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Valeria Luiselli – Faces In The Crowd

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Stories can haunt you.

Publisher: Granta
Pages: 148
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-847-08507-8
First Published: 2011; 2nd May 2013 in English
Date Reviewed: 18th June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Spanish
Original title: Los ingrávidos (The Weightless)
Translated by: Christina MacSweeney

A woman – generally unnamed but briefly described as Dolores – working as a writer and translator in Mexico, struggles to find Latin authors to put forward as candidates for publication to her boss; she finds the work of a poet – Giberto Owen – in the library and starts to construct a tale of discovering old translations by a famous translator. As she writes the translations herself she tells us the story of the novel she is writing, which appears to be very similar to her own life.

Faces In The Crowd is an incredibly literary book that, as Luiselli has her character write, is ‘a horizontal novel told vertically’ and ‘a vertical novel, told horizontally’ and ‘A novel that has to be told from the outside in order to be read from within’; in essence, this is a book in a book that’s possibly in another book that’s possibly not actually fiction at all… but then is, of course, fiction.

If that sounds terribly confusing that’s because it is – Faces In The Crowd is a great read but it can and most likely will do a number on your literary sanity. This is most likely an intended part of the experience. With Luiselli’s concept of ghosts and the reality and fiction meddling together and modifying each other – the author (Luiselli) even has her character write such a thing, possibly with the idea of helping her (Luiselli again) reader’s work it out – there are a lot of hints but their core meaning can be difficult to place against the text.

This novel in a novel, then, is formed of both Dolores’ home life and her work, and she writes about her home life as it happens, thus blending the two together, and goes so far as to call her translation work another life. Luiselli uses the concept of vignettes to separate both ideas and storylines but only loosely – one of the best easy-to-understand aspects of the novel is the way the different vignettes become associated as the narrative continues:

On Sundays, my husband, the children and I listen to Rockdrigo and eat pancakes for breakfast. But not this Sunday. My husband is angry. Through my own carelessness, he’s read some more of these pages. He asks how much is fiction and how much fact.

*

During that period, I took to telling lies.

As a further example, too long to quote, on the page directly following this, Dolores says that her husband got a postcard from a woman ‘in Philly’. In the next vignette, Dolores is just back from Philly, and in the one following that, women contact their first loves and ask to meet in Philly. Later the husband has to go to Philly… but later he, or his ‘ghost’ is still at home.

‘Ghost’ is the word here: with the various narratives gradually moving together, the concept Luiselli introduced early on is unpacked and made easier to understand. There is one ‘ghost’ who starts us off, and that is Gilberto Owen.

This is where we encounter the historical literary aspect of the book: Dolores’ chosen Latin poet is a real Mexican poet from the 1800s – this reviewer could not find out enough about him to be able to say whether Luiselli’s narrative for him is fact or fiction but there are hints as to poetry movements and concepts. Through Owen’s life – whether fictional in terms of Dolores’ ‘translations’ or simply fictional in terms of the novel – we meet the likes of Ezra Pound and Nella Larsen. (Luiselli has taken her title from Pound’s poem, In a Station of a Metro.) The use of fellow poets and writers aids the narrative, both in terms of real life happenings and the mere concepts that follow them, for example it could be said that Luiselli’s writing is styled rather similarly to Imagism – Pound’s school of poetry.

There isn’t much character development here – the plot and the style is the focus – but again, that adds to the narrative. Everyone sounds rather like everyone else, and the book becomes more an ode to interpreting literature and the work of historical writers rather than a book to enjoy. But the writing is very likeable and it’s evident that the translation has placed more prominence on understanding and getting the active point across instead of making words and phrases align which mean you get a firm idea of what the original is (would be) like.

Faces In The Crowd is a tough read – you’ll look at the thin stack of pages and ample white space thinking you’ll spend an hour or so in literary enjoyment and then find you’ve been there for a long time and still not finished; this book requires more attention than an ancient classic. But being able to say you’ve read it is satisfying in itself and if you’ve learned a fair amount about literary constructs and literary people in that time then all the better. If there’s anything else to be said about it it’s that it perhaps goes on too long, which does indeed sound ridiculous.

Perhaps it’s right that words contain nothing, or almost nothing. That their content is, at the very least, variable.

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Charlotte Lennox – The Female Quixote

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No tilting at windmills, but plenty of running away from ordinary folk who might be out to get you.

