Monday, August 4, 2014

Reading Notes: The Wake

This review is number 2 in my Man Booker Longlist challenge for this year. You can see links to the other review at the bottom of this post.

songs yes here is songs from a land forheawan folded under by a great slege a folc harried beatan a world brocen apart. all is open lic a wound unhealan and grene

Here are some things that are very interesting about The Wake:
  1. It is published via crowdsourcing publisher Unbound, who the author, Paul Kingsnorth, selected because he didn't think a conventional publisher would touch it with a ten-foot barge pole. (Hint: He was right). This makes it the very first crowdsourced title ever to find its way onto the Man Booker longlist.
  2. Its author, Paul Kingsnorth, is a debut novellist but not a debut writer, with two well-regarded non-fics to his credit.
  3. This book is not written in English.
Wait a minute! I hear you say. Not written in English? But, by gosh, isn't that the only remaining actual rule of  the Man Booker? Sure, it doesn't matter where you live or were born anymore - welcome, Americans! - but it specifically says that books have to be written in English right there in the rules, doesn't it?

Well yes it does, and I will be honest - I think the inclusion of The Wake is a trifle dodgy on these grounds. Because The Wake is written in "shadowtongue", a composite language based on Old English but modernised juuuuuuust enough so that the readership isn't perforce limited to three Oxford Dons and a few Tolkien hobbyists with too much time on their hands. Kingsnorth declines to use, say, punctuation, modern grammar, or any letters that didn't form part of Anglo-Saxon language pre the Norman invasion. So that's no k, v, j or q, in case you were wondering. Fun times!

He also uses plenty of Old English words that don't even faintly resemble their modern equivalent - "fugol" for bird, for example, or "swamm" for mushroom. There are, of course, a fair smattering of words that are close enough that you can get there without the aid of Google - "wifman" is virtually the same as wife, it isn't a big stretch to render "deofyl" into "devil" or "beorn" into burn and so on. And the spelling variation, while frankly murderous at first, grows on the eye after a while, until "gif", "triewe", "cilde", "cepe", "fuccan" and their like start to seem quite natural and comprehensible. (That good Old English word, "cunt", needs no translation, of course - one of the few entirely unchanged inheritances that modern English retains from its Anglish roots).

This book is set in 1066 and the years immediately following, and tries to pull off an AngloSaxon view of the Norman Conquest and what it was like. The narrator / protagonist, Buccmaster of Holland (not actually Holland - it's the name for the fens), tells a blud-soaced (to keep in tune with the spelling theme), brutal tale of signs, portents, rape, pillage, mass murder, burnings, and defeats.

The fact that there is a plot (of sorts) is much less important than the feeling in this book, and much less engaging than the gradual unfolding of the proud, arrogant, and fundamentally unpleasant character of Buccmaster. What Kingsnorth pulls off, and I didn't actually think he would until fully halfway through, is conveying a vivid, living sense of a mind quite alien in sensibility to a modern person and also, within its own context, very disturbed and problematic.

The ending of the book should not come as a surprise to anyone - spoiler alert, the green men rebels do not drive the Normans back into the sea, and it doesn't end super well for them - but Kingsnorth doesn't rely on any sense of suspense to keep the reader with him, so that isn't a big deal. And I admire enormously the dedication and purity of purpose that must have driven Kingsnorth in writing this and researching it, and his insistence that historical novels could not purport to be authentic if written in modern language. In the beginning is the word, after all, and what we can express shapes what we can be. I am aligned to this concept and I did feel a rawness, a sense of a window opening, from this text that I haven't encountered often in fiction set this far back.

Kingsnorth's decisions: to make Buccmaster a substantial landowner, a secret-ish devotee of old Anglo-Saxon / Norse religion, and a right nasty bastard: are all, textually speaking, absolutely the right ones. Precisely because Buccmaster is a wife-beating, bullying, snobbish arsehole, he is able to point up in searing clarity the depth of the destruction and disaster that befalls the natives of England with the coming of the Conqueror.

Because he seems - well, once you have done the work to penetrate the language - so human in his pride, fear, longing, despair, fury, and confusion; because he does shitty things and treats other people terribly and gets fuddled and stumped and makes stupid decisions - because he is a man, not even a very good man, we can look through his eyes and see the magnitude of what has been done clearly. It seems to me that what Kingsnorth is saying is that you don't have to be a paragon or even a good person to not deserve this. You do not need to be an angel - you can even be a deofyl - you still do not deserve to be enslaved, to be brutalised, to become unfree.

That said, although I did find the book very powerful and I am glad I persisted to the end, it is not for everyone. The language is a significant impediment, and obscures meaning so much in the first third of the text that it is much more labour than pleasure to get through it. Yes, the eye and the brain do adjust, but I would not be surprised if this is too much of a commitment for many to make, and I wouldn't blame them if so.

Will it shortlist? Depends on how out-there the judges are prepared to go this year. I think no, but we'll see.

Other Man Booker longlist reviews:
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

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