Thursday 13 March 2014

Notes on a book. Posthumous Stories by David Rose (Salt)

Posthumous Stories is a rich experience. A visual book certainly - filled with (literal) word-paintings. A book of sounds, music, and not. A book of detail, architectural, painterly, botanical, musical - it’s a treasure box in which strange obsessive narrators look up as you pass from their usually left-brained and controlling occupations, fix you with their disturbing gazes, then look away. 
     I read and re read with a sense of intrusion such as one gets when passing a door left ajar, hearing a snip of talk not intended. Or better - as when you can’t avoid overhearing a conversation held in lowered tones, on a train. Captive, intrigued, removed. A delicious intrusion - sense of glimpsing something special, by accident, wry smile playing. Disturbing, certainly. Deliciously. And surreal, I came across many descriptions of how the body responds to machine - car, van, they merge.
 I made notes on some of the stories as I went - so forgive the lack of carefully crafted review. Sometimes, notes is all that's needed. 

A Nice Bucket - 
Sensuality under the surface - in the music, the hints... in the lyrical voice of the apprentice asphalter, in the son’s descriptions of his late father’s reconstructed studio. a darkness, compelling and dual-natured. Goodbad, like so many scenarios in this book. Orwellesque. Magnetic. The asphalters might be doing any old repairing job - but no. Legitimate work, under supervision (even if the supervision is sporadic), and the job - laying speed humps. Slowing things down. A reminder that the best stories, and these really are some of the best, are only appreciated of you slow down, and let them work on you.
...had me thinking, isn’t this why I (we?) read? To enjoy, yes, but to empathise. Consider. Widen. Goodbad. Vicarious experience. To remind myself that beneath everything, everyone, runs such rivers? Not to forget that. Never to take at face value. Respect the possibilities. We are living in glorious metaphor. Perhaps. 

Private View 
The son of an artist is persuaded to write the commentary to a retrospective on his father’s work. Through memories, and almost despite himself, (this reluctance to engage with memory seems to surface now and again) he is almost compelled to do so, even though it takes him on a journey of deepening alienation.I’m struck by this description: “...sliced by black vertical straight lines, regularly spaced, but in each successive work, becoming closer and closer together. The experts talk of a homage to Mondrian or the creation of abstract perspective. I think they look like bars.”Oh OK  - now I’m getting the cover of Rose’s brilliant novel, Vault, also from Salt, and a novel I loved a while back. 
.. clever, aren't I?

Fracturing, isolation, miscommunication. Here, we are island folk. And some are more island than others. 
the big questions - including what exactly, is art? The issue encapsulated by the botanist narrator musing on having to destroy a fungus,  ‘I had to admit to a sneaking regard for the fungal growth – not only its persistence, but its own strange beauty, the subtlety of its opalescent colours, the intricacy of its structure. Are we right, I wondered, to divide Nature as we do?’

The Fall
oh and jokes... many over my head, I’m sure, which is evident -  but a giggle escaped me,  in a crowded train carriage appropriately enough, when I read this:  
“One of the Servants remarked that he thought Auden’s most inspired creation was the Fat Controller “   also this 
"I even used to call her Donna, because she was always รจ mobile.” 
Behind ‘The Fall’ there are echoes of not only Albert Camus, but also George Orwell at several points - a religious guerrilla group made up of Servants initially using art installations to make their point. Achieving the ‘exosoma’ ... 
but I’m afraid lost patience with The Fall. Form overtook story early on, and lost this reader with it.and is it my imagination, but does the futuristic cult-theme arrive again in Clean, with its Vision and Mission meetings, mention of service, and the Intendant? “freedom of spirit depends on freedom of space, freedom of land –”
Something about isolation.  ‘Above me there’s a mile of blue and beyond that an eternity of black, a furnace of ice.”

Echoes of Camus again in Viyborg - a novel - a dead pan outlining of a lyrically written novel - a wry  take on various scenes.
Mind you, what with these installations in fiction and the pieces desccribed throughout, I think I’d like to see Rose's visual art - if he does. Who knows.

The Fifth Beatle
The fab four becomes five, with the reminiscences of the unplanned extra in the iconic abbey road shot - I loved this one. And I didn’t understand one reviewer’s snip about Rose not writing women well. Yes, he does, just not many. Suspect that's what the reviewer meant, there aren’t many female main characters - and speaking as a writer who vastly prefers writing males than females - what’s wrong with that? 
Clean -
'the cause' raises its head again, Regional Intendant looms, and a ‘devotional’ meeting. 
Quotes: Life’s a bitch, but it’s all to plan.’ 

