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Man Booker Longlist 2018/4

2018 BLL BurnsMilkman by Anna Burns: I had heard and read a lot about Milkman before actually reading the book, and nothing that I had heard or read prepared me for how dense it was. It is a first person narrative, set in an unnamed town, fully of unnamed but identified people.

The time is clearly Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the place maybe Belfast, but if so it is not entirely recognisable, there is no mention of the docks or the sea, for example. The narrator belongs to a fairly large family: ma, da (deceased), first brother, second brother (deceased), third brother and fourth brother (run away over the border); there are also sisters and first-brother-in-law and third brother-in-law and the “wee ones”, three younger sisters.  There are neighbours, the maybe-boyfriend, Somebody McSomebody (not the boyfriend), the milkman and Milkman.

It is a narrative that begins at the end and circles back to the same ending. There is violence, suspicion, betrayal, death (violent and accidental). There are those “over the water” who are in this city: the soldiers and others; there are those on the side of those “over the water” like the police. Then there are the informers and the renouncers – both sides have these, both “our side of the road” and those on “the other side of the road”. And there is a great deal of menace and rumour and gossip.

There is one shocking episode that is scarcely credible, but must be true, I fear. Partly because it would be hard to make it up and partly because if you did, there would be an outcry and a lawsuit pending. It concerns the killing of all the dogs and runs from page 93 through to page 100, it involves the British soldiers killing all the dogs because they barked and gave away their positions, then having killed all bar one, they left them with their throats cut in “the entry”, presumably one of the safe roads into the “our side”.

The narrator explains, digests, digresses, thinks and reads while she walks, generally novels written before the nineteenth century. She is aloof but also considered; she thinks a lot about being a maybe-girlfriend and whether or not she wants to join coupledom; her maybe-boyfriend has the same thoughts but until now they have never coincided at the same moment, so it hangs in there unresolved.

Then there is a rumour that she is going with Milkman; she isn’t, although she has met him – or rather he has sidled into her life in a less than straightforward manner. He draws up beside her in his van, but she will not get in; he runs beside her in the park and makes threatening remarks about maybe-boyfriend and then he “runs into her” after a French lesson, but she thinks he must have been waiting for her unseen. He upsets her, she half knows what he wants but is repulsed. He is a known renouncer, a known terrorist and he is married (she thinks). He appears to know a great deal about her, her family, her habits and her maybe-boyfriend.

The writing is dense in the sense that the paragraphs are immensely long, they represent her thinking and her way of relating this to an imaginary friend (the reader probably); it is not precisely stream-of-consciousness because it is also actually narrative, without it we could not possibly know what was going on. There are six chapters but there could equally be ten or five, the breaks come slightly arbitrarily though generally starting with encounters with Milkman or post-Milkman encounters when she is trying to ingest what has happened.

Certainly the writing captures explicitly the tension which must have prevailed everywhere in Northern Ireland at the time; the local rules which if broken could end in tar and feathers, knee-capping, beating or death; the kangaroo courts held in out of the way sheds or hutments; the curfew; the suspicion of neighbours, of “the others”; the surveillance. It must have been nearly intolerable and then to add to the mix the innuendo, the rumour and the gossip. This is all there on every page, so that you must stop and take a breather.

Then finally there is a beautiful love story which lifts the whole tenor of the novel into another plane; wonderfully and delightfully revealed in the last chapter. Sheer joy and relief!

Do I think this will make it to the shortlist? The answer is yes.

My shadow book is an out-and-out love story; a debut novel by Anne Youngson.

YoungsonMeet Me at the Museum is an epistolary novel.  Initially Tina Hopgood writes to a Professor Glob, the finder of the Tollund Man but he is no longer there, being as it were 104 had he still been around. But the Curator of the Silkeborg Museum writes back and there develops over a period of about a year and a bit, an intense friendship.

In tone it is not unlike 84, Charing Cross Road, an epistolary memoir.  Helen Hanff wrote to a bookseller in London at this address and over time they created a warm and rewarding relationship, though they were never to meet, as Frank Doel died before Helen Hanff ever came to Britain, their correspondence lasted over several decades.

