Act of Passion – Georges Simenon

Last year, I decided to foray into Georges Simenon’s oeuvre. But rather than dig into the Inspector Maigret novels, which made him famous, I opted for his darker novels or romans durs, which had a psychological edge to them and were therefore richer.

The first one that I read was The Blue Room, which was excellent. Consequently, I made a note of reading more by him.

This time I zeroed in on Act of Passion published by the ever fabulous NYRB Classics. Incidentally, this novel was first published in French in 1947 as Lettre a Mon Juge, the literal translation being Letter to My Judge.

Act of Passion

Act of Passion is a dark, psychological tale of buried passions and murder as the protagonist struggles to come to grips with his demons.

The man here is the protagonist Dr Charles Alavoine. The entire novel is in the form of a long letter that Alavoine composes while in prison. At the outset we know that Alavoine has committed a crime – a murder – a trial for which has already taken place.

So this novel is not really a question of who committed the crime, but rather what the motives were for Alavoine to commit the crime in the first place. It is more of a character study.

Act of Passion is narrated in the first person, by Charles Alavoine. When the book opens, Alavoine is writing to the magistrate Monsieur Comeliau. This is the magistrate who was in touch with Alavoine during the questioning sessions before the trial eventually begun. Alavoine chooses to write to him simply because he is quite confident that the magistrate will understand his motives, and somehow find it in himself to forgive Alavoine. Mind you, he does not expect the magistrate to exonerate him, because Alavoine unconditionally accepts his guilt.

You are afraid of yourself, of a certain frenzy which might take possession of you, afraid of the disgust that you feel growing in you with the slow and inexorable growth of a disease.

We are almost identical men, your Honour.

Alavoine also strongly believes that for the magistrate to really understand why he committed the crime, it was essential first for him to know more about Alavoine as a person.

And that is how gradually we begin to get an inkling of Alavoine’s personality.

Charles Alavoine is the son of a reasonably well to do peasant farmer who marries one of the Lanoue girls (Charles’ mother). It gradually emerges that his father drank too much, and getting a glimpse of the emptiness of his life, finally commits suicide.

Charles, meanwhile, grows up to become a doctor (a doctor or a priest are the two professions his mother would have preferred anyway). It becomes apparent that the mother in some way has exerted control over Charles life, and he has felt no reason to contradict her. And yet, her it is not a form of control that is obvious or in your face, it’s rather subtle.

In fact, we are introduced to Charles’ mother at his trial, where she is extremely nervous and embarrassed and worried about disgracing her son.

Here’s how Charles chooses to give some idea of his mother’s status in the overall scheme of things…

With my first wife, who was not a very good housekeeper, who was what they call at home a ‘lump of dough’, my mother remained the mistress of the house.

With Armande, things changed, that was all, because Armande has a stronger personality and very decided tastes of her own. When a woman of sixty is suddenly deprived of her occupations, can no longer give orders to the servants, can no longer fuss over the meals and the children, it is exceedingly painful for her.

Armande is Charles’ second wife. But before that we learn that Charles was married to a young woman Jeanne who bore him two daughters, and died on the birth of her second daughter. It was clearly the union of an inexperienced couple. Charles marries his first wife without really knowing her or even asking himself if he loved her. He marries her because that is what men his age did after they were more or less settled in their careers.

Charles’ marriage to Armande (his second wife) is also neither a product of love, nor any kind of passion. Armande is portrayed as a cool, dignified woman with sufficient presence of mind, who instills herself in the Alavoine household and comes to control it. It becomes inevitable to both Charles and his mother that Armande will become Charles’ wife.

Armande is shown to be a true model wife who efficiently runs the house, looks after Charles’ daughters, and slowly also has a say in Charles’ practice as a doctor. It appears to be a model of the ‘perfect’ family – Charles has a successful career, he and Armande host bridge parties, and they go on vacation with the daughters.

And while Charles through all his life has passively accepted the fate that Life has doled out to him, gradually but surely begins to feel an emptiness creeping upon him. He feels he is losing his sense of self, or maybe he never had a self in the first place.

You walk along the pavement flooded with sunlight and your shadow walks along with you almost at your side; you can see it broken in two by the angle formed by the white-walled houses and the pavement.

All at once, this shadow accompanying you disappears…

It doesn’t change its position. It doesn’t pass behind you because you have changed your direction. I mean, it just disappears.

You begin to feel yourself all over. Your body has the same consistency as on any other day. You take a few quick steps and you stop short, hoping to find your shadow again. You run. Still it is not there.

You are not dreaming. You have no shadow and, seized with anguish…

It is then that on one of his doctor’s trips to Nantes, he meets Martine. Martine is a woman, down on luck, a drifter, prone to sipping cocktails in bars, and then sleeping with men. She is neither sophisticated nor beautiful but is rather quite ordinary, and this is paradoxically what makes her extraordinary to Charles. He realizes that there is an air of innocence about her that she tries hard to mask. They end up having passionate sex in a cheap hotel room.

It is from hereon that things begin to get difficult for Charles. He can’t bear being away from her. And yet, when he is with her, he is tormented by images of the ‘other’ Martine, the one who is at the beck and call of men, and this drives him into a rage. Slowly but surely, Charles’ downfall begins…

Act of Passion then, on one level, is an examination of existential angst, and on another level is a character study of an obsessed man. Charles time and again talks about love in his letter to the judge, his love for Martine and vice versa. But while it is easy to believe that he indeed does love her, it also points out to his inexperience in terms of what healthy, loving relationships are really like.

And while the reader can sympathize with Charles and why this extra marital affair made him feel alive, bringing him out of his dull existence, we are never entirely sure what Martine really feels about it, because this account is ultimately Charles’ point of view.

