Time for my favourite monthly reading/linking meme, the Six Degrees of Separation as hosted by Kate, and this month we are starting with a book shortlisted for the Stella Prize in Australia, but which has yet to make its way across to this corner of the world. Hydra by Adriane Howell is a bit of a Gothic novel, and there are lots of possible links: Greek mythology or islands, mid-century furniture, haunted houses, careers and marriages imploding…
There is also a neighbouring naval base, I understand, in this novel, so I will choose that to link to C.S. Forester’s Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, the first (and not necessarily the best) in his lengthy and very successful Hornblower series. I can’t really remember which couple of them I’ve read, as they tend to follow a similar pattern of naval exploits set during the Napoleonic Wars.
The mention of Napoleonic Wars makes me instantly think of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, which opens with quite a visceral account of the Battle of Waterloo.
The next book is a bit of a lazy link, perhaps, especially since both of my boys have been reading it recently and talking a lot about it, but it is also French and deals with the consequences of the Napoleonic Wars and the political turmoil and suspicion which followed after the fall of Bonaparte and his supporters, namely The Count of Monte Cristoby Alexandre Dumas.
Dumas notoriously made a fortune from sales of this book, built a chateau and led such an extravagant lifestyle that he lost all the money again and had to sell the chateau a short while later. Another author who went bankrupt (although thanks to bad investments rather than a profligate lifestyle) was Mark Twain, so my next link is to his lesser-known but very funny work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. A satire about monarchy and the people surrounding the throne, which feels particularly timely this weekend.
My next link has something to do with the monarchy, one of the few books about the late Queen which I actually enjoyed and which presented her in a whimsical, charming light, which is probably not at all warranted: Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.
I can’t resist books about books, readers and writers, so the final very loose link is with another passionate reader, the title hero of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke, who leads the Bohemian life in Paris (probably based on Rilke himself).
It’s ended up being quite an old-fashioned set of connections, although I have travelled throughout Europe with it. Let’s hope next month I will be more adventurous, right?
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?
Hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, this is your chance to make free associations (or weird and wonderful ones) between books: we all start in the same place but usually end miles/continents apart. This month we start with Trust by Hernan Diaz.
I haven’t read it but it features wealthy families in the 1920s, which instantly makes me think of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of my favourite books, as my older son never ceases to remind me – luckily, he thought it was pretty good too, even though he did not do English Literature for his A Levels (or maybe because of that).
Next link is a book (ok, a play) that I did study for my university entrance exam and therefore did not like as much as I might have done otherwise: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. I suppose in Communist times it was regarded as an indictment of the American Dream and therefore Capitalism – and so it should be! Incidentally, this is a further link with The Great Gatsby, since that book also shows the feet of clay of the American Dream.
Willy Loman is the disappointed salesman in Miller’s play, so my next jump is to another character called Willy, namely Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I loved this story as a child, and my children enjoyed it too, although it turns out that the author was not that nice as a person. I think we can catch glimpses of that in his work too – but then, children are often not very nice either, so they chortle at naughtiness and evil deeds in their fiction.
Chocolate forms my next link to Chocolat by Joanne Harris. I saw the film quite a while back but never read the book until a few years ago and… no, it’s not my kind of book, but I do like its description of small-minded, small-town France (although it could describe small-town mentalities anywhere, but just with better food and weather).
It is tempting to use France as the lynchpin for my next book, especially since I am doing a #FrenchFebruary reading challenge, but instead I will turn to a writer from neighbouring Switzerland who is a master at describing the rural villages of the Vaud canton on Lake Geneva: C.F Ramuz: Beauty on Earth, which I have read and reviewed a while ago (and, which appropriately enough was translated into English by the very friend in whose house I was staying last week).
A tenuous final link: for the longest time, I got Ramuz confused with Frédéric Mistral, born and built in Provence, who wrote in Occitan and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. [Ramuz partly overlapped with Mistral but wrote in French/Suisse romande and did not win the Nobel Prize. As you can see from their portrait photos below, they don’t look that alike either, although they both seem to appreciate a hat.] Mireille/ Mireio is considered Mistral’s most important work, a long narrative poem, a sort of Romeo and Juliet for the region. I don’t know how many people still read him today, outside his native region?
So my literary travels have taken me from America to England, from France to Switzerland and back again. Can’t wait to see where the others went with their literary links!
Dazai Osamu: Otogizoshi: The Fairy Tale Book of Dazai Osamu, transl. Ralf F. McCarthy, Kurodahan Press, 2011.
