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Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Ugly to Start With


Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, was my early world. Today it’s still the wallpaper in my brain – John Michael Cummings

The historic town of Harpers Ferry is located in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains (the ones Laurel and Hardy sang about) in Jefferson County, West Virginia, situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers where the states of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia meet. So, most definitely, a nexus. Historically, it is best known for John Brown's raid on the United States Armoury and Arsenal in 1859 which, while unsuccessful in inciting a slave revolt, was a precursor to numerous epic battles of the American Civil War which resulted in the eventual emancipation of slaves in the United States. As of the 2010 United States Census, the town had a population of 286, a fall from a massive 315 in 2000; the population is, however, predominately white. It is surrounded by the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park which covers almost 4000 acres. Needless to say, it is a major tourist attraction; in fact Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature ... This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

250px-Harpers_Ferry,_West_Virginia,_USA-1May2010So, a very beautiful place from all accounts but I’ve seen Blue Velvet (which was set just up the coast in New Jersey) and I know that beauty is skin deep and often enough ugly things take place under a veneer of civility and respectability in small town America.

In the introduction to his semi- autobiographical novel in which he revisits the twelve-year-old boy he remembers himself being while growing up in Waukegan, Illinois (which is not that far from Harpers Ferry), Ray Bradbury has this to say about the nature of ugliness:

I was amused and somewhat astonished at a critic a few years back who wrote an article analysing Dandelion Wine plus the more realistic works of Sinclair Lewis, wondering how I could have been born and raised in Waukegan … and not noticed how ugly the harbour was and how depressing the coal docks and railyards down below the town. But, of course, I had noticed them and, genetic enchanter that I was, was fascinated by their beauty. Trains and boxcars and the smell of coal and fire are not ugly to children. Ugliness is a concept that we happen on later and become self-conscious about.

That was 1928, the year before the Great Depression. Bradbury wrote those words in 1974 which is just a couple of years before the events recorded in Ugly to Start With, John Michael Cummings’ short story collection, are set. The protagonist here is slightly older than Bradbury’s alter ego, Douglas Spaulding; Jason Stevens is about thirteen at the start of the book although, since he moves from the Ninth to the Tenth grade, he’s probably fourteen once the events chronicled in the collection conclude since the stories appear to follow a chronological order. Although, in the strictest sense, this is not a novel, it does have the feel of one especially since, on the whole, the stories are slices of life; vignettes rather than plotted constructs. That said all the pieces in this collection have been published as standalone works, mostly in print journals, but a few are available online.

I asked John (who’s apparently a fan) what he thought about Bradbury’s comment. His response:

He's right about ugliness.  We're taught it, just like hate and shame and fear.  I think love and enchantment grow in us on their own, like happy spores.

He calls himself a "genetic enchanter," which sounds like a naturally happy boy.  I had a terrifically unhappy father darkening my childhood. He managed to pass on some of his self-conscious ugliness.

Ugly to Start With is aimed at that awkward-to-define demographic, the young adult. I didn’t know this when I read the book. In fact I made a point of taking in as little as possible before I opened it and it was only once I was done and decided I wanted to review it that I started to research the author. I asked John what age group he felt the book was suitable for and he wrote back, “Age group is hard question to answer.  I guess ages 12-14 is a good range.  But maybe 10-16.  I have no problem saying that to parents.” We’ll come back to this.

The protagonist in this book is not blind to the world around him. But this is not 1928. In Bradbury’s novel the word ‘ugly’ appears only once to describe some furniture. Jason, on the other hand, sees that there is as much ugliness around him as there is beauty. This is how he describes his parents’ house in the story ‘Two Tunes’:

Our front porch had a real hillbilly look, too, but that in itself was never a problem. We had a maple tree out front to keep tourists from seeing the dirty plastic covering the windows, the white extension cord holding up the rain gutter, and the junk stacked everywhere. We had that tree to hide the heaps of ugly firewood thrown up on the porch and the Band-Aid tan paint Dad mixed from several leftover paints and used on the porch railing and window trim. We had that tree to cover the strange damp stain across the rock face of our house, a stain somehow caused by the mouldy hillside behind us. We had that tree to cover up our dog Barfly, too—named for what he did best, running the flower bed bare, choking himself on his own chain, then throwing up. We had a tree for all this. One big tree.

So he is conscious of the ugliness under the surface. We witness another instance much later in ‘The Scratchboard Project’ when Jason, due to dallying and not choosing his own partner, is told by his teacher he has to sketch one of the girls from his class, a black girl from a poorer neighbourhood, whose beauty, which he had somehow never been able to see in the classroom, becomes apparent in the relaxed atmosphere of her home where she models for him posing in a variety of wigs she happens to have at her disposal. All is going well until her big brother decides to be mischievous:

Just then, Tyrone’s big black arm came down from above, yanked off her wig, and disappeared up the ladder with it. She screamed and tried to cover her head with her hands, but not before I saw the ugly white scar across her scalp and the mangled hair growing around it. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was the ugliest sight—hair and white skin smeared together as if her head was made of melted wax. And where there wasn’t a scar or messed up hair, there were pasted down cornrows that made her head like a boy’s.

She screamed at me to stop gawking, stomped her feet in a crazy fit, all while trying to grab another wig from the drawer. But she ended up putting on the funny red wig, which made the moment worse.

silver tabbyHow to deal with this? How would his family deal with this? How did they deal with Skinny Minnie the silver tabby that started slinking around the house, as cats do, gradually insinuating itself in the family’s affections? At first everything was fine and then the cat started to get into scraps:

Sometimes whole days passed, and she didn’t show up, and I forgot about her for a while. Then she came back, looking worse than ever. Her soft, perfect coat was matted with sticks and dried blood. She had a limp, too, and half an ear was missing. I couldn’t bear to touch her, couldn’t stand having her near me, either. All she did was sit there and moan, her wounds oozing.


My body shuddered. If only she would die, then I wouldn’t feel the embarrassment anymore. That’s how my family was. Whatever it was, if it was ugly to start with, or turned ugly, we were ashamed of it and wanted it to go away.

The irony, of course, is that his family is not exactly a pretty one either. Jason’s father, for starters, is a drunk and a womaniser:

My father was crazy all right. Everybody knew that. Ever since Mom threw him out of the house last year over Mrs. Jackson, he had been living on his mountain property. Soon after, he got suspended from his job at the post office because of his drinking. He was never coming back, or at least I hoped he was gone for good. But like everything else in the rotten West Virginia woods, his ugliness would probably creep back into our lives.

and, so it’s not so surprising that when his son looks in the mirror this is what he sees:

It didn’t mean I was normal either. If I was ugly, then that was why. But when I looked at myself in the mirror, I didn’t think I was ugly, maybe a little soft-faced here and there, even girlish around the eyes, but not plain ugly. Still, since this was happening, Lisa must have been a fluke. Pam, too.

