The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov, trans. by Bryan Karetnyk

Dustjacket: The spectre of alexander wolfA man is haunted by a memory from his youth: fighting for the White Army during the Russian revolution, he shoots a man in self defence and leaves him to die in the forest. Years later as an émigré in Paris, he finds in a volume of short stories a description of the incident, though told from the perspective of the man whom he thinks he has killed. How can this story exist? And who is it who has written it?

So begins this slim but wonderfully realised novel. Gazdanov’s narrator is a freelance hack whose Paris is experienced principally in darkness, populated by exiles and criminals; as he searches for the face from his memory, the city itself seems to shift under his gaze. Though the novel’s plot borrows heavily from detective fiction, the philosophical ruminations of its unnamed protagonist and the themes of identity and loss that it explores brings it closer to European modernist writing. Most of all, however, it is the novel’s images that are its most luminous aspect: a riderless white horse in the summer heat of the Russian steppes; a fighter suffering in an ill-matched and brutal boxing match; a couple sleeping in a broken-down car on the edge of Paris in thunderstorm. Puzzling, enigmatic and beautifully translated by Bryan Karetnyk, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is an elegant and finely poised thriller.

One Song to the Tune of Another

New Islington hoarding

Earlier this month I took an excursion into Manchester to mark the beginning of a new project: A Northwest Passage: Towards A Mancunian Psychogeography, to be published with Manchester University Press. My PhD focussed on the writing of Iain Sinclair, perhaps the figure who has done more to popularise the notion of psychogeography (that is, to cite a well-worn definition, ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals’) in the UK than any other. Throughout this research it became more and more clear to me that Sinclair’s version of psychogeography was very different to that developed by its first practitioners – the French revolutionary avant-garde the Situationist International. Whilst I still think that Sinclair’s body of work – and in particular his early poetry and novels – is superb, I also believe that the London focus of his writing and its often gothic character weighs very heavily on the British interpretation of psychogeography.

My intention in A Northwest Passage is to redress this balance somewhat: I want to remind British psychogeography of the idea’s revolutionary and utopian underpinnings: to ask what is Marxist about psychogeography (and indeed, what is psychogeographic about Marxism). As the birthplace of industrial capitalism, the streets of 19th Century Manchester (both buried and extant) are the first examples of a spatial order which is now global in scope. More recently, the city has seen successive waves of (more or less utopian) spatial engineering, from the slum clearances of the 1950s and 60s, the construction (and eventual demolition) of social housing such as the Hulme crescents, through to more recent successive experiments in gentrification in Castlefield, Ancoats, Salford Media City (if the reader will permit my inclusion of Salford as part of Greater Manchester) and along Oxford Road. There is therefore no better place to rediscover (or invent) the materialist first principles of psychogeography; moreover, where else could one hope to find the ‘Northwest Passage’ to another way of life that the Situationists were searching for?

New islington hoarding

Psychogeographic praxis seems to alter depending on circumstances: Paris, as a city of successive revolutions, produced in the 1960s a revolutionary psychogeography; London in the 1990s, under the aegis of Iain Sinclair, produced a somewhat more literary (and more Gothic) variant. Manchester, one might suppose, will offer different possibilities. A Northwest Passage intends to explore these possiblities, and the thread that will reconnect its speculative Mancunian psychogeography to its Parisian origins is the attempt to rediscover the practice’s utopianism, a strand within Situationist thought most clearly evident in the work of the architect Constant Nieuwenhuys. Fredric Jameson, in Valences of the Dialectic, makes a somewhat unlikely attempt to imagine Wal-Mart as a form of utopian space, urging us to attempt to discern

the shape of a Utopian future looming through the mist, which we must seize as an opportunity to exercise the Utopian imagination more fully, rather than an occasion for moralizing judgments or regressive nostalgia. (Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, p. 423.)

