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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

Encyclopdia of an Ordinary Life


The same two words, albeit in reverse order, sum it all up:

Home nursing
Nursing home

There are very few original things left to do. A white painting – done, a piece of music with no notes – done; a book with no words and no pictures – done. What’s there left to do? When I was about sixteen I started a Dictionary of Me. I never got out of A and the only actual definitions I can remember were:


The only grade acceptable to my dad.


Crunchy water

and that’s my lot. About twenty years later I came across The Complete Knowledge of Sally Fry by Sylvia Murphy in an Oxfam shop in Aberdeen and I was gutted because this lady had written her book in the form of a dictionary. Well sort of. She starts off like I did, with a few entries, and then begins telling her story and pretty much every chapter goes like that but I was annoyed because I hadn’t written my dictionary yet. I had written a novel just not that one.

And then a few years ago, having written three more novels, I finally came across Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and this wasn’t some half-hearted effort, no, this was exactly what I had intended to write, a collection of my knowledge. It’s like when you ask your dad to explain something for the first time, well that is quite often the definition you remember and not the “official” one you learn later from a teacher or a book. I kinda wanted to write a book like that for my daughter so she could look up words like ‘dad’ and ‘daughter’ and get my definitions. I also wanted the book to be a character study just not a chronological one.

But now someone’s gone and done it. Okay it’s not my life but finding it really did take the wind out of my sails. And so when I got it and flicked though it I was so scunnered I simply stuck it on my to-be-read shelf and forgot about it. The problem is it has a brightly-coloured spine and my eye kept being drawn to it. Anyway I finally decided I’d read it. Needless to say, it’s an odd book to read.


Okay, here’s the thing. She gets it all wrong. I started at the beginning – luckily her name begins with an A and so ‘Amy’ gets to be the first entry – but after a wee bit I started to look up words and the first one I went for was ‘nice.’ Regular readers of this blog will probably realise that the two adjectives I employ the most are ‘nice’ and ‘interesting’ but Amy didn’t have an entry for ‘nice.’ She did have this one:


Soap and pond are both such nice words, pond especially. You think: small, quiet, calm, clear. And the ducks.

which is okay but that’s not what I would have written. She didn’t have an entry for ‘interesting’ but her entry for ‘infinity’ was interesting:


Justin came home from school with the announcement that he had just learned what even and odd numbers were. Okay, I said. So tell me: What’s infinity, even or odd? I certainly didn’t have an answer in mind; I posed it only as a fun, unanswerable kind of question. He thought about it for a moment, then concluded: Mom, infinity is an 8 on its side, so it is an even number.

If you think this book might feel a bit like Erma Bombeck then you’re probably not that far off the mark. The clue is in the title and in the book’s foreword:

I was not abused, abandoned, or locked up as a child. My parents were not alcoholics, nor were they ever divorced or dead. We did not live in poverty, or in misery, or in an exotic country. I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity, or the child of a celebrity. I am not a drug addict, sex addict, food addict, or recovered anything. If I indeed had a past life, I have no recollection of who I was.

I have not survived against all odds.
I have not lived to tell.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.

This is my story.

Think about it. That’s most people. And, like most people, Amy Krouse Rosenthal reads books although not so many write them. Anyway this is part of what she wrote in her book under ‘book’:


To get a true sense of [a] book, I have to spend a minute inside. I’ll glance at the first couple of pages, then flip to the middle, see if the language matches me somehow. It’s like dating, only with sentences. Some sentences, no matter how well-dressed or nice, just don’t do it for me. Others I click with instantly. It could be something as simple yet weirdly potent as a single word choice (tangerine). We’re meant to be, that sentence and me. And when it happens, you just know.

I knew – in the context of the paragraph above – when I read her entry for ‘letters’:


The letters a, e, g, and s seem nice; k, v, and x seem meaner.

See also: Ayn Rand

I then went and looked up ‘Ayn Rand’ because I’d forgotten what she’d said about her:


Ayn Rand seems so mysterious, privy, snobby – in a cool way. I’m pretty sure it’s the y.

See also: Letters

This amused me no end because a couple of weeks before reading this I’d watched a two-hour documentary on Rand and it was nice to see her whittled down to a single sentence like this. I also get the y thing – I always liked that the west coast town was called Ayr and not Air in the same way that I think Anne is prettier when spelled with an e on the end.

The thing, of course, is that Amy didn’t just sit down like I did, begin with A and work her way through to Z; actually ‘you’ is the last entry and the page for Z is blank – surely she could have said something interesting and/or witty about zeroes or zebras. Anyway the book actually took her ten years to compile:

If it weren't for Charise Mericle Harper, this book would not exist, or if it did exist, it would be a very different book, or if the book did exist as the same book, it for sure would have been set in a different typeface. We have spent 10 years worth of Thursdays together, writing (me) and drawing (her) in coffeehouses. So many important decisions and ideas have come out of those Thursdays. – Behind the Scenes

That snippet is from the book’s website which exists to do a little more than simply promote the book. There’s a page where you can contact the author and she’ll send you a thank you. You can even listen to the book’s theme song (I jest not):


I know a girl. She's pretty thick. I don't mean 'round the waist.
I mean like she could write an encyclopedia about the shit in her head.
Well that's what she did. She wrote a book.
It's pretty wabi sabi. And by that I mean, it's happy and it's sad.
And she'd like you to read it, it reads:


I have not survived against all odds.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.
I have not lived to tell.
This, this is my story.

Is she like you? Is she a freak? She always looks for meaning in the everyday.
She sees a license plate and thinks it's fate then wonders.
She wants it all, can't have enough.
How can you spend all day just trying to get through all the everything at last.
When in the end there's nothing?


Encyclopedia of an extra ordinary life.
Encyclopedia of an extra ordinary girl.
Encyclopedia of a child of the media.
She needed me to write her song.


You can listen to the song here.

The book is also full of illustrations like this simple Venn diagram:



I was also touched by the two police artist’s sketches of her that are in the book, one where her father provided the artist with the description and the second where her husband did. These appear under the entry for ‘identity’:


I loved her entry for ‘love’:


If you really love someone, you want to know what they ate for lunch or dinner without you. Hi, sweetie, how was your day, what did you have for lunch? Or if your mate was out of town on business: How was your trip, did the meeting go well, what did you do for dinner? Jason will stumble home in the wee hours from a bachelor party, and as he crawls into bed I’ll pry myself from sleep long enough to mumble, how was the party, how was the restaurant beforehand? The meal that has no bearing on the relationship appears to be breakfast. I can love you and not know that when you were in Cincinnati last Wednesday you had yogurt and a bagel.

You can read this and a selection of other excerpts on the website here.

