An eco-disaster narrative spanning more than three hundred years across 713 pages, Annie Proulx's Barkskins is a weighty tome of historical fiction chronicling the fortunes and misfortunes of two families - the Sels and the Duquets - whose bonded forebears, René Sel and Charles Duquet, were shipped to New France (now north America and Canada) in 1693 ‘to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.’ The book’s key themes are contained in two epigraphs; the first asks ‘Why shouldn’t things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together’ while the second posits that ‘Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.’ From these the reader may conclude the novel is intended as a condemnation of both humanity’s sustained destruction of its natural resources (specifically forests) and the role religion played in legitimising and encouraging such conduct; indeed, as the novel progresses, the harsh dichotomy between an indigenous population that reveres its natural environment and immigrant European settlers with no such scruples will be emphasised. In short, Proulx’s message might be that our planet was doomed at the point the first hominids roamed the globe. The novel is organised chronologically into ten sections and employs a first person omniscient narrator with a didactic tone that borders on nagging, nudging the reader towards prescribed character assessments, for instance ‘Thick brows couldn't shadow his glaring eyes, the whites so white and flashing they falsely indicated a vivacious nature.’ However, it is Proulx’s prose style, her poetic conjuring with imagery, metaphor and simile, that most engages the reader, whose first glimpse of the vastness of the new world runs thus: ‘Here grew hugeous trees of a size not seen in the old country for hundreds of years, evergreens taller than cathedrals, cloud-piercing spruce and hemlock’ - these ‘hugeous trees’, long since felled to extinction in Europe, dwarf man-made expressions of religious worship, the ‘cloud-piercing spruce’ drawing additional attention with its alliterative sibilance, a device liberally sprinkled throughout Barkskins, as in ‘…stumbled on sprawling spruce roots’. Spiritual imagery is frequently invoked, illustrated in these metaphors: ‘…passing under branches drooping like dark funeral swags’ and ‘The forest had many edges, like a lace altarpiece’. And a fine example of Proulx's tongue-twisting alliteration is provided in ‘The quaking sphagnum, punctuated with pitcher plants, sucked at every step.’ Peter Piper, stand aside. Barkskins is a formidable read. Proulx reportedly began research for it ‘decades ago’ - resulting in a work that at times makes unreasonable demands of the reader’s patience, with its revolving door of born-lived-died characters and innumerable ‘factual’ digressions - a lesson to a writer in ‘less is more’. That said, the novel’s poetic evocations of place are inspirational, reminding the reader-as-writer of the power potential contained in thoughtfully constructed imagery - imagery that, to quote the Russian critic Roman Jacobson, equates to ‘organised violence committed on ordinary speech.’
Bibliography: Khosravishakib, M., Scientific and Publishing, A. (2012) ‘Literary and Non-LiteraryTexts from viewpoint of formalism as rudimentary of other literary criticism’, International Journal of Arts, 2(3), pp. 11–15.
Proulx, A. (2016) Barkskins. Glasgow, United Kingdom: Fourth Estate
The Crime Writer Craig Brown explained Jill Dawson's The Crime Writer as 'a novel about a novelist who is writing a novel about a novelist who is thinking of writing a novel about a man who is plotting to murder his wife'. A daunting overview that made my head hurt, until I started to read it. Set in 1964 in a remote Suffolk cottage with regular forays to London, The Crime Writer is a meticulously researched fictional biography of the psychological thriller writer, Patricia Highsmith and, as Sue Leonard frames it '...explores what goes on in Highsmith's head.' (Leonard, 2016). We're told early on of Highsmith's distaste for being labelled a 'crime writer':
'Not crime. Not detective fiction. As I mentioned on the telephone, I don't happen to like the term "crime fiction".
