The Blue Room – Georges Simenon (tr. Linda Coverdale)

Georges Simenon is an author I had been meaning to try for quite some time. He was a prolific writer well known for his Inspector Maigret series. These were mysteries set in Paris probably akin to Agatha Christie novels. I have read only one Maigret so far and it was an easy, lightweight mystery.

The real meat really is in his non-Maigret novels otherwise called his romans durs or hard novels. These novels are richer, darker with a strong psychological edge.

In other words, the Maigret novels were more commercial and Simenon wrote them as a means of relaxation. The romans durs, however, while short demanded greater focus and had more character.

I was keen to explore his romans durs and began with The Blue Room, which is excellent. Suffice to say that I will be reading more of his work.

The Blue Room
Penguin Modern Classics Edition

There is a lot going on in the first chapter.

We first learn that the protagonist Tony Falcone has been having an affair with Andrée Despierre. They typically meet in a room at the Hotel des Voyageurs owned by Tony’s brother Vincent.

Here’s how the book opens.

‘Did I hurt you?’

‘No.’

‘Are you angry with me?’

‘No.’

It was true. At that time, everything was true, for he was living in the moment, without questioning anything, without trying to understand, without suspecting that one day he would need to understand.

What would Tony need to understand? We do not know either. Not yet.

But during this conversation, Andrée keeps asking what would happen if she becomes free, does Tony love her, so on and so forth. This scene in the hotel room is an important moment because it is from here that the story moves forward and backward in a series of flashbacks touching on how Tony and Andrée became lovers upto events in the future.

Tony’s affair with Andrée is intense and passionate.

At thirty-three, he had known many women. None of them had given as much pleasure as she had, an animal pleasure, complete and wholehearted, untainted afterwards by any disgust, lassitude or regret.

They have a signal wherein they decide to meet every time in the blue room (the book’s title) of the hotel. It is convenient and Tony’s brother Vincent, obviously aware of the affair, would never rat out on him.

The room was blue, ‘washing-blue’ he had thought one day, a blue that reminded him of his childhood, the tiny muslin sachets of blue powder his mother dissolved in the washtub water for the final rinse, right before she went to spread the laundry out on the gleaming grass of the meadow. He must have been five or six years old and often wondered through what miracle the blue colour could turn the laundry white.

The blue of the room was not just washing-blue, but the sky-blue of certain hot, August afternoons as well, shortly before it turns pink, then red, in the setting sun.

During one such meeting, Tony goes to the window and sees d Andrée’s husband Nicolas approaching the hotel. He manages to escape the room but this incident leaves him with a sense of foreboding.

Why did Nicolas come to the hotel? Was he aware of his affair with Andrée? Who called him there?

Tony has no clue. Infact, we come to know that this incident and his affair with Andree is told while he is reminiscing as he tries to make sense of it while talking with his lawyer, the magistrate and his psychiatrist.

Indeed, in the first chapter itself, interspersed with details of Tony’s affair, we are told that he is in a prison relentlessly questioned by the magistrate. Clearly, there is a crime that has taken place and Tony has been implicated. He cannot make head or tail of it.

We learn that Tony is married to Gisele, who is tidy, energetic, unassuming, the perfect housewife. They have a daughter Marianne.

Tony loves Gisele in his own way despite his affair. What about Gisele? Does she know of the affair but given her nature chooses not to question Tony about it?

Nicolas, meanwhile, is shown to be a sickly man prone to bouts of epilepsy. His mother Madame Despierre is a headstrong woman and she and Andrée do not get along too well.

After Nicolas’ sudden appearance at the Hotel des Voyageurs, Tony starts becoming uneasy and decides to end his affair with Andrée. Will Andrée agree?

And then Nicolas dies.

That is the brief outline of the story and saying anything more would be spoiling it. There’s plenty more that happens though.

