Books: My Reading Year

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No reading year that begins with Virginia Woolf (as did 2016) and ends with Katherine Mansfield can be construed as bad. Nor was it, though I found myself – and this, as I’ve suggested before, may be a function of ageing – spending more time with and deriving more pleasure from books from earlier days than those published during the year.

Having started the year with Lawrence and ‘Sons and Lovers’, I moved on to Woolf and, accompanied by the first volume of her diaries and Julia Brigg’s excellent survey of her life and work, reread, with much pleasure and admiration, ‘Mrs Dalloway’, ‘To The Lighthouse’, ‘The Waves’ and ‘The Years’ together with, for the first time, ‘Night and Day’. Looking for something, to my mind, equally good but different, I moved on to Hemingway. Well, I was about to start writing a novel and in need of something bracing that moved to a different set of rhythms, one more suitable for my purposes. So, before setting out, I reread for the umpteenth time a generous selection of the short stories, followed by ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. And as I was hovering over chapter one, and thinking to prosper from his excellent example, I read again Peter Temple’s ‘The Broken Shore’ and ‘Truth’, in order to remind myself of the tautness, tension and sense of purpose that can be found in the very best of crime fiction.

Once safely ensconced in front of my computer in the mornings, my novel on course and moving along at a not unreasonble rate, I turned to Graham Greene for the sheer pleasure of good stories well told. ‘The Human Factor’ (under-rated), ‘The Heart of the Matter’ (a tad over-rated?), ‘The Comedians’ and, best of all, ‘The Quiet American’. Later in the year, I read, for the first time – what had I been doing? – Elizabeth Bowen (loved ‘The House in Paris’) and some Willa Cather I’d not yet got around to, ‘Alexander’s Bridge’, ‘The Professor’s House’ and ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’. And yes, okay, in between all of this harking back I was reading newer things, trying and, all too often, finding them lacking. Tired and obvious in some cases, trying too hard in others. I had been knocked sideways by much of Eimar McBride’s first novel, ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’, scenes from which are vivid to me still, but didn’t finish ‘The Lesser Bohemians’, in which she managed to make the sexual dalliances and excessive drinking of a young drama student living in Camden about as repetitive and uninteresting (to others) as, looking back, they probably were at the time. As for George Saunder’s much-touted and prize winning ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ – even for a writer, one of whose fortes is being experimental and clever (and who, especially when he forgets to be both of those things, has written some of the best short stories of the past decade or two) – it was too tricksy and clever by half. Unreadable.

I must have liked something. Well, yes. Woody Haut’s novel, ‘Days of Smoke’, was fascinating in the detailed and knowledgeable way it recreated the cultural and politcial turbulence of San Francisco and L.A. in the late 60s, and Henning Mankel’s ‘After the Fire’ dealt tellingly with issues of ageing and mortality that, to some of us, are becoming increasingly relevant. Jane Harper’s CWA Gold Dagger winning, ‘The Dry’, was compelling and believable until she felt the need to pull a plot twist out of nowhere towards the end, which lost my sympathies but clearly not that of the judges.

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Almost more than any other, I enjoyed and admired Ann Patchett’s ‘Commonwealth’, a skilfully crafted and in some ways old-fashioned novel, which follows the connections and disconnections of two American families from the 60s to the present, and which I found totally absorbing. I also very much liked two of the novels that were short listed for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize: Sarah Baume’s ‘A Line Made By Walking’, which traces a young woman’s deliberate retreat into solitude in prose that is clear and direct yet evocative and moving; and Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’, which is set in a Derbyshire village where a teenage girl has gone missing.

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McGregor is one of my favourite contemporary writers and three of his books – ’So Many Ways to Begin’, ‘Even the Dogs’ & ‘This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You’ – are amongst my favourites of the past twenty or so years. I read ‘Reservoir 13’ the moment I got my hands on a copy and then, almost without a break, read it again, the second time to remind myself of what I’d liked, but also because I was hoping to find whatever it was I’d been missing – not the facts about whatever happened to the missing girl, I didn’t need that, nor did I read with an expectation the mystery would be solved; what I’d missed was more about her family, more about the people of the village – in exchange for which I would quite happily have settled for less about the cyclical life of bats, birds and the bloody foxes.

Much of what I wanted is there in the fifteen short stories of ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ that are currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and are available both as a download and, now, a book. If, instead of being issued as a companion piece, all – or most – of that material had been included in the original novel, I think it would have been a more complete and satisfying work. But even as I write this, I know (or think I know) that kind of completeness is not what McGregor is after in ‘Reservoir 13’, what he’s setting out to achieve; this is more a narrative that darts its way in and out, giving us a moment here, a moment there; a voice raised, a sudden sharpened glance; a mosaic from which we build our portrait of these lives. And the writing, the prose is so skillfully handled; like Sarah Baume’s in some regards, it is delicate but strong. Push it and it may bend but not break.

