Selected Holiday Reading - The In-Betweeners Abroad

I always try to travel light, a goal, something with which those among you with bookish leanings will empathise, that is challenging for someone intending to do as much reading as they can whilst ignoring as much culture and scenery as is possible. So huzzah and indeed hurrah for the generic e-book reader and its market competitors. Ten years ago I would likely have suffered a paroxysm of disgust for any apologist of the hated technology. Now, it seems, I must take one everywhere I go for more than one night.



The trip to which I am coming, an August sojourn by ferry to Santander and then by VW through Calabria, the Basque country, and north through Aquitaine, Poitou-Charente, Pays de la Loire and Bretagne, was a chance to get some serious reading under the belt. Twelve days of driving, drinking, books and beaches. The only 'real' books that made the trip were The Vagabond's Breakfast, of which more anon, and All The Days And Nights which, as I was on a deadline, I quickly finished off whilst the wife and child slept on the ferry, and whilst I also put an end to a very tasty if over-priced bottle of Bordeaux. 


Of course, family holidays being what they are, I was really only ever free to enjoy a book when everyone else was asleep, lending to my general state of sleep deprivation - a risky stratagem given I was driving the van - and to the selection of mainly shorter works through which I could motor and feel faintly satisfied to have made progress - which is as important to this consumer of novels as allowing the gentle hand of Fate to guide that which is selected to follow. So courtesy of my recent flirtation with South American and Spanish speaking novelists, the first short work was that of Jorge Luis Borges, which was followed quickly by three The Friday Project books I'd downloaded one after the other and which were the next three listed on the device's menu.

It feels somewhat sacrilegious to lump Borges into an in-betweener post, considering the fluff that normally collects in them, and the high regard in which most serious novelists hold him. Conversely I blame the executor of his estate, who worked hard to control publishing rights to his works in English, and from which this was the only work (that I could afford) that was available as a download; and as I was intent on filling the Borges-shaped lacuna in my education as quickly as possible, it therefore was the first I read, and potentially the one I would recall the least. Thankfully, I read two Darren Craske novellas straight afterwards which, like a mental sorbet, cleansed my memory meaning I could recall the umami of Borges' prose without effort. Oh, no offence to Craske intended, but frankly his slightly odd Victorian-era mystery stories, hung around the improbable frame of Cornelius Quaint, illusionist and cad, were but a short amuse-bouche. Not that Kaufman was the main course. In fact, this analogous metaphor has gone stale.

Still, Borges was a surprise. With the weight of post-modern fiction on the shelves pulling the plaster from my walls and the pervasion of his influence in the writers I read* I should not have been. The story which most stands out for me in this collection, cropped from various other works, is the story of the writer who re-wrote Cervantes' masterpiece in an attempt to ascertain if he could, independently and through his own process, come up with exactly the same words, in the same order and with the same sense (although with added depth, richness and renewed literary vigour!) as Cervantes himself, albeit it three and a half centuries later. What a concept. And what execution. Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote is a 'fake' review of a non-existent author, completed with audacity and tongue firmly in cheek. I had not expected to laugh at Borges, and therein lies a great pain. These short examples of his are crafted meticulously, densely layered and quite brilliant, but also accessible and enjoyable. Rather churlishly, I had expected enigma, deep mystery and unfathomable beauty; I had expected not to understand a word. I had pre-judged a book by the cover (and title) and am duly ashamed. Having now read a little of Borges' background, I have found criticisms, probably justified on this inspection, that Borges lacked substance, that his works are experiments in the art of writing - he was described as a 'doctor of technique' in an elliptical criticism by a leftist Argentinian magazine of the time - and his legacy of magical realism affronted those existentialists in search of reality and direct experiential truth instead of less tangible universal truths. I guess that's why his output is restricted to essays and short stories - two formats uniquely suited to the exploration of the seeds of ideas that might not survive propagation. I don't care, and plan to go directly to some sort of book-selling outlet to purchase both Fictions and Labyrinths post-haste. I can see why so many people cite him in so many works, claim his influence on what they do and how they think. In that respect, I'm with Oscar Guardiola-Rivera when he asserted that Cervantes and Borges marked the start of the first and second revolutions in Spanish-language literature.

By contrast, what I can recall of Darren Craske is probably not worth writing down (but I'll try). He has garnered some acclaim as a visual artist, and certainly his characters in these bawdy knockabouts bear no closer scrutiny than would a cartoon character in a daily comic strip. They amused, briefly, much as a dog on the TV might if doing something cute or saying "sausages". But, they were both made available for free by his publishers, so in that spirit of generosity I am happy to admit that having finished the first I did quickly begin the second. It's just possible I might pick up one of his novels proper and read it before sending it off though BookCrossing to await further readers on the shelves of a coffee shop.

And so on to 'Not The Main Course' Andrew Kaufman. To begin with, I harboured vague mistrust of the author based on the similarity of his name and that other famous Kaufman. Considering the conceit is absurd, that everyone in a bank heist is affected by a strange curse bestowed by the unconventional perpetrator of the crime and that one woman's particular problem is one of rapid shrinking, hence the title, this vague prejudice might appear apposite. In fact, although only short (gadzooks - a pun!) and definitely absurd in its premise, it turned out to be a poignant and interesting read. Running alongside the narrators tale of the shrinkage of his wife and of her travails is a tale of domestic disharmony and parental failure - the problems of the marriage souring the happy existence of their only child. This only becomes apparent later once the absurdity has had time to sink in an and also provides some grounding and realism. In retrospect I can't remember what it is about Andy Kaufman that I didn't like - probably his role as Latka Gravas alongside Tony Danza and Judd Hirsch in Taxi - and which coloured my thinking in this instance, but whatever it was isn't any longer. I would gladly take a punt on Andrew Kaufman's next book, and would recommend The Tiny Wife if you've got half an hour spare.



*It should be pointed out that I have a general and non-specific antipathy for writers of so-called Magical Realism which likely dates to my time as a bookseller when the educated but mentally untaxed and lazy liberal 50-somethings of Cardiff would amble up gently demanding the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and sniffing loudly when finding it on the shelves under G or M, whichever mis-filing ill-suited their particular strain of malaise at the time but which allowed them the opportunity to 'write a letter' to complain about something on which they held 'an opinion'. 




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