#1936Club: Max Blecher and Translation Comparison

Max Blecher published the short novel Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată in 1936 and in this post I will be referring to the Romanian language version of it via the Open Access library, as well as three English language translations: Adventures in Immediate Irreality by Michael Henry Heim, published by New Directions in 2015; Occurence in the Immediate Unreality by Alistair Ian Blyth, published University of Plymouth Press, 2009; Adventures in Immediate Unreality by Jeanie Han, dating from 2007, which is freely available online.

I discovered Romanian author Max Blecher a few years back with his best-known work Scarred Hearts, a shorter, funnier but also much more visceral version of The Magic Mountain. Unfortunately, because of his early death at the age of 28 from spinal tuberculosis, and being bedridden for the last ten years of his life, he only produced a small but memorable body of work over a very short period of time between 1930 and 1938. He was not at all well-known in Romania when I was growing up. He certainly was not as well known as his contemporaries Camil Petrescu, Mircea Eliade, Eugen Ionescu or Mihail Sebastian, and was largely ignored even when his novels were reissued in 1970 during a brief cultural thaw in Communist Romania.

He is only now starting to be recognised for his unique modernist style in his home country, and perhaps this is only thanks to the reaction of readers in the West (he has been translated into French, German and English, among others), where he has been compared to Kafka, Robert Walser or Bruno Schulz. It still didn’t prevent his house in the town of Roman from being torn down in 2013, although there had been campaigns to preserve it as a museum.

This novel reads like a memoir, but it is an indefinable work, hovering somewhere between a prose poem, a memoir and a novel. In terms of subject matter, it reminds me a little of Barbellion‘s Diary, but it is less about day to day life, with less ego involved. This last may seem like a strange statement, since we have a first person narrator who gives us a detailed account of his childhood in a small provincial town, his encounters with women, his bodily sensations, his reaction to the small objects he picks up and the people he observes. And yet this is not the author worrying about his legacy, or how his contemporaries may perceive him. Instead, we have a devastatingly honest and detailed account of living with the spectre of death in front of you all the time. His reactions are very physical, immediate, powerful, occasionally excessive – it’s as though the narrator is trying to plunge himself into life, determined to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of it. Or perhaps he is trying to determine which of the worlds he feels he inhabits is more real. The narrator has always hovered on the threshold between two worlds. As he tells us, he has suffered from early childhood from something he calls ‘crises’, which tend to occur in certain particular spaces in his home town, spaces he calls ‘cursed’. During these crises, which sound a bit like a fugue state, he feels his identity dissolve, he is no longer sure of what is real or not, and when he recovers from them, he has a profound sense of futility and disappointment with the world. At those times, he seems to suffer from an overabundance of clear sight and awareness, and it’s telling him that he is in the wrong place, that his real self and life are somewhere else. This is the rather poignant ending of the book (in the translation of Michael Henry Heim).

Now I am struggling with reality. I scream, I beg to be awoken, to awaken into another life, my true life… I know I am alive, but there is something missing, as there was in my nightmare.

I struggle. I scream. I flail. Who will awaken me?

That precise reality around me is dragging me down, trying to sink me. Who will awaken me?

It has always been like this. Always. Always.

Blecher in happier, more mobile times, 1929.

It is very difficult to describe the book in any more detail, other than to say that, although it bears some resemblance to the stream of consciousness techniques developed by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, it is not just introverted musing. Instead, it is also a description of a town, a way of life, a family and a certain time period. It is full of anecdotes, full of scenes which take place against unusual backdrops: a waxwork museum, a cinema that goes up in flames, the props room at the local theatre, the August funfair, junk-filled attics, a sewing machine shop, all filtered through the consciousness of an over-sensitive child and then young man. I had the feeling I was watching a Jean Cocteau film (more specifically, Testament of Orpheus) while reading this, although it would be unfair to call the book surrealist, given how firmly it is anchored in the body.

However, I have to admit that I struggled with the book at first. This is because I had bought a copy of it in translation from the University of Plymouth Press, a bulk buy of beautifully illustrated translations of modern or contemporary Romanian literature (which has ceased, because of lack of funding). I could not resist the high production values, and the British translator is a prolific translator from Romanian, of philosophers like Constantin Noica and Catalin Avramescu, as well as novelists like Filip Florian and Stelian Tanase. So when I resolved to read the book for the #1936Club, this is where I started. But I soon hit a wall: I found the style pompous, pretentious, needlessly complicated, which was not at all how I remembered Blecher from Scarred Hearts.

So I turned to the Romanian original. And indeed, in spite of the modernist style, the language is simple and everyday, perfectly comprehensible to the average Romanian, not at all high falutin. I’d noticed this discrepancy before when reading English translations of Romanian works – but, in the case of Cartarescu at least, I thought maybe that was a fair reflection of his own style. However, in the case of Mihail Sebastian or others, it felt like these translations (which are mostly by men, by the way, and I honestly don’t know if that makes a difference) are pointlessly over-egging the language and giving people the wrong impression about Romanian literature. One possible explanation could be that words of Latin origin are perfectly common in Romanian but sound more sophisticated and erudite in English. Still, there are plenty of perfectly acceptable non-Latin choices in English that could convey the meaning in a way closer to the Romanian intention and spirit.

I have said before that, when there is only a small amount being translated from a certain language, publishers and readers are prone to put labels on the literature of that country. For Romania this might be ‘abstract, difficult, philosophical, traumatic’, and anything that doesn’t fit into that stereotype won’t be considered. But that was in terms of content; I didn’t expect it to be the case also in terms of language. It’s not often, of course, that you have multiple translations of the same text from Romanian, but I have seen Max Easterman puzzling over two very different translations of Mihail Sebastian’s Women. In this case, I found three translations of Blecher’s text. I don’t know anything about the earliest translator, Jeanie Han, other than that she received funding to visit Romania and was mentored by Romanian professors there while translating this work. I do know, however, that Michael Henry Heim’s translation appeared posthumously. This award-winning multilingual translator (specialist in Slavic languages in particular) was terminally ill himself when he translated Blecher’s work. However, he felt such a strong affinity for this project that he learnt Romanian especially for it. However, I didn’t allow myself to be influenced by the back story when I decided that I preferred his version, which reads far less like a treatise in philosophy. Jeanie Han also comes closer to the more colloquial language of the original, while Alistair Ian Blyth sounds the most academic.

Even in the following passage, which is more objectively difficult even in the original Romanian, you can see that Heim’s version is the one that sounds most natural in English, although he has subtly altered the meaning in the first sentence. In the original, there is no hint that the narrator was waiting for the light to change before leaving the cinema. However, in the second version the translator has suddenly made it sound like the narrator was going to the cinema with a larger group, which seems highly unlikely in that context.

