Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz

Please enjoy the colour-coordination here!

I wanted to write something about Palace Walk before the end of the week, because on my customary posting day of Sunday, I will in fact be in Prague. I’ll be there for PhD stuff, attending a week-long summer school on Romanticism (a literary movement which falls at the extreme end of my time period of interest, but my supervisors thought it would still be relevant to what I’m working on). So it’s unlikely I’ll be able to post much until the week after that—and Palace Walk deserves attention while still fresh in my memory!

~~plot details ahead~~

This was the second book in my African Summer reading project, and the first installment of a trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Set in Cairo during and after the First World War, it focuses on one family, that of the tyrannically conservative patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. By an ex-wife he has one son, Yasin; by his current wife, Amina, he has four other children: sons Fahmy and Kamal, and daughters Khadija and Aisha. His family are kept under the strictest of rules; Amina is not allowed out of the house at all. al-Sayyid Ahmad, on the other hand, spends most of his nights on the town with friends, drinking, singing, and having sex with other women (who range from the publicly available, such as the great singer Zubayda, to more private arrangements, such as with the otherwise chaste widow of his neighbour). One of Mahfouz’s great themes is the hypocrisy of Ahmad’s behaviour juxtaposed with the total coherence of his self-image. He truly believes himself to be better than his wife and children, worthy of blind deference merely because he is the male head of the household. The disobedience of his wife Amina—which happens only once in the book, when she takes advantage of his absence on a business trip to visit a mosque in their immediate neighbourhood—is the start of a gradual slope, though, as one by one, his children begin to reveal their independence and to rebel against him. Fahmy, his second son, becomes entangled in the Egyptian nationalist movement and refuses his father’s orders to desist; his eldest son Yasin becomes bored with a wife who seems perfectly pleasant and turns to raping the maids, which leads his wife to divorce him. The daughters, Khadija and Aisha, don’t rebel so overtly, but they marry a pair of brothers and escape his orbit, becoming part of their husbands’ (slightly) more liberal household. The family’s youngest son, Kamal, befriends the English soldiers occupying the streets of Cairo—the same soldiers who humiliate Ahmad and eventually kill Fahmy. Mahfouz interweaves personal, local and global history with a light touch, so that news of the outside world filters through to the women of the household only through their menfolk, but eventually affects them all.

Palace Walk was translated from Arabic for its first English publication in 1991; it was written long before that, in the 1950s. The translation, by William M. Hutchins and Olive Kenny, struck me as frequently stilted and mannered, and it appears I’m not alone in this: a 1992 review of the translation notes that it “fails to capture the spirit of the Arabic” and “does little justice to Mahfouz’s style. What constitutes modern and spirited prose in Arabic has been rendered in a largely dated and stilted English register.” The rest of the review can be found on JSTOR, for those of you with access. I highly recommend it; it explains several things about the translation’s old-fashioned and stuffy flavour. There don’t appear to be any other English translations available, which makes it all the more impressive that Palace Walk has retained its reputation—but having read it, I have to confess that it manages to be extremely engaging despite those linguistic flaws, pulling a reader in with multiple compelling characters and then retaining readerly interest through the tension it establishes between the imperative of complete honesty and obedience, and the reality of unspoken emotions within the al-Jawad family. Mahfouz didn’t write the novel with a twenty-first-century sensibility, naturally, but he knows the price for Ahmad’s persistent abuse of his power: his family, his subjects, can’t trust him with their vulnerability, and so they lie to him, implicitly or explicitly, every day.

The novel ends with the promise of the British Protectorate’s departure and the return of political control to Egyptians, the death of Fahmy al-Awad, and the birth of his sister Aisha’s son—Ahmad and Amina’s first grandchild. The second book, Palace of Desire, will surely shift some of its focus onto the new generation; I’ve already requested it from my local library.

Sunday miscellany 14

Two very different, but both extraordinary, books this week (plus a third I’ll talk about later). First, Ursula K. Le Guin’s astounding The Dispossessed, a novel about anarchy, community and the social responsibility of the intellectual that manages also to be a page-turner. How to describe what is achieved in this book? This book that presents as natural, daily realities so many things we’re told are impossible. The thrust of the plot follows Shevek, probably the most brilliant physicist of his generation, from life on his native planet Anarres–an anarchist commune whose inhabitants broke away from capitalist society on the planet Urras two hundred years ago, following a female philosopher/prophet named Odo, and were given Anarres as part of the terms of settlement. Further terms mean that people from Urras are not permitted to land on Anarres except to offload cargo in a demarcated area of the spaceport, and scarcely any Anarresti are allowed off-planet. Shevek flees Anarres when it becomes obvious that his academic work is being stolen and his career suffocated by his supervisor, but on Urras he is a political pawn in a struggle that seeks a proprietary relationship to the technology he’s working on as a potential weapon or tactical advantage. (The tech would enable faster-than-light communication.) Le Guin is smartest in not making Anarres an uncriticizable utopia. Parts of it are brilliant (the scene where an Anarresti doctor comments scathingly of her Urrasti counterparts that they’re so understaffed and inefficient, they have to work a shocking eight hours a day! The lovely walking holiday Shevek and his friends, including his future wife, take in the mountains! The clear understanding that people are motivated to work by love for their community and the dignity that good work well done can provide!), but Shevek’s maturation comes when he realizes that power can be abused anywhere, even in places where there is nominally no power hierarchy. Urras, meanwhile, is decadent and has grossly unequal wealth distribution, but they have animals (Shevek has scarcely ever seen any, as Anarres is virtually devoid of non-human life), and flowers (likewise), and variety. It’s an intensely thought-provoking book about almost every aspect of society. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s The Book of Not is a sequel to Nervous Conditions, which I read for my African Summer reading project. It starts with an almost unparsable sequence in which a human leg flies up into the air. We don’t know where we are, whose leg that is, why it’s happening, and our narrator, Tambu, give us little help for pages at a time. Her trauma and dissociation at the sight is channeled into this first chapter, where we’re as disoriented and confused as she is. It is in fact her sister Netsai’s leg, which has been blown off by a hidden land mine. Most of the book subsequently takes place at the Convent of the Most Sacred Heart, where Tambu is receiving a Western education, but that leg keeps cropping up in her mind at the most inappropriate of times, a sinister implication that the damage done to her psyche through that experience is profound. The Book of Not is an intensely frustrating read, in very large part because it is about an African girl’s total absorption of white colonialist values and priorities and her equally total inability to ever be “good enough”, to ever relax her guard or experience her emotions fully or let go of an oppressive and prejudiced standard that will run her, physically and mentally, into the ground before it gives her the approval that she craves. It makes her a craven and deeply unsympathetic character–she is selfish, she is strategic (but never strategic enough), she is merciless to herself, she inwardly sneers at other people–but also an extremely comprehensible one. The pain of The Book of Not is that nowhere in its pages does Tambu wake up and try a different strategy, not even when she leaves school for a job at an advertising agency where her ideas are stolen by her white coworkers. She quits that job eventually, in despair, but the book leaves her with no notion of how to move forward. There is a third installation in the series, This Mournable Body, which I’m almost afraid to read after the excoriating experience of being inside Tambu’s adolescent head. I may come back to it.

