In case you missed it (because I also missed it) A.L. KENNEDY JUST PUBLISHED A DR. WHO NOVEL. Sorry for the all-caps yelling. I can’t help it. GOOD GOD. Apparently she picked the Fourth Doctor (which, yeah, that would be her Doctor). If you follow this blog you know I am a huge fan of her work. This is wonderful and entirely strange news. I am speechless (sort of). Maybe I should repeat it: A.L. KENNEDY JUST PUBLISHED A DR. WHO NOVEL.
Mina, Denise (2005), Field of Blood, Little, Brown
So when I said there would be shorter reviews as well as longer ones, I actually had this book in mind. Denise Mina’s crime procedural Field of Blood is a fairly straightforward crime novel set in Glasgow in 1981. I read it on one long train ride between two university libraries and I enjoyed it so much that I somehow started to take notes on it (I can’t tell you why that’s a sign of enjoyment for me, it just is). While I find the genre very entertaining, I don’t actually read mysteries a whole lot; I am nevertheless aware that there’s a specific Scottish tradition of that kind of writing, although most of those books, like the vast oeuvre of Ian Rankin, are set in Edinburgh. While the basic tradition is mostly dominated by brooding male detectives, whose inner demons make for excellent drama to supplement the murder mystery, there have been quite a few important female writers. I have to admit to not having read any British examples, but the American writers I’ve read are all really good, among them Laura Lippman and Sara Gran. I even enjoy the faux-British mediocrity of Elizabeth George. It’s not a huge coincidence that the first names that came to mind are American or English. In a recent review/interview with brilliant Scottish novelist Janice Galloway, the interviewer writes: “[a]lthough Scottish fiction can boast a line of hard men […] its hard women have been less visible”. Galloway herself points to the dearth of role models when she started out. This translates into mystery writing, but just as there’s now a whole series of female Scottish writers (my personal adoration of A.L. Kennedy’s work is well known), the field of female writers of crime novels has also greatly expanded.
And yet, amidst the growing competition, Mina’s book stands out. Field of Blood is many things at once: a mystery, a brisk psychological study of a young woman in a male dominated field, but it’s also a tentative discussion of the cultural background of 1980s (and 1960s) Glasgow. It may be a reviewer’s cliché to say that a book is many things at once, but as I’ll point out later, it’s a salient observation in this case; it contributes to the way we read and understand the book. Field of Blood is constructed with all the trappings of the genre, but the material is smartly dealt with. The novel is a bit strangely structured, and while you get a clean resolution, Mina has sidestepped the temptation of tying everything up in a clean knot. In novels like these, finding the killer usually means finding someone complicit in the social struggles depicted. Unraveling the case leads to an unraveling of a part of history or contemporary society that the author intends to examine. Massimo Carlotto’s fascinating investigative noirs are an example, or to stay in Scotland, the very good crime novels of Val McDermid. In Field of Blood, however, the murder case and the social issues are -in many ways- separated, allowing the writer to offer a resolution to the plot without a solution to the broader issues. The protagonist may be personally connected to the case, but that’s just a plot device. There are other connections too, some reaching into old criminal history. It’s just a really well executed intelligent crime novel with an overwhelming sense of place and time.
The place in question is Glasgow which gives the book a more working class background. Glasgow and Edinburgh have been rivals in Scotland for centuries. According to Robert Crawford’s book On Glasgow and Edinburgh, the latter is a more European kind of city, filled with old buildings, centered around the arts (and banking these days), while Glasgow is a city of heavy industry, the Scottish equivalent of the North of England. And like in Liverpool and Manchester, the thatcherite 1980s were no joy for working class Glaswegians. As heavy industry slowly lost its importance, and the Tory government cracked down on unions and workers, these communities suffered greatly. But Mina goes a bit further and situates her protagonist in an Irish Catholic community. Back in the 19th century, a huge amount of poor Irish fled to Scotland and most of them settled around Glasgow and Dundee. The UK has had a difficult relationship to Catholicism in general and with the Irish in particular and so it’s no small wonder that the Irish Catholics in Scotland were not especially welcome. In 1929, not that long ago, the Church of Scotland published a pamphlet titled “The Menace of the Irish race to our Scottish Nationality”; the division between Catholics and Protestants has been an impactful one for Scotland, a division that extends to their two big football clubs, Celtic Glasgow (Irish Catholic) and the Glasgow Rangers (Protestant). The misgivings of the broader protestant society and administration and the resulting insularity and defensiveness of Irish Catholic communities plays a large role in Field of Blood, which is as much about a young woman coming into her own as it’s about the murder of a small child at the hands of two slightly older children.
That last remark is not a spoiler. In fact, the book leads with the scene of the murder and presents us two boys, unequally complicit in a horrible crime. The question that needs to be answered by the plot is whether the boys did the heinous deed alone or whether they were made to do it or maybe enticed into doing it. And even though I called it a procedural at the beginning, it doesn’t focus on the police at all. Instead, the focal point is a female journalist called Paddy Meehan. Her real name is Patricia, but everybody calls her Paddy, which has two effects. It confirms the social/ethnic background, literally naming her (Paddy is a stereotypical Irish name), and it ties her to a different (not fictional) person with the same name. Patrick ‘Paddy’ Meehan was at the center of a miscarriage of justice debate in the 1970s. A Glaswegian Irish Catholic, he was framed for a murder he did not commit. It took seven years for him to be pardoned, even though, shortly after the trial, someone else came forward and confessed to the murder. In his later years, ‘Paddy’ Meehan came to believe that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union, and had been involved in a prison escape by a British double agent, none of which was ever proven to be true. Field of Blood incorporates a retelling of Meehan’s life story in alternating chapters. They offer an uneasy current of counter-history that undermines the legitimacy of stories told in the present tense of the novel.
