My parents chose to retire in the little town of Curtea de Argeș (population 27,000), because they were both originally from the local area, still have family there and can easily go and visit the family graves or native village without having to live in a completely rural environment. Despite its idyllic location in the foothills of the Carpathians, it is a sleepy town for most of the year, without a single theatre, cinema or leisure centre, and a library and museum that are hardly ever open or visited by anyone. In recent years, quite a few people from Bucharest have chosen to retire there (usually because of family connections) and built quite beautiful and large houses, in the hope of luring back their children for the holidays. But the children tend to find the place completely dead after they turn seven or so.
However, the name of the town itself hints at its former glory, for it literally means The Court on the Argeș, which is the name of a rather manky looking river nowadays (because they have built hydro power stations all along it), and also the name of the county. In the Middle Ages, when several local fiefdoms united to form the basis for Wallachia (which later became one of the founding states of modern Romania), it was here that they established the first capital city. You can still see the ruins of the court of the Basarab family and the church that they built here, which is even older than the famous local monastery.
After a particularly fraught and busy period at work, I had been looking forward to this week of annual leave. I was going to do so much (Cardiff, writing, day trips to London, editing translations, reviewing, major cleaning blitzes around the house) – but I should have realised that all my poor battered body and brain wanted to do was relax.
My older son vetoed Cardiff last weekend, because he wanted to watch the Euros Final in England rather than Wales. I’d been having second thoughts about travelling anyway, with the rising cases of Covid and the possibility of being pinged about going into self-isolation (which happened to a friend of mine when she went away for a mini-writing retreat in Eastbourne the week before). So we cancelled the hotel and instead wandered a little closer to home. Savill Gardens in Windsor Great Park no longer had the glorious rhododendrons, but there was still plenty to admire there.
On Wednesday we braved a trip to London – the first time I’ve been into town since 16th March 2020. It felt like a good time to go, before the breakdown of any and all restrictions on 19th July. Needless to say, GWR lived up to my bad impression of it: there was no accurate or up-todate information about how busy the trains were, nor about changing trains and platforms. I booked tickets and was told I had to reserve seats for part of the journey, which I initially thought was reassuring. If you reserve seats, you at least know that it’s not going to be crowded, right? Wrong! Turns out that every single seat had been sold – so there was no social distancing. Although on some of the trains there were big signs saying not to sit facing other passengers, we had to sit facing other passengers, including those who did not wear masks.
We went to visit the newly-opened Japan House on Kensington High Street, so we could walk there from Paddington via Kensington Gardens. In the morning, the park was quite quiet, partly because of the cloud cover. In the afternoon, however, when the sun came out, it was a typical London summer day: dog walkers, sports activities, children playing. The streets and shops were busy too (perhaps not like Oxford Street in the pre-Christmas frenzy, but busy enough). I struggled to see what people were complaining about in terms of restrictions or having their personal liberties curtailed.
The Japan House itself was slightly disappointing – or perhaps our expectations for it had been too high. According to the website, it is one of only three such centres around the world, set over three floors, housing exhibitions, a library, a restaurant and all sorts of other things. You had to book in advance for the library, but we ended up having the whole place to ourselves, which was just as well, since it was just one small room: interesting books, but simply not enough of them (and not enough variety – mostly design or visual arts). The ground floor exhibition/shop was beautiful, but a bit too heavily curated, upmarket and expensive. The afternoon tea we had at the restaurant was delicious, but expensive and not very filling (especially with two teenage boys – they had to buy sandwiches to eat immediately before and after).
Of course, for a Japanophile such as myself, it was still very interesting and I discovered some fascinating historical Japanese photos. But do not plan to spend the whole day there, as we thought we would. There simply isn’t enough to do and the chairs in the library are not that comfortable. Still, it was not a wasted afternoon, because we managed to do some clothes shopping, which is nearly impossible to do in our town, which has only a smallish M&S and a SportsDirect. We did not go into any bookshops, although I later found out there is a Waterstone’s a little further away on High Street Kensington.
