‘A Brief History of Portable Literature’ by Enrique Vila-Matas – Shandyism

‘A  Brief History of Portable Literature’ by Enrique Vila-Matas    (1985)   84 pages  Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Thomas Bunstead


I am afraid I have gone all PostModern and MetaFiction on you people with Enrique Vila-Matas.  How much chance is there that many of you earnest readers of realistic novels will be drawn to the playful skepticism and irony of Vila-Matas as he describes the characters and events in his imaginary 1920s literary movement, Shandyism?   The problem is that I quite liked it.

‘A  Brief History of Portable Literature’  is a whimsical novella about a supposed European literary and art movement of the 1920s called Shandyism.  Shandyism was the crazed movement that came after Dadaism, that actual avant-garde movement that rejected reason and logic and prized nonsense, irrationality, and intuition.   Some of the same characters who were associated with Dadaism such as Marcel Duchamp,  Tristan Tzara, and Francis Picabia show up in the Shandy secret society as well as such names as Blaise Cendrars, Paul Klee, Georgia O’Keefe, Frederico Garcia Lorca, and many, many others.  The people are real even if the movement isn’t.  They throw a raucous party in Vienna and spend a sojourn on a stationary submarine called the Bahnhof Zoo.

Shandyism was loosely based on the famous Laurence Sterne novel ‘Tristam Shandy’ and also on the alcoholic drink shandy.  In other words, this is a cock and bull story.

Here are some of the essential requirements for being a Shandy apart from the demand for high-grade madness:

“an innovative bent, an extreme sexuality, a disinterest in grand statements, a tireless nomadism, a fraught coexistence with doppelgangers, a sympathy for negritude, and the cultivation of the art of insolence.”

What makes this novella particularly problematic is that there are probably dozens of in-jokes regarding characters whose names are recognizable but with whom I’m little familiar such as Walter Benjamin and Aleister Crowley.  Even though I did not catch all the in-jokes, I enjoyed the spirit of the thing.

Perhaps the novel that ‘A Brief History’ most reminds me of is ‘Nazi Literature in the Americas’ by Roberto Bolano.  Both of these novels are definitely post-modern and are written with tongue firmly in cheek.

I can only hope that there may be a few of you who have grown a little weary of the usual fare and for a change want to reach out to something new and radically different.  I would not recommend ‘A  Brief History of Portable Literature’ as your first choice, but either ‘Never Any End to Paris’ or ‘Dublinesque’ by Vila-Matas would be good places to start into the ironic world of post-modern metafiction.


Grade:    B+  


‘Her’ by Harriet Lane – A Family Thriller

‘Her’ by Harriet Lane    (2015) – 261 pages



Every psychological thriller needs a tagline, and the tagline for ‘Her’ is “You don’t remember her, but she remembers you.”

‘Her’ is the story of two women in their early thirties, Nina and Emma.  Emma is a mother with a three-year old son, Christopher, and a baby, Cecily, so her life is chaotic.  Nina is also a mother, but her daughter is away at school.  Emma doesn’t remember Nina at all, but Nina has sought Emma out because of an incident that happened when they were teenagers.

The chapters in ‘Her’ alternate with first a chapter with Nina as narrator and then a chapter with Emma as narrator, then Nina, then Emma, and so on. It is quite easy to diagnose the main problem with this novel. I suppose the fact that their names, Emma and Nina, are so similar is a giveaway.   Their voices as narrator are much too similar.  It is difficult to distinguish who is talking at any given time.  Neither Emma nor Nina has a distinctive voice, her own interior monologue, which would give each her own personality.  In their chapters, there is nothing besides their differing life situations that distinguishes them.

Just for the sake of variety, the author should have given the two characters easily recognizable individual styles so the reader would know immediately who is speaking.  As it is both Nina and Emma have the same way of describing things, but this sameness may have been intentional.

Still there are moments of great suspense in ‘Her’.  The reader speeds along in desperate fear and concern for the characters.  The novel starts out in London, winds up in France, but the locations are hardly relevant as this is a psychological thriller.

I am not one to quickly classify a novel as a Man’s Novel or as a Woman’s Novel.  I usually prefer novels that have an appeal to both sexes without overdoing either the man’s stuff or the woman’s stuff.  I believe a good writer can get inside both a man’s head and a woman’s head.  However ‘Her’ leans toward the Woman’s Novel side.  The male characters here are mere ciphers.

But what really makes ‘Her’ a woman’s novel is the language Harriet Lane uses to describe things.  I doubt there is a man in the world who would describe a plate of radishes as “the red-deckled alabaster slivers of radish”.  There are many other turns of phrase in ‘Her’ that mark it as a woman’s novel.

