Category Archives: Short Stories

The Rub Of Time

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The Rub Of Time
By Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape – £20.00

”We should bear in mind, I think, that the phrase ‘power corrupts’ isn’t just a metaphor.”

(‘Politics -1’)

”The imagination has its ‘eternal naivete’ – and that is something the writer cannot afford to lose.”

(‘Twin Peaks – 2’)

”It is Jane Austen’s world, in a sense; but the invigorating intelligence is gone, to be supplanted by a simper of ingratiation. Here, the upper crust is playing cute. Dilemmas and entanglements are not admitted to Four Weddings. Nothing weighs anything at all.”

(‘Jane Austen and the Dream Factory’)

As with so much of the provocative and tantalisingly tempestuous writing throughout Martin Amis’s The Rub Of Time, its 340 pages (excluding Author’s Notes and Acknowledgements and Index), invariably bequeath the reader with an ever widening gambit of both occasionally perplexing and philosophical preponderance.

To be sure, he leaves one gasping for literary breath, which to my mind, can only ever be good thing.

But in order to fully comprehend all of where he’s coming from, might I suggest reading The Rub Of Time in stages. Reason being, the more one reads, the more ones’ own (occasionally) complicated compass will inevitably need to re-adjust; if not re-align itself with ones’ own pre-ordained knowledge. That said, when Martin Amis hits his mark – which he so gloriously does again and again and again amid this book’s fourteen chapters – he truly hits the mark in such a way that is nigh beyond compare.

His writing on the death of Princess Diana, perhaps being the most pristine example herein: ”Above all else will be remembered as a phenomenon of pure stardom. Her death was a terrible symbol of that condition. She takes her place among the broken glass and crushed metal, in the iconography of the car crash, alongside James Dean, Albert Camus, Jayne Mansfield, and Princess Grace. These other victims died unpursued. They weren’t fleeing the pointed end of their own renown: men on motorcycles with computerized cameras and satellite-linked mobile phones. The paparazzi are the high-tech dogs of fame. But it must be admitted that we sent them into the tunnel, to nourish our own mysterious needs” (‘The House Of Windsor’).

How excorciatingly sad; but hey, true.
And I for one, am so very grateful that someone has finally come out and admitted as much.

Moreover, there are numerous examples of such pin-point, social accuracy throughout this book; surely the most strident and highly entertaining being that towards the end of chapter twelve’s ‘Literature – 3,’ where the author so beguilingly writes: ”About eighteen months ago (in the summer of 1996) I went to see Four Weddings and a Funeral) at a North London cineplex. Very soon I was filled with a yearning to be doing something else (for example, standing at a bus stop in the rain); and under normal circumstances I would have walked out after ten or fifteen minutes. But these weren’t normal circumstances. Beside me sat Salman Rushdie. For various reasons – various security reasons – we had to stay. Thus the Ayatollah Khomeini had condemned me to sit through Four Weddings and a Funeral; and no Iranian torturer could have elicited a greater variety of winces and flinches, of pleadings and whimperings. So one was obliged to submit, and absorb a few social issues […].
‘Well,’ I said, when it was over, ‘that was bottomlessly horrible. Why is it so popular?’
‘Because,’said Salman,’ the world has bad taste. Didn’t you know that?’ (‘Jane Austen and the Dream Factory’).

The world, or the UK at least, does indeed have bad, if not excruciatingly bad taste.
One need look no further than the almost unwatchable and utterly irrational televised vomit that is Ant and Dec. In fact, I’d be highly curious to hear what Amis might have to say about those two hugely popular, custard filled egos; who really are about as entertaining as year old cement.

Perhaps less so – at least year old cement isn’t obsequiously annoying.

Alas, the world is condemned to be forever blighted by horrific taste; which is why The Rub Of Time (Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta,Trump And Other Pieces, 1994-2016), makes for such compelling, wonderfully intelligent and what’s more, contagiously amusing writing as that cited above.

Anxiously awaiting the next instalment.

David Marx

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Devotion

patti

Devotion
By Patti Smith
Yale University Press – £12.99

I lay there replaying a slow pan of the banished human chain winding through a relentless flurry of white petals. Chrysanthemums. Yes! Branches of them and the wretched train of life blurring past. Yet returning to the same bit of film I had viewed earlier, I find no such scene.

          (How the Mind Works)

She lived only for skating, she told herself; there was no room for anything else. Not love, school, or scraping the walls of memory. Negotiating a bouquet of confusion, the lace on her skate broke in her hand. She quickly knotted it, then unfastened the skirt of her new coat and stepped onto the ice.
– I am Eugenia, she said, to no one in particular.

