Courland, now part of Latvia, was between 1561 and 1795 a wealthy, independent Duchy that maintained extensive trading links with Western Europe, possessed colonies in Africa and was a centre for shipbuilding and manufacturing. Since then it has been variously annexed by Tsarist Russia, Germany and the Soviet Union, and, sitting on the meeting point of the Scandinavian, Germanic and Slavic worlds, it proves a fascinating mixture of the familiar and unexpectedly foreign for journalist and travel writer Jean-Paul Kauffmann. But what might one hope to find on an expedition to a country that no longer exists?
Having first heard of Courland from Mara, a former lover, when he was a student in Canada in the 1960s, Kauffmann seems at first to be looking for something: a notion of the country of Mara’s birth; the character of the Courlandians; the grave of his cousin’s father, forcibly conscripted by the Nazis and killed in Courland in the Second World War. He finds none of these things, but, in a captivating and circumlocutory fashion, gleans amongst the ruins built by Courland’s various rulers half-glimpsed images of European history and of his own past. A complex, meditative mixture of memoir, travelogue and history, A Journey to Nowhere is a compelling exploration of the notions of identity, nationality and the capriciousness of memory.
This graphic novel tells two stories: that of the childhood of Mary Talbot, daughter of the eminent Joyce scholar James Atherton (and now respected academic in her own right), and that of Lucia, daughter of James Joyce himself. Neither of these tales is an easy one: Atherton is a bad-tempered and domineering presence in Mary’s life – her ‘cold mad feary father’ – whose charm and wit are reserved for public display only. Lucia, on the other hand, has her ambitions to become a dancer cut short by the demands of James Joyce’s literary career and the pressures of social expectation. The work is illustrated by Bryan Talbot, Mary’s husband and author of a number of highly-regarded graphic novels including The Tale of One Bad Rat and Alice in Sunderland, and his exceptional draftsmanship and stylistic range are employed here to great effect. Each page is beautifully composed, and a number of deft visual motifs provide a visual counterpoint to Mary’s words: under his pen and brush, eyes become abstracted to single dots except at moments of emotional resonance or crisis; Mary’s childhood becomes awash with a nicotine fug of greys, browns and yellows; whilst Lucia’s life in Paris is rendered in an austere palette of blues and whites.
Above all, what marks this book is its lightness of touch. Though the reader is invited to make comparisons between the two lives, the accomplishment with which the narratives are intertwined ensures that these juxtapositions are neither forced nor heavy-handed, and the result is a work that is both subtle and moving.
The writer and illustrator Alasdair Gray, best known for his work Lanark (1982), proves in this collection to be also an exceptional writer of short fiction. Each of these spare, fable-like stories contains more ideas than many writers manage to fit into a whole novel: a society whose single purpose is to build a tower that touches the ceiling of the sky; a bored art student digs below Glasgow School of Art and discovers the machines which control the Earth’s orbit around the Sun; a man, selected from childhood as the official poet for a puppet Emperor, meditates on the political role of the artist. Gray is unafraid of metaphor, yet these metaphors are not, typically, ones which collapse neatly into a single interpretation. Instead, the great satisfaction of this collection is the way in which each story manipulates its often simple elements in ways which leave the reader questioning what they might mean, or what their true relationship might be.
This is a superb, genre-spanning anthology, each story of which delights, and Gray provides an object lesson in both strength of vision and economy of prose. There is one minor issue, however: the cover renders the phrase ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’ as ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better world’. Gray is a socialist and Scottish nationalist, and this leaves his motto perhaps a little toothless.