I Remember – #1014

I remember a Western-style cafe in Dotonbori which had an enormous map of the World up on the wall, huge really, with the prime coffee growing regions of the world identified and little text boxes jutting from each space, and instead of information about the geographic area or coffee type grown, instead there was lorem ipsum…

-1 July 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

Short Story Review – Paul Bowles – The Hyena

 

A stork flies through the air.  At Khang el Ghar there is a pool of water at the bottom of the ravine.  The stork descends, drinks.  Nearby, a hyena watches.

The stork isn’t foolish – it knows that the hyena is an animal of death, not mercy.  They discuss their respective natures; the hyena assures the stork that it is not interested in feeding.

“You are very lucky [the hyena tells the stork] Men never try to kill you, because they think you are holy.  They call you a saint and a sage.  And yet you seem like neither saint nor sage.”

When the stork asks the hyena why, the hyena admonishes it and suggests he look for Allah.

And so it goes – they discuss religion and the true nature of themselves as beasts.  Eventually, the stork comes to trust the hyena, and soon alights on the ground to discuss matters of great import (magic, Allah, man).  After a while the stork flies away, but hurts itself and is encouraged by the hyena to go to a nearby cave where they hyena lunges at the stork, ravages its neck, and leaves it for ten days, the better to eat as putrid carrion.

The story is told like a fable – it is a fable.  But fables are not always so connected to religion and the gifts that Allah has bestowed upon his creatures.  In this, both the stork and the hyena are cognisant of their natures while thankful to Allah for creating them so.  The stork is thoughtful but naive, whereas the hyena is presented as living entirely in the moment, aware that going to sleep and waking up alive is a luxury not always afforded to those hunted and hated by men.

The hyena is detatched and calm – not quite cold, and certainly not angry.  It exists because it was born and lived.  The hyena believes, it seems truly, in Allah, and praises him multiple times for what he has been given.  There is no anger in the death of the stork, though the hyena is satisfied with his ability to use his intellect to beat his opponent.  In this, he is more subtle and sophisticated than his prey, for all it may be worshipped by men.

A saint and a sage?  Perhaps.  Synonyms for food?  Perhaps.  

The Hyena is a short story by American writer Paul Bowles

Author Paul Bowles
Title The Hyena (from Pages From Cold Point)
Nationality American
Publisher Zenith

See Also

United States of America

Greek literature – contemporary recommendations, and a confession

A day or so ago it became clear to me that I am woefully under-read when it comes to Greek literature, and particularly contemporary Greek literature. It’s an almost complete unknown to me, and I assume (or assumed) that Greek literature was reasonably minor on the world stage.

Appreciation goes to Damon Young (Twitter: @damonayoung) for helping me recognise this

I don’t really know where this idea came from. Unpacking it a little, it could perhaps relate to the idea that the Ancient Greeks were so influential and important that the language and its literature must be in a decline/decadent phase now. But I have no evidence to support this. Contemplating other languages around the world, and I don’t really share this feeling with any other – though perhaps slightly with Italian (for the same reason??). That said, I have read and own a lot more Italian literature, so this prejudice is vague and fading.

This is clearly an issue and something I need to resolve within myself and address. I was surprised to discover I felt this way because, before now, I haven’t really even though about Greek literature at all. Yet my initial reaction was negative. There’s a problem here, and it’s entirely with me.

I spent an hour or so looking through my books, and outside of a couple of novels by Nikos Kazantzakis, I don’t own anything by any Greek writers other than the pre-AD writers.

None!

So, I sent out a query to Twitter – who among contemporary Greek writers are worth looking into?

Happily, the response was significant, and now I have lots of names to slowly address. This is very fine, and the details of the recommendations are below.

I decided also to review a Greek short story writer or two, with the first being Sophia Nikolaidou. You can see the list below (I’ll update as I add more):

  • Nikolaidou, Sophia – Houses Without Windows

Something that jumped out to me was the lack of Greek writers among the journals and publications I own. I am not naming and shaming as such, but these include – Dalkey Archive, Absinthe, Two Lines, Overland, Granta, The Black Herald. Weighty names. Granted, I don’t own everything published under those umbrellas, so it’s entirely possible I am missing many fine Greek writeres, but they weren’t there when I went looking.

