Friday, June 13, 2014

Impac Award 2014

We have a winner!   Yes a South American but not Andres Neuman.   This time it is a Columbian,  Juan Gabriel Vásquez  with the third of his novels to appear in English, The Sound of Things Falling, translated by Canadian Anne McLean. Vásquez is also the first South American to win.

According to the published information about him, 'Vasquez (41) studied at the Sorbonne, and in addition to his years in Paris, has also lived in the Ardennes in Belgium and Barcelona, before returning to his birthplace, Bogotá, to settle.
He became internationally established on the publication of his coolly assured, historical thriller The Informers in 2008, which drew on a marginalised Nazi witch hunt as its inspiration. The Secret History of Costaguana (2007; English translation 2010) is the story of an angry man who believes that Joseph Conrad stole his life.
The Sound of Things Falling is a hard-edged narrative influenced by the legacy of drug trafficking in Colombia. It is an emphatically contemporary work, independent of the influence of magical realism that has tended to define Latin American fiction.
In Vásquez’s book, the narrator, Yammara, a young lawyer, becomes seriously wounded when in the company of an acquaintance, a former drugs trafficker. Yammara has other problems, however, and becomes intent on finding out what kind of a man he has become. In order to do so, he must not only examine himself, he must investigate his country’s past.
Chance plays a central part in the story. Adopting the role of a keen anthropologist Vásquez pieces together various events, including two dramatic plane crashes balanced against the image of a hippopotamus escaped from the bizarre zoo created by drug baron Pablo Escobar in the Magdalena Valley.
The photograph of the animal shot dead by captors in 2009 reminded Vásquez of seeing the body of Escobar collapsed on a roof after the shoot out that ended his life.'

Sound interesting?

Friday, June 6, 2014


Our two greatest writers are in the news again!   Eimear McBride has won the Baileys Women's Prize for fiction with her novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.   The Baileys used to be the Orange Prize and represents a major award for her following on her achievement in winning the Goldsmith Prize.   She is also short listed for the 2014 Folio Prize.   Her book is probably the most exciting piece of writing in Irish literature since Joyce and you can read my review published on 14 November 2013.   Eimear is currently working on her second novel.

The second major Irish writer to make the news is John Banville who has won the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for Literature in Spain.   This is an award given for a body of work rather than a particular novel and in this case, the judges cited not only his work as the novelist John Banville but also his alter ego, Benjamin Black.   According to the judges, 'Banville's prose opens up dazzling, lyrical landscapes through cultural references in which he breathes new life into classical myths and beauty...'

Shortly, now, we will have the results of the Impac Award jury!   There is a shortlist of ten including The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker, The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan and Absolution by Patrick Flanery, all impressive works.   The money, however, appears to be on Traveller of the Century by Andres Neuman.   Neuman is a South American writer from Buenos Aires; his novel is translated from Spanish and is about philosophy, love, war and history going back into post-Napoleonic Europe.   Judging by the blurb, there seems to be hints of Borges there or Claudel.   I shall get back to you about this one!   Award to be announced on 12 June.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Yes, I know, this is a film not a book but for lovers of Stefan Zweig everywhere, I have to bring it to your attention.   Having been told about it and urged to see it by a good friend I was completely taken with it.  

It is directed by Wes Anderson with an extraordinary cast - Saoirse Ronan, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Owen Wilson, Léa Seydoux, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton - and headlining the credits at the end of the film is the legend, 'based on the writings of Stefan Zweig'.   And indeed it takes its cue from one of Zweig's favourite formats in his novellas, that of the narrator striking up an acquaintance with a stranger while staying in an hotel and being told his or her life story.   In this instance, it is an elderly man, Zero, who tells the story of his life as a lobby boy in the Grand Budapest Hotel, under the patronage of the legendary concierge, Gustave H. during the thirties.   

We not only have the story and his experiences as a lowly page boy in this middle Europe hotel but also an entertaining escapade involving a stolen painting and a vast fortune with a lot of humour reminiscent of the silent movies and so peculiarly appropriate to the period.   All of the action takes place against the backdrop of the unsettling rise of fascism and the approaching war.

This was an issue that particularly occupied Zweig who was born in 1881 in Vienna and was living in Salzburg in the thirties.   Being Jewish, the rise of fascism disturbed him greatly and he left Austria in 1934 going first to London, then New York and finally Brazil where sadly in 1942, he and his wife committed a double suicide.

