On my nightstand, a selection of current touchstones in lieu of a personal canon

I have been on Facebook long enough now that I have begun to get those sunny reminders of what I was up to one year ago. Yesterday I discovered that it has been a year since I published my first piece of personal creative writing. The essay, Your Body Will Betray You, remains pinned to my Twitter timeline and continues to generate conversation. Readers have found it informative, inspiring, and, in one important case, a ground for opening a conversation that had been unspoken in that person’s life. And that particular response made baring a piece of my soul like that worth it. A writer may write for him or herself, or to entertain or educate, but to speak to the very core of one reader who needed those words more than anything… that is a gift.

My most recent piece of writing to be published comes deep within the pages of the new issue of The Scofield 2.2: Conrad Aiken & Consciousness. This issue marks my first opportunity to edit the work of other writers—a tremendous honour and thrill, with deep thanks to Tyler Malone and Dustin Illingworth for their faith in me. Putting a publication of this size and scope together is an enormous task and my role is a modest one, but I am proud to be involved. My written contribution is even more modest. I wrote several hundred words about Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room for the “On Our Nightstand” section (it’s on page 287 if you care to have a look, the issue can be downloaded for free and has a wealth of good reading). In this piece I talk about my evolving relationship to this book by one of my favourite writers. I turned to it as a possible avenue into the task of writing about one’s self—which, for me, after more than a decade of deeply closeted existence and a life lived in two genders, seemed terrifying and overwhelming.  Galgut’s attempt to record three distinct experiences in his own life was so spare, so translucent, that I could not begin to imagine taking an approach like that to my own. In the end he comes to believe that memory necessarily fictionalizes our “truths.” I am, at this point, closer to and yet less troubled by that conviction than I was three years ago when I started to understand that I needed to write. I go back to In A Strange Room often. As I say in my Scofield piece:

This book has become one of my touchstones, an elegant example of the way personal experience can be pared down to its essentials and explored through the lens of time and memory. It remains, for me, some of the most meditative and precise writing about what it means to be grounded, in one’s self and in relation to others; the allure of the road and the ambiguity of home; and most vividly, the way that all truth lived is, in essence, a fiction.

In other words, if I had a personal canon, which I would argue I don’t, this book would be on it. And I do keep it on the shelf inside my nightstand.

In the past few years, as writing has become more urgent, my reading has become more explicitly targeted. I am especially drawn to smaller, quirky, experimental works and, in many cases, books by people I have been fortunate enough to come to know—writers who have become part of a virtual network people who inspire me and suffer my creative ideas. The majority of those books are literally on (or technically inside) my nightstand. In lieu of a personal canon, here are the books that are currently fueling my literary scribbling. (Links to reviews, if applicable)

Beastlife by J’Lyn Chapman — I am always on the lookout for unique approaches to the personal essay. I have a large selection of books waiting to be read, but this little meditation on life, death and taxidermy is a treat.

Fear and Trembling  by Søren Kiekegaard — Well, just because.

Intimate Stranger by Breyten Breytenbach — This is a collection of essays and poems to a young poet. I ordered it when I came back from South Africa; it arrived when I was in the hospital recovering from cardiac arrest. I’ve mentioned and quoted from this book several times, but the post I’ve linked was written shortly after  I returned from the hospital. It addresses one of the key concerns—loss of a memory—that I am taking with me into the outback this month.  Reconciling one’s own near death is no small matter. I carry it deeply and have not yet found a way to write it out.

Thy Decay Thou Seest by Thy Desire by John Trefry — This little caprice or, as we’re advised, “Meditations for Sedentary Labourers,” is so delightfully eclectic that I found in it inspiration for an experimental project that, in contrast to the deeply personal work I write, will allow me to distance myself from the salvaging of the language I use and, depending on the constraints I set, some of the construction. I am proud to count John among the writer friends the internet has afforded.

Roland Barthes: Mourning Diary, Camera Lucida, and Incidents Three works that intersect for me, at a personal and literary level at this moment. Incidents, may well be one of my very favourite Seagull Books as well.

