What to read when you have Covid

… or just generally feeling very poorly and brain-foggy, struggling to concentrate. The answer seems to be: a tale about a giant rabbit, a biography and historical crime fiction set in Cracow.

I will spare you the long rant about how my younger son and I got Covid from his school, and how run-down we have both been feeling over the past week or so. Initially, I tried to console myself that, although my plans for a writing holiday somewhere else than within my own four walls had come to nothing, I would at least recline gracefully in various strategic places around the house and read all day.

Alas, turns out that pounding headaches and severe nausea are not conducive to long bouts of reading, certainly nothing too serious or challenging. Here are the books that worked for me in this situation, and which might work for you if ever need a balance of page-turning yet educational, lightness and darkness.

Antti Tuomainen: The Rabbit Factor, trans. David Hackston

I have said before, many times, how much I enjoy Tuomainen’s blend of comedy and pathos, his insight into the lives of ordinary, ‘loser-type’ people who are then confronted with rather extraordinary events. In this book, we are with the first person narrator, Henri, a financial actuary who is a whizz with figures but not so great with human relationships – and certainly no fan of the absurdities of corporate life. He is fired from his job for being a ‘dinosaur’, i.e. refusing to play along with the latest corporate fad. The author has great fun skewering office life, and, in a time when so many of us have been working from home and therefore have started questioning the absurdity of enforced mingling and teamwork, his words cannot help but resonate with us:

… I didn’t like our open-plan office. It was noisy, full of distractions, interruptions, banalities. But more than anything, it was full of people. I didn’t like the things so many others seemed to like: spontaneous conversations, the continual asking for and giving of advice, the constant cheap banter. I didn’t see what it had to do with demanding probability calculations.

Funnily enough, just as I started reading this book, I caught up over Zoom with an old mathematician friend of mine who now works as a financial risk modeller or actuary or something, and he expressed many of the same sentiments about corporate speak, so clearly Henri is extremely well observed. He is painfully honest and earnest, the kind of person who could be infuriating in real life, but ends up being rather endearing in fiction.

Henri unexpectedly inherits an adventure park from his brother, who seems to have been mixed up in some unsavoury affairs. Nothing could be further from Henri’s mind than to run an adventure park and make it thrive against all the odds, yet he finds himself doing unbelievable things to keep his employees happy, the park solvent and the loan sharks breathing down his neck less dangerous. Along the way, he makes many mistakes, demonstrates naivety but also an unexpected amount of cunning; he also discovers he has a heart after all, even if it refuses to delve in sentimentality.

This has the trademark Tuomainen deadpan humour, as well as nailbiting moments and a big, big heart. There is also the joy of a cat named Schopenhauer, which gives the author an opportunity to riff on the notoriously pessimistic philosopher’s assertion that our is the ‘the worst of all possible worlds’.

Life isn’t a loan; it is a payment fraud. It is a project, lasting on average seventy-five years, whose sole aim is to maximise our own stupidity. And yet, that’s exactly what we seem to crave. Look at the choices we make. If we are healthy, we make ourselves ill by smokng cigarettes, drinking alcohol and over-eating. If we want to bring about societal change, we vote for options that make our situation worse. When we should be thinking about what is rational, people start talking about how they feel… The most successful people are those who talk the least sense and blame everybody else for it.

The frequent rants against so many facets of contemporary life (like fine dining, for instance) reminded me a little of John Boyne’s recent The Echo Chamber. However, The Rabbit Factor is much, much better, because it really has a plot, the humour seems effortless and never reaches the level of desperately farcical, and the rants are never overblown, exaggerated or repetitive. They are Finnishly restrained, and all the more powerful for it.

Artemis Cooper: Elizabeth Jane Howard – A Dangerous Innocence

I vaguely knew Howard’s biographical details, particularly of her marriage to Kingsley Amis, but, having recently read the Cazalet Chronicles, I was interested in finding out more. I was astounded to discover what a tumultuous life she had and how many of those details she incorporated into her novels. What is particularly interesting is that she was obviously such a bundle of contradictions: an impulsive beauty with acting aspirations, a shy observer of social interactions who aspires to make notes and use it all in her writing, an anxious, somewhat idealistic young woman with an intense home-making instinct who longs for lasting love and friendship, that she had to divide out all of her thoughts and experiences among at least three different characters in her Cazalet series (Louise, Clary and Polly respectively).

I find it hard to reconcile her self-aware, witty writing and deep insight into human nature with her apparent oblivion in real life to the nuances of human behaviour. As her stepson Martin Amis is quoted as saying in this book: ‘I’ve always thought that was one of the mysteries about Jane: the penetrating sanity on the page, but when she’s off the page, she’s actually not that clever with people.’ She seemed to have a desperate fear of being abandoned or unloved, an incredible neediness, which made her life choices at times very questionable indeed. Yet she was able to analyse them with such clear eyes in her writing.

