Saturday, July 31, 2010

Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Since his debut "Ghostwritten" David Mitchell's novels have dazzled. Perhaps culminating in the tour de force that was "Cloud Atlas" where it's Russian-doll story structure saw him as equally at home in any genre that he had a mind to take on. For a writer with such a strong and distinctive narrative voice, his ability to inhabit not only different genres, but different lexicons is far more than ventriliquism. "Cloud Atlas" was almost uniquely a critical and popular success, getting Richard & Judy "good read" status, as well as being lauded by literary critics.

Any publisher who asks his writers to repeat the same book time after time should be sat in a closed room with Mitchell's complete works for a re-education on what is possible. Following his novel about growing up in the 80s, "Black Swan Green," his fifth book tells a single story, and is set in a highly specific historical era. "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" sees a new administrator, Jacob, join the small Dutch settlement at Dejima, a portal into an otherwise closed Japan. Jacob arrives in 1799, his role to uncover the corruption that has taken place. Dejima is literally a portal, with Nagasaki all but closed to the foreign visitors, and the Japan that lies beyond it an unknown country, like North Korea today. The interpreters who translate from Dutch to Japanese are as much diplomats as linguists.

By giving us not one, but two unfamiliar worlds, the Dutch trading post, and the Japanese empire, Mitchell asks a lot of his readers, for there is little here that is familiar. A historical novel it might be, but his technique is similar to Hilary Mantel's in "Wolf Hall", immersing the reader from the start in the details of the situation. And similar to "Wolf Hall" this world we inhabit is not only a strange, and somewhat mystical one, but one of scarcely comprehensible savagery. From press-ganged sailors, to the half-caste offspring of Dutch traders with their Japanese concubines, everyone is some kind of prisoner. Whilst the Japanese state is forbidden and formidable, stratified by family names, Shogun power, and the desperate lives of poverty that many of it's people live in. And Dejima in 1799 is a quiet spot on a tumultuous planet, the beginning, remember of the Napoleonic empire. Jacob, as with the other crew and traders, has come to this far end of the earth to make something of his life. The world he has known is meanwhile collapsing behind him.

Yet, "Thousand Autumns" is more than just a historical tableau but a love story, for if Jacob is an outlier amongst the Dutch traders, the beautiful but scarred midwife Orito Aibagawa is unique amongst the Japanese. The only other women allowed onto Dejima are prostitutes, but she has gained permission to study under the Dutch doctor Marinus. If Jacob's falling in love with Orito is the key narrative driver of the novel, it also creates an impossibility for Mitchell, for the historical reality of Japan appears to offer no way that Jacob can help Orito. When Orito is spirited away to a possibly terrible fate, there is semingly nothing that Jacob can do, yet Mitchell's dexterity brings us a proxy in the equally lovelorn translator, who has already risked his life by not exposing Jacob's book of Psalms (all signs of Christianity being prohibited by the Japanese). The most beautiful and one of the most powerful scenes in the novel is when Jacob and Orito are able to have a short space of time together. Here, as in many other parts of the book, Mitchell's dazzling prose goes up several gears.

Yet, Mitchell is not without his surprises, and the impossible plot, simplistic as it is, carries on in unexpected ways. We join Orito in her new prison, and later we have the "Black Swan" of an English frigate appearing on the horizon, jolting this enclosed world into the main wave of European events. What it is impossible to convey in a review like this, is the sheer joy of reading this novel. If there are moments when Mitchell's flashiness seems too much for the material it's describing, the sense of immersion in a world of difference is so fantastically rendered that you wouldn't want it any other way.

When the book was featured on "The Late Review" the reviewers complained about the book being too cleverly written, overwhelming the story. Yet, the story is hardly there at all - other than to give a welcome narrative drive. Instead, Mitchell gives us a small cast of carefully drawn characters whose every move is under scrutiny, not just of us as readers, but of the world in which they exist. The horrors of that world, like in Hilary Mantel's Tudor England, are put clearly at the door of superstition and tradition. This is an enlightenment novel, where not only Marinus's teachings have given Orito a power to save many of the pregnant women under her care, but where, later in the book, Jacob's Dutch-Japanese dictionary has spread throughout schools in Japan.

