UNFLINCHING descriptions of sex, violence and addiction are less controversial than in the past, but writers and publishers remain reluctant to tackle important aspects of human experience. Their refusal to talk about class led the writer James Kelman to accuse the literary establishment of treating people without money as if they ‘should be swept under the carpet.’
Lisa Blower lifts that carpet to explore lives deemed superfluous by business, media and government. Her well-rounded and convincing characters have limited choices as they face deprivation, disappointment and a relentless struggle for survival. Blower has been compared to Alan Bennett: the monologue is her preferred form and she shares Bennett’s knack for revelation through detailed observation and telling omission. The similarity ends there. Blower’s purpose is to find a voice for people often dismissed as inarticulate. Her narratives are direct and accessible, but there’s variety of both situation and style. Some are traditional monologues, others more dialogue driven; some are related from the first-person point of view, others use second-person; some are related by people struggling to survive, others by observers who have escaped the circumstances of those less fortunate.
Handled badly, a second-person narrative reads like a ‘choose your own adventure’ game, but Blower’s deft writing creates deeper engagement with the dilemmas of her characters.
There’s a nod to Great Expectations in ‘The Land of Make Believe’. It concerns the struggles of talented, working-class Dee, who tries to fit in at Cambridge University and wants to understand her mother, Ruthie, who works as a prostitute. It’s a touching and powerful tale, freighted with wit and subtle complexities. Blower’s stories are be grittily realistic, but she relishes ambiguity and enjoys injecting humour into the darkest of situations. Her readers are treated with as much respect as her characters.
In another standout story, ‘The Trees in the Wood’, Mia experiences sleep deprivation as a result of grief, while Laura’s sleeplessness is caused by panic and anxiety. It’s a many-layered story. It assesses the power of character-driven fiction in increasing our understanding of science; it highlights the risks modern life poses to sleep and health; and it’s an affecting tale of women’s resilience in the face of tragedy.
In ‘Dirty Laundry’ Alma’s life spirals out of control when she loses her job due to the Icelandic Banking collapse. Gradually, we learn of Alma’s other source of anguish and the story ends with a sense that all may not be lost.
This is a fine collection of twenty tough but tender tales by a writer who celebrates the lives of uncelebrated people with compassion and caustic wit. It’s a tough but by no means depressing read with moments of hope as well as hardship.
This review first appeared in the Morning Star
My grandfather was an old soldier during the second world war. Too old to have been called up normally, he was called up because he had been in the Territorial Army and had experience of weapons. He became a regimental sergeant-major “in the field”. Somewhere I have a photo of him with a group of other RSMs, friends of his. He was the only one to survive the war.
In charge of a supply column moving up Italy his group found themselves behind enemy lines after Italy surrendered and Germany invaded, sweeping down through Italy leaving his column stranded. Through the offices of some Glasgow Italian soldiers they were able to make contact with local partisans, hand over the supplies to them and fought alongside them for some months. Family legend is that was the one period of the war he would never talk about. What did they do that he could not talk about? Partisan warfare is not exactly nice, you can’t take prisoners.
From time to time I’ve read novels or experiences of partisan life and have just read An Untouched House by Willem Frederick Hermans (translated by David Colmer), newly published by Pushkin at £7.99. Hermans was a Dutch writer, read by many in Holland, but whose work was so disliked that he went into voluntary exile. He did not make life easy for himself, as the afterword by Cees Nooteboom, explains. When Hermans died his archives comprise “thirty meters of coagulated anger”.
Partly this was because he published about the war before plucky little Holland had come to terms with aspects of their war that were not the stuff of legend. Later he was a critic of Dutch rule in Indonesia.
This book, first published in 1951, is a novella about a short period in the life of an unnamed Dutch partisan who somehow ended up fighting in an unnamed area of Eastern Europe. After a successful battle against occupying German forces he wanders off and finds the untouched house of the title, a rather beautiful house in an area deserted by its occupants. There’s soup on the stove, evidence of recent flight, but no sign of life.
The partisan explores the house, strips off his filthy battle gear, bathes and sleeps in clean sheets.
Then German soldiers turn up, knocking at the door, planning to requisition the house. He – the partisan – passes himself off as the owner and allows them in, simply grumbling a bit to ensure they look after the place, as any owner would. It sounds a bit like a farce typing this, but shortly afterwards the real owners turn up when the Germans are out on patrol. The partisan has no option but to kill them to avoid being found out. In due course his former partisan comrades arrive, the Germans have been beaten off for good, the German captain had already surrendered to the partisan of the story, now back in uniform and the mystery of the one locked room in the house has been solved.
