Cold Enough for Snow – Jessica Au

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au is a haunting, beautifully sculpted novella of the mysteries of relationships and memories, familial bonds, finding connections, and life’s simple pleasures.

The novel opens with a woman and her mother embarking on a short trip together to Japan, a journey and destination that promises the opportunity for both to bond and connect. But we get a sense from the outset that mother and daughter are not always on the same page. The trip is the daughter’s idea and while the mother is reluctant at first to accompany her, the daughter’s persistence pushes her to finally relent.

Once in Japan, the daughter has chalked out various sightseeing activities for the two to enjoy and talk over. These involve visits to museums and galleries to appreciate art, leisurely meals at cafés and restaurants, and strolls along the canals on autumn evenings. While these settings constitute the present, they also form a focal point from which both women make journeys to their past. We learn that the mother is originally from Hong Kong but relocates after marriage to another city where she must begin life anew. She reflects on her Cantonese roots, the tale of her brother’s unrequited love and her childhood shaped by always being surrounded by people with no room for isolation.

The daughter narrates her experiences too – her student life studying literature and films, her admiration for her lecturer who lets her spend time alone in her house when she goes on holiday, her first job as a waitress, her relationship with her partner Laurie, her ambivalence towards motherhood (“I had never particularly wanted children, but somehow I felt the possibility of it now, as lovely and elusive as a poem”), the contrast in personalities between her and her sister.

What’s interesting about this novella is the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter, which remains elusive despite the hazy impression that they get along well. The book is largely from the daughter’s point of view and so the mother’s reminisces and flashbacks are told to us from the daughter’s perspective lending it an air of unreliability or conveying the idea that the mother’s experiences are filtered through the daughter’s eyes so that it fits her narrative.

The friction between mother and daughter on the trip is very subtly conveyed, particularly in the way the daughter feels conflicted. On the one hand, she wants her mother to go with her to various places of interest in the city. However, she is also aware of her mother’s age and its limitations, and waning levels of interest as compared to hers – facts that the daughter chooses not to acknowledge.

On their various museum trips, the daughter is enthralled by some of the artworks that they see and they move her in a way that she can’t quite fathom, but she fails to communicate the essence of some of those artworks to her mother. The mother, meanwhile, tags along with her everywhere but it becomes apparent that she is not as vested in art as her daughter is. Indeed, the daughter is forced to accept that the one place where she sees her mother at her happiest is at a gift shop in the underground train station. Various items of clothing and the prospect of buying gifts for her family and friends animate her in a way that the carefully planned sightseeing excursions do not.

There’s an elusive, enigmatic feel to the novella, of things left unsaid that might mean more than what’s been stated, a sense that things lie outside our grasp, that full knowledge is always on the fringes, on the periphery of our vision. For instance, during a visit to Laurie’s father’s house, she is struck by his artistic skill, of his ability to pick out the small details of the world that many others would have missed.

The elusiveness of the novella is also palpable in the details we are privy to. For instance, through the mother and daughter’s conversations and reflections, we get some sort of a feel for the family, their memories of certain periods and moments in their life, and yet there are many things we don’t know – basic, essential things such as their names and where they currently reside.

Cold Enough for Snow, then, is a novella that captures the essence of solitude and quiet reflection. An introspective air wafts through the book, offering a glimpse into the narrator’s inner world that no one has access to but herself. It’s a meditation on how each of us has our own inner world that only we are aware of, outside the reach of others. During a meal shared with her mother and sister, our narrator thinks back to the evenings spent in contemplation at her lecturer’s home where she “sat in decadent solitude, with her single glass of wine each night, thinking over the day.” She does not share this moment with her mother and she also knows that various aspects of her mother’s life and her innermost thoughts remain a closed door to her. For instance, when the mother was at an age her daughter is now, she had already made a new life for herself in a new country. The daughter admits that she can’t possibly imagine her mother’s first few months in the new country, the struggles of adapting to a different way of life.

Cold Enough for Snow is an ode to the way we see and appreciate art. In the earlier pages, here are the thoughts that flit though the daughter’s mind while gazing at some of the museum pieces, particularly fabrics…

Their patterns were at once primitive and graceful, and as beautiful as the garments in a folktale. Looking at the translucency of the overlapping dyes reminded me of looking upwards through a canopy of leaves. They reminded me of the seasons and, in their bare, visible threads, of something lovely and honest that had now been forgotten, a thing we could only look at but no longer live. I felt at the same time mesmerised by their beauty and saddened at this vague thought. 

And the book is also evocative when conveying the simple pleasures of life. Here is the narrator highlighting the exquisite joy of her solitary stay at her lecturer’s home…

Sometimes, I poured myself a glass of wine and dimmed the lights, or else played a record, turning the volume up so that the music filled the whole house. If it was warm, I opened the windows and on those nights the scent of the lilacs that grew near the fence would drift in from the garden, blending with the music and with my simple, solitary meal.

Cold Enough for Snow reverberates with sensory images – the smell of the steam, the tea and the rain; dreamy vistas (“Through the sheets of rain, the landscape looked almost like a screen painting that we had seen in one of the old houses”), the beauty of the Impressionist paintings which “contained a world unto itself, of cities and ports, of mornings and evenings, of trees and paths and gardens and ever-changing light.”

Each showed the world not as it was but some version of the world as it could be, suggestions and dreams, which were, like always, better than reality and thus unendingly fascinating.

Light shimmers on the pages (“Light came down in shafts through the dirtied windows, and the motes stirred in them, like the air from a newly threshed harvest of wheat that Chekhov had once written about in one of his stories.”), and the book is suffused with splashes of blue – the glaze of the ceramic bowls which “looked like liquid, like a blue pond”, the dark museum room which “seemed to be a deep, impenetrable blue, like the blue of an evening”, the daughter’s scarf “as blue as the cobalt of Delft tableware.”

