Two German-Language Books About Womens’ Rage

Mareike Fallwickl: Die Wut, die bleibt (The Lasting Rage)

Anke Stelling: Schäfchen im Trockenen (Keeping Your Sheep Safe – translated as ‘Higher Ground’ by Lucy Jones, Scribe)

Back in 2014, I read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and encountered a woman’s raw, unfiltered anger for the first time. I loved it, although it divided readers and led to an upsurge in debate about ‘unlikeable’ characters (which seems to be even more of a no-no when it comes to female characters). There have been other books since which explore what might happen when women refuse to go along with the script handed to them, live up to people’s expectations, be meek, silent people-pleasers: Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Generally, these women are condemned, viewed as unnatural, earn a bad reputation that lingers on for centuries (Medea, anyone?). No one likes a loud shriek of rage, too shrill, too hysterical, right?

Yet I can’t help but be fascinated by these books, where women are suddenly allowed to enact those fantasies of verbal (and in some cases physical) revenge that we daren’t let ourselves think about. I think I have a natural predisposition to be very gentle and kind, but I occasionally wonder if my tendency to be so forgiving is merely cowardice and conflict avoidance.

The two German-language novels I recently read both start with women being perceived as victims and then transform into women as avenging creatures (angels or demons? up to you to decide). Both Germany and Austria are more conservative when it comes to women’s place in society, so it is refreshing to see that this literary trend is making its way there too.

Austrian writer Fallwickl’s novel is set in Salzburg and at the very start, Helene, a mother overwhelmed by family demands during Covid lockdown, commits suicide by jumping from the balcony while the family is having dinner. Her best friend Sarah, a childless writer, used to slightly envy but mostly pity Helene, but she steps in to help out with the children, thereby making the widower’s life far too easy, as Helene’s teenage feminist daughter Lola keeps scolding her. Lola and her friend are assaulted by some boys at the skatepark and the two girls resolve to learn how to fight to protect themselves… and soon become part of a group who call themselves #WeAreKarma, taking revenge on the men who have wronged women. It’s an interesting glance at generational differences in interpretation of feminism, and how the desire for stability or family makes us compromise our most treasured principles and values as we grow older.

Unlike Lola, who seems more concerned with the wider social oppression of women, from domestic violence issues to abuse of minors, from body shaming to gender fluidity, Sarah is discovering how motherhood in a society where the political and domestic issues mirror each other, and that doesn’t offer much support for mothers, often spells the end of self-realisation:

‘You can’t imagine how bitter you can become about the father of your children… motherhood is a ship and at some point you realise that you are sitting in it all on your own. You are surrounded by dark currents, you have no oars, no compass.’

‘But who is steering the ship?’ asks Sarah.

‘You realise that only later,’ replies Helene, ‘It’s the men. The politicians, society. We mothers have no power. We have the entire burden, but no power.’

The moment of awakening, when Sarah chooses to replace the rhetoric of self-pity and doubts with a fighting spirit, comes when she is called into school because Lola pushed her PE teacher, who was insulting her and another classmate about their body weight. Sarah’s initial reaction is to apologise, to smooth things over, but suddenly the resentment that has been building up over the years spills out of her and she stands up for Lola, even threatens to create a scandal for the school.

When they were told back then that it wouldn’t hurt to give in, to apologise, to not kick up a fuss, to keep your head down, how did they know that it wouldn’t hurt? Maybe it did hurt them. Maybe it hurt them greatly.

German writer Stelling’s novel is set in Berlin, against the backdrop of the city’s increasingly problematic housing situation but has some similarities with Fallwickl’s story: an angry woman in her forties trying to explain things to a teenage daughter – except in Stelling’s case we don’t get to hear much of the daughter talking back and educating the mother.

Resi is an author, married to an artist; they have four children but not all that much disposable income, and are subletting from one of Resi’s old schoolfriends. However, Resi’s latest book took a swipe at her friends, for their bourgeois attitudes and love of material comforts, upon which she is served an eviction notice and, unsurprisingly, her friendships unravel. The novel is in fact the narrative she writes for her teenage daughter, reminiscing about the past, how she always felt less accepted by the group because of her social background. It is a howl of disappointment, self-justification and social critique, entertaining, relatable, but also quite revealing of a stubborn character with a chip on her shoulder, keen to emphasise her ‘higher moral ground’.

Just like in Fallwickl’s novel, we can understand the frustrations of the character up to a certain point, but we might question some of her choices or her interpretation of events. Resi recognises that she has fallen victim to society’s expectations of what a happy family should look like and what they should do, but she cannot help building up her expectations every weekend, and then being bitterly disappointed. The description of the Saturday breakfast is funny – but the laughter is painful, because so recognisable. Nobody wants to come to the table, nobody cares about the fresh pastries from the bakery, they sit silently and glumly, or complain about the food, or they make noises while eating.

I’ve fallen for the Weekend Lie again: the one that says it’s nice to have breakfast together on Saturday, when no one has to rush off anywhere, with fresh pastries and smiling faces, with Nutella and love and fruit…

The Weekend Lie is powerful indeed.

It operates on the basis of a ruthless causality: If I’m not sitting with you, it means I don’t like you.

It operates on the basis of simple contrasts: If it’s stressful during the week, the weekend will be blissful at last.

It operates with dogged obstinancy: reappears every five days, all year round, come sun, come rain.

Two interesting though problematic books, with flawed characters but relatable rants. I’ve seen some readers say that these women are speaking from a position of privilege and entitlement that they don’t even recognise – and it is true that compared to women in other parts of the world (or in other generations), their lives are not that hard. But they are, quite rightly, comparing themselves to others closer to them in their own society: rich or childless women, or simply men. Perhaps they also feel a sense of betrayal that earlier feminists told them that once they were working, earning their own money, once employment legislation stopped discriminating against them, they would have it all and be able to do it all. If only they would lean in more… Meanwhile, they’ve leaned in so far that they are toppling off balconies, yet structural problems in society and other people’s attitudes are still not changing enough.

Coincidentally, some of the themes also resonated with a film I’ve recently watched Everything Everywhere All at Once: what happens once women stop being overwhelmed victims or hankering after lost, often illusory possibilities? Can anger be used in constructive as well as destructive ways? I enjoyed the chaotic energy and genre mash-up of the film, as described by the title. This sense of overwhelm and general assault on the senses, thoughts, feelings, memories is what we are all perhaps feeling at the moment, although the film’s resolution was understandably (for we all desire some clarity and simplification) a little too pat. In real life, there are far too many people, including mothers, who never achieve any insight into themselves, and never have a fully-developed character arc. As for using rage constructively, well… we’ve seen how bad we humans tend to be at that.

