The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

A couple of years ago I read The Springs of Affection, a beautifully affecting collection of stories by the Irish writer and journalist Maeve Brennan. What struck me most about those stories was the strong sense of emotional dislocation they conveyed, particularly though their focus on lonely, unhappy individuals, often trapped in loveless marriages. The characters seemed caught in a form of stasis, unable to reach out to one another while unspoken bitterness and resentment festered away and remained unchecked.  

There is a similar air of bitterness and resentment in The Visitor, a novella that was published posthumously in 2000 following its discovery in publishing archives that had been acquired by the University of Notre Dame in the 1980s. It is not known when Brennan first started work on The Visitor, but she is thought to have finished it in the mid-1940s. As such, it is one of her earliest works of fiction, all the more astonishing considering its power and precision – it’s remarkably accomplished for such an early piece.

As the novella opens, twenty-two-year-old Anastasia King is returning to her childhood home in Dublin, a house owned by her paternal grandmother, Mrs King. When Anastasia was sixteen, her mother and father split up, the mother fleeing to Paris and subsequently sending for Anastasia to join her there. As a consequence, Anastasia has been living in Paris for six years. Now both of Anastasia’s parents are dead, leaving the girl with no remaining family other than Mrs King – hence Anastasia’s belief that she will be able to live with her grandmother (and the latter’s elderly housekeeper, Katherine) going forward.

Mrs King, however, has a different view of the situation. She still blames Anastasia’s mother for the break-up of her son’s marriage, thereby bringing shame and disgrace on her son and the King family as a whole. Anastasia is also guilty of desertion in her grandmother’s eyes, having followed her mother to Paris to take up residence away from her father. As such, Mrs King is cold and remote in her receipt of Anastasia in the family home, making it clear that she considers the visit a temporary one, not a permanent arrangement.

Mrs K is a brilliant creation – cold, direct, monstrous and self-centred. She shows precious little warmth or compassion towards Anastasia who is recently bereaved. What I find particularly interesting about this elderly lady is how she views Anastasia both as an adult and as a child, choosing whichever of these states suits her best on each particular occasion.

For instance, Mrs King condemns Anastasia for having followed her mother to Paris, thereby deserting her father – Mrs King’s precious son – in the process. As far as Mrs King sees it, Anastasia was an adult at sixteen, someone who knew full well what she was doing in choosing to live with her mother.

Mrs King said in her gentle voice, “You know, Anastasia, you made a serious choice when you decided to stay with your mother in Paris. You were sixteen then, not a child. You knew what she had done. You were aware of the effect it was having on your father.” (p. 16)

And yet, Mrs King repeatedly refers to Anastasia as a child during their blunt conversations following the young woman’s return – “Now, child, get along to your bed. It’s very late. You’ll be dead tired in the morning.”— thereby emphasising her own dominance in the relationship. This vacillation between the positioning of her granddaughter as an adult or a child, depending on whichever of these suits her best at the time, is just one way in which Mrs King seeks to belittle Anastasia, closing off any expectations of comfort or affection.

As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Mrs King played a major part in her daughter-in-law’s defection. When Anastasia’s parents were living together with Mrs King, there was an air of tension in the Dublin house; Anastasia’s mother felt belittled by her mother-in-law’s spiteful actions, a form of passive-aggressive behaviour or ‘campaign of cruelty’ as Clare Boylan neatly terms it in her introduction to the novella.

As in The Springs of Affection, Brennan excels in conveying the sense of isolation or separateness that can arise between family members occupying the same dwelling. Rather than living together and sharing a sense of connectedness, Anastasia and Mrs King remain emotionally distanced from one another in the unwelcoming, lifeless house.

The Christmas season passed. The days came and went, bringing nothing. There was a listlessness about the house but had seemed absent in the days before Christmas. The grandmother sat daily by the fire and Anastasia seldom joined her. With the growing of the year their separate lives seemed to dwindle away in shyness, and the house enclosed them aloofly, like a strange house that had not known them when they were happier. (p. 44)

The concepts of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ are important themes in Brennan’s fiction, and the associations these notions spark can be painful and complex.

Home is a place in the mind. When it is empty, it frets. It is fretful with memory, faces and places and times gone by. Beloved images rise up in disobedience and make a mirror for emptiness. […] It is a silly creature that tries to get a smile from even the most familiar and loving shadow. Comical and hopeless, the long gaze back is always turned inward. (p. 8)

The novella’s mood is enhanced by Brennan’s use of imagery and sounds to heighten the unsettling atmosphere, the ghostly silence in the grandmother’s house, broken only by the crackling of the fire or the scrape of a knife across a slice of toast. There is some wonderful descriptive writing here, imagery to send a shiver down the spine.

The trees around Noon Square grew larger, as daylight faded. Darkness stole out of the thickening trees and slurred the thin iron railings around the houses, and spread quickly across the front gardens, making the grass go black and taking the colour from the flowers. The darkness of night fell on the green park in the middle of the square, and rose fast to envelop the tall patient houses all around. The street lamps drew flats circles of light around them and settled down for the night. (p. 13)

As the novella builds towards its unnerving conclusion, we begin to see another side to Anastasia’s personality, one that reveals a degree of selfishness or ambivalence towards the wishes of others. I’ll leave to to discover this for yourself, should you decide to read the book (which I hope you do). Suffice it to say that this plotline involves an old friend of Mrs King’s – an elderly spinster named Miss Kilbride, who appeals to Anastasia for help with an act of compassion. Miss Kilbride has also suffered at the hands of an embittered and jealous family member – in this instance her mother – which adds a resonance with the novella’s main storyline.   

The Visitor is achingly sad yet beautifully written, the kind of story that highlights just how destructive family relationships can be when grievances and feelings of selfishness are allowed to putrefy and fester. Heaven Ali has also written about this book; and as ever, her insightful post is well worth reading. Hopefully my piece will expand the conversation around this lesser-known gem and introduce others to Maeve Brennan, a writer who deserves to be so much better-known.

My copy of The Visitor was published by New Island Books; personal copy.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd Jones)

Drive Your Plow… , the 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. I loved it.

Central to the narrative is Janina, a highly intelligent, idiosyncratic woman in her sixties who lives in a remote Polish village near the border with the Czech Republic. Janina – who narrates the novel – is a marvellous creation, the sort of woman who sees the world in a very particular way, standing up for what she believes in without being willing to compromise her intrinsic values. She invents names for everyone around her, eschewing the lacklustre nature of formal names in favour of more appropriate epithets that capture something fundamental about a person – typically a particular aspect of their appearance or personality. Consequently, we have characters named ‘Big Foot’, ‘Good News’ and ‘Black Coat’, to name but a few.

I believe each of us see the other Person in our own way, so we should give them the name we consider suitable and fitting. Thus we are polyonymous. We have as many names of the number of people with whom we interact. My name for Świerszczyński is Oddball, and I think it reflects his Attributes well. (p. 30)

In winter, there are only two other residents besides Janina who remain in this remote, snowbound area – Janina’s neighbour, Oddball, and one of the local hunters, Big Foot, whom Janina despises, the source of her hatred for this man ultimately revealing itself as the story unfolds.