Will Eaves: The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop. Experimental, insightful, and devoid of pretension. Fragmentary works fascinate me. It seems to be a bit of popular device lately, but in my mind, these books—one fiction, the other essay/memoir—work very well. Eaves has a presence that is immediate and personal, he is good company.

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (see above)

The Surrender by Scott Esposito — This is one of those books I watched and waited for. I am cautious about trans themed writing but I knew this one would be different. This book holds infinitely more for me than I included in my review. My reading of this book coincided with the release of my own Minor Literature[s] essay, and the beginning of a valued friendship.

Aphorisms by Franz Kafka. Yes, I also love The Castle — one of the few books I own in multiple translations, but this is the Kafka I need to have close at hand at the moment.

Róbert Gál: Signs & Symptoms and On Wing — When I was first looking for a way to begin to write about my life and experiences, I was looking to fiction. But in defiance of conventional narrative form, I wanted current, accessible, experimental models. I read In A Strange Room and The Absent Therapist in late 2014 but it was almost a year later when I picked up On Wing. It remains a book that I read all the time, it has impacted my thinking in ways I cannot describe (because we ideally absorb and filter the work that drives and inspires our own—it should not be obvious in the final product) and Róbert was one of the first writers to suggest I should write a book. I don’t know where that book is, but it is no accident that a quote from On Wing opens Your Body Will Betray You.

Daniela Cascella: En Abîme and F.M.R.L. It may not be evident, but getting to know Daniela and her work has revolutionized the way I engage with language. Her enthusiastic approach to reading, listening and hearing work into being is wonderful. I find I am so much more attuned to sound when I read now. Maybe it will come through in my own writing one day.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield. Again, this is another work that asks questions and contains ideas that are important to me. Essays that make me think about writing essays are my favourite kind.

If there was enough room, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Austerlitz would also count as work of current relevance. (They would probably be in that non-existent canon too, if I had one.)

Other kinds of exile: The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs by Damon Galgut

“Lives are meant to be separate and apart; when the borders break and we overflow into one another, it only leads to trouble and sadness.”

Last month I had worried about easing back into reading following my recent unexpected cardiac arrest, but, in fact, August went well. September has proved much more difficult. I have picked up so many books I thought I wanted to read only to be unable to get beyond a few pages. So it is probably no surprise that I retreated to the comfort zone of re-reading a book by one of my favourite authors. I chose this book on the expectation that a new paper edition was due to be released today in Canada but from reports of the distributor being low or out of stock, the reality of actually seeing it on the shelves may be a long way out. Too bad because when you know a writer has many excellent books to his or her credit it is a shame to see only one, the latest or best known, in stock. Fortunately this title is readily available electronically.

pigsThe Beautiful Screaming of Pigs is the second full length novel by South African writer Damon Galgut. Originally released in 1991 it eventually dropped out of print and, when a new edition was issued in 2005 following the Booker shortlisting of The Good Doctor, Galgut took the opportunity to revise the book, wanting to address his longstanding feeling that the rhythms of the language sounded “discordant”. The result, for whatever it is worth, is a novel that embedded itself into my consciousness with the first reading, and proved to be even richer and more deeply affecting with the second.

Set against the backdrop of the first free elections in Namibia in 1989, 20 year-old Patrick Winter and his mother are heading to the land that he had, only a year before, been fighting for on behalf of the South African Army. That experience has clearly left him emotionally traumatized. He is dependent on Valium to sleep and cope with recurring panic attacks. For his mother the trip is an opportunity to visit her young black lover, the latest of a long string personal explorations she has flirted with since her divorce from Patrick’s father. As the story unfolds he will reflect on his childhood, the horror of his time in the army, his ambiguous feelings about his own politics, and the emerging recognition of the nature his sexuality.

The novel opens as Patrick and his mother arrive at the Afrikaner farm where she grew up and he spent many a summer vacation. His brittle grandmother fusses over his physical and mental health, cannot understand why they are heading north, and stubbornly insists on referring to Namibia as South West Africa, the name by which it was known going back to its years as a German colony. Here Patrick will begin to reveal his family background, his closeness to his mother and his alienation from his rugged, athletic, big game-hunting father and older brother.