2007 Version2009 Version2015 Version
In the summer I would go to the matinee early and come out when it began to get dark. The light outside was changed; the day, nearly over, was waning. I observed that in my absence an immense and essential event had taken place in the world like a kind of sad obligation to carry on the ceaseless work – night falling, for instance – regular, diaphanous and spectacular. Thus, I would once again enter into the middle of a certainty, which through its daily rigor seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatric effects and obliged every evening to produce a correct sunset, the people around me seemed like poor pitiful beings with their seriousness and their naive belief in what they did and what they felt.In summer, we would go into the matinee early and leave in the evening, as night was falling. The light outside was altered; the remnants of the day had been extinguished. It was thus I ascertained that in my absence there had occurred in the world an event immense and essential, its sad obligation of always having to continue – by means of nightfall, for example – its repetitive, diaphanous and spectacular labour. In this way we would enter once more into the midst of a certitude that in its daily rigorousness seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatrical effects and obligated every evening to perform a proper sunset, the people around me appeared like poor creatures to be commiserated for the seriousness with which they always busied themselves, the seriousness with which they believed so naively in whatever they did or felt.In summer I would go to the matinee and emerge only at nightfall: I was waiting for the light outside to change, for the day to end. I would thus ascertain that in my absence an important thing, an essential thing had taken place: the world had assumed the sad responsibility of carrying on – by growing dark, for example – its regular, intricate, theatrical obligations. Again I had to accept a certainty whose rigorous daily return made me infinitely melancholy. In a world subject to the most theatrical of effects, a world obliged every evening to produce an acceptable sunset, the poor creatures around me seemed pitiful in their determination to keep themselves busy and maintain their naive belief in what they did and felt.
The literal translation of the Romanian title, by the way, is Happenings in the Immediate Non-Reality

There are many more such examples, but I will spare myself the delights of typing them all up in the WordPress blocks (and spare you the delights of ploughing through very similar texts). In my comparison of the translations of Genji, I was probably the only one who preferred Seidensticker’s translation for making things smoother and easier for the English reader. However, in that case, we had a style of language that was no longer in use in present-day Japan, so I can understand why other readers preferred the translations that were closer to the spirit of the original. In this case, however, Max Blecher’s Romanian is still instantly recognisable, only very occasionally using slightly outdated verb forms etc. We all still speak like that and write like that, and, even though we share with the other Romance languages a predilection for three or four syllable words, that does not make us any more thoughtful or highly literary than others!

Photograph of Blecher from the early 1930s.

Aside from my quibbles about the various translations, I would agree with Herta Müller, who described this novel as a masterpiece of sheer literary intensity. Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty. ‘Exasperating as it was, I was forced to admit that I lived in the world I saw around me; there was nothing else.’

I doubt this book could ever be turned into a film, but Blecher’s Scarred Hearts has been imaginatively adapted by Romanian director Radu Jude, interspersed with the author’s own words and the historical context of the 1930s.

I jumped the gun a little on the officieal #1936Club because I’m spending most of hte month in that time period. So I have already written about Don Juan Returns from War last week.

Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters

Last month I read two memorable novels about the fraught relationship between parents and children. The first, Ioanna Karystiani’s Back to Delphi (transl. Konstantine Matsoukas), is about mothers and sons trying (and mostly failing) to understand and forgive each other. The second, Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman is at least partly about the damage forceful fathers can wreak on their daughters (although it is also about college cliques and not quite fitting in).

Back to Delphi is the more poetic title in English, but the Greek original is actually ‘Sacks’ and refers to the mental baggage we all carry with us. It is the story of Viv Koleva ‘fifty two years of weariness and seventy-eight kilos of sadness’, who is desperate to reconnect with her son Linus, who is on a brief furlough from prison, where he is serving a life sentence for rape and murder. She takes him on a trip to Delphi, out of a misguided conviction that seeing the beauty of Ancient Greek sculptures and architecture will give him a reason to live, somehow turn him into a better person.

– Archaeology requires and provides knowledge, imagination, inspiration, adventure, it obliges a mind to take a reprieve from reality, to not go moldy inside four walls, she said with zest…

Flashbacks show us Viv’s life as a young woman, how she abandoned her medical studies when she met Linus’ father and got pregnant, how she single-handedly started a successful retail business, while her husband sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism and feelings of inadequacy. When her husband dies prematurely, we understand how she pinned all her expectations on her son, how she wanted to offer him the best possible life. After her son’s crimes are discovered and he is sentenced, she is shunned by neigbours, friends and even family, because ‘in every crime, along with the accused, society also tried the mother.’ She has to move several times, pretend to be someone else, change her job. We start to sympathise with her and feel that the son’s monosyllabic utterances and sulking as they walk around Delphi are a bit exaggerated.

However, about halfway through the book, we are suddenly plunged into the son’s point of view, and at first it feels like a violent shock to the system. However, if you can read past the first few paragraphs, you start to understand how Linus grew up the way he did, how his parents always wanted him to be quiet, never really listened to him or responded to his needs. They were too self-absorbed in their business, their difficult relationship, their hard lives. His godmother, supposedly his mother’s best friend, filled him with fear and loathing. He felt abandoned, orphaned in every sense of the word. In his teens, he is awash with self-loathing and depression, and recognises some of those impulses in his mother, although that doesn’t make him understand or forgive her.

Linus was certain that from time to time, Viv was stewing in the same dark juice, turning her back on opportunities, organizing defeats, practicing her talent for frustration and long-term despondency. Mother and son filled with energy for misery. If only he had one… two… three siblings to help carry the heavy nothingness and the abundant loneliness, more kids should mean smaller portions of orphanhood for each.

The crimes Linus commits are horrific and it is painful to watch how torn his mother is between disgust and guilt as she starts to suspect he is the one committing them. Yet, as we move back to Delphi in the present-day, you cannot help but wish, as a reader, that the two of them will somehow be able to communicate with each other for the first time. However, this is not a Hollywood movie and the journey there is extremely bumpy, with no certainty of arrival. The recognition of past mistakes is a very painful, though necessary first step, but it’s only a small step to rebuilding trust, finding the ability to love and forgive.

… she reconsidered the spoiled part. The truth was her hands didn’t often touch her child, not when he was young and not when he grew up and her lips didn’t kiss his hair much and her eyes didn’t enfold him tenderly and her voice didn’t come out in stories and gentle words. The spoiling was done via her wallet and the deep fryer, a generous allowance and lots of french fries, till he finished high school the deep fryer was working overtime.

This was an extremely difficult book to read as a mother in general, and as a mother of boys in particular, because no matter how well you think you are communicating, no matter how close you think you are, there is still something about the young man in front of you that remains unknowable and slightly frightening. And you know that society places the onus far more on you than on any father figure for the way you raised your child. Any of their flaws and inexplicable impulses are a reflection on you; psychoanalysts and the press, as well as public opinion, will put you on trial. Aside from the particular circumstances between this mother and son couple, the novel also shows the ways in which completely honesty, transparency and understanding is impossible even between those we consider closest – and that perhaps it is even undesirable or unbearable to share every single thought.

Every story has blanks, some are common to all the participants in its plot. Each one, though, has a few that only he has noticed, that don’t add up for him alone no matter how he tries, if he does, which he probably doesn’t. In certain cases, some are well served by such blanks, gray zones which they guard by tooth and claw, terrifed at the possibility that, if they were to be filled, the truth might be intolerable.

Ultimately, perhaps it’s these lies of omission, and the spaces they allow for our own interpretation of events, that enable us to survive and thrive in relationships at all.