          (Devotion)

Amid the current tirade of so much terrible, terrible writing – seems just one appearance on the deplorable I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here entitles one to a publishing deal so’s to (try) and write of feeble, over-blown self-importance – it is something of a moral, as well as literary catharsis, to be reminded that writing of this calibre still exists.

Is still being reached for.
Is still being pondered over.

Damn it, is still being written; it kinda takes your breath away.
And then some.

There again, we are talking about Patti Smith, authoress of astounding visionary prowess; who, has often stood alone (down the years). Alone amid the sheer sparkling resonance of having raised the literary bar to such an unequivocal extent, it’s hard to think of a current writer who comes anywhere near close (the terrific Canadian poet, Bruce McRae perhaps).

Close that is, on such a regularly unforeseen basis:

Only the relics of consumption
wrapped in the silk of existence

          (Ashford)

Devotion, the title story, has to be one of the most soaringly beautiful short stories I have ever read. It encapsulates and embraces the imagination like nothing else this side of W. H. Auden. It is so tender, yet simultaneously dark in equal measure, it nigh defies description.

To be sure, any form of description and evaluation would not do it justice.
It cries out to be read.

As part of the ‘Why I Write’ series, Smith writes in concordance with both her heart and a surrender to the knowledge of her vast and most honest experience; a quality she makes devastatingly clear in ‘A Dream Is Not a Dream’ where she writes:
”What is the task? To compose a work that communicates on several levels, as in a parable, devoid of the stain of cleverness.
What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am, and what would justify my trials and indiscretions. To offer proof, through a scramble of words, that God exists.
Why do I write? My finger, as a stylus, traces the question in the blank air. A familiar riddle posed since youth, girded with words, a beat outside.
Why do we write? A chorus erupts.
Because we cannot simply live.”

Indeed, we cannot simply live.
And this all too powerful, and overtly reflective book is a stark reminder of such: ”[…]. And Christ? Perhaps he did not dream, yet knew all there was to dream, every combination, until the end of time.”

David Marx

Los Ninos Tontos

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Los Ninos Tontos/The Foolish Children
By Ana Maria Matute
Small Stations Press – £7.99

With the discerning eye of an artist, Ana Maria Matute employs bright, bold tones or sometimes soft, impressionistic tints to express her profound pessimism with the Spain that Franco ruled. Possibly she hoped her stories would serve as a catalyst for change.

Throughout this angular, alternative book, lies an undercurrent of childlike, yet political darkness. The sort of which really is a prime preponderance to be reckoned with; reason being, it comes at you when you least expect it. That said, by the time one has reached the end of Los Ninos Tontos/The Foolish Children, authoress Ana Maria Matute’s literary moves remain just as equally foreboding and fraught with daring as at the outset.

In and of itself, this should come as no surprise, especially when one comes to terms with just how and where, many of these micro-fiction stories eventually pan out.

There are twenty-one in all (written in both Spanish and English), many of which are occasionally lyric in tonality (”The child turned to ashes. He was just a little pile of thirst” – ‘Thirst and the Boy’) while simultaneously anchored in poetic imagery (”The dog, lying at the child’s feel all night, shed two tears. They clinked like little bells” – ‘The Little Blue-Eyed Black Boy’).

As noted in the Translators’ Introduction: ”Many critics have noted that Ana Maria Matute’s fiction represents an ”immediately recognisable blend of lyricism and stark realism, sombre intuition and determined sociopolitical engagement” […]. Throughout her life, Ana Maria Matute criticised the injustices of the Franco regime and referred to the dictator as ”la momia” (the mummy). Early on she developed this ”solidaridad con ‘los otros, con los silenciados (solidarity with ‘the others,” with the silenced ones).”

For this alone, Matute is to be roundly applauded and this fine publication, roundly embraced.

David Marx

Sins

sins

Sins
By Mary Telford
Illustrated by Louise Verity
The Lilliput Press – £25.00

In seven segments (‘Envy,’ ‘Pride,’ ‘Avarice,’ ‘Sloth,’ Gluttony,’ ‘Anger,’ and ‘Lust’), this book is a veritable delight to both behold and partake in; partake as in with the turning of every page, one doesn’t quite know what to expect.

Admittedly, this may have a lot to do with the occasionally dark and brood induced illustrations of Louise Verity (colourful and inviting the one minute, angular and intrinsically cartoonesque the next), although Mary Telford’s words are of an equal persuasion so far as the utterly non-ob(li)vious is concerned.

For instance, at the outset of ‘Avarice’ on page 75, Telford writes: The woman longed for wealth above all else. It wasn’t vulgar gold she hankered after or a fortune newly acquired, but long-held riches and respect.

