Journey into the Mind’s Eye – Lesley Blanch & Bitter Orange – Claire Fuller

The last month has been quite busy and hectic. And while I have managed to read some wonderful books, I have not quite had the time to write about them. That is why in this particular post, I have chosen to review two books instead of one. I have greatly enjoyed both and they are strong contenders for my Best of the Year list.

So here goes…

Blanch & Fuller

Journey into the Mind’s Eye – Lesley Blanch

Here’s what the NYRB Classics blurb says:

“My book is not altogether autobiography, nor altogether travel or history either. You will just have to invent a new category,” Lesley Blanch wrote about Journey into the Mind’s Eye, a book that remains as singularly adventurous and intoxicating now as when it first came out in 1968.

At a very young age, Lesley Blanch is dazzled by The Traveller and his stories of seventeenth and eighteenth century Russia. There is an aura of mystery around The Traveller and not much is revealed about him for much of the book other than that he is an older man, Russian with Asiatic features, and around the same age as Lesley’s parents. He periodically visits their home. But because of him, she develops a deep passion for Russia and Siberia, and has dreams of one day embarking on a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway – a dream that comes to dominate her life.

In a way, the Traveller becomes an important man in her life. In her late teens, on a trip to Paris and later to Dijon, they consummate their relationship. Later, Blanch joins him, his aunt and his two sons on a family idyll to Corsica for two months. And then the Traveller disappears.

But in no way does that diminish Blanch’s passion for Russia and the Trans-Siberian railroad. Infact, she continues to visit the homes of Russian emigres in Paris to whet her desire for all things Russian and hold on to her vision of the Russia of yore.

Life goes on, and Blanch meets the French author Romain Gary. Enthralled by his Russian origins and deep voice, she marries him. Gary at the time is in the diplomatic service, and so they travel widely staying in places such as New York, Los Angeles, and Bulgaria to name a few. And while not her beloved Russia, these are postings that Blanch enjoys greatly, Bulgaria being the highlight during her time with Gary.

Gary then leaves her for the actress Jean Seberg. However, Blanch does not dwell on this too much. In a sentence, she only mentions matter of factly of their marriage ending in a divorce.

More importantly, now that she is on her own once again, it renews her vigour to finally visit Russia and embark on her much anticipated Trans-Siberian journey.

Here’s the Guardian:

Her avoidance of a conventional life in London led her on quixotic voyages geo-graphically and emotionally. In 1931 she became one of the rare tourists to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Dragged around monuments to Soviet progress, she perplexed her guides with questions about the homes of 19th-century writers, all the while glancing over her shoulder and around corners for that beloved Asiatic face.

Blanch’s dream of travelling on the Trans-Siberian railroad does come true, and this is not really a spoiler given what’s so rewarding about this book is the journey and not the end result. But after a very long hiatus, will she meet the man who shaped her life – the Traveller?

Journey into the Mind’s Eye is a wonderful book and Blanch’s passion for Russia and Siberia sparkles on every page. It is a hybrid work of memoir, travelogue, history, and  displays Blanch as startlingly ahead of her time. It certainly fuelled my appetite for travel to far flung places!

Journey into the Mind's Eye
NYRB Classics Edition

Bitter Orange –  Claire Fuller

When the book opens Frances Jellico has just arrived at the crumbling English mansion Lyntons. We are told that the mansion has been purchased by an American Mr Lieberman who has yet to visit the place. However, he wants an estimate of the treasures at the mansion. For a fee, Frances is appointed to study the architecture of the gardens and bridges and compile a report.

Frances at the time has just lost her mother and so this position could not have come at a more opportune time.

Once there, she comes across her neighbours – the hedonistic couple Peter and Cara. There’s more. Frances also discovers a peephole in the floorboard of her bathroom, which allows her to spy on both of them.

Meanwhile, Peter and Cara are enthusiastic to befriend Frances and she is thrilled. Frances is shown to be a plain, ordinary woman, overweight and not attractive in the conventional sense. Peter and Cara are quite the opposite: good-looking and glamorous.

Increasingly, they spend most of their days together – having lavish meals prepared by Cara, drinking wine after wine from bottles taken from the cellar downstairs, smoking cigarettes and languidly soaking up the summer sun.

And then the cracks start becoming visible – atleast Peter and Cara’s relationship is not as hunky dory as it originally appears. It all culminates in a tragedy that has a lasting impact on Frances’ life.

Claire Fuller has penned a dark and atmospheric tale with gothic overtones that is gripping and hard to put down. The summer is wonderfully evoked and the characters are also well drawn. At its heart, Bitter Orange is a tale about loneliness, obsession and wanting to belong.

That Frances wants to belong is quite obvious given her diffident personality and the fact that she is now alone and left to fend for herself. So much so that as the days carry on, she becomes obsessed with both of them taking a deep interest in their relationship, and what it means to her.

But in a sense, Peter and Cara are struggling to belong too, to find their bearings. Cara, particularly, is prone to bouts of anger and is quite clear that she does not want to go back to her home and a stifled existence in Ireland. She is yearning for a different life, with the firm belief that Italy will make her dreams come true. Peter is in some sense adrift too. He leaves his first wife for Cara, but is it is decision that will give him satisfaction?

Bitter Orange was thoroughly engrossing and I will be exploring more of Claire Fuller’s work.

