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Monday, 31 August 2009

The Last Day of a Condemned Man


If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack. – Winston Churchill

I've received three books from Oneworld Classics up till now. This is the second I've got round to reading. They are all three beautifully produced, something that I think all publishers might need to keep in mind when they're asking people to fork out £7.99 for a copy; people are looking for value for money these days. So, what are we getting here?

This is a considered volume. The preface alone is 18 pages long and sets the tone. Its theme can be stated in a single sentence: Capital punishment is wrong. It's not a necessary evil and it has been allowed to exist because more fundamental social issues have not been attended to. There are only so many arguments though that you can use to support that assertion. And the young Victor Hugo uses them all. What you have to do is to try and imagine the world in which Hugo was writing. This is the France where public executions were something people, young and old, flocked to. They milked every moment for everything it was worth. An example, from the book's preface:

At Saint-Pol, straight after the execution of an arsonist called Louis Camus, a group of people wearing masks danced round the still-steaming scaffold. So, make examples. The Mardi Gras laughs in your face.

It's like any social issue. Take slavery in America. Let's say you were born into a world where slavery was accepted and all around you, would it not be hard to go against your indoctrination? And it's much the same with France and capital punishment. Slavery may have been abolished quite quickly in America but equal rights issues dragged on for years and years. In France the last public guillotining was of Eugène Weidmann, as late as 1939 – 110 years after Hugo first published his book – and the guillotine continued to be the official method of execution until the death penalty was abolished in 1981. The last actual guillotining in France was that of Hamida Djandoubi on 10 September 1977.

beccaria So, was Hugo wasting his time? Absolutely not. His was not the first voice to be raised in opposition to capital punishment. On Crimes and Punishments by Cesare Beccaria had been around since 1764 and had been widely read. Hugo's own writings on the subject would be translated into many languages and were the next rung on that ladder. He never lived to see the social changes he wrote about implemented but the fact is, in time, they were.

Why the book is still relevant is that, although France has now abolished capital punishment, the death penalty still exists and there is much debate about the humane methods used to end lives. The irony is that the guillotine was considered in its time a mercifully quick method of execution.


Preface to the 1832 Edition

This is the factual section of the book. In it Hugo reasons with people and provides examples to prove his belief that the effect of public executions are damaging to the very fabric of French society.

He talks about instances where simple executions have gone badly wrong. In one the blade fails to sever a man's head on its first go, the man screams in pain and the executioner raises the blade and lets it fall again only for the same to happen. Five times he does this and the man is still not dead. At this point, as Hugo puts it:

Infuriated, the people picked up stones and exercised their right by stoning the wretched headsman. The executioner took refuge under the guillotine and hid behind the police horses. But we aren't finished yet. Finding he was alone on the scaffold the victim got up from the plank and there, upright, horrifying, streaming with blood, supporting his half-removed head which was dangling on his shoulders, with feeble cries he asked for it to be cut off.

The executioner's assistant, "a young man of twenty" steps up to the plate "leaps onto his back and starts to cut through what was left of [the man's] neck with a butcher's knife."

But there is more. Apparently a judge should have been present who could have stopped this farce with a wave of his hand. But there was none. And there was no investigation afterwards.

Hugo claims that execution, particularly this form of public execution, debases everyone who comes in contact with it. Towards the end he has this to say:

The social structure of the past rested on three pillars: the priest, the king, the executioner. It is a long time now since a voice said: "The gods are dying!" Recently another voice cried out: "The kings are dying!" Now it is time for another voice to say: "The executioner is dying!"

Thus the old society will vanish stone by stone, and in this way destiny will complete the collapse of the past.


A Comedy About a Tragedy

This is a decidedly odd piece of writing. I actually came to it after reading everything else and that might be best because here Hugo is presenting a little play, no, a comedy sketch where we see a group gathered in a salon discussing the very book we're about to read:

SOMEONE: But why did he write it, this novel?

ELEGIAC POET: How should I know?

A PHILOSOPER: To campaign for the abolition of the death penalty apparently.

FAT GENTEMAN: A horror I tell you!

CHEVALIER: Absolutely! So it's a duel with the executioner?

ELEGIAC POET: He has a frightful grudge against the guillotine.

A THIN GENTLEMAN: I can see that from here. It's nothing but ranting.

FAT GENTLEMAN: Exactly. There are barely two pages about the death penalty in this text. All the rest is sensationalism

PHILOSOPHER: That's the problem. The subject merits logical discussion. A play, a novel, proves nothing.. And besides I've read the book, it's no good.

How about that? Yes, let's cut to the chase. Hugo's written his own bad review. The tone throughout is derisory. But, of course, by mocking himself and his cause he draws attention to it. This was actually the preface to the third edition of the book.

The thing we need to remember was that in 1829 Victor Hugo had still his greatest works ahead of him. The Last Day of a Condemned Man is really his first major work. The Hunchback of Notre Dame followed two years later but the world had to wait until 1862 for his masterpiece Les Misérables. So, he was known, but not well known.


The Last Day of a Condemned Man

Although this is called The Last Day of a Condemned Man it actually deals with the six weeks beforehand from his conviction, through his imprisonment awaiting the outcome of his appeal right down to the very moment of his execution. In practical terms much of the latter section could not have been written by him but Hugo exercises some poetic license here.

The book is presented as an account, a journal, written in the first person by a young, condemned man. In all his writing he never suggests for a moment that he is innocent or that there has been a miscarriage of justice. No. And I think it's important here that we realise that our unnamed protagonist is guilty of a capital offence. Hugo is not arguing for an innocent man's life here. That is not the point of the book. He is saying that the Old Testament mentality of "an eye for an eye" is outmoded. He is also saying is that the last few seconds of a condemned man's life are almost relief from the weeks of mental torment that he goes through.

They say it's nothing, that you don’t suffer, that it's a gentle end, that death is much simpler like that.

Oh yes? So what are these death throes that last for six weeks, this death rattle that lasts a whole day? What are the agonies of this irredeemable day that goes so slowly and yet so fast? What is this ladder of torment that ends at the scaffold?

Apparently that isn't suffering.

Surprisingly this section is far less graphic than the preface. It is a fine companion piece because it deals with the psychological aspects of the death sentence. The narration describes in detail exactly what happens to him from the moment sentence is passed until he finds himself standing on the scaffold about to be decapitated. We are spared the actual beheading itself. There are a number of references to actual criminals and officials that give the text a real world feel to it.


Mihály Munkácsy: The Last Day of a Condemned Man

It provides a fascinating insight into what goes through a man's mind once he knows he is going to die. Basically nothing else:

Whatever I do this hellish thought is always there, like a leaden ghost beside me, alone and jealous, driving all other distractions away, face to face with wretched me with its icy hands whenever I try and turn away or close my eyes. It creeps in everywhere my mind would like to escape to, mingles with every word that's spoken to me like an awful chorus, presses itself against the bars of my dungeon with me; haunts my waking, spies on my spasmodic sleep, appears in my dreams in the shape of a blade.

I didn't think there would be much to surprise me in this book. But there were things I didn't expect. The first was gallows humour (which I really should have anticipated), much of it from the condemned himself in the form or ironic asides; the second was how, despite the unpleasant conditions of the prison in general and in cell in particular, he is treated with both politeness and dignity; that I really didn't see coming. There are also moments of what I can only call farce. The first was his description of a new chain gang getting ready for the road. The second is when a gentleman in a hat, a junior architect, comes into his cell with a folding rule and begins measuring it. It seems the place is due for an upgrade. After he is done he comes over the condemned man and informs him:

"My dear fellow, in six months' time this prison will be much improved."

And his gesture seemed to add:

"It's a shame you won't get the benefit of it."

He was almost smiling. I thought I saw the moment coming when he would start to pull my leg gently, like you do a young bride on her wedding night.

My policeman, an old sweat with stripes, took it on himself to answer:

"Monsieur," he told him, "we don’t talk so loudly in a dead man's room."

The third is when a guard asks his to visit him after his death to tell him the winning lottery numbers.

But for me, and I imagine most people, the most heart-rending moment comes when a couple of hours before his execution he gets a visit from his three-year-old daughter. I have no doubt that many will have been reduced to tears by what happens in that short visit and I have no intention of spoiling it here. Yes, we know how the book is going to end. That is a foregone conclusion. But before his head is lopped off here his heart is torn out.

