Brief Reviews of Two Books Which Deserve Better

It’s a choice between either giving brief reviews of two books which I really loved recently… or being forever silent about them, as more and more time passes since I read them. So, with apologies to those who were hoping for more thoughtful and detailed reviews, let me tell you about two unusual, beautifully written novels by two authors who certainly ploughed their own furrow and avoided any fashionable trends.

Brigid Brophy: The Snow Ball (1964)

For once, it was not Backlisted Podcast that drew my attention to this work (although I loved listening to their episode on it afterwards). I came to it via a passion for Mozart, particularly Don Giovanni, which clearly Brigid Brophy shared (she wrote a book about Mozart’s operas).

The novel is basically a Mozart opera set in the present-day (or, rather, what passed for present day back in the 1960s, when she wrote it). Yet there is a strange timelessness about the setting as well, so that the mention of phones and taxis seems almost jarring. The two ‘main’ characters describe the plot (such as it is) very well when they say that all they think about is ‘Mozart and sex’ or ‘Mozart, sex and death.’

The scene is a New Year’s Eve masked ball at a very large and impressive mansion somewhere in London. Anna is the friend of the hostess Anne (they also shared a husband at some point – although not at the same time) and she has come dressed as Donna Anna from Mozart’s opera. We witness the ritual of seduction between her and a stranger dressed as Don Giovanni, but we also witness the pas de deux between two other couples, the middle-aged hosts, and judgemental, ostensibly bored teenagers. Of course, we also have the interactions between these various couples and other assembled guests. Duets briefly turn into trios or quartets, with the occasional chorus of voices chiming in. Outside, it starts snowing, bringing an occasional hush and wonder to the proceedings.

The book is a playful look at the identities we toy with and then discard, the masks we put on to seduce and confuse, to attract and distract, or even to repel unwanted advances. It has sizzling flirtatious dialogue, a whirlwind of images, a crescendo of passion and one of the best descriptions of postcoital pleasure tinged with melancholy that I have ever read. Although it also brings in the awkward and self-absorbed adolescent voice through the diary that young Ruth (dressed as Cherubino) is keeping throughout the party, it is the verbal sparring of the grown-ups that set the tone for this novel. No one speaks like that in real life, we feel – or at least not with strangers you have barely met – and yet don’t we all wish we could?

There is quite a bit of discussion in the book about whether Donna Anna was seduced or not by Don Giovanni at the start of the opera, but the debate I found even more fascinating was whether the operatic Don Giovanni is brave or merely a cad, whether he chooses to provoke Hell into taking him prematurely, rather than passively wait for death to come. However, I don’t want to give the impression the book is all high-brow flights of fancy, or that you need an in-depth knowledge of Mozart’s operas to appreciate it. It is also surprisingly down-to-earth, very funny and full of witty observations, such as:

… the rich have libraries, whereas people like us have books. People like us read books. The rich have them catalogued.

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police, transl. Stephen Snyder (1994)

From a joyous celebration of life, to a more melancholy book, which I believe nevertheless does celebrate life.

The Memory Police of the title seems to be the elite squad operating in an unnamed island where Ogawa sets her quasi-dystopian novel – but they are not content to merely make things disappear from time to time, they want to make sure that the memories of all the disappeared objects are erased too. Their methods of enforcing compliance get more and more brutal, as they seek out those who cannot forget. One such person who cannot erase his memories is the editor of the narrator, who is a novelist. None of the characters have names, they are described by their physical attributes – the old man – or their jobs, or else simply initials – the editor is also R – as if the names themselves are fading away. The novelist decides to try and save him: despite the great risk, she prepares a small secret room in her house with the help of her faithful friend, the old man with DIY skills, and invites the editor to hide there. Meanwhile, the editor tries to teach them to remember, with the help of a few forbidden ‘missing’ objects which the narrator’s mother had hidden long ago. But the most frightening and sad aspect of the book is that these objects no longer awaken any feelings in them.

