Romanian Family Saga: Ionel Teodoreanu (Part 2)

This became such an epic long post that I divided it into two. In the first part, I considered Teodoreanu’s literary legacy and the plot. In this part, I will discuss the characters and their relationships, make more comparisons to other family sagas, and mention Teodoreanu’s controversial literary style. I do sometimes wonder why I spend so many hours rereading, thinking and writing a blog post that at best a handful of people will read and comment on. It may not be the best use of my time, but if I did not believe in trying to spread the word for Romanian literature (and culture more generally) against all obstacles such as lack of funding, lack of translations, but above all lack of interest… I would have given up a long time ago. Nevertheless, I persevere because I think it is a worthy cause… Te Digna Sequere and all that!

I imagine the Medeleni manor house to be something like this – not too grand, quite traditional in many ways, although this particular house is from the wrong part of the country.

Characters

Although Dan is the author’s alter ego and official main character, and we get to see many scenes through his eyes (in a close third person POV), it is clear that Olguța is the author’s (and everyone else’s) favourite. Teodoreanu fell in love with his creation and allowed himself to be carried away by her energy, exuberance and creativity. The author later admitted that he went for long walks in the countryside, weeping at the thought of killing her off, but that it was the only possible outcome. Almost like a comet that shines too brightly to last. She is one of the most appealing and memorable feminine characters in all of Romanian literature (and possibly beyond). I struggle to think of any comparable character, especially at the time this was written: imagine a Pippi Longstocking who grows up, a Maggie Tulliver who is not hemmed in by society. Perhaps Jo March or Colette’s Claudine come closest.

She is presented as a tomboy with jet-black hair, a demon full of mischief, yet also full of concern and loyalty for the people around her. She is quick-witted, well-read, interested in everything, sporty, rapidly picking up on people’s foibles and poking fun at them. This can come across as cruel on occasion, but she can also be far too trusting with the people she likes. Unlike with the Cazalets, there is no expectation that daughters are only there to marry and produce offspring. Olguța (always in the diminutive, as if she never quite grows up) is also remarkably free to get a good education and become whatever she wants to be – not sure if that was generally reflective of the upper middle classes in Romania at the time, or simply because of the highly cultured milieu that Teodoreanu was a part of. A couple of times the grown-ups around her lament the fact that she is not a boy, because she would have made an even greater lawyer than her father, so it’s clear that option, at least, is not quite open to her. She also rushes off to join the man she loves and they clearly spend a few happy days together ‘in sin’, without there being any huge outcry or disapproval either from the others in the book or the author himself – a very different state of affairs from Sally On the Rocks by Winifred Boggs, for example (I have just read a few reviews of that book). Clearly, the Romanians are closer to the French rather than the English in terms of ‘prudishness’ (or lack thereof).

Upon rereading the book now, I notice that Olguța can be too much at times: too loud, too expressive, too critical, too opinionated. I wonder if that comes from years of living in the quieter, more repressed British society. I wonder if Italians, Spaniards and Greeks might not find her excessive at all, merely high-spirited. I was often compared to her in my youth, and was criticised for my exuberance when I first came to England, but I wish I’d kept more of her spirit in my later years. Would Olguța have mellowed as much as I did as she grew older and had a family? Would she have turned into her mother – who is a bit of a Moominmamma, although she has given up her career as a pianist to do so?

What is interesting is that, although we are often in close third person POV with the other characters, even some of the secondary ones, we are not all that often privy to Olguța’s private thoughts. We see her opening the package that was mistakenly sent to Monica but was intended for her brother’s lover in Bucharest, and we see her interrogating the servant about it, then jumping on the train to pay her brother a visit, rather than page after page of agonising over what it all means and what she should do next. Until the final volume, where she becomes more secretive and thoughtful and sad, we see Olguța constantly in action, like the whirlwind she seems to be in her household. The very last scene of the trilogy describes a gust of wind passing through the orchard and the rooms of the old manor house, and Monica and Dănuț instantly liken it to Olguța.

Meanwhile, Monica, the quieter, more feminine, more beautiful blonde heroine, is almost dull, if it weren’t for her profound feelings of friendship and loyalty, her quiet determination and sense of justice. She is the diplomat, forever trying to mediate between the two stormy Deleanu siblings. She is calm and kind, the resting point for the extravagantly generous and passionate Olguța. There is something of the blank slate about the characterisation of Monica – as if she represents the ideal woman or ‘the eternal feminine’, as one critic called her, whom everyone likes to imagine slightly differently. In my childhood, I thought of the two ‘sisters’ as Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. But one thing bugged me: Monica seems the perfect maternal figure, yet she is the one who goes on to study for a doctorate – would she have given all that up when she had children?

Dănuț quite frankly annoyed me even more upon this reread than he did in my youth (and he annoyed me a lot even back then). He is so self-absorbed, so hypersensitive and needy, so entitled in every way… and yet, as a child, you cannot help but feel ever so slightly sorry for him when his younger sister so easily outwits and mocks him. Later on in life, he learns his lessons and becomes a much better person. He is at his best with Monica by his side or in his heart, although by putting her on a pedestal of purity, he is also limiting her options should she ever choose to behave less than perfectly. He needs an Olguța to cut him down to size every now and then. He is the quintessential dreamy idealist who rushes too quickly into things, takes people at face value and is doomed to be disappointed many times before he learns. Yet he will be the one who conveys the spirit of Medeleni to future generations through his story-telling.