Zweig is perhaps best known for his novellas and we have Pushkin Press to thank for not only expert translations but publishing them in very beautiful editions.   He wrote two novels, Beware of Pity and The Post Office Girl.  But to really capture the man and the time and place he grew up in, one should read his autobiography The World of Yesterday.   He lived in the golden age of literary Vienna, numbering among his friends Joyce, Rilke, Yeats and Gorky and the book is described as 'both a recollection of the past and a warning for future generations'.   Given its title, it is not inappropriate that Zero says at the end of his story in the film, 'I think M. Gustave lived in a world that was already past'.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


The short list for the Impac award has been published and includes Donal Ryan for The Spinning Heart.  I reviewed it 18 November last year.   The winner will be announced on 12 June.   Here are the runners!

  • The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (Dutch), translated by David Colmer
  • Questions of Travel by Michelle De Kretser (Sri Lankan / Australian)
  • Absolution by Patrick Flanery (American)
  • A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norwegian), translated by Don Bartlett
  • Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye (French), translated by John Fletcher
  • Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman (Argentinian), translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia
  • The Light of Amsterdam by David Park (Northern Irish)
  • The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (Irish)
  • The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Malaysian)
  • The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombian), 
 I reviewed The Detour on 17 May 2012.  A compelling and intense novel.

Stoner by John Williams

The first question is:  how come a book originally published in 1965 to no great acclaim has become the must read of 2014?  And all due to word-of-mouth - with a little help from Waterstones who made it their book of the year for 2013.   It is the story of an ordinary man living an ordinary life in an ordinary university in mid-west America in the 1930's and 40's.   And yet it is a page turner and unforgettable.   Perhaps part of the answer is that it is more European than American.   Nothing too much out of the ordinary happens and Stoner is no American hero and not living the American dream.   It is the story of a life, not a drama.

William Stoner, we are told in the first paragraph, entered the University of Missouri in 1910 at the age of nineteen, received his Ph.D. in 1918 and taught in the same University until his death in 1956.   Few remembered him after his death.   He came from humble origins, the only son of a small farmer, old before his time from working the arid land but who had the vision to send William [or Stoner, as he is known throughout the novel] to college to do an agricultural degree.   Stoner spent two hard years working methodically at his basic science subjects while, at the same time, supporting himself by working on a local farm.   However, being required to take an English literature course, he came under the influence of Arthur Sloane and had a veritable epiphany.   Totally enraptured by the beauty of poetry,  he promptly ditches his agricultural degree and devotes the rest of his life to literature.

Not wanting to be a spoiler, I can only tell you that the succeeding years follow the path of an ordinary life - love, internecine staff quarrels and enmities, friends and accompanying issues - until, as the end of his life is very near, his daughter remarks that things haven't been always easy for him and he replies, 'no, but I suppose I didn't want them to be'.

Williams writes a beautiful limpid, fluid and quiet prose that draws you in and on page after page.   He brings to mind the Dutch author, Bakker, who similarly can make the ordinary exciting.   Julian Barnes commented that Stoner is a '"reader's novel", in the sense that its narrative reinforces the very value of reading and study'.  And it is more than that - this book is elegant music.

 Stoner, John Williams, published by Vintage, pb, £8.99  [€7.64]

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah has just been nominated as one of six titles on the Baileys Prize for women's fiction.  The author, Adichie, is no stranger to the prize lists having already won [in 2007] the Orange Prize with Half of a Yellow Sun and has already garnered the National Book Critics Circle fiction prize with Americanah.   The bookies have her as second favourite for the Baileys.   Adichie is a Nigerian author who moved to the States when she was 19 to study and now divides her time between Nigeria and the United States.

Should she win it?   Let me say first of all, it is too long.   I have no problem reading a very long book if it is worth it but increasingly, the American market seems to favour the blockbuster while editors in Europe go for the less is more school of thought.   I feel a book should give you room and pause for thought and not handhold you through every little nuance of the narrator's mind. 

That having been said, there is much of interest in Americanah.   The story concerns childhood sweethearts, Ifemelu and Obinze, who grow up in Nigeria and then Ifemelu, like Adichie, goes to the United States to study while Obinze travels to Britain.   More interesting than their love affair are their experiences as immigrants in two very different countries.   Adichie has the leeway that no African American probably has to comment on and criticise the nuances of race relations in the States.   Because of her failure to find work to support herself while studying, she takes up blogging and becomes immensely successful at recounting her experiences on line.   Obinze meanwhile, unable to get legally or illegally a social security number, living as an illegal but adopted by a liberal pc minded coterie in the UK, is having a totally different experience in a completely different culture.   This is the most interesting thread in the book I felt.  

A lot of Ifemelu's story is told as a flashback as she sits in a hairdressers having her hair expertly done before returning to Nigeria.   Initially, her account of how African curls are being dealt with using extensions, chemicals and weaves to try and achieve western white standards is fascinating but eventually I began to wonder if she would ever get out of the hairdressers.  

We are introduced to a third element then when Ifemelu does finally get back to Nigeria and that is her position as returned emigrant.   Her search for Obinze who returned much earlier and her problems in adjusting again to the Nigerian worldview are well portrayed.