Earlier in the book, the novelist wonders sensibly enough about the ratio between the disappearance and the creation of objects:

‘I mean, things are disappearing more quickly than they are being created, right?… What can the people on this island create? A few kinds of vegetables, cars that constantly break down, heavy bulky stoves, some half-starved stock animals, oily cosmetics, babies, the occasional simple play, books that no one reads… Poor unreliable things that will never make up for those that are disappearing – and the energy that goes along with them… If it goes on like this and we can’t compensate for the things that get lost, the island will soon be nothing but absence and holes, and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace.’

I have to admit that this and other passages shook me a little: they reminded me a little too much of my years of being shut in a totalitarian country, cut off from the outside world, with no possibility of leaving, and being forcibly told to forget my friends from abroad or any other interpretation of reality other than the ‘official one’.

However, this is the kind of book that can be interpreted in many ways: a political allegory; a story about grieving and the fear of ‘losing’ the loved one all over again as the memories fade; the inevitable physical and psychological decline as we grow older, even a slide into dementia; the impossibility of ever fully conveying the world as a writer; that the arts may be the only thing that save us ultimately and differentiate humans from other living beings.

Yet, despite the often shocking disappearances and the consequences they have on each of the individuals, the characters try to lead as normal a life as possible, to celebrate birthdays, and cook nice meals, wash and sleep and talk. It’s this resistance, this almost futile resistance, of the small, vulnerable person in the face of the behemoth (which could be a hostile authority, or simply time itself) which makes this book so incredibly subtle and poignant.

The whole book is written in a calm, matter-of-fact yet somewhat dreamy style. I felt as if I was standing in a soft but constant rain, ready to melt and disappear myself, despite the occasional shock of the story within a story told periodically, about a typist who has lost the power of speech, and is emprisoned in a tower full of broken typewriters (this is the novel the main protagonist is writing).

My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.

A huge thanks, incidentally, to Jacqui and Debbie from the Gerrards Cross and Chorleywood Bookshops, who sent this book as part of the subscription package for my fifteen-year-old son. He has been too busy with GCSE exam-replacement assessments to read it yet, and it may be a little too subtle for him, but I absolutely loved borrowing it off his bookshelves. The more I think about the book, the more I love it: it has left a very profound echo in my heart.

Book Subscription Packages

I’ve had three book subscription packages so far in my life (I tend to do a lot of impulse book buying anyway), and I wanted to share you pictures of my latest one-off box, as well as talk about two longer-term subscriptions which I have really enjoyed.

A month or so ago, I saw Janet Emson review a Books That Matter subscription box and knew that I wanted to try out the box for the following month, which was all about refugees and displaced people. The May box arrived today and it is a beautiful and thoughtful delight.

Beautifully wrapped in an appropriately coloured tissue for Love. 10% of the proceeds from the sale of this month’s box go to Choose Love, a charity supporting people fleeing war, persecution and climate change.

Quite a few of these boxes that I’ve seen in the past contain items that have nothing to do with the actual book (tea and scented candles or socks or some such stuff). Books That Matter is a feminist subscription box and, although this month’s content was not quite as rich and varied as Janet’s one last month, it was very much geared towards the book therein. The book is a winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction by author Hoda Barakat, translated by Marilyn Booth, and fits perfectly with my reading Lebanese literature this month – finally a female author, too! A keyring, a cookie, several postcards and bookmarks with Choose Love logos…

And of course the indispensable tote bag! I do have a collection of bags from publishers and festivals that should see me through to the end of my life! The one-off box costs £17, so a bit pricey, although the price does come progressively down if you have a 3 month, 6 month or 12 month subscription.

The ongoing book subscription I currently have is with Chiltern Bookshops: an entirely bespoked service, in which you chat with the bookseller to tell them about your preferences, and then they send you a book each month. Since I knew the bookseller, Jacqui, quite well via our blogs (and then we met a couple of times in person), she has a very good idea of my reading taste, so each book has been a complete hit. But what was an unexpected bonus was that I got a children’s subscription as a Christmas present for my younger son, who is not a great reader. At first he muttered and grumbled, but he was won over after having a conversation with Debbie, the children’s books specialist, and receiving some very intriguing and unusual books (certainly not babyish ones, as his older brother teased him he might receive). The adult subscription is £45 for 3 months, the children’s one £40, and, while there might not be any flamboyant extras other than a bookmark, they arrive beautifully and ecologically packed.

