Archive for February, 2015

February 10, 2015

“The sky, if you can call it a sky, is the colour of a bruise.”

Nandini quoted some Angela Carter on twitter and I found myself reading bits of Shaking a Leg again, as you do. And so I found myself rereading this, and it was just as I had started reading Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium (which is great, incidentally), and I’d forgotten how strongly it had resonated with me as an SF fan (and as someone whose apocalypse nightmares are always quiet). From “Anger in a Black Landscape”, originally published in Over Our Dead Bodies: Women Against the Bomb in 1983.

 

One of the most curious phenomena of the postwar period has been the growth of fictions about the blissfully anarchic, tribal lives the lucky fifteen million survivors are going to lead in a Britain miraculously free of corpses, in which the Man with the Biggest Shot-Gun holes up in some barbed-wire enclave and picks off all comers. (Polygamous marital arrangements are often part of these fantasies.) The post-nuclear catastrophe novel has become a science fiction genre all of its own, sometimes as warning — more often as the saddest and most irresponsible kind of whistling in the dark.

Have you seen Goya’s “black” pictures in the Prado, in Madrid? You go through several rooms full of sunlit, happy paintings — children at play, beautiful young men and women dancing, picking grapes, a world of sensual delight — and, then, suddenly … paintings in black and ghastly grey and all the colours of mud, where swollen, deformed faces emerge from landscapes incoherent with devastation. The most awful one, that most expressive of a world of nothingness, shows a dog’s head peering over the side of a mound of slurry. The sky, if you can call it a sky, is the colour of a bruise. And you know, from the infinite desolation of the scene, he is the last dog left, and, from the look of him, he’s not going to last much longer.

Impossible, in that appalling room, to escape the notion, that Goya, in his famous despair, in his hatred of war and human folly, saw further than most people; there is something prophetic in these pictures, that have the look, not so much of paintings, but of photographs taken with some time-warped, heat-warped camera, of a Europe in a future that remains unimaginable … a wreckage of humanity, a landscape from which all life has been violently expelled … unimaginable; but not impossible.

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Yet the iconography of such catastrophe is, surely, familiar to us all, by now! Anyone who reads this book will have her or his own private nightmare of pain, loss, annihilation; my own private image is not a violent one. It is of a child crying in the dark, and there will be nobody to come, not ever. Which is the worst I can possibly imagine.

 

Also relevant to my unformed thoughts here is Matthew Cheney on apocalypse stories.

 

February 10, 2015

Janice Pariat, Seahorse/ Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners/ Mhairi Mcfarlane, It’s Not Me, it’s You

In the last few months I’ve been in London a bit, in Delhi a bit, in Newcastle a lot. I have read some books set in those places. The real theme of this column (from a few weeks ago) is this: there are times when I miss Delhi so much.

 

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A recent read, Mhairi Mcfarlane’s It’s Not Me, It’s You, is a romance novel set partly in the city in which I now live. I’ve become very fond of Newcastle very quickly, and want to see it in fiction. And yet as I read the local sections of the book I rolled my eyes a lot; I found every reference to a specific place jarring, as if it were trying to draw too much attention to itself. Certainly when the action shifted to (the much more often written about) London, everything felt a lot smoother. I’m not sure whether this had anything to do with the book itself, or whether the shift to a less familiar (to me) setting was what changed; but I’m now struck by the idea of Londoners reading the thousands of books set in their city with the same feeling with which I read this one.

They must be used to it though, when it’s all so written-about. I’ve recently returned to Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, in which West Indian immigrants to the UK carve out homes for themselves in a London that is so much a part of their culture that every street is fraught with meaning. “Jesus Christ, when he say ‘Charing Cross’, when he realise that is he, Sir Galahad, who going there, near that place that everybody in the world know about (it even have the name in the dictionary) he feel like a new man,” thinks one newly-arrived young man.

When Nem, the protagonist of Janice Pariat’s Seahorse, moves to London friends congratulate him on being able to live there while young. “it stays with you, for London is a moveable feast”. “That’s about Paris,” objects Nem, before discovering that “all these cities were identical, cloaked with the same shiny, glittering appeal; pronounced with reverence, like a hushed prayer. [Nem] found that London was filled with old light”.

I don’t know if Nem’s “old light” is the same thing that Selvon’s ‘Sir Galahad’ refers to when he visits landmarks so significant as to be part of the language itself, but I think it might be. Selvon’s narrator later describes the importance of being able “to have said ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ ‘I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ ‘Piccadilly Circus is my playground,’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world.” Everything is saturated with significance. Here is a place whose name is in the dictionary; there is the place where T.S. Eliot once worked. Perhaps it does not seem jarring to speak of these landmarks, because they are already so spoken of. Perhaps residents of that city do not sit grumpily reading books set there and complaining that the setting feels forced, that the author is trying too hard. Perhaps old light even comes with the assurance that a place is worthy of being written about.

This column is about a city that I don’t know well, and another city that I’m beginning to know and love. But there’s a third city, always, that is home. Pariat’s Nem spends a significant part of the novel in Delhi; it’s there he falls in love, goes to university, finds his first few jobs. In “Golf Links, Panchsheel, Defence Colony, Neeti Bagh […] previously unfashionable Lado Sarai and industrial Okhla,” and a few pages later “in the newly trendy Hauz Khas Village, in front of Humayun’s Tomb, the Red Fort, […] Paranthe-wali gali.” Nem’s relationship with Delhi, like most people’s is not entirely positive; even those of us who love the city deeply have trouble doing so unreservedly.  But homesick and a continent away I can see how a mere list of landmarks can begin to be important; how they can cease to be a mere attempt at local colour and become talismanic.

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February 4, 2015

January Reading

As I said in my post about my reading in 2014, I’m not counting rereads (unless they’re for writing-about or mark a big shift in how I’ve read them) this year, and I’m interested in seeing what that does for my reading stats.

Unfortunately, by these criteria I read all of two new books in January. I was travelling, attending a funeral, attending a wedding, marking papers, writing half a draft chapter, and crime rereads were all I could manage. I read some Sarah Caudwell, some Edmund Crispin (including the title below, which I hadn’t read before), I started and did not finish Jill Paton Walsh’s Dorothy Sayers continuation (it did not work for me at all) and Jennifer Cruisie’s Faking it; started and plan to finish Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman.

 

What I did read:

Edmund Crispin, Beware the Trains: Collection of short stories, feat. Fen or Humbleby. I’d read a couple before, in other places. All quite good, but I don’t find detective fiction satisfying in short story form.

Shandana Minhas, Survival Tips for Lunatics: I read this on Sridala’s recommendation and because there were extinct and fantastical creatures on the cover. Changez and Timmy are camping with their parents, things go horribly wrong and suddenly they’re walking across a Balochistan that is suddenly peopled by velociraptors and literary-critic dragons, and trying to get home. It’s very silly and funny and just thoroughly endearing.