Overall, Adichie paints an absorbing picture of the three cultures as seen from an African viewpoint with a lot of detail that would escape the native westerner and for this alone I would recommend the book.   She is easy to read but long-winded so the novel can frustrate at times and lacks the magic of a more tightly woven narrative.  

Baileys Prize

The shortlist for the Baileys women's prize for fiction [formerly the Orange Prize] has just been announced and, astonishingly, it includes two Irish writers but no British!  

The two Irish writers are Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, a book I have been championing for some time, and Audrey Magee for The Undertaking which I reviewed on 21 February.   The other four on the shortlist are the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her third novel, Americanah, who won the Orange Prize before with Half of a Yellow Sun; and then, three American authors, Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch, Jhumpa Lahiri for The Lowland and, first time author, Hannah Kent for Burial Rites.

Hard one to call!   My money as usual is on McBride but the bookies favour Adichie and Tartt. The critics are well divided on Tartt's novel calling it variously a 'heavyweight masterpiece' and 'a turkey'!

The winner will be announced on 4 June. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

This book recently won the Costa Book of the Year and I reckoned it had to be something as it won over McBride's Girl is a Half-formed Thing.   It is.

Simply, it's the story of a nineteen year old young man, Matthew, suffering from schizophrenia caused by his guilt and grief as a result of an accident which killed his older brother, Simon, some ten years previously.   At the end of the book, Matt - who is writing the book  - says 'writing about the past is a way of reliving it ... but this story has never been a keepsake - it's finding a way to let go'.   In some ways it recalls The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but more poignant and, at the same time, funny.  

At the very beginning of the book, he says 'I'll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother ... I think you're going to like him... but in a couple of pages he'll be dead.   And he was never the same after that'.   And that is in fact the nub of it.   Simon has Down's Syndrome and is five years older than Matt who adores him.   It is apparent that Matt had something to do with his death but we are kept guessing for a long time.   As the years pass, Filer through Matt's own account chronicles his disintegration mentally with great skill.   For Matt, Simon is constantly present, calling on him to come out and play, hiding under his bed and talking to him until his reality and dreams become confused.   Matt writes that 'we each have a wall that separates our dreams from reality, but mine has cracks in it.  The dreams can wriggle and squeeze their way through, until it's hard to know the difference'.   Sometimes, then, the wall collapses and life becomes a nightmare.

Filer is himself a registered mental health nurse and uses his knowledge here to good effect.   Matt spends one chapter charting the progress of one day in a psychiatric hospital hour by hour where the over-riding problem is sheer boredom with nothing to do.   The day is punctuated by meals, medication and cigarettes and at one point he is urged by a nurse to distract himself by getting dressed!   Becoming acquainted with the mind of a schizophrenic through Matt's writing is fascinating.   It is curious how astute and aware he is while at the same time, his delusions and imaginings blend seamlessly into his life.   To emphasise various episodes, Filer makes use of postmodern gambits by varying typefaces, playing with layout, incorporating some charming sketches and even the page numbering appears to be done by hand.   In some novels, this can grate on one but here it is peculiarly apt and effective.

The other people in Matt's life are beautifully drawn.   There are his loving parents, gentle and caring of him despite their own overwhelming grief.   And his indefatigable Granny, Nanny Noo, who is remarkably in tune with him and does her best to help him avoid being sectioned.  And his old school friend, Jacob, who tries to share a flat with him but eventually cannot hack it.   Throughout it all, though, is Matt's growing inability to maintain relationships as he slips from reality.

This is a moving novel, more than worthy of the Costa award and well worth reading.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson began her literary career by winning the Costa award for Behind the Scenes at the Museum and once again, with this novel, she has triumphed by winning the Costa Novel Award in 2013 [the Costa Book of the Year was won by Nathan Filer with Shock of the Fall].

This novel is essentially a family saga, starting in 1910, ending in 1967, but one with a difference.  The author announces this difference by quoting Nietzsche in the front of the book - and I am a sucker for Nietzsche quotes and so got lured in - 'what if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you:  this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more... And so Atkinson takes up this challenge with her chief character and gives her innumerable chances at life, allowing her to die and begin again, though always as the same person.  

This 'person' is Ursula Todd, the third child of a well-to-do Home Counties family living in a leafy suburb of London.   Her father Hugh is a successful banker and her mother, Sylvie, successful at producing children - three girls and two boys.   Apart from dying several times, Ursula grows up in a typical, middle class protected environment, not, however, without coming to grief with the opposite sex.   She goes on to serve as a fire warden in London during WW2 and this part is both the most interesting and best written part of the novel.   Though Ursula does have one or two close friends, a lot of the novel is taken up with her relationship with her parents and siblings, particularly with Pammy, her elder sister, and Teddy her younger brother.   Curiously, they seem unaffected by Ursula's frequent demises and relive scenes quite happily as Ursula has a 'second go' at surviving them.