Okay, is this just another one of those gift books that you give for Christmas, people flick though and no one actually reads? The review in the Village Voice says it “has miles of pillow book charm” but that’s also a bit condescending too. Todd Lief did a tongue-in-cheek comparison of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life to Encyclopædia Britannica part of which reads:

Fun to read?
[OL] Yes
[EB] No

Long articles?
[OL] No
[EB] Yes

Read the whole thing?
[OL] Yes
[EB] No

Nodded head?
[OL] Often
[EB] Rarely

Laughed out loud?
[OL] Frequently
[EB] Never

You get the idea. This is no more The Encyclopaedia Britannica than The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the Encyclopædia Galactica. One has to wonder if Douglas Adams had published the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and not simply a book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy if it would have sold as well. I think it would. The problem is we humans are a bit tied to linearity. We like our lives to begin with birth and end with death with as decent a gap in between the two as we can manage and yet who remembers like that? No, we jump back and forth through the decades with ease. I think of the word ‘cat’ and the first things I thought about were my mum’s cat Tigger, my daughter’s cat Rufus and the next-door neighbour’s cat Bailey – time and space no problem. And that’s how this book works. It really doesn’t come into focus until the end. It’s like building a jigsaw. You don’t read it as much as you assemble it.

Yes, this is a light-hearted book. If I were to take the format I’m not saying it wouldn’t be without its funny moments but I would also want to say stuff. That’s what books are to me, excuses to say stuff. And actually Amy does, just not the kind of stuff I would have said. And I know I said that at the start but that is really my only objection to this book: it’s not the book I would have written if I’d decided to write my Dictionary of Me all those years ago. Who knows I might have actually finished it by now or at least worked my way out of the A’s.

As a break, as something to pick up and read a few pages of here and there, it’s great. If the life in question had been a little less ordinary then I personally might have got more from it but if you’re looking for a different reading experience then this is certainly worth checking out.


Amy1Amy Krouse Rosenthal is an author of adult and children’s books. She is the host of the radio show Writers’ Block Party on WBEZ Chicago Public Radio and you can read that blog here.

Her children's books include the Cookies series, illustrated by Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer; Duck! Rabbit! and The OK Book, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld; Spoon, illustrated by Scott Magoon; and most recently The Wonder Book, illustrated by Paul Schmid. Apart from her Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life her work for grown-ups includes the film project The Beckoning of Lovely which you can read about (and even participate in) here, The Mother’s Guide to the Meaning of Life and a set of Post Partum Cards: A Handy Set of Postcards for New, Barely Conscious Moms.

Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Hallmark Magazine, Parenting, O: The Oprah Magazine, and McSweeney's. She lives with her family in Chicago and from all accounts has lived a very ordinary life. At least she thinks so.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods


[W]hat one learns when young haunts one longest – AS Byatt, 1991 lecture

Dame Antonia Byatt has long had a deep and abiding interest in fairy stories and myths, particularly Norse mythology. References to it appear periodically in her work most notably, until recently, in Possession where one of the two fictional poets, Ash, writes a long, twelve-volume poem based on Ragnarok that is referenced a number of times through the novel. In a conversation in Possession between the academic Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, a post-doctoral student, Maud asks:

‘And you? Why do you work on Ash?’

‘My mother liked him. She read English. I grew up on his idea of Sir Walter Raleigh, and his Agincourt poem and Offa on the Dyke. And then Ragnarök.’ He hesitated. ‘They were what stayed alive, when I’d taught and examined everything else.’

Maud smiled then. ‘Exactly. That’s it. What could survive our education.’

‘They were what stayed alive, when I’d taught and examined everything else.’ One of her characters may be uttering those words but I suspect there’s more of Byatt speaking here than she perhaps intended. Byatt acquired a hunger for fairy tales and myths in the dark days of the blackout during World War II and they have stayed with her all her life – she’s seventy-five this year. In her introduction to The Annotated Brothers Grimm Byatt has this to say:

I read early and voraciously and indiscriminately – Andrew Lang's coloured fairy books, Hans Christian Andersen, King Arthur, Robin Hood and my very favourite book, Asgard and the Gods, a German scholarly text, with engravings, about Norse mythology, which my mother had used as a crib in her studies of ancient Norse. I never really liked stories about children doing what children do – quarrelling and cooking and camping. I liked magic, the unreal, the more than real. I learned from the Asgard book that even the gods can be defeated by evil. I knew nothing about the Wagnerian Nordic pageantry of the Third Reich.[1]

asbyattIt is no wonder that when Canongate offered her the opportunity to be a part of their Myth Series, which has already featured reimaginings by the likes of Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman, she jumped at the opportunity, and her myth of choice: Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. Most of us are more familiar with the title Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung), which is how Wagner’s last opera in his cycle The Ring of the Nibelung is generally rendered in English, but that is incorrect, as Byatt explains:

[Asgard and the Gods] explained that ‘Ragnarök means the darkening if the Reign, i.e. of the gods, hence the Twilight of the Gods; some however explain the word Rök to mean Judgement, i.e. of the gods’. The Twilight is particularly pleasing, thought etymologically wrong, it appears – it is Ragnarök, judgement or destiny (ragna is the plural of Regin). Ragnarökkr would indeed mean twilight of the gods, but it is, we are told, a misreading.

I was quite unfamiliar with these myths. I’ve no doubt that Arthur Mee included them in his Children’s Encyclopaedia which was my constant companion growing up but, as a child, I was more drawn to Grecian and Roman mythologies; the Norse gods only existed for me in Marvel comics and any other version was just plain wrong. Briefly, then, this is what the Ragnarok is all about:

Ragnarök is a Norse myth that tells of the 'final destiny', 'fate', or 'doom' of the gods and of the end of the earth itself. It foretells three long winters, the earth plunged into darkness and beset by earthquakes, a great battle involving the gods, and finally the covering of the earth with water, extinguishing life. The earth will then re-emerge, fertile and idyllic, to be repopulated by just two remaining humans (Líf and Lífþrasir). The gods will also return or be reborn. The written source material for the Ragnarök story comes from the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda.[2]

Needless to say the Marvel version had to go one better.

For untold millennia the Norse realm of Asgard has experienced periodic destruction in the apocalyptic battle Ragnarok, only to be revived anew, with the same players, unaware of the previous iteration, reprising their performances all over again.[3]

ThorSo, thanks to the likes of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, many of the players were familiar to me – Odin, Thor, Loki, Balder, Frigga, Tyr, Vidar and others (to give them their Marvel names) – but, as I said, I’d never actually read any versions of the actual legends and to be honest I didn’t really expect to do so this time either except to research this article – I imagined that Byatt would do the same of most of her fellow authors who have tackled the myths for Canongate or those who updated The Mabinogion for Seren Books – but what I got was a straightforward retelling on the story, and I can’t pretend that I wasn’t a little disappointed by that, but there’s nothing an author can do to satisfy every reader’s expectation. Thankfully there was more to the book, though.