The language is spare and yet so expressive while describing objects of art, the beauty of nature and the characters’ state of mind. When mother and daughter take a route along the canal, the “water gave a shaking, delicate impression of the world above.” On a walking trail, “the path was like a corridor, surrounded by trees on either side, tall and spirit-like, swaying around me as if to a sound I could not hear.”

Finally, there’s a passage in the book when the daughter is reminiscing about her time as a waitress at an elegant Chinese restaurant, its otherworldly aura (“dim, carefully lit rooms and dark polished floors”), and its sense of weight and precision, “as if to create a floating world.” This fleeting mention of the restaurant’s atmosphere particularly reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, where he wonderfully captures Japan’s sensual world of nightlife – the nocturnal realm of pleasure, entertainment and drink. On hindsight, there is something about the quietness of this novella that has shades of Ishiguro in it.

I read Cold Enough for Snow in the days after my father died, a difficult time when I could not concentrate on anything. This novel was like a balm – the quiet, hallucinatory prose style and range of sensory images was very soothing and I could easily lose myself in the dreamy world that Au created.

A Month of Reading – February 2022

February was another strong month of reading. I finished Grossman’s 850-page epic Life and Fate, which will definitely feature in my year end list. The second book of the Pilgrimage series, Backwater, was excellent too, and my other favourites were the Moore and the Mortimer.

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first four books you can click on the links.

DEATH AND THE SEASIDE by Alison Moore

Death and the Seaside is a terrific tale of failure, of being easily influenced, death and writing that unravels in a rather unexpected way.

Our protagonist is Bonnie Falls, a young woman about to turn 30. Bonnie’s life so far has been without any direction or purpose and she has not much to show for her half-hearted efforts. She is a college dropout having abandoned a degree in literature, which rather limits the job opportunities available. But she is an aspiring writer with potential and has already penned the beginning of a story that is dotted with sinister happenings.

Lost and adrift, Bonnie moves out of her parents’ home to a rented flat, where she becomes pally with her landlady, the mysterious Sylvia Slythe. Sylvia is unusually interested in Bonnie, especially in the story Bonnie has written, and arranges a seaside holiday for the two of them.

Why is Sylvia so deeply interested in an unremarkable person like Bonnie? Is there something sinister lurking behind Sylvia’s motives?  This remains a mystery to the reader until it all becomes clear as the novel progresses and reaches its dark conclusion.

 DADDY’S GONE A-HUNTING by Penelope Mortimer

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a brilliant, superbly crafted tale of a challenging marriage, abortion, and the difficulties of a mother-daughter relationship told in Mortimer’s customary haunting, absorbing style.

We are introduced to Ruth Whiting, a bored housewife who lives with her well-to-do dentist husband Rex, a bully, in the posh neighbourhood called the Common.

Ruth dotes on her children – her eldest daughter Angela and the boys, Julian and Mike. But they are growing up and have reached that age where they have lives of their own – the boys away at boarding school and Angela, an undergraduate at Oxford. In the holidays, when her children come down, Ruth’s home is filled with chatter, activities and noise, but for the better part of the year, the hours lie empty and the monotonous days stretch endlessly before Ruth.

When Angela, who is unmarried, becomes pregnant, she confides in Ruth expecting the latter to help her. The gamut of conflicting emotions felt by mother and daughter and how they deal with this tough situation forms the backbone of this novel. Highly recommended.

LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman (tr. Robert Chandler)

A wonderful, wonderful book set at the heart of World War Two, during the historic Battle of Stalingrad. The cast of characters is huge and at the end of this gargantuan novel is a list running into several pages.  The Shaposhnikov family’s story forms the nucleus of Life and Fate, but Grossman does not focus his lens on them alone. A slew of subplots radiate from the central story arc, and the main characters in most of these subplots are connected in some way or the other to the Shaposhnikov family.

These subplots are pretty wide ranging in terms of setting and scope adding layers of richness to the novel – we are privy to the lives and viewpoints of people engaged in combat on the battlefields (the tank corps, air force and soldiers), the grimness of Jewish ghettoes, the horrific, fatalistic journey to the gas chambers, political prisoners stationed in Siberian camps, a Stalingrad power station, an isolated Russian outpost called House 6/1 surrounded by Germans and led by the irreverent Grekov who refuses to send reports to his superiors, the surrealism of the vast Kalmyk Steppes, the Kafkaesque nature of the Lubyanka prison and so on. I’ve written a detailed review on this extraordinary book, please click on the title to view it.

WE ARE FOR THE DARK by Robert Aickman & Elizabeth Jane Howard

We Are for the Dark is a wonderful collection of ghost stories written by both Robert Aickman and his lover at that time, Elizabeth Jane Howard (of The Cazalet Chronicles fame). First published by Cape in the autumn of 1951, it is a collection of 6 stories, 3 stories written by each. However, at the time, the stories were not individually credited and were presented as a collaboration between the two authors.

The best among these is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ -a perfectly paced, chilling story set on a boating trip through the canals of England; one where an atmosphere of menace and doom unfurls like a blanket over its characters as they navigate an alien canal, until it opens out into an ending that is truly terrifying. Click on the title for a more detailed write-up.

BACKWATER (PILGRIMAGE 2) by Dorothy Richardson

Backwater is the second book in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series; a cycle of novels that charts the life of her alter-ego Miriam Henderson, and is in many ways autobiographical.

