Brilliant, paradoxical energy and much last-ditch laughter. Inglorious is a high-risk, one-off...I loved it.Kate Kellaway, The Observer
...simply stunning. Honest, brilliant, arresting, and barefisted—for the blows come hard. But it is also a work of art: tart, wise, human, funny, and best of all, without the least trace of sentiment.André Aciman
Winner of the 2008 Orange Award for New Writing.
Rosa Lane is 35, at Dante's centre point of life, when the individual is meant to garner experience and become wise. So far she has managed well enough without wisdom; she has been obedient to prevailing mores, she has worked hard at her decent job in London and has never troubled the stream. Yet she is suddenly disoriented by events, unable to understand the death of her mother, finding the former buttresses of her life — her long-term relationship, her steady job — no longer support her. When she leaves her job, and her relationship ends, she is thrust out into a great loneliness; she becomes acutely aware of — tormented by — the details of the city, the lives of those around her, and the deluge of competing cries.
Having stripped herself of her former context, and become inexplicable to her friends and family, she embarks on a mock-epic quest for a sense of purpose, for an answer to the hoary old question 'Why Live?' Her comical grail quest is fraught with minor trials — encounters with former friends, unsympathetic landladies, prospective employers, theory-mongers, and denizens of the 'real world'. Rosa also falls into a state of constant motion, nervously treading around London. Yet her constant circumnavigations of the city fail to enlighten her, and she escapes from the city to join friends in Cumbria. This escape finally precipitates the climax of the book, the greatest trial, and the beginnings of her return to normality, whatever that was.
Inglorious is published in the UK by Faber. It is published by Macmillan in the USA. It has been translated into Italian, Czech, Chinese, Romanian, Greek, among other languages. For further translation rights contact RCW or the author.
... An extraordinary journey from the ordinary into the epic...A great writer who I have no doubt will be read long after I am gone...Shami Chakrabarti
Wonderful...The anguish is relieved by crisp, pitch-perfect prose and a hilarious dry wit...Suzi Feay, Independent on Sunday
A successful London journalist who is mourning her mother's death suddenly quits her job, then finds herself homeless when her lover leaves. Staying with friends, unable to find work, she makes endless lists in a search for meaning in this elegantly written novel.Elsa Dixler, New York Times
Kavenna precisely captures the mixture of superiority and self-pity with which Rosa justifies her failure to act. Days pass in a dull blur of writing lists: "Clean the kitchen. Read the works of Proust...", scrounging meals and brooding about death. It is all very funny, and very dark. Rosa's extreme solipsism does not prevent her from some sharp observations on the absurdities of modern life. Best of all are the descriptions of London, which comes across in all its seedy glory; although a comically disastrous visit to friends in the Lake District is also well worth the price of entry.Christina Koning, The Times (London)
Our heroine is fighting a terrible enemy: her "inner blah." But the verb "fighting" is not quite right, because the struggle depicted by British author Joanna Kavenna in her quirky novel "Inglorious" (Picador), recently released in paperback, is not that active. It's more of a dull slide than a vigorous skirmish. Yet Rosa Lane, the protagonist of this oddly compelling story about a young woman's tumble into torpor after losing her job, her boyfriend and perhaps her sanity, retains the ability to pick through her memories and retrieve telling treasures.Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune
A superb piece of writing, and a disturbing, witty commentary on modern life.Kate Saunders, London Times
Wry and coolly lyrical, Inglorious...has a compellingly anarchic energy, propelling the reader through a vividly realised landscape of contemporary angst and hinting at light at the end of the tunnel.Hephzibah Anderson, Observer
This journey into a nervous breakdown is described with such relish and mordant humour that it remains as gripping as many more epic voyages....Rosa is subject to flights of ideas and associative thinking; while her life stalls, her mind soars. The wordplay is her defence against the threat of extinction, the looming terror of "the snuffing out of me!"...Sly, self-deprecating wit.Olivia Laing, >Guardian
