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…
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.
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.
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.
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).
Looks like the safest form of holiday planning this summer will be virtually – so here are some perfect holiday homes to dream about!
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.
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!
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
15 books read, of which seven are crime fiction or true crime or, in one case, a literary curiosity labelled as crime fiction. This escapism into my favourite genre was counterpointed by some very good literary reads. Of the crime fiction genre, I enjoyed Rebecca Bradley’s start to a new series in Sheffield Blood Stained, Allie Reynold’s addictive Shiver, set in the world of snowboarding competitions, and Margie Orford’s haunting recreation of Cape Town’s older and more recent history Gallows Hill. For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I finally managed to get A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson from the library: I don’t usually read YA, but his one just zips along in a charming voice (think a slightly older Flavia de Luce set in a very contemporary world, where CDs are sooo last century).
The month was dominated by the reading I did for #1936Club and most of it was written by or about Romanian authors. While I did review Horvath’s plays for the #1936Club, I actually read them in March. However, I did read Max Blecher, Karel Capek, Mihail Sebastian and Liviu Rebreanu in April, all more or less fitting the requirements for the year 1936 or thereabouts.
There were three disappointments in this month’s pile though. The true crime book by John Leake The Vienna Woods Killer was written with too much of an American audience in mind, not particularly evocative of the Viennese atmosphere nor showing enough respect for the victims, but instead overly focusing on the investigation and court case. The novel entitled Sebastian by Gelu Diaconu was too much about other people, not enough about Sebastian (or else, did not add anything new to the Sebastian story). Sad to say, The Chateau by Catherine Cooper did not live up to the expectation raised by her first novel The Chalet, which I read last year. In spite of the fact that French chateaux are amongst my favourite things ever, as you well know.
But let’s not focus on the disappointments, because (aside from the books I read for the 1936 mission, which were all excellent) I also read two wonderful books this month. I reread To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (which I liked, but had never been my favourite novel of hers – that would be The Waves – but which certainly has gone up vertiginously in my esteem now). I still hope to review it at some point, although what can you say about a novel that everybody and their dog has opined about? The other novel I picked up because of my passion for Mozart: The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy: delightful, frothy, yet very intelligent, with the sort of precise, taut writing I hugely admire. (Very much like Mozart – perfectly controlled, it just seems easy like breathing.) I then listened to the Backlisted Podcast episode about it and appreciated it even more. Two perfect little gems for a rather tiring month (aren’t they all – tiring, I mean, not gems obviously).
My patience for box sets has gone out the window. I started the second season of Succession and it was just more of the same: backstabbing amongst rich people behaving badly, so I abandoned it. Fortitude was beautiful for its landscape, but that stifling small community where everyone seems to sleep with everyone and the rather far-fetched storyline palled after 5-6 episodes (plus there were some unnecessarily graphic gory scenes). Even The Sopranos felt a bit ‘take it or leave it, I won’t suffer either way’ after two seasons, so I decided to cancel my NowTV subscription.
After a very ‘film-less’ March, I caught up with my love for films a little more in April. It was perhaps not quite as diverse as previously, quite international nevertheless:
- Japan: A Silent Voice – anime about bullying in high school, much harder-hitting than I expected
- Spain: Pan’s Labyrinth – fantasy, history, once again – much more powerful (nightmarish almost) than I expected
- Romania: Collective – documentary about the nightclub fire in Bucharest in 2015 and its aftermath, revealing government corruption and the power of investigative journalism
- France: A Prophet – prison drama, watching Tahar Rahim transform under your very eyes from a naive young man to a criminal wheeler-and-dealer
- US: The King of Comedy – a satire that manages to be both fierce and very funny, and deeply disturbing, with a brilliant performance by De Niro.
- UK: The Third Man – still one of my favourite films for the black-and-white atmospheric shots of post-war Vienna and a world that has lost in faith in humanity – but yes, my sons are right that the dialogues between Holly Martins and Anna are stilted and old-fasioned
- Italy: The Ties – didn’t realise it was based on the Domenico Starnone book, which I had avoided reading because I was still raw about my divorce – so the film turned me inside out a bit, especially the reaction of the children. Felt cynical and glum, at times hammering home the message a little too much.
- US: In the Soup – another black comedy mocking both wannabe talents and the criminal world, while also being the story of the relationship between a charismatic older man who teaches a clueless young man how to live. Although I did chuckle, it felt like I’d seen this type of story before – and done better – in Zorba the Greek.