A-frame houseWhat is ugliness if not a deviation from the norm? There is nothing a teenage boy wants more than to be normal, to conform, to give no one cause to point the finger or, perhaps worse, wag the finger. And yet, at the same time, what he really wants more than anything is to find himself even if that self is a deviant which is perhaps why, in the story ‘Carter’ from which that last quote came, Jason allows himself to be preyed upon by Carter Randolph an old, fat, “fag” to use Jason’s word for him, whose A-frame house he chances upon in the woods one day. When he chances upon Carter the old man is bedecked in ridiculous lemon-coloured trousers but all the man does is point the boy in the direction of the Kennedy place which is where Jason says he’s headed. He doesn’t lay a finger on the boy or try to engage him in conversation but something draws Jason back later that evening to spy on the old man reading and then again, the next evening, in broad daylight so as to make certain they would run into each other. Is it any small wonder that a few days later he is drawn back? Or pushed, since, to be fair, Carter does nothing but be sociable, asking after the boy’s mother and making small talk. But it seems Jason can’t leave well alone and soon he is inside Carter’s house and the conversation turns onto sex:

“You ever want to make it with a man?” he asked.

The question came fast, out of nowhere, but what surprised me was that I didn’t feel uncomfortable with it. Actually, I was amused, amused by his angle. I knew what he was and what he was doing. He was an old pervert, and he was after me, but he was foolish for thinking I didn’t see through his scheme. He could ask or say whatever he liked. All of this was better than hacking weeds for my father.

Little happens this day but the next day the boy returns fully aware of what might happen. And it does. Well, something does. This is where a lot of people are going to wonder about John suggesting that this book is suitable reading material for the lower end of the young adult range. I think that a ten-year-old would read this book superficially and probably be uncomfortable with the idea of an old homosexual manhandling a young boy. I suspect that most teenagers, however, would shrug it off these days. That said this is what a fifteen-year-old girl who reviewed the book on her own blog, had to say:

I was uncomfortable with some of the situations and subjects; in particular the chapter regarding Carter. Truthfully I had to skip it and I don't think I could have read that bit. It was just too ... mature, disturbing? There was an excessive use of cursing in here that made me squirm too, I mastered the ability to fly over the words I didn't want to process.

I get that and she did the right thing—for her. It is probably the key story in the whole book, though, because of the fact that Carter is old and not conventionally attractive, if at all. But then neither are most witches in fairy tales and yet often innocents are dawn to them. I mention this because of how Jason describes Carter’s house when he first sees it:

Cool. Weird. I had always loved the idea of a house shaped like an “A,” the A being the superior grade, the first letter, and a house boldly taking its shape from it. I stepped closer to it, watching it rise higher and higher above me. This was another kind of fairy tale, a fairy tale with flair.

In fairy tales the wicked witch, the evil troll, the big bad wolf always gets their comeuppance but what’s interesting—and disturbingly believable—here is that, as far as we get to hear, nothing happens following this instance with Carter. There are no consequences. What happened in the woods is never mentioned again; there is no indication that Jason spoke of it to anyone or that Carter got in trouble.

In the next story, ‘Indians and Teddy Bears Were Here First’, life moves on regardless. His grandfather has returned to the area after losing himself after the death of his wife; he has what is probably best described as a late-life crisis:

He traded in his old car for a flashy new one and took half a dozen trips to Florida. With Grandma, the farthest he had ever gone was twenty-two miles to Berryville, Virginia, for the Apple Blossom Parade. He started wearing tight white pants, behaving like a man half his age. He even sold the treasured old Harpers Ferry house he and Grandma had lived in for forty years and moved—not saying where for the longest while. Mom said good riddance. She thought he was perfectly ridiculous.

When he returns a year later it’s not alone—he’s landed a rich widow on his travels, his own personal Golden Girl—and since he doesn’t come a-calling, Jason decides to track him down—“I could find anyone in this town”—only to discover that Granddad’s relocated to the newly-built Sunrise Hills Private Community:

As I passed through the main gate, I felt I’d entered a futuristic world. Spotless grass. Trees that looked cloned. No broken glass on the street. It was a night and day difference compared to the old houses on Tarton Street. Made me wonder who would put a private community so close to the worst houses around, where it would gloat about its money and not care how bad off anyone else was.

Beauty and ugliness side by side. On the surface the gated community is beautiful but it is an artificial beauty and Jason soon realises this. What is noteworthy is in the the very next story in the book, ‘The Scratchboard Project’ which I quoted from earlier, Jason finally discovers true beauty.

The word ‘beauty’ never appears in this book, not once, but ‘beautiful’ does, fourteen times; six times in the first story, talking about the landscape surrounding the town, and eight times in this one referencing not only the girl Shanice’s physical beauty, but also her inner beauty, despite living in the poorest part of town and being physically scarred.

The thing I found about this book is that even though it’s doesn’t romanticise the past—as Bradbury might be accused of doing—and Jason is not blind to the ugliness that pervades his life and the life of those around him, it’s still—and this is important—his ugliness. It’s not attractive but it is familiar and there is a comfort to be had in that.

A tourist town must be an odd place to grow up in because you get to witness people looking at things you’ve grown up with and grown tired of and unable to see anything more than the attractions, not recognising the truth of life for the residents. In an article John writes:

John_Brown_daguerreotype_c1856People come to the historic tourist town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia … to look the demon abolitionist John Brown in the face. They come to pay honour to the pioneering spirits who make up the town’s black history, like W.E.B Du Bois and Frederick Douglass. Some even come for the flat-out ghost action in this mini Salem, Massachusetts, civil war style, just an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C.


But for those of us who grew up in the theatre of these paranormal claims, we snicker at the nonsense. We guffaw and scoff. We rattle penny-filled soda cans out our bedroom windows and wail, “Ooooh, I’m a ghost. Hey, up here.” Ghosts? Please. How about having a real-life father who stalks you and slaps the back of your head? Now there’s a phantom to fear. How about a dear old dad who rants for hours about how his sons are nothing but trouble? Not there’s a banshee with high blood pressure. Or how about growing up feeling ashamed and inadequate in the face of girls because of the abuse? Now there’s an emasculating poltergeist in your heart for life.


While there is triumph in these interlinked stories and there is growth, the monster is not imaginary, and there’s no old man in the woods to give young Jason supernatural powers, no magical sword for him to draw from the ground, nothing but full-legged, towering adults to make growing up terrifyingly real.

This is an excellent collection, I have to say, and the stories are very much to my taste in their approach to storytelling; they are not neat; they ask more questions than they answer. In an interview John talks about his first experiences of being published but of more interest is his approach to writing:

I tried to make my language flourish in a more organic spontaneous way, yet highly stylised. They were more like vignettes, meditations, and stream of consciousness writing. A jumble of ideas, descriptions, emotions captured in an unravelling string, well polished and well delivered. There is a beauty in literary journals, who are so defiant of mainstream. Eclectic is a famous word for journals, that’s what is so wonderful about them, they keep more with the way reality is, it doesn’t wrap things up like a book.

I’m happy to recommend this collection. I don’t like to lumber it with the YA tag though. I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful. True, the stories are not the most demanding you’ll ever read but neither are they trite. They don’t try and do the reader’s job for him and because some younger readers might not be able to bring as much to the table as an adult reader might they might not pick up on some of the book’s subtleties. Not in a single reading anyway. There was a lot I missed the first time and I’m a grown man.

Yes, Ugly to Start With is a book, so John’s stories can literally be wrapped up in a book but this particular book doesn’t wrap anything up. We don’t know for sure if Jason gets to go to art college in Worsh-ington (as his father insists on calling it) but it looks like he will. Whether he he will escape is another matter.

