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… the desperation that washes through me.” @FitzcarraldoEds

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Ash before Oak by Jeremy Cooper

*(Trigger warning – this post, and indeed this book, discuss themes of breakdown and suicide)*

One of this year’s issues from the lovely Fitzcarraldo Editions, this is an intriguing piece of writing, and one which to a certain extend defies classification. Published in their blue livery, indicating fiction, it takes on the form of a diary or journal and follows the life of an unnamed male narrator. The solitary man lives in a cottage on a solitary Somerset estate which is in the process of being renovated, both by him and other locals. The narrator records the natural life around him, from the changing seasons to the trees and plants, the birds and wild creatures to the moths and butterflies. Initially, it’s hard to place the journal entries in a particular era, as simply the date without a year is given; but as the narrative progresses, references to external world events such as 9/11 are slipped in so that the reader realises this is the early part of the 21st century.

So we share our narrator’s days, as he observes moles tunnelling under his lawn, tries to tackle the cottage’s mouse problem in a humane way and interacts with his neighbours – particularly a woman called Beth, 20 years his junior. The observations of nature are beautiful and the narrative hypnotic and compelling; however, as we read it becomes clear that not all is quite right with our narrator. Cracks in the descriptions of flora and fauna allow comments to slip through which are almost asides but which reveal that the mental state of the narrator is a fragile one, and we begin to realise that he is isolated in the country for a reason, that he has been through or is going through some kind of mental trauma, and that our view of this is only going to be partial.

With neat observations I make myself seem rational and urbane.
Far from true.

As the book moves on, parts of the narrator’s past slip into the writing; his past work; his marriage, over for 20 years; his complex relationship with his family. Beth also appears regularly in the journal and we start to realise that she is more than just a neighbour, and something of a crutch to the man as he works through his issues. There are visits to a therapist; fragments of memory about his parents and the experiences of his youth; and the sense grows that the narrators is damaged by his past. However, off camera events take a dramatic turn; we see the aftermath of an attempt at self-murder; and it is touch and go as to whether our narrator will regain any kind of equilibrium.

I don’t want to say too much more which is specific about this extraordinary book because it would deaden the impact of reading it; that process is vital to the understanding of the narrator, his place in the world and what he’s going through. The gradual revealing of past and current events, the careful building up of the tapestry of his life, is done in a masterly fashion and “Ash…” needs to be read mindfully so as to pick up the nuances stitched into the narrative. It’s also a consciously literary book; it’s laced with telling references to other works and writers, such as Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and Virginia Woolf, amongst many others; and these are all discreet hints as to the narrator’s state of mind.

Accept the solitude, I tell myself, if that’s how things currently must be. It’s enough this moment to enjoy the sight of the candle-like blooms on the weeping bird cherry tree, released this year by my cuttings and clearings to flourish near the bench.

“Ash before Oak” is a remarkable and immersive piece of storytelling, and it’s a book in which the gaps are as important as the actual narrative itself. Bravely, the publisher has made use of the white space on page; each new day has a separate page of its own, and some of these only have a single line entry. This emphasises the bleakness of the days when the narrator cannot write, and if the entries had run continuously on from page to page the effect would have been severely diminished.

Although “Ash…” is a book which is extremely beautiful in places, in others it can be excruciatingly sad, charting as it does the complex mental state of a man clearly suffering a breakdown. Nevertheless, there is hope of redemption and a more positive future, with the narrator seeing chinks of light at the end of the tunnel and the ending is upbeat rather than downbeat. More than that I will not say!

I have the feeling that purpose is a spectre of man’s delusion, that it does not, did not, never will exist, that we’ve invented purpose in the hope of easing our burden while, in fact, torturing each other with the prospect. We may, quite soon, impale ourselves on purpose, extinguish the human race in our attempt to conquer meaning.