Hangsaman proves to be an unexpected companion piece to the troubled male Greek teenager. It is the story of a female American teenager, Natalie Waite, who at first sight seems to be the bright, obedient daughter who mostly humours but frequently despises her stay-at-home, downtrodden mother with her anxious impulses, while simultaneously admiring and sparring intellectually with her demanding writer father. When she goes to college, she proves herself to be too independent of thought and behaviour to really fit in, she is repelled by the hypocrisy she finds at every step, and descends into a deep well of darkness, loneliness and despair.

Such is the elegance and wit of Shirley Jackson’s style that the readers understand long before Natalie realises herself that her father is a manipulative, dictatorial man who takes out his fears of his own mediocrity on his daughter. The letters he writes to her in college are both funny and infuriating. Every scene between father and daughter is filled with real menace – this is deliberate misunderstanding rather than unconscious one. When she finally admits to him that things are not going well, that she needs help, this is his response:

‘I should hate to deprive you prematurely of the glories of the suicidal frame of mind, since I am fairly certain that depriving yourself of the ability to feel this way would be more cruel than any sort of physical torture you might inflict upon yourself, so that I can use “suicidal” as a descriptive adjective without really feeling that it implies any action.’

‘You’re trying to make me say that I want to kill myself,’ Natalie said.

‘You need hardly say anything quite so meaningless… and I would vastly prefer that you confine your statements to pure descriptions of fact. I think better of your vanity, Natalie, than to believe that two months out of seventeen years could destroy you.

Unsurprisingly, Natalie returns to college even more unsure of herself, feeling her identity and her grip on reality slowly slipping away. She does make one friend, Tony, who proves to be as much of an outsider as herself, a sort of alter ego (and quite possibly an imaginary friend, Jackson never likes to make things too clearcut in her writing). Tony has an almost hypnotic effect on Natalie and dares her to go beyond what she ever imagined possible:

…they want to pull us back, and start us all over again just like them and doing the things they want to do and acting the way they want to act and saying and thinking and wanting all the things they live with every day. And… I know a place where we can go and no one can trouble us.

The crimes that take place in Hangsaman are, unlike the ones in Back to Delphi, more crimes of the mind. We are never really sure if they take place or not, but the sense of rising danger is more frightening than anything I read in the more explicit Greek novel. I found myself almost forgetting to breathe for whole scenes at a time. There is, in particular, one passage in which Natalie describes how she might pick up and pull apart the neat little houses she sees scattered around the college campus which sounds like it could have provided the backdrop or inspiration for the lyrics of Blondie’s Rapture. I remain constantly stunned by how much Shirley Jackson was ‘of her time’, describing the claustrophobic environment for housewives and the limited possibilities for women in the 1950s, and yet how utterly contemporary she still feels in style, at once sly and sinister, detached yet capable of getting fully under your skin and never quite letting you go.

P.S. I think the new Penguin Modern Classics covers for Shirley Jackson’s books are little bit bland, but some of the earlier covers were very pulpy. Simon at Stuck in a Book has written a whole blog post about Shirley Jackson covers, which I highly recommend.

Early #1936Club, Late #PlaysinMarch Post

Ödön von Horváth: Don Juan Comes Back from the War (transl. Christopher Hampton) and Figaro Gets Divorced (transl. Ian Huish), Oberon Books.

Who better to provide the bridge between my Plays in March reading project and my dedication to the year 1936 in April than one of my old loves, a true representative of the diversity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Ödön von Horváth? Born in Croatia, descended from a Hungarian family, educated in Slovakia and Vienna, adopting German as his preferred language for writing, Horváth was also one of the first writers to warn about the rising tide of Fascism. Needless to say, by 1936 he was banned in Germany and was pretty much a refugee himself, so both of these plays (Don Juan Come Back from the War was written in 1936, Figaro Gets Divorced in the following year) depict realities well-known to him, as well as notorious fictional heroes.

Scene from Don Juan kommt aus dem Krieg at the Salsburger Festspiele 2014.

What I didn’t know was that the playwright was himself a bit of a ladies’ man and that he was in equal parts fascinated and repelled by the figure of Don Juan, and thought of writing something about him for more than a decade. Given the unforgiving way in which he portrays men who trample on women’s feelings generally (I’m thinking also of Tales of the Vienna Woods), he was not proud of his conquests.

In this play, Don Juan the inveterate womaniser and anti-hero returns from something very much resembling the First World War in a gloomy, despairing frame of mind. He has realised the banality and futility of his existence and is hell-bent on finding the one he believes to be the only true love of his life (even though he cannot remember what she looks like). However, she died during the war, and he is not as much of a changed man as he would like to think he is. He becomes once more embroiled in all sorts of intrigues with women, he is practically the victim of female intrigue and of his own desire to find perfection. There is just one man – Don Juan himself – and 35 women in the play (although the 35 are played by a much smaller number of actresses, because they all represent variations on the same type), of all ages and backgrounds. Set against a background of German and Austrian defeat in the First World War, this is very much a play about loss of innocence and hope, of a man (and a country) hurtling towards the inevitable.

I thought this play was slight, too superficial, compared to some of his other ones, and this may be because Don Juan just never comes across as a truly thoughtful or reformed character. By contrast, Figaro Gets Divorced was far more interesting. The Count and Countess Almaviva are on the run from a revolution with their servants Figaro and Susanna (Horváth is clear that this is not specifically the 1789 French Revolution, but any revolution); they have crossed the border, they are now exiles fighting bureaucracy, struggling to survive financially. Suddenly, none of the old rules apply anymore. The Count has to sell his jewellery for far less than its value (the market is flooded with ‘refugee diamonds’). He can no longer stomach Figaro’s forthright advice:

A person who wants to be considered part of my retinue should not always be telling me his opinion, even if it is the right one, he should rather lie to me, unconditionally agreeing with everything I say…

So Figaro and Susanne leave their masters and open up a hairdressing salon in the small village of Grosshadersdorf. However, they are still viewed with suspicion as ‘refugees’ and soon become the victims of vicious gossip: ‘I’ve been saying for ages that these foreigners should never have been allowed in, they’re corrupting our whole moral climate!’

The couple splits up and Figaro heads back to his homeland, where he joins the revolutionaries, who display all the extreme behaviour, brainwashing and rewriting of the past that we might expect after seeing the Soviets and so many other revolutionaries bring in new social rules. Figaro is at first viewed with suspicion for following his master into exile, but he soon wins the crowd over with his customary quick-wittedness and persuasive skills, as we are used in seeing from Beaumarchais, Rossini and Mozart. Yet beneath the black humour, there is a profound disillusionment with the world, a mere survival instinct coming to the fore.

No man is more hated nor more despised in this world than an honest man with a brain. There’s only one way out. You have to make a decision: honesty or intelligence. If you choose honesty, you have to make sacrifices. If you choose intelligence then others make the sacrifices.

Who was our good Count anyway? A man of substance who imagined he had a brain of substance!… Birth, wealth, class and rank made him proud. And what had he done, our good Count, to earn so many advantages? He took the bother to be born and that was the only work he ever did in his life, the rest of it he frittered, fopped and fiddled away.

