Review: Peter Benson – The South In Winter

The South in Winter
by
Peter Benson
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 company 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.

A shot from a summer visit to Capri. Rest assured, there were plenty of tourists

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Death and Night and Blood: Why I Read Yukio Mishima, by JuleJames1961

I was, and still am, a big fan of The Stranglers. They came to the fore during the First Great Punk War of 1976/77 but were never accepted as part of that scene, too old, too musical, a couple of them had long hair and beards. After their first two albums: Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes, in 1978 they released their third album: Black and White. It was more cerebral, still angry, still unmistakably The Stranglers. They allowed their musicianship to come through more than they had on their previous two albums. Fourth track on the Black side was: Death and Night and Blood (Yukio).

Jean Jacques Burnel, The Stranglers’ bass guitarist explained in an interview in the NME, that Yukio was a Japanese author: Yukio Mishima.

And that would have been the end of that, except…

…I was 16 at the time and from the local library I was borrowing books in a methodical system: week one, three books from the ABC section; two weeks later, three books from DEF; and on until I got to XYZ; starting again at ABC. I chose books because of an interesting title or spine colour or cover art or, in the case of Clockwork Orange, notoriety. I read George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, John Le Carré, H G Wells and a forest of books that have since disappeared into the murky cupboard that is my memory. Then one week while in MNO I came across The Decay of the Angel by Yukio Mishima and thanks to J J Burnel I took it home.

If asked, ‘What is your favourite book?’ by default my reply is 1984, however, I can’t remember the first time I read it or how I felt. There have been other books that have left me astonished on the first read: A Clockwork Orange; Nicholas Nickleby; As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning; and The Decay of the Angel. I was hooked from the first page, he was describing the sea, colours, boats, the prose was extraordinary.

I can’t remember if I knew that it was the fourth part of a tetralogy or if I knew anything about Mishima other than the blurb on the inside of the cover, I know it was the only Mishima in the library. I was captivated, I had never read anything like it before, the words flowed from the page. The fact that it was the fourth part meant that I dismissed the character Honda and only in subsequent years would I realise that he was in fact the central figure in all four books. Kinue and Tōru, particularly Kinue fascinated me, a mad girl who believes that she was the most beautiful girl in the world.

A few years later a picked up a copy The Sea of Fertility containing all four books: Spring Snow; Runaway Horses; The Temple of Dawn; and The Decay of the Angel. The stallholder was a bit upset that someone had bought it; as she wanted to read it herself and suggested that I should bring it back when I was finished with it. It’s still on my shelf 30 years later.

By this time I’d learnt more about Mishima, his politics and his life, none of which chimed with me but didn’t diminish for me the beauty of the writing, in a strange way it enhanced it.

Nearly 35 years after I first read it I downloaded onto my new Kindle the four books that make up The Sea of Fertility, I spent the next year re-reading them, I originally planned to read one after the other but in the end decided to spread them out, I knew that once I started Angel I would be near the end and I wanted to put that off for as long as possible. This re-read was an eye opener, I appreciated the thread of reincarnation that runs through the four books this time, the ending of Angel made more sense when read in context of the series, if fact reading Angel this time I questioned what the 16 year old made of it. I was reading the first three books just as a prelude to those first few paragraphs of Angel. I was not disappointed, I wasn’t as astounded as I had been all those years ago but it was still a pleasure and there aren’t many books that can do that.

This time with access to the Internet I had the ability to learn more of Mishima the man rather than Mishima the writer which gave an edge to the stories. Having knowledge of his death made the almost loving description of the ritual of Seppuku more poignant and the failed coup in Runaway Horses is strangely reminiscent of Mishima’s final days.

His Imperialism, his patriotism, his violent end are at odds with his incredibly beautiful words and that paradox makes Angel more substantial, deeper.

The Stranglers at the time were unpopular with the music press, they didn’t take criticism very well, journalists were likely to end up gaffer taped to the Eiffel Tower after a bad review; they were the Men In Black, macho, misogynist. But underneath the black leather jackets they were bright, articulate, literate musicians, at least one of them had read and appreciated Mishima, and thereby inspiring at least one person to pick up The Decay of the Angel.

JuleJames1961 ©2013

Bio.
JuleJames1961: I post a weekly blog on literature
and the sheer joy of reading. Everything from Dickens to Orwell via Ian Fleming and Enid Blyton.
Visit: read-it-in-books.blogspot.co.uk/
Follow: @Readitinbooks1

Human Erosion: Stone in a Landslide, a review.

Maria Barbal, is one of the most famous Catalan authors, and that she be a Catalan is pivotal to understanding her work, as its history provides a backdrop to the fictional, retrospective life story of Concepcio (Conxa). Conxa, is born to a rural peasant family in the Pyreenees situated in Catalonia, where nothing is available in abundance, or easily obtainable “These weren’t years of plenty, there were a lot of mouths to feed and not much land, which of course left a hole”. For Conxa and her overcrowded family home, at the age of 13, she goes and lives with her childless aunt Tia. She works, grows up, falls in love, grieves and grows old like any average life in any world. However, written on the cusp of the 20th century and spanning its majority, we know its trajectory and its story.

