Monday, January 29, 2018

The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares -- a genius novel if ever there was one.

NYRB Classics, 2003
originally published 1940, as La invención de Morel
translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
103 pp

paperback (read earlier this month)

"The habits of our lives make us presume that things will happen in a certain foreseeable way, that there will be a vague coherence in the world."  -- 65

At 103 pages, one would think this book would be a very easy read, but that just isn't the case. It demands a second read (which I did) and probably a third (which I didn't do); its brevity belies the great  depth that the author has brought to this story.

There's not much I can say here without giving away the twist in this book, so this post will be a short one.  Casares has combined a number of different elements here that together don't really allow for The Invention of Morel to be pigeonholed into a single genre -- there are elements of suspense, sci-fi,  metaphysics, philosophy and even romance, so to try to give it a label is foolhardy at best. It is also dark, weird and great all rolled together.

A fugitive escaping from Venezuela with "a life so unbearable" has made his way to an island somewhere in the Pacific. It is a place where Chinese pirates will not go, nor will it ever be visited by "the white ship of the Rockefeller Institute" because it is "known to be the focal point of a mysterious disease."  A group of people had landed there in 1924 and then left it, after having built a museum, a chapel, and a swimming pool. The narrator is completely alone, isolated from the rest of humanity.  But then, everything changes, as he discovers that there are other people on this island.  He takes to watching them as they interact, taking a "certain fascination" in doing so since it had been a very long time since he'd seen anyone at all; he is also worried that they might discover him and deliver him to the authorities.  After a time, the fugitive begins to take the most notice of one of their number, a woman, Faustine, who "watches the sunset every afternoon."  Watching her changes his attitude from one of "nothing to hope for" to its opposite; he decides to make contact with her, risking his freedom in doing so.  It is, as he says, a move that could easily send him back to his past, but he's willing to do it because, as he says, "anything would be preferable to the utter purgatory" he lives in now.  Everything takes off from the point at which he actually works up the courage to speak to her but finds himself ignored, as if he doesn't exist.

original illustration, from the novel -- Faustine

To go any further plotwise would involve key spoilers, and if I say any more there wouldn't be a point in anyone reading this book so we'll stop here. Casares poses a multitude of metaphysical questions in this very short work, which, with apologies I also won't disclose for fear of ruining things;  he also makes some interesting social and political observations vis a vis the narrator's interest in Malthusian theory.  Let's just say that it is one of the best and certainly one of the most surreal stories I've ever read, and to say that it was unputdownable would be an understatement.  ARRGGHHH!  It's SO frustrating not to be able to talk about this book because it's THAT good and I want to spill my guts because it is THAT good.  But my hands are tied and my lips are sealed.

oh well. Just read it and you'll see exactly what I mean.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Thus Were Their Faces, by Silvina Ocampo

NYRB, 2015
stories originally published between 1937 and 1988
translated by Daniel Balderston
354 pp


"The people we hate the most are the ones we have entrusted with all of our secrets. When we are in their presence we can't change our soul. They are always there to remind us what we were like."
                   -- from "Cornelia Before the Mirror,"  342

Just after the introduction to this book by author Helen Oyeyemi, the editors of this volume have  included a brief preface by Jorge Luis Borges in which he reveals that Silvina Ocampo had a "strange taste for a certain kind of innocent and oblique cruelty."  He also says that she has the "virtue" of "clairvoyance," and that she "sees us as if we were made of glass, sees and forgives us"  and perhaps that is a part of why I found this book to be so unsettling, but I think that one of the creepiest things about this book is that quite often, we find ourselves looking at the world from a child's point of view which is surprisingly not quite as innocent as one would think.

Thus Were Their Faces is a compilation of short stories taken from seven of Ocampo's books  published between 1937 and 1988.  It doesn't take long at all to realize that you have landed in a different territory, beginning with my favorite story of this collection, "The Impostor."  While it has a certain gothic flavor, this story of a young student sent for a few weeks to live with a family friend completely draws the reader deeper and deeper into a much darker zone -- that of the human psyche. In truth, a sort of very quiet hum of madness runs through many of these stories, one that isn't quite apparent on the outside but which  slowly makes itself heard the more into each tale you wander.   I'm not going to go into any sort of in-depth descriptions about any of these stories, but in this book, anything can and does happen.  She doesn't spare the cruelty:  murder and death abound in many different and bizarre forms, long-term resentments turn into breaking points that materialize in different guises, and the stories that focus on memory, prophecy, and dreams are not without their deeper, darker edges.  Most are set among venues that in and of themselves are rather mundane and harmless; the challenge presented here is for the reader to occupy the minds of the people who inhabit those spaces, since in the long run, what we see from our outsider-looking-in perspective is completely different from what they see. While we may view what's happening with these characters as strange and bizarre, they want and need us to believe otherwise.  It takes a while to come to this realization, and once you're there, it becomes a rather disorienting reading experience that in my case left me with the feeling of being off kilter during most of my time spent between the covers of this book.

