The Defeat of Grief – by John Howard

I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews, turning leitmotifs into a gestalt.

And it is of ‘The Defeat of Grief’ a novella by John Howard (Passport Levant MMX).

There is no guarantee how long it will take to complete this review, whether days or years.

CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading it. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.

All my real-time reviews are linked from here:

All my Ex Occidente Press (Passport Levant) real-time reviews here: 

From the publisher’s website: “The Defeat of Grief is a sewn hardcover book of 94 pages with dust-jacket, silk ribbon, endpapers and a full-colour frontispiece. Edition limited to only 100 hand numbered copies. $45 inc. p&p to Europe and USA, $50 to the rest of the world. This is a collector’s edition. The book can be acquired only via Direct Order.”

Adrian Lereanu’s Notes

Pages 9 – 15

“To future!”

I real-time reviewed this author’s ‘The Silver Voices’ last July. They were different, perhaps happier, literary times for me personally. Here, in this new book, I predict, that there will be no last balcony. Literary critiques have their own sense of serendipity and its opposite of spiritual clashing. But often difficult to judge which is which.

Here, the protagonist works in the same Romanian town as is centred in ‘The Silver Voices’. A not yet middle-aged, but balding, academic, who is a  political outcast in the scheme of the Faculty where he works, and a friend urges him on a sabbatical to Balcic. To a hotel that has just been opened by this friend’s friend, but nothing has been heard since the hotel opened…

I do not intend further to re-narrate the plot of this supposed novella, but merely give my personal impressions from hereon, merely seeking a noumenon or soul that is this book. 

“The only solution is to escape from time entirely.” (11 Dec 10)

Pages 15 -22

“…the open door to the balcony made it cool and airy.”

At the Hotel, the Hotel dominates. History, too, gives a sense of surrounding time and the permeability of nationhood during periods of War. Ironic as the Hotel has its missing architect’s name-by-initials embedded upon its structure. Normally artworks like buildings, sculptures, music, films, even paintings are not by-lined up front with the artist’s name. Books, in contrast, have the author’s name on the spine, on the title page and on the top of every alternate page! As does this landscape book of stiff pages, stiff dustjacket, and sturdy boards.  The design on the front shown above, I assume, is the Hotel itself. (11 Dec 10 – two hours later)

Just noticed that there is a quotation embedded on the board beneath the stiff dustjacket: in large letters like a secondary title: “ENOUGH, THIS IS AS FAR AS I GO.” MIKHAIL SEBASTIAN. In theory, if this book ever loses its dustjacket and turns up in a secondhand bookshop, up front it will appear to be a book entitled “Enough, this is as far as I go” by Mikhail Sebastian, simply because there is nothing else to read on the exterior of the dustjacket-less book. (11 Dec 10 – another 2 hours later)

Pages 22 – 27

Incredibly, to me, our protagonist – searching for the Hotel’s architect on behalf of a friend who’d persuaded him to come to Balcic – encounters a painter in the street who has mysteriously caught the Hotel on his canvas (that our protagonist offers to purchase) wherein “Instead of the long, flat roofline, with the staircase block rising but a little above the parapet, the block rose to a height considerably above the roofline, forming a tower apparently surmounted by a small terrace or balcony.”  This book itself now seems to have extensions above and beyond its landscape, (11 Dec 10 – another 3 hours later).

Pages 27 -33

“The artist had been right. Not only had his friend vanished, but he had left his building incomplete.”

Incomplete, but the Hotel (embedded more than once with the missing architect’s by-line) seems to fit into the surrounding “landscape” with seemingly precise, if perverse, deliberation, by geometry, by the power of the words and by other factors that are generated by this landscape-shaped book itself,  I am agog. Delighted. Scared. (12 Dec 10)

Pages 34 – 49

” ‘Yes. Being inside his creation is close enough.’ / ‘As we are outside of yours,’ I said pointing to the painting.”

I sense we have come to some sort of ending here. I am extremely impressed. The onset of political unrest between countries, the politics of self, the politics of career – above all, the obsession with finding the Lost Balcony (meaning so much to me personally) or the final room in the (Art Deco?) Hotel or the person who left it incomplete.  Art and nemonymity. Late-labeling and by-lining. It is as if this amazing ‘story’ was specially written for me.  Time and Landscape.  I wonder if every reader will feel this way? Let me know, some time … before it’s too late. (12 Dec 10 – another two hours later)


Nathan Brook

Pages 50 – 62

“…he blundered his way through every situation and into every person he encountered, colliding and bouncing off again like a splintered atom careening around a particle accelerator.”

Like Cone Zero or Cern Zoo?

The magical prose continues. Apparently a sequel to the former story. Nathan Brook is a freelance architectural historian who lives in London, his beloved wife recently killed in a  hit-and-run accident, eventually called to do work in that small town in Romania that  figured in ‘The Silver Voices’, reluctant to be tempted by his boss’s wife, he is sent to the town where that Hotel is situated to research it…  I think I am obsessed, and not this book; almost as if I’m writing it as I read it. I keep getting the queer feeling these days that I’m not reading books, but books are reading me!  Or it’s just that I’m overdosing on truly great books – like this one – by sheer serendipitous choice for my real-time reviewing.

It is ‘future’ now. The Bulgaria/Romania troubles over? And Nathan is to be allowed to read Adrian Lereanu’s notes….(12 Dec 10 – another 90 minutes later)

Pages 62 – 70

“It seemed to Brook that the houses and people around him – the entire town – were flickering in front of his eyes like an old film…”

There are many connections with Lereanu, the Mikhail Sebastian ‘by-line’ on the book’s front board-cover, the erstwhile painting we experienced in the first ‘story’, future from the past, by artefact or poetic serendipity, even with Nathan’s reading of Thomas Hardy poems… And he meets the old Hotel manager who is about to complete what was left incomplete. And the name CB embedded in the building was not the missing architect but someone who claimed more self-provenance with regard to the Hotel and that makes me wonder what a by-line truly is.  Such as the by-line on this book, too, when or if the author is writing it under the power of a Daemon Muse that is not him?  This is where fiction and truth really mingle and shuttle and flicker…. (12 Dec 10 – another hour later)

Pages 70 – 82

I am taken along by the inevitability of this experience, which is a long way from saying it is predictable. “…he should be able to find some views of the upper floors of the Hotel Kairos that would emphasis its newly-restored white modernity while also showing the hotel as an integral part of its environment, embedded…” and that is just as important as the dreams (including that of following his dead wife climbing the hotel stairs to that missing room and inferred balcony?) and the perspectives of personal nature and landscape – being triangulated or co-ordinated as I predicted in the final passage of my ‘Northwest Passages’ review a few days ago (quoted here) – and, in these pages of ‘The Defeat of Grief’“Brook wondered if there would be a future point when time would catch up with him” and “He watched his hand as if it belonged to someone else…”. (12 Dec 10 – another hour later)

Pages 82 – 94

“…the belated realisation of the unknown architect’s original intentions” strikes me amid the utterly sublime prose that completes this architecture of fiction.  I shall leave you to make the final completions, connections. This is quite astonishing literature. Both universally… and personally for me. Perhaps one aspect needs the other, a synergy of the personal and the universal. I hope it works in this way for you, too. This landscape book is a panorama of all our individual destinies, I do suggest.

“There was no way down from the balcony, and the scraps of paper spiralled around him…”

END. (12 Dec 10 – another hour later. I couldn’t put it down.)


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6 responses to “The Defeat of Grief – by John Howard

  1. From my earlier real-time review of this author’s SILVER VOICES:

    In Strange Earth

    “…its gothic pinnacles soaring skywards.”

    This story left me almost in tears, bittersweet tears. The ‘good place’ – this book’s continuing and erstwhile leitmotif town – gives refuge for the man who, having witnessed the Leader’s Last Balcony Scene in Bucharest, flees here to seek his own ‘nostalgia from the future’ by finding, he hopes, a lost friendship but is affected by visions or dreams of the aged couple (now hand in hand) who were ousted from the Balcony. Another major reading experience for me, an experience in itself but connected outside of itself – [i.e. connected to the fact that this story accidentally seems to mean a lot to me (see HERE where the Leader is mentioned by name) and there was nothing that could have made me then predict the reading of this story in this book that I only received a few days ago!] (13 Jul 10 – six hours later)

    ‘In Strange Earth’, as a discrete expression of words – cf: the travelling via drill or hawling-pits within the strange earth of ‘Nemonymous Night’.

  2. John Howard

    Thanks very much for this real-time review. I never realised there were so many balconies and terraces in my work! Interesting how the novella seems to break into two pieces: I conceived and wrote it in one go as a single story, but with a time and narrative shift in the middle!

    Above link about JH’s THE WAY OF THE SUN is significant to above review.

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