The very next day, I ventured into London again, this time in a friend’s car to the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, to see Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. I don’t think I was too popular with my friend for choosing such a pared-down, depressing play which feels very apposite for the loneliness of lockdown. But I rather enjoyed its bleakness, and the multitude of ways in which it could be interpreted: the humiliation of old age and impotence or amnesia, the burden of caring responsibilities, the grinding down of personality in a long and not very happy marriage, the need to be seen and appreciated.
Most of the rest of my holiday was relatively humdrum. I slept nearly eight hours most days (a record for me), read a lot of undemanding books (which is not to say badly-written – just not heavy topics), only logged onto my work email once to check if I still needed to help out a colleague with a Zoom call. I had quite a bit of school and car-related admin to do, ordered a new sofa, gave the porch a thorough clean and even went to the gym and for a run. I also tried not to get angry about news and politics and news, about not losing a gramme of weight in spite of my best efforts to eat healthily and follow an intermittent fasting programme. I have watched just two films this week, mostly because my son’s laptop (which we connect to the TV to watch things) is on its dying legs: The Battle of Algiers, a powerful documentary-style Italian film about French colonialism and the war in Algeria, and Midsommar, about which I might write a whole blog post re: the misappropriation and misinterpretation of religious cults and folklore.
Instead of feeling guilty about ‘vegetating’, I call this a ‘fallow field’ period, which, as all farmers know, is so necessary to improve the yield of future crops. As part of my ‘three field rotation’ programme, next week I start the BCLT translation summer school, after which I probably will require another week of annual leave to recover. There is no doubt that I would rather be doing that than the day job (aka ‘main crop’), though!
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know and appreciate Chekhov. We had an actress family friend who performed in The Seagull, so I saw that at a very tender age. I then went through a spell of imagining myself performing in each one of his plays. Of course, I also appreciated his short stories and I knew some biographical details about his life as a doctor and how he supported his family.
I didn’t, however, realise the full extent of his compassion and humanitarian commitment, until I read his non-fiction book Sakhalin Island as part of a #ChekhovTogether readalong with Yelena Furman, Alok Ranjan, Todd, Elisabeth van der Meer and Herb Randall. This also fits in with my Russians in December reading plan. The next one I’ll be tackling will be The Brothers Karamazov, the only Dostoevsky that I’ve not been able to read so far.
Nobody is quite sure why Chekhov at the age of thirty decided to go on a lengthy trip to the penal colony of Sakhalin in 1890. He was not really a militant journalist and he did not go there in any official capacity as a health expert either, yet the book is both a triumph of social (and medical) anthropology and a remarkable piece of investigative journalism. It almost certainly accelerated the progression of his tuberculosis and robbed him of a few months of life, but it was perhaps partly motivated by the recent death of his brother and the fact that he had recently been diagnosed himself with the same dreaded disease.
What Chekhov has given us here is a clear-eyed, empathetic but by no means sentimental account of daily life in the colony, based on his own statistical and qualitative research. As an anthropologist, you can imagine how much I enjoyed this combination of the general and the very specific examples and personal stories. According to Sakhalin officials, Chekhov possessed a remarkable gift for gaining the prisoners’ confidence. It’s equally undeniable that he was moved (and shocked) by what he saw there, so he continued to study documents about Sakhalin’s history, particularly under the Russian administration, and made recommendations for improving living and working conditions for both convicts and settlers (most often composed of freed exiles). The Tsarist bureaucratic machine obviously feared too much negative publicity and therefore assigned ‘helpers’ to him as he went about his interviewing (under the pretext of census-taking). Chekhov himself was aware of the danger of seeing only what he was allowed to see and described it as ‘seeing everything but missing the elephant’. He sought to be balanced and thoughtful in his approach, but he was quite critical both about the system (and its policies):
It seemed to me that I was seeing the extreme and utmost degree of human degradation, lower than which it is simply impossible to go…
Penalties which humiliate and embitter a criminal, long since acknowledged as injurious to the free population, have been retained for convicts, as if a population of exiles is in less danger of becoming hardened and embittered.
And about the people who implement the policies on the ground: the prison wardens, governors and officials in Sakhalin:
In the labour camps served people who were unscrupulous, unsqueamish, difficult to get on with, to whom it was all the same where they served, as long as they could eat, drink, sleep and play cards.
