The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín

Colm Toibin image
Irish writer Colm Tóibín

Page one can tell you a lot about a book. Here, in  Colm Tóibín’s 1996 novel, The Story of the Night, the first paragraph is in the simple past tense with a first person narrator, Richard Garay, a young Argentinian with an English mother:

“During her last year my mother grew obsessive about the emblems of empire: the Union Jack, the Tower of London, the Queen and Mrs. Thatcher.”

The second paragraph is in the present continuous: now, the time of writing.

“I am living once more in her apartment. I am sleeping in her bed, and I am using, with particular relish, the heavy cotton sheets that she was saving for some special occasion. ”

The third paragraph returns to the past, to the story Tóibín wants to tell; set in the time before, and after, his mother’s death,

“She died a year before the war [The Falkland’s war, 1982] and thus I was spared her mad patriotism and foolishness … The war would have been her shrill revenge on everybody, on my father and his family, and on the life she had been forced to live down here [Buenos Aires] so far away from home.”

What you also get from page one is the tone, generated by a sparse prose peppered with well-chosen adjectives (“her shrill revenge”); simple and often short sentences; a formal style – few contractions; and of course the situation, melancholic and fearful, which has a lot to do with meaning: his mother a widow in a foreign country with an only child who is anxious about his future and his desires.

By the end of page one it is clear that the world of The Story of the Night is dark, devious, and dangerous.

“She was elated by the election of Mrs Thatcher. Here is a woman, she said, who knows what is right and what is wrong. And that is what we need here, she said. She showed me Thatcher’s face in a magazine, pointed to her and said how sorry she was not to be in England now.”

This direct speech without punctuation; more like indirect speech is curious since there are passages of traditionally punctuated direct speech. It may be that this direct/non-direct speech, which is reported by Garay, is his version of what was said which raises the question of his trustworthiness; yet he is our key to the story. He is honest with us about his desires, inexperience, political naïveté, and inaction; or is he?

The creation of verisimilitude is essential to the novelist’s goal: to make the reader believe that what they are reading is true, even if that truth only exists in the universe that the writer has created and in which the story lives. As in the theatre, the audience, the readers, are expected to suspend disbelief and believe what they are experiencing. With a first person narrative a strong and common way to do this is, ironically, for the narrator to admit what he or she does not know:

“I don’t remember how or why I began to talk about this.”

Curiously, such a line makes the narrator more believable; we all forget things, why we said things, how we met someone, how we know something. (This doesn’t work, of course, for a third person narrative who is usually all-seeing, all-knowing, god-like) But this not remembering makes him more like us. Tóibín uses this little technique to also heighten the tension surrounding the narrative which is steeped in the political uncertainty following the war with Britain over the Falklands, the Malvinas as the Argentinians call them. Garay is fearful of his professional future; he has a lowly paid English-teaching job which he hates; he is watchful of others who may be spying on him; he is anxious about others knowing his desires; and doesn’t know who to trust. However he is brave (or foolish) enough to take a gamble and becomes politically involved with the father of one of his regular students who introduces him to an American couple, Donald and Susan Ford, with whom he embarks on a friendship but with hidden motives and where the real story, what he assumes, is possibly false. These layers of acquaintances help to deepen the fear; slipping him deeper into a labyrinth. This mixture of political and sexual intrigue creates a sense of danger that always threatens to manifest itself: it is as if danger is around every corner, under every bed, over every page. Garay is constantly on edge and so are we.

Tóibín has been criticized for getting the history wrong and although the setting is a country we all know exists, Argentina, it doesn’t have to be that Argentina; it is the Argentina of the writer’s imagination and this a reader accepts or doesn’t. This is creative writing and one has to accept that it is all created; just because he writer uses the name of an exiting place the reader should not confuse the associational reference with the place itself; anyway, how many of us know the political climate, atmospheric geography, and bar etiquette of 1983 Buenos Aires? And would you take time out to research such things at such times? I think not. The writer wants us to use our knowledge, albeit skimpy and tabloid-ish, to his advantage: he is creating a world in which it is possible for us to believe that what we are reading is true (even if it isn’t). That is the point of fiction.