In a recent BBC interview Byatt says she does have much time for autobiography but that doesn’t mean she’s not been autobiographical in the past. Talking about one of her short stories she says:

['A Lamia in the Cevennes' gets] in a little bit of everything. It's got a bit of magic, a bit of English literature, a bit of autobiography – done sideways – a bit of a landscape…

and I think that’s a good way to talk about the story that is wrapped around the retelling of Ragnarok, a bit of autobiography – done sideways. The girl we meet in the opening chapter ‘A Thin Child in Wartime’ is clearly Byatt in all but name; she is never named and she’s kept at a safe distance in the third person. (Perhaps Byatt thought there were already too many names in the book and there are a lot of names: Yggdrasil, Rándrasill, Ginnungagap, Hrimfaxi, Sährimnir, Hlidskialf and several that I could actually pronounce.) The girl doesn’t appear as much as I would have liked – and even some of her interjections into the myths surprised me a little because I have forgotten that she was there – but she is what makes the book make sense for us, her innocence; her ignorance:

There was a thin child, who was three years old when the world war began. She could remember, though barely, the time before wartime when, as her mother frequently told her, there was honey and cream and eggs in plenty. She was a thin, sickly, bony child, like an eft[4], with fine hair like sunlit smoke. Her elders told her not to do this, to avoid that, because there was ‘a war on’. Life was a state in which there was a war on. Nevertheless, by a paradoxical fate, the child may only have lived because her people left the sulphurous air of a steel city, full of smoking chimneys, for a country town, of no interest to enemy bombers. She grew up in the ordinary paradise of the English countryside.

To set matters straight when Byatt says ‘her people’ she is excluding the thin girl’s father:

Her father was away. He was in the air, in the war, in Africa, in Greece, in Rome, in a world that only existed in books. She remembered him. He had red-gold hair and clear blue eyes, like a god.


At the end of every year the family sipped cider and toasted his safe return. The thin child felt a despair she did not know she felt.

Byatt’s younger sister, the novelist Margaret Drabble, fills in the details for us:

Drabble_MargaretSheffield is a dramatic city, built, like Rome, on seven hills. I was born there in 1939, on the eve of war, and our family was evacuated when I was only months old. … We lived in a semidetached Edwardian house with a cellar and an attic, in a neighbourhood called Nether Edge, only a couple of miles from the city centre. Nether Edge was indeed an edge: Sheffield is full of edges. … We didn’t move far. My father flew off with the RAF, and the rest of us spent the war years in another part of South Yorkshire, in a council house in Pontefract, a town famous not for heavy industry but for Liquorice Allsorts and Pontefract Cakes.[5]

But back to the fiction. At some point, when she was a little older, her mother gives – or more than likely ‘lends’ – Byatt said in that same BBC interview – a book, “a solid volume, bound in green, and with an intriguing, rushing image on the cover, of Odin’s Wild Hunt on horseback tearing through a clouded sky amid jagged bolts of lightning, watched from the entrance to a dark underground cavern, by a dwarf in a cap, looking alarmed.” It was a book her – the thin girl’s and Byatt’s – mother had used “as a crib for exams in Old Icelandic and Ancient Norse.” That book was Asgard and the Gods by the German author Dr W Wagner. The book is available online here with illustrations.

This is not the first time the nameless thin girl has appeared in Byatt’s fiction. A small girl is the narrator of her semi-autobiographical story ‘Sugar’ (Sugar and Other Stories) in which she sets “out to write about her paternal grandfather [but] finds she must describe her father’s death, her mother, her other grandparents, and family history as it has been received by her, and she traces her imagination’s involvement with myth from the family myth to her favourite childhood reading, the Norse myth of origin and destruction.”[6] Discussing this story Celia Wallhead comments:

The figure of the returning hero, in his officer's uniform with his gold-winger buttons, has become a sort of icon for the daughter. She hopes to emulate him, at least in the parts that a female can, such a writing a book. But it is the mother who has bequeathed to her a love of reading and powers of narration. The mother's stories have created a composite myth which comes to form the narrator's sense of self and origins. The knowledge that it is partly myth and not fully truthful is what unsettles her.[7]

Of course this story includes events that Ragnarok doesn’t get to but the point I’m making is that the relationship of myth to reality is one that has deep roots in Byatt’s childhood. Writing in The Guardian Byatt makes an interesting observation:

Vladimir Propp's analysis of the structural forms of the folk tale is exciting because it makes precise and complex something we had already intuited – that the people and events are both finite and infinitely variable.[8]

''All English stories,'' Byatt explains in her short story ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye’, "get bogged down in whether or not the furniture is socially and aesthetically acceptable.”[9] The “flat” stories that make up the version of Ragnarok that she read as a child do not. For the most part people and things are synonymous with their function. The complex real world is reduced to two dimensions, literally and figuratively in that none of the characters have any real depth. That said, “[m]yth, like language, gives all of itself in each of its fragments.”[10]

Myths are concerned with origins and Byatt’s new novel is too, not simply the origin of the gods but the origin of herself: this is how I can to be a writer:

The thin child … devoured stories, with rapacious greed, ranks of black marks on white, sorting themselves into mountains and trees, stars, moon and suns, dragons, dwarfs, and forests containing wolves, foxes and the dark. She told her own tales as she walked through the fields, tales of wild riders and deep meres, of kindly creatures and evil hags.

This was a confusing time for the thin child. The world is not flat like a book. Okay, in some respects it is but there is movement below the surface, tectonic plates shifting. In personal terms we might talk of schemata, different ways of interpreting the world and the people in it: she is presented with the world she lives in, the world her father is a part of (the one that is at war), the world of her books, the world of her own imagination and the world of Christianity:

She was a logical child, as children go. She did not understand how such a nice, kind, good God as the one they prayed to, could condemn the whole earth for sinfulness and flood it, or condemn his only Son to a disfiguring death on behalf of everyone. This death did not seem to have done much good. There was a war on. Possibly there would always be a war on.

The view of the world taught to her every Wednesday when “the elementary school children went to the local church for scripture lessons” numbs her imagination. Byatt, like Beckett, has no problem purloining religious imagery if it suits her purpose but she is most certainly a professed atheist who openly describes herself as "anti-Christian." On the other hand “the stone giants [she read about in Asgard and the Gods] made her want to write. They filled the world with alarming energy and power.” Byatt has been a writer all her life but it’s interesting what she notes about herself in the introduction to On Histories and Stories:

on-histories-storiesI am a writer, and I have always seen myself primarily as a writer, though I taught English and American Literature full-time in University College London between 1972 and 1984, and have taught literature at various times to adult classes and to art students. I have never taught ‘creative writing’. I think I see teaching good reading as the best way of encouraging, and making possible, good writing.[11]

As a child Byatt was severely handicapped by asthma, something I can relate to. If this is explicitly mentioned in Ragnarok I missed it (although she does describe the child as “sickly” and mentions the child’s lungs struggling with “the fug” [not fog] on their return to the city) but as I’ve already said this is a semi-autobiographical work. Suffice to say because of this Byatt spent more time in bed than would have been considered normal for a child of her age but she has always regarded the illness that chained her to her bed as a great blessing as this enabled her to be properly devoted to her books. In ‘The God I Want’ Byatt recalls:

At the age of six I lived almost continuously on a sandy island inhabited by an angry lion, a silver horse, twelve swans, Alexander the Great and myself. It is only just to point out – it is indicative, I am afraid, of my habit of mind – that if any of these creatures was God, it was myself.[12]

All writers are gods. It makes perfect sense to me that she would relate to and be inspired by them.

