Domenico Starnone

book cover

 

Ties

Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri 

What a pleasure, two fine writers for the price of one: a thirteenth novel from a contemporary Italian master of fiction, translated by a Pulitzer Prize winning short story maestro and novelist.

Ties has the physique of a novel attired as a novella, but irrespective of its length, the absence of mise-en-scenes and a cast list shorter than a one act play – husband, wife, two kids and a neighbour – its reach is epical.

The novel opens with an evidently distressed middle aged woman berating her husband and father of two children for succumbing to the charms of a much younger mistress. “You think of us as an illness that’s kept you from growing, and without us you hope to make up for it.”

But that is the past and the second part of this triptych opens with our couple much older, wiser and together: they are planning a rare vacation, which in itself becomes a catalyst for a random occurrence of events, or so it would seem.

Starnone is not big on description, and where Lahiri excels in her translation, because dialogue is brief, is replicating the tautness of each sentence, like a tight line in which angler and fish, author and reader, are engaged in an endless act of catch and release.

Often it is akin to looking hard at a Mark Rothko canvas, where nothing appears to be happening, but viscerally you sense the simple expression of a complex thought.

Not easy to conceive, but Starnone passes Lahiri the ball, and she runs with it. Their chemistry is at its most demonstrative in this memorable passage: “I savoured the fortune of being, for a good seventy-four years, a happy transmutation of the sidereal substance that roils in the furnace of the universe, a fragment of living thinking matter, without too many aches and pains to boot, and barely scathed, purely by chance, by misfortune.”

When Robert Lowell translated Giacomo Leopardi, his approach was to keep something of the fire and finish of the originals, whereas Tim Parks learned his trade translating sales brochures for banks.

Lahiri decided to distance herself from Italian, dismantling it and rendering it invisible, of intuiting the meaning of a text. Starnone can be Vivaldi one moment and Wagner the next, but in Lahiri’s dexterous grip the English is a swaying field of fecundity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Fan Brothers/Helen Hancocks

ella

The Night Gardener

And

Ella, Queen of Jazz

The Night Gardener and Ella, Queen of Jazz are exquisite publications, tactilely embroidered for those who love the physical feel of a book : both in hardback and suffused with  poetic or realistic illustrations – especially the former – these are books unafraid to permeate image and plain text with metaphor and the consequence of behaviour for their younger readers.

The Night Gardener by siblings Terry and Eric from Chicago, conjures the infectious magic of Raymond Biggs’ The Snowman, though the illustrations, rendered in graphite and coloured digitally, are significantly more detailed, specifically the nocturnal scenes and the almost Edwardian urban setting.

On Grimloch Lane, a mysterious gardener, working by moonlight like a nature loving Banksy, is turning trees into animal topiaries – a rabbit, a cat, a parakeet, an owl – magnificent arboreal masterpieces, which prompt an outburst of celebration among the villagers.

The brothers Fan achieve a notable efflorescence of colour ironically once the seasons change, and autumn denudes the trees of their verdancy, but it is – for the reader – a lesson in the nature of ephemera.

Ella, Queen of Jazz, has a more serious story to relate in that the racism which threatens to derail Ella Fitzgerald’s burgeoning career in a West Hollywood night club, the Mocambo, is stymied by the intervention of Marilyn Monroe.

Hancocks’ illustrations,  crayon, watercolour, ink and pen, combined digitally, capture the ambience of a multi-cultural society on the cusp of huge change, and Fitzgerald’s story is recalled almost like a comic strip.

Published to coincide with the centenary of Fitzgerald’s birth, Hancocks addresses a serious issue which afflicted black musicians on the East and West Coasts when bebop was revolutionising jazz like Fitzgerald, Miles David, John Coltrane and, tragically, Billie Holliday, who was arrested and handcuffed to her hospital bed as she lay dying.

Ella, Queen of Jazz has an important story to tell, and Hancocks does it without excessive piety.

Andree A. Michaud

 

book

Boundary

 

Move over Nordic noir, the Canadians are coming !