One night, having noticed something strange about Big Foot’s house, Oddball discovers the hunter lying dead on the kitchen floor, so he calls on Janina for help. Even though Janina knows it is wrong to disturb a body before the police appear on the scene, Oddball insists on making it look more respectable, and it is during this process that the presence of a clue emerges. There is a bone lodged in Big Foot’s mouth, ‘long and thin and sharp as a dagger’.

At first, it appears as though Big Foot simply choked on the bone while eating his dinner; however, as Janina examines the contents of Big Foot’s kitchen, another theory begins to seed itself in her mind. On the windowsill she spots a deer’s head and four trotters, presumably the spoils of a kill that Big Foot had carried out before his death. Moreover, other deer are visible in the vicinity that night – Janina and Oddball see them clustered together outside Big Foot’s house on their approach.

What if the herd have taken revenge for the slaughter of their sister? Are animals seeking vengeance on the hunters of the district, striking back against the perpetrators of these inhuman acts? ‘Animals have a very strong sense of justice,’ Janina muses at one point – while humans merely have a view of the world, animals have an innate sense of it.

As other deaths swiftly follow, Janina becomes increasingly convinced that her theory holds water, particularly when deer prints are found near the body of the second victim – another hunter, the Commandant – who is found dead in a shallow well.

One of the many things that Tokarczuk highlights in this endlessly fascinating novel is the invisibility or dismissal of women, especially when they reach middle age. Janina writes impassioned letters to the local police, outlining her theories on the ‘murders’, which she backs up with supporting evidence, such as the deer prints and the alignment of the celestial planets. Astrology is a major area of interest for Janina, and her belief in its influence over our lives is fervent and unwavering.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given society’s attitudes to ladies of a certain age, the police swiftly dismiss Janina as a nut job, a ‘crazy old crone’ with nothing better to do with herself. Would a young man or an attractive woman be treated differently, Janina wonders? Almost certainly, yes.

Once we have reached a certain age, it’s hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us. In the past, I was never aware of the existence and meaning of gestures such as rapidly giving assent, avoiding eye contact, and repeating ‘yes, yes, yes’ like clockwork. Or checking the time, or rubbing one’s nose – these days I fully understand this entire performance for expressing the simple phrase: ‘Give me a break, you old bag’. I have often wondered whether a strapping, handsome young man would be treated like that if he were to say the same things as I do? Or a buxom brunette? (pp. 38-39)

Central to the novel are issues of animal rights. Does man have a greater right to life than an animal? Where do animals sit in the hierarchy of society? Who sets these ‘rules’ and parameters, and are they correct? Who deems whether someone is useless or unimportant, and by what criteria?

Naturally, Janina is a fierce defender of animal rights – the belief that animals are just as important as her fellow humans, if not more so, is fundamental to her actions. As far as Janina is concerned, the way a society treats its animals speaks volumes about its values, potentially undermining any notions of justice or democracy.

‘You have more compassion for animals than for people.’

‘That’s not true. I feel just as sorry for both. But nobody shoots at defenceless people,’ I told the City Guard that same evening. […]

‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude towards Animals. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ (p. 109)

As the novel draws to a close, there is a form of resolution to the mysterious deaths which feels satisfying and appropriate, especially given the novel’s inherent themes. Nevertheless, that’s far from being the most interesting thing on offer here. Alongside the moral and ethical issues of animal rights, Tokarczuk casts her eye over a myriad of fascinating subjects from the poetry of William Blake to the challenges of ageing to the frailties of the human body – ‘fancy being given a body and not knowing anything about it. There’s no instruction manual.’

She also manages to fit in some time for a brief digression on one of the major failings of men, how several of them succumb to ‘testosterone autism’ as they age and regress. (For the interested, the major symptoms of this condition include: ‘a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication’, the development of an interest in various tools, machinery, WW2 and ‘the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains’. In parallel, the capacity to read novels almost entirely disappears.)

In summary then, Drive Your Plow… is a wonderful metaphysical noir, one that subverts the traditional expectations of the genre to create something truly thought-provoking and engaging. It’s also beautifully written, by turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the novel’s luminous quality and mood.

Outside, in the pool of light falling from the porch lamp, the snow was changing into a slow, sleepy shower. Oddball stood next to me in silence, tall, thin and bony like a figure sketched in a few pencil strokes. Every time he moved, snow fell from him like icing sugar from pastry ribbons. (p. 14)

Drive Your Plow… is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.

Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard (aka Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart)

First published in 1943, Murder’s a Swine (US title: The Grinning Pig) was the second of two mystery novels co-written by Pamela Hansford Johnson and her husband, Gordon Neil Stewart, under the pen name ‘Nap Lombard’. This very engaging mystery has recently been reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). As ever with the BLCCs, there is much to enjoy here, not least the dynamic between Agnes and Andrew Kinghof, the two amateur sleuths who play a crucial role in unmasking the identity of a ruthless killer – a man operating under the rather sinister guise of ‘The Pig-Sticker’. More on him a little later…

The novel opens on a bitterly cold evening in the middle of winter as a young Air Raid Precaution Warden, Clem Poplett, takes refuge from the miserable weather in one of the designated shelters near the Stewarts Court flats. It is here that Poplett and Agnes Kinghof (who also happens to be in the shelter) discover a dead body, partially concealed amongst a pile of sandbags that have started to smell. Agnes and her husband Andrew fancy themselves as amateur sleuths, having aided the police in Lombard’s previous crime novel, Tidy Death. As such, the couple are intrigued by the discovery of the body, all the more so when something rather strange happens at Stewarts Court later the same night…

Mrs Sibley – a somewhat frail, mature lady who lives in the flat directly above the Kinghofs’ – is horrified when a pig’s head appears out of nowhere outside her bedroom window. Once the incident comes to light, Mrs Rowse, the writer who shares the flat with Mrs Sibley, calls on the Kinghofs for assistance, relating the gruesome events that have frightened her friend.

“She says she was lying in bed, with the black-out curtains open—she always opens them before she goes to sleep as she must have fresh airwhen she heard a tap on the window. She looked up, and there it was grinning at her—a pig’s head, all shining and blue, with the snout pressed against the pane…” (p. 28)

Before long, a connection is uncovered between the dead man in the shelter and Mrs Sibley, thereby suggesting a potential link between the two events. The deceased – who appears to have been murdered – was Mrs Sibley’s estranged brother, Reg Coppenstall, last seen nearly thirty years ago. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a family inheritance was the cause of a longstanding rift between the siblings when Reg was largely excluded from his aunt’s will in favour of his sister. Now the past has returned to haunt Mrs Sibley, with Reg’s son, a chap named Maclagan Steer, being the main suspect of interest. The trouble is, no one knows what Maclagan looks like, making him a rather tricky individual to unmask.

Part of the joy of this mystery comes from the relationship between the two Kinghofs, who clearly love one another very much despite the occasional difference of opinion. There is a touch of the screwball comedy about their relationship, the sort of good-natured banter that makes this novel a delight to read, especially for those of us craving a little escapism after a dull and rainy May.   

