One day I will have a corner that is dedicated solely to reading – or even better, a whole room dedicated to my favourite hobby. Best, of course, when paired with a fireplace and a bit of view…
There was a TV series that I enjoyed watching while living in France called Un village français (A French Village). It followed the years of the German occupation of France during WW2 in a small village near the Franco-Swiss border. The logline of the first season was ‘1940 – living means having to choose’, and it presents a far more nuanced picture of the different degrees of resistance or collaboration, accommodation or destruction in those murky times. Every village and every community has a wealth of different characters and points of view, and the threads that link all of the people over time are fascinating.
I was reminded of this TV series while reading Robert Seethaler’s latest novel The Field, which attempts to capture the history of the fictional village – or tiny town – of Paulstadt, through the conceit of hearing the voices of those buried in its cemetery, called ‘the field’ by the locals. There are certain elements which make us think this is an Austrian village (not least because the Austrian author has always set his novels in his native country, even though he is now living in Berlin), but in fact it could be anywhere in Central Europe, with its fluid borders, Catholicism and recent prosperity that hasn’t always translated well into the rural environment.
What is of course incontestable is that, in death, all of the people are equal, even though in life they may have been rich or poor, corrupt or fair, winner or loser, kind or horrible, immigrant or refugee or native. The village has had its share of tragedies and small triumphs, its corrupt councillors and odd priests, its failed development initiatives. It is very ordinary and yet, in this patient enumeration of its inhabitants, their hopes and fears and dreams and disappointments, it reminds us that no place is ordinary.
Some of the voices call out and respond to each other, some replay family dramas or contradict each other or regret things. It helps perhaps to think of each voice as a piece of prose poetry or flash fiction. Some are funny, others are lyrical, some are quite dramatic and they all gradually build up to give you a picture of an entire community. Because they are presented in the higgledy-piggedly order you might come across names in a graveyard, it’s hard at first to make sense of the cacophony of voices. I would certainly recommend dipping in and out of the book for a first reading, and then rereading it to observe all of the connections. Although very well-written, I did wonder if the same cumulative effect could have been achieved with slightly fewer voices – but then I seem to keep on saying about each book that it could have been shorter! Which seems rather ungenerous, given that this book is only 240 pages long, so not a massive tome.
This is the kind of novel that will inevitably get readers to wonder what makes for a life well lived. It’s difficult to pick just one quote, because the book is full of beautiful passages, but here is one example that amused me, taken from one of the less sympathetic characters (funny, but also very moving, particularly reading it in 2021):
Some young people have been picknicking on our grave lately on mild summer evenings… They picked this grave because it’s got a huge slab of black Labrador marble that retains the heat of sun until well after nightfall. There they sit, yattering non-stop, the most egregious nonsense, spilling their beer, which trickles over our family name… Sometimes young Schwitters pees against the back of the gravestone, and the girls all giggle and shriek. I resent them for it. I hate them for their stupidity and their beauty. I hate them for the miracle inside them, on which they waste not a single thought behind their hot, unwrinkled foreheads.
Can someone go and ask them to stay forever?
Can you just imagine what masterpieces I might write at these super-tidy desks if I didn’t have random pieces of paper, piles of books, ten leaky pens, heart and car crafty pieces by my sons and a million other things competing for space on them? How did that saying go about a clear desk leading to a clear mind – or an empty one, possibly?
Roughly two years ago, I saw a play at RADA which made for unforgettable viewing. I was so impressed by the young actors, but also by the script itself, that I bought it in book format. For my Plays in March personal reading goal, I read it and was once more bowled over, even though it was still so fresh in my mind.
The play was Linda by Penelope Skinner, who has been described as one of the leading young feminist playwrights in the UK, and has also been reviewed as feisty, gutsy, rageful. Interestingly, Penelope has a sister, Ginny Skinner, who writes mainly graphic novels. Together, they have been commissioned to write a thriller series for the BBC ‘The Following Events Are Based On A Pack Of Lies’, which I for one can’t wait to see.
Linda of the title is the main protagonist of the play, of the generation of dual-shift women (career and home), the women who supposedly had it all. She is, as she never ceases to remind us, an award-winning professional, a middle-aged career woman, wife and mother who sees everything she fought for all her life slipping through her fingers. Yet the play is full of women and girls of different ages – late twenties, early twenties, teens… who are even more confused about their place in the world. They see the cracks in Linda’s life all too clearly and are sure they don’t want that – but they are not sure what they want instead, or indeed what is possible for them.
