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
It’s in itself quite remarkable that a book of of nearly 700 pages leaves such a small mark on the reader’s memory. Sadly, this is the case with An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (1997, Vintage).
The premise is promising: a story that takes place in my current home town Oxford in the 1660s and involves “lust, betrayal, secrets, and murder”. The same events are recounted from four different perspectives by four different characters: Venetian gentleman and ‘physick’ enthusiast Marco da Cola, Oxford student Jack Prestcott, mathematician John Wallis, and historian Anthony Wood. The Italian has arrived in England to sort out a family business in London that’s in a spot of trouble—or so he says. His true interest lies with physick, a mixture of physics, chemistry, and medicine, and he soon finds himself in the learned but ill-mannered company of Oxford academics, including John Wallis, John Locke, and Robert Boyle. Jack Prestcott is a troubled young man on a mission to clear his father’s name, tarnished in a plot to restore monarchy during the English Interregnum (1652–1659), with the help of an Irish faith-healer, whatever the cost—or so he says. Continue reading
Herman Melville‘s classic Moby-Dick (1851) is a great book and unlike any other novel I’ve read, but I’ve been at it for so long that I’m very happy to see the back of it!
I first cracked it open in May 2015 on a ferry back to Helsinki from Tallinn, Estonia, where I’d bought it in a nice little bookshop. It all started so well: how lovely to read about “getting to sea” on the gentle glimmering waves of the Baltic Sea! Fine, Melville’s a bit verbose here and there, but Ishmael‘s witty remarks and explorations on shore, such as sharing a bed with the Polynesian harpooner Queequeg at an inn, make up for it. Ishmael meets the broody Ahab, the captain of the Pequod and a man on a mission to kill the whale that maimed his leg—all good. It’s only when the long whale hunting journey begins in earnest that my attention started to waver.
Moby-Dick is about whales, and one whale in particular. The premise is very straightforward: Ahab wants to find the monstrous white whale called Moby-Dick, dissimilar to any other whale cruising the bottomless waters of the worlds, and kill it. This jolly pair have met before, and thanks to that encounter Ahab now clunks around with a wooden leg. Ishmael is the narrator of the story, and hovers somewhere between an omniscient narrator and an active participant in the story as a sailor on the Pequod.
Sorry about the silence—been trying to get over the Brexit horror. I’m not sure the reality has quite sunk in yet. In addition to the multitude of other consequences, what impact will Brexit have on the future of publishing books in translation in the UK, the number of which has been on a significant rise over the past years ?
Despite all the confusion, fear, and sadness I will try to gather my thoughts and review the great book that is Kati Hiekkapelto‘s Tumma (Otava, 2016)! This is the third book in her series on the Yugoslavian-born detective Anna Fekete, who lives and works in Finland, and will be published in English with the title The Exiled later this year by Orenda Books. Orenda also published the two first installments, and you can read my thoughts on the previous book, The Defenceless, here.
After the murder of her father, also a police officer, in the 1980s and the start of the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s, young Anna flees to Finland with her mother and brother Àkos. But even after nearly 30 years, the past won’t leave her alone. The Exiled begins almost directly where The Defenceless ended: after a long winter, Anna is finally on summer holiday and travels to the borderlands of Serbia and Hungary to visit her family and friends. Her mother has moved back, and even her recovering alcoholic brother, who Anna begins to realise has been her strength and stay in Finland as well as the only link to her roots, is planning on remaining in their home village after falling in love with a local during a visit.
Tiszavirag, the hatching of a local mayfly species, which the locals call ‘the blooming of the river Tisza’
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.
A little non-fiction this time, in the shape of The Gut by Giulia Enders.
It’s quite surprising really how taboo talking about the human digestive system and its by-products still are. Think about another taboo topic, sex, which has been discussed and shown in public from every possible angle for at least the past 20 years, and has in this process practically lost all of its taboo status. You might discuss your bedroom activities with your girlfriends, but the consistency of your poop? Much more unlikely.
Enders is, without a doubt, doing her part in stripping these topics off the air of secrecy and embarrassment that currently surrounds them. In The Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ (Scribe), first published in German in 2014 and in translation in 2015, Enders succeeds in talking about our digestive system in a way that is engaging and fun, but at the same time maintains a sound scientific backing. The first two sections of the book cover the digestive process from the moment food enters out mouth to the moment it exits, transformed into feces. The third part deal with the little helpers and adversaries that colonise the entire digestive systems, the millions upon millions of microbes, and the effect their workings have on us from protecting us from allergies to giving us a food poisoning.
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)
Thanks to the Easter holidays (bliss), I’ve just managed to start and finish Ayelet Gundar-Goshen‘s debut novel One Night, Markovitch (2012, published in English by Pushkin Press in 2015). This was of course also thanks to Gundar-Goshen’s very readable writing. The Amazon reviews of this book are, by the way, rather scathing. Although it didn’t quite live up to its excellent first impressions, I still think it’s a lovely novel and well worth a read.
Despite its name, One Night, Markovitch, features a bunch of eccentric characters living in a small, gossipy village whose interwoven story we get to know. Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg are two Jewish blokes living in Palestine in what is presumably the 1930s. The men have similar interests – milky-white boobs, vaginas that smell of fruit, and other female body-parts – but couldn’t be more different. Feinberg is the one gets (all) the ladies: he’s imposing, charismatic, and
first of all, a mustache. Not blue eyes, not bushy eyebrows, not sharp teeth. Zeev Feinberg’s mustache was famous in the entire area, and, some said, in the entire country. When an Irgun member returned from a trip to the south, he talked about “the blushing girl who asked whether the sultan with the mustache was still with us”.
In a world where we’re supposed to cry tears of joy whilst ridding ourselves of old crap (cue KonMari), I’m not ashamed to admit I’m prone to nostalgia.
In particular, I’m endlessly drawn to revisiting places. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from recognising familiar features, familiar sounds, a familiar sense of space. Yet these moments are at the same time coloured by sadness because they, more so than any other moments, make me feel difference and change in me. The place might be the same, but I’m not.
This is my awkward transition to books: I also hugely enjoy rereading them, mostly because I know exactly what I’m getting. The risk of going for a new book, possibly the beginning of a new love affair, possibly a horrible, time-wasting letdown, is occasionally more than a vulnerable reader can handle. I don’t get bored of re-encountering stories, characters, and moods — they never feel quite the same as they did the previous time, because I’ll have changed.
Of course, a book must be great for me to want to reread it in the first place, and Eleanor Catton‘s The Luminaries (Granta, 2013) is a fantastic example of such a book. I first read it just over a yeah ago (yes, its 832 pages took me, hmm, maybe 2 months to finish, and yes, I am ashamed to admit that), mostly sat on the train in or out of London whilst doing my internship. I’d bought the book mainly because I knew it had won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, and also because the location, New Zealand in the 1860s, sounded cool. Also, I was really into astrology as a teenager, but let’s not go there. Continue reading