He goes though what you would expect. He wants to believe it's all a bad dream and where he realises it isn't he dreams instead of escape and of pardon. There is a glimmer of hope at one point, a chance to escape, but it is dashed and so he escapes instead into the past, to memories of better times and thoughts of his childhood. He looks to God for comfort but not being much of a believer he finds none there. As his end draws near he finally begs for more time. This is a book about a dying man's journey. It is all he has to leave the world. He makes a will but virtually everything he has will go to pay his costs. "The guillotine," he points out, "is expensive."

Dostoyevsky called the book a "masterpiece". It's not. But it's certainly the working notes for one.


Claude Gueux

Claude Gueux, an early example of "true crime" fiction, appeared in 1834, and was later considered by Hugo himself to be a precursor to his great work on social injustice, Les Misérables. To my mind this is the most powerful of all the texts collected in this volume. Capital punishment is a side issue here however. What it is is a character study. And through his character's eyes Hugo let's us see how justice was meted out in nineteenth century France although frankly it reminded me of many modern tales of prison cruelty, particularly Cool Hand Luke because Luke is also imprisoned for a relatively minor offence (cutting the heads off parking meters one drunken night).

Claude Gueux is a man on the bottom rung of a society that has done him no favours. Although only thirty-six you might think he was fifty. He is uneducated, poor and starving. One day, pushed to breaking point, he steals a loaf of bread to feed his wife and child. But he is caught and sent to the Clairvaux Prison, once an old abbey. Gueux is a big man and needs more than the daily ration to sustain him. He is literally starving to death. Then one of his cellmates, a young and shy criminal named Albin, kindly offers to share his food with him. Albin is twenty-two but looks seventeen. This moves Gueux to tears and a close friendship develop between the two men, "more of a father-son relationship than brotherly."

Gueux is quite a different man from 'Cool Hand' Luke. He manages to be something of a model prisoner and also a man the prisoners look up to and will obey.

This authority came to him without him even thinking about it. It was due to the look in his eye. A man's eyes are a window through which we see thoughts coming and going inside his head.

Put a man with ideas among men who have none and, by some irresistible law of attraction, after a certain time all these darkened minds will gravitate humbly and adoringly towards the illuminated mind. Some men are iron and other magnets.

Several times he steps in and talks them down. This gets to the workshop manager, a man known only as M.M., "a gruff man, dictatorial, governed by his own ideas, constantly held in check by his sense of personal authority," who is jealous of Claude's innate ability to inspire friendship and obedience from all other prisoners. This is how Hugo puts it:

[T]o control the prisoners ten words from Claude were worth the same number of policemen. Claude had helped the manager out like this many times, so the manager cordially disliked him. He envied the thief. In his heart of hearts he harboured a private jealous, unrelenting hatred for Claude, the hatred of the rightful sovereign for the actual sovereign, of worldly power for spiritual power.

One day on a whim M.M. transfers Albin to another section of the prison as a way to demonstrate that he is still in charge. When Gueux asks why the only answer he is given is: "Because."

Gueux takes this very badly, and over the following months he repeatedly asks M.M. to bring back Albin to him but the man proves inflexible. Other prisoners offer to share their food with him but this has become a battle of wills between Gueux and the manager. One that has to come to a head.

This story really gripped my attention and although the narrator of The Last Day of a Condemned Man seems like a decent enough chap despite whatever he did to warrant his execution, Gueux is a good man pushed to breaking point. The prison drama reflects the social drama. Why did all of this come to a head? "Because," is the only answer we're given. It's a word used too often by adults to their children whose immediate response is: "It's not fair!"

In a lengthy epilogue to the story Hugo makes the point that there need to be fundamental changes in French society, that the criminal element is a symptom that can be cured rather than being lopped off. The last part of his speech is directly meant for the National Assembly of France of the French Second Republic, asking it to take action, to make the necessary social changes:

Gentlemen, too many heads are cut off every year in France. Since you are busy making economies, make one there. Since you are keen to axe jobs, axe the executioner. With what you save on eighty executioners you will be able to pay six hundred schoolmasters.

Think about the vast majority of the people. Schools for children, workshops for men. Did you know that of the countries of Europe, France has one of the lowest numbers of inhabitants who can read!


This head, the man of the people's head, cultivate it, till it, water it, fertilize it, shed light on it, give it virtue, make use of it, then you will have no need to cut it off.



This is a new translation by Christopher Moncrieff. He is an experienced translator and I've found a number of books he's worked on which have been praised by people who know a lot more about translating that me. His translation of Julien Parme's novel Florian Zeller was described by The Independent as a "stylish, street-smart translation" and I expect you could say the same about this one, just don't quote me.

There were a couple of things I did pick up however that seemed odd:

Meanwhile the coppers … quietly got on with their work. [CM Ch 13, p52]

Cependant les argousins … se mirent tranquillement à leur besogne. [French]

Meanwhile the galley warders quietly began their work. [1894 ed, trans Eugenia De B.]

An argousin is a low-ranking officer in charge of the surveillance of prisoners. It can also be a slang expression for a policeman. 'Coppers' is such a uniquely British expression that it seems out of place here. Simply 'guard' would probably have done. The book is not short of Notes on the Text. One here would have been in order.

Escorted by mounted police and ordinary bobbies on foot… [CM Ch14, p57]

…escortées de gendarmes à cheval et d'argousins à pied, [French]

…escorted by mounted gendarmes and guards on foot, [1894 ed, trans Eugenia De B.]

Here he's changed from 'coppers' to 'bobbies', again a very British expression. Also the French term gendarme is well enough known – the world is a much smaller place these days – so I don't see any reason not to use it rather than the more universal 'police'.

There's also a minor point in 'Claude Gueux' – he refers to the workshop manager as 'M.M.' but in the original French he is 'M.D.' and I can see no good reason to make the change. The text is available online in French and English. (My wife pointed out that in earlier translations the manager is referred to as the 'Director' and so 'M.D.' may mean 'Monsieur Director'.)

Overall the edition is quite readable and I didn't trip over anything else. Chapter 23 contains a lot of slang expressions which meant keeping a finger in the back of the book while I got through it but they're all explained.



Image Culte exhibition at the Galerie du Livet; Saint-Germain-le-Vasson, France
Copie Victor Hugo
C. Hugo/A. Vacquerie
Victor Hugo en exil ‡ Jersey
1853 I'm not sure about this book. I'm not sure who would want to read it. It's not a fun read, not that all reading should be fun, but I'm still not sure who, other than French history and literature students, would be especially interested in it. That said, I'm not one for reading historical fiction at the best of times so maybe I'm judging to book too harshly. Because it kept my interest. Especially 'Claude Gueux'.

I chose the Churchill quote deliberately. This is a pile driver of a book. Hugo makes his point and then makes it again and again. And by the end you are left in not the slightest doubt about how he felt.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Aggie and Shuggie 18






Shuggie! Are yoo in thur?


Af coarse Ah'm in ere, wumman. Thur's nae need t'shout.


Whit're ye daein?


Whit d'ye hink A'm daein in tha lavvy – Ah'm tryin t'huv a crap an five meenit’s peace. Af that’s aw raight wi yoo.


Huv yoo goat oor Jim's noo book in thur wi yoo?


An whit if Ah huv?


Wull, Ah've no feenished it masel.


An that's ma fault Ah assoom.


Ah neffer said that.


At's no ma fault af oor Jim only sent us wan book, the stingy bugger.


Wull, are ye dun yet?


NO! Ah'm no dun.


Ma! Da! Cummere.


Whit is it, hen? Yer da's oan the loo.


Unca Jim’s first refyoos ur up oan the Intraweb.


Ye don't say. Whur?


Pics and Poems and Library Hing


Stick the kettle oan, hen. Ah'll jist go an fetch yer da an we can huvva nice cuppa tea an a bit o cake an see whit they've goat t'say aboot is new book. Ah hope it's good. E gets so upset by bad refyoos.


Awraight, ma.


Shuggie! Get yer pasty owd arse oota thur. Oor Jim's ad is first refyoos.


E's no. Raight. Just gie us a secun. [pause] Ah, shite.


Whit noo?


Thur's nae paper.


Nae paper? Did ye no check befair ye sat doon?


