The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy

I have to read everything that Deborah Levy writes. I first heard of her when her novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I loved that one and have gobbled up every work of hers since then. Last year, the second installment of her ‘living autobiography’ called The Cost of Living made it to my Best of 2018 list.

Man Who Saw Everything

The Beatles play a significant role in The Man Who Saw Everything.

Abbey Road is the last major album that The Beatles recorded together before the band officially split in 1970.

But a few months earlier, on 8 August 1969, the band did a photo shoot for that album cover on Abbey Road outside EMI Studios. The photo shows the Fab Four crossing the zebra in a single file. John Lennon was first, followed by Ringo Starr, then Paul McCartney who was walking barefoot, and George Harrison at the end. It is now considered the most iconic photo of The Beatles.

This photo was clicked by the late Scottish photographer Iain Macmillan who stood on a ladder in the middle of the street while a policeman blocked the traffic. The whole shoot took roughly ten minutes. The photo also fuelled a weird conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney was actually dead and the man walking barefoot was a lookalike signifying a corpse, while Lennon was the priest and Harrison, the undertaker.

8 August 2019, incidentally, was the 50th anniversary of that iconic photo being taken.

abbey road pic
Image Source: Reuters & BBC

Coming to The Man Who Saw Everything, this is how the novel opens…

It’s like this, Saul Adler: when I was twenty-three I loved the way you touched me, but when the afternoon slipped in and you slipped out of me, you were already looking for someone else. No, it’s like this, Jennifer Moreau: I loved you every night and every day, but you were scared of my love and I was scared of my love, too. No, she said, I was scared of your envy, which was bigger than your love. Attention, Saul Adler. Attention! Look to the left and to the right, cross the road and get to the other side.

We move on to Part One, which is set in September 1988. Saul Adler, 28, is crossing Abbey Road, preoccupied in thought, when he is hit by a car, a Jaguar. The car’s mirror procured in Milan is in smithereens. Saul is not grievously hurt and manages to get up and keep his date with his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau.

It is Jennifer’s idea to replicate the iconic Abbey Road photo of The Beatles. But here, it would be only Saul crossing the zebra.

I asked her why she (Jennifer) was carrying a stepladder. She told me that was how the original photo of the Beatles on the Abbey Road zebra crossing was taken in August 1969 at 11:30 am. The photographer, Iain MacMillan, had placed the ladder at the side of the zebra while a policeman was paid to direct the traffic. MacMillan was given ten minutes to take the photo. But as I was not actually famous in any way, we couldn’t ask the police for five minutes so we had to work quickly.

Then Saul and Jennifer spend some time together before she abruptly breaks off with him. Jennifer has ambitions to pursue photography in America. While Saul, who is a historian, is set to travel to East Berlin shortly to research an article he is planning to write on the GDR (Germany is not reunited yet, and Berlin is divided by The Wall).

For this purpose, Saul has been assigned a translator in East Berlin, a man called Walter Muller. And Saul will be lodging with Muller’s mom Ursula and his sister, Luna.

Meanwhile, Saul falls in love with Walter Muller. And Luna, a big Beatles fan to whom Saul gifts the photos he clicked, is a nurse desperate to escape from the GDR. Then there is a friend, who the Mullers know, called Rainer, who may or may not be a Stasi spy.

This may all seem straightforward. But then some off-kilter moments begin to show up in the narrative.

Here’s one, in a conversation between Saul and Luna…

‘Listen, Luna.’ I felt as if I were floating out of my body as I spoke. ‘In September 1989, the Hungarian government will open the border for East German refugees wanting to flee to the West. Then the tide of people will be unstoppable. By November 1989, the borders will be open and within a year your two Germanys will become one.’

When Part Two begins, it is June 2016 and we are once again on Abbey Road, London. Saul Adler is crossing the zebra, deep in thought and is hit by a Jaguar, whose mirror is also shattered. This time Saul is badly injured.

As he lies in the hospital, various people close to him sit by his bedside and try to bring some coherence to his thoughts.

The Man Who Say Everything then is a wonderfully disorienting novel. If you are looking for a solid anchor, Deborah Levy refuses to give you any. Reading this novel is akin to accepting that the ground you are standing on is not steady but is constantly shifting. Nothing is certain.

The Man Who Saw Everything is a novel of ideas, themes and recurring motifs.

Here are some motifs, which brilliantly display Levy’s play with language. Luna Muller is scared of jaguars prowling outside their family dacha in East Berlin. The car which hits Saul while crossing the zebra is a Jaguar.

Crossing the zebra on Abbey Road is another recurring concept. There is the actual Beatles photo. Then we have Jennifer recreating the photo shoot with Saul crossing the zebra on the same Abbey Road. Thrown into the mix is Luna’s love for the Beatles memorabilia. Luna is a nurse, and wants to go to Liverpool because she wants to see Penny Lane for herself.

Then there is the theme of a shattered man. In one of Jennifer’s photo exhibitions in New York, a triptych depicting Saul is mounted on the wall and is titled ‘A Man in Pieces’. Later in the novel, Luna sends across an envelope in which Saul’s photo crossing the zebra is torn in pieces. And then Saul, in a way, is in pieces mentally when his accident occurs.

There are some dominant themes in the novel too.

One is the presence of authoritarianism. Saul Adler is harassed by a domineering father, while Walter Muller and Luna have to grapple with a restrictive fatherland, the GDR. Saul is also writing an article on Stalin and his father and male tyrants in general.

The other theme explored is time blurring and merging into one another. When the past is entwined with the present and the boundaries are hazy, do we perceive the past with the lens of the present? Or the does the past always stain and weigh heavy on the way we live in the present?  The novel also examines the role of history on a broader scale and the events in personal life, how both can collude to impact the life of an individual.

But The Man Who Saw Everything is ultimately a story of the protagonist Saul Adler. He is portrayed as a very attractive, self-centred man, something that is pointed out to him by not only Jennifer and Walter, but as events play out is also apparent to the reader. Levy also highlights the fluidity of sexuality as Saul Adler is as capable of falling in love with Walter Muller as he is with Jennifer Moreau. He is a good looking man with intense blue eyes and always wears his deceased mother’s pearls around his neck.

In his relationships, Saul Adler is selfish. An affair leads to a final breach with Jennifer. And he only thinks of himself when he tries to get Walter Muller out of East Berlin.

‘He doesn’t care about his own life so he doesn’t care about the lives of others.’

More importantly is Saul Adler’s mind. Does Saul perceive himself in the same way that others see him? Is he trying to selectively recall events in his past, while suppressing others?

The Man Who Saw Everything has all the hallmarks of Deborah Levy’s craft – finely chiseled prose, play with language, oddball moments and a wonderful feeling of strangeness. The narrative is fractured as memories, morphine and a muddled mind morph into one another. The view appears skewed just like the shattered fragments of the Jaguar’s mirror. Indeed, it’s a haunting, stunning novel suffused with sadness, loss, betrayal and missed chances.

Even as I write this, I realize that there are many facets of the novel I have not touched upon or even uncovered for that matter. And that many more layers will be revealed if I choose to re-read.

Here’s a final quote…

‘Hello, Saul. How’s it going?’

‘I’m trying to cross the road,’ I replied.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you’ve been trying to cross the road for thirty years but stuff happened on the way.’

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Childhood, Youth, Dependency – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally & Michael Favala Goldman)

Tove Ditlevsen was reputed to be a renowned literary figure in Denmark with many poetry collections and novels to her credit.

But before I read The Copenhagen Trilogy, I had no clue about her existence let alone her impressive body of work.

Thanks to the internet and Twitter, I became aware of these incredible set of memoirs when Penguin Modern Classics reissued them last month. It is safe to say that they will easily find a place in my Best of the Year list.

Copenhagen Trilogy 1

The Copenhagen Trilogy is a collection of Ditlevsen’s memoirs; the first, second and third books are titled, Childhood, Youth and Dependency respectively.

