Flights – Olga Tokarczuk

A difficult book yes, but ultimately one full of insight, surprises and, at times, humour.

Flights definitely pushes against the boundaries of the novel form: a series of vignettes, essays and stories, some written in the first person, others in the third, others presented as facts in some way, what links the disparate entries together is the themes of travel and the body.

In fact, travel might be a bit narrow. Flights is about movement, though human travel is a big part of that. It includes the journey of a dead body, a brilliant rumination on the marvels of a plastic bag, the travels of Chopin’s heart, experiences of air travel, and most affectingly the story of a man whose wife and child go missing on a Greek island, and after he imagines his worst fears they re-appear untroubled, as if the freedom of being somewhere else made her realise the freedom open to her.

At the same time we get detailed rumination on the workings of the body, which Tokarczuk shows might appear a static entity but is in fact constantly in motion inside. It’s as if she’s saying that travel and movement are natural, they constitute the body itself and so global travel is inextricably linked.

An oddity of the book is that it presents travel and movement as a central part of the daily lives of writers, professors, holidaymakers, business travellers. But for so many, travel is forced upon them; their movement is in fact migration driven by poverty or war. The positive nature of travel loses its allure in this context, but it’s not something we hear about in Flights.

But this aside, Flights is a thought-proving book, surprising in both its content and its format.

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“There are countries out there where people speak English… It’s hard to imagine but English is their real language! Oftentimes their only language. They don’t have anything to fall back on or to turn to in moments of doubt.

How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions, all the lyrics of all the stupidest possible songs, all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures – even the buttons in the lift! – are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, wherever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes… I heard there are plans in the works to get them some little language of their own, one of those dead ones no one else is using anyway, just so that for once they can have something just for themselves.”

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights

The Glamour – Thomas Ligotti

In classic Ligotti fashion, this short story – just ten pages long – takes us into a dark alternative world that exists within and alongside our own.

The narrator is out in the city looking for a late night cinema – something he often does, though whether that’s significant or not, Ligotti doesn’t tell us – when he stumbles across an intriguingly old-fashioned cinema. Suddenly it appears all the streets he’s walking through have become old-fashioned and uncanny, and he is drawn to enter the cinema.

The cinema itself is like something from another world; the screen alive, the dark room occupied by strange sensations and noises, with little life otherwise. It’s a ghost world. When he eventually exits the streets are back to normal, the entrance to the macabre theatre gone.

As is often the case in Ligotti’s stories, there is no explanation to why this happens – it’s because this underworld is simply part of our world, somewhere that you can easily slip into.

The Glamour is part of Ligotti’s story collection, Grimscribe.

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong – Art as Therapy

I know it’s not fashionable but I really like Alain de Botton’s writing. He manages to use philosophical concepts to provide non-specialist readers with insights they might not otherwise glean.

In this book he again uses the pretence of self-help – how art can make you a better person – but what he’s doing is more like practical ethics or simply offering thought provoking commentary.

Art as Therapy is both a meditation on how art can help people and a manifesto for the art establishment to re-think its public offer of art. His manifesto is essentially that art ought to be presented to the public as a way for them to understand their lives better, and sometimes even improve it, rather than as a history lesson or a piece of important work that they ought to learn about from the experts.

He splits the book into four main sections: how art can help you in love, in your appreciation of nature, in your dealings with money, and, more collectively, help us all politically. He uses art works of all kinds to give insights into a host of things, from how to see your loved one in a fresh light to dealing with the contradictory desires for a life driven by thought and action. Like in his other books, he is strongest on the sustenance we can get as individuals, in our lives and with nature, in particular, but there are great ideas throughout.

At the heart is an Aristotelian approach to being, and he regularly refers to art being a way for people to become the best version of themselves. He isn’t saying there’s a higher self just waiting to be discovered but rather that through patient work, by trying to understand oneself and use the insights offered by art, among other things, it’s possible to do more of the things that are of value in life, and fewer of the things that offer no value.