Roger Ebert in this introduction for the NYRB Classics edition sums up Charles’ personality very well:

Alavoine in turn depicts himself as an ordinary doctor, a man of fixed routines, a man who submits to the supervision and scrutiny of a mother and a second wife who is like a mother, a man to whom no one could object, and in whom few could take an interest. He is a man who has reached middle age having only once done anything which gave him a sharp sense of self.

Georges Simenon can clearly write and while we will never know if the magistrate ever understood Charles’ motives from the letter addressed to him, he did a brilliant job of just about evoking sympathy of this reader, and I stress ‘just about.’

Basically, this is another wonderfully penned and fascinating romans durs from Simenon and ably translated by Louise Varese. On deeper reflection, I preferred Act of Passion to The Blue Room (and The Blue Room is very, very good).

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The Gravediggers’ Bread – Frederic Dard

Last year, I was introduced to the ‘French master of noir’ Frederic Dard when Pushkin Press’ Vertigo crime imprint released his first title Bird in a Cage. It was a very clever piece of noir and I loved it.

I thought, therefore, it was time to foray into my second Dard novella, and so picked out the latest release – The Gravediggers’ Bread. It was as fascinating as the blurb promised and it is safe to say that Dard has clearly been quite the find for Pushkin Press.

Gravedigger's bread

When the book opens Blaise Delange – unemployed and down-on-luck –  is standing outside a phone booth waiting to place a call to his friend. Blaise has arrived in a small town to interview for a job at a rubber factory only to realise that the position has already been taken.

Finally the phone booth opens and a woman emerges from it…

In reality, the person for whom I stood aside was a woman of around thirty, slim, blonde, with blue eyes that were slightly too large.

 If she had lived in Paris she would have possessed the thing she most lacked, namely a certain sense of elegance.

Once Blaise is through with his call, he notices a wallet in the booth, left there by the woman. A closer inspection reveals 8,000 francs, the woman’s identity card, and another man’s photo.

There is nothing to stop Blaise from claiming the money; there’s no one around, he has already lost out on a job opportunity and here is lady luck giving him a consolation prize.

But he cannot get the woman out of his mind. And so rather than keep the money, he decides to return it to her.

Meanwhile, both he and the reader learn that the woman’s name is Germaine Castain and she is married to a man old enough to be her father, Achille Castain.

Achille Castain runs an undertaker business and is the funerals director so to speak.

“I’m well aware that the layman imagines all sorts of things about our profession. Or rather, he finds it hard to admit it’s an ordinary profession. Yet I can assure you that gravedigger’s bread tastes just the same as other people’s.”

When Blaise returns the wallet to Germaine, he manages to keep her out of trouble, and somehow also gains Achille’s trust. Achille offers him a job as a salesman, which Blaise accepts.

And that is how Blaise comes to stay in the town becoming quite adept at selling coffins and funeral services being quite the opportunist. It also gives him a chance to stay close to Germaine with whom he has fallen in love.

It gradually comes to Blaise’s realization that all is not hunky dory in Achille and Germaine’s marriage. Also, Germaine is keeping some kind of a secret that annoys Blaise greatly.

That’s the bare outline of the plot and I will not reveal more.

How will Blaise win Germaine over, while she is still married to Achille? How is it all going to end?

At 157 pages, The Gravediggers’ Bread is a tense, taut and riveting novella that keeps you on the edge as the ill-fated pair – Blaise and Germaine – seeks to outrun Fate. But will they succeed?

Dard has etched his characters quite well. He has successfully created an atmosphere that is bleak and claustrophobic and yet compelling and fascinating.

For all that he is unemployed; Blaise displays a flair for his new role as a salesman. There is one scene particularly, which stands out. This is when he accompanies Achille to meet his first client. Achille thinks it’s important to understand the psyche of his clientele, which he believes is the key to figure out what type of coffins will eventually sell. For Blaise that’s a passive strategy. He is bold and outspoken and chooses instead to address their clients’ hidden emotions and aspirations to make a sale.

Blaise is not just blunt and direct in his job, but also when he is conversing with Germaine to whom he frankly tells what’s on his mind. After all, despite his dubious character, he remains strangely a hopeless romantic.

Germaine, meanwhile, marries Achille because of a troubled past. And some bizarre need to stick to scruples makes her hang on to her husband even when he physically abuses her.

Achille Castain is an old brute; vicious, suspicious and a wife beater.

The Gravediggers’ Bread then is classic noir fare – obsession and murder at its heart – and with enough twists and turns (all done rather well) to keep the pages turning and make you race feverishly towards the end.

I loved Bird in a Cage, and thought The Gravediggers’ Bread was even better. I have four more Dards to look forward to and hope the Pushkin Vertigo imprint keeps more translations coming!

Translation credits from the French go to Melanie Florence.

The Bridge of Beyond – Simone Schwarz-Bart

I’ve been having a good run with NYRB Classics this year. I liked Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel (which I did not review) and loved Helen Weinzweig’s Basic Black With Pearls, Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man, and Lesley Blanch’s Journey into the Mind’s Eye (all of which I did review). Being on the mood for some more NYRB, I settled on Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, drawn by both the cover and the blurb. And by the time I had gulped the first couple of pages, I knew this book was going to be special.

Bridge of Beyond

The Bridge of Beyond is a luminous, lyrical and vivid tale of three generations of Lougandor women set in the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe.

The story is narrated by Telumee, and here the book is divided into two parts. In the first one, we learn about Telumee’s grandparents (Minerva and Xango), her grandmother Toussine (called Queen Without A Name) in her youth and her marriage to Jeremiah, and her mother Victory. The second part is the story of Telumee’s life as told by her.

Here’s how it opens:

A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die.

As much as this is Telumee’s story, it is also that of her grandmother Toussine, a proud woman and a force to reckon with, to whom her mother Victory sends her to stay.

Toussine was a woman who helped you hold your head up, and people with this gift are rare. My mother’s reverence for Toussine was such I came to regard her as some mythical being not of this world, so that for me she was legendary even while still alive.

