Simon Sellars: Applied Ballardianism: Memoir From a Parallel Universe

The latest addition to my website is Simon SellarsApplied Ballardianism: Memoir From a Parallel Universe. This novel is an example of theory-fiction, in that it is written as a novel, indeed, is a novel, but, at the same time, as the title tells us, is something of a critique or study of the work of J G Ballard. The narrator is clearly based, at least in part, on the author. He is an Australian man who struggles to find where he is going but then discovers Ballard. While studying him for a Ph.D., what is more important for this work is that he continues to find examples of Ballardianisms in his life. Ballard’s view of the world helps him understand the world he lives in, whether it is in Melbourne with its various problems, or other parts of the world he visits, often as a travel guide writer. Sellars skilfully integrates the Ballard view with virtually everything the narrator does, sees or thinks. It helps to have read Ballard to fully appreciate this novel but even if you have not, you can still enjoy it.

César Aira: Los fantasmas (Ghosts)

The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s Los fantasmas (Ghosts). The novel is set in a high-rise building in Buenos Aires, where expensive flats are being built for the well-to-do but which is still not finished. A Chilean family, the Viñas, who act as caretakers, lives in the building. The story is set on New Year’s Eve and the Viñas are having family round for a celebration. However, there is another party. The resident ghosts are having their Big Midnight Feast. The workers and the Viñas take the ghosts for granted, even though they are all male and all naked. The ghosts invite Patri, the eldest Viñas child to their party. There is only one condition. She must be dead. As always with Aira, it is a superb story, with a philosophical aside and an awareness of the ordinary people.

Willem Frederik Hermans: De donkere kamer van Damokles (The Darkroom of Damocles)

The latest addition to my website is Willem Frederik HermansDe donkere kamer van Damokles (The Darkroom of Damocles). This is the story of Henri Osewoudt. When aged twelve, his mother murders his father (we do not know why) and he goes to live with his uncle and aunt and shares a bed with his nineteen year old cousin Ria. Some years later, just before World War II, his mother is released so Henri marries Ria (to her parents’ disgust) and moves back to his parents’ tobacco shop with Ria and his mother. He is visited by a shady man, Dorbeck, seemingly from the Dutch Resistance, and is unwittingly dragged into the Resistance, killing people and getting involved in various dubious activities. He is captured and escapes (twice). When the war ends he is arrested for having betrayed numerous Dutch resistance fighters, saying Dorbeck can vouch for his innocence. But Dorbeck is not to be found and no-one has heard of him.

Willem Frederik Hermans: Het behouden huis (An Untouched House)

The latest addition to my website is Willem Frederik HermansHet behouden huis (An Untouched House). This is a long story about a Dutchman who had been captured three times by the Germans during World War II and had managed to escape every time, finally ending up with a group of Soviet partisans. Our unnamed narrator has no idea where he is but they keep on killing Germans. In this story they capture a spa town and he goes into an empty house, bathes, shaves and puts on civilian clothes. When he wakes up, the Germans have retaken the town and want to billet officers with him, thinking he is the owner of the house. He has to agree but what if the owners return or the partisans retake the town or the Germans find out that he is not the owner? This is typical Hermans, bleak, with much wanton cruelty and random destruction and very much in the War Is Hell genre.

Ali Smith: There But For The

The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s There But For The. This is another original novel from Ali Smith, telling the tale of Miles Garth, who is invited to a posh dinner party in Greenwich (London) and subsequently locks himself in the spare bedroom, refusing to come out or to talk to anyone about it. We follow the stories of four people who had tangential connections to him but no-one seems to know him well. We also follow the publicity his actions generate and how people cash on his temporary celebrity. Hovering around it all is Brooke, a ten year old neighbour who tells terrible jokes, learns facts from the Internet and seems to be more of a voice of reason than any of the adults. It is clever, witty (and satirical) and most original.

