#WITMonth and #20BooksofSummer: Teffi

Teffi: Subtly Worded, transl. Anne Marie Jackson et al. (Pushkin Press, 2014)

Imagine Dorothy Parker combined with Marina Hyde, with a dash of Chekhov and a sprinkling of Anna Seghers – and you might have something like Teffi, a Russian journalist and short story writer from the early 20th century. Had she lived today, she would no doubt be a star of social media, an influencer with her pithy, succinct and witty comments. She was a star twice over in her lifetime – first in her homeland (admired first by the Tsar and then by Lenin), then in exile in Paris in the 1920s, had perfumes and chocolates named after her, was the toast of political and cultural circles in several European cities. Towards the end of her life and after her death, her star waned somewhat, but she has now been rediscovered both in Russia and abroad.

Subtly Worded is a selection of her literary work from 1910 to 1952 and, although Teffi was celebrated primarily as a humorist and satirist during her lifetime, this collection certainly proves that she was not a one trick pony. Some of her shortest early pieces are slight, laugh-out-loud funny and hugely relatable – such as ‘Will-Power’ (about a man whose doctor has told him to give up the booze). There is gentle mockery of vanity in ‘The Hat’, in which a young woman believes she is irresistable to her poet boyfriend (‘who had not yet written any poems, he was still trying to come up with a pen name, but in spite of this he was very poetic and mysterious’), but only when she is wearing her new hat… and then she realises she was wearing the wrong one all along. The stories told from the point of view of children (‘The Lifeless Beast’ or ‘Jealousy’) ring very true and are made up of equal parts of innocence, humour and heartbreak. She does not sentimentalise childhood, nor old age. Her characters are infuriating as well as touching.

The sting in her humour becomes more noticeable during and just after the Russian Revolution. These stories may have just one string to their bow, so they feel more like satirical newspaper articles, but they certainly hit the mark. She observes how ideals get derailed by famine in ‘Petrograd Monologue’, narrated by someone determined not to mention ‘food’, yet thinking of nothing else. She recounts the indiscriminate persecution of the cultural elites and suspicion of education in ‘One Day in the Future’ – an exaggeration that was not too far from the truth in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe in the 1950s and during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

On his return journey he overtook several carts loaded with firewood. Their drivers had the most improbable backgrounds: one had been a tenor with the Mariinsky Theatre, another an academician, the third a staff captain, the fourth a gynaecologist. […] At home, he had an unpleasant surprise. In the dining room his ten-year-old son was studiously learning the alphabet. Terenty tore the book out of the boy’s hands and ripped it to shreds.

‘You mangy pup!’ he yelled. ‘So you thought you’d start reading books, eh? Learn the sciences, eh? So you wanna end up a goatherd?’

Yet she is equally scathing about the airs of misplaced superiority and nostalgia for the glories of the past of Russian aristocracy. She lampoons them in ‘One of Us’, in which Mrs Kudakina, wife of a general, laments the disappearance of les nôtres (people like us) and their replacement by les autres (people not at all like us), yet proves incapable of truly distinguishing between the two.

Teffi is a keen political observer, and the description of her encounter with Rasputin is eye-opening. He tries his hypnotic powers on her, and, although she doesn’t succumb to them, she can understand how others might. However, she is careful to distinguish between personal charisma and the charisma of power. All those ‘sucking up’ to Rasputin for the hope of political advancement or at least for being spared severe punishment – their behaviour is reprehensible yet what other choice have they got? Teffi seems like a precursor of the Me Too movement when she says:

… there was something in the atmosphere around Rasputin I found deeply revolting. The grovelling, the collective hysteria – and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark and beyond our knowledge. One could get sucked into this filthy mire – and never be able to climb out of it. It was revolting and joyless… The pitiful, distressed face of the young woman who was being thrust so shamelessly by her lawyer husband at a drunken peasant – it was the stuff of nightmares, I was seeing it in my dreams. But he must have had many such women – women about whom he shouted, banging his fist on the table, that ‘they wouldn’t dare’, and they were ‘happy with everything.’

Once in exile, she casts her lucid eyes on the emigrant community and they don’t escape unscathed, as in ‘Que Faire?’, perhaps one of her best-known and most-quoted pieces.

We – les russes, as they call us – live the strangest of lives here, nothing like other people’s. We stick together, for example, not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion. Every lesrusse hates all the others – hates them just as fervently as the others hate him.