This week I also read Dr. Gwen Adshead’s The Devil You Know, about her experiences as a forensic psychiatrist. The hardback was marketed with a definite eye to true crime/sensationalist markets, but the paperback is rather more subtly designed with a colourful Rorschach-esque abstract blob, and I think that reflects the book’s contents better. Adshead is a thoughtful and compassionate chronicler of what can make a mind move beyond the bounds of what we consider normalcy, and she’s capable of illuminating human corners of sadness, terror, helplessness and loss even in the minds of people who have done appalling things. Her chapter on Ian, who sexually abused his two sons, springs to mind here, as does the opening chapter on Tony, who killed and dismembered several young men. Adshead is very open about the way therapists are trained and taught, including learning to pay attention to your own feelings within the consulting room and to treat any fear, revulsion or scorn you may feel initially towards a patient as an interesting artifact instead of an objective truth or a moral imperative. Although it’s cowritten with Eileen Horne, it doesn’t have the awkward sense of ventriloquism that seems to dog other cowritten professional memoirs–it all feels organic and as though Adshead’s voice is what we’re hearing throughout. Highly recommend this too, especially to people with interests in psychology, criminal justice, and/or the intersection of the two.

Sunday miscellany 13

We went to Yorkshire over the Jubilee weekend to visit my uncle and sort of also to avoid too much flag-waving (hooray for walks in the Dales!), but on the Friday we went to York, which contains at least three independent bookshops that always, always ensnare me. Fossgate Books happened to be open and had also apparently just bought a truly gigantic tranche of paperback classic fiction from one person; I’m guessing it was either an estate sale or a retirement downsizing. I scored four Turgenevs, Frances Sheridan’s Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph, Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtenay, Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, and the one remaining Palliser novel I didn’t have in OWC paperback (Phineas Finn). Then I went to Minster Gate and bought remainder copies of Ursula K LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower (I’d read the sequel already, out of order). Somehow got them all back in the same suitcase!

I’ve made a start on this pile with Home of the Gentry, by Ivan Turgenev, which is a very short and heartbreaking novel about a man (Lavretsky) who returns to Russia from abroad, his marriage having imploded thanks to his wife’s infidelity, and tries to find happiness with Liza, the pious and beautiful daughter of an old cousin. You could see it as sentimental, but I think you’d have to be heartless; there’s just so much delicacy in the treatment of hope, budding love, and eventual, terrible disappointment. Liza is particularly interesting—she reminds me a little of Dinah Morris, George Eliot’s female Methodist preacher in Adam Bede, in the way she derives dignity and power from her religious convictions.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders: Recommended to me by someone (Laura?) who thought I might like it after my Russian Spring, and lo! I did. Saunders teaches a course on the nineteenth-century Russian short story to students on Syracuse University’s creative writing MFA. The book takes seven of his favourite stories to teach, and teaches them to us. In the process, Saunders made me (I think) a better reader; he is a good reminder, particularly to those of us who look at literature through academic eyes, that returning to texts with technical, writerly spectacles on (what are the effects it achieves and how does it achieve them?) is most rewarding and illuminating. (Also, I have to read more stories from Chekhov and Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” and “Alyosha the Pot” absolutely slew me, and Chekhov’s “In the Cart” is a perfect place to start the book.)

Easy Beauty, by Chloé Cooper Jones: Loved this, a memoir by a journalist and philosopher born with sacral agenesis (a medical condition where the pelvic bone hasn’t developed or hasn’t connected to the spine). She uses experiences of travel (to Italy, where she looks at art and goes to a Beyoncé gig; to report on Roger Federer and the Sundance Film Festival) to structure her examination of the ways in which her body challenges prevailing ideas about aesthetics and worth, and the trajectory of both her own feelings about herself and the differing ways she has presented herself to the world. I particularly liked her account of using her disability to get into more appropriate seating at the Beyoncé gig; it’s an extraordinary scene that bravely looks head on at questions of manipulation, communication, and social inaccessibility. Integration of her relationship with her husband and her desire to be there for her unexpected but much-loved son round the book off beautifully. Highly recommend.