And yet, when the Count too returns to his former domain and is promptly arrested and sentenced to death, Figaro is the one who stops the over-zealous young boys from attacking him. When they cry out that he is a criminal and should be shot at once, Figaro reminds them:

…if you should meet Count Almaviva then you greet him respectfully… because he is an old man and you are snotty little kids, and if he has committed any crime then he certainly won’t be waiting for you to pass sentence… Be careful, perhaps when you get old, they’ll be saying every orphan’s a criminal and there will only be counts left and the counts’ll lock up all orphans and shoot them…

What could account for the change of heart? Figaro, very much like Horváth himself, comes to distrust all revolutions, or any ideology that sets itself up above common decency and humanity. In the brief preface to the play, he says the following:

Humanity is not accompanied by any storms, it is only a weak light in the darkness. Let us hope all the same that no storm, however great, is able to extinguish it.

If I ever get asked about ideal dinner party guests, I would certainly include Ödön von Horváth and Mihail Sebastian. As far as I am aware, they did not know each other, although they lived at roughly the same time and were both playwrights (and both died in freak accidents) – but I like to imagine they’d have got on splendidly.

Robert Seethaler: The Field, transl. Charlotte Collins

There was a TV series that I enjoyed watching while living in France called Un village français (A French Village). It followed the years of the German occupation of France during WW2 in a small village near the Franco-Swiss border. The logline of the first season was ‘1940 – living means having to choose’, and it presents a far more nuanced picture of the different degrees of resistance or collaboration, accommodation or destruction in those murky times. Every village and every community has a wealth of different characters and points of view, and the threads that link all of the people over time are fascinating.

Very taken by this beautiful cover, by the way.

I was reminded of this TV series while reading Robert Seethaler’s latest novel The Field, which attempts to capture the history of the fictional village – or tiny town – of Paulstadt, through the conceit of hearing the voices of those buried in its cemetery, called ‘the field’ by the locals. There are certain elements which make us think this is an Austrian village (not least because the Austrian author has always set his novels in his native country, even though he is now living in Berlin), but in fact it could be anywhere in Central Europe, with its fluid borders, Catholicism and recent prosperity that hasn’t always translated well into the rural environment.

What is of course incontestable is that, in death, all of the people are equal, even though in life they may have been rich or poor, corrupt or fair, winner or loser, kind or horrible, immigrant or refugee or native. The village has had its share of tragedies and small triumphs, its corrupt councillors and odd priests, its failed development initiatives. It is very ordinary and yet, in this patient enumeration of its inhabitants, their hopes and fears and dreams and disappointments, it reminds us that no place is ordinary.

Some of the voices call out and respond to each other, some replay family dramas or contradict each other or regret things. It helps perhaps to think of each voice as a piece of prose poetry or flash fiction. Some are funny, others are lyrical, some are quite dramatic and they all gradually build up to give you a picture of an entire community. Because they are presented in the higgledy-piggedly order you might come across names in a graveyard, it’s hard at first to make sense of the cacophony of voices. I would certainly recommend dipping in and out of the book for a first reading, and then rereading it to observe all of the connections. Although very well-written, I did wonder if the same cumulative effect could have been achieved with slightly fewer voices – but then I seem to keep on saying about each book that it could have been shorter! Which seems rather ungenerous, given that this book is only 240 pages long, so not a massive tome.

This is the kind of novel that will inevitably get readers to wonder what makes for a life well lived. It’s difficult to pick just one quote, because the book is full of beautiful passages, but here is one example that amused me, taken from one of the less sympathetic characters (funny, but also very moving, particularly reading it in 2021):

Some young people have been picknicking on our grave lately on mild summer evenings… They picked this grave because it’s got a huge slab of black Labrador marble that retains the heat of sun until well after nightfall. There they sit, yattering non-stop, the most egregious nonsense, spilling their beer, which trickles over our family name… Sometimes young Schwitters pees against the back of the gravestone, and the girls all giggle and shriek. I resent them for it. I hate them for their stupidity and their beauty. I hate them for the miracle inside them, on which they waste not a single thought behind their hot, unwrinkled foreheads.

Can someone go and ask them to stay forever?

I have previously really enjoyed and reviewed Seethaler’s The Tobacconist; while The Field has also been reviewed by John, Rachel and (in fascinating detail) by Susan.

Plays in March: Linda by Penelope Skinner

Roughly two years ago, I saw a play at RADA which made for unforgettable viewing. I was so impressed by the young actors, but also by the script itself, that I bought it in book format. For my Plays in March personal reading goal, I read it and was once more bowled over, even though it was still so fresh in my mind.

The play was Linda by Penelope Skinner, who has been described as one of the leading young feminist playwrights in the UK, and has also been reviewed as feisty, gutsy, rageful. Interestingly, Penelope has a sister, Ginny Skinner, who writes mainly graphic novels. Together, they have been commissioned to write a thriller series for the BBC ‘The Following Events Are Based On A Pack Of Lies’, which I for one can’t wait to see.

Linda of the title is the main protagonist of the play, of the generation of dual-shift women (career and home), the women who supposedly had it all. She is, as she never ceases to remind us, an award-winning professional, a middle-aged career woman, wife and mother who sees everything she fought for all her life slipping through her fingers. Yet the play is full of women and girls of different ages – late twenties, early twenties, teens… who are even more confused about their place in the world. They see the cracks in Linda’s life all too clearly and are sure they don’t want that – but they are not sure what they want instead, or indeed what is possible for them.

Linda is being sidelined by her boss for a project on marketing cosmetics to middle-aged women in favour of a younger work rival who has caught the eye of her boss, just like she did when she was a young single mother. She’s not going to go quietly, but life on the home front is not helping either: her husband is having a very predictable midlife crisis and affair, her older daughter has abandoned her studies and not come out of the house and her onesie in years, her younger daughter feels neglected and resentful. Yet everybody leans on her, the quintessential strong woman. She is not allowed to have a moment’s weakness or failure, to acknowledge any vulnerability. And Linda at the outset of the play has certainly bought into the myth of her own strength and infallibility and sounds a bit like the Lean In Sheryl Sandberg woman:

An award-winning businesswoman and I didn’t even go to university. Mother of two. Gorgeous husband. I can change a tyre, I own my own home, dinner-party guests marvel at my home-made croquembouche and I still fit into the same size-ten dress suit I did fifteen years ago. I’ve washed brushed groomed plucked shaved painted injected dyed dieted oh God I’ve dieted. My whole life I’ve been watching what I eat and watching what I say and watching how I walk how I talk what I wear. Because that’s what you have to do when you’re a woman, girls… I’ve made it to the top and believe me if I can do it you can do it. If you’re prepared to do the work? You really can have it all.

Her daughter Alice remonstrates that maybe systemic racism or sexism might get in your way, but Linda at first just says you have to think positive. What follows is of course the dismantling of Linda’s optimism, proving that Alice was right all along, although the daughter is a passive observer rather than a fighter. The characters seem far less annoying in reading than in watching them onstage, which just goes to show how much life a director and an actor can bring to words on a page.

More than two years have passed since I saw the play and this time I’ve come to it with a very different attitude and experience, and it resonated with me differently. When I saw it performed, I was still going through the never-ending divorce, so of course the exchanges with Linda’s husband resonated most:

Every year I send you an email reminder that my birthday’s coming up. And the reason I do that is because I know deep down if I don’t do it you won’t remember and your not remembering will be so painful that I won’t be able to bear it… I do everything in this house and the reason I do everything is because I thought at the very least you were loyal. And reliable. And as it turns out you’re not. So now I look at you and I see you for what you are: you’re an ornament.

