Killing fields: the Battle of Stamford Bridge pitted the English against Hardrada’s Vikings.
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1066 and all that: Eimear McBride on “The Wake” by Paul Kingsnorth

In The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth delicately loops the multifarious layers of English history together.

The Wake 
Paul Kingsnorth
Unbound, 384pp, £16.99

As seminal national catastrophes go, the Norman conquest of 1066 eclipses most of the rest. The forcible expropriation of land and the wholesale removal of native representation from every power structure led to such devastating cycles of revolt and repression that it was another 300 years before a king for whom English was the mother tongue sat on the throne again. On his deathbed in 1087, William the Conqueror reportedly confessed, “I have persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason . . . Having gained the throne of that kingdom by so many crimes, I dare not leave it to anyone but God.” It is with this quotation that Paul Kingsnorth’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted The Wake begins.

Set in the Lincolnshire Fens in the months preceding the invasion, Kingsnorth’s novel takes as its narrator a local “socman”, or free tenant farmer, referred to throughout as the Buccmaster of Holland. From the outset, the Buccmaster makes it plain that he is a breed apart from the rest of his village. He lives in a great oak house erected by his grandfather, owns three “oxgangs” (approximately 60 acres) of land, has four oxen to plough it, two indentured peasants to work it and plenty more besides. He extols his virtues as a husband and father (“Many was called to beat their wifs more than I, many there was whose children ran wilder”) and treats those whom he considers inferior with disdain (“Dumb lic hunds was these men”).

With the Vikings now failing to make more than occasional coastal incursions, England is reasonably settled and has grown unaccustomed to the depredations of war. However, the Buccmaster’s sighting of an ominous bird with fiery eyes, followed a month later by the appearance of a comet, sets this complacency on its end.

“There is sum thing cuman,” he warns, and indeed there is. Word soon arrives of the attack on the north by the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada, which the villagers are called upon to repel, as is their obligation under Anglo-Saxon law. The Buccmaster refuses but his sons go off to fight. Hardrada is defeated but the call to rejoin the “fyrd” (militia) quickly follows. This time, both his sons and the English king, Harold, are killed, leaving the invaders to sweep through the country in an orgy of rape and murder.

The Buccmaster, devoted to pre-Christian “auld hus” ways and convinced that his is a protected fate as a result, is deeply unprepared to find his village sacked, his house ablaze and his wife dead within. Taking refuge in the forest, he forges a motley group of survivors into a war band, ostensibly dedicated to resistance and revenge. Unbeknownst to them, they are also fulfilling the Buccmaster’s destiny as foretold in visions by the mythical Welland the Smith, whose sword he believes he bears.

To prove himself to Welland, he sets out to vanquish the French and the usurper “crist”, thereby restoring the old gods to their proper place and England to its rightful inheritors.

The necessary homogeneity of these rightful inheritors is extolled throughout the book. The use at the outset of a somewhat provocative quotation from the great 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury – “England is become the residence of foreigners and the property of strangers . . . They prey upon the riches and vitals of England” – suggests that we may be in store for some cheap Little England-isms. This is a pity, because that doesn’t appear to be the author’s point at all. Rather, Kingsnorth is reaching into the less dramatic, often overlooked times after a national calamity when, in the reconstruction, more than buildings are made anew.

With a notable absence of didacticism and subverting his main character’s conviction in cultural and ethnic singularity, Kingsnorth delicately loops the multifarious layers of English history together: the Scandinavian ancestry of the Buccmaster’s most ardent follower, the subsuming of pre-Christian beliefs and archetypes into Christian myth, the great English hero Welland whose roots are in Beowulf, even a march down the Roman-built Ermine Street.

For the bone of The Wake is connection and disconnection, making it in some ways reminiscent of Jim Crace’s masterful Harvest, with its deep sense of the land, along with the inability of its inhabitants to accept outside influence except under extreme duress. There are overtones of Hamlet, too, with the Buccmaster haunted by ghosts urging him to perform the sacred duty that he has accepted but has become increasingly incapable of committing to.

It also covers ground most recently explored by Philip Terry in his novel Tapestry – which was about the making of the Bayeux tapestry – and is similarly presented in a version of Old English accessible to the non-academic reader. Kingsnorth, however, makes an even deeper commitment to what his author’s note calls “a shadow tongue – a pseudo-language intended to convey the feeling of the old language by combining some of its vocabulary and syntax with the English we speak today”.

While confronting a text that is filled with the almost familiar is initially unner­ving, the eye quickly accustoms itself. The publishers invite comparisons to the teemingly degraded language of Russell Hoban’s magnificent science-fiction novel Riddley Walker in terms of its “ability to render the inner life of its main character with complete authenticity”. This it certainly does, the difference being that the English of The Wake is, out of necessity, still very much orphaned and in the process of learning how to define things.

By including a glossary to aid the reader with the most indecipherable terms, Kings­north renders a language that soon becomes both a pleasure, inextricable from the story, and a mode of vicarious alliance between our linguistic ancestors and our modern selves – the frequent use of “fuccan” being merely one small example. But, not content with this, Kingsnorth seems concurrently to be keen to point out how far we have travelled from them, too, and how different from us they were. This is wonderfully evident in his painstakingly reconstructed words and syntax, which showcase just how little our forebears needed, or expected, their language to express.

In bringing together these disparate and even occasionally opposing elements – with an excellent denouement to boot – Kings­north has created a work that is as disturbing as it is empathetic, as beautiful as it is riveting and, ultimately, sophisticated enough not to sentimentalise the lost over the found. 

Eimear McBride’s debut novel “A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing” (Faber & Faber, £8.99) won the Goldsmiths Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

She will be in conversation with Tom Gatti at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 30 November

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era