Paperbacks: Sea Stories: New Writing from the National Maritime MuseumWish Her Safe at HomeAller Retour New York, By Henry MillerThe Private Lives of the ImpressionistsNobody's Home, By Dubravka Ugresic
Sunday 14 October 2007
Sea Stories: New Writing from the National Maritime Museum (NMM £7.99)
This wonderful collection of new short stories inspired by the sea contains many surprises. Lovers of maritime writing will find it no surprise, though, to see Sam Llewellyn, an experienced sailor, included. His strong political views on the fishing industry are skilfully presented in "The Shoals", a story compelling not just for the bitter slice of history it serves up but for the extraordinary way that he invokes the all-consuming power of the sea. Growing up in Norfolk at the end of the 19th century, Alexander Rourke soon makes himself as unpopular as his father, the local gamekeeper. While other boys are happy to fish with a simple rod and line, Alexander finds it more effective to use a net – the same net his father accidentally drowns in. When his mother dies, Alexander buys a boat with stolen money and eventually invests in a trawler that catches so many fish in its vast nets that the traditional ways of fishing become impossible. As Alexander grows wealthier the Norfolk fishermen are left with the choice of either working on his fleet or going to the workhouse.
Roger Hubank's "The Island" tells of a young woman returning to the small fishing community where she grew up, to accompany her father on his annual pilgrimage to her mother's grave. A story about how easily people can become trapped by the past – or perhaps why the past can seem so attractive when your life is tied to something as unpredictable and overpowering as the sea – it includes some beautiful descriptions of Orkney seascapes.
What makes this collection so special, though, is the inclusion of work by such unorthodox writers as Niall Griffiths. His nightmarish "Bathyspheres" tells of a terrible descent to the depths of the ocean: "I thought I'd never stop sinking. Had an image of myself, a tiny dot in a blackness so big that it couldn't be measured. Like one star in space."
Wish Her Safe at Home, By Stephen Benatar (Welbeck Modern Classics £7.99)
When Rachel Waring, "dull, diffident... middle aged", inherits a large house full of antique furniture from her reclusive great-aunt Alicia, she decides she simply has to go and live there. This strikes the reader as a curious decision, as Alicia had spent her last days there with the body of her maid, Bridget, who'd killed herself. In the months leading up to Bridget's death, neighbours regularly reported hearing screams from both old women, who appeared to be senile. Rachel, however, seems effervescently happy.
Given the choice between what she calls the "glooms" – dark reflections on her sad, unfulfilled life – and carrying on regardless, Rachel decides to do the latter, tumbling into madness. As a young girl she retreated into a private world with fictional friends taken from novels; as a woman she believes she has many lovers, including a dead philanthropist and her vicar.
Originally published in 1982 this horrifying exploration of madness at least deserves to be called a cult classic.
Aller Retour New York, By Henry Miller (Hesperus £8.99)
When Henry Miller returned to New York from his adopted home, Paris, in 1935 he wrote about the journey for one of his friends. Reprinted more than 70 years later, his account still has the power to offend – which would probably have delighted him.
In between the blustering misogyny ("Women are better off in the countries where they are supposedly mistreated") and racial swipes of the kind common to much pre-war American literature ("All these movie houses were once good theatres; now they are filled with chinks, wops, polkas, litvaks, mocks, croats, finns") there are, however, some arresting moments. During his voyage he remarks on how the ship's captain entertains society women on the poop deck while keeping an eye on his crew through his opera glasses. Contemplating flying, "that obsession for the air which seems to have the Americans by the balls", he talks about moving into a mystic dimension where the passion for speed ends. Standing at a cigar store he meets a circus animal trainer called Will Self.
The Private Lives of the Impressionists, By Sue Roe (Vintage £9.99)
The idea of artists as lonely figures quietly starving in depressing garrets still has some currency. Roe's meticulously researched account of what the French impressionist painters went through shows where a large part of that idea stems from; although canvases by these artists sell for millions of pounds today, their work was ignored or mocked when first shown.
Of course this isn't exactly news and, although Pissarro's time in England (living in suburban Norwood), Degas's obsession with the underdogs of Parisian life, and Renoir's struggles as a penniless artist are covered in detail, it's the broader sweep of history Roe captures, from the siege of Paris to the first impressionist adventures abroad, that is impressive.
When the work was first exhibited by Paul and Charles Durand-Ruel in New York in 1886, there was "none of the ferocious uproar the impressionists had initially aroused in their own country. The luxurious rooms in Madison Square were quiet, as viewers looked thoughtfully at paintings... which represented two and a half decades of dedication and struggle."
Nobody's Home, By Dubravka Ugresic (Telegram £9.99)
Ugresic is Croatian, although she has lived in self-imposed exile since taking issue with Croatia's late president, Franjo Tudjman, in the early 1990s. This collection of her essays glitters with witty and profound observations on modern Europe.
"What Is European about European Literature?" she asks, before arriving at her conclusions by way of some sparkling asides on the Eurovision song contest. Winners of awards such as the Man Booker Prize behave, she suggests, remarkably like kitsch pop stars.
Elsewhere she declares: "Cities are like coats... The relationship between a coat and its owner is a personal one; the same can be said of the relationship between a city and its inhabitants"; and that, while Eastern Europe is becoming modernised, Western Europe is growing increasingly Sovietised. A genuinely free-thinker, Ugresic's attachment to absurdity leads her down paths where other writers fear to tread. How rewarding a reader finds these wanderings depends to an extent on his or her ability to digest the entire book as a whole.
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