The Story of the Night is a love story, a tragedy, but also an affirmation: Tóibín is too much an optimist about love to let it be down-trodden by plot.

Tóibín has written previously about men, The Heather Blazing (1992) and The Master (2004), but not for over a decade; his last three novels have been about women; but of all his long-form work The Story of the Night is the most unusual. It has been reported that he has said that his next novel will be again about a man. We can all look forward to that!

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale

A Perfectly Good Man Cover Pic

In 1937 J. B. Priestley was – if not the first then one of the first – writers to use time as a plot point. His play Time and the Conways tells of the decline of a monied Yorkshire family between the wars. Act one is set in 1919 at the birthday party of one of the daughters; act two is set on the same night but in 1937 and we see how far the family and all its members have fallen; and act three continues from act one and we see all the misjudged decisions, wrong turnings, and false expectations that caused it all. It is a tragedy, not just of a family but of Britain as she unwittingly is drawn into war, a war that Priestly predicted; but because the audience knows what happens they are spared any melodramatic sentimentality at the Conway’s future and, instead, are left with the truly tragic knowledge that it is all their own fault, therefore teaching us that our future is all our own fault. Damn it!

By the end of the first chapter of Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man I was gasping at what I had just witnessed, as our hero, the perfectly good man, an Anglican vicar, Father Barnaby Johnson, had just witnessed and could do nothing to stop: a suicide in broad daylight at a kitchen table. Time jumps back twenty years for chapter two and by its end I was misty-eyed at a lonely farm girl who almost became a matinee spinster, and at her sudden and unexpected happiness that she grabbed with her heart and both hands, despite her mother’s selfish interference and her own self-acceptance of a lonely life; so that when she saw Barnaby, finally, and they kissed and kissed again I’m sure I heard an orchestra belting out a soppy Korngold score like anything starring Joan Fontain and Lawrence Olivier: emotional, yes, but not sentimental; there’s no time for that as the next chapter jumps forty years into the future with Barnaby at 60. We know the consequences of everything they see and do. As with Priestley’s time plays Gale reveals outcomes before their gestation which not only spares us sentimentality and underlines the folly of mankind but also provides the reader with a few delicious “Oh yes, of course!” moments. I love those little moments.

Gale’s clever narrative, not only doesn’t follow the linear life of Barnaby Johnson, but rather his life is painted not by what he does but by what effect he has on the people around him: Dorothy, his wife; Lenny, his young, lapsed parishioner; Carrie, his daughter; Phuc (Careful! It’s rhymes with look), his adopted Vietnamese son; Modest, an interfering, totally unpleasant and obese man, to whom Barnaby shows nothing but kindness; James, his gay uncle; and Nuala, his onetime Australian lover. We get to know Barnaby Johnson through his reflection in the lives of these Cornish people. Be assured that I have left out some important information in my descriptions of these characters: I don’t believe in spoilers.

It’s set in Cornwall and in the little parishes north of Penzance, the same location of the previous Gale novel I read and blogged about; and incidentally two characters from that book, Notes from an Exhibition (see my previous post) make an appearance in this one. A neat synchronicity but only because I read these two back to back.

He has a way with the nuanced phrase …”the sisterly happiness she felt for him was borne up on little upwells or erotic regret …  she could smell the disappointment of her, a passing sourness, as of stale sweat trapped in a dress sleeve … In a priestly way – all cheekbones and fine feeling – he was handsome, she considered … And there she was in his maths class like a princess sent to a rural comprehensive to learn humility… Even now they weren’t exactly alone because her parents were standing in the porch, like an advertisement for mortgages…she simply preferred to keep her feelings private and as reassuringly compartmentalized as the meticulously size-sorted screws in the trays of her tool box …”

These gems give you little jolts of joy, like finding a $20 note in a pair of jeans you haven’t worn for a while.