The main task of Meehan’s life story is to show and remind Patricia/Paddy of the unreliability of the police, especially where minorities are concerned. If they had had no problems framing Paddy Meehan for a murder, would they flinch from framing two Irish Catholic boys in order to have a presentable result to a tragedy that outraged the public? However, Mina also tells us about Meehan’s life as a spy and she does this in a way that does not really inform the reader of the truth of the matter. The situations that she vouches for as an author are ambiguous, involving unseen locations, cells, blindfolds. Other, less ambiguous scenes are offered us through Paddy Meehan’s voice, a cracked, slightly off kilter kind of voice. She never really ties these memories/delusions of her protagonist’s innocently jailed namesake to the main narrative, leaving it in the book just as a queer disturbance of epistemological clarity. This is especially important since the mystery genre has a particular relationship to that idea (I went on about it in my reviews of brilliant novels by Pynchon, and childishly flat novels by Charles Stross), and while we are not following detectives or policemen around, a similar connotation follows investigative reporters.
Patricia/Paddy isn’t quite an investigative reporter, but her investigation of this story represents her first attempt at being one. Her struggles as a woman at a newspaper filled with men is made explicit, and represent a variation on a theme that readers and viewers are fairly familiar with. And while we can assume she is about to carve out a place for herself in this male dominated world, that is not the most interesting emancipation. As an Irish Catholic, she is also strongly involved in that community, almost imprisoned by it. With no sexual experience, she is engaged to be married to a young man from the same community. She lives with her parents (as he lives with his) and goes to church every Sunday. While we soon understand that this community is oppressive to her, we are not asked to condemn the closely knit web of families and friends. Denise Mina makes it clear that this is a supportive community, with a closeness born from necessity and poverty. There is none of the common pat judgment of somewhat insular religious communities. When Paddy appears to betray them by writing an article, the community turns against her. However, this shunning of Paddy inadvertently frees her long enough to see why she has not been happy following the community traditions and eventually allowing her to emancipate herself from the ties that bound her.
The portrayal of Irish Catholics in Fields of Blood is done in broad strokes, which makes sense, given that it happens in brief intervals during breaks in the mystery plot. At the same time, it is fairly complex, an effect that is achieved by the mosaic-like technique Mina uses in her novel. She throws out all these elements (and there are more, including body image struggles and sexuality) and hopes for the sense of place that permeates everything to make it all cohere. In a sense we are cast as detectives here, as well, connecting all the elements of the book in order to see the whole picture. Choosing a female protagonist allowed Mina to also present to us, like fellow Glaswegian novelists Galloway and Kennedy (part-time in her case) did before her, the experience of growing up female in working class Glasgow. The book is not on par with Galloway’s or Kennedy’s work, but it doesn’t aim for that kind of literary discourse. It’s literary goals are different and clear – and clearly met. There are other excellent books about female detectives that show how feminity is under pressure both by criminals as well as by the police apparatus. Alison Littlewood’s recent fairy tale/serial killer novel The Path of Needles is a very good example of this. As for Mina’s novel, it exceeds even those books. Sure, there are minor incongruities that have the effect of sometimes making the book read like somebody’s debut novel (it’s actually her third book), but they are fleeting. If you enjoy reading crime novels, this is the book for you.
As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)
Kennedy, A.L. (2010), What Becomes, Vintage
I deeply love and admire the work of A. L. Kennedy, the Scottish writer of short stories, novels and screenplays, as well as part-time stand-up comic. Thus, the following (enthusiastic) review may be slightly biased. However, I don’t think I overreach by calling Kennedy not just a master of her craft, but a great writer, a rare writer. There is, for example, her versatility: in her novels and stories, A. L. Kennedy consistently proves herself to be a writer interested in and adapt at using complex literary techniques, including even being able to nimbly slip into a smooth postmodern playfulness at times, but I value Kennedy most for being an emotive, direct, personal writer who keeps moving and surprising me. At her best, she is able to command a language that seems simple and direct, almost autobiographical, but is actually the product of a writer in full control of her craft. If we compare her work at the sentence level in her most recent collection What Becomes with other contemporary short story writers, for example Bonnie Jo Campbell, finalist for the 2009 National Book Award with her collection American Salvage, we quickly see how unerring Kennedy’s syntactic precision is. There are very few living writers who can boast of writing so simple, so seemingly indulgent and emotional sentences, that nevertheless are anything but indulgent. Their craft isn’t obvious in the sense of simple musicality or strong stylistic oddities, it’s the way Kennedy adjusts and tucks at her syntax sentence after sentence, length, music, slipping from hypotactic into terse, punning paratactic sentences and back, whatever she does, everything is just right, everything seems intentional and careful, while writers like Campbell work with slabs of language, leaving a rough, muddy surface.