Reading it this time, in the week between International Women’s Day and Mothering Sunday, when there was so much vitriol being flung about women’s safety and bodies, the whole lack of progress made me very, very angry. Particularly that moving epilogue, showing a younger Linda holding a hopeful speech about the wider culture moving on in ten years and becoming a better place for women of all ages. A hopeful speech that we know ends in tragedy. A soap bubble of a dream that we seem to chase every generation or so, which bursts just as we are about to tighten our grasp on it.

Maki Kashimada: Touring the Land of the Dead, transl. Haydn Trowell, Europa Editions

I can never stray too far from Japanese literature, even though it’s no longer January in Japan. This book, which is made up of two separate long short stories or novellas, was published by Europa Editions earlier this month and is translated by Australian academic and translator Haydn Trowell. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC (and to be only a week or two late in my reviewing of it).

The first novella Touring the Land of the Dead won the Akutagawa Prize in 2012 and, back then, Glynne Walley at the University of Oregon commented that it could be translated as ‘A Tour of Hell’ or ‘Running Around in the Afterlife’ or even ‘The Dark Land and Its Rounds’. [The wide range of possibilities gives you an idea of why I gave up ever translating from Japanese.] The second novella Ninety-Nine Kisses was a sort of bonus at the time, to make the entry book-length, and Walley is possibly the only reader other than me who preferred it to the prize-winning one. Most readers were repulsed by the strong hints of incest in the second story, but for this Shirley Jackson fan, it had more of the slightly sinister insider vs. outsider vibe of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Anyway, back to the first novella, with a clever title that sounds appropriate for the spa holiday that our protagonist Natsuko undertakes with her husband, but also refers to that well-known maxim that ‘Hell is other people’ – in this case, Natsuko’s family.

You poor thing, her mother would say. You poor, poor thing, working so hard in place of your husband at that drab job of yours… Even though what was really deserving of pity were those hours spent in that restaurant looking at that tonguesole meuniere, that evening spent together with someone who didn’t understand her at all, in that gorgeous world in which she didn’t belong.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Natsuko’s mother and brother are lazy spongers, with a breathtaking sense of entitlement, who have never been able to recover from their loss of fortune and status. They have no qualms about borrowing money from Natsuko, the only member of the family actually working, while berating or faux-pitying her constantly. Natsuko’s husband, Taichi, was struck with a debilitating illness (something like MS, although it is never named) soon after their wedding, so she has been the one supporting her household on her part-time wages. She takes him on this very brief holiday because the hotel that her family used to consider the height of luxury now offers affordable spa breaks. The place of course triggers all sorts of memories, mainly of how abominably her family treated her, and she ends up considerably more appreciative of her husband, who at first seems naive, but ultimately proves himself to be simply not bitter and therefore quite wise.

Although Natsuko resents her mother and brother from the very start of the story, the novella represents a journey towards Zen wisdom and acceptance. The story ends on an upbeat note as Taichi finally gets an electric wheelchair and becomes more mobile. But Natsuko herself learns to let go of resentments, let go of caring what her family thinks and does, but without becoming numb, like she does earlier in the book, and giving up all hope:

She had already given up on everything. And she never thought too deeply about why such unreasonableness, such unfairness, such unhappiness always befell her. She lived her life trying to think about it all as little as possible. Because it wasn’t the kind of thing you could easily look at, not directly. And if, by chance, she were to glance at it, she knew it would leave an unhealthy, fatal wound…

The style in this story is quite pared down, the language simple and everyday, almost dull. By way of contrast, the second story is more baroque, more ornate, at times lyrical, a bit of a fever-dream from the youngest of four sisters, who, together with their mother, have created a powerful little matriarchy in their house in Shitamachi. Desite their little squabbles, they are a tight-knit unit (the youngest sister is so smitten by the beauty of her older sisters that she expresses rather explicity sexual longings towards them, as mentioned earlier on – but ambiguously enough that it can be brushed off as merely a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the family nest). At least, until a young man called S makes his appearance – an outsider to their area and clearly buying into all of the reputation of Shitamachi.

This is the aspect of the story that I found most interesting, because Tokyo’s Shitamachi was traditionally the poorer, flat area around the Sumida river, where fishermen, tradesmen, craftsmen lived and where the entertainment and red-light district were situated. It was also a melting pot of Edo culture, kabuki artists, sumo wrestlers, with Saikaku Ihara describing the ‘floating world’ in words, and Utamaro in pictures. Later, the area featured strong women writers and activists such as Higuchi Ichiyo and Hiratsuka Raicho. Clearly, S is attracted to the area for its reputation and a nostalgia for the past; he somehow expects the four sisters to live up to his false image of the place. Instead, they are unusual for their area and backgroudn. Their mother has raised them on French nouvelle vague films and frank discussions about their bodies and sex. Two of the sisters might be considered old maids by Japanese standards (around the age of thirty), but they are bold about expressing their desires, at least to each other.

Azalea Festival at the Nezu Shrine, as mentioned in the story.

The outsider is dangerous – he might upset their precarious balance. The narrator, who reminds me very much of Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s novel, with an equally slippery manner that makes you question how much to believe her, seems to be the only one to be fully aware of what this intrustion might mean:

They’re all my sisters. We were all one body to begin with. But then we were born, cut away from each other one by one. That’s why I want him to stop, this S – to stop planting these seeds of love inside them. We don’t need all that… We’re a perfect whole. Like Adam before Eve. Or like a hermaphrodite.

I find it intriguing and almost perplexing that, despite the sexism that women experience in Japan (far more overtly than in the English-speaking world, although clearly that doesn’t mean there is less of it here, as recent events have shown), contemporary Japanese women writers, such as Kawakami Mieko or Misumi Kubo, seem to be at the forefront of candour about their bodies, their sexuality, their darker impulses. As if to catch up with those generations of Japanese male writers holding forth quite explicitly on these topics for well over a century. Or, perhaps, because they cannot always voice those thoughts in public without being judged, they choose to do so via their fiction. Many of them write within the Japanese tradition but also bring in plenty of Western references, thereby building hybrid, occasionally oddly-shaped constructions. Not all of them are successful, but they are always interesting to read.

I have to admit I love this current publishing hunger for Japanese women authors and can only hope that it will last for a long, long time. You can find another review for this on Tony’s site, as he also shares my passion for Japanese literature. I think if Tony and I ever met in real life – preferably somewhere in Japan – we would probably never stop talking!

Plays in March: Arthur Schnitzler vs. Noel Coward

I was going to call this attempt to read mainly theatrical works in March ‘Drama in March’, but in fact both Coward’s and Schnitzler’s plays reviewed in this post are considered comedies, although one might argue that they veer between farce and satire, with a good dose of sadness or anger as well. You’re not going to find out much about the plot of any of these, because… well, there is either too much of a plot, (too many characters and intrigues), or else nothing at all.

Arthur Schnitzler: Comedy of Seduction – Komödie der Verführung 1924

As if to really drive home the point, one of the plays even has the word ‘comedy’ in its title, just in case we might take it too seriously. Of course, given the Viennese propensity for finding darkness in even the cheeriest of subjects, it is obviously a tragicomedy, featuring betrayal, a couple of suicides and the outbreak of the First World War. Hilarious!