Notes from an Exhibition, along with A Perfectly Good Man are now available as ebooks and you can find them here.

Since my literary heroes (at the moment), Colm Tóibín, Tim Winton, and Damon Galgut are not very prolific I’m happy to add Patrick Gale to the list so now I have his whole body of work to explore. I hope you will too.

Lies of Silence by Brian Moore

Brian Moore Pic
Northern Ireland born Canadian writer BRIAN MOORE (1921 – 1999)

This review does not contain spoilers.

With Islam tearing itself, and most of the Middle East, apart at the seams because of denominational, ideological, and doctrinal differences it is easy to forget that Christianity has had it’s own experience of hatred, violence, bloodshed, and the corrosion of legal governance because of similar differences, and not that long ago: Northern Ireland; and the fact that the current conflict contains a large dose of post-colonial revenge doesn’t make it more different, it makes it more the same, just on a larger, international scale.

Brain Moore (1921 – 1999) Northern Irish born Canadian novelist wrote much about his homeland, the Troubles, and in no uncertain terms placed most of the blame on the Christian teachings – on both sides – of hate, entitlement, and rightness. Many of his books have been adapted for the screen: Intent to KillThe Luck of Ginger,  CoffeyCatholicsBlack Robe, and most notably The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987) starring Maggie Smith. He also wrote screenplays, some based on his own prose, but also, among many, Hitchcock’s Torn Curtin (1966). Graeme Green always liked to cite Moore as his favourite living novelist which was flattering but also, according to Moore, “a bit of an albatross.”

His 1990 and Man Booker Prize nominated novel Lies of Silence (he was nominated three times) is set squarely in the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland. Michael Dillon, a failed writer, now successful hotel manager in Belfast, is forced by masked IRA house-invaders to commit an act of terror or his wife will be killed. This in itself is a strong set-up but Moore raises the stakes. On the night of the house invasion he plans to tell his wife he wants a divorce, he has fallen in love with someone else and plans tomorrow to leave with her for London, but instead of the truth his wife’s insecurity about her looks and job prospects, and his guilt no doubt, causes him to try and bolster her lack of self-confidence and instead of the truth he is forced to let her believe that she is a woman a husband would never leave. They sleep. He will tell her in the morning but he never gets the chance. It’s a page turner; but more so because of the additional drama supplied by themes of religious hypocrisy, cowardice, faithfulness, loyalty, love and dishonour.

I thought all Booker Prize nominated novels were high on character, low on plot. Not this one; in fact plot takes pride of place but character isn’t neglected; it is effectively painted through, among other things, dialogue; heartening since there is a modern trend, particularly in Australia, where dialogue is looked down upon as a novelistic tool. Moira, Dillon’s beautiful wife, more beautiful than his mistress, Andrea, is cleverly painted through what she says and how she says it. She is no shrinking violet; she is ballsy, determined, and sassy – she stands up to the IRA home invaders – but at the same time insecure, bulimic, and frightened. Dillion’s ‘Soloman’s Choice’, makes for a great plot-driver: the terror target is his own hotel and the possible dead, by his hand, would include his staff, guests, and a right-wing preacher who is in fact the actual target of the attack. Dillion hates him but in the ‘will I/won’t I save my staff or my wife’ his duty to his staff and guests – hundreds of them – is compromised by the fact that if he saves them he also saves the preacher-arshole, who he believes deserves a bomb. I’m not spoiling it for you; this is just the set-up.

After reading and blogging about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – a tome the size of a first-issue mobile-phone – remember them? – I raced through Moore’s and not just because of its normal paperback size: it was hard to put down. In the current reader-esque universe of keeping-up-with-the-latest-work-of-your-literary-heroes it’s very likely that you may have missed Brian Moore, I did – there’s so much to read! – but Moore is worth searching out if only as a relief from the intense literary fiction of today.