International Booker Winner: Tomb of Sand

After hearing the author Geetanjali Shree and the translator Daisy Rockwell speak about this book at the Southbank Centre a few days before the International Booker Prize was announced, I immediately bought it. It sounded really different, unexpected and fun. Now that I have finally read it (for the London Reads the World Book Club), I can confirm that it was surprising, not at all what I expected, and funny in parts, although ultimately a serious and sad novel.

The cover was designed by translator Daisy Rockwell, who is also a painter and a descendant of American painter Norman Rockwell

It is a shapeshifter of a novel. Just when you think you have grasped in what direction it is going, it suddenly chops and changes. It’s a family saga, a story of friendship, a political novel, a mystery, a quest for freedom, a parable about ageing and loneliness, all of the above and none of them. To me, it seems to be predominantly about storytelling. What is the border between fiction and non-fiction, between tradition and modernity, between Western and Eastern literary paradigms? Is there ever one single way to tell a story? How can we incorporate all of the additional variants and interpretations?

A tale tells itself. It can be complete, but also incomplete, the way all tales are… Women are stories in themselves, full of stirrings an dwhisperings that float on the wind, that bend with each blade of grass… The story’s path unfurls, not knowing where it will stop, tacking to the right and left, twisting and turning, allowing anything and everything to join in the narration.

Although the tale has no need for a single stream. It is free to run, flow into rivers and lakes, into fresh new waters. But for now, we must insist on not straying, so for the time being we simply won’t.

This approach to the story – as a living being, who can always surprise us, take us on diversions, refuse to budge at certain points – is so different from what we expect of a novel in the Western literary tradition – or at least not in the present-day (I can think of some 18th and 19th-century novels that are all about the digressions). It is also full of cultural and linguistic references (including untranslated terms) which probably went completely over my head. This maximalist approach to storytelling won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. At times, it defies close reading, and I will need to return to some passages to grasp their full meaning.

It takes 190 pages for Amma, the beloved grandmother mourning the death of her husband, to leave her bed, as one of our book club members pointed out indignantly. I enjoyed the family visits, contradictory opinions, squabbles and rivalries, which reminded me so much of Romanian families too, but I can see how many readers might feel the story is taking too long to get started.

The middle part is told more from the point of view of Amma/Ma’s daughter, Beti, who prides herself on her modern, tolerant, bohemian attitudes and lifestyle, but finds herself occasionally at odds with her mother, especially when her friend Rosie starts having what she considers a disproportionate amount of influence on her. Rose is a hijra (third gender) person and is yet another example of Ma (and the author, probably) protesting against the artificial, destructive, small-minded erection of borders where none existed before.

The final part is about a road trip to Pakistan, perhaps the most mysterious, brutally unexpected, but also satisfying section of the book. It also features butterflies and a crow, but it’s extremely hard to explain how it all hangs together. The prose throughout the book is vivacious, funny, perfect at capturing different voices, but in the last part it becomes very poetical, colourful, imbued with the qualities of a fairytale or legend. And throughout, we have the political engagement of Ma (and the author, I believe), although this could apply to the distance between two people too. As someone who was once living in a closed-in country, this passage on borders was particularly meaningful to me (it goes on for a few pages, but I will just quote from the first couple of paragraphs):

A border does not enclose, it opens out. It creates a shape. It adorns an edge… It enhances a personality. It gives strength. It doesn’t tear apart. A border increases recognition. Where two sides meet and both flourish… A border stops nothing. It is a bridge between two connected parts. Between night and day. Life and death. Finding and losing… A border is a horizon. Where two worlds meet. And embrace.

I’m still not quite sure how this book ended up nearly twice as long in English as it is in the original Hindi, but it is an amazing and unforgettable book, one that challenges all our preconceived notions of ageing, Indian families, Partition history and, above all, what makes for compelling storytelling.

By complete coincidence, I finally read Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner this weekend and realised that the premise reminded me a lot of Tomb of Sand. That too is about an older woman (was 47 in the 1920s the equivalent of 80 nowadays?) who turns her back on her family and decides to pursue her own interests and find new friendships and passions.

Even though it is a much shorter book, it has a similar structure: the first part might be perceived as boring and stultifying by some readers, as it describes the dull, prescribed and circumscribed life that Laura leads, losing her own name (becoming Aunt Lolly, just like the main protagonist in Tomb of Sand becomes Amma or Ma), having the family talk about her rather than addressing her directly, making decisions on her behalf. The second part describes the move to the village of Great Mop, an unsuccessful attempt at freedom initially, when her much-loved but stifling nephew Titus shows up. This is very similar to the occasionally pleasurable but often tense living together of Ma and her daughter. The third part describes the release at last, in what should perhaps be as dramatic a moment as in the Indian book (after all, what could be more dramatic than making a pact with the devil? Goethe got lots of mileage out of that!), but is dealt with in such a matter-of-fact, even amusing way, yet you sense real passion lurking underneath (Laura’s speech about women being active yet invisible, sticks of dynamite ready to ignite). I felt the same hair rising on the back of my neck moment there as I did when reading the scene where Ma asks the soldiers to hit her so she can learn how to fall – and then realise why she is doing that.

I am perhaps too prone to see parallels here, but these two books worked perfectly in tandem for me, and both left me with an explosion of joy but also a deep sadness that freedom has come so late for these women, and that for many it does not come at all:

In vain she had tried to escape, transient and delusive had been her ecstasies of relief. She had thrown away twenty years of her life like a handful of old rags, but the wind had blown them back again, and dressed her in the old uniform… They had let her run a little way – that was all – for they knew they could get her back when they chose.

All the Summer Reading Challenges

I’ve come to the conclusion that, despite three weeks of ‘holidays’, it’s been a difficult summer personally, and this has been reflected in my reading. I have failed in virtually all my reading challenges (not that I take the word ‘failure’ terribly seriously in this context). I’ve read more than #20BooksofSummer, but few of them were on my original list. I read a couple of books in July for Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month, but never got around to reviewing them. I’ve also read quite a few #WomeninTranlation books in August (and generally – this is probably one of my favourite themes in reading) but I have no intention to provide carefully considered, deep reviews of any of them.

I just can’t. I don’t have the mental or physical capacity at the moment. It’s a shame, there will be a gap when I look back on my reading and wish I’d done more. In the meantime, here are some very brief and hopefully pithy remarks (I hesitate to call them reviews) about each of them. I have already shared my escapist reading with you, here are the more ‘serious’ reads.

July Reading

I read 12 books that month, of which three escapist crime novels and four for work purposes (two books in German and two translations from the Catalan). I skimmed through two very interesting but simply far too long ones (for my levels of concentration and busy-ness that month): The Shadowy Third about one of Elizabeth Bowen’s love affairs and the letters exchanged and Devil-Land about 17th century Britain. Which leaves only three books, two of which fit into the Spanish/Portuguese language reading challenge.

Maria Judite de Carvalho: Empty Wardrobes, transl. Margaret Jull Costa, Two Lines Press, 2021.