This lack of solidarity in exile has been observed by other ethnic communities – especially when they are escaping from a country in political turmoil, because they are never quite sure on which side their new acquaintance might be (or might have been in the past). Add to that the envy of someone else’s success abroad, a success that would have been inferior to yours if you had still been experiencing the ‘normal’ (i.e. long gone) state of affairs in the ‘motherland’…

This is an impressive collection, showing a full range of emotions – from flighty to serious, from mockery to genuine compassion, from sharp insight to sentimentality. There is depth and sadness here too, a lot of reading between the lines, but also sheer impish humour. Something for everyone in fact – her ‘idol-like’ status becomes more understandable.

This was my 20th book of the #20BooksofSummer challenge and my third review for #WITMonth.

 

 

Plans for August Reading: #WIT and #20BooksofSummer

August is obviously Women in Translation Month, and I’ve been taking part since 2014, which I believe is the year it was initiated by that indefatigable supporter of women writers from all parts of the world, Meytal Radzinski. Last year I had a bit of a Brazilian theme going on; this year, it’s going to be more of a free for all. I cheated a little by starting my reading in July, to comply with Stu’s initiative of #SpanishLitMonth. So I have reviews for Lina Meruane, Margarita Garcia Robayo and Liliana Colanzi. I am still planning to read Ariana Harwicz’s Feebleminded, but I also have a very tempting stack of books by women writers from other countries.

I’ve recently finished Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and also am nearing the end of Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall. There are definite similarities between the two books (middle aged woman living alone, loving animals, philosophising about the world), aside from the fact that I really enjoyed both of them. But I still have to write the reviews. They will also constitute Books 18 and 19 of my #20BooksofSummer challenge.

I have one more book remaining then for the 20 books challenge, and I think it will be Teffi’s Subtly Worded, which has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. After that, I am free to roam wildly, so I may add Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs to the mix, although she wasn’t on my original list of possible summer reads. Then again, I recently bought a couple of Yuko Tsushima books, so I may choose those instead (or additionally). I’ll also dip into Tove Jansson’s letters, but I suspect that, like Virginia Woolf’s diaries, it will be the kind of book that I want to read every day over a long period of time, in small gulps, and ponder over the creative life and what might apply to me.

I’ve also borrowed quite a few books from the library, so will prioritise those, even if they don’t fall into the WIT category.

Polly Sansom’s A Theatre for Dreamers will transport me to the Greek islands, which are very precious to me, although a bit less accessible to me during and after my divorce. The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet and Come Again by Robert Webb look like light-hearted, fun holiday reads. And of course I will continue with my exploration of Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests are beckoning, each in their own creepy way. I have also bought the most recent Susie Steiner, which I’ve been awaiting with impatience, so I doubt I’ll be able to resist that one for too long!

If you are looking for inspiration for Women in Translation Month, here are some of my favourites from the past few years, all of them good fun, not too dark:

(This last one is coming out in translation in September via V&Q Books.)

#20BooksofSummer and #SpanishLitMonth: Lina Meruane

Lina Meruane: Seeing Red, transl. Megan McDowell (Atlantic Books, 2017)

I managed to sneak in one more review for #SpanishLitMonth, initiated by Stu Jallen – although I will probably continue reading Latin Americans for the Women in Translation month coming up. It is also Book No. 17 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, so great satisfaction all round!

When I saw Lina Meruane speak at Hay Festival in 2018, I was horrified to find out that Seeing Red is actually based on her own experience. She was doing her doctoral studies in the US when her eyes really did begin to bleed and she was in danger of losing her eyesight forever (but she has recovered now). To add to the confusion whether this is an autobiographical account, the main protagonist in the novel is also called Lina (or Lucina), a Chilean doctoral student in New York, who is trying to write a novel.

But Meruane is merely toying with our expectations. Her fictional Lina is much tougher and nastier, perhaps, than the author – or else she is one possible side of the author when facing blindness. She resolutely refuses to be a victim: ‘But I’m not going to just sit in a chair and wait for it to pass.’ She is loud and brash and dominant – with her boyfriend Ignacio (even when she is afraid of losing him), with her parents (both doctors in Santiago de Chile who think initially they might be able to advise her), with doctors, friends and tutors who ask about her writing. She is increasingly cruel. She has to create a new identity for herself as everything she used to be or do is in danger of disappearing. She is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, living in mortal fear, yet doing her best to pep herself up and almost daring anyone to feel sorry for her. Almost punishing the others for not suffering as she does.

The sentences are short, staccato, sometimes ending mid-sentence – the kind of incoherence that fear or anger often produce. Just look at this first paragraph, describing the moment when Lina’s eyes suddenly cloud over at a party:

It was happening. Right then, happening. They’d been warning me for a long time, and yet. I was paralyzed, my sweaty hands clutching at the air while the people in the living room went on talking, roaring with laughter – even their whispers were exaggerated, while I.