Publisher: N/A (The one shown is Oxford University Press)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: June 1752
Date Reviewed: 6th June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Arabella had a solitary childhood; taking up her deceased mother’s book collection, she read widely – or so she thinks. When her uncle and cousins come to stay, they find a a very well composed woman who, as the days go on, is discovered to have gained all her knowledge of life from romance novels which she believes are factual. And whilst admittedly no one will simply tell her the truth, she will not listen to anyone’s misgivings. Her slow entry into society will be full of mishaps and confusion, and the gulf between her knowledge of history and everyone’s will continue to baffle her.

The Female Quixote is a comedy of errors that looks to the romances of centuries prior in a parody of Cervantes’ epic, Don Quixote (1605-1615). Changing the situation to the life a high-born bookish lady, the book is a satire of the work of medieval writers, displaying just how much fiction about the ancient world is different to the then-present day and how reading without context can be a problem. Mostly, though, it’s just a lot of fun – for however much it may or may not have been written to denigrate romantic novels, its focus is on hilarity.

…She gave herself over for lost, and fell back in her chair in a swoon, or something she took for a swoon, for she was persuaded it could happen no otherwise…

The humour is constant – laugh-out-loud, and often very silly. It’s split into a few areas – the humour that comes from Arabella’s solitary musings on what ‘should’, in her mind, be happening at any given time; the humour created by the confusion of her relatives and friends who don’t understand what’s going on because they’ve no knowledge of these supposedly famous historic figures Arabella talks about; the humour that arises from Arabella running away, or thinking she might faint because that’s what ought to happen. The interactions between Arabella and her servant are particularly good, and there’s much mirth to be had in the way that Arabella expects a medieval, no, ancient, sort of courting, which include things no suitor in reality would do.

After a while, the jokes do become a bit too much. Around the late double digit pages, it starts to feel not forced, exactly – because it isn’t – but just drawn out. As with many older text this is where the difference in literary culture becomes particularly apparent – in a slower-paced, 1700s society, the continuation of jokes were likely well-received. (The book was very popular in its day, though its fall from the public sphere was fairly sudden.)

Unfortunately, some of the length of the book is down to the opinion of Samuel Richardson:

‘Richardson… sent suggested revisions to Lennox in response to her being “apprehensive of Matter falling short for two Vols”. Having expanded the novel along the lines suggested by Richardson, by early 1752 Lennox felt that she would need a third volume to complete the novel.’ (Brack and Carlile, 2003)

Richardson wrote on 13th January 1752, telling her,

‘You should finish your Heroine’s cure in the present Vols… the method you propose tho’ it might flatter my Vanity, yet will be thought a contrivance between the Author of Arabella, and the Writer of Clarissa.” He further suggests that by making ‘your present Work as complete as you can, in two Volumes… it will give Consequence to your future writings, and of course to your Name as a Writer.’ Pursuant to completing the novel, Richardson advised Lennox ‘to consult Mr. Johnson before you resolve.’ (Ibid.)

Whilst the first draft was undoubtedly longer than an editor today might suggest, those incorporated suggestions surely made it more so. Indeed there are a couple of occasions where Arabella is on track to be told that everything she has learned is from exaggerated fictional accounts until the author brings in a literary device and quashes the possibility.

So this is where your reason for reading comes into play: the book was written in the 1700s for a 1700s audience (we can assume Richardson was on the ball there). If you’re reading the book to get a sense of literature, and parody, in that period, it’s a lot better than if you’ve picked it up purely for pleasure.

Lennox breaks the fourth wall on a constant basis; the break is as much an element of the book as the parody itself, with Lennox informing the reader of the contents of the chapter ahead, cluing them in as to details her characters are yet to discover, and subtly hinting as to the issues that arise with taking fiction – or rather certain fiction – seriously.

An example of a chapter subtitle: “In which a lover is severely punished for faults which the reader never would have discovered, if he had not been told.” Foreshadowing of the reader’s reality happens constantly and there is irony in the way that Lennox makes sure you know exactly where she is coming from – she wouldn’t want you to become even a little like Arabella! The use of ‘he’ in terms of the reader is perhaps telling – does she think her readers would likely be male? Is she writing directly to Richardson and Samuel Johnson (another person she looked up to)? It’s a cautionary tale – be careful when reading books… but do read this one!

Going back to the denigration of epic romances, one must consider this context as much as they should the parody aspect. By Lennox’s time, romance novels were seen as frivolous and silly:

‘Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote… seems to join a persuasive eighteenth-century effort to dispel as “unreal” and dangerous the romance tradition that English readers had valued for two hundred years.’ (Gordon, 1998)

A turning point in the literary culture in Britain, this idea is heavily supported by Lennox’s text:

…in which, unfortunately for her, were great store of romances, and, what was still more unfortunate, not in the original French, but very bad translations.