Up until this point I’ve dwelled on what is essentially a frame story, the child reader. After page 12 I’m afraid we begin to see less and less of her until the war is over on page 147. She pops up here and there but the bulk of the book actually is a straight retelling of the myths. I, personally, would have liked to have seen more of her because although the language used is beautiful the myths are still the myths and Byatt doesn’t interfere with the basic story although she does make some editorial decisions about what she will cover. Her choice of ending is noteworthy:

There were versions of this story in which the world, which had ended in a flat plane of black water, was cleansed and resurrected, like the Christian world after the last judgement. But the books I read told me that this could well be a Christian interpolation, and I found it weak and thin compared to all the brilliant destruction. No, the wolf swallowed the king of the gods, the snake poisoned Thor, everything was burned in a red light and drowned in blackness. It was, you might say, satisfactory.

And so that is how her version ends with a few gold chessmen floating and bobbing on the dark ripples.

Reader expectation, as I have said, is a terrible thing. On one level I was disappointed not to have been presented with a postmodern metafiction and I was going to say that if you wanted to learn about AS Byatt’s writing then this would probably not be the book I would recommend as your first choice. Having read it and read about her I’m not sure I agree with my earlier point of view. I think if you want to understand the later AS Byatt you could do no better than getting to know the girl that the author sprang from – now there's a mythical description if ever I wrote one.

Fairy tales end with happily ever after. Myths not so much. Reality is another ball game entirely. Two intertwined themes that apparently crop up in many of Byatt’s books are intimacy and identity and although the (semi, we’re told) autobiographical section of this book are fairly short and mostly focus on the child it is interesting to see how the mother is portrayed, “gallant and resourceful in wartime” – she worked as a teacher and although she’s seems to have elicited the affection of her charges she does come across as someone who was not especially comfortable with children – but a depressive afterwards. She provided her daughter with an “inexhaustible” supply of books including, significantly, Asgard and the Gods, although all Byatt says in the novel is that the thin girl “discovered” the book, reducing the significance of the mother’s role here, preferring to highlight the fact that the mother never actually read to her. After the war, demoted, as so many women were, to the lowly role of housewife, “[d]ailiness defeated her. She made herself lonely and slept in the afternoons. The thin child came to identify the word ‘housewife’ with the word ‘prisoner’.” Clearly the return home is something of a disappointment to both mother and daughter and hence something of an anticlimactic ending but in some respects this mirrors the end of the gods and one can see why additions were made to the original text to resurrect them so that the story ends on an upbeat. I actually think Marvel’s approach, to have the whole thing cyclical, was quite inspired.

42900035There are other things that are omitted from the narrative – her sister, significantly, for those who want to make more of the feud the press likes to talk about, (as recently as 13 July 2011 Margaret tells The Telegraph, “It’s irresoluble now. It’s sad, but our feud is beyond repair”[13]) – although to be fair in her own semi-autobiographical novel, The Peppered Moth, Drabble omits both her sisters and their brother – the youngest sister, Helen Langdon is an art historian; her brother, Richard Drabble, is a queen's counsel. One of the main areas of contention between the sisters has been their mother to whom Ragnarok is dedicated:

Ms. Drabble, her mother was a difficult and unpredictable person: ''She would shout at us. Then suddenly you would do something that you thought was terrible, and she would find it amusing or forgivable. Anyone in her right mind would have argued with my mother. She shouted at everybody. Some of the things she said were very much like an Alan Bennett character.'' While praising Mr. Bennett's ''brilliant miniature portraits,'' she said, ''I wanted to give her a better hearing than that.''

In [The Peppered Moth], she said, ''I was able to see her very much in context, as somebody who wasn't just a single eccentric, bad-tempered woman, but as someone who suffered the disappointments of a whole generation.''[14]

This doesn’t seem terribly different to the mother Byatt talks about:

Her mother, Kathleen Marie, now dead, was a bright working-class girl who fought her way to Cambridge, but gave up teaching "for her children." Their mother's anger at being a housewife cast a terrible pall over all four Drabble children.

Antonia, the eldest, felt "panic" about the outside world, and says matter of factly that she didn't speak to anyone voluntarily until she was about 16. "I had a strong sense of not knowing how to behave socially, handed down from my mother's anxiety about having got herself right out of her class. I always knew I had on the wrong clothes." Her mother's childhood had also been grim, and she was "nervous and neurotic, always screaming. Later in life she would be sick crossing the coal fields, it was so dirty and horrible to her."[15]

We only get glimpses of this in Ragnarok. We’re only meant to. It gives some context to the thin girl’s reading of Asgard and the Gods though and is necessary.

This is an interesting approach to this book, the writing of which she admits she struggled with at first. Her solution works but not perfectly, not for me anyway. I would have liked to see the thin girl make more connections between the real world and the mythical one she is so wrapped up in. There are some, like her trying to reconcile the ‘good’ Germans who wrote the book with the ‘bad’ ones who were at war with them but I would have thought that she might compare the mother figures in the myth, in particular Frigg with her own. “Frigg was a mother and also a power. She had set her will to make her son invulnerable…” and I can’t help comparing that with Byatt’s mother telling her, at the age of five, “Of course, you will go to Cambridge.” Intense value was placed on "cleverness" in the Drabble family. The handsome absent father, also, coincidentally, a graduate of Cambridge, crops up more often in the book but he’s also something of a shadowy figure, never fully realised.

There is no doubt that this was a labour of love. The passages are vivid and imaginatively descriptive, for example, this description of Yggdrasil, the World-Ash:

The_Ash_Yggdrasil_by_Friedrich_Wilhelm_HeinePools formed in the pits where the branches forked; moss sprouted; bright tree-frogs swam in the pools, laid delicate eggs and gulped in jerking and spiralling wormlings. Birds sang at the twigs' ends and built nests of all kinds - clay cup, hairy bag, soft hay-lined bowl, hidden in holes in the bark. All over its surface the tree was scraped and scavenged, bored and gnawed, minced and mashed.

or this bit talking about Loki’s daughter, Jörmungandr, who takes the form of a giant snake:

She played a game of her own in lonely bays. She swam out to the smooth bulk of water, lay along the wave and rode in with it, muscles slack, floating like flotsam and jetsam. When the waves rose in a crest, the snake rose with it, liquid eyes glittering like the coins of sunlight on the surface, arching herself to swoop down with the white water full of air and light until snake and wave hissed on the sand together and rolled idle.

or this section where Odin’s world and the real world blur:

Odin was the god of the Wild Hunt. Or of the Raging Host. They rode out through the skies, horses and hounds, hunters and spectral armed men. They never tired and never halted; the horns howled on the wind, the hooves beat, they swirled in dangerous wheeling flocks like monstrous starlings. Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, had eight legs: his gallop was thundering. At night, in her blacked-out bedroom, the thin child heard sounds in the sky, a distant whine, a churning of propellers, thunder hanging overhead and then going past.

You could open the book anywhere and find other eminently quotable passages and that’s basically what I did to find those three. The bottom line, though, is, if you have absolutely no interest in myths, this short book will feel like a long read and the best writing in the world wouldn’t be able to save it, but if you are interested or at least open to the possibility you might be pleasantly surprised. I was.

