Absence, nostalgia and memory

Nigel Kent, Saudade (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2019)

In Saudade, Nigel Kent traces lives and their losses, carefully threading themes of love, death and legacy to reflect on how we record and remember our existence. Art, poetry and the body’s demise all serve as frameworks, yet it is absence and nostalgia that dominate Kent’s debut collection.

Five poems are written after well-known artists, including ‘The Maids’, inspired by a 1987 painting by Portuguese-born Paula Rego. In this poem, hands are a powerful and ambivalent force, creating and destroying in equal measure. In ‘Lipstick Smile’, art itself is ambivalent: a father cruelly uses an artistic metaphor (‘like painting/ over flakes of rust;/ the past carries on/ corroding unseen beneath’) to warn his son about his choice of wife. The harshness of this message, as well as the father’s ability (or curse) to look beyond beauty to see what lies beneath, characterises the stark and poignant tone of Saudade.

In ‘Clearing Out’, a woman agonises over the objects that have shaped her life, unable to throw away such distinctive memories. Her insistent refusal, ‘Not yet! Not yet! Not yet!’, will later find an echo in the collection’s powerful non-ending (‘linger, linger, linger’). It is not possessions, however, but poetry that serves as the most pertinent evidence of having lived. The collection opens and closes with performances, which frame the sequence as a poetic memory. The speaker in ‘7.30 p.m. at the Art’s Workshop’ is inextricably bound to her creation: she has ‘iambs/ beating loudly/ in her chest’. Poetry is not the words she voices, but the marks they make on her body.

If poetry is necessary, it is also corruptible. Indeed, the innocence of ‘those naked words/ [that] shivered/ on the page’ will later be twisted into ‘oily opalescence’ by the smooth-talking speaker in ‘The Urban Shaman’. Here, the body (and our abuse of it) reveals the truth: ‘a city of a thousand/ cuts laid bare/ her sleeves ripped back/ to show the weeping wounds/ that she conceals’.

Diverse bodies populate Kent’s poetic landscape, many of which are in decline. In ‘Dignitas’, the subject is naked again, requiring assistance to carry out one of the most basic human necessities, his dignity washed away ‘like the dirt swirling and gurgling/ down the drain beneath his feet’. Another potent symbol for this degeneration comes in ‘Sweet and Sour’, where ‘frayed bags for life/ filled with Kilner jars/ of pickled strawberries’ reveal the layers of our existence. The poet contemplates how long this drawn-out life can last, the heart still beating while the body decays.

beating loudly
in her chest

‘7.30 p.m. at the Art’s Workshop’

Kent is arguably at his most poignant in the prose poem, ‘Bleak, dark, and piercing cold…’, which takes its title from Oliver Twist. Through a deceptively profound analogy between a homeless man and discarded piece of chewing gum, he shows how bodies can be turned into unwanted stains on a landscape: ‘They spit you out like gum that’s lost its taste, yet they complain it’s you who litters the city’s streets’. The problem won’t go away however much we try to ignore it: the politician ends up ‘irked by the sticky glob embedded in the tread of handmade shoes’.

A tension also exists with technology, which is brought out prominently in ‘Faraway’. In this poem, a worried father checks his phone in the hope that his daughter will have texted. The wait for this elusive message tests his patience, a virtue that continues to dwindle in the modern world. Although technology seems to offer an immediate solution to saudade, in the end it merely reaffirms the absence. This is reflected in ‘Saudade II’ where technology cannot resolve the poet’s longing: ‘I try once more/ to cut and paste you/ by my side’.

Ultimately, reading Saudade is an enriching experience. The reader will share characters’ frustration at an inaccessible past or evasive present/presence, as well as sadness at the body’s inevitable decline. But, more importantly, she will feel quietly invigorated. For Saudade is full of small moments of pleasure and beauty which give us something for which to yearn.

Nigel Kent, Saudade (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2019). Available here.

‘Under the Influence of Nothingness’ by Dan Provost

Dan Provost aptly describes this collection as a series of ‘confessional’ poems. Every word is scraped from the depths of his heart — the effect is sometimes messy, often uncomfortable and always heartfelt.