At 156 pages of the Penguin Modern Classics edition, this is a short, taut psychological thriller. It is a story of lust, passion, what happens when it all goes wrong and how it affects everybody. Simenon’s prose is spare, lean and powerful and there is a lot of depth in this story as well as its characters. He coveys masterfully the air of impending doom permeating throughout. Credit also goes to the translator Linda Coverdale for a very smooth translation from the French.

‘Could you spend your whole life with me?’

He hardly noticed her words; they were like the images and odours all around him. How could he have guessed that this scene was something he would relive ten times, twenty times and more – and every time in a different frame of mind, from a different angle?

 

The Doll’s Alphabet – Camilla Grudova

Good literature has a way of transporting you to another world, offering you a glimpse of an author’s creative imagination and vision. Some authors, though, take their vision to a whole new level, a vision that is dystopian, dark and yet strangely compelling.

Camilla Grudova is one such author and her book A Doll’s Alphabet, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, is a treat.

The author write-up at the start of the novel does not reveal much. Grudova lives in Canada, and has a degree in Art History and German. That’s it. But while the bio is minimal, her stories have a lot to tell.

A doll's alphabet 4 motifs
Fitzcarraldo Editions

A Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird but in a good way. There’s plenty going on. Here’s a taster of some of them…

The first story “Unstitching” opens thus:

One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself. Her clothes, skin and hair fell from her like the peeled rind of a fruit, and her true body stepped out. Greta was very clean so she swept her old self away and deposited it in the rubbish bin before even taking notice of her new physiognomy, the difficulty of working her new limbs offering no obstruction to her determination to keep a clean home.

In ‘Waxy’, another superb story, the set-up is quite dystopian. Women work in Factories and the men are required to take Exams and bring home Exam money. It is also expected that every woman should have a man otherwise people would become suspicious.

If one’s Man did not do well on Exams, it was considered the woman’s fault for not providing a nurturing enough environment in which they could excel.

The narrator is a woman who stays in a flat that she shares with a couple Stuart and Pauline. She works in a Factory where she paints the company name on all its sewing machines. When the story opens, she is without a man. One day the woman brings a youngish man called Paul home. She realizes, a little too late, that he has neither Exam books nor identification papers. They decide to keep this strictly a secret between them. In the meanwhile, they become a couple and the narrator gives birth to a baby whom they name Waxy because ‘it was a tiny, waxy child, like a little cheese rind’ and because they are too scared to name it properly. Can Paul’s secret truly remain hidden especially from Stuart and Pauline? What will happen if they find out?

The other strong story in this collection is ‘Agata’s Machine’. This is a story of two eleven year olds, Agata and the narrator. Both of them are loners. But Agata is not tormented in school like the narrator is because she is a genius excelling in sciences and maths. One day, Agata invites the narrator to her home and the two withdraw into Agata’s attic. There Agata shows the narrator a sewing machine…

A gigantic black insect. It was a sewing machine, an old malicious one, black and gold, attached to its own desk with a treadle underneath, wrought metal like the grates over fire stoves and sewers.

Agata begins to pump the treadle. When the lights are turned off, the mason jar next to it begins to glow and the light inside morphs into a Pierrot. When it’s the narrator’s turn to work the treadle, the Pierrot does not appear but what she sees instead is an angel in the garb of a sailor. These are images that mesmerize the two girls and they take turns at pumping the treadle well into the night and for many days. This then is an unusual, dark story about obsession and indulging in destructive activity and what happens when it gets out of control.

In the last story ‘Notes from a Spider’, the narrator is part human, part spider with eight legs.  One day, he comes across a sewing machine shop and gets besotted by a sewing machine called Florence. He brings it home and employs a string of seamstresses to make the machine work hard and transform the cloth. In Florence’s honour, the narrator also decides to open a sewing machine museum, which will supply a steady stream of seamstresses. However, in the beginning the machine is being fed with cloth, but what will happen later when the narrator begins to feed it his flesh?