Throughout the novel the narrative voice is Highsmith's, alternating between a third-person past and first-person present; initially I annotated these shifts in pencil to help me keep track, but once into the rhythm of the novel, this was unnecessary. I haven't read any Highsmith beyond a tiny collection of short stories - Little Tales of Misogyny - which I loved and felt Dawson was gifting me a 'twofer', a cracking story AND Highsmith's biog. What I found particularly affecting was The Crime Writer's study of the emotional damage suffered by the young Highsmith:
'Some little things must be the cause of me, bad seed that I am; a multitude of tiny things, like sand grains to a dune. But those years, those years with Mother and Stanley, those millions of minutes of a child's life...that's when the piling up of grains began.'
I found Dawson's use here of 'bad seed' significant, possibly a reference to the cult 1956 psychological horror/suspense thriller, The Bad Seed, a jolly tale of a mother who suspects her innocent-looking eight year-old daughter is really a cold-blooded killer; I remember my mother saddling me with this unflattering monica when I was five or six and no, she did not mean it playfully, but I digress. This painful theme of the damage we do to others - the damage inflicted on the child-Highsmith - is woven throughout the novel ('Didn't you always know there was evil in the world, didn't your childhood show you in its purest, whitest form?'; 'That confirmed it. I was the most unloveable child who ever drew breath') and the writing is so very powerful I found myself reading certain sentences twice, three times, to fully absorb Dawson's delicious, devastating narration. Explaining her decision to embark on this novel, Dawson notes that 'Highsmith's work was subversive and shocking and her sexuality could not be discussed when she was writing. Now we can discuss it. And we can see that she was a more serious writer than she was given credit for.' (Leonard, 2016).
* I am currently struggling through The Talented Mr. Ripley. Apart from being downright boring, I am also being challenged by passages such as this, which appears on page 83:
"Marge was full of plans for Christmas. She had a can of English plum pudding she was saving and she was going to get a turkey from some contadino. Tom could imagine how she would slop it up with her saccherine sentimentality."
' ...slop it up with her saccherine sentimentality.' Ye Gods! This novel runs to 258 pages - and for this reader that already feels like 258 too many.
Dawson, J. (2017) The Crime Writer, London, Hodder & Stoughton (Paperback Edition)
'Deep down, [it] is a book about a miserable woman, a bird, and a dead author' states the creator of H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald. The result is a first-person genre-blend of misery memoir (a death in the family), domesticated nature writing (MacDonald gets a herself a goshawk) and an unpleasant, unprovoked assault on one T.H. White .
In 2007, MacDonald's father, Alisdair, dropped dead while on assignment (he was a tabloid snapper). 'Here's a word.' declares the first-person narrator: 'Bereavement. Or Bereaved. Bereft. It's from the Old English bereafian, meaning "to deprive of, take away, seize, rob". Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone.'
Three pages later, said bereavement is expanded upon thus:
'It was about this time a kind of madness drifted in. Looking back, I think I was never truly mad. More mad north-north-west. I could tell a hawk from a handsaw always.' This shoehorning of a Hamlet quote, with its tenuous nod to the book's title, is wearisome; she's at it again on page 53: '...her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine.' On page 18, MacDonald tells us of her recurring dreams:
'I'd wake up frowning. I'd dreamed of hawks, again. I started dreaming of hawks all the time. Here's another word: raptor, meaning 'bird of prey'. From the Latin raptor, meaning 'robber', from rapere, meaning 'seize'. Rob. Seize.'
Got that? Good. Because apparently:
'From then on, the hawk was inevitable.'
(It should be noted here that MacDonald styles herself as a guru in all things 'hawk').
To be fair, MacDonald is capable of producing pleasing passages of poetic prose and imagery, for instance:
'We walked in dark winter light in fields furred with new wheat. Vast flocks of fieldfares netted the sky, turning it to something strangely like a sixteenth-century sleeve sewn with pearls.'
I was disappointed, then, to meet description such as this:
'Ketchup dripped down my arm like a wound.' this: 'All at once I loved this man, and fiercely.' this: '...with a bloody great hawk on her fist.' this: 'Everything startling and new stamped on her astonished brain.' this: 'What an asshole.' this: 'Blood was running in streams down my forehead, into my left eye, and was now attracting the attention of a hungry goshawk. Christ, I thought, this is a bit Edgar Allan Poe.' ...and so it goes on.