Whereas the novel does plunder quite a number of tropes from magic realism, Mitchell is exemplary in being true to his world, so that even his denouements are perfectly considered for their possibilities. From its beautiful woodcut-style embossed cover (in the hardback), to it's intimately detailed portrayal of a world that was not just unknown to me, but might seem unknowable, to it's simple but powerful narrative, to Mitchell's linguistic extravagance, "Thousand Autumns" is a remarkable novel. Longlisted for this year's Booker, I think that as more readers encounter it's treasures it may well be unquestionably the book of 2010.

Friday, July 30, 2010


T.S. Eliot was wrong, it's July that is the cruellest month. Everyone off on hols or finished school or university, and I'm sat in half-strength office trying to finish off things from the last few projects, and kickstart the next few. All our European colleagues take a month off (a month!), July in Northern Europe, August in Southern Europe, and yet we don't. But it's not work that's overwhelming me such as the things that Manchester and elsewhere puts on to keep us busy during the summer months. I can understand all the out-of-school activities but this week I've clearly not found time to go to either the 24/7 Festival of new theatre writing OR the Manchester Jazz Festival. Last night there was what sounded like a fascinating performance - half jazz, half soap opera - at the RNCM. Instead I was in a packed Atlas bar with 350 or so of Manchester's digital community for the ever-popular Manchester Digital barbecue, drinking mojitos and catching up with old friends and colleagues. Then there's art - with a show tonight opening at CUBE gallery following on from last week's launch at Cornerhouse - and the various talks and similar surrounding it. The Manchester weather defies allcomers of course, and we barbecued under the threat of rain - though sheltered - and the sight of jazz fans chin stroking and head nodding but wet and bedraggled in St. Anne's Square is one of Manchester's yearly traditions. I'm reading a book, David Mitchell's "Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet", wondering if I'll get round to seeing "Inception" at the cinema (or more importantly finding a small child to take me to "Toy Story 3") and contemplating this year's Booker long list. My creative "to do" list includes writing up the various poems I've been writing on the bus on the way to work (I'm thinking of a collection similar to Frank O'Hara called "bus poems"), recording some of my poems for my new website, and recording some music. At some point, I think I'd promised myself that I'd start househunting, but unless one's delivered through my letterbox by Royal Mail I'm not sure when I'll achieve it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I'm sure Bookertime comes earlier ever year. The (not so) longlist came out yesterday. Sans McEwan (a bit of a surprise, he's almost always on there) and Amis (no surprise there, he rarely made the list) it looks quite a vibrant list - though the longlist is in itself a bit of a strange beast. Sometimes I think its a way of ensuring that books that the publishing industry wants on there, can get a mention, even if they don't make the last six - or a way to reward some plucky independents, even if they've no chance of being chosen. This year, there's an absence of big names and plucky independents, so perhaps its just the best 13 books of the year (yeah, right), as chosen by this year's panel. Inevitably, the last six always looks a little less interesting, a bit like the England squad when you boil it down to the first team. Interesting to see Tom McCarthy on now he's on a big publisher (as if that matters...) with "C", which would be a nice winner if only because John Berger's win for "G" was so memorable all those years ago. (He gave the prize to the Black Panthers, I think I read.) I'm in the delightful throes of David Mitchell's new novel, which I'll blog about here shortly, and any list that it wasn't on would definitely have something wrong with it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lennon's On Sale Again

I don't go out of my way to get books to review on this blog, but when Vintage offered a copy of their reissue of John Lennon's "In His Own Write" and "A Spaniard in the Works" as a single lovely volume, I couldn't resist. I must have read these years ago, perhaps from the library, as I've never owned a copy. A mix of poems, short-short stories, scribbles and drawings they're almost unclassifiable - though would be instantly recognisable to any fan of Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll or particularly Spike Milligan. It's the latter's "Puckoon" and "The Little Pot Boiler" from 1963 that they most resemble. The absurdist humour, madly random spelling and Joycean wordplay combine to create a little pocket book that, despite the occasional piece that seems dated, is still a joy to read and look at today.

