#PerilousDishesReadalong – delightful glimpse of a world long gone

At the beginning of this month I had the honour and pleasure to be invited to join the readalong for The Book of Perilous Dishes by Doina Ruști, translated by James Christian Brown, published recently by Neem Tree Press. You can find further information about the book’s background and how it was translated on the Neem Tree Press site. I attended a Q&A with the author and translator, which helped me understand the book better (and the vast amount of research that went into it, both at the time of writing and at the time of translating).

N.B. I have just realised that I forgot to tag this as part of the #ReadIndies initiative launched by @Kaggsy59 and @LizzySiddal.

Bucharest in the 18th century.

Set predominantly in 1798 Bucharest (although the older heroine travels to Germany and France and looks back upon the events of that year from the year 1829), this is a book that is full of colour, street noises, market aromas, as well as larger than life characters. I knew the historical research was accurate and detailed, but I was surprised to hear that many of the characters are actual historical figures.

It was a tricky time in Romanian history. This is a part of the world which has always been at the mercy of feuding empires. The dichotomy between Cartesian West (associated with modernity) and Balkanic East (associated with oppression but also the church and traditional values) has dominated all of Romanian history and culture.

Wallachia was for several centuries under the indirect rule of the Ottoman Empire, which in practice meant that money and goods had to be sent to the Sultan every year in return for a quasi-autonomy. However, the Sultan’s court couldn’t be bothered to get their hands dirty with administrative details. So instead they appointed wealthy Greeks from the Phanar quarter of the city to oversee these vassal states. It was a much sought-after position (lots of money to be earned through taxation) and there was no shortage of candidates prepared to pay money to be appointed prince of the country.

One of the greatest amusements of the Sublime Porte was to fool some Greek with the notion that he could make himself lord and master over the land of Wallachia for the modest price of a mere four hundred bags of loose change. No one had any idea what the price of a country should be. But it was not the real value that counted, so much as that ‘yours for only…’ which even today makes people restless…

…there and then he became the master of Wallachia, where he fondly dreamed that he was going to spend the rest of his days with subjects falling at his feet. A year later, however, another sucker for a cut-price offer would turn up, with another four hundred bags. Consequently, when I arrived there, Bucharest had already had the pleasure of being ruled by at least thirty Greeks, not to mention the Russian army, which made its way there from time to time, and drove out whoever happened to be the ruler… Fortunately, the Russian soldiers had itchy feet and they never stayed long.

One of the Phanariot rulers, Prince Mavrogeni, trying to flee from the Austrian troops in his stag-drawn sleigh in 1789. What can I say: borders were constantly being fought over and redrawn in this part of the world. And maybe stags run faster than horses?

But fear not! This book is anything but a dry old history lesson. This is the story of the fiery fourteen-year-old Pâtcă who suddenly finds herself alone in the world when her grandmother Maxima gets arrested for witchcraft in the Transylvanian town of Brașov. She respects Maxima’s command to go back to her home town of Bucharest, seek out her great-uncle Zăval and acquire the magical recipe book of Perilous Dishes. Alas, she finds her great-uncle has been murdered and a bottle of powerful poison is missing, while the whole city is in uproar over a cook kidnapped by the Prince, who is able to cook gourmet dishes out of this world. Pâtcă soon figures out that the cook has somehow got hold of her uncle’s book, but is not aware of the dangerous powers of his recipes he is preparing, so the girl has to use all her resources to stay out of prison, recover the recipe book and keep her true identity secret. For she has been told that she is the notorious Cat O’Friday (Mâța Vinerii in Romanian, the original title of the book), the last descendant of a family of magicians who follow the cult of the great pagan god Sator.

Early photos of a market scene in Bucharest.

The book is stuffed to the gills with fascinating characters of all nationalities or ethnic backgrounds, some of them criminals and hustlers like Ismail Bina, some impossibly charismatic and naive (like the French diplomat Dubois), others simply going along with things in order to survive (like the pragmatic Caterina Greceanu, who takes the girl into her household). There are so many plot twists that your head will spin, but I advise just allowing yourself to gallop along. Some flashbacks have been tidied up to create a more logical chronological order in the translated version.

I also like the way the translation manages to convey the funny, irreverent, confessional tone of the young girl, with all of the moodiness, stubbornness and know-it-all attitude of her age. Pâtcă itself is a nickname, meaning ‘Tiny’ or ‘Little’Un’, but the girl is so used to it, she doesn’t understand why people laugh when they hear her name. It’s little details like this, plus her difficulties in summoning up Sator’s powers or finding the houses she is supposed to have inherited, which make me wonder if she is… not exactly an unreliable narrator, but rendered unreliable because her family has been withholding secrets from her.

Translator James Christian Brown has been teaching English at the university in Bucharest for a long time, and his respect for and knowledge of Romanian culture and language shows clearly in this book. However, he admitted that if he hadn’t coincidentally also been given some 18th century documents to translate at roughly the same time, it would have been a huge challenge to do this book justice. It’s not just the vocabulary, but many of the concepts themselves which have fallen into oblivion, so even if you find the ‘correct’ term in English, it would not mean much to a modern reader. I found myself sighing in relief on many a page that I didn’t have to translate this!

With its fast-paced plot and young heroine, I suspect it is being marketed as YA literature in the English-speaking world. However, it is a rollicking good read for adults as well, particularly for its vivid recreation of a vanished world. It reminded me somewhat of Carlos Ruis Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind or Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, so if you liked either of these, I would definitely try this one.