Fantomina and Other Works, by Eliza Haywood: Read for the PhD (I’m hoping to write the next chapter on Haywood). Fantomina is the best-known of these texts (for a given value of “well known), in which a well-born but reckless and unsupervised young woman assumes a number of disguises, including that of a prostitute, in order to continue sleeping with a young man who seems to have tired of her. I am, obviously, looking at the prostitution part, the way that Haywood imbues her language with the vocabulary of commerce and the way in which Fantomina’s money is the only thing protecting her from genuine downfall into actual prostitution and social ostracism. Haywood flirts with prostitution and class in other parts of her oeuvre as well, including The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, a much longer and later novel which I’m trying to read at the British Library. Other texts reproduced in this volume include Reflections At the Tea-Table, which is fairly relevant, and Love Letters On All Occasions, which is less so, and less interesting (though having read it, I’d say it’s a great exemplar text to look at to see how the epistolary novel evolved—there are potential novel plots threaded throughout, they’re just not followed up on.)

Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga: My first book for the African Summer Reading Challenge! It follows thirteen-year-old Tambudzai through the early steps of her education, which is being financed by her English-educated uncle, Babamukuru (though only after her older brother Nhamo dies, freeing up the position of “investment child” for Tambu to step into). Written in 1988 but set in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) during the late ’60s and early ’70s, it places Tambu’s initial passive obedience to and acceptance of patriarchal, white supremacist, and Anglo-centric hierarchies in contrast to her cousin Nyasha. Nyasha has been raised in England, and her return to Rhodesia puts her in a position of cultural cognitive dissonance: the servile worship of her father by members of the family who are financially and socially reliant on his goodwill clashes with her awareness of Western/modern ideals of individual dignity. Eventually Nyasha becomes anorexic and the book closes with her admittance to the care of a white psychiatrist, while Tambu, increasingly resistant herself to a patriarchal system that considers her inferior and a racist neocolonial system that does the same, refuses to attend an event that her uncle has decreed will occur, and finds, a little to her surprise, that the world does not stop turning when she stops complying. Nervous Conditions (the title comes from a Frantz Fanon quote that also serves as epigraph: “the condition of the native is a nervous condition”) is the first book in a trilogy, and my only complaint about it might be that Tambu seems not to have made much headway in her personal development by the time the book ends; one suspects that volume two, The Book of Not, will contain much more in the way of overt rebellion and self-fashioning. That said, I’d very much like to read both that and the third volume, This Mournable Body, which came out only a few years ago.

Reading plans: an African summer

The Russian Spring was such a successful experiment that I am renewing it, and the people—through the medium of a Twitter poll—have spoken: my next themed reading challenge will be African Summer!

The rules, such as they are, remain the same: this is not intended to replace my TBR and proof piles, but to supplement them. I can’t buy any of these new. I have access to Senate House Library, the London Library, Birkbeck College library, Bromley local library, and now the British Library; it should be theoretically impossible for a book to remain unfindable. (If I feel dead set on a title and it’s not available somehow, I have given myself permission to check Abe Books for an un-costly secondhand copy.)

Since five titles with a reserve list of two turned out so well last time, I’m sticking with that again. My preliminary list is as follows:

  1. So Long a Letter, by Mariama Ba. One of the titles that came up repeatedly as I researched for this project. Written by a pioneering Senegalese author and feminist, it explores the sorrow of a woman over her husband’s death, and her ambivalent relationship with his second, younger wife.
  2. Petals of Blood, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I read his gigantic speculative novel Wizard of the Crow in the first lockdown and, rather unexpectedly, loved it. Petals of Blood is in a more realist mode, following a murder investigation in a small Kenyan town to reveal the corruption and greed of the government.
  3. A Question of Power, by Bessie Head. Sanity, mixed-race heritage and refugee/immigrant status (within Africa) are all in play in this short novel by an author born in South Africa but usually claimed by Botswana. It seems to take a lot of inspiration from psychoanalysis, and to have a very modern/-ist flavour.
  4. Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga (discussed here). The modern classic about a young Zimbabwean woman’s education, and the ways in which it changes her. Really excited to get to this.
  5. Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz (discussed here). Mahfouz was a Nobel Prize-winner for this and its two sequels, which explore a tyrannical patriarch in pre-war Egypt. I like a family saga, especially when it’s skeptical about the characters it follows.

If I get through all of these, can’t find one and don’t want to buy it, or if there are problems of dullness or lack of interest with any of them, I have two alternates:

6. The Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing. Disturbing, Faulknerian vision of racism and violence in apartheid South Africa. I’ve only read one Lessing—The Good Terrorist—and really would like to get some of her African fiction under my belt.

7. July’s People, by Nadine Gordimer. The Smaleses, a white family, are caught up in violence and taken for safety to the village of their servant, July. The shifting power dynamics are what appeal to me about this title, though I don’t know how much sympathy we’re expected to have for the Smaleses.

I’ll give myself until the end of August to have a crack at these. I’m also going to combine them with Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer, although I won’t make it to 20! Along with these five (or seven), I’m also going to re-read A Room with a View by EM Forster when I go to Florence in July, and read The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart when I go to Crete in the same month. That’s nine books that are set; I’m sure I’ll read more than that in two and a half months, but that’s enough commitment for now—everything else can be at whim.

Have you read any of these? Do any of them interest you? Where should I start?

Russian Spring reading challenge: wrap-up and retrospective

Time limit: I started on 17 March and gave myself until the end of May to read the five books on my list. I also had two alternates in reserve, in case any of the main books were difficult to find or too boring to bear.

