I thought The Goldsmiths Prize released an excellent shortlist this year. Although it didn’t win, I loved Josipovici’s The Cemetery in Barnes, and it made into my Top 12 Best Books of the Year. Then there was Rachel Cusk’s Kudos (the last book of her brilliant ‘Outline’ trilogy) and Olivia Laing’s Crudo, both of which I greatly enjoyed. And of course, Will Eaves’ Murmur, which was unlike anything I had read.
The irony is that I would rate all these four novels higher than the eventual winner of the prize this year – Robin Robertson for his prose poem The Long Take.
Anyway, back to Murmur…
Murmur covers that period of Alan Turing’s life when he was chemically castrated for his homosexuality.
Alan Turing was a British mathematician who achieved recognition for his groundbreaking work in cracking the Enigma code as part of Britain’s war efforts during the Second World War. He probably became more widely known to today’s audience because of Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of him in the film The Imitation Game.
But that story is not Murmur’s focal point. Will Eaves has zoomed the lens on the ignominy and suffering that Alan Turing had to endure because of Britain’s inexplicable treatment of homosexuals in those years.
It is worthwhile to point out that while Murmur is undoubtedly based on Alan Turing, Will Eaves subtly changes the names of the characters in his story. This means that the protagonist in Murmur is called Alec Pryor. By all means Alec Pryor is Alan Turing. But by changing the name, Will Eaves has given himself wider berth in terms of delving deep into the mind of his protagonist, making the character his own even though he is real.
The novel is in three parts. The first part is linear and the most straightforward of the three. Here we are told about the events that lead up to Pryor’s incarceration. At a fair, Pryor meets a boy called Cyril, and from then on begin a series of sexual encounters at Pryor’s apartment. Around the same time, Pryor’s apartment gets burgled. Pryor reports the burglary to the police and subsequently his affair with Cyril also comes to light. At that time, homosexuality in the UK was a crime. Prior is given a choice – prison or chemical castration. He opts for the latter.
Then begins the second part called ‘Letters and Dreams’. This is the longest and the intense section of the book forming around two thirds of the novel. This is where Will Eaves delves into Pryor’s subconscious, his dreams, hallucinations and imaginings as the effect of the chemical drugs start seeping in.
Admittedly, quite a bit of this section was challenging, simply because to a rational person dreams do not follow any logic. Yet it is a testament to Eaves’ writing that the reader is still compelled to move on. This is because of Eaves’ sensitive portrayal of Pryor that is simply heartbreaking. Despite the ordeal that he is going through, Pryor maintains his dignity, trying to come to grips with the changes his mind and body are going through. Having had the rational mind of a mathematician, the ‘treatment’ he is enduring is highly disorienting to Pryor.
No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I’ve not found out.
Consequently, this entire section feels otherworldly and surreal because we are trying to get a sense of what is going on in his drug-addled mind, which is as opaque to us as it is to him. Which is possibly the point Will Eaves aims to drive across.
In these chapters we get a glimpse of the bond that he shared with his best friend and first love Christopher Molyneaux in school, and the grief of losing him in an accident. Then there are dream sequences that involve his mother and her meeting with June, Pryor’s close friend and colleague to whom he was briefly engaged.
To me, the most fascinating part of this section, was the exchange of correspondence between him and June.
In these, both of them discuss what Pryor is going through, how he will emerge out of it all, the meaning of consciousness and identity, and the implications of artificial intelligence.
I am afraid of becoming something else. A hybrid. The fear is not the change, it is the loss of, well, one’s personal past. It is quite like the fear of becoming a machine, in fact. I grieve for Chris now in a way I could not before, and it is precious to me, this new old grief. I fear losing him again in losing myself. I know what you will say. You’ll say, Alec, the ‘I’ is always there. The ‘I’ does not disappear if you change its data or its sex – its experiences and memories.
The last section of the novel once again returns to a linear narrative to a time when the chemical castration has ended. And we partly get a sense of what went on earlier, but only barely.
Essentially Murmur is a fine achievement. Eaves’ writing is quiet, sensitive, and poetic. It makes you feel for Pryor and the dreams section of the book only heightens that feeling and leaves a lasting impression on the reader. In fact, in many of these hallucinatory dreams, the prose sparkles and dazzles.
The lake freezes. Ice calls to ice and Pryor’s raised and summoning hand is frosted black.
No trees, no distant school, a greenstick whine as cities pop, scatter. Another order of significance arrives. Air thickens with the charge of glaciers. The former gas solidifies, the mirror plane of my glass eye is crushed and I am fractioned, like a mote among the asteroids.
The veil of night draws back. The sun comes close, colossal in the sky. A pale hand hangs me on a wall that rises from the desert’s fiery sands.
