The Ladies’ Paradise, Émile Zola: ‘a poem to modern activity’

This was not my first encounter with Zola but it was certainly my first successful one. When I was seventeen I tried to read L’Assomoir in French and, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not get very far. I’ve always been a bit wary of texts in translation for the simple reason that a bad translation can ruin a wonderful book; a wariness much exacerbated by some rather dry, dense translations of Sartre which put me off him for a good while. Brian Nelson’s translation of Au Bonheur des Dames suffers no such impediments and unfamiliar with the story (in spite of the BBCs recent adaptation) I thoroughly enjoyed it, cracking through all 432 pages at speed. It was especially fun to read during a road trip across the south of France which encompassed Zola’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence.

The reader is drawn into the compelling and colourful world of the grand department store, The Paradise, with the same force that it entrances and fascinates our heroine: the young and innocent Denise Baudu. In the opening pages, Denise and her brothers Jean and Pépé arrive in Paris in search of their Uncle and stumble across The Ladies’ Paradise. The effect is immediate and emotional: ‘this building which seemed so enormous, brought a lump to her throat and held her rooted to the spot, excited, fascinated, oblivious to everything else.’ The shop windows are an orgy of energy and colour where the…

…umbrellas, placed obliquely, seemed to form the roof of some rustic hut, beneath which, suspended from rods and displaying the rounded outline of calves, were silk stockings, some strewn with bunches of roses, others of every hue – black net, red with embroidered clocks, flesh-coloured ones with a satiny texture which had the softness of a blonde woman’s skin…

Throughout the novel we are treated to these sensuous, vibrant descriptions of the shop and its wares. Consumption is sexualised to the point of fetishism, the calculating owner Octave Mouret sees his customers – the ladies of Paris ‘pale with desire’ – as objects for seduction: ‘His sole passion was the conquest of Woman.’ The act of selling becomes one of erotic manipulation and the great sales that structure the novel constitute moments of collective abandon, exemplified in the final climactic sale, ‘In the trousseau department’, where:

…all discretion was abandoned: women were turned round and viewed from below, from the ordinary housewife with her common calicoes to the rich lady smothered in lace; it was an alcove open to the public, whose hidden luxury, its platings and embroideries and Valenciennes lace, deprived the senses as it overflowed in costly fantasies.

Mouret’s personal seductions are as numerous and successful as those of his shop, until of course, he meets the steadfast and ‘gentle’ Denise who will not be so easily overwhelmed. Indeed, through Denise ‘the women’ will ‘have their revenge’ as predicted to Mouret himself early in the novel.

Accompanying this strain of eroticism runs a parallel current of violence; the above description of the ‘calves’ is one of many in which the body is distorted and dismembered into fragments: ‘the mirrors made the departments recede further into the distance, reflecting the displays together with patches of the public – faces in reverse, bits of shoulders and arms’. The disturbing image of the mannequins, figures of the female body, decapitated ‘each one had a little wooden handle, like the handle of a dagger, stuck in the red flannel which seemed to be bleeding where the neck had been severed’ is emblematic of the violent commodification of the female body Mouret deals in.

The Paradise itself is figured as a machine, albeit a machine that is ‘based on the flesh and blood of Woman’ and as such it is rendered a symbol of a nascent modernity driven by capital and technology. Zola set out his intentions in his notes; he wanted to write, ‘the poem of modern activity. Hence a complete shift of philosophy: ‘no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from its productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, which is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.’ This ‘effort in every direction’ is captured in the relentless expansion of the physical building even at the expense of the old, family shops in the vicinity and of course, at the expense of those families themselves. The new, specifically urban space of the department store is characterised by ‘the crush’ of the crowd and the ‘madness in the air’ that brings with it.

The productivity of Mouret’s machine is inextricable from a Darwinian brutality that sustains both the structure and the dominance of the shop. It is destructive and frequently figured as ‘monstrous’ in its mechanisation and power. Even Denise whose ‘coming was to be a revenge’ is shocked ‘by its brutal operation’. Indeed Denise who is characterised throughout as ‘gentle’ and acts as a humanising influence on both man and monster cannot stem the ‘force which was carrying everything before it.’