Joanna Kavenna's first novel, "Inglorious" (following her widely acclaimed nonfiction debut, "The Ice Museum"), is a trip worth taking. It's the intellectual wit and Kavenna's Woolfian eye for the universe-in-a-single-detail that save the novel from the hair-tearing emotional excess and sentimentality so many nervous-breakdown stories suffer from....A lovely and wrenching novel...Tara Ison, LA Times
Vulnerable, perspicacious, funny, literate, Rosa is an unforgettable narrator, stumbling around on borrowed heels, musing on Heraclitean notions of flux. Her tone lies somewhere between those of Bridget Jones and Philip Larkin. Kavenna writes with great elegance and has a delicious grasp of comic bathos...the quality of the prose never dips.Tom Fleming, The Spectator
Kavenna's understanding of the complexity of depression and her evocation of her heroine's bewilderment are precise, and Rosa, for all her misery, has an appealing and often funny voice.New Yorker
Fierce intelligence...Kavenna writes beautifully as she traverses daydream, dreamscape and nightmare. [Such] elegant treatment of the frequent unfamiliarity of modern life...Rose Jacobs, Financial Times
Kavenna has nailed Rosa precisely, imbuing her distress with a dark hopeless humour that surfaces in her undoable to-do lists...and caustic self-awareness. Her skewed world-view casts a troubling, penetrating and often funny gaze on middle-class values.Lisa Gee, Independent
Clear-sighted, intelligent, provocative, rewarding for Kavenna's precise apprehension and arresting imagery...Reflects Rosa's own uncertain existence with a succinct beauty.James Urquhart, Sunday Telegraph
Rosa is like a female version of Withnail, and her failures in the face of her peers' successes make her story a modern spin on Gissing's New Grub Street.Elena Seymenliyska, Telegraph
If Franz Kafka had lived in the early 21st century and been female, English and a bit cheekier, he might have produced a work like Joanna Kavenna's delightful debut novel, which follows her prize-winning nonfiction book "The Ice Museum." Rosa's jaundiced, witty, slightly paranoid view of her world and the rather unpleasant people who inhabit it prove oddly charming.Rebecca Oppenheimer, LifeTimes
A horribly funny, surprisingly jaunty visit to the edge of the abyssKirkus
Full extracts from a selection of reviews:
EXPECTING a reader to ride shotgun on the journey of a character's existential crisis is a lot for a writer to ask. Potholes loom: Ah, the paralyzing anomie of postmodern life, the self-absorption of the downward spiral, the privileged self-indulgence of middle-class despair! Woe to the reader — and writer — who risks that invitation: Do we really need to hear that story again? Do we really want to go there?
Joanna Kavenna's first novel, "Inglorious" (following her widely acclaimed nonfiction debut, "The Ice Museum"), is a trip worth taking. Rosa Lane, a 35-year-old reasonably stable and successful London journalist, suddenly finds herself "in a labyrinth, lacking a ball of twine," abruptly "aware of an invisible stopwatch tolling her down…. Sitting at her desk that day, sweating into her shirt, she thought, If they told me I would never do anything more than this, would I want to live or die on the spot?"
Instead, she quits her job on the spot — you might think this the healthy and proactive (if impractical) choice, but wait — and staggers out into a morass of emotional conflicts and circumstances she has sensed churning but until now has resolutely ignored. Rosa's mother died six months ago, and she has yet to adjust to the loss; Liam, her longtime boyfriend, exits their perfunctory relationship and takes up with Grace, Rosa's best friend; Rosa's father has a starting-a-new-life relationship of his own; Rosa's once manageable financial debt is ballooning to blimp proportions. A possible new boyfriend is 10 years younger than she, and his cavalier optimism serves as rebuke to her own waste of time and potential. London is hellish in its hyper-stimulation, its relentless insistence on tangible success. Rosa wanders from flat to flat, friend to friend, borrowing clothing and food, wearing out welcomes, juggling funds, increasingly humiliated and exhausted.
But, as with any honest depiction of emotional unraveling, it isn't the circumstances that matter most. Rosa is gifted with options and talents, after all — she isn't anywhere near as logistically desperate as she might be. It's the caught-in-the-maze panic, the mental self-flagellation, the psychological hamster wheel. (Or the chemical imbalance: One glitch here is the absence of the idea of seeking professional psychological help. Odd that no one in her world advises her to see a shrink.) Should she really be spending all her time seeking a place to crash, the tide-over loan of a few quid,the security of a living-wage job? Or is the truer quest — the should-should-should drumbeat she feels morally obliged to march to — the escape from such quotidian banalities in favor of a search for Life's Meaning?