How can I have a January in Japan/Japanese Literature Challenge 16 without sneaking in at least one book by my favourite Japanese author Dazai Osamu? I may have mentioned him once or twice before… Anyway, this year I dug out this slim volume of ‘retold’ fairy tales by Dazai, which was pretty much the only way that he could publish during the Second World War. In1945, as the air raids were destroying much of Tokyo (including his own house), he played around with four of the best-known Japanese folk tales, retelling them not just for children, but particularly for grown ups.
There aren’t any overt criticisms of the Japanese war strategy, or even much mention of the dire situation the country was in by that point. However, the war is included, because the stories start off with a short prologue in which the author/narrator (always a tricky matter to distinguish the two with Dazai) starts telling stories to his children while they are seeking refuge in an air raid shelter. Additionally, the narrator keeps interrupting the flow of his narrative to comment that he cannot ascertain a particular detail because he doesn’t have a dictionary or encyclopedia handy, or that he cannot recount the most famous story of them all Momotaro (which had been used for propaganda purposes by the Japanese government), because ‘an author who has never been number one in Japan – or even number two or three – can hardly be expected to produce an adequate picture of Japan’s foremost young man’. His sarcasm extends to samurai warriors and their ideology, to landed gentry (such as his own family) and the heroic interpretations of Japanese history.
For example, here he is having a pop at Urashima Tarō, who is rewarded for rescuing a turtle by being taken to the Dragon Palace deep underneath the sea and meeting the Sea Princess, and generally having a great time there. When he returns on land, he discovers he has been away for a hundred years. The story is so well known that it has been a set text for elementary school in Japan for over a hundred years. Urashima Tarō is generally portrayed as a simple fisherman devoted to his mother, but in Dazai’s eponymous story he becomes the eldest son of an old and respected family with many servants.
Among second and third sons one often finds that variety of prodigal who overindulges in liquor and pursues women of lowly birth, muddying his own family’s name in the process, but the number one son… comes naturally to acquire a certain steadfast stodginess…
You can’t help but feel he is remembering some of his altercations with his older brothers! His rather cynical views of married life and suffocating families also find their way in other tales, such as the farcical ‘The Stolen Wen’ (aka ‘How an old man lost his wen/boil/lump’). The old man in the folktale is not a drunkard, but Dazai was, so he can’t resist giving him this trait.
In short, this family of Oji-san is nothing if not respectable and upstanding. And yet the fact remains that he is depressed. He wants to be considerate of his family but feels he cannot help but drink.
Throughout, there are a few digs at people’s behaviour, uttered by some of the characters, for instance, the tendency to gossip about one’s neighbors (which I can imagine a lot of people had been doing about Dazai all his life). Here is another husband complaining to his wife in ‘The sparrow who lost her tongue’:
Who do you think made me such a taciturn man chatting and laughing about what over dinner? I’ll tell you what – their neighbors. Criticizing. Tearing others down. Nothing but backbiting, malicious gossip…The only thing people like you can see is other people’s faults and you’re oblivious to the horror in your own hearts. You people terrify me.
It’s hard to demonstrate Dazai’s humour unless you know the original folk tales, for he takes great pleasure in subverting them, adding a running commentary as the storyteller. His Oni ogres are anything but terrifying, and he makes the link with the literary world of his time:
We use the word [Oni] to describe hateful people, murderers and even vampire, and one might therefore feel safe in assuming that these beings possess, in general, fairly despicable personality traits. But then one spies in the New Books column of the newspaper a headline reading ‘The Latest Masterpiece from the Ogre-like Genius of So-and-So-sensei’ and one is perplexed. One wonders if the article is an attempt to alert the public to So-and-So-sensei’s wicked influence or evil machinations… One would think that the great sensei himself would react angrily to being called such nasty and insulting names, but apparently that isn’t the case. One even hears rumors to the effect that he secretly encourages their use…
‘Monstre sacre’ indeed, as the French would say!
If you want to discover the lighter side of Dazai Osamu, the brilliant conversationalist he undoubtedly was (despite donning the mantle of grumpiness whenever it suited him), then I would recommend starting with his short stories, and these retold folk tales fall into that category, showing how much he could achieve even working within formal constraints. It’s not easy to find though…
A very summery starting point to the monthly Six Degrees of Separation reading meme, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. We start with the same book, add six linked ones and see where we end up!