Maryla Szymiczkowa: Karolina or the Torn Curtain, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Cracow in 1895/96 is a city desperate to pretend it’s not provincial, but an important cultural capital within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Zofia Turbotynska, wife of an anatomy professor at the Jagiellonian University, is an exemplary housekeeper but her restless mind is never content with just accepting facts at face value. When her servant Karolina is found dead, violated and stabbed, on the riverbanks just outside Cracow, she wants to find the true perpetrator and chivvies the police along to perform their duties. Not content with their lacklustre obvious findings, she doggedly pursues the case and learns a lot about poverty and prostitution, human trafficking and corruption in the process. Above all, she learns about herself and sees society with different eyes.

I love that about Zofia: she is a bolshy, inquisitive Miss Marple type, but she is a character that is still unfolding and developing. She has hitherto unquestioningly accepted some of the ideologies and beliefs of her age (about socialists or fallen women or Jews), but she is beginning to realise that the truth is much more complicated than portrayed in the newspapers or society gossip.

There is a lot of gentle humour about Zofia’s social pretensions and attempts to keep up with the good society of Cracow, but there is educational historical detail too, and many parallels to be drawn with the present day (particularly with East European girls being trafficked to Western Europe). Coincidentally, I have also been watching the TV series Paris Police 1900, which is a much starker, more violent recreation of the ‘good old days’ but presents a similarly darker underbelly underneath an affluent, apparently respectable society. There is an added link to the TV series, which features the historical Alphonse Bertillon, police inspector and forensics specialist, who introduced anthropometry and mugshots to identify criminals. In this book, both Zofia and a police commissioner Jednorog are enthusiastic about the scientific advances in detection thanks to Bertillon’s methods, which were spreading beyond the French borders at the time.

What is particularly invigorating, of course, is the modern eye of the two authors, and their tongue-in-cheek accounts of Zofia’s frame of mind on occasion make her very relatable indeed to a contemporary audience, yet without ever making her feel too far out of step with her century: a clever balancing act.

It occurred to Zofia that she had had quite enough of all these self-pitying men by now, blaming everyone but themselves for thier problems. It was usual to say that women become hysterical… but meanwhile Zofia found that it was chiefly the men in her environment who were prone to this affliction.

The two (male) authors who write under the Maryla pseudonym are Jacek Dehnel, a wrier, poet and translator, and Piotr Tarczynski, a translator and historian, which explains that happy marriage between plot, language and historical detail. It was an instant love affair for me and I look forward to many more books in this series.

January in Japan: Higuchi Ichiyo, First Professional Woman Writer

Robert Lyons Danly: In the Shade of Spring Leaves: The Life of Higuchi Ichiyo with Nine of Her Best Short Stories, Norton, 1992.

Higuchi Ichiyo is revered in Japan as the first major woman writer of the modern era, poised between traditional Japan and the death of the samurai era, and the rapidly modernising Japan of the late 19th century, a precursor to the many excellent women writers that Japan produced in the 20th century and the present-day. Although her portrait appears on the 5000 Yen note, and most of her stories have been adapted for film, I had not really read any of her work until Mieko Kawakami mentioned her as a role model and inspiration in her interview at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Higuchi Ichiyo on the 5000 yen note.

Although Ichiyo died in 1896 of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, she left behind a legacy of nearly four thousand classical poems, twenty-one well-crafted stories and numerous essays, which would make anyone else feel like a slouch in comparison. Some of her stories are regarded as examplary to this day. This book contains nine of those stories, as well as extensive quotes from her very detailed, lively and accomplished diary, which she kept over a long period of time (and which I wish would get translated in its entirety into English). It also contains biographical notes, showing just how surprising and remarkable her achievements were, because she came from an impoverished former samurai family, and became de facto the head of the family at an early age, was largely self-taught and constantly struggled to make a living to support her mother, her sister and herself.

Trained initially in the classical style of poetry, and clearly a huge fan of the writing of the Heian court, this all changes in 1893, when she and her family move to the poorer, red-light districts of Tokyo and try to run a stationery shop (not very successfully). Her stories become less melodramatic and inspired by the past, and instead feature both a rich description of a particular time and place, as well as social critique. She allows the rickshaw drivers, prostitutes, orphans, shopkeepers from their neighbourhood to appear as fully-rounded characters and voice their concerns, their small joys and triumphs, as well as their disappointments and defeats. At the same time, she also depicts the social constraints placed upon them.