What's mostly of interest of course, is what they tell us about the Lennon who had just become one quarter of this new pop sensation singing "She Loves You" and "From Me to You." Here's one of the earliest evidences of Lennon having wit and intelligence difference than the average musician. It's the art school student who made it in a band; but it's also a fascinating template for the Beatle's own forthcoming surrealism. Lennonism's like "A Hard Day's Night" and "Eight Days a Week" are all over these pieces, and Lennon was clearly writing a superior kind of nonsense long before "I am the Walrus"'s psychedelic verbosity. It wouldn't take long for the intelligent wit of these two books to find their way into the Beatles' songs.

The 2nd book, "A Spaniard in the Works" has longer prose pieces than the first, and is a little more acerbic if anything, but nothing here is too serious. Clearly when he first saw Yoko Ono's pop art installations he recognised a kindred sense of humour.

The Beatles are so familiar that it's always a shock to encounter them in an unfamiliar form, and though these two books have been available for over 40 years, the reissue, in the year when Lennon would have been 70, seems entirely appropriate. Who can not smile to read how "Harassed Wilsod won the General Erection with a very small marjorie over the Torchies." In 2010, I think we can all be a little wary of small marjories, and a little worried about the Torchies.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Disappointment Prizes

There are, I think, too types of disappointment. The disappointment of hope, and the disappointment of inevitability. Of the two, the first is the worst, but I'd take it every time. Let us take the disappointment of inevitability first. This is where the world is as we expect, and because of that expectation we should be contented, and many people are. It is the town where it always rains or the resort where it always sunny, or "My Family" or "The One Show" or Andrew Marr or Kasabian. You will never be truly disappointed, because there is so little other than the expectation. The hope is that there will be an above-average episode of "My Family" or a Kasabian record that doesn't sound like a Primal Scream b-side, or Andrew Marr asking a difficult question. It is a shooting fish in a barrel disappointment.

The first type of disappointment is worse: the disappointment of hope. Because it comes with a possibility that the world might change. It's Ghana vs. Uruguay, it's the 2nd Elastica album, it's Saxondale, it's Michel Houellebecq's novels after "Atomised." But these are merely aesthetics - the real difference between the two types of disappointment is exemplified by Prizes. This week, we have the announcement of shortlists for the Forward Prize for Poetry and the Mercury Prize for music. There's something disappointing (the first kind) about Seamus Heaney on the first, and Paul Weller on the second. It doesn't matter whether either book or album is good, bad or indifferent, since there is nothing, I think, new or surprising that either Heaney or Weller will come up with. However "good" these books or records are they are the product of artists for whom "good" no longer has meaning. I've never read or listened to much by either, and so I think I just feel a little bit of tiredness when I see them on a shortlist. It would be easy for someone to say "give them another chance", that it's more "me" than "them", but it's not like I've never read/listened to them.

I much prefer the possibility that I might like something... that I will be challenged, that my expectations will be "met". I've still a strange desire to listen in full to what may be the worst record of all time, Duran Duran's covers album "Thank You" if only because their version of Public Enemy's "911 is a Joke" is so remarkably unexpected - a bad record, but an interesting bad record. I know that a book of Patti Smith's poetry interests me more than a new Seamus Heaney - because I approach it without expectation. Like when Marie Osmond recites a native American poem on television (preserved on the CD of "Lipstick Traces") or T.S. Eliot comes up with "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," things being merely "good" or "bad" are rarely as fascinating as things being "different."