It is an understated fact that so often in modern crime fiction, with books by the bucket-load appearing fortnightly, that style is the accepted collateral of a plot as fluid as a rushing stream.

There are notable exceptions, Andree A. Michaud for one.

Michaud, multi-award winning author of ten novels, is not in a hurry, and her sentences turn into paragraphs pregnant with the shifting contours of mood.

And though the sun shines brightly over Boundary Pond, a holiday haven in the late 1960’s on the US Canadian Border, it is an illusion, for the tight knitted community is being stalked by a killer with a lust for the blood of teenage girls.

And whilst they lark about during the summer of love, belting out A Whiter Shade of Pale and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds with flowers and whatnot in their hair, a more appropriate soundtrack for Michaud’s turf is The End by The Doors.

For in Boundary Pond there is a killer on the road, and he lurks in the woods, which offers both refuge and sustenance. You can live off what the woods has to offer, but only those on the margins of Boundary choose to.

Like Pierre Landry, or war veteran Little Hawk, who survived the bloody Omaha Beach landing, and at some time or another were cloistered by the embrace of the wild.

Meanwhile, Michaud’s protagonists are not whisky-swilling loners bent over crosswords in a back street dive, listening to Wagner or Stan Getz, or sleepwalking out of another marriage. Stan Michaud, in charge of the police investigation, is determined ‘to knock on every door and to grill every last halfwit in Boundary’, for he has an acute grasp of the perils which young women expose themselves to.

Despite the obstacles –bilingualism, hostile terrain – what motivates him is a personal sense of duty to get to the bottom of the unpremeditated murder of Zaza Mulligan, by someone whose skill set includes trekking and setting traps.

And then Zaza’s best friend disappears: the randomness of the teenager’s brutal murder now acquires a more purposeful bent.

Murder and abduction aside, nothing much happens in this place, bordered by a lake and mountains, but Michaud’s prose excels in the vacuum of the ordinary, excels in the minutiae of the commonplace, where violence is a geyser in waiting.

Anuk Arudpragasam

 

 

tamil

The Story of a Brief Marriage

Anuk Arudpragasam

 

This is Arudpragasam’s first novel, but he writes with the composure and the confidence of a veteran, whose sentences shed the skin of what has unfurled previously, as a new stream replenishing itself across an otherwise barren plateau.

The book’s title, once Dinesh and Ganga extrapolate themselves – however briefly – from the front line separating the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army, and two become one after they are married, liberates Arudpragasam from the obligation to formulate a surprising denouement.

In other words, we are expected to assume that either or both are doomed: it has been written.

The horror of war, as graphic as any Pat Barker scene mired in the trenches of Flanders, is served up by Arudpragasam without histrionics or theatrical embellishment, but from the opening description of torn limbs and shredded bodies, living and dead, we unmistakeably descend into one of Dante’s circles of the pits of hell.

The prose which blossoms from this dungheap of catastrophe makes Arudpragasam’s achievement all the more remarkable, for each sentence snares our imagination and we cannot escape, emotionally or philosophically, from what Dinesh sees and hears.

Arudpragasam is a young man, so on a personal level, The Story of a Brief Marriage doesn’t draw on his own experience, but is a work of research and imagination: unlike The Divine Comedy, it is not intended as an allegory, and the prose, when served as reportage, is searing.

‘Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was now about to lose his right arm,’ is the first line of the novel, and the tone and pace is fastened.

We are plunged into the heart of a war zone, where the innocent are encircled by the omnipresent menace of death from the air, and the only way Arudpragasam can leaven the horror is to have the bombing ebb and flow.

And in this sabbatical Dinesh accedes to the request of a man, mourning the death of his wife and child, to marry his daughter in the hope that the victorious soldiers will be disinclined to rape a married woman.

The tenderness which Arudpragasam unearths in the most trying of circumstances is not spolied by a cloying indulgence, and he captures beautifully the amorphous lightness of Dinesh’s uncertain and awkward effort to become a husband.

