When There’s a Knock on the Door at Night

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When There’s a Knock on the Door at Night
By Xabier P. DoCampo
Small Stations Press 

Some might contend there’s a certain suave subtlety about Galician literature; in which case, When There’s a Knock on the Door at Night is a prime example.

Having already received the Spanish National Book Award in 1995, these four short stories simply shimmer beneath the residue of understatement – which is to say they beguile and penetrate in equal measure.

There again, as Xabier P. DoCampo points out in the Author’s Note: ”I received so many stories by word of mouth that my soul is full of them. Stories that were told to me and that settled down to rest there. Stories like the ones I include here, which made me go to bed on many nights with fear; I would struggle to keep my eyes open and watch how the moonlight eased the darkness of the room; that slender light drove away my fear, and this enabled me to become master of the territory I was in. The secret was not to let myself be carried away to that other territory inhabited by monsters.”

”Monsters”, which, as we all well know, can invariably constitute a myriad of manifestation(s) – more often than not, of the elongated dark persuasion.

Such is the case with the final of the four stories regaled herein, ‘Happy Death Day;’
for as the title alone might suggest, one cannot help but want to delve ever further, ever deeper, unto this entanglement of dare I say it, strangeness:

Dear sir,
In the same way as people congratulate their friends when it’s the anniversary of the day they were born, so I send you my congratulations because today is the anniversary of the day you are going to die. It may sound like a joke, but I can assure you it isn’t […]. I understand that, to start with, this would appear to be bad news, but once you have recovered from the initial shock and have thought about it a little, you will realize this is a privilege more than anything else, because it will enable you to make preparations that few are allowed to carry out […].

Could you imagine receiving such a card (received in a so-called mourning envelope with a black ribbon running all around the edge)?

So yeah, if such doesn’t entice you to read on, then I don’t know what will.
(T)read carefully.

David Marx

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The Flame

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The Flame
By Leonard Cohen
Edited by Robert Faggen & Alexandra Pleshoyano
Canongate – £20.00

I drank a lot, i lost my job
I lived like nothing mattered.
then you stopped, and came across
my little bridge of fallen answers.

[…]

your remedies beneath my hand
your fingers in my hair
the kisses on our lips began
that ended everywhere.
[…]

and not because of what I’d lost
and not for what i’d mastered
you stopped for me, and came across
the bridge of fallen answers.

                                                               ‘Drank A Lot’

What can one possibly say about the wonderful Leonard Cohen that hasn’t already been eulogised and lamented upon since his passing in 2016?

Apart from the fact that The New York Times has since written: ”Leonard Cohen was the poet laureate of the lack, the psalmist of the privation, who made imperfection gorgeous,” and the equally wonderful Nick Cave has described him as: ”utterly unique and impossible to imitate no matter how hard we tried;” it is indeed, nigh impossible to capture everything the Canadian poet and musician was essentially about.

So might it not be wise to let (just some of) Cohen’s own work do the work?

The Flame is an immaculate conception/collection of his final poems, writings and illustrations, that he himself selected and collected in the final months of his life. Suffice to say, it sheds shards of luminous light unto much of the transcendental thinking for which Cohen was so renowned – from isolation to devout despair, from religion to the utmost capability of romance.

To be sure, these 270 pages (excluding his son, Adam Cohen’s Foreword, Editorial Note, Index of Titles, Drawings, First Lines and Acknowledgements) wholeheartedly substantiate the degree to which Cohen, like Dylan, always remained as strong a poet as he was a musician.

The above opening lines from ‘Drank A Lot’ suggest as much, wherein the opening stanza concludes with: ”my little bridge of fallen answers,’ while the conclusion of the sixth stanza (within the actual song) concludes with: ”the bridge of fallen answers (my italics). The metaphorical ‘bridge’ is no longer his; it has become the subject matter over which he now speaks – dare I say it, objectively. The eventual preponderance of which is delivered is most astutely suggested by stanza fourteen:

and every guiding light was gone
and every sweet direction-
the book of love I read was wrong
it had a happy ending

it had a happy ending (again, my italics).

So Cohen.
So idiosyncratically immaculate.
So deservedly devastating in intuition.

Likewise, many of the poems throughout The Flame – whether it’s ‘Homage To Rosengarten’:

As we walk hand in hand
Through the bewildering and shabby insignificance
Of our official corrected public and private daily lives
And here She is:
Fully born from herself

Or ‘Jan 15, 2007 Sicily Café’:

In the radiant light
Where there’s day and there’s night
And truth is the widest embrace

This is a book which both totally embraces and captures the essence of Cohen’s majestic brilliance (there again, he wrote it).