Does this kind of Groundhog Day approach work?   Sometimes, it is a little frustrating in that I wanted her to survive a particular incident.   Sometimes, too, it is a little too clever. Atkinson, rather than re-inventing Ursula, uses sleight of hand or little twists of fate to permit her to survive.   This is in contrast to her aunt, Sylvie's sister, Isabel or Izzie as she is known who is a delightful character, totally unpredictable and constantly reinventing herself.   Ursula, for obvious reasons, suffers from deja vu but seems to consider this a normal human affliction.   There are interesting interludes such as when Ursula becomes best friends with Eva Braun and Atkinson paints a convincing picture of life in the Berghof with Hitler and his cronies.   Then there are some not so good pieces such as when, in the first three pages of the book, there is a what-if moment when Ursula shoots Hitler in 1930 in a bierkeller in Munich.   Not original.

Overall, I think this is a beach read - undemanding, funny in places, and skillful - though at 600 pages plus, it can get tiring.  The concept of playing with time is challenging but the novel doesn't quite live up to it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Awards

The longlist of the newly named Bailey's women's prize for fiction has been announced and our Eimear McBride [Girl is a Half-formed Thing] is up there again!   This used to be the Orange prize and is a very prestigious award.   There are twenty on the longlist including also Audrey Magee whose novel, The Undertaking, I reviewed on 21 February.  There are seven US authors and in fact, the prize has been won by a US novelist for the past five years.   Let's hear it however for McBride!   For full details on the long list, see

This week, the inaugural winner of the Folio prize was announced and sadly McBride didn't make it.   It was won by George Saunders for his novel, Tenth of December.   According to Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles, "Saunders is one of the mercurial masters of the short story that Britain's disinterest in short-form fiction has prevented us from championing.  These stories are satire at its most brutal, fiercely funny but also bitter about a dystopian future that already seems to be coming to pass. He's a deserved recipient, up there with [Kurt] Vonnegut."

I'll let  you know what I think shortly!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Circle by Dave Eggers

I was going to write that this is an apocalyptic 'fairy tale' but, in the light of the recent revelations of  GCH's interception and storage of Yahoo webcam images, it is no fairy tale but rather a dystopian orwellian tale of the near future .... or now?

Eggers writes with a light hand and in satirical mode but even as you grin as you read it, there is an uncomfortable feeling that maybe this is not the future - or the future is no longer what it used to be!

The very first line of the book, uttered by the main protagonist, Mae Holland, says it all:  'My God, Mae thought.   It's heaven.'   'Heaven' is the Circle, a vast corporation, an amalgam of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, YouTube, which effectively rules the digital universe.  Bright young minds have been employed by the dozen on the 'campus' which also incorporates every social activity they might desire and Mae quickly learns by default that activity outside the campus is frowned on.  The Circle was founded by Ty Gospodinov, a Mark Zuckerberg who flits enigmatically through the novel, and who together with two other Wise Men, now runs it.   He invented their system, TruYou, a single integrated user interface unifying every internet interaction that crushed all meaningful opposition - ending  anonymity on line together with the era of false identities, identity theft, multiple user names, complicated passwords and payment  systems.  Transparency in all things is the watchword of The Circle.

Mae is quickly sucked in and rises rapidly working all hours - and nights - to raise her profile and loving it all.  But no global corporation that is successful stands still and Dave Eggers brings us into nightmare territory with The Circle's invention of a little camera worn around the neck, with a two year battery, that transmits on line, non-stop, the activities and conversation of the wearer.   Wearing it is called 'going clear' and starts with a local congresswoman signing up - as indeed does Mae.   The implication is that one has nothing to hide, no corruption, no backhanders from lobbyists, all is transparent, 'secrets are lies' is the catch phrase.   Of course, it spreads and now we are definitely in the world of Big Brother.

Eggers does give us - and Mae - warnings through her ex-boyfriend who is appalled at Mae's utter devotion to The Circle and its expanding power.   Any misgivings she has are quickly brushed aside to the extent that she even advocates that the Government should require every citizen to have a Circle account, the better to create higher turnouts at elections.  

Dave Eggers is still one of the lions of American literature and this is his tenth novel.   It is hard to tell if it really represents a warning or is just a light satirical look at life today with a barely plausible novel fighting back at the even younger lions and their obsession with the internet.  This is not a deep book and lacks the majesty of 1984 or Brave New World but is an enjoyable read for all that.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

Audrey Magee has worked as a journalist for twelve years, writing for The Irish Times and The Guardian, among other newspapers and, consequently, I was not surprised at the amount of paper coverage she got when her debut novel, The Undertaking, was published.   The glowing reviews gave me pause.