But love is the weakest force in this environment and is no match for the long reach of internecine war. ‘But if they couldn’t talk about their pasts, what could they say to each other at all, given that there was no future for hem o speak of either?’ writes Arudpragasam, not yet  a quarter way through the book.

Deaths of the Poets

funeral

By Paul Farley & Michael Symmons Roberts

 

If, as Farley and Roberts suggest –  based on research by an American academic – that being a published poet is more dangerous than being a deep sea diver, then the premise of this book is self evident: not alone should poets be uninsurable, but their company should be avoided at all costs.

However, while each page bears the colophon of a death’s head, and Farley and Roberts risk being literary pall bearers for the well known tragic poets – John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton – and the less well known – the murdered John Riley and the reclusive Rosemary Tonk, the successful poet today has never had it so good.

Grants, Nobel Prizes, bursaries, Presidencies have gradually removed poets from the paucity of the garret and from living hand to mouth: indeed the last infamous suicide in the highly enjoyable Deaths of the Poets – a clearly certifiable Berryman from a Minneapolis bridge – occurred when both authors were mere chaps and studying Wordsworth at school.

With the exception of the Great War poets, and the authors had any amount to choose from (Rupert Brooke, Francis Ledwidge are not included), their exhaustive research is less cemetery rambling and more digging through copious files and correspondence and visiting places immortalised less by the poet’s final words than by their deeds: Dylan Thomas’s alleged eighteen straight whiskeys at the White Horse Inn, or Anne Sexton’s death in her garage. Farley and Roberts should be commended for knowing the difference between snooping and enlightenment and when they feel they are trespassing (inspecting unpublished notes by Thom Gunn) they back off.

Though death is the big line break, the authors are not obsessed with the more often than not abrupt caesura which shuffles off the mortal coil whether a poet is in their stride (Plath and Thomas) or not, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore.

Both authors are award winning poets and – thankfully – it shows with lucid expositions about the individual behind the poet, such as a brilliant investigate foray into the last days of Keith Douglas, killed in Normandy a short time after the D Day landings, or Byron in Greece, for many the definitive iconic image of the tragic poet, although he certainly had a good time whilst becoming a legend.

Familiarity with contemporary poetry writing in English eases one’s passage through this most enjoyable tome, and even a nodding acquaintance with Cal Lowell and his contemporaries, including Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop, or, closer to home, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, helps distil the purity from the precis-like quality of the analysis

Winter: An anthology for the changing seasons

 

 

Commissioned to be selective and chose writers new and old for an anthology celebrating the season of winter in poetry and prose, Melissa Harrison didn’t take any short cuts by opting for the familiar – Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, J.A. Baker – but instead created her own Rattle Bag of contributions, which makes this volume compelling reading for anyone who may feel they have read enough about winter.

What is original about this collection is not just the diversity of relatively unknown talent on show, but the quality of the work, even if the editor’s preference is for prose over poetry

There are familiar faces – Roger Deakin, John Fowles, Robert Macfarlane – though I was surprised by the omission of two contemporary chroniclers of what it means to live with and endure the split personality of winter on a day to day basis: James Rebanks, whose The Shepherd’s Life is evocative of an existence, fast disappearing, on the periphery, and Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground, a chronology of Britain’s attitude to place.

This is just one of – naturally – four anthologies, so perhaps they surface elsewhere, but I was delighted to experience new voices, and not all of them of our time, even if they are timeless. Wilhelm Nero Pilate Barbellion wrote The Diary of a Disappointed Man, his reflections on nature and the brevity of life, and the brief excerpt here captures the illuminative features of his style: ‘An Elm lopped close showing white stumps which glistened liquidly in the sun.’

The Manchester-born Anita Sethi reflects on the segueing of the self and her garden by the drawn out and patient process of cultivation. ‘The sound bubbles up as if from deep within, deep within the core of the earth, as if this tunnelling through the earth was bringing out new depths in our own selves.’

