I have today started reading THE TOURIST SEASON by Frances Oliver (The Bodley Head 1978)
1. The Village
” ‘When I meet a new person, I must fix the name in my mind. I must try out the name to see if the person fits it. Words have a magic power. What I’m trying to do now is use this magic, to work with pure words, words freed from sentences, grammar, normal meaning – but it is hard to explain.’ “
“I watched the cool springy fish untangled carefully, one by one, with tiny plunks like plucked mandolin strings. Exhausted from fighting the net, they stirred only a few times before they died, making soft, sad, breathless, absurd little sounds.”
Sarah Jenner is the narrator-protagonist (at a loose end fate-fully after relationship disappointment) and arrives to live, unplanned, in a small Turkish village on the shores of the Mediterranean. There are one or two European people already ensconced there and some architectural features from the distant past (Cf. ‘Xargos’) and there is the initial interface of different cultures, both up front and conniving and, for me, with instinctively felt ‘love story’ potential, i.e. with strange or wild Oliverian over- and under-currents. Several characters are introduced already. I do not intend to relate the plot in this instance. Just record odd fleeting moments of event, landscape and language as I go through. Frances Oliver fiction has done enough already, for me and for my review-readers, no doubt, to prove itself. (5 June 10)
The Hen party, the rumbustious artistic ambitions (Timur a bit in the vein of Van Gogh – an artist coincidentally on Dr Who this evening!), the larger-than-life near-rape … all brilliantly conveyed. Sarah Jenner on the edge of alien-cultural comedy or tragedy? Hopefully both in constructive synergy. (5 June 10 – another 4 hours later)
” ‘I have a wonderful project, Sarah,. Zeki will make a structure and inside I will paint my words, so one can enter and read from the walls…’ “
Timur’s friend Zeki arrives full of annoying “naive dogmatism“.
Let me say that the title’s ‘Tourist Season’ is when vacationers arrive in the otherwise off-the-beaten-track village … as I feel we all have yesterday and today in this novel … the Reader Season? (6 June 10).
“I was haunted for days by the faceless head from the turnip patch.”
Architectural artefacts as hoax or genuinely filling the ground.
” ‘I think all the time, I dream all the time, but I understand nothing at all.’ “
Zeki – rumbustious Russian spy? In 1978, that was always a possibility I suppose.
The party with chic chickens is (for me) a bit laboured and confused but adds to the unbridled atmosphere of individuals and their viewpoints or cultures or politics or Aesthetics. (6 June 10 – another 3 hours later)
“I could never withstand the new bizarre familiarity, this unique sense of another skin being no more strange than my own.”
Making a subtle sexual pass akin to fishing…?
The atmosphere of passion, artistic rivalries, sexual connections of varying permutations, anger, infiltration by races and religions, violence … forgiveness. I wonder whither we go? Wondering whither I go, I let myself float upon the hot seas of this novel. Floating in hot seas being something I would never do in real life. I wonder if, as a new reader visiting the novel, I have diverted its destined path?
“Only the one of me was rather too idealised and strange, a face flawless and fixed as marble. I had thought of the old men as monuments, but in Nazim’s drawing they were alive and the monument was myself.”
“I could still play what Timur called Sarah the observer. Amused, if not detached.” (7 June 10)
“…wiping up the gravy with bread, I was glutted to breathlessness…”
Not part of the village’s ‘tourist season’ as such (they are brought here by a village contact), a hoity-toity couple arrive, Paula and Herbert Bromberg – with cinematic exposition … followed by a real Turkish picture show film that villagers and Sarah attend with nuances of reaction – and Sarah becomes romantically embroiled and meets the young man’s family. I continue to float and enjoy the emerging potentialities of plot, both comfortable and worrying by turns. But I promised not to re-tell the plot. It is enough for me to know and for you to find out.
“The thick coffee grounds looked like Rohrschach patterns, but ones in which I could discern nothing.” (7 June 10 – four hours later).