He really would have made a terrific, empathetic anthropologist. He describes the native populations of the islands as well – or what remained of them – the Gilyaks and the Ainu, and is not complimentary about the way they have been treated by either the Japanese or the Russians in this disputed territory:
General K told me that he wished to Russify the Gilyaks. Why this should be necessary I do not know… proximity to a prison will not Russify, but only totally corrupt…
After claiming that the Russians freed the Ainu from the quasi-serfdom they suffered under the Japanese, he then describes at some length the brutalisation of the Ainu by Cossack Lt. Chorny, who boasts: ‘That’s how we do things in Russia!’
Unsurprisingly, Chekhov is not only able to see the monstrous behaviour in people placed in positions of power, but he is always able to view with compassion the weaknesses of marginalised people, or those labelled by society as ‘monsters’.
I was told that at one time there had been benches standing on the path to the lighthouse, but they had been forced to take them away because, while out strolling, the convicts and settled exiles had written on them and had carved with their knives filthy lampoons and all sorts of obscenities. There are a lot of free lovers of this so-called “wall literature” too, but, in penal servitude, the cynicism surpasses all limits and absolutely no comparison may be made with it. Here, not only benches and the walls of backyards, but even the love letters, are revolting. It is remarkable that a man will write and carve various abominations on a bench while at the same time he is feeling lost, abandoned and profoundly unhappy.
Given the rather grim subject matter, I wasn’t expecting much humour in this book, but there are plenty of wry asides, especially about the inclement weather and unforgiving landscape:
What they say about Sakhalin is that there is no climate here, just bad weather… most inclement spot in Russia… When Nature created Sakhalin the last thing she had in mind was mankind and his benefit.
Yet there are also instances when the writer in Chekhov seems to be awestruck and inspired by the endless solitude:
All around there is not a single living soul, not a bird, not a fly, and it is beyond comprehension who the waves are roaring for, who listens to them at nights here… who they would roar for when I was gone..
Sadly, I understand this remote landscape is no longer quite so pristine, but echoing constantly to the drills of oil and gas companies, both on land and offshore.
I read this book in a beautiful edition from Alma Classics, with a new translation by Brian Reeve, invaluable annotations/endnotes by both the author and the translator, and further enhanced by the presence of related documents, such as impressions of his trip through Siberia, as well as letters to relatives and friends.
In the spirit of pure escapism, which is what these Friday Fun posts are all about, here are some hotels that I can but dream of… and which might not be available to me even after the restrictions are eased, thanks to their formidable price tags. However, it’s not necessarily the luxury that I’m talking about, but the blissful and harmonious merging with nature.
This is in many ways the perfect #EU27Project read, although three of the countries it refers to are outside the EU.
Stasiuk is a Polish writer who is not smitten with the idea of the West or even Central Europe, as so many other writers and citizens from former Communist states are, in moth-like fascination. Instead he is looking at lesser-known and decaying pockets of Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Albania and Hungary. He is therefore doing those neglected and forgotten places a favour. Yet, by deliberately staying away from the tourist route (there is no mention of Budapest or Bucharest or Brasov or any of the more popular sights), he is presenting perhaps an equally lop-sided view as the Tourist Offices of those countries.
If Britain or the US might be said to have a nostalgia for empire or world domination, Stasiuk here has a nostalgia for marginalisation and oppression, for what he calls the ‘Balkan shambles’. As if suffering confers authenticity and profundity. This is not so much a tribute to a vibrant and resilient community as a eulogy to a dying way of life.
I’m not sure I agree with this premise, which is why I read this book with a mix of feelings. On the one hand, I loved his atmospheric descriptions of everyday life in villages, which reminded me of summers spent at my grandmother’s house:
Telkibanya, a village that hadn’t changed in a hundred years. Wide, scattered houses under fruit trees… From windows of homes, the smell of stewing onions. In market stalls, mounds of melons, paprikas. A woman emerged from a cellar with a glass jug filled with wine… Old women sitting in front of the houses on the main street. Like lizards in the sun. Their black clothes stored the afternoon heart, and their eyes gazed on the world without motion and without surprise, because they had seen everything.
The author also has a good grasp of the historical and political nuances of this troubled part of the world, and is adept at conveying all this complexity with a frankness which would be unwelcome from a writer who has not grown up there.
