No 590 The Hunters by Claire Messud : Book 2 of #20booksofsummer

In Claire Messud’s acclaimed novel The Woman Upstairs, her fascinating character of Nora was held up as a perfect example of an unreliable narrator, to the point where some readers even questioned her sanity.

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In The Hunters, a collection of two novellas, Messud seems to be dissecting the very idea of what a narrator is.

Maria, the lead character of A Simple Tale, discovers blood-streaked walls at the home of Mrs. Ellington, her employer whom she has worked for and cared for every Tuesday for over 40 years. The situation is not as critical as Maria fears, but the situation her employer finds herself in triggers a reminiscence as Maria looks back over her own life, a life of displacement and disappointment which has been marked by looking after others.

As a young girl in Ukraine, Maria was enslaved by the Nazis in WW” before emigrating with her Polish husband to Canada. One form of enslavement becomes another as she works in service to a series of wealthy women for most of her life. Her hopes for her son are dashed by his marriage to a woman she feels unworthy of him and as the employer/ employee relationship becomes unstable, Maria comes to realise that she no longer needs to be silent about who she truly is. The story that she has becomes a story to be told.

In general, she knew that her employers felt an unspoken pity for her unspoken suffering; that they considered, at least initially, their employment of a Displaced Person to be a moral act; and yet, that, unable to imagine her provenance and unwilling to consider it anything other than benighted, they required her silence about her previous life as much as, if not more so than, they required her promptness and efficiency in the acquittal of their household chores.

Maria’s story is a fascinating one, from an historical perspective, and Messud captures well that feeling of superfluousness that can pervade even the most fulfilled of lives. In an attempt to make an effort with her son and his family, Maria goes on holiday with them, only to find that being in the middle of their lives only serves to highlight the distance between them.

Maria could not have explained the helplessness she felt….the hideous superfluity. It wasn’t the morning’s rage, it was instead an agony, a physical agitation, a more profound sense of not belonging than she had ever before, in all her life, experienced. She was to this scene like the flag on the back of the boat, or like the occasional burst of an engine in the distance: a tiny rootless fact, an irrelevance

However easy it is to empathise with Maria’s situation, it is hard to engage directly with her. Messud leaves her reader is kept at a distance, and like the plastic covering that Maria keeps on her living room furniture, there is a veneer to the writing that keeps us at arm’s length.

In the second, a title story The Hunters, we are distanced even further from the narrator in that we are not even aware of the American academic’s gender. Following the breakdown of a romantic relationship, our sexless and nameless narrator has moved to a disappointing London flat to carry out research for the summer. An unusual woman called Ridley Wandor, who lives downstairs and cares for the terminally ill repeatedly tries to make friends with the academic, who in turn becomes obsessed with discovering a darkness in Wandor’s seemingly innocuous attempts at friendship.

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This is a spooky tale, through inference rather than action and it has been noted that it carries a real debt to Henry James. Like the governess in The Turn of the Screw, it becomes apparent that the motives being ascribed to Ridley Wandor may actually be a projection of neurosis on the part of our narrator. Is Ridley Wandor inadvertently killing off her patients? Does her mother really exist? And what happened to the man who lived in the flat previously? All these questions come directly from the narrator’s imagination, rather than anything Ridley does, or doesn’t do.

It’s a vague story, strong on atmosphere and tension, but again distancing. This is in part due to the first person narrative voice, whose flowery prose and old-fashioned style of language may prove too convoluted for some readers.

Take this description of the woman downstairs,

I noticed her hands because I could not bear to look too closely at her face, the ugliness of which resided not in any tangible, and hence admirable, disgrace, but in the lack it represented – lack of color, lack of distinction, lack of features. No eyebrows to speak of; no nameable hue to the blinking little eyes; no form to the little nose; as I have said, virtually no lips, and what slivers there were, bloodless.

The writing is gleeful, but it goes on in this overblown vein for the whole of the novella and can, at times, be exhausting to read. Messud is a fan of parentheses and complex sentence structure which means reading these stories takes time, despite their brevity.

Overall though, these are incredibly well written stories, elegantly constructed with powerful descriptive passages. Messud seems to be exploring the power of the story itself, the stories we tell others and the stories we hide. Maria pretends that her story doesn’t exist because it is what the practicalities of her life demands. The American scholar is so bored of the narrative that they find themselves in, that they create one for an unfortunate other. Displacement looms large in these pages, the character in The Hunters does not feel at home in London, while Maria has never felt at home in Canada. Their stories have been uprooted and fragmented and as such no longer feel relevant. The breakdown of significant relationships have left them both feeling lonely and hunting for relevance.

