Pascale Kramer was born in Geneva and bred in Lausanne, worked in Zurich, but has also spent long stints abroad, in LA and Paris, and this shows in her writing. I don’t expect you’ll have heard of her, unless you are very passionate about Swiss authors, but she has written 14 novels, is a prize winner in her home country and has had three books translated into English and published by Bellevue Literary Press: The Living, The Child, and Autopsy of a Father. The latter has been reviewed by the EuroLitNetwork.
The novel I picked up on my last visit to Geneva L’implacable brutalité du réveil (The Unbearable Brutality of Waking) has not been translated yet, and it seems less ambitious in scope than some of her other works. She has a reputation for observing minute reactions and behaviours, and for exploring tricky family dynamics. She certainly does so here, but the wider social aspect which appears in Autopsy of a Father is missing.
I bought this one under the mistaken assumption that it was about expat life, but in fact Alissa and Richard seem to be Americans living in LA. They have only recently moved into their own condo and have a five week old daughter. Alissa seems to be struggling with post-natal depression and feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion. Her parents live nearby and have supported her all her life, but now they are trying to get her to cut the apron-strings, and she feels somewhat neglected. Then her mother drops the bombshell that she has fallen in love with somebody else and left the parental home.
Alissa’s little world seems to split wide open at this news. She feels no desire for her husband, struggles to connect with her baby, finds it a pain to keep in touch with her girlfriends, makes silly mistakes and is far too attracted to their male neighbour whom she sees swimming and embracing a woman one day.
This is familiar ground, one that has been treated in a much more emotionally wrenching way by Ariana Harwicz in Die, My Love. Alissa seems spoilt and whiny in a way that Harwicz’ narrator (who is far closer to a violent breakdown) does not. The close observation of Alissa’s daily routine is stifling, but a trifle predictable and not all that interesting, while the flights of poetry and the peaks and troughs of an unstable state of mind in the Harwics novel are exhilarating (if depressing). Could that be a cultural difference between an Argentinian and a Swiss writer, both of them now settled in France?
It also had me wondering why Swiss writers are quite often keen to set their novels abroad, particularly in the United States. I’m thinking of Joel Dicker, of course, with his Harry Quebert Affair and its sequel. But if I just glance at the Swiss books I’ve piled up on my bedside table, such a large proportion of them are set elsewhere: Tunisia (Jonas Lüscher), Norway (Peter Stamm), Italy (Pascal Mercier), East Africa (Alex Capus). Of course, I’m not suggesting that writers have to stick to their homeland, but perhaps the Swiss feel more confined than most by their very small country and its many, many rules?
So, overall a rather disappointing read, although I might explore other books by this author at some other point. By way of contrast, I turn next towards an author who describes village life in Switzerland in disconcertingly perfect detail: Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz.
Last night I went to my ‘local’ theatre and watched the final year students at RADA in Penelope Skinner’s play Linda. I had heard that it was a powerful exploration of a woman’s midlife crisis so I took a friend of roughly the same age as me along who has also recently divorced and is juggling full-time work, children and a useless ex. Turns out, the play was so accurate and relevant that we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!
Linda is a senior brand manager at a cosmetics company who seems to have it all, albeit with the usual compromises. She has won awards for her work and is passionate about changing the world, but is being pushed aside for a younger, dumber, more ruthless version of herself. She has a lovely house and family, but her two daughters feel insufficiently loved by her and her husband is cheating. As the world comes crashing on her from all sides, she refuses to fall silent, to become invisible as women over 50 have been told to do. At times, Linda seems her own worst enemy, but the people around her are anything but understanding or appreciative. Yet the young women in her life (her daughters, her work rival) are trapped themselves in other people’s expectations of them.
It was very funny as well as bitter, with so many lines resonating (I may not be remembering them 100% accurately, so apologies, but here is the gist of them):
‘Now your beauty seems like an asset but when you grow older, you will find yourself wondering if your achievements were because of what you could do, or because of the way you looked.’
‘So what was I in this story between you and my husband? If you were the crazy girl and he was the hero, what was I?’ ‘You were nobody.’