At any rate, the below represent recommendations from various Twitter folk. I haven’t read a single word by any of these writers (well, excluding today’s read and review of Houses Without Windows), but I certainly respect the individuals mentioned below. Follow them! And perhaps buy and read some of these authors and their books –

  • Susan Pigman (@1SusyQ) – George Seferis, Constantine Cavafy, Yannis Ritsos
  • Tom (@TomWsf) – The Parthenon Bomber by Christos Chrysopoulos
  • @vivastory38 – Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki
  • Michael Holtmann (@michaelholtmann) – anything translated by Karen Emmerich
  • Ryan Ruby (@_ryanruby_) – Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo; What’s Left of the Night by Ersi Sotiropoulos; Amanda Michalopoulou; Christos Ikonomou
  • Marina Sofia (@marinaSofia8) – Ersi Sotiropoulos; Petros Markaris; Nikos Kazantsakis; Christos Ikonomou; Theodor Kallifatides; Ioanna Karystiani
  • Charles Lee (@charlesbrownesq) – Alexandros Papadiamantis; Sophia Nikolaidou; Vassilis Vassilikos
  • Tom (@AmateurReader) – George Seferis; Angelos Sikelianos; Odysseas Elytis
  • Jamie Richards (@JRichWords) – Margarita Karapanou; Vassilis Vassilikos; Giannis Ritsos

Short Story Review – Sophia Nikolaidou – Houses Without Windows (trans. Yannis Goumas)

They were wedded inside of a fortnight

A short, strange story.  Katerina is a spinster at twenty-seven (perish the thought!).  She is attending a dance, and for each person she dances with she makes a note.  Captain Nikolaos Topouzis met her father recently and learned of her; in Budapest, where they meet, they dance a cotillion.

Marriage comes.  Then, children.  Once a year for five years.  Each time the Captain returns from his long and dangerous voyages he stays long enought to ‘put her in the family way’ and then pushes off again.

Time passes.  The children grow.  Katarina engages in lacework – never crochet, which is for housemaids and nannies – and later, embroidery.  The house has no windows, which lets in the sea air.  Katerina doesn’t necessarily brood, but it’s unclear whether she is happy, and unclear still whether this is a requirement for her.  Not everyone needs happiness.

Later, she drips sea water into her eyes, stinging them.  Far away, on a ship in the Black Sea, her husband’s eyes sting.  Later still, his eyesight deteriates and doctors are unable to diagnose a cause.

The story is strange.  There is no indication prior to the ending that there might be some kind of supernatural bond between the two of them, or that sea water can cause later blindness.  None.  It’s the kind of ending that encourages a re-read, more carefully this time, to see what the reader may have missed.  But nothing.  It is, except for that, a reasonably ordinary (and quite short!) short story. 

Is Katarina unhappy?  Does it matter.  She clearly comes into her own after having children.  The clothes she created for herself bulge ‘with the fullness of her flesh’.  She is fertile, we know, but also, it seems, hungry.  And with a husband away for most of the year there is little to be done to sate this hunger.

Nikolaidou’s story raises more questions than it answers.  It in fact answers very little.  Both the Captain and his wife are basically unknowns to us – we learn more about her preference for clothing than we do anything else, and of him we learn nothing beyond his occupation, and that he wanted his wife to live in a house without windows. 

And there it is, perhaps.  The key to the story.  Strangeness begets strangeness, and when a person is forced to live on the cusp of the world, with the elements coming in, or not, as they please, then perhaps an unseemly connection with the sea can be made, and in that space a force of malice is created. 

Houses Without Windows is a short story by Greek writer Sophia Nikolaidou

Author Sophia Nikolaidou
Title Houses Without Windows
Translator Yannis Goumas
Nationality Greek
Publisher Absinthe

Abandoning Books – August 2021

Ah, August.  The month in which I attempt to recalibrate my reading to meet the goals I have set for the year.  I trim, top and tail, in an effort to remove those books I know I will not be finishing this year.  Often it’s on me, sometimes it’s on the book.