But language does not take center stage in Kennedy’s stories, the stories and the characters within them do. And here’s where her success is most visible: she almost always manages to completely inhibit her characters, no matter how different they are. Her writing is a writing from inside, a writing that does not use her characters’ particulars to hang a moral tale from them, she doesn’t present them on a literary platter so they’ll be of use them as objects judged and portrayed from the outside. Kennedy writes from within, and she does it with humor, and a quiet understanding. Of course, on the other hand, she doesn’t just serve up some random slice of life. Like most writers, Kennedy, too, has very specific obsessions, and a very specific slant on life, art and writing. Although the exact focus of her obsessions varies from book to book, all her work is united by a very distinct literary vision, and she has managed to improve upon her expression of this vision as her work slowly grew and started to develop a voice of its own. More and more, Kennedy has moved from expansive books like the magnificent Everything You Need, which took up too many issues to be perfectly successful in all of them, to far more precise collections like Indelible Acts, which focuses explicitly upon bodies and the acts (or rather: performances) we subject them to. Then, her previous novel Paradise looked on dependencies, alcoholism and the unraveling of a life in an unraveling of social relationships, just as her next novel, Day, was concerned with memory and violence. Reading Kennedy today is reading a writer who knows what she can do with language, and is perfectly comfortable in her own literary idiom.
That idiom includes idiosyncrasies that might bother first time readers, yet both they and veteran readers of Kennedy’s work will likely see that there’s a writer at work in What Becomes who is able to blend a vast variety of voices and devices into stories that feel extremely natural and direct, whether they are narrated by men or women. Kennedy is a writer of the interior, thoroughly, untiringly exploring the horribleness of empty contemporary lives. Or rather: lives that are commonly viewed and narrated as empty. The characters in What Becomes are filled with life, with hope and with dreams. Let down by partners, friends or down on their luck, they nevertheless try (and retry) to connect, to work things out. They get lost in the mechanics and particulars of the mundane, the cast reality of the objects that surround us, the objects that complement us. In the story “Confectioner’s Gold” (one of the collection’s best) there is a couple on the brink of failure, who get together one night, and gorge themselves on a lavish, decadent meal. They don’t enjoy themselves, they don’t eat because they love eating or spending time with one another, they eat because eating means not talking. This story is partly narrated by the husband, who, as we learned earlier in the story, in an unusually plain fashion, identifies with blind people he sees passing in front of his house. He ‘feels’ blind, although he isn’t. An angry man, angry with life, angry with his situation as a man, a husband, as a white person, he runs on entitlement, and we get the impression (though it is never spelled out) that the loss of privilege that progress forces on him makes him angry. There is no space in him to consider other people’s predicaments, people who are really handicapped. He represents the norm and his anger feels justified to him.
People like that husband, and disintegrating relationships like his, are, as in his case, created as a consummate mixture of interior and exterior explanations and visions. “Confectioner’s Gold” is a great story to use as example, because it is quite explicit about issues that are part of the underpinnings of Kennedy’s writing, and of the way it is connected to literary and cultural contexts. On the one hand, there are objects that are made to serve as extensions of the failing, miserable bodies of Kennedy’s protagonists. On the other hand, there is the city, the treatment if which sometimes seems to refer directly to writers like Walter Benjamin, and his theories (e.g. about the flâneur and his role in comprehending metropolitan reality). Benjamin is also important in his treatment of history, and his doubts about the veracity of accounts of the past, or rather: their reliability when dissociated from the present. What Becomes is very much about the future, as its title (which alludes to Jimmy Ruffin’s hit single “What becomes of the broken hearted” or rather the idiomatic expression that has been spun from it) demonstrates unequivocally. Although all of the stories have an uneasy but important link to the past, whether it is some unspoken, but still menacing falling-out, as in “Confectioner’s Gold”, or a past relationship, as in the title story, or an episode from childhood as in “Saturday Teatime”: the past is never quite confronted, except through the shambles it has made of the present. Sometimes, Kennedy’s characters try and cope with the past without confronting it at all, sometimes they try to mend it, sometimes it just ambushes them in a quiet moment of self-reflection. The central question of all these stories, in the face of a threatening, dark, unspeakable past, is: what now? How do I behave once my life has been broken by those once dear to me, or by myself? What will I do?
In all her work Kennedy has never asked this question so clearly, so urgently, and in many ways: this, I think, makes What Becomes her most old-fashioned work (and, incidentally, the book of hers that is least concerned with death.). In the tradition of ancient philosophy, this collection of stories take a look at the ars bene vivendi or the ars vitae, the art of how to live, the art of life. Now, this is a common theme in literature, and many writers focus on this aspect, but the concentration and precision of A. L. Kennedy’s new collection is note- and praiseworthy. The answer to the question of ‘What now?’ turns out, often as not, to be a question of whether or not to confront the past as represented by people we once knew and loved, people who let us down or whom we let down. Some people do both, as the protagonist in the title story, who confronts his former wife in her kitchen, cooking a meal, trying to persevere, to rekindle a flame long gone. On the other hand, once he starts to really comprehend that their marriage has failed, that they really are no longer an item, he flees into the obscure embrace of a cinema, preferring to sit in a dark room, while a movie plays in silence, instead of getting on with his life, forging a future. In this story, as in many others, the protagonist’s bodily reality almost merges with the objects around him, the tools he uses to create a reality for him. There is the blood that he sheds on the kitchen floor (and on the knife he uses to cut up vegetables), and there’s the broken movie reel in the cinema that fails to supply the movie with sound, mirroring his own self-imposed deafness. The protagonist cannot provide answers on how to deal with disaster, but his very helplessness is instructive, and the emotional core of the book.