“…Andrew, there’s one big question in all this. Have you guessed it?”

He took a long drink, stubbed out his cigarette and lit another before he answered her.

“Yes, I have… Agnes, I like you in that suit. Did I pay for it, or did you?”

“You did. The pockets are quite new, aren’t they? It’s a Chaumière model. It may be a mite cold for this sort of weather, but I can’t bear to squash it under a coat. Andy, don’t fool. What’s the question?”

He replied slowly, “Who is Maclagan Steer?” (p.51)

As the novel unfolds, there are more upsetting developments for Mrs Sibley. Threatening letters appear, mysteriously signed ‘The Pig-Sticker’. By now, Inspector Eggshell is on the case, as is Andrew’s cousin, Lord Whitestone, one of the higher-ups in Scotland Yard. Lord Whitestone – who is rather confusingly known as ‘Pig’, even though he has nothing to do with The Pig-Sticker – is not terribly fond of Andrew, though his relationship with Agnes is much more conciliatory. As such, he is not very keen on the Kinghofs’ involvement in the case, which he tries to discourage at every given opportunity.

Agnes, however, remains largely undeterred, relishing the excitement of trying to identify the killer. From an early stage in the mystery, it is pretty clear that the perpetrator is Mrs Sibley’s nephew, Maclagan Steer. However, since Steer is operating under an assumed name (in addition to ‘The Pig-Sticker’) he is effectively incognito.

Murder’s a Swine is a well-paced, highly enjoyable mystery with just enough ambiguity to keep the reader guessing. The authors do a nice job of shifting the suspicion from one potential suspect to another, particularly amongst the other residents of the Stewarts Court flats, all of whom have the necessary access to the block. In some respects, the identity of Maclagan’s alias doesn’t matter too much – it’s the sequence of events and interactions during the investigation that proves most satisfying.

As one might expect of this type of fiction, the social attitudes expressed within the novel are very much a reflection of the time – particularly the descriptions of Agnes’ legs, which are lusted over on several occasions. Lurid glances aside, this is a very entertaining mystery with just the right amount of wartime atmosphere to make it feel authentic.

This night in question, a January night, was bitterly cold, after a long spell of muggy weather, and the streets glistened beneath a coating of that delicate, almost invisible rain that soaks you through to your vest within three minutes. It was half-past eight, and Clem was not expected back to the comfort of the Post, to the fire and the dartboard, the cups of orange-coloured, stewed tea, the cards and the wireless, until nine. (p. 17)

Recommended for lovers of Golden-Age fiction with an escapist edge.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open Water is a beautiful, lyrical novella by the young British Ghanaian writer and photographer Caleb Azumah Nelson, named as one of The Observer’s 10 Best Debut Novelists of 2021. I read it because our bookshop co-hosted an event with Caleb recently, and it was so enjoyable to hear him talk about the themes within the book – he really is a very thoughtful and engaging speaker.

The book – which focuses on two central protagonists, one male, one female, both black and in their early twenties – is at once both a tender love story and a searing insight into what it feels to be young, black and male in the South London of recent years. (While both characters are crucial to the narrative, the male protagonist is Nelson’s main focus.)

The young man (a photographer) and the young woman (a dancer) meet while the latter is still in a relationship with a mutual friend, Samuel. This earlier relationship soon dissolves as a hesitant, yet close bond develops between the two main protagonists – not sexual at first, although their connection to one another is deeply soulful.

As she does so, reclining into the sofa, she reaches for your hand, and you take it, fitting together like this is an everyday. She’s wearing rings on her fore and ring fingers, the bands cool between your own. Neither of you dare look at one another as you hold this heavy moment in your hands. You’re light-headed, and warm. You’re both silent. You’re both wondering what it could mean that desire could manifest in this way, so loud for such a tender touch. It’s she who breaks the moment (p. 44)

There is a somewhat fragmentary nature to the couple’s relationship, partly imposed by periods of physical separation when the young woman returns to Dublin to study. Nelson writes beautifully about the sensation of progressing from friendship to love, how our innermost feelings can be exhilarating yet also expose a noticeable sense of vulnerability. The simple pleasures of shared moments – eating a pizza together curled up on the sofa, the buzz and wind-down of a night out – lend the narrative a genuine emotional sensitivity.

Through his use of a second-person narrative, Nelson imbues this story with a wonderful combination of intimacy and immediacy, a feeling that fits so naturally with the novella’s intertwined themes. The fact that we never learn the names of Nelson’s two main protagonists also gives the story a sense of universality – while these individuals’ experiences are deeply personal, they will also likely resonate with many of us, hopefully in a variety of different ways. 

Nelson is particularly strong when it comes to conveying the feeling of inhabiting a black body, that sense of being stared at but not seen – certainly not as a person with emotions and feelings.

…and so you hide your whole self away because you haven’t worked out how to emerge from your own anger, how to dip into your own peace. You hide your whole self away because sometimes you forget you haven’t done anything wrong. Sometimes you forget there’s nothing in your pockets. Sometimes you forget that to be you is to be unseen and unheard, or it is to be seen and heard in ways you didn’t ask for. Sometimes you forget to be you is to be a Black body, and not much else. (pp. 118–119)

What really comes across here is the fear young black men experience on a day-to-day basis. Will today be a day when they are stopped and searched? Will today be a day of confrontation? Will today be the day they lose their life?

Also threaded through the story are vignettes highlighting the inspiration that can come from the creative arts. These examples, drawn from various black writers and filmmakers, are clearly touchstones for the young man, intertwined as they are with his innermost thoughts and feelings. I was delighted to see a mention of Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk here – both the film and the book are great favourites of mine, and if they’re of interest you can read my brief thoughts on the novel via the link.

As the narrative unfolds, it is possible to detect a growing sense of danger, the feeling that confrontation or violence could erupt at any given moment. Without wishing to give too much away, an incident occurs that causes the young man to withdraw into himself, unable to verbalise the situation’s emotional impact. It’s a development that forces a rupture in the central relationship, a wound that cuts swift and deep, as sharp as a knife.

Nelson has succeeded in writing a delicately balanced novel which is by turns tender, poetic, powerful and thoughtful. It is a story for our times, an exploration of love, creativity and the need to be seen, especially in a world where there is fear and prejudice. An exciting new voice in literature that deserves to be heard.

Open Water is published by Viking, an imprint of PRH; personal copy.

Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Avril Bardoni)

There has been something of a revival of interest in the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg in recent years, driven by reissues of some of her novels and essays by Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Valentino and Sagittarius are two separate yet related novellas from the 1950s, reissued together in one stylish edition from NYRB. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships, the tensions that arise when one person behaves selfishly at the expense of those around them. When viewed together, they highlight how foolhardy we can be, especially when investing all our hopes in a particular individual or venture – the fallout for the surrounding family members is often painful in the extreme.

