Twenty-five years ago I went to Germany for fieldwork during my Ph.D. I was based in a small university town Marburg, and very soon I discovered there were two other Romanian girls studying there. One of them became a very good friend: we were both passionate about literature (both German and English) and were both in very new, very long-distance relationships that we weren’t entirely sure about. I had concerns about my boyfriend’s character, while she was more concerned about the age difference (she was three years older than him). We both ended up marrying our sweethearts: my fears were well founded, hers not at all.
Csaba was Romanian of Hungarian origin. He ended up embarking on business studies in Marburg himself, so as to be with my friend, although he spoke hardly any German at the time. He had been an elite athlete previously and we would go running in the woods together, and he also introduced me to Tai Chi. He was full of energy and humour, utterly devoted to my friend, sending her tapes with his voice whispering sweet nothings in her ear whenever they were apart.
They returned to Romania after their studies, had children about the same time as I did. I could think of no better people to ask to be godparents to my second son, even though I knew we were going to be hundreds of miles away.
Whenever we went to Romania, we visited them and our boys became good friends, despite the mix of five languages and cultures that they were experiencing between them.
Their older son graduated from secondary school this year, just like mine did, and planned to study medicine. They were justifiably proud of him, and trying to decide if he should study in Romania or Germany.
Early this morning, my friend sent me a message that Csaba died of Covid. It is hard to believe that a man like this, the heart and soul of every party, but also the most thoughtful and loving husband, father, godfather and friend, could just be snuffed out like that. All the adventures and visits and joint ventures we had planned… All the advice and serenity that his sons will never get a chance to experience… All the love and support that my friend is now left without…
I have no words. Other than: make the most of your life and your friendships.
This is Remembrance Sunday and for me that means remembering both those who died in battle, but also those who died as civilians in a war which is no longer confined to professional soldiers or geographically limited battlefields.
You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris (transl. Sam Taylor) is a perfect way to commemorate the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015. Antoine’s wife Hélène had gone to the Bataclan concert that evening, while he stayed at home to babysit their 17 month old baby, Melvil. A day or so later, Antoine wrote a moving open letter on Facebook addressed to his wife’s killers, which quickly became viral.
This very slender volume builds on that open letter. It is a collection of diary entries and reflections, a poignant story of life after loss, of learning to cope in the face of tragedy, and refusing to be cowed or to descend to the level of hatred and vengeance.
Not many people understand how I can so quickly get over the circumstances in which Hélène was killed. People ask me if I’ve forgotten or forgiven. I forgive nothing, I forget nothing… of course, having a culprit, someone to take the brunt of your anger, is an open door, a chance to temporarily escape your suffering. And the more odious the crime, the more ideal the culprit, the more legitimate your hatred. You think about him in order not to think about yourself. You hate him in order not to hate what’s left of your life.
There are so many poignant little details about grief here. Losing oneself in the routine of feeding and bathing a child, so as not to have to think. The home-cooked baby meals prepared by the mothers at Melvil’s nursery, which he never eats, because he was used to supermarket meals. Learning to cut his son’s fingernails for the first time. Resenting the meter reader because he represents life going on. Choosing the clothes for his wife’s funeral. It is unadorned, heartfelt and full of love, and it made me weep.
Watching from a distance, you always have the impression that the person who survives a disaster is a hero. I know I am not. I was struck by the hand of fate, that’s all. It did not ask me what I thought first. It didn’t try to find out if I was ready. It came to take Hélène, and it forced me to wake up without her. Since then, I have been lost: I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know how to get there.
There is no egocentric posturing here, it’s a simple account of grief and learning to live, while fearing the possibility of forgetting. We don’t find out anything about their jobs or politics. All we hear about is their love for each other, for music and for their child. A story stripped to its bare bones and all the more beautiful for it.
As for why he wrote the book:
It will not heal me. No one can be healed of death. All they can do is tame it. Death is a wild animal, sharp-fanged. I am just trying to build a cage to keep it locked in. It is there, beside me, drooling as it waits to devour me. The bars of the cage that protect me are made of paper. When I turn off the computer, the beast is released.
