Friday Fun: Coucou from France!

I have scheduled this post to be published while I am away in France , hopefully not suffering too much travel disruption with the ongoing strikes and demonstrations. I am sure that there would be a public storming of the chateaux below if they were still owned by the aristocracy or the government! But Friday Fun bears little resemblance to reality, so let’s have some fun with chateaux again.

Now this is what I think of when I hear the word ‘chateau’ – for sale from the Patrice Bresse Agency.
A far more modest affair in Bourg-en-Bresse, the administrative seat of my ‘departement’. From Sotheby’s International.
Another charming (and abandoned) symmetrical chateau, courtesy of EMC2 Property.
This chateau is available for rental and it’s set in the Dordogne, a favourite region with Anglos. From Luxury Rentals Dordogne.
I never can resist a turret or two though, even though this chateau looks slightly out of place in the south of France, from Forbes.
You know what? This one looks almost manageable – only slightly bigger than a detached house in the UK (and probably a good deal cheaper), plus the indispensable turrets! Chateau du Pin.

Reading Summary March 2023

Two themes emerged this month. One was planned and deliberate, namely the Northern Climes reading, although I ended up with only four books from that part of the world, two Swedish, one Finnish and one Canadian.

The second theme developed accidentally, as all best reading does. I’ve been diligently practising my ballet (and other dance steps) pretty much every day this year, but I had a few days of enforced rest when I hurt my neck and waited to see an orthopedist to figure out how serious it was. So I had to get my ‘ballet fix’ in some other way, which meant reading books about ballet or set in the highly-strung world of professional ballet dancers.

Two of those books were by Meg Howrey, featuring tricky family dynamics as well as the pain and self-absorption of ballet dancers and choreographers.

The best of me is in my work. Not that I’m selfless there. I use my dancers. I use their talent, their devotion, their endless training and ambition, their desire for approval from the mirror and from me. I mine it all and polish the gems. I make them do what I want, and I try to give them something that says, ‘You are seen. There is only one of you in th eworld. I have never seen anyone exactly like you. Thake this movement, it’s yours alone.’

Meg Howrey: They’re Going to Love You

The Cranes Dance is both more dramatic (with themes of mental illness and suicide), but also funnier, with the protagonist Kate Crane’s acerbic wit bringing the highfaluting ballet vocabulary right down to earth. The synopsis of Swan Lake early on in the book is absolutely hilarious.

The Queen reminds Siegfried with some incomprehensible ballet mime that tomorrow is his twenty-first birthday and he’s got obligations, like choosing a bride and getting married. The Prince sulks a bit at this, and makes the gesture for True Love: one hand to the breast, the other held aloft with the first two fingers extended. (You’re gonna want to scootch down and get that program for the explanatory notes on this action, because otherwise you might think that the Queen is telling her son that he needs to get a manicure and that Siegfried is responding by trying to hail a cab, or test current wind conditions.)

The third ballet book this month is probably the most frightening of them all and is non-fiction, written by a ballet journalist. It examines all of the inequities, dangers, outmoded traditions and cruelties of traditional ballet and asks if things could be done better, without endless injuries (and having to dance through them), starvation, pink tights, male ballet princes and submissive female dancers.

Aside from these two themes, I also managed to squeeze in several entertaining but not memorable crime novels (set in Cornwall, northern Greece and the French Alps), a reinterpretation of the Passion by a Welsh poet, and a book about practising art and writing which I found really inspiring (sometimes you need to hear the obvious but presented far more eloquently than you could do it yourself).

All in all, a quieter reading month, perhaps reflective of the worries I have had about my health and about my job (so far all seems to be trugging along as usual): twelve books, seven by women writers, two non-fiction, three in translation.

For April I will be reading some books published in 1940. Although the #1940Club hosted by Simon and Karen only runs for one week, from 10th to 16th April 2023, I have four books planned (Miss Hargreaves, Darkness at Noon, The Invention of Morel and The Secret of Dr Honigberger), so will probably need the whole month to read them all. Especially if I alternate between these and other random reads!

Northern Climes: Sweden and Finland

Johanne Lykke Holm: Strega, translated by Saskia Vogel, Lolli Editions, 2022.

There is a real yellowish-green Strega liqueur in Italy, supposedly adapted from a secret recipe created by witches. The town in which it is made (Benevento rather than Strega) is in the Apennines, close to Naples, a bit further south than I was expecting from the description of the Alpine setting for the fictional town in Swedish author Holm’s novel. In fact, the setting is not important in this strange and unsettling little novel (only 180 pages): it is enough to know that it is a grand hotel in a remote location, with only a convent of liqueur-producing nuns as the nearest neighbour. Moreover, it is a grand hotel where no guest ever comes to stay, thus continuing my theme of unsettling Gothic mansions.