Central to the first novella is Valentino, the much-fêted son of an impoverished family who have collectively sacrificed everything to invest in this young man’s education. The father, a retired school teacher, is convinced that Valentino is destined for great things, a belief borne out of a combination of pride and delusion. While the father dreams of a time when his son will be a famous doctor, Valentino himself is lazy, vain and self-absorbed, content to neglect his studies in favour of idle pursuits. It’s a situation typified by the following passage relayed by Caterina, the mild-mannered younger daughter of the family.

My father spent his days in the kitchen, dreaming and muttering to himself, fantasizing about the future when Valentino would be a famous doctor and attend medical congresses in the great capitals and discover new drugs and new diseases. Valentino himself seemed devoid of any ambition to become a man of consequence; in the house, he usually spent his time playing with a kitten or making toys for the caretaker’s children out of scraps of old material stuffed with sawdust… (p. 9)

One day, entirely out of the blue, Valentino announces his engagement to Maddalena, an older woman whose age and appearance cause consternation within the family. Gone are the teenage girlfriends of Valentino’s youth, only to be replaced by this unattractive yet wealthy woman whose looks are marred by her ‘hard, round eyes’ and noticeable facial hair. Catarina wonders how on earth she will explain the situation to her elder sister, Clara, who, despite being married with three children, still relies on her family for financial support.

It was not easy to explain to my sister Clara the turn that events had taken. That a woman had appeared with lashings of money and a moustache who was willing to pay for the privilege of marrying Valentino and that he had agreed; that he had left all the teenagers in berets behind him and was now shopping in town for sitting-room furniture with a woman who wore a sable coat. (p. 12)

Even though relations between Valentino’s mother and Maddalena are strained, the marriage goes ahead, prompting the family to get into debt over the wedding preparations – new clothes must be purchased to avoid losing face in front of Maddalena’s relatives, an expense Valentino’s father can ill afford. Unsurprisingly, Valentino remains largely blind to the impact of his actions on the rest of the family, preferring instead to squander Maddalena’s money on unnecessary luxuries.

When both her parents die in relatively quick succession, Caterina takes up residence with Valentino and Maddalena, promoting the story to take a couple of interesting turns – unexpected developments that would be unfair of me to reveal here. Ultimately though, we are left with a striking picture of Caterina, a young woman who has been taken for granted all her life, sacrificing her own happiness for her selfish, feckless brother; and yet, she manages to retain an underlying sense of loyalty to Valentino in spite of his many failings.

Interestingly, Sagittarius is also narrated by a daughter in a dysfunctional family; however, in this instance, it is the mother whose actions prove toxic and disruptive, rather than those of her children.

The narrator’s mother, whose name we never learn, is a bossy, self-absorbed widow who moves to the city in the hope of opening an art gallery frequented by cultured intellectuals. To help finance the move, the mother bullies her two sisters into a loan and then swiftly makes a nuisance of herself by interfering in the running of their china shop, much to the sisters’ dismay.

Her sisters dejectedly sought refuge in the stock-room, sighing as they listened to the imperious clatter of her high heels. Long familiarity had made words almost superfluous: a sigh told all. The two of them had been living together for more than twenty years in the dark, old shop frequented by a handful of regular customers, elderly ladies whom they regarded almost as friends and whom they would engage from time to time in little whispered conversations between the glove trays and the tea services. They were genteel and timid and dared not tell my mother that her presence disturbed and irritated them and that they were even a little ashamed of her, of her brusque manner and vulgar moth-eaten fur coat. (pp. 54–55)

Joining the mother in her new home in the suburbs are the narrator’s sister Giulia, who remains poorly following an earlier bout of scarlet fever, Giulia’s husband, Chaim Wesser, whom the mother dislikes intensely, a maid, Carmela, and a young relative, Constanza. While Chaim is a qualified doctor, he earns little in the city, lacking the resources to establish his own practice. The fact that Chaim is well-liked and caring counts for nothing in the eyes of his mother-in-law, a woman who has never considered him good enough for her daughter due to his lack of wealth and good looks.

With the possibility of acquiring a gallery seemingly out of reach, the mother considers herself to be the victim of some big injustice, choosing to blame others for the unfairness of the situation. Once again, Ginzburg captures the measure of this woman so effectively in her characteristically perceptive prose.

And when she compared her lively fantasies of the past with her monotonous existence, she felt herself to be the victim of some great injustice. She was unclear as to whom to blame for this injustice, but vaguely attributed it to her own lack of money, to Dr Wesser’s earning so little and to Giulia for having married him; and she became irritated with Carmela who was stupid and dirty and left her filthy aprons draped over the armchairs, and with Constanza who was extravagant with the jam, and with cousin Teresa who didn’t pay enough for her daughter’s keep. (p. 76)

Out of sheer desperation, the narrator’s mother latches onto a somewhat shabby woman named Scilla whom she meets at the hairdresser’s, viewing her as someone who might prove useful in the future. As luck would have it, Scilla appears willing to go into business with the mother, meaning those dreams of an art gallery or shop might finally come to fruition. However, there is something odd about Scilla, a nagging doubt that the narrator finds hard to figure out…

As with Ginzburg’s other novels, Voices in the Evening and Happiness, As Such, these stories rely heavily on family tensions, highlighting the chaos and destruction such relationships can provoke. Ginzburg’s prose seems unadorned and straightforward on the surface, but this apparent simplicity belies the complexity of emotions running through the text. Resentment, delusion, evasion, pride, loyalty and compassion all come together to form these perceptive, richly textured narratives. There’s a wonderful darkly comic note to many of Ginzburg’s observations too; it’s there in the passage about Maddalena, the second quote in this piece. In summary, then, Valentino and Sagittarius form an excellent introduction to Natalia Ginzburg, a writer whose insights into the minor tragedies in everyday life are remarkably astute. For the interested, there is an excellent article about this writer here, published in The Guardian in 2019.

The Evenings by Gerard Reve (tr. Sam Garrett)

First published in the Netherlands in 1947, The Evenings is a difficult book to describe, so please bear with me while I endeavour to give it a go!

This brilliant, strangely compelling novel revolves around the life of Frits van Egters, a twenty-three-year-old office worker who lives at home with his parents in a small flat in Amsterdam. The story, such as it is, unfolds over the ten days leading up to New Year’s Eve in 1946, as Frits struggles to fill the interminable downtime that falls between Christmas and the New Year.

Frits is a master in the art of procrastination, content to fritter away great swathes of time in the act of thinking about something without actually doing it. At one point, he notes that now would be an excellent time to have a tidy-up, only to spend the next couple of hours doing nothing in particular. Similarly, a pause to look at a newspaper becomes two hours staring out of the living-room window – not a word is read during this interlude on a sleepy Sunday morning.

“I just sit here and sit here and don’t do a thing,” he thought. “The day’s half over.” It was a quarter past twelve. (p. 14)

For Frits, the atmosphere at home is severely strained, dictated as it is by relations with his parents. While Mother tries to maintain some semblance of order around the flat, her tendency to fuss and prattle on leaves Frits in a perpetual state of irritation. The situation is compounded by the predictable nature of her conversation, so predictable in fact that Frits takes a kind of perverse delight in goading or prompting his mother down a particular path, just to provoke the expected response. In this scene, Frits has cajoled Mother into looking for the previous day’s newspaper, knowing full well that Father is currently reading it.