Michael Gannon is a doctor and a war hero, happily married and father of four (another on the way). One sunny day in 1962, just before Easter, while repainting the house, he has a heart attack and dies. This book is the story of his family after his death, but it’s also a condensed version of American history, covering a significant chunk of time (1962 to 2015), births and deaths, marriages and divorces, wars and grief. We travel with the protagonists from Southern California to Arizona, to Woodstock, to Massachusetts and New York, as well as London and Scotland.
We hear mostly from Michael’s widow, Barbara, and from the sensitive youngest son, Francis, who is just nine when his father dies, but it feels like we get to know and understand other family members as well: older daughter Patty Ann, who marries early, and whose oldest son Kenny becomes his grandmother’s pet; Mike Jr. who becomes a doctor like his father; Luke and Sissy, who leave home far too soon and never come back.
It’s an ambitious project, with many voices, so it has the potential to get very messy. Anne Korkeakivi, however, navigates this with elegance and impeccable prose. I really admire writers who can telescope several years’ worth of events but then also linger on a revealing detail. The chapters are not very long, and usually skip a few years, as well as switching between Barbara’s and Francis’ POV. There is a more lengthy part in the middle of the book, set in 1984 in the Inner Hebrides, where Francis meets and joins a group of friends preparing to sail across the Irish Sea on a mission of conciliation between Catholics and Protestants – with some tragic consequences.
This is a character-driven family story (and none of the characters are intimidatingly perfect, they all feel very realistic), composed of a series of vignettes of key moments in their lives. The sea runs through it as a theme, sometimes beautiful, sometimes agitated, now friend, now foe. Barbara deliberately banishes the sea from her life when she remarries and moves to the desert of Arizona. The tragic moments are sometimes on-screen, sometimes off, but we always see the long-term effects of grief and how family relationships can be impacted. We the readers gain a little extra understanding of events and people as the years pass, as do some of the characters. Yet the author also demonstrates that sometimes even the most well-meaning and loving family members can misunderstand and challenge each other, hold different political beliefs and personal values, which often drives them apart and only sometimes brings them back together.
I loved it above all for the precise, lyrical language; the dusting of poetry contained in the writing. Here, for example, is the passage describing Michael’s death:
A cool breeze. Then calm. He is not sure where he is. He is no longer walking along a body-strewn road in the Philippines He is no longer passing through winter, autumn, one season after another. He lays his whole body down flat; the breezer rushes over him. The ground beneath him feels soft and mossy. Rain begins to fall, and it is tender, warm, it is the sound of his sister’s voice… It is Barbara. Her bright eyes… her way of clasping her hands together when laughing.
He is home. He is home.
You’ve heard me say this many times: family sagas are not my ‘thing’. And yet I would recommend this: a striking portrait of an American half-century and a family which manages to be both average and remarkable at the same time. I also have Anne’s first book An Unexpected Guest, whose main character has been compared with Mrs. Dalloway, so I look forward to picking that up and losing myself in her subtle brand of writing again quite soon.
You may think it’s shallow to judge books by the author pictures. Yes, it is, and, luckily for most authors (myself included), I don’t. Until I come across two women writers who seem to have talent, looks and youth all on their side. Furthermore, they each live about an hour’s drive away from me. Let’s hope that there’s something in the local water – to improve my talent too, as age and beauty are beyond repair…
Sophie Divry: Quand le diable sortit de la salle de bain (When the Devil Came Out of the Bathroom)
Sophie Divry has caught the imagination of the English-speaking reading public too, with a translation of her first book ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’. That was a charming story of a lovelorn librarian and her passion for books and the arts more generally.
This is her fourth novel, as yet untranslated in English, and the story seems to be more anchored in present-day reality. And a drab reality it is too: we hear of the trials and tribulations of an educated young jobseeker (also called Sophie) in Lyon, who is trying to write a book and make ends meet by doing little odd jobs which pay late, and then cause her unemployment benefit to be stopped temporarily. Meanwhile, she tries to make the right (i.e. filling) choices in the supermarket when all she has left is 17.70 euros, sends off job applications, fills in forms, goes to the jobcentre, sells off her toaster and her books, fends off cold callers and tries to reason with bureaucrats.