The narrator is one of nine young women who are being trained as hotel maids, sent by their families in the hope of acquiring good skills – but for what purpose? For a career, for marriage, to learn obedience, to stop being a nuisance at home? Everything is fluid and ambiguous, we are never quite sure what is going on. The work is repetitive and mechanical, apparently fulfilling no purpose whatsoever; the trainers/managers are matron-like and strict (as if they were in fact in a convent), and something feels decidedly wrong about the whole set-up. The similes imply violence, the hotel remains eerily empty.

We quickly learned that each day was a reproduction of the last. Morning after morning, we set out coffee and bread in the conservatory facing the park. There were large porcelain bowls filled with black marmalade. There was silverware on linen napkins. Morning after morning, a metallic light fell through the room like a butcher’s knife. I stood and watched it happen… For a moment I thought I saw someone coming, but I must have been mistaken. I went back to work. Refilled the coffee pots, sliced the tin loaf. No guests arrived.

The girls start to form bonds with each other, but the way they are treated gets more and more uncomfortable: they are examined, prodded, starved, made to kneel, humiliated. Above all, it appears that they are having their individuality stamped out of them.

All punishment in the hotel was collective. They treated us as one body, so we became one body. We forgot our individual traits and our individual responsibilities. If one of us stole a coin, all of us had stolen a coin. They poured boiling water over our feet and made us dip them in tubs of ice. The pain was unbearable, but no marks were left.

And then, one night, the hotel fills up with guests. The girls are expected to look their best, be on their best behaviour, serve the guests impeccably, yet all the while this sense of danger and disquiet persists. This is not a jolly, happy occasion, although it is a raucous one. Sure enough, one of the girls goes missing after the party. Search parties look for her in the mountainous terrain, but the girls are convinced that she is already dead. They are frightened yet feel trapped, they have nowhere else to go – but whether the sense of entrapment is real or all in their minds is not quite clear. The narrator Rafaela has chilling imaginary conversations with the murderer.

I knew the murderer was never far. I had seen him step out of the walls. I had seen him among the bed sheets… In every woman’s life, there’s someone waiting at the gate. We are all candidates, but only some of us are chosen. I knew there were holes in the earth waiting for us… One might have an urge to say: We would rather be martyrs together than live another second in this order. One does not. One bides one’s time. One waits for one’s murderer, one sees him everywhere. One imagines the night it will come to pass. One knows all about that night. One knows the lines.

As a metaphor for the violence that is constantly being perpetuated against women, both mentally and physically, and how they collude in their oppression, this is one of the most unsettling books I’ve read in a long time. I was not sure where this book was going most of the time, but I could feel its lingering poisonous atmosphere in the sickly sweetness of the liqueur. As you can see from the quotes above, the style is very simple: short sentences, repetitions, gradually building upon the previous passages or chapters, much like the ripples in water after you throw in a stone. A steady accumulation (or drip, drip, drip) of something very dark, which caused an almost visceral reaction when reading the book.

I knew a woman’s life could at any point be turned into a crime scene. I had yet to understand that I was already living inside the crime scene, that the crime scene was not the bed but the body, that the crime had already taken place.

Antti Tuomainen: The Healer, translated by Lola Rogers, Harvill Secker, 2013.

If all you have read so far of Finnish crime writer’s Tuomainen’s work is the series featuring hapless insurance assessor Henri which started with The Rabbit Factor, or the dark (and sometimes slapstick) comedy of standalones like Palm Beach Finland or Little Siberia, then you are in for a major surprise. In this early work, the first of his books to be translated into English, we are in a water-logged world that is nearing the end. The sea levels have risen and people are fleeing to the northern parts of the globe. Helsinki appears to be too far south to be safe, and we get to see a city that is half-abandoned, with damaged buildings and infrastructure, where missing people and laws mean nothing at all anymore. The scenes of railways stations overrun with climate refugees are memorable:

All around there were shouts, arguments, pleas, entreaties and threats. There were trains going north every hour, but even that wasn’t enough to lessen the flood of people. More and more people kept coming from the east, the south and the west. There was a black market on the plaza for ticket touts, purchasers of valuables, hundreds of thieves and swindlers with hundreds of tricks and scams, and of course ordinary people, each one more desperate than the last.