The action takes place between 1st of May and 1st of August 1914, and the rather large cast of characters are mostly aristocrats and wealthy bankers (or living off their family inheritance), or else artists – writers and musicians – who are moving in these circles but without having the same kind of wealth to splurge, therefore doomed to be hangers-on. As always with Schnitzler, the two main topics here are love and death, and the imminence of war turns this comedy of errors into something more profound. It starts off with a masked ball, so we instantly are transported to a Venice carnival atmosphere, or a Mozart opera of confused identities and easily switched love affairs and allegiances. There are seducers of either gender: philandering young Max, who cannot resist any woman he meets, and Aurelie, the duchess courted and coveted by most of the men in the play, but reluctant to get married to anyone.

Musil and Kafka both derided Schnitzler’s plays as being too superficial. It is true that this has all the charm and cheekiness of Watteau or Fragonard paintings, but beneath the frivolity, none of the characters are truly happy. They are all searching for something – for a connection to others, for true love, for their own identity, for something that they can’t quite articulate or find. Aurelie says at some point: ‘I fear it and yet I love it, to be alone again, between one joy and another, between one desire and another, between one death and another.’ Each of the characters ends up being terribly alone, often very sad. As for the suicidal gestures, it could be argued that it’s a metaphor for a society plunging into a large-scale form of suicide.

Not frequently performed, Im Spiel der Sommerlufte is here played by Junge Schauspiel Ensemble München, 2009.

Schnitzler: Light Summer Air – Im Spiel der Sommerlüfte – 1929

This play is much slighter and frothier, although it was written just after his daughter’s suicide and was Schnitzler’s last finished play. The action is set a little further back in time, at the end of the 19th century, a more innocent time. It takes place over the course of two days in a holiday village in Lower Austria, a short train hop away from Vienna. A famous sculptor is holidaying here with his rather discontented wife, teenage son and his wife’s niece, an aspiring actress. The sculptor is a bit of a domestic tyrant and a serious philanderer – Schnitzler is perhaps making fun of himself here, for he certainly was not immune to the charm of actresses throughout his lifetime. There are ominous rumbles of thunder for most of the play, predicting a storm. When the storm comes, both literally and metaphorically, it gives people a momentary respite from politeness. Yet in the world depicted here, being honest and stating your true feelings are almost considered crimes. Wanting more in life and giving in to your desires in the mad heat of summer cannot lead to any lasting change. After the storm things seem to be somewhat resolved. however, any solution is only temporary or perhaps illusory. Things go back to their not entirely satisfactory everyday, and readers cannot help thinking that the naive schoolboy, the dashing young soldier, the dull but worthy young doctor will soon all end up as cannon fodder.

Noel Coward’s youthful plays Hay Fever (1925) and Easy Virtue (1926) are far less earnest. In fact, it is hard to believe they were written around the same time as Schnitzler’s plays, because they are all about escapism, with no hint at all of the war. Yet here too we have a good dose of satire. Under the veneer of charm and wealth, these are self-absorbed, privileged families who are careless about other people (even when those people are their guests). They are perfectly willing to trample on others to get their own way – or even for their own amusement. These are the utterly ruthless people that F. Scott Fitzgerald talked about in The Great Gatsby – all the more dangerous because they don’t even recognise that they are doing anything wrong. The matriarch Judith in Hay Fever, a retired actress, is so busy putting on a show for herself and others, that no one can figure out what is real anymore.

Picture from a Hay Fever revival at Stratford Festival, Ontario, 2014.

Coward was attracted by English high society, yet aware that he was never going to be fully accepted there: he was the wrong class and the wrong sexual orientation, no matter how talented and charming a social butterfly he was striving to become. In Easy Virtue in particular, he exposes the hypocrisy of a very stuffy upper middle-class family, when they find out that their beloved only son has married a glamorous American divorcée with a past (foreshadowing the affair that led to the abdication of Edward VIII, but also reminiscent of the whole current Meghan and Harry shenanigans). The fittingly-named Larita is initially bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but gradually loses her illusions and understands she will never be accepted by her husband’s family and that he isn’t strong enough to stand up for her. Larita is punished for being too open and honest, for responding to accusations and indignations in a cool, ironical way and refusing to be browbeaten.

These plays are nearly a hundred years old, but they don’t feel too dated, despite the lavish display of wealth and the servants putting up with the bad behaviour of their masters. Clearly, snobbishness, greediness, selfishness never go out of fashion!

Two Very Different Holidays

It seems a bit unfair to feature these two books in the same blog post, as they couldn’t be more different if they tried. And yet… it’s not just because of time constraints that I am comparing and contrasting them. Both of these books are (at least partially) about people failing to understand another culture and being judged for it.

Stella Gibbons: The Swiss Summer was published in 1951 and already shows the desire for escapism of postwar British culture which culminated with Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Lucy Cottrell is observant, good-tempered and diplomatic, and at the age of 40+ she suddenly finds herself invited to a Swiss chalet for the summer. Although the people she gets to spend the summer with are not always the most compatible, she is nevertheless overcome by the beauty of the landscape and not at all put off by the Swiss over-reliance on tourism. She is, however, often embarrassed by the antics of her fellow countrymen, as spotted in some of the hotels and restaurants she visits.

It is a pity that they have to behave like that… because the Swiss do still like us, even though we have no money nowadays…

The entanglements (romantic and otherwise) of the people who visit the chalet over the course of the summer are amusing, and Lucy ties herself into knots trying not to lie but also not to reveal too much to the owner of the chalet back home in England. I haven’t read any Stella Gibbons other than Cold Comfort Farm, and there is none of that exuberant satire here. This is gentle fun, reminiscent in some ways of Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April, although without quite such a pleasing resolution. Above all, the descriptions of nature really resonated with me – it’s clear how much the author loved this area. Here Lucy is, unable to sleep on a full moon night.

The soft, sad, brilliant light poured into her eyes as she looked up towards the Jungfrau’s snows, which it blanched to unearthly whiteness; the waterfall spilled out of the radiance down into the vast shadow below the massif; the slopes by Murren were lost in rich brown mists. She looked down and saw patches of shut, colourless flowers scattered up the white slopes; she saw the dizzy precipices of the Monch muffled in motionless milky clouds, and the drifts of thinnest mist twisting and winding down over the highest ridges; they seemed to trail after them long wreaths of dimly glittering stars. There was silence except for the waterfall’s sound, and the air smelled of dew.

Olivia Sudjic: Asylum Road has only just come out, and is the first novel I’ve read by her. I heard her debut novel Sympathy garnered good reviews, but it was the subject matter that attracted me to this one: the heavy spectre of the Balkans and the possibilities of cultural misunderstandings. I understand that, although Sudjic is of Serbian descent, this is not based on her personal experience – she was born and raised in the UK as a third-generation immigrant and only experienced the Yugoslav war from a distance. This book also takes place over the course of a summer, although in three different locations: France, Cornwall and Croatia/Bosnia.

