The Doll’s Alphabet – Camilla Grudova

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

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

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

A doll's alphabet 4 motifs

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

The first story “Unstitching” opens thus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hideout – Egon Hostovsky

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

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

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

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

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

The Hideout

Here’s how the novel opens.

Dearest Hanichka:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compass – Mathias Enard

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

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

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

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

Compass

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compass Fitzgarraldo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Separation – Katie Kitamura

When I visited Paris recently, more specifically the iconic bookshop Shakespeare and Company, I had a list in mind of the books that I wanted to buy. Katie Kitamura’s A Separation was one of them. The book had received favorable reviews on the blogosphere and naturally it piqued my interest. So when I was browsing the shelves in this Parisian bookstore, I suddenly came upon this book and pounced on it.

Did I like it then? Yes, very much so.

A SeparationThe book is narrated in the first person; a woman but not named. In the opening pages, the narrator gets a call from her mother-in-law Isabella asking her the whereabouts of Christopher (Isabella’s son). The narrator does not know. Indeed, she and Christopher have separated but they have decided to not reveal this to anyone; not yet. Naturally, Isabella does not know of their separation either.

We come to know that Christopher took a trip to Greece to research material for a book he is writing. Isabella wants the narrator to travel to Greece and find him.  The narrator feels she has no choice but to go.

I supposed it would be my last dutiful act as her daughter-in-law. An hour later, Isabella called to tell me which hotel Christopher was staying at – I wondered how she had obtained this information – and the record locator for a ticket she had booked in my name, departing the next day. Beneath the unnecessary flourishes of character and the sheen of idle elegance, she was a supremely capable woman, one reason why she had been a formidable adversary, someone I had reason to fear. But that was all over, and soon, there would be no battleground between us.

In the meanwhile, she decides that once she meets him in Greece, she will ask for a divorce. After all, she has now moved on and is also in a relationship with Yvan, Christopher’s friend.

Once she reaches Greece, she heads to the remote village and the hotel where Christopher was supposed to be staying. He has not checked out but no one seems to know where he is. The narrator decides to wait for a few days for him to return.

Greece, in the meanwhile, is in the midst of an economic crisis. Unemployment in Athens is high and the people in the villages see no point in migrating to the city.

In this remote village, forest fires have raged and blackened the earth. The environment is as scorched and dried as the narrator’s marriage.

As she roams around the village while waiting for a meeting with Christopher, the narrator throws some light on him and their marriage in particular. It turns out that Christopher is a wealthy and very charming man prone to having affairs. One such affair was with the hotel receptionist, Maria. Maria in turn is loved by Stefano, the hotel driver, who takes the narrator around for sightseeing.

We come to know that Christopher was writing a book on the mourning rituals in Greece.

It was a strange project for a man who had hitherto lost nothing of significance, whose life was intact in all its key particulars. If he had cause for grief, it was only in the abstract. But he was drawn to people who were in a state of loss. This gave the people the mistaken impression that he was a sympathetic man. His sympathy lasted as long as his curiosity, once that had gone he suddenly withdrew, making himself unavailable, or at least less available than people might reasonably have expected, given the sudden and violent intimacy he had forced upon them in the first place.

The narrator meets Stefano’s mom who practices these rituals and whom Christopher may have met too.

The ancient practice was rapidly dying out. There were only a few parts of rural Greece where it was still practiced, the southern Peloponnese, a region called Mani, was one of them. There, every village had a few mourners – weepers or wailers, as they were sometimes called – women who performed the funeral dirge at a village burial. What intrigued him about the practice was its externalization of grief: the fact that a body other than the body of the bereaved expressed its woe.  

Indeed, the more the narrator interacts with Maria, Stefano, or Stefano’s mom, she realizes that they have been as opaque and inscrutable as Christopher.

The book then is a meditation on infidelity, grief, loss and the possibility that we may not really completely know the person we are married to.

Our marriage was formed by the things Christopher knew and I did not. This was not simply a question of intellect, although in that respect Christopher again had the advantage, he was without doubt a clever man. It was a question of things withheld, information that he had, and that I did not. In short, it was a question of infidelities – betrayal always puts one partner in the position of knowing, and leaves the other in the dark.