Mircea is also an idealist, but he does not have the sense of entitlement and privilege that Dan has. He is straitlaced and conscientious, hard-working, unsure of himself, very self-critical. He tends to chew his pencils nervously, which earns him the nickname Hardmuth (given to him, of course, by Olguța). He is more pragmatic than the Deleanus (perhaps because he loses his father quite early on and is not as wealthy) – in a way, he is the one most similar to the rest of us. He has been uplifted by his friendship with the talented, lively, almost too good to be true Deleanus, but he is the survivor, the one who has made peace with the inevitable disappointment of life and what it takes to advance on the career ladder.

The secondary characters, the ones who play a small part, or who come to the forefront in just one of the volumes, are equally well-rounded and believable. Even the ones that you fear might descend into cliché (the vapid coquette, the stuttering amiable classmate, the horny fourteen-year-old) reveal further and unexpected layers. The one character that fails to convince me is Vania, although Teodoreanu does his best to convince us of the uniquely charismatic qualities of this rugged giant. To my adolescent mind, there was something of the Sylvia Plath attraction to Ted Hughes to this relationship between Olguța and Vania and I dread to think how disappointing it might have been for them both in later life.

One striking difference between this family saga and the Cazalets is the way class is treated, although no doubt in both there is a whiff of nostalgia which those ‘below stairs’ might disperse if they were to write their memoirs. It’s interesting that La Medeleni opens in 1907, which was the year of the (ultimately unsuccessful and brutally suppressed) Peasants’ Revolt in Romania, which started in Moldova, where the book is set. The event is mentioned in passing – as one of the arguments for why Moldova is declining and Dănuț should move to study in Bucharest – but it certainly was a defining moment for Romanian intellectuals, when they clearly sided with the peasantry rather than the government. It led to further land reforms (and all sorts of bans on local organisations), but above all it contributed to the ‘idealisation’ of the rural lifestyle and the simple, good-hearted folk, as evidenced by the Sămănătorism movement (grouped around the literary and political review Sămănătorul ‘The Sower’, a paen to rural traditionalism, neoromanticism and nationalism).

The relationship between Moș Gheorghe and Olguța (and previously Moș Gheorghe and Alice, Olguța’s mother) has that ‘lifelong faithful servant’ feel to it, but he is also a grandfather replacement, someone who has time for the children in a way that their own parents don’t always have. He is more like the governess Miss Milliment in the Cazalet Chronicles, almost part of the family yet not quite (although he owns his own house and small bit of land), and it is heartbreaking that all of the money he has spent on expensive silks and embroidered cloths as a dowry for Olguța’s wedding – he is the traditionalist who wants to see her married, clearly – goes to waste, because they end up rotting in the wooden trunk he had lovingly prepared for her. He is one of the best-loved characters in La Medeleni, and appears again and again in different guises in Teodoreanu’s work.

Other servants are not treated as kindly, for example pretty young Sevastiţa seems to become a rite of passage for all the younger men in the Deleanu family. One other person does stand out though: the cook, ‘Baba (Old Woman)’, has added to her traditional repertoire and is highly regarded by the whole family but particularly beloved by Olguța. She is kicked out by Mrs Deleanu while Olguța is abroad, because she is frequently drunk, but then shows up at the last minute before the girls are due back, convinced that no one else can give them the culinary welcome they deserve. Love clearly goes through the stomach for Moldovans, no wonder the cook is important, and there are many lovely descriptions of the lengthy meals they enjoy:

Olguța and Monica had forgotten the dimensions and duration of a Romanian banquet. Compared to the meals in France, the Romanian ones are like sauntering around in a carriage, as opposed to the precision of a journey in a taxi. By the time you reach the last course – which, incidentally, in Romania and in Moldova in particular, is the last but one – the previous courses are nothing else but vague memories, lost somewhere beyond the horizon…’

The Deleanu family itself represents an interesting mix of classes. Iorgu Deleanu and his brother were certainly not from a poor family, but not from an excessively wealthy one either. They studied hard to enter prestigious professions – one became a lawyer, the other an engineer – and they are reliant on their jobs to earn money to support a family in the case of the former, or an extravagant lifestyle in the case of the latter. It is Mrs Alice Deleanu who is a descendant of the Moldovan aristocracy, who owns land and property – but the author never brings up a sense of class difference between the spouses. Teodoreanu can be indirectly quite critical about the landed gentry, as in the case of Ioana Palla, who seems to have nothing better to do than to interfere and manipulate people. There are poorer relatives in the countryside, which is how Puiu ends up in their household: the clever little boy who needs to live with the relatives in the big city so that he has a chance to go to a good school and fulfill his potential. This practice still holds true today in Romania, and even in the supposedly egalitarian Communist society – my parents hosted and sponsored countless sons and daughters of friends and relatives who came to Bucharest for private tuition or exams.

The country house where Teodoreanu spent his summer holidays as a child and which inspired Medeleni is now a ruin, but the area surrounding it is a nature reserve.

Style

‘Metaforel (Metaphorkins)’ is the way Olguța teases her brother, and this is indeed what some literary critics at the time called Teodoreanu himself. Influenced by French symbolism and prose poetry, by the rural idyllism of Sămănătorism and the Moldovan love of storytelling (the Moldovans are best understood as South-East European Irish, who are either born poets or have kissed the Blarney Stone), and trying to capture a vanished way of life, it was perhaps inevitable that the literary style of La Medeleni can feel too rich, too ornate at times, and give you indigestion.

