Henry Martin ... busy doing art

Welcome to my blog


Feel free to join me in a conversation.

By henrymartinhm, Sep 16 2015 08:37PM

It is rare that when I have finished a book I still don’t know what to make of it. Denis Johnson’s 'The Laughing Monsters' (Harvill Secker) is one such rarity.

I had never read any of Johnson’s work before; when I first spotted 'The Laughing Monsters' in a bookshop (and then Hackney Library) I was drawn to the title and to the cover photograph which I knew to be by the Irish photographer Richard Moss.

However, there all confidence and comfort in my choice ends.

The Laughing Monsters – a book in four parts – is, on the surface, a book about two renegade NATO/UN/CIA/MILITARY friends who strike out alone to wheel and deal contraband in Sierra Leone, Uganda and the DR Congo. The two are old friends, but not necessarily faithful ones. The first, Nair (Dutch), is sent to spy on the second, Adriko (Ugandan). Because the ensuing story is told from Nair’s perspective and he spends half the book high on alcohol (to call him drunk would be putting it mildly) what we get is a fragmented, distressing and piece-meal account of a journey into a heart of darkness that goes terribly awry.

To try and talk about plot in 'The Laughing Monsters' would be a fool's errand. The author is not fully committed to mapping a plot out and as such, being plot-light the action feels all the more vulnerable and the stakes for each character even more precarious. As such, everything in this book is uncertain – except the writing, which is totally confident in the uncertainty it creates. Who is Nair? Who is Adriko? Who is crossing whom? The book starts off a spy novel - full of the tropes of the genre – but half way through it has the reason vacuumed out of it to become one person’s confused travelogue of events – increasingly grotesque and surreal. What does this mean? Why the sudden shift in tone and purpose?

I’m still not sure why Johnson dispenses with the narrative he originally sets up, and instead takes the reader on a confused journey leap-frogging across Africa. For sure, some of the images and scenes he describes are vivid – the African Queen called La Dolce Vita, sitting on a throne between two trees asking for villagers to offer her a sacrifice – a woman killed by reckless driving as she walks miles with a basket on her head. But do vivid images make a portrait of the continent – or the protagonist? And is Johnson’s excellent – really excellent – smart – sharp – twisty – dialogue heavy – fresh writing enough to keep everything moving while the world of the characters falls apart? Just about.

As such all the elements of this short novel hang together by a thread – the only problem is, I’m not sure ultimately what picture they are coming together to create. If nothing else, 'The Laughing Gods' will not be a book that I will forget any time soon, which perhaps is a good enough achievement in light of all the disposable narratives thrown about daily. Nair (or Johnson?) is critical of Africa – of the people populating the country, confusing each other and the ‘natives’ – but Nair is out not to help, as he should be doing. Instead he is out to exploit in a typical Western self-interested way.

The title of the Richard Mosse photograph on the cover of the book is 'Men of Good Fortune.' This would have been a more ironic title for a book whose primary characters come out triumphant in the end – but whose invisible supporting cast – the poor – sick – starving – rural villagers remain fortune-free. 'The Laughing Gods' might be the men who end up with money in their pockets leaving destruction in their wake – but Africa is certainly not laughing anytime soon.

I definitely want to read Denis Johnson's other work.


By henrymartinhm, May 4 2015 07:28PM

I wanted to read ‘H is for Hawk’ ever since I saw the jacket with the artwork by Chris Wormell. One morning, browsing Waterstones Picadilly, I decided to purchase a copy for my mother for her birthday. It was a signed hardback edition, which I thought would make a nice gift. I, of course, would read it first. Just to make sure it was suitable for parents. In this case, I decided that the book probably wouldn’t be my mother’s cup of tea/ type of bird, which was ok, because I knew a few pages in that I was going to keep it. I bought my mother something else instead. Something less hawky.

Sadly, my jacket was damaged when I tried to remove the ‘Costa Award’ sticker on the front. I’m surprised Waterstones or Costa or Jonathan Cape didn’t do a test on the glue strength of the sticker in order to limit tears (mine and the books). Maybe they did do the test, and I was unlucky. But now I have a torn cover on a signed book that I really like, so yeah #bookfail whoever is responsible. Feel free to send me a new jacket.

Anyway. The book.

Ostensibly ‘H is for Hawk’ is about a woman who purchases and trains a goshawk in the aftermath of her father’s death. It’s a book about grief and grieving, but it’s also a book about addiction, depression, failure, dependency, and human and animal nature. Structurally, the action moves between MacDonald’s life in ‘present day’ Cambridgeshire and the world of the writer T.H. White in the 1930’s-40’s.

White is the author of ‘The Sword in the Stone’ and ‘The Goshawk,’ books that had captured MacDonald’s imagination from a young age. By exploring the world of White, his failure to train one particular goshawk, and his sexual and emotional turmoil, MacDonald sets up an interesting counter melody to her own composition on grief and hard-won success in training her own bird, Mabel.

I say ‘ostensibly,’ above, because ‘H is for Hawk,’ just like a bird, soars towards and around different things. It’s a testament to MacDonald’s research and life-long interest in falconry that she can glide so effortlessly between writing about, let’s say, fascism and falconry in The Third Reich to present day xenophobia and British nationalism. ‘Old England,’ she writes on page 265,

‘is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque, engravings. It is a place imagined by people and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change is too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead….