“... below that, to the silken silt where there are no reflections, to the reality of the fish.” 

I feel I ought to be listening to Mahler while reading this - the trouble is, my ears and eyes don’t multi-task. Bach - need to look up Chaconne. What a wealth of architectural detail here... and what a brilliant house - turning things on their heads - kitchen on the top floor, the south wall blank. 
“Holes for doors and windows are the destruction of form’ - Le Corbusier. I lived for a year within a mile or two of Firminy Vert -the  Le Corbusier development, near St Etienne. 
Moller (Muller) House, Prague

Church, Firminy Vert - by Le Corbusier

In Evening Soft Light
The unexplained shower of stones - the wife, novels, reading one page then becoming tired... rather Alice-in-Wonderlandish. Or Through-the-Looking-Glass-ish. One is right. 

A world where there are season tickets for brothels, meters tick in the bedrooms. A world where you douse your e-reader in appropriate perfume - segue into ‘correlating my relationships with my library by sniffing the books for perfume.’ Control, control. And the ghastly but compelling image of a man working out how many books he might read before he dies - a sort of literary actuarial computation.

Who would have the job of reading aloud the minutes of meetings of those in whatever level? Reading to workers at a factory lunch break seems better, until you see the political agenda behind the choice of books. ‘The evening’s theme is the means and meaning of a transparent society....It involves us all. Open government requires openness of its citizenry. We all know the problems we face. Ignorance, poverty, bad manners.’... and then the lights go out...
Description of a story - from the outside, as it is told/narrated. The opening goes like this:“The story begins with a man – we assume him to be Zimmerman – loading an accordion onto a cart, the cart being attached to a bicycle. He loads it carefully, with elastic straps through the handles and hooked to the cart. We gather later it is the last accordion in the country...”and Zimmerman has one of the most perfect endings of any story, anywhere. (Vast exaggeration, but try it. I’m right, aren’t I?)

Terrific use of humour to relax the reader before the ambush. OK, I’ll enjoy, but am still ready for the ambush. “In home, my wife wear burka. They say to me, you Muslim? I say no, she most ugly woman.” 
“...find book, Kama Sutra. But is all dots. How you say it? Braille. I say in shop, is no good to me, is no pictures.” 
Ambush is good, too. :)

The Castle
The hand-made coffin maker, whose masterpieces are meant to echo the life of the deceased...and be buried before anyone’s had a proper chance to enjoy. 
 (Tis always disconcerting to find my name in a story, especially a Vanessa who plies her trade beneath the motto: ‘In constraint lies freedom...’ Yeah right. Even if this is an Oulipian tale, I have to fight against ‘but I never did that...’ which I guess Janes and Sues don’t get bothered by...) 
Loved this description of Eton, it seems rather appropriate:“...however much they try to shrug it off, self-assurance fits them like their handmade shirts. For all their little acts of bohemian defiance, their hands twitch in readiness for the reins...” 
However - and it’s a big however...I do wish there was no explanation of both this story and The Fall, earlier in the book. As Perec said, "The problem, when you see the constraint, is that you no longer see anything else.” Is it a mistake to actively draw the reader’s attention to the game? It was for this one. I see the contraption, the scaffolding, and it masks too much. 

M John Harrison, writing in The Guardian, found both The Castle and The Fall ‘tiring’.
...making it to the end, only to find that this particular end came along in an earlier story... and feeling a bit miffed.  

But Harrison responds to the vast majority  of the pieces here, as I did, with pleasure, recognition, admiration.  “The best of Rose is fragile,” he says. “...retrospective, centred on the characters' recognition that something in life, be it a general condition or an absolutely specific moment, has evaded them.” 
Well, yes. 
 A kaleidoscope. That’s what this book is. And just as with a kaleidoscope, you will meet similar motifs in different stories - music, image, even strange recurring Orwellesque shadowy conductors of life - slightly autistic-seeming, detached, displaced characters, shifting, and tumbling. 
      If there is ever a book you can go back to, reread, assured that you will find something new, or something familiar seen from a new angle you missed last time round - this is it. Who knows. I might even set aside a couple of weekends, go somewhere very quiet, and read the Oulipan bits until they make sense, or I hit the bottle.

Here is a very interesting Q and A with the author, David Rose:  He says at the end that he is no longer writing. If that is so, it's a huge loss to anyone who loves reading. 

His work is great. Posthumous Stories is one of the best reads in a long time - my non-understanding of a few pieces is my issue, not the book's!  Go read it. We could have such an interesting natter...


  1. Art, contrained writing - I think I'm going to enjoy this collection. Thanks for this very readable review, Vanessa.