Although I did have my quibbles with the logistics and language of ‘Her’, as a suspense tale it still works.


Grade: B  


‘The Maintenance of Headway’ by Magnus Mills – Driving Bus in London

‘The Maintenance of Headway’ by Magnus Mills   (2009) – 152 pages


I remember when the first novel by Magnus Mills, ‘The Restraint of Beasts’, was published in 1998.  It was treated as one of the major literary events of the 1990s.  Magnus Mills was a diamond in the rough, not your typical novelist.  He was already 45 years old, and unlike many writers he was quite familiar with the ordinary work-a-day world.  For seven years he had a job building fences and later he worked as a bus driver.  ‘Restraint’ was a tragicomic deadpan novel about putting up fences for a Scottish company.  It was shortlisted for the Booker and the Whitebread, and it won the McKittrick Prize.   Thomas Pynchon called ‘Restraint’ “a demented deadpan comic wonder”.  Of course I read it and enjoyed it immensely.

Now it is eighteen years later, and Mills has published eight novels and three short story collections.  The press hoopla over Magnus Mills has stopped as well as the major awards.

‘The Maintenance of Headway’ was just published in the United States although it was first published in Great Britain in 2009.   Bus driving in London is the subject of ‘Maintenance’ as Mills continues his investigation of the world of everyday work.

More than anything, ‘The Maintenance of Headway’ is about the philosophy of running buses.  Of course it is a bad thing for a bus to be late.  The passengers who get on are upset and angry about getting to work late.  The bus will be packed with people, and it takes a lot of time loading and unloading all of them, so the bus will get even further behind schedule.

“He had plainly fallen victim to the Law of Cumulative Lateness: late buses always carried more passengers; therefore once a bus was late it could only become later still.  Now, it seemed, his lateness was compounded beyond redemption.” 

A lot of bus drivers realize that the job goes a lot smoother if they run a few minutes ahead of schedule.  There will be fewer people at the bus stops since the previous bus just picked them up, so there is no interference to a quick ride.  However from the bus company management perspective being early is just as bad as being late.  Thus you have a lot of irate riders who get to the bus stop on time only to find their bus has already been there and gone.    The bus company hires inspectors to nab drivers who are driving a few minutes ahead of schedule

“There’s no excuse for being early,”

Maintenance of headway is “the notion that a fixed interval between buses on a regular service can be attained and adhered to.”

london-bendy-bus-300x225Our narrator is one of these ‘ahead of schedule’ bus drivers.  He watches as some of his fellow bus drivers who also always ran ahead of schedule become inspectors who severely enforce the rules against running early.  As is so often the case, some of the most flagrant violators become some of the harshest enforcers.

‘The Maintenance of Headway’ is down-to-earth and contains a lot of the deadpan humor Magnus Mills is famous for.  Who cares that the other characters besides the narrator are never fully developed and are mere props for the humor?  This is a quick read and is worth the small effort it takes to finish it.


Grade:   B 


‘Mislaid’ by Nell Zink – An Outlandish Virginia Family at Stillwater Lake

‘Mislaid’ by Nell Zink   (2015) – 241 pages


‘Mislaid’ is a story about a family but not like any family you or I have ever encountered.

Thus we have our lesbian student Peggy getting pregnant by Stillwater College’s homosexual poet in residence, Lee Fleming.  They marry, have two kids, and stay together for 10 years.  We can only assume they were temporarily attracted to each other, but later the poet goes back to guys, Peggy drives his car into Stillwater Lake, and she leaves with her daughter but not her son.  This all happens in the early pages, and things only get wilder from there.

Nell Zink’s style of writing is quite evocative and suggestive, and her riffs on just about anything are a lot of fun.  Here is part of her take on Stillwater College:

“In the 1960s it was a mecca for lesbians, with girls in shorts standing in the reeds to smoke, popping little black leeches with their fingers, risking expulsion for cigarettes and going in the lake.”  

Most of these short riffs in ‘Mislaid’ are wild and wonderful.  Here is Zink’s take on Lee Fleming, the poet father:

“His parents were wealthy.  But he had expectations and an allowance, not money.  His father suggested he move to a secluded place,  Queer as a three-dollar bill doesn’t matter on posted property.  Lee’s father was a pessimist.  He imagined muscle-bound teaboys doing bad things to Lee, and he didn’t want passersby to hear the screaming.   He offered him the house on the opposite side of Stillwater Lake from the college.”

