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“Patterns coalesce, sometimes by chance at other times by design.” @FitzcarraldoEds #jeremycooper

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Back in 2019, I read a wonderful book from one of my favourite indie publishers, Fitzcarraldo Editions; and it was by a completely new-to-me author, Jeremy Cooper. The book was “Ash Before Oak”, and was a kind of autofiction in the form of journal entries by a man living in the country and struggling with mental health issues. It was a powerful and compelling read, so of course I was delighted when an ARC of his new book, “Bolt from the Blue” popped through the door. I was hoping this would be as good a read as his first work of fiction – and I wasn’t disappointed.

As I mentioned in my review of “Ash Before Oak”, Cooper is an art historian and so the art world is very familiar to him. Elements from his experiences there crept into “Ash…”; however, in “Bolt from the Blue”, that milieu takes centre stage, as the book relates the story of the relationship between artist Lynn Gallagher and her mother, via their letters, postcards and emails to each other over the period 1985 to 2018. I love an epistolary novel at the best of times; but this book takes the form to an extra level.

The book opens with Lynn introducing the correspondence, relating how she discovered the letters her mother had kept after the latter’s death. Initially, Lynn is something of a narrator, interjecting comments or descriptions of the postcards she’d sent to her mother; and she seems to dominate the story. However, as the book progresses, her mother starts to come to the fore, and more is gradually revealed about both women’s backgrounds, the events that made them what they are, the reasons for tensions between them and, eventually, the similarities between them.

Lynn leaves home to go to art college in London, leaving her home in Birmingham and her mother behind her. It’s obvious from the tone of the initial correspondence that she was glad to get away to a new life although at the start we don’t know why. Over the decades, Lynn negotiates a complex path through the art world; she’s a strong feminist who refuses to compromise, not only with others’ expectations of her, but also with the money and the corporate structure behind much of the modern art world. The narrative is studded with familiar names – Gilbert and George, Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin – and also less well-known figures I had to look up, as well as some invented ones. Into this structure, Cooper brilliantly weaves Lynn’s story, her rise to prominence, her search for her own voice as an artist, and the compromises she has to make in her personal life. This story alone is fascinating, as was watching the world change around Lynn as the decades passed (and Cooper did capture the changing times quite brilliantly).

Nothing is ever complete, everything always a version. An illusion to imagine that diligent research and enquiry, about anything or anyone, can produce the whole story. There is no such thing.

But what of Lynn’s mother? The initial impression, of a restrictive, traditional mother seen through a young girl’s eyes, is changed and tempered as the book progresses. Lynn’s mother is a woman with her own past and family issues, with reasons for turning out the way she did, and the relationship between mother and daughter changes significantly over the years, often in unexpected ways. Is there resolution? That’s a thought which calls into question the whole possibility of resolution in human relationships – and certainly the mother-daughter one is fraught with problems.

I don’t want to say much more about the specifics of the book, because I would hate to lessen the impact; but what I will say is that this is another quite brilliant piece of writing by Jeremy Cooper. The epistolary form can be such a clever way of telling a story anyway, and Cooper uses it quite marvellously here. There are often long gaps between messages, leaving the reader to wonder what has caused this (lost letters? arguments? both are possible and hinted at by Lynn’s narration). The story never really evolves in a straightforward linear manner; instead, little pieces leak out into a letter or postcard which reveal something crucial from past or present, giving you little lightbulb moments as you read. There *are* revelations slipping out in the messages – the bolts from the blue to which the title refers – and some of these did make me catch my breath. The characters of Lynn and her mother build and develop as the book goes on, until you have a striking portrait of two women who are actually not always as unalike as you might think from the early letters…

“Bolt from the Blue” is another wonderful book from both Cooper and Fitzcarraldo, and was a completely gripping read from start to finish. If for nothing else than its portrait of the modern art world, it would be a vital read; but as well as that, it’s a quite brilliant portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship and captures vividly the difficulty of remaining individual and true to yourself when faced by commercial pressures. Cooper’s insights into the art community are astute, drawn no doubt from his experience; and it’s worth noting that he’s not only written a work on the young British art movement of the 1990s, but also the British Museum’s catalogue of artists’ postcards. This latter element presumably informs the vivid descriptions of the postcards sent between mother and daughter, and adds another fascinating layer to the book.

When I reached the end of “Bolt from the Blue” I felt as if I’d lived alongside both these women, immersed in their lives, and if an author can achieve that, they’re quite brilliant. I’ve probably not done justice to the depth and complexity of the book in this short post, but it’s a remarkable work. Although I’m intending to share more Fitzcarraldos during #ReadIndies month in February, I wanted to post my thoughts on “Bolt…” today as it’s publication day for the book. I can’t recommend it highly enough – a unique and quite brilliant work!