Every Christmas she left her penthouse to visit her impoverished aunts. Their residential hotel was shabby. She slipped on the wheelchair ramp and scraped her Louboutin heel. She reminded herself that the trust fund would be hers once the aunts were dead […].

It’s not until one has reached page 108, that the reader invariably learns of the outcome; but not before having stumbled across a myriad of definitive artwork that (unsurprisingly), does much to trigger the imagination. An imagination, clearly, already attracted to Sins, but which now finds itself served with a certain imagery – some of which, assorted readers will no doubt find appealing while others will feel merely skim the surface of the aforementioned, seven universal themes.

There again: ”The modern fairytale takes many forms, clothing our unconscious with the macabre, the fantastical, the grotesque. In seven elemental stories, anxieties and dark desires are given dramatic force in the renderings of illustrator Loiuse Verity. Drawn form the European folk tale, they are grounded in a tradition from Hieronymus Bosch, the brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll, to Dali, Dahl and Audrey Niffenegger. Where irreality touches life, dreams begin […]. A controlling husband envies his wife’s pleasures. An abused lover takes her revenge. An avaricious socialite is tormented by the kindness of others. A widow exploited by her grown son gains her freedom.”

To quote Kilgore Trout, and so it goes.

These 240 pages could be construed as being something of a subliminal traipse through the back pages Edgar Allan Poe’s after-thoughts; which, all said and invariably done, is a mighty interesting proposition.

Not to mention a regal and intrinsically refreshing change to such writing as that of the fifty shades of hog-wash variety…

David Marx

One Million Cows

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One Million Cows
By Manuel Rivas
Small Stations Press – £5.69

”Like an irate prophet” (‘The Sons of Luc & Fer’), the one and only Manuel Rivas writes of a great many issues throughout these eighteen, short snappy stories. And in so doing, transports the reader unto many a place of kaleidoscopic (mis)adventure.

Indeed, amid much virtuous and virulent metaphor, One Million Crows finds Galicia’s most renowned, international writer (whose previous books include The Carpenter’s Pencil, In The Wilderness, All Is Silence and perhaps one of my all time favourite books ever written, Books Burn Badly), addressing everything from the mud-flats of childhood to the redolent aftermath of suicide.

But from within this ”bell of memory” (‘Madonna (Christmas Story)’), the one story that essentially strikes home is ‘The Provincial Artist;’ which, by way of well-considered angst and periodic play on capital letters, the author writes: ”’There is in Spain,’ declared the critic Bernabe Candela, ‘nature and metaphysics, passion and biology, reflection and outbursts, and it is well known there is no beauty without rebellion, even if that convulsion is contained by the prudent nets of reason.”

There has to be an abundance of gravitas in the line: ”there is no beauty without rebellion,” which, if you really think about it, transports the rebellious etiquette of someone like Che Guevara to within striking distance a whole new tenet of thinking. Not to mention understanding; or ”the prudent nets of reason,” from where Rivas continues: ”Espina may be a wonderful symbiosis, that of the monster awaiting the end of the century.’ He read this article in the old slaughterhouse while peeling open a tin of mussels. His first reaction of complacent vanity was followed by a sense of disquiet and unease. Up until then, hardly anybody had paid him any attention.”

The above is so compact and colourful, so dense and at times, disparaging; that I found myself increasingly caught up or should I say, intrinsically lost within the actual essence of the writing itself, as opposed to that of the story being told.

Like so much of his work, the stories Manuel Rivas tells, could, for many, be construed as something of an added bonus. It’s the actual writing that’s so alluring. So attractive.

David Marx

Berlin Tales

berlin tales

Berlin Tales – Stories translated by Lyn Marven
Edited by Helen Constantine
Oxford University Press – £9.99

These seventeen stories traverse the effervescent city of Berlin, both past and present, in such a beguiling way – that one’s compelled to not only read more, but investigate the city for real.

By way of miniaturist story telling, most sides of the German capital – from the decadence and the modernity of the Weimar Republic right through to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – are marvellously captured and juxtaposed throughout Berlin Tales.

While many of the stories have been translated for the first time, almost all come across as having lost none of their initial panache, individuality nor wit. The nigh photographic, rapid and random snapshot travelogue that is ‘My Berlin’ (by Emine Sevgi Ozdamar) being a perfect example.