Despite the critics’ derision of what they called the ‘medelenisation of literature’, Teodoreanu achieves a balancing act that few of his interwar generation managed – the balance between the more traditionalist, patriarchal, Oriental-Balkanic style of storytelling and the modernist Western style. At his best, he can be extremely evocative and there are countless memorable scenes, appealing to all the senses, bursting with colour and movement.

The problem is that the book tries to be too many things at once. It is a family saga as well as a Bildungsroman, it is also an opportunity for the author to air his opinions about literature, art and music, or the shortcomings of politics and the justice system. There are far too many tangential topics thrown in, which have little bearing on the main story or even in conferring depth upon certain characters, such as the first case Dan has to defend as a lawyer (a controversial case of incest). It might be interesting (if uncomfortable from a contemporary woman’s perspective), but it just goes on for far too long. Same with the endless excerpts of ‘prose poetry’ from Dan’s notebooks. Stop, we get it, no need to insist…

This is one of the reasons why this trilogy will never get translated in its entirety (I’ve heard rumours that someone is attempting a translation into French at the moment, but nothing concrete yet). There is far too much that needs to be cut out, given a thorough edit, to appeal to modern readers. All of the literary discussion that was cutting edge at the time now sounds terribly dated. Unlike the Banffy trilogy, where the author was writing with the wisdom of hindsight of twenty or more years, or the Cazalet Chronicles, where the author has had to adapt to the sensitivities of society fifty years after the events described in the book, Teodoreanu’s world was one that he was still very much part of, even though it was beginning to disappear.

Nevertheless, as a portrait of a family and society, and as a description of a (rather privileged) country childhood, I think La Medeleni still bears up well. It may not have the social depth of the Transylvanian trilogy, or the appeal of the familiarity (for the British reader) of the Cazalet Chronicles, it may not cover as much ground as the Buddenbrooks, nor as dramatic a political period as Lampedusa’s The Leopard, but it is the closest that we come to any of these in Romanian literature.

HOLD THE PRESS for some just-in glorious news! The first volume has just been translated into English and is available from Histria Press. Huge thanks to Other Words Books, who did some exploration and found this momentous item of news and let me know about it!

Romanian Family Saga: Ionel Teodoreanu (Part 1)

I was going to write just one blog post about this, but it is turning out to be far too long, so I am dividing it up into two parts: Part 1 is about the author and the period the book is set in, as well as giving an overview of the three volumes. Part 2 will discuss the characters, gender and class, as well as literary style.

Under the Influence

It is almost impossible to overstate how much of an influence the Medeleni trilogy had on our childhood in 1980s Romania, although it was a book published in the early 1920s, depicting a period just before and just after the First World War (without actually talking much about that war at all). Maybe we were starved of nostalgic, escapist types of literature and depictions of children who could be lively, naughty, rebellious. Maybe we were just at that blushingly adolescent stage of writing bad poetry and falling in love with the wrong people. For me, as for many others of my age, it must have been the casual acceptance of travelling, living and studying abroad presented in the book, and the openness to foreign languages, literature and music, at a time when we were forcibly cut off from the rest of the world.

Suffice it to say that we used ‘which character are you?’ test just like the children of today might use the Hogwarts houses quiz to determine compatibility and alliances (I was obviously an Olguţa, so my account of the characters might be slightly biased). We played Potemkin and Kamimura battles in the schoolyard, although we knew nothing about the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Many of us had relatives in the countryside and spent our summers there, so the fact that this was a privileged family with a summer estate did not strike us as too strange. We all craved such close and understanding friendships… the only other series of books whose popularity rivalled Medeleni’s was the Cireșarii series, written in the 1950s-60s, a sort of socialist Famous Fivers (we loved them for their travel adventures and friendship).

However, it turns out we were not the first generation to succumb to the charms of Ionel Teodoreanu. He was born in 1897 in a reasonably well-to-do Moldovan family in Iasi. His father was a lawyer, his mother a piano teacher at the Conservatoire, his brother was also a writer and journalist. Ionel was a brilliant student and lawyer himself, married early (his wife was also a writer), had twins, and published pretty much a book per year during his creative period (mid-1920s to just after the war). La Medeleni was his first major work, published in serialised form, when the author was in his mid to late twenties, and it became an instant hit. Literary critics were not always kind to him (see the Style section), but he was an undeniable bestseller. La Medeleni has never been out of print, and has had many covers and different editions over the decades. His later novels never quite recaptured that early success, but he remained popular, especially among the ladies (he was good-looking and romantic, what more could you want?) He stopped writing after the Communists came to power in 1948 (both he and his wife were actively anti-Communist) and died in 1954.

In an interview dating from 1932, Teodoreanu describes how he spends most of the summer in a friend’s garden, writing from morning to evening, because the rest of the year he has to work (both as a lawyer and as director of the National Theatre in Iasi), and how being married is ideal for a writer, because it ‘simplifies’ his life. (His twin boys were eleven years old at the time, so I am guessing they were spending their summers mostly with their mother or grandparents and not allowed to complicate their father’s life.)

