I’m a little late in posting this, which is an indication of how busy the school holidays have been. However, this review of Conti’s intense and lyrical novel, Southeaster, which is published by And Other Stories and translated by Jon Lindsay Miles, went up on 3AM:Magazine’s website in August. You can read it here:
For the past two weeks I’ve been reading, or rather struggling through, Richard Jefferies’ Wild Life in a Southern County. This classic of nature writing was something I had been looking forward to reading, not least because the place it describes is not dissimilar to the chalk uplands close to my own childhood home. So why am I struggling so much with this book? Is it a problem with the writing or with me as a reader? I’m still trying to figure this out. Jeffries’ writing style can be intense. It is a bit like constantly looking at the world through magnifying glasses and binoculars. Detail piles on detail, and it seems as if nothing escapes his exacting gaze. Wild Life in a Southern County begins in the chalk downs and then follows the course of a stream through field and hedgerow, into a village, past a farmhouse, to an orchard, water meadows and an ash copse. The world evoked is one Jefferies knew well, that of a rural farming life that had barely changed in its traditions for centuries, but that was, in the 1870s, beginning feel the effects of an economy transformed by industrialisation. Jeffries takes care, not only to describe nature, but also people and the communities, charting their habits and behaviours much as he would do those of a rook or a starling. In this regard this book also reads somewhat like an early work of ethnography, describing the role of the tinker, the cobbler, and the millwright in village life. All well and good, perhaps?
There is much that beguiles. The description of a hawk’s flight in the opening chapter ‘Downs’, ‘partly on one side, like a skater sliding on the outer edge’, or that of the starlings’ evening mummerations —‘a black streak shoots upwards, spreads like smoke, parts in two, and wheels round back into the firs again.’ There is a precision here that stems from long acquaintance with this environment. If this book forwards any thesis, it is that the natural world does not act out of a mere infallible instinct, but that it is instead intelligent in its experiments. It is a theme Jefferies returns to on a number of occasions, describing the manner with which a line of ants, when encountering a barrier that disrupts their journey, will scout about until they find a way to bypass the obstacle, or the way sand martins pecked and dug at the mortar of an old wall, before abandoning the site. Of the latter Jefferies concludes that ‘the incident was clearly an experiment, and when they found it unsuccessful they desisted’.
One of the recent criticisms cast at nature writing in the wake of the recent contemporary upsurge of the genre is that landscape resists and transcends language, so that nature writing is thus a somewhat anthropomorphising enterprise. I feel that this sort of criticism rather misses the point that Jefferies seems instinctively to understand, that man, and his language, are not alien to the landscape but are as much a part of nature as a blackbird and its song. ‘The song that the lark or finch must sing’ is for Jefferies an indication how ‘the sense of living —the consciousness of seeing and feeling— is manifestly intense in them all’ and so to for the shepherd lad playing ‘from his heart and to himself’ on his wooden whistle so that ‘his simple notes harmonise with the open plain, the looming hills, the ruddy sunset’. There is, of course, a romanticisation going on here, but one that favours man as part of, rather than opposed to, the natural world. Jefferies only seems to describe the natural world in relation to the working man, the labourer, and the fieldworker, whereas the gentleman farmers and rural elite are curiously absent from most of his observations. It would perhaps be unfair to accuse Jefferies of being the rural Mayhew, but there is a sense that the ‘backwoods of primitive England’ which he describes are an abstraction from the political reality of rural life during the long depression of the nineteenth century.
So why is it that I fail to fully engage with Jefferies? I think it is partly because Jefferies the individual rarely comes into focus in his writing. I found myself wanting to know a little more about his purpose, his background, some autobiographical revelations that would place his observations into a context. There is hardly anything of this, beyond occasional references to hunting the very animals he describes, which doesn’t exactly endear him to a twenty-first century reader. Perhaps we are now used to encountering books which seamlessly blur the generic boundaries of autobiography and nature writing in a manner that would have seemed alien to Jefferies. And so I find myself reluctantly admitting my own failure as a reader who has become spoiled by the gains made through literary experimentation.
Published by Salt and edited by Nicholas Royle, the Best British Short Stories anthologies have, over the last few years, become the barometer by which to read the state of the short story form in these isles, a sensitive measure of its emerging trends and writers. Royle’s introduction points to the difficulties of selecting “the best” for such a volume when some of the more established authors cannot be included because their publishers ‘refuse permission on the grounds that the fee offered is too low’. At the other end of the scale many of the stories that appear in this anthology were first published by journals and magazines that simply cannot afford to both pay their authors and remain in print. It is fast becoming recognised that to have a story selected for this volume is an accolade commensurate with winning a high profile short story competition and one can only hope that in time attitudes will change. Royle is keen to highlight the health of the short story scene in the UK, singling out the ‘encouraging development’ of ‘the rise of the single short story publication — in the form of a chapbook or pamphlet’, as well as acknowledging print and online magazines, anthologies, and academic journals as potential arenas where the short story form can flourish.