What to do? Who can tell her? She attempts a metaphysical retreat: A bus ride to a job interview becomes a rumination on how to take comfort in Socrates, "who said that it was foolish to fear death, because there was no knowing if death was a better state than life," while "[i]n the here and now, death — the deaths of others — robbed you of love." And why obsess over Liam and Grace instead of "trying to understand the sun"? She becomes a compulsive "To Do" list-maker, a running motif of oppressive and evolving directories that combine high-mindedness with the most humdrum of errands: "Buy some tuna and spaghetti…. Read 'The Golden Bough,' the Nag Hammadi Gospels, the Upanishads, the Koran, the Bible, the Tao…. Read Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Bacon, Locke…. Hoover the living room. Clean the toilet." She is bombarded by signs: Graffiti, billboards, trash on the street all proffer scattered words of wisdom or advice or warning; such "clues," Rosa believes, are a potentially illuminating language she must puzzle out.
It's the intellectual wit and Kavenna's Woolfian eye for the universe-in-a-single-detail that save the novel from the hair-tearing emotional excess and sentimentality so many nervous-breakdown stories suffer from. "A dishcloth had dropped on the linoleum, and no one had stooped to collect it," Rosa observes of her former life with Liam. "There were these small signs of ferment and then a few remnants of order, everything incommensurate." All things portend peril, every moment is fraught: "She ran the tap, and watched the water whirl into the drain. She touched the plastic of the shower curtain and saw light sliding down it. The universe was riddled with impossible elements, she thought, absurd symmetries."
Unfortunately, the novel's ending relies a bit too heavily on a handy plot device to trigger an epiphany, briefly threatening to tip the complex balance of Rosa's struggles toward a more conventional, scorned-woman/failed-romance climax — but Kavenna darts away from it just in time. If the actual conclusion feels "unsatisfying" — well, thank goodness for that. "And then she thought how damn ironic that was, that you should seek obscurity and positively embrace ignorance. That you should fashion your philosophy from the acceptance of unknowability" — that's about as much "resolution" as we get.
Good for Kavenna. The obvious tidiness of, say, a leap from London Bridge, a new Prince Charming, a fabulous job offer would give the lie to her respectful and nuanced rendering. Because it is the journey itself, not the destination, that makes this lovely and wrenching novel worth the ride.
In her travel book The Ice Museum, which was longlisted for the Guardian first book award, Joanna Kavenna embarked on a quest to find the mythic land of Thule, a journey that led her deep into frozen wastes, both literal and imaginary. Rosa Lane, the troubled heroine of Kavenna's exuberant debut novel, has also launched herself on a journey. Her aims are lofty: to discover the meaning of existence, escape penury and gorge herself on key works of philosophy and literature - but her peregrinations don't take her much further than an ill-fated trip to the Lake District. Mostly, she wanders the corridors of her own mind instead, never far from complete collapse.
At 35, Rosa has reached "Dante's mid-point, the centre of life, when she was supposed to garner knowledge and become wise". But a faint dissatisfaction with the "pocket utopia" of her life has given way, following the death of her mother, to a sense of dislocation and disintegration. The buttresses that have so far supported her seem comically unstable, and so she sets about dismantling them. Within a matter of months she has resigned from her job as a journalist, been dumped by her handsome but vacuous boyfriend, moved out of her flat and whittled her possessions down to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the complete works of Shakespeare - all necessary preparations for a descent into the realms of depression, grief and madness.
Kavenna is astute enough to realise that there is an addictive thrill to this kind of freefall, and so Rosa keeps on tumbling, severing herself from friendships and dispensing with social norms. "Acedia, plain and simple" is her typically grandiose self-diagnosis, and the prescription is equally weighty. "Read Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Bacon, Locke, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and the rest," she scrawls. "Hoover the living room. Clean the toilet. Distinguish the various philosophies of the way."
If Rosa has lost the plot, Kavenna has dispensed with it almost entirely, and yet this journey into a nervous breakdown is described with such relish and mordant humour that it remains as gripping as many more epic voyages. From her newly dispossessed vantage point, Rosa regards the rat race her friends are engaged in with baffled horror. Take the property ladder, "a grand illusion - everything dangling out of reach, and the ladder reaching up higher and higher to a grand crash, a Götterdämmerung of wage slaves, in which the liveried masses will fight a final battle for a small house to call their own and be slain in droves and burn to a crisp".