It was not the same, but it was similar, to what she felt herself, which was too, a sensation of the lights going out – of the people who could know her, or who cared to know her, disappearing – until rather than not seeing, Maria was above all unseen.

Unwilling to be unseen, the characters in these two short novels tell stories, of themselves and of others in order to remain seen and not forgotten.

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No 651 Tinkers by Paul Harding

 

 

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Inspired by #NovellaNovember, championed by the brilliant Poppy of Poppy Peacock Pens, I had a look through the 746 with one thing in mind. Length.

I was searching for a novella I could read and review before the end of the month and came across Tinkers by Paul Harding which clocks in at a slight 150 pages. None of you will be surprised to hear that I don’t remember buying this book, but it may have something to do with the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 – the first debut novel to do so since A Confederacy of Dunces in 1981 – after languishing in publishers slush piles for three years.

I’m so grateful I happened across it because Tinkers is a beautiful novella, a heart breaking meditation on love, loss, illness and the power of nature.

The novella opens on an old man dying in a bed in his living room. Suddenly, he sees the walls around him collapsing and he falls through the floors of his house into his basement. He is showered with the detritus of life – old photographs, tools, newspaper clippings, the parts of old clocks. These are followed by the clouds and stars which tumble around him and finally the sky itself falls and covers him. George Washington Crosby, a clock repairer is hallucinating. Drifting in and out of consciousness as his family sit with him while he slowly dies of cancer.

With time winding down, George’s memories mingle with those of his father, Howard a peddler (hence the title) and epileptic and in turn with those of his grandfather a preacher who is afflicted by madness.

George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying…independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.

A repairer of clocks, a methodical keeper of time, George is now free of the constraints of hours, minutes and seconds and rejoins his father and grandfather through time. Their memories become his as he tries to come to terms with his painful childhood in Maine, rediscover his awe of nature and face the death that is coming for him. He jumps from thought to thought, unconfined to his own knowledge, falling through the generations like he fell through the floor of his house, one hallucination echoing another.

There is little in the way of plot in Tinkers, as it is essentially a memory piece, but it is structured beautifully, forming a perfect narrative loop that fizzes and flashes with incandescent moments, like the epilepsy that lights up Howard’s brain. It contains some unforgettable images – a 120 year old hermit with a signed copy of The Scarlet Letter, a boy spending a night neck deep in a river, charred bodies found on a bed after a fire and a house being moved on logs across a plain. It is interspersed with sections from a book called The Reasonable Horologist which reads as part clock manual and part bible.

There is a wonderful section where George remembers a time when he attempted to capture his memories on tape, only to be confronted with what can never be captured.

…he began to talk about his father and his mother, his brother, Joe, and his sisters, about taking night courses to finish school and about becoming a father. He talked about blue snow and barrels of apples and splitting frozen wood so brittle that it rang when you split if. He talked about what it is like to be a grandparent for the first time and to think about what it is you will leave behind when you die. By the time the tape ran out an hour and a half later…he was openly weeping and lamenting the loss of this world of light and hope.

It is only as George’s mind teeters between life and death that he can see clearly the meaning of the moments he has lived, as memories ring out like the hourly chime of a clock, opening up a world of wonder and magic that George could not before comprehend.

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And yet for a book about death, it is ultimately a celebration of life. It reminds us that the past is never dead, it remains always within us, always flashing bright to illuminate our present. The novel is packed with short, intense moments of clarity and self-awareness; moments that elucidate both the terror and joy of living, reminding us of where we are all always heading, ‘toward the point where the fading would begin’.

And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world even though you have done nothing to deserve it.

The prose in Tinkers is almost poetic, with recurring themes of time, clocks, lightning and illumination. Even a terrifying condition like epilepsy is rendered in a way as to make it seem transcendental.

I can imagine it being a bit much for some readers, but I was in awe of Harding’s use of language and alliteration and beautiful passages such as

He lifted his nose from a crate of limes, refreshed and eager to get home to a wife who spoke words out loud as she thought them and held nothing to whirl and eddy and collect in brackish silences, silences that broke like thin ice beneath you to announce your drowning.

Or

When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart.

Paul Harding has managed to contain the epic scope of family saga within one man’s mind and a very short book, almost in the way the unknowable magic of time is contained within the workings of a clock. Tinkers is both devastating and life-affirming and is a hypnotic exploration of the thoughts of a dying man, reiterating that in the end, all we leave behind is love.

There is a beautiful sentence near the end of this gorgeous little book, where Howard says

My mother opened the outside door and the light came in and carved every object in the kitchen into an ancient relic

Paul Harding pulls off the same trick with Tinkers, opening a door and shining a light on what it means to be human, and in the process, creating something that will endure. Tinkers is a remarkable book.

