Saturday Lunch with the Brownings – Penelope Mortimer

I was greatly impressed with Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater when I read it a couple of years ago – a novel about a woman on the verge of a breakdown feeling trapped by motherhood and having to contend with an insensitive husband. Despite the subject matter, it didn’t come across as bleak and credit goes to Mortimer’s wonderful writing style and her penchant for wit. A lot of these themes are also prevalent in Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, her short stories offering, which I thought was brilliant.

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is a collection of twelve, unsettling, edgy, perfectly pitched tales that disrupt the perceived bliss of marriage and motherhood. It’s also an uncanny depiction of the horrors lurking in the banality of everyday life.

The collection opens with a bang – the first story “The Skylight” is a masterclass in suspense and tension highlighting the interplay between the burden of motherhood and a mother’s protective instinct towards her child. Our unnamed woman narrator is travelling in a taxi with her five-year old son Johnny to a farmhouse in the French countryside. Right from the beginning, her discomfort is apparent to us – the blazing heat is too much to bear inducing a state of torpor in both her and Johnny, and she is filled with forebodings on the house she has rented for their stay. Her husband and daughters are to join them later on.

Now it was real. She was inadequate. She was in pain from the heat, and not a little afraid. The child depended on her. I can’t face it, she thought, anticipating the arrival at the strange house, the couple, the necessity of speaking French, the task of getting the child bathed and fed and asleep. Will there be hot water, mosquitoes, do they know how to boil an egg? Her head beat with worry. She looked wildly from side to side of the taxi, searching for some sign of life. The woods had ended, and there was no relief from the sun.

Her worst fears are confirmed when they reach their destination – the house is locked, the owners are nowhere in sight, and she does not have the keys. Amid a creeping sense of dread, the woman struggles to find a way into the house and chances upon the skylight. The problem is that the opening is too narrow for her to wiggle through it, but she surmises Johnny can slide down without a hitch. She lowers Johnny down the skylight into the attic with precise set of instructions of what he has to do once he is inside the house. But as the minutes begin ticking, Johnny fails to appear. This is a brilliant story where Mortimer toys with the reader’s emotions with the result that we end up being as much as a nervous wreck as the mother.

The title story “Saturday Lunch with the Brownings” is another first rate tale that depicts a seemingly innocuous family ritual where tensions simmer beneath an outwardly calm surface. Madge Browning and her husband William find themselves arguing continuously about their children – William’s real daughter Bessie from a previous marriage, and his step-daughters Melissa and Rachel (Madge’s children). Madge wants the Saturday meal to go off smoothly, aiming for the lofty ideal of a perfect family enjoying a meal together, but William is constantly undermining her efforts until it all culminates in a dramatic confrontation.

If we can get through lunch, Madge thought, we shall be all right. She beamed at him (William) encouragingly as he picked up the carving knife and fork. It was at times like this, when they were all together and relatively peaceful, that she almost felt they might make a success of it. She had given William roots, set him at the head of a family table, given him something to work for; she had given her own children a home and a father. The picture was as clear, as static and lifeless as a Victorian bliss of domestic bliss. It was her ideal, doggedly worked for…This is Saturday Lunch with the Brownings.

In “Little Mrs Perkins”, Mortimer once again deftly manages the reader’s perceptions lulling them into a false sense of security only to later pull the rug from beneath their feet. The story takes place in a maternity ward where the narrator has just delivered a baby. She observes the young Mrs Perkins being wheeled into the same room onto an adjacent bed. Mrs Perkins is in a delicate condition, on the brink of a likely miscarriage, and has been advised absolute rest. In the hands of the doctor and her caring husband, Mrs Perkins is put to ease and the narrator (as well as the reader) is led to believe that all is well, until the story takes a nifty turn to reveal Mrs Perkins true intentions or priorities.

“Such A Super Evening” is another stunning piece with a clever viewpoint on the nuances of married life, while children feature prominently in many of her stories with their unique perspectives on the complex world of adults. In both “The King of Kissingdom” and “The White Rabbit”, Mortimer displays an expert grasp on the interior world of children, ridden with guilt and insecurity, who are grappling with the fractured relationship of their parents.

Some of the essential themes running through these stories are – infidelity, marital discord, family life which more often than not becomes a fraught battleground, unwanted pregnancies, a sense of entrapment in motherhood, using children as means to gain an upper hand in arguments with spouses and so on.

Mortimer’s vision is singular and her sharp, shrewd portraits of the minutiae of family life that can unexpectedly erupt into volatile drama make each of these stories utterly compelling. For a lot of the material on display in these rich layered tales, Mortimer drew from her own life experiences. She once quipped, “I mined my life for incidents with a beginning, a middle and an end, finding even the dreariest of days contained nuggets of irony, farce, unpredictable behaviour.”