Linda is being sidelined by her boss for a project on marketing cosmetics to middle-aged women in favour of a younger work rival who has caught the eye of her boss, just like she did when she was a young single mother. She’s not going to go quietly, but life on the home front is not helping either: her husband is having a very predictable midlife crisis and affair, her older daughter has abandoned her studies and not come out of the house and her onesie in years, her younger daughter feels neglected and resentful. Yet everybody leans on her, the quintessential strong woman. She is not allowed to have a moment’s weakness or failure, to acknowledge any vulnerability. And Linda at the outset of the play has certainly bought into the myth of her own strength and infallibility and sounds a bit like the Lean In Sheryl Sandberg woman:
An award-winning businesswoman and I didn’t even go to university. Mother of two. Gorgeous husband. I can change a tyre, I own my own home, dinner-party guests marvel at my home-made croquembouche and I still fit into the same size-ten dress suit I did fifteen years ago. I’ve washed brushed groomed plucked shaved painted injected dyed dieted oh God I’ve dieted. My whole life I’ve been watching what I eat and watching what I say and watching how I walk how I talk what I wear. Because that’s what you have to do when you’re a woman, girls… I’ve made it to the top and believe me if I can do it you can do it. If you’re prepared to do the work? You really can have it all.
Her daughter Alice remonstrates that maybe systemic racism or sexism might get in your way, but Linda at first just says you have to think positive. What follows is of course the dismantling of Linda’s optimism, proving that Alice was right all along, although the daughter is a passive observer rather than a fighter. The characters seem far less annoying in reading than in watching them onstage, which just goes to show how much life a director and an actor can bring to words on a page.
More than two years have passed since I saw the play and this time I’ve come to it with a very different attitude and experience, and it resonated with me differently. When I saw it performed, I was still going through the never-ending divorce, so of course the exchanges with Linda’s husband resonated most:
Every year I send you an email reminder that my birthday’s coming up. And the reason I do that is because I know deep down if I don’t do it you won’t remember and your not remembering will be so painful that I won’t be able to bear it… I do everything in this house and the reason I do everything is because I thought at the very least you were loyal. And reliable. And as it turns out you’re not. So now I look at you and I see you for what you are: you’re an ornament.
Reading it this time, in the week between International Women’s Day and Mothering Sunday, when there was so much vitriol being flung about women’s safety and bodies, the whole lack of progress made me very, very angry. Particularly that moving epilogue, showing a younger Linda holding a hopeful speech about the wider culture moving on in ten years and becoming a better place for women of all ages. A hopeful speech that we know ends in tragedy. A soap bubble of a dream that we seem to chase every generation or so, which bursts just as we are about to tighten our grasp on it.
I can never stray too far from Japanese literature, even though it’s no longer January in Japan. This book, which is made up of two separate long short stories or novellas, was published by Europa Editions earlier this month and is translated by Australian academic and translator Haydn Trowell. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC (and to be only a week or two late in my reviewing of it).
The first novella Touring the Land of the Dead won the Akutagawa Prize in 2012 and, back then, Glynne Walley at the University of Oregon commented that it could be translated as ‘A Tour of Hell’ or ‘Running Around in the Afterlife’ or even ‘The Dark Land and Its Rounds’. [The wide range of possibilities gives you an idea of why I gave up ever translating from Japanese.] The second novella Ninety-Nine Kisses was a sort of bonus at the time, to make the entry book-length, and Walley is possibly the only reader other than me who preferred it to the prize-winning one. Most readers were repulsed by the strong hints of incest in the second story, but for this Shirley Jackson fan, it had more of the slightly sinister insider vs. outsider vibe of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Anyway, back to the first novella, with a clever title that sounds appropriate for the spa holiday that our protagonist Natsuko undertakes with her husband, but also refers to that well-known maxim that ‘Hell is other people’ – in this case, Natsuko’s family.
You poor thing, her mother would say. You poor, poor thing, working so hard in place of your husband at that drab job of yours… Even though what was really deserving of pity were those hours spent in that restaurant looking at that tonguesole meuniere, that evening spent together with someone who didn’t understand her at all, in that gorgeous world in which she didn’t belong.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Natsuko’s mother and brother are lazy spongers, with a breathtaking sense of entitlement, who have never been able to recover from their loss of fortune and status. They have no qualms about borrowing money from Natsuko, the only member of the family actually working, while berating or faux-pitying her constantly. Natsuko’s husband, Taichi, was struck with a debilitating illness (something like MS, although it is never named) soon after their wedding, so she has been the one supporting her household on her part-time wages. She takes him on this very brief holiday because the hotel that her family used to consider the height of luxury now offers affordable spa breaks. The place of course triggers all sorts of memories, mainly of how abominably her family treated her, and she ends up considerably more appreciative of her husband, who at first seems naive, but ultimately proves himself to be simply not bitter and therefore quite wise.