This years Mercury list is a middle-of-the-road collection of worthy, but probably uninteresting albums, that seems a shock reaction to the poor sales of last year's Speech Debelle; whilst the Forward list maybe had to have the next collection from Heaney who won the prize with his last one, if only to generate column inches. I've enjoyed the latter's essays and the former's recordings with the Style Council, but that's not how either of them prefers to be remembered. I praise by slight damning. I'm not going to buy records or books by artists I'm indifferent to just to change my opinion, not when there's so many lovely books and records out there - and to be fair to the Forward, it's sister list of "first collections" always opens up names that I want to look out for.

I choose hope over inevitability every time, and I'm trying to be honest about it - though honesty has it's limits. I wrote this late last night - and looking at it in the cool light of morning I was a little barbed, a little more damning than is strictly necessary, so I've rewritten the post slightly than the one that Jim Murdoch comments on below. There are plenty of poets and musicians who I'm indifferent to, and I don't particularly want to write about indifference - but it must be possible for an artist, for a critic, for a blogger to mention likes and dislikes. Proust and Joyce met at a party and famously said to each other, "I know who you are, but I haven't read you." It might disappoint the students of modernism, but it's an anecdote that delights me. Better not to have read a great poet, than be underwhelmed by him, I guess.

Friday, July 16, 2010

This Week in Manchester

I’ve had a busy couple of weeks since coming back from Norwich, so it was nice to attend a couple of more casual literary events this week. Yesterday I was at Oxfam’s Oldham Street emporium to hear short readings from Adele Geras and Nicholas Royle, two of the judges in their Oxfam Short Story Contest. It was a nicely civilised affair for what was a nice civilised competition. The winner and two runner ups were all asked to read a few lines at the end, which, given that they didn’t know they’d won until a few minutes before, indicates what a nicely informal event it was. For the rest of us, there was wine and truffles, and even a little literary quiz, which, to make up for not being a literary winner, I’m pleased to say I won. A lifetime of imbibing literary trivia has not been in waste! The night before, the event was even more informal – a gathering of contributors and others in Common bar, to launch the first issue of “3030 Magazine”, a slim, but pleasing-to-the-eye cultural magazine, that was given away free on the night. Though the first issue appears to be put together by a group of likeminded friends, they are open to submissions. I liked the feature on “where did you get your name?” answered for bands, club nights, record labels etc. and any magazine which has something nice and smelly inside (because smell evokes memory) has to be applauded.

It must be the start of the summer holidays as this weekend there's ample things to kids of all ages to do in Manchester. I'm looking forward to the Zombie invasion of Eccles shopping centre, and Hannah Nicklin's "The Smell of Rain Reminds Me of You", part of the impossible to describe Hazard MMX festival - venues around town. All of this might mean I don't have time for the new exhibition at the Cornerhouse, the Future Artists picnic at Zion, and even A Certain Ratio tomorrow night at Fac251. I think I might treat tomorrow as an urban festival, and see where I end up!

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Modern Man

I can't remember where I read it, but someone once said that the European nihilist closes the window and shoots themself, whilst the American nihilist opens the window and shoots whoever they see. At the time, I remember thinking, that the English nihilist probably sits at home listening to Joy Division and the Cure. How wrong can a person be?

It is hard to know where to start in the case of Raoul Moat. If his death seemed likely, it wasn't inevitable. My sister lives nearby the chip shop he robbed, and for a week she could hear the police helicopters overhead and kept the children inside. The "risk" might seem minimal, absurd, but here was a mad man with a gun on a rampage. The involving of the public and TV seemed a perfectly sensible decision when he was on the run, but became terrifying when we were sat there like Bird Watchers waiting for a man to kill, be killed or be caught. It's less than a month ago since we saw the terrible rampage of another killer in Cumbria, so inevitably, prevention was better than cure.

I thought, in the Cumbrian case, that here was something of male disappointment - a man in his fifties, not, like so many of his country, in a position of power and affluence, but someone with debts, with broken families, almost past the midlife crisis and calling time on things. There's something wrong here - I thought - something wrong with that generation of men. I've seen it with others, bitter, twisted, divorced...