The book ends with a short essay, ‘Thoughts on Myths’ which was reprinted in full in The Guardian here and you can read an excerpt from the novel itself at Google Books here. It is published by Canongate here in the UK, Grove in the States, Knopf in Canada, Penguin in Australia and I would imagine will be pretty much available everywhere.



[1] AS Byatt, ‘Happily ever after’, The Guardian, 3 January 2004

[2] Book Drum annotations to Possession, p.9

[3] Those Who Sit Above In Shadow, Marvel Universe Wiki

[4] I’m assuming that Byatt here is talking about a salamander: “An imaginary or immaterial being of human form living in fire; an elemental of the fire; that one of the four classes of nature-spirits which corresponds to the element fire, the others being called sylphs, undines, and gnomes.”– Wordnik, definition 2

[5] Margaret Drabble, ‘Tales of the City’, The Sunday Times, 1 October 2006

[6] Jane Campbell, A.S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination, p.103

[7] Celia M. Wallhead, A.S. Byatt: Essays on the Short Fiction, p.39

[8] AS Byatt, ‘Happily ever after’, The Guardian, 3 January 2004

[9] AS Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye: Five Fairy Stories, p.239 quoted in Rosalind Ballaster, Fabulous Orients: Fictions Of the East in England, 1662-1785, p.375

[10] AS Byatt, On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays, p.126

[11] AS Byatt, On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays, p.1

[12] AS Byatt, ‘The God I Want’, The God I Want, quoted in Christien Franken, 'The Turtle and its Adversaries: Gender Disruption in AS Byatt's Critical and Academic Work' in Richard Todd and Luisa Flora (eds), Theme Parks, Rainforests And Sprouting Wastelands: European essays on theory and performance in contemporary British fiction, p.198

[13] Cassandra Jardine, ‘Margaret Drabble: “It’s sad, but our feud is beyond repair”’, The Telegraph, 13 July 2011

[14] Mel Gussow, ‘For Mother, No Escape From the Past; A Margaret Drabble Novel Traces Her Family's Dreams And Disappointments’, The New York Times, 28 May 2001

[15] Mira Stout, ‘What Possessed A.S. Byatt?’, The New York Times, 26 May 1991

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Humour is a funny business


I find it hard not to be funny. As much as I'm a serious-minded individual I think too much seriousness can wear a body down. All of my novels contain funny moments but I don’t really think of my books as comic novels. I think of myself as a serious novelist with stuff to say, you know, meaning-of-life stuff, stuff to go away and ponder. That’s why I write books, to make people think, not to tell stories. Stories are boring.

People use humour to deal with all sorts of things including tragedy. I, as regular readers all know, have suffered from depression for the better part of my life, but I don’t find that my humour suffers when I’m depressed. If anything, and I even mentioned this to my doctor, I’d say it improves; he had no answer for that. I wrote my first two novels while deeply depressed and they’re full of humorous situations. I favour dry humour delivered deadpan, I take especial pleasure in wordplay, but with the exception of slapstick there’s not much I don’t enjoy when it comes to comedy. I have a replica of the late, great Eric Morecambe’s statue – the one on Morecambe’s sea front – in the living room and I display a photo of him in one of the bookcases – a card my daughter saw and aware of my affection for the man couldn’t resist getting for me.

It is arguable whether either Morecambe or Wise would have made it on his own but my money would have been on Eric over Ernie. In Living with the Truth there is a scene where an excerpt from a Shakespeare play is enacted and I really do very little to the dialogue but I have the character of Truth play his part in the style of Eric Morecambe and two or three people have commented on this scene saying it’s the funniest thing in the book. It really isn’t but Morecambe is the kind of comic who could read the telephone directory and you’d end up in stitches. The whole scene in the book relies on the reader’s relationship with the real life Morecambe.

A perfect example of the importance of character can be demonstrated in this sketch by Rowan Atkinson in which he stands and basically reads a list. The list itself is rather silly but that’s not why it works:

In my mind this is why the character of Jonathan works for me, because I based him on a real person, the comic actor (you really couldn’t call him a comedian) Arthur Lowe. Lowe is best known worldwide for his portrayal of the pompous Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army. It’s certainly not all he did but a bit like John Wayne (although he’s nothing like John Wayne) he really only ever played himself. Here’s an excellent clip of the kind of character I see Jonathan as (bear in mind than amongst his many failings Jonathan is a misogynist):

The character of Truth in the book is modelled on the actor Paul Nicholas who you can see in this clip from an advert for Wispa:

but that’s not how my wife sees him. When she first read Living with the Truth she’s never seen Just Good Friends – which is where the two characters in the ad are from – and so she picked up on the phrase “like a character from a Monty Python sketch, but not like the angel of death” and cast Eric idle in the role. To be honest he would work perfectly although both Idle and Nicholas are far too old to play the character now.

The point I’m making here is how important first impressions and an awareness of cultural references are in setting up situations. I think this is one of the reasons that people end up being so fond of Jonathan when in actuality he’s really not a captainparticularly nice person. They associate him with a character they do have affection for because despite his own failings Captain Mainwaring is the linchpin that holds Dad’s Army together.

Why is Captain Mainwaring funny though? Because he’s a character who takes himself very seriously, too seriously in fact. He has no real sense of humour and although he does things that make us laugh he himself cannot see the humour in any of it. And that’s what’s so funny.

Jones PoleThere are a lot of theories about what makes something funny. I’ve heard it said that pain is the basis of all humour whether that pain be physical (the Three Stooges hitting each other) or psychological (Bridget Jones seeing the image of herself sliding down the fireman’s pole) and happening to somebody else. I think there’s a lot of truth in that as long as you interpret ‘pain’ broadly; torture is not very funny. I think, however, context plays a big part in how we make that assessment, what is appropriate behaviour for any given situation. Rowan Atkinson explains in his lecture in the documentary Funny Business that an object or a person can become funny in three different ways. They are:

  • By behaving in an unusual way
  • By being in an unusual place
  • By being the wrong size

The Listening RoomIt’s a theory certainly. So here’s painting by Magritte that shows a giant apple filling up a room. Is it funny? Yes it is but because it’s offered up in the context of ‘art’ we treat it seriously. We have come to accept art that presents us with incongruous imagery like this and know it’s not supposed to be funny. It is funny though, funny-strange, as opposed to funny-ha-ha. If there’s a joke there we don’t get it. And getting it is important. Here’s a joke for you:

Q: How many Surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Fish

That joke came top of a Radio One poll many years ago for the most esoteric joke. It is funny if you get Surrealism but I think more of us will get this one:

Q:  How many Dell Tech Support people does it take to change a light bulb?

A:  Ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring …

Light Bulb Jokes: [n.1] {Ly-t Bul-b Jo-k-s}

Definition of: How many (name of group of people/persons) does it take to change a light bulb ?