Romanian Genre Mash-Up: Ioana Pârvulescu

I was going to write a very lengthy post about the family saga La Medeleni, but I don’t have the energy for it right now, plus you are never likely to read it unless you learn Romanian, since its chances of being translated are close to zero. However, Life Begins on Friday is a book you can find in English, courtesy of Istros Books and the translator Alistair Ian Blyth (see link below). I cannot comment on the translation itself, since I read it in Romanian, except to say that it must have been quite a challenge to render the linguistic and cultural specificity of 1897 Bucharest into English. The author has also written non-fiction, historical accounts of everyday life in Bucharest at the turn of the 20th century, and this meticulous research and understanding of the period stands her in good stead in this novel, which was published in 2009, won the EU Prize for Literature in 2013 and had an unheard of success in Romania, leading to a second edition in 2013 and a third edition in 2018.

It is an amazingly unclassifiable novel, a complete mash-up of mystery, fantasy, literary, historical and romance. Above all, it is not the ‘type’ of novel that people have come to expect from the former East Bloc countries: either all about the Communist dictatorship, or else all about the poverty, crime and human trafficking after the fall of Communism. This is a fun novel, with endearing characters and a plot that never quite resolves itself but keeps you intrigued throughout. We find ourselves in Bucharest during the Christmas/New Year period of 1897. The main streets are lit up by electricity and full of elegant horse-drawn carriages, but just behind them are the dark streets, full of potholes and mud. Much like today, in fact!

On the snowy road on the outskirts of the city, close to Baneasa forest and lake, two young men are found at a short distance from each other, both unconscious and stunned. One of them is wounded and later dies in hospital, while the other seems to be a madman or amnesiac: hatless, wearing funny clothes, not quite knowing how to behave or how to speak politely, claiming to be a journalist, although he appears completely unaware of the current news. This is Dan Creţu (whom they decide to spell Kretzu, because they think he might have come from abroad) and he comes into contact with a series of close-knit characters who each tell part of the story from their point of view: the altruistic doctor Margulis and his family, including his disabled son Jacques and lively older daughter Iulia, who keeps a diary; the brave and witty little errand boy Nicu (my favourite), who tries to protect his bipolar mother, who is occasionally well enough to work as a washerwoman; the police inspector Costache Boerescu, friend of the Margulis (and former suitor of Mrs Margulis), who keeps trying to find any links between the two men; the journalists at the Universul newspaper; Alexandru Livezeanu, the spoilt son of a rich family, who seems to have got himself entangled in some unpleasant, possibly criminal activity. But there is so much else to enjoy here: cabbies, porters, German craftsmen crossing the border from Transylvania to find work in Bucharest, pigeons, stolen icons, rivalries between different sweet shops, banquets, present-giving, the novelty of using fingerprints to help in police investigations, the revolutionary medical opinion that tight stays and corsettes might actually be harmful for women’s internal organs and so much more.

In truth, the main character of the novel is Bucharest itself, the city with all its infuriating babble and imperfections, its corruption and crime, but also its charms and friendliness, a city that was then (as now) a bit of a building site. Human nature and the city of Bucharest seem to have a lot in common, immovable, unchanging except in superficial ways, with grounds for both optimism and pessimism, as a rather lovely passage makes clear in which the professions of detective and medical doctor are compared – or rather, the idealistic concept of the two. There are constant parallels between past and present, for those who like to read between the lines, but it is not a political book.

We begin to suspect rather quickly that Dan might be a time traveller from the present-day Romania, but he is never quite able or willing to explain his dilemma to the people he meets. As a visitor from a much more cynical age, he is perhaps more exasperated rather than shocked by the negatives of life during that period, but he becomes charmed by the manners, naivety and hopefulness of the characters who view the advances of science and the progress of their country with such optimism.

It was as though I had landed in a world where God was younger and more present, after living for years in a ruined world that had lost God, or had been lost by God. It was as though I could see the sky, after forgetting about its existence for years. It was as if I had come alive again, after being dead on my feet. I felt as if I had been taken under a wing. A pleasant feeling gripped me, full of love for everything I could see around me.

In one of the final scenes of the novel, a large party of dinner guests on New Year’s Eve try to imagine what the future might be like. One says he thinks that the Eiffel Tower will become a permanent fixture and a symbol for the city of Paris, much to the derision of the other guests. Others say there will be a cure for TB, that the whole world will be electrified, that people will travel to the moon just like in Jules Verne. And Dan does not disillusion them by predicting world wars or any of the other horrors that the new century was about to throw their way. There is a rather clever post-modern final chapter that tries to imagine Dan’s life in the future, while a poignant epilogue informs us about the fate of some of the characters in the story.

There is a sequel to this book, The Future Begins on Monday, which has not been translated, and a third novel The Innocents, is the story of a house and a family set in the author’s home town of Brașov. If you want to find out more about Ioana Pârvulescu, you can catch her on the 8th of November in conversation with Tracy Chevalier at the Romania Rocks 2 Festival organised by the Romanian Culture Institute in Bucharest. (Most of the events will be recorded and streamed online).

To read in Romanian: Viaţa începe vineri, editura Humanitas.

To read in English: Life Begins on Friday, trans. Alistair Ian Blyth, Istros Books, 2016.

Two Tough Reads: Endless and Very Much Numbered Days

I’m not sure how wise it was to read these two books over the past week or so, as they were both quite harrowing in terms of subject matter. Luckily, both of them were well written and very much worth my while… but I think I will be relaxing now with some less demanding, frivolous reads.

Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days #20BooksofSummer No. 8

This is probably the oldest book I have on my Netgalley shelf (2015). It was Claire Fuller’s debut novel and in the meantime she has published three others (of which I read one, Bitter Orange) and her latest, Unsettled Ground, is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

It is the story of Peggy, an eight-year-old only child of eccentric parents – a concert pianist German mother and a survivalist English father – who is abducted by her father after a family quarrel and taken to a remote cabin in the German woods. For the next nine years, her father manages to convince her that the world has ended and all the people they know have died. They have to fend for themselves – and those descriptions of the seasons and living that close to nature, with no back-up whatsoever, is miles removed from the lyrical nature writing we might have come across in recent years. This is nature at its harshest – and Peggy is completely at the mercy of her tyrannical father, whom she adores… but very gradually starts to question.

The narrative switches between two time frames. We start with the present-day, when seventeen-year-old Peggy tries to reintegrate into society and re-establish a connection with her mother and the younger brother born after she disappeared. Then we move to the child’s view of the world, the limited understanding and naivety of eight-year-old Peggy. There are hints of the shocking denouement of the novel throughout, but – call me a far too trusting reader, or else wanting to believe the best of everyone – I was completely misled by the author, believed everything she was saying, and was caught by surprise at the ending. Yet, unlike so many recent psychological thrillers that deliberately withhold information, simply to create that much-publicised ‘twist’, it felt very organic in this case and central to the story. Peggy is not an unreliable narrator because she wants to mislead us or justify her bad actions or run away from the police (as would be typical in crime fiction). It feels psychologically spot on: she is disassociating from her own experiences and still trying to figure out her own past and how she feels about it.

Quite a tour de force for a debut, and an uncompromising tale. Brutal at times, yet also hinting that so much more could have been said, that whole swathes of story or characterisation have been left out, that each character has a shady hinterland (yes, even the nine-year-old brother).

Hervé Le Corre: In the Shadow of the Fire, transl. Tina Kover

Long-time readers of the blog will know that I remain fascinated by the Paris Commune and its failures, and have read a whole array of books, both fictional and non-fictional treatments of those few months in the spring of 1871. Le Corre’s ambitious (and lengthy – 509 pages) account of the last ten days of the Commune, the so-called Bloody Week at the end of May, is soaked in blood, sweat and despair, a gruelling continuation of Zola’s Debacle, picking up just where Zola’s work tapers off.

There are so many deaths in this book, so many relentless descriptions of poverty, hunger, exploitation and killing that you need to stop every now and then and catch your breath. I admire translator Tina Kover for being able to stomach it and render Le Corre’s dense prose and vast cast of characters into something coherent. I am also really grateful that I could read it in translation, as reading it in the original French would probably have taken me a couple of months (like the Zola did).

Some of the individual stories worked better than others – the enigmatic Clovis, who has lost all belief in society and people; the loyal lovers Nicolas and Caroline who spend most of the book undergoing horrific experiences but never giving up hope that they might find each other; the brotherhood between the three comrades-in-arms Nicolas, Red and Adrien. However, that whole thread about the photographer of pornographic images and girls being kidnapped by a man with a half-destroyed face (very Phantom of the Opera, that!) felt a bit gratuitous. I suppose the intention was to add a criminal investigation to a narrative that would otherwise have been extremely depressing and predictable: we all know that the Communards got thoroughly thrashed and killed en masse (or else imprisoned and sent into exile).

Although I love crime fiction in general, I didn’t really need that particular strand in this book, as I was quite happy to read about all of the other personal and collective stories. And yet the author clearly knows what he’s doing, because in many ways, Antoine Roques, the investigator, is the most interesting character of them all.

They put the sash on him before he left the police station, assuring him that his way, his authority, conferred by the people, would be clear to all… Elected police delegate to the Sûreté only a month ago. A bookbinder by trade. He hadn’t wanted the job, given his longstanding, deep-seated loathing of anything to do with the police. But the assemly had judged him the most sensible, the most astute.

Yet this accidental policeman becomes devoted to the idea of justice and saving people, even in the mess and confusion of the last few days of the Commune. When he hears about the abducted woman, the latest in a series to disappear from the streets of Paris, he makes it his mission to find her. What does one more dead woman matter in a landscape littered with corpses and dying ideals? That is perhaps the whole crux of the story – that kindness and respect for the individual has to matter, even in the new revolutionary world order.

Although we see events almost exclusively through the eyes of those fighting for the Commune, the author does not idealise the revolutionaries. There are profiteers and opportunistis on both sides, cowards and empty idealists as well, and we get to hear different points of view from secondary characters who have become disenchanted with the whole process. In the words of a doctor trying to deal with vast numbers of fatal injuries:

I’m afraid we’ve proclaimed a republic of words that will soon be a repbulic of he dead… It’s a bit like we doctors tried to heal injuries simply by shouting obscenities, or to cure disease using magic spells. They talk and talk at the Hotel de Ville, they gossip on the barricades; they hem and haw about what reinforcements to send against Versailles, and in the mentime Monsieur Thiers is planning his onslaught… Perhaps that’s why I’ve taken more care of the dead than the living, because at least I don’t have to lie to them about what’s coming and my inability to stop it.

The research that Le Corre has done for his book is fantastic; having myself read several history books about the Commune, I am impressed with how effortlessly he blends all that (and more) into an exciting narrative. The individual stories are less important than the vast fresco of a city in turmoil. The crowds are unruly, not everyone is truly committed to the cause, there are far too many people willing to betray them, but there are also others who put their own lives at risk to help them.

At times, some of the passages and speeches verge onto the unrealistic and didactic, but there are others where the character’s idealism and courage even in the face of defeat shines through as rather beautiful and inspiring. Here is Roques wondering if he should sneak off, leave Paris behind and join his wife and children in the countryside:

He knows the insurrection will be crushed, that this undreamt-of moment will soon come to an end. Still… This city has a unique genius for revolt and revolution. It has been starved, bombarded, humiliated, and when the powerful ones thought it was dead, it rose up, rebellious and generous, defying the old world and calling, beyond the besieged ramparts, for public well-being and a universal republic… There’s no question of leaving this city of infinite tomorrows, especially now… Paris, teh city-world where anything will always be possible.