David Marx

 

Croatia

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Croatia
By Peter Dragicevich, Anthony Harm & Jessica Lee
Lonely Planet – £14.99

Croatia’s extraordinary island-speckled coastline is indisputably its main attraction. The first thing that strikes you is the remarkable clarity of the water. When it’s set against a dazzling white pebbly beach, it sparkles with a jewel-like intensity in shades of emerald and sapphire. There are long sandy and shingly stretches too – perfect for lazy days spent lounging and devouring trashy holiday novels. If all that sounds too relaxing, there are myriad water-based activities at hand to lure you off your sun-lounger – snorkelling, diving, kayaking, windsurfing and sailing, just for starters.

                                                                        (‘Welcome to Croatia’)

Just for starters indeed, as the above is a mere brief description of Croatia’s exceptional coastline and beaches; which, it does need to be said, is just one aspect of what the country is fundamentally about.

During the nineties, I delivered humanitarian aid during the former Yugoslavia’s truly horrendous civil war, which obviously entailed a very different perspective of that normally seen by casual visitors ”devouring trashy holiday novels.”

To say the least, it was an intense experience, which involved a lot of driving and a lot of sadness. Although within said sadness, there was immense deliberation upon the quintessential beauty of Croatia; quite simply because it is such a stunning place, as Peter Dragicevich, one of the writers of this Lonely Planet travel guide, points out early on: ”[…] it offers a unique combination of all the things I love: breathtaking natural beauty, great swimming, summertime sun, oodles of history, interesting architecture, incredible wine, delicious seafood…I could go on.”

It really is hard to disagree with him, which is why I recently opted to see the country through the eyes of Croatia, a sunny, informed, friendly, and altogether different introduction to that which I experienced in the early nineties.

Moreover, anyone visiting Croatia (or lest it be said, the region in general) ought to be overwhelmingly aware of the fact that the country is a somewhat fractured mixture of both and East (?) and West (?), as is more than cohesively touched upon within the section ‘The Croatian Mindset’: ”The vast majority of Croats have a strong cultural identification with Western Europe and draw a distinction between themselves and their ‘eastern’ neighbours in Bosnia, Montenegro and Serbia. The idea that Croatia is the last stop before the Ottoman/Orthodox east is prevalent in all segments of the population. Describing Croatia as part of Eastern Europe will not win you any friends. Some locals even balk at the term ‘Balkan,’ given the negative connotations that it carries. They’ll be quick to point out that Zagreb is actually further west than Vienna; that the nation is overwhelmingly Catholic, rather than Orthodox; and that they use the Latin alphabet, not Cyrillic.”

I like the fact that this travel guide doesn’t avoid the deeply embedded, far-and-wide ranging idiosyncrasies of Croats.
In fact if anything, it goes the other way!

That’s not to say it doesn’t touch on the country as a holiday nation.
Along with Croatia’s Top 17 at the immediate outset on page 8, these 377 pages (excluding Behind the Scenes, Index and Map Legend) include an array of maps, colour photographs, and all the usual sections Lonely Planet include such as: Need to Know, What’s New, If You Like, Month by Month, Itineraries, Travel with Children and of course, in-depth descriptions of all the different regions (Zagreb, Inland Croatia, Istria, Kvarner, Northern Dalmatia, Split & Central Dalmatia and finally Dubrovnik & Southern Dalmatia (the latter of which is truly lovely).

So yeah, here we have another highly recommended and superlative travel guide from Lonely Planet.

David Marx

Charlotte

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Charlotte
By David Foenkinos
Canongate – £12.99

She sits in a corner, hiding her face between her knees.
In order to find sleep, she goes through her memories.
They are the only place where tenderness remains.
She hears Paula’s voice, feels Alfred’s kisses.
Eyes closed, she travels through beauty.
Now a painting by Chagall appears.
She reconstructs it precisely, visualizing each detail.
For a long time, Charlotte strolls among the warm colours.
And finally she is able to fall asleep.

                                                                         (Part Seven)

This book might not be the easiest of reads – I don’t mean that to sound remotely negative as it’s truly magnificent – but simply because Charlotte is so tragically beautiful.
Beautiful as in the subject matter of the book itself and the prime protagonist of the same name.

