Category Archives: Fiction

Alexandra Harris, ‘Weatherland’

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Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers & Artists under English Skies. Thames & Hudson, £24.95.

We may like to think that the English weather, cold, damp and unsettled, has been here forever but if so it is strange how long it was there before anyone noticed it. Take the gentle “breeze”, for centuries sailors gave the word a specific meaning: a counter-current of any strength from land to sea. Our contemporary, idea of the gentle breeze Alexandra Harris in her study of English weather writing dates from James Thomson’s weather poem, ‘The Seasons’ (1730). As for clouds, it was only in 1803 that a Quaker chemist Luke Howard proposed the distinction between “Cirrus”, “Cumulus” and “Stratus.” For centuries, the prose and poetry of weather was concerned with other things.

In so far as the Saxons noticed the weather, it was to dwell on the cold: a typical tenth-century poet complained that “Sleet and snow fall and fetter the world / winter howls, then darkness draws on.” Early modern England was fascinated by rain: whether the sweet showers of April in The Canterbury Tales, the thunder that terrified Marlowe’s Tamburlaine or the “cataracts and hurricanoes” that King Lear imagines drenching England’s steeples.

Subtle changes in the climate itself and in our societies have altered the way in which we observe the weather. Harris notes a greater interest in the wind from the seventeenth century. For Milton, weather began with Adam and Eve’s Fall, causing winds that “confound sea, air and shore,” and bring with them further extremes, “cold and heat scarce tolerable.” The wind was the agent of transformation – whether in the form of the return of the Stuart monarchy, or the underlying transition to capitalism – change as destruction.

Two hundred years later, Shelley imagined a wind-powered balloon spreading its message everywhere and “annihilat[ing] slavery forever”. His ‘Ode to the West Wind’ developed the image, portraying the autumn winds as the carriers of revolution. After the defeat of the Chartists, clouds predominated, smoke, fog and pollution.

The characteristic weather of our times, Haris concludes is the flood. She writes of climate change and the end of what we think of as English weather. Her book ends with George Szirtes poem ‘English Apocalypse’ (2001), imagining the burial of land from Lincolnshire to Land’s End, a catastrophe that life itself seems to be set on copying.

First published here.

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Han Kang, ‘Human Acts’

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Human Acts is set during and after the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980. Following the death of South Korea’s military ruler Park Chung-hee in 1979 and the seizure of power by another general Chun Doo-hwan, protesters called for the end of military rule. Paratroopers shot at the demonstrators, but the troops were resisted, with increasing numbers of people from across the city joining the demonstrations and the soldiers retreated. For five days the city was held by a Kwangju Commune, with citizen’s committees and a popular militia. South Korea’s army blamed the events on Communists and, with American approval, then retook the city, resulting in a final death toll of between 600 and 2,000 protesters.

The desire to write fiction about events of this scale hits against the limitations of the literary novel as a form. For two centuries, prose fiction has tended be about a certain kind of city-dweller, moneyed, articulate and cynical. In Britain in particular, literary fiction depicts private triumphs or defeats, not the ambitions of an insurgent crowd. The world gives us the War on Terror, the Arab Spring and the revolution in Syria; fiction’s answer is the self-satisfied vacuity of Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005).

[continues here]

The smell of a human

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Perfume

The base: half a spoon of cat-shit, several drop of vinegar, a thumbnail piece of pungent cheese, a something-or-other of sardine, rotten egg and castoreum, ammonia, nutmeg, horn shavings and finely ground singed pork rind. A relatively large amount of civet, alcohol. Then peppermint, lavender, turpentine, lime, eucalyptus. Disguised with geranium, rose, orange blossom and jasmine.

(from Patrick Süskind, Perfume (London: Penguin, 1987), pp 155-6)

Knut Hamsun, ‘Hunger’

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Hunger, republished this year to mark the 125th anniversary of its original appearance, is one of those rare and compelling books which feel like they were written decades out of time.

With its sparse writing, modest plot and starving and dishonest narrator, Hunger feels like it should have been written three decades later by a Kafka or a Camus, responding to the horrors of the trenches, the possibilities of a revolution or the threat of its defeat.

Even to speak of Hunger’s plot is to give the impression of substance when, for the majority of the book, the story meanders between seemingly unrelated incidents.