Aftermath

I recently attended an exhibition at Tate Britain called Aftermath, exploring the impact of World War One on British, German and French art. I have long been fascinated by this period for two reasons.

Knights: Marriage at Cana

Firstly I have long enjoyed the British artists of that period (and up to and including World War II). These include artists, who were in this exhibition, such as Edward Burra, Winifred Knights (whose The Marriage at Cana I was able to see both in Auckland (where it normally lives) and at the Dulwich Picture Gallery), John Nash, his brother Paul Nash, C R W Nevinson, William Roberts and Stanley Spencer. Many of these artists have had something of a rediscovery in the UK in recent years, with exhibitions devoted to them.

The exhibition did, of course, include some interesting French artists, such as Picasso, André Derain, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger and André Masson and German artists such as Max Ernst, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz.

My grandmother who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, with my uncles

My other interest in this period is because World War I changed so much. There were the obvious changes such as the fact that 10 million died and 20 million were injured, large parts of France and Belgium were destroyed, the economies of many European countries were destroyed, it led directly to the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, various revolutions/civil wars happened (Russia, Ireland, Malta, Hungary, Germany, Egypt, Finland and others) and various countries died/significantly changed their frontiers and/or came into being after the war. Less obvious but still fairly well-known were the Spanish flu epidemic immediately after the war, which took millions of lives, the fact that after the War, the US surpassed Britain and Germany in economic and political power and the fact that after the War, Britain (and other countries, too) moved from being primarily a rural country to being primarily an urban country. In the UK, we have recently celebrated one hundred years of votes for women though, as many pointed out, it was at the same time that all adult men also received the vote. There is no question that the role of women changed after the war, not least because women had to work at men when the men were away fighting and dying.

Many novels and poems were written (and are still being written) about World War I, probably as many if not more than those set in World War II and the American Civil War. I have a long but far from complete list on my main site. Obviously many of those concern the actual conflict as well as life at home. Many of the World War I novels are critical of the conduct of the war. We can read about the terrors of the war, the inefficiency, incompetence and, at times, venality of the powers that be and of the officer class. Some novels show gentlemen declining to be officers and enlisting as other ranks.

The Tate divided its exhibition into eight categories. These are:

  • Remembrance: Battlefield and Ruins
  • Remembrance: War Memorials and Society
  • Traces of War: Wounded Soldiers
  • Traces of War: Dada and Surrealism
  • The Print Portfolio (prints, primarily in France and Germany, widely distributed)
  • Return to Order
  • Imagining Post-War Society: Post-War People
  • Imagining Post-War Society: The New City

While this division is not necessarily terribly helpful in looking at the novel, it does have some relevance. The war-wounded, example, certainly appear in various novels as do ruined battlefields and the idea of a return to order. However, I shall focus on a few novels that are on my website that do look at some of the after-effects of the war. There are, of course, many other novels dealing with this topic that are not on my website. Also, some of these novels will also deal with the war itself before moving on to the after-war period.

It could be argued that many of the great novels of the post-WWI period would not have existed without World War I. Would we have had, for example, Kafka, Joyce, Woolf,Faulkner and many other fine novelists without World War I. The answer is, of course, maybe but they may have been different and we may well have had others who would have revered even more. I shall not, therefore, be looking at those writers and others as regards their writing style and experimentation (Surrealism, Dadaism, etc. probably influenced the novel but were not, on the whole as key as they were in art.)

I shall start with my favourite post-war novel and that is Ford Madox Ford‘s Parade’s End tetralogy. Much of the series – and probably the better part – is set during the war but it is also is very much concerned with what we call world-weariness though other languages have better terms. While researching this issue, this clearly came up as a general issue. Some of it, of course, was post-traumatic stress disorder (then called shell-shock) but a lot of it was a general malaise that affected a lot of people, combatants and others, and Ford deals with it.