January’s starting point is Beach Read by Emily Henry – which features writers struggling to complete their novels (a theme I usually cannot resist), but also romance (which I am less keen to read). I haven’t read this book, and I tend to read quite heavy-going books on the beach anyway, so am struggling to find a first link. Iin the end I thought I would go with other genres that I tend to bypass nowadays, although I loved them as a teenager. This is not because of any snobbery, but simply that I enjoy these kinds of books less or feel I have less time to read things outside my favourite genres. So, the other genre you will seldom see on my list of books and practically never on my shelves is horror. However, The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham is a classic of the genre which I really enjoyed reading (and which properly creeped me out) when I was a teen. The spooky telepathic child villains are the stuff of nightmares.
A similar theme is explored inThe Uninvitedby Liz Jensen, but this time there is a global epidemic of child violence. I had the pleasure of meeting Liz at a Geneva Writers’ Group conference and she was very warm and kind, but a consummate storyteller and fascinated by ‘what ifs’.
The third book is also by an author I met at the Geneva Writers’ Conference: Laura Kasischke’s Be Mine. This precedes the recent Vladimir by Julia May Jonas by well over a decade, but is likewise a story about a middle-aged academic embarking upon a love affair with a younger man. It is not as satirical about academic pretensions, but a good deal more menacing and disquieting.
A huge leap to a very different kind of ‘mine’ in the next book in my chain, The Mineby Antti Tuomainen, transl. David Hackston. You may know Tuomainen as the writer of black crime comedies, but previously he wrote some quite dark books, and this might be called an ecological thriller, as an investigative reporter tries to uncover the truth about a mining company’s illegal activities.
The publication year 2016 is the common thread between The Mine and my next choice, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, was one of my favourite books published that year, weaving personal experience with biographical details of famous artists in their New York solitude.
It would be too easy to find a book with the word ‘City’ in its title as the final link in the chain, so I will make it more difficult for myself by choosing one such book written by another author whose name was Olivia, namely Olivia Manning’s The Spoilt City, the second in her Balkan Trilogy, describing an increasingly fraught marriage and city of Bucharest in 1940. High time I reread both of her trilogies.
So my travels this January have taken me from a small English village to a global phenomenon, a small university town in the States to a mine in the north of Finland, the bright lights of New York City and the war-dimmed lights of Bucharest. Where will your literary links take you this month?
Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow (Fever and Spear, Dance and Dream, Poison, Shadow and Farewell), transl. Margaret Jull Costa, Vintage Books.
I spent most of November reading Solenoid, which I then somewhat laughingly called my December Diva, but I have also spent the past three months reading Javier Marias’ trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, roughly one volume per month, and even before finishing the last volume, I had decided this was going to make my ‘best of the year’ list. Yet it was tough getting going with it.
I had attempted the first volume once before, about a year or two ago, and abandoned it. After the death of Marias, I decided to give it another go, especially since Jacqui warned in her review that it started slowly. I believe the only way to enjoy Marias’ notoriously long sentences and repetitions is to submerge yourself in the text like plunging into the sea, allow the waves of his thoughts and prose to wash over you. But you have to be in the mood for this. Luckily, this time round I was, and volumes 2 and 3 got better and better, as you can see from the number of little post-its I used.
The first-person narrator is Jacques Deza, who is separated from his wife and children, living in England while they are back in his native Madrid. The rather shady Bertram Tupra approaches him and convinces him to work for a mysterious organisation, since he appears to have a particular talent for examining people’s faces and behaviours, understanding an individual’s true nature and predicting what they might be capable of in the future. That is basically the entire story arc of the trilogy, but there are numerous incidents and complications along the way, Jacques starts to question just what is required of him and why, but gradually succumbs to the ideology of ‘pre-emptive strike’, and ends up applying it in his personal life, with all that it entails: surveillance, lies, manipulation, aggression and torture.
The build-up is so gradual, each incident is described in such detail (not forgetting the endless divagations and spirally returns to a scene – each time with an additional piece of information), that when we get those moments when the underlying menace suddenly burst out as real violence, for example when Tupra threatens to cut someone’s head off with a sword, it is profoundly shocking. The hypnotic long sentences, the descriptions of paintings, James Bond books and Hollywood stars, the references to the Spanish Civil War all lull us into a false sense of security: this is a civilised world, a world of Oxford academics and cocktail parties and absurd, conceited little diplomats. Yet all that multilingual politeness is but a thin veneer, and there is an abyss of vindictive or, even worse, indifferent cruelty just below that.