The narrator comes to a city, he starves. He offers articles to a newspaper, he worries about his rent. He sells an article but even this successful commission leads only to further moments of hunger. He is evicted from his room.

The narrator neither learns nor changes and the reader never has a sense of a mission for him to complete or fail. He flirts with a girl, unsuccessfully. At the end of the story and, without purpose, he leaves the city.

Two scenes give a flavour of the book. Near the beginning, the narrator encounters an old beggar. Drunk with hunger and despising the old man’s frailty, the narrator decides to pawn his waistcoat and give the money to the beggar. The recipient is stupefied by the gift and silent. The narrator shouts and swears at his ingratitude.

Returning to the pawnbroker, the narrator seeks the return of the pencil-stub which he has left in one of the waistcoat pockets. The broker lets him take the pencil. Filled with energy, the narrator tells him that it was used previously to write a three-volume philosophical treatise. The pawnbroker humours his blatant lie.

Many generations of readers have sought to impose a logic on Hunger by calling it an existential novel or portraying the narrator as a zero in search of meaning or the opposite: a person seeking to discard meaning by starving himself to death.

The process of giving the novel meaning is encumbered by the events of Hamsun’s life.
The older the Norwegian writer got, the more right-wing he became. Wooed by Hitler, he wooed the nazis back and although his eventual meeting with the fuehrer in 1943 disappointed the latter, Hamsun never disowned fascism.

A letter to Hamsun by his publisher in 1946 strikes a chord with many disappointed readers: “There are few people I have admired as much as you, few I have loved so. None has disappointed me more.”

The conventional response to Hamsun’s politics is to say that he adopted them later in life and that the novel should not be blamed for the author’s subsequent follies.

This is too simple. Hunger does have a philosophy and is coherent in its own terms. If not fascistic, it is certainly misanthropic.

Reading Hunger in 2016, it’s not hard not to feel that the “personality” of the book is hostile and yet the novel is a thing of beauty — a frosty winter’s landscape to watch and admire but not to live in.

Originally published in the Morning Star

 

Tim Pears, ‘In a Land of Plenty’

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A best-selling literary author struggles for a short phrase that will encompass the narrow walls inside which his characters live. “The past never dies,” he writes. He carves the phrase in longhand, he takes it to his computer. He likes it so much that he shares it with his agent and it becomes the subtitle of his book. If you listen carefully, it is Faulkner whose words are being condensed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Now imagine those same few words but with a broader ambition. What would fiction be like if there were writers capable of showing how heavily the tradition of dead generations weighed now, here, on the minds of all of us?

If only there was a literature which could explain how trapped we all are in the choices of thirty years ago – spinning, in this summer’s referendum between the politics of September 1988 (Thatcher’s Bruges speech) and June 1989 (Thatcher’s rejection of the Social Chapter) – save that the generation that presently rules us is made up of the erstwhile young, the unpopular, obsessive children were bewildered to see how quickly their champion was losing their authority and now seek to use this referenda, whichever way the UK votes, to undo her humiliation.

Our Friends in the North did that, you could say. GB84. The list is short, isn’t it?

After them, at the front of the second rank, it’s Tim Pears. His novel In a Land of Plenty is the story of Charles Freeman, postwar industrialist, his poet wife, his son James who becomes a photographer, James’ cousin Zoe who travels, takes drugs, owns a cinema. It is a story of the battles between Freeman and his workers, anti-racism concerts, peace demonstrations, green protests.

The BBC turned the novel into a mini-series which for some barely comprehensible reason they appear to have made available on VHS only. (On Amazon, they have even blocked the trailer for the TV series…).

Here are some of the things I admire about the book: the slow pace at which James learns his art; the recurring anticipatory dreams he has of a wedding (when he does marry it will become a moment of intense trauma), the ease with which Pears uses dress to convey character (Zoe wears not one rainbow scarf, but two at ince), the unpredictable character of Charles’ domestic tyranny (the way he approves of one of his sons renting out the stately home for an illegal rave: at least money is being made), the grotesque way in which his business swells during the Thatcher years…

If only there were more books like that.

The King of the Werewolves

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“Have I told you how the King of the Werewolves was made?”