Born in 1917 in Berlin, into a family stricken by suicide, Charlotte Salomon struggles on a number of emotional fronts: a history of her family’s misfortune, the Nazis rise to power in 1933 (and all its ghastly repercussions), a sublime love for/with a man named Arthur which is never essentially fulfilled; and, if all this weren’t enough, her extraordinary talent for painting. Hence the opening quote.

As a result, reading these 217 pages takes one on an extraordinary journey.
A journey, that if nothing else, puts ones’ own life into some sort of philosophical perspective – especially if going through a tough time oneself. This is something the reader is made acutely aware of, very early on in the book:

Her body, I imagine, being infiltrated by melancholy.
The kind of melancholy that devastates, that never goes away.
Happiness becomes an island in the past, unreachable.

Unreachable is rather key here, because almost everything the author David Foenkinos writes or alludes to, is never actually reached.
It is merely suggested.
The various subliminal possibilities remain firmly ensconced within the readers’ own imagination. And it is this which only partially explains the aforementioned journey; which, in and of itself, is never actually concluded.
Unless of course, one were to negotiate those infamous words by the great Billy Wilder: ”The optimists died in the gas chambers; the pessimists have pools in Beverley Hills” (referenced herein on page 51).

Suffice to say, melancholy is very much key throughout Charlotte, which, lest we remind ourselves, is also something one might need to embrace with the utmost caution – as the following suggests:

Faced with her mother’s mood swings, Charlotte is docile.
She tames her melancholy.
Is this how one becomes an artist?
By growing accustomed to the madness of others?

There are no (fundamental) paragraphs as such throughout; in fact most of the writing is akin to that of poetry, a quality I found complimentary to that of Charlotte herself.

In conclusion, I really cannot recommend this book more highly.
It has already won the Prix Renaudor along with the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens and sold more than half a million copies in France.

Furthermore, that it was translated by Sam Taylor – who has previously translated HHhH by Laurent Binet (another brilliant and most powerful book) – should come as no surprise. He clearly has great taste.

David Marx

The Italian Executioners

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The Italian Executioners –
The Genocide of the Jews of Italy
By Simon Levis Sullam
Princeton University Press – £21.00

[…] informing was mainly carried out by hundreds of non-Jewish Italians who grasped at the chance to make money, exact revenge, or remove an obstacle in their professional or personal sphere. A huge number of arrests and sequestrations or confiscations of property were carried out thanks to denunciations made both in person and anonymously. It is not war alone that turns men and women against their neighbours, it is also civil war – by definition a violent, fratricidal clash – as well as a context of genocide that identifies an enemy within, declaring them to be inferior and alien, authorizing their persecution, and legitimizing their victimization.

As the whole title of this most revealing, potent book might suggest, herein (essentially) lurks a re-confirmation of human nature’s innate penchant and potential for inbred, sadistic cruelty.

To be sure, as the above opening gambit illustrates – and then continues: ”Even those not actively involved, those without particular ideological ties, find themselves living in and adhering to a new system of norms that imposes – and in any case authorizes – the use of violence even against next-door neighbours, acquaintances, or friends. In this context, personal motivation, private hate, and the hope of making a quick profit can surface.’’

So if nothing else, The Italian Executioners – The Genocide of the Jews of Italy does make one wonder how human nature can be so overtly cruel, so very quickly.
And without hesitation.

The mere fact that Simon Levis Sullam has bequeathed as much to bear, already (not to mention) inadvertently, substantiates the validity of this most honest and courageous book.

As such, if Hitler’s vile regime unleashed anything upon the world, it was the cold and horrendous light of day knowledge that people were and can be horrendous anywhere and everywhere. And so far as the Second World War was/is concerned, not only was Germany capable of unspeakable cruelty, but also France and The Netherlands, Italy and even Poland – which as a nation, surely suffered more than most within said theatre of murder and hate.

All of whom were sometimes a little too zealous, a little too quick, to denounce their fellow Jewish compatriots.

In relation to Italy, Simon Levis Sullam herein presents a most troubling and unforgettable account of how ordinary Italians actively participated in the deportation of Italy’s Jews between 1943 and 1945 – when Mussolini’s collaborationist republic was under German occupation. As Robert Gordon of The Times Literary Supplement points out: ‘’[…]the picture Sullam paints is layered and locally inflected, rich with regional variation and human stories… The result is an important, proportionate, by turns angry and moving corrective: a call to complete the picture of Italy’s Holocaust, to set alongside the stories of witnesses and righteous rescuers, the portraits of the perpetrators.”