Yet Tapani Lehtinen, although he is normally a sensitive observer of his surroundings, a poet who writes daily although he knows no one is reading poetry anymore, is only focused on finding his wife Johanna. Although she has only been gone for a few hours, he is worried, because they had the habit of constantly communicating with each other. Johanna is a journalist and Tapani starts to suspect that she might have been researching about a serial killer known as ‘The Healer’ and that this might have something to do with her disappearance.

I recently rewatched the film Children of Men and this book was very much in that vein of an all-too-plausible, not-at-all-glamorous vision of the near-future. Everything feels dingy, hopeless, lawless. Who cares about a missing person or even a murder or two, when there are so many crimes happening daily, when people are dying of so many natural causes, when so many buildings are boarded up and dangers are lurking around every corner? The newspapers are only out to entertain people with stories about celebrities doing gross things rather than bring any real news or uncover ‘truths’. Nobody cares about any of that.

So, all in all, a bleak view of the world, although the love between Johanna and Tapani shows that there is still some beauty and hope left. However, this frail blossom is very effectively quashed by the cynical realism of the chief of police who half-heartedly agrees to help Tapani, much against his better judgment.

Whenever some lunatic gets it in his head that a few individuals are responsible for the world falling apart around him, we go after him. And what happens when we catch him? Some new lunatic comes along, and the world keeps marching towards destruction. That’s nothing new, of course. History tells us that this kind of things has happened many times before. Civilisation blossoms, and then it falls. It’s happened on this planet in our own lifetime, to millions and millons of people… But you take it harder, somehow, when it’s your own little world that’s dying.

I was planning to read more books from Northern Climes this month, but I started the rather depressing Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament and stalled. Life just got really messy, I fell down other reading rabbit holes, library books I’d reserved kept appearing and… and… I just didn’t have the strength to review much and often struggled to finish any of my books.

Friday Fun: Books in Corridors

Don’t let an awkwardly-shaped space or too many windows stop your book shelving impulses. Here are some examples of how you can decorate your house with books.

Elegant sweeping corridor bookshelves, from Pinterest.
This house in the Texas desert uses every inch of wall next to the window, from
Very similar concept for this house in the Hebrides, despite the clear difference in light. From WT Architecture
Another view of the same house – clearly built for booklovers, as there seem to be book spaces everywhere. From WT Architecture
This bookshelf is in the living room, but I could see it working just as well in a reasonably wide corridor. From
This was my favourite discovery last week: a holiday home in British Columbia designed specifically around the huge book collection of this couple. I would certainly happily spend all my holidays here if I had such a wondrous property! From Blue Sky Architecture on

#ReadingWales: The Gospel of Us by Owen Sheers

Owen Sheers: The Gospel of Us, Seren Books, 2012.

I wanted to take part for the first time ever in the #ReadingWales (aka #Dewithon) reading event in March hosted by Paula the Book Jotter, in which book lovers from all parts of the world are encouraged to read, discuss and review literature by and about writers from Wales. I have a real soft spot for Wales and have often said that it would be the place I would move to if I were to remain in the UK. With its mountains and sheep, its love for poetry and music, but also poverty and mine closures, it reminds me a lot of the part of Romania where my parents come from. However, finding any books by Welsh authors at my local library was difficult, so it was a bit of a ‘whatever you have’ grope in the dark.

I stumbled into something very well known and highly regarded in Wales, apparently, with this ‘recital’ (I’m not sure if I should call it play, novel or poetry or all three). It was born out of an initiative between a Welsh actor Michael Sheen, a Welsh poet Owen Sheers and the National Theatre Wales producer Lucy Davies. They created a three-day passion play performed at Easter 2011 on the beach near Port Talbot. This was then adapted in 2012 into a film directed by David McKean, also starring Michael Sheen, and this book is the novelisation of the two.

It is a contemporary reimagining of the Passion in the rather dreary seaside town of Port Talbot, with one of the largest steelworks in the world, threatened with closure for decades, the M4 thundering above the town, and, unsurprisingly, the worst air pollution in Wales. The Christ role is taken by a man who went missing for forty days and suffers from amnesia when he reappears. The locals soon call him the Teacher and consider him a harmless fool, but they are fascinated by him nevertheless, especially when he defuses a rather tense terrorist situation.

This is no gentle retelling of stories from the Bible, but a powerful indictment of capitalism and local politics, as the suffering of a besieged community is made clear. The Company Man colludes with the Mayor to drive out the locals so that they can build another Passover road (they euphemistically call this ‘rehoming’). The story is told by a bystander who doesn’t quite know what to make of the events he has witnessed, but does his best to provide an accurate, poignant, often lyrical and drily witty account.