Kitamura’s prose is detached, but dreamy and lush as she unravels the story entirely through thoughts flashing through the narrator’s mind. There is a rhythmic quality to her writing as she slowly peels off the layers so that more revelations come to the fore.

Does Christopher come back? Or does his disappearance remain a mystery? I will not reveal that. Whatever the case, A Separation is a remarkable novel composed in a dizzying language and one to savour slowly like good wine.

A Sport and A Pastime – James Salter

James Salter is one of those American authors who would readily find a place in my top 10 authors list should I sit down to compile one. I have been steadily working my way through his oeuvre enjoying gems such as ‘Light Years’, unarguably his masterpiece about an upper middle class married couple, and ‘The Hunters’, a poignant and searing tale of the exhilaration and disappointments of being a fighter pilot.

A significant time had passed since I last read him; now the time felt right to explore some more of his work. So I picked up another of his popular novels, ‘A Sport and a Pastime’.

A Sport and a Pastime

It begins with our unnamed narrator travelling to a small town in France, Autun.  His friends Billy and Cristina, a well to do couple, have a house there and they have agreed to rent it out to him for a while. Billy and Cristina’s world is one of good food, parties and social gatherings. And it is in one of these soirees that he meets a young man and the principal character in the novel, Phillip Dean.

In the earlier parts of the novel, we learn that Dean is a brilliant student at Yale but decides to drop out as he is too bored. He and our unnamed narrator strike up a close friendship. Dean is everything, the narrator is not; confident, daring, with a remarkable zest for life, which only makes the narrator conscious of his own insecurities.

Dean then meets Anne-Marie and the two embark on a sensual relationship. That’s the plot and nothing much happens otherwise. Dean and Anne-Marie travel to various provincial towns in France in a vintage Delage, a car Dean has borrowed from a friend. They stay at hotels, eat at restaurants, walk around the town and make love.

But the interesting thing – this relationship and the description of all its intimate details are imagined by the narrator. This is no spoiler.

In the earlier pages itself, we get a glimpse of the unreliability of the narrator:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future.

In a novel such as this in which there’s not much of a plot to speak of, the language has to be strong enough to carry the weight of the story. This is where James Salter clearly excels. His prose is luminous and he has a way with words unlike any other author.

Here is a para at the start of the novel where the author beautifully evokes the French countryside as it flies by when the narrator is making his way to Autun in a train:

The hills close in and run beside us as we begin slowly to move away from the city. The windows of houses are open to the warm morning air. Hay is stacked in the shape of boxes, coops, loaves of bread. Above us the sudden passage of a church. In its walls, cracks wide enough for birds to nest in. I am going to walk these village roads, follow these brilliant streams.

Rose, umber, camel, tan—these are the colors of the towns. There are long, rising pastures with lines of trees. St Julien du Sault—its hotel seems empty. Shocks of hay now, bundles of it. Great squares of corn. Cezy—the station like scenery in a play that has closed. Pyramids of hay, mansards, barricades. Orchards. Children working in vegetable gardens.

And another one here where he is describing Anne-Marie:

Anne-Marie sits quietly and as Dean talks, becoming drunker, his mouth wetting, I try to watch her, to isolate elements of that stunning sexuality, but it’s like memorizing the reflections of a diamond. The slightest movement and an entirely different brilliance appears.

Another area where Salter is really good is writing about sex. The American author Toni Morrison once wrote Sex is difficult to write about because it’s just not sexy enough. The only way to write about it is not to write much. Let the reader bring his own sexuality into the text.

Salter clearly believes otherwise. There’s a lot of sex in this novel and in some passages more explicitly described than in others. But he carries it off; something not a lot of authors can do successfully.

And yet it’s not a perfect novel. Although Salter writes beautifully, the novel does sag midway and that is my main quibble with the book.

How will Dean and Anne-Marie’s relationship pan out? And will the narrator’s fascination with Dean continue?

One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them. And they become real through our envy, our devotion. It is we who give them their majesty, their power, which we ourselves could never possess. And in turn they give some back. But they are mortal, these heroes, just as we are. They do not last forever. They fade. They vanish.

