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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Choices, Choices

Multiple Choice
by
Alejandro Zambra (translated by Megan McDowell)
Granta: 101 pp.: £8.99 (paperback)

Pablo Larrains’ s film No (2012) is set during the time of the plebiscite referendum in 1988, when it was put to a public vote as to whether there would be a democratic election for the new leader of Chile (vote No), or Pinochet should continue his autocratic regime (vote Yes). In reality, the campaign took place across 27 nights of television advertisements, where each side had fifteen minutes to present their arguments. René (Gael García Bernal), an ad-man who is hired to lead the ‘No’ campaign, takes a maverick approach, and instead of focusing on the dismal injustices of Pinochet, imparts a positive, carnival-esque theme into the No broadcasts like in the Coca-Cola adverts he’s seen in the United States. Whereas the Yes team, choose to overwhelm the viewer with statistics, evidence (positivist rather than positive you might say) and parody. As history tells us, 56% of the nation voted No, against the odds.

The beautiful paradox of the film is that rebuttal of the desire becomes the way to access the desire. Or put simply, no means yes here. You can ask what they are offering those who do say No, but in fact they probably don’t even know themselves (there are parallels I think with the campaign conducted Jeremy Corbyn led in the 2017 General Election,and specifically the campaign, not the politics). Because the point of it is that they, whether this is the eventuality or not, are opening up a pathway that is not currently there. The only way to get there they believe is to say No to what you know, which, even if you deride what you already have, is still a difficult thing to do.

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra also frames life in the Pinochet regime as a choice. This time it’s not between Yes and No, but multiple choices, like you’d get in an examination (the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test more specifically, Zambra explains at the end). This book/exam has five sections; Excluded Term, Sentence Order, Sentence Completion, Sentence Elimination and Reading Comprehension. Each section then comes with a brief set of instructions, after which you’re tasked with making your way through the book and each part, so make no mistake; this whole book is the structure of an exam. Quite hilariously, you are asking yourself, like the student who hasn’t done his revision, how am I going to tackle this? How am I going to get through this?

Image result for pablo larrain no

Gael García Bernal as René in No (2012)

Other reviewers and readers have described how the book likens itself to the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ stories you might have read as a child. Intentionally or not, there is a much more devilish irony within that if you consider that you would probably be taking the exam Zambra bases his novel on, to get admitted into University. ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ even sounds like a strapline, a prophetic marketing myth that seems to be a given aspect of the modern University’s image. But there’s a feeling that the more choices you’re represented with here, the less you’ve potentially to actually choose from.

I’m not sure if it’s a universal trait of exams, but even here you’re presented with the easier questions first, or the shorter ones at least (here it is probably harder if we’re thinking in terms of trying to read this as a novel). In ‘Excluded Term’s you must remove the word that does not fit with the title word.

15. Childhood.
a. childlike
b. childproof
c. childcare
d. childless
e. childfree.

For some readers this might be a breaking point, because the book will invite you to scrawl and dirty it with your scribing. Deconstructionists would have a field day debating who ‘owns’ the text, but you’ll find yourself re-reading questions, frustrated, wanting to know more, wanting to, ultimately, know the answers. There might be some debate around the ingenuity of Multiple Choices, but whatever the purpose of the structure is, here, it is the material of the text as much as the text is alone. Text here feels ephemeral, subsumed by its structural necessities. Question 27 from ‘Sentence Order’ seemed to emphasise that:

27. A Child
1. You dream that you lose a child
2. You wake up.
3. You cry.
4. You lose a child.
5. You cry.

What follows here then is a list of options in which you could put the order of the sentences in (eg.5-3-1-2-4). On other questions you may wonder if this has an implicative effect on the result, but because of the structure, and perhaps where No finishes off wondering about ‘choice’, the structure looks ready to almost undermine the text at every instant, to undermine specifically, the sense of choice. And as you skit through the options, re-framing the phrases in each of the orders, the action itself of doing that, instead, seems to really represent what Multiple Choices has to say or asks. Where does the choice lie?

In the ‘Sentence Completion’ section you’re given a series of sentences to finish:

53. You were a bad son, but ___
You were a bad father, but _____
You are alone, but _____

The 5 options are then:

A) people vote for you
people vote for you
people vote for you
B) I love you
I love you
I love you
C) I’m not your father
I’m not your son
that’s not my problem
D) you know it
you know it

you know it

E) no one knows
no one knows
no one knows

There is perhaps a hint here of the heavy religious influence that permeates Chilean society, but all the choices in this instance seem inextricably linked with the other options, irony abounding, as if the question recognises the redundancy of the options, and why they all go back to the variance C offers. But the ambiguity in what the process aligns itself with, and what wrests it from Zambra making some kind of overwhelming moralistic statement (and would eventually be supremely cynical if that was the case), is that it is very difficult to claim what the process aligns itself with. Is it ideological? Or is it the tyranny of syntax? The banal prospect of individual fulfilment in capitalism? Or something like a Marxist superstructure? Or is this the embodiment of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar? Or just a simple choose your adventure story?

Finally, you come to some longer passages in ‘Reading Comprehension’ in which you answer a series of questions based upon what you’ve just read. Here is a paragraph about twins from the ‘Covarrubia family’:

“Covarrubias family tradition dictated that the firstborn son should be named Luis Antonio, but when Covarrubias senior found out that twins were on the way he decided to divide his name between them. During their first years of life, Luis and Antonio Covarrubias enjoyed – or suffered through – the excessively equal treatment that parents tend to give to twins: the same haircut, the same clothes, the same class in the same school.”

It’s there in the ‘excessively equal treatment’, a euphemism if there ever was one. But the excessive ‘equalness’ and rigidness in the twins life, two people who, on appearance, will look like the same person, probably constitutes every person that has ever sat this exam. It reminded me of that final moment in Kafka’s short story ‘Before the Law’ where the man from the country walks up to the doorkeeper and asks to be admitted to the law. On his refusal at being allowed in by the doorkeeper, the man chooses to sit and wait, which transpires to be his whole life. As he nears the end of his life, the man asks why he was never allowed in and the doorkeeper bellows “No one else could gain admission here, because this entrance was intended for you alone. Now am I going to shut it.”
Not to spin too much of an allegory on Kafka’s story but there does seem a question here at the potency of choice and the potency of the person to enter, indeed, through that door. The doors, or the structure, even when the option may be presented to you, and indeed, presented to be made for you, could still be the thing that doesn’t allow you to access it. Or perhaps that is the moralising statement that Zambra wanted me to make? Or maybe the choice isn’t for you to make? Who knows? Maybe it’s just a question of choosing.