It certainly is a book that on multiple readings will always reveal something new.
The Goldsmiths Prize is awarded every year to the most innovation fiction in Britain and Ireland. It is for fiction that ‘opens up new possibilities for the novel form’. It is a prize I look forward too and those looking for something different than the usual fare (read the Booker Prize), can always find something interesting on this shortlist, irrespective of who the ultimate winner is. In the last many years, certainly, the books on the Goldsmiths shortlist have been much stronger than the ones on the Booker list.
I had never heard of Gabriel Josipovici’s novel The Cemetery in Barnes until the shortlist was announced. But boy, I am so glad to have read this one because it was brilliant. It will surely cement a place on my Best of the Year for 2018 list.
The Cemetery in Barnes opens quietly enough to deceptively give you the impression that this is going to be a straightforward story…
He had been living in Paris for many years. Longer, he used to say, than he cared to remember.
When my first wife died, he would explain, there no longer seemed to be any reason to stay in England. So he moved to Paris and earned his living by translating.
Our narrator is a translator who is living in Paris alone. We learn that he is a creature of habit and quite successful in his profession.
We also know that his first wife has died. Perhaps that is why he settled in Paris to heal his wounds and busy himself in work?
After the death of his first wife what he needed most was solitude, he said. Not that he wanted to brood on what had happened, he just wanted to be alone. I suppose I took on more work than was strictly necessary, he would say, but I think I needed to feel that when one book was finished there was always another waiting for me, and then another.
But this phase of solitude is not permanent because very quickly it becomes apparent that he married again and has been living with his second wife in a farmhouse in Wales.
So essentially it’s a novel in three parts across three time frames – the translator with his first wife in Putney London, the translator alone in Paris, and then the translator with his second wife in Wales.
The narrator and his second wife often have friends and acquaintances who drop by at their farmhouse.
Because his wife – his second wife – knew how to make them comfortable and welcome, it was a pleasure to sit there in the old converted farmhouse in the mountains, sipping good wine and looking out over the rolling hills and valleys spreading out below them. Most of the time he talked about his life in Paris.
In a way they form a chorus for the story as the couple engages in friendly banter essentially touching on the narrator’s life before he married her, his passion and work (music and translation), and the life they are leading now.
I’m so uneducated, she would say. When I met him I thought a saraband was something you wore round your waist.
You had other qualities, he would say, smiling.
But an appreciation of classical music was not one of them, she would say.
Gradually, some tidbits from each phase of his life are doled out to us.
In London for instance, his first wife was a ‘trainee solicitor and amateur violinist’. They had a routine wherein he would pick her up once her work was over and both would, hand in hand, go strolling in the park or walk through the city streets.
But were they happily married? It would seem so given that the narrator chose to relocate to Paris once she died to blunt his grief. It is also appears so from the conversations between him and his second wife wherein the latter emphasizes on how lonely he was (which the narrator denies) and in a way needed to be rescued from himself.
And then we come across these paragraphs which makes us question the nature of his relationship with his first wife.
He felt at times as if he did not understand her at all. She was there and yet she was not there. He held her and yet he did not hold her. As they walked, hand in hand, he sometimes felt he was walking with a stranger.
And it only gets a bit eerie later…
Occasionally, in Putney, he would wait outside Putney Bridge tube station, but not in his usual place. Hidden behind a newspaper stand he would observe the commuters streaming out of the station, heads bowed, eyes blank with weariness. Then he would see her. She would stand for a moment at the exit, not looking round for him but simply waiting for him to come up to her if he was there.. After a few seconds, when he did not appear, she would start off across the street and disappear under the shadow of the footbridge.
He would give her time to climb the stairs, then slowly follow.
In Paris, the narrator is a man of habits, and a well-defined routine, which he seems to be following to the tee, deviating from it once in a while.
Most of the time he stuck to his routine without a thought: rise, shave, dress, Pantheon, breakfast, work steps, coffee, shopping, lunch, steps, work, tea, steps, supper, steps, music, Pantheon, bath, bed.
He relishes his moments of solitude and finds joy in his work of translation. Indeed, we are given a glimpse into his craft – its pleasures, pitfalls and challenges, be it translating tedious works or beautifully constructed poems (particularly du Bellay’s rhymes).
In Wales, he lives a harmonious existence with his second wife in their spacious farmhouse, possibly envied by their friends and acquaintances although the couple do not have many things in common but have gelled well in their relationship despite this.
That’s the overall story arch. To reveal more would be to spoil the experience.
