Published articles and features

Four Pieces of Journalism

Murakami’s Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

The Guardian

July 2006

A hole in the middle of the Pacific

It takes a certain amount of guts to write a whole story about vomiting. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is the author’s third collection of short stories to be published in English, and the vomiting story - “Nausea 1979” - is trademark Murakami: by turns disturbing and delightful, funny strange and funny ha-ha. The narrator is typical too: an anonymous man with a passion for jazz. The protagonist is a fellow jazz buff who also has a second passion - sleeping with his friends’ wives. His vomiting lasts 40 days and 40 nights, is accompanied by frightening prank calls, and ends as mysteriously as it began - as does the story itself. The two friends can find no explanation for the curse, and the prank caller remains unidentified. It might sound a disappointing narrative - and Murakami can seem disappointing at first - but “Nausea 1979” is a story that sticks in the mind, and in this, too, it is characteristic.

In many of these stories, narrative tension is prolonged by a refusal to explain; Murakami’s ghost stories and murder mysteries remain ghostly and mysterious. Has the serial adulterer been cursed, or does his nausea have nothing at all to do with his predilection for deceptive seduction? Murakami never says, and the result, as in so much of his work, is profoundly memorable.

As an independent publisher, Harvill published Murakami beautifully for some years, and, happily, as Harvill Secker it is continuing the tradition; Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a handsome volume of prose, every bit as substantial as a novel, bringing together 25 stories written over three decades and augmenting them with an introduction from the author. In this Murakami mentions the fact that although he sees himself as a novelist, many of his readers prefer his short stories. The preference is understandable. Murakami’s novels are meandering things, full of delights, but often frustrating in their combination of brilliance and laxity, and with a surrealism that can become tiresome over the long haul. His short stories contain the same abundance of brilliance, but also have a balance and poise that allow his writing to shine. The stories in this collection have all of Murakami’s characteristic strangeness, but they combine the strangeness with structure. They show him at his very best; not as a cult novelist but as a really first-rate writer of short fiction.

The works in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman are not arranged chronologically, but the progression of Murakami’s style is clear and interesting. The earliest stories are so surreal as to be almost impossible to summarise: “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story” is - sort of - a story about an author who tries to write a story about a subject of which he knows nothing, poor aunts, and is cursed for his presumption with a phantasmal poor aunt who clings to his back, a fate so awful that no one wants to know him. Realising his error, he wishes he had written a story about anything else - umbrella stands, for example: “I’d have been better off with an umbrella stand up there. Maybe then people would have let me into their cliques. I could’ve painted the umbrella stand a new colour twice a month and gone with it to all the parties. ‘Alriiight! Your umbrella stand is pink this week!’ somebody says.

“ ‘Oh yes,’ I answer. ‘Next week I’m going for British green’.”

In the more recent stories there is less sheer joy in language, fewer pyrotechnics, but there is more patience with characters and narrative, and many of the most powerful stories in the collection are new. The most vivid pieces in the book are also often the simplest. “A Folklore for My Generation: A Prehistory of Late-Stage Capitalism” tells the story of a furniture-seller’s lifelong love for his high school sweetheart, and is outstanding despite (or perhaps because of) the absence of umbrella stands and cursed aunts. The collection closes with five pieces published together in Japanese as Strange Tales from Tokyo, and these, too, are marvellous, their surrealism leavened with and strengthened by the author’s growing skill and patience. Elsewhere, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman contains the full menagerie of Murakami motifs: cats, ghosts, a monkey who steals people’s names, and a great deal of spaghetti.

One story, “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes”, lampoons the Japanese literary establishment: Murakami’s critics become crows who have pecked out one another’s eyes. Murakami has spoken about the criticism he has received within Japan, his own explanation for it being that the literary establishment there disapproves of his use of popular culture; but this feels like an incomplete explanation, since this isn’t exactly what his work reflects. Much more striking in these stories, as in his novels, is the absence of Japanese culture - modern or otherwise - and the overwhelming presence of western cultural icons. Murakami’s characters do not watch Kurosawa or follow the sumo. They go to Starbucks and watch Hitchcock. They also love Balzac, Bach and West Coast jazz, and they do not do so in isolation. If the protagonists in this collection were all assembled, they would discover a series of typically Murakami-like freakish coincidences about themselves; not only does one of them like Balzac, but they all do; they all prefer spaghetti to sushi; they all find solace in Debussy, Dickens and Descartes.