We discover all this at the same pace as Jacques, a slow pace, since he tends to overthink every little gesture, word or happening. How reliable a narrator is he really? Does it matter? The author sets out his stall quite quite early on:
A very thin line separates facts from imaginings, even desires from their fulfilment, and the fictitious from what actually happened, because imaginings are already facts, and desires are their own fulfilment, and the fictitious does happen, although not in the eyes of commons sense and of the law… But consciousness knows nothing of the law and common sense neither interests nor concerns it, each consciousness has its own sense, and that very thin line is, in my experience, often blurred and, once it has disappeared, separates nothing, which is why I have learned to fear anything that passes through the mind and even what the mind does not as yet know…’
It’s this intimate understanding of even the most tentative and secret impulses of human nature which fascinate me so much about Javier Marias. Just like Cărtărescu does in Solenoid, Marias cannot resist chasing down rabbit holes, bringing in so many apparently tangential topics, ruminating or speculating about human nature so broadly, that we wonder what on earth will finally get the story to move on. Yet, although we can hardly call this propulsive forward motion, I have the feeling that each parenthesis does have its purpose and evidences something deeper about the characters and situations.
Or perhaps I simply do not care how much he deviates from the main subject, as long as he can come up with perfectly-formed aphorisms such as these (almost Cioran-like):
There is nothing worse than looking for meaning or believeing there is one. Or if there is one… believing that the meaning of something… could depend on us and on our actions, on our intention or our function…
There are, as you know, always reasons a posteriori for any action, even for the most gratutious and most unspeakable actions, reasons can always be found, ridiculous, improbable and ill-founded sometimes and which deceive no on or only the person who invents them. But you can always find a reason.
In another language you cannot help but feel that you are always acting or even translating (however well you know the language), as if the words you pronounce and hear belonged to some absent person…
It’s always safer to betray an individual… than some vague, abstract idea that anyone can claim to represent… that’s the bad thing about ideas, their self-declared representatives keep crawling out of the woodwork, and anyone can take up an idea to suit their needs or interests and proclaim that they’ll defend it by whatever means necessary, bayonet or betrayal, persecution or tank…
This is the kind of profoundly unsettling work that leaves you with more questions than answers, where whole paragraphs or concepts will burrow themselves under your skin, and you will want to go back and read in smaller gulps again and again. Marias is an author who is not afraid to tackle big subjects, who manages to effortlessly weave cultural specificity (and occasionally mischievous observations about other cultures) with universal fears about baser human instincts. I
It’s dreadful to have ideas put in your head, however unlikely or ridiculous and however unsustainable and improbable…any scrap of information registered by the brain stays there until it achieves oblivion… and however much you clean and scrub and erase, that rim is the kind that will never come out; it’s understandable really that people should hate knowledge and deny what is there before their eyes and prefer to know nothing, and to repudiate the facts…
This describes what Marias does to me, but I will always prefer to know and to explore, which is possibly why I find him quite addictive. If some of our Book Club members said that there were whole passages of Tomb of Sand where they felt they did not understand what was going on, and could not follow the flow of the sentences, and if I occasionally considered Solenoid too meandering and self-indulgent, I was never bored with this trilogy, especially in volumes 2 and 3. I almost wanted more of it (and luckily have a few more books by Marias on my shelves).
Of course, this is in no small part thanks to Margaret Jull Costa’s impeccable translation: she seems to understand Marias better than anyone else (although she has admitted that he was not always easy to work with) and has managed to capture that Latin flow in the sentences, while remaining clear and precise in English.
Just when I thought the bad summer months had passed and I was about to turn things around with a quiet writing holiday at last… things continued to not work out according to hopes and plans. However, this did lead to some major reading therapy, so the year finished strong at least in that respect.
My second brush with Covid led once again to a weakened immune system, and thus infections with all the viruses life could throw at me, plus more severe symptoms as soon as I caught something for the rest of the autumn.
The week-long October holiday in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside would have been the perfect rest, combining creativity with long walks and visits to Shibden Hall and Hebden Bridge… but alas, I was plagued by a vicious migraine and nausea for most of my stay there, and could barely make it out of bed. I hobbled down to Slaithwaite one morning, and managed to translate about 3000 words, but that was all I had to show for my much longed-for writing retreat.
Things got worse when I came back home. My younger son, whose nickname used to be the Duracell Bunny for his endless energy and sunny disposition, which made him a firm favourite whenever we visited family back in Greece or Romania, suddenly admitted he was deeply depressed and expressed suicidal thoughts.