Magee has picked a difficult topic, the Second World War, and even though she looks at it from a German perspective, she tells us nothing really new.   The appalling invasion of Russia and the subsequent suffering of the German troops inadequately prepared for the Russian winter, the battle of Stalingrad, are all very familiar territory for readers as indeed are the effects of the bombings in Berlin and its capture by the Russian army.   Nevertheless, she does manage to give it a fresh spin chiefly by narrowing her field to the experiences of two people - Peter Faber and Katherina Spinell.

'The undertaking' arises when Peter - in order to escape the Russian front for even a brief period - agrees to marry a total stranger, Katherina, who lives in Berlin in return for her undertaking to wait for him or to receive a pension in the event of his death.   Neither expects much from a relationship that starts with marriage but to their mutual surprise, they fall in love.   And it is this love and longing for Katherina that sustains Peter as he fights on to Stalingrad, capture, and incarceration in a series of Stalin's notorious camps.   The story has verisimilitude as apparently Magee met the German owner of a restaurant in West Cork who had an identical experience and undertaking. [Go to link ]

Katherina meanwhile prospers in Berlin where she lives with her parents who are patronised and supported by a senior member of the Nazi party who provides them with all the perks and advantages denied to the general population.   The novel, then, continues on to the Fall of Berlin and subsequent years with Katherina living in the Russian zone.  

Magee writes well though in her narrative she largely eschews the bigger issues of WW2, such as the Holocaust or the brutality of the German army in Eastern Europe and Russia, apart from some throwaway remarks such as one made by Peter to his friend, Fuchs, '...we're here to clear the communists and Jews from Russia so that my wife and child have a better future'.   And later he optimistically remarks of the Russians, 'we'll get on well with them in the end when all this is forgotten.   When they can practise their religion and own their farms again'.   And back in Berlin, Katherina and her parents move happily into a big apartment taken from Jews and still beautifully furnished and equipped, their only gripe being that there is a bust of Mendelssohn in the hall.

Apart from concentrating on the particular rather than the general, Magee uses third person realism in her narrative and the story is told largely in dialogue rather than long descriptive passages.   This works well in enabling her to limit her canvas and circumscribe the experiences of her two main characters.   On the other hand, at times it can appear that Peter together with four or five others encompass the entire invading German army as there is no reference to long columns of infantry or tanks and only occasional reports of guns which is a little disconcerting.   However, that is a quibble about what is an elegant and at times quite beautiful story of relationships in war.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Folio Book Prize

Eimear McBride has done it again!   She is one of eight on the Folio Book Prize short list, the winner to be announced on 10 March.

The Folio Book Prize was set up - according to today's Guardian* - to 'reward literature and artistic achievement as opposed to "readable" books ... and to allow all English-language fiction to compete regardless of nationality or gender'.   Thus, the short list is made up of five American authors, one Canadian, one English and our Eimear!   Like the Goldsmiths Prize, which McBride won, the Folio Prize is really a challenge to Man Booker which tends to be awarded to narrative driven novels which 'zip along' [according to the 2011 judges!].

The competition is stiff for McBride and her novel is not helped by comments in the Guardian describing it variously as 'daunting', 'hard to read' and 'experimental'.   Experimental it certainly is but so was Beckett but hard to read it is not. It is a work of genius.

The other seven novels are:   Red Doc (Anne Carson), Tenth of December (George Saunders), Benediction (Kent Haruf), The Flame Throwers (Rachel Kushner), Schroder (Amity Gaige), Last Friends (Jane Gardam) and A Naked Singularity (Sergio de la Pava).


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Costa Book of the Year Award

In case you missed it this week, Nathan Filer, a first-time author, has run away with the Costa Book of the Year Award with his novel The Shock of the Fall.   In some ways, this book brings to mind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time which was related by a boy suffering apparently from either autism or aspergers.   Here the story is told by a schizophrenic boy coming of age but haunted by the memory of his dead older brother.   According to Rose Tremain, one of the judges, she and her fellow judges 'were particularly struck by the perfect alignment between the story and the voice in which it is told'.   It certainly must be a powerful novel as it overcame strong competition from Kate Atkinson's Life After Life and Lucy Hughes-Hallett's The Pike, a biography of the Italian poet and progenitor of fascism, Gabriele D'Annunzio which has already won the Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction -  both of which were tipped as likely winners.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

This is something different for me!   Clearly it is not fiction for a start and I am no theologian.   It was given to me by a friend of mine with the challenge to blog it:   I now challenge you to read it for yourselves too.   It is essentially a religious autobiography that Chesterton himself explains as his 'own solitary and sincere speculations' and the 'style in which they were all suddenly satisfied by the Christian Theology'.