Although Natsuko resents her mother and brother from the very start of the story, the novella represents a journey towards Zen wisdom and acceptance. The story ends on an upbeat note as Taichi finally gets an electric wheelchair and becomes more mobile. But Natsuko herself learns to let go of resentments, let go of caring what her family thinks and does, but without becoming numb, like she does earlier in the book, and giving up all hope:
She had already given up on everything. And she never thought too deeply about why such unreasonableness, such unfairness, such unhappiness always befell her. She lived her life trying to think about it all as little as possible. Because it wasn’t the kind of thing you could easily look at, not directly. And if, by chance, she were to glance at it, she knew it would leave an unhealthy, fatal wound…
The style in this story is quite pared down, the language simple and everyday, almost dull. By way of contrast, the second story is more baroque, more ornate, at times lyrical, a bit of a fever-dream from the youngest of four sisters, who, together with their mother, have created a powerful little matriarchy in their house in Shitamachi. Desite their little squabbles, they are a tight-knit unit (the youngest sister is so smitten by the beauty of her older sisters that she expresses rather explicity sexual longings towards them, as mentioned earlier on – but ambiguously enough that it can be brushed off as merely a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the family nest). At least, until a young man called S makes his appearance – an outsider to their area and clearly buying into all of the reputation of Shitamachi.
This is the aspect of the story that I found most interesting, because Tokyo’s Shitamachi was traditionally the poorer, flat area around the Sumida river, where fishermen, tradesmen, craftsmen lived and where the entertainment and red-light district were situated. It was also a melting pot of Edo culture, kabuki artists, sumo wrestlers, with Saikaku Ihara describing the ‘floating world’ in words, and Utamaro in pictures. Later, the area featured strong women writers and activists such as Higuchi Ichiyo and Hiratsuka Raicho. Clearly, S is attracted to the area for its reputation and a nostalgia for the past; he somehow expects the four sisters to live up to his false image of the place. Instead, they are unusual for their area and backgroudn. Their mother has raised them on French nouvelle vague films and frank discussions about their bodies and sex. Two of the sisters might be considered old maids by Japanese standards (around the age of thirty), but they are bold about expressing their desires, at least to each other.
The outsider is dangerous – he might upset their precarious balance. The narrator, who reminds me very much of Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s novel, with an equally slippery manner that makes you question how much to believe her, seems to be the only one to be fully aware of what this intrustion might mean:
They’re all my sisters. We were all one body to begin with. But then we were born, cut away from each other one by one. That’s why I want him to stop, this S – to stop planting these seeds of love inside them. We don’t need all that… We’re a perfect whole. Like Adam before Eve. Or like a hermaphrodite.
I find it intriguing and almost perplexing that, despite the sexism that women experience in Japan (far more overtly than in the English-speaking world, although clearly that doesn’t mean there is less of it here, as recent events have shown), contemporary Japanese women writers, such as Kawakami Mieko or Misumi Kubo, seem to be at the forefront of candour about their bodies, their sexuality, their darker impulses. As if to catch up with those generations of Japanese male writers holding forth quite explicitly on these topics for well over a century. Or, perhaps, because they cannot always voice those thoughts in public without being judged, they choose to do so via their fiction. Many of them write within the Japanese tradition but also bring in plenty of Western references, thereby building hybrid, occasionally oddly-shaped constructions. Not all of them are successful, but they are always interesting to read.
I have to admit I love this current publishing hunger for Japanese women authors and can only hope that it will last for a long, long time. You can find another review for this on Tony’s site, as he also shares my passion for Japanese literature. I think if Tony and I ever met in real life – preferably somewhere in Japan – we would probably never stop talking!
What’s the point of having a house without bookshelves filled with books? Here are some of my recent favourites (by the way, I have to keep on deleting old pictures, to make sure that I have enough space on my WordPress site, so you may find some posts are missing pictures, although I am trying to delete those rogue empty posts).
I was going to call this attempt to read mainly theatrical works in March ‘Drama in March’, but in fact both Coward’s and Schnitzler’s plays reviewed in this post are considered comedies, although one might argue that they veer between farce and satire, with a good dose of sadness or anger as well. You’re not going to find out much about the plot of any of these, because… well, there is either too much of a plot, (too many characters and intrigues), or else nothing at all.