While in the first book – Pointed Roofs – we see Miriam taking up the post of an English teacher in a girls boarding school in Hanover Germany, in Backwater, Miriam’s employment takes her closer home, in the suburbs of North London. The first chapter sees Miriam and her mother traverse the noisy streets of North London as they make their way to the school run by the Perne sisters – Miss Jenny, Miss Deborah and Miss Haddie.

Like in Pointed Roofs, Backwater continues to offer us a glimpse into Miriam’s impressions and strong opinions of the world around her. Layers of her personality also shine through – her hopes, fears, the looming uncertainty of her future, the weight of problems back home. Besides Miriam’s experiences at Banbury Park, Backwater focuses the lens on Miriam’ family – in the second chapter there’s a dance held at the Henderson residence and we learn that the eldest sister Sarah is set to marry her beau Bennett Brodie, while Miriam’s younger sister Harriett is engaged to Gerald, a promising prospect particularly since Gerald comes from a well-to-do family at a time when the Henderson family’s finances are on the decline.

Of course, while both Pointed Roofs and Backwater center on Miriam’s internal reflections on her surroundings, in Backwater the focus is particularly sharper on Miriam herself – her thoughts, dreams and hopes about herself; her future as an independent woman as well as her family, which add more depth to her character.

“The business of the teacher is to make the children independent, to get them to think for themselves, and that’s much more important than whether they get to know facts,” she would say irreverently to the Pernes whenever the question of teaching came up. She bitterly resented their vision of children as malleable subordinates.

Miriam frets over whether she should continue to teach. If she wants to earn more, she will need to be a qualified teacher and that would require some effort. It is probably worth it if Miriam is very sure of wanting to take up teaching as a career, but she remains increasingly uncertain. Richardson has beautifully captured the anguish of a young woman who has her whole life in front of her but is torn about the course she must take.

…Miriam had said savagely, “I wish to goodness I knew what to do about things.”

Miss Haddie’s kindly desire gave her no relief. What did she mean but the hopelessness of imagining that anybody could do anything about anything. Nobody could ever understand what anyone else really wanted. Only some people were fortunate.

Part of this dilemma is driven by the strained financial circumstances of the Hendersons. Somewhere, Miriam also believes that her marriage options are pretty limited, and if she does not want to be a burden on her family, she must earn. It’s interesting that Miriam is even considering marriage as a viable option for the future, one got the sense of her disdain for it in Pointed Roofs.

We meet one of her possible suitors – Ted Burton – in the second chapter at the dance, what’s more Miriam also flirts with his best friend Max, but both of them quickly recede into the distance, as Miriam begins her new job at Banbury Park. There’s a moment further on in the book, where we learn about the fate of one of them (only a couple of lines devoted to that development), but there’s something sad about it in the way it accentuates Miriam’s loneliness.

The daily drill at the school exhausts Miriam and takes a toll on her body, and her mother quickly prescribes daily walks, an activity that considerably brightens Miriam’s mood. During one such outing, she chances upon a library and subsequently drowns herself in books; being totally immersed in reading alleviates some of the tedium of her days.

While most of Backwater is set in Banbury Park, there are some chapters devoted to Miriam’s time with her family during the holidays, particularly a seaside trip to Brighton with her sisters Eve and Harriett and Harriett’s fiancé Gerald.

They said nothing until almost the end of their time about the passage of the days: but they looked at each other, each time they settled down, with conspiring smiles and then sat, side by side, less visible to each other than the great sunlit sea or the great clean salt darkness, stranded in a row with four easy idle laughing commenting voices, away alone and safe in the gaiety of the strong forgetful air – talking things over. The far-away troublesome crooked things, all cramped and painful and puzzling, came out one by one and were shaken and tossed away along the clean wind.

Meanwhile, Miriam’s continues to display her sharp opinions to us readers. She detests North London (“North London would always be North London, hard, strong, sneering, money-making, noisy and trammy”), and she ponders on the possibilities of change…

These three girls she had known so long as fellow-prisoners, and who still bore at moments in their eyes, their movements, the marks of the terrors and uncertainties amongst which they had all grown up, were going on, out into life, scored and scarred but alive and changeable, able to become quite new. Memories of strange crises and the ageing, deadening shifts they had invented to tide them over humiliating situations were here crowded in the room together with them all. But these memories were no longer, as they had so often been, the principle thing in the room whenever they were all gathered silently together. If Eve and Harriett had got away from the past and now had happy eyes and mouths…Sarah’s solid quiet cheerfulness, now grown so large and free that it seemed even when she was stillest to knock your mind about like something in a harlequinade…Why had they all not known in the past that they would change? Why had they been so oppressed whenever they stopped to think?

And she feels the pinch of money shortages, the conflict it produces. Even though she enjoys some of the good things in life, she chides herself, striving to save all the time and be strict about spending. But how is that possible during the festive season when gifts must be bought for friends and family?

Backwater is also where a passing mention is made of Miriam’s mother – she is ill and the sisters are worried (in real life, Richardson’s mother commits suicide).

What I also loved about Backwater are the paragraphs devoted to the small pleasures in Miriam’s life that she revels in…

The afternoon walks…

It was the same wandering eloquent air she had known from the beginning of things. Whilst she walked along the little gravel pathways winding about over the clear green slopes in the flood of afternoon light, it stayed with her. The day she had just passed through was touched by it; it added a warm promise to the hours that lay ahead – tea-time, the evening’s reading, the possible visit of Miss Haddie, the quiet of her solitary room, the coming of sleep.

Being absorbed in reading…

For the last six weeks of the summer term she sat up night after night propped against her upright pillow and bolster under the gas-jet reading her twopenny books in her silent room.