Naw. Ah wis too keen to steart the book.


Wull, ye'll jist huv t'imprafise.


Whut wi?


Use yer immaginashun.

[sounds of tearing paper]

Yer no daein whit Ah hink yer daein.


At's jist ths dedicashun tae is ma.


Ah'll, kill ye.


At wis an emerchancey.


Git . . . oot . . . ere.


No till ye've calmed doon


Calm? Ah'll show ye calm. Maggie! Nae tea fer yer da an ye cun split that last slice o Millyunaire Shortbreed between the tae af us. Yer da's no hungry.

Monday, 24 August 2009



Fists Cover Initial impressions are important. And we can't do much about them. The problem is they often set us up for a fall once the wrapper comes off and we see what we have to contend with. Or it can work the other way, we can be pleasantly surprised by what we find inside. So, before I tell you what my initial impression of this book was let's jump to the chase and I'll tell you what I thought about the book after I'd finished it. Okay? It's a lovely book. There, that's out of the road. I feel better.

Now I can tell you what I thought about the book when I opened the padded envelope. I thought it was a lovely book. And it was. It felt – and I freely admit that this is a word I overuse but in this case it is the perfect word as long as you relish it when you say it – nice. It felt nice to hold. And I don't care how true the old adage is people will always, always judge a book by its cover. But I've not even got to the cover – which was lovely by the way – I'm still on about how the book felt in my hand. The cover is smooth and cool like a pebble from the beach before your hand warms it, the card is extra-thick and is French folded and the individual pages are on slightly heavier than usual paper which makes the 157 pages feel more like 200.

Now the artwork – did I mention it was lovely? – is a reproduction of Quatre Temps by the Bavarian-born artist Alfons Alt. What writing there is on the cover is kept to a minimum and does not detract from the painting, the only comment on the front cover (apart from the author's name and the book's title) is this:

"A perfect book."

Il Sole 24 Ore

Ah, now, for the first time someone else is foisting their opinion on me. Now I find myself with expectations that are not my own and I have to think what was the last perfect book I read? Hm, that's a hard one. That is a very hard one. The author Pietro Grossi is still a young man and this is only his second book. Has he peaked too early? The only way you can go once you've climbed that peak is down and gravity usually lends you a hand on the way.

Actually that's a lie. I did have an expectation. When I was first offered the book, which, incidentally, is a collection of three novelettes, I wasn't too keen. The title of the collection itself, Fists didn't appeal and then when I found that the stories were called 'Boxing', 'Horses' and 'The Monkey' respectively I was going to pass until I read what 'Monkey' was about. Now that story piqued my interest and I wrote back to the publisher and asked him to send me a copy. I just hoped that the boxing story wasn't too graphic; I am not a fan of the gentleman's art.

As it happens it was the third story that was a disappointment. This was not the story's fault – I'll get to the story in a minute – it was my fault. I'd expected . . . well, 'hoped' is a better word . . . that it would be one thing and it didn't live up to those expectations. So, reader be warned.

The title of the book is appropriate. Each of the three stories involves two males. In 'Boxing' it is two very different young fighters, in 'Horses' it is two very different brothers and in 'The Monkey' it is two different friends (they don't get a 'very'). The unifying theme is a universal one, growing up. Stylistically, rather than being compared to European writers, it is Americans, like Hemingway, Faulkner and Salinger, whose names crop up although it has to be conceded that Grossi has now taken his place in a long line of Tuscan novella writers dating back to the sixteenth-century. I can see the Hemingway connection especially in the first two stories (which reek less of testosterone that you might imagine), Salinger is stretching it a bit for me but he did write the quintessential coming-of-age novel so I won't squabble over that but I don't see Faulkner's influence here at all, although he is listed as one of the writers Grossi is passionate about, so I expect there will be some of him in there somewhere.


There is a common expression, "There but for the grace of God…" and it generally tails off like that, unfinished. It's usually uttered when observing some unfortunate soul but the underlying sentiment is that there are lots of alternate versions of 'you' wandering around the planet, some having more success than you and some having considerably less. There is another expression, "Be the best you that you can be," and it seems like sound advice but how do you know how good you could be if you don't have another 'you' to measure up to?

This is the problem faced by Mugnaini ('The Goat') and the story's narrator ('The Dancer') two junior-welterweights each of whom is viewed by their opposing camps as the best. They seem poles apart. 'The Dancer' comes from a privileged background. He talks about himself as, "the perfect son – studious, nerdy, conventional, obedient, who went to bed early and who, if you asked him, even said his prayers before going to sleep. But he didn't want to play the piano." And so, pretty much on a whim, one day he informs his mother: "If I play the piano I also want to learn to box." For the first time in his life "the nice, disciplined little boy [is] fighting for something" but, in the end, his mother acquiesces as long as his studies don't suffer. He is not your typical boxer – "no one had ever seen a boxer with a more unsuitable body" – and yet he proves to be a natural and in no time his trainer, "Gustavo, a thin old guy with a voice like a black jazzman" is showing him off "to everyone has if [he] was a new car."

'The Goat' couldn't have been more different, in build, technique or personality. He's called 'The Goat' "[b]ecause he always keeps moving forwards with his head down." He's also a deaf mute, something Buio, the owner of the gym he trains at, never noticed until there was a bit of a kerfuffle with Masi, "a decent middleweight [and] maybe the great white hope of the gym at the time." Basically, Masi approached him from the rear and Mugnaini, startled, turned and flattened him. From that day on everyone sat up and realised that this is someone who deserved special attention. Which he got:

     Buio's attitude changed so that the squat, fair-haired boy with the forehead like a wall and the shadow over his eyes that looked like a mask. He took him under his wing and turned him into a great boxer [whose] talent was second only to his dedication.

There are a couple of other differences between these two. They both have mothers who are clearly interested in their sons' futures, however, whereas 'The Dancer's' mother was against his starting training in the first place – and subsequently vetoes any request to fight competitively – 'The Goat's' mother personally goes to the gym after the incident with Masi and begs on her son's behalf recognising the importance of boxing in his life.

But you know what has to happen; these 'superheroes' have to meet. 'The Dancer' actually thinks of himself "like a superhero, Spiderman or something." He has his secret identity as a weedy schoolboy but his true identity is 'The Dancer'.

I can’t tell you the result. Or how that result affects these two young pugilists. Suffice to say this match puts life very much in perspective for both of them. Winning is a relative term. Both win something and both lose something. Growing up is like that. A lot of this dawns on 'The Dancer' during the big fight itself:

     I realised suddenly that we were both the same breed: both outcasts, both uncool, two boys who were fighting for their lives, for that dirty, square fragment of reality where things happened the way they were supposed to and everything fell into place.


Nathan and Daniel are brothers and if they are laconic individuals their father is positively terse. One day, out of the blue and for no good reason that the boys can divine, their father asks them to follow him:

     Outside, the sun was playing a strange early spring game with a couple of clouds, and the wind raced through the tall pines round the farmyard.
     There were two horses tied to the fence, a bay and a chestnut. Their long necks were bent towards the ground and, as the boys and their father started crossing the gravel, the horses turned their big heads. The boy's father stopped in the middle of the farmyard and the two boys came level with him.
     "They're for you," he said. There was no warmth in the words; they seemed to come from some cold valley in the north.

And that's that. This is a significant moment for both boys but not in the way you might expect. I missed a sentence out from that quote above because I wanted to highlight it here:

     Over the years, Nathan would come to miss that farmyard and those giant pines.

Towards the end of this chapter we get this from his brother:

     It's always the same: you don't know what you have until you've lost it. That was what Daniel thought years later, whenever he remembered that moment.

The horses are a catalyst in the same way as boxing is in the opening story and each brother tackles the problem in his own way:

     Some of us use a knife to kill, others to peel an apple. The same knife, but it makes the world different for each of us.

The horses are not quite tame according to their father and so one morning they walk them down to old Pancia's to ask if he can "see to them". It's not that easy though. Old Pancia says he can but he tells the boys, "I don't come cheap," which is a problem because they have no money. He does agree to help them if they work on his farm which they reluctantly agree to do and, once he thinks they've "paid off most of their debt, old Pancia [takes] them aside one evening and [tells] them to go and take their horses." Over the following months "Daniel had learnt everything there was to know about horses. Nathan, on the other hand, had been content just to learn what he needed."