In Childhood, Tove is living with her parents and her elder brother Edvin in Vesterbro, a working class neighbourhood in Copenhagen.

The family exists on the fringes of poverty, a fact further exacerbated by the father being in and out of jobs and her mother not holding on to one either.

Tove attends school but in essence is a lonely child believing herself to be a misfit in the environment in which she belongs.

The one thing that motivates her is her passion for writing poetry.

Tove, meanwhile, has a difficult and complicated relationship with her mother. She thinks it is exhausting to not only gauge but also pander to her mother’s moods.

When hope had been crushed like that, my mother would get dressed with violent and irritated movements, as if every piece of clothing were an insult to her. I had to get dressed too, and the world was cold and dangerous and ominous because my mother’s dark anger always ended in her slapping my face or pushing me against the stove. She was foreign and strange, and I thought that I had been exchanged at birth and she wasn’t my mother at all.

What’s more, her father does not really understand Tove’s love for poetry either because this is how he responds when she takes the courage to voice her dream:

‘Don’t be a fool! A girl can’t be a poet.’

Tove’s father is a socialist who is often unemployed, something that the mother always resents. The parents, however, have greater expectations from Edvin.

Besides finding solace in poetry, Tove increasingly longs to escape her confined childhood. She is waiting to turn eighteen and move away from her parents’ home.

Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.

In such an environment, Tove manages to befriend Ruth, a red haired girl, who is extroverted and daring, a sharp contrast to Tove’s personality. In the dynamics of that relationship, Tove is clearly in Ruth’s shadow.

Meanwhile, hope begins to glimmer when one day Edvin demands to read Tove’s poetry. Suitably impressed (even though he derided it previously in the same manner as the mother), he offers to pass it on to his friend Thorvald who can give her pointers on how to get those poems published.

It’s a big chance for Tove, a big opportunity for her dreams – of getting published – to come true.

That in a nutshell is the essence of Childhood, the first installment in The Copenhagen Trilogy.

Two immediate striking features are apparent – the voice of the narrator (Tove herself), and the language.

Tove’s voice is frank, fresh and distinct, and way she chooses to express herself comes across in the writing which is lyrical and sublime.

Although the overall tone of Childhood is gloomy, the gorgeous quality of the prose takes it up a notch making the reading experience utterly compelling – it was like being immersed in a gothic fairy tale.

If there is a sense of melancholy pervading Childhood, there is a shift of tone in the next book in the trilogy. Youth is more lighthearted peppered with moments of comedy.

In Youth, Tove has discarded the skin of her childhood behind. She must now venture into the big world and find a job to support herself and contribute to her family. It’s a prospect that terrifies her and paradoxically makes her yearn for her childhood.

The opening lines set the tone for what is to follow…

I was at my first job for only one day. I left home at seven-thirty in order to be there in plenty of time, ‘because you should try especially hard in the beginning’, said my mother, who had never made it past the beginning at the places where she’d worked in her youth.

In Youth, then Tove finds herself wading through a series of dull, meaningless jobs, which heighten her sense of boredom, and yet provide the means to maintain an independent existence. Eventually, once she turns eighteen, she immediately takes the step to leave her parents’ house, and find lodgings for herself.

One of her ladies is a Nazi sympathizer who tries to enlist Tove in various activities, which she manages to dodge. There is also the fear of the Second World War looming large. Indeed, Tove casually juxtaposes the broader canvas of these unsettling developments with what is happening in her own life…

The next day I start my job at the Currency Exchange typing pool and Hitler invades Austria.

Tove is also now dating and there is one comic set piece where she attempts to have sex for the first time with her boyfriend. Her friends think it’s shocking that she hasn’t already taken that step.

There are other spells of playfulness too when she enrolls for a few sessions in drama school, or when she is composing love songs for one of her employers.

In the final section, after a couple of disappointing attempts, Tove finally manages to get a poem published in a literary journal called ‘Wild Wheat’, edited by Viggo Moller, who goes on to become the first of her four husbands.

This finally paves the way for her dreams to materialize, as her first poetry collection manages to find a publisher.

We then move on to the final book in the trilogy, Dependency. There is once again a shift in tone as the writing gets more intense, feverish and terrifying. This book addresses some difficult times in Tove’s life making you wonder whether her youth – working in those dull jobs as an independent woman – wasn’t actually her best.

It addresses dependency in its many forms – marriage and drug addiction.  Interestingly, the Danish novel was called Gift, which in the original language means both married and poison.

In Dependency, Tove is now an established author but her marriage to Moller is beset with problems. There are compatibility issues thanks largely to the big age gap between the two (Moller is old enough to be her father).

Tove finds some stability in her second marriage and goes on to have a daughter with her husband. However, the marriage is not without its share of problems, and there is one unsettling but riveting set piece where Tove is hell bent on terminating her second pregnancy and is on the hunt to find a doctor willing to perform an abortion.

Somewhere along the way, Tove falls prey to the dangerous allure of drugs notably Demerol and Methadone. These developments are entwined with a disastrous marriage to her third husband – a weird quack responsible for her addiction – and her debilitating struggle to break free from this ordeal.

These sections are quite harrowing and there is a creeping feeling of dread and foreboding as the book progresses. Indeed, for Tove, the drugs are an escape from a reality she can’t cope with, or a balm for the gnawing feeling of emptiness inside.

It is only when she is writing her novels, poems or short stories that she feels truly alive. When she is not writing, this is how she feels…

I have a huge void inside me that nothing can fill. It feels like everything is going into me but nothing is coming out again.

The title Dependency is an apt one for this volume. The reference to addiction is the obvious one. But the book also explores how Tove increasingly depends upon marriage to support her and many of her decisions. This despite the fact she was an independent woman in her youth. For instance, her marriage to Moller is influenced more by her mother’s insistence that she be supported by her husband rather than work herself. Even when married to her second husband Ebbe, the decision to abort the second child is more out of a fear of their marriage ending. And yet, in all of her three marriages, which are detailed here, it is Tove who took the decision to end the union.

There is a glint of hope when the novel ends and the overall trilogy concludes – a sense that she is on the path to recovery even if that path is anything but smooth.

I was rescued from my years of addiction, but ever since, the shadow of the old longing still returns faintly if I have to have a blood test, or if I pass a pharmacy window. It will never disappear completely as long as I live.

The Copenhagen Trilogy then is a wonderful piece of literature, one of those works where the sheer force and beauty of Ditlevsen’s writing makes various elements and emotions in the books – bleakness, comedy, terror, dread – ultimately riveting, immersive and thoroughly absorbing.

Copenhagen Trilogy 2

 

The Frolic of the Beasts – Yukio Mishima (tr. by Andrew Clare)

I have a lot of ground to cover when it comes to Japanese literature. I loved A True Novel by Minae Mizumura when I read it a couple of years ago. It made my Best of 2017 list and was also one of my nominations for the 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation.

I have a read a couple of books from Hiromi Kawakami and Yoko Ogawa. But sadly, not much of the earlier Japanese writers. Clearly, there are big, gaping holes that I need to fill up.

So when Penguin Modern Classics released a new edition of The Frolic of the Beasts, I decided to start there. I hadn’t read any Mishima and besides, I thought the cover was striking.

Yukio Mishima’s history is quite fascinating and turbulent. He is widely believed to be one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century and he was considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times, one of those times losing out to his compatriot Yasunari Kawabata (another author I haven’t yet read).

But it’s his death which caught headlines. Here’s an extract from the author profile…

In 1970, Mishima staged a military coup, which failed as he anticipated it would, whereupon he performed ‘seppuku’, a form of ritual suicide.

Quite an intense man then, and that intensity has rubbed off on this novel too…

Frolic of the beasts 1

The Frolic of the Beasts opens with a prologue which reveals to us the tragic fate of the three main characters, Yuko, her husband Ippei and her lover Koji.

The subsequent chapters in the book then flesh out the events that led up to this tragedy in a narrative where the tension keeps building up.