You can download a PDF of the opening story to the collection, ‘The World Around Us’, from the publisher’s website here but there are a number of other stories from John available online which will give you a taste of his approach to storytelling:

From Ugly to Start With

Other Stories set in Harpers Ferry

A few more stories


john_michael_cummings_-_authors_photo_-__for_releaseJohn Michael Cummings was born in 1963 in Harpers Ferry. His short stories have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Iowa Review. Twice he has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. His short story ‘The Scratchboard Project’ received an honourable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007. His debut novel, The Night I Freed John Brown, was the 2009 winner of The Paterson Prize for Books for Young People (Grades 7-12) and one of ten books recommended by USA Today for Black History Month. Originally a newspaper reporter John now lives in Orlando, Florida with his cat Sentry where, for a while, he taught writing classes but now he tells me he’s “just a poor writer and student this semester” currently working on his third book which will serve as his thesis for his master’s degree.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Is anyone writing just fiction anymore?


The general "fiction" section of the bookstore … can be a very lonely place – Donald Maass

A while back I joined a writers’ group on Facebook. It’s a friendly place, bustling with activity. Some authors are slogging away on that first book, others are there promoting a whole range. So, a whole mixed bag. Almost all of us have websites and blogs and although our primary reason for being there is to promote ourselves, as is the nature of the Internet, there is a general willingness to help each other out in whatever ways we can. One way is providing book reviews. We expect someone to review our books so it only seems fair that we review a few too. To help people out, someone cobbled together a list of all the members who were willing to do reviews and what their preferences were: sci fi, horror, romance, chick lit, YA etc. Not one of them listed general fiction, let alone literary fiction, and so I asked and one nice lady said she’d read just about anything. But this started me thinking. I began to look at the kind of books that members of the group were writing. There were paranormal romances, historical fantasies, psychological thrillers, prehistoric fantasies, gothic horror, campus murder mysteries but nothing that looked remotely like plain ol’ General Fiction. And I wondered why.

I subscribe to a number of writers’ websites, some published, some still trying, some not that bothered, but very few of them produce work that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the many, many genres that are out there. There are definitely still writers who don’t work in a genre because I get offered their books to review. Arguably many of them might be classified as literary novelists; I’ll come back to that.

Until recently I had never read any historical fiction. I got historical fiction mixed up in my head with historical romances. The few I have read since have taught me not to judge. These are serious novelists who do an astounding amount of research so that what we get to read is as accurate as possible and yet they’re classed as genre writers. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought the word ‘genre’ was a disparaging term akin to ‘pulp fiction’. No matter how much research an historical novelist does I can’t imagine one winning the Nobel Prize for literature. But who was the last fantasy author to win it?

In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell envisaged novel-writing machines churning out populist fiction for the proles. Give the people what they want. Look at our recent TV schedules: House (medical), the various incarnations of CSI (forensic detective), The Event (science fiction), Rookie Blue (police procedural), The Good Wife (legal), True Blood (horror), Gossip Girl (teen drama) – and you could add and add and add to these lists, but how many plain ol’ dramas? I can think of a few that are so easily Breaking Badclassifiable: The Big C, United States of Tara, Hung, Breaking Bad and Treme, but by comparison to the rest they pale into insignificance and two at least have been cancelled after only a couple of seasons. The UK’s schedule is no better, although I think it’s more clogged up with soaps and they’re not exactly written with the cognoscenti of Great Britain in mind.

All of these have their place – I can enjoy a sitcom like The Big Bang Theory and I’m a huge fan of Family Guy – but I do get tired of shows like Castle which Carrie and I watch and get a kick out of deconstructing every week. Seriously, you would think some of these shows were written by machine.

Which brings me back to my initial question, only now I think it’s the wrong question. Writers want to be read – or, in the case of scriptwriters, they want to see their work performed – and the general idea is that people will be willing to pay a modest amount to read what we have written. There are two ways of approaching this problem: 1) do your own thing, do a good job and hope that people will be willing to pay for quality, or 2) write what people want to read. At the moment a lot of writers are going down the second route, in droves in fact. And the flavour of the month is YA. Post-Harry Potter people have suddenly sussed that young adults are capable of reading and actually willing to do so, and the same thing is happening now as happened with the silent movies: there has been a sudden surge in demand and so anyone who can string two sentences together is in with a shot. This is not a bad thing. It’s not a good thing either. It’s just an inevitable thing.

I have it on good authority that I can string a sentence or two together so why don’t I write the next werevamp romance? Firstly, I have no interest; secondly, I have no ability – just because I can write doesn’t mean I can write anything – and, lastly, the market is already flooded with similar products. What I really need to do is work out what the next big thing is going to be and write that before anyone else gets their foot in the door. Seriously, ten years ago would anyone have thought that wizards and pirates would be dominating the cinema?

General Fiction is simply that: General. It doesn't fit in any genre category. Part of our problem these days is too many genres. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein I bet she thought she was writing a literary novel. Genre is not new. It’s been around since the time of the Greeks. Plato divided literature into the three classic genres accepted in Ancient Greece: poetry, drama, and prose. Poetry was further subdivided into epic, lyric, and drama. Using that logic then ‘novel’ is itself a subgenre, a type of prose-writing which makes science fiction et al subsubgenres.

green_lanternThe other thing that I’m noticing more and more are people writing series. You know when any blockbuster appears in the listings before anyone has seen it they’re already planning the next one and the one after that. X-Men was never going to be one film, Spiderman was never going to be one film and you can bet your bottom dollar that Thor and Green Lantern will spawn sequels in due course, even if Spawn didn’t (although there was the cartoon). There have always been sequels but never like nowadays. Cervantes wrote a sequel to Don Quixote. Nowadays the two books always appear as a single volume but the fact is there are two books and if you’ve read the first there’s nothing really worth reading the second one for; I gave up on it, one of the first books I never finished. I know I wrote a sequel to my first novel and I did so because my public (okay the handful of people who read the early drafts of Living with the Truth) asked for it, but although the sequel ends on a cliff-hanger, I had no plans to write a third book and can’t ever see myself returning to that universe. All my other books were designed to stand alone.

In an interview with Michael Neff, the literary agent Donald Maass was asked:

NEFF: What exactly is meant by "general fiction"? Is it harder to break into than SF or mystery, e.g.?

MAASS: General fiction, to my mind, is the stuff that doesn't fit into any category, or is written on such a scale that it "transcends" category. Have you noticed how mystery writers, say, who hit the bestseller lists no longer have the word "mystery" printed on the spines of their books? Instead the hardcover edition will simply say "a novel." Funny about that. Actually, category lists and category sections in bookstores can be great places to grow. There are dedicated readers, magazines and awards to help build an author's career. The general "fiction" section of the bookstore, in contrast, can be a very lonely place. – Michael Neff, ‘Only the Best’, Algonkian Writers Conferences

I’m content for my books to be classed as General or Contemporary Fiction but I still think of myself as a literary novelist. And, as such, that means I want to play with the big boys but as soon as I imagine myself standing in a line-up with the usual suspects – the likes of Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway – I suddenly want to scurry back to the safety of the General Fiction shelves, but the fact is at least two of my novels are hard to classify as anything else: Milligan and Murphy is a metafiction inspired by Beckett’s short novel Mercier and Camier and The More Things Change contains huge monologues, pages and pages long, and is basically about a bloke hanging around a park for forty years thinking about how crappy his life has been. Not exactly bestseller material; even I’m willing to admit that.