Inexorable progress and forward propulsion beat through the novel like the shop itself, ‘regulated and organized with the remorselessness of a machine: the vast horde of women were as if caught in the wheels of an inevitable force.’ It surges forward, driven by Mouret’s speculative approach, attention fixed firmly on the future as the present dissipates into money already made and the next sale holds promises of greater profits; The Paradise remains a machine clothed in luxurious silks – and all for a reasonable price.

The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis (1973)

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I’ve read quite a bit of Amis and The Rachel Papers has been on my list/ever-increasing pile of ‘to-reads’ since I picked up this copy in an Oxfam Bookshop last summer. Finally managing to crack into the reading you’ve been dreaming of intermittently during the mania of term time is like a sigh of relief and, knowing absolutely nothing about the story (save that it clearly involved someone called Rachel) I was looking forward to digging into my reading list with this slim volume.

Amis’ debut novel is narrated by the objectionable soon-to-be-twenty-year-old Charles Highway. On the eve of his twentieth birthday he is getting his affairs (as it were, forgive the pun…) in order. In going over his journals and records of sexual encounters he guides the reader through his transition from adolescence to adulthood. At the centre of this comic and very physical coming of age is Highway’s pursuit of and subsequent relationship with Rachel the (not very much) older woman that he has fantasised about sleeping with before he turns twenty. Highway is fascinated by his own body and holds his “secret bathroom hours” in almost religious reverence, he is hypochondrial and revels in those aspects of bodily existence that might leave others revolted. I think this is what makes the text feel a bit dated: the graphically
explicit sexual and physical descriptions may have proved more shocking in the early Seventies (?) or at least more outlandish but now, with the power of Youtube and television programmes like Embarrassing Bodies this sort of demystification is commonplace.

The narrative voice is engaging and distinctive; Highway is not a pleasant or particularly sympathetic character but he is at least a convincing one. The trouble is that so much energy is drawn into framing him that the others feel two dimensional and under-developed as if they were Highway’s own creations and exist only on the pages he is sifting through. This is problematic not only in and of itself but because it leaves the reader with no-one to care about and adds to the unavoidable feeling of, ‘Meh…. So what?’ at the end of the book.

And that is the key issue here: the plot lacks any kind of intensity and any real action. I was left thinking: OK, that obnoxious little bastard turned twenty, got his own way on every possible front and learnt absolutely nothing in the process. There is no life-changing moment, no comeuppance and indeed no sense that Highway has in any way come of age. The young Amis is technically excellent though here and the structure of the novel acts as a counterpoint to lack of movement in the narrative: the countdown to midnight drives the reader and in combination with the long, pacy speeches that become characteristic of the narrative voice the reader is almost tricked into believing that the plot is really developing. It feels like a debut novel: flawed in construction but with elements that are brilliantly executed. Perhaps a coming of age for the novelist himself. What do you lovely people think? Would be very interested to hear thoughts below…

NB You’ll notice that I linked to a site called hive rather than to Amazon – this is because it sources at local independent bookshops for delivery and we love our independent bookshops don’t we?

A note on contemporary literary fiction

Contemporary literary fiction is a problematic term. It is extremely difficult to define and as a result, any discussion risks devolving into either an exercise in exclusion and inflexibility, or, an augmentation of the nebulous that becomes so vague as to be entirely diffuse. These issues have been well-documented and well-bemoaned in recent years, as have countless debates on the quality of writing that is being produced in the name of contemporary literary fiction; or rather more frequently, the lack thereof. I wouldn’t pretend to have any answers (should such things exist…) to these central problems and I certainly would not dare to make any such sweeping judgments about ‘the state of literature today’; rather, I thought I’d lay out a few points, which to me, feel most pertinent to the discussion.

As I have said already, literary fiction is incredibly tricky to define; I suspect though, that most would agree it is a label implying a sense of seriousness and technical ambition. It is certainly distinct from ‘genre fiction’ (crime, fantasy, romance) and is by and large perceived as superior, perhaps wielding a bit more intellectual clout than its genre siblings. The ‘contemporary’ element is an interesting one: whilst in this context, we may safely assume ‘contemporary’ to mean current, the majority of academic courses that cover ‘contemporary’ literature reach back into the late seventies or early eighties, further complicating any judgments or statements we may wish to make about contemporary literary fiction.