Nevertheless, I suspect that there is quite a bit of Olivia in her main protagonist, Anya, who was sent as a child to live with her aunt in Scotland to escape the war. Anya is engaged to the rather cool and distant Luke, who comes from a well-off and emotionally detached family with pro-Brexit tendencies. Although Luke proposes to her near the beginning of the book, their relationship is fraught with silence and resentment, and is utterly undone after their visit to Anya’s parents and old home in Sarajevo.

The war has obviously touched Anya’s family directly, but the book shows that you do not need to have experienced the trauma at first-hand to inherit its consequences. The inferiority complex that Anya seems to suffer in front of Luke and his family (while secretly despising or making fun of them) is something I have seen very frequently in East European migrants, including myself. This quote, for instance, struck such a chord:

Of the things I cared too much about then, one was appearing civilised. In ethical terms but also in aesthetic ones. I had read the right books, bought thrifted designer clothes, gained several degrees at elite institutions and, in Luke;s flat, arranged an elegant mise-en-scene that in fact held no emotional resonance. They were props, these objects I combed from life, smooth pebbles that had once been cliffs.

They meet Anya’s dead brother’s girlfriend, Mira, who, despite a successful career in publishing, is fed up with stagnation and pro-Putin posters in Belgrade, and wants to move abroad.

It’s only a shame, that’s all. To still be stuck talking about this. Even some of the publishing people I know say that we should move on, stop making art about it, they say we’re in paralysis, which is true, politically, economically, everything. That the worst books coming out of the Balkans are the ones still going on about war… But it seems impossible not to talk about it when these people, these revisionists, still exist, even if we’d prefer to forget it.

This made me smile, because it’s one of the conversations I often have with people about whether there is a tendency to ‘typecast’ a country’s literary output and only a particular type of book gets translated into English. For Croatia and Bosnia, it might be about the war, for Romania it seems to be about the Communist dictatorship in a terribly surreal or experimental or earnest prose etc. etc. Yet, at the same time, the attention span of the reading public in the West is very limited. I’ll never forget the American journalist who told me: ‘Can’t you people just draw a line under the past and look to the future?’

Yes, it is frustrating, yes, we do wish we could escape the burden of the past. ‘The past keeps intruding. We are sick to death of it.’ Anya says at one point. I like the way the author make the narrator ashamed of her family’s rhetoric, how she tries to tone down her emotions, how she endeavours to describe everything without melodrama or fuss. Underneath it all, there is a sense of disquiet, of tension building up… Better to be the crushed victim – or the destroyer doing the crushing? And if this carapace that Anya has carefully built around herself is no longer capable of protecting her – what price tearing it down and starting from scratch?

You have to admire the control with which Sudjic navigates the story of trauma, search for identity and breakdown, and the (not always physical) violence we wreak upon others and ourselves. Certainly not a comfortable read, but an accomplished one, with echoes of Penelope Mortimer and Leonora Carrington.

February 2021 Summary

Books

It is absurdly early to be writing an end of month review but a) I’ve got some online theatre to watch and review over the last few days of February; b) with some translation edits coming in and another planned full day of working on my novel, I don’t think I’ll have time to read and review any more books.

I was quite good at sticking to my February in Canada plan and, although I’d have liked more Quebecois authors in the mix, I remained faithful to my plan to read only what was already available on my bookshelves. I was fairly happy with all of the six Canadian books I read. While the subject matter of the Inger Ash Wolfe crime novel did feel like far too well-trodden territory to me, I was intrigued and inspired by Anne Carson (as ever) and surprised and delighted by Carol Shields and Marian Engel. In fact, I enjoyed Bear so much that I instantly decided to read another Marian Engel book, Lunatic Villas, which was very different to Bear, although the portrayal of harassed motherhood is very similar to Celia Fremlin‘s The Hours Before Dawn, but on the humorous rather than the sinister side of things.

In addition to Celia Fremlin, I also read several more crime novels:

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman for our Virtual Crime Book Club, which was fun although not quite as good as the hype makes it out to be. I do generally struggle with books written by celebrities, as I feel: a) are they just cashing in on their fame and writing books because everyone thinks it’s an easy thing to do?; b) do they really need any more money, when they have n other sources of very good income? However, to be fair to Osman, it is a witty book, mostly because of the characters and the age group depicted (showing what a variety of types of people you can find in a retirement community, not all old people are boring and cautious etc.). The plot does have some rather too convenient coincidences and a bit of an odd coming-out-of-nowhere conclusion, but I liked it enough to want to read more about these characters on a very occasional basis.

Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev: This is a book of many parts and many tonalities, which might put some readers off, but which really appealed to me. It is a thoughtful analysis of why a scientist would choose to collaborate with an evil regime, how science can be subverted, and how ideals go out the window. It is also a historical picture of the mess and lack of certainties after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is of course also a spy thriller, with a sinister opening and a mounting sense of dread. Yet, in certain parts, when the would-be assassins are embarking on a road-trip to find the rogue scientist, it becomes quite comical, even farcical. All in all, a really enjoyable read.

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse: February always puts me in the mood for skiing and therefore a mountain setting, so this book set in a Swiss mountaintop hotel seemed irresistible. The claustrophobic setting is indeed the star in this novel, the author clearly knows her Swiss winters, but the plot seemed rather far-fetched and I wasn’t that keen on the characters’ rather histrionic reactions to everything.

Finally, with a lingering glance back towards my January in Japan love, I read a graphic novel adaptation of No Longer Human, which was far more explicit and creepy than the novel, but also diverged from the story in interesting ways. I also read the first volume of Bungo Stray Dogs manga, in which Dazai is a detective with some supernatural powers – I’m not sure how appropriate it is to make fun of Dazai’s suicidal tendencies, although, given he made fun of them himself at times in his work, it’s probably OK. Plus, it features all sorts of other writers, Kunikida Doppo with a very bureaucratic mentality, Edogawa Ranpo who is firmly convinced he has supernatural abilities but in fact is simply very good at questioning and detecting, Akutagawa, who is a skilled adversary and so on. For someone obsessed with Japanese literature and familiar with most of the authors featured here, this is an absolute riot!

So 12 books, of which 2 graphic novels, 6 fitting the Canadian theme, and 4 crime novels. Only three books in translation (or other languages) this month, a low proportion by my standards, and an even gender distribution.

But have I contributed at all to #readindies? Well, hard to tell. Most of the books were bought second-hand and at the time of publication the publishers may have been independent, but have since been bought up (McCleeland and Steward are Penguin Random House now, Fourth Estate is Harper Collins, Pandora Women Crime Writers is Routledge). But I have found a few. My Quebecois writer is published by Editions Druide, a small independent funded by the Canadian and Quebecois governments and the Canadian Arts Council. Bear was published by Nonpareil Books, an imprint of Godine, an independent publisher located in Boston, Massachusetts. And Untraceable is published by New York-based New Vessel Press, which specialises in translated fiction.

Films

I’ve watched mainly TV series this month (Lupin, The Sopranos, My Brilliant Friend), but the few films I watched were very good:

  • a rewatch of Do the Right Thing, which was a classic film of my teenage years and still stands up so well today (sadly, not much has changed);
  • High and Low, a Kurosawa with a good deal of social commentary and personal dilemma, about the kidnapping of a child;
  • Uppercase Print, the latest film by Radu Jude, the case of a young student who was investigated by the security forces during the Ceausescu years – an unusual mix of actors reciting from the security files, interwoven with extracts from TV documentaries of the 1970s and 80s. This was hard for me to watch, because I was so familiar with it all from my childhood, but it’s an interesting piece of history that should be preserved for the next generation (or for those who are not familiar with what it’s like to live in a dictatorship).