When his brother Malcolm joins the army and is killed in a motor vehicle accident, the loss tears the fragile family apart. Patrick and his mother move out, unraveling the tightly wound expectations of marriage by which she had been bound. As she tries to reframe herself with a series of dramatic passions and obsessions, her son is placed in the awkward role of picking up the pieces behind her. So when his own obligation to the army arises, despite the sure knowledge that he is entirely unsuited for the task at hand, he enlists promptly hoping to get his two year commitment out of the way. He won’t last two years, nor will he be able to put the experience behind him.

As he awakes that first morning to a familiar noise on the farm he makes a striking observation about his state of well-being in an unforgettable passage. Outside a pig is being slaughtered:

“There is no sound on earth like the sound of a pig dying. It is a shriek that tears at the primal, unconscious mind. It is the noise of babies being abandoned, of women being taken by force, of the hinges of the world tearing loose. The screaming starts from the moment the pig is seized, as if it knows what is about to happen. The pig squeals and cries, it defecates in terror, but nothing will stop its life converging to a zero on the point of that thin metal stick.”

As a child, the spectacle of a pig being killed never failed to draw him with a fascinated horror. On this day his reaction takes on a different note:

“It was a sign of my state of mind or soul that on this particular morning the screaming of the pig sounded almost beautiful to me. It didn’t evoke violence or fear, but a train of gentle childhood memories.”

After the reverie of a walk around the farm and a hearty breakfast, Patrick and his mother head for Namibia. When they finally reach Windhoek and meet Godfrey in the township where he lives, Patrick is surprised to find that his mother’s lover is not quite what he had imagined and is, in reality, only a few years older than he is. They learn that a white activist who had been working with SWAPO (the South West African Peoples’ Organization) has just been assassinated and Godfrey must attend to details for his funeral and an election rally. This necessitates a further trip on to Swakopmund, a detour that places Patrick in a position to question his own political resolution and bravery, especially poignant in light of the fact that on the border he was engaged in fighting the very forces he is now helping Godfrey support. His mother’s enthusiasm soon wanes into boredom as, for her, the shine starts to come off her latest passion.

Woven into the account of their few days in Namibia, is Patrick’s chronicle of his experiences in the army, beginning with the early days of tedium as the young soldiers pass empty days in their tents “playing cards, writing letters, telling jokes. An old scene, as old as the first village.” Patrick is keenly aware that he does not quite fit into this world of testosterone charged energy. He is hopelessly reminded of the way he felt sidelined as his father and brother tossed a rugby ball on the lawn or boasted about their hunting conquests. He senses a brotherhood of men to which he will never belong. It is not until a young Afrikaner named Lappies arrives that he finds a kindred spirit, makes a friend, and maybe – although he doesn’t realize it at the time – falls in love. Once fighting descends on the camp and strikes with a vengeance; horror, fear and death take their toll. When Patrick’s friend is killed, his grasp on sanity begins to slip. Galgut pulls the reader right into his young narrator’s shattered mind in one of the most intense descriptions of a mental breakdown I have ever read. It happens in fits and starts. Patrick tries to hang on, stubbornly, foolishly until his condition deteriorates to the point that he finds himself hospitalized, first in Pretoria and then in Cape Town. He is discharged from the army.

In the hospital his parents visit. Their responses to their shocked and emotionally injured son are true to form. His father travels to see him Pretoria where he sits awkwardly, shifting from ”buttock to buttock” unable to find anything meaningful to say. His mother has been busy acting in a play and does not make her appearance at his bedside until he is back in Cape Town. She visits him daily and talks about herself. It is here that she will first tell him about Godfrey, hoping to impress or shock him. He has no answer but he remembers the small drama.

“At that moment a shaft of light, blued by the rain, fell on her face: like the actress she was, she turned towards it, finding her spot. Then she smiled, and the smile became a laugh: a round, silvery sound, like a coin, which fell from her throat and tinkled down onto the ground.”