The first book subscription I ever got was ironically one that I had to pack and ship myself to all of our other subscribers, namely the Asymptote Book Club when it first launched. I greatly enjoyed the variety of countries and types of books on offer, and also the special q&A feature with the translators, but I had to stop for financial reasons. It is £140 a year, which is not at all bad for 12 months’ worth of well-curated titles in translation, but a bit of a chunk when my pension contributions are going up dramatically and all my domestic appliances keep breaking down. I do hope I can restart it at some point, and I gather that they are moving into the ‘virtual book club’ discussions now, which was something I was always planning to do back in the days when I was volunteering for Asymptote.

I know there are some other lovely book subscriptions out there: I am tempted by the Republic of Consciousness Prize, which works with a variety of UK small independent publishers, or some of the single publisher ones (looking at you, NYRB Classics Book Club, or Archipelago Books, but sadly both of you are in the US and the shipping is slow and costly). Closer to home, there are personal favourites like Peirene Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, And Other Stories or Persephone Books, although you already know in advance what books you are getting, so the element of surprise is gone.

Friday Fun: Favourite Colours

Since you all liked the white and blue colour combination from last week’s Friday post so much, here are some more blue and white houses for you to admire. I have been so in love with this colour combination all my life, that I think this might be the reason I got married into a Greek family…

The ideal Greek beauty, Mykonos Island. © Aflo Relax / Masterfile
Ibiza villa, with tiles reminiscent of the Copacabana beach, foto Frank, from gestalten.
Tunis once again provides the perfect colour scheme, from Women on the Road website.
Portuguese beauty in Aveiro, from allaboutportugal.pt
It’s not just the Mediterranean, the Scandinavian look works with these colours too. From The Front Door Project.
The Americans also like their white clapboard houses with blue shutters and doors, from Country Living Magazine.

May Reading: The Book of Cairo

I’m not quite sure what to call my May reading challenge (although that sounds like it is a burden, so maybe May reading plan is more accurate), which comprises books from Egypt and Lebanon. Maybe my Arabic Reading Plan (but that sounds much more grandiose and all-encompassing)? Middle Eastern? That instantly brings to mind conflict, sadly, and, while it’s true that quite a few of the books translated into English from these regions address themes of war, violence, civil war and so on, this is not necessarily what the writers from these two countries write about exclusively or even predominantly.

Fantastic cover, as always, by Comma Press (design: David Eckersall)

So we should be grateful for Comma Press for their more varied and nuanced perspective on Egypt. The Book of Cairo was published in 2019 and features ten contemporary Egyptian authors writing about one of the largest and most diverse cities on the African continent (and ten different translators, which makes this an even more interesting chorus of voices). There are references to the Arab Spring movement from 2011-2013 and the ‘enforced state of forgetfulness’ that followed, but these do not make up the majority of the stories, and the references are hinted at rather than explicit. Each of the stories talks about a city in constant change and turmoil, in all its chaotic, noisy, messy resilience. Above all, it is a portrait of the charming, infuriating, eccentric inhabitants, the people who are the lifeblood of the city.

Most of the stories are very short, but they pack a lot in, and are often told in an inventive style rather than a very linear, traditional way. For example, the first story in the volume, ‘Gridlock’ by Mohamed Salah al-Azab (transl. Adam Talib) depicts a traffic jam, which is an everyday occurence in Cairo, but skillfully weaves together six different points of view in a deadpan, present-tense description that romps through timelines like a bulldozer. The loss of reputation of a surgeon via the rumour mill (and a very deliberate dig at social media) is handled in a dialogue bordering on the absurd in the story ‘Talk’ by Mohammed Kheir (transl. Kareem James Abu-Zeid). The author imagines the job title of ‘fabricator of rumours’, who explains his mission thus:

“…you think all those rumours sprouted up out of thin air?… The true rumour, if I may be permitted the expression, must resemble its target, must touch something within that target… A rumour is only complete if there’s a reaction… immortality within our profession: a respectable conspiracy theory, one that stands the test of time.’

Very funny, but also making the reader wince at its truthfulness, like all good satire.

