Despite my recent focus on all things Tanizaki, there have been other books dropping through my letter box, and I’m endeavouring to look at a few of them between my J-Lit posts. One of these recent arrivals is a novel that came out in the UK last year, another selection from the classy Fitzcarraldo Editions range. While they divide their offerings into two colours, I’ve tended to focus on the blue (fiction) works, and today’s choice is another from this set, an intriguing modern novel with more than a nod to our literary past.
Christina Hesselholdt’s Companions (translated by Paul Russell Garrett, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is centred on a group of six Danes (mostly) in their thirties. Initially, the focus is on Alma, a writer, and her husband Kristian as they make a literary pilgrimage through the north of England, over the course of which Alma realises that she’s getting sick of life with her morose partner. We also get sporadic glimpses of Edward, a man trapped in the past by his parents’ (double) suicide, cocooned inside their house with only memories, and a dog, for company. He was left a while back by another of the main characters, Alwilda, a headstrong, forthright woman who rarely appears in the novel, seemingly too busy living her life to even feature.
However, after the introductory bucolic scenes, the focus of the story switches to the final couple, Charles and Camilla. He is a bed-ridden cripple (with serious back issues…), she is a scatter-brained academic, and as the book develops, it’s her voice that comes to dominate the story. Companions, while appearing to be an ensemble work, is really mostly about Camilla, describing her passage through love, pain, grief and rebirth as, in the company of her friends and her charismatic mother, she attempts to work out what life is all about.
As you might perhaps have gathered, Companions is a book with the potential to divide readers, and on starting my review, I couldn’t help but think of an article I read recently, Tim Lott’s Guardian piece on literary fiction, entitled ‘Why should we subsidise writers who have lost the plot?’. The crux of his argument is that it’s the writers’ own fault that sales of literary fiction are plummeting in the UK as they insist on writing books that neglect plot, consequently alienating readers. Viewed through this prism, Companions could almost be a model work to support his ideas, a book that drifts without ever really coalescing into a central story.
However, it’s also a prime example of why he’s wrong to dismiss books where the plot isn’t the main focus. Companions is very much a mood piece, progressing to the rhythm of its many confessional monologues, saturated with detail but devoid of the unnecessary (e.g. plot…). While some sections can be prosaic, many are constructed from lengthy, comma-laden sentences forming stream-of-consciousness rambling. The speakers (especially Camilla) frequently circle round topics as tangents form and are completed, eventually bringing us back to the initial idea (provided, that is, that another tangent doesn’t crop up first). The same could be said for the structure of the novel as a whole. The monologues start off as separate stories, but gradually the friends’ experiences intertwine, connections appear and a greater meaning does begin to emerge from the confusion.
Despite the mentions of Wordsworth and the Brontës in the first part of the book, it’s only later, when Camilla and Alma return to the UK to visit Virginia Woolf’s home, that Hesselholdt’s true influence appears. Perceptive readers may have already connected Hesselholdt’s six main characters with those of another work, Woolf’s The Waves, and even without the many mentions of waves crashing and rolling, the influences are undeniable. The multitude of viewpoints allows the characters, as is the case in the earlier novel, to express their emotions while simultaneously providing an outsider’s view of how the others are behaving. While lacking the life-long scale of Woolf’s work (which I reread immediately on finishing Companions…), there’s a definite sense of slow progression throughout the novel, with the protagonists pondering what life’s really all about, and trying to muddle through it as best they can.
We, in turn, are left to wonder what Companions itself is actually about. Of several possible themes, the growing intrusion of civilisation into the realm of nature is frequently highlighted, whether in the form of the quarries spoiling the view from a writer’s house or the ugly wind turbines erected off the Danish coast. Camilla comes to dislike city life, retreating to the country and an old, run-down property, while she thinks things over – and what she thinks about are existential issues for the most part, not just about love, but death and loss:
During a bout of staring I realized that in order for something to be completely new all the time, it (also) had to constantly be destroyed. Death birth death birth, so to speak. The way the death of something then takes form. Visibly, in the blink of an eye. Logical madness.
And thus I ended up where I always end, on the dreary topic of death. Why can I not stop myself. I no longer want to twist everything around the subject of death as though it were the world’s go-go pole.
pp.283/4 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)
Of course, Camilla isn’t the only one unable to stop thinking about death. Edward, in particular, seems trapped by the direction his life has taken, unable to decide how to move on in an altered world.
The strongest part of Companions is the writing, for which both Hesselholdt and Garrett can be commended. It won’t be for everyone, but I appreciated the effect of the rhythm and the lengthy sentences, along with the bitter humour scattered throughout:
We left the Lake District, all the beauty, the hills and the glittering lakes, the sinewy ramblers with their silver-tipped walking staffs and long strides, and drove through Discount England; at each stop the bus grew heavier; 150-kilo teenage mothers boarded the bus with overweight children with close-cropped haircuts stiff with hair gel. (p.32)
Coming as they do unannounced, it’s hard to stifle a smile when these acerbic remarks leap off the page. Yet the barbs often rebound back at the speaker, highlighting their bitterness and distance from reality.
And if I were to be critical of Companions, it’s this distance from reality that can grate at times – it’s rather tempting to write the book off as the story of a bunch of middle-class whingers sighing over their mid-life crises. Alma tires of Kristian, leaping into another relationship with the even more damaged Edward, and Camilla is worn down by the effort of coping with her invalid partner, wishing for something more from life:
“I almost hope something extraordinary will happen,” I said to Alma,”If life is going to be like this for ever, I won’t be able to endure it.” (p.160)
Never fear – she can always buy a horse (there are definite shades of #firstworldproblems in many places). Yes, many of the characters’ issues are real and vexing, but I fear that I wasn’t always able to summon up the necessary reserves of sympathy when required…
However, those are the risks novelists take when they attempt to do more than scratch the surface of our feelings (and ignore Lott’s advice to prioritise plot over all else). While I wasn’t always as invested in the characters’ struggles as I could have been (and would have appreciated a more balanced approach to the information we are fed regarding the six main characters), I did enjoy Companions, a novel that will reward readers prepared to engage with it. It explores how we should live our lives, wondering whether it’s better to drift along or plunge in head-first, to accept what we’ve been given, or challenge life to give us more:
“And give you not all, then know you nothing given,” Camilla’s mum says,” that’s how I was raised.
“Raised to sink,” Camilla says. (p.305)
With a hefty dose of Nordic irony, of course…