Patrick’s few days in Namibia will not answer all the questions he carries into the shifting sands of the desert one year after his breakdown. But he will emerge from the visit with a sense that it is time for him to define his own sense of personal space and figure out who he is. Borders – those lines between countries defended by force, defined by politics, and blurred between people – feature throughout this novel. True to form, Galgut allows these spaces to exist for the reader to explore. He is a writer of remarkable restraint, a storyteller who matches spare tight prose with simple moments of vivid intensity. In The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs he has created a haunting, intelligent, unforgettable portrait of the relationships between people at a time of great upheaval and impending change in Southern Africa. As Namibians queue with excitement to mark their ballot toward the end of the novel, Godfrey tell Patrick that maybe someday his own country will see the same. That day will still be more than four years away.

Further notes from South Africa: Wildlife and quiet times in the Eastern Cape

I have been in South Africa for just over a week now. It’s been an amazing opportunity to meet people and observe the country on its own terms. The closest I have had to a typical tourist experience has been our day trip to Addo Elephant Park. Nothing quite prepares you, on your first visit, for the sight of these huge majestic beasts looming ahead on the road, appearing out of the bushes. And there is so much more to see than elephants. We were stoked to encounter two young rooikatte along the roadside. These lynx are a rare sight at the best of times and we were able to sit and watch them for 15 minutes.

Rooikat
Rooikat
Addo Elephant Park
Elephant  – Addo Elephant Park, South Africa

The value of taking time to relax, soak in the countryside, meet fascinating individuals and spend quality time with my friend has been exactly the medicine I needed. In a few days I will make my way back to Cape Town for the much more urban, cosmopolitan side of my stay which will, in its way, be quiet and introspective. Cities can be good for being alone too.

Old sheep
Old sheep
Eastern Cape farm garden
Eastern Cape farm garden

My endeavour to gather more South African literature to bring home is going well. So far I have collected a stack of second hand books from a little shop in East London here in the Eastern Cape and have another stack waiting for me back in Cape Town. I have been digging through my friend’s bookcase for titles to look for here or back home and last night I was thrilled when my favourite author, Damon Galgut, won the Sunday Times Literary Award for South African fiction for his novel Arctic Summer. So, a fine literary excursion to date.

South African sunset - All photos copyright JM Schreiber
South African sunset – All photos copyright JM Schreiber

Otherwise it has been a relief to step back from my normally heavy engagement with news and social media. I did read with dismay about the terrorist attacks in France and Tunisia. I was relieved that my American LGBT brothers and sisters have achieved a long overdue milestone. But I came to South Africa in large part to put as much distance between myself and my life at home as possible for a few weeks and, for now, watching waves crash on the shore or sitting on the stoep and watching the sky burst with colour in the evening or listening to Breyten Breytenbach reciting poetry in Afrikaans is therapy of the best kind.

A love song for the loveless: Reflections on unrequited love – Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

Valentines Day. It has been many years since I have had a true object of romantic affection. This annual occasion tends to come and go without my notice. Even my children are too old to warrant the heart shaped candies and chocolates I used to purchase. And yet I have to stop and wonder why I do not feel the absence.

I am not sure it is coincidental, but romance does not seem to figure highly in the work I tend to read. Lost love, dysfunctional relationships, misplaced attempts to find affection, yes; but it tends to be the underlying elements of discord that create dramatic tension and literary interest for me. Tolstoy’s unhappy families and all that. So in thinking about today’s exaltation of romantic love I decided to turn to a book I read last year but did not review, a novel that holds, at its heart, the account of a deeply felt but unrequited love: Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer.

In this fictionalized biography of EM Forster, Galgut re-imagines the eleven years of frustrated creative blockage that spanned the time between Forster’s initial conception of his “Indian novel” and the final product, A Passage to India. Along the way we meet Syed Ross Masood, the Indian man with whom Forster will fall passionately in love – a love that will shape, define and haunt his romantic sensibilities – but which will remain one that the heterosexual Masood is unable to return in anything but platonic terms. During the World War I years in Alexandria, Forster finally loses his own virginity at the age of 37 but his meagre intimate relations will remain a sorry, even pathetic, attempt to achieve the emotional and physical comfort he longs to find in another man’s arms. Sexually repressed and closeted until his death, he is, nonetheless, able to channel his affections and experiences in India into one of the finest English novels of the early 20th century. It would be the last work of fiction Forster would produce though he would live and continue to write and engage actively in the literary world for another 45 years.