Sewing machines, dolls, factories, mermaids, babies are some of the recurring motifs in this collection, and a general air of dirt and dereliction permeate all of these stories. Grudova has a way of drawing you into her surreal, unusual world with prose that is enthralling.

There is also a whiff of feminism in some of them. In the first story, men are portrayed as superficial.

There was also a small minority of men who tried to unstitch themselves with the aid of razorblades and knives, only to end up wounded and disappointed. They had no ‘true, secret’ selves inside, only what was taught and known.

There is an abundance of anachronistic subjects, an ode to something ancient, an older era. For instance, in the story ‘The Mouse Queen’, Peter’s shelves are stocked with green and red Loebs (the origins of classical wisdom, Greek and Latin respectively), his hair is slicked back ‘like a young Samuel Beckett’, and the church where Peter and the narrator marry has a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà. In another story ‘The Mermaid’, the character Emmeline is reading Homer and is fond of very old books, while her husband owns a shop called Old Time Things.

In an interview with Culture Trip, this is what Grudova had to say:

“The anachronistic aspect is from my own life, my family didn’t have a television till I was a pre -teen or a computer until I was a teenager, and we never owned a car, the sewing machine was the first machine in my life, my mother taught me how to use it, I made dolls, doll’s clothes, clothes for myself. It was very much an imaginative tool for me so I associate it with writing.

“I like looking for old treasures in the garbage. I find old technology useful to use to think about new technology, like not staring at something directly, maybe looking at its shadow instead.”

Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness. Each of these stories is haunting, dark, striking and will stay in your mind for a long, long time.

The Hideout – Egon Hostovsky (tr. Fern Long)

Much has been written about Hitler, the Nazis and the atrocities they committed leading upto and during the Second World War. Prior to this dark period, Europe was a great place to be in. Writers, artists, musicians, painters converged in many of these great cities to practice art and exchange ideas freely. Europe, in other words, was a melting pot of cultures.  Writers, in particular, be they Jews, Czechs, Polish, Eastern European, flourished immensely during this golden period.

But then the Nazis came to power. And everything changed for the worse. Almost all the writers and authors sunk into oblivion as the war loomed large. Many were forced into exile. Others fled the continent to migrate to the United States and begin a new life there. There were also those who could not adjust to the new and grim reality and therefore chose to take their own lives. Stefan Zweig was one such prolific writer who committed suicide during this period (Wes Anderson’s superb film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is inspired by Stefan Zweig’s writings).

But while these writers and their works vanished during those turbulent years, only in recent times have they begun to gain prominence thanks to the emergence of independent publishing houses and the growing output of translated literature.

Pushkin Press, NYRB Classics, Peirene Press to name a few are doing a great job in promoting translated literature and pulling out all these authors from obscurity so that their works can reach a wider audience today. And these efforts are worth it because so much of this output is astonishing.

Which brings me to the novella I’ll be reviewing; Egon Hostovsky’s The Hideout (nicely translated from the Czech by Fern Long). Unlike Zweig’s tragic fate, Hostovsky turned out to be luckier. He was a well-known writer in Czechoslovakia at the time but subsequently fled the Nazis and the Communists, and eventually settled in New York.

The Hideout
Pushkin Collection Edition

Here’s how the novel opens.

Dearest Hanichka:

At last I can hope that someday you will learn the true facts of my strange story. The good people about whom I want to tell you promise me that they can take my notes somewhere to safety, somewhere beyond the ocean, perhaps, and give them to you after the war is over. You are still alive; I don’t doubt that for an instant, and you will be alive long after this awful storm of horror, madness and hunger has blown over.

It is a strange story indeed. When the narrator is writing this letter to his wife, he is doing so from the confines of a damp, dark cellar. He has time on his hands to think back on the events that led to his current predicament.

The narrator is shown to be in a happy marriage with his wife and their two daughters. He is an engineer by profession and is drawing blueprints for some anti-aircraft guns.