Chesterton was a well known literary figure by the time he wrote this in 1908 and had at least four major works behind him including The Man who was Thursday and Napoleon of Notting Hill. By the end of his life [1936], he had published eighty books and myriad articles, essays and poems.   He was noted for his wit and the sense of humour he brought to his writing, enjoying particularly paradox.   He was not a modernist like Shaw who was a close friend but with whom he disagreed regularly and similarly with H.G. Wells.    Though his writing was frequently philosophical, he argued strenuously with the philosophers of his time accusing philosophy of 'uncommon sense', taking particular exception to Nietzsche.   He was a Christian apologist and he converted to Catholicism in 1922.

As you might expect with Chesterton who writes with such a fluid style, this book is an easy read if frequently giving pause for thought.   The least convincing are the first thirty nine pages at the end of which he himself says: 'here I end [thank God] the first and dullest business of this book - the rough review of recent thought'.   Along the way he examines and pans the will and volition, scepticism [which can hardly be described as 'recent thought'], relativism, materialism, evolution and rationalism which he describes as a 'doomed fortress' - indeed, 'our mental ruin has been wrought by wild reason'. This last is curious as he describes himself later in the book as a rationalist.   In this early section, rationalism and reason seem to be confused - but then Chesterton was no semantic pedant!   He sums up his thinking on these various isms by contending that 'most characteristic current philosophies have not only a touch of mania, but a touch of suicidal mania' and maintains that 'free thought has exhausted its own freedom' while 'liberalism has been degraded into liberality'.   He is fond of aphorisms that abound in this section, together with the kind of clever wordplay one associates with him.

Chesterton proceeds then for the remainder of the book to look at his own fundamental ideas and personal philosophy which he was startled to discover had already been discovered by Christianity.   He describes the elemental wonder of fairy tales, the joy of mystery in the face of the sterile facts of science and the modern world's insistence on the Panglossian necessity of things being as they are whereas he saw the world as a wild and startling place which might have been quite different.   [I'm not sure that the idea of contingency is compatible with Catholic theology!]   The magic, the mystery of the world must have a meaning, he claims, and meaning must have someone to mean it.   He argues that Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit into the world; that Christian pleasure is poetic and full of romance in the face of the logician.   He does a wonderful chapter on the paradoxes of Christianity, some familiar, some that might never have occurred to me that made me feel, in his words, that 'life is not only a pleasure but an eccentric privilege'.

Though some of his beliefs need contextualisation, some seem plainly wrong [though I am open to correction!].   For example, he argues the matter of the immanent or the transcendent deity.   He avers that by insisting on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism and social indifference.   By 'insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation'.   Surely, we need both - the immanent God that we may learn to love ourselves and, also, the transcendent.

Nevertheless, I shall support firmly his belief of 'how much every man owes to the tyranny and privilege of women, to the fact that they alone rule education until education becomes futile'.   He says that whenever he was most under a woman's authority, he was 'most full of flame and adventure'.  And maybe he was looking ahead to some bloggers when he says 'women who are utter mystics in their creed are utter cynics in their criticism'!

For all that his clever clever use of language, the generously sprinkled aphorisms and the self-contradictory pieces may annoy, this is worth reading as one man's journey in faith.

Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton, Doubleday €8.80 [Veritas], €5.90

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Thing about December by Donal Ryan

Though he was long listed for the Man Booker and won the Guardian First Book Award with The Spinning Heart, I think that Donal Ryan has created a piece of literature even more original and heart wrenching with The Thing about December.  It is at once unbearably sad and, at times, unbearably funny, so I couldn't put it down today until I finished it.   As a chronicler of modern Ireland, he is unsurpassed.   Though he wrote it before Spinning Heart, it was only published after the success of that novel.   Publishers do get it wrong - frequently.

This time, he is in Tipperary and it is in the early days of the Celtic Tiger.   His narrator is a lost soul, Johnsey, an intellectually challenged young man only too well aware of his limitations and hating them.   He refers to himself variously as a 'gom' and a 'fat eejit' and he figures God made a slip-up making him.   He wonders where there might be a way to get away from this earth cleanly, to just disappear one day and he cries, 'Hey God, you forgot to give a justification for Johnsey Cunliffe's existence, he's below scratching his hole like a fool, waiting for a reason not to do away with himself'.   He has two lovely well-liked and respected parents who early in the story die, one a short time after the other, leaving sad Johnsey alone in an unfeeling and pitiless society.

He is of course bullied mercilessly by the local yahoos and though he fantasises about girls, his fantasies are about the stars of Home and Away rather than any local ladies with whom he is totally tongue-tied and then mocked.   His happiest memories are days spent with his father on their small farm or helping his mother with her baking.   On his own, he distances himself from the town's inhabitants being canny enough to see through the often false sympathy offered him when his mother died.