In his obituary in the Guardian (1999) the writer succinctly described Moore’s literary output as continually testing “even further the unremitting search of humanity for certainties in a remarkably unreliable universe. Almost two decades on and in another century that universe is, unfortunately, still remarkably unreliable.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara Pic
American novelist Hanya Yanagihara. A Little Life was short-listed for the 2015 Man-Booker Prize

This is a novel about friendship; no, it’s more than that, it’s about love-ship. It’s a solar system of people, with planets, Willem (an actor), JB (a painter), and Malcolm (an architect), and their hugging friends who hover like moons as they all circle in ever-decreasing orbits around Jude (a lawyer), the sun-like centre; where a career is as important as sex, where sex is fluid and non-defining, where who you think you are can be a million miles away from who others think you are, and where desire is unhinged from the brain and is a simple bodily necessity.

Yes, on one level it is a hymn to this love-ship but it is also a harrowing account of the affects of child sexual abuse and “how far a body will go to protect itself, at all costs. How hard it fights to live. But then the fact is,” she suggests, “our bodies don’t care about us at all.”

Yanagihara puts omnipotence back into the qualities of the third-person narrator: her narrator is fluent in the intricacies of pure math[s] – zero must exist but has it been proven to exist; the legal arguments that define the difference between what is fair and what is right; the architectural pitfalls of urban interior design; the sexual ambivalence of well-heeled twenty-somethings as opposed to the sexual certainty of the under-educated; and the life-threatening aspects and the psychological roller-coaster ride of a physical and emotional retard whose depths of self-loathing are bottomless, but who is, by every account, the most intelligent of the lot of them. This character, Jude St Francis, whose little life this book is about, is the emotional heart of this group of friends living in and around New York City, and we are not spared any of the tragic, horrific, and dehumanising aspects of his existence and upbringing and it is all due to Yanagihara’s skill that his life is so enthralling. She makes it very clear that intelligence can overcome even the most debilitating consequences, while at the same time proving that, in regards to the self, intelligence has very little traction.

Yanagihara’s prose is informal and chatty (conjunctions often begin new ideas, just like a chat with your neighbour), dense (a paragraph can contain the past, the future, and the present – she loves dashes and brackets), and of course her characters are flawed (after-all there are no novelistic perfect characters) but her description of them is pure, true, but non-judgemental; unlike her characters’ descriptions of each other.

And even though it is difficult at any given moment to understand where the narrative is on its own timeline there is a feeling of moving forward; that despite the rich characterisation and back-story anecdotes a narrative is unfolding. She pulls no punches so even as you are enjoying a moment of happiness in Jude’s chaotic, damaged, but professionally charmed life, there is a dread in your guts that it could all come tumbling down disastrously, on the next page. Sometimes you feel like you want to skip a bit, so detailed and horrendous are the descriptions of moments in Jude’s life but the skipping moment is always voyeuristically delayed and finally when the dread is over you can feel that lump in your throat slowly melting away and you can breath evenly again.

Hanya Yanagihara is an American writer and editor of Hawaiian extraction and currently works as the deputy editor of The New York Times Style magazine. Her first novel, The People in the Trees, was considered one of the best in 2013.

I wrote my second novel, A Little Life, in what I still think of as a fever dream: for 18 months, I was unable to properly concentrate on anything else … but if the actual writing of the book was brief, it’s only now that I realise that I had been thinking of this novel for far longer. I began collecting photography when I was 26, 14 years ago; and when I actually began writing, it was these images I returned to, again and again: they provided a sort of tonal sound check, as it were … Now that the book is done, I realize that these images are now so inextricable from the book — and my experience of writing it — that looking at them again is somehow jolting: they’ve become a visual diary of that year and a half, and I find myself unable to look at them without thinking of the life of my novel.

Hanya Yanagihara (

Yanagihara is not interested in marriage; it is not for her, nor for her friends, nor for her characters. A Little Life makes us aware of the meaning of the word, family: how we create them, keep them, succour them, honour them, even when there are no blood-ties, the lack of which seemingly makes this family stronger, truer, safer, more honourable.

