Some brief thoughts on Peter Stamm’s To The Back of Beyond (trans. Michael Hofmann)

The sky is darkening.  The children are asleep.  I suppose there are birds making noises, and lights from other houses.  Thomas and Astrid share a glass of wine.  Astrid goes inside for some reason or another.  Thomas stands up and just – walks away.  He leaves.  Astrid returns to find her husband gone.  Vanished.

And so begins a couple of decades of Astrid waiting about while Thomas wanders Europe.

It’s a pretty interesting premise, I suppose, though not enough is done with it, and the ending is both exceptionally rushed and entirely unearned.  It’s a real shame.

The bulk of this slim novel is concerned with the back and forth of Astrid and Thomas in the initial days and then weeks of his disappearance.  She deals with the children, his job, the police, and he just – he just walks around a bit and drinks a beer or two and eats food.  Astrid is bewildered by it all, and isn’t really able to answer any questions.  The smallness of her emotions are understandable, as she’s been completely blindsided by it all.

But then there’s Thomas.  We spend half the book with him, but we don’t know him at all.  He’s empty.  He doesn’t come across as empathetic in his reasoning for leaving (he doesn’t have any) or interesting in the deadness of his emotions (that is too grand a description).  Instead, he’s just an ordinary guy who decided to leave his entire family.  He’d be despicable if it was worth casting a moral judgement.

Which is something the book doesn’t do, neither through Astrid nor the narration itself.  Thomas’ absence simply is, and that’s the whole book.

There is a very fine part of the book near the end where it seems that Thomas is dead and the narration is playing interesting time games to build dread and anticipation.  This was quite effective, which made Stamm’s reluctance to commit to this all the more galling.  He couldn’t stick the landing, and instead, after a fine twenty pages or so of build-up, the novel deflates and skips through years and nation states and the raising of children and burying of dogs.

It’s a waste.  All of it.  Exploring the social structure which allows a man to leave his family is interesting, or at least it could be, except it doesn’t occur here.  Everyone is so very passive, and stoic without being stoic against anything.  They just – mill about their lives.

Not for me.  But the premise – yes.  That was interesting.  The unwritten books dealing with that concept are no doubt fascinating.  But they clearly aren’t Stamm’s to write.

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Short Story Review – Clelia Farris – Holes (trans. Rachel Cordasco)

It’s nice to have holes. I like having holes. Knowledge is the world falling into a hole. The human being has evolved because it has holes. Alice found Wonderland at the bottom of a hole.

When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time, too much time in fact, reading bad fantasy books instead of, well, anything else.  I’m talking DragonLance, Terry Goodkind, and endless, endless Fighting Fantasy books.  None of them hold up today (Goodkind is a wannabe fascist), though I have something of a fondness for the Lone Wolf books by Joe Dever (though can someone please explain why all of these series seem to come out of D&D adventures?  What does this say about them, and us for reading them?)

Anyway something I didn’t do much was read science fiction.  I tried.  I read some Asimov, and I liked the stories about robots.  I read some of Greg Egan’s short stories, and they were good.  Mind opening.  Perhaps that’s why – I wasn’t ready to be challenged?

Science fiction is – or can be – about challenging preconceived notions, putting ideas and ideals into relief to see what might happen when taken to an extreme, or when explored to its fullest.  It offers an extension of where we are now via where we could end up, and perhaps whether we do or do not is reliant on the stories we are able to tell ourselves.

I don’t want to be too prescriptive.  Or too grand.  Space operas exist, of course, and they often woefully rotten junk.  Or just plain old grand adventures, which is fine, but not really what I’m talking about here.

Holes by Clelia Farris, is an ideas story.  Specifically, the ideas of nurturing, womanhood, being a mother.  It’s contained within the prism of a robotic/machine-like egg which seeks to create holes in itself, holes to encourage understanding.  And, unfortunately, pain.

