May 13, 2022
This unnerving debut novel about emotional scars being inflicted down the generations reads like witness testimony
Well into a career that encompasses poetry, memoir and projects such as her 2017 collection of quotable fragments 300 Arguments, the American author Sarah Manguso has turned to the novel. Very Cold People is also composed of short sections, compiled like witness testimony by a young girl called Ruthie, as she grows up in the fictional town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts, somewhere near Boston. Ruthie and her family don’t belong there, she tells us in the first sentence; it is a town for people whose ancestors came over with the pilgrims to settle in that violently snowy part of the new world.
The very cold people of the title refers not only to the inhabitants of this icy region, but to Ruthie’s own parents. At the outset they seem merely bohemian and thrifty, buying her toys secondhand and her clothes at factory outlets, but then we hear about Ruthie’s mother dredging a fancy wristwatch catalogue out of the dump, ironing its crumpled cover and displaying it on the coffee table, “just askew […] as if someone had been reading it and carelessly put it down, and she corrected its angle when she walked by”. This is something more than parsimony and closer to a pathological need, in the face of material want, to be perceived in a certain way – as offhandedly rich, casual. Her mother, the victim in her youth of some unspecified assault, “was the protagonist of everything”; Ruthie recalls being told of her own birth: “the doctor said Oh she’s beautiful […] and my mother had thought he was talking about her”. Continue reading...
Dec 14, 2021
During the lockdown of winter 2020, a woman breaks her quarantine to head out to the hills – then disaster strikes
At the beginning of all this, when the lucky ones were hiding out at home disinfecting their groceries and baking bread, some wondered what impact the pandemic would have on fiction. Would people write Covid novels? Or would this be the kind of thing fiction ignored, the way it neglected to include mobile phones or the internet or climate change for such a long time? Now, 18 months on and with no end in sight, it seems ever more important that fiction acknowledge the truths the pandemic has revealed to us: how connected we all are, and how much we fear one another. Enter Sarah Moss’s eighth novel, The Fell.
Set in the Peak District over one night in November 2020, like Moss’s previous novel, Summerwater, The Fell explores isolation and claustrophobia through the various perspectives of a group of geographically proximate people. Alice is a retiree, classified as “vulnerable” because of her recent cancer treatment; she is brought groceries by her teenage neighbour Matt and his mother Kate (his father is nowhere in sight). Rob is a local volunteer with search and rescue efforts; it’s his night with his daughter, and he wants to look after her, but is called out to an emergency on the fell. Kate, after contact with a Covid-infected person in the cafe where she waitresses, has been unable to abide a 10-day quarantine; she takes off at dusk into the nearby hills without a mobile phone. At first the outing is invigorating – Kate sings folk songs and carols to herself as she walks. But at some point she falls, and then night falls, and it’s unclear how she is going to survive. Continue reading...
Jun 03, 2021
A sense of doom hangs over this exploration of the distance that exists between people, revolving around unnamed characters in an unnamed town
Over the last decade or so, literary fiction has often taken a particular shape on the page. Everything is folded into one neat justified column – memories, digressions, dialogue (never signalled with quotation marks). New paragraphs are scarce. Page breaks do the work chapter breaks used to. This has an effect on language and tone. There is usually a resulting flatness, a poised Jamesian distance from which everything unspools. The diction is lofty and purposeful. Disturbances or disruptions are embedded in this cool, calm delivery, underscoring their gravity while also maintaining distance. Conversations of a surprising intimacy prompt unexpected reflections. The narrators rarely have names; geographic location is often unspecified; plot is hazy. I am thinking of the novels of Tom McCarthy, Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk, Sophie Mackintosh or more recently Amina Cain. Is this the new millennium’s answer to modernism?
Sarah Bernstein’s debut novel, The Coming Bad Days, belongs to this category and takes distance as its central concern, using the form of fiction to think about how we live with other people’s utter unknowability, their complete separateness. If characters lack names, it is because – well, what is a name? How limiting, how imprecise? (The enemy of millennial modernism is the latent imprecision of things we used to take for granted.) Continue reading...
Feb 10, 2021
The ugly truth emerges, in a headline-making account, of how a 14-year-old fell for, and was sexually abused by, a renowned writer three times her age
Paris, March 1990. A writer called Gabriel Matzneff is a guest on Bernard Pivot’s influential literary TV chat show Apostrophes to discuss his recently published memoir, about his sexual conquests of very young women. “It seems that women over the age of 20 no longer interest you,” comments Pivot. Matzneff agrees; older women have known “disillusionment”, and he prefers to sleep with “those who are not yet hardened, who are still nice”.
The only person present to take exception to Matzneff’s comments is the Canadian novelist Denise Bombardier, who calls them an “abuse of power”: “We all know how some girls can become besotted by men with a certain literary aura.” Matzneff says some high-minded things about how Bombardier doesn’t have the right to judge a work of littérature on those terms. “There are limits even to literature,” she replies. For this, les intellos mock her left and right in the press. A few days later, on the TV channel France 3, the writer and critic Philippe Sollers calls her a bitch. Continue reading...