Quatre Temps Quatre Temps


Here the story of the two brothers begins to diverge, each finding his own path. Nathan is restless and starts riding west to the city. "They'd heard a lot about the city, even though no one really seemed to know much about it." He discovers the way to get there "through the hills at the far end of the valley and [keeps] going back."

Just as with 'Boxing' one protagonist takes the lead in this story and that's Daniel. We learn little about what his brother gets up to on his travels or how he makes a living. He finds the pull irresistible though and can barely hang around his father's farm for more than a couple of days before he wants to saddle up and head back.

Daniel uses his growing knowledge to acquire another horse and aims to start breeding them. He's becoming settled. There is no conflict between these two as in the first story. They accept the paths each other has taken for the most part although Nathan does paint a pretty picture of the city.

The story is not without its conflict however. The only way Daniel could afford a second horse was to take a chance on a sick mare he runs across while visiting a neighbouring farm. He persuades one of the men to let him have her for the same price the abattoir would pay him. When he does manage to make the horse better Daniel is accused of cheating and eventually things come to a head but that's as far as I'm going down that road today.

The format to these first two stories is quite similar, they rise to a climax and then everything winds down gently after that. Men dominate the stories. All the protagonists are searching for something and they all find their separate somethings or, at least when we leave them, they’re well on the way to finding them.


Nico is on his own playing Subbuteo when the phone rings. The game was a present from his sister. He never had one as a kid growing up and has always felt he missed out on something. "You're not really a man if you can't play Subbuteo and table football, he had always thought, and it was a complex that had somehow stayed with him all his life." Now there are many ways I could end a sentence beginning with, "You're not a real man unless…" with but the ability to play Subbuteo would not be at the top of my list. Or possibly even on it. But it is significant that Grossi decides that this is how he's going to introduce this character to us.

Nico's been waiting on a call from his agent. What he gets is a call from Maria, his friend Piero's sister:

     "Listen, Nico, I need to talk to you about my brother."
     "Yes, of course. What is it, has he run away again? I haven’t seen him. Haven't even heard from him for about a month-and-a-half. I know you two were supposed to be going on a holiday together."
     "Yes . . . No . . . The thing is . . . Listen, Piero has started acting like a monkey."
     "Started doing what?"
     "Acting like a monkey."
     "Like a monkey? I'm sorry, how do you mean?"
     "I mean some time this summer he started bending double and grunting like a monkey. It was funny at first, we thought it was a game, but then he wouldn't stop.

Piero and Nico are different to the other four boys in this book in that they're clearly older. Rather than boys you could call them young men but clearly both are uncomfortable in their own skins. We don't know why Piero has run away in the past but clearly he wants to escape.

Nico agrees to go and visit his friend but before he does so he has to phone his agent and girlfriend both of whom he tells about Piero, he calls his ex-wife (a gynaecologist) and tells her, he tells the taxi driver and he tells his mum and the cumulative answer of them all could be boiled down to a great big, "Oh, well." His mother probably says it best:

     Nico's mother looked at her son with her mouth open in surprise, and Nico caught himself thinking that it was her most genuine expression since she had opened the door. Then she started stirring the vegetables again.
     "I always said he was a strange boy," she said.

To compare this piece to Kafka is too much but one has to wonder if Piero had woken up one morning and found he had been transformed into a giant beetle whether the reactions would have been the same: "Oh, well, a shame and all that. Glad it's not me."

This was my least favourite of the three stories. I think there are three main reasons for this: firstly, 'Boxing' and 'Horses' are cut from the same cloth, 'The Monkey', although it a similar dynamic, the meeting between Piero and Nico is fairly brief and the story really dwells on society's response to things it doesn't understand; secondly, the two men in this story haven't grown up, they have not embraced adulthood (the best you could say is that they've been going through the motions), and thirdly, it wasn't a simian Birdy which is what I was hoping for. We learn very little about Piero other than he comes from a privileged background and has a dotty mother; if the thing is ever filmed actresses of a certain age will be falling over themselves to play her.

Let me just make it clear that 'The Monkey' is far from being a bad story. It is anything but. But it's different from the other two and suffers from being placed last. And the other two are very good stories indeed. His style is considered and unhurried. His language is straightforward, plainspoken and yet there are touches of poetry to be found (e.g. the sentence about the sun and the clouds). In each story I had the feeling that what I was working my way through was a giant metaphor – hey, I'm reading about boxing and horses and crazy friends but there's something else in here, a deeper meaning.

I don't do stars, you can't boil a book down to marks out of ten. I disagree with Il Sole 24 Ore – 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.


As always I am in no position to comment on the translation other than to say I would never have noticed had I not started researching Grossi online. Howard Curtis is clearly an experienced and capable translator. His many translations include three novels by Georges Simenon, Night in the Afternoon by Caroline Lamarche, the trilogy Heroines of the Bible (Sarah, Zipporah and Lilah) by Marek Halter, and a new edition of The Way of the Kings by Andre Malraux. His translation of Marc Dugain's The Officers' Ward was nominated for the 2001 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and his translation of Edoardo Albinati's Coming Back won the 2004 John Florio Italian Translation Prize of the Translators' Association of Great Britain. You can read a short interview with him here and he takes part in an interview along with three other translators here.


Pietro Pietro 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 production company. He made his debut in 2000 with Touché and in 2006 followed this up with Pugni [Fists].

Fists is being released in the UK by Pushkin Press and the RRP is a nice round ten quid.


Other dates in the blog tour:



Wednesday 19th

Alma Books Bloggerel
Thursday 20th Bibliophilic Blogger
Friday 21st Nihoni Distractions
Tuesday 25th Pursewarden
Wednesday 26th The View From Here
Thursday 27th Bookmunch
Friday 28th Notes in the Margin


Thursday 3rd

Lizzy’s Literary Life

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Breathing life into dead poems


What is this?




Maybe it's some kind of avant garde poem, Jim? It kinda looks poemy doesn't it? Okay, we'll go for it. (There's no money involved is there?) Okay. It's a poem.

And you would be wrong.
There is a line of logic that says:

If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck,
and looks like a duck, then it's probably a duck.

And that's a reasonable sound point of view to take.
When we see a shape like the one above all
left-justified with jagged lines and

split into blocks of text then we think
'poem' because we're used to that shape;
it's poem-shaped.

Only it's not a poem any more than what I just wrote is a poem. The first is a random selection of x's. The second is a paragraph of prose cut up to make it look like a poem. The thing is when we see a shape like this:




we automatically think 'horse' and our head is filled with horsey associations: galloping, whinnying, trotting, neighing. (You can tell I'm not really into horses when that's all that comes to my mind, can't you?)

People have squabbled for years over what a poem is. What they don't squabble so much about is what to do with a poem when you get your hands on it. A poem is something to be solved. Okay, prose is something to be solved too. You've having to 'solve' every sentence I write. You don't solve them individually. You solve them cumulatively. The meaning expands to fill your head as you read.

Okay, that's another sticky point. Some poets don't think that meaning should be the end result of a poem. Fair dues. But you cannot get wherever you think a poem should take you without going through meanings:


When you see those letters what do you think of? C-A-T means something. It will also make you feel something. That something might be delight. It might be absolute loathing. Or fear if you're a gatophobe. It is not meaningless. The end result of a poem may not be a nice neat meaning but a load of meanings are the rungs you have to climb to get wherever it is you end up.

What I believe is that when we see something that is poem-shaped our brains go into a different gear. To go all Worzel Gummidgey on you, we put our 'poem heads' on. Or I suppose Worzel would say: 'poemtry heads'.

A poem starts at the presentation level.

So, let me present a poem by W S Merwin:


Who would I show it to

In his short essay 'How Do We Make a Poem', Robert Scholes, the American literary critic and theorist, opens with this tiny poem and then asks:

One line, one sentence, unpunctuated, but proclaimed an interrogative by its grammar and syntax – what makes it a poem? Certainly without its title it would not be a poem; but neither would the title alone constitute a poetic text. Nor do the two together simply make a poem by themselves. Given the title and text, the reader is encouraged to make a poem. He is not forced to do so, but there is not much else he can do with this material. – Semiotics and Interpretation, 1982

dead_poets_societyposter He goes on to say that to make a poem out of this text one must first know “poetic code” specifically “the code of the funeral elegy”. If you hand this poem to a very young child he or she could read it without any problems. But I bet their first question would be: What's an 'elegy'? And that's a fair question. Elegies don't crop up much these days. There was one in Four Weddings and a Funeral (W H Auden's 'Funeral Blues') and there was one in Dead Poet's Society (Walt Whitman's 'O Captain! My Captain!') but these are the exceptions. It's probably just the word that's fallen into disuse. I bet more than a handful of poems were penned to the King of Pop when Michael Jackson died recently. In fact here's one. It's not called an elegy but that's what it is: a poem or song composed especially as a lament for a deceased person.

