Κυριακή, 26 Νοεμβρίου 2017

Ο ιδιαίτερος Jon McGregor

Για τον Jon McGregor είχα γράψει στο ΝΕΑ βιβλιοδρόμιο και για τα δύο ιδιαίτερα μυθιστορήματά του που είχαν κυκλοφορήσει από τις εκδόσεις ΑΓΡΑ. Δεν ακολούθησαν άλλες μεταφράσεις του, ίσως από την μέτρια υποδοχή του κοινού. 
Τώρα στον New Yorker ο κριτικός που παρακολουθώ και εμπιστεύομαι, ο James Wood, γράφει για το τελευταίο μυθιστόρημα "Reservoir 13" ότι είναι από τα καλύτερα της χρονιάς. Χαίρομαι, το έχω ήδη αγορασμένο, περιμένει στην σειρά του.



απόσπασμα:
“Reservoir 13,” with its patient pastoral accretions, its descriptions of hedgerows and rivers and changing light, seems so utterly different a novel that one can wonder how the same writer produced both. But there are deep continuities. Once again, McGregor describes an entire community, from the vicar to the school caretaker, from the local potter in his studio to the sheep farmer on the moors. Again, we are somewhere in the North, in an unnamed place. Again, he omnisciently darts in and out of his characters’ lives, swerving away and then returning a few pages later, using this repetitive construction to build his gradual collage. And, again, he has written a novel with a quiet but insistently demanding, even experimental form. The word “collage” implies something static and finally fixed, but the beauty of “Reservoir 13” is in fact rhythmic, musical, ceaselessly contrapuntal. Most conventional novels, after all, are laid out rather like houses—a practical corridor leads to a set of illuminated rooms, the scenes and dialogue and characters’ thoughts all clearly delineated but also opening into one another, each narrative moment awarded its own deserved space. Even at the risk of a certain amount of repetitious boredom, “Reservoir 13” is nothing like this. There are no conventional scenes, because nothing is lingered on long enough to develop singly. There is little direct dialogue. There are no moments set aside for privileged epiphany or revelation. Instead, everyone is, as it were, crowded into one room; the narrative then proceeds with the gentle tedium of an almanac or a local newspaper report, mixing news of “events” in the natural world with their equivalents in the human realm:
In the beech wood the foxes gave birth, earthed down in the dark and wet with pain, the blind cubs pressing against their mothers for warmth. The dog foxes went out fetching food. The primroses yellowed up in the woods and along the road. The reservoirs were a gleaming silver-gray, scuffed by the wind and lapping against the breakwater shores. In the evening a single runner came silently down the moor, steady and white against the darkening hill. Gordon Jackson drove back from a stock sale and saw a man by the side of the road, his arm held out as though asking for help. . . . He stopped and asked if the man needed a lift. The man looked at Gordon and didn’t speak. At the parish council there were more apologies recorded than there were people in the room, and Brian Fletcher was minded to adjourn. But a decision needed reaching on the proposed public conveniences, so they went ahead. There were hard winds in the evenings and the streetlights shook in the square. Late in the month Miss Carter brought her class to the Jacksons’ farm for the lambing.
Two hundred pages later, the novel is still proceeding with this same imperturbable patience, the soft gossip of life itself:
At midnight when the year turned there were fires in three sheds at the allotments, and again they had burned out before the fire brigade arrived. At the school the lights were seen on early, and when Mrs. Simpson walked from her car and came into the staff room she was surprised to see Miss Dale already sitting there, working on a lesson plan and eating toast. They looked at each other, and Miss Dale asked if Mrs. Simpson had overslept. I don’t know, Mrs. Simpson said. I don’t, I don’t really know. She seemed confused. The nights were hard with frost. On the high frozen ground a ewe stumbled and died, and the buzzards came to feed. A smell of coal smoke hung over the village through the days. In his studio Geoff Simmons sat on the sofa and watched the last batch dry. He had left them out too long and they were cracking. . . . At the Jacksons’ the carers were coming only twice a week now. Jackson was finding it difficult to get out of bed again, but that was more down to the tremendous weight he’d put on than anything to do with the stroke.
Of course, “things happen”: the last passage alone discloses Mr. Jackson’s recovery from a stroke, and the slow stealthy onset of Mrs. Simpson’s ill health (probably dementia), which will eventually cause her early retirement. But because the novel is not centered on any single character or set of characters, it enacts a radical diffusion of emphasis. Our attention is directed not toward singular moments or events but toward the length of a life, and toward the ways in which each life interacts with someone else’s. “Reservoir 13” is a novel without a protagonist but filled with people. We follow many imbricated lives: the teen-agers (Lynsey, James, Sophie) who knew Rebecca Shaw (eventually they grow up and go to university, and some of them do not return to the village); the vicar, Jane Hughes, who has the usual Anglican pallor of faith (“she held out her hands in a gesture she hoped might resemble prayer”); Martin and Ruth Fowler, who run the local butcher shop, until the business goes under and the couple separate (Martin finds work at the local supermarket’s meat counter, while Ruth opens a fancy organic store in a more affluent town); Su Cooper, who works for the BBC and then gets laid off; Richard Clark, who works overseas as a consultant and returns to the village only to see his ailing mother (his two sisters, who have remained nearby, judge him for his long absences); and on and on, through thirteen years of sameness and change—“yesterday brought to today so lightly!,” as Elizabeth Bishop has it.