Reading strictly for plot is kind of beyond the point here, so readers who have to have every single thing explained are probably going to be lost and will probably not like this book.  It is yet another work that is a mind-stretching experience for people who want to move beyond the norm and who are looking for something that demands quite a bit more out of themselves as readers -- challenging, yes, but the payoff comes from immersing yourself in some of the best writing ever.  On the back cover of my book there's a brief statement from Borges in which he says that "Silvina Ocampo is one of our best writers. Her stories have no equal in our literature," and he's absolutely correct. While he was referring to writers from Latin America, I think what he says about her stories having "no equal" is absolutely spot on.  It is a beautifully-written collection that will linger on in my mind for a very, very long time.

Monday, January 22, 2018

You really have to love this guy: The Unfortunate Fursey, and The Return of Fursey, by Mervyn Wall

Say hello to Fursey, who really is one of the most unfortunate yet lovable characters one can possibly come across in a novel, or in this case, a pair of novels written by Irish author Mervyn Wall. Set in Ireland near the end of the tenth century, it all begins here in The Unfortunate Fursey, in which the monastery at Clonmacnoise is beset by demons

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1946
paperback, 215 pp

after its "defences had been breached" one day.  The Abbot warns the community that "the Evil One" has made his way into their midst, and indeed, as the brethren are besieged for fifteen days of terror, they are finally able to expel the forces of darkness  with exorcisms, "the smell of incense, the splashing of holy water and the sound of the Latin language."   The demons are unable to remain anywhere in the monastery with the exception of  the cell of Brother Fursey, whose speech impediment rendered him unable to say the right words to get rid of them.  His cell thus becomes their sanctuary; to save the monastery it is decided that Fursey must be expelled.  After asking the Devil for advice, Fursey sets off for the "fine big city" of Cashel, where the first of his many adventures begins.  Sadly, for our hero, he finds himself constantly caught between the world of sorcery and the Church, and truthfully, the question here is which of the two is the most evil?  

 Jacket illustration of The Unfortunate Fursey from the Swan River Press edition, by Jesse Campbell-Brown.  From Behance

This picaresque saga is continued in the second book, The Return of Fursey

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1948
paperback, 204 pp

which finds Fursey in exile in England where his quiet, cozy life as a grocer has been interrupted; he is now being sought for extradition back to Ireland.  He doesn't want to be forcefully brought back, but he does have a reason for wanting to return to his native land (which I can't reveal without giving away the show) so with the help of a crazy and bloodthirsty band of Vikings, he eventually gets there.  However, it is a very different Fursey this time around, and while the humor is still very much alive and kicking, his story takes a much darker turn in this volume.   Fursey once again finds himself "ensnared" on all sides; how he deals with the several forces contending for his soul is the meat and bones of this tale.  I think it would also be safe to say that both books reveal a man trying to come to terms with discovering his true nature, which is tested often and in many different ways.  

It's so hard to try to describe these two books without taking the spoiler route, and really, to reveal anything would be to ruin the joy for anyone who may want to read these books for the first time.  Underneath all of the humor there runs a dark streak involving the Catholic Church; aside from religion Wall also has plenty to say about politics and human nature itself.   In short, there is method to the author's madness, making for a great (and often laugh-out-loud) reading experience for people who want something well beyond today's standard fantasy fare.   One more thing: I'd advise saving Michael Dirda's excellent introduction until after finishing these novels. 