Other stories, like “Wasps”, the short, devastating tale of a married man’s ‘second family’, the result of an affair that eventually metamorphosed into the family he visits on some weekends and on the occasional holiday, seem to come up with answers: “[t]his is a way to be ready when he finally doesn’t come back”; answers however, that aren’t helpful or teachable, that are testaments of a similar helplessness, a similar lack of resolve and willpower. This all the protagonists of What Becomes share: the gap between what they know or intuit should be done, and what they can get themselves to do. Even those whose acts show a willingness not to engage with the issues, to ignore them until they hopefully vanish of their own accord, even they clearly know how they should live, since their acts are mere acting out of rote roles and performed joylessly, mechanically. Even “Marriage”, the story that I feel is the harshest of the bunch, the most cynical, implies, in its blatant display of cynicism, how to live well, although its characters aren’t able to. The story, which closes with the firm assertion “This is exactly what it looks like. Marriage.”, portrays an estranged couple, which is brought together by an act of domestic violence. Hitting his wife in the face, the husband, who’s the story’s protagonist, not only manages to arouse himself, but also to bridge a gap of affections that had opened between him and his wife. The event leaves him as bruised emotionally as his wife is physically, and the final scene has them hold on to one another for comfort, for strength, to endure the present, and one another. Although in “Wasps”, the lover watches her almost-husband leave into a rainy night, holding on only to herself, while the lovers in “Marriage” have each other, it’s hard to say who’s lonelier.
It is quite the miracle that Kennedy can pull off stories like this one without having to enter precious melodrama (except for maybe one or two slips), and also without subscribing to the well-worn workshop mantra “show don’t tell”. In my reading experience, that mantra is helpful if writers lack the creative urge and talent to make ‘telling’ work. Stories are quickly uncluttered if one concentrates on ‘showing’, which also facilitates further editing. Raymond Carver is a rather notorious example of all this. When in 2009, the Library of America published Carver’s Collected Stories, the editors Stull and Caroll decided to include “Beginners”, a version of Carver’s first major collection of stories that did not contain his long-time editor Gordon Lish’s cuts. Lish is famous for having truncated Carver’s writing to the essentials, even adding and changing phrases to make the cuts fit and retain the mood. The resulting stories are breathtaking masterpieces of concision, both moving and trimmed of fat. The original stories are far less than that. Not only is the reader forced to wade through what feels like undisciplined blather, but the emotional force is blunted and dulled through Carver’s penchant for telling, for spelling things out that Lish had mercifully expurgated from the original publication. Carver’s Collected Stories are a lesson in the difficulties of making a strong, introspective interior voice work in the short story format and my having recently read them may have heightened my attention to this kind of writing, but upon closing What Becomes one really feels that Kennedy’s resounding success at it is more than commendable, it’s wondrous. Kennedy never sacrifices emotional impact for elaborate speechifying, she makes the voices work for her, wrenches melodies, surprises and modulations from them, grabbing its readers by the throat.
And at the same time, she is often very, very funny. There is no need for her to paint a bleak picture in doom and gloom. Her stories are filled to the brim with the fullness of life, whether it’s a discussion of orgasm, or a humorous narrative of being afraid of the dentist, whether it’s remembering Doctor Who in a flotation tank or trading books with a blond beauty. People in her stories don’t give up on life, although most just hang on, but at least they do that. I called What Becomes an ars vitae, and then went on to enumerate stories where none of the characters really show us how to live life well, which might seem contradictory, but then Kennedy is not a philosopher, she does not intend to provide us with lessons or teachable moments. Instead, her stories are powered by her characters’ own drive to live their life well and Kennedy shows herself to be both a deeply moral writer, touching on various political and philosophical issues, as well as a compassionate, beautifully open and accepting writer, who waits for her characters to come up with a solution of how to live their lives, how to deal with others and one’s own ugly self. The most sublimely moving moments are those where here characters have the will and the vision to re-design the future, if not for themselves, then for their children, to make sure they will not be as damaged, as warped as they themselves. Despite Kennedy’s reputation for being unremittingly bleak and despite, too, the darkness in these stories, none of them are without hope, without the tacit potential of a better, a brighter future. All this is presented in Kennedy’s inimitable style, in her unique lines that have both the brevity of punchlines, and the sinuous flow of human thoughts and feelings.
I know some people don’t take to Kennedy, incomprehensible as it is to me, yet I’d go so far as to recommend this book to everyone who likes to read short stories. Maybe Kennedy takes some getting used to, maybe her stark sense of the body and of the world of the corporeal and of objects, and the long ruminations of her characters are not for everybody, but A. L. Kennedy is easily one of the best writers of her generation, and What Becomes might just be the best introduction to her work one could wish for.