And there is, of course, a further diffusion—these human lives are seen in counterpoint to natural life, the different life rhythms pushed into the same time signature. When Mr. Jones, the school caretaker, is arrested for having child pornography on his computer, it has been raining for so long “that the cricket field turned into a bog and the bonfire display was called off.” When Richard Clark’s mother dies, the sheep have started to shed their wool, and the shearing is to begin. The almanac rolls through the seasons, and as it does, what beauties this novel discovers and creates, as profligate as nature itself! “In the mornings the air outside the Jacksons’ lambing shed was dashed with swallows.” When there is blasting in the quarry, the villagers hear “a low crumping shudder that shrugged huge slabs of limestone to the quarry floor.” Or this description of June nights: “The sun didn’t set so much as drift into the distance, leaving a trail of midsummer light that seemed to linger until morning.”
A way of narrating that might be merely whimsical if played with for a few pages becomes rigorous when practiced systematically over two hundred and ninety. McGregor’s book can sound cozy: the villagers and the natural world at their appointed tasks; a regulated, conservative, and somewhat impermeable microcosm; the dribbling gossip of small happenings. But McGregor’s uncanny evenness of tone, the unvaried repetition (the river turning over beneath the packhorse bridge), becomes, at length, a demanding kind of inquiry, not least because he is unafraid to court the reader’s boredom. Indeed, he plays with tedium; he teases us with it. The book might be the most prosaic story I have ever read (along with being the most English). We are taxed with lines like: “It was a good year for hazelnuts”; “At the allotments Jones planted onions.” Or: “Richard Clark’s mother had her upstairs room redecorated.” And: “Frank Parker submitted his report on verge maintenance to the parish council.” My favorite, a very English locution, has to do with weather: “There was weather and the days began to shorten.” But once the reader learns to slow down, learns to watch things grow (and watch things die), nothing is really tedious, nothing is alien. And everything belongs together. I can’t pretend to be very interested in Richard Clark’s mother getting her upstairs room redecorated, but it is a small part of the entire tableau. A few lines later, the window of this room is opened, to dispel the paint fumes, and “she could hear people walking up to the square, the faint background whisper of the weir, the sound of Thompson’s herd unsettled about something.” There the narrative pauses for a moment, as it does a few years later when Richard’s mother is lying in the hospital, frail and tiny, not long before her death, and is visited regularly by her son—McGregor capturing in one sentence an experience many of his older readers will recognize with pain: “Some mornings when he arrived he thought she wasn’t in the bed at all.”
That entire tableau is the little ecosystem of the village—the beech woods, the allotments, the pub, the school, the church tower, the cricket ground, the river, and the quarry. At night, far away up on the moor, you can see the lights of speeding cars on the motorway. The village may be physically beautiful, but its inhabitants do not always behave as handsomely: McGregor often adopts a passive construction (“The girl’s parents were seen,” and so on), to evoke a world of close-minded surveillance. This is a society built on the English arts of omission and indirection. Mr. Jones does his time for possession of child porn, and then rejoins the community, without great repercussion. Earlier in the book, his domestic arrangements are described thus: “Jones the caretaker lived with his sister at the end of the unmade lane by the allotments, next to the old Tucker place. His age was uncertain but he’d worked at the school for thirty years. His sister was younger and was never seen. She was understood to be troubled in some way.” McGregor is a masterly understater.
In the end, though, despite these occasional hints of critique, life is seen here as somehow beyond moral accounting, another remarkable achievement of the book’s slow, riverine form, and another subtle unravelling of what we think of as the conventional project of the novel. Down on the ground, moment by moment, life is, of course, made up of dilemmas, choices, and bargains. But seen from afar, or so McGregor seems to say, seen from a position of pagan omniscience, looked at in the way we might look at nature—as an unending cycle of birth and death and eventual obscurity—life appears more instinctual than moral, and as animal as it is human. Winter turns to spring: as in Pirandello’s story, part of life quickens while another part of life is dying. Above all, life blindly goes on, and Rebecca Shaw will eventually be forgotten, along with everyone else. ♦

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