I fell in love with Fursey from the outset because he's sort of a hapless kind of guy, but as Wall brings his saga to a close in The Return of Fursey, I realized I'd grown so attached to Fursey that I was sad to see it all come to an end.  Both books are awesome silliness on one level; on another they contain a very serious tale that really got underneath my skin and will stay there for some time.  I can't recommend these two books highly enough.   To say I loved them would be an understatement. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Soul of Countess Adrian, by Rosa Campbell Praed

CreateSpace, 2017
originally published 1891
152 pp


"Soul somehow was the last attribute one would associate with Countess Adrian."   -- 23

This book was meant to be part of my "brain break" after a very full 2017 reading year, but the "brain break" idea sort of backfired.  Not that it isn't fun, and not that it isn't an easy read, but as I discovered, there's plenty of food for thought in this short novel  that takes place among the "upper Bohemia" set in London.  If you google the title, you may find the word "vampire" used more than once, but don't get your hopes up for the blood-sucking variety -- that's not exactly where Praed takes this story.  It is, as my edition's back-cover blurb states, "A tale where love and the occult collide;" the "vampire kiss" is only a part of a much larger picture.

Information about Rosa Campbell-Praed's life can be found here at the website for the National Library of Australia.  In terms of her interest in the supernatural, the article reveals that after she'd married, she and her husband were living on an "almost uninhabited"  Curtis Island, off the coast of Queensland where he owned a cattle station.  Often feeling isolated and lonely, we are told in this article that
"At her lowest and loneliest moments on Curtis Island, Rosa turned to her dead mother for help. The message of hope she received, she recorded in automatic writing ... This was the first step in what was to become, in later life, an almost overwhelming interest in the supernatural in its many forms, from the messages of mediums, the predictions of astrologers, spiritualism, occultism, theosophy, reincarnation, as well as the Catholic religion."
 She may be most familiar to readers as the author of the short story "The Bunyip," which has been anthologized several times.

Rosa Campbell Praed from from Amazon

Our story, as I said, is set in the milieu of "upper Bohemia," where
"...mummers, novelists, poets, artists, dilettanti members of parliament, and sensation-hunting visitants from a more aristocratic sphere, made a brave show in the spacious drawing rooms."
It is a place of "at-homes," and it is at one of these gatherings that we first encounter Countess Adrian.  The new girl in town, also at the same gathering is young Beatrice Brett, an American woman and aspiring actress, to whom we are first introduced as she makes the crossing from New York to Southampton.  It is there that she encounters the painter Bernard Lendon, who is taken with her immediately.  These three characters comprise the "He, She, and Another -- the triangle of the human drama!" at the center of this novel.

I don't really want to give away too much of what happens in this book but while it's a fun novel of the occult on its surface, populated with a number of strange characters, in this story it's really about what's happening underneath.   Beatrice (aka Beaty)  is a vulnerable, innocent young woman, with whom the upper Bohemian set is quite taken.  She is a medium as well as an actress with the ability to channel spirits which provide her with "inspiration" for her unscripted performances, during which  Beatrice becomes "unconscious of herself, unconscious of her surroundings."  Beaty's mother evidently shared the same gift, but the "influences" that inspire Beaty drove her mother insane.  As Beaty's uncle reveals, she was an "idle woman," but Beaty's safeguard is acting:  "As long as she keeps real grip on her work she has nothing to be afraid of."  As her uncle also reveals, Beaty has a certain form of  "genius,"
"... the unconscious power of access to the highest influences of the past - a power as rare as are the Talmas and the Siddons themselves. It's the open door through which these bodiless beings from the other side can enter into our world again - the body by which they can vent their unsatisfied cravings and pent-up aspirations." (29)
Beaty at one point reveals to Lendon that she often feels as though she has no soul of her own; that when she is inspired while doing a part, it is
"the soul of someone else which has come in to the help of mine, or has driven mine out for the moment," 
She also knows that any power that she might have as "great actress" would lie in the power of these spirits, "ghosts" as she calls them,  a situation which Lendon compares with the legend of Paganini's violin:
"...Paganini had contrived, by some unearthly arts, to conjure the soul of his dying sweetheart into his violin, and that marvellous (sic) music which the instrument gave out ever after was the wail of the soul eternally imprisoned within it."  
Beatrice lives for her art; love is not in the cards for her immediate future and she has no "room for any slighter affection," since she is sure that any man "would be jealous of my Art," and that there would "hardly be space enough" in her life for both.

