Monday, 28 January 2019

Independent Bookseller feature No.4: Rachel Phipps of THE WOODSTOCK BOOKSHOP chooses FAMILY LEXICON by Natalia Ginzburg

Rachel Phipps: My first job was at a bookshop, the tiny and wonderful Walrus Books in Burford, run by Katherine Watson who was possibly the best-read person I have ever met. She knew everything, it seemed to me. She had a shelf that she called ‘Ladies’ Light Reading’ that was very popular with the ladies of Burford, and a large poetry section. I worked there during my holidays when I was at school and longed to have a similar shop one day. After my English degree – during which I became slightly better read but still not in Katherine Watson’s league - I worked at Sandoe’s in London, then at Penguin, had periods as a teacher and proof reader and, six children later, opened The Woodstock Bookshop in 2008 (Katherine sadly died just after I opened the shop so she never saw it but I hope she might have approved). We held regular readings in Woodstock for the first few years, and started the annual Woodstock Poetry Festival seven years ago which has featured most of the best poets now writing in Britain. For a full account of the shop and our talks, have a look at our website.

I first came across Family Lexicon when it was published by nyrb editions in 2017 in a translation by Jenny McPhee. I was hooked from the first page, not just engrossed but totally in love with the book in a way that rarely happens. I read it slowly, unwilling for it to end, wanting to stay in that world for as long as possible. When I finished it I turned back to the first page and started again. Partly I loved it because the father in it reminded me of my own father, who died far too young at the age I am now, over thirty years ago. He, too, shouted and bullied and loved and was loved, was a larger than life person who demanded the impossible from those around him but was adored by his children. I also loved the book because of the author's voice. I felt I could listen to her for a very long time.

Family Lexicon is autobiography written as a novel. As Ginzburg says in her Preface, 'Even though the story is real, I think one should read it as if it were a novel, and therefore not demand of it any more or less than a novel can offer.' She wrote the book in the early 1960s when she was living in London, far from her family. She had already written several novels by the time it was published in 1963 and it was a huge success, selling half a million copies and winning the Strega, Italy's most important literary prize. It is the story of her family and her upbringing, written in very colloquial Italian, catching a vanished world.

''My parents had five children. We now live in different cities, some of us in foreign countries, and we don't write to each other often. When we do meet up we can be indifferent or distracted. But for us it takes just one word. It takes one word, one sentence, one of the old ones from our childhood, heard and repeated countless times. All it takes is for one of us to say 'We haven't come to Bergamo on a military campaign', or 'Sulphuric acid stinks of fart', and we immediately fall back into our old relationships, our childhood, our youth, all inextricably linked to those words and phrases. If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognise each other. Those phrases are our Latin, the dictionary of our past, they're like Egyptian or Assyro-Babylonian hieroglyphics, evidence of a vital core that has ceased to exist but that lives on in its texts, saved from the fury of the waters, the corrosion of time. Those phrases are the basis of our family unity and will persist as long as we are in the world, re-created and revived in disparate places on the earth whenever one of us says, 'Most eminent Signor Lipmann', and we immediately hear my father's impatient voice ringing in our ears: 'Enough of that story! I've heard it far too many times already!''

The voice in which she tells the story is very distinctive, at first almost the voice of the young child she is at the start of the novel but then changing gradually as she moves through the years and grows older. Natalia herself remains largely unknown, but her parents and brothers and sisters, theirs friends, her husband, all the vanished people of a world that no longer exists, are vividly alive through their words and her memories of them. It is a love song to family, to the people who make us and are special because they are our people. It is very funny at times and very sad at others, and I have urged everyone who comes in to the shop to read it – as I now urge you.

Family Lexicon is published by Daunt Books.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Guest review by Nick Manns: THE DARKER THE NIGHT, THE BRIGHTER THE STARS by Paul Broks

"An exhilarating book ... open-minded, big-hearted and generous."

