A Month of Reading – June 2021

These are the books I read in June, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature, classics and memoir. All were very good, but my favourites were the Edith Wharton and Sigrid Nunez. Here is a brief look at the books…

TIESDomenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

Ties, a visceral, intense story of a marital breakdown and its damaging consequences for the parties involved, cleverly told through multiple perspectives.

The first section is where Vanda is writing to her husband, and it’s a letter that drips with rage, fury and frustration at him for abandoning their family and shirking his responsibilities of a husband and father.

 The second section opens with the two of them going holidaying to the seaside, a vacation that turns out to be perfect, freshening them up considerably. But when Aldo and Vanda return to their apartment, they are in for a rude shock. Their home has been vandalized, and Vanda’s beloved cat Labes is missing. 

As Aldo begins to clear up the mess, he chances upon the letters Vanda had written to him all those years ago, and this sets off a chain of memories – his reasons for abandoning the family, his aching love for Lidia and his fragile, uncertain rapport with his children. 

In Ties, then, Starnone presents to us a scathing but psychologically astute portrayal of marriage, of how one man’s actions can damage the entire family unit. The writing style is spare, furiously paced and intense especially when analyzing the characters’ motives. While betrayal and marital discord are its dominant themes, the novella is also a subtle exploration of love, parenting and the passage of time.

OLD NEW YORKEdith Wharton

Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none. In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known. 

All the novellas are well worth reading, but the second one – The Old Maid – particularly is the finest of the lot, exquisitely written, and alone worth the price of the book.

THE FRIENDSigrid Nunez

The Friend is a beautiful, poignant novel of grief, love, loss, writing and more importantly the uniqueness of dogs and what makes them the best of companions.

The book opens with a suicide. We learn that the narrator, an unnamed woman, has just lost her lifelong best friend who chooses to end his life. Like the woman, we don’t really know what caused her friend to undertake such a drastic step, there is no suicide note either to give any sort of clue.

The friend’s third wife does not know what to do with the pet he has left behind – a Great Dane called Apollo, who is ageing and pretty much on his last legs. It was the man’s wish that the narrator adopt the giant dog, but she is initially reluctant. Dogs are prohibited in the building where she resides. But when subsequent attempts to re-home the dog fail, she decides to adopt him even when the threat of eviction looms large.

One of the biggest themes explored in this lovely novel is the joy of canine companionship. The book is also a lyrical meditation on grief, not just grief felt by the narrator but also by Apollo. In a nutshell, The Friend, then, is a truly wonderful book that sizzles with charm, intelligence and wisdom in equal measure.

NO PRESENTS PLEASE: MUMBAI STORIES – Jayant Kaikini (tr. Tejaswini Niranjana)

Published by Tilted Axis Press, No Presents Please is a wonderful, unique collection of 16 stories that encapsulate the essence of Mumbai, of what it represents to its inhabitants, many of them small-town migrants, drifters or ordinary middle class families, whose struggles don’t typically make for screaming headlines. It is a vivid portrayal of city life, a sense of place evoked by exploring the identities and the spirit of Mumbaikars.

We are offered a glimpse into the lives that unfold in their small, humble settings, their endless drive for a better life which they believe is possible in the vast, teeming, bustling and sometimes cruel metropolis of Mumbai. These are stories that reveal a range of facets – poignant, heartbreaking, absurd, comic – and gradually work their magic on you.

THE RED PARTS: AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A TRIAL – Maggie Nelson

The Red Parts is Maggie Nelson’s fascinating, singular account of her aunt Jane’s brutal death and the trial that took place some 35 years afterward. It is a blend of true crime and personal memoir told by Nelson in prose that is clear cut and engaging in style.

Nelson is brilliant at depicting how the re-opening of the case after 35 years, reopens old wounds for the family and how they cope with it. Even if the guilty party is convicted, will the family feel any sense of closure? Or is the whole exercise pointless because Jane had been dead a long time ago and nothing can ever bring her back?

Nelson’s language is lyrical, precise, wonderfully controlled and she eschews any tidy resolution. Yes, the DNA evidence marks Leiterman as the man, but seeds of doubt remain. But maybe, writing the book itself offered some sort of a closure, however miniscule, to Nelson, or as she puts it, “Some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.”

A MONTH IN SIENAHisham Matar

Hisham Matar’s fascination with the Sienese School of painting can be traced back to when the author was nineteen years old. It was 1990 and he had lost his father that year. Hisham’s father was living in exile in Cairo, and suddenly one afternoon, was kidnapped and flown back to Libya. He never met his father after that.