   In contrast to the vulnerable Beatrice stands Countess Adrian. Born in Jamaica, she is the exotic "other" in this case,  a woman whose obvious sexuality, passion and very presence reveal a strength capable of mesmerizing those with whom she comes into contact, and I don't use the word "mesmerizing" lightly. She has a checkered past that keeps her as a hot topic of gossip in the drawing rooms of upper Bohemia; she also has a strange yet personal interest in Theophile Gautier's Avatar, the "vampire spirits" of "Sheridan Le Fanu's story," and the teachings of the occultist Maddox Challis, a friend of Beatrice's family.   In the first encounter between the two women, the Countess, who is  watching Beatrice perform one of her improvisations for the first time, interrupts the spirit flow in a most unusual way, as if she were "quenching the girl's inspiration and forcing her soul back to the commonplace." When the connection is broken, Beatrice suffers a minor breakdown.   Beatrice understands completely that this woman has some strange power over her and asks Lendon to be there for her to stand between herself and the Countess; Lendon humors her and speaks to the Countess, but what Lendon views as "fancy," is for Beatrice a true life-threatening situation.

 As Andrew McCann notes in his excellent book Popular Literature, Authorship and The Occult in Late Victorian Britain,  Praed's story can be viewed in part as
"an account of the aesthetic as a background for opposed sensibilities, each a form of possession," (126)
and there's much,  much more going on as well for those who want to explore underneath its surface.  I had  great fun with it both times through. But most intriguing is this: there is a very short line I missed in the first reading,   in one scene where Lendon and the Countess are talking, where she says that she and "this Agnes Adrian had "gone through a good deal together."  It begs the question of not only who or what is this Countess Adrian, but also, if indeed, she ever had a soul.

Readers of gothic, supernatural and Victorian sensation novels will enjoy this book; I definitely recommend it.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

and another by Andrew Michael Hurley, Devil's Day

John Murray, 2017
295 pp

"Like salt boiled out of water, these things remain. Everything else has evaporated."

read in December

Andrew Michael Hurley is a gifted author; there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I will be reading every book this man writes.  He has this uncanny ability to bring nature and landscape to life to the point where they are inextricably bound to plot and characters.  The Loney  is a perfect example of how he does this, and he's managed it once again here, in Devil's Day, set in a remote farming village in Northern Lancashire.

The book starts out with a bang.  As the back cover blurb reveals, "All stories in the valley have to begin with the Devil,"  and this one is no exception:
"One late October day, just over a century ago, the farmers of the Endlands went to gather their sheep from the woods as they did every autumn. Only this year, while the shepherds were pulling a pair of wayward lambs from a peat bog, the Devil killed one of the ewes and tore off her fleece to hide himself among the flock." 
According to the legend, the Devil moved down among "the heathen folk of the Endlands," to become "the maggot in the eye of the good dog, the cancer that rotted the ram's gonads, the blood in the baby's milk."  There are hundreds of stories that can be told about this place, but as our narrator, John Pentecost, reveals,
"The problem is that in the Endlands one story begs the telling of another and another and in all of them the Devil plays his part."
Things pick up from this point, beginning with the return of John to his family home for the funeral of his grandfather that everyone called "The Gaffer."  He has brought his pregnant wife Kat with him; they plan to stay on for the traditional "Devil's Day" celebration, which is built on more rural myth about the "Owd Feller" being driven away for another year, and return to their normal lives once everything is over.  However, a number of strange things begin to happen during their stay there that defy explanation, leading the reader to ponder whether they're of this world, or whether the Owd Feller has put on his fleece once again and taken his place among these people.

from Bibleblenders

At the very core of this story, which completely envelops the reader in the Endlands, its mythologies, and its history, is John's return home.  Watching his father trying to manage the family farm under adverse conditions  after the death of the Gaffer tugs at something within him that had been trying to surface since John and Kat's wedding.   And while this book definitely has all of the trappings of a horror or supernatural tale, it comes down to a question of family ties and tradition, memory, and the legacy of one's ancestors. As in The Loney, the author once again does his beautiful thing with opposites, to explore tradition and change, insiders and those who don't belong, as well as a number of other issues that crop up throughout the story.  He also sets up the narrative to move between present and past as he explores the secrets held in this place.

I can't really explain in writer or reviewer terms (because I'm neither -- just an average reader person) the depth that this man can reach in his writing but his ability to get there is, for me, what sets him apart from a number of writers at work these days.  When I said above that he "envelops the reader," I meant exactly that.  I'm there in the Endlands and I'm just as steeped in rural mythology/tradition as the locals. I felt the cold during the big snowstorm.  On and on.   Now, having said that, I felt that the pace of this novel was just plain dragging in parts -- it starts out so well and is so lovely, and then it slows to where a snail could have traveled the distance of the Endlands before things picked up again.  And then there's the constant telegraphing of  John and Kat's future (no surprise there) and as I'd waited for an explanation of how all that came about, I was rather disappointed that it was all tied up in a few paragraphs.  To add to my disappointment, the story of John's boyhood was rather obvious in how things were all going to turn out -- it was almost to the point where I'm just like "get it over already, since I know what's going to happen."  On the other hand, the big secret that lies at the bottom of what happens in this book was well done, and completely unexpected, and added a new dimension to several questions I had while reading.