Putting aside these complexities of definition for a moment, it may be more helpful to consider the ways in which both reading and writing have changed since the early eighties. To my mind there have been two significant influences on the mechanics of writing and publishing, the first being the proliferation of creative writing courses at academic institutions; the second being, of course, the internet.

In The Salon article I linked to above, creative writing courses were being held responsible for raising some terrible writers to a level of competence and thus further abetting the corruption of contemporary literary fiction. Whilst I am sure that this is to some extent true, I think these courses have also had a wonderfully clarifying effect for writers. They offer a real sense of a craft, of an apprenticeship and encourage a critical, self-appraising approach to writing, formalising aspects of the creative process and helping writers to hone a style. There are the inevitable arguments that these courses are factory-like and become criteria-centric, churning out little replica Raymond Carvers whilst stifling originality. That is to say, graduates of these courses come out able to write in a very disciplined, carefully constructed but totally unimaginative way. To this, I am inclined to say: rubbish. I’m sure that it can be and is true of some writers but what does a truly creative mind respond to more fervently than an establishment, or ‘old school’ to react against?

Further to this, I cannot see how learning the basics in a formal context can do any writer any harm. Art is a useful point of reference here, consider Picasso’s early work: he learnt to draw under his father and mastered academic classicism, a far more realistic (is that fair to say?) mode of representation before developing the Cubism of his masterpieces (NB massive over-simplification for sake of brevity). Surely, it is far easier to break and reinvent the rules if you have developed a proficient, working knowledge of them?

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the internet on literally anything, let alone the way we write and the way we read. Apart from anything else, the sheer volume of material available through the internet is staggering and this in itself requires a more discerning approach to both reading and writing; the reader must filter through the rubbish and make judgments on quality that we were previously not empowered to make. The writer must decide where and how their work should be distributed; they in turn have to filter through the extraordinary levels of chatter to find their audience and speak to it. We are exposed to an awful lot of stuff and some of it is, of course, dreadful, the dreadful has outlets that it did not have before and so more is required of us. We have to work out what we don’t like and why we don’t like it, which is – as both writer and reader – a really useful exercise; and just as YouTube gives a stage to some terrible singing, it has also brought to prominence some very talented musicians (and cats). New voices have any number of ways to speak, the difficulty of course is making yourself heard above the noise.

Writers, as we all do, now have far greater access to information than ever before. This sounds incredibly obvious but just as information is now available second hand so is experience. This has real implications for both the scope and authenticity of contemporary writing: if I want to write about the war in Afghanistan there are plenty of first hand accounts, videos, news-reports, blogs, poems, photos all available to click on and immerse myself in. On the one hand, research has never been easier and the experience of others more accessible; on the other, exposure becomes increasingly removed from experience. I can expose myself to all number of materials and build a narrative around them without feeling the heat of the desert. Now this is not to suggest that first-hand experience is a prerequisite for effective storytelling but it is to say that as our knowledge of the world and its affairs is increasing, our experiential understanding of it is shrinking.

This evaluative obsession with quality does appear though to be a very contemporary preoccupation and I do wonder whether it is in itself indicative of our culture of self-reflection and introspection. It seems to me that the ongoing dissection of literary fiction might be considered as much a symptom of this culture as that infamous emblem of social media, the selfie.

The Passion of New Eve, Angela Carter (1977)

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The Passion of New Eve follows the transformative punishment of Evelyn (who begins the story as a young Englishman) that sees him surgically re-sculpted into Eve. Evelyn impregnates and abandons the inchoate Leilah who once danced “a dance called the End of the World, to lead the unwary into temptation –“ and is left bleeding and sterile by the Haitian abortionist. Evelyn flees the streets of a nightmarish, dissolute imagining of New York for the unforgiving sterility of the desert. There he is captured and cast before Mother, an absurd rendering of a fertility goddess who:

…had reconstructed her flesh painfully, with knives and needles into a transcendental form as an emblem, as an example, and flung a patchwork quilt stitched from her daughters’ breasts over the cathedral of her interior, the cave within the cave.

