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.
After reading about the dreams and disappointments of a Brazilian housewife, I simply had to return to Shirley Jackson’s delectable yet barbed stories of domestic bliss. Raising Demons is a sequel to her first series of snapshots of American middle-class family life, Life Among the Savages. That first book proved so popular that she was begged to do more in that vein – and it is such a contrast to her dark, disturbing fiction, you will hardly believe this is the same writer.
It is mostly a light-hearted affair, with a deceptively simple stream of consciousness style, as if a gossipy friend is telling us about her day. Yet I can feel a tension in these cheery accounts of moving house with four children, family trips to New York City, the joys and woes of Little League baseball and a broked-down refrigerator.
On the surface, this is the dream that women in the 1950s and 60s were supposed to aspire to… but it must have been difficult for gifted women to achieve those almost impossible standards of married bliss and domesticity (straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting) and still have the energy left to create art or literature or music. Yet many of them craved both – but had been taught to expect only minimal help from their husbands! We hear about these almost schizophrenic impulses nearly tearing creatives apart, from Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton, Lee Miller to Frida Kahlo.
So there is an undercurrent of anxiety in Jackson’s stories. She alludes to financial worries and her husband’s complaints that they are all going to go bankrupt because of her extravagant shopping. You would never guess that her earnings from writing at the time were far outstripping her husband’s college salary. However, you might guess that he was controlling and tight-fisted when she jokes about the underhand ways in which she has to convince her husband to give her money for food ‘by a series of agile arguments and a tearful description of his children lying at his feet faint from malnutrition.’ Meanwhile, his coin collection grows and grows.
There are other hints of fissures within their marriage, with several sarcastic comments about the pressures of being a male lecturer at a girl’s college, or when he tactlessly announces the visit of an old girlfriend:
I said it was positively touching, the way he kept up with his old friends, and did Sylvia always use pale lavender paper with this kind of rosy ink and what was that I smelled – perfume? My husband said Sylvia was a grand girl. I said I was sure of it. My husband said Sylvia had always been one of the nicest people he knew. I said I hadn’t a doubt. My husband said that he was positive that I was going to love Sylvia on sight. I opened my mouth to speak but stopped myself in time.
My husband laughed self-consciously. ‘I remember,’ he said, and then his voice trailed off and he laughed again.
‘Yes?’ I asked politely.
‘Nothing,’ he said.
There is an even more pointed reference to her husband Stanley Hyman’s infidelities in the story of how he got invited to judge a Miss Vermont beauty contest.
‘Daddy is going to see a lot of girls,’ Sally told Barry. She turned to me. ‘Daddy likes to look at girls, doesn’t he?’
There was a deep, enduring silence, until at last my husband’s eye fell on Jannie.
‘And what did you learn in school today?’ he asked with wild enthusiasm.
This is the Shirley Jackson we know and love, always ready to plunge the knife in stealthily, when you least expect it.
I have no doubts some of the incidents have been exaggerated for comic effect, but many of her exploits and rants will sound very familiar to weary mothers everywhere.
Finally, after a good deal of worry I went out and bought a couple of epicure magazines, and leafed through them all morning looking for something exciting I could serve for dinner, and I found a recipe for a casserole dish based on stuffed cabbage with ground round steak and cashew nuts which I thought I could try… I decided to leave out the onion in the recipe because Sally would not eat anything so highly flavoured… I could not mix the ground round steak with rice because Laurie loathes rice. My husband could not bear tomatoes in any form, Jannie would not touch cabbage, and no one in the family except me cared for sour cream. When I had finished eliminating from the casserole what I had was a hamburger studded with cashew nuts, which was undeniably a novelty, although I am afraid that on the whole my casserole was not a success. Everyone carefully removed the cashew nuts and set them aside, and Laurie asked irritably if we always had to have hamburger for dinner.