Perhaps that self, leaving others to do the practical things, erecting a little wall of unapproachability between herself and her family that she might be free to dream alone in corners, had always been wrong. But it was herself, the nearest most intimate self she had known…It was not perhaps a ‘good’ self, but it was herself, her own familiar secretly happy and rejoicing self – not dead.

And the contentment she feels while on a boating holiday with Harriett and Gerald…

Six hours ago, shaking hands with a roomful of noisy home-going girls – and now nothing to do but float dreamily in through the gateway of her six weeks’ holiday…She was staring up at a clean blue sky fringed with tree-tops. She stretched herself out more luxuriously upon the cushions. The river smoothly moving and lapping underneath the boat was like a cradle.

I really enjoyed Backwater immensely and am looking forward to reading more of Miriam’s journey in Honeycomb.

THE HOUSEGUEST AND OTHER STORIES by Amparo Dávila (tr. Audrey Harris & Matthew Gleeson)

The Houseguest and Other Stories is an excellent collection of twelve pieces that cover the themes of extreme fear, isolation and paranoia. These are unsettling stories where horror blends with the mundane; where evil lurks in everyday life.

In Moses and Gaspar, the narrator is entrusted with the care of two creatures after the death of his friend and quickly observes his life spiral downwards. It’s a story whose power is heightened by the unknown, the fact that Moses and Gaspar are never really described. Are they wild dogs, feral cats or something else entirely?

The titular story – The Houseguest – revolves around a woman driven to terror when her irascible husband brings home a sinister being as a permanent fixture in their home. In The Cell, Maria, who is tormented by a ‘presence’ in her room every night, decides to marry to end her distress, but the banality of the marriage preparations and her prospective husband leaves her feeling claustrophobic to the point where she begins to wonder if that mysterious ‘presence’ was not the better option.

The characters in these stories are either isolated or feel trapped or are driven to the edge by the grimness of their circumstances. Many of these tales have a Shirley Jackson vibe to them definitely making it a collection worth reading.

ASYLUM ROAD by Olivia Sudjic

Asylum Road is an interesting tale about conflict, exile, trauma, isolation and fractured identity. The novel opens pretty enticingly…

Sometimes it felt like the murders kept us together.

Our narrator Anya is a young woman in her early 30s on a road trip to the south of France with her boyfriend Luke. From the opening pages, we get feelers that something’s not quite right, there’s a sense of unease that prevails especially when Anya focuses on her relationship with Luke. His prolonged silences greatly unsettle her, and Anya is wracked by a nagging fear that Luke is going to end their relationship. But Luke does quite the opposite, he proposes to her.

Subsequently, we learn a bit more about their backgrounds. Luke’s is a product of privilege, his parents are well settled in Cornwall; while Anya’s situation is more precarious –  in her childhood she escapes as a refugee to the UK when the Bosnian war erupts, while her family chooses to stay behind. She becomes estranged from them.

Post their decision to marry, the time comes to meet the parents. This entails another journey by car to his parents’ Cornish estate. Luke also insists on travelling to Belgrade to meet Anya’s parents and convey the news personally, a prospect that Anya does not really relish. She is anxious about meeting her parents and elder sister after such a long time; it’s akin to confronting her past which unnerves her.

That meeting is doomed – Anya’s mother suffers from Alzheimer’s and still thinks the city is under siege, the father has a propensity to make uncomfortable jokes and her elder sister Daria has become a bitter, resentful woman. There’s also a brother who has committed suicide some years ago, and an e-wife called Mira who later befriends Anya. The meeting keeps Anya on the edge throughout, not helped by the fact that Luke is also uneasy amid their company.

Once Anya and Luke are back in London, their relationship deteriorates quickly until it all hurtles towards a dramatic conclusion.

Sudjic is great at creating an atmosphere of perpetual dread and unease, a sense that things can suddenly change for the worse any moment. There are several anxiety inducing scenes in the novel – while travelling by air to Croatia Anya forgets her phone and diary on the plane, the realization dawns on her late, and there’s another heart-stopping set piece when the road on which Luke is driving (some areas in Sarajevo are in complete ruins), ends abruptly into a yawning abyss, as they narrowly missing death.

One recurring symbol in the novel is the road trip – does it signify heading towards a better future or running away from the past?

Through Anya’s personality, the novel examines the crippling impact of trauma of war torn regions, how this trauma remains embedded in a person’s psyche and never entirely disappears and can resurface any time. Anya is constantly edgy and insecure, she abandons her PhD just when she is close to completing it, and has an infuriating habit of losing and forgetting things.

I liked this novel, but didn’t love it. One reason could be the prose style which had a staccato quality to it and at times felt a bit flat. However, that disjointed narrative works quite well in the final chapters to mirror Anya’s unstable mind; the storytelling reaches a feverish pitch where Anya’s past blurs with her present.

That’s it for February. I began March with Tessa Hadley’s Free Love which I absolutely loved (review coming soon), and I plan to read a few books from the 2022 International Booker Prize longlist starting with The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman (tr. Leslie Camhi). And of course, I’ll also be reading the third book from the Pilgrimage series – Honeycomb.

Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman (tr. Robert Chandler)

It took me two months to finish the epic Life and Fate but what an experience it was. The accolades showered upon it are fully deserved. The prospect of writing about the book daunted me, I was afraid I could never to do it justice. And yet, there was a part of me that nevertheless wanted to pen some thoughts, so here goes…

The story of how Life and Fate was published is as riveting as the novel itself.

