The Tortoise and the Hare – Elizabeth Jenkins

Elizabeth Jenkins is a new author to me. But a couple of years back I went through a phase of acquiring as many editions as I could of these stunning Virago designer hardbacks (which also includes Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April), and the Jenkins at the time caught my eye. Well, it turned out to be a terrific read, one that pulled me out of a reading slump for the time being atleast. 

There’s a certain point in the book where we are told of a particular dinner set in the Gresham household that encapsulates the differing points of view of both husband and wife. These silver coated Sheffield plate dishes sparkled with newness when originally purchased, but after years of use, the plates now appear old with bits of copper showing through. Evelyn, conventional and business-like, wants to get them re-silvered; Imogen, romantic and artistic, prefers them as they are. Evelyn agrees to her wishes, but is secretly not pleased. So much so that later in the book, Imogen is left wondering whether her desire to not re-silver those plates is a possible metaphor for the deteriorating state of their marriage.

The re-dipping of the dishes was a small matter, but the emotional texture of married life is made up of small matters. This one had become invested with a fatal quality.

The Tortoise and the Hare, then, is a brilliant, disquieting tale of the gradual disintegration of a marriage told with the kind of psychological intensity that makes it very absorbing.

The sunlight of late September filled the pale, formal streets between Portland Place and Manchester Square. The sky was a burning blue yet the still air was chill. A gold chestnut fan sailed down from some unseen tree and tinkled on the pavement. In the small antique-dealer’s a strong shaft of sunlight, cloudy with whirling gold-dust, penetrated the collection of red lacquer and tortoiseshell, ormolu and morocco. Imogen Gresham held a mug in her bare hands; it was a pure sky blue, decorated with a pattern of raised wheat ears, and of the kind known in the country districts as a ‘harvester.’ Her eye absorbed the colour and her fingers the moulding of the wheat. Her husband however saw that there was a chip at the base of the mug, from which cracks meandered up the inside like rivers on a map.

Our protagonist is Imogen Gresham, a beautiful woman married to the dynamic, successful and distinguished barrister Evelyn, many years her senior. The couple resides in the Berkshire countryside with their school-going son Gavin.

Evelyn Gresham is a man with a strong, forceful personality, quite demanding and opinionated. With his good looks and physique he cuts quite an imposing figure and very often Imogen is unable to challenge his views, just agreeing to everything he says which to her seems so much easier. It’s not just Imogen though. Even in his dealings with other people Evelyn does not think twice about voicing his disagreements, and once set on something, he refuses to be swayed by opposing arguments.

Gentle and sensitive, Imogen could not have been more different. She is blessed with beauty and charm, qualities that first attracted Evelyn to her, but it is pretty apparent early on that she plays second fiddle in their marriage. She is not as assertive as Evelyn and for the most part acquiesces to his moods and wishes when it comes to his pleasures and matters of the household.

Blessed with wealth, comfort and security Imogen considers her married life to be a happy one although there are moments when she is gripped by feelings of dread and unease. That sinking feeling largely revolves around Evelyn; somewhere in the back of her mind Imogen vaguely believes that her efforts to please her husband are simply not enough. That sense of failure is not just limited to household affairs but is also reflected in the physical intimacy between them (“It’s an art, some people have it”, Evelyn had said).

Compounding her feelings of worthlessness is her difficult relationship with her son Gavin. Gavin is in awe of his father but does not think highly of his mother, and he is always in a combative mode with Imogen convinced that she fails to understand him. Imogen loves her son but her endeavors to make Gavin toe the line are often highly fraught affairs.

We meet a host of secondary characters who in many ways play a crucial role in the how the story pans out. First up is Paul Nugent, a close friend of the Greshams, a doctor established in London. Paul resides on Welbeck Street with two rooms of the house leased out to the Greshams when they are in town. Paul is married to Primrose but it’s clear that the couple has nothing in common. It’s almost as if Primrose is leading an independent life within the marriage, and Paul has resigned himself to that fact. A bit gloomy and prone to melancholy, he does hold a torch for Imogen and finds great joy in her company, although he refrains from openly admitting his feelings and is content with the state of things as they are.

There are the Leepers, a bohemian, crude couple whose son Tim becomes fast friends with Gavin. Tim often visits the Gresham household to spend time with Gavin and it’s obvious that given a choice he would much prefer hanging around in the Gresham house rather than going back home. Although now that Gavin is expected to attend preparatory school, Tim is aware of his time with Gavin being curtailed. Corinne Leeper’s husband is dead set on redesigning and redeveloping various structures in the village, plans that are met with increased resistance from the villagers. The Leepers are not deterred however. Corinne Leeper does not care much for keeping an orderly home and is not too bothered with the bringing up of her children either. Left to their own devices, her two daughters pretty much run wild, while for Tim, his time spent with the Greshams is the one bright spot in his life.