Answer: (A finite positive integer F) One to change the bulb, and the rest to (behave in a manner stereotypical of their group) or (say something stereotypical of their group in certain situations)
Note: If F<2 then the joke can still be extremely funny, but you will probably need to choose a different generating formula. Where F=0, particular cleverness is required. –

As well as incongruity as a basis for humour there is another theory that goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle and that’s the superiority theory. I personally don’t see this as separate. In the main, things are the funniest when we get to observe them from a distance. We’re the person who plays the prank and gets to watch to see how successful we’ve been.

truthfrontIt’s all a matter of degrees though. If we step up a prank and someone winds up being beheaded then that wouldn’t be awfully funny. What if they broke a leg? Or sprained their thumb? When are you still allowed to laugh? In Living with the Truth and Stranger than Fiction we get to see a misogynistic misanthrope made a fool of by the personification of the truth. Of course there are reasons why Jonathan keeps his distance from humanity but that doesn’t change who he is. Truth is not being nasty when he tells Jonathan the truth about his life. He simply has no filter – he’s incapable of not telling the truth – and that’s one of the things we use in society all the time to shield ourselves: the lie. I don’t think most of us appreciate just how many lies we wrap ourselves in every day:

Q: How are you?

A: Fine, thanks.

No, you’re not but they don’t want to know that anymore than you want to tell them. Lies hide things and we humans hate hidden things. Unless they’re our hidden things. And if we’re all laughing at someone else then no one’s laughing at us. As they’re suffering though a part of us is thinking: Christ. I’m glad that’s not me.

Here’s a scene in Living with the Truth. The setting: Jonathan and Truth have just sat down to lunch in a local café. They’re both having fish and chips when Jonathan decides to ask truth about the existence of God:

“What’s He like?” he found himself asking.

“Hmm?” responded Truth, who was in the process of dribbling lemon juice into some neat little cuts he’d made in his fish, “Who?”

“God, of course!”

“Oh, Him.” He was deliberating which chip to impale upon his fork; now really wasn’t the time for isagogics or theosophy. It was hard enough simply spelling them, let alone doing them, not that there was anything simple about spelling them. “Well, let’s see: his full name is Ubiquitous Eternity God, he’s a sixty-two year old unemployed song-writer living in California in a single room in The Brazil Hotel (it sounds grander than it really is), he’s got a fondness for Budweisers, massage parlours and walking out in front of oncoming traffic and stopping it with a wave of his hand while he crosses the road.”

“No, He’s not.”

“Oh, yes He is.” This was in danger of turning into a panto.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Suit yourself, but it definitely says ‘God’ on his bus pass.”

“God—‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ the creator of heaven and Earth in six days—gets the bus?”

“Oh, you mean that Gawd!”

“You knew full well I meant that Him.”

“You need a Saint Bernard to find your sense of humour.”

Why is this funny? Because Truth deliberately misunderstands who Jonathan is talking about. Jonathan just feels ridiculed – he really can’t see the funny side of what’s going on here, but we can because it’s not happening to us. Of course there’s a cultural reference here, the panto: pantomimes aren’t big in the States and so the whole ‘Oh, no he’s not – Oh, yes he is’ scenario will go whoosh! over most people’s heads. They would understand the idea of the bus pass but Carrie tells me that they only have a “senior discount” as opposed to the UK-wide free bus pass for pensioners which is what I’m referring to here. Now how many people will get The Brazil Hotel reference I don’t know. I saw it in a TV documentary and I’d be doing it a favour by calling it a budget hotel. I can’t even find it online. It may well have been demolished since – it was a good fifteen years ago I learned about its existence. The real joke here is that God is real. Well he was. There really was a sixty-two year old unemployed song-writer who lived in a single room in The Brazil Hotel who had a fondness for Budweisers, massage parlours but whether he in fact enjoyed walking out in front of oncoming traffic and stopping it with a wave of his hand I can’t remember if that’s true or if I made that bit up. He was on his last legs then so I imagine God is dead now.

In a short story I once wrote:

A comedian told a joke in a forest but there was no one there to hear it. So was it funny?

Living with the Truth is full of in-jokes, things that one person in a million might get which means that there is literally only one person on the whole planet who will get the book – me. But the simple fact is that I wrote the book for me and for me alone. That anyone else likes it, that people have actually been willing to pay money to read it, has been an unexpected and welcome bonus. You’ve probably seen Shrek. It’s a funny film but many of the jokes are clearly aimed over kids’ heads and that’s the best way to think about a lot of my writing. The critical thing is that the more the writing depends on what the readers bring the bigger the danger that the rest of your audience will miss the joke which is fine as long as they get the point. You don’t need to know any of the stuff I’ve just talked about to find the scenario in the café funny.

Here’s another one. In the book I mention “a joke about farts” but never say what the joke was. Well, this is the joke:

There was this class full of kids – about seven- or eight-year-olds – and one of them puts his hand up: “Please, Miss, I need tae dae a pish.” The teacher is aghast: “It’s not a ‘pish’ young man, it’s a Number One. Now off you go.” And the young boy goes off and does his business.

A little while later another boy puts his hand up and says, “Miss! Miss! I need tae dae a shite.” The teacher gasps: “It’s not a ‘shite’ young man, it’s a Number Two. Now off you go.” And the boy goes off and does his business.

Finally all the rough kids at the back put their heads together – “You dae it”, “Naw, you dae it” – and finally one puts his hand up and says, “Please, Miss, the boy next tae me wants tae fart but he disne know the code.”

Does it matter that next to no one will make the connection? No. Just the expression “a joke about farts” is funny on its own let alone the fact that Truth knows this embarrassing little fact about him, that his euphemism for masturbation is “a Number Three.”

Andre-BretonA lot of the humour in my books could be described as ‘dark’. Black humour is fairly new as a term – it was coined by André Breton in 1935 to designate the sub-genre of comedy and satire in which laughter arises from cynicism and scepticism – although to be fair people have been making jokes about uncomfortable subjects for as long as people have been cracking jokes. Joke-telling as a craft has fallen a bit out of favour in recent years in favour of the anecdote and although I like a good joke – even though I have never been able to remember many – I much prefer my humour to be less structured. I especially like the kind of humour you get in shows like The Office where you’re not quite sure whether you really ought to be laughing at this. I hate canned laughter with a vengeance I have to say.

When people talk about the benefits of humour usually top of the list is as a way of reducing stress. But what happens to all that stress? It gets transferred to the character who is the butt of the joke. When humour is directed at you it most definitely increases tension and that's the basis of most good story telling: the creation and resolution of conflict. In Living with the Truth Jonathan is the protagonist but does that make the character of Truth the antagonist? I don’t really see them that way. They’re more akin to straight man and funny man which is the basis of most comedy partnerships. Morecombe and Wise were a bit different in that way because they were both funny but of the pair Eric was still the funnier man to Ernie’s straighter man especially in the later years when Ernie took on the character of the famous playwright who, very much like most of the characters Arthur Lowe made his own, was funny because he took himself so seriously and that type of character goes all the way back to Malvolio and his cross garters.