Mother exacts vengeance on Evelyn for his crimes against women and intends the re-enactment of the Immaculate Conception until she flees. In her flight, Eve soon comes under the power of Zero the poet, with one eye and seven (soon to be eight) wives whom he rapes and beats, raging against the moviestar and “dyke” Tristessa, object of Eve’s obsession, who he believes has stolen his fertility. The revelation of Tristessa’s own secret follows before the third and final phase of Eve’s journey begins: she is captured once again and finds herself a maternal comfort to the Colonel of the boy soldiers who weeps at her breast. Ultimately the apocalyptic vision of the novel comes to fruition in the multi-factioned civil war; the skies burst with flames and Eve must move forward, at once towards her past and future.

Carter’s prose is described as “pyrotechnic” in a quotation from The Observer on the front cover and that it certainly is. Graphic, colourful and lurid Carter crafts a surreal dystopia structured around mythologies and iconographies of the sexed body. It is through these mythic re-imaginings that Carter exposes the inherent inadequacy of the binarism that underpins them: a matriarchy founded on motherhood is a matriarchy defined by phallocentric conceptions of femininity as evidenced by the symbol of the “truncated phallus” by which those women define themselves. The images that Evelyn is shown during his metamorphosis in order to feminise him psychologically reinforce a phallocentric conception of a femininity that is passive, malleable and receptive: “…sea-anemones opening and closing; caves, with streams issuing from them; roses opening to admit a bee; the sea, the moon…”

The body in this world is amorphous and through Eve/lyn’s transformation and indeed through the absurd Tiresian figure of Tristessa, Carter excavates the connections and disparities between “the essence and appearance”. The opening passages detail Leilah’s ritualised robing in which the reflection of her body in the cracked mirror (an image that recurs throughout the novel) acts a blank canvas for her to decorate and costume as if for some grotesque carnival:

…applying rouge to her nether lips and the purple or peony of scarlet grease around her mouth and nipples; powders and unguents all the colours of the rainbow went on to the skin in the sockets of her eyes…

Leilah’s performance and manipulation of the body in a way foreshadows the blankness and potentiality of Eve’s rebirth. Once Evelyn’s emasculation is complete she exists as “a tabula erasa, a blank sheet of paper, an unhatched egg. I hae not yet become a woman, although I possess a woman’s shape. Not a woman, no: both more and less than a real woman.” Eve learns to perform her new sex whether in the role of Zero’s eighth wife, Tristessa’s lover or as comfort to the boy soldier who weeps. However, “to become” a woman in this novel is to be defined by phallocentric expectation of womanhood as symbolised in the rapist Zero, the murderous boy soldier and the “mythic and monstrous” Mother. The body exists as an instrument of performance but the performance is of a gender defined by sex: even Tristessa, whose “name has all the poignancy of hopelessness in its whispering sibilants” is forced to embrace the gender expectations intrinsic to his biology.

The ideas Carter dramatizes here are articulated explicitly in her work The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, published the year after this novel in 1978. It is heavily informed by a variety of feminist writings, not least of all Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous, and if these questions of gender and performance interest you I would also recommend digging into some Judith Butler. Next up for me… am I finally going to crack into The Luminaries?

Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley

Crome Yellow, 1921
Crome Yellow, 1921

The country house of Crome welcomes “a painter, a poet, a spiritual journalist and ladies of assorted morals” to a house-party. The plot follows our weak, frustrated hero Denis in his ill-fated endeavours in love and literature alike. The other members of the party as absurd as they are unlikeable and some of the most compelling moments of narrative in the book are derived from the history of the home itself as retold by its now mast, Henry Wimbush. The novel is biting, almost spitting, in its satire on early twentieth century social interaction, I was reminded of Eliot’s earlier poetry particularly, “The women” who “come and go/ Talking of Michaelangelo” in ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’. In fact Denis himself seems trapped in an almost Prufockian state of inaction as he laments actions he should have taken and moments that pass ungrasped. The cover picture displayed above captures this sense of futility, the men and women pictured as uniform figures on a carousel by Mark Gettler in ‘The Merry Go Round’ (c.1916), mouths open as if in infinite, uncommunicative conversation.

The story itself is hard work, and whilst I’m sure some of that could be happily attributed to brain-bleeding tiredness, it lacks pace and direction. The most interesting aspects are the ideas that the characters give voice to, indeed, poor Denis, indecisive and suggestible, at the best of times is left utterly bewildered by the range and ferocity of opinions that batter him during his stay at Crome. Perhaps the most sinister character Huxley creates here is Mr Scogan and it is through him that we see a prefiguring of the ideas that were to shape Brave New World. He asserts that “men of intelligence must combine, must conspire, and seize power…They must found the Rational State” assigning people roles in society to which they are best suited (though sees no place for Denis, our poet). He envisages the replacement of “Nature’s hideous system” with “vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations; and Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world.”