The opening lines of the book are beautiful…

Koji thought about the sunlight that shone brightly into the connecting corridor that led to the bathhouse, cascading over the windowsill, spreading out like a sheet of white glossy paper. He didn’t know why, but he had humbly, passionately loved the light streaming down through that window. It was divine favor, truly pure-dismembered, like the white body of a slain infant.

Those lines belie the harsh reality which is a prison where Koji has been serving a sentence.

Koji has been imprisoned for a crime of passion for which he believes he has repented. When the time comes for his release, it is Yuko, his lover, who comes to pick him up and not any of his family members, which only adds to the overall strangeness in the opening pages.

But Yuko has her doubts.

As they began to walk, Yuko was seized with anxiety that it had been a mistake to take charge of this forlorn young orphan. Since deciding to care for him, she had not once experienced such a sense of trepidation, which was clearly therefore some sort of presentiment. She had even been censured for her rashness by the prison governor, who said he had never before heard of a case where a member of the victim’s family had become the criminal’s guarantor.

Gradually, we begin to glean the details. Koji, a University student earlier, had been working as an apprentice with Ippei (Yuko’s husband). Ippei is a cultured man, a literary critic whose books have been well received. But he is cruel and a womanizer.

Koji immediately falls in love with the beautiful and enigmatic Yuko (the red lipstick on her pale face is often cited as the striking feature of her beauty), and begins a doomed affair with her. The impossibility of the situation, however, drives Koji to attack Ippei with a wench. And Koji finds himself in prison for this act.

Upon his release, Koji decides to work in the greenhouse which is situated on Ippei and Yuko’s estate in a rural part of the country. Ippei is a changed man though after the attack. He is suffering from aphasia, a condition which has hampered his speech and his ability to understand and communicate leaving him vulnerable, and a shadow of his former self.

Thereafter, begins an uneasy and ill-fated relationship between the three, as Yuko and Koji still find themselves trapped in a situation from which they don’t know how to untangle themselves. It can only end in doom.

The Frolic of the Beasts then is a psychological novel, a tale of seduction and violence, as we try to discern what goes on in the minds of the protagonists and what drives their actions.

While it was easy to understand Koji and the conflicts, thoughts and emotions raging in his mind, Yuko comes across as pretty inscrutable. That was a problem for me because I couldn’t really grasp her motives. But then, maybe Mishima intended it that way.

Ippei is a fascinating creation. Especially, in the way he exerted control (or seemed to) over Koji and Yuko, both when he was in full command of his faculties before the attack, and even as an invalid after that event.

Even before he (Koji) saw Ippei’s completely changed form, he ought to have dropped to his knees in tears and apologized. Instead, something had intervened, clogging the machinery and stopping this course of events. He couldn’t put his finger on what it was; perhaps it was that unsettling smile that hung about Ippei’s mouth like a spiderweb.

In terms of prose, Mishima’s writing is languid and gorgeous. He is very good at evoking a sense of place, of painting an atmosphere where there is tension lurking beneath the surface. The feeling of claustrophobia is palpable throughout.

The trees and the grass had begun to dry out from the morning dew and the previous day’s rain. The rising water vapor and sunlight appeared to completely cover the surface of the mountains and forests in trembling silver leaf. It was extremely quiet, so much so that it seemed as if the mountains and forests were lightly enveloped in some sort of glittering shroud of death.

Mishima also excels in giving psychological depth to his characters. In this passage, he attempts to convey what’s going on with Ippei after the catastrophic transformation in him.

In a sense, it was as if the connection between spirit and action had been severed and the one jewel that had been both the source of his self-confidence and the measure of his public respect had split and become two complementary jewels, which had been placed on opposite banks of that large dark river. And while the jewel on the far bank, namely his literary works, was to the public at large the real treasure, to Ippei, it was nothing more than a pile of rubble. Conversely, while in the eyes of the general public the jewel on the near bank, namely his spirit, had already turned to rubble, it was to Ippei alone the only genuine jewel in his crown.

Indeed, in a way, the essence of the novel can be summed up in a conversation between Koji and Ippei in the final pages…it is Koji’s rant which also gives the novel its name…

We could have discarded our troubles, dug ourselves a hole as big as yours, and, right in front of your very eyes, Yuko and I could have had done with it and slept together like a pair of frolicking beasts without a care in the world…But I couldn’t bring myself to do that. And neither could Yuko. Do you understand?

The Frolic of the Beasts is my first Mishima. It’s a slim novel and therefore the perfect entrée to give a flavour of his writing. He is certainly an interesting enough author for me to want to read more from his oeuvre. I have the Confessions of the Mask, After the Banquet and of course the famous Sea of Fertility Quartet. Would greatly appreciate any suggestions as to which of his I should try next.

Frolic of the beasts 2

Family Lexicon – Natalia Ginzburg (tr. by Jenny McPhee)

Italian author Natalia Ginzburg’s work has been getting quite a revival in recent times with publishers such as NYRB Classics, Daunt Books and New Directions Publishing at the forefront in this regard.

If the quality of Family Lexicon is any indication, more of her books getting translated into English is indeed a big boon.

Family Lexicon

This is how Ginzburg’s preface to Family Lexicon begins…

The places, events, and people in this book are real. I haven’t invented a thing, and each time I found myself slipping into my long held habits as a novelist and make something up, I was quickly compelled to destroy the invention.

When the book opens, Natalia is a child, and she recalls the skiing holidays that her tyrannical father – Giuseppe Levi (affectionately called Beppino) – greatly enjoyed but that her siblings and her mother had to endure much against their will.

Beppino is Jewish and quite a dominant personality, a respected scientist but prone to ranting and raging. He admonishes his family members often calling them ‘nitwits’, has a decided opinion on the friends they should keep, and has expectations from his children, at least the boys, on the careers that they should pursue. He is also a man who has no sense of money although he is averse to reckless spending.

Natalia’s mother Lidia is a Catholic and quite the opposite. She has a cheerful disposition. And while the family having to relocate often (due to the demands of Beppino’s career), always unsettles her in the beginning, she can never stay morose for long and reverts to her cheerful self again.

The truth was, even if my mother grumbled and complained in Sassari and Palermo, she’d been very happy there because she had a joyful nature, and no matter where she was she found people to love and to love her. Wherever she was, she always found a way to enjoy places and things around her and to be happy.

Natalia, meanwhile, is the youngest in the family and has four siblings. Her brother Gino is the eldest and shares his father’s passion for skiing. He is also Beppino’s favorite. There’s Mario and Alberto and her elder sister Paola.

Paola and the mother get along very well and share a special bond, a bond that Natalia is too young yet to appreciate.

Mario is more of a rebel and abhors his father’s tyranny and hold over the family.

In the earlier sections of the novel, Ginzburg does a wonderful job of portraying the dynamics in the relationships between the children, how they have a form of communication that is unique and their own.

If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognize each other. Those phrases are our Latin, the dictionary of our past, they’re like Egyptian or Assyro-Babylonian hieroglyphics, evidence of a vital core that has ceased to exist but that lives in its texts, saved from the fury of the waters, the corrosion of time. Those phrases are the basis of our family unity and will persist as long as we are in the world…

The personalities of the parents never waver. But the children as they grow up into adults see a dramatic change in their alliances and personal relationships.

For instance, in the earlier pages, we learn that Mario and Paola are quite similar in many respects and have quite a close bond, which never really lasts into adulthood.

Lost in their melancholy, Paola and Mario exuded a profound intolerance for my father’s despotism and for our family’s simple and austere habits. It seemed they felt themselves exiles in our family, dreaming of an entirely different homelife and lifestyle. Their intolerance manifested itself in great pouts and moon faces, listless looks and impenetrable expressions, monosyllabic responses, angrily slammed doors that shook the building, and curt refusals to go to the mountains on Saturday and Sunday.

Despite Beppino’s rants and set opinions on their careers and his persistence on them not marrying, the children refuse to get cowered. They go on to marry the partners of their choice and to pursue the careers that they wish.