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, then, is a marvelous collection – each piece is like a finely chiseled, perfectly honed miniature whose beauty and horror lingers in the mind long after the pages are turned.

Minor Detail – Adania Shibli (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette)

Some of my favourite books last year were published by Fitzcarraldo Editions – Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor and The Other Name by Jon Fosse. Both found a place on my Best Books of 2020 list. Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail was also released last year, and my interest was piqued after I heard her speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Having finally given her book a try, I can say that it is very, very good.

Minor Detail is an intense, searing novella of war, violence, memory and erasure at the heart of which lies the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

In the book we are told this – The war in 1948 was labeled the War of Independence by the Israelis, while Palestine mourned this very war likening it to a catastrophe that led to the displacement of some 700,000 Palestinians.

It forms the backdrop against which the author Adania Shibli sets her story. The novel is essentially structured into two sections of more or less equal length. The first part begins one year after the war mentioned above, in the summer of 1949. We are transported to the Negev desert, a region scorched by the blistering sun, where the heat moves in waves giving the impression of a shifting mirage.

Nothing moved except the mirage. Vast stretches of barren hills rose in layers up to the sky, trembling silently under the heft of the mirage, while the harsh afternoon sunlight blurred the outlines of the pale yellow ridges. The only details that could be discerned were a faint winding border which aimlessly meandered across these ridges, and the slender shadows of dry, thorny burnet and stones dotting the ground. Aside from these, nothing at all, just a great expanse of the arid Negev desert, over which crouched the intense August heat.

An Israeli patrol is stationed in this harsh desert to establish boundaries and comb the area for any infiltrators. Shibli focuses her lens on one particular Israeli soldier who is not named but is the commander of the platoon at that station. In the beginning, we learn that this commander has been possibly bitten by a spider and an infected wound with pus begins to develop on his thigh.

The monotony of the commander’s daily rituals and the routine drills, in a way, mirror the sameness of the desert landscape all around the platoon. This tedium is broken, however, when on one of their reconnaissance trips, they encounter some Bedouin nomads. The men are all killed and a lone girl is captured by the soldiers and brought to the camp. Initial plans of installing the girl in the kitchen come to naught. She is instead cleaned and doused with petrol, the scent of the fuel clinging to her body, and kept in a separate hut where the soldiers, shockingly and repeatedly, violate her.

In the second part, the narration is in the first person, by an unnamed Palestinian woman residing in present, modern-day Ramallah. She begins by describing her routine of sitting at the table by the window in the morning drinking coffee before heading for work. We are then given a glimpse of life under Israeli occupation, a Kafkaesque world of innumerable security checkpoints, border controls, continuous roar of bombing, constrained lives and peak anxiety of staying within boundaries.

Since I lack the ability to evaluate things rationally, situations like these have a severe impact on me; they shake and destabilize me to the point that I can no longer fathom what is permissible and what is not, and I end up trespassing even more borders, worse ones than before. Yet all my fear and anxiety and internal turmoil dissipates when this trespassing occurs within the confines of my solitude. Solitude is so forgiving of trespassed borders; it was only thanks to my time spent alone, sitting at my table in the mornings, ‘working’ on something, that I was able to make my discovery.

This woman comes across a newspaper article which mentions the incident of the Bedouin woman, and it begins to haunt her. But it’s not the act itself, horrific as it is, that catches her attention. Episodes such as these – she explains to the reader – are quite commonplace in occupied territory. What sticks with her is the date, a ‘minor detail’ as she calls it in the larger and much graver scheme of things – the incident in question took place exactly 25 years earlier to the day our narrator was born.  Wanting to glean more information on the case, she embarks on a perilous journey in her quest to find the truth of an atrocity that has long been forgotten.  

What’s clever about the novella is the difference in tone and viewpoints in both the sections. Section One is in the third person, and Shibli has employed a very formal tone in describing details and events in keeping with the military environment which is the focal point in that part. So much so that even the shocking treatment of the Bedouin woman is very clinically described – all facts and devoid of any emotion despite the magnitude of the crime. Section Two is more personal since it’s a first-hand account of the unnamed woman narrator and her obsession with an event on which she is trying to find some answers. As the book progresses towards its dramatic conclusion, echoes of the first part begin to seep into the fabric of the second – the woman narrator experiences some of the same sights and smells surrounding the Bedouin woman.