These ideas, nascent here, come to fruition in Brave New World, arguably the most influential works of science fiction of the last century. Images of human hatcheries and World Controllers are at their most powerful when shaping that narrative; they are terrifying when imagined as an actual future rather than proffered as one possible direction the future might take as they are in the set piece speeches of Crome Yellow. In a way, the whole novel feels like a musing, a writer who is flexing and stretching, toying with ideas still in their formative stages. It’s impossible to come to Crome Yellow without a sense that Brave New World is hovering nearby (even though it wasn’t published until 1932, a full 11 years after Huxley’s first full length work). Whilst I didn’t particularly enjoy Crome Yellow in its own right, the two novels held alongside each other show the genesis of a mind grappling uneasily with a past fast-slipping away and a fascination, perhaps a fearful one, with what the world that replaces it will look like.

Feminism, Islam and the importance of complexity

When I sat down to write this post on Saturday morning, it was going to be about literary Christmas presents. Something fun and frivolous for the pleasingly alliterative festive season. However, in my pre-post pottering I came across this article by Laurie Penny. Entitled, ‘This isn’t ‘feminism’. It’s Islamophobia’, it raises various ideas about the assumption of feminist authority by far right commentators to derail and distract from discussions of structural sexism in the West with Islamophobia. I have been following the response she has received – albeit intermittently due to various travels and familial duties –  both on Twitter and in the comments section below the article itself and as such I felt moved to offer my tuppence, however insignificant that tuppence might be.

A great deal of the criticism Penny has received for this article objects to the stereotyping of different gender groups – in particular white men – and expresses outrage that it is not an article condemning oppressive practices at work in the name of Islam. Both these responses, to me, miss the point that Penny is making: this is not an article about radical Islam, nor is it an article about gender stereotyping, it is an article about language and the appropriation of that language in the name of hypocrisy and hatred. This is something she sets out very clearly in the opening paragraph, “the rhetoric and language of feminism has been co-opted by Islamophobes, who could not care less about women of any creed or colour.” Penny is calling out hypocrisy and with it an insidious brand of misogyny that dresses itself up in words like freedom and equality and, in doing so, muddies the inherent value and meaning of those words. The ‘equal’ West and the ‘oppressive’ Middle East is a dangerous and false dichotomy that plays out across a broader media and political narrative but it is particularly infuriating when, as Penny points out, it is crassly politicised by organisations of the far right whose own records on gender discrimination are themselves so questionable.

Any discussion of discrimination leads to stereotyping in some degree: by its very nature it necessitates the catergorisation of groups of people be it white men or Muslim women (though it’s interesting that one is defined by race the other by religion). This is always going to be reductive and until the language of political debate and discourse starts to privilege complexity and nuance over quotability it will continue to be so. I’ve been wanting to write a post about contemporary political rhetoric for some time and whilst the finer details of that future post are still ruminating among cobwebs somewhere dusty at the back of my brain, this article speaks to some of those ideas. I can’t bear watching politicians speak, whether it’s on Newsnight or in the Commons the priority is to deliver simplistic, quotable one-liners that will play well with whichever demographic they are playing to (look at me generalising and stereotyping there…). We should require of our politicians and commentators on both the left and the right (what could be more reductive than that?) that they embrace complexity and nuance; they should be complicating issues not artificially simplifying them. We need complexity and the culture of the soundbyte negates it.

The response to Penny’s article exemplifies this: to identify one issue – the appropriation of feminist language and rhetoric by Western politicians both to propagate Islamophobia and maintain the fundamental inequalities of Western society – does not diminish nor deny the importance of another, let’s say the suggestion of gender segregation in universities or the stoning of women for adultery. It’s not an either-or discussion. It should go without saying that Penny stands against those latter two and, importantly, just because she has written what I think is an articulate and provocative comment piece on the former doesn’t mean she is, necessarily, privileging it.