Of course, this being Divry, the realism is tempered with some surreal touches. Sophie has conversations with Lorchus, her personal demon and the devil of the title, who tries to encourage her to steal or become a drug dealer or attack someone to rob them.
You need to make a choice, my dear. You’re either on the side of the winners, always emerging victorious, or else on the side of bacteria, crying over every bill and moulding away a little every day. Rethink your values. Free yourself. Honesty, sharing, sobriety – that’s all chicken poop. Are you going to listen to your Mum all your life? [my translation]
Meanwhile, her large family in the south of France are less than helpful (not that she wants to confide in them about her troubles), nor is her friend Hector, who is obsessed with the pursuit of the unattainable Belinda. Nothing much happens really: we just follow Sophie’s daily life, her anxieties, her frequently very funny rants about contemporary French society and its failings.
There is a faint glimmer of Virginie Despentes in Divry, not just because of the similarities in subject matter. Divry has less realism and more of a touch of Russian fantasy (I was thinking of Bulgakov throughout). I liked the way the characters intervened, demanded to play a bigger part, how the devil draws provocative pictures in the book, how she tries to get her revenge on him and her friend Hector. There is a tongue-in-cheek postmodern satire here which is rather delightful.
However, I found the writing style annoying at times: too much of an essay or a personal rant. The long enumerations – of how her family talks, what they eat, the men she doesn’t like, the list of anxieties in the supermarket – can be an amusing device and very effective the first time it is used, but when it’s constantly repeated throughout the book, it becomes just a lazy technique. The end was very abrupt and unsatisfactory as well, and the bonus material at the end did nothing to remedy that. However, there was something about the mix of candid depiction of poverty and rampant imagination which did appeal to me. I will be reading more of this author (I still haven’t read her first book, and have heard good things about La condition pavillonaire), and I am sure she will get better and better.
Michelle Bailat-Jones: Fog Island Mountain
One writer who already seems at the height of her powers is Michelle. Disclosure moment here: I know Michelle personally, and that usually puts me in a bit of a quandary. Will I lose a friend if I don’t ‘love’ the book? How can I be honest about a book for other future readers without offending a friend by not giving them five stars? And if I gush, will people think I am biased and disregard my review?
Well, all I can say is that this debut novel made me cry. It did help that I was in Japan in a typhoon at the time – and the story is set in Japan just before and during a great storm. But it’s a moving and beautifully-written story no matter where or when you read it.
South African expat Alec has been living in a small town in the fog-shrouded mountains on the southernmost tip of Kyūshū for several decades. He is diagnosed with terminal cancer and this is in fact the story of how each member of his family – and he himself – cope with the news. Alec’s devoted Japanese wife Kanae is normally ‘a woman who keeps her promises’, but she has an unexpectedly visceral and panicked reaction to her husband’s illness. He ‘is going to leave her behind’, she repeats to herself, and her rage and denial make her run away and behave in uncharacteristic ways, which she later regrets. Some readers complain that Kanae is thoroughly selfish and unlikeable, but grief strikes each one of us in such extreme ways. Only people with no compassion or imagination can condemn her (even though I feel very sorry for Alec).
Then Alec sneaks out of the hospital and everyone fears the worst: that he has gone off to commit suicide. With a tropical storm ready to hit the island, Kanae and Alec mount a desperate search for each other, scanning their memories and searching out their favourite spots, all the places that have hidden meaning for them, always just narrowly missing each other. Along the way, they remember their great love, a love from which their children have sometimes felt excluded, and find the inner strength – individually and as a couple – to cope with the diagnosis and its inevitable outcome.
…he knows this frightened face of hers, the one she wore when her children got hurt, when Megumi announced she was pregnant and alone… and yes, he remembers this same face, too, for their period of courting when it would sneak into their more serious conversations, when it surprised them both in a moment of happiness, and he is nodding at her now, able to look at her again, because forever is such a terrifying thing, but they have already managed one forever and they have done just fine with it.
