PSR's Book Blog

Literary fiction


Raptors - Toon Tellegen, Judith Wilkinson Toon Tellegen
was a diamond in the dirt
found among the library for sale books

Toon Tellegen
makes silk purses out of sows' ears
that is to say
he takes popular phrases and cliches
and turns them into something strange and new
like 'my mother was a train...
my father hallowed her name'

This reader
was a pig in mud.

R.S. Thomas

R.S. Thomas - R.S. Thomas, Anthony Thwaite I bought this edition of R.S. Thomas' 'Selected Poems' when it came out in the mid-1990s - around the time that the Welsh former priest was nominated for the Nobel Prize - and have dipped in and out of it ever since. This was the first time that I had read it cover to cover, however (by virtue of being laid up with a bad back).

'Bleak' is the adjective most commonly applied to Thomas' poetry and 'solitary' to the man himself. He wrote about life in one small corner of the world and revisited familiar themes. How easy, then, it would be to write one of those reviews 'in the style of'. Fortunately, I resisted. The best of his short verses build ineluctably into powerful structures like grey parish churches from Welsh granite. 'An Old Woman' concludes:

'...and now and then she laughs,
A high, shrill, mirthless laugh, half cough, half whistle,
Tuneless and dry as east wind through a thistle.'

'In Church', one of many questioning the poet's faith ends:

'There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.'

Most moving of all is the last poem in the collection, lines written on the death of his wife of more than fifty years:

'And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird's grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.'

Thomas was also known for his opposition to the erosion of Welsh culture by that of England. I can empathise with his perspective and recall a heated discussion about the issue with friends in Suffolk long ago. Alongside his unfashionable concern with God, this may add to his difficulty for some English readers.

This copy in the Everyman's series cost me £1 when it was new. I cannot imagine a pound better spent.


Amulet - Roberto Bolaño, Chris Andrews This novella/short novel takes an incident from Bolaño's brilliant 'The Savage Detectives' and weaves a new tale from it. The incident in question concerns the narrator, Auxilio Lacouture, and the Mexican regime's violent repression of student protest in the turbulent year that was 1968. Auxilio refers to this incident, the defining moment of her life, time and again throughout the book.

Like the longer work from which it derives, 'Amulet' is set in the world of Mexico City's poetry scene. It slips between description of a number of events and a series of hallucinations. The atmosphere Bolaño creates is unnerving.

Bolaño writes fairly convincingly from a female perspective, a notoriously difficult trick for a male writer to pull off. I guess it helps that his narrator is an oddball, not a 'conventional' woman. The dream-like repetitions move the narrative along in a fevered state of tension, reflecting the unease that habitually accompanies this writer's work. And it's a pleasure to make fleeting re-acquaintance with a few of the characters from 'The Savage Detectives'. And Bolaño knew what he was doing, of course. The opening and last lines are both memorable ones.

Unless it was self-deprecating high irony, the least likeable aspect of this book was the narrator's account of Arturo Belano, the fictionalised version of our novelist who first appears in 'The Savage Detectives'. Auxilio/Bolaño paints a picture of a romantic and heroic figure, returning from his defence of Allende against Pinochet to take on the lords of Mexico City's underworld. Hmm... According to some accounts, Bolaño never even returned to Chile at that troubled time (bringing to mind the controversy over Laurie Lee and the Spanish Civil War, another prose writer who saw himself as primarily a poet). There's nothing wrong with self-mythologising but a little due modesty doesn't go amiss.

The Kreutzer Sonata

The Kreutzer Sonata - Leo Tolstoy Well, what a strange little book this turned out to be from the master.

Is it a good read? Yes, it is. Structured around a series of short chapters and incidents, it's just right for the shot-away modern attention span (surely, the novella is the perfect form for our age?) You know what's coming, almost from the outset, because the protagonist, Troukhatchevsky, tells you so. And yet, by delaying the crucial moment and delaying it, Tolstoy builds unbearable tension. In other words, the story telling is as masterful as you would expect, as are the characterisation and fine detailing.

