#Fitzgerald2020: Not just angels and their gates…

After reading The Gate of Angels, I developed an appetite for more Fitzgerald, so I conitnued with another historical novel The Beginning of Spring (set in Moscow in 1913) and her collection of short stories The Means of Escape, many of which are set in exotic locations and in the 19th century.

The Beginning of Spring sees Russia on the verge of war and revolution, but of course no one knows that yet. Moreover, this is all seen through the eyes of the expat community. Frank Reid might have been born and bred in Russia, and inherited his father’s business in Moscow (of which only the printing side of things is still viable), but he is still regarded as an Englishman.

He had a reputation for doing what he could… but all of them, at one point or another, reminded him that he was a foreigner wghim even if things didn’t go right, had nothing to lose.

He met his future wife Nellie when he went to England to study and work for a few years, and then spent three years in Germany, where their two eldest children were born. So they are a real expat family, their children equally comfortable conversing in Russian and in English.

I could really relate to Frank’s love for his adopted country, that tension of belonging and yet remaining an outsider. But above all, I loved Fitzgerald’s ability to encompass a whole place and time with just one sentence.

Frank’s affection for Moscow came over him at odd and inappropriate times and in undistinguished places. Dear, slovenly, mother Moscow, bemused with the bells of its four times forty churches, indifferently sheltering factories, whore-houses and golden domes, impeded by Greeks and Persians and bewildered villagers and seminarists straying on to the tramlines, centred on its holy citadel but reaching outwards with a frowsty leap across the boulevards to the circle of workers’ dormitories and railheads, where the monasteries still prayed, and at last to a circle of pig-sties, cabbage-patches, earth roads, earth closets, where Moscow sank back, seemingly with relief, into a village.

When the book opens, Frank’s wife has just left him and their three children without a warning or a satisfactory explanation. Mild-mannered and indecisive Frank sort of expects her to come back, but is finally convinced that he needs to find a childcare solution and hires a young salesgirl Lisa. The children soon grow very fond of her, and Frank finds himself attracted by her quiet, mysterious ways. Soon, everyone he knows is winking and nudging and hinting quite broadly that there is a relationship between Frank and the nanny. Frank spends most of the book trying to dispel that idea, although he would like nothing more than to have a relationship with her. Mrs Graham, the chaplain’s wife, makes no bones about it and her exchange with the hapless Frank is a masterpiece of understated comic timing:

‘Of course he thinks quite highly of her!…Show me a single man who wouldn’t! Quiet, blonde, slow-witted, nubile, docile, doesn’t speak English, hardly speaks at all in fact, sloping shoulders, half-shut eyes, hasn’t broadened out yet though I daresay she will, proper humility, reasonable manners, learned I suppose behind the counter at Muirka’s.’

‘I don’t think her eyes are usually half-shut,’ said Frank.

‘You’re all of you serf-owners at heart! Yes, this brother-in-law too! Fifty years after Emancipation, and you’re still chasing them into the straw-stacks!’

‘Don’t let yourself be carried away, Mrs Graham,’ said Frank. ‘They’ve never had serfs in Norbury.’

Frank is an occasionally infuriatingly passive creation but extremely relatable: ‘lukewarm, but not quite cold, unbelieving, but not quite disbelieving, he had fallen into the habit of not asking himself what he thought.’ The books is essentially about the next few months of his life, with some dramas and much bewilderment. His brother-in-law pays him a visit, the children go to their countryside dacha, he muddles around with his accountant who is a poet and a Tolstoy acolyte but not very good with figures. The ending is, just like in The Gate of Angels, a bit of a bombshell, far too abrupt and leaving matters wide open.

Yet in The Means of Escape, Fitzgerald shows she can craft as conclusive and satisfying an ending as anyone. Not all of the stories have it – some seem to peter out and you wonder if you’ve missed something. And even in the ones with a satisfying ending, there always remains a little flourish of surprise, something that makes us want to smile or frown and rush to read the story once again. Her sense of setting, of course, remains impeccable: a stifling rectory in Hobart, Tasmania; a manor house judged of insufficient interest to be taken up by the National Trust and shunned by visitors; painters decamping to Brittany, determined to paint outdoors, only to be defeated by the constant rain; a remote farmstead in New Zealand; the Greek district of Phanar/Fener in Istanbul. She tackles the expat community once more: this time Americans in Mexico in ‘Our Lives Are Only Lent to Us’, who fail to truly understand the concerns of their servants and their families even after decades of living there.

My personal favourite (as a former HR professional) is perhaps ‘The Axe’, one of her first published stories, where a managing director of a small firm writes a report to the CEO of the parent organisation, after having been asked to make redundancies. His particular concern is his clerical assistant Singlebury, who had been an exemplary worker for many years, but was now growing old. ‘Getting old is, of course, a crime of which we grow more guilty every day.’ Work seems to be his whole life, dismissal would be worse than death to him, as one of the other employees observes. I’m not going to give you a blow by blow account of this quite short story, but let’s just say that not a single word is wasted and one masterpiece of a sentence follows another. Quite brilliant, and also quite chilling, with shades of Edgar Allan Poe.

The book was published shortly after her death and gathered stories written throughout her career, so there is quite a variety stylistically and thematically. What I did find consistent was her ability to create ‘quiet explosions’ in her characters’ lives, and to observe the lives of the small, marginalised, vulnerable and typically unheard people. Some of the stories verge on the Gothic and have disquieting little twists, but then, there is always a fascination with the supernatural in most of Fitzgerald’s work (remember the ghost story in The Gate of Angels?). Others offer a direct insight into the very depths of someone’s soul, something they are hiding even from themselves.

Penelope Fitzgerald, to me, is the quintessentially English writer that meant so much to me in those dark days of trying to sneak into the forbidden British Council library. Mature, witty, able to be both detached and empathetic, she mines that rich vein that Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark and so many other fantastic English writers made their own, representing all the calm and reassurance of a centuries-old literary tradition and a settled democracy to which I secretly aspired. It was these polished, perfect sentences and elliptical approach to serious themes (rather than Downton Abbey gossip or Merchant/Ivory film costumes) that I expected to find when I moved to the UK. Of course it was reductionist, and I have found both much more (but also, somehow, less). Nevertheless, it is delightful to reconnect with what drew me to this country in the first place.