How did I do?: I managed to read all of the books on my main list (Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, and Tolstoy’s Resurrection). I also read both of the alternates (Gogol’s Dead Souls and Dostoevsky’s Memoirs From the House of the Dead). Then, to top it off, I liked Turgenev so much that I read his Sketches from a Hunter’s Album separately, and I fit in Belkin’s Stories by Alexander Pushkin after Kaggsy mentioned the Alma Classics edition! This is, by any measure, pretty successful. It leads me to wonder, hopefully, if I can make my next challenge list longer. But I think the key here is always going to be a low bar. Five books in two months is almost inevitably doable, and then anything over and above that feels like a bonus.

Any favourites?: A toss-up between Turgenev and Gogol, I think. Fathers and Sons was a fantastic book to start with; lyrical language, down-to-earth dialogue and compellingly idiosyncratic characters made a great combination. It also showcases issues that recur in nineteenth-century Russian literature: the generation gap, the rise of radical progressive politics and the social aftershocks of emancipating the serfs. Turgenev is in love with the land, maybe in a slightly romanticizing way, but certainly in a very beautifully written way, which made Sketches From a Hunter’s Album a real pleasure to read. He’s so visual, so full of colour and light. Gogol, on the other hand, has little colour and less light, but Dead Souls is grotesquely compelling. The social climbing of Chichikov, which he plans to accomplish with a loan secured by his legal ownership of people who are, as Monty Python’s parrot sketch would have it, “ex-serfs”, is just too good not to find funny. The episodic nature of the novel, with its focus on the various hypocrisies and shortcomings of the landowners he swindles, lends itself to page-turning. It’s so hard to look away from appalling behaviour when it’s entertaining; Gogol knows that. Both of these were great successes for me.

Any disappointments?: Not really, not as such. Tolstoy’s Resurrection was his last novel and I didn’t expect it to be on the level of War and Peace or Anna Karenina, so I wasn’t disappointed when it wasn’t. Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead had a slower, more contemplative pace, and less overt anguish, than I’d expected, but I wasn’t disappointed by it.

Any surprises?: Pale Fire really surprised me by being not only gnarly and brilliant (I’d expected that) but suspenseful, funny in places and terribly sad in others. It was the book that felt most like an explosion in the head to read. The Slynx is very weird, which again wasn’t a surprise as such, although I think Tolstaya’s other writing is quite different, so it might surprise someone who knows her other work better. I suppose the ending of The Slynx is a bit of a surprise; we’re used to the humanist triumph of the individual underdog in Western sci-fi/postapocalyptic fiction, and Tolstaya isn’t having any of that. Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time, was a bit of a surprise: structurally, it’s sort of a continual zoom shot, and the narrating voice switches around, and the vignettes come at the central character of Pechorin with an obliqueness that interested me. Perhaps most pleasingly, it was possible to retroactively spot Pushkin’s influence on Lermontov—character, voice, structure—when I read Belkin’s Stories.

Resolutions and discoveries: I really, really like Turgenev. I will be seeking out the rest of his oeuvre (in particular, Virgin Soil; Smoke; Rudin; Home of the Gentry; and First Love and Other Stories). I think I should expand more into Tolstoy’s short stories and novellas: perhaps The Kreutzer Sonata or The Death of Ivan Ilyich next. I’d like to tackle another Dostoevsky novel in the next year or so. Russian short stories in general deserved more attention in this round: Gogol and Chekhov both beckon.

Next?: I enjoyed the experience of deeper themed reading so much, I’m going to do it again. Keep your eyes peeled for the theme announcement post for my Summer Reading Challenge, coming soon!

Sunday (Monday!) miscellany 12

GASP – the first time I’ve failed to post on a Sunday in twelve weeks! Life gets in the way. Some quick notes on last week’s reading, though:

First of all, I womanned up and read Pale Fire. And thank God I did, because it’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s also insane. I feel like I need a support group of Pale Fire Finishers. The premise is pretty well known, I think; it takes the form of a made-up lyric poem by fictional American poet John Shade, with a foreword and commentary by the now-dead poet’s so-called dearest friend, Charles Kinbote, an academic at the same small liberal arts college on the US Eastern seaboard. Kinbote’s paratext is about ten times the length of the poem he’s nominally commenting on, and it doesn’t take very many pages before it becomes painfully obvious that Kinbote himself is delusional, maybe even sinister. For one thing, he clearly believes his relationship to Shade was much closer than we can tell it was; for another, he appears to believe that he is the deposed monarch of Zembla, a fictional Central European country. His obvious hope is that Shade’s poem was going to use material about Zembla that Kinbote had provided (no doubt entirely unbidden), and his disappointment at discovering that it is in fact a deeply personal, lyrical meditation on grief, love and death is mitigated by his capacity to write a commentary that reads every line the way he wants it. Personally, I rather liked the idea of a megalomaniacal, decadently homosexual king in hiding in middle America, but Nabokov seeded clues throughout the book to suggest that even Kinbote’s “secret” identity as Charles the Beloved of Zembla is a delusion, and that he is in fact a Professor Botkin, who also teaches at the same liberal arts college and who has apparently created several layers of delusion or illusion. I don’t like this solution nearly as much, because it’s not as whimsical. It does, however, rely heavily on the trajectory of the notes and commentary, which send the reader forward and backward within the text, discovering things and learning about events out of chronological order. It’s not hard to see how people write theses about Pale Fire. Oh, and also–everyone talks about it as though it’s funny, and in one particular barbed mid-century way I suppose it is, but what surprised me was its sadness. If Kinbote is Charles the Beloved, then he’s homesick and desperately lonely, and his overbearing behaviour, while creepy, is also tragic. If Kinbote is Botkin, then he’s insane and desperately lonely, and his behaviour is still both creepy and tragic.