You soon get used to the breathless style – and even to the lack of speech marks, which I find deeply tedious in contemporary fiction (making things unnecessarily difficult for readers without adding much to the style). The story barrels along with its long paragraphs, lack of punctuation, quick changes of people speaking. As Lina adjusts to a dark world, all of her other senses become hypersensitive, and she becomes incredibly touchy in her conversations with others. As a reader, you are thrown, like Lina, into a frenetic melee of sounds, impressions, exchange of words and have to try to make sense of it all.

I think the author is also trying to draw some parallels between the fictional Lina’s blindness and the fate of her home country, Chile, and the temporary blindness (or amnesia) of the people about Pinochet. A body collapsing also bears similarities with a country or political system collapsing. She visits her parents while waiting for an operation in the States, and her hometown is both familiar and strange to her. Meanwhile, Ignacio (who is Spanish) has gone to Argentina and spent far too much money there following the economic collapse of 2001 (but really it could be any number of collapses and defaults). Lina mocks him, of course:

… he had done it all with the stupid idea of stopping the collapse. You alone, with just some dollars? Like a second-rate conquistador with glass beads?

There are some disturbing, surely surreal little touches, of Lina actually taking over her/touching/sucking her parents’ or her boyfriend’s eyeballs. I found that a bit shocking and hard going, I have to admit. Overall, I can’t claim that I enjoyed the book, but I appreciated what Lina Meruane was trying to do and would certainly like to see more of her in translation. I understand that her books are often about bodily frailty, and how that resembles family ties.

Reading Summary for July 2020

Posting this a little early, because I haven’t got the mental capacity to write reviews today (and I owe at least three).

I’ve read 10 books this month, despite being very busy at work once again. I’m alternating my #SpanishLitMonth (and anticipating #WomeninTranslation Month as well) with comfort (i.e. holiday) reading. My reading took me all over the world, and most of the books (80%) were written by women, half of the women writers were in translation. I’ve also read quite a few books from my #20BooksofSummer list – 18, but only reviewed 15 of them.

I discovered a new to me author that people on Twitter seem to be raving about: Sarah Waters (I slung down Fingersmith within 24 hours and have already reserved some other books by her from the library). I also discovered the Abir Mukherjee crime series set in 1920s India, which I want to read more of.  I was very happy to be reunited with Eva Dolan, whose crime fiction I adore. I finally got to read Olga Tokarczuk again and she did not disappoint, she is rapidly becoming a firm favourite. I was moved and surprised by The Home-Maker, which still feels remarkably contemporary. I reread Barbellion with less of a giggle and more sympathy for his predicament than I did in my brash teens. I was fascinated by the passionate, experimental fiction of the South American women writers, but disappointed by the ‘society pages/lifestyle magazine’ style of Fleishman Is in Trouble, although it contained some clever observations about marriage and divorce.

Holiday reading:

A Rising Man – set in India

Between Two Evils – set in Peterborough

Fingersmith – London and Marlow (near Maidenhead – surprisingly)

Fleishman Is in Trouble – New York City

Journal of a Disappointed Man – largely London

The Home-Maker – small-town America

Spanish Lit Month:

Liliana Colanzi – Bolivia

Margarita Garcia Robayo – Colombia

Lina Meruane – Chile

Women in Translation Month (anticipating):

Olga Tokarczuk – Poland (and Czech border)

Plans for the month of August – what else but Women in Translation? I am continuing with my Latin Americans – Ariana Harwicz awaits, plus Teffi, Tove Jansson’s Letters, Marlen Haushofer, Svetlana Alexievich and more. I’ve also ordered a few more books from the library for easy reading, so that should keep me out of mischief. Only two more books and I am free of any #20BooksofSummer constraints! Plus, I plan to dedicate a lot more time to writing.

 

 

#20BooksofSummer: No. 15 Holiday Heart (vs. Fleishman Is In Trouble)

Margarita Garcia Robayo: Holiday Heart, transl. Charlotte Coombe

This book ticks three boxes: #SpanishLitMonth, #20BooksofSummer and #WomeninTranslation.

I didn’t read this one in time for the Borderless Book Club in June, but I nevertheless enjoyed hearing the discussions around it. I think quite a few struggled with the unlikability of the main characters, but I felt like that was the point of the book. It offers a different perspective on the life of privileged Colombian immigrants to the US. All too often Latinos are perceived as racially inferior, uneducated, relegated to menial jobs or (if they are lucky) entertainment – but what about those immigrants who are wealthy, well-educated and feel superior to those with a darker skin colour than themselves and to those coming from other Latin American countries?