A ‘Pageant of Port Talbot’ it was called, something the Council dreamt up by way of entertainment to keep everyone occupied while we waited for the Company Man. It was shit. Bunch of am-dram types cranking through a series of tableaux about the history of the town. Or rather a history of the town, because I don’t remember seeing any scenes about the Passover being built above the rubble of my nan’s house, or the coughing we used to get after playing footie under the towers of the chemical works, or the brown bags of cash that signed this shore away for industry not the resort it could have been.

We wanted to hear the news, didn’t we? It was meant to be about our future after all… And that wasn’t a word often used about our town back then. It might have been in ICU’s slogan, but that was about the only time we ever saw it. We’d used to talk about our past once but even that seemed to have gone now; squeezed out by the roads, the works and the concrete. And how can you talk about a future without a past? Cleverest thing the Company ever did, that’s what my bampa used to say… Made us forget where we came from, so as to make us blind to where we’re going.

Some parts of the narrative stick very closely to the Bible (not recognising his mother, Peter’s denial, the judgement and crucifixion), while others provide an unexpected contemporary twist, but you don’t need to be of a religious persuasion to be moved by this tale. There is a lot of social critique in this snapshot of a declining community.

Yet only the Welsh, perhaps, with their tradition of thundering preachers and glorious hymns, the Welsh Revival of 1904, could make each scene feel so heavy with symbolism. The public judgement is particularly powerful, where the Teacher, who simply wants to listen to the truth, is deemed to be more dangerous than the anarchist terrorist Barry.

‘At least he’s fighting to protect something… To protect the town he knows. You, you’re more dangerous than that. You’re not protecting anything. You just want to break everything up.’ […]

‘But you need him, don’t you?’ the Teacher said. ‘And he needs you.’

The Company Man stared at him, incredulous. ‘Why would I need him?’

‘Because he challenges you, and that justifies what you do.’

‘And you don’t challenge me?’

‘No. I make you unnecessary.’

A really unusual, unexpected read, beautifully written – made to be read out loud, as so much of Welsh literature seems to be – and most appropriate in the run-up to Easter.

Here is a link to Owen Sheers reading some of his own poems and to one of his most famous poems, Mametz Wood.

Friday Fun: Chateaux Outside France

I know it has become quite fashionable to purchase run-down chateaux in France and renovate them without speaking a word of French and then renting them out to other Anglos for weddings and parties. But there are beautiful manor houses in other countries as well. The ones below are certainly not looking too run-down.

The former King of Romania lived for most of his life in Versoix, Switzerland, probably in a chateau not unlike this one. From
This considerably more dramatic-looking chateau near Lausanne also has the beautiful view over the lake and the Alps. From Knight Frank estate agent website.
If you fancy owning a vineyard alongside your chateau, then this one in Canton Vaud might be appropriate. From Immobilier Swiss.
Truly grandiose scale of Chateau de Jemeppe in Belgium, from Sotheby’s International.
This castle in Portugal may look more modest on the outside, but it has the most stunning traditional tiles on the inside. From Casas de Portugal.
A more modest Swiss offering, with just a small turret to please chateau fanatics like me, from
But the one that has really captured my heart is hardly big enough to be called a chateau, despite its extravagant architecture. It’s the view from Montreux that is to die for! From

Northern Climes: Sweden and Canada

As if I guessed that March might bring more snow, for this month I decided to focus on countries that are situated just below, on or above the Arctic Circle. The first two books I read both featured stressed mothers of young children, haunted by memories of past freedoms and creative ambitions.

Linda Boström Knausgård: October Child, translated by Saskia Vogel, World Editions, 2021.

This is a memoir rather than a novel (although it is officially described as the latter), describing the author’s struggles with mental illness and the horrendous effects of the electroconvulsive therapy to which she was subjected. What was most frightening for her as a writer was that the treatment, described euphemistically as ‘restarting a computer’, actually caused her to lose some of her memories. This book is an attempt to remind herself of who she is, why she chose to write, and also reignite her relationship with her family and friends, especially her children.

It has also been described as the ‘revenge story’, for Linda is also famous for being the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård’s ex-wife and he wrote about her, their children and their domestic arrangements in painfully candid and exhaustive detail in his hugely popular memoir/novel series My Struggle. To me, however, it felt more like self-chastisement for not being strong enough to avoid falling into the maws of ‘the factory’, as she calls the psychiatric ward, for not being good enough as a mother, a writer, a wife, a daughter, a friend.