The book is at once a eulogy to ideals whose time had not yet come, and a love story to the city of Paris, a mistress who may be old and wrinkled, full of dirt, blood and grime, but remains defiant and unbowed. Impossible to tame permanently, even if you can defeat her temporarily.

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels

Shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, including with this novel from 1990, The Gate of Angels, Fitzgerald did win the Prize in 1979 with Offshore (unlike Beryl Bainbridge). I can’t help feeling, however, that she was robbed of it in 1995, when she wasn’t even shortlisted for The Blue Flower, which many consider to be her masterpiece.

Fizgerald was remarkably prolific for someone who started publishing novels quite late in life. Her work can be divided into two distinct periods: the earlier novels are based on her real-life experiences (she had a rather sad life, which prevented her from writing earlier), while the later ones are historical fiction. The Gate of Angels is set in 1912, so it falls in the latter category.

At first I barely noticed the 1912 timeline, because there is a timeless quality to the story – the age-old tension between town and gown, between the ivory tower and real life, between heart and mind, between youthful ideals and middle-aged ‘settling’. But then the period references start creeping in: the Suffragette movement, the revolution in physics about to kick off (and being violently opposed still in many quarters), the Cambridge colleges which are still not open to married fellows or to women. Plus, there is added poignancy to this love story when you realise that very soon all the young men will head off to war.

Yet, despite its serious subtext and accurate historical references, this book wears its research and knowledge very lightly. I spent most of the time chuckling my way through it. It is a novel of ideas, but it also utterly joyous and deeply humorous. We first see things through the eyes of Fred Fairly, a physicist and junior fellow at the all-male, rather stuffy (fictional) St Angelicus College in Cambridge. He is a naive, inexperienced young man, from a comfortable but not over-privileged background as a vicar’s son. Fitzgerald delights in joking about the discomfort of draughty vicarages throughout the book: here are just two separate instances:

The college had bever been thoroughly heated or dried out since its foundation, but Fred, who had been brought up in a rectory… saw no reason to complain.

The Rectory had been built with a solid dignity which, for the last twenty years or so, had been letting in the water everywhere.

By way of contrast, we then see life through the eyes of Daisy Saunders, who grew up in real poverty in south London, ‘where Stockwell turns into Brixton’. She is kind-hearted and resourceful, fearless and unsentimental, and is training as a probationer nurse at Blackfriars Hospital. However, her desire to help others gets her into trouble, she is kicked out of the hospital and makes her way to Cambridge to try and find a position in the hospital there.

Fred and Daisy’s lives collide – literally – in a road accident. They lose consciousness and come round in a farcical manner, in the same bed, wearing very little, in the house of the Wrayburn family. Mr Wrayburn is ‘the true voice of scholarly Cambridge’ and his reaction when he finds these two unknown people in his house results in one of the funniest paragraphs I’ve read in a long time:

‘Venetia, there are two total strangers in the nursery. One is a man, who has lost his clothes. The other is a woman, who, I think, has also lost her clothes… This is my house, as it happens. You mustn’t think me unwelcoming. My name is Wrayburn.’

It was clear that he had never been allowed to worry. That was not his work, worrying was done for him.

The person who does the worrying is quite possibly my favourite character in the book, the ‘exuberant charitable Mrs Wrayburn’, who studied for four years at Newnham, was the organising secretary of the debating society, and the Treasurer of the Women’s Social and Political Union, but of course could not get a degree at the time and made the fatal mistake of marrying a university lecturer without a fellowship – which means luncheon at home for her husband every day of the week. That tragi-comic paragraph listing all of the household items which need to be washed and dried, and how Mrs Wrayburn cannot find any maid to help her, because they live a little too far outside Cambridge is a real tour de force.

There are Dickensian traits to several of the other secondary characters too – so sharply and wittily observed, that they seem almost like caricatures. Holcombe is an acquaintance that Fred doesn’t particularly like but whom he just can’t shake off, who gives his unsolicited opinion pretty much all the time either in person or via letter. He has no qualms gatecrashing the Disobligers’ Society meeting (although he has only paid a term’s subscription, several years ago) merely to continue what he was saying to Fred in a note.

Dr Matthews, the Provost of St James, is looked down upon by other scholars for writing ghost stories in his spare time (I later found out that Fitzgerald based him upon M.R. James). When he reads one of his stories to the Junior Dean at his college, the latter believes there is a hint of sex in it.

‘I hope there is nothing of the kind… Sex is tiresome enough in novels. In a ghost story, I should have no patience with it.’

‘Surely if one doesn’t find sex tiresome in life, it won’t be tiresome in fiction.’

‘I do find it tiresome in life. Or rather, I find other people’s concern with it tiresome. One is told about it and told and told.’

I am particularly fond of Professor Flowerdew, who seems to get all the best lines. He is Fred’s mentor and decidedly against all the new-fangled particle physics, after all ‘an atom is not a reality, it is just a provisional idea’. He then goes on to give a pretty accurate description of the way research in physics will progress throughout much of the 20th century (‘elementary particles which are too strange to have anything but curious names, and anti-matter which ought to be there, but isn’t’, even chaos theory). Although Fred was initially excited by the perspective of working with Rutherford in this new revolutionary side of physics, he finds the perspective of gaining an elusive Junior Fellowship too enticing, so he follows common-sense rather than his heart. But when he meets Daisy, he finally allows his heart to take over.