Of course there is a specific form that used to go with an elegy back in the day, the elegiac stanza, an iambic pentameter quatrain rhymed abab which acquired its name through its use by Thomas Gray for Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, but no one bothers about formal stuff like that because even death has lost so much of its formality these days; no black dresses, or ties or armbands.

If Merwin's poem was merely a sentence it would probably fall at the end of a paragraph when the narrator of the poem, the 'I', would explain who the 'who' is, the audience if he were to write his elegy; this poem is not it, it is talking about an elegy that the narrator might write if he had a suitable audience. I get that. Every poem I write gets vetted by my wife before it goes in my big red book of poems. If Carrie precedes me into death (now there's an old-fashioned turn of phrase) who will I show my poems to then? What would be the point of writing an elegy if she couldn't be my editor for that poem?

I have made Merwin's poem my own. I don't know who in Merwin's life this was for and I'd rather not know. I have made it mean something. I have decided what this poem means. That doesn't happen so much with prose; the poetry gets lost in all the words. Let me illustrate with a whole chapter from Shadow Child by P F Thomėse:


A woman who lives longer than her husband is called a widow, a man without his wife a widower. A child without parents is an orphan. But what do you call the father and mother of a child who has died?

It's a profound bit of text. It deserves to be a chapter on its own. It's every bit as profound in its own way as Merwin's poem. But it's not poetry. For starters it is a part of a much longer work. Even if it is the second chapter we've still learned that the narrator is the father and that he lives alone with his wife after the death of their only child, a daughter.

People approach a poem differently than they do prose, with a little more caution, respect even. They don't expect things to be explained to them. They expect to be asked to do some work. Even plucked from its place in his novella, Thomėse's three sentences – shorter than many poems – explain themselves. What is there to add? Well, a little. Just because it is prose doesn't mean that what you see is all you get. What he's asking, in part, is how would it feel to be an unnamed thing? Why would something not be named? There are hundreds of thousands of names for things, how did this one thing get missed out? Was it so awful that no one could bear to name it? If you name something then it becomes real. Denying this a name is an attempt to keep it at a distance.

I could go on. But I think I've made my point.

In a poem you, gentle reader, are its context.

Scholes wrote his essay in 1982. I wrote the following poem in 1996. There are only so many truths out there I guess and we all get to them in our own good time. I've always felt that this truth was mine though, exclusively. It rather disappoints me that I wasn't the first to put it into words. That said, Scholes expressed his thoughts in prose, this is a poem:


Writers are all liars. We all are.
But at least they are honest liars.

They write down those necessary lies,
the kind that move men to leaps of faith
or excuse us when we fail to jump.

In the end it doesn't matter that
they let us down in the cruellest ways.

August 18, 1996

A poem, any poem, is an artefact, a relic, a thing abandoned by the past. 'Reader Please Supply Meaning' is thirteen years old. The person who wrote it is 'dead'. Someone else is writing these lines, someone who has read a bit more and lived a bit more than he had. I feel sadder when I read this poem that I do reading either the Merwin or the Thomėse. I understand them in an abstract way. I can put myself in the shoes of the writer. But I remember who I used to be when I wrote my poem. At least I have an idea who I used to be. Who I used to be then is not who I am now.

I'm often amused when, on shows like The Antiques Road Show, the experts can't agree of the function of some item maybe less than a hundred years old. They look at it and fiddle with it and make their best guess based on their experience. We can only understand things up to the limits of our own experiences and so no one will be able to fully understand Merwin’s poem who has not lost a loved one in death. The relationship between the narrator and the person he has lost may not be the same as ours – that is not so important – but first-hand knowledge of loss is. The same goes for Thomėse's chapter. I have lost neither wife nor daughter and I am grateful for that but I have lost both parents and so I can understand what these two men were on about up to a point. Beyond that point I have to project, to imagine, to create a scenario in my head where those words can play themselves out.

T S Eliot wrote:

The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him. – Tradition and the Individual Talent

It is entirely possible that Merwin had not lost anyone in death. My assumption was that he'd lost his wife. I projected my own relationship with my wife onto the poem. I was wrong. I'm wrong on both counts. The poem was written after the death of his friend James Wright. Or maybe not. I know he wrote him an elegy, just not necessarily that one. I don't even know if Wright died before the poem was written. And I don't need to know.

The poem should stand or fall on its own merits.

A poem is a dead thing. I know many hands will go up in the air when their owners read that. “Oh, no! A poem is a living thing!” No, it's not. There are preconditions that need to be satisfied before anything can be labelled 'alive' The poem exists, that I'll give you, at least a copy does because what you're reading just now is not the original – that's in my big red book, although, if I'm being honest, that one is also a copy; the original was probably a scribble on some scrap of paper long binned. So, this one and the one you have just read are reproductions and the ability to reproduce is one of the boxes we need to tick to decide if something is alive but really that is the first hurdle at which our argument falls flat. The rule is that the thing must be able to reproduce itself and all the poem has done is lie there and think of England while I made a fair copy of it.

I cannot even argue that the poem is “alive” in my head because I couldn't in all honesty write it down from memory. I can't remember where I wrote it or under what circumstances. No, the only place it exists is on the page and backed up on my office PC, the external hard drive attached to it, my laptop and the external hard drive attached to it and uploaded on the Web. There may well be a copy on a zip drive somewhere. Oh, and there’s a copy on the flash card in my camera.

Reading is reanimation, a breathing of life back into something. When you read your own thoughts intermingle with the words on the page and produce something new. I say 'words on the page' and not 'my thoughts' because all that is left of the thoughts that went into that poem are gone. Only the words remain with the potential to mean something to and to cultivate feelings in the one reading them.

So, the next poem you see, keep this in mind. Remember what's required of you. The breath of life is in you.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Doctor Brodie's Report

Penguin Book Cover In his short essay on Borges (pronounced Bor'hes in case you're in any doubt), Gabriel Josipvici opens with this sentence:

The name of Borges, among readers of modern literature, has always been synonymous with labyrinths, babelic libraries, gardens of forking paths, parallel universes, refutations of time and all sorts of cunning intellectual paradoxes. - Borges and the Plain Sense of Things

Likwise Gene H. Bell-Villada, in Borges and his Fiction, states:

A ficción starts from some eccentric notion, curious premise, or unlikely situation such as immortality, absolute memory, a completely idealist world, or a library with all possible letter combinations in all possible books.

If that is the Borges you're looking to experience then this is not the book for you. Borges's short story collection Doctor Brodie's Report was published in 1970; these were the first short stories he had written since 1953; they were actually written at the end of the sixties. In the book's preface, he explains what he was trying to do was:

. . . to write straightforward stories. I do not dare state that they are simple; there isn't anywhere on earth a single page or a single word that is, since each thing implies the universe, whose most obvious trait is complexity.

And that is what he has done. One Amazon reviewer calls it “Borges for the masses” and that's a fair assessment but I'm not sure the masses would necessarily appreciate these stories. Whether they are “laconic masterpieces” to use the description he himself used when talking about the stories of Kipling (who he greatly admired), I cannot say. They have the feel of transcripts of conversations he has overheard or been party to rather than works of fiction that an author has carefully crafted; there is a journalistic “as told to our correspondent” quality to most of them. The story 'Juan Muraña' is presented as a tale told to someone called 'Borges' by someone called 'Trápani' during a train journey to Morón. And even that tale he suggests contains . . . what shall we call them? . . . elaborations:

Certain devices of a literary nature and one or two longish sentences led me to suspect that this was not the first time he had told the story.