“Well, Mother,” he said, “it’s not here on the table. If you think that I am incapable of searching, why don’t you try?” “It’s as though the two of you were morons, as though no one in this house has any sense,” she said. “Don’t you two have eyes in your head?” What’s all this screaming?” his father asked. “Nothing,” Frits said, “there is no conflict whatsoever. It is a friendly debate. Later on there will be an opportunity for you to pose a few questions.” (p. 269)

Father is another source of exasperation for young Frits, courtesy of his dodgy hearing and annoying personal habits. ‘Fire a cannon beside his ear for a joke, he’ll ask if there’s someone at the door,’ Frits muses at one point as he ponders his father’s deafness. Other regular irritations include breaking wind, slurping while drinking and asking Frits whether he has anything new and interesting to report on his return from work. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before something awful happens to Mr and Mrs van Egters, as Frits half-jokingly remarks to his friend Viktor.

“I’m only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death. Or set the house on fire. For God’s sake, let it be that. So why hasn’t it happened yet? But let us not despair. All things come to those who wait.” (p. 120)

Frits is equally provocative, if not more so, when in the company of his friends. (The trouble is, people never quite know whether he’s kidding or being serious.) Baldness is something of a preoccupation for Frits, and he proceeds to point it out in others at every possible opportunity. There are multiple examples in the book, not least in the gleeful taunts Frits throws at his brother, Joop, when he drops by for a visit.

Early death or degradation is another running theme, frequently cropping up in Frits’ dreams and conversations, steadily infusing the narrative with a palpable sense of bleakness. While some of Frits’ friends find his disturbing jibes somewhat uncomfortable, others know he is only joking, responding with their own equally controversial comments. There is a seam of mordant wit running through this novel, an air of gallows humour that permeates throughout. (It is worth recalling at this point that The Evenings was published just two years after the end of WW2, and while the war is barely mentioned explicitly, the sense of darkness clearly remains.)   

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way Reve give us access to Frits’ thoughts alongside his speech, so while Frits often seems to be engaging in fairly banal conversation – typically with his parents – the running commentary on what is going on in his head tells a very different story. While some of these inner thoughts are peppered with dry humour, others are imbued with a feeling of desperation, a kind of existential angst that typifies Frits’ existence.

Suddenly the kettle began singing in the kitchen. “Make that noise stop,” he thought, “for God’s sake, make it stop.” (p. 20)

As Frits tries to make it through the evenings without killing someone or losing his mind, life goes on in the van Egters household. There are bland meals to be cooked, coal to be fetched, fires to be lit, keys to be found and the radio to be turned on and off (a particular bone of contention between Frits and his father). The way Reve manages to make the mundane feel stealthily compelling is an art form unto itself.  

A few minutes later his mother came in with the dishes. “I’m going to Bep Spanjaard’s,” he said, “and from there we’re going to a midnight showing at The Lantern, at eleven thirty.” “What time will you come home then, for God’s sake?” she asked. “It will probably be around two o’clock,” he replied, “be sure not to bolt the door.” “One of these days you’ll go completely mad,” she said. “True,” Frits said, “I am already moving in that direction, by leaps and bounds. But don’t tell anyone.” (p. 224)

As the novel moves towards its undeniable conclusion – a New Year’s Eve that Frits seems destined to spend with his parents – there is a growing sense of dread. A fitting note, perhaps, for an evening that often seems like an anti-climax, such is the pressure to enjoy oneself irrespective of circumstances. There is a marvellous scene in which Frits’ mother produces a bottle of apple-berry cordial, thinking it is fruit wine, while a ‘non-stop programme of Hawaiian melodies’ plays out on the wireless. Needless to say, the evening is excruciating, all the more so for Frits, who is desperate just to get through it.   

In summary then, The Evenings is an excellent novel, by turns savage, hilarious, poignant and biting.  Who knew that a narrative about the mundanities of everyday life, the interminable passing of time and our endeavours to idle away the hours, could be so darkly comic and oddly touching? Bravo to Pushkin Press and the translator Sam Garrett for rescuing Reve’s text from obscurity and publishing the first English translation in 2016. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.)

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to capture something of the futility of Frits’ life. Perhaps we are all just shuffling paper, taking cards out of a file and putting them back again to little or no avail, steadily dispensing with the days until our time on this planet is over…

“I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is it.” (pp. 53–54)

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within.

His mother was a little frightened bird of a woman, who held her twisted, claw-like hands clasped near her face as if she was praying. This made it rather difficult for her to play cards and they would fall round her like the petals from a dying flower. (p. 34)

The novel opens with a flood. Ducks are swimming through the drawing-room windows of the Willoweeds’ house, quacking their approval at this strange new experience. Dead peacocks are bobbing in the garden; a bevy of swans can be seen by the tennis court, ‘their long necks excavating under the dark, muddy water’; a passing pig squeals, its little legs frantically peddling away in the water. Comyns wastes little time in establishing the novel’s macabre tone – the air of tragedy is clearly detectable, right from the very start.

As the day went on the hens, locked in their black shed, became depressed and hungry and one by one they fell from their perches and committed suicide in the dank water below, leaving only the cocks alive. The sorrowful sitting hens, all broody, were in another dark, evil-smelling shed and they died too. They sat on their eggs in a black broody dream until they were covered in water. They squawked a little; but that was all. For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared. (p. 7)

Rather fittingly for a Comyns novel, The Willoweeds are an unconventional family, ruled over by a tyrannical grandmother whose views on others are typically harsh and uncompromising. She is permanently in a rage over something or other – often incidents involving her ineffectual son, Ebin, or the household maids, Eustice and Norah, whom she refers to rather cruelly as ‘insubordinate sluts’. Also living alongside Grandmother Willoweed and Ebin are the grandchildren, Emma, Dennis and Hattie. Ebin’s wife, Jenny, is no longer alive, having died giving birth to Hattie some ten years earlier, thereby leaving Emma – the eldest of the three children – in the role of surrogate mother.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the adults are strange and idiosyncratic, especially in their behaviour towards others. Much of the novel’s sly humour stems from Grandmother Willoweed, a woman who seems to delight in making Ebin’s life a misery with her stark outbursts and childish desire for attention. No longer working as a gossip columnist following a scandal at his newspaper, Ebin spends much of his time doing nothing or making half-hearted efforts at educating his children. In short, the atmosphere in the Willoweed household is far from ideal.