This time, the pain is piercing, ferocious. Incandescent awls hammer my body from the inside, hooks soaked in acid widen the nicks, tear the skin to shreds, small drills from the tip thin as a strand of baby hair slip into the smooth albumen of my egg and emerge from the other side after leaving me a hole of infinitesimal diameter. They’re called pores, and they bloom like little spring flowers over every centimeter of my body.

The pain was not what ‘the server’ wanted, but overall she’s – cough cough, sorry sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself – fine with it.  The pain is worth it.  It’s no accident, I think, that the paragraphs in the story become longer, the sentences more elaborate, as the egg is pierced.  There are fewer sentences which begin with “I”.  The narration is more complex, and more pleasing to the ear.

De Sade Inc. contacts me to offer their services: What is full, with us becomes empty. Do you want to tear off the mask?

Clever, clever, clever.

I think short stories are a fine medium within which to explore the confines of a single idea.  I do.  I wonder if, perhaps, this short story is a touch too short.  For me, anyway, I was left without enough context to really sink my teeth into the ideas presented.

I’m intrigued by Farris.  I think this idea was successfully explored, but at the same time, for me, I wanted a bit more meat with my egg.  A bad metaphor, but you know what I mean.  The ending, when it arrives, is pretty obvious, but it’s a nice touch and works well.  This is a complete and coherent piece, and that, while perhaps seeming like simply damning with faint praise, really isn’t.  I’ve read DragonLance, remember?

Holes is a short story by Italian writer Clelia Farris, translated by Rachel Cordasco.  You can read the story at World Literature Today.

Author Clelia Farris
Title Holes
Translator Rachel Cordasco
Nationality Italian
Publisher World Literature Today

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Olga Grjasnowa – The Legal Haziness of a Marriage (trans. Eva Bacon)

This is something of a prologue to a larger novel, one that has not, I believe, been translated into English.  I suppose writing about a prologue – and about a female Azerbaijani writer – has value simply because of the rarity of the combination.  And so, here we are.

What to make of a woman who has done something utterly distasteful but suffered punishment entirely out of whack with what she has done?  Sympathy, I suppose.  But it’s hard.

Leyla is involved in illegal street racing in Baku.  It’s a pastime of the idle rich children of the monied political class and corrupt businessmen.   Supposedly, the fact that pedestrians might be run over and killed is all part of the thrill.  And Leyla loves it.  It is, she thinks, the “last remaining option for rebellion”, which is a frankly reprehensible way of looking at a dangerous and thoughtless activity.

However:

The presidential family frowned upon street racing. It was among the few offenses that couldn’t be smoothed out with money. The young drivers—none of the arrested had been older than twenty-six—were usually held at the police station, and the officers took turns giving them beatings. A common, even harmless, practice in this area of the world.

[The prison guard’s] right hand slowly wandered up Leyla’s thigh, lingered on her crotch, found its way into her underwear and there did its damage with slow determination. It only retreated to wipe off the snot that Leyla spit into his face. He might have even enjoyed Leyla’s unyielding disdain. When he was done, he hit her a few times with such force that she lost consciousness. She would wake up later with the taste of blood in her mouth and a hand on her breast.

It’s too much.  It’s too much.  She doesn’t deserve sexual assault as punishment for what she has done.  And, unfortunately, as the only woman detained, she bears the brunt of male attention.

Leyla’s thoughts fade in and out of the present as she is assaulted and beaten, coming to rest often on her history as a ballerina.  Those days are gone.  Grjasnowa creates an interesting comparison of the physical duress under which a ballerina-in-training and a prisoner suffer.

And yet and yet and yet.  I am sympathetic to Leyla.  I am.  She should not have to suffer like that.  But I am of course in moral opposition to what she has done and the enjoyment she has derived from it.  The violent games of the idle rich do not interest me, and if anything I support the state’s ability to round them up and teach them a lesson via fine and/or imprisonment.

But not the sexual violence lesson.  Or the physical violence lesson.