Toussine finds great happiness in her marriage to Jeremiah. She bears him two daughters and they build a home for their family that is the envy of their neighbours. But this happiness does not last for long. Tragedy strikes the family, testing Toussine’s mettle. She overcomes this suffering, and it is this strength that she passes on down the generations especially to Telumee.

When Toussine’s husband Jeremiah passes away, she chooses to live a quiet life in a village deliciously named Fond-Zombi – one has to cross the Bridge of Beyond (the title of this novel) to get there.

Telumee’s life changes from the moment her mother Victory decides to spend her life with a man from Dominica. It is then that she is sent to live with Toussine, who greatly relishes the prospect.

Toward the middle of the day we left the little white road to its struggle against the sun, and turned off into a beaten track all red and cracked with drought. Then we came to a floating bridge over a strange river where huge locust trees grew along the banks, plunging everything into an eternal blue semidarkness. My grandmother, bending over her small charge, breathed contentment: “Keep it up, my little poppet, we’re at the Bridge of Beyond.” And suddenly we were on the other bank, Beyond: the landscape of Fond-Zombi unfolding before my eyes…

Telumee, meanwhile, will find her own happiness interspersed with periods of suffering. She will go to work in the kitchen of a wealthy white family owning sugar plantations, she will marry, build a home of her own, only later have a brush with madness. But it’s once again her grandmother Queen Without A Name’s wisdom that will pull her through.

In her view a human back was the strongest, toughest, most flexible thing in the world, an unchanging reality stretching far beyond the eye’s reach. On it descended all the ravages, all the furies, all the eddies of human misery. For a long time the human back had been so, and it would be so for a long time still. The main thing, after all the changes and chances, the traps and surprises – the main thing was just to get your breath back and go on…

The novel also touches upon the harsh reality of slavery, what it means to be a Negro, how Negroes are perceived outside of their surroundings.

Elie railed and swore by all the gods the cane (sugarcane) would never get him, he was never going to buy a knife to go to work on the land of the white men. He’d rather use it to cut his own hands off, he’d hack the air and cleave the wind but he wouldn’t accept that fate.

The Bridge of Beyond is a gorgeous novel overflowing with lush descriptions and storytelling that is slow, sensual, hypnotic and rhythmic and beautifully translated from the French by Barbara Bray. Every page pulses with the energy and vitality of these three generations of women. They are strong, unbroken and fiery. There is tragedy and suffering, but there is also hope and happiness. There is beauty to be found in the landscape; warmth and solace to be found in family and its traditions.

Sway like a filao, shine like a flame tree, creak and groan like a bamboo, but find your woman’s walk and change to a valiant step, my beauty. And when you creak like the bamboo, when you sigh with weariness and disgust, when you groan and despair for yourself alone, never forget that somewhere, somewhere on the earth, there’s a woman glad to be alive.

The descriptions are stunning – whether its the land or its people.

For instance, here’s Telumee describing her mother Victory:

When she sat in the sun the black lacquer of her skin had glints the color of rosewood, like those you see in old rocking chairs. When she moved, the blood rose near the surface and mingled in the blackness, and glints the color of wine appeared in her cheeks. When she was in the shade she at once colored the air surrounding her, as if her presence created a smoky halo.

As Jamaica Kincaid expresses very well in her introduction – Schwarz-Bart’s prose awakens the senses and enlarges the imagination; her sentences, rooted in creole experience and filled with surprising insights and proverbs, resonate in my head and heart.

As if from out of the blue, from the Great Beyond, from the margins, a woman from Guadeloupe has given us an unforgettable hymn to the resilience and power of women.

Patrick Melrose – Edward St Aubyn

These five Patrick Melrose novels, penned by Edward St Aubyn, easily rank among my favourite books of all time. The central character Patrick Melrose is an upper class anti-hero, troubled and vulnerable.

Patrick Melrose books

THE NOVELS

It begins with the wonderfully titled book Never Mind. Here, Patrick is a 5 year old child and is in rural France staying with his spaced out mother and his monstrous father. The book focuses on David Melrose’s cruelty especially on his wife Eleanor and the sexual abuse of his son Patrick, which is sufficiently implied but never explicitly detailed. At the centre of this is a dinner with friends where some more characters are introduced – the insufferable Nicholas Pratt and his young girlfriend Bridget, and the couple Victor and Anne. It all goes wrong, and David Melrose manages to antagonise his guests.

The second book is called Bad News. Here, Patrick Melrose is in his 20s and a drug addict. He learns his father is dead, and has to travel to New York to collect his ashes. It chronicles Patrick’s struggles through addiction, as he experiments with cocaine, heroin, and Quaaludes, with horrific and sometimes hilarious results.

The third book is Some Hope. Patrick Melrose is off drugs, although the spectre of his father and the abuse still haunts him. Pratt makes sure he is invited to the party thrown by Bridget (who has climbed the social ranks) for her husband Sonny in a country mansion. There are other notable characters at the party namely the Princess Margaret, who uncannily displays a moment of cruelty almost similar to that of David Melrose in the first book. The party is the focal point of this book, and is suffused with witty dialogues, and sarcasm aimed at the upper class.

The fourth book is Mother’s Milk. It is set many years later. Patrick is now married to Mary with two young sons Robert (a precocious, observant child), and Thomas. Patrick’s mother Eleanor is aged, ill, and in her final years. Patrick learns that she has left her inheritance and her house to the hack Seamus and his Foundation. The irony is not lost on Patrick – his mother believes in doing social good and donating to social causes but did nothing to protect young Patrick from his abusive father. Patrick also struggles with parenthood, and his relationship with his wife who he feels is prioritizing their young son Thomas over him.

The fifth and final book is At Last, and offers some sort of a redemption for Patrick. His mother Eleanor has just died, and it’s her funeral. Other episodes in the past are also referenced to – his efforts to come clean from alcoholism, and the possibility of making amends with his family.