Mrs Willoweed, on the other hand, has a formidable reputation in the village, her strong standing bolstered by her ownership of various properties in the vicinity. While her tenants know that Mrs W must be allowed to triumph over all comers, other players at the whist drive may not be quite as understanding…

When all guests were seated and had begun playing, Emma slipped away. She remembered whist drives when her grandmother had failed to win the first prize and there had been piercing screams and roars of anger. This time the first prize consisted of several pots of pâté de fois gras, and she knew her grandmother was looking forward to eating them at night in bed. The tenant farmers’ wives were well trained; but some of the guests were not to be depended on. (p. 37)

The flood hails the beginning of a series of strange occurrences, all of which contribute to the novel’s rather surreal atmosphere. All of a sudden, the miller goes mad and drowns himself in the river; the local butcher starts bellowing like a bull before cutting his throat with a knife. The baker’s wife is next to succumb, running down the street in her torn and tattered nightdress, screaming while onlookers take shelter in their homes. A dog dies of convulsions; a man lies screaming in his bed, fearful of the monsters that seem to be devouring him. Several more cases of the illness are diagnosed. Where on earth will it all end? It’s difficult to tell…

Further investigation identifies the bakery as the likely source of the contamination. The baker’s assistant has been experimenting with a new recipe, a dark yet delicious form of rye bread that has proved popular in the village. Unsurprisingly, the villagers take their revenge on the unsuspecting perpetrator in a scene somewhat reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s darkest fiction. So much so that I’m beginning to wonder whether Who Was Changed… might be something of a missing link – the bridge between Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a classic novel featuring a charmingly eccentric family, and Shirley Jackson’s beguiling gothic masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s an interesting thought…

Either way, there is something very endearing about this novel, in spite of its rather morbid storyline. The children are particularly captivating, surrounded as they are by all these strange occurrences and symbolism. Comyns’ use of imagery is particularly memorable in this one, from Grandmother Willoweed with her trusty ear trumpet and snake-like tongue to the old maids of Roary Court with their ravenous billy goat, eating its fill on the ivy.

The three old maids from Roary Court would come on their tricycles. Their pet billy goat would trot behind them as they rode down the village street, and they would tether him where he could be seen from the drawing-room window. He had a mania for eating ivy, and, when he had finished all the ivy within his reach at Roary Court, the old ladies had put a stepladder at his disposal. It looked rather unusual to see this great black-and-white goat perched on a ladder, gorging away on the ivy that was wrapped all round their house. (pp. 34–35)

Sexual transgressions are also rife within the village, not least within the Willoweed family itself. With her woolly hair and dark-coloured skin, young Hattie was clearly born out of wedlock, although where Jenny Willoweed managed to find a black man in rural Warwickshire remains something of a mystery. (Rather refreshingly, Hattie’s skin colour never seems to be an issue; instead, it is accepted and rarely commented on, other than Ebin’s musings on the nature of Jenny’s lover.)

As this strange yet rather wonderful novel draws to a close, one can clearly see the significance of the title. It is hard not to view this story as an allegory for the ravages of war, an atrocity that would leave its mark in the years that were to follow. This is another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers, a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.  

The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I must admit to being rather late to Sylvia Townsend Warner, having only woken up to the delights of Lolly Willowes back in 2018. The True Heart (1929) – this author’s third novel – shares something with that earlier book, a kind of magical quality that underpins the engaging narrative. As Townsend Warner herself explains in the preface to a later edition of the book, The True Heart is a loose retelling of Cupid and Psyche, the much-loved story from classical mythology. So loose in fact that reviewers did not pick up the true origins of the narrative at the time of its initial publication. The only person to correctly identify what the author had done in disguising her characters so effectively was Eleanor Townsend Warner, Sylvia’s mother.

The True Heart takes Victorian England as its setting – more specifically, the marshland and farming community near Southend in Essex. When Sukey Bond, a sixteen-year-old orphan, comes of age, she is sent to work as a maid at New Easter farm in Essex. Mrs Seaborn – a patroness at Warburton Orphanage, Sukey’s home since the age of nine – has found her a position with the Normans, the family that manages New Easter. At first, Sukey wishes she could stay with Mrs Seaborn at the Rectory in Southend, a place that serves as a resting point during the journey. In her innocence, Sukey looks up to Mrs Seaborn, worshipping the Rector’s wife for her apparent kindness.

Nevertheless, once Sukey settles in, life at New Easter farm proves pleasant and manageable for the most part at least. The Normans are kind to Sukey, who adapts well to the new environment, her upstanding values and work ethic serving her well in a busy role. The main fly in the ointment is Prudence – Sukey’s predecessor as maid – who now has her sights set on marrying Rueben, the eldest of the Normans’ two sons. Prudence is not terribly welcoming to Sukey on her arrival, quickly imparting all sorts of warnings and cautions about what to watch out for on the farm, most of them unnecessarily crushing. In particular, Sukey is dismayed by Prudence’s disdain for Mrs Seaborn and the latter’s tendency to send all sorts of folk to New Easter – the implication being that Mrs S considers the farm to be something of a dumping ground for charitable cases.

Also of significance here is Mrs Seaborn’s son, Eric, who has lived at the farm for several years, ever since his mother packed him off from the prying eyes of society. A mild-mannered boy at heart, Eric is looked down upon by Prudence and the men of the Norman family – a view compounded by the seizures Eric experiences, which the Normans unfairly put down as a sign of the boy’s weakness or idiocy.

They spoke of him always as ‘Young Eric’, and by their insistence upon his youthfulness seemed to dissociate themselves from him. He was like a pet lamb, grown too large for the house but whom the household had forgotten to put out of doors. (p. 23)

There is a gorgeous fairy-tale-like quality to this novel, a feeling which really comes alive when Sukey and Eric develop a bond with one another that quickly develops into love. That said, there is nothing overtly sexual in their relationship; rather, their connection has an air of purity about it, a sense of innocence that feels natural in its origins.

The shadows wandered over their faces, and a soft wind ruffled Eric’s hair, blowing the outer locks aside. He lay along the grass, his gaze fixed and unspeculative. Looking sideways from her darning, she could scrutinize him at her leisure without being rude. She saw how the sun striking between the leaves outlined his nose with a little golden halo. (p. 26)

Nevertheless, even in the midst of this rural idyll, the hint of danger is never far away. Prudence’s dismissals of Eric continue to unsettle Sukey, as do the impressions of the marshlands with their natural forces and air of mystery.

Prudence’s words had had their accustomed effect and she felt angry and miserable. What did it mean, that Eric was not to be trusted? Why should she ever be sorry for going out alone with him in the marsh? Was the marsh so cruel, so wicked, that it might make him wicked and cruel too? Did it hate lovers so much, the marsh that had lost the sea, that it could in some way bring down their love to ruin? She remembered the afternoon on the saltings: something had frightened her then, though what it had been that frightened her she could not say. (p. 39)

When a sequence of unfortunate events prompts Eric to have a seizure, Sukey declares her love for him, thereby creating a crisis of sorts in the Norman household. Having been provoked into an outburst by Prudence’s taunting, Sukey is locked in her room, effectively separating her from Eric, whom she is desperate to help. The situation is further compounded when Mrs Seaborn arrives to take Eric away, back to the Rectory at Southend, where he is bound to suffer horribly. The next thing we know, Sukey hands in her notice at the farm, leaving her free to set out for Southend in the hope of convincing Mrs Seaborn of her love for Eric.