Let’s take a look at which books I have determined will not be continuing with me for the remainder of 2021.

Josiah Bancroft – Senlin Ascends

I first read this book in 2019.  It was immediately appealing – a natty, well-dressed, demure, soft-spoken young man takes his wife to the Tower of Babel, a strange and wondrous place where magic and mystery intertwine.  Within a couple of pages she has vanished and he has to begin his trek up the Tower from its lowest floor.  No honeymoon, no pleasure.

The book is fine.  I am reminded, in its early areas, of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.  I am reminded less of it as the book and series progressed, which is something of a positive and more of a negative.  It’s a fine book.  The series is well written and interesting, and the creativity on display is engaging.  The Tower is very strange place with its own remarkable and odd hierarchies and rules.  But the main rub for me, both last time and this time, when I have abandoned it, is that I can’t myself hold on to the central conceit of the series.  Thomas Senlin’s wife vanished so quickly that we hardly learn a thing about her.  We don’t love her the way Senlin does, and thus the motivating factor fades and fades.

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky – Hard to Be a God

An SF Masterworks series novel.  A slog, a slog, a slog.  I spent far too long pushing myself through bad prose, unclear characterisation, and vague motivation.  Nothing more to say.

Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time – Swann’s Way

I have read Proust in its entirety twice through, and deeply, deeply loved it both times.  This time, my head wasn’t in the game.  I have perhaps read 20 pages each month since the year began, which basically means I haven’t given this book the time or attention it deserves.  I’d like for 2022 to solidly read it all once more, but if I am realistic I just don’t have the attention at the moment to attend to Proust and his sentences.

This one is on me.  If you’ve never read Proust, please take the time to do so – but prepared to swallow up six months of your life.  It’s worth it.  It really is.  Even just writing about it now makes me want to devote some time, but – no!  2022, friends.

Philip Roth – Sabbath’s Theatre

Every year or so I return to Roth.  For me, he was a formative writer of my 20s and I was, for a long time, more than obsessed.  I have read most of his published novels five or more times, with some (The Human Stain, American Pastoral, The Humbling, The Ghost Writer) pushing ten times.  I love his anger, his outrage, his, to borrow so many critics’ phrase – muscular writing.  But I am not as angry as I was when I was in my twenties, and I am not, yet, at an age where so much of my life is looking back at what I have done.

Sabbath’s Theatre straddles both of these major themes which means, for me, right now, in my late 30s, that I don’t really have the patience for his writing.  I’ll return to him, I’ll come back, but just as his own 30s as a writer wasn’t particularly great, my 30s as a reader of Roth is lacking.

Wiesław Myśliwski – Stone Upon Stone

Sometimes, I just can’t bring myself to read books about agrarian lifestyles.  Extremely, unfairly reductive, but 70 pages in to the novel and that’s all I can see.  I’ll set it aside for another day as I trust both the published (Archipelago Books), and the many folks on Twitter who recommended I read it.

Eric Hazan – A People’s History of the French Revolution

Simon Schama or bust.

William H. Gass – The Tunnel

I started this book around the same time as Stone Upon Stone and Proust.  Too many big books at once.  Too much ambition, too many masterpieces pulling for my attention.  I didn’t and haven’t given the novel its due.  One day, one day.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the books I am abandoning are a reflection of me as a reader right now, right here.   With two small children, I have less time to devote to enormous masterpieces, because it’s possible I will put a book down and not pick it up for weeks or months.  And who can do that with The Tunnel or Proust?  Nobody.  Those books deserve better.

At the moment, I am a man of novellas and sporty books.  And fantasy (!).  I need something I can finish quickly and well.

I continue to plug away at a few big books.  Bolaño’s 2666, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.  I just can’t read all of the big books at once.  It’s not fair to them, and it certainly isn’t doing me any good.

Short Story Review – Jane Black – It’ll Find You All the Time

She had tried to make our job easier, laid two plastic shower liners on the floor to try and keep her blood from leaking into the carpet. Maybe it was out of the kindness of her heart. She sat in a chair on top, pulled the trigger with her toe. She had left the door locked. Wanted to be left alone. She also left the overhead fan on high. Maybe she wanted to be comfortable, but it means one thing to me.