‘My whole life I’ve been watching what I eat, what I I say, how I walk, how I talk, what I wear, because that’s what you’ve got to do when you’re a woman. We do whatever they do, but backwards and in heels. And all this while achieving, climbing, raising children. You feel guilty at work because you’re not with the kids, you feel guilty at home because you’re not at work…’
‘I used to send you reminders about my birthday every year, because I could not bear the thought of you forgetting about it. I put up with doing all the work at work and then all the work at home, because I thought you were loyal and reliable.’
The finale very nearly nosedived into melodrama, but then there was an epilogue: Linda’s prize acceptance speech from ten years ago. All the more devastating, because it is full of optimism, belief in self and others, and in a better future for women. And entirely deluded, as it turns out. Sadly, seeing the backlash about #MeToo, I think we may still have a few decades to go before optimism is justified…
Needless to say, the actors gave such polished performances it’s hard to believe they haven’t quite graduated yet. Queuing up in the ladies’ toilets after the show, we were all shell-shocked and muttering: ‘That was unbearably close to home!’ ‘God, they need to set up a women’s after-show session with stiff drinks to hand!’.
This is always going to make for uncomfortable viewing, especially if you are a man (although it is not deliberately man-bashing: the men in Linda’s life are thoughtless, while the other women are vicious). But if you would like to watch it, it’s on until the 1st of December at RADA in London.
Leila Slimani: Chanson Douce – Lullaby (trans. Sam Taylor)
I was delighted when I heard that a young woman of Moroccan origin had won the Goncourt Prize in 2016 for a novel about domestic life, even though I had not read it yet. This is because the most prestigious literary prize in France is often given to middle-aged white men writing about worthy and very earnest subjects (usually the Second World War). So it was fun to imagine the mysognistic, rather pompous Goncourt brothers turning in their grave.
Since then, I have read the prize-winning book in both French and English (although I still have to read Slimani’s first book Dans le jardin de l’ogre) and have heard mixed reactions to it, particularly in the English-speaking world. I think there are two reasons for that. First, the way it has been marketed as a novel of suspense, a thriller, the next Gone Girl (you should be ashamed of yourself, Daily Telegraph). Secondly, the deceptively simple style, which can come across as rather flat, particularly in translation.
So let me tackle the first issue. There is no suspense. We know from the first sentence that the children have died. We know by the end of the first few paragraphs that the nanny has done it. The rest of the book is about understanding what led up to it, but not a thriller, so it is not about getting clear closure or simple cause and effect.
Myriam and Paul are an average bourgeois couple with two young children, both working, both trying to make a go of combining career and family in Paris in a flat that is probably slightly too small. They hire a day nanny, Louise, to look after the children and at first she seems perfect: small, neat, prim, always available, always patient. But Louise has a lonely life and is far too involved in her employers’ affairs. In such cases, it is too simple to point to mental illness or a single cause for the crime. In fact, as in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone (which has a similar structure of starting with the outcome), there may be a main reason but there are many contributing factors and there are no clearcut answers. This book poses more questions than it answers, with the result that many readers complain that they thought it ended too abruptly or that there was a chunk missing. All of the people in the book whose lives have intersected with Louise’s, however tangentially, feel that if they’d done something differently, this tragedy might not have happened, but in fact there is nothing to indicate that this would be true. There is the inescapable sense of Greek tragedy and fate, of Moira, about it all. A young man who had been looked after as a child by Louise realises:
.. what he first felt earlier, when the policewoman told them, was not shock or surprise but an immense and painful relief. A feeling of jubilation, even. As if he’d always know that some menace had hung over him, a pale, sulphurous, unspeakable menace… Fate had decreed that the calamity would strike elsewhere.