As we enter the poet’s mind, things quickly get dark. Provost chronicles ‘The Beginnings of My Despair’ in which he addresses the oppressive nature of time. From a young age he would stare at the clock ‘with direct horror’, interpreting each ticking second as a step ‘closer to eternal darkness’. We all have moments like these, forced to confront our own mortality by the imposing presence of an external influence. The language here is raw and honest, a striking statement of despair and misery.

The stains of a self-
inflicted failed life lie
directly in front
of you

Extract from ‘Overrated’

Self-reflection is a theme which resurfaces time and time again in this collection. Pascal famously wrote, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’. Provost doesn’t seem to struggle with this; it’s just that he doesn’t like what he finds when he does.

The poet also observes others. In ‘The Little Notebook’, he describes ‘jotting simple observations… just to prove I can witness’. Tired of introspection, this notebook allows the poet to turn his gaze outwards and ‘see all the budding traps an occasional man or woman may fall into’. The notebook collects little anecdotes of failure.

But in the end it is not such a symbol of despair: rather like a poet, the author of this notebook puts the misery of his surroundings into words, turning failure into art. And to whom does he want to prove his capacity to witness? To himself presumably. In which case, perhaps he hasn’t given up all hope.

Not begging for a banquet
of sincerity… but a moment of truth

Extract from ‘The Ghost of Coins’

Amidst the nothingness are many nobodies, including those in the subtle and understated ‘A Quintet of Champions’. The five men who sit at the bar ‘day after day, year after year’ are a sorry sight, a symbol of the hopeless misery of human existence. But the lives of this quintet don’t fall into complete despondency: they remain together and are united by a common pursuit, each ‘searching for discounted utopia’.

The utopic moment of truth eludes the poet and reader throughout Under the Influence of Nothingness. Ultimately, we are left with a dull sense of despair because Provost sees few redeeming glimmers of hope. But this is authentic life, sticky and heart-wrenching, repetitive yet unpredictable, a brief journey from an unknown beginning to an uncertain destination.

‘The Burning Chambers’ by Kate Mosse

Gripping plot. Fast-paced action. Lifelike characters. So what’s missing?

The Burning Chambers is an epic adventure that takes the reader to the heart of sixteenth-century France, a country in turmoil amidst the bloody Wars of Religion. Set primarily across three southern cities — Carcassonne, Toulouse and Puivert — the historical backdrop is painted vividly, showcasing the author’s extensive historical research and interest in her subject.

Mosse manages to convey the fear and uncertainty of a country ravaged by years of infighting by creating believable characters that bring the history to life. Particularly strong are her portraits of Vidal, a power-hungry Catholic priest, and his deranged mistress, Lady Bruyère.

At times, however, these characters can tip over into types. The formulaic, rather predictable plot is constructed along starkly divided oppositional lines and each character is included to fill a particular role. Moreover, in the closing scenes, Mosse relies a little too readily on unlikely coincidences to advance the plot to its dramatic denouement. This diminishes some of the vraisemblance she had earlier developed.

If I may allow myself to offer a piece of writing advice to an international bestselling author whose novels have been translated into thirty-seven languages, it is that she often overuses rhetorical questions. This becomes more noticeable as the story progresses. Presumably, Mosse’s intention in doing so is to increase the suspense, but this is not the effect: the constant questions frustrate the reader and slow our progress.

It is this sort of contrived technique that raises our awareness of the book’s formulaic structure and ultimately stops the reader from fully engaging with the text. Of course, all books are artificially constructed, but the best ones are those that are able to hide this and make you forget you are reading. The Burning Chambers doesn’t achieve this because the plot follows a predictable pattern and is engineered to progress through a series of unbelievable coincidences.

Despite these minor grievances, The Burning Chambers is a lively and addictive historical novel. It won’t be your book of the year, but is well worth a read.

‘The House at the End of Hope Street’ by Menna van Praag

Living rent-free in Cambridge for 99 days really would be magical.