One other great English post-World War I novel and one far less known is Henry Williamson‘s The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series. This covers a long period – from the late 1890s to the 1950s. It covers World War I, of course and also the aftermath. The Williamson character and hero of the book, Phillip Maddison, does what Williamson actually did (and what D H Lawrence and others did) – retreat from the world, an aspect of world-weariness. Maddison also remarks on the disappearance of the rural around London.

Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs Dalloway is not the only novel to have a shell-shocked soldier in it but Septimus Smith is memorable, not least because he appears in a first-class novel, but also because he is so well portrayed by Woolf, as he retreats into his own world from which he will never return. Sadly, there were many men like him.

Two key themes for US writers were The Lost Generation and the Depression. The obvious Lost Generation work is Ernest Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises (UK: Fiesta) with its epigraph You are all a lost generation. Jake Barnes, the hero/narrator, has been wounded and left impotent and joins the list of literary characters, wounded physically and mentally during the war. William Faulkner‘s Soldier’s Pay is not an obvious Lost Generation novel, not least because it is set in the US and not Paris but it does show the effect of the war on those who do not go to Paris.

Many of the French novels of the period are concerned entirely with the grimness of the war, which is not surprising as much of the war was fought in France. Louis-Ferdinand Céline‘s Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) may be the most miserable book about the post-war period. Ferdinand Bardamu is a deserter and spends much of the book wandering around in a state of misery and encountering the miseries of other people. If you have any doubts as to whether people really were miserable after the war, this book should cure you.

Like other combatants, Germans tended to write about the horrors of the war. The most famous German writer (at least in the English-speaking world) on the war was Erich Maria Remarque. I have not read any of his work. His best-known work – Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) is set during the war. However, he did write a sequel: Der Weg zurück (The Road Back), about the period after the war. His Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades) was about a later period and was made into an excellent US film.

Of the relevant German books I have read, I would mention Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War). His previous book was set during the war while this one deals with the period after the war, with the German Revolution and Kapp Putsch.

Oskar Maria Graf‘s Anton Sittinger (which has not been translated into English) also deals with the post-war period.

Austria was also a combatant. Hermann Broch‘s Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers) was mainly about the war but it ends with the period immediately afterwards, with Austria descending into chaos. Alexander Lernet-Holenia‘s Die Standarte (The Standard; The Glory is Departed) deals with the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the exile of the Kaiser.

The war was not just about the Western front. Events took place elsewhere and World War I influenced them. I mentioned various revolutions and civil wars. The best-known book in English about the Russian Revolution is, of course, Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). If you have not read the book, you may well have seen one of he films. Nabokov hated it. It does show the horrors of the Revolution which, of course, came about because of the war.

There are quite a few books about the Easter Rising and the Troubles afterwards. The Irish Times has a list. Liam O’Flaherty‘s Insurrection is an obvious Easter Rising novel and Elizabeth Bowen‘s The Last September an obvious one about The Troubles. However, I hope my Irish friends and relatives will not find it amiss if I mention an English writer, J G Farrell‘s Troubles, which mocks the English (though is not too flattering towards the Irish), as their Empire crumbles beneath them and, in this case, above them.

I would mention the German post-war revolution in passing. Alfred Döblin wrote November 1918: A German Revolution, a tetralogy of novels about this revolution, which I have not read. Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War), mentioned above, also deals with this period.

There were other places involved. I would mention Macedonia, not an obvious one. Petre M. Andreevski‘s Пиреј (Pirey) is about the aftermath of the war in Macedonia with the hated Bulgarians being replaced by the hated Serbs.

Only the first volume of Cezar Petrescu‘s Întunecare (Gathering Clouds) has been translated into English and that deals with the war. However, the second and third volumes deal with the post-war period in Romania. They have been translated into French and German and I hope to get round to them sometime.

Louis de Bernières‘s Birds Without Wings deals with the situation following the fall of the Ottoman Empire as does Dido Sotiriou‘s Ματωμενα Χωματα (Farewell, Anatolia). ‘s Նահանջը առանց երգի (Retreat without Song) deals with it from the perspective of the Armenians, the Armenian genocide and their exile to Paris.