Furthermore, the book is not about whodunnit or even whydunnit, but about issues of class, social divisions, parental pressures, conflicted maternal sentiments, loneliness and fear of abandonment. The countless minute humiliations, anxieties and cruel blows of fate that Louise is subjected to (from the tax office hounding her to the rotten shower cubicle to the well-intentioned but insensitive treatment by her employers) would damage even a stronger person. Add to that her dissatisfaction with her own family, her estrangement from her daughter and the way she used to be mercilessly teased by her deceased husband about her job, which is only fit for ‘illegal foreigners’. Her job isolates her still further, as she has no one but the children to talk with, and the playground nannies’ support network does not apply to her, since she is indeed one of the few white French women doing the job. Above all, Louise is a victim o her own aspirations to be a good bourgeois housewife and mother: she perceives Paul and Myriam initially as the perfect family and cannot forgive them for not living up to that ideal.
The second, stylistic issue does owe something to the translation. As with Japanese books, I have noticed that when German or French books are written in a very unadorned style and then translated into English, they can sound a bit too bare, almost trite. Slimani admits that she was deliberately following the tradition of Camus and Marguerite Duras, aiming for a very simple style. ‘When the thoughts and concepts are confusing and complex, you need a very simple style or else you will overwhelm the reader.’ This is the transparent style of allowing words and deeds to speak for themselves rather than going too deep inside a character’s motivation (think Camus’ L’Étranger or Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Fatale). The very opposite of the voluble, ornate style of the Spanish and Italian (or even Norwegian) authors who have recently become popular. So perhaps she is counter-fashion at the moment. Yet still winning all the prizes and recognition.
No, I clean no other toilets than my own. I only stand on my feet all day on the days when I deliver training courses and run through airports to catch my flight. I don’t usually get my bottom pinched by drunk customers, though the occasional leery look down my shirt is par for the course. I may be up all night because of jet lag or because I suddenly have to change my course at the last minute, but I don’t have to do night shifts. So I make no claims to be working as hard as the average single mother on a minimum wage job.
I also know how to count my blessings. The children are older and can do many things for themselves. I get paid reasonably well when I do work, even though the gaps between those moments are sometimes too long. Yet the precariousness of this freelance existence is brought home to me every time I fall ill or have a less than stellar experience of business travel. Let me give you an example:
I have a contract for a piece of work which pays the fixed sum of 500 euros for a day of classroom training plus a follow-up virtual session of half a day. Sounds quite good, right? Luckily, in this case, the sum was fixed in euros rather than pounds, so I am going to see a bit more £££ for my effort: 450 at the current exchange rate (which may change by the time I am paid, usually a month or two after the event).
However, that rate does not take into account the following:
1 two-hour meeting with the client, 3 one-hour teleconferences, numerous emails and many hours of course design – all unpaid – I estimate about another 3-4 days of work at least.
While some of my travel expenses are paid for, it does not include compensation for the cancelled flight and airport parking from the previous week, when I was too ill to attend the initial course, so I am out-of-pocket to the tune of about £100.
For 7 1/2 hours of training, I spent 15 hours travelling, contending with flight delays and massive queues at airports. Bear in mind, this was in Europe and for a relatively short flight, but I occasionally have courses in Asia and the US.
Luckily, I have supportive friends who looked after the children while I was away and another friend in Geneva who housed me overnight, but if I’d had to pay for all that, the course money would probably not have covered my expenses.
I’ve never been able to eat on the days when I deliver workshops, plus, as I age, I discover my body is less and less able to cope with the strain, the strange sleep patterns, the jet lag, the negative feedback. I usually end up with a migraine during or after such events, and am prostrate for a couple of days afterwards.
I don’t even get much satisfaction out of it, as quite often I cannot structure the course whichever way I please (despite the many hours of discussions and design efforts, I am only the lowly trainer-deliverer), so I’m often between a rock and a hard place when expectations are not met, the client is dissatisfied and the training provider goes on the defensive.
This is, to all intents and purposes, a zero hours contract: I have no idea when my services will be next required. I get sudden requests for help at short notice that I have to turn down because of the difficulty of making childcare arrangements. Flexibility may be wonderful during the children’s holidays, when I can be mostly at home with them (albeit often preparing materials or doing teleconferences). Not so wonderful however, when you have no income for 1-2 months at a time, then only a dribble the third month. Also, I have no proper pension or other form of security, no insurance, no security of any kind.
