will happen ever again - and this is the key to a happy life. To live in the ever-after of the present moment: no past, no future.


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