Grossman began writing the novel when Stalin was still alive and the finished manuscript was submitted for publication around late 1960. However, the KGB raided his apartment and confiscated all his notebooks and manuscripts and even the various forms of copies. Miraculously, Grossman left two copies of the manuscripts with friends, a fact which escaped the notice of the KGB. Grossman was told that his novel will never see the light of day, which in some sense was true, because at the time he died in 1964, the novel was as yet unpublished. It was only a decade later, that his friend Lipkin, who was in possession of one of the surviving copies, put it onto a microfilm and with the help of Vladimir Voinovich smuggled it out of the country. It was published in the West in the 1980s.

Life and Fate is a truly extraordinary novel, with its sweeping views on Stalinist Russia, its political landscape during and after the historic Battle of Stalingrad explored through the story of the Shaposhnikov family.

AN OVERVIEW OF THE CHARACTERS

Lyudmila Shaposhnikova is married to Viktor Shtrum, a respected theoretical physicist. When the novel opens the couple, along with their daughter Nadya, is living in exile in the provincial town of Kazan. It is late 1942, the heart of World War Two, and the Germans are advancing over vast swathes of Russia. The battle is now poised at a crucial juncture and the city under spotlight is Stalingrad. Staying with the Shtrums in Kazan is Alexandra Shaposhnikova, Lyudmila’s mother.

We are also introduced to Viktor’s circle of friends and acquaintances, both personal and professional, in Kazan. There’s Sokolov, his good friend and also a mathematician at Viktor’s lab. Sokolov’s wife is Marya Ivanovna, Lyudmila’s friend. While Viktor’s work at the physics institute, their married life and their social circle form one thread of the novel, through Lyudmila we are introduced to another character and subplot – her former husband Abarchuk who is now imprisoned in a Russian labour camp.

Meanwhile, there is Lyudmila’s younger sister Yevgenia, resident of Kuibyshev and two of the subplots in the book revolve around the two men she loves – Novikov, her lover, commanding officer of a tank corps that will play a crucial role in the Russian victory in Stalingrad, and her former husband Krymov, a commissar in the Red Army and a staunch Party man, who is accused of being a traitor by the State.

Two more subplots center on more members of the Shaposhnikov family, – Lyudmila’s younger sister Marusya drowned in the Volga, but her husband Stepan is the director of the Stalingrad power station and resides there with his daughter Vera. Vera, meanwhile, is in a relationship with Viktorov, who is a jet fighter pilot, and the story of this fighter squadron of the Russian Air Force forms another subplot in the novel.

We are also introduced to a slew of characters and consequent story arcs – political prisoners in a German concentration camp, of which one chief character is Mostovsky an old Bolshevik who plots with his fellow prisoners to murder the Germans; Sofya Levinton, a Jew and a friend of the Shaposhnikovs in those normal days pre-war, who is now captured to be massacred along with her fellow Jews in gas chambers. And more…

EPIC BREADTH AND DEPTH OF THE NOVEL, MULTIFACETED VIEWPOINTS

The cast of characters is huge and at the end of this gargantuan novel is a list running into several pages.  The Shaposhnikov family’s story forms the nucleus of Life and Fate, but Grossman does not focus his lens on them alone. A slew of subplots radiate from the central story arc, and the main characters in most of these subplots are connected in some way or the other to the Shaposhnikov family.

These subplots are pretty wide ranging in terms of setting and scope adding layers of richness to the novel – we are privy to the lives and viewpoints of people engaged in combat on the battlefields (the tank corps, air force and soldiers), the grimness of Jewish ghettoes, the horrific, fatalistic journey to the gas chambers, political prisoners stationed in Siberian camps, a Stalingrad power station, an isolated Russian outpost called House 6/1 surrounded by Germans and led by the irreverent Grekov who refuses to send reports to his superiors, the surrealism of the vast Kalmyk Steppes, the Kafkaesque nature of the Lubyanka prison and so on.

It is these multiplicity of angles and viewpoints that give a broader idea of the definitive moment of World War Two history, what defined the political landscape of Russia at the time, how the Battle of Stalingrad united the Russians to fight against Fascism, and how at the same time they grappled with totalitarianism and terror unleashed by Stalin in their own country.

STORY OF A MARRIAGE

While Life and Fate excels in how it paints the macro picture of a country, it is also brilliant in the way it captures the stories of individual lives. One of those facets is the story of a marriage, the marriage of Viktor and Lyudmila. The couple has been married for many years, and Viktor has always shared his worries, his successes and biggest challenges with her, but the cracks are gradually beginning to show. The strain in the marriage is a culmination of resentments, miscommunication and secrets.

Viktor is Lyudmila’s second husband; her former husband Abarchuk is a political prisoner in a Siberian camp, while her only son from that marriage, Tolya, is away fighting at the front. Lyudmila has always resented Viktor’s mockery of Tolya and his unflattering attitude towards him, while Viktor has never really forgiven Lyudmila for not willing to let his mother stay with them (she subsequently perishes in the concentration camp, her fate is revealed to us in the earlier part of the novel through a heartbreaking letter written to Viktor). Meanwhile, Viktor is secretly in love with Sokolov’s wife Marya Ivanovna, feelings that cause him much anguish.

AN INDICTMENT OF TOTALITARIANISM

Chapter 50 is one of the most extraordinary chapters in the novel as it discusses the devastating, inhuman aspects of a totalitarian state, how it can set in motion horrific pogroms of mass murder, and how a man’s yearning for freedom is the ultimate force that can defeat it. One of the defining features of totalitarianism is its reliance on violence (“the extreme violence of totalitarian social systems proved able to paralyse the human spirit through whole continents.”)

This ideology of violence and control breeds an atmosphere of intense distrust, suspicion and extreme anxiety. At any given point of time, the basic human instinct is to survive. This drive for self-preservation induces a majority of the population to throw even loved ones under the bus if it means that they can stay alive. But that’s not enough.