I interpret the title as the emptiness that many women feel when they realise that the people or the love that they held dear have let them down, that sentiments and trust were illusory, and that they have no one but themselves to rely on. It’s a sombre yet depressingly accurate view of heterosexual relationships, shared by three generations of women in the same family, although not necessarily from a position of solidarity. Written in 1966, in a very Catholic and patriarchal Portugal where women had few choices outside the domestic sphere, there is nevertheless much that is still recognisable today. It also reminds me of Enchi Fumiko’s work, particularly The Waiting Years, although that refers to even more demeaning conditions for women in Meiji Japan.

He would arrive home, give me a peck on the cheek, drink his usual glass of whisky, then tell me all about his day in great detail, and so I thought he really loved and needed me. In fact, I was merely a convenient body beside him, an ever-attentive audience always ready to express unconditional admiration when he told me of yet another professional triumph… he needed that applause at home as well, in order to feel he was lord of a little tailor-made world all his own.

For far more detailed and sensitive reading of this book, do read Jacqui’s blog.

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara: Slum Virgin, transl. Frances Riddle, Charco Press, 2017.

This one is the exact opposite of the quieter, more restrained style of Empty Wardrobes. It is a riot of events, characters, stories and style, with elements of tragedy, melodrama, comedy and farce all jostling for attention within its pages. Cleopatra is a trans prostitute in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, but renounces her work once she has a revelation from the Virgin Mary. Quity is an ambitious journalist keen to cover the story, but ends up falling for Cleo instead. Told in short chapters alternating between the highly individualistic voices of these two characters, filled with colourful slang, replete with religious references and superstition, we encounter a seamy, corrupt but energetic world reminiscent of Jorge Amado’s The War of the Saints.

In the extract below, Cleo is receiving all sorts of gifts from people in the flooded slum who are hoping for miracle cures:

Then with a practicality that surprised me and continues to surprise me in a person who speaks with celestial beings, Cleo told us that God loved us, that through God we could love each other, and that we should have breakfast. It was time and it was freezing cold, and first things first. We could always pray later.

Shirley Jackson: The Sundial, Penguin Modern Classics (first published in 1958)

No one can portray the suffocating qualities of a family and a house better than Shirley Jackson, a real antithesis to the wholesome image of home and hearth projected in the United States in the 1950s. This novel portrays a very strange family, all living in a sinister home with surrealist traits (like being in an Escher drawing), an ‘end of the world’ prophecy which binds them and excludes everyone outside their property. But are the dangers truly in the outside world or within their ‘safe’ house and ‘in-group’? We know that Jackson was agoraphobic at various points in her life, but we also know that she considered the family home to be the most perilous and vicious place too. I don’t want to put you off by the rather serious subject matter and the magical realism style – it is also very sharp, witty and downright funny.

Shirley Jackson is one of my favourite authors, and occupies pride of place on my bedside table: go and read her, pronto, if you haven’t already done so, whether you start with this or with her more famous (but less funny) novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House.

August Reading

This month was less busy but far worse in terms of health, worries and need for distraction. Of the 16 books I read, 13 were escapist literature. Two of the crime novels fitted into the #WITMonth category (one from Turkey, one from Romania), as did two of the more ‘serious’ reads. One was a chunkster, the International Booker Prize Winner Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated (and perhaps annotated/interpreted, as she freely admits) by Daisy Rockwell. I still hope to give it a proper review at some point, and we have a Book Club meeting about it next Monday, so I will leave it for later.

Kawakami Mieko: Ms Ice Sandwich, transl. Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press, 2013.

This is an early work by Kawakami, a slight novella about an adolescent boy starting to learn more about life and people and empathy, through his harmless crush on the unusual looking lady who makes and sells sandwiches at the local supermarket. It is an understated story of loneliness, being ‘different’, feeling unable to stand by your convictions or support the people you love. Far more restrained than Heaven, but conveys a lot in just a few pages. And, it’s a personal preference, but I really like the way Louise Heal Kawai translates Kawakami and wish that we had more of her books featuring this translator! For a more thorough review, please see Tony’s. I do love the cover, though!

Tanya Shadrick: The Cure for Sleep

I picked this one rather randomly, after some recommendations on Twitter. It is the memoir of a woman who nearly died after the birth of her son and resolved thereafter to lead a braver and more creative life, to stop shrinking away from opportunity and hide in routine. It is the most devastatingly honest memoir I have read that does not feature any descriptions of addiction or debilitating health issues. It lays bare all the ambiguities of married life and motherhood, and the eternal conflict between the anchored ‘real’ life and the creative life. I don’t think I could ever be so frank, but that is why I prefer to write fiction rather than memoir.

As someone who constantly feels that I have buried myself too much in domesticity and looking after others, I found this book quite inspiring, although just a tad overwritten at times.

20 Books of Summer

So how did I do in my fabled (and very flexible) 20 Books of Summer challenge? Thanks to my discipline in June, I managed to read 13 books overall (8 in French in June, 2 Spanish/Portuguese ones in July, 3 from the random choices in August). I am currently reading the 14th one from the list, the Berlin-set Schäfchen im Trockenen, but I doubt I will finish it by the 1st of September. Not quite as bad as I expected!

This Way to Escapist Reading!

Over the past two months I’ve been reading a lot of lighter literature, what one might call holiday or escapist literature – and boy, have I needed it! This was partly because I was on holiday and did not have access to all of my books so I relied on my Kindle. Once I returned from holiday, I was laid up with allsorts of ailments for over two weeks, plus I was increasingly anxious about the health of my darling cat Zoe, which meant that my reading had to be less challenging and grim.

My definition of escapist is usually crime fiction rather than ‘uplifting’ or ‘feel good’ literature, so most of the books fall into that category, although there is some historical fiction in there as well. Overall, 16 books fall into the escapist fiction category: only three of them fit into the Women in Translation month category, although I read a few of the latter two (brief reviews to follow in a separate post).

Bride Price by Barbara Nadel

As always it’s a real pleasure to reconnect with Ikem and Suleyman and the rest of the team. Although Ikmen is retired now and a widower, and although my personal favourite the handsome and irresistible InspectorSsuleyman is about to get married, they still seem to find time to solve quite a few mysteries along the way. You gain most from reading these books in order because the characters grow, develop, get old grow, form all sorts of additional ties, experience loss, make mistakes – in other words, their development over the years is as much part of the story as the crimes they resolve. I had somehow missed the previous two books in the series so was surprised to find Mehmet about to marry his rather wild Roma lover, having left him previously in the arms of a different woman.

The books are always set against a well-defined historical and social backdrop: these are not just tourist descriptions of particular areas of Istanbul, we also get to experience some of the political and social changes that have taken place there over the years. In this book there are a number of things going on, perhaps slightly too many: is somebody trying to curse the upcoming wedding? What terrorist organisation is trying to poison innocent customers with ricin? Is there an international art fraud conspiracy taking place?