Arthur Schnitzler: Comedy of Seduction – Komödie der Verführung 1924
As if to really drive home the point, one of the plays even has the word ‘comedy’ in its title, just in case we might take it too seriously. Of course, given the Viennese propensity for finding darkness in even the cheeriest of subjects, it is obviously a tragicomedy, featuring betrayal, a couple of suicides and the outbreak of the First World War. Hilarious!
The action takes place between 1st of May and 1st of August 1914, and the rather large cast of characters are mostly aristocrats and wealthy bankers (or living off their family inheritance), or else artists – writers and musicians – who are moving in these circles but without having the same kind of wealth to splurge, therefore doomed to be hangers-on. As always with Schnitzler, the two main topics here are love and death, and the imminence of war turns this comedy of errors into something more profound. It starts off with a masked ball, so we instantly are transported to a Venice carnival atmosphere, or a Mozart opera of confused identities and easily switched love affairs and allegiances. There are seducers of either gender: philandering young Max, who cannot resist any woman he meets, and Aurelie, the duchess courted and coveted by most of the men in the play, but reluctant to get married to anyone.
Musil and Kafka both derided Schnitzler’s plays as being too superficial. It is true that this has all the charm and cheekiness of Watteau or Fragonard paintings, but beneath the frivolity, none of the characters are truly happy. They are all searching for something – for a connection to others, for true love, for their own identity, for something that they can’t quite articulate or find. Aurelie says at some point: ‘I fear it and yet I love it, to be alone again, between one joy and another, between one desire and another, between one death and another.’ Each of the characters ends up being terribly alone, often very sad. As for the suicidal gestures, it could be argued that it’s a metaphor for a society plunging into a large-scale form of suicide.
Schnitzler: Light Summer Air – Im Spiel der Sommerlüfte – 1929
This play is much slighter and frothier, although it was written just after his daughter’s suicide and was Schnitzler’s last finished play. The action is set a little further back in time, at the end of the 19th century, a more innocent time. It takes place over the course of two days in a holiday village in Lower Austria, a short train hop away from Vienna. A famous sculptor is holidaying here with his rather discontented wife, teenage son and his wife’s niece, an aspiring actress. The sculptor is a bit of a domestic tyrant and a serious philanderer – Schnitzler is perhaps making fun of himself here, for he certainly was not immune to the charm of actresses throughout his lifetime. There are ominous rumbles of thunder for most of the play, predicting a storm. When the storm comes, both literally and metaphorically, it gives people a momentary respite from politeness. Yet in the world depicted here, being honest and stating your true feelings are almost considered crimes. Wanting more in life and giving in to your desires in the mad heat of summer cannot lead to any lasting change. After the storm things seem to be somewhat resolved. however, any solution is only temporary or perhaps illusory. Things go back to their not entirely satisfactory everyday, and readers cannot help thinking that the naive schoolboy, the dashing young soldier, the dull but worthy young doctor will soon all end up as cannon fodder.
Noel Coward’s youthful plays Hay Fever (1925) and Easy Virtue (1926) are far less earnest. In fact, it is hard to believe they were written around the same time as Schnitzler’s plays, because they are all about escapism, with no hint at all of the war. Yet here too we have a good dose of satire. Under the veneer of charm and wealth, these are self-absorbed, privileged families who are careless about other people (even when those people are their guests). They are perfectly willing to trample on others to get their own way – or even for their own amusement. These are the utterly ruthless people that F. Scott Fitzgerald talked about in The Great Gatsby – all the more dangerous because they don’t even recognise that they are doing anything wrong. The matriarch Judith in Hay Fever, a retired actress, is so busy putting on a show for herself and others, that no one can figure out what is real anymore.
Coward was attracted by English high society, yet aware that he was never going to be fully accepted there: he was the wrong class and the wrong sexual orientation, no matter how talented and charming a social butterfly he was striving to become. In Easy Virtue in particular, he exposes the hypocrisy of a very stuffy upper middle-class family, when they find out that their beloved only son has married a glamorous American divorcée with a past (foreshadowing the affair that led to the abdication of Edward VIII, but also reminiscent of the whole current Meghan and Harry shenanigans). The fittingly-named Larita is initially bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but gradually loses her illusions and understands she will never be accepted by her husband’s family and that he isn’t strong enough to stand up for her. Larita is punished for being too open and honest, for responding to accusations and indignations in a cool, ironical way and refusing to be browbeaten.
These plays are nearly a hundred years old, but they don’t feel too dated, despite the lavish display of wealth and the servants putting up with the bad behaviour of their masters. Clearly, snobbishness, greediness, selfishness never go out of fashion!
