Book of the month: Saskia De Coster

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Moving house is a chance to reflect on many things. As I wrote in my post about packing up my year of reading the world bookshelf, my recent change of address led me to ponder this project and the many different people and ideas to which it introduced me anew.

I also found that it reintroduced me to a lot of other books – not least some of the many volumes on my to-read mountain. Since 2012, this has grown to a massive size. Barely a days goes by without someone contacting me or leaving a comment here suggesting another intriguing book.

Publishers are no exception. I often get emails from presses keen to send me copies of their latest releases in the hope that I might write about them on this blog. I’m always glad to hear about great books, but I’m also very honest with companies that contact me like this: because I only choose one book to feature each month, I am unlikely to review most of the books publishers send me. Indeed, I can count on one hand the number of review copies I have written about here.

Still, last month, as I was packing up, I happened upon an uncorrected proof sent to me by World Editions earlier this year. It was for the English-language version of Wij en ik (We and Me) by Belgian writer Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier.

The accompanying publicity material was impressive. This was, according to World Editions, ‘a brilliant, incisive novel’. Indeed, they went so far as to call it a European response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

If that weren’t curiosity-piquing enough, the cover of the proof bore a ringing endorsement from Dutch author Herman Koch, whose Summer House with Swimming Pool I read recently and enjoyed. And so, taking the book up from the stack on which it had languished for half a year, I put the packing on hold for a bit and began to read.

The novel follows the fortunes of the Vandersanden family, spanning more than three decades from 1980 until almost present-day. Living in a housing estate high up a mountain, megalomaniac Mieke, her taciturn husband Stefaan and their increasingly wilful and non-communicative daughter Sarah move through their days in isolation, caught in a web of silence that threatens to strangle them all. Through their stories and those of the community around them, De Coster paints a devastating picture of the modern-day nuclear family, revealing how loneliness can be threaded through the most intimate relationships of all.

The comparison of De Coster to Franzen is understandable, but somewhat limited. Although the two share an expansiveness to their writing and a willingness to devote pages to teasing out minutiae that most writers would baulk at for fear of readers’ ever-shrinking attention spans, the Belgian author’s prose has a quality all its own.

At her best she gets inside the heads of her characters to the extent that the whole world and the images used to portray it are coloured and slanted by their specific neuroses and concerns. When we look through the eyes of Mieke – whose days consist of an obsessional round of domestic chores – life explains itself by way of housework metaphors, whereas increasingly paranoid Stefaan sees reality in terms of political plots and intrigues.

There are some lovely instances of humour too. De Coster delights in bathos, frequently undercutting her creations’ pretensions or delusions with sharp one-liners that stay just the right side of bitter.

In time, however, this falls away and in the second half of the book the narrative takes flight, steering an exhilarating course between the peaks and valleys of the emotional landscape, revealing stunning vistas and terrifying cliffs.

This is not a perfect novel. There are some clunky word choices and overworked imagery. Observations such as the would-be bon mot that ‘rain in Belgium is like the great leader in a dictatorship: it pops up everywhere’ feel laboured and unnecessary.

At times the pacing jolts, jerking us abruptly from one scene to the next. And although the shifts of perspective from one character’s mind to the next often feel natural and fluid, there are points at which they bewilder.

The biggest issue concerns the mysterious ‘we’ of the title – a strange disembodied consciousness that creeps into the story at odd moments, commenting on the action in the manner of a Greek chorus. Although this occasionally adds a nice sense of mystery, it is not developed enough to merit its place and feels rather like scaffolding that may have helped in the construction of the narrative but would have been best taken down to show off the finished work.

These near misses are symptomatic of the risks writers must take to do exciting, new things, however. And there can be no doubt that, for all its imperfections, this is a bold and daring book. The epigraph from Virginia Woolf is a key to De Coster’s ambitions for her story: ‘To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face.’

For my money, she has achieved this. Uneven though it may be, We and Me contains startling truths about the way we live and die. To read this story is to be changed by it.