The more one reads of Murakami, the odder this becomes. Initially it can seem like a simple bad case of name-dropping, but there is an obsessiveness about it which has its own energy. Like Don DeLillo, Murakami is a writer whose characters often act out of character, functioning as voicepieces for the author’s own passions; but unlike DeLillo, whose passions are homegrown, Murakami is forever looking elsewhere. He writes around his country as if he means to cut a hole the size of Japan in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The lasting effect is not that of a Japanese writer trying to write about the west, but of a writer whose relationship with his own culture is as complex, strange and powerful as the stories he creates.



Heaney’s District & Circle

The Guardian

April 2006


Arms Around the World

In his 12th collection of poetry in 40 years, and his first in five, Seamus Heaney describes a world overshadowed by war, a place in which both the power and the horror of violence seem inescapable. Conflict is everywhere in District and Circle, sometimes as the intimation of danger in the gloom of the London Underground, sometimes as a ship’s light out at sea echoed by a Star Wars satellite, even as a bunch of bog-rushes from Tollund carried through customs like a bomb in a holdall.

From first to last, in fact, the poems in District and Circle are weighted down with arms and armour. In the opening poem, ‘The Turnip-Snedder’, the farmyard ‘snedding’, or chopping, machine becomes an armoured monstrosity - ‘Breast-plate/ standing guard/ on four braced greaves’ - whose purpose is violence, even torture or genocide: ‘Its clamp-on meat-mincer ... dropping its raw sliced mess,/ bucketful by glistering bucketful.’ In the final poem, ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, a peaceful garden is disturbed by ‘the automatic lock’ of the poet’s car door as it ‘clunks shut’, recalling not only the same door in Heaney’s superb Nineties poem ‘Postscript’, but the mechanism of a gun being loaded, an overtone that was only the ghost of a presence in the earlier, more meditative poem.
This is not the collection of a mature poet making peace with the world, a Nobel laureate resting on his greens. Instead, it is a kind of proposal. Heaney is, after all, a poet versed in conflict and, in District and Circle, he asserts that position. His territory expands to examine a world that lacks peace. In past collections his district has grown cautiously, encompassing first northern then Mediterranean Europe. In District and Circle, he has gone global. Many poems are still anchored in Ireland - a bricklayer’s trowel in the hand of a local demobbed soldier is wielded ‘to sever a brick’; the Irish word for ‘sedge’ is a ‘dialect blade’: but the latter is suggested to the dead poet George Seferis in a Hellenic underworld, and an American fireman’s helm is the relic of one who has broken the hoplite ‘shield-wall’ of a burning building.

Several of the finest poems are at the heart of this thematic movement. ‘A Shiver’ describes the way a man swings a sledgehammer in terms of great allure, then questions the value of that allurement (‘Does it do you good/ To have known it in your bones, directable,/ Withholdable at will,/ ... The staked earth quailed and shivered in the handle?’). In ‘Anything Can Happen’, the human geography of the central conflict in District and Circle becomes clear: ‘Anything can happen, the tallest towers/ Be overturned, those in high places daunted,/ Those overlooked regarded.’

Heaney is very good on violence, and not only on its horror, but on its lure, as in the withholdable swing of that sledge. None of this is new territory; quite the opposite. In its forms and pace Heaney’s poetry is cautious, not violent, but strands of violence have always run through it, responses to the conflicts that have surrounded him, both private and political. Describing the reticence with which he had written of the conflict in Ireland, Heaney once described his instincts as ‘an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head’. The imagery of arms and armour have occurred before, there as elsewhere. What is new is the breadth of Heaney’s territory, the global jurisdiction he claims.

Technically, the new poems tend to favour the longer line Heaney has used more often in recent years. Many of the poems - more than a dozen - are sonnets in spirit if not always in form, the psychological heart of the sonnet-form there in their use of the volta. There is also a lovely sequence of prose poems, three pieces of memoir. Towards its end the collection becomes a little slighter as poems peel off to examine incidental themes, but the interest of the book lies in its many sideways glances at conflict.

It is four decades to the year since the publication of Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, which Faber is re-releasing to accompany District and Circle. ‘How fine a poet Heaney can be when he isn’t trying to show us what a clever fellow he is,’ one critic wrote at the time. That was a harsh observation to make, certainly, the cuff of an older poet reviewing a debutant. Yet cleverness has always been a hallmark of Heaney’s poetry, and it is what distinguishes his work from, say, that of Ted Hughes. Hughes wore his learning lightly: Heaney chooses not to do so. He is an academic poet, and for some readers, his use of erudition remains a stumbling-block, an obstacle in the way of his poetry.