One of the reasons the novel can become boring as it continues is Arabella’s need to describe scenes and stories from her books; she comes to realise that few know about the ‘history’ of the ancients as well as she does (rather than question whether she’s got it wrong). This is an occasion where you could ask a person from centuries in the past what a common term meant and they would be able to tell you correctly – what Arabella does is best summed up as ‘splaining.

Of course whether or not Lennox herself ascribed to the notion that romance was frivolous is something we may never know. It could be that for all she wrote in Arabella, it could have been a way to write romance without writing romance.

Literary devices abound in the way the other characters suffer an inability to tell Arabella that what she has read is fiction. Glanville, the cousin/suitor, is often ‘confused’, and this raises two questions: why does Glanville allow the woman he supposedly loves to embarrass herself? And why does he remain interested in her? His sister, Miss (Charlotte) Glanville, despite being presented as spiteful, ends up becoming the most sensible and relatable character in the book, interrupting Arabella’s grand info-dumps; if it weren’t for Lennox’s devices, Miss Glanville would have told Arabella the truth towards the start of their acquaintance… but then, alas!, we would have a novella instead of a novel.

Does your Ladyship consider how late it is? Interrupted Miss Glanville, who had hitherto very impatiently listened to her. Don’t let us keep the gentlemen waiting any longer for us. I must inform you how the prince of Persia declared his love for the incomparable Berenice, said Arabella. Another time, dear cousin, said Miss Glanville; methinks we have talked long enough upon this subject.

If you are expecting a grand ending, whether full of fainting and forsooths or just some reasonable changing of character, you may be disappointed. Whilst over a chapter is spent on a conversation better Arabella and a doctor, the relative suddenness of Arabella’s ‘cure’ is hard to believe and any thoughts you had of seeing Arabella progress in society are not realised in the book. Indeed, the ending was written with Lennox’s mentors firmly in mind:

‘The weakest part of the novel, critics have agreed, is the conclusion and her decision to depart from her usual style to show her esteem for Johnson by an exaggerated imitation of his style was not a good one.’ (Brack and Carlile, 2003)

Brack and Carlile, among others, believe that the penultimate chapter, and part of the last chapter, may actually be the work of Johnson himself. I myself don’t know enough to comment: the chapter is more verbose, dare I say more academically written, perhaps, but then the doctor is obviously a learned character. That the Lady who befriended Arabella – prior to the doctor’s entrance in the novel – with a view to getting her out of her thoughts, didn’t get authorial leave to complete her mission, does suggest in our present day the leaning towards a man having to do it, whether simply Lennox’s choice of a doctor or Johnson taking over.

So, with all this said, is the book worth reading? As said previously, it’s better as a study than an escape. If you want to know about the 1700s without so many of the stereotypes – or at least with the stereotypes used as stereotypes – it’s a good choice. You only need a basic knowledge of Cervantes to enjoy it (though you’ll doubtless find more to appreciate if your knowledge is extensive). You’ll also gain knowledge of another popular 1700s novel, one that is slowly becoming more well-known in our present day. And, of course, you’ll gain a whole heap of knowledge about medieval romances without having to read them, which is a tremendous boon when you consider that the one most referred to is the longest novel published by a mainstream publisher and stands at a whopping 13,095 pages.

But there is one more reason for reading that only becomes apparent once you begin (or, of course, if you’ve heard about it, as you are now): The Female Quixote was a major inspiration (I’d put money on it being the inspiration) for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey; the premise of a reader believing fiction inspires reality, the breaking of the fourth wall in such a similar way, the writing style… even the prefaces of the two books are similar in tone. Lennox’s book isn’t as fun as Austen’s, but if you want to understand the background of Austen’s book, Lennox’s text is one to read. And yes, it’s fascinating that Lennox’s is the one book not mentioned by Austen – perhaps that was taking the intertextuality a little too far. If you want to know the meaning of ‘meta’, ask Austen.

Read this book, just remember one important thing – none of it exists outside the confines of its pages.

References

Brack Jr, O M, and Carlile, Susan, (April 2003) Samuel Johnson’s Contributions to Charlotte Lennox’s “The Female Quixote”, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 77, No. 3-4, pp. 166-173
Gordon, Scott Paul, (1998), The Space of Romance in Lennox’s Female Quixote, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 38, No. 3, pp.499-516.

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Claire Fuller – Swimming Lessons

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Only go with the flow to a certain extent.