With one son not caring very much about films and the other having very fixed ideas about what he wants to watch and generally poo-poohing Mubi, saying they only have films that about five people in the world want to see (despite all the evidence to the contrary), our chances of watching films together are decreasing. Meanwhile, I’m getting a little tired of doing things that don’t interest me simply to fit in with someone else’s taste (I’ve had years of practice with their father – and look how well that turned out!). Maybe the pressures of being together all the time is starting to get to us all…

The Emotional Labour of Women

I recently read an article about how men have finally discovered the hidden labour of childcare and household concerns that women have been doing for decades or even centuries (alongside the workplace). I’m tempted to argue that it is nothing new: divorced fathers discover it when they share custody and no longer have the luxury of being purely ‘fun Dad’ and asking their partner what their child likes to eat or when parents’ evening is. Of course, there have been many fictional depictions of the chaos of motherhood that fathers could have referred to, but I suppose there is a difference between reading about it (and many would perhaps not choose to read about it) and actually experiencing it for yourself.

Two of those depictions I coincidentally read this February half-term, which was actually more peaceful than many others because: a) we couldn’t go away anywhere; b) although I was working full-time, the boys didn’t have to sit glued to their computer screen for home schooling purposes many hours every day, which makes them restless and grumpy. So, instead, they learnt ‘life skills’ such as cooking, laundry and cleaning.

Marian Engel: Lunatic Villas (February in Canada read), 1981.

Harriet Ross is a divorced single mother, a freelance writer with a weekly column entitled, appropriately enough, ‘Depressed Housewife’. She lives in a Toronto street that has been gentrified, but her own townhouse is a bit ramshackle, as it has become the refuge for a ragtag assortment of children and teenagers (some of them her own, some of them fostered for various reasons), depressed sisters, random old ladies, eccentric neighbours, spiteful ex-husband and his new crusading wife and so on.

While each of the people in her life seem to have problems and demand something from her, although she is being pulled in all directions and can hardly hear herself think at times, Harriet shows a generosity of spirit that is finally somewhat rewarded when she herself falls ill and the neighbours all pitch in to help her.

For all the grim realities depicted (alcoholism, drug-taking, child abuse, mental illness, manipulation, family courts), there is a certain joyfulness in the chaos depicted here, and a lot of solidarity amidst all the abandonment and betrayal. But there is no sugarcoating of the difficulties of being the lynchpin of a family:

Mornings are precious new beginnings, every day a chance to exorcise yesterday’s and before yesterday’s sins: mostly. Harriet begins her day very carefully, without shaking it hard enough to break the thin film of semi-consciousness that keeps her close to her dreams. She scoots downstairs as soon as the alarm goes off, puts the kettle on, collects the paper: and this year, the first in fourteen, takes the coffee and the paper upsatirs again with her, the better to protect herself from reality. They are really better off without her in the morning, the mob, and as long as there are milk and sugar and bowl and spooons and four kinds of cereal on the table they consider themselves looked after. Then, in bed, pretending to read the paper that is in fact reading her, she counts flushes, scrapes, shouts, clouts, hears Sim’s gruff ‘Get on with it, you guys,’ before his great thumping exit and slam; Melanie’s ‘Pervert’ to Mick’s ‘Slut’ and the resulting clashing of spoons; piggish little snorts from the twins; Sidonia, late and serene, descending the stairs like a queen… ‘Ma, where’s my…?’ can be dealt with more easily from upstairs.

Not all of the scenes are from Harriet’s point of view, and we get many different perspectives on her household, but also on life more generally, including this delicious rant about marraige by neighbour and friend Marshallene:

Marriage is a state for which I am sublimely unsuited. I dislike housework of all kinds and am well known for scorning the culinary arts. Little dinner parties make me want to get drunk and little black dresses make me want to stuff myself and burst out of them. I am capable of walking around a vacuum cleaner left prominently in the middle of the hall floor for a week. I am past child-bearing… I am no help and no comfort to anyone. I am a writer and writers are notoriously self-centred. I do not have to look at the outside world to find my material, nor do I need to live out someone else’s life to survive…

Although the narrative gets messy and bewildering in parts (no doubt reflecting the messiness of Harriet’s life), it is a warm-hearted, often very funny book, completely unsentimental about families and friendships, very clear-eyed about the often contradictory feelings in our bosom. A slice of life which reminded me of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

Celia Fremlin: The Hours Before Dawn, 1958.

Marian Engel’s novel portrays urban life in Canada in the late 1970s, but Fremlin’s novel takes us to London two decades earlier. With much younger children to cope with (only three instead of seven, but one of them a baby), Fremlin’s Louise is a stay at home mother, but just like Harriet, she cannot count on anyone else to help her.

Her husband is the breadwinner and expects some peace and quiet when he comes home, but, with a baby that refuses to sleep at night, Louise is completely exhausted and overwhelmed, and gradually losing her grip on reality.

This is a much tighter, well-paced book, with a very clear narrative arc. Fremlin initially doesn’t put a foot wrong in depicting the frustrations of a well-educated woman trying to be reasonable, yet feeling increasingly out of her depth. When the schoolteacher Miss Brandon moves in as a lodger, Louise initially feels judged, but then gets increasingly suspicious about this mysterious guest and her motivations. Every turn of the screw, we as readers get more anxious and suspicious as well, although we realise that Louise’s sleeplessness makes her a less than reliable witness. The only fault of the novel is that the reveal through the use of diaries does feel rather Victorian. Overall, however, there is a very grown-up, knowing and ironical tone which I find sadly missing from most of the psychological thrillers being published today.

Bother! All the eggs would be hard by now, and Margery was the only one who liked them hard. Harriet liked hers soft, and Mark liked his very soft. As to Louise herself, she had long forgotten which way she liked them. It made the housekeeping that much easier if there was one person out of the five whose tastes didn’t have to be considered. To neglect one’s own tastes was more labour-saving than any vacuum cleaner, and it was a form of neglect about which no one would call you to account.

Although the author is at pains to point out that she didn’t mean to portray the husband as a monster and that expectations were probably different back in the days when she wrote the book, she also makes the very acute observation in the preface:

Although I am assured by some that nowadays everything is quite different and that modern young couples share and share alike when it comes to child-raising problems, I am not convinced. My own observation tells me that there are still many, many couples who believe, and certainly act, as if the babies and young children are the mother’s responsibility entirely.

Which. brings me back to the article with which I started this book, in which fathers say that they did enjoy getting to know their children better but that it also is incredibly hard work, and that they are starting to experience some of the guilt that mothers feel about never quite doing or being enough in all areas of their life. Will the concept of fatherhood and fairer distribution of household labour really change permanently, as the article asks somewhat optimistically? Or will it be more similar to my experience, when any complaints about labour not equally shared, were met with: ‘well, get a cleaner or a nanny’? (Which might make you wonder if this is more of a middle class problem, except I remember my working class and rural relatives behaving the same… and the extended family coming to the rescue in those instances.)