I mentioned at the start of this post that the book defies classification, and I’m going to have to explain this by delving into the knotty issue of autofiction. I’d not really thought very deeply about this as a genre before; after all, doesn’t every piece of fiction drawn to some extent on the author’s life and thoughts and actions and the events they’ve experienced? “Ash…” is described as Cooper’s first novel in over a decade, which suggests it should be read simply as fiction. It is, however, impossible to read this as anything other than autofiction, since the narrative is peppered with real people, real books and real facts; the narrator is a writer; he shares the same career trajectory as the author, such as spending many years appearing on Antiques Roadshow and having a large collection of art postcards. The narrator’s friends are real people; for example, one who wrote a book mentioned in the journals, which is actually real and available on Amazon; and the curator Jeremy Compston, who appears in the book as the narrator’s friend – Cooper has actually written a biography of him. So, much as I try not to conflate and author and their characters, by the end of this I clearly had.

This did set me thinking a little bit about autofiction in general; and in a weird kind of synchronicity, I read an article by Tim Parks on the subject just after finishing “Ash”. It was a very illuminating piece, pointing out that autofiction has existed back to the time of Dante, and quoting also Tolstoy’s use of his life in his fictions. I ended up thinking that in the past an author would use real life sources but change names, places and probably facts to make the fiction. Nowadays, the reality isn’t cloaked; instead, the *real* events, people and places feature, but still filtered through the novelist’s lens.

And at the end of that, I came to the conclusion that it actually doesn’t matter. Cooper chose to tell his story (and I’m assuming, possibly incorrectly, that it’s a story of *his* breakdown) in a fictionalised way, and that’s fine. It’s a book I found myself reading compulsively, drawn in by the imagery of the natural world around the narrator and the wish to follow his journey to whatever end it reached. In many ways, the book reads as an act of catharsis, of writing out of one’s pain, and the result is really stunning. I think it might be a good time to stop worrying about what’s fact and fiction, and just accept that there is very little written that’s actually true (I reckon most autobiographies are probably very fictionalised, for example!) Because however you want to classify it, “Ash before Oak” is a profound, moving and beautifully written work blending nature and humanity, and another winner from Fitzcarraldo.

(Just in case you’re wondering, the title is taken from a traditional country rhyme predicting the amount of rain we’re likely to have depending on which of the two trees produces leaves first! Yes, we really are obsessed with the weather in this country…!)

If it’s London, there must be books…. @Foyles @secondshelfbks @JuddBooks

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Unfortunately for the shelves in my house, visits to London are inextricably linked with bookshopping, and Saturday was no exception to the general rule… My BFF J. and I managed to miss out on our usual pre-Christmas get-together back in December, and so as it was her birthday yesterday, we decided to have a catch-up, a gossip and a general bimble round London (as she puts it) on Saturday – which turned out to be a relaxing, fun and profitable trip! 😀

The KBR tote came in handy as always….

Inevitably there were bookshops and after we’d done a bit of general browsing (clothes, fabric and art shops!) we decided to give Second Shelf Books a look, as I’d been very impressed by what I’d seen and heard about them (and Ali thought very highly of them on her visit!) We rolled up fairly early (we’re morning birds), wondering if they’d be open and even though they weren’t officially, the very nice person behind the till let us in! And what a lovely place it is! We had a wonderful browse through all the wonderful rarities and first editions, with me eventually settling on purchasing this:

It’s by Elaine Feinstein, who translates Tsvetaeva wonderfully and whose biography of Anna Akhmatova I have lurking and it’s a mixture of novel set in Russia amongst real writers as well as her poetry. So it was most definitely coming home with me… ;D

After interludes for getting vaguely lost, stopping for lunch at Leons (with much gossip and catching up) as well as a very tempting visit to Paperchase, we headed for Judd Books in Marchmont Street. They’re a stone’s throw from Skoob (which we managed to resist) and I can’t recommend them enough. Judds is a shop always stuffed with unexpected treats and I was lucky to get out with only these:

I’ve wanted to add Marianne Moore to my poetry pile for yonks and this was at a fraction of the price it is online (bricks and mortar shops win out again!). As for the book on Peake, I’m not sure how I missed out on this when it originally came out, but it’s absolutely stuffed with the most amazing artworks, essays and writings, and a steal at the price. Both J. and I left with copies…

Inevitably, we ended up at Foyles – well, how could we not? – and partook of tea in the cafe, while J. finished reading a book she’d brought with her for me. Yes, she’d managed to procure me a beautiful first edition of a Beverley I needed!