In this regard District and Circle is typical Heaney, its poems as slippery and erudite as any that have come before it. Heaney has written of his own poetry as being ‘like an eel swallowed/ in a basket of eels’, and this feels right. At its best - and in District and Circle it reaches its best as it has not done since The Spirit Level in 1984 - his poetry is intricately woven, rich in meanings that resist intellectual reduction and are more powerful because of that. At less than best, the same intricacy can seem merely elusive, the poems seeking out safety in subtlety.

Like it or not, this cleverness - call it eelishness - is one of the most consistent elements of Heaney’s work, and on the whole it is one of his great strengths. In District and Circle, it allows him to study a worldful of wars, and to do so on his own terms. Heaney’s command of language remains as powerful a tool as ever. This is not the war on terror so much as the terror of war, and not so much the terror - or not only that - but the allure of it. District and Circle takes no sides, so that those who have overturned the high towers in ‘Anything Can Happen’ are ‘regarded’ - a typically slippery, double-edged blade of a word, in a book full of double-edged blades.



Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

The Times

August 2005

Early on in Kazuo Ishiguro’s sixth novel, it becomes apparent that the author is hiding something. The sensation isn’t entirely unexpected; this is, after all, a novelist known for characters who say more in their silences than in their conversations, and for meanings that must be dug out from between the lines.

However, the sense of concealment is different this time, and unexpected. In past works Ishiguro has made his narrative quietness seem an aspect of English reserve, or of Japanese reticence. What is being hidden this time, though, is not only the unspeakable, but also the unspeakably horrific. Never Let Me Go may be set in the near past, but it is a work that strikes the warning note of science fiction. It is also a horror story.

The moment is this: Kathy H is a student at Hailsham, an isolated educational facility. A woman visits but seems to shy away from the children, who assume her to be “snooty”, until Kathy’s closest friend, Ruth, suggests that the visitor is actually -inexplicably -frightened. The girls decide to test their theory by crowding around the woman, and the experiment succeeds beyond their expectations: “Ruth had been right. Madame was afraid of us. But she was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We hadn’t been ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder what we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders.”

It would do readers a disservice to give away too much about Never Let Me Go, since mystery is part of the novel’s power, and it is only gradually that Ishiguro reveals to the reader what it may be about the Hailsham children that makes Madame react to them with loathing. As already suggested, the book is a new departure for Ishiguro not only in its contemporaneity -the setting is “England, late 1990s” - but in its use of an altered reality. This is a might-have-been-world, or a world-to-be. Fans of science fiction may greet this as good news; others may be put off. It is worth adding that despite its fabulous elements, Never Let Me Go is classic Ishiguro in terms of style, tone and quality of writing.

It is a style that fits well with Kathy H’s cruel new England: in fact, Ishiguro’s controlled prose feeds through into the authoritarian mood of his alternate reality. In the past Ishiguro has disputed comparisons between his writing and that of Jane Austen, and in many ways his disagreement is understandable (and this is anything but Persuasion).

Nevertheless, there are similarities between the two novelists, and in the claustrophobic world of Never Let Me Go, they have, surprisingly, become sharper than ever. For one thing, in a way that is very British and very Japanese, Ishiguro is fascinated with class. His interest is not so much with those who have as with those who have not, and, like Austen, his greatest characters are those born into restricted circumstances, such as Stevens in The Remains of the Day.

Kathy H takes the theme further. Kathy is impoverished and limited by birth in ways that go beyond inequalities of class. As a heroine, she is incapable of heroism, but while Stevens’s impotence seems to be the product of social conditioning, in Never Let Me Go there is the suggestion -between the lines, as always -that Kathy and the other Hailsham children may be genetically incapable of seeking a better life.

There is also a resemblance in the descriptive writing of Austen and Ishiguro that is particularly marked in Never Let Me Go. In Austen, the world seems small because it intrudes only when characterisation makes it absolutely necessary.

Weather blows up when it is required to mirror emotion; landscape pulls into view when character development demands it.

This spare approach to description is also one of the most striking qualities of Ishiguro’s prose, and his tendency to cut back -to foreshorten his characters’ horizons -has become more marked than ever. Here, the austere minimalism of description becomes meaningful. After Kathy leaves Hailsham, she becomes a social worker for dying patients. She drives from hospice to hospice across an England that is “open” and “featureless”; the “empty” roads pass through “huge flat fields of nothing”. The only weather Kathy recalls is sunlight, the only meals she eats are water and biscuits. The novel is almost without a descriptive surface, reflecting the hollowness and inhumanity of the world Ishiguro portrays.