This is the first book I can remember reading that made me cry (there are also a lot of laughs, mainly of recognition) well before the half-way mark; it is however, despite the title, a big book. If you find the first fifty pages just a blur of dense information persevere, it is very much worth it.

A great book!

The South by Colm Tóibín


Colm Toibin 1987
A young Colm Tóibín 1987

For a woman who, at any given moment, doesn’t quite know what to do, Kathleen Proctor, the protagonist in Colm Tóibín’s The South, has accumulated a raft of major decisions by the time she hits forty: she has abandoned her husband (just like her mother had done), son, and country; moved almost penniless to Barcelona, said yes to her mother’s financial support; taken up painting, taken a lover for his looks and attention; moved with him to the top of an isolated mountain in the eastern Spanish Pyrenees; and had a daughter. She just can’t decide if she should stay or go.

Tóibín’s attitude to, or fascination with, motherhood is a flavoursome ingredient in a lot of his work: it’s foremost in his first Booker Prize nominated novel, The Blackwater Lightship (1999) – about three diffident mothers; it underpins the decisions of the protagonist in Brooklyn (2009), she runs away from hers; The Story of the Night (1996) opens with a dying one; it is pivotal to his latest novel Nora Webster (2014) when a mother finds herself a widow and reclaims her life as ‘hers’, not ‘theirs’; & Jesus! how mother-obsessed can you get when you write a lengthy, grumpy, but redemptive speech for the mother of God, The Testament of Mary (2012). Here in his first published long-form fiction it is something that the protagonist, Kathleen Proctor, is ambivalent and confused about: children get in the way, children make a mother out of a woman and if it’s a woman you are trying to be, being a mother seems like a second choice, and she lets it happen, twice!

 I went to live in Barcelona in 1975, when I was twenty. Even before I went there, I knew more about the Spanish Civil War than I did about the Irish Civil War. I liked Barcelona, and then I grew to like a place in the Catalan Pyrenees called the [Farrera de] Pallars, especially an area between the village of Llavorsi and the high mountains around it. Until the late nineteen-fifties, the eight or nine villages in the area were cut off from the outside world, with only a footbridge connecting them to Llavorsi; there were some mountain passes, but no roads into France. I loved how enclosed it all was. For the past twenty years, I have spent a part of every year there.”

Colm Tóibín The New Yorker, February 24, 2013.

 Tóibín worked as a journalist in Barcelona and wrote many short stories, including explicit autobiographical tales; a journalistic book about the city itself, Homage to Barcelona came out in 2002, and also this, his first novel, published in 1990.

It establishes Tóibín’s style; stark, formal, where the language is simple but clear – you never have to rush to the dictionary:

Isona was playing on her own in the garden. Katherine picked her up and took her into the house. Miguel was in the kitchen. Katherine put Isona down. There was hot water on the gas; she washed out the jug and poured in the milk from the bucket.                                                                                                               The South, p 141.

 Like frames from a film where the reader supplies the action between each one; the movement between frames. The action seems mundane but the drama is in what the characters may be thinking or feeling but not saying.

He also spends short introductory paragraphs describing the weather, the place; something he no longer does.

Surprisingly the book opens with a first person narrative, by Katherine, of her first few disorientating days in Barcelona, alone and poor, after her abandonment of Ireland and her family. I’ve always been disquieted by works where the gender of the story-teller is different from that of the author (a publisher who turned it down thought it was written by a woman) but Tóibín’s honest prose appeased my initial objection via a detailed description of a potential molestation, in the dark, on a train, and I forgot all about gender; more about this later.