I then went immediately back to one of my favourites in the series, Land of the Blind, set against the backdrop of the 2013 Gezi Park protests (brutally quashed), where Mehmet is a bit of an arrogant bastard in the background, while Ikmen proves that he is the perfect and thoughtful husband, father and friend.

Divorce Turkish Style by Esmahan Aykol, transl. from Turkish by Ruth Whitehouse

I stuck to Istanbul for this next one. Kati Herschel is half-German, half-Turkish and completely stubborn. She owns the only crime bookshop in Istanbul, and can’t resist dabbling in amateur crime investigations. This case involves the death of beautiful, well-educated wife of a millionaire – but was she killed because she was about to divorce her husband or because she was an ecological activist?

Set in Stone by Stela Brinzeanu

A trip to Moldova next, back in medieval times, when wealthy boieri commanded full loyalty from their vassal lords, only boys could inherit, Roma were slaves and women had few choices but marriage or the convent – or else be accused of witchcraft. Brinzeanu takes one of the oldest and best-known Romanian myths (the Ballad of Master Craftsman Manole) and gives an alternative interpretation, steeped in injustice, malevolence and superstition. There is also a tender love story between social classes at its heart, but distrust and fear threaten to destroy it. There is a YA feel to this story (just like with the other recent historical novel I read set in Romania, The Book of Perilous Dishes), but that is no bad thing, as it ensures lively pacing, vivid descriptions, as well as strong emotions and often impulsive actions of the main protagonists, rather than endless cerebral agonising.

The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer

Another historical romance with some cross-dressing like the previous book, but with far lower stakes (although perpetually threatened by possible accusations of fraud and treason)/ This is set in Georgian England, after the failed Bonnie Prince Charlie uprising, with two siblings disguised as members of the opposite sex to protect their identity. Aside from the misunderstandings one might expect, mayhem ensues when their con-artist father reappears to claim a vast inheritance. Not my favourite Heyer, but a charming and witty way to spend a lazy summer day.

Rocco and the Price of Lies by Adrian Magson

A combination of the historical and criminal: I love this series featuring Inspector Rocco in 1960s Picardie – I find them much more compelling and culturally true than the more overtly tourist-trap Bruno series by Martin Walker, but they sadly don’t seem to be as popular with readers. A cracking story about local and national interests, cover-ups and eccentric characters.

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

I always enjoy a book about writers and this is a very clever, slightly metafictional study of the construction of a crime novel. The conceit is that an Australian writer sends chapters of her work in progress to an American fan because her latest work is set in Boston and she needs someone familiar with the place to correct any mistakes. However, the American acquaintance gets more involved than one might expect in the story and starts making suggestions for altering the plot or the characters. At the same time, we are given to understand that one of the four main characters in the fictional book is a killer but that the author herself has not yet decided which one it will be. As we get caught up in the story, we forget that all exists simply in the fictional author’s head, but there is the additional creepy element of stalking and real crimes starting to take place. A great fun read, easily devoured in half a day.

Hinton Hollow Death Trap by Will Carver – if you want to have your brains twisted and start doubting yourself, this sneaky and clever but dark story written by Evil Himself is sure to do the trick!

The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan – a solid and gripping police procedural set in Galway and Dublin, with at least two very strong characters investigating, want to read more

The House Share by Kate Helm – I remember quite enjoying this as I was reading it, although the luxury communal living premise seemed rather far-fetched, but like fast food – haven’t got any lingering memory of its taste

Anonima de miercuri by Rodica Ojog Brasoveanu (Romanian) – featuring that suave old lady Melania, freshly out of prison for fraud, this is entertaining enough but feels oddly in misstep with the time in which it is supposed to take place (1980s Romania)

Violet by SJI Holliday – set on the Trans-Siberian express all the way through Beijing, Mongolia and then Moscow, this is an unnerving story with slippery characters, very atmospheric – although goodness, I was a much more cautious traveller at their age (wouldn’t make for a good story, though)

Death on the Trans Siberian Express by C J Farrington – another story where the Trans-Siberian train features, this time set in Roslazny – a sleepy Russian town along its route. Olga Pushkin is the railway engineer who witnesses a body being thrown out of the train and who cannot help getting involved in the investigation. This has the hallmarks of cosy historical crime, although it is set in 21st century Russia, but I love the idealism and resilience of fiery Olga.

Red as Blood by Lilja Sigurdardottir (transl. Quentin Bates) – a puzzling kidnapping and ransom case (with a side serving of tax evasion) – the second book in a new series by this prolific and talented Icelandic author, less action packed than her Reykjavik Noir trilogy, but equally fun

How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie – funny, completely amoral, highly political, this is Kind Hearts and Coronets for the present-day, another book that scores highly while reading it, but loses its fizz soon afterwards

As you can see, no time for lengthier reviews, but I do hope to be able to do a #WIT summary post too.

French in June and #20Books: Gael Faye and Lola Lafon

The reviews for these two books will be short, not because I didn’t enjoy the books, but because I have run out of time. The end of this month has been a particularly busy one for me. That is also the reason I am grouping them together, although the only similarity they have is that they both feature child narrators (at least partly) and are based on true stories, although they are both works of fiction.

Actually, now that I think about it, ‘enjoy’ is perhaps the wrong word to use about either of these two books, each dealing with such difficult themes. They were quite challenging to read, but I am glad I did. They both had very powerful, moving prose, although Lafon tries to be more clinical and detached.

Book 8/20: Gael Faye: Petit Pays (translated by Sarah Ardizzone as Small Country)

Gabriel is living in France as an adult, a country that is oddly familiar to him (with a French dad, and having gone to a French school all his life), but also one where he never feels he fully belongs (his mother is a Tutsi refugee from Rwanda, and he spent most of his childhood in Burundi). After a brief prologue – in which Gabriel’s father tries to explain the reasons for the civil war in Burundi and Rwanda, which the children interpret as ‘because the Hutus and the Tutsis don’t have the same type of nose’ – we see Gabriel living a very threadbare life in the Paris region but not entirely sure if he dares to return to his home country. The rest of the book describes this childhood in Burundi in 1992-94, and in particular life in his close, a relatively affluent area of Bujumbura, full of mixed-race marriages or diplomats.

One highlight is Gabriel’s eleventh birthday party, where everyone is invited, even people who are normally quite hostile to each other. Although a confrontation takes place there between two of the boys, and then there is a black-out, the party continues with live instruments and improvised music and dancing. It is the last moment of joy and insouciance for those present, for soon afterward the war erupts in Rwanda (with dire consequences for Gabriel’s relatives), and then the fragile new democracy in Burundi crumbles too. The friendship between the boys on the close unravels too.