This novel is more intense, as the letters go back and forth by email attachment.

It also reminds me a lot of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, because Anders Larsen, the curator (who is fictional) writes quite a lot in his letters about the Tollund Man and the artefacts that are found that relate to his time.

Tina Hopgood describes her life on an East Anglian farm and he describes his life as a curator and widower. Their letters gradually draw out more detail and become more intimate and then right at the crux Tina has to make a serious decision.

Will their relationship on paper survive, and will she go to meet him at the Museum?

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The book, the sequel and the play

My Name is Lucy Barton Elizabeth StroutWho knew that My Name is Lucy Barton would produce such a flourishing industry? T-shirts and tea towels next? The novel was such a slight little book, physically that is – it packed a big punch.

A single person narrator (LB) recalls a time when she was ill for several months. Some complication, possibly not even physical, keeping her in hospital after a fairly routine operation.

Her two small children were clearly scared when they visited, seeing their mother so thin and so sick; her husband had hospital-phobia (who doesn’t? But some of us rise above it) and he gets her a single room because he cannot bear the woman who is clearly dying in the next bed. This causes Lucy chronic loneliness, as well as being ill.

Then she wakes up to find her mother sitting at the end of the bed. That is enough for now, anything else would be a spoiler.

The writing is sparse, direct and funny at times, laugh out loud funny occasionally and heart-rending. Amgash does not seem to have been a good place to grow up. Though during the book it is clear that Lucy has left her family and roots behind and is living in New York, AIDS has struck the gay community, but in her evident loneliness, Lucy even manages to envy those couples walking past the apartment block where she lives. It would seem that some people can be lonely even when married. Too right, Lucy!

StroutThe sequel, Anything is Possible, is centred in Amgash. So we get to meet, in person, many of the characters only referred to in My Name is Lucy Barton. Elizabeth Sprout has a vivid and extraordinary facility for character and place, you can really hear the wind in the fields of corn; you can smell the poverty and cringe and experience the terrible isolation. Amgash is not, seemingly, a huddle of houses, it is spread out so that one dwelling or farm is far, maybe even a drive apart, from the next.

But the two books together make a nice whole. Contained and absorbing. So imagine my surprise when I saw that the first book had been remodelled as a play. How was that going to work?My name is LB play

The answer is brilliantly!

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What a difference 200 years makes!

MacdonaldI have just been reading There and Back by George Macdonald. Macdonald was a novelist and theologian and preacher born in 1824 and a prolific writer of phantasy novels, romantic and other fiction as well as non-fiction books of collected sermons and poetry.

The writer, C S Lewis regarded him as a mentor, and there is some evidence of his writings influencing writers a diverse as E Nesbit, Walter de la Mere and even W H Auden and several others.

MarinerI was reading There and Back because it was cited as a typical example of a book influenced by The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in a book by Malcolm Guite about Samuel Taylor Coleridge which I was reading in Lent this year. But while the theologian in Malcolm Guite made his Christian message and his reading of The Rime seen through this lens exciting and entertaining; the same cannot be said of There and Back.

While I did enjoy this book, its eye-stretchingly preachy prose clouded what was really a rather simple romance. The basic tale is fairly unsophisticated: a baronet marries a blacksmith’s daughter, socially beneath him, the lady delivers an heir and dies, her sister acts as the child’s nurse without actively being identified as his aunt, but when the baronet marries an ice-cold aristocratic woman, the aunt recognises the danger to her charge and runs away with the baby, which she brings up as her own with her husband. The child grows up unaware of his true heritage and becomes a gifted bookbinder…the tale continues with much in the way of romantic twists and turns, until the denouement when like any good romance the boy gets the perfect girl.

But all this is buried in some deep Christian thought and theology, not that I have any objection in principle, but sermonising throughout an adventure story seems a sorry way of bulking up a novel.

Not assisted by a very evil edition – one of Amazon’s reprints of out-of-print classics. It is described as having been proofread by Project Gutenberg. Just look carefully at the cover! What a travesty: misprints, incorrect capitalisation and plenty of inaccuracies that make the sense difficult to understand.