A year later Hisham started visiting the National Gallery and became absorbed with a slew of Sienese paintings. He could not really figure out why, but one can assume that being lost in these paintings offered some sort of a refuge and a way to think about the world around him.

Decades later, with no idea of his father’s whereabouts or even if he was alive, Hisham decides to finally visit Siena, the birthplace of the paintings that captured his imagination. As he visits art galleries, museums, chapels, and the city square, Hisham reflects on the big questions of loss, grief, faith, violence, the purpose of art and its relationship with life.

He forges new friendships, is touched by the hospitality of the city’s inhabitants, and grapples with the concept of faith and how it was severely tested in the Middle Ages when the Black Death swept across most of Europe and the Middle East, ravaging the countries and reducing their populations by almost half.

Matar’s writing is understated and elegant, as he beautifully articulates his thoughts on a variety of topics. His exploration of Siena evokes nostalgia for what makes Europe so unique – abundance of art museums, pretty squares and the luxury of sitting at a pavement cafe in the summer sun savouring a glass of wine. Reading A Month in Siena really felt like armchair travelling to my favourite continent…at a time when overseas trips seem pretty nigh impossible.

That was it for June. July is turning out to be a tough month because of a personal emergency, and my reading has taken a big hit. But as and when I’m finding the time, I am alternating between Damon Galgut’s The Promise and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, the first book in the Cazalet Chronicles.

Old New York – Edith Wharton

I have been on a bit of an Edith Wharton spree over the last couple of years. In 2020, I read and wrote about The Custom of the Country and The New York Stories (the latter published by NYRB Classics in a handsome edition). And this year, earlier on I wrote about The House of Mirth. All are wonderful books to which Old New York is another worthwhile addition.

Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none.

FALSE DAWN (The ‘Forties)

In False Dawn, the first novella in this collection, we meet Mr Halston Raycie, whose “extent in height, width and thickness was so nearly the same that whichever way he was turned one had an equally broad view of him.”

Mr Raycie has a formidable personality and is generally well-respected in his social circle, although in many ways he is a tyrant at least where his family is concerned. The novella opens with a garden party at the Raycie residence in honour of the young Lewis Raycie, who is about to embark on his first Grand Tour to Europe. It is intended that Lewis should travel extensively since his father strongly believes that “a young man, before setting up for himself, must see the world; form his taste; fortify his judgement.”

But the senior Raycie also has a project in mind for his son. He wants to build a Raycie gallery with as many Italian art masterpieces as possible, and Lewis has been entrusted with adequate capital to select and purchase some of the finest works of art from the Italian masters in vogue then. Domenichino, Albano, Carlo Dolci, Guercino are some of the names thrown about, even a Raphael, if possible.

The dream, the ambition, the passion of Mr Raycie’s life, was (as his son knew) to found a Family; and he had only Lewis to found it with. He believed in primogeniture, in heirlooms, in entailed estates, in all the ritual of the English “landed” tradition.

Temperament-wise, Lewis could not have been more different from his father – he is impressionable, malleable and remains in awe of Mr Raycie’s imposing persona. Lewis is a bit apprehensive about his upcoming trip, but the mission of building a Raycie gallery fills him with a sense of purpose. Once on his travels though, Lewis befriends a fellow called John Ruskin who introduces the former to some stunning paintings, but from relatively obscure artists. Lewis is mesmerized and suddenly takes the bold, innovative step of buying these artworks. But when he returns home with them, both father and son are in for a rude shock.

Lewis is sure of gaining his father’s approval, but the latter is strongly of the view that his son has “wasted” the capital at his disposal by not buying the famous art paintings as was his mandate. Senior Raycie leaves no stone unturned in expressing his deep disappointment with Lewis, and resorts to actions that have deeper repercussions for his son. But will Lewis end up having the last laugh?

False Dawn, then, examines the set ways of New York society and how it values collective opinions rather than individual views. Halston Raycie is no art connoisseur by any yardstick, but insists on his gallery displaying works of Italian masters that are the talk of the town simply because he wants to keep up with his peers. It is ultimately a question of status and not aesthetics. The fact that every painting can communicate something personal and unique to every viewer is a concept lost on him. Lewis Percy’s individual thinking has no place in New York society and he is derided for his so-called foolishness, not to mention that he must bear the brunt of his father’s subsequent actions.