Last minute update: In my last post about Rebreanu, I mention the dance Ciuleandra and I included a film clip. I should also have added (thank you to Calmgrove for reminding me) that there is a fairly good Romanian film adaptation of it dating from 1985. Here is the trailer, which includes the moment when the couple meet at the village dance, with French subtitles.
OK, I’m cheating a little here, because I read several works by Rebreanu, yet none of them were published exactly in 1936. Here are the books I’ll be referring to in this post:
- Jar (usually translated as ‘Embers’, although I’d argue that it should be ‘Blaze’) – 1934 – psychological novel about the devastating effect of passionate love on a young girl
- Ciuleandra – psychological novel about the devastating effect of passionate love on a young man (so an interesting counterpoint) – 1927 [Available now in English translation thanks to Gabi Reigh and Cadmus Press]
- Amândoi (Both) – crime novel – 1940
However, there’s another connection with Sebastian, which makes the connection to my previous #1936Club entry a bit more plausible. Sebastian interviewed Rebreanu and expressed great admiration for his writing, but they weren’t really close, and at some point Sebastian expressed disappointment at the anti-semitic attitude displayed during the war by Rebreanu, which he wouldn’t have expected from the author of the novella Itzik Shtrul, Desertor, dating from 1919, which showed great empathy and understanding towards the eponymous Jewish hero of the story. However, it is also true that Rebreanu used his war-time position as the Director of the National Theatre during the war (from 1940 until his death in 1944) to allow Leny Caler to continue performing, albeit only at the Jewish theatre, so his attitude is a little complicated, perhaps merely opportunistic.
Whatever he might have been like in this personal life, in his works Rebreanu is almost always solidly behind the underdog. His versatility and range in terms of subject matter are quite impressive. During Communist times when we studied him in school, he was particularly admired for the social critique and description of rural life in Ion (1920) and Răscoala (The Revolt – about the peasant revolt in Romania in 1907) (1932). I personally always preferred his stories of inner turmoil and psychological torment, such as The Forest of the Hanged and Ciuleandra. I had never previously read Jar and Both, although I have the special edition published in 1985, marking the centenary since his birth.
My father was always rather keen on Rebreanu because he spent quite a bit of his life and actually died in Argeș, the county my family originates from. Ciuleandra, the title of the book, has not been translated, because it is actually the name of a dance which is particularly popular in that region, which starts slow and then gets faster and faster, until it all descends into an orgasm of colour, passion and sensuality. This is how it is described in the book:
It starts just like any other dance, very slow, very restrained. The dancers gather, form a circle… Stirred by the heat of those bodies, the music quickens, grows wilder. The rhythm of the dance catches its frenzy… As the fiddlers warm to their instruments, the melody twitches, spins loose, explodes into chaos… The ring of dancers, daring themselves to defy and smother the music’s spell, charge at it, feet crushing into dirt, and the tornado of flesh twists into itself again, tighter, more stubborn, clenching and loosening, until, finally the bodies melt into each other…
It is at one of these country dances, under the immediate heat of the ciuleandra, that Puiu Faranga meets the pretty, extremely young peasant girl Mădălina. Puiu comes from a wealthy aristocratic family, who think France is the epitome of culture and speak French at home much like the Russian aristocracy in novels. His father is a former government minister, but worried his son might end up living a life of debauchery, and decides a girl of healthy peasant stock is just the kind of red-blooded addition his family needs. Despite the fourteen-year-old’s protests, her mother seems quite keen to sell her off to the Faranga family. But first she has to be modelled into the perfect wife for Puiu: Mădălina is cleaned up, educated, groomed, sent to finishing school and becomes the taciturn, mysterious Madeleine, fêted by posh Bucharest society for her beauty. Puiu claims to be madly in love, but continues with his decadent lifestyle and multiple mistresses. He is, needless to say, very controlling and jealous of his wife, whose essence seems to escape him. And then, one night, as they get ready to go a royal ball, he strangles her in a fit of passion. There is nothing a man fears more than being laughed at by a woman, right?
His father wants to avoid a public trial and prison sentence for his beloved son, so of course he intervenes and commits Puiu to a private mental asylum under the supervision of a pet doctor. However, the pet doctor is abroad, and instead the psychiatrist working with Puiu is a young village boy made good, who is not at all ‘flattered that a Faranga has deigned to shake his hand’. On the contrary, he thinks Puiu may be faking his madness. Nevertheless, his treatment sparks something in Puiu, a journey of reflection and reckoning. He very gradually moves from a position of loathsome swagger and privilege to realising his own flaws.