It is no small source of pride for all involved that one of the journals that Royle points to is our very own Lighthouse Journal which he describes as ‘now essential’. It was in the Lighthouse submissions inbox that I first encountered two of the stories included in Best British Short Stories 2015. These are Emma Cleary’s ‘Lightbox’, a story alert to issues of privacy, voyeurism, and alienation in an age of social media, and Julianne Pachico’s irresistibly tense ‘Lucky’. Further evidence of Pachico’s great talent is evident in ‘The Tourists’ which was first published as a story single by Daunt Books. A double accolade then for Pachico, and richly deserved. ‘The Tourists’ presents the reader with an account of a drug baron’s party, the unnamed ‘he’ of the story as related by a shadowy and collective ‘us’. The enigmatic quality of the narrator’s voice, together with the steady drip feed of contextual detail, keeps the tension building, and holds back enough for the story to resonate long after its conclusion. Another writer to have appeared in Lighthouse is Jonathan Gibbs, although the story included here was published by the excellent Gorse journal. In ‘Festschrift’ he takes on the ever popular short story tropes of sex and death, exploring them within the context of a middle-aged academic’s attendance to a conference in honour of her terminally ill mentor. This is poised and elegant prose, writing which is alert to the limitations of language in articulating selfhood. ‘Words are a poor cloth in which to dress our acts,’ the narrator wryly observes of her own struggles to articulate her fears and desires. The relationship between self and language is also explored by Joanna Walsh, whose excellent stories I seem to be encountering everywhere at the moment. Her story ‘Worlds from the Word’s End’ imagines the nation falling silent, abandoning language and entering a post-linguistic condition of grunts and gestures, a state in which there are ‘no sayings, now, only doings.’ I admire the way Walsh has taken a basic situation and managed to worry and wring it for all its implications.
Two stories here are ekphratic responses of a sort. ‘The Iron Men’, by Bee Lewis, responds to Antony Gormley’s project Another Place (1997) which is now permanently homed on Crosby Beach near Liverpool. Lewis’s story imagines how personal tragedy might oxidise, turn a man to iron and rust. Neil Campbell’s story ‘LS Lowry/Man Lying on a Wall’ expresses the frustrations of a library worker on a health and safety course. It is noticeable home many of the stories in the anthology are set within the context of an institution of some sort. The academic conference of Gibb’s ‘Festschrift’, the health and safety course of Campbell’s story, the prison setting of Jenn Ashworth’s ‘Five Thousand Lads a Year’, the psychiatric hospital featured in Alan McCormick’s ‘Go Wild in the Country’, the clinic in Uschi Gatward’s ‘The Clinic’, as well as the schools and care homes mentioned in a number of other stories, all point to the ways in which our lives are unmeshed with the mechanisms of institutional power.
The magical, the uncanny, and the downright bizarre are often in evidence. The narrator of Helen Marshall’s ‘Secondhand Magic’ is gamey, a trickster, and thus a suitably resonant voice with which to relate the tale how a child’s obsession with magic tricks becomes something altogether darker. Alison Moore’s ‘Eastmouth’ flirts with the uncanny. The dark humour it contains provides relief from the unease created by the depictions of bleak seaside vistas and insular coastal inhabitants. In ‘The Lake Shore Limited’, KJ Orr gives us writing that is stealthy, allowing the reader to piece the story together from fragments, glimpses, moments of the whole. ‘The Common People’ by Rebecca Swirsky feels allegorical, and possesses the intensity of a story by Franz Kafka, as if it is (to paraphrase Walter Benjamin) a parable that does not quite smooth out into a simple moral but rather reveals a greater and more puzzling complexity.
The most prominent writer included in Best British Short Stories 2015 is undoubtedly Hilary Mantel, and Royle extends praise to both the author and her publisher, Hapercollins, for allowing her story to be reprinted. ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. August 6th 1983’ achieved a certain notoriety when it appeared in the Guardian last year causing Tory politicians and sympathisers to close ranks and condemn it, presumably without having read it. The title is self explanatory, and what I loved about this story is not only the way Mantel manages to explore the class tensions of the Thatcher era, but also the way she presents us with fiction as a doorway through which we might imagine what could have been, and by doing so highlighting how very fragile our historical present actually is. And it is surely this ability to open portals onto other worlds, minds, and realities, that is being celebrated in this anthology. The story is the incantation that can open such hitherto unseen gateways. Unlike the novel, the short story holds the attention of a reader over the span of a single sitting, cajoling and challenging by degrees over a time span of ten to thirty minutes, casting on the reader the spell of the story. An anthology such as this is able to take the short story from the often limited circulation of literary journals and present it to a wider readership, with an invitation, as Mantel puts it, to ‘note the power of the door in the wall that you never saw was there.’