THE OLD MAID (The ‘Fifties)

The second novella, The Old Maid, to me, is the finest in the collection and alone worth the price of the book. It opens thus…

In the old New York of the ‘fifties a few families ruled, in simplicity and affluence. Of these were the Ralstons.

Within the limits of their universal caution, the Ralstons fulfilled their obligations as rich and respected citizens. They figured on the boards of all the old-established charities, gave handsomely to thriving institutions, had the best cooks in New York, and when they travelled abroad ordered statuary of the American sculptors in Rome whose reputation was already established.

We are introduced to Delia Lovell who has married James (Jim) Ralston at the tender age of twenty. Prior to her marriage, Delia had romantic feelings for Clement Spender, an aspiring painter in Rome, who was also passionately in love with her. However, their union does not come to fruition largely because of his uncertain financial position and his inability to provide for a family.

Now, as part of the Ralston fold, Delia, at 25, is “established, the mother of two children, the possessor of a generous allowance of pin-money, and by common consent, one of the handsomest and most popular ‘young patrons’ of her day.”

Delia is grateful for her comfortable life and her established position, and yet somewhere she is gripped by a sense of discontent, that fleeting notion that life is somehow passing her by.

She was too near to the primitive Ralstons to have as clear a view of them as, for instance, the son in question might one day command: she lived under them as unthinkingly as one lives under the laws of one’s country. Yet that tremor of the muted key-board, that secret questioning which sometimes beat in her like wings, would now and then so divide her from them that for a fleeting moment she could survey them in their relation to other things.

Meanwhile, there enters Charlotte Lovell, Delia’s impoverished cousin, “the old maid” of the title. Charlotte’s upbringing is in sharp contrast to Delia’s despite coming from the same family. Charlotte’s father was in fact branded as one of the “poor Lovells.” Due to their constrained means, not much of a bright future is expected for her. Indeed, we are told “poor Charlotte had become so serious, so prudish almost, since she had given up balls and taken to visiting the poor!” It is generally agreed that Charlotte is destined to be an old maid.

But then to everyone’s surprise, Charlotte’s engagement to Joe Ralston is announced. However, instead of experiencing the joy of a promising future, Charlotte’s woes only deepen. In the weeks leading to her betrothal, Charlotte makes a dramatic confession to Delia that alters the course of the former’s life. Delia learns that Charlotte has borne a child out of wedlock as a consequence of a brief love affair, and has managed to keep it a secret. It also explains why Charlotte had devoted so much of her time to poor children, her daughter – Tina – has been placed among them, and it’s the only way for her to remain as close to Tina as possible.

What torments Charlotte is the future of Tina. Should she part herself from her? Or should she reject marriage and happiness to continue her furtive care of her baby?

Charlotte’s dilemma is particularly fuelled by the fact that after marriage, Joe Ralston expects her to give up her time with those poor children. Why visit them when she can focus on starting her own family? But that would mean abandoning Tina, which Charlotte cannot bring herself to do. Delia suggests a way out. She offers to provide a comfortable home for Tina and for Charlotte to be with her, but for this she has to make a sacrifice – Charlotte cannot entertain any hopes of marrying Joe Ralston.

At the core of this gorgeous, layered novella is the relationship between Delia and Charlotte, how they are as different as chalk and cheese, and how they envy each other on certain aspects. Having married safely, Delia hasn’t experienced sexual passion like Charlotte has. Similarly, Charlotte, despite being a mother, cannot really experience the joys of motherhood like Delia can, because her secret cannot be revealed at any cost, not even to her daughter. It’s a story where Wharton does not entirely rule out the idea of human happiness; it’s only that this happiness is always narrow in its scope, confined within strict boundaries. One can’t help but think that all things considered, it is Charlotte to whom Fate deals the cruellest hand.

THE SPARK (The ‘Sixties)

The third novella called The Spark, was my least favourite of the lot, but still very interesting, delving into the theme of the moral compass of Old New York.

The narrator here is a young male from a good family who is fascinated by an older man in his parents’ set, a man called Hayley Delane. What catches the narrator’s eye is how different Delane is from the other men of his ilk. For instance, Delane marries Leila Gracy, a woman fifteen years his junior, despite the fact her father is in disgrace to the point where “he had to resign from all his clubs.” Delane, however, loves her unreservedly and does not seem to be too perturbed even when she is brazenly flirting with other men.