It’s so concise, it’s almost poetic: ”At Zoo station I waved to all the buses going past. I was in freedom and was pleased about the rain. I thought, Berlin has waited for me for nine years. It was as if back then when I returned to Istanbul, Berlin had frozen like a photo, to wait for me – with the long, tall trees, with the Gedachniskirche, with the double-decker buses, with the corner pubs. Berlin Kindl beer, the crosses on the beer mats. Walls. Checkpoint Charlie. U-Bahn. S-Bahn. Cinema on Steinplatz. Abshied von gestern (Yesterday Girl). Alexander Kluge. Bockworst sausages. The Brecht theatre Berlin Ensemble. Arturo Ui. Canals. The Peacock Island. Tramps in the stations. Pea soup. Lonely women in Cafe Kranzler. Black Forest gateau. Workers from different countries. Spaghetti. Greeks. Cumin-Turks. Cafe Kase. Telephone dances. Bullet holes in house walls. Cobblestones. Curried sausage. White bodies waiting for the sun at Lake Wannsee. Police dogs. East German police searchlights. Dead train tracks, grass growing between them. House notices: ‘In the interests of all residents children are forbidden to play games.’ Stations left behind in East Berlin which the West underground trains pass through without stopping. A solitary East-policeman on the platform. Solinka soup. Stuyvesand cigarettes. Rothandle cigarettes. Signs:’Achtung Sie verlassen den Amerikanischem Sektor / Warning you are leaving the American sector.’ Jewish cemetery in East Berlin. Ducks on Lake Wannsee. A bar with music from the 1940s, old women dancing with women. Broilers.”

This one story alone is a more than jubilant, topsy-turvy traipse through everything that Berlin once was (and to a certain degree, still is). It’s colourful, majestic and well-paced, not to mention almost serene in its observation; which, along with such other short stories as ‘Seen from the Window’ by Siegried Kracauer (”They are not compositions like Pariser Platz or La Concorde which owe their existence to a single architectural conception, rather they are creations of chance […]”) and ‘Gina Regina’ by Ulrike Draesner (”an intermezzo of sugar bun and sex”), are a delight to both read and truly behold.

And like the city itself, investigate further.

David Marx

The Opposite Of Loneliness

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The Opposite Of Loneliness
By Marina Keegan
Simon & Schuster – £12.99

There’s absolutely no denying the fact that the American authoress Marina Keegan could really write; and to a certain degree, write with a pronounced precision that was both inventive and idiosyncratic. But I cannot help but wonder that had she not died in a car crash at the mere tender age of just twenty-three, would she have made as equally as big a noise?

Death after all, works wonders for one’s career – regardless of age or where they’re actually at. Perhaps regardless of most things. But without wanting to come on like a cynical tactician of no particular critical abode, The Opposite Of Loneliness really isn’t all it’s made out to be. Keegan may well have left behind a so-called ”rich, expansive trove of prose that, like her title essay, captures the hope, uncertainty and possibility of her generation,” but personally, I found most of the writing a little too diaphanous and dare I say it, class-centric and money-up for its own good.

In all honesty, I came to this book with an open mind.

I wanted to be touched, but unceremoniously completed it with a feeling of having been duped. There’s far too much talk of Yale, sickly, sticky myopic text messaging and all to considered sex. So much so, that I just couldn’t warm to the writing – no matter how hard I tried or wanted to.

In the fourth short story of the fiction section, ‘The Ingenue’ for instance, Keegan writes: Too tired and confused the night before, Danny and I had had sex that morning – emerging last into the kitchen, secretly superior. I ordered another to-go lobster on the way to the theatre and it came with its claws flopping over the sides of a fast food container, which I liked […]. During intermission I went outside to sit in the car because I didn’t feel like talking to the lobby and its circles. Part of me probably knew it was coming because as soon as I shut the door, I started crying. I let my head hang forward and press against the steering wheel but after a few sobs I sat up and stopped. I texted five or six friends from the city […]. My sister and my friend Tara texted me back and I responded to both immediately […]. ”It’s so fun,” he’d say. ”there’s this group of local alcoholics who are too freaking funny. But they have these bands that come and everyone just sort of goes with it, you know? None of that too-cool bullshit.” ”Yeah,” I’d say, in bed with my salad. ”It sounds amazing, you’ll have to take me when I come up in August.” ”For sure,” he’d reply. I can’t wait.” We got dinner together between shows and had sex again on these inland dunes…”

”Emerging last into the kitchen, secretly superior” following sex? ”Another to-go lobster?” ”It’s so fun?” It’s so annoying more like.

Really, who fucking cares?
And who on earth sits in bed eating a salad?

Had Marina Keegan matured and experienced some of life’s realistic knocks, I dare say there’d have been more resonance, more truth and more grit in her story telling. As is, there’s no denying she could write, but it’s what she wrote, that I still find particularly irksome and displeasing.

Spoilt brat writing for a (predominantly American) spoilt brat readership.

David Marx