Anyway, I’ve finished my Russian Spring Reading Challenge by tackling it, so! There’ll be a wrap-up post on that coming shortly.

I also read Joseph Sassoon’s The Global Merchants this past week, a family history of the Sassoon merchant dynasty (which he is only distantly and vaguely related to). They throve on opium, cotton and silk production, and–Buddenbrooks-like, a comparison he makes more than once–managed to rise and fall in the space of three generations. I’d like a novel about some of these people, frankly: most specifically, about Farha Sassoon, who at the age of nineteen married her thirty-seven-year-old great-uncle Suleiman, had an apparently blissful and mutually devoted marriage, then seized the reins of the company upon Suleiman’s death and ran a multinational business almost single-handedly as a woman of colour in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (She was later ousted by her short-sighted male relatives, and–perhaps not coincidentally–the business started to go downhill not long afterwards.) The big unanswered question is that of morality: how could a business based on fomenting addiction and slavery justify its own existence? Sassoon, probably wisely, steers away from this. It’s obvious that the Sassoons failed to diversify quickly enough, that they dug in their heels to defend the opium trade long after the point at which public and legislative opinion had turned, and his project is to account for the trajectory of the family and the business, not an attempt to make judgments about historical conditions. The reader is left to consider for herself the ultimate source of the money that the family donated so regularly to the founding of hospitals, schools, libraries, and other charities. (The other thing that doomed the business, by the way, was Anglicization. The family start out as Baghdadi Jews, move to India, and eventually set their sights on entering British high society. Once they’ve made it into the nobility there, the descendants of the original merchant, David Sassoon, cease to care about the business for its own sake; lassitude and overspending set in. All very Trollopean.)

Finally: I got hold of the second and third books of NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy from the library, so I reread The Fifth Season to get myself back up to speed with the plot, tore through The Obelisk Gate in a day, and am now partway through The Stone Sky. They’re just so incredibly compelling–I’ve had to stop myself from Wiki’ing them because I want to KNOW HOW ALL OF IT WORKS AND FITS TOGETHER RIGHT NOW GODDAMMIT. I have a bad feeling about what’s going to happen when Nassun and Schaffa and Essun all meet each other, which they obviously will, at the end of the third book. And who the fuck were the stone eaters, before they were the stone eaters?! Aaaahhhh.

AOB: We bought two new bookshelves from Ikea! M put them together and I rearranged our library to fill them. There’s not a lot of space left over, but now nothing is piled up in front of anything else. Happy day.

Sunday miscellany 11

Enjoy the potted rose M bought me this week, and one of the many artworks we managed to hang!

The above picture is all out of reading order, in the name of visual proportion and harmony. To start in the middle of the stack, I picked up Tessa McWatt’s memoir Shame on Me, which had piqued my interest for her exploration of mixed-race identity. The front cover of my proof is garlanded with the arresting sentence “WHAT ARE YOU?”, which is a direct quote from McWatt’s primary school teacher (backtracking frantically after asking the class to define “Negro”, to which one child responded, “Tessa”). I think perhaps if I’d read this before I’d read, inter alia, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, Akala’s Natives, and others, it might have stood up a bit better; either that, or if McWatt had chosen to go down the path of straight-up literary memoir/personal reflection. As it is, she has produced a blend of cultural criticism, popular history, and memoir, which is becoming a more and more common hybrid genre—not a bad thing, but it means that any entry in the category needs to offer something new in some way, and the one novelty a writer can be fairly sure of is their own perspective on their own experiences. The criticism/essay and history sections, unfortunately, do constitute more of the whole than can be strictly justified, given that there’s very little in them I haven’t already encountered in other texts, from Saartje Baartman to skin-lightening creams to Bertha Mason as Jane Eyre’s dark double.

Real Easy by Marie Rutkoski next, and another unexpected genre delight to go with last week’s big winners in horror/thriller. Real Easy is a crime novel that takes place in the orbit of a strip club in suburban Illinois. Rutkoski worked as a stripper to pay for her education, and her experience gives her assurance that shows up in the details: in the way the women who work at the club talk to one another, in their concerns about money and their families, in the rules and customs that govern their working lives like celestial laws. There are many viewpoint characters, and although this is usually a bugbear of mine, I like that Rutkoski happily drops a POV that no longer serves her: she’ll introduce, let’s say, a club bouncer, three-quarters of the way through the novel, just to get a sense of the world through his eyes (and a sense of how utterly surrounded the strippers are by men who aren’t terrible people, on the whole, but who could become predatory and entitled with very little nudging), and then we’ll never spend time in his head again. The three women with whom we spend the most time are Ruby, a dancer who makes a crucial offer to drive another woman home from work when she turns up high, and ends up in a situation; Gigi, or Georgia, another dancer whose concern moves her to investigate independently; and Holly, a detective working the case who carries a burden of grief of her own. The queer rep is varied (there’s a delicate, lowkey lesbian love story and a character with a chromosomal disorder that marks her as intersex, though she seems to identify as a straight woman), and throughout the book runs a thread of interest in motherhood and daughterhood: what do those roles actually mean? How can they fit us, or fail us? How can women carve out new, untraditional ways of filling those roles? It’s a smart, better-than-solid read with a deeply satisfying ending. Rutkoski’s style isn’t like Tana French’s, but her interest in character and psychology absolutely is.