Kennedy, A.L. (2000), On Bullfighting, Yellow Jersey Press
Blood. That’s what you expect when you hear the word „Bullfighting“. Blood. Cruelty. Spaniards in tights. Bleeding Spaniards in tights. In terms of literature, the one writer who immediately comes to mind is Ernest Hemingway, the most ‘macho’ of American writers, who wrote a book about bullfighting, about the corrida, literally the running of the bull, Death in the Afternoon. Hemingway’s persona has so dominated any writing about the corrida that A.L. Kennedy, in her own account of the spectacle, economically called On Bullfighting, even visits a moderately famous bar to be able to tell a bar story, because „there has to be at least one bar“ in a book about bullfighting. Bullfighting has come to be seen as a province of the masculine, and just as machismo, has come to be regarded as outdated, outmoded.
On Bullfighting is a wondrous little book, hard to label, tough to slot into a place on the shelf. It is an intimate book, discussing matters of personal relevance, discussing pain and loss, bringing up sadness and exhaustion of the soul. On the other hand, it is quite an earnest, serious discussion of bullfighting, filled to the brim with facts and observations. Kennedy is careful, systematic, providing contexts and varying perspectives to the things she discusses. It is also a book on travel, on meeting a different country, a different culture, while at the same time having the same encounter on the page, reading books, an article. This is a perfect book. Perfectly calibrated, perfectly written. It’s smart, sane, beautiful and enlightening.
The narrative of the book starts in a room in the writer’s native Scotland, as she is about to step from a ledge and end her life. She chooses a quiet day so she’s not “gawped“ at when she dies, because “she’s had enough embarrassment for one life”, nor does she want to hurt or discomfort someone, since, after all, “[i]t’s only me I want to kill.” This situation came about due to a chain of events, including the loss of a loved one, making her “rather averagely brokenhearted” and, perhaps more importantly, the loss of her writing. We learn that she hasn’t written anything in a while:
I am a writer who doesn’t write and that makes me no-one at all. I don’t look very different but I have nothing of value inside.
She lives in a flat that she bought so she’d have room to write, it’s an apartment that contains a writer’s study which seems to her, now, a useless room.
It’s a bit strange to read this in a book that she’s evidently written afterward, and it demonstrates the irony, the inadequacy, ridiculousness, even, of such acts, which she is all too well aware of. But that does not keep her off the ledge. As the mighty Jean Améry, in his classic apologia of suicide, Hand an sich legen (review forthcoming), pointed out, the ridiculousness is caused by the ‘logic of life’ that governs much of our thinking, an imposed set of priorities, things as they ‘should’ be, an expression that refers, of course, to a conventional rule, irrational in the blind obeisance and self-reproducing logic it demands, like similar irrational idiocies like strict manners (all this depends upon the extent; there are cautious, simple versions that I would not describe as I have the stricter, more elaborate version).
So there she is, on the ledge, ready to take the leap. She’s taken off her shoes, which she does for anything important that demands her full attention, and waits, sinks into the moment, until, well, until an atrocious song is played, Mhairi’s Wedding, “pseudo-celtic pap” (listen to a rendition here). It mars the moment, divesting it of any kind of dignity, and thus prevents her from taking the leap. Instead, she takes an offer to write about the corrida and plunges herself into the research and the writing, even if it’s just to see whether something will come of this. From these beginnings, she spins a book that is a description “as accurate as possible” of the corrida, but it’s also about encounters on the frontier between life and death, it’s about faith, dignity, about, au fond, the human condition. I’m not reaching for too strong a description, because Kennedy’s interweaving of personal fear and faith and the fear and faith that permeates the spectacle, produces a potent mix that sheds light on far more than one person’s drama or the corrida.
Bullfighting is about taking and accepting personal risks, but not in the way that a Formula 1 driver or a boxer does, because, as Kennedy points out, the term “Bullfight” is woefully inadequate:
[T]he corrida is not, accurately speaking, a bullfight, although this is the standard English term for it. No man, as has often been noted, can actually fight half a ton or so of bull. What happens in the ring is more complicated, repellent, fascinating, grotesque, sacramental, ugly, ritualistic, haphazard, sacred and blasphemous than any fight.
It’s hard to improve upon this quote if you want a good and concise summary of two thirds of the book, as Kennedy spends much time looking into the history of the corrida, and relating it to literary, religious and historical contexts. She’s never scholarly, it’s just that when she needs to explain something, she has just the right facts on hand, presented in the right way to make sense of things. Because that is what it’s all about: making sense of things. Much of this book consists of preparations for her first actual corrida that she will watch with her own eyes, facts presented to us while we also follow her path through Spain, visiting places that are important to the corrida or at least to the history of the corrida. She reads stories while traveling and she tells us this. And she tells us stories, stories that are not clothed like stories, more like facts, but in actuality, these are stories.