#1956Club: Romain Gary

When I first started reading Romain Gary (on the recommendations of the Gary fan and expert Emma), I thought that The Roots of Heaven (Les Racines du ciel) was only tangentially and metaphorically about elephants. Which is ironic, because that is the trap into which most of the characters in the book fall. Or do they deliberately choose to misrepresent things, to pursue their own selfish aims?

This novel is one of the best-known by Romain Gary. It appeared in 1956 and won the Prix Goncourt, it was rapidly translated into English and it was made into a film directed by John Huston before the US audience had a chance to read it in translation. It has also been called one of the first explicitly ecological novels. It certainly is that, but it’s also about the human race itself, and saving what is best about humanity. Gary himself resisted interpreting the novel as an allegory, but then threw a spanner in the works: ‘The elephants are flesh and blood – just like human rights are.’

Set in post-WW2 colonial Africa, the book focuses on an idealistic Frenchman, Morel, who has come to Chad, still under French rule in the 50s, to crusade against the hunting and poaching of elephants. He tries at first to get everyone to sign a petition, but when that fails, he takes matters into his own hands and establishes a vigilante group, punishing hunters and traders in elephant ‘wares’. He manages to win over a few people, each one damaged by the past, who perhaps recognise their own helplessness and suffering in the plight of the elephants. The German nightclub hostess Minna was raped by Soviet soldiers at the end of the war, while Forsythe is a disgraced former major in the US army who fought in the Korean war. Morel himself was part of the French resistance and interned in a German labour camp for two years and the thought of elephants roaming free on the savannah was one of the things that kept him going. There is also an elderly Danish zoologist, Qvist, famous for his stand against whaling, who is perhaps the only one who joins him for purely ecological reasons.

What is most interesting about the book is that for the first third of the book we don’t catch a single glimpse of Morel in action, and even for the remainder of the book, we tend to see him through the eyes of others, who all have wildly conflicting views about him. Some are puzzled by his activism on behalf of animals and cannot believe that there isn’t a political, anti-government motive behind it. Others want to ally themselves with him and use his popularity to fight for African independence. Quite a few are amused by his naive idealism and predict (or even conspire) that he’ll not come to a good end:

Morel can be used as long as he remains a legend… Don’t accuse me of cynicism, but in all revolutionary movements, you have the inspired and vapoury idealists in the vanguard… but the realists, the ones who do the actual construction work, come afterwards slowly, inexorably. I’m telling you this because it’s essential that he not be caught alive. I like him well enough, he’s an innocent, but it’s better for everyone if he disappears in his full glory, in his legendary status.

Many are jaded and cynical beyond belief, but Morel’s uncompromising stance makes them question their own beliefs. There is an English colonel who is starting to wonder if the world view that he was raised into and that he inherited is based on a false assumption of basic human decency – which the atrocities of the Second World War have severely undermined. There is a colonial administrator who wonders if the human soul is even capable of altruism and heroism, believing that those few drops of humanity and purity only come out if you squeeze them like toothpaste. The Jesuit missionary is left to ponder on the purity of his own religious beliefs and whether they are in fact ‘civilising’ the natives through conversion to Christianity.

When we do hear Morel speaking directly, he tries repeatedly to disillusion those who believe he represents them: for him, it’s only about the elephants. ‘I don’t trust ideologies – they’re too big, take up too much space, and when you have elephants alongside…’ He doesn’t even seem to care if the land remains a colony or becomes independent, as long as the elephants are looked after.

Nationalism for the sake of it, which is what we are seeing everywhere at this moment in time, nationalism which doesn’t give a damn about the elephants, that’s one of the biggest piles of shit that the humans have produced here… and they’ve produced plenty of those.

Think about the present-day and now national interests, insularity and obsession with economic growth are preventing a meaningful joint strategy to combat climate change and save natural resources – and suddenly the book seems extremely topical and not just narrowly focused on elephants (even though they are my favourite animals).

I was reminded of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, of course, but Romain Gary can certainly not be accused of reductionism or of presenting an undifferentiated mass of indigenous people ‘the Africans’. Instead, we have a variety of individual and group portraits. Waitari is an MP who has given up his parliamentary role to focus on the independence movement in his native country. He is well-educated and better-spoken than most of the French adventurers we meet on the ground. He tries to make use of a younger, more impressionable freedom-fighter named Youssef, who begins to be won over by Morel. Dwala is a witch-doctor who colludes with the French administrator, Saint Denis. The Oulé people, on whose ancestral lands most of the action takes place, are not really sure about saving the elephant, because to them the grey giants represent both meat and ritual. In refusing to romanticise the native population, instead engaging openly with their concerns and ambitions, and the contradictions in their lives, Gary reminds me of Chinua Achebe (whose Things Fall Apart was published round about the same time, in 1958).

The film featured Trevor Howard as Morel, Erroll Flynn as Forsythe and Juliette Greco as Minna.

This is a fascinating combination of an adventure novel and a philosophical one. But the reason I’ve filled the book with little post-it flags is because there are so many short, snappy quotes I want to remember. Especially this immortal one uttered by Minna:

You can’t judge men by what they do when they take their trousers off. For the really wicked things they do, they tend to get dressed.

I read this book in French, which meant that it took me more than a week to read, so I won’t get the chance to review any other book for the #1956Club. But it was definitely worth it and, in terms of conservationism, the books still has a lot to say to present-day readers.

I gather the film was decidedly less successful. Filmed in the Belgian Congo and Chad, the cast and crew suffered from malaria and other illnesses. Romain Gary was hired to write the script, but Huston later said it was a bit of a disaster, because of his inexperience.

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels

Shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, including with this novel from 1990, The Gate of Angels, Fitzgerald did win the Prize in 1979 with Offshore (unlike Beryl Bainbridge). I can’t help feeling, however, that she was robbed of it in 1995, when she wasn’t even shortlisted for The Blue Flower, which many consider to be her masterpiece.