The considerate suicide.  Her viscuous self may be all over the room now, but she put down sheets.  Not everyone does.  Not everyone thinks about the clean-up.

It doesn’t matter much.  The narrator, quiet and inward as they work with their partner, Eddie, can taste the woman in the air.  She permeates things.  The stench of death thickens a room.  Our narrator is not, we think, cut out for this job.  But they do it – it pays and there isn’t much to it other than cleaning.  And while cleaning, the narrator notes that “[h]er room is a pomegranate and we have to spend all day picking out the seeds.”

On their way to another job something happens and a part of the suicide victim is transported into a coke can.  A tooth.  The narrator knows it’s there but doesn’t say a thing as Eddie drinks from it.

The two characters seem to like each other. Eddie, at least, is all about the hustle, even if that means thieving (from an employee or a store).  They have become deadened to something while cleaning up the dead and the narrator, at least, is unsettled by this.

A few years ago I started listening to a podcast about a couple who ran a business cleaning up the messy dead.  I didn’t make it far, not because it was particular disturbing, but because they repeatedly boiled down the task to its boring, ordinary, routine constituent parts.  At some point, you aren’t cleaning up a suicide, you are wiping a photo frame and scrubbing a bookshelf.  It’s too plain.  Such matters force you to consider whether death is actually a meaningful act, what significance it might have.  The narrator of It’ll Find You All the Time is wrestling with this as, each week, the magnitude of death fades and it becomes yet another involved cleaning project.

The smell lingers.  Smells linger throughout the story, opening and closing it in fact.  The narrator is attuned to this.  They can’t stop thinking about it, in fact, along with the other primary senses.  There is an impression that their life has been boiled down to what they can sense, which guides what they feel.  There is little time for thought.  Perhaps the enormity of carrying particles of another person’s brain with you is too much to process.  Many showers must be had.

 There is a sense of class injustice here.  The woman who committed suicide was poor, and the people who cleaned her up were poorer still.  The dirty, the dangerous, the violent, the sad occupations – they are the purview of the poor.  The critical jobs, I might add.  No matter how much technology might improve our lives, we need cleaners, and without them we suffer.  Jane Black is aware of this, she touches on it lightly but firmly.  Nobody will be escaping this life soon, unless, well – 

It’ll Find You All the Time is a short story by American writer Jane Black

Author Jane Black
Title It’ll Find You All the Time
Nationality American
Publisher Expat Press

See Also

United States of America

List of female writers under review

Short Story Review – May Armand Blanc – The Last Rendezvous (trans. Brian Stableford)

The French feminist journal, La Fronde, was a groundbreaking publication in that it was both staffed and run by women, but also dared to pay them equally to men in similar role.  From 1897 to 1905 it burned brightly, achieving a print circulation which before then had seemed impossible for a publication written entirely by women.  It didn’t survive, likely because it was too radical: not only was it devoted to the equality of women, it also took further risks, such as dating the newspaper by the French Revolutionary Calendar, the Jewish calendar and the Gregorian. 

One of the contributors to the newspaper was May Armand Blanc, a woman who died young and whose identity remains somewhat shrouded even today.  May Armand Blanc (sometimes May Armand-blanc) published many short stories and novels in her mid to late twenties, before dying at thirty.  Illness tinges these works, though they are not obsessed with sickness.

The collection The Last Rendezvous, published by Snuggly Books, and translated by Brian Stableford, collects many of these short works in a sporty 350-page book.  The first story, also titled The Last Rendezvous, is brief, passionate, and hopeless.  It is the dying embers of love, a love where the woman wants to continue the relationship while knowing the man does not. 

The cruelty of the infinite minutes when she had watched out for him, always having arrived first, appeared to her at that moment as the greatest happiness.  She appealed to him very softly by his name: “Georges!” and suddenly desired to flee without every seeing him again: to flee the determined place to which he was goign to come, the city where they might encounter one another, and the land where he lived – to flee herself, and her cowardly heart, which loved him so much.