In her most famous and accomplished story/novella Takekurabe (translated here as Child’s Play), we encounter a group of youngsters growing up in the Yoshihara red-light district. We are privy to their games and teasing, their quarrels and fights, their mischief and bullying, but also their kindnesses and mutual help. Midori is a free spirited, almost pampered girl, generous at sharing the little luxuries money can buy with her friends – but her money comes from her older sister’s work as a courtesan and she herself is being groomed to follow the same fate. Nobu is the shy, introverted son of the local priest, perpetually embarrassed by the materialistic, wordly nature of his parents. Shota is the wealthiest of the three, the son of the local pawnbroker, but he is a likable boy, constantly embarrassed by his family’s avaricious ways. As the children reach their mid-teens, they realise that the world of opportunities that seems to lie ahead of them… are actually illusions, that their fate was always to follow in their parents’ or sister’s footsteps. The solidarity and hope that they had as children drains away and they are left feeling very lonely indeed.

The last story Wakaremichi (Separate Ways) addresses the same problem, although here it is a friendship between Okyo, a young woman in her twenties who works as a seamstress and the boy who oils umbrellas Kichizo, nick-named the Dwarf, because he looks far smaller than his actual age (sixteen). Okyo is finally forced to become the mistress of a rich older man and Kichizo feels utterly betrayed that she should choose that way of life. Childish innocence gets destroyed by adult pragmatism in all of her stories.

Nigorie (Troubled Waters) is an earlier, slightly more melodramatic piece, but it succeeds in showing the life of courtesans as they grow older and fade in popularity, and the dreams they have had to cast aside. Meanwhile, in Jusanya (The Thirteenth Night), the author addresses the plight of the woman desperate to leave an abusive husband. Oseki returns home to her parents one night to say that she wants a divorce, but that would not only bring poverty and disgrace upon her family, but it would also mean she never gets to see her son again.

Ichiyo’s protagonists have very little wriggle room, very few choices open to them. They simply hustle and try to get through the day, the week, the month, and feed their dependents. This type of subject matter was perhaps not entirely new (there had been stories about the red-light district or ‘floating world’ before, notably Saikaku Ihara from two centuries earlier), but most of the stories were told by men and had a certain quality of titillation and sensationalism. Ichiyo shows real compassion and understanding for her characters. Moreover, it’s not just her subject matter that makes her memorable, but her beautiful style: full of allusions to classical works, elliptical, compact, full of word associations, puns, kakekotoba. These last are so-called pivot words, where you use the phonetic reading of a kanji character to convey multiple meanings concurrently – a much prized rhetorical device, because you can be concise yet introduce multiple layers of meaning. I suspect she might be quite difficult to read in the original, and not just because she was writing 130 years ago.

You can read a review of this book and of Ichiyo’s stories on Tony Malone’s excellent blog. If you get a chance to see the 1955 film of Takekurabe directed by Gosho, it provides a useful counterpoint to those in Japan who were looking back with nostalgia at the Meiji period during the post-war years.

Still from the film Takekurabe.

Rediscovering Montaigne

I say rediscovering, but I doubt that I ever discovered him properly the first time round. I vaguely read his essays in my omnivorous teens, jotted down a few quotes, but probably confused him quite a bit with Montesquieu (well, they both start with M and are roughly categorised as philosophers) and de Tocqueville (I know, no excuses there!).

In 2015 we holidayed in Aquitaine and I kept stumbling across Montaigne in Bordeaux (he was mayor of the city from 1580 to 1585). I borrowed his essays from the library when we returned to our then-home in Prevessin, but once again failed to read them in great depth. I had simply too many other books to review.

Then I recently came across this sort-of-biography of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Entitled How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, it is nothing less than a declaration of love for Montaigne the man and the writer, for his tolerant spirit and for not being judgemental (rare during those times of religious wars in France), his openness to new things, his love of the good life but also desire for solitude. Montaigne feels very modern, very akin to us, even to the point where he claims to despise in-depth scholarship.

I leaf through now one book, now another, without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments… If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.

He also endeared himself to me by preferring his books and travels to family life. Had he been free to choose, he would not have been the marrying kind at all, yet he reached a kind of contentment within it:

Of my own choice, I would have voided marrying Wisdom herself, if she had wanted me. But say what we will, the custom and practice of ordinary life bears us along.

Yet he was by no means a hermit. He enjoyed company and cultivated friendships, highly praised kind-spirited and friendly conversations – about anything, no subject was taboo in his household. He was also one of the first to establish a rapport with animals and think of them as sentient beings.

He is also ahead of his time regarding women: he was very conscious of the double standard used to judge male and female behaviour, and believed that by nature males and females are cast in the same mould.

Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them.

Above all, I can relate to his glorious laziness. Looking after his estate was an onerous task, and he was useless around the house because he had other interests. He hated doing the things that bored him – a dereliction of duty which was shocking for his time, but which we can empathise with nowadays.