“In the town of Klagenfort there was once a lazy cobbler who was known throughout all the empire as a cunning, no-good rascal. He was brilliant with his hands and could make almost anything. But he rose late and he was always looking for tricks and devices so that he could stop working as soon as the day had begun.

“He made for the emperor a pair of shoes.”

“The emperor asked for the shoes to be stitched with gold and silver thread, and he paid very handsomely for them. When they arrived, they were very beautiful and the emperor lavished the cobbler with gifts. But the cobbler had stitched the shoes with copper and tin, which he had painted to look precious. As the shoes aged, and the paint flaked, they turned to grey and to green.”

“The emperor sent his messengers to every corner of the empire, and finally they found the cobbler, living far away, under a new name.”

“Then the vengeance of the emperor was terrible. He told the captain of his guard to whip the cobbler, and to flay his skin. Soon, the streets ran red with blood. As the cobbler lay dying, the captain took the knife from his belt, and cut a strip from the cobbler’s back, and he sewed himself a belt from the cobbler’s skin, so that all would see and remember and no tradesman would ever cheat the emperor again.”

“Before he died, the cobbler spoke his last words. He swore that for his terrible punishment, by the gods or by the Devil himself, he too would be avenged.”

“For his loyalty, the Emperor rewarded the Captain. He let the Captain marry his only daughter. Then the people rejoiced, for she was beautiful, and she was the pride of her people. And for a week or two no-one thought of the cobbler’s curse. But on the first night after the full moon, when the servants entered her chamber, they found her body dripping with blood. In the night, a wolf had come and eaten her neck. And then the servants were confused, for the door to the palace was locked, the walls were high, and they could not understand how the animal had come in. And nowhere in the palace was there any trace of the Captain.”

“This was the first adventure of the King of the Werewolves, who lived afterwards with the other animals, for he was ashamed of what he had done.”

 

“So many people, when they have done something wrong, will keep to themselves and admit nothing, blaming others for their own crimes. So it was with the King of the Werewolves, he retreated deep into the forest, and he waited for a chance to prey on the people, any people, who he blamed for casting him out. He lived on mice and rats and other small animals and he was always hungry, and he was still ashamed.”

“One day, there came into a forest, a trader. He made his business by exchanging iron nails, spices, things made in the towns, for the food grown by the peasants. But he was a thief, and he would charge just as much as the people could bear, and then more, for they needed him more than he needed them.”

“As the merchant rode his horse among the trees, the King of the Werewolves could smell his coming. He could smell the fine meats that the merchant had packed for his journey. He could smell the rich odours of the city, of a man whose hands were not calloused, and whose arms and legs were pale. And, as the King of the Werewolves waited, his throat glistened with the meal that would be his.”

“As the merchant rode through the woods, the King of the Werewolves began to follow him. And the trees, which so often sang with the sounds of the birds, grew silent, as all of nature watched to see the man’s fate.”

“On he rode, conscious of nothing but the sun of the noon day. On and on, the King of the Werewolves followed him, deeper into the dark woods.”

“Finally, when the trader came to a well, and dismounted, the King of the Werewolves struck. He jumped on the man, dragging him to the ground. He did not even spare the man’s bones, but broke them, to suck the marrow clean.”

“This was the second adventure of the King of the Werewolves.”

 

“Over time, the King of the Werewolves buried himself deeper in the woods, among the trees that never came looking for him, among the wild things that left him alone. For much of the month, he would sleep, but on the night of the full moon he would rise, and then he would look for the tame animals that lived in the fields and in the barns and were his favourite food. The King of the Werewolves was no longer sad, for he barely remembered that he had once been a mortal man.”

“So it went on, for many long years. Until the people who lived in the district became angry, and complained that if nobody stopped him, they would starve.”

“Finally, the village blacksmith brought them altogether, and armed the folk with the swords from his forge, and told them to be strong. On hearing his words, finally, the people went on, to kill the beast that was in their midst.”

“But years of hunting had made the King of the Werewolves cunning. He could hunt in the night, he could hunt in the day, and he could smell fear.”

“When the men of the village were out looking for him, he slunk silently into the homes which they had forsaken. And when the men returned to their homes, there was not a woman or a child left standing. All had been killed, and the King of the Werewolves’ belched as his body filled with their flesh.”