There is a far greater variety among immigrants, even when they come from the same linguistic background or the same continent, than we are typically shown in films or literature. It was this aspect of the story which I found most interesting: the chasing after a new cultural identity, the ambiguous feelings towards the home country, feeling second-rate in a host culture when you were used to feeling first-rate at home. Just because you are an immigrant and discriminated against doesn’t mean that you cannot find others even lower than you, so that you too can discriminate (or merely quietly envy). Snobbery and racism are rife, as well as resentment for the way they are treated in their new environment.

Being brown isn’t an advantage, thinks Pablo, and he thinks about himself, his mother and his sisters, even Lucia. Being black gets you further. A brown man is a watered-down man, stuck halfway between identities. It’s impossible to construct a strong identity if you are brown.

It is also the story of a marriage breaking down, where a sense of common identity is not enough to keep them together. Lucia was forced to move around a lot as a child, following her father’s job with oil companies, so she wants to integrate fully, to raise their children as Americans, and can be quite sarcastic or bored about her origins. Meanwhile, Pablo has a nostalgia about ‘our country’ and resents this uprooting:

‘…one day you’ll realise that a man without roots is a dead man.’ He couldn’t remember Lucia’s response. Something seething and spiteful. Something about how much his argument sounded like a lyric from an Ismael Rivera song.

When Pablo develops a ‘holiday heart’ syndrome (a severe heart condition usually associated with over-indulgence of food, drink, sex and the like during the holidays), the couple’s contrasting attitudes towards life become ever clearer. Pablo is going through a midlife crisis and having several affairs, including one with a pupil of his. Lucia goes off to Miami with the kids and flirts with a celebrity football player who is also there on vacation. These shenanigans got a little bit tedious, but they were revealing of character. There is an emptiness at the heart of this relationship and in their own hearts. When reading this book, I get the same sense of alienation as in watching a film like Antonioni’s The Eclipse.

Almost immediately after reading this book, I read Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (although this was a library book and adjacent to my #20booksofsummer reading plans). It is also about the breakdown of a marriage, but set in the well-heeled milieu of New York doctors, bankers and celebrity agents, with summer homes in the Hamptons and an endless round of private schools, tennis lessons, piano lessons, holiday camps and what not else. I wondered whether the readers who had found the Holiday Heart characters unlikable thought that these ones were more relatable because they were white.

The book was funny in parts, especially when describing the sex-fuelled haze of online dating, or the reactions of other people to the news that a couple is divorcing ‘people pretended to care for him when they were really asking after themselves’). Instead of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, this one reminded me of the TV series Sex and the City. There are some sharp observations about modern life and gender relationships, but I couldn’t help feeling that I was reading a lifestyle article in Vanity Fair or New York Times. I couldn’t care deeply about either Toby or his wife Rachel, or their respective midlife crises, or any of the characters who seem to relish their respective well-furnished prisons even though they complain about them. Although some of the rants were really spot-on, I couldn’t help remembering the critique I got on an excerpt of my novel in progress a few years back – that it was too much of a rant, the whingeing of a privileged white Mum that nobody would be interested in reading. Yes, this is exactly what this book felt like (although we get two for the price of one, rants from both genders).

I watched a couple go by, burrowing into each other… I pitied them… in a few years, that girl would be just some guy’s wife. She would be someone her husband referred to as angry – as angry and a dour and a nag. He would wonder where her worship went; he would wonder where her smiles were. He would wonder why she never broke out in laughter; why she never wore lingerie,; why her underwear, once lacy and dangerous, was now cotton and white; why she ddn’t like it from behind anymore; why she never got on top… The fortress where they kept their secrets would begin to crack, and he would push water through those cracks when he would begin to confide in his friends. He would get enough empathy and nods of understanding so that he would begin to wonder exactly what he had to gain from remaining with someone so bitter, someone who no longer appreciated him for who he was, and life’s too short, man, life’s too short.

Although I flagged quite a few passages that made me nod and smile wryly in recognition, overall I felt I’d heard the story a hundred times before and the style was too pedestrian to rescue it. It was an entertaining enough way to spend a weekend, but I choose Holiday Heart over this one. The Colombian novel gives a more lasting feeling of unease, raises provocative questions, and has a more precise, clearcut style where you feel every word counts (plus, it has been carefully and lovingly translated).