Journalists like Penny go out of their way to complicate debate and that is exactly what this article is doing. The subtext of “West good Islam bad” that permeates so much of both the media and political narratives (again note the geographic v. the religious there) is not only unhelpfully reductive in the extreme but downright insulting, not just to the women who are still, relentlessly, fighting for a voice and making themselves heard but to those women, like Penny, like Caroline Criado-Perez, who are so frequently told that they have a voice, so why don’t they stop their whining and just shut up?

Plastic Jesus, Wayne Simmons

And lo, the end of term was upon them and there was much rejoicing and writing of blogs. Apologies for my rather prolonged cyber-silence: it’s been one hell of a term but rest assured I am refocusing my attention as I find myself, as if by accident, en France avec boyfriend, laptop and a large pile of books all baying for my attention.

Regular frequenters of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Salt Publishing (see previous write-ups of The Lighthouse; Between the Crackups and Burnt Island). I also thoroughly enjoyed their Best British Short Stories 2013 which showcased some really exciting writing and effectively demonstrated the myriad power of the short form. So, you can imagine that I approached this latest offering, Plastic Jesus by Wayne Simmons, with relish. Wayne Simmons is a Northern Irish writer hailing from Belfast, best known for his horror writing (FluFeverDoll PartsDrop Dead Gorgeousand this predisposition is evident in his science fiction thriller published earlier this month, Plastic Jesus.

Simmons steals us into a near-future dystopia where a Holy War has decimated the Middle East and with it religion itself. America has become a twisted echo of itself embodied in the violence and brutality of Lark City, capital of Maalside, the New Republic that exists isolated in the Pacific 200 miles from the formerly American land mass. Code guy Johnny Lyon is asked to write a Jesus program to resurrect a new, commercially viable religion. An immediate and explosive success, a problem soon emerges with the program resulting is an infectious moral corruption that leads to total, hellish social breakdown which only Johnny can stop.

I realise this won’t mean much to those of you who aren’t teachers, but I actually managed to read this book during term time. I started it towards the end of half term and I literally couldn’t put it down. Not only because it acted as an effective tonic to some of the denser Henry James I am embroiled in with my Year 13s but because the story doesn’t give you much of a choice. The chapters are short and episodic, initially introducing you to a large cast that are slowly revealed to be connected before ratcheting up the tension as the narrative reaches its dramatic climax. Simmons draws a grim world populated by corrupt businessmen, the drug or VR-addled, prostitutes and ruled over by the terrifying Paul McBride. Simmons articulates both action and character in sharp, crisp prose that is cinematic in its precision.

As I think I said in a previous post here, a very good friend of mine has always said that “really good sci-fi is about ideas” and I’ve absorbed this mantra into my own response to science fiction (whether it’s Doctor Who or Brian Aldiss). It’s become a sort of unconscious criterion that tends to shape the conclusions I reach about films and books. Suffice to say that Plastic Jesus is rooted in some of the most interesting ideas that are increasingly pertinent to our technology-fuelled (and filled) society. Virtual reality takes on an addictive drug-like quality and becomes inextricably connected to the religious concept of salvation in a world where any such redemption seems impossible. It’s an absolutely thrilling read that plays with ideas in original and incisive ways – it’s one to get hold of and then let it get a hold of you.

NB Do not read late at night or on your own unless you are bold of spirit.

The Red Room, New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës

 

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This collection of short fiction is another Unthank publication (I recently reviewed their new writing Unthology here) in which editor A. J. Ashworth has gathered together twelve new stories inspired by all things Brontë. As she explains in her Introduction, the collection came about as part of an effort  to celebrate the Brontës’ association with the village of Thornton where, “Our nation’s most famous sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne” were in fact born. A percentage of the proceeds from the sales of this collection will be donated to The Brontë Birthplace Trust by Unthank, not only to support the promotion of Thornton as a tourist attraction but also to contribute to ongoing fundraising to purchase 72/74 Market Street which appears to be currently be in private hands.

In addition to these stories, the collection also features ‘Emily B’, a poem by Simon Armitage that effectively captures the essence of the Brontës’ or at least, their essence as it exists in the collective imagination. Armitage conveys a wild, hard-edged natural energy, inextricable from the setting of the moors  and the ‘dry wind that rushes’ there, whilst alluding to the inherent tragedy of Emily’s, and indeed all the sisters’ lives, as ‘bad water/leaches the graveyard’ and premature death becomes inescapable.