Fizgerald was remarkably prolific for someone who started publishing novels quite late in life. Her work can be divided into two distinct periods: the earlier novels are based on her real-life experiences (she had a rather sad life, which prevented her from writing earlier), while the later ones are historical fiction. The Gate of Angels is set in 1912, so it falls in the latter category.

At first I barely noticed the 1912 timeline, because there is a timeless quality to the story – the age-old tension between town and gown, between the ivory tower and real life, between heart and mind, between youthful ideals and middle-aged ‘settling’. But then the period references start creeping in: the Suffragette movement, the revolution in physics about to kick off (and being violently opposed still in many quarters), the Cambridge colleges which are still not open to married fellows or to women. Plus, there is added poignancy to this love story when you realise that very soon all the young men will head off to war.

Yet, despite its serious subtext and accurate historical references, this book wears its research and knowledge very lightly. I spent most of the time chuckling my way through it. It is a novel of ideas, but it also utterly joyous and deeply humorous. We first see things through the eyes of Fred Fairly, a physicist and junior fellow at the all-male, rather stuffy (fictional) St Angelicus College in Cambridge. He is a naive, inexperienced young man, from a comfortable but not over-privileged background as a vicar’s son. Fitzgerald delights in joking about the discomfort of draughty vicarages throughout the book: here are just two separate instances:

The college had bever been thoroughly heated or dried out since its foundation, but Fred, who had been brought up in a rectory… saw no reason to complain.

The Rectory had been built with a solid dignity which, for the last twenty years or so, had been letting in the water everywhere.

By way of contrast, we then see life through the eyes of Daisy Saunders, who grew up in real poverty in south London, ‘where Stockwell turns into Brixton’. She is kind-hearted and resourceful, fearless and unsentimental, and is training as a probationer nurse at Blackfriars Hospital. However, her desire to help others gets her into trouble, she is kicked out of the hospital and makes her way to Cambridge to try and find a position in the hospital there.

Fred and Daisy’s lives collide – literally – in a road accident. They lose consciousness and come round in a farcical manner, in the same bed, wearing very little, in the house of the Wrayburn family. Mr Wrayburn is ‘the true voice of scholarly Cambridge’ and his reaction when he finds these two unknown people in his house results in one of the funniest paragraphs I’ve read in a long time:

‘Venetia, there are two total strangers in the nursery. One is a man, who has lost his clothes. The other is a woman, who, I think, has also lost her clothes… This is my house, as it happens. You mustn’t think me unwelcoming. My name is Wrayburn.’

It was clear that he had never been allowed to worry. That was not his work, worrying was done for him.

The person who does the worrying is quite possibly my favourite character in the book, the ‘exuberant charitable Mrs Wrayburn’, who studied for four years at Newnham, was the organising secretary of the debating society, and the Treasurer of the Women’s Social and Political Union, but of course could not get a degree at the time and made the fatal mistake of marrying a university lecturer without a fellowship – which means luncheon at home for her husband every day of the week. That tragi-comic paragraph listing all of the household items which need to be washed and dried, and how Mrs Wrayburn cannot find any maid to help her, because they live a little too far outside Cambridge is a real tour de force.

There are Dickensian traits to several of the other secondary characters too – so sharply and wittily observed, that they seem almost like caricatures. Holcombe is an acquaintance that Fred doesn’t particularly like but whom he just can’t shake off, who gives his unsolicited opinion pretty much all the time either in person or via letter. He has no qualms gatecrashing the Disobligers’ Society meeting (although he has only paid a term’s subscription, several years ago) merely to continue what he was saying to Fred in a note.

Dr Matthews, the Provost of St James, is looked down upon by other scholars for writing ghost stories in his spare time (I later found out that Fitzgerald based him upon M.R. James). When he reads one of his stories to the Junior Dean at his college, the latter believes there is a hint of sex in it.

‘I hope there is nothing of the kind… Sex is tiresome enough in novels. In a ghost story, I should have no patience with it.’

‘Surely if one doesn’t find sex tiresome in life, it won’t be tiresome in fiction.’

‘I do find it tiresome in life. Or rather, I find other people’s concern with it tiresome. One is told about it and told and told.’

I am particularly fond of Professor Flowerdew, who seems to get all the best lines. He is Fred’s mentor and decidedly against all the new-fangled particle physics, after all ‘an atom is not a reality, it is just a provisional idea’. He then goes on to give a pretty accurate description of the way research in physics will progress throughout much of the 20th century (‘elementary particles which are too strange to have anything but curious names, and anti-matter which ought to be there, but isn’t’, even chaos theory). Although Fred was initially excited by the perspective of working with Rutherford in this new revolutionary side of physics, he finds the perspective of gaining an elusive Junior Fellowship too enticing, so he follows common-sense rather than his heart. But when he meets Daisy, he finally allows his heart to take over.

So where are the ‘angels’ of the title? Well, it’s not just a reference to the name of the college. There are two instances where the supernatural seems to intervene: a ghost story which seems to appear out of nowhere in the middle of the book (a fanciful imagining by Dr Matthews which has real-life consequences) and the ending, when a gate mysteriously opens at just the right time. This may feel out of place in a novel that has been satirical and realistic in equal measure, with a wonderful eye for detail. I wasn’t entirely sure about this aspect, but I am guessing the author’s intention was to turn the story into a parable.

I read this together with a group of Twitter friends, and we enjoyed sharing quotes and references over the past week. I would really like to read more Fitzgerald this month and have borrowed another of her historical novels from the library, The Beginning of Spring.

Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year

Written and published half a century after the events it describes – namely the plague decimating London in 1665, one year before the Great Fire – much has been made about just how fictional the book is. As far as I can tell, it is a judicious mix of facts and figures (Defoe is quite scrupulous about sharing statistics), but the author livens them up with the rumours and personal stories of the times. Like some of the best journalists of today, he gives us both the overall picture, noting patterns and tendencies, but also allows us to hear individual voices and compelling anecdotes.

It is also remarkably easy and quick to read – much closer to the language of our time than Chaucer or Shakespeare, although the meanings of some words and expressions have changed or got lost. A good husband, for example, is someone who is thrifty, careful about handling money. And you may not have heard of ‘higlers’ – travelling salesmen. On the whole, however, it is amazingly, almost frighteningly modern.