A dinner at their house sets the course for future events. The narrator’s boss is present as is a certain Madame Olga. The boss and the narrator get into an argument about the latter’s blueprints for those guns. The narrator decides to abandon the project because the Czech government is not interested and he is against selling it to other governments. Meanwhile, he develops a fascination for Madame Olga.

Madame Olga is based in Paris and the narrator one day decides to just give up his existing life and follow her there. Nothing much comes of their meeting. But the narrator learns that there is a warrant for his arrest by the Nazis mostly instigated by his boss, who it turns out was probably collaborating with the enemy.

And so the narrator’s plan to go back to his wife is derailed and he is forced to flee.

Eventually, he has no choice but to go in hiding and an acquaintance in the countryside puts him up in his cellar. By no means has he been put up there by physical force. He is not locked inside. He is free to leave whenever he wants.

But is he really free? Can he just leave his dismal abode and go about his life? As the novel progresses, the reliability of the narrator also comes into question. After all, he is no longer in touch with the outside world. Has that impaired his ability to perceive reality? Can he ultimately overcome his guilt of leaving his wife?

Alone, alone, always alone! My fear of death must have been stronger than my fear of emptiness, of constant hunger and cold.

At a mere 127 pages in the Pushkin Collection edition, The Hideout is absolutely brilliant and packs in quite a punch. The setting might be claustrophobic and yet there is a feverish, urgent and dream like quality to the writing. This propels the narrative at a breakneck pace.

It is also a novella that makes you think on the kind of extraordinary and tremendously difficult moments that those unwillingly caught up in the war had to face. It was not a war of their choosing and they had to dig deep into their reserves to survive and hope for a better life. During times of war, how often do we read about millions of lives being uprooted and multitudes being forced to flee? On paper, this looks like just another statistic but the difficulties and hardships that every family or individual faced were unique. The mind can barely begin to grapple them.

Of course, all this was during the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War. And yet, this is a novel that is very much relevant to our current times. It’s a different war this time, but the plight of the refugees and the immense hardships that displacement and uprootedness bring with them remain the same.

Compass – Mathias Enard (tr. Charlotte Mandell)

Easily one of the most exhilarating and immersive reads for me this year.

Enard’s Compass is a massive 445-page tome and takes place over a single night; all in the mind of the Austrian musicologist Franz Ritter. Ritter is suffering from an unnamed illness, terminal probably and he is prone to bouts of insomnia.

This is one such night then when he is unable to sleep and so spends all those hours thinking about his travels in Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran. Most have been in the company of the French scholar Sarah for whom Ritter carries a torch; there are many sections where he reflects on his unrequited passion for this fiercely intelligent woman.

Life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps. This feeling of passing of the time is the definition of melancholy, an awareness of finitude from which there is no refuge, aside from opium and oblivion…

Compass
New Directions Hardback Edition

That’s the plot in a nutshell. What makes this novel riveting and accomplished though is the high level of erudition displayed by Enard. It’s also a novel very relevant to our times; times when there is a growing level of intolerance towards different religions, cultures and peoples.

Increasing incidents of terrorism has widened the gulf between the East (largely Muslim) and the West. Certainly, the East is not as developed as the West. But there is this perception that the East is culturally deficient too. It’s the latter view that Enard challenges in this novel.

Enard’s basic theme is that Western writers, musicians, artists and a lot of Western culture in general owes a lot to influences from their Eastern counterparts. Thus, while in political terms there might not be much in common between the two regions, when it comes to culture, both the East and the West have learnt a lot from each other.

Enard also talks about the imaginary construct ‘the Orient’. While the Orient is perceived to be the East, it remains an ever shifting term because where really would you draw the line? Is Vienna the westernmost city and thereby a gateway to the East? Or would that be Turkey?  Culturally speaking, the boundaries are quite blurred.

The Orient is an imaginal construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.

