19 September, 2013

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard (1982)

Bernhard has a bit of a following but what a morose bunch they must be. Concrete is a novel in one unbroken paragraph - the anguished internal monologue of a miserable, petty man who wastes years of his life unable to start his great work. It's set in the 1980s but the sour narrator living off old money makes it seem 50 or so years earlier. Amongst the repetitive rambling is much truth, but it's comprehensively subsumed by many a vehement diatribe. Those directed at Bernhard's native Austria are at times breathtaking. He finishes off the novel very neatly but I think, ultimately, it's the relentless hate I can't bear. 

29 August, 2013

The Third Eye by T. Lobsang Rampa (1956)

This excellent read was published as the autobiography of a Tibetan monk, covering his life from childhood to a high ranking, aura-seeing lama. There are some remarkable scenes in the narrative, including monks flying inside giant kites high above mountain ravines and an arduous journey to the high Himalaya where they visit a verdant geothermal oasis and encounter yetis. Written in a very accessible style, it inspired many of today's Tibetologists to become interested in the field. Only problem is, the story was actually written by a 46 year old plumber from Devon. But I still loved it.

21 July, 2013

My Love Had a Black Speed Stripe by Henry Williams (1973)

A bloke, his missus and his Holden Monaro. I've not read anything that captures laconic Australian humour and idiom as well as this impossible to find book. The story is serviceable enough but it's the first person voice of Ron, a car factory line worker that steals the show - and it starts right from the opening line: "Love me, love my Holden. I laid that on the line with the missus before we were spliced." From what I can find, this was Williams' only novel and he wrote it after working in a car factory. It's a lovely ocker snapshot of the time and should be brought back into print.

23 June, 2013

The Green Child by Herbert Read (1935)

Based on a 12th century Suffolk legend about the appearance of two green-skinned children this, Read's only novel, is utterly unique. The three distinct sections of the story are so contrasting that the juxtaposition simply shouldn't work, but somehow it does. Read, a poet, anarchist and proponent of education through art, pens prose that can be serenely beautiful. Indeed, The Green Child is such a singular work, its meaning so slippery - seemingly eternal yet fleeting and trivial at the same time - that it has been quietly meditating in a corner of my mind for a while as its many layers slowly crystalise.

06 June, 2013

A Winter in the Hills by John Wain (1970)

A pleasant if pedestrian read. Wain is in that Nevile Shute vein of perfectly accomplished writers who never really reach any great heights. A Winter in the Hills tells the story of Roger, an academic, who heads to northern Wales to learn Welsh only to get involved in some local troubles. Wain does evoke the atmosphere of the small villages and the landscape of northern Wales very well but he is probably more notable for his participation in 'The Movement', a 1950s British poetry movement that included Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis and was a backlash against modernism and experimentation. Says it all really.

21 May, 2013

Hunger by Knut Hamsun (1890)

This bleak but compelling psychological portrait of a slightly unhinged and destitute young man struggling to establish himself as a writer while slowly starving has been called the novel from which all twentieth century literature sprang. It's a big claim but I prefer to see this work as part of a natural progression from Dostoevsky through to modernism. That's not to diminish Hunger in any way. Set on the streets of Oslo, this tale of a fellow full of frenzied, self-defeating idealism is said to be semi-autobiographical. Toward the end of his life Hamsun sympathised with fascism, something that has scarred his subsequent reputation.

29 April, 2013

Dibs: In Search of Self by Virginia Axline (1964)

Virginia Axline pioneered non-directive play therapy for disturbed children, and this is an account of her sessions with Dibs, a five year old boy from a wealthy family. Dibs was so uncommunicative and aggressive that he was almost considered retarded. His gradual emergence through Axline's gentle techniques is what makes this book a classic in its field, although I must admit to wondering how accurate her account was at times. But it's an incredible read and some of Axline's discoveries, such as that Dibs had secretly taught himself to read, were jawdropping. The identity of Dibs has never been revealed.

17 April, 2013

Carmen by Prosper Mérimée (1845)

This is the story upon which Bizet based his famous opera. While the novella gives much more by way of a backstory, the essential tale remains the same. Carmen, the impossibly 'illuring' gypsy woman, holds the Basque soldier Don José hopelessly in her thrall and leads him into a life of villainy. Set in majestic Andalusia, Carmen is equal parts romance and adventure, and the fall of Don José under Carmen's relentless spell has a sort of Shakespearean inevitability about it. It still speaks to us almost 170 years later because, well, we've all been there on one level or another. A deserved classic, but little read.

31 March, 2013

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)

This is a beautiful little book. Set in 1920, Tom Birkin has returned to England after WWI with a twitch and stammer to find his wife gone, so takes a job up in Yorkshire uncovering a medieval mural in a village church. He strikes up a friendship with a fellow veteran doing archaeological work in the churchyard and slowly integrates into the minutiae of village life, falling in love with the dour vicar's young wife along the way. Carr was almost 70 when he wrote this, and it shows. It feels long-distilled and the ending is wise, understated and magnificent.

15 March, 2013

Max Havelaar by Multatuli (1860)

I almost gave up on this one halfway through, but I'm glad I didn't. Max Havelaar tells the story of a minor Dutch official in colonial Java who becomes outraged at the way the local people are being exploited. It's somewhat autobiographical and while the book shocked Holland and eventually led to reforms, the author suffered the usual whistleblower's fate and died in exile, embittered. As a novel, Max Havelaar is often self-indulgent and you never quite know where it is heading, but it is redeemed by the strength of its message and prose that is passionate, surprisingly fresh, sometimes beautiful and often very funny.

28 February, 2013

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (1966)

Considered something of a classic and a very readable one at that, Salih's novel is narrated by a young man returning to his Sudanese village after studying abroad, only to find a mysterious man living there. That man confides that he too studied abroad and relates his time in England, his seduction of various Western women and the abiding sense that he was caught between two worlds. It all ties together in the end but some plot points do stretch credibility. Still, the frank discussion of sex must have made this book dynamite when first published in Arabic in 1966 and it remains a poignant meditation on colonialism.

11 February, 2013

The Last Kings of Thule by Jean Malaurie (1955)

In 1950, Malaurie, a French geographer/ethnographer, spent a year living with the most northern people on Earth - the Inughuit - while he mapped the northern reaches of Greenland and recorded their disappearing lifestyle. From hunting techniques and remarkable ice sea crossings to Canada, to consensual partner swapping to stay sane through the interminably long, dark winters, it is the irrepressible personalities of the Eskimos that really shine in this memorable book. The account finishes with the building of a huge, secret US airbase at Thule heralding the end of their harsh but happy traditional way of life – something subsequent editions go on to detail.

14 January, 2013

Turbott Wolfe by William Plomer (1926)

Turbott Wolfe exploded like a bomb upon publication in Plomer's native South Africa. Plomer was just 22 when he wrote this novel which brutally exposed the attitude of white South Africa toward the black population. That was crime enough, but it was the novel's unashamed embrace of interracial sex that really cemented its notoriety. The story centres around the title character, a young man running a store in a native reserve, who becomes appalled by his white neighbours and captivated by a young black woman. It's a stunning and amazingly prescient book - with an instructive but hefty 70 page introduction by Laurens van der Post.