Publisher: Fig Tree (Penguin)
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-25215-4
First Published: 26th January 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st May 2018
Rating: 5/5

When Gil sees his wife standing outside the bookshop, he runs after her, causing himself a fair injury in the process. Daughter Nan isn’t amused – Ingrid disappeared many years ago when she and her sister were children – and she’s very likely dead. But Flora sides with his father and as Gil returns home from hospital the sisters look after him, together with Richard, the man Flora had been sleeping with but had split up with, in not so many words, before she left to meet Nan. The family house is full of books which are stacked on every surface, a few layers deep – Gil has an obsession with finding secondhand books that hold receipts, letters, and marginalia. Mixed in with this story is that of Ingrid’s version of her marriage to Gil, told in letters, that she had slipped in between the pages of various relevant titles.

Swimming Lessons is an utterly sensational novel of truths and lies, mystery and a spot of magical realism, and regret, all held together by the theme of literature and writing. Ingrid’s tale begins at university where she studied English and met Gil, her lecturer. Their story moves on from there, with Gil’s friends warning Ingrid about Gil’s personality and the university putting its foot down. The chapters set in the present abound with literary ideas, criticism, and general conversation.

“Writing does not exist unless there is someone to read it, and each reader will take something different from a novel, from a chapter, from a line. A book becomes a living thing only when it interacts with a reader.”

“…often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind. All these words… are about the reader. The specific individual – man, woman, or child – who left something of themselves behind.”

This means that whilst the subject of the book, or, rather, subjects, can get pretty dark, the wonders of the text keep you in a positive state. The darker side of the novel – Ingrid’s revelations, which are effectively revelations to the reader, and the question as to what happened to Ingrid – are written superbly; Fuller’s writing style, plotting, and subsequent literary execution are absolutely marvelous to the point that the book is just as good to read for its prose as it is for the way it unravels its subjects. A good use of the present day setting and decades past round out the writing.

As for the characters they are very well drawn and feel far from fictional. Fuller references I Capture The Castle, and there are, in Ingrid’s love of the beach and writing of it, potential allusions to The Awakening (‘potential’ due to the book not being referenced). In the idea of Ingrid having been lost to the sea there is a minor reference to Virginia Woolf. The inter-textual nature of the book enhances both the atmosphere and the characterisation and also leading you to think that situations may match those in the older novels (which can be the case but not always). Gil has a writing room to which no one else is allowed entry. Flora is often naked. Ingrid found her changed life difficult. Like Fuller’s previous book, Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons looks a little at neglectful parenting and favouritism.

This book pairs joyous reader escapism with some uncomfortable subjects. It is a good idea to go in prepared for a blunt look at what can be hidden under the surface, of parenting, of marriage, and then give your all to it. Because it’s a triumph; not the sort of characters you might want to spend real time with but the book itself, everything about it, oh heck yes.

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Nicolai Houm – The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland

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Fading away from home.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 182
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1–782-27377-6
First Published: 2016 in Norwegian; 26th April 2018 in English
Date Reviewed: 23rd March 2018
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Jane Ashlands gradvise forsvinning (Jane Ashland’s Gradual Disappearance)
Translated by: Anna Paterson

Jane wakes up naked in a tent in a deserted Park in Norway; suffering from immense grief, she’d decided to travel to Norway, reputedly in search of family ties, leaving behind her career as a novelist. When her visit to a distantly-related family ends badly, she decides to phone a stranger, a random man she met on the plane.

The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland is a super novel that looks at grief as it affects the life of its character. Sporting excellent literary methods and slight, clever, foreshadowing, it stands on many different levels, being both a work of art and a pleasure to read.

The unashamedly individualistic look at grief here works well – Houm only ever looks at Jane and to all intents and purposes the world turns around her yet nonetheless pieces of ideas, poignant ones, leave strong marks. Grief is looked at as something that invades a life without the person’s noticing; whilst Jane may be very sad she does not realise just how much both the grief and her medications affect what she sees and experiences, to the point that whilst some of the narrative is clear, often it’s unreliable and down to you, the reader, to make sense of what Jane is experiencing.

This three-way sense of writing, if you will – the definite, the vague, and the likely unreal – is excellent in itself, but it is then backed up further by Jane’s active choices. Jane makes bad choices – like phoning Ulf, the stranger – and whilst this is commented on via the third-person narrative, it continues to spin out; at the beginnings of this narrative, the book reads as a fantasy novel in what not to do.

No surprise, then, that the writing is good. Houm has struck perfectly the cultural balance that has been noted by critics – he has been called the most American of Norwegian writers. The translation, whilst not perfect, is generally clear and easy to read.