arctic summerIn my first encounter with Arctic Summer last fall my reactions were mixed. I was a great fan of Galgut’s more typical pared down, ambiguous and haunting novels and I was immediately struck by the more claustrophobic atmosphere he had created to evoke the sensibility of the world in which Forster lived and wrote. At times I felt it weighing on me as a reader. Having the good fortune to hear Damon speak in person and meet him when he passed through my home town with our writer’s festival while I was in the midst of my reading, I was aware that he had found the process of writing a historical novel rewarding but not one he would be anxious to repeat. That awareness may have been a factor but I suspect there was also something more at play. After all, as readers, we enter into any work with our own issues, histories and expectations.

At the timel I was still struggling to break down the barriers that I had constructed over the preceding decade or so to keep those around me from getting close. By that point I was painfully aware that I had re-closeted myself in the world to avoid emotional risk and vulnerability. At one point, despairing of ever experiencing desire in the way he longs, Galgut’s Forster reflects:

“His own sterility was apparent to him and would soon, he felt sure, be visible to others. Curiously, he didn’t feel depressed at the prospect. He was almost intrigued by the idea of giving in to his oddness, turning into one of those remote, ineffectual creatures so warped by their solitude that they became distasteful to normal people.”

I was struck by that passage, I remember where I was when I read it and the page number in my paperback American edition is burned into my memory. Although I had been, oddly enough, a single male parent for years, through my determined unwillingness to express romantic interest or engagement with anyone, female or male, I had stubbornly sought to neuter myself in the world. Unpeeling those layers of defense and reclaiming an identity, especially one that falls outside the default mainstream, is not easy. Forster’s dilemma was hitting too close to home.

As I have since learned to re-embrace my identity and sexuality, I did briefly imagine that I was ready to open myself again to the possibility of falling in love. The result was in influx of a emptiness and longing. I began to feel the absence and did not like the void. So I have decided to turn my focus to building an emotional support network based on common interest and experience. It is, I realize, a much better place to start. If, somewhere along the way, the potential for romance arises I would not necessarily reject it, but it cannot be the grounds for meaning and value in my life.

Now, four months after I first finished Arctic Summer, I have occasioned to revisit A Passage to India, and have found myself dipping back in and out of Galgut’s novel simply to savour the restrained beauty and sensitive recreation of the writer’s inner personal and creative journey against the lush landscape of India. The work has simmered in my consciousness and increased in the power that it holds for me as a reader. I cannot help but wonder what might have happened if Forster’s love for Masood had been reciprocated. I am not sure he would have ever been able to even crack open the closet doors and I suspect that he might have ended up even more deeply torn between his homosexuality and his attachment to his mother. For better or worse he was able to channel his energy into writing, friendship and a long life.

Well lived? For his sake I hope so.

Releasing words from the page

In the opening pages of Teju Cole’s Open City, his narrator, the young medical resident Julius, introduces the reader to his own reading habits, setting perhaps the tone and frame of mind for the recollections and encounters that will unfold over the following pages. He explains his fondness for internet classical music stations, commercial free broadcasts from countries where the foreign languages of the announcers blend into, rather than distract from the musical tapestry. Settled with a book on the sofa he confesses that:

“Sometimes, I even spoke the words in the book out loud to myself, and doing so I noticed the odd way my voice mingled with the murmur of the French, German, or Dutch radio announcers, or with the thin texture of the violin strings of the orchestras, all of this intensified by the fact that whatever I was reading had likely been translated out of one of the European languages.”

Assuming I am not in a public space where others would likely look on in askance I am likewise inclined to read aloud to myself at times. Meditative, less conventional, writing forms itself especially to this practice, not only obvious writers like Cole or WG Sebald, but wonderfully spare and introspective works like Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room or the experimental The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves. And Thomas Bernhard, even though I cannot read him in the original German, flows with energy and intensity against JS Bach. I often stop and read a few pages out loud when I feel that I may be losing my moorings in the book long paragraph structure of his novels. Similarly José Saramago and Javier Marías are authors that more people might be able to connect with by inhabiting the language through reading portions out loud.