So I'm sort of torn -- I love the writing, I love the central focus of this book, I love the landscape.  I wasn't exactly enamored of parts of this story, which I thought could have been handled better. What can I say? I'm a picky audience.  However, yes to recommending this book, because this man is an author to keep an eye on, and no one should bypass the first two novels or any that he plans to write in the future. I don't often find novelists I admire this much, and even though I had issues with Devil's Day, in the long run it's all about the writing for me.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley

John Murray, 2015
originally published by Tartarus Press, 2014
360 pp


"...there was so little of the modern world there that it was difficult not to think of the place being at a sort of standstill ... primed in some way." 

I turned the last page of this novel yesterday evening, and said out loud to absolutely no one "That was a great book."   The big surprise is that it is Hurley's first novel; I say surprise because it is beyond rare that I find a debut so polished and so near-perfect.  The only negative thing I have to say about this book is about its ending, but by then I was already so entrenched in the story and so in love with the writing that  I just did not care.

It was somewhere around page 90 that I noted on my GR status update that what really struck me at the time was how the author set up a number of dualities in this story, and from there they only intensified. Opposing forces are definitely at work throughout this novel,  which is the story related by the narrator about events that happened  thirty years earlier when a small group of Catholic parishioners decided to make a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of St. Anne on the northern Lancashire coast in an area known as the Loney.  The narrator, who we know only as Smith or Tonto, was a teen at the time; he, along with his parents and his brother Andrew, known as Hanny, who had not spoken a word since he was born, make up part of the group. There, Hanny's mother will have him once again drink the holy waters of the shrine; the trip would also serve as a sort of remembrance of the now-deceased Father Wilfred, who would take a group there on retreat at Easter, a tradition "very dear to Wilfred's heart."  Leading the group is Father Bernard, who had been assigned to take Father Wilfred's place.  It turns out though, that Father Bernard's ideas aren't resting well with some of these people, none the least of whom is Hanny's mother, resistant to change, who thinks things ought to be left the way they were.   While Father Wilfred may be dead, he continues to haunt not only this group of people, but the Loney itself as well.     Of course, things don't go as smoothly as planned, not just among the adults, but for the two boys  who become caught up in things well beyond their control and above all, their understanding.

As I said, there are a number of opposites that coexist in this novel, including insiders and outsiders; superstition and traditional practices as opposed to Catholic beliefs; faith and certainty;  change and tradition, and the author uses these to great effect throughout the story, exemplified strongly in the two houses which feature prominently here, The Moorings and Thessaly.

 What Mr. Hurley does best, however,  is to translate the very landscape of the Loney into language so that we can visualize it as  "a dangerous place. A wild and useless length of the English coastline," with tides which could "come in quicker than a horse could run..." isolating the small spit of land known as Coldbarrow by making it an island.  Its marshes seem to be aware of one's presence; they are
" a dark and watchful place that seemed to have become adept at keeping grim secrets; secrets that were half heard in the whispered shibboleths that passed from one bank of dry reeds to the other." 
There are dunes that cast lengthening shadows, there are "sprouts of marram grass" here; the wind has a number of different voices.  The beach during the rain
"turned to brown sludge, and the dunes ruptured and sometimes crumbled altogether, so that the sea and the marsh water united in vast lakes, undulating with the carcasses of uprooted trees and bright red carrageen ripped from the sea bed."
Most of all though, we come to understand it as a place that hides secrets and one that has its own pulse that beats under the surface. 

I could spend days talking about this book because  it is absolutely beautiful in the telling.  There are a number of things that happen here that when put together, combine to create a dark atmosphere that doesn't let up until the last pages.  I'm left with the idea that there are some things for which in the Loney  there are no clear explanations; then again, I think that's part of the point. I loved this book.  Go into it with no expectations, and the book speaks loudly and clearly to you.

highly, very highly, recommended. This is definitely going on my real-world book group's lineup.