Next a library book: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman, which is set in an Ice Age tribe and follows Loon, a young man who has, more by accident than intention or luck, been tapped as the apprentice to the tribe’s current shaman, Thorn. (When I say young, I mean young: the first long chapter, his “wander” or wilderness rite of passage, concludes with the announcement that he is twelve years old. By this point we’ve already seen him kill and butcher animals, sustain a serious ankle injury, be attacked by other aggressive hominids, make clothes out of tree bark, and—not for the last time in the novel—masturbate furiously.) It’s a slow-paced book, which gives the reader a chance to appreciate the development of characters and the natural rhythms to which Loon and his people are tied. There’s certainly action, though; he marries a woman named Elga (“elk”) who is abducted by a northern tribe who claim she was previously theirs, and Loon is captured in an attempt to free her. They are both eventually rescued by Thorn and a Neanderthal man who has been healed by Thorn’s not-exactly-wife, the wise woman Heather (who is a spectacular character, permanently irritated and a keen experimentalist and observer; really, a proto-scientist). Their trek back from the north, and its consequences, constitute the book’s dramatic heart, but even that proceeds at a stately pace. Not a book for the plot-hungry, then, but extremely immersive and atmospheric.

Finally for the week, Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1953 novel Maud Martha. Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and only wrote this one novel, which came out in the same year as Invisible Man and Go Tell It on the Mountain. (Margo Jefferson suggests, in her introduction to this new Faber reprint edition, that that might account for its relative obscurity.) In a little more than two dozen vignettes of a few pages each, Brooks reveals the facets of Maud Martha Brown, a Black girl and then woman living on the South Side of Chicago in the 1940s. What startles me about Maud Martha is her pragmatism: her marriage is not particularly romantic or fulfilling, but it’s security, and it’s not too bad, and it provides her a foundation. Her artistic tendencies manifest less in creativity than in observation. She sees much, says little, makes her own judgments. She is not resigned to the daily threat of racism in places ranging from the beauty salon to a downtown theatre to the department store Santa Claus, but remains quietly furious. And yet never despairs: at the end of the novel, she sees the beauty of a spring day and thinks, “What, what am I going to do with all this life?” Maud Martha is a treasure: reminiscent of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and of Brown Girl, Brownstones, but with a hidden sparkle all its own.

Sunday miscellany 10

A short one this week, because I hosted a lil Eurovision party last night and I am knackered, but I did read some great books that shouldn’t be forgotten about.

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant was a choice inspired by Laura’s review, and oh boy did it deliver what I needed to pull myself out of a little bit of a reading slump. Deep-sea horror mystery with a sweet lesbian romance, loads of scientists being professionally curious, and carnivorous motherfucking mermaids? Sign me all the way up. The premise alone is fun, but the execution is much better than it has any right to be; characterization in books like this often feels perfunctory, but Grant is interested in her people and so you are too, while the scientific mystery (what are the mermaids? How do they work, biologically speaking?) is tense and compelling. There’s some really lovely D/deaf representation, as well: two of the scientists are deaf twins who speak ASL, with their older, hearing sister acting as their interpreter to hearing people. This is more than just token disability rep: the mermaid creatures have a complex, multivalent language that involves both vocal and signed components. The scene where Hallie Wilson, the interpreter, communicates for the first time with a captured mermaid through sign gave me all the good chills. The only minor misstep, I think, is the portrayal of two big game hunters who join the expedition as security; their camp villainy is excessive and a bit silly. But I’ll happily forgive it that for all the rest.

For something totally different, I turned to Dorothy Strachey’s rediscovered novel Olivia, which is what would happen if you took Villette and made it one-sixth the length and ten times as gay. It is excellent. Set in a French finishing school and based on Strachey’s own teenage experience (she was Lytton Strachey’s sister), it follows sixteen-year-old protagonist Olivia as she falls in love with the school’s charismatic headteacher, Mademoiselle Julie, who may just reciprocate that love, although not as uncomplicatedly as Olivia would like. The sheer erotic energy of the novel is undeniable; I’ve never read something that evokes the pure, raw, insane intensity of adolescent limerence quite as well. There’s a moment at a costume party that is so searingly sexy I actually blinked when I read it. And it wouldn’t be a French lesbian schoolgirl novel without tragedy and death, so let me assure you that’s not a spoiler; the back cover practically announces it. This kind of sexual psychological melodrama is the sort of thing that might get teenagers to actually give a shit about literature, if they were allowed to read it in school.

I also read Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street, which I’d been looking forward to for some time. It didn’t disappoint, either. It’s pretty clear going in that the premise (young girl disappears on a holiday with her family, creepy guy is a good suspect but is cleared by the initial investigation, left-behind sister believes he’s guilty and sets out to track him down twelve years on) is not quite the whole story. The creepy guy’s cat, for instance, starts to narrate sections of the story, and the girl he refers to as his “daughter” is… pretty obviously not. You think you know the twist. The twist arrives. Right, you think, that was good, that was well done. AND THEN. AND THEN. I can’t spoil it for anyone, but I can say that it is Fingersmith levels of can’t-put-down, of holy-shit-whaaaattt, and of oh-god-wow-this-was-really-well-put-together. It’s also beautiful and deeply sad. Ward takes what could be horrendous tabloid-fodder plot material to an elevated level with extraordinarily capable and canny writing. The Last House on Needless Street is slick and it has the most tremendous heart. There’s not many horror thrillers you can say that about. I really, really recommend it. (Content note/trigger warning for, you know, child abuse. Obviously.)