Bird In A Cage – Frederic Dard

One of the great things about independent publishing houses is that they release excellent books that have either been out of print or did not somehow get the attention that they deserved when they were originally published. Most of them are also champions of translated literature.

NYRB Classics, Pushkin Press, Peirene Press are some of these indie presses that have consistently introduced strong books to readers and brought back authors into the limelight who otherwise had sunk into oblivion.

Frederic Dard’s Bird in a Cage comes from the stable of Pushkin Press, under its crime imprint Pushkin Vertigo. Frederic Dard is one of those prolific authors with no fewer than 284 books under his belt. Very popular during his times, especially in the post war years, strangely he has been completely forgotten since. Not surprisingly, I had never heard of this author until Pushkin Press decided to gradually release his titles. Bird in a Cage (ably translated by David Bellos) is the first of many to come.

Bird in a Cage

The first few sentences just grab you.

How old does a man have to be not to feel like an orphan when he loses his mother?

When I returned after being away for six years to the small flat where Mother died, it felt like the slipknot on a rope round my chest was being tightened without pity.

Albert’s mother died four years back and he has come on Christmas Eve to her small flat. Why has Albert waited to come four years after her death? Why not then? Where was he for six years?

These are the questions that come to mind when the novel opens but we will only get an inkling later on.

It is not until he is in her flat, that her death really hits Albert hard. Suddenly he feels claustrophobic and depressed. He decides to go out for a walk.

On the way he passes a shop selling Christmas decorations from where he purchases a silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust. This purchase will gain much significance as the novel progresses.

Gripped by loneliness, Albert enters a big restaurant and settles down nicely to a warm meal. He looks around the room and at a table spots a young girl with a woman who he assumes is her mother.

The child was with a woman, presumably her mother. She had seen me turn towards them and was smiling at me, as all mothers smile when you look at their child. I had a shock.

The woman looked like Anna. She had dark hair as Anna did, the same dark and almond-shaped eyes, the same dusky complexion and the same witty, sensual lips that scared me. She might have been twenty-seven, which is what Anna would have been. She was very pretty and smartly dressed.

Who is Anna? Why does this woman remind Albert of Anna? We do not know yet. But it is enough to make Albert obsessed. So when mother-daughter leave the restaurant, Albert decides to follow them.

Albert is trying to throw us off guard though. But can we believe him?

Let me be clear: I was not following them. I picked the same street simply because it was the way to my flat.

They end up meeting in a theatre and after the movie, she invites him to her flat. Albert can’t resist the invitation.

All of this takes place in the first chapter itself. From thereon, Albert begins to feel that he is embroiled in a nightmare as a series of events take place in her flat that completely baffle him. Yet, he is so besotted with this woman, he can’t let go of her. This then is the brief outline of the plot.

For a novel of barely 120 pages, Bird in a Cage packs quite a punch. It is an unsettling, gripping tale and cleverly constructed. A sense of unease prevails throughout and there is a dream-like quality to the story.

Albert can’t make sense of what is happening initially. Is he hallucinating? Is he in a nightmare? What will happen later on, when he begins to get some sort of a grip on events?

Nightmares are personal things that become absurd when you try to tell them to other people. You can experience them, that’s all you can do…

Sphinx – Anne Garreta

The blurb has billed Sphinx as a love story that delves into the nightclubs and cabarets of afterhours Paris. But it is much more than that. It is not just the story but the way that it is told that makes the novel stand out.

Indeed, it is all very well to write any kind of novel. But how about writing a novel by deliberately imposing a constraint and then writing within its confines? Not that simple. This is what the writers from the ‘Oulipian’ movement chose to do. The most illustrative example is the author Georges Perec. He wrote his book ‘La Disparition’ (which I have not read) by not using words containing the letter E in the entire text.

Anne Garreta chooses to do something similar; making this the first novel by a female member of the Oulipo.

So where is the Oulipian constraint in Sphinx?