But despite the personality clashes, there is one thread that unites this family of intellectuals. All of them are anti-Fascists.

It is also a stark reminder that while this novel is a portrait of a family, it is set against the darkening and terrifying backdrop of Fascism.

Anti-fascism is the prism through which Beppino evaluates his acquaintances, friends and his family. He is ready to overlook flaws and overturn his opinions on his circle of acquaintances if it is revealed to him that they are anti-Fascists.

Beppino and his sons actively engage in various resistance activities underground which frequently lead to their arrests. It’s something that Beppino greatly prides in, even if the terror at being imprisoned is immense.

There is a great set piece in the middle section of the novel when Mario is almost caught smuggling anti-Fascist propaganda literature into Switzerland. While Mario and Beppino are continuously at loggerheads with each other, this one act of resistance earns Mario the grudging respect of his father.

Of course, while the core of the novel revolves around Natalia’s family, it is also very much about Natalia herself. Natalia goes on to marry Leone Ginzburg also an anti-Fascist and revolutionary in his own right.

She has three children with him, but the terror of Leone’s death at the hands of Fascists is never far behind, and a burden she must bear.

Family Lexicon, then, is about family, rebellion, the ties that bind them together and how each member goes on to lead a life of his or her own choosing.

Ginzburg’s writing is addictive and she adopts a lighthearted, satirical tone that is effective in downplaying the darker elements in the story, especially the grim prospect of Fascism looming large. Her narrative wonderfully brings out the colorful personalities and eccentricities of every family member. Indeed, the most striking of the lot is Beppino, who despite being a tyrant, comes across as an absurd and sometimes sympathetic figure thanks to Ginzburg’s flair for comic storytelling.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Family Lexicon. It’s the only Ginzburg I have read so far, and is widely considered to be her masterpiece. Even if I have that nagging feeling that I’ve probably read her best book first, I am still quite keen to explore and hopefully savour more of her work in the future.

You Would Have Missed Me – Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. by Jamie Bulloch)

You Would Have Missed Me is the second book in Peirene Press’ 2019 series ‘There Be Monsters.’ It’s also the first time they are publishing another book of the same author – Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast was published in 2014 to critical acclaim and was considered for many prizes. And I am happy to sat this novella was another strong offering not only from the author but also from Peirene.

You Would Have Missed Me

You Would Have Missed Me takes place in a single day and our narrator is a little girl, who has turned seven. This is what she tells us in the opening pages…

We were standing in our two-bedroom flat in the Promised Land and once gain it was clear that I wouldn’t be getting a cat for my birthday.

The Promised Land is West Germany in the 1960s, when the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was at its peak.

Along with her parents, the girl manages to flee the East German refugee camp where they were living for a while to finally land in West Germany with hopes of a better life and standard of living.

Gradually, as the novella progresses, we are given a glimpse of the narrator’s life, her tenuous relationship with her mother, and the toxic relationship between her parents.

The girl’s mother is a woman who is chronically disappointed with everything around her. In the opening pages, the mother who always dreamed of having teak furniture, still finds something to complain about even when that dream comes true.

We only really spent time in the lounge when there was something to watch on television or if it was a special occasion. It was stuffed with teak furniture, as much as it could fit inside the room. Both my father and my mother now said it had been a mistake to furnish the lounge with teak because teak needed to be polished all the time to keep it shiny.

Before she came to the West, my mother always dreamed of teak furniture, but of course she didn’t know you had to polish teak all the time because she’d only ever dreamed of it and had never owned any.

This disappointment and many others pervades at various points in the novella. Indeed, the mother comes from a wealthy family, and moving to the West was something that she always wanted. And yet when that reality comes into fruition, the mother continues to remain a disappointed woman, always stating so and dropping hints to her husband of her wealthy fiancé earlier (and killed in the war).

The father, meanwhile, does not really care much for the Promised Land and has no patience with his wife’s continuous complaints. It essentially means that the atmosphere at home is not really healthy and the girl grows up isolated.

When we were in the refugee camp my father didn’t live with us to begin with because he wanted to finish his studies in East Berlin and have time to think about whether he’d rather take a job in the East than join us in the West. He studied, had loads of girlfriends, like all students, and went to Western cinemas, which meant it took him a while to decide, and so in the meantime we were in the camp without him…

Vanderbeke’s writing style in this one is quite similar to that in The Mussel Feast – the prose forms loops and is circuitous and repetitive in nature. This actually heightens the impact of the narrative propelling it forward and makes for an invigorating read even when the subject matter is dark and the environment claustrophobic.

But it’s not all bleak. There is a glimmer of hope in the form of a globe our narrator receives as a birthday present, a reminder of happier times in the East and of possibilities in the future. Plus, she also begins to find her own voice…

Ever since I’d heard my voice, I’d been saying things I’d never have dared say before.

And only a few pages later…

Then we had supper. I didn’t forget to wash my hands, but when we were sitting at the table I said that I wasn’t hungry.

Of course you’re going to eat something, my mother said.

I heard the voice. It was slightly deeper than mine and very calm.

Like hell you will, it said.

Ultimately, You Would Have Missed Me asks us what really makes a home. Also, does an escape from a place of conflict to a freer land always guarantee a better life?

Through the eyes of our narrator, we realize that while the Promised Land has offered materialistic comforts not possible in a refugee camp, the girl was happier when they were living in East Germany. The critical factor here is relationships. In the refugee camp, she had her grandmother whose cooking she relished or Uncle Grewatsch, Uncle Winkelmann and Auntie Eka, who entranced her with nuggets of knowledge. None of which is now accessible to her in the Promised Land where the toxic and abusive relationship between her parents continue.

The broader idea of what constitutes a home is also very theme in today’s times in context of the refugee crisis we have been seeing. Those refugees who against all odds find their way into a freer Europe can’t really be sure that they will lead a more fulfilling life. There are challenges of assimilating into a completely foreign culture and adapting to a different way of life. There are economic considerations. And there are possibly those who were happier staying in their own country but were compelled by cruel circumstances to just abandon their homes and flee.

Overall, You Would Have Missed Me is an absorbing novella, although I would still rate The Mussel Feast higher.

 

The Neapolitan Novels – Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels gained immense popularity and critical acclaim when they were published between the years 2012 and 2015. Strangely, at the time, the hype surrounding the books put me off reading them.

Only recently, I discovered that the first novel has been adapted for television. Keen at some point to watch it, it provided the impetus I needed to read the books first.

As I greedily began turning the pages of the first novel My Brilliant Friend, I immediately ensured that the other books in the series were on hand. Also, I abandoned the idea of spacing between the books and read all the four in one go.

Thus, in August in terms of my reading, Ferrante clearly stole the show.

Incidentally, My Brilliant Friend was one of my Top 10 nominations for the #100BestWIT list. When Meytal released the final “Top 100 Women in Translation” list this week, My Brilliant Friend was ranked Number One.

Neapolitan One

The Quartet begins with My Brilliant Friend, which focuses on Lila and Elena’s childhood and adolescence, proceeds to the second book The Story of a New Name touching upon their youth. In the third book in the series Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Lila and Elena have reached middle age, and in the last book The Story of the Lost Child, the tale moves forward to their maturity and old age.

Given that this is one long story spread over four books, it made more sense to talk about the themes in all the four novels put together. Talking about individual books would have been a difficult task without mentioning spoilers. Indeed, each book ends on a cliffhanger, and in every subsequent books the story picks up from where it was left off in the previous book.

Here’s how the Quartet begins…

The year is 2010, when Elena Greco, now in her sixties, receives a phone call from Rino, who is Lila Cerullo’s son. Rino tells Elena that Lila has disappeared. He is concerned.

Elena is not really perturbed. She recalls Lila dropping hints of disappearing – of deleting herself entirely – whenever they met earlier, and does not take it too seriously.