But my main astonishment was in the liberal sermonising in the text, it would not pass muster now. No matter how good the story, no editor would allow this to reach the page. So I wonder what the audience was like for these apparently very popular books? Were they all agog as they turned page after page of musings on the nature of God, first from a non-believer and then by his girl-friend who endeavours to enlighten him, successfully of course! As I said – what a difference two hundred years makes.

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Wiser on the morrow morn

The title is a description given by Samuel Taylor Coleridge of the wedding guest held captive by the glittering eye of the Ancient Mariner.

Part of my Lent reading has been Malcolm Guite‘s monumental revisiting of Coleridge’s life seen through the prism of his early, life-enhancing, poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

MarinerMalcom Guite is, of course, himself a well known poet and theologian and he had taken the reader upon a journey through the poem and, stanza by stanza, through the ways in which it adumbrated S.T.C’s own life; a life he could not possibly have imagined when he penned the first version, which he shared with William Wordsworth in March 1798. Coleridge went on to revise and rework the poem until in 1813 he added the glosses, or margin notes, giving us the poem in the form in which it is usually presented today.

1796 to 1798 were years of marvellous production for the poet, in 1797 he completed three of his best known and best loved poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan and Frost in Winter.

I belong to that generation of semi-educated schoolchildren who studied these poems briefly among many others, and whose knowledge of Samuel Taylor Coleridge consisted of the fact that he was a Romantic Poet and an opium addict. Such was the received wisdom of the time, except in more academic circles. But latterly, thanks to several new biographies and studies, that view has ameliorated.  A far greater understanding and sympathy for drug addiction has demonstrated that it is not lack of moral fibre that leads to severe addiction; furthermore a much kinder and more generous appreciation of what the Romantic Poets (of which Wordsworth and Coleridge were the earliest) have given the English language and literature has arisen and then there are his prose writings most of which few people have ever read, except again in the groves of academe.

In S.T.C’s studies on Shakespeare, given first as a series of lectures in Bristol, he has demonstrated a reassessment of the genius and spirit of the playwright which from that time on altered the status and understanding of The Bard for all time, and the texts of the lectures are still part of fundamental teachings on Shakespeare to this day – who knew? Apart from the academics.

However, this is not really the subject of Mariner, Malcom Guite’s book. He sees the poem as a journey from a completely different perspective. That the mariner’s journey is one which we should all take in one form or another, a journey through emotional and intellectual blindness towards a baptism (death and resurrection) of spiritual awareness and self realisation and Christian wisdom and through our own sensitive and dedicated reading of the poem should become wiser people.

He also shows how the emotional and spiritual awakenings of the mariner strangely mirror the life of the poet, his early voyage in the sunlit Quantock hills, through the graduals degradation of his physique through copious doses of laudanum (the classic go-to pain-killer and cure-all of his time, it should be noted) and finally his tremendous and extraordinary efforts successfully to rid himself of his addiction with the help of Dr Gillman.

This barely scratches the surface of this remarkable book. Guite fills in gaps everywhere, showing the influence The Rime had on its contemporaries and the present day alike. Including great artists, other poets and literature scholars everywhere.

And throughout, how Coleridge struggled with faith through constant prayer, even when dry as dust and unable to approach His Source, his source and all of our sources of inspiration – the great I AM.

WaldegraveFurthermore, it added greatly to my appreciation and understanding of another great book – The Poet’s Daughters by Katie Waldegrave. [see my post 30 December 2013].

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Greek tales with Irish twist

The woe-begotten stories of the House of Atreus are familiar to many people. Even if we do not know who wrote the original story or the exact reference, nearly everyone knows the expression ” a bit of a Cassandra” meaning someone who always predicts the worst; and the names Electra and Agamemnon generally ring bells even if you cannot remember exactly who they were.

In one of the more infamous moments of this family mythology, Agamemnon sends to his wife, Clytemnestra to bring his daughter for marriage to a place where he is waiting. But there is no marriage, Iphigenia is to be sacrificed to the Gods in a hope that the Gods will send a fair wind so that he and his warriors can sail off to the Trojan War. A story which I think pretty much everyone has heard of even if they do not exactly remember it.