Two particular incidents form the focus of this novella, which display how Delane can rebel and be at odds with his social set. The first is when he slaps one of Leila’s lovers for ill-treating a horse. But because this would be perceived as an act of revenge of a jealous husband, Delane is forced to apologise so that his wife’s reputation is not sullied. The other incident where Delane draws much flak is when he decides to provide a home to his father-in-law under his own roof and undertake the responsibility of his care, an act which sees Leila distancing herself from Delane as well.

Delane has differing opinions when it comes to social questions, or the relation between “gentlemen” and the community. And his typical response tends to be along the lines of…

“After all, what does it matter who makes the first move? The thing is to get the business done.”

NEW YEAR’S DAY (The ‘Seventies)

In New Year’s Day, the spotlight is on Lizzie Hazeldean, a married woman, who is spotted leaving a Fifth Avenue hotel with a man who is not her husband. This development immediately sets tongues wagging, and Lizzie is in danger of being completely excluded from society.

A lot about this novella reminded me of The House of Mirth, where Lily Bart’s downfall is precipitated when she is unfairly judged for leaving the house of a married man, and how society gradual shuts her out with tragic consequences.

Interestingly, Lizzie’s circumstances are subsequently revealed to the reader and the reasons that compel her to hook up with another man. But in the claustrophobic world of Old New York, conventions and decorum are meant to be adhered to, and there is a heavy price to pay for deviating from conformity. Unconventional behaviour is a surefire recipe for doom.

This is also a novella which shines a light on the plight of women who due to their single-minded upbringing are not equipped for an independent career but must rely on marriage for financial support.

Marriage alone could save such a girl from starvation, unless she happened to run across an old lady who wanted her dogs exercised and her Churchman read aloud to her. Even the day of painting wild-roses on fans, of coloring photographs to “look like” miniatures, of manufacturing lampshades and trimming hats for more fortunate friends – even this precarious beginning of feminine independence had not dawned.

Some more thoughts on these novellas…

In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known. In her introduction, Marilyn French dwells on how appearances matter a great deal and if a man lost his money or a woman lost her reputation, they simply fell out of society, they were treated as if they did not exist.

The women, as ever, are always given a raw deal. A married woman seen with another man means that the woman’s image is guaranteed to be tainted, the man is never judged. Similarly, a man with a child out of wedlock hardly causes much flutter, and if he separately provides for it, the matter is considered closed and swept under a carpet. But a woman in exactly the same situation is sure to be ruined and treated harshly.

What makes it all the more worse is that these so-called rules of society are also upheld by women. There is a particular scene in The Old Maid where Charlotte is yet to divulge to Delia the gravity of her problem. Here’s a snippet of a conversation between the two…

“Well?-Oh, Chatty,” Delia exclaimed abruptly illuminated, “you don’t mean to say that you’re going to let any little thing in Joe’s past-? Not that I’ve ever heard the last hint; never. But even if there were…” She drew a deep breath, and bravely proceeded to extremities. “Even if you’ve heard that he’s been…that he’s had a child-of course he would have provided for it before…”

The girl shook her head. “I know: you needn’t go on. ‘Men will be men’; but it’s not that.”

Delia seems to be okay with the irritating, misguided notion that “men will be men” and that Charlotte can brush aside Joe’s affairs and offspring from them, if any. But when it’s clear that Charlotte is the one with an illegitimate child, Delia feels that it is dishonourable for Charlotte to wed Joe without revealing the truth of her situation to him. Delia may have taken the unconventional step of providing for Charlotte’s child, yet she is also prone to double-standards that are troubling.

In all the four novellas, Wharton’s prose sparkles with intelligence and deft touches of irony. Nowhere is this more apparent than in False Dawn and The Spark, both of which end on a visibly ironic note, while there are subtle hues present in the other two novellas.

Old New York, then, is Wharton’s brilliant, scathing depiction of a society “where sensitive souls were like muted keyboards, on which Fate played without a sound.”

A Month of Reading – February 2021

February was a good reading month, a mix of classics and translated literature. While all were very good, my favourites were the Wharton and Mortimer. Here’s a brief round-up of each book. For the links to the detailed reviews, you click on the titles.

AN UNTOUCHED HOUSE – Willem Frederik Hermans (tr. David Colmer)

An Untouched House is a spare, taut war thriller sprinkled with doses of absurd comedy that considerably heightens its narrative power. Set during the waning months of the Second World War, when madness still abounds, a weary Dutch partisan chances upon a luxurious, intact estate in an abandoned spa town. Enjoying the comforts of this home while the war outside rages on, the partisan is hell bent on avoiding the fighting at all cost, until the real owner of the house turns up. At less than 100 pages, An Untouched House pulses and throbs with dramatic tension in which, Hermans, in his unique way, confronts us with the idea of the violent absurdity of war and its terrible consequences for those unwittingly involved.