Finally, I picked up Morowa Yejidé’s Women’s Prize-longlisted Creatures of Passage. It was somewhat slower going, and not entirely my cup of tea, but it grew on me until by the end I was convinced of its merits on their own terms. It’s the sort of thing you might call magical realist, or speculative fantasy. Nephthys Kinwell, the main character, is named for an Egyptian river goddess. She drives a sky-blue 1967 Plymouth Belvedere through the streets of Anacostia, a historically Black and low-income neighbourhood of Washington DC, in the 1970s, ferrying souls from one “quadrant” of the city—or one plane of existence—to another. Her brother Osiris washed up, dead and mutilated, in the river several years ago. Her niece, Amber, has prophetic dreams about the deaths of local people, which are published in a small newspaper. Amber’s son Dash, trying to forget an act of abuse he witnessed at school, has been seen talking to a mysterious figure called the River Man. Dash’s fractured family must come together, in their own way, to save him from the threat that stalks him. The prose in Creatures of Passage is often repetitive and portentous (the phrase “the interstellar cold of his solitude” reappears frequently, amongst other things), but it feels intentional and shaped, and although I found it irritating, I couldn’t find it totally ineffective. There are comparisons to be made here to Garcia Marquez, Murakami and Toni Morrison; I don’t think they’re out of place. But Creatures of Passage feels surprisingly sui generis. It was never going to be shortlisted, and it’s uneven, but it’s stuck with me.

Sunday miscellany 9

Finally got round to reading Martha Wells’s much-touted Murderbot Diaries this week, having been lent the first four novellas in extremely nice box-set edition by my friend Mairi. The characterization—the voice—of Murderbot, a security “construct” with both cloned organic and mechanical parts which has successfully hacked its governor module and achieved (mental) freedom, is definitely as good as everyone says it is. Sarcastic, deeply uncomfortable with eye contact and being touched, trying but failing to continue a life of indifference and media streaming (it loves a dramatic soap opera with six hundred-odd episodes called The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon), Murderbot has been taken to heart by many neurodivergent readers. I particularly liked its strenuous and explicit disinterest in “becoming human”; it’s happy with its own identity, hybrid as it is. The plotting is a bit of a problem; despite being only about 150 pages, each novella’s plot is laid out with such laborious attention paid to every detail that it manages to seem a bit… well, labored. The characterization of virtually everyone else is a bit by numbers, too, although Dr. Mensah is sympathetic and I really enjoyed ART (Asshole Research Transport), an infinitely more powerful AI than Murderbot who assists in the second novella. I was hoping ART would make a return, actually; it’s good for Murderbot to have another non-human to keep it on its toes; but no such luck. The protagonist is really the draw here, I think, but I’d read another (and indeed there are two more, including the novel-length Network Effect, the back-cover blurb for which suggests ART is back! Yay.)

Other than that: fired off a request last week for Lulu Allison’s Women’s Prize-longlisted Salt Lick, which turned up and was promoted to top of the TBR for no particularly good reason. It’s a dystopia, but in terms of its political and social setting, it’s one of the most convincing ones I’ve read in a very long time. I can’t think of a recent novel that projects Britain as it is now forty-odd years into the future with greater plausibility. Extreme media bias, increased food importation, vehicle bans, regular pandemics, the full devolution of all four nations, a combination of urban flight and people returning to decimated villages and forming self-sufficient co-ops—it all just seems bang-on. It’s a shame then that the plot, characterization and style can’t quite carry the weight of the smart and thoughtful background. Not that anything is overtly badly done, here; it’s more a question of impetus and oomph, or the lack thereof. The two point-of-view characters are both vague: they have motives, and emotions, but a thin yet persistent layer of authorial interpretation stands between reader and character, preventing us from knowing the characters as personally as one might like. The plot meanders a little too much: it’s structured, but lacks the drive to arrive at its beats on time or with enough heft. The interjections from a chorus of feral cows (of which much has been made) don’t actively detract from the book, but I’m not convinced they were strictly necessary either; the points they make are too often generic about the righteousness of nature’s way, too little surprising (as, for instance, Laura Jean McKay manages to be in The Animals in That Country). It’s not shortlist level, I don’t think, but for that incredibly convincing setup, I’ll give it a lot of credit.

Finally, a little collection by Alma Classics of Pushkin’s Belkin’s Stories. They reminded me a lot of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, actually: short, dramatic, usually recounted through or by another character to the narrator, frequently with a psychological twist in the tail. Belkin is an invention of Pushkin’s, a slightly feckless young landowner whose desire to write something worthwhile is subtly mocked throughout: he’s painted as a bit dim, a bit under-read, a bit superficial. The conceit is that he wrote all of the stories in the collection before dying young, leaving them to be discovered, edited and published by “A.P.” The metatextual games give the whole a surprisingly po-mo flavour, which I guess shouldn’t be surprising given the long history of metatextuality but which does lend the stories a spice of the unexpected. I particularly enjoyed “The Blizzard”, in which a young couple plan to elope; the groom is caught in a freak snowstorm and misses the appointment. The intended bride returns home and, to all appearances, pines away for the next five years or so, before meeting and falling in love with a man who returns her affections—but there’s an obstacle to their happiness… I won’t spoil it, but the conclusion is both mathematical in its tidiness and, emotionally, a delight. “Young Miss Peasant” is a similar story focusing on the burgeoning love between a young hussar and the daughter of his neighbour, who has anonymized herself by dressing as a peasant girl for their meetings—her wit and humour account for a good deal of the story’s charm. There’s also “The Undertaker”, which has a kind of Aickman-esque flavour of horror, although it’s funnier; “The Post-master”, in which a young woman’s seduction isn’t the total catastrophe we might expect (although her father’s inability to understand that leads him to a tragic end); and “The Shot”, about delayed vengeance, which I didn’t like nearly as much as the others but which did set the Lermontov-y tone from the start. There’s also A History of Goryukhino Village, an unfinished fragment but also supposedly written by Belkin. It isn’t long enough to leave much of an impression on me, apart from an awareness that Pushkin’s using it to poke fun at over-serious writers of history.