I stand up well under hard work; but I do so only if I go to it of my own will, and as much as my desire leads me to it… Extremely idle, extremely independent, both by nature and by art.

As Sarah Bakewell notes, he ‘knew there was a price to be paid’ for this unwillingness to be a micro-manager, that people would take advantage of his ignorance. ‘Yet it seemed to him better to lose money occasionally that to waste time tracking every penny and watching his servants’ tiniest movements.’ Of course, this comes from a position of privilege, where he could afford not to track the pennies.

Finally, perhaps his most endearing quality is his acceptance of everything that happens and everything you have done and been. His was not the Christian doctrine of repentance, but nor did he try to airbrush his past. He knew that some of the things he’d done a long time ago no longer made sense to him now, but he is forgiving to himself and to others for their mistakes. We are all made up of what we’ve done throughout our lives and what we’ve learnt from that.

We are all patchwork; and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game… our being is cemented with sickly qualities… Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.

Yet the author also points out, that for all his individualistic modernity, Montaigne also has much to teach people in the 21st century about moderation, being courteous, that no utopia or fantasist vision of the future can ever justify hurting others in the present or outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

Coincidentally, a French writer friend Lou Sarabadzic has just been busy curating an exhibition about Montaigne at the library Abbé-Grégoire in Blois, as part of her travelling and writing residency there. And I can now understand her passion for this author and wish I’d discussed him with her sooner! If you want to see the author Sarah Bakewell talk about Montaigne, here is the link to a video from the LRB Bookshop.

I will certainly add him to my list of favourite classic French writers : Voltaire and Molière.

#SixDegrees December: A Christmas Carol, Of Course!

It’s time for #6degrees, as featured on Kate’s blog Books are my Favourite and My Best (in fact, it’s a bit over-time, as I never get a chance to do it at the weekend). Start at the same place as other wonderful readers, add six books, and see where you end up! A seasonal starting point today with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

It would be far too easy to take the Christmas route here, but I prefer the snow association. Snow makes me think of skiing, what else, and there are far too few books which feature skiing. One crime novel which is all about the skiing is Dead Men Don’t Ski by Patricia Moyes, set in an Alpine resort, with someone dead on arrival in a chairlift (and no, it wasn’t the cold that killed him off). Witty and very Golden Agey, although written considerably later.

A far more brutal contemporary look at murder in skiing country is Black Run by Antonio Manzini. Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone, with a passion for marijuana and a very personal concept of legality and justice, has transferred away from Rome to the freezing Aosta Valley, where he attempts to learn who is responsible for killing a man and burying the body beneath a ski slope. I haven’t read it yet, but it comes recommended by Italian crime writer Sandrone Dazieri, so I’m planning to read this at some point.

One of the classic books about taking drugs is Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, written in 1821. A contemporary and friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, he was the ultimate drop-out and vagabond, struggling to make ends meet, although he did finally more or less manage to shake off his addiction.

Pina Bausch Tanstheater Wuppertal

I  understand the recent film Suspiria is at least partially based on De Quincey’s book (or on its sequel, Suspiria De Profundis). A far more obvious influence on that film is the choreography of Pina Bausch. There is a recent biography by Marion Meyer about this most influential of 20th century choreographers and founder of the Tanztheater Wuppertal. I haven’t read this but would be quite interested if I can get my hands on it.

From biography to an autobiography (composed of diaries and letters) that I absolutely adored, namely Barbara Pym, A Very Private Eye. As her friend and champion Philip Larkin said, she had an uncanny ‘eye and ear for the small poignancies of everyday life’.

From one Barbara to another: Barbara Kingsolver has just published a new novel Unsheltered. Although her books have been a bit hit or miss with me, I will probably want to seek this one out and see if it is a return to form.

So an unusual chain for me this month, with three books that I haven’t read (yet), and journeys taking me through Victorian London, South Tyrol, the Aosta Valley, two more Londons at different moments in time, the industrial Ruhr/Dusseldorf/Wuppertal region in Germany and last but not least Vineland, New Jersey.

Where will your free associations take you?

 

Claire Tomalin: A Life of My Own

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Claire Tomalin as a biographer, having read her biography of Dickens and Dickens’ ‘invisible woman’ Nelly Ternan, as well as well-documented and sensitive recreations of the life of Samuel Pepys, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen and Katherine Mansfield. But she found her vocation rather late in life, as she admits in this very frank memoir A Life of My Own, and her career has been almost accidental, often resulting from changes to her personal circumstances rather than any ambitious planning.