Despite the dark, disturbing subject matter, Aubyn manages to make these novels quite special. What makes them stand out is the liberal dose of caustic wit, irony and black humour sprinkled throughout. Plus, the characters are wonderfully drawn, and the prose is pristine and elegant. Much of it is autobiographical, as Aubyn has stated in his interviews that he was repeatedly raped by his father, to which his mother responded that she was raped too.

Patrick Melrose

THE TV ADAPTATION

Early this year, these novels were adapted into a five-part TV series called Patrick Melrose and starred Benedict Cumberbatch, who is a fan of these novels and wanted to bring them to the screen. The series were nominated for the Emmys this year.

Melrose novels adaptation

I just finished seeing them over the weekend. The casting is spot on and the performances are top notch. Cumberbatch particularly stands out, which is hardly surprising.

Benedict At Last

In the TV series, the second book Bad News has been shown as Part One, while Never Mind (the first book) is Part Two in the series. Cumberbatch has convincingly portrayed the frenetic role of a drug addict; the cravings and withdrawal symptoms in the first episode, to a quieter, more nuanced performance in the last two series as he looks to exorcise his demons and find solace and redemption.

Benedict At Last Two

Journey into the Mind’s Eye – Lesley Blanch & Bitter Orange – Claire Fuller

The last month has been quite busy and hectic. And while I have managed to read some wonderful books, I have not quite had the time to write about them. That is why in this particular post, I have chosen to review two books instead of one. I have greatly enjoyed both and they are strong contenders for my Best of the Year list.

So here goes…

Blanch & Fuller

Journey into the Mind’s Eye – Lesley Blanch

Here’s what the NYRB Classics blurb says:

“My book is not altogether autobiography, nor altogether travel or history either. You will just have to invent a new category,” Lesley Blanch wrote about Journey into the Mind’s Eye, a book that remains as singularly adventurous and intoxicating now as when it first came out in 1968.

At a very young age, Lesley Blanch is dazzled by The Traveller and his stories of seventeenth and eighteenth century Russia. There is an aura of mystery around The Traveller and not much is revealed about him for much of the book other than that he is an older man, Russian with Asiatic features, and around the same age as Lesley’s parents. He periodically visits their home. But because of him, she develops a deep passion for Russia and Siberia, and has dreams of one day embarking on a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway – a dream that comes to dominate her life.

In a way, the Traveller becomes an important man in her life. In her late teens, on a trip to Paris and later to Dijon, they consummate their relationship. Later, Blanch joins him, his aunt and his two sons on a family idyll to Corsica for two months. And then the Traveller disappears.

But in no way does that diminish Blanch’s passion for Russia and the Trans-Siberian railroad. Infact, she continues to visit the homes of Russian emigres in Paris to whet her desire for all things Russian and hold on to her vision of the Russia of yore.

Life goes on, and Blanch meets the French author Romain Gary. Enthralled by his Russian origins and deep voice, she marries him. Gary at the time is in the diplomatic service, and so they travel widely staying in places such as New York, Los Angeles, and Bulgaria to name a few. And while not her beloved Russia, these are postings that Blanch enjoys greatly, Bulgaria being the highlight during her time with Gary.

Gary then leaves her for the actress Jean Seberg. However, Blanch does not dwell on this too much. In a sentence, she only mentions matter of factly of their marriage ending in a divorce.

More importantly, now that she is on her own once again, it renews her vigour to finally visit Russia and embark on her much anticipated Trans-Siberian journey.

Here’s the Guardian:

Her avoidance of a conventional life in London led her on quixotic voyages geo-graphically and emotionally. In 1931 she became one of the rare tourists to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Dragged around monuments to Soviet progress, she perplexed her guides with questions about the homes of 19th-century writers, all the while glancing over her shoulder and around corners for that beloved Asiatic face.

Blanch’s dream of travelling on the Trans-Siberian railroad does come true, and this is not really a spoiler given what’s so rewarding about this book is the journey and not the end result. But after a very long hiatus, will she meet the man who shaped her life – the Traveller?

Journey into the Mind’s Eye is a wonderful book and Blanch’s passion for Russia and Siberia sparkles on every page. It is a hybrid work of memoir, travelogue, history, and  displays Blanch as startlingly ahead of her time. It certainly fuelled my appetite for travel to far flung places!

Journey into the Mind's Eye

Bitter Orange –  Claire Fuller

When the book opens Frances Jellico has just arrived at the crumbling English mansion Lyntons. We are told that the mansion has been purchased by an American Mr Lieberman who has yet to visit the place. However, he wants an estimate of the treasures at the mansion. For a fee, Frances is appointed to study the architecture of the gardens and bridges and compile a report.

Frances at the time has just lost her mother and so this position could not have come at a more opportune time.

Once there, she comes across her neighbours – the hedonistic couple Peter and Cara. There’s more. Frances also discovers a peephole in the floorboard of her bathroom, which allows her to spy on both of them.

Meanwhile, Peter and Cara are enthusiastic to befriend Frances and she is thrilled. Frances is shown to be a plain, ordinary woman, overweight and not attractive in the conventional sense. Peter and Cara are quite the opposite: good-looking and glamorous.

Increasingly, they spend most of their days together – having lavish meals prepared by Cara, drinking wine after wine from bottles taken from the cellar downstairs, smoking cigarettes and languidly soaking up the summer sun.

And then the cracks start becoming visible – atleast Peter and Cara’s relationship is not as hunky dory as it originally appears. It all culminates in a tragedy that has a lasting impact on Frances’ life.

Claire Fuller has penned a dark and atmospheric tale with gothic overtones that is gripping and hard to put down. The summer is wonderfully evoked and the characters are also well drawn. At its heart, Bitter Orange is a tale about loneliness, obsession and wanting to belong.