So let me touch on what makes The Cemetery in Barnes such a wonderful, compelling tale. First, at a mere 100 pages, there is so much that Josipovici packs into the story – the three plots, rumination on the art of translation, references to Orfeo, the French poet du Bellay’s poems, and Monteverdi’s opera – without making it all seem complex and knotty. I must admit that even though the Orfeo and Monteverdi references sailed right above my head, in no way did it diminish the pleasure I derived from this book.
Second, although there are three distinct plots, these do not follow one another in any strict linear fashion. Instead, the three story threads are expertly woven into each other to form one seamless narrative. In other words, there is nothing disorienting about it, which is testament to Josipovici’s storytelling skills.
Third, the prose is elegant and gorgeous. It maintains a quiet undertone throughout with enough hints of something dark simmering under the calm surface. Sentences and episodes are often repeated and retold, like the chorus in a soundtrack (our protagonist loves music, hence the music references above), building up to an effect that is hypnotic and mesmerizing.
But what’s most striking about this novel is how wonderfully ambiguous it is. Lean, spare and quite unsettling, the tension steadily mounts, but you are not really sure what happened or what is about to.
It is a nuanced and layered narrative ripe with many meanings and open to multiple interpretations giving each reader a chance to come up with his/her own take on the novel.
Although 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018, I couldn’t resist compiling this list. It’s a great way to summarize what had been an excellent reading year. Besides my Top 12 Books for the Year, this includes many more books that I loved but just missed the Best of the Year list.
So here goes…
A Book with More Than 500 Pages
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura
At around 800 pages, this is a wonderful novel from Japan about family, class distinction and the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. It has also been billed the Japanese ‘Wuthering Heights’ focusing on the intense relationship between the brooding Taro Azuma and the beautiful Yoko. And yet without the Bronte tag, this rich, layered novel stands well on its own feet.
A Forgotten Classic
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym wrote some excellent novels during her time but probably fell out of fashion later. But she has seen a revival of late in the book blogging world. ‘Excellent Women’ in particular is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster, leads an uneventful life and is quite happy with her circumstances, until a new couple move in as neighbours and wreak havoc.
A Book That Became a Movie
Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
The first book released by the Pushkin vertigo crime imprint, but much earlier it was the inspiration for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. This is classic crime fiction with enough suspense, good characterization and plot twists.
A Book Published This Year
Compass by Mathias Enard
An erudite, mesmerizing novel about the cultural influence that the East has had on the West. Over the course of a single night, the protagonist reminisces on his experiences in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran and his unrequited love for the fiery and intelligent scholar Sarah.
A Book with a Number in the Title
Madame Zero by Sarah Hall
I love Sarah hall’s novels for her raw, spiky writing and she is particularly a master of the short story. This is another brilliant collection of stories about metamorphosis, sexuality and motherhood, the standouts being ‘Evie’ and ‘Mrs Fox’.
A Book Written by Someone under Thirty
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Waugh penned this novel in 1930, when he was 27. A humorous, witty novel and a satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ – essentially decadent young London society between the two World Wars.
A Book with Non-Human Characters
Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami
This is a strange, surreal but highly original collection of three stories. From the blurb on Amazon – In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous moneys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.
A Funny Book
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes
The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. And yet it is not a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion; a novel brimming with spunk.
A Book by a Female Author
Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith
There were many this year, but I chose one of my favourite female authors, Patricia Highsmith. Edith’s family is breaking apart and she takes to writing a diary. A heartbreaking novel about a woman’s gradual descent into madness told in very subtle prose.
A Book with a Mystery
Black Money by Ross MacDonald
Ross MacDonald wrote the excellent Lew Archer (private detective) series of novels and this is one of them. A solid mystery with wonderful evocation of California, interesting set of characters, and a tightly woven and compelling plot with enough twists and turns.
A Book with a One-Word Title
Sphinx by Anne Garreta
An ingeniously written love story between a dancer and a disc jockey where the gender of the principle characters is never revealed. An even remarkable feat by the translator for ensuring that the essence of the novel (unimportance of gender) is not lost.
A Book of Short Stories
A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories by Flannery O’ Connor
Remarkable collection of stories by the Queen of Southern American gothic. A dash of menace lurks in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans living in the rural regions of the South. The theme of her macabre stories? The painful, necessary salvation that emerges from catastrophic, life-changing, and sometimes life-ending, events. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’ particularly are classics.
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
This is a passionate love story between an eighteen year old drama student and an actor in his thirties written in innovative prose that brings out the intensity of feelings of the young girl. It was the first book I read in 2017; I loved it and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of a wonderful reading year. The novel had also been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
A Book Set on a Different Continent
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
The continent is Europe and the novel is Solar Bones – a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. It is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
A Non-Fiction Book
Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart
This is a fabulous book on the history of the iconic bookshop in Paris – Shakespeare and Company. It is the story about its founder George Whitman, his passion for books and how some of the most famous authors of his time frequented the shop. Budding authors were allowed to stay in the bookshop (they were called ‘Tumbleweeds’), provided in return – they helped around in the shop and wrote a bit about themselves. The book is a wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes, pictures and also displays many of the written autobiographies of those Tumbleweeds.