If I’d read this at any other time before this year, I’d have enjoyed it as a good piece of ‘reportage’. Reading it in 2020 is almost too close to present-day reality. What he says about the start of the plague, the growing number of cases, the dodgy accounting of causes of death so as not to panic the public, the spats and quarrels breaking out in the streets and markets, individuals resisting public orders etc. mirror so much what we are going through currently. Perhaps it demonstrates that neither human society nor human nature have evolved as much as we’d like to think, that our progress has been but a thin veneer that is liable to get dented at the first sign of hardship.

Here’s Defoe on social media (or so it seems):

I could fill this account with the strange relations such people gave every day of what they had seen; and everyone was so positive of their having seen what they pretended to see, that there was no contradicting them without breach of friendship, or being accounted rude and unmannerly…

On breaking self-isolation while waiting for test results:

In this interval, between their being taken sick and the examiners coming, the master of the house had leisure and liberty to remove himself or all his family, if he knew whither to go, and many did so. But the great disaster was that many did thus after they were really infected themselves, and so carried the disease into the houses of those who were so hospitable as to receive them; which, it must be confessed, was very cruel and ungrateful.

Defoe on frontline workers and the social categories hardest hit by the plague:

It must be confessed that though the plague was chiefly among the poor, yet were the poor the most venturous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage…

And here he waxes ‘lyrically’ about how well-prepared those ruling London were for the pandemic, how confused their messaging was, and where their priorities lay:

Surely never city, at least of this bulk and magnitude, was taken in a condition so perfectly unprepared for such a dreadful visitation, whether I am to speak of the civil preparations or religious. They were, indeed, as if they had had no warning, no expectation, no apprehensions, and consequently the least provision imaginable was made for it in a public way. For example, the Lord Mayor and sheriffs had made no provisions as magistrates for the regulations which were to be observed. They had gone into no measures for the relief of the poor. The citizens had no public magazines or store-houses for corn or meal for the subsistence of the poor… The Chamber of London was said to be exceedingly rich, and it may be concluded that they were so, by the vast sums of money issued from thence in the public rebuilding of the public edifices after the fire of London… But possibly the managers of the city’s credit at that time made more conscience of breaking in upon the orhpan’s money to show charity to the distressed citizens than the managers in the following years did to beautify the city and re-edify the buildings…

I wonder what Defoe would have written about the present time, but he was certainly sharp-tongued back then (and at a distance sufficiently removed from events that he could criticise freely):

I often reflected… how it was for want of timely entering into measures and managements, as well public as private, that all the confusions that followed were brought upon us, and that such a prodigious number of people sank in that disaster, which, if proper steps had been taken, might, Providence concurring, have been avoided, and which, if posterity think fit, they may take a caution and warning from.

Clearly, we humans are not great at learning the lessons from history – or else we are highly selective with the history we choose to teach and glorify. As we head into another uncertain and dangerous period here in the UK, without even the comfort of sunshine, long days and the outdoors to sustain us, Defoe’s Journal can provide you with much despair if you allow it to, but also some comfort. Big cities have always been prone to destruction, epidemics, sieges, occupation… but they (and their people) have usually survived and even learnt new ways in which to flourish.

Last of the Summer Reading: Summerwater and The Summer Guest

I read two books with summer in their title to ease me into autumn. I’m not quite ready for autumn yet, when I feel I haven’t really had a summer (or at least the nice bits of summer, only the heat). Luckily, we have a few summer days to look forward to this coming week. Both of these books were both fun, but also thoughtful, lyrical, filled with characters I wanted to get to know better,and very evocative in their setting.

Sarah Moss: Summerwater

Sarah Moss is one of the authors I will read without questioning: her work is always interesting and tries to push the boundaries, even if it’s not always 100% successful. This latest book is more in the vein of what one might call the ‘exasperated humour’ of contemporary family life of Night Waking rather than her historical fiction, such as Bodies of Light or Signs for Lost Children. 

A random assortment of families or couples are spending their summer cooped up in log cabins in a Scottish holiday park. Of course it is raining. ‘It can’t keep up like that all day, there can’t be that much water up there’, people are reassuring themselves, but for most of the day it does. The author seems to be having fun finding different ways to describe the relentless, never-ending downpour. ‘Rain is God’s way of stopping Scots having sinful levels of fun’. Or ”the Scottish sky is better at obscenity than any human voice’.

Understandably, tempers are frayed, especially since there is a foreign family having parties until late at night in one of the cabins (they are variously – and carelessly – described as Romanians, Bulgarians, Polish, although in fact they are from the Ukraine, with that typical lack of curiosity about geographical precision that comes from people who would be very miffed if you confused their Yorkshire accent with a Brummie one, or Minnesota with Michigan).

We get to see fitness fanatic Justine, bored of her rather judgemental husband, using running as an excuse to escape the children for a couple of hours and despising anyone who isn’t as driven as she is. Elderly David, a retired doctor, and his wife Mary – the chapter from her point of view, being one of the most moving portrayals of gradual sinking into dementia, grasping at notions and words. Young couple Josh and Milly, who are planning to get married and are doing a test run of domestic life with sex-fuelled days, and some lacklustre cooking and conversation. Lola and Jack, young kids bored with their parents – an overly anxious mother and a father who’s taken his work with him on holiday, so they wander around looking for someone to play with – or bully. A family with utterly fed up teenagers, each embarking on potentially dangerous activities.  A family with even younger children, struggling so much to find ways to keep them entertained that they forget to look after themselves.

There are a lot of amusing and recognisable vignettes of family life, across a range of ages and political beliefs, but I believe the author intends to do more than that. This is designed to be a ‘state of the nation’ novel, albeit on a small scale, and that’s why she also brings in descriptions of nature, of the environment, the climate and how humans link to it, what will stay behind once the humans have left. I accept all that and found it worked for me on the whole, really enjoyed the book most of the way through. But then, for some reason, it seems to stop abruptly, with a sudden dramatic event. It felt too rushed: I’d have liked to hear more from each of the different voices, perhaps their reactions to the event, or some kind of conclusion.

Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest

I’ve known Alison Anderson as a translator from French into English (Muriel Barbery, Le Clézio, Amélie Nothomb), but she also speaks excellent Russian, and she uses her knowledge of the country, its literature and culture, to evoke the late 19th century in the Ukraine, as well as the present (the novel was published in 2016 and is set in 2014). In the modern day we have Katya, a London publisher of Russian origin, who is hoping that the recently unearthed diary of Zinaida Lintvaryova will resurrect her fortunes, as well as the translator Ana, who falls in love with Zinaida’s voice and of course with her famous guest.

Who is the famous summer guest? Well, Zinaida kept a diary of the three years in the late 1880s, during which she and her family hosted on their rural estate in north-eastern Ukraine the writer Chekhov and his family for the summer. Zinaida had qualified as a doctor, but had to stop practising, as she was blinded by a fatal illness. Chekhov forms a great bond with her, based partly on their shared profession, but above all on her great listening skills and unsentimental, uncomplaining approach to life. He ends up entrusting her with the manuscript of a novel that he has been trying to write. Ana gets overexcited at the thought that there might be a lost Chekhov novel and that she might be the one to translate it.

Not only do we have lush descriptions of country life and family squabbles, love interests and disappointments, but also what Chekhov describes as ‘living well, inspecting each moment for honesty and fullness and awareness’. I just loved the fascinating discussions about literature and human psychology between Anton Pavlovich (who was just starting to gain fame as a writer at that time) and Zinaida. For instance, this revealing passage about Anna Karenina, in which Chekhov states:

… if we all had Anna’s desperate soul, the world would descend into a chaos of tragedy. That was Tolstoy’s vision for the novel, based on a true incident – so such things do happen. But most often… banality. Which is why I prefer to err on the side of comedy. Otherwise life would be altogether too hard to bear, don’t you think? If love always led to train platforms? All this passion tearing people apart, sending decent women out into the night without so much as a bonnet on their head?

But the present-day story also has its merits, with thoughts on translation and mediating between cultures, and displacement more generally, as well as love and its loss, and even the protests on the Maidan in Kiev in 2014. There is even a bit of a mystery attached to it. Overall, an enchanting, dreamy book, one I wish I’d read much sooner.

 

Michèle Roberts: Negative Capability

It’s a brave, bold move to write a diary about being rejected as a writer and learning to live with it, especially when it is not a rediscovered manuscript from a hundred years ago but refers to the present day, and is not a one-off article in a newspaper. How can you write about your disappointments and discomfort when you have published in the past, known some success and critical acclaim, have a second home in France and friends who invite you on holidays abroad?

I am sure that some descriptions of Michèle Roberts’ life over the course of a year (a day for each month of the year) will jar with many readers. And perhaps it was too soon to publish this – this is the kind of diary that might be published posthumously – but I for one found her candour and zest for life refreshing. She copes with the double disappointment of a relationship breaking down and being rejected by a publisher and fearing that she will never be able to write again in the only way she knows how: by keeping a diary, trying to come to terms with failure but also describing the good things going on in her life.

‘Negative capability’ is a phrase that has often been mentioned before (it is also the title of a Marianne Faithfull album). It comes from Keats, who sees it as an ideal state for a poet (or human being in general): ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. A sort of Zen state. You might be quibble that it is doubtful that Roberts achieves this in the twelve months, there is certainly quite a lot of anger especially towards the beginning of the book, but she certainly tries.

Having attended a workshop run by the author, I did squirm a little at the description of one of the courses she runs in Dublin and there certainly is the literary author’s disdain towards genre literature in this paragraph:

Most of the students equated writing novels with producing marketable commodities. They were obsessed with writing correctly to certain agent-identified, agent-approved agendas… These students obviously had a template for the perfect commercial genre novel in their heads. Product! They spoke authortiatvely about rules and techniques, about backstory and front-loading and info dumps. They trusted literature less than self-help writing manuals.

As always, I can see both sides of this argument. The problem is that far too many would-be writers think they are ‘too profound, too literary’ to respect any rules, but that, to get published, you do have to meet certain criteria and commodify your work. But this proliferation of writing courses and ‘meet the publisher or the agent’ events do tend to lead to a lot of cookie-cutter novels and MFA type writing, which exasperate me and which allow little room for experimentation or diversity.

Roberts is often sharp-tongued and sarcastic about the people she encounters, but always harshest on herself. She does not shy away from dissecting her own pretensions, assumptions, beliefs, but she also shows much tenderness towards friends and neighbours, even her ex-partners. She shows the rawness of her grief at the death of a friend, and is very open about the flickers of sexual desire, the need for love, which she still feels and which, in an older woman, society deems almost shameful.

I related above all to her dual identity (her mother was French, her father English) and to her conclusion that life goes on, despite there being no recognisable or comforting patterns, and that one should stop seeking approval from somewhere.

Perhaps Negative Capability could mean finally letting go once and for all of that deep, childhood need for approval by powerful others, letting go of making them the sole arbiters of whether I was any good as a person, as a writer… Strength not as a shield, but formed from the knowledge of my own capacity for weakness, my knowledge of the support of other writers, the support of friends.

In the end, this proved a soothing read (with recipes for Normandy chicken and mackerel in the special launch pack which I pre-ordered from Sandstone Press). A reminder that there is life beyond loss and rejection, and that we have to make the most of living in the moment and connecting with our friends.

Summary of August Reading and Films

Books

Overall, a good month of reading: 11 books, of which four were outstanding (Haushofer, Teffi, Kawakami and Melchor), three were very good (Puhlovski, Michele Roberts and Sarah Moss), two were entertaining and two were fine (just not as good as I expected). Unsurprisingly, with it being Women in Translation Month, I read mostly women, Mark Billingham being the sole male writer sneaking in because of the Virtual Crime Book Club.

If you include the Spanish Literature Challenge reads from July and the Tokarczuk which I read in July but did not get to review until August, I’ve reviewed a total of nine books for #WITMonth and they represent a nice diversity of nationalities.