We are also introduced to Hunter Crankshaw, a good friend of Evelyn’s, briefly married and then divorced from Corinne’s incredibly stunning sister Zenobia…and to Cecil Stonor, Imogen’s good friend whose company Evelyn also enjoys because of her overall intelligence and sharp grasp of the stock markets.

Last but not the least is Blanche Silcox, the Greshams’ neighbour in the village. Blanche is about the same age as Evelyn and in the eyes of Imogen, an elderly, dowdy woman no man will look at twice. But what Blanche does not have in the looks department she more than makes up for in her sensible, matter-of-fact attitude.

Not taking her seriously at first, Imogen is gradually disconcerted to find Evelyn enjoying Blanche’s company. With a car that she can drive (Imogen can’t), Blanche is more than willing to offer Evelyn a lift to town, and to  drop him back and this arrangement becomes alarming frequent. Not only that, as far as hobbies and pursuits go, Evelyn and Blanche share a lot in common, things that don’t interest or excite Imogen at all. Slowly but surely as Evelyn begins to spend more time with Blanche, Imogen, in a state of dismay and disbelief is staring at a potential catastrophe.

“Imogen,” he said with forced patience, “you have plenty of occupations of your own, and you don’t care to do the things that give a great deal of pleasure to me – when I have time to do them. You don’t want to fish or shoot and you can’t drive my car, which would be a help to me sometimes. Am I to understand that you object to my having the companionship of another woman who can do these things?”

At its very core, The Tortoise and the Hare is the story of a marriage, of the compatibility between couples, of a woman in a deep crisis. Confident in her unwavering but faulty belief that men only value beauty in women, Imogen knows she is amply rewarded in that sphere and coupled with Evelyn’s allegedly high moral values, Imogen in the twelve years of their married life has never felt threatened. But Blanche with her practical approach to life upends all that. We are told early on that Imogen’s grace and beauty played a prominent role in Evelyn choosing to marry her, but with the passage of time comes a perceptible shift in Evelyn’s priorities and now domestic comforts matter much more to him than romance. As a couple their tastes and outlook widely differ, and for the most part it appears that Imogen is always pandering to his needs; his meticulous expectations are often a source of distress to Imogen but she takes it in her stride.

It’s also apparent that Evelyn does not really respect Imogen, and part of this can be attributed to the fact that she never stands up to him. Imogen recalls a particular incident in his professional life where he expressed a wish to employ an assistant who is not afraid of him, which she realizes is an indirect criticism of her. But given his magnetic personality and intractable nature, does Imogen ever stand a chance even if she were to muster up the courage to oppose him?

There’s also a sense of how in the novel, the couples portrayed are generally mismatched, and how the perceptions of the children also greatly wary. For instance, it’s possible that Paul and Imogen would have been happier if they were married to each other given how well they get along and enjoy each other’s company; but, alas, that is not to be! Both are trapped in marriages where they are not respected, although Imogen at first does not think she is stuck in a rut. The attitude of the children is also interesting. Gavin holds his mother in contempt fearing she will embarrass him, but Tim would have loved having Imogen as his mother given that he is pretty much neglected back home.

The Tortoise and the Hare then is a domestic drama of the finest quality; a simple, straightforward story that is deliciously disturbing; infused with psychological depth that makes the book so utterly compelling. It’s also an interesting way of turning the concept of the extra-marital affair on its head –  an older man, rather than being besotted with an attractive young woman, falls hard for an older, plain-looking woman instead (“Are you sure you know what men fall in love with?“ at one time Paul asks Imogen).

With characters that are brilliantly etched and displaying a sharp acumen plus a keen understanding of the mind, Jenkins is also to be commended for her descriptive powers. The depiction of the calm and tranquility of the natural surroundings in sharp contrast to the innermost turmoil of her characters, the calm before the storm, the disconcerting play of light against dark is very well done.  

The weather was warm, bright and still, and London was steeped in that gracious quietness that descends for a brief time in late summer; it cannot show itself over the city as a whole, which is covered with a mesh of screaming traffic at every season of the year, but it is felt in strange midday pauses and early morning quietness, in a blessedly empty space of pavement here and there, an unexpected calmness at a street crossing. Every moment of such relief, every charm of sounds and sight, added to their happiness. In Imogen’s case the happiness was that of an enclosure, outside whose walls pain is kept back for the time being.