Some of the oblique, surreal storytelling felt very familiar – reminiscent of 20th century writers in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union doing their best to avoid censorship. There is a lingering sense of unease and menace about these type of stories. ‘Into the Emptiness’ by Hassan Abdel Mawgoud (transl. Thoraya El-Rayyes) shows a narrator gradually losing his grip onto reality – his own lived-in experience seems to be the exact opposite of what the people around him believe is happening. His sense of identity is dissolving as surely as the sugar cubes in his tea.

Then there is the more overtly political story of the Major obsessed with finding out the Truth, by whatever means, to ‘safeguard the nation’s youth’, in ‘Hamada al-Ginn’ by Nael Eltoukhy (transl. Raph Comack):

…it is true that this physical interrogation is not strictly legal and it is also true that Major Haitham Hamdy does sometimes resort to it. But we should also say, firstly, that this does not poison the entire police apparatus, which is renowned for its courage and humanity, nor, secondly, does it even poison Major Haitham Hamdy himself, who may have personal flaws like any human being and, like any human being, may sometimes be overcome by these flaws. Major Haitham Hamdy was a human to his core, we have already seen how he fasts, how he enjoys intellectual pursuits and how his mind wanders like everyone else’s. So it’s no surprise that every day and night after reading the morning and afternoon reports, he repeats this phrase: ‘I am a corrupt officer but I do not represent my colleagues… I am one man. I am the exception. I am extraordinary. I am outside the herd.’

But it’s not all about offices, politics and the busy city streets. Several of the stories are about shifting perceptions of gender and modern relationships in present-day Egypt. ‘The Other Balcony’ is a charming depiction of the narrow streets of Cairo, with windows allowing almost too much intimacy with one’s neighbours. ‘The Soul at Rest’ is about an obituary for a belly dancer and how she is both admired but also despised by those around her. ‘Siniora’ is about a long-term on-off affair, where the woman gains the upper hand and demonstrates her superiority both in business and love.

These are tales of the unexpected, which toy with you and introduce you to a new world. I would perhaps have liked to see the inclusion of a few longer stories or a wider range of dates when the stories were written, but it would be churlish not to be grateful for this brief introduction into the great variety of authors writing in (or about) Egypt today. Thank you to Comma Press for tackling lesser-known cities and providing us with such an enticing literary travel guide.

Culture Clash: The Wife Who Wasn’t by Alta Ifland

I ‘met’ the author Alta Ifland online via Twitter, both of us exchanging opinions on news items pertaining to Romania or reviews of Romanian literature. Alta left Romania in the 1990s and has lived abroad ever since, first in France, then in the US, so we clearly had many things in common. When she asked me to read and review her novel The Wife Who Wasn’t, which is coming out in the US on the 18th of May, explaining that it’s all about cross-cultural (mis)communication, I could not resist. (It is also available for pre-order in the UK, although I am not sure if it has the same publishing date.)

The story takes place in 1996-7, mostly in California, but with some trips to the Republic of Moldova. Sammy is a reasonably well-off widower living in Santa Barbara with his teenage daughter Anna. He realises that she is running a bit wild, too much of a tomboy, so he decides she needs some womanly influence and finds himself a mail-order bride from Moldova. Enter the energetic, not-all-that-young but still attractive Russian lady Tania, arriving at the airport in LA:

He recognises the woman right away (though they haven’t seen each other in over half a year), not because she is very memorable, but because there is something that makes her stand out in the crowd. It may be her hair… or her swinging hips, marking her territory as she advances like a lioness toward prey… When she is almost near him, he notices that her skin looks very young, white and plump like a baby’s, and her lips, equally plump, have the shine and luminescence of a wet, luscious grape.

But Tania is no baby – she is a born hustler, hungry for all of the advantages and luxuries that America has to offer. Her new husband seems a bit scared of her; it is true that she has been hiding the fact that she has a teenage daughter back in Moldova, whom she intends to bring over to join her in California as soon as possible. However, it’s not a straightforward case of golddigger and victim, for Sammy’s own motives for choosing a bride from the ‘Old World’ are fairly murky:

It’s not that he couldn’t have found a wife on his own; what worried him was that he’d also have to marry her family and friends. He’d labored so hard to isolate himself and Anna from the rest of the world, from the vulgarity and petty noises that often passed for communal bonding. A wife from the Old World would have the immediate advantage of being an orphan, so to speak: no family, no friends. She would be like a rescued pet, entirely dependent on him. Not to mention the supplemental advantage of a woman from a world where they still believed in taking care of the head of the family!