What follows is a series of wanderings as Sukey travels from one place to another in her quest for a reunion. There are many obstacles to be overcome along the way, mirroring perhaps one of the key elements from Cupid and Pyscheits various challenges. Townsend Warner cleverly weaves these underlying themes into the narrative, from the violation of trust that Sukey experiences at the farm to the strength of her undying love for Eric.

It’s such a delight to see this captivating novel back in print, courtesy of these recent reissues from Penguin as part of their Modern Classics series (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). Now that I’ve read a little more of Sylvia Townsend Warner, I am beginning to see what others admire about her work, especially her wonderful sense of vision and creativity. Moreover, there are some beautiful descriptive passages here – lush, evocative imagery that captures the beauty of the natural world.

They had reached the brow of a little rise, and before them the fields sloped downward and away to rich-coloured flats, streaked and dotted with glittering water. Here and there were farmsteads, and a few groups of dwarfish trees showed up black and assertive, at odds with the solitude. Not a shadow fell on the marsh from the cloudless sky, nothing moved there; even the cattle were still, clustered round the trees for shade. It lay in unstirring animation, stretched out like the bright pelt of some wild animal. (p. 8)

While I am not normally a fan of reworkings of classic myths, in this instance I’m more than happy to make an exception. In writing The True Heart, Townsend Warner has crafted something sufficiently different from the original for it to feel imaginative yet reverential. Hopefully there will be more opportunities for me to read STW’s work in future – not least her short stories, which I’ve only glimpsed so far as part of Virago’s Wave Me Goodbye anthology, women’s writing from the Second World War.

Second Sight – Selected Film Writing of Adam Mars-Jones

The British writer and critic Adam Mars-Jones has had a longstanding interest in film, something which informs this collection of reviews, essays and personal insights spanning more than thirty years of cinema releases. As the first film reviewer for The Independent (from 1986 – 1997) and more recently as a critic for The Times Literary Supplement, Mars-Jones is well placed to offer views on this subject, having analysed a wide range of movies over the course of his career.

The book opens with an extended autobiographical piece covering the author’s grounding in film, largely informed by the process of watching and thinking about movies rather than more formal training on the subject. This organic or naturalistic immersion is important to convey upfront as it informs Mars-Jones’ approach as a critic – an ethos where personal insights, reflections and opinions sit alongside more objective assessments of the technical aspects of film.

With the groundwork in place via the opening meditation, the remainder of the book comprises a selection of the author’s film reviews and essays from the late 1980s to 2017, interspersed with more recent reflections on these pieces. In essence, the additional notes allow Mars-Jones to look back on his original columns with the benefit of hindsight – and, in some instances, to offer a modified view on the picture in question.

As with my posts on short stories, I’m not planning to cover all the individual pieces in the collection – there are more than thirty of them in total! Instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the book by reflecting on some of the reviews that resonated with me personally. (Naturally, when it comes to reviewing any medium, we are all subjective to a certain extent.)

One of the book’s most entertaining pieces is an essay entitled ‘Thirteen Spielbergs’, commissioned by Prospect magazine in 2016 to coincide with a Stephen Spielberg retrospective at the NFT. Mars-Jones goes on the offensive here, effectively grouping the director’s films into thirteen fairly reductive categories from ‘Sledgehammer of Subtlety’ (Sugarland Express) to ‘Inner-Child Wrangler’ (E.T.) to‘Reluctant Minimalist’. This last grouping includes Jaws (one of Spielberg’s best movies), in which thedirector was forced to rely on inventiveness due to technical issues with specific special effects. In reality, this development turned out to be a blessing in disguise, pushing Spielberg down the route of subtlety in favour of clumsiness.

Also of note is the highly eloquent defence of David Fincher’s Alien 3, a film that Mars-Jones clearly admires for delivering ‘images of an often extraordinary beauty without letting the adrenaline level of its narrative drop much below the maximum’. As someone who has always found James Cameron’s Aliens – the critically-acclaimed sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien – rather bombastic and overrated, I have a lot of sympathy for the author’s views on the trilogy. Many other critics consider Alien 3 a disappointment compared to its predecessor; but Mars-Jones has a different take on it, viewing Cameron’s Aliens as possibly ‘the weakest film in the cycle, flawed by a certain sentimentality and a relatively routine approach to action.’

Another piece that resonates with me is the review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the award-winning film by Martin McDonagh, which draws on a mother’s rage against the authorities for an unsolved sexual assault and murder. AM-J cites several issues with the film from the crass behaviours of certain characters to the derogatory representations of black individuals on screen – the latter appearing to be merely cyphers with no discernible depth or backstory. It’s a movie I also find deeply problematic, despite Frances McDormand’s blistering performance in the lead role. Whether you agree with it or not, the author’s critique is very thoughtful and well-argued – definitely worth seeking out if you’re familiar with the film.

By now, you might be thinking of Second Sight as a series of takedowns or arguments against highly successful films, however this is not the case at all. There are several very positive reviews here – and not just for arthouse and independent films but more mainstream movies too. The groundbreaking noir pastiche Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an excellent case in point. As Mars-Jones puts it, this is ‘the sort of film that gives blockbusters a good name’, where much of the pleasure stems from the collision of live-action and animation rather than a smooth integration of the two mediums. It’s a film I haven’t seen in years, but I’m looking forward to watching it again as a consequence of this piece.

Also on the list to revisit is Safe (by Todd Haynes), which features Julianne Moore as a woman who becomes ultra-sensitised to virtually everything in her immediate environment, to the point where this condition takes over her whole life. Some twenty-five years after its initial release, Safe presents an eerie, multilayered vision of the protagonist’s life, prompting anxieties that seem to resonate with our mask-wearing, socially-distanced approach to living today. Mars-Jones likens this mysterious and beautifulfilm to the work of the Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, drawing parallels in terms of camerawork, style and themes. More specifically: alienation, discontentment and the desire to free oneself from the sense of ennui surrounding an existing life. It’s an excellent piece, characteristically thoughtful, insightful and well presented. Again, well worth reading if you’re familiar with these films.

Some filmmakers make multiple appearances, allowing the author to track their development over time, pinpointing the highs and lows in their careers. Terence Davies falls into this category, as does Robert Altman – the latter giving rise to a particularly fascinating series of analyses. Altman is a maverick, a director who veers between brilliance and failure in a rather unpredictable way – and yet for some, this lack of predictability is part of the appeal. In certain respects, Altman can be viewed as an anti-authoritarian, someone ‘with a powerful need of other people’s structures to inhabit and contradict.’ For Mars-Jones, Altman’s highs include McCabe & Mrs Miller, Nashville and Kansas City; the lows M*A*S*H, A Wedding and Images; while Short Cuts, for all its sweep and ambition, falls somewhere in between. AM-J also successfully puts his finger on the reason why I have never been able to engage with Peter Greenaway’s films. Despite the undeniable aesthetic beauty of these works, they appear to lack any form of emotional soul – almost as if they are hermetically sealed in a vacuum devoid of feeling.