The first part of ‘Mislaid’ is a riff on how this Lee guy who is attracted only to men wound up as a father. Later Zink explains how the daughter of Lee and a white lesbian student at the college becomes a Negro.  This is Virginia after all where if a person has even one drop of Negro blood, they are a Negro.

What better place to look for a phrase which describes a particular novel than within that novel itself?  For the novel ‘Mislaid’ I found that appropriate phrase toward the end in “weirdly fascinating”.

I liked the novel much more on the paragraph level than I did at the full plot level.   Part of the fun of this book is that it goes all over the place.  Part of the problem is that it goes all over the place and could use more coherence.   The pace is fast and frenetic and never stops to explain characters’ motivations.  This is especially a problem when we get into trippy drug scenes later in the novel.  In drug taking there already is a lack of coherence and logic, so I would suggest Zink avoid drug scenes in her future work.

However, I found the wild suggestive style of Nell Zink fun, original and entertaining.


Grade:   B+

‘The Author and Me’ by Eric Chevillard – Trout Amandine vs. Cauliflower au Gratin

‘The Author and Me’ by Eric Chevillard    (2013)  –  146 pages    Translated by Jordan Stump


theauthorandmeAt its best, ‘The Author and Me’ is a hysterical inspired rant for the delights of trout amandine and against the horrors of cauliflower au gratin.

It begins when the waitress commits the heinous crime of serving our narrator, instead of the trout amandine he has ordered, a plateful of cauliflower au gratin.  Even worse, the cauliflower au gratin secretly contains potatoes.

“You’re licking your chops for a trout and you end up mired in cauliflower.” 

Whenever the narrator, or sometimes the French author, starts a diatribe against cauliflower au gratin, this novel is hilarious, sure to put a smile on your face.  This is comic stuff of the first order.

“On the one hand, the loveliest fish of the rivers; on the other, the drabbest vegetable of the garden.” 

“On the one hand, a dish of great elegance, worthy of the finest tables; on the other, something straight out of a lunchroom, the mortar ladled out by a fat paw between catechism and math class.”

I mention both the author and the narrator, because both are present in the novel.  It starts out with the author explaining in the footnotes how his views differ from those of the narrator. Later the author worries that he might be confused for the narrator, so by authorial fiat he turns the narrator into an ant, so no one will mistake the two of them.  The author will make damn sure this is his novel, not the narrator’s  There is a lot of metafiction going on here.

All of this metafictional stuff is somewhat interesting but not as much fun as the cauliflower au gratin. ‘The Author and Me’ is wildly uneven, the peaks so high, the valleys so low.

Whenever Chevillard gets away from the relative merits of food, things tend to get a little murky.  Sometimes the joke here seems to be that the author is punishing the reader.  Footnotes which are an integral part of the story that go on for more than thirty pages printed in the tiniest print possible.  Terribly disjointed story lines that have no reference to what has gone before.  These are authorial jokes I want no part of.

Buried within that thirty page tiny-print footnote, I found the following gem of wisdom.

“There’s always a touch of compassion in a woman’s love for a man – good thing too let me say in passing: if you had to be loveable to find love, the human race would never proliferate so freely.”    

Let me just say that if I were the author of ‘The Author and Me’, I would not have buried such lines in an interminable footnote.  Still even these lines do not totally redeem this novel for me.

‘The Author and Me’ was a finalist for the Best Translated Fiction award for 2015.


Grade:   B-

‘The Perfect Stranger’ by P J Kavanagh – At Last, Another First-Rate Memoir

‘The Perfect Stranger’ by P J Kavanagh   (1966)   –   213 pages    Grade:  A-


I hardly ever read memoirs.  Both political and literary memoirs usually seem self serving to me, and I try to avoid them. However if a memoir does get exceptionally good press over many years, I might consider it.   Once in a blue moon I’ll find a ‘Good-Bye to All That’, Robert Graves’ memoir of his World War I experiences, which has turned out to be one of my all-time favorite books.

After reading ‘The Perfect Stranger’, I am happy to announce it is blue moon time again.   It took me almost fifty years to find this memoir and decide to read it, but the wait was worth it.

There are only a few internet references to ‘The Perfect Stranger’, but those are enthusiastic enough to realize that this book is a classic.  It is also listed in the Independent’s Top Ten list of Literary Tearjerkers.  It is actually in print and available on Amazon, contrary to what it says at the above link.

Like ‘Goodbye to All That’, ‘The Perfect Stranger’ was written by a young man in his thirties.

