The Cemetery in Barnes – Gabriel Josipovici

The Goldsmiths Prize is awarded every year to the most innovation fiction in Britain and Ireland. It is for fiction that ‘opens up new possibilities for the novel form’. It is a prize I look forward too and those looking for something different than the usual fare (read the Booker Prize), can always find something interesting on this shortlist, irrespective of who the ultimate winner is. In the last many years, certainly, the books on the Goldsmiths shortlist have been much stronger than the ones on the Booker list.

I had never heard of Gabriel Josipovici’s novel The Cemetery in Barnes until the shortlist was announced. But boy, I am so glad to have read this one because it was brilliant. It will surely cement a place on my Best of the Year for 2018 list.

Cemetery in Barnes
Carcanet Press

The Cemetery in Barnes opens quietly enough to deceptively give you the impression that this is going to be a straightforward story…

He had been living in Paris for many years. Longer, he used to say, than he cared to remember.

When my first wife died, he would explain, there no longer seemed to be any reason to stay in England. So he moved to Paris and earned his living by translating.

Our narrator is a translator who is living in Paris alone. We learn that he is a creature of habit and quite successful in his profession.

We also know that his first wife has died. Perhaps that is why he settled in Paris to heal his wounds and busy himself in work?

After the death of his first wife what he needed most was solitude, he said. Not that he wanted to brood on what had happened, he just wanted to be alone. I suppose I took on more work than was strictly necessary, he would say, but I think I needed to feel that when one book was finished there was always another waiting for me, and then another.

But this phase of solitude is not permanent because very quickly it becomes apparent that he married again and has been living with his second wife in a farmhouse in Wales.

So essentially it’s a novel in three parts across three time frames – the translator with his first wife in Putney London, the translator alone in Paris, and then the translator with his second wife in Wales.

The narrator and his second wife often have friends and acquaintances who drop by at their farmhouse.

Because his wife – his second wife – knew how to make them comfortable and welcome, it was a pleasure to sit there in the old converted farmhouse in the mountains, sipping good wine  and looking out over the rolling hills and valleys spreading out below them. Most of the time he talked about his life in Paris.

In a way they form a chorus for the story as the couple engages in friendly banter essentially touching on the narrator’s life before he married her, his passion and work (music and translation), and the life they are leading now.

I’m so uneducated, she would say. When I met him I thought a saraband was something you wore round your waist.

You had other qualities, he would say, smiling.

But an appreciation of classical music was not one of them, she would say.

Gradually, some tidbits from each phase of his life are doled out to us.

In London for instance, his first wife was a ‘trainee solicitor and amateur violinist’. They had a routine wherein he would pick her up once her work was over and both would, hand in hand, go strolling in the park or walk through the city streets.

But were they happily married? It would seem so given that the narrator chose to relocate to Paris once she died to blunt his grief. It is also appears so from the conversations between him and his second wife wherein the latter emphasizes on how lonely he was (which the narrator denies) and in a way needed to be rescued from himself.

And then we come across these paragraphs which makes us question the nature of his relationship with his first wife.

He felt at times as if he did not understand her at all. She was there and yet she was not there. He held her and yet he did not hold her. As they walked, hand in hand, he sometimes felt he was walking with a stranger.

And it only gets a bit eerie later…

Occasionally, in Putney, he would wait outside Putney Bridge tube station, but not in his usual place. Hidden behind a newspaper stand he would observe the commuters streaming out of the station, heads bowed, eyes blank with weariness. Then he would see her. She would stand for a moment at the exit, not looking round for him but simply waiting for him to come up to her if he was there.. After a few seconds, when he did not appear, she would start off across the street and disappear under the shadow of the footbridge.

He would give her time to climb the stairs, then slowly follow.

In Paris, the narrator is a man of habits, and a well-defined routine, which he seems to be following to the tee, deviating from it once in a while.

Most of the time he stuck to his routine without a thought: rise, shave, dress, Pantheon, breakfast, work steps, coffee, shopping, lunch, steps, work, tea, steps, supper, steps, music, Pantheon, bath, bed.

He relishes his moments of solitude and finds joy in his work of translation. Indeed, we are given a glimpse into his craft – its pleasures, pitfalls and challenges, be it translating tedious works or beautifully constructed poems (particularly du Bellay’s rhymes).

In Wales, he lives a harmonious existence with his second wife in their spacious farmhouse, possibly envied by their friends and acquaintances although the couple do not have many things in common but have gelled well in their relationship despite this.

That’s the overall story arch. To reveal more would be to spoil the experience.

So let me touch on what makes The Cemetery in Barnes such a wonderful, compelling tale. First, at a mere 100 pages, there is so much that Josipovici packs into the story – the three plots, rumination on the art of translation, references to Orfeo, the French poet du Bellay’s poems, and Monteverdi’s opera – without making it all seem complex and knotty. I must admit that even though the Orfeo and Monteverdi references sailed right above my head, in no way did it diminish the pleasure I derived from this book.

Second, although there are three distinct plots, these do not follow one another in any strict linear fashion. Instead, the three story threads are expertly woven into each other to form one seamless narrative. In other words, there is nothing disorienting about it, which is testament to Josipovici’s storytelling skills.

Third, the prose is elegant and gorgeous. It maintains a quiet undertone throughout with enough hints of something dark simmering under the calm surface. Sentences and episodes are often repeated and retold, like the chorus in a soundtrack (our protagonist loves music, hence the music references above), building up to an effect that is hypnotic and mesmerizing.

But what’s most striking about this novel is how wonderfully ambiguous it is. Lean, spare and quite unsettling, the tension steadily mounts, but you are not really sure what happened or what is about to.

It is a nuanced and layered narrative ripe with many meanings and open to multiple interpretations giving each reader a chance to come up with his/her own take on the novel.

Highly recommended!

 

Act of Passion – Georges Simenon (tr. Louise Varese)

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
NYRB Classics Edition

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).

The Gravediggers’ Bread – Frederic Dard (tr. Melanie Florence)

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
Pushkin Vertigo Edition

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 (tr. Barbara Bray)

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
NYRB Classics Edition

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
Picador Editions

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
Film-Book Tie-In

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
Film-Book Tie-Ins

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
A Still from the Patrick Melrose TV Series

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
The Melrose Family in the TV Series