Having been so close to my children when they were small didn’t matter… because what they remembered most was that I was a mother who could disappear. I wasn’t only hurting myself, like when I was young; I was also hurting my children each time I left them to stay in these rooms, these corridors. Not to mention how much I had hurt them before, serving up my bad judgement for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, weeks in a bed… I wasn’t their mother anymore but someone else, someone they feared and didn’t understand.

She tries so hard, probably piling too much pressure and unrealistic expectations upon herself, so she inevitably ends up disappointed, feeling that she’s failing to create the ideal family life. ‘The children’s summer vacations not being as rich and full of escapades as I would’ve liked. What kind of memories would they have? What kind of magic?’

As she addresses her husband directly in second person, we begin to suspect he is indirectly contributing to her dissatisfaction and anxiety: ‘I constantly worried you’d die of a heart attack and I’d be left to take care of the children all on my own. There was no doubt in my mind I wouldn’t be able to handle it.’ But overall, it feels more like self-flagellation, extreme vulnerability – but also anger directed at the medical system that allows such a misguided treatment for depression (so that they can tick the box ‘cured’).

I was very moved by Linda’s story, which somehow manages to avoid self-pity or self-righteousness. Although she describes truly painful situations, she remains factual and precise, almost detached, as if observing her life in the third person, but with the intensity of poetry.

Depression’s torpid darkness, its void and waking death, it’s what awaits me when I sink deeper. To where there are no words, no consciousness, just dull slumber, morning, noon, and night, the anxiety enveloping every cell.

I related perhaps a little too well with Linda’s marital struggles and occasional downward spirals. The scene at the airport when she loses her temper with the airline officials, which is the moment when she realised that her husband no longer wanted to be with her, is almost the exact replica of a scene from my own life. Yet I admire the way she writes not in red-hot anger but with calm recollection and restraint. This is, of course, because writing is the one thing in her life that gives her satisfaction, hope and meaning:

No one needed to tell me I was good at writing. I knew it deep down, even in the years I wasn’t writing… I’ve always known I can write as though it were a matter of life or death… You’d tell me to write instead of moping around and wasting my time and I’d tell myself that, too, because I listened to my own voice most of all. I appreciated your perfect pitch, but enjoyed mine more. It felt like letting all the horses run free.

Although many will come away from this book thinking that the author must have been incredibly high maintenance and that it is a messy, chaotic read, I felt like I understood so much of what she described and would have liked to be her friend.

Marian Engel: The Honeyman Festival, The House of Anansi Press, 1970.

If you thought Linda Boström’s story is messy and chaotic, then you should stay away from this day in the life of Minn Burge, a heavily pregnant mother of three, whose journalist husband is constantly away in far-off places. She is preparing for a party given in memory of a rather second-rate film director called Honeyman, who was her lover and protector in Paris in her youth.

Minn feels heavy and ugly, pulled in all directions by her children, her guests, a rental home that seems to be falling down around her, the so-called Flower Children who are lodging in their attic. She is intelligent and self-deprecating, but apparently unable to stand up for herself or say no. Just like in Engel’s later novel Lunatic Villas, the messiness of her main protagonist’s life is rendered in long, rambling sentences filled to the brim with ideas, descriptions, lists. The effect is often comical.

You weren’t supposed to take fat, hot baths in mausoleum tubs towards the end of a pregnancy, you were apt to fall asleep and drown or fall and break your neck getting out or grab the electric light to save yourself and be found blue, naked and rigid on the mat next day by a window-washer, or get Ajax up the birth canal. In some ways, life was comically reduced; sin a chocolate bar at a bus stop, adventure a forbidden bath.

Minn also feels guilty about not being a good enough mother, but she is far more realistic and provocative about family life. I had to laugh at her indignant reaction when the doctor tells her she is eating too much and should lose some weight:

There was beer in the afternoon after wiping the nap-shit off the walls, and peanut butter sandwiches when they got her up at night, and eating their leftovers, and guzzling and stuffing when you were too angry to consider hitting them. And you couldn’t walk it off, you didn’t have three hands, they took you along the street at a snail’s pace… you felt the flesh mounting and multiplying with frustration and knew that captivity was tolerable only when it was comfortable; you ate, you drank a little, you sat on the floor and rolled with them, indulged them, always tamping impatience down inside you, because it was their time now, not yours; you had had your adventures. But the spirit rebelled against their forced slow-march in little spurts and dangerous leaks. It was better to eat than to hit them even when they were naughty.