As a woman continuously undermined and diminished by both husband and son, Imogen must make the most important decision of her life (“The sense of helplessness in the face of frightful calamity, the longing to project herself through the dark air, filled her heart to bursting”). Her dilemma is this – Should she for once in her life take a firm stand, fight for her marriage and drive Blanche away? Or should she leave Evelyn, leave a marriage where she was not treated as an equal, and preserve her self-respect and dignity? There are no easy answers.


The Dry Heart – Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Frances Frenaye)

Natalia Ginzburg is making a lot of waves on Twitter these days, and rightly so. I had really liked Family Lexicon published by NYRB Classics and had also recently acquired Valentino and Sagittarius released by the same publisher. But it’s The Dry Heart that kept calling out to me…and having now read it I can say it’s another excellent piece of storytelling by Ginzburg.

The Dry Heart begins in a dramatic fashion with a matter-of fact pronouncement made by the narrator…

 I shot him between the eyes.

The ‘him’ is none other than the narrator’s husband Alberto, a man considerably older to her. What follows, thereafter, is an unsentimental, psychologically astute tale of an unhappy marriage told with astonishing clarity.

Our narrator and Alberto first meet at a doctor’s office and from thereon begin to see each other regularly. Our narrator is a woman in her late twenties living independently in the city. But it’s a dull existence. After teaching literature to eighteen girls huddled in a cold classroom, she spends her evenings and nights at a dingy boardinghouse made worse by a bunch of noisy neighbours. Weekends at her parents’ home in Maona in the country are even more tedious.

Her meetings with Alberto therefore are imbued with some degree of novelty and offer respite from the tedium of her narrow existence. During these initial days, in the first throes of a possible blossoming of romance between the two, our narrator is quite happy. Walks by the river, Alberto reading Rilke poems to her, long conversations in cafes add much colour to her life. And yet something is amiss. While she talks openly about herself and her family, all the while thinking up interesting topics of conversations to amuse Alberto, it seems like a one-sided effort. Alberto finds her company charming but remains largely inscrutable, he is reluctant to delve into the details of his life.

At first I didn’t mind Alberto’s unwillingness to talk about himself, but later I was disappointed and asked him a few questions. His face took on an absent and faraway expression and his eyes were veiled with mist like those of a sick bird whenever I inquired about his mother, or his work, or any other part of his life.

Having been alone for so long, our narrator consciously overlooks this aspect of Alberto’s personality. She also wonders whether she is in love with the idea of Alberto rather than Alberto himself, of what he could be rather than what he actually is.

A girl likes to think that a man may be in love with her, and even if she doesn’t love him in return it’s almost as if she did. She is prettier than usual and her eyes shine; she walks at a faster pace and the tone of her voice is softer and sweeter. Before I knew Alberto I used to feel so dull and unattractive that I was sure I should always be alone but after I got the impression that he was in love with me I began to think that if I could please him then I might please someone else, too, perhaps the man who spoke to me in ironical and tender phrases in my imagination.

It’s a relationship that raises conflicted feelings within her. For instance, the idea of marrying Alberto and being intimate with him repulses her, and yet on the days when he is away, she is so gripped by loneliness that the thought of not seeing him unsettles her.

The two eventually marry, but the marriage is doomed from the beginning. The bare facts of this union are presented to us on the first page itself and therefore not a spoiler – Alberto and our narrator were married for four years, they had a baby and the baby subsequently dies.

We had been husband and wife for four years. He had threatened often enough to leave me, but then our baby died and we stayed together. Another child, he said, would be my salvation. For this reason we made love frequently toward the end, but nothing came of it.

Alberto is a terrible husband, lacking empathy, warmth and trust so essential in a marriage. He is away from their home for long stretches of time and resorts to lies to cover up his absences. But it’s imminently clear to both the reader and our narrator that he is secretly seeing the only woman he has ever loved – Giovanna – who, ironically, is married to another man and has a child of her own.

As the drama unfolds, the reader increasingly begins to feel that the narrator’s life before marriage had its merits after all. Atleast she was independent then even if her circumstances were far from ideal. On some level, the narrator is painfully aware of this. And so it’s fascinating that she prefers to remain wedded to her flighty husband rather than part ways and reclaim some dignity. However, so fearful is she of loneliness that she mistakenly equates being alone with being lonely. Her way of thinking is in striking contrast to that of her cousin and confidante, Francesca, who revels in living life on her own terms and refuses to be tied down to any committed relationships.