The stories gathered here are variously dark, playful, sad and eerie. Some extremely accomplished writers engage with the work and lives of the Brontës in different ways, whether it be through the figure of the lost little boy or the isolated governess, the limitations of poverty set in contrast to the freedom afforded by wealth, or most consistently through the weather and landscape of Yorkshire, so integral to the tales they tell us.

Alison Moore’s opening piece is an eerie re-imagining of Catherine repressed in a different time. It draws on familiar ideas of religion and marriage as tools of masculine oppression, even, it is suggested, as the sinister Mr Blakemore puts “four fingers and a thumb inside her mouth so that she would not forget” of physical violation. Elsewhere, the tone shifts to a more playful one, Zoë King’s ‘My Dear Miss…’ imagines a correspondence between the ever-meddlesome Emma Woodhouse (of Emma fame) and Jane Eyre, troubled under the pressure of St John’s proposal. Other stories engage with the influence and impact of the works themselves, Sarah Dobbs’ portrait of a young boy in the anguish of grief and the impressionable teenager in Elizabeth Baines’ ‘The Turbulent Stillness’ both feel the import of Wuthering Heights in one way or another.

The writing is at times moving and reverential in its treatment of the sisters and their works and at others entirely irreverent and ironic. I teach both Jane Eyre  and Wuthering Heights and I see daily the lasting effects that those two works specifically (sorry Anne!) have on students and the longstanding power they hold within the imagination. Part of the pleasure in any tribute is tracing the lines and patterns to the originals, spotting the references and enjoying the sense that you, like a conspirator, are in on the secret. This collection is rich with clues of this nature but it is, in places, wonderfully original with them and invites you, with the contributors to meditate on your own, personal encounters with these wonderful, ill-fated sisters. I read this at home with my family for the half-term break and it’s a good job too as I find myself reaching for my own, rather dog-eared, first and very special copy of Wuthering Heights once again.

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The Inner Landscape

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I was unbelievably excited to come across this beautiful – look at it – *beautiful* specimen while I was hiding amongst the books in Camden Market. It’s a 1970 edition (inscribed on the title page with ‘rare’ by the bookseller) of three novellas variously from Mervyn Peake, J. G. Ballard and Brian W. Aldriss. The three stories are as different as their authors but each compelling, eerie and provocative in its own way.

I Boy in Darkness, Mervyn Peake

The opening story of the collection follows a fourteen year old boy’s escape and descent from the towered kingdom he rules into a deserted underworld, strange and terrifying in equal measure. The Boy although unnamed in the story has been identified with Titus Groan and the world Peake crafts here is recognisably that of Gormenghast in all its atmospheric gothicism. The Boy finds himself in a strange landscape where the pervasive evil of the Lamb has transformed men into sloping, animalised versions of themselves. Peake plays with conventions of symbolism to offer a nightmarish hellscape presided over by the Lamb, all the more sinister as a subversion of traditional image of Christian humility and innocence.

Whilst the physical movement of the narrative charts the descent of the Boy from his tower to an underground cavern might suggest some sort of allegorical exploration of the Fall (an adolescent boy on the cusp of adulthood, a lost heaven, a vanquished demon…) the imagery of the passage complicates an resists such a reading. The tower he sets out to escape begins in darkness and fire, he is returned to it by those he initially sought to escape. The result is a chilling exercise in ambiguity and atmosphere. And that I’m going to have to re-read Gormenghast…

II Voices in Time, J. G. Ballard

Whilst it’s possible to see the Peake story as strangely extra-generic in its placeless and timelessness, perhaps settling somewhere between horror and fantasy, this is much more firmly rooted in science fiction as we understand it today.

The images of a scientist, struggling in his lab with old audio recordings of a deceased mentor; strange and unearthly creatures in tanks and cages; an odd, unfathomable sickness creeping up on humanity are so much the stuff of ‘classic’ sci-fi that they are thrilling to encounter even as individual components in the story.