So, why write them?

Because those are the books that interest me. I look at so many of the books my contemporaries are churning out and I feel like such a snob but I simply cannot imagine reading any of them. Or writing any of them. I think perhaps if anything qualifies me as a literary writer it’s my approach towards my writing. I’m not interested in telling stories, I’m not interested in entertaining people, I’m not that interested in selling books (a few would be nice, mind) but I am interested in working things out through my writing. I write about people but I’m more interested in ideas.

A definition then, although not a definitive one:

Literary fiction tends to focus on character development over plot, and explore philosophical issues and ideology. In comparison to mainstream fiction, it often contains more introspection and exposition, and less action and dialogue. It is often said to challenge the reader. There may be layers of meaning beyond the surface story. The story may be about something "bigger"—more universal—than the story being explicitly told. Multiple reads are usually necessary to absorb all of the meaning embedded in the story. Literary fiction is most likely to break traditional fiction conventions, e.g. endings may be upsetting or ambiguous, plots may be next to non-existent, the writer may forego punctuation rules such as placing quotation marks around dialogue. – ‘Fiction: Genre vs. Mainstream vs. Literary’, Toasted Cheese

Okay, I would never forego punctuation rules but apart from that I can relate to that. That is what I aspire to. I was actually a little disappointed with Left when I finished it. It’s the best I was going to be able to do with the subject but I definitely felt that I hadn’t stretched myself. I simply couldn’t get my original idea to work on the page. It would work as a stage play; in fact if you’ve ever seen an episode of the short-lived American series Raines that is very much what I was going for. Wikipedia describes the premise as follows:

The series focused on Michael Raines (Jeff Goldblum), a 'mentally haunted' LAPD detective, who interacts with imaginary manifestations of dead crime victims in order to solve criminal cases. Raines must deal with his unique, unintentional method, as it causes problems with his co-workers and in his personal life.

And that is what I wanted, a daughter going through her father’s things who talked to an imaginary version of her father (not a ghost) and so was only privy to what she knew before he died or discovered while rummaging around his flat. It’s a good idea but I couldn’t make it work on the page. What I ended up doing was using the format of a mystery novel to tell the story, even if I handle it in a most unconventional way.

I have a similar idea buzzing around my head for my next book and I think I know how I can pull this one off, but it’s certainly not a commercial book. A part of me wishes I could come up with something a lot of people would like to read – the next Harry Potter, whatever – but I’d also feel like I was selling out, prostituting my art as I think Holden Caulfield would have put it.

Do I think that literary fiction is better than genre fiction? It depends what you mean by better. It suits me better. I like it better. And so, yes, I think it is better but I’m not here to proselytise, to try and convince you all to ditch your werevamp romances and write more literary fiction because there is already more out there than I will ever get the chance to read before I die, even if I live to a ripe old age. I have read some crime novels and marvelled at the writers’ abilities to structure them. The same goes for the spy novels of John le Carré. I could never in a million years come up with writing like that – and he is a damn good writer by anyone’s standards – so why try and denigrate what he does simply because it can be filed under ‘genre fiction’?

So where does ‘mainstream fiction’ fall?

Readers are interested in reading about people just like themselves in the same way that they are interested in knowing about the lives of their real-life neighbours. – ‘What Is Mainstream Fiction?’

I think that assessment is basically true. I’m not a spy or a crime fighter or an alien or a monster or a Don Juan. I’m a bloke who lives in a flat in Glasgow with his wife who hasn’t done much different with his life than the girl next door or the couple downstairs. Why aren’t more people writing about people like us? I don’t believe the kitchen sink drama has had its day. There is still room on the shelves for modern versions of A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger. We are living in interesting times. There are so many issues that need exploring that don’t involve magic or horror or aliens or the ripping off of bodices. Who is documenting our times in fiction like these authors did theirs? Or are our times so bad that all people want to do is to escape from them into fantasies? Yes, they have their place, but writing is much bigger than that.

I discovered a new term a while back: quiet fiction. I like it. If there was a section in a book shop marked ‘Quiet Fiction’ I would definitely take a wander over there and have a shuftie. I learned the term when reading an article on Writer Unboxed by Jan O’Hara where she defines quiet books like this:

They tend to be about ordinary people facing ordinary struggles searching for extraordinary grace. The characters are warmly drawn, the world infused with subtle optimism. A good portion of the book’s magic comes via its themes and texture.


In particular, the holistic nature of their work defies the sound bite, the tweet, the tagging. Many times it baffles their cover artist. – Jan O’Hara, ‘But What about the Quiet Ones?’, Writer Unboxed, 19 September 2001

Another rough definition, this time in the Irish Echo Online from 2007:

Quiet books are usually called so because the joy we get from them is in the small things: a perfect emotional chord, the description of a properly-set table, the subtle power of emotional restraint. A handful of these things done well makes a quiet novel.

The more I read the more excited I get. Where can I buy these books? Who’s writing these books? I want to write one.

Orchestral music always sells better than chamber music. I have a huge classical music collection but it most definitely hinges on the concertos and the symphonic, the noisy pieces. I’m not saying I have no chamber music but I have to be in the mood for it. I’m the exact opposite when it comes to books. Big novels are hard work and the thought of anything epic is a complete turn off. But what classical music sells the best? Who, for example, hasn’t got a copy of The Planets or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in their collection? I wonder how many have a copy of Stockhausen’s Klang? And that’s the point. If you’ve bought the Holst or the Beethoven you’re more likely to move towards Vaughan Williams or Brahms. You’ll play it safe, stick to what you know. And that’s what happens with books. That’s why I’m rather glad I started reviewing books online because suddenly I was faced with books I would never have picked up in a bookshop, even in Bargain Books. It hasn’t changed my core tastes though.

The most recent sales figures I could find online were for e-book sales for 2010, a study conducted on behalf of Publishers World. The results surprised me. They may you. Literary/Classic fiction topped the study followed closely by Science Fiction which, according to what I’ve been reading elsewhere, isn’t doing nearly as well in paperback. People are still clearly attracted to good writing. One has to wonder why non-genre fiction is so hard to market because – clearly, the figures do not lie – there is a sizeable market there and someone needs to be writing for them.


(Not sure what the ‘20’ means – it’s not 20% because if you add all those numbers together you get 128.)

Sunday, 19 February 2012

It Chooses You


You’ve broken it wide open, Pollock – Marcia Gay Harden to Ed Harris in Pollock

If there is one thing we authors have in common, it’s people. We may write about anthropomorphic animals or aliens or the undead but strip away all the gloss and we’re writing about people: the people next door, the people down the street, the people we met last week in a bring-and-buy sale, the people who taught us English, the people who gave us life in the first place. Such a diverse bunch and yet they’re all people. They eat, sleep, poop, get sad, laugh at jokes, give in to weaknesses, get outraged for no good reason, leave us, love us. People are fascinating. And there is no end to them. No sooner has one generation died off than another is set up to fill their shoes. Mostly. Sometimes they take their shoes with them.