And I suppose this is the point.  I’m in an uncomfortable situation.  I would like to believe I have a strong moral compass, but here I am conflicted.  The easy answer is to say – stop the violence, stop the sexual assault, clean up the streets and give the kids something to do.

Really easy to type.  Really easy.

The Legal Haziness of a Marriage is a short story by Azerbaijani writer Olga Grjasnowa, translated by Eva Bacon.  You can read the story at Words Without Borders.

Author Olga Grjasnowa
Title The Legal Haziness of a Marriage
Translator Eva Bacon
Nationality Azerbaijani
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

I Remember – #988

I remember Noah Antweiler and his Spoony videos, and also spending a lazy evening watching videos chronicling his downfall and disappearance.  And then going back to rewatch his videos (particularly the one on FFVIII) – they do not hold up.

-6 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

The first 50 books – 2019

As of 13 June 2019 I have read 50 books for the year.

Let’s take a look at some statistics

  • 12/50 or 24% were written by women
  • 35/50 or 70% were translations
  • 7/50 or 14% were by Nobel Prize winning writers
  • 6/50 or 12% were fantasy novels

And the breakdown of books 41 – 50 are as follows:

  • 5/10 were written by women
  • 6/10 were translations
  • 3/10 were by Nobel Prize winning authors
  • 1/10 were fantasy
  • 3/10 were by small presses

I am pleased with the progress I made with the last 10 books, particularly as it relates to books written by women.  I did consciously try to read more books written by women, and in this I was helped by completing Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, which I still think is very strong, though perhaps would have been stronger with just the first book.  It really was a revelation, whereas the other two were variations on the theme.

I made significant progress with Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, but didn’t manage to finish it in time!  It should appear somewhere in the 51 – 60 range.  So far I think it is a strong book, and I like it, but I haven’t quite yet come to the understanding as to why she won the Nobel.  I can’t wait to find out, though!  And I know she both translated Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and considers it a key work in her own life, and that alone is enough to make me very curious and very interested in where she might take The Piano Teacher.

I recently – foolishly? – purchased all of the remaining books from Open Letter‘s back catalogue.  I now own everything they have ever published, and thank Anthony Blake for his assistance there.  It was really quite something receiving two enormous boxes of books!  Anyway, my intention is to spend some time focused on Open Letter’s books with a view to hopefully discovering a new writer I love forever and hold dear.

An interesting aside about Open Letter.  I have enjoyed a number of the books they have published.  And I have found at least one author (Sergio Chejfec) who I really admire.  But I haven’t yet found an author I love.  Dalkey Archive and New Directions have authors I love, but Open Letter?  Not yet.  Another challenge!

A month or so ago I was very much interested in reconnecting with fantasy, but that’s dropped off a bit recently.  I’ve been reading a lot, and having a good time with, and haven’t needed the kickstart that fantasy often provides.  And that is a common pendulum swing for me.  I’ll use fantasy books to get me going and then I’ll shift to more literary writers.  That said, I remain open to literary fantasy, and even epic fantasy, too, I just haven’t been reading it as much.

I’m making my way through Murakami’s 1Q84.  I read another 100 or so pages over the last few weeks.  Why?  Well.  I don’t know.  I suppose to see it through to the end?  I want to understand what it was that made Murakami think that this idea was worth spending 1,200 pages on.  So far, at about page 600, I can’t see it.  But there’s a lot more to go.  I look back at what I’ve read so far and – well, nothing has really happened.  Sure, I have daydreamed a lot about returning to Japan, but that is simply because I am reading Japanese names, and not due to any powers of description or emotion that Murakami might posses.  He is a singularly colourless writer, and when his ideas don’t quite connect (such as the woefully uninteresting Little People), then there’s just not much to his writing.

We’ll see, I suppose.

I Remember – #986

I remember Eloise and I sending one another recipes and screenshots/videos of the food we made, food that would invariably be forgotten by the time it came to eat such things for ourselves, because of seasonal drift.  I would send her summery recipes when it was cold in London, and so on and so forth.

-3 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.