MINOR DETAIL – Adania Shibli (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette)

Minor Detail is an intense, searing novella of war, violence, memory and erasure at the heart of which lies the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The novella is divided into two sections. The first part focuses on an Israeli patrol and the events leading upto the rape and murder of a Bedouin girl. In the second part, the narration is in the first person, by an unnamed Palestinian woman residing in present, modern-day Ramallah and the perilous journey she embarks on in her quest to find the truth of that atrocity long forgotten.  The novella, then, is a piercing meditation on the tragedy faced by war victims – individuals whose lives are deemed trivial and inconsequential and are lost somewhere in the wider sweep of history.

SATURDAY LUNCH WITH THE BROWNINGS – Penelope Mortimer

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is a collection of twelve, unsettling, edgy, perfectly pitched tales that disrupt the perceived bliss of marriage and motherhood. It’s also an uncanny depiction of the horrors lurking in the banality of everyday life. A woman and her five year-old son are locked out of a farmhouse in a remote French countryside, a seemingly innocuous family lunch swiftly culminates in a dramatic confrontation, a young woman on the brink of a miscarriage gradually reveals her true intentions. This is a marvelous collection – each piece is like a finely chiseled, perfectly honed miniature whose beauty and horror lingers in the mind long after the pages are turned.

THE HOUSE OF MIRTH – Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth is one of Edith Wharton’s top-tier New York society novels showcasing the social trajectory of its unforgettable heroine, Lily Bart, and the ultimate price she pays for defying convention. Orphaned, but beautiful, sophisticated and witty, Lily Bart craves for money that will enable her to lead the lifestyle of the rich and the one way to do that is to marry a wealthy husband. But her attraction to Lawrence Selden, a lawyer unable to provide her the means, puts her in a quandary of whether to marry for love or money. Meanwhile, Lily commits a series of blunders which begin to accentuate her downfall in the elite set she moves in. Wharton dissects the inner workings of New York society with consummate skill and precision, and her astute observations on its various hypocrisies are spot on especially the point on how women are always at the mercy of the perceptions of others.

RAMIFICATIONS – Daniel Saldaña Paris (tr. Christina MacSweeney)

Set in Mexico, Ramifications is a moving portrait of arrested development, a tale of a boy growing up in a broken family and trying to survive in an environment where machismo and secrecy rule the roost. When our unnamed narrator’s mother abandons the family to participate in the Zapatista uprising of 1994, the family is forced to fend for itself. Living with an emotionally distant father and an uncaring elder sister, the narrator at the age of ten is left to his own devices and beset with aching loneliness. Ramifications, then, is a beautiful evocation of a child’s attempts to interpret events beyond his understanding. Saldaña París’ writing is simple and elegant and there’s almost a fairy tale like quality to the prose as we are taken inside the tormented psyche of a child.

That’s it for February. I have started March with a recently published novella – The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen. I was blown away by Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy a couple of years ago, so this was a novella I was really looking forward to. And I also just finished another lovely novella – Twelve Nights by Urs Faes.

The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

I adore Edith Wharton. The first novel I read by her was The Age of Innocence, which blew me away. Since then, I have read the marvelous The Custom of the Country as well as her New York Stories, an excellent publication by NYRB Classics. Not surprisingly, The House of Mirth is another brilliant read, fully deserving of its classic status.

The House of Mirth is one of Edith Wharton’s top-tier New York society novels showcasing the social trajectory of its unforgettable heroine, Lily Bart, and the ultimate price she pays for defying convention.

Our protagonist Lily Bart is beautiful, sophisticated, witty – the cynosure of all eyes. In her late twenties, Lily is now an orphan. But despite her impoverished means, Lily is cultured and discerning, a product of her upbringing that values wealth and luxury and abhors dinginess in all its forms.

Being a part of the elite New York social circle – a world of Trenors, Dorsets and Brys – demands verve and personality of which Lily has plenty, and money of which Lily pretty much has none. Lily now resides with her aunt Mrs Peniston, a woman whose ideas of Old New York and its mores are at odds with Lily’s. While Lily relies on the generosity of her well-heeled friends, she is conscious that this can’t be a permanent solution. The only course of action that can relieve her of financial cares and elevate her to an equal footing with her peers is a good marriage.

