Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters

Last month I read two memorable novels about the fraught relationship between parents and children. The first, Ioanna Karystiani’s Back to Delphi (transl. Konstantine Matsoukas), is about mothers and sons trying (and mostly failing) to understand and forgive each other. The second, Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman is at least partly about the damage forceful fathers can wreak on their daughters (although it is also about college cliques and not quite fitting in).

Back to Delphi is the more poetic title in English, but the Greek original is actually ‘Sacks’ and refers to the mental baggage we all carry with us. It is the story of Viv Koleva ‘fifty two years of weariness and seventy-eight kilos of sadness’, who is desperate to reconnect with her son Linus, who is on a brief furlough from prison, where he is serving a life sentence for rape and murder. She takes him on a trip to Delphi, out of a misguided conviction that seeing the beauty of Ancient Greek sculptures and architecture will give him a reason to live, somehow turn him into a better person.

– Archaeology requires and provides knowledge, imagination, inspiration, adventure, it obliges a mind to take a reprieve from reality, to not go moldy inside four walls, she said with zest…

Flashbacks show us Viv’s life as a young woman, how she abandoned her medical studies when she met Linus’ father and got pregnant, how she single-handedly started a successful retail business, while her husband sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism and feelings of inadequacy. When her husband dies prematurely, we understand how she pinned all her expectations on her son, how she wanted to offer him the best possible life. After her son’s crimes are discovered and he is sentenced, she is shunned by neigbours, friends and even family, because ‘in every crime, along with the accused, society also tried the mother.’ She has to move several times, pretend to be someone else, change her job. We start to sympathise with her and feel that the son’s monosyllabic utterances and sulking as they walk around Delphi are a bit exaggerated.

However, about halfway through the book, we are suddenly plunged into the son’s point of view, and at first it feels like a violent shock to the system. However, if you can read past the first few paragraphs, you start to understand how Linus grew up the way he did, how his parents always wanted him to be quiet, never really listened to him or responded to his needs. They were too self-absorbed in their business, their difficult relationship, their hard lives. His godmother, supposedly his mother’s best friend, filled him with fear and loathing. He felt abandoned, orphaned in every sense of the word. In his teens, he is awash with self-loathing and depression, and recognises some of those impulses in his mother, although that doesn’t make him understand or forgive her.

Linus was certain that from time to time, Viv was stewing in the same dark juice, turning her back on opportunities, organizing defeats, practicing her talent for frustration and long-term despondency. Mother and son filled with energy for misery. If only he had one… two… three siblings to help carry the heavy nothingness and the abundant loneliness, more kids should mean smaller portions of orphanhood for each.

The crimes Linus commits are horrific and it is painful to watch how torn his mother is between disgust and guilt as she starts to suspect he is the one committing them. Yet, as we move back to Delphi in the present-day, you cannot help but wish, as a reader, that the two of them will somehow be able to communicate with each other for the first time. However, this is not a Hollywood movie and the journey there is extremely bumpy, with no certainty of arrival. The recognition of past mistakes is a very painful, though necessary first step, but it’s only a small step to rebuilding trust, finding the ability to love and forgive.

… she reconsidered the spoiled part. The truth was her hands didn’t often touch her child, not when he was young and not when he grew up and her lips didn’t kiss his hair much and her eyes didn’t enfold him tenderly and her voice didn’t come out in stories and gentle words. The spoiling was done via her wallet and the deep fryer, a generous allowance and lots of french fries, till he finished high school the deep fryer was working overtime.

This was an extremely difficult book to read as a mother in general, and as a mother of boys in particular, because no matter how well you think you are communicating, no matter how close you think you are, there is still something about the young man in front of you that remains unknowable and slightly frightening. And you know that society places the onus far more on you than on any father figure for the way you raised your child. Any of their flaws and inexplicable impulses are a reflection on you; psychoanalysts and the press, as well as public opinion, will put you on trial. Aside from the particular circumstances between this mother and son couple, the novel also shows the ways in which completely honesty, transparency and understanding is impossible even between those we consider closest – and that perhaps it is even undesirable or unbearable to share every single thought.

Every story has blanks, some are common to all the participants in its plot. Each one, though, has a few that only he has noticed, that don’t add up for him alone no matter how he tries, if he does, which he probably doesn’t. In certain cases, some are well served by such blanks, gray zones which they guard by tooth and claw, terrifed at the possibility that, if they were to be filled, the truth might be intolerable.

Ultimately, perhaps it’s these lies of omission, and the spaces they allow for our own interpretation of events, that enable us to survive and thrive in relationships at all.