I have also had the experience of coming to appreciate a piece of literature in an entirely new way through hearing an author’s reading. Last year I read All My Puny Sorrows by Canadian author Miriam Toews, the story of two sisters, one deeply depressed and suicidal, and the other faced with the dilemma of if and how to assist her beloved sister in achieving her goal. Being much closer to my own recent breakdown and knowing that Toews had drawn on the tragic history of suicidal depression in her own family, I read it seeking insight into the suicidal sister’s perspective. I was disappointed. But hearing Miriam read from her work and having the opportunity to meet her last fall, I suddenly realized that I was expecting something the story could not deliver and had, consequently, missed the self-deprecating black humour in this challenging, compassionate tale of unconditional sibling love.

Cliche shot of a favourite poem, WH Auden's "As I Walked Out One Evening"
Cliche shot of a favourite poem, WH Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”

So if the experience of prose can, at times, be enriched by being read out loud, poetry would seem to be an obvious aural experience. Poetry readings have a long standing literary history, joined now with the likes of slam poetry and rap. What a surprise then to have someone on another readerly space I frequent declare that he is against reading poetry aloud. Assuming he was not typing with tongue in cheek, for who can tell, my immediate response was one of disbelief. Excuse me? I cannot imagine not reading poetry out loud. I even make an effort to commit the poems that I find especially powerful to memory, to recite them, to myself and, on occasion, to others. Hearing authors read their own work has a special value and impact. Listening to a poem shared aloud by a passionate reader can allow the words to be transformed and re-interpreted in a new and personal context.

Have you ever encountered a piece of prose or a poetry so breath taking that you had to stop and re-read it, mark or circle it in the text if you are so inclined, copy it into a journal or print it out to keep close at hand? Do you feel compelled to repeat the words out loud to yourself, inspired to share them with others? For me that is the beauty of being in love with language. Sometimes words just have to spill out beyond the confines of the printed page and be granted a full existence in the world.

In praise of moral ambiguity : The Impostor by Damon Galgut

With no particular allegiance to astrology, I have often mused that my tendency to take on the role of the devil’s advocate fits well with a Libran temperament. My natural response to a harshly judgmental statement is an immediate inclination to flip the coin and present an argument for the other side.

I like to think that I carried this tendency into a career working in social services where the complexities that define and refine, strengthen and restrict the way that people respond to, survive or succumb to, the pressures they encounter in life cannot be understood in black and white terms. Motivation, decisions, and actions have contexts that run deeper than the actors or observers understand. When talking to clients or their families I would try to open up questioning to allow those I was supporting to look for their own answers. I was aware that I could offer suggestions but no guaranteed solutions.

Why then does literature so often try to provide answers, lead us to scenes of redemption, close out with a moment of denouement? Life, in case you haven’t noticed, is not always so neat and tidy. Sometimes we are not really sure what happened or why we might have acted in a certain manner. Our natural instinct is to explain our feelings and behaviours, to others and, most critically, to ourselves. But that is not always possible. We act irrationally, selfishly, even, as those of us with mental illnesses know, when we are not in our right minds. So why do we want our literature served up with moral certitude?

When I read a book with a dark context, whether on a large or small scale, I feel let down if an author fails to push the envelope, to take the risk of leaving the reader with a feeling of unease, a question of moral ambiguity. Oh sure, it is nice to be comforted, but more often than not, I read to be challenged, to be shaken, to be exposed to experiences, places and circumstances I have not known. That is one reason why I tend to be drawn to literature from countries other than the one in which I live.

ImpostorSouth African author Damon Galgut is decidedly unafraid to tackle the shifting landscape of political and economic power in his own country post Apartheid and show how easily the ordinary, average individual can get swept up in situations they have neither the awareness or the initiative to appreciate. Someone like Adam Napier in The Impostor, a man who discovers, too late, that his very unimportance makes him expendable in a game he didn’t realize he was playing. Or did he just not care enough to take notice?