One of the core themes that the book explores is the threat of erasure. More often than not, history recognizes only the victors and not the vanquished. Writing and hearing the latter’s stories is a crucial step in ensuring that they are remembered even if their existence has been obliterated. But that is often a gigantic challenge. For instance, as our narrator makes her way from one region to another, she finds that a substantial chunk of Palestinian villages have been wiped off the face of the earth and they no longer exist on maps.

Minor Detail, then, is Adania Shibli’s riveting and fresh perspective on a very complicated region. Her prose is crystal clear, deceptively simple and haunting. In Part One, she brilliantly captures the environs of a scorching Middle East desert, its endless barren sand dunes and the dreariness of largely uneventful days for the soldiers. What’s more, the catalog of repetitive tasks performed by commander takes on a mesmeric quality and elevates the level of fear and tension in that section. In Part Two, she excels in describing how alienation and heightened dread are elemental states of living under occupation, as our narrator navigates the labyrinth of security checks on her travel from one zone to another.

Will our narrator be successful in her mission of arriving at the whole truth? More importantly, will she be able to do anything about it, will it really matter given her status?

In a nutshell, Minor Detail is a piercing meditation on the tragedy faced by war victims – individuals whose lives are deemed trivial and inconsequential and are lost somewhere in the wider sweep of history. On one level, it is critical to hear their voices and to dig out their stories from the rubble, if we are serious about gaining a wider perspective on humanity. And yet, the harsh reality cannot be escaped – that we may never find the answers that we seek.

An Untouched House – Willem Frederik Hermans (tr. David Colmer)

I have been having a good run with Archipelago Books lately, having read and loved Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga and Difficult Light by Tomás Gonzélez. It only made sense to read more of their books for #ReadIndies month and An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans fit the bill perfectly. This is my second book by Hermans, I was previously quite impressed by Beyond Sleep. Hermans does have a flair for farce as was evident in both these books.

An Untouched House is a spare, taut war thriller sprinkled with doses of absurd comedy that considerably heightens its narrative power.

The novella is set during the waning months of the Second World War, where the intermittent fighting between the Nazis and the Soviets is still going strong.

Our unnamed narrator is a Dutchman who hasn’t seen his homeland for the past four years. Having escaped the German camps quite a few times, our narrator is now a part of a group of partisan soldiers led by the Soviets.

These partisans come from an assortment of countries – the group comprises Spaniards, Bulgarians, Romanians et al. The only common thread that binds them together is their fight against the Germans. Otherwise, these partisans are as different as chalk and cheese. Language being a big barrier, most of them do not understand each other and often orders given are misunderstood.

Our unnamed narrator is confronted with a similar predicament. Not understanding the orders of his sergeant, our narrator forges ahead and finds himself in an abandoned spa resort town. The exact location of this town is not revealed to the reader, and it doesn’t really matter. Moving on further, he comes across a massive house that appears empty.

I realised that this would be the first time in a very long while that I had entered a real house, a genuine home.

For our weary and disgruntled narrator, worn down by years of continuous fighting punctuated with periods of imprisonment, the cleanliness and warmth of the house is a miracle. Its cocoon-like environment is in stark contrast to the war outside and the noise, death and destruction it implies.

Some doctors explain love at first sight as arising not from what you see but from what you smell. Humans are so sure they can’t trust others that things that are said or shown never convince. Smell – the weakest over a distance, able to be suppressed by perfume but never defeated – cannot dissemble because it is constantly being produced. Stench is everywhere, unavoidable. Only stench tells the truth.

For the first time in many years, our narrator is offered a glimpse of a world before the war, and he is now zealous about seeking refuge here.

He discards his dirty soldier clothes and immerses himself in the luxuriousness of a bath and clean towels, while all around him the war rages on with its barrage of bombs and fires.

When the Germans re-capture the spa town, they install themselves in the house, when our narrator introduces himself as the owner of the house. Having donned on the clothes of the actual owner, the Germans have no way of ascertaining our narrator’s true identity and the side he is fighting for.

And yet, our narrator knows his position is precarious. First things first, he needs to thoroughly explore and familiarise himself with the house to douse any suspicions.

A library full of books on fish and a locked room – features beyond the grasp of our narrator, only deepens the aura of mystery surrounding the house.

All the books were about fish. That meant the owner was a fish fancier! I knew something, but I didn’t want to know anything, not his name, not what he looked like, nothing! He had never existed, that was the truth! He had been the intruder, not me. He would be dead at the end of the war; I would stay here forever.