ToibinColm Tóibín in his new novel, House of Names, has re-worked this whole ghastly story into a shockingly vivid narrative of betrayal, fury, lust, revenge and tragedy. It had all these elements already, but it is in the finer detail that Tóibín makes us look at this again.

He describes the smell of blood and death, the flies and the stink; he dresses his characters in fine robes and we can hear the rustle of silks as they sweep the floor; we feel the hunger and fear of the captured Orestes and we rejoice when he and Leander escape. It is in the detail that we begin to properly understand the horror.

We do not begin at the beginning of this sorry and sordid tale, but at the point when Clytemnestra has taken her revenge on Agamemnon after his return triumphant from the wars; bringing with him his new mistress Cassandra, the voice of doom. While he has been away, Clytemnestra has been disporting with Aegisthus and between them they have cooked up a deadly revenge. Clytemnestra has had woven a deadly garment, the poison in its threads will hold the victim paralysed but aware, while his lovely welcoming wife slits his throat. Clytemnestra then kills Cassandra for good measure.

Meanwhile, her other daughter Electra is locked up downstairs and her son, Orestes hurried off to a place of safety.

We then go back to the moment she has prepared her beloved daughter in the finest wedding clothes for marriage. as she thinks. to the hero Achilles. So she is a bit amazed when he denies it, but still unsuspecting, for who could imagine the truth. And although she does not witness the sacrifice herself, having been tied up and thrust into a hole, we learn later that Iphigenia went bravely forward, pleading with her father not to do this awful thing and it was only when she threatened to curse them all that they tied and gagged her before cutting her throat. But the detail that her black hair was cut short, and her neck nicked in the cutting so that she cried out, is entirely Tóibín’s addition, part of the added detail that makes all this so profoundly real.

But, of course, this is Greek tragedy so nothing goes quite according to plan and one act of murder follows another until the final gore-fest ends steeped in blood.

I suspect that an Irish writer, more than most, would understand the nature of the festering wounds that are inflicted generation after generation as families divide and fall apart in a welter of blood and revenge. The Troubles, in real life, mirrored some of the more horrible aspects of Greek tragedy. Not that I am imagining that they were provoked by an effort to appease, placate or influence the Gods, but one murder led inexorably to another until the country was steeped in blood in a war just as profound as that on the cliffs of Troy.

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61st London Film Festival Day 10.ii

My second film of the day was in some ways rather a disappointment. A documentary about a Zen Buddhist community in the South of France, Plum Village, known now because of its “mindfulness” programme and the philosophy of its leader Thich Nhat Hahn.

Walk with meWalk With Me sounded as though it was a meditative look at Zen Buddhist life, and indeed in some ways that is exactly what it was, but I expected something a great deal more abstract. While several scenes were of sky, clouds, trees, water and sunrise; there was also a considerable amount of busy-ness.

Walking mindfully, eating mindfully, teaching and listening mindfully – so far so good, except there was so much of it; no sooner had the camera focussed on one thing, when it switched to something else.

Mercifully there was no sound-track as such, so we heard the natural sounds and the gongs, bells and singing; but mindfulness is as much about breathing mindfully as anything else, and this left one with hardly any time to draw breath.

AND THEN…my worst fears: Benedict Cumberbatch sententiously reading extracts from the journals of Thich Nhat Hahn. I understand that Mr Cumberbatch does actually follow this mindfulness practice, so was probably the ideal choice in that sense, but the solemn, sepulchral tone was a mistake; the thoughts were themselves profound, possibly; personal, evidently; and spiritual, definitely and as such, they did not need any added depth of feeling.

Made by the same team (Marc J Francis and Max Pugh) as Black Gold (LFF 2006) this was a good idea which missed its mark, for me at any rate.

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61st London Film Festival – Day 9.i

Anyone who regularly visits my blog will know that if there is an Australian film available I will be at the first screening. Sweet Country is no exception.