Hangsaman proves to be an unexpected companion piece to the troubled male Greek teenager. It is the story of a female American teenager, Natalie Waite, who at first sight seems to be the bright, obedient daughter who mostly humours but frequently despises her stay-at-home, downtrodden mother with her anxious impulses, while simultaneously admiring and sparring intellectually with her demanding writer father. When she goes to college, she proves herself to be too independent of thought and behaviour to really fit in, she is repelled by the hypocrisy she finds at every step, and descends into a deep well of darkness, loneliness and despair.

Such is the elegance and wit of Shirley Jackson’s style that the readers understand long before Natalie realises herself that her father is a manipulative, dictatorial man who takes out his fears of his own mediocrity on his daughter. The letters he writes to her in college are both funny and infuriating. Every scene between father and daughter is filled with real menace – this is deliberate misunderstanding rather than unconscious one. When she finally admits to him that things are not going well, that she needs help, this is his response:

‘I should hate to deprive you prematurely of the glories of the suicidal frame of mind, since I am fairly certain that depriving yourself of the ability to feel this way would be more cruel than any sort of physical torture you might inflict upon yourself, so that I can use “suicidal” as a descriptive adjective without really feeling that it implies any action.’

‘You’re trying to make me say that I want to kill myself,’ Natalie said.

‘You need hardly say anything quite so meaningless… and I would vastly prefer that you confine your statements to pure descriptions of fact. I think better of your vanity, Natalie, than to believe that two months out of seventeen years could destroy you.

Unsurprisingly, Natalie returns to college even more unsure of herself, feeling her identity and her grip on reality slowly slipping away. She does make one friend, Tony, who proves to be as much of an outsider as herself, a sort of alter ego (and quite possibly an imaginary friend, Jackson never likes to make things too clearcut in her writing). Tony has an almost hypnotic effect on Natalie and dares her to go beyond what she ever imagined possible:

…they want to pull us back, and start us all over again just like them and doing the things they want to do and acting the way they want to act and saying and thinking and wanting all the things they live with every day. And… I know a place where we can go and no one can trouble us.

The crimes that take place in Hangsaman are, unlike the ones in Back to Delphi, more crimes of the mind. We are never really sure if they take place or not, but the sense of rising danger is more frightening than anything I read in the more explicit Greek novel. I found myself almost forgetting to breathe for whole scenes at a time. There is, in particular, one passage in which Natalie describes how she might pick up and pull apart the neat little houses she sees scattered around the college campus which sounds like it could have provided the backdrop or inspiration for the lyrics of Blondie’s Rapture. I remain constantly stunned by how much Shirley Jackson was ‘of her time’, describing the claustrophobic environment for housewives and the limited possibilities for women in the 1950s, and yet how utterly contemporary she still feels in style, at once sly and sinister, detached yet capable of getting fully under your skin and never quite letting you go.

P.S. I think the new Penguin Modern Classics covers for Shirley Jackson’s books are little bit bland, but some of the earlier covers were very pulpy. Simon at Stuck in a Book has written a whole blog post about Shirley Jackson covers, which I highly recommend.

#6Degrees April 2021

Time for another random bookish chain, where we all start with the same book but end up on very different journeys, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with the Booker Prize winning Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which I have considered reading but fear I might find too depressing. Books about bad parenting get me all flustered.

I mean, the book Back to Delphi by Ioanna Karystiani (transl. Konstantine Matsoukas) was disquieting enough, and the mother in that is not necessarily a bad one, just a tad self-absorbed and trying to hide her suffering from her son… which of course gets misinterpreted. The two of them end up incapable of communicating with each other – and the son goes on to become a rapist and a murderer. He is granted a brief furlough from prison and she takes him to Delphi in an attempt to reconnect with him, and to try and find out where she went wrong.

The next book in the chain is another Ioana, a Romanian one this time: Ioana Parvulescu’s Life Begins on Friday, a time-travelling mystery and love letter to the city of Bucharest, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013. It has been translated into English by Alastair Ian Blyth for Istros Books, and deserves to be better known.

I used to be more of a fan of time-travelling novels in my youth, not so much now. The last memorable one I read was Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, about a time-travelling serial killer. It is not an easy book to describe, perfectly bonkers, but as always with Lauren Beukes, utterly compelling.

However, I preferred another of her novels, Moxyland, set in an alternative future Cape Town, where people are increasingly controlled by their mobile phones and apps, leading to a sort of corporate apartheid dictatorship.

I haven’t yet read Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (transl. Stephen Snyder) but it seems to have a similar premise, except here the authoritarian regime seems bent on destroying people’s memories. This was written more than twenty years ago. Perhaps if it had been written more recently the internet and mobile phones might have played a bigger part, as they do in Moxyland.

Of course, the concept of erasing memories or of accepting only one official version of history is something that all dictatorships have in common, and one of the best examples of this is the description of the ‘retouched’ photograph, a frequent occurence in an attempt to get rid of someone who became politically undesirable, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera.