The author explicitly set out to describe an idyllic rural way of life that he feared was already disappearing. In the first volume, in particular, there is a similarity to the almost dream-like, yearning atmosphere of Le Grand Meaulnes. There are many references in the book to the differences between fast-paced, sharp-tongued, quite urban province of Muntenia (with its capital, Bucharest) and the softer, slower way of talking and moving in Moldova, with its predominantly rural landscapes. Iasi was a town proud of its cultural heritage, particularly its literary past, but in the newly unified Greater Romania after 1918, the author fears it will become a second-rate provincial town (he himself moved to Bucharest in 1938).

Plot, period and location

No fear of spoilers, since you will have read this book already if you are Romanian, and there is not a chance in the world that it will be translated. So I can give you the whole plot, prepare your tissues now! [Addendum: I discovered after writing Part 2 that Histria Books in the US does have a translation of At Medeleni coming out, so if you intend to read it and do NOT want spoilers, please skip the rest of this post.]

A signed first edition of the second volume of the book, dating from 1926.

The first volume (‘The Uncertain Border’) is set in 1907 on the country estate of Medeleni in the Romanian province of Moldova, not that far from Iasi, where the Deleanu family are spending their summer. Mr Deleanu is a lawyer, his wife is the actual owner of the estate, as a descendant of a family of Moldovan bojars – landed gentry. They have two children, dreamy mother’s favourite Dănuț (11) and sarcastic, hyperactive ten-year-old Olguţa, who is the apple of her father’s eye. As the story opens, they are welcoming ten-year-old Monica, shy and well-behaved, into their home, whom they will foster after the death of her last surviving relative, her grandmother. Not much happens in the book, or rather, only the typical mischief of children on holiday, and Monica harbouring a secret passion for Dănuț, but by the end of the book the uncle from Germany (nicknamed Herr Direktor) offers to take the boy with him to study in Bucharest, while Olguţa’s beloved family coachman/groom, the grandfatherly Moș Gheorghe, dies.

Teodoreanu has as good an ear for children’s dialogue and sibling rivalry as Elizabeth Jane Howard, as well as a knack for the well-placed detail of daily life. In fact, it was the detailed descriptions of daily life in the country home before the war in the Cazalet Chronicles which made me pick up the Medeleni trilogy again. Here too we are in the home of a fairly wealthy family, with servants, a vanished world that most of us are unfamiliar with, and yet there are so many little scenes that will sound familiar to those of us who spent any part of our childhood somewhat unsupervised and unscheduled, whether in the Romanian countryside or not – there is a sort of timelessness and classlessness to these memories. We find here descriptions of thin white sheets soaked in cold water and pinned to the windows to cool down the rooms enough to allow for some sleep. The children eat juicy watermelons and get told off by their mother for bad table manners. The children invent all sorts of excuses for wearing a new piece of clothing. They want to play at being grown-up and do what grown-ups do:

Mum dearest, please make me a coffee.

Beg your pardon?

Please, Mum!

Coffee isn’t suitable for children.

Why not?

It makes you nervous.

So why do you drink it then?

… It helps me with the digestion.

Don’t I have a digestion too?

You’ve got one without any coffee.

And you have nerves without any coffee, dear mother, Olguta whispered suavely.

The uncle comes to visit, bringing presents and gossip about the old days, they all dress up, run in and out of the kitchens and annoy the servants. Dănuț plays horsies in the garden with Monica, using her long blonde plaits as reins. Later, in a fit of spite against his sister, who he thinks put Monica’s doll in his bed to tease him, he cuts off the doll’s hair and never finds the forlorn little love note that Monica had put in its pocket.

A prettier edition of the trilogy

In the second volume (‘Paths’) we skip forward seven years and move to Bucharest for a while. Dănuț is about to start his final year of secondary school, living in his own independent little annexe next to his uncle’s house. He is very much in love with Adina, a coquettish married older woman, much to the dismay of his good friend Mircea, who is of a timid and anxious disposition. Dănuț persists in seeing Adina as an innocent, darling little girl (helped no doubt by her acting skills and diminutive proportions) and writes endless bad poetry to her – mostly in French, like the poets he so much admires. He has neglected writing to his mother and the patient Monica, who has become his friend and confidante, although he seems blind to the fact that she is in love with him. Olguța storms off to Bucharest to bring her brother to his senses, although she is much subtler about it than we might expect, and wins all of her brother’s classmates over with her frank, impulsive style.

Later in this volume, all of the actors, including their new schoolfriends, gather for the summer at Medeleni again. Mircea joins them, falls in love with Olguța, who also has another admirer in the shape of young cousin Puiu, who is, however, both attracted and repelled by superficial and highly-sexed classmate of the girls, Rodica. Rodica pines after Dănuț, who initially pines after Adina, but then falls under the spell of a neighbour of theirs, Ioana Palla, whose brother-in-law is a famous painter who ends up with Adina in Venice, in something of a Dangerous Liaisons type move. This is perhaps the weakest part of the trilogy, mostly because it tries to be a Bildungsroman as well as an insight into the artistic psyche of … let’s face it, a rather green and callow youth, with many pages given over to his prose-poems (all fashionable in France at the time, but rather derivative and pointless in this context), or to descriptions of womanly flesh and eyes and pouts. Despite its flaws, it’s a very funny volume as well, with lots of skewering of the pretentiousness and budding sexual feelings of adolescence. Ahough Dan might be the author’s alter ego, he has no qualms in presenting him warts and all to the reader: the universal teenage boy – self-absorbed, easily seduced, vain, a wannabe artist or writer, derivative, imitative, unable to quite believe in or control his talents.