  1. Liliana Colanzi – Bolivia
  2. Margarita Garcia Robayo – Colombia
  3. Lina Meruane – Chile
  4. Olga Tokarczuk – Poland
  5. Marlen Haushofer – Austria
  6. Teffi – Russia
  7. Marina Šur Puhlovski – Croatia
  8. Mieko Kawakami – Japan
  9. Fernanda Melchor – Mexico

I also had the best experience that can happen to a book blogger, who can sometimes feel they are writing in the dark, spending all their money buying books, then hours on writing fair reviews, only to discover that a handful of people read them. [Always the same handful, usually, and I am very grateful to my constant readers!] But then… Mieko Kawakami actually read and retweeted my review and thanked me for it: ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing such an insightful, courageous and wonderful review. I am also touched to know that you wrote it in time for my birthday’. I think that will keep me going for another few years in terms of reviewing motivation, for sure!

In between reading and reviewing these more demanding books (ostensibly – I found most of them on the whole pleasant and easy to read), I had some down time with the non-fiction of Michèle Roberts in Negative Capability, a gentle, contemplative and very evocative book about learning to live with uncertainty and even failure, while still enjoying life, and the hilariously accurate and often poignant observation of people on holiday in Summerwater by Sarah Moss (reviews to follow).

Films

I mentioned some of the films I saw in early August, before the boys joined me for my share of the holidays. Since their return, I have watched some of their film choices, as well as mine. Let’s see if you can spot which is which!

  1. Christian Petzold: Barbara (Germany) – captures the chill factor and claustrophobia of East Germany when the Stasi have their eyes on you
  2. Alejandra Márquez Abella: The Good Girls (Mexico) – what to do when the economy of your country is in meltdown, your currency worthless and you still have to keep up appearances – the original ladies who lunch, viewed with biting satire but also some compassion
  3. Almodovar: Live Flesh (Spain) – I love my early (1980s-90s) Almodovar – complex female characters, good-looking young men, and always elements of the past creeping in and tainting the present
  4. Tarantino: Django Unchained (US) – was not expecting this Western approach to the story of slavery (and yes, he does rather glorify violence, but that is Tarantino every single time)
  5. Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Birdman (US/Mexico) – the long, long single shots worked a treat (only found out afterwards how difficult they were for actors and crew to get right) and Michael Keaton, with his own Batman background, was the perfect actor for this part

I’ve just noticed that I’ve had quite a good dose of Mexico this month in both books and films!

Plans for next month – well, what’s even the point of planning, because I don’t seem to stick to any of my plans?

 

 

 

 

Last #WITMonth book: Hurricane Season is indeed a hurricane

Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season, transl. Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Someone on Goodreads describes reading Hurricane Season like ‘running downhill’ and that is probably the best description of what it feels like: the mad rush, the acceleration, the inevitability of gravity pulling at you. You get caught up in something inescapable and you cannot stop until you reach the bottom of the hill, whether in one piece or not. This is one of the few instances where I perfectly understand and concur with the author’s choice of syntax and style: eight chapters, eight different voices, and it feels like each chapter is composed of just one very long sentence. In actual fact, there might be more than one, but the overall effect is one of precipitation and agitation, so you cannot put the book down and it propels you along to its terrible conclusion.

Not that the beginning isn’t terrible as well. It starts with some children playing by the canal in the Mexican village of La Matosa and finding the body of the local ‘witch’. The rumours go into overdrive about what could have happened to the person they called the Young Witch, to distinguish her from her mother, who was likewise known as a Witch and to whom all villagers turned to for medicine, potions and fortune-telling. In each chapter we find out more about the murder and the witches themselves, the village and several of its inhabitants, in their own language, via their own unfiltered thoughts.

The breathless, feverish style may make for an exhilarating read, but it’s not a joyful one. You may feel the urge to shower or go for a long walk after being in those people’s heads for a while. Poverty, illiteracy, misogyny and homophobia in the rural area are conveyed with such urgency, that they feel like a blow to your stomach. In the interview with Fernanda Melchor and her translator at the Edinburgh Book Festival, the author says she deliberately set out to shock the audience with the violence of the discourse, to demonstrate that this kind of language, thought and behaviour are not normal, that we cannot be complicit in it. She also said she had to start therapy after finishing the book, because so much work and heart and passion went into it – and I’m not surprised.

What really struck me is how angry each of the characters is – anger is often the way they express their loneliness or desperation or need to be loved. The men, especially, come across as weak, pathetic losers who have to take it out on those weaker than themselves, usually the women and children. The author says she is not excusing the monstrous behaviour of those people, but she wanted to show how monsters are made. And she certainly succeeds. She does not shy away from describing the mud and stench, the lack of opportunities, the small and great betrayals, where even the family no longer represents a safe harbour, and where church and superstition constrain people even more.

If you dislike strong language and graphic descriptions of violence and bodily functions, you are going to struggle with this one. The author used the speech patterns of her own native Veracruz region, but also described how she was inspired by A Clockwork Orange to construct a fictional language that would really highlight the problems. Although I haven’t read Selva Almada’s Dead Girls yet, that book (which is a true crime recount similar to In Cold Blood) would provide and interesting contrast with this fictional insight into femicide, a huge problem in most Latin American countries.

This is a world in which men and women distrust and merely use each other, both sides feeling trapped, not realising that it is society that has entrapped them. The men tell each other:

And there are bitches who go even further, they head into the hills in the rainy season to pick a wildflower shaped like a trumpet… and they brew them into a tea that turns you into a real prick, a real soft touch, brings you to your knees, cowering at their feet like a slave, and you don’t have the first fucking clue what’s going on… They’re all the same, dipshit, all up to the same tricks, all capable of untold fuckery just to hold on to you…’

Meanwhile, the women give each other advice as follows, even though they are talking about their own sons:

Got to keep your wits about you in this world… You drop your guard for a second and they’ll crush you, Clarita, so you better just tell that fuckwit out there to buy you some clothes. Don’t you be anyone’s fool, that’s what men are like: a bunch of lazy spongers who you have to keep rounding up to squeeze any use out of them… you’ve gotta keep men like that on a tight leash, keep them busy to stop them coming out with all their shit.