An antagonist (from Greek ἀνταγωνιστής - antagonistes, "opponent, competitor, rival") is a character, group of characters, or an institution, that represents the opposition against which the protagonist must contend. In other words, 'A person, or a group of people who oppose the main character, or the main characters.' In the classic style of story where in the action consists of a hero fighting a villain, the two can be regarded as protagonist and antagonist, respectively. The antagonist may also represent a major threat or obstacle to the main character by their very existence, without necessarily actively targeting him or her. – Wikipedia

Truth is not opposed to Jonathan. He is his opposite – Jonathan is a man living a lie and Truth is, well, the truth – but he’s not out to defeat him or even get one over on him. Or even change him if it comes to that because Truth is well aware that Jonathan’s time is limited as is his capacity for change. So he’s really not the villain of the piece. If there’s a ‘bad guy’ then it’s actually Jonathan but he’s not bad bad in exactly the same way as Albert Steptoe isn’t a bad man – you can’t really put Albert Steptoe and Voldemort or Darth Vader in the same group, can you? – but he steptoe_150_150x180is a nail in his son’s side. (American readers please substitute Fred Sanford.) Albert never allows his son to rise to meet his aspirations and Truth never allows Jonathan to wallow in his delusions.

Steptoe and Son was, of course, the creation of writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson and I make the connection when, after Jonathan and Truth have finished their lunch, I describe them walking off along the promenade:

It wasn't even raining when they ventured out of the café. Truth had bought himself a 99 cone and a quarter of jelly babies and was busy sucking the ice cream inside the cone from a hole he'd bitten in the bottom. Nothing could've appeared more out of place. They looked like something out of the dark recesses of the minds of Galton and Simpson rejected as not commercial enough.

And of course both writers acknowledge their debt to Samuel Beckett. In fact it’s unlikely we would ever have had Steptoe and Son let alone Sanford and Son without Waiting for Godot and would we have had Didi and Gogo without the likes of Laurel and Hardy?

Humour is a great way to introduce uncomfortable topics in conversation. Humour is cathartic:

In The Catharsis of Comedy, Dana Sutton proposes that humour in a play, like in tragedy, can produce catharsis and that, "in the case of comedy, catharsis can be pinpointed in something tangible and undeniable, not the smile or the snicker, but the good honest explosive laugh". Revisiting Aristotle's Poetics on both tragic catharsis and comedy and Freud's theory on tendentious humour, Sutton suggests that comic catharsis is a process through which spectators purge themselves of the unwanted, negative emotions of fear and anxiety (pity) through their explosive laughter. When spectators accept the comic character as a surrogate who resembles a target, their identification with that surrogate prompts the bad feelings associated with the target and, thus, they are propelled into purgative laughter. Sutton maintains that, "for comic catharsis to work, the spectator must be able to perceive the target reflected in the surrogate and that the surrogate must be ridiculous". At the same time, though, true catharsis releases only a portion of the fear and anxiety. To accomplish this, Sutton determines that, "the spectator must both perceive the target reflected by the surrogate and feel superior to him so that only a fraction of that spectator's bad feelings will be purged" – Gail A Bulman, ‘Humour and National Catharsis in Roberto Cossa's El saludador, Latin American Theatre Review, Fall 2002, pp.12,13

I think this might explain while most readers don’t see Jonathan as I do; it’s because they empathise with him and, because he becomes a surrogate for them, of course they want to minimise his faults and failings. I’ve never heard anyone yet relating to Truth. The final goal of comic catharsis is not the purging of bad feelings but the modification of the spectator or reader’s attitude toward the butt of the joke. In other words: I don’t want to become like him in case something like that happens to me. If we act like Frank Spencer we’ll be treated like Frank Spencer.

The best reaction I ever had to Living with the Truth was by a nice lady called Helen who was the very first person to read the book in its earliest draft, when all the action takes place over just one day, and her reaction was, “You’ve made me think about my life.” (This was after she objected in the strongest terms to my treatment of Jonathan.) What writer could ask for a better response? She was in her early thirties and imagined that she was stuck in what was probably going to be a dead-end job with next-to-no chance of promotion for the next thirty and she realised that much like Jonathan she had responded reactively to life’s challenges and she would never truly be happy until she changed and took control of things. She had always wanted to be a nurse. I have no idea if she did anything about that, because I left the job a few months later, but I’d like to think she did. It would be nice to think that everything I put Jonathan through actually did some real good.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The Break


How many stones do you think it takes to make a person? Pietro Grossi, The Break

Billiards is a game of vectors which manifest in a wide variety of ways, from displacement, velocity and acceleration to forces and fields. The game can easily be reduced to a handful of formulae involving competing forces, masses and angles. It kind of takes the fun out of it really but the bottom line is that, if you were privy to all the variables, you should be able to make a ball do exactly what you wanted, for example, hit the top cushion and return to precisely the same spot from where it started out. Sounds like one of the simpler shots doesn’t it? But it’s anything but. Snooker, pool and billiards players make what they do appear easy but looks can be deceiving and there won’t be a single professional player out there who dismisses Lady Luck lightly.

Pietro Grossi's first novel to be translated into English, following on from his successful debut, Fists, which I reviewed back in August 2009, focuses on a billiards player, Dino, a placid, unambitious man living in a small provincial town in Italy. He’s not a professional. He plays because he loves the game. His day job is laying stones, paving stones, and he comes from a family of stone-layers whose craft has remained unaltered since medieval times. Times are a-changing though, even in this backwater, and it’s only a matter of time before he will be made redundant; either that or have to learn a new skill set, how to lay tarmac. This is something he never saw coming. He fully expected to lay stones until he retired.

Now you might think that playing billiards and laying stones have little in common but there you’d be wrong. Yes, there is science to both but there is also an art. First stone laying:

There was no precise logic to the way you placed the stones. It was something that had puzzled him when, still a child, trying to place a stone, he had asked his father what distance from the others it should go.

“Trust your eye,” his father had said, in that voice of his that always seemed to be breaking through a wall from another world.

Dino had straightened up and looked at his father with an almost scared expression. “What do you mean, trust your eye?”

He had raised his head and squinted at his son. “That’s right, your eye,” he had said.

In some strange way that he didn’t understand, Dino had realised that something was happening at that moment which would mark him for the rest of his life.

“Isn’t there a specific order?” he had asked.

Dino’s father had found it strange to hear those words used by a child, especially his own son, and for a moment he had sensed something new and unknown. “No, Dino, there’s no specific order,” he had said, in a voice that wouldn’t have been expected of him.

Now billiards. Just as Dino’s father refused (or was unable) to teach his son something he believed he needed to come to in his own good time, the same can also be said of Cirillo, “the master – a skinny little man with long hair like a gypsy, who beat everyone and held the cue as if it were made of crystal and stroked the balls as if they were a baby’s cheeks.” Cirillo refuses to give lessons, to anyone, and yet after three months procrastinating Dino finally screws his courage to the sticking place and strides up to Cirillo literally as the master was leaning across the table, ready to shoot:

“Will you teach me to play?” Dino had blurted out when he was close to the table.

Now no one but no one ever interrupted Cirillo, most never even ventured near his corner:

It was an inaccessible place, a country that didn’t exist and that certainly shouldn’t be disturbed for any reason – it was Mount Olympus, and even just knocking at the door of that realm of the gods was a step too far.