Times are a-changing. When I was a kid no one had a home computer. We’re still a way away from everyone having one but it wasn’t that long ago that no one had television sets and now only about 1% of the population don’t. When I was a kid one of the few periodicals my parents bought was the Exchange & Mart. Think eBay with pages. In the United States they still have something called Pennysaver which is a kind of free community periodical (typically weekly or monthly) that advertises items for sale. According to Wikipedia:

Horace Greely and Ralph St. Denny founded the Pennysaver in Ohio in 1948, followed by the Chenango Valley Pennysaver in 1949 (published continuously since then). Greely bowed out, but St. Denny stayed on to become nationally known as an innovator, mentor, a pioneer and a true original, until his retirement in 1995. A number of independent, unrelated organizations use the name Pennysaver.

That was obviously before the Internet. Nowadays people are more likely to sell their unwanted stuff on eBay or on Craigslist. And yet the paper version of the Pennysaver continues because there are sufficient people without access to—or interest in—computers to make the production a viable option. There is an online version, of course, and it’s only a matter of time before the paper version folds, but not for a while yet.

Amongst other things Miranda July is a writer. She’s a twenty-first century writer which means she spends as much time checking her Facebook page and reading other people’s blogs as she does writing, probably more. We’re all guilty of it. When I began writing there was no Internet, not as we know it today, and so I know what it’s like to sit down and just write and not feel that pull. Miranda, as she is younger, doesn’t remember that time. When we meet her in the opening pages of her new book—a work of non-fiction for once—she is busy not writing the screenplay to her new film, The Future. There’s not a huge incentive to crack on because the film business is in a bit of a slump and, as she puts it, if you don’t already have Natalie Portman lined up to star in said film then you might as well forget it. That’s the least of her problems, however, because she’s been reworking the same scenes over and over again with no success. It’s a Tuesday which is significant:

I looked forward to Tuesdays. Tuesday was the day the PennySaver booklet was delivered. It came hidden among the coupons and other junk mail. I read it while I ate lunch, and then, because I was in no hurry to get back to not writing, I usually kept reading it straight through to the real estate ads in the back. I carefully considered each item – not as a buyer, but as a curious citizen of Los Angeles. Each listing was like a very brief newspaper article. News flash: someone in LA is selling a jacket. The jacket is leather. It is also large and black. The person thinks it is worth ten dollars. But the person is not very confident about that price and is willing to consider other, lower prices. I wanted to know more things about what this leather-jacket person thought, how they were getting through the day, what they hoped, what they feared – but none of that information was listed. What was listed was the person’s phone number.

Before lunch all Miranda had to worry about was her fictional problem—something to do with a guy called Jason and some trees—but now she has a whole other real world problem: should she call the guy whose phone number is listed in the ad? The thing is, she really isn’t that interested in a man’s large leather jacket. Also, as she puts it, “[t]he implied rule of the classifieds is you call the phone number only to talk about the item on sale.” Then again America is the land of the free and all she was wanting to do was exercise that freedom and what harm would there be if she engaged the man in conversation? That said, although America is the land of the free it is also a capitalist country and people are in the habit of paying for goods and services so she decides to make the man an offer:

Actually, I was wondering if, when I come over to look at the jacket, I could interview you about your life and everything about you. Your hopes, your fears… […] Of course, I would pay you for your time. Fifty dollars. It’ll take less than an hour.

Miranda meets Michael

Much to her surprise, I’m sure, the man, whose name she discovers is Michael, says okay. And so she goes to meet Michael and from there, Primila, Pauline and Raymond, Andrew, Beverly, Pam, Ron, Matilda and Domingo, Dina and lastly Joe and his wife Carolyn, all discovered through ads in the PennySaver. And what a motley crew they turn out to be. Few had computers and even those who did had little interest in them, and so this is a very interesting demographic to put under the microscope. Not that everyone jumped at the opportunity, even for fifty dollars, to be part of Miranda’s wee experiment, but those who did seemed more than willing to open up to her. Some were old, clearly lonely and desperate for a little company, but it was really more than that; it was the opportunity to explain themselves that they jumped at. None of them probed her about what she intended to do with the information but they happily opened up cupboards, dragged her into backyards and up stairs, plied her with food and regaled her with tales of their lives, both past and present, as well as their hopes for the future.

What started out as a distraction became a project but she had no plans to turn these interviews into a book, certainly not at the start. All Miranda could really think about is her damn screenplay that refuses to come together. But this is where the book gets interesting because I have been exactly where she was when she was struggling and getting nowhere. With me it was novels but the feeling is exactly the same and then inspiration appears from the queerest, the most unexpected of sources. And that’s what happens here. As she wanders round these people’s homes and learns of their lives she starts to realise what’s missing in her writing. It’s these people. Literally these people. She imagines who might play Dina or Ron or Domingo in her film and then realises:

The thought was offensive. No, clearly these people would have to play themselves.

Miranda meets Dina

She has this epiphany while visiting Dina and even goes as far as to screen test her sometime later but as soon as the camera is pointed at her the real Dina disappears and Miranda realises this might have been not such a good idea. Then she meets Joe, the last person she intends to interview, and that’s when everything comes together creatively for her. The book’s final chapter talks about the shooting of the film—which by now has finally received a title she can live with, The Future. Some of you may have seen it. In his review of the film in The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw writes:

What Jeff Koons does to banal objects, Miranda July does to banal situations, feelings, conversations. It's a kind of affectless sentimentalism, and a commentary on the nature of coupledom, its secular theology.


If we live our lives as intelligent, 21st-century consumers, without religion, or high culture, or a great cause – all things about which we have a well-founded and highly developed scepticism – then what do our lives look like?

I think that’s a fair comment, not only about her filmmaking but also her writing. The people we meet in this book, and whose shadows persist within the film, are, on the whole, the most ordinary and dull bunch and yet no sooner had I finished one chapter of this short book than I wanted to find out about the next person or persons. In all seriousness I could have finished the book in a single sitting and if I’d started it earlier in the afternoon I would have done. After spending several weeks—I jest not—slogging my way through Apricot Jam this was such a change of gear.

"All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life," Miranda writes. She says it better than me, far more succinctly, and yet that’s what I was getting at in the opening paragraph of this article. There is no way in hell I’d want to live like Withnail and Marwood, or Albert and Harold Steptoe or Joseph Merrick or the two Edith Beales but aren’t these people fascinating? And the great thing is that we get to observe them at a distance, through glass, or through the written word. As Miranda says of Ron: “[E]xactly the kind of man you spend your whole life being careful not to end up in the apartment of.” Ron is selling a sixty-seven-piece art set; he’s looking for $65 for it. In the course of the interview he reveals he is wearing a house-arrest anklet:

Ron: I’m going to tell you something that’s fact. An anklet can mean any one of three things. If you’re gang related, you get one on, or if you’re a threat to the community because you have more than one so-called victim, which could be business-related or –
Miranda: Right.
Ron: – a sex offender or a drug dealer. Not small-time but what they consider a dealer-dealer.
Miranda: Right.

It turns out he’s been in prison but we never do find out exactly what he was in for. Probably something “business-related”.