I’ve read some reviews in which they say Minn is sadly a product of her time, but this reminds me very much of the conversations I had with other mums in the mid-2000s (thirty-five years after this book was written) and it didn’t feel all that different. The sheer drudgery of looking after small children, the sensation that you are now reduced to your animal functions, rather than using your brain, the way the juggling gets even worse once you have to return to work – well, when the male Knausgård moans about it in his book, he is considered revolutionary, but if a woman dares to complain, she is of course a bad mother. Still, perhaps after the lockdowns of the pandemic, when everyone was going slightly mad with too much domesticity, we can all understand Minn better.

Minn doesn’t have a greater purpose or high-flying career or artistic ambitions to justify her impatience with domesticity. She was once a (bad) bit actress, but what she really yearns for nowadays is her youth, lack of ties, the freedom to do what she wants, to love and be loved rather than just tolerated as a sort of housemate. Like a more modern-day and sweary Clarissa Dalloway, Minn tries to keep her higher (romantic?) aspirations intact.

There was no one to talk to. She stood and thought, do I love Norman? Does Norman love me? There was no answer… Love was an idea you lived through and came out on the other side of. It was slowly replaced by the necessities of devotion and duty. But it manifested itself periodically in little misplaced surges of carnality, and went away again. The spirit nourished on Lorna Doone and Jane Eyre and Le Grand Meaulnes did not give up adventure easily.

Although the two authors are almost exact opposites in terms of style – the ebullient overabundance of the Canadian, the more minimalist aloofness of the Swede – I certainly appreciated both of these accounts of the complex and ambiguous feelings surrounding motherhood and marriage. Can I see some potential male readers shuddering and giving these books a wide berth? Yes, possibly, but perhaps no more so than women who are not mothers and may feel this is all too domestic. What I think both of these books show so well is women’s endless capacity for reinvention and survival – and who can fail to find that inspirational, after all?

Friday Fun: Plonk Yourself Down to Read!

Tiredness is starting to catch up with me, so no more imaginative titles or deep research for this Friday Fun post. It simply does what it says on the tin: good places to just sit or lie down and read.

Let’s start off with something more do-able, if you have a narrow little sun-room at the back of the house. From Pinterest.
For those who group reads. From
For cosy after-dinner reading, from Pinterest.
For those with decorating ambitions or very high standards, from Studio International.
For those who like both daylight and a cosy fireplace – or simply cannot make up their minds. From Reddit.
For those who like a touch of greenery with their books, A Home to Make You Smile on Instagram.

Creepy Mansions in Hungary, Mexico and the Adirondacks

The cover certainly adds to the sense of mystery and ‘Old World’.

Márai Sándor: Embers (The Candles Burnt to the End), translated by Carol Brown Janeway, 1942 (published in English in 2001 by Alfred Knopf and in UK in 2003 by Penguin)

In theory this book that I read for London Reads the World Book Club should have appealed to me tremendously. It has that Central European sensibility, the author has been compared to Stefan Zweig, it mourns a lost world like Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy, critics say ‘it works as a novel of suspense whose denouement is as exciting as a detective tale’ and it all takes place in a gloomy castle at the foot of the Carpathian mountains.

And yet… although I enjoyed parts of it quite a bit, overall this book left me unsure.

The owner of the castle, a former general in the Austro-Hungarian army, has invited his old friend Konrad, whom he hasn’t seen for forty-one years for a formal dinner by candlelight. At this dinner, the General brings up all the resentment and pain that he has felt for decades because he is convinced that his (now dead) wife and his friend were having an affair and possibly planning to kill him. While it’s understandable that this might infuriate him, in actual fact the General has been nursing this grievance so much that it has stopped him from really living his life. There is more than a hint of homoeroticism about his feeling of betrayal by his friend, especially since he seems to value male friendship above and beyond any marriage. However, his greatest anger and regret is that he was never able to understand either his wife (or his mother) or his friend and their passion for music. The way he speaks about his wife gave me a very ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning vibe.

Whether we think of this as a metaphor of the old vs. the new generation (the General comes from a wealthy aristocratic family, while Konrad is from a more humble Galician background and then gets involved in merchant-type work in the Far East), I am not entirely sure if the author intended us to find the General as repulsive as I did (not that Konrad is pure as drive snow either), whether he is rejoicing or mourning the death of such old-fashioned values (or simply feels ambivalent about them). There were a few scenes from his childhood, where you felt that he might have become someone different, but he had no choice but follow the family tradition.

