August 2020: Williams, Self, Rijneveld, Barrow

This month I read:


The Liar’s Dictionary – Eley Williams (2020) Eley Williams’s first novel tells the related stories of two lexicographers at Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, an unfinished Victorian reference work. In chapters A, C, E, G, I, K, M, O, Q, S, U, W and Y, set in the present day, Mallory is employed by David Swansby as part of the dictionary’s digitisation project. One of her jobs is to hunt for mountweazels (false entries). In B, D, F, H, J, L, N, P, R, T, V, X and Z, set in 1899, we meet Peter Winceworth, the man who secretly added the mountweazels. Winceworth is an exemplar of Johnson’s harmless drudge, a stereotypical Victorian clerk employed in Gerolf Swansby’s scrivenery – something like James Murray’s scriptorium in Oxford – where he is working on the letter S, a task made all the more difficult because he feigns a lisp. The two stories intertwine: Winceworth is beguiled by Sonia, the worldly fiancée of his flash colleague Frasham, Mallory struggles to publicly acknowledge her girlfriend Pip, Winceworth is caught up in an explosion at Barking (a genuine incident, in which a boiler at the Hewitt and Co engineering works exploded), David Swansby sets off a bomb in the dictionary’s offices in an attempt at insurance fraud. And throughout the book there are ruminations on language and its functions, discussions of the purpose of dictionaries, and linguistic jokes galore. Oh, and there’s a family of cats, all of which are called Tits, and a wonderfully bizarre fight with a pelican. Mostly, though, it’s about love. It’s entirely charming and I wanted to read it again the moment I finished. One last observation: the word ‘mountweazel’, so essential to the novel, is misspelled ‘mountweasel’ on page 166. Given the word games that fill the book, I wonder if this is deliberate rather than an editorial slip-up. Whatever might it mean, though?

Will – Will Self (2019) Will Self is, to put it mildly, something of a divisive figure. His disdainful public persona, which many people take at face value, his verbosity, his ostentatious intellectualism and his frequent pronouncements on the death of the novel – which tend to come every time he has a new book out – are all factors. I can, of course, speak only for myself, but I’ve always rather liked him. I first read him back in the 1990s, when I was about 16 or 17 and a friend lent me a copy of My Idea of Fun. Hard to imagine now, but Self was sensationally cool back then, the enfant terrible of the literary scene – his notoriety mostly due to all the drugs he took rather than his work, although his work was dazzlingly weird too. I found My Idea of Fun baffling, fascinating, funny, grotesque, crammed with imagination and clearly burning with a frenzied determination to follow every unhinged idea to its inevitable conclusion. Since then, I’ve bought everything he’s published. Some of it’s been good (Great Apes; The Book of Dave), some of it less so (The Butt), some of it I haven’t got round to yet (the Umbrella/Shark/Phone trilogy, which I’ve only skimmed (SB++ on the Bayard scale)), but still I’ve carried on buying – principally out of a completist’s urge to see his career through rather than a misplaced sense of loyalty to my adolescent tastes (although I can’t deny that’s also a factor). I’ve met him a few times too. I lived in Stockwell, south London, for many years, close to where he lived, and would see him about the place pretty frequently; I always found him friendly, funny and good for a brief chat – particularly about literature, which seemed to be the only thing he was entirely in earnest about. What I most enjoyed, however, was the incongruity of spotting him in banal settings, such as buying fish fingers in Jack’s Supermarket, the shitty but surprisingly well-stocked shop by Stockwell tube, or gangling back from the Nine Elms Sainsbury’s, overladen with bags, in a ridiculous hat and with a tiny dog in tow. I can’t quite say why, but the sight of a serious literary novelist shopping for groceries always amused me. It just seemed so infra dig. More fittingly, I remember once visiting a bookshop on the Charing Cross Road with my friend Joe, where I persuaded him to buy a copy of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. As we emerged, a tall, thin figure lurched past us, glanced, pointed, growled, “THAT is a bloody good book,” and then disappeared into the distance, yelling after his son Luther (“Lutie! Lutie!”). It was, of course, William Woodard Self. This memoir of Self’s troubled teens and twenties seems to be written in the same style as the trilogy – all italicised snatches of pop lyrics, non-sequiturs, hackneyed phrases and asides – as it follows young Will, an arrogant, narcissistic, wheedling mess of a young man, developing, and then trying to divest himself of, a serious drug habit again… annagain. It has five parts, in and out of which drift the flotsam of other memories: May 1986, trying to score in Stockwell by attempting to mollify his dealer with 57 pence of Greggs Danish pastries, and dangerously driving his ‘Veedub’ to and from his implausible sales job in Chiswick; May 1979, taking speed and his A-levels; April 1982, busted by the drug squad at a holiday cottage in Wales, preparing for his Oxford finals by ingesting large quantities of uppers, downers, twisters and screamers, hanging out with friends such as the “ludicrously posh” Caius (clearly Edward St Aubyn), and scraping a third after submitting a paper that featured a cartoon of “Sartre next to a similarly proportioned hammer, and captioned ACTUAL SIZE”; April 1984, a gap year of sorts in Australia with his father and India with Caius; and August 1986 in rehab at Broadway Lodge – presumably the sojourn that was filmed for a documentary and subsequently appeared in the South Bank Show. This is, inevitably, an odd book, disjointed and rambling, honest without being especially confessional, and so detached it’s written in the third person. Irrespective of the illeism, a memoir of 1980s heroin addiction by a privileged white boy from Hampstead Garden Suburb ought to have been especially tiresome and self-indulgent (no pun intended), but I enjoyed it enormously.