There are a few, very few glimmers of hope, the tentative possibility of real love – all too often nipped into the bud almost before it has had a chance to blossom. Ultimately, however, this is a horrific read, because it is a horrifying subject: the violence that humans perpetuate against each other, and especially against women. Towards the end of the novel, we realise the full extent of it, the national problem one might call it, as Melchor moves from the specific story to the bird’s eye view of the region.

They say the place is hot, that it won’t be long before they send in the marines to restore order in the region. They say the heat’s driven the locals crazy, that it’s not normal – May and not a single drop of rain – and that the hurricane season’s coming hard, that it must be bad vibes, jinxes, causing all that bleakness: decapitated bodies, maimed bodies, rolled-up, bagged-up bodies dumped on the roadside or in hastily dug graves on the outskirts of town. Men killed in shootouts and car crashes and revenge killings between rival clans; rapes, suicides, ‘crimes of passion’, as the journalists call them.

But just when you think there is no hope, no escape, when the women in town agree that ‘there’s no treasure in there… nothing more than a searing pain that refuses to go away’, you get the final chapter. Tenderness and a release of sorts, when a gravedigger known only as Grandfather buries the ‘overflow’ bodies from the morgue, the ones for whom there were no more spaces at the cemetery. He seems to be the only one showing some compassion for the poor mutilated bodies, some understanding of all the suffering, and he believes in talking to the dead as he buries them, guiding them into the afterlife. The final words seemed as powerful and elegiac as the ending of The Great Gatsby:

Don’t you worry, don’t fret, you just lie there, that’s it… The rain can’t hurt you now, and the darkness doesn’t last forever. See there? See that light shining in the distance? The little light that looks like a star? That’s where you’re headed, he told them, that’s the way out of this hole.

So pleased I managed to read this book in the nick of time to include it in the #WITMonth. One that I will be thinking about, uneasily, in years to come.

#WITMonth: Mieko Kawakami

Author photo from Goodreads.

Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd

By fortunate coincidence, it turns out today is this author’s birthday, so Happy Birthday, Mieko! And thank you for a very thought-provoking and entertaining read.

If I told you that a book entitled Breasts and Eggs talks frankly and at length about breast surgery, sperm banks, artificial insemination, asexuality, single motherhood and periods, you would probably conclude that it is an angry feminist tract – possibly written by a brash Western writer (Virginie Despentes or Otessa Moshfegh come to mind). The fact that it was written by a Japanese woman makes this book seem even more revolutionary. Japan is still a far from equal society when it comes to gender – in some ways, it has even regressed in recent years under a conservative government.

Yet, of course, Japanese women have been writing books portraying women’s (and men’s) thoughts and their restricted lives for centuries.  Just off the top of my head: Murasaki Shikibu‘s portrayal of men playing their power games with women as their pawns in the Heian period, to the frank description of sexual desire in Akiko Yosano, the trauma of spouses supplanted by second wives in Fumiko Enchi,  the description of working class struggles and the red light district in Ichiyo Higuchi (a writer Kawakami cites as an inspiration), the fiendishly subversive retelling of myths of Aoko Matsuda. There is a plethora of exciting women writers in Japan today and, luckily for us, more of them are getting translated. Alongside the well established names such as Banana Yoshimoto, Natsuo Kirino,  Yoko Ogawa, Hiromi Kawakami and Kanae Minato, we are starting to see the emergence of challenging and fearless writing, occasionally with a surreal twist, by younger authors such as Hitomi Kanehara, Sayaka Murata, Misumi Kubo and Nao-Cola Yamazaki.

So, while I don’t agree that Mieko Kawakami is a revolutionary who ‘lobbed a literary grenade into the fusty, male-dominated world of Japanese fiction’ (as The Economist puts it), I have to admit that this book addresses issues that are typically swept under the carpet in Japan – and, let’s admit it, probably are not discussed that much in fiction in the West either. And she manages to offer us a variety of opinions about motherhood and the female body, while also giving us an involving plot about sisterhood and friendship, well-rounded characters with great back stories, and writing which can span everything from raucous female banter (in dialect) to philosophy to passages of lyrical descriptions.

In the first part of the book, which is by and large the original novella entitled Breasts and Eggs that won the Akutagawa Prize in 2008, we see three women at three different stages of their lives. Natsuko, the narrator, is 30, still young but no spring chicken anymore, and she can feel the clock ticking on her career as a writer in Tokyo. Her sister, Makiko, is nearly ten years older and still lives in their home town of Osaka, doing her best to keep herself and her daughter afloat as a single mum, working in a hostess bar. She too can feel the clock ticking – on her body – and thinks that getting breast enhancement will improve her life and her career. Meanwhile, her daughter Midoriko (the name means ‘green’ in Japanese and she really is very green still, just starting to experience her own bodily changes at the age of twelve) refuses to communicate with her mother in any other way than in writing. Natsuko is mostly the observer and tries to mediate between them, but she struggles to understand her sister’s need for validation or her niece’s judgemental attitude. There are some beautiful conversations between them, but the reminiscing about the past steers clear of either melodrama or sentimentality. One of the most poignant passages was the conversation between aunt and niece as they go round in a ferris wheel – this was the passage that Kawakami read out during her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, and the contrast between the Osakaben that Natsuko speaks with Midoriko and the descriptive passages in literary Japanese stood out even more when she read them.

I would have loved to see more of the sister and niece in the second part of the novel, but that is really Natsuko’s story (the title of the whole book in Japanese is Natsu Monogatari, which can be translated as either Summer Tales or Tales of Natsu). Natsuko is now nearing the age of her sister in the first part, and this time it’s her biological clock that is ticking. She is still single, and doesn’t really want a relationship with a man. She is enjoying some literary success, which is a great opportunity for mocking the pretentiousness of the Japanese literary scene, but realises that she really would like to have a child before it gets too late. So she starts investigating the possibility of using a sperm donor (which is not really possible for single women or same-sex couples in Japan). Along the way, she both befriends and alienates people, and gets to hear a variety of different attitudes about what it means to be an artist or a mother or both in Japan, as well as being the child of a sperm donor (and condemned to never know exactly who your biological father is).