The South is a story of wish fulfilment even though Katherine doesn’t know quite what the wish is. However she takes up painting because she moves in painterly circles and it becomes her wish: to be a painter. Her development as an artist, and growing confidence, is reflected in the size of her canvases: small bits of paper at first but eventually to formats so big that they have to be left outside covered in plastic. She disappoints her husband and child by leaving them but picks up with two disappointed men in Spain; one she sleeps with, the Catalonian, the other, the Irishman, she doesn’t. Her life in Spain is about passion, sexual and artistic, the former she learns to do without, the latter she concentrates on but success is not what interests her. She doesn’t care, she is doing what she wants. Even tragedy becomes part of the passion: a rich and full life, albeit a penniless one.

As the book begins with a departure, it ends with a return; she faces the consequences of her youthful, and selfish determination, and learns to live with the forgiveness, of sorts, that is offered to her.

Although Tóibín’s featured characters are usually women, their gender isn’t what interests him. If a man had squeased two children out of his own body, born of love, necessity, acceptance, resignation or simple lust, and was then expected to care for them even if he didn’t want to; even if doing so made him feel less of a man; this is what interests him. This is what feeds his novelistic brain: human beings coming to terms with, not coming to terms with, fooling themselves, berating themselves, celebrating, manipulating, cursing, damning their own biology.

There are hardly any women at all in The Master (2004), arguably his masterpiece, but that’s exactly what it’s about too.

Oh, and by the way, The South doesn’t appear on Tóibín’s website; there’s not a mention of it. However in the new edition I have just read (Picador Classic Series) – my first copy was lost with my entire library in 2010 – there is a charming Afterward by the author where he talks of it with some affection and also surprise that he managed to finish it.

One day, when I had no idea how to proceed, when no new images came, when I felt I was blocked with the book, I remembered what Barrie Cooke had said. I made a mark. I decided that I would write the first thing that came into my head and then make it stick. What came was: ‘The Sea. A grey shine on the sea.’ I was surprised by this and began to work with it.

Colm Tóibín’s,  Afterward, 2015.

Colm Toibin 2015
Colm Tóibín 2015

Collecting Stories by Michael Freundt

My writing desk
My writing desk

Collecting Stories, my first short story collection, goes live online on Monday August 3rd.

You can find it here

The stories have been written over the last 25 years; the latest, A Marriage of Convenience, was written last month. Inspiration comes from some unlikely sources: a bus ride from Balmain, a conversation in a foyer, something a friend said, and among others, an opening paragraph from a magazine article which I read again and again, after returning from my laptop where I recorded the thought, but darned if I could find what it was among those few printed words that sparked the thought in the first place. Apparently the history of my sparking synapses leaves no footprint; or is that just another sign of my age?

I have not included every story from my collection; a few now seemed trite, uneven, and dull so I left them where they are.

And friends, if you think that I have used you for literary purposes you’re right and if you object, then let’s talk about it.

More often than not, the stories are of the What If? kind. Nothing more needs to be said because I will always steer away from expaining to an inquisative reader what I meant by a story, a line, or an idea for two reasons: usually I don’t remember what I meant in the first place, my synapses being what they are, but more importantly I believe that what the reader thinks it means is what it means.

Sometimes stories tumble out like washing from a dryer; at other times they are few and very far between. I’m in the middle of one now which augers well for volume 2.

I hope you enjoy volume 1 and if you do, and even if you don’t, tell me about it.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut
The South African writer, Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut, when he is not travelling, lives in Cape Town, South Africa, is 52, and an openly gay man – which begs the question, why mention it? I mention it in relation to his latest book, Arctic Summer, which is a fictionalised account of the middle years – the early 20th century – of E.M. Forster’s life, his early career, his success with Howard’s End, his long roaming interlude that finally brought him to A Passage to India, but most importantly, his grappling with his homosexuality.

“At the time I grew up in South Africa,” said Galgut in a recent interview, “it was illegal to be gay. The whole system of apartheid was extremely patriarchal; all its values were skewed in that direction. To be gay growing up in Pretoria in the 1960s – it would be hard to overstate what a terribly suffocating oppressive place it was. I learned, like quite a lot of gay men do, to hide and to assume fake personas. That sense of concealment has stayed with me, even now. I suppose I’ve internalised a lot of self-dislike – self-doubt, maybe, is a better way to put it.”