The book is now widely taught in French schools, has become a modern classic, as well as winning the literary prize chosen by high-school students (and not just because the author is a popular rapper). It provides an eye-opening description of a certain time and place, and explains so well the reasons why people become refugees. There are some great scenes, often funny, but also moving, and there are some lyrical passages which are very well written, but there are also shocking scenes, which are not sugarcoated at all for a YA audience. Occasionally, the child’s voice slips and we are transported to the adult’s perception, but I didn’t find that annoying. The finale could be seen by some as too sentimental, but I think it struck just about the right note.

Book 9/20: Lola Lafon: Chavirer (translated by Hildegarde Serle as Reeling)

This was another hard-hitting book, quite difficult to read at times, although it was less graphic than Faye’s novel. Based on the author’s own experience of studying ballet, it is in essence the Ghislaine Maxwell/Jeffrey Epstein network transposed to a French setting. Girls as young as 13 are lured in by an elegant, well-educated and well-connected woman at the Galatea Foundation, with the promise of a scholarship that would enable them to pursue their dreams of becoming a dancer, an artist, an actress etc. Cleo is one of the girls who falls under the spell of the glamorous Cathy but soon finds herself trapped in a frightening situation that she barely understands. It gets even worse when she becomes complicit with the sinister operation, recruiting ‘promising’ girls. As Cleo grows up, and as the victims of this network start to speak out, she struggles with her own role in this pedophile ring, and that she never warned the girls of the dangers.

But it’s not just Cleo’s story. We see multiple points of view, including the discussion boards set up many years later by investigative journalists and documentary makers trying to find out what had been going on. The book shows just how difficult it is for #MeToo experiences to be taken seriously, especially in a country like France.

Those lunches, in the nineties, that brought together girls and powerful men? It was common knowledge. These are the words of the female producer of a radio show with whom Enid and Elvire are talking about their forthcoming documentary. Everyone knew about it. And if those lunches took place for so many years without anyone complaining about them, it’s proof that nothing that serious went on at them, she adds.

Although the scenes of abuse are not shown directly, and certainly not in detail, we are shown the effect it has on the girls, the temporary disassociation of body and mind that they have to enact in order to survive, but also the long-term trauma. By allowing a multiplicity of voices to be represented, Lafon makes us question ourselves and our hypocrisies, and makes us wonder to what extent we too have often been complicit in the exploitation of others.

… it’s not what we are forced to do that destroys us, but what we consent to do that chips away at us; those pricks of shame, from consenting every day to reinforce what we decry. I buy things knowing they’re made using slave labor, I go on vacation to a dictatorship with lovely sunny beaches. I got to the birthday party of a harasser who produces my films. We’re shot through with such shame, a whirlwind that, little by little, bores into us and hollows us out. Not having said anything. Or done anything. Having said yes because we didn’t know how to say no.

French in June and #20Books: Romain Gary

Romain Gary in 1956, roughly around the time he would have been writing this book – there aren’t many pictures of him looking very corporate and diplomatic.

Book 7/20: Romain Gary: L’Homme a la colombe (writing as Fosco Sinibaldi)

An unusual book for my next French in June read (which I also conveniently snuck in my #20Books of Summer pile), one that I would never have come across if it hadn’t been suggested to me by Emma, inveterate Romain Gary lover and reviewer of a wide range of literature on her always enticing Book Around the Corner blog. You can read Emma’s thoughts on this book here.

I love books about international organisations such as the UN. My father worked for the UN International Development Organisation for quite a large chunk of the 1970s and 80s, so I grew up hearing plenty about the idealism and the disappointments, the successes and the nastier politicking side of things. What is surprising, however, is that Romain Gary seems to have lost his innocence and hope for the UN quite a bit sooner than most people, for he published this hard-hitting satire about the organisation in 1958 (under a pseudonym, of course). Shirley Hazzard published her satire People in Glass Houses roughly ten years later.

The Secretary-General of the UN and his two most trusted advisors (incidentally, because of the nationalities of the people involved, it sounds a bit like the beginning of a joke: a Frenchman, an Englishman and a Persian) are worried when they find out that an outsider, a man with a dove, has managed to penetrate the heavily-guarded building and set himself up in a secret location, a room that does not appear on any architectural plan, that no one seems to know anything about.

At first no one, not even the young intruder himself, seems to know what the purpose of this ‘protest’ is. Then the young man goes on a hunger strike and they are forced to conclude that he is of that rare category, a dreamer and believer in the principles of the UN. I loved the contrast between the suave, poetical Persian Bagtir and the very pragmatic Englishman Praiseworthy (while the Frenchman burst into tears dramatically and easily):

‘Instead of hiding his presence, I would suggest, on the contrary, that you tell the press. It is very poetical. Omar Khayam says that Allah only listens to the prayers in a new mosque when a swallow has made a nest under its roof…

‘That’s all very well, but if the public opinion here in America finds out that we are spending twenty million dollars per year to shelter a swallow, that could cause great trouble. Alas, America is a very prosaic country.’

The young man, the son of a Texas millionaire, is trying to demonstrate that Americans too can be idealistic, that they can die for an idea, and not just be consumers obsessed by wealth. But he isn’t acting on his own – he has his own aiders and abetters, including con-men, gamblers, a girlfriend and a Hopi chief who has become a shoeshine boy in the building, to remind people with lofty ideas that they too have feet and need to be more down-to-earth. Things don’t quite go according to plan, however – the public seems to take the man with the dove at face value, rather than understand the profound irony, and so his behaviour becomes more and more extreme.

The story is a complete farce, absurd yet with bite. There is much to enjoy in the sarcasm with which Gary describes the UN’s high officials’ plans for how to resolve the problem – a lesson for politicians everywhere!

‘Above all, we musn’t give the impression that we are against him, that the UN refuses to provide shelter to the man with the dove. We therefore have to welcome him publicly, even formally, showing our respect for the ideal he is defending, which is after all our ideals, and then channel all that enthusiasm and sympathy towards us… you can be sure that once he enters these walls, he will cease to be a problem. He will get worn out, no longer attract attention, disappear bit by bit… What is essential is that we appropriate him. After that, we no longer need to worry – he will become an abstration. After all, that is one of the reasons for our success: we transform all problems and realities into abstractions, empty them of any real content.’

As you might imagine, Romain Gary, as a working diplomat for France at the time, had to publish this book under a pseudonym. He never acknowledged the work as his own or wished to see it reissued; however, an edited version was found among his papers after his death, so he didn’t fully abandon it either. Many of us now share his disenchantment with international organisations and national governments: although it is a slight work compared to his other, later novels, it remains a sharp yet utterly readable condemnation of politics.

French in June and #20Books: Maylis de Kerangal

Book 6/20: Maylis de Kerangal: Painting Time, transl. Jessica Moore, Maclehose Press, 2021.