Photo credit: Bodleian Libraries

Tomalin’s life is a mix of privilege and hard blows. As she herself admits: ‘I’ve had a life with tragedies in it. But also extraordinary good luck.’ Born to well-educated but unhappily married parents, brought up bilingual and evacuated from home during the Second World War (changing schools very frequently), she entered a charmed circle of talented friends at Cambridge, who later became influential journalists and critics. She married young and had several children in quick succession, but her charismatic reporter husband Nick Tomalin was an inveterate womaniser, who kept planning to leave her but eventually came back. When he was killed by a missile attack in Israel in 1973, Claire was shocked but must also have been relieved. She built a new life for herself as a single mum supporting her four children, working as Literary Editor at The New Statesman and the Sunday Times. She knew everyone who was anyone and had affairs with younger men, such as Martin Amis. She lost a baby and her last child, a son named Tom, was born with spina bifida. She describes her struggles to bring him up as normally as possible, but also found an army of willing childminders. Her middle daughter, who always seemed the most cheerful and well-adjusted, committed suicide when she was 20. She found late love with her second husband and lifelong friend, playwright Michael Frayn.

During happy times, the description of her music and book-filled life, with frequent trips abroad and full of big names, can sound slightly elitist. Yet she is often very modest and full of subtle humour. Although she names a few lovers, she is on the whole discreet about all the men offering themselves to the young widow as ‘admirers, consolers, wooers, romantics and would-be seducers’.

Claire has a breezy way of dealing with sad events in her life, dispatching them in one unsentimental paragraph. No self-pity is allowed to creep in at all, but her stoicism made me as a reader feel very uncomfortable. For example, about her last reconciliation with her first husband:

Nick grew more pressing. My daughter Jo was now twelve and I decided I should consult with her. I told her he was eager to come back and said I thought he would never change and that we could make a better life without him, and maybe I could marry a steadier partner one day. She listened, and then said in a very small clear voice, ‘I want Daddy.’ And I answered, in a voice which I made cheery, ‘All right – we’ll have Daddy.’

At times, this breeziness can descend into callousness, such as when she describes falling in love with Michael Frayn, who was still married at that point.

… Michael and I were now living together. Our long friendship, in which we had talked and confided in one another about our lives, had turned to love. It was an overwhelming experience. It also caused pain and difficulties for everyone. We tried to give up our relationship more than once, and never could. The situation was resolved very slowly through the generosity of his wife…

Maybe the previous generations are far less puritanical than ours (and the younger ones). Or perhaps this is the way to deal with things in life, to tell yourself a certain story and not agonise over other possible interpretations.

#6degrees April: From Memoirs of a Geisha to…

Only just got back from holiday, but I really want to participate in one of my favourite monthly memes: the Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate in Kew

This month’s starting point is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, which I read while I was studying Japanese at university, so I was really snobbish and dismissive about it at the time. There is an element of exotification the Oriental Other and a strain of soap opera about it which still doesn’t sit well with me, but it’s been a gateway to Japanese culture and literature for many, many people. Incidentally, if you are looking for a more honest account of life as a geisha in post-war Japan, Iwasaki Mineko (the geisha whom the author based the book on) wrote her side of the story in her autobiography Geisha of Gion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another book that casts a non-judgemental look upon what some call the ‘oldest profession in the world’, but without the glamour and rigid rules that have been associated with it in Japan, is G. B. Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s ProfessionHow do you come to terms with your mother being a former prostitute and now a brothel madam, when her money offered you a comfortable lifestyle and supported you through your studies? Well, although I am not a fan of prostitution, I certainly don’t blame women for it, so I think both Shaw and I disapprove of the self-righteous daughter’s shock and rejection of her mother’s way of life.

The mother-daughter relationship is such a rich source of fiction and memoir, so it was quite hard to make a choice for my next link, but Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain is a brilliant story about an ungrateful daughter whose mother has made far too many sacrifices for her. The film version is (dare I say it?) far better though (and I don’t often say that), with Joan Crawford being absolutely devastating in it.

 

One of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject of divorce and how to survive a cheating spouse is a volume of poetry. Sharon Old’s Stag’s Leap is ferociously honest, at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, chronicling the end of a marriage from anger, disbelief, grief to final acceptance and moving on.

…and I saw, again, how blessed my life has been,

first, to have been able to love,

then, to have the parting now behind me,,

and not have lost him when the kids were young,

and the kids now not at all to have lost him,

and not to have lost him when he loved me, and not to have

lost someone who could have loved me for life.

From a leap to a jump, Austin Ratner’s The Jump Artist is a novel/biography of the photographer Philippe Halsman, born in a Latvian Jewish family, accused of murdering his father in 1928 and freed after numerous appeals by friends such as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and others. He lived and worked in Paris until France was invaded by the Germans, then moved to the States. He became famous as a portrait photographer who asked many of his subjects to jump, because ‘when you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.’