Such fevered musings form the bulk of the book; and a more accurate self-diagnosis would have been logorrhoea. Rosa is subject to flights of ideas and associative thinking; while her life stalls, her mind soars. The wordplay is her defence against the threat of extinction, the looming terror of "the snuffing out of me!" In exchanging the usual niceties of story and character development for this barrage of language, full of obscure allusions and quotations, Kavenna faces the charge of pomposity - worse, she risks alienating her readers with a display of linguistic dexterity that dazzles rather than engages. That she succeeds instead in captivating is testament to her sly, self-deprecating wit. It is this love of larking amid despair that saves Rosa and the novel that contains her from drowning.
Rosa is a fairly successful journalist in her early thirties. One day, soon after the death of her mother, she walks away from her well-paid job. From that moment, it all falls apart. Her handsome, vacuous partner runs off with her best friend. Rosa is homeless, camping on the sofas of friends, until they throw her out. Aimless, helpless and unemployable, she drifts and sinks until she is bumping along the bottom. This is a superb piece of writing, and a disturbing, witty commentary on modern life. "To live free from illusions, but content. Impossible!"
She began it on an ordinary summer’s day when she found — quite in contravention of the orders of her boss — she was idling at the computer, kicking her heels and counting. Rosa Lane, 35 and several months, aware of an invisible stopwatch tolling her down, was counting the years, the hours spent sitting in offices, staring at the sky, at the flickering screen that was sending her blind. She had passed the previous ten years in a holding position, her legs locked under a table. She had typed a million emails and strained her wrists. She was no closer to understanding anything. Ahead she saw the future, draped in grey. Behind was the damp squib of her family’s history. She was sitting in the present, with this past and future whirling around her. And outside the city was awash with daytime noise — the grind of traffic, blurred speech, elusive choirs. The noise was ebbing and rising again, and she heard the cries of birds in the eaves. She thought of the river moving and the flow of cars, smoke drifting across the shine and colour.
Sitting at her desk that day, sweating into her shirt, she thought ‘if they told me I would never do anything more than this, would I want to live or die on the spot?’ Then she thought, ‘What is the reason for it all, what is it for?’ That really cut her up, so she wrote an email to her boss. It was terse and elegiac. It began with her youth, early career, thanked him for his patronage, communicated her deepest regrets and ended with the words ‘I resign.’ She was emphatic: she pressed send and then she shut down her computer. She picked up her hat and coat and walked. She was having a fit of nerves by the time she passed the guardians of the gate, the two fat porters who sat there trading jokes. They sauntered towards her. If they had spent another second rattling the keys she would have crumbled and begged them to lock her in forever. Then the gate swung open. ‘Leaving early,’ they chorused, and released her. Rosa went out onto the street, where the cars were queuing to go forward. Then she went home.
It was a Monday in June when Rosa left her job. It was early afternoon, and she sat on the semi-empty train marvelling at the space, the available seats. She felt a gust of air as the doors swept shut. She stared at the adverts for phone cards and car insurance. Palliatives, she thought. She glanced at the passengers, barely noticing their distinctness. A less concentrated crowd but still part of the hordes. She laughed at an advert and picked her ear. A man caught her eye and she quickly dropped her gaze. She observed the dirt on the walls, she traced her fingers round the stains on the seats. She filed every detail of the carriage away.
She was at Dante’s mid-point, the centre of life, when she was supposed to garner knowledge and become wise. This was assuming she had used her earlier years for study and application, like the poet, but she had measured them out in weekend binges and European holidays. For years she had been productive at work and as idle as anything in the evenings. Time coursed along and she earned money. She stayed firmly in her box. She had been a journalist for years, sliding her way upwards. She wrote on the arts. She understood - it was quite plain to her — that she was meant to be ruled, not to rule. She hardly had the mettle for power play and the tyrannical control of fiefdoms. Her life had been supported by a few buttresses: belief in her job, the love of her parents, her relationship with Liam. These had stopped her thinking about anything too deeply.
Yet recently she had been feeling dislocated. The death of her mother, in January, was the start of that. She understood it was natural process, inevitable and unquestionable, but it knocked her off course and she couldn’t right herself again. She went into work and was congratulated on her perseverance, but at night she was troubled by bad dreams, grief sweats, fear of the void, internal chaos that she tried to keep well-buried, aware that her experience was general not exceptional and she really ought to button up. She missed her mother, of course, she felt the lack of her like a deep soundless blackness, and she thought it was impossible that this should be the natural condition of life. She felt as if a seismic shift had occurred; the ground had fallen away, revealing depths below, shapes clad in shadow.