Edward Morgan Forster
Edward Morgan Forster

Forster also hid and assumed a fake persona, all the more tragic that the persona he chose to hide behind was an imitation of the same persona all the men around him hid behind as well: English, literary, controlled, stiff-upper-lip, and straight, if only in that English way of not seeming to be interested in marriage. He also suffered immense self-doubt especially about his novelistic portrayal of relationships between men and women of which he had no experience at all. Yet he craved intimacy, especially sexual intimacy but had no idea of the actions or words needed to satisfy such a craving. When ‘it’ finally happened he stumbled into it, and before he knew it, there it was and his seducer did all the work; and although it was fleeting he was amazed and pleased, but he was thirty seven years old.

Arctic Summer was the name of another Forster novel but one that he abandoned in early 1913 having succumbed to a weariness at only writing, or being allowed to write, about the love between men and women.

Galgut’s writing is masterful especially in creating and colouring indecision, sexual expectation, and longing. Forster, who everyone calls Morgan, visits a country friend of a friend whom he hasn’t met yet although he has read some of the man’s writings on “Homogenic Love” which excited him. This country friend, Edward Carpenter, lives with his younger ‘companion’, George, a working class man from the Sheffield slums, and the three men have lunch, after which Morgan helps George clear the table. The following is the description of putting down the plates in the kitchen. A simple domestic act, but oh, there is so much more.

‘Looking for a clear surface on which to set down the plates, he was aware of George’s closeness behind him and of the sound of his breathing.
“Is this right?” he said. “Here?”
“Let me see. Yes, that ‘s all right. Just put them down.”
He put them down and stood, not moving. He could hear the sound of breathing, close enough to be intrusive. Then he realised it was his own.
“Oh,” he said, surprised.
And then a little frightened.
Because George was touching him.
It was merely a hand, in the lower curve of his back. The contact was suggestive though the fingers didn’t move. Perhaps it was the talk they’d been having, or the thoughts he’d entertained, but there was something subversive about that hand. Something flowed out of it, transmitted through the palm: a presumption of equality, or worse – ownership. Yes, this must be how it felt, to be touched by a lover. He could feel the heat of it, the possessive certainty of its contact. Then the hand dropped down to his bottom, wavered there for a moment, and came to rest a little above his buttocks, at the base of the spine.
It was astonishing. Something had happened to him. He wasn’t quite in the kitchen any more, not quite in his own body. His mind had flashed away from itself, to some inner place where the events of the day were still being arranged. Now they were arranged differently.
“Yes,” George said again. “That’s all right, there.”
Carpenter’s voice called outside, and the hand fell away.’

Forster did write a gay novel, Maurice, a happy-ever-after romance between men from different social backgrounds but it was only published after his death and inspired, Galgut suggests, by the scene of domestic ordinariness of that luncheon with Edward Carpenter and his companion, George.

This is a story concerning real people, real events but it is also full of conjuring, and flights of imagination, like the above quote – and Galgut’s depiction of Forster’s first sexual encounter – which sets this work as fiction, not biography. The above event may not have happened but it’s possible, and believable, that something like it did.

Galgut describes several of Forster’s relationships. The first, sexually unrequited, with an educated Indian, Masood, and the second, more successfully, although far from passionate, with an Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed. Galgut also gives Forster the opportunity to tell the former about the latter: a ‘romance’ he called it, and it is due to Galgut’s skill that when Foster finally says it: vocalises his love for another man I was overjoyed for him, not so much that, finally, he had known sexual love, meagre though it was, but that he was able to express it.

Arctic Summer is not unlike Colm Toibin’s The Master, about another writer, Henry James, who also grappled with his sexuality, but in the American it was buried so deep that not even Toibin’s masterly conjuring could’ve produced a scene like that above, and nor would it have been appropriate: for James, thoughts such as those reliably never existed, whereas for Forster they plagued his every waking hour and sometimes his sleeping ones as well.