Underdressed and flashed. Taken in a windmill. Zeki leaves the village with no Communist converts under his wing. Words on canvas ‘avant garde’? Events with raw edges and ‘rovings’ for my post-reading dreams. This review is not a replacement for reading the book. The cover design (by Gerard Lecœur) is so utterly Seventies – I wonder if I would read this book in 2010 if I hadn’t been drawn by the rare and wonderful discovery of Frances Oliver in the massive mulch of literature, like that ancient head in the turnip patch? (7 June 10 – another 5 hours later)
The Season of Tourists, as a phenomenon of people-influx, takes off in motley fashion – and there is a Lawrencian meeting of two souls as they make love in the ocean almost as an oblique counterpart of the insidious invasion. I even further distrust one of those souls, i.e. the narrator. I rarely trust the narrator in Frances Oliver novels, but that does not mean I don’t know the truth of events, a truth, perhaps, beyond the intention of Oliver herself? And the young flasher is still ‘at large’: another moving mote in the corner of the eye, like the thought of the turnip head. (8 June 10)
“I found myself leading five people through the streets past the curious villagers. ‘Tourists. They want to go to the toilet,’ I explained…”
I am accustomed to being in coach tours abroad in recent years – and the horror of the Tourist Season is full-fledged now and I somehow feel party to it, responsible for it. (I’ve never felt like a vampire or werewolf!). Amusing and tragic. As is the other battle between eagles and storks. Between the indigenous and the foreign. The foreign who are us. Except Sarah is not really either…
I gradually grew to like Herbert Bromberg and eventually felt sorry for him. He was not at all hoity-toity as I earlier wrongly said. That was his wife. (8 June 10 – two hours later)
IV. Intermission – The Village Again
Sarah learns ‘scrambled Shakespeare’ a la Frances Oliver, while working in Rhodes:
“I coaxed the little boy through lessons while the parents, expatriate authors, typed and bickered in the next room. I never discovered what they were writing. Something historical, they said vaguely, on a grant. It seemed as unsubstantial as Timur’s canvases of words.”
She cuts this job short and returns to the village and “invented a job, a long translation from French to English I had been given by a writer in Rhodes.”
Meanwhile much Lawrence Durrell-ian atmosphere and interaction. (8 June 10 – another 3 hours later)
.’Caruso’ and butchered=
A new leit-motif thrown into the pond of plot, a character called Ramona, with mixed sexuality, collecting Turkish folk-songs on her tape-recorder she christened ‘Caruso’ amid the butchered-meat festival of ‘Kurban Bayram’. She is not one of the tourists but a catalyst between Sarah and Sarah’s?
But at the end of the day we are all meat, no doubt. Only by reading fiction we can make ourselves something more.
“I opened a bottle of wine, took out some papers to pretend I was working.” (9 June 10)
Jealousies and intimate glances, exploiting the temples, dirty period postcards – all seems a collage on a canvas of words. (9 June 10 – another hour later)
“Things had reached that peculiar point where onlookers, although still few, distort and begin to destroy what is looked at. I amused myself by wondering if this could be mathematically stated, if someone could figure the mystic number, the golden absolute maximum, of strangers to hear a gypsy band before it becomes what the brochures call ‘folklore’, or photographs taken of a ruin before the stones seem to melt away.”
…very telling about the reading of this novel, too. Departures, betrayals faced and forgiven, cheating at cards, a confusing of too many characters each with their own lives to live, a memory of a dog-killing, a windmill pumping up the passion followed by a tailing-off into a potential coda, a tailing-off often being the best way to finish a piece of music than a grand finale… (10 June 10)
“…people accept what they call progress as resignedly as, before progress was deified, they accepted the iron whims of what they called God.”
Here a Muslim God? Sarah has returned for her coda, as Frances Oliver types away at the story in her room pretending it’s not a great novel at all but ‘scrambled Shakespeare’ from ‘Children of Epiphany’. A yearning to go into the wilds (with a ‘brother’ like Hansel from ‘The Peacock’s Eye’?) for ancient stones and experiences like the protagonist in ‘Xargos’… Remarkable that ‘turistik’ resonates with ‘Turkish’….
“Like the brother and sister of fairy tales we would run away together, to a new bright enchanted kingdom.” (10 June 10 – an hour later)
Having now read further, it is not so much a tailing-off or coda, as it turns out, but more a brutal journey-into-catharsis akin to the last song of Mahler’s ‘Das Lied Von der Erde’ if there is an equivalent song to be recorded by ‘Caruso’ from the songs of Turkey. The drumming of hooves as a demon is slaughtered. And we are left with an open-ended crisis or a tailing-off, whichever we choose. Sarah’s ‘I’ is still a mystery to me and I fail to know whether or not to trust her.
I am not a tourist so much as a seasoned traveller in the works of Frances Oliver. One more novel to read (‘All Souls’)…unless she writes some more. (10 June 10 – another hour later)
All my previous real time reviews are linked from here: http://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/