Miranda meets Ron

Ron is the scariest person Miranda gets to interview. For my money the saddest—although it’s a tough call—would have to be Domingo, Matilda’s brother who lives with her. Above his bed is “an elaborate collage of women and babies” but that’s not what piques Miranda’s curiosity:


He’s not there when she calls to see his sister but when Miranda gets home and looks over some of the photos of the visit she can’t stand it; she telephones and arranges to call to see Domingo a few weeks later. Eventually she gets round to the subject of the collage, which has changed since her previous visit:

Miranda: So tell me about these pictures on the wall.
Domingo: I have, like, fantasies and stuff, like I pretend I’m an officer, you know, a deputy sheriff, things like that.
Miranda: When did you start collecting?
Domingo: I’ve had quite a few years doing this. Actually, I started after I graduated from high school. I was never able to become a police officer or a deputy sheriff or anything like that. And what happened there is that I built a fantasy that I’m a judge, that I’m a police officer, that I’m a deputy-sheriff, and then I investigate – I call and see what their working shifts are like. I’m going through some psychological, psychiatric treatment as well, and so I tell this to my therapist. He said, well, if it’s something that doesn’t take you away from doing other things, it’s okay to have fantasies, as long as you don’t go and tell people that you are what you say you are in your mind. And it is all in my mind. And then I put pictures on the wall that I’m a judge, that I have a family, that I have a cat, things like that. I have to have them on the wall for it to come true in my head. Because if I don’t put it on the wall –
Miranda: You can’t see it.
Domingo: I can’t focus it in my mind. So it’s got to be something that I, um…
Miranda: You can look at a picture.
Domingo: I can look at it and I have it there itself. I go to the librarian, my friend, and she’s the one that finds all these pictures for me. She knows what I have them for, so she knows that I never collect anything that’s, um, you know… naked pictures or anything like that.
Miranda: It’s family life.
Domingo: Yeah, with kids and things like that. You know, I’ve been doing this for years, and I usually change my pictures around when I feel like I need to change, to be somebody different.

In another life Domingo would be a writer or a filmmaker.

I cannot imagine what people do who don’t create. I can understand someone not being a writer as long as they’re a composer or a photographer or a sculptor or something. But what do the other people do? It’s the same with computers. Who doesn’t have a computer these days? Carrie and I now have nine working computers in this flat and I use four of my five every day. Miranda describes people standing in queues clicking away on their smartphones, interacting with, being with their true friends to the exclusion of the so-called real world and yet she admits:

Domingo’s blog was one of the best I’ve ever read, but I had to drive to him to get in, he had to tell me with his whole self, and there was no easy way to search for him. He could only be found accidentally.

Scientifically, my interviews were pretty feeble … but one day soon there would be no more computerless people in Los Angeles and this exercise wouldn’t be possible. Most of life is offline, and I think it always will be: eating and aching and sleeping and loving happen in the body. But it is not impossible to imagine losing my appetite for those things; they aren’t always easy, and they take so much time. In twenty years I’d be interviewing air and water and heat just to remember they mattered.

This is a fascinating book and one I wholeheartedly recommend. To writers especially but to the rest of you too. The New Yorker reproduced five chapters from the book including some of the photographs that are included that really make this thing come to life. The opening chapter is here but that only really talks about where she was when she got the idea. Here are the other four chapters:

It Chooses You is published in the UK by Canongate in hardback which gives it the feel, slightly, of a coffee table book but it is much more than that. My only fear is that having read the book this will spoil the film for me. In his review in The Financial Times Lionel Shriver wrote that, [d]ismayingly, [he] liked The Future less after reading this book.” We’ll just have to see.

Postscript – The Future

FutureI managed to see the film a wee while after reading the book and I have to disagree with Shriver. I enjoyed the film immensely and I particularly enjoyed seeing things that I could identify from the book in exactly the same way as I enjoyed identifying where I recognised her co-star from. (He was the brother in The New Adventures of Old Christine.)

This is not a film for everyone. I’m not sure there’s such a thing but I suspect this will polarise opinion more than Mary Poppins. The story, such as there is one, is simple enough: Sophie, played by Miranda July herself, and Jason are thirty-five—he provides online tech support from home and she teaches little girls how to dance, although, when asked, she is at pains to point out that she is a dance instructor and not a dancer. They have decided to adopt a stray cat they have seen injured, who they name Paw Paw (and who serves as the film’s narrator). Paw Paw, they have been told, may not have long to live—six months, perhaps, but longer (anything up to five years) if they take care of him—but it will be a month before they can collect him from the vet and their new life can begin together. Which means in a month their old life—life as they knew it—will stop. Paw Paw will need constant attention and so one of them will always have to be in the flat. This realisation, especially the fact that if they do their job well this state might drag on for years, triggers a kind of midlife crisis in the couple:

Sophie: We’ll be forty in five years.
Jason: Forty is basically fifty. And then after fifty, the rest is just loose change.

On her website Miranda explains how this affects the two of them:

Jason responds to this predicament like an artist should; he isn’t making anything, but his decision to be led by mistakes and coincidences is the creative process. He’s not without doubt, but he keeps his faith, which leads him somewhere new. I wanted to show the side of creativity that is spiritual, even a bit mystical, and more about surviving life than about performance or production.

Meanwhile, with no less determination, my character, Sophie, attempts to create a YouTube dance – this is the other end of creativity, the entirely goal-oriented desire for attention. […] The Internet has both exposed and created a more acute awareness of our need to be reacted to. You only have to unplug it and bam – you are in a profound crisis, facing the empty void without distractions.

They quit their jobs. Jason signs up to sell trees for charity and wanders round the neighbourhood with a clipboard; Sophie cancels their Internet subscription and they both set about living this month as if it was their last, as if their lives will grind to an abrupt halt once they take on the responsibility of this injured stray cat. They are, I have to say, an odd couple but nowhere near as entertaining as Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau: funny-weird rather than funny-ha-ha; they are a melancholy pair to say the least, clearly a little lost and weighed down by life even though all they have is each other. We see the film in microcosm when Jason returns home to be told that they will lose their Internet connection within the next hour and they both sit there frantically looking up things one can only find on the Internet.

At the start of the film, if you discount the fact that it’s being narrated by a stray cat, it’s a perfectly realistic film, everything happens in real time to real people, ordinary people who aren’t spies on the side or anything like that. But as the film progresses weird stuff starts to happen and this is where some people will start to get lost when time stops and her favourite shirt begins following Sophie along the street and the man in the moon engages Jason in conversation. Miranda explains her use of magical realism in an interview on where she says she uses it for "things that are so excruciating that words fail, reality fails." On her blog she writes:

My character, Sophie, has a security blanket that’s a yellow shirt named “Shirty”. This shirt is based on my actual, real life security blanket – a much older, paler yellow shirt named, “Nightie”.

I’ve had Nightie my whole life, and if I were to ever forsake my soul, as Sophie does, I know Nightie would come crawling after me. I used to be ashamed of it and hope I would outgrow it, but instead I outgrew my shame.

The scene where Jason stops time is also heartbreaking because he realises that time is still moving at its normal speed outside of his little area of stasis. So in fact, only Jason is stopped, while the rest of the world keeps moving forward and as soon as he releases his control he will suddenly snap forward to the correct point in time. This makes so much sense to me because that’s what often happens to people following a breakup or a loss of some sort; for them time stands still and then one day—unexpectedly and inexplicably—they suddenly find themselves caught up with the rest of the world.