How does a totalitarian state sponsor mass murders? It is fair to say that the ordinary human being is averse to committing murder, of killing human life. Yes, there are exceptions – murderers exist in most countries, even civilized democracies are havens of crime, but for humans, killing is not a natural instinct like it is for wild animals. How is it then that the Nazis were able to compel its people to wipe out a race? What motivates ordinary people, who were otherwise never inclined towards violence, to agree to perform such horrific acts?

A man who has placed his soul in the service of Fascism declares an evil and dangerous slavery to be the only true good. Rather than overtly renouncing human feelings, he declares the crime committed by Fascism to be the highest form of humanitarianism; he agrees to divide people up into the pure and worthy and the impure and unworthy.

The instinct for self-preservation is supported by the hypnotic power of world ideologies. These call people to carry out any sacrifice, to accept any means, in order to achieve the highest of ends; the future greatness of the motherland, world progress the future happiness of mankind, of a nation, of a class.

IS COMMUNISM ANY DIFFERENT FROM FASCISM?

For the Russian population, united in its intent to defeat the invading Germans, obliterating Fascism so that Communism can triumph was the one true goal of the Battle of Stalingrad. But Grossman questioned that thinking, which can be evinced by this conversation between Mostovsky, an Old Bolshevik imprisoned in a German concentration camp, and Liss who is an SS official and the camp’s administrator. Liss essentially implies that for all the fighting between Fascist Germany and Communist Russia, they are really the same sides of a coin; an insinuation that greatly unsettles Mostovsky.

“What is the reason for our enmity? That your banks and factories belong to the people? That you’re internationalists and we’re preachers of racial hatred? That we set things on fire and you extinguish the flames? That the world hates us – and that its hopes are centred on Stalingrad? Is that what you people say…? Nonsense! There is no divide. It’s just been dreamed up. In essence we are the same – both one-Party States. Our capitalists are not the masters. The State gives them their plan. The State takes their profit and all they produce. As their salary they keep six percent of the profit. Your State also outlines a plan and takes what is produced for itself. And the people you call masters – the workers – also receive a salary from your one-party State.”

VIKTOR’S MORAL DILEMMA

The moral dilemma that confronts Viktor as the novel progresses is one of the stellar features of the novel where Grossman brilliantly evokes the complexity of Viktor’s emotions, those moments of painful realization of how powerless he is against Stalin’s political machinery as he battles to stay true to himself.

There are various points in the novel where the immense burden of being a citizen of a totalitarian state emerges. For instance, when the Shaposhnikovs are in Kazan, a convivial evening gathering of friends paves the way for intense conversations and debate on art, books and the notion of freedom; an interchange of ideas otherwise forbidden under Stalin’s rule. On a certain level that evening weighs heavy on Viktor lest it be reported, but on the other hand, it is the vibrant energy of that very evening that brings to an end the stasis that has overwhelmed Viktor in his work – a physics problem he is desperately trying to solve but is utterly stuck. That evening releases a flow of ideas and opens up new ways of thinking and progressing in his work.

Armed with this success, Viktor expects an elevation in his status in the scientific community, but when the time comes to move back to Moscow, he is forced to contend that the reality is entirely different, much to his confusion. Viktor’s freethinking scientific ideas, attuned with those of eminent Western scientists, hold no weight in Moscow’s science circles, whose chief institute is bogged down by red tape, and run by political appointees having no flair or understanding of the intricacies of the subject.

Viktor refuses to bow down to these pressures and subsequently finds himself isolated not only from his work but also from his closest colleagues, who in an instinct for self-preservation (as outlined in Grossman’s views on totalitarianism) abandon him.

This conflict in Viktor is wonderfully conveyed. Should he stand up for his ideas or should he bow down to State pressure? A brilliant scientist like him should be focusing on his work, but many a time Viktor finds himself brooding over petty matters – how some of his colleagues have received more favours or have attended dinners for which Viktor has not received any invitation.

During a critical point in his life, he does stand up for his ideas, but its consequences are grave and he is beset by newer worries of everyday living. Stripped off his privileges, Viktor is tormented by financial concerns, of how he can provide for his family if there is no forthcoming income.

Strangely, it is during this period of isolation that Viktor finds some modicum of peace. If he has hit rock bottom, things can’t get worse, can they? At one point, the fears of an impending imprisonment loom large, but at the same time Viktor finds solace in his interactions with his closest family. At some moments the dawning realization that the end is near fills him with peace, at the other times he is wracked by the terror of being arrested.

ANTI-SEMITISM AND THE HORRORS OF HOLOCAUST

The pages devoted to the Holocaust are very difficult to read, as they are meant to be. The letter that Viktor’s mother writes to him from the Jewish ghetto is poignant highlighting the inhumane living conditions in the ghettoes, and how many of its people gradually become de-sensitized and resigned to their fate. But there are others for whom the flame of hope refuses to go out, the conviction that things will improve and resolve, however improbable, burn bright (“I’ve realized now that hope almost never goes together with reason. It’s something quite irrational and instinctive.”)

Here are some more lines from her letter…

People carry on, Vitya, as though their whole life lies ahead of them. It’s impossible to say whether that’s wise or foolish – it’s just the way people are.

And then much later on, here is Grossman on anti-Semistism…

Anti-Semitism can take many forms – from a mocking, contemptuous ill-will to murderous pogroms.

Anti-Semitism is always a means rather than an end; it is a measure of the contradictions yet to be resolved. It is a mirror for the failings of individuals, social structures and State systems. Tell me what you accuse the Jews of – I’ll tell you what you’re guilty of.

During the darkest moments of his life in Moscow, Viktor is forced to confront the implications of his Jewish identity, how it holds greater weight in determining his future, much more than any of his scientific achievements.