She knows it is over, she knows her time with him is done, but she clings to the last remaining hour as though frenzied.  This is beyond reason or passion, and in her last efforts to hold on to Georges he discovers in her something distasteful, even ugly.  They have agreed to meet on a cold night in Paris, him begrudgingly, her desparate.  It is immediately clear that in his mind, an hour really meant a couple of minutes, and in her mind, it meant forever.  The writing is dark in tone, and there is an undercurrent of menance, as though the whole interaction was balancing on a knife’s edge.  At any moment violence could appear, unlikely from him, but possible from Catherine – if she can’t have him, no-one can.

He kissed her softly.  Then she lifted her veil and gave him profound kisses that wanted to devour the flesh and drink the soul of that being, in the desolate fury of the impossible.

This is a short piece – a couple of pages.  Georges is distant and unknowable, with none of Catherine’s thoughts or exclamations helping to explain why she loves him so.  Perhaps he is a cypher, a blank slate filled in by her desire to love someone.  Perhaps not.  We don’t know.  What we see is the end of something, and it is sad and miserable and pathetic.

The Last Rendezvous is a short story by French writer May Armand Blanc

Author May Armand Blanc
Title The Last Rendezvous
Translator Brian Stableford
Nationality French
Publisher Snuggly Books

Short Story Review – Akiyuki Nosaka – The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine (trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

 

August 1945.  A sardine whale swims near the Izu Islands in search of a mate.  He is a big whale, too big in fact – for his species, the female is big and the male is not.  He is an aberrant whale, though he is, we can tell, reasonably friendly and polite.

He swims.  We know what he does not, which is that 1945 in Japanese waters is a portentous time.  The first half of Nosaka’s short story, The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine, concerns itself primarily with conveying the idyllic, though somewhat lonely, existence of this whale.  He wants a mate, but he’s also pretty happy to eat sardines and enjoy the sun.  But we know that this is not a good time to be in the water.

Soon, he spies a Japanese submarine, which he mistakes for a large female sardine whale.  He’s enamoured with it, and attempts to get close.  The Japanese soldiers inside are quite worried, and also irritated, as they know they are in danger from the Americans, and the last thing they need is a whale harassing them.  

Here, the story shifts, and we go back and from the perspective of the whale to the soldiers, both with sufficient authorial distance that the whole story retains a cool, calm poise as matters escalate and violence appears. Americans enter the equation, aggressive, active, powerful, mighty, and the Japanese soldiers panic and determine they will fight.

But the submarine had no intentions of doing any such thing.  Having discussed the matter, the crew had decided to fight against America until the bitter end, and were now feverishly making preparations, putting on fresh underwear and writing farewell notes to their loved ones.

But the whale is in the way.  It nudges up against the submarine.  Its heart is full of love.  Here, finally, is a mate worthy of his largeness.

The whale became frantic with worry and swam hysterically around his beloved, but the gathered ships mistook him for the submarine and threw out a depth charge.  Shocked by the loud explosion he swam off, but they gave chase.

Soon, parts of the whale are blown away by depth charges and the waters turn red.  The Americans believe this is their victory – the submarine is destroyed and the red, bloody water has become like this from the dead and dying Japanese.  The Japanese soldiers cannot believe their luck, and acknowledge that the whale had helped them.  The day ends with the submarine floating on a clouded red sea.

What to make of all this?  The absurdity of both love and war are on display, but there isn’t quite enough meat here to delve too deeply into these concepts (apologies to the whale).  Perhaps better would have been also to understand more from the Americans, but as it stands the dispassionate narration acts more as a barrier than an entry-point.  It is absurd to enter the mind of a whale, and I will admit to detesting works that purport to come from inside the consciousness of an animal (Kafka aside), but by staying so far away from the true emotions and thoughts of what is happening we’re left with a rather cold scene.  But perhaps that is what violence is, or at least it’s aftermath – quiet, red, regretful.

The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine is a short story by Japanese writer Akiyuki Nosaka, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.  