And next year, once I’ve finished rereading Katherine Mansfield’s excellent short stories for the fourth or fifth time … ? Well, with the gorgeous new Vintage Classics editions to hand, all with beautiful covers created by Aino-Maija Metsola, it may be the third year in succession I turn to Virginia Woolf to begin …

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

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Henning Mankel: “After the Fire”

Henning Mankel’s After the Fire, which has just been published here by Harvill Secker in a translation by Marline Delargy, was first published in his native Sweden in 2015, the year that he died. It’s a strange book, strange but compelling – not a crime novel, not a mystery – though there is a mystery smouldering deep at its centre – a story told in the first person by a seventy-year-old former doctor, Fredrik Welin, who has chosen to live alone on one of the remote islands of an equally remote Swedish archipelago. The house he has been living in has belonged to his family for generations and it is his intention to pass it on to his daughter Louise – the daughter he never knew existed until ten years previously, when she was already thirty. But as the book begins, Fredrik is woken by a blaze of light which signals that the house is in flames and he just escapes with his life, the house burning to the ground. It is this event that forces Fredrik out of the carapace into which he has retreated and makes him engage again with the world.

After the Fire is a novel about loneliness, about need; about the fears that come with old age, that of dying most of all. It is a book soaked in mortality. And anger. Frederic is angry with himself – angry at the loss of balance that comes with ageing, at the feelings of lust that still rise up, unbidden and unrequited – angry at the world. He is truculent, standoffish; loses his temper frequently and for little reason, shouts at strangers and at what few friends he has; pursues in embarrassing fashion a woman journalist some thirty years younger.

As the story develops there are other fires, accusations of arson, sudden deaths, and circumstances shake Fredric away from his surly loneliness; his daughter and her partner have a child; the journalist, while still resisting Frederic as a sexual partner, finds in him a salve to ease a loneliness of her own. And gradually, almost against his own inclinations, Fredric comes to a state of equilibrium, of acceptance …

It was already late August.

Soon the autumn would come.

But the darkness no longer frightened me.

Like the winter, death will come.

Mankel has written, of course, about ageing before. In the early Wallander books there is a memorable portrait of Kurt’s father, an obsessive painter driven to put the same scene on canvas after canvas, and, like Fredrik, a man who is quick to anger, slow to reason. Unlike Fredrik (though we may detect, perhaps, early signs) Wallander’s father is suffering from a form of dementia, an illness from which Wallander will suffer himself, the implacable onset of Alzheimer’s Disease chronicled with merciless compassion and understanding in the final novel of the sequence, The Troubled Man.

And, away from the novels themselves, though dependent upon them, there are two, I think, wonderful portrayals on film of ageing men shaking an unsteady fist against the dying of the light: David Warner as Wallander’s father in the British-made series featuring Kenneth Branagh, and the incomparable Krister Henriksson in the final episodes of the Swedish Wallander series.

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Looking for Kurt …

Writing recently about Henning Mankel’s posthumously published book of essays, Quicksand, I mentioned interviewing him in the course of making a documentary about his crime fiction – Looking for Kurt Wallander – that was shown on BBC4 in 2008. Meeting Mankel aside, making the programme was a strange and slightly surreal experience, much of it involving me appearing suddenly in the middle of a field of ripening wheat and walking slowly towards the camera while trying desperately to remember what it had been agreed I was going to say.

I mention this because a short trailer for the programme has turned up on YouTube, complete with Spanish subtitles, and it doesn’t look too bad at all. There’s an extract from one of the interviews with Mankel, a nice sound track, a glimpse of Kenneth Branagh as Wallander, and me in a dishevelled summer suit. No walking through wheat fields, but a clip from a rather nice night time scene in a bar, the filming of which I remember fondly as it necessitated me downing a fresh shot of Glenmorangie for each take.

If you like this, the whole thing – an hour in length – is now available as a video download from the BBC Store. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fzbmt

 

What I’ve Been Reading : January-February 2016

  • Prayers for the Stolen : Jennifer Clement
  • To The Lighthouse : Virginia Woolf
  • The Noise of Time : Julian Barnes
  • Ghettoside : Jill Leovy
  • A Hand Reached Down To Guide Me : David Gates
  • The Green Road : Anne Enright
  • Olive Kitteridge : Elizabeth Strout
  • Frank Auerbach, Speaking & Painting : Catherine Lampert
  • The Burgess Boys : Elizabeth Strout
  • Quicksand : Henning Mankel
  • The Troubled Man : Henning Mankel
  • Wonderland : Ace Atkins

First things (almost) first: I have to admit to blowing hot and cold about Julian Barnes’ fiction, but that notwithstanding I’ve always thought his various writings about art, painting in particular, were first rate. [Even sidling over to him one time at the Parliament Hill Farmers’ Market, while he was buying, if my memory serves me, a piece of lamb, to tell him how much I’d enjoyed his essay in the London Review of Books, on Bacon.] So, I set to reading The Noise of Time, his novel about Shostakovich, with some enthusiasm.