As it comes with a dustjacket, I was doubly pleased and now I can get on with reading the rest of this particular house/garden trilogy of Bev’s! Dead chuffed!

We didn’t get out of Foyles unscathed, needless to say. Although I *did* exercise restraint, picking up and putting down any number of books. J. indulged in some poetry in the form of Roger McGough and Willa Cather (two of her favourites), whereas I eventually settled on these:

I’ve been circling the Gamboni for a while and finally decided to go for this new, reasonably priced edition (the old ones were priced at scholarly book rates…). As for the Kate Briggs, it’s all about translation and I love translated books and I love translators so it’s a no-brainer. Very excited about this one…. 😀

That’s it book-wise. We were in any number of stationery and art shops, and bearing that in mind I certainly think that the small haul I have was very well-behaved of me…

The tea is green with mint (my favourite) which I decided to treat myself to from Fortnum and Mason (yes, really!) We were in there to pick up some favourite marmalade for J.’s hubby, and I decided to treat Mr. Kaggsy to some posh coffee flavoured choc (not pictured). The tea just fell into my hand as I was queuing to pay…

So a fun day out gossiping, playing catch-up and shopping – lovely! It *is* nice to live close enough to London to pop up there (and especially go to Foyles, although those visits always bring a sense of despair at the *mess* of construction that’s going on in the area). Now it’s just a case of deciding what to read next… 😉

However, before I finish this post, there was *one* more book which sneaked into the house at the weekend, and that was a volume I ordered online after reading a review of it here. Kate Macdonald picked up her copy, oddly enough, at Second Shelf, and wasn’t so enamoured with Priestley’s grumbling. However, I’ve found his grumpy narratives oddly entertaining, so I though I’d give it a try! 😀

“I am a phantom built out of pain.” #olgatokarczuk @FitzcarraldoEds

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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

…people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous.

One of my standout reading experiences last year was the discovery of the marvellous Polish author Olga Tokarczuk; I read and loved her Man Booker International prize-winning “Flights”, in the wonderful translation by Jennifer Croft, and it got special mention in my end of year round up.

Her novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”, an earlier work, also came out last year, rendered by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, so I was of course very, very keen to read it.

We left the house and were instantly engulfed by the familiar cold, wet air that reminds us every winter that the world was not created for Mankind, and for at least half the year it shows us how very hostile it is to us.

Set in a remote Polish village, near the Czech border, “Plow…” is narrated by Janina Duszejko. A woman in her sixties, she lives in this bleak region on her own, caring for her neighbours’ houses while they’re away for the winter, and caring as well for the animals in the area. Duszejko is a woman with an interesting past – she was previously an architect, involved in the building of an important bridge, but now works teaching English to children, reading the stars and casting horoscopes, and helping her young friend Dizzy to translate Blake. But Duszejko is at odds with the traditional world around her; she is in conflict with the local hunting club, and this extends to a general clash with traditional Polish values; as she states at one point quite baldly,

For some time I shared my bed with a Catholic, and nothing good came of it.

The book opens with a death; one of few neighbours Duszejko has who stay out the winter, Big Foot, is discovered having choked on a bone. And the deaths continue, as members of the local hunting club are gradually picked off. The authorities favour a conspiracy, with mafia involvement, as these men are known to have been high flyers. Yet Duszejko thinks differently. These men were hunters, viciously cruel to animals, and she’s convinced the latter are taking their revenge. Naturally, the authorities dismiss this as the theories of a cranky old woman; but Duszejko is adamant, and tries to persuade her group of misfit friends, including her other neighbour Oddball, Dizzy, Good News from the local thrift-style store and Boros, a visiting insect specialist. But what is the truth?

Winter mornings are made of steel; they have a metallic taste and sharp edges. On a Wednesday in January, at seven in the morning, it’s plain to see that the world was not made for Man, and definitely not for his comfort or pleasure.