Menna van Praag’s debut novel is an easy read: a heart-warming story about three dejected women who find hope in a magical house.

But the plot is far more nuanced than it might first seem. The various narrative strands are intricate and are interwoven effectively through regularly shifting viewpoints. Moreover, the characters are all vivid and complex, which makes their actions and reactions believable.

The fantastical elements are successfully integrated into the story. This is particularly the case with Alba’s ability to see the colours of words, a lovely idea that allows van Praag to paint some beautiful dialogue scenes.

Peggy, the “Fairy Godmother” of Hope Street, is an interesting character. Her personal intrigue highlights how those who devote their lives to others are at times the ones most in need of a helping hand.

The only thing that tempered my enjoyment of the novel was the number of typographical errors it contained. For a book that celebrates the beauty of writing, I found that the style didn’t always live up to these high aspirations. In fairness, this became less of an issue as the story progressed, which is testament to the powerful narratives.

This charming tale is surprisingly compelling. A much-needed distraction in dark times.

‘Quichotte’ by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie, famed for his flamboyant and fantastical style, offers a work of mind-boggling meta-fiction for his fourteenth novel.

Needless to say, Quichotte does not aim to innovate: there have been countless Don Quijotes since Cervantes first penned the character in 1605. True to the original, Rushdie’s take is unashamedly self-reflective, littered with references to popular culture and stinging satire of our degenerated modern society.

If the narrative is at times exuberant and pretentious this is not gratuitous; rather, it is in fitting with the original Don who, lost in his made-up world of medieval honour codes, takes himself far too seriously. Comparing Cervantes’ romance-obsessed hidalgo and Rushdie’s reality-TV addict highlights the staggering advancements made in the past four hundred years, but simultaneously reminds us how little we’ve really changed.

Unsurprisingly, the dual narrative, which combines the life of a struggling crime writer with episodes from his latest creation, quickly unravels to merge fiction and reality into an uncertain muddle. This confusion is augmented by the abundant fantastical elements – a Italian-speaking cricket for starters – that pierce “reality” and threaten our ability to distinguish truth from appearance.

Quichotte is dizzying, dazzling and stunningly profound. An unforgettable journey.

‘How the World Thinks’ by Julian Baggini

Julian Baggini’s exploration of the world’s diverse ways of thinking is insightful, rigorous and highly readable.

By tracing the major lines of thought around the world, Baggini opens his Western reader’s eyes to the plurality of philosophical traditions and in so doing challenges our arrogant conception of what constitutes Philosophy. In revealing the diversity of global thought, Baggini highlights how fundamental concepts, such as harmony and unity, can be conceived in strikingly similar terms across national contexts. Hence, knowledge of our differences paradoxically brings us together more than it pushes us apart.

As emphasised in the book’s title, the fundamental difference between philosophies is in how we think. The world’s numerous traditions try to make sense of the world through different means, but at the core many of their conclusions are a great deal closer than they first appear.

Baggini helpfully reminds us that, ‘Thinking is not to be found solely in rational deduction’. Despite the obvious irony of learning about these other ways of thinking through the filter of a piece of academic writing – a flaw that Baggini himself recognises – the reader is offered the chance to transcend their one-dimensional view of reality and open themselves up to new ways of perceiving their surroundings. This feels like an especially pertinent lesson for our modern society, where so many live entrenched in polarised populist beliefs.

How the World Thinks is a refreshing and informative antidote to narrow-mindedness. An excellent introduction to world philosophy.

‘Surrounded by Idiots’ by Thomas Erikson

A fascinating topic becomes an avalanche of clichés and platitudes in this ridiculously oversimplified book about human behaviour.

The narrative is condescending and exceedingly dull. Through a series of tedious anecdotes, Erikson assures us that people can be divided into four behavioural types, packed neatly into four different coloured boxes with no room for nuance or individuality. He then insists that knowing Kevin is a Green and Lucy’s a Yellow will help us all get along better in the office, backing this theory up with a lot of self-congratulatory stories of workplace larks and precious little science.