Irish readers will have been weaned on the peerless final passage of The Dead, so memorably narrated by Donal McCann in the John Houston film adaptation, but reading it again it is a wonder to behold James Joyce outdoing Yeats on his turf: ‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’

Childhood and winter scenes of white landscapes seem handcuffed to our memory, and the magic and innocence and playfulness I experienced long ago in A Child’s Christmas in Wales is omnipresent in Brian Carter’s passage from Mountains of the Mind, where ‘a coppery glow lit the sky just above the sea and the sound of heavy surf carried inland to magnify the sense of isolation.’

Perhaps of all the seasons, and writers in our neck of the woods are fortunate to have four, winter is the gift which keeps giving, and never more so among each new wave of poets, crystallized by the five stanza poem by Kristian Evans from Wales.

‘When the tongue melts the thistle

in the berry’s mouth like hail,

and the fractal folds its kisses

in a locket’s lost portrait.’

Peter Bazalgette

 

The Empathy Instinct

 

Empathy, easily definable without spelling it out, is like an emotional dopamine, especially in Ireland, where we are quick to react to a stranger’s plight – such as the corpse of a Syrian toddler washed up, face down, on a beach. And, like dopamine, empathy can have a short shelf life: closing our border to the thousands of Syrian refugees who undoubtedly would prefer our green pastures than the hell of Aleppo.

Empathy, writes Peter Bazalgette, who helped devise some of the biggest entertainment shows in recent British television history – Big Brother and Ready Steady Cook – is quite simply the inclination to understand others. ‘The ability to connect with and share another’s feelings.’ Empathy, it would seem, is the catalyst which enables us to act compassionately.

We take pride in an Irish naval’s rescue mission off the coasts of Italy and Africa because we empathise and sympathise with the refugees on overloaded boats, but not sufficiently to put a roof over their heads. So, quite frankly, empathy isn’t enough. It isn’t even a solution, but it is a start.

From birth we are susceptible to emotional contagion – a baby will cry at the sound of another’s wailing – but ultimately the capacity to empathise whilst growing is affected by toxic stress – emotional abuse – or an internal pot of gold– healthy emotional development.

Visiting a hospital recently, I was struck by three pregnant patients, in slippers and dressing gowns, puffing furiously on cigarettes, oblivious to the no smoking sign and indifferent to the damage to their babies. Is it stupidity or an absence of empathy? Where is their internal pot of gold for the as yet unborn?

Bazalgette’s book, naturally leaden with the research of others, including the omnipresent Simon Baron-Cohen, is insightful on digital dystopia: one in five children in Britain under the age of eleven has a Facebook account. Digital narcissism, writes Bazalgette, is all about the individual and what they are experiencing, regardless of how it affects the feelings of others.

Research predicts that the most digitally connected – one in five of teenagers in South Korea use their smart phone seven hours a day – will suffer digital dementia: the right side of the rain remains underdeveloped, leading to a diminution in cognitive abilities.

The antidote, believe it or not, is reading: poetry, novels, the telephone directory, The Echo, The Bush Telegraph, whatever: a chapter a day keeps the doctor away. ‘The empathy instinct is an idea whose time has come,’ believes Bazalgette. ‘It could be the most valuable resource in the world.’ Thus, in the final chapter, he mounts a passionate defence of arts (and popular culture) as a means of bridging the widening empathy gap.

Demonstrative of art’s capacity as an agent of change for good is the most articulate and impressive sentence in the book, by a poet almost 200 years dead, Shelley: ‘The great instrument of the moral good is the imagination, and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.’

In 2016, Waterstones experienced a doubling in profits in Ireland. Literature is back in fashion. Maybe the times are a changing.

Kenneth Clark Life, Art and Civilisation

 

 

James Stourton’s observation, quite early on in this hefty tome, that his subject’s autobiography opens with one of the most memorable sentences in English (‘My parents belonged to a section of society known as the idle rich, and although, in that golden age, many people were richer, there can have been few who were idler.’) is in danger of leaving his reader avidly hungry for more of the same.