So, what shall we call it? Creative journalism? The 'Borges' in the story may or may not be the author – who is to say? – but Borges deliberately sets all of these tales “some distance off in time and space” to allow him some elbow room so he is not a slave to petty detail. So although all the stories are presented as if they are factual accounts – and indeed once you get the afterword you discover that “[t]hree of the stories are taken from life.” – it is clear they are not to be trusted or at least only trusted up to a point which is pretty much how most people view journalism these days anyway. And this feeling permeates this slim volume.

All the stories appeared in periodicals before being collected in this volume, most in The New Yorker, and I would suggest that that is where they would be best served. These stories are like prose poems: sitting and reading one right after another has a tendency to make them blur into one long list of hard to pronounce South American names. I found a recording of the first story online and was horrified to find how poorly I had pronounced them in my head. (I have the same problem with Russian authors.)

I first read this book circa 1976 and with the singular exception of the first story, 'The Gospel According to Mark', which Borges himself admits is “perhaps the best of this collection,” the rest made no impression on me at all and when I reread them to prepare for this article I realised that, as with the Beckett I read about that time, I was too young to appreciate the subtleties of these short pieces. I thought they were pretty boring and I suspect that "the masses" will find them boring too. I still have that paperback from 1976 and I still think the cover is excellent. It was what drew me to the book in the first place. I had no idea who Borges was.

mini-Dr_Brodies_Report_Peter_Goodfellow DOCTOR BRODIE'S REPORT by Peter Goodfellow

It's a violent little book. It may not be especially graphic but a lot of people die between its covers. Confrontations are a recurring theme in the book from the actual duels in 'The Meeting' and 'The End of the Duel' to more “delicate” duels such as the subtle sparring between the two society women in 'The Duel' or the civilised head-to-head between two academics in 'Guayaquil' which although the narrator, himself one of the academics, insists was neither “a physical or even a moral duel” it is still a duel. And where there are no contests there is at least verbal parrying. These we find out about by means of confessions years later as in 'The Unworthy Friend' (to a casual acquaintance in an antique shop), 'Rosendo's Tale' (to a stranger met in a grocery store) or 'Juan Muraña' (to an old schoolmate on a train journey).

In 'The Meeting' and 'Juan Murana' people are turned into weapons (knives) and weapons into people. Borges acknowledges the connection is the afterword, the notion that a knife could in effect, take on a life of its own, a notion, he admits (this time in the preface) that has “pursued [him] down through the years.” A similar thought is explored in 'Guayaquil' where the two men could be seen as morphing into the two dead generals they are discussing. Hand to hand combat is clearly something that is a part of the culture. As Rosendo Juárez says in 'Rosendo's Tale':

I first learned to handle a knife the way everyone else did, fencing with a charred stick. If you jabbed your man, it left a mark. Soccer hadn't taken us over yet – it was still in the hands of the English.

Considering the brevity of all these stories – 11 stories in 85 pages – the degree of preamble is striking. There seems to be a need to provide a full history of events leading up the point in time where the story proper begins. A quarter of 'The Elder Lady' slips by before our narrator says:

I pass over grandchildren and great-grandchildren; it is enough that my reader picture a family that is honourable, that has come down in life, and that is presided over by a heroic shade and by a daughter born in exile.

But even then we have four more pages of background information before the story proper which takes a mere two pages to unfold.

There is also a strong Scottish connection: Doctor Brodie is an Aberdonian missionary who makes his 'report' in Glasgow; The Gutres, in 'The Gospel According to Mark' are descendants of the Guthries, natives of Inverness; one of the women painters in 'The Duel' is Clara Glencairn and one of the combatants in 'The Meeting' is a Duncan.

My problem with this book are its settings. Had Borges been brought up in Glasgow I think I might appreciate him better. Of course he writes, as do we all, of what he knows but I've never been especially fond of the South American mindset and culture. I had similar problems with Steinbeck's The Pearl. It is always difficult when faced with a book from a very different culture to connect with the events being played out on the page. Feuds and fights happen the world over though there aren't many men I know of who'd share their woman with their brother:

Cristián said to Eduardo, 'I'm on my way over to Farías' place, where they're throwing a party. Juliana stays here with you. If you want her, use her.'

His tone was half commanding, half friendly, Eduardo stood there a while staring at him, not knowing what to do. Cristián got up, said goodbye – to his brother, not to Juliana, who was no more than an object – mounted his horse, and rode off at a jog, casually.

This scenario also appeared in Ma Jian's Stick Out Your Tongue – set in Tibet – and I had a similar problem with that. The interesting thing about 'The Intruder' – the story concerning the two brothers – is that this is the only story where the conflict finds resolution without either brother losing either face or life.

The weakest story in the collection is, ironically, the title story which is based on Swift's Gulliver's Travels and is purportedly part of a manuscript written by a Scottish missionary talking about his time with the Yahoos. To my mind it doesn't fit with the tone of the rest of the collection its action being set elsewhere; all the other stories are based in South America. The best is the first story, 'The Gospel According to Mark', even if it does wear its symbolism on its sleeve. Most of the others concern small incidents in the lives of small people but fancy settings don't stop small diamonds being small diamonds. As one would expect from a writer of Borges's maturity (he was seventy when he wrote these) each story contains a germ that has been built up and framed with skill but these germs concern people and events I found little to care about.

I can understand a mature writer aiming to simplify his writing style. Beckett is the finest example of that. (In 1961 Borges shared with Samuel Beckett the $10,000 International Publishers Prize.) But whereas Beckett refined his style filtering out all traces of Joyce I am not sure what Borges was aiming for here except to emulate the Kipling, who he so admired, and also Henry James in a couple of stories. So why then would he write in the preface: "I believe I have found my own voice."? It seems contradictory.

What we can say about the translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni is that it was done at the time of writing in collaboration with the author who was very familiar with English himself and so we can trust that what we have is what Borges intended for us to have. You can read an essay by di Giovanni here where he talks about how the book came about and why it contains so few stories.

If the stories lack wit it is not that the humour was lost in translation, it is that there is very little humour to be found in these pages and what little there is is grim. René de Costa attests to this in his book Humour in Borges where he states: “More than half of the eleven narratives in Doctor Brodie's Report are humorous, some grotesquely so.” Let me illustrate, although it does mean giving away the ending of one of the stories:

The narrator tells a story that a writer has told him of a prank played by Juan Patricio Nolan in Uruguay in the late 19th century. The writer himself was not witness to the events; these were related to him by a foreman who worked for his father who had formulated the story from various accounts he had been told. So, that makes the story at least fourth-hand. It involves two gauchos, Manuel Cardoso and Carmen Silveira. They had maintained a feud for years although neither could say what started it. "Like the roots of other passions, those of hatred are mysterious." Eventually, during a civil war battle the two men, who end up fighting on the same side (although not out of any sense of patriotism), are taken prisoner. The captain of the opposing side, Nolan, apparently aware of the rivalry between the two men informs them: "I'm going to stand you up and have your throats cut and then you'll run a race." Learning of the race the rest of the prisoners send a representative and ask that their executions be postponed by a day so they can learn the outcome. Their request grated they begin betting as if there was no tomorrow. The next day the two men are found at the starting line “eager” – that is the word Borges uses – to begin. As their throats are cut they dash forward a number of steps before tumbling face down. "Cardoso, as he fell, stretched out his arms. Perhaps never aware of it, he had won."

Is that funny? Yes, I suppose it is. But the humour is very dark. Borges said, commenting on this story, “That is what always happens. We never know whether we are victors or whether we are defeated.” (Borges on Writing) In actuality he'd had the story going around in his head since, as a child, he'd heard it while on holiday in Androgue near Buenos Aires.

What is particularly interesting is comparing the nature of the man to the nature of the stories in this collection:

borges It is another paradox that Borges writes about such things. He has no direct experience with the hard edges of life. First, he lives, and has lived, a thoroughly bookish, sheltered, and internal existence, Secondly, he is the product of a long line of oligarchs. There is not a saloon fighter in the family tree. He has never known poverty, not a hint of desperation. He spent his early years in Switzerland and Spain (1914—1922) taking on the lacquered continental education expected of young men of his class. He flirted only briefly with leftist ideology, found it required too much energy, and abandoned it by the time he returned to Argentina. - Richard O'Hara, Literature's Mozart

I think really he answers his own question when further down the page he says: “Borges has read everything, especially what nobody else reads any more.” To be fair what he is dealing with in these stories are universal themes and many of the characters are archetypes. Most of the scenes would transfer to down the Gallowgate in Glasgow, no problem. Men have been fighting the world over and usually over something or nothing.