On page 216, while recalling the memorial service held for her father, MacDonald describes herself as particularly affected when 'Alastair Campbell' (it’s assumed the reader both knows and cares who he is):
'...walked to the lectern [and] read Wordsworth's 'Composed upon Westminster Bridge' and prefaced it with a short speech in which he said, with decided emphasis, that my father was a Good Man. This broke me.'
The memorial took place in 2007. In 2017 Alastair Campbell expressed a similar sentiment: 'The man I knew was a great guy.' On this occasion, Campbell was referring to the recently-deceased Sinn Féin politician, Martin McGuinness.
The chief literary critic of The Irish Times, Eileen Battersby, considers MacDonald's 'schoolmarm trashing of [White's] spellbinding yeoman's classic The Goshaw (1951)...outrageously unfair', and that 'White, ironically, emerges as the most interesting aspect of her book.' Battersby also observes, perhaps somewhat waspishly, that 'H is for Hawk, but H is also for Helen, and there is far more Helen here than Hawk'. But it is page 250 of MacDonald's narrative to which I should like to draw particular attention. The chapter's title is The New World and within it she states that:
'Hunting in Maine is not obviously riven with centuries of class and privilege. There are no vast pheasant shoots here where bankers vie for the largest bags, no elite grouse moors or exclusive salmon rivers. All the land can be hunted over by virtue of common law, and locals are very proud of the egalitarian tradition.'
Class. Privilege. Elite. Exclusive. Locals. Egalitarian tradition. And the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act 1980. In the June 2014 issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, Mark Chavaree wrote: 'In 1980, the Penobscot Nation entered into an agreement with the United States and the state of Maine to settle claims to millions of acres of their Aboriginal territory. After years of paternalistic control by the state, the members of the Penobscot Nation believed they were entering into a new era of cooperation. However, the parties’ differing interpretations of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act have been a source of continual conflict. Now the Penobscot people have been compelled to fight to maintain their connection to the river that is central to their culture and identity.' And on 10th July 2017, Dawn Gagnon for the Bangor Daily News reported that: 'A little more than a week after a federal appeals court ruled that the Penobscot Indian Reservation includes Indian Island and all the islands north of it but not the river itself, an estimated 200 tribal members and elders and their supporters gathered at the Bangor Waterfront to say their fight for sovereignty is not over.'
It may be reasonably argued, then, that MacDonald's expressed notions of 'class', 'privilege', 'common law', 'locals' and 'egalitarian tradition' relating to the state of Maine have been shaped according to a strictly European colonial construct - a construct all too familiar to Maine's First Nation people - and with which they, the indigenous 'locals' of that territory, may well beg to differ.
President Jimmy Carter signs the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. Maine tribes, including the Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Penobscot, receive an out-of-court settlement of $81.5 million in reparation for land taken from tribes.
Sriram, A. (15 July 2015), 'Helen MacDonald: In Full Flight - The writer and naturalist on the temporality of grief, inhabiting the voice of T.H. White, and developing radical empathy with a goshawk.Guernicamag.com [Online]. Available at: https://www.guernicamag.com/in-full-flight/
Anything is Possible Elizabeth Strout's sequel novel Anything is Possible is, according to her publisher's website, ‘…the story of the inhabitants of rural, dusty Amgash, Illinois, the hometown of Lucy Barton, a successful New York writer who finally returns, after seventeen years of absence, to visit the siblings she left behind’ while The Guardian's Elizabeth Day observes that it is 'told in a series of interconnected stories, each featuring a tale of small-town life that illuminates a more profound truth' and that 'if there is a theme...it is the longing to be understood – arguably the most human desire of all.'