This is the kind of job that single people or those without children excel at. Or else those whose families are extremely supportive (or who have a Teflon nanny whom they pay in gold nuggets). Even so, I have friends who have whittled their savings account to zero during lean years (and counted themselves lucky that they did not have children to support).
By this point, that nasty, suspicious little noisy wren is turning somersaults and screeching in my ear: ‘Is it worth it? Can’t you do anything else?’ But of course I’m told everywhere that it’s too late to change career to something more bookish, that I’m over-qualified for a more administrative role, and over-specialised to do a more senior generalist position. While any other in-house training role will require just as much travel.
So forgive me this fest of self-pity. I’m actually trying to highlight a plight for many single mothers out there, regardless of what level of income they are at. Both single and ‘coupled’ mothers in many households I know have been doing the work of both parents anyway, organising complicated childcare arrangements for the times when they travel (plus handling all the laundry, housekeeping, school meetings, medical appointments and homework upon their return home), but (unlike me hitherto) there often isn’t even a reluctant someone there who could, if pushed and nagged and reminded daily, take the kids earlier one day for a school trip and maybe even remember to pack their passports or lunches.
Yet the corporate world has nothing but disdain and impatience for this ‘lack of focus’ and punishes women’s careers accordingly. The divorce courts allow more compensation for wives of millionaires who haven’t worked a day of their lives, rather than the very real loss of earnings of working women who have tried to find a balance and do the best for the sake of the family.
After all, nobody asked them for this sacrifice, right?
So no, if you scratch me, I will not bleed. If you stab my heart, your knife will splinter on sheer flint. The calamine-soaked bandages sticking to the pus of my burn wounds neither hurt nor soothe me. I’ve been burning since the night I forgot to check on Freddie. Hell is the only place for me and I dare not leave it any time soon.
The forest fires in Canada may no longer be in the news, but they are still raging (although some rain is making the firefighters’ work slightly easier). That will be a post for another day, about the shortlasting visbility of news stories…
My Diverse December reading initiative started with a white-knuckle ride of a novel ‘The Killing Lessons’ by Saul Black (aka Glen Duncan). Well written and scary thought it was, it disappointed me in two respects: the over-the-top Hollywood explosions and violence; and the fact that there was nothing about it at all to signal that it was written by somebody from an ethnic minority. Far be it from me to suggest that BAME writers should stick to BAME themes – but there was no ‘alternative point of view’ to introduce that elusive element of diversity that I was hoping to find in my Diverse December reading.
So it was with some cultural relief that I turned to my second book in the reading initiative: ‘The Expatriates’ by Janice Y.K. Lee, which is about different categories of expats living in Hong Kong. The author herself is of Korean origin, grew up in Hong Kong and studied and worked in the US, so weaves in all these diverse elements in her story.
This is the story of three women living as expats in Hong Kong and how their lives intersect over the course of roughly 18 months. Hilary is a wealthy housewife living in a placid marriage of convenience where very little real communication takes place. She is frustrated by her inability to conceive and toying with the idea of adopting a mixed-race boy from the orphanage, but closes her eyes very deliberately to anything that is less than perfect about the expat life.
David follows her lead, is amenable to what she wants. Their relationship has cooled in the meantime, cooled into politeness and well wishes, but she pushes that thought away, because how many difficult thoughts can one handle in one sunny afternoon?
Margaret used to love her job in landscape architecture, which is nearly impossible to pursue in the cramped neighbourhoods of Hong Kong, so she has devoted herself to her children instead. Yet we sense she is not quite satisfied with her loss of identity, that she remains critical of expat attitudes and is more self-aware than most. The author implies that expats are the new colonialists.
This was what bothered her: the presumption of the expatriates in Hong Kong. It is unspoken, except by the most obnoxious, but it is there, in their actions. They way they loudly demand ice in their drinks or for the AC to be turned up or down or for ‘Diet Coke, not Coke Zero’, as if everyone thought such a distinction was crucial. The idea, so firmly entrenched, that they could be louder, demand more, because they were somehow above – really, better than – the locals. How did that still exist in this day and age? And it was in her.