And then the real owner of the house turns up…

An Untouched House, then, is a study of the horrific impact of war and the primal response that it induces – survival. Despite the rampant confusion, our narrator’s faculties of observation continue to work with icy precision, and that the house where he takes shelter becomes the story’s second main character.

For the narrator, the empty house is akin to an oasis in a desert and he is ready to go to any lengths to preserve this, including adapting to any role that will ensure his survival. The novella also succeeds in imparting a core message – the folly, chaos and pointlessness of war. The notion that war is a highly organised affair seems inherently bizarre as this novella progresses, especially since murder and mayhem takes centrestage.

At less than 100 pages, An Untouched House pulses and throbs with dramatic tension. In a writing style that is forensic yet mesmerizing, Hermans, in his unique way, confronts us with the idea of the violent absurdity of war and its terrible consequences for those unwittingly involved.

A Month of Reading – January 2021

Here’s what I read in January – a mix of translated literature, early 20th century lit and a fascinating memoir. It was a superb reading month, and I thought all the books were terrific. Indeed, a great start to 2021. It was also one of those rare months where I wrote reviews on every book I read.

So, without much ado, here are the books. For the detailed reviews, you can click on the links.

A Wreath of Roses – Elizabeth Taylor

This is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality.

A Wreath of Roses is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom. Just as the book opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.

Cockroaches – Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Jordan Stump)

This is Mukasonga’s hard-hitting and heartbreaking chronicle of her Tutsi childhood in Rwanda and the events leading up to the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide, told with poetic grace and intensity.

Cockroaches was first published in 2006 after a gap of nearly 12 years since the genocide. From the vantage point of adulthood, Mukasonga gains the necessary distance and perspective when recalling and retelling her brutal past. Her prose is spare and lucid, lyrical yet tragic. This is an important book that needs to be read despite the brutal subject matter.

Tea Is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex

Tea Is So Intoxicating is a delightful comedy, a hilarious take on the challenges and pitfalls of running a tea-house in a quaint English village.

Essex is witty and displays a wicked sense of humour, and her writing is deliciously tongue-in-cheek.

All the characters are wonderfully realized and unique with their own set of quirks – the obstinate David with his inability to think quickly, the self-assured but dull Digby who believes his Ducks has verve and personality, poor shabbily-dressed Germayne who is driven crazy by the two men in her life, the formidable but lonely Mrs Arbroath who loves to relentlessly argue and have her own way, the dashing Colonel Blandish who can impress women with his “Simla finesse and Poona technique”, and of course not to be left out, the enchanting Mimi in her dirndl skirt and plunging neckline who can set men’s hearts racing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Difficult Light – Tomás González (tr. Andrea Rosenberg)

A poignant, beautiful book touching upon big themes of family, loss, art and the critical question of whether death can provide relief from a life filled with chronic pain.  González is compassionate without being overtly sentimental. It’s a deeply moving novel that dwells on the intimacy and humour of a family, of displaying resilience amid pain, and as another author has put it, “manages to say new things about the way we feel.”

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

A lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways. I loved this one.

More Was Lost – Eleanor Perényi

An absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. What was immediately remarkable to me was Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty.

That’s it for January.  I have started this month with L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. Plus, February is dedicated to #ReadIndies hosted by Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life, and I have some books I plan to read published by indies such as Archipelago Books, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Charco Press to name a few.

More Was Lost – Eleanor Perényi

More Was Lost is an absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. It is also a fascinating look at history, particularly the dramatic upheavals in the Central and Eastern European region, and the profound and life altering impact it had on the people living there.

At the tender age of nineteen, Eleanor Stone comes from a privileged family – her father is a Naval officer and a cultural attaché, while her mother is a novelist. While on holiday with her mother in Europe, she meets Zsiga Perényi, a poor Hungarian baron in his late thirties, at a diplomatic dinner. They fall in love, marry in Venice, and set up home in the Perényi estate in rural Ruthenia.

We sat and drank Tokay for a long time. I felt surprisingly miserable.

At last he (Zsiga) said, “It’s a pity we are both so poor.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because otherwise we could perhaps marry.”

I looked into my wineglass.

“Yes, we could.”

There was another pause which seemed to me interminable. Then he said, “Do you think you could marry me anyway?”

“I think I could decidedly.”

So we were engaged.

Eleanor’s mother is initially hesitant about the match given the cultural differences, and the Perényi’s impoverishment, but Eleanor knows what she wants and is firm in her decision.

The Perényis do not have a steady flow of income, but they are blessed with a sprawling estate in Ruthenia, complete with land, forest and a vineyard. Eleanor and Zsiga realize that managing this estate is the only way for them to build a life together and keep the money flowing. And that is exactly what they do.