I can take any amount of bad things happening to me, but bad things happening to my loved ones are much harder to face. I’ve spent these past few months trying to reassure him, get help, keep talking to him without becoming the pushy, prying mum… Above all, find a way to kickstart his engine and reawaken his joie de vivre and natural curiosity. Although I’ve experienced similar feelings myself in the past, although I have been a trained volunteer for the Samaritans, it’s horrible to see how all that becomes inconsequential when it’s your own child. It’s like treading on eggshells all the time. I am aware that it’s not a situation that can be fixed quickly or fully, so we take each day as it comes. I also feel very alone in all of this, as he won’t allow me to mention his fears and depression to his father or brother (for good reason, I suspect, as his father was very dismissive and unhelpful when I was depressed). Luckily, his school has been very supportive and we are collaborating on this quite well. But he has his A Levels this year, so things are… complicated.
Given the emotional and physical lows of that month, my reading was very escapist and not entirely memorable. The crime book I enjoyed most was The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee, the latest book in his delectable series set in pre-independence India, and I probably related a little too much with the treacherous middle-aged academic in Vladimir by Julia May Jonas (not pictured above because I like neither the US nor the UK cover).
Winter in Sokcho and Mateiu Caragiale were perhaps rather melancholy choices for the month, but they were both beautifully written – at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum, simple and unadorned to ornate and baroque. However, I have to admit it was a struggle to read Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire during this period, because of the grim subject matter, and I might not have been able to finish it if I’d not had Daniel Hahn’s translation diary alongside it. And, much as I love Marlen Haushofer’s writing style, her novella The Loft or her biography were not exactly light reading matter either. Luckily, my other reading choices for German Literature Month were somewhat lighter: Isabel Bogdan’s The Peacock was delightfully farcical but not silly, while Franz Schuh’s Laughing and Dying may sound grim but is actually a collection of essays and anecdotes, poems and little plays exploring what it means to be Viennese (review to follow in the Austrian Riveter in early 2023).
In November, my older son came home for what was going to be a delightful week-long stay to impress us with his newfound cooking and cleaning skills. However, his sore throat and cough got worse, morphed into glandular fever and ended up requiring multiple calls to NHS 111, emergency out-of-hours service and finally the A&E at hospital. He passed on at least part of the virus to us two as well, so November passed by in an interminable blur of collective ill health.
Perhaps not the best backdrop to read challenging journeys through someone’s convoluted brain and memories, such as Solenoidby Mircea Cărtărescu or Javier Marias’ trilogy Your Face Tomorrow (which I’ve been reading at the rate of one a month, and still have to review). Even the speculative crime novel In the Blink of an Eye by Jo Callaghan, fascinating though it was as a premise (who is less biased and better able to solve a case, a live detective or an AI one?), had a theme of suicide and ill health, so was not quite as escapist as I’d hoped.
However, December dawned more hopeful: a lovely trip to Newcastle Noir with two of our Corylus authors, Tony Mott from the prettiest town in Romania, Brașov, and Óskar Guðmundsson from Iceland. In celebration, I read several good crime novels to end the year: Ian Rankin’s latest, featuring a retired but still very rebellious Rebus, Trevor Wood’s first in a trilogy featuring an ‘invisible’ homeless man solving crimes he witnesses on the streets, and Keigo Higashino’s entertaining mix of police procedural and psychological depth.
Older son recovered fully and enjoyed a ski trip in France, coming back full of nostalgic stories about French food and books, pistes we had both loved, and oodles of Swiss chocolate (he flew via Geneva). I am looking forward to some cosy film-watching with both of them (we started with Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio yesterday, on the first day of holidays), lots of reading, favourite Christmassy foods… and will ignore gas bills, ongoing concerns about family members, several substantial literary and translation rejections, or my own precarious health.
Hope really does spring eternal – and in 2023 I resolve to be more physically active, take better care of myself as well as others, and not take on too many additional projects.
I will probably post a few more book reviews between Christmas and New Year, but I will sign off for a few days (other than the usual Friday Fun post) and may your holiday period be as unstressful as possible!
A very appropriate starting point for our Six Degrees of Separation game this month, hosted as always by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. A wintry book set in Alaska, entitled The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, based upon the Russian folk tale Snegurochka. I’m ashamed to say that, although it is probably one of the first books I ever got on the Kindle after receiving the device as a birthday present way back in 2012, I still haven’t read it.
So my logical starting point will be another book that has been the longest on my Kindle – this time a Netgalley download. Not quite as long as The Snow Child, but The Cartel by Don Winslow has been waiting patiently since June 2015. I’ve heard very good things about it, perhaps I was waiting for the appropriate happier time when the hardcore drug wars on the Mexican/American border wouldn’t feel too depressing… and those happier times just never seemed to come!