The Discomfort of Evening – Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, trans. Michele Hutchinson (2020) When Matthies, the eldest son of a devout Dutch dairy farmer, drowns in a lake two days before Christmas after falling through thin ice while skating, the Mulder family collapses under the weight of mourning, their sorrow exacerbated by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that forces the slaughter of their herd. Neglected by their grief-stricken parents, Jas, her sister Hanna and brother Obbe try to come to terms with death, just as they try to understand their burgeoning sexuality, themselves – in ever more disturbing ways. We see the story through Jas’s eyes, as she relates her childhood trauma with unnerving directness (including her constipation and her father’s abusive attempts to relieve her by poking soap up her bottom (later emulated by Obbe, at her instigation), the drawing pin she sticks in her belly like an ear tag in a farm animal, her refusal to remove her coat, which affords her an extra layer of emotional as well as physical protection, Obbe banging his head against the wall in his sleep, incestuous experiments with her siblings, her mother announcing she wants to die, and, hanging over all of it, the oppression of religion), until she finally finds release, climbing into a chest freezer and letting the door slam shut, trapping herself in ice like her brother. There’s a strong focus on the corporeal: as emotions are repressed, bodily functions come to represent spiritual torment (for instance this description of Jas’s father shouting as his cows are slaughtered: “Saliva drips slowly down his chin onto the floor in the feed section. I concentrate on the drops, on the sadness trickling out of him, like the runny manure and the blood from the dead cows that flow between the ridges of the tiles and end up in the drain, mixing with the milk from the cooling truck.”). When I was about halfway through reading this extraordinary, unsettling book, it was announced that it had won the International Booker prize. I haven’t read the rest of the shortlist, but it’s hard to imagine anything else could get under the reader’s skin quite like this.

The Queue – Jonathan Barrow (2011) This puerile, scatological farce is quite simply the most bizarre and one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. The hero escapes his brutal boarding school and goes on the run with a dachshund called Mary, encountering sexual depravity, cannibalism, brutal violence and death, a surfeit of bodily functions (including torrents of excreta), several dismemberments (and I emphasise ‘member’), and a great number of talking animals. This excerpt from the first couple of pages sets the tone: “Mr. Prente [one of the schoolmasters] leaves tomorrow too. The bursar raided his study and found three hundred pairs of soiled boys’ underwear in a chest under his bed. And, hidden in a laundry bag, he found 12 lemonade bottles: each overflowing with boys’ urine that was still warm. Next morning these bottles were put on display in the assembly hall as a warning to all other members of the staff. Then, after the hymn, each boy filed past and those responsible had to claim their urine. I refused and was thrashed by Mr. Kille before the entire school. (Judging by the wet patch, I guessed that he had an organism [sic] whilst administering the punishment. Fourteen years later, when we both shared cells in Parkhurst he admitted to me that this was correct.)” I started reading it in bed, but had to stop as I could barely stifle my incredulous giggles and didn’t want to wake my wife. Before long, the initial effect inevitably wore off, but I still felt compelled to finish it. It’s pure, château-bottled filth from start to finish. And what of the depraved mind responsible for the book? Jonathan Barrow died in a car crash in 1970, aged 22, shortly after finishing it– a typewriter was apparently found in the back seat of the vehicle with a page of The Queue sticking out of it. (Read more about Barrow here – the article that prompted me to buy the book.) What a memorial.

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