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No 655 The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy, who is so often associated with the big, the broad and the epic in terms of his writing, was also a master of the intimate and the personal, as seen in the perfectly formed novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

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Where a novel like War and Peace is cinematic in its exploration of humanity, Ivan Ilyich is almost microscopic in its focus on what it means to be human and to face the knowledge of our own death.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, as the title suggests, is the story of the final months of one relatively ordinary man – a reasonably successful middle-aged Russian judge. He has a good enough job, a nice enough home, a wife and two children. Feeling the pressure of society to move up in the world, he gets a better paying job and a larger home.

While decorating said home to the tastes of the day, he incurs an apparently trivial injury (knocking his side while hanging curtains) that very quickly develops into something more sinister. Doctors can’t agree on what is wrong and offer treatments and reassurances but in a matter of weeks, it is clear to Ivan that he is facing death, with all the pain, indignity and loneliness that illness brings.

Plot-wise, it is relatively straightforward, but this is an incredibly precise piece of work with a perfect structure. The death of Ivan Ilyich is announced at the start of the novella and Tolstoy examines the effect his death has on his colleagues. Their response is sobering.

Besides consideration as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilyich’s death, the mere fact that of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, “it is he who is dead and not I”

For most of his family and colleagues, his death is an inconvenience. It is an unscheduled funeral to attend, a game of cards missed and an unwelcome reminder of their own mortality.

When Ivan’s colleague Peter Ivanovich comes to view the body, he feels ‘a reproach and a warning to the living’ emanating from Ivan’s dead face, but instead chooses to see

The expression on the face said that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly.

This is ironic, because over the coming short but brutal tale, Ilyich, when faced with the certainty of his death, realises that nothing has been accomplished and by doing what he believed was ‘right’, life has passed him by.

Some critics suggest that Ilyich, through the life he has lead, deserves to see how he has not really lived at all, but I didn’t feel that from the novella. Yes, Tolstoy presents his protagonist as shallow, dull and opportunistic but he also describes him as ‘an intelligent, polished, lively and agreeable man’.

He forges a successful career that he doesn’t really have a passion for and marries well to a woman he doesn’t really love. He lives a successful, ordinary life. A life not dissimilar to many lives, to our own lives. And that in some ways is what makes this novella so affecting.As Tolstoy points out

Ivan Ilyich’s life has been the most simple and ordinary and therefore the most terrible

Tolstoy presents Ilyich with no real stylistic flourishes. The writing is spare, focused and harsh and as Ivan’s pain, isolation and fear grows, so too does our sympathy and ultimately our identification with the dying man. We are forced to examine life along with Ilyich and in some ways, asked to question how we live ourselves.

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As death consumes Ivan, slowly and in detail, he is forced to come to terms with the fact that his proper life has not been a good one. That everything he thought was the right thing to do has brought him no real happiness. His struggle with this idea is equated with his struggle with death itself,

And every moment, despite all his efforts he was drawing nearer and nearer to what terrified him. He felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into that black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it. He was hindered from getting into it by his conviction that his life had been a good one. That very justification of his life held him fast and prevented his moving forward, and it caused him the most torment of all.

But as Ivan Ilyich’s prolonged dying proceeds on, so his awakening begins. He finds solace in the care shown to him by his peasant servant Gerasim, whose lack of disgust at Ilyich’s physical state and simple acknowledgement of the reality death becomes a solace and a lesson for the dying man.

Ivan Ilyich finally gains acceptance of what his life has been just as death comes.

He sought his accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light.
“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

Tolstoy’s memento mori is undoubtedly a harrowing read, but it is also a very moving one. For such a slim volume, it is about many things that are still universal today – societal pressures to conform, consumerism, vanity and the fear of illness. But above all, it is a unique treatise on the need to connect, both with family and friends, but also with life.

Like all great literature, it urges us to find meaning in our lives before it is too late.

I’d like to thank the brilliant Poppy Peacock for nudging me towards this one as part of Novella November. It’s been languishing on my shelves since about 2000 when I bought it after seeing Ivansxtc, a great film adaptation starring Danny Huston which transposes Ivan from Russia in the late 1800s to Hollywood in the 1990s. That the modernisation works so well is testament to the relevance of the source material.

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No 700 The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates

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The full title of this collection is The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares: Novellas and Stories of Unspeakable Dread. Joyce Carol Oates might not seem like the first port of call if you are in the mood for some unspeakable dread, but novels such as Zombie, My Sister, My Love and We Were the Mulvaneys all explore the darkness at the heart of humanity. Hers is the horror of real life, the horror of what one human can do to another, the horror of jealousy, loss, hubris and greed.