I liked this film very much. I liked Joe’s cameos. I liked that it didn’t feel the need to explain everything for me. I liked its poetry and I absolutely loved Paw Paw but then I’m a cat person. I can see people enjoying the book and not getting the film but I would be surprised if anyone who enjoyed the film didn’t also appreciate the very different side of Miranda July you get to see in the book. Let me leave you with the trailer:

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Apricot Jam and Other Stories


[I]t’s pure physics: Human nature has not enough time to follow everything going on around it. An artist has to be placed at some distance from his object. If he just sets down his momentary expressions it will be more like an essay, a piece of reporting, than a work of art. Few authors are able to capture pieces of reality instantly. … The majority must have time for their impressions to settle down. And also at a certain age one begins to write not about the historical past, but about one’s personal past, about the earlier years of one’s own life. Why are there so many memories? So many people write about their youth. When? In their old age. In old age it often happens that old remembrances become more vivid. There’s some psychological law about it. – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from the documentary The Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, ‘The Knot Part II’

The first novel I bought after leaving school, the first adult novel that I bought with my own money, was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I bought it in a small newsagent across from Burns Square in Ayr. I was sixteen at the time and the book cost me 35p. I still own it and I have reread it roughly every ten years since then. Over the next few years I read more books by him: Matryona’s House and Other Stories, The First Circle and Cancer Ward. And, yes, I still have my copies of these books. So, when I learned that Canongate Books were to publish Apricot Jam and Other Stories, a collection of stories written late in life, I jumped at the opportunity to see if his late prose could affect me in the same way as his early prose did. Just over thirty years separate the publication of that novel with the writing of these stories, about the same length of time that has lapsed between my first reading of Ivan Denisovich and now.

Expectation is a terrible thing. It leads inevitably to disappointment. Not that Apricot Jam was a complete disappointment, because it wasn’t, but it wasn’t what I’d hoped for; a final flourish. This doesn’t mean that Solzhenitsyn goes out with a whimper rather than a bang, but when he was writing Ivan Denisovich that was his life—the day he got the idea to start that book was the coldest day he ever had to work outside, -35º—whereas these stories were written in the comfort (luxury by comparison) of his offices in Russia following his repatriation in 1994. None are contemporary tales—they all delve into Russia’s dark recent past—but they have all been written with the benefit of hindsight and, in some cases, we do get to see what happened in later years. Not that he has forgotten how bad things were back then—in preparation for writing this article I watched the documentary The Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn which were recorded in 1998 and it is clear that he remembers all too well how he and others were treated—but now it is history, no matter how vivid his memories still are, and, in many respects, a lot of what you get to read in Apricot Jam reads more like history and less like works of fiction, despite what he says above; these were the parts of the book I struggled with the most. Thankfully not all were like that and there were a couple of gems. For me. Others with more interest in the broad sweep of historical events might enjoy the ones I did not. It’s all a matter of taste.

That doesn’t mean there is nothing new here because there is: a style of writing I had not encountered before. Solzhenitsyn referred to them as binary tales, dvuchastnyi rasskaz in Russian, stories in two parts, not two chapters but, if I can compare them to something visual, more like a diptych. In the story ‘Zhelyabuga Village’, for example, what we get presented with is a before and after scenario: the first part of the story describes a day during the war where an artillery battalion is engaged in an assault during the one of the battles at Kursk Bridge in 1943 focusing on the members of a sound-ranging battery and there are clearly biographical elements here because during the war Solzhenitsyn served as the commander of one; the second part, set fifty-two years later (during the Yeltsin era), sees the narrator return to the city of Oryol to celebrate its liberation. While there, he and a colleague from that time (Vitya) visit the site of the battle which he narrated in the first part along with some officials, only to be accosted by some old women—they block the road and refuse to let their jeep by imagining them to be in some position of authority—and, if there is a single question hanging over the story it likely is: Was this what we were fighting for?

A woman in a grey checked kerchief spoke up, with a lot of emotion: “Us folk in the village have come to the end of our rope. There’s no living for us here, there’s nothing to eat.”

The small woman in the green kerchief said: “There’s no proper road here, we know that…”

The village soviet fellow had to justify himself before the regional man and quickly said: “I always keep an eye on things, you know. Nikolai, I say, are you bringing in the bread? I am, he says.”

The woman in blue spoke up now, sharply: “So you keep an eye on us, do you? When did you ever pay us a visit? You, the chairman of the village soviet, haven’t been here even a single time … None of you people have been here since Adam was a boy.”

Others now added their complaints:

“Things have gone to rack and ruin…”

“Everybody’s forgotten we’re still here…”

sliding doorsIn ‘Nastenka’ what we have is a Sliding Doors or a What if…? scenario The first:

Nastenka’s parents died young, and her grandfather, Father Filaret, who by then had also lost his wife, raised her from the age of five. The girl lived in his house in the village of Milostayki until she was twelve, through the years of the German War and the revolution.

The second:

Nastenka had spent her childhood in Moscow—the old Moscow, on a little street near the Pure Ponds. The German War had not yet begun when she had already learned to read, and then Papa gave her permission to borrow any books she wished from his shelves.

Are these the same woman or two different women? It really doesn’t matter but it does provide a striking comparison between two possible lives.

‘Apricot Jam’ is similar in that the first component of the story presents us with Fedya, a worker at the Kharkov Locomotive Works, who is writing a letter looking for assistance:

[W]ho else can I write to? I have no family, no support from anyone, and I’ve got no way to set myself right on my own. I’m a prisoner here, near hand to dying and trapped in a life that brings one hurt after the other. Would it cost too much for you to send me a food parcel? Please take pity on me…

In the second section we are presented with a glimpse into the life of Vasily Kiprianovich, a professor of cinema studies, who has been invited by a famous Writer—Solzhenitsyn capitalises the word—to advise him “on types of screenplays and techniques used in writing them.” They meet in the Writer’s dacha, a Russian country cottage used especially in the summer, hidden from view by a tall wooden fence. While showing the professor round his home he has no problem boasting “about a remarkable new appliance—an electric refrigerator he had bought from Paris.” Of course we realise at the end who it is that Fedya has written to and there is no likelihood of a response. I had never really considered Solzhenitsyn a satirist—despite being influenced by Chekhov—but that’s what we have here, plain and simple.

Fridges crop up also in ‘Fracture Points’ where we see the progression of the life and career of Mitya Yemtsov, a seventeen-year-old in 1944, and what we get over seventeen pages is something of a potted history of Russia. He moves into manufacturing eventually and one of the tasks his department is assigned is to produce Russian refrigerators:

They had a refrigerator from England right there, and their only job was to make a copy of it. Lord knows, they made an exact replica, but there must have been some secrets that they still hadn’t grasped: a tube in the condenser coil would clog, or it would produce so much cold that everything would freeze. Buyers would return the refrigerators with complaints and curses: “The damned thing won’t stay cold!” The stores would submit claims for replacement.

It is an interesting take. So often when I’ve read about Russia I’ve been presented with the broader picture but here we have one man and how his life is affected by the changing political landscape. Like Ivan Denisovich’s day, Mitya’s life is, on the whole, an uneventful one. He works hard, toes the party line and mostly succeeds even when, in later years with the influx of cheap goods from China, he needs to reorganise his workforce, he tightens his belt and makes the best of things.