Author Akiyuki Nosaka
Title The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine
Translator Ginny Tapley Takemori
Nationality Japanese
Publisher Pushkin Press

Let’s Read Patricia A. McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (Chapter 1, pp 1-21)

Welcome to my Let’s Read of Patricia A. McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

Today I am reading Chapter 1, which takes us from pages 1 through 21.

I have begun this Let’s Read in order to expand my reading further into fantasy, particularly fantasy that is considered classic by the experts in the medium itself.

I am not well versed in fantasy as a genre. Well. I have read a number of books, but it’s all the same books that anyone else with a passing interest has read. A Song of Ice and Fire. The Wheel of Time. The Malazan Book of the Fallen. The Sword of Truth (forgive me). A bit of Joe Abercrombie, a touch of Scott Lynch, a dash of Gene Wolfe (just a dash). A book or two of Le Guin. In short – not enough, and what I have read is mostly male, mostly white, mostly epic fantasy.

What I haven’t read a lot of are the classics of the genre, or books written by women, or any group that isn’t a white male sharing their power fantasy.

I’m hoping these posts will encourage both myself to read wider, and also to engender dialogue about what fantasy is and could be and has been. Consider me ignorant but curious – help me if you know more and wish to share.

Patricia A. McKillip (McKillip) published this book when she was very young, 26, back in 1974. It won a number of awards, and forms part of Gollancz’s series, Fantasy Masterworks. I bought it on the strength of that series. She is, as of February 2021, alive, and continues to write and publish.

I am reading this book blind and sharing my impressions as I go. I am not intending on reviewing so much as sharing.

The book opens with a short introduction by Pat Cadigan. In it, he talks a little about the writer and a lot about the fact that he partied in the 1970s with a number of people. So it goes and moving on.

After that the book opens proper. McKillip begins with a prose style that clearly defines itself in the realm of fable. We learn of Sybel’s lineage, and the wizards and dark-eyed women who make up her parents and grandparents. Along the way the family’s connection to mythical beasts is explored, but honestly, these first few pages are a soup of nouns and sentences such as “The Wizard Heald coupled with a poor woman once”.

Sybel is born and, by then, the family’s connections to the outside world are mostly gone. Like us, for Sybel the names of nations and peoples are close to meaningless. Unlike us she lives with strange beasts and speaks with dragons. A man, Coren of Sirle, comes to see her, and with him is a baby, Tamlorn, a future king.

“Only…I do not know what to do with a baby. It cannot tell me what it needs.”

Coren was silent a moment. When he spoke finally, she heard the weariness haunting his voice like an overtone. “You are a girl. You should know such things.”

“Why?”

“Because – because you will have children someday and you – will have to know how to care for them.”

“I had no woman to care for me,” Sybel said. “My father fed me goat’s milk and taught me to read his books.”

Nonetheless she takes on the care of the baby, and starts to love him. An old woman offers to help raise the child – she leaves a gemstone for a nearby farmer in return for their cow. For the next several years as the child grows into a boy and then a man, villagers keep their barn doors open in hope that another gem might appear, another cow might be taken.

And Sybel learns to love.

Thus far, I am concerned at the sheer number of nonsense proper nouns that were thrown at me in the first few pages. Mondor. Eld. Eldwold. Terbrec. Sirle Lords. Fallow Field. Black Swan of Tirlith. King Merroc. Boar Cyrin. Gyld. These all from the first two pages. They signify little and mean less, but as I read I hold them in my mind in case they become relevant. It’s exhausting, and is an area, I think, where fantasy can be weak. How much of this is ‘world building’, and how much relevant? I hope to find out soon.

The book comes alive when Sybel and Coren discuss the baby’s plight and fate. There’s something to hold on to here, something tangible and real. I would not like it much if the book became an exercise in a strange woman learning how to learn through the magic of children, but I expect that this is not where it will go – such books aren’t considered classics, surely?

The confidence on display by McKillip is something. At twenty-six, she had the courage to open her book in such a manner, and then courage again to reduce the grandess from “Sirle Lords” to a crying baby in a handful of pages. It’s a striking first chapter, though the final page or so suffers again from Noun-ing too heavily, which perhaps bodes less well for future chapters.