That Frances wants to belong is quite obvious given her diffident personality and the fact that she is now alone and left to fend for herself. So much so that as the days carry on, she becomes obsessed with both of them taking a deep interest in their relationship, and what it means to her.

But in a sense, Peter and Cara are struggling to belong too, to find their bearings. Cara, particularly, is prone to bouts of anger and is quite clear that she does not want to go back to her home and a stifled existence in Ireland. She is yearning for a different life, with the firm belief that Italy will make her dreams come true. Peter is in some sense adrift too. He leaves his first wife for Cara, but is it is decision that will give him satisfaction?

Bitter Orange was thoroughly engrossing and I will be exploring more of Claire Fuller’s work.

Bitter Orange

Bergeners – Tomas Espedal

They say you should never judge a book by its cover. But this adage is hardly apt for the Kolkata based Seagull Books, whose book covers are as enticing as the content within the pages.

Seagull Books has been doling out compelling literature in translation and it is good to see that it is being recognized for some major prizes as well.

Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners caught my attention because it was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year.

Bergeners

Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners opens in New York in the fancy Standard Hotel.

New York City. The Standard Hotel. Room 1103. The loveliest room I’d ever seen. So transparent, so open, so white and severe.

The city was in the room. The room was in the city, like a transparent cube with glass walls.

Tomas is there with his partner Janne but we are immediately told that it is not going to end well as Janne reveals her intention to end their relationship. It’s a break-up that unsettles Tomas greatly and in some way forms the core of his subsequent loneliness.

It’s not just Janne who has left him though. We learn later that his daughter from a previous marriage has moved out of their house (as young adults are bound to do) to shift to Oslo.

You don’t become lonely by being alone. It’s when you’ve got used to living with a lover and children and all the surrounding family and friends, it’s when you suddenly lose all this, all these things you’ve become fond of and reliant on, that you become lonely.

Bergeners is not a straightforward book by all accounts, quite indefinable infact. It has personal, autobiographical shades to it, and yet it is not your standard autobiography fare. The narration is an amalgam of diary entries, poetry, short stories, ruminations on art and reflections on the people of Bergen.   In a way the thin line between fact and fiction is quite blurred as is the narrative voice which shifts between the first person and the third.

There is a restless quality to the book as Tomas travels to places such as Madrid, Italy, Oslo, Nicaragua, Berlin and so on. And yet, paradoxically, he has reached a phase where he does not wish to travel any more…

You’ve done all your travelling, seen what you wanted to see, and what you haven’t seen, you can’t be bothered with.

There are some absorbing pieces on the process of writing as well. In one titled ‘The Writer Who Doesn’t Write’, Tomas travels to an upland village in Italy to meet the writer Harold Costello. The house Costello is living in is perfect, and yet he is staring at a dilemma…

I made a bit of money, travelled around Europe and stumbled on this house which I bought. I thought that this would be the perfect place too, the perfect house, the perfect place to write. I moved here to write. Everything in the house and in the garden and all around me was arranged with just one object, to write. But in all the years I’ve lived here, I’ve never managed to write anything worthwhile.

In a personal narrative of this sort, it’s not surprising to see the presence of other Norwegian authors, and here it includes the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Dag Solstad. As an aside, I have not read Knausgaard but I have read Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18 and it’s brilliant.

Espedal’s conversation particularly with Dag Solstad is laced with humour.

For some reason, I let it be known that I was reading Thomas Mann’s diaries in German. Yes, Thomas Mann wrote his diary every evening before he went to bed, said Dag Solstad. Every evening without fail that diary had to be written, every evening, every single evening before he went to bed. Why didn’t he just go to bed, roared Dag Solstad suddenly.

I am partial to art and like books that talk about art and there is some of that here as well. Once again, it is Dag Solstad who gives Espedal perspective on how the latter should be seeing Goya’s Black Paintings.

Well, if you want to view Goya’s Black Paintings in the Prado, you’ve got to walk straight through the first rooms without turning your head. You mustn’t stop or look at a single painting. Just go through as fast as you can with blinkers on, all the way to the innermost room of the museum. That’s where Goya’s Black Paintings are on display. After you’ve seen them, you must leave the museum immediately, in just the same manner as you came in, Dag Solstad said.

As I write this piece I realize that my review is possibly quite fragmentary as I can’t quite put a finger on how best to describe this wonderful novel, but perhaps that’s fitting given the nature and tone of the book itself. Essentially, to me this novel was an immersive experience and I will be exploring more Espedal.

Translation credits from the Norwegian go to James Anderson.

Death in Spring – Merce Rodoreda

Last time, I had highlighted how August was the month for Women in Translation (WIT), and the first book I had reviewed was Yuko Tsushima’s rather wonderful Territory of Light.

Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring is the second novel I will be discussing this WIT month.

Death in Spring (my edition is from Open Letter Books) was a novel that had been sitting somewhere at the back of my shelves, unnoticed, for more than a couple of years.

But then the novel received another lease of life when it was recently re-issued by Penguin Books under the Penguin European Writers series.

This, and the fact that it was once again favourably received by the blogging community, meant that it was time for me to extract the book from obscurity, dust off the pages and plunge right in…

Death in Spring

Death in Spring is one of those strange yet compelling books that is difficult to write about.

In essence, the novel is about the power and force of nature, the burden of customs and the price of rebellion.

The novel is set in an unknown village where bizarre, cruel customs rule the roost. For instance, every spring the houses are painted with red powder that the men and boys gather from a cave braving the rough weather and howling winds.

Pregnant women are blindfolded…

They covered their eyes because if they gazed at other men, the children they were carrying would also take a peek and begin to resemble the men.

Then there are the faceless men…men who have been physically destroyed because they were made to swim from one end of the river to another to ensure that the water current does not obliterate the village.

Once a man had lost his face, he was always in the company of another faceless man. It was as though they had never had anything at all; being mutilated meant relinquishing whatever they possessed. When they were among themselves they talked about the water and the strange taste of the drink they were forced to swallow before swimming through the river.