But when it dawns on her that this time Lila has left for good without leaving any trace, Elena sits down to pen the story of Lila and their lifelong friendship…

She was expanding the concept of trace out of all proportion. She wanted not only to disappear herself, now at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.

I was really angry.

We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.

An Intense and Tangled Female Friendship

The complex friendship between Lila Cerullo and Elene Greco is really the heart and soul of the Neapolitan Novels. And it is a complicated friendship that ebbs and flows as time moves on.

Since Elena is the narrator, we see everything though her eyes. Elena recalls those first moments of their friendship, when both climb the steep stairs to Don Achille’s house, a man considered to be the ogre of fairy tales and feared in the neighbourhood.

My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment. I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage.

Lila is fiery, outspoken and fiercely intelligent. Elena is also clever and brilliant and does consistently well in school, but only through hard work. For Lila this comes effortlessly. As children, it is Lila who takes centrestage, while Elena is only too happy to follow her.

Both the girls push each other to do their best when it comes to education, books and learning – a respite from the stultifying environment not only in their respective families but also in the neighbourhood.

And yet, after elementary school, their paths diverge.

For Elena, her friendship with Lila has its ups and downs – a trend that is seen throughout their lives. Lila inspires and eggs Elena to excel in school and later on in her career. And yet, there are times when her frankness and meanness compels Elena to break off ties with Lila and keep her at bay.

And while as a child Elena is content playing second fiddle to Lila, the same is not the case in their adult life. As Elena gains a more public profile, she broods over languishing in Lila’s shadow… in the confines of their neighbourhood that does seem to be the case…

And yet next to her, in the place where we were born, I was only a decoration, that is, I bore witness to Lila’s merits.  Those who had known us from birth attributed to her, to the force of her attraction, the fact that the neighbourhood could have on its streets an esteemed person like me.

It is not a straightforward friendship but one that is entwined with rivalry and jealousy in equal measure. As their stories progress and they drift in and out of each other’s lives, Elena always wonders whether she has ultimately gained the upper hand over Lila.  Or was her success illusory and it was always Lila who had the edge? It’s a recurring theme that runs throughout the four novels.

For instance, in the first book, Elena ponders…

Sometimes I even had the impression that it was Lila who depended on me and not I on her. I had crossed the boundaries of the neighbourhood, I went to the high school, I was with boys and girls who were studying Latin and Greek, and not, like her, with construction workers, mechanics, cobblers, fruit and vegetable sellers, grocers, shoemakers. 

And then in the third book, Elena ruminates…

BecomeIt was a verb that had always obsessed me, but I realized it for the first time only in that situation. I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition. I had wanted to become something – here was the point – only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her. 

The Pulsating Drama in the Neighbourhood

Ferrante has done a brilliant job of conjuring up the neighbourhood in Naples where the girls grew up – a tough, poor and violent place. It’s a claustrophobic environment where violence rules the roost. Arguments and quarrels are settled through aggressive and forceful means. Women are regularly beaten up by their husbands and are resigned to their fates. The stench of poverty permeates everywhere.

The cast of characters, other than Lila and Elena, are also richly drawn and have distinctive identities of their own.

It’s when the action shifts to the neighbourhood that Ferrante’s writing really gets intense, feverish, and utterly compelling as she wonderfully captures the pulse of this environment, all the action and the dreariness.

Dreams of Escape

There is this set piece in the first novel that gives an early indication of how the lives of both women will eventually pan out…Having never set a foot outside their neighbourhood, Lila and Elena decide to bunk school one day and trek all the way to the sea. It’s Lila’s daring plan, and Elena not wanting to be left out agrees. They set out in the morning. They pass through the tunnel (the entry to their neighbourhood) and venture outside for the first time, but there is still a long way to traverse before they reach the sea. Halfway through, it starts pouring and the girls are soaked. Lila is frightened and wants to turn back and head home (although it was her idea in the first place), but it’s Elena who is now reluctant wanting to carry on towards the sea.

It’s a precursor to what lies in store for them in the future. Desperate to escape from her dull origins, Elena, through sheer hard work and a single minded focus on her education and career, manages to escape from Naples to begin life anew in the intellectually stimulating cities of Milan and Florence.

She does return to Naples later but with an awareness that enables her to gauge and reflect on her origins, an awareness that is refined by her interaction with the intellectual elite in Florence and Milan.

Lila, on the other hand, never ends up setting a foot outside Naples of which we are given an inkling pretty much in the first few pages.

This is also a time when they are hardly ever in touch, busy with their own lives. And yet, the bond of friendship still endures.

Pleasures and Pitfalls of Marriage & Motherhood

This theme occupies central focus in the third novel of the series. Elena has found her calling as a writer but she finds that the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood are occupying most of her time, stalling her creative efforts.

Elena frets over the pains she has taken to complete her education and the fear of not living up to her full potential as domestic chores bog her down.

Later, as Elena struggles to balance her work commitments and attending to her children’s needs, this is what she is told…

Think about it.  A woman separated, with two children and your ambitions, has to take account of reality and decide what she can give up and what she can’t.

Interestingly enough, Lila after having to come to terms with a disappointing marriage, takes great pains to nurture her son’s development so that he can rise above the stifling fates that befall the men in the neighbourhood.

Thus, whether the right care or attention (or lack thereof) given to their children in the early formative years plays any role in shaping up their personalities is another theme that Ferrante explores in the novels.

Of Feminism & Charting Careers

The women in Lila and Elena’s lives were confined to that of a homemaker. Violence between the spouses was never far behind. Their ambitions were restricted to marrying well and having children.

In that sense, Lila and Elena are different as they fought to remain independent. While Elena capitalizes on her education to propel her career forward, Lila’s brilliance enables her to dabble in various business ventures with great success.

Meanwhile, Elena in her role as a writer reflects on the status of women and how what they are is based on how the men invent them, even publishing a book on this theme. And yet, is she also guilty of falling prey to this even as she becomes successful?

Was I lying to myself when I portrayed myself as free and autonomous?  And was I lying to my audience when I played the part of someone who, with her two small books, had sought to help every woman confess what she couldn’t say to herself?  Were they mere formulas that it was convenient for me to believe in while in fact I was no different from my more traditional contemporaries?  In spite of all the talk was I letting myself be invented by a man to the point where his needs were imposed on mine and those of my daughters?

The Ever Changing Political Background

While Lila and Elena’s story plays out in the small world of their neighbourhood, their lives are not immune from the broader changes in the political landscape of Italy.

Ferrante weaves in many political elements into the fabric of the story and the impact it has on the lives of both the central and the secondary characters – the corruption, mafia, student demonstrations and protests, the left-wing movement, and the Years of Lead (which marked incidents of violence and terrorism by both the right and the left wings).

A Tale of Two Women

Ultimately, what makes the portrayal of Lila and Elena so compelling is that they are strong women with fascinating personalities. And yet they are not likeable all the time; they make mistakes, which essentially makes them real.

By virtue of her dazzling personality, Lila dominates the first two books. But Elena’s development as a strong, intelligent and cultured woman in her own right is also equally satisfying. And this is much more apparent in the final two novels.

Indeed, in a particularly trying time for Elena, her mother (with whom she has a strained relationship) communicates her confidence in Elena’s ability to manage and survive and deal with her problems head on.

An Intricate Plot…

The novels in the Neapolitan Quartet are superbly and intricately plotted, the writing is passionate, furious, absorbing, and highly addictive. One interesting thing I noticed is the way Ferrante plays with time. For instance, in the second book, a substantial part of the middle section is devoted to Lila and Elena’s holiday in Ischia, whereas in the last novel, an entire decade is described in probably the same number of pages. This in no takes away anything from the novels (although the Ischia section could have been shortened), but only adds to their overall allure.

To conclude, Lila and Elena’s incredible journey – filled with happiness, success, upheavals and sorrow – simply leaps off the pages. And I was sorry when I finally turned the last page of the final novel and had to let them go!