Kavanagh looks back to his youth with light humor, to his first teenage job as a Redcoat at a Butlin Holiday Camp, the highly structured and regimented English family vacation camp.  There is a lot of comedy in these early memories, and it is usually at the expense of Kavanagh himself.

“The problem of how to make a beginning with a girl was much discussed between us in our chalet.   It seemed insoluble because we took it for granted that nothing could be further from a girl’s mind, you had to apologize for your baseness and at the same time convince her it was a good idea.  We pondered this, getting nowhere.”

Still he meets his first girlfriend who attempts to be “more feminine than anybody ever was”.

Perhaps the reason I enjoyed “The Perfect Stranger” so much is that P. J. Kavanagh and I share pretty much the same attitude.  In the midst of a hugely important technical or military task, we are both all too likely to be sneaking off somewhere to read a novel by Franz Kafka, Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, etc.  Actually P. J. Kavanagh had the literary bug even worse than I did, because he was aiming to be a poet.

“I drifted incompetently in a world that became more and more incomprehensible.”   

He fought in the Korean War facing a seemingly endless line of enemy Korean soldiers.

“I’d no desire to make life difficult for anyone, least of all myself, and within a few weeks the boredom was insupportable.”   

Later ‘The Perfect Stranger’ turns into a romance as Kavanagh meets the love of his early life and future wife, Sally Phillips, who happened to be the daughter of English novelist Rosamond Lehmann.   Hint:  Sally is the Perfect Stranger.

So if you are looking for something light and fun but still at times sad and profound, you would do well to consider the memoir ‘The Perfect Stranger’.

Grade:  A-


‘When the Doves Disappeared’ by Sofi Oksanen – An Outstanding Novel of Estonia

‘When the Doves Disappeared’ by Sofi Oksanen  (2012) –  296 pages  Translated by Lola Rogers     Grade: A


In 2009, my family and I visited Tallinn, Estonia as part of a tour package which included St. Petersburg in Russia, Riga in Latvia, and Tallinn.  During the three short days we spent in Tallinn, I developed a quite optimistic impression of Estonia.  Finland has an informal partnership with Estonia which works to the betterment of both countries.  We learned that there is a Finno-Ugric language and cultural bond between the people of the two countries.  During the time there, we took a ferry to Helsinki, Finland across the Baltic Sea and back. I got the impression that Estonia was a small country which really has its act together.   Even the buildings seemed more brightly painted than in the other countries.

The following interesting fact about Estonia is from Wikipedia:

In 1936, the British based Jewish newspaper The Jewish Chronicle reported that “Estonia is the only country in Eastern Europe where neither the Government nor the people practice any discrimination against Jews and where Jews are left in peace and are allowed to lead a free and unmolested life and fashion it in accord with their national and cultural principles.

‘When the Doves Disappeared’ is about two much less optimistic times for Estonia. The early 1940s were a despicable time for middle Europe with those two brutal dictators Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin strutting their stuff.  First Russia occupied Estonia during World War II, then the Germans took over, then Russia again for 45 years.  Scenes in ‘When the Doves Disappeared’ switch back and forth between the German occupation in the early 1940s to the Russian occupation in the 1960s.

The title ‘When the Doves Disappeared’ refers to the fact that the occupying Germans liked to eat doves, and thus they disappeared from the city.

The novel centers on three Estonian people who know each other well.  Roland is part of the Estonian underground who helps smuggle people in danger out of the country to Finland.   His cousin Edgar collaborates first with the Russians, then with the Germans, and then again with the Russians.  The same people like Edgar who tried to advance themselves under the Germans behaved similarly with the Russians.  The best way to advance under both the German and Russian regimes is to report to the authorities negative information on your neighbors and relatives.

The third main character is Edgar’s wife Juudit.  Juudit is dissatisfied with her marriage and dates a German officer while Edgar is gone during the German occupation.  However Edgar and Juudit get back together after the war and are still living together twenty years later under the Russian occupation.

Sofi Oksanen

Sofi Oksanen

So we get the stories of three people: the hero Roland, the collaborator Edgar, and the damaged Juudit.  One particular strong thing I liked about this novel is that it tells its story with as much moral ambiguity and  mystery as the events probably actually occurred.   Yes, people do collaborate with the enemy, and, yes, local women do date the occupying officers.  Those who try to do the right thing look like losers in the short run and perhaps even in the long run.  They pay a price.

I was much impressed with the writing in ‘When the Doves Disappeared’.  It clearly and methodically tells the unique story of the interactions of these three intriguing main characters.  Sofi Oksanen has done a fine job of bringing these characters to life in a tale of politics and psychology that is never predictable.

Grade:   A



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