Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

A Readers’ Diary, 14 January 2015

White Hunger is described on the cover as an ‘extraordinarily accomplished debut novel’. They used to be called first novels, now they are debut novels. The change of name sounds like a marketing strategy. A first novel is just that, a debut novel is more. It sounds glamorous. It makes an entrance. It signifies the beginning of a glittering career which, in this case, seems already to be coming true.

Aki Ollikainen has, we are told, ‘taken the Finnish literary scene by storm’, his first book ‘has won the most prestigious literary prizes in Finland’ and his second is coming soon. My expectations were high and were duly disappointed. Not being Finnish, I might have missed something, but I could find little in this short, historical novel that made it any more than a well written but otherwise unexceptional first novel. It makes the usual initially confusing leaps from one character to another, it has the usual amount of sex, it presents the ruling class as indifferent to the poor, it presents the poor as indifferent to each other, it uses the 1867 famine in Finland to exemplify this, it uses well-tried narrative techniques to enable the reader to identify with individual characters. Most of this it does quite well, but not extraordinarily well. It is not, as the publisher, Peirene Press, seems to want us to think, The Grapes of Wrath.

Peirene Press is an independent publisher with an admirable mission: to publish contemporary European short fiction in translation. Unfortunately it shares with other publishers a misplaced love of hyperbole. Raising expectations is a high-risk strategy. Better, especially with a first novel, to let the reader decide.

Last year I came across a novel called The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane by a little known nineteenth century novelist called Mark Rutherford. His plain style and disregard for the conventions of the nineteenth century novel attracted praise from his peers but not many readers. Those qualities should, over time, have caused his reputation to grow, but his six novels remain out of print.

His novels are the opposite of Dickensian, which for nearly two centuries has been the archetype of fiction. We expect, when we read a novel, to be able to enter into an imaginary world. Novelists, like stage magicians, use smoke and mirrors to make that world believable. In particular, they establish conventions which, if they are applied consistently, enable us willingly to suspend our disbelief. This applies as much to George Eliot as it does to Dickens, as much to Saramago or Calvino as to E.M.Forster or William Golding. But it does not apply to Mark Rutherford.

His last novel, Clara Hopgood, is an anti-novel. One feels, reading it, as if the author had no imagination at all and made as little use of the techniques of fiction as he could get away with. There is no artifice, just real people thinly disguised as fictional characters, real events masquerading as a plot. Rutherford was a radical and a reformer. Like Clara Hopgood herself, he was ‘a person whose habit it was to deal with principals and generalisations’. But he was a person too and, like Clara, wary of stage magicians.

‘When the mist hangs over the heavy clay land in January, and men and women shiver in the bitter cold and eat raw turnips, to indulge in fireside ecstasies over the divine Plato or Shakespeare is surely not such a virtue as we imagine it to be.’

Mark Rutherford’s novels, or at least the two I have read so far, are like modern morality plays. There is in each of them an Everyman, a real person trying to do the right thing, a pilgrim whose progress he wants us to follow, whose dilemmas he wants us to understand. Until the end of the novel, it is no more clear to the reader than to Baruch, an older man in search of a wife, which of the two sisters, Clara or Madge, he will marry. That it turns out to be Madge seems a matter of pure chance. The consequence for Clara is that she makes a sudden decision to offer herself as a volunteer to support Mazzini in the struggle for the unification of Italy. With characteristic abruptness, Rutherford deals briefly with the aftermath.

‘Madge had letters from her sister at intervals for eighteen months, the last being from Venice. Then they ceased, and shortly afterwards Mazzini told Baruch that his sister-in-law was dead.’

In the next paragraph, he jumps ahead ten years to a brief conversation between Baruch and his daughter, in which she asks him why her Aunt Clara went to Italy and he replies, ‘Because she wanted to free the poor people of Italy who were slaves.’

Which is where the novel ends, with a moral as stark on the one hand and as ambiguous on the other as a modern moral should be.

Aki Ollikainen

Aki Ollikainen

My next post, on 21 January, will be about Eugene O’Neill’s one-act play, The Hairy Ape.

My next Reader’s Diary will be posted on 28 January.

One comment on “A Readers’ Diary, 14 January 2015

  1. susurrus
    March 3, 2015

    Interesting comments about one of my favourite novelists. It wouldn’t do for us to all think the same!
    I see him as a highly imaginative man. I love his sensitivity to flashes of inspiration or moments that change everything. From memory, he chooses one sister because the other senses something and gently contrives that he should. But it’s lovely to meet a fellow reader!


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