The First Book by a Favourite Author
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
This isn’t exactly his first book but one of his earlier ones. James Salter has a knack of crafting exquisite sentences and conveying a lot in poetic, pared back prose. ‘Light Years’ still remains my favourite one of his, but this title is also good.
A Book You Heard About Online
Climates by Andre Maurois
Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle. It is a superb novel with profound psychological insights, a book I only heard about through one of the reading blogs I regularly frequent.
A Bestselling Book
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Not sure this is a bestselling book, but I can say that it was certainly the most well-known of all that I read last year. I have always balked at the idea of reading a Woolf for fear of her novels being difficult and highbrow. But I decided to take the plunge with the more accessible Mrs Dalloway. And closed the final pages feeling exhilarated. More of Woolf shall be explored – perhaps, To the Lighthouse will be next?
A Book Based on a True Story
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald is a wonderful but underrated writer. The Blue Flower is a compelling novel that centres around the unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his young fiancé Sophie. Novalis was the pen name of Georg von Harden berg who was a poet, author and philosopher of Early German Romanticism in the 18th century.
A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
This was the first title published by Peirene Press way back in 2011, and on the strength of some solid reviews, had been meaning to read it for a while, only to find it languishing at the back of some shelf. I finally pulled it out and gulped it in a single sitting. It is quite a dark, bleak but poignant tale of a young mother and her two sons and the extreme step she takes to shield them from a cruel world.
A Book your Friend Loves
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
First Love had received quite some rave reviews last year and was also shortlisted for a couple of prestigious prizes. It is a story of a woman in an abusive marriage told in sharp, intelligent, lucid prose. Here’s the blurb on Amazon – Catastrophically ill-suited for each other, and forever straddling a line between relative calm and explosive confrontation, Neve and her husband, Edwyn, live together in London. As Neve recalls the decisions that brought her to Edwyn, she describes other loves and other debts–from her bullying father and her self-involved mother, to a musician she struggled to forget. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.
A Book that Scares You
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
This is a tense, chilling and utterly gripping book that combines elements of the supernatural with the more real matters of agricultural disasters. The tone of storytelling is feverish and urgent; it filled me with dread as I raced towards the ending.
A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A great novel with psychologically complex characters and a narrative style that forces you to keep shifting sympathies with them. And the opening sentence is a corker – This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
The Second Book in a Series
Transit by Rachel Cusk
The first was Outline, which I read at the start of the year. So impressed was I that I read the second in the trilogy – Transit – the same year too. The third one is yet to be published. In both the novels, the protagonist who is a writer meets people while she is away in Greece or in London. They tell her stories about their lives, each one with a different perspective. Paradoxically, the protagonist is in the background as the stories told by her friends, colleagues and new people she meets take centre stage. While the main character’s story is never directly narrated, we learn something about her from the way she interacts with the others. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. Incidentally, Outline was shortlisted for the same prize in 2014.
A Book with a Blue Cover
The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova
This one was easy simply because the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions made it so. All their fiction titles have blue covers. The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird and an ode to anachronism. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness.
As 2017 draws to a close, it is time to look back on the books that I greatly enjoyed during the year, and select the best among those.
I had a tough time whittling the list down to 12, but I absolutely loved the ones that I did end up selecting.
Three of these, I had already reviewed on my blog earlier, the rest I had not. For the ones I had reviewed earlier, I have given a brief snapshot and you can click on the book’s title, which will take you to the detailed review.
Without much ado, here is my list of my Top 12 books for 2017, and why I thought they were special…
ATrue Novel – Minae Mizumura
This novel was billed as a Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan, and that greatly piqued my interest. I had loved Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I read it in college, and its tale about a brooding hero, and his tempestuous heroine captured my imagination.
But it would be a disservice to judge A True Novel solely by this comparison, because the novel is strong enough to stand on its own. Read more
An 18 year old Irish woman studying in drama school falls madly in love with an established actor, a little more than 20 years her senior. But more than the age gap, it is the older man’s dark past that could potentially derail their relationship.
With an unflinching eye, author Eimear McBride examines this relationship in microscopic detail. The prose is stream of consciousness style and yet accessible, rhythmic, sensual and remarkably intimate.
This is McBride’s second book and was shortlisted for the relatively new Goldsmiths Prize in 2016, set up to reward innovation in literature.