Finally, Mercy is the child of Korean immigrants to New York, who made her family proud with her Columbia degree, but who has since struggled to secure a job, to find purpose in her life or even a steady boyfriend. She is neither American nor Chinese, and she is often made to feel inferior to her peers.
Hong Kong was supposed to have been a new start – if one could say on needed a new start at the age of twenty-four… People were friendly. She found her cheap apartment and felt that she was getting a foothold. Then the office door was locked one day, the publisher went under and she didn’t have a job again. Then it became a sort of roller-coaster where she had a job, then didn’t, then got another lead… lurching from one near-missed opportunity to another… She sits at home, eats almost nothing, looks at her dwindling bank account online and wonders when she’s supposed to start her life again, when she is allowed.
Of course, we soon realise that there is something deeper going on underneath all this vague malaise. Margaret’s life has been touched by tragedy and she has become numb and detached. Mercy has involuntarily played a part in that tragedy and she is about to impact upon Hilary’s life as well. The balletic moves that the author imposes upon her characters, how they dance in and out of each other’s conscience and line of sight, how they change and develop (in a rather mechanical and rushed way towards the end) reminded me of soap operas at times. The plot is far less interesting than the wry, witty, sometimes acerbic observations of expat life, the often patronising encounters between expats and locals, and the subtle hierarchy between the different ‘types’ of expats (and how the Americans end up huddling together). The artificial setting and the lifestyle of the arid expat bubble are described to perfection, but I’d have liked to find out more about secondary characters like Chinese Olivia or supermom Frannie, who was seen crying in her car once. All too frequently the most interesting aspects happen ‘off-stage’, are not part of the main story and are recounted in anecdotal fashion, rather like in a magazine article (the author used to be a journalist on women’s magazines, and this sometimes shows in her breezy style).
This is the Hong Kong curse that expat housewives talk about in hushed voices: the man who takes to Hong Kong the wrong way. He moves from an egalitarian American society, where he’s supposed to take out the trash every day and help with the dinner dishes, to a place where women cater to his every desire – a secretary who anticipates his needs before he does, a servant in the house who brings him his espresso just the way he likes it… – and the local population is not as sassy with the comebacks as where he came from… The rental buildings are littered with the ghosts of ruined marriages… a man lost to the paid hostesses who found his every utterance completely fascinating… a welcome relief from the woman he faces at home, complaining about his travel, his schedule, his lack of time with the kids. So why not change it up? Why not trade up? Or down, and have some fun?
…the man just starts his life anew, with a younger model of a wife, sometimes a slightly smaller apartment, but his new life pretty quickly looks like his old one… To add insult to injury, in his fervor not to mess things up again… when he has more children, he vows to really do things right this time, so he pitches in to an unimaginable extent, does more with the kids… so the new family gets the benefit of this new and improved man, and the old family gets to see it all.
I’ve quoted somewhat extensively from this, because there is much I recognise in the shallow, smug and insular society she describes, although Geneva is less extreme than some other, more isolated locations. The expat community forms the backdrop to the crime novel that I’m currently working on, so I was paying close attention to the ‘show vs. tell’ ratio. I couldn’t help feeling that this erred a little on the ‘tell’ side of the spectrum.
The sterile and claustrophobic environment, the fact that everyone seems to know everyone else within the English-speaking community, can make tensions run high and unpleasant secrets will be exposed at the most inconvenient of times. I would perhaps have enjoyed this more if there had been a murder or two! The conclusion left me nonplussed: if these women could only forgive each other and bond over that most marvellous achievement of all – motherhood – everything will be all right. This felt too facile and rushed a conclusion, when everything leading up to it had shown that the reality is far more complex and nuanced than that.
But, overall, an entertaining book providing a window into a world far removed from the everyday most of us experience. I would recommend it to anyone contemplating a move to Hong Kong or elsewhere as a ‘trailing spouse’ – although, be warned, it might put you off it for good! I think I might also take a look at the author’s debut novel The Piano Teacher, set in Hong Kong in the 1940s/50s, a period of political and social turmoil.