After losing his job and house to the new racial and social realities arising in Johannesburg, Adam finds himself cut adrift in mid-life. He seeks refuge with his younger brother Gavin who is taking calculated, ethically questionable advantage of a burgeoning property market in Cape Town. Sickened at the prospect of accepting the job his brother offers he accepts instead the refuge of a neglected house Gavin owns in an isolated town in the Karoo. Here, he reasons, he will dedicate himself to writing poetry and find himself anew. What he finds, instead is a curious figure from his past, a school friend he cannot remember even though this man Canning insists that they once shared a very special bond, one to which this bland effusive stranger is clearly indebted.

Without admitting his complete lack of recall for this supposed friend, Adam is soon drawn into spending his weekends with Canning and his alluring black wife Baby up in the lush mountain retreat Canning inherited from his father. From here on things become complicated, tragic and eventually frightening. More than one moral compass is unloosed and all of Adam’s apparent values are tested and found, well, the reader is left to decide…

Tense and brilliantly spare in the telling, Galgut draws from the hostile environment of the Karoo, to create a fable with no clear moral reckoning, no redemption, and a heaviness that sits in the stomach of the reader long after the last page is turned.

I wonder if my fondness for literature from South Africa and Europe comes from the fact that conflict is never far from the surface in lands that have known so much recent turmoil and disruption. The result is a literature that, at its best is vibrant, alive and emotionally challenging. In Canada it is perhaps too easy to affect a measure of complacency even though, if you turn a few stones and look closely enough, our history holds plenty of darkness that seeps into the present day. And as the world effectively becomes smaller, racial and xenophobic tensions rise, examination of the legacy of our treatment of our Aboriginal populations takes greater precedent, and our commitment to true acceptance of diversity is properly addressed; literature that risks posing the questions that lack obvious answers will become more critical.

And more authentic.

An eclectic collection of my favourite reads of 2014

I am not a conventional book blogger and, as such, I only touched on a limited selection of the 45 or so books that I read this year. Sometimes I can’t help devoting a post to a book that has grabbed me or fits into the particular flow of my life which, since June, has been waylaid by mental health concerns. I do hope that in the new year I will have more of a bookish focus but I am still likely to concentrate on musing about books that resonate with life for me at that moment. I am a firm believer that we have a kind of karmic relationship with books, that when we encounter a book that encounter is coloured by where we are at that moment in time. It might be the perfect moment. But that perfect moment might be passed or not yet come.

At this time I am particularly concerned with innovative approaches to story telling, especially stories that seek to give life to real or difficult experiences. To that end I have veered into some contemporary experimental novels, not always with entirely satisfying results. However, three novels are clear standouts, one new, one translated for the first time this year and one from a few years back. I have touched on all three to a greater or lesser extent in past posts.

My Top Three:
seventerrorsfrontcover_50acc7efa1d7c_250x800r Seven Terrors, is the first novel by Bosnian writer Selvedin Avdic (Istros Books). Briefly, this is the story of a man who takes to his bed for nine months after his wife leaves him, emerging only when the daughter of a former colleague approaches him to help her find out what happened to her father who disappeared during the war. What ensues is on one level a detective story into which come elements of Bosnian folklore, politics, criminal interests and an increasing sense of madness. The Balkan war is only approached obliquely, primarily in the accompanying end notes. The overriding theme is one of the damage, collective and individual, that the horror has left in its wake. The book concludes with musings about, terror, philosophy and Bosnian mythology, followed by seven blank pages for the reader to use to record his or her own fears. I read this book back in February and it has continued to haunt me all year.

20797992The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves (CB Editions), a recently encountered treasure, is an inventive juxtaposition of the mundane everyday snippets of conversation, remembrances and idle thoughts, against the extraordinary musings and reflections about the nature of human existence. There is no singular voice, no story arc, no solid ground. But in this collection of fragments there lies the essence of a rich and deeply human experience, at once stripped down and laid bare as they are collected and made whole.