One of the people Halsman photographed jumping is Stanley Hyman, Shirley Jackson’s husband. In the thoughtful biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin, we read that in the first take Hyman jumped so high that the frame only captured his feet. Halsman did not expect a sedentary scholar to be so competitive – and the image he did finally capture shows a person so self-absorbed and demanding (of himself and others), that it does indeed give us an insight into the tough-emotionally-yet-satisfying-intellectually marriage Shirley Jackson must have had with him.

For once, I have stayed largely within the English-speaking realm this month, and on the verge of biographies/real life stories. Where do your Six Degrees take you?

 

 

 

 

 

January 2018 Reading Summary

It’s been a long month, which is reflected in quite a good month of reading. 17 books (18 if I count the book that I read in both French and English), although I have to admit many of them were very short, more like novellas. 10 of those were in translation or another language (representing 9 countries), of which 3 books were by the same author, Cesar Aira. (Bless those rabbit holes…). 7 by men, 10 by women. 1 short story collection, 2 non-fiction, 1 1/2 books of poetry (I’ll explain about the half later). 4 definitely crime fiction, another 2 somewhat crime fiction. I am delighted to see somewhat more variety in my reading.

Bit behind with my reviewing though…

Argentinean fiction

I started off with the first title in the Asymptote Book Club, Cesar Aira’s The Lime TreeI enjoyed that so much, I promptly read another two by the author, The Literary Conference and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Strange does not even begin to describe the themes and styles of this author: it’s a world away from the magical realism of Marquez which I was never that keen on. Another Argentinean writer with a surrealist metaphorical bent is Ricardo Romero: his novella The President’s Room brought back all sorts of memories of self-censorship, of everyone knowing but no one talking, of not feeling safe even in the bosom of the family.

Crime fiction

Gunnar Staalesen’s Wolves in the Dark tackled the difficult topic of child pornography and abuse, while Nadia Dalbuono’s The Extremist (review forthcoming on Shiny New Books) is a political thriller with a race against the clock hostage situation but also hints at how extremism is born and reborn in the Western world. Mary Anna Barbey’s Swiss Trafic was not cheery either, showing how immigrants are treated in Switzerland and the extent to which human trafficking is hidden in that affluent society. Kate Rhodes’ Hell Bay, meanwhile, is a more typical police procedural, set on a small island, thereby creating a closed room mystery set-up.

The additional two that might very loosely be classed as crime novels are Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd (murders do happen, both in the past and in the present), and Die Stille der Gletscher (The Silence of the Glaciers) by Ulrike Schmitzer, an Austrian author who might be said to be popularising the science of climate change via a crime story and global conspiracy about scarce resources.

Cross-cultural and translated fiction

Tove Jansson’s Letters from Klara contained some very short stories, almost fragments of ideas or flash fiction, from this always interesting, stylistically impeccable author. I had a bit of a French binge with Marie Darrieusecq’s Naissance des fantomes (My Phantom Husband) and Leila Slimani’s Chanson Douce. It is fascinating, if time-consuming, to read books in both languages and see how they compare. I find the English versions a bit colder than the French versions, through no fault of the translators, although I always thought that the English were the masters of the ‘straight to the point, no beating about the bush’ style.

The last one to fit in this category was written in English but depicts a cross-cultural relationship, Leila Abouleli’s The Translator.

Most memorable

It’s been a very good month for reading, with a lot of the books in the above categories vying for the title of ‘Book of the Month’. However, the non-fiction stuck in my mind most this January. I absolutely adored the well-documented biography and sensitive interpretation of Shirley Jackson’s works by Ruth Franklin. I was mowed down and resurrected by the eloquence and clever use of autobiographical detail in Jodie Hollander’s poetry collection My Dark Horses. Last, but not least, I was amazed at the amount of work, passion, dedication and clever detail which went into the creation of the Hamilton musical, as set out in the wonderful book Hamilton: The Revolution, full of lyrics, stage notes, background explanation, mini-bios of cast and creators, and semi-memoir, with great pictures. It offers a brilliant insight into the creative and collaborative process and shows that no genius can operate in isolation.

Glacier on the Grossglockner in Austria. Just because they are receding in worrying fashion.

 

Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson has always been one of my favourite writers, although I had only read some of her short stories and her two most famous novels before last year. I now want to read pretty much everything she wrote, even her lighter pieces about being a mother and housewife, and this is in no small part thanks to this magnificent, well-researched and sensitive biography written by Ruth Franklin.

I haven’t quite finished reading this yet, but I’ve been reading it everywhere: during my commute, during my lunch break, in bed and any spare minute, as eagerly as if it were one of my most exciting crime novels. It is fluently written and very accessible despite the innumerable minute details. Yet, at the same time, it is quite sad and ‘haunting.’