Stourton doesn’t disappoint, and one of the many pleasures of this illuminative and frankly enjoyable biography of a man who made it his mission to bring high art to the masses – he revolutionised how exhibits were curated in the National Gallery in London and later reached a global audience of untold millions with the first genuine television documentary series, Civilisation – is the skill Clarke deployed as a critic and historian. Throughout his life, whether in his autobiography, his publications, his television scripts or his copious correspondence, Clarke was incapable of writing a dull sentence, and it is uncanny that this gene passed to his eldest son, the MP, Alan, whose fame as a diarist whilst a member of Margaret Thatcher’s government briefly eclipsed that of his father in Britain.

As an interesting aside, Alan’s observations of his parents in his three volumes of celebrated diaries could be spiteful, and nor did Clark senior come to life in Ion Trewin’s biography of Alan: Stourton’s book is both timely and welcome because it readdresses the imbalance. Observers of both Clarks, however, will wonder why Alan felt the need to look for father figures so early in his career as a writer and politician (Hugh Trevor Roper, Enoch Powell) when he would have had daily access to the most famous art historian of his day.

But Kenneth Clark, a tenacious supporter throughout his life of artists from all backgrounds, keeps his distance from his growing brood. ‘Family history has very little charm for me,’ he wrote.

An only child, Clark had little in common with his parents – a psychologist’s dream, noted David Knowles – and his three children. Nor did his wife, Jane, (who was Irish, but Stourton dismisses her background), who grew to tolerate her absent husband’s affairs with dalliances of her own, a woman temperamentally unsuited for motherhood, whose milk of human kindness was alas no match for her alcoholism.

Stourton, thankfully, is much more interested in Clark the art historian than Clark the Byronic lover of women, of whom he had many on the go at the same time, some achievement considering the many demands on his time. Yet Clark always seemed to behave as a gentleman, and not the bullying misanthrope his son could often be. And yet, what segues both, are brains to burn and prosaists of the highest order.

Once you disentangle yourself from the chilling sangfroid of family life, especially after the Blitz, there is much to admire about Clark the art historian and Clark the great benefactor: though the scion of a wealthy family, Clare could be forgiven for becoming a lazy snob, but was anything but. He knew what he liked in art – the High Renaissance – but this did not blind him to green shoots in contemporary art – he was an early and lifelong supporter of Henry Moore and Sidney Nolan – and though he made enemies when he was appointed the youngest ever Director of the National Gallery, he didn’t bear grudges.

Criticism can often blind us to the beauty and magnificence of an objet d’art, but not with Kenneth Clark. He was forever his own man: though weaned on Ruskin and apprenticed to Bernard Berenson, it was never likely that one so precocious and gifted as he would be eclipsed by a polemical sage. He had confidence in the plenteousness of his prose to see, like Blake, a world in a grain of sand. And that is his legacy: a prescient critic. In Paris, Clark gifted Picasso a book on Henry Moore, and noted: ‘He sat for the rest of the meal, turning the pages like an old monkey that had got hold of a tin he can’t open.’ Wonderful.

Murakami/Ozawa

 

moments-from-the-flux-iii_1

(Moment from the Flux by Serena Caulfield)

 

Absolutely On Music

I feared that, ten pages in, plodding through the density of detail within Absolutely On Music would be like reading back issues of Gramophone or BBC Music in my dentist’s surgery, passing time until, teeth newly glistened, I was free. And I was wrong. Not about Gramophone or BBC Music, whose terribly serious reviews can forge both a blissful euphony and a contrived spontaneity in a single sentence, but about this book, a conversation between a writer and a conductor, both Japanese, in which they are at one in their shared passion for music.

Not just any music, but classical music. And unlike the vast majority of reviews in Gramophone or BBC Music, which veer between curmudgeonliness and highfalutin post-mortems, Absolutely On Music springs from author Haruki Murakami’s long love affair with the magic which floats from the depths of an orchestral pit.