Stories of the homosexual poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a huge fan of the corrida, who was murdered by fascists in the streets of Grenada, maybe for political reasons, maybe for his homosexuality. And stories of the Inquisition, of streets that converted Jews and Moors had to walk along to prove their conversion. Stories of dying matadors, of old matadors who play with bulls on their farms and shoot themselves when they’re no longer able to. Stories of poems about toreros, stories of dying horses, of ears cut and laps granted. Stories of modern commercial pressure taking over. Stories of vengeance but most of all: stories of fear. Ritual and faith is constantly evoked. Faith in surviving the next encounter with the bull. And ritual to assure this. Matadors are, Kennedy tells us, highly superstitious. After all, their life is on the line each time they go out there, in the afternoon, courting death, with glittering sword, and the traje de luces, the garb of lights. Stories of people stepping up to a ledge twice in an afternoon, meeting the bulls.
But we already established that the corrida is no actual fight. Kennedy tells us that trickery abounds. Bulls are slowed, weakened. When she describes her first corrida, she explains how the picadors and banderilleros, the first two waves of people attacking the bull, sticking various sharp objects in it, butcher the bull to such an extent that all that is left is a slow slab of meat waiting for the coup de grâce. Ideally, the matador only hurts the bull once, when he delivers one precise jab with his sword. In the meantime, he plays with the hurting, bleeding, tired animal. He has twelve minutes do do this. Twelve painful, long minutes for the bull, who isn’t even always killed as he should be. More often than not he’s hacked to death. The three waves of attacks all depend upon skill, and skilled killing of a bull is rare. Whatever merits, aesthetic or else, the corrida may have, can only be attributed to the good variety of it, the skilled one. I’ve seen clips of mediocre banderillero lancing their spears against a bull online. How I know they were mediocre? Because I’ve also seen clips of El Juli do it.
El Juli, whom Kennedy talks at length about, is one of the superstars of his profession, possibly the highest-paid matador in history, and one of the very few who sometimes does their own banderillero work (you can see small clips of him doing that in Shakira’s video “Te Dejo Madrid” (click here)). He’s elegant, direct, precise. His performances are like elegant dances with the bull. When he lances his banderillas, I’ve seen him reach right over the horns and let them fly, thus bringing himself right into the most dangerous zone of all. Because this is where the danger arises. This is where the encounter with death takes place. Here, where the torero places himself over the bull’s horns. The matador needs success, even the mediocre one, and in order to achieve success it’s not important to kill a bull, no the bull’s death is a foregone conclusion, it’s important to place yourself in danger, be brushed by the bull, reach over the horns, step to the side fractions before the bull turns his head.
Toreros are frequently injured, but the bull has little to do with it. The bull has been tortured and butchered into submission. He’s dangerous now, very much so, but only on close distances or when the matador makes a grave mistake. It’s about faith. Matadors are not suicidal. They have faith in things working out, in not being gored, in turning at the right second. In the end, it’s the matador’s decision. This is what Kennedy tells us, over and over again. Her stories always revert to the situation that is sketched at the beginning and is thus shown to be more than just the story of a lonely woman on a ledge. It’s the instinct, the urge to do something, to matter, or the absence of such an urge. And she finds it in the men who pretend to fight bulls but actually fight themselves. Thankfully, Kennedy spares us a discussion of animal rights here, because she knows as well as most of us do, that there are very few among us whose eating habits allow them an outrage that is not hypocrisy. Kennedy dives first into the details, then into the actual fights and returns then to herself again.
Which, of course, she reflects as well in this little marvel of a book. In a way it exemplifies James Clifford’s concept of travel which includes travel that the reader of a text can undertake. In On Bullfighting we have all sorts of travel rolled up into one. She reads books, travels the country and finally experiences a corrida. And all of this is narrated, from the outside as well as the inside. We see her on the stone steps of an arena, carrying two cameras, one pair of binoculars and a notebook. She’s an anxious observer. Anxious of her powers to record what she sees. To return to Jean Améry and the conventional opinion, the logic of life, force-fed to everyone. Yes, this is luxury, to be able to reject life, to endanger life, and it’s not something to do lightly, but it’s also a right or it should be. As we see Kennedy watching herself we cannot but see her also with the eyes of society and though she travels to Spain, she carries her own culture with her like a snail and warps our reading and understanding, which, again, is reflected in numerous ways. Read this book if you know little about the corrida and want to learn more. Read this book if you want your brain and heart to be engaged. Read this book if you want to read a great book. It’s small but one of her best, and she’s one of the best, in general.
As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)
Two clips with A.L. Kennedy talking. There are no words how much I admire Ms. Kennedy and her writing, she’s one of my top 5 favorite living writers in English. She’s also hilariously funny.
I don’t have a problem with death. No more than anyone else has. My problem is living. […] I look at my dead friend and all I want to do is understand why, if his death is so absolute, my life can’t be absolute, too. I want to know why I can’t be wholly living. Christ, it would take so little, so fucking little to do it, to let me be here properly. […] And don’t say that I should not look for contentment outside myself. Don’t fucking say it, because no one who fucking suggests that knows the first fucking thing about being lonely. A human fucking being cannot do everything entirely fucking alone, we’re not made to be sealed units, we’re meant to look outside ourselves, we’re meant to find joy in that, If there’s agod, he fucking made us that way. And don’t even start to tell me that was a loving act.
from A. L. Kennedy’s amazing novel Everything You Need.