Scotland, Greece, Romania, Chicago, South Africa, Japan and Czechoslovakia – a well-travelled series of links this month. Where will your spontaneous bookishness take you?

#EU27Project: Greece

Although there have been moments over the past 3-4 years when I thought I would never want to hear about or see Greece again, it is in fact a place that is very special to me and my family. My children are half-Greek, I’ve spent lots of holidays in Greece, I learnt to speak (and read a little) Greek and of course when I fell in love with a Greek back at university, I went through a period of intense study of Greek history and literature.

Constantine Cavafy soon became one of my favourite poets: his sensual descriptions of night-time encounters in the fascinating melting-pot of cultures that is the city of Alexandria are soooo me (which is probably why I loved The Alexandria Quartet so much in my teens). I have about 4-5 different translations of Cavafy’s poems in English, so you can imagine that when I heard about this novel that reimagines a key moment in Cavafy’s life, I had to get it.

Ersi Sotiropoulos is a very prolific, award-winning writer in Greece, but not much of her work has been translated into English as far as I can tell. What’s Left of the Night may be about to change her reputation abroad: it was translated into French and won the 2017 Prix M√©diterran√©e √Čtranger, and in 2018 the English translation by Karen Emmerich (published by New Vessel Press) was talked about and reviewed quite a bit.

It is 1897 and Cavafy is in Paris, the last stop on the European tour he has embarked upon with his brother. He is a clerk in the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria, the city that he considers home, although the family has also lived for a while in Constantinople and (surprisingly and far less romantically) in Liverpool. He has published some poems by that point, but largely for close friends – but his best known poems are still to come, and in fact most of his reputation was posthumous, as he was not following the current ‘fashion’ in poetry.

So the novel traces his possible sources of inspiration: Ancient Greek history, erotic desires for men (about which he feels somewhat conflicted still), feeling suffocated by his family and by society. We see Cavafy’s obsession with finding the perfect line or the right word – he was a skilled craftsman and a perfectionist, and had a rather unique use of the Greek language that perhaps only someone brought up abroad could have. This makes him fiendishly difficult to translate, but in this novel Sotiropoulos tries to capture some of the feel, the rhythm, the sensibilities of the poet… and succeeds most of the time.

I’m not quite sure if it is historically accurate to say that this trip to Paris marked a turning point in Cavafy’s writing, but that turning point undeniably did occur at some time:

The great need for rupture in his poetry he had felt so strongly in recent months, the reckless urge to break the rules… to share free of lyricism and elegance, to banish all influences from other poets and movements, to become a movement of his own, may in the end have reflected a need for rupture in his life… How could someone who lived a conventional, conservative, medocre life write important peotry? How could he speak of great passions, heroic ages?

Photo of Cavafy, from the Hellenic Foundation for Culture.

In Alexandria he felt mediocre, a failure. He may have admired Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, but he did not want to write like them. In Paris, he hoped that he would feel closer to the artistic pulse of the ‘fin de siecle’, but everywhere he goes, he carries the the curse of the city, that lazy, dirty, inadequate city with him, as he says in one of his most famous poems. He cannot leave behind his prejudices, his impatience, his dark and selfish impulses. This is no hero-worship of Cavafy we find in this book, but an acknowledgment that, while the poetic process remains mysterious and unfathomable, it is all about transformation. Taking sorrow, shame, anger, fear of mediocrity and turning it into… complexity. And complexity is beautiful.

Signed, Seen and Just Missed: Morges 2015

I couldn’t resist the siren call of the literary festival in Morges called¬†Le Livre sur les Quais¬†this weekend, although I should have been working and packing for an upcoming business trip. But who can resist a boat trip on Lake Geneva in the company of the wise and witty Tessa Hadley?

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Watching chateaux and villas (usually invisible from the road) sliding smoothly by in all their glory, while listening to fellow writers from the Geneva Writers Group reading from their latest book (there were more people than that at the readings, but I forgot my camera and was late to remember my mobile phone). The full list of authors reading (with links to the books they were reading from): Lesley Lawson-Botez, Ellen Wallace, Katie Hayoz, Massimo Marino, Olivia Wildenstein, Nancy Freund, Gary Edward Gedall, Peter St. John, Daniela Norris, Susan Tiberghien and Leonie van Daalen, who was also celebrating her 63rd wedding anniversary onboard.

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The tent where books, authors and readers meet each other was constantly full, even at lunch time, but I forgot to take pictures of the authors I did get to see.

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To arouse your envy, here’s a short list of authors I spoke to (some of them I also got to see later in panel discussions): Christos Tsiolkas, Ben Okri, Petina Gappah, Michelle Bailat Jones, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Dinaw Mengestu. And not just English-speaking ones: Yasmina Khadra, Alain Mabanckou, Metin Arditi, Romain, Slocombe, Gregoire Delacourt, Joseph Incardona (who actually remembered me from last year – I was very flattered). The pictures I did remember to take at the panel discussions are not very good, unfortunately.