Readers who do not like the use of the present tense or long sentences, with many subordinate clauses, will struggle perhaps at the outset of this book. But if you treat it as a prose-poem and savour each skilfully constructed phrase, you have to admire how the length and rhythm of the sentence acts both as an accelerator and a brake at different times in the narrative. I was particularly attracted by the additional POV, the neutral observer if you like, who comments on the events with the ease and perspective of an ominiscient narrator (but in a less annoyingly knowing way). This is a neighbour, Kitauchi-san, who seems to have a special relationship with animals, rescuing trapped and wounded creatures in the wild. She has a symbiotic relationship with a fox, which brings to mind not only the ‘taming of the fox’ in The Little Prince but also the ‘kitsune’ or fox spirits of Japanese legends. In Japan foxes often take on female forms and prove themselves to be wise and faithful guardians of their chosen families, although there is also a more malevolent association with evil spirits too. This ambiguity of animal symbolism, together with the fog and menacing storm, serves the story well and creates the perfect backdrop for much emotional drama.
You may argue that the subject matter has been done before, but that’s not the point. It would be far too easy to resort to big emotional fanfare and melodrama with this kind of story, but the author manages to contain it all with the precision of Japanese painting or a tea ceremony, in which each restrained gesture stands in for so much more. Yet I defy anyone not to have tears in their eyes as they read that last scene in the book. I won’t quote from it, as it needs to be read in its entirety for the full effect to trickle through you. Just stunning!
Jacqueline Saphra packs a lot into this slender debut collection of poetry (published in 2011). Deceptively domestic and personal, the poems take on a life of their own, dance with absurdity and shimmering wit, and leave an aftertaste of profound inquietude.There are three strands to the work, and they are neatly divided into Parts I, II and III in the volume.
The first describes a fairly typical British childhood in the late 1960s – early 1970s, with plenty of humorous detail: memories of the moon landing, watching news clips about the Vietnam War, half-forgotten family history from the East European shtetls, giggly gossip about sunbathing in the nude with a classmate, struggling to come to grips with the decimal system.
The precocious observations of a child are tinged with a grown-up’s wry remembrance of childhood fears and mistakes. Some are poignant (Target Practice), some nearly surreal and full of wistfulness (about her incompatible parents), while others are just funny and fiery.
The Art of Diplomacy
At three I learned to listen, not to chat.
At eight I counselled friends and sorted spats.
By twelve I was a bloody diplomat.
At forty I began to smell a rat
at last. I said to hell with that.
Hand me that baseball bat.
The second strand is about love and lust, the battle of the sexes and the pang of breaking up. The start of a relationship and these poems are sensuous, sexy, drunk on love, beguiling and ready to be fooled again:
so come on, loosen me
with daquiris, your mouth
against my ear and tell me again
that you and I are composed
of the same elements, that
there’s a sea inside me,
and you, too, are salt and water.
I’ll make up the rest.
But most of the poems in this section are about disappointment and animosity betwen the sexes. Small acts of daily warfare in a couple, as well as more dramatic acts of betrayal. In ‘Penelope’ (a poem inspired by Cavafy’s wonderful poem ‘Ithaka’), Odysseus’ wife hurls the loom against the wall in an act of rebellion and leaves Ithaka to search for her errant husband but realises, upon finding him, that he is no longer her destiny. The poetic imagination hits the wall of prosaic negligence in ‘After a Long Sleep’. Women’s subservience and desire to please are mocked and ultimately undermined in ‘Last Harvest’. This is a poet unafraid to voice righteous anger, confusion, pain – in a way which is all too often described as ‘feminine’, but is in fact universal. A jilted lover muses about her successor:
If she had the eye she would touch my mind, she would read
my scrawls, she would balk at my famished word, circling.
But she doesn’t have the eye. I have the eye and I have the greed
and she has my red wrap and she has caught you inside it.
The third part is about death and making peace with one’s loved ones. I suspect this is at least partly autobiographical, as the poet describes a mother who was once thin and glamorous, fun, but was abandoned for a newer, more demanding sylph-like model and never quite recovered from the shock. Over the years she seeks refuge in a string of boyfriends, which the now grown poet is disposed to think of more kindly at several decades’ removal.
I met these men sometimes. They weren’t unkind.
We’d nod, then part like co-conspirators
in some veiled plot to save her from the truth.