One should not assume because these stories were written by Borges that they were universally praised. They were not.

As J M Coetzee noted, there's much tired writing in them and they “add nothing to his stature”. Earlier, the critic Michael Wood thought the same: Borges's later work was close to boredom, much overrated. - Jason Wilson, Jorge Luis Borges

The thing is, a poor story by someone like Borges is a good story by anyone else's standards.

There is another translation by Andrew Hurley and, having compared one of the stories, there are significant differences although I didn't find that the story suffered as most of these were just changes in sentence structure. This was published in 1999 and drops the “Doctor” from the collection's title; the order is also different as are the titles to a number of the stories.

As I said at the start of this article, if you are looking for the Borges everyone talks about then find yourself a copy of Ficciones which is probably the best introduction to his work.

Further reading

The Garden of Forking Paths

A Dictionary of Borges

The Borges Centre

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Son of So who in their right mind writes a sequel?

bc_strange_tn When I finished my first draft of Living with the Truth I was, as all of you who've written your first novel will know, pretty damn chuffed with myself. I had had no aspirations to be a novelist. I had never intended to write a novel in the first place. It just happened. And what kind of excuse is that? Er, Dad, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to write a novel, it just kinda happened. Don't ground me.

I'd love to say that writing it was a Herculean task but it wasn't. I sat down and wrote it from scratch over what felt like a couple of weeks. I honestly can't remember how long it took. But it wasn't long. It wasn't months. Granted it took me another five years to polish it up and another ten to think about getting it published but that's something else.

The point is I had a first draft which I let people read, Helen, a woman I worked with and Iain, a mate from an old job. They both loved it. It was just a bit short. So I took the last chapter and with depressing ease and speed inserted a complete second day into the proceedings. This they liked better although Helen still hated the ending. When she gave me feedback on that first draft her opening remarks began with: “How dare you.” You don't forget stuff like that. The fact is she had become so emotionally attached to Jonathan that she let herself become aggrieved on his behalf. Now, if that doesn't tell you that you've done something right I don't know what will.

Iain passed this second draft onto his secretary and one of his mates (people I had never met) and I asked John, one of my bosses, to read it too. It was the response from Iain's mate that got me the most because there was no need for him to flatter me; the fact that Iain was passing the thing around proved to me that his own feedback was genuine enough so I breathed a sign of relief: I hadn't embarrassed myself. “Who is this guy?” his mate wanted to know, “I have got to meet him.” Well, we never did meet but, along with generally positive comments from everyone, I was pretty sure that I had the best part of a novel written. It had a beginning, middle and end. It pleased me. Now, I thought, maybe I can get back to doing what I do best, writing poetry.

And that was the plan. 'Onest, Guv. The book was a one-off, like the play I tried to write when I was nineteen and the children's story I'd written when my daughter was born. It was a blip, nothing more. They say that everyone has a novel in them. Well, I'd got mine out of my system.

The thing is they wouldn't let it go. They wanted to know more. But as far as I was concerned I had no more in me. That I'd had that much in me in the first place was a complete delight and surprise. Iain – a sci-fi enthusiast like me – was especially taken with the possibilities of the character of Truth; he pestered me to try and write something else with him and maybe include some more of the Powers that Be. It was perfectly doable. It was a good idea. I could have Truth interact with anyone from history. Maybe I could try my hand at some short stories, I thought, but when I sat down to write I found I couldn't get Jonathan out of my head. But his story was finished. I was sure it was finished.

I started thinking about going back to Living with the Truth, and adding in yet another day but another – and, thankfully, sensible – voice picked up its megaphone and said: “Step away from the novel. Put down the pen and step away from the novel.”

Iain wasn't the only one who wanted more. Helen wanted to know what happened between Jonathan and Jan. Did they make a go of it? In my head they didn't. Even after Truth's intervention in Jonathan's life I expected nothing to change. I once wrote in a poem which ends:

No, I don't believe in destiny
but I do in inevitability.

This was to be something that I would explore further in my third novel the notion that people will bend over backwards to become the people they were always going to become and that even when something out of the ordinary happens – like the personification of truth waltzing into their life – as soon as that external influence is removed they will naturally – and inevitably – revert to type. Jonathan had been a sad git before he met Truth and he was going to be a sad git after Truth went on his merry way. The only change would be a raised level of awareness. He'd had a delusion-ectomy. The rose-tinted glasses had been thrown on the ground and stomped all over. Now he could see clearly who he was but that wasn't going to change who he was. The book would have failed if I'd allowed that to happen. So I couldn't add a Hollywood ending. Sad gits don't get Hollywood endings.

vladimir-estragon But the more I thought about it the more I realised I wanted to know more about these characters and not just Truth. Like Didi and Gogo or George and Lenny, Jonathan and Truth were a double act in my head. I didn't want to write about either of them on their own or with other people.

The question was, how, believably, to bring Truth back into Jonathan's life.

One thing that most people recognise about the first book was that it is difficult to classify. There are clearly fantastic elements to the work but it is not a fantasy novel in any of the clichéd ways most of us who don't read fantasy novels think about them. Incorporating Truth as an actual character that Jonathan could interact with was a literary device although I never thought about him as such at the time. I just kept writing them words and hoping I wouldn't dry up.

I have racked my brain and I can honestly say I have no idea where the notion of Truth came from any more than I can say where the concept for the second novel came from. I simply sat down one day and typed:

Jonathan Payne woke with a crick in the back of his neck.

I hadn't a clue where I was going but it seemed as good a place to start as any. The first book began with Jonathan in bed so why not the second? Besides now I wasn't staring at a blank page. I continued:

He was lying, as was his wont, in the foetal position in what felt like his bed and what would look like his bedroom when he finally got around to opening his eyes. He might’ve listened to the early morning birds twittering outside, only there didn’t appear to be any. Not being much of a bird lover—at least not the feathered variety—this didn’t trouble him overly much. As he started to come to he found himself becoming aware of music, no instruments, no lyrics, simply voices in the distance. Where might they be coming from? No, it didn’t matter.

First paragraph out of the way in which I had inserted two clues and two reminders of the kind of character Jonathan is. New paragraph:

Nothing much mattered really. Not now. Two days earlier it might have, perhaps, but that was before, before the personification of Truth had waltzed through his front door and his life decided to take a nose-dive down the lavvy-pan, before he’d learned that there was life on other planets, that fish have a spiritual side, that he’d managed to get his one true love’s name wrong, that there was a God, that his postman was a latent gay, that the little old lady who worked in the Indian carry-out had four nipples and that his sister was just about the world’s worst undiscovered actress. It had been an eventful couple of days. But on the whole he was handling things well, somewhat well. Well, as well as could be expected under the circumstances. Well, he wasn’t actually handling anything. There was no hands-on contact as such. That was not his way. Things were on hold—he’d get round to them in time. There was always time. Far more than he had imagined.

Great, a quick summary of the events of the previous novel in under 200 words, a teeny bit more character description . . . and a third clue.

One of the problems with many sequels is that they're not genuine sequels, the action is not progressed, it's rehashed. Thankfully as I was writing Stranger than Fiction I never thought about any of this. I wasn't writing to a formula. I wasn't even that sure I could pull it off a second time. The first time I had just sat down to write. This time I had sat down intent on writing a novel. That's a whole different ball game.

Being objective now all these years later I can see that there is a pattern to both novels. They begin and end in much the same way and the sticky filling my characters have to wade through is much the same, Jonathan learns more about himself and the nature of the universe than he ever wanted to know (only it's the macroverse he learns more about in this one). And then, right at the very end, I fall for it – hook, line and sinker – and tag on an ending that would lead straight into a third novel realising full well when I did it that that was what I was doing. I excused myself by saying that that was what the book needed to round things out (and it does I assure you) but then I looked in the mirror and imagined myself writing about Jonathan and Truth for the rest of my life. And that made me shudder.

I never wrote that third book. I never even sat down and tried to write it.

And there was a reason for that. My life was just about to go to hell in a hand-basket. You don't want to know the details. Yes, I know you do but I'm not telling you. Suffice to say both books got shoved in a metaphorical drawer and forgotten about for the next five years by which time I was living a completely different life which I'll maybe tell you a bit about when we get onto the writing of that third novel.