Yes, you could debate endlessly what’s valuable and what’s not, who decides etc. de Botton does briefly address this (though arguably with inadequate depth), but this book is not about that, it’s about appealing to common intuitions and problems to show that reflection on and experience of art can offer solutions. And on this Art as Therapy is a good book packed full of de Botton’s philosophical insight.

Books I’ll never write #4: desolation fiction

As humans become more and more enmeshed in protective layers of technology and welfare, of offices and comforts, it nevertheless appears that discontent remains a consistent – perhaps even a growing theme – of personal and political life.

It’s against this backdrop, arguably, that we are seeing the emergence of a genre of fiction that uses desolation as way to explore what, beneath and beyond the protective layers, it is to be a human.

Sometimes this is dystopian fiction, like the Hunger Games or the End of the World Running Club. Other times it’s a situation in which someone finds themselves alone or travelling in a vast expanse, like the Shepherd’s Hut or The Road.

The core of these and other books is that the protagonists are thrown back on themselves – their bodies, their brains, their survival skills – with no recourse to the armoury of stuff available to them in contemporary civilisation.

Apart from the sociologically interesting question about why people are writing and reading these kinds of stories now, there are other ways of looking at them too. One is by way of comparison with Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’, the existence that is left in situations of war when everything else, most notably ideas of human rights, are removed. Another is in comparison to the existential freedom of Satre, where all that matters in the end is the ability of the human subject to choose that there is nothing but autonomy at the human core; everything else is contingent and inessential.

The book that I’ll ( probably) never write would explore how desolation fiction is a response to the world we find ourselves in, looking at both the sociological and the philosophical underpinnings.

Michel Houellebecq – The Map and the Territory

This dark and thoroughly readable novel offers a thought provoking take on art and the art world the temporary nature of life.

It focuses on a reluctant artist, Jed Martin. After an almost loveless upbringing – his mother committed suicide and his architect father shut him out by choosing boarding school for Jed and working continuously – Jed finishes university as an intelligent loner. His father buys him a small Paris apartment, and from there Jed drifts and thinks and works.

His earliest phase an artist sees him photographing hundreds of industrial and man made objects, earning him a misunderstood respect among his peers.

He then begins creating a series of photographs based on Michelin maps that are regarded as works of huge beauty. The Michelin company loves them, he receives artistic prestige, meets a beautiful Russian woman living in Paris – Olga – but characteristic of Jed, he fell into creating these works of art and when Olga leaves for Russia he leaves it all

begins are becomes a recluse once more.

Ten years later he’s exploring painting, this time painting everyday and famous figures in ways that capture their essence. Waiters, bakers, executives, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – he paints many – and they become recognised as great depictions of people, and at this point he comes to be seen as one of France’s greatest artists.

It’s at this point too that he meets the author Houellebecq, living as a drunken, depressed recluse in Ireland. They begin an acquaintance based on a shared antipathy to the world. Jed does a portrait and gives it to him, and though they rarely see each other it looks like they’d be friends of sorts – until, that is, Houellbecq is brutally murdered after moving into his family home in rural France.

The story then focuses on the policeman investigating the murder, and in a sense the book turns away from Jed and the art world to the investigators. But eventually we return to Jed as a rich artist who has bought his grandparents’ old house in the countryside and adjoining land and built an estate that allows him to live for over a decade without meeting anyone. He even builds a private road in order to avoid going into the nearby village.

At the same time, though, he is working on a series of overlaid films that depict the organic breakdown of matter, including his artworks, that show the finite nature of human life and meaning – a series discovered after his death, when it is seen as a masterpiece.

Besides the rich plot and characterisation, and the simple prose (despite its translation from French), there are some brilliant themes in this.

One is the question of the authorial intent of an artist. Jed appears to create works that people see as offering a deep insight into being human. But in Jed we see none of this gift: he is lonely, taken up by everyday concerns like the boiler, and rarely seems introspective or reflective. Where do these works come from? How much are they intended? The same appears to apply to the character of Houellebecq when we meet him too. Autobiographical maybe? Who knows.