Neapolitan Two

My Top 10 Nominations for the 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation

Meytal Radzinski, the inspiration behind Women in Translation month every August, is looking to compile a list of top 100 women in translation titles. All those who want to participate have to nominate their 10 best books for the purpose. Here are the precise rules…

100bestWIT

I have read some great books by Women Writers in Translation over the years and had a tough time narrowing down the list to ten.

Having said that, here are the 10 books that I nominate…

100bestpic

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two girls – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. My Brilliant Friend begins their story when the girls are eight years old and ends when they turn sixteen. Intense, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, this is a fabulous and highly addictive novel (as are the subsequent books in the series).

A True Novel – Minae Mizumura

Billed as Japan’s equivalent of Wuthering Heights, A True Novel is an expansive story charting the doomed relationship between the brooding and intense Taro Azumo and the beautiful Yoko. The story is narrated by Fumiko (the Nelly Dean of the novel), although she is very much a finely etched character in her own right. Despite the comparison to the Bronte classic, A True Novel is strong enough to stand on its own. Set in post-war Japan, the novel also examones class differences and the meteoric rise and fall of Japan’s economy.

The True Deceiver – Tove Jansson

Katri Kling is an outcast who lives in the village with her simpleminded brother. She hates white lies and can see straight to the core of any problem. Anna Aemelin is just the opposite – a respected member of the village, but aloof. Anna has something Katri wants, and to get it Katri will take control of Anna’s life and livelihood.

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

One day, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat – an act of revolt unheard of in Korean society, thereby shocking her family. Combining three tales told from the viewpoints of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister (Yeong-hye is the central focus in the novel although we never hear her voice), this is an excellent novel that examines rebellion, mental illness, and desire. It’s the book that has made me a fan of Han Kang and I intend to read every novel of hers that is released.

The Looking Glass Sisters – Gohril Gabrielsen

Two sisters – one is bedridden, the other is the carer – live in a remote town in Northern Norway. This is a riveting, psychological tale narrated by the bed ridden sister. Are they living harmoniously together? Or is each one deliberately trying to wreck the life of the other? This is a story in which all is not necessarily what it seems.

Territory of Light – Yuko Tsushima

A young, recently divorced Japanese woman and her daughter move into an apartment filled with light. This is a bracing, unsettling yet poignant tale in which Tsushima, in unflinching and crystal clear prose, highlights the challenges of being a single parent.

Sphinx – Anne Garreta

Sphinx is a love story between the narrator (who is never named) and A***, who is a dancer in America. But what makes this novel interesting is this – throughout the book the gender of both the narrator and A*** is never revealed.

La Femme de Gilles – Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Elisa loves her husband Gilles deeply and her world revolves around him. Until her sister Victorine appears on the scene causing her much anguish. This is a beautifully rendered tale of desire and the fear of losing what you value the most.

Fish Soup – Margarita Garcia Robayo

Fish Soup is an invigorating collection of novellas and stories that explore the themes of frayed relationships, travel and the opposing forces of sex and desire as against abstinence and self-denial.

Tentacle – Rita Indiana

This is a wonderful, roller coaster of a novel that effortlessly packs in big topics such as time travel, environmental disasters, gender fluidity, and art history all in a few pages.

 

The Death of Murat Idrissi – Tommy Wieringa (tr. Sam Garrett)

I first came across The Death of Murat Idrissi when it was longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.

Two factors piqued my interest in the book. It was short – always a plus point because well written short novels pack quite a punch. And it touched upon the topic of immigration – contemporary, given the times we live in.

And although the novella did not make it to the shortlist, I was very, very impressed. I have been thinking about it ever since.

Death of Murat Idrissi

Ilham and Thouraya, two young Dutch women, have been vacationing in Morocco, the land of their forefathers. It is an extended holiday that has now come to an end.

Right from the start, the two girls are forced to come to terms with the fact that the freedoms they enjoyed in Europe as women, does not hold much ground in Morocco. In Morocco, women travelling alone are frowned upon, and the girls have no choice but to rely on a man to take them around. The man is Saleh.

Saleh, meanwhile, has his own agenda that he wants to push forward, and he uses the girls as bait. Saleh is knee deep in illegal activities involving smuggling Moroccans to Europe. He takes the girls to the home of the very poor Murat Idrissi, another Moroccan looking to escape the confines of his surroundings with hopes of a better life in the European continent.

Saleh proposes using the girls’ car as a mode of transporting Murat across continents. Ilham, in particular, strongly objects to this dangerous mission, fearing getting caught by officials. Thouraya is more willing to go along. But increasing persistence of Murat’s grandmother and the lure of money weaken Ilham’s resolve and she relents.

That is just the beginning of their problems. It is hardly a spoiler to say that Murat dies en route (as is evinced from the title). Saleh abandons them. The girls barely have any money, they have to travel all those miles from Southern Spain to the Netherlands in their car, and there is a corpse in the boot.

Could this really be them, whose lives have turned into a nightmare at the snap of a finger? There is a dead boy in the back of their car, they’re going to end up in prison, everything they had in terms of hope, expectations is ending right here.

Does it end badly?

The author Tommy Weirenga is much more interested in how the girls confront the crisis they are in rather than its resolution.

He uses the tragedy as a vehicle to examine the roots of Ilham and Thouraya and the complexities of the immigrant experience.

Although Ilham and Thouraya are born in the Netherlands and are therefore Dutch, they have a sense of not really belonging to either culture.

Even though they were in their parents’ homeland and staying with relatives, even though they identified with the people there, they were not Moroccans. That is what they had in common. That they were seen as tourists. That they had to pay tourist prices. They were the children of two kingdoms, they carried the green passport of the Royaume du Maroc and the red-lead one of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but in both countries they were, above all, foreigners.

Gradually we get a glimpse of their backgrounds, of how both sets of parents were immigrants themselves having navigated the change in continents successfully. Of how an accident with their car while holidaying in Morocco drained the girls’ finances, and so they had to team up with Saleh.

Thouraya and Ilham have different personalities. Thouraya is more confident of the two, both in her overall outlook towards life as well as in her sexual encounters. Ilham, meanwhile, worries about circumstances that will compel her to accept a traditional marriage despite her attempts to break away from precisely that very thing. And yet, there is a common thread that binds both the girls. And that is the shared feeling of being out of place in their adopted European country.

At barely 102 pages, Wieringa has composed quite a powerful novella. There is a hypnotic and dreamy quality to his prose packed with sufficient tension to propel the narrative forward. Not a single word is wasted. And in a taut offering of this kind, he has thrown in many ingredients to chew upon – the question of identity, the dilemmas of immigrants in everyday life, the dreams of hoping for a better life in Europe, and how those dreams in many ways do not always come to fruition.

Then two planes drilled their way into the heart of the Western world.

She watched as the little opportunity, the crack that had posed a possibility, sealed over; people looked away and kept their distance, as though her body had, from one day to the next, become a hostile object. The discussion ground to a halt, the bellicose language of the daily news trickled into everyday life. Either you are with us, said the most powerful man in the world, or you are with the terrorists. The plans, his words – thy broke her world, the whole world, in two, into ‘we over here’ and ‘them over there.’ And Ilham became ‘them.’

All For Nothing – Walter Kempowski (tr. Anthea Bell)

All for Nothing was published in 2006 and was the last novel by Walter Kempowski, an author considered to be one of postwar Germany’s most acclaimed writers.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction in my NYRB Classics edition:

Kempowski used autobiographical material in his work from the very beginning of his literary career, believing his own experience might be a source of historical understanding.

Kempowski was fifteen years old when the Soviets began advancing toward East Prussia and desperate German refugees looked to escape on ships departing from the East Prussian coast. His father was killed in battle during the final days of the war. In 1948, in East Germany, Kempowski, his brother and their mother were arrested for espionage.

All for Nothing

All for Nothing is set in the winter of 1945 in East Prussia at a time when the Soviets are advancing upon Germany.