But this is the summer of 1914 and of course the threat of war is on the horizon. Although Romania remained neutral until 1916, we know that the young boys we have gently mocked and grown to love will be conscripted very soon. As a side note, Teodoreanu’s younger brother died in the war, which is perhaps the reason why he chose not to show the war and its effect directly in this book, nor kill off any of the young men.

The third volume (‘Windswept’ or ‘Between the Winds’) is set in 1922 and suddenly a lot of the playfulness has gone. The girls have been to study in Paris: Monica has completed a Ph.D. on the poetry of Villon, while Olguța has trained as a concert pianist, and they are on their way back to Romania on board a ship, unhurriedly making their way from Marseille to Constanța. Dan is following in his father’s footsteps as a lawyer, but struggles with his conscience and idealism, and would much rather spend all of his time writing (this time in Romanian, rather than French). Mircea has become a teacher, a journalist and is starting to get involved in politics. Puiu too is a lawyer, of the more materialistic and earthy kind.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, Olguța (still known by her diminutive, although her brother prefers to be called Dan now) has fallen in love with Vania, a distant relative on her mother’s side, with family and property in Basarabia (the part of Moldova which until 1918 belonged to the Russians). He disappeared during the war, feared dead, but in a rather far-fetched plot twist, Olguța finds him on board the ship. He is wanted by the Russians as a possible deserter and political agitator, he has been travelling the world like a vagabond, and he needs to sort out his inheritance and land, which now is within Romanian borders, plus he is twenty years older than Olguța, but she is adamant she wants to be with him no matter where he might go. She briefly joins him for a few days in the very depressing, run-down town of Bălți (now in the Republic of Moldova), which Teodoreanu describes in very unflattering terms – but which is transformed of course by their love and happiness. They promise each other to elope to America together on a ship from Constanța on the 14th of September.

Most of the action then takes place in the Deleanu house, as they prepare to receive their beloved daughters back home. Once again we have various memorable set-piece scenes: a furious and funny present-giving ceremony, in which the servants aren’t forgotten either; or the hunting scene by the lake. However, everything is tinged with melancholy, not just because Olguța is secretly planning to leave them, but also because back in Paris, she had an operation to remove a lump from her breast and was told that if it reappeared, she might be in trouble. It does reappear, and she remembers that her grandmother too died of breast cancer, but not before she was taken to all sorts of clinics abroad, having various chunks of her flesh chopped off, and suffering more and more pain. She cannot bear to see herself or her family go through this ritual of false hope, so on the 12th of December, in Moș Gheorghe’s old house where she enjoyed so many carefree moments in her childhood, she writes her farewell letters and commits suicide. She asks Monica to go to the port in her place to explain to Vania what happened and ask for the engagement ring he was going to bring to that meeting, the only piece of jewellery with which she wants to be buried. But Vania does not show up at their meeting place. Instead, he wrote a letter, which arrived after Olguța’s death, to explain that he could not tear her away from her family and allow her to give everything up for an old footloose vagrant like himself.

One of the worst series of book covers that I’ve ever seen for La Medeleni.

But the novel does not end on this dramatic note. The epilogue takes place a couple of years later. The family, needless to say, has been devastated by the loss of their daughter, although at least they have the consolation of seeing Monica and Dan get married. Dan hasn’t been able to write at all since his sister’s death, and tries to work harder than ever as a lawyer, to allow his poor broken father some time to rest. Monica is teaching at a girls’ school. Mircea has married and settled for mediocrity. He finds the solemn vow that he wrote in his youth, when he first fell in love with Olguța, that if he ever were to become ‘like everyone else’, he would commit suicide – or else accept that his real soul is broken and his wings have been cut off… and quietly burns it to cinders. Saddest of all, the family has decided to sell Medeleni. The parents can no longer bear to go there, the memories are too painful, while Dan realises that he cannot afford to maintain the vast property, even if he were to work non-stop. The buyers are none other than vulgar Rodica and her rich banker husband, an act of revenge for being rather summarily dismissed from Medeleni in her youth (after trying to seduce Dan). In the Cazalet Chronicles, there was one last gathering at Home Place before it went on sale, but in this book, it’s just Dan and Monica spending one last day going through the empty house, haunted but also strengthened by their memories.

The days of the landed gentry are over, Teodoreanu seems to be saying. The hard-working professional classes can no longer afford to own such properties – and it’s the wild capitalists, the financiers, the industrialists and nouveau riche who are taking over. Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy offers a similar sense of nostalgia in describing a vanished world, albeit one with far more politics and protagonists facing higher stakes overall.

The Eighth Life (for Brilka) – Nino Haratischwili

It took me five weeks to read this long Georgian family saga, although in my (and the book’s) defence, I should say that I was reading it alongside other books. In the German edition it is 1275 pages long, but it was neither the length nor the style that put me off. The fact that the book has been shortlisted for various book prizes at roughly the same time as that other huge tome Ducks, Newburyport might make you fear that this is a worthy but difficult work, that you have to steel yourself to read.

The truth is, it is anything but that.