“This was the third adventure of the King of the Werewolves.”

 

“So why did they call him the King of the Werewolves?”

“He had special powers. At night-time, when a mood cunning came over him, he would still take the form sometimes of a human being. He could run on the ground for a hundred miles, fast as lightning, and not feel tired for a second. And his claws were so sharp that they could cut anything, flesh, fur or bone.”

“You say he was the King of the Werewolves. Did he have subjects?”

“All the animals of the forest, all the wild animals, were his to command. The rats were his messengers; the foxes would bring him food. And the longer he lived in the forest, the further afield his name was known. Other wolves came to follow, some who had been human once like he had, others who lived as men but only changed into wolves on the very night of the full moon. They followed him in their thousands.”

 

“In the city, there was a new Emperor. Like all the educated folk, he had heard the stories of the King of the Werewolves. Unlike his predecessor, the old Emperor, who had died, he knew nothing of where the King of the Werewolves had come from. Every day his messengers brought fresh stories of the foul deeds of the werewolves. People had been killed, their bodies eaten, even children were not safe.”

“So he asked his advisors what should be done.”

“One suggested that they could surround the city with walls so tall that no evil could sneak in. Another suggested that they could build great stone towers, reaching right up to the sky, so that they could see evil before it was upon them. A third wise man said simply this, ‘You cannot defeat the King of the Werewolves, for his evil was made by Man. The best you can do is to call on your people to laugh and play and forget his name. And hope that with the ordinary passage of time his evil abates and people forget to speak his name.”

“‘I will not wait”, the Emperor said.

“To defend the city against the King of the Werewolves, the Emperor ordered his alchemists to make a giant figure out of earth. For three days and three nights, his labourers worked at the task. They stood in the grounds at the very heart of the city. They traced a shape with their sticks, like an unborn child with its hand near its mouth. They cut and dug, deep into the soil. And then the alchemists came and cast spells. The earth formed into shape and took life.”

“In this way, the Golem was born.”

 

“When the King of the Werewolves heard of the city-dweller’s plans, he took off his magic belt, and dressed himself in human clothes. He wore gloves and boots, and a fine black cape and a black hat upon his head.”

“He walked into the city, and no-one knew the threat which was upon them.”

“He sniffed the food that the guards ate, he tasted the beer that the soldiers drank, and he looked upon the hut where the Golem lived.”

“After 30 days and nights, the King of the Werewolves returned, which a mighty host of animals. He was determined to destroy the town. His forces were so many that they surrounded the city on ever side.”

“The people threw spears at the foxes and the wild dogs, they fired at his wolves with arrows dipped in fire, but the arrows could not piece their skin.”

“After many hours of fighting, the people began to grow weary, and the Emperor came to the hut where the Golem said. ‘You are our champion’, the Emperor told him, if you cannot defeat the Werewolf, we are doomed.’”

“And so the messengers of the people and the messengers of the Werewolves spoke, and finally it was agreed. The King of the Werewolves would fight the Golem. If the King triumphed, the City would be razed to the ground, and all the people would be scattered. But if the Golem triumphed, there would be no more war, the werewolves would retreat, and they swore they would never come again.”

“There was a stadium in the City, and the men and the wolves sat there as they watched the battle that would determine everything.”

“The Werewolf howled, and all his people howled, and the men cringed with fear. Powered by this dreadful sound, the Werewolf reached as if to tear his enemy limb from limb. But the Golem had all the cunning of the city-dweller in him, and he twisted and turned one way and the other and the Werewolf could not strike him.”

“Next, the Golem attempted to pound the King of the Werewolves with the rocks and stones that were his flesh and blood. But the Wolf was a magical being and the stones could not hurt him. Every blow the Golem sent down, bounced off his skin”

Then it the King of the Werewolves’ turn again. He flexed his terrible, long, until they shone in the terrible moonlight. With a great roar, he swung his hands, as if to cut the Golem’s head right off.”

“He swished, one way and another, and finally, the head was cut.”

“And then there was a terrible sound from the people, a sound of sorrow such as never you heard. For the sky was dark, and the wolves were waiting to eat”