I read this book in parallel in French and English, because I had such a wonderful time doing this with her previous book to be translated by Jessica Moore, Mend the Living (there is also a US translation by Sam Taylor, called The Heart). She appears to be the kind of writer who develops a passion for a niche topic of research (organ transplants, building a bridge, becoming a chef, or decorative or trompe l’oeil painting) and then makes a novel out of it. In some cases it works (I found Mend the Living very moving and lyrical), but less so in others. For me, Painting Time (Un monde Ă  portĂ©e de main) did not quite take flight and soar.

It’s the story of Paula Karst, a young Frenchwoman, who realises she is not quite good enough to be a ‘proper’ painter, and therefore chooses to go instead to the ‘trompe l’oeil’ master class in Brussels. Here she not only immerses herself in the highly specialised art of imitating materials such as wood, marble, minerals, even animal realm, but also befriends the taciturn, somewhat mysterious Jonas, who becomes her flatmate, and the tall, stroppy former nightclub bouncer Kate from Scotland. We follow Paula’s steep learning curve, the hard work but also the unlearning that she has to do, so that she can see every object in a new light and take nothing for granted. She ends up appreciating the man-made objects more than the natural ones, because of all the effort that goes into them.

What follows then is a sort of meandering tale of Paula’s post-graduation freelance career, moving from one house-painting job to another, taking in some film sets in Cinecitta in Rome and in Moscow along the way, and then ending in Lascaux, where she is involved in the task of recreating the famous cave paintings for a new generation of tourists (without damaging the fragile precious heritage). I can see that the author draws parallels between a coming-of-age story and mastering one’s craft, that the fakery of the art Paula engages in, the ‘creating the illusion of reality’ aspect of her work, raises questions about what is ‘real’, what is ‘unreal’, about falling for appearances – and how that sometimes is a good thing. Also, about how we attribute value to things in general and art in particular.

However, I could have done without the in-between bits. The scenes in the book which really captured my imagination, and where the language really came into its own, were the ones where she is learning her craft in Brussels, especially when painting her end-of-year project, and then the final chapters at the caves of Lascaux. Everything else felt like filler and the characters never really came to life for me: her friends Kate and Jonas just seemed shadowy or flat, and so their friendship never felt entirely plausible or meaningful. She also tries to cram too much into this book: the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a bit of a rant about global nomadic freelancers, a desultory, passionless love affair.

This time the American edition kept the same translator – but what were they thinking with that cover?

I think this lack of attachment readers might feel for the characters is due in large part to de Kerangal’s idiosyncratic style, which doesn’t always translate well into English. She loves her long sentences, with endless clauses and subclauses, often zooming both in and out on a subject in the space of a single paragraph. Her long technical passages can become tedious if you are not particularly interested in the subject; not even her effort to equate it with a writer’s creative process can salvage it. At the same time, she is very deliberate in creating passages where the factual becomes poetical, where she tries to breathe lyrical life into those details, an intriguing mix of detachment and purple prose. This often happens when she describes someone talking passionately about something, for example, when Jonas finally loses his reserve and describes at length the layers of rocks and soil in a quarry. Or in the final section, when they come face to face with the real prehistoric paintings, a twenty-thousand old fish, and realise how transient human life, with all its violence and catastrophes, is on earth.

Original in FrenchTranslation
Lepoisson au-dessus de leur tête révélait la mémoire accumulée au
fond des océans, l’érosion des calcaires, le déplacement des rivières,
la migration des hommes, des durées qui coexistaient avec l’état de
choc du pays, la colère, la tristesse, les chaînes d’information
continue qui écopaient le temps à longueur de journée pendant que
les deux terroristes poursuivaient leur cavale mortifère : il connectait
l’histoire du monde et leur vie humaine.
The fish above their heads reveals the memory accumulated at the bottom of the oceans, the erosion of the limestone, the movement of the rivers, the migration of humans, these lengths of time that coexist with the state of shock their country is in now, the anger, sorrow, the twenty-four-hour news channels that bail out time all day long while the two terrorists continue on their deadly run; it connects the history of the world to their fragile human life.

I expected to like this book far more than Mend the Living (after all, I appreciate and think I understand art more than the minutiae of heart transplants), but in the end it did not quite gel for me. However, I have another of her books, an earlier one, called Corniche Kennedy, which is about a group of young friends growing up and being daredevils in Marseille. Let’s see if she manages to capture the atmosphere of that city as well as my beloved Izzo!

Coincidentally, I was concurrently reading Long Live Great Bardfield (available from Persephone Press), the autobiography of Tirzah Greenwood, Eric Ravilious’ wife and a talented artist in her own right. She too seemed to display the lack of confidence in her work and relationships that Paula has too. Tirzah was modest about her achievements, but she is a funny and keen observer of the egos and pretentions of their bohemian friends. She ended up specialising quite a bit in woodcuts and hand marbled papers, while she raised three children and tried to be modern and understanding about her husband’s affairs. Perhaps de Kerangal’s Paula is safer staying single and emotionally detached!

French in June and #20Books: Three Writers of Noir

It’s no secret that I like noir fiction, especially when it is not too macho and the (usually male) narrator reveals vulnerability. That’s why two of the authors below are firmly among my favourites, while Janis Otsiemi is new to me, but after hearing him speak in Lyon in 2016, I thought he sounded very interesting. All three of them are (or were) also quite politically engaged, and I wonder if noir is a response to a certain political frame of mind.

Book 3/20: Pascal Garnier: Nul n’est Ă  l’abri du succès (2000) (literally: Nobody’s safe from success)

Translated as C’est la Vie (tr. Jane Aitken), Gallic Books, 2019.

This is the slim volume I was lucky enough to find signed by the author (dedicated to Marie Louise, which is ALMOST Marina Sofia, don’t you agree?) in a second-hand bookshop in Lyon. This was his sixth or seven novel for adults, although it seems to be one of the last to be translated into English. Prior to that, he had a long career as a children’s book author, and the juxtaposition of his hilarious yet slightly surreal kids’ fantasy books with his very dark and violent novels always makes me smile.

The ‘hero’ of the story (who is never a hero, if you know your Garnier) is Jeff Colombier, a has-been middle-aged writer, drinking too much, whose relationships with women have come to nothing, and whose grown-up son despises him. But then things seem to turn around for him when he wins an important literary prize. Although he makes a fool of himself on TV, he is nevertheless feted and suddenly touring all over France. He runs away from all these trappings of success to spend some time with his son (who has become a drug dealer) in an attempt to recapture his youth.

Of course things go awry, although perhaps not quite as violently as in some of the other Garnier novels. Which might be a relief for some readers, but I feel it also lacks some of the perception and depth of novels like How’s the Pain or Moon in a Dead Eye. It is in essence the dry, witty description of a man’s midlife crisis, with additional swipes at the Parisian literary world, womanising and parenting. This is his second novel featuring an author, and there possibly are some knowing autobiographical nods in this one, but I feel it was much better done in The Eskimo Solution. One for Garnier completists (and worth it for his signature alone in my case).