These rants seem to be written in an effortless blurting out style, without any technique. But of course that is not the case. Shirley Jackson was a master stylist, carefully deliberating every word, and even if these stories were churned out much faster than her darker stories or novels, they are still full of rhythm and little darts landing in precisely the right spot.
Jackson certainly does not romanticise motherhood, and clearly longs for some time away from her brood. She is an inept housekeeper and pokes fun at herself for that. Behind the fatigue and exasperation, however, we detect a sense of wistfulness, a fear that they are growing up too quickly, and an ear well-tuned to her children’s vocabulary, fears and wishes.
The barbs are fully in place when she describes the ‘joys’ of being a faculty wife. So much so that the college president told her husband off for allowing the publication of the book.
A faculty wife is a person who is married to a faculty. She has frequently read at least one good book lately, she has one ‘nice’ balck dress to wear to student parties, and she is always just the teensiest bit in the way… She is presumed to have pressing and wholly absorbing interests at home… It is considered probable that ten years or so ago she had a face and a personality of her own, but if she has it still, she is expected to keep it decently to herself.
I was not bitter about being a faculty wife, very much, although it did occur to me once or twice that young men who were apt to go on and become college teachers someday ought to be required to show some clearly distinguishable characteristic, or perhaps even wear some large kind of identifying badge, for the protection of innocent young girls who might in that case go ont o be the contented wives of furniture repairmen or disc jockeys or even car salesmen…
I put in four good years at college, and managed to pass almost everything, and got my degree and all, and I think it was a little bit unkind of fate to send me back to college the hard way, but of course there were things I might have done – or, put it, people I might have married – which would have landed me in worse positions. Bluebeard, anyway.
We know that Jackson suffered from depression and agoraphobia later in life, that she and her children felt occasionally ostracised by the small-town community. In these stories, however, she shows us her funny side, the imaginative and quick-witted mother that her children would remember with delight.
With an unwitting stroke of irony, this book was shelved, thanks to its promising title, under ‘mood-boosting books’ at my local library. I did wonder a little at that, as past experience with Alice Munro had acquainted me with her sharp eye for dissecting trouble under a seemingly happy façade…
And sure enough, this was another collection of stories with brutal themes – families destroyed by anger and resentment, wrestling for control, manipulation and deceit. Her style is, as always, cool and collected, all about controlled fury rather than rants, about women’s hidden strengths and men’s visible weaknesses, the cruelty of children and the countless small hurts which add up to a lifetime of cracks and fissures.
The title story is about a real person, Sophia Kovalevsky, the first Russian female mathematician and the first woman to hold a professorial chair at a North European university (in Sweden). Munro riffs on the challenges and possibilities of this extraordinary woman, ‘full of glowing and exceptional ideas’, who was both politically engaged and also a prose writer, and who died at the age of forty-one.
We do get to see Sophia’s family in this story, but other stories are much more explicitly about those ties which bind us. And the family is not seen as a place of harbour and refuge in Alice Munro’s world. In fact, quite the opposite: men as dominant bullies taking advantage of young girls who then wreak revenge (‘Wenlock Edge’), men and women as more or less subtle murderers (in ‘Dimensions’ or ‘Free Radicals’), children teasing or harassing those who are different to themselves (‘Face’ or ‘Child’s Play’), first wives being abandoned , families reforming and mothers feeling disappointed about their offspring (‘Deep-Holes’ and ‘Fiction’). These are all people I would hate to encounter in real life… and yet I probably have.
Often described as ‘stark and unflinching’, you can certainly understand why this dissection of modern family life is disturbing and unforgettable. I cannot read too much of her in one go, I have to admit. Add to this the fact that Munro often edits her stories quite extensively between the first publication (usually in a literary journal) and the final appearance in a collection, and you can see just sharp her scalpel is, and how precise and exquisite her style.
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.