#20BooksofSummer: No. 14 – The Home-Maker

It’s been nearly a hundred years since The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher was published (1924) and I wish I could say that more had changed in the meantime. Sadly, if the recent (ongoing) pandemic has proved anything, it is that the traditional division of labour within the household is still alive and kicking and gender inequality in the workplace is on the rise again. So this book was radical in its day, but still has a lot to tell us about gender roles and ‘parenting instincts’ in the present day. What is revolutionary about Fisher’s work is that she sees domestic work as undervalued and soul-crushing regardless of who does it:

The little things of life, of no real importance, but which have to be ‘seen to’ by American home-makers, is like a blanket smothering out the fine and great potential qualities in every one of us.

Eva Knapp is a force of nature, an energetic and driven woman, but she is not a natural mother. Described at some point by her husband as ‘a Titan forced to tend a miniature garden’ or ‘a gifted mathematician set to paint a picture’, she does not find her greatest fulfilment in domestic tasks and childrearing, but feels it’s her duty to do her best for her family. The author shows remarkable insight about subjects which even now seem to be taboo for a mother to admit.

These were the moments in a mother’s life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence, the fine books and the speakers who had so much to say about the sacredness of maternity. They never told you that there were moments of arid clear sight when you saw helplessly that your children would never measure up to your standard, never would be really close to you, because they were not your kind of human beings.

We’ve all been there, Eva love! Needless to say, she cannot admit anything like failure, so doesn’t discuss any of this with anyone. Instead, she sticks rather grimly to her daily tasks, prefering cleaning and cooking rather than actually talking to the children, much like present-day mums driving their children from one after-school activity to another. She fusses over the children’s health and over her youngest’s wayward ways and is heartily dissatisfied with her husband Lester. Nobody in the family is happy but they don’t know or expect any different.

Meanwhile, Lester is a bit of a dreamer and a poet, unhappy with his work in finance in the local department store, not overly ambitious. He feels he is missing out on his children, but doesn’t dare to interfere with Eva’s iron fist rule over the domestic domain.

He never had time to know his children, to stalk and catch that exquisitely elusive bird-of-paradise, their confidence. Lester had long ago given up any hope of having time enough to do other things that seemed worth while, to read the books he liked, to meditate, to try to understand anything. But it did seem that in the matter of his own children… Lester never doubted that his wife loved her children with all the passion of her fiery heart, but there were times when it occurred to him that she did not like them very well – not for long at a time, anyhow.

When he is kicked out of his job, he feels like a complete failure and seriously considers suicide – his last act of love for his family, or so he believes. That way, they could at least get his insurance money; but this is of course not the case if the cause of death is suicide, so he has to make it look like an accident.

Sure enough, an accident occurs (deliberate or not?) and poor Lester is incapacitated, so Eva has to become the main breadwinner. This role reversal suits the family perfectly: Eva has a real talent for business, while the children thrive under Lester’s benign parenting (and considerably lower demands of cleanliness and gourmet cooking). But what will the neighbours think? Is their small town ready for such a revolutionary role swap?

Of course, this book is reflective of its time, in that it doesn’t really offer a creative solution for both partners that is sustainable in the long-term. The couple are still not really talking to each other, although they are each secretly pleased with their new role. They are not really brave enough to break out of the mould just yet. The book is about more than just gender division of labour and this is what makes it feel fresh even today: reminding us to slow down, enjoy what we have and not allow ourselves to be pressured into society’s definition of ‘success’. Having seen so many cases of dual-career couples (in academia, among expats) where the woman has had to give up her career to follow the husband, and finds it difficult to admit even to herself just how bitter and dissatisfied that makes her, I would say the novel still has many many recognisable moments and messages.

You can find more reviews of The Home-Maker from Vishy, the Captive Reader, and Juliana Brina. It was reissued by Persephone eight years or so ago, and has become one of its most popular titles, but I’ve come late to it.

#20BooksofSummer: Crime Fiction for Nos. 12 and 13

You know I enjoy my crime fiction books, and in these plague-ridden, uncertain times they provide me with more comfort than ever before. Especially the two authors who feature for No. 12 and No. 13 within my #20BooksofSummer. I’m also sneaking in a third book by a new-to-me author, which I read (and greatly enjoyed) for the Virtual Crime Book Club this month. So, I could entitle this post:

A Longterm Love, a Newer Love and a Brand-New Love (let’s see if you can figure out which is which?!)