 

7199962

 

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (McClelland & Stewart), has been out for four years but I came to it this year, most specifically because I wanted to see how a personal experience could be pared down to its essentials and explored through the lens of time and memory. The result is some of the most evocative and precise writing about what it means to be grounded in ones self and in relation to others (or not); the allure of the road and the ambiguity of home; and, most vividly, the way that all truth lived is a fiction – one that is necessarily subjective. Galgut is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors and the opportunity to meet him and engage in an encouraging conversation about writing was the highlight of our local writer’s festival for me this fall.

Other books that had a particular impact on me this year included:

23626238I Refuse by Per Petterson. Recently translated, this latest book by another of my favourite writers is darker, richer and more complex than his masterful Out Stealing Horses. This book explores the memories of youth, the mystery and pain of mental illness, and the re-evaluations that mark mid-life. Like life, there are no neat, easy resolutions. I discussed this book in a recent post.

 

Pakistan

 

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh. This was a recommendation from a regular poster on the brilliant Tips, Links and Suggestions (TLS) blog of the Guardian Books website, a must stop for any avid reader who likes to talk about books, reading and that endless TBR list. I had never heard about this classic tale of the brutal fallout following partition in India in 1947 as communities were dismantled and muslims relocated north to Pakistan, hindus south to Gujarat. Countless men women and children failed to make it across the border alive. I am ashamed that it took the death of the author just shy of his 100th birthday to bring this brilliant book to my attention and all I can say is, if you have not done so, read it. It is important, deeply moving and the last few pages are the most agonizingly intense you will ever read. Enough said.

BarracudaBarracuda by Christos Tsiolkas. Honestly this is a book totally outside my comfort zone, I just am not inclined to huge sprawling dramas that take on all of the big issues of class, race, family, love, sex, death, success, failure etc, etc and clock in over 500 pages. Give me spare novels with lots of space for unresolved tension and moral ambiguity, thank you. So I was blindsided by how much I loved this book. It was, in part, a book I needed to read at the time, as I was coping with shame, desire for redemption and loss of identity following my breakdown earlier this year and uncertainty around my ability to return to a career I loved. It is also a skillfully crafted, fast moving and intensely powerful novel on every count. And it contains the best descriptions of brain injury in adults that I have ever seen in literature – the main character has a brain injured cousin and goes on to find in himself (though he fails to fully appreciate it) a gift for working with the disabled. Tsiolkas was another author I was fortunate to see interviewed live and speak to at length. I found him to be absolutely passionate about reading and writing and extremely kind and generous with his time and enthusiasm.

There were many other novels I enjoyed and more than a few that were mediocre at best.

GevisserIn non-fiction, I only read a handful of titles, but my favourite was Lost and Found in Johannesburg by Mark Gevisser. The author came to my attention as the result of his recent article in Granta previewing his current involvement in a global survey of sexuality and gender diversity and, although these interests are also reflected in this memoir, the book is a fascinating family history tracing his Jewish ancestors back to Lithuania, recounting his upbringing in a segregated South Africa and his discovery through a childhood obsession with maps that there were places in his own city seemingly inaccessible. Communities, he would discover, that black people emerged from and returned to each day, often very close but in another reality altogether. He takes the reader on a journey back in time to the activists who challenged the colour barrier early on (a nice dovetail with my reading of Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter this year), on a tour of the black communities as they exist today, and through the vivid horror of being held at gunpoint for three hours as he and two female friends were the victims of a home invasion in early 2012. It paints a stark and yet loving portrait of a difficult city.

SpaceFinally, my guilty pleasure is science fiction, generally veering to the weird. I regularly read J G Ballard and I did read Jeff VanderMeer’s acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy this year and although I loved the first two books, the third seemed to try to resolve things in a most awkward and unsatisfying way for me. So my pick of the year was also my first read of 2014, the last installment of M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, Empty Space. It was just as haunting and grotesque as one could want, assuming one wants such an experience. But for me Harrison is in a league of his own and I am even enough of a geek fan to have purchased single story chapbook signed by the man himself this year. So there.

I may finish a few more books before the year is out but this is the longest post I have written to date, so I will stop here.

Happy reading in 2015.