You just know that things are not going to go according to plan. At first, Tania is stunned by the fancy houses, the endless choice in the supermarkets and shops, the fancy lifestyle. But the hipster Californian sensibility doesn’t quite make sense. When Anna tells her that she is a vegetarian, because she believes in treating every living thing with respect, Tania muses:

Treat chicken with respect! That’s a good one. I’m telling you, this country is going to the dogs. If you start treating chickens with respect, where does it end? Besides, she doesn’t even treat me with respect!

There are many opportunities for satire in the culture clashes between the newly-capitalistic Eastern Europeans eager for domestic comforts, and the privileged Californians hankering after an idealised ‘old-fashioned, more spiritual’ lifestyle. The hypocrisy of the capitalist system is exposed through delicious comedy. For example, when Tania looks for a job in a cafe (she wants to have her own pocket money, not have to ask her husband for an allowance), she is asked why she wants to work there. She replies very frankly that it was the only place hiring, that she doesn’t really want to work but she needs the money.

After all those years under communism, when we were forced to claim that we wanted to work for the good of the country, now, in freedom, I could tell the truth: I wanted to work for the money! I didn’t give a shit about society, all I wanted was the money.

The manager tries to explain that they represent more than a workplace, that every day they cleanse themselves of negative thoughts and have a philosophy of sacred commerce. Clearly, Tania muses to herself, if the communists are failed capitalists, then the capitalists are failed ministers who feel ‘compelled to shroud their money in the sacred veil of communal wholesomeness’.

Add to the mix Tania’s unruly daughter Irina, her good-for-nothing drunkard of a brother Serioja, Sammy’s divorced neighbour Bill with his teenage son, another art-collecting neighbour Lenny – and you have quite a powder keg of personal interests, rivalries, flirtations and affairs, attempts to seduce or trick or worse.

This is not the gentle observational comedy of manners that you might expect from Barbara Pym. It is more of a return to the original comedy of manners principles of the Restoration period in England or Molière in France, with heightened – often ruthless – satire, some stock secondary characters (who represent types rather than rounded individuals), complex plotting and counter-plotting, and a lot of social commentary. It is fast, furious and occasionally infuriating, as the largely unlikable characters try to outwit each other, but you can’t help wanting to know how these moves on the chessboard will all end.

There is one part that doesn’t seem to fit in as well with the rest of the story: the painting icons section. Before leaving Moldova, Irina tries to master the skill of icon-painting from the talented Maria (who later marries Irina’s uncle). Maria takes the work very seriously, and is fully immersed in the tradition and spiritual meaning of this ancient craft, while Irina just wants to learn enough to make a quick buck in the States. I personally enjoyed the long descriptions of Maria’s art and how she came to disover it:it reminded me of the film ‘Andrei Rublev’ and I really recommend you search for the famous Voronets blue, which is my favourite shade of my favourite colour. However, it jarred slightly against the lighter-hearted comic moments or social critique in the rest of the book. I also thought the ending was a bit contrived, as if the author wanted to wrap things up quickly, although it was inspired by real-life events in the Santa Barbara area.

Despite these two slight misgivings, I have to say it is a hugely entertaining novel, a perfect change of pace from my usual fraught fare; I gulped it down in 2 days. It steers clear of the cute and fluffy, and has quite a bit to say about the contrasts between two very different societies. Please note that Alta Ifland’s other work is far more quirky and experimental. The author cites Beckett, Clarice Lispector, Paul Celan and Kafka among her influences, and you can get an idea of her style in the prose poems she uses in her biographical notes on her website.

There are glimpses of this less conventional style of storytelling in the frequent changes in point of view. We occasionally have an omiscient narrator with a wry sense of humour, but we also get to see what each character thinks of the others and how they plan to outsmart them. This is sometimes done through the letters that Tania and Irina write to each other or to the grandmother they have left back in Moldova: that is where the truth comes out in an unvarnished way, with people who truly understand your background. The humour is closer in spirit that of the Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov, but overlaid with an easy, breezy Californian chick lit style; a more successful marriage, perhaps, than Sammy and Tania’s.