What a let down! For one thing, it’s hardly a novel at all, a novella at best, a skimpy selection of  interior monologues, designed not to show Shostakovich as the great composer he surely was (there’s little if any sense of the turmoil and  passion of his work) but concentrating instead on those occasions when he bowed in the face of overwhelming authority, doffing his cap instead of hurling it in the faces of Stalin and the rest.

Barnes claims to love Shostakovich’s music and to have lived with it for many years; why then this mealy-mouthed and mean-spirited rehash of what has been written about at greater length and with greater clarity previously?

Nice cover, though.

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Henning Mankel, who died from cancer towards the end of last year, was a man who, when he espoused a cause, did so seriously, devoting much of his life – and wealth – to working in Africa, where, in addition to running a theatre he supported various AIDs organisations and charities, as well as, in 2010, showing his support for the Palestinian cause by very publicly joining the flotilla of ships heading for Gaza and as a result, along with eight other Swedish citizens, being arrested by the Israeli authorities and then deported.

I interviewed Mankel several times, in the course of making a documentary for BBC4 about his crime fiction, and couldn’t help but be impressed by his seriousness and the weight of intelligence and effort he brought to highlighting and attempting to cure the worst of what he saw as his country’s and the world’s wrongs.

Much of this is evident in Quicksand, subtitled What It Means To Be A Human Being, a collection of essays published after his death and highlighting, here, amongst other issues, his concerns over nuclear waste and the legacy it is leaving for future generations. Perhaps inevitably, though, the pieces which are the most affecting are those in which he addresses the inevitability of his approaching death, all  written with honesty and a lack of sentimentality.

I understand now, as I fight my battle with cancer, that I keep asking myself the same question (that I put to Rosa). How afraid am I? Do I also reject the fact that death is always standing in the wings, as a possibility, once a cancer diagnosis has been made?

I don’t know. But i think I try to be true to myself. No doubt I am afraid. High storm waves could come from nowhere at any moment and crash against my inner and outer coastlines.

I have tried to build up defences to ward off what scares me. If the worst should happen, if the cancerous tumours multiply and can’t be stopped, I shall die. There is nothing I can do apart from summoning up the same courage that is necessary to lead a decent life. One of the most important arguments for maintaining this dignity and trying to stay calm is that I’m not seventeen years old and doomed to die before I’ve even started living seriously. At sixty-six I have lived longer than most people in the world can even dream of doing. I have lived a long life, even if sixty-six is not as old as it once was.

Henning Mankel, 1948 – 2015

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I had the good fortune to meet Henning Mankel on several occasions some half-a-dozen or more years ago, when I was in Sweden with a crew from BBC Scotland, fronting a documentary on Mankel’s work as a crime novelist for BBC4. The programme title (it was to be shown in tandem with the adaptations then being filmed with Kenneth Branagh) was Who is Kurt Wallander?, though, of course, it should have been, more properly, Who is Henning Mankel?

We met first in Stockholm, at a conference that Mankel had largely funded, dedicated to the subject of child literacy – one of his major concerns.

… to teach every child in the world to read and write would cost no more than we in the west spend on dog food.

The second, and longer meeting, was at his home in Gothenburg; the last in Ystad, fictional home of his police detective hero, the aforementioned Mr Wallander. It was at Gothenburg that we were scheduled to conduct the main interview, which would become the backbone of the programme. I’d been forewarned that Mankel suffered fools less than gladly, so had come well-prepared, attentively re-reading all of the novels, (in addition to bringing him a CD of the Chris Barber Band playing a batch of Ellington numbers, which I knew he’d long admired) and wanting to show, from the off, that this was a meeting of like minds, if not of equals, and therefore it was to be a serious conversation, concerned with themes and approaches, rather than tittle-tattle and scuttlebutt.

It seemed to work. After the first ten minutes or so, Mankel relaxed and the recorded interview ran for just over an hour. I was especially interested in the socio-political elements in his crime fiction, harking back as it did to the ten politically-driven Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, as well as the use of often extreme violence which sets a number of the Wallander stories in motion. It was, we agreed, akin to ways in which Shakespeare, with his references in the tragedies to strange and terrifying happenings, signalled that the world is seriously awry and out of sync. Something, thought Mankel, was rotten in the state of Sweden, if not the world, and we were just not paying it sufficient attention.

A serious writer and a deeply principled man, Mankel put his money where his mouth was. His considerable energies, too. He spent almost half of each year working with the Teatro Avenida in Maputo, for whom he wrote many plays. From endowing a children’s village in Mozambique and funding an oral history project for the families of Aids victims, to his consistent support of the Palestinian cause – sailing on one of the ships attempting to break the Gaza blockade – he  was an activist who walked the walk first and foremost, talking the talk as and when he deemed it necessary.

A good man is gone.

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