The novel's third-person omniscient narrator glides from one character to another, revealing internal thoughts which, almost invariably, conflict with that character's external words/actions:
'Tommy was surprised to see Pete's hands become fists that he banged down on his knees. "No," Pete said. "No. You don't have to. No." "I want to," said Tommy, and he thought – then he knew – as he said this that it was not true. But did that matter? It didn't matter.
Accidents and incidents resulting in epiphanic awareness reveal a web of connections braiding all this novel's characters in various ways, the centre connecting them being the publication of a memoir by the above-mentioned Lucy Barton (My Name is Lucy Barton being this novel's prequel). Lila Lane, Lucy Barton's niece, graphically expresses her and her mother's antipathy toward the writer in a foul-mouthed tirade:
'The girl said "I was supposed to be named for my aunt, but at the last minute my mom said, Fuck her." Patty took the papers and bounced their edges against her desk. The girl sat up straight, and spoke with suddenness. "She's a bitch. She thinks she's better than any of us. I never even met her." "You never met your aunt?" "Nope. She came back here when her father died, my mother's father, and then she went away and I've never met her. She lives in New York and she thinks her shit doesn't stink.”
However, for me the novel’s most distinctive feature is its overtly Chekhovian exploration of the theme of silence; of things half said, left unsaid - the ‘white space’. For example, take this scene from Anton Chekhov's play Uncle Vanya:
VOYNITSKY . ‘Done something’? We can’t all be non-stop writing machines like the learned professor. MRS. VOYNITSKY. What exactly do you mean by that? SONYA [beseechingly]. Grandmother! Uncle Vanya! Please! VOYNITSKY. I am silent. Silent and repentant. [Pause.] HELEN. It’s a perfect day. Not too hot. [Pause.] VOYNITSKY. It’s a perfect day. For a man to hang himself.
and compare it with this passage from Anything is Possible:
‘And then there was silence that went on for a long time. In Pete’s mind silence became very long. He was used to silence, but this was not a good silence.’
Not only does Strout appear to share Chekhov's preoccupation with problems of communication, perhaps Lucy Barton is Strout's rendition of Chekhov's allusion to 'non-stop writing machines'? Further, In a ‘Q&A with author Elizabeth Strout’ the Financial Times asked ‘Who are your literary influences?’ to which Strout is reported to have responded ‘Alice Munro, William Trevor, the Russians, Virginia Woolf.’ ‘The Russians’ is a pretty broad sweep, but it seems reasonable to conclude that one particular ‘Russian’ - Anton Chekhov - may have been a key influence on Strout’s writing: indeed, it is not implausible her novel’s very title was inspired by Uncle Vanya: HELEN [stares at him]. Vanya, you’re drunk. VOYNITSKY. Possibly, very possibly. HELEN. Where’s the doctor? VOYNITSKY. In there. He’s sleeping in my room tonight. Possibly, very possibly. Anything’s possible.
On her website, Strout states she '... read biographies of writers, and was already studying – on [my] own – the way American writers, in particular, told their stories.' No mention of 'the Russians' there, then.
Strout's latest has been glossed with such overwhelming critical acclaim one might reasonably feel slightly intimidated and obliged to simply nod in agreement: this is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist! What do I know? They must be right! It was with a sense of relief, therefore, that I read Claire Lowdon's review for The Times which accurately sums-up my own experience:
'In her interview with the Sunday Times last week, Strout explained how Anything Is Possible grew alongside Lucy Barton. “I would be sketching out a scene from Lucy Barton, then I would think ‘Oh, Mississippi Mary, let’s think about her’.” Mississippi Mary is a story in Anything Is Possible that feels like it’s exactly that: a short story conceived as a short story. In this case, the whole is precisely equal to the sum of its parts — which, when you turn the final page, doesn’t feel quite enough.'
Chekhov, A. and Hingley, R. (1998). Five plays : Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Strout, E. (2017). Anything is possible. 1st ed. UK Random House Viking.