The obsessive nature of the protagonist and the bizarre philosophy to which he adheres put me in mind of Raskolnikov. Well, it was after all the century of grand ideas, culminating not long after in that Republic of Ideas, the USSR. These peculiarities made Troukhatchevsky a less tragic, less sympathetic figure than otherwise he might have been. Even the counter-philosophies were rather difficult to take, from a 21st Century perspective. The theme of jealousy and its un-reason, on the other hand, remain powerfully and universally relevant, all the more so when developed by one of the great writers.

I Refuse: A Novel

I Refuse: A Novel - Per Petterson, Don Bartlett This is the fifth novel of Petterson's that I've read, and it maintains the very high standard of his oeuvre, from my perspective. "I Refuse" deals with growing up, friendship and its loss, family breakdown, social change and the emptiness of materialism, among other matters. It's familiar territory for Petterson, perhaps, but he approaches it differently in this novel. Through multiple narratives and time shifts, he shines new light on his material and delivers fresh insights that caused this reader to reflect upon his own life.

You don't read Petterson for the laughs, though there is a dark humour at work here. His purpose isn't to provide the reader with distraction, but I found the fragmented narrative compelling. It's a starkly realist story of life's hardships and disappointments. There are no neat endings here. Parts are oblique and defy interpretation - much like life. The storytelling, characterisation and prose - at least, in Don Bartlett's translation - are all executed beautifully. Highly recommended for those who enjoy writing that reflects the formlessness of lived experience, its resistance to meaning.

Portrait of a Man

Portrait of a Man - Georges Perec, David Bellos It's Georges Perec - author of my very favourite book of all time - so it has to be good, doesn't it? And indeed it is.

I'd read about this novel - Perec's second, but never published in his lifetime - in David Bellos' monumental biography of Perec, so when it finally turned up in print I had to have it. It's taken me a couple of years to get around to reading it. A curious work in two parts (the second is a retelling of the first), it features Gaspard Winckler, also the name of one of the main characters in "Life a User's Manual", though it's not clear if they're one and the same. It concerns a frustrated forger who murders his paymaster. Reputed to be difficult because it's told in the first,second and third persons, I didn't find it so at all. I'm not at risk of giving any plot spoilers because there isn't much of a plot, to be honest. But that doesn't matter. It's an entertaining meditation on creativity and genius, written with Perec's characteristic wit.

By coincidence, I had just read Thomas Bernhard's "Old Masters", also a contemplation of a single portrait and artistic genius in which nothing much happens, and the two worked well as a piece.

House Mother Normal

House Mother Normal - B.S. Johnson In which Johnson has lots of fun with constraints and toilet humour... Apparently, the structure isn't new. It had been deployed at least four decades before in 'Tea with Mrs Goodman' by Philip Toynbee, according to Johnson's biographer, Jonathan Coe. Clearly, telling the same events from the perspective of different characters has been done before (Lawrence Durrell's 'Alexandria Quartet' springs to mind). As with 'Trawl', I suspect this novel would be the antithesis of a "good read" for many readers. It makes him/her work and in this, it's ambitious. Only slowly, through a series of refracted mirrors and diminished consciousnesses, does it become clear what is going on in this old people's home.

Johnson creates his characters with affection and compassion. The abuse of them by the care home's 'house mother' carries uncomfortable echoes of recent revelations about some of these institutions. It has been said that you can judge a society by the way it treats its old people, its cultural development by its libraries. On that score, there's much work to do, here in the UK. 'House Mother Normal' ought to be required reading in the case for bringing back council-run homes at the heart of their community.