THE MANY FACES OF HUMAN NATURE

The throbbing pulse of Life and Fate lies in its unwavering focus on humanity and generosity, its examination of the complexities of human nature, and its persistent moral questioning.

Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.

In terms of ideas, it focuses on the concepts of freedom, the fight between good and evil, the vitality of cultural discussions and so forth.

When the novel’s focus zooms on people, we glimpse the camaraderie between the Russian troops as they get ready for combat or when they already under heavy fire; the moments of kindness displayed by some ordinary Russians towards Germans even when their countries are at war.

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.

We notice the angst of a mother losing her son in battle, heartbreaking scenes of the Holocaust where people cling on to irrational hope even in the throes of death, the gnawing despair of those wrongly arrested or stuck in labour camps, and how minds shrink and people slide into petty politics even when the nature of the problems they are confronted with is much more grave.

And last but not the least, Grossman is always holding forth his views on man’s eternal yearning for freedom that is hard to completely extinguish.

Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depends on the answer to this question. If human nature does change, then the eternal and the world-wide triumph of the dictatorial State is assured; if his yearning for freedom remains constant, then the totalitarian State id doomed.

TO CONCLUDE…

Life and Fate was a profound reading experience and Robert Chandler is to be commended for his stellar translation that has ensured a much wider readership for this wonderful book. In his fascinating introduction, Chandler points out how Viktor Shtrum, in many ways, is Grossman’s alter-ego. Grossman was not always a dissident, he gradually became one later, and that’s one of the themes of Life and Fate – the complexities of life under totalitarian rule, the inconsistent behaviour it produces, and how hard it is for an individual to withstand its pressure.

But an invisible force was crushing him. He could feel its weight, its hypnotic power; it was forcing him to think as it wanted, to write as it dictated. This force was inside him; it could dissolve his will and cause his heart to stop beating…

Only people who have never felt such a force themselves can be surprised that others submit to it. Those who have felt it, on the other hand, feel astonished that a man can rebel against it even for a moment – with one sudden word of anger, one timid gesture of protest.

Highly, highly recommended!

We Are for the Dark (Six Ghost Stories) – Robert Aickman & Elizabeth Jane Howard

We Are for the Dark is a wonderful collection of ghost stories written by both Robert Aickman and his lover at that time, Elizabeth Jane Howard (of The Cazalet Chronicles fame). First published by Cape in the autumn of 1951, it is a collection of 6 stories, 3 stories written by each. However, at the time, the stories were not individually credited and were presented as a collaboration between the two authors.

‘The Trains’ is the first Robert Aickman story in this collection and according to me, it’s his finest. We meet two young women – Margaret and Mimi – who venture on a hiking trip in the country. As far as personalities go, Margaret and Mimi could not have been more different; Margaret is intelligent and perceptive but not blessed in the looks department, while Mimi is the attractive one, and more extroverted of the two. Soon, the morning blends into the afternoon, and the gentle countryside gives way to a dreary, desolate valley. The two women make their way through this unfamiliar terrain, they increasingly rely on consulting the map; each time leaving behind an empty square outlined by four stones (used to place the map on the ground). They eventually come across a railway line and decide to walk alongside it in the hope of finding lodgings, particularly a certain house they had spotted on the map. The first inkling of something strange is revealed when they both stop for tea at the Guest House whose sole customer is a man who spooks them by stating how the valley is quiet with hardly any locals visiting it.  

When they finally make their way to the house, it towers over them, black and mysterious. An unkempt, dilapidated dwelling from the inside, its sole, eccentric occupants are the owner Mr Wendley Roper and Beech, his butler. Meanwhile, secrets and sinister happenings haunt the house – a madwoman waving a handkerchief everyday at the window, the dimly seen figure of the dead woman (the owner’s sister Miss Roper), possibly an apparition that haunts Margaret in the bedroom at night, and the looming dread the women feel of being trapped. Moreover, the constant, disturbing noise of trains as they rattle past at all times, even at odd hours during the night, serve as an unnerving force in the background.  All of these factors have their own weird logic as the story chugs along towards its dark, claustrophobic conclusion. ‘The Trains’, then, is a superb, enigmatic tale of madness, identity, entrapment and terror with a gentle opening that quickly transforms into something strange and surreal in its final moments complete with an unexpected twist.

Then Margaret became aware of something very horrible indeed: it began with the upturned dead face of an old woman, colourless with the exact colourlessness of the colourless light; and it ended with the old woman’s crumpled shape occultly made visible hanging above the trap-door in the corner of Margaret’s compartment-shaped room. Up in the attic old Miss Roper had hanged herself; her gray hair so twisted and meshed as itself to suggest the suffocating agent.

‘Three Miles Up’ is simply the best story penned by Elizabeth Jane Howard in this book, in fact the best story in this entire collection. Like the Aickman story, this tale also involves a trip, but on water. John and Clifford are in the midst of their holiday exploring the narrow canals of England on their boat. Of the two, John is the expert at maneuvering the boat, while Clifford’s job is to pour over the map and give directions. The canal holiday, however, is doomed right from the start. A slew of minor disasters dampen the spirit, the unpredictable weather only makes matters worse, and the continuous bickering between the two of them ratchets up the tension. The situation mysteriously improves when, on one of their moorings on the canal banks, they spot a young woman slouched against the bark of a tree. She is Sharon and she joins them on their journey, the perfect companion and truly a blessing, she is cheerful and a great cook. The atmosphere suddenly brightens up and it looks like the holiday is saved. But who exactly is Sharon? And why does she readily agree to accompany John and Clifford?