Book 4/20: Jean-Claude Izzo: L’aride des jours (1999) (literally: Barren/Arid Days), with photographs by Catherine-Bouretz-Izzo.

A bit of an unusual book this, a poetry collection by an author best known for his neo-noir Marseille Trilogy. Yet Izzo started out by publishing several volumes of poetry in the 1970s before switching to prose and then returned to poetry twenty years later in 1997 for the remainder of his short life. This volume is illustrated with photos by his wife, mostly close-ups of rocks and cliffs around Marseille.

In fact, you might argue that all of Izzo’s work is a love-song to the city of Marseille and the Mediterranean, without being blind to the destructive forces of either. His work has often been described as combining ‘black and blue’ – the blackest depths of noir, even the ‘blues’ (music also plays an important part in his work), but also the clear blue of the sea representing optimism, the colour of hope and dreams.

His poetry is so evocative of place, of the Mediterranean landscape in all its seasons. There is something so immediate about his descriptions, very sensual, dropping you in the middle of a grassy field, or with your fingers scrabbling in red earth, the warmth of the sun against your skin. I am afraid you will have to take my word for it, because I find it very difficult to translate poetry. It sounds rather inane when I just capture the meaning of the words but not the whole atmosphere, soundscape and colour.

No reference points around here.

Nothing but the sun.

Who says: here and now.

Our place is here, under the shoulder of the sun

on the blue stones, in the bosom of the grass,

the moan of the midi.

Izzo was a political journalist as well as a writer, but poetry seems to have been his shelter. He used to say that he loved telling stories, but that he felt most alive when writing poetry. Poetry helped keep him le plus fidèle possible à l’innocence (as close as possible to innocence).

Book 5/20: Janis Otsiemi: La vie est un sale boulot (2009) [literally: Life’s a dirty business]

This novel is a more straightforward piece of crime fiction, set in Libreville, Gabon. Chicano has just been released from prison (possibly thanks to a case of mistaken identity) after serving four years for a burglary that went wrong. He has sworn to lead a good life from now on, but easier said than done. How can you possibly hope to succeed, when you have no education, no skills, no supportive family or girlfriend, in a country where corruption reigns supreme? Needless to say, Chicano gets sucked back into his criminal gang and things go as well as might be expected.

The story is relatively simple and predictable, and it’s perhaps fair to say that it is one of the author’s earliest novels – he has written around nine of them by now, all featuring the inspectors Koumba and Owoula. But this is not really a police procedural – for the police, just like pretty much all of the public services in Gabon, are corrupt, biased and incompetent. This is not a pretty picture that Otsiemi paints of his country, but it is full of energy and wit. The noise, heat and constant movement of the city streets and marketplaces really come to life.

I also loved the examples of non-standard French being used throughout (some of them explained in footnotes, others perfectly comprehensible but making me smile in the body of the text). For example, the ‘breadwinner’ becomes the ‘manioc winner’ (gagne-pain –> gagne-manioc), underpants are ‘porte-fesses’ (buttock-carriers), the mistress is known as ‘the second office’ and so on. Despite the best efforts of the AcadĂ©mie française, the French language remains alive, diverse and constantly kicking!

French in June and #20Books: Women’s Midlife Crisis

Sophie Divry: La condition pavillonnaire (Book 2 of #20Books of Summer)

This book has been translated as Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by the very talented author and translator Alison Anderson, and the title does rather give you an idea of what the book is about. Unlike the original Emma Bovary, however, the narrator known only as M.A.(pronounced just like Emma in French) does not have an unhappy ending. Instead, we have a picture of her whole life, from childhood to death, covering around 75 years of French social history from the 1950s to roughly 2025.

If you compare it with another recent book that traces a character’s entire life story (rather than being plot-driven), A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, you might find this book profoundly annoying. Because, unlike with Andreas, no real tragedy befalls M.A.: she does not face war or destruction or even major familial dramas and losses. She has loving, if rather dull parents, she gets a chance to go to university, she marries, has healthy children, and, after some initial financial worries, soon leads a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle with all the household consumer goods considered necessary at the time. Yet, despite all this, she is often bored and unhappy, and embarks upon an affair with a work colleague. But this only brings momentary excitement to her life, and all her other attempts to liven things up – the friendships, the hobbies, psychotherapy – fall flat. This flatness is echoed in the idiosyncratic narrative style – instead of a first person narrator, we have the unusual second person – and this brings MA much closer to us. She is not a particularly sympathetic character, but her story is fairly typical of her generation (and probably ours as well) and the tediousness of everyday life is conveyed not only through the observation of all the tiny details of family life (the interruptions during supper, for example), but also with exhaustive descriptions of the fridge or the car, all adding to that sense of flatness and information overwhelm.

‘You couldn’t express clearly this sense of dissatisfaction because – as all the images from around the world kept reminding you – you had everything you needed to be happy. In your country there were no major floods, no wars, no epidemics, people died of old age, there was no bankruptcy, just a demanding career for your husband and worryies about the children’s future. Later, your mother will die in a room with dirty curtains, you will be made redundant, you will be burgled, but you will never experience anything major, you will never win the lottery or be kidnapped and have your fifteen minutes of fame.’

(my translation)

I personally much preferred Divry’s funnier and more overtly militant novel When the Devil Comes Out of the Bathroom, but I can see what she was trying to do here. It is perhaps also a good warning to not waste your life, and to realise what really matters to you and make the most of it.

Emily Itami: Fault Lines

The wife in this case is Japanese and she too seems to have everything she needs to be happy, at least on paper. Mizuki is a housewife, after a rather lacklustre singing career, with two cute children and a successful professional husband, living in a posh part of Tokyo. Yet she too is discontented with her life, seriously considering throwing herself off the balcony where she escapes to smoke a cigarette. She also embarks upon an affair, but soon realises that she probably lacks the courage or conviction to uproot her life, so it cannot last.

This story focuses on a limited time period of Mizuki’s life, a few months at most, and it is told from the first person point of view, so there is a lot more emotion, anger, poignancy and sense of yearning than in Divry’s almost clinical detachment (and near-imperatives). Mizuki feels invisible and unwanted, and she desperately longs to be loved, to feel attractive once more.

He’s made me invisible. With all the options I had, I chose him, chose him for life, for living, and he’s frozen me out into an existence that isn’t living at all. I’m in a cage without bars and I’m screaming but nobody can hear. I’m not even middle-aged yet and he’s faded me into the background.

The author suggests that the reason Mizuki is so frustrated with her life is because she has lived for a while in the United States, and has been exposed to different expectations and lifestyles, much like the author herself (who I suspect is half-Japanese and spent her childhood there, but now lives in the UK). However, I was also amused by the astute observations of the impact of American self-help gurus on Japanese culture.