Theatre Royal, Windsor
The Best Man Theatre Royal, Windsor. Reviewed 14th September, 2017
🦃☆☆☆☆ It took less than five minutes after curtain-up to realise we'd been served not the trio of filet mignon we'd anticipated, but rather a slice of undercooked turkey. Originally written in 1960 and billed as a 'political thriller', this revival of Gore Vidal's play, The Best Man, commenced its brief UK tour on 12th September at The Theatre Royal, Windsor, with Martin Shaw as lead. Described as 'A powerful study of ambition, political scandal, ruthlessness… and the race for the white house', a theatre blurb puts it thus:
'Two opposing presidential party candidates are neck and neck in an unscrupulous battle for the nomination. The only thing that separates the esteemed ex-Secretary of State and his newcomer populist opponent is an endorsement from a respected ex-President. But where does compromise end and corruption begin? And who in the end will be proven to be “the best man”?'
The play opened with Shaw's character indulging in verbose speechifying - at first completely inaudible - directed at a group of all-too-audible caricature rent-a-paparazzi dressed in raincoats and fedoras and toting flashguns. Shaw moved round the set ( a Philadelphia hotel room) as if he were a pawn on a chessboard, stiff and overly considered. Gemma Jones (as 'national committeewoman' Mrs. Gamadge), initially took command of the stage like a galleon in full sail until she - quite spectacularly - ran aground. For several minutes Shaw mumbled incoherently into his lap, attempting to throw her a lifebuoy, (though he could have been issuing forth profanities that would've made a sailor blush; who's to know). Eventually Jones acknowledged she was not waving but drowning, declaring indignantly 'I need a prompt!' Anthony Howell performed his role (as a political advisor) as if engaged in a race of another kind entirely - not to the White House, but rather to his next line. Honeysuckle Weeks, under the circumstances, did quite well, though her Tennessee-Williams-School-of-the-Southern-Drawl accent didn't work for me. But then the entire cast should be indicted for attempting unconvincing and annoyingly distracting bids at some nebulous form of Americanese. And anyway, why bother? The Americans are notorious non-respecters of The Queen's English while Queen Victoria's vowels frequently succumb to the cadences of Jenna Coleman's native Blackpool (at least in the first series; I couldn't be bothered with the second - not even for Rufus Sewell) and no-one seems to mind or perhaps even notice. The audience for this performance - a matinee and the third in its short out-of-town run - comprised what I imagine a Last of the Summer Wine coach tour might look like and I did wonder - as I wager some of them were wondering a little later - why they were there. Mute for the first thirty-odd minutes of - what passed for - 'high politics' dialogue, they perked up a little at a mention of 'false teeth' and seemed thoroughly cheered by references to bodily functions and terminal diseases that began to infect the play, responding like rows of daisies in noonday sunshine when a character (I forget which one) related an anecdote about a former delegate's wife who'd caused a media scandal when it was reported 'she considers herself a bit of a thespian'. Quite. Feel my pain. In the run-up to the intermission, the second plot twist was introduced: a dirt-digging exercise has revealed a secret, one with a homosexual context. This context was excruciatingly drawn-out by Jack Shepherd (as a 'respected ex-president'), who circled the furniture while wringing his hands like Fagin about to pick a pocket or two.
The intermission curtain came down and we went out. Who'd turn out to be The best man? We just didn't care anymore.
It's difficult to know where one might apportion blame: is it that the play feels dated or is the casting off-key? Or both? Martin Shaw is apparently ‘known for his [television] roles in … The Professionals, The Chief, Judge John Deed and Inspector George Gently’ - none of which I have watched but clearly whatever popularity he enjoys is rooted in his being 'that bloke off the telly’ and this production is squarely aimed at an audience for whom the act of 'watching tv' is important. For me, Shaw is charisma-lite - an unhelpful quality in an actor whose role requires him to be powerfully charismatic and persuasive. I shall be interested to see if The Best Man finds a London home - and what The Critics make of it.
'A good writer should be so simple that he has no faults, only sins.'