Just like I used to imagine parallels between Sylvia Plath and myself when I was a self-dramatising teenager, I now see some similarities between Shirley Jackson and myself as I approach the age at which she died. Needless to say, Shirley outranks me in every category. It’s like a larger than life version of my pallid little life.

Domineering and overly critical mother? Check.

Feeling like an outsider at school because of a family move? Check.

Prone to anxiety and depression? Marrying a clever man because of his brains but then growing to hate him because of  his lack of kindness? Unexpectedly enjoying being a mother but resenting the time it takes away from writing? Enjoying one’s food and putting on weight? Check, check, check.

Now I just wish I could concentrate on my work and write at least a tenth as well as her. That economy of style, every sentence perfectly crafted. That subtle double meaning throughout most of her work. The never-quite-explained ending. Motivations left open to interpretation. The memorable characters. But she wrote and wrote and submitted and got rejected many, many times before she found success. Even when she started selling well, she was probably misinterpreted and misunderstood, as she was rather ahead of her time, as well as of her time (which her biographer demonstrates rather well).

I wrote about rereading Shirley Jackson for Crime Fiction Lover. And I am curious (and rather nervous) about the upcoming film of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But if you are a fan of her writing, then this biography is a superb read.

#WIT Month: How to Be Happy by Mme du Chatelet

Just got time to squeeze in one more author for Women in Translation Month and it’s the effervescent, smart, charming and loyal Emilie du Chatelet, who deserves to be far better known as a scientist in her own right rather than merely as Voltaire’s great love. Her slender volume Discours sur le bonheur (Essay on Happiness) has not been translated in its entirety in English yet, but there are extracts to be found in the biography by Esther Ehrman in Berg Women’s Series.

The portrait by Latour.
The portrait by Latour.

It was a bit of a fashion to write about happiness and how to acquire it in the 18th century. However, Mme du Chatelet’s essay stands out for its fearsome honesty. It was not written for publication and so is remarkably clear-eyed and candid, at a time when the author had laid to rest the sadness over ending her relationship with Voltaire (or at least the physical part of their love affair, for they remained good friends until the end of her life). She had not yet met the playboy Saint-Lambert, who was to upset the last couple of years of her life and (indirectly) cause her death. She was apparently serene and content at the time, and certainly had not lost any of her idealism. [All the quotes below are my translations, so apologies for any inaccuracies.]

In order to be happy, you need to strip yourself of any prejudice, be virtuous and healthy, have your tastes and passions, and be susceptible to illusions, because we owe a great part of our pleasures to illusions, so woe the person who loses them! Far be it from us to kill off our illusions through the torch of reason and remove the varnish they put on most things…

She distinguishes between male and female happiness, subtly pointing out how women’s subordinate position limits their capacity for attaining full satisfaction and happiness.

Love of learning is less essential for the happiness of men than for that of women. Men have endless other resources for happiness, which women lack. They have other means to attain glory, and it’s almost certain that the satisfactions of rendering service to one’s country through one’s talents, or serving one’s fellow citizens through the art of war or government or negotiations are vastly superior to the satisfactions of learning alone… but chasing after glory is nothing but an illusion…

The portrait by Largiliere, commissioned especially for Voltaire.
The portrait by Largiliere, commissioned especially for Voltaire.

Women are often encouraged, of course, to find their solace in love rather than glory, and Emilie admits that there is no greater joy if you are lucky enough to find that twin soul, that marriage of true minds, which she admits she did find with Voltaire, but such loves are rare, she warns, perhaps one a century. However, the careful reader (or one prone to melancholia) will detect certain notes of regret and wistfulness. All was not perfect even in this most envy-inducing of relationships:

I don’t know if love has ever featured two people so much made for each other that they never experienced boredom or the coolness that comes from security, nor the indolence and tepidness that seems conjoined with ease of access and continuity of passion, in both good and bad times… For ten years I was happy, in the love of the man who subjugated my soul and I passed those ten years, alone with him, without a moment of doubt or boredom… I have now lost that happy state, and it cost me endless tears. It takes an earthquake to break such ties and the wound in my heart bled for a long time. I felt sorry for myself but I have forgiven everything now. I think I now understand that my heart alone has got that constancy which defies time…

The official version of their break-up was that Voltaire (who was far more advanced in age) was no longer able to satisfy his mistress physically, but his dalliances with actresses and particularly with his widowed niece, who later went to live with him as his housekeeper and mistress in Ferney, would demonstrate that this was not quite the case. For a fascinating insight into this complicated relationship, I would recommend David Bodanis’ book Passionate Minds, although it left me feeling that poor Emilie was forever being let down by her male companions (although her father and her husband were surprisingly enlightened and understanding for their time).