It seems simple, straightforward enough and Lily even chances upon a potential prized catch – Percy Gryce. Gryce is one of those shy, awkward young men but from a family blessed with immense wealth. Lily is confident of her charms in making Gryce fall in love with her, and even succeeds as per plan. Yet when the time comes to seal the deal, she chickens out.

And this is what makes Lily a complex but fascinating creation – she craves for wealth and security but can’t bring herself to marry if she’s not in love. She is attracted to Lawrence Selden, a lawyer, who does not much care for the trappings of the rich and is content being on the fringes of elite society, but he does not have enough means to cater to Lily’s upwardly mobile aspirations. In a way, Lily is aware that she can’t marry Selden, even if she greatly enjoys their conversations and the playful banter between them. It is precisely one of these encounters with Selden that provides Lily an unflattering glimpse of the likely dullness of her existence were she to marry Gryce, even if it means a secure future for her.

That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic…Sometimes, I think it’s just flightiness – and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.

It’s an opportunity missed, but Lily takes it in her stride. Lily’s appetite for leisure and luxury, though, does not wane and her proclivity for playing bridge – a wealthy pastime – causes her to amass gambling debts. To pay these off, Lily commits a big blunder, a grievous mistake, the ramifications of which will haunt her for the rest of her life. She turns to Gus Trenor – her friend Judy’s husband – and entrusts her income to him to invest in stocks. Her lack of business experience means that she fails to understand the consequences of her actions before it’s too late.

She was realizing for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents, made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.

The House of Mirth, then, is a scathing portrayal of New York Society in the early 20th century with its ridiculous emphasis on how things ‘appear’ rather than how things ‘actually are.’ Reeking with double-standards, it’s a society governed by rigid moral codes and social customs, stubbornly resistant to new ways of thinking. The newer set that Lily moves in possibly seems more unconventional, atleast when it comes to modes of entertaining and the idea of marriage than what was acceptable in Mrs Peniston’s time. Yet, in many ways, certain viewpoints failed to evolve. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the status of single women.

Men could do as they pleased, their actions were never judged. Even married women enjoyed some license – a married woman could be a harmless flirt, something that was tolerated if her husband did not make a big deal about it. But a single woman had to be tremendously careful and on her guard lest she be judged wrongly. Clearly, it was a society where gender inequality was at its peak, where a single woman could be harshly treated by both men and women alike for even a minor misstep. It also brought to the fore the lack of opportunities for women, their only ambition being to secure a wealthy match for a life of perennial comfort. A woman living independently did not get the credit it deserved.

In this scenario, Lily Bart makes for an unconventional, tragic heroine – vivacious and witty on one hand, and incredibly naïve on the other. Given the aspirations of her mother, Lily’s upbringing has been fed on a diet of how to conduct herself in society, a largely ornamental role with the sole purpose of marrying. Lily knows only how to see herself through the eyes of her social set, and when they unforgivably turn against her, it increasingly becomes a monumental task to rehabilitate herself.

Always accustomed to the rich and their ways, Lily has not learnt to do anything else, and she lacks the aptitude to eke out an independent living. And yet it’s the nuances in her character that set her apart from the social circle she moves in. For one, she is quite self-aware of her position, and secondly it’s the central dilemma plaguing her (whether to marry for love or for money) that makes her so interesting. It’s her uniqueness that attracts Lawrence Selden to her even if he knows that he can’t satisfy her financially.

While reading this novel, I could not help but compare Lily Bart to Undine Spragg of The Custom of the Country. Both heroines want to be a part of the pinnacle of society, but while Undine is driven by blind ambition caring little for how her actions impact others, Lily’s desires are more complex, which is also why she cuts a more sympathetic figure.

Edith Wharton’s writing as ever is marvelous and incisive, and the novel brims with fully realized characters and brilliantly rendered scenes and set pieces. Wharton dissects the inner workings of New York society with consummate skill and precision, and her astute observations on its various hypocrisies are spot on especially the point on how women are always at the mercy of the perceptions of others. A novel of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, Lily’s inevitable downfall takes on a whole new level of poignancy that is quite heart-rending in the final section. All in all, another stunning novel from Wharton’s oeuvre!

My Best Books of 2020

2020 was so terrible, the less said about it the better. The best thing though was all the reading I did. Books kept me sane. With more time on my hands, I read much more than what I had done in previous years, and as a result discovered some really terrific books.

This also means that I have expanded my ‘Best of’ list to include 18 books. Of these, eight are translated works covering 5 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, French, German and Korean). I’ve read more women authors this year, and this is reflected in the list as well (women to men ratio is 15:3).