Sphinx, in very simple terms, is a love story between the narrator (who is never named) and A***, who is a dancer from America. Basically, this is not just a love story but a genderless love story. And that is its main conceit.

Throughout the novel, the gender of both the narrator and A*** is never revealed.

A glimpse into the plot then. It begins with the unnamed narrator reminiscing about the time when he or she met the dancer A*** in a cabaret in Paris.

It is revealed to us that the narrator is an intelligent student looking to major in theology but somewhere along the line is gripped by an infinite sense of boredom. It doesn’t help that debates and the classes in general lack intellectual rigour. Not surprisingly, the narrator starts drifting.

A priest tries to be a sounding board to the narrator and help provide some direction. They start meeting regularly and ironically these discussions take place in clubs and cabarets. One such nightclub, The Apocryphe, becomes a regular haunt.

The narrator then recalls the catastrophe that takes place in The Apocryphe, which leads to him/her taking up the temporary post of the resident DJ in that club.

And so began what seemed to me a new life, but what seemed to all those who knew me the beginning of a resigned and aimless wandering. The Padre neither encouraged nor discouraged me from this new path; after all, he had been partly responsible for leading me into it.

Post the shift at The Apocryphe, a tour of clubs and dives followed with a group of friends. That is how they end up in the Eden and where the narrator meets A***.

Over many meetings, the narrator relentlessly pursues A***, who finally relents. What follows therefore is a whirlwind relationship between the two. But it’s not always easy as society, bogged by stereotypes, is all too ready to condemn them. Nobody understands why they are together in the first place.

At the Apocryphe and everywhere we went, people made remarks about our striking dissimilarity. They teased me over the contrast in colour between our skins, they stressed the difference in our mannerisms: the impulsiveness of A***’s voice and gestures, that wild exuberance and openness to the world, which by comparison underscored my moderation and reserve. A*** in turn had to bear the incessant prattle about my religious and social background. They painted a picture of my incomprehensible oddities: my isolation; my taste for solitude strangely coexisting with a sudden dive into this world; an unheralded abandon of a university career for the improvised post of DJ. For want of any intelligible coherence, they assumed I must be harbouring some kind of vice or perversion.

This then is a novel about love, its difficulties and the unimportance of gender. The writing shines too. It is indeed a feat that Garreta could write such a novel and still manage to not reveal the gender. Certainly, it would have been a challenging task in the original language French, where the construction of verbs in a sentence, typically gives an idea of the gender of the subject.

What about its translation to English? Here the translator Emma Ramadan has to be applauded too. In an illuminating afterword, Ramadan has pointed out the challenges in translating such a text and how she had to bend or rewrite the text in such a way that the gender of the characters is not revealed and at the same time the essence of the text is not lost.

In a world where pre-conceived notions about gender, race, religion and identity form the fabric of modern society, Sphinx does a great job in ripping it apart.

Sphinx

After The Circus – Patrick Modiano

I hadn’t heard of the French author Patrick Modiano until he came into the limelight when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Clearly it was time to explore him.

In the Café of Lost Youth was my first foray into Modiano and I was hugely impressed. It only made sense then that I work my way through his back catalogue…and so zeroed in on After the Circus.

After the Circus (wonderfully translated by Mark Polizotti) is a deeply atmospheric and evocative tale set in Paris. It opens with the narrator (whom we later come to know is called Jean)  in a police station, being asked some questions, to which he replies but not always truthfully (for one he tells them that he is an adult when he is actually underage). We do not know why he is being questioned. Actually, neither does Jean himself. All we know is that the police found Jean’s name in an address book.

When Jean emerges from the room, he notices a woman (Gisele) called in for questioning after him. Something about her leaves an impression on his mind. He waits for her at a café and when they get talking, we learn that her name was in that address book as well.

The two are strangely drawn to each other and the rest of the novel charts how they spend their days walking around the streets of Paris; the city, beautifully evoked, and as much a character in this novel as Jean and Gisele.

Jean, meanwhile, is offered a position in a bookshop in Rome, which he welcomes with open arms. He puts across the idea to Gisele who consents to shift with him there. Given his past, Paris remains a murky city for Jean and Rome promises to be the place where he can make a fresh start.