The partisans proceed to find the wine cellar, get raging drunk and… well, they are not exactly nice to the house, their captive and an elderly deaf and confused man who had turned up to look after his collection of rare fish in that locked room. The fish don’t do well out of this either.
Sorry for the spoiler.
And this book is one of the reasons Hermans was read but not popular in Holland. Every occupied force and every army of occupation likes to think of itself at least in retrospect as the good guys, the most moral. Hermans, in An Untouched House, suggests otherwise.
An Untouched House is available for £7.99 post free from firstname.lastname@example.org
This book was re-issued by New York Review of Books in 2011, with an introduction by Michael Wood, and a dedicated poem for the late Gillian Rose by Geoffrey Hill, who is himself now dead. By the time this, the current edition, appeared Gillian Rose was sixteen years deceased, her book first appearing in the year of her death and written in the foreknowledge of her imminent demise.
About forty-five years ago I bought some Sartre and Camus books (from Bissett’s academic bookshop in Aberdeen – long gone of course), then Jean Genet. It was quite cool to carry a Penguin in your pocket.
THE DEATH of Ursula K Le Guin on January 22 prompted elegiac tributes from critics, fellow authors and an assortment of activists — feminists, anarchists, socialists and environmental campaigners.
The diversity of Le Guin’s appeal is extraordinary, but so too is the paradox at the heart of her reputation.
She was a writer celebrated for highlighting the iniquities, horrors and dangers of the way we live now and for exploring alternative forms of social and political organisation.
When the US National Book Foundation honoured her contribution to literature in 2014, her award acceptance speech celebrated the positive potential of creative writing. “Hard times are coming when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being,” she said.
But Le Guin had firm views about the separateness of the creative process. In an interview a decade earlier, she declared: “[People] can read Kant and Schopenhauer if they want speculation. I am an artist, I write stories not treatises. I am not fully in control of, and do not seek control of, my stories.”
The loosely connected books of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle have done most to establish her reputation as a writer of thoughtful and provocative science fiction and fantasy. The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969, one of the earliest novels to be recognised as feminist science fiction, centres on a diplomatic mission to bring the Gethen planet system to join a coalition of humanoid worlds.
The envoy Genly Ai struggles to understand Gethenian culture, not least because its people are ambisexual. Some feminist commentators disliked the casting of ambisexual characters in traditional male roles and others were disappointed by the assumption of heterosexual norms.
But the book offers a sharp critique of masculinity and explores the theory that gender divisions cause sexual aggression and foster a hunger for war. Le Guin’s assertion that she “eliminated gender to find out what was left” is at odds with the idea that she relinquished control of her narratives because it implies she worked in a self-consciously political way.
Another Hainish book, The Dispossessed of 1974, offers a searing critique of capitalism and proposes a form of anarchist-communism as a potential alternative.
The story is set on two worlds, Urras and Anarres. Urras is rich in resources but its wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few. It is dominated by competing states, one based on patriarchal capitalism, the other on authoritarian parties that claim to rule in the name of the proletariat.
Anarres, on the other hand, is a harsher and economically poorer world with a social structure based on Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid.
Le Guin, who expressed her enthusiasm for Kropotkin in her non-fiction writing, was too subtle a writer to present a one-sided argument in The Dispossessed. The governmental systems of Urras are not portrayed as one-dimensionally malevolent while the limitations of life on Anarres are presented warts and all.
The key character, Shevek, is a physicist whose career is limited because his beliefs are out of step with his society’s prevailing orthodoxies. His work is further affected by an obligation to perform manual labour when Anarres faces a natural disaster.
None of the political options Le Guin sets out is perfect, hence the book’s subtitle An Ambiguous Utopia, but it is clear that she sees egalitarian and stateless societies, based on mutual aid and collective responsibility, as preferable to capitalist systems based on systems of command and control.
Le Guin’s writing is crammed with speculation about utopianism, sex, sexual politics, anthropology, religion and the misuse of power. Interesting obsessions for a writer who suggested readers should not look to her writing for speculation.
The Word for World is Forest (1976) is an allegorical take on the US involvement in Vietnam and its critique of colonialism, militarism and environmental destruction is more relevant than ever in the context of Donald Trump’s presidency.
In The Telling (2000), Le Guin rejected a purely materialist analysis of human relations in favour of striking a balance between traditional spiritual wisdom and the benefits of technological development.
The Earthsea cycle, a classic of children’s literature, has much to say on the responsible use of power and, as far as I can remember, 1972’s The Wizard of Earthsea was the first book I read with a non-white lead character.
In her later years, perhaps inspired by creeping fascism in US politics and her fears for the environment, Le Guin reaffirmed the social responsibility of artists. “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings,” she declared.
“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art and, very often in our art, the art of words.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star