So without further ado, here are My Best Books of 2020, in no particular order (Click on the names if you want to read the detailed reviews)…

THE BIRDS by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)

In The Birds, our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Since Mattis is not able to hold on to any job, the responsibility of providing falls on Hege’s shoulders, and she is now tired and lonely. Until one day a lumberjack called Jorgen enters their lives and uproots their daily existence. This is a sad but gorgeous novel about the difficulty of communicating with one another and the hurdles that intellectually disabled individuals have to grapple with.

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf

There’s a reason why To the Lighthouse is a classic, it is Woolf at her sublime best. An impressionistic portrayal of the Ramsay family and their circle of friends during a holiday on the Isle of Skye told through various perspectives – all in Woolf’s trademark stunning prose.

EARTH AND HIGH HEAVEN by Gwethalyn Graham

Gwethalyn Graham is a Canadian author I had never heard of before, but thanks to Persephone Books I do now. This is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice. Graham has a deep understanding of the various facets of 1940s Montreal society and this is superbly articulated in various dialogues and discussions between the characters.

THE OTHER NAME by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

A book longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize that should also have been shortlisted. The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader.

HURRICANE SEASON by Fernanda Melchor (tr. Sophie Hughes)

The Witch, a highly reviled figure in the rural Mexican village of La Matosa, is murdered and her corpse is dumped in a canal. Told through four perspectives, Hurricane Season is a tour de force, hurtling at the reader at a furious pace despite the long, winding sentences, and drips with violence, foul language, poverty and an overall feeling of dereliction. It was my favourite to win the International Booker Prize.

PASSING by Nella Larsen

Published in the 1920s, Passing is considered a landmark novel of the Harlem Renaissance period focusing on the themes of racial identity and colour and the blurring of racial boundaries. The novel centers around two black women Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew, who because of their light skin can easily pass off as white. At barely over a 100 pages, Passing is slim but packs in a lot of weightier themes with some really stunning writing from Larsen. As it hurtles towards a climax that is both strange and surprising, it leaves room for a lot of interpretation and debate for the reader.

WINTER IN SOKCHO by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Winter in Sokcho is a haunting, dreamlike novella set in the seaside town of Sokcho in the far northeastern part of South Korea and close to the border with its impenetrable neighbour. Our protagonist is a young woman working as a maid and cook in a dead end guesthouse and nothing much happens there until the arrival of an enigmatic French graphic artist Kerrand.

It’s all very atmospheric and the author wonderfully captures the remoteness of Sokcho which in a way that mirrors the sense of alienation the protagonist feels. There are some sumptuous descriptions of food thrown in with a bit of background on the tensions with North Korea. Overall, this is a beautifully written novella with its dreamy quality and a wonderful sense of place.

DEAD GIRLS by Selva Almada (tr. Annie McDermott)

Almada is one of Latin America’s most exciting contemporary writers introduced to us by the wonderful Charco Press. Dead Girls is a searing, hard-hitting book which explores the blight of gender violence and femicide in Almada’s native Argentina. It is a powerful, hybrid piece of work – a blend of journalistic fiction and memoir – as Almada digs deeper into the murder of three small-town teenage girls in the 1980s, unspeakable crimes that never got solved.

THE WEATHER IN THE STREETS by Rosamond Lehmann

Set ten years after The Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets revolves round the doomed love affair between Olivia Curtis and the married Rollo Spencer who is first introduced to readers in the final few pages of the first novel.

Lehmann brilliantly captures the stages of the affair as it pans out from Olivia’s point of view – the first heady days of the affair gradually when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and then followed by moments of desperation as Olivia endlessly waits for Rollo’s call.  Lehmann manages to turn the ‘done-to-death’ tale of an extra-marital affair into something entirely new, and her sensitive portrayal of Olivia’s plight is truly heartbreaking and evokes the sympathy of the reader.

THE SOUL OF KINDNESS by Elizabeth Taylor

I somehow missed writing a detailed review on this book (the only one on this list). In the Soul of Kindness, Taylor focuses on a group of characters at the centre of which is Flora Quartermaine. Flora is gorgeous, married to Richard and they live an enviable life with a comfortable home and a child. Flora has a circle of people she is close to – her best friend Meg, Meg’s brother and aspiring actor Kit, the writer Peter with whom Meg has fallen in love, Flora’s mother Mrs Secretan, Richard’s father Percy and Percy’s mistress Ba. Flora unwittingly believes in performing acts of kindness for them without realizing that these may not always be in their best interest. All of them strive to protect her from herself but there is one character called Liz, a painter unknown to Flora, who sees Flora for what she really is.