#fitzcarraldofortnight – a look back at some previous reads during my Fitzcarraldo journey! @FitzcarraldoEds

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As we make our way through #fitzcarraldofortnight, I thought it might be nice to take a look back at the books I’ve read from the publisher. As I shared earlier, this is my collection of their books:

There are of course two ways of looking at my collection; firstly, in terms of subject matter, blue cover are fiction, and white covers are non-fiction! However, with Fitzcarraldo that divide is often blurred, which is fine by me!

So here are my blue covers:

And here are my white:

They all look and sound delicious, as far as I’m concerned!

The other split is, of course, read, and unread! Here is my ‘read’ pile:

Fortunately (phew!) it’s the majority of the books and there are some really wonderful titles there.

The first Fitzcarraldo I read, back in 2018, was “Flights” by Olga Tokarczuk, which is probably the book which is most responsible for bringing the publisher to a wider audience (for obvious reasons…) I said at the time that it was “an extraordinary work, a real tour de force with soaring prose and unforgettable stories. Tokarczuk weaves a wonderful tapestry of travellers’ tales whilst all the while digging down into the human psyche to see what it is that motivates us and what it means to be human. Reading “Flights” is like taking a wide-ranging and thought-provoking journey.” I still stand by that – fabulous book….

My next Fitzcarraldo, somewhat inevitably, was Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which was very different to “Flights”, but just as powerful and affecting. I concluded that ““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 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.” I really do want to read more Tokarczuk!

Next up on my Fitzcarraldo journey was another blue cover, “Ash Before Oak” by Jeremy Cooper. Taking the format of a diary or journal, it follows the life of an unnamed male narrator, who may or may not be the author. The book takes in his life in the country, the world around him and his fragile emotional state. It’s an immersive read, covering big topics including breakdown and suicide attempts, as well as the effect of the natural world on humans. Despite the potential blurring of the lines between fiction and fact, I concluded that that element really didn’t matter; “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.”

By the time I got to my next Fitzcarraldo, I had really developed a taste for these lovely, thought-provoking books. As part of #WITmonth I read “Vivian” by Christina Hesselholdt, a fictionalised life of the iconic photographer Vivian Maier. This was a brilliantly written work, blurring the lines again and even allowing the narrator a snarky voice of their own, letting them insert themself into the narrative! I opined ““Vivian” … with its clever structure, wonderful writing, playful yet thought-provoking narrative, and all-round fascinating story, is a real winner. It’s such a deep, complex and provocative book that I could say a lot more about it.. “Vivian” is … a wonderful read, highly recommended.”

So far, I had only read Fitzcarraldo blue covers, but the release of a new collection of writing from Ian Penman, an author I’ve read since my teens, drew me towards reading a white cover – the marvellous anthology “It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track”. Penman is one of those authors who can make any topic he writes about fascinating and enlightening, and this book did not let me down! This is writing about music which draws in all manner of erudite references, as well as social commentary, and makes you look at things in a new light. As I said at the time, “Even if you think you don’t like the artists covered or writings about music, I would recommend you read this marvellous selection of pieces; Ian Penman was one of the first writers I read who made me realise that you could push the cultural boundaries and that it was a good thing to do so – and he’s still doing it!”

Emboldened by my first successful white cover Fitzcarraldo, I invested in several more non-fiction works when they had an amazing sale on. The first I read from this selection was a slim, intriguing and though-provoking work from philosopher Simon Critchley – “Notes on Suicide”. Critchley’s book takes on an emotive and difficult subject to discuss; and his measured look at why some might choose to end their lives is an important contribution to that dialogue. I said at the time, “However, I feel that what Critchley brings to his essay on the subject is a calm and rational look at why we might choose to end our lives, a kind of history of the subject, as well as a personal viewpoint of how the subject affects him. His philosophical training gives him the necessary expertise to discuss suicide as a concept and I feel his book is definitely adds much to our understanding of the human condition.” That’s a judgement I stand by and I’ve gone on to read another book of his, which featured on the blog earlier this week.

That book was “Memory Theatre”, a different kind of book from “Notes” and yet one which was just as absorbing and thought-provoking. Critchley explores the ancient concepts of the memory palace and memory theatre, creating in the mind a structure filled with visual mnemonics to aid memory and knowledge. It was a fascinating book which most definitely blurred the lines between genres – most interesting and you can read my thoughts here!

Well – that’s my Fitzcarraldo journey so far. The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed there’s one book on the ‘read’ pile I haven’t mentioned – “Dark Satellites” by Clemens Meyer. My thoughts on that will appear on the Ramblings next week – but suffice to say it’s another thought-provoking read!

So, after going through the Fitzcarraldos I’ve read, I’m left with my unread pile which looks like this:

Interestingly, they’re all white cover non fiction! And all sound wonderful and all need to be read as soon as I can get to them. Will I read any before the end of our fortnight? That will be revealed later… ;D

… 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…!)

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