The crisis starts when the local council, under pressure from the smart boys in town, decide to rezone the surrounding land including Johnsey's farm which then overnight becomes worth millions.   Ryan handles with great style his depiction of the approaches made to Johnsey, the sudden friends he acquires and Johnsey's delight in them while all the time giving us a feeling of impending tragedy - which may or may not happen.   Ryan builds up Johnsey's character with perspicacity and great skill.  He has a certain shrewdness and native cunning but is unable to articulate his thoughts. He laments his own inability to manage words, that he 'could barely get a sentence out without his face going on fire and his brain downing tools'.   At the same time, he thinks a thought worthy of Rumsfeld, 'what's a lie anyway?   Do you have to know a thing to be not true, or just not care whether or not it's true for the saying of it to be a lie, or are you telling lies if what you say is not true but you think it is?'

Ryan breaks the book up into twelve chapters - the months of the year - and he starts each chapter/month with Johnsey remembering something of his mother or father in that particular month - until December and there is a thing about December.   Ryan has a lovely easy style of writing with a keen eye and even keener ear. He captures deliciously local phrases and accents:  one can actually hear the inhabitants talking!   One could quote endlessly from his writing but I would prefer you to read it for yourselves!

The Thing about December is published by Doubleday Ireland, pb £12.99 [€10.87]

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Investigation by Philippe Claudel

I've long been a fan of Claudel and loved his Grey Souls trilogy, particularly Brodeck's Report but this novel, his latest, published in 2010 but only translated last year, is something quite different.   Toby Litt from the Guardian panned it totally calling it a 'banal and rubbishy novel' while David Annand from the Telegraph called it 'impressive' and 'a complex novel of ideas'.   I go with the latter.   Though it undoubtedly draws on Kafka's The Castle, there are also many nods to Borges and his fantastical stories [one collection of which is called oddly Brodie's Report].

Towards the end of the novel, the narrator called only the Investigator, says 'I'm not measuring up to my own life' and ultimately that is what the novel is all about, acquiring a knowledge of himself, a self-awareness and confronting it.   Along the way, he paints a dystopian picture of modern society and its control by neoliberalism in a rather surreal allegorical way.

The novel opens with the Investigator arriving in an unnamed town, his mission being to investigate the high number of suicides occurring in a large corporation called simply The Firm.   Very quickly he learns that this is a town out of kilter and there is no reality.   Not being able to gain access to The Firm, he finds a hotel, Hotel Hope, after what he thinks is at most an hour but turns out to be at least six - even time has its own existence.   The Hotel is manned by The Giantess and changes its appearance daily while the local cop, The Policeman, has his office there in a broom cupboard.  After a series of nightmarish events, he finally gets to The Firm and then his problems really begin.  He finds himself forced to re-examine his values and his own identity surrounded as he is by bewildering inhabitants and even more bewildering events.   Finally, malfunction becomes his esssence.

Claudel doesn't hide his despair at today's society in any subtle way.   One character complains that the little people like the Investigator no longer have kings, that 'monarchs today ... are complex financial mechanisms, algorithms... their thrones are screens, fibre-optic cables, printed circuit boards'.   Another character complains about his job which is to clean up 'valleys weighed down with the corpses of mobile telephones, computers, silicon, lakes filled to the brim with fluorocarbon, toxic mud and acid mud, geological faults plugged up with large shovelfuls of radioactive material...' and all he's got to do the job is a broom.   The excess of conformity demanded exhausts him and he remarks that 'man created order while no-one was asking him for anything.   He thought he was being smart.  It was a bad move'!

Finally, the Investigator is told 'man is a negligible quantity nowadays, a minor species with a special talent for disaster'.   What more can I say?  Read it!

The Investigation is published by Maclehose Press, pb, £7.99, available from, €7.07

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Coetzee, in his quiet, unassuming way, always challenges and in a devastating manner.   With this his latest novel, he gives us an astonishing if mysterious tale, a page turner that you can gallop through waiting always for the explanation:  there is none.   This is Coetzee after all.   I read it yesterday and spent today thinking how can I write about it;  it seems almost lese majeste to try.

There is nothing subtle about the title and when on the very first page, the narrator, Simon, introduces a young boy who accompanies him, one can quickly decide this book is an allegory based on the Holy Family.   But that would be too easy.    Nothing is clear.   Nothing is obvious.   Simon and his young charge, David [House of David?] have arrived by boat in this strange country from somewhere across the seas.  David has got separated from his parents and a letter he carried around his neck explaining his circumstances got lost on the ship.   Simon, though not young, takes it on himself to care for him  and is referred to sometimes as grandfather, sometimes as godfather or uncle.  The country they have arrived in is Spanish speaking and a sort of socialist Utopia where it turns out all the inhabitants have arrived in a similar way and, in Orwellian fashion, all their memories are wiped out.   They are provided with a basic flat, an allowance and Simon quickly gets a job as a stevedore unloading sacks of grain endlessly to supply the basic food of the country, bread [manna?].   There appears to be no meat or, indeed, spices.   Everything is bland - food and inhabitants.   Simon's workmates are an amiable bunch and, indeed, everyone in the country fosters goodwill, with passion of any description frowned on.   Even sex is reduced to the necessary satisfaction of an irritating urge.   In the evenings, his workmates go to the 'institute' where they attend philosophy classes which seem to centre entirely on phenomenology of a very basic kind.