If you have little time for classical music and think it a harmless adjunct to examining French plonk in a supermarket, this book is not for you. However, if – like myself – you have hovered time after time over a scrum of tightly packed musicians in an illuminated pit, sepulchered in the darkness of a venue, with absolute fascination and no little befuddlement about how the orchestra works, this book is a must.

It is arguable that an orchestra’s raison d’etre, even its bete noire, is the conductor, who has no equal in any other form of employment, except perhaps a mechanic bent over an engine, or a surgeon tinkering with a dodgy heart, for they are responsible for extricating a rhythm you would like to hear.

And I use ‘extricating’ advisably, because the conductor – Absolutely On Music offers an eye witness exposition of maestros Karajan and Bernstein at work – must disentangle the music from both the score and the orchestra’s interpretation of it. Conductors adopt different strategies to disembarrass what the composer intended, and even today we talk of Karajan or Bernstein in reverential or hushed tones for when they struck gold and had an overwhelming sense of the composer’s concentrated aspiration.

Murakami is the reverential and star struck pupil in this series of interviews with the patient and encyclopedic conductor Seiji Ozawa, for three decades the music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra  and San Francisco Symphony, among others, and who, as a young man, worked alongside geniuses like Bernstein, Karajan and Glenn Gould.

Murakami plays a cd or a vinyl recording of Brahms First Symphony or Bartok’s the First Concerto or Mahler’s First Symphony, asks Ozawa question after question, and the conductor’s replies, a brief riposte or a long dissection, a thrust following a parry, are never less in breadth and content the equal of an impeccable dissertation. ‘What’s the comma in the score for,’ asks Murakami. ‘It means, take a breath here,’ answers Ozawa.

To see a world in a grain of sand, indeed.

Daniel Pembrey

The Harbour Master

 

Canal. Amsterdam. Netherland

The discovery of a sex worker’s corpse in Amsterdam harbour opens a Pandora’s box of troubles for detective Henk van der Pol, who is closing in on retirement after 30 years of solid service with the police.

The problem with Henk who is based at the IJ Tunnel 3 station, and the source of the antipathy between himself and his superiors, including the blatantly ambitious Sebastiaan Bergveeld, is his curiosity.

He doesn’t let sleeping dogs lie, and inevitably his wrecking ball approach to following up leads both antagonises the criminal underworld with ties to Hungary, and ruffles the preened feathers of the political and police elite.

It is not, fortunately for the reader, in Henks’ nature to look the other way, although his journalist wife and student daughter, Nadia and Petra, must often wish that he would refrain from bringing his work home – which is a barge – or on holiday – Brussels.

Labelled by some as the Henning Mankell of Amsterdam, Daniel Pembrey, who grew up in Nottinghamshire and divides his time between London and Amsterdam, hasn’t lumbered Henk van der Pol with the introspection or the Scandinavian angst of Inspector Wallander. Henk van der Pol, au contraire, is reasonably content with his lot, and his only vice is the odd beer and dodgy choice of music.

The essence of a crime novel is the intricate web of intrigue and mystery which untangles with the closing of each chapter, and Pembrey does so with guile.

The Harbour Master reads as two short novels segued by a common thread: in this instance, the Tozser brothers, on a collision course with Van der Pol once he sticks his nose into their hobbies: prostitution, blackmail, fraud, extortion and intimidation. They are, however, mere seeds in a plot which, a few deaths later, spreads like ink on cotton.

A stolen painting, the murder of a diplomat, the kidnapping of a politician, the fate of a blood diamond and a woman beaten black and blue in a hotel, conspire to remove Van der Pol from the insufferable claustrophobia of Amsterdam’s Rosse Burt, and an international dimension is added to his probing.

More seedy than dangerous, unless you are one of the barely clad unfortunates behind a window being ogled by tourists, the Rosse Burt is never in danger of being a scene stealer whenever Pembrey the stylist unpeels Amsterdam, but you can see the promise of this notorious district in future Van der Pol investigations. For most of this engaging novel, Henk van der Pol is on a fast moving train without brakes, short of likeminded colleagues but not friends, and his denouement in The Harbour Master is handled with aplomb by Pembrey.