…I wish we could not fight for landscapes that remind us of who we think we are. I wish we would fight instead, for landscapes buzzing and glowing with life in all its variousness.’

This quote, which comes towards the end of the book is just one kind of summation or philosophising that is common throughout. I find MacDonald’s reflections more than worthy ones. They are fresh and detailed, and it’s evident the author has dedicated time to refining them. Her writing too, as one would expect of a ‘nature writer,’ is equally sharp. I should say, I'm not accustomed to reading in this genre. Occasionally the names to trees, shrubs and cloud formations are lost on me – but they sound pretty. More than pretty.

For all I’ve said about the deviations the book takes (White, Fascism etc), ‘H is for Hawk’ is still very much a book about a woman training a hawk. The majority of the book is written in painstaking detail, from the first moment MacDonald sees her hawk, to the first kill the bird makes. The detail the author goes into is forensic. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the animal is so central to the action (nope, never read 'Moby Dick', and in 'The Old Man and the Sea' the marlin isn't on everypage). At least I haven't read a book like this where Mabel is described on every other page, but never in a dull-feathered way. The action between MacDonald and Mabel is filmic – full of close-ups (the bramble-torn palms of the author; the dilating pupils of Mabel) establishing shots (the town of Cambridge, an urban pond surrounded by countryside), or extreme close-ups (rabbit blood melting snow). There is genuine tension between the falcon and the falconer. Mabel throws strops and do does MacDonald.

For most of the book, the author is trying to join Mabel in the world of the wild – seeing it as Mabel sees it – hunting with Mabel – sleeping with Mabel – trespassing with Mabel. It’s not a balanced relationship. The author knows this. This is one of the things she must learn to fix as she tries to emerge from the fog of grief.

'H is for Hawk' manages to be informative, heartfelt, intellectual, and thoroughly evocative. Many of the images MacDonald conjures stick firmly in the mind. It is a sensual read, celebratory and sad. It is ferocious at times; wild and sharp like Mabel herself.

(Buy it on the publisher's website: http://bit.ly/Wav7v6)

By henrymartinhm, Apr 21 2015 02:41PM

For me books are like photographs hung on a wall. When I see a book on my shelf I am reminded both of the book and its contents, but also where I was when I bought the book, how I was feeling, who I was thinking of, what I was hoping for that day, how old I was and much more.

When I look at the books on my shelf I am looking at Paris, Krakow, Boston, London, Dublin, and Galway. I am looking at my parents, my friends, my lovers, and those who are no longer living. I am looking at my achievements, and my failures. Looking at my bookshelves allows me to exist at different times at the same time.

I don’t believe I will ever have possessions popular with a large portion of people: cars, houses, children, pets. There is little I can leave behind other than what I write, or what I’ve read. Books are the closest thing I can give away.

With books, though I purge, I still binge and crave. They are my addiction.

Tonight, when I bought a book in a bookshop in Krakow, and write my name and date on the inside cover I am writing a letter to myself in twenty years’ time, and leaving a letter behind me for someone to question one day.

It doesn’t matter that only I remember that before I bought the book I spent an enchanted hour walking down dim cobbled streets, smelling wood-burning fires, texting a friend on a phone in New York, eight hours behind in time. Or that I downed vodka in a smoke-filled empty Polish bar, and made the bargirl laugh in the way I drank from the over-filled glass. It doesn’t matter that no one will know who I was in love with when I bought Carson McCullers in Paris or that I was surprised and touched by a poetry book my father bought me when I was twenty-one.

All the person who inherits these books will have to do is open them and start reading to make the books their own.

The beauty of a book is that it is foolishly open and indiscriminate, and it loves everybody (even if it is a book full of hate) in varied ways if you are open to it. Books have sweat in them, and skin in them. They are more than just books. They are more than just books. They are very much more than just books.

By henrymartinhm, Apr 21 2015 02:34PM

I started reading Chad Harbach's 'The Art of Fielding' a few weeks ago. There is a passage in the book where a character's thought process on writing goes as below. I think it's an excellent passage that describes the challenges in composition, and in choosing to be a writer from the exhaustion of dedication, to the lack of self knowledge that the below paragraph hints at. I'm sure not I'm not the only one to identify with these...

"It was easy enough to write a sentence, but if you were going to create a work of art, the way Melville had, each sentence needed to fit perfectly with the one that preceded it, and the unwritten one that would follow. And each of those sentences needed to square with the ones on either side, so that three became five and five became seven, seven became nine and whichever sentence he was writing became the slender fulcrum on which the whole precarious edifice depended. The sentence could contain anything, anything, and so it promised the kind of absolute freedom that, to Affenlight's mind, belonged to the artist and the artist alone. And yet that sentence was also beholden to the book's very first one, and its last unwritten one, and every sentence inbetween. Every phrase, every word, exhausted him. He thought maybe the problem was the noise of the city, and his dull day job, and his drinking; he gave up his room and rented an outbuilding on an Iowa farm run by hippies. There, alone with his anxious thoughts, he felt much worse"

By guest, Apr 21 2015 02:31PM

This is the first post in your new blog. To add another or delete this one click the Blog option on the toolbar above.

RSS Feed

Web feed