Indeed, while many historians have long believed Italians were relatively protective of Jews during this time, The Italian Executioners tells a very different story; recounting in vivid detail the shocking events of a period in which Italians set in motion almost half of the arrests that sent their Jewish compatriots to the concentration camp(s).

These collaborators ranged from ‘’petty informers to Fascist intellectuals – and their motives ran from greed to ideology,” qualities which again, remain an off-shoot trajectory of the aforementioned cruelty of human nature.

As Richard J.B. Bosworth, author of Mussolini’s Italy writes: ”Combining trenchant writing and scholarly rigor, The Italian Executioners is a brilliant exposure of how Italians were not always the ‘nice people; of the brava gente myth.’ One of the many virtues of Levis Sullam’s fine book is its accounts of such places as Venice and Florence, where it is time to accept that there is past darkness to go with all the light.’’

This book is a gripping revisionist history of Italy’s role in the Holocaust.
Brief and beautifully written, its difficult narrative shines a harsh spotlight on those who turned on their Jewish fellow citizens.
And rightly so.

David Marx

Autumn In Venice

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Autumn In Venice
Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse
By Andrea di Robilant
Atlantic Books – £9.99

Even if their relationship was not sexual, they now wrote to each other in the language of lovers.

                                                                                    (‘Crouching Beast’)

What is it with love?
What is it with obsession?
And is there a difference?

Really.

Is there a difference between these two things?
If such they be called.
Or referred to.
Or struggled with – amid the everyday (claustrophobic) condition, so disproportionately settled within ones’ own parameters of cloying madness.

For what is love if not some form of wretched illness?

One need only read this tantalisingly beguiling book on one of the finest writers of the twentieth century about Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse – the secondary title Autumn In Venice. A non-randomly depicted title if ever there was one, yet a fitting one nevertheless; for as so succinctly stated in The Daily Mail (of all places), Andrea di Robilant’s previous book ‘’A Venetian Affair has all the compelling, over-the-top inevitability of an opera.’’

A lot like this book to be honest, although I do have to say that the prime subject matter of much of Autumn In Venice is perhaps far more Shakespearian than Venetian – with Hemingway himself depicting ye merchant of the city he was so entranced by: ‘’It is sort of like having died and gone to Heaven, a place you’d figured never to see.’’

In the autumn of 1948, Hemingway and his fourth wife Mary, travelled for the first time to Venice, which he deemed ‘a goddam wonderful city.’ The writer was a year shy of his fiftieth birthday and hadn’t published a novel in almost a decade. At a duck shoot in the lagoon he meets and falls hopelessly in love with Adriana Ivancich – a seemingly striking Venetian girl, just out of finishing school. And that folks, is what these 306 pages (excluding Prologue, Acknowledgements, Notes to Pages, Select Bibliography and Index) is what this book is essentially about and focuses upon.

Although it does need to be said that the author, Andrea di Robilant (whose great uncle moved in Hemingway’s ever revolving circle of bon vivants, aristocrats and artists) does recreate what sounds like a tempestuous relationship to say the least – with overtly vivid clarity:

‘’’’Apart from babies in strollers,’’ he said, ‘’every male that passes by would come over and ask to marry you if he knew you and if he were not stupid. So would I, even though I am stupid.’’
‘’But you have Mary!’’
‘’Mary – solid, brave, courageous. Believe me, I am not ungrateful. But sometimes you travel a road together for a while and then each one goes in his direction. It has already happened to me. It would not happen with you. Because I love you in my heart and I can’t do anything about it.’’
Adriana felt her heart sink and stared out of the veranda. Was he going to propose? ‘’I could tell he was terribly serious, he wasn’t joking. I wanted to take a sip of my gin and tonic but I sat frozen. As if an avalanche was about to slide down from the mountain.’’
‘’I love you,’’ he said. And he added, in Italian, ‘Ti voglio bene.’ In the language of Dante it means you want the person you love to be well. I know what would make you happy. Even though you don’t say it, I know. I would live to make you happy, until the end of my life.’’

That the inevitable outcome doesn’t necessarily equate with said words, is of course, somewhat beside the point. But as I mentioned at the outset of this review:
What is it with love?
What is it with obsession?
And is there a difference?