Haibun Monday For dVerse Poets we are writing a haibun based on a lesser-known painting by Van Gogh. For more information about this poetic form, please visit dVerse Poets Pub, where you will meet many talented poets of all ages, experience and taste. As for the title of the poem: ‘postliminary’ is the opposite of ‘preliminary’ – something that occurs after the fact.
Post-holidays, post-weekend, the party’s over, the curtains drawn.
Sweep floors, fold laundry, sigh over undone homework and chores. The clatter clutter glitter mutter of video games on a loop and on sufferance. I don’t want to be the mother that forbids. I don’t want to be parent with the unpopular principles, old-fashioned moans, the terror reign of rules.
I dream of a walk in autumnal country fields, swish-detour through the leaves. I dream of a time when you sought my company, when ‘Mama’ was spoken without reproach. Our laughter mingling, our hands meeting, grubby faces to be kissed. Tell me of your hopes, your fears, the mere dull niggle of the everyday. Debate a book, a film or life, open up your eyes and mind to breathe in all, to question but love. In front, the distant hum of the village, fattened to post-prandial languor. To the right the church tower is but a squiggle, the bell tone playful not grave. Ahead of us a horizon I want limitless and full of sunrays for you.
Like the fields we stretch
away to gold and gray. Look –
how near how far the change!
Over at dVerse Poets, Abhra is urging us to write about our own cultural heritage via the uniqueness of our food and recipes. I thought I’d attempt something different: a prose-poem of sorts about experiencing Romanian food as an outsider, a child who had spent most of her life abroad.
You’ve Never Had Anything Like This
‘You’ve never had anything like this before.’
Uh-oh, here it comes, with warning lights!
As if I’d fall for tricks like that again. They’ve said it before, they can say it again. Too many times.
Usually, it involves something that looks like dog’s vomit covered in mayo.
Or meat wrapped up – for no good reason – in cabbage that’s gone off. They fill my mouth with sour revenge. For living abroad, for escaping them for ten months a year.
But this time, it’s a dessert. I have a sweet tooth, which I’m not allowed to acknowledge. However, this time… my carrot-munching, sugar-banning mother isn’t around. And even she cannot control what my aunt gives me in her own home.
I move in closer.
It’s foamy-white and quivers at the bottom of a bowl. I sink a spoon into its springiness and scoop it into my mouth. It melts on my tongue with creamy-egged smoothness and lingering longings of vanilla.
Today I reached my reading target for the year: 150 books. So everything else from here on is a bonus. But what a book to finish my challenge on!
It’s the story of a family haunted by coldness, lack of communication, lack of love and overflow of sadness entitled (ironically) ‘On ne voyait que le bonheur’ (All you could see was the happiness) by Grégoire Delacourt, which has just been published this rentrée littéraire (the autumn publishing frenzy in France, just ahead of all the literary prizes). Delacourt is a PR specialist/copywriter who started writing at the age of 50. He achieved considerable success in France with his second novel ‘La Liste de mes envies’ (The List of My Desires) – which has since been adapted for the theatre and film – about a lottery-winner, and some notoriety with his third novel ‘La Premiere chose qu’on regard’, featuring a Scarlett Johansson double, which the American actress did not appreciate and for which she took the French publisher to court.
This fourth book is fiction, but you might be forgiven at first for thinking that it’s a misery memoir. It’s the story of a seemingly boring insurance expert nearing middle age, Antoine, who muses about his unhappy childhood and the impact it has had on his own life and parenting skills. But misery memoirs are miserable only when they are badly written; when deftly handled and improved by the lack of constraints of fiction, they transcend the specific details and allow the reader to identify with the universal emotions and truths expressed therein.