We walked over the fields toward an acacia-shaded road. The earth was fine and crumbly under our feet. I had not expected to feel very much about the land. It was the house and the garden that I had thought of. But I was wrong. The land was the reason for everything. And standing there, we felt rich. We wondered what everyone had meant by saying we had no money, and no future, and should not marry. Nonsense! At that moment, we felt we had everything.

In the first half of the memoir, Eleanor gives us a detailed view of how she goes about adjusting to her new circumstances, and it makes for riveting reading.  Communication is the biggest hurdle, so she begins to study Hungarian. She learns to navigate the various intricacies of running the household – growing and organizing food supplies, and having discussions with the cook regarding daily meals. She takes an interest in the interiors, decorating the house with beautiful fabrics and furniture.

Since Zsiga has his hands full supervising the farm, vineyard and forest, Eleanor takes it upon herself to manage the park, orchard and vegetable cellar among other things. She also adjusts to the Hungarian system of paying by barter instead of cash. Then there is all the socializing to do – paying various house calls, and in turn entertaining guests at their home.

In the midst of all this, we are given a fascinating insight on the broader political landscape at the time, and the shifting, nebulous boundaries of Central and Eastern Europe. The Perényi’s estate is situated in rural Ruthenia, a region which belonged to Hungary before the First World War but was doled out to Czechoslovakia in the territorial distribution that followed. This is a wound that continues to irk the Hungarians – they are obsessed about reclaiming most, if not all, of the regions that were taken away from them.

Thus, the Perényis are Hungarians, but live under Czech rule. Given that the Czechs are excellent administrators as compared to the laidback, inefficient Hungarians, Zsiga and Eleanor have no problems adapting to the Czech way of doing things. But since the Hungarians don’t look upon the Czechs too kindly, the Perényis’ dilemma is not lost on Eleanor.

As Hitler begins to frighteningly advance across Europe by capturing territories and the prospect of war looms large, Zsiga and Eleanor are confronted with unthinkable possibility of losing their estate and home. Eleanor expertly conveys the complex political environment at the time, most notably what she calls the ‘schizophrenia of Hungarian politics.’ Czechoslovakia enters the war against Germany, but Hungary allies itself with Hitler because he promises the Hungarians that they can conquer their lost territories. So, despite Zsiga and Eleanor’s respect and admiration for the Czechs, they worry about being considered ‘foreign subjects’ if Ruthenia is not returned to Hungary. They increasingly realize that Hitler dissolving Czechoslovakia is the only way for the Perényis to cling to their estate, and this dilemma torments them greatly because none of the scenarios are ideal.

Clearly, the fast-changing dynamics in Europe will severely test the mettle of the Perényis when it comes to defending their home and their marriage. Will they emerge triumphant?

I loved everything about this memoir. What was immediately remarkable to me was Eleanor Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty – would have been extremely challenging, but she does it with aplomb. I was impressed by her steadfast commitment to making her new life work.

More Was Lost, then, is a memoir expansive in scope and incredibly intimate at the same time, as it brilliantly captures the complex minefield of European politics through the lens of one family’s experiences. Perenyi’s prose is lovely, suffused with grace, charm and wit. She is candid, straightforward with an eye for detail, and the first half of the memoir is peppered with a plethora of anecdotes that makes for delicious reading, while the last section is especially poignant.

She excels at evoking mood and atmosphere through lush descriptions of the indoors and the outdoors – the sumptuous interiors of grand homes, the snow laden vistas, the stark contrast in the Czech and Hungarian countryside, and overall beauty of Europe with its glamour, languor and gaiety.

The park was perhaps twenty acres, bounded on three sides by the dead branch of a river. “You’ll come for the duck-shooting,” he (Cousin Laci) told me. “There are hundreds of birds down there.” There were poplars along the banks, and their branches were filled with crows, cawing into the spring wind. From the end of the park we saw the house with the pillars and the back terrace. I thought as I so often had before how much these country places in Hungary fitted the descriptions of old Russia in Turgenev or Chekhov.

It’s a narrative tinged with nostalgia, humour, sadness, a window to a lost and vanished world, a remembrance of the halcyon days of Europe when it thrived in all its glory, a touching tale of how much was gained and how much more was lost.

The later period of the photographs, the letters, and the small familiar objects was near enough to touch. These were the last remnants of that Eden-like existence in the country, occupied with the transportation of lapdogs, walks in the garden to pick strawberries in the summer, expeditions with the children, the governesses, and the tutors to a cave on the mountain, picnics, family dinners and whist games, all the activities of that delicious and vanished world.