I did some reading this past week on character vs plot driven fiction, inspired by the comments section of The Guardian’s very interesting podcast on editing. There’s a fair bit of writing on this topic out there in case you are interested in the details. It also made me wonder where I stand on this issue.
I’ve always been drawn to the quality of the language itself in books. It’s not so much about what you write but about how you write it, and in the majority of the cases this overlaps with the characteristics of character driven fiction. I’ve also jotted down some thoughts on what I think makes for interesting books here. Antonio Tabucchi‘s Pereira Maintains (Canongate 2010) is definitely fiction of the character driven kind. This is a book in which nothing much, and a whole lot, happens at the same time—and that is a fantastic combination.
Pereira Maintains takes place in Lisbon, and I can’t not mention I’ve just booked a holiday to go there myself at the end of September, hooray! I bought this book a while back and forgot where it’s set, but surely it was providence that guided my hand to this slim (only 195 pages) copy in my bookshelf… Tabucchi’s protagonist is the editor of the culture section at the Lisboa newspaper, the veteran journalist Dr Pereira. In the impossibly hot summer of 1938, in the midst of translating French short stories for the paper, talking to a photograph of his dead wife, repeatedly eating an omelette aux fins herbes with a lemonade at his regular place, and taking seaweed baths to alleviate his heart trouble, his uncomplicated life becomes entangled with that of a troubled young man, Monteiro Rossi. Continue reading
From the snows of Finland to the heat of Latin America. I decided to continue my streak of Conrads by reading his 1904 novel Nostromo. This was not, by any means, light holiday reading.
Nostromo (‘our man’) is named after one of the characters, the legendary ex-seaman and adventurer, current Capataz de Cargadores (head longshoreman says Wikipedia) of Italian descent, Giovanni Battista Fidanza. Even after finishing the book, I’m not entirely sure why the novel was named after him. Let me explain.
Sulaco is an imaginary coastal town in the imaginary South American country of Costaguana. Conrad, as keen as ever to grab every opportunity to insert generously descriptive passages, sets the scene in the first paragraph:
In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sulaco—the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity—had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local trade in ox-hides and indigo. The clumsy deep-sea galleons of the conquerors that, needing a brisk gale to move at all, would lie becalmed, where your modern ship built on clipper lines forges ahead by the mere flapping of her sails, had been barred out of Sulaco by the prevailing calms of its vast gulf. Some harbours of the earth are made difficult by access by the treachery of sunken rocks and the tempests of their shores. Sulaco had found an inviolable sanctuary from the temptations of a trading world in the solemn hush of the deep Golfo Plácido as if within an enormous semi-circular and unroofed temple open to the ocean, with its walls of lofty mountains hung with the mourning draperies of cloud.
This is a new series in which I will be presenting and talking about books from Finland. First up: a very short introduction to Finnish literary history up until the 1980s.
Finnish literature might just be the next big thing. Sweden and Norway are both quite well established on the world literature scene after the successes of Karl Ove Knausgård, Jonas Jonasson, Henning Mankell, and many others, but Finland is still waiting for its big break. You might in the past heard the names of Tove Jansson (of the Moomins fame), Arto Paasilinna (who enjoys popularity in France), or more recently Sofi Oksanen. Pushkin Press published the YA novel Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff a few months ago, and Aki Ollikainen‘s White Hunger (Peirene Press) was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Finland was also the guest of honour at the 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair. So much great Finnish literature is being translated right now, you really should stay in the loop!
Moominpappa enjoys life
While I was at it, I decided to go for two other short stories from Joseph Conrad. It was actually enjoyable to read fiction of which I had no preconceptions at all—usually when choosing a book I make my decision based on what I assume the story will be like.
Conrad himself apparently held An Outpost of Progress (1897) in higher regard than Heart of Darkness. It’s a much tighter story, taking place in just over 20 pages, and restricted both in terms of place and characters. Two white men, Kayerts and Carlier (presumably Swiss), are brought by steamboat to a tiny trading post by the river Congo, where they join a Sierra Leonean man called Makola, an assistant to the previous station chief who has tragically died of fever, or possibly too much exposure to the sun. Kayerts, the new station chief, and Carlier, the second in charge, are tasked with participating in the ivory trade, and generally improving the station in the hope that it’ll one day be something grander:
“In a hundred years, there will perhaps be a town here. Quays, and warehouses, and barracks, and—and—billiard-rooms. Civilisation, my boy, and virtue—and all. And then, chaps will read that two good fellows, Kayerts and Carlier, were the first civilised men to live in this very spot!”
Surprise! Instead of finishing one of the items on my now-reading-list, I decided to go for a little amuse-bouche and read Joseph Conrad‘s novella Heart of Darkness instead—not that there is very much amusing about this story.
Heart of Darkness (1899) is a real blast from the past for me. It was one of the set texts for a module I took as a first year student back in 2007–2008. I didn’t get very much out of it then, mostly because I was fresh from school and unaccustomed to reading fiction of this level in English. Because of that, rereading it was really experiencing it properly for the first time.
The story is of course so well-known. It’s recited in first person by Marlow, a seaman and explorer, who tells to his fellow sailors, perched on the deck of the cruising yawl Nellie in the Thames, of his nightmarish adventure in the Congo. Marlow, who wants to see for himself the enthralling river Congo, which on the map, unexplored and empty around its banks, resembles
an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.
Map showing David Livingstone’s travels in Africa (1873)