A German defeat is imminent and yet the war serves as a backdrop; it is the inhabitants of the Georgenhof estate – the von Globig family – who form the focal point of the novel.

The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.

The husband Eberhad is away, in Italy, but rumoured to be in a cushy job rather than fighting on the front line. Occasionally, he sends exotic wine, chocolates, tobacco which his wife Katharina stows away at the estate in a cubbyhole.

Katharina, meanwhile, is shown to be a placid beauty, always in a world of her own. She prefers to spend her time in the couple’s private apartment in the estate and read her books.

Anyone who ever spoke to Katharina found her a total blank. She had never heard of anything at all, she hadn’t even guessed at it. ‘She hasn’t the faintest idea,’ people said of her, ‘but she’s beautiful…very beautiful.’ She was the most striking person present at any social gathering, although she hardly ever said a word.

What else could you say about her? She shut herself up in her own rooms, and heaven only knew what she did there. She read a lot, or rather she made her way through a great many mediocre books.

Their twelve-year-old son Peter, is mostly left to his own devices. He is spared from joining the Hitler Youth because of a tonsil problem.

Katharina never spent a long time standing beside the boy. She left him alone, just as she herself liked to be.

The only practical member of the Georgenhof estate is Auntie, ‘a sinewy old spinster with a wart on her chin.’ She keeps the estate running and takes a hands-on-approach to situations. She is in charge of the Ukrainian maids in the kitchen – Sonya and Vera – as well as Vladimir, the Pole, who helps around in the estate.

Since Eberhard had become a special officer ‘in the field’, she made sure everything went smoothly at the Georgenhof. Nothing would have functioned without her. ‘Nothing’s easy,’ she would say, and with that attitude she ran the whole show.

The von Globigs largely appear to be cut off from reality. Their only way of getting a grasp of what is happening out in the world is through the myriad of people who pass through the estate. These are people seeking temporary refuge for a day or two, but always on their way to somewhere else.

These people are more in touch with the realities of the war. So they are surprised that a place like Georgenhof even exists; a place offering them wholesome food and drink and warm hospitality.

At the beginning there is a political economist who finds his way into the estate and is surprised at the luxurious existence of the von Globigs.

Silver? Fine china? The political economist was astonished to find all these precious things still in use, not hidden away long ago, or sent to Berlin or somewhere else. ‘Suppose the Russians come?’ And with all those foreigners just down the road.

Afterwards, many others halt at Georgenhof – a Nazi violinist, a dissident painter, a Baltic Baron, and so on.

Then there’s Drygalksi, a staunch Nazi, who distrusts the motives of the von Globigs believing that they need to be brought down a peg or two.

As the advance of the Soviets seems more real than ever, there is a growing sense of uncertainty in Georgenhof – should they adopt a wait and watch policy, or should they pack their belongings and be on their way?

Meanwhile, moments of the past insinuate upon the present at least where Katharina is concerned. Not involving herself in the present day to day affairs, Katharina’s thoughts keep shifting back to the past. A trip to a seaside town with Lothar Sarkander (mayor of Mitkau) when Eberhad is away in Berlin, is especially a recurring recollection and gives the impression that Katharina is unhappy in her marriage. We are also given a glimpse of Katharina’s daughter Elsie, who dies of yellow fever two years ago. But her room is kept intact the way it was.

While Katharina appears largely passive and content with her own privacy and thoughts, at a pivotal moment in the novel she is asked to undertake a task at the insistence of Pastor Brahms; a task that fills her with a daring sense of adventure. Even then, Katharina is clueless about the implications of what she has agreed to do.

At the same time, a persistent rumbling in the background only highlights the inevitability of the Soviets approaching. A slew of people with carts and trucks packed with belongings begin to flee towards the West. As the urgency mounts, the von Globigs cannot stay in isolation for long and are compelled into action.

At around 350 pages, Kempowski takes his time in fleshing out the characters and building up the drama and tension. There is a rhythmic, fable-like quality to his story telling that accentuates the solitary world of the von Globigs. Like the chorus in a piece of music, certain points are often repeated for greater effect throughout the novel. As the harsh realities of Soviet occupation force their way into the private lives of the von Globigs, Kempowsi chalks out their fates with compassion and grace.

All for Nothing then is an elegy to a lost world, a world that has disintegrated upon the intrusion of war. The last many chapters are particularly poignant as they highlight the difficulties that ordinary people face when the treat of enemy occupation is imminent – the nostalgia for a way of life that is surely lost, the extreme anxiety of being displaced, of fleeing, of leaving things behind, of venturing into the unknown.  Could it ever be the same again?

The first cartloads of old people arrived from Mitkau. They were being evacuated from the monastery. The old people were transported in open horse-drawn carts, sitting on straw [packed well round them. They were nodding their heads, as if in time to cheerful tunes played on a concertina. They had never thought they would have to go on the road again in their old age…

This was an excellent and absorbing novel. Highly recommended!

The New Yorker has published an interesting piece on this book and Walter Kempowski’s life here.

 

Blast from the Past – Best Books of 2011 (Part 1)

I am greatly enjoying writing these ‘Blast of the Past’ posts. At the start of June, I showcased my Best Books of 2010.

Now it’s time to focus on the next year. As I was perusing the novels I read in 2011, I realized what a super bumper year it was in terms of the number of amazing novels I read. Quite a few have already become firm all-time favourites.

I was introduced to many superb writers for the first time. I discovered the wonders of NYRB Classics. And I also read quite a few novels set in the boarding house.

I eventually wound up with a list of 22 books that I wanted to highlight. Not wanting to tone this down any further, I was not keen on dedicating one post to all of them either.

So I have broken the Best of 2011 list in two parts. This is Part One where I will focus on 11 books.

Best of 2011 (Part 1)

Amongst Women – John McGahern

Ireland is never short of incredible writers. And John McGahern that year was an absolute find. I started off with his most well-known and acclaimed novel, Amongst Women.

Amongst Women is a drama centred on patriarch and IRA veteran Moran and his dominance over his family. Here’s how it begins:

As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters.

When the novel begins, Moran’s family has gathered together to bolster his spirit in his twilight years. His family consists of his saintly wife, and three daughters, plus a son who is estranged. Steadily but surely, the novel rewinds to the past fleshing out the characters and events leading upto this moment. It quickly becomes apparent to the reader that Moran is a moody, unpredictable man, a tyrant in other words. But his relationship with his family is increasingly complex. On one hand, his oppressive actions take an emotional toll on them, and yet, they share a bond that is hard to dismiss.

Amongst Women is a quiet masterpiece. McGahern’s writing is eloquent and understated and yet the tension simmers in the dynamics between the cast.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore

Brian Moore is remarkable in his portrayal of women at moments of a crisis. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a prime example of this.

Judith Hearne is an unmarried woman of a certain age who has come down in society. With barely enough income, she is compelled to stay in a boarding house, stuck in a rut with people who are judgmental. The one outing she looks forward to every week is a tea invitation to the O’ Neills’ house every Sunday, in order to break the tedium of the other days. But while she enjoys the cakes and sherry, she is silently the object of ridicule in that home painted in scenes that are truly heartbreaking. To add to it all, Judith has a dark secret which will prove to be her undoing.

Judith Hearne is a marvelous book. It is a compelling depiction of the plight of women in their middle age who had neither the financials means nor the skills required to live a healthy, independent life. Moore’s writing is incredibly sensitive and astute, which ensures that the book is not a bleak, miserable read despite Judith’s heartbreaking plight.

Fifth Business – Robertson Davies

Fifth Business is the first book in the Deptford Trilogy, and it is a wonderfully absorbing read making me wonder why I never got around to reading the next two books in the trilogy. I need to correct that.

The story begins when Dunstan Ramsay is ten years old and living in Deptford. He and his best friend (and worst enemy) Percy Boyd Staunton have been sledding and have quarreled. On the way back to town Percy throws a snowball at Dunstan, who jumps aside. The snowball strikes passerby Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of the town’s Baptist minister. The shock of the snowball hitting her head causes her to go into labour and deliver prematurely: the baby boy is Paul Dempster. It also means that the incident affects Mary Dempster’s mental faculties.