However, “Plow” is more than just a murder mystery; it takes in all manner of issues, from animal cruelty (perhaps the dominant theme) through the hypocrisy of organised religion, the shifting borders of countries, the stars and predestination, the misogyny meted out to older women and society’s treatment of outsiders, misfits and the marginal. Duszejko is constantly met with disbelief or anger as she tries to make her point and much of this is because she’s female.

My belief (is) that the human psyche evolved in order to defend us against seeing the truth. To prevent us from catching sight of the mechanism. The psyche is our defence system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going on around us. Its main task is to filter information, even though the capabilities of our brains are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering.

As with “Flights”, “Plow” is a brilliantly written book which touches on all these deep subjects yet keeps you completely hooked. Tokarczuk’s writing is the kind where every sentence matters; you find yourself pausing regularly to consider what you just read and the meaning behind it, and each new development alters your perceptions (a very Blakeian touch). The book’s title is drawn from William Blake, a recurring presence in the story, and the bones of the dead are ever-present; most often in the form of suffering animals, but there is the human death too and I was reminded that we can all suffer and die in the same way, whether man or beast. Throughout the story Duszejko suffers all manner of unspecified ailments which colour her life and appear almost psychosomatic at time, brought on by events around her; another way of emphasising our connection with the world. She’s also regularly visited by her death mother and grandmother, and at times her connection with the real world seems slight.

At night I observe Venus, closely following the transitions of this beautiful Damsel. I prefer her as the Evening Star, when she appears as if out of nowhere, as if by magic, and goes down behind the Sun. A spark of eternal light. It is at Dusk that the most interesting things occur, for that is when simple differences fade away. I could live in everlasting Dusk.

Despite this being what appears initially to be a straightforward narrative, albeit one constantly laced with sadness and also dark humour, Tocarczuk’s distinctive voice soon draws the reader into the web of Duszejko’s mind and it’s a very complex one. She has a shifting, unsettling voice, often hinting at events which took place in the past, rather than coming straight out with facts – for example the loss of her beloved dogs isn’t given explicit explanation until much closer to the denouement. Is Duszejko an unreliable narrator? Probably – hers is a very particular viewpoint and her individuality is emphasised by touches like the use of capitals for particular words where you aren’t expecting it, another Blakeian element, and one which the latter apparently used to ascribe importance to particular parts of his writings. Similarly, objects and people are given names more appropriate to how they are than their actual names, which adds another layer of dislocation and strangeness, highlighting the slight dislocation of this little world on the borders.

By Tomasz Leśniowski [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The language is beautiful, often hypnotic, and the natural world takes pride of place in the narrative. I think there’s probably a lot of symbolism in the book I might have missed and it certainly demands another reading. I did start to grasp some of where the book was heading as it went on, so the eventual denouement wasn’t really a surprise; but I don’t imagine Tokarczuk expected it to be, as her take on the murder mystery format is very individual!

As I gazed at the black-and-white landscape of the Plateau I realise that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.

As well as Duszejko, Tokarczuk presents a beautifully drawn supporting cast of characters. The little group of misfits around the narrator became like personal friends and it was actually a wrench to leave them behind as the book closed. The hunters were just revolting and I found myself, of course, in total harmony with Duszejko’s outlook; in fact, I found myself questioning her eating of cheese, as I do feel with her love of animals she should have been vegan, not just vegetarian! The outcome is perhaps controversial; well, I say perhaps, but I believe the book caused some uproar in Tokarczuk’s native Poland; I guess if you attack deeply ingrained traditions that’s what happens, but I would stand side by side with Duszejko and the animals against the hunters.

How wonderful – to translate from one language to another, and by doing so to bring people closer to one another – what a beautiful idea.

“Plow” is another deeply moving, completely involving and thoroughly original book by Olga Tokarczuk, and I could have pulled out so many more quotes than I actually have. I can’t thank her translators and publishers enough for making her work available in my language, and I reckon that this one will also end up in my books of the year round up in December. Tokarczuk is an author of originality and stature, and “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is a masterly work that should be required reading if we want to try to turn the state of our world around. Highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions, for which many thanks!

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