Not to mention, every individual about to die is buried in the bark of a tree which has been marked out for him but not before cement is poured into his/her mouth to prevent the soul from escaping.

The novel is told from the perspective of a fourteen year old boy. In the earlier pages, he sees a man go into the forest and bury himself into a tree only to realize the shocking truth…

Death in spring. I threw myself on the ground, on top of the pebbles, my heart drained of blood, my hands icy. I was fourteen years old, and the man who had entered the tree to die was my father.

From thereon, he becomes fast friends with his wild stepmother, who is only a couple of years older to him. For this very reason he becomes the object of constant ridicule and jeer from the villagers.

The villagers used to say my stepmother was a bit retarded, but I didn’t think she was.

Various other strange characters people the tale. There is the elder Senyor who “lived at the top of the small mountain that was cleaved by a cliff and overlooked the village, protecting and menacing.”

There is the blacksmith who had a house at the entrance to the village, and who is entrusted with the task of making a plaque and a ring for every individual born in the village.

And there’s the prisoner who seems to be the only one to really gauge what is going on…the prisoners were essentially thieves whom the villagers punished “by taking away their humanity.”

As I mentioned earlier, nature is a powerful entity in the novel, apparent from the first page itself. The mass of water that descends from the mountains – “all the waters joined together in the delirium of joining and flowed endlessly.” The strong wisteria vines – “the wisteria that over the years upwrenched the houses.” And the pounding wind when the men climb the Maraldina mountain – “the wind was telling us that ours is a senseless job, something that was better left undone.”

In other words, in the battle between nature and man, nature often has the upper hand and how.

There are moments of rebellion too, and attempts to stifle them. Pretty much outcasts, in one chapter, the unnamed boy and his step mother go on a disruptive spree. They scrape the red powder from the cave, and throw it into the well – there is now a dearth of colour to paint the houses in the spring. They throw the paint brushes into the river. They go to the forest and wreak havoc by removing the rings and plaques from the trees and letting the bones of the dead spill out from the barks.

It’s their way of rebelling against the cruel, harrowing customs that the village insists on following.

The unrest that had commenced at the cave returned. Between young and old. For some time the young from the wash district had been saying that people should be left to die their own death. The old men from the slaughterhouse argued that everything should continue as before.

What is the driving force behind these destructive customs? Why do the old men insist on following them?

It’s fear. They want to be afraid. They want to believe, and they want to suffer, suffer, only suffer and they choke the dying to make them suffer even more, so they’ll suffer till their last breath, so that no good moment can ever exist. They are consumed by the fear of desire. They want to suffer so they won’t think about desire.

Death in Spring is the portrayal of a disturbing society steeped in death and decay, and Merce Rodoreda manages to do so in prose that is lyrical, poetic and hypnotic. Lush descriptions abound, an air of strangeness seeps through all pages of the novel and there is a fairy-tale like feel to the narrative. This is not a tale told in a linear fashion, rather it’s like art cinema – moody and atmospheric.

On one level, Death in Spring could be construed as a metaphor for the strange times we live in; the disquieting trend of certain nations resisting change and progress, wanting instead to re-live a ‘not-so palatable’ past.

The blurb on the back of my edition says:

A book for the ages, Death in Spring can be read as a metaphor for Franco’s Spain (or any oppressed society), or as a mythological quest novel.”

I cannot help but agree.

Translation credits from the Catalan go to Martha Tennent.

Territory of Light – Yuko Tsushima

August is Women in Translation month – both authors and translators. And so, it only seemed fitting to kick it off with Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, a novel which had generally received strong reviews and which I ended up liking a great deal as well.

Territory of Light

When the novel opens, we learn that the protagonist has just separated from her husband and has moved with her daughter into a new apartment in Tokyo.

It’s an apartment that she takes to immediately suffused as it is with light – hence the title of the novel.

But once you got the door open, the apartment was filled with light at any hour of the day. The kitchen and dining area immediately inside had a red floor, which made the aura all the brighter. Entering from the dimness of the stairwell, you practically had to squint.

‘Ooh, it’s warm, it’s pretty!’ My daughter, who was about to turn three, gave a shout the first time she was bathed in the room’s light.

‘Isn’t it cosy? The sun’s great, isn’t it?’

Clearly, these are new beginnings, but not without its fair share of challenges, as the mother will gradually realize.

Her husband has no intention of providing child support citing his inability to do so although he dotes on the daughter. This means that the responsibility of providing for her child falls on her. Her daily routine involves dropping off her daughter in day care, after which she goes to her workplace and then picking her up on the way back.

Slowly, but surely as the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that the woman is struggling in her role as a single mother.

By the time I’d tidied up and finished preparing a breakfast which also served as lunch, it was after one o’clock. If I did the pile of laundry, the shopping and the cleaning, it would be time for dinner. There was some ironing and mending too. The very thought made me so tired I sank down again on to the tatami. Would this Sunday go by, like all the others, without a single thing happening? I felt myself waiting for something, more wearily than eagerly by now.

Her child is demanding and prone to weeping bouts in the night and the mother is at her wits’ end as to how to put an end to it.

Meanwhile, the mother’s loneliness also begins to come to the fore.

There is one poignant incident in the novel where she is trying to arrange a birthday party for her daughter. She is figuring out who to call, and realizes there are not many she can eventually invite.

And she finds herself latching on to relationships with men which are vague with no real future.

The strain of being alone and single-handedly raising her daughter besides initiating divorce proceedings with her husband, begins to get too much, something very subtly highlighted by the author Tsushima.

There are instances where the mother struggles to get up from her bed and is more or less always late in dropping off her daughter at daycare despite repeated warnings.

And in one particular moment of frustration, she leaves her daughter alone and goes off to a bar to relive “those carefree, lively times” only to return home late at night, drunk.