Meaningful though it is, the lack of description in Never Let Me Go is oppressive, and it is questionable whether Ishiguro intends the novel to come across quite so severely as it does. In interviews he has spoken of the clarity with which he sees the things he writes, and it is possible that it is the strength of his visual imagination that leads him to portray his worlds so sparely. He is like a cook with a sense of taste so acute that his dishes lack flavour. But this is harsh, since Never Let Me Go is anything but a flavourless piece of writing. This is a fine novel, fiction as moving and horrific as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids.



When we were young: Le Grand Meaulnes

The Guardian

Saturday August 16, 2003

Particular works, for example Le Grand Meaulnes, can tell you a lot about a bookshop. The bad ones won’t have it, won’t have heard of it, won’t even be able to find it on their systems - not that the novel makes their lives easy, the title having shifted over the decades between The Lost Domain , The Wanderer and The End of Youth as well as the French original; the author’s name - his pseudonym - appearing sometimes as Alain-Fournier, sometimes with his hyphen undone, and on certain internet sites, by a process of overtranslation, as Alan Baker.

Good bookshops, though, will have one copy. Usually it is just the one, thin and a little bit tired at the edges. Often the sellers won’t need to replace it more than once or twice a decade - I bought a copy recently; the shop hadn’t sold another in 13 years - but that’s not the point: the kind of bookseller who stocks Le Grand Meaulnes doesn’t really do so for good business. If you’re going to run a bookshop, you had better love books, after all, and if you love books, then Le Grand Meaulnes is the kind of novel you’ll want to have around.

If you talk to people about this book, you’ll notice something interesting: not only have a lot of them read it, but they’re still reading it. How and where they get hold of it is a mystery - possibly they are finding it on the shelves of better-read relatives (which is what I did myself). Some books succeed by word of mouth; Le Grand Meaulnes survives by even less than that, a barely audible system of Chinese whispers. But it remains a book that writers turn to; perhaps as much as any modern novel, it has a style which has echoed through the works of others. Despite the confusion of its titles and its dog-eared thinness and its faults, this is arguably one of the most influential novels of the 20th century.

Henri Alban Fournier was born in La Chapelle d’Anguillon in the Sologne in 1886; he was killed in battle on the Meuse, aged 27, in September 1914. The son of a schoolmaster, Fournier was sketching out both a play and a second novel at the outset of war, but his reputation rests almost exclusively on his only complete work of fiction, which narrowly missed winning the Prix Goncourt.

In many ways Le Grand Meaulnes is the first novel everyone expects of a young writer: it is very, very serious - offhand I can’t remember a single funny line - and a little emotionally uneven, veering between sentimental intensity and an overly detached coolness. It is also at least loosely autobiographical. The novel’s narrator is Fran├žois Seurel, son of a village schoolmaster, a habitual onlooker (a writer, in other words), living in the shadow of Fournier’s hero, the charismatic new schoolboy Augustin Meaulnes.

Fournier incorporates an even more crucial autobiographical element in Yvonne de Galais, the girl Meaulnes meets by chance when he stumbles on a mysterious country estate; with Fran├žois he then tries - hopelessly - to find both girl and lost domain again. For Fournier, the lost girl was Yvonne de Quievrecourt, a woman already engaged when he saw and followed her home through the streets of Paris: exactly a year after that obsessive beginning he returned to the same street, hoping to see Yvonne again: “She did not come,” he wrote to his closest friend. “Even if she had, she would not have been the same girl.”

Le Grand Meaulnes is written in exactly this adolescent spirit, but wholeheartedly, with an honesty and lack of cynicism that would not have been possible 20 years after Fournier’s death, let alone today. Writing at a turning point in both his life and times, Fournier was a master of nostalgia; and if there are better things to be master of, it is mastery all the same. The power of his writing is in the atmosphere it conveys, which is one of eerie glamour, heightened sexuality and irrevocable loss. It’s a sensation which you can find in dozens of later works, from John Fowles’s The Magus to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Alex Garland’s The Beach and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - but in few earlier novels ( Great Expectations has something of the same feel to it). It’s a novel worth looking for, even if you have to try more than one bookshop before you find it.

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