Taylor’s writing in The Soul of Kindness is a marvel – elegant, restrained with such a keen insight into the human mind, particularly when it comes to describing the insecurities and the loneliness her characters grapple with.    

LOOK AT ME by Anita Brookner

In Look At Me, our narrator is Frances Hinton, who works in a medical library during the day and in the evenings spends time in solitude in her large flat, writing. However, one day the charismatic doctor Nick Fraser and his equally dynamic wife Alix appear on the scene and Frances finds herself in their company thoroughly mesmerized.

This novel is a fascinating but heartbreaking account of a lonely woman who can never really belong to the social circle she wants to be a part of, having to contend with the role of an outsider. Brookner’s writing is brilliant. Her sentences are precise and exquisitely crafted and she captures perfectly Frances’ mental state as she is drawn towards the allure of the Frasers and then cruelly cast aside. 

OUR SPOONS CAME FROM WOOLWORTHS by Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a gripping tale about a young woman’s life gone astray but narrated in a voice that is so captivating and fresh. Our narrator is Sophia Fairclough, and despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of her storytelling that makes the book so compelling. Barbara Comyns’ writing, as ever, is top-notch.  In her assured hands, what might have been a humdrum melodrama about a young woman’s life gone awry transforms into a more unusual kind of novel – a novel way ahead of its time.

UNTOLD NIGHT AND DAY by Bae Suah (tr. Deborah Smith)

Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a deliciously disorienting and strange book. At a basic level, the plot centers around Ayami, a woman who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. But that is barely scratching the surface.

Throughout the novel, perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating. The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure. A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality. 

THE ARTIFICAL SILK GIRL by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

The Artificial Silk Girl is narrated in the first person, in a voice that is immediately captivating, fresh and lively – a voice I was instantly drawn to. After being fired from a dull office job and followed by a failed attempt at theatre in her mid-sized hometown, Doris makes her way to the big city – Berlin. While she is dazzled at first by the city’s charms, she gradually drifts into homelessness and her reduced circumstances compel her to rely on men for money and company. In a nutshell, The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderful novel that captures Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in all its glitter and grimness, seen through the eyes of an unforgettable protagonist.

THE WALL by Marlen Haushofer (tr. Shaun Whiteside)

This is a powerful book about survival, self-renewal and the capacity to love. While holidaying in an Alpine hunting lodge, our unnamed narrator wakes up one day to an unimaginable catastrophe. She is possibly the last living person although she is yet to grasp the significance of this.

Against such a terrifying backdrop, the bulk of the book is all about how the narrator fights for survival and ekes out a living in the forest. The deep bond that she forms with her coterie of animals is very sensitively portrayed and is one of the highlights of the book. And there are some wonderful passages on existentialism and the meaning of life, love and caring, and the evolution of the physical and metaphysical selves. Ultimately, the narrator’s strength of will to forge ahead is what makes the book so beautiful.

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson

Such a fabulous book – an unsettling tale about an ostracized family sprinkled with doses of dark humour and one of the most strangest and unforgettable narrators ever – the eighteen year old Merricat Blackwood. Jackson is great at creating atmosphere that is seeped in gothic elements – the creeping sense of dread as we read about the fate of the Blackwood sisters in their large home – even if there are no actual ghosts present. 

THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s ‘The Custom of the Country’ is a brilliant, brilliant novel that explores the subtle differences between old and new money in New York in the early 1900s and the implications of divorce for women during that time. All of this is examined through her unique and unforgettable anti-heroine, Undine Spragg whose burning ambition to climb the social ladder has serious repercussions on the people close to her. Wharton’s prose is as ever fabulous, elegant and incisive.

A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY by J. L. Carr

Tom Birkin, a soldier in First World War and having suffered shell shock, arrives in Oxgodby in the summer of 1920 to uncover a medieval wall painting in the village church. This is a gorgeous novella of sheer perfection portraying themes of the transient nature of time, the fleeting moments of happiness, and the process of healing through the restorative power of art. It has everything – nostalgia, an art mystery, romance, and atmospheric descriptions of an idyllic village life.

That’s about it, it was an absolutely wonderful year of reading for me and here’s wishing for a better 2021 in simply everything. Merry Christmas!

Cheers,

Radhika