Barbara Nadel: Incorruptible

I discovered Barbara Nadel’s crime series set in Istanbul about 12 years ago, when a friend who knows me well said that I might enjoy it, given my own passion for intercultural issues. I’ve always kept an eye out for them since, but in the past few years, as my reviewing duties went into overdrive and I started reading fewer books for pleasure, I had missed the last couple of books that came out in the Ikmen and Suleyman series (I am slightly less keen on the London-set crime series by the same author). So I ordered the latest one but started with an older one that I had on my bookshelf, which came out in 2018.

A young woman torn between her Catholic and Muslim mixed background is found brutally murdered, eviscerated. Before her death, she had been tearing apart public opinion with her claim of being miraculously cured of cancer and her visions of the Virgin Mary. Does her murder have a religious motive in a country that is increasingly separated into hostile camps based on faith? Or could the reason be closer to home, with a family equally torn apart by conflicting ideologies?

It was good to catch up with Ikmen as he nears retirement, but is wiser and more empathetic than ever, while I’ve always had a soft spot for the charismatic womaniser that is Mehmet Suleyman (who once again faces women trouble in this book). Meanwhile, their female boss is struggling to keep her police unit independent, free of government interference – and it was this description of descent into nationalism and dictatorship which I found particularly unsettling. The series has become darker and more thoughtful as time goes on, perhaps reflecting what is going on in Turkey currently. I know the author has been having trouble returning there for her research (she used to spend a great deal of the year in Turkey).

Eva Dolan: Between Two Evils

It has been far too long since the last Zigic and Ferreira novel set in Peterborough (although Dolan has written a standalone crime novel in the meantime). The Hate Crime Unit has been disbanded and they are now working with their colleagues in the general murder squad. The action is set in 2018 and both investigators (and the people they are investigating) are starting to feel the hostile post-Brexit environment.

A young doctor who works at the local female detention centre for illegal immigrants is found dead. Is this because he was a whistleblower or because he was one of the participants in the abuse of inmates in the centre (which is more or less like a prison and usually ends up with the inmates being deported).

As the title indicates, this book too shows a clash between two opposing forces and points of view. There is no sugarcoating, no representation of either side as being completely blameless – the protesters against the detention centre come off quite badly, despite their ‘progressive’ views. I like this subtletly in Dolan’s work, this refusal to over-simplify when the situation is so complex and messy. Another great entry in the series and I’m hopeful there will be more.

Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man

This is the additional title, which was not on my 20 Books of Summer list, but which I read for the Virtual Crime Book Club run by crime writer (and reader) Rebecca Bradley. I’d been meaning to get started on this series, since I know next to nothing about India during that period (1920 onwards), other than that it was a troubled time, so I was delighted that it was the book club choice for July. This book too shows two opposing factions – the behemoth of the British Empire versus the Indian rebels, and once again the author manages to pull off the tricky feat of not resorting to stereotypes or presenting them as unified block.

Sam Wyndham is new to India: he survived the trenches of WW1 only to have his wife dies of the Spanish flu, so he has become world-weary, cynical and slightly addicted to opium. He also feels like an outsider in India – he is not really integrated yet into the colonial community, has a strong sense of fairness and feels uncomfortable with British imperialist attitude. But he is realistically of his time: more progressive than most, but nevertheless not overly modern (what one might call ‘woke’ nowadays). Two other outsiders join him (and will likely play key roles in the next books in the series): the Anglo-Indian secretary Annie Grant and his well-educated, wealthy ‘native’ sergeant nicknamed Surrender-not (which sounds offensive to me, but is accepted by the man in question with weary resignation).

The setting was one of the high points of the book for me, educating me while never becoming too didactic. As with all first books in a series, there is quite a bit of set-up and throat-clearing in this book, but there are sufficient hints of character development to keep me intrigued. I’m looking forward to reading more by this author.

 

#20BooksofSummer: No. 11 – Shirley Hazzard

Once I read Shirley Hazzard’s mischievous portrayal of the United Nations in People in Glass HousesI knew she would be the kind of writer that I’d like. I quickly ordered two more of her books (which are not easy to find, she seems to be somewhat out of print) but have only just read one of them now, five years later. I can relate so well to this ‘citizen of everywhere and nowhere’.

Born in Australia, she nevertheless felt somewhat ambiguous about it, a backwater that she was all too eager to escape from. Although she made America her home for many years, she did not feel she fitted into the sassy, young, casual style of writing there. She felt closer to the more formal English style and has been compared to her contemporaries Anita Brookner, Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. In fact, she reminds me more of  earlier writers such as Ivy Compton-Burnett, Henry Green or Barbara Pym – an excellent ear for dialogue, especially for what remains unspoken, much more tightly controlled and tight-lipped – but without their obsession with class.

