The Sheltering Sky, The Damned United, The Raven Tower and Lanark
I’ve been busy finishing my third novel. While I was wrestling with it over the last few months I managed to read a few books I’m now ready to recommend.
Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, first published in 1949, is the story of Kit and Port Moresby, Americans full of fashionably existential angst deciding to go travelling in the wilds of the Sahara desert. A Penguin ‘Red Classic’, I decided to give it a go in order to shake up my reading habits. The tone is set within the first paragraph:
He awoke, opened his eyes…He was somewhere, he had come back through vast regions from nowhere; there was the certitude of an infinite sadness at the core of his consciousness, but the sadness was reassuring
Full of the ennui of the aimless, wealthy western aesthete, Kit and Port eschew New York and a post-war Europe for something alien and, it feels, something to be masochistically endured. They bicker, they both need each other and yet can’t seem to find each other. With the handsome and intellectually empty Tunner that’s latched onto them, much to their frustration, they unravel both morally and mentally as the novel progresses. As with Anne Leckie’s The Raven Tower, which I’ll get to, it’s not a long book but it takes its time over what’s there. Bowles is a great prose stylist; his description of the madness of typhoid is peerless and I believe he is convincing in his depiction of the villages and ways of life of the people living in the shadow of the Sahara’s ergs. It is a space that easily annihilates people, present in every moment, every human cell.
You might be wondering why it is I recommend it, given what appears to be less than effusive praise. Like sand in a sandal, aptly, it’s been niggling in my thoughts as I’ve tried to shape what it is I might say about it. I’m not an astute interpreter of literary fiction, nor a competent guide to the layers within this novel, but I have no doubt it is a classic, because the sense of place, and the extremely well-painted protagonists, all the characters in fact, are conceived with great nuance and intimacy. The sentences of this book seem simple, but there is great labour hidden in every one of them.
The Damned United by David Peace will leave your fingers stained with nicotine, your head pounding with a hangover, desperate for another brandy, chasing every success like you’re chasing the dragon; a victory, euphoria, then emptiness, hate, despair. Love me. Love me. Love me.
Here is the story of the forty-odd days that Brian Clough managed Leeds United in 1974 along with the highs and lows of his career in football up to that point. It’s hard to recommend this book quite as thoroughly if you’re not aware even in passing of Brian Clough, one of England’s greatest football managers and easily its most charismatic. “Frank Sinatra? He met me once” is (more or less) the sublime one-liner that lays bare his ego and his self awareness of it. It’s the absolute blackness of despair and the shining heights of joy that constitute the only notes in this story, the conceit being that it’s in Clough’s mind. It is unlike any book I’ve read about football, or sport in general. It smokes forty a day, this Clough, and it jabs you in the eye and demands your worship and makes promises of glory it will deliver if you obey it utterly. It begins like this then never lets up:
Fields of loss and fields of hate, fields of blood and fields of war-
Their sport upon the walls, their sport upon the floor.
Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee…
In her shadow time.
On our terraces, in our cages, from Purgatorio we watch,
With our wings that cannot fly, our tongues that cannot speak:
‘Destroy her politics! Destroy her culture! Destroy her!’
But our wings are thick with tar, tongues heavy with her coin,
On our broken backs, our broken hearts, she’ll dine again tonight.
In her shadow place-
We are selfish men: Oh, Blake! Orwell! Raise us up, return to us again.
These civil wars of uncivil hearts, divided and now damned-
The old is dying and the new cannot be born-
By Elland Road, I sat down and wept, D.U.F.C.
We’re familiar with the phrase ‘hard sf”. I’d never thought of applying it to a fantasy novel until I read Anne Leckie’s The Raven Tower. It is narrated by a god that appears to be following Eolo, guard to the heir to the throne of Iraden who returns from the borders where he’s been protecting the realm to find that he has been replaced by his uncle. The god’s recollection of its own origin and its following of Eolo are two narrative threads woven together until they join near the end. Leckie does a fantastic and most thought-provoking origin story for this god and the overarching world-building that grows out of it, placing the events of Eolo’s story, the culture and history of Iraden and its own god, the Raven, solidly into the universe and its metaphysics. It is a slow book and to some it might read as a cold book, a book lacking heart, perhaps, for its narrator is, naturally, a most stoic and ancient thing, not human. Yet millennia of humans (and other gods) have, like waves on a shore, shaped and developed this god, who seems, at the end of this first book of a trilogy, to become a protagonist proper. I can’t recommend it enough if you’re after a quite different fantasy read. The last time I felt like this about fantasy’s possibilities was Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.
War is just a violent way of doing what half the people do calmly in peacetime: using the other half for food, heat, machinery and sexual pleasure. Man is the pie that bakes and eats himself, and the recipe is separation.
I recently described Lanark by Alasdair Gray as ‘Mieville meets DH Lawrence’. Considered one of the great Scottish novels, Lanark is a fourth wall-breaking hybrid of new-weird fantasy and searingly accurate coming-of-age literary fiction centred around the titular character. It is broken into four parts that are presented out of order and I won’t give the game away regarding how it breaks the fourth wall, except to say that what at first seems like a well-worn ploy quickly turns into a bitingly clever and acerbic deconstruction of fiction writing. Lanark’s story of his childhood in Glasgow and then the agony of his teenage insecurities resonated powerfully with me. The autobiographical nature of the story – the character’s asthma and eczema mirroring the author’s – are brilliantly observed but are then turned on their head when Lanark wakes from a moment of crisis to find himself aboard a train to the city of Unthank, and eventually then into ‘The Institute’ in some parallel universe. This latter fantasy, this strange, alternate world and how it entwines with his former life, is fascinating in itself, rich with social commentary of course, for there are obvious parallels with Glasgow in Unthank. You might find Lanark a frustrating guide, an emotionally stunted protagonist that gets very little right, but his is a compelling and bittersweet journey as the book follows his life. Gray is a great scholar of literature and it’s worn richly here, without being showy at all. His prose is brilliant; Lanark is a masterpiece because the agony of living and failing is here, the joys that are there are cherished for their brevity and power. It is as close to truth as fiction gets. I’m reminded of John Williams’ Stoner. There is no higher praise I can give than that.