Meanwhile, John and Clifford are secretly vying for her affections, looking to impress her in their own way. But now they have a crucial decision to make. Since there are hardly any days left of their holiday, they must either turn around and proceed back along the same route they had traversed (not an exciting prospect given that the route was arduous), or take a left and arrive at the starting point from the other side (but it’s possible that they don’t have enough time to complete this route). However, when they arrive at the junction where they must make their decision, John spots a third route a bit further to the right. Ominously, this is where the map ends, and so what this unknown waterway entails remains mysterious to the party. In a fit of bravado, both the men decide to explore this route simple because they want to show off to Sharon how adventurous they are. Sharon, meanwhile, is enigmatic, as she goes along with their opinions but never ventures any of her own.

‘Three Miles Up’ is a perfectly paced, chilling story –  one where an atmosphere of menace and doom unfurls like a blanket over the party of three as they navigate this alien canal, until it opens out into an ending that is truly terrifying.

They saw no one else. They journeyed on throughout the afternoon; it grew colder, and at the same time more and more airless and still. When the light began to fail, Sharon disappeared as usual to the cabin. The canal became more tortuous, and John asked Clifford to help him with the turns. Clifford complied unwillingly; he did not want to leave Sharon, but as it had been he who had insisted on their continuing, he could hardly refuse. The turns were nerve wracking, as the canal was very narrow and the light grew worse and worse.

‘The Unsufficient Answer’ is another excellent tale where Leo Cust, a journalist, is entrusted with the task of travelling all the way to the Eastern part of Europe. His task? To convince sculptress Lola Hastings to make a brief but long overdue appearance in England. So far, entreaties in the form of letters sent to Mrs Hastings have produced no results, she has always provided vague answers for refusing to travel. Her presence in England is necessary to provide a boost to the sale of her artworks, which have stagnated, and now it is upto Mr Cust to find a way to lure her back.

But as soon as Mr Cust is accepted as a guest to Mrs Hastings’ home, an isolated castle built like a fort, Cust begins to notice bizarre things. The rooms are minimally furnished, bare and stark, arranged with black furniture and for most days Cust remains bored and frustrated with the hours stretching before him and not much to do. For the most part, Lola remains busy focusing on her sculpting, but at dinner transforms into a cultured woman conversing on a variety of topics. We are also introduced to her helper Miss Franklin, who is in charge of the day to day running of the castle, arranging meals and managing the complicated transportation arrangements of Mrs Hastings artworks across the continent to England. And yet, Cust notices the fractured nature of their relationship, as tensions between the two women reach a peak. Meanwhile, while Miss Franklin emits an air of foreboding, Mrs Hastings displays a streak of cruelty in her own personality. Things only get weirder when Cust encounters Felicity one night; she was clearly an inhabitant previously of the castle, but now appears as a ghost, there being something mysterious about her death. ‘The Insufficient Answer’, then, is another excellent tale of isolation, fear, paranoia, art and the trying relationship between two women who are completely cut off from the outside world.

Cust turned towards the warmth, exasperated and, unreasonably a little frightened. Then the bag fell to the stone floor and a tearing pain seemed to amputate his heart as he saw a young woman standing by the fire with one arm reaching up to the high mantelpiece.

‘Perfect Love’, the first story in this collection, penned by Howard, is also notable for the presence of a poltergeist in the form of a child who torments Maria Mielli, a world renowned opera singer. As she leaves behind a trail of suitors desperately in love with her and subsequently heartbroken, it traces the origins of her story – how a mysterious stranger (her patron) helps her launch her singing career and how she is later tormented by the presence of this poltergeist. Here, the narrator recounts this story through letters and newspaper clippings he chances upon while rummaging through his father’s paperwork.

And then we have the last Aickman story called ‘The View’ where a painter called Carfax, while on a cruise, encounters a woman (Ariel) who extends him an invitation to spend his vacation at her home, and they soon become lovers. The house is beautiful, tastefully decorated with lush furnishings and most of the rooms look out to the distant, mist-topped hills. To Carfax, these are perfect surroundings for a much needed rest and conducive to absorbing himself in his art. But he discovers an oddity – the room he is staying in has a very different view. The window looks out to the desolate sea and sky, a view that completely disorients him with respect to his bearings. It builds up to a point where he begins to notice subtle changes in the view over the days and he thinks he is probably losing his mind. This is a well-crafted tale of madness, love, ageing, happiness and what defines it and having a different perspective.

But one morning when he looked at the view for the first time that day, he noticed something nearer the house than the white, and lately multicoloured, buildings on the rather distant cliff edge. At first it seemed as though a big megalith, a rocky pillar of large circumference for a pillar, but medium height, had appeared midway between the sea and the house. At a second glance, however, what had looked a rock or a work of masonry, was seen by Carfax to be a huge motionless man, immobile and staring before him…

We Are for the Dark, then, is an unforgettable collection of weird tales; ghost stories that, according to the Introduction, defy obvious and easy explanations. While the strange and the supernatural are definitely potent forces in each of these tales, there is also a certain degree of psychological depth that enriches them.

Aickman seems to be greatly interested in architecture and all of his three stories collected here center around a house – the black house situated above the railway line in ‘The Trains’, the fortress-like castle inhabited by Mrs Hastings in ‘The Insufficient Answer’ which only highlights how alone she is, and the beautiful but deceptive holiday home with its disconcerting view in ‘The View’. My only quibble is that sometimes the language tends to be ornate and cumbersome; atleast that’s how a couple of the Aickman stories begin before settling into more breathable prose, and Howard’s ‘Perfect Love’ also suffers a bit from an awkward structure. But keeping these aside, I really enjoyed this collection, more so in this gorgeous hardback edition published by Tartarus Press, and would certainly recommend it.