Sweet Country
Made by the same director as Samson and Delilah (LFF2009), this film shows Australian history from a slightly different perspective. Warwick Thornton is himself of Aboriginal lineage. His two feature films show primarily the lives of the aboriginals, in the first feature it showed the lives of two teenagers struggling against the perceived wisdom of twentieth century whites that all “blackfellas” were useless, ignorant and frequently drunk. The protagonist was Delilah, it was glue-sniffing Samson who need help, this was a beautiful love story.

In a way, this second film Sweet Country is a meditation on how that impression might have come about and why. Directed as a faux-Western in the Spaghetti-Western mode, no one is entirely wrong or entirely right, we first meet Fred Smith (Sam Neill) a solid Christian rancher who treats his Aboriginal workers as equals, a new neighbour comes to ask for assistance and obligingly Fred sends off his main worker, Sam (Hamilton Morris) with his wife and niece. But things do not go according to plan and Harry March (Ewen Leslie) sends them back. Harry then goes to another neighbour, Mike Kennedy (Thomas M Wright) who also obligingly sends two hands, Philomac, a young half-breed (almost certainly Mike’s own son) played by the twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan and another older man, Archie (Gibson John).

At this point things really begin to unravel, though this film has more twists than a barley-sugar stick ( a reference probably lost on anyone under the age of 65), there is a pivotal moment when everything that could go wrong begins.

Like any good Western, there are wild chases across vast empty landscapes, night camps under glowing starlit skies and beautiful scenery. Led by the aboriginal tracker Archie under the direction of Sergeant Fletcher (SELRES_536f5180-6f65-42a8-b453-bfb117386342SELRES_b0e2f459-a8dc-4527-943b-00451404098cSELRES_2669b097-aa74-427d-b908-ec7ef25a0033SELRES_1e329570-c06b-49f7-ade1-324f8502e245SELRES_86b44485-81d7-41c3-862d-8d85f6748c48Bryan BrownSELRES_86b44485-81d7-41c3-862d-8d85f6748c48SELRES_1e329570-c06b-49f7-ade1-324f8502e245SELRES_2669b097-aa74-427d-b908-ec7ef25a0033SELRES_b0e2f459-a8dc-4527-943b-00451404098cSELRES_536f5180-6f65-42a8-b453-bfb117386342).

It is not for nothing that people who go to Australia and people who live there think this is God’s Own Country, it is indeed sweet country. Filmed on location in the area surrounding the McDonnell Ranges, this is grass plains, light scrub and acres of flat land in every direction under an enormous sky, and then you get the mountains, rising like stone giants from the plains they are vaguely reminiscent of Monument Valley, but of a very different composition. Iron-stone, I would guess, craggy, crevassed and opening into deep gorges. It is an arid land and there are large salt-lakes of piercing whiteness.

The story unwinds to its end with occasional flashes of precognition, which only make sense once the film has ended.

Everyone needs to face the facts of the brutal history of Australia. Before European settlers (mainly British) arrived there were at least 900 different nomadic groups living there, not necessarily peaceably, but at least not rapaciously. White settlers changed all that and although the start was slow and devastating in small areas, after World War I land grabs of gargantuan proportions began in earnest. Central Australia and Western Australia, until then hardly touched, were plundered remorselessly, native bush scrubbed out and cattle grass laid, and cattle and sheep brought in and with them the infamous flies! With the land grab came the indenture of many aboriginals, anyone on the land, nomadic or not, became the property of the owner.

Unpaid, indentured labour, treated like dogs or worse than dogs. Introduced to alcohol, tobacco and small pox, the effect was devastating. And that does not include the “abo-hunts” where white settlers went about killing every “blackfella” on sight, until the population was suitably reduced (ie: they had enough hands and no more). If you think I might be exaggerating, I can assure you that I wish I was not. I have heard it told without a trace of shame by the grandson of a rancher in Northern Territories.

Failing to catch up with either of these films would be a pity, but you can also read the novels of Mary Durack Kings of the Grass Country, which is about her grandfather and his “appropriation” of land, though that is not exactly how she presents it and Kate Grenville who also writes, but with a good deal more self-awareness about her family history and its good and bad effects on the local (New South Wales) population in her trilogy that begins with Sarah Thornhill. Then there is Thomas Keneally in both fiction and non-fiction.

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