So, enough waffle, what's Stranger than Fiction really about, Jim?

Okay. If I explain where a few of my influences originate that might put this novel into perspective. My aim with this book was to reveal more about Truth. Truth, in my universe, is a being, one of a host of beings collectively known as The Dunameon or The Powers that Be. These Powers are briefly mentioned in the Bible but never fully explained. It's where I got the name from and a part of the idea. That the apostle Paul appears to have believed them to be the invisible agents behind what really happens in the world is seen in Ephesians 6:12:

We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (New Revised Standard Version )

“Dunameon” is the plural of “dunamis,” which is usually translated as “power”. “Workings of powers,” could obviously refer to the operation of all the gifts of the spirit, but this gift works in a specialised area of miracles. It is an operation that changes natural law and material things, and produces seen miraculous effects. It produces miracles in man's material environment.

Now, before we get all tied up in scriptures let me just state that I was just looking for a name for my collective. Yes, God exists in the book's universe but I don't dwell on the fact. I'm more interested in his subordinates, the beings who get their hands dirty on his behalf.

The_Sandman-_Endless_Nights_Poster_by_Frank_Quitely A band of beings like this has been done before. Everyone familiar with The Sandman will automatically think of Neil Gaimen's 'Endless'. I indeed tip my hat to Gaimen in the first novel where Truth, in conversation, says to Death: “I thought you were running around as a skinny punkette these days?” to which Death replies, “It seems I was in infringement of copyright of something.” There is an earlier group that I also had in mind though. British viewers of a certain age will remember a television show entitled Sapphire and Steel which starred David McCallum (a.k.a. Illya Kuryakin for those familiar with The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and Joanna Lumley (the more attractive third of The New Avengers). These two were 'elements' – Lead and Silver also feature in the show – Operators as they are known and clearly part of some larger unnamed organisation. Fans of the show have expanded the roll of named operatives to over one hundred.

Unlike the Eternals or the Operatives, the Dunameons are more like characters Sir Terry Pratchett might have dreamed up and I owe him a debt of gratitude. Although I had never – and still sadly haven't – read any of his books I was aware of his universe although not of the Gods of Dunmanifestin which I only learned about just now when looking up 'Discworld' in Google.

In Living with the Truth Jonathan only got to interact with Truth. Others get a mention but Truth is the only one who manifests himself. In Stranger than Fiction Jonathan eventually gets to visit Dunamea and meet Reality and Destiny. It's only after this visit that we start to appreciate who Truth is and why he acts the way he does.

Sartre wrote that “Hell is other people.” (Yes, No Exit is a definite touchstone for the book.) In Jonathan's case Hell is also himself. At the beginning of this novel I wrote that he awoke “in what felt like his bed and what would look like his bedroom”, well what he wakes up in is effectively a manifestation of his memories, what I describe in the book as “concretisation extrapolated from his own mind.” Apart from Jonathan and Truth just about nothing is real in the book. Only things he remembers can exist. And, of course, that means that in this place both his mother and father can appear as if they were alive and he can get to meet them again or at least what he remembers of them. In the quote “concretisation” is a word I lifted from the film Solaris (the Russian 1972 version) and “extrapolate” is a word used so often in Star Trek that I can't imagine it defining anything else and, of course, Star Trek is where the holodeck lives. And if you don't know what a holodeck is where have you been for the past twenty-two years?

solaris Solaris is a Polish science fiction novel by Stanisław Lem which is about the failed attempt at communication between humans and an alien life form on the planet known as Solaris. While the narration suggests that humans are studying the planet, the reverse seems also to be the case; Solaris has been examining the secret and often guilty thoughts of human beings. These secrets and thoughts are given physical form on the space station which hovers above the planet. The novel is pervaded by a powerful and moving poetic sense of remoteness and loneliness.

The film had a huge impact on me the first time I saw it, far more than the book did when I finally got round to reading it. The 2002 remake starring George Clooney was well-intentioned but didn't really work for me.

In my book Jonathan doesn't have the luxury of calling out: “Computer, end program!” This is how things are explained to him:

     Jonathan looked around at the empty streets. “So tell me,” he began, “If this isn’t the Rigby that I thought I fell asleep in yesterday, what is it?”
     “Good question.” Was this Truth’s new catch phrase? “Actually, we’re in what we call in the trade a “MeGeLan Field:” a memory generated landscape.”
     “You mean if I forgot what the street looked like we’d fall through a hole in the ground?”
     “In theory, yes, but in reality you can’t ever forget.”

This was the closest I could get to wandering around inside Jonathan's mind. Not that he is in control of everything. Where would the fun be in that? For me one the best bits to write was a short section near the end of the book where I insert myself into the novel. I have a cameo in the first book, just a couple of lines, but here I get to face my creation. Jonathan does not take this well:

     “No, wait a second. You’re telling me that in some god-forsaken universe you just sat there and made me up?” Actually, if Jonathan had thought about it, Truth had told him earlier in the day. At the time he’d thought he was just being facetious. Sometimes it was so hard to tell.
     “Well not simply just made up. I’m not that good. I put a lot of thought into you, into developing your character and background.” Wasn’t he supposed to be asking the questions? This was one of a talk show host’s greatest fears: that the interviewee will take over.
     “But essentially,” Jonathan was still trying to fathom this out, “Essentially, you decided to write about a character who ended up being me?”
     “Well, yes.” The writer could see there was more forthcoming. In fact, since he’d created Jonathan, he pretty much knew for sure there was. But he couldn’t do anything now; the roles had been well and truly reversed.
     “So, why did you have to make my life such a blasted mess? Could you not have written a little more happiness into the thing?” He felt like Dan Milligan arguing with his author about the state of his legs.
     “I created Truth, too, you know. He brought some fun into your life didn’t he?”
     “Yes. Yes you did and thank you very much for all that fun but I honestly would’ve settled for a quiet, simple, uneventful contentment. Was that too much to write? I’ve never wanted to be rich or famous, to go places or meet people but I suppose I’ve never wanted any of that because you never blessed me with those desires.” He was getting angry but he wasn’t sure why.

Puckoon The “Dan Milligan” reference is, of course, to Spike Milligan's little gem, Puckoon.

Stranger than Fiction invariably has a lot in common with Living with the Truth but whereas the former, despite its fantastical elements, is in the tradition of Keith Waterhouse (Billy Liar) or even Sue Townsend (Adrian Mole), the latter stands firmly in the camp of Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and Philip K Dick (Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said) but I still wouldn't call it a science fiction novel even if it shares its sensibilities with one . . . well, many actually.

But like the first book Stranger than Fiction has a serious heart. Yes, a lot funny happens but most of it is sad-funny – you'll smile, I'd hope you'd even laugh out loud, but then you'll feel a bit guilty for smiling. When I read through this book again recently I expected to hate it. I'd not read it in years and so I have to hold my hands up, I'd forgotten a lot of it. What struck me what just how many loose ends I actually did manage to tie up. The only character from the first book I probably should've included but didn't was Jonathan's sister, Mary. There were some issues there that were never resolved but it's too late now to go back and fiddle with it. A time comes when you really do have to walk away from the novel.

Anyway, if you've reviewed Living with the Truth before you can expect a copy of Stranger than Fiction to be winging its way to you right now. I know some in the UK have already received theirs. I'm holding my breath in pregnant anticipation. Those of you who were kind enough to purchase Living with the Truth can now order a copy of Stranger than Fiction from the FV Books website.

I have taken a close look at the prices we're charging and have reduced them slightly. The price in the UK is £5.99 including postage. The price of Living with the Truth has also been reduced to £5.99. I was never happy with £7.99 as a RRP. I don't care what the market will bear.

If you've never read either book then you'll be pleased to know you can now get both books for a combined price of £9.99, again postage (airmail) is included in that price. Non-UK prices have been similarly amended. Here is a complete list:


Stranger than Fiction


●  United Kingdom - £5.99


●  European Union - £7.50


●  Rest of the world - £8.50


Stranger than Fiction and Living with the Truth


●  United Kingdom - £9.99


●  European Union - £11.50


●  Rest of the world - £12.50



And if any of you still have the energy (or indeed interest) to read more about the book then visit my website here where there's also a sample chapter.

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