Why is Jean haunted by his past? Probably, it has something to do with his father, who was always involved in shady dealings and is now on the run. The precise nature of these dealings is a mystery.

But there is something more that unsettles Jean. This is where we are introduced to a few more characters, Pierre Ansart and Jacques de Bavieres – acquaintances of Gisele – who convince the couple to run an errand for them. The purpose of this errand and its ultimate consequences remains vague, peculiar and strange.

This then is typical Modiano fare. His novels are impressionistic, suffused with atmosphere, longing, and always pointing to how imperfect memories are.

Throughout this novel a continuous sense of unease prevails. Is Gisele really who she seems to be? And as the two of them plan to escape Paris and shift to Rome, will they finally leave their demons behind?

After the circus

The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford

‘This is the saddest story that I have ever heard.’ Thus begins Ford Madox Ford’s masterpiece The Good Soldier.

John Dowell (the narrator of this story) and his wife Florence are leisured and wealthy Americans. They meet Edward Ashburnham (‘the good soldier’ of the book’s title) and his wife Leonora, who are English and of a certain class, in a German spa resort town. A nine-year friendship ensues. In the first few pages itself, it is revealed that his wife Florence and Edward Ashburnham are dead but we do not know why. Nor do we know the circumstances surrounding their deaths. What follows therefore is a tale of deception, intrigues and the dawning realization of how mismatched the couples are.

What’s interesting here is how John Dowell chooses to tell this story. Since he is looking back to the past and trying to make sense of what has happened, the narration is not linear in the way traditional novels are. It is a very rich and layered story and as the novel progresses, the explanations and motives of the characters become clearer. Or do they? After all, we only know one point of view and that is John Dowell’s.

The other strength of the novel is how psychologically complex the characters are. For one , they are well fleshed out. But because of the narrative style, we find our sympathies for the characters constantly shifting. And that makes the novel ripe for multiple interpretations.

This is a tremendous novel, brilliantly written and Ford’s crowning achievement; a fact the author acknowledged too.

Indeed, in 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Good Soldier 30th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 2015, the BBC ranked The Good Soldier 13th on its list of the 100 greatest British novels. Truly well-deserved and a classic.

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Mad Enchantment – Ross King

For an art junkie, a trip to Paris is incomplete without a visit to the Musee d’Orsay. This is after all the mecca of Impressionism, that art movement in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, which was reviled by critics in its early years but revered much later. Musee d’Orsay displays a host of paintings by Impressionist painters such as Renoir, Degas, Manet, Cezanne, Pissarro and the father of them all – Claude Monet.

But this is not the only museum that showcases Monet’s art. The Orangerie Museum is dedicated to Monet and more so for displaying his famous water lily paintings. It is these paintings which form the subject matter of Ross King’s engrossing book ‘Mad Enchantment’.

This then is a biography of not only Monet but also the history behind the creation of these water lily paintings or Monet’s ‘upside down paintings’ as they were so called. King goes on to show a bit of Monet’s early life as a painter, the essential ‘Frenchness’ of his art as he painted canvases of the Normandy coast,  wheat stacks, and the Rouen  cathedral to name a few. King touches upon the significance of light in these paintings. Essentially Monet worked a lot outdoors and that too on many canvases at a time so that he could capture that fleeting play of light in his work.

Ross then goes on to show how besides painting, Monet also developed a strong interest in gardening. This is significant as it prompted Monet to cultivate a water lily pond in his garden at Giverny with the famous Japanese bridge across it.

This water lily pond then became a subject of his art for much of his later years. The idea for a ‘Grand Decoration’ was conceived; a slew of water lily paintings on much larger canvases. These would be displayed in a circular room, which Monet called his ‘flowery aquarium’ thereby giving a sense of peace to the observer.

But the path to realize this ambition was not always easy. King explains how Monet had to suffer the difficulties of the First World War, periods of self-doubt, loss of some of his family members and contemporaries, and his own diminishing eyesight…to create these masterworks.

King’s prose flows smoothly and makes this biography fascinating and eminently readable. A must read then for anyone remotely interested in art and art history.

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