Italian 5-pin billiards

The odd thing is, instead of throwing a lightning bolt at the boy Cirillo humours him. He tells him to go away and then when he stands his ground still begging to be taught Cirillo informs him he doesn’t give lessons which the boy already knew and yet he still insists he wants to be taught so Cirillo finally says to him:

“Come back when you can make a break shot, aiming straight ahead of you, and manage to get the ball to come back to exactly the same spot it started from, neither a millimetre more nor a millimetre less, no further to the right, no further to the left.”

The boy is satisfied at that. For weeks he applies himself to this task and when one day he feels he's managed it he approaches Cirillo to tell him he’s done as he was asked only to be told, “Come back when you can do it every time.”

But this is not the Dino we meet in chapter one of this book. Years have passed, lessons have been learned (even if they weren’t explicitly taught), Dino’s father has died and Dino is now married to Sofia; he’s now employed by the council as a stone layer and is, in fact, the boss of a small team of men: Saeed – the outsider no one else would hire, Blondie – the strong and silent backbone of the operation and Duilio – the old-timer. They are a laconic and yet good-humoured bunch, good at their job and Dino has finally learned when a stone is straight and when it is not, even though, like his father, he could never articulate what one needed to do for it to all work out. And he feels much the same about his role in the society he finds himself a part of:

[A] crack had appeared, and something in the mechanism of his life had jammed.

To be fair the bomb would have been a hard sign for anyone to miss.

But there’s another bombshell before we get to that one. I said that Dino was now married. He and Sofia have been a couple for years and the only thing that has marred their contentment is the fact that Sofia has been unable to conceive a child; she has even been tested and told that she couldn’t have children. But they are a practical couple. They plan holidays, they aim to travel to so many places. Sofia records these plans carefully and they talk about them constantly but they never go and so it’s ironic, and a little sad, that when Sofia tells her husband, “I think we’re going to have a baby,” Dino’s first response, after sitting in silence for a while, is, “What about all the travelling we were going to do?”

It had become a kind of game – every now and again, one of them would come home with an idea for a new destination, and they would start to get excited about it, as if they were really leaving, and they would start imagining the places they would visit and how they would get there and who they would meet. They even bought a big notebook with a thick coloured cover, where they wrote down everything in preparation for when they left.

Anyway, after hearing the news what is there to do? He kisses his wife’s forehead, puts his jacket on, goes out to play billiards and on the way home disturbs Rosa, the old florist, to take a rose home to his wife.

Shortly after this Dino learns that all the roads in the town are to be covered with asphalt and he has a choice to make, but with a child on the way it’s no choice at all really. Then a little while later there was the bomb. Someone planted a bomb in the town hall. At least people were saying it was a bomb – only a few windows are blown out – but still what reason could anyone have to plant a bomb here?

Of course there are reasons. It’s suggested to Dino that there is corruption on high, Asphalt-paving-machine_webthat people are receiving kickbacks, that the contract to recover the streets is all about money and who knows who. Surely not.

Months pass and Dino does his best to adapt to his new life, he dons the “ungainly blue uniform” the workers are required to wear and trudges behind ‘Molly’ the mechanical monster that is set to crawl through the town spilling its black sludge all over the streets he and his family had cared for all these years. And then finally he can’t stand it any longer. He says to Cirillo:

“I can’t do it. I can’t spend every day in that black shit. It was different before. Before, everything seemed the way it ought to be. Before, I didn’t ask myself any questions. Before, I spent the days counting how many stones it would take to make my child. Now I spend the days trying not to ask myself any questions, especially how much more of that coal-black cancer I’ll have to spread so that my child can have a life.”

And the master has an alternative to propose, a tournament:

“It’s called the Ingot Tournament, because the winner gets a gold ingot. They’ve been doing it every year for I don’t know how long. You know how much a gold ingot is worth?”

At this point in the book I groaned. How many films can you think of where an underdog enters a fight, race or dance competition only to beat all the odds? Rocky, The Mighty Ducks, Strictly Ballroom, Dirty Dancing all come to mind but there must be dozens. Thankfully the book doesn’t go in that direction at all. In fact in a couple of chapters the tournament is all over. And then there’s the second bomb and this time there’s no doubt that it’s a bomb and suddenly Dino’s ever-so-ordered life begins to completely unravel. And that’s where I’m going to leave you.

Although an Italian, Grossi's literary heroes are often cited as North Americans: Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger. It shows in his writing which is controlled and thoughtful. In a 2009 interview with Nicholas Murray, though, he was quick to not make too much of this:

When you start talking about literature it is always difficult – if not impossible – to compress in a bunch of seconds or a bunch of words all the books and the authors you loved and who influenced you and your life and your writing. This is why next to my name always popped out American authors: because, at least for the moment, if I have to highlight the literature that mostly influenced me it is definitely 20th century North American literature. Having said that, there are endless European authors that made the man and the author I am: Tolstoy, Dumas, Svevo, Pirandello, Conrad, Austen, Shakespeare, Dante, Hesse... The list is so long that I really wouldn't know where to start from, and to be honest the greatness of these authors is so huge that to me talking about them is very difficult: it would be like a sailor trying to explain the importance of wind. – ‘Pietro Grossi: An Interview’, The Bibliophilic Blogger, 18 August 2009

When I reviewed Fists I had this to say about the book:

I don't do stars, you can't boil a book down to marks out of ten. I disagree with Il Sole 24 Ore [who said it was a “perfect book”]I don't think this book is perfect but who am I to say what perfection is? Let me just say that it's the best bit of contemporary writing I've read for a very long time and I would be genuinely excited to hear about something new by him.

And I was delighted when I got asked to look at The Break. Billiards is all about straight lines – "The shortest route possible for the best result. Precise simple rules." – and that is what the writing is like here. It doesn’t wallow in long descriptions and chooses its words carefully. In that respect it’s very much the literary novel but it is also a novel that is very easy to read, perhaps a little too easy because the chapters just fly by if you’re not careful. But if I was looking for a single word to describe it I’d probably go with ‘subtle’: delicately complex and understated. It doesn’t do the work the reader ought to be doing, drawing parallels, making connections but it does have a point to make and it’s made at the very end of the book. This book may work on a small canvas but it deals with big issues. Amanda Hopkinson, in her review in The Independent, said that, “The Break is small and perfectly formed.” At 220 pages it’s not that small but I have to agree with her. I was certainly not disappointed by this second book in English, again translated by the clearly more than capable Howard Curtis.


As with Fists the Pushkin Press have produced an attractive volume, with a striking wraparound cover (Van Gogh’s The Night Café this time). The card is extra-thick and is French folded and the leaves are of good quality paper all of which is becoming increasingly important these days when choosing a print copy over an e-book.


pietrogrossiPietro Grossi was born in Florence in 1978. After his school-leaving certificate, he decided to take a holiday and travel around the world. Back to Florence and after studying a year at the Faculty of Philosophy, which confirmed his dislike for the academic world, he set off again, first to Turin, where he attended Baricco’s Holden School of Creative Writing, and then to New York where he spent one year studying cinema, translating a novel, working for a production company. He made his debut in 2000 with Touché and in 2006 followed this up with the award-winning Pugni [Fists]. His latest books in Italian are Martini (2010) and Charm (2011).

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