Tuesday, 12 August 2014

All The Days And Nights by Niven Govinden

Haunting, chastening, beautiful.
I am appropriately grateful to Madeline Toy, former publicity manager at Transworld and now freelance book publicist, firstly for her kind offer and secondly her even kinder gift of Niven Govinden's new and yet-to-be published (as of publishing) novel, All The Days And Nights, published by The Friday Project* and available from all good bookshops, and some bad ones, from the 25th September. She may be the first person since I decided to gently solicit free things to read to actually send me something, for free, so if nothing else deserves an honourable mention. 

Therefore this review entails an attempt - my favourite disclaimer and apology for eventual failure - to curtail my own facetiousness, cynicism and puerile theatricality to give due consideration to the book itself.

First impressions left me confused. The title rang bells so I checked it out. Of course, the link to Glen Duncan I could dismiss, but it was a surprise to see the same title on a collection of William Maxwell stories. Maxwell, not my favourite author but someone whom, along with John Cheever, I consider an Important American Author, was forever writing thinly veiled autobiography, the moments of his own life soaking into the pages of his novels and short stories like a spilled ink-well, but I couldn't make the connection to Govinden, considering he was born in Sussex and has probably never been an artist on canvas, or the ageing lover thereof (but of course I can't be sure). I am probably over-reaching, looking for connections no matter how coincidental, particularly as this is the first of his novels to have graced my bedside table, but it rankles, and as a less-than-sympathetic reader at times anyway, the tiny objective voice inside me groaned at the inevitable overspill of rancorous bile to follow.

[Editor's Note - having spotted superb reviewer John Self and TFP Big Mouth Scott Pack exchanging tweets about this, I realise I'd missed the quotes at the beginning of the book, particularly the one from Frida Kahlo which reads, "I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you". Epic face palm.]

Ah ha! But what did follow was not all venom and hatred, not from me at least, and past the trepidatious opening passages, where nature is invoked in unnatural outrage at some transgression, I was quickly lost in admiring this beautiful book. 

A quick plot summary, and what we have is one elderly and, as is slowly revealed in the book (but put on the cover just in case you missed it) slowly dying artist, Anna, at home with Vishni her live-in housekeeper and often-times subject, ruminating on the absence of her other live-in subject, sometimes lover, legal husband but originally transient farm labourer, John Brown (no relation prior to marriage). Into the picture comes friend and agent Ben who sits in whilst Anna paints what is likely to be her final piece before she dies. Reducing it to bare bones doesn't make for a compelling argument to read. However, on these bones hangs a wistful, or rather more strongly described, a longing-filled novel about a woman, her muse, her art and the complicated palimpsest that makes up her love for the now missing John. She imagines his story, independent of her, as she goes about her work, fleeing across the country away from her illness, ostensibly to view the paintings of him scattered across the continent (and there appear to be many) - "I'm seeing all there is to see. I want to study things, paintings, the way people study me," he says to her / their financial manager. What's not clear is how much of what she tells of his story is imagined and what is reported by the people with which she interacts as a result of him having paid them a visit. 

Nonetheless, Anna's view of things seems crystal clear, her narrative - both her own and that which she tells on behalf of absent John - punctuated with insight and truthfulness, or verisimilitude, as each perpetrated deception is acknowledged without comment and  considered with compassion; Ben's personae slipping between friend and agent, casting covetous glances at the stacks of canvases in Anna's studio, is accepted as a part of his being; John leaving without notice is accepted as it was expected, barring the opening passages where there's a little bit of lamenting going on. She is not, however, particularly sympathetic. She can't control her own need to find and represent an essential truth in her paintings of John, and pushes him to sit for her, somewhat cruelly, after failing to resuscitate a friend's drowned son, and after finding a dog dead from a traffic collision. She is relentless and calculating, exploiting her muse and her housekeeper, making sure that whatever else might be reciprocated in her relationships, her need is satisfied first.

Govinden has a particular power in his writing that pushes back your defences, or at least in my case was quick to overwhelm innate cynicism. The passage in the book, about halfway through this fairly slim novel and an exchange between John and the financier in his car, where Anna relates John revealing she is dying (and hints at his own imminently anticipated demise) is worth reproducing in full**.
- The doctor says things, and his words hang in the air. Feels as if we're offered an unwanted gift. Something we'd rather not touch or acknowledge. Except it comes for her whether she wants it or not. 
 - There are second opinions. Other avenues. Doctors can be changed if their manner is too brusque, although I always thought that plainness of speech would be something she'd appreciate.
 - She's dying. Something that I can't mention or acknowledge in her presence. It's easier to take myself away. Easier for her. She shouldn't be distracted by my face and what it betrays. 
 - Even without looking at you your worry swamps the car. It must've been tough in the house. Knowing your body can betray you, the way hers is betraying her.
It might have been the wine talking - I was alone in a dark cabin, on tumultuous seas, with a good bottle of Bordeaux and a plastic cup - but it struck me as perfect, and I felt sucker-punched, particularly as just prior to this I was chewing over the complaint that the one thing this book doesn't do well is dialogue, where every exchange seems overly formal, stilted, unnatural. Yet this passage, entirely in dialogue, drove me to bend the corner of the page down so I could find it again quickly. I am haunted by this novel; saddened and chastened and not a little tearful on finishing, and it's taken me a week or two to get over myself and put these words out there to consider. 