Now a mother herself, the poet shifts between the past and the present, the joys of breastfeeding, the almost overnight transformation from baby to adolescent, the anxiety about one’s child obtaining the driving licence. Her own experience of motherhood has both strengthened and softened her, has made her more understanding and forgiving of her mother. The poem about her mother’s last moments ‘Last Call’ is incredibly poignant: full of tenderness and the guilt of not being there.
The last you knew, you heard her swear
she loved you more than I: who knows?
Perhaps that’s fair enough: it was Death,
not I, who said a prayer,
who dropped the final silence in your ear,
your dark head cradled in her lap, not mine,
her bloodied fingers in your hair.
This is poetry of the interstices – simple, clear words, with so much breathing space between them that the readers can fill in with their own experiences, emotions, unformed words. If this is the poetry of ‘domestic preoccupations’ and ‘everyday life’, then give me more of it, for it touches us all!
I came across an article on the internet recently which made me very angry. The author was talking about how it’s the women’s fault if they are left holding the baby, that maybe fathers didn’t want them from the start. The tenor of the work can be summarised as follows:
Don’t come to complain to me about how harsh your life is. It’s self-inflicted: you wanted children, so deal with it. I do not blame errant fathers at all. Especially my errant father. He never wanted children.
This was written in response to that, as well as to the fact that many of my friends have divorced in recent years because of ‘errant husbands’, and is linked to dVerse Poets Pub Open Link Night. It’s also an exercise in the use of myths in poetry, which was my latest module for the poetry course I am doing.
Don’t expect us to be grateful, Medea.
Nobody asked for your sacrifice.
Jason would have coped fine without the scattering of body parts.
That’s when he should have realized you’re mental,
only thinking of yourself
under the disguise of undying love.
No wonder he found somebody new,
without the grandiloquent gestures.
He needed rest after his journey, bless him,
and all you can offer is barbaric revenge…
Agamemnon returned from Troy a hero,
having left me to struggle for so many years
alone yet not free
mourning the daughter he’d sacrificed for his mission, his ego.
It’s all about ego in the end, you see.
His spoils of war in the shape of a nubile wench:
his embarrassed smile barely veiling
the testosterone pride of middle-aged conquest.
‘You’d grown a little stale.
I’d forgotten how to let fun into my life.’
Was I really the only one to see the feet sodden with clay
When I first moved to London, I was shocked at the state of student accommodation (at least for my college). However, I was very lucky to find a spacious room with a bay window in the beautiful neighbourhood of Golders Green. I lived in the house with my landlady Betty, who was then in her 70s, but whose love of life, humour and vivacity placed her somewhere in her 20s, very close to my age.
Betty told me so much about her life, her family, about being Jewish, about war-time in Britain. We shared a deep love for films and music, for literature and for laughter. She gave me so much companionship that I never felt lonely in a big city and foreign country for a minute, even though I was going through some personal turmoil at the time. She gave me so much and all she asked in return was that I keep my non-kosher food on a separate shelf in the fridge from hers.
I only lived in her house for 8 months or so, before I set off to do my fieldwork abroad, but we remained friends. I introduced her to my future husband, then to my children. I kept moving around and kept inviting her to my new homes, but she was getting more and more reluctant to travel. We kept in touch sporadically via phone and birthday cards or Christmas and Hannukah. She was not on email, of course, and I gradually lost the habit of letter-writing. Fortunately, I did go to visit her in 2011, just before relocating to France.
This weekend I received a small card in response to the Christmas/Hannukah card that I had sent to Betty in December. It was from her sister, Sybil, to say that Betty had died peacefully in her house in Golders Green in the summer.
I find myself writing through tears. Tears of sorrow for the loss of one of life’s great originals. But also tears of guilt that I have been so bad at keeping in touch, that it took me so many months to find out about the death of a friend. Ah, yes, the usual excuses apply – the distance, the busy-ness, the cost of international phone calls – all those easy little white lies that slither off our tongue like maggots.
But when it comes down to it, there is nothing more important than your friends, than the people you love. Make time for them. Because some day it might be too late.
Bless you, Betty, and thank you. It has been such a privilege to know you. RIP.