I would mention two excellent more modern novels that deal with the aftermath of the war. Sebastian Faulks‘s Birdsong does take place, in part, during the war but also some of it is set in modern times (i.e. late 1970s) and is about the modern memory of the war. This has been quite common recently with the hundredth anniversary but was less so when Faulks wrote his book. There have been several other novels doing this as well.

Robert Edric‘s Desolate Heaven is less well-known but deals with a group of people shortly after the war who are suffering in various ways. It is a first-class novel which should be better-known.

There are many, many other worthwhile novels on this topic but I hope this will give you a flavour to supplement the Tate exhibition. The exhibition continues till 28 September 2018, so do try and see it if you are in London.

Erhard von Büren: Ein langer blauer Montag (A Long Blue Monday)

The latest addition to my website is Erhard von Büren‘s Ein langer blauer Montag (A Long Blue Monday). This is the third novel von Büren has written and I have read of his and it is another excellent work. The story is narrated by Paul Ganter, a young Swiss man from the wrong side of the tracks, who falls for Claudia, very much from the right side of the tracks, while they are performing in a local play, and after his tentative attempts at wooing her seem to lead nowhere, he decides to write a trilogy of plays, influenced by Tennessee Williams, and essentially autobiographical, with the hope that that will influence her. The story is told forty years later and we know he has not married her (he is married to someone else) but he still has his doubts about himself and life.

Miklós Szentkuthy: Europa Minor

The latest addition to my website is Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Europa Minor, the fourth book in Szentkuthy’s Saint Orpheus’s Breviary series. This is the last of the series translated into French, though it is expected that this and further ones will appear in English from Contra Mundum Press. In this novel, Szentkuthy turns his attention to Asia, with the title a somewhat mocking reference to the European use of Asia Minor for the Anatolian plateau. We jump around from Philip II of Spain, Queen Mary of England (who was married to Philip) and Queen Elizabeth I of England (who reads The Tale of the Genji, nearly three hundred years before it appeared in English), before moving on to strange Persian folk-tales, invented by Szentkuthy, the Mogul Empire and Emperor Akbar in particular and Genghis Khan before returning to Queens Mary and Elizabeth. We even get an appearance from a couple of Americans: Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck, of all people. It is glorious fun, totally anarchic and it all goes to show that, well, the Asians are superior to the Europeans in many ways.

Dag Solstad: T. Singer (T. Singer)

The latest addition to my website is Dag Solstad‘s T. Singer (T. Singer). This is the story of a man who, as usual for Solstad is ordinary but, when subject to more detailed scrutiny is less than ordinary and also a man who on the surface seems normal – job, marriage, social relations – but, in fact, gradually wishes to detach himself from life and other people, which he more or less does. Solstad peers beneath the surface of Singer and reveals a complex man but a man who wishes to be entirely self-sufficient, dependent on no-one. It is very well told and we cannot help but be fascinated by this ordinary but unusual man.

François Bon: Sortie d’usine [Factory Exit]

The latest addition to my website is François Bon‘s Sortie d’usine [Factory Exit]. This is Bon’s first novel but, sadly, neither this novel nor any of his others have been translated into English. It is a stream of consciousness novel, told in the third person, about life in a factory. The unnamed protagonist who, like Bon himself did, works in a metallurgical factory and he looks at it as though with a camera, moving around the factory, seeing the processes, the people, the surroundings, critical and cynical at times, affectionate towards certain employees (though generally not towards the management) and showing the lack of health and safety concerns (many of the employees are deaf because of the noise and we see a couple of serious injuries), the dehumanising aspect of such work and the tiredness and boredom of the working day. Bon never lets up, with his camera moving around, now to a well-liked employee, now to a strike and the HR manager speaking to the staff, now to the grime and grimness. It is not pretty and not happy but very well done.