...but then this, and Raoul Moat is younger than me. He's not yet 40 and yet his horizons have reduced. This is something new I think. This is Thatcher's children gone wrong. That Paul Gascoigne, at 43, my age, turned up, seems absolutely appropriate. In an non-spiritual age there's always celebrity, there's always alcohol, there's always death. Moat, we will find out more about over the next days, weeks and months. So far, it's been unedifying enough. Yet its not just his macho cliches - a bouncer, with a young girlfriend, with a gun and the ability to use it - that freaks me out, but the acceptance that seems to come with this. His friends standing by him. A culture that seems to accept his dismal world view as being acceptable. Behind it all, the horrible lies that lead to a culture of domestic violence. This sort of man should surely have spent the last few weeks with better things to do than wanting to hunt down his ex-girlfriend and her new lover. Shouldn't he have been watching the football? Surely that's a matter of "life and death."

What stays with me, apart from the distaste, the disgust at this dreadful thug's sentimental sense of righteousness, is how awfully pointless it all is. In Will Self's "The Book of Dave" the writer does what all good writers do, and imagines a certain future, and Dave Rudman is not so far removed from Raoul Moat. Self has hit upon a character that is capable of scaring us - a self-righteous misanthrope who is both a macho charicature and sentimental in the extreme - I didn't expect him to exit. Men who have lost their girl and their children do not try and grab them back, but try and destroy what's left of that bond out of sheer hurt. Moat is Rudman made flesh, scarily. His long letters to the police and his girlfriend a strange articulation of that hurt; his own "Book of Dave."

The modern man was not supposed to be like this. In the iconic episode of "Cracker" where Robert Carlyle plays a divorced Liverpool fan, mourning for his father and angry with the police following still raw memories of Hillsborough, Jimmy McGovern wrote into existence a template for this man. Yet Carlyle's character had motive. He was destroyed as well as being destroyer. Moat and his premeditated, nihilistic helter skelter of destruction this week - leaving two dead (himself included), two injured, and many more scarred - seems the worst kind of narcissism. Guns are hard to come by in the UK - yet he found one hours or days after being let out of jail. On the radio this morning I heard an ex-girlfriend talking of the violence he inflicted on her, and a friend of his dismayed at his passing. How can one untangle the apparent attraction of this dismal nonentity who, in his mid-thirties, saw life as only a dead end, who was unable to take responsibility for his savage action?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Poetry Olympics

One of the most interesting things Carol Ann Duffy has done since becoming laureate is her curated portfolios, commissioning a range of poets to write about a particular subject, and yesterday, to coincide with the World Cup finals, saw a collection of poems about sport. Instead of the Laureate dashing off a single poem to commemorate an occasion, you therefore get a range of voices and subjects. Although the poets featured are quite a conservative bunch, there's some interesting subject and some good poems.

I'm not so convinced that sport and poetry are obvious bedfellows, and it's clear from some of the poets' responses to the subject, that for some poets it's the first time they've thought about sport since cowering at the back of the changing rooms during compulsory sports day, but that aside, it's worth spending some time with.

Carol Ann's offering, "The Shirt" is a nice idea - millionaire footballer not feeling worthy of wearing "the shirt" - let down by a throwaway last line that will probably get a laugh at Manchester readings. Football isn't as ubiquitous in this selection as in the sports pages, but does feature in the best poem here - Ann Gray's "The Wonder of You" - where the writer clearly understands the passions of supporting a particularly club, and uses these passions to investigate the complexities of belonging.