In some respects this story serves to balance out a story like ‘Time of Crisis’ which takes the life of another man born into a peasant family—there is definitely a thread here that runs throughout the book—who rises in the military ranks. Albeit the fact that Yorka Zhukov is nineteen in 1915 when the German war broke out, much of the same ground is covered. Peasantry seems like a rather old-fashioned word to me. When was the last time we had a peasantry here in the UK? And yet throughout its history the peasants come across as the backbone of Russia, if only in the propaganda. Solzhenitsyn’s father was a man like these I’ve mentioned in the last two stories who rose from humble beginnings eventually acquiring a large estate in the Kuban region in the northern foothills of the Caucasus.

The second part of this story caught my attention because we get to see who has narrated the first section; it is a contemporary of Zhukov, now an old man, and this is how he opens his story:

People believe that it is entirely appropriate and proper to begin writing your memoirs when you turn seventy. What I did, though, was begin seven years earlier. It’s so quiet here, and I’m of no use to anyone, so what else should I do with myself? One year passes after another, and all I have left is the spare time that has been forced upon me and that drags by so slowly.


There are some good reasons why I must write. Let it be for the record. Many others had already rushed to write memoirs; some have even been published. They’re in a hurry because they want to grab a bit of the glory for themselves. And of course they want to dump their mistakes on someone else.

That is dishonourable.

But what a job it is! Just sorting through your memories wears you out. Some of the blunders I made tear at my heart even now. But there is also much to be proud of.

That is something that comes out in every story. Russia may not have always have been able to hold its head high but there was much for the individual Russians to be proud of. Like in ‘Fracture Points’ when, having just come out of a war, they are thrust into a time of rebuilding:

StalinThe war was over, and yet it wasn’t over. Comrade Stalin declared that now we have to rebuild! Life went on in the same rigid military fashion as before, though without the military funerals. Rebuild! A year, two years, a third year of rebuilding meant that you had to go on working, living, and feeding yourself as if there was a war on.

This is not to suggest that other countries didn’t have to rebuild because, of course, they did. But the Russians do appear to have had a harder time than most because of the country’s leadership. All that mattered was that targets were met. As Fedya reports in his letter to the Writer:

Four thousand people or more had been collected here, and that was what they called a regiment. There was ne’er a bathhouse or laundry, and no one was given any uniform. They marched us off to work straightaway. What they told us in the support force for the Locomotive Works was: “You keep going till you drop.”

All of this so the targets set in Stalin’s Five-year Plan would be achieved in four years.

In ‘Ego’ though there is a brief cameo that reminded me of the old Zek in Ivan Denisovich, the one who raised his food to his mouth in the mess hall and maintained his dignity:

Once Ektov was speaking to an aged peasant from Semyonovsky Hamlet about the general breakdown of everything around them. Life, it seemed, was reaching the point where it could get no worse, and what would be left of it after all this?

“Never mind,” said the silver-haired old fellow, “the grass lives on beneath the scythe.”

In his book Russian Literature: 1995-2002 – On the Threshold of a New Millennium N.N. Shneidman writes:

It is well known that Solzhenitsyn, the great creative artist, has always aspired to become a major historian. It is, however, also known that the artistic quality of his short novellas such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or Matrena’s House is vastly superior to the historical value and quality of narratives such as The Red Wheel. Most of Solzhenitsyn’s attention in the last decade has nonetheless been devoted to Russian political, national, social and historical issues.

I find I have to agree. Although he’s dealing with individuals, most of the stories here dwell too much on the surrounding events than on the people with the exception of ‘Apricot Jam’ and ‘Nastenka’ which, for me, were the two best stories. When books like The Gulag Archipelago first came out they opened people’s eyes to what was, and had been, going on in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, but now there is no USSR and what more is there to say?

‘Adlig Schwenkitten’ is the story I struggled with the most. Unlike the others, this is a story in twenty-four sections covering a twenty-four hour period but it was the sheer number of characters that lost me: Toplev, Boyev, Podkliuchnikov, Lepetushin, Gubaydulin, Gusev, Ostanin, Ishchukov, Larin, Yursh, Veresovoy, Vyzhlevsky, Tarasov, Kasyanov, Boronets, Myagkov, Kandalintsev, Baluev, Nikolaev and that’s not including the first names, ranks and patronymics that just added to the confusion. Too many people. After a while they all blurred into one.

As I said at the start, expectation is a terrible thing. A part of me was disappointed by much of what I read here but not all. The problem lies with me, though. I am not the boy I was when I first read Ivan Denisovich so why should I expect the author of these stories to be the same man that wrote that book? In some respects that’s what part of the problem here is, a dwelling too much on the past, but again not entirely. Also one has to consider who Solzhenitsyn was writing for and to, not the russia-in-collapseWest, but his fellow Russians. In other writings of this time, e.g. The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century and Russia in Collapse, he did address contemporary issues but there’s not so much of that here. If anything (and these are words other reviewers have used) these are somewhat nostalgic, moralistic stories.

Has Solzhenitsyn lost his moral authority since returning to Russia? This is a question David Remnick asked the author Lev Timofeyev in his book Reporting: Writings from The New Yorker to which he received the following answer:

In the modern world, moral authorities are proof of a society’s inability to live a decent life. … To have to rely so much on someone like Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov is a sure sign that something is wrong. Nowadays, I can express myself not by quietly identifying myself with a figure like that but by writing, reading, voting, doing business, whatever it is. This is a good thing. Society needs a Solzhenitsyn in a time of emergency, far less so now.

Later on Remnick gets to ask the man himself the same question. He writes that “Solzhenitsyn looked down at the table and thought this over awhile,” and that was something I noted he did in the documentary I watched. He would pause for the longest of times—on the first occasion I thought my TV had frozen and then he blinked—but the following has to be a most considered response:

I know from the many personal letters I still get that for many people I am a source of trust and moral authority. But I cannot say if I am a moral authority or not. I do not feel that for humanity—not society but for humanity—moral authority is a necessity.

He may have felt that but that doesn’t stop people looking to the likes of him for direction. The problem is, as Nina Khrushcheva put it in an article in the New York Sun, “that Solzhenitsyn's ideas were too conservative, too tied to Russian nationalism, for him to become a symbol of democracy in a multinational Soviet Union.” She concludes:

The tragedy of Solzhenitsyn is that, although he played a mighty role in liberating Russia from totalitarianism, he had nothing to say to ordinary Russians after their liberation, except to chastise them. Yet perhaps one day we Russians will escape our false dreams, and when that day comes, the heroic Solzhenitsyn, the Solzhenitsyn who could never surrender or be corrupted, will be restored to us. But it is now that we need that Solzhenitsyn most. For to paraphrase Milton's "Paradise Lost" on the illumination of Hell, "Solzhenitsyn's is no light, but rather darkness visible."

Apparently someone has said that this collection of stories would be a good introduction to Solzhenitsyn—no doubt some publicist—and I can’t disagree, the first few stories anyway, but much better to dive straight into One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and then find a copy of the new translation of In the First Circle which I hear is good. For those familiar with his work and still interested—perhaps that’s the key here—there is more here, though, than just wallowing in the past.

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