The Dry Heart, then, is a novella that takes us into the anxiety riddled mind of a woman trapped in a loveless union – her insecurities, her dashed expectations, her inability to walk away when there are clear signals telling her to do so, and the circumstances that compel her to eventually crack. It’s a tale that plunges into the chilly waters of loneliness, desperation and bitterness. The prose is stripped of any sentimentality, the narrator’s voice is unemotional, unvarnished…she states things the way they are, and if her seething rage is palpable, it just about stays under the surface, always in control.

I have only read two books by Ginzburg but it’s apparent that she excels at depicting a range of oddities in relationships, whether it’s the quirks and foibles of various family members as seen in Family Lexicon, or the shortcomings and failures in marriage as in this novella.

Chilling, direct in what it wants to convey and deceptively simple, The Dry Heart charges ahead at the pace of a thriller but without any liberal doses of twists and turns that are so definitive of the genre, and it’s all the more powerful because of that. It’s an absorbing story where Ginzburg, through the magic of her writing, transforms the raw material of a dull marriage into a unique, rich finished product brimming with psychological depth.

Fascinatingly, it ends just as it begins…

I shot him between the eyes.

Reading Bingo 2017

Although 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018, I couldn’t resist compiling this list. It’s a great way to summarize what had been an excellent reading year. Besides my Top 12 Books for the Year, this includes many more books that I loved but just missed the Best of the Year list.

So here goes…

Reading Bingo 2017

A Book with More Than 500 Pages

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

At around 800 pages, this is a wonderful novel from Japan about family, class distinction and the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. It has also been billed the Japanese ‘Wuthering Heights’ focusing on the intense relationship between the brooding Taro Azuma and the beautiful Yoko. And yet without the Bronte tag, this rich, layered novel stands well on its own feet.

A Forgotten Classic

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym wrote some excellent novels during her time but probably fell out of fashion later. But she has seen a revival of late in the book blogging world. ‘Excellent Women’ in particular is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster, leads an uneventful life and is quite happy with her circumstances, until a new couple move in as neighbours and wreak havoc.

A Book That Became a Movie

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

The first book released by the Pushkin vertigo crime imprint, but much earlier it was the inspiration for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. This is classic crime fiction with enough suspense, good characterization and plot twists.

A Book Published This Year

Compass by Mathias Enard

An erudite, mesmerizing novel about the cultural influence that the East has had on the West. Over the course of a single night, the protagonist reminisces on his experiences in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran and his unrequited love for the fiery and intelligent scholar Sarah.

2017 Bingo 1
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Other Press Boxed Set, Folio Society, Pushkin Vertigo, New Directions Hardback

A Book with a Number in the Title

Madame Zero by Sarah Hall

I love Sarah hall’s novels for her raw, spiky writing and she is particularly a master of the short story. This is another brilliant collection of stories about metamorphosis, sexuality and motherhood, the standouts being ‘Evie’ and ‘Mrs Fox’.

A Book Written by Someone under Thirty

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh penned this novel in 1930, when he was 27. A humorous, witty novel and a satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ – essentially decadent young London society between the two World Wars.

A Book with Non-Human Characters

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami

This is a strange, surreal but highly original collection of three stories. From the blurb on Amazon – In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous moneys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.

A Funny Book

Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes

The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. And yet it is not a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion; a novel brimming with spunk.

2017 Bingo 2
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Faber & Faber, Folio Society, Pushkin Japanese Novella Series, Feminist Press

A Book by a Female Author

Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith

There were many this year, but I chose one of my favourite female authors, Patricia Highsmith. Edith’s family is breaking apart and she takes to writing a diary. A heartbreaking novel about a woman’s gradual descent into madness told in very subtle prose.

A Book with a Mystery

Black Money by Ross MacDonald

Ross MacDonald wrote the excellent Lew Archer (private detective) series of novels and this is one of them. A solid mystery with wonderful evocation of California, interesting set of characters, and a tightly woven and compelling plot with enough twists and turns.

A Book with a One-Word Title

Sphinx by Anne Garreta

An ingeniously written love story between a dancer and a disc jockey where the gender of the principle characters is never revealed. An even remarkable feat by the translator for ensuring that the essence of the novel (unimportance of gender) is not lost.