Portrait by Marianne Loir. In almost all of her portraits, Emilie faces her viewers directly, unashamedly, a pose which was highly unusual for women at the time. Notice also she nearly always holds a compass or other elements denoting her scientific passions.
Portrait by Marianne Loir. In almost all of her portraits, Emilie faces her viewers directly, unashamedly, a pose which was highly unusual for women at the time. Notice also she nearly always holds a compass or other elements denoting her scientific passions.

This is more a personal memoir than a self-help manual, but there are echoes of the latter in the way Emilie muses about the importance of setting goals or, as she calls it, deciding the path you want to take in life, ‘what you want to be and what you want to do’, otherwise you are perpetually swimming in a sea of uncertainty and vagueness, full of regrets.

This feeling of regret is one of the most useless and disagreeable that a human soul is capable of.

So… echoes of the famous Piaf chanson, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. Perhaps this is the greatest wisdom I can learn from this admirable woman: I need not feel sorry for her, she led a good life and enjoyed it to the full. And, in the end, she made her mark in the world without the help of any famous male companions. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica and her theoretical work on the nature of light paved the way to the great discoveries in physics in the next two centuries.

I leave you with this touching scene described by Voltaire’s secretary Longchamp (and quoted in the Bodanis book). It’s February 1749 (Emilie was to die in on September 8th of that year). Emilie has found out that she is pregnant at what was then a dangerous age of 42. She becomes convinced that this will be her death knell and she fears not being able to finish her scientific work. She sets off for Paris (where her scientific papers are) with Voltaire in a carriage, but the rear axle breaks and they have to wait for hours in the cold and snow for help to arrive. Covered in furs and blankets, instead of despairing, the remarkable couple lay back beneath the stars and enjoy their last truly peaceful moment together.

Despite the extreme froideur, Madame and Monsieur admired the beauty of the sky. It was serene, and stars were burning with a most vivid brightness… Ravished by this magnificent spectacle spread above and around them, they discoursed – while shivering, I should point out – on the nature and paths of the stars, and on the destiny of so many immense globes spread in space.

For a modern-day interpretation of Mme du Chatelet and her proto-feminism, see the notes for this play. For a review of her scientific work, see Stanford University’s biographical entry. For a French take on it (and a much better translation than mine), here is Emma’s review.

 

Tove Jansson: Daughter, Artist, Writer

I was rummaging around on my blog and found the beginning of this post. For some reason I never finished it. It’s about two books that I got for myself as Christmas presents, that I read and loved throughout the winter holidays, and yet I never managed to review them. These two beautifully bound books (collectors’ items) are by and about one of my favourite writers, Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson, creator of my beloved Moomins.

Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.
Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.

sculptorsdaughterTove Jansson: Sculptor’s Daughter (transl. Kingsley Hart)

These are semi-autobiographical pieces describing Tove’s childhood, her artistic parents and the great parties they gave, holidays at the seaside, being snowbound in a strange house, being ill with German measles. But in actual fact they are slightly surreal prose poems, exploring the big questions of life, death, beauty and truth, danger and safety, and the importance of art. And all is described through a child’s eyes, with limpid clarity, elegance and understatement. Jansson is a sophisticated stylist, leaving out so much in both her painting and her writing, implying more than saying outright.

tovejanssonTuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson: Work and Love (transl. David McDuff)

Although I had read somewhere that Moominpappa and Moominmamma were based on Jansson’s own parents, I hadn’t realised just how close she was to her family, nor how many personal difficulties and disappointments she had to face in her own life. She was very versatile: painter, illustrator, writer, stage designer, playwright, poet, political caricaturist, cartoonist – and although she occasionally complained of writer’s block (especially during the war), her output was prodigious. But her biographer can speak much more eloquently on her behalf:

‘Work and love were the things that mattered most to her throughout her life – and in that order. Tove’s life was fascinating. She challenged conventional ways of thinking and moral rules in a country where old prejudices … maintained a strict hold. She was a revolutionary, but never a preacher or a demaogogue. She influenced the values and attitudes of her time, but was no flag-bearer – instead, she was a quiet person who remained uncompromising in her own life choices…. When she was still a little girl she wrote that “freedom is the best thing”. It remained of utmost importance throughout her life.’

I cannot explain just how much this book meant to me. At times inspiring, at times sad and haunting, it is not only the biography of an exceptional woman and artist, but also a powerful meditation on the choices we constantly have to make as daughters, friends, lovers and creators. How to be human. She deserves to be better known for all of her work: above all, for her pared down prose and great sensitivity. But I’ll end with the inevitable:  my favourite characters in her Moomin series.

Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From Rebloggy.com
Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From Rebloggy.com

Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From myanimelist.net
Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From myanimelist.net