It is accessible, fun, entertaining, both harsh and sentimental, even soap-opera-like in parts. For those unfamiliar with the history of the 20th century in Russia and the Soviet Union, it is quite educational as well. I was reasonably familiar with Soviet history, but was captivated by the (often lyrical) descriptions of Georgian cities and landscapes, of their parties and food. It really struck me what a tortured relationship Georgia has with its bigger neighbour (and ruler) – very much like a marriage to an abusive partner whom you love and hate, envy and fear in equal measure. Sadly, it is impossible for a country to ever escape from such a bully – you are indeed trapped by your geography, and geography determines so much of your history.

Perhaps the main reason why I did not become fully immersed in the book and read it to the exclusion of everything else is because I always struggle with family sagas. There are so many characters to acquaint yourself with. I find myself growing to care about one or the other (I particulary liked Stasia and Christine, and Kostja’s story more than his character), so I struggle to move on to another character when the author decides to bring them into the limelight. I can cope with that happening over a long series of books, like in the Poldark saga or the Cazalet chronicles, but it feels too abrupt a change over the course of one volume, however lengthy.

The other thing that somewhat marred my enjoyment of the book were the passages that sounded as if they’d been cut and pasted from history books. I know it’s difficult to show the passage of time smoothly when you are skipping ahead a few years. Occasionally, Haratischwili gets this telescoping of time right. I particularly enjoyed her description of a Soviet childhood – a long list of memories, many of which I share as well: the limited range of toiletries, the Tiger balm, tinned fish and condensed milk being the only things in the shops, severely abridged films such as Angelique or the Count of Monte Cristo (and Bollywood), the difficulties and therefore pride in accessing Western music and so much else. Although Haratischwili is considerably younger than me (and the sisters Daria and Niza who grow up during that time), she evokes all the sights, smells, hardships and small joys of our locked-in world. I also enjoyed her occasional political rants – for this is Niza telling the story of several generations for the benefit of her niece Brilka – and what she is trying to tell is the story of the ‘little people’, the forgotten voices, rather than the story of wars and kings and leaders.

However, it’s those moments when the narrative pace slows right down that I enjoyed most. I found certain individual scenes or chapters most memorable: Stasia finding refuge in the mansion of an older cousin in Petersburg as she tries to find her husband during the civil war which followed after the 1917 revolution. Christine showing her face at a masked ball and unleashing fatal lust in a historical figure that I’m pretty sure is supposed to be secret police chief and notorious sexual predator Beria. Kostja’s single moment of bliss with the much older and wiser Ida just as war breaks out again. Ida meeting another Ida, a blind orphan and pianist, during the siege of Leningrad.

I’m really glad I read this rich tapestry of woven lives and feelings. I cannot say that it’s quite as amazing as I was led to believe, but there are certain scenes or passages that I will return to (and that I’ve marked with post-its). I can also see what the German critics meant about the idiosyncratic way in which Haratischwili uses the German language – it’s more flowery than most contemporary German novels, and certain storytelling elements (such as the curse of the secret hot chocolate recipe or the ghosts who appear in the garden) are more common in Turkish, East European or Middle Eastern literature. The piling on of bad luck and suffering on generation after generation of the same family is perhaps also less frequently seen in German literature. Yet I can see some resemblance to the Buddenbrooks, although in The Eighth Life external events play the major role on the characters’ lives, rather than their personal psychology or middle-class values.

I read the book in the original German, but it has been translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin and published in a beautiful edition by Scribe. You can read Lizzy Siddal’s enthusiastic review of it here.

 

China in September: Chilli Bean Paste and Noisy Families

A Chinese friend once told me: ‘We Chinese families are very noisy, you know.’ and I certainly spotted the contrast between people on streets in China (jostling, laughing, chatting you up) and Japan (carefully respecting the distance – at least, if you are a foreigner). Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Past Clan certainly dials up the volume on this story about a dysfunctional family in a small provincial town in Sichuan, a landlocked province in the south-west of China, renowned for its extremely spicy food.

The Xue-Duan family runs a chilli bean paste factory in this town and the main character (known as Dad, because it is his daughter who is telling the story, although it is in fact more like a third person narrative) is a bon viveur, who likes to smoke, eat, drink and mess around with women. He is also foul-mouthed, selfish and not very considerate of the women in his life (his mother Gran, his wife Mum, his mistress Jasmine and his daughter). Yet, despite the comfortable life he has created for himself, he is still envious of his siblings who managed to escape from their humdrum home town and the eagle eyes of their mother.

As the family starts preparing for their matriarch’s 80th birthday, and his siblings return home, Dad’s life gets less and less comfortable and old bitterness and memories start to resurface. By the end of the book, Dad gets a sort of come-uppance and the reader realises just what a sad creature he really is. (Although no doubt some women will feel that he hasn’t been punished enough.)

Interestingly, when the novel was first published in China, many readers were very surprised that the author was a woman, because they felt it was describing all too well the world in which men can get away with anything. Here is what the author has to say about that:

I wrote this book because, as a young female writer, I have encountered many, many men who have behaved in such an ugly way. I can think of many scenarios in my early twenties where, as a writer, I was thrilled — this was great material, it revealed the richness, the unspeakable darkness of human nature — but as a woman, I was absolutely traumatized. People often are surprised that this book is written by a woman. Actually, this book is a traumatized woman wanting to get back at those men by writing a story like this. It is venting, an expression of my anger, a therapeutic experience.