But, as Duffy says in her introduction, it is cricket that has been most beloved of English poets, perhaps because both English poetry and cricket are ever prone to a certain kind of sentimental nostalgia. Kit Wright's "The Roller in the Woods" is, as she says, a fine poem, but it's emotional canvas would be instantly recognisable to Betjeman or Larkin. And if there's nothing here quite as humorous as Billy Bragg's classic line, "I never made the first team, I just made the first team laugh," I liked the idea of these poets stretching their talents to address a subject matter that they may not have previously tried. On the weekend when a new team will win the World Cup, and the aesthetes of the Dutch and Spanish teams are all capable of what hyperbolic commentators may well refer to as poetry, the poets here have done a nice job in redressing the balance.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Problems with Paywalls

There's an interesting article in today's Sunday Times about Tom McCarthy, whose 3rd novel "C" is out in August. I would usually link to it, but of course, the Sunday Times is now behind a paywall. There's plenty I'd like to comment on about the article, but I'd have to laboriously paraphrase the various quotes and arguments, which would not be at all like reading the article. I could, I suppose, sign up to the Paywall (I'm reading the paper copy here) and then copy large chunks into my blog, and we could have a nice little debate about Tom McCarthy and whether or not he really is so different than the "mainstream" writers. We could also, I suppose pass on information about McCarthy word-of-mouth, like happened when his first novel, the admirable "Remainder" was published first by Paris art publishers Metronome press, and then by Alma Books. (I note that he is now with Jonathan Cape, though this isn't explained.) McCarthy's book was massively promoted by a number of blogs and bloggers, and was a definite word of mouth mini-hit. He probably doesn't need the Sunday Times article anyway.

Anyway, what it makes me wonder is this an unexpected consequence of the Paywall - that it might become less important for writers (etc.) to be mentioned in the Times, or by being brought to a paying (therefore "discerning"?) audience whether it will help. Oh, I've bought the Times online, therefore I may as well buy the new Tom McCarthy novel. "Hey, I was in the Times yesterday," you might say, and then rather than link to it from your twitter or blog, you...can do nothing. Perhaps the Times will start letting its old content escape from the Paywall? I'm not sure. I'm not sure I care. Okay, most publicity is good publicity etc. and I'd love you to be able to read and comment on the McCarthy article, the fact that you can't, seems perhaps more important than the monetarising of the Times' website. One of the great joys of the last few years has been to read something in a newspaper on or off-line and then pass the details on to other online readers and use it as a catalyst for debate. Not so relevant to news content, but to premium cultural content it seems vital.

Back to McCarthy - in the piece by Robert Collins, Collins states that "McCarthy is no conventional novelist. His friends are visual artists. He hasn't read anything by McEwan or Mitchell." It's interesting that David Mitchell is now classed in the "mainstream," despite the form and language of his novels being probably far more unconventional than "Remainder". Something I'd want to put up for debate on a blog. I liked "Remainder", didn't read (or read much about, his second novel "Men in Space") and look forward to "C", (in that great tradition of literary books novels one letter titles, "G", and "V"), but wonder whether McCarthy is replacing one form of accepted thinking, the "realist" novel, with another, the familiar tropes of contemporary art, critical theory and late 20th century avant-gardeism. After all, according to Collins the new novel "brims with literary allusions and symbols...based partly on Alexander Bell...and one of Freud's case studies." Not so different one thinks then our history-obsessed mainstream, in other words. How Collins can think that in the hands of David Mitchell the novel has "regressed almost completely to its realist origins" is another point for discussion.

All of this is in line with the context created by David Shields' contentious book "Reality Hunger" and various responses to that. In other words, the contemporary literary debate is no longer in the pages of the LRB or wherever, but spread across media and publications, over a period of time. In it's lowering of the Paywall I'm wondering if the Times is withdrawing entirely from this discussion, a veiled land of which we know little, very like the Japan of David Mitchell's latest novel.

(* by the way, there's no reason I singled out McCarthy from today's Times, except that he's both an interesting novelist and an interesting case study in terms of debating the future of the novel - and it was only when I started thinking I should blog about some of the assertions in the piece that I realised that I could, but that half of the argument would be missing, invisible - which come to think of it, is quite a Tom McCarthy moment.)