…everyone should come here. At least those who make use of the name Europe. It should be an initiation ceremony, because Albania is the unconscious of the continent. Yes, the European id, the fear that at night haunts slumbering Paris, London, and Frankfurt am Main. Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer…. so I drank black Fernet and tried to imagine a country that one day everyone would leave. They would abandon their land to the mercy of time, which would break open the envelope the hours and months and in pure form enter what remained of cities, to dissolve them, turn them into primal air and minerals.
It soon becomes clear that this is not a typical travelogue. The author criss-crosses these countries, and there is little attempt at chronology or systematisation of his travels. Instead, one memory gives rise to another, themes flow easily from one to the next. Yet he has an uncanny ability to define a region’s main characteristic. Here he talks, for instance, about the fertile hills of Moldova, conveying something of the gentle nature of the Moldavians.
Continual green, continual fecundity, the land undulating, the horizon rising and falling, showing us only what we expect, as if not wishing to cause us the least unpleasantness. Grapes, sunflowers, corn, a few animals, grapes, sunflowers, corn, cows and sheep, on occasion a a garden, and rows of nut trees always on either side of the road. No free space in this scenery, no sudden disjunction, and the imagination, encountering no ambush, soon dozes. Most likely events took place here a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago, but they left no trace. Life seeps into the soil, disperses into the air, burns calmly and evenly, as if confident that it will never burn out.
So what did I dislike about it? I am conflicted regarding his romanticism about the messiness, untidiness, lack of discipline, the sheer ‘Orientalism’ of this part of the world. He claims to genuinely love the shambles
…the amazing weight of things, the lovely slumber, the facts that make no difference, the calm and methodical drunkenness in the middle of the day, and those misty eyes that with no effort pierce reality and with no fear open to the void. I can help it. The heart of my Europe beats in Sokolow Podlaski and in Husi. It does not beat in Vienna. Or in Budapest. And most definitely not in Krakow. Those places are all aborted transplants.
Yet this to me smacks of traveller’s voyeurism, like the British love for India at arm’s length. ‘Everything half-assed and fucked up’ is a wonderful place to visit for the authentic experience, but it is not necessarily a desirable place to live. I’ve never understood the appeal of disaster movies either, other than a triumphalist affirmation of our own superiority in the face of catastrophe (meanwhile, great swathes of the world are still trying to recover from the previous disaster).
And yet, and yet… expecting all parts of our naughty, moody, spotty continent to behave in consistent and elegant fashion is neither realistic nor desirable. Much of this messiness is not just historically inflicted, but also self-inflicted. So what should those unruly teens aspire to? Especially when some of the older democracies and hitherto solid ‘grown-up’ civilisations seem to be losing their elegance (ahem! naming no names!).
Ultimately, Stasiuk sees himself as a chronicler of the period of transition from East Bloc to post-Communism. Many of the scenes he describes have perhaps already disappeared. So yes, it is a valuable document, rooted in its time and place. Just forgive this reader for not being able to read it entirely objectively.
In terms of books, of course. I know the year is not quite over, but I am stuck in a huge book, so I don’t think I’ll get to read much else.
I’ve done a summary of my top five crime reads (books published in 2013 and reviewed by me) on the Crime Fiction Lover website. These, however, are more of a motley collection of books I’ve loved, regardless of genre, reviews, whether they were published recently or not. And they don’t fit neatly into a list of ten.
Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner The most frightening description of OCD, conveyed with a real sense of menace. Psychological shudders guaranteed.
Jean-Claude Izzo: Marseille Trilogy Just glorious, despite the darkness – a symphony for the senses.
Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast Damning, elegant prose, as precise as a scalpel, dissecting families and tyranny of all kinds.
Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers Somewhere between anthropology and fiction lies this utterly moving book, an unflinching look at the everyday life, hopes and horrors in an Indian slum. The book that I wish more than anything I could have written.
Esi Eudgyan: Half Blood Blues Who cares about accuracy, when it has the most amazing voice and melody, all of the whorls of the best of jazz improvisation?
Denise Mina: Garnethill Another book strong on voice and characters, perfectly recreating a Glasgow which I’ve never known but can instantly recognise. Initially depressing but ultimately uplifting.