Nick Manns taught English in comprehensive schools in south London and the Midlands for 20 years. He is the author of four novels for young adults, including Control Shift and Dead Negative, and is a founder (and director) of Dyslexia Lifeline, a company based at De Montfort University, Leicester. 

There’s a moment in the second episode of Informer (BBC iPlayer) where the central character, Gabe, is reading to his seven year old daughter, Laurie. The book is The Wizard of Oz. Laurie interrupts the narrative and says: ‘Is the Wizard real?’ Gabe answers: ‘No, the old man made him up’. To which Laurie replies: ‘But everyone believed him, so doesn’t that make him real anyway?’

What is interesting about this is not Laurie’s discussion of power in a fairy story, but the fact that the Wizard, Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion had a reality for her and she had an emotional investment in them. Words on a page had created a world that could be interrogated; but in what sense is this world ‘real’?

This is one of the themes that Paul Broks explores in his exceptional book. Written in part as a response to the death of his wife, it’s a bookseller’s nightmare: at once a grief memoir, a work of science, a philosophical study and a piece of fantasy. There are ghosts and walk-on parts for characters from Greek myths and the Old Testament and Koran. We meet a patient who believes he’s dead and a man whose left hand has a vicious life of its own. And at one point our author finds himself walking through the back of a wardrobe to end up ‘standing underneath a lamppost, in the middle of a wood on a snowy night.’

Broks spent his professional career as a clinical neuropsychologist, and part of his job was to make connections between the physical stuff between our ears and observable behaviour and perception. The case histories are very much in the Oliver Sacks vein, but Broks’s focus is on what these case histories can tell us about our notion of reality; our sense of self; our experience of consciousness.

In the introduction, Broks makes the observation: ‘There is no clear dividing line in the brain between inner imaginings and perceptions of the real, solid ‘world out there’. Reality and fantasy are built into the same neural circuits.’ So, the Wizard of Oz; the smell of coffee; a lunar eclipse – it’s all one to the cerebral cortex.

He references Plato’s story of prisoners chained in a cave (since childhood), facing a wall, and who can only see the shadows of people and objects passing before them on the rocky surface. They have to form their impression of the world based on what they observe: it’s their reality. A parable that presents to us the problem of knowledge: how can we get at the ‘truth’ through the ‘distorting mirror of the human mind’? Isn’t the skull a kind of cave encasing the brain?

Although this discussion is exciting and is threaded through the book, by the end of the text, and despite the teasing presence of an Old Testament figure (packing Special Brew and a soupçon of quantum theory), I’m not sure that we’ve got further than the philosopher Lennon: ‘Nothing is real: nothing to get hung about’. But the trip has been compelling.

And as for the existence of the self, Broks makes the point that in terms of cell death and replication, none of us are (biologically) the same people we were ten years ago. Like an ancient galley in which all the timbers have been replaced over time, our old self is long gone. What is the relationship between the five year old photographed on a beach and the 62 year old packing the picture for a school reunion?

Broks explores this and suggests there’s an autobiographical self (our store of memories) and a core self that responds to the transient moment. The two systems are organised hierarchically: the autobiographical self entirely dependent on the core self. So, a condition like Alzheimer’s disease impairs the autobiographical self and condemns the individual to live in the perpetual present.

And what about consciousness - our awareness of the colours in a rainbow and the smell of a bonfire; the tap of a branch against the window and the excitement when meeting an old friend – what is it? Although it’s possible to identify those regions of the brain that are involved in consciousness, defining it is something else. Broks makes a valiant attempt, suggesting that consciousness isn’t one thing but a kind of integration of sensory and cognitive processes that give the impression of a unified experience. In this sense it’s like a siphonophore – those jellyfish-like creatures (such as the Portuguese man o’ war) - that consist of independent organisms that function as a larger animal.