All the talks are about accepting yourself as you are, being kind to yourself, seeing yourself as just one human out of many, doing your best, with as much right to be here as everybody else. I like the idea, and I find the talks relaxing, but if I think about it too much, the idea of self-acceptance jars. Some people, surely, are unacceptable, and the makers of the recordings don’t know if I’m one of those people or not. How do they know if I phone my mother regularly, or separate my recycling, or keep my terrace free of furniture that could fly away in a typhoon, or tell the truth? You can accept yourself, here, but only if you’re fulfilling your obligation to society. I guess that’s why America is the land of the free, but we have lower crime rates and litter-free streets.

I actually enjoyed this more than I expected – the adultery side of things was sensitively done, not that I am squeamish about such things in my reading (and we hear almost by-the-by that her husband had cheated on her previously too). It was certainly more heartfelt than M.A.’s pathetic self-delusions with her affair, there was a dreaminess and sweetness to it which captivated me.

I suppose these two books were a continuation of the theme of aging, loneliness, and a woman’s identity that I started reading about in Simone de Beauvoir. These stories can occasionally feel self-indulgent (when we compare them to the more traumatic stories of women’s lives in other places, classes or historical periods), but after ploughing through so much literature about white men’s midlife crisis in the past, I am willing to lend my ear to these stories as well.

French in June: Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman Destroyed, transl. Patrick O’Brian.

[Also Book 1 of my #20Books of Summer – I forgot to add her to the original list. Honestly, not cheating!]

I strongly identified with Simone de Beauvoir ever since the age of ten or thereabouts – she was a powerful role model to me. Of course, upon growing up and reading more about her life, I realised that there were plenty of contradictions too. But aren’t we all flawed? Isn’t there always a gap between what we profess and the aches of our heart? Nevertheless, I still love her intellect and her writing. Above all, I love her psychological insight. She can see right through into the hearts of women, even the darkest, most secret nooks which we want to hide from others.

This book is a collection of three novellas, all featuring women at a later stage in life, all facing old age, rejection, and loss of filial or spousal love.

The Age of Discretion is the story of a mother whose son has not turned out the way she would have liked him to be. At the same time, she faces the prospect of aging, regrets, coping with obsolescence in both the personal and professional realms. At times she seems almost content with her long years of experience:

I have discovered the pleasure of having a long past behind me… a background to the diaphanous present: a background that gives its colour and its light, just as rocks or sand show through the shifting brilliance of the sea. Once I used to cherish schemes and promises for the future; now my feeling and my joys are smoothed and softened with the shadowy velvet of time past.

But she has to learn to cope with the limitations of her body, her intellect, her family, and her ability to shape people. She has to learn to not look too far ahead, to live a short-term life, to cope with loneliness in a strange world that we no longer understand and that would carry on without us.

No, he did not belong to me any more… It was I who moulded his life. Now I am watching it from outside, a remote spectator. It is the fate common to all mothers; but who has ever found comfort in saying that hers is the common fate.

Because he was very demanding I believed I was indispensable. Because he is easily influenced I imagined I had created him in my own image… I was the one who knew the real Philippe. And he has preferred to go away from me, to break our secret alliance, to throw away the life I had built for him with such pains. He will turn into a stranger.

She cold-heartedly turns him away because she feels she cannot respect his life choices anymore. He is the one who demonstrates unconditional love. It is a shocking story because of her intransigence about her son and his choices – an unfashionable attitude nowadays, but perhaps more common for that generation:

This is what her son says (quite rightly, it seems to me):

For my part I have never wondered whether I respected you or not. You could do bloody-fool things as much as ever you liked and I shouldn’t love you any the less. You think love has to be deserved… and I’ve tried hard enough not to be undeserving. Everything I ever wanted to be… they were all mere whims according to you: I sacrificed them all to please you. The first time I don’t give way, you break with me.

The Monologue, the second story in the volume, reminded me of one of Dorothy Parker’s tour de force monologues, which reveal all of the deepest fears, foibles, and insecurities of the woman speaking. In this case, we have a frankly rather unpleasant, bitter woman left all alone on New Year’s Eve, resenting her neighbours for celebrating. Her lover has abandoned her, she was estranged from her own daughter (who subsequently died), and considers herself to be wronged by all around her. A real howl of a rant, a mix of pity and disgust – but it also makes us wonder if we are judging her more harshly because she is both middle-aged and a woman. Once again, we encounter here fear of abandonment and loneliness – if the first narrator at least had a partner in old age, this one does not.

She’s dead and so all right what of it? The dead are not saints. She wouldn’t cooperate, she never confided in me at all… Blind with fury just because I was doing my duty as a mother. Me the selfish one when she ran away like that would have been in my interest to have left her with her father. Without her I still had a chance of making a new life for myself.

The third, longest story is The Woman Abandoned, describing the breakdown of a marriage in the form of a diary over the course of several months, as the narrator seeks to come to terms with her husband’s affair, to keep the marriage going, while her two grown daughters have moved away – one to the States, one in a bourgeois marriage. A woman who, while not entirely blameless or likable, is certainly more relatable. She has tried her best to be accommodating and understanding, but constantly questions herself and ends up losing everything. Her sense of desolation is so beautifully conveyed:

Every night I call him: not him – the other one, the one who loved me. And I wonder whether I should not prefer it if he were dead. I used to tell myself that death was the only irremediable misfortune and that if he were to leave me I should get over it. Death was dreadful because it was possible; a break was bearable because I could not imagine it. But now in fact I tell myself that if he were dead I should at least know whom I had lost and who I was myself. I no longer know anything. The whole of my past life has collapsed behind me, as the land does in those earthquakes where the ground consumes and destroys itself… Even if you survive there is nothing left.

I have to admit I could not help but identify with some of the dialogue in this:

The worst thing you did was to let me lull myself in a sense of false security. Here I am at forty-four, empty-handed, with no occupation, no other interest in life apart from you. If you had warned me eight years ago I should have made an independent existence for myself and now it would be easier for me to accept the situation.

‘But Monique!’ he cried, looking astonished, ‘I urged you as strongly as I possibly could to take that job as secretary of the Revue medicale seven years ago.’

This is a powerful description of her descent into depression – no longer able to distinguish between day and night, not washing, not going outside, drinking, smoking, lying in bed all day, wanting to die. Nothing escapes de Beauvoir’s unsentimental eye, for example, the limited amount of sympathy or interest that friends can conjure up for you.

They are all sick of me. Tragedies are all right for a while: you are concerned, you are curious, you feel good. And then it gets repetitive, it doesn’t advance, it grows dreadfully boring: it is so very boring, even for me.

In summary, not the cheeriest of reads, but so insightful and so well written. Simone conquers my heart all over again!