It starts off deceptively low-key. Antoine sounds like a pessimistic sod, but perhaps for good reason. His job is to investigate insurance claims and car accidents, making sure that the payout is minimal for the insurance company he works for. In the process, he has to ignore people’s heartbreak and suffering. He berates himself for being a coward, for not having any integrity, for not standing up for the oppressed little man. Bit by bit, through slivers of pictures and scenes from the more distant and more recent past, we discover his unhappy childhood. His parents were terribly mismatched: a cold, clinical father who never shared his heart or secrets or games with his children. A Madame Bovary type of mother, clinging to her illusions, cigarettes and Sagan novels. Twin sisters five years younger than him, much more his parents’ darling than he ever was – until the day when one of them dies in her sleep. The other twin then develops a strange speech impediment, losing half of her words, while the mother abandons the family, never getting in touch again. Antoine and his little sister cling to each other in a touching story of sibling love and protection.
So far so plausibly grim, you might think. In the first part of the book the first person narrator (Antoine) is addressing his son Leon, trying to explain how he ended up being the kind of father he was, how he met his future wife and Leon’s mother, how they tried to play at happy families for a while. There is a lot in the book about the gap between appearances and reality, between façade and the unhappiness or darkness lurking underneath. But then the book descends into the shocking, the unthinkable, and it becomes deeply disturbing. Especially to a parent. Most especially to a parent who feels not entirely confident that they are always providing their children with all the love, opportunities, attention and balance that they deserve. (So that would be all of us, then.) There are a lot of loving details in the memories Antoine has of his mother and yet:
Un jour, je lui ai demandé si elle m’aimait et elle a repondu à quoi ça sert. Aucun enfant ne devrait entendre ça. Ca m’a tué. Je veux dire, c’est ce qui a commencé à me tuer.
On day I asked her if she loved me and she replied: what’s the use. No child should have to hear that. It killed me. Or rather, that’s what started to kill me. (my translation)
The second part of the book is more about Antoine’s gradual redemption abroad, in an isolated and very poor part of the world, while the third part is written by his daughter Josephine. It’s a very powerful story about the fear of loving and the need to feel loved, but also about forgiveness, about understanding the reasons for extreme behaviours which we usually condemn. It was an emotionally wrenching read, but also strangely fascinating. I found myself unable to concentrate on much else until I had finished the book.
One final word on the author’s predilection for list-making. At many points in the book, you find whole pages of phrases or sentences repeating certain rhythms, words or structures. Of the type (my translation and slight cutting):
In the photos, you can’t see how overcooked the fish was. You can’t see the false compliments: yes, it was perfect. You can see our new car. You can see me, stupidly proud, next to the car. You can see the Barbie tricycle. You can see Josephine and Nathalie in the bathtub. You can see Anna and her husband Thomas in our tiny garden, next to a faded hyacinth. You can’t see my mother. You can’t see the lies. You can’t see the baby that Nathalie hadn’t wanted to keep the year before because she wasn’t sure she loved me anymore. You can’t see my tears at the time. My nights spent on the couch. My insomnia. The beast that was awakening. All you could see was the happiness.
And there are many, many more like that throughout the book. Is Delacourt just being stylistically lazy, or does the gradual piling up of details and the repetitions add to the layering on of emotions? It’s certainly an effective way of presenting the disparate, almost pointillistic thoughts that both Antoine and his daughter have – reminding me of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness technique.
In summary, a haunting, compelling, gut-squeezing read, an opportunity to end my reading challenge with a bang, not a whimper!
… after we returned from the summer holidays and all through the house… cobwebs and dust bunnies were having a party. The washing-machine was churning at full pitch, the fridge had started humming but was bare and hungry. ‘Twas the weekend before school started, so lists were pinned up, checked and found wanting. Protractors had been bought and lost, felt-tip pens had become separated from their lids and were gasping for rehydration. School clothes and pencil cases begging to be legibly marked with the child’s name. Not for the first time, I wished we had given our children shorter names. Shoes had been miraculously outgrown during the holidays. Haircut appointments needed to be made. Telephone messages listened to, some of them requiring replies. Several bills had floated into our postbox and needed rather urgent payment. Above all, we needed food. But supermarkets on a Saturday are a nightmare. I braced myself for battle with wonky trolleys, careless people chatting in front of the aisles I needed to access, the endless queues at the cashier…
I drag the shopping bags inside the house to find those two bouquets waiting for me. Soundlessly. Shyly. I wonder. I approach them gingerly. I see a little note: ‘Happy anniversary, darling!’ It’s the first time since we got married that I had completely forgotten our wedding anniversary. I thought forgetting was something that men did. Or at least my man. And, just as I call out, blushing, my family rushes downstairs in an avalanche of love. One bouquet, they explain amidst giggles and gurgles, was not enough – they could not agree which one was nicer: romantic or exotic. Finally, they decided that Mama was both.