#20BooksofSummer – the Planning Starts Now!

Cathy is once again encouraging us to blast through our TBR piles with her annual 20 Books of Summer Challenge (winter if you are in the southern hemisphere). Her rules are fairly relaxed, so it should be do-able for anyone. You can find out more about it on Cathy’s blog. The challenge runs from 1st June to 1st September, and I always try to incorporate the Women in Translation Month (August) into the challenge as well.

However, I have to admit that each year I succeed (if I suceed) only thanks to some very creative accounting, i.e. cheating. I pick a huge list of books to choose from, or I swap halfway through. This year I have set myself the additional challenge of clearing my very large pile of Netgalley requests. So all of my 20 books will be e-books. Bear in mind that I don’t like reading on a Kindle very much, so I may intersperse the 20 books with other physical books.

Anyway, here is the plan (I give myself roughly 10 per month, so I have plenty to choose from):

June – the oldest books on my list

A lot of crime fiction that I thought I couldn’t live without at the time, as well as books everyone was talking about back in 2014/15.

  • Miljenko Jergovic: The Walnut Mansion
  • Jean Teule: The Poisoning Angel
  • Sarah Jasmon: The Summer of Secrets
  • Sarah Leipciger: The Mountain Can Wait
  • Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days
  • Karl Kraus: The Last Days of Mankind
  • Maxime Chattam: Carnage
  • Stuart Neville: Those We Left Behind
  • Caro Ramsay: The Tears of Angels
  • John Banville: The Blue Guitar

July – most quirky books on the list

Well, they might not be quirky for anybody else, but they are not my usual reading matter (or, in the case of poetry, not the sort of thing I would read on a Kindle). This could be a bit of a hit or miss month of reading, but at least I have plenty to choose from.

  • Essential Poems (10 American poets, including May Sarton, Nancy Willard, Alice Walker)
  • Joyce Carol Oates: The Doll Master and Other Tales of Terror (unusual for me, because I don’t usually read horror)
  • Rudyard Kipling: Brazilian Sketches (travelogue)
  • Odafe Atogun: Taduno’s Song (because I don’t read enough fiction from the African continent)
  • Zana Fraillon: The Bone Sparrow (children’s book, about refugees)
  • Melissa Lee Houghton: Sunshine (poetry)
  • Jeffrey Sweet: What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing
  • Petina Gappah: Rotten Row (short stories, which I don’t read very often, and set in Zimbabwe)
  • Rachael Lucas: The State of Grace (children’s books, about autism)
  • Sue Moorcroft: Just for the Holidays (romance)

August – Women in Translation

  • Minae Mizumura: An I Novel (Japan)
  • Mieko Kawakami: Heaven (Japan)
  • Daniela Krien: Love in Five Acts (Germany)
  • Dulce Maria Cardoso: Violeta Among the Stars (Portugal)
  • Marie NDiaye: The Cheffe (France)
  • Valérie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers (France)
  • Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream (Argentina)
  • Şebnem İşigüzel: The Girl in the Tree (Turkey)
  • Niviaq Korneliussen: Crimson (Greenland)

Will I stick to this plan? I can already see some books on my shelves really tempting me for the Women in Translation Month especially. However, if I can make at least a bit of an inroad in my 215 Netgalley collection (don’t you just hate how easy they are to count – at least with my shelved books I live in blissful ignorance of the true number of unread ones).

Friday Fun: Virtual Holiday Homes

Looks like the safest form of holiday planning this summer will be virtually – so here are some perfect holiday homes to dream about!

Tunisian villa, from Bonnefoy Michel website.
Villa in the Peloponnese, from Pretty Greek Villas site.
Villa in Egypt, from Katameya Real Estate.
Villa in Algiers, from DestiMap.
For the fastidious and more luxury end of the market – Bali villa from MyMove.com
However, I have a hankering for this more traditional (and certainly not downmarket) villa, also in Bali, from Smart Travel Asia.

To the Lighthouse (on its birthday)

I’m rather smitten with this book cover for To the Lighthouse, designed by Marimekko designer Aino-Maija Metsola

On this day in 1927, the Hogarth Press published the book regarded by many as Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece To the Lighthouse. In her diary, Virginia pretends to be unconcerned.