So where are the ‘angels’ of the title? Well, it’s not just a reference to the name of the college. There are two instances where the supernatural seems to intervene: a ghost story which seems to appear out of nowhere in the middle of the book (a fanciful imagining by Dr Matthews which has real-life consequences) and the ending, when a gate mysteriously opens at just the right time. This may feel out of place in a novel that has been satirical and realistic in equal measure, with a wonderful eye for detail. I wasn’t entirely sure about this aspect, but I am guessing the author’s intention was to turn the story into a parable.

I read this together with a group of Twitter friends, and we enjoyed sharing quotes and references over the past week. I would really like to read more Fitzgerald this month and have borrowed another of her historical novels from the library, The Beginning of Spring.

#20BooksofSummer No. 5 – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve never been one to NOT read reviews about a book just because I haven’t read it yet. On the contrary, I like to read both positive and negative reviews and then plunge right in, hopefully without bias, and make up my own mind. In the case of Hamnet, I’d been hearing lots of praise about the evocative language and the refreshing perspective of the Bard from the point of view of his family. But I’ve also heard some of my favourite bloggers such as Eric from Lonesome Reader or Rebecca Foster at Bookish Beck that it falls short, either in terms of Maggie O’Farrell’s other work or compared to other recent historical fiction such as Hilary Mantel’s.

So let me lay out my wares perfectly candidly. I really enjoyed the book, but I haven’t read any other novels by Maggie O’Farrell, nor do I read much historical fiction in general. So perhaps I am not best placed to make these comparisons. Although I do have some reservations about the present tense and jarringly modern language at times, I allowed myself to be swept away by the beauty of the sentences, the appeal to the senses, and the way the author conjures up the atmosphere of village life in the late 16th century. I should also add that I was reading it while I was battling migraine and nausea, so I felt I was there in the sick-bed with Judith and Hamnet. Last but not least, I am such a Shakespeare fan, so I enjoyed this additional insight into how other people might have viewed him.

I allowed myself to be swept along in a current of emotion and drama, as a mother wanting to protect her children, as a wife who has grown apart from her husband, as someone who felt stifled by family and small-town life, as someone living through a pandemic currently. On that visceral level the book works extremely well. If I stop to analyse it too carefully, I might find some repetitions and flaws, perhaps an over-emphasis on description and manipulation of our sorrow gland. I might find that there is no real analysis of Shakespeare’s psychology, little hint of his depth in how he handles the grief at the loss of his son. But, as Agnes finds out when she goes to London to watch the play named after her dead son, there is a chasm between life as it is lived and life as it is portrayed in the arts.

As she rode to London, she had thought that perhaps now she might understand his distance, his silence, since their son’s death. She has the sense now that there is nothing in her husband’s heart to understand. It is filled only with this: a wooden stage, declaiming players, memorised speeches, adoring crowds, costumed fools. She has been chasing a phantasm, a will-o’-the-wisp all this time.

This is clearly a book that Maggie O’Farrell has wanted to write for a long time, a subject that she has been obsessed with. I really enjoyed hearing her talk about it as part of the online Hay Festival. It really worked for me, since I am probably equally obsessed with the topic, and I don’t regret getting a Waterstones signed edition hardback. It’s a keeper for me. But for those who tell me that I should read her other novels, that they are better, I wonder if sometimes when you feel too strongly about something, you cannot fully capture what you really want.

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.

 

The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune

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So I finally finished Zola’s The Debacle and, while it was a fascinating, at times gruesome depiction of the Franco-Prussian War, it lacked substance when it came to the presentation of the Paris Commune. While it’s not fair to criticise the book for something that it’s not, I had picked it up in the expectation it might give me some new insight into the Commune, however brief its treatment of it.

Sadly, it does not.

The reason for that is probably because Zola himself (and his contemporaries) were not entirely sure what to make of the Commune. It had been brutally vanquished by the government, after all. There was no attempt at reconciliation, forgiveness or negotiation. Thousands were killed, many more sent into exile in a penitentiary colony. Its most visible supporters (like the painter Courbet) were imprisoned and then had to flee France to avoid having to pay off horrendous debts to the state for the destruction of property.

Those months of self-governance were presented in the newspapers and popular culture of the time as destructive, indiscriminate, incoherent, rudderless. Now, Zola is not one to shy away from controversy (remember the Dreyfus Affair?), but he was clearly influenced by the flood of published literature in the 1870s condemning the whole movement. While similar, on the whole, to the critical stance of most of his liberal republican contemporaries (disenchanted with the Second Empire and the Franco-Prussian War and attributing the outbreak of the rebellion to the poor handling of that), Zola’s views on the uprising were slightly more compassionate than most, calling on the National Assembly to listen to the ‘legitimate grievances’ of the Commune. Following the suppression of the rebellion, however, Zola is conspicuously silent about the government-sanctioned blood-bath. Perhaps he felt that the French were a little too prone to be swept away by revolutionary fervour, without thinking about the consequences.

Caricature of Zola, suggesting he uses the most disgusting things to ‘cook up’ something.