As for being a wife, well, I can just imagine the reaction of the reading public to the quote below by a fellow writer Rika, who is also a single mum, and whom Natsuko befriends:

Everything men do repulses me, I can’t tell you how good it felt when we got divorced and my ex left the house. It was like I could breathe again… It’s just, men can be such idiots. They can’t do anything around the house without making a ton of noise, not even close the fridge or turn the lights on. They can’t take care of anyone else. They can’t even take care of themselves/. They won’t do anything for their kids or their families if it means sacrificing their own comfort, but they go out in the world and act all big, like I’m such a agood dad, such a provider… For better or worse, living with someone is nothing but friction, the collision of incompatible ideals. It takes trust to make it viable. I mean, love is basically a drug, right? Without love and trust, resentment is the only thing that’s left.

Well, I could certainly relate to that, and so could many women, particularly those living in rather patriarchal societies. Yet, in her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, Kawakami expressed some surprise and amusement that her book was a big hit with male readers as well in Japan.

In some ways, this novel reminded me of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, both of them novels of ideas, with the focus here being on women’s bodies and motherhood instead of race and immigration. Much as I loved Americanah, I felt that Kawakami was more successful at integrating her ideas into the flow of the narrative, rather than having long blog-like passages, which slightly marred Adichie’s book for me. However, another reviwer I admire feels that there is a blog-like quality to the second half of the book and overall it’s chick lit with a feminist agenda. I think individual passages taken out of context can sound flat, but when all the layers come together, it certainly left me with a powerful impression.

Thank you also to Tony Malone, who in his review of Breasts and Eggs, pointed out that there was an alternative translation of part of the first part by Louise Heal Kawai, using a Mancunian speech pattern to render the Osaka dialect. I think it’s a brilliant version and wish we could have had the whole book translated like that (although Sam Bett and David Boyd have done a good job of smoothing out the language to appeal to a wider audience). And, although I’m the last person to suggest that books by women writers should only be translated by women, given the particular subject matter, I cannot help wondering how different it might have looked if it had been translated by a woman.

 

#WITMonth: Marina Šur Puhlovski, Croatia

Marina Šur Puhlovski: Wild Woman, transl. by Christina Pribicevich-Zoric

This Croatian novel published by Istros Books was a recent discovery thanks to the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene Books. The author is an example of persistence – although she started writing at an early age, she only got published in 1991 after writing no less than nine books. But of course, we all know what happened in Yugoslavia after 1991 – so she ended up at the age of 50 having written all her life, but with very little to show for it. Luckily, her 20th novel, Wild Woman, had some success in Croatia, and has now been translated into English. And the good news is that Wild Woman is just one book in a series depicting the life of a young woman trying to make her way in her society (and in a rapidly disintegrating country).

The protagonist of Wild Woman, Sofija Kralj, is the main character in my three other novels – Nesanica (“Insomnia”), Ljubav (“Love”) and Igrač (“Player”). They represent three lives of the same character, told from different perspectives and through different relationships. In Wild Woman, Sofija Kralj is twenty-seven, in Insomnia – fifty-seven.

In fact, there are five books in total depicting Sofija – a fictionalised version of the author herself – and this has prompted comparisons with Knausgaard. It’s a coming of age novel or a ‘waking up to reality’ which will sound familiar to many women, especially those who grew up in patriarchal societies or who had artistic aspirations. The protagonist looks back on her student years, the death of her drunk and frequently violent father, the hard-working and downtrodden mother, her infatuation and marriage with a lazy, pretentious womaniser.

What was interesting when we discussed the book at the Book Club was that people unfamiliar with socialist societies were wondering why the young couple were still living with their parents, but could afford to eat out and go on holiday to the seaside. I had to explain that there was frequently a housing shortage, you were placed in a queue to get affordable accommation, but that food was cheap and domestic holidays were heavily subsidised for students or by the trade unions. There is also that fraught moment, when the husband turns out to have a brain tumour, that they borrow and beg money to bribe the doctors for an operation… and when the doctor refuses to accept their money, they rejoice that they have some money left for going on holiday to the seaside.

The almost casual mention of domestic violence, how it was almost an expected part of being a woman in that society at that time, as well as how Sofija is constantly urged to ‘stand by her man’ because he has fallen ill, how she supports him pysically, financially, morally, while he has a licence to misbehave, all of this rang very familiar. Socialist society meant women were expected to go out and work as hard as men, but did not necessarily lead to any liberation on the home front. Although atheism was espoused during Communist times, the preceding centuries of Catholicism and Orthodoxism traditions of relegating women to submissive roles did not die instantly (if at all).

The narrator is remarkably frank about the disintegration of the marriage and the hypocrisy of those surrounding them. The voice is raw, angry, naive and cynical by turns, slightly self-pitying – very authentic indeed. This is what she says about her in-laws:

My poor son, Danica moans, crying her eyes out, while France just nods inconsolably, shakes his head and brings her coat so that they can return to the peace and quiet of their own home, or at least the peace and quiet of a place where they don’t have to look at a sick person all day. They don’t have to wait for the next seizure, to jump every time there’s an unexpected sound in the flat, the sudden flushing of the bathroom toilet, the door slammed shut by the wind… they don’t have to tremble if he calls out from his room to the kitchen – not knowing if he needs something or is screaming – and then run over to him, prepared for the worst. Make sure he takes his pills, and if you discover in the middle of the night that he’s run out, go straight to the duty pharmacy, wherever it is, on foot if need be, and get a hold of those pills, even if you have to do it without a prescription.

The description of the yawning gap in their marriage is conveyed in just one long breathless sentence, the perfect furious stream of consciousness:

The sea will restore him, I think, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t, he lives with me but is lifeless, like a doll you have to wind up, I make him move, he eats, he walks, he swims, he doesn’t sunbbathe because it’s bad for the angioma, and anyway he has a fair complexion, he doesn’t like the sun, but he drinks, the red wine has been on the table since lunch, he sits, smokes and sips his wine, gazing out at the sea from the shade, and I’m next to him reading, because what else is there when all the joy has gone.

The story is perhaps an all too well-trodden one, but it’s told in a fresh voice, not politely restrained like so much Anglo-Saxon literature is, and from a part of the world where we expect political rather than domestic drama, so I am all for it!