… He grew ashamed of the time before, when he had been entirely self-absorbed; when all that exercised his mind had been how to get out of a tight corner, through subterfuge, connections, any means possible; when his greatest pain had been the thought of having to renounce his life’s pleasures for a while. Only a few days earlier, he had barely spared a thought for Madeleine, whose life he had extinguished, as she lay in the chapel waiting to be buried… There had been no heartfelt, deep repentance…
Although this falls into the set of Rebreanu’s novels labelled ‘psychological’, the social commentary is quite strong. This is not just a love story gone wrong, but very much a critique of the gap between the rich and the poor, and how the rich believe they can buy everything, even genuine feelings, with their money. The innate warmth of the people from the countryside is contrasted to the coldness of urban society, especially that of the upper classes. Puiu learns about forbearance from his guard, Andrei Leahu (who incidentally comes from the same village as some of my father’s family, and therefore automatically qualifies as one of my favourite characters), who suffered a real betrayal by his wife during the war, and yet did not kill her despite his rage.
What is interesting in this story is that, although the story revolves around Mădălina, we never get to hear her point of view. How did she feel about being plucked out of her familiar environment at a young age and being Pygmalioned without any chance of escape? No, the story is all told by men: Puiu, his father, his doctor, his guard, the prosecutor, the superintendant (his aunt is a woman, but she is all about family pride and keeping things under wraps). The poor young woman was merely an object to them, and she has been comprehensively silenced.
As a brief taster for this dance, I’m including a link to a video, not necessarily the best dancing or the highest-quality filming, but simply because it is in a village community, being danced by girls who are of similar age to Mădălina in the book.
Just in case you thought that Rebreanu sympathised with that macho point of view, the novel Jar is the counterpoint to that, presenting a love story from the point of view of a young, intelligent woman, Liana. She lives with her extended family: her father is a petty civil servant who constantly fears for his position (and would dearly love a promotion), her mother is not well-educated and spoils her younger son rotten, her grandmother just wants to see Liana married. Meanwhile, Liana herself aspires to be an independent career woman and move out, like her older brother. At her annual ‘non-birthday’ party, she meets the pilot Dandu Victor, who starts courting her with almost stalkerish intensity. Liana succumbs to his charms, but the love affair is short-lived and ends tragically. Throughout, we are mostly in Liana’s head, conflicted as she is between her intellectual aspirations and the instincts of the heart and lust. Once again, Rebreanu manages to seamlessly set a love story against the fresco of Bucharest society of that period, populated with well-rounded and recognisable characters from all social classes: the fatuous wannabe poet who is only ‘playing at’ journalism, the middle-aged state functionaries fearing for their jobs, the older rake who now craves a more settled lifestyle, the widow of a former minister who flatters herself she still has some influence and so on.
Amândoi is a more straightforward crime novel, but it too has a strong social element to it. Unlike in the other two novels, the action takes place in Pitești, a smaller town about a hundred kilometres from Bucharest, a bustling commercial and industrial centre, but still very much a provincial backwater (especially at that time). The two people found murdered (both of them, hence the title of the novel) may live in a ramshackle old house, but they were actually very wealthy landlords, shopkeepers and pawnbrokers. The rest of their family, a brother and sister with their respective spouses and offspring, come under suspicion, for there were some quarrels about inheritance. The judge Dolga who investigates the case (the Romanian legal system is similar to the French one in this respect, so it will be familiar to those who watch Spiral/Engrenages) is an outsider, refuses to bow down to political and social pressures to wrap up the case quickly without causing too much scandal. He is determined to get at the truth. As we follow his methodical investigation, we get a rich picture of small-town life in Romania in the 1930s, the rapaciousness of wealth, the desperation of poverty, the interaction between the different social classes, their assumptions and presumptions. I can’t help feeling the crime is just a pretext for painting this picture of a town where I spent huge chunks of my summer holidays during childhood – always a pleasure to see familiar places – but I was very disappointed when I found out who the killer was.
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for Romanian literature, although I am aware only one of the above is available in translation. I do sometimes wonder why I spend so much time, days, often weeks, preparing these lengthy posts which so few people read. However, if I can get one person to try something new, or view Romanian literature as a more diverse and interesting landscape than is commonly believed, then I will declare myself happy.