At first I was very angry. But it is important not to hold any moral judgement when you’re writing a novel. When I was writing this book, I passed no judgements on my characters, and I was actually surprised to feel the anger when I reread it. But I think my anger vanished as I wrote on. In the end I truly liked Xue Shengqiang. He is a misogynist, but once you get over it, you can see the other sides of him, his loyalty to his family and friends, his cowardice and kindness. In the end, I reconciled with him.

The book is full of local dialect and slang, so it must have been truly tricky to translate. I’m sure the ‘dude talk’ that the translator Nicky Harman has introduced is probably the closest stylistic approximation of this, but it does sound irritating (and perhaps too Western) at times.

It was fun, operatic, over the top – a sort of soap opera set in a rapidly changing town and society. Not my favourite of the Chinese reads this month (that would be Eileen Chang), but certainly more interesting than Shanghai Baby. One final little tidbit of information: the author now lives in Ireland with her Irish husband and has started writing in English. However, she says she refuses to write about China in English.

Feverish after Ferrante?

ferrante1I was impressed by Elena Ferrante’s fierce honesty and gritty style in ‘The Days of Abandonment’, but I avoided the Neapolitan novels for a long time. The hype, the marketing of it as a family saga, the sheer wordiness of 4 thick volumes seemed to me run counter to everything I admire and aspire to be as a writer: elegant and pared down style, hidden and allusive observations, modest and restrained topic matters.

But then I found the whole set in English at the local library, so I thought I’d give them a whirl.

The flashes of insight and genius which I’d glimpsed in the standalone novel were what sustained me for the first few chapters. 60-70 pages in, I scoffed: ‘Soap opera’.  After the next few chapters, I paused:  ‘Hmm, soap opera with gender politics.’ Halfway through the first volume, I readjusted this to: ‘soap opera with gender and class politics’. I never watch soap operas on TV, but I started to understand why my mother would: this made for compulsive reading. I finished the first volume and almost immediately made a trip to the library for more. And now I’ve finished all four in record time and am tempted to say: ‘political and feminist discourse disguised as a soap opera’.

Many reviewers have spoken of its ferocious howl of anger – but there is also resignation, resilience and ‘getting on with things’ in the most unheroic of ways. I have mentioned before how it reminds me of my female relatives: the trials and tribulations, small joys and greater pains of their own lives, the way they come together to support but also sabotage each other.  Events unfold at high speed, often with melodrama, blood, guts and tears, much shouting and throwing of objects, families and friends breaking off relationships for years, then perhaps reconciling for practical reasons. One of Ferrante’s brilliant abilities as a storyteller is to accelerate and slow down time at will, move from the overarching universal to the very particular detail and then zoom out again, in a way which feels very natural and effortless.

Picturesque Naples, from Raileurope site.
Picturesque Naples, from Raileurope site.

She has also been described as the Dickens of Naples. Yes, she conveys the noises, smells, charm and grubbiness of the city, she is unafraid to show its darker sides rather than the picturesque touristy bits, and she populates her pages with numerous vividly drawn secondary characters, but there is also a running commentary and analysis of events (through Elena/Lenu), as they occur, which is seldom the case with Dickens. Ferrante’s narrator shows a lucid self-awareness and hunger to understand, and the reader embarks upon the journey of self-exploration with her and gains her wisdom at the end of the tale. I am not quite sure that we get this level of self-dissection and clear-eyed, unsentimental analysis of those close to one’s self, even in David Copperfield.

One touching and very revealing moment occurs when the two friends, Lila and Lenu, both pregnant, are caught up in a major earthquake. Lila becomes surprisingly fearful and breaks down, trying to explain herself and her world view to her friend like never before (or after). She speaks of her need to control and manipulate things, and explains it as arising from her terror of dissolving boundaries, of being caught up in a messy flood, of something seeping through the cracks of reality (very reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s famous diary entry), of overthinking and overcomplicating things until you lose all joy in life:

…the fabric that I weave by day is unraveled by night, the heads finds a way. But it’s not much use, the terror remains, it’s always in the crack between one normal thing and the other. It’s there waiting. I’ve always suspected it… nothing lasts… Good feelings are fragile, with me love doesn’t last. Love for a man doesn’t last, not even love for a child, it soon gets a hole in it. You look in the hole and you see the nebula of good intentions mixed up with the nebula of bad.

Elena finally understands that perhaps brilliance comes in flashes rather than a steady lifelong light, and that she had been the stronger one after all in their friendship:

Everything that struck me… woud pass and I – whatever I among those I was accumulating – I would remain firm, I was the needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it. Lila on the other hand… struggled to feel stable… However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being… she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself. When, in spite of her defensive manipulation of persons and things, the liquid prevailed, Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth and she – so active, so courageous – erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.

elenaferranteI’ll be honest: Ferrante inspires me with mixed emotions. She writes in a voice which, despite my best efforts to be polished and Anglo-Saxon in attitude, comes through far too loudly and clearly in my own life. As with Javier Marias, I recognise in her a kindred spirit: she writes the way I think when I don’t censor myself, when I allow my Romanian side to come out. A voice which I have suppressed and perhaps slightly disparaged all my life. A voice which is easy to mock as too convoluted, messy and therefore inferior. A voice which has been misunderstood, laughed at, satirized or met with aggression and prejudice. So it will take a while for me to appreciate this voice – and I find it surprising that English speakers are so attracted to it.