A Book of Short Stories

A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories by Flannery O’ Connor

Remarkable collection of stories by the Queen of Southern American gothic. A dash of menace lurks in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans living in the rural regions of the South. The theme of her macabre stories? The painful, necessary salvation that emerges from catastrophic, life-changing, and sometimes life-ending, events. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’ particularly are classics.

2017 Bingo 3
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Virago Modern Classics, Orion Books, Deep Vellum Publishing, Folio Society)

Free Square

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

This is a passionate love story between an eighteen year old drama student and an actor in his thirties written in innovative prose that brings out the intensity of feelings of the young girl. It was the first book I read in 2017; I loved it and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of a wonderful reading year. The novel had also been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.

A Book Set on a Different Continent

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

The continent is Europe and the novel is Solar Bones – a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. It is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.

A Non-Fiction Book

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart

This is a fabulous book on the history of the iconic bookshop in Paris – Shakespeare and Company. It is the story about its founder George Whitman, his passion for books and how some of the most famous authors of his time frequented the shop. Budding authors were allowed to stay in the bookshop (they were called ‘Tumbleweeds’), provided in return – they helped around in the shop and wrote a bit about themselves. The book is a wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes, pictures and also displays many of the written autobiographies of those Tumbleweeds.

The First Book by a Favourite Author

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

This isn’t exactly his first book but one of his earlier ones. James Salter has a knack of crafting exquisite sentences and conveying a lot in poetic, pared back prose. ‘Light Years’ still remains my favourite one of his, but this title is also good.

2017 Bingo 4
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Faber & Faber, Canongate Books, Shakespeare & Company Paris, Picador

A Book You Heard About Online

Climates by Andre Maurois

Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle. It is a superb novel with profound psychological insights, a book I only heard about through one of the reading blogs I regularly frequent.

A Bestselling Book

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Not sure this is a bestselling book, but I can say that it was certainly the most well-known of all that I read last year. I have always balked at the idea of reading a Woolf for fear of her novels being difficult and highbrow. But I decided to take the plunge with the more accessible Mrs Dalloway. And closed the final pages feeling exhilarated. More of Woolf shall be explored – perhaps, To the Lighthouse will be next?

A Book Based on a True Story

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is a wonderful but underrated writer. The Blue Flower is a compelling novel that centres around the unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his young fiancé Sophie. Novalis was the pen name of Georg von Harden berg who was a poet, author and philosopher of Early German Romanticism in the 18th century.

A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi

This was the first title published by Peirene Press way back in 2011, and on the strength of some solid reviews, had been meaning to read it for a while, only to find it languishing at the back of some shelf. I finally pulled it out and gulped it in a single sitting. It is quite a dark, bleak but poignant tale of a young mother and her two sons and the extreme step she takes to shield them from a cruel world.

2017 Bingo 5
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Other Press, Folio Society, Folio Society again, Peirene Press (‘Female Voice: Inner Realities’ Series Book One)

A Book your Friend Loves

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

First Love had received quite some rave reviews last year and was also shortlisted for a couple of prestigious prizes. It is a story of a woman in an abusive marriage told in sharp, intelligent, lucid prose. Here’s the blurb on Amazon – Catastrophically ill-suited for each other, and forever straddling a line between relative calm and explosive confrontation, Neve and her husband, Edwyn, live together in London. As Neve recalls the decisions that brought her to Edwyn, she describes other loves and other debts–from her bullying father and her self-involved mother, to a musician she struggled to forget. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

 A Book that Scares You

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

This is a tense, chilling and utterly gripping book that combines elements of the supernatural with the more real matters of agricultural disasters. The tone of storytelling is feverish and urgent; it filled me with dread as I raced towards the ending.

A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel with psychologically complex characters and a narrative style that forces you to keep shifting sympathies with them. And the opening sentence is a corker – This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

The Second Book in a Series

Transit by Rachel Cusk

The first was Outline, which I read at the start of the year. So impressed was I that I read the second in the trilogy – Transit – the same year too. The third one is yet to be published. In both the novels, the protagonist who is a writer meets people while she is away in Greece or in London. They tell her stories about their lives, each one with a different perspective. Paradoxically, the protagonist is in the background as the stories told by her friends, colleagues and new people she meets take centre stage. While the main character’s story is never directly narrated, we learn something about her from the way she interacts with the others. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. Incidentally, Outline was shortlisted for the same prize in 2014.

A Book with a Blue Cover

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

This one was easy simply because the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions made it so. All their fiction titles have blue covers. The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird and an ode to anachronism. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness.