This is an exhilarating book. In the hands of a lesser writer, the mixture of fact (Martin who thinks he’s dead) and fiction (‘Hello, Mr Tumnus’) would grate. But Paul Broks has a light touch and is able to guide us through a complex world, drawing together thinking from the distant past with the findings of modern science. It’s open-minded, big hearted and courageous.

The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars is published by Allen Lane.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Guest review by Bridget Collins: THE MIST IN THE MIRROR by Susan Hill

Bridget Collins trained as an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art after reading English at King's College, Cambridge. She is the author of seven acclaimed books for young adults and has had two plays produced, one at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She has just published her first adult novel, The Binding. 

To readers of her best-selling The Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s The Mist in the Mirror appears to be exploring familiar territory. Like The Woman in Black, it is a ghost story, set in a vaguely Victorian world of urchins, moonlight and old libraries, in which an isolated narrator encounters strange noises and mysterious doors before finally coming face-to-face with evil itself. It has the same Dickensian resonance, the same rather lovely prose to describe skies and sounds and places. And, like The Woman in Black, it can be read as a straightforwardly spine-chilling yarn, a book not to linger over too late at night. But there is something frustrating and elusive about The Mist in the Mirror, a deeper current which refuses to grant the reader the simple pleasures of terror and resolution. When I first read it I was (like many other readers, apparently) irritated by the book’s recurring pattern of delay and anti-climax; now, coming back to it, it strikes me as intriguing and complex, a subtle reworking of a well-known formula.

James Monmouth is a traveller, orphaned at an early age, who has finally returned to London, intending to settle down and write a book about his hero, the explorer Conrad Vane. He has few, if any, memories of his life before his parents died; rootless and friendless, he is determined to make a new life in an England that is essentially a foreign country. But although he remembers nothing, he is dogged by sinister and unpredictable flashes of emotion that seem to allude to his childhood without illuminating it; he has a sense that his own past is waiting for him, just out of reach, behind a beaded curtain or a fog in the mirror … As he searches for traces of Conrad Vane – dissuaded again and again by people who refuse to elaborate on their warnings – he realises that his life and Vane’s are somehow intertwined. Slowly, following chance clues and dropped hints, he works his way towards the heart of the mystery, which is also his cursed family seat and its inhabitant, the last person who might be able to tell him who he is.

So far, so good. But what sets this book apart from the traditional ghost stories it mimics is that the promised revelations never come: it is all spooky build-up, all atmosphere and unease. Hill excels, of course, at the evocation of fear – the creeping dread of being pursued, the sheer horror of the world disobeying the laws of reality ... But as Monmouth is led onwards, the answers he seeks seem to withdraw ahead of him, keeping their distance. Characters repeatedly come close to an explanation, but shy away from anything clearer than heavy intimations that Monmouth is in danger; over and over again there are scenes that seem to offer at least a step towards greater understanding, only for them to fall short. Characters choose not to elaborate, or don’t remember, or die before they can speak plainly. The book’s final denouement is certainly dramatic and terrible: and yet there is a sense of something missing. We understand a little more of what has haunted him than we did, but not enough; his own memories remain beyond his grasp, lost forever. And most gallingly of all, Monmouth – and, accordingly, the reader – will never know why.

Let’s face it, this is infuriating. If we read The Mist in the Mirror as an uncomplicated ghost story, it disappoints. We’re accustomed to expect a final, neat, comprehensible climax, and there is something perverse – unfair, even – about Hill’s reluctance to provide it. And yet, on second reading, there is something evocative about the lack of closure. Ghost stories are always metaphorical, no matter how simple they appear at first glance: the genre itself engages with the awful power of the past, and its disconcerting habit of refusing to stay put. The dead are not dead; our memories are not merely memories. But The Mist in the Mirror goes a step further than this. Monmouth, in searching for himself, risks his own identity and gains nothing. Not only does the past hold a terrible sway over him, it is unknowable, locked away, capricious. To me, the book expands the metaphor of the ghost story into something richer, and reflects another aspect of our relationship to the past: we’re afraid of its potency, but we yearn for it. We know that sometimes it seems close enough to touch: but finally, heart-breakingly, it’s always on the other side of the glass.