Stone in a Landslide,  described as a Catalan modern classic, is essentially an allegory of Catalonia through Conxa’s life. The sense of identity strife not for Conxa, but this Catalonia, many people now regard as distinctly Spanish touches on hostile. For Conxa, the woman, emerging out of the Victorian era experiences the typical struggles of identity“what is a farm with a man? What is a house without a woman?”, and when she falls in love she goes from from being Conxa to “Jaume’s Conxa”.

Conxa’s initial life of peasantry is tough but lived with the acceptance and contentment of the predictability of life.  There is Conxa’s continual skepticism about the world and the gradual intrusion of different people grows “ I looked at the land divided into small irregular plots. I thought, even the richest man here is still very poor” and when her cousins come to visit “city people are different”. As she grows out of peasantry she grows out of her innocence and has to acknowledge that this world it is not always a fair one, and maybe the peasantry that she has grown up in, doesn’t automatically mean that she has to accept it however much God’s presence may be.

Like the land, and the lifestyle, Barbal’s prose is sparse, measured and pragmatic. No word is wasted, but it doesn’t steep itself in melodrama. When the civil war is introduced into the story by a letter from the cousins in the city, life is not turned up side down, Instead it is made more arduous, more painful, and almost unbearable but Conxa’s will carries her through. When her husband is  lost in the revolutionary fighting (we presume dead, but we never fully know) ‘everything turned upside down at home’, not in life but the home where is the source and grounding of the civil relationship. The Civil war acts as metaphor for a revolution in how the home is regarded, and the old fashioned archaic values are challenged as Conxa, despite being in in love with her husband is head of a household, something she has never experienced. Conxa later talks of her new home, post-revolutionary period “It was a spring clean i’ll never forget. I didn’t want to leave a corner untouched”. After the the Franco’s regime,  it is also the spring cleaning of her Catalan identity.

The civil war also represents the clash of the Catalan culture with the Spanish. Franco’s fascist regime tried to suppress any kind of Catalan culture; murdering, imprisoning, any kind of Catalan free thinkers, in a brutal repatriation where neighbours and friends were turned against each other. Conxa encounters this in her church, which also leads to her and her people’s earlier downfall “They made us pray in the morning and at night. I didn’t know the prayers in Spanish and I just pretended by moving my lips”. This poignant moment represents the past and present day struggles that Catalan’s still have in distinguishing themselves from Spain.

Towards the end, when Conxa’s children are starting to grow old and fly the nest, she must come to terms with her growing age, and the dawning of being cared for and living in the new big city. Barbal’s prose becomes more lyrical in the closing scenes as Conxa contemplates and comprehends what it means to live in the city “ Barcelona is not knowing anyone. Only the family. And sometimes hearing foreign words spoken. It is losing the memory of the sound of the animals at home as you look at the dogs chained at dusk”. It is difficult to pinpoint year this is, but it is certainly post-war, and in the time of the early excitement of capitalism, the boom of  money moving around the western world, and everybody thinking that they had a chance to succeed in it. Barcelona  we know  now is a tourist hotspot, like London or Paris, it is difficult to spot the Catalans amongst the other nationalities getting their fulfillment of Polaroid shots and Lionel Messi football shirts. Conxa who has lived most of her life in peasantry cannot comprehend this (not Lionel Messi), and her early inclinations of wealth and people from the city come to a head in this final section. Life was happy when Conxa had that innocence before she became aware of the world outside the Pyrenees and before the war. In fact it is worth reading through to get to this end section, so distinct from the rest of it. The reader is carried along by Conxa’s life story, and Barbal succeeds in leaving us as the observer. It is intimate, but not so much that you’re taken away by the intensity of it, which is remarkable considering its length. Barbal’s narrative voice is to thank for that.

This is the first time that the work has been published in English, done by the independent publishing house Peirene Press, devoting their time to small works of European fiction. Stone in a Landslide was first published in 1985 and one has to question why this is the first time we have seen it in England. Well, we don’t have to ask, because we know why – money and marketability. Peirene Press though is doing a remarkable job getting these little known works in England known, and they should hopefully start circulate through the market and gain a reputation.

A short piece of work (Peirene say that it should be read in one sitting, during the time taken to watch a DVD) but a mesmerising one. It is a paean to the homeland, to Catalonia and its troubled history, but it is also a paean to the home and the construction of it, thanks to the woman, Conxa and her indomitable spirit. A life of love and loss, like of many, she is a stone in a landslide.

Stone in Landslide (126 pp)  is published Peirene Press and is available for £8.99. A smaller version of this review is featured on www.tripfiction.com. Visit there now to read about other works dedicated to various locations in the world.