His ambivalence about the Commune has been noted by historians: he wrote some negative chronicles in the newspapers of the time, and there is one letter dated 22nd May, 1871, addressed to the newspaper La Semaphore in Marseille, in which he makes fun of the Communard desire to recognise all children born out of wedlock and to do away with titles of nobility:

The farce is now over and the clowns will be arrested. Rochefort is already in chains and surely the others will follow shortly. The cannon is booming, these are the last horrors and last remnants of the civil war.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in The Debacle, Maurice, the idealist who had been so keen to fight against the Prussians at the start of the novel, is the one who is indoctrinated with revolutionary ideals, while practical, down-to-earth Jean remains in the army. Of course, Jean is horrified by the disproportionate revenge he sees the army exacting upon the Communards and, in a fine piece of melodrama (spoilers ahead), he is the one who pierces Maurice with a bayonet before realising just whom he is killing. Maurice is ravaged by fever and keeps repeating that Paris is burning, that the only way to purify the city is by having it burn to the ground. But the purification does not come from the rebels themselves. What Maurice says in his delirium (but which probably reflects the author’s views) is:

This is the sane and reasonable part of France, the measured, sensible peasant part of France, which has stayed closer to the land, defeating the mad, exasperated side, spoilt by the Empire, irredeemably broken by dreams and pleasures. It had to be done: cutting into the very flesh… The bloodbath was necessary, the loss of French blood, this abominable holocaust, this living sacrifice, to be purified by fire.

The wall at Pere Lachaise cemetary where at least 150 were shot in the last couple of days in May 1871 (an estimated total of 20,000 men, women and children died during the Bloody Week – or Fortnight – in May).

This is repeated in the final chapter of the book, Zola’s belief that the birth of a new nation and an improved form of republic can come out of all that suffering. The novel ends on a tiny note of hope, with Jean and Henriette looking forward to the reconstruction of the city and, indeed, all of France ‘… like a tree bringing forth a new, powerful shoot, after cutting off the putrid branch whose poisoned sap had turned the leaves yellow.’

The Siege of Paris and the Commune are despatched hurriedly in a few short chapters (comprising only about the last 10% of the book) and is perhaps less interesting (and more ambivalent) than what we encounter on our journey there. The chapters following the fall of Sedan, when Jean and Maurice are made prisoners of war by the Prussians, are particularly grim. The appalling conditions in the prison camps, the dead bodies (of both men and horses) floating in the Meuse river, the desperate attempts to slaughter and eat horses are images that were almost unbearable to read and will stay with me forever. Not a trace of sugarcoating from Zola, pure condemnation of violence and war at its nastiest and messiest.

Almost at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some lighter moments, almost comic relief with the self-centred and vain Gilberte, wife of the local merchant and Henriette’s friend. But this is a far cry from the comedy of manners or social critique that Zola incorporated in his other novels (and in his literary ideal of realism). This is almost photographic realism, forcing the reader to look at the terrible consequences of nationalism, pride, revenge and the futile hunt for glory.

I am glad that I read this novel, it is certainly unforgettable, but I do wish I had spent more time on the Vautrin book for a fuller (and more sympathetic) Commune experience.

Zola: ‘The Debacle’ Readalong (Part 1)

May was going to be dedicated to the Paris Commune this year. I have read a couple of history books about it (to be reviewed) and had arranged to read Zola’s massive volume ‘The Debacle’ at the same time as Emma from BookAroundtheCorner. However, although I am 60% of the way through the book, I have yet to reach any chapter that relates to the Commune. So far it is all about the ill-conceived and ill-fated Franco-Prussian War of 1870. I’m talking from the French perspective, of course, because for the Prussians it certainly marked their ascendancy on the world stage.

This is not to say that I am not fascinated by the story, which reads quite well as a standalone, even if you haven’t read previous novels in the Rougon-Macquart series. This long series of 20 novels was intended to be a family saga but also a chronicle of the Second Empire. Or rather, a portrayal of how historical and social events colour individual lives and affect families. The series itself was started in 1871, soon after the fall of the Second Empire, but this is the penultimate volume and wasn’t published until 1892, by which time the dust had settled after the defeat in the war, the fall of Napoleon III, the desperation of the siege of Paris and the failure of the Commune.

The Infantry Will Advance by Carl Rochling, said to depict the Battle of Sedan.

Jean Macquart had appeared in a previous Zola novel La Terre. He is now 39 years old, a resilient, practical farmer, who is still recovering from the loss of his wife and lands. He is now a corporal in the 7th division of the French army, on the Franco-German border at Mulhouse. He is initially derided as an illiterate ‘peasant’ by a soldier under his command, Maurice Levasseur, who is from a more middle-class family, descended from a Napoleonic war hero, qualified as a lawyer.

Maurice starts off as an idealist, who thinks war is not only inevitable, but entirely justified for France, and who underestimates the Prussian military machine, not heeding his brother-in-law’s warnings. Jean is an experienced soldier, who fought in previous wars, a veteran of the battle of Solferino against the Austrians. He is more sceptical about the causes and outcomes of this war, but even he is stunned by the incompetence of the French military leaders.

Over the course of the mismanaged campaign, retreating and advancing without any plan or explanation, trying to make sense of the conflicting orders and constantly changing chains of command, the two men start to respect and support each other. Zola paints a dire picture of the military march in the first part of the book: the lack of provisions and discipline, the mixed feelings of the civilian population in the villages the army are passing through, the profiteering, the gnawing hunger. In one particularly poignant scene close to the beginning of the book, the army is engaged in yet another pointless retreat on an empty stomach, their feet full of blisters in ill-fitting shoes, under the relentless August sun. The soldiers start throwing away their weapons and rucksacks. Maurice is about to follow suit, but Jean forces him to pick up his gun, provoking an outburst of anger and hatred. The worst thing is: nobody is punished after that act of insubordination. It’s almost as though the officers have given up already on this farcical campaign.

Sedan marked the start of a new kind of warfare: urban warfare, as show here in The Last Cartridges by Alphonse de Neuville.