The titular novella is a wonderfully crafted tale of girls gone bad, in which Oates tells of the kidnapping of an 11-year-old by older girls at her school. The story flits between the viewpoints of the young kidnapper, a sympathetically drawn grotesque, the kidnapped girl’s mother and a male teacher who is being set up as the potential abductor. The terror and tensions Oates creates, comes not just from the concern that the girl makes it home alive, but also by showing us the trauma inflicted on other characters because of Jude, the abductor’s delusional actions. The implied guilt of the girl’s mother and the complicity of the teacher make them more than the cliched roles we are all aware of from abduction stories in the media and the true dread comes as much from hoping the girl will not be killed as it does from wondering how reputations and lives, once publicly soiled, can ever be put back together.

Oates’s skill at characterisation means that we can see our own complicity in how we conspire with the media to create recogniable characters – the single mother, the unmarried male teacher – yet she induces empathy for her characters, which builds the sense of dread to a nerve-shredding climax with incredible skill and control.

Nicolas Guerin/Contour/Getty Images

Nicolas Guerin/Contour/Getty Images

 
The rest of the stories in the collection might not quite live up to The Corn Maiden, but all give chills in their own way. In ‘Nobody Knows my Name’, the only story that may, or may not have a supernatural twist, a nine-year old girl feels forgotten following the birth of her baby sister, and her growing isolation and resentment has catastrophic consequences for the entire family. In ‘Helping Hands’ a 40 something widow meets a war veteran whilst donating her husbands clothes to his charity shop. She feels beyond widowed,

She felt like an amputee, uncertain which of her limbs had been severed.

Like the girl from the previous story, she has also been forgotten not because she has been usurped, but because she has been diminished and her need for companionship and self-worth cloud her judgement with horrifying results.

In the centre of the book are a grotesque siamese coupling of tales about dysfunctional twins who despise each other which were for me, the least successful of the collection. ‘Fossil Figures’ is a dreamlike, eerie tale and is the perfect example of the erosion of self that can come from need and dependance. The story opens in a terrifying fashion, told from the point of view of a baby in the womb

…the demon brother was the larger of the two, but with a single wish to suck suck suck into his being the life of the other, the smaller brother all of the nourishment of the liquidy-dark womb, to suck into himself the smaller brother about whom he was hunched as if embracing him, belly to curving spine, and the forehead of the demon brother pressed against the soft bone of the back of the head of the smaller brother

You just know that relationship is not going to turn out well. ‘Death Cup’, the twin tale of twin brothers, suffers in comparison, being a slightly melodramatic tale of filial jealousy taken too far, less horror and more soap opera.

‘Beersheba’ throws the standard revenge story on it’s head, as a young woman takes her revenge on the step father she blames for the death of her mother. The horror comes not from the violence, but from the fact that her step father is innocent and her anger and his suffering are ultimately for nothing.

In my mind, Oates saves the best to last. ‘A Hole in the Head’ is told from the delusional and fevered point of view of a plastic surgeon catering to the rich women of the New York suburbs. A failed neurosurgeon, we watch his life and mental stability fall apart as he agrees to carry out the unorthodox and ancienct procedure of trepanning, with disastrous results.

 
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This is by far the most physically gruesome of the tales in the collection, with it’s vivd, all too real descriptions of botched surgery, yet it is to Joyce Carol Oates credit that the real horror we feel is for the perpetrator himself as she allows the humanity of her character to come through despite the surreal and grotesque situation he finds himself in.

That, I think, is the main success of this collection. For a story to be truely horrifying, the reader has to care and this is where Oates really delivers. Even with a character like Jude, the unstable kidnapper from The Corn Maiden, Oates allows us glimpses of the humanity amid the madness and random violence.

All of the violence in this collection is random. There are no rules here, no morals. Just like the horror in nightmares. There is a sense that all these characters are being borne along to their fate by some unseen force, as if they have lost control.  As one of her characters says,

As a young man he’d never considered time as anything other than a current to bear him aloft, propel him into his future, nowche understood that time was a rising tide, implacable, inexorable, unstoppable rising tide, now at the ankles, now the knees, rising to the thighs, to the groin and the torso and to the chin, ever rising, a dark water of utter mystery propelling us ever forward, not into the future but into infinity which is oblivion.

And like all nightmares, Oates ends her stories on moments of ambiguity, as if we have been awoken from them, with no explanation. And like nightmares, she leaves us with a lingering sense of unease that is almost impossible to shake.

This is my second book for the RIP IX Challenge and my next spooky read will be Joyland by Stephen King.

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