Trawl - B.S. Johnson In his third novel, the experimental novelist (a term he came to dislike), pursues relentlessly his mission to write truth rather than fiction. Largely a roman à clef, then, it differs in the starkness with which the author lays bare his own thought processes. There is no attempt at all to show himself in a good light, a point he acknowledges just once in the book. The narrator comes across, for instance, as pretty misogynistic and rather adolescent. It is in this aspect that the novel is experimental and at its most bold. Structurally, it's fairly conventional. The narration is part-stream of consciousness, which was nothing new at the time, and sometimes contains strangely old-fashioned phrasing - "But is it she?" - reminiscent of the Victorian revivalist novel of which he was so dismissive. There's no plot, which is good for its experimental credentials - man sails out of Grimsby as a non-working guest on a deep-sea trawler and reflects upon his earlier experiences - but could be a problem for some readers, depending on how they view a "good read". It's beautifully written, though, and I enjoyed the "present moment" sections best, with their descriptions of deep-sea fishing.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller - Italo Calvino This was every bit as good as the last time that I read it.

For me, this is an 'event book', one of those novels that divides reading into a before and after. Wikipedia quotes David Mitchell as saying that the book has dated and is less impressive than it was. I suspect that I know which writer's work will still be read a hundred years from now (and Calvino's already been dead for three decades)... IOAWNAT is an education for any novelist wishing to experiment with the form. And at the same time, it really is laugh-out-loud funny for much of the time. Echoes of Borges' 'Fictions' reverberate around this novel and it's none the worse for that. It has to be read for Chapter 9 alone, the Ataguitania sequence, one of the smartest, funniest passages of writing in modern fiction.

In case you don't know this book, I'm not going to give away anything about the story. Suffice to say, I loved it but for those looking for a 'safe' read, this isn't it.

Snow Country

Snow Country - Yasunari Kawabata, Edward G. Seidensticker I read Kawabata's 'The Master of Go' and rather enjoyed it. This short novel I admired rather than enjoyed. In theory, I should have loved it as it contained all the right ingredients - doomed love story, poetic prose, anti-heroic characters, evocative setting, etc. - but I found it took me a long time to read for such a short book. I think that the main problem was that I just couldn't engage with the male protagonist, a privileged, duplicitous and frankly irritating waster. Maybe I need to read it again.

This star system is problematic. I'm sure that this novella is worth more than three stars but having awarded four to 'The Master of Go', I had no place left to go but three. Perhaps I should stop awarding stars!

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - L. Frank Baum I've just read this to my two kids. They loved the story and I had a ball making up voices for the characters (you should hear my Kansas accent...). Given that it's over a century since Baum wrote the book, it holds up remarkably well. Many children's books from the '20s, '30s and '40s sound positively archaic now. 'Oz' is older and yet it didn't feel antiquated at all. I suppose it's because the prose and tale itself are timeless, the hallmarks of a classic.


Slowness - Milan Kundera, Linda Asher Okay, cards on the table time... I'd read the three books for which Milan Kundera is best known - 'The Joke', 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting' and 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' - and I loved them all. In fact, I'd just re-read TULOB again and was as impressed and immersed as last time, the simplistic, anti-leftist rants with which it concludes aside (strangely, I didn't remember those from my previous reading). So much did I enjoy it that I decided to read one of his later works that I hadn't tried before. And so I picked up 'Slowness'...

I'm going to re-title it 'Slightness' (unbearable, but there it is...). Is that due to the philosophical slights of hand that the author performs? No. To me, it really did feel rather insubstantial. The novella comprises two romances staged across a single night, one set in current times and the other in the eighteenth century. I think that the modern day episodes were supposed to be funny. I just found them rather silly. The philosophical elements felt bolted on. None of the characters were believable. I wanted to like it. Although it pains me to say it, if I'd come to this book first, I might never have read the others. Perhaps I've missed the point. Please, someone persuade me that I have...


Marcovaldo - Italo Calvino, William Weaver Like Borges, Calvino's metier was the short form - short stories and novellas. Even his "novels" - 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveller', 'The Castle of Crossed Destinies' 'Invisible Cities' - are short story collections underneath the skin. This is no exception. It falls into that category of collected tales relating incidents from the daily lives of their central character - 'Mr Palomar', 'Cosmicomics', arguably - that are at once mundane and fantastic.