Other astute pieces consider subjects such as the representation of disability in film and the use (or misuse) of music to telegraph or accentuate emotion. Mars-Jones argues for a less-is-more approach to soundtracks, where the judicious use of silence can often be advantageous. Moreover, the careful introduction of music can signal a change of tone, one that fits with the director’s intentions. In short, ‘music best retains its power by being rationed.’ (The author’s observations on Kubrick’s use of music and silence in 2001: A Space Odyssey are particularly interesting.)

In summary, this is a fascinating collection of film writing, the sort of book that leaves the reader with a long list of movies to watch or revisit. Even though the views expressed here may not always be in line with our own, Mars-Jones is never anything less than thoughtful and eloquent in his assessments. A fascinating compendium for film lovers to dip into, time and time again.

Second Sight is published by Reaktion Books; personal copy.   

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

Every now and again, a book comes along that surprises me with its emotional heft, such is the quality of the writing and depth of insight into human nature. Mayflies, the latest novel from the highly respected writer, editor and critic Andrew O’Hagan, is one such book – it is at once both a celebration of the exuberance of youth and a love letter to male friendship, the kind of bond that seems set to endure for life.

Central to the novel is the relationship between two men – Jimmy Collins, who narrates the story, and Tully Dawson, the larger-than-life individual who is Jimmy’s closest friend. The book is neatly divided into two sections: the first in the summer of ’86, when the boys are in their late teens/early twenties; the second in 2017, which finds the pair in the throes of middle age.

At eighteen, Jimmy is being encouraged by his English teacher – the sharp-eyed Mrs O’Connor – to continue his education, mainly as a route out of his working-class Ayrshire background. Tully, however, is going down a different path in life, working as a machinist but living mainly for the evenings and weekends. There is more than a touch of Albert Finney about Tully – not just in appearance but in personality too.

Irvine New Town, east of eternity. Tully was twenty years old and a lathe turner. He impersonated Arthur Seaton from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by taunting his boss all week and drinking pints of Black and Tan all weekend. He looked like Albert Finney, all slicked-up hair, but in Tully’s case spiked with soap. At that time, he had the kind of looks that appeal to all the sexes and all ages, and his natural effrontery opened people up. (p. 4)

Tully and Jimmy hang out with a gang of lads – Tibbs, Limbo, Hogg and Dr Clogs – whose defining characteristics range from the techy one to the political one. Their lives are defined by music, football, and various cultural references, their conversations peppered with lists of ‘top threes’: the three best goals scored by a Scottish player or the top three films starring Robert de Niro. I’m sure you get the drift.  

Where the first half of the novel really excels is in capturing the sheer adrenaline rush of being young, a time when your whole life is ahead of you, and the possibilities appear endless. The highlight of the summer is a weekend in Manchester, a trip centred on an indie music festival at the city’s G-Mex centre. The boys are high on the anticipation of the event, affording it the feel of a momentous occasion – a kind of coming-of-age or last flush of youth, something that O’Hagan neatly portrays in Jimmy’s response to this seemingly magical city.

We came into Manchester like air into Xanadu. The place was a state of mind to us and we saw cascades of glitter in ordinary things. (p. 53)

I just paused for a second, standing there, and realised I was ‘in it’, part of the city right then, and part of the history we were here to celebrate. (p. 58)

It’s a formative experience for Tully too, one that sets him on a different life path due to Jimmy’s carefully directed input. While Tully might be a lathe turner at the moment, higher education remains a viable option for the future, potentially opening up an escape from his humble beginnings. (As an aside, both boys have somewhat distant relationships with their fathers, a factor that seems crucial in shaping their personalities.)

The concert, when it comes, is like a drug – a high epitomised by The Smiths and lead singer Morrisey’s magnetic presence and swagger. 

The singer wafted into view and sold his drowsy reticence like a drug. The band was at its height, romantic and wronged and fierce and sublime, with haircuts like agendas. Morrissey came brandishing a license, a whole manner of permission, as if a new kind of belonging could be made from feeling left out, like nobody knew you as he did. (p. 120)

There is a hint of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting in the mood and feel of this first section, particularly given the laddish banter amongst the group. And yet, that’s far from being the complete picture here; there is a softer side to the novel’s opening too, a real tenderness in the portrayal of these boys, who come across as hugely likeable and endearing. Despite all the surface bravado and brio on display, especially from Tully, O’Hagan never lets us forget how vulnerable these young men might be, both now and in the future.

In part two, we fast-forward thirty years to the autumn of 2017 and a whole different phase of life for the two central protagonists who remain closely connected – still firm friends, still throwing ‘top threes’ at one another – in spite of their physical distance. At forty-nine, Jimmy is an established writer, living in London with his wife, Iona, who works in the theatre. Having taken Jimmy’s advice and worked his way through night school, Tully is now a teacher, Head of English no less, in a school in Glasgow’s East End.

One day, Jimmy receives a call from Tully, the sort of phone call we all dread. There’s a crisis on the horizon for Tully, the kind of crunch point which is not going to disappear. He needs Jimmy’s help, both emotionally and practically, a request that only the closest of friends can ever make. Naturally, given their history, Jimmy agrees, ultimately finding himself caught between two conflicting forces – on the one hand, his loyalty to lifelong buddy, Tully; and on the other, his concern for Tully’s partner, Anna, who has her own somewhat different vision of the future.

The tonal register of this second half is very different to the first – more sobering and reflective in mood, qualities that tend to develop naturally as we age. Nevertheless, Tully remains fiercely comedic in the face of intense adversity, interspersing the serious stuff of life with hilarious anecdotes and banter.

Alongside these perceptive insights into Tully’s psyche, O’Hagan is particularly strong on the emotional impact of the dilemma on Jimmy. There is an overriding sense of loyalty here, a testament to the strength of a lifelong friendship that feels rock solid to the core – and yet Jimmy is also acutely alert to the bigger picture and its attendant moral considerations while Tully chooses to remain blinkered. 

Yet it became obvious, as the weeks passed, that his [Tully’s] decisions were having an impact way beyond himself. As an adult, he had a kind of complacency when it came to the opinions of others; he didn’t quite believe the world beyond himself could halt his ideas. (p. 154)

As a consequence, Jimmy attempts to mediate between Tully and his immediate family, throwing himself into activities in the hope of catalysing some form of resolution. The ending, when it comes, feels both heartbreaking and strangely triumphant, a hugely affecting combination that O’Hagan manages to pull off with skill and grace. Without wishing to reveal too many spoilers, there are some big moral and ethical considerations here, and yet the narrative never feels weighed down or mired in burdensome detail. The lightness of touch is one of the most impressive things about this novel, which manages to be emotionally truthful without ever succumbing to the merest hint of sentimentality – another testament to the author’s artistry and sensitivity. Moreover, the book as a whole feels perfectly balanced in spite of the shift hallway through; we need the vitality of that first half for the poignancy of part two to hit home.

In writing Mayflies, O’Hagan has given us a novel of rare beauty and humanity, an exhilarating portrayal of youth and a touching ode to male friendship. I loved it to bits – very highly recommended indeed for lovers of well-crafted character-driven fiction.

Mayflies is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.