Simon fits uncomfortably into this strange environment and argues continuously with everyone, including himself, most of the time in a philosophical manner and a lot of the book is taken up with these arguments, especially those he has with young David.   And David is the core of the book.   Though only five, he is clearly a remarkable child with knowledge beyond his years, extremely intelligent and with a very original approach to literally everything and an affinity with animals.   Is he the child Jesus?   That is the puzzle the reader is going to ponder for a very long time.   He teaches himself to read using an ancient copy of Don Quixote - the only book Simon could find - and he writes perfectly also, both accomplishments he hides from everyone until a crisis arises.   He has a curious relationship with numbers, seeing gaps in between them like there is between the stars, and he fears that numbers might fall down in these gaps.   He does not fit in with his school class and when pushed by his teacher to write  on the board, 'I must tell the truth', he writes 'I am the truth'.   In an echo of the scriptures again, a friend of Simon's tells Simon, 'instead of waiting to be transfigured, why not try to be like a child again'.

From the beginning, it is Simon's mission to try and find David's mother for him and quite early on, and bizarrely, he arbitrarily settles on a young woman, Ines [a virgin!] who equally bizarrely agrees to be his mother, a role she adapts to with great enthusiasm.   The story then evolves into Simon's relationship with Ines and David's development within the constraints of this strange country leading inevitably to a crisis the resolution of which is typical of Coetzee's calm and measured approach to story telling.

This is a book not easily forgotten chiefly because Coetzee explains nothing.   But it is nonetheless beautiful and haunting.   Coetzee writes a lean, spare prose, no word casually used.   He gives little description of the country but the impression is of greyness and bleakness, cold at night and hot during the day.  Simon find it desolate.  Transport is free as are football matches, bread and apparently also the flat they are allocated.  Shops seem to be rare.   A sort of communist utopia then but given to us like an exquisite epic poem.   It will make you think.

The Childhood of Jesus is published in Vintage pb, £8.99 [€7.76 from Book]

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


I picked up Arimathea by Frank McGuinness largely because I was curious to see if such an accomplished playwright would make the transition to novel writing successfully - it blew me away!

I was naturally intrigued by the title and wondered about its relevance.   Arimathea was a small town perhaps in Judea, perhaps Samaria whence came Joseph who gave his grave for the burial of Jesus.   And graves seem to be the link as the novel certainly has a eschatological touch.   The plot, such as it is, arises as the result of a legacy -  and death, burial, and voices from beyond certainly figure strongly.  And religion does have an important role in that the major characters include the local priest, the Protestant minister and his niece.

The story is set in Donegal in a small village where the local priest, Fr O'Hagen, having inherited a sizeable sum from his mother, decides to commemorate her by bringing over from Italy, an artist, Gianni, to paint the Stations of the Cross for the local church.   Gianni is lodged in a house owned by a local family, the O'Donovans, with whom he takes his meals and whose young daughter, Euni, is charged with caring for him.   The narrative follows the life of the village, slow with apparently little happening outside the emotional turmoil of those most closely associated with Gianni.  But this is riveting.   McGuinness uses a similar technique to Donal Ryan in The Spinning Heart, in that he gives each of the main protagonists a chapter where we become privy to the thoughts and rampant desires hidden behind their often bland exteriors.  These chapters are followed by a rather beautiful one in the form of a poem on each of the Stations and a final chapter, Arimathea, which is a melange of voices in a wicked denouement.

McGuinness captures beautifully the voices of his protagonists, each very distinctive though oddly Gianni's is the weakest.   I say 'oddly' because this is territory McGuinness has visited before in Innocence about Caravaggio.   Young Euni is the first to break through Gianni's 'foreigness' and expose the real man and with Martha, the Minister's niece, he captures heart-breakingly her awkwardness, desire and uncertainties in the face of growing passion.   The portrayals of both Fr O'Hagen and his obsession with Mrs O'Donovan, and Minister Columba and his ironic outlook on life are extraordinary character studies.   There is a fascination for the reader in discovering the inner lives of the characters concealed from their neighbours and even the closest members of their families and this is the magic of McGuinness's writing.

I recommend that you find time for this.   It is published in Ireland by Brandon, an imprint of O'Brien Press, at €14.99.