The second part of the book deals with the decisive Battle of Sedan, where the Prussians managed to trick the French army into a kind of pincer grip around the town of Sedan on the Franco-Belgian border. The village of Bazeilles just outside Sedan, where Maurice’s sister and brother-in-law live, is retaken and abandoned no less than four times. Although the descriptions of war strategy and actual battle scenes have never been my favourite thing (I used to skim through them in War and Peace, for example), Zola does an excellent job of conveying the confusion and terrible waste of war, particularly when it leaves the battlefield and enters the villages, affecting the civilian population.

He personalises these scenes with fictional characters we can become attched to, like Maurice’s twin sister Henriette searching for her husband. But there are also very brief, distressing vignettes, which he must have absorbed from eyewitness accounts. For example, the mother who refuses to evacuate because her child is terribly ill and feverish. She is shot down on the street and the feeble cries of her child from within the house ‘Maman, maman, I’m thirsty!’ will haunt the soldiers who witnessed it. Readers who found War Horse upsetting may want to skip the part where Zephyr, the brave black horse belonging to the officer Prosper, is killed as the cavalry charges forward for the third time. Maurice and Jean conclude that being brave is simply not worth it.

A rare photograph of the period. After repeatedly trying (and failing) to die in battle, 2nd September was the day the Emperor surrendered and was deposed.

It’s an ambitious fresco of a book, the longest by far in the Rougon-Macquart saga, one where the panoramic view of history tends to overshadow the personal, but Zola does his best to weave in some individual stories. Very moving and very political. Can’t wait to see what happens when they reach Paris.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Pat Barker is famous for her brutal depictions of the realities of war, n essence making her books anti-war narratives. In the past, she has written about the First World War (the Regneneration trilogy), but on this occasion she turns her hand to the Trojan War, that ten year stand-off between the allied Greeks and the probably Asia Minor city of Troy (and its allies). It is essentially a retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of the women. So that we no longer only hear the deafening silence of the female perspective.

I beg your pardon, the title is ‘girls’, not women, and this is probably deliberate. Many of the protagonists are very young, but all of them, even the older ones, the noble ones, the wives of great rulers, are little more than objects to be used, cast aside, bartered over, plundered – a bone that dogs fight over. ‘Girl’ is used pejoratively by their captors, it diminishes them.

The events Barker recounts stick pretty close to the Iliad and traditional Greek mythology. The main protagonist is a lesser-known secondary character, however, which means that we have little knowledge or preconceptions about her and her role in the war. She is Briseis, wife of Mynes, king of one of the lesser Trojan city states, Lyrnessus. Her husband and brothers are slaughtered and she is given to Achilles as a prize after he conquers her city. The author has some leeway with where she takes her character, because by and large her fate is unknown.
She disappears from the story after the arrival of Achilles’ son to fight in the final days of Troy, which is precisely when the author tells us that her ‘own story’ finally starts.

At first I thought: ‘What a novel concept! How refreshing to hear about the futility and tragedies of war from women, and to have these heroes like Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon discussed with refreshing candour of a woman forced to have sex with them. Very much like prostitues might discuss their clients’ foibles with disdain.’ These women are victims, but they take revenge too on these powerful men, albeit with the weapons of the weak, i.e. gossip.

But as I read on, two things struck me. First of all, the concept is not all that novel. It has all been done before, above all in the tragedy by Euripides Trojan Women – the final chapters about the fall of Troy and the fates of Andromache and Polyxena directly reference that work.

Secondly, I became somewhat annoyed by the Stockholm syndrome that Briseis seems to display towards her captor. While I appreciate that the author is trying to convey the complexity and charisma of Achilles as a character, show that he was not all bad (although stupidly stubborn and brutal), Briseis’ ambiguous feelings towards him did jar. (It worked better in her relationship with the more gentle and empathetic Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend and possibly his lover.)

Typical representation of Achilles, here in a painting by Franz von Matsch.

Where this book does excel is in the sharp-tongued, zingy cutting down to size of abstract concepts such as heroism and glory, friendship and love. So perhaps it felt wrong to me that Achilles is still too heroic and larger than life in this story. The change of voice from first person Briseis’ account to something approaching the omniscient third person didn’t quite sound right to me either.

But here are some of the quotes which did strike me:

Nothing happened. Well, of course nothing happened. Isn’t nothing what generally happens when you pray to the gods? (and yet plague like symptoms decimate the Greek camp very soon)

Yes the death of young men in battle is a tragedy. I’d lost four brothers, I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. A tragedy worthy of any number of laments – but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave (and see her child slaughtered), and I thought: We need a new song.

Finally, let me end with this quote about Agamemnon, who duly sacrifices Polyxena (Priam’s daughter) to ensure a safe journey home for the Greeks.

Though on second thoughts I doubt if Polyxena’s death affected him much. This was a man who’d sacrificed his own daughter to get a fair wind for Troy. I looked at him as he turned and walked away and I saw a man who’d learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, a coward without dignity or honour or respect.

Collective Artistes performing Trojan Women, directed by
Femi Osofisan

This reminds me of the puzzled hatred I’ve felt since I was a child for Agamemnon, Oedipus, Jason and so many other so-called Ancient Greek heroes, and the poor women who have to suffer their crassness, obstinacy and stupidity but end up getting the bad rap. Surprisingly, there is a lot of reading between the lines that you can do with all these ancient tragedies, which makes me think the Greeks were very subtle and good at psychology, or else that women were involved in the writing too somehow. Anyway, here is an earlier poem I wrote about that.