It is an accident that affects Ramsay greatly and he is tortured with feelings of guilt in subsequent years that refuse to go away. More importantly, it develops into an obsession prompting Ramsay to become an expert hagiologist (study of saints), take an interest in psychology and become enamoured by Mrs Dempster.

And I have barely scratched the surface of the novel here.

This is a rich novel boasting of an incredibly layered narrative and multiple plot points well executed. We are given a glimpse of rural Deptford, the high society life of Percy Boyd Staunton, the world of illusion and conjuring tricks (a theme that will continue in the subsequent books), and sprinklings of Jung and Freud. There is a lot of depth in character development making Fifth Business an absorbing and immersive read.

Light Years – James Salter

Light Years made me fall in love with James Salter’s writing. I have devoured most of his work since then barring his last novel All That Is.

From the blurb – “Nedra and Viri are a couple whose enviable life is centred on civilized pleasures, their children, a variety of friends, and days lived to the utmost, be it skating on a frozen river or summers by the sea. It is a world solidly built on matrimony, and its details – the one moment, one hour, one day – recapture everything. But fine cracks are beginning to spread through the shimmering surface…”

A marriage disintegrating is a theme that has been covered endlessly in literature. But Salter’s prose takes it to a whole new level. His writing is unique, lush and poetic. He crafts exquisite phrases that are second to none. It’s his ability to conjure up the essence of his characters and their situations in just a few sentences that really stand out.

The Shawl – Cynthia Ozick

The Shawl comprises a short story and a novella. The short story also called ‘The Shawl’ is barely eight pages. The rest of the book is the novella called ‘Rosa’.

‘The Shawl’ is a harrowing but powerful read based in a Nazi concentration camp. It begins with the mother Rosa walking with her baby Magda at her breast, and with her elder fourteen-year old daughter Stella. It is deathlessly cold. Rosa is using her shawl to cover Magda, a shawl which Stella longs for because she is freezing too. All are hungry and in great despair. And then a terrible incident occurs.

In ‘Rosa’, the mother of the same name, appears thirty years later, ‘a madwoman and a scavenger’ in a Miami hotel.

In both the stories, the shawl is a recurring motif that highlights the horror of the Holocaust and the unfillable emptiness of its aftermath. Powerful stuff.

Asylum – Patrick McGrath

What a wonderful novel by Patrick McGrath this turned out to be.

The deliciously named Stella Raphael is elegant, headstrong, and intelligent. She is married to Max Raphael, a psychiatrist, but quite staid and unimaginative. But then Max takes up a position in a maximum security mental hospital in the English countryside. There Stella becomes dangerously attracted to Edgar Stark who has been confined for murdering his wife.

To what extent will this impact Stella’s sanity and how will this affect those around her?

Asylum is superb and has everything – intense and hypnotic storytelling, great characters and an unreliable narrator. It’s claustrophobic but gripping and very well-written.

Stoner – John Williams

The re-issue of Stoner has become a hit with the result that it is well reviewed novel now.

This is the story of an ordinary, quiet and private man born in a simple rural family. Harbouring a passion for literature and language, he refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps choosing a life of professorship and study instead. This, then, is an account of both his personal and professional life.

Professionally, we learn of the crippling politics that mar university life and how Stoner is not spared from it either. Of his personal life, we are given a glimpse of his marriage to Edith, the subsequent unhappiness in this union accentuated by lack of communication, an awkwardness also present in his relationship with his daughter Grace. And then comes along a passionate affair which has ramifications for Stoner both professionally and personally.

I absolutely loved this novel and it remains one of my all-time favourites. John Williams’ writing is gorgeous and sensitive ultimately making the story of this ordinary man quite extraordinary. Recently, different viewpoints have emerged related to elements of misogyny in Stoner. But this is not something I noticed when reading the novel, and in no way marred my enjoyment of it.

The True Deceiver – Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson is reputed for her Moomin stories, but her novels are brilliant as well. The True Deceiver, in particular, won the Best Translated Book Award in 2011 and deservedly so.

As can be gauged from the title, deception – the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we tell others – is the focal point of this novel. Things are not necessarily what they seem.

Katri Kling is an outcast, and her only love and ambition is for her simpleminded younger brother left in her care. She does not care much for the white lies that sometimes form the foundation of social interaction.

Anna Aemalin is a successful illustrator of children’s books and lives alone in a large house. Even if aloof, she is well respected in the village.

Prompted by her ambition to ensure her brother’s security, Katri fakes a robbery of Anna’s house in order to make her afraid to live alone. In the process, she pushes her way into Anna’s service and confidence. But Anna is not necessarily the pushover that she is projected to be.

This is a marvelous, dark novel with enough tension to make it unpredictable and riveting. Another strong offering from the NYRB stable and a reminder that I must read more Tove Janssen.

The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton

This is another brilliant boarding house novel.

The backdrop is England in the middle of World War II, a war that seems to show no signs of ending.

Meanwhile, the main setting is the boarding house located in the suburban town of Thames Lockdon. The central character is Miss Roach, a middle aged woman, who is renting a room in this boarding house run by Mrs Payne. Here on a daily basis she has to deal with mind numbing boredom and the bullying at the dinner table by the nasty Mr Thwaites.

Miss Roach is savvy and sensible but to escape from her drab surroundings, she starts going out drinking with a wayward American lieutenant, a relationship based on rather shaky grounds. And then comes along Miss Roach’s friend Vicki Kugelmann, whose presence makes the proceedings in the boarding house only livelier.

Hamilton is great at portraying London at the time of war, the great uncertainty permeating daily living, and the drab and dull existence of its inhabitants. And his depiction of the claustrophobic confines of a boarding house – the politics, the nastiness, the excruciating boredom – is spot on. In addition to this, there are also some wonderful comic scenes in the novel, all of which make The Slaves of Solitude a heady cocktail not to be missed.

Sexing the Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is such a wonderful and assured writer. I have read just two – The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. Both are great and an excellent entry point into her oeuvre.

Sexing the Cherry is a dazzling and inventive novel that brims with fairy tales and history, dancing princesses and singing toads, at the centre of which is the mother Dog Woman and her boy Jordan.

Here’s the snippet from Wikipedia – Set in 17th century London, Sexing the Cherry is about the journeys of a mother, known as The Dog Woman, and her protégé, Jordan. They journey in a space-time flux: across the seas to find exotic fruits such as bananas and pineapples; and across time, with glimpses of “the present” and references to Charles I of England and Oliver Cromwell. The mother’s physical appearance is somewhat “grotesque”. She is a giant, wrapped in a skirt big enough to serve as a ship’s sail and strong enough to fling an elephant. Her son, however, is proud of her, as no other mother can hold a good dozen oranges in her mouth all at once. Ultimately, their journey is a journey in search of The Self.

I am not sure I can add more to this other than to urge you to read it.

Of Love and Hunger – Julian Maclaren-Ross

This is another one of my all-time favourites.

The central character is Richard Fanshawe who is struggling to lead a decent life. He has managed to secure a dreary job selling vaccum cleaners during the day. The nights he has to spend in a tedious boarding house under the watchful eyes of the landlady, Mrs Fellows.

Until one day, his friend Roper asks him to look after his wife Sukie when Roper has to go go away for three months to the sea. Fanshawe is unsure at first but as he interacts with her more, he finds himself falling in love with her.

In real life, Julian Maclaren Ross was considered to be quite the raconteur and even appeared as a character in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series. His story telling abilities are well in display in this novel; his writing is lyrical, slangy and crisp.

To quote from the blurb – Of Love and Hunger conjures up his world of smoky pubs, prying landladies, unpaid debts and seedy love-nests with brilliant wit and acuity.

That’s it as far as the first part is concerned. I will put up a Best of 2011 (Part 2) post in the coming days. Stay tuned!