Samuel Peralta is hosting at the dVerse Poets Pub (sadly, for the last time) and he has asked us for a prose poem. Not quite sure if this qualifies – I fear it’s more prose than poetry. But one celebration I haven’t forgotten is Chinese New Year: Happy Year of the Wooden Horse, everyone!
Written just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this book by Birgit Vanderbeke is both domestic and allegorical, examining how all revolutions start with one small act of insubordination.
The story is deceptively simple. A brother and sister and their mother are waiting for the head of the family to show up for supper. They are having mussels, a food none of them like very much, but which is their father’s favourite meal. It is a special occasion, they tell each other, father is having a business meeting which may well end in a promotion. As they sit and wait, we find out more and more about this apparently ordinary German family, about the parents’ escape from East Germany and the back-breaking menial jobs their mother had to endure in order to support their father’s studying. The author does an excellent job of describing the public charm and private horror of an inflexible, tyrannical man, but she doesn’t spare the mother either. From the daughter-narrator’s point of view, her mother has colluded with her oppressor, switching to ‘wifey mode’ to appease and soothe him. Yet only a few pages further, we discover that the daughter herself likes to be thought of as ‘Daddy’s girl’ and takes sides with her father to mock the other two members of the family. The dictator’s policy of divide and conquer seeps in gradually, poisoning everything in sight. The more we find out, the more we discover this is a family reigned by fear and despair.
Presented as an ongoing interior monologue (much of it in just one paragraph), the book is an easy read, partly because of its brevity, but also because of its subtle humour and contradictory statements. Yet for anyone who has lived in a non-democratic society or in an abusive family, it is a painful read. It works perfectly well on both levels, describing the gradual descent from praiseworthy public ideals to subverted, selfish interpretations. Thus, the father’s vision of ‘a proper family’ ends in constant criticism and disappointment that his flesh-and-blood children do not live up to his ideal. His desire to be ‘doing things together’ ends in him spoiling the atmosphere and blaming everyone else when things are not quite perfect. And ‘investing in the children’s future’ becomes a pointless exercise involving an expensive stamp collection that no one is interested in.
Communism failed not because it didn’t have inspirational ideas, but because it refused to take into account human nature when putting them into practice. Marriages and families fail because we cannot allow the others to be themselves. A valuable lesson, presented in an intriguing way, with an ending that is stunning in its shocking simplicity.
I read this as part of my 2013 Translation Challenge and on that note, let me make one small aside. I was sharing this book and my delight that Peirene Press is making such work more available to an English-speaking audience with a group of aspiring or even published writers based here in the Geneva area. I bemoaned the fact that there have been few translations into English of world literature so far, and commented how pleased I was to see some new initiatives.
Their reaction surprised me a little. OK, a lot!
They said that no wonder that German and French publishers translate so much literature from the UK and the US, because that’s where the best work is produced. (Never mind that they also translate from many other languages.) And that they themselves cannot be bothered to read literature from other countries, because the style is too different ‘from our own’. Bear in mind that this is not a random group of expats, but keen readers and aspiring writers, who have been living in the local area for many years and usually speak the language very well. The lack of curiosity and insularity perhaps explains why so little contemporary fiction is being translated into English. It saddens me, because it feels like people are deliberately limiting their horizons, but what do you think?