Ballard examines the fundamentally human preoccupation with time and mortality: the narrative is punctuated by diary entries simultaneously weaving different countdowns around and into one another and fracturing chronology so that the reader too is drawn into the dream-like patternings of time throughout the story. It is subtle and unsettling in the extreme, it plays with ideas of consciousness and sleep to excavate the tenuous and delicate relationship between human experience and scientific intervention. Reading this back, I feel like anything I write will be reductive: it is multi-faceted and intricate both in its technical construction and thematic explorations. It would make an excellent introduction to Ballard for those unfamiliar to it and for those of you who already know/love it… Well, you won’t need telling…

III Danger: Religion! Brian W. Aldiss

The final novella gathered here is again, firmly fixed in science fiction as it uses a multiversal world to address social concerns with a strong focus on the power of religion to enslave. The buffoonish an fairly dislikeable narrator, Sherry, is drawn into various matrix of differing degrees of similarity to his own in which World War 4 has been fought resulting in the irradiation of a good proportion of Western Europe.

The most striking aspect of this work is the portrayal of a militarised Church, not simply complicit in slavery but active in the subjection of a whole class of people and the manipulation of ‘extramatricial’ tribes to serve as an army in its name. It explores choice and stacks evolutionary possibilities for the human race up against each other in order to elucidate the relationship between religion and enslavement from different angles. Religion is, in this world, less an opiate more an active weapon of suppression and subjugation. The hypocrisy of the narrative voice and the single-minded ness of those he encounters are clearly intended to reflect back at the reader in questions about our own society.

The prose reminds me a little bit of G. K. Chesterton, the blow by blow fight scenes are cinematic in their precision and detail and the world(s) conjured are vivid and clearly drawn.

The title of this collection is ‘The Inner Landscape’ and it is a useful unifying idea. All three stories face the reader with alien worlds and value systems that explore what it is, fundamentally, to be human. ‘Really good sci-fi’, a friend of mine once said, ‘is about ideas. It tells us about ourselves and is about ideas.’ A statement I hold to be true and illustrated beautifully in this collection.

Unthology 4

unthology 4

Unthology 4 is – as the title suggests – the fourth anthology of short fiction to be published by Unthank Books. It showcases new and established writers, “drawing its energy from the wanderlust and shape-shifting tendencies of the contemporary short story.” I am ashamed to admit that this is the first Unthology collection that I’ve read but I hope to redeem my failings in a swift ordering of the previous three.

The anthology itself is carefully constructed and offers a sense of thematic cyclicality: the opening and closing stories explore the intricacies of perspective and perception in fracturing relationships. The stories seem to lead you on from each other, however different the subject matter, however unique the narrative voice, each tale is unified in its concern with the  plasticity of human experience. Each character we encounter figures reality in their own terms and we watch them grappling with their version of the world in their own various ways. In Marc Owen Jones’ haunting piece, ‘The Murder of the Crows’, we meet a blind girl who wakes one morning to discover that the birdsong has ended and the birds have disappeared; Joshua Allen offers a surreal and bizarre response to the world of work in his exciting experimental contribution, ‘Administration: An Intern’s Guide’ (WARNING: if you don’t like ants or swarms – avoid!). Sarah Evans’ ‘The Angel’ charts the psychological impact of paranoia on memory as remembered events begin to shift and warp under the pressure of repeated questioning and implied guilt.

Unthology 4 deals in the darkness and strangeness of life with subtlety and precision. The writing is varied but it tends to play with conventions of narrative and form to destabilize the reader’s own experience and expectations, drawing them into the sense of dread that underpins the collection. On more than one occasion, I found myself reading with gritted teeth, tensed against what may come next. There are moments that are extremely powerful; to add to those stories I’ve already mentioned, the end of Melanie Whipman’s ‘Suicide Bomber’ had me entirely in thrall as did the painfully raw ‘Treasures of Heaven’ from Carys Bray. This collection feels incredibly relevant to the  contemporary: our experience of the world, emotional and physical, is being fractured, remoulded, restructured through almost every medium and as such our understanding of ourselves and how we connect to the world is becoming increasing unstable. The stories in this collection lay these changes bare for examination and what’s more, they project the questions and ideas they raise onto the experience of reading itself.

Contributors:

Rodge Glass

Carys Bray

Michael Crossan

Sarah Bower

Barnaby Walsh

Rowena MacDonald

Adrian Slatcher

Melanie Whipman

Joshua Allen

Marc Owen Jones

Aiden O’Reilly

Sarah Evans

Ruby Cowling