The South in Winter
Alma: 250pp.: £8.99rrp.
In an interview with the Independent, Peter Benson wondered why the majority of writers are urban. There are probably some interesting literary, not to mention sociological, answers to this, but Benson chooses to situate his fiction in the sparser populated dwellings of Somerset, like in his debut, The Levels (which won the Guardian First Book Prize). The associations with the country might be vintage and quaint, yet an early reader of Benson’s, John Fowles, might have offset something a bit more unexpected in his work, where not just the sense of place, but the absence of place is as important as well.
It is the latter of those which is of concern here. Benson’s protagonist, Matthew Baxter, is a travel writer for the Tread Lightly Travel Guides. He’s been sent on an assignment to the South of Italy in February to bring an “out of season slant”. When he gets out there, he realises that most of the work could have been done from his office with some careful editing and a touch of the imagination, but the finished guide needed “the authenticity of a winter visit”. You could argue that the emptiness of the West Country has carried out to the south of Italy where it’s vacant for the miserable winter months. It’s clear though, that the emptiness here is allowing his loneliness to ferment, and as a result, his feelings for his boss, Cora, percolate as well. When the person is out there and stranded though, sometimes the desperation can lead to the result that was originally feared in the first place, which is what appears to happening with Cora.
This is perhaps to overstate it and make Matthew sound desperate, but there is an anxiety that underpins the novel, that might not at first be accounted for. On the surface, Matthew is laconic, yet an existential worry is subtle yet tangible. And perhaps the fact that it appears as the middle-aged male identity crisis conceals it that bit further, because this isn’t all the mid-life crisis escape that you’d be led to believe. There is certainly a male with male problems, a crisis of authenticity and sexuality (does not the ‘South in Winter’ sound like a euphemism for downstairs potency), but that would be a disservice if it was to turn readers away which, the book’s marketing unfortunately is in danger of.
Matthew tours the Italian cities, from Palermo to Naples among others, and then a brief visit to Rome to meet his colleague covering the North. Here, they speculate on the restructuring of the publisher happening whilst they’re out of the country. Clearly, there is a distance for Matthew engendered in his life (is he adding authenticity to the guides? or his loneliness?), and as if to emphasise that, the early parts seem replete with chiasmus like, interrogative constructions: “I see myself in the order I create, and my creation is a type of order” reads one. But he’s setting up the distance (there’s a reason chiasmus sounds like chasm), the words don’t change, they’re only restructured in the chiasmus, and this almost what it feels physically, and linguistically, is happening to Matthew’s existence.
Reading the novel, inside Matthew’s mind, I continually found myself asking whether I liked Matthew, as we often do of the characters we read, even though the dependability of it is overstated. I had though, never found this such a difficult experience with Matthew and it felt like the distance was potentially extending to the reader; sometimes he wants you close, sometimes he’s guarded and wants you afar. That sense of existential crisis though is perhaps emphasised by Benson’s use of those emotionless sentences that accumulate, almost imparting a noirish quality to the work like Camus and Fowles often did:
“Some people say ‘Never Go Back’, but some people don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Because Matthew, whether he likes it or not, is on a journey, even if he tries to plod along and guide us through it with simple deducing sentences as verbs and prepositions take on a double-edge quality. And here, in the South of Italy, there’s also the sense that the world’s turn is trying be kept out of his consciousness. Matthew’s job is to make the place appeal, in a time when it effectively isn’t appealing, which means he can’t rely on the old clichés, but he does need some element of the cliché. This is where I think part of Matthew’s fear resides and where a drive for the novel comes from – a fear of the cliché he has become:
“Sometimes I like to trot out a personal cliché, but I’ve always told myself I’m not the jealous type.”
To engage and connect with the world has become troublesome and difficult. Is it a thing we do any more? How do we engage and relate ourselves to a place? Matthew’s crisis of authenticity (which Benson, I think is aware, is overdone) is authentic, but the existential element of it, comes from the anxiety of engagement with the world, nature, people, truth:
“The train was late arriving in Salerno. I stood in the twilight and cold outside the station, and waited for a bus. I waited three quarters of an hour. I saw drunks, whores, three frightened children and a pair of broed policemen. Orange clouds bled into the west; the sky darkened and, as I watched, a cloud of starlings appeared….Clouds of smoke, pillars of dust, tumbles of water. People took out their phones to film the birds and screamed as they came close and headed back the way they’d come.”
It’s a panoply of ways in which people are trying engage and connect with the phenomena, and how they mediate their experience. The drunks, the whores, the frightened children, the bored policemen; the range of emotions and experiences, followed by the natural phenomena of the bird flying. Is it overdone? Have we tread too much (doesn’t the name of the travel guides – Tread Lightly – sound slightly Kunderan)? Instead, the only way that Matthew stays engaged is through Cora. Comedy and pathos are provided as he debates whether to text her, buy her gifts, choose not to text and then do it anyway when he is drunk, and then write her a poem. “I had to text Cora,” he says, but the operative word here is ‘text’. And we could call her the muse, but I think Cora would be enough – the Greek Goddess Persephone was also called Cora. The pun on ‘phone’ is striking, but as the goddess of fertility, perhaps Matthew is seeing something deeper in the ‘texting’ of Cora.
“I was a detective, or a priest, or a doctor, looking for a case”
Or a writer looking for his text, his impetus, his fertile bed of inspiration.
The text itself though does sometimes appear to need another round of editing. The additions of some pronouns in some exchanges of dialogue would have made it a smoother read and we’ve mentioned the odd marketing. In the past, Benson has been praised for his imagery, but sometimes here, the metaphors are just confusing, and you sometimes wonder if they’re serious (“I poured my troubles into a sack and tossed them into a lake”).
But as Matthew says, as he travels Italy, clearly avoiding something, that he “doesn’t like nature: but that’s another story.” Perhaps it is; one that we’re all avoiding.