This work is an example of historical biographical fiction and if you are concerned about what is true – and you shouldn’t be – all that can be said is that this is Galgut’s version of what ‘maybe’ true; and there are many others. What IS important is what the reader understands, enjoys, is enlivened and enlightened by.

Damon Galgut was unknown to me until the arrival of my ‘book fairy’, a European friend who comes twice a year to the tropical island where I live bearing news about books and his reading adventures but also books themselves. He had forgotten the name of this book and its author but knew the work was about E.M. Forster. Google did the rest. Fancy finding it here in a local bookstore! It has only been out a year.

Galgut’s first book, A Sinless Season, was published when he was 17, and following a serious cancer scare, a collection of short stories appeared, Small Circle of Beings, in 1988. He has been short-listed for the Man-Booker prize twice: for The Good Doctor in 2003 and In a Strange Room in 2010. He has also written plays and taught drama at his alma mater, The University of Cape Town.

“… we’re constructing the story of our lives all the time, and memory, in the end, is no different than the telling of another kind of story.” Damon Galgut.

I’m going to make a space for Damon Galgut on my bookshelf between Anna Funder and Helen Garner.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Dutch writer Herman Koch
Dutch writer Herman Koch

Like most people I read all the words on the outside of a book before I read the words on the inside. My expectations, therefore, for The Dinner were high, as such marketing blurbs are meant to do, and my idea of the plot fairly set: two couples, the husbands are brothers, meet at a restaurant to decide what to do about a horrific crime committed by their sons, cousins, and now on YouTube for all the world to see. And, yes, that is the plot but this book is about much, much more.

Almost a third of the way into the book I wrote this in my notebook:

“Koch curiously plays with time. He begins a scene well into it and then ‘flashes back’ to explain how we got to the point where the scene began. There must be a point to this.”

Yes, there certainly is a point to this. There are three time-threads: the present, the past and the near-past. Koch weaves these threads like plaits, focusing on the first over the second which gives way to the third which in turn fades to give focus back to the first. This allows Koch to mete out information and back-story one little tantilising bit at a time ramping up the tension, and the mystery, and making you yearn for the next bit, and when it comes it isn’t what you expect.

At about the same place as I wrote that above note to myself all I had to go on, plot wise, was one of the fathers, Paul, the first person narrator, had seen something disturbing, we don’t know what, on his son’s computer just before they left for the restaurant, and when he kisses hello his sister-in-law, just after she arrives, he glances under her darkened glasses and notices that she has been crying.

Readers also tend to take sides with the first person narrator because usually, and in this case too, he is so honest, straight-forward, and ‘natural’ in the way he speaks to us, “I don’t know how to put it any more clearly.” It seems it is Paul who is writing this and not Herman Koch. You feel empathy for this man and it is only almost at the end when you realise that there is a reason for this too. Enough said.

The short chapters run numerically through four sections, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, and Digestif but this simple structure is nowhere near as limiting as you may expect. The action ranges far and wide but always comes back to the restaurant, the pretentious manager, the fawning staff, and the two couples trying to be the ‘happy family’ in a public place all the more threatening because, Paul’s brother, Serge, is a famous polititian. Everyone in the restaurant knows that they are dining in the presence of, maybe, the next Prime Minister. The stakes are high.

But this book is also about family, and about being a man, but most importantly about being a father. However it is not your feelings and thoughts about Paul that remain with you after you get to the ‘End’ it is … again enough said. I don’t want to spoil things for those who haven’t read it yet.

It’s easy to see how film-makers have been drawn to this book. There is already a Dutch version, an Italian version which takes some liberties with the plot and structure, and there is to be an English language version directed by, and making her directorial debut, Cate Blanchett. Read it before the film comes out.

This is a ripper of a yarn and as Christos Tsiolkas says on the cover, it’s “a punch in the guts but also a tonic.”