From the oldest to the most recent Netgalley download: Haruki Murakami’s essay collection Novelist as a Vocation. I enjoyed his book about running (and writing) very much at a time when I was doing both, so let’s see if this inspires me to start writing more regularly.
My next link is to a book about a novelist that I have just read recently: Yellowface by R. F. Kuang – except that in that novel the novelist is less concerned about craft, and more about fame – and will do anything to achieve it, including stealing someone else’s work and pretending to be of Chinese heritage.
A very simple link next, another title with the word ‘yellow’ in it: Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley, his debut novel in fact and a satire of the 1920s English society and country house lifestyle. With the exception of Brave New World, Huxley seems to have fallen out of fashion recently, but I have always enjoyed this novel which is very much based upon several real-life characters who also intersected with the Bloomsbury Group (Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Dora Carrington and so on).
Another person who was on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group (and supposedly the only living writer that Virginia Woolf was jealous of) was Katherine Mansfield. Perhaps her best-known short story collection is The Garden Party, but my favourite one (and the one I am linking to here) is Bliss and Other Stories. One of the stories in that collection, Je ne parle pas français, a strange little cross-cultural love triangle with homoerotic undertones, links to my final book today.
David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of essays and memoir pieces, not all of them equally appealing to me, but I do want to put a good word in for the title one, which is about the author taking French classes in Paris and the way he and his fellow classmates struggle with the language. As an expat in France, and someone who is currently murdering the Italian language with my classmates on Zoom, I find that particular story very relatable and funny.
So my six degrees have taken me from Alaska to the Mexican border, Japan to Washington DC, England and Paris. Where will your literary travels take you this month?
Daniela Strigl: Wahrscheinlich bin ich verrückt… Marlen Haushofer – die Biographie. (I’m Probably Mad: the Biography of MH) List, 2007.
I was planning to read several novellas for German Literature Month (and thus fulfil a double function, to fit Novella in November Month too), but I got sidetracked once I finished Marlen Haushofer’s The Loft. I had acquired this biography of Marlen a year or two ago, after being so impressed with the few books of hers I’d managed to find and read in German. I knew the broad outlines of her life, but this time I could not resist delving a little deeper.
Marlen was born Maria Helene Frauendorfer in 1920 in Upper Austria. Her father was a qualified forester, while her mother was also descended from a forester family but had tried to escape her family fate by working as a maid for a noblewoman in her youth, travelling all over the world and staying in luxurious hotels. Marlen was a lively little girl who enjoyed the great outdoors and the freedom of wandering in the forests, playing with animals, listening to stories told by her favourite uncle – she later described those early years as quite idyllic, although she did suffer when her brother Rudi, the apple of her mother’s eye, was born.
All this was well-known to me. What I did not realise was just what a fall from paradise it was for Marlen to be sent to a convent school in Linz at the age of ten. She was one of the brightest girls in her class, but she was homesick, became depressed and succumbed to TB. She interrupted her studies to go to a sanatorium, and then fell promptly ill again. She finished school just after the Anschluss and was forced to do a year of civil service on the eastern borders of the German empire. In 1940 she started studying philosophy, German and art history in Vienna, which is where she met Manfred Haushofer, who was studying medicine. I knew that they got married in 1941 but what I did not know was that before the wedding Marlen had given birth to a little boy whose father was not Manfred, but a German student whom she had met a year earlier. Manfred accepted her illegitimate child, but he lived apart from them for a long time, even after they had a son of their own in 1942.
Manfred and Marlen settled in the little town of Steyr (a truly provincial town not far from her parents in Upper Austria) and opened a dental clinic together (Marlen helping out with the admin). Although this should have been a lucrative business, Marlen’s husband proved hopeless with money, always dashing after shiny gadgets and cars and other women, so they were never very well off. Marlen started writing, and had her champions in Vienna, but overall was not taken very seriously by the Viennese literary circles and experienced multiple rejections. Although she moved in the same circles as Ingeborg Bachmann, Ilse Aichinger, Thomas Bernhard, she was often mocked as the ‘provincial egg, the dentist’s wife, the forester’s daughter’.