The Bookish Time Travel Tag: Lazy Sunday Reading

Sandra from the lovely blog A Corner of Cornwall tagged me for this at a time when I was extremely busy and technology-less, but it’s an intriguing idea. Like Sandra, I initially thought I didn’t read much historical fiction, so it wouldn’t apply to me, but the more you think about it… The original idea, by the way, comes from The Library Lizard, and you can answer as many or as few of the questions as you like, which makes it sound easy enough, right?

foucaults-001WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE HISTORICAL SETTING FOR A BOOK?

Medieval European courts – the Borgias, the Knights Templar, monks misbehaving in monasteries – you get the gist. As a child, I just couldn’t get enough of Jean Plaidy’s historical novels, or The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. I suppose the latter two were the Dan Brown of their day, only much better written.

WHAT WRITER/S WOULD YOU LIKE TO TRAVEL BACK IN TIME TO MEET?

So many. I think Christopher Marlowe would have been quite fun (with or without Shakespeare in tow) and Chaucer sounds like the kind of guy you would love to go to the pub with, who could tell you plenty of gossipy stories.

I would also love to meet some of my great literary heroines, like Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, but I would probably be completely tongue-tied and fangirling like mad. (And I dread to think what their sharp observational skills and merciless tongues would make of their encounter with me.)

WHAT BOOK/S WOULD YOU TRAVEL BACK IN TIME AND GIVE TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF?

I used to read a lot more widely when I was younger, and books which were by no means appropriate for my age, so I’m tempted to say not much.  But there are some wonderful children’s books which were published after the end of my childhood, which I think I would have enjoyed more back then: most of Diana Wynn Jones, Cornelia Funke, Eva Ibbotson, Neil Gaiman.

WHAT BOOK/S WOULD YOU TRAVEL FORWARD IN TIME AND GIVE TO YOUR OLDER SELF?

ephronWell, I certainly have plenty on my TBR pile to keep me going until I am 120 at the very least, so it would have to be one of those!

At the same time, I can see myself reverting back to the classics and rereading old favourites when I grow old. I will also find comfort no doubt in the essays on ageing, loss, finding some kind of contentment and surviving of more or less feminist writers such as Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron. And of course, lots of poetry.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE BOOK THAT IS SET IN A DIFFERENT TIME PERIOD (CAN BE HISTORICAL OR FUTURISTIC)?

I’ve never been very good at selecting just one or two books when it comes to such questions. Besides, I always think of at least half a dozen even better choices after I’ve given my final answers. So here is a small sample:

Orwell’s 1984 seems futuristic, and probably was at the time it was published, but I’ve lived through a period and in a country which was very, very similar to it, so it is simultaneously historical to me.

And of course it has nothing whatsoever to do with the recent adaptation starring Jim Caviezel...
And of course it has nothing whatsoever to do with the recent adaptation starring Jim Caviezel…

I also loved all of the Alexandre Dumas books when I was a child and played at being the Three/Four Musketeers with my cousins during our endless summer holidays (I was always a fan of Aramis, by the way, and am pleased to see that the recent TV adaptation has him every bit as seductive as I imagined him/myself to be at the time). Nowadays, however, I probably prefer The Count of Monte Cristo.

There are also a small number of books about war which really marked me: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Liviu Rebreanu’s Forest of the Hanged, for non-English perspectives on the First World War; Michio Takeyama’s Harp of Burma and Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain for the humble ordinary Japanese person’s perspective on World War Two.

Bucharest, Palace Square, from the 1940s. From orasulluibucur.blogspot.ro
Bucharest, Palace Square, from the 1940s. From orasulluibucur.blogspot.ro

Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy is also about WW2, but from the civilian perspective, showing the whole political, diplomatic and social lead-up to the war. Frightening, because it still feels so relevant today.

I can’t say I loved them, it’s more that they shattered me. I think they should be required reading for all those who decide to go to war with such gung-ho spirit (and I simply cannot believe that Donald Trump selected the Remarque book as one of his favourites).

SPOILER TIME: DO YOU EVER SKIP AHEAD TO THE END OF A BOOK JUST TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS?

I may have done this on occasion… (mumble, mumble, hangs head in shame). But I am quite scrupulous about only reading the last 2-3 paragraphs, so usually I don’t really understand what is going on. That is why I appreciate books which don’t have a major twist or denouement on the very last page.

IF YOU HAD A TIME TURNER, WHERE WOULD YOU GO AND WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

chateauvoltaireI may enjoy reading about the cruelty and backstabbing of medieval European courts, but I wouldn’t want to go live there. I think I might have enjoyed working in the laboratory Madame du Chatelet and Voltaire created together at her chateau in Cirey-sur-Blaise, or else join Voltaire a few years later at his chateau in Ferney and be a much more witty and well-read companion in his old age than his rather frivolous niece Mme Denis.

FAVOURITE BOOK (IF YOU HAVE ONE) THAT INCLUDES TIME TRAVEL OR TAKES PLACE IN MULTIPLE TIME PERIODS?

yankeeFor a while I couldn’t think of any, as I’ve avoided books such as The Time Traveller’s Wife (call me prejudiced, but it feels more like Dr Who episode than a novel I could lose myself in). But then I realised that I do have an old favourite: Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is very funny and clever, and also a scathing satire of American and British society and politics of the late 19th century. Another book which remains hugely relevant still today (sadly) and which deserves to be far better known. I can feel an urge to reread it coming on…

WHAT BOOK/SERIES DO YOU WISH YOU COULD GO BACK AND READ AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME?

Probably most of the crime fiction series I like, since once you’ve read them, you can never ‘unknow’ the perpetrator and the plot twists (although in my pre-reviewing days, I have on occasion borrowed a book from the library and wondered why it seemed vaguely familiar, only to discover right at the end that I had in fact read it before). A moment of silence please for the awe-inspiring Martin Beck series.