Robert MacFarlane’s fifth book, Landmarks, is a celebration of language and landscape, and the various ways in which nature writers have responded to particular topographies and natural phenomena. For some time now I have become increasingly interested in ‘place’, both rural and urban, and how it relates to ‘memory’, and in how the words we use for different places might be considered cultural-linguistic memories. Macfarlane shares similar concerns, demonstrating how certain place words function as ‘topograms — tiny poems that conjure scenes’ (6) or how others ‘are eldritch, acknowledging a sense or our landscapes not as settled but as unsettling’ (7) and in his accounts of his travels he is alert to how place can evoke a sense of the uncanny, in ‘convergences that pressed at the limits of coincidence and tended to the eerie’ (13). The attuned linguistic responses to landscape of the various authors discussed by Macfarlane are grounded in, if not the uncanny, then in similarly difficult to account for experiences.
Macfarlane argues that the progress and acceleration of modernity has resulted in a word-loss every bit as dramatic as species loss. His view is that we are losing the language needed to articulate our relationship with nature, and that the various nouns that have gathered over the centuries in regional dialects, their roots often buried deep in precursor languages, to describe specific aspects of the landscape and our place within it, are being forgotten, collectively culled from our linguistic memory.
Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. (p.24)
Macfarlane’s fairly bleak suggestion that rationalism has resulted in a disenchantment with landscape and the natural world, his claim that ‘in modernity, mastery usurps mystery’ (p.25), is counter-balanced by the hope he sees in language, which he argues ‘is fundamental to the possibility of re-wonderment’ (25), and in those who have toiled through literary endeavour to express their relationship with nature and landscape.
Macfarlane seems most interested in writers whose lives are non-conformist and whose works are generically transgressive, outsiders who push at the borders of linguistic and stylistic possibility in order to articulate a particular vision or relationship with a landscape. Each chapter focuses on a particular topography and on an author that has influenced Macfarlane’s understanding of that landscape. There is a concern here for the differing ways in which we perceive landscape, with vision in both a literal and metaphysical sense. It is a motif that turns up in Macfarlane’s account of the ‘accidental magic’ brought on by ‘mountain illusions’ (68), and that recurs in his description of J.A. Baker’s evocation of the perspective of a peregrine falcon, and once again in Macfarlane’s argument that the childish imagination perceives multiple landscapes, magical and metaphorical, contiguous with the rational adult world. In the beginning of his chapter, ‘Hunting Life’, Macfarlane gives a demonstration of how J.A. Baker developed his abstract, modernist prose style, by imitating it and then working backwards towards a more straightforward description of the images and events being depicted. By doing so, Macfarlane shows us how we can learn to see nature in new ways through contact with the unique visions that are bound up in such literature and language.
The chapters are interspersed with glossaries of lost or endangered landscape words, a word-hoard of the type discussed in his opening chapters. It was puzzling to know how to approach these word lists. I found myself skipping back and forth, looking first for words I recognised, and then for words which came from East Anglia, my home region, or the West Country, where I grew up. It reminded me, strangely, of a book I was obsessed with in my early teens by A.D. Mills called Dorset Place-Names. This gem of a book, which I picked up in the “local interest” section of a long lost independent bookseller on Shaftesbury High Street, listed alphabetically the names of every town, village, river, monument, and significant feature on the 1:50000 ordnance survey map of Dorset, along with their origins and meanings. Like this book, MacFarlane’s glossary reminds us that the place names around us are loaded with meanings we have forgotten, such as the word winterbourne, an ‘intermittent or ephemeral stream, dry in the summer and running in winter, usually found in chalk and limestone regions’ (123), which I recognised from a number of villages prefixed with the word in the chalk downs close to my childhood home. The glossaries remind us of the vast repository of language, a recorded memory of nouns, available to us to describe the precise phenomena of the natural world should we chose to re-engage with it.
Macfarlane’s call is for us to develop a more attentive relationship with the natural world, offering up the likes of Richard Jeffries’s meticulous observations of suburban nature and John Muir’s wild abandonment to the trees of the Sierra Nevada as inspirational examples of the sorts of the connections we can form with landscapes. As my reading of Landmarks progressed I found myself paying more attention to the birds visiting my suburban garden and to the wildflowers that have propagated in the gravel on my drive. The long neglected Observer Books of my childhood, relics of a time when children were expected to look outwards to the natural world, to be in rather than on the world, have been dusted off, along with my father’s lightweight field glasses. Macfarlane has written an oddly personal, affecting, transformative book, in sparkling and eloquent prose. This is literary criticism, nature writing, and memoir all rolled into one. It is both scholarly and conversational, and like the many books and individuals discussed in its chapters, it refuses to conform.