Karin Fossum: Calling Out for You Almost elegiac crime fiction, with uncomfortable portrayals of casual racism, the cracks in an almost perfect little society/ This was an eerie and haunting tale, almost like a ghost story.
Ioanna Bourazopoulou: What Lot’s Wife Saw The most imaginative novel I have read all year, it defies all expectations or genre categories. I felt transposed into an Alice in Wonderland world, where nothing is quite what it seems.
John Burdett: Bangkok Eight Clash of cultures and unsentimental look at the flesh trade in Thailand, this one again has an inimitable voice.
Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day If you like your humour as black and brief as an espresso, you will love the tough world of Giorgio Pellegrini. So much more stylish than Tarantino!
Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Man in Love Perhaps it’s too soon to add it to the list, as I only read it last week, but it felt to me like an instant classic.
So what strikes me about this list?
1) They are none of them a barrel of laughs, although there are occasional flashes of (rather dark) humour in them.
2) With the exception of the Katherine Boo ethnography, I wouldn’t have expected to be bowled over by any of the above. So keeping an open mind is essential for discovering that next amazing read.
3) There were other books which initially made much more of an impression (the Fireworks Brigade, shall we say), but when I look back on what really stuck with me, what made me think or feel differently as a result of reading them, those are the books I would have to point out.
4) They are each set in a different city and country: London, Marseille, a dining room in Germany, Mumbai, war-time Paris, Glasgow, Norway, the Dead Sea sometime in the future, Bangkok, Venice and Stockholm. What can I say? I love to travel!
On that more upbeat note, I’ve discovered many new (to me) writers and series this year. Some of them are gentler, funnier reads, perfect to unwind. Here are a few that I hope to read more of: Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Pierre Lemaitre and Anne Zouroudi.
The bad news is: I have done no editing whatsoever on my novel and very little new writing during the summer. The good news is: I have read lots of books (despite my husband’s hogging of the Kindle, where I had many more stored). Which does mean a lot of reviews that I need to catch up on. For the time being, here is a simple list of what I read this August, plus my top pick for the month, to be aggregated thanks to Mysteries in Paradise‘s efforts. Apologies, not all of my reads were crime fiction.
1. Simenon: Les nouvelles enquêtes de Maigret – for the Classics in September feature on Crime Fiction Lover website
2. David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest – made it about halfway, not the best beach reading, more on that later
3. Alison Bruce: The Siren – second in the Cambridge crime series, loved the first book even more though
4. Cristian Mihai: Jazz – author interview coming up on my blog shortly
14. Donato Carvisi: The Lost Girls of Rome (these last three are all going to get reviewed sooner rather than later, hopefully within a week or so – see what I mean about falling behind?)
And my top pick is Leighton Gage: Blood of the Wicked. I am a Brazil fan anyway (should that be a Brazil nut?) and I found the background and local colour very well done, although profoundly unsettling. I will definitely read more by this author.
… for pesky adverbs, overemphatic descriptions and stilted dialogues, that is. I am going away on holiday and will not have access to email, Twitter, Facebook or WordPress. In short, none of the comforts and distractions of present-day life. So I can dedicate myself whole-heartedly to the children, the beach and editing my first draft.
Or so I thought. Then, slowly, slowly, other (professional) obligations started creeping up on me, including a few things that I had promised to do before the holidays but never got around to doing. And some enjoyable tasks, such as reading my friend Cristian Mihai’s first novel Jazz, and then preparing to grill him in an interview.
So now it looks like I’ll be lucky to get any rest over the next few weeks…
However, you will get a rest. From me. And my very prolific (and no, I do not mean proficient) blogging.
Should you be suffering from withdrawal symptoms, however, here are a few that I made earlier:
I was passing through the charming town of Chambéry earlier today and I saw this shop front, so I had to share this with you. This shop is for a Public/Official Writer. The shop is called ‘The Ear and the Quill’ and we are assured that the shopowner is a certified Public Writer and a member of the Academy of Public Writers. Sadly, the shop was closed on a Monday, so I could not go in and ask what precisely he or she writes, and for whom.
So, if all my writing and publishing efforts fail, nice to know there is still a career option available for me. I just hope it doesn’t involve calligraphy (or too much French grammar)!