At the same time, I feel exhilaration and liberation when I read her work. It is OK to be like this. And she also fills me with envy and the sadness of a missed opportunity. If in future I were to write the saga of my own extended family, farmers and shepherds in the sub-Carpathians, against the backdrop of war, Communism and then wild capitalism, with all the mixed messages about gender and family which have been the bane of my life… it wouldn’t be my story, because it’s all been done now by Ferrante in a different location.

Womanly Wit, Satire and Compassion

Two books I read in September (but never got around to reviewing) have stayed with me for similar reasons, even though outwardly they couldn’t have been more different. The first was a family saga of sorts, seen through the eyes of three generations of women. The second book was a satire, a series of interconnected short stories set in a nameless (but easily recognisable) international organisation.

The obvious similarity between them is that they might both have been labelled ‘women’s fiction’ – but of course that is a meaningless term. What they both brought to me as a reader was a wit at once fierce and yet tender. So if there is such a thing as women’s fiction, is it possible that women are more prone to sharp observation of character flaws, but also more gentle and forgiving of them?

hadleycoverTessa Hadley: Everything Will Be All Right

Family sagas are so not my thing (although I did go through a brief period in my teens when I enjoyed the Cazalets, Flambards and the Eliots of Damerosehay). But this book is more about exploring what it means to grow up a woman in three (perhaps even four) different eras, each one with its own challenges, opportunities and limitations. Joyce grows up in the early 1950s and wants to break free of the constraints of the housewifely existence she sees in her mother’s and aunt’s generation. Art school seems to be her way out of suburbia, but then she marries her art teacher and has children. Very soon, she learns to content herself with dressmaking, homemaking and a less than perfect marriage.

Her daughter Zoe disdains these compromises and grows up in the more adventurous 1970s, with expectations of gender equality. Yet when she falls in love with fellow student, the scornfully intellectual Simon, and falls pregnant, she too struggles with the ‘tension between motherhood and intelligent life’. Finally, Zoe’s daughter Pearl is still a thoughtless teenager in the late 1980s or early 1990s: the only thing she is sure of is that she doesn’t want to end up either like her cerebral mother or her domesticated grandmother.

In her Q&A session in Morges, Tessa Hadley said that this was the most autobiographical of her novels. She certainly describes all the permutations of female emancipation in a no-nonsense Northern family, with memorable characters and sensitive descriptions of complex mother/daughter relationships. Throughout, she casts a remarkably lucid and critical eye on the shortcomings of each generation – there is none who seems to have got it entirely right. Women are all still chasing after their illusions and learning to live with disillusionment.

The multiple points of view, although the shift is a little jarring at times, allow us to see each character, warts and all. It could be argued that the men are particularly covered in warts in this story – useless, unlikeable and, above all, unreliable. Yet often, in their unsentimental, selfish way, they see things most clearly. Here’s what Simon has to say about studying with babies:

He had not wanted this baby. He had always had a horror of a certain kind of semi-academic domesticity, PhD students turned whey-faced and sour-tempered over their grubby-mouthed and badly-behaved offspring; rented flats filled up with a detritus of toys; typewriter and books pushed resentfully aside to make room for plates of baby pap. It seemed to him self-evident that intelligent women with minds of their own would not make the best mothers: how could they bear, if they liked room to think and breathe and read, to be constrained as the mothers of small children must be to the sticky and endlessly repetitive routines of domestic life?

I don’t know if it’s a sad indication of things not having moved on very much, that women nowadays still have to make those restrictive choices of hearth and career, life of the mind or domesticating the body, that motherhood still reverts us back to gender stereotypes.

glasshousesShirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses

Shirly Hazzard worked for the UN Secretariat in New York for a number of years, but was also familiar with diplomatic service and British Intelligence, so she had quite a choice of ‘organisations’ and ‘corporate nonsense’ to ridicule. This was probably the first book to lampoon organisational man (and woman) and the absurdities of the bureaucratic world. Yet the author reserves her sharpest arrows for the stultifying, soul-crushing organisation itself, its odd rules and procedures, the way it forces people to pretend and cheat. So many great insights into how organisations with their pretensions and doublespeak grind down and dehumanise people, how only the mediocre and ‘well-adapted’ or sycophantic survive.

The people themselves are mocked with compassion, perceived perhaps as victims. We see erudite, gentlemanly but rather slapdash Algie Wyatt being given the boot. Geeky researcher Ashmole-Brown is made fun of but then publishes his results and hits the bestseller lists; Swoboda, a Slav refugee during the war, has made up for lost educational opportunities through sheer hard work – yet is denied the promotion he feels he deserves and loses all respect for his bosses. Idealistic Clelia Kingslake flies out to Rhodes to deal with a crisis – but finds that no one seems to care about or rate her peace-keeping abilities.

All this in an elegant, uncluttered prose. The anger is toned down, yet with sly asides – a very British irony which reminds me of Barbara Pym.

Clelia Kingslake was happy because, first of all, she was a Canadian. Fished out of the Annual Reports Pool at Headquarters… flown to Rhodes at one day’s notice, arriving there to sunlight and sea, to trees in leaf, flowers in bloom, to the luxury of finding herself beside the Mediterranean – all this by itself might not have been thoroughly enjoyable to her strict northern soul had she not come to assist in a noble undertaking. She had been sent to serve the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean in their hour of need, and it was this that sanctioned her almost sensual pleasure in her surroundings…

Have you read these books or other books by these authors? I will certainly be seeking out more of their work.