Book out. We have sold (I think) 1690 before publication – twice Dalloway. I write however in teh shadow of the damp cloud of the Times Lit Sup. review… I am anxious about Time Passes. Think the whole thing may be pronounced soft, shallow, insipid, sentimental. Yet, honestly, don’t much care; want to be let alone to ruminate.

Yet a few days later, she admits:

What is the use of saying one is indifferent to reviews when positive praise, though mingled with blame, gives one such a start on, that instead of feeling dried up, one feels, on the contrary, flooded with ideas… some people say it is my best book… much more nearly a success, in the usual sense of the word, than any other book of mine.

The reason for its success might be that it strikes the perfect balance between a more conventional type of narrative at that time (a reasonably well-off and artistic family on holiday, with assorted guests, little intrigues, character portraits) with the lyrical beauty of Woolf’s prose, as well as those glimmers of insights both superficial and profound, both daily routine matters and startling thoughts that can utterly change or shape our lives.

Far from being sentimental, the Time Passes section of the book is a prose poem tour de force, perhaps the best description of the relentless march of time that I have ever seen captured on paper. People marry, grow old, are born, die, wait and hope, give up. Nature takes over the house. There is sadness but also a strange beauty in that decay:

The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sand hill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the rifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed… Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro. The swallows nested in the drawing room; the floor was strewn with straw; the plaster fell in shovelfuls; rafters were laid bare; rats carried off this and that to gnaw behind the wainscots. Tortoiseshell butterflies burst from the chrysalis and pattered their life out on the window pane. Poppies sowed themselves among the dahlias; the lawn waved with long grass… while the gentle tapping of a weed at the window had become, on winters’ nights, a drumming from sturdy trees and thorned briars which made the whole room green in summer.

To the Lighthouse has always been in my ‘second circle’ of Virginia Woolf works, i.e. not my absolute top favourites (the diaries, A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas and The Waves represent that), but amongst those that I really enjoy and rate highly (Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, Between the Acts, Night and Day, Jacob’s Room), certainly ahead of the third circle, which I like least of her efforts, but still rate much more highly than other people’s writing (her short stories, mostly). However, after this most recent reread, I think I will elevate it to the innermost circle. Perhaps it’s a time of life thing: I am much more open to the melancholy beauty of this book when I am of a similar age as VW when she wrote it.

The characterisation of Mr and Mrs Ramsay is so subtle. In my youth, I hastily labelled him as a domestic tyrant, and her as a wonderful, loving, giving goddess. But the truth is much more complex than that.

Mrs Ramsay is beautiful and sweet, true, but the way she lavishes attention on all those fragile masculine egos and downplays the needs of the women and girls around her (other than to try and arrange possible romances and marriages for them) indicates she is too wedded to the gender division of both labour and expectations of her time. There is both triumph and sadness in the way she finds creativity in running a household and arranging a perfect dinner table. And yet we catch flashes of her intelligence and wit, and her wonderfully human and humane reflections, her perception of life as a wily adversary, for instance:

She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband. A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed… there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance.

Meanwhile, Mr Ramsay can be quite hateful, but there is also something pitiful in his desperate need to be loved, admired, flattered, in the way he feels ‘time’s winged chariot’ just behind him – forever ready to hound him, and his need to leave a legacy (and possibly well-grounded fear that he won’t). While he hasn’t yet acquired that self-awareness that makes the lead character in the Kurosawa film Ikiru change so dramatically, he fills me with sadness just like that character, because of his inability to truly connect with others. He is ultimately a very lonely figure, but a truly infuriating one:

What he said was true. It was always true. He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being, least of all of his own children, who, sprung from his loins, should be aware from childhood that life is difficult; facts uncompromising; and the passage to that fabled land where our brightest hope are extinguished, our frail barks founder in darkness… one that needs, above all, courage, truth and the power to endure.

Of course, Lily Briscoe was the character I most identified with as a girl, partly because of her antipathy towards marriage, but mostly because of her thoughts about painting, about trying to capture a mood, a thought, a landscape, a character in her painting (and failing), which is really Virginia musing about the writing process. But, just like the other characters, the older Lily looks back and muses about life in general:

What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark… In the midst of the chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at hte clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability.