After reading this book, I’ve learnt that someone who forces their way boisterously into a room and immediately unleashes their ferocious temper on everyone around them is called a Red (although I think I’ll stick to “obnoxious egotist”). But whether Erikson’s rehashing of a basic concept of human behaviour will help anyone establish and maintain any actual human relations is another question. 

It was difficult to read page after page of generic, totalising statements wrapped up in a prose that is at best childish and at worst condescending. To top it off, the book is littered with typos and editing mishaps – here, at least, the blame does not lie with Erikson. 

This is a money-grabbing pamphlet that neither instructs nor entertains. I feel like the idiot for falling for the marketing.

‘The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo’ by Germano Almeida

Writing your life takes on new meaning in this intriguing tale by Cape Verdean author, Germano Almeida.

When respected businessman Mr Napumoceno passes away, he leaves behind a will of more than three hundred pages. As required by law, the entire document is read aloud, hinting from the outset at a tension between the written word and oral tradition in a society where the latter is sacred.

Along a meandering journey through the past, the novel’s many narratives become deeply entwined. A plethora of voices compete to be heard, whilst contradictory accounts of episodes of the businessman’s life pose questions about authority and veracity.

Ultimately, when the polyphonic cacophony is stripped back, at the heart there is absence. Maria de Graça, who has just found out she is the daughter of the late Mr Napumoceno, strives to track down another absent character – his former lover, Adélia.

This is a sporadic, unpredictable and enjoyable read.

‘The Solitude of Prime Numbers’ by Paolo Giordano

Paolo Giordano’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a striking concept, but a mediocre novel.

Giordano presents two characters, each with a childhood trauma: Mattia, who unwittingly makes a life-changing decision when he abandons his twin sister and she subsequently goes missing; and Alice, pressured into skiing competitively by her pushy father from a young age.

It is not surprising that Mattia should struggle to build human relationships. Although the loner-obsessed-with-maths character that Giordano creates is rather clichéd, his story comes with a real sense of underlying hurt from the debilitating trauma that constantly nags away at him. The reader can quickly sympathise with Mattia, even whilst lamenting the lack of subtlety with which his character is developed.

On the other hand, Alice’s route to solitude is less clear. Throughout the novel, her actions and intentions never seem to have much foundation, which may be an intentional ploy used by Giordano. In this way, he could be shining a light on human turbulence and our tendency to hurt ourselves and others by failing to understand and control our own feelings.

Even so, it is hard to feel anything towards Alice other than mild annoyance. The episodes with school bully Viola – another one-dimensional character – are particularly tiresome, and the fact that Alice’s greatest triumph is spoiling her former bully-turned-friend-returned-bully’s wedding photos epitomises the lack of depth of her character.

Reading The Solitude of Prime Numbers is not a waste of time because reading is never a waste of time. But there are an abundance of stories that deal with emotional trauma in far more subtle and believable ways.

Update: I can’t help drawing a comparison between Giordano’s minimalistic style and that of Amélie Nothomb. Both authors take the reader through a period of their characters’ respective lives, feeding us information directly rather than showing it through expansive description. For me, the main reason Diane is a superior character to Alice or Mattia is the deeper understanding we have of her person, which comes from Nothomb’s unpretentious and subtle narrative flow. In comparison, Giordano is heavy handed, dealing with hugely complex issues through simplifications and worn stereotypes.

‘Strike Your Heart’ by Amélie Nothomb

Amélie Nothomb’s uncomplicated style is the perfect vehicle for a story that simultaneously draws the reader in and pushes them away.

Although Nothomb’s writing is terse and economical, the narrative is profound and Diane’s life is deceptively gripping. The reader is told more than they are shown, but this works perfectly and creates a story that is intricate and hard-hitting.

Strike Your Heart offers a narrative that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page. It is frustratingly short, but the action is so concentrated that it feels well suited to the novella format. Indeed, the constraints of form impose a further stifling effect on Diane.

This is a book I would highly recommend (and appreciate even more after reading The Solitude of Prime Numbers).