AOB: I’m drawing to the end of my Russian Spring—I’m still planning to hunt up a copy of Pale Fire, so it’s not over yet, but I’m thinking about conclusions and about next steps re. a programme of reading. I’m weighing up three summer options: a Southern Summer (the American South, mind you), an African Summer, or a Black American Classics Summer. (I’m also going to participate, or try to, in Cathy’s very relaxed 20 Books of Summer challenge, which this should help with.) Any opinions or preferences?

Sunday miscellany 8

My death books kick came to an, er, natural end this week with Tender, by Penny Wincer (represented in the above stack by the backwards book, as it was due back at the library!) She’s a carer for her autistic son and writes with great compassion about the challenges and joys of providing medical, physical and emotional care for someone else, whether that relationship is parent-child, partner-partner, paid or unpaid. I appreciated particularly that for many of the people she talked to, “caring” wasn’t the right word; particularly between adults, many described relationships where an able-bodied or neurotypical partner supports a loved one, but where the loved one is far from being helpless or passive. I would certainly recommend it. It tends to foreground people who are autistic or non-verbal, since that chimes most directly with Wincer’s personal experience, but she has spoken to people with all kinds of disabilities and care needs. It’s a useful book across the board, neither sentimental nor unkind: Wincer addresses carer burnout and the need for self-compassion. It’s fading a little from memory already, but I put that down to the fact that it joined five or six other similar books.

Emily Maloney’s Cost of Living looks similar on the face of it, but is quite a different animal: it’s an essay collection based on the work Maloney did as an emergency room technician in the US, which she undertook in order to pay back monumental medical debt incurred as a result of treating her mental health crisis. It’s definitely dark. Part of that is the nature of the subject—American healthcare these days is a brutal farce that Kafka would have dismissed as unrealistic—and part of it is Maloney’s oddly disconnected authorial persona. Her home life as a teenager was clearly troubled (she describes her parents as being “like children”) but although this is repeatedly referred to, she never concludes that the answer is to cut them off or seek support or validation elsewhere. Possibly this turbulent home life is what made her vulnerable to Dr. Julie, a psychiatrist she visited for several years, to whom the essays return again and again. Dr. Julie was a big fan of prescribing medication, and it’s to Maloney’s credit as a writer that she manages to induce a creeping unease with every new mention of the doctor’s name while never quite explicitly saying how badly wrong this therapeutic relationship went. One essay is just a list of every medication she’s been on and how much each one costs, with or without insurance. In some ways this offhand style fits well with a contemporary vogue for disaffection in our (autofictional or nonfiction confessional) narrators, but in other ways it makes the essays seem purposeless; they’re memorable, but many end at a seemingly random point. A quick read and a disturbing, fascinating one, but imperfect, then.

Finally, the equally disturbing, fascinating and imperfect Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol. It is generally known as either the first Russian novel, or one of the first, although he himself referred to it as a long poem (it’s written in prose). It’s in two parts, the second of which was never finished. He also burned the manuscript twice. The basic premise—ambitious and seemingly heritage-less Chichikov appears in a provincial capital, ingratiates himself with everyone, and convinces many local landowners to transfer to him ownership of those peasants who’ve died since the last national census, but for whom the landowners continue to be liable for taxation until the next census resets the count—covers Part 1. The characters are more broadly drawn here: the stupid widow Madame Korobochka, the liar and bully Nozdryov, the miserly Plyushkin. Chichikov successfully acquires several hundred “souls”, but rumours begin to fly that they’re all dead, and also (perhaps more damningly) that he hopes to marry the Governor’s daughter, and he is forced to flee. In the unfinished Part 2, we learn more about him: he is from a family of no distinction, a former government official dismissed for corruption. He intends to take out a loan against the value of his (non-existent) serfs and pocket the money. In the opening chapters of Part 2, he tries to replicate his earlier tactics (winning local favour in a new neighbourhood, this time by helping a young man to marry the daughter of a General, and reconciling the General to his future son-in-law), but is entangled in a scandal about a will, briefly imprisoned, and forced to flee again. The novel ends in mid-sentence.

It’s a huge shame that it’s incomplete. There are gaps even in the text that’s available for Part 2, which makes it confusing to read. I’d have been rather happier merely with Part 1 (maybe Part 2 could have lived in an appendix or something similar). But it is particularly a shame because it’s possible to see Gogol becoming more “novelistic” in his characterization, subtler and closer to the nineteenth-century European realists, and it would have been interesting to see if he could have sustained it. Part 2 is generally considered to be not as good, and for good reason. But Chichikov himself is the real draw—we know almost nothing about him or his motives until the very end of Part 1, only that he’s suspiciously protean, able to turn himself into any kind of person in order to win approval—and any text he appeared in would be worth the reading.

Now is the time to survey the Russian Spring reading challenge thus far. I initially said I’d read a list of five, with two alternates in case any titles on the original list didn’t appeal, and I gave myself until the end of May to do so. It’s now the 1st of May, and I’ve read all of the original list bar one, plus all of the alternates (and a sneaky extra in the form of Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album). I’m vacillating on whether to try to fit in Pale Fire some time this month, or to start planning a new challenge. (There are several ideas on the boil, all of which are exciting!) Edition matters, as I discovered when I stalled on Dead Souls in an ugly library binding with outdated scholarship; I returned it to Senate House, found a newer Penguin paperback at my local library, and did much better. It’s possible that Pale Fire will seem less of an obstacle with the right edition. Any votes yea or nay? (I also have a copy of Pushkin’s Belkin’s Stories from my local library, which is another possibility. What do we think?)