I had always wondered why Marlen divorced her husband in 1950, only to then get remarried to him in 1958. I suspected he was a serial womaniser, which was true, and the last straw was when he had a serious relationship with one of Marlen’s best friends. However, I was stunned to discover that they continued to live in the same house and work together in the dental practice, that very few people (not even their children) knew that they were actually divorced, and that they both pursued other relationships during their years of estrangement. Marlen did not seem at all blind to her husband’s faults, nor was she deeply in love with him any longer, so why did she remarry him? She once told a friend that ‘you cannot be divorced in Steyr’. Perhaps, like the narrator inThe Loft, she craved the comfort of routine. Perhaps she was disappointed by her occasional forays into Viennese cultural life and the other men in her life proved disappointing as well. She complained about not having enough time to write, of being a victim of her domestic arrangements, and yet she seemed reluctant to rid herself of her chains. As one of her writer friends said: ‘You know where you are going wrong, Marlen? If your husband asks you for a slice of bread and butter, you immediately make three for him.’
Her health had never been brilliant, so she mostly ignored the hip pain that started plaguing her in the mid-1960s. In 1968 she was diagnosed with bone cancer, which she kept hidden from friends and even her immediate family for as long as she could. This was a family where hardly anything was ever openly discussed. She died just a few weeks short of her fiftieth birthday in 1970.
The biographer Daniela Strigl interviewed family members and friends of Marlen Haushofer, as well as researching the archives. I wasn’t entirely convinced by her extensive use of quotes from Marlen’s novels to illustrate biographical details, but am not sure what else she could have done, because Marlen systematically destroyed all of her diaries (with one small exception) and the letters she received. Luckily, some of her correspondents kept the letters she sent them, but even then it would be a mistake to believe that this enigmatic author always meant exactly what she wrote. She wrote for maximum effect, in what was often a devastatingly cynical way that was in direct contrast to her apparently settled bourgeois housewifely existence. She was such a secretive person that her friends could never quite agree what she was like, whether she was happy or not – or even the colour of her eyes.
I’ll end with a few quotes from Marlen’s writings, some from her fiction, some from her personal papers:
You should never ask for too much, then you can never receive too little.
I find myself here in a place where I do not belong, living among people who know nothing of me, half of my strength is wasted on the effort of remaining inconspicuous. The older I get, the more I realise how hopelessly entangled all of us are, and I envy the person who never becomes aware of this.
She has become that friendly, slightly distracted woman who goes for a walk with her child, reads novels, receives her guests, puts flowers into vases, and generally feels life trickling away from her gently, without regrets. One of the many women whose will is broken, who are no longer really there. No matter how she chooses to live her life, she will sit there on that stone today, with the suspicion in her heart that she has picked the wrong path.
In spite of all my efforts, I seem stuck… I have the feeling, I am wasting all of my strength. I would not take pleasure in writing a successful book if I had the feeling I had let my family down. I really think it is impossible to be a good person and a good artist at the same time.
Marlen’s final letter, a sort of literary testament, which she wrote a week or so before her death, is truly heartbreaking, yet without the faintest hint of self-pity or self-indulgence:
Do not worry. You have seen too much and too little, just like everyone before you. You have cried too much, maybe too little, just like everyone before you. Maybe you have loved and hated too much – but not for long – twenty years or so. What are twenty years anyway? After that, part of you died, just like it did for all people who can no longer love nor hate […] Do not worry. Everything will have been in vain, just like it has always been. A completely normal story.
This is my last contribution to the German Literature Month extravaganza, but do please head over to the website hosted by Marcia (aka Lizzy Siddal) to see what other people have read this November.
It’s an amazing feeling, isn’t it, when as a reader you discover an author who seems to really speak both to and for you, whose writing you admire but who also makes you squirm a little because how could they possibly have gained such an insight into the deepest recesses of your soul, even those bits you want to hide because they are too embarrassing, too sad, too dark? This is how I felt about Marlen Haushofer after reading her masterpiece The Wallin the summer of 2020. I fell deeply in love with her voice, and at first I thought it was because of the circumstances: we had just experienced a world of emptiness, where time stood still. But then I read The Wallpaper Door and We Kill Stella, and I was blown away by both of them.
Plunging into a Haushofer book is like a cold dip into an Austrian alpine lake – bracing and potentially deadly, but oh, the clarity of the water! As you can see from the amount of post-its that I used for Die Mansarde, I want to remember almost every single sentence and this author has now joined my select band of favourites like Tove Jansson, Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and Shirley Jackson (I am trying to imagine a dinner party with them, but suspect they were all such introverts they would not have enjoyed it much).