Kennedy, A.L. (1998), Original Bliss, Vintage
A.L. Kennedy is one of my favorite writers, quite possibly my favorite living prose writer, but that ranking of writers is a shadowy business at best, anyway. I have been an avid and admiring reader of Kennedy’s work for years now, and my favorites among her books continue to shift. As a new collection of stories is about to be published, I took the opportunity of rereading one of her old ones. While Indelible Acts is my favorite collection of short stories of hers, Original Bliss, published in 1996, s not far behind. As much of Kennedy’s work, this book, too, explores the alleys and byways of human relationships; this time, she stresses the role of sex in all of this, the things we do, the lengths we go to in order to attain and maintain physical relationships with another human being, as well as the ways that our own psychological state influences and indeed often determines our performance in the arena of sexuality. Performance here does not, of course, mean the quality of one’s participation in the sexual act, the sexual prowess, so to say. No, it’s rather question as how much, for example, the sexual act has to do with intimacy, what physical contact with a different human being means to you. The answers that Original Bliss suggests to these questions are sometimes moving, sometimes disturbing or at least irritating. A.L. Kennedy has an uncanny knack for exploring the cracks in people’s perceptions of themselves and others. Although quite a lot happens in Original Bliss, perception is the true pivot for her masterful stories.
In Kennedy’s work, there are certain constants, obsessions, images that recur. She is a very funny writer, and she keeps writing about fundamentally dire situations or setups, but she never abandons her characters there. Her work is imbued by a warmth, a light; Kennedy understands her characters, she doesn’t present us their stories as anomalies to stare at: she gives her characters an opportunity to raise their voices. In my favorite novel of hers (keep in mind, as of today, I haven’t read Day yet), the wondrous, marvelous Everything You Need, this principle becomes the major topic of the book, which is as much about writing, that is: about finding and losing your voice, as it is about father-daughter relationships and other connections between friends, family and total strangers. Kennedy almost always opts for a personal narrator, because that offers her the opportunity to let her characters speak for themselves and not letting the whole thing veer off into confessional sob stories. The skill with which Kennedy navigates between objectivity or rather: restraint, on the one hand and subjectivity on the other, is remarkable. And you can’t usually tie her down to one mood or technique. As a writer of short prose, she’s extraordinarily inventive (within the constraints of what she considers worth telling). Her story collections usually glitter with moods and formal games, as well. In this sense, Original Bliss is very different. The whole book has a strongly claustrophobic feel to it, it is very concentrated upon its issue and its manifestations in different situations. It’s also Kennedy’s longest collection of short fiction so far, mostly because it not only contains ten short stories but also a novella (“Original Bliss”). Take care: the American edition of Original Bliss (and the German translation Gleissendes Glück) contains only the novella, for whatever barmy reason.
The ten stories function, intentionally or not, as a preparation of sorts for the novella which is uncharacteristically dark for a book of Kennedy’s. The first story, “Rockaway and the Draw” introduces many of the novella’s topics, but with a humorous twist, a lighter tone, which becomes obvious in passages such as this one:
At other times and in another country, that space had been her cunt. Ben called it his beaver. She supposed beaver was a nicer word than cunt. Ben’s beaver. She didn’t mind it being a beaver, she only found it odd that it wasn’t hers. Ben’s own genitals were quite attractive, but nothing on which she would stake a claim.
Suzanne, the story’s protagonist, keeps having dreams and visions of “a place called Rockaway where there is nothing but an old gas station and a man who waits.” For Suzanne, the sexual act does not mean or cause intimacy, it’s a “mutually agreeable overhaul”, actually well done on the part of Ben, who appears to do everything right that a partner should. He’s sensitive, intelligent, he listens to her and “[e]very single thing she liked: he remembered them all.” None of this, however, translates into intimacy for Suzanne, whose dreams and visions are often violent, and are marked by a desire to be elsewhere. We see how she’s, in her relations with Ben, alienated, distanced. Neither sexual acts nor what is commonly accepted as communication are helpful. Ben fails to break through to her inside, into her thinking process. Worried, he tells her “You think more than anyone I know” and she answers “I really can’t help it. That’s how I am.” Sexuality as immediate experience is juxtaposed with thinking and dreaming; her behavior as learn-able, perceivable, in other words: her performance is in conflict with her inner truth. Suzanne suffers from a divide between spiritual and carnal needs, which is at heart a split into two truths, none of which is privileged over the other; that conflict creates the unhappiness that pervades this collection. Most of the stories that follow and the novella, as well, evoke these two areas and place their characters’ needs and problems on one of them.
Suzanne’s lack of intimacy despite being physically intimate with someone is iterated in the next story, “Animal” which is about a TV actor who drops out of his TV show. The story shows him talking to the woman who’s responsible for wardrobe and make-up, talking to her for the last time, minutes before his last appearance on the set of the show. The animal of the title is the TV show and the apparatus that powers it:
I always think it looks as if the booms and cranes and cameras are all part of…I don’t know…an animal and sometimes it lets people inside amongst itself so they can play. It’s very beautiful.