This is the best cover, the Virago Modern Classics edition. I’ve seen some awful US covers.

The Bay of Noon is one of her early novels, published in 1970. Already, the author demonstrates her ability to write satire, cast her withering cold stare on absurd people and behaviours, yet still show some vulnerability. Her remarkably clear and precise, yet poetic prose style is already fully formed in this book. It is perhaps a style that has become unfashionable in recent years – maybe even in her own lifetime (which might explain a long gap in her writing.) This is not about sparkling linguistic gems and fireworks; instead, it rewards the patient and attentive reader (above all, the rereader) – because nothing is wasted, everything is packed in tightly.  Blink and you might miss an important point.

As in most of her novels and short stories, the story seems to be comfortably domestic at first: about expats trying to make a home for themselves in a different culture and caught up in a sort of love triangle. But there are bigger issues at stake – the effects of war (in this case in Italy, in other novels we have Occupied Japan or post-war England) and personal trauma.

Jenny is an expat working for a section of NATO headquartered in Naples in the 1950s. She befriends the glamorous writer Gioconda and her loud macho boyfriend Gianni, and also has occasional forays into a relationship with taciturn Scotsman Justin. Feeling supplanted in her brother’s affections by his wife, not quite at home in any part of the world, she has had to learn to cauterise her heart and wounds. Yet she finds herself once again cast as the spare wheel in a tangle of relationships where no one is entirely happy or satisfied, and everyone is lying to themselves and to others.

Jenny is ferociously bright and observant, but lonely – you can’t help feeling that Hazzard has put a lot of herself in that character, but there is something in the elegance and more resigned sadness of Gioconda which is perhaps the portrait of the more mature author.

But that’s a way to go on loving – a place or a person. To miss it. In fact, to go away, to put yourself in the state of missing, is sometimes the simplest way to preserve love.

Naples is the main character in this novel – and Hazzard clearly loved the place (she eventually settled in Capri with her husband after a peripetatic career all over the world). But she does not romanticise it or avoid its poverty and social problems:

Ordinariness, the affliction and backbone of other cities, was here non-existent. Phrases I had always thought universal – the common people, the average family, the typical reaction, ordinary life – had no meaning where people were all uncommon and life extraordinary; where untraceable convulsions of human experience had yielded up such extremes of destitution, of civilization.

Liliana Colanzi: Our Dead World

This is my most recent #20BooksofSummer read (No. 12 in actual fact), but I am somersaulting over the earlier ones I read and placing it at No. 10, so that I can have at least one review this week for #SpanishLitMonth initiated by Stu Jallen (which is not just literature from Spain but literature in the Spanish language).

Liliana Colanzi is a Bolivian writer, considered one of the most promising young voices in Latin America today, but so far Our Dead World is her only book that has been translated into English (by Jessica Sequeira and published by Dalkey Archive Press). I heard Colanzi speak at the Hay Festival two years ago, as part of the Bogota39 initiative, and bought her book then and there (and of course got it signed). The stories are unusual, surreal, captivating and show a great deal of courage, in the sense of not worrying about making the reader feel comfortable or of fitting under one convenient genre or label.

The first story The Eye, for example, could be described as a more realistic, coming-of-age type story, with a girl in her first year of college struggling with her feelings for a male classmate, who lets her down by buggering off with another girl at the last minute while working on a group project for class. Her mother is deeply religious and traditional, her professor chides her for not being brave enough to think for herself, and she compensates for all of her disappointments by cutting herself. So far, so conventional, you might think, but then the story and the language takes on a surreal turn, as we follow the protagonist into something like a nervous breakdown (or illumination?).

And that is the hallmark of Colanzi’s style: taking the mundane and well-trodden set-ups and then twisting them completely beyond recognition. You sit and read breathlessly  and wonder how the author will manage to conclude the story and exit from the impossible situation in which she has placed herself and her characters. Usually, this is done through altered states, which the author is very good at conveying through repetitive, mesmerising language, which is often like watching a film playing at double the speed in someone’s head.

Each story (bar one) has a different but realistic setting – a Bolivian village preparing for a funeral, an East Coast college campus, a Paris hotel, a photographic studio, a house hidden in a sugar-cane plantation. But then a curveball gets thrown into the apparently familiar set-up: a family starts quarreling as they remember past frustrations while having their portrait taken, a meteorite is ready to hit the earth, a mysterious wave-type weather pattern drives students to suicide, a cannibal is on the loose, the corpse at a funeral seems to start breathing, you stumble across a place in the jungle where indigenous slavery still exists. There are hints at secret traumas and a side serving of horror in most of these tales.