If this book doesn't make one award shortlist or other I would be gobsmacked. If it sells as many as Ian McEwan's latest over Christmas, I would be equally astounded. It should, but sales of great novels like this, unless championed remorselessly by the faces of primetime TV, normally simmer rather than bubble and roil. It may take a few years, however, but I suspect Govinden may get his place at the top table alongside McEwan and co., and having just discovered the Harpercollins listing for it, and admitting I couldn't comment on his other novels (although I plan to rectify this) I think Deborah Levy's proffered opinion of the author is close enough to that of mine that I don't wish to risk paraphrasing, so here it is - 
Govinden is the kind of gentle modernist that contemporary British fiction needs; entertaining, intellectual, emotional, poetic, fabulous.
Enough said.

*An objective review of my reading habits, especially after a recap of selected holiday reading, shows that the publicity activity of The Friday Project has exerted a significant influence over what I read and, to a lesser extent, when it gets read. Well done publicity team.
**With the disclaimer here that this is quoted from a proof copy and may or may not be representative of the final published version, although I bloody well hope it makes any final cuts or else I may revise my opinion.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Open Door by Iosi Havilio

The third revolution in
Hispanic literature?
*Shame Klaxon*

I am ashamed to admit it but I know next to nothing about Borges. I know the names of his books. I know he crops up almost without fail when conversations include literature from South America. I know his words book-end so many novels that I have that habitual proving-my-bold-assertion-mind-blankness which means my brain knows it to be true and won't humour your scepticism with an example*. And I know it's likely the biggest single lacuna in my entire reading history**.

So you may imagine my lack of surprise, on finishing this novel and reading the afterword by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, and author of works on the history and politics of Latin America, that Borges pops up, within three lines of text. Three lines! He wastes no time does Oscar. Of course, my shame bristled and I was ready to adopt the usual casual hostility to something of which I was ignorant. But straight away, I understood what he was saying. I have often considered that monster movies are most effective when the monster is merely described by its environment and the effects is has thereon. Fiction, by approaching a subject, a truth, beauty, head-on, attempting to name and describe such directly, is doomed to fail, indeed, Guardiola-Rivera suggests it ends in nightmare. Borges, to borrow the author's metaphors, advocated a circling approach, a peeling of the onion nearing a hard kernel of truth which isn't there; a candle in a dark room, the tiny circle of light revealing fragments of the whole; blind men feeling an elephant. 

What am I trying to say exactly?

The position Guardiola-Rivera takes is that Havilio, despite explicitly telling the reader (in a cover note on the original Spanish edition sadly missing from the quite simple but lovely And Other Stories edition) that the monster in the novel is capitalism and 'every man for himself', still manages to skirt it, to avoid it, and in skillful, minimalist prose describing effects not causes, leaves our monster as an elephant in the room, an oppressive yet invisible force which the blind men can't even find to get a good feel of. I agree, with both of them; our monsters lack faces, their presence indicated by an omnipresent sense of dread which pervades everything. 

The narrator, who herself is never given a name, loses her partner and on a whim moves to the country, a town called Open Door named after the open asylum situated there, the first of its kind in Argentina. She shacks up with an aged and taciturn ranch owner whilst also allowing herself to be toyed with by a local girl with nothing on her hands but time and curiosity but very little empathy, or rather, compassion. A bleakness permeates everything, and the action, what there is, is almost without cause or thought. Eloisa, the girl, does what she wants whenever she wants, with no thought to the consequence. The narrator is passive almost to the point of nihilism, eating plaster torn from the walls rather than getting up to buy food, regardless of the life growing in her belly. Indeed, she thrills at the thought of discarding her own compassion in order to go with Eloisa's flow.

Sounds dreadful, I know. But that's because it's me trying to describe the essential truth of the book, when the book itself chooses not to do so. And, if you're looking for some hope, then the epilogue has what someone might consider to be a relatively happy ending, with the narrator experiencing a strange and unfamiliar sense of contentment. 

It's not a difficult read, the translation is excellent and the language is used simply, to create a visual landscape which shifts under your feet, which you can't trust and need to consider carefully in different ways. A friend mentioned Samuel Beckett in passing the other day and the way in which he pared everything down to the essential. It stuck as I read this, and a Beckett comparison, whilst gratuitous, seems apt. But it also has a vagueness, a smokiness at the edges that hints at many levels as yet unexplored. For such a simple book, it holds some serious profundity, and I can add it to the pile of books that will forever hold me to account when I pick up a pen for myself. 


*Wait, I've thought of a great example, serendipitously reviewed within these very pages, which begins with the quote, "No-one realised that the book and the labyrinth were the same thing."

**If you conveniently disregard all of Dickens, most classical Greek texts, any female writers, Goethe, 'philosophy' and all of the great French writers. And the Romans, of course.