Another interesting question raised, though a more cynical one, is the relation between money and art. Jed is able to spend time on complex artistic works because he’s relatively well off at the start and not occupied with the drudgery of work, and at the end when he’s rich. Further, it’s because Michelin and various rich people are flattered that he has taken them as subjects that we see his popularity and the price of his paintings increase. It’s not all about money, the recognition of good art, but it plays, its part it seems to be saying.

One thing that intrigues throughout the book is the author – is it Houellebecq? Whoever it is they often offer strong opinions that can’t always entirely be ascribed to the characters they are talking about: on religion, or immigration, or the state of France say. It might be that the little I know of Houellebecq is that he’s a controversial public figure prone to reactionary views, and so I was looking for this, or it might be that this undertone is there. I need to read more of him to see, and will.

“I know very well that human beings are the subject of the novel, of the Great Western Novel, and one of the great subjects of painting as well, but I can’t help thinking that people are much less different than they generally think. That there are too many complications in society, too many distinctions and categories.”

Jed Martin speaking in Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory

“The more arid and affectless life became in the high rise, the greater the possibilities it offered. By it’s very efficiency… it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses… in many ways, the high rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.”

JG Ballard, High Rise

JG Ballard – High Rise

This is a fantastic and disturbing story, as well as a meditation on the base urges that are only partially hidden by the veneer of modern society.

The novel focuses on the minutiae of social breakdown in a suite of high rise apartment blocks populated by well-to-do professionals – academics, doctors, journalists, marketers, entrepreneurs. The 1000th apartment had just been filled and gradually the deterioration begins. First there are minor fall-outs over the elevator or waste chutes or swimming pool access. Next there are loud parties where the upper floors taunt and begin to physically intimidate those from below.

Eventually all conventions breakdown: dogs are killed and eaten, people physically attacked, there’s no lighting or food or hygiene, people are murdered, family units are given up, women are raped. Eventually there is nothing left but unfiltered desires for basic urges: violence, sex, food.

The book tells the story through three characters. Laing, a young doctor, recently divorced, who loves the high rise, seems to some extent able to view it objectively whilst also being entirely implicated in its degeneration, and who gradually becomes more and more depraved. Wilder, a TV journalist who wants to make a documentary about the high rise but is unable to maintain his objectivity and degenerates into no more than a savage. And Royal, one of the architects of the high rise living in the penthouse, who is as little responsible for its demise as the others or the building itself.

As well as a gripping story, High Rise is a powerful allegory. Partly it’s of high rise and city living, of the way that by living close together people will inevitably give way to basic selfish urges. But as much as anything it’s an allegory for how human culture, norms and civilisation obscure a host of basic animal drives that are a the core of what it is to be human. In a way it’s another example of ‘desolation fiction’, writing about the basics, the essentials, of life once all the unnecessaries of modern life have been stripped away.

I do love this book, though it is somewhat essentialist about what makes humans human. In part it is essentialist about human drives. But also about gender. The men, as they degenerate, become lone hunter gatherers, intent on getting or protecting women, on violence, on sex. The women work together in packs, maintain a semblance of a home, look for men to please. Whether Ballard’s commenting on what underlies men and women’s roles in modern society, or saying it’s something more enduring than that, it’s hard to say, but either way it seems to reflect a kind of stereotyped view of men and women.

But that aside, High Rise is a superb study of how modern life is no more than a veneer pasted over the reality beneath.

John McGregor – Reservoir 13

What initially appears to be a crime novel quickly turns into something wholly more intriguing and experimental.

A young girl, Rebecca Shaw, has gone missing near reservoir 13 above a Peak District village. There’s some focus on this at the start, and references throughout, but more than anything the disappearance forms the backdrop to the novel’s focus on the life of the village.