We both walked unsteadily, each belting out a different song. Multicoloured lights swarmed brightly and beautifully all around the station, and the road leading to my building glowed faintly red as it meandered through them, pulsing like a blood vessel.

Territory of Light is also a novel about control – about how the woman is struggling to control herself, and at the same time how society in a way is imposing its opinions on her without really helping her. For instance, many of the woman’s so called well-wishers point out to her the folly of divorce and why she needs to go back to her husband (ironically, it is the husband who wanted out, although that fact becomes blurred later on in the novel).

And then, there is an incident where her neighbours force her to put a blue mesh on her windows in order to put an end to her daughter’s misbehavior.

If all of this makes the novel appear bleak, it is hardly so. Tsushima’s writing is simple, lucid, invigorating, and there is a freshness to her prose that adds poignancy to the mother’s plight.

The novel is made up of twelve chapters, with poetic titles such as ‘The Water’s Edge’, ‘A Dream of Birds’, ‘Sunday in the Trees’, ‘The Magic Words’ to name a few. The gentle nature of these titles, however, bely the harsh reality of the mother’s life depicted in each of these chapters.

In a nutshell, being a single mother is hardly a piece of cake, something that Yuko Tsushima can attest to given her own background as a divorced mother. Hence, her startling ability to convincingly portray it in this novel.

Translation credits from the Japanese go to Geraldine Harcourt.

 

 

Missing – Alison Moore

I was introduced to Alison Moore’s writing when her novel The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012. It’s been a while since I read it, and while I will need to revisit the novel to recall the basic plot point, I do remember being impressed at the skill she displayed in creating intriguing and compelling protagonists.

And it’s a feat she has accomplished in her latest offering – Missing – as well.

Missing

They say when you lose someone, carrying on with daily routine is one way of coping, of blunting the sharp edges of pain.

That certainly seems to hold true for the main protagonist in this novel, Jessie Noon. When the book opens, we learn that Jessie is in her late forties, and living in Hawick, somewhere along the Scottish borders.

She lives alone with her dog and cat as companions, her second husband having walked out on her one day, leaving an enigmatic message in steam on the bathroom mirror.

Will left in the middle of winter, and now winter was coming again. At first, people had kept asking where he was, and she sometimes thought they asked in a way that made her sound responsible, as if she had been careless with him, or as if she might be keeping him trapped somewhere in the house. But after a while, word got around; he was known to have left, and people stopped asking about him. When Will had been gone for nine months, Jessie began using her own name again.

Jessie also has a son Paul from her first marriage. But relations have soured there too, although we are not told why. All we know is that Paul walked out of Jessie’s life even before she moved to her home in Hawick.

Jessie, meanwhile, is a freelance translator, and when she is not working or reading a biography on D.H. Lawrence, she is immersed in daily household chores which involve feeding the animals, gardening, cooking, doing laundry or taking the dog out for a walk.

And certain happenings in the spare room – noises, cracks in the windowpane and so on – convince her of the presence of a ghost. Is there really one, or is it just her imagination prompted by an early trauma?

but she thought about the fissures that had appeared in the house, as if it were succumbing to some pressure or force. She thought about her favourite glass, cracked, and her special mug, broken. She felt watched, and she did not feel forgiven.

There are two narrative threads in the novel. One is in the present, and this alternates with the other story thread set in 1985 when Jessie was in her late teens. That particular time period is significant because of a family tragedy that leaves a lasting scar on Jessie.

That’s as far as the basic plot goes.

What is amazing about the novel is the incredibly nuanced way in which Alison Moore has fleshed out Jessie’s character.

Jessie is a translator, for whom choosing the right words is probably a matter of life and death. But ironically, in her dealings with others, she displays a curious mix of uninhibitedness and lack of tact.

It is not deliberate though and her heart is in the right place; yet her inability to effectively communicate and lack of assertiveness lead to misunderstandings that are quite heartbreaking – we see this with her best friend Amy, her neighbor Isla and her son Alisdair and more importantly with her brother-in-law Gary.

Missing is also an examination of loneliness and alienation. As her life plays out, Jessie feels abandoned both literally and figuratively, it’s almost like she exists and doesn’t at the same time, and it’s the stability and comfort of her household chores that ultimately keeps her going.

The routine of Jessie’s days and weeks was much the same now as it had been during their marriage, as it had been before their marriage: she woke at fifteen minutes to seven, lay in bed until seven, and then got up, took a shower, made a cup of tea, ate fruit for breakfast.

There’s more here…

It had been necessary for her to find a new afternoon routine. After eating lunch at home, she did some cleaning. She went to the swimming pool at the leisure centre, where she ploughed up and down the pool, doing a punishing hour of crawl; or she went to a class, to aerobics or Zumba, something with thumping music.

At less than 200 pages, Alison Moore has composed a novel that is rich in the minute details of everyday routine while at the same time maintaining a tone that is suspenseful and an atmosphere that is unsettling.

The name of the novel – Missing – is quite apt signifying how events have unfolded in Jessie’s life. Friends, family members disappear from her life, and she loses things such as her favourite pair of turquoise earrings. There is a sense that Jessie could be on the verge of falling apart too, as if her sense of self is likely to crumble anytime.

As the novel progresses, and the author gradually and masterfully peels off the layers, Jessie emerges as a richly etched character and your heart just goes out to her.

It’s a superb novel. Highly recommended.

 

Basic Black With Pearls – Helen Weinzweig

My exposure to Canadian literature is rather limited. The only books I have read I think are by Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin, Cat’s Eye, Lady Oracle – all wonderful. But then Margaret Atwood is also rather well known outside of her country.

Sadly, many other Canadian authors are not. Helen Weinzweig is an author I had never heard of. So when NYRB Classics re-issued her novel Basic Black With Pearls, the title itself intrigued me.

The result? I thought the novel was brilliant, and is a dead cert to make my Best of the Year list.