One could argue that the bitter, lonely old General with the victim mentality is the way that Hungary likes to see itself at certain points in its history – and I simply cannot tell if Márai condones or criticises this (it is much clearer that Banffy is highly critical of the inertia of the Hungarian noblemen). It certainly didn’t help when I heard that Hungary’s authoritarian PM Viktor Orban claims this is his favourite book, often quoting things such as: ‘The miracle is not that Hungary is the way it is but that it still exists.’

Yet the passages about Vienna in particular really resonated with me (this is where the two men met as youngsters attending the military school). Here’s what Konrad says about it:

Saying the word Vienna was like striking a tuning fork and then listening to find out what tone it called forth in the person I was talking to. It was how I tested people. If there was no response, this was not the kind of person I liked.

Vienna wasn’t just a city, it was a tone that either one carries forever in one’s soul or one does not. It was the most beautiful thing in my life… Vienna was like another friend. When it rained in the tropics, I always heard the voice of Vienna.

There are also some really beautiful descriptive passages (although one might argue that the General does go on a bit and that no guest would put up with such haranguing and whining for uninterrupted for chapters at a time). Although they seem to glorify hunting, they also give a description of the deep forest surrounding the castle, where the General has retreated to just a few rooms in one wing, and everything else is falling into ruin.

It is no longer dark, it is not yet light. The forest smells so raw and wild, as if every living thing – plants, animals, people – were slowly coming back to consciousness in the dormitory of the world, exhaling all their secrets and bad thoughts… The scent of wet leaves, of ferns, of crumbling tree trunks, of rotting pine cones, of the soft carpet of fallen leaves and pine needles slippery from the dew, rises up from the earth to assault you like the smell of two lovers locked in sweat-soaked embrace… It’s the moment when something happens not just deep among the trees but also in the dark interior of the human heart, for the heart, too, has its night and its wild surges, as strong an instinct for the hunt as a wolf or a stag.

The description of the castle is also very evocative: it is a mix of the ‘East’ European splendid isolation and wilderness (‘the forest with bears’, as the Emperor of France calls it) and West European extravagance. But now it too stands sinister and haunted, resentful and claustrophobic:

The castle was a closed world, like a great granite mausoleum full of the moldering bones of generations of men and women from earlier times, in their shrouds of slowly disintegrating gray silk or black cloth. It enclosed silence itself as if it were a prisoner persecuted for his beliefs, wasting away numbly, unshaven and in rags on a pile of musty rotting straw in a dungeon. It also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats and beetles lurk in the mildewed cellars of old houses. Door-latches gave off the traces of a once-trembling hand, the excitement of a moment long gone, so that even now another hand hesitated to press down on them. Every house in which passion has loosed itself on people in all its fury exudes such intangible presences.

I should say that I’d read the book more than 20 years ago in Romanian translation and was convinced it was set in Transylvania but there is no specific mention of a place, other than that it was a territory formerly belonging to Hungary, and since the author was born in Košice in eastern Slovakia, at the foot of the Ore Mountains, it might be safer to assume that the castle is located around there.

Sylvia Moreno Garcia: Mexican Gothic, 2020.

The cover does not feature the house, surprisingly enough, so only very slightly hints at the horrors within.

The line about the mushrooms and the mildew quoted above certainly chimed well with this book, written in English by this American author of Mexican heritage. Her rotting mansion is even more isolated and sinister, the host’s intention is even more evil and the suspense escalates into real danger.

Set in Mexico in the 1950s and inspired by a real silver mine town with an English cemetery, the book tells the story of spoilt wealthy socialite Noemi, who is sent by her father to this isolated mansion High Place, to see what is happening with her beloved cousin Catalina, who married in great haste the (impoverished) heir of this (now closed) silver mine and has been locked up in that eerie house ever since.

All the great Gothic tropes which appear accidentally in Embers are very deliberately placed here. There is plenty of suspense, plenty of surly and untrustworthy characters, graveyards and nightmares, shadows creeping about at night. The writer breathes new life into these clichés through the strength of her main character (I was less convinced by some of the others). Noemi might be completely alone and helpless, she might start doubting herself, but she is not stupid, not easily intimidated, she does not give up. I imagine her as the Katharine Hepburn character in High Society. The atmosphere is brilliantly creepy – the house itself becomes more than a setting, it is a character all by itself, the source of fear and danger.