Bitter Orange
Fig Tree Books Hardback Edition

Shadows on the Tundra – Dalia Grinkeviciute (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

Peirene Press is an interesting publisher. In 2016, three of its books made it into my Best of the Year list.

Every year, Peirene publishes three translated books from Europe, all bound together by a theme. The 2018 one is called ‘Home in Exile’ and I have already reviewed the first title in this series – the wonderful Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk. It is set in Latvia under Soviet occupation.

And now we have the second one – Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkeviciute, superbly translated by Delija Valiukenas. And the author’s country of origin? Lithuania.

I can confidently say that this book will find a place in my Best of 2018 list.

Shadows on the Tundra
Peirene Press Edition (‘Home in Exile’ Series Book Two)

Shadows on the Tundra is an incredible tale of the author Dalia’s hard and unbearable years in a Soviet gulag when she was a young girl, and her indomitable spirit and will to survive no matter what.

In 1941 at the height of the Second World War, many Lithuanians were deported from Kaunas in Lithuania to a harsh prison camp in the unforgiving Siberian tundra. There, all of them were forced to work in deplorable and inhuman conditions.

The author Dalia was 14 at the time she was deported along with her mother and brother Juozas.

Here is how the book opens…

I’m touching something. It feels like cold iron. I’m lying on my back…How beautiful…the sunlight…and the shadow.

I am aware that a phase of my life has come to an end, a line drawn underneath it. Another is beginning, uncertain and ominous. Twenty-four people lie nearby. Asleep?

It becomes evident that the deportees are not taken directly to the camp, but with several stops along the way. The first few pages describe this journey, with the deportees having no clue what their final destination will be. In fact, many are in denial and harbor considerable hope that they are being transported to America, that free land.

It’s only when they reach Trofimovsk, the site of the gulag much above the Arctic Circle that the harsh reality sets in.

To say life in the gulag is hard is an understatement. It is deep winter. The tundra is excruciatingly cold and blizzard after blizzard keeps pounding the region.

Sky and earth clash. Our barracks shake. Whirling like a dervish in the spaces between the ceiling boards, the snow descends in a vortex on the people huddled and shivering beneath their tatters. The polar elements sweep across the tundra, obliterating everything that is alive. The din outside merges into one deafening rumble of sound. The savage elements are clamouring for atonement.

In such an environment, Dalia describes the horrific and squalid conditions they are forced to live in. There is no ready habitation. The deportees have to build their barracks themselves right from scratch.

Then there is the work itself. It involves pulling logs tied by ropes from the mouth of the river and up a steep hill. It’s a grueling job, and quite simply back-breaking. And not something a young girl can manage in ordinary circumstances.

But Dalia pushes on through determination and sheer force of will. In fact, her strength of character and her courage shines on every page and makes the book quite incredible.

…that somewhere life is free and beautiful. I feel myself getting stronger, more determined; my desire to live, to fight, to endure intensifies. I want to take life by the horns, I want to take charge of it rather than have it knock me about. We’ve got a life to live yet, Dalia, and a battle to fight. Life may be a cruel enemy, but we will not surrender. So what if I’m only fifteen.

And then there is something to look forward to – school. Hours spent in school are the brightest points of the day for her, but this period of solace does not last for long.

Not everybody makes it through though. The deportees are treated badly. They are made to work hard but are fed poorly. Famine and starvation rule the roost. Diseases are just around the corner. Many of the deportees don’t survive and the corpses keep piling up.

The landscape is bleak and desolate.

Ahead of us is the mouth of the Lena River, which is several kilometres wide and fettered in ice. Wherever the wind has cleared the snow, the ice is as smooth as a mirror. We hear booming, a sound like muted cannon going off. That’s the ice quaking. Huge fissures appear that reach down its entire depth.

Dalia observes her fellow deportees and exhibits keen insight on their characters. These are people who had a life back in Lithuania – they were individuals, they were unique in their own way and had hopes and dreams.

All of that is reduced to nothing in the gulag. There is nothing to distinguish them, they are treated like a herd of cattle. Through sheer desperation, cheating and stealing become the order of the day. But Dalia understands this and chooses not to judge. After all, everyone is looking to just about survive.

What makes Dalia keep going is her spirit and zest for life. Hope sustains her and she refuses to give up.

Oddly, I never thought that I might die. I believed absolutely that no matter what the future had in store, I would survive. It was as simple as that. During the days that followed, a kind of tenacity began to take shape as part of my character. I felt a growing desire to confront life, to grapple with it, to prevail. I was convinced of my survival.

Even in the cold tundra, she manages to find moments of beauty.

Yet what splendor above. The northern lights are a magnificent web of colour. We are surrounded by grandeur: the immense tundra, as ruthless and infinite as the sea, the vast Lena estuary backed up with ice; the colossal, 100-metre-pillar caves on the shores of Stolby; and the aurora borealis.

And there are always some nostalgic moments – the happy life she led in Lithuania and the prospect of an exciting and full life ahead. Little did she know what fate had in store for her!

They say that it is during adversities that a person’s mettle is really tested. Dalia goes through hell but she fights back and that alone makes her truly extraordinary and extra special. While Shadows on the Tundra gives a horrific glimpse of Soviet cruelty, it is Dalia’s resilience and unbreakable spirit that makes her tale gut-wrenching and yet ultimately quite uplifting.