Thanks for sending me the proof, World Editions. I wonder what other delights are lurking in my mountains of unread books…

We and Me (Wij en ik) by Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier (World Editions, 2016)

By the way, it’s been great to see such a brilliant response to Postcards from my bookshelf – nearly 120 entries in the week since it went live. If you haven’t applied yet but would like to be in with a chance of receiving a book chosen by me next year, visit the post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read.

Belgium: pressing issues

When you’re trying to read a book from every country in a year, you realise how conservative the big UK publishers are. Sure, they have one or two big-name non-British/American writers on their lists — the Achebes, Rushdies and Roys — but if you’re looking for books from beyond the post-colonial sphere, you’re going to have to turn to the small presses.

These come in all sorts of packages: some are based at universities, others span several offices around the world. Still others operate out of back rooms, garages and garden sheds, getting by purely on the dedication of the one or two people who run them, often while juggling full-time jobs.

The size of these presses means that they tend to be fleeter of foot than their lumbering commercial cousins and better able to develop distinctive lists. They might focus on literature from particular regions, on certain topics, or by specific sorts of writers. Or they might champion a particular ethos or style of writing. 

Dalkey Archive Press is one of these. According to its website, places ‘a heavy emphasis upon fiction that belongs to the experimental tradition of Sterne, Joyce, Rabelais, Flann O’Brien, Beckett, Gertrude Stein, and Djuna Barnes’.

Given these criteria, it’s easy to understand what attracted the Dalkey Archive team to Belgian writer Francois Emmanuel. Filled with rich images and startling perspectives, his collection of short stories Invitation to a Voyage recalls the modernist tradition, diffracting the everyday through a prism of strangeness to show it to the reader afresh.

Subterfuge and hidden motives are the lifeblood of many of the pieces. We see the private detective hired to investigate a classical violinist with whom he gradually falls in and out of love and the informer (or is he a madman?) sent to infiltrate a literary organisation (or is it an asylum?) and report back to a shadowy ‘organization’.

Sometimes the deception may be self-delusion, through which a character must break in order to achieve peace (unsurprising, perhaps, coming from a writer who is also a psychotherapist). The most powerful example of this is in the final story, ‘On Horseback upon the Frozen Sea’, a chilling retelling of the Bluebeard tale in which the narrator recounts the strange disintegration of a female friend after she rents a country house with a mysterious locked room.

Emmanuel is adept at sketching complex situations using only a few details. The description of the woman’s landlord in the garden ‘cutting, snipping, clipping, scarifying’, for example, tells us all we need to know about the unnamed fears giving her sleepless nights.

On occasion, though, these details can become too diffuse, making the narrative hard to follow and generating an effect similar to the frustration that the private detective’s commissioner describes in ‘Love and Distance: A Fragmentary Report’: ‘one believes one is looking through a wider and wider lens, but one sees only the lens, the irisations, the dust motes on its surface’. This is not helped by the breathless punctuation, which leaves the early stories hopping with commas (the opening eight-page piece has only one full stop) and makes it hard to resume the thread if you have to look up from the book for anything. Perhaps this is deliberate, but it is a risky strategy because it threatens to derail the largely very enjoyable flow of the stories.

Interestingly, for all their linguistic experimentation, the universe of the works has a strangely old-fashioned feel. Emmanuel first published this collection in 2003, so it would be unfair to expect it to reflect the full force of the digital era. Nevertheless, the world he presents seems immune to the shifts in thought and interaction that the information superhighway had already instigated by then. Reading the collection, you could almost be back in the worlds of Joyce and Djuna Barnes.

No doubt I’ll read more Dalkey Archive books this year, so it will be interesting to see how some of their more recent titles compare. In the meantime though, old-fashioned or not, the world of Francois Emmanuel lingers in my mind.

Invitation to a Voyage by Francois Emmanuel (translated from the French by Justin Vicari). Dalkey Archive Press 2011