Christos Tsiolkas and Gabriel Gbadamosi.
Christos Tsiolkas and Gabriel Gbadamosi.

Ben Okri, Petina Gappah and Dinaw Mengestu from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia/Midwest Unites States respectively.
Ben Okri, Petina Gappah and Dinaw Mengestu from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia/Midwest United States respectively.

Sadly, I did not get to see any of the Greek writers who were the guests of honour at the festival: Petros Markaris, Ersi Sotiropoulos, Yannis Kiourtsakis, Takis Theodoropoulos. Nor did I have enough time to go back to the tent and meet the following authors who are very much on my TBR list: Peter Stamm, Emilie de Turckheim, Sophie Divry, Mathias Enard, Hadrien Laroche.

In its sixth edition now, the festival is becoming perhaps just a little too big to be able to see everyone and attend all the sessions you would want (many of the most interesting ones were concurrent). To me, however, it’s¬†an unmissable event in my annual literary calendar. And when the sun comes out, it’s even more beautiful.

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A good book haul ensued as well – all with rather lovely dedications. Meanwhile, a little part of Morges will be accompanying me on my business trip: Michelle Bailat-Jones’ ‘Fog Island Mountains’ will be coming with me to Japan, where it is set.

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Things to Look Forward To: Livre Sur les Quais 2015

lelivresurlesquais2014Last year I waxed lyrical about the great atmosphere of this book festival for readers and authors in Morges, on the banks of the bonny Lac L√©man. This year it’s taking place between the 5th and 7th of September and I’ll be heading there again for what promises to be a great line-up and a chance to enjoy the last days of summer in congenial surroundings. There is a giant book tent where you get a chance to buy books and get them signed by your favourite authors, as well as a number of panel discussions or Q&A sessions with authors.

From actualitte.com
From actualitte.com

This year too, you’ll find the usual suspects of Swiss and French-speaking writers, including old favourites of mine (or those I look forward to reading), such as: Metin Arditi, Joseph Incardona, Yasmina Khadra, Martin Suter, Alex Capus, Emilie de Turckheim, Tatiana de Rosnay, Alain Mabanckou, Timoth√©e de Fombelle.

From website of the festival.
From website of the festival.

They will be joined by a diverse bunch of writers who also speak English (not all of them write in English): Esther Freud, Jonathan Coe, Louis de Berni√®res, Helen Dunmore, Amanda Hodginskon, Jenny Colgan, Tessa Hadley, Elif Shafak from Turkey, Petina Gappah from Zimbabwe, Gabriel Gbadamosi from Nigeria, Frank Westerman from the Netherlands, Paul Lynch (the Irish writer rather than the Canadian filmmaker). Also present: several members of the Geneva Writers’ Group who’ve had new books out recently, writers I’m proud to also call my friends, such as Michelle Bailat-Jones, Susan Tiberghien, Patti Marxsen. The Geneva Writers’ Group will also be hosting a breakfast on the boat from Geneva to Nyon to Morges, a wonderful opportunity for readings and Q&A sessions with some of our authors.

Boat rides on Lake Geneva, www.genferseegebiet.ch
Boat rides on Lake Geneva, http://www.genferseegebiet.ch

 

This year’s guest of honour is poor, battered Greece, a reminder that art and creativity can nevertheless survive like wildflowers peeking through cracks in austere cement. Here are a few of the writers I look forward to discovering there:

  • crime writer and masterly painter of the Greek crisis,¬†Petros Markaris
  • Christos Tsiolkas – Australian of Greek origin, who needs no further introduction
  • Ersi Sotiropoulos: an¬†experimental, avant-garde writer, whose novel about four young Athenians musing about their future, Zig-Zag through the Bitter Orange Trees, has been translated into English. She is currently working on ‘Plato in New York’, described as a¬†hybrid of a novel that uses fictional narrative, dialogue, and visual poetry.
  • Yannis Kiourtsakis – suspended between France and Greece, novels exploring the heart of displacement and emigration
  • Poet Thanassis Hatzopoulous, whose wonderful words (translated by David Connolly) I leave you with:

DAEMON
The clacking of prayers persists
And the rattles of the temple where
The beauteous officiates

And yet no one
Can bear this beauty, the touch
Everything glows and fades incomprehensibly
By itself carrying so much desolation
And charm peculiar to verbs

The seasons rotate under the veil of rhythm
And the people who bear them
Return more vigorous full of freshness and breeze
Conveyed in their steps
Dripping their tracks

And whatever life gives them they return
So equally the soul’s universe is shared
Rendering in radiance whatever
In at times its own way avaricious
Nature intends

Yet beauty has no justice
All turmoil, prey to chance is meted
And finds peace.