Here’s why…

Basic Black with Pearls

Basic Black With Pearls is arresting right from the first page and immediately hooks you in. The novel centres around Shirley, a married woman with kids, having an affair with another married man Coenraad.

When the novel opens, she is in an exotic city in the tropics on a secret rendezvous with Coenraad, as has been the case many times before.

Night comes as a surprise in the tropics. There is no twilight, no preparation for the disappearance of light. One moment the eyes must be protected from a merciless sun and the next, it seems, all forms vanish into the black night. I was sleepless in Tikal.

We learn that Coenraad is an international spy and works for a nebulous organization simply known as The Agency. Because of the clandestine nature of his work, their affair has to remain a secret at all costs. So they devise a complex code, known only to the two of them, by which they can communicate and decide on their next meeting – a code hidden in the pages of the National Geographic.

That’s not all. Being a spy, Coenraad is a natural in disguising himself, which means Shirley has to be alert to all possible clues pointing to his identity in whatever locales they are in. Meanwhile, Shirley has no illusions about herself admitting that she is an unremarkable, middle-aged woman. She always wears a basic black dress and a string of pearls (as in the title of the novel) to their meetings. And yet, she assumes the name of Lola Montez and when she is with her lover, she becomes vitalized and her persona undergoes a sea of change.

That’s the basic outline of the novel, all of which we learn in the first few pages.

Coenraad and Shirley carry on their affair in cities as exotic as Tikal, Tangier, Genoa, Marseilles, Rome to name a few. And although their time together is brief, it is suffused with a great deal of passion. To Shirley it is a rich life of travel, intrigue, adventure and meaning.

If all this gives the impression of an espionage novel with a straightforward plot, it is not. That would be describing it too simply and doing injustice to an incredibly multi-layered novel.

Now, things take an unexpected turn for Shirley when Coenraad, out of the blue, informs her that the next destination is going to be Toronto. It is a city that Shirley knows intimately but the last place she wants to go to. But meet Coenraad she feels she must, and off to Toronto she goes, albeit reluctantly.

What follows thereafter are long solitary walks through the city’s myriad streets, as she longingly searches for Coenraad afraid that she might have misinterpreted the clues.

It takes a great deal of energy to wait. Although I am quiet, I feel as if I were running all the while to a point in the distance, panting for breath. My entire being strains towards that moment when he will appear. Time is suspended; it goes on without me. And then, at the sight of him, in one split second, the waiting comes to an end: the clocks started their wild clacking, their hands race towards the time when he will go back out the door.

And that is one major theme of the novel – loneliness.  Shirley is lonely in her marriage, married to a man who is highly predictable in his ways, and does not really love her.

I was thinking particularly of Sundays at home when Zbigniew comes back from the stables, hangs up his riding crop beside the mantel-piece and settles in with the week’s newspapers.

In sharp contrast, Coenraad conjures up an image of a man with a vibrant personality.

When I see that stance of Coenraad’s all fears disappear: babies don’t die, cars don’t collide, planes fly on course, muzak is silenced, certitude reigns. That is how I always recognize my love: the way he stands, the way I feel.

But these trysts also have a price that she must pay; while her time with Coenraad is highly fulfilling, it also means that she has to deal with long waiting spells. And it is the waiting that can also many a time be quite lonely. It reaches its peak in Toronto –a city she knows like the back of her hand, and therefore there being no novel way for her to kill time.

It’s not all about Coenraad though. Her walks through Toronto also bring her face to face with many women whose stories of emotional imprisonment, suburban despair and impoverished immigrant experiences mirror her own.

The other major layer in this rich novel is the character of Shirley herself and her unique voice. This is where we realize that Weinzweig’s story is not just an espionage tale but something else entirely. This is Shirley’s narrative and it is through her that we get a glimpse of her inner world as she embarks on an erotic odyssey with Coenraad.

In fact, early on in the novel, it becomes vaguely apparent that things are not necessarily what they seem, and as the novel progresses the line between fact and fiction begins to get blurred. It all has the impact of disorienting the reader but in a highly compelling way.

There’s more. To me, Basic Black with Pearls is also a feminist novel because it gives an inkling (but not explicitly) of the limited roles for women in society and how the conventional roles of wife and mother are not something every woman wishes for. And it is also about a woman’s right to feel and express her desire (otherwise assumed to be only the man’s domain).

In fact, Shirley’s story, to a certain degree, also reminded me of Edna Pontellier, the protagonist in Kate Chopin’s wonderful, feminist novel The Awakening, and her yearning for an independent, creative life outside of marriage and motherhood. Another novel that comes to mind with a similar theme is Brian Moore’s excellent The Doctor’s Wife, all the more remarkable because it was authored by a man.

Helen Weinzweig’s writing is superb. Her prose is brisk, poetic and addictive. There is a surreal, dreamlike feel to it all that can be bewildering but is ultimately rewarding. And in Shirley, the author has wonderfully brought to life a complex, rich and an unforgettable character.

In a nutshell, Weinzweig has crafted an exquisite, haunting and poignant novel – leaving you in a daze, making you think a lot, long after you turn the final pages.

A note on the cover:

The covers of NYRB Classics are always top notch, but there is something about this one that caught my eye. The image is from the Canadian artist Michael Snow’s Walking Women series, and quite an apt one for this book.

It is also the image that captured Weinzweig’s imagination. Here’s what an interesting article in the Quill and Quire had to say:

When Weinzweig approached Anansi with an idea for her second book, about a middle-aged Toronto woman looking for coded signs from her lover in the pages of National Geographic, Polk admits he initially hesitated, but was intrigued by one of her influences: Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series. Weinzweig was moved by the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere. She told Polk, “That’s what I want to capture in prose.”

But she clearly did more than that, because her creation Shirley is anything but a one-dimensional woman.

An image from the same article – Michael Snow’s ‘Four’ from the Walking Woman series:

Four from the Walking Woman series