Playing, assuming roles, performing, these are wildly important elements of human interaction as we know, and in Kennedy’s stories, these actions are tied up with sexual performance (or the lack of it). Thus, she can make pertinent observations about a very specific aspect of our everyday lives, without getting caught up in the nooks and crannies of sex. In “Rockaway and the Draw”, Ben, Suzanne’s beau, can only react to her visible performance, but her perception of her own self, which manifests itself in her dreams, is hidden from Ben and, presumably, from the rest of the world. This closes her off to intimacy, as I maintained earlier. Mark, the actor in “Animal”, is similarly hiding from the world; he, too, presents a performance of himself; a false one that does not correspond to his self-perception. He does not have any sex, but this is not the problem. Just like Suzanne he cannot really open his truth to others, he’s somehow closed off. In a way, his onscreen sex as Dr. Barber (that’s what his role is called) is the equivalent to Suzanne’s competent but ultimately empty sex life. Between these two stories, Kennedy has shifted the particulars by making the performance part an actual performance, but has kept the basic parameters without creating cliché characters. Both Mark and Suzanne are highly believable characters, thanks to her masterful use of their voices.
We witness a complete change in a different story, which is called “Groucho’s Moustache”, the story of an extremely gullible woman, who admits to her flaw without resentment. It’s just who she is. She cannot see through other people’s truths, for her, the performance is all there is. She appears to be incapable of seeing a role as a role, a lie as a lie; at the same time, this devalues truth for her, because she is well aware of her problem. She knows that what she thinks is a truth might well be a lie, even a transparent lie. Her distance is the opposite of Suzanne’s – it’s the spiritual side of things that’s somewhat shady, as far as she’s concerned; while Suzanne tries to get closer to her spiritual truths through her dreams and visions, the main character in “Groucho’s Moustache” needs the fixed, touchable truths of physical contacts. As she becomes enmeshed in an affair, she tells the man she’s with, “I want”,
And for one complete moment, ‘I want’ was the absolute truth.
And she’s far from being the only one in Original Bliss who hunts for physical truths. In “Breaking Sugar”, arguably the single most tender and beautiful story in the collection, breaking a sugar cube with a hammer in the darkness, in order to release a violet burst of light, is used as a metaphor for sex, for reasonably violent physical contact, which releases a different kind of truth than the standard, spiritual, kind. In the story that moved me most, “Far Gone”, a man travels to New York to pursue a woman he loves. He travels to NY in order to have sex with her. As the story progresses we learn that she’s taken, married, even, but he persists, he knows about her husband but he still comes over. He has absolute, complete faith in their future as a couple, there’s not a second of doubt; at the same time, he has already projected the anticipated sex act as a full success, which, in turn casts doubt upon his ‘knowledge’ of their future. His is a hunt for physical truths because he looks for sex to close the deal, to disperse her doubts, or to even convert her, so to say. He wants sex to transmit to her that which he holds to be true, his inner truth, sex is his means of opening up, of performing that inner truth; but here’s the kick: within the story, he never actually has sex, we just follow him on his journey, we don’t follow him to his destination, thus everything that pertains to the physical aspect remains within the realm of dreams, of his inner truth, including his resolve to really proposition her once he arrives.
I could go on this way for ages, since there are a few more stories I haven’t even mentioned. Kennedy’s nuanced and complex writing merits more than the quick readings, heavy on catchphrases, I have just offered. I cannot, however, talk about the book and not talk about the novella. As I said, the stories, in many more ways than I sketched above, feel like preparation for the novella, or rather: the novella appears to sum up many themes in the preceding stories and provide, at the book’s end, a kind of synthesis. The plot is as simple as it is weird. Mrs Brindle, a housewife, thoroughly unhappy at home, loses her ‘Original Bliss’, her ability to believe in God; this loss hits her like the loss of a close relative would. Devastated, in mourning, she comes upon the self-help books of Edward E. Gluck, a self-help guru, who tours the world, sells millions of books and may even be in the running for the Nobel prize. On a whim she travels to Stuttgart, where he’s having a talk. Their complicated relationship that develops from this is the topic of the novella. These two are both, in a way, in search of spiritual and bodily fulfillment, but they come from different situations. Bodily contact helps her free repressed portions of her self (à la Reich!), whereas contact with her spirit helps Gluck tackle his porno addiction. Gluck is completely desensitized, he’s thoroughly in thrall of the vices and temptations of the physical world.
These two strange characters subsequently attempt to help each other; the novella charts their successes and failures in this undertaking. It’s mostly dark, and powerful, full of twists and turns; all its events are basically pushed forward by the woman’s quest for happiness, or rather: bliss. It chronicles is a quest for regaining her capacities of belief, her original bliss. Kennedy’s spare writing and her wry humor do their utmost to convey the urgency of Mrs Brindle’s search. Neither Mrs Brindle nor A.L. Kennedy opt for easy solutions, which is one of the many strengths of Original Bliss. Kennedy creates completely believable characters in strange situations; unhappy characters who sometimes opt for strange solutions to their problems. Many of them just want to believe. In love, in friendship, in God. They crave that original bliss, that Urvertrauen. So they enter their respective stage, trying to find a role that works for them. Some manage, some don’t. Original Bliss, which offers us their stories and voices, always manages to find the right pitch, the right phrase, to make their stories work. If it is more claustrophobic than her other collections of stories, it’s because its even more coherent thematically than her already very coherent and rounded other collections, more passionately pursuing answers to basic questions, focusing on one aspect rather than on a buffet of human melancholy. Who are we? Why do we love? Who are we when we love? This is an extraordinary book.