Marcovaldo is from peasant stock, transplanted to the industrial city - I'm guessing Turin - there to live in poverty with his young family in half-basements and garrets and to work in a packing factory. And herein lies the tension, as the country boy chases after those echoes of his former life to be found in the metropolis. There are no weak tales among the twenty collected here but I had favourites, inevitably. Like many of these tales, 'A Journey with the Cows' is a mini-picaresque with a powerful moral. 'The Wrong Stop' follows a similar path, featuring a heartbreaking and beautiful opening paragraph and a fantastical ending. They're tales of the unexpected in which the unexpected turns out to be not macabre but comic and surreal.

Starting with 1952's 'The Cloven Count' and ending with 1983's 'Mr Palomar', I can't think of a more outstanding body of work in modern literature. The human insights, the humour, the sumptuous descriptions, the stylistic innovations and enormous imaginative power - Calvino's oeuvre is genuinely inspirational to both the adventurous reader and the writer.

Adam, One Afternoon

Adam, One Afternoon - Italo Calvino The Vintage edition that I read was in reality an early Calvino short story collection with the addition of the novella, 'The Argentine Ant'. Aspects of the oblique and playful nature of the mature Calvino's writing were already in place at the turn of the 1950s. So, the title story, for instance, is a charming modern folk tale. Less flexibly, some of the stories find the young author in the grip of Marxist dogma.

At times, I found the empathy with his poor and marginal characters engaging, such as the itinerants sleeping at the railway station in 'Sleeping like Dogs'. At other times, the ideology of the former communist partisan leads the writer to produce simplistic stereotypes of good and evil. 'A Judgement' springs to mind here. It's entirely understandable that a man who'd witnessed atrocities carried out under fascism/Nazism, often supported by 'old money', would feel this resentment but it sometimes lends the reading experience all the joy of a propagandist pamphlet. I was reminded of the clumsier writing of British fellow travellers of the 1930s - Auden, Upward and Warner. Fragments of partisan life presented in 'Fear on the Footpath' and 'Hunger at Bevera' worked much better, I felt.

'The Argentine Ant' is tremendous fun and left this reader groping after allegorical interpretations, and enjoying their eluding him too. So while this book isn't in the same league as 'Invisible Cities', say, or 'Mr Palomar', it's an enjoyable insight into the development of one of the twentieth century's finest writers.

Distant Star

Distant Star - Roberto Bolaño It's Roberto Bolaño, but only three-star Bolaño...

Let it be known that I love this writer's works, and 'The Savage Detectives', in particular. However... this novella has its moments but it's inconsistent. And it's no surprise. It's another of the books based on an incident from a former work (in this case, the highly entertaining 'Nazi Literature in the Americas'). And Bolaño informs us in the preface that he and his fictional alter-ego, Arturo Belano, knocked out the text in six weeks. It shows.

The opening and ending are strong, as they always seem to be with Bolaño. One can envisage his starting with the two bookends then working out how to get from one to the other. There are some strong passages, notably those involving the anti-hero, a Chilean fascist named Carlos Wieder who is a memorably unpleasant sociopath. Then there are other passages where the virtues of this or that poet are mentioned but without giving the reader anything to go on, unless he/she happens to be an expert on Chilean poetry. There are unconvincing depictions of Soviet generals as film stars/heart throbs. These sections remind me of Murakami - and from this reader's perspective, that's not a good thing...

Overall, then, I found this readable but the slightest of Bolaño's works I've read so far.

Life: A User's Manual

Life: A User's Manual - Georges Perec, David Bellos My favourite book of all time... Everything a novel should or ever could be. Big characters, ripping yarns, wonderful descriptions, word play, structural experimentation and a sad truth at its heart... To read and read again and never exhaust its possibilities. RIP, GP.

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The Peregrine by J.A. Baker