Her mind was casting out analogies, hints at a deeper complaint. She felt restless and she had vivid dreams. Her thoughts held her, stopped her being useful. She lacked a defining metaphor, a sense of coherence. She felt coerced to the social pattern, her instincts dulled. She needed a local mythology, some sense of a reason why. Instead, she was teeming with frenzy and obscenity. She could curse her way home, damning the street and condemning the innocent and guilty alike. And she noticed that her sense of things was changing, it bemused her to think about it. Instead of seeing herself as the centre of her own small world, with the city as the backdrop to her life, she began to see everything as a fractured mess, a wild confusion of competing atoms, millions of people struggling to live. She lacked a doctrine, a prevailing call. She was surrounded by monomaniacs, yet she was indecisive. All ways looked as impassable as the others. She was in a labyrinth, lacking a ball of twine! Disoriented as anything, and she couldn’t kneel and pray, she was sure that wouldn’t help at all.
In March, concerned about how detached she was feeling, she’d asked Liam to marry her. Liam said no, which shocked her profoundly. More than shocked, she was deeply offended. They flagged on for a few more months, but anyone could tell their relationship was holed below the waterline. There were days when she felt it all as dark comedy, bred of the absurd situation she found herself in. With the clock ticking, she was spending her indeterminate span of years on the underground, holding on tight to a metal pole, checking her emails, earning money and lining her belly. This sense of the ludicrous crept into her prose. In April she’d written an article on Swedish contemporary dance, which opened ‘Dark, dark, dark we all go into the dark. The dancers have all gone under the hill.’ The editor had sauntered over to her desk, and demanded that she erase the offending lines on her computer. ‘Never,’ he said. ‘Never quote that crap again.’
By May she was writing in fragments. It was unfortunate, as her job was to write and explain, to produce quantities of lucid prose. Instead, she stared at the computer, with the bare notes of a story in her hand. Embarrassed, she wrote: ‘The Modernist Novel.’ After another hour she wrote: ‘Rosa Lane reports.’ Then it was lunchtime and she wrote: ‘If Lunch be the Lunch of Love, Lunch On.’ Then later she wrote ‘Shuffle Off’ and ‘Mortal Coil’ on two lines. Then she accidentally pressed ‘send’, and emailed her few phrases to her editor, who ignored them. Her focus seemed to be slipping. Where once she had read the paper every day, noting the preoccupations of society and her colleagues, now she flicked through a few pages and tossed the thing away. She was left with odd words - ‘BLAME’, ‘WORSENS’, ‘REPRIEVE’, ‘SILENCE’— and some images of a screaming mother, a model clad in satin, a bomb victim. None of it made any sense. Now she wrote ‘I want. We want.’ And then she wrote ‘What is it for?’
There was an evening in late May when she found herself standing on a street - she wasn’t entirely sure where she was — and then it seemed to her that the street was widening and widening and the numbers of buses and cars multiplying indefinitely, and there were rows and rows of people stretching eternally, and the ghosts of the dead vivid and clear in the dusk. ‘Too much now,’ she said out loud, attracting silent glances from the habitués around her. ‘Bloody hell there’s a lot of us,’ she added. She reeled past the Albery eyeing the neon haze and the streetlights and the shadows seeping from the winding alleys. Then the crowds seemed to vanish altogether, and she thought of purse pinchers and long-gone hawkers, the flotsam of another era. She thought of them with their capes and cloaks and buckled shoes, and their hats and moustaches and the smell of the streets - dung and offal. They vanished too, and she imagined the city dead and gone, a fierce wind blasting across the earth. She shrugged that off, because it was making her worry. Because the buses looked teeming and drunk with weight she walked home. Three hours later, she arrived at her flat, grimy and sweating, talking quietly to herself.
'Hope springs eternal'
Guardian, 6 June 2008
Joanna Kavenna: How the author turned from unpublishable failure to prizewinning writer
Independent, 29 June 2008
Inglorious triumph in first novel award
Guardian, 5 June 2008
Buy Inglorious from Amazon.co.uk.
Buy Inglorious from Amazon.com.
©2022 Joanna Kavenna