A lot of western musicians, academics, writers, explorers and archeologists are discussed. Cultural references abound. Agatha Christie, Don Quixote, Balzac, Beethoven, Sadegh Hedayat, Chopin, Kafka, Proust, Thomas Mann, Wagner form just one slice of a large cultural cake. The point being that many of them were Orientalists and the feel of the East and ‘otherness’ was incorporated in some of their works. Lawrence of Arabia, 1001 Nights, Romeo & Juliet, Layla & Majnun are also vividly discussed.

Compass Fitzgarraldo
Fitzcarraldo Editions

The cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Palmyra in Syria, before the current civil war, have been beautifully described. They are ancient and the traveller in me was mesmerized by this sense of history. Visiting these cities would have been a tremendous experience only that it is now impossible with so much destruction and the war showing little signs of abating.

For someone arriving from Damascus, Aleppo was exotic; more cosmopolitan perhaps, closer to Istanbul; Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, not far from Antioch, homeland of saints and crusaders, between the Orontes and Euphrates rivers. Aleppo was a city of stone, with endless labyrinths of covered souks leading to the glacis of an impregnable fortress, and a modern city, with parks and gardens, built around the train station, the southern branch of the Baghdad Bahn, which put Aleppo a week away from Vienna via Istanbul and Konya as early as January 1913…

Istanbul in Turkey and Tehran in Iran are wonderfully evoked too. Particularly, there are passages on the Iranian revolution in 1979, which make for fascinating reading. In the late 70s, inflation had become a big problem in Iran. Ordered to fight it, the Prime Minister Jamshid Amouzegar resorted to a draconian measure – he cut off public investments, stopped large building projects and heavily fined profiteers. In two years, inflation reduced only to be replaced by massive unemployment as economic activity halted. This resulted in the Iranian public turning against the then ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi, who by then had no real support in 1978. Even those who had gotten rich thanks to him and benefitted from free education turned against him.

Enard also touches upon the topic of global jihad. It is widely believed that global jihad was instigated by radical Islamists and gained prominence since the 9/11 attacks in the US. The interesting fact is that the call for global jihad was made much earlier during the First World War and that too by Germany! Germany had set up a little known Prisoner of War camp called ‘Half Moon Camp’ just outside Berlin, which was dedicated to turning Allied Muslim soldiers into jihad warriors. The idea being that they rise against their employers notably Britain, France and Russia. This move backfired.

That’s not all. Interwoven through this rich fabric of musings on art and culture, is Ritter’s longing for the unattainable, fiery and independent Sarah. Ritter has his chances and he reflects on missed opportunities and on the course the relationship would have taken had he displayed more courage.

If I had dared to kiss her under that improvised Palmyran tent instead of turning over scared stiff everything would have been different…

At 445 pages (in the New Directions edition; the first picture), Compass is a rich and multi-layered novel and I have only managed to cover some of the themes here.

It is written in stream-of-consciousness style as the action takes place inside Ritter’s head. The narration is not linear as Ritter goes back and forth through time and history when reminiscing. But it is not a difficult read. The chapter headings are in the form of time stamps as the hours in the night progress. The language is strong, hypnotic and lucid and the credit here goes to the translator Charlotte Mandell as much as it goes to the author.

In a fascinating interview on the Man Booker Prize website, Mandell touched upon what she liked about Compass.

She says, “I like the rhythm of the prose, the propulsive quality of the narrative, the sort of melancholy, Viennese tone of the narrator’s voice. For me, plot and character aren’t as alluring as language: if a sentence is well-constructed and the language is engaging, I am immediately seduced.”

Enard knows his subject matter too. He has spent long periods of time in the Middle East and is a professor of Arabic and Persian in the University of Barcelona. His knowledge and passion for the East, not surprisingly, is very apparent in this novel.

Is it important to be open to ‘foreign’ cultures if we humans want to learn and grow and widen our minds? Or should we bandy around the ‘nationalist’ theme and give in to the clamour to close borders? Enard gives a big thumbs up to the former.

Compass then is a sweeping and gorgeous read. An ode to Otherness. Erudition personified. A literary feast not to be missed.