I wouldn’t wholeheartedly agree with the New York Times Book Review whom describe
Autumn In Venice as ‘’splendidly engrossing,’’ but it is nevertheless ‘’an extraordinary story.’’

David Marx

Skint Estate

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Skint Estate
A Memoir of Poverty, Motherhood and Survival
By Cash Carraway
Ebury Press – £14.99

Poundland is burning and Sports Direct mugs are smashed across every UK high street. Stolen widescreens in every room, and we don’t even have a TV licence. Vile! Someone send Boris Johnson to Clapham and hand him a fucking broom, let’s restore order! Someone come and clean up the disorder us lone women spewed from our dirty cunts filled with sticky residue of the men we were never good enough for anyway. Peter Hitchens asks – Where’s the dad? Food bank misuse, Little Britain, Broken Britain, Black Dee from Benefits Street and Victorian baby farms. Big society? Bollox. Born out of wedlock? Bring back the 1834 poor law! Starve – them – all. Drug the weakest babies and sling them in the Thames! Throw us into asylums, let the Churches remove our children, let the doctors close our wombs, let us live in fear of Universal Credit rollouts as Katie Hopkins screeches – Where’s the dad?
We emasculate men for our own sexual gratification. We’re nothing but dirty bitches hunting for dick in the bin room on bin day to feed our reckless lifestyle choices for our free council homes and our food-bank hauls.

To suggest that this grimy-gritty; über-urban, overtly powerful book, is the perfect depiction of today’s even more Broken Britain than when said term was initially devised (by David Cameron no less – he of ultimate chagrin to that of the book’s authoress, Cash Carraway), wouldn’t be far off the mark.

As seen through the eyes of under-nourished children, poor women and poor mothers, Skint Estate is spot on. And perhaps more troubling, absolute.
Absolute in its poignant and socially tragic portrayal of what Britain has unfortunately devolved into: An utterly cold and myopic, misinformed and callous little island that is self-imploding by the day.

Hence the above opening gambit, which shoots straight from the hip of Carraway’s oft used, albeit perfect term, ”poverty porn.”

If the preposterous cancer of Brexit weren’t enough – upon which millions and millions and millions of pounds have been completely wasted – it is the inexorable, economic cleavage between the ever increasing poor, and the equally ever increasing rich, that is rampantly destroying what’s left of Dickensian Britain.

Among other tough issues, these 339 pages give a wide-eyed, honest account of what it’s like to be a single mother in today’s Food Bank Britain: ”We are a subculture of society who can barely afford to feed ourselves, yet we will never be deemed ”in need” enough to qualify for social housing. We pay market rents and share beds with our children. We dance the boundaries of benefits yet sometimes drift into a low tax bracket. We are ‘gig economy’ workers, void of rights, void of hours. We are zero. We are less than zero. We are forced into self-employment. We are Aldi’s target audience and the cause of Philip Hammond’s awkward smirk.
‘There are no unemployed,’ he lies. Thanks to people like me.
We take what we can, whenever we can. We’ll work at 4 am for less than minimum wage and at 11 pm for the same. We’ll work in exchange for a product that we might be able to shift on eBay. Anything, for anything. But it usually amounts to nothing.”

Indeed, it usually amounts to nothing.
So many continue to vouch for as much; while the ever braying sheep of dumb-fuck ideology – seemingly insistent upon leaving Europe ”cause it’s all them fucking-nigger-immigrants fault innit?” – continue to subscribe to Johnson’s greed-driven-division.

Moreover, it does need to be said that Skint Estate is just as equally entertaining in parts, as it is occasionally heartbreaking – as the following wholeheartedly substantiates: ”To make real money in the strip club you need to be mass market. Think Coldplay. Conventional, dull, yet ultimately solid songwriters. Think of yourself as the Chris Martin of strippers and you’re well on the way to being one of the club’s top earners.”

Although it is surely such one liners as the glib reflection of Carraway’s own high-octane, terrible, terrible reality; that places this book within the realm of a certain beautiful brilliance: ”Even the kebab shop paedophile who was advertising a mattress in a cupboard in exchange for sex rejected me.”

I’d like to think Amber Rudd read Skint Estate just before she resigned.
If not, I’d strongly, vehemently suggest the ENTIRE Tory Party read this book several times over. Simply because it’s:

Vivid.
Heartbreaking.
Powerful.
Real.
Entertaining.
Compassionate.
And spot-on.

David Marx