This latest foray into her work is a novella (a little on the longer side, but still under 200 pages), the last work published by Haushofer before her untimely death. The title can be translated as The Loft or The Attic, which is the place where the narrator, the typical strange, middle-aged, oddly passive Haushofer heroine, retreats to work on her illustrations of birds. She is married to Hubert, an uncommunicative lawyer who likes reading about historical battles. They barely touch and they never talk about anything important. They have two children, but the son, mother’s favourite, has left home and the daughter is oblivious to her parents, as all teenagers are. Outwardly, everything seems to be very average and fine in this Viennese family, albeit dull and predictable: every Sunday the couple goes to the Arsenal Military Museum, every weekday the husband goes to work, while the narrator either prepares his lunch or else has social obligations of her own – people she doesn’t really want to meet, and with whom she doesn’t have much in common. The narrator feels safe in this boring routine, even though she has no one with whom she can really talk properly. Her only escape valve is her sketchbook in the loft.
It turns out that the narrator used to be a book illustrator specialising in birds and insects, but something momentuous happened and she no longer does this professionally. All she strives for now is to draw a bird that does not look so isolated – surely birds by and large operate in flocks, so why do her birds look so lonely? (This lone bird motif seems to crop up quite a bit in Haushofer’s writing.)
In the first part of the book, the narrator teases us with multiple hints of ‘before and after’ a calamitous event, which completely changed the married couple’s life when their son was just three years old. The narrator suddenly went completely deaf upon hearing some sirens, perhaps as a trauma response after the war (the couple met and got married during the war, so the story takes place in the mid 1960s, we suspect)). Instead of going to a hospital, her husband paid for her to ‘recover’ at the house of a hunter in the countryside for eighteen months, while her young son stayed with her mother-in-law. In the countryside she met a man who used her deafness as way to purge himself of his guilt, confessing things to her that he knows she cannot hear, crying and shouting at her, to the point where she doesn’t know whether to fear or pity him. She wrote a diary during that period of self-imposed exile, and now fragments of this diary are showing up in envelopes in her letterbox. Forced to remember and reflect upon the past, which she has successfully avoided thus far, the narrator finally gets to understand her real nature and the emotions she has been suppressing for the sake of an ‘easy’, comfortable life.
The story doesn’t sound like much, yet there are so many beautiful passages, such psychological insight, that I don’t quite know how to share with you. Let me try and give you a flavour by sharing a few favourite quotes. In the first, the narrator wonders at how she and her husband have changed over the years – we have seen this in their minimalistic, dull interactions, but the narrator’s reflections add a heavy layer of… what is it exactly? Depression? Anxiety? Extreme self-consciousness?
It used to be different. Back then, Hubert was not so concerned about his dignity, we laughed a lot and invented games, something he has forgotten about and which is becoming an increasingly hazy memory for me too… That time ‘before’ would seem so unusual to me if I were to glimpse it through a key-hole: so strange, that I would have to cry, and I no longer know how to cry.
I’ve changed too, but not completely, because every time Ferdinand [her son] praises my desserts, I could jump in the air with glee. Somewhere locked inside of me there is a little girl who wants to warm her toes and dance around like all the other children. But she has been locked up, this is what happens to little girls who don’t know how to stop being little girls. It’s really my fault, that I cannot cope with the present day.
Another reoccurring theme in Haushofer’s work is the relationship between people and animals, with the author frequently seeing humans as the evil partner. Here the narrator is debating whether she should tame a kitten who is visiting her in the hunter’s house. The cat runs to hide in a bush when the narrator tries to stroke her.
It’s better like that. She must never learn how pleasant it is to be stroked. It could confuse her healthy little cat brain far too much. She should remain free and brave, full of hatred against those who make her suffer; only hatred and caution can keep her alive. I say to her: ‘Don’t trust anyone, Cat, they only want to torture you and kill all your babies. Stay all by yourself, Cat. At some point they will catch you and try to sell your hide, but it’s not as bad to be killed by your enemy as it is to be killed by your friend.’
There is something in the very simple, clear German text (I don’t know if I’ve succeeded in conveying that in my quick translations) that just skirts tragedy but is not at all self-pitying or self-indulgent, something that feels so profoundly true and human. Reading this while also reading Cărtărescu’s Solenoid, which is also a deep dive into a troubled psyche, I couldn’t help but think how much more concise and pared down the woman writer is – and thus all the more effective (to my mind).
I read it in German, but the book is available in English from Quartet Books, translated by Amanda Prantera. Also, you don’t want to miss Vishy’s superb review of this book (Vishy has loved her for far longer than I have), while Anthony from Time’s Flow Stemmed describes it as ‘close as you can get to immaculate’. Dorian Stuber has also written a great review of her more famous work The Wall.
I was planning to read some other novellas for Novellas in November and for German Literature Month, but I might end up reading Haushofer’s biography instead.