On occasion the text moves seamlessly between the third person and the dialogue, Houm’s descriptions serving as the dialogue for the next line. Houm never inserts himself in the narrative – there is no breaking of fourth walls and the cleverness is strictly limited to the fictional aspects – but it furthers the study he is progressing through and shows a glimpse of the workings of Jane’s mind in such a way as to render the third person almost the first.

It should be noted that the title of the book is phrasing at its best – this is not a thriller and does not compare to novels of similar naming styles that have been released in recent years. The title is an active part of the story and Jane’s fate not at all what you would expect from just that first scene of isolation. However this book does pack a punch, the ending and the chapters before it being incredibly powerful.

Necessarily coming last in this list of points is Jane’s career. Jane lives and breathes writing; a lot of her thought processes go through literary terminology and methods; this book is to a fair extent a book about books, with Houm writing about writing in itself and making whole conversations out of career dreams, Jane’s inability to critique her husband’s work, and the life of an active, travelling author. This is where something special happens – is this book, with its new cover, Jane’s own?

A short novel it may be, but there are enough ideas and studies and literary gems included that no matter how short and how easy it is to read, you come away feeling like you’ve just finished an incredibly impressive tome. The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland it may be, but make no mistake – this book isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

I received this book for review.

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Helen Oyeyemi – What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

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…But this book may be yours.

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 263
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-29936-3
First Published: 8th March 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th November 2017
Rating: 5/5

An abandoned child looks for the lock that the key around her neck is linked to; a girl looking for a place in the world joins a puppetry school and her experience of the paranormal extends beyond the ghost in her house; an all-female university society seeks new members, detailing its history with the all-male society that led to their own creation.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a fantastic and fantastical short story collection of the sort that draws you in swiftly and keeps you glued to the page.

These stories don’t always come with a message or shocking ending like some, but there’s a grain of truth (or fictional truth) in all of them. What they are is incredibly enjoyable; the mix of fantasy and paranormal together with the balance of contemporary and historical is a dream to read. Then there’s the fact that often, stories are written in such a way that they seem historical when they aren’t, and it’s the magic of them that makes them feel as though they’re set in the past. Take the first story, for example, Books And Roses that has a big element of The Secret Garden in it, where things are not bona fide magical but do feel so. (Books And Roses also features a massive library so it’s beautiful in that way, too.) Is Your Blood As Red As This? calls in a paranormal, almost horrific, vibe, looking at ghosts and puppets, the second of which might be able to move by themselves. Then there’s the wonderfully titled If A Book Is Locked There’s Probably A Good Reason For That Don’t You Think? which doesn’t tell you exactly what it’s about – you find out the consequence for unlocking the book but not the history or reason for what happens – but that doesn’t really matter. It’s bizarre, but here bizarre is a feature, something that you nod or even shrug about and then move on, the strangeness somehow making the book even better.

On the subject of stories sometimes seeming historic when they aren’t, the writing plays a big part. Oyeyemi’s prose is simply gorgeous, somewhere between the literary fiction of today and the glorious Gothic of the Victorian period. (Oyeyemi recently covered Emily Brontë’s writing for a television documentary so there’s an influence here. She’s also inferred a love of classics elsewhere.) It’s just lovely, the sort of writing you want to be reading for hours.

The book mainly looks at women but there are a number of men, and the book is diverse in race, setting, and sexuality. Sometimes these things are they with reason, so to speak – that is to say they are there for a studious reason – other times they’re just part of the story, the collection being a mix of stories for interest-sake only and ones that look into society. Indeed one story looks at one society in particular, focusing on the fictional Homely Wench Society of Cambridge, formed to rival a male-only one.

Do the stories go on on occasion? Yes and no. These are slightly-longer-than-usual stories, so it can feel you’re reading them for a long time, but as books go, the 263 pages really aren’t a lot and there aren’t any dull moments. The object of the book does seem to be to entertain first and foremost and perhaps leave you with something to think about. Above all, the experience of reading it is the highlight. With its admittedly random, long titles, no matter how interesting they might be, it can be difficult to recall later exactly what you were reading and for once that’s not a big drawback, the similarities in the tales being intentional with the same characters showing up various times.

In an entirely unrelated song from the 1980s, Radio Musica, British singer-songwriter Nik Kershaw sung ‘Experience has made me rich’. I note it here because that is the perfect way to describe What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Reading this book leaves a small mark in your conscious – whilst you may not necessarily wish it would carry on forever, your sense of literary knowledge will be better for having read it.

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