The house loomed over them like a great, quiet gargoyle. It might have been foreboding, evoking images of ghosts and haunted places, if it had not seemed so tired, slats missing from a couple of shutters the ebony porch groaning as they made their way up the steps to the door, which came complete with a silver knocker shaped like a fist dangling from a circle. “It’s the abandoned shell of a snail,” she told herself…

While I guessed some of the story of the house and the family, there were still some surprising twists there, although the ending was slightly disappointing. However, for me this book was not about the plot as much as about the atmosphere – and it certainly had that in spades.

Julia Bartz: The Writing Retreat, 2023.

The third book I also enjoyed more for its atmosphere than its plot, although originally it was the plot that drew me in. It’s interesting that the American cover is anything but subtle and features the Gothic house in the Adirondacks where most of the story takes place, while the UK cover opts for subtlety and atmosphere.

US cover
UK cover

As a writer, who hasn’t dreamt of winning a coveted month-long writing retreat in an idyllic location, especially one that is tutored by an author you hugely admire? For Alex, who has not been having much success with her dream of becoming a published novelist, it certainly seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She is not about to let the fact that her former best friend Wren will also be there spoil her delight. Nor the fact that the house has a reputation for being haunted. But when their tutor Roza starts playing nasty mind games with the participants, and Alex becomes a little too obsessed with the history of the previous owners of the house, things take a nasty turn.

At first glance, however, the house seems plush and extravagant rather than sinister (although any place with no mobile or Wifi reception should raise suspicion):

We zoomed through the entryway into a large front hall that rose at least fifty feet above us. An enormous marble staricase swept fown from a second-floor landing. Large paintings filled the walls – to the left, abstract shapes, to the right, looming figures. A chandelier hung suspended over the staircase, casting light with hundreds of electric candles. The space was grand, majestic, and a stream of giddiness filled my veins.

What is interesting is how all this optimism and luxury starts to look menacing a few chapters later. But I guess you can tell even from this brief excerpt that the author is no Shakespeare. The other two books were certainly better written. The premise for this one was interesting, and I read it quickly enough, but it did all descend into a rather implausible mess towards the end. Fast food consumption book for my taste, which is a bit of a shame, as I think this premise could have led to even more interesting and subtle things.

#6Degrees March 2023

If you don’t know me by now… you will never, never know the delights of the Six Degrees of Separation meme for books we’ve read, as hosted by Kate from Books Are My Favourite and Best.

This month we start with a self-help or personal development book called Passages by Gail Sheehy, which was apparently all the rage in the 1970s. I don’t think my parents were big into personal development, and the only book that was vaguely in that sphere in our house when I was a child (and which I’m therefore using as the first link in my chain) was The Superwoman Syndrome by Marjorie Shaevitz, with exactly that cover pictured. It has since disappeared from their shelves (perhaps my mother leant it to one of her friends). I’m not sure that we ever discussed it, or that my mother took the advice seriously other than at a very superficial level (‘get plenty of rest and eat organic vegetables’).

My second link is to a very different kind of syndrome, namely the so-called locked-in syndrome which befell journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby after a massive stroke, as he describes in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which he painstakingly wrote (or dictated rather) by blinking his left eyelid. A remarkable and very emotional story, it was also turned into a film in 2007 (which I haven’t seen).

I am quite fond of the French double-first-names like Jean-Dominique or Jean-Claude, so the other French writer I can think of is Jean-Paul Sartre and my favourite work of fiction by him is his play Huis Clos (No Exit), because yes, my own vision of hell is being stuck in a room with people you can’t stand.

No Exit makes me think at once of doors and one of the many books that has used the ‘sliding doors’ scenario. What if one little thing in your life were different, you missed an opportunity or had a stroke of luck, and your life is irrevocably altered? Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life explores all the multiple lives that the main character Ursula might have lived, especially if she made it past childhood. I haven’t read that book, but I heard it is one of the better ones to employ that particular type of narrative.

My next link is an odd one: Life After Life won the Costa Book Award (now sadly deceased) in 2013 and in 2015 the author won again with a sort of sequel to it A God in Ruins. In between the two Atkinson triumphs, How to Be Both by Ali Smith won the Costa Novel Award in 2014 (as well as many other prizes), another highly experimental and daring novel with a dual narrative that can be read in either order.

To finish with another experimental, multiple narrative novel which I haven’t yet read but hope to read soon: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. Digressive and aggressive annotations on the manuscript of a poem and unreliable narrators who embellish and reveal themselves gradually? Sounds perfect. Have any of you read it and is it indeed as fascinating as it sounds?

So my links this month have included two works of non-fiction (highly unusual), a play, and three novels with quite strange and experimental structures. What chain might you create?