In this vein, the inaugural excursion utilising the classic method of navigating one city using the map of another (what might be termed the ‘I’m sorry I haven’t a clue’ dérive) proved ambivalently successful. Accompanied by some brave (but foolhardy) companions (they know who they are) and with a London A-Z as our guide, we headed out from the Hacienda apartments in search of London’s Smithfield Market, site of a cattle market since medieval times, then headed northwards up St John Street to sample the pleasures of Islington. This took us to Whitworth Park (via Hulme), and then to the serendipitously named ‘New Islington’. Whilst some of these sights were disappointingly familiar – my companions and I are certainly well enough acquainted with south Manchester – we did find some of the utopian flashes that I’d hoped to discover. I would submit that New Islington, in particular, seemed especially promising in this regard.

New Islington street view New Islington graffiti - 'Is this the way to treat a listed building?'

By Blood by Ellen Ullman

By Blood dustjacketIn a San Francisco hit by the 1970s oil crisis, an unnamed (and disgraced) college professor, perhaps himself mentally ill, sits in a cheap rented office eavesdropping on his neighbour: a psychoanalyst and her client, who is attempting to come to terms with her relationship with her adoptive mother. Over the months the complex layers of her origins are exposed, from a Catholic sect in rural Texas, to Israel, and eventually to Europe, the Second World War and the Holocaust. Correspondingly, the narrator’s obsession with the patient grows until he finds himself unable to restrain himself from intervening in her life.

This is a very well-written novel: Ullman’s sentences are lithe and sinuous, her language evoking the seedy, depressive milieu of a run-down city convincingly and poetically. There is something of a noir feel here, with the narrator occupying the morally dubious position of the private detective, the unobserved watcher with whom the reader is unavoidably identified. It is also very compelling: the story, delivered in breathless chapters two or three pages in length each, is paced like a thriller. Yet something about the seriousness of the novel’s subjects – identity, obsession, and ultimately the full horror of the Nazi atrocities – and the pacing left me a little uncomfortable. I found myself wondering whether it was appropriate to explore these themes using the conventions of the thriller genre, or whether instead we can read Ullmann’s use of it as another interrogation of the murky motives behind our investment in finding out the ‘truth’ about other people’s lives. Either way, this is a masterfully-written, suspenseful (though at times unsettling) novel.

Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

Thomas Davies is Charles Darwin’s gardener. Recently bereaved, the loss of his wife has left him to bring up his two young children alone. Refusing the consolations offered by the church, he wanders the fields and lanes surrounding the village of Downe and speaks to no-one. What is it that life holds for him now? What will become of his children? And what do his neighbours make of him?

It is not the plot of this novella, however, which is its primary strength, but the way in which it is conveyed. Like an impatient listener turning the tuning dial on a radio from station to station, Carlson’s prose flits from one member of the village congregation to another, a chorus of voices that builds like those of the unruly jackdaws with which the book opens. Yet despite the seriousness of its themes and its consciously experimental form, this is not a depressing or worthy book, and the lightness with which it carries its complexity and the wit with which Carlson has drawn her characters make it a delight to read. A subtle, elegant philosophical and moral puzzle.

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper

Ghost Hawk dustjacketWhen Little Hawk was eleven he was taken blindfolded into the winter forest by his father and left there alone; in three months time, should he survive, he would return to his village a man. But the world Little Hawk comes back to is not the one his father knew: settlers from across the sea have arrived in Wampanoag territory bringing with them fine goods, new religions, violence and disease. Amongst the rising tensions between the tribes and the newcomers, the lives of Little Hawk and one of the settlers, a young boy named John, become irrevocably and fatally linked.

Ghost Hawk is an emotionally complex, finely-wrought tale which recreates the world of seventeenth-century America with both historical fidelity and respect. This is a superb book which deserves to become a future classic, but it is by no means a comforting read: Cooper takes bold risks with both her characters and her narrative, and a sense of the unquiet ghosts of the past haunts the book’s pages. Highly recommended.