2017 Bingo 6
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Oneworld Publications, Folio Society, Picador E-Book, Granta Hardback, Fitzcarraldo

The Blue Room – Georges Simenon (tr. Linda Coverdale)

Georges Simenon is an author I had been meaning to try for quite some time. He was a prolific writer well known for his Inspector Maigret series. These were mysteries set in Paris probably akin to Agatha Christie novels. I have read only one Maigret so far and it was an easy, lightweight mystery.

The real meat really is in his non-Maigret novels otherwise called his romans durs or hard novels. These novels are richer, darker with a strong psychological edge.

In other words, the Maigret novels were more commercial and Simenon wrote them as a means of relaxation. The romans durs, however, while short demanded greater focus and had more character.

I was keen to explore his romans durs and began with The Blue Room, which is excellent. Suffice to say that I will be reading more of his work.

The Blue Room
Penguin Modern Classics Edition

There is a lot going on in the first chapter.

We first learn that the protagonist Tony Falcone has been having an affair with Andrée Despierre. They typically meet in a room at the Hotel des Voyageurs owned by Tony’s brother Vincent.

Here’s how the book opens.

‘Did I hurt you?’


‘Are you angry with me?’


It was true. At that time, everything was true, for he was living in the moment, without questioning anything, without trying to understand, without suspecting that one day he would need to understand.

What would Tony need to understand? We do not know either. Not yet.

But during this conversation, Andrée keeps asking what would happen if she becomes free, does Tony love her, so on and so forth. This scene in the hotel room is an important moment because it is from here that the story moves forward and backward in a series of flashbacks touching on how Tony and Andrée became lovers upto events in the future.

Tony’s affair with Andrée is intense and passionate.

At thirty-three, he had known many women. None of them had given as much pleasure as she had, an animal pleasure, complete and wholehearted, untainted afterwards by any disgust, lassitude or regret.

They have a signal wherein they decide to meet every time in the blue room (the book’s title) of the hotel. It is convenient and Tony’s brother Vincent, obviously aware of the affair, would never rat out on him.

The room was blue, ‘washing-blue’ he had thought one day, a blue that reminded him of his childhood, the tiny muslin sachets of blue powder his mother dissolved in the washtub water for the final rinse, right before she went to spread the laundry out on the gleaming grass of the meadow. He must have been five or six years old and often wondered through what miracle the blue colour could turn the laundry white.

The blue of the room was not just washing-blue, but the sky-blue of certain hot, August afternoons as well, shortly before it turns pink, then red, in the setting sun.

During one such meeting, Tony goes to the window and sees d Andrée’s husband Nicolas approaching the hotel. He manages to escape the room but this incident leaves him with a sense of foreboding.

Why did Nicolas come to the hotel? Was he aware of his affair with Andrée? Who called him there?

Tony has no clue. Infact, we come to know that this incident and his affair with Andree is told while he is reminiscing as he tries to make sense of it while talking with his lawyer, the magistrate and his psychiatrist.

Indeed, in the first chapter itself, interspersed with details of Tony’s affair, we are told that he is in a prison relentlessly questioned by the magistrate. Clearly, there is a crime that has taken place and Tony has been implicated. He cannot make head or tail of it.

We learn that Tony is married to Gisele, who is tidy, energetic, unassuming, the perfect housewife. They have a daughter Marianne.

Tony loves Gisele in his own way despite his affair. What about Gisele? Does she know of the affair but given her nature chooses not to question Tony about it?

Nicolas, meanwhile, is shown to be a sickly man prone to bouts of epilepsy. His mother Madame Despierre is a headstrong woman and she and Andrée do not get along too well.

After Nicolas’ sudden appearance at the Hotel des Voyageurs, Tony starts becoming uneasy and decides to end his affair with Andrée. Will Andrée agree?

And then Nicolas dies.

That is the brief outline of the story and saying anything more would be spoiling it. There’s plenty more that happens though.

At 156 pages of the Penguin Modern Classics edition, this is a short, taut psychological thriller. It is a story of lust, passion, what happens when it all goes wrong and how it affects everybody. Simenon’s prose is spare, lean and powerful and there is a lot of depth in this story as well as its characters. He coveys masterfully the air of impending doom permeating throughout. Credit also goes to the translator Linda Coverdale for a very smooth translation from the French.

‘Could you spend your whole life with me?’

He hardly noticed her words; they were like the images and odours all around him. How could he have guessed that this scene was something he would relive ten times, twenty times and more – and every time in a different frame of mind, from a different angle?


The Hideout – Egon Hostovsky (tr. Fern Long)

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
Pushkin Collection Edition

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.