The Mist in the Mirror is published by Vintage.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Guest review by Gwen Grant: WHAT LOVE COMES TO, new and selected poems by Ruth Stone

Gwen Grant: I have been writing and publishing since 1968, the majority of my work for children but also publishing poetry. Private - Keep Out, which first came out in 1978, is to be re-issued in March 2019 by Penguin Vintage Children's Classics. 

The American poet Ruth Stone writes poems that shine with clarity, understanding and beauty, poems that I absolutely love and admire for their finely balanced, rhythmic elegance. Stone is witty, wise and, at times, funny, but she can also be a very tricky customer, for she has this great gift of being able to change course mid-poem, so that what seems all set for plain and simple will, quietly, unexpectedly, lead into much darker waters. It’s like being mugged by a feather. You don’t know it’s happened until you re-read a poem and find something new in it that you somehow missed before. Every Stone poem is a journey into a new understanding for she is a force of nature, a poet in possession of her world and ours.

In Second-Hand Coat, she begins with two words then in the following twelve short lines, turns this poem about an old coat into a surreal story of how, once it is taken home, it begins to talk, asking solicitously if its new owner has everything they need before leaving the house, the distinct impression being that it is speaking in the voice of the woman who once owned it. Alchemy of the highest order.

What Love Comes To is made up of new poems and poems selected from earlier books, witty, acerbic, hostile, elegiac, fierce poems, some political, some absorbed by science, some with rough sexual imagery, some deeply sensual and some so tender, you can hear the poet breathing, feel her heart beating.

All Ruth Stone’s poems have such integrity, you trust her to tell it how it is, which is a tall order for a woman who was no stranger to tragedy. Early in their marriage, Stone’s husband, Walter, killed himself, leaving her with three small girls to raise. She has said that all her poems are ‘love poems written to a dead man,’ whose suicide forced her to live in limbo. Yet Stone keeps this compact of honesty between herself and the reader, sparing herself nothing and, therefore, sparing the reader nothing. In Turn Your Eyes Away, so hard to read, so impossible to think of how hard it must have been to write, the Gendarme notifies her of the nature and death of the man she loved.

Each plain and unforgiving line of Turn Your Eyes Away stonily taps into the next line, telling the bleak sorrow of how Walter died. Of what happened when they pushed the door to his room open, of where his dead feet lay, then going on remorselessly to where his tagged body lies in the morgue. Then, almost before there is time to feel sadness for such suffering, Stone whirls around, remembering how they once lay together in a single bed, face to face, breath to breath, not wanting ever to part, that erotic love poem, the Song of Songs, lying open in the hotel’s Gideon Bible.

It is through Ruth Stone’s absolute honesty and unflinching gaze in this poem as in all her poems, that in these last lines, we are able to feel the passion and sexual desire these two had for each other; a love that seems to shatter sorrow, swipe death out of the way and burn up the page with longing.

In The Sperm and the Egg, another mid-course change poem, the egg hates the sperm and then the sperm hates the egg, wanting its tail back because then it was free. Dark waters here, for every reading throws up new thoughts. It is Ruth Stone’s genius that this poem ends with an absolutely apposite quotation from Hamlet. Then the lovely humour of Setting Type, where the semi-colon, the paragraph, the vocabulary and good punctuation get it together.

Finally, from The Widow's Muse, Poem XLII tells how the widow is triumphant having got through thirty years of widowhood, until her muse forces her to smell an old undershirt of Walter’s, which still retains his scent. At this, the widow whimpers with grief whereupon the muse knocks all the sense out of her. Harsh, hard and truthful.

Ruth Stone died in 2011, aged 96.

What Love Comes To is published by Bloodaxe Books.