Set over 13 years, McGregor tells the story of the people and the wildlife of the village. In 13 chapters, where each month might get a few pages – though it’s not regimented, not set – and in long paragraphs, he covers some of the people in the village like the Hunters and the Fletchers and the Joneses, as well as the nature surrounding them. Through short vignettes we get to know intimate details of the villagers’ lives, both the mundane and the remarkable, and a picture of their lives builds up as we visit them for brief periods time and time again over the years.

The development of the youngsters James, Rowan, Sophie, Lyndsey, is most interesting – from just teenagers (who knew the missing girl Rebecca, fleetingly) to twenty somethings, we see their tight relationship to one another unravel and then come together again differently. They follow divergent paths, university, marriage, that kind of thing, but there remains a bond – perhaps because of the girl’s death, perhaps because of their historic friendship.

The book is beautifully written. Pared down, short sentences, simple words, entirely descriptive all the way through, in a way that accurately captures so much of village life. One striking thing about the style, too, is the way everything is smooth and flowing, but the numbering of the reservoirs is jaunty when mentioned; they really stand out, making you remember the missing girl that acts as a shadow over the book.

What the novel really achieves is capturing the endless flow of life, the way lives repeat, iterate and change; the way certain things bind people into a community – bonfire night, annual pantomimes, new year celebrations, the school, mischief night, even the shared history of a missing girl. Some events stand out like Jones the school caretaker being arrested for child pornography, Martin and Wendy’s relationship breaking down, Suzanne Wright’s violent ex-husband turning up. But mostly human life is like animal life – seasonal, cyclical, habitual.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

This has more than you could expect from a big American novel – immigration, assimilation, sprawling and complicated families, race, food, diners, urban decline, enterprise, all of it – but with an added twist that marks the ambivalence of everything.

The narrator is Calliope Stephanides, a hermaphrodite. This is her / his story but it’s also that of her Greek immigrant grandparents Desdemona and Lefty, and her parents Tessie and Milton. It begins with her grandparents living in Greece and eventually travelling to the States during war. In these extraordinary times Desdemona and Lefty, who are in fact brother and sister, realise their love for one another and marry, though vow to tell nobody.

After moving to America we follow them finding their way in the US and settling in Detroit. Lefty earns money by starting a speakeasy and then a bar – the Zebra Rooms – they have children, and the book then moves on to their son, Milton, and his wife Tessie. Whereas the grandparents remain only partially assimilated, Milton is the all-American male of the American dream, eventually creating a successful chain of hot dog restaurants, but managing to alienate his wife and kids with his posturing masculinity.

Then comes Calliope (and her oddly named brother, Chapter Eleven), and we follow her through the first 16 or so years of her life. Her gradual coming of age as a teenager sees her peers becoming adolescents but Calliope’s body refusing to grow breasts or begin periods. She falls for another girl (known as the Obscure Object), but eventually she ends up going to see a sex specialist who diagnoses her and says a small operation will make her all-girl.

But Calliope doesn’t feel like a girl, so she runs away – hitching, living in a park in San Francisco and becoming an act in a sexual freak show. And she cuts her hair, changes her name to Cal and becomes a boy.

This is just one of those huge absorbing novels, where you can get lost in the characters and the romance and the details. The lives of the family are set against the backdrop of Greek and Turkish wars, prohibition, race riots, the rise and decline of industry in Detroit, sexual liberation, all of it.

As the narrator, Calliope gives us details that nobody could know – about her grandparents, about herself in the womb – making it part research, part fantasy, part guesswork, part elaboration, part author’s license.

And throughout, what Eugenides gives us the ambiguity of life – nothing is straightforward. The Greek war with Turkey, the island of Cyprus split between the two, marital and familial love, nature and nurture, sexuality and gender, nothing is ever one thing or the other but lives in an ambiguous place in the middle. Middlesex.

“Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness’, ‘joy’, or ‘regret’… I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.'”

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex