Tinkers by Paul Harding

Tinkers is a brilliantly understated title for a quiet book with wide impact. Like a pebble dropped into a pond, the waves of sound and motion it creates grow ever wider.

The focal point of the novel is George’s sick bed. He starts out in a bed at home surrounded by his family, wife, sister, children and grandchildren. From there we follow the history of dying George back through his father, Howard, and Howard’s father the Minister, in an organic meandering that tinkers with memory, character, time and text. Different voices interject the narrative. We move between third and first person, between present and past as if a second or third pebble were dropped into the pool and their waves crossed paths and merged into each other. That George repairs clocks only enriches this interlacing of times, peoples, thoughts.

George tinkers with clocks and builds his own house. Howard tinkers by selling supplies to isolated farms and vagrants from a horse drawn cart. Howard’s father turns the world into a mystery of poetry and God that, for Howard at least, tinkers with existence, with presence and absence. All three are drawn to the physical magic of the natural world.

At one point in the novel, George tries to run away from home. Howard comes after him and finds him huddled in the remains of an old burnt house. He looks at his son and sees him ‘already fading’ (p120) into death:

“Everything is made to perish; the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so. No, he thought. The wonder of anything is that it was made in the first place. What persists beyond this cataclysm of making and unmaking?” (p119-120)

What indeed?

Tinkers is a thought provoking, expertly written novel that embraces the beauty of craft. I will definitely read it again.

Next week I’m reading The Notebook by Agota Kristof. Any comments or reading suggestions are very welcome.

Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano, trans. by Mark Polizzotti

Despite many attempts by my Grandmother, my school, my various universities, to encourage me to read French Literature, my ability to read in the original is pitiful and my knowledge of French Literature consequently unimpressive. Though I have my favourites, Marguerite Duras, Marie Darrieussecq, George Perec, Flaubert and Montaigne, and though I have read Proust, Maupassant and Baudelaire, I am embarrassed by how unfamiliar I am with French Literature and how reliant I am upon publishers to find and translate great works in French (I long for them to do this more). It was no surprise then that I hadn’t read this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick Modiano. What did surprise me was how familiar the work felt.

Included in Suspended Sentences are three novellas written over a five-year period and not originally intended to be published together, but all of which obsess over a Paris seen through the misted glass of memory and loss. It seemed more than fitting for the last novella of the collection to be called Flowers of Ruin, so reminiscent of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal which for me is a collection remembered from adolescence as a flaneur’s musings on the darker side of city life. Though Modiano’s narrators aren’t wandering the streets of a relatively modern Paris (1990s) with tortoises in lieu of dogs, they do meander across the city and through memory with a strange mixture of measure and suggestion that adds to the mystery at the heart of all three novellas. Each narrator is seeking answers to people who feel central to their earlier lives, be it childhood, adolescence or early adulthood, and each of these people remain unanswerable, characters lost to history. In Flowers of Ruin one of these characters disappears before his very eyes:

“At that moment a phenomenon occurred for which I’m still trying to find an explanation: had the street lamp at the top of the steps suddenly gone out? Little by little, that man melted into the wall. Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him, the way water dilutes a fresco that hasn’t had time to dry properly. As hard as I pressed my forehead against the glass and peered at the dark gray wall, no trace of him remained. He had vanished in that sudden way that I’d later notice in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself these people had really existed.” (p211)

Though each novella tells a different story, they feel deeply connected – the bumper cars of one story reappearing in another – and at the heart is this puzzle over identity; the people and events that make up our past become lost in ways that question our own solidity.

“I was going to disappear in this garden, amid the Easter Monday crowds. I was losing my memory and couldn’t understand French anymore, as the words of the women next to me had now become no more than onomatopoeias in my ear. The efforts I’d made for thirty years to have a trade, give my life some coherence, try to speak and write a language as best I could so as to be certain of my nationality – all that tension suddenly released. It was over. I was nothing now. Soon I would slip out of this park toward a metro stop, then a train station and a port. When the gates closed, all that would remain of me would be the raincoat I’d been wearing, rolling into a ball on a bench.” (Afterimage, p57)

You can hear Modiano’s own struggles written into the narratives of these novellas and yet, despite the fraught difficulty of autobiographical fiction, even the fruitless investigations of his narrators, the writing itself is quiet and elegant, creating careful snap shots that are perfectly clear until they are forced to cohere when the intrusion of light over-exposes them into the beautiful fog of time passed that remains my lasting impression of the book as a whole. In the first novella, the narrator recalls a remark made by his photographer friend, of whom he is now trying to write, saying that you need to “approach things gently and quietly or they pull away” (p47).  What he wants is to “blend into the surroundings and become invisible, the better to work and capture – as he said – natural light” (p55). This is the impossible search Modiano and his characters have entered into, making Suspended Sentences an intriguing and elusive book whose mastery is in the simple reflection of the maze of memory.

Next week I’m reading Tinkers by Paul Harding, followed by The Notebook by Agota Kristof.

History of the Rain by Niall Williams

Ruth Swain lies in her sick bed and writes the history of her family, which is also the history of her town in Clare, Ireland. She writes of how Irish people grew up from the seaweed, people of story and myth trying their best to take that impossible leap against the tide that will eventually send them back into the cycle of cloud, rain, river and sea. Somewhere in History of the Rain there is a quote (I blame kindle for being unable to find it – how much easier it is to locate things, regardless of search buttons, in physical books with pages where your fingers and eyes find remembered words) about how people remember not what you do or write, but what you made them feel. This is very true of History of the Rain.

The novel is endlessly quotable and there is something both pleasing and irritating about this. It is undeniably a well-written story, full of those writerly conversations readers and writers are addicted to – “All writers are waiting for replies. That’s what I’ve learned. Maybe all human beings are.” Locations 5097 – where the history of what you read becomes part of your identity, the story of yourself. Without giving it away, the story is also full of enough family trouble to tug on the heart-strings, especially my heart strings primed with some similar family troubles, but I leave the book both moved and unconvinced. It’s as if I’ve been tricked into feeling, as if the whole novel were some kind of essay in life and in the end I wonder if the novel suffers from its own self-consciousness where the literary canon weighs the words down and forces them to stand in little neat phrases rather than in one long distinct whole. It is true that no story stands alone, but I think I read to find something different, not to find more of what I have already read.

This is an extremely harsh reaction to the book, which many will undoubtedly love with a passion, and this idea that Ruth has of being half part, her father’s Swain half, of a family labouring under the Impossible Standard against which no endeavour will ever quite succeed, makes it impossible not to contend with the literary canon and with God making what I dislike also pivotal to the novel. So, I recommend this book to those who love remarks about the sentimental, romantic nature of men and the carrying-on nature of women (which I don’t), and those whose life is part conversation with authors they have only ever met in the pages of books. I suppose I leave the novel in a state of contradiction. Time will tell which side of me wins over: the side in which the novel leaves a cloying, unpleasant aftertaste or the side that ended the book crying over a story that inspired self pity for my own.

Read it and let me know what you think.

Next week I’m reading Suspending Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano.

Mockstars by Christopher Russell

Christopher and George have wanted to be rock stars since they were children and have been in a band together for just as long. Based on real events, Mockstars is Christopher’s account of their month-long journey from two-man dream, Satellite, to four-man band, The Lightyears, as they take on a European tour and try to win the Best New Act at the London Independent Music Awards.

Christopher, 23 and living with his parents, is beginning to feel the pressures of his unusual career choice and the tour and award ceremony are framed by a letter offering him a job in advertising. As they mock rock star life in a tour bus that belongs to George’s Dad on a tour that pays them barely enough to keep them in cheese, they hope to find that playing at rock stars will lead to them being rock stars. But women, rival bands, substance abuse, a harridan French landlady with a peg leg and snow chains all work their insidious way into the dream leaving the outcome of the final showdown at the battle of the bands a mystery until those last few pages are turned.

As I said in my review last week, I don’t naturally gravitate to comic novels, preferring my comedy mediated through speech, but Christopher Russell’s writing is a crisp flow of erudite witticism. It would make great stand-up and it is clear from the online clips that Christopher is a natural performer. Though the tone is always upbeat, there are little gems that mock middle England. For example, when Christoph, as George calls him, expresses some doubt over the ease of band life, saying that some might find the insecurity and rejection difficult to deal with, George replies, ‘That may be true, but those are also the kind of people who say things like “That’s a nice ottoman”…’

Ultimately, through all the crazy shenanigans, the message of the book is spoken by the band’s drummer, Tony, ‘If you’re lucky enough to have a dream, it has to be worth chasing after.’

Mockstars is a well-written, well-observed and impeccably timed mockumentary. I would be surprised if we didn’t hear much more from Christopher Russell in the future.

Next week, I’m reading History of the Rain by Niall Williams, followed (hopefully, if it gets delivered on time) by Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is depressing that so much of his work is unavailable in English, but that is no surprise. We are a European country that mostly reads contemporary foreign literature originally written in English. It’s embarrassing. Yes, we should all learn more languages, but we can’t learn them all. To stop the UK missing out on International contemporary literature we need to encourage more publishers to commission more translations. I am exceedingly pleased that Ali Smith continues to bring this issue to the forefront. She’ll be speaking about translation at the Southbank on 3rd December. I hope the publishing industry listens.

Francis Plug: How To Be A Public Author by Paul Ewen

Francis Plug is a writer/gardener. The book follows his attempts to write a guide for aspiring writers, like himself, helping them to plan for the world of public appearances now expected of modern authors. As Billy Bragg says to him in a urinal at Hay, “These authors think they’re flaming rock stars, don’t they?” On his journey to the heady heights of authorial fame, Francis Plug drinks away his home and occupation. In order to fully research his future prize-winning book, he borrows the unread first editions of one of his gardening clients, a banker, takes them to readings and gets them signed to himself.

Each chapter starts with a copy of these signed books with genuine dedications to Francis Plug. The conversations and imagined conversations with the various different prize-winning authors are brilliantly envisaged. I think my favourite is his encounter with Ruth Rendell on the train to the Hay Festival. She actually tells him to Shoo.

I was lucky enough to be at a reading for this book. Paul Ewen read from the end, where Francis Plug has managed to sneak his way into the Booker prize ceremony of 2013. It was very funny. Though much of the book is funny, I know that I would enjoy listening to this novel and would recommend the BBC grab it for serialisation on Radio 4 because as with all good humour, there are serious messages running beneath the laughter with much of the sharp end pointing at the very crowds that sponsor and populate author appearances, awards and performances (and listen to BBC Radio 4). Francis Plug is brilliant at cutting through middle class pretension and pointing out the obvious. To give but two examples:

“As an author, V. S. Naipaul gives me hope. He says some really crazy things, and yet he’s still held up in esteem. Recently he pronounced his belief that no woman writer was his equal, not even Jane Austen. This, he thinks, is because of a woman’s ‘sentimentality’ and ‘narrow view of the world’. I sometimes say some mad things myself, in the pub. With any luck, I’ll be tolerated and laughed off too.” (p192-3)

“Despite the odd exception, the only way to live comfortably as a writer, it seems, is to be rich already.” (p229)

As I’ve already written, I’m not usually drawn to overtly comic books, but Paul Ewen is a master of the absurd. Even when writing alcohol-fuelled hallucinations of giant squids or ghostly fusions of the actual Ruth Rendell with the library scene in Ghostbusters, his prose has an understated elegance that never fails to amuse. If you like books and you like to laugh (even at yourself), you will enjoy How To Be A Public Author.

Next week I’m reading Mockstars by Christopher Russell.