It’s been a long time since I last posted any poetry, probably because I still harbour the hope that some of the poems will get published in magazines and hardly any of them accept poems that have been published on your blog anymore. But this weekend I spent some time going through my notebooks and collating all the random fragments from workshops, slivers of early morning inspiration or even just fun notes to self, so I thought I could share some of these oddities in the weeks to follow, in among the book reviews and Friday glimpses of houses to yearn over.
than writing a poem.
Just follow the instructions.
Bring righteous indignation
and slam it hard on the table.
Remember to temper your anger
By using capital letter
At the start
Of every line.
Use a list format.
Keep adding to the list.
Use lots of pages – there are
trees to spare on this planet.
Besides, repetition is the mother of all good writing.
Be forever mournful, waiting and watchfully wanting.
Vary your line lengths.
Include animals from all over the world, with Latin names,
but not ones we might have heard of like equus.
Don’t forget to describe in detail their plumage,
anatomy, habitat and make connections
in unlikeliest of places to prove your erudition.
Finally, end with geographical incantations,
fade out to that most melodious of exotic place names
6 Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. You start with a different book each month and link it to six others to form a chain, the more imaginative the link, the better. I hesitated a little about participating in it this month, because I had not read the first book (it’s not available yet in the UK) and because it doesn’t sound like my kind of thing.
Phosphorescence by Julia Baird has a beautiful cover and the subtitle ‘On awe, wonder and things that sustain you’, which sounds a little too American self-helpy for my taste. But Kate herself rates this book highly, as being comforting and illuminating, as well as well-written, so never say never about reading this.
Another book that I was convinced I wouldn’t like and yet it pleasantly surprised me was Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson. I have to admit that I reviewed Peter Swanson’s first crime novel back in the days when I was reviewing for Crime Fiction Lover and was not entirely convinced. I said there was ‘a breathless cinematic quality to it: an exciting thriller’ but ‘a little déjà vu’. So I (perhaps somewhat unfairly) never requested another of his books since. However, I came across this book at the library and, with lockdown looming, I thought I’d give it a go. I don’t think Swanson will ever be one of my favourite authors, but it was a fun read, with all of the allusions to other famous crime writers and their most famous books.
Bit of an obvious next link, the Swanson that instantly comes to mind is the inimitable Gloria Swanson, screen siren and muse, but also a woman who did not suffer fools gladly. I haven’t read this book Swanson on Swanson, but it looks very intriguing and candid, and apparently does not sugarcoat the Hollywood studio industry at all.
I’ve chosen another unusual, fragmented autobiography for my next link, namely Jean Rhys’ Smile Please – a collection of vignettes about her childhood in Dominica, her youth in theatre in London and Paris. This is the material she so successfully mined in her novels and stories, but it’s always worth bearing in mind that fiction and biography may not be quite as closely linked even in her case, and that she said: ‘A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any.’
Tenuous link next, with a male author whose name is also Jean – namely French regional author Jean Giono. Regional not in any disparaging sense of the term, but because he is most associated with the Provence region in which he lived. He was much admired by Marcel Pagnol, who also wrote novels set in that beautiful area of France. He is best known for his historical novel Le hussard sur le toit (The Horseman on the Roof), which people outside France might know from the film adaptation starring Olivier Martinez and Juliette Binoche, and which seems very topical now, as it deals with a cholera outbreak in the 1830s.
Juliette Binoche is the link to the next book, Chocolat by Joanne Harris, which became a worldwide bestseller following the film adaptation with her in the starring role. It is also set in a French village (like Jean Giono’s book) and slightly historical, although the past there is far more recent, set as it is in the more traditional 1950s/60s.
For the final book in the chain, I’ve chosen another novel which was published in 1999, the same year as Chocolat and which is also set in a small village, but this time Holt, a fictional town in the American prairies. Kent Haruf’s Plainsong is a book which had been recommended to me by many fellow book bloggers, and they were absolutely right. I certainly enjoyed the pared down, detached style and close observation of a small group of characters.
Once again I’ve travelled far on my monthly Six Degrees journey: from Australia to LA to Dominica to France and Colorado. Where will your associations and links take you?
Whenever I search property websites for houses for sale in my dream locations, I am nearly invariably disappointed by the lack of books in most people’s houses. I’m not just thinking empty shelves, as is the case in one of the examples below (where the owner has clearly moved out before marketing her property), but no shelves at all, almost as if books were a dirty concept that should be kept hidden from view. Fortunately, I’ve managed to find some examples that prove that books really do form the best kind of backdrop in your home. And not just on Zoom calls.