The story which is the exception has more of a sci-fi premise: it’s set on Mars. A young woman has joined the colonising workforce on Mars but still yearns for the life and man she loved on Earth. While she and her fellow workers are doomed to either go mad or die of cancer, she becomes obsessed by the idea of life perpetuating itself even in the most hostile of environments.

These are the kind of stories which pack so much into their tiny frame that I’m not sure I’ve completely understood them. I also like the way in which Colanzi alludes to her cultural background but is not limited by it. I want to reread and analyse these stories – but above all, they give me permission to go forth and be bolder and more experimental in my own writing.

#20BooksofSummer Nos. 8 and 9 – Poetry

Poetry books are slim and mislead you into thinking that they are quick reads. Of course, in actual fact, you spend a lot longer on them, as you read and reread and mull over certain poems. As for reviewing… well, I feel poetry in my bones, and at university I learnt how to analyse it to within an inch of its life… but I still find it hard to write something coherent about a volume of poetry without simply quoting extensively from it and letting the poems speak for themselves.

The two books were interesting in terms of similarity and differences. Both of them speak of everyday lives, predominantly the lives of women trying to make their way in a world that is not always friendly towards them, women who are more outspoken and observant than most, yet decidedly women navigating difficult circumstances and tricky relationships. The world they describe is both made joyous and damaged by technology. Both volumes feel very ‘of the moment’, with mobile phones, drones, Google and Twitter making fleeting appearances. Travel is involved – but seldom glamorous. This is the economy travel of those who might feel trapped by their environment or by poverty, yet still wish to see as much of the world as possible.

Inga Pizane: Having Never Met, transl. Jayde Will (Midsummer Night’s Press).

Inga is a popular milennial Latvian poet (born 1986 so I don’t know if she is strictly speaking milennial, but her poems certainly feel like that). She is also a spoken word performer and the poems in this tiny volume feel very ‘Instagrammable’, brief little glow in the dark moments as they are. Some of them feel as sketchy as if hastily scribbled down on a paper napkin:

The night gazes at people in love –
keep quiet
under these stars

Others feel like they are trying a little too hard to be modern – but the results are amusing and sometimes quite touching:

update
me
you have access
to my
old version

search in the settings
and update manually

use me more
update me regularly

make sure that I don’t freeze up
please don’t accidentally delete me.

There are echoes of the simplicity and everyday language of Tawara Machi’s by now classic Salad Anniversary – and the same preoccupation with love and disappointment – a young woman’s concerns. Of course I am no longer the age I was when I first read Tawara Machi, so perhaps I am less captivated by these quite narrow concerns. Above all, I felt that the language at times veered into the cliché or sounded quite flat.

Josephine Corcoran: What Are You After? (Nine Arches Press)

Corcoran is (I suspect) a poet of my generation, so her subject matter is wider. Love, yes, but also marriage and pregnancy, miscarriage, grieving, growing up in poverty, growing old together, going back to one’s roots, living with one’s neighbours, looking at the wider world. The voice is always warm, immediate, but also remarkably restrained when necessary. Her poems are multi-layered – nothing is ever ‘just a love poem’. The past is never too far below the surface, ready to break through at any moment.

Some of us understand
why our past plays out
in films and books;
need to look behind curtains
before we go to sleep;
keep quiet about our dreams…

News stories are woven in to create a state of heightened anxiety, but also compassion. There are so many cultural references I sometimes wonder how well these poems will date: Tamir Rice, Stephen Lawrence,  Harry Potter and Privet Drive, but also Gavrilo Princip, Red Rum and Jack Nicholson. While the Stephen Lawrence poem plays on the fears of mothers everywhere and is incredibly poignant, there were many other references which I probably didn’t quite get. The poems that touched me most, however, were the ones about leaving behind your home town, your social class, the people who know you. A damning indictment of the restrictive class boundaries and preconceptions.

Forgive me for the sin of making up my own identity; for not sitting easily inside a category; for leaving school with nothing; for learning languages from cassette tapes I borrowed from a public library; for liking literature and art and orchestras; for stuffing my face with a free university education before it ran out.

I’m far away from my council house. If I turned up there, they wouldn’t know me.

And I’m not always kind to earnest people campaigning about class injustice.

Although the language is equally simple and unadorned, Corocoran’s poems never feel flat-footed, they are three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional:

… we shine signals of friendship
over the rough see of the playground…

You ask for my number –
People see this hijab
and look the other way.
We rummage for our phones

as if our bags are full of answers.
We spell out our names
and promise to meet again
but never do.