There is something of the great Russian novelists about the way Virginia Woolf gets her characters to wonder about the big fundamental questions in life, although the way they approach them are very different. The Russians spar in dialogues (or alternate lengthy monologues), while in Woolf the most important things remain unsaid, are only hinted at, and even the thoughts going through people’s heads are like fleeting clouds, until you are almost unsure if you have seen the moments of clarity and brightness or not.

Well, there I was wondering what I could possibly say about To the Lighthouse that hasn’t been said before – and the truth is, nothing of what I’ve said is new. But the fact that it remains a much-loved classic (hopefully, not just by reputations, but actually frequently read) gives me hope that there are sufficient discerning readers out there in the world.

#6Degrees May 2021

You know you love it: seeing where this daisy chain of random literary connections will take you every month, as hosted by the lovely Kate on her blog. This month we start with a Beverly Cleary book, in honour of the recently deceased author. I cannot remember if I’ve read Beezus and Ramona, but I know there were some Ramona books in the school library, even though we were officially an English school (in practice, a very international one).

Another book that I found and devoured in the school library was Gone with the Wind, when I was about eleven, and thought the Southern States during the American Civil War were terribly romantic. (Full disclosure: As a child, I was also a Royalist in the English Civil War and a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Maybe just a fan of lost causes?)

A book about a very different, more recent and long-lasting civil war is one I am reading this month, namely White Masks by Elias Khoury, about Lebanon. Beirut, with its pleasant climate and spectacular Corniche coastal road, was considered a jewel of a city before all the fighting started, often dubbed the Paris of the Orient.

Another city that was supposedly called ‘Little Paris’ during the interwar period was Bucharest. For an incomparable (if rather depressing) look at life in Bucharest during the 1930s and then the Second World War, I would recommend – of course, you were expecting this, weren’t you? – Mihail Sebastian’s Journal (1935-1944), available in English translation by Patrick Camiller.

Another, very different Sebastian is the link to my next book, namely Therapy, the debut novel by German bestselling author Sebastian Fitzek, whose big boast was that this novel managed to topple the seemingly relentless No. 1 ranking of The Da Vinci Code in Germany in 2006.

Another huge bestseller that you may not have heard of is She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard, published in 1887, which has sold over 83 million copies worldwide. Apparently a Victorian tale of archaelogy and adventure, it follows a professor and his colleague on a journey prompted by a shard of ancient pottery. Sounds very Indiana Jones (and of course reinforces the idea of white Western superiority).

A week or two ago, someone mentioned George Sand’s many novels on Twitter, and I remembered vaguely that Indiana was the name of one of them. The novel is set partly in France and partly in the French colony of Réunion, it is a story of passion, adultery, betrayal and loyal friendship. Very dramatic indeed and this cover seems to indicate a bodice-ripper, which I’m pretty sure it’s not.

So, another whirlwind tour of the world, from the state of Georgia in the US, to Beirut, to Bucharest, to northern Germany, to ‘a lost kingdom in the African interior’, to Paris and La Réunion, you cannot complain you’ve been cooped up in the house this month!

Friday Fun: Passion for an Architects’ Studio

Earlier this month I came across a dream villa in a dream location on the shores of Lake Geneva, designed by Olson Kundig Architects. I was so intrigued by it that I stalked them on their website and systematically worked my way through their portfolio. Alongside public buildings all over the world, they also have a knack for very modern private houses, with huge windows, in stunning locations, really allowing nature to mingle with the indoors. When I win the lottery (or a whole dozen of them, I think), you know whom I will employ to build me the dream home. All the photos are from their website

It all started with this view from the Chemin Byron villa on Lake Geneva.
Seamlessly going from the outside to the inside in this Californian home.
The sea can be heard and seen from this terrace/living room in Hawaii.
The forest is peeking into the house in this Canadian home.
This house in Rio has the jungle as a backdrop for the living room.
These wide open spaces are fine in summer – but what might they look like in the rain and